Back to Bool Bool, Miles Franklin

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Back to Bool Bool (1931) is the sixth and final novel Miles Franklin wrote as Brent of Bin Bin, though it was the third of the three initially published by Blackwoods (see here). Now I’ve read them all, it’s difficult to understand Blackwood’s decision, as Back to Bool Bool makes frequent references to the stories that precede it, particularly Cockatoos, but also to Gentlemen of Gyang Gyang. Prelude to Waking, as I’ve already discussed, although nominally a Brent of Bin Bin book, forms no part of the family saga.

The ‘back to’ of the title (we don’t have any noun for back to’s other than back to, do we?) references the celebrations surrounding the centenary of white settlement in the township of ‘Bool Bool’ – the name Franklin uses for Talbingo, her birthplace in the southern NSW ‘high country’ -based loosely, according to Roe, on the (nearby) Tumut centenary celebrations in 1924.

The ‘back to’ is used as a device to reunite characters/descendants from previous books in the series. It takes place in the year following Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang and 20-25 years after Cockatoos. Coolooluck station at Bool Bool is the home of Erik Labosseer, brother of Sylvester at Gyang Gyang Plains. Labosseer is the name Franklin uses for the Lampes, her mother’s family. (Sylvester’s principal property is on the NSW western plains, as was Franklin’s uncle Gus Lampe’s, and in researching this review I read in Roe that Franklin visited him there, at Peak Hill near Dubbo, in 1905).

I wrote in my review of Cockatoos that “Ignez [Milford] and some of her more serious friends gather out of the reach of bothersome aunts and parents to discuss books and to read excerpts from their own writings.” Ignez is of course Miles, loosely fictionalized. The two most important of her friends are her cousins Dick Mazere and Freda Healey. They are dobbed in to their parents for skipping work, and maybe even behaving immorally, by Dick’s self-righteous older sister Blanche. By the end of Cockatoos all three have escaped overseas to become writers.

Back to Bool Bool begins with two ships returning to Australia. On one, a luxury liner, are, separately, a Major-General who is descended from both the Poole and the Mazere families; Mollye, a famous opera singer; and Judith Laurillard, an actress.

Maj.-Gen. Sir Oswald Mazere-Poole, KCMG, MP, seeking adventure, his wife staying behind in London, was watching the last of his fellow passengers board:

A graceful figure swathed in veils, carrying bouquets … This must be the actress. “Not heavy enough in the brisket for a caterwauler,” was his summing-up, redolent of early environment.

[A woman] of splendid height, with pale-blue eyes and florid skin, who walked with swinging gait, taking all glances auspiciously without affectation … This was the Australian, if he knew anything. Her size and features protruding from beneath the fashionable skull-cap proclaimed one of the Brennans of Bool Bool … inevitably Molly, descendant of Timothy and Maria of The Gap, one of the old pioneering families.

On the other ship, a transport for migrants – “assisted passengers – people pushed off their densely populated native island because no longer necessary to feed either manufactories or battlefields” – are Dick, now a poet, and Freda, a go-getter who has been working in the USA. They become friends on board without realising they are cousins until they meet again in Sydney.

Both the Healeys and the Mazeres have retired from their farms at Oswald’s Ridges to cottages in Sydney, as had Franklin’s parents in real life. Dick’s mother has died and his father has remarried, his new wife content to leave the housekeeping to her unmarried step-daughters Blanche and Philippa, both in their 40s. Franklin is scathing about the house-proud Blanche’s devotion to make-work, taking out, you must feel, some of the frustrations she herself felt about having to live at that time with her mother.

There is also a younger sister, Laleen who, wishing herself to become a writer, looks to Dick as a bulwark against Blanche’s insistence on practicality. Here Freda, who has come over for dinner, gets Laleen to come outside to talk,

“It doesn’t take much persuading for Laleen to leave work to others.” Blanche’s voice followed, infuriating Laleen.

“I’d easily do the work if you’d get out of the way.”

“While I’m the one in the position of responsibility I must see that things go right.” Blanche’s housekeeping was never done under a bushel. Certain of her indispensability, she was everywhere, bustling, and fault-finding if possible.

This quote reminds me that Franklin appears to have added something to her writing, maybe she’d been reading Christina Stead. Anyway, she sets up “walls of speech”, not monologues as Stead does, but long unattributed scraps of conversation, often at cross purposes, which are very effective at conveying the impression of a crowded room.

Everyone I’ve mentioned so far (except the actress), and many more I haven’t, meet at the Mazere’s in the months before the back to. Mollye, who is mostly away in the country on a concert tour, takes an apartment in the city and makes it available to Dick as a quiet place for him to write, away from the annoying Blanche. Sometimes Freda or Laleen meet him there. Blanche follows them suspecting immorality.

There’s lots going on. Mollye is keen on Dick, Dick is keen on Freda, Freda is planning a fling with the Major-General, Laleen is keen on Mollye’s secretary Nat, Nat is keen on all the girls. Dick has taken up Christian Science, which I think Miles was introduced to by Vida Goldstein in Melbourne in 1904, and we are subject to some preaching. Miles, always happy to praise herself in the third person, is prominent in her/Ignez’s absence. Freda says to Dick:

Do you remember when Ignez Milford used to take us to She-Oak Ridge to write in the old cockatoo days of Oswald’s Ridges? I used to love you with all my childish affection.”

“I used to worship Ignez in the same way, I guess.”

“How long did you remember her? You were nearer maturity.”

“Faded in the stress of events. She was a brave, vivid creature.”

“Not coarse enough to battle from an environment so removed from art. My own case has been similar. Let’s hope Laleen escapes.”

Franklin still skirts around sex, but for the first time, with Bernice in the previous book and Freda in this one, we have principal characters with ‘a past’. Bernice gets married off, but in Back to Bool Bool, Freda and the Major General plan an affair which they discuss at some length.

Gradually, all the actors, including for some reason Judith Laurillard, make their way to the high country for the week of celebrations. Dick has an extended stay on Coolooluck about which he has dreamed throughout his exile, and is roped into writing something for the back to; Mollye of course is to sing; Nat whips up local musicians into an orchestra; Peter and Bernice from the previous novel make a cameo appearance.; Laleen is universally acclaimed as the latest Emily Mazere, the beauty who drowned on the eve of her wedding to Bert Poole (way back in Up the Country); Laleen and Nat announce their engagement.

The denouement, when it comes, is signalled early, is sidestepped, we breathe a sigh of relief, and then it crashes in, from another direction altogether, and we are devastated.

 

Miles Franklin, Back to Bool Bool, first pub. Blackwoods, 1931. This edition, Angus & Robertson, 1956

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

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Well known – to other people – US author Lionel Shriver only came up on my radar during the Shriver Kerfuffle last year, when she insisted on her right to tell stories from any point of view that she chose. It is not a ‘right’ that I contest, but nor is it one which I endorse. I believe firstly that privileged writers should leave space for less privileged peoples to tell their own stories; and secondly, that as a reader/reviewer I should point out (if I can’t avoid them) stories which are ‘inauthentic’.

With Big Brother (2013) this raises an interesting question. The narrator of this novel is a woman, not a Mexican, nor even a man wearing a sombrero, but a plump Iowan housewife and accidental businesswoman. Still, Shriver in this role doesn’t feel right. My (hastily formed!) impression of her is that she is an angular, east coast intellectual. We soon learn that Pandora, the narrator is from LA – where her father had been the star of a TV sit-com, Joint Custody, about separated parents fighting over their three children – and had moved back to her grandparents’ (and parents’) home state after College, so that is a partial explanation for her not coming across as believably  ‘mid-western’. But as well, throughout the novel I maintained the impression that Pandora was describing feelings rather than feeling them.

In these times you might think that the Big Brother of the title pertains to government oversight, but in fact it is meant literally. When Pandora meets her brother at the airport after they have been some years apart, she discovers he has morphed into a barely ambulant 386 lb mound of blubber. The brother, Edison, is a NY-based jazz pianist who has fallen on hard times and has come to New Holland, outside Cedar Rapids, IA, for an extended stay with Pandora, her husband Fletcher, and her teenage step-children Tanner, 17 and Cody, 13.

There’s plenty to keep you occupied over the 370pp of this novel – Pandora and Edison’s firm conviction that their father’s TV family was more real to him than his actual family, and the way they in turn seemed to match themselves to their fictional counterparts; the success of Pandora’s business manufacturing individualised dolls (for adults), which has ‘gone viral’; the relative failure of Fletcher’s business as an arty furniture maker;  Fletcher’s obsessive bike-riding, food faddishness; the children’s attempts to mark out their own space and so on. And Shriver is a fine writer, you can feel the care with which she places each individual word.

The one aspect of our father’s show that I still admired was its representation of the way siblings live in a separate world from their parents, who for kids function as mere walk-ons. Joint Custody captures the intense, hothouse collusion between siblings, while [the parents] are played for fools. Often ashamed of tugging the children’s loyalties in opposite directions, the parents fail to grasp their kid’s salvation: the children’s uppermost loyalty is to each other.

In the beginning there are the usual marital tensions which arise from one spouse having a sibling to stay (says he who would often be jealous of the times not-then-ex-Mrs Legend stayed up late talking to her sister during her infrequent visits to Melbourne), let alone a sibling who smokes, raids the fridge, is unable to contribute to the budget, leaves his stuff lying around, and breaks the furniture. For two months!

But then Shriver takes it to another level, Pandora tells Fletcher that she is taking an apartment nearby with her brother to supervise his return to his teenage weight of 163 lb. Fletcher tells Pandora that in that case she is not permitted in his house. Not much negotiation going on here, nor any thought of how the apparent abandonment/effective ban on contact may affect the children.  And Pandora still regards herself not only as married, which technically at least she is, but as able to resume normal relations with Fletcher after, as it turns out, a year of almost zero contact.

Here Pandora breaks the news to Tanner, as he waits for his sister after school:

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” I dived in. “And maybe it’s good Cody’s not here yet. I’ll need you to look out for your sister for a while. You know, the way you used to. I’ll still be a resource of course – “

“So you’re leaving Dad,” he said – matter of fact, with a trace of satisfaction. “Guess he brought it on himself. Least he’ll be the healthiest misery guts in town.”

“I’m not leaving anyone.” Hastily I detailed my grand plan – adding judiciously that I wasn’t at all sure it would work.

He heard me out. “So you’re leaving Dad.”

Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I spotted Cody across the street. She looked stricken. I never showed up in the car like this. Obviously, someone had died.

I waved, and she lumbered up with a pack as big as she was to their Meeting Tree. “What’s cookin’?” she asked warily.

“[the doll business] isn’t enough for her,” said Tanner, “Pando’s starting a fat farm.”

The next half of the novel concerns Edison’s progress towards his target weight on a diet of four protein shakes a day; the effect on Pandora of following the same diet; lots of sibling bonding; and at least some concern for Cody who is in the invidious position of pretending to both her parents that she is on their side.

There is a short, third part, a fashionable, bullshit post-modern ending which makes the reading of all the preceding pages a complete waste of time, which I don’t suppose you can avoid, but which you would do well to skip over.

 

Lionel Shriver, Big Brother, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version read by Alice Rosengard, Blackstone Audio, 2013

Kate W’s review in booksaremyfavouriteandbest here (she likes it!)

Landscape With Landscape, Gerald Murnane

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I am, or was until now, a Gerald Murnane virgin. I had read none of his works nor knew anything about him except, from the colour supplements last year, that he had retired to the Wimmera, to a small town in wheat farm country west of St Arnaud, Vic and something, something, horse racing, something (I’ll look up a link when I’m done  … here).

Now, I know a little more. Murnane is a Melburnian, half a generation older than me and, on the basis of this book, a fine, literary writer,

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in Melbourne, Australia. He spent part of his childhood in country districts of Victoria, returned to Melbourne in 1949 and has lived there ever since [up to 1987 anyway, when this thumbnail appeared in Landscape With Landscape].

The thematically connected stories of this book are of a young Melbourne man, sexually immature and awkward, coming of age in the late 1950s, itself a sexually immature and awkward time in suburban Australia.  The young man in this book devises scenarios in his head, plays out meetings before they take place, builds a whole imagined life around a glance or a chance sighting. I feel for him intensely. His awkwardness, the rehearsed meetings, his holding back from ‘real-life’ interaction are mine too.

The stories ostensibly concern his approaching, or not approaching, women. In some of them he meets a woman and marries her, but this woman, his wife, is rarely the point of the story, she is there, perhaps as a marker of his manhood, but playing very little part in his life, in the important part of his life, his imagination. More importantly, the stories are a writer practising his craft, effectively telling the same coming of age story six times from six different perspectives; a cycle, each story referencing the next, and the last the first; and at the same time developing and discussing the theories of his craft.

This was a time when people married young, my own parents, who married in 1950 were 23 and 18. Murnane – or the young man who is his surrogate in these stories – finds himself, positions himself, as the heavy drinking loner bachelor in the lounge rooms of his married friends, until he too has an (unnamed) wife. But his principal life – we might say the life he is reduced to rationalising as his principal life by his failure to make meaningful contact with eligible women – is in the space between himself and the Other.

At some time in my imagined future I would have wanted to see my landscape as a private place marked off from all others: a place that distinguished me as surely as a pattern of freckles could distinguish a woman.

There was such a place, although I did not recognise it for some years afterwards. By then it seemed less a landscape than the ending of the only fiction I could write. It was the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me. [Landscape With Freckled Woman].

He imagines an Australian landscape that has him leaning on a bar in far north Qld, drinking beer (which he is forcing himself to like), a romantic, Kerouac-ian wanderer. He tells this dream to Carolyn, a kindergarten teacher with a Morris Minor, but after four dates with lots of kissing he still hasn’t put his hand on her breast. She tells him she has been sleeping with a married man and he throws her over. His friend, Durkin starts taking her out, sleeping with her, discussing him with her, her with him. Durkin and Carolyn marry, still he remains in Melbourne, getting married himself, visiting them, drinking. Carolyn exposes her breast to him to breastfeed her third child, surely a sign. Durkin and Carolyn move north. To Grafton in northern NSW. Twenty years have passed. Carolyn leaves Durkin, moves north again, to Brisbane. Carolyn’s single, waiting for him, for them both to enter the landscape of his dreams, the far north… [Sipping the Essence]

In another story, he is a descendant of the utopian New Australia settlement in Paraguay, looking for other Australians amongst the Paraguayans, but afraid of course to approach them directly and ask; an extended metaphor for his search for like-minded people in Melbourne suburbia.

I was never sure what value to attach to what Paraguayans called the emotions. (How much, for example, of what I felt for my wife and children was truly derived from my Australianness and how much was derived from my being exposed all my life to overly demonstrative Paraguayans?)

His son, who is far more important to him than his daughter, becomes seriously ill and must be entrusted to Paraguayan doctors. During the long night watches he demonstrates to  hospital staff his seriousness, his separateness. [The Battle of Acosta Nu].

In A Quieter Place than Clun Murnane attempts and largely fails to meet women – he describes his pick-up technique as: “Sometimes I did go [to parties], and sat drinking in a corner, hoping some perceptive young woman would notice about me the faint aureole from my fiery pattern of nerves.”

The Clun of the title is from a poem by AE Housman – “‘Tis a long way further than Knighton/A quieter place than Clun” – with which he becomes obsessed, imagining that his literary landscape must be coloured the brilliant green of southern England.

But in Charlie Alcock’s Cock, it is the spaces between things, the ‘gaps’ in reality, that form his landscape. At first he thinks he’ll find another way into reality from under the lemon tree in his aunt’s Hawthorn back yard where he and his younger cousin compare cocks, while he wishes he knew more about his older girl cousins. Over half a lifetime, the cousin becomes a priest and then a marriage counsellor, while he (Murnane) gets to 30, marries a nice, young Catholic girl, has children, decides to leave.

Now I knew that those dark spaces were part of myself. They were a huge projection of some intricate pattern behind my eyes, and it would be my life’s work to explore those dark spaces and to interpret the pattern that gave rise to them. The dazzled and half-blind people of Melbourne’s suburbs would lose sight of me.

Finally, and still sabotaging himself (his fictional self, how he was in ‘real’ life of course I cannot say) with drink, he attends a party in the hills north east of Melbourne, in the house of a successful artist (painter) who has become his friend, who pairs him off with a blonde to whom he is able to declaim the latest iterations of his theory of writing, but of course with whom he fails to go home.

She … asks me to tell her more about myself. I tell her I am a writer, but one whose best work is still unpublished. I say my writing is too complex to talk about. I write fiction in order to discover the pattern of myself and my life. At first sight, a piece of my fiction might seem to describe only a few figures in a landscape; but on closer inspection it reveals extraordinary depths – another dimension perhaps. If she read my fiction closely, I tell her, she would seem to be stepping inside a painting of a landscape with one or more figures and walking back as far as the furthest painted detail and then seeing still further off other landscapes rising to view [Landscape With Artist].

Elsewhere he writes he would “devise a new form of prose fiction – neither short story nor novel -with a shape to match the pattern of my life” and that, I guess, explains why he has chosen this form for this book. And yes, I’m embarrassed; Landscape With Landscape is brilliant and I should have read it years ago.

 

Gerald Murnane, Landscape With Landscape, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987. Cover painting Contemplating the Faithful by Neil Malone

See also these posts on Murnane:
Lisa, ANZLL, the first two are stories from Landscape With Landscape (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, Miles Franklin

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Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang (1956) is the fifth Brent of Bin Bin novel chronologically, though it was the sixth and last published. The ‘Gyang Gyang’ of the title refers to the station (grazing property) Gyang Gyang Plains where the action is set – the ‘Gentlemen’ are the workers on the station – which is in turn named for the ubiquitous gang-gang cockatoos.

I read this and the final Brent of Bin Bin novel, Back to Bool Bool, on my kindle while I was away – they’re not formatted (or proof-read) very well and I ended up reading in landscape to make the lines wrap properly. I will review this one direct from kindle but have located via Abe Books good copies of both – I’m a book collector at heart, just masquerading as a reviewer – and should have them in my hands before I review Back to Bool Bool and wrap up the series.

Apart from Prelude to Waking, which I can see now forms no part of the high country families saga either stylistically or by subject matter, the Brent novels were written in the order I have discussed them, in the latter years of the 1920s. Jill Roe writes that GGG, full name Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang: A Tale of the Jumbuck Pads on the Summer Runs, is the novel of Franklin’s return to Australia, “and should be read as such”. In February 1928 Franklin, who had returned from England the previous year to care for her parents in Sydney, “caught the night train for Cooma and beyond”, to spend time with her Lampe (Labosseer in this series) uncles, firstly at ‘Gooandra’ in the Monaro high plains north of Kosciuszko, then for two months on the western slopes of the Great Divide, at Talbingo where she was born. Here she wrote both GGG and the first draft of Back to Bool Bool.

That she was there shows in both her detailed descriptions of the country, the setting for GGG is based on Gooandra, and in the knowledge she displays of the then dominant wool industry.

Gyang Gyang Plains station is maintained by Sylvester Labosseer to provide summer feed for sheep from his ‘home’ property in central NSW. The living conditions are relatively primitive, but summers in the highlands are mild, and since the death of his wife, Labosseer has preferred to spend much of his time there. Peter Poole, his foreman, is a grandson of the legendary Bert Poole (Ten Creeks Run) and apart from a tendency for unexplained ‘walkabouts’ is a true chip off the old block. The villain of the piece is Cedric Spires, a womaniser (of course) who appears to have a hold over Poole and is his rival for the affections of …

Bernice Gaylord, an artist (and a beauty), who had been the lover of another artist in Paris until he left her and broke her heart –

had reached a dead end which she mistook for the end of all things. The doctors spoke of a strained heart and hinted at TB, a diagnosis welcome to Bernice. it camouflaged her secret and explained the suspension of her career to her family and the Australian public interested in her unusual promise, which had suddenly dried up.

This is as close as we get to a Franklin figure in this novel. Roe writes that MF too had returned to Australia with supposed health problems that were really a cover for stress.

Gaylord, who is Labosseer’s god-daughter, has been invited to spend the summer at Gyang Gyang Plains while she recovers her health. Camping out on the side verandah, walking and riding around the property, she not only recovers her health, and develops a healthy interest in Peter Poole, but also recovers her motivation to begin painting again.

This is an excuse for Franklin to get on a hobby horse she has hitherto concealed – naturalism in art:

There were those who maintained … the Australian atmosphere could not be painted, it was too brilliant; the life could not be convincingly told in fiction, it was too monotonous and lacking in that kind of action which the elementary reader calls plot. The need was for painters and novelists, as well as the ungifted, to break out of  the established rut … a fresh contribution must be made to technique.

In short, over summer Gaylord produces a portfolio of portraits and landscapes that ‘revolutionise’ Australian painting.

We could point Franklin towards the late C19th Heidelberg school of Australian Impressionism (who would be brave enough to direct her gaze to more current movements like cubism or surrealism!) and towards those writers roughly contemporaneous with Streeton et al whose work redefined realism in Australian writing – Lawson, Baynton, Rudd, Furphy and, yes, Franklin. But now, a year or so short of 50, she really was a very old fashioned woman.

Franklin proceeds by “possuming”, that is discursively or by story telling, with plenty of description, at which she excels. Here, Gaylord gets inspiration:

She walked out in the dew-drenched tussocks under the gums standing like snow queens in perfumed bridal dress. Never was such colossal yet honeyed loveliness for miles, and miles, and miles, She was out of herself with joyous excitement.

The men on the isolated station are all fascinated at having a beautiful woman in their midst; the publican’s daughters do their best to put forward their own attractions; various rural catastrophes threaten and are averted; as in all the best romances, true love is achieved at the last possible moment.

In 1928 Franklin submitted GGG to the Bulletin‘s novel competition for that year* under the further pseudonym ‘by Australian Born’ and that was the last that was seen of it for nearly 30 years.

Gang-gang-Cockatoo
Gang-gang cockatoo, photo JJ Harrison

Miles Franklin, Gentlemen at Gyang Gyang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1956

For other Miles Franklin posts and reviews go to:

An overview of the Brent of Bin Bin series (here)
Miles Franklin Central (here)


*The joint winners of the 1928 Bulletin prize were A House is Built by M. Barnard Eldershaw and Coonardoo by KS Prichard.

My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson

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My Henry Lawson, published in 1943 and never republished as far as I can see, is a memoir of the great short story writer by his wife. I read other works about Lawson during my studies, particularly City Bushman by Christopher Lee and Louisa by Brian Matthews, which I plan to re-read and review in the next few months, but this one makes a nice entry point. Briefly, Lee argues that the mythologising of Australian bush workers was a product of city-based writers, in particular Henry Lawson; while Louisa is an account of the life of one of our great Independent Women, who also happened to be Henry’s mother. Bertha writes of her mother in law:

If there is anything in heredity, Harry’s literary talents undoubtedly came from his mother, who fifty years ago, owned and published the first women’s newspaper in Australia. It was called “the Dawn – a Journal for Australian Women.”

Lawson, then quite young and not yet a published poet, was working elsewhere at the time and “had nothing to do with it, not even as a contributor”. Later in the same chapter Bertha writes:

Louisa was a remarkable character, a very determined woman and she and her poet son could never see eye to eye. Apart they remained friendly; together they were at daggers-drawn. They had many and fierce arguments and eventually Harry left home.

Henry Lawson was born at Grenfell [NSW], in a tent, on June 17, 1867. A “birth in a mining camp … was such a novelty, that every digger visited the home to ask to see the baby and to leave generous presents.” Bertha describes Lawson’s antecedents and upbringing, and it is important in light of Lee’s argument to emphasise just how much time Lawson spent in the bush, both growing up and as a young man.

Lawson spent some time in bush schools, though was often truant or helping his parents with work, and then his deafness, caused by illness, also intervened. Louisa had some poetry published in a local paper and Lawson, aged around 10 or 11, attempted some as well but his father objected to his “vaporisings” and they were thrown in the fire. At 14 he was working full time for his father who was a building contractor in country towns west of the Blue Mountains. His education was only resumed after Louisa left her husband and moved to Granville where Henry, then 16, was able to attend night school 3 nights a week. Within a year he had a poem about a shipwreck then in the papers (The Wreck of the Derry Castle) accepted by Archibald for publication in the Bulletin.

Lawson made a number of attempts to matriculate so he could go on to university, but failed, about which he was always bitter: “I was taught too little? I learnt too much/To use a pedant’s diction” (Lawson, The Uncultured Rhymer to His Cultured Critics). He drifted in and out of employment until at 19 he returned to working for his father, at Mt Victoria. There “he learnt to drink and found that under the influence of liquor he forgot his shyness”. When his father died at the end of 1888, Lawson completed his contracts and returned to Sydney, drifting again, but keeping on writing, and for a while working as a columnist in Brisbane.

Bertha doesn’t say so, but Lawson was becoming well known (see my earlier post Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson). In 1892 he borrowed some money from Archibald and took off for Bourke and subsequently Hungerford in far north-west NSW looking for work. His mate Jim Grahame wrote in the Bulletin in 1925 that he and Lawson tramped around the country west of Bourke working as rouseabouts (picking up fleeces, not shearing as was sometimes reported) for six months, before Lawson returned to Sydney by train as a drover with sheep going to the abattoirs at Homebush.

In 1895 Bertha was an 18 yo nurse from Bairnsdale, Vic, in Sydney visiting her mother. A friend introduced her to Lawson who became very persistent in pursuing her and they were soon planning to get married. By this time he had two books of short stories and poetry to his credit and a third, In the Days When the World was Wide, was with the printers. The future was looking rosy. After a couple of hiccups, Bertha’s mother gave her consent and the two were married on April 15, 1896.

In her description of a rowing excursion on Middle Harbour we are given a privileged view into their lives and Lawson’s writing:

Harry took pencil and paper, and while I sat and sewed, or rowed slowly, he wrote verses, chanting them softly to himself, to get the beat and rhythm. This was different from when Harry wrote verse at home, for then he would dictate it to me in that sing-song way of his, and after I had written it down, while he paced to and fro, he would correct it and read it to me.

With money in his pocket, an advance on his book, Lawson was restless and so they sailed for WA where Lawson hoped to become a gold miner, though as it happened they never made it past a camp on the hill near the cemetery in East Perth. When their money was about to run out Bertha engineered a return to Sydney. We get a glimpse of how famous Lawson was becoming:

… in Melbourne, the pressmen came down to interview us; and although we were travelling in the steerage, the captain allowed us to use the saloon, for Harry to entertain the press. It was the grand finale to our tour, and we landed in Sydney with two shillings in the exchequer …

In Sydney Lawson’s drinking mates were a problem, and with an introduction to the Premier, they moved on again, to New Zealand. A job was found for Lawson, as the teacher at an isolated Maori school where Bertha conspired with the locals to make it difficult for Lawson to get to the ‘bright lights’ of Kaikoura 12 miles away on the coast. Here she says, Lawson did some of his best work, all of Joe Wilson and His Mates, a play, and some poetry, including Written Afterwards in which he jokes about the restrictions imposed on him by marriage.

At the beginning of 1898 they returned to Wellington where their son, Jim was born and on to Sydney, where Lawson freelanced for a while till he found work as a clerk with the Government Statistician and gave up the grog. Despite his boss telling him he only had to show up during working hours and he could write what he liked, this lasted just one week!

Another book came out, there was another advance to spend, and another baby, Bertha (b. Feb 1900). Lawson was getting good reviews in Britain, the State Governor offered to pay his passage, and soon the family were on the move again (taking with them of course the ms for My Brilliant Career).

He had become one of the literary lions of London. A dinner had been given to welcome him, at which the leading literary men were guests. The world was at Harry’s feet…

Lawson however made little attempt to take advantage of the opportunities opening up for him. And after two years on the wagon, on arrival in London he started drinking again. Friends had found housing for them, but “with all this appreciation we still had not enough money to buy food”. Mary Gilmour, her husband and child came to stay (after the failure of New Australia). “We were all in deep financial difficulties”. Then Harry got an advance from Blackwoods (publishers) and Bertha “lost no time buying passages for myself and the children for Australia”. Lawson followed soon after.

They met up again in Colombo but by the time they were back in Australia the marriage was very nearly at an end. Bertha stayed in Melbourne for six weeks, while Henry went on to Sydney; they lived together for a while in Manly, but first Henry, then Bertha, was hospitalised for long periods; their furniture was seized for arrears of rent; a third baby died at birth.

Bertha found employment as a travelling saleswoman for Stuart & Co., booksellers while Lawson took lodgings, “it was useless taking up house again as he was quite penniless and the children had to be provided for.”

He had his happy times and I think those periods were usually associated with absolute freedom from responsibility and full expression of his genius. He hated to be tied down.

In this period, immediately before the Great War, Lawson had published a prose volume “The Rising of the Court” and a book of verses “Skyline Riders”. For a while during the War, the government gave him make-work, writing advertising for the Leeton irrigation area.

Bertha goes on to analyse Lawson’s writing, his connections to the working class, where she and he fit into his stories, particularly the Joe Wilson stories, and his links to the Australian ‘Bohemians’. Lawson died in 1922, of cerebral haemorrhage. He was given a State Funeral and according to Bertha, was buried in the grave that had been prepared for Henry Kendall.

This excellent little book ends with a previously unpublished Lawson short story, A Wet Camp.

 

Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson, Frank Johnson, Sydney, 1943 (the drawing reproduced on the cover is signed McCormack)

Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen

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Leonard Cohen music would seem to be an acquired taste. A weekend in 1970 at a mate’s beach house in Barwon Heads listening to his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen left me cold, but by the time the kids were teenagers we played Leonard Cohen cassettes all the time on long trips, and I’ve since been to a couple of concerts. So yes, belatedly, I’m a fan.

Cohen (1934-2016) apparently took up song-writing/singing in the late seventies because he wasn’t making a living as a novelist/poet.  Beautiful Losers (1966) was his second novel, written while he was living in Hydra (on arrival, Cohen boarded for a while with Charmian Clift and George Johnson, before buying his own house). In researching this, I read that his famous song (aren’t they all) Bird on a Wire was also written in Hydra after the advent of electricity on the island brought electricity wires past his bedroom window.

His writing is probably also an acquired taste, and is variously described as post-modern and experimental. Cohen is a decade too young to be considered a member of the Beat Generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs etc.) but they were probably an influence, and Wikipedia says, ‘During the 1960s, he was a fringe figure in Andy Warhol‘s “Factory” crowd,’ maybe after this novel was written, but it gives an idea of where his head was at. A blurb mentions James Joyce and Henry Miller, but that would be a given for any serious writer of Cohen’s generation, and doesn’t mean he should be considered alongside them.

The story of the novel is of the narrator dealing with the deaths of Edith, his young wife, and of F., his lifelong best friend (who was both his lover and, as it turns out, his wife’s lover), while researching the life Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-1680?), a Christian, native American, Mohawk of the A—– tribe at the time of the French occupation of Quebec.

Some of the, thankfully short, chapters are prayers, like this …

O God, Your Morning Is Perfect. People Are Alive In Your World. I Can Hear The Little Children In The Elevator. The Airplane Is Flying Through The Original Blue Air. Mouths Are Eating Breakfast. The Radio Is Filled With Electricity. The Trees Are Excellent. You Are Listening To The Voices Of The Faithless Who Tarry On The Bridge Of Spikes….

Others are rehashings of his conversations with F.:

– Did she like it?

– No.

– Really?

– Yes, she liked it. How anxious you are to be deceived!

– F., I could kill you for what you’ve done. Courts would forgive me.

– You’ve done enough killing for one night.

– Get off our bed! Our bed! This was our bed!

Catherine’s story proceeds in fits and starts, transcribed from missionary documents, or straight from the inside of his head:

– Your toes are cold, Catherine. I’ll have to rub them between my palms.

– Yes! …

The priest breathed heavily on her tiny brown toes. What a lovely little cushion her big toe had. The bottoms of her five toes looked like the faces of small children sleeping tucked up under a blanket up to their chins. He started to kiss them goodnight.

F. is an archetype of male success: he manipulates markets to achieve wealth; he follows up the ads on the backs of boyhood comics and develops a Charles Atlas body; he is a member of parliament. Every woman he wants, he has. Even when he is dead, all his possessions bequeathed to ‘I’, he is mysterious and powerful, a martyr of the separatist movement maybe.

The stories of Catherine Tekakwitha, a virgin in the midst of the orgies of her people and the depredations of the Jesuits, and Edith, the lover, separately, of two men, converge. The second half of the book degenerates into an account of the beatification of Catherine through extreme mortification of the flesh; degenerates as F. degenerates and dies “in a padded cell, his brain rotted from too much dirty sex”; becomes a letter written by F. while having sex with a nurse, an account of the act of terrorism – blowing up a statue of Queen Victoria – that got him committed, and of the last four years of the life of St Catherine.

I was your adventure and you were my adventure. I was your journey and you were my journey, and Edith was our holy star. This letter rises out of our love like the sparks between dueling swords …

Soap made from human fat, and a waiter who by implication is Hitler – “spent some time before the full-length mirror playing with his mustache and slanting his hair across his forehead in just the way he liked” – make a regrettable appearance, as does an old man having/wanting sex with boys (William Burroughs, or at least the characters in his books, was likewise fond of sex with “rent boys”. Back then before it ‘became’ paedophilia).

The novel ends with “Book III, Beautiful Losers, An epilogue in the third person” which one might hope makes sense of what has preceded. It doesn’t.

 

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers, first pub. 1966. This ed. Text Publishing, 2006


My brother in law, coincidentally, has sent me a link to a recording of a song he wrote in tribute to Cohen: So Long Leonard (words: W. Green/music: A. Luke) by Allan Luke, Americana music from Saint Lucia, Qld, AU on ReverbNation (here).

I put up lots of photos of Hydra, including Leonard Cohen’s house and the cafe where he first met Clift and Johnson, on Facebook, although they’re back a bit in the feed by now.

Travels in Greece, Charmian Clift

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Charmian Clift (1920-1969) was a well-loved writer, though more by women than by men probably, famously married to journalist/author George Johnson (1912-1970). The two met at The Argus in Melbourne in 1946 when Clift was a fledgling reporter and Johnson was an editor and renowned war correspondent. They began an affair, for which they were sacked – mostly because Johnson was already married but also, I think, because they were not discreet.

They moved to Sydney, Johnson secured a divorce, they married, and they began co-writing novels, winning a prize with High Valley in 1948. Next stop was London in 1951 after Johnson obtained a prestigious position there with Associated Newspapers. But after only a few years they moved again, to Greece, with the intention of living as cheaply as they could, as full time writers of fiction.

Clift and Johnson were ten years in Greece, one year on the island of Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast, the remainder on Hydra where they used all their savings to purchase a house. They had two children, a boy and a girl, Martin and Shane, born in Sydney, and another son born on Hydra. Clift wrote about living on Kalymnos in Mermaid Singing (1958) and about their first year in Hydra in Peel Me a Lotus (1959). Travels in Greece (1995) is a combination of the two.

Johnson had had little early success as a novelist, tending to rush his writing, and was probably happy to co-write with Clift, to take advantage of her greater attention to style and detail, although he continued also to produce novels on his own, finally achieving critical and financial success only after the end of their time on Hydra, with the fictionalised account of his boyhood, My Brother Jack (1964). Johnson, followed later by Clift and the children, then moved back to Australia. Clift was a script writer on the ABC TV series of My Brother Jack which aired in 1965, and began writing columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, soon achieving a large following.

In 1969 Clift, who like Johnson, had a drinking problem, suicided with an overdose of pills. Johnson’s entry in the ADB (here) says that Clift may have feared what Johnson might reveal in the second part of his fictionalised biography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) which came out a month later. This implies firstly that Clift had something to fear, presumably Johnson’s jealousy of her real or imagined affairs on Hydra, and secondly that she had not seen any earlier drafts of Johnson’s novel, which you would think unlikely, given their former collaboration.


At this point it occurs to me that the subjects of this and my previous review both died by suicide. If you are thinking along the same lines then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. I had a shot at it myself, as a young man, when my first marriage failed, and as it happens I was found and resuscitated. I have since had occasion at different times to rely on family, friends, workmates and counsellors, and they have all helped.*


Clift and Johnson’s time-out began on an impulse. They had often talked, when “outside in the Bayswater Road the night was the colour of a guernsey cow, and on the pavements the leaves lay in a sad yellow pulp”, about chucking in the London grind and moving to an island:

Perhaps if that very day we had not met, by accident, a friend newly returned from Greece who had asked me to come into the BBC to hear a radio feature he had made on the sponge-diving island of Kalymnos …

It burst like a star, so simple and brilliant and beautiful that for the moment we could only stare at each other in wonder. Why the devil shouldn’t we just go?

So we did.

We had no means of communication other than sign language, and we had a bank account that didn’t bear thinking about. Still, we thought we might be able to last for a year if we managed very carefully and stayed healthy. We had for some years published a novel every year or so, not very successfully, but we thought that it might be just possible to live by our writing when our capital ran out.

Clift’s writing is straightforward and clear, bringing to life the people they live amongst, and mixing in lots of geographical and historical background. Her own family we don’t get to know so well. George it seems is generally upstairs typing while Clift gets on with the shopping and cleaning, or he’s with her down at the local bar, and the kids are off playing. I enjoyed both accounts, but the first, Mermaid Singing, more than the second, Peel Me a Lotus. The former has a friendlier feel, as Charmian and the islanders, with the utmost goodwill, learn to understand each other and become friends. So much so that, at the end of the book, it comes as a bit of a surprise when they decide to move on.

Surprisingly, disappointingly, there is nothing at all about Clift’s and Johnson’s collaborative writing, or indeed about Clift’s life as a writer, at all. From that point of view, Park and Niland’s lightly fictionalised account of their first year together as struggling writers in Sydney, at about the same time, The Drums Go Bang (my review), is both more informative and more entertaining.

The people of Kalymnos are friendly, but seemingly without personal boundaries, living as they do (did!) in houses with a single bedroom and one sleeping platform for maybe 10 people. Locals wander in and out of the Clift/Johnson house at will, all the family’s activities are observed by hordes of children, it is not possible to walk anywhere alone, without people making it their business to be your company.

Peel Me a Lotus begins with Charmian pregnant with their third child – only ever called ‘baby’, as far as I can tell – on Hydra, having purchased a two storey house from the many empty since the glory days of the previous century, but waiting for the interminable renovations to be completed before moving in, and waiting desperately for the return of the only half-way competent ‘midwife’, before giving birth.

This book is more concerned with the activities of the other expats – not Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t arrive on Hydra until not long before the Clift/Johnsons leave – though George and Charmian still have friends in the local community. Clift is concerned that the charm of the island is being lost as it becomes a summer holiday destination for Athenians, as well as the latest resort for the usual suspects attempting to live cheap.

For it is now apparent that the yearly passage of the smart, penniless, immoral, clever young people – Creon’s ‘bums and perverts’ – has had its inevitable effect. This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many little Mediterranean ports ‘discovered ‘ by the creative poor… We are watching the island in the process of becoming chic.

You will be pleased to hear that ex-Mrs Legend and I found, and the Greeks we spoke to agreed, that Hydra is probably still the least spoiled of the tourist islands. Perhaps the town, pop. 3,000, is too small to ever become a major tourist destination. Hope so!

These are interesting and well-written books with just one discordant note. Lisa at ANZLL in a recent review (here) on Clift’s newspaper columns published as a collection of essays after her death as Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (1990) said that Clift had disappointingly expressed the view that she had left school at fourteen because there was nothing they could teach her that would be “of the slightest use”. It was obviously a view she held seriously, leaving her children to the vagaries of Greek village school education, in fact, on the evidence of this book, not paying them much attention at all.

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Hydra, 2017. I believe the cave where Clift and her kids swam is just outside this photo, to the right

Charmian Clift, Travels in Greece, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1995. Previously published as Mermaid Singing (1958) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959)


I’m now home after a marvellous trip, my first and only probably. On the evidence of this past month, if I were to spend that ‘mythical’ year in Europe it would be in Paris, where I could pick up the language, where there is so much to do, and from where the whole of Europe is accessible by Fast Train network. Returning to earth, I have a couple of books left to review, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers written while he was living in Hydra; and Cave of Silence (2013) by Kostas Krommydas, recommended to me by a friendly lady bookseller on Santorini.


*Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78