Brona at Brona’s Books puts up a poem every week (I think) and in honour of AWW Gen 3 Week her poem for this week is one of Dorothy Hewett’s. Hewett grew up in Western Australia and Midland is a rail junction on the eastern edge of Perth, at the foot of the Darling escarpment. The highway out of Perth, to the north and to the east, passes over the Midland yards so I look down on them quite often.
In Midland still the trains go by.
The black smoke thunders on the sky.
Still in the grass the lovers lie. Read on …
At the risk of losing my (self-allocated) reputation for not reading poetry, John Kinsella – seen once before in these pages, here: False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella – is a Western Australian poet/writer I have been meaning to pay more attention to for some time. He was born in Perth, in 1963; his mother was a poet and his father a mining engineer and later a farm manager. From his writing – I should read Auto (2001), his collection of autobiographical pieces – he seems to have lived in Kalgoorlie and, later Mullewa from whence he attended high school in Geraldton. According to Wikipedia Kinsella is now a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and the author of more than 30 works including 3 novels, now four.
Hollow Earth (2019) is the science fiction novel you might expect from a poet – shades of the centre in Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork. The protagonist, Manfred, a young man, finds ways into a world beneath the surface, Hollow Earth, with humanoid inhabitants, green tinged, of indeterminate or maybe fluid gender, at the same technological level as us on the surface, but keeping largely to themselves. Lives with them for a while before persuading his two friends/lovers Ari and Zest to come with him to the surface where they engage in a drug-laced odyssey (or Aeneid if you know your Virgil which of course I don’t).
The future intrudes from time to time and we see ahead to a Hollow Earth reduced to a colony run by a Big Australian mining company which might as well go flat out now the Earth is f****d anyway.
Looking to the future, when refugees from the surface began filtering through before the final push and consolidation of the Big Miners (and the internment camp for Hollow Earthers and ‘aberrant’ surface dwellers they created), driven from Ireland where they were refugees from conflict in the Middle East… Zest and Ari, who had some influence on their local life enhancement committee, asked Manfred if he’d act as liaison officer to help house and clothe the new arrivals. No, that can’t be correct – this happened after, long after Manfred was in Hollow Earth. But narratives loop, surely, and who can say which ends we’re working with? It’s possible, really, isn’t it?
This narrative loops, for sure! Manfred as a boy digging in the sand (all WA is sand); Manfred in Ireland while his mother searches for extraterrestials; Manfred, Ari and Zest in Ireland, in Perth, in bed, on drugs. Short chapters, a sentence, one, two, three pages. Some poetry, some text, some incomprehensible, some random.
Manfred declared the poet C.J. Brennan [Australian poet Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)] to be a fantasy writer of the ilk of Tolkien. And as he described the world the poet had created, barely analogous to our own, he was laughed off the stage and the door was closed forever on his academic career. But Lilith in succubus scrubs remained to haunt him, to jar his gender aphasia into distressed shadow shapes …
To Sydney where Brennan’s own academic career ended in drunkenness and poverty; to Kimba, South Australia, where a proposed nuclear waste dump closes a portal to Hollow Earth.
They never really get inside the land they describe. Sure, they scape it, these colonial novelists and poets who think they’re decolonising the text, but they skate over the top and appropriate a few sentiments and observations made by others whose land it is …
Back to boyhood, or stories of his boyhood for Zest and Ari, it’s hard to tell; a dangerous father, a frightened mother, an absent father: “three phone calls in three years, then silence”; addiction, rehab, London.
Years pass. Living on the profits of Ari dealing. Hello World, a freudian typo from my one Europe trip, remains closed to them. In Cowtown, USA Zest forms the intention of becoming pregnant and in the intention is the deed. A child will see the way back.
You make it sound like a Messiah, Zest. No, I’m not saying that. Not at all – the baby will be of both worlds, that is all. Axis mundi.
Then Ireland, waiting for the volcano, his original ingress, to open, Manfred picks rocks. Haven’t all the rocks in all the fields in Ireland been picked yet? Ari goes clean. Druggy mates from Freo, clean now too, are living in the desert out from Kal. “Come and join us”. A truckie intervenes.
I read ahead: they will call me eel and monkey, without a thought to the thousands, the tens of thousands of roos and emus and wombats, even camels that have died on my bullbar. And bulls. And cows… You’d think a long-haul truckie with a beer gut wouldn’t care or wouldn’t know. But I have loved trucks since I was a child … We are kin. I was distracted. I was driving fast. I saw the eagle and heard the crows. I wanted to get back to my beginnings.
From there the story peters out. Loved it. Read it.
John Kinsella, Hollow Earth, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019. Cover image, Stephen Kinsella.
I am not a poetry reader let alone reviewer and I only bought this book, a year or so ago, because I was in my local bookstore and the book’s from Broome, WA based indigenous publisher Magabala, and so I assumed it was West Australian. In fact Alison Whittaker “is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah [NSW]. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist …”.
BlakWorks then languished on my bedside table until I was reminded by Brona’s review of the poem A Love like Dorothea’s (here including a video of a reading by the author) to give it another try. I wasn’t really thinking about who Dorothea was when I started to read and so it hit me like a punch. The assertion Whittaker is making here, I think, is that our love for this land we have so recently occupied alienates the people who have been its custodians for the last 60 millenia. Our love leaves no room for their love. No quote, it would decrease the impact of you reading/listening to it yourself.
The book is divided into 15 sections: whitework, bloodwork, storywork … through to newwork, blakwork; each with about half a dozen poems. Whitework commences with the poem blakwork which tells us that it is a full time job dealing with white guilt: “Indentured blakwork, something like:/nine to five, forgiv-/-ing you.”
I won’t pretend I understood all, or even half, of what I read. Some of the poems are concrete, that is their structure is part of the poem; at least a couple are short essays but here, in a book of poems, we must be aware of the shape, the sound of words as well as of meaning; a number render legalese into poetry to provide a commentary on Indigenous people’s experience of the Australian legal system; and some (I think!) are about other stuff, not just Black-White relations.
Some I like without knowing why: “… so many blaks/How could I name them all?/Inner city arty blak/Remote yet so connected blak/Welfare woman villain blak …” (bpm); or “Indigine, slip through the world Aboriginally this is your line, as your parents will prepare/you so too will you prepare yourself so too will you repair you …” (badblak).
One, ethnomathematics, struck me with a dose of that white guilt. A few words (numbers) dotted across the page: “one, one /halfhalfhalf …/threequarters/fiveeighths”. Pretty clear what it’s referring to.
There are a few poems which are commentaries on white man’s law. Two or three are ‘simply’ lists of the most common phrases in the judges’ decsion. So, the skeleton of the common law is extracted from the Mabo decision; and exhibit tab is from the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu [who died in a police cell in Port Hedland WA in 2014, while being held for unpaid fines (here)] –
Exhibit 2 tab
The custody system
XXXX Dhu’s temperature
The police vehicle
Lock up procedure
Another, An Act, plays with white legalese: “This Act is the Binaal Bunma-li, Warra-y Act 2018 … Definitions:/… Binaal Bunma-li: to soothe or settle down/…/Regulations: such as determined by Elders through Country/…. “.
Some is more or less what you would expect, family stories in the section the abattoir; a complaint that a Black woman has been white-washed out of the Thunderbolt [bushranger] legend; an ode to her schoolmates, for feral girls:
‘O, youse feral girls,’
Twisting hands, dancing to warrambul like they’re crossing fingers,
twisting Kmart bras under Big Dub singlets.
They got that
sacred patchwork of precedence–legging thighs follow panty lines,
topograph their overcourse–goad softly little babs to sleep
goad firecourse to wake
goad Centrelink, its cards and monies, from the settler state.
And out of the blue, the section, the centre appears to be a dystopian short story in blank verse:
Bounced through a low-hanging satellite that competes with the atmosphere like I compete with the pedestrians, the Centre for Mob Futures is being rebuilt. Far from here, out desert ways, I’ve reported on its programmers quick to plug its many hostile haemorrhages and rework its paper scaffolds. An archive of drives all buzzing with unsteady fans and unlabelled wires. (futures. excellence.)
Access to the centre is guarded by an AI which determines Aboriginality by yarning, and demands that it be made a cup of tea (blak captcha). In a virtual outback-
… totally unsupervised by mission managers –old and new alike–mob frolicked, philosophised, borned art, and built technologies… In the Centre, a place spinning imprecisely through the sky and broadcasting to a supercomputer in the desert … (virtualisation).
It fails, I think (the project, not the poem).
As I slipped back past the belly-touching AI into the real meatland, all sparse and beige-hot and withering, the Centre’s satellite lost its signal. It shut down. (the last project).
You know I’m an SF/dystopian fan and it’s interesting that Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven and Claire Coleman, to name the most obvious, are all, sometimes anyway, in that space (pun unintended, and indeed unnoticed until about the fourth re-reading).
All the poems require contemplation, more than I have given them at this reading, and I recommend you follow Brona, both in reading one poem at a time, and literally, to see what she has to say about them. And if you’re really serious you could read the review below from the Sydney Review of books. (I haven’t, not yet anyway).
Melanie, did I like it? Not enough to rush out and buy more, but nor did I dislike it, it was interesting.
John Kinsella is a notable West Australian writer and has been on my to-do list for some time, not that x-Mrs L was aware of this when she chose False Claims for me at our local indie book store, fortuitously across the road from our favourite pub. She also didn’t know or had forgotten that her brother had been briefly Kinsella’s teacher at Geraldton High when he was newly out of Teachers’ College. I would visit him when I was in town, in his share house of young teachers barely out of school themselves, strangers in a country town, clustered for warmth and protection, a scene multiply familiar to me after years of following my itinerant school teacher father around country Victoria. BiL doesn’t claim to have had any influence on Kinsella, though he is given credit by a later student, Kim Scott – a dedicatee in this book – for his taking up writing , for which we are all grateful.
About Charmaine Papertalk Green I know little, well nothing, but gleaned the following. She is a poet and artist born in 1962 at Eradu railway siding on the Greenough River between Mullewa and Geraldton on Amangu country and is a member of the Wajarri and Badimaya cultural groups from the Yamaji Nation of Western Australia. “Her books include Just Like That (Fremantle Arts Centre Press) and Tiptoeing Tracker Tod (Oxford University Press). Charmaine lives in Geraldton, rural Western Australia.” (ABR)
John Kinsella, born in 1963 in Perth, has achieved wider fame as a poet and writer generally and even a (short) wikipedia entry. Elements of his biography come up in this collection of poems, which are a reflection by the two poets on their experiences living in and around Mullewa, Geraldton, Western Australia. Kinsella’s father appears to have been a workshop supervisor on mines throughout WA before coming to “a millionaire’s farm” outside Mullewa as manager.
I know Mullewa well enough both from passing through on my way from Geraldton to the eastern goldfields and from visits as a tourist. It is a small town once an important railway junction and centre for farming, notable for its stone buildings and particularly its Catholic church, Our Lady of Mt Carmel.
The church and its architect/builder Monsignor John Hawes (1876-1956) come up surprisingly frequently in the poems.
Hawes – God’s intruder:
Galloping in, bible and cross in hand/Hawes, God’s intruder/Altar stone of the earth/ Intruding on our barna/In the name of Catholicism/Bow your head and conform/For this is now the whiteworld. (CPG)
That priest, England in his veins,/converted the midwest diocesan vision/of souls gathered under one-roofs./A Spanish breeze drawn/under the arches. Mt Carmel. (JK)
It also helps in understanding the poems to know – from the Our Lady of Mt Carmel website above – that the Yamaji people didn’t attend the church but instead had services at a site outside town
Mass Rock is the intruder in our space
Mass Rock is not my significant site
My people’s campsite not Hawes’ space (CPG)
And it seems Papertalk Green shares my bemusement with the Catholic practice of praying to stone gods: A space for those to pray their sins away/Under the watchful eyes of icons and statues/Like civilised colonial pagans with gargoyle guards.
The back cover blurb describes the poems, which alternate irregularly between the two poets, as “call and response” but that is not completely accurate as they are more “variations on a theme”. Their main shared concern is the impact of mining on country
My grandmother was a mining town child -/Kookynie where her father was foreman/of the South Champion Mine. My father/worked for decades in Karratha and Kal -/so it’s not as if I come to the mines/without foreknowledge. But I can only/see them as the harrowing of Hell,/the opening of the land to release/what shouldn’t be released,/a desecration of spirit and place. (JK)
I am glad the only mining/She would have known was/From the rich ochre on her/Body and in her hair during/Ceremony time out on country. (CPG)
Papertalk Green writes also of things that are specific to her – the claims of pale skinned Indigenous people not being taken seriously: His skin is fair – no argument there/Lived as a Yamaji all his life/As a strong Wajarri man (CPG, writing about her father, I think), and words of warning to the Identity Police; drugs in her community, dealers, ‘needle teachers’. While Kinsella writes more generally about Western Australia – Mrs Dance cutting down the first tree; travelling with his parents; the Great Western Woodlands (the world’s largest remaining temperate forest); the tragedy of cutting down salmon gums which may predate white settlement.
Papertalk Green writes a jokey little piece about ‘yarning’ (telling stories) and Kinsella tops it, talking over her: How can I but take up the call,/Charmaine, and yarn right back at you -. Papertalk Green offers a space for reconciliation
Come on I dare you
Grab my hand
We can discard our
Protective robes of
Biases, superiority, stereotypes
Oh yes don’t look surprised
We both own those robes
You wear yours when you
Call me a black multhu, a gin, a black bastard
I wear mine when I call you a
White invading convict land grabbing multhu
Oh yeah we both got those robes
But that space over there
Will allow us to take off the robes
And stitch a new robe
To wear and heal together
On this land we both call home
There’s lots more. This is a lovely book, not just a new look at WA’s midwest, but a new attempt to define what it is to be Australian. I know I say I don’t like poetry but the truth is I mostly can’t be bothered concentrating long enough to read it, and this time I’m glad I did.
Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella, False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Magabala, Broome, 2018. Cover image: We Remember – Our Barna! by Charmaine Papertalk Green and Mark Smith. “This print tells the story of Geraldton’s foundation around colonialsim and its impact on the First Peoples – the Wilunyu of the Yamaji Nation.” 2016
Jack Davis (1917-2000), as we saw in my review of his childhood memoir, A Boy’s Life (here), had a normal rural working class upbringing in those years of scarcity prior to World War II, with just a few months at the Moore River Native Settlement in 1932 to remind him of his status as a non-white. The memoir ends in the 1940s with him droving in the Gascoyne, arid country, probably given over to sheep in those days, 1,000 km north of Perth, while one of his brothers and some of his school mates went away to war.
In the 50 pages Tony Hughes-d’Aeth devotes to Davis in his monumental (600pp) Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, he gives a solid account of the dispersal of the Noongar – the Indigenous people of southwest WA – first by the pastoral industry in the 1800s and then by the transition to wheat farming in the 1900s. In the years before widespread mechanisation Aboriginal labour was vital, though generally unmentioned in rural histories. After WWII Aboriginal people, both Noongar and those from up north (like Davis’ parents), often dumped in the south west via the ‘Native Settlements’ at Carrolup and Moore River, and more and more often unemployed, settled on the outskirts of country towns.
Davis’ mother, after the death of his father, had gone to live with her sister at Brookton, 140 km east of Perth, where the jarrrah forested Darling Ranges merge into the gently rolling hills and open plains of the WA wheatbelt, and there she married into the local Indigenous Bennell family. H-d’A quotes Davis:
Reserves were small useless parcels of land left over from the great land-grab. Once the property needs of the farming community and its town had been met, a few discarded acres would be set aside as a reserve for Aborigines. It seldom had any economic value and certainly never had sufficient natural resources to support a traditional Aboriginal lifestyle. Itinerant labouring work was the only means of support an Aborigine could expect …
Davis lived for a time at the Brookton reserve both before and after the War, and through his connection with the Bennells was introduced into Noongar culture. In passing, H-d’A comments on Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers (my review) and adds the information that Gare’s husband was with the Dept of Native Affairs, and that was the origin of her material, though she was also friends with Indigenous writer, Alice Nannup.
Davis had apparently begun writing poetry as early as his Moore River days. In 1937 he had a poem accepted by the Carnarvon Northern Times but it was never printed. Davis blamed racial discrimination and thereafter wrote only “for my own amusement”. Finally, in 1970, when he was 53 and running the Aboriginal Centre in Beaufort St, Perth, four decades of Davis’ poetry were collected in The First Born and other poems with a long preface based on the transcript of a biographical interview with Davis by the novelist Richard Beilby, and a ‘Bibbulmun’ (which I think is a Noongar sub-group though the two words sometimes appear interchangeable. I’m sure Daisy Bates says Bibbulmun where we would now say Noongar) vocabulary. Oodgeroo (Kath Walker), a Noonuccal (Stradbroke Is., Qld) woman had published two books of poetry in the 1960s – the first by an Aboriginal person – with sensational success and this may have made publication of Davis’ work possible, or at least more likely.
The poems in Jack Davis’ The First Born are generally short, rhyming lyrics, often in the elegiac tonality that was one of the key-notes in Walker’s poems, although they did not follow hers – at least not yet – down the path of political manifesto …
There is a sense of every-day Aboriginal experience to Davis’ poems. I’ll quote one, ‘Camped in the Bush’ (note the truck!), set in the Ranges outside Perth on the main east-west railway line.
Over the campfire
The bat cries shrill
And a “semi” snarls
On the Ten Mile Hill
And the lonely whistle
Of the train at night,
Where my kingdom melted
In the city’s light
In 1968 Kevin Gilbert had written The Cherry Pickers, the first play by an Aboriginal to be performed (in 1971), though Davis credits Kath Walker with his move into drama: “As early as 1972 I had been experimenting with theatre … I had seen the script of a short play by Kath Walker …”. His first play, The Dreamers was staged at the Bunbury Arts Festival (a provincial city south of Perth) in 1972, leading to his ‘great trilogy’ of plays – Kullark (1979), The Dreamers (1982) and No Sugar (1985).
Kullark was performed alongside Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin. H-d’A writes:
Whereas in Hewett the Aboriginal characters perturb and destabilise the white town’s sense of itself, in Davis we see the perspective reversed for the first time – how white people and, in particular, white history looks to the Indigenous.
Davis’ plays are all realist dramas, the first two ostensibly played out in the present, but actually through speech and flashbacks demonstrating the intersection of family history and white settler racism. In The Dreamers, the dying Worru bridges the past and the future, and as he dies his language becomes more and more Noongar, illustrating the language’s survival against all odds.
No Sugar, set in 1929-34, is based on the removal and internment of a whole Noongar community, barely legal even under the 1905 Aborigines Act, from Northam, 100 km east of Perth and in the (conservative) Premier’s own electorate, to Moore River. The penalty for escaping from Moore River was six months in Fremantle Jail. The 1929 setting enables Davis to comment not just on the Depression, but also on the WA Centenary, and by implication on the (then) recent, 1979 state Sesquicentenary and upcoming ‘national’ 1988 Bicentenary celebrations (the 200th anniversary of the movement of the new British settlement from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour, an event of little significance outside NSW and increasingly offensive to the Indigenous people forced along with the rest of us to celebrate it).
Interestingly, the infamous Chief Protector, A.O. Neville, is a character in the play as the action initially moves backwards and forwards between the Mundays and Millimurras at the town camp, the Northam police station, and the Chief Protector’s office. In the second act, the whole camp, 89 people, has been moved to Moore River. “The climax of the play has Jimmy Munday and the others subverting the ceremonial visit of A.O.Neville to Moore River on Australia Day 1934. Jimmy confronts Neville and [Superintendent] Neal, jeering them about the defeat of [Premier] Mitchell in his seat of Northam.”
Davis’ drama asks who was A.O. Neville ‘protecting’:
… the major beneficiaries of the “Protection” offered in the  Act were the mainly white citizens of Western Australia, particularly those living in rural areas. In the emerging towns of the wheatbelt, the provisions of the Act were used to institute a form of apartheid in which Aboriginal people were kept out of the towns through curfews and other forms of soft or hard police power.
Hughes-d’Aeth concludes: “What Davis is able to do, better than anyone before or since, is to capture the complexity of Aboriginal policy as it affected the lives of thousands of people during the twentieth century.”
Jack Davis, No Sugar, Currency Press, Sydney, 1986
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWAP, Perth, 2017
Jack Davis Part I, A Boy’s Life (here)
see also: Mairi Neil’s review (here) of Jack Davis’ poetry in her blog Up the Creek with a Pen …
and my review of Kim Scott’s researching of his Noongar heritage, Kayang and Me (here)
I see in Hughes-d’Aeth’s Notes that there is a biography of Davis by Keith Chesson (211pp) which is also available as an audio book from WA Assoc’n for the Blind (Trove)
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 (Sydney) 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)
In my one school year in Melbourne, fourth form at Blackburn South High, Alan Wearne was a couple of years ahead of me and I was friends with his brother. He went on to Monash and I, via yet another bush high school (thanks Dad), to Melbourne. But I saw him around occasionally, the last time in ’74 or ’75 when I offered to give him a lift in my old truck to a poetry conference in Brisbane. He politely declined, the organisers had given him a return air ticket.
The Nightmarkets (1986) is a longish, 300pp, verse novel. I’ve read it a few times since it came out, not because I like poetry, which I don’t, but because it feels so intensely familiar. Wearne writes, not of Melbourne, but of the suburbs he knows so well – Blackburn, Burwood, Brunswick, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, and these are my suburbs too. Blackburn South was an endless expanse of three and four bedroom boxes with red tile roofs when we were growing up. From our new house we could look across the apple orchards, long gone now, to Channel O on Springvale Rd, while the Wearnes lived in a slightly older part of the suburb near the shops on Canterbury Rd. I earned pocket money at Pentland’s newsagency and some freezing mornings would have to get on my bike to deliver their paper. Just this week Mum has moved to a retirement village only a couple of hundred yards up the road.
The novel covers the period 1965-1982, and centres on the state election campaign of 1982 won by the John Cain-led Labor party, presaging Bob Hawke’s federal election win the following year. The central character, the Alan Wearne figure, is Ian Metcalfe. His older brother Robert, who was jailed for two years at the end of the 60s as a draft resister, is a Labor candidate. We get the story partly from Ian and partly from other principal characters, over the course of 10 sections. For most of the period 1969-75 I was in Melbourne, in the inner suburbs, in the anti-war movement, and this all feels very personal.
Briefly, Ian’s ex-girlfriend Sue becomes the lover of an older, old-money type, federal MP, John McTaggart, with a property out Mt Macedon way, who wants to form a new political party (yes, like Don Chipp’s Democrats, or if you’re a real politics wonk, like Gordon Barton‘s Australia Party). Sue introduces Ian, who’s doing not much, to McTaggart who commissions him to check out a murder which might be political, at a South Melbourne brothel. Ian promptly falls in love with Terri, a prostitute. Meanwhile Robert works stolidly towards getting elected.
Wearne’s poetry is both vernacular and (loosely!) contained within formal structures of rhyme and rhythm. I was a maths/science student with next to no Eng.Lit. education so more than that I cannot say. The opening lines are typical (Ian, 1980):
With your chaotic indecision, visiting mother can be a problem:
‘Hi, Mum.’ ‘Hi Ian.’ If you glower, she’s anxious not to pile up the home truths
(you’re the touchy one). She’s careful and cares, hope you exercise, the job situation improves,
hopes you’re sleeping well, eating well. ‘For dinner, Ian, or just lobbing in?’
She uses your terms, smiling about it, maybe to tease you.
The introductory section sets the scene – Robert’s jailing, Ian discovering sex, the rise and fall of Gough:
I was still with Allison, working in a bookshop.
Its phone rang. My mother screeched, ‘Gough’s got the sack!’
and hung up. Stockbrokers sprawled saturated in bubbly. ‘That big bastard’s off my back,’
Into the Fraser years Ian smokes dope and puts out a poetry magazine, The Hummer. The section ends: “… But this far into my ranting is quite enough,/ Please meet my first lover, still my closest friend, Sue Dobson.”
Back from an ‘over-planned’ trip to England, Sue stays with Ian and Allison – “someone had been having fun – nice to know/ an old boyfriend had settled… Told them this./ She trumped: ‘Great to get along with Ian’s old fucks.’” After an affair with a lead guitarist, she works on The Hummer, then as a freelance, writes a newspaper profile on McTaggart, starts sleeping with him, is surprised as it develops into a relationship, takes him home to meet Dad, in Florizel St (Burwood). Ian and Allison part, Ian “opting for minimal loft living, presumed celibacy.”
Ian learns about Sue and McTaggart from Allison on Christmas eve, goes out to his brother’s for Christmas lunch “back in Blackburn, where everyone lived when we were young”, spends the rest of the day with the old gang from The Hummer at Sue’s. “She cornered me: Well, your turn to be warned. John wants to meet you.” The next morning McTaggart wakes Ian from his hangover, “’I’m shouting lunch at Lulus. Ever been? Expensive, yes, but certainly not stuffy; / you’d hate my club.’” He wants Ian to look into an upmarket brothel, Crystal Palace, where a prostitute has been murdered who might have been gathering dirt on her clientele –“medicine, the judiciary, even certain police, politicians …”
‘It is bizarre, I understand.’ You, I thought, you: want: me: to: but he
proposed a four-figure sum
(of a middling bracket), to get doubled when I returned with facts …
He starts meeting/paying for Terri during the day, tells her he’s a researcher. She calls him professor, or sometimes, darls. Can’t meet her ‘outside’, she has a boyfriend, Ross, who’s sort of a dealer.
We hear from Robert, on a road trip to a Labor conference in Adelaide, from Ian again and then Terri. The plot takes a holiday but the text, the poetry, carries you on, as we get deeper into the characters. Terri and Ross bump into Ian a couple of times in inner suburban pubs, then Ross away in Thailand, Ian persuades Terri to come home with him.
I know: getting involved with a client might give commonsense the shove,
was breaking that first parlour law. But, I thought, Terri, now’s
the time you’ve had enough of rules. Outside your job the only powers
that ought to be are yours. You like him and want him. What’s that prove?
Ross comes home. Crystal Palace is not as exclusive as it used to be. Terri thinks she’ll go with Ross, next time he goes away. Sue’s turn, she meets McTaggart’s ex, is told she has a predecessor, McTaggart’s PA, Veronica Lim. “Really? Another thing that everybody knew, I didn’t know?” She takes a break:
and wouldn’t I crawl the clichéd mile
of broken glass to view the leader and his shy if warm smile
swap for the grin of some sexist smarty:
‘Sue, haven’t I said we’ve affirmative action right through our party?’
Oh, shuddup: ‘That’s just an equal balance of pricks to cunts
for you. Huh? And don’t look so damn hurt.’
We hear from John: “Your photographer having sprained something, you arrived alone: smallish, your hair brushed back and held with a light thin scarf, a broadcast of fading freckles, a mouth that knew it could pout.” And from his mother, the usual landed ‘gentry’/private school back story. Ian wraps up. “It’s ending. Her Ross has returned. ‘My opponent’ goes too far,/ but my rival, anyway has returned.” Still, he sees her again.
In Blackburn, “through gravel-edged Myrtle Grove, Acacia Avenue. How quiet and private/ it seems going on back to my brother’s or mother’s”, the election rolls to its inevitable (happy) conclusion.
The subscript to the title reads ‘This book should become a classic of our literature’. It hasn’t and I don’t suppose it will, but it’s certainly one of my favourites, and I recommend it to all Melburnians (Sydneyites wouldn’t get it).
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986
Alan Wearne online (here)
SMH review, Peter Craven, 23 March, 2013 (here)
Pulping our Poetry, The Australian, 7 July, 2007 (here)