I’m still here

Journal: 096

Just when I thought I’d done enough long trips, and just as AWW Gen 5-SFF Week was getting under way, I was given a string of jobs which has kept me away from home two weeks to date with another week to go. Luckily, I had some posts ready, but though I had a break last Mon-Tue, and again this weekend, I haven’t done any writing and thought I had better explain my absence.

First, I took a couple of road rollers from Perth to a mine out from Laverton, north east of Kalgoorlie; the maiden outing for my new road train dolly. 1,300 km

From Laverton I ran empty to Cape Preston, on the north west coast, south of Karratha. 1,700 km

The reason for this was that a contract I had expected for January had fallen through and so I accepted a road train load from Cape Preston to Peak Downs in central Queensland, inland of Mackay. 6,000 km as the shorter, northabout route via the Northern Territory is closed until the bridges swept away at Fitzroy Crossing are replaced, initially with a low level ford in three or four months. And yes, there are only two made roads east-west across Australia.

A week or so in, in the night, crossing western NSW towards Cobar, the truck started to run slow and a check of the gauges showed I had no turbo boost. For a while I had a top speed of 80 kph until I discovered that by revving the engine really high the turbo could be persuaded to resume working. This problem persisted for a couple of days but is currently in remission.

However, I woke in the morning to a big pool of oil under the front of the truck. Crawling underneath I discovered that the dipstick tube had come away from the sump. I blocked the hole and put a couple of litres of oil in and drove the 200 km remaining to Cobar, the next town. I didn’t seem to be losing much oil, so I bought some more and turned north towards Bourke and on into Queensland.

The days were beginning to blur. I had left Kalgoorlie Tuesday morning and was due in Peak Downs during working hours on Saturday, which I thought could manage by doing 1,200 km a day.

I fuelled in Charleville in western Qld on Friday and was persuaded there by some resting Western Australian drivers to take the shorter dirt road from Tambo to Alpha – which they had just taken in the opposite direction – which I did Saturday morning. It was ok, not boggy, but very narrow and poorly signposted. Soon I was in Emerald and on the phone to my contact in Peak Downs. His directions to me were to go half an hour north to Capella, turn east 75 kms to Dysart and then come up the last short stretch to Peak Downs and I’d be there by lunchtime. Which I was, but Capella to Dysart is a mostly dirt farm track through a mountain range. Next time I’m going the long way!

Still, that was the load done and my money – supposedly COD – earned. The poor old truck desperately needed a service and repairs. There is a Volvo dealer at Mackay, but a phone call to my truck driver cousin in Toowoomba (a major regional city near Brisbane) got me a booking with his mechanic, so I used Sunday to run empty there. 1,000 km

Two days rest for me. A refreshed truck. A part load from Brisbane and here I am in Melbourne (via the inland route for road trains) 2,000 km.

I loaded one trailer Friday, spent a day at B4’s farm near Bendigo where mum was also, and tomorrow (Monday) I load the second and I’m heading for home. 4,000 km

Have you been doing the maths (well, arithmetic really)? That’s three weeks and 16,000 km – about the same distance as Melbourne – London.

On the real business of this blog, I was really pleased with the response to the Gen 5-SFF theme, though I had hoped to get a second author interview. She might still write. I hope I didn’t inadvertently write a question that offended her. I’ll write up the summary when I get home. Thank you all for taking part.

Meanwhile the family message service is running hot. Lou is back in Tennant Creek for another year. The last photo I saw was of him camping at Coober Pedy. Psyche is due for another round of treatment; and as I write, Gee’s bush block which featured in my last Journal post, is threatened, though not seriously at this stage, by bushfires. She and the kids are camping at a friend’s place in town, just in case. Time I was home.

Another Day in the Colony, Chelsea Watego

We here in Australia are finally reaching the stage where the terms of the discussion of Black-White relations are being set by Indigenous activists. And that is a good thing. For as long as the discussion was being dictated by white liberals and running along the lines of, “Oh you poor darlings, we understand, and we will allow you such and such” – and Labor governments, state and federal, are still trying this on – then we were/are getting nowhere.

Another Day in the Colony (2021) is a major step up in this discussion and as my first attempt to get you to read it was such an obvious failure, I am making a second.

Doctor Chelsea Watego is a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman born and raised on Yuggera country – Brisbane southern suburbs. Her father was a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander man, and a truck driver. Dr Watego by her own account messed up a bit during her last couple of years of high school, but went on to a degree and then a PhD in Indigenous Health.

Another Day in the Colony started out as “a hashtag I and other Blackfullas have used on Twitter to describe the types of colonial violence that Blackfullas are subjected to every day and everywhere in this place in real time.”

One of the reasons my first post was an exhortation rather than a review was that this book and those conversations on Twitter are not intended as educative for white “allies”, nor as a venue for liberals to carry on white-splaining, but as an opportunity for Black activists to reinforce each other with stories, and which I guess are out in the open so that we whites can (shut up and) listen.

When I speak of the uppercase Blacks, I speak of those who simultaneously recognise and refuse the racialised location we’ve been prescribed, as well as those who’ve been haunted by it. In writing for/to them, I have presumed a prior knowledge and a shared frame of reference… Parts of this book speak to a pain and a vulnerability that need not be fully paraded about this place, but which the Black reader no doubt will know and feel intimately.

Introduction

The book consists of six or eight pieces in which Watego uses her own life experience as an example. Growing up, in the 1980s, she discovers that ‘Aboriginals’ typically live in the desert, carry spears and eat witchetty grubs – I remember learning these things in the 1950s, but apparently even Watego’s daughter, so in 2010 say, was being taught these same ‘facts’. And of course she is attacked for not being black enough.

By and large, Watego doesn’t use the book to name names, but she did her degrees at University of Queensland and “worked there as Principal Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences… in 2019 she lodged a race and sex discrimination complaint against UQ and left the university for QUT” where she is Professor of Indigenous Health (wiki).

Her descriptions of how white academics, anthropologists especially, insist that they are the experts on Black culture; of Indigenous Health studies always beginning with the premise, “So, what is wrong with Aboriginal people?”; are to be expected, I suppose; but her treatment by the department that housed her in the “sandstone buildings of one of Australia’s elite universities” in an office two floors away from her fellows, and then refused her room at all to accommodate a prestigious research grant she had been awarded, is just plain shocking.

I don’t want to summarize this book for you, or even to draw conclusions from my reading of it. That is for each of you to do for yourselves. But I guess its theme is that ‘Australia’ is an ongoing colonial project from which we settlers continue to benefit: that white settlement of Aboriginal lands was and is violent; that ownership of the lands has never been resolved; and that, apart from the obvious violence inflicted on Blacks by police (and by racists), there is also the violence of white liberals overriding Black independence and sovereignty.

Within the current Indigenous social policy context of gap closing, the Aborigine is constructed as the problem; a problem that can be resolved statistically, through increased control and surveillance by the state. So, naturally, they need texts [from white academics] which simultaneously construct us as the problem and themselves as the solution.

As this is notionally a Lit.Blog, one chapter I will mention is on the representation of Indigenous people in Australian Lit., with particular reference to Larissa Behrendt’s critique of ‘the white damsel in danger from savages’ trope, Finding Eliza. Watego then goes on with a savage takedown of Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater, a critique which had been commissioned by Australian Feminist Law Journal but was eventually refused publication.

Another Day in the Colony is not easy reading. Your liberalism, your ally-ship will be challenged. Her use of ‘violence’ as a consequence of bureaucracy and academic reports is confronting. I, at least, stopped a number of times and thought ‘do they think that!’. And ‘they’ is the right word. We have a huge amount of work to do before there is an ‘us’.

Dr Watego does not show us settlers a way forward, that is not her job, but, importantly, she has taken the trouble to at least let us see where we are starting from.

.

Chelsea Watego, Another Day in the Colony, UQP, St Lucia, 2021. 250pp. Cover photograph from Michael Cook’s Broken Dreams series.

Postscript: I was thinking about this for an introduction but Dr Watego shamed me into not centering myself in what should be an important post. In short, the Holloways have been Hawthorn (AFL) supporters for 80 years. Earlier this year Cyril Ryoli, perhaps the club’s most loved player ever, announced that he would have nothing more to do with the club after his partner was shamed by club president and former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett. Then just recently, two other (unnamed) young Indigenous players told the ABC that they had variously been separated from family support, told to live apart from their partners, and one partner told to consider an abortion. Kennett of course said “nothing to see here.” After a lifetime, I no longer have a football club.

see also: SBS, 11 Oct. 2022- Professor Chelsea Watego loses racism case (here). The incident which led to the case is discussed in the book. Prof Watego says she was out late ‘celebrating’ when she was accosted by a white man. When the police arrived she was arrested while the man was allowed to leave.

Running away to the Circus

I’ve been reading Jess White’s essay on disability in KSP’s Haxby’s Circus, in the ALS journal. It’s years since I read Haxby’s Circus. I didn’t like it much and of course now I can’t say why. KSP’s initial inspiration for the novel was when she was helping her doctor brother out in northern Victoria and an injured circus performer was brought into the surgery. But it didn’t really take shape until she was married, living outside Perth and she was able to spend some weeks with Wirth’s Circus, travelling with them on their special train through the wheatbelt – up the Midland line to Geraldton, across to Mullewa and back down to the main east-west line at Northam, 100 km east of Perth.

I’ve never been on a circus train, or seen one that I could remember, but I have been in a circus convoy.


I already told you that at the beginning of 1972 the Young Bride and I drove up the east coast from Melbourne to Brisbane with Peter and Ruth and took a couple of rooms in a divided up old Queenslander in New Farm, a few km downriver from Brisbane CBD. YB and I were broke. I got a few days work laying turf along the new freeway and then followed up an ad in the paper to line up for a job with Ashton’s Circus.

Doug Ashton, then fiftyish, came along the line and picked out all the likely young men, including me. We were to work some days in Brisbane, I forget now where they were set up, and then set off on two or three weeks of one-nighters around south-west Queensland. For $25/week and keep. Keep being a bunk bed in a caravan and endless helpings of stew.

My first piece of luck was that I told Mr Ashton that I had my own van and that I was married. He said he would find something for YB to do AND we would get $37/week – between us. Once we got moving YB was made ‘governess’ and would go over to Doug’s daughter’s (Jan, I think) van and supervise the kids.

My second piece of luck was to be made electrician’s mate so that when the other labourers were flat out in the heat lugging the seating and scaffolding, my job would be to lay out the extension leads from the generator truck. Each night of course was the reverse, and I’d coil up all the leads and then wait till the others had finished and power down the generator. Usually we’d sleep where we were then take off in the morning for the next town.

The caravans didn’t usually run off the generator. At every new town a search party would go out, an unsecured power point would be found and that would run the whole encampment. Walking round the vans in the early morning in bare feet you’d feel the electricity crackling through the frost on the grass from every loose or damaged extension cord..

On the way into a new town we’d dress up in clown suits and walk in and around the trucks as they paraded down the main street with the animals in their cages and the three elephants standing free on their low-loader trailer. I’d grab some white gloves and a papier mache policeman’s helmet and direct the traffic.

At night the other guys would have sets to move and so on, but I would sit in a little booth watching the show and changing the music cassettes. The (real) clowns would come in to Elvis Presley’s It’s Now or Never and if you think I never want to hear that again you’re right.

YB had to wear a tutu and some feathers and as each new act entered she’d strike a pose – you know, one foot forward, arm raised. She was still bleeding a lot, so was constantly terrified, and in the end that was why we gave up and went back to Brisbane. Though the old van was making some pretty odd noises too.

I don’t remember most of the acts now, the elephants must have done something, and we had tigers for a while, and trapeze. The youngest of Doug Ashton’s daughters was a hefty girl and she’d galumph around the ring standing on a cart horse. We had an old strong man, who pulled his caravan with a hearse. He’d once had an act with the daughter where he hung upside down and the daughter would do tricks sitting on a swing he held in his teeth. But they had to give up when she made his nose bleed.

The tiger tamer, Jan’s husband I think, was a European and he was training pigs which were pretty clever, though I don’t think they impressed our farmer audiences. The only other performer I remember now was the oldest of YB’s pupils, 10 or 11, who was so flexible she could turn herself inside out so that her torso was between her legs and her head was way up her back.

After a week or so we went down the coast to Surfer’s Paradise. We had a big sandy block not far from the beach. One of the trucks got bogged and Abu, the oldest elephant, was hitched up to it to pull it out. Years later there was a court case in all the papers because one of the labourers had been annoying Abu and she stomped on him and killed him.

After we got the tent up we got a cyclone warning so we had to double up all our guys. Then we went down the beach and watched the palms bend flat in the wind and the surf eat away all the sand. The tent survived ok.

After a week or two doing towns in the hinterland and out past Warwick, we doubled back to Ipswich. And I’m pretty sure it was from there YB and I tossed it in and went back to New Farm, which we ended up taking over from Peter and Ruth. To raise the big top, you’d lay the two centre poles on the ground, spread the tent out over them, with the two steel-ringed openings lined up with the top of the poles; then I would lay out all the fairy lights, so that as we hauled the poles upright the lights would be hung, above the tent, between them.

This last time, I did something wrong, and when the tent came up the lights were lying along the canvas. Doug Ashton just looked at me and said “up you go.” So I shimmied up 60 feet of wooden pole, out through the ring at the top, walked along the peak of the tent between the poles, hooked up the lights where they should be. I could see across Ipswich, across the suburbs, to Brisbane CBD in the distance. And then I looked down, down that 60 feet of wooden pole. It was a long way.

But there were ropes all along its length, and I’m still here, so it must have gone ok.

.

Jessica White, Losing Sight of Billy: Moving Beyond the Specular in Haxby’s Circus, Australian Literary Studies journal, 23 may 2022 (here). It’s a special issue on disability, with lots of interesting essays, including one on deafness (list of essays)

The Letters of Rachel Henning, David Adams ed.

This month’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge is of a similar period to my last (Gertrude the Emigrant), the 1850s through to the 1870s, though the letters were in fact not collected and published until the 1950s and only after being severely pruned and polished. Which is what you might expect, but in fact the extent of David Adams’ editing was not largely understood until quite recently.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

Rachel Henning (1826-1914) came out to Australia, in the wake of her brother Biddulph and sisters Annie and Amy, for the first time in 1854. Torn between England and Australia, she eventually settled in Australia, writing regularly to her sisters, particularly Etta who remained in England, all the while.

Her letters were offered to the Bulletin by her family almost forty years after her death. Edited by Bulletin editor David Adams into a continuous narrative and illustrated by the Bulletin‘s most famous artist, Norman Lindsay, ‘The Letters’ when published in 1954, was an immediate and ongoing success. Read on …

Peter & Ruth

Chapter x in an ongoing story

Bromley was a liar, not mean or vicious but unable to tell a story without embellishment or invention. He was Peter’s roommate at College the year I was there, and with me, one of only four or five high school boys in a sea of privileged grammarians – Melbourne Grammar, Geelong Grammar, Trinity Grammar – the Premier’s nephews, scions of department store families, boys whose fathers were surgeons or lawyers or bankers or graziers, rich boys from Hong Kong and Malaysia, the brother of the boy who roomed with Prince Charles. One boy whose grandfather was a famous general had a car with the number plate ‘1’. Another boy had an XK 140 Jaguar. I had a pushbike. Bromley had a trumpet.

The College had a number of residential blocks of varying ages around a big grassy quadrangle. Ours was relatively modern and we freshers had our rooms on the bottom floor; pairs of boys, from different schools, with a small bedroom each and a shared study. Peter and Bromley, studying respectively electrical engineering and medicine, didn’t get on, probably after one too many of Bromley’s stories, or maybe the trumpet, and so divided their study in two. Crossways. Bromley got the door and Peter the window.

Bromley came from a large provincial town in the Western District, and I remember after one term break, him telling a long story about hitching a lift back to Melbourne in a Kenworth truck pulling a low loader, tacitly acknowledged as a lie, but important in that it indicates that he knew even back then that a story about trucking would impress me. Of course, I failed first year Engineering and for most of the following year a truck driver is what I was.

My best friend, RT, had the study across from mine, and he, like most of the boys, stayed in College for a second year, while I had a room in a terrace house nearby in North Melbourne. Then in third year we got a house together, first in Carlton – which the Premier’s sister bought for her daughters – and when we (I) didn’t get on with them, in the city, behind the Windsor Hotel.

Bromley by then was living in an old terrace house in the same block as the Royal Women’s Hospital, so only a hundred yards or so from the university, and sharing with Rob, a boy I knew from Engineering. Visiting them one day in August I met their new housemate, dropped out from a suburban high school, and persuaded her to come and live with me, which she did for the next five years.

That year, the year after the Moratorium, I’d lost my licence and had gone back to uni to do first year Arts – Maths, Philosophy, History & Philosophy of Science, and Arabic – mixing mostly with the guys from SDS. I’ve discussed before that the SDS women, although sound in socialist theory and the anti-war movement, had their own agenda in Women’s Lib.

During the year I had been an office boy in an engineering firm, then after the exams I started factory work, stacking sheet metal as it was cut into shapes to make tin cans. The Young Bride was working in a city office and we got our first car, a Commer van – a sort of ‘Kombi’, but made in England, and nearly as rusty as the one pictured above.

I was getting summons from the Federal police, at my parents’ address luckily, in relation to my being a draft resister, and was in imminent danger of spending the next two years in jail. Our plan was that come christmas we would spend a couple of weeks driving up the east coast, ending up in Brisbane, and out of the way of the police. Initially Rob was going to come with us but somehow, and I hadn’t seen much of him in the intervening years, that turned into Peter and his girlfriend Ruth, a nurse.

You know my priorities. I put my books in boxes in rows down one side of the van and laid a mattress on top. I drove and the others rotated between the bed and the passenger seat. We had a top speed not much over 40mph so it was a leisurely trip. We’d stop at all the beaches and swim. Ninety Mile Beach we had almost to ourselves and spent a lovely afternoon skinnydipping. A couple of passersby had to look studiously at their toes.

I don’t remember now how we got through Sydney; just stuck to Highway One, through the city and out over the bridge, I guess. At Byron Bay YB left our purse behind, with all of $25, so Peter had to finance us the rest of the way and into a couple of rooms in an old divided up house in New Farm, a couple of suburbs upriver from Brisbane CBD; and next door to the Valley, Brisbane’s hotspot of vice.

Peter and Ruth got the bedroom and YB and I got the couch. One morning Ruth woke us laughing. She dragged Peter out into our area and made him demonstrate what had her and soon us in stitches. Peter could raise and lower his testicles independently and make them dance.

YB and I got work with Ashtons Circus, touring south west Queensland – that’s another story, Melanie – and then when YB got ill and the van was close to dying, we went back to New Farm and did other jobs; took over the house; Peter went back to uni while Ruth stayed on for a while; I got a journalism cadetship, working 4.00pm to midnight. YB and I would spend all day walking around the Valley, or mixing with the other tenants in our house – a truck driver mate of mine, and a mate of his who lived with a couple of prostitutes; another young guy who had the back half with his mother.

Eventually I got my truck licence back and we moved, first to another house whose address my father gave to the police, and then up north. After a year, and the end of conscription with the election of the Whitlam Labor governement, YB was missing her family and we moved back to Victoria.

I saw Bromley for the last time three or four years later, in Ballarat hospital where he was an intern. YB and I had split up, I was unhappy, had taken a bottle of pills. Bromley laughed when I told him, saying I should have known 50 Mogadon was never going to do it.

Girl with a Monkey, Thea Astley

Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born in Brisbane, where she attended a Catholic girls school, got a BA at University of Queensland and studied to be a teacher. Let’s say that takes her to 1946. In 1948 she married and moved to Sydney, where she taught high school. Yet nearly all her fiction is set in coastal towns and cities north of Brisbane. Girl with a Monkey (1958), her first, is set entirely in Townsville.

I assume she, as does Elsie, her protagonist, spent a year or two teaching ‘up north’. The Oxford Companion says she “taught in schools in Queensland and NSW until 1967”, so that’s a start. It also says “Astley’s first novel appeared a decade before women writers began to make a large impact on Australian writing ..” I’m not sure where that leaves Prichard, Stead, Dark, Tennant, Cusack et al, nor for that matter Miles Franklin and Henry Handel Richardson.

I have other reference books but they have nothing to add and none of my seven Thea Astleys contains more than the briefest bio. So let’s guess that Astley, like Elsie, taught primary school for two terms in Townsville and then spent at least the remainder of the year (1947, “today I am twenty two”) in a three teacher school south of Gympie (around 100 miles north of Brisbane).

River gasped and sucked lazily at sugar barges somewhere behind the broad street and shops, river that curled tightly in through the mangroves and on out past its artificial breakwater limbs to the warm reef waters. Cootharinga, its ugly granite escarpments sharp with sun and shadow, threatened the sprawling acolyte at its foot. From the silent and empty footpaths haze curled up under the tin awnings, lifting with it some coolness from the day …

Townsville, well into the tropics, is of course hot – ranging from pleasantly warm in winter to hot, steamy and frequently wet in summer – and Astley captures that feeling well, with a flow of words demonstrating the attention she has given to Modernism, and her mastery of it. We none of us talk much about Patrick White, but he was a big influence on Astley and she appears to have sought both friendship and mentoring from him.

In his early years White was not much regarded. His third and fourth novels, An Aunt’s Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) were acclaimed in the US and UK but it was not until Voss (1957) that he was widely noticed at home. Presumably by then Astley was well into Girl with a Monkey whose origins most likely begin in her 1947 or 48 writing journal. I wonder if there is a literary biography.

To me, despite the location, it doesn’t feel a lot like Astley’s later works, but then I haven’t read them all. In fact the book it most reminds me of is Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). There is the rush of words, the same focus on one young person over one short period; but third person rather than first, and without the slanginess, in fact Elsie is superficially at least, rather proper; but a similar commitment to understanding the ambivalent feelings both Holden and Elsie have about sex.

What the novel does is take us through Elsie’s last day in Townsville, from waking in her hotel room – a passage really with doors at either end against which she has stacked her luggage, chairs to keep out inquisitive men in the night – through breakfast; a walk down to the railway station to buy a ticket on the late train south; visits in the suburbs to say goodbye, pickup her things; to her old school for her books; lunch with an ex boyfriend, Jon; an unwelcome encounter with her current boyfriend, Harry, who knows in his angry heart he too is ex; tea with a school teacher friend; a last minute rush to catch the train; to unsuccessfully evade Harry.

That’s it, just a novella, but full of thought and description; little jumps back to other significant days; mysteries that remain mysteries, her distance from ‘home’, a birthday telegram torn into scraps; her catholicism, fervent at school, now fading, but present still in her virginity, in her assessment of men, boyfriends only as potential husbands.

Jon admits “tearfully” to having once visited the brothel, but drunk and against his will. Elsie is bitter not at his visit but at his weakness, wishing –

That I could see you striding strongly to your damnation in the tiny cottages at Rising Sun. That you should have no one and nothing to blame for your sin. That you could achieve sin and contrition and penance entirely on your own.
She felt, as all women do even in the earliest years of puberty, a cold and fully developed maturity that frightened her.

Harry is stronger, but rough, a ditch digger, with nevertheless the implication that there is more to him – maybe like many working class men he never got the education he deserved. All the summaries start ‘Elsie was lonely …’ but that’s not right, she takes up with Harry because there’s no pretence, because she has held herself on a tight rein for years – you suspect she spent her university years living at home and going to Mass. As with Miles Franklin’s heroines before her, you can feel Elsie holding herself out then pulling back.

Harry’s strength of purpose, his potential for violence frightens her. In fact the suitcases against her hotel door are symbolic of her belief that the potential for violence in all men – perhaps not without reason – frightens her, but she is nevertheless determined to remain in control.

An excellent, thoughtful novel, both in its writing and in its probing of the author’s inner life as she, for a year or two anyway, begins to experience independent womanhood.

.

Thea Astley, Girl with a Monkey, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1958. 144pp.

Thank you to Sue (WG) for sending me her copy, hard to get now, but available from Allen & Unwin’s A&U House of Books print on demand division. I found the print quality perfectly readable, not too small (and at the other extreme, I dislike books with ‘YA’ typefaces) and if the margins were minimal then I’m not a marginalia-ist in any case.

See my AWW Gen 4 page and Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page for more reviews.

Snake Cradle, Roberta Sykes

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes (1943-2010) was a prominent Black activist in the seventies, and a poet with Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Acts published in 1979. Snake Cradle (1997) is the first volume of her 3 volume autobiography. My focus this week has been on women’s activism but of course Bobbi Sykes takes us also to another aspect of the Gen 4 period, Black Rights.

It is necessary at this point to make clear that although Sykes never met her father, nor got much information from her (white) mother, he was almost certainly an African-American serviceman passing through Townsville, where Sykes was born and grew up, during WWII.

Sykes implies a connection with Indigenous people, not least in the title of this book, and that caused her some trouble. She did not grow up within the Indigenous community as did for instance Mudrooroo, her contemporary, from the other side of the continent, and with similar ancestry, but there is no doubting she suffered from racial prejudice, nor her commitment to activism.

I should admit here I made a mistake. This being the first volume of Sykes’ autobiography it stops when she is 18, so we see nothing of her life as an activist in the 1960s and 70s which is what I was really interested in and which would have been most relevant to this generation of women. As a literary work it has almost no merit at all, which is not to say it is not plainly written and readable, but that it is just another kid’s life: this happened and then that happened.

You could say I have read and loved two memoirs of childhood recently, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Inseparables and Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row, and why is Syke’s childhood so white bread compared with those two. And I would have to say, good writing makes you think about more than just the events taking place. Perhaps it is as Murnane says, good writing makes you know the narrator.

Anyway, I will take you quickly through the events of Sykes’ life. They are not typical of what we read about growing up Black in Australia, but of course they were formative and still illustrate aspects of racism in Australia and Queensland. I could say ‘at that time’ but Queensland remains Queensland, and it is only 17 years since Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee died of tripping over a stair in the Palm Island police station after singing ‘Who let the Dogs Out’ while a police car was passing.

Syke’s mother was a white woman who for reasons of her own chose to be single mother with two daughters by a Black US serviceman, Roberta and Dellie, and one by a Chinese Australian greengrocer. It turns out late in the book that Roberta also has a much older brother who has no contact with them. Two older girls also live with them from time to time, Leila and Desma. Sykes is told they are both orphans though Leila’s father, a Finnish seaman, boarded from time to time in the house next door and would occasionally come over to do chores, or to take them for a drive.

Are we told her mother’s name? It’s Mrs Patterson, but let’s call her Mum, as Sykes does. Mum is compulsively secretive and hard working, taking in laundry to be washed by hand, and also when she’s short of money, boarders. She owns their small house on the outskirts of Townsville, an important port in north Queensland, and later buys and sells others. Queensland houses are typically up on stilts and if there were too many boarders Roberta or Mum or both would have to sleep out on the verandah or in a corner under the house.

Mum’s family are from Cairns, further north, but the one sister, Glad, she stays in touch with lives in Brisbane, 1,000 miles (1,600km) to the south – a day and two nights by the Sunlander train.

Roberta is accepted at a Catholic girls school and does well there. She, and later Dellie, are the only non-whites, and for long periods Roberta forgets that she is non-white, though she is often chased and taunted by state school kids on the way home. She is a small, skinny child, often ill and eventually missing a year of school with meningitis, her only consolation while at home a set of encyclopedias bought on time payment which she reads from end to end. To her chagrin, younger sister Dellie is introduced to bras before she is.

The nuns attempt to direct her down the ‘domestic’ stream, but Roberta is determined to be a doctor. The only compromise that can be reached is for her to do the domestic stream and the maths/science stream side by side, and in this, luckily, one of the teachers helps her out with early classes. But as soon as she turns 14, the senior nun makes an excuse and turns her out. As far as this book is concerned that is the end of her schooling, though I see that in 1983, so at age 40, Sykes received a PhD in Education from Harvard, the first black Australian to graduate from a United States university.

Roberta’s only contact with Indigenous children is at the Saturday afternoon movies, where she makes friends with some and returns with them to their home suburb, Garbutt. At various times she speaks with older Indigenous men and implies that they see her as belonging to the Snake totem, hence the book’s title, and her later problems with Indigenous colleagues.

The last quarter of the book is concerned with her moving to Brisbane, living first with Aunty Glad and then in rooming houses, working notably in the pineapple factory – we all grew up eating Golden Circle tinned pineapple – and going out dancing. After a midnight movie she is left stranded without transport, accepts a ride with some men, is taken to a farm on the outskirts and is beaten, raped and left for dead. For all the times that she is picked up by police and questioned does she have documents permitting her off the mission, this time a detective believes her and over the course of a year pursues the men involved and brings them to justice and long prison sentences.

Roberta returns to Townsville, is only slowly brought to realise she is pregnant, turns down two proposals of marriage, and so at 18 she is a single mother with a son.

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Roberta Sykes, Snake Cradle, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997. 330pp.

Another Day in the Colony, Chelsea Watego

It took me a while to realise that in teaching Indigenous anything I was meant to be teaching students to feel good about being a coloniser: that in my presence I was meant to be the site of absolution both for the institution and its students …

I was meant to teach them ways that they could save us, to redeem their unsettled self via sanctioning their continued control over our lives. I was meant to teach us as problems and them as solutions

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READ THIS BOOK!

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Chelsea Watego (Dr Chelsea Bond), Another Day in the Colony, UQP, St Lucia, 2021. 250pp. Cover photograph from Michael Cook’s Broken Dreams series.

Chelsea Watego is a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman born and raised on Yuggera country.

I subsequently posted a more detailed review (here)

Reaching Tin River, Thea Astley

AusReading Month 2021

Apparently I have read this before. Inside the back cover there’s a boarding pass Melbourne-Adelaide with my name on it and the date 03Jul16. Why the hell was I flying from Melbourne to Adelaide? And on the back of the pass there are notes, extracts and page no.s. Having got so close, I wish I’d gone on to write it up.

Checks back through blog… My posts for that week are Benang and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. My work diary is a little more informative. I’d been staying with mum. On Sat Jul 2 I swam 3km in the morning and had dinner with mum and B3 that evening (for B3’s upcoming 60th). Sun 3 is blank. Mon 4, Fly home. Go with Milly to see Psyche belly dancing. I give in, I must have flown home Sun night/Mon morning with a connection through Adel.

Reading now, bits are familiar, but not the overall story.

In the Comments after West Block – my ACT read for this month, as this is QLD – I finally began to get my head around the fact that AWW Gen 4 Week is coming up fast and I have given very little thought to the underlying theory. I said then that I thought Sara Dowse’s writing was based on/was an advance on the Modernism of, say, Eleanor Dark and that this would likely prove typical of Gen 4.

Reaching Tin River (1990) is a late Astley, written at the end of the Gen 4 period (1960-1990), so that the author has had the whole period, one in which Postmodernism was increasing in importance and influence, to develop her writing. It shows.

Astley’s earlier novels reflected most the Postcolonial aspect of Postmodernism, dealing with the legacy of white oppression of the Indigenous inhabitants of particularly her home state, Queensland. There are aspects of that here, but muted. The protagonist, Belle, grows up in and subsequently takes us on a journey through central Queensland. In that context she mentions the Hornet Bank Massacre* a number of times without taking it much further.

The novel is an exploration of Belle’s progress from childhood to her thirties, told in simple, almost diaryish style, in the first person. There are subsidiary themes running through – the unsatisfactoryness of marriage (for women); music, and in particular her dislike of the piano practice piece The Rustle of Spring; and Euclid’s rules of geometry – I get frustrated when arty people misuse maths, especially chaos theory, the uncertainty principle, and Schrödinger’s cat – Belle uses Euclid’s rules as similes for her attempts to locate her ‘centre’.

I am looking for a one-storey town
with trees
river
hills
and a population of under two thousand
one of whom must be called Gaden Lockyer

Or
Mother was a drummer in her own all-women group, a throbber of a lady with midlife zest and an off-centre smile

Or
I have decided to make a list of all the convent girls who learnt to play ‘The Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding between 1945 and 1960.

This is how the book begins, in fact it’s nearly the whole of the first page. I think I’m in for Astley in experimental mode, but she soon settles down. The plot is straightforward. Belle and her mother, Bonnie live on Bonnie’s parents’ farm ‘Perjury Plains’ near the (fictional) towns of Drenchings and Jericho Flats. Belle’s absent father, for whom she later goes looking, is a mediocre trumpet player and and US serviceman from the Korean War.

Belle on a school excursion learns of and subsequently becomes infatuated with turn of the century farmer politician Gaden Lockyer (ie. someone who is long dead).

She becomes first a teacher, then a librarian. Inexperienced sexually, she marries an older workmate given to mansplaining and is soon disillusioned.

Finally, she sets out on a road trip to discover Gaden Lockyer, to put herself in places where he has been and this crosses over (fairly successfully) into Magic Realism as he, Lockyer, becomes aware that a ghost from the future is haunting him.

There’s lots of other stuff and other characters. Bonnie, who was never an attentive mother, becomes more hippyish as she gets older. We learn pretty quickly to dislike Sebastian, the mansplaining husband. Belle’s father and Bonnie are never divorced but stay in remote contact on opposite sides of the world. We get to stay in some pretty shabby boarding houses – in fact I’m not sure Belle and I don’t walk to work together in the early 1970s when we both lived in New Farm boarding houses and walked across the Valley to the Courier Mail building – and end up in one that was once the nursing home where Lockyer saw out his final years.

An enjoyable book. Yet another Astley swipe at provincial Queensland (ie. all of it). And an interesting text for the influence of Postmodernism on Australian writing.

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Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River, Minerva, Melbourne, 1990. 222pp (cover painting by Faye Maxwell)

All our Thea Astley reviews are listed on Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)


*Hornet Bank Massacre: In October 1857 Rosa Praed was at a corroboree which presaged the massacre of seven members of the Fraser family, and one Black worker, on neighbouring Hornet Bank Station (map), in retaliation for the usual ‘dispersal’ of the traditional inhabitants and misuse of their women. Following the massacre, posses of white settlers, in which Murray-Prior [Praed’s father] was prominent, virtually wiped out all the local Yiman people.

Oldest son, William Fraser who had been away at the time of the massacre, returned and began murdering Black people – without hindrance from the police – at every opportunity, including two men exiting Rockhampton courthouse where they had just been acquitted. Astonishingly, Fraser is the model for Colin McKeith, the hero of [Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land] – extract from my review.

Hornet Bank is in the vicinity of Taroom, Qld about 470 km north-west of Brisbane (good cattle grazing country, though now subject to extensive fracking)

A recap of the Massacre story in The Queenslander, 15 Sep 1906 (here)

Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe (2018) deserves all the accolades that have been heaped on it. It’s a well written work, though not without its flaws, the story of a boy growing up surrounded by drugs and alcoholism and poverty in the working class outer suburbs of Brisbane; a fictionalising of his own life according to the author.

The style of the work is grunge, which I like, though the atmosphere is an uneasy mix of YA, druggy life and action adventure, with a very small amount of unlikely romance as icing on the cake.

In an interview a couple of years ago, Dalton said that he has been a journalist, for News Ltd – Murdoch owns all the newspapers in Brisbane – for 17 years, so maybe he was born in the early 1980s (Wiki doesn’t say). Eli, his protagonist, remembers as a twelve year old watching Dean Jones on TV in a (cricket) match against Pakistan, so that would be the One Day International series of 1992-3. By Pakistan’s visit for the 1995-96 Test series the NSW mafia had Dean Jones out of the side. So what do we make of the sentence (on p.4) which begins “Thirty-two years ago, in February 1953 ..”? That would put Eli’s birth year back a whole decade.

It certainly feels more like a 1980s story than a 1990s story, though I’m not up on the history of heroin in Australia, nor of Vietnamese involvement in its trade. Either way Dalton is too young to remember the end of the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland in 1987, the jailing of the Police Commissioner, and the rank and file police sabotaging any attempts at reform – well, he’d remember the last because they’re still at it. Though there is passing mention of police patronising illegal brothels, which is very 1980s.

Boy Swallows Universe is a novel unsure of its genre. Eli is 12 at the beginning, just starting high school, and at the end he’s 19 and employed at the Courier Mail (Brisbane’s only daily newspaper) as a cadet journalist. So that makes it a bildungsroman right? But the years in between barely exist and to be honest Eli at 19 and Eli at 12 don’t seem that different. They are both hard-swearing boys who cry in a crisis (and maybe wet themselves). And they both want the same woman, the twenty-something crime journalist Caitlyn Spies.

The writing is at times sublime – lyrical, hard, tough. Australian grunge.

I can see my brother, August, through the crack in the windscreen. He sits on our brown brick fence writing his life story in fluid cursive with his right forefinger, etching words into thin air.
Boy writes on air.
Boy writes on air the way my old neighbour Gene Crimmins says Mozart played piano. like every word was meant to arrive, parcel packed and shipped from a place beyond his own busy mind.

August, a year older, chooses not to speak. A silence dating from years before when their father, Robert, drove his car into a dam and left August and Eli to drown. August talks to Eli with ‘looks’, perfectly understood, and his moving finger.

Grunge is hard to define, but it involves don’t you think a life lived on the edge of society, drugs and poverty, described with the rhythms of Beat poetry or Rock’n’Roll. Eli’s mother and her partner, Lyle, in Lyle’s dead Polish immigrant parents’ house in Brisbane’s outer western industrial suburbs, deal and do drugs, heroin, sourced through local Vietnamese families. Eli is involved. Involved because he’s found their stash, “a five-hundred-gram brick of Golden Triangle heroin stowed in the mower catcher in our backyard shed”, involved because he thinks Lyle is not doing a good enough job and forces Lyle to take him with him, involved because he is desperate to rescue his mother, involved because he knows the Vietnamese, goes to school with their son.

But Eli is above. He’s a hero, not a grunge anti-hero. A lot of this novel is straight YA. Lyle is disappeared. The mother is jailed and falls into depression, something else to rescue her from. Eli and August must go to their father in another shabby house on the diagonally opposite side of Brisbane. And he must be rescued from alcoholism. And the ending is all Matthew Reilly (don’t ever read Matthew Reilly) unrealistic action adventure stunts as Eli and Caitlyn rescue Brisbane from a mass murderer.

And Caitlyn points her faulty camera at Iwan Krol’s face and clicks a blinding flash. The predator turns his head, momentarily stunned, still recalibrating his eyesight as the axe that is now in my hands takes an achingly long arcing journey towards his body.

Trent Dalton can write. Perhaps his next book, which I see is all over booksellers’ shelves, is not so bursting with all the ideas he bottled up while writing crap for Rupert Murdoch. I’m not sure I’ll buy it but I hope someone tries it, doesn’t like it, then passes it on again, which is how I got this one.

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Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2018. 471pp.

see also:
Kate W/booksaremyfavouriteandbest’s very enthusiastic review (here) and she has #2, All Our Shimmering Skies very near the top of her TBR.