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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
Roberta Sykes, Snake Cradle, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997. 330pp.
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 …
READ THIS BOOK!
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
This, to my great surprise, is a guest post from Lou. I didn’t know he was reading Australian fiction, let alone, as he says, Bush Lit. Now all my children have contributed a post.
Lou is a teacher, currently in the Northern Territory. Over the past 15 years he has taught mainly in the working class western suburbs of Melbourne, but also in London, Kenya (where the photo below was taken), Morocco and Malawi.
A Kindness Cup (1974) is set some time in the past in a small country town in Queensland and was “loosely” based by Astley on the massacre at The Leap in 1867.
Lead on, Lou …
I approached this text as a piece of Australian bush lit, as I approached a fresh posting in a rural town in Australia. Should I say ‘Country’? It seems a thing that might be capitalised, and asserted thus, here. A particular context of its own. It is conceptually a long way from anywhere I’ve been at home before. I am extensively familiar neither with the genre or the context. I came to both from a wary but willing second hand acquaintance. As an earnest, highminded and alien teacher, I felt prepared from the outset to take the part of protagonist, Dorahy.
In this story Dorahy, a schoolteacher, has encountered an act of racist brutality. The perpetrators of ‘the incident’ were exonerated and the teacher left town in disgust. This is prelude to a time, much later, when the leading lights of the town are inviting former denizens back to celebrate their success in making something to be proud of.
That Astley engages with race I understood entirely from theaustralianlegend. So I was surprised at how little a part the Black characters played. I recognise the impulse to shirk the challenge of characterisation- I am, as I say, much better prepared to describe the internal life of the white teacher from the city. I recognise the weight of responsibility such a task entails.
In a meeting last week I watched my team leader, a Black woman from a local mob with much the same experience and qualifications as myself, hedge around descriptions that specified race. We were discussing students with problems, or maybe problem students, and race arose as a factor for consideration (the school being 70% Aboriginal, including a mixture of local communities and displaced outsiders). Me being new, and the third teacher being very young, I expect that any particular language or opinion she wished to assert would have been accepted as her right, but she was clearly as careful and awkward as a white professor presenting a lecture on Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, white masks’.
Later in the week, the middle-aged-white-boy school principal, with long experience of working in very remote Aboriginal community schools, led us in consideration of the ‘school opinion survey’. He apologised a lot for the numbers, and launched repeatedly, unabashedly, into direct descriptions (perhaps intending wit, or displaying sympathy) of his experience of the differences between ‘middle class white boys’ and ‘our community kids’.
So Astley’s characters are not black, or brown. Indeed, their racial/cultural/language group origins are unremarked, while the Blacks are consistently identified by their ‘mob’ (conversely: my paternal grandmother, from a generation of Country similar to Astley, might not know the names of any Victorian first-nations, but she could sure as hell tell you who in whichever small town was Anglican, or Methodist, or Catholic). The characters are heartfelt and thickly outlined- the shortness of the text does not provide space for sophistry. Dorahy’s snaggly toothed middle-aged (“youngish” in his own memories) idealist is caught in classroom vignettes, while his bitter, worn-down old man is made clear mostly though his impression on those around him. One imagines Astley, like even the most sympathetic of her townsfolk, finds his long-fermented ardour for recognition a bit on the nose. Lunt, who is brutalised and mutilated in the affair, spends much of the text as a removed, saintly example of the victim. The horror of it lies in that he, too, is white.
Nor, mostly, are Astley’s characters women. It is men who have acted in the affair in question. The one female character who is drawn beyond a few words is Gracie Tilburn, a singer and former town darling. The women are barely active enough to be ‘damned whores or god’s police’, but Tilburn has the character of the former, while her considered regard (or otherwise) for the men about her signals their virtue. She likes ‘young’ Jenner (a good kid from Dorahy’s class, and a blandly successful man in the present day), but wakes up with the villain Buckminster, and derides his chubby thighs (alike to her own), and ushers him out the door with barely concealed loathing (for both self and other). Spoiler: As the text draws to a close she is asked to choose between the (“fat, shapeless, and unheroic to look at”) town hack, Boyd, who (showing “virtue.. in his face or his smile”) has been amoral, except in the end), and the unredeemed, (also unattractive) mass of the status quo (including Buckminster of the unfortunate encounter). I was engaged sufficiently at this point to hope the hack’s smile was virtuous enough to invite a happy ending.
As the arbiter of what is good, Teacher Dorahy is, I assume, an acolyte of Arnold (I’ll let theaustralianlegend check the dates [Headmaster of Rugby 1828-41] ). His mission to enlighten the savage Country-men comes with a book and a burning cane (although he is light on the cane- he shows his disdain for young Buckminster after ‘the incident’ not by whipping him harder, but by declining to whip him at all). His wisdom is punctuated with Greek and Latin (presumably from vitally important texts, “the best of all that has been thought and done by mankind [north of the Mediterranean]”, which I’ll get around to once I’ve mastered the canon of Australian bush literature). The townsfolk show their substance in a hierarchy of economic satisfaction- from the comfortably established, to unlucky (or incompetent) Lunt who can’t find a farm with water, to the poor Blacks. They show their virtue in a willingness to offer charity to those lower on this scale. The best of them do not blame the Blacks for their collectively pitiable condition, nor do they root the Black women (the topic arises several times, and is met with shame or disgust depending on circumstances).
But, perhaps this is not sufficient to judge Astley’s morality. From a distance, the trio of Dorahy, Boyd and Lunt might represent the intelligentsia, the media and the common man. Dorahy speaks of morality, but his manifest actions are only in speaking. Boyd, while afraid to rock the boat, has actively done good (taking in the orphan of the incident), and tries to end his career (albeit with little to lose) on a moral note. Lunt is the victim, but he is also a battler clearly written for greatest sympathy. His character is clearest when, invited to take part in the mob, he declines:
“You’ll warn them?” [he is asked]
“I’ll do whatever I think proper.”
“You’ll regret this,” Buckmaster threatened.
“No. You don’t understand,” Lunt said. “You never regret obeying conscience.”
Lunt indeed suffers for his moral choices, and still manages goodwill – righteous vengeance is never his agenda. Perhaps bush lit writers, like school teachers, sit somewhere between the press and the intelligentsia, and this is an exhortation to yet another lumpen ‘other’ to be better (under our hand). Far from being the ‘common man’, Lunt is exceptional, and perhaps the most unlikely, among a slate of characters that are almost caricatures of the familiar.
Indeed, from the awkward sympathy for the subaltern, to the burning of the free press, this town seems familiar in everything but its buggies and traps. Astley captures the tension between those who would celebrate the past and those who would flay it bare. Her conclusion is a simile for the times as bitter and unleavened as anything by Orwell. Our times or hers, or those of the setting, seems to make little difference.
But to read with the righteous anger of Dorahy is only to find part of the truth. I take it as worthwhile reading, but I also see in the constituency of the Country (and I do not mean Australia, but as defined above) much to redeem it. The problems characterised by the incident are real and ongoing: manifest in my class and my colleagues today, but I meet any number of people trying expressly to find their way through. Many of them are Black. Perhaps a hundred years is just too little time.
A Kindness Cup is a passionate and valuable narrative depiction of an Anglo struggle. It is not the whole story, but a fragment. I had expected Australian bush lit to be a foray into something as distant as green Mars, and instead found myself engaged in one of the most vital discussions of our times.
Thea Astley (1925-2004) was one of Australia’s finest and fiercest writers. We can argue at another time whether she belongs in AWW Gen 3 (1919-1960) or Gen 4 (probably the latter). A Queenslander, her concerns were Queensland’s shocking history of Aboriginal oppression and murders, and women’s rights – in this book, the antediluvian attitude of rural Queensland men to their wives.
Astley never actually lived in central Queensland though she seems to know it pretty well. She grew up in Brisabane, lived for a while in the far north, and she surely knows that long train ride up and down the Queensland coast which appears in this and some other of her books.
Drylands, the small dying town hours west of Rockhampton, which is her nominal subject here, is based on Springsure, an hour south of Emerald (which she calls Red Plains). Years ago when I was road training Melbourne – Townsville, I would cross the NSW-Qld border from Bourke and run up through Roma, Injune, Carnarvon Gorge, Rolleston, Springsure, Emerald and on to Charters Towers (map). Good country, heavily treed through the Carnarvon Gorge, but achingly dry as Astley describes it.
I was through there again last year and I’m not sure that Springsure is as small or as near death as the fictional Drylands, but that’s poetic licence. To make sure we know where she’s talking about she mentions the Madonna on the mount (Virgin Rock) – which, like shapes in clouds, is a bit hard to pick out – and the proximity to Carnarvon Gorge.
No more geography. Drylands (1999) was Astley’s last novel and the fourth of her Miles Franklin winners. For the first couple of chapters I thought she was struggling. She starts with the fictional writer writing this work, the go-to cliche of tired postmodernism,
Thinks: I could begin onceupona or manyyearsago or inadistantcountry. It’s been done. I don’t like it. Or a spot of Calvino clutter – no matter how meticulously brilliant – as if some gabmouth has found a defenceless alienist and vacant couch and is determined, the nerd, to fill the poor bastard in on every nuance of landscape, movement, his reactions thereto …
then more or less flings random words at the page before finally settling into some sort of rhythm. The novel proceeds as a series of interconnected stories featuring Janet typing away upstairs from her dying newsagency; not-Franzi Massig, a whistleblower from the south, forced to adopt another man’s name, who squats in a shack by the creek on the land of failing farmer …; Jim Randler who, memories vivid of his one trip to the coast as a boy, decides to build himself a yacht he can live in; Clem and Joss who own the pub, the Legless Lizard, failing despite determined drinkers fed a constant diet of beer and sports; Paddy Locke, the one woman intellectual centre of the town, and sole occupant of the ladies lounge; Benny Shoforth her determinedly peaceful neighbour who has his house resumed by the mayor …; Howie Briceland whose father had taken the opportunity of his wife’s taking the kids for a holiday to rape the 12 year old Aboriginal maid, before packing her off to a reservation where she had and was promptly separated from her baby … Benny. And so it goes round and round.
There are other women who appear for just one chapter and are harassed and assaulted by men. Eve, contracted by the government to take writing classes to women in the bush, attracts a stalker; Ro, one of the four women in the class, whose farmer husband regards getting his own lunch out of the fridge as a threat to his manhood, and belts Ro in front of the other women to make his point; Lannie, saddled with a husband who needs his ‘quiet time’ and six footballer sons, who walks out, gets committed, and quite enjoys the peace; Joss, co-owner of the pub, who gets chased out of town by two men, who pursue her to the coast when she finds work there.
Drylands is a severely dysfunctional and dying town. I’m sure Astley intends it as a microcosm of all that is wrong with rural Queensland (although she fails to mention widespread illegal land clearing and water theft). What I suspect is that it is also a ‘microcosm’ of a bigger book. That she was too ambitious in what, at 70 years of age, she set out to do. And so we are left with an unsatisfactory framing device; characters who flit in and out with very little meat on their bones; a minimal plot – people get old, or tired, or worn down, and leave or die, Queensland men are bastards, the town dies.
Shabbiness defeated her. The shop. The Town. The empty street outside in the brightening late morning. And in addition the meaningless quality of her years. The victory would be in leaving.
Astley is a better writer than this. Perhaps her MF in this year was a consolation for her missing out three years earlier with The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow. I check what else was shortlisted and see that Drylands was in fact equal winner with Kim Scott’s Benang. I am gobsmacked. The MF judges’ capacity for timid decisions knows no bounds.
Early in 1972 the Young Bride and I were in Brisbane after a trip up the east coast with friends in our old Commer van (a pommy Kombi) and we got jobs with Ashtons Circus. I was electrician’s mate and she looked after some Ashton kids during the day and each night ushered in acts in a tutu and a feather. Which is not germane at all, except that four or five years later, after we had broken up, I spent three weeks providing the transport for a Split Enz tour of regional eastern Australia, and of course the two experiences were very similar – waiting off stage for the act(s) to end, then quickly packing up and that night or first thing next morning moving on to the next town.
I haven’t been reading much, or listening to anything interesting, so last night I thought I would read a story from Astley’s Collected Stories (1997) and write it up, as a preliminary for Lisa’s coming ANZLL Thea Astley Week. The volume, substantial at 340pp, is broken into four parts:
1. Stories 1959-76;
2. From Hunting the Wild Pineapple (1979), her first and only other collected short stories;
3. From It’s raining in Mango (1987), one of her later novels;
4. Stories 1981-89.
The stories seem to be all quite short, 5-20pp, and I thought I might read a couple from Part 1 then find one to review from Part 4. But the second story I read, in Part 1, pulled me up short and I want to discuss it. The first story I read was Beachmaster about a very old hippy who insists on, finds happiness in playing the drums and singing scat, badly. The narrator is a young man in a band, as is the narrator in the following story, One of the Islands. Astley went to uni around 1944, became a teacher and then a lecturer, but perhaps she had a secret hankering to be a pop star, though by the 60s when these stories are set she was approaching responsible middle age.
A clever young man drops out of school to become a guitarist, forms a band – and I remember those bands from local dances and school socials: two guitarists, a sax, drums and maybe piano or piano accordion.
So there I was two hundred miles further north, lead guitar for the Overtones and sleeping on the beach between engagements…
The Overtones became quite a hit for that part of the world … and we strummed and blew our way into the heat until we had played every tinpot dance hall up the coast and as far back as the Isa [Mt Isa in far north west Queensland].
Now, one of the reasons I don’t like short stories, is the guy-telling-a-yarn style that many is it only Australians? adopt, and which you can see in the extracts above, and which as far as I remember is not the style of Astley’s novels.
But to get to the nitty gritty
It was in the coastal towns that we first struck the groupies, teenyboppers below the age of dissent with twitching mini skirts over jiggling bottoms …
… oh, I had my share of the girls. It just went on and on. Some of them followed us right through to the ‘Curry [Cloncurry, near Mt Isa], about five of them. I don’t know how they lived – food and things.
One of them, not named, is keen on the narrator
She was frail looking and quite pretty from the waist up, with a shyness I couldn’t associate with her shrieking buddies. but she had these terrible thick legs. I mean really. Like some sort of deformity.
She asks if she can be his girl, but he says nothing, just “Come on. Let’s get you home”. The next night she comes round to the room where the band are packing up to leave. The other guys seize on her, and as the narrator walks out, heading for ‘one of the islands”, she is being raped.
That’s it. That’s the story. I was shocked last night. I’m shocked this morning retelling it. Yes, there were groupies around the Split Enz tour. Girls, too young to be young women, taking drugs, giving away their bodies, make me sad. Not because I don’t like sex, but because it strikes me as self-degredation.
But Astley ends not with sex, but with rape. I can’t imagine what she was trying to say, let alone why she would choose in 1997 to have the story reprinted.
(For those of you left hanging after my last post my Covid-19 test was returned ‘negative’, but Milly won’t go out to dinner with me anyway, though she might come round for a while tomorrow and talk to me through the screen door).