A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

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, A Kindness Cup, first pub. 1974

see also Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)

Drylands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

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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.

 

Thea Astley, Drylands, Penguin, Melbourne, 1999

 

 

One of the Islands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

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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.

 

Thea Astley, Collected Stories, UQP, Brisbane, 1997

 

(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).