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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

February 15th

Sadly, I farewell my panellist and assistant, ZANE, who is off to the Big Smoke to further his acting career. THANK YOU, Zane, for your patient and professional approach. It has been a pleasure working with you. “Break a leg!”

Today’s program is all about HISTORY…Yes, my favourite topic [ not that you would have noticed.]

Book & Publishing News:

* Wasn’t FELICITY MARSHALL a great guest last week? I hope you’ve gone out and bought “The Star”.

* Speaking of illustrator’s of children’s books, I am reading the memoir by veteran artist Ron Brooks, “Dawn from the Heart”. More later, but you may know his superb “The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek’ and “The Fox’, two of his best among many. Wonderful reproductions of drafts of a lot of his work.

* The latest ALR from “The Australian” was rather ‘heavy’, I found. Who are the target audience? Rather academic, though a typically good article from Inga Clendinnen.

* The current “Australian Book Review” includes a very positive review by Deakin’s Maria Toklander of recent guest, Robyn Rowland’s latest, “Seasons of Doubt and Burning” which I thoroughly enjoyed. A poet for all of us.

* It could be my becoming jaded, but “The Monthly” looks a bit tired too: who really cares about the Windsors anymore? And Margaret Simons promise to show the approaching end of the Fairfax empire was an absolute fizzer [thankfully?]

* Did you read where huge volumes of Mark Twain’s diaries are being published? “The Oz” reviewer, Geordie Williamson, remarked that it is just as well Sam Clement’s didn’t rely on said journals to earn a dollar. A very boring read, said GW.

* Are you as underwhelmed by SBS’s “History of America” as I am? Don’t let an amazing story get in the road of very over-worked CGI these days. Where are you, Ken Burns [of “The Civil War” series and book fame]?

* A few months back I spoke enthusiastically of a book, “Chains”, by Laurie Halse Anderson. The second book of a trilogy set during the American Revolution/War of Independence is “Forge”, now in the shops. Not quite as powerful, told this time by the young African-American boy, Curzon. Still a good read, and a new window into that extraordinary period in the history of the USA

This Week’s Review: Books about History

SUSAN WEST: Bushranging NSW, 1860-1880.
ALAN FROST: Botany Bay – the Real Story.
DAVID UNAIPON: Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines.
ROD MOSS: The Hard Light of Day.
ROBERT KENNY: The Lamb Enters the Dreaming.
ALISON ALEXANDERE: Tasmania’s Convicts.
BILL BUNBURY: Timber for Gold.

West’s book on bushranging is,
1] limited to just the 20 years and
2] New South Wales,
But her approach lays the foundation for any study of this particular group of lawbreakers. Her approach is quite scholarly, which means she argues a careful case at each stage. There are useful footnotes and a good index. This is not so much for the casual lay reader though a look at the chapter headings will tell you whether you want to go further. It is very useful in outlining what some of the challenges were for the ‘mother colony’ as it learned to live as a self-governing state, where free men and women were building a nation. The chapter headings are informative: The bushrangers’ Self-image and motivation; Supporters and Class; the Cultural Milieu of the so-called Bushranger Class; Policing; Punishment. She draws from many examples, primary and secondary, official and ‘informal’. As I’ve mentioned before, a new history book should offer some revision and West does well to de-mythologise the outbreak of ‘social banditry’.

Fremantle Press have a justifiable reputation for uncovering interesting tales from our past; look at “A Fortunate Life” and “My Country”, pivotal publications for the re-birth of interest in the lives of “ordinary” Australians. Such personal histories have begun to change the ways we view ourselves. “Timber for Gold’ is a slim volume, companion to an ABC Radio talks program by the author/broadcaster. He tells us about the lives of the mostly-migrant men who cleared the timber for the mines of Coolgardie and districts. It is “socia” history: there are no “Great Men” or “Big Events” here, just people surviving in a desolate environment, doing backbreaking work. It is also then, in a sense, environmental history: only now is that semi-arid, lonely space growing back to what it was.

I spoke about Rod Moss’s book last year, but have only managed to read it of late. As I said then, it is a beautiful production from the Uni of Queensland Press, the memories of a white Australian painter’s life in a community of Aborigines who live on the Todd River, near Alice Springs [complete with excellent prints of some of Moss’s art work.] The sub-title is “an artist’s story of friendships in Arennte country” and so it is. A very sad lot of stories often because many of Rod’s male friends pass away during the time the book covers. [ You might look at this book alongside “”King Brown Country” and “Once Upon A Time In Papunya”, referred to earlier on “The Blurb”, and in the light of continuing discussion about “The Intervention” in NT and WA.]

Obviously Moss loves the country and its people, the desert and the Arernte I guess nowadays many Australians visit Aboriginal communities, but how many choose to reside amongst them? This book is full of compassion. Moss is not interested in making judgements, in spite of the “neglect, brutality and chaos’ of the lives of the people of Whitegate.

“Tasmania’s Convicts” is the newest book on that state’s convict era. Believe it or not, it has never been chronicled and/or analysed in a ‘popular’ style anything like the mainlands. Not least interesting is the author’s attempt throughout to show how the presence of so large a convict population has affected the emergence of a modern Tasmania. Perhaps “Port Arthur” – the Bryant Murders – has coloured our imagining of the island state, but wasn’t Port Arthur always a ‘spooky’ place to visit?..Standing there, looking out to Puer Island where hundreds of boy-convicts lived their lonely sentences, safe from the adult population, one could always feel it. And have you been to Sarah Island, near Macquarie Harbiourin the west? Say no more. “The “hated stain” affects more then the native Taswegian…And we haven’t even mentioned the colonial “removal” of most of the local Aborigines.

How Tasmania emerged out of “Van Diemen’s Land”, with its 72,000 convicts, into a free state by the late 1890s is a remarkable story which our author only touches on. Many of the transported ended up in Victoria; some became diggers, others government employees on the Ballarat goldfields…this is the best book I’ve read on convictism so far, probably because the author is saying something very new.

Penny Russel’s “ Manners in Colonial Australia” is something very different, certainly much lighter in tone. In its own way, it too addresses the question of whether there has developed an “Australian character” though the author’s thesis is not that singular. As she aptly describes for us, “The clash of class, sex or culture was intensely felt in the small encounters of everyday life” and so emerged patterns of behaviour for dealing with the various social situations. If “New South Wales” was to be a new country, what would be required of its citizenry if it were to remain “civil”?
Manners would have to matter: but what would they be? Russell’s methodology draws on the theories of a German sociologist, Norbert Elias, so she analyses a series of case studies drawn from various sectors in order to arrive at some “rules of civility”. Not surprisingly – because the “working” and lower classes are not so well represented in contemporary letters, newspaper articles, etc. – she tends to cite the upper echelons of society – the officials, the “free-born”, this leaves a rather large gap, it seems to me, a gap which Russell Ward way back in the 50s was able to mine through studying folk songs and such. However, an interesting book nonetheless.

Miegunyaph Press is a specialist ‘house’ within MUP, supported by the Grimwade Bequest, enabling the publication of important but less ‘popular’ historical studies. Two Melbourne academics have ‘rediscovered’ the work of David Unaipon and given it its due place in Aboriginal historiography. “Thiuslittle Gem” is worth reading for the Introduction alone: then you can seek out suitable “myths and legends” from the rest of the book to read to your grandchildren. The Introduction traces the remarkable story of how Unaipon collected stories from Victoria and NSW in the 20s, but they were effectively “stolen”, and only now have they been “repatriated’ to Unaipon’s authorship.

“The Lamb Enters the Dreaming” has been around for a while, having won for Robert Kenny the 2008 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. Here we have the story of a Victorian Aboriginal man, Nathaniel Pepper from the Wimmera, and his “ruptured world” – his encounters with European [Christian] ways and their effects on him. Kenny’s work is quite profound, but he brings a ‘lightness of touch’ to the study which opens it up for all. I haven’t yet come across any other work which about one of “our’ Indigenous men that goes into so much depth so fluently. It should be on school/university reading lists!

Now all that has been rather cursory, but I struggle to keep up with the reading. All of these books are easily available and are worthy of any well-read Australian’s home library.

Guest Interview: Margret Cooper

Everyone in Australia under the age of 40 knows Meredith as the venue for two of the country’s most popular music festivals, but the town and district have been alive and kicking for over 150 years. It is much more than a stopover en route to Ballarat, Meredith goes along very nicely on its own, thank you, and is becoming – along with Lethbridge, Bannockburn, Inverleigh - virtually dormitories for Geelong workers. Lest the lovely hamlet’s past be forgotten, our guest and a lot of local helpers has been putting together a series of publications which over the last decade have acknowledged the place, its buildings and – above all – its people. [A list of the publications will follow this piece.]

Originally from Ballan, Marg moved into the district when she and Geoff Cooper married. They live on Coopers’ Road, Bamgannie, on a mixed farming property which fronts the Leigh River, a few kms south-west of the Meredith Music Festival site.

It was the district’s sesquicentenary commemoration that alerted locals to the imminent demise of so many of the Old-timers from around the town. Marg and friends developed a series of calendars with superb photos of local identities. Sales were good and Marg herself began working on what eventually became two books, focussing on notable men and woman of Meredith. This must have been a painstaking job as the local records were a bit thin on the ground. Access was made to old newspapers from Stieiglitz and Meredith, as well as the oral history from the people themselves, family members and friends. Marg says one of the joys of this work has been meeting and talking with so many: There are hundreds of people around Geelong and Ballarat, who claim a connection with the region.

While various government arms have helped with the financing, it has been the hours of phone conversations and many daytrips that have enabled Marg to put the various books together. The photos are the cement that hold the text together: what did all these people and places mean to the little town as it battled droughts and bushfires, economic downturns, the effects of its young going off to wars? The books are a sobering as well as enjoyable read.
You can purchase the books directly from Marg, though we are hoping to organise some wider distribution: anyone any ideas?

It was great to have along someone so passionate about her community. Look out for NEXT year’s calendar, the working title of which is “The Loos of Meredith”…
Heritage Walk Booklet $ 10
Woodburn Revisited $ 25
Significant Women of Meredith $ 20
Memorable Men of Meredith $ 25
Alison Erwin: Poems $ 10
The Story of Meredith $ 25
Cemetery Guide $ 15

AVAILABLE FROM : Marg Cooper, Coopers Lane, Meredith 3333

This Weeks Poem: ‘Easter 1916’ by WB Yeats

Two weeks ago, Robyn Rowland mentioned her close affinity with Ireland, and her love of the poetry of WB YEATS. Today I read “Easter 1916”, his elegy on the events surrounding those awful days in Dublin.


Bernard played the Clancy Brothers singing “Foggy Dew”, the haunting ballad about the Rising [of which the best version Bernard heard is Sinead O’Connor’s.]

Next Week:

“The Blurb” will not be on air, but we will be back in March.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 8th

This Week’s Review: ‘The Diviner’s Tale’ by Bradford Morrow

I was somewhat surprised when The Oz’s Geordie Williamson highlighted this book last week, making it subject of his weekly review. I’d read it a month ago, scribbled my responses, and then forgot bout it…Maybe it needed another look?, methought. Geordie was all very serious, beginning with a discussion of ‘gothic’ literature at some length.

Anyway, I noted that my excitement metre started to tick about 40 pages into this book which had arrived unsolicited just after Christmas. I’d never heard of the author. My interest was whetted when I was somehow reminded of Annie Proulx’s stories and “The Shipping News” and then of David Guterson’s “Snow Falling On Cedars”, both ‘regional America’ tomes. Unfamiliar territory was opening up as I read on. I love it when a writer captures local ‘atmosphere’ [whatever that term means, really.]
Our first-person narrator is an interesting single mother [this, by a MALE writer], Cassie [as in Cassandra: NB!] who is a water diviner or ‘dowser’. Remember them from your childhood? Every country town boasted one, I think; I remember my dad telling me about Elaine’s. Cassie’s father confides that she is the first authentic diviner in a long line, but that is probably not true. The mystery around the gift is just one of this intriguing story’s driving threads. She has “The Gift”, but also – it seems – another type of ‘seeing’: “foresight”, seeing events before they happen, sadly including the death of her beloved brother years before.

She has grown up “ …in the boondocks of Corinth County”, the surviving child of a staunchly Christian mother and equally fervid rationalist father….leading a rustically bohemian existence on the edge of the small town where she grew up.. Her work as a part-time classics teacher is supplemented by reluctant field trips to divine for local farmers…..She is widely believed to be a witch….” [from G. Williamson, “The Australian”, Feb 5-6th,p.24f.] She is forever battling to keep her “foresight” skills under control, when as an adult she happens on the body of a young girl, hanging from a tree. Unfortunately for Cassie’s credibility, the body is nowhere to be seen when the police arrive. The mystery elements of the plot kick in from here on: another girl of the same age as her ‘vision’ is found hiding near the site. In the meantime, her childhood friendship/romance with the kindly local cop re-ignites – to help or to hinder? Amid this ‘gothic’ scenario, normal reality persists; there are no TV- or movie-style histrionics. Cassie is a fairly typical mum most of the time, balancing work, the care of her lovely boys – and walking with her father who is showing the symptoms of early Alzheimer’s.

The voice Morrow creates for Cassie is at times stilted, anachronistic even, which helps maintain the off-beat style of his novel. [I was reminded of William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner”, full and biblical allusions, of archaisms.]
In his review, Williamson usefully quotes the author, Morrow: “…Emerson was right when he said that every word was once a poem. Each word is so completely evolved, evolving, used, overused, that for a writer to assemble them in a way that is somehow innovative, audacious, fulfilling, suggestive, represents an enormously dynamic event.” What a great observation!

A very interesting book. Now, I do not as a rule read ‘fantasy’-genre books: I protest that I don’t have time…Perhaps somehow ”The Diviner’s Tale” is a tribute to Victorian gothic: remember John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”? That sort of book. Read it to find out.

SCORE: ***+
Bradford Morrow: The Diviner’s Tale, Corvus, pb, pp 311, rrp $ 39-95

Author Interview: Felicity Marshall author of “The Star”

This week Bernard spoke with acclaimed children’s author and illustrator FELICITY MARSHALL, published by our good friends at FORD STREET publishing.

Felicity’s latest book is “The Star”, a brilliantly illustrated ‘cautionary tale’ about Marion who falls for ‘fame’ which then ends up biting her. We agreed the book would suit 9/10-year-olds…though I think it would be quite at home on anyone’s book shelf because of the universality of its themes; the artwork alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.

We spoke briefly about Felicity’s childhood, growing up in rural Western Australia. The family included lots of journalists, Dad, and Aunt, etc – so it was perhaps inevitable that she would end up as some sort of storyteller; and the art of yarn-spinning is what links so much of country life, isn’t it?

Tertiary study in Fine Arts honed her drawing and painting skills. Felicity worked for a while in film, but soon found herself putting together pictures and stories which ended up as the substantial body of books she already has to her name. [ Google her name and you will find a feast of info, including an animated ‘taster’ of “The Star” made by her son, Leo, an up-and-coming film-maker.]

We spoke about some influences on her artistic development. Felicity constantly read lots of the traditional children’s books. Her taste in art is eclectic as is obvious from the variety of styles displayed in “The Star”: pencil drawing, gouache, oils. Of late she really appreciates the work of Portuguese painter, Paola Rega. Old favourites include classic American illustrator Norman Rockwell, and one of the more recent greats, Andrew Wyeth. It is in the detail, carefully worked over and refined, that Felicity sees the triumph of these artists.

I was intrigued by the processes of getting her pictures onto the page of the final book, and impressed to hear that one of my favourite pages of “The Star” began as a black-lead pencil drawing. Listeners may be interested to learn that the originals of much of Felicity’s work can be purchased. [Check the website.]

We chatted about the contemporary obsession with ‘reality’ TV shows, plastic fame, and the instant celebrity a la Big Brother, Hilton, Warne, etc. and agreed that it is all a bit alarming…especially when children can be heard to say that “To be famous’ is an aspiration.” Hence, Felicity’s timely book, for the forlorn Marion at the end of ”The Star”. what remains? Friends, hopefully.

Time prevented my hearing about Felicity’s newest project, but we will definitely have her back later in the year to hear about it.

Felicity Marshall’s: “The Star,” Ford Street , hb , rrp $26-95 [ Available direct from or your local book seller.]


-WORDS: I couldn’t help but ask you, listeners, whether you know the word ‘SHIBBOLETH?’ I will give a book to a listener who answers correctly before Feb 15th. Ditto if you know what ‘WIDDERSHINS’ means. Lovely word.
-And have you noticed that the term “Aborigines’ has been replaced in the press, etc. by “Indigenous”? Is this a positive step? Who decided?

February 1st

Book & Publishing News:

* Mention of the FILM “True Grit” last week – and Charles Portis’ excellent little book [1967] of that name – reminded me of a couple of other contemporary American writers in the “Western” vein: Larry McMurtry [“Lonesome Dove” and Duane series, the latter beginning with “The Last Picture Show”, Bogdonavich’s film of which featured Jeff Bridges in a minor role!]…Jim Harrison [“Legends of the Fall”, etc.], Cormac McCarthy [ “All The Pretty Horses},etc.]. Then there are the ‘travel’ writers such as Jonathan Raban [ “Old Glory”, a beautiful book about his journey on The Old Man River] and William Least Heat Moon [ “Blue Highways”, etc.]

* Les A. Murray ,superlative poet, will be in town next week Tuesday evening at Geelong Regional Library, and Thursday lunchtime at Queenscliff Uniting Church.

* University of Western Sydney’s mag “HEAT” is out this week, and will sadly be the last for a while. Such magazines have fostered numerous Australian writers of essays, poetry and fiction over many years, but are really under threat at present,: as the e-revolution takes hold?

* Melburnians are being spoiled by the offerings at The Wheeler Centre and Abbotsford Convent in the coming months. Lots of FREE events. Find details on the web [or in “The Age”.]

* A Brendan Ryan poem was published in “The Age” again recently. I want to talk to him soon about his Hibernian sojourn last year.

* Poet Robyn Rowlan is John’s guest today. Her newest publication is “Seasons Of Doubt And Burning” [ Five Islands Press] is available from Payton Books, our sponsor,.

* I met with Marg Cooper, Meredith historian, today and will be speaking with her in a fortnight about that lively community’s efforts to record the district’s past.

This Weeks Poem:

* Today’s poem will be FRANCIS THOMPSON’s 1893 classic “The Hound Of Heaven” which I referred to when reviewing “Notorious” last week. Thompson may now be regarded as a one-hit wonder, but his “Metaphysical” religious epic had considerable influence on a whole generation of British writers, not least Graham Greene.

This Weeks Review: “The Deeds Of My Father” by Paul David Pope

Do you recall your excitement when you read “The Godfather” back about 1963? We had never seen anything like it. Copies were passed around, even interstate [ in my case as my Geelong mate sent it to me in Western NSW!] Since then, we’ve been deluged by tales – true and apocryphal – about The Mob in all its computations, from “The Valachi Papers” to TV’s sundry “Underbelly” efforts […or HALF-efforts?] Today’s book is a stand-out, amidst the recent crop anyway – though the recent “Mafia Son” was darn’ good, too.

Listen to what JOE PISTONE [the real ‘Donny Brasco’] wrote: “The Popes became arguably the most successful Italian-American family ever to arrive on [America’s] shores….Generoso, amassing power in New York only few years after arriving in new land; and Gene, like Michael Corleone, the youngest son, the favoured one, finding an audience of millions [for “The National Enquirer”] in the grocery checkout aisle….an American saga.” The story itself is amazing. Sicilian peasant, Generoso, times his arrival in the Big Apple with the mushroom growth of that city – and ‘falls into’ the sand-and-concreting business. The author is his grandson, and he is an excellent reporter. Obviously they had to extemporize at times, particularly in regards to his grandfather’s Sicilian life. Throughout this excellent slice of American history, Pope continually sets events firmly in the historical and political context of 20th century, USA. And, of course, his ancestors were conscientious in developing suitable relationships with the relevant characters moving through that history. Never quite illegal, their machinations enabled them to stay just ahead of whatever financial or moral examen that might be in the offing.

The author never shrinks from the darker side of his grandfather’s [in particular because Gene is his main target] life, Gene was favoured well ahead of his older siblings which brought him rewards but also the lifelong wrath of his grandmother.
Meanwhile the financial cooperation of Gene’s actual godfather, gangster Frank Costello, was vital in his securing the struggling “Weekly Enquirer” [as it was then]. The family were fiercely anti-union, probably because this was an Italian response to the Irish/Catholic control of ‘industrial relations’ in New York through the operations of Tammany Hall. Late in the book, Paul provides a neat but devastating psycho-analysis of Gene who comes across as the classic passive-aggressive control freak, particularly after the birth of his Down Syndrome daughter. The grandfather had toyed with loyalty to Mussolini – as no doubt many Italian-Americans did, just as he cultivated politicians from either side, at local, state and federal levels. He was a shrewd operator.

Actually the whole second half of this very interesting book is about Gene and “The National Enquire”, America’s most successful tabloid, reaching its highest circulation with the edition which published…[wait for it!] a photo of Elvis in his coffin.
What is it about famous rich families – our Lowy’s, Murdoch’s, Packer’s? It’s all Greek tragedy up-dated, isn’t it?

SCORE: ****

Paul David Pope: The Deeds Of My Father, Scribe pb, 393 pp, rrp $39-95