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Sunday, April 3, 2011

March 8th

Book & Publishing News:

* Happy International Women’s Day…not that I am practising affirmative action here…except to welcome EMMA to assist me in production…And she’ll be doing some reviewing later too, we hope.

* February’s ALR was less ‘academic’ this time…More reviews [ including one by the author of “The Colony” which I spoke about a fortnight ago, I think] and essays that might reach readers of “The Oz” at their level.

* The March edition of “The Monthly” includes a long essay by the redoubtable Robert Manne on Julian Assange, BEFORE the recent releases. Young Julian is definitely politically – New Age anarchist? - motivated and has been since his youth.
There is also a review by aspiring political leader MALCOLM TURNBULL…

* One of today’s books, “That Deadman Dance”, has just been named Best Novel 2010 by the PACIFIC Region Commonwealth Writers’ Board.

* “The Bush Orphanage” by last week’s guest JOHN HAWKINS is available at all our regional small bookshops, and in the Library, of course

* I use the library’s excellent DVD collection for my films and we finally saw “Patriot Game” last week. an action film closely based on TOM CLANCY’s bestseller of 20 years ago. The setting is the final days of the fracturing of the IRA and the rise of Sinn Fein as a valid political entity…Quite interesting. The title surely comes from writer Brendan Behan’s folk song from the late 60s: Behan was notorious for his “Borstal Boy” which could only be published in our fair and just isle in about 1970 by converting the numerous F*** bombs to “fugh” and its variants. Nowadays even the ‘midday movies’ are full of four-letter expletives. Are we a better society for that?

* Book-Into-Film No. 27 or so. As a young fella, I hadn’t read a serious novel until “The Power and the Glory” [GRAHAM GREENE] and “The Return of the Native” [THOMAS HARDY] – which were set texts for Matric [sic] English [sic] Literature. Inspired perhaps, I also read SLAVOMIR RAWICZ’s “The Long Walk”
and “ Seven Years In Tibet” by HEINRICH HARRER. In spite of my being a good little right winger, I had never read anything about Stalinism till then. Soon after, came ARTHUR KOESTLER’s “Darkness At Noon” and the SOLZHENITYN oevre….Anyway this is all by way of saying I saw “The Way Back” last week, PETER WEIR’s epic based on the Ramicz book. Was “The Long Walk” authentic? The journey and the hardships stretched belief, but human endurance saw men survive the Burma railway, of which the definitive account for me is IAN DENYS PEEK”s 2003 book, “One Fourteenth Part Of An Elephant”.

- The next Poetry and Conversation- APRIL 10th
- An Afternoon with Henry Lawson- March 19th at Woodbin Theatre

* Queescliff’s Mystery Bookshop in Hesse Street has a new proprietor in JOAN CANTY. We wish her well in her endeavour. A great little shop.

This Weeks Reviews:

“That Deadman Dance”, by Kim Scott

Listeners will know that I recently looked through some little history books about the Meredith district. My attention was caught by the merest mention in one of them, that the existing oval had been the favoured gathering place of a local clan of the Wauthorung nation. The site which is still a sort of central location for the town’s events was especially blessed because it was covered by native forest! The mention was from the early 1840s…then came sporadic European settlement, followed by the gold “rushes’ [as Geoffrey Blainey insists on calling the events of the 1850s,quite correctly, I feel.] Local Indigenous people disappeared very swiftly. “THEIR ghosts may be heard” too, perhaps, if we listen really carefully….

Anyway, today’s author is a NOONGAR, an Indigenous man from the South West corner of Western Australia. He acknowledges having read Tiffany Shellam’s wonderful “Shaking Hands On The Fringe” in preparing his novel, so it is no surprise for his story to be, by and large, a positive one. Central to it is a character known as Booby Wabalanginy who survives the first white arrivals, and remains a local identity throughout the 19th century. It is really Bobby’s story. The first encounters between local and the invaders were apparently not only non-violent but downright peaceful and laced with a spirit of co-operation and mutual support.
Because Bobby sees everything from the very first moments the sailing ships arrive, we too become privy to an ‘ordinary observer’s point of view, while being introduced to a lively cast of minor characters. He is no naïve bystander: he quickly becomes a fluent English speaker and a friend of the children of the leading member of the settler group, a relationship which has a tragic finale because this was no paradise after all.

I thought of some of the earlier classic works, which have attempted to imagine the encounters between the First Australians and the Europeans. Not in any order: Xavier Herbert’s “Capricornia” and “Poor Fella My Country”, KS Pritchard’s “Coonardoo”, Randolph Stow’s “To The Islands”, Nene Gare’s “The Fringe Dwellers” and more recently, Alexis Wright’s highly original “Carpentaria.” To the usual elements of colonial encounter – convictism, ham-fisted would-be-humanitarian British administrators, “settlers”, pastoralists, warriors, sheep – add Indigenous leaders and whalers, such an important part of the early European adventure in the “Swan colony”.
Perhaps the plot arrangement somehow resembles the ‘songlines’ of Aboriginal mythology [which is what Wright seems to be up to with her novel about the North]
Woven amongst the various episode from Bobby’s life are references to the dichotomy between the littoral colony and what was going on “beyond the fringe”; asides about animal and plant husbandry; whaling experiences – all told with Scott’s inimitably exquisite language, poetic yet earthy. Bobby himself behaves as some sort of ambassador, at least in the better early days when the Europeans want to learn from the locals – before the redundant whalers are forced to become land-lubbers and bring cruelty and exploitation with them. Bobby must also go through initiation and once a man of his people, pressures to hold the rapid expansion of the whites onto Aboriginal hunting land increase. He must make choices.

There are other interesting characters. This is a novel on a grand scale – though it never becomes sprawling due to Scott’s economical use of language. The escaped convict, Jak Tar, loves the new land for the freedom it offers, and for a time the security of his love relationship with a Noongar woman, Binyan. His immersion in the land and a new culture are beautifully depicted. There is, of course, pain, brutality, betrayal, misunderstanding, but they are represented realistically, and with surprising objectivity. One of the sharpest-drawn characters is the entrepreneurial Chane who dares all, but suffers great loss. He is a true humanist, engaging with the Noongar on their terms while trying to remain an Englishman of culture. This is – as Alex Miller has commented – both a “beautiful and a heart-rending book”. It succeeds because the novelist has empathy for both sides in the restless encounters. By the end, the days of whaling are over; there are the beginnings of a thriving agricultural and pastoral industry built on sheep. Small communities are becoming towns from which cities such as Perth will emerge.
This is an excellent addition to an existing collection of fine writing about the early days of European “settlement”, in a region which will be fairly new to most readers. It can only help us to look again at the realistic plight of the peoples who were displaced.
SCORE: ****+
KIM SCOTT: “That Deadman Dance”, Picador pb, 2010, pp 398,rrp $32-99.

“The Victorians” by A N WILSON

Does anyone remember and care about the “culture wars” of the 90s? One of its saddest side effects was demonising of that great Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey who somehow was claimed for the Neo-Con corner by people like the rascally Keith Windshuttle. Here in Australia it became a tug of war over Indigenous fatality statistics in colonial times and since. Meanwhile the controversy did nothing to harm the political rise of Hanson and her all-but apologist, Howard. What can be a more interesting debate might come from asking: what really are OUR myths?....traditions?...certainties from our brief past? It’s good to see some of our military historians re-examining Gallipoli and other WWI events. [I will look at a new book “Pozieres”, in coming weeks as well as one on Gallipoli specifically, this time by a British academic from the Imperial War Museum.] I discussed briefly a few weeks back the lively “Zombie Myths Of Australian Military History”, a best-selling paperback out at the moment. There is nothing like thorough revision in history.
…And that is what A N Wilson [famous for excellent earlier books, “Jesus” “Paul”, “The Jews”] has done with a recent book looking at the second half of the 19th century. There are some “Great Figures of History” in this book, but Wilson challenges the status of many of them and questions there effectives and/or influence for good which is what made it an enthralling read for me. I managed to read it during a very distracting week beach-side at Manly a fortnight ago.
Perhaps some would call Wilson a Left-wing historian; he certainly tends to approach events from a Marxian analytical perspective [yes, especially when he’s discussing religion, in the earlier books mentioned.] That is his framework, not his political philosophy.
One is not far into his book until one realises [again] just how much of who we [still?] are derived not just from Britain, but from Victorian times specifically. So it is no surprise to recall that until ANU’s was established in, I think, about 1970 that there was no chair of Australian History in any of our universities. Remember your secondary school history courses? In my student days, there was a section on the British History Matric exam which looked at Australia [ well, on the Wars, the Depression…] So it was with joy that I saw Wilson challenging so many of the assumptions we all entertain about those Victorian times. Queen Victoria suffers at his hands: she is revealed as a peevish little haradan whose only good ideas came from her short-lived husband. She was certainly no absolute monarch. Probably not her fault, but many of the “reforms” of the era don’t stand up to scrutiny [eg Poor Law, Factory, etc.] To mention one in particular, though the 1830s produced Wilberforce and “the end of the slave trade”, the actual business still underpinned the business interests of many British MPs through to the 1890s [when the generation of slaves in the West Indies, died out.] There was no emancipation as such.
Our education system still really follows the model that emerged out of the British “public schools”, immortalised in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” – and wonderfully satirised by Dickens in his “Nicholas Nickleby”. Wilson argues that British schooling was always intended to maintain a rigid class system [ and until the current mess surrounding funding currently fermenting is properly sorted, some of these elements surely remain here in Godzone.]

With his judicious mix of events and people, Wilson never becomes boring throughout 800 pages [with good photos, bibliography and index.] Readers are forced to look again, for example, at Ireland’s “Great Famine” of the 1840s which sent many of our ancestors to the colonies that became Australia. The often cavalier attitudes and overt racism that was behind so much Imperial policy towards Ireland still rankles in some of us! And the second half of the 19th century saw the height of the British Raj in India, “the jewel in the crown”. Wilson talks about what has been called: The Indian Mutiny” [ cf Andrew Ward’s “Our Bones Are Scattered” for a full treatment of India 1857. ] They were awful events, none more than the retribution the British visited on any suspects. Wilson suggests there was no mere “mutiny”, but a mismanaged revolution – which would be another century in the making.
Earlier, of course, there was that tragic farce, the Crimean War: thousands of British soldiers died of cholera before a shot was fired. Tennyson’s celebrated “Charge Of The Light Brigade” was a disaster overseen by incompetent fools. It would take, however, a ”Great War” before the British Army finally reformed itself
from its nepotism and gerontocracy.

The title of this worthy book is telling for it is finally a story of PEOPLE. From Tennyson to Disraeli, the Prince Consort to the Rosettis, Wilson reminds us that the Victiorian Age was the first time permanent records of any great scope became available to the historical researcher: there are so many documents of every size and from every source. There are newspapers, magazines, diaries, court records, government minutes…
This is history for the lay person: fluent, accessible, amusing, concise – for all its length. I found it a leisurely read which cannot be said, alas, for a lot of histories – though I would suggest we are getting better at it [even if we don’t have a lot of Macaulays around these days.] In closing, let me note a reference by Wilson to someone who claimed that there in those days a “favoured 10,000”. “Within this group, all the decision-makers could be found: the Royal Family and a vast aristocracy, church leaders, key academics, famous writers and artists, soldiers, politicians, military officers – very many of whom were connected by blood and/or marriage, of course.”

SCORE: ****
A N WILSON: “The Victorians”, Arrow Books pb,2006 [?],pp 738

This Week’s Poem:

‘Sonnet 29’ - by William Shakespeare


‘Something’s Coming’ by Oscar Peterson

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