Prince of Penzance.
Pirate of Penzance.
(And congratulations Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. Hooray, hooray and all that.)
Prince of Penzance.
Pirate of Penzance.
(And congratulations Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup. Hooray, hooray and all that.)
Snaps for Marlon James, the first Caribbean to win the Booker Prize since V. S. Naipaul won in 1971 with In a Free State, and the third in a row of winners who have not been Irish, English or Indian.
James’ win should put a smile on many a rebellious face, much like the subject matter of his book A History of Seven Killings, which covers the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in the 1970s and traces the cultural fallout through the following decades, employing a surprisingly diverse array of narrative voices.
Jamaica’s history is rich in music and poetry, and James’ novel was inspired by this legacy, however he is notable for being one of the first truly successful Jamaican novelists.
Wayne Brown, a Trinidadian author who taught creative writing in Jamaica, wondered why all good Caribbean poetry came out of Jamaica, but all the good novels were from Trinidad. He observed this interesting difference between the two cultures:
If you put up a statue in Jamaica, the next day everyone pass that statue in silence. With a kinda solemnity about it. Because, you know, it’s a serious thing. That’s how I find you Jamaicans. You take things so goddamn serious. But if you put that same statue up in Trinidad, the next morning people deface it. Or they throw garbage at it. That’s how we are. You can’t put anything up on a pedestal in Trinidad.
from The Guardian
Now doesn’t that sound culturally familiar, fellow Australians? Apparently our natural bent toward toppling pedestals makes us prime novel-writing pasture.
Another encouraging fact that may appeal to those emerging authors out there: James’ first book was rejected by 78 publishers and agents. Hooray for number 79.
2015 Booker Shortlist:
Henry Savery’s life reads like an exercise in over-imagination. From the beginning, it seems, Henry was going to be one of those guys who couldn’t content himself with the confines of a modest existence. In other words, the man who penned Australia’s first novel seemed simply to be born for the task.
Many of you have probably never heard of him, and it would have remained that way had it not been for the minds behind if:book Australia, rather out-of-the-box bibliophiles themselves, who have incorporated Henry Savery into one of their current projects, ‘Rumours of My Death’. In the recent Brisbane Writer’s Festival, Henry himself engaged with festivalgoers through the conveyance of an anonymous author on twitter, one of the many exceptional experiences on offer in this year’s program.
Thanks to these two Queensland institutions, the bizarre world of Henry Savery has been illuminated for us once again.
And a strange man he was. Not one to trouble himself with good business decisions, Henry failed first at sugar-refining and then at newspaper-mongering and turned instead to forging credit. Sounds like any good Wall Street origin story, right? When his business partner turned him in (classic), he tried to flee to America but jumped off the boat and was quickly apprehended. His jailhouse antics served to postpone his court hearing, which was lucky in the end because he was sentenced to hang and was only saved at the very last moment by friends in high places. If there was one key to success Henry mastered, it was having the right guys on speed dial.
After arriving as a convict in Tasmania he managed to secure a position in the Treasury, despite having well proven his inability to manage finance of any kind. Once again, he knew exactly which hands to shake. Here his narrative takes a turn for the political drama, when his wife and son join him in Tasmania and rumours of her affair with the Attorney General lead to bickering between the two. Being the drama-queen he was, Henry threatened suicide. After he was imprisoned for money troubles yet again, the wife took off back to England, and that was the end of that.
Not one to pass up an opportunity Henry used his prison days to kickstart a writing career, another activity that was expressly against the law for convicts. His unfavourable portraits of local personages sparked a libel suit, of course, which was soon dismissed and the articles were later collected and published by the early Australian man of letters, Henry Melville. Here’s where Savery pioneers the ethos of the Lost Generation, a whole century before Hemingway was born.
Somehow, he managed to get released into the care of Major Hugh Macintosh, one of the founders of Cascade Brewery of all people, and spent his days writing peacefully on the banks of the Derwent River. Even though he was forbidden to carry on any kind of business, he managed the farm for Macintosh and wrote the manuscript that would eventually be Australia’s first novel: the fantastically entitled Quintus Servinton, published anonymously in 1831.
After a several further brushes with the law and various local VIPs, Henry again descended into debt and resorted to forgery to support his increasing alcoholism. In a fitting, albeit sad end to his dramatic existence, he found himself imprisoned in Port Arthur where he died and was buried on the infamous Isle of the Dead, passing into colonial legend
And there you have it. What better man to assume the mantel of Australia’s first author than one Henry Savery? It could be argued that he embodied the quintessential author archetype: emotional, irresponsible, impulsive and bold, possessing influential friends, an unstable character, and a knack for obtaining a lot of free time in close proximity to a brewery and a beautiful river valley.
His great contribution to our literary oeuvre may not be any Les Miserables or Huckleberry Finn, but it is no less worthy of our respect, even if only for the remarkable life that brought it forth. Someone should really make a movie out of it, but in the meantime the full text of Quintus can be found here, well worth a look. It is, after all, a national treasure, almost two centuries old and an indelible part of our cultural and artistic heritage.
Thank you, Henry Savery, for your financial incompetence, which bestowed upon us this unique slice of literary history.
I watched The Commitments for the first time when I was 16. What first grabbed me was the world it brought me into: Dublin in the 1980s. Grimy and gritty rain slicked streets, graphited and run down. The slow tumble towards decay. No money. No jobs. No hope. Then it became about something else. The simple act of just watching the film seemed to fill a void in me. And over the next couple of years, I filled that void at least once a week with a dose of the characters from Barrystown Alan Parker brought to life from the novel written by Roddy Doyle.
When I was 11, my family emigrated to Australia. The move was tough for me. I was at an age where I was beginning to understand what it meant to be Irish. A sense of national identity was stirring within me. A youthful fascination with our country’s long and dramatic history has begun to fill my head with wonderful notions. I had been born into a country of rebels and poets, martyrs and musicians. My country’s identity was shaping my identity. I am who I am because my country made me this way. Our history. Our struggle. Our triumphs and our tears.
On 31st December 1987 my dad got me out of bed at around 10.30pm. Dad drove me into the centre of Dublin where we stood, at the stroke of midnight, outside Dublin’s Mansion House to watch the Lord Mayor ring in, not only the new year, but the beginning of Dublin’s Millennium year. People cheered and hugged each other. Perched on my dad’s shoulders, I remember getting sprayed with champagne from the bottle the Lord Mayor aimed over the gathered revellers.
In March 1988 all that was taken away (at least, that’s how I felt for more than 10 years). It was something I struggled with and harboured a lot of anger because of. As a pale and freckled lad with an odd accent trying to adjust to suburban life in Sydney in the late ‘80s the seeds of being an outsider were planted. I had come from Dublin, a city celebrating 1000 years to a country celebrating its 200th birthday. Something about this didn’t sit well with me.
I was enrolled in a local school within a week of arriving and life went on. For all intensive purposes, I looked like what Neighbours had led me to believe Australians looked like. The reality in school was different. There were white Australians, of course, but also Filipinos, Egyptians, Iranians, Chileans, Chinese, South Africans and more. There were Catholics, like myself, Anglicans, Muslims, Jehovahs and people who practiced no religion at all. The spectrum of differences was overwhelming. And as soon as I opened my mouth I was found out and my difference exposed. I had never felt so different before. So I worked on my accent, turning my U’s to A’s, my R’s to Ah’s, my Ah’s to A’s. I was blending in, assimilating.
For 5 years, I had been starved of anything Irish, be it on the telly or in magazines or newspapers. Other than on St Patricks day or when classmates blitzed me with a round of Irish Jokes (‘Paddy Irishman walks into a bar…’ or ‘Have you heard the latest Irish invention…’) there was almost nothing for me to hang onto that connected with who I felt I was in my deepest self. Other than an elusive idea of Irishness, I had nothing concrete to grasp onto.
When my parents brought The Commitments home on VHS one day for us to watch on the VCR, I had no idea how much it would affect me. It began with the scenery of Dublin. Streets and places I knew and grew up around. Landmarks, names, references that were not so much learnt as they were part of my DNA. The character’s accents, that strong North Dublin brogue, filled with angst and sarcasm. The accent I had, overtime, left behind.
Before my parents had to return the video the next day, I’d watched the film twice more, staying up late and getting up early before school to do so. I didn’t know what it was – it was too soon to really understand what was drawing me to it. A few months later when the local video store was selling off ex-rental copies of the movie, I bought my own. By then, I knew what it was. This film was my link to Ireland. It was my connection to my Irishness. When I watched this film, the part of me that yearned for ‘home’ was fed. It was my portal, my bridge.
It wasn’t long before I could quote verbatim from any part in the film. It had become my identity card. And at the centre of this film was it’s main protagonist, Jimmy Rabbitte. Jimmy was an entrepreneur, a chancer, a man witj vision. The manager of The Commitments, but not a performer in the band. He was friends with the musicians but not a musician himself. He was a dreamer and he was a doer. A man who was a once on the outside and on the inside of events in his life.
As a 16/17 year old I came to identify so deeply with this character that his fingerprint is permanently imprinted upon me. At once, I had someone who I could look to to model myself after, but also, the deeper realisation of how powerful fiction, storytelling, was as a means of connecting. I had lived my whole live having imaginary conversations in my head. With friends, family, famous people, historical people, completely made up people. It’s how I passed my time. And here on the screen in front of me was Jimmy, talking to himself in front of the mirror, in the bath, in bed, being interviewed by Terry Wogan. He lived and expressed this inner monologue that I thought was something only I did.
Jimmy Rabbitte had reached out over the oceans and through the TV screen to connect with me. He seemed to be saying, ‘This is what it is to be Irish. This is what it is to go after your dreams.’
My favourite quote from the film, and maybe one of my favourite ideas of all time, is one that is not said by Jimmy, but to Jimmy by The Commitments troubadour, Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan. At the moment when the band might reach dizzying heights, it all falls apart, irrevocably. As Jimmy and Joey walk away from the choatic scenes of the band imploding, Joey tries to offer Jimmy the wisdom of his years:
Joey: Look, I know you’re hurtin’ now, but in time you’ll realize what you’ve achieved.
Jimmy Rabbitte: I’ve achieved nothing!
Joey: You’re missin’ the point. The success of the band was irrelevant – you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.
The struggle and the poetic. To me, what being Irish is all about. And as I’ve developed as a writer, it’s unconsciously, instinctively shaped my work. Struggle and revelation. Life and realisation. The inner me always reaching out, looking to connect with someone. Can me being who I am connected with you being who you are? Can this sharing of experiences and understanding bring us together, open doors, unite us, or untether us from whatever holds us back?
I’ll only find out if I keep writing, keeping myself open to experiences, open to wonder. The path is never always straight or flat. The journey never without incident or trial. But this way there lies discovery. I’ll let my friend Jimmy have the last word:
Jimmy Rabbitte: [pretending to be Terry Wogan] So, lookin’ back Jimmy, what have you learned from your experience with The Commitments?
Jimmy Rabbitte: Well, that’s a tricky question, Terry. But as I always say, we skipped the light fandango, turned cartweels ‘cross the floor. I was feelin’ kinda seasick, but the crowd called out for more.
The Palace Cinemas recently hosted a German Film Festival at their locations around Australia. The full program consisted of a staggering amount of films, almost fifty, all of which were produced within the last few years and demonstrated a vast range of genre and narrative. While I expected to be impressed I was nevertheless genuinely surprised at the quality and diversity of the films on offer, featuring remarkable performances, tight scripts, and exceptional production quality.
These days it’s difficult to have a conversation about national cultural capital without reference to native screen productions. And while Germany has never lost the glory of its musical, artistic, dramatic and literary legacy, it is now firmly establishing a platform on the world film stage as well.
Each film on offer was unique and seemed to revel in Germanic culture of the present and the past, representing national roots in subtle yet distinct threads without the usual pedantry or self-consciousness that one associates with non-Hollywood movies. Even the references to Hitler and the holocaust were charmingly unaffected: they seem to be able to acknowledge the best and worst of their identity without attaching any unnecessary gloating or guilt. In other words, these films made me feel that perhaps Germany is one of the most self-aware, successful, advanced, and emotionally secure nations of the modern age.
Naturally this got me to thinking about the Australian film industry and what kind of festival we would produce in similar circumstances. I was interested to discover that while the Palace’s German Film Festival is in it’s fourteenth year, the Australian Film Festival began in 2012, just three years ago. And while the GFF screened in eight locations around Australia, the AFF is only available to those privileged enough to live in Sydney.
Germany has a population of roughly 80 million, about four times that of Australia, which while significant is not as vast a difference as that between our respective artistic outputs. Yes, Germany has an impressive cultural history stretching back centuries at least, and including some of the most notable advances in Art music, visual arts, theatre and literature, but considering the impact the two world wars had on their economy and industry they are producing a remarkable amount of viable artistic product. Researching further I found this rather detailed description of the German arts funding model, which demonstrates the immense value they place on local cultural institutions.
While Australia has a fairly respectable artistic scene in terms of music and theatre, our film culture, like our literature, is still trying to free itself from a strange sort of identity crisis. Ask one of your friends to name just ten good Australian films made in the last three years. Chances are they can’t. That’s not because ten great films don’t exist, but mainly because no one has seen them. They aren’t promoted in film festivals. They aren’t screened four times a day in your local cinema. They are barely advertised at all.
Now ask your friend to name ten movies set in the Marvel Universe. Exactly. That might be a somewhat vulgar comparison but at the very least it demonstrates the shockingly low value we place on our own screen industry.
And if you find someone who can name ten good Australian movies, I guarantee almost all of them take place in the outback or deal with an aspect of bogan culture or some gory true-crime event. Or star Hugo Weaving. I saw only three German films and was immersed in three completely different yet symbiotic representations of German culture: a cyber-thriller complete with native trance music and Europol agents; a period drama featuring stunning landscapes and historical literary figures; and a schoolyard comedy with ironic references to youth culture and modern generational identities.
There are plenty of great Australian directors, screenwriters and artists making compelling and authentic narrative statements. But they should be more accessible and they should be better funded. Our film students should be encouraged to make modern crime thrillers as well as deep psychological portraits of the Australian bush. We should be able to investigate our own colonial history beyond just The Man from Snowy River. We should be able to represent all aspects of Australian life without drawing on the usual cringe-worthy stereotypes of outback hardship, beer-drinking ute drivers, crocodile hunters or chain-smoking teenage mothers.
Until our government finds some kind of artistic soul and makes the connection between cultural identity and actual funding, the survival of Australian films is really up to the Australian public. We need to make a choice to spend money and time on local talent instead of re-watching Captain America for the third time, and then maybe one day we’ll actually have a film industry that can afford to make huge studio blockbusters.
Try having your own Australian Film Festival one weekend. The local DVD store probably doesn’t stock anything beyond The Castle and Muriel’s Wedding, so you might even have to fork out and buy the movies (you’re not going to find them on Netflix or Apple TV). Try some new releases like Theses Final Hours, The Babadook, or The Rover. Then there’s Animal Kingdom, Red Dog, Felony, Paper Planes or The Proposition, and this great list of films from the 00’s.
Of course you’ll notice the afore-mentioned propensity toward bogans, horror, and the outback. If you do manage to find a modern thriller, urban drama, or even a comedy that doesn’t major on awkward Aussie stereotypes or self-satisfied quirkiness, please let me know. That would be a film miracle. In this age of ‘diversity’-mongering our narrow-minded oeuvre seems embarrassingly parochial.
It’s no Palace International Film Festival. But at least it’s a start.
Like visual art and music, the world of poetry is also full of seasonally-inspired works, from Frost’s snowy woods to Shakespeare’s summer sonnets. The following represent two sets of seasonal poems examining Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, one set from the northern hemisphere and the other from the southern, in this case exclusively Australian bush poetry. The contrasts are interesting and readily apparent. Where the northern poets described distinct climactic features easily recognisable from the bias of classical canonic art, the bush poets experienced the seasons in terms of rains, crops, the quality of light and the subtle changes in flora and fauna.
Amy Lowell, 1874 – 1925
The scent of hyacinths, like a pale mist, lies
between me and my book;
And the South Wind, washing through the room,
Makes the candles quiver.
My nerves sting at a spatter of rain on the shutter,
And I am uneasy with the thrusting of green shoots
Outside, in the night.
Why are you not here to overpower me with your
tense and urgent love?
William Carlos Williams, 1883 – 1963
faintly ironical smile
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
where would they carry me?
Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
To-morrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow,
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know;
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away;
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.
William Blake, 1757 – 1827
O Winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.
He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his scepter o’er the world.
Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.
He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st
With storms; till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla.
September in Australia
Henry Kendall (1839-1882)
Grey winter hath gone, like a wearisime guest,
And, behold, for repayment,
September comes in with the wind of the West
And the spring in her raiment!
The ways of the frost have been filled of the flowers,
While the forest discovers
Wild wings, with the halo of hyaline hours
And the music of lovers.
September, the maid with the swift, silver feet!
She glides, and she graces
The valleys of coolness, the slopes of the heat,
With her blossomy traces;
Sweet month, with a mouth that is made of a rose,
She lightens and lingers
In spots where the harp of the evening glows,
Attuned by her fingers.
The stream from it’s home in the hollow hill slips
In a darling old fashion;
And the day goeth down with a song on its lips
whose key-note is passion;
Far out in the fierce, bitter front of the sea
I stand, and remember
Dead things that were brothers and sisters of thee,
The West, when it blows at the fall of the noon
And beats on the beaches,
Is filled with tender and tremulous tune
That touches and teaches;
The stories of youth, of the burden of time,
And the death of devotion,
Come back with the wind, and are themes of the rhyme
In the waves of the ocean.
We, having a secret to others unknown,
In the cool mountain-mosses,
May whisper together, September, alone
Of our loves and our loses.
One word for her beauty, and one for the grace
She gave to the hours;
And then we may kiss her, and suffer her face
to sleep with the flowers.
Oh, season of changes – of shadow and shine –
September the splendid!
My song hath no music to mingle with thine,
And its burden is ended;
But thou, being born of the winds and the sun,
By mountain, by river,
Mayst lighten and listen, and loiter and run,
With thy voices for ever.
Louis Lavater (1867 – 1953)
I am weary,
Weary of bracing myself against the sun’s hot hand;
I am weary, and I dream of cool places . . . .
I see a grassy couch
Under a canopy of leaves;
A reedy river murmers by,
Crooning an old, old melody
Tuned to a long-forgotten scale,
Made when the world was young.
Rolled to the river’s edge the hills lie fast asleep;
Pale stars slip o’er their ledge and sink into the deep:
Down in the deep they sink to slumbrous peace,
Down in the deep they drink the water of peace;
In the quiet deep they quench their fires in sleep
And drown in a cool green dream.
The sun insists his burning hand upon my head;
I am weary, and I dream of cool places.
When the Sun’s Behind the Hill
C J Dennis (1876 – 1938)
There’s a soft and peaceful feeling
Comes across the farming hand
As the shadows go a-stealing
Slow along the new-turned land.
The lazy curling smoke above the thatch is showing blue,
And the weary old plough horses wander homeward two ‘n’ two,
With their chains a’clinkin’, clankin’, when their daily toil is through,
And the sun’s behnd the hill.
Then it’s slowly homeward plodding
As the night begins to creep,
And the barley grass is nodding
To the daisies, all asleep,
The crows are flying heavily, and cawing overhead;
The sleepy milking cows are lowing sof’ly in the shed,
And above them, in the rafters, all the fowls have gone to bed,
When the sun&’s behind the hill.
Then it’s “Harry, feed old Roaney!”
And it’s “Bill, put up the rail!”
And it’s “Tom, turn out the pony!”
“Mary, hurry with the pail!”
And the kiddies run to meet us, and are begging for a ride
On the broad old “Prince” and “Darkey” they can hardly sit astride;
And mother, she is bustling with the supper things inside,
When the sun&’s behind the hill.
Then it’s sitting down and yarning
When we’ve had our bite and sup,
And the mother takes her darning,
And Bess tells how the baldy cow got tangled in the wire,
And Katie keeps the baby-boy from tumbling in the fire;
And the baccy smoke goes curling as I suck my soothing briar,
When the sun’s behind the hill.
And we talk about the season,
And of how it’s turning out,
And we try to guess the reason
For the long-continued drought,
Oh! a farmer’s life ain’t roses and his work is never done:
And a job’s no sooner over than another is begun.
For he’s toiling late and early from the rising of the sun
Till he sinks behind the hill.
But it grows, that peaceful feeling
While I’m sitting smoking there,
And the kiddies all are kneeling
To repeat their ev’ning prayer;
For it seems, somehow, to lighten all the care that must be bore
When the things of life are worrying, and times are troubling sore;
And I pray that God will keep them when my own long-day is o’er,
And the sun’s behind the hill.
A Ballade of Wattle Blossom
There’s a land that is happy and fair,
Set gem-like in halcyon seas;
The white winters visit not there,
To sadden its blossoming leas,
More bland than the Hesperides,
Or any warm isle of the West,
Where the wattle-bloom perfumes the breeze,
Ant the bell-bird builds her nest.
When the oak and the elm are bare,
And wild winds vex the shuddering trees;
There the clematis whitens the air,
And the husbandman laughs as he sees
The grass rippling green to his knees,
And his vineyards in emerald drest–
Where the wattle-bloom bends in the breeze,
And the bell-bird builds her nest.
What land is with this to compare?
Not the green hills of Hybia, with bees
Honey-sweet, are more radiant and rare
In colour and fragrance than these
Boon shores, where the storm-clouds cease,
And the wind and the wave are at rest–
Where the wattle-bloom waves in the breeze,
And the bell-bird builds her nest.
No this will not be a discourse on the figurative seasons of a writer’s life. There are plenty of those oozing around the web and many more hidden in forgotten spiral notebooks on your study shelves.
Right now I’m focused on a much more literal literary problem. I’m interested in the craft of writing seasons.
Weather plays a pivotal role in narrative. Beyond the objective way it motivates plot and action, climate affects mood and tone in both monumental sweeps and incredibly subtle nuance. Seasons define culture, customs, language, symbols and associations in ways that few other narrative features can. It is inevitably a major player in any creative work.
Imagine, for example, that Thoreau had secluded himself on a Florida beach instead of the woods of New England. Walden would be an altogether different experience (with a different title) and we never would have had such an enlightened discourse on the transformative power of Spring:
The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis which all things proclaim. It is seemingly instantaneous at last. Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain. I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope as in a summer evening, reflecting a summer evening sky in its bosom, though none was visible overhead, as if it had intelligence with some remote horizon.
Consider the brooding danger of To Kill a Mockingbird without the backdrop of a long Southern summer. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights without the crystalising Icelandic cold. Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori without the Japanese fall of winter sakura blossoms. The English Patient without the hot, sandy North African war. A Tale of Two Cities without rainy London streets. The White Tiger without the steaming slums of Delhi. Love in a Time of Cholera without the tropical heat of the Caribbean coastline.
In fact climate does more than simply play a part in a single story: its manipulation in one work forms part of a dense cultural mesh through which all associated narratives are viewed. That is, the way authors and storytellers interact with seasons defines the social discourse of the places they write about and the cultures they inhabit.
As an Australian I am aware of a niggling responsibility to try and build on the sparse cultural mesh of our young, small and (let’s be honest) insecure narrative landscape.
When I was just a little book nerd reading my Richard Scarry and Beatrix Potter I would often find myself wondering where my parents hid those great piles of red leaves in which to jump (preferably with yellow galoshes). I would wait in my backyard hoping to spot a phantom squirrel nibbling an acorn. I would gaze out over green parks trying to imagine where all the spring bunny rabbits were hiding. I would search around our living room in hopes of finding a crackling fireplace, the one I was meant to curl up in front of while snow fell outside.
In short my imagination was genuinely confused by the disparity between the seasonal landscapes of my picture books and the reality that surrounded me.
And thanks to narratives like The Groves of Academe, The Secret History, Wonder Boys and Dead Poets Society I find it easier to picture a school year beginning amidst chilly autumn leaves than in a hot, clapboard classroom under a sadly rotating ceiling fan. Apparently we are supposed to camp in immaculate pine forests in the summer instead of at the beach. And overseas vacations should be at the Caribbean or the South of France instead of Fiji.
This phenomenon of seasonal currency also translates directly into the invented worlds of speculative fiction, finding its way into a variety of speculative genres but most obviously into epic fantasy where Northern Hemispherical climates dictate the law of imagined geographies. Middle Earth is modeled on the seasonal terrain of Tolkien’s native England, as is Lewis’s Narnia. American landscape features throughout Jordan’s Wheel of Time and is particularly apparent in the Western flavor of King’s Dark Tower series.
In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire narrative weather is a major player on a number of levels. It not only creates atmosphere, tone, obstacles, opportunities and cultures, it literally defines the identities of the warring families of Westeros and Essos, and thus the entire backbone of the series.
I’ve dreamed of the day when I would read (or write) an epic narrative where the climatic world was turned on its head. In my version of A Song of Ice and Fire the Wall would be in the south and Dorne would be in the north. The Iron Islands would be the Sandy Islands, and winter would never be coming.
In my world, pumpkins don’t grow at Halloween. Snow doesn’t fall on Christmas Eve. Beaches are never cold, windy places with wooden piers and taffy. Birds don’t fly south for the winter. Heading west means deserts, not prairies, and north the Equator, not the Arctic Circle. There is never a real reason light a wood fire, or rake leaves, or shovel the sidewalk. We steal mangos not blackberries, and bake pavlova instead of pie. Family picnics are BBQs at the beach, not sandwiches in green meadows.
This is the world I know. This should form the landscape of my imagination and therefore of my imagined worlds. It’s a strange thing to have to work against a preconceived cultural notion of tone and place because the culture, while dominant, is not your own. Yet it is part of my responsibility as an emerging creative voice, and a challenge I submit to all those in the same position: to add to this global lens in our own language and rhythm, and make our own experiences, and that of our Southern-land compatriots, a greater part of the world’s narrative imagery.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Tomorrow morning many of us will wake in the dark to early alarms and make the devoted trek to a Dawn Service at one of countless events held in parks and amphitheaters around the country.
We will stand in the chilly pre-dawn air bearing poppies and wreathes. We will sing the Anthem and recite the Ode. We will listen to the Last Post and maintain a minute’s silence with a shiver on our skin.
Australians are devoted to the ANZAC legend. It is a source of national pride, a symbol of our gratitude and a demonstration of our deep enduring respect for the men and women who won us our lucky freedom.
Far from a celebration of victory, like other wartime anniversaries such as Remembrance Day, ANZAC Day pays tribute to the beginning of a long and bloody campaign waged on the Turkish Peninsula that ultimately failed in its objective. It’s not a celebration, it is a commemoration: a moment to consider what it really means to be an Australian.
Anzac Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day on which we remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of Anzac, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.
This ANZAC tradition is not one we take lightly. Almost every Australian town, no matter how bijou, will have an ANZAC Park with a memorial dedicated to the men who lost their lives on that day, or who fought in some war at some point in the history of our small but wiry nation. It represents for us not only the integrity of Australian mate-ship but more importantly what we, a small and relatively insignificant nation, are capable of when we band together and put our shoulder to the wheel.
Like most Australians I am fiercely proud of our ANZAC history. Even though I’m several generations removed from the First World War I am immensely moved by the ceremony and what it represents.
My grandfather was a naval engineer in the Second World War. ANZAC Day attendance was an annual requirement in my formative years, a meaningful day for our family, blurred in my child’s eyes by the mystery of time and the greatness of the past. As I grew to understand the true scope of the event it only became more significant and more incredible to me. It’s something that was part of the fabric of my life and the life of my family.
And yet on this, the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day, I am led to ponder the nature of the cultural tributes we pay to our wartime history. Most Australians will have seen the movie Gallipoli at some point in their lives, a beautifully understated and shockingly realistic depiction of the journey young men faced when they left their hometown for the battlefront. Yet the most recent retelling of the event, a well-produced mini-series that aired on Channel Nine, struggled to compete in ratings with inane reality TV shows.
What’s wrong with us? Some commentators believe that the more removed we become from the experiences of war, the less new generations care for remembrances such as ANZAC Day. I disagree, having taught in many schools where students are intensely aware of the significance of the occasion. And yet if society is somehow losing perspective on ANZAC Day, isn’t that our fault? As Australians it’s our responsibility to keep our remarkable heritage alive in the social and cultural consciousness of our own nation.
Unlike many nations around the world, our military history is actually something to be proud of. We have never initiated a conflict with another nation and yet we have always come to the aid of our allies when fighting for peace and the civil rights of cultures and nations far removed from ours.
Our soldiers are renowned for their strength, resilience, loyalty and commitment. Despite being such a small nation, in many ways we have a greater fighting spirit than countries far larger and more powerful than us.
And yet what are we doing with this incredible part of our identity? Many Australians are more familiar with the conflicts of the USA or Europe than that of their own homeland. Simply because of the amount of cultural currency we attribute to the exploits of other nations compared to that of our own.
I have no doubt this is largely because of long-entrenched national identity problems such as the ubiquitous Cultural Cringe, somehow wrapped up in our ridiculous obsession with self-deprecation and achievement-avoidance known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome.
In reality, we are now better known around the world for these two insecurity issues than we are for the actual reality of our nation’s history and achievements. How absurd.
In fact, how shamefully embarrassing. Do we have such a low opinion of ourselves that this is the legacy we have created? Or do we just care so little about anything that we simply can’t be bothered?
As I think about it now I find it utterly dumbfounding. I’m frustrated by the lack of understanding we have about our own significance and our own cultural strength. I’m angered by the subsequent lack of understanding that this generates in the eyes of the world. Why don’t we celebrate our history? Why don’t we make it part of our identity? Why don’t we think it’s even worth the value of artistic effort?
In truth there’s a vast disconnect between our world stance and our true national identity. And it’s our fault. What are we going to do about it?
We owe it to ourselves to retell the stories that shaped our identity as a nation, to learn how to celebrate our achievements instead of hiding them behind false modesty. Really, we owe it to the world to stand up and own our history, to reverse the negative legacy we have built for ourselves.
But most of all we owe it to the men and women who made possible the freedom we enjoy today, and upon whose sacrifice our identity is built.
The media and the travel industry sell us the idea that the best sort of travel is with someone else, preferably your partner. The posters in travel agencies show couples lying together on tropical beaches, or holding hands on the Great Wall of China. To an extent, they’re right — travelling with a partner is a terrific way to strengthen your relationship. It also means there’s someone to hold your bulging backpack when you go to the loo in a crowded train station in a developing country — a benefit not to be underestimated.
But there is something magical about travelling alone. Something that the travel agencies and media don’t tell us, and the security warnings try to scare us away from. The people who get closest to explaining the magic of solo travel are writers, such as Emma Ayres, whose book Cadence describes her bicycle adventure from England to Hong Kong with a violin, and Robyn Davidson, whose book Tracks tells of her travels across the Australian desert with a dog and four camels.
I came to solo travel in a slightly different way. In year twelve, I read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and loved it so much I decided to travel to India. I got my opportunity a year later, when a university scholarship gave me the funds. My parents were worried that their eighteen year-old daughter was about to go schlepping around the subcontinent for three months, but now that I had the money, I couldn’t be stopped.
My first weeks in South Asia made me wonder if my parents were right. In Sri Lanka, after signing up spontaneously for some sort of alternative medicine treatment, I found myself shut up in a wooden box like a coffin with small holes at the bottom. Someone I couldn’t see started putting hot, aromatic substances under the coffin, presumably so they could be absorbed through my skin. With no language skills to figure out what was happening, I lay there and wondered if I was going to end up steamed to death in the name of a medical procedure I didn’t understand.
On my first day in Delhi, my backpack caught on the back of a rickshaw in the narrow streets of the old city. Still attached to my backpack, I found myself dragged fifteen metres down the street, through laughing and pointing crowds, before the driver realised he’d attracted an unpaying hitchhiker.
At that point, I found a payphone and rang my mum, close to tears. I was thinking about going back to Australia. But instead, I got on the first train out of Delhi. ‘Amritsar’, said the sign.
And it was on that train to Amritsar that I began to understand the beauty of solo travel. I met a group of university students who were travelling back to their home in Amritsar, and they decided I should visit them. So I spent a few days staying with a young Muslim woman at the university’s Girls Hostel. (No males allowed — not even baby brothers.) She told me about her secret relationship with a boy. They’d been in love for years, but they hadn’t even kissed, or told their families about their relationship. As I told her about my friends and our own views of relationships, I began to question aspects of my own culture that I’d taken for granted.
She was the first of many wonderful people who invited me into their lives in India. Each of them shared different perspectives on the world. A young lesbian told me how she couldn’t bring herself to explain to her parents why she kept rejecting the male suitors they brought her. An older trade unionist forced me to question the ethics of being a young, white middle class person traipsing around looking at the developing world.
I often think about many of these people, and their ideas and experiences have informed many of the decisions I’ve made about my own life and career. If I’d been travelling with another person, I doubt I’d have met them — one person is more likely to meet other people than a self-contained duo.
Later, after I’d finished university, I had my first major solo trip in Australia. Lacking the money to go overseas, and with a month to go before I started at my new graduate job, I decided to take my Mazda 121 bubble car from Canberra to Alice Springs and back. It was January and scorching, which was wonderful, because the roads were clear and I had campsites to myself, from the Grampians, to the Flinders Ranges, all the way to the West MacDonnell Ranges. I spent hours each day walking and sweating and thinking, and in my evenings I read. I had never had so long to spend inside my head, nor had I ever had the opportunity to see the Australian desert, with its red earth stretching for miles until it met the bright blue sky.
I didn’t meet so many people on this trip, but one man sticks in my mind. I was camping — alone, as usual — in the West MacDonnell Ranges, when I got caught in sudden, torrential rain. It beat down, soaking me in seconds and flooding my tent. I was taking down my tent, and trying to figure out if it would be safe to sleep in my car, when an Indigenous ranger showed up. He invited me to stay at his place. As a respectful man, aware of the strangeness of inviting an unknown woman to sleep in his house, he didn’t talk much. I went to bed early, and slept gratefully in his child’s Sesame Street-themed sheets. In the morning, he was gone, having left just a note encouraging me to eat as many eggs on toast as I needed.
I know that solo travel is more dangerous than group travel. You’re more likely to meet nasty people and get caught in threatening situations. But you also have the sorts of experiences that just aren’t possible if you’re travelling with your partner, let alone a busload of tourists. You notice things more, and you meet more people.
Now, more often than not, I travel with my partner. But I do still go off on trips of my own — admittedly with a few more safety precautions than in my younger days. I’m aware of the dangers, but I think they’re worth the risk. Solo travel has made me who I am, and it continues to introduce me to new places, people and ideas, and make me question aspects of my life and culture I’d otherwise take as given.
This essay was first published on Penny Jones’ blog: www.pennyalicejones.com
The idea of an Australian music as recognisably Australian as Italian Opera or American Jazz is a difficult sell. Before the composer Peter Sculthorpe began exploring instruments and sounds that reflected the landscape in which he lived, Australian music was pretty much variations on a European theme. It lacked the bone dry greys and harsh yellows of the interior. Its desolate unforgivingness. Its space.
In the ‘70s, The Bushwhackers fused American Country with Anglo-Celtic Folk into an Australian bush music and took it overseas to some acclaim, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that bands began singing about where they lived. The Go-Betweens, Paul Kelly, even Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, turned the urban experience of Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney into lyrics that spoke of people’s homes, their streets, bus trips up and down the east coast and pubs. Bands in pubs. Working class venues for working class songs. It was a kind of cockney, an unashamedly parochial song-line that didn’t speak for everyone but said it in a distinctively Australian way. And part of that white song-line addressing what it meant to be Australian but a little off to the side of the mainstream was The Triffids.
The Triffids formed in Perth in the late ‘70s. On the surface, they were just another group of fashionably melancholy and disenfranchised malcontents on the literary fringe of rock. Post Punk. But their music had a kind of landscape: big without being anthemic, vast without being too long. There was a heat to their music, a dryness; a space between the chords that gave it a height and distance more profoundly haunting than the guitar based rock of their contemporaries.
“Wide Open Road” was the first single from The Triffids’ 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional. It’s a perfect example of how the band evoked the brutal reality of place, of Australia, and the interminable endlessness of country and its impact on the soul. “Wide Open Road” is a state of mind. It is the search for love, home, hope, but perhaps condemned, like Sisyphus, to the wide open road of futility and disappointment. When The Triffids’ chief vocalist and songwriter David McComb asks how it feels:
Sleeping by yourself
When the one you love
The one you love
Is with someone else
The answer is simply:
It’s a wide open
A wide open road
There’s nothing else. Going on for miles with no enforceable speed limit and flanked as it is by spectral eucalypts and road kill; embodied by the zero desolation of Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris or Nic Roeg’s Walkabout; the word DIG carved into the hide of a coolabah tree by Burke and Wills on Cooper Creek; a dingo ate my baby. There’s nothing back to nature about this Australia. It’s too bleak and forbidding to be sound tracked by violins or middle eights or the tight vocal arrangements of pop or rock. It’s a mirage, where the very stuff of identity is consumed by the ever-shifting horizon promising a connection but:
I reach out just to touch you
Then I realise
It’s a wide open road
David McComb’s vision as a songwriter was a constant grappling with a vernacular for the journey we’re on in this strange and semi-mythical place called Australia. It’s a vernacular of identity. And one could argue this grappling for identity is the very job of the artist, both on an individual and a larger socio-political scale, and that finding a music for this journey is as fundamental to a nation’s character as its architecture, its stories, its coat of arms or flag. “Advance Australia Fair” might rouse us to our feet to open major sporting events, but a people needs a music that scratches beneath the surface of jingoistic nationalism and through the murky interiors of what defines us. That acknowledging the cultural and historical relevance of Gallipoli while viewing the violent liberation of Aboriginal peoples from their families and land as a thing of the past might not be as Australian as we’d like to think.
The Triffids’ unique take on the relationship between place and music was as much a lament as it was a love song, a yearning for something lost or for something never there to begin with but remembered on some deep cellular level as our home. Like American Jazz, maybe this pining for a home we’ve never known is the beginning of a white Australian music, a music of displacement, searching, a music that truly encapsulates the wide open roadness of our place in this place.
McComb, David. “Wide Open Road”. Born Sandy Devotional. Mushroom, 1986. LP