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The Griffyns go to China with Gough

February 13, 2015

… figuratively speaking, of course! The Griffyn Ensemble commenced their 2015 season in fine style, with guest artist, Chinese pipa player, Professor Zhang Hongyan. As always, the concert had a theme, evident from its title, Whitlam in China (and the development of friendly relations between our two countries). It was a tightly performed, well conceived and thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Lingling Yu playing Pipa at Musée Guimet, Paris (Courtesy: Dalbera, CC-BY-2.0, via flickr)

Lingling Yu playing Pipa at Musée Guimet, Paris (Courtesy: Dalbera, CC-BY-2.0, via flickr)

First though, we had the pre-concert entertainment by the string quartet from the China Philharmonic Orchestra. They played three Chinese pieces – all folk-based – in the National Library of Australia’s Lower Ground public space. I don’t remember the names of the first two pieces, but the second one had a gorgeous melancholy to it, and it sounded a little familiar. The first violinist told us that it was about longing and homesickness, and is frequently used for Chinese New Year. I’ve probably heard it somewhere! The third piece was a lovely contrast, “Happy Girl”. Many of us listening couldn’t resist bobbing our heads a little. These folk tunes sounded fine in a Western string quartet configuration.

After this prelude, we all filed into the National Library’s lovely 300-seat theatre, a favourite place of mine and one that I had much to do with professionally, many moons ago. I love visiting it.

Somewhat unusual for the Griffyns, this program’s narrative had a clear chronology, commencing with Gough Whitlam’s election to parliament in 1952 and ending pretty much with the famous dismissal in 1975. The music itself though moved around a bit in time. Here is the program, with links to online versions* (mostly played by other performers) where I have found them:

  • I will build my house on the water. By Horace Keats to a 4th century Chinese poem. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble (Soprano JaneParkin with Pianist Clemens Leske version)
  • Dragon boat. Traditional. Performed by Hongyan Zhang
  • Moonlit night on the Spring River. Traditional, based on a Chinese poem by Zhang Ruoxu. Performed by  Hongyan Zhang, with the Griffyn Ensemble (China Broadcasting Traditional Orchestra version)
  • In our image, in our likeness. Movements 1, 3, 4. By Leilei Tian. Performed by Kiri Sollis (Recorders), Chris Stone (Violin) (mp3 version)
  • Like spinning plates. By Radiohead. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble, featuring Susan Ellis (Soprano). (Radiohead’s own version)
  • It’s time. By Paul Jones and Mike Shirley. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble, featuring Susan Ellis (Soprano). (Original version)
  • Dance music of the Yi People. By Wang Huiran. Performed by Hongyan Zhang. (Chu Yuan version)
  • Big decisions: The Whitlam dismissal. By Robert Davidson. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble.
  • The song of the pipa player. By Mo Fan to a poem by Bai Juyi. Performed by Hongyan Zhang, with the Griffyn Ensemble (Ding Yi Music Company version)

If you listen to any of these you will realise what a varied – as usual – concert it was.

The concert was narrated by Griffyn musical director Michael Sollis, frequently accompanied by apposite little bars on the double bass (Holly Downes). He had clearly done a lot of reading about Whitlam’s political life, and his narration included quotes from people of the time, such as other politicians and officials, commentators and journalists. While Mr Gums and I, unlike the Griffyns, lived the era, I did learn some things. Gough, after all, was some decades older than I! I learnt, for example, that the first time he mentioned Australia recognising or making overtures to China was in 1954! Sollis described in some detail Whitlam’s history-making visit to China in 1971, when he was still Opposition leader. Whitlam, Sollis reported with a wry look, told Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that

The Australian people have had a bitter experience in going all the way with LBJ. They know America made [Prime Minister Harold Holt] change his policy and they will never again allow the American president to send [Australian] troops to another country.

Sollis also quoted Stephen FitzGerald, who accompanied Whitlam and who later became Australia’s ambassador to China. FitzGerald described the trip as:

an expedition of great bravado and exposure but [also?] great political judgment and luck. It was a journey to the unknown because no one knew what would come of it or who Whitlam would meet. It was personal diplomacy of great political sensitivity.

This section of the narrative was accompanied by a performance of Leilei Tian’s In our image, in our likeness by Kiri Sollis on recorders and Chris Stone on violin to evoke the meeting between Whitlam and Zhou Enlai. I enjoyed listening to the music and thinking about how the two instruments, the two melodies, might reflect the content and tone of the talks. And it was performed with such aplomb and skill by these two musicians who clearly enjoyed what they were doing. One of the many highlights of the night.

Another highlight was the revival-style performance, led by soprano Susan Ellis, of the ALP’s 1972 election song, It’s time. The audience couldn’t resist clapping along.

And finally, while still on the Whitlam theme, I enjoyed Big decisions: the Whitlam dismissal, a piece composed by Australian Robert Davidson for wind quartet with recorded speech. We, of course, had the Griffyns, not a wind quartet, and I presume Sollis had arranged it, as he had the final piece, The song of the pipa player. The recorded speech component of Big decisions comprised excerpts of speeches made at the time – most of which we of a certain age, or students of politics, recognised. The Australian Music Centre says that “The music emphases the inherent melody in recorded voices of Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Sir John Kerr and a supporting cast of Paul Keating, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Sir Charles Court and others”. I loved the way key words and lines from the speeches were repeated with musical accompaniment working around them. Intriguing. Clever.

And then, on top of all this was the pipa, played with such energy and yet delicacy too by Zhang Hongyan. Just check the link I’ve provided under Dragon boat to see what I mean. The concert ended with an ensemble performance of The song of the pipa player composed to a 9th century poem by Bai Juyi. Sollis explained the origin of the piece … here is the beginning of the poet’s foreword to it:

In 815 I was demoted from the Capital to a local Officer of Jiujiang Prefecture. One autumn night of the following year, while seeing off friends on a boat leaving Penpu harbor on the Yangtze River, I suddenly heard a pipa tune being played from the neighboring boat. The music style was clearly from the capital. Being totally surprised, I made an inquiry and learned that the musician was a lady who used to be a famous star in the Capital … Then her glorious years past with the time as her beauty faded. Finally she had to lower herself to marry to a merchant.

Demotion, you see … a fitting conclusion to a wonderful concert in which music and narrative combined perfectly to keep the audience engaged from beginning to end.

Ensemble: Kiri Sollis (flute), Chris Stone (violin), Laura Tanata (harp), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Michael Sollis (director/composer).

* I tend to provide links where I can because much of the music the Griffyns play is unfamiliar.

Stella Prize 2015 Longlist

February 12, 2015

As a team-member of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, I’m particularly interested in the Stella Prize, which, as you probably know, is a prize limited to Australian women writers. The great thing about it, though, is what it isn’t limited to – and that is form and genre. The first winner in 2013 was a novel, Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with birds (my review), and the second, last year, was a history, Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). What will it be this year?

Well, it could be a book of short stories or a memoir, or it could be true crime or, yes, a novel, or it could even be a young adult novel or a book about the human race. Here, if you are interested, is this year’s longest (the shortlist to be announced on March 12):

  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil: a collection of short stories which has been receiving positive reviews.
  • Emily Bitto’s The Strays: a debut novel set around the 1930s and published by small publisher, Affirm Press
  • Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals: a collection of short stories giving, I understand, a animal’s-eye-view of humans, at our best and worst.
  • Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

    Courtesy: Text Publishing

    Helen Garner’s This House of Grief: a sort-of true-crime-cum-courtroom story which I reviewed last year.

  • Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys: novel by one of our well-established well-regarded writers
  • Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race: non-fiction about the development of the human race, looking at DNA and historical factors.
  • Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep: second novel from an author whose first novel was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
  • Joan London’s The Golden Age: I loved London’s Gilgamesh, and also enjoyed her The good parents (which I’ve reviewed here) so why haven’t I yet read this one?
  • Alice Pung’s Laurinda: debut novel, for young adults, by acclaimed memoirist Pung whose second memoir I’ve reviewed here).
  • Inga Simpson’s Nest: second novel by an author proving to be popular with AWW Challenge reviewers. She’s on my radar.
  • Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light: debut novel which won the 2013 David Unaipon Award, and it’s on my TBR.
  • Biff Ward’s In My Mother’s Hands: memoir by the daughter of historian Russell Ward, which I’ll be reading in March, as it’s been scheduled for my reading group.

This year’s stellar (couldn’t resist that) judges are critic and writer Kerryn Goldsworthy (chair), journalist and broadcaster Caroline Baum, writer and lecturer Tony Birch, singer–songwriter Sarah Blasko, and author Melissa Lucashenko. You can read the judge’s full report on the Stella Prize website.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Capital men novelists

February 10, 2015

It’s been a year since I wrote my post on Capital women novelists, the third in my series on Canberra’s writers. (The other two were Capital women and Capital men poets.) Today I am finally getting to the male novelists.

I’ll start in a round-about way with a local controversy. Last year, the ACT government changed the eligibility requirements for its ACT Book of the Year awards, narrowing location to ACT residents only. As the City News reported at the time, this contradicted “the principle enunciated in artsACT’s arts policy framework of ‘embracing Canberra’s position as a regional centre and fostering opportunities for increased engagement with regional communities’” and it reversed the previous practice of allowing nominations from writers in the region. Fortunately, after serious lobbying from arts practitioners and supporters in the ACT, the government agreed that “regional NSW residents with an ACT based arts practice” could apply. I’ve told you all this not only because it shows that lobbying can succeed, but to justify my including regional writers in my ACT-based series!

As will other posts in this series, I am just going to share a few current novelists – in alphabetical order.

Andrew Croome

Document Z bookcover

Allen & Unwin

Croome, like many writers, is (or has been) somewhat peripatetic but is currently based in Canberra and has been for a couple of years at least. His first novel, Document Z (my review), which was published in 2008, deals with one of Canberra’s most famous stories, the Petrov spy scandal. It won  the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award and the New Writing award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was shortlisted for others. I thoroughly enjoyed it, both for the perspective he presented and for his evocation of 1950s Canberra. His second novel, Midnight Empire, which I’ve also reviewed, was not set here though its main character had come from Canberra. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

John Clanchy

Like many writers based here, indeed like many people of a certain age who live here, Clanchy came from elsewhere. I discovered in the ACT Writers Showcase that he moved to Canberra in 1975, the same year I did. He is still based here, as far as I know. In my recent review of his latest book, Six, I indicated that I was sorry I hadn’t read Clanchy before this. He has published 10 works of fiction, some of which are short story collections and two of which are crime thrillers co-written with another Canberra writer, Mark Henshaw. He apparently taught writing at the Australian National University, and in addition to fiction has co-written non-fiction books on academic writing, research and related topics. A versatile writer.

Julian Davies

Julian Davies, Crow mellow Book cover

Finlay Lloyd

You may remember Davies because, like Clanchy, he’s another established writer that I’ve come to late. He is also one of two men behind the Finlay Lloyd non-profit publishing venture. He has published around 6 novels, plus many short stories and essays. According to the ACT Writers Showcase, he has lived in Canberra or what we call the Southern Tablelands for most of his life. I’d like to think the grand house in Crow Mellow (my review) is located in the region, though I suspect it’s a little north. Regardless of where it is, I did enjoy the descriptions of place in the book, of which this is one:

This far view was unmistakably Australian, the bunched crowns of eucalyptus gleaming blue on the ridge-tops, deep green plumwood trees and sassafras holding to their lower creases. In the valley, the farm’s paddocks showed their patchwork of varying greens, some farm sheds and, higher than the others, an old two-storey building, a brick mill which Mitchell had painstakingly restored. At the valley bottom, the enormous dam, and beyond it, short reaches of the creek gleamed between stands of dusky she-oaks.

Nigel Featherstone

Courtesy: Blemish Books

Blemish Books

Nigel Featherstone is the local writer who has featured most in my blog, through my reviews of his novellas, a guest post, and an interview. Featherstone was born in Sydney, has lived in Canberra, and currently lives in Goulburn, an hour’s drive away. He has published a novel, novellas, short stories and is a freelance writer for the Canberra Times. He is also the founder of the online literary journal, VerityLa. He is active in the ACT (and wider Australian) arts community, being committed to the idea that a strong arts community is critical to the health of our society. He walks the talk – and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Alan Gould

Alan Gould, author of The lakewoman which I reviewed, is yet another under-recognised Australian writer. English-born he came to Canberra in 1966. He is a poet and novelist – and I did mention him in my Capital Male Poets post, so will move on to others whom I haven’t mentioned before.

Mark Henshaw

Henshaw is the writer least known to me, though I do have his latest, Snow kimono, on my TBR, and I did attend its launch. He lives in Canberra and worked until recently at the National Gallery of Australia. He made a big splash with his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, which, Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote “bedazzled critics with its post-modern playfulness, philosophical intelligence and European sophistication”. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and Age Book of the Year awards. It was also, she says, “translated into several languages, and became one of the best-selling Australian literary novels of the decade”. Between it and Snow kimono which came twenty-six years later, he co-wrote two crime thrillers with the aforementioned John Clanchy. I am greatly looking forward to reading Snow kimono which, he told us at the launch, he wrote without ever visiting Japan. A brave and clearly interesting man!

Roger McDonald

McDonald is the most successful of the writers I’ve listed here, at least in terms of writerly accolades. These include his first novel, 1915, winning the Age Book of the Year award and being made into a successful miniseries; The Ballad of Desmond Kale winning the Miles Franklin Award in 2006; and When Colts Ran being shortlisted for the Vance Palmer, Miles Franklin and Prime Minister’s awards in 2011. Like Gould, he is also a poet. McDonald was born in Young, NSW, about 2 hours drive from Canberra. He has lived mostly in rural areas, on farms, as well as in Canberra. He is now based, I understand, in the Braidwood area (where Julian Davies also lives). His novels tend to reflect his rural background – pubs, sheep stations, and the lives of the men and women who live there. This description of young Colts from When Colts ran captures such lives perfectly:

Loose soil and road ruts baked in the sun were the material of his playground then, soil blunting his hearing as he wiggled a finger in his ear imitating the way men did, at the same time as holding their pipes. The grainy feeling of Limestone Hills dirt, the taste of it spat from his tongue, clinging to damper cooked in the ashes, dirt stuck to a boiled lolly taken from a paperbag, was the medium Colts was born into, as far as he could tell. A fly got stuck in his ear, sizzling deeper. That was the feeling too. He’d never get over it, or past it either. The hum of the dry bush, crickets, Christmas beetles, cicadas.

This book, too, is on my TBR. So much to read …

On understanding the arts

February 8, 2015

Earlier this year I wrote a post about reading difficult literature. I said that I like to be challenged by literature, and discussed the features that define “difficulty” for me. Since then I’ve come across various statements, some contradictory, about the role of “difficulty” in the arts – and I thought I’d share them with you as part of a continued discussion.

Australian art critic Robert Hughes (quoted from the recent documentary series, Brilliant creatures):

You have to realise, of course, that no painting that’s of any quality is really very easy to understand because the function of a painting is always to expand one’s experience and so if it were easy to understand, then it would fall within what you already knew.

I’m not sure I agree with this. Surely art, and here I’m extending Hughes’ statement to all art forms, doesn’t have to be difficult to introduce a new idea or experience way of seeing things? Difficulty can be useful because it can force us to think, but I don’t see it as essential. Am I reading this statement too simplistically?

In Tolstoy’s book, What is art (which I admit to not having read, so I may be taking this out of context), he says that:

The business of art lies just in this, — to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.

Here Tolstoy seems to be saying pretty much the opposite to Hughes, arguing that the aim of art is to make an idea accessible, which I read, in my simple way, as “easy” to understand.

I’ve read similar contradictory statements about poetry.

Methinks the difference relates to their ideas about the role of art. Hughes, I suspect, saw art as expanding our experience and, perhaps as a result, leading to new thinking, wheras Tolstoy saw art, I believe, as having a moral purpose. It can’t just be for its own sake. If you see art in those terms it must be comprehensible, eh?

I’d love to know what you think about these two ideas. Are they totally contradictory, or can we encompass them both! I know I’m being somewhat wilfully simple here, but sometimes that is the place to start?

John Clanchy, Six: New tales (Review)

February 6, 2015

ClanchySixFinlayLloydJohn Clanchy, like Julian Davies whose Crow mellow I recently reviewed, is another Australian writer I’d heard of but not read until his piece in the Canberra centenary anthology, The invisible thread. What a treasure trove that has turned out to be! Anyhow, titled “The gunmen”, Clanchy’s contribution was an excerpt from his first novel, The life of the land, published in 1985. He’s a versatile writer, it seems, crossing genres (such as crime and mystery) and form (novels, short stories, and non-fiction). Six, the book I’ve just read, is a collection of six short stories – long short stories, in fact. An earlier collection of his, Vincenzo’s Garden, won the 2005 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Short Stories and the 2006 ACT Book of the Year. If it’s anything like Six, I can see why.

But, before I get onto the book itself, a little about the publisher. Finlay Lloyd describes itself as a

a non profit publisher dedicated to encouraging imaginative and challenging writing, to subtly innovative design and to celebrating the pleasures of print on paper in an electronic age. Without the commercial imperative of most publishers, we are able to champion ideas and authors for their intrinsic interest and quality. We support independent bookshops as local outlets for these ideas and authors. Our books are printed in Australia to support the local industry (by Griffin Press and Ligare Book Printing).

It’s the “subtly innovative design” I particularly want to mention here (while also appreciating the rest of their philosophy). I’ve handled now about four of their books and they are beautiful. The shape varies, with some, such as Six, being long and thin. Subtly different (just like all planes!), and nice to hold. Six has an additional special touch – the first page of each of the stories is on slightly whiter, finer paper. There’s no table of contents, but you can quickly locate each of the stories by flicking the book through to these pages. These are simple things, but they make you feel that the book in your hand has been produced with love and care.

Anyhow, onto the book itself. I found all six stories completely engaging, imaginative, and one, surprisingly, laugh-out-loud funny. I say surprisingly because it’s rare that I’d read a truly funny short story, although there’s often one or two in a collection that make me smile. This story, “Slow burn”, is, I suppose, a “mere male” story, and, while I don’t really approve of “mere male” stories – they can be somewhat condescending – this one is too funny, too beautifully controlled, not to make me laugh. It’s all about Daryl Turtle who is “ill. Dangerously, perhaps fatally ill” and his wish to make himself a comforting piece of toast to go with the thermos coffee his thoughtful wife has left for him.

The other five stories – “Slow burn” is the third in the collection – are more serious. They deal with contemporary situations, a father who turns out to be gay and another who is discovered to have had a second family in another country. There’s a husband whose affair with an indigenous woman exposes an ugliness that shocks him. And there’s a powerful story about a couple whose daughter was killed overseas in a Bali-style bombing. These are the sorts of situations you read or hear about and wonder how the people at the centre of them cope. Clanchy explores just this, with sensitivity and authenticity, teasing out the underlying humanity of his characters. Whether they are a philandering husband, or rebellious daughter, a grieving father or lonely postman, we empathise and are encouraged to see the extent of human capacity to accommodate the unexpected. To put it another way, Clanchy’s characters tend to be confronted with seemingly black-and-white situations but find themselves capable of recognising the greys and responding, in most cases, generously and/or with growth.

The stories are not tricksy. In other words, they are not the sorts of short stories that you get to the end and wonder, “what was that about?” This may come from Clanchy’s experience in writing genre – two collaborative crime thrillers with another Canberra writer, Mark Henshaw. It may also relate to the fact that these are long-form short stories. (My rough calculation is that they are around 15,000 words, some shorter, some longer, whereas short stories are typically half that or less.) You may have noticed that, with the exception of “Slow burn”, I haven’t named the stories I’ve referred to. This is to avoid spoilers implicit in my comments. That said, while each story has a strong narrative arc with clear plot points, the focus is not really the plot. It’s the characters – which is where my interest lies and why I enjoyed the book so much.

I also enjoyed Clanchy’s writing. It’s clear and direct, and abounds with sharp observation. There’s humour, even in the serious stories, and fun wordplay. Here’s a description I loved:

Dot runs the general store and post office in town. She hates the sound of ‘Dot’ and you won’t get the time out of day if you call her that. ‘Dot is what a pen does to an eye,’ she says to anyone who doesn’t know, ‘and I’m an optometrist’s daughter, so call me May.’ And since she’s in charge of the town mail, that’s exactly what people do, though most people think that Dotty would suit her better. (from “True glue”)

As I neared the end of the last story, I was reminded of one of my favourite quotes, Wallace Stegner’s “Civilisations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations” in Angle of repose. In Six, as in most fiction of course, the characters are challenged by some event or situation and need to decide how they will respond. Stegner’s quote can, I believe, be applied not just to civilisations but to relationships and, indeed, character. Six evokes this perfectly. I really don’t know why Clanchy is not better known.

John Clanchy
Six: New tales
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2014
ISBN: 9780987592934

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Debating Australian literature in 1908

February 3, 2015

Browsing digitised papers via National Library’s Trove yet again, I came across an intriguing 1908 article by Page Twenty-Seven columnist Norman Lilley. I gather that Lilley had made some pronouncements on Australian literature which had garnered some strong opinions. I haven’t searched hard for the original statements but we don’t necessarily need them to enjoy Lilley’s report of the ensuing discussion.

Lilley starts with two specific responses, which seem to be commenting on other opinions besides those of Lilley.

Tidminbilly (primarily a letter-to-the-editor writer I think) feels that 6×8 (pen-name of Dick Holt, about whom I’ll write more another day) was right to criticise “exaggeration” in Australian writing, but argues that the main problem is not in exaggerating “characters and incidents” as 6×8 had apparently said. Tidminbilly argues that the “defect” comes from writers exaggerating the importance of these characters and incidents. S/he says:

I cannot think, as our Australian scribes would have us do, that the harsh caw of the crow, on the top rail of the stockyard impresses the bushman more than the wealth of bird melody which greets him as he faces the early morning’s freshness. It is this diseased hankering after the abnormal which makes Australia, as viewed through its literature, appear more like a camping-ground than a home.

It is, Tidminbilly says, “the multitude of small joys and small sorrows which make up a man’s life”. Perhaps! But, not so exciting to write about methinks!

Talbot’s comments, as reported by Lilley, make me want to find 6×8’s comments. Here’s Talbot (please excuse the large chunk):

‘6×8′ makes himself ridiculous. Is it necessary for Lawson’s characters to exist? Characters do not “exist”: they are created. A story-writer is judged, by his ability to create them, ditto situations and scenery. Collection of fact is but a part, and a small part at that, of the writer’s business. If a writer uses South Pole matter, indisputably he ought to go there for it. Whether a writer spends 30 years or 30 days in the bush isn’t of any consequence. Perfect literal accuracy in small details is necessary to a traveller, but not essential to a story-writer. What is desired is the power to create situations, scenes, characters, and original incidents. … I only get THE WORKER occasionally, for its literary pages. Looking over such of the last few years, I find a considerable number of short stories ”by Phil Fairleigh”, ranging from Kanakadom in the far North to Western copper country and Bairnsdale (Victorian) hop land. The local color may or may not be correct, but of the writer’s power to correctly conjure up striking situations, invent new ideas, there can be no doubt. Let anyone who doubts this read “The Magic Stone,” “The Curse of Copper,” “Wire Netting,” “The Stowaway,” etc. The chief necessity of bush or any other writing your correspondents entirely overlook — style and originality. Can anyone deny in Phil Fairleigh the absence of that introspective egotism, bushranger glorification, and low-down pandering to not the best qualities in human nature which disfigure so much of Lawson’s work? The musical strength of Fairleigh’s sentiment, the melody of his style, the consummate ease of his long sentences — always a good test — will bear out a certain literary University professor’s statement: “He is likely to become the first stylist in Australia. A quality not much in evidence in Australia, which has been Bulletinized into snap sentences, so that the reader feels he is being shot at all the time, instead of passing easily and unconsciously on.”

First stylist? Lawson, whether he deserves it or not, has survived in our literary memory, while Phil Fairleigh hasn’t. Still, I agree with much of what Talbot says about what’s important in literature. Style and originality, the ability to “conjure up striking situations”, are more important than factual accuracy in fiction. (To me, anyhow).

Lilley then continues by discussing other opinions, such as those of “Simple Simon” (SS) and “Town Girl” (these could all be blog names today, don’t you reckon). SS, Lilley tells us, argues that “the secret why many readers are taking a dislike to Australian writing” is that it’s too “stolid”. SS says that Lilley’s own writing is “stolid” (which is defined in Lilley’s dictionary as “dull, foolish, stupid”) too! Lilley counters with:

If under any circumstances readers take a dislike to writings about their own country the fault is very evidently in the readers, not the writers. The writer must first please himself, then the editor, then the public: he could hardly do so by being either foolish, dull, or stupid.

Blame the reader, eh? Anyhow, SS apparently likes “imported reading matter” in which “there is absence of mere individuality”, but Lilley argues that writing, imported or not, that has no individuality is “rubbish”. That doesn’t sound like a “stolid” argument to me! Lilley goes on, presumably continuing to argue against SS, that:

Judging by the literary turnover of a single Australian publishing firm (Messrs. Angus and Robertson), amounting to about twenty thousand volumes per annum, there is no justification for the assumption that bush writers and their writings “fail to please the literary palate.”

He then praises Australian bush writing versus “drab stories … like the work of the Newlyn school of art, of Gissing and Gorky [which have] often proved very popular”. He continues that:

I do not think Lawson’s “handful of followers” (!) will be disturbed at the carping of “Simple Simon.” I have yet to find any “artificiality” or “stolidity” in the writings of Lawson or Sorenson. I should imagine writing of that description had no chance of getting past the eye of an editor.

I love his faith in editors and publishers. Anyhow, he then turns to 6×8,

6 x 8″ considers that no Australian writer has succeeded “in truthfully picturing bush life.” In the widest sense no one man could portray the life of a whole continent, but if he means to imply that Lawson, Barbara Baynton, Sorenson, Miles Franklin, Favenc, Edward Palmer, Gregory, “Nomad,” and a dozen others are incorrect with the section of it they deal with, he simply shows his own ignorance of that particular section. None of these writers “grossly exaggerate, caricature, or burlesque freely.” If any literary qualities are lacking it is those of fancy, passion, imagination, and invention, and Dorrington excels in these qualities.

Some of these writers, like the aforementioned Fairleigh, are no longer well-known to us. Clearly, though, we need to check out Dorrington.

Agreeing with Talbot, Lilley argues against a focus on facts, but says that

writers embellish and enhance on a basis of realism — the very thing they are required to do. It is a pity they do not do so to a greater extent. Editors will not print the simple fact: they want attractive fact. It is original skill, not fact, that is paid for.

There are the editors again!

And finally, he responds to “Town Girl” starting with an aside, “what is the matter with these girls?” Hmm… It seems that she criticised writing of his that had been published elsewhere. After defending himself somewhat and returning once again to praising Lawson, he concludes with, it seems, more references to her criticisms:

Will “6 x 8″ particularise? Will “Town Girl” name an over-exaggerated bush character?” Lawson may have been “suckled by journalism”: he does not appear to be any the worse for it. … I did not say the yellow robin, which I know to be a silent bird, had a flute. I have been on the land several times my self; with the assistance of the undertaker I intend to go again. I hope there will be no girl critics there. The girl critic is usually better employed darning her brother’s socks.

Take that “Town Girl”! I guess this was 1908, but “6×8″ didn’t come in for such a put-down.

Nonetheless, I found the article elucidating – combining a sense of “it was ever thus” with insight into some specific literary arguments of the times. I’ll continue exploring Trove …

Pulse: First 2014 (Review)

February 2, 2015

Now here’s the thing. I’m a librarian by training, so I have certain expectations of how publications are titled, and Pulse, I must say, confused me. However, we librarians also know that publishers and writers don’t care about our rules; they just do what appeals to them! Fair enough. They’re the creators after all. Still, when I see a serial publication titled Pulse: First 2014, my immediate assumption is that the serial’s title is Pulse, and that I have in my hand the first edition for 2014. Not so, in this case. In fact, the serial – here, an annual – is titled First, and the title for the 2014 edition is Pulse! Got it? I have now!

So, what is First? It is “an anthology of creative works by students at the University of Canberra”. It has been published as First since 1995, but it commenced in 1993 under another title, Analectica. The editors of the 2014 edition therefore see Pulse as the anthology’s 21st volume, a “coming-of-age” edition. An impressive achievement I think. I’m not an expert on student-writing publications but 21 years in a world where projects come and go with some rapidity demonstrates a wonderful commitment by the university to its teaching of writing, design and editing.

The volume was put together by an editorial committee comprising students, some of whom feature in the volume. We are assured however that entries were all read blind. According to the university’s online news site, Monitor Online, there were 130 entries from which the final 26 stories and poems were chosen. Two prizes were given, though this is not noted in the volume: Best short story to Andrew Myers for “Neon Snow”, and best poem to Madonna Quixley for “The Archeological Dig”. The Monitor Online article also says that this was the first time all first year design students at the University submitted designs for the book’s cover. Sarah Watson won with her design which suggests “a sharp and energetic heartbeat”. It’s an attractive design, simple but strong, and I like the way a simplified version of the heartbeat (or pulse) carries through at the bottom of each page. Very stylish.

So, the content. I’m always interested in the order used in anthologies. In this collection, the first story, Alex Henderson’s imaginative “Easiest job in the world”, is futuristic, about a new way of creating energy using human power. There is a sinister mismatch between the protagonist’s unquestioning acceptance of his/her role and the reader’s suspicion that this acceptance is dangerously naive. It makes for a powerful start to the anthology. The last story is, fittingly, about death! Titled “Death’s apprentice”, and by Kaitlyn Wilson, it’s a reassuring, somewhat light-hearted, but by no means trivialising exploration of dying. In between is a diverse collection of works including poems, a graphic short story and a travel piece, as well as more short stories. Let’s talk about the poems, first.

Nine, if I’ve counted correctly, of the works are poems. I laughed at Cameron Steer’s “Nuts”, and smiled at the wry but wistful “Love song” in which an uncertain Katherine McKerrow writes to her potential lover, as yet unknown:

I’m not sure you should
look for me.
Try someone made with more
reality, brave enough to sing with the world

I loved Marjorie Morrissey’s short but evocative poem, “Canberra”, in which she captures the life and noise of the bird we love to hate, the Sulphur-crested cockatoo. If you like dogs, you’ll relate to the powerplay between master and dog in Owen Bullock’s “On the beach”, and if you like Murakami you’ll enjoy spotting his books in Gloria Sebestyn’s “Ode to Murakami”. Then, of course, there’s Madonna Quixley’s winning “The Archeological Dig” to which I can certainly relate. It starts:

Called ‘my side of the bedroom’,
it bears imprints of
geological and metaphorical
layers; not necessarily
related to years or epochs.
Books, almost categorised,
files, letters, pretty pieces of
paper that wrapped
gifts, now unclothed,
lie strewn throughout the sediment.
There are attempts at organisation
amongst the dust.

Against this, in the margin, I wrote “oh yes”!

This is an unusual anthology – at least in my experience – for the diversity of forms it contains, the most surprising of which is a graphic short story. It’s “The bringer” by architecture student Christopher Olalere. The art is sure, with a lovely use of colour. Like a few of the stories in the anthology, it has a speculative fiction element, this one to do with a “wishing star” that isn’t what it appears.

I wish, as I’ve said before, that I could comment on all of the pieces, but we’d be here forever, so I’ll just comment now on a few of the short stories. I liked, for example, Kieran Lindsay’s “Emily”, which is a cancer story with an unexpected ending. Ashley John’s “Not a toy” is about an arguing couple in which the apparently down-trodden husband gets his own back in a shocking way, while Rachel Vella’s “The noose” is a surprising story about a rather sour mother-son relationship. Claire Brunsdon effectively builds up tension in “Run”. I enjoyed Niki van Buuren’s “Only silence leads to salvation” about a future world in which music has been banned! Wah! No music? The story itself is a little predictable, perhaps, but I did laugh at the idea of a “Silence Revolution”. Andrew Myers’ “Neon snow” is a father-son story about a father’s concern for his gay son, and his promise to always be there. Nick Fuller’s entertaining “How not to write”, on the other hand, provides some wise advice about writing, despite its “philonoetic hebephrenia*”!

I wasn’t sure what to expect of a tertiary student anthology, but I enjoyed it. Not all the students are young. Some, from the bios, are clearly “mature-age”. Consequently, there’s a range of stories from those dealing with transition to adulthood to those exploring more mature relationships. I was intrigued by the overall tone. Although individual pieces vary and although much of the subject matter – like cancer, the environment, noxious relationships, good relationships under threat, and technology – is serious, there is, somehow, a light touch. Misery isn’t laboured, and yet there is no sense that life is easy either. Interesting too is the fact that several pieces either fall into the speculative fiction spectrum or involve eerie happenings or other-world beings. Does this signify a loosening of genre division, a willingness to break free of the purely rational – or it simply that this is a broad-brush anthology?

Whatever the case, Davis puts it well in her Introduction:

There’s magic, humour, hope, fear, colour, variety, simplicity and complexity in this Pulse: First 2014.

There’s talent and heart too. It will be interesting to see where these writers go next.

awwchallenge2015Pulse: First 2014
Managing editor: Irma Gold
Introduction: Brooke Davis
Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra, 2014
ISSN: 1838-5303

(Review copy courtesy University of Canberra)

* “Philonoetic : intellectual” AND “Hebephrenia : a condition of adolescent silliness” (according to Nick Fuller)


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