Monday musings on Australian literature: Reconciliation Day musings

Since 2018 in the Australian Capital Territory, the first Monday after (or on) 27 May (the anniversary of the 1967 referendum) is a public holiday called Reconciliation Day. It is part of Reconciliation Week which, says Wikipedia, aims “to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and foster reconciliation discussion and activities”. Because Mr Gums and I have reached crunch time in our downsizing project, we did not engage in any of the focused activities around town. However, quite coincidentally, my decluttering task today included the books that set me off down my own reconciliation path, not that we called it that then. So, I thought to share them with you – and some of my own journey, from the keen but naive teenager to the better-educated person I hope I am today.

It all started at high school in Sydney, although there were beginnings in my early high school years in the outback town of Mt Isa. In Sydney, though, it was two women – the school librarian, Miss (Ellen) Reeve, and my modern history teacher, Mrs (Mary) Reynolds – who encouraged my interest in civil rights and to whom I am eternally grateful. When I was 15, I wrote my first piece on the need for fair treatment of “Australian Aborigines”* – for the school magazine. I intended well, but looking at it now I can see that it was naive and simplistic.

The books I read in those days included:

  • Brian Hodge and Allen Whitehurst, Nation and people: An introduction to Australia in a changing world, 1967: its progress-focused tone was typical of the times. It did recognise, albeit in passing, “the first black owners of our continent” but it also conveyed that lie that they didn’t offer much opposition. It briefly discussed paternalism, assimilation, and integration, which, it says, “most thoughtful people are now favouring”.
  • Douglas Lockwood, I, the Aboriginal (1960 Bill’s post) and We, the Aborigines (1963, my ed. 1970): written by a white man in the voice of his Aboriginal subjects, these were some of my first introductions to Indigenous lives – at least outback ones. Such an approach is politically incorrect now but, in its favour, the table of contents lists every person by name and “tribe”.

Then we move to my university years, and although my major was English literature, I also studied some anthropology. This included traditional ethnographic studies, using AP Elkin’s classic The Australian Aborigines (with its uncomfortable subtitle, How to understand them), but also involved more political reading, like CD Rowley’s The destruction of Aboriginal society (1970). It was my first serious literary introduction to the truths we are still learning now. Here is what the back cover of my 1972 Pelican edition says:

The destruction of Aboriginal society is a powerful and detailed study of the history and tragedy of the interaction between black and white Australians. Most white Australians today are unaware of the part the Aboriginal played in the history of settlement. Even if he only stood to be shot, he influenced profoundly the kind of man who made a successful settler.

The Aboriginal has been “written out” of Australian history; the tragic significance of conflicts have long been bowdlerised and forgotten. Yet, even if vicariously, our guilt remains, as does our responsibility. Aboriginal attitudes take on a new dimension in the light of history, and no policies should be formulated except in that light. This is a book to stir the sleeping white Australian conscience.

That was over 50 years ago! What have we been doing? Anyhow, it’s the book that informed my understanding, by which I mean it kickstarted my thinking from simple ideas about fairness and equality to comprehending the sociological complexity. It is also the book that, in 1982, the academic Peter Biskup said had begun, twelve years previously, “the process of rewriting the history of contact of Australian Aboriginals”.

These writers were all white, however. The first work I read by a First Nations writer would have to be, as it was for many of my generation, Sally Morgan’s My place (1987). Sally Morgan conveyed the fear and shame that attended being Indigenous in modern Australia, how this caused her family members to try to hide their heritage if at all possible, and the devastating intergenerational (though we didn’t use that term then) impact this can have.

Since then, and particularly since 2000, my reading of First Nations writers has increased dramatically, much of it documented on this blog, so I’m not going to repeat all that now.

My main point is, really, how horrifyingly slow all this is. We have had, among other things, the 1967 Referendum; Mabo and Wik, and the related Native Title legislations in the 1990s; the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody tabled in 1991; the Bringing Them Home report tabled in 1997; the National Apology in 2008; and most recently, the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017. Having come of age in the 1960s with all its idealistic fervour, I would never have believed that here I would be in the 2020s with so little real progress having been achieved, with relationships fraught and a referendum on constitutional recognition struggling to gain forward momentum.

But, it’s not about me, so I will share the theme of this year’s National Reconciliation Week, which is, appropraitely,

Be a Voice for Generations.

The theme  encourages all Australians to be a voice for reconciliation in tangible ways in our everyday lives – where we livework and socialise.

For the work of generations past, and the benefit of generations future, act today for a more just, equitable and reconciled country for all.

And will leave you with CD Rowley’s conclusion. The words are of his time but the meaning is still valid, wouldn’t you say?

The future status and role of the Aboriginal will be a significant indicator of the kind of society which eventually takes shape in Australia.

* Nomenclature has changed over time, but in this article I have used different terms as appropriate to the subject and time.

Slow reading: Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice book covers
Some of the editions of Pride and Prejudice owned by my JA group

Back in the early to mid-2010s, my local Jane Austen group undertook a program of slow reading Jane Austen’s novels, coinciding with those books’ 200th anniversaries. Given that began around a decade ago, we decided last year that it was time to do another slow read program, and to stick with a chronological approach – that is, chronological in terms of publication. This meant that we did Sense and sensibility last year, and have just completed this year’s book, Pride and prejudice.

It is truly amazing just how much “new” we can find to talk about with books most of us have read not once, not twice, but multiple times, proving I suppose Italian writer Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic. Hmmm, no, not “definition” but “definitions”. He has fourteen of them, but here are the two that are most applicable to my post:

4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.

6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

These explain why slow reads can be particularly enjoyable with classics: once you know the plot, you are freed to discover how the author did it, to think about why they did it, and to notice more of the things they were telling you that you didn’t notice on the first read in your rush to find out what happens.

So, over the last three months, my group’s discussions have ranged across all of these, including finding some questions that we hadn’t thought to ask before. In Austen there are always those things she doesn’t tell us because they were known to her audience. These are the things we gradually pick up over years of Austen reading and research, such as the entail. But on this read, members raised questions regarding plot events that many of us hadn’t thought to ask before. For example, when Mr Darcy tells Elizabeth, on their meeting accidentally at Pemberley, that his sister “wishes to be known” to her, we wondered what had he told her about Elizabeth? Had he unburdened his heart to this shy young girl? Or, was it just an excuse to encourage Elizabeth to hang around a bit longer? And, when Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth because she fears there’s an engagement (or “an understanding”) between her and Darcy, where had she got this idea from?

We also found – yet again – that we had changed our minds about some of the characters, though sometimes these were diametrically opposed. For example, one remembered that when she first read the book as a schoolgirl, she felt “enormously sorry for ‘poor misunderstood Mrs Bennet’” but now she “would willingly strangle her”. For me, it’s the opposite. I had little sympathy for Mrs Bennet in my first readings, but now, understanding her worries about her daughters’ futures and Mr Bennet’s negligence in providing for them, I feel some sympathy for her – though her behaviour, all the same, is ridiculous. By contrast, in my early readings of Pride and prejudice I was far more sympathetic to Mr Bennet than I am now.

In fact, many of us in fact had little epiphanies regarding different characters that we shared with the group. Sweet Jane Bennet was thought just far too saccharine by one member, but she read some analyses that likened the angelic Jane to the sentimental 18th century heroines. Philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith argued, she told us, that feeling rather than reason provides the grounding for morality – and Jane exemplifies this. She sympathises with everyone, and behaves graciously to all. Our member wondered whether she should temper her view of Jane – though by the end she still felt Jane was just “too nice (to be real)”.

Some of these changes are due to the way slow reading exposes subtle clues that we don’t see on early reads, but some, I’m sure are due to life experiences. Austen is the perfect writer for illuminating (and then informing) our individual experiences of life.

We discussed which characters changed over the course of the novel, and, surprise, surprise, we didn’t all agree. No, let me rephrase that: we all agreed that Elizabeth and Darcy change, but some felt Mr Bennet did too, while others of us felt not – or, perhaps, only for a moment!

And then there’s the writing and the plotting. On each read we find more examples of just how beautifully, and cleverly, Austen writes. As one member said this week, as soon as he starts reading her sentences he’s drawn in – more than with any other writer. And then he shared a funny little quote from the novel that I had picked out too. It’s when Elizabeth first sees Pemberley from the outside, and takes in its beauty and grandness,

and, at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

Book cover

Such an understatement … but of course the novel is full of statements like these, of satire and little ironies, of big and little insights. We also found interesting parallels, such as between those two ridiculous women, Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine, who, said one member, are silly and illogical in different ways. Which brings me back to sweet Jane. Writing to Elizabeth to tell her about Lydia’s running off with Wickham, she says of her mother’s overwrought behaviour that “Could she exert herself, it would be better; but this is not to be expected.“But this is not to be expected” tells us that Jane knows her mother very well – and more, I’d argue, that Jane, while generous towards people, is not so taken in that she doesn’t see what’s what when it’s there in front of her. She just gives people the benefit of the doubt. I like that.

I fear this has been a self-indulgent ramble that hasn’t said much of substance, but it’s the best I can do right now!

Meanwhile, to those of you who do slow reads, why do you like doing them, and what you most get out of them?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Best Young Australian Novelists (5)

Okay, so last week I said that post would be the end of the current little run of awards posts – but then I saw the announcement of this year’s Best Young Australian Novelists award, and decided we could cope with just one more. I really will try to offer something new (or, do I mean old – time will tell) next week.

This award, as I have explained before, was established in 1997 by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s then literary editor, Susan Wyndham. This year is, thus, its 27th. It’s an emerging writers’ award, open to “writers aged 35 and younger” at the time their book (novel or short story collection) is published. They don’t have to be debuts, though they often are. Last year’s winner was Diana Reid’s Love and virtue, with Ella Baxter’s New animal and Michael Burrows’ Where the line breaks being runners-up.

This year we seem to have three equal winners, with each receiving $5,000:

  • Katerina Gibson’s Women I know (debut short story collection)
  • George Haddad’s Losing face (second novel, just longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award)
  • Jay Carmichael’s Marlo (second novel) (Lisa’s review)

The judging panel comprised the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum editor, Melanie Kembrey (who also judged last year’s award), plus writers Bram Presser (whose The book of dirt won several prizes including the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction) and Fiona Kelly McGregor (whose Iris was longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award). The prize money comes from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

The Herald‘s Melanie Kembrey, writing in the emailed newsletter I receive, said of the winners:

If these books haven’t already found a place on your reading list, they should. Gibson’s short story collection − clever, hilarious and inventive − will have you returning for rereads. Carmichael’s Marlo, the story of a love affair between two men in conservative 1950s Melbourne, will heal and break your heart in equal measure. It’s a slight novel that packs a big punch. Haddad’s Losing Face is alive with the sights and sounds of western Sydney, and deftly tackles the subjects of masculinity, misogyny and sexual violence

The winners, briefly

Most of the information below comes from the announcement in The Sydney Morning Herald (and, presumably, The Age).

Katerina Gibson

Women I know is a debut collection of short stories from an author whose work has appeared in such well-established literary journals as Granta, Kill your darlings, and Overland. She was also the Pacific regional winner of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

The SMH reported that the judges described this collection as showing “astonishing skill with the form – moving easily from actual to fantastical worlds, from sharp, straightforward prose to concrete poetry.”

Gibson herself is reported as saying that she loves the short story form, that “there’s something you can do with a short story that isn’t possible in longer writing. You can take more stylistic risks or try bolder concepts”.

George Haddad

Haddad’s first novel was, in fact, the novella, Populate and perish, which won the 2016 Viva La Novella competition. According to Star Observer, his second novel, Losing face, grew out of his doctoral studies at Western Sydney University “where he was researching the representation of masculinity in contemporary Australian literature, looking to authors like Christos Tsiolkas and Peter Polites for inspiration”. 

The SMH reported Haddad as saying that “It was really important for me to contribute to the conversation and to snapshot characters and situations that reflected contemporary Australian society as accurately as I knew it. The novel was always in me, but it was particularly sparked by my doctoral research on the intersection of masculinities, shame and suburbia.”

Jay Carmichael

Carmichael’s second novel, Marlo, follows his first novel Ironbark. It was about a young gay man coming of age in a small country town, and was, says The Guardian, “so deftly written it made Christos Tsiolkas jealous”. Lisa, in her review of Marlo linked above, writes that it “reveals the hostile environment of 1950s Melbourne for a young man discovering his sexuality when the laws of the land denied him the right to be.  It’s a very powerful, moving novella, tracing the coming-of-age of Christopher, a young gay man escaping the constrictions of the small Gippsland town of Marlo”. 

According to the SMH, Marlo is “a perfectly crafted story” and quotes the judges as saying that it “makes history immediate, every page pulsing with heart and sensuality”.

Have you read any of these books?

William Trevor, The dressmaker’s child (#Review)

I knew, when Kim (Reading Matters) and Cathy (746 Books) announced their “A year with William Trevor” project, that I had a little book containing some William Trevor short stories but, could I find it? Nope. It was a little book after all. And then, voilà, just the other day while I was doing my book decluttering and packing, I came across it. It’s Pocket Penguin 22 from Penguin’s 70 Years celebration, and is called The dressmaker’s child, but it contains three short stories, so these will be my (very willing) contribution to the project. Two of the stories were chosen by the author from previous collections, but for the titular story this is its first appearance in book form.

Most of you will know of Trevor (1928-2016) but, in a nutshell, he’s an Irish writer of novels and novellas, short stories and plays. He won many literary awards in his life, and was particularly well regarded as a short story writer – making him right up my alley. In fact I have read one of his short stories before, early in this blog.

In her most recent Trevor review (of a novel titled The children of Dynmouth) kimbofo writes that it didn’t take her long to feel that she was in “familiar William Trevor turf in which he takes a seemingly ordinary character with eccentric traits and lets them loose in a confined setting”. This could apply to the short story, “The dressmaker’s child”, as it is about a young nineteen-year-old motor mechanic, Cahal, working for his father in a small town. He’s the only son in a family of girls – all of whom have left – and he is “scrawny” with a “long face usually unsmiling”. The story opens on him applying WD-40 “to the only bolt his spanner wouldn’t shift”, which sets a tone that perhaps other things are, or might be, locked up for our protagonist.

As he continues to work on the car, a young Spanish couple appears, wanting to be driven out to see the Sacred Virgin (Our Lady of Tears) who they believed – that is, they had been told so by a barman – would bless their marriage. Now Cahal knows the statue’s special spiritual status had been disproved and thus rejected by the church, but with a 50-euros job in the offing, he doesn’t actively dissuade them from their mission.

Trevor describes the trip, complete with hints of self-delusions, until on the way home Cahal’s car hits a child – the dressmaker’s child – who is known to run at cars and who, up till then at least, had never been hurt. With the Spanish couple kissing in the back of the car, and choosing avoidance over action, Cahal continues driving despite being aware of “something white lying” on the road behind him. Back in town, nothing is said about the dressmaker’s daughter for a few days, but Cahal remains uncertain. It affects his relationship with his young woman, and when the dressmaker herself starts to appear in town at his side, hinting that she knows what had happened, but is not reporting him, his fears and uncertainty increase.

This is not a thriller, but there is a plot and an ending (of course) so I will leave the story here. It’s nightmarish stuff, but very real too.

Trevor’s writing, his unfolding of story and character, is a pleasure to read. Take Cahal’s character, for example. From the stuck bolt (albeit does start to loosen, hinting at possibilities), he is depicted as rather gormless, bowling along, taking opportunities as they come without a lot of consideration – and somewhat different to his father who, during a conversation about the Swedish couple, shakes his head “as if he doubted his son, which he often did and usually with reason.”

This brings me to the point of the story which, as we are slowly brought to see, is the impact on Cahal of what he did or didn’t do – and the almost catatonic fear it engenders:

Continuing his familiar daily routine of repairs and servicing and answering the petrol bell, Cahal found himself unable to dismiss the connection between them that the dressmaker had made him aware of when she’d walked behind him in the night, and knew that the roots it came from spread and gathered strength and were nurtured, in himself, by fear. Cahal was afraid without knowing what he was afraid of, and when he tried to work this out he was bewildered. 

It changes his life – not in the way we might expect but in a way that shows with absolute clarity how avoidance and inaction can be as potent as anything else. Trevor, like my favourite short story writers, is less about drama and more about the complex realities of human interaction in which accommodations rather than simple resolutions are more often the go. I look forward to the next story.

William Trevor
“The dressmaker’s child”
in William Trevor, The dressmaker’s child
London: Penguin Books, 2005
pp. 1-20
ISBN: 9780141022536
(First published in The New Yorker magazine, October 4, 2004: available online)

Miles Franklin Award 2023 longlist

I haven’t posted a Miles Franklin longlist for a while, but when I saw today’s come through with its intriguing mix of titles, I decided it was time to do one again.

The longlist

  • Kgshak Akec, Hopeless kingdom (UWAP)
  • Robbie Arnott, Limberlost (Text) (my review)
  • Jessica Au, Cold enough for snow (Giramondo) (my review)
  • Shankari Chandran, Chai time at Cinnamon Gardens (Ultimo Press) (Brona’s review)
  • Claire G Coleman, Enclave (Hachette) (Bill’s review, on my TBR)
  • George Haddad, Losing face (UQP)
  • Pirooz Jafari, Forty nights (Ultimo Press)
  • Julie Janson, Madukka: The river serpent (UWAP)
  • Yumna Kassab, The lovers (Ultimo Press)
  • Fiona Kelly McGregor, Iris (Pan Macmillan Australia) (Lisa’s review; kimbofo’s review)
  • Adam Ouston, Waypoints (Puncher & Wattmann) (Lisa’s review)

Some random observations:

  • There is impressive diversity in the writers listed as I recollect there was last year, including seven of the eleven being by women, and two being by First Nations writers.
  • Independent publishers are well represented, which is also becomings more common in recent prize listings
  • Only a small number of these have been reviewed by my usual list of litblogger suspects, which makes me wonder about our reading choices versus those being chosen for these awards lists.
  • Most of the novels are by authors with at least one book under their belt but Hopeless kingdom is a debut novel by a Sudanese-Australian author. Like many debut novels it is inspired by her own experience of migration from Africa to Australia. It won the Dorothy Hewett Award for unpublished manuscript in 2021. 
  • There’s been little commentary today on the news sites, but hopefully this is because the announcement is less than a day old – or, maybe longlists just don’t garner the same interest as shortlists?

The judging panel

The 2023 judges are, from the announcement on the Perpetual Trustees website, Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian of the State Library of NSW and Chair; author and literary critic, Dr Bernadette Brennan; literary scholar and translator, Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty; book critic, Dr James Ley; and author and editor, Dr Elfie Shiosaki. This is, I believe, the same panel as last year’s, but Chakraborty and Shiosaki were new last year so there is some commitment to refreshing the panel. I don’t think it hurts for there to be some stability in panels, but a managed turnover is also important. (Says she!)

From this website too is a statement from the judging panel:

The 2023 longlist is a reflection of the breadth and depth of contemporary Australian story-telling. The eleven longlisted novels define Australian literature as a transformative space where writers are singing the songs of the nation today. They reverberate with the cadences of this land where Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded, but also bring to us mellifluous sounds from far-away lands, weaving together literary traditions from around the world. The words of our novelists, grounded in personal experience, poetry and philosophy, are heralds of the new dawn of Australian fiction: they hum and hiss with language that is newly potent and styles that are imaginative and fresh.

The shortlist will be announced on 20 June, and the winner on 25 July.


Monday musings on Australian literature: Hilary McPhee Award

I’m on a roll! That is, this week’s Monday Musings is another post on a lesser known literary prize. I’ll probably stop here for a while, but I came across this one in my notes, and thought, why not? The award is the Hilary McPhee Award (obviously, given the post title!) and is managed by the University of Melbourne. It is relatively new, having been established in 2016, and no, it is not due to a bequest. Hilary McPhee is still – I’m pleased to say – alive.

McPhee is probably known to most Australian readers, but may not be so well known further afield. I did write about her some years ago. However, I will recap now. Hilary McPhee is one of Australia’s literary giants. She, with the late Diana Gribble, founded in 1975 a small independent publishing company called McPhee Gribble. They filled a major gap in Australian publishing at the time by bringing us new Australian authors like Tim WintonHelen Garner and Murray Bail. I have reviewed these writers here because they have all gone on to be giants themselves. McPhee Gribble also commissioned Carmel Bird to write a guide for aspiring writers, which resulted in the well-regarded (and highly readable), Dear Writer (1988). It’s so well regarded in fact that a revised edition was published in 2013 as an eBook titled Dear Writer Revisited. McPhee Gribble survived for 14 years before being sold in 1989 to Penguin. (Soon after, Diana Gribble established Text Publishing.) McPhee documented the history of their publishing adventure in a memoir, Other people’s words (which I read before blogging). It’s a great read – still.

Anyhow, back to the award, which is formally described on the University of Melbourne’s website. It is funded by a donation of $90,000 from Hilary McPhee’s brother, Peter McPhee, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Melbourne. It is for

writers making contributions to the Melbourne University Publishing Limited (MUP) publication, the Meanjin Journal or any replacement or successor publication to that journal.

The actual process, as described by the University in its documentation, is that Melbourne University Press (MUP) will “provide a shortlist of candidates for the Award, from which the Dean of the Faculty [of Arts] (or nominee) will select the recipient in consultation with the Chief Executive Officer of MUP”.

So, what exactly is the contribution being awarded? Well, it seems to be an essay – published in Meanjin, which is one of Australia’s oldest literary magazines. In 2022, the prize was worth $3,500, so not a huge prize but surely a decent feather in the cap. (Australia’s “premier” essay-writing prize is, probably, the Calibre Prize, which currently nets its winner around $7.500.) Announcing the winner of the 2022 award, the Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Justice blog was more specific about the award criteria, saying that the award “recognises brave essay writing that makes a fearless contribution to the national debate. Eligible essays are shortlisted from those published in Meanjin each calendar year”.

I have not, unfortunately, been able to find a list of the winners. My search engine found next to nothing, it’s too recent for Trove, and Meanjin does not seem to have a page devoted to the prize, which is a shame. Here is all I’ve been able to find …

McQuire’s essay commences with a quote from Audre Lorde, and then this:

We do not know how many Aboriginal women have gone ‘missing’ in this country. The archives are filled with the ‘missing’: the Aboriginal women who are no longer here to speak; the Aboriginal women who do not have names; the Aboriginal women who do not have graves or places where their families can remember them. There is a comfort that comes with the word ‘missing’, because to be ‘missing’ implies that perhaps they have left on their own accord; that there are no perpetrators or violence enacted against them. As Canadian First Nations lawyer and activist Pam Palmater says, the term ‘missing’ is a misnomer: ‘It seems to imply that these women or girls are just lost or ran away for a few days.’ ‘Missing’ also comes with the assumption that the case is still active. When the police speak of ‘missing persons’, there is an implication that the police are still searching for them, and that they will never tire in their search until those who are ‘missing’ are found or come back. Because they are still ‘missing’, the police do not see themselves as responsible for failing to find them; but instead, see the women themselves as ‘responsible’ for going missing in the first place. There is a term specific to this place, in that women are accused of going ‘walkabout’, which serves to naturalise their disappearances as innate to Aboriginal culture, and not a distinctly settler-colonial phenomenon.

It’s a strong and necessary read…

I’d love to know if you know anything about this prize and its winners.

Jane Austen on travel

It’s been some time since I posted on Jane Austen, but currently my local Jane Austen group is repeating the slow reads we did a decade or so ago when her novels had their 200th anniversaries. Last year, we did Sense and sensibility, and right now we are doing Pride and prejudice.

There are different ways of doing slow reads, as I know many of you are aware because you do them yourselves. Our way is to read and discuss a volume a month, based on the fact that back in Austen’s day novels tended to be published in three volumes, which makes the volume an excellent demarcation for slow reading. So, last month, we read Volume 2 of Pride and prejudice, or Chapters 24 to 42 in modern editions. This volume starts just after the Bingley retinue has moved to London, and it includes Lydia’s going to Brighton and Elizabeth’s visit to Hunsford, where she receives Darcy’s (first) proposal. The volume ends with her arrival in Derbyshire, in the company of her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners.

As those of you who engage in slow reading know, there are many pleasures to be gained from it, and the pleasures are magnified (with great books anyhow) when you slow read a book you’ve read before because, knowing the story, you can glean so much more. Most of us have read this novel many times, but we are always surprised to find something new in our next re-read. What particularly struck me about volume 2 this read was that it is really about “the education of Elizabeth“. She starts this volume being quite prejudiced. She is very sure of herself regarding Wickham’s and Darcy’s characters. She is prepared to give leeway to Wickham in the marriage stakes – that is, his marrying for money not love – but not to her friend Charlotte. But, she then sees how Charlotte has managed her life with Mr Collins, and we see what poor company her family really were anyhow! She also learns that she had misjudged Mr Darcy, and she recognises her own father’s failings. She castigates herself:

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.” 

However, this is not the reason I chose to write this post! The reason is that I also came across a wonderful comment from Elizabeth about travel, a comment that could be as true today as it clearly was then. It comes in chapter 27, after Elizabeth had been discussing Mr Wickham’s sudden romantic interest in the heiress Miss King with her aunt Gardiner. Mrs Gardiner suggests Elizabeth accompany her and her husband on a holiday to, perhaps, the Lakes. This is Elzabeth’s delighted response:

“Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are young men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone–we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”

I’ll leave you there, with the wisdom of our Jane!

Ann Moyal Lecture: Genevieve Bell

The Ann Moyal Lecture is the latest in the suite of lectures presented by the National Library of Australia, due to bequests or sponsorships from third parties. In this case, the bequest came from Ann Moyal, herself, who died at the age of 93 in 2019. Moyal was well known in Canberra for her commitment to scholarship, for her outspoken honesty, and for championing independent research. Her bequest, says the NLA, was for a lecture to be “given by a distinguished speaker on a contemporary question that draws on such fields of knowledge as science, environment, ecology, history, anthropology, art, and technological change”.

The NLA did a good job of meeting the brief in asking Professor Genevieve Bell to give the inaugural lecture, because this woman has quite a CV. She is, as the lecture promo explained, “the Director of the School of Cybernetics, Florence Violet McKenzie Chair, and a Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University (ANU) as well as a Vice President and Senior Fellow at Intel Corporation. She is a cultural anthropologist, technologist and futurist best known for her work at the intersection of cultural practice and technology development”. (She is also, coincidentally, the daughter of academic Diane Bell whose 1987 book, Generations, was one of those game-changing books for me.)

Messages pass through: Retelling stories of the Overland Telegraph Line

I must say that what we got in this lecture was not what I was expecting, but it was gold, all the same. Bell commenced by talking about Ann Moyal’s book on the Overland Telegraph Line, Clear Across Australia: A History of Telecommunications, which used its history to tell new stories about Australia.

Bell then proceeded to view the story of the Overland Telegraph Line through her own lens to show how researching such history can inform contemporary experiences and research. She presented her lecture in five parts (or stories), illustrating it with pertinent historical images, and peppering it with stories about the people who made and worked on the line. These included well-known people, like Charles Todd and certain stationmasters, and the not-so-well-known like a Chinese shopkeeper, and the many linesmen working at the various repeater stations.

It was an intense and lively 45 minutes, but I’ll try share some of the points she made about what studying the OT can offer us. It stems from the fact that the Overland Telegraph was built on excitement about its potential for connecting Australia to the world. Consequently, stories about it have traditionally focused on this achievement, on the idea of its conquering space and, thus, time. BUT as we all appreciate now, it was also built on years of colonial expansion. Its creation is part of the violent dispossession that is at the heart of all Australian stories. Understanding this changes our understanding of the line, Bell argued.

In other words, the line was more than a feat of engineering. It was a complex organisation, a system (or multiple systems). It was also the beginning of data being disconnected from the page, and thus of our digital world. Researching how this all played out in the 19th century can feed into our understanding of how today’s technology can affect relationships, and our attitudes to time and space.

“Knowing the history of technology or the ideas it embodies can provide better questions, reveal potential pitfalls and lessons already learned, and open a window onto the lives of those who learned them”

Bell talked about the building of the line, through, as Charles Todd described it, “a Terra Incognita believed to be a desert”. Todd was not oblivious to the presence of First Nations Australians. He gave clear instructions that they were to be treated (in that paternalistic vein of the era), “kindly but firmly”, and that there was to be no violence unless necessary! The overriding discourse about the line, though, concerned the “annihilation of time and space”. There was no recognition that this also encompassed the “annihilation of ancient culture”.

The OT, said Bell, changed our ways of thinking, of relating to others and to space – and it did this not simply because of the functionality of the line itself.

This led to her main point – that the Line encompassed complex systems. It supported and was supported by multiple settlements along it, and these settlements involved new relationships, new and different tensions (including with the people to whom the land really belonged). Indeed, alongside the stories of these settlements were the First Nations’ stories of the “line”: their stories, people and things moved (and had long moved) along their own lines in the areas the OT crossed.

Bell’s stories about the Line included those of the pastoralists who moved in. The country was now full of humans and animals who did not obey the laws as understood by the original owners.

And so, her lecture continued, teasing out the various stories – people, values, attitudes and roles that grew up long the line. She described the wide variety people living in the communities (stationmasters, linesmen, families), and the people who supplied them. There were unexpected opportunities, said Bell, for immigrants, such as for the Chinese, and for the cameleers and their camels. Amongst all these people there were complicated relationships – with the Aboriginal people, with the government, between each other, and so on. Some people, like the stationmasters, were named, while others, like the linesmen who kept the line going, rarely were. This tells us something.

Bell regularly returned to the First Nations people, and their role and experiences as conveyed by the records. “They were still on their country”, she repeated, but … it was hugely changed, they experienced disease, they longer had control. “They were still on their country … at least for now”.

Any large cybernetic system, which is how she characterised the Line, involves people. The way the Line impacted people is best encountered, she argued, through a cybernetic lens – how many systems were needed to support it, how many interdependencies were there, what stories can be told about it. These systems involve the creation, circulation and curation of information and power. The choices made in the 1870s can inform now.

In short, it was an informative and entertaining lecture about how the past can teach us about the present, and about how we document the truth in sometimes untruthful ways.


There was a short Q&A:

On modern systems: how do we tell the stories of online worlds? Bell referred to the origins of cybernetics, which is about the intersection between systems, people, technology, and the places where things happen. Whether it was the OT or today’s metaverse or AI environments, the questions are the same: who is building it, what are the rules, who makes the rules, what are people doing with the overriding question always being, have we been there before? She said more, but her main point was that it’s very clear that when you start to connect up the world, there are consequences – social, political, legal, regulatory, human. And often, these consequences are unintended. Interrogating stories like that of the OT exposes these consequences.

On the safety of data in OTC: Australia is different to many other jurisdictions in that the line was charged all the time, which created specific management issues. There are many stories, said Bell, about how the fact of it being permanently charged affected its use. It could be, and was, used for multiple purposes, some not completely legal, such as sharing of stock information, for gambling, and so on. There were also complications, such as that caused by Western Australia not agreeing to communication standards and protocols used by the other jurisdictions, resulting in a bit of an Albury-Wodonga railway situation, albeit in Eucla. (For those too young to know, or from elsewhere, Australia did not have an agreed standard railway gauge, which resulted in passengers having to change trains in various places, like Albury-Wodonga.) All these things tell us something about ourselves.

Ann Moyal Lecture
National Library of Australia
8 May 2023
Available online

Monday musings on Australian literature: Melbourne Prize for Literature

Having posted on a literary prize last week – the ACT Book of the Year Award – I decided that I may as well do another one, and give us a break from my recent run of historically-focused Monday Musings posts. This week’s award is another geographically limited one, the Melbourne Prize for Literature.

This award is comparatively new, having been first offered in 2006, and it is, unusually, a triennial award. This is because it is one part of the Melbourne Prize which is awarded, as Wikipedia puts it, “on a rolling three-year basis for Urban Sculpture, Literature and Music, in that order”. It is managed by the Melbourne Prize Trust, which was founded by someone called Simon Warrender in 2005. I did not know who Simon Warrender was, and Wikipedia did not provide a link on his name. However, he is, in fact, in Wikipedia (so there is now a link to him on the Prize’s page!) The English-born Simon Warrender was “a Royal Navy officer and businessman” who migrated to Australia after the war and married into the well-to-do and philanthropic Myer Family.

The Prizes are funded by a range of donors from government, cultural and philanthropic organisations – like the City of Melbourne, The Robert Salzer Foundation, Hardie Grant Books and Readings Bookshop – to the general public.

As Wikipedia’s description of the prize’s order implies, the first prize was for Urban Sculpture. That was in 2005, so the first Melbourne Prize for Literature was awarded in 2006. The Literature Prize is made to “a Victorian published author whose body of published work has made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and to cultural and intellectual life”. In other words, it is one of those “body of work”/contribution to literature types of award. It can, says the Prize website, “include all genres, for example, fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays, screenplays and poetry”, and they take this seriously as you will see from the winners below. It is a valuable prize, currently netting the winner AUD60,000.

Gerald Murnane, The Plains, bookcover

The winners to date are:

  • 2006 Helen Garner: novelist, short-story writer, screen-writer, non-fiction writer, essayist
  • 2009 Gerald Murnane: novelist, memoirist, short story writer, poet
  • 2012 Alex Miller: novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright
  • 2015 Chris Wallace-Crabbe: poet
  • 2018 Alison Lester: author and illustrator of, mostly, children’s book
  • 2021 Christos Tsiolkas: novelist, playwright, screenwriter

Links are to my posts on the writer. As you can see I have written about all of them, at least once, except for the poet (though he has had several mentions in passing! I guess that’s better than nothing.)

But wait, there’s more, because other awards are made alongside the main Prize for Literature. One is the Best Writing Award which is for (or was initially) “a piece of published or produced work in any genre by a Victorian writer 40 years and under, which is an outstanding example of clarity, originality and creativity”. By 2018, they seem to have dropped the age criterion. The winners to date are:

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

In 2021, this prize was not offered, but they presented The Writers Prize. It went to Eloise Victoria Grills. According to the website the prize was for “an essay (10,000 words maximum) of outstanding originality, literary merit and creative freshness”. (I should add that this Prize had also been presented in 2015, in addition to The Best Writing Award, and was won by Kate Ryan.) What will happen in 2024?

The other main prize in the suite is the Civic Choice Award. It is voted for by the public from the finalists for the main award/s. Most recently this has been done via an online form available on the Prize website. The winners to date are:

  • 2006 Henry von Doussa for The park bench
  • 2009 Amra Pajalic for The good daughter
  • 2012 Tony Birch for Blood (Lisa’s review)
  • 2015 Robyn Annear for her essay “Places without mercy”
  • 2018 Louise Milligan for Cardinal
  • 2021 Maxine Beneba Clarke

Over the years there have been other awards, or combinations, or slight changes, like a Residency Award. But, you can see it all at the Prize website which I linked to above.

The Melbourne Prize for Literature – indeed the Melbourne Prize as a whole – is an impressive suite of awards that supports the arts by offering decent prize money and recognises the state’s serious practitioners of their art.

Six degrees of separation, FROM Hydra TO …

Oh my, oh my, I have not written a post since Monday. I am so focused on downsizing and packing, and everything else involved in selling a home, that I’m not getting much time for anything else – and when I do finally get time, all I want to do is fall asleep on my nice, new sunny bed (if it’s still the afternoon that is.) So, let’s just move on from all this, and get onto Six Degrees. If you don’t know how it works, please check host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. In May – to sound like a broken record, it’s another book I haven’t read – Adriane Howell’s debut novel, Hydra. I like the sound of the setting – the protagonist works in antiques (where the current focus, as many of you will know, is mid-century furniture, the sort my parents bought!) However, my first link will not relate to this, but to …

… something pretty obscure but that gives a little air to a different sort of work. Adriane Howell, besides being a novelist, established a literary journal a few years ago. It’s called Gargouille, is published in printed form, and was created with Sarah Wreford. Another literary journal was established by two women a few years ago, albeit an online one, Cicerone. Its focus is emerging writers and the founders are Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran. Jin and Moran also published an anthology under the Cicerone banner, These strange outcrops: Writing and art from Canberra (my review), and that’s my first link.

I met Rosalind Moran in 2019 when she successfully applied for the New Territory Blogger program. The other successful applicant that year was Shelley Burr whose debut novel Wake (my review) was published last year, to significant acclaim in the crime writing world (and beyond.)

Wake is a debut crime novel in a rural setting – rural noir is one name for its genre. Another debut rural noir crime novel is Delia Owens’ Where the crawdads sing (my review). I could have chosen an Australian one, but felt it was time we sailed to other shores, so was pleased to find a relevant link that we could travel to.

I’m afraid, however, that my next post brings us back to Australia – at least as far as the author is concerned, but not in setting. My link is on titles starting with “Where the”, and the book is a children’s picture book written by Irma Gold and illustrated by Susannah Crispe, Where the heart is (my review). It is set in South America, and concerns a penguin.

Penguins, of course, have a special attraction for readers! And so it is to the publisher Penguin, and their Popular Penguins series of cheaper classics that I’m linking to next. The book I’ve chosen from the many possibilities is Randolph Stow’s Merry-go-round in the sea (my review).

Gabrielle Carey, Moving among strangers

At this point I had planned to take us over the seas again, but things can change quickly … and instead, my final link is by way of a little tribute to a lovely Australian writer whom we lost this week, Gabrielle Carey. Carey made her name with the autobiographical novel Puberty blues which she co-wrote with Kathy Lette, but she then went on to write very different works, nine in fact. One of these was a sort of literary memoir about Randolph Stow, that was inspired by her family’s connection with Stow. The book was Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family (my review). Carey also wrote a thoughtful, enjoyable bibliomemoir about Elizabeth von Arnim which I’ve reviewed, and was apparently working on a book about James Joyce when she died. It’s all very sad, and I pass my condolences onto her family, friends and the wider literary establishment which appreciated what she had to offer.

So, let me just close there. Vale Gabrielle Carey.

Now, the usual: Have you read Hydra? And, regardless, what would you link to?