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Delicious descriptions from Down under: Patrick White on men and sheep

January 9, 2013

A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the representation of sheep – well, people who work with sheep anyhow – in Australian literature. I was therefore tickled when early in Patrick White’s Happy Valley, which I reviewed last week, he talks of men who work with sheep, as follows:

Men who work a lot in the open, especially men who work with sheep, have a habit of repeating things, even trivial things, several times, perhaps because conversation is scarce and it gives them a sense of company to have  a phrase coming out of their mouths, even if the phrase is already stated. Clem Hagan was like this. He repeated a remark ponderously, sometimes with different intonation just for variety’s sake. He stared out in front of him with an expression that might have been interesting if you didn’t know it was due to his having spent most of his life looking into the distance for sheep. Anyone who stares long enough into the distance is bound to be mistaken for a philosopher or mystic in the end. But Hagan was no philosopher, that is, he searched no farther than the immediate, sensual reality, and this translated into simpler terms meant a good steak with juice running out at the sides, and blonde girls with comfortable busts.

White then goes on to describe a man who thinks he’s God’s gift to women – and whom many women, though it beats me why they do, let think so.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharkell permalink
    January 9, 2013 18:53

    Great quote! I know a couple of sheep farmers myself and one or two would fit into this category. Between you and ANZLitLovers, you have pushed Patrick White up on my wishlist. Being an Aussie, I must read him, and soon!

    • January 10, 2013 23:13

      Thanks Sharkell … glad our combined efforts are having some effect! As an Aussie you should (though I don’t really like saying “should”) read him.

  2. Meg permalink
    January 9, 2013 19:28

    That’s what I like about Patrick White, his characters are so well drawn and come to life. He knows his characters, he understand the thinking of many, and his wiritng style intensifies the story moreso.


    • January 10, 2013 23:12

      Thanks Meg … yes, I agree that he’s great at characterisation … even his minor characters are wonderfully well drawn.

  3. January 9, 2013 20:05

    Remember Jeremy Chambers, The Vintage and the Gleaning? He represented country blokes’ conversation in a similar sort of way.

    • January 10, 2013 23:10

      Oh yes, thanks Lisa … he did a bit didn’t he? There was quite a bit to like in that book. I wonder if he is writing more.

  4. January 10, 2013 04:25

    It was all great but what really cracked me up was “Anyone who stares long enough into the distance is bound to be mistaken for a philosopher or mystic in the end.” If I ever want to be mistaken for a philosopher or mystic I now know what needs to be done!

    • January 10, 2013 23:09

      I’m glad you loved that too Stefanie … I love the way statements like these appear rather out of the blue in White and make you laugh.

  5. Family BookMark's permalink
    January 10, 2013 09:03

    Patrick White is an object lesson in descriptive prose. Great post!

  6. January 11, 2013 14:59

    I don’t like this quote. probably because I spent the best part of my childhood on a sheep farm, and after my father left (he was nothing like this stereotype), my mother and I worked with sheep. The reality was no doubt very different for each of us, but it was nothing like this. My mother used to say that she felt she had done this before (walking behind the flock of sheep) thousands of years ago, on the planes of Asia, or somewhere in Greece. Patrick White, in this case, is not only stereotyping, he is sneering. I know he worked as a jackeroo, but it wasn’t his choice of occupation; perhaps he is taking out his resentment of his parents’ choice for him in this passage.

    • January 11, 2013 16:26

      Fair enough Christina … He is generalising. And he doesn’t like the sort of man Clem Hagan is. I would hope that most readers though would judge each person they meet, whoever they are, on their merit and not on stereotypes or generalisations they’d read.

  7. January 12, 2013 15:03

    That of course is true. But I think writers can do better than stereotyping people according to their occupation, gender, race or whatever it may be. The superior, sneering tone of this passage is cheap, and I don’t think it is funny or insightful. Good characterisation works on the particular and doesn’t generalise it to categories like ‘men who work with sheep’.

    • January 12, 2013 15:57

      I understand your point Christina and thanks for expanding … I guess, though, I still like it, mostly I suppose because of the character he is writing about. Maybe, it’s things like this that made White not want to republish? There’s a fine line sometimes between critique and insult and I can see your reading of this.

      BTW There’s quite a lot of negative commentary about Chinese people in the book too but it is pretty squarely in the voice of particular characters.

      • January 12, 2013 16:05

        Thanks for listening Sue. I might read the book! (When I’ve finished The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and War and Peace!) But it’s not high on my list. I think I’d rather revisit some of his other books.

        • January 12, 2013 19:39

          Thanks Christina … but I reckon revisit others. And, have you read the unfinished one, The hanging garden, that was published last year?

  8. January 12, 2013 20:26

    No, I haven’t. My reading trail is a snail trail, very erratic, and I often get diverted by editing and life matters.

  9. acommonreaderuk permalink
    January 15, 2013 19:16

    Nice post. I learned a long time ago that my theory that people who didn’t say much were probably profound was seriously mistaken. Sometimes there just isn’t much going on inside!

    • January 15, 2013 19:43

      Oh dear … I think it’s good that we haven’t met! Seriously, this made me laugh. Some of course do, they just keep their thoughts to themselves but others, as you say, have nothing to say. Just shows us again to never assume anything …

  10. January 27, 2013 22:39

    Having recently read all the Patrick White novels bar “Happy Valley”, I loved reading your quote.

    I notice that the narrator makes next to no criticism of shepherds in general, despite several references. However, the shepherd Clem Hagan is subject to ferocious criticism. He seems one of the those vacant characters in White’s novels who lack a soul. I think particularly of Mrs Edna Dun and Bill Poulter in “The solid Mandala”.

    • January 28, 2013 13:12

      Thanks for commenting Joydeck … And welcome to Whispering Gums. I like your perspective … I thought of The solid mandala quite often as I was reading this even thought this is rural and that is urban, you can see the similar concerns, can’t you?

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