Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (7), What police read

Number 7 in my Trove Treasures series was inspired by a little piece that appeared in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph on 6 December 1946. It was titled, “Men join police force after reading novels”. Naturally, I was intrigued. What novels, for example?

The story’s subject was one Constable J. Simons who had just resigned the police force, after having served for 17 years. He was speaking at a Police Association meeting and he said, to quote the Telegraph, that “most men joined the police force for adventure after reading detective stories”. (The rest of the piece was about why he is was resigning, which related to pay and and conditions, particularly regarding slow promotion due to the system operating at the time.)

It made sense that detective reading might inspire young men to look to the police as a career, but I wanted to find out more. Unfortunately, this proved quite difficult because it was hard to find specific search terms to get what I was looking for. As it turned out, in the time I gave to it, I didn’t find much, but what I did find was illuminating.

What I found were articles about what policemen (as they were mostly then) read – rather than about what caused them to join the police force. One article came from New York in 1914, and another two came from Queensland in the 1930s. All indicated that policemen did not read detective stories. Neither talked about what might have inspired them into the force, but both stated very clearly what they read once in the force.

New York New York

The 1914 article appeared in Sydney’s The Sun on 4 August. It commences with:

Whatever the world at large may think of detective stories, they do not win the esteem of those whose business it is to follow up crime. The police care least of all for this line of literature — a fact discovered by reports of books most favored among those consigned by the New York Public Library for use at the police stations. 

This story, then, is about the NYPL’s providing books to police stations for police reading. The article implied that what the police read might be affected by the sorts of books selected! They’d be, the article said, “standard and classic books” chosen by the library authorities “as to what they ought to read, that being an inclination of librarians everywhere”. (Oh dear, but I think this sort of high-minded prescription was more the case then, than in modern libraries!) Nonetheless, the article does explicitly discuss detective stories:

According to report, these particular readers find little of interest and nothing of profit in the ‘detective stories’ which have such a wide sale with the ununiformed public. The policemen say that ‘real’ detective work is not done after the fashion of the sagacious heroes of Conan Doyle and his predecessors, and therefore they scorn romantic crime-hunting. This condemnation involves the assumption that the methods of ‘practical’ men cannot be bettered — an assumption wildly fallacious, but entirely natural. The police antagonism to detective novels may be due in some part to the fact that in almost every such book it is the scientific amateur who works all the miracles, while the ‘headquarters man’ is usually a comic character who laboriously follows a false clue while the other fellow gets the results.

The article goes on to defend the writers of these books, suggesting that errors in detective work “may be intentionally made by an author for the sake of attaining some higher end of emphasis or excitement”. Indeed, says the article, “all the great advances in the task of crime-detection have been made, not by policemen, but by scientists”. Lest, however, we feel that the police were being unfairly targeted, the article continues that this is true of many professions and trades, so ‘that “the force” need not be humiliated by it”. Still, the article ends with a little sting in the tail for the poor copper, which I’ll leave for you to read.

Caring for police in Queensland

We then skip a couple of decades to Queensland and the creation of a library in that state’s Police Welfare Club. I found two articles on this initiative. One appeared in Brisbane’s The Courier Mail (24 November 1937), titled “Policemen’s reading: Logic, forensic ballistics: Why thrillers are unpopular”, and the other, nearly two years later, in that city’s The Telegraph (19 June 1939), titled “Our policemen study the classics”.

The 1937 article commences with

Few of Queensland’s detectives read detective stories. They find the novelists’ supermen unreal to the point of irritation.

The article quotes the C.I.B. man who showed the writer around the Club’s “fine new library” as saying that “We don’t detect that way”. This new library, the article claims, indicates “the higher education of the modern policeman”.

Both articles describe the broad content of the library, but it’s the second one that provides more detail about its genesis, noting something that harked back to that first article I found. It says that “a policeman’s pay does not ordinarily permit him to possess as his very own a library of any consequence”. Our detective novel reading Constable from 1946 would probably agree! Anyhow, the article’s writer, a “special correspondent”, explains that Queensland’s Commissioner of Police (Mr. C. J. Carroll), who had been appointed in 1934, had immediately set about creating a club “to give his men better facilities for recreation, educational advancement, and departmental advancement”. In 1936, after fundraising had got the club going, he turned to creating a communal library for the police and their families, in Brisbane and state-wide via mail.

Both articles write about the breadth of the collection, and engage in discussion about was being read, which ranged widely from poetry and the classics to political satire and books reconstructing real crimes and trials.

Towards the end of the second article, the writer asks the wife of a detective:

“Does he go in for detective stories?” 
“No, he reads to relax” she replied. Adventure stories—the lighter the better—were first favourite with him for recreational reading. 

The earlier article says that “Wild West books are the most popular in the relaxation class of reading”, so maybe this is what her husband was reading!

Much of the second article is anecdotal so it’s impossible to say just what “real” impact the library had on the state’s policing, but I’d like to think that our “special correspondent”, who concludes by quoting Arnold Bennet on the value of reading, is right when s/he says that

… with the aid of their library the men in the police force are developing greater understanding of mankind; consequently they must surely become better policemen.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Monday musings on Australian literature: the ACT Book of the Year Award

I think it’s time I dedicated a post to the Book of the Year Award made in my own jurisdiction. I briefly introduced it back in 2018, and then wrote recently about its 2022 shortlist. But today, I want to document it a bit more thoroughly. (For the record, the 2022 winner has now been announced, Lucy Neave’s second novel, Believe in me.)

The ACT Book of the Year Award is presented by the ACT Government for contemporary literary works, and is currently worth $10,000. Unlike most of the state government awards (but like the Northern Territory Literary Awards), it is limited to local writers. Only one award is made, and like the Stella Prize, the winner can be fiction, non-fiction or poetry. The award was first made in 1993 – and was shared by poet AD Hope and novelist Marion Halligan – so the 2022 Award is its 30th.

Winners to 2022

  • 1993: Marion HalliganLovers’ Knot (novel, read before blogging); A.D. Hope, Chance encounters (poetry)
  • 1994: John Foulcher, New and selected poems (poetry)
  • 1995: Sara Dowse, Sapphires (novel)
  • 1996: Paul Hetherington, Shadow swimmer (poetry)
  • 1997: Francesca Rendle-ShortImago (novel, Lisa’s review)
  • 1998: Lee Chittick, Travelling with Percy : A South Coast journey (biography)
  • 1999: Craig Cormick, Unwritten histories (non-fiction/satire)
  • 2000: Adrian Caesar, The white: Last days in the Antarctic journeys of Scott and Mawson 1911-1913 (non-fiction)
  • 2001: Alan GouldThe Schoonermaster’s Dance (novel, Lisa’s review); Dorothy Johnston, The Trojan dog (novel)
  • 2002: Jackie French, In the blood (YA novel)
  • 2003: John Clanchy, The hard word (novel)
  • 2004: Marion Halligan, The Point (novel, read before blogging)
  • 2005: Tony Kevin, A certain maritime incident: the sinking of SIEV X (non-fiction)
  • 2006: John Clanchy, Vincenzo’s garden (short stories)
  • 2007: Quynh Du Thon That, Sunday menu : selected short stories of Pham Thi Hoai (short stories)
  • 2008: Tony Kevin, Walking the Camino: A modern pilgrimage to Santiago (memoir/travel, Lisa’s review)
  • 2009: Nicholas Drayson, A guide to the birds of East Africa: A novel (novel)
  • 2010: Marion Halligan, Valley of Grace (novel, my review, and additional post)
  • 2011: Chris Hammer, The river: A journey through the Murray-Darling Basin (non-fiction)
  • 2012: Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on earth: How Aborigines made Australia (non-fiction, on my TBR)
  • 2013: Frank Bongiorno, The sex lives of Australians: A history (history)
  • 2014: Gordon Peake, Beloved land: Stories, struggles and secrets from Timor-Leste (non-fiction)
  • 2015: Mark HenshawThe snow kimono (novel, my review)
  • 2016: Frank Bongiorno, The eighties: The decade that transformed Australia (history)
  • 2017: Tom Griffiths, The art of time travel: Historians and their craft (history, on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • 2018: Paul Collis, Dancing home (novel, on my TBR, Lisa’s review)
  • 2019: Robyn CadwalladerBook of colours (novel, my review)
  • 2020: Lisa Fuller, Ghost bird (YA novel)
  • 2021: Subhash Jaireth, Spinoza’s overcoat: Travels with writers and poets (essays, Lisa’s review)
  • 2022: Lucy Neave, Believe in me (novel, my review)

(Links on author’s names take you to my posts on that author, which may not necessarily include the work listed.)

The winners tell you something about Canberra. For example, you might have gleaned from the early winners that Canberra has been particularly strong in poetry, and you’d be right. Well-regarded twentieth century poets like A.D. Hope (1907-2000), David Campbell (1915-1979), and Rosemary Dobson (1920-2012) made this region home for significant stretches of their lives. Canberra’s strength in this form is reflected in poetry winning three of the first four awards. Poetry continues to be strong here, though has featured less in the awards as they’ve progressed through the years.

THEY used to say in my neck of the North Carolina woods that if you shook a tree a banjo player would fall out. I’m beginning to think that if you shake a tree in Canberra, you’re more likely to dislodge a poet. (Bob Hefner, Canberra Times, 25 July 1993)

Couldn’t resist sharing that … but now, moving along … Canberra is also the national capital of Australia, so is the home of our national parliament. History and politics are, consequently, a significant interest of its residents, and this too is reflected in the sort of non-fiction that has won the award – the controversial sinking of SIEV X, the fraught Murray-Darling basin, and revisiting the role of First Nations Australians in our history, to name a few.

In terms of fiction, Canberra’s successful Seven Writers group is well represented here with Marion Halligan, Sara Dowse and Dorothy Johnston all being winners. The year Sara Dowse won she made history, apparently, by also winning the ACT Book Reviewer of the Year award. What, a reviewer award?

Yes! It seems that the ACT Book Review of the Year (as it was initially called) was instigated in 1993, alongside the Book of the Year. It was won by Amirah Inglis for her review of two books – As good as a yarn with you, edited by Caroline Ferrier, and A fence around the cuckoo by Ruth Park – in the November 1992 issue of Monash University’s Editions. In 1994, there were joint winners, Robert Boden’s review of Stanley Breeden’s Visions of a rainforest in The Canberra Times, and Amirah Inglis’ review of Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead: A biography in the National Library’s Voices. Then in 1995 came Sara Dowse, named as ACT Book Reviewer of the Year. After that a review award seems to disappear from view. What a shame.

Have you heard of professional review or reviewer awards? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Meanwhile, I hope you have found this little history of my local award interesting!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (6), Why waste time reading novels?

My next Trove Treasure is not, strictly speaking, Australian, because it features the English humorist Jerome K. Jerome. But, I found it reported in multiple Australian newspapers, which means that many Australians probably read it, and that makes it at least a bit relevant here. The first one I found was in The Inverell Times on June 25, 1904, so it is the one I edited. However, I then found the same piece in the West Gippsland Gazette; the Camperdown Chronicle; the Canowindra Star and Eugowra News; the The Walcha Witness and Vernon County Record; The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser; the Clarence and Richmond Examiner; the Narromine News and Trangie Advocate; The Cobar Herald; The Colac Herald – and, at this point, I stopped noting them. Enough already, as they say. All of these, except for the Canowindra paper, were published between late June and early July 1904. Canowindra’s was, for some reason, printed in 1907!

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927), as I’m sure many of you know, was best known for his comedy novel, Three men in a boat, published in 1889. This book was one of those I remember from my mum’s bookshelves when I was quite a little girl – along with M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A house is built, Eve Langley’s The pea pickers (my post), Henry Handel Richardson’s The fortunes of Richard Mahony, and her beloved “little Collins classics”.

According to Wikipedia (linked on his name), the financial security provided by his hit novel enabled Jerome to become a full-time writer. He wrote plays, essays, and novels, but, says Wikipedia, was never able to recapture the success of that first novel. Wikipedia mentions in passing his writing of satirical pieces for journals, and the piece I’m sharing here is clearly one of those, although I have not been able to identify the journal, referred to as M.A.P, from which the piece apparently comes.

Wasting time on reading!

The piece starts like this:

Our old and delightful friend, Jerome K. Jerome, in a most amusing contribution to “M.A.P.” thus discourses: —

“On a newspaper placard, the other day, I saw announced a new novel by a celebrated author. I bought a copy of the paper, and turned eagerly to the last page. I was disappointed to find that I had missed the first six chapters. The story had commenced the previous Saturday; this was Friday. I say I was disappointed, and so I was at first: but my disappointment did not last long. The bright and intelligent sub-editor, according to the custom now in vogue, had provided me with a short synopsis of those first six chapters, so that without the trouble of reading them, I knew what they were all about. ‘The first instalment,’ I learned, ‘introduces the reader to a brilliant and distinguished company assembled in the drawing room of Lady Mary’s maisonette in Park street, and much smart talk is indulged in.’ I know that ‘smart talk’ so well. Had I not been lucky in missing that first chapter I should have had to hear it all again.”

Woman reading with cushion

Haha, I thought, and read on. Of course, Jerome was being tongue-in-cheek, and goes on to argue why we should in fact read it all, not just a summary. He expresses concern that writers will be expected to write “novels in chapters not exceeding twenty words” and that ‘short stories will be reduced to the formula: “Little boy. Pair of skates. Broken ice. Heaven’s gates”.’

“Formerly”, he explains, “an author … would have spun it out into five thousand words”. Then, proposing that this “little boy” story would have been a Christmas story, he shares how he would have written it. He would have started it in the previous spring or summer to let us get to know the little boy:

He would have been a good boy; the sort of boy that makes a bee-line for the thinnest ice. He would have lived in a cottage. I could have spread that cottage over two pages; the things that grew in the garden; the view from the front door. You would have known that boy before I had done with him — felt you had known him all your life. His quaint sayings, his childish thoughts, his great longings would have been impressed upon you…

He continues in this vein, describing how he’d also develop the father and mother, the ice, and so on. “So much”, he says, “might have been done”:

When I think of that plot wasted in nine words, it makes me positively angry. And what is to become of us writers if this is to be the new fashion in literature? We are paid by the length of our manuscript, at rates from half-a-crown a thousand words, and upwards.

How, he asks, are writers to live on the income from the payment for 9-words? All very worrying, he says.

Aren’t we glad that what he feared didn’t eventuate!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (5), Church and novel reading

You’ll be getting sick of my time-is-short posts, but rest assured that this too shall pass – eventually! Meanwhile, here is another Trove Treasure post. It shares two different responses to reading from churches, in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

What the churches thought

Reading novels IN church

Woman reading with cushion

On 27 August 1902, a brief story was carried in Sydney’s Evening News and the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. Here is how it went:

A telegram from Nowra states that in the local Church of England on Sunday, some young men were discovered reading novels during the sermon. The preacher drew attention to the circumstances, and made some pungent criticism about the practice.

Neither of the articles gave any more information. What was the “pungent criticism”? Well, interestingly, two days later, on 29 August, the Evening News ran a sort of correction:

With reference to the telegram that the practice of novel-reading in a local church was commented upon by the incumbent, the latter explains that his remarks had no reference to any supposed practice in his church, of which he had no personal knowledge. He points out that he was simply saying, in the course of a sermon on evil speaking, that the modern novel would hardly be read if it did not deal largely with the evil in human nature.

This seems to me to be a limited understanding of “the modern novel”, but I’ll leave that for you to think about. My point here is that the story did not end here …

The following day, 30 August, The Shoalhaven News and South Coast Districts Advertiser, ran a letter to the editor from “The Correspondent” who had provided the correction that ran on 29 August. This “Correspondent” quotes the previous two news items and then goes on to say that, although the reverend Mr Newby-Fraser was speaking generally about novel-reading,

during the course of the sermon on Sunday last, novel-reading was being practised in the Nowra Church of England by certain young members of the congregation.

In fact, we are told, the names of those readers and “the titles of the novels they had spread before them” could be furnished “if necessary”. Further, those novel readers apparently felt the sermon was being directed at them because they “immediately put away the books”.

The letter then says that as the minister “had no idea that novel reading was indulged in at all by any members of his congregation, young or old … he had good reason for being indignant at having been accused of making a charge of the truth of which he had no knowledge whatsoever”. However, concludes our letter-writer:

‘Truth,’ they sometimes say, ‘is stranger than fiction.’ At all events there is an indissoluble relationship existing between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ in this matter of novel reading on Sunday.

You could be forgiven for thinking all this had been written on 1 April – but it seems to be true!

How to spend your Sunday

Melbourne’s The Age ran a brief article on 20 October 1922 headed “Sunday Games: Preferable to reading ‘sloppy’ novels”. It was reporting on the annual meeting of the Congregational Union in Adelaide at which the issue of Sunday games was discussed, the concern being the secularisation of Sunday. Indeed, reports the paper, “a motion of protest against the secularisation of Sunday and urging members to unite with the object of preventing the desecration of the Sabbath was carried.” However, during the discussion, the chairman, Rev. G.H. Wright said

that although he preferred to see a man playing cricket or tennis on a Sunday to staying at home reading sloppy novels and the Sunday paper, it was not the highest ideal. 

And who said Australia was a sporting nation!

Comments anyone?

Monday musings on Australian literature: 1940 in fiction

As many of you know by now, Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling) and Simon (Stuck in a Book) run “reading weeks” in which they nominate a year from which “everyone reads, enjoys, posts and shares wonderful books and discoveries from the year in question”. The current year is 1940, and it runs from today, 10-16 April. As has become my practice, I am devoting a Monday Musings to the week.

1940 is a bit of a landmark year in Australian literature because it was the year that our significant literary journal, Meanjin, was first published – in Brisbane, by Clem Christesen. Its name comes from the Turrbal word for the spike of land where the city of Brisbane is located.

My research located books published across all forms, but my focus is fiction, so here is a selection of 1940-published novels:

  • E.C. Allen, Old Eugowra
  • Martin Boyd, Nuns in jeopardy
  • Roy Connolly, Southern saga
  • Frank Dalby Davison, The woman at the mill (short stories)
  • Dulcie Deamer, Holiday
  • Arthur Gask, The house on the fens and The tragedy of the silver moon
  • Beatrice Grimshaw, South Sea Sarah; Murder in paradise: Two complete novels
  • Michael Innes, The secret vanguard; There came both mist and snow; and The comedy of errors
  • Bertha A. Johnstone, Stream of years
  • Josephine Knowles, Leaves in the wind
  • Will Lawson, Red Morgan rides
  • Eric Lowe, Framed in hardwood
  • Nevil Shute, Landfall: A channel story and An old captivity (both of which I read in my teens)
  • Helen Simpson, Maid no more (see my post on Helen Simpson)
  • Christina Stead, The man who loved children (Lisa’s review)
  • F.J. Thwaites, Whispers in Tahiti
  • Arthur W. Upfield, Bushranger of the skies
  • Franks Walford, The indiscretions of Iole
  • Rix Weaver, Behold, New Holland (A Darned Good Read’s review)

Children’s literature was going strongly at the time, with books published by four authors still remembered as writers of our children’s classics, Mary Grant Bruce, May Gibbs, P.L. Travers, and Dorothy Wall.

I wasn’t going to focus on poetry and drama, but Bill, who checked my list against the Annals for me (as my copy is in Canberra, thanks Bill) added that Katharine Susannah Prichard’s play Brumby Innes also appeared in 1940.

There were very few literary awards at the time. The ALS Gold Medal went to William Baylebridge’s poetry collection, This vital flesh, though it was announced in 1941. The award actually announced in 1940 was for the 1939 winner, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, so I think I can also mention it here.

Writers born this year include some favourites, whom I’ve reviewed here, Carmel Bird, Marion Halligan and Geoff Page. J.M. Coetzee who migrated to Australia partway through his literary career was also born in 1940.

The state of the art

Of course, I checked Trove to see what newspapers were saying about Australian literature, and fiction in particular. In the last “year” I did, 1929, I found great enthusiasm to support and promote Australian literature, and this was still evident to some degree in 1940. It was war-time, but interestingly that didn’t feature heavily in the book-related articles I found.

“Fictional magazines” banned

One news item that did reference the war was reported by many papers in April. It concerned the Federal government’s decision to ban the importation of “fiction magazines from non-sterling countries”. The stated aim was “to conserve our overseas’ credit” (Queanbeyan Age, 23/4/1940), with The Forbes Advocate (16/4/1940) reporting that “it is estimated that this will save £100,000 a year in dollar exchange”. Exceptions to this ban were, as Adelaide’s The Advertiser (2/4/1940) reported, “magazines dealing with current news topics or technical and instructional publications”. Many newspapers added brief commentary to their reporting. The Advertiser, for example, commented that these banned recreational magazines had “little or no literary value” and that some had already been banned “because of their false accentuation of sex, horror and crime”. But, the point made by many, and I’ll quote The Advertiser again, was the benefit to Australian writers and illustrators:

Besides its wartime value in conserving dollar exchange, the restriction of imported fiction will, it is hoped, create a wider home market for Australian writers and illustrators.

And thus Australian stories for Australians! The Forbes Advocate took the argument further, arguing that ‘”Made in Australia” on nearly everything required in the Commonwealth would bring abounding prosperity’ – and make this continent, “mighty”.


Some reviewers commented on the “Australianness” of Australian novels they reviewed. Tasmanian Bertha A. Johnstone’s immigrant story, Stream of years, was described by her home state’s Mercury (6/4/1940) as “truly Australian and truly good” while Adelaide’s The Advertiser (28/5/1940) says of one of its denizen’s debuts, Josephine Knowles’ Leaves in the wind:

A FIRST novel by an Australian writer, apart from its intrinsic value, is of importance because of the proof that it furnishes that literary talent in this country is not stagnant.

The Argus (28/10/1940), on the other hand, reviewing Rix Weaver’s pioneer fiction, Behold New Holland, concludes that “Miss Weaver has wisely avoided any aggressive Australianism. She makes it a romance of pioneering adventure, vividly told, that would appeal to an English or an American reader”.

Many of these 1940-published novels were set in the bush, or in exotic locations further afield. Indeed, Echuca’s The Riverine Herald (24/6/1940), writes that one of Australia’s “most prolific” writers, Will Lawson, had ‘”gone bush” at Tahmoor (N.S.W.)’ in order to “complete his newest novel without any city distractions”. The novel was Red Morgan rides, a bushranging story.

What about the city?

I did find, however, one reference to the city-versus-bush issue. The article, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (7/4/1940), written by one Sam Walpole, was pointedly headed “Let’s buy a yearbook for our authors”, and commences:

IT is remarkable how little impression seems to have been made on Australian authors by a curious fact recorded in the Commonwealth Year Book —that nearly two-thirds of the population of Australia live in towns. A foreigner would hardly suspect this fact from some stories, a collection short stories by ten Australian writers, mostly of the elder school.

The collection was “Some stories, by ten Australian writers”, and includes some writers we’ve come across before like J. H. M. Abbott and G. B. Lancaster. Walpole continues:

There are some lively pieces in the book — and some, less lively — but only one story (by Ethel Turner, about a hot day in Sydney) makes any serious attempt to describe the urban life which millions of Australians lead. It is odd that so many of our writers either escape into fantasy, or cling in spirit to the days when a steer ripped up Macpherson at the Cooraminta Yard. These days it is more likely that a taxi ripped up Macpherson in Pitt Street. It is time we had an O. Henry to chronicle the pangs and pleasures of Marrickvllle or Balmain, a W. Burnett to write about the Sydney underworld, a Sinclair Lewis to show our more smugly prosperous citizens how ludicrous they really are.

So, we go from those supporting the banning of “fictional magazines” (which primarily came from America) to a yearning for more relevant writing like that being produced in America! A good place to end, I think, this little survey of 1940.

Additional sources:

  • 1940 in Australian Literature (Wikipedia)
  • Joy Hooton and Harry Heseltine, Annals of Australian literature, 2nd ed. OUP, 1992 (with Bill’s help)

Previous Monday Musings for the “years”: 1929, 1936 and 1954.

Meanwhile, do you plan to take part in the 1940 Club – and if so how?

Monday musings on Australian literature: on 1923: 5, Novels and their subjects

On the basis that what novelists write about provides some sort of insight into their times, I’ve done a little survey of the books published by Australian writers in 1923 to see what their subject matter might tell us about Australian life and literature 100 years ago.

First, here are the books I found, mostly via Trove:

  • J. H. M. Abbott, Sydney Cove
  • Vera Baker, The mystery outlaw
  • Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Jewelled nights
  • Capel Boake, The Romany mark
  • Roy Bridges, Green butterflies
  • Dale Collins, Stolen or strayed
  • Arthur Crocker, The great Turon mystery
  • Bernard Cronin, Salvage
  • A.R. Falk, The red star 
  • J.D. Fitzgerald, Children of the sunlight
  • Frank Fox, Beneath an ardent sun
  • Mary Gaunt, As the whirlwind passeth
  • Jack McLaren, Fagaloa’s daughter
  • Mary Marlowe, Gypsy Royal, adventuress
  • Catherine Martin, The incredible journey
  • Jack North, Son of the bush
  • Ernest Osborne, The plantation manager
  • Steele Rudd, On Emu Creek
  • Charles L. Sayer, The jumping double
  • H.F. Wickham, The Great Western Road

Twenty books in total, six of them by women. Unfortunately, I am not at home so can’t check these against 1923 in the Annals of Australian literature (but I’m sure Bill will when he sees this post!) Wikipedia’s page 1923 in Australian literature includes a few others: D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, but he’s not Australian though the book was set here; Arthur Gask’s The red paste murders, but Project Gutenberg Australia says it was published in 1924; and Nat Gould’s Beating the favourite, but he died in 1919, and I can’t find much on this book. Further, from his biography, he is as much English as he is Australian. However, it is worth sharing that Andrews in the ADB says that Gould “inaugurated the Australian sporting novel”. Charles L. Sayer’s 1923-published The jumping double represents this new genre.

For this post, I’m sticking with my neat 20! Of these, around a third seem to be historical novels. J.H.M. Abbott’s and Mary Gaunt’s were set in the early days of the colony, while those by Vera Baker, Capel Boake, Arthur Crocker and H.F. Wickham encompass bushrangers in some way. Roy Bridge’s Green butterflies is an interesting member of this “historical” group. J.Penn (writing in Adelaide’s Observer, 5 May 1923) explains:

There is something decidedly unusual in a story which starts in Tasmania in 1830, and ends in Victoria at the present time. The title is the weakest thing about “Green Butterflies” … In this book, Mr. Roy Bridges fulfils much early promise, and shows himself definitely one of the novelists who count.

Bridges spans this almost 100-year period by telling the story across two or three generations of a family, taking its readers from the horrors of colonial Tasmania, with its “savage blacks and even more savage bushrangers … being put down by Governor Arthur”, to the “dirty settlement” of Melbourne, and then on to the present day, when, says a character, “the war has changed everything; we’re not narrow as we used to be”. So, a recognition here of the impact of World War 1 on Australian society, although war novels didn’t become popular for another few years.

Bushrangers were prevalent in the historically-set novels. The worst of the bushranger era had ended by the 1880s, but they were clearly still foremost in the public imagination, particularly in terms of escapist adventure. Further, with bushrangers being a particularly Australian form of outlaw, their presence would have appealed to those wanting Australian stories.

The rest of the novels were, as far as I can tell, set in more contemporary times, though some of the synopses were not completely clear about their period. The majority were adventure and/or mystery novels. (We know Australians love mystery and adventure!) A couple were set in New Guinea (including New Britain). One is Jack McLaren’s Fagaloa’s daughter, which Hobart’s World (8/11/1923) described as “a tale of stirring venture among the savages of Papua and adjacent islands, with white men doing deeds of unusual daring afloat and ashore”. The titular daughter ‘is given a European education, and is clever and beautiful, and “white all through,” despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that she is the offspring of colored parents’. She apparently proves her worth when her white trader husband is attacked by a “cannibal hill-tribe”. Meanwhile, Ernest Osborne’s The plantation manager was described in The Armidale Chronicle (11/4/1923) as “adventure on a North-Western Pacific plantation” that “gives a striking account of the difficulties a manager encounters in developing tropical estates. A bright love story is interwoven throughout the adventures with the head-hunters”. You get the picture! White colonialism, fear of other…

Of the mystery novels, Stolen or strayed by Dale Collins received more attention than most, partly because he was already a journalist, but also because this novel, like several in this post, were part of the Bookstall series. I plan to feature him specifically in a later post. Stolen or strayed moves between underworld Melbourne and the Murray River, and received mixed reviews. Another Bookstall mystery, The red star by A.R. Falk, is set in Sydney’s underworld. The Brisbane Courier (23/6/1923) wrote that Australian writers hadn’t “developed the field of detective fiction to any extent”, but that Falk had

written a far better detective story than the majority of those that are imported. The scene is laid in Sydney, and the fight between detectives and a clever gang of thieves and murderers is told in a very convincing manner. The ending, perhaps, is forced, but otherwise the story takes a high place among current detective fiction.

Bushrangers in the country and the underworld in the cities, plus the occasional offshore exotic location, were popular settings and subjects at the time, suggesting that the focus on “the bush” was at least lessening as the Australian nation developed. That said, Steele Rudd’s On Emu Creek was about a city man turned farmer, and followed his pattern of using humour rather than mystery or adventure to tell its tale.

But, I’m going to conclude on something quite different, Catherine Martin’s The incredible journey. Bill has reviewed her second novel, An Australian girl, published in 1890. The incredible journey was her last. Margaret Allen writes in the ADB:

Catherine published, under her own name, The Incredible Journey (London, 1923) which, written very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view, was about a desert journey to recover her son, taken by a white man. H. M. Green found it a most interesting and realistic novel.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, I struggled to find a review of this novel in the newspapers in Trove. Far better to write about mystery and adventure novels, it seems, than one attempting to represent a First Nations’ experience. While I don’t imagine it was First Nations assessment that the novel was written “very effectively from an Aboriginal woman’s point of view”, it is at least encouraging to see someone recognising the cause. (I have now ordered the book.)

So, there you have it. I could write more on my 20 books, but I think this gives you a flavour.

Thoughts anyone?

Other posts in the series: 1. Bookstall Co (update); 2. Platypus Series; 3 & 4. Austra-Zealand’s best books and Canada (1) and (2)