Friedrich Gerstäcker, Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold (Review)

Friedrich Gerstacker, AustraliaFriedrich Gerstäcker’s Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold was first published in its original German, as Australien, in 1854. Gerstäcker did prepare, at that time, an English language version of his travels, but the section on Australia, at least, was much shorter than his German edition, and is all English readers have been able to access – until now. Amazing really.

You may remember that I mentioned this book back in November, because it inspired a Monday Musings on 19th century travellers. It is a beautifully conceived book. It has a brief note on the text at the beginning, and an afterword at the end. There is also a decent index, and extensive end notes sharing editor Monteath’s in-depth research. These notes added significantly to my enjoyment and understanding of Gerstäcker’s writing.

So, who was this Friedrich Gerstäcker? A German, he travelled around the world from 1849 to 1852, partly funded by a German publisher. Australien was the fourth of five volumes. His writings were loved in Germany and he was, apparently, a household name there for many years – starting when his mother, unbeknownst to him, gave the diaries he was sending home during his 1837-1843 American travels to a publisher!

Now, as I said in my Monday Musings, historical travel writing can provide valuable “primary” insight into different times and places. But the best travel writers are those who, in addition to that, use language well and give us themselves. Gerstäcker is such a writer.  He provides revealing insights into mid-nineteenth century Australia. But, in addition, his writing is engaging: it has touches of humour mixed with deeper reflection, it includes some gorgeous descriptions, and we get a sense of who he is.

“the truly astonishing number of public houses” (p.21)

Gerstäcker arrived in Sydney in March 1851, and left it at the very end of September in the same year. He provides a fascinating picture of Sydney life at the time, commenting on the plethora of drinking establishments (or “public houses”), but also expressing some astonishment that his prejudices regarding visiting a “criminal colony” were ill-founded. It was not, as expected, full of “an indefinite number of murderers, thieves, burglars and other dreadful, horrible, characters”. He then travels, by the Royal Mail, canoe and foot, from Sydney, via Albury and the Murray River, to Adelaide. The chapters describing this trip (Chs. 2-5) are probably the most interesting in the book.

In South Australia, his focus is on visiting some of the German communities there, particularly in Tanunda, in the Barossa wine region. He sees his role partly as providing “real” information about places for would-be German emigrants, and reflects thoughtfully on what emigration means. He notes that Germans had made themselves a living, one that many “would never have been able to establish in Germany in that time and with those means” but he also sees the cost. He writes:

Now the question still remains of course, how much the heart is still attached not only to old habits but also to old friends and loved ones and perhaps even the old homeland itself, and whether it really was so impossible to secure a living back there that one really had to tear oneself away from everything one held dear and transplant oneself in cold foreign soil. Sometimes – and how often! – a slightly better living is too dearly bought through emigration …

He also writes about the practice of religion by the Australian Germans, particularly the tensions between different groups, and he describes in some detail how government-supported education works in South Australia, pointing out some of its illogicalities. This would have been of interest to prospective immigrants, and is now to current readers and researchers. The material most relevant to contemporary Australians, though, was his navigation of the Murray. How navigable was it was the question on administrators’ lips and Gerstäcker was able to provide first-hand knowledge.

He returns to Sydney by boat, in August, and notices a dramatic change there, providing an on-the-ground insight into the impact of the beginning of the gold rush. In his “short absence” Sydney had changed from “a busy city, but otherwise calm, to all appearances perfectly reasonable” to a city in which everyone was “dizzily, yet tirelessly dancing around the glistening false God of the newly found gold”. His departure being delayed for boat repair reasons, he decides to visit some of the goldfields and the picture he draws is one of frenzy, excitement, and loss. He overlays this with common-sense advice, based on his Californian goldfields observations, that it is generally more profitable to work one claim systematically than to be forever upping stakes to chase another chance to strike it rich.

Interestingly, he castigates the media – the newspapers, in other words – on several occasions. He writes, for example, of people’s failure to make their fortunes, and comments:

All of this is not reported in the Australian newspapers: they only highlight the positive elements of the picture and their purpose and goal is easily recognisable. They want people to come to Australia, workers …

Ah, the media … but that’s another whole story.

“indestructible, unavoidable, unbearable gum trees everywhere” (p. 43)

Gum trees

A boring forest of gum trees (Southern NSW)

You have probably realised by now that while Gerstäcker’s writing is generally informative, it is also limited by the perspective of his times, and by his own cultural biases. For example, imagine my horror at his ongoing disparagement of our gum trees! They are “sorry specimens”, “dull, green” or “dun-coloured”.

Soon after his arrival in Sydney he writes that “strangely enough, all the beauty of the scenery is restricted to the sea and to the nearby coast of Port Jackson”. He shows his cultural hand, most obviously, when he heads into the, admittedly beautiful, Blue Mountains region near the end of his trip, and writes of Mount Victoria that

this was the first place in Australia where I have seen real scenery of a quite impressive nature. Mount Victoria is itself a fairly significant mountain, rugged and picturesque, sloping down into a depression that surrounds it on three sides, forming a wide, deep, densely wooded valley. The vegetation is, however [oh dear, here it comes], the same as in all other parts of Australia that I have seen so far. Gum trees, nothing but gum trees, which makes the remaining countryside so terribly monotonous …

He does admit, a couple of sentences on, however, that seen in the distance “decorated … with the sunlight and … draped … in colourful, misty veils” they have a “mysterious aura”. But then he continues that “in reality they are also just plain, dun-coloured gum trees, all with the same leaves”. I could retort that any single-tree-species forest can be monotonous, but it’s not worth it. He won’t hear me!

There’s a lot more to share and enjoy, but I can’t finish this lengthening post without mentioning his descriptions of Australia’s “Indians” as he calls indigenous Australians. Strangely, Monteath only discusses, in his Afterword, the sources Gerstäcker uses for the extensive information he provides about indigenous life and culture in chapters 8 and 9. He doesn’t comment on Gerstäcker’s attitudes to the “Indians” in his travels, attitudes which are mostly derogatory and fearful, often based more on hearsay than on experience. For example, Gerstäcker repeats the stories he’d heard of the “Indians” killing people for their “kidney fat”, a widely-held belief at the time that Monteath explains in his very useful end-notes.

On his first sighting of “Indians”, near Albury, Gerstäcker writes of finding himself

in amongst the eternal dreary gum trees and amongst the black, dirty, treacherous, murderous people of these forests.

Funny how, despite this, he manages to survive his long trip from Albury to Adelaide, with minimal incident even though he did much of it alone and was carrying items of great interest to the “blacks” he met! Most of the time he repeats stories of “their” treachery, and he regularly describes them as dirty and ugly, but he also says that he does not agree with “acts of cruelty against Indian tribes”. It is “right and proper to apply restraint”, he says, but

we can hardly expect that they should immediately conform to rules and practices which, after all, have been imposed on them by the whites.

And right at the end of his trip, while visiting islands in northern Australia, he comments that he is

firmly convinced that the primary cause of all hostility, indeed of all acts of cruelty toward the savage tribes, is the white man himself.

This is an engrossing book that I took some time to read. It’s certainly not a page turner, but it is full of information, observations and reflections that would appeal to diverse interests. For this reason, it’s probably difficult to market. How lucky we are to have publishers like Wakefield Press willing to take a risk on books like this.

Friedrich Gerstäcker
Australia: A German traveller in the Age of Gold
(Ed. Peter Monteath; Trans. Peter Monteath and his team)
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743054192

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Monday musings on Australian literature: 19th century travellers in Australia

I’m a bit of a sucker for 19th century travellers. The one who started it all was Flora Tristan with her Peregrinations of a pariah (1838). Yes, I know, she was a Frenchwoman travelling in South America, so she’s not actually relevant here. And yet, before I get to travellers in Australia I must mention other works I’ve dipped into: Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1832), Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten tracks in Japan (1880), and Lafcadio Hearn’s Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan (1894). Of these, Isabella Bird is the only one to have also visited Australia, of which more anon.


Public domain (via Wikipedia)

None of these, though, inspired this specific post. That honour goes to my current read, Freidrich Gerstäcker’s Australia: A German traveller in the age of gold which was first published in German in 1854, and has now been published in an English translation by Wakefield Press. It chronicles his travels in Australia in the early 1850s. As I started reading it, it occurred to me that while I’ve spoken before about 19th century explorers’ journals, I haven’t mentioned travel writing from the same period.

However, as I started doing a little research, I realised that, particularly given the period and how little the country had been “explored”, there is – or can be – a pretty fine line between explorers’ journals and those of travellers. The difference, I’d say, must be the intention, and here I’ll quote Gerstäcker:

Merely having set foot on a foreign part of the world has its own charm. No matter how passionately people are attached to their own country, they still want to see a different one, so that they can think longingly back to their own.

I’m not sure that the last bit is critical, but he does capture the traveller’s desire to see something different for his or her own reasons, as against the explorer’s goal which is more to travel to new places to gain geographical and/or scientific knowledge, usually for the benefit or use of others. For the person interested in history, though, both offer valuable “primary” insight into the life of another time.

So, I thought I’d share a few 19th century travellers (chronologically by their writings) who wrote about their travels in Australia:

Charles Darwin’s A naturalist’s voyage around the world (1860, text on PGA) describes his visit to Australia in 1836. He opens Chapter 19 with his arrival in Sydney Harbour:

Early in the morning a light air carried us towards the entrance of
Port Jackson. Instead of beholding a verdant country, interspersed
with fine houses, a straight line of yellowish cliff brought to our
minds the coast of Patagonia. A solitary lighthouse, built of white
stone, alone told us that we were near a great and populous city.

He tells of going out to Bathurst “to gain a general idea of the appearance of the country” and goes on to describe what he sees (including “the extreme uniformity of the vegetation”). He comments on his experience of indigenous Australians and also mentions convicts, but his main focus was the natural environment. After spending a couple of weeks in the area around Sydney, the Beagle went down to Hobart before heading to New Zealand.

Ellen Clacy’s A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852–1853 (1853, text on PGA): Clacy visited the Australian goldfields with her brother, and was only in Australia for a year or so. Her book was one of many used by Clare Wright in her award-winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review). Wright quotes Clacy’s advice to Englishwomen considering emigration:

Do so by all means … the worse risk you run is that of getting married and finding yourself treated with twenty times the respect and consideration you may meet in England.

The reason for this, Clacy argues, is that because there are so few women “we may be pretty sure of having our own way”. Hmm.

Here she is on Melbourne, or, one aspect anyhow:

The most thriving trade there, is keeping an hotel or public-house, which always have a lamp before their doors. These at night serve as a beacon to the stranger to keep as far from them as possible, they being, with few exceptions, the resort, after dark, of the most ruffianly characters.

Gerstäcker comments on “the truly astonishing number” of pubs in Sydney. Seems our drinking culture started early!

Friedrich Gerstäcker’s Australia: A German traveller in the age of gold (1854): it will be a while before I finish this, but I’ve read nearly a third and am loving his descriptions of mid-19th century Sydney and of his intrepid trip along the Murray. His observations on the people and the landscape, flora and fauna he meets and sees along the way add not only to my understanding of early white-settled Australia but also of mid-19th century European thought. I love that he keeps an eye out for the bunyip, though he’s aware that there’s a chance it doesn’t exist!

Anthony Trollope’s Australia and New Zealand (1873): Trollope visited Australia in 1871, when he was 56-years-old and having negotiated, writes Fullerton (see below), a contract to write a book about the trip. Fullerton writes that “few visitors to Australia have ever worked so hard at seeing everything, learning about Australian institutions and customs, observing locals at work and at play, and covering so much ground, as did Anthony Trollope”. The aim of the book was to be useful to potential English migrants to Australia.

Isabella Bird’s “Australia Felix: First impressions of Australia” (in Leisure Hour, Feb 10, 1877): I’ve enjoyed her writings on Japan but haven’t tracked down an e-version of this article. All I know is that she “disliked” Australia. It was the first exotic place she visited (besides a trip with cousins to the USA) and I wonder whether her attitude might partly be due to inexperience as a traveller – but that may just be me being defensive!

Five is probably enough for my purposes. It’s a subject I’ll return to when I review Gerstäcker’s book … and possibly again in future posts because there are many journals out there.


  • Susannah Fullerton, Brief encounters: Literary travellers in Australia 1836-1939, 2009 (includes more writers than I’ve mentioned here including Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • Project Gutenberg Australia (PGA)
  • Clare Wright, The forgotten rebels of Eureka (2013)

Do you consult consumer reviews?

I am not one of those who in expressing opinions confine themselves to facts. (Mark Twain, Wearing White Clothes speech, 1907)

In asking this question about consulting consumer reviews, I’m talking not only about those for books (such as on GoodReads and Amazon), but for restaurants, hotels, and all sorts of other things like clothes and appliances. I use them – though not for books. That is, I never use sites like Amazon or GoodReads to find books to read. When I consult book reviews, it’s usually after I’ve read the book, and I want to compare my response with my favourite bloggers and reviewers.

But, I do check consumer or user reviews for other products and services, most commonly restaurants and hotels when I’m travelling. And, I generally find them very helpful. I can’t think of a time when a TripAdvisor* restaurant review, for example, has led me astray. Similarly I find user reviews on clothing sites extremely helpful. However, I do read sites like TripAdvisor with my antennae out, with, that is, my critical faculty fully engaged.

Here are some of the things I look for:

Date: how recent are the reviews? I check that TripAdvisor hasn’t listed reviews by my “friends” first. Some of these reviews can be significantly older than the latest reviews and may even be for an earlier iteration of the place I’m checking out.

Frequency: how many reviews are there? And are there several for recent dates? Places, particularly restaurants, can change quite quickly, so old reviews may not be very useful or relevant to what the place is like now.

Content: what do the users actually say? I focus more on that than the rating they give. Reading what users say and how they say it, is not only relevant for the actual content, but can give you insight into how closely they may match your preferences and expectations. (See under “the reviewers” below).

Ratings (particularly the ratio of good to bad): one or two bad reviews rarely faze me. They usually mean a mismatch between what the restaurant (or whatever it is) offers and what the reviewer was expecting or, it can be that the restaurant just had one of those days.

The reviewers: while I almost never know the reviewers, I try to understand where they are coming from. It’s usually easy to tell if a reviewer was looking for something different. Diners may complain about small portions or slow service in a fine dining establishment, or a reader might criticise the lack of plot in an experimental novel. You can also look at the reviewer’s profile and check out their other reviews to get a sense of how they review overall. I particularly love clothing  reviews when the reviewer shares something about her body shape, particularly height and weight. It helps me calibrate, for example, their assessment of example of whether an item is “true to size” or fits small or big.


It’s worth it – Wine Glass Bay from the lookout

I thought I’d share here an example showing how the needs and abilities of individual reviewers can impact what they write. They are comments on TripAdvisor about the Wine Glass Bay Lookout Walk in Tasmania:

  • “It’s a short walk to the lookout and it’s totally worth it”
  • “A bit of effort but not too ambitious, a bit of sweat, but the view is worth it”
  • “we did find some parts of the walk tough on the way up, but it was well worth it”
  • “Prepare ye for this! It is a hard slog and a fair way, but the end result is stunning, especially if the sun shines at the right time”
  • “Challenging hike to get to the lookout but definitely worth it”
  • “The walk/climb up from the carpark to the lookout is not for the unfit … especially the elderly”
  • “The long walk up the hill was certainly worth it”

So, “short walk” or “a hard slog”? Mr Gums and I would concur with the second dot-point commenter. We found it a little strenuous but comfortably doable, and not particularly long. Indeed we went on to complete the 11km Hazards Bay circuit rather than just do the return 3-4km lookout walk. It’s a well-trodden well-made path, but it is uphill and has some steps. We’re moderately fit late middle-aged people. Those who are overweight, well on in years, or who suffer from physical conditions like arthritis or breathing issues, though, would not find it easy.

Owner responses: how does the owner respond to reviews, particularly bad reviews? Are they defensive, or, worse, aggressive towards the reviewer, or do they respond calmly, explaining the situation and/or what they’ve done to rectify the situation. Even where the reviewer is being unreasonable, I like to see the owner, as in all good customer service situations, attempt to mollify the situation rather than inflame it.

Authenticity: there is always the risk of fake reviews.There are owners/authors/relations/paid reviewers etc who write good reviews about themselves and, worse, bad reviews about others, and there are those who tick the box that they have no business or personal relationship with the product or service when they do. There’s not a lot we consumers can do about that except to look closely for the “rat”. Sometimes it will stand out (be over the top in one direction or another, for example; be too specific or not specific enough), but often it won’t. My approach is to not rely solely on one platform. I check the product/service’s website, where there is one, and other review services or listings, including, where possible, professional ones. No-one ever said research was easy!

Images: I love it when reviewers include photos of dishes they’ve eaten at a restaurant or cafe, or of the rooms in a hotel. Photos can complete the “picture” beautifully. And pictures rarely lie – though of course, they are selected. TripAdvisor identifies where the photo is management supplied (providing management is honest of course).

So, yes, I do consult consumer reviews regularly for certain products – particularly for clothing, eating and travel. The downside, particularly when travelling, is that you can lose the spontaneity of, and sense of achievement in, discovering your own treasures. So, we don’t use reviews slavishly or exclusively. And, we always watch out for opinion-givers like Mark Twain! Following this approach, I find that on balance consumer reviews are one of the benefits our out digital age.

What about you? If you do use them, what sorts of products do you use them for? Do you use them to choose your reading? Is your experience mostly positive or negative?

* I use various consumer sites/reviews but TripAdvisor is the one I know best.


On the literary road … in Melbourne and thereabouts

Once again we are visiting our first-born in Melbourne and taking the opportunity to visit places we haven’t yet explored in this city and state. I’ve managed on this trip to tick off a few more “bucket list” items.

Captain Cook’s cottage in Fitzroy Gardens.

IMG_0554I first learnt of this cottage in my childhood when my siblings and I would collect Golden Fleece service station swap cards on road trips. These cards introduced me to all sorts of sights around Australia but three particularly took my fancy – Jenolan Caves with those amazing formations; the John Flynn Memorial in central Australia, because of the HUGE rock on top of it; and Captain Cook’s cottage because, yes I admit it, it was cute. The picture showed it with ivy growing over the walls, and for someone living in outback Queensland, that was romantic. I’ve seen the first two sights long ago, but for some reason had not seen the cottage – until now. It’s as cute as I expected, and a wonderful example of preserving the home of a significant person – albeit thousands of miles from where it was built.

And, it has a literary reference because upstairs was a display of a selection of the sorts of books people read in the 18th century – and there wasn’t a novel amongst them as the sign confirmed! This reminded me of Jane Austen’s famous defence of the novel in Northanger Abbey in which she argues that novels convey a “thorough knowledge of human nature” in the best language.

Harold Holt Memorial at Cheviot Beach.

Cheviot Beach

Cheviot Beach

Harold Holt was prime minister of Australia in December 1967 when he disappeared at Cheviot Beach while swimming. He was never found, leading, of course, to all sorts of conspiracy theories.

This is not particularly literary, except that the event did spawn much writing – journalistic, historical and biographical – including My Life and Harry written the year after his death by his flamboyant wife, Dame Zara Holt.

Immigration Museum, in the old Customs Building.

A more recent wishlist item, but a significant one, is Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. It tells the story of migration, primarily in Victoria, and so starts from around 1830s. I liked that it paralleled this story with that of the original inhabitants discussing how migration and migrants impacted them and their lives. This aspect of the story could be stronger, but I guess the main focus is the immigrants. I liked the way the museum incorporated historical/political facts, through a timeline and other displays, with personal stories of immigrants told in text, voice and visuals.

IMG_0552The extra treat for me here though was a little serendipitous find. Recently, I had a discussion, in some online forum or other, with the Resident Judge about different styles of museums. She talked about liking museums where you can discover little things for yourself. I was reminded of this discussion when, out of the blue, in a display about identity, I came across a statement by novelist Ouyang Yu. Born in China, he now lives primarily in Australia where he established his literary career. At least, I assume the statement is by the novelist as his identity wasn’t divulged. I rather liked discovering him in this place, but did wonder why he wasn’t further identified.

The meeting of art and literature, at the Singapore Art Museum

SAM ExteriorMr Gums and I have had a busy few months, with, unusually for us, two overseas trips in less than four months. Both were family-inspired: Canada in April-May to visit our daughter, and then last week Koh Samui to help Mr Gums’ sister and husband celebrate their 40th anniversary. We decided to spend a few days en route to Samui in Singapore. What an interesting place it is. Although, technically, a new country which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, it has a much longer history, dating back to the second century. What we know as “modern” Singapore, though, began when the British, via Sir Stamford Raffles, established a trading post on the island in 1819. We didn’t see anywhere near enough but we tasted its variety –  including my topic for this post, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

SAM is housed in a gracious old 19th century missionary school building – the St Joseph’s Institution run by La Salle Brothers.  The building was constructed in stages, from 1855 to completion in the early twentieth century. It was acquired for the museum in 1992. SAM describes itself as having “one of the world’s largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art”.

The current major exhibition, which will run for a year, is Medium at Large: Shapeshifting materials and methods on contemporary art. SAM explains that it

explores the idea of medium in contemporary art, probing some of the most fundamental and pressing questions of art – its making, and also our experience, encounter and understanding of it.

It’s the sort of exhibition I enjoy – modern, confronting and/or provocative, with useful interpretive signage. Of course, I enjoy the famous, classic galleries like the Louvre or Prado, just as I like to read classic novels, but I also enjoy seeing what contemporary artists are doing and thinking. I loved the concept behind this exhibition. In our increasingly fluid, interactive, interdisciplinary world, a focus on how art is made and how re relate to it, seems very relevant.

The exhibition comprises 32 artworks and apparently draws mainly from the museum’s permanent collection, but it also “includes loans and commissions from Singaporean, Southeast Asia, and Asian artists”. We are seeing more Asian artists here in Australia, but it’s exciting to visit Asian galleries where we can see art and artists less familiar to western gallery-goers. And so, we saw two portraits made using live bullets on sandpaper (by Filipino artist Alvin Zafra), and a sculpture made with human hair (Dutch-born Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma’s Shaggy). We saw works that play with medium and form, such as an oil painting overlaid with a video projection (Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka’s He was a good man), a distressingly mesmerising video of a woman dancing on butter captured also in still photographs (Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s Exegie – Butter Dance), and another video in which a taut rope springs and snaps through architectural spaces (Singaporean Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Space Drawing 5). Our minds were challenged by a video installation called The Cloud of Unknowing (by another Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen) in which various residents in an apartment complex experience some sort of epiphany or understanding of something mystical. Some of the works, including this last one, have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

RenatoOraro's Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

Renato Orara’s Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

But, since this is primarily a litblog, I’ll finish with two works that incorporate books. The first one is, in fact, the first work that confronted us in the exhibition, Filipino Renato Orara’s* Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403). It comprises a lamb cutlet, finely drawn in ballpoint pen on a page of the Bible, a page from Job. Since Job is primarily about how humans can comprehend why an all-powerful God lets good people suffer, the piece raises all sorts of questions about “the lamb of God”, about sacrifice. The label suggests other tensions too, such as between word and image, between open/public (when the book is open) and hidden/private (when the book is closed), and, through imposing what is essentially a chop on the Bible, between the sacred and profane. I would add another tension – that between wonder at the delicacy of the execution of the image and feeling “gross” from seeing a lump of fatty meat on the Bible. A surprising work that stays with you.

Part of Titarubi's Shadow of surrender (2013)

Part of Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender (2013)

The other work, Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender, comprises multiple components in a large space. I could not quite fit it all into my photo but it contains large, open, blank books on benches, with chairs, and with big charcoal drawings of trees on the walls. It was commissioned for the Indonesian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. It’s a complex work, with additional layers of meaning contained in the knowledge that the wood used in the furniture comes from colonial-era railroad tracks. The pieces are burnt, which apparently references the charcoal the artist’s mother cooked with, but which also links to the charcoal tree drawings. And, of course, trees provide the paper and wood used for books and furniture, suggesting a cycle of life theme too. The label refers to the fact that the books are empty implying a “tabula rasa” and the idea that it is time to re-write history or re-learn lessons, and thus develop anew leaving past colonial constructs.  An article about the Biennale on Titarubi’s website says that in this work he links “sakti” (‘divine energy”) “to both education and the environment, to knowledge and the natural world”. Another powerful and emotive piece, as you can see.

SAM was our last “sight” in Singapore and rounded off our visit very nicely!

* While researching where Orara was from, I discovered an article about artists using ballpoint pens. It starts with: “Accessible and affordable, the ballpoint pen has become the medium of choice for artists to make obsessive abstractions, extreme drawings, and playful riffs on venerated ink traditions”.

On the literary road, in Ontario

I’m back from my North American trip and, as you can tell, didn’t find much time to post while I was there. It was a packed three and a half weeks, catching up with our daughter, sightseeing, and meeting people, many of whom I’d got to know via online reading groups. I didn’t find much time (or, indeed, energy) to read, but would like to share some literary tidbits from our trip.

Chapters Indigo Bookshop

Canadian authors stand, Chapters Indigo, Eaton Centre, Toronto

I had hoped to check out a local independent bookshop or two but things – including weather that didn’t encourage meandering – conspired against me, so the only bookshop I visited in the end was a chain, Chapters Indigo. I was intrigued to see how much it had diversified into all sorts of products, including personal and household goods. I guess this is how a bookshop survives these days. My main aim in visiting was, of course, to check out Canadian authors. Unfortunately the shop, while fine in its way, was just like a chain. The staff did their best but were not really able to provide the sort of advice I wanted, like, you know, the names of Canadian authors besides the well-known ones like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. They had a lot of the latter’s books, the willing sales assistant said, since she’d just won the Pulitzer! I didn’t bother to correct him but simply smiled, because he had done his best –  and then I noticed that we were actually standing next to a little display stand of just what we were looking for, that is, a stand in which all the books were tagged “Canadian author” and were all new authors to me! I was attracted to Circus, a book of short stories by Claire Battershill, but didn’t buy it then. Instead, I bought a book by another author I know, Margaret Laurence, for Ma Gums.

Toronto Book Awards

photo 2 croppedAnd then, quite serendipitously on the same day, my daughter and I were walking down Queen Street West and walked right over plaques embedded in the pavement for the Toronto Book Awards Authors Walk of Fame. The awards were established by the City of Toronto in 1974 and are awarded each year for the year’s best fiction or non-fiction book or books “that are evocative of Toronto”. All shortlisted authors receive $1000, with the winning author receiving an extra $10000.

I was intrigued to see that one of the winners of the first award – in the early years there were often multiple winners – was William Kurelek whose art we’d come across at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and the book he won for is called O Toronto which contained his series of paintings of Toronto. The other two inaugural winners were historian Desmond Morton’s Mayor Howland and novelist Richard Wright’s In the middle of a life. I have his best known work, Clara Callan, on my TBR pile.

William Campbell

We visited Toronto’s historic Campbell House, the home of Chief Justice William Campbell from 1822 until he died in 1834. His Georgian-style house is the oldest surviving building from the original town of York, but the reason I am including him here is that he presided in 1826 over the trial of the rioters who destroyed William Lyon Mackenzie’s printing press on which he printed his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate. The house museum suggests the case is a significant early test for freedom of the press in Canada. Mackenzie went on to become a politician, and in 1834, the first mayor of the new city of Toronto (as York was renamed when it was incorporated).

Stratford Festival

Festival Theatre, Stratford

Festival theatre, Stratford

This festival, previously known as the Stratford Shakespearean and then Shakespeare Festival, is, according to Wikipedia, an internationally-recognized annual celebration of theatre running from April to October in Stratford, which is about 2-hours drive west of Toronto. It’s a very pretty little town, on the Avon River, and has a replica Globe Theatre. I was intrigued to discover yet another Shakespeare based or inspired festival. They seem to abound, and Wikipedia has quite a list of them. Many, like this one, don’t  focus exclusively on Shakespeare but his works form their backbone. Daughter Gums has been a keen attendee over the last two years of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and several of my online reading group friends love the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But back to Stratford. I was given a beautiful coffee table book, Robert Cushman’s Fifty seasons at Stratford, by Emmy whom I met for the first time on this trip but have “known” for many years through online reading groups. The book is organised chronologically with each chapter named for that period’s artistic director. And, it has an introduction by another Canadian author I’ve read, Timothy Findley, who acted at the very first festival at Stratford in 1953. The first director was Tyrone Guthrie, and some of the actors Findley worked alongside were Alex Guinness, Irene Worth and Douglas Campbell. This was clearly no amateur undertaking! Cushman, in his preface, mentions that another Canadian novelist (I’ve read), Robertson Davies, had played a role in establishing the Festival, had been on its board, and had written about its early history. This is a gorgeously produced book, with an excellent index and a chronological list at the back of every play performed at the festival from 1953 to 2002.

… and now, with jet lag making its presence felt, that is about all I have for you tonight, but at least I have given you a taste of some of the things that have occupied my mind over the past three weeks or so.

Canada’s Group of Seven

You’ve seen me write about Canberra’s Seven Writers, a group of seven women who got together to share their writing and support each other. All of them published well-received books – novels, short stories, poetry. Well, I was amused – I’m easily amused – to discover  the other day as we explored the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that Canada has a Group of Seven.

However, Canada’s Group of Seven – as you’ve probably guessed – is not a writers’ group but one of artists. It comprised seven men who had been painting for many years before they formed this group. They first exhibited together in 1920 at the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the AGO. According to signage at the Gallery, they believed that to develop a sense of nationhood, Canada needed to find its voice in art – and they saw this voice as coming through nature and landscape. The group operated – is that the best word? – until 1933, but, the Gallery says, their work “continues to influence national identity”.

The seven artists are men I’ve never heard of: Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), A. Y. Jackson (1882–1972), Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932), and Frederick Varley (1881–1969). Apparently the Seven did become bigger when A. J. Casson (1898–1992) joined in 1926, Edwin Holgate (1892–1977) in 1930, and LeMoine FitzGerald (1890–1956) in 1932. Mr Gums and I were particularly attracted to the stylised, almost abstract landscapes by Harris, though, really, we didn’t have enough time to explore all the artists in depth.

The Gallery has an impressive collection of their work, due largely to its major benefactor, the collector, Ken Thomson. Because we had limited time, though I’d happily go back to the gallery, we focused the second half of our visit on this collection, and some of the rooms near it. (In the first part of our visit, we checked out the special exhibition which featured Henry Moore and Francis Bacon.) Ken Thomson’s philosophy on collecting art was quoted on the walls:

If your heart is beating, you know it was made for you.

The hanging of the Ken Thomson Collection was interesting – and different to that in many other parts of the Gallery – in that the paintings were hung without individual labels. Instead, in each room there was a large introductory label and a spiral bound book with thumbnails of the works and the needed identification. I had mixed feelings about the approach: it enabled the works to be shown, rather as they would in a home, unadulterated by any immediate mediation, and yet in a gallery I do want to know what I’m seeing. I suspect, though, we are all different in how we want to interact with art. I have seen this sort of approach before – that is, not identifying the picture with a label next to it – in some of the galleries and art exhibits we visited in Japan, but in those places there tended to be very few works on the walls, sometimes just one big work on each wall.

Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Note the hanging of Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

As I’m still travelling, I don’t have time to write too much more, but I wanted to mention the room that was devoted to displaying works by both the Group of Seven and artists contemporaneous with them. The latter were hung on sections of walls painted in a darker grey colour to identify them more easily. These non-Group of Seven works, some of which were by women like Emily Carr, expressed a more diverse, less romantic, perhaps, view of Canada. They included figurative works, which contrasts significantly with the Group of Seven’s pretty much exclusive focus on landscape. One that I particularly liked was the naive style “In the Nun’s Garden” (c. 1933) (see below) which, from a distance, gave the impression of penguins. It’s easy to see how their association with nuns works!

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson, contemporaneous with the Group of Seven

Emily Carr, in fact, is one of the few artists I’d come across before, in my visit to the Canada’s northwest in 1991, where we saw her art at the Royal British Columbia Museum. She was particularly known for painting indigenous Canadians and their culture, though moved into “forest scenes”. She met the Group of Seven, and was apparently encouraged and supported by their “leader”, Lawren Harris. She was also a writer, which, really, is the main reason I know her – through her autobiographical book Klee Wyck.

Another artist associated with the group was Tom Thomson (1877–1917). He died young, before the group’s official formation, but his landscape paintings of the west belong very much to the group’s ethos. The introductory signage described his landscapes as “boldly expressive and passionate”. According to Wikipedia, group member and recognised leader Lawren Harris wrote in his essay “The Story of the Group of Seven” that Thomson was “a part of the movement before we pinned a label on it”. The room dedicated to Thomson’s painting was rather poignant.

One of the great things about travel is getting a sense of how a nation views itself. I think Australians find visiting Canada particularly interesting because we have quite a lot of similarities as well as, of course, our differences. This art exhibition, with its discussion of landscape and nationhood gave me another insight into a country which, like ours, has immense space and dramatic, defining landscapes.

Preparing to visit friends, Jane Austen style

One of the things we learn through Jane Austen’s letters – and indeed through her novels – is how much visiting and travelling people did in the early eighteenth century. They travelled to stay with or help out friends and family; they travelled for health purposes (such as to take the Waters at Bath); they travelled to see sights; and they travelled for business. Since we are currently on a brief trip to North America to visit friends and family, it seems appropriate to share some words from my favourite wise writer, Jane Austen.

In late 1800, Jane Austen was preparing to stay with her dear friend Martha Lloyd*. Here is a letter she wrote to Martha regarding that visit:

You distress me cruelly by your request for Books; I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading. I can do THAT at home; & indeed am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as MY share of Conversation.  – I am reading Henry’s History of England, which I will repeat to you in any manner you may prefer, either in a loose, disultary, unconnected strain, or dividing my recital as the Historian divides it himself, into seven parts, The Civil & Military – Religion – Constitution – Learning & Learned Men – Arts & Sciences – Commerce Coins & Shipping – & Manners; – so that for every evening of the week there will be a different subject; The friday’s lot, Commerce, Coin & Shipping, You will find the least entertaining; but the next Eveng:’s portion will make amends. – With such a provision on my part, if you will do your’s by repeating the French Grammar, & Mrs** Stent will now & then ejaculate some wonder about the Cocks & Hens, what can we want? (Letter 26, 12 November, 1800, to Martha Lloyd)

This tells us quite a lot about Jane and her friend, about their relationship and how they liked to spend their time together. It gives us insight into Austen’s cheeky humour and her comfort in teasing her friend. It also tells us about her times, the books people read and how they read them. And, it shows us that deciding what books to take with you on your holiday is not a new problem – even though on this occasion Austen plans to eschew books in favour of conversation with her friend!

Now, what books shall I find time to read while away … you’ll have to watch this blog to find out.

* Martha Lloyd is a significant person in Jane Austen’s life (and therefore biography). She was a long-standing friend whom Jane saw as a second sister. She later came to live with Jane, her mother and sister when they moved to Chawton and, many years after Jane’s death, she married Jane’s brother, Frank, after his wife had died. Her recipes form the basis of The Jane Austen Cookbook, compiled by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye. Martha Lloyd’s chicken curry is a regular presence at my Jane Austen group’s Regency potluck get togethers.

NOTE: The asterisks in the letter are not footnote-related but are some sort of artefact in the University of Virginia e-text edition of the letters I used .

Delicious descriptions from Down under: Murray Bail on composers’ houses

Beethoven's birth house

Beethoven’s birth house

During our recent trip to Europe we managed to follow the trails of a few composers*. We saw statues of JS Bach, CPE Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig van Beethoven. We visited Eisenach, where Bach was born and saw the church where he was baptised. We visited Leipzig, where he worked for 27 years and saw the church where he wrote most of his best-known compositions. We visited the house in Weimar where Franz Liszt was based for the last 20 or so years of his life, and the house in Bonn where Beethoven was born. In a previous European trip we visited the house in Salzburg where Mozart was born. We’ve enjoyed this aspect of our tourism, the way it helps put these composers into some sort of geographic and historical perspective.

Given this, and my current interest in the meaning and value of travel, I was therefore rather tickled to read, just this morning, Murray Bail‘s comment in The voyage on composers’ houses:

… the idea of turning composers’ houses into holy houses with perfect wallpaper, bare desk and polished floorboards is more a display of falsity than history, although it hardly deters the visitors who go into every room, wanting to add layers to their general knowledge, mouths open in wonder, in Mozart’s case, amazing how a family with so many children could fit in such a space, how Mozart managed to work with his family around him, making the usual family racket, or the curator’s immaculate recreation of Beethoven’s rooms, not a speck of dust to be seen, though everyone knows he lived in disorder or squalor.

Oh dear, he does have a point!

Franz Liszt's bed

Franz Liszt’s actual bed

Indeed, in our experience, some (many, in fact) of these homes no longer have the composer’s furniture but have been furnished in period style. The curators don’t always even know what sort of furniture the famous inhabitant had, unless there are letters or some sort of contemporary inventory to tell them. In Liszt’s case though, his perspicacious supporter/ruler, Grand Duke Carl Alexander ordered within days of his death that the house be preserved because he knew fans would want to pay homage:

Since […] it can be assumed that Liszt’s innumerable friends and admirers […] will pay homage to the memory of the departed by visiting the rooms which he lived in, the Grand Duke strictly commands that nothing may be changed of the furniture and decorations, that is to the furnishings in the broadest sense, in the rooms in which Liszt lived.  (from the audioguide)

The furniture there really was Liszt’s. Does that make a difference? Do we feel more reverence or awe because we know the great man (or woman) sat on that chair? Is our experience somehow less, if we know the furniture isn’t original? I guess it depends on the tourist.

How does a composer’s house turned into a museum differ from a “straight” museum. Does displaying objects – authentic and/or “only” contemporaneous – in the composer’s own space add value to our experience? Is it better than seeing these objects in an all-purpose museum space, perhaps alongside those of other composers or people of the same time? What sort of experience or knowledge are we seeking? What, to take this to its logical conclusion, is the role of museums? These are the questions I’ve been pondering, in a heightened manner I must admit, since reading Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel (my review).

Bail has discussed museums and tourists in other works – in his novel Homesickness, and in a story that I plan to read soon. Watch this space! Meanwhile, do you have thoughts on the topic? Do you like to visit writers’ homes for example? Why?

* Not to mention writers, and other famous or infamous people, of course.

Miscellaneous writers on travel

You may have noticed that I didn’t manage a Monday Musings last week. Mr Gums and I have just arrived home from our 7-weeks sojourn overseas – so normal service will resume soon, both here and in my reading of your blogs!

Today, though, I thought I’d share a small, eclectic collection of quotes about travellers and travelling that I’ve come across recently. All of them reflect, in some way, our experiences over the last 7 weeks.

Murray Bail in The voyage (2012)

The other passengers went off in different directions, their alertness to novel sights gave the impression they had more energy than the locals, an optical illusion, most likely.
Lafcadio Hearn in Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan (1894)
I climb and climb and climb, halting perforce betimes, to ease the violent aching of my quadriceps muscles …
Wine, beer and laptop

The modern traveller (Burgos, Spain)

Washington Irving in Tales of the Alhambra (1832)

… but above all we laid in an ample stock of good humor, and a genuine disposition to be pleased, determining to travel in true contrabandista style, taking things as we found them, rough or smooth, and mingling with all classes and conditions in a kind of vagabond companionship.

Jack Kerouac in On the road (1957)

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.

Do these speak to you? And do you have any favourite travel quotes?

A note re advertising

I gather that while I’ve been away WordPress has been adding random advertisements to my blog (which they host for free) for cost recovery reasons. As I don’t monetise this blog in any way, I’ve decided for the moment not to pay to be ad-free. However, if the ads become irritating, please let me know and I will reconsider.