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Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the sea (#BookReview)

June 30, 2018

Randolph Stow, The merry-go-round in the seaRandolph Stow is a writer I’ve been meaning to read for the longest time – since, would you believe, the 1970s? Embarrassing, really, given his significance. My plan had always been to read his Miles Franklin award-winning novel To the islands first. However, the first I actually bought was The merry-go-round in the sea – back in 2009 when it was re-released as $10 Penguin classic. It’s taken me until now to read it – and I read it with my reading group, which made it an extra special experience.

BEWARE SPOILERS, albeit this is a classic with minimal plot so, you know …

The merry-go-round in the sea was Stow’s fourth novel, published in 1965 when he was 30 years old. It has a strong autobiographical basis, but is, by definition, fiction. It is essentially a coming-of-age story about a young Western Australian boy, Rob, who, like Stow, was born in Geraldton in 1935. It covers eight years of his life from 1941, when his favourite cousin, the 21-year-old Rick, leaves to fight in World War 2, to 1949, when Rob is 14-years-old and the now-returned Rick is about to leave again, this time to live in London. The plot is not a particularly dramatic one, but rather a lot happens nonetheless.

It all starts in 1941 with Rob and his family moving (“evacuating” is the strange word his mother uses) to a family station in the country, due to fears of Japanese invasion. There Rob enjoys the life of a “bush kid” and is unhappy to find, upon his return to town, that he is really a “townie”. Meanwhile, Rick is at war, ending up a POW on the Thai-Burma railway. His experience is told in three or four brief but vivid digressions from the narrative’s main focus on Rob’s life. We are told enough to prepare us for a changed Rick on his return. In the second part of the novel, the focus is on Rob’s growing up, on his gradual loss of childish innocence, and on Rick’s struggles to come to terms with his life after his experience of war. Nothing is the same for Rick, and Rob worries about his idol.

Now, this is a 400-page novel (in my edition, anyhow) and can be discussed from multiple perspectives, so I’m going to hone in on a couple that most interested me.

One of these is heralded by the book’s structure, by the fact that, although the protagonist, the person though whom we “see” most of the book, is young Rob, the book’s two parts are named for Rick, “1 Rick Away 1941-1945”, and “2 Rick Home 1945-1949.” Superficially, this can be explained by the fact that Rick is a major focus of Rob’s interest. However, I’d argue there’s something more here, that these two characters represent conflicting forces – a duality – within Randolph Stow himself, one being his love of place, of the land and country he grew up in, and the other being his discomfort with that same place and his need to get away, which indeed he did. This duality was, as I recollect, discussed by Gabrielle Carey in her book Moving among strangers: Randolph Stow and my family (my review).

So … through Rob’s third person eyes, Stow writes gloriously, authentically, about Geraldton and the surrounding areas in which he grew up. The language is lyrical, poetic, conveying an emotional intensity in addition to pure description:

By rock pools and creeks the delicate-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold-dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

There’s repetition of colours, plants, and landforms, but rather than becoming tedious they convey a deep familiarity with and love of place – and make the novel sing.

However, through Rick’s eyes – albeit eyes damaged by his war experience – we see a more conflicted, and arguably more adult, understanding of this place. At the end, he explains his decision to leave to Rob:

‘Look, kid,’ Rick said, ‘I’ve outgrown you…


‘I can’t stand,’ Rick said, ‘this – ah, this arrogant, mediocrity. The shoddiness and wowserism and the smug wild-boyos in the bars. And the unspeakable bloody boredom of being in a country that keeps up a sort of chorus. Relax, mate, relax, don’t make the place too hot. Relax, you bastard, before you get clobbered.’

Stow wasn’t the only intellectual to leave Australia in the 1960s. Others include Germaine Greer, Clive Robertson, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes.

My other issue is trickier to discuss: it concerns Stow’s references to indigenous people in the novel. It’s complicated to tease out, and to do so properly would require a re-read, but I can’t leave the novel without saying something about it, given our heightened awareness these days. As I’ve already said, the book was written in 1965 about the 1940s. In 1957, Stow had spent three months as a storeman at the Forrest River Aboriginal mission in the Kimberleys. His biographer, Suzanne Falkiner, argued (on ABC RN Late Night Live) that this experience created some conflict for him:

‘[His family] had achieved a lot: they had been colonists in America, in the West Indies, the earliest settlers in that region of Australia,’ she says. ‘But as he grew older and as he got to know Aborigines, having worked in the Forrest River mission, I think the conflict became a real source of pain for him.’

I believe that Stow tried to convey some of this in The merry-go-round in the sea. Several times, Rob quotes his family’s racist attitudes, including here:

Rob did not mind the blackn*****s, some of the older ones he rather admired. But his mother was furious because Nan [Rob’s sister] was sitting next to a blackn****r in school. ‘They’re dirty,’ said his mother. ‘They all have bugs in their hair.’

It was funny about blackn*****s. They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian. His world was not one world.*

In other parts of the novel, he describes seeing Aboriginal art in caves, and ponders the people who made them. Not all are so sensitive or interested, however. When he’s taunted at school with having “n****r blood”, he reacts defensively, but when he’s a little older, and schoolfreinds once again express racist attitudes, he responds:

‘I like them,’ the boy said, ‘There’s some nice boong kids at school.’

A poor choice of words, but at least Rob stands up for his beliefs. If we take Rob as Stow’s mouthpiece, then it’s pretty clear that Stow is conveying in this novel some disquiet about prevailing attitudes to Australia’s indigenous people.

There is so much more to explore in this book – including the motif of the merry-go-round itself. As a young boy Rob had been shattered by the discovery of “time and change”, leading him to cling to the idea of a merry-go-round, which revolves and revolves around a solid centre, his family, never changing. By the end, however, with Rick about to leave, he realises that this too is illusion, that the world is not quite as he’d seen it. A bittersweet ending – one that must come to us all at some time!

Several bloggers have posted on this novel in the last few years, including Lisa (ANZ Litlovers) and Kim (Reading Matters), and offer additional perspectives to mine.

Randolph Stow
The merry-go-round in the sea
Camberwell: Penguin Books, 2009
ISBN: 9780143202745

* I have blanked out this word to, hopefully, deflect the wrong sort of “hits” on this blog.

Monday musings on Australian literature: VerityLa

June 25, 2018

I’ve mentioned the literary blog-cum-journal, VerityLa, a few times before here, partly because one of its founders is local writer, Nigel Featherstone. For those of you who haven’t come across it, however, it is, in its own words, “an on-line, no-way-for-profit, creative arts journal, publishing short fiction and poetry, cultural comment, photomedia, reviews, and interviews.” I have subscribed to it for some years now – it was established in 2010 – and have loved receiving in my email inbox its intriguing mix of content, from contributors both known and unknown to me. (My only complaint was that I wanted it to be like a “traditional” blog that I could comment on, as there were many times that I wanted to respond to the content.)

However, I was thrilled to receive an email last week announcing VeritaLa mark II, a stylish new website for the “journal” that significantly expands (and better organises) its content, including, the email, says, two new publishing streams:

  • Slot Machine (spoken word and performative text) curated by David Stavanger; and
  • Rogue State (bold nonfiction) edited by Kathryn Hummell

Overall, there are 14 streams, covering such areas as emerging indigenous writers, deaf and other disabled writers, travel writing, LGBTQI writers, visual artists, plus interviews and reviews. The full list as well as instructions on how to submit to the journal are available on their Submission Guidelines page. The excitement doesn’t stop with this expanded content, though. In other news on the same page, they announce that, due to financial support from Australia Council for the Arts, they will be paying, this year, $100 for each piece published (except for previously published book extracts). This amount, they say, is a “grand (in literary circles) sum.”

It just goes to show what can be achieved by plugging quietly away, gradually proving that what you are doing has value. That it does indeed have value is evidenced by the site’s being archived by the National Library of Australia’s Pandora, by its being comprehensively listed on the AustLit database (paywalled, though some content can be accessed free-of-charge), and by the archiving of selected pieces at Deakin Research Online.

The hunger

VerityLa Anthology 1, The HungerTo celebrate this new phase in its existence and “to recognise what’s been achieved” the VerityLa team has also produced its first anthology, chosen to reflect the journal’s diversity. Titled The hunger, it’s an eBook and costs only $10. A bargain, so I’ve bought it!

This anthology was edited by novelist and playwright Nigel Featherstone, poet and editor Michele Seminara, and poet and critic Robbie Coburn. It is described as follows:

Hunger is defined as an intense desire or craving. Artists published in Verity La crave a creative purity and truth, forging a place outside of what might be considered fashionable and publishable in the mainstream. The work appearing in this anthology is defined by the journal’s mantra, Be Brave: be hungry for your voice to be heard and to articulate your soul, no matter the cost.

It includes contributions from both well-known writers like Robyn Cadwallader, Leah Kaminsky, Wayne Macauley, Anna Spargo-Ryan, Prime Minister’s Literary Prize winner Melinda Smith. They also include indigenous contributors such as Graham Akhurst, Brenda Saunders and Teena McCarthy the Iranian poet and asylum-seeker Mohammad Ali Maleki, and many more. What the diverse group of contributors in this volume shows is the liveliness of the arts in Australia.

Now, I haven’t read it properly, yet, but dipping into it, I’ve been moved by, for example, Brenda Saunders’ poem, “Taxi!” about the ongoing racism experienced by people with black skins, and entertained by Kristen Roberts’ clever, cheeky piece “Urban alphabet”:

P is for toilets and sometimes behind trees, never for footpaths or front doors, and definitely never for faces. Not cool at all.

Q is for tickets, or the dunny at a good gig (see? Use the  toilets!). Not too sure about those people who sleep out the front of a shop the night before a new phone comes out though. I mean, it’s just a bit of technology that’s gonna be superseded by another one in a few months, yeah? My time is too valuable for that.

(from “Urban alphabet”)

“Be brave”, as the volume’s promotion says, is VerityLa’s mantra. And the pieces I’ve read so far certainly are – in content and/or in form.

So, if you haven’t checked out VerityLa before, now might be the time. You might even consider donating (as little as $5 is appreciated) to help them keep paying contributors, among other costs. Or you could buy The hunger (at the link above). At these prices, you can’t really lose!

Do you read on-line literary journals, and if so, which ones and why?

Jan Wallace Dickinson, The sweet hills of Florence (#BookReview)

June 22, 2018

Jan Wallace Dickinson, The sweet hills of FlorenceThere are several reasons why I enjoyed Jan Wallace Dickinson’s historical novel The sweet hills of Florence, the first being Florence itself. I fell in love with Italy in Florence. Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s belltower, the Uffizi and all the other gorgeous places of art and architecture, not to mention the food, combined to capture my heart. It was the first foreign place to do so, and so remains today a special memory. Dickinson, who has apparently lived and worked in Italy for many years, clearly loves Florence too, because it is described in this book with such love.

However, that’s not the only reason for liking this book. Another is the history. I’ve read many, many novels set during the second world war, but not many set in Italy, let alone in Florence. When I visited Florence way back in 1980, it was the art that drew me. I knew very little of its war history, and I don’t recollect its being much on display. Dickinson, though, tells a fascinating story, one that captures both the horror and chaos, the brutality and bravery of war, and particularly of Italy’s war, well.

In some ways, the book could be described as historical romance, except that it doesn’t fit the bodice-ripper formula that I, of admittedly limited experience, see as the definition of this historical fiction sub-genre. What I’m saying in other words, is that in this book, although the love story underpins the plot, it doesn’t drive it in a suspenseful way. This enables Dickinson to explore the main relationship in a more subtle, dare I say, more nuanced way – and to focus on other themes as well.

The story, then, concerns two cousins, Enrico and Annabelle, who are in their late teens to early twenties, during the period of war – 1941 to 1945 – covered by the book. It’s clear from the beginning that Annabelle loves Enrico, and it doesn’t take long before we realise her love is reciprocated. The story follows their lives as partisans, with the Giustizia e Libertà movement within the Italian resistance movement. It’s a story of love, loyalty and camaraderie, but also of courage, deprivation, brutality, and chaos. Dickinson writes this convincingly, though I must say that all the names and places sometimes made my head spin! Here are a couple of examples of her descriptions, describing the German occupation of Florence:

There was no shortage of good citizens ready to settle a score by denouncing someone to Major Charity. The war lifted a rock and from under it, unimaginable creatures emerged, creatures who could not survive in the sunlight, who could thrive only in the dank shady corners of a civil war.


This was the real Florence, the Florence of sobbing and wailing and tearing of hair, not the painted and decorated Florence put on show by the authorities to distract the popular, like the dance of a painted harlot before an audience of terminally ill patients in a madhouse.

Another aspect of the book which made it interesting reading is its structure. The novel is divided into 6 parts, and flips between war-time and the 2000s (up to 2008). The main war action is told chronologically through the middle parts of the novel, while at the beginning and end, we alternate somewhat between past and present. Again, this structure forces us to focus on the characters and their development, on the ideas and themes, rather than the plot.

There’s also paralleling of Annabelle’s love for Enrico, with Clara Petacci’s love for Benito Mussolini. I enjoyed this too. Dickinson spends some time describing Clara and Ben’s relationship. In her Acknowledgements she describes them as “fictionalised characters constructed from my interpretation of diaries, reports and histories.” Clara and Ben’s story serves a few purposes in the novel besides being a focus for Annabelle’s thinking about love. It humanises the two characters, for a start; it encourages us to consider the complexities of their relationship; and it makes the manner of their deaths all the more shocking.

We have no choice, do we?

In the end though, the ideas and themes were what I most enjoyed about the book, particularly those regarding the brutality of war and the lessons learnt or, to be more precise, not learnt. Dickinson makes very clear several times through the novel that there are no saints in war – and that Enrico and Annabelle themselves were capable not only of “justifiable” killing but of more brutal acts:

We cross a line. We decide killing os justified. We have no choice, do we? After that, nothing is taboo. Nothing is unthinkable. We are Freedom Fighters. We are heroes. We have rights on our side. Then wars end. We sleep and try to forget. But beneath it all we are still killers. We stand on the other side of the line. (from Annabelle’s diary)

Dickinson’s main theme, though, concerns the lessons of war. Annabelle’s reaction on the brutal death of Mussolini and Clara, and the subsequent way the bodies were treated, was

I wept for what we have become. Have we learned nothing?

Then, late in the novel, she makes a similar comment, quoting a partisan colleague who’d said:

“Italians … do not learn from the past. They live in the continuous present.”

There were times when I wondered about the reason for the epic nature of this novel, for its spanning so many decades and for, something I haven’t mentioned before, also spanning two countries, Italy and Australia to which Enrico went after the war. Dickinson, through Annabelle and her beloved niece Delia, consider the differences between Italy and Australia, seeing, for example, the former as kinder and the latter as more free. I’m not sure I agreed with all their conclusions, and I’m not sure what these discussions added to the novel, but …

… what did add to the novel were the references to the leering Berlusconi’s re-election in 2008 despite his increasingly fascist tendencies. Seen by a horrified Delia and Annabelle as “a leap back into the past”, it leaves us with, indeed, the question, “have we learned nothing?” The sweet hills of Florence, then, is an engrossing read if you like a strong story about “real” characters, that asks the important questions.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book – I promise I hadn’t read her review when I wrote my introduction, which is suspiciously similar!! I decided not to change it.

AWW Badge 2018Jan Wallace Dickinson
The sweet hills of Florence
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2018
ISBN: 9781925272840

Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Grace Gibson

June 18, 2018

Today’s post was inspired by a tweet, yesterday, from the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). Using the hashtag #OTD (On This Day), they promoted their entry on Grace Gibson who was born on 17 June (in 1905.) Not only was that tweet a blast from my working-life past, but it also introduced an aspect of Australian literature that I haven’t really talked about here before, radio serials.

I am using “literature” here, of course, in its widest, or most generic, sense which, according to Wikipedia, includes “any body of written works.” Radio serials, of course, start with written scripts.

A brief bio

Zenith Console Radio, 1941

Zenith Console Radio, c. 1941, By Joe Haupt, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

So, Grace Gibson, for those of you who haven’t heard of her, was a radio executive producer, who was born in El Paso, Texas. While still young, she became a successful salesperson for the Radio Transcription Co. of America, and was noticed, in the early 1930s, by Sydney radio-station 2GB’s general manager, Alfred Bennett, who was visiting the USA. He invited her to help him establish and manage the company that later became Artransa Pty Ltd. They sold American recorded radio programs throughout Australia. However, in 1941, Gibson, on a buying trip to the USA, because stranded there when the country World War II.

She returned to Australia about  1944, and established her own company, Grace Gibson productions. Lynne Murphy, writing for the ADB, says

The ban on the importation of non-essential goods during the war was a boon for Australian-made products including radio programs, which were now locally produced and increasingly locally written.

So what Gibson did was to make her own productions using American scripts “with local actors as compères or narrators.” She sold these programs to radio stations around Australia. Gradually, the productions became more and more Australian. Here’s Murphy again:

Gibson was astute in her choice of drama directors who, in turn, cast good actors, resulting in high-quality, successful productions. Talented writers adapted the American scripts to local conditions and created original material when the American scripts ran out. They were encouraged to write their own serials—with some outstanding results such as Lindsay Hardy’s spy thrillers Dossier on Dumetrius, Deadly Nightshade and Twenty Six Hours.

By the mid 1950s, says Murphy, the company was producing thirty-two programs per week, and they were broadcast not only in Australia, but in New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and Canada. The programs included evening programs,, Night Beat, and her “two flagship productions”, the daytime soap operas, Dr Paul (which ran from 1949 to 1971) and Portia Faces Life, about lawyer Portia Manning (which ran from 1954 to 1970.) Television eventually saw the end of the radio serial heyday, though Gibson claimed to be the last survivor among of the commercial studios. She wasn’t described as the “human dynamo” for nothing.

Maryanne Doyle, writing on the NFSA’s website, says:

Though Gibson concentrated on the sales side of the business, she could recognise a good script and was noted for her skill at spotting talent.

So, why have I included her here? She wasn’t a writer. However, her programs – together with programs from other studios and production companies – were important providers of stories to people before the days of television, and not just to housewives during the day, but to families at night, to shift workers, and so on.

Stories for Australians?

The question is, though, what stories? To answer this, I went to the National Film and Sound Archive website and, of course, to Trove’s digitised newspapers – and found an interesting story, that took us from the importation of American serials on physical discs, to the production of American scripts here using Australian cast and crew, to the production of scripts written by Australians.

There were various reasons behind this trajectory:

  • legislation: importation of transcriptions from the USA was banned in 1939.
  • political action: an article in The Mail in 1951, for example, notes that although there was no evidence of the importation ban being lifted, such programs were starting to come in again, perhaps via England. Actors’ Equity, the article said, was hostile and passing resolutions against the practice. The article says, though, that opinion was divided. Grace Gibson, it says, seemed to sympathise with the actors, but warned that “if the imports don’t stop soon she’ll be forced to join in the game, too, to protect her business.” On the other hand, the article reports that C.G. Scrymgeour, rep for Towers of London*, argued that “the influx of shows by people like Gracie Fields, Clive Brook, and Donald Peers, made and sold by his organisation, have raised the standard of Australian radio programs.”  The article writer concluded that “the policy of nothing but the best, irrespective of country of origin, sounds good to radio listeners. And an occasional English or American shows adds a welcome variety to our programs.” However, s/he realises that “some form of a quota does seem indicated — that is, if we want our actors to eat.”
  • popularity: some American serials were so popular that when the American scripts ran out – meaning I think that the serial in question had done its dash in the US – the stories were continued by Australian scriptwriters!

Interestingly, in all I read on this issue, the main concern seemed to be supporting the Australian industry – the writers, technicians, producers, and musicians who made their livings out of radio – rather than telling Australian stories for Australians. It confirms that old “cultural cringe” attitude in Australia. Who wanted our stories when you could have overseas ones!

Oh, and it sounds like Grace Gibson may have felt “forced to join in the game” because a 1954 Sydney Morning Herald report says that Grace Gibson Radio Productions was fined £200 for importing prohibited goods, though the Department of Trade and Customs “refused to reveal what the goods were or what their value was.”

Anyhow, Grace Gibson did also produce original Australian scripts, some even telling Australian stories (unlike the afore-mentioned Dossier on Dumetrius, which was an MI5 spy story.) One example is Cattleman which comprises 208 x 12-minute episodes:

He [the character Ben] is a kind of ideal Australian in his generosity, and his contempt for authority and affectation. Even his cattle duffing seems to be more an endearing failing than a serious crime. His life history, covering pioneering, marriage and wartime service is also true to the prototype of the ideal Australian. (Grace Gibson Productions website)

See, real Australian!

Are any of you old enough – or prepared to admit you are – to remember listening to radio serials?

* An independent, British radio production company.

Miles Franklin Award 2018 Shortlist

June 17, 2018

Having posted this year’s Miles Franklin Award Longlist I decided I may as well keep on with it! After all, it is, probably, Australia’s most watched award. The shortlist was announced in Canberra tonight – not that I was invited!

Catherine McKinnon, StorylandHere is the list:

Some random observations:

  • Gerald Murnane, a neglected Australian author has made it through to the shortlist, which is great to see. Of being longlisted, he said he was “gratified”, because it was “a suitable reward for the hard task of writing the book.”
  • Two previous winners, Michelle de Kretser and Kim Scott, have made it through.
  • Recent winner of the Premier’s Award in the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, Hornung, has also made the cut. Her novel The Last Garden has also been shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal. Hornung, who hasn’t been listed for the Miles Franklin, said of being longlisted that it felt “like a personal endorsement.”
  • McKinnon, who has been overlooked, to date, by other awards, has also been shortlisted – which is great to see because it’s an interesting book and a good read. She said about being longlisted that she was “Delighted, dizzy, honoured, thrilled.” What will she feel now!
  • Four of the six books are by women writers, and one is by an indigenous writer.

Judge Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian of the State Library of NSW, said, justifying the shortlisting in terms of Miles Franklin’s criteria:

The Miles Franklin 2018 shortlist engages with the complexities of Australian life in all of its phases, and the legacy of its timeless Indigenous past and its recent European present. All the novels explore how Australians connect with their complex stories, with their emotional histories, and with the legacy of colonisation. Each author in the shortlist considers what it means to live in a particular location, with unique and challenging vision. The vibrancy of contemporary Australian literature, and its relevance to thinking through the challenges of modern Australia, is confirmed with this diverse and intelligent shortlist.

The winner will take away $60,000, and each shortlisted order will receive $5,000 from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

The judges for this year are: Richard Neville (State Library of NSW),  Murray Waldren (journalist and columnist for The Australian), Dr Melinda Harvey (book critic), Lindy Jones (bookseller), and Susan Sheridan (Emeritus Professor in Humanities, Flinders University).

The winner will be announced in Melbourne on 26 August. I congratulate them all and wish them luck …

Is your favourite there? Do you want to make a prediction?

My literary week (11), in the theatre

June 15, 2018

I thought I’d join the world of fake news – why not? – and make my post title a lie, a double lie in fact. It’s not really “literary” (though it has its moments) and it’s not about a week (spanning, in fact, May 24 to June 13). However, the lies end here, as this post is number 11 in my “literary week” series, and it is all about theatre – of all sorts, the concert hall, the movie theatre, the dance theatre, and the drama theatre. Here goes …

Tafelmusik (Llewellyn Hall)

JS Bach, Leipzig

In May, we saw our third concert by the exciting Canadian baroque or early music ensemble, Tafelmusik. They are exciting, because their performances tend to be multimedia – comprising images and/or props, and, often, narration – because, uncommon for ensembles, they play from memory. That’s impressive on its own. The also play on period instruments.

This latest concert was titled Bach and his world and so, not surprisingly, was devoted to the music of JS Bach. But – and here comes a literary bit – it was tied together with a narration, presented by Blair Williams, telling the story of Leipzig and Bach’s time there. The narration started by introducing us to the patron gods of Leipzig, Apollo (the god of music) and Achilles (the god of trade and invention). From here we learnt about the invention of early musical instruments – and about those who made them – and about the making of the paper and pens needed to write the music. And so on … Given Bach was a church musician, we were intrigued by the focus on Greek Gods – but the reason was valid, and it was certainly illuminating.

It was a delightful and engaging concert – perhaps particularly so for us because we visited Leipzig and Bach’s St Thomas Church in 2013, but the buzz throughout the audience suggested we were not the only ones who enjoyed the concert.

The Merry Widow (Canberra Theatre)

A few days later and we were out again, this time to see the Australian Ballet’s latest performance, The Merry Widow, which was created for them in 1975. It’s a delightfully light ballet – a nice change from the dramas of Giselle (one of my favourites) and Swan Lake – and it was performed with a lovely sense of fun. The widow was danced by Dimity Azoury, who hails from neighbouring Queanbeyan.

One of the highlights for us, was seeing, in character roles, two older dancers we loved seeing in our earlier ballet-going days, David McAllister (now the Ballet’s artistic director) and Steven Heathcote. A delight.

We stayed for the post-show Q&A – good for avoiding the post-show car-park jam, as well as for learning something about the ballet. Four company members turned up – David McAllister, Dimity Azoury, another dancer, and the orchestra’s conductor. I got to ask my question about adapting to different stages, and we learnt about how much dancers eat, despite their slim appearance. It’s all that dancing you see!

Sense and sensibility (The Playhouse)

Then, two days after the ballet, it was back to the theatre to see a theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility. What a surprise that was. Adapted by New York playwright, Kate Hamill, and performed by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, it started off with a bang, and never let up until the end. (Check out this promo for the play’s Canberra season.) We lost a few audience members at interval, but most of us got into the style quickly and enjoyed Hamill’s take, which was …

… subversive in terms of the traditional Regency look, with its use of kazoos, roller skates, tricycles, and the like, and highly comic in tone. The unusual props effectively managed time and space, but also captured Austen’s cheeky humour. Best thing though was that all the fun and silliness didn’t detract from the core of the original. I loved how close the production stayed to Austen’s main themes – the havoc that can be wrought on people’s lives (both men and women) by lack of economic independence, the need to balance sense with sensibility, and the challenge of staying moral and true to self in a world where money is used to wield power over others. It was a hoot from beginning to end – but a throughtful, provocative hoot, for all that.

Tea with the Dames (Hoyts, Woden)

And then, phew, I had a break of nearly a week, until this week when I went to see the documentary, Tea with the Dames, not once, but twice – first with a friend, and then with Ma Gums. It was just as good second time around.

The Dames are four doyens of the British theatre – Dame Joan Plowright (b. 1929), Dame Maggie Smith (b. 1934), Dame Judi Dench (b. 1934), and Dame Eileen Atkins (b. 1934). They are filmed at Joan Plowright’s country home, talking to each other, and answering questions from the crew (off camera). There’s a lot of joyful, knowing laughter indicating long professional and personal friendship between the women; much sharing of stories and experiences; and, occasionally, wariness or even reluctance to talk about certain subjects (like ageing!) The documentary feels natural (even where they admit to feeling unnatural), but that’s not to say there’s no art here. It takes work to make something look natural.

In addition to providing insight into the acting life, the film is particularly delightful for the way it exposes the women’s individual personalities: the calm, philosophical Joan (you can tell why she appealed to Laurence Olivier after the dramas of his life with poor manic-depressive Vivien Leigh); the forthright, sometimes acerbic, but also occasionally vulnerable Maggie; the cheeky, light-hearted but also reflective Judi; and the quietly observant, precise Eileen.

Their conversations are interspersed with some wonderful, albeit often poor quality, archival footage, including of early film and stage performances, and more personal images such the women with their children.

The end result is a picture of four women who have lived long, who have survived a tough business, and who continue to engage actively with the world and each other – and who plan to do so until they shuffle off their mortal coils!

The beginning of nature (Premiere @ Canberra Theatre)

Finally, we attended the premiere of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre’s work, The beginning of nature. What a powerful, enthralling experience. We love modern dance, and this was mesmerising. We’d happily see it again – partly to draw more meaning out of it, though perhaps “meaning” is not the right word. It’s about, the program says, the “rhythms of nature”, rhythms that “permeate all aspects of the material universe.”

And so the 80-minute performance involved the nine dancers creating beautiful forms – sometimes using props like stones, sticks, plants, a conch shell – waving, flowing, leaping, crawling, forming one shape and then breaking apart to form another, and so on. Some of the movements/forms were so beautiful that I didn’t want them to end. The value in seeing the work again would be to rise above the spectacle to better “see” the nature, if that makes sense.

Garry Stewart, Australian Dance TheatreThe dancers wore gorgeous, dark teal-green androgynous costumes; the strong but not intrusive music, composed by Brendan Woithe, was played at the back of the stage by the Zephyr Quartet; and vocalists Karen Cummings and Heru Pinkasova, also at the back, sang in Kaurna (pronounced “garna”), the language of the people of the Adelaide Plains. Apparently, Kaurna was extinct until the local people started reconstructing it from the 2000 words documented in diaries by two German missionaries. (Another wonderful example of a project to recover indigenous language.) We were addressed by the company’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, at the end, and he paid tribute to their indigenous consultant, Jack Buckskin.

Stewart writes in the program that from the beginning he wanted to include human voices, and that “it made much more sense to work with the Kaurna language in a dance work that explores the patterns of nature, than English” because “indigenous languages have been spoken on the Australian continent for some 60,000 years, whereas English for only 230 years.” Fair point, and clearly the local indigenous people were on board with the collaboration. I should say here there’s no sense that the work aims to replicate or represent indigenous dance, but I would also say that in representing nature’s rhythms, it incorporates a sort of universal dance language that we can also see in indigenous dance.

And that, folks, is it for now.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in Australian schools

June 11, 2018

As I was trawling my little collection of ideas for Monday Musings, I lit upon a paper by the late educator Annette Patterson titled “Australian literature: culture, identity and English teaching”. Bingo!  I had my answer, because it will contribute to a discussion I took part in on Guy Savage’s His futile preoccuptions blog. The discussion concerned the following statement in Michelle de Kretser’s latest novel The life to come: “It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book.”

Patterson’s article was published in JASAL (the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature) in 2012, so it’s reasonably up-to date. The article’s abstract describes says:

The development of the Australian Curriculum has reignited a debate about the role of Australian literature in the contexts of curricula and classrooms. A review of the mechanisms for promoting Australian literature including literary prizes, databases, surveys and texts included for study in senior English classrooms in New South Wales and Victoria provides a background for considering the purpose of Australian texts and the role of literature teachers in shaping students’ engagement with literature.

Patterson starts by arguing the importance of literature to cultural or national identity, stating that this link is expressly made by several of Australia’s major literary prizes. These awards, plus other indicators such as the growth in resources to support the teaching of Australian literature, demonstrate, she says, “the health of Australian literature”.

She then reports on a survey of Australian secondary teachers regarding the factors affecting their selection of Australian texts for teaching. A major factor was one of the main points I made on Guy’s blog: “the availability of the text in the school storeroom”! This was one of the reasons my son’s high school teacher gave me for teaching Steinbeck’s Of mice and men, and not an Australian book.

And then, interestingly, she provides an historical perspective on the teaching of Australian literature in Australian schools, pointing to concerns about the issue dating back to the late 19th century. She writes about the use of Royal Readers back then which included some reference to Australia but were, overall, firmly grounded in the northern hemisphere. She quotes an inspector of schools, H. Shelton, from 1891:

I have often wondered how the Wimmera farmers relish the statement in the Second Book [of the Royal Readers] that ‘it is a pleasant sight to see wild rabbits running over the fields.’ This lesson should either be struck out, or the other side of the picture be given for the benefit of young Australians.

Tara June Winch, Swallow the airMoving on in her paper, we get to discussions about texts being studied by senior secondary students in NSW and Victoria. I’m going to focus on prose fiction, though she includes non-fiction, poetry, plays and film. So, for example, of the five prose fiction texts set for the 2010 NSW Higher School Certificate, only one was by an Australian, Tara June Winch’s Swallow the air (my review). Things were better in those other forms I mentioned.

Patterson focuses her study, though, on Victoria. She tabulates the occurrence of Australian texts and directors listed for study for the Victorian Certificate of Education from 2001 to 2010. Again, I will focus on the prose fiction – listing those that appear three of more times in order of frequency:

  • Henry Lawson’s Short stories (4 times)
  • Tim Winton’s Minimum of two (short story collection) (4 times) and The riders (1 time)
  • Larissa Behrendt’s Home (4 times)
  • David Malouf’s Dream stuff (short story collection) (3 times) and Fly away Peter (1 time)
  • Christopher Koch’s The year of living dangerously (3 times)
  • Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (3 times)
  • Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro (3 times)

Hmm, a fascinating list. Not a bad one, but there’s not a good gender balance here, and there’s only one indigenous writer (who happens to also be the only woman!) It’s also interesting to see the preponderance of short story collections – and that the novels are mostly short ones. Does this mean students won’t read full novels?

Anyhow, Patterson concludes that the lists she presents provide clear evidence of the important place of Australian literature in school curricula, formally at least. But, quite rightly, she notes that being listed doesn’t mean the works are actually “taken up”. Through a process which she describes briefly, she identifies only one work of prose fiction on the most popular list for the period in question. It’s Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro (which, interestingly, “was voted one of the Top 40 Australian books of all time by members of the Australian Society of Authors”), although other works, including the films Lantana and Look both ways, also appear on the list.

Several prose works appeared on the least popular list:

  • Larissa Behrendt, HomeShane Maloney’s The brush-off
  • Amy Witting’s I for Isobel
  • Henry Lawson’s Short stories
  • Julia Leigh’s The hunter (though she may mean the film adaptation, she doesn’t clarify)
  • Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
  • Larissa Behrendt’s Home
  • Beverley Farmer’s Collected stories

Disappointing, but Patterson is encouraged because:

  • more Australian works appeared on the most popular lists later in the decade indicating a “positive shift”; and
  • “top scoring students appear to be working with Australian texts” – including Beverley Farmer’s Collected stories.

In the last part of the paper she discusses the value of including the study of literature, and particularly Australian literature, in the curriculum – and the theoretical underpinnings for the arguments. They are fascinating, and clearly presented. I loved, of course, her conclusion that

In teaching Australian literature, teachers do a great deal more than teach about the quality of language or the characteristics of a genre. English teachers teach techniques for living, ways of behaving and responding, building empathy, promoting tolerance and developing responses to texts that are considered appropriate within current social and cultural contexts.

She ends by returning to her study, and arguing for the value of undertaking ongoing research into text lists, and their use.

However, I’ll return to Guy’s blog discussion and say that Patterson’s paper reveals that Australian texts are being taught in Australian schools – and have been for a long time. However, whether all schools teach them, and whether all students in the schools that do actually “take them up”, is another question. There is, in other words, sure to be some truth in the statement in de Kretser’s book, but I sure hope it’s not 86%!