Delicious descriptions: Gerald Murnane’s landscape and imagination

A couple of years ago I reviewed Gerald Murnane’s The plains. I found it a mesmerising book, but a challenging one to fully get my head around, to grasp and hang onto what I’d grasped. Then a couple of days ago, I reviewed his memoir, Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf. It was quite a revelation – and among those revelations were some ideas that seemed to flesh out The plains, though he doesn’t specifically address those ideas to the novel in his memoir.

The main revelation relates to his feelings about landscape. Murnane hates the sea and doesn’t much like mountains either. What he loves are plains. In chapter 6 he refers to his “lifelong dislike of travel”, initially developed when he was still a boy. He also, as a boy

settled on what would be my ideal landscapes for the rest of my life: the green and mostly level countryside of south-western Victoria.

Mount Grapples

Mount Arapiles, Western Victoria (released on Wikipedia to Public Domain, without conditions)

Plains, in other words. In chapter 15, he talks about a horse owner P.S. Grimwade. (An aside. In this, as elsewhere in the book, he focuses on what he “imagines” Grimwade to be like, stating that he suspects he wanted “to keep in mind the ideal man rather than have in sight the actual man”! “Perhaps”, he writes, “I wanted to think of him as someone for whom racing was better imagined than experienced – someone such as myself”.) Anyhow, he goes on:

I would have envisaged P.S. Grimwade as owning an extensive property in what I consider the centre of the universe, in the quadrilateral bounded by Ballarat, Ararat, Hamilton, and Camperdown in the Western District of Victoria, which is a landscape of plains and low hills and vast skies. I’ve never felt comfortable when surrounded by steep hills, and I’ve always tried to keep away from mountains.

In fact, Grimwade, he discovered, lived in a different part of Victoria, one he’d never visited – but, it’s telling I think that he places this horse owner, who fascinates him, in a place comfortable to him. He writes that he’s entitled to his imagination about Grimwade:

In the unlikely event that this book should be read by some or another descendant of a man named P.S. Grimwade, and that the descendant should wish to tell me that my account of the man is untrue, inaccurate, preposterous, whatever, I urge that descendant not to waste energy, time, or ink on the matter. Nothing will keep me from revering my saint as he was revealed to me.

Are you getting the picture of this memoir? It’s the imagination that’s important …

Then we get to chapter 22, “Sir Flash and the Borderers”, the chapter that gave me a big ah-so moment. Early in the chapter, he writes again of his ideal landscape:

… the ocean itself repelled me, and I’ve kept well away from it all of my adult life. During my brief holidays on my grandfather’s farm in the 1940s, I was more interested in another sort of ocean. Whenever I stood on a tall cliff above some or other bay, I got inspiration not from the blue-green Southern Ocean reaching away towards the South Pole but from the yellow-brown ocean of land reading towards places I had seen only from a distance, if at all: the plains of the Western District to the north and the north-east of Warrnambool or, away to the north-west, a mostly level landscape …

This discussion introduces a story about a group of horse-owners and horse races in what he calls the Border District. It’s here that I was reminded of The plains, because of the way he imbues the Border Country – and the Borderers who live there – with a sense of “otherness”. These people and their horses came from a real part of Australia, obviously, but it’s a part that was unknown to him when he came across them, so he unfolded a map and “set not only my eyes but my imagination also roaming”. He gives it and its people the aforementioned names, and he awards the people – imagines, in other words – certain characteristics, including “the usual amount of shrewdness and sagacity attributed to people living far from the capital cities”. I won’t tell you all that he ascribes to them – it makes for wonderful reading – but here’s the final bit that brought The plains to my mind:

I would not have my Borderers thought of as wholly devoted to gain, however. They numbered among them many a man who wore his hair bunched above his ears and on his neck and who stood out on a racetrack on account of his elegant dress and proud bearing. Such a man owned a vast cattle or sheep property and lived in a mansion with a veranda on three sides and groves of deciduous trees all around. His mansion included a library and a study. The walls of the study were covered with photographs of the finishes of races won by his own horses. The walls of the library were covered, of course, with books …

This imagination, this creation of a place that seems both in and separate from the Australia we know, a place populated with people who have dreams and an artistic sensibility, is very reminiscent to me of The plains. Rightly or wrongly – but I hope the former – I now feel I understand Murnane a little more, his aspirations, how his imagination works and the absolutely fundamental role it plays in his life.

Many years later, Murnane moved to live in this very landscape – in Goroke where I believe he lives now – and discovered the people aren’t quite as he imagined. But that’s another story.

Delicious descriptions: Clare Wright’s sources on the Australian landscape

While the focus of Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, which I recently reviewed, is the role of women in the Eureka Stockade, the book offers a wealth of wonderful insight into the times. As regular readers know, I have a specific interest in descriptions of landscape so I greatly enjoyed contemporary descriptions of the environment that Wright includes in her book. I can’t resist sharing some with you.

In the first chapter, Wright quotes from the diary of Englishman Charles Evans who walked to the diggings with his brother and another companion. He wrote of one place along their journey:

the scene from the hills was lovely beyond expression—the sun had set and a mellow twilight and the silvery rays of a full moon shed a soft light over the beautiful landscape … I cannot remember any scene in my own country … to excel it—I was going to say, perhaps even to equal it. (from his diary, 1853-55)

Ballarat Diggings c.1852

Ballarat Diggings c1852 – not so ugly, but before the rush was in full swing (Courtesy: State Library of South Australia, B29496

By contrast, English journalist William Howitt comments on the destruction of the landscape in the service of digging for gold:

The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees … Every tree is felled, every feature of Nature is annihilated. (from his book Land, labour and gold, 1855)

According to Wikipedia, Howitt’s body of work draws from “his habits of observation and his genuine love of nature”. Environmentalism, as we know only too well, didn’t spring up in the twentieth century, but I always enjoy, albeit with a certain chagrin, coming across concern about environmental degradation in writings from the past. Wright, with her characteristically evocative language, writes that several diarists and letter-writers comment on the ugliness of the diggings. They “emphasise”, she says, “the conquest of culture over nature, the bulldozer urgency of conquest.”

For some reason that doesn’t fully make sense to me, Wright also quotes Mrs Mannington Caffyn from a book published in 1891, but I’ll share it because Wright did and because it is such an evocative description of Australian sunlight:

Australian sunlight is quite original, and only flourishes in Australia [me: Funny that!]. It is young and rampant and bumptious, and it is rather cruel, with the cruelty of young, untried things.

Many – though of course not all – of the 19th century sources Wright quotes in the book have a picturesque way with words. Mrs Caffyn’s example here was written for publication, but I enjoyed the expressive language used by several of the diarists and letter-writers too. The aforementioned Charles Evans, for example, says this of the plains between Melbourne and Ballarat:

stretching as far as the eye could reach were immense grassy plains undulating in emerald folds like the swell of the ocean.

I may write another more serious post on this book, if I can get my head into gear, but hope you enjoy these little descriptions in the meantime.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (3)

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

Back in August I wrote two posts (here and here) about the National Library of Australia’s conference, Writing the Australian landscape. At the time I said that I would provide a link when the talks became available on-line.

Well, they apparently went on-line a month or so ago and the NLA very kindly tweeted the fact to me. However, I was overseas at the time and having a semi-break from constant on-line connection – and have consequently only caught up with the tweet now. Better late than never eh?

So, if you are still interested in checking out any of the wonderful talks I discussed in my posts, here is the link.

As you may remember from my posts, I found it all excellent, but if I had to recommend some to you, these would be the ones:

  • Murray Bail‘s keynote address on day 1, which was provocative about what he sees as our (Australian) need to define ourselves by our landscape. He concluded by asking readers to be “explorers” and open to new ways of writing, to not expect “landscape” to be the way into Australianness.
  • Bill Gammage‘s keynote address on day 2, which was provocative in a different way, arguing that there is a progression from notions of “landscape” and “place” to “country” which, in indigenous terms, is synonymous with “culture”. He argued that we still “view” the land as outsiders, rather than seeking to relate to it in a more spiritual, organic way, and challenged us to be willing to learn from indigenous Australians.
  • Jeanine Leane’s paper which, among other things, confronted us with our (that is, white/non-indigenous) preconceived notions about what we define as Australian classics. Now I have the paper I can quote directly. It was powerful. She said:

Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.

It is very hard, Leane showed us, to step outside our own world-view … but that’s why we read, talk about reading, and listen to readers and writers isn’t it? I certainly found my world-view shifting as we went through the weekend. How do I, as a non-indigenous Australian, need and want to relate to this land I also call home. It would be presumptuous to try to relate to it as an indigenous person does. But we are lucky here to have people with such a deep knowledge of and relationship with the land. We can learn a lot from them: practical things about how to care for the land, and, perhaps more importantly, what a true relationship with the land really means and the responsibility accompanying that.

Anyhow, I’m very glad to be able to share the link to the papers, and would love to hear from you if you do read any of them.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape (2)

In this week’s Monday Musings*, I plan to continue last week’s discussion of some of the ideas that arose from the National Library of Australia’s Writing the Australian Landscape conference.

But first, I’ll recap the two questions posed by the keynote speakers:

  • Day 1, author Murray Bail suggested that only when we are at ease with ourselves will our need to discuss place (or landscape) fall away.
  • Day 2, historian Bill Gammage asked How long must we continue to write our landscape as outsiders?

Thinking about these over the past week, I’ve come to the notion that these could (almost) be seen as two sides of the same coin. That is, as I understood him, Bail wasn’t so much suggesting that we’ll end up not discussing place or landscape but that we won’t “need” to focus on it to prove our Australianness, to confirm our identity. Landscape would then become part of the background, it would be part of us, and we would no longer be outsiders to it. Does this make sense or am I twisting their words, I wonder?

The meaning of place

Several “place” related concepts were discussed over the weekend, sometimes with clear definitions, and sometimes more loosely. Many speakers talked about the relationship between Landscape, Place, Country and Culture. Landscape was not seen as purely physical but as something that we relate to and/or that impacts on us. Gammage argued that it takes time and memory to translate “landscape” to “country” or “culture”. Historian Matthew Higgins talked about “place memory” and suggested that when we talk about and remember place, “life is as important as the landscape”.

Gammage, and several other writers including Sue Woolfe, Charles Massy and Ros Moriarty, spoke of learning about indigenous Australians’ relationship to the land, a relationship in which the physicality of the land is inextricably entwined with spirituality. People, land and law are three aspects, he said, of the one thing.  While westerners objectify the land – as in, “isn’t it beautiful?” – indigenous Australians see their ancestors in it. Landcare is the business of life. Climate change activist, Anna Rose, and Adrian Hyland, who wrote Kinglake 350 about the Black Saturday fires, would agree, albeit from a different perspective.

John Moriarty Qantas Plane

John Moriarty Qantas Plane

Non-indigenous woman Ros Moriarty, who is married to indigenous Australian John Moriarty, said:

Australians have no idea that the singing of the continent continues. We sip at the edge of its physicality when we could gulp from the well of its spirit.

This message, reiterated slightly differently by many of the speakers, was the most powerful message (for me, anyhow) of the weekend. It wasn’t a new concept to many of us I think, but the strength and clarity of its communication was moving and inspiring.

… And then, late in the conference came …

Jeanine Leane

I’m singling out Jeanine Leane because she was, as far as I’m aware, the only indigenous writer to speak at the conference. I have read and reviewed Leane’s gently powerful Purple threads, and was looking forward to seeing her in the flesh. She had a big task, but she was up for the challenge. She reiterated the points made by other speakers regarding country and its meaning for indigenous Australians but she, of course, spoke from the experience of having walked the talk. She knew intimately whereof she spoke and showed how much we westerners, albeit with a lot of goodwill, stumble around in our understanding.

For example, she spoke of the notion of Australian “classics”. She argued that the works of writers like Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf, and Kate Grenville, which are regularly identified as “classics”, are classics of the settler quest written for settler readers. Within the concept of “classic”, she argued, is the question, “Whose classic?” Leane pushed the point further by referencing Alexis Wright, author of Carpentaria (my review). Western (white) critics, she said, see magical realism in Wright’s work. (Ouch!) But the notion of “magic”, she argued, is used by settler critics for things they can’t understand. For Wright, though, the point is that “if you can’t see that tree behaving strangely, that’s your problem”.

Leane seemed, however, more optimistic than angry, for all the strength of her argument. She said that there is a proliferation of Aboriginal writing across genres, and that this writing expresses not only the “generational story of loss and longing” but also people’s aspirations. I hope she’s right, but even more, I hope more of it is taught is Australian schools and read by Australians of all backgrounds.

And this brings me back to Bail and Gammage. How should we “settler” Australians proceed? How do we relate to the “place” in which we live in a way that isn’t superficial or tokenistic but that doesn’t (arrogantly) presume a connection that we don’t have?  We have a way to go yet.

* There is more to say, but this will be the last post for the moment. I may share more again later, perhaps after the papers become available on the NLA’s website.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing the Australian landscape

Wide Brown Land sculpture

Wide Brown Land (National Arboretum)

This weekend just gone I had the privilege – well, I paid to go, but still it was a privilege – to attend a conference at the National Library of Australia titled Writing the Australian landscape. You can see why I had to go … wild brumbies couldn’t keep me away.

But if, perchance, the topic hadn’t attracted me, the line-up of speakers sure would have. They included:

There wasn’t a boring one among them. (The full list of speakers, and chairs, is available online) Kudos to the National Library* for putting together an excellent program and to the speakers who had all taken the topic seriously and offered much for the audience to think about. I think I can speak for all who attended when I say that we laughed, cried and winced (though perhaps not always at the same things.)

All that’s by way of introduction. Now I’d better do the hard yakka and share some thoughts and ideas, but that’s not going to be easy.

I’ll start with a little manifesto, if I can call it that. The way I see it, to be a white (non-indigenous) Australian today is to feel a little uncomfortable. Many of us love being Australian, love the land or country we call home, and yet are aware of the cost to others of our being here, of the dispossession we brought to others. But, we can’t be ashamed of being western**. That’s our heritage, that’s what informed our thought processes. However, we can be ashamed of assuming that others think the way we do and, worse, of assuming that others want to think the way we do (or be the way we are). My – our – challenge is to be open to other ways of thinking, to respect them and to learn what we can from them. While almost all the conference speakers were non-indigenous, there was a lot of goodwill amongst the speakers and the audience in the room, a lot of willingness to open our eyes. Please read my notes on the conference with this in mind.

Why write (about) the landscape?

And so, I really do have to start now. The conference got off to a rather provocative start with Miles Franklin award-winning author Murray Bail giving the Kenneth Binns lecture. Speaking from his western-writer standpoint, Bail was concerned that we were even having the conversation. Other western literatures, he argued, are not preoccupied as we are with landscape and, related to that in his mind, with national distinctiveness. Did Tolstoy, he asked, worry about his “Russianness”? No, he said, we read Tolstoy for the moral questions he explores, to learn how to live, be happy, be wise. For Bail, landscape is a New World concern, which that quintessential New World country the USA has now shaken.

Bail suggested that only when we are at ease with ourselves will our need to discuss place (or landscape) fall away. I found this a fascinating idea and will be thinking about it for a long time:

  • Is our fascination with landscape a bad thing?
  • Is our landscape so different, so forbidding, that it will always play on us? (But then, aren’t other landscapes, such as the Siberian desert forbidding?).
  • Does our particular history of occupation and dispossession mean that place and landscape will for a long time yet be a fraught issue?
  • Will the fact that for indigenous Australians morality is tied to the land, to country, mean that considering landscape will always be part of our literature?

What does (the) landscape mean?

Historian Bill Gammage gave the keynote address on the second day. His focus was very much on indigenous relationship to land, to country, which is the subject of his most recent multiple award-winning book The biggest estate on earth. His argument was that “country” is not about nature (about landscape) but about culture, and that non-indigenous Australians could learn a lot about our country by learning from indigenous Australians what they know and are able, within their laws, to tell us. I loved his glass-half-full statement that the point is not how much knowledge indigenous Australians have lost but how much they still know. Gammage, like Bail, recognised we are challenged by our landscape, but his conclusion was not that we should aim to stop writing about it but How long must we continue to write our landscape as outsiders?

I will share more from the weekend – including Jeanine Leane’s powerful paper – but for now these two keynote papers nicely encapsulate the weekend in which we explored the progression from Landscape to Place to Country to Culture.

* I understand audio and printed versions of the talks will be available on the NLA’s website. I’ll provide a link when they become available.

** * Yes, I know, not all non-indigenous Australians are western but I’m using this partly by way of comparison, and partly because it’s my heritage. And yes, we can be ashamed of things westerners have done but not, I think, of being who we are.

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Alan Gould on the Monaro (and thereabouts)

Tharwa - Angle Crossing, New South Wales
Monaro country after the 2003 fires

While I love reading to escape to other places and times, other cultures and ways of being, I also enjoy reading about the familiar, about places I know and experiences I’ve had. Alan Gould, whose The lakewoman I reviewed recently, is a local writer. The lakewoman, in fact,  is primarily set in England, France and Germany, but  the hero Alec Dearborn does return to Australia towards the end, and before that often thinks or talks about it. His Australia is the country surrounding where I live, an area we call the Monaro, to be exact.

Here are some descriptions from The lakewoman that describe this region;

He went on to describe the Murrumbidgee River that flowed beside The Dad’s place, how it used to run flush after rain, with the brown waters mounting each other like so many panicky sheep in a pen. How it might be a trickle at the end of a summer without rain, like glassy infrequent spillages between rocks.


Sometimes he would try to describe his part of Australia, the streaky, silvery, airy, dry spaces of his pastured and lightly timbered country, sheep standing immobile in fog as the crows called mournfully through the whiteness.


How, for instance, a Monaro mist would transform a big brittlegum into a delta of pale grey veins against the white. Or how the last hour of sunlight in this airy woodland could angle so searchingly under the foliage to suffuse the planet’s surface with aureolin gold.

This is not verdant country, nor is it particularly welcoming. But, it is spacious, golden and airy – and it lifts my heart whenever I drive through it. Gould captures its particular variety perfectly.