Monday musings on Australian literature: Serendipitous finds in Tasmania

Well folks, I’ve not posted here for a week. As I wrote last Monday, I’ve been travelling in Tasmania, and have only returned home this afternoon. I have some ideas for future Monday Musings, and could have researched one for today, but I can’t resist sharing a few more of my Tasmanian literary experiences.

Tasmania is home to many Australian writers including Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan (see my review of his The narrow road to the deep north), National Biography Award winner Alison Alexander, commentator and memoirist Robert Dessaix, and novelist Danielle Wood (see my review of her Mothers Grimm). But there are other, quieter, literary treasures to be had here.

Take gravestones for example …

We visited the historic Bothwell Cemetery, and read some poetically poignant (or, do I mean, poignantly poetic?!) gravestones. Poor Elizabeth, wife of Edward Simon Arnett, died in 1841 at the age of 33. Here are the words on her gravestone:

Now husband dear my life is past
My love was true while life did last.
Bereaved of me no sorrow take
But love our children for my sake.

I wonder who wrote that? Did she, knowing she was dying, write it? So sadly, but probably, typically, self-effacing if she did. And then there’s the grave for siblings Margaret and John Anderson, 14 and 6 years old respectively, who died within a month of each other in 1853. On their grave is:

Margaret and John Anderson, Bothwell Cemetery

Margaret and John Anderson, Bothwell Cemetery

Say not their sun went down at noon.
Early they died, but not too soon,
Not till their heart by grace had changed
And from the world and sun estranged.
Not till the Lord whose love they knew
Taught them to smile with death in view.
Life’s noblest ends thus gain’d betimes
They have gone to live in happier climes.

Poor little things. Presumably they died of an illness contracted one from the other, but did they really learn to “smile with death in view”? These and the other gravestones – and I know I’m not telling you anything here – provide such insight into nineteenth century life and thinking.

Then there’s the urban environment

Wooden dog sculpture

Thompson waited lazily outside the shops

The redevelopment of Elizabeth Street Mall in Hobart’s CBD in the 1990s was carried out with a view to humanising the space, to, if I understand correctly, making it aesthetically appealing and artistically interesting, not to mention fun and a little bit provocative too. Much of the art was, I understand, commissioned from the versatile Tasmanian artist Patrick Hall. He did street signs, sculptures, and “granite stories”. The sculptures include a “fish out of water” drink fountain (metalwork), Maurice the pig (moulded hebel) and Thompson the dog (woodcarving).

The sculptures would be hard to miss by anyone walking through the mall, but not so obvious are the tiny stories and images etched into the granite pedestals supporting the mall’s public seating. I suspect these are mostly discovered by word of mouth, but they are addictive once you discover them – that is, you want to find and read them all. Here are a few:

Rupert going shopping etching

Rupert going shopping

Beneath their feet lay buried the intersecting tracks and paths of the lives that went before.


To the casual observer Hubert seemed lost in thought, when in fact he was trying not to tread on the cracks.


Zoe tied her bicycle next to a pole and said “stay” before she went shopping.


When Rupert went shopping with Joyce he would plan his route strategically around appliance stores in an attempt to check the scores on shop window televisions.


They would sit with their collars rolled up against the chill winds & imagine they could peer over the edge of the planet.

I love the mix of whimsy, commentary and philosophy here. They are universal, but also seem to be very much of Tasmania.

Just around the corner, more or less, from Elizabeth Street Mall is Mathers Place. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera when my trusty guide took me through it, but displayed there, on large billboards, are some of the stories by young writers produced under the Young Writers in the City program, which is run by the Tasmanian Writers Centre and the City of Hobart. The idea was that the young writers (under 30 years old) would sit somewhere in the city, and “compose an essay between 1500 to 5000 words … in an observational or experimental style inspired by the [chosen] space”. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed Claire Jensen’s piece about a space where older people meet. Only the beginning of it is displayed on the billboard:

In Hobart’s CBD there is a place where retired women and men meet their friends. They play scrabble, take art and writing classes, computer and ukulele lessons, hold book clubs, discuss family history and grey nomad road trips. For the last few weeks I have been invited into this secret society. They tell me stories, let me eat lunch with them, and beat me at scrabble. In the quiet afternoons, I escape the chatter to sit typing by the windows.

Ben Armstrong, in his piece, “Unified Mall Theory”, tackled the challenge to be inspired head on. (I can’t recollect whether his is displayed in Mathers Place). I like his tongue-in-cheek-up-frontedness:

I have a set of assumptions about the form my benefactors hope this inspiration will take. They want me to contribute to the cultural landscape. They expect me to write about history and stories and the interweaving of history and stories. The phrase “nooks and crannies” has not been explicitly mentioned, but I feel it is implied. Place and context also seem like things I should probably mention. Probably something about David Walsh* as well.

And now, since it is half-an-hour or more into Tuesday on my clock, I shall publish this, without a proper conclusion but hoping you have enjoyed my two little idiosyncratic Tasmanian posts. Normal Monday Musings will resume next week!

* David Walsh is the owner/benefactor of Hobart’s famous, and very popular, private art museum, MONA.

Monday musings on Australian literature: A Tasmanian interlude

You may have noticed that it’s been fairly quiet here at the Gums over the last week or so. This is because I’ve been travelling for nearly two weeks now in Australia’s island state of Tasmania. I scheduled last week’s Monday Musings in advance and had planned to also schedule a Tasmanian “Let’s get physical” post before I left, but it didn’t happen. Once here, I’ve been so busy catching up with my brother and then road-tripping with Mr Gums that I’ve not had time to do the necessary research to do such a post justice, so today I’m just going to post three photos, each with an associated quote to at least give you a taste of this gorgeous place.


Looking across western Maria Island to the main island of Tasmania

Maria Island, off south-east Tasmania, was a convict settlement, with two waves, the first from 1825 to 1832, and the second from 1842 to 1850. An inmate of that time was William Smith O’Brien, a leader of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. He is quoted as saying, as he arrived at Maria Island:

To find a gaol in one of the loveliest spots formed by the hand of Nature in one of her loneliest solitude creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe.

Sarah Island

Sarah Island

Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon River on the west coast was also a convict settlement, at least Sarah Island, which is located in the river, was. It was infamous for its brutality, and is in fact the setting for Marcus Clarke’s classic move, For the term of his natural life. However, the Gordon River has another claim to infamy. From the late 1970s to early 1980s it was the centre of a bitter conservation battle when the Tasmanian government proposed building a dam as part of its ongoing hydroelectricity program. But this is wilderness of high order. In fact, when the Tasmanian Wilderness was granted World Heritage status for which you need to satisfy at least one of ten cultural and/or natural criteria, it satisfied 7. Only one other site has apparently achieved this. Like many people our age we supported the protest, donating to the Australian Conservation Foundation and sporting the yellow “No Dams” sticker on our car. The conservationists won, in a landmark decision that had Australia’s High Court supporting the Federal Government’s case for stopping the dam, overruling the State Government. What a joyful day that was. One of the supporters of the movement was the historian Manning Clark. He said in 1980:

Keep this treasure and hand it on to posterity so that those who come after will learn about beauty, about awe, about wonder, because it is in the southwest of Tasmania that you will have a chance to solve the mystery at the heart of things.

Winegalss Bay to the left, and Hazards Beach just visible to the right

Wineglass Bay to the left, and Hazards Beach just visible to the right

Finally, though I only say finally because I have to stop somewhere, there’s Freycinet National Park, which takes us back to the east again, a little north of Maria Island. This is a stunningly beautiful place of clear bays, pristine beaches and pretty pink granite mountains. Australian poet James McAuley loved this area. Here are some lines from his poem “Coles Bay Images”:

Turquoise – coloured waters in small bays
Shawling towards the beach say shalom, peace.

And that is exactly the feeling you get walking in this part of the world – a sense of peace.


Louis Nowra, Into that forest (Review)

Louis Nowra, Into that forest

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Louis Nowra is one versatile and prolific writer, having written novels, non-fiction, plays and screenplays, essays and even libretti. Into that forest is his latest work. It was shortlisted for the Young Adult Novel prize in the 2012 Aurealis awards and the Ethel Turner Young People’s Literature prize in this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I read this for my reading group. We don’t often do youth literature but every now and then one pops up that we think might interest us … such as a book by Nowra.

The first thing to say is that the novel is written in a unique voice. Here is its opening:

Me name be Hannah O’Brien and I be seventy-six years old. Me first thing is an apology me language is bad cos I lost it and had to learn it again. But here’s me story and I glad to tell it before I hop the twig.

And what a story it is … this novel feeds into several Australian, and wider, literary traditions. There’s the lost child and the feral child motifs (reminding me of Dog boy). There’s Tasmanian Gothic, and there’s also a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Subject-wise it covers some significant ground: environmental issues (involving both the extinct Tasmanian tiger and the whaling industry) and what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This might sound rather mechanistic, but there’s no sense of “ticking off”. It’s not didactic, and it’s all logical within the framework of the book.

Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of two young girls, Hannah (then 6) and Becky (7) who find themselves lost in the bush (oops, forest!) after their boat capsizes in a storm and Hannah’s parents drown. They are taken in by a Tasmanian Tiger pair, and live with them for four years. Meanwhile, Becky’s father, Mr Carsons, is out looking for her. Eventually they are found, but the process of re-integration is not easy. The novel has a small cast of characters, which keeps it tightly focused. Besides Hannah’s parents who die near the beginning, there’s our two young protagonists, Becky’s father, his friend Ernie, the “tiger man”, a few other minor characters – and of course, the tigers, named Dave and Corinna by Hannah.

As in Dog boy, the description of life with the tigers is pretty visceral. At first Becky resists living like a tiger – perhaps because she still has a father whom she hopes will find her – but eventually she too succumbs, if succumb is the word. It is, after all, a matter of survival. And so they shed their clothes, start to move mostly on all fours, and develop keen animal instincts (of sight, hearing and smell). They also develop a taste for raw food and become adept at hunting. The descriptions of killing and eating the prey are not for the squeamish – “I were starving and the taste of blood made me feel even more hungry” and “What were ever in that shiny pink gristle surged through me in waves of ecstasy” – but they are important to our understanding of what their lives had become. Hannah says:

God knows where me sense of survival came from. Maybe it’s natural cos humans are just animals too.

There is a bogey man here – the tiger man or bounty hunter, whom Hannah had met before, through her parents. To the girls he is more brutal than the tigers. He’s “evil”, kills tiger pups, does “stuff to himself that were rude”. But, perhaps, he’s just another survivor, albeit a not very pleasant one?

While Hannah is the narrator, Becky’s character is the more complex one. She struggles more with the change forced upon them:

She didn’t want to forget. Me? I thought it were stupid to try and remember like Becky did. I didn’t see any use for it. Me English started to shrivel up, like an old dry skin a snake gets rid of. It just lies there in the grass rotting away and then vanishes with the wind. I took to talking in grunts, coughs and hoarse barks like the tigers. This annoyed Becky no end. But it were simple – the tigers understood me. Becky warned I were making a mistake. You will forget your language. You will forget your parents. You are becoming an animal, she’d say. Why argue with her? She were right on every level.

Becky initially fights against the brutality of the hunt – there’s a horrific description of the tigers attacking seals – but then surprises Hannah by rather fearlessly exerting some dominance in the pack. She was of course desperately hungry by then, but it shows Hannah that:

she were really stubborn if she wanted something. She were brave, she were stubborn, she were smart, she were tough.

Unfortunately, Becky is not as tough – or as adaptable – as Hannah thought, and consequently precipitates the novel’s rather shocking conclusion.

It’s a pretty bold novel – but less so than, say, Lord of the flies. There’s plenty to discuss, particularly regarding the subjects I suggested at the beginning of the post. The big theme, though, the one common to feral children books, has to do with defining our nature. What separates human from animal? What would you do to survive – and what would that say about the essence of humanity? Good stuff for young adults, and a gripping read too for we older readers.

Louis Nowra
Into that forest
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743311646 (Kindle ed.)

Nigel Featherstone, Fall on me

Featherstone, Fall on me

Fall on me bookcover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)

Nigel Featherstone is nearly a local writer for me – he lives in the country town an hour down the road – but I haven’t read him before, even though he has published a goodly number of short stories and short fiction. How does this happen? Anyhow, Fall on me is his second novel, or novella, to be exact. It is, in a way, an age-old story. The protagonist has experienced something in his past that has stalled his life, made him lose his way. From pretty early on, you know that this is what the story is about, but Featherstone tells it in such a way that it doesn’t feel old, that makes you want to keep on reading to find out exactly what did happen, and how (because you assume he will) our protagonist is “unstalled”.

How does Featherstone achieve this? I’ll explain soon, but first I’ll flesh out the plot just a little more. There are three main characters – Lou, our protagonist, who’s 38 and owns a small cafe in Lonnie (Launceston, for the non-locals); Luke, his son, who is 17 (and, significant to the plot, therefore not quite an adult yet); and Anna Denman, their boarder, who’s in her late 20s and works in a bookshop. As the back cover blurb says, the plot revolves around a decision by Luke “to risk all by making his body the focus of an art installation” which forces Lou “to revisit the dark secrets of his past, question what it means to be a father, and discover …”. Well, you’ll have to read the book – or at least find the back cover – to discover what Lou discovers!

The title of the book comes from the R.E.M. song, “Fall on me”, which is, says songwriter Stipe, a song about oppression, about the things that “smash us”. For Lou, a big R.E.M fan, what’s smashing him is his inability to move on from what happened in the past, when Luke was one month old. It is Luke’s art installation, of course, which finally precipitates Lou’s “unstalling”. Featherstone’s plotting is sure; he drops clues to what had happened, without telling us too soon but not dragging it out too long either. We realise fairly quickly that it involves a loss (after all he’s a single father) but how this occurred and who might be involved is not immediately made clear. The past is gradually filled in, through flashbacks, and the picture is slowly built up – though only sometimes in the expected direction. Where, we wonder, for example, does his old schoolfriend, Fergal, fit in?  Meanwhile, in real-time, the art installation plot runs its course.

A number of themes run through the novel, besides the “unstalling” one. One relates to art. I like the way the plot, without specifically mentioning it, reminds us of the Bill Henson “is it art or pornography” controversy which caused a furore in Australia in 2008. What happens when art pushes the edges, particularly when children are involved? Lou is shocked by Luke’s “My Exposure for You” installation and fears for his son. He wonders about “laws” that might come into play, and whether some sort of “‘artistic licence'” might apply. Luke, though, gets to the point: “But my body – ultimately – means nothing. It’s my heart that counts”. Another theme relates to parenting. Lou worries about the “installation”:

He can’t allow the exhibition to happen. He won’t – he could never – allow his son to put himself in the sort of danger that might now be coming his way, their way […]

Hang on. Is that really his responsibility, stopping his son from getting in the way of danger? Isn’t a greater responsibility encouraging his son to be all that he can be?

The writing is direct, straightforward. It’s not wildly innovative, but that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting. There’s the occasional word-play and irony, some effective description, and apposite allusions including a sly reference to Lou reading Patrick White‘s The Twyborn affair. The characterisation is good. This is a novella, so only the main characters are developed and, even then, Anna is a little shadowy. We know what we need to know – but perhaps not as much as we’d like to know!

I enjoyed this book. It’s warm and generous, and it feels real. Around the middle of the book, when Lou expresses his desire to protect his son, Luke responds that “safety doesn’t always equal life”. Some risks need to be taken … as each of the characters realise, some later rather sooner. The end result is a story with heart … and that is a lovely thing.

Nigel Featherstone
Fall on me
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2011
ISBN: 9780980755633

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

Anna Krien, Into the woods

How can so many people all be looking at the same thing and see it so differently? The man moseying around in front of me looks at a 300-year old tree and sees a nursing home, while an activist twenty minutes down the road sees a block of flats for furry and feathered creatures.

Vive la différence? Or not! Anna Krien’s Into the woods is an exposé of the decades long battle in Tasmania for its forests, particularly its old-growth native forests. For those who don’t know, Tasmania is Australia’s southern island state. It is famous for its beauty and its wilderness but also, it seems, for its Vs, that is, vitriol, violence and vigilantism. You see, being a small island state, with only 500,000 people, it’s a challenge to keep its economy in the black. Sawmilling and, more recently and more controversially, woodchipping have played an important role in maintaining its economy. It is this controversy – particularly surrounding woodchips – that Krien explores in her book.

Anna Krien, Into the woods

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc

On the cover is a “blurb” by Chloe Hooper who wrote The tall man about the death in custody of an indigenous man on Palm Island. This provides a clue to the book’s style, and that is that the author, like Hooper, engages personally in the situation, meeting with parties on all sides of the conflict. In Krien’s case this meant meeting ferals, environmentalists, politicians, loggers, whistleblowers, craftsmen and businessmen.

Krien has organised the book into five thematic sections:

  • Ratbags: the new generation protesters, or ferals, who live pretty primitively on/near the site  they are protecting and who are often in conflict with older activists
  • Loggers: the logging industry workers who range across a wide range of jobs in the industry and are also often conflict with each other
  • The company: Gunns Ltd, the main player in the Tasmanian logging industry, meddler (if so benign a term can be used) in politics, and initiator of the Gunns 20 lawsuit
  • Groundswell: change agents such as whistle blowers, proponents of the “rights” of nature, and shareholders wanting ethical investments
  • The mill: Gunns pulp mill saga, the beginning of the an end?

The story is a complex one, delving into competing interests within the logging industry itself – sawlogs versus woodchips, old-growth versus regrowth native forests versus plantations, public versus private forests – not to mention dissension amongst environmentalists and some very dirty politics. It is a story about jobs versus the environment and the “rights” of nature, of different value systems that set “unmanned” pristine forests against “manned” ones. It is a story of blaming and buck passing. And it is a story of half-truths and distorted truths, all in the name of defending one’s own patch. “I am on a journey through selective truths”, she writes at one point in the book.

This issue of “truths” is beautifully conveyed in her discussion of the timber industry’s language:

I find myself constantly having to decipher new words. Nature needs “disturbance”, logging is “harvesting”, deforestation is “afforestation”, burning woodchips for electricity is a form of “bio-fuel” or “renewable energy”. Woodchips are “feedstock”, while the non-commercial attributes of a forest are “non-wood values”.

The word-games though work on both sides. As she says, “evoking napalm, Hiroshima and the holocaust to describe logging is manipulative”.

A major argument presented by the logging workers is the economic one – jobs – but Krien estimates from the information given her that forestry “accounts for no more than 3% of the workforce”. In fact, she suggests that machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than “any greenie”. The more cynical amongst us might think that it is not so much about “jobs” but about “big business”. Sometimes, of course, big business means jobs, but that’s not always necessarily so, not if much of the work can be automated (or, sometimes, though not necessarily here, moved off-shore).

I can’t begin to convey all the information she presents in this book – the history, the statistics, the science, the criss-crossing relationships, not to mention the people, the overt and covert deals, and the truly horrifying violence (both actual and threatened). There are times when I started to feel bogged down in the complexity of it all, but I was reassured when I realised she was feeling it too. She is, in fact, like Hooper, taking us on a journey – but it is a journey that, despite her very real efforts to explore the whole story, does lean to one side, that of those who wish to protect not destroy. As she says in the last chapter:

I’ve tried to balance my seesaw heart, carefully weighing up each argument. But there is something about this island that wants you to choose sides.

I can understand that – it is, in many ways, a magical place. However, I do have one complaint about the book – my ongoing one for books of this ilk – and that is its lack of an index. It is jam-packed with people, events, places, philosophies and theories but how can the casual reader or researcher find them?

And so, is there a resolution to it all? Well no, but there is, she says, a universal story:

… in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But the story is universal – and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it all comes back over the ice to Tasmania again. … Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?

How indeed? Read this thoughtful, throughly researched book, and you will, unfortunately, find out.

Anna Krien
Into the woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010
ISBN: 9781863954877

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)