Monthly Archives: June 2012

Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (UQP 2002)

I finished reading this book a while ago but it’s taken me until now to write about because I took it very personally.

It’s a meditation on the so-called horror stretch, country north of Rockhampton in central Queensland that has a reputation as the setting for terrible events. Starting with a number of roadside murders in the second half of last century that made headlines all over Australia, Gibson explores the cultural factors, the ‘structure of feeling’, underlying the general fascination with those crimes. A ‘badland’ such as this, he says, is a way of localising and mythologising issues that are unresolved in the society in general. This description may lead you to expect something that reads like a bad translation from the French, with lots of stuff being inscribed on the landscape, and references to impenetrable theory. But no, it’s an engaging read, and becomes positively compelling as it moves back in time to the terrible first contact between Aboriginal people and settlers, forward again to the ordeals of Melanesian indentured workers in the sugar paddocks, and forward yet again to the White Australia Policy’s denial of the extraordinary diversity of the region.

‘Sooner or later,’ Gibson writes, ‘any society that would like to know itself as “post-colonial” must confront an inevitable question: how to live with collective memories of theft and murder. Sooner or later, therefore, acknowledgement and grieving must commence before healing can ensue.’ This must also be true of the individuals who are part of that society, and my sense is that for all the impressive scholarship and historical research that went into it, this project is at heart personal, a way of making personal acknowledgement and beginning the necessary grieving. At least, coming though I do from Innisfail, hundreds of miles north of the horror strip (and yes, I knew of it by that name in my childhood), that’s how I read it.

Things may have changed, but when I was at school, history happened mostly in England (and elsewhere in Europe for Catholic Church history), and what we were taught of Australian history happened in Sydney or Melbourne, or occasionally the other capital cities. The only North Queensland figures I remember being mentioned – and that was at home rather than school – were the explorer Edmund Kennedy, speared by natives in 1848, and his faithful Aboriginal companion Jackey Jackey (whose real name, Galmahra, was never alluded to). The specific history of the arrival of non-Aboriginal settlers in the north was never even hinted at. As in the ‘horror stretch’, I’ve learned, this history involved mass murder by Native Police under white officers. Ross Gibson brings that history home, and a has a good deal to say about our collective silence about it. Even at the time of widespread killing of Aboriginal people in the mid 19th century, he says, the officers

jinked a two-step of violent action and circumspect remembrance. They wrapped their deeds in dissembling verbiage and eventually they became their own twisted idioms, developing a ‘pathological’ disconnection between doing and declaring, a disconnection which gave them no way to see the world clearly.

That ‘circumspect remembrance’ is something that has lived on in the north ever since, as ‘white people simultaneously knew and refused to know the violence behind their everyday lives’.

Now here’s why I took this all personally: in an entry in this blog a few years back I said I didn’t know much about first contact between the Mamu people and the first settlers of the Innisfail region, and I gave a link to Innisfail’s web site. When I clicked on that link I found this:

The first incursion came in 1872. Survivors of the shipwreck “Maria” arrived on the coast near the Johnstone River. Some of the Indigenous people helped; others they opposed. Sub-Inspector Robert Johnstone’s search party came to rescue survivors and punish Aboriginal people who had abused them, and ventured up river from what are now Flying Fish and Coquette Points. Johnstone wrote glowing reports of the area, and with vigilante Native Troopers attacked the Mamu people with rifle fire as he escorted the explorer Dalrymple, charting the watercourse and having it named after himself …

When European cedar cutters and Chinese gold seekers arrived later in the 1870s and early in the 1880s, the Mamu fought them and inflicted serious casualties. Again the Europeans sent in the Native Police. Superior firepower broke up the Indigenous communities and dispersed or integrated the remaining original landowners.

The evidence is that I had read that and could still say I didn’t know what happened, yet its meaning couldn’t be clearer. Words like ‘punish’ and ‘dispersed’ are transparent euphemisms: the high moral ground assumed by one and the almost kindly feel of the other could mislead only the ignorant or, it pains me to say, allow the wilfully obtuse to ward off the obvious. It’s impossible to stay obtuse after reading this book. And a further confession: I must have blithely assumed that if Native Troopers and Native Police were involved things couldn’t have been too bad. Gibson puts that assumption to rest with his account of the way armed young Aboriginal men, uprooted from their own communities and freed of cultural restraints, were directed to kill and maraud. He lays bare the mechanism by which Indigenous people, under tight white control, performed the genocidal work of dispossession, leaving the settlers – good Catholics in the case of the first farmers of the Innisfail Estate – to move in with an illusion of clean hands, deploring the violence of the unruly ones who had made their settlement possible.

Gibson’s discussion of the Melanesians who worked on the sugar farms is also compelling. I recommend the whole book.

Martha Ansara’s Shadowcatchers

Martha Ansara, The Shadowcatchers (Australian Cinematographers Society 2012)

This book’s subtitle – ‘A history of cinematography in Australia’ – might lead you to expect a dry narrative of technological change with perhaps some discussion of industrial issues, economics and politics thrown in. The dramatic cover image of cinematographer Lacey Percival shouldering a Model 2709 Bell & Howell camera while picking his way over rocky terrain does, however, suggest something else.

Fortunately, the image is more truthful. There is plenty of text, including ample technical information (how else would I have known that was a Model 2709 Bell and Howell?). There are essays on the history of movie making in Australia (based on extensive interviews as well as documentary records), biographies of a number of significant figures, eloquent quotes from some of the key players. But this is actually a gorgeous, exuberant picture book. In her introduction, Martha Ansara, herself no mean cinematographer, says that the photographs were generally chosen not because of the ‘importance’ of their subjects but ‘because of the expressiveness of the image itself’. If this meant that some highly acclaimed cinematographers didn’t make the cut, I guess she was prepared to live with the fallout. From my perspective, the decision has paid off brilliantly: page after page, image after image, the book is a delight.

I’d heard of Frank Hurley (the first person to film Antarctica), Damien Parer and Neil David (war cinematographers, who died on the job), John Seale and Russell Boyd (whose names keep tuning up in credits of great mainstream movies), but would have been pressed to name many more. From the dedication page, with its list of 20 Australian cameramen who ‘lost their lives catching shadows’, presumably covering conflict, the book was a revelation and an education. There’s an image from 1906 of the Salvation Army Limelight  Department Staff, complete with slouch hats. There’s a naked ABC film crew, backs discreetly to the camera, shooting on a nudist colony in 1971. Another news crew wades, water up to their armpits, through a Papua New Guinea swamp in 1974 carrying a salvaged reconnaissance camera.

Plenty of TV news is here, and some commercials, but I was most captivated by the images from film shoots – Withnail and I (DOP Peter Hannan) or Driving Miss Daisy (DOP Peter Jannes), say – where the actor in full character  exists in a parallel world with the person focused on the task of making the image work. Or the ones from movies like The Tale of Ruby Rose (DOP Steve Mason) where the landscape was such a powerful presence, and here we see the crew, or perhaps just the director and DOP, going about the business of capturing it.  The effect is not so much to demystify the magic of the movies as to extend it.

I haven’t read the whole thing yet — I bought it as a birthday present for my son, and now I’m tempted to splurge and buy a copy for myself. It’s a wonderful book, but don’t take my word for it. It has its own web site, complete with sample pages. If that doesn’t whet your appetite,  I guess you haven’t got a pulse just aren’t into the movies

Barry N. Malzberg’s Galaxies

Barry N. Malzberg, Galaxies (1976, Carrol & Graf 1989)

A while back the Art Student and I went to the Gleebooks launch of a book called something like The Brain, at which the author spoke entertainingly about hypergraphia, or perhaps graphomania, which he said was a biologically-based disorder suffered by, among others, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Cervantes. We came away knowing little about the book, but the fantasy that a deformed hypothalamus or whatever was responsible for the creation of Raskolnikov, Hamlet and Sancho Panza has a certain lasting, sick appeal. If such a condition existed, Barry N. Malzberg would be one of the few recorded sufferers to have recovered. He wrote a phenomenal number of books in his 20s and 30s and then, apparently, pretty much stopped.

Galaxies is a multifaceted, challenging, joyous, anguished outpouring (or perhaps, though I doubt it, carefully crafted facsimile of an outpouring). It begins, ‘To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one.’ The writer, referred to throughout in the third person, is a hack writer of science fiction and other genre, as Malzberg was, and there’s plenty of complaining about the pay levels and other drawbacks of the life. In the novel, a spacecraft carrying a cargo of 515 cryogenically preserved dead people, falls into a ‘black galaxy’ and its sole crew member lives seven thousand lives, converses with a trio of mechanical Job’s comforters, and finally makes a decision. But there are also the notes, which shoot off in all directions – lampooning the conventions of science fiction, canvassing the relationship between it and literary fiction, between it and science, discussing the craft of writing, all with tremendous energy and reflexive irony.

What he has to say about science fiction may be dated. I don’t know enough to say. I imagine a knowledgeable reader would enjoy this even more than I did – certainly I got a kick out of the references I did spot. For example, talking about the kinds of fate that science fiction hacks can expect, he gives examples whom he calls A, B and C. It was fairly clear to me that the first two of those innocent sounding letters actually stood for Asimov and Ballard. Later in the same paragraph he refers to himself as M, confirming the suspicion and capping the joke.

The book is funny and serious and pained and exuberant. On almost every page there are paragraphs that cry out to be quoted. I finally weakened towards the end of the book and folded down a page on this:

Success teaches nothing; failure presents limits, gives us the tragic sense without which understanding is impossible. Successes are composed of a thousand failures like the way the photographs in newspapers reduce on inspection to myriad scattered dots, each expressionless, all comprising vision.

Robert Adamson on Francis Webb

Someone emailed me a link announcing that Robert Adamson, UTS Chair of Poetry, was giving a public lecture on Francis Webb on Thursday night. How could I not go? As far as I know, UTS – University of Technology Sydney, whose main tower is Sydney’s monument to stark practicality – doesn’t offer any poetry courses, and the prospect of Adamson, anything but stark or practical in his poetry or his person, lecturing on Webb, ditto with bells on, was irresistible.

It turned out to be a fairly intimate affair in a shiny new building across the street from the anti-poetic tower. I recognised a smattering of poets and other writers, scholars, editors and UTS lecturers. I sat at the front, and my neighbours turned out to include Juno Gemes, Adamson’s photographer wife who discreetly plied her trade, Toby Davidson, editor of the new, excellent Francis Webb: Collected Poems, and Michael Griffith, who wrote God’s Fool, the best and only booklength introduction to Webb’s life and work. I’m not suggesting it was a family affair. The room was full, but I don’t think many of us were there without a prior connection to Webb, Adamson or UTS’s Centre for New Writing.

Adamson, whose CAL-sponsored professorship is for three years, began with a disarming list of thankyous – including to poet Martin Harrison for explaining to him what a lecture was. I hope the lecture is somehow made available, as it was a very clear account of Webb’s life and work, informed by a deep engagement with the poetry and a brief but significant personal relationship with the man. He read a number of poems. I’d say he read them brilliantly but that would give the wrong impression: he read them slowly, almost stumblingly, as if he was discovering them as he read them, or even encountering the language itself for the first time, mispronouncing an occasional word (couch in couch grass to rhyme with crouch, impotent with the emphasis on the second syllable), so that the listener was drawn in as a collaborator rather than being cast as a recipient. I find it hard to imagine a better way of reading this poetry.

In the excellent Q&A, freed from his written text, Adamson loosened up and spoke more personally: of how Webb was crucial to his own development as a poet, of how James McCauley looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re on the right track with Webb – follow him instead of these Americans, of how he and his friends turned up like rockstar fans at Angus & Robertson’s bookshop the day the first Collected Poems was published, only to be told, ‘We publish it, but that doesn’t mean we have to have in here for sale.’ He gave a very funny, and accurate, account of A. D. Hope’s article on Webb: ‘Hope was a vitalist, and suspicious of Webb’s religious dimension, but he discusses the poem Canobolas, saying, “Look, he sees the mountain as a naked woman, so he must be all right, he’s one of us.”‘

Penguin Plays Rough, the book

Pip Smith (editor), This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories (Pip Smith, 2011)

Since 2008, first in a room in a flat above a convenience store in King Street, Newtown, and then in the front section of a warehouse in St Peters, Pip Smith and her housemates have hosted Penguin Plays Rough – a series of monthly short story readings. I’ve been twice, and each time has been a joyfully mixed bag with an appreciative mostly inner-west, mostly young crowd.

A number of pieces were written especially for the book, so it’s not so much a ‘Best Of’ as a print equivalent of the anarchic creativity of those evenings, a showcase for the PPR talent. The text doesn’t lie quietly on the page as in a well behaved book. Each story is set in a different font, ranging from 8 to 24 point. One seems to have been hand lettered on note paper and scanned in. One (which I found unreadable) is laid out as a Wikipedia entry. Each has its own illustrator, and the range of graphic styles is impressive (email addresses and web sites are listed at the back).  It’s a shining example of self-publishing.

And it’s a good read. Fidel Castro walks in its pages, along with Johnny Cash, Lot from the Book of Genesis, Emanuel Swedenborg (in his own words), Tariq Ali, Cosmo Kramer and the characters from The Wonder Years. Some startling pieces seem to run close to memoir. There are well-made stories,  a film pitch, a playlet, some cut-ups.

It’s probably a generational thing that there’s quite a bit of explicit sexuality that seems to my aged sensibility to owe quite a bit to sustained exposure to porn. Zoe Coombs Marr’s ‘Genesis’ is a kind of Biblical fanfic whose subtitle gives fair warning: ‘The story of Lot, comprising the invention of buggery; the downfall and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Lot’s family’s flight to the mountains when his wife is turned into a pillar of salt; and his date-rape by his daughters in a cave’. The photographs illustrating the story are tactfully low res. If you have a low tolerance for misogynistic porn, do not read Luke Carman’s ‘All That Pap’, a memoirish piece that includes shocked adolescent exposure to some of it. It’s possibly relevant that when the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed Pip Smith (here), they found it necessary to substitute prim little dashes for some of her evidently unladylike language.

The stand-out pieces, to name just three in random order, are Pip Smith’s neat ‘Five Husbands’ (yes, she hosts a salon, edits a collection and also writes!), Amanda Maxwell’s pseudo horror story, ‘Playing Imaginary Cards with Jeremy’ and Michael Sala’s tale of love lost, financial intrigue and tourism, ‘The Catacombs’.

I’ve been discovering lately that some books I bought in the 1970s would be worth hundreds of dollars now if I had kept them in good shape. Who knows what this will fetch in 2050? Sadly, I’ve already given away the gorgeous poster it comes wrapped in.