Tag Archives: Bob Ellis

Ross Gibson’s 26 Views and my 14 lines (Sonnet #9)

Ross Gibson, 26 Views of the Starburst World (UWAP 2012)

My formal education left me with a lingering sense that Australian history was boring: a drab procession of convicts, explorers, squatters, gold miners, politicians arguing about free trade and train gauges, soldiers, shearers, horsemen – and somewhere on the sidelines an undifferentiated, disappearing mass labelled ‘Aborigines’.

I began to see things differently in the theatre in the early 70s, with the irreverence and vigour of plays like The Legend of King O’Malley (Ellis and Boddy 1970), The Duke of Edinburgh Assassinated (Ellis and Hall 1972) and Flash Jim Vaux (Blair, Clark and Colman 1972), and exhumed splendours like Edward Geoghegan’s The Currency Lass (from the 1840s, published by Currency Press in 1976) and Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Brumby Innes (written 1927, first professional production at the Pram Factory in 1972). Skipping forward a couple of decades, Inga Clendinnen’s brilliant Dancing with Strangers (the link is to Will Owen’s review), by taking a probing scalpel to journal accounts of the first years of the settlement at Port Jackson, made me realise what an extraordinary moment that was, whose meaning is still a long way from being fully understood.

Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World is even more of a revelation, and has an even tighter focus than Dancing with Strangers. It looks at two notebooks, ninety pages in all, in which William Dawes recorded his notes on the ‘language of N. S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney (Native and English)’ in the late 18th century.

William Dawes was a marine lieutenant and astronomer who lived in Sydney from 1788 to 1791, years in which the world of the Eora changed catastrophically and in which that of the British invader–settlers likewise was transformed. These two notebooks were rediscovered in London in 1972. In compiling them, Dawes drew on his relationships with a small group of Eora, including most memorably a young woman named Patyegarang, who visited him at his tiny observatory on the edge of the settlement. They record snippets of conversation, and give sometimes enigmatic glimpses of tiny interactions.

Gibson describes the notebooks as ‘fragmented, unfinished, heuristic’, with ‘a prismatic quality’. And his book might be described in similar terms: it quotes, questions, analyses, peers closely at faint marks, speculates, extrapolates. It comes at the notebooks from, well, at least 26 angles: there’s biography, linguistics , psychology, anthropology, the history of colonisation, the history of science (1788 was a time of a high romantic approach to scientific enquiry in England), communication theory, the politics of Rugby League in 21st century Sydney. Apart from Dawes’ contemporaries Watkin Tench, David Collins and Arthur Phillip, it quotes Wordsworth, Emerson, Walden, Mallarmé, James Agee, Kenneth Slessor, the 2oth century haiku master Seichi, Robert Gray, Barry Hill – all of them pertinently … And sometimes it lets the notebooks speak for themselves. Gibson describes his approach as ’roundabout, relational, a tad restless and unruly’, and in a slightly less alliterative moment as ‘a little like history, a little like poetry, a little maddeningly like a séance’.

Possibly my favourite moment in the book is the facsimile of page 37 of Notebook A, on which there are just four words:

Yánga
________Present
––––________I
___________thou

Gibson gives us a caption – and bear in mind that everywhere else he refrains from speculation about any sexual dimension to the relationship between Dawes and Patyegarang:

‘Yanga’ – a verb that Dawes records but does not translate. Other colonial word lists, not compiled by Dawes, suggest ‘yanga’ means ‘to copulate’.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (London) has put the complete notebooks are online, with transcriptions of their contents, at http://www.williamdawes.org/.

But I’m falling behind on my quota of November sonnets, so here goes:

Sonnet 9: William Dawes and Patyegarang
He lived apart to study stars
and drew dark students to his table –
students and ambassadors
who drank his tea so he was able
to write their words down, turn their breath
to marks on paper. War and death
were soon to dominate this story
but then there was a kind of glory:
‘Paouwagadyımíŋa,’
she said, ‘You shade me from the sun.’
She said, ‘We’re angry, fear the gun –
Gulara, tyérun gu̇nın.’
The future loomed with genocide:
these marks show some opposed that tide.

SWF 2011: A Good Leader is Hard to Find

The reason I am not a politician is that I want to understand.

That’s what the French political scientist Raymond Aron said when asked why he hadn’t gone into politics. The remark came to mind when I saw the number of politicians and ex-politicians in this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival line-up. Maybe there’s room for a separate Sydney Politicians’ Festival, or a Sydney Politicians’ and Political Journalists’ Festival.

Whatever misgivings I might have had, I turned up with 1600 or so others at the Town Hall last night to hear Lenore Taylor, Bob Ellis, George Megalogenis, Bob Carr, Barrie Cassidy and Kerry O’Brien chat under the heading, ‘A Good Leader Is Hard to Find’. Kerry O’B was moderator, and the first thing he did, whether deliberately or not, was to reframe the discussion. He announced the title as ‘Good Leadership Is Hard to Find’. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief, as the shift away from the personal made it a bit less likely that we’d be treated to misogyny-flavoured wit at Julia Gillard’s expense.

The composition of the panel – four political journalists, five if you count Bob ‘Sui Generis’ Ellis, and a former politician who was also once a journalist – made it inevitable that the discussion would focus on the relationship between politicians and the media. There seemed to be consensus that we lack effective or convincing leadership in the Australian parliament, that the interplay between the politicians and the relentless 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame, and that the attention both of them pay to opinion polls adds toxin to the brew. Our leaders are so busy feeding the media beast they don’t have time to think. They’re reduced to selling a message rather than advocating a case, performing rather than communicating. Political coverage is dominated by opinion polls, leadership challenges and early election speculation, with not a lot of room forin depth analytic conversation. Gone are the days when the Prime Minister would chat with journalists at the end of a long day and explain his/her thinking about proposed legislation – when Paul Keating would say to Lenore Taylor, ‘Love, this is what you need to know. The discussion was refreshingly free of blame: the way the media works has changed, and neither the politicians nor the journalists have figured out how to deal with the new reality.

There were no revelatory insights, but it was an interesting evening. Ellis and Carr stood out as phrase-makers, Carr describing himself as an amateur historian, Ellis enacting his familiar contrarian persona. For example, Carr:

In a democracy the normal relationship between people and their elected representatives is mistrust and dissatisfaction. It’s the job of the people to be disillusioned. It’s the job of politicians to disillusion.

Ellis, when asked why the ALP doesn’t adopt what he had just described as an obvious strategy

They do research instead of thinking.

It’s not that the others lacked flair, but as working journalists perhaps they were a little more willing to let the facts get in the way of a good story. So after Bob C made his fourth or fifth remark on the theme that things may be bad but they’ve been ever thus, George M said, ‘I’ve followed many election campaigns but this was the first one where the main candidates feared the electorate.’ And when Ellis spoke of the minority government as ushering in a new era of negotiation and persuasion in parliament, Lenore challenged him: ‘And you’ve seen this happen with which piece of legislation?’

The journoes have their own unrealities. George M told us how his faith in the electorate had been restored when ‘they’ decided to choose neither side of politics at the last election, but to have a hung parliament. No one on the panel said, ‘George, you’re talking nonsense. No one made that decision. All the millions of actual deciders chose one or the other. There was no “Neither” option on the ballot paper.’

There was half an hour of questions. Only one person mistook the microphone for a soapbox.

Wasted launch at Gleebooks

Tonight we went to hear Bob Ellis launch Ross Honeywill’s Wasted, the true story of Jim McNeil, violent criminal and brilliant playwright. There wasn’t a huge crowd – after all it’s nearly 30 years since Jim McNeil died,and his four plays haven’t had a production on a main stage for a long time. But it was a great launch, and looks like a very interesting book

1wastedJim McNeil (1935–1982), according to the Gleebooks web site, quit school at thirteen. Despite his love of reading and philosophy, as a teenager he lived among thugs and thieves. (When we showed him a draft biographical note for one of his Currency Press books in the 1970s, he crossed out the word ‘criminal’ referring to his early milieu and replaced it with ‘knockabout’.)  In 1967,  shot a policeman during an armed robbery. He was convicted and began a seventeen-year prison sentence. In Parramatta maximum-security prison he joined a debating group known as the Resurgents. Though he’d never seen the inside of a  theatre he wrote one-act plays for the group to perform: The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice. These plays were given productions at the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, were a big success, and were published by The Currency Press (the first book I ever copy-edited). He wrote another, full-length play, How Does Your Garden Grow, and part of a fourth, Jack, while still in prison, and then was released ten years early thanks at least in part to lobbying by members of Sydney’s theatre scene. As Ellis said tonight, people were imagining him as being like other badly behaved writers like Brendan Behan, but he was something else altogether. Once he was released he never wrote anything decent again, and his life was a slow descent into violence, alcohol-related illness, and eventually death.

I hesitate to say I knew Jim, but I did visit him in Goulburn Gaol with my then boss, Managing Editor of Currency Press Katharine Brisbane, and he came to  our office more than once after his release. I remember one memorable lunch when he and Peter Kenna, author of A Hard God, told anecdote after anecdote in fierce competition, to our great entertainment. I wasn’t there when, in response to some imagined insult, he broke a bottle on the edge of the kitchen table and threatened to use it on Philip Parsons, Katharine’s husband – but I heard the story from the horse’s mouth the next day. Katharine said she laughed and said, ‘Oh Jim, put it down,’ and he did.

Katharine was there tonight. So were a number of others who knew Jim, including David Marr, who gave him a roof on his release from prison. Ellis also shared a flat with him for some time. Bob Ellis read a piece that sounded as if he had written it soon after McNeil’s death, conveying his charm, his brilliant use of language (‘Dustbin of the Yard here. How are ya, Bobby?’), the ever hovering possibility of violence, and his chaotic alcoholism. Then he read from Wasted, and there was no doubt we were talking about the same man. I’d rate it just about the most moving launch I’ve ever been to. It didn’t turn away from Jim’s truly ugly qualities (Honeywill said that the thing that most surprised him in researching the book was how very violent Jim had been – a far cry from the charming ratbag one would wish him to have been). But there were people who loved him, and still hold a tender place for him. A number of people from the audience told anecdotes, both about his charm and his dangerousness. His story was one of redemption through discovering the life of the mind in prison, then returning to the damned space, almost by an act of will. It made me think – and someone may have said this – that the damage inflicted by the prison system runs very deep: he had lost the ability to make the kind of quotidian decisions necessary to a decent life. Ellis did say that imprisonment has been an experiment in dealing with criminal behaviour, and it has failed.