Tag Archives: Bruce Pascoe

SWF 2021 Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful late autumn day in Sydney, and another day of challenge and delight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Evidently one of our ideologically driven weeklies ran a piece online saying the Festival was extremely ‘woke’, which is apparently a bad thing. I don’t know about woke but, as someone who nods off whenever I’m in a dark room, I was kept awake almost without fail. (The one fail was inevitable, in the after-lunch slot when I would have slept through an announcement that I’d been granted the gifts of immortality and eternal youth.)


10.30: Land of Plenty

This panel addressed environmental issues about Australia from a range of perspectives. Philip Clark of ABC Radio’s Nightlife did a beautiful job as moderator, giving each of the panellists in turn a prompt or two to talk about their work, and managing some elegant segues. The panellists did their bit to make it all cohere by referring to one another’s work. (How much better these panels work when the writers on them have read each other!)

Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms sounds like a fascinating book about whales, said that whales are a Trojan horse for a conversation about other animals’ relationships to humans. She described a moment when she was close enough to a whale that she could see its eye focusing on her – and only to learn a little later that whales are extremely short-sighted and there as no way that that whale could have actually seen her. What is actually there isn’t what we want to think is there,

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu and co-author of Loving Country (about which more later) spoke about the difference between Indigenous and Western capitalist ways of relating to the land. Echoing Rebecca Giggs’s story of the whale’s eye, he said, ‘We look at animals and want to be friends with them, but as soon as a capitalist wants to be your friend …’ He begged us to take seriously the possibility of a reciprocal relationship with animals. Something terrible happened to humans, he said, when the combination of Christianity and capitalism happened. I think he has a book coming on the subject.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man from far north Queensland, author of Fire Country. Someone from my family had the privilege of doing some video work with Victor some years ago, and his stories from that time have given me a deep respect for Victor and his work in ‘using traditional knowledge for environmental wellbeing’, as the Festival site puts it. In this panel, he took off from Bruce Pascoe’s call for reciprocity with other animals, and spoke of relating to fire as a friend and not as something to fear. It’s about reading country, listening to landscape. His project of recording traditional knowledge that is in danger of being lost is not to archive it but to get it back into people, ‘to young fellas and then to the broader community’.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting for the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and author of  Dead in the Water about that catastrophe, said that the situation in the Murray-darling Basin had got so bad that ‘even John Howard’ did something about it. Howard’s legislation included clauses to the effect that whatever was done needed to be science-based. But then the lobbyists went to town, and in response to their pressure, politicians insisted that reports from the CSIRO were altered to suit the big capitalists’ agenda. His lawyerly rage was palpable.

There was a good question (a rarity at this Festival), about grounds for hope:

  • Rebecca Giggs: Thee’s hope. But you don’t get to be hopeful until you make yourself useful in some way – whatever your situation and abilities allow.
  • Bruce Pascoe: I have to think we can do it differently. We have to give our grandchildren a chance, not treat them with contempt. We need love of country, not nationalism.
  • Victor Steffensen: Language is important. [Sadly what I wrote from the rest of what he said was illegible. I think it was an elegant version of ‘Action is also important.’]
  • Richard Beasley: I’m a lawyer. I don’t know how to challenge any of this by law.

12 o’clock: Sarah Dingle & Kaya Wilson

We hadn’t booked this session in advance, but faced with a gap of a couple of hours, we spent one of our Covid Discover vouchers to buy rush tickets. Kaya Wilson, whose book As Beautiful As Any Other has the subtitle A memoir of my body, is a tsunami scientist and a trans man. Sarah Dingle, author of Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception is a donor-conceived person. Their conversation was aided and abetted by Maeve Marsden, host of Queerstories who was also donor conceived, though not anonymously through the fertility industry as Sarah was.

Sarah’s revelations about the fertility industry were nothing short of shocking. Not only is it monumentally unregulated, but records that might have allowed people to know what had happened to a particular donor’s sperm, even anonymously, have at least sometimes been deliberately destroyed. Couples using donated sperm have been systematically encouraged to lie to their children about their origins, leaving them unaware of any genetic predispositions to disease, let alone possible incest.

What Kaya told us about the systemic treatment of trans people was just as shocking. He said that he tended to keep his scientific life and his trans life separate. ‘In some ways they hate each other.’ But he has a chapter in his book that tries to reconcile them. The scientific literature, like legislation about, for instance, changing one’s ‘sex marker’ on a birth certificate, is shot through with assumptions that bear not relation to the reality of trans experience.

Both people spoke of the joy of finding themselves to be members of communities they weren’t aware of when young. When asked what they read for relief, both named writers I’ve loved: Sarah chose Terry Pratchett; Kaya chose Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.


2.30: Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou

Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia was an initiative of Hardie Grant Publishers, who approached Bruce Pascoe suggesting a follow-up to Marcia Langton’s guide to Indigenous Australia, Welcome to Country. Pascoe joined forces with Vicky Shukuroglou, a non-Indigenous woman born in Cyprus, who took the photographs and also contributed to the writing. The Festival website says that the book ‘offers a new way to explore and fall in love with Australia by seeing it through an Indigenous lens’. Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye, chaired this conversation.

Again, we were called on to love this country. The thing I loved about the session was the way the two authors could disagree. Bruce Pascoe, speaking of the horrendous bushfires last year, said that the disrespect for Country shown by authorities afterwards was in some ways worse than the fires themselves. We meekly accept the terrible destruction of heritage in the Juukan Gorge. We have to rebel as a people, he said, meaning all of us, not just First Nations people. Vicky Shukuroglou argued against the idea of rebellion, and spoke of the importance of conversations and of love: ‘If we’re going to talk about marginalisation, we first need to look at our humanity.’ From where I was sitting it didn’t look as if the two things were incompatible, but I was struck by the way as a non-Indigenous woman she was secure enough in their friendship and working partnership to challenge an Indigenous man. I would have liked to know more about what she had done to achieve that confidence.

The book, Pascoe said, is about how to restrain human go and let Country have a voice, He got Vicky to tell a story about a sick echidna that, without her realising it, had come to know and trust her, as a result – she thinks – of her being still around it over time.

We don’t need a black armband.
We just need to know the facts.
This is the country that invented society, bread and the Richmond Football Club.


4.30 pm The Unacknowledged Legislators

This was a great way to end my festival. (The Emerging Artist’s festival ended with the previous session: she thinks poetry and she don’t like each other.) Seven poets read to us, hosted elegantly by ‘writer, poet, essayist and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta’, Declan Fry. Here they are, in order of appearance.

Eileen Chong, whose poetry my regular readers will know I adore. She read five poems from A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which I’ll be blogging about soon. I was glad to hear her read the three part poem, ‘The Hymen Diaries’ after I had spent some time with it and checked out the artworks it refers to.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet laureate of the Saturday Paper, read three poems. I won’t report what they were because i wasn’t sure I heard their names correctly. One of them began, ‘When I say I don’t want to become my mother,’ and went on brilliantly to challenge the internalised sexism of that sentiment.

Ellen van Neerven read three poems from Throat (my blog post here), including ‘Treaty of shared power’ and ‘Such a sad sight’. The first-named is a play on the relationship between the writer of a poem and its reader that worked beautifully in this context.

Erik Jensen, reading to an audience for the first time, read six short poems from his first book of poetry, I said the sea was folded, a book that, he told us, is about falling in love and learning to be in love. He then read a poem by Kate Jennings, who has just died (this was how I heard the news) – and wept as he read it. He wasn’t teh only one to shed a tear.

Felicity Plunkett followed that hard act, reading four short poems from her 2020 collection, A Kinder Sea. The first, ‘Trash Vortex’, whose name tells you a lot, may be the kind of poem that Evelyn Araluen had in mind when she said artists have a responsibility to address the world’s urgent issues.

Omar Sakr read three poems, ‘Birthday’, Self-portrait as poetry defending itself’ and ‘Every Day’. This is the first time I’ve heard or read any of his poetry. I hope it won’ be the last.

Alison Whittaker, Gomeroi woman and a crowd favourite, read a piece that depended on knowledge of and (I think) contempt for ASMR, not that there’s anything wrong with such poems. She reminded us of the tragic reality of Black Deaths in custody and read a poem consisting of anodyne found phrases from court proceedings.


And my 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. There were at least four moments when someone on stage paid tribute to a parent in the audience or, in one case, on stage with them (and I’d left my run too late to see Norman and Jonathan Swan, and I probably missed other trans-generational moments). I didn’t see any of the international guests who attended on screen. It was a thrill to hear such a diversity of First Nations voices. I came home with a swag of books and a list for borrowing from the library. Hats off to Michael Williams and his team for making this happen in the flesh, and making sense of the slogan Within Reach: a living demonstration that the famous cultural cringe, while it may not be dead, has not much reason to live.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu (©2014, Magabala Press 2018)

tl;dr: ‘We are at the beginning – not the end – of understanding pre-colonial history’ (Dark Emu, page 60)

I gather that this book has recently been attacked by one of those pretend journalists who like misrepresent people and arguments and then condemn them. I gather that there’s a mostly anonymous website devoted to pointing out the book’s errors (though there are also people with names who have checked all its references and found them accurate). I gather that Bruce Pascoe has been accused of pretending to be Aboriginal for monetary gain, an accusation that has been amplified by one of the very few members of the Australian Parliament who boycotted Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations (and that the Australian Federal Police have dismissed the accusation out of hand).

So I gathered the book itself from my To Be Read shelf, and having read it I can do no better to address the attackers than this recent tweet:

I’m grateful to Andrew Bolt and Co for spurring me to actually read the book. It had joined Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres (1981) and Bill Gammage’s The Greatest Estate on Earth (2012) on my Should-Read list because – all three being books whose contents you think you know by osmosis – it offered a radically revised story of the Australian land before and after 1788. Rolls is a poet farmer whose book was hard to find when I was looking for it 30 years ago (it was republished in 2011), and I’d been told by someone that Gammage’s book is essential reading but ‘the most boring book I’ve ever read’. I expected Dark Emu to be like that: a pleasureless duty read. But The Australian and Andrew Bolt made me think there was probably more to it than that.

And there is.

It’s lively and accessible, full of astonishing facts and a scattering of beautiful and/or intriguing illustrations. Pascoe’s central thesis is that the observations of early European explorers and settlers, and more recently the findings of archaeologists, palaeontologists and so on, give a very different picture of pre-settlement Australia from the one that still prevails in our mainstream culture. This is partly because the assumptions and agendas of the early observers led them to interpret what they saw in ways that now seem bizarre, even laugh-out-loud funny if not for the devastating consequences; and partly because so little attention is paid to those accounts by historians, and the mainstream pays so little attention to recent research findings.

It’s also a shaming book. In my early 20s I read the journals of most of the explorers that Pascoe cites: Sturt, Mitchell, Giles, Grey. I certainly read the descriptions of clay-roofed buildings big enough for 40 people, of fish traps and park-like landscapes, of cheerful gatherings of large numbers of people in places where the explorers could find no food to sustain them. But if these descriptions contradicted my received version of Aboriginal people as nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in primitive humpies – and they did – I can’t say that I had any shock of recognition. When the explorers described these substantial dwellings as hovels, I didn’t recognise the dissonance. I wasn’t thick enough to miss the arrogance that drips from many of the explorers’ pages (Giles has a wonderfully poetic passage lamenting the way Aboriginal people will be replaced by a race more favoured by God – that is, his own race). But those aren’t generally the passages that Pascoe highlights: he’s much more generous than that, treating his sources with respect and sympathy, even as he challenges his readers to see past colonialist prejudices.

Pascoe gives example after example from the early observers to illustrate his argument that Aboriginal people all over this continent were more than ‘simple’ hunter-gatherers; that many of their practices on land and water amount to farming; that they had substantial dwellings, some of stone; that they had a sophisticated understanding of the natural world and skills and technology to make use of it, while ensuring its wellbeing. And he pulls off the small miracle of keeping it interesting. (I do confess that, having got my head around just some of the archaeological terms when I read Mike Smith’s The Archaeology of Australian Deserts – blog post here – I missed phrases like the Last Glacial Maximum.) And then there’s the reason that some people attack the book, mostly I suspect without reading it, and the reason that it’s more than just a fascinating piece of historical revisionism: it offers a broad swell of argument that it’s untenable to think of Australian history as having begun in 1788, or 1770, or 1606. This is how the book ends, and I’m happy to end this blog post this way too (note his use of ‘we’ in the first sentences):

It seems improbable that a country can continue to hide from the actuality of its history in order to validate the fact that having said sorry, we refuse to say thanks. Should we ever decide to say thanks, the next step on a moral nation’s agenda is to ensure that every Australian acknowledges the history and insists that, as we are all Australians, we should have the opportunity to share the education, health and employment of that country on equal terms. Many will say that equality is insufficient to account for the loss of the land, but in our current predicament it is not a bad place to start.

The start of that journey is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Australian Poetry Journal 7:2, Work

Cassandra Atherton and Benjamin Laird (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2: Work (2017)

cover image

I mainly read this issue of The Australian Poetry Journal on my computer screen. It sat on my desktop to be dipped every now and then, a bit like Twitter only more than 280 characters, more nuanced, less infested with outrage and snark, and more nourishing. Here are some of the bits I enjoyed a comment on the front cover and then some snippets from poems that struck me (though not the only ones that did).

The cover illustration, a photo taken by artist Albert Tucker of artist Joy Hester watching art patron John Reed milking a cow at the artist’s colony Heide in 1942, is rich with metaphorical implications in reference to the journal’s theme of work. It reminds me of Jerome K Jerome’s famous quip about liking work: ‘It fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours.’

From Jill Jones, ‘This Could Take a While’: 

How do you get through days
that have already curved too far? 

From Andy Kissane, ‘The Study Before the Major Work’: 

I finish one sketch and start another, in love
with the repetition that is the texture of my life, 
waking each morning to currawong calls,
raising the blinds to the shifting architecture
of light, dressing in loose clothes, keen to dwell
in the lilting halls of wonder.

From Geoff Page, ‘In medias res’: 

I should perhaps have warned you all
my death will be in medias res:
a carload of musicians 

driving up from Sydney
and being switched to voicemail

From Judith Beveridge, ‘The Pest Inspector’: 

He gave good advice: ‘Always listen at night, 
and if you hear a sound as though you’ve left
a record on after all the songs have played,
the ticking of a needle as it tracks in a groove;
if you hear what you take to be the scratching
of a mouse, the contractions of a cooling
tin roof, or click beetles snapping their thoraxes
and abdomens to flip themselves right way up –
take note, they could turn out to be the mandible-crafted
ticks of termites eating along the grain
of your floorboards.’

The whole of Cameron Lowe’s ‘Botanic / Beginning with four words from a poem by Joseph Massey’, which maybe I love because there was a giant fig behind my childhood home in North Queensland: 

There’s little
to say
. The fig –

giant – leans
across the

bridge, reaches
up into 

itself, names
fading

from the love
heart

scored in its 
trunk. 

Cameron Lowe’s poem is part of ‘New Shoots: Garden of Poems’, a special feature that takes up nearly half of the journal’s pages. In 2017, under the auspices of Red Room Poetry, Australian Poetry Inc and the Melbourne Writers Festival, Tamryn Bennett commissioned ten poets to create a new suite of poems each, inspired by plants and histories they encountered in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. The poems they produced have had other outings – at the Festival, as a poetry trail at the Gardens, and in an online recording accompanied by interviews (here). They make a brilliant feature here: first the poems, then nine pages of ‘Reflections’ by the poets, which mostly allow for a much deeper reading experience. Just for one example, Bruce Pascoe’s powerful poem, ‘Kuller Kullup’, about the 19th century Wurundjeri elder of that name, becomes even richer when read in the light of his reflection, which begins:

  It is very hard for Aboriginal people to get through a day without being reminded of loss, sometimes accompanied by a profound sadness, sometimes by mere elevated irony. When I was walking around the gardens with the other poets dread was dragging at my heels, feeling for my throat. The talk of last and natural and heritage was clutching at me with scrabbling fingers.

There’s much more, in the ‘New Shoots’ section and in the journal as a whole. Copies are available for sale from Australian Poetry Inc.

Southerly 76/2

David Brooks and guest editor Andy Jackson (editors), Southerly Vol 76 No 2 2016: Writing Disability

southerly762.jpgThe term ‘disability’ covers a vast range of experience: body shapes that differ from the norm, impaired bodily function, chronic pain, chronic disease, learning difficulties, the autism spectrum, conditions labelled ‘mental illness’, combinations of those and more. Though that’s an important point, it’s also an obvious one, and perhaps only in an academic context would you invoke a French theorist to make it, as in this passage from Andy Jackson and David Brooks’ essay ‘Ramps and the Stair’ in this Southerly:

Derrida tells us that we should not, when talking about animals, use the word animal. It is an umbrella term, an intellectual violence. We should say cat, we should say horse, we should say mouse. […] ‘Disability’, then, an umbrella term? an intellectual violence? There are as many forms of disability as there are things a non-disabled person might be able to do. The term effaces even as it tries to draw attention.*

But with or without Derrida, cats, mice and horses, this Southerly focuses on disability. The contents are listed according to kind of writing – essays, poetry, short fiction etc (you can see the online version here). They could as easily have been listed according to kind of disability. Here’s a partial list:

Degenerative disease:

  • An intensely personal obituary by Bruce Pascoe for Gillian Mears, best known as the author of Foal’s Bread who died of  multiple sclerosis last year
  • Koraly Dimitriadis, ‘The Recipe’, an exuberant short fiction in which a Greek family deals with a matriarch’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease

Cerebral palsy:

  • Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, ‘Permanent Problems’, a memoir, self described as ‘a story about identity and anxiety, about rude questions and boring answers … a story I can’t grow out of, even as I grow up’, followed by  ‘life prep (dear able bodied partner)’, a brief, caustic lyric on the same theme

Chronic illness:

  • Heather Taylor Johnson, ‘Trying to Talk about Ménières Disease’, a poem (a fourfold haibun?) that vividly captures devastating encounters with a medical practitioner

Blindness / visual impairment:

  • Ben Stubbs, ‘A Different View’, in which the author, a travel writer, is taken on a blindfold walk through the streets of Adelaide by a blind activist/educator, almost as good (or bad) as being there

Deafness:

  • Amanda Tink, ‘Deafness: a Key to Lawson’s Writing’ reminds us that Henry Lawson was deaf, and argues that his disability lay at the base of his commitment to social justice. (I do wonder if Ms Tink has thought much about the influence of Henry’s feminist mother and his class background)
  • Jessica White, ‘A Great Many Capital Foreign Things’, a memoir about her own experience as a deaf person, including her time researching colonial novelist Rosa Praed’s daughter Maud, who was deaf.

Autism spectrum:

  • Darcy Hill, ‘Disjointed Words’, a revelatory personal essay recounting a couple of hours in the life of an autistic university student
  • Jessica Clements: ‘Theories of Lght’, a fiction in which a boy on the autism spectrum (though it’s not named) begins school. It opens a gentle door for readers unfamiliar with the territory

Chronic pain:

  • Josephine Taylor, ‘Mark My Words’, the most scholarly piece in the journal with four pages of ‘works cited’, about vulvodynia, a condition of chronic unexplained vulval pain. I’m not drawn to writing that quotes the likes of Lacan or the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and parts of this essay are hard going, but as it’s rooted in, and animated by, the writer’s quest to come to terms with more than fifteen years of acute pain, it’s hard to turn away

Mobility impairment:

  • Michèle Saint-Yves, ‘The Inner Shepherd’, a spectacular story in which a character takes 12 pages to sit up in bed in the morning, bringing extraordinary self-discipline to the task.

‘Mental Illness’:

  • Liana Joy Christensen, ‘Before They fall’, a memoir that pays pained tribute to a friend who lived with mental chaos.: ‘He could not help being ill; I could not help writing.’

Intellectual disability:

  • The cover is by Fulli Andrinopoulos, represented by Arts Project Australia, whose website declares that it insists ‘that intellectually disabled artists’ work be presented in a professional manner and that artists are accorded the same dignity and respect as their non-disabled peers’.

Not easily categorised:

  • Elisabeth Holdsworth, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams, the friends of our youth and 83 seconds’ ranges widely over stillborn babies, misdiagnosed back injury, childhood epilepsy, survival of Dachau – friendship, grief, solidarity, courage …

I would have been satisfied with this richly diverse reading experience, and then the short reviews section sprung a pleasant surprise on me in Michael Sharkey’s review of David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice. This book is an elegy to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who lectured at Sydney University and was a mentor and friend to Musgrave and Sharkey. Though I wouldn’t presume to claim him as a friend, he was one of the three most inspiring, and dare I say loveable, teachers I had at university (the others were Elisabeth Hervic, of the French Department, and David Malouf). The review sent me to Gleebooks to buy a copy of the book, but the real delight was in Sharkey’s departures from the business of reviewing to note down some of his own memories of Bill:

Bill Maidment received that sort of admiration and affection from several generations of students and fellow teachers. He represents a world now gone, when an Air Force radio operator, journalist, plein-air geographer and adventurer, forensic critic, collector of Australian folklore and arcane Renaissance knowledge, and brilliant lecturer could exist in one person, and hold a packed lecture theatre in such thrall that the listeners erupted in applause not only at the end of lectures but sometimes following a bravura exegesis.


  • Because my WordPress format doesn’t distinguish italicised text in quotes, I’ve used purple for words that are italicised in the original. I’ve also altered punctuation slightly to follow Australian conventions.

Mike Smith’s Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts

Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press 2013)

Whatever else it may be, a desert is a historical document preserving a complex record of the interaction of past climates, geomorphic processes and cultural systems. I like to think of these landscapes as a palimpsest of different deserts. Stratified in time, stacked one above another, each has its own climate, physical landscapes and environment; each its own social landscapes and people, places of association and belonging, territories, resources and itineraries. Some features of earlier deserts project through these layers to become part of the fabric and cultural geography of later deserts. Structural features and processes are held in common: wind and water shape landforms; the basin and range topography provides the formwork of the landscape. No one desert is erased entirely by succeeding deserts – a fact that makes archaeology possible. This monograph – the first book-length archaeological study of Australia’s deserts – is an attempt to map out these histories.

That’s the opening paragraph of Mike Smith’s preface to The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, and it’s a fair account of his project. The book is written with archaeological scholars and students in mind, and general readers are likely to find it hard going. At least I did. But, with judicious skipping and a willingness to read on even while suspecting I might sometimes be missing the point, I found it fascinating.

Tom Griffiths wrote in The Art of Time Travel, ‘Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened and how we know what we think happened.’ In this book, both stories are wonderful, and neither can be honestly told without the other.

As this is a survey of a vast field of exploration, the story of ‘how we know what we think happened’ really is about ‘we’ the profession rather than ‘I’ the author. Again and again, someone is cited as proposing a version of what happened 20, 30 or 50 thousand years ago, only to have that explanation deemed unconvincing in the light of more recent evidence and replaced by a new theory, which is discarded in its turn. There are many sentence like this:

The prevailing view that higher rainfall, and active rivers and lakes, had marked the late glacial climate [that is, the last stages of the last ice age, a little more than 13 000 years ago] changed so abruptly in the mid-1960s that by 1975, little trace of it remained.

One imagines whole lifetimes of study and theorising falling in ruins in less than a decade, and at the same time one is warned that the chapters that follow may some day meet a similar fate.

This constant, apparently dispassionate scepticism, and the implied scholarly humility, stands in heartening contrast to the common discourse of politicians and opinionators who reject inconvenient science and call themselves sceptics.

A second aspect of the ‘how’, as important as the first but here less captivating, is technological advance, particularly in dating techniques. Some of the new technologies are explained in a glossary, but I mostly skipped the discussions of the different dates arrived at using different  processes – I’ll just trust the scientists to know their ABOX 14C from their TIM U/Th. In this case I’m interested in the findings rather than the nano nuts and bolts.

Then there’s the other story, the provisional narrative created from the archaeological evidence. There were people in the Australian deserts (and Smith does say ‘people’, which reads as if ‘like us’ is implied) more than 50 000 years ago, when they shared the place with diprotodons and giant emu-like birds. Those people’s descendants found ways to survive the most intense period of the last ice age 19 to 26 and a half thousand years ago (the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’ or LGM, ‘26.5–19 ka’ in scientific language). As the bitter aridity of that age passed, there is evidence that the population in the deserts increased, and different kinds of trade flourished over great distances. There were changes in technology, culture (Smith’s discussion of cave art is fascinating) and language (who knew that palaeolinguistics was a thing?). The detail is hard for the inexpert reader to follow at times, but what emerges is a rich, complex narrative that is challenging to widely held assumptions on many levels.

Let me give two examples that came up while I was still reading the book.

First, in the splendid exhibition The history of the world in 100 objects currently showing at the  National Museum of Australia, one of the wall notes reads in part:

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the climate warmed up across the world, humans gradually shifted from hunting and gathering to a settled way of life based on farming – and in the process, our relationship to the natural world was transformed. From living as a minor part of a balanced ecosystem, we start trying to overcome nature – to take control.

Well, not all humans. People in Australia did it differently. Even the term ‘ice age’ doesn’t describe what was happening in this part of the world: rather than great sheets of ice, people here had to cope with great dust bowls. Smith discusses at some length the probable different strategies adopted. And as the climate warmed up and the human population grew, even in the desert areas, people in Australia continued to live as part of the ecosystem. Once, this would have been seen as a failure to progress, but now it begins to look much more like something the rest of the world can learn from.

The second example is something Bruce Pascoe, a Bunurong man, said at Jonathan Jones’s profound installation, barrangal dyara (skin and bones) in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Pascoe reminded us that long before settlement (he said that in Victoria he’s not allowed to say ‘invasion’) the old people had worked out something rare if not unique in the history of the planet: how to live without wars over land.

Before reading Mike Smith’s book, I would probably have heard this as somehow meaning that the Aboriginal culture and politics had been been unchanging in since an imagined meeting of elders that happened millennia ago. But not now. The archaeological record is very limited in what it can tell us about what happened tens of thousands of years ago, but it does indicate that as circumstances changed (as sea levels fell and rose by more than a hundred metres, for example) so did people’s behaviour. Cultures developed and changed, as did social organisation and people’s relationship to country (archaeologists talk of ‘territoriality’ and ‘land tenure’). Bruce Pascoe’s observation is a powerful counter to the colonialist notion that there is a single template for progress in human affairs, and that Europeans are much ‘further along’ than Aboriginal peoples. No, he says, Aboriginal people chose a different path, a different kind of complexity. Listening to him with Mike Smith’s book fresh in my mind, I’m struck by the startlingly obvious idea that those ‘old people’ were not some imaginary super-beings, but historical humans who grappled with the problems of existence at least as creatively as anyone else on the planet, and in some respect made wiser decisions.

I read this book because of Tom Griffiths’s chapter on Mike Smith in The Art of Time Travel. It was every bit as daunting as I expected, but worth it: like the difference between a reproduction of a painting and the painting itself.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

I’d love to go to the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards again one of these years, but $60 for a cocktail event is a stretch even for people who drink alcohol, and it’s way out of my range for hors d’oeuvres, sparkling water and speeches. Maybe I’ll get a freebie one of these years as a designated blogger, but for this year, as for the last couple, here’s how the evening went as gleaned from Twitter (Noting by the way that Twitter account @NSW_PLA has been silent for five years, and the facebook page ‘NSW Premier’s Literary Awards‘ for nearly three, I put my faith, mainly, in #PremiersLitAwards).

In the lead-up, there was a flurry of good-luck messages from publishers, seven tweets from one publisher lobbying for votes in the People’s Choice Award, and at least one person wondering if the recent Australia Council cuts to literary magazines would lead to an ‘interesting’ evening.

The first tweeter of the evening, a book editor from Text Publishing, turned up about 10 to 6, and a little later the State Library account posted a moody photo of the crowd gathering upstairs at the Mitchell Library, and we were away.

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Twitter was fairly tightlipped during the night – nothing about what anyone was wearing, no jokes, and little from acceptance speeches. Maybe that’s what happens when it’s a cocktail event rather than a dinner. However, here’s what I’ve got. Links are to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

Just before 7 the State Librarian officially welcomed everyone. The Welcome to Country included didgeridoo, but no one tweeted the name of the welcomer(s). Ross Grayson Bell, senior judge (I guess that’s what used to be call Chair of the Judging Panel), spoke briefly, saying that the Awards reflected the diversity of Australian writing (and so foreshadowing a major theme of the evening). Wesley Enoch delivered what Twitter said was an inspiring Address: among other things he said that when you are feeling your lowest is when you should make more art, and spoke of ‘storytelling for a nation that is in want of a memory’ (Wesley Enoch is a Murri man).

In a welcome departure from recent practice the Premier Mike Baird himself presented the awards. He spoke of J D Salinger, and said that ‘stories remind us why we’re here, what we’ve forgotten, and help us to inhabit other worlds’, echoing Wesley Enoch’s words. Jennifer Byrne took over as MC and the announcements (what she called a ‘rollcall of excellence’) began.

Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000) went to Good Muslim Boy by Osamah Sami (Hardie Grant Books). He gave a ‘very funny and memorable’ acceptance speech. No details.

Indigenous Writer’s Prize (a new biennial award worth $30,000). Of the shortlisted books I’d read only Inside My Mother by Ali Cobby Eckermann (Giramondo). The prize was shared between Dark Emu  by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books) and Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press), which must be wonderful books.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting ($30,000).  The Bleeding Tree, Angus Cerini (Currency Press in association with Griffin Theatre Company). I knew I should have subscribed to the Griffin.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting ($30,000). Of the shortlist, I’ve seen only Last Cab to Darwin, and though it had many good things about it, it would have surprised me if it won. The winner was the fourth episode of Deadline Gallipoli, ‘The Letter’, written by Cate Shortland (Matchbox Pictures) and screened on Foxtel, so bad luck for us non-subscribers.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature ($30,000) went to Teacup, written by Rebecca Young & illustrated by Matt Ottley (Scholastic Australia). The Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature ($30,000) was won by Alice Pung’s Laurinda (Black Inc.).

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry ($30,000). Again, I’d only read one book, Joanne Burns’s brush (Giramondo). It won!

Of the shortlist for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction ($40,000) I had once again just one book under my belt, Magda Szubanski’s wonderful Reckoning: A Memoir (Text Publishing). Once again, it won. I was doing well. Mike Baird held Magda’s phone for her so her mother and brother could hear her acceptance speech. Someone tweeted at this point that a number of award winners spoke of their family histories and ‘complex journeys to Australia as displaced persons’.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (a mere $5000) went to An Astronaut’s Life by Sonja Dechian (Text Publishing). Christina Stead Prize for Fiction ($40,000)went to Locust Girl, A Lovesong by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), a post-apocalyptic novel. One tweeter congratulated her for helping us ‘care across borders’. The People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels, went to The Life of Houses, Lisa Gorton (Giramondo).

The Special Award (for which, if money is involved, the amount is not easily discoverable) was given to Rosie Scott, described by Susan Wyndham on Twitter as ‘admired author, supporter of young writers, asylum seekers, refugees, many social causes’.

The book of the year (again, monetary value not easily discovered) went to Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. Accepting his award, he said to the people in the room, ‘I want to hear your story, because I would be spellbound.’

Then the State Library account tweeted the hashtag #BestSpeechesEver. So those of us pressing our noses against the glass wall of Twitter know what we missed out on. It was all over bar the reading – oh, and the many pictures of underdressed young women that began appearing with the Awards hashtag during the night.