Tag Archives: Inga Clendinnen

Tom Griffiths’ Art of Time Travel

Tom Griffiths, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft (Black Inc 2016)

For transforming young minds there is probably nothing more powerful than history in the hands of a charismatic teacher.

1863958568.jpgThat’s a quote from Don Watson in the current Quarterly Essay, Enemy Within. It could have been an epigraph for The Art of Time Travel, which tells the stories of fourteen charismatic teachers, practitioners of the craft of history in Australia. Most of them are or were university lecturers; all of them, individually and collectively, have transformed minds both young and old.

From Tom Griffiths’ very readable, richly anecdotal and often personal accounts of these careers, there emerges a fascinating story of how the mainstream understanding of Australia has expanded, deepened and, yes, transformed over the last three quarters of a century. Australian history, which used to be seen as a short, derivative footnote to the history of England, or occasionally as a collection of beautiful lies that happen to be true(as in Mark Twain’s famous quote), is now something quite different. No one could have imagined 75 years ago, for instance, that the Sydney Morning Herald would be reporting on a local Council being called on to defend its refusal to acknowledge that the Council meets on Darug land. Griffiths offers this summary of the changes:

Australians discovered that the New World was actually the Old, and that the true ‘nomads’ were the colonisers. The nation continent was reimagined as a jigsaw of bioregional countries, which had for so long been its state. The biological cringe about ‘monotonous gums’, ‘songless birds’ and ‘fossil animals’ was replaced by a deep historical narrative about the continent’s southern organic genesis. Australian history became as much about ecological, social and technological discontinuities as about the political stability and continuity for which the European settlers first celebrated it. British colonisation was seen as both an invasion and an awesome social experiment; there was dancing with strangers and there was war. Historians ventured to the other side of the frontier and peered back at the ‘white men’s eyes’, and Aboriginal people were compelled – and some chose – to cross the beach in the other direction. In remote parts of Australia, the Indigenous inhabitants became the custodians of white history as well as black, because they stayed on country while the whites moved away. In the coastal cities Aboriginal people were found to have always been part of Australia’s modern urban history. Indigenous scholars studied the nation’s unending frontier and the intense colonial revolution into which they had been thrown.

Most literate Australians will be aware of these changes. This book gives something of the nuts and bolts of how they came about, through the changing concerns of historians, the new resources (such as carbon dating) available to them, and a shake-up of historians’ methods to include sources other than official written records, and to approach their task as an art as well as a science. Among the historians discussed, some are little known outside the academic world and some are household names. Some of the most interesting developments have spread gently,as if by stealth or osmosis, from scholarly specialty to common knowledge; others have been fanned into spectacular controversy.

If you were to draw up a list of 14 key Australian historians of the 20th century, it would be a different list from Griffiths’, as he acknowledges in his Prologue (he mentions that Manning Clark rates only a couple of lines; that’s also true of Russel Ward). But the strong likelihood is that all of your chosen ones are mentioned either briefly or extensively in someone else’s chapter. Some of the individuals through whose lives and work Griffiths tells his story aren’t even professional historians. They include a novelist, a poet, and an archaeologist. But – he argues convincingly – they all practice the craft of history.

I won’t attempt to summarise the riches the book offers, but if you’ll bear with me, here’s a list of the writers discussed, with a taster from some chapters:

Eleanor Dark‘s 1941 novel The Timeless Land was fiction, yes, but also the product of intensive original research:

Dark was decades ahead of Australia’s historians in realising that the big story about British colonisation at Port Jackson was that of the encounter between settlers and Aborigines.

Keith Hancock, after a lifetime working in Imperial and Commonwealth history, returned to a study of his own country and produced a pioneering work of environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972):

The rise of environmental politics in the late 1960s brought ecology and history closer together, directly stimulating historical scholarship and giving the new environmental history an occasionally apocalyptic and moralistic tone. Hancock placed Discovering Monaro in this new political and scientific context through his engagement with the insights of ecologists and also his twin invocation of the local and the global, a dialectic that bypassed nationalism, the central concern of Hancock’s earlier work.

John Mulvaney published The Prehistory of Australia in 1969. Among archaeologists in mid twentieth-century Australia, he was known as ‘the scientist’ as, among other ground-shaking deeds, he brought carbon-dating technology to bear on assumptions that Aboriginal people had been in Australia for a comparatively short time.

Geoffrey Blainey, a ‘genuine contrarian’, is deeply suspicious of intellectual fashion, and has repeatedly found himself caught up in controversy whether as a precursor to Hansonism in 1984 remarks about Asian immigration or in endorsing climate ‘sceptic’ Ian Plimer. His best known book is The Tyranny of Distance (1966), but The Great Seesaw: A New View of the Western World, 1750–2000 (1988) may be his central book.

Judith Wright, one of Australia’s great poets, wrote two works that earned her a place in this company. The Generations of Men (1959 – at last, a book I’ve actually read!) is what Griffiths calls ‘a semi-fictional novel’ about her grandparents, who were settlers in south Queensland. The Cry for the Dead (1981) revisits the same place a couple of decades earlier to tell a story of the frontier:

In The Cry for the Dead, the story of the land is inextricable from the story of its original people and equally revealing of what the invaders were doing, or not doing. It was a double ignorance and silence Wright was dealing with: ‘If the English settlers were contemptuously ignorant of the realities of Aboriginal life, they were equally ignorant of the country itself.’

Greg Dening‘s most famous book was Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (1992). He shines out from these pages as a writer, but even more as an inspiring and much loved teacher:

Greg’s advocacy of the creative imagination was shaped by his engagement with two different worlds … On one side was the academy. His foundation lecture, ‘History as a Social System’, was his challenge to that institutional inheritance, and all his teaching was radical and dangerous in the way it undermined the academic poses of neutrality and dispassion and made explicit the socialisation of disciplinary knowledge. The other world he addressed with the phrase ‘the creative imagination’ was that of public literary culture … He urged his students to be ‘open to those other ethnographers of our living experience’ – our poets, novelists, comics, cartoonists, film-makers and photographers.

Henry Reynolds‘ world-changing book is The Other Side of the Frontier (1981). His books aren’t big on the literary elements encouraged by Greg Dening, but are ’empiricist, rational, highly structured, heavily evidenced, reinforcing and repetitive, professionally conservative, accessible to the courts’. That is to say, they’re not much fun, but they bring Australia’s frontier violence to light in ways that are defy attempts to dismiss them as pure ideology. In the chapter on Reynolds, Griffiths discusses Keith Windschuttle’s much-publicised attack on academic Australian historians as a body. Paradoxically, Windschuttle’s accusations of fabrication led to an upsurge of careful research into the frontier, which demonstrated that violence was even more widespread than had been thought before his attack. Griffith’s discussion is nuanced and respectful, but gives no quarter.

The chapter on Reynolds also includes a discussion of Noel Pearson’s complex take on the history of colonisation as ‘a third-generation legatee of mission protection’.

Eric Rolls, perhaps better known as a poet than as a historian, is another of the non-academics on the list. His A Million Wild Acres (1981), the history of a forest in northern New South Wales, is singled out for high praise:

In my mid-twenties and freshly home from my first trip overseas, I … wrote a brief letter to Eric Rolls, telling him that A Million Wild Acres was one of a handful of books about Australia that I would like to put in the hands of any visitor to elp them understand my country. Now I would make greater claims for it. I think it is the best environmental history yet written of Australia, and I would hope it could be read not just by visitors but by all Australians.

Stephen Murray-Smith was the founding editor of Overland. His chapter here focuses on a book written a couple of years before his death, Sitting on Penguins: People and Politics in Australian Antarctica (1988), and places it as a significant intervention in Antarctic politics. The Antarctic experience is also a spur to some elegant reflections – by Griffiths as well as by Murray-Smith – on the importance of history:

Murray-Smith argued forcefully that history is not a luxury in Antarctica, declaring; ‘We shall lack the essential tool to our understanding of Australian Antarctica until those with the interest and capacity to write its history are found. And not just one history. Preferably several, or at least a history that will provoke a debate.’ History down south, he was saying, as in any society, is a practical and spiritual necessity. But especially so in a place without families or normal generations, where no one lives their whole life, and where the coordinates of space and time are warped by extremes. And on a continent claimed by various nations but shared by the world, history carries a special international obligation. It is the fundamental fabric of a common humanity.

Donna Merwick‘s best known book, Death of a Notary (1999), isn’t about Australia at all: the notary of the book’s title lived and died in present-day New York State in the mid-seventeenth century. Her role in this book’s overarching narrative is to illustrate developments in the philosophy of history, in her writing and in her teaching at Melbourne University. It is through her that Griffiths talks about the ‘linguistic turn’, the arrival of postmodernism:

From the 19705, postmodernist intellectual fashions swept through Western universities, especially amongst literature and anthropology departments, and challenged the reliability of historical knowledge. All ‘facts’, it was suggested, were intellectual constructions; an independent empirical reality would thus be inaccessible. Fact and fiction blurred playfully, dangerously. The discipline of history, with its moral and civic responsibility to insist on that distinction, was challenged to the core … Some historians were angry and defensive; some were concerned about the consequences of extreme relativism and what they saw as an attack on the Enlightenment project of rationality; some were capsized. Donna welcomed the tempest because, as a champion of the literary and artistic dimensions of the writing of history, she saw opportunities in the new wind and harnessed them. Remaining steadfastly at the helm, she tacked tenaciously to new, secure lands she could not otherwise have reached.

Merwick did not regard postmodernism as an optional intellectual fashion, but a historical condition.

Graeme Davison gives Griffiths an opportunity to reflect on the current widespread enthusiasm for family history. Far from dismissing it, as some historians do, Davison brought his professional skill to bear on his own family in Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age (2015):

[The] book was a search for identity, as all family history fundamentally is, but it was also a reflective exploration of family history as a method – and what better case study could there be than one’s own family? But it is more than that. If a historian wants to examine the mystery of the relationship between generations, and he wants to do it in a personal and contextual way, then he has no choice about where he must go.

Inga Clendinnen died when I was reading this book. I hope she knew how much she was loved by many people she’d never met. Her Dancing with Strangers (2003) radically challenged the prevailing version of the early settlement in Port Jackson. Griffiths’ discussion of her technique of interrogating documents, both in that book and in Aztecs and Reading the Holocaust, is fascinating. But the spine of her chapter is his exploration of the different functions of history and historical fiction. He revisits the public tension between Clendinnen and novelist Kate Grenville over the latter’s The Secret River, and opens it out for what it can teach us:

Historians always have at least two stories to tell: what we think happened, and how we know what we think happened. So the ‘non’ in our ‘non-fiction’ signifies an edge that can sharpen our prose and heighten our sense of danger and wonder. It also acknowledges that there are things we don’t and can’t know. Silence, uncertainty and inconclusiveness become central to the narrative.

Grace Karskens rates a substantial mention in Inga Clendinnen’s chapter, because her ‘wonderful’ book The Colony (2009) aimed ‘to continue Clendinnen’s and Grenville’s project of re-examining and rethinking early colonial race relations’. She also has a chapter of her own, as an exemplar of a public historian – that is, a historian who works outside the academy, as a consultant, for example, on archaeological digs or local council history projects.

I sense that some of the power of Grace’s prose and analysis derives from her vocational commitment to pubic history, from her dedicated engagement with history as a human characteristic, from her intellectual curiosity in history as not just a product of the academy but as also the vernacular of our cultural and social systems. Her inquiries have arisen from a public hunger for history, from council commissions, from heritage processes and battles, from environmental threats and assessments, from the stimulus of real places and sensuous things, and from a desire to make sense of how the past is in the present.

Mike Smith ‘is an archaeologist who has revolutionised our understanding of the human history of Central Australia. His main work, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, is possibly as dry as its title suggests, but he engages deeply with the people who have lived in those deserts for many generations, and in his exploration of ‘deep time’ makes some profound discoveries.

When Europeans and North Americans look for cultural beginnings, they tend to assume that humans and their civilisations are products of the Holocene (the period since the last ice age) and that we are all children of this recent spring of creativity in the history of the world … In greater Australia at the last glacial maximum, we did not have an ice age so much as a dust age. And the history of Aboriginal people takes us back, if not into the ice then certainly into the dust, through periods of temperature change of 5ºC and more, such as those we might also face in coming generations. An Australian history of the world includes the experience of people surviving cold droughts in the Central Australian deserts from 30,000 years ago, and the sustaining of human civilisation in the face of massive sea-level rises and temperature changes.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, I hope you can tell that I found this book endlessly stimulating, and have come away from it with a reading list as long as my arm.

David Kilkullen’s Blood Year

David Kilkullen, Quarterly Essay 57: Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State (Black Inc May 2015)

9781863957328

I think most people would agree that war is a major failure of human rationality. But the question of what to do once a war is under way is not so easily agreed on. When the subject of possible intervention against ISIS came up at a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel on the weekend, Nick Davies of the Guardian and Dan Mori, David Hicks’s defence lawyer, came close to calling each other stupid and arrogant respectively. This Quarterly Essay brings much more light than heat to the debate.

David Kilkullen was a senior adviser to General David Petraeus in 2007 and 2008, when he helped to design and monitor the Iraq War coalition troop ‘Surge’. This ‘insider’ status may mean that the essay will have some influence with those in power, so one doesn’t read it with the background despair one often feels when reading brilliant analyses by writers who can be dismissed as latte-sipping etceteras. His privileged insider perspective means that the essay is full of small and large revelations. For instance, he describes a meeting at which George W. Bush spoke in his familiar, ‘folksy, shallow and upbeat’ manner about how well the war in Iraq was progressing but then, once the TV cameras had left the room, ‘he began to talk to talk in a concrete, specific, realistic way’. Who knew?

The essay tells the story of the development of the Islamic State in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the ‘Surge’, the botched withdrawal of coalition forces, Obama’s policy of targeted drone strikes, the failure of the Arab Spring, and the rise of ‘a host of insurgent groups’. It gives a clear account of the contending terrorist groups, explaining in simple enough terms the role of Sunni–Shi’a conflict, and the way Iranian loyalties play out in that context. It outlines the thinking behind changing US strategy over the last decade or more, noting successes, shortcomings and outright failures. It’s hard to imagine a discussion further removed from our Prime Minister’s discourse of Good Guys vs Bad Guys, ‘Death Cult Death Cult Death Cult’ (could it be that behind closed doors he too becomes concrete, specific and realistic?). Arguing that the Surge was not a failure, Kilkullen writes:

Counterinsurgency (in fact, warfare generally) is a complex discipline, like medicine or architecture. if your building fails, it doesn’t mean ‘architecture doesn’t work’ – it means you built a bad structure. If violence drops when you apply a given approach, then returns when you stop, it doesn’t mean the approach doesn’t work; it means it does work, and you shouldn’t have stopped.

Forgetting for the moment that a defining feature of warfare (including counterinsurgency) is that people kill people, which makes comparison to architecture or medicine seem grotesque, this is a fair indication of the approach the essay takes to its subject: discipline rather than rhetoric, a search for solutions rather than a replay of grievances, assessment rather than blame. Blame isn’t a concept it avoids altogether:

President Bush conflated enemies, defaulted to attacking states rather than thinking about how to deal with non-state actors, and – mother of errors – invaded Iraq, and then botched the occupation. … President Obama compounded Bush’s errors – pulling out of Iraq without putting in enough effort to cement the gains of the Surge, indulging in a dangerous addiction to drones and special ops, acting opportunistically in Libya, remaining passive in the face of massacre in Syria … Allies, too – the United Kingdom, other NATO countries, Australia – went along with whatever was asked of them, made only limited efforts to influence the strategy, and then (in many cases) ran for cover when things went wrong … This is a multi-sided, multi-national, bipartisan screw-up, for which we all bear some responsibility, and the task now is to figure out what to do next: what a viable strategy might look like.

Having outlined the history, the essay goes on to offer a definition of the threat. Acknowledging that his view is not universally accepted, Kilkullen argues that ISIS is no longer an insurgent organisation but in fact a state, just as Nazi Germany was a state, so should be met with appropriate strategies – including non-military ones, though the essay focuses on the military, that is, conventional warfare. The current prioritising of countering the threat from unorganised individuals inspired by ISIS brings ‘boomerang effects’  – such the increased erosion of our privacy, or the militarisation of police that has contributed to recent clashes in the USA – that are on the way to turning our societies into police states, a response that is far worse than what it seeks to prevent.

This is an essay that casts light in a very murky area. I’m grateful for it, and recommend it. Kilkullen quotes something attributed to Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

Black Inc have put an extract from Blood Year up on The Monthly website.
—–
A number of people have tweeted that every Australian should read the previous Quarterly Essay, Karen Hitchcock’s essay on the treatment of elderly people, Dear Life. This issue includes 40 pages of robust correspondence about it, which should also be required reading.

It begins with word from an elderly resident of a nursing home. Given that Hitchcock’s concern is that ‘the elderly’ need to be treated with respect, it’s a healthy jolt to ageist assumptions that this elderly contributor happens to be national treasure Inga Clendinnen, and that the other self-identified octogenarian correspondent, Ian Maddocks, speaks as a palliative care provider of many decades.

Apart from one snarky piece that makes Hitchcock in her reply wonder if the writer had actually read the essay, all the correspondence is worth reading. In particular, more than one correspondent (most tellingly economist Peter Martin) takes a swipe at the recent Intergenerational Report’s shonky portrait of a future burdened by old people.

Lily Brett’s Only in New York

Lily Brett, Only in New York (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

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This book is not to be confused with Lily Brett’s similarly titled New York, published in 2001, even though both are collections of essays about New York. There are similarities of course, but whereas New York‘s essays were each exactly three pages long, and geared primarily to a German readership (they were first published as columns in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, translated by Melanie Waltz), the essays here are much less constrained, ranging from two to 10 pages, and don’t have any sense of the deadline pressure that’s often found in newspaper columns (though at least one of them, ‘Falling in Love in Cologne’, has appeared in Die Zeit). Many of the essays read as if they were partly written in Lily Brett’s head as she went on long walks in Manhattan. Not that she’s a flâneuse, as her opening sentences make clear:

When I go for a walk in New York, I like to have a destination. Actually, I like to have a destination wherever I am when I go for a walk. I am not one of those aimless walkers, people who can stroll around from place to place without a plan.

Many of the essays start with naming a destination: Grand Central Station, Spandex House in the Garment District, Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, her father’s apartment block. Occasionally, as when her eldest daughter is in labour, there’s no destination, but it’s still not aimless wandering, but walking ‘around and around the block, with increasing speed. For hours.’ Apart from the streets and people of Manhattan (the other boroughs don’t get a look in), the book returns to a number of subjects: Brett’s family – mother, father, husband, children – her Australian connections, her many neuroses and anxieties. Much of the book’s considerable charm comes from the way the essays veer off in unexpected directions – like a purposeful but totally distractable walker.

In an essay that starts out apparently about Brett’s incompetence at sewing, she confides that she  is ‘not the kind of person who can lounge around the house in a sweatshirt’, and goes on:

My mother was well dressed all the time. Even when she cleaned the house. She polished the floor and scrubbed the kitchen in a silk blouse, pleated skirt and high heels.

Then, without missing  a beat:

After her world cracked and splintered when the Nazis invaded Poland, my mother was never the same. She could never relax. She was always on guard. It was as though she needed to be prepared for any eventuality. And I have inherited that need.

We can enjoy the image of Brett’s mother’s eccentricity. But we’re not to trivialise her. And that’s true of the book as a whole. I laughed a lot. Brett’s nonagenarian father is very funny, but he is a triumph of the human spirit. New York is full of absurdities (customers are called ‘guests’, dogs wear shorts, psychics abound) but you never know what you’ll see if you keep your eyes open.

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Inga Clendinnen said that whereas a novelist plays Catch-Me-If-You-Can with the reader, an essayist invites the reader to come for a walk. She could have had this book in mind.

awwbadge_2014

Only in New York is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge,

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon and the Book Group

David Malouf, Remembering Babylon (©1993, Vintage 1994)

009930242X Remembering Babylon is an A-Stranger-Comes-to-Town story. The Stranger is Gemmy, who was thrown overboard as a boy from a ship somewhere off the Queensland coast in the first half of the 19th century. Already not quite the full quid after an impoverished early childhood in London, and traumatised further by his near death by drowning, he was taken in by a group of Aboriginal people. The Town is a tiny community of white settlers who arrive in the area some years later. As Gemmy observes them, his half-remembered previous life stirs in memory, and on encountering a group of children he stammers words David Malouf has appropriated from the historical Gemmy Morrell (or Morril), ‘Do not shoot. I am a B-b-british object!’

Although we have some access to Gemmy’s inner life, the book is mainly about the small settler community, about their range of responses to this part white, part Aboriginal man, and more broadly about the process of British settlers accommodating to the new Australian reality. Malouf would never put it this crudely, but it’s as if Gemmy, for all his addledness, has adapted to the new world more fully than any of them, so his presence becomes a catalyst for their differences and tensions to be exposed.

In Gemmy’s early days in the settlement, for example, a number of the men try to extract information from him about ‘the blacks’, but he resists:

And in fact a good deal of what they were after he could not have told, even if he had wanted to, for the simple reason that there were no words for it in their tongue; yet when, as sometimes happened, he fell back on the native word, the only one that could express it, their eyes went hard, as if the mere existence of a language they did not know was a provocation, a way of making them helpless. He did not intend it that way, but he too saw that it might be true. There was no way of existing in this land, or of making your way through it, unless you took into yourself, discovered on your breath, the sounds that linked up all the various parts of it and made it one.

Yet while this theme is being explored, the narrative adopts one character’s point of view after another – two of the three children who first meet Gemmy, their parents, the young school teacher, the minister – and each time on feels one is meeting a real person, someone Malouf knows well, perhaps even someone he in some way is or has been.

I read Remembering Babylon as part of a body of work by non-Indigenous writers, including Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2005), Ross Gibson’s 26 Views of the Starburst World (2012) and David Brooks’ essay ‘Origins of Modernism in the Great Western Desert‘ (2008), which explore ways the encounter between these vastly different cultures plays out in non-Indigenous minds. It’s not really a historical novel: I doubt if any part of the Queensland coast was settled as peacefully as this fictional one apparently was, or if there would have been so little contact (ie, none apart from Gemmy) with the local Aboriginal people if it had. It’s surely symbolic rather than historical that an aristocratic woman lives in a beautiful Queenslander just a little way off in the bush from the rudimentary dwellings of the other settlers.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to read this book, but it’s interesting to see that some of the themes of Malouf’s recent poetry – particularly the idea of humans as creating a planet-wide garden – were being developed 20 years ago.

The group is meeting tonight. I can’t go because there are things happening in my family that have priority. It’s a pity, because there’s a lot to discuss.

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.

Kate vs Inga – it’s still going on

Kate Grenville was interviewed on the most recent Guardian Books Podcast, a good choice of guest as the subject was historical fiction, and her last three books – The Secret River, The Lieutenant and Sarah Thornhill –  have been tales of the early years of the colony of New South Wales.

It must be irritating to Ms Grenville that every time a journalist talks to her about her colonial novels, they raise the matter of the ‘attacks’ on The Secret River by ‘historians’. And that’s what happens in this podcast. Asked about the response to The Secret River, KG says in part:

We all kind of knew that things had happened, but people of my generation were brought up with this illusion that, you know, the reason there were no Aboriginal people left in many parts of Australia was that they all got measles, and had no resistance to it. We all kind of knew that this was wrong and The Secret River gave people a way of starting to think about it, I think. And because it’s fiction, it wasn’t too confronting. With fiction you can always reassure yourself that after all this is just made up. …
A couple of historians, with The Secret River, were cranky that I was writing something that they felt was their territory. You know, this is hard stuff to think about. Here we are as white Australians living incredibly privileged lives and we’re doing it on the back of 2oo years of oppression and misery and murder, basically. To actually look that fact in the face is extremely confronting, very difficult. So I think when those historians really diverted the debate away from what I’d been writing the books about, which is the massacre and what  the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge, I think they felt that this was a chance to divert the debate into something more comfortable – which is the debate of is it history, is it fiction, how far should novelists go in writing historical fiction.

OK, the only reason for a novelist to appear on the Guardian podcast is to promote her own work, and the dismissal of any number of other novelists who have tackled the subject (Thea Astley comes immediately to mind, and surely there are others) can be forgiven as loose talk. It’s absolutely true that the subject of ‘massacre and what  the beneficiaries of it do with that knowledge’ is difficult and confronting and, I would add, of high priority (though it’s an open question whether the book actually goes to the question of the beneficiaries). It may even be that the criticisms of The Secret River had the effect of diverting attention from that question. But really ….

The only historian I’ve read on this subject is Inga Clendinnen, who made some astringent and, yes, cranky remarks about The Secret River in her Quarterly Essay, Who Owns the Past? But her gist, as I remember it, was that on many points the novel distorts the history – for instance, by moving a key incident from the first years of the colony to a couple of decades later – and in general it lacks any sense of actual engagement with the times she was writing about. Clendinnen herself could hardly be described as ‘heavy duty’ in the sense of inaccessible. And it would be hard to read her writing about the early colony as comfortable.

Evidently Kate Grenville is still smarting from the criticism, but this is fighting dirty. Inga Clendinnen is not Keith Windschuttle, yet anyone learning about her criticisms from this podcast would assume she was near allied.

Judith Beveridge’s Wolf Notes

Judith Beveridge, Wolf Notes (Giramondo 2007, 2010)

On a Sydney Writers’ Festival panel some years ago Inga Clendinnen indulged in a flight of metaphor, saying that the writer of a personal essay takes the reader by the hand and says, ‘Come walk with me,’ while a novelist invites a reader to play Catch-me-if-you-can. The novelist who chaired the panel commented afterwards that though he adores Inga (as who doesn’t?), he was a little offended. At the risk of offending poets everywhere then, I’d like to suggest that the author of a book of poems is saying, ‘Come in, make yourself at home, stay a while.’

That is to say, I have to live with a book of poetry for a while before I feel that I’ve actually read it. At this stage of my relationship with Wolf Notes, I can say confidently that there’s lots of good stuff in it, but I’d have read it again, dip into it, and do some digging before I could say anything useful about it. (I’ve just read Martin Duwell’s latest entry on his Australian Poetry Review site, and I tell you I’m in awe.)

For an example of why I’m not competent to say much about this book, I have no idea why the first of its three parts is called ‘Peregrine’: it begins with character sketches of people you might see in an Asian city or countryside – a saffron picker, a pedlar, a bone artisan –, and goes on to a miscellany of other subjects – a contemplative walk beside a lake, a suicide, a boy killed by leeches, a mother wrestling with inexplicable sadness, a crew of three on a fishing boat, and so on. Does the title suggest that the poet is a pilgrim? A falcon? I draw a blank.

In a different way, it seems that to appreciate the middle section, ‘Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree’, described in an introductory note as ‘an imaginative depiction of the time Siddhattha spent wandering in the forests and towns before achieving enlightenment’, I would have to learn something about Buddhism and the story of the Buddha. I found many of these poems beautiful, especially the ones filled with observations of the natural world, but I have very little clue where they stand in relation to Buddhism: are they devout meditations or relatively unengaged textual games? I think the former, but don’t know enough to be sure. (The third section, ‘Signatures’, presents no general problem – it’s a number of monologues, easily understood to be their speakers’ signatures.)

So far I’m just a visitor to this book, then, but it offers enough observation, drama, wit and seriousness to make me want to spend more time here. One pleasurable thing is the way the moon appears again and again, especially in the middle section. If I quote a number of its appearances, you’ll get some idea of Judith Beveridge’s voice, at least when she’s channelling Siddhattha:

From ‘The Rains’:

————— I look at the moon
primed and narrow as the sting
of a scorpion’s tail.

From ‘Quarry’:

I watched the moon gather shine
like limestone in a mason’s hands.

From ‘Circles’, after describing vultures in picking at a dead ox:

I saw the moon, a desecrated bone
upon which those birds
might drip some blood.

From ‘New Season’:

——————————— the sky’s
depth, where the moon pares itself down
into the smile of an obedient wife

From ‘The Krait’:

I was scared. I didn’t notice the moon,
a fang poised above my slightest act.

From ‘Doubt’:

Today I hear only wind smuggled in.
The moon bears down with its gift-less smile.

From ‘Death‘ (possibly the most immediately accessible poem in the book, it’s the fourth or fifth one down at that link):

Even the moon can’t keep itself clean:
soap soiled by a dung-collector’s hands.

From ‘Ficus Religiosa’:

I vow with all beings
to sit until the moon, a bowl,
is almed only by the Good.

Same moon, same poet, different poems, different feel. I won’t be shaking this book’s dust from the soles of my sandals for a while yet.

December niece news

Since I seem to be posting regular notes about nieces, perhaps I should explain: I’ve got eight of them, and five of the eight have lived, or at least stayed for a while, with us over the years. Every one of them is a source of great joy. A number of them are meeting with a degree of success as writers and artists, and I’m shamelessly putting my blog to work as part of their publicity machines. (We have seven nephews, sources of no less joy, who have so far been more or less avoiding the need for publicity.)

Paula Shaw, whose memoir Seven Seasons at Aurukun received quite a bit of attention earlier in the year, and not just from me, popped up again in Inga Clendinnen’s article in the December Australian Literary Review. Although the article itself has attracted aspersions from Guy Rundle in Crikey, the reference to Seven Seasons as ‘a brave and honest book’ stands uncontested. Thanks to my avuncular Google Alert, I also came across a number of reviews by teachers – on the publisher’s web site, and a review by an Aboriginal reader who has the most negative response I’ve seen so far, identifying a ‘heart of darkness vibe’, but says all the same that it would be a ‘good read for anybody interested in contemporary life in an Aboriginal community in Australia’.

Meanwhile, Paula’s sister Edwina Shaw has been gracing the pages of the Griffith Review for a couple of years now – and grace is the right word for it, even though her stories deal with dark themes set in Joh-era Brisbane. She has a story in the current issue, along with Frank Moorhouse, Louis Nowra and other luminaries. She also has a story, about different youth altogether, in the current (Winter) edition of the Asia Literary Review, sharing the contents list with among others Henning Mankell. (I was putting off posting this until the Asia Literary Review web site included details on the Winter issue, but as it’s now 5 January my title will be appallingly out of date if I postpone any longer, so here it is with what may be the right cover.)

Update: Chris Wood, the editor, has told us in a comment that it is the right cover.

Another update: The Winter issue is now up on the Asia Literary Review web site. I’ve fixed the link, and added one to Edwina’s story, ‘Broken’.