Tag Archives: Noel Beddoe

2013 in review (lazily)

Many good things happened in my life this year. Possibly the biggest was that Ngurrumbang, the short film whose screenplay I co-wrote with my elder son, was screened at three festivals in Australia and one in Europe, with Flickerfest still to come. But here are three relatively lazy looks at the year that’s just finishing.

One: The first sentence (or sometimes the first two sentences) of the first blog post for each month:

January: Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it.

February: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book [Hiroshima Nagasaki] at Gleebooks early last year.

March: Geoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of Going Down Swinging was complete, he nicknamed the impending Nº 33 the Jesus Issue.

April: I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like.

May: The launch of this book [Pam Brown’s Home by Dark] last weekend was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub.

June: Sydney has Vivid. Wellington has Lux.

July: I was extremely lucky in the timing of my university studies. I started at Sydney Uni in 1967 when, because of an overhaul of the New South Wales school system, only a very small cohort had graduated from high school the year before.

August: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn.

September: It’s about two and a half years since we moved home. About a year ago, the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) that had stood outside our kitchen window in the old house was ailing in its new location – most of its fronds were brown or browning.

October: This book [Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill] seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing.

November: It’s November, and once again, while all over the world people with stamina take on NaNoWriMo, I’m setting myself the modest goal of 14 sonnets in the month – LoSoRhyMo (Local Sonnet Rhyming Month).

December: As Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95.

Two: Top Ten Movies (in no particular order)

Me The Art Student
Philomena (Stephen Frears) 1p
In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt)
A Gun in Each Hand (Cesc Gay)
Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel)140_wmk
The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)
No (Pablo Larrain)
Barbara (Christian Petzold)1barbara A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)

Three: Notes on the year’s reading

Rather than single out some books as the best, let’s see how I went in reading diversely.

I’ve listed 63 books in my ‘Reading and Watching’ column. I didn’t finish at least five of them and quite a few were journals, not books at all. It looks as if I read 53 books as such.

  • 31 were by men, 22 by women
  • 6 were translations – two from Norwegian, one each from Bengali, Russian, German and Catalan
  • 32 were Australian
  • 24 were poetry books, including substantial anthologies as well as tiny chapbooks
  • 7 were Book Group books
  • not necessarily the best, but 3 books that enriched my sense of what Australia is were Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy, Noel Beddoe’s The Yalda Crossing and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, the anthology edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill
  • the Art Student’s pick from her year’s reading were Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries and her crime fiction discovery, Martin Walker’s Bruno xx series.

That’s it. Happy New Year, all!

To the Desert with Sturt

Daniel George Brock, To the Desert with Sturt (edited by Kenneth Peake-Jones, Royal Geographical Society of Australia, SA Branch 1975)

1dwsAfter reading Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing, I realised that Charles Sturt had been through the novel’s main location at about the time of the main characters’ arrival. I wouldn’t be surprised if Noel Beddoe had drawn on Sturt’s journal of that expedition for one or two scenes.

I wasn’t impelled to re-read Sturt’s Journal. I read both of his published narratives four decades ago, and from memory he’s a fairly dry writer. But I was reluctant to leave pre-gold-rush Australia, and I remembered that this book, the journal kept by Daniel George Brock, a minor member of a later expedition, and not published until 1975, was somewhere on my bookshelves. I’d bought it hot off the press, but been put off reading it by a review that described Brock as a self-righteous whinger. This time, I decided to give it a go.

Let me say right off that the review was right: Brock has plenty of self-righteous, self-pitying moments. He records petty slights and grievances, and constantly finds Sturt and the rest of the leadership lacking, all the while keeping to the high moral ground, insisting that he doesn’t join in the general grumbling. He’s a snob and s prig and when things get desperate he’s a bit of a holy Joe, writing pages of Methodist piety. But he’s much more than that – he’s resourceful, has a romantic steak, and can spin a comic yarn. The book is fabulous. Where Sturt wrote for public consumption, Brock wrote for his mother: on his return to Adelaide, he bundled up the pages of his journal and posted them off home to England. And what you write to impress your mum and gain her sympathy is of course very different from what you write to convey your importance to the public, potential employers and posterity.

The most interesting thing about the journal, apart from the revelation that intrepid explorers can be as mean-spirited, disorganised, cliqueish and grasping as anyone else, is its string of encounters with Aboriginal people. There’s a sequence early on that unfolds like a scripted narrative: the party hear that ‘natives’ have attacked a travelling party somewhere to their north, and as a result they are in fear of being attacked themselves, but as they come closer to the place where the attack is said to have happened they learn that the factual basis for the rumour was a brutal, infanticidal attack on an Aboriginal family by members of Mitchell’s party of explorers. Brock isn’t writing with a possible courtroom and judge in mind, so he can describe this horror unguardedly.

No doubt he glosses over unsavoury aspects of his own encounters, but they do come across as genuine encounters. He notices, for example, when one man in a group of three has different scarring and deduces he is from a different place; one old man is excited to see Sturt and manages to communicate that they have met years earlier and many miles distant, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee. On more than one occasion sexual favours are offered and rejected. I can’t tell if Brock’s sense of European superiority was modified by any of these encounters, but he has a lively interest in cultural difference. Since I’m fairly sure you won’t be reading this book (whoever you are), I hope you’ll allow me a long quote. Brock and ‘the Doctor’ (John Harris Brown) are away from the main party and unexpectedly come across ‘numerous bodies of waterfowl’ on a waterhole. The Doctor shoots into the middle of the birds:

The report not only frightened the ducks, but also two native women, which were encamped in a bend of the creek, unaware of our approach. One of the women began to scream and bellow, the other crawled under a skin dragging a child with her. Being afraid to run, they made a virtue of necessity.

The Doctor was of course rather surprised at the scream, but having made himself familar (sic), and sitting down at their fire, the women became less afraid, and began to talk. No one can tell the pleasure I felt in again looking upon a strange human face, it being so long since any but our own party having come under my notice. …

We encamped, and Flood having shot a bird, I speedily secured it, saving the fat for the natives, with which they grease themselves. As the day was closing in, two men with more women and children joined us, and we all together were quite at home. The ducks, and other birds which we had, we gave them; this with the roots they had brought would be a first rate meal for them.

Sitting down as we were all together, the various parts of our dress came under notice. Among other parts, our boots were very wonderful, the mysterious lace – one chap was turning over my foot when I drew up my trowsers and shewed him my leg, and the effect of my thus exposing the color of my unexposed limb, which was tolerably fair, upon one of the females was really laughable – every lineament of her face was marked with horror.

Shewing them how the lace was unfastened, the fellow who was dandling my foot as if it was a little baby, at once began and drew the lace from every hole. I then made signs to him how it could be pulled off, which with my assistance he did; then came another poser – the sock – did it belong to my veritable body? On pulling it off, my foot being almost white, this  set the woman (who had been eagerly watching every transition, from boot to sock, from sock to foot) to a most fearful scratching of her head, and at the same time crying a lament over me, for it is possible the color which takes place in any of their dead, is not dissimilar to the color which was now presented. The man too for a moment in deep wonder, and as he looked he too scratched his poll, and gave two very decent grunts, he then began to pull the sock on again, but could not manage it.

It getting dark, and being no doubt anxious to get their evening meal, for they were pointing to their birds and at the same time patting their bellies, they were presented with a blanket and knife of which they were highly pleased; not but what they had first rate skins, some of the best I have ever seen, so large and so well prepared.

We retired from their fire, and soon were coded in our blankets, where we had not been long before four of the ladies came and sat themselves down at the Doctor’s and Captain’s feet. Their visit was obvious, and on being sent away they were sorely displeased.

One small unexpected pleasure was the word ‘mumchancing’ meaning ‘remaining silent’, which is new to me. This time, Brock is out collecting bird specimens with one of the men, Sullivan:

The heat was very great, not a bird was to be seen, and Sullivan and I were glad to coil under a gum tree in the creek for shelter; while thus, Lewis, being out looking for seeds, came to water, but he took up his rest under another tree, for Sullivan and him having words before we left the camp, it was a case of sulks with them, Lewis had nothing but a little bread with him, and a bit of sugar, gathering mint when he wanted a pot of tea (which by the way we did alternate meals). We having some bacon, on his passing us to get a pot of water I had just frizzled some and asked him if he would share; he took part in his hand and passed up to his own fire. I could not help smiling to see him, seated on his haunches, regularly mumchancing it, he at one fire, we at another. I endeavored to reconcile them, but it was a case of no go.

I like that use of ‘coil’ too, which he uses a lot, and note in passing that his spelling follows what would now be seen as North American usage.

Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing

Noel Beddoe, The Yalda Crossing (UQP 2012)

0702249394 As Noel Beddoe says in an Author’s Note, this book is fiction, but adheres closely to the history of white settlement near what is now the township of Narrandera, including the Second Wiradjuri War and the massacre on Murdering Island. That’s the same massacre that lies in the background of our short film Ngurrumbang and Andy Kissane’s poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’ that inspired us. It’s my great good fortune that the book wasn’t published until the screenplay was complete and pre-production was well under way – the first I heard of it was a comment from Jim Kable on my blog entry inviting people to donate via pozible. If I’d known of the book any sooner,  I would probably have been scared right off.

It’s a formidable achievement. Told from the point of view of Young James Beckett, as a teenager in the 1830s and as an old man in Sydney decades later, it is deeply embedded in its historical moments, and has a powerful sense of place. We care about the characters and come to appreciate their secrets and mysteries, not all of which are revealed, and some not until the last pages. The unfolding narrative gives us neither the ‘dun-dreary naturalism’ that Patrick White hated in Australian fiction, nor the black armband breastbeating that John w Howard claimed to discern and despise among Australian literati, nor again a ripping yarn of the frontier (though unless I’m very confused, Young James mentions reading some James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels must have been hot off the press). The tensions of the colonial society are there – English vs Irish, convicts vs free,  authority vs opportunism, women as a tiny, vulnerable minority – but they are embodied in recognisable individuals, facing particular dilemmas. I started this blog entry with the massacre, and most of the publicity for the book has centred around it, but the social, economic and moral world of the settlers is thoroughly fleshed out in its own right well before the prospect of massacre appears on the horizon.

Unlike other fictional treatments of atrocities against Aboriginal people, The Yalda Crossing lays the ground so that we understand how good people can deliberately commit abominable acts, not without reluctance, revulsion and remorse, but with a terrible sense of necessity. The good people who set the tone of the community aren’t drawn into the vortex of violence created by people less grammatically correct than they: when push comes to shove, they are the ones who orchestrate the terrible acts. Launching the book at the Sydney Institute last July, Linda Burney said that as a Wiradjuri woman, descendant of the victims, she had to skip the chapter where the massacre happens and come back to it later. Noel Beddoe, descendant of the perpetrators, doesn’t blink, and invites us, his semblables, to face our heritage with similarly unflinching gaze.

Linda Burney quoted a moment just before the massacre when a white man refuses to take part because he would lose his soul, which is more important to him than gaining the land. (Incidentally, it’s a gauge of the strength of Noel Beddoe’s writing that only when I typed it like that did I recognise the Biblical reference there.) For me, one of the devastatingly true things in the book is how that man, in spite of his genuine refusal to take part, is nonetheless in the end completely implicated.

Every bit as good, I think as Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. (Links are to my blog entries, though the one on Kate Grenville’s book is very brief.)