Tag Archives: Thea Astley

Southerly 77/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 77 No 1 2017: Questionable Characters


Cate Blanchett picks up a Southerly in Michael Farrell’s ‘Cate Blanchett And The Difficult Poem’ (see previous blog post)  and I am reminded that all three 2017 Southerlys are on my To Be Read pile. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because the third of these just arrived last week. Still, it’s a backlog.

Nº 1 of 2017 has a terrific piece by Debra Adelaide, ‘Re-reading Thea Astley’s Drylands‘. Originally delivered as a lecture in the Sydney Ideas: Reading Australian Literature series, it has all the liveliness of the spoken voice as it celebrates Adelaide’s readerly relationship with Astley and in particular her final novel:

From its beautiful original cover to its unpunctuated ending, I have been in love with this novel since it first appeared. And as in a love relationship I am aware of its flaws, and I forgive them.

I hope one day I’ll be able to communicate as eloquently as Debra Adelaide when I passionately love a writer, flaws and all. Thea Astley emerges from this essay as no less ill-tempered and unfair, with a writing style no less over-complex than as other critics’ have described her, but here they are cause for celebration rather than reproach (and for the record this tone chimes well with my own sense of her from the one occasion I met her and the two books I’ve read, including A Kindness Cup).

Poet Sarah Day’s prose essay ‘A Significant Backwater’ is a welcome contribution to the growing body of non-Indigenous writing that explores connections that familiar places have to previously hidden-in-plain-sight history of the dispossession of Aboriginal people. (Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point is a brilliant book-length example of the genre.) Day’s subject is the area just out of Hobart known in her childhood as Old Beach Road, and now, having been handed back to Aboriginal people in 1995, called piyura kitina. The essay juxtaposes affectionate childhood memories with the narration of a dark history, and as a bonus describes two watercolours from the early years of settlement, one by little-known artist Margaret Sarah Cleburne, the other thought to be by T G Gregson.

Southerly generally has at least one item that stimulates my argumentative juices. In this one it’s Jonathan Bollen’s ‘Revisiting and Re-imagining The One Day of the Year‘. Bollen quotes the late great Raymond Williams, ‘there is no constant relation between text and performance in drama’, and discusses the way Alan Seymour tinkered over the decades with his 1960 play about intergenerational conflict over Anzac Day. He mines photos from the first production and a video of Seymour directing it for what they can tell us. This is all fascinating.

Then, as the essay moves into the re-imagining promised in its title, its focus narrows to the character of Jan, the girlfriend of Hughie, the young man who challenges the older generation’s celebration of the One Day. Jan has been pretty well universally disliked by reviewers: ‘crudely drawn’, ‘a little snob who goes intellectually slumming’, ‘insufferable’, ‘a pseudo-sophisticate’ are some of the terms Bollen quotes. Evidence is building that there’s a problem with sexism – not deliberate and explicit, but the ingrained kind that led to Seymour’s inability to write a rounded, interesting female character. Surely this is where some re-imagining is needed. But, true to our times, Bollen sees the issue as one of gender rather than sexism. What if the problems could be solved, he asks, ‘by cross-casting a male actor to play Jan and queering his relationship with Hughie?’

Would Jan, the character, remain female within the world of the play? Could she become a male character so that Hughie becomes gay? Or a male character transitioning in gender to become Jan?

I guess it’s an intriguing proposition, and it might well ‘provide the motivation for a company in Australia to stage a fresh production’ as Bollen hopes. But if you see sexism as the issue, then Bollen comes close to proposing that sexism can be fixed by getting rid of the woman, or at least of those who were born female. I don’t know what to say to that beyond Yikes!

Of the other prose pieces, Honni van Rijswijk’s ‘The Pointy Finger of God’ and Craig Billingham’s ‘Breathless’ are stories made me want more from their authors, though I was left uncomprehending by both their endings.

More than 20 poets get a guernsey. ‘Quiet Times’ by S K Kelen offers a grim summary of our species:

The human mission
kill all life on earth no one
nothing to stop them.

Others that speak to me are New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ (a tribute to the poet’s mother, employed as a maid in Government House), Christopher Kelen’s ‘Tang Gals’, Joel Deane’s ‘A wasp is in the ward’ and Brenda Saunders’ ‘Sclerophyll’ (a succinct bushfire poem).

There are scholarly essays on P L Travers, George Johnston writing as Shane Martin, Gwen Harwood and Peter Carey, plus a ‘creative non-fiction’ piece about H G Wells.

Southerly 72/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 1 2012: Mid-century Women Writers

20121018-203833.jpgSpring is here – ‘a box where sweets compacted lie’ as George Herbert called it, in a phrase that could apply just as well to this issue of Southerly. (Or to put it prosaically, this post is an annotated list.)

There’s a new Jennifer Maiden poem, ‘George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys woke up in Beijing’. This series of poems has had to find a new focus now that George W Bush is no longer reliably on the television obsessing about Iraq as he was for the first poems. George and his kind of girlfriend Clare seem to be travelling the world, waking up in one troubled locale after another, having adventures involving guns, fires and pirate ships as well as discussing politics, morality, philosophy etc. It’s not a verse novel, or even a discontinuous narrative really, but it is never uninteresting. In this poem George and Clare meet with a recently released Chinese dissident in the Forbidden City where they are joined by Confucius and the Duke of Zhou.

There’s Fiona Morrison’s excellent essay, ‘Leaving the Party: Dorothy Hewett, literary politics and the long 1960s’. Like many Communists, Hewett stayed in the Party after the 1956 invasion of Hungary despite serious misgivings, then left when the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. In effect this essay traces the movement of her mind between those two events as revealed in her writing. Strikingly though, it doesn’t refer to either Hungary or Czechoslovakia, restricting itself to literary matters. Some of the essay’s specialist scholarly language took my fancy, and revived my love of double dactyls:

Higamun hogamun,
Fíona Morrison,
writing in Southerly,
gathers no moss:

says that our Dorothy
wrote a sustained tropo-
logics of loss.

There’s Karen Lamb’s ‘“Yrs Patrick”: Thea Astley’s brush with timely advice on “the rackety career of novel writing”’, an inside look at the relationship between Astley and other writers, with a focus on a particularly unsparing letter from Patrick White. I once heard Astley quote a dollop of writerly advice she had received from White: ‘If you’re going to write about a shit, Thea, you have to make him a really big shit.’ This article is fascinating but doesn’t include anything quite that colourful. Karen Lamb is writing a biography of Astley. Reading her account of Astley’s approach to friendship, I wondered if biographers don’t run the risk of coming to dislike their subjects through knowing too much:

Karen Lamb
surely doesn’t mean to slam
Thea Astley
but she makes her seem ghastly.

I’ll refrain from doggerel for the rest of this post.

There’s the other piece I turned to the day the journal arrived in the mail, David Musgrave’s review of Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788. In a measured and judicious manner, Musgrave joins the line of anthologists, poets and publishers who give this anthology the thumbs down. (Incidentally, I note that neither David Brooks, Southerly‘s co-editor, nor Kate Lilley, its poetry editor, got a guernsey in the anthology, but that didn’t stop them from including an elegant narrative poem by Gray elsewhere in this issue.)

Of the theme essays on mid-century women writers other than the two I’ve already mentioned, Helen O’Reilly’s ‘“Dazzling” Dark – Lantana Lane (1959)’ and Susan Sheridan’s ‘“Cranford at Moreton Bay”: Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant‘ persuaded me to add the books they discuss to my To Be Read pile. I skimmed the essays on Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower, and a second one on Jessica Anderson, which are intended for specialist readers. I mean no irony when I say I was grateful to read this near the start of an essay: ‘In her well-known formulation of performativity, Judith Butler argues that repetition of a discourse actually produces the phenomena that it seeks to control.’ Such sentences serve as warnings: what follows is intended not just for readers who can understand the warning sentence, but readers to whom its contents are familiar.

Off theme, there’s Ed Scheer’s ‘“Non-places for non-people”: Social sculpture in Minto’, an account of a performance art event, Big Pinko, in which two artists painted a house pink. It sounds like an interesting project, but I found article a little disturbing in the way it talked about the people of Minto. Perhaps the Judith Butler formulation is relevant: the phrase ‘non-places for non-people’ is meant to encapsulate a criticism of the dysfunctional environment in this outer western suburb, but as it is repeated in this essay it comes to read like a dismissal of the people who live there. The essay has a lot in it that’s beautiful and evocative, but in this respect it makes me appreciate all over again Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s at Westside’s labours to foster writers in Western Sydney.

This issue has abundant rich poetry. I love B. R. Dionysius’ ‘Ghouls’, a set of five sonnets about the Brisbane floods.

The white festiva shunted like a tinny, half-tonne maggot into
O’Hanlon Street’s winter bulb cul-de-sac. The Bremer’s brown
Muzzle investigated the bottom stairs of a corner house, sniffing
For the scent of past flood levels left by more malicious beasts.

Of the other poems, I particular liked ‘Rose Bay Airport, 1944’ and ‘Standing Soldiers’ by Margaret Bradstock (both after Russell Drysdale wartime paintings), ‘Holiday snap’ by Andrew Taylor, ‘Hardware 1953’ by Geoff Page, and ‘The Roadside Bramble’ by Peter Minter.

Of the fifty pages of reviews, John Kinsella on David Brooks’s The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry andPam Brown on Kate Lilley’s Ladylike stood out for me, Kinsella for fascinating ruminations on the nature of literary hoaxes, and Brown for her usual generous intelligence.

Thea Astley’s Kindness Cup

Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup (©1974, Nelson 1977)

I mooched this because it’s on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s What’s What list, her personal selection of Australian works ‘that, for whatever reason, and almost independently of their writers, are simply scarily, eerily good, that move and startle and resonate and go on resonating, in a way that defies analysis’. It’s a great list, including movies, short poems, a long poem, a biography, short stories, novels … and I’m willing to be guided.

I feel warmly towards Thea Astley because she contributed indirectly to a lovely moment in my family. In the 1970s I heard her tell of a conversation with Patrick White. ‘Thea,’ she wheezed in what we young ones understood to be an impersonation of the Great Man, ‘if you’re going to write about a shit, you have to make him a monumental shit.’ I don’t know what possessed me, but some months later in north Queensland I relayed that line to my parents, in whose presence the word ‘shit’ generally created at best a shocked silence – maybe I thought the highbrow context would excuse the crudity. This time, it provoked my father to a rare moment of reminiscence and the only time I can remember him ‘swearing’ in my mother’s company: ‘When I was at school, the football coach would tell us the day before a big match, “Tonight I want you to have a big shit, and when I say big I mean twice around the pan with a curl on top,”‘ and he cackled like a naughty schoolboy. He was in his sixties, as I am now.

So I was warmly disposed to this book. The warmth soon evaporated: it’s not a book that asks for affection. Yet, oddly enough, an erasure of my first paragraphs is suggestively relevant:

… her personal selection of … Patrick White … I don’t know what possessed … north Queensland … a shocked silence … provoked … reminiscence … ‘swearing’ … in his sixties

That is to say, Patrick White’s magisterial presence is tangible from the opening sentence (‘This world is the unreality, he thinks between smiles and frowns over the letter’); the novel is set in north Queensland, and the main characters are sexagenarians raging, or keeping silent, about horrible events from 2o years earlier.

In the book’s present time, early in the twentieth century, people are returning to a small NQ town for a ‘Back to the Taws’ celebration. One of the returning townsfolk, Dorahy, was the teacher in the one-classroom school in days past when a number of Aboriginal people were murdered – or ‘dispersed’, to use the weasel word of the time. Dorahy was outraged back then, both by the massacre itself, which he had tried to stop, and by the magistrate’s finding that there was insufficient evidence to hold anyone to account. The men responsible for the massacre are now leading citizens gladhanding their way to an election of some sort, and Dorahy is determined to shatter the complacent silence about the past.

The massacre, which occurs at the book’s midpoint, is shockingly real, not with Tarantinesque buckets of blood but with a horrible frozen moment of realisation. The book’s real interest, however, is in how such an event is to be remembered. In a way, it prefigures the History Wars of the John Howard years, though Thea Astley’s imagination wasn’t up to inventing a Keith Windschuttle who would survey the evidence and then deny the history, or a slogan as pernicious as Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’. When the voices that try to recall the history are silenced here, it is with ruthless brutality.

As an honourable attempt to face up squarely to white Australia’s black history, this makes an interesting comparison to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Both books have good whites and bad whites; in both, the bad whites are less well educated, though in Astley’s they are pillars of society where Grenville’s are a ruffianly lot; in both, the good whites who aren’t victimised along with the massacred Aborigines either collude or are ineffectual. Strangely, in Astley’s book, although we are shown the massacre very clearly, all the fuss twenty years later is about the hideous treatment of the one white who actually raised a finger to protect the threatened Aborigines. Perhaps this is a matter of being true to the times – perhaps a hundred or so years ago even people of conscience felt the torture of one white man to be a greater outrage than the massacre of eight Aboriginal men and women. Perhaps it was just not possible to look a genocidal incident full in the face in a novel.1 Or perhaps the chilling effect of the book’s last line is no accident. (Stop reading now if you hate spoilers.) The three men who have sought to reveal the truth from twenty years before are lying outside the town hall, battered, perhaps dead or dying, while ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is being sung inside ‘in nostalgic untruth’, as a deliberate turning of a blind eye to the ugly history:

Full-throatedly, the audience joins in the singing and roars chorus after chorus.
___It has almost forgotten the victims already.

In the immediate moment, ‘the victims’ are the three men. The way I read the phrase, though, it’s a brilliant piece of authorial restraint: the reader is left to ponder the phrase’s wider, deeper reach, with a sickening sense that the narrative voice, too, has ‘almost’ forgotten. It’s the opposite of being lectured at.
1Interestingly enough, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell takes the dislocation a step further, dealing with a massacre by North Queensland Aborigines.

[From August 2004] Vale Thea Astley

In tonight’s news, running a very poor third to Ian Thorpe’s brilliance in Greece and John Howard’s increasingly transparent duplicity (‘I won’t take a polygraph test because if people can’t tell I’m truthful by looking at me they’re not going to believe me just because a machine says I’m telling the truth’), we were told that Thea Astley died today.

I met her and heard her speak when I was an impressionable 21 year old. The one thing I remember well was an anecdote about Patrick White that she told with great pleasure, to an audience of young Marist Brothers, for the most part earnest seekers after knowledge and virtue. White had read her novel The Well Dressed Explorer, perhaps in manuscript, or at least very soon after publication, and commented: ‘Thea, if you’re going to write about a shit, make sure it’s a very big shit.’