Monthly Archives: March 2018

Podcast: Tom Griffiths on ‘Radical Histories for Uncanny Times’

Tom Griffiths is one of my favourite Australian historians. He is the Director of the Centre of Environmental History ANU, and a fiercely intelligent and very human man. He’s a beautiful writer, who captures images so well in words, and he provides sharp insights and the telling anecdote. While listening to this program, we were driving through the bush around Marysville that had been ravaged by the 2009 bushfires, and it seemed particularly apposite to consider the anthropocene and the recuperative power of the earth that is so under threat through climate change.  His lecture at the Australian Museum is a clarion call for the humanities in a wide-ranging, erudite and thought-provoking podcast- well worth a listen.

Listen or download at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/radical-histories-for-uncanny-times/9478670

UWA_Wheatbelt_Cover_RGB_1024x1024Griffiths was also featured briefly on Geraldine Doogue’s Saturday Extra (an excellent program!). He picked up on one of the points he made during the Australian Museum address: that of the emergence of new regional histories that combine the environment and emotion, history and literature.  He was followed by Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, speaking about his new book Like Nothing on this Earth, which Griffiths praised highly, and which looks at the Western Australian wheatbelt through the eyes of regional writers like Dorothy Hewett, Tom Flood, Albert Facey and Jack Davis.

Saturday Extra is going to feature a historian writing one of these new regional/environmental histories each week during March.

‘Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life’ by Jenny Hocking

Hocking_FrankHardy

2005,  258 P & notes

I don’t particularly remember Frank Hardy.  If asked off the top of my head, I would have said that he died in the 1970s. I’m like the former premier of New South Wales Barry Unsworth who said in 1986, “I thought Frank Hardy was dead. I really did.” In fact, Frank Hardy didn’t die until 1994, but for me he somehow seems always to be of the  black-and-white TV decades, always associated with the races and cigarette smoke. I don’t remember the television program “Would You Believe?” (1970 -1974) which seems to have been a forerunner to “Would I Lie To You?”, on which he appeared as a regular panelist. But I do remember the Channel 2 miniseries ‘Power Without Glory’, for which Frank Hardy was notorious when it was published in 1950 and feted when it was televised in 1976.  It tells the story of John Wren of Collingwood, fictionalized as John West of Carringbush, and the corruption of the local ALP.

Melburnites of a certain age (and older) will be familiar with the underworld figure John Wren and it seems that many Melbourne families have their own John Wren stories.  For myself, my first husband’s family’s foundry was in Johnston St Collingwood, just up the road from John Wren’s tote.  On my side of the family, my own great-grandfather joined in the Sunday morning horse races along Sydney Rd to the Sarah Sands Hotel  ( a turn of the century version of drag racing maybe?) where he ended up beating a horse owned by John Wren, who was keen to purchase the victorious horse. My great-grandfather was not keen to sell. Wren came up to my great-grandfather, assured him that every man had his price, and left his card with him.  I don’t know how the story ended.

The first word in the subtitle of Hocking’s book is ‘politics’, and it was politics that drove Frank Hardy’s life. Hardy, as a member of the Communist Party, was financially supported by the Party for four years to write Power Without Glory. I had naively forgotten that the Communist Party hated the Labor Party as much – if not more- than the Nationalists/Liberals. The book was a way of smearing the Labor party by publicizing links between Labor politicians and the underworld ‘entrepreneur’ John Wren.

In her biography of Frank Hardy Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life, Jenny Hocking describes the writing of Power Without Glory and its effect on the rest of Frank Hardy’s literary work.  It was a big book that Hardy mapped out carefully, researching real-life figures and very  loosely fictionalizing them by giving them pseudonyms with the same initials.  The book’s Wikipedia entry has a long list of the real-life and fictional characters, and the renaming is all rather obvious.  It was an unwieldy book, and it was to solve a narrative problem that Hardy took up a rumour that he’d heard about an extramarital affair and a resulting illegitimate daughter.  As Hocking tells it, Hardy agonized over the inclusion of this illegitimate daughter and so he changed her identity into a son. He was to continue to agonize over this decision in his own reflections on the writing process for the rest of his career.

Power Without Glory was published in 1950 within the context of the Menzies government’s Communist Party Dissolution Act.  It was printed surreptitiously, as seen in a  fascinating article by Des Crowley about the State Library of Victoria’s four-volume copy of the book ‘Proof Copy or Clandestine Version‘.  Almost immediately Hardy was brought before the court by the Wren children for criminal libel of their mother Ellen Wren (Nellie West). Hardy was found not guilty, on the basis that John West was a synthesized fictional character, not a real person.  He had escaped the clutches of the law through the decision that Power Without Glory was fiction but he and his readers knew that, at its core, it was not. The questions of fact, fiction, truth, reality and memory lay at the heart of many of his later works, most particularly The Hard Way and Who Killed George Kirkland?  It was like a weeping sore.

But as Hocking shows, there was more to Hardy’s career than Power Without Glory. Hardy was a member of the Communist Party from youth. Hocking describes the Australian literary scene at the time, when ASIO agents eyed literary figures and organizations with suspicion, and when the Party itself fractured after Kruschev’s revelations about Stalin, and the rise of Communist China.  Hardy was an outsider to academia, he was very much a contemporary of the other realist writers at the time: Jean Devanny,  Dorothy Hewett, Katherine Susannah Pritchard.  Hocking captures well the jealousies and enmities within the various branches of the Society of Realist Writers, and the politics behind the editorship of the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group’s publication Realist Writer as it metamorphized into Overland.  Hardy railed against the “Patrick White Australia Policy” which lionized White but starved Hardy of Commonwealth grants because of his politics. In many ways, he received more recognition overseas that he did in Australia, even though he affected a quintessentially ‘Australian’ identity and stage presence.

Hardy was often impecunious, often because of his gambling, in which he followed his father. He was a difficult husband, conducting multiple affairs, leaving his wife Ross [sic] to cover the family expenses, and in effect doing exactly what he wanted to with little thought of his obligations or responsibilities. He was a loving brother to his sister Mary, who compered that weird Channel 7 trotting show Penthouse Club, which I loathed.

[As an aside, Marieke Hardy who appeared on the late, lamented First Tuesday Book Club, followed her grand-father and great-aunt into screen-writing and television]

He was also heavily involved with the Wave Hill Walk Off, acting as scribe and reporter for Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji land rights struggle.  It was an involvement that drew the enmity of business, the Liberal government and the Communist Party, which dominated the indifferent North Australian Workers’ Union.  It was through this involvement that he became a close friend of Fred Hollows.

I really enjoyed this book, which took me to many events and places that I didn’t anticipate.  Hocking draws heavily on Frank Hardy’s own papers, but also Hardy’s autobiographical writing, newspapers spanning some 40 years, correspondence and papers of a slew of contacts and interviews.  You don’t need to have read Hardy’s works (I’ve only read Power without Glory) because Hocking gives a good taste of their flavour, and her list of Hardy’s works at the end of the book highlights how prolific he was as a playwright, journalist and writer of both short stories and full length novels.  The book is painstakingly researched but easy to read.

But -oh- he was a slippery character.  He was a great ‘yarner’ and gave the appearance of being open, while boiling inside with secrets. His carefreeness barely cloaked carelessness and irresponsibility.

Near the end of the book, Hocking sums up his life:

In Hardy’s fragmented character, the committed political activist, tireless Party worker and determined writer coalesced with the man who shamelessly abandoned himself to the lure of racing, gambling and debt.  It was this divided character, with its alternating obsessions that had enabled Hardy to withstand decades of official disinterest, denial and derision, sustained by a political cultural milieu that he had himself helped create. But the uneasy juxtaposition of literary revelation, political action and personal secrecy within him always threatened to fracture, held together through continuing self-examination and by the unmet promise of eventual disclosure. Although he wrote extensively about himself, presenting each new work as the opportunity for self-reflection and revelation previously denied him, in each retelling Hardy revealed little that was new. (p 256)

Source: La Trobe University Library

Read because: My interest was piqued after reading Paul Strangio’s book about the Victorian Labor Party Neither Power nor Glory

My rating:  9/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2018.

A couple of days in Marysville

It’s been a rough month or so, and we decided to head away for a couple of days. I’m keen to head back to Tasmania this year but Steve’s U3A commitments preclude going away for more than a week. So instead we decided to head up to one of my favourite places, Marysville.  When I was a child, we used to stay there for a week each September at Marylands Guest House.  We went up there again in about 2005, by which time Marylands was somewhat out of our price league, having been rebadged as Marylands Country House.

Marysville was almost obliterated during the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, along with all its guesthouses.  Although there has been a lot of rebuilding, there is now only one Guest House as such, complete with tennis court, billiard table, table tennis table, lounge, library etc.  That’s what I wanted: not a B&B, not a motel room, but a proper guest house.

El Kanah was originally one of the ‘Mary’ chain of fake-Tudor guesthouses, called Mary Meadows. There’s a picture of it in its Mary Meadows form here.  During the 1970s it was taken over as a Christian enterprise and renamed El Kanah. In fact, my best friend Micheline and I stayed there after end-of-year exams one year.  You can see the pre-fire El Kanah here and some interior shots of the guesthouse here.  You can see photos of El Kanah in the aftermath of the fires here.

The present-day El Kanah is still a Christian undertaking, but no questions are asked about your religious affiliations when you book in.  I don’t know how they would have reacted if we declared our  Unitarian and an agnostic leanings, but they were very pleasant and friendly people. The Billy Graham video, the wafting sound of hymns and ‘blessings’ didn’t bother us. It’s certainly a large undertaking, and I wonder quite frankly how they can afford to run the place.  It’s not cutting-edge in its architecture, but it’s very comfortable, and I’m glad they kept the curved windows at the front to reference the old El Kanah (Mary Mount). It’s a patchwork bed cover sort of place and it only has instant coffee.  If it’s real coffee and modern decor you want, go down to the Vibe instead.

20180301_100335

From the front

20180227_144151_small

View from our balcony

20180227_144124_small

Our room

Anyway we had a lovely few days, ambling down to the town for our real coffee and a read of the newspapers, kicking back and reading a whole book in one day in either their very comfortable library or out in the garden, and driving around to the various forest walks.

We drove past where Marylands used to be. When we visited on Cup Day a few years back, there were plans to subdivide the site.  I’m rather pleased that the driveway  lined with oak trees is still the same as it used to be, with no sign of building yet.

20180227_141244small

We drove up to Lake Mountain, a popular cross-country ski-ing location. Of course, there was no sign of snow at all on a 25 degree day. We were interested by the Bjarne K Dahl memorial boardwalk which was constructed before the trees all began growing back.  This image on the information board from October 2013 shows the outlook at that time, with the surrounding mountains clearly visible.  There’s been so much growth in the intervening five years that it is unrecognizable.

20180228_100058_small

That’s not to say that there’s no evidence of the bushfire.  Particularly on the tops of the mountains, there is little regrowth yet.

20180228_093347_small20180228_101008_small

I was interested to learn that the reason that Lake Mountain has large grassed expanses is because the mountain ash trees did not have a chance to regenerate after the 1926 fires before they were burned again in 1939. The rapid succession of bushfires disrupted the usual seed-dropping cycle that allows mountain ash forests to recover from fire.

We visited Cambarville, which had been a timber town during the 1940s, following the 1939 bushfires.  It is now an empty site, with a few interpretative signs laying out the school, mill and ‘main’ street.

20180228_12154320180228_121551_small

It, too, was burnt out during the Black Saturday fires, although it was long gone by then.  It must have been a pretty bleak place to live, with no electricity, mud and inhospitable terrain.

The waterfall walks were beautiful.

20180228_125701_small

Even though there has been lots of money poured into Marysville to ‘save’ it, there’s still something ghostly about it. I know that we went up mid-week during summer, but it feels as if the rebuilt town is too big for itself.  The Vibe hotel and convention centre dominates the main street, and the rebuilt bowling greens do not have a bowling club to use them. There are very few ruins any more, but many footpath crossings lead only to empty blocks.

The autumn leaves will turn soon.  All of the oak trees in Murchison Street are flourishing, and Marysville will be just as beautiful in autumn as it was before the fires. And it does have a real guest house.

‘The Burgess Boys’ by Elizabeth Strout

strout_burgess

2013, 326 p.

The ‘Burgess Boys’ are both lawyers: Jim a hot-shot defence lawyer and Bob, an easy-going, rather aimless legal-aid lawyer, both living in New York.  They are called home by their sister Susan, who needs their legal help after her rather gormless son Zach throws a pigs-head into a mosque, triggering outrage over the hate crime. The family had grown up in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine but the Burgess Boys had both escaped as soon as they could, leaving Susan a rather embittered, passive single mother after her marriage had broken up. As the title suggests, the family was about The Boys, not her. Shirley Falls had received a large number of Somali immigrants, which had caused tension in the town, which was whipped up further by Zach’s action.

Beside the pig’s head, this is a story of adult siblings who have drifted apart after their parents died. Their father had died while they were young, as a result of a car accident for which Bob felt responsible, and there is a lot of unspoken business between them.

I’ve read quite a bit of Elizabeth Strout in recent years, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve read too much, because my satisfaction seems to decrease with every book after the brilliant Olive Kitteridge, which I loved. There was too much time spent inside the heads of these rather unattractive people, and the Unitarian minister was so saccharine that I felt ill (AND I’m a Unitarian myself!)  The significance of the  disparity between New York and Maine tended to pass me by, and it felt as if there were just too many issues bubbling away in the pot here.

So, along with writers like Ann Tyler and Sue Miller, whom I’ve enjoyed a great deal in their early books but then felt jaded towards,  I think I need a bit of a rest from Elizabeth Strout.  I’ll come back to her later.

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups

Read because: CAE book group selection (although I missed the meeting unfortunately)

My rating: 7/10