When the world changes, stories help

Our election is over. Peculiarly and wonderfully so.

There are many, many reasons why the result is what it is. Those reasons include social justice, concern about climate change, fear of the Morrison government, loss of the centre-right part of the Liberal Party (the independent ‘teal’ candidates filled the hole left by the party’s shift right). One part of the equation, however, is very Australian. We see the world in our way, after all, and not through the eyes of any other country.

I don’t want to give an explanation. It would turn something light into something ponderous. Instead, I’m going to suggest you read some short stories. They’re all from over a century ago and they all demonstrate that the peculiarity and wonder come from somewhere very Australian.

If you want to read just one short story, try Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog.” I’ve found you a link to the 1901 volume it appeared in, with a glossary.

If you see the specially Australian approach to life, the story will resonate and be very funny. If you don’t, it won’t. This saves me 500 words of weighty and possibly futile explanation.

If you want more along these lines, we have a whole literature. Steele Rudd’s stories about farming are good (Dad and Dave, On Our Selection), because colonisation was a bit different here to elsewhere. Just as wrong-headed, but we didn’t only celebrate the big and glorious. We also told stories about the small farmers who really had no idea what they were doing. Australia has always looked to small people and their lives and our literature celebrates it. And we celebrate that literature.

Decades ago, I was at a camp for university students. John Bluthal (the actor) talked to us about working with Spike Milligan. Then he moved onto a radio play of Rudd’s work. He told us how, as Dave in a dramatisation of Dad and Dave, he had no time to read the script beforehand. He was on live radio, reading straight into the microphone. Dave was famously slow of speech.

“Dad,” Bluthal drawled into the microphone, recreating the radio play. “Dad, you need to know…” He turned the page. “The shed is burning!”

Looking to small people and their lives, being aware of how foolish the whole of politics was becoming, needing to mock and put everyone back in their place: these factors changed the votes of many last weekend. My favourite example is how a conservative region of a conservative state voted Labor for the first time ever, because they wanted to bring a family home and Morrison said he never would allow it.

Now I’m wondering about my own fiction and about that of quite a number of other writers. We focus on the small, because in the small, implicit in the everyday, lies the whole universe. Those Australian writers who follow different paths to me may write to explore isolation and our challenging land, or to deal with baggage many of us bring here when we settle, or to look bullies in the eye and show where we go wrong. Some, however, write for an international market. In the nineteenth century and right through to the 1960s, that international market was the UK. Now, it’s more likely to be the US. When you can’t tell that the writer is Australian, when they lack that sensibility that marks the work as uniquely and bizarrely Antipodean, then that writer is probably writing for a different audience and marching to a different drum.

The Australian drum that resounded on Saturday occasionally skipped a beat or took a few polka steps. Marching? That’s not our way.

Before My Brilliant Career

I escaped my flat some days ago, with help from a friend. Of course I thought of a book, and today I took it from my shelf so that it can talk to me while I write. Let me give you a single picture from my trip across the border into rural NSW, and then I shall introduce you to one of my favourite books about this region. There are many books written by local writers. This region has produced writers from the moment anyone who knew the alphabet lived here. This particular volume is by Miles Franklin who, according to her Sydney writer friends, was one of the most generous people imaginable, and had enviable hair.

Canberra region
picture: Gillian Polack Feb 2022

Canberra the city has mountains within it and mountains nearby. We’re so high above sea level – I’m typing from just below 650m above sea level right now, and I live at one of the lowest points – that the mountains look like hills. Before this region was decided upon as the capital of Australia, it was a place where several peoples me (today we call it Ngunawal land because the Ngunnawal are the traditional owners of more of the ACT than the other groups, but the Australian Capital Territory is more complicated than that. Our borders don’t follow the custodial boundaries. A map may help. (My favourite map is a Ngarigo map. It’s an extraordinarily lucid map that makes everything very clear– but I can’t find a copy of it online.) European settlement was mainly farms, with a church, a schoolhouse, and a couple of villages. Most of the people who lived on this land were, in fact, not European until this area became the national capital.

The Franklins were one of the local families in the nineteenth century. I have seen the old rose bushes from the Franklin property (they’re now quite wild) and been stared down by kangaroos in a part of the national park that Franklin would have known as a farm. I’ve been atop Mt Franklin (named after Miles’ family) and climbed (a little) of Mt Aggie (named after her aunt).

Miles Franklin, herself, lived in this region for the first ten years of her life. She was born in 1879, and the 54 years she lived elsewhere was mainly in cities.

Miles Franklin (actually Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) was a fascinating person. My personal favourite of her noms de plume (for she had several) was Brent of Bin Bin. There’s so much in her life that’s not generally talked about: how she supported other writers, what she did with her life outside the most famous books. The edge has gone off the fame of the novels. Most people recognise the name because Franklin’s name is on one of Australia’s most important literary awards (we all dream of this award, but I’m the wrong kind of writer for it, so dreaming will have to suffice).

Neither My Brilliant Career (the famous novel that was turned into a movie) and My Career Goes Bung (its sequel) are on my desk right now, for Franklin used her post-childhood experiences to write them. The book on my desk is tiny, and full of colour. Childhood at Brindabella is my comfort-book and is not an autobiographical novel, but an actual autobiography. Franklin’s childhood at Brindabella Station is at its heart. This book is where I discovered that we are low in lyrebirds in this region because of the US trappers in the nineteenth century, who wanted to feathers for hats. It’s where I learned about how to transport sewing machines to places that still don’t have sealed roads.

I could tell you favourite bits of it until the cows come home. It’s under 160 pages long, however, so it’s better to read it yourself. Then come to me and I will tell you how this region has changed and find you recipes from Miles’ childhood. Despite all the changes, we still have more writers per capita than we ought. Miles Franklin will always be one of the best.