Why is it that so many of us are devoting so much time and energy into researching our family history?
When I recently Googled ‘What is the purpose of family history?’ the most common responses that popped up were along the lines of ‘It helps me to understand myself’ or ‘I want the younger generation to understand their heritage’.
There are myriad reasons behind the family history addiction, as I call it, but I have to say those two above don’t quite fit mine. While we are all naturally curious about where we came from and who we think we are and why, my motivation stemmed from an emerging fascination with the context of my ancestors’ lives. The reason I decided to write about my four times great grandmother (The Worst Country in the World)was because she was one of the earliest free settlers to migrate to the colony of New South Wales, in 1801. It was the story behind her migration, and behind the colonisation of that far-flung country in the first place, that grabbed me.
Family history, broadly speaking, is about ordinary people. Traditional historians tend to focus on the famous, the ones in the foreground of the picture so to speak. Family historians are more likely to be looking at the people in the background, whom nobody outside the immediate family has heard of. That doesn’t make them unimportant, or boring. It’s the ordinary people who keep the wheels of everyday life turning. Your ancestors needn’t have done anything remarkable to make them worth writing about.
In the blurbs of the two books I’ve written about my family I rather grandly claim I’m ‘looking at Australian colonial history through the lives of my [fill in appropriate ancestor/ancestress]’. I am unwittingly taking on the role of historian, and perhaps wittingly trying to avoid the term family history because who is going to read a book about my family except, well, my family? It wasn’t just because I wanted to sell more books that I broadened my sight lines; it was because I believe history told through the eyes of ordinary people is every bit as valid, and revealing, as history told about the heroes and the VIPs.
Then there’s the problem of the gaps: the further back you go in time the less likely you will have access to images of your antecedents, or to their characters. Their legacy depends almost entirely on what they did, or more to the point, what they did that was recorded. (Which tends to balance things in favour of the men, needless to say.) Famous people may well be written about during their lifetime – you can probably get an idea of the kind of people they were by other people’s descriptions of them. With ordinary people this is less likely. So what do you do?
You can make it up. It’s generally easy to know when, where and how our ancestors did what they did; but what about the why? Unless they wrote letters or diaries (in which case lucky you), it’s down to guesswork. That’s guesswork informed, of course, by weeks and months and maybe years of exhaustive research, not just into your relative but into the world that relative inhabited.
For example I know when and how my ancestress migrated, but I don’t really know why, so I have assumed. I know who her offspring married but I don’t know how they met, so I’ve made it up. I’ve even invented characters in my latest book (A Country to Be Reckoned With) to represent the sort of people my convict ancestors may have worked for. Of course I go to some pains to explain what’s fact and what’s imagination, it isn’t hard to do. The purpose of the fiction is to throw a clearer light on the fact, to bring it alive; all with the ultimate purpose of creating a book that will appeal to a wider audience beyond my immediate family.
Over to you:
Why are you researching your family history and what does it do for you?
My second book in the Pitt family history series is published on 11 August 2018.
The blurb reads:
In the 19th century Australia went from struggling penal colony to a thriving community with a glowing future.
George Matcham Pitt’s life spanned the greater part of this century. A larger than life character and a master of rhetoric, fond of quoting from classic poets, opinionated and generous to a fault, GM, as he was known, went from humble farmer to landowner, auctioneer and the founder of one of Australia’s first and best-known stock and station agents Pitt, Son & Badgery.
This is the biography of a man who helped to shape a country and play a small part in its transformation from what was once considered the Worst Country in the World into a country to be reckoned with.
For a glimpse at a sample chapter please click here.
The bookwas assisted by funds allocated to the Royal Australian History Society through the Heritage Branch of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
(Extract from my forthcoming book on a Pom’s view of Australia)
In 1855, at the height of the Australian goldrush, a man named Henry Capper produced a pamphlet, price 6d, entitled The Australian Colonies: where they are and how to get to them.
He advised readers to buy a map, ‘look at the right hand lower corner, and there will be seen a very large island – the largest in the world – this is Australia, or as it was called in former days, New Holland . . . New South Wales can be found on the east coast, or right hand side of the map, is larger than the kingdom of Portugal.’
He described the general layout of the continent, its weather (‘seasons are reversed’), its topography (‘If it is allowed that only one half of Australia is good land, that will yet be twelve times as large as the whole of England, Scotland and Ireland) its wildlife, including snakes (‘not many, few venomous‘) and insects (‘mosquitoes and ants numerous and troublesome‘), and in particular – bearing in mind his expected readership – the fact that the country, especially Victoria and New South Wales, was rich in minerals.
Apart from the snakes his description was remarkably accurate. He also outlined the type of person who was eligible for ‘assisted migration’, viz: ‘The industrious, sober, healthy of the following classes: female servants, bakers, butchers, brickmakers, bricklayers . . .’ While ‘The class of person not wanted . . . are clerks, shop men, artists, schoolmasters, lawyers, doctors, workmen in the finer arts . . .’ unless they were prepared to work as labourers. Likewise with the women, ‘governesses, milliners, dressmakers, and any females who are not of the labouring classes are not wanted’. Which explains why virtually all my Australian antecedents – with the notable exceptions of my pioneer Australian emigrée Mary Pitt, and my good self – were ‘unassisted migrants’: they paid their own way because they did not pursue ‘useful’ professions. (The fact that in the late 1960s I was allowed to migrate to Australia for ten pounds despite the fact that I was an actress – hardly an under-subscribed profession – shows how such things have changed through the years.)
Australia on the map
Most 21st century Europeans probably have a rough idea where Australia is these days, but the country still rarely features in British consciousness, except when it comes to sport, and cricket in particular of course. This is partly because it is by and large a peaceful place that is not trying to extricate itself from a complex partnership with its neighbours, is not governed by a xenophobic racist, is not currently suffering from famine or civil war, and has never been invaded (except, notably, by the Europeans back in 1788, which is a whole other story that very few Brits are familiar with).
Globally it ranks below Canada in influence and power. Culturally it is not necessarily recognised as being in the top rank – not because Australia lacks culture, but because so much of the best of it doesn’t travel, simply because it is uniquely Australian. But whereas Aussies will happily sit in front of quintessentially British TV exports such as Monarch of the Glen or Fawlty Towers (or even, God help us, Midsomer Murders), the Australian equivalent rarely seems to hit our television screens. And whose fault is that?
One of the most memorable shows I have ever seen in the theatre, still in my consciousness fifty years later, is The Legend of King O’Malley – a gloriously irreverent take-off of the man (an American as it happened) who ‘created Canberra’. More recently there was ‘Keating!’, an equally hilarious piss-take of the rise and fall of the ex Labor (sic) prime minister. To my knowledge neither of these shows has been produced outside Australia.
The Boy from Oz, a musical based on Peter Allen, singer-songwriter and, briefly, husband of Liza Minelli, ran on Broadway but never reached London. Tim Winton’sCloudstreet had a brief run at the National Theatre here (which I missed because the performance I booked for was cancelled – due, I later learned from my Australian brother, to the fact that the leading actor had broken his ankle in a cricket match between the cast and the British crew); and the Sydney Theatre Company’s miraculous The Secret River, adapted by playwright Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s Booker Prize nominated book – which I saw in a quarry near Adelaide a year ago, one of the most memorable nights I’ve ever spent at the theatre (see here) – again has never been seen outside Australia. Our Country’s Good on the other hand, adapted from the Thomas Keneally book by (UK-based American) playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, premiered here at the Royal Court Theatre and has been revived on several occasions, the most recent in my experience at the National Theatre; where, confusingly, many of the white British invaders were played by black actors, and the token Aboriginal narrator told his story in what I can only describe as RADA English.
As for television – when did you last see an Australian production on prime time British TV? Yes they do exist, but again the landmark series of recent years, Redfern Now, which tells separate stories of Aboriginal families living in a suburb of Sydney, has not yet appeared on our terrestrial channels, and why not? (It is available on Netflix, watch it if you can.) Whereas Banished, about the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, notable for its total lack of Aboriginal characters, and like Redfern Now the brainchild of Liverpool’s Jimmy McGovern, was shown on BBC2 and dismissed out of hand by viewers and critics on both sides of the world. (It never made it to a second series as a result.)
Ali G, aka Sacha Baron Cohen – famous in the UK and I imagine in Australia – was not the first dim-witted character to conduct mock interviews with famous people. Norman Gunston, aka actor Garry McDonald, was doing exactly that back in the 1970s. (Clips of his shows can be seen on YouTube.)
Nor was Twenty Twelve, the much-loved BBC ‘mockumentary’ about the leadup to the Olympics, a British invention. The Aussies did it twelve years earlier, with The Games (never seen on British TV). The makers of The Games not surprisingly accused the BBC of plagiarism, which they, not surprisingly, denied.
Co-creator and lead actor (the late) John Clarke described himself on his website as running ‘a charitable institute supplying formats to British television’.
(From https://mrjohnclarke.com/projects/the-games,cited on Wikipedia.)
So there we are. Australia is a much more inventive, interesting, and above all different place than Brits give it credit for. There are some great stories to be told, but meanwhile we in the UK have to put up with endless cop series featuring down-at-heel, harrassed female DIs and more reruns of Scandi Noir (nothing against them but they are all looking a bit the same now).
She sits alone, in her kitchen, or her bedroom, or maybe even in her office. Just her and the computer, a desk and a pile of books. Shoulders ridiculously hunched, nose almost touching the screen, as if her breath alone can conjure magic out of those search engines. If she’s lucky she’ll have a relatively unusual surname, though thanks to the traditional family habit of naming offspring after themselves she’ll have a merry time figuring out James senior from James junior and James junior junior. She spends a good deal of time sighing, and occasionally swearing and muttering to herself, and wondering whose idea it was in the first place to set off down this endless, foggy path into her family history.
It doesn’t help to know it was her idea, and that no one ever forced her to do this, or pressured her to keep going, or let’s face it, gives a hoot one way or another.
The one thing she knows is she will never give up: despite the outside world’s indifference, the loneliness and the frustration and the thought of all those other things she could usefully be doing with her life, such as earning a living, or volunteering, or improving her house. This is not a hobby so much as an addiction.
On occasion, as a treat, she will don her hat and gloves and trot into town to visit the library. This is a real day out: lofty surroundings, special, even rare books, carefully selected and placed reverentially on the desk in front of her.
Hours later and they’re switching off the lights and metaphorically putting the chairs on the tables. She blinks into the daylight and forces herself with difficulty back into the 21st century. It’s not until she gets home and looks through her notes that she realises, really, how little of value she’s managed to discover in all that time. Except. Except. You never know. Nothing is ever wasted, except time.
Now and again the miraculous happens. After hours rummaging through Trove, hunting, hunting, revising the search terms, ignoring the creeping feelings of despair, the ticking clock and the rumble of a stomach deprived of nourishment, she has a Eureka moment: a genuine find, a nugget of new information, an explanation of a puzzle only she was ever aware of. This is her very own piece of solid gold. So what if her excitement is out of all proportion to the size of the piece of the jigsaw. It is one small step on the way to the filling in of the puzzle, the lifting of the fog.
Now and again she will receive a message from a stranger, a distant relative who’s found her on the internet. And they will share their knowledge and findings, and the puzzle will become a little more complete and for a short glorious moment she will know she is not alone.
She is in her own way a hero. Unsung, unrecognized, but a hero nonetheless.
For the good people who attended the Society of Genealogists workshop on self publishing on Saturday 8th July, here as promised is the gist of what we covered:
First off, it is important to find out as much as possible about the process in order to avoid getting confused and/or ripped off. There are sharks out there.
Self publishing is ideal for family historians for several reasons:
You get to control everything: the length of the book and the look of it including the cover
You can mix the genres (ie history/family history/memoir and fiction)
It doesn’t matter if you only intend to sell a few copies (see POD below)
You can edit the text, images and/or cover at any time and re-publish the book at no extra cost
Your book never goes out of print
PRINT ON DEMAND (POD)
This is what has made self publishing in print form possible and financially viable. Instead of having to print off hundreds or thousands of copies of your book, and find somewhere to store them, Amazon (or whoever) files your book electronically and only prints a copy when someone orders one. Unit costs per copy are the same no matter how many you order. Shipping costs on top vary according to the country the buyer lives in and how many copies he/she is ordering. So if for example you order ten copies to be sent to the same address it will not cost ten times as much as ordering one copy.
Having written your book and polished it to within an inch of its life, it’s a good idea to have it professionally edited. Every writer no matter how successful or experienced needs an outside eye to check for overall structure, clarity, repetition and consistency.
(That said, if you are only intending to publish for your immediate family this may not be essential, though the right editor can always improve any book.)
COPY EDITING & PROOFREADING
Copy editing means checking the book for grammar and sentence structure. Some editors will do this for you, but don’t expect it.
Proofreading means checking for typos. You should be able to get a sharp-eyed friend or colleague to do this for you.
Once your book has been written, rewritten, edited and proofread, the next step is to gather it together in two documents:
The interior consists of Front matter, text and End matter. What goes where is a matter of choice but generally speaking this is what I go for:
INTERIOR FRONT MATTER
Table of contents
INTERIOR END MATTER
Appendix & chapter notes (or notes if you have footnoes)
In my first book The Worst Country in the World I didn’t use footnotes for various reasons: a) I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the text and b) footnotes don’t generally work in ebooks. Instead I referenced my sources in the Appendix and Chapter Notes, and expanded on various things only the seriously interested, such as family members, might want to know. This was a personal choice however. With my current book I may rethink.
Whether you decide to go it alone or get people to help you it is useful to have some idea of what you want your book to look like. It can be helpful to find a book whose layout you like and use it as a template. (I chose Kate Grenville’s The Secret River for the plainness of style, clarity and size of font and relatively generous margins.) These are the considerations:
Page/trim size: Amazon’s POD templates are limited to standard book sizes such as 5” x 8” (standard novel), 6” x 9” (standard non fiction) etc. (I chose 6” x 9”)
Font and font size: (I chose Palatino 11 point – on the large size, deliberately; I experimented with different fonts and sizes, & margins, by printing out a few pages and cutting them down to the relevant size, but it’s difficult to see how it looks until you can see the full printed proof)
Margins: (mine were top & bottom 1.9cm, inner 2 outer 1.5, gutter .33)
Chapter headings layout: (Aligned L, R or C, upper or lower case, start some way down the page)
Extras: such as drop caps (1st letter of 1st sentence in each chapter enlarged), small caps at beginning of new chapter, headers
Images: (photos, maps, family trees) – see below for copyright
Received wisdom says don’t try to create your own book cover unless you are an experienced graphic designer or au fait with Photoshop. Professionals know what is eye-catching and what is not and what is appropriate for the genre. They should also be clear about how many versions and amendments they are willing to provide for their fee. Fees differ according to how much they are required to do; original artwork will obviously cost more than if you provide your own image, or if they are able to use stock images from copyright free sources. Expect to pay from around £250 upwards.
Alternatively look online for cover designers and if you find one you like, contact them direct. Likewise in a bookshop: the designer’s name may be on the fly-leaf of the book, otherwise contact them through the publisher.
As we touched on in the workshop copyright is a minefield, and I cannot pretend to be an expert. However I did come up against a copyright issue when I wanted to use a 19th century painting by Australian painter Tom Roberts for my cover. The image itself was out of copyright but the high-resolution photo of the image online belonged to an art gallery in Ballarat, Australia. They allowed me to use it on condition I signed a detailed license form stating I would not change the image or superimpose text on top of it, and that I would send the final proof to them for their approval. In the end my cover designer decided she couldn’t comply with their demands, so we didn’t use it.
So while an image may be out of copyright the online photo of the image – or in the case of books or documents, the scanned version uploaded online by an organisation or library – may not be.
This is what appears on the back of a paperback or on your Amazon page. The blurb is notoriously difficult to write, but it is your selling tool, and should be:
Brief – no more than 200 words
Written in the third person present tense
A selling tool not a synopsis
Here for what it’s worth, is my blurb for Worst Country:
In 1787 a handful of people – convicts, marines and government servants – sail across the world to settle a new colony and call it New South Wales.
In 1801 Mary Pitt, a widow with five children, migrates to New South Wales from her home in Dorset to live among these same convicts.
Two hundred odd years later Mary’s great great great great granddaughter travels to what is now Australia to discover why her ancestress risked the lives of her entire family to make her home in a penal colony. She uncovers tales of astonishing bravery and bloody-mindedness, the origins of a unique form of class distinction, why her own Australian/English mother was the person she was and how what was once regarded as the worst country in the world became one of the ‘luckiest’. (135 words)
I’m not saying this is an ideal example (nowadays I think I’d edit it down a tad), but what I’ve set out to do in three paragraphs is:
1) The original story
2) My family’s part in the original story
3) My quest to investigate 1) and 2)
HOW TO GO ABOUT SELF PUBLISHING
There are three basic options
DIY using POD with either Amazon Createspace or Ingram Spark – the cheapest option
AIDED – through a reputable publishing company or individual
HIGH-END – custom-made with special paper, size and shape and/or binding, eg coffee table book. Ideal for image-heavy books.
DIY – This is the option I chose but I would only recommend it if you have a lot of time and patience. I formatted both the paperback and ebook versions of my book – it took me longer than it should have or than it would do now. It isn’t that difficult, you don’t need any particular IT skills no matter what the books tell you.
If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of doing things yourself you can find more technical details here
Amazon Createspace: https://www.createspace.com Amazon are the market leaders for self publishers. They may be behemoths, and tough employers, but they are very efficient and easy to deal with. Their submission guidelines are very straightforward and easy to follow. They can also show you what kind of royalties you can expect to receive according to how your book is priced. The submission process is free, they don’t start to make money until you start to sell books. They also provide their own free ISBNs and barcodes.
Ingram Spark: http://www.ingramspark.com Ingram have been around forever but Ingram Spark, the self publishing arm, is relatively new on the scene. The advantages of IS are they have print outlets in the UK and Australia as well as the US (Amazon CS is US-based), their distribution is considered to be better, and for the Amazonphobes, they are not Amazon. The quality of print is also slightly better, in my experience. The drawbacks are you have to provide your own ISBN (available in the UK in batches of 10 through Nielsen – http://www.isbn.nielsenbook.co.uk/controller.php?page=121) – and you have to pay a small fee to submit your ms (unless you are a member of ALLi, see below).
AIDED – Here is where you get someone else to do the work for you. You can buy in services a la carte so to speak, in other words you can provide the cover yourself but hire someone to proofread the book, or to format it.
Before contacting an outside organisation, there are things to be wary of.
DO be clear exactly what you are looking for
DO make sure you hang onto the rights to your book: if you’re using a self pub company pay the one-off fee to get the book up there and that’s it
DO make sure the royalties come straight to you and not through a third party: otherwise you’re dealing with vanity publishing and have the worst of all worlds and will make zilch money
DON’T sign any long-term contracts
I Am Self Publishing https://www.iamselfpublishing.com. A young brother and sister organisation, very friendly, very savvy, experienced in producing all kinds of books. They offer an initial no-obligation consultation, either in person or on the phone.
If you don’t already have your own family history website I would recommend creating one. It is an excellent way for other family members to get in touch with you. I have a static (ie not a blog) site at marymatchampitt.wordpress.com and I’ve had all manner of distant relatives contact me with very useful information. You can create one for free, or for a small annual hosting fee, at WordPress.
*There seems to be a problem with this Amazon link. I will query it with ALLi and repost.
An organisation run by indie authors for indie authors. They publish a list of recommended service providers (available to members only) and books (available to all). They also have a closed Facebook page and monthly meetups in London and elsewhere, plus they offer other perks such as reduced rates with Ingram Spark and free entry to the London Book Fair, among other things. If you want to know more, click on the ALLi logo on the top right of this page.
For example when I contacted Who Do You Think You Are for a review they were pretty sniffy, but I sent them a copy anyway and heard nothing more. However they do – or did – have a feature in their magazine called ‘My Family Hero’ and when approached were very keen to include a story about my ancestress.
Whether or not you are thinking of publishing in e-form (not so suitable for picture-based books), ebooks are easy to produce – again on your own or with help – and you receive a higher royalty (70% through Amazon compared with around 20-25% for paperbacks). Most indie authors sell more ebooks than paperbacks, partly because bookshops are generally reluctant to stock indie published books, and partly because of the cost of POD. My sales are 90% + ebook, and of those, 95% are through Amazon Kindle.
As part of my researches into my great-great-grandad George Matcham Pitt, I was scrolling through Trove looking for information on an Aboriginal man named ‘Fryingpan’ – who had been accused and convicted of spearing a cow on my ancestor’s property on the Gwydir – when I came upon what looked like a first-hand account of the trial written by none other than Charles Dickens.
Wow, I thought, what a coup. What family historian isn’t thrilled at the thought of direct connections with famous people?
The trial took place at Maitland Assizes in 1842. To be precise, the only man tried that day – for some reason the writer wasn’t aware of, Fryingpan, while in court, did not enter the dock – was Fryingpan’s friend The Duke of Wellington (these monikers presumably bestowed on them by convicts), also accused of spearing a cow. The writer gave a vivid description of the defendant with his ‘coarse-matted’ shoulder-length hair, bright expressive eyes and a mouth ‘enough for two faces’. It took some pushing and shoving to get him into the dock apparently, and then, the writer went on:
‘When fairly confronted with Sir James [the judge], a violent grin broke out half-round Wellington’s head, evidently caused by his Honor’s wig, bands, and red gown, on which the savage’s eyes seemed to be fastened with a fascinated stare. Nor did he, in his unsophisticated nature, attempt to conceal the emotion excited within him; for, notwithstanding the additional gravity laid on by the judge for the occasion, the joke appeared to improve so much in the black man’s mind that at last he laughed outright. Moreover he seemed to grin a kind of circular invitation to all the people in Court to join in the laugh with him. He grinned the rebukeful countenance of the Sheriff into such a state, that that solemn officer of justice was obliged to turn his face away, and discharge a short private laugh of his own. He grinned at the counsel and the crowd, until giggling became irrepressible, and even the countenance of the Chief Justice, who had a keen perception of the ludicrous, was becoming rapidly unmanageable.’
Eventually things calmed down and the trial was under way. Wellington, through an interpreter, claimed the evidence against him was ‘a pack of lies’, but unfortunately his plea was contradicted by several witnesses and he was found guilty and transported for ten years to Van Diemen’s Land. He was led from the court still grinning, ‘as if he had got to the end of a pleasant entertainment’.
The writer, while enjoying the spectacle, and disregarding his use of the word ‘savage’, was on reflection appalled and dismayed. What right do we have, he wrote, to submit ‘this poor child of nature’ to ‘an English court of justice, mock his ignorance with a jargon of law forms, and conclude by tearing him from his hunting grounds, his wife, and little children, for ten years?’
The tone of the piece, the humour and the empathy and understanding of what it meant for an Aboriginal man to be stripped of everything he had ever known, sounded pure Dickens to me. The Trove article appeared in the Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer in 5th September 1919, and clearly the newspaper thought the same. It didn’t take me long however to discover that Dickens himself never actually visited Australia, even though it featured in several of his books in one way or another, and he sent two of his sons there (about whom more at another time). The original article, Going Circuit at the Antipodes, appeared in Household Words – which called itself a Journal ‘conducted’ by Dickens – in 1852, and like all the other contributions, there was no author credited.
So who was the mystery writer?
A bit more research turned up a book compiled by a Canadian writer called Anne Lohri (available in the fabulous British Library), in which she lists all the contributors to Household Words . It transpired the writer was a “London barrister” and part-time journalist called Archibald Michie, who’d arrived in Sydney a few years earlier and had been invited to attend the court by an Australian lawyer friend.
Anti-climax? Well yes and no. The fact that the writer was not Dickens does not make it any less noteworthy as an account, by an outsider, of how colonial law dealt with Aboriginal wrongdoers. And anyway, Dickens thought nothing apparently of taking a story sent to him and ‘playing with it until it was practically rewritten’ (according to Coral Lansbury, JRAHS, Vol 52 part 2, 1966).
The one thing it does do is throw up the pros and cons of trying to write a book about family history: getting sidetracked by famous people makes the exercise both all the more fascinating and all the more endless. Publication date? Don’t mention it.
In what she describes as a ‘Five Faves Geneameme’ Jill Ball of Geniaus, the Australian family history blog, has invited other family history bloggers to share details of five books they’ve found most useful in their ‘geneactivities’. (Enough puns already … )
So here, whittled down with great difficulty and in no particular order, are my chosen inspirations:
Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, by Frank Welsh (The Overlook Press, New York, 2006)
Since my books are set very much in the context of early colonial Australia I needed to gen up on my history. This book is not just all-encompassing, it looks at Australia in the context of a larger colonial world. It’s also very readable and has a nice, wry take on historical events, which I really like.
Next on the list is Station Life in Australia by Peter Taylor (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988)
Also very readable, with some wonderful anecdotes about the New Chums in early colonial Australia. (The ‘New Chum’ was the Pom who arrived fresh-faced and dewy-eyed and ready to make his fortune on the land without knowing a horse from a heifer; a bit like me.) Essential introduction to a subject I knew nothing about.
Eleanor Dark was doing in the 1940s what other writers such as Kate Grenville don’t dare to do in the 21st century, which is to write about events such as the arrival of the First Fleet from the point of view of Aboriginal people. In fact she writes from the point of view of everyone, from Governor Phillip to convicts and settlers, evenly-handedly and with great perception and understanding. The Timeless Landis book one in a novel trilogy.
Macquarie Country by D G Bowd, (Library of Australian History, 1979)
I had to include this one. It’s about the Hawkesbury – where my ancestors made their first home in New South Wales in 1802 – in the days of Governor Macquarie. It even features my family, who were visited by the governor and his lady wife soon after they arrived in the colony. Full of vivid and useful detail about the earlier days of settlement.
In her memoir Old Days, Old Ways (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934)Mary Gilmore was actually writing about her childhood in the Riverina district in the latter part of the 19th century, where she was brought up. The book is a cornucopia of intricate and sometimes hilarious social history; such as the rope that was strung across the room during the Wagga Wagga Gold Cup ball in order to segregate the ‘grandees’ from the ‘commonage’; and the way in which ladies riding horses in crinolines wore weights in their hems in order that their ankles should remain hidden from the gentlemen. Like Eleanor Dark she writes with great humanity and understanding and, crucially, humour.
So, dear writer, what is your answer to this question?
I expect many people will say ‘Because I have to’ or ‘Because I’ve always done it/wanted to write’ or even ‘I feel I have something to say’. Some might actually confess they enjoy writing. (Weird, but possible.) Some non fiction writers are probably motivated by a passionate interest in a subject, a place, or maybe even themselves and their own story.
My answer to the question is a rather negative one: ‘To fill the void’. Or to put it another way, because I had nothing better to do.
I’m not being entirely disingenuous. If you’ve ever felt the need or the urge to express yourself in a creative way then nothing else will give you the proper fix. Writing books is one of the most purely creative ways of expression – it’s just you and the page, or the screen, with no one telling you what to do or, to put it another way, trying to curb your creativity. If this is indulgence so be it, but it’s not an easy option to say the least.
I once earned a living writing scripts for television. I really wanted to be a playwright but having spent many years reading and commenting on other writers’ plays I couldn’t find any ideas that I could make work on a stage. I never saw myself as a writer of books partly because it is an impossible way to make a living and partly because, yes, I confess it, I’m not much of a reader. I’d rather watch a play or a film, no question.
But when I hit my sixties and I gave in my part-time job I didn’t know what to do with myself. Too old to be employed, all I had to keep wolf from door was bits and pieces of teaching and theatre tour organising and a small state pension. So I decided to do two complementary things: let my flat and go off to the far side of the world to write a book about my ancestors, the former paying for the latter.
And it worked. It took me several years, and a lot of hard work and learning. In my first effort at writing a scene set in late 18th century Dorset I had one character crossing his legs four times without ever having uncrossed them, ending up therefore as a corkscrew. As an (ex) actor and would-be playwright I could handle the dialogue, within reason, but had terrible trouble with the bits in between; where in a play you can simply write ‘pause’ or even ‘silence’ or at a pinch ‘beat’, in a book you’ve got to have your character do something, and I still find that tricky (hence the corkscrew legs). Not to mention the ‘she saids’ and ‘he saids’.
But along the way I discovered a passion, which simply put is – for finding things out and writing about them in (what I hope is) an entertaining way. The topic in my case was early Australian colonial history, as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, about which and whom I knew nothing and cared less. The first is not a disadvantage because part of the process of writing about what you don’t know is discovering things you find interesting and then finding a way to convey your interest to other people. The caring naturally follows. Or if it doesn’t, then look for another topic.
So what was once a void has now been filled to bursting point with what has become a passion and an addiction. Twelve years later I am halfway through book two of my Australian ancestors, still struggling with the bits between the dialogue and the he saids and she saids, but still engrossed in the business of learning about, in this case, Australian agricultural practices in the 19th century and trying to make it interesting.
It hasn’t earned me a living, needless to say. I’m not even sure that I’ve broken even. Truthfully speaking when asked my profession I should say ‘landlady’. But hard work though it is it gives me a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction, not least to know that in my seventies I am still learning things; and that, who knows, one or two people out there may also discover something as a result of my efforts.
So there’s my answer to my own question. I’d be interested to hear yours.
Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.
It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.
Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.
The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.
The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.
I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the World, were granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.
The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia
Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.
*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.