It is 16 June 2022, the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which takes place on a single day in 1904.
It is, not quite coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of my first book, The Worst Country in the World, the story of the beginnings of colonial Australia as seen through the eyes of my ancestors, which I published on 16 June 2012. Far be it from me to bracket myself with James Joyce, but there it is. The date was, in my case, quite deliberate.
So in celebration of the anniversary of my first dip into the world of book publishing I am reducing the price of Worst Country to AU$3.99 ($2.99/£2.99) for just one day. Click here:
Enjoy the day, the sunshine, the blooms and the books!
This was my second visit to the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River. The first was two years ago in a quarry outside Adelaide, with a sheer sandstone cliff as backdrop. (See my review of it here.) That majestical setting is impossible to beat, but the wide open spaces of the Olivier amphitheatre at the National Theatre in London come a relatively close second.
I would like to (but probably can’t) claim responsibility for the production’s rather brief transfer to the NT, via Edinburgh. I’ve been campaigning for it pretty ceaselessly on social media ever since that astonishing evening in 2017. It has always baffled me how little interest we Brits take in our colonisation of the country we named Australia, but judging from the standing ovation the play received from last night’s largely British (by the sound of them) audience, the production – and its rave reviews – has set some kind of ball rolling.
Unlike Kate Grenville’s book Andrew Bovell’s adaptation begins in New South Wales at the point where William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for stealing, receives his Absolute Pardon and transports himself and his family to what appears to be an ‘unoccupied’ 100-acre patch of land on the banks of the Hawkesbury River. The Aboriginal people, who are only shadows in Kate Grenville’s book, play major roles in the play, speaking their native – and untranslated – Dharug.
The show packs every bit as powerful a punch on second
viewing. Memorable moments stand out, then as before, such as the use of flour
to indicate gunsmoke, and the mingling of Dharug chanting with a London
drinking song, the first eventually overpowering the second. In place of a
sandstone cliff backdrop there is a curtain, on which the frightened and
frantic William Thornhill draws a fence at the end of the play to protect
himself, marking off the days as he does so.
What I took away from both productions was the even-handed
way in which a family of well-meaning whites, displaced from their own country against
their will, are shown desperately trying to survive in a strange country among
people whose language and way of life they don’t understand. And how successfully
the difficult Olivier space was transformed, through lighting, birdsong and musical
effects, into the landscape of that hot, dry country so few people in England
know anything about.
The cast, with some exceptions, is the same as before, with the notable exception of Ningali Lawford Wolf, who died suddenly and tragically during the play’s run in Edinburgh. Her place was taken by Aboriginal actress Pauline Whyman, flown in from Melbourne and reading from a script. How heartbreaking for an Aboriginal woman to die so far away from her home and family, and how devastating for the rest of the cast. It is the face of Ms Lawford Wolf, who played the narrator, that appears on the programme and on posters all around London. A fitting legacy.
Despite this, the performances are solid throughout. So from this humble audience member, a grateful thanks to all of the actors, and especially to the supremely talented Neil Armfield – who in a pre-performance talk spoke endearingly of how he always expects things to work out badly – and the likewise Andrew Bovell, who apparently tried his best not to become involved in this adaptation but was eventually ‘seduced’ by Cate Blanchett. So thanks to her too.
By way of a PS, my version of The Secret River, about my settler ancestors who ‘took up’ land on the Hawkesbury not far from the fictional William Thornhill, and at much the same time, is being discounted on Amazon as an ebook in Australia and elsewhere during the month of September.
When I published my first book back in 2012 about my Australian ancestors, The Worst Country in the World, I contacted a number of magazines, organisations, newspapers and individuals asking if they would review it. About half of them ignored me, and of the rest, most of them told me rather begrudgingly I was welcome to send them a copy of the book but they could not guarantee anything.
Now I appreciate asking anyone to review a book, especially
from an unknown author, is a Big Ask; but at the same time it costs a fair bit
to send copies to the far side of the world, and then to hear nothing more is disappointing.
However among the few positive responses I received was one from a delightful lady called Karen Clare, Deputy Editor of Family Tree magazine. Not only was she pleased to read and review the book (and as it happens to review it very positively) she was extremely gracious about it. She even implied I was doing her a favour by sending it, and by submitting other pieces for the magazine’s blog, and she invariably answers my emails promptly and enthusiastically.
If you’ve ever been a novice writer you’ll know what a
lonely business writing and publishing can be, which is why it was especially
exciting for me to be able to say a brief Hello and Thank You to Karen at the
Family Tree Live conference held recently at Ally Pally.
The two-day conference comprised a list of lectures and workshops on everything from DNA – a hot topic, and a few cats have been thrown among pigeons for some people when they discover their father/brother/grandfather was not who they thought they were – to the ethics of family history. As Dr Penny Walters said in her talk on ‘Ethical Dilemmas’, we may have a good chuckle about our g-g grandma who was seven months pregnant when she got married, but to your g-g-grandma it was no laughing matter.
According to Dr Nick Barrett – genealogist and historian,
who among other things worked on the first four series of Who Do You Think You Are – there has been a big change in attitude
towards family history over the past fifteen years. What was once regarded as a
‘navel-gazing’ hobby is now taken seriously by academics, as the findings of
family historians and DNA testing is challenging historical records.
I was only able to attend the conference on one day, but I sincerely hope it happens again. Thank you to Family Tree magazine, and especially to Karen Clare, for making this family historian’s task that much easier and more satisfying.
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. He was also my grear great grandfather.
This is the biography of a man who helped to shape a country
And who played 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.
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.
Writing about droving and farming in 19th century Australia from a flat in north London?
… is quite a challenge, believe me, especially when the writer barely knows a heifer from a ewe.
I first blogged on this topic a year ago; I was about to embark on my latest oeuvre about my great great grandfather, who was a pioneer farmer and stock and station agent in remote 19th cenury New South Wales. I’d been putting it off thinking this is completely beyond me, but then I was reminded that that is precisely what I said about my first book The Worst Country in the World, about my original Australian ancestress.
I am not saying I have cracked it, but there are positive advantages to writing about unfamiliar topics, and the most obvious one is:
If you can take an unfamiliar subject about which you know nothing and find it interesting, then it should be possible to make it interesting to your readers.
We’ve all picked up a newspaper or maybe glanced at someone’s blog and found ourselves drawn in to a topic we didn’t think we had any interest in. It’s called good writing of course.
There’s another advantage: whatever I’m writing about there is no pretence. I am looking at things like cattle droving for instance with the fascinated and sometimes bemused eye of the outsider. Do cattle really behave like that? What do you mean all sheep are not the same?
To see what I mean take a look at my chapter on The Drover.I’d be interested in your comments.
If Shakespeare had kept a diary there would arguably be far fewer books written about him.
If we knew for instance
What he got up to during the ‘missing years’
How he got to leave his home in Stratford and fetch up as an actor/playwright in London
How much of the 37 plays he actually wrote
Whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or someone else
Who the Dark Lady of the sonnets was
Whether or not he got on with his wife
Etc etc etc
We wouldn’t need to endlessly speculate. And it would not be half as much fun.
What will people say about you when you’re gone?
Diary-less ancestors tend to be remembered for what they did rather than what they might have said. Or rather for what they did that made the public records. So we are likely to know more about men than women, especially if they played a prominent part in society. We may also know more about the ones who got into trouble, and the ones with police records, especially if they ended up in Australia.
As a family historian I’d have given anything for my ancestors to have kept diaries so I knew exactly why my four times great grandmother decided to emigrate to a penal colony.
On the other hand lacking the facts gives one scope for one’s imagination; so what would have been a case of simple transcribing becomes something rather more creative. The challenge of filling in the gaps while remaining as true as possible to the character you think your four times great grandmother was, for instance, is a fascinating one.
Claudia kept a detailed diary of a crucial period in her life when she made a discovery that altered her entire outlook on life and on the people in it. The fact that she kept this diary in her loft, to be discovered by generations to come, suggests to me she wanted them to be found, and to be published.
Nonetheless such was the intimate nature of the diary I went to great lengths to protect her reputation by not just changing her name but the names, and some details, of her daughters and her friends, and a few other bits and pieces beside.
I have, from time to time. It makes for hilarious and sometimes embarrassing reading. It is also a handy reminder of the person you once used to be, and if you think – as I often have – you are still an eighteen-year-old wrapped up in a middle-aged woman’s body, it is good to be reminded that, actually, you aren’t.
But I wouldn’t want anyone to read them, no way. Unlike Claudia I will make a point of destroying them before I pop my clogs.