Australia and how to find it

(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. 

Title page

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?

the-legend-of-king-omalley-seymour-centre.jpg
The Legend of King O’Malley (Seymour Centre)

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’s Cloudstreet 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.

Our Country's Good NT 2
NT poster

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.)

Twenty Twelve (bbc.co.uk)
Twenty Twelve (bbc.co.uk)

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.

 

The Games (theaustralian.com.au)
The Games (theaustralian.com.au)

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).

Just saying.

Patsy Trench
London, June 2018

patsytrench@gmail.com 

Advertisements

The Secret River

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.

20170309_114322
Nathaniel Dean (Thornhill) and Ningali Lawford Wolf (Dhirrumbin); Adelaide Festival programme

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.

Secret River
Theatre backdrop (photo by Tony Trench)

I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the Worldwere 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.

Our Country’s Good

In 1789, barely a year after the First Fleet of convicts and marines arrived in New South Wales, the governor, Arthur Phillip – who was a remarkable and unusual man – made the remarkable and unusual suggestion that the convicts stage a play. The chosen piece was ‘The Recruiting Officer’ by George Farquhar, and the chosen playmaster was a junior officer called Lieutenant Ralph Clark.

National Theatre programme
National Theatre programme

Out of this unusual and remarkable story the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker crafted a funny and moving play called Our Country’s Good, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and first produced at the Royal Court Theatre back in 1988. Now the National Theatre is giving the play a welcome revival, but maybe it was the vastness of the Olivier stage that dissipated much of the intimacy of the relationships at the heart of the play, or the slow pace of the action (it was a second preview), but somehow the joyful, redemptive play that I remember from all those years ago was not as moving or as funny as I was expecting.

The director has made the unusual decision to cast Afro-Caribbean actors in the roles of Governor Phillip and the witty and elegant Watkin Tench. I am all for colour-blind casting but since this is partly a story of the colonisation of a black country by a white one, in this instance it is just confusing. The aboriginal community is represented by one actor (one more than in the BBC TV series ‘Banished’), who observes, and dances, and eventually speaks his thoughts (in cultured English, another jarring note).

Governor Phillip (wikipedia)
Governor Phillip (wikipedia)

But all power to the actors, and in particular to Jason Hughes (Midsommer Murders) who manages to turn the uptight, slightly humourless Ralph Clark into a warm and interesting human being; and to Lee Ross, who takes on the role of the ‘thespian’ Sideway and makes him both hilarious and totally believable. The music is an unusual (and remarkable) mix of gospel, slave-song and guitar, with just the right mix of didgeridoo – previously recorded in Australia I believe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(wikipedia)
(wikipedia)

In preparation for seeing the play I have been re-reading Keneally’s book. He calls it a novel, but more surprisingly he states that ‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental’. However virtually all his characters, from the governor and his bad-tempered deputy Major Robbie Ross to the convicts Robert Sideway and Mary Brennan – who Clark casts in his play and with whom he later had a child – were not only real people but are represented by Keneally pretty accurately.

In his Author’s Note Keneally acknowledges ‘… that in making this fiction he found rich material in such works as ‘The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark … and David Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’. Out of idle curiosity I glanced through both of these to find that while Clark kept intimate diaries of some of his early years in the colony the relevant period in 1789 is missing. And all Collins has to say about it was: ‘The anniversary of his Majesty’s birth-day … was observed with every distinction in our power; … the detachment of marines fired three vollies, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove … and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than “humbly to excite a smile,” and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.’[1] (They did love their double negatives in those days.)

So all power to Thomas Keneally and to Timberlake Wertenbaker for drawing to our attention such a remarkable (and unusual) event in the earliest days of the colony. And to the National Theatre for transporting us temporarily to that remarkable and much-ignored (in this country) continent.

Finally – a note to the programme compilers: Norfolk Island is not off the coast of Tasmania.

Patsy Trench, August 2015
patsytrench@gmail.com

[1] An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Chapter VII. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/colacc1.pdf