When I asked this question on a social media forum recently the most common response from readers was, ‘Knowing about what happened in the past can help to make sense of what’s happening today.’ Writers responded with comments such as, ‘I have always had a fascination with . . . [the Roman period, Medieval Britain, the history of the woman’s movement, the colonising of the USA, etc etc].’
My own response comes from my experiences of researching for my non-fiction books about the history of colonial Australia as experienced by my Australian ancestors. Among the books I read were a smattering of novels, because while non-fiction doesn’t necessarily focus on people’s emotions or reactions to events, a well-written and –researched historical novel can bring to life the people behind those events.
As the late writer Hilary Mantel said, history can tell us what characters did, but not what they thought and felt – “the interior of my characters’ lives,” as she put it. And in response to the criticism that historical novels often falsify the past she asserted that readers of historical fiction are “actively requesting a subjective interpretation” of the evidence, and that the writer’s job is “to recreate the texture of lived experience: to activate the senses, and to deepen the reader’s engagement through feeling.” (I’ve written about the hazards of playing around with history here.) Click here for the full text of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture.
In my case if there is a particular event or period in the past that interests me that’s a good enough reason to want to write a book set in that period. A case in point was the Bloomsbury Set between the World Wars, which features in my second novel The Purpose of Prudence de Vere. The battle in the theatre world between the Old Order of the actor-manager and the New Idea of plays that challenged the status quo through the likes of Ibsen and & Shaw, plus a fascination with the suffrage movement, were the inspirations behind my Edwardian novels The Makings of Violet Frogg and Mrs Morphett’s Macaroons.
When writing about her own family history at much the same place and time as mine, the writer Kate Grenville decided to turn her book The Secret River into a novel. As she says on her website: “Solomon Wiseman [her real-life ancestor] emerged from the documents as a vivid, strongly-present individual man, but he was also a representative of his class, time and place. I realised that I could use what I knew of his life, but turn his story into fiction so that I could tell the silent part of his story as well. The story of one man could stand for a much bigger story, about the often-violent reality of white settlement in Australia.”
The image is the programme of the play of The Secret River staged in a quarry outside Adelaide as part of the 2017 Festival. I wrote about this amazing experience here.
If anyone is reading this I would love to hear of any particular historical novels you’ve read and enjoyed, and why!
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.
So here I am in Australia yet again, that wonderful country of friendly and open people, beautiful scenery, surprising stories and terrible public transport.
I thought it was worth repeating a blog of a few months ago, in the hopes that people outside Australia will have a peek and take just a little more interest in this little-understood country. But if you are planning on visiting the continent, and more to the point, Sydney, a couple of warnings:
Public transport is rubbish. For certain suburbs the last train to leave the City (or CBD as it’s referred to here) often leaves before 9pm.
Trains aren’t always running in the evenings during to building works on what I think is a new Metro line.
Don’t try driving in the Eastern Suburbs at night, or indeed at points during the day. The light railway – two years in the making and still under construction – virtually blocks the roads.
A few years hence public transport may be a dream here. Until that time, I can only say London Transport – I miss you!
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).
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.