Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Pioneers: 31 – 48

I finished recording The Pioneers on Saturday, well ahead of my mid-April schedule for completion. Even the tea incident didn’t deter me!  I put the unexpected rapidity of my progress down to the fact that I really enjoyed Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first novel.  I’d get to the end of a chapter and think, just one more! Sometimes it was only the fact I kept tripping over my hapless tongue that I would stop.

In my posts on the earlier chapters, I noted how well Prichard conveyed the atmosphere of the colonial settlement and that continued throughout the remainder of the novel.  As someone who’s obsessed with food, I was especially interested to read at one point about blackened hams and bushels of herbs hanging over the hearth.  Now that made me drool in a way that weak tea and thin gruel porridge in another scene did not.

While Prichard went on to write Coonardoo, whose eponymous Aboriginal heroine is the central character, in The Pioneers, the character of Teddy, a stock-hand, is minor. He’s represented very much in, what was no doubt then (perhaps even still), a fairly common way to view Australia’s First Peoples: he is child-like and superstitious, not to be trusted, but at the same time relied upon entirely for his knowledge of country as it served the pioneers. The only time anyone addresses a direct comment to Teddy it’s in  broken, simplified English:

  You go back, tell boss—cows all right—Davey very sick man, here.

[spoiler alert]

At the heart of this novel is an ambivalence about the pioneering project.  While many of the characters reflect on the achievements of Donald Cameron as the first settler to open up the hill country, when Deidre contemplates the manner of his death, the possibility of a very different reading emerges:

She wondered if he had ring-barked the tree—score its living green wood—if he had killed it, and in turn it had killed him, pinning him to the earth with its great bulk of dead and rotting timber. She could see Davey’s father, heavy, squarely-built, in shabby, dark clothes, lying beneath it, his grey hair blood-dabbled, his face bruised and blackened. The man who had conquered the wilderness had lain there, on the very road he had made, broken, cast aside—a thing that life had done with. It was as if the wilderness had taken its revenge.

This observation, in addition to Cameron’s miserly, dissatisfied character, ensures we don’t admire him unreservedly.

In the end, it is the women who endure despite the folly and treachery of their menfolk.

***

Meanwhile, following up on my earlier question about how The Pioneers was received at the time of its first publication, I found a contemporary review of The Pioneers at Trove via the National Library of Australia. The review was in The Queenslander Newspaper, 13 November 1915, and if it reveals a major incident in the plot without warning (!), is complimentary:

This and other exciting incidents give a sensational cast to the story and sustain the interest when the struggles of the pioneer period have ended.  The story is one of very considerable merit and interest.

If we described a novel as having a ‘sensational cast’ today, I’m not sure it would be a compliment, but I’m interpreting the final line of the review to suggest that in the historical context it is.  Perhaps the true test, however, would be to track down a copy of the review in The Bulletin (Vol.36 No. 861,  2) to see what those blokes thought.

***

My recording of The Pioneers is currently being catalogued and will be available shortly via LibriVox.  I’ll let you know.

UPDATE 28 FEB: Well, that was a far speedier process than I thought it would be. The audiobook is now available for download here.  Would love to know what you think.

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Fahrenheit 451

The last book that the Wednesday Bookworms read before starting our year of the AWWW 2012 Challenge together next month was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I wanted to record a few thoughts about Bradbury’s science fiction classic here, because as I was reading it, I was reminded, once again, about why the challenge is so important.

Fahrenheit 451 is the story of Guy Montag, a fireman in an unspecified future, where firemen are charged with creating fires to burn houses that are discovered to contain books. The powers-that-be have decreed  owning and reading books is illegal since, collectively, they contain conflicting opinions and therefore, apparently, cannot be true.  Their fear is that the people will become confused and a confused populace does not make for a happy, manipulable society.  Of course, most people have become utterly numb and if they’re not numb, they’re unhappy. The story follows Montag as he discovers the content of the books he’s numbly burnt for the last ten years and so, it follows, he becomes unhappy and takes action.

The novel was first published in 1953  and over time has come to be regarded as something of a classic. In the 50th anniversary edition that I borrowed from the library, the publisher interviewed Bradbury and asked him when he came to realise his book ‘had real staying power’ and observed,  that it ‘meets the [imagined future] reality test’ far better than Orwell’s 1984. Bradbury noted that Orwell was concerned with a particular political system, Communism, whereas he was more interested in ‘the whole social atmosphere: the impact of TV and radio and the lack of education’.

Here, I think the apparent timelessness of  Fahrenheit 451 is attributable to its reworking of moral panics about new technology and youth that have been going on ever since Socrates decried the written word and the Senate decried Socrates’ influence on the youth. (Today we have the Internet and electronic games.) For this reason, while I accept that Fahrenheit 451 has ‘staying power’ on one level, I think that’s due to what is ultimately its conservatism, its elitism about certain technological forms.

Having made this observation about the novel’s technologically conservative tendencies, I think it’s important to note that while  in much of  Bradbury’s world, television and radio do no more than purvey banality  and provide distraction from living, it is not inevitable that they do.  For instance Faber, a book-hiding former-professor, and his counter-parts who camp out on the side of railway tracks, all have access to television to follow a crucial news item.  And the shell radio that Montag’s wife, Mildred, has permanently attached to her ear has its counterpart in Faber’s green-bullet-earpiece invention, which he uses to communicate with Montag. Faber even lectures Montag at one point:

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books. The same things could be in the “parlor families” today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all.  The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

The use of ‘old’ in Faber’s list of where Montag might find the ideas no one has access to anymore in Bradbury’s universe is not a coincidence.  The new technologies in Fahrenheit 451 are those that are most associated with women and the domestic in the novel, specifically Mildred and her friends. The parlour families are projected on the screens that comprise the walls of Montag’s house and it is Mildred not Montag who seeks the reassurance of their presence, just as it is she who remains oblivious to significant events while the shell radio is attached to her ear.

Again, I can only think of the timelessness of moral panics, for it was this alignment with women that hampered the novel’s initial acceptance as a valued cultural form when it first emerged.

I don’t know if  Bradbury would have any patience with my  feminist analysis of his work.  In the 1979 coda to Fahrenheit 451, he admits he sent rejection letters to each and every correspondent who made suggestions about re-writing his works to include better representations of women and African-Americans. He further sent  missives to anyone who edited his works to remove references to spirituality or anything else they deemed unacceptable to minorities:

There is more than one way to burn a book.  And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.  Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Bradbury’s book be rewritten, but there is a similar diatribe against minorities in the book, delivered by Beatty, Montag’s fire-chief boss:

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade-journals.

I suppose it’s here that I think Fahrenheit 451 is dated and can’t lay claim to timelessness–since that’s what the publisher and other purveyors of cultural value are doing on its behalf. Not so much in the content of the accusations against minorities–that is another timeless moral panic– but in the absolute ordinariness  of the priorities of the central (usually white) male characters and their unquestioning belief in their right to freedom of expression, all the while characterising others’ (minorities) efforts to claim the same privilege as censorship, as an attack on freedom of expression. Even if it’s still possible to write these kinds of narratives, I suspect (hope?)  it’s less common to go unchallenged.

I’m not certain I’ll witness the revolution in the works by Australian women writers  I’ll be reading with the Bookworms in the year ahead, but, at the very least, I expect the basic assumptions about who can speak and act to be different. And who knows, we might even find something illuminating in an e-book.


Breaking News

Well, it’s not quite breaking news, but I’ve just found out that the first of my Librivox recordings is available for your listening pleasure.

I recorded the last chapter of Lilian Gask’s The Fairies and the Christmas Child, ‘The Favourite of the Fates’ late last year before I began the AWW challenge.

I thought I’d mention its availability here, so that if anyone’s interested in getting a preview of how I read, you can satisfy your curiosity.

I’m barely resisting the urge to apologise in advance for everything anyone might find fault with.

I’m excited and mortified, all at once.


Technical Issues: User Clumsiness

Proceedings slowed down here for a week or so after I spilt a cup of tea on my already ailing laptop.

Some time ago now, I dropped my laptop when the strap of my bag broke as I was getting off the bus one day. My laptop hit the concrete curb and in the process managed to kill the  screen backlight. While I took it in to a registered repairer, they deemed they couldn’t fix it to a warrantable standard. Or at least not without embarking on a potentially expensive search and see mission. And they did that thing that people at the cutting edge of computing do when they look at your 3 1/2 year-old laptop.

I took my  maimed laptop home and with the help of some friends hooked it up to a monitor, which allowed me to continue using it in a desk-bound fashion.

Then, late one evening last week, I made myself a pot of tea to sit beside me as I prepared to work or, more likely (it’s a bad memory I’ve repressed), faff about on Facebook before retiring.  Well, I’d poured my cup of tea and prepared to set it down on the desk when, in slow motion, the cup tilted, and at some point I’m fairly sure it tilted again, so that my poor laptop was awash with hot, milky tea.  After that it worked for a day and a bit. After that it stopped responding to the power-on button.

Some trauma, tears, and a few sweary rants that would put Kevin Rudd to shame later, I asked Twitter if anyone had an old laptop they could give away. Well, it turns out that Catriona of Circulating Library, who I do know IRL, did.

So, the AWW/Librivox challenge will go on. Hooray!

***

On a house-keeping issue, I’ve been trying to figure out how to include links to some blogs by women who aren’t doing the AWW2012 challenge, but who are clearly prolific readers and interesting writers, without straying too much from the deliberately narrow focus of this blog project.  I think I’ve answered my own conundrum in my description of the bloggers: they’re women residing in Australia and they write, so a recommended blog reading list is in order.  I’ve created a separate blog roll in the sidebar.

May I recommend you start your reading with Wendy’s reflections on the National Year of Reading (NYR) at her blog, The Spiralling Shape?  When I read this, one of the things I was reminded of was that the AWW2012 challenge came about in response to the NYR, as a way of focussing people’s reading and reminding them of the richness of writing by women in Australia.


The Pioneers: 17-30

The problem with blogging about The Pioneers as I record it is that there’s a greater risk of me dropping spoilers as I reflect upon chapters I’ve not long read.  If I were recording one of  Jane Austen’s novels, I wouldn’t be so concerned, since the minutiae  of her five main works are very well known. With Prichard’s first novel, however, I feel I have to tread more carefully.

In general terms then, Prichard is a master at conveying place and atmosphere.  Her descriptions of pioneering life in the Gippsland region of Victoria are replete with the sounds, smells, and sights of the stockyard and the school room, the dance-hall and the pub, the hearth and the bush setting.

Here’s quite a long section from Chapter 21:

The one street of Wirreeford had been cobbled for some distance on either side of the sale-yards because the cattle and horses made a sea of mud about them when the spring rains had soaked into the soft earth. The stores and shanties were full on sale days.

Drovers, rough-haired, hawk-eyed men, with faces seared and seamed with the dust of the roads, hands burnt, and broken with barcoo, slouched along the streets, or stood watching their cattle, yarning in desultory fashion, leaning over the rails of the drafting yards. They smoked, or chewed and spat, in front of the shanties, and at night sprawled over the table at the Black Bull, playing cards or tossing dice.

A mob that had travelled a long way was often yarded the night before the sales. When the selling for the day was over, the beasts that had come down from the hills were driven out along the Rane road, and got under Way for the northern markets; but sometimes they were left in the yards, lowing and bellowing all night, while the stockmen who were going to take charge of them spent the evening at the Black Bull, or Mrs. Mary Ann’s.

The township was full of the smell of cattle and dogs, and of the muddy, slowly-moving river that had become a waste-butt for the houses.

In the early spring, breezes from the ocean with a tang of salt in them blew right through the houses, and later, when the trees by the river blossomed, and bore masses of golden down, a warm, sweet, musky fragrance was wafted to their very doors. It overlaid the reek of the cattle yards, the fumes of rank spirits and tobacco that came from the shanties. And in the long glimmering twilights when the light faded slowly from the plains and the wall of the hills changed from purple to blue and misty grey, they were caught up into the mysterious darkness of the night—those perfumes of the lightwood and wattle trees in blossom—and rested like a benediction in the air.

I find myself getting very caught up when I read passages like this out loud.

Something that has intrigued me as I read The Pioneers is how very much more it has in common with something like Deadwood, rather than any sense of the glory days of bush life promulgated by the The Bulletin school of Australian literature.

There’s not much evidence of the romantic bushman in Prichard’s account of colonial times.  It’s all land-grabbing, miserliness, cattle-rustling, manipulation, threats, and violence that characterises the relationships between the men of the Wirree River region. Mateship? What’s mateship?

I’m interested to know how Prichard’s novel was received at the time, especially since it dates from those early days of The Bulletin school of thought.  I know it won a prize that allowed Prichard to pursue her writing, but was this alternative vision of life in the new settlements deemed ‘true’ according to the dominant values of the day, or was Prichard’s work seen to focus too much on non-bushman, and therefore unimportant or trivial, perspectives?

I will investigate.


Technical Issues: Song

I was interested to read in a comment made on the ‘Technical: Voice’ post here that there was a time ‘when it was everybody in the community’s responsibility to contribute their voices in song.’  Part of me wonders whether it’s for this reason that a book like The Pioneers–about the founding and development of a colonial settlement–has songs embedded in its depiction of every day life.

In the first half of The Pioneers, there are two songs I’ve encountered, about which I’ve had to make a decision with respect to how to adapt them from words on a page–arranged in verse and described as singing–to an audio format, where it becomes a matter of choice as to whether I should read the words straight; read them with a made-up sing-song voice to suggest singing; or to do some research, find the tune of the song being quoted, and sing it accordingly, within the significant limits of my vocal range.

What did anybody do before YouTube, I ask you?

The first song I researched was a gathering song of the Clan of Donald the Black that Donald Cameron sings when he’s ploughing the fields:

Pibroch o’ Donuil Dhu,
Pibroch o’ Donuil,
Wake thy wild voice anew,
Summon Clan Conuil.

Leave untended the herd,
The flock without shelter;
Leave the corpse uninterred,
The bride at the altar.

Leave the deer, leave the steer,
Leave nets and barges;
Come in your fighting gear,
Broad swords and t—a—r—ges.

In this case, my YouTube search didn’t yield anyone actually singing the words, but there were so many renditions of the music with bagpipes and fiddles that I took the tune and sang along to it.

Thankfully Prichard provides a ready apology for any bad singing on my part with Mary’s observation of her husband’s voice:  ‘His voice had not much music.’

The second song is one that the school master, Dan Farrel sings for his daughter, Deirdre, after explaining why they must always love Mrs Cameron. Farrel describes Mary as ‘my darling black head’, which doesn’t sound promising, really, until Deirdre begs him to sing the old song his use of the phrase has reminded her of:

Put your black head, darling, darling, darling.
Your darling black head my heart above.
O mouth of honey, with thyme for fragrance.
Who, with heart in breast, could deny you love?

The lyrics Prichard uses in The Pioneers, a translation by Samuel Ferguson, aren’t, I think, the most elegant arrangement. I was pleased to find a Gaelic language version, accompanied by a more nuanced English translation, on YouTube, not least because Prichard writes that Farrel sings the verse in Gaelic:

You only need to listen up to 1:49 on this video.

When I recorded this section of the audiobook, I was singing in English, which meant I had to make up my own phrasing, so it’s certain I don’t contribute much in the way of elegance myself to Ferguson’s translation of the song.

At any rate, I’ll continue to track down the tunes of any future songs I might have to sing during this project. Part of me rather enjoys having an excuse to sing–to just belt it out to prospective listeners–because it’s not something I generally do, even in my own lounge-room.


The Pioneers: 9-16

What I’ve come to appreciate about The Pioneers is that  it’s Mary Cameron’s story.  After all that huffing and puffing about ALL YOUR LAND ARE  BELONG TO ME, Donald Cameron is absent from the main action.  Prichard was clearly far more interested in conveying the experience of the women, children, and convict classes.

Implicit in this is, of course, a criticism of what came to be known as the squattocracy.  Just reading that last link, I suppose, when Donald was in in the Port, he was off with those who established the Melbourne Club.  He’s certainly unconscionably proud of being known as the Laird of Ayrmuir and thinks Mary’s spinning is beneath the wife of a man of his station.

Meanwhile, Mary is going about her business, establishing a school for the local children and fighting devastating bush fires.

When I was reading the descriptions of the bush fires, my whole body was suffused in chilling goosebumps to the extent that I physically shook and had to do another take of the recording.  This is a testament to Prichard’s evocative writing, but also, it was impossible to read these passages without recalling the images of  Black Saturday in 2009.

'For days a heavy, yellowish-grey haze had covered the hills.'

In these chapters too, Mary and Donald’s son, Davey, grows up, attends school, and then leaves it, before time, to work with his father on the property. Prichard offers additional insights into colonial-era gender norms and their inculcation in the figure of Deidre, the absconded convict school-master, Daniel Farrel’s daughter. While Davey is schooled by Farrel, after school motherless Deidre is tutored in the housewife’s arts by Mary.


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