Category Archives: Rebels

Germaine Greer’s telling understory

A writer’s review on Germaine Greer’s White Beech.

“Greer has a better time relating to animals than she does humans.”

ON the 2006 death of ‘Crocodile Hunter’ Steve Irwin at the barb of a stingray, Germaine Greer infamously declared: “The animal world has finally taken its revenge”.

Portrayed as uncaring in the international media, Greer was at the time custodian of a piece of South East Queensland rainforest, in the midst of rehabilitating it from a dairy farm, banana plantation and logging resource.

The habits of local flora and fauna were commanding her attention as a cross-section of living ecology and heritage, but she was also making it the subject of what surely ranks as the greatest feat of research ever undertaken on the one plot of Australian land.

The result was published as White Beech, and it’s quite a read.

Once again, Greer provides an enormous wealth of research, so much that White Beech is as much a textbook as it is a memoir.

Her deft search for any semblance of Aboriginal ownership of the land is bravely captured, and it’s a necessity in a book which tackles the very notion of land being property, but it’s so dispassionate the writer opens herself to controversy in a manner which has now become like clockwork.

Greer pushes the boundaries of archival knowledge further with each of her books, but as a memoir I felt White Beech to be a bit of a let down. Surely there is plenty more to know about the process of rehabilitating the forest, the obstacles Greer faced and the stories of those who helped her.

germaine-greer-bee_2800078aWhile she describes pivotal encounters with several animals at Cave Creek over the years (particularly the bower bird who Greer says called her to purchase the place), these vignettes reveal plenty about the author’s true affection for the natural world, but they also suggest Greer has a better time relating to animals than she does humans, and this is perhaps why there is little human drama in the tale… but let us in on the reasons!

Can this be the same writer as Daddy We Hardly Knew You, which blended tremendous accounts of human frailty with the elemental environments that story traversed?

Revisiting where she was at with the rainforest at the time of Irwin’s death would have been an interesting plot point. Perhaps the controversy was painful, but it would have made for more courageous storytelling.

Yet you can see Greer trying. Whole conversations are published in inverted commas, but they don’t ring true as real dialogue, despite having the odd colloquialism thrown in. Great literary non-fiction this would be, if it framed the story of Cave Creek in a classic story arc, which I refuse to believe was impossible, given ‘one woman and her forest’ has all the hallmarks of the greatest plots.

Greer lets her academic front down for a rare moment in the chapter ‘Bloody Botanists’ when she speculates on the sexual orientation of naturalist and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, after revealing she also feels Australian icon Sir Joseph Banks may have been a perennial bachelor for a reason.

“You have to wonder whether plant-hunting was a way for gay men to escape from societal pressure,” she writes.

Do we have to wonder? Given her ability to research literally anything, what prevented Greer from leaching the archives on this subject? Evidence on Banks and Leichhardt’s contemporary Matthew Flinders has fleshed-out a living, breathing homosexual mariner.

She could also take a leaf out of other writer’s forests, like that of E.M. Forster, to find what she has in common with LGBTI wordsmiths, plantsmen and women, and their sense of place.

If Greer was willing to do more than write about her gut feelings, it would set her apart from the one-dimensional approach to nature (human and otherwise) she observed so bravely in Steve Irwin.

“The one lesson any conservationist must labour to drive home is that habitat loss is the principal cause of species loss,” Greer wrote in The Guardian on the occasion of Irwin’s death, just one peak on her climb to the summit of understanding what she so deftly captures in White Beech.

‘Diary of a Conservationist’ would have been a better subtitle, had White Beech revealed more about Greer than her cracking research skills, for a conservationist is what she became in her rainforest years.

Because I suspect this transformation involved much more than research.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Collective courage

PLUCK COVER copy
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I’M pleased to announce the publication of another work of non-fiction – Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded. Here’s an extract from the foreword:-

The articles in this collection, written between 2009 and 2015, have one thing in common: courage. I am not referring to the guts it takes to climb Mount Everest (although there is one amazing climbing feat in one of these stories), I mean something that runs deep in the soul and can be drawn on to face moments in life as significant as conquering a mountain.

‘Pluck’ is a bit of an old-fashioned word, one you might notice in a 19th century novel or a genteel play, used to describe a person who does something unusually brave, or lives their life in a manner that sets them apart.

For me, the word is slightly pejorative, in that calling someone ‘plucky’ pigeonholes them as a certain type, the same way that descriptors like ‘tomboy’ and ‘pansy’ signal something only fractionally better than other words we might not use in ‘polite’ company.

Chronologically, the earliest of these articles was Grit & Gentility, an analysis of the amazing voyage undertaken by one of Australia’s pioneer settler families, the Pitts. My inspiration was Germaine Greer’s study of Ann Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Wife, where a whole life needed to be drawn in the absence of primary sources. To bring Mary Pitt into focus, I took the small amount of evidence about her, and used a contemporary tool – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – as a shortcut to Georgian sensibilities around marriage.

While editing and writing for Blue Mountains Life magazine, I instigated a two-year cycle of writing about women who’d had an impact on the region’s cultural heritage, or been impacted by it. This research allowed me to explore a region I had more than thirty years’ association with, and led to pieces on the famous, such as Nellie Melba; unsung media pioneers like Beryl Guertner; and explorers like Katie Webb who had been relatively sidelined.

Many of the people in these articles are those whose work I admire, and whose lives I analysed for times where they needed to engage a little pluck, and got a very bad name in the process. Judy Davis’ ‘difficult’ tag, particularly while shooting her first international role in A Passage to India, has rarely been analysed in the context of a young performer facing-off an older director, and was another early piece of writing that led to others in a similar vein, particularly about female performers, of which there are many in Pluck.

There has long been a scarcity of writing about Australia’s great ‘pink expats’ – the likes of costume designer Orry-Kelly and writer Sumner Locke Elliott – simply because they left our shores and barely registered as Australians. I have sought to reconnect them with their homeland and look at how far their courage took them. I also wrote on another Australian icon, Matthew Flinders, to shift the perspective from his sexuality to the homophobia he may have been subjected to, and how that discrimination still preys on Australian men two centuries later, when considering the coming out of Ian Thorpe.

Writers also feature heavily in this collection, and my ongoing fascination with literary reputations damaged by snobby naysayers, such as that of Shakespeare; but also how oeuvres are formed, in the case of Agatha Christie and the clues I found to her infamous disappearance.

Scattered throughout are various people who are not famous, but are notable for the courage they drew on when faced with emotional challenges.

Looking at this collection, I am reminded that in 2009, after years of waiting for someone else’s permission, or for validation that was never going to come, I determined to make writing my primary focus as an artist, a leap of faith that felt more than a little plucky.

Pluck begins and ends with E. M. Forster. My inspiration is always his courageous writing legacy, and what he left to generations of gay writers in his wake.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Navigating prejudice – Matthew Flinders

HELLO, SAILOR! Navigator Matthew Flinders (1774-1814)
HELLO, SAILOR! Navigator Matthew Flinders (1774-1814)

SPECULATION about the sexual orientation of iconic English seaman Matthew Flinders rose like a colourful maritime flag over a decade ago when previously unknown letters surfaced, including emotionally charged passages written by Flinders to fellow explorer George Bass.

In his 2007 Meanjin article “Exploring love: did they or didn’t they?” historian Garry Wotherspoon asserted: “If the excerpts from Flinders’ letter to Bass had been written to a person of the opposite sex, we would be in little doubt as to what sort of relationship it was or what kinds of hope and expectation it had once contained”.

“It’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.”

“We would probably even confidently presume a sexual component in it, a basis in physical feelings if not actions. The possibility of a physical side to or a sexual element in Bass and Flinders’ relationship should therefore be acknowledged and considered.”

In the years since, little acknowledgement or consideration has been given to the sexuality of either man.

Historians are invariably baffled by Flinders in particular. Many of his extraordinary reactions lead them to describe such moments as out-of-character; but for anyone genuinely wanting to understand him, it’s time to shift perspective and explore the homophobia Matthew Flinders encountered.

Both Lincolnshire-born, Bass and Flinders met on a voyage to Australia in 1795 onboard the HMS Reliance. Once in the new colony, the two made a series of expeditions together. First it was short trips along waterways close to Port Jackson. Eventually, onboard the Norfolk, they circumnavigated Tasmania.

It’s tempting to paint all kinds of Brokeback Mountain-style possibilities for two unmarried men isolated on vessels in far-flung locations.

“There was a time, when I was so completely wrapped up in you, that no conversation but yours could give me any degree of pleasure …” Flinders wrote to Bass towards the end of this period, “And yet it is not clear to me that I love you entirely …”

Both men returned to England on separate ships in 1800 – the year of Flinders’ ‘love’ letter – and were married within six months of one another.

Bass soon left on a trading mission to the southern hemisphere in January 1801, leaving Flinders’ letter at home, where Mrs Bass – Elizabeth – had plenty of time to consider its contents and form the response she penned onto the letter itself.

“This, George, is written by a man who bears a bad character … no one has seen this letter but I could tell you many things that makes me dislike him,” she wrote.

HMS sloop Investigator.
MARRIAGE VESSEL HMS sloop Investigator.

Her warning was given during a major turning point in Flinders’ life.

He shocked his friends and family by responding to a suggestion of marriage from a friend, Ann Chapelle, who he’d discouraged in previous letters.

Then he went so far as to invite her to return to Australia with him, keeping the reality of the Admiralty’s strict rules on wives from her until she was forced to get her things off the HMS Investigator and let him embark.

What the speed and the controversy of the marriage achieved was widespread gossip within the Admiralty and his circle that painted Flinders as a fervently married man.

Any Brokeback-style expeditions were off the cards in the following years for Bass and Flinders, whose paths did not cross again. Bass captained the Venus on trading jobs to New Zealand and Tahiti, while Flinders completed the first circumnavigation of Australia.

By the time the Investigator docked in Sydney in 1803, Bass had departed on the Venus bound for Tahiti and South America on a voyage for which there remains no known end – the ship and her crew all disappeared completely.

Flinders also had problems returning to his wife, when, in December 1803, he was arrested on the island of Mauritius, a French-held colony.

Much has been made of Flinders’ seven-year imprisonment at the order of Mauritian Governor Charles Decaen. The records revolve around spying accusations against Flinders and his incorrect passport, understandable concerns considering the English and the French were at war.

But what if homophobic whispers had pursued Flinders to the southern hemisphere? 

French Captain Nicolas Baudin.
CORDIAL CAPTAIN Nicolas Baudin in 1801. (Engraving from a portrait by Joseph Jauffret)

By the time Flinders limped into Mauritius in his damaged schooner the Cumberland, Decaen had heard of Monsieur “Flandaire”, probably from French captain Nicolas Baudin.

Baudin and Flinders had two previous encounters onboard Baudin’s ship, the Géographe, off the coast of southern Australia in early 1802.

After much flag-raising and shouting, when Flinders pulled the Investigator next to Baudin’s vessel and boarded, the men had the stilted, competitive discussion about charts and landmarks that has become folklore in the maritime history of both nations.

Researchers Jean Fornasiero and John West-Sooby had another look at the accounts of the Flinders-Baudin meetings in their 2005 essay A Cordial Encounter?

“Certain discrepancies between the accounts of the two captains are difficult to explain,” they wrote. “These have generally been attributed to communication difficulties between the French navigator and his English-speaking counterpart”.

“We do know Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will.”

“This assumption, however, is far from self-evident. We have thus chosen to canvass the full range of possible explanations for the conflicting accounts of that meeting, including the hypothesis that Flinders, who is generally considered a reliable witness, may indeed have misrepresented his encounter with Baudin.”

But the one possibility they neglected was that Nicolas Baudin knew a homosexual when he saw one.

Eleven years prior to this encounter, the French Revolution recognised the existence of homosexuality when it left consensual, private sexual relations between two men out of the French Penal Code of 1791 (and again in 1810).

Before this, gay men could be burned at the stake if caught in sexual acts. As a consequence of the change, they were generally free to be themselves in public.

Compare that with Flinders’ place of birth, where, at the time of his meeting with Baudin, Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 still listed sodomy as a hanging crime. Consequently, writing love letters would only have been for the extremely courageous.

Baudin arrived in Mauritius, and died there of tuberculosis, just months before Flinders’ incarceration. Its doesn’t require a great leap to imagine him describing Flinders to Decaen as “pédéraste pétulant” instead of “un navigateur qualifiés”.

We do know Flinders ‘spat chips’ at Decaen for keeping him against his will, from letters the French Governor received from the explorer.

Decaen requested Flinders dine with he and his wife on the second day of Flinder’s detention. Flinders, who’d refused to remove his hat when he met the Governor, declined the olive branch and kept to his prison room dusting-off more missives.

His responses were so stinging that the Governor never repeated his invitation and kept this bird in a cage for a further seven years. 

The cage wasn’t entirely austere for Flinders – trips to the theatre and stays with local aristocrats, and parole for extended periods, took place in a civilised French colonial society which tolerated any gay rumours and allowed him to pass the time writing.

But Decaen maintained his personal control over Flinders’ detention, even contravening Napoleon’s 1806 directive to free the Englishman. The Governor’s excuse was the kind of blanket term used to beleaguer Oscar Wilde: Flinders was dangerous.

After his release and return to England in 1810, where he continued writing on his many groundbreaking explorations, Flinders’ ill health brought about his untimely death at the age of forty.

PLUCK COVER copyYet his remarkable achievements resulted in inexplicable omission from the ranks of the Royal Society, the Admiralty’s old boys’ club that may, like Baudin, Decaen and Mrs Bass before them, have suspected the truth.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded