Category Archives: Writers

Rural research unearths plenty of reckonings

“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians.”

LONDON-BASED author Patsy Trench is the first to admit the workings of Australia’s farming history were not a natural subject for her to spend years researching. But her latest book A Country To Be Reckoned With tells the story of how a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ got to grips with our rural past through the experience of her influential ancestor, George Matcham Pitt.

“As a ‘townie’ living in London, the world of Australian 19th century agriculture was about as far outside my familiar sphere as it’s possible to get,” Trench said.

“I got to know my great-great-grandfather G.M. Pitt while I was writing my first book (The Worst Country in the World) about his grandmother, our pioneer migrant Mary Pitt.

“He was obviously a great character – larger than life, with a passion for rhetoric and a fondness for quoting from Shakespeare and Burns, which I understood was rare among farmers.”

Despite much hesitation, Trench said she started from the knowledge that the stock and station agency her ancestor founded — Pitt, Son & Badgery — was well-known in country circles, even though the company was taken over decades ago.

“In the end I decided to turn my ignorance to advantage: like the ‘New Chums’ who arrived in New South Wales in the 19th century expecting to make their fortune on the land knowing not the first thing about farming.

“I came at the topic as an outsider and I make no bones about it.”

Trench made several trips to rural New South Wales with Australian family members during her research, which she describes as “mystery tours” that led to several revelations about her subject and family.

“I knew ‘GM’ had taken up land in the Gwydir district in the 1840s, but there was also evidence he visited the district ten years earlier, along with his de-facto stepfather William Scott,” she said.

“On our first visit to Moree we could find no trace of him in the 1830s, but further research revealed that Scott and he had acquired a licence for a property on the Gwydir River, which was taken from them after several years in complex circumstances.”

Patsy also discovered a possible connection with an Aboriginal Pitt family.

“There was a Tom Pitt born in 1838, the year my great-great-grandfather arrived at the Gwydir in search of land,” she said.

“There are no signs of Aboriginal Pitts before that time, but there are now hundreds living in the area and I’ve been in touch with them and hope to meet up with them one day. It’s believed they got their name from GM, one way or another.”

Bush character re-examined

A Country To Be Reckoned With is Trench’s second major work on her family’s Australian origins, and brings to life a relatively unknown ‘Bush’ archetype: the auctioneer.

“I could quote a poem I reproduce in the book, which appeared in a Pitt, Son & Badgery anniversary leaflet,” she said.

PIONEER PITT George Matcham Pitt (1814-1896).

“They describe the auctioneer as ‘the fellow with his coat off in the pen’: a man of charisma and personality with a remarkable gift of the gab. A master at handling men and getting things going, often asked to MC events such as weddings; with a retentive memory, sharp wit and ‘captivating smile’, manipulative, optimistic and perennially cheerful.

“All that said, having witnessed an actual cattle auction last year in Wagga Wagga, the auctioneer’s job is to get the thing done as quickly and efficiently as possible, so not a lot of time for captivating smiles or clever jokes.”

Trench, a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ who migrated to Australia in the 1960s to further her acting career, eventually returned to the United Kingdom. She believes researching and writing about her adoptive country’s past has evolved her view of it.

“When I lived here in my hedonistic youth I thought Australia was paradise and the people the most friendly and welcoming people in the world,” she said.

“Now I know a bit about Australia’s colonial past I see things, and the people, a bit differently. It’s still a stunningly beautiful country with great people in it, but there’s this undercurrent of a dark past that has only really emerged in the past thirty years or so.”

Since her family was responsible for taking land that belonged to Indigenous people, Trench ruminates on whether she is complicit in this confronting history.

“Should I be proud of what my ancestors and their peers achieved, or ashamed? It’s a question facing a lot of Australians and the attitude to their colonial history seems to change every time I come here.”

In the same way that Trench’s first book The Worst Country in the World led to the journey that became A Country To Be Reckoned With, her new book seems to be demanding more storytelling of this writer.

“It’s the Aboriginal connection I would like to get to the bottom of,” she said. “Who was Tom Pitt, born in what was to become the Moree district in 1838? He seems to have hundreds of descendants but nobody seems to know who his parents were, or how he acquired his name. I am hoping to hook up with some Aboriginal Pitts who I’ve been in contact with online. There are some great stories to be told.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Two camps at Australia’s Picnic

I RECENTLY came across a first edition of Joan Lindsay’s iconic 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock at a country market, and an early print-run of the book’s last chapter, The Secret of Hanging Rock, published two decades later.

“Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing?”

With the new television adaptation out this year, my interest was piqued and I purchased both, eager to pick over the evidence of one of Australia’s enduring literary mysteries. Not what happened to the missing schoolgirls and their governess on a volcanic outcrop in the bush at the turn of the 19th century, but why the original publishers thought Australians, in the 1960s, weren’t ready to know the end of the story.

The copy of Picnic is rather dog-eared, having been purchased for a secondary school library soon after publication in 1967. The borrowing slip in the back reveals the book was enthusiastically loaned in the years before Peter Weir’s groundbreaking screen adaptation of the novel in 1975.

NOW A MAJOR FILM Penguin’s 1975 film tie-in paperback.

I own a very well-thumbed paperback published by Penguin in 1975 as a film tie-in, but this is the first time I have ever seen the iconic F. W. Cheshire Publishing Ltd. hardback, with its lurid green, psychedelic dust jacket illustration oozing a 1960s vibe like Rosemary’s Baby. I checked online and found that even in this condition, my battered, plastic-covered survivor is worth hundreds of dollars. Not a bad buy on my part, for just five.

Despite Cheshire’s and Penguin’s apparent reluctance to publish it, The Secret of Hanging Rock emerged in 1987. This slim volume is Lindsay’s final chapter to Picnic, padded by literary essays from members of a lucrative cult that grew out of Lindsay’s only successful novel.

MYSTERY AUTHOR Joan Lindsay’s name is mysteriously absent from the cover of her last published work.

These can be broadly defined as utilising humour, whimsy and academic analysis to justify the decision to keep the solution to Joan Lindsay’s mystery from the international (paying) audience of book and film. What none of them countenance is that the original story — if you keep Chapter Eighteen intact — is hardly a mystery at all.

What was strangely missing from the front cover of The Secret of Hanging Rock was the name of the woman who ensured Picnic’s final chapter saw the light of day: Joan Lindsay herself.

Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing? Truncated stories and omitted credits… it’s as though Lindsay wasn’t ever to be trusted with her own work. Luckily she ensured we got to see Chapter Eighteen regardless of all the hullabaloo.

Although at least four reprints of this chapter were released in 1987, the title quickly disappeared from high-street bookshelves. Eventually, it started to garner very high prices on the second-hand market.

AUTHOR, REINSTATED Joan Lindsay finally got cover credit in 2016.

That all changed in 2016 when it was re-released by ETT Imprint with an extra essay penned by Mudrooroo, who towed the cult’s line by nixing any hint of Lindsay’s final chapter containing a solution.

The eBook edition reached No. 1 on Amazon in its category, Joan Lindsay finally made her own front cover, and everyone, including her estate, got their portion.

This was hardly a surprise. In 2016, a stage adaptation of Picnic premiered in Melbourne, and a new television series was announced.

But outside the machinations of publishing, this new outbreak of picnic fever has arrived with something of a reckoning.

Lifting the gossamer veil

In 2015, the fortieth anniversary of Weir’s film, which hit our screens during Australia’s constitutional crisis around Gough Whitlam’s sacking, a few journalists marked the milestone with reminders of Picnic at Hanging Rock’s enduring cultural significance.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM The schoolgirls approach escape velocity.

I called for a remake to reinstate Lindsay’s final chapter and acknowledge the bridge that she built between European settlers and Aboriginal Dreamtime in her truncated last chapter. Australians were ready to have the mystery solved, I reckoned.

An ongoing protest titled Miranda Must Go was on a similar trajectory, started by Melbourne artist and PhD student Amy Spiers, whose ultimate aim is to “decolonise” Hanging Rock and allow its Indigenous meaning to re-emerge.

But there are those who want the Edwardian gossamer veil to remain in place.

In 2017, a new biography of Lady Linsday, including an analysis of her Picnic oeuvre, came in the form of Janelle McCullough’s weighty tome Beyond The Rock.

It’s a very good read (check out my review) for those wanting to know more about Joan Lindsay, and it sheds a little more light on the origins of the story, but Lindsay’s bridge to Aboriginal Australians was not analysed.

Picnic camps

Walking the line between these two Picnic camps is Fremantle Media’s television adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, currently screening on Foxtel with its astonishingly youthful cast.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Despite decades of calling for more roles for older women in popular culture, it was a shock to read that iconic middle-aged characters like headmistress Miss Appleyard and mathematics teacher Miss Greta McGraw (thoroughly well-portrayed by Rachel Roberts and Vivean Gray in Weir’s production) were cast with actors barely older than the schoolgirls.

This decision seems, at least partially, to cloud the “feminist lens” producer Jo Porter (director of drama for Fremantle Media Australia) claimed the production has at its core.

Pre-production on the series was dogged by protests from the Australian Directors’ Guild about engaging an offshore director instead of looking to Australian creatives, particularly since the production is financed solely by Australian backers.

What’s clear is there’s a strong sense of ownership around Picnic at Hanging Rock. The book, the place, and all cultural expressions of it have become critical to ongoing discussions about reconciliation between colonising Europeans (and others) and Aboriginal Australians.

One territory was drawn on Joan Lindsay’s behalf by her publishers when the decision was made to remove the last chapter in 1967, and ongoing attempts to besmirch its content as “unfilmable” and an unsatisfactory end to the story.

But another camp has settled into this Picnic. Around it, people are speaking (and listening to) the truth about Hanging Rock, its Indigenous heritage and significance. The conversation does not start, or end, with Joan Lindsay.

Right on cue, Penguin has re-released a new TV tie-in edition, staunchly entrenched with its blind-spot on what Lindsay’s final chapter might add to the reconciliation conversation.

But that will never be the end of this story…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Dodging reality with E.M. Forster

A writer’s review of E.M. Forster’s The Life to Come.

IN THESE glimpses through the window into Edwardian and post-war restrictions on homosexuality, much of them still chillingly relevant to our times, E.M. Forster recreates his own inner life – and that of gay men everywhere.

8073306Where his living, breathing gay protagonists meet allegorical endings in Classical juxtapositions, Forster was simply staying the hand of damnation he witnessed in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, keeping these men safe in another place and time.

Any writer doing that, and in private – most of these works were not published in his lifetime – was likely to be calming his own rising sense of panic and anger at tired British fears about sexual diversity.

Other stories (such as ‘The Obelisk’ and ‘Arthur Snatchfold’) are gloriously lust-filled in and around taboo themes of male sex, yet always replete with Forster’s tempering wit.

My favourite is the collection’s first, ‘Ansell’, the story of an academic forced to eschew the life laid out for him in books and letters, which has undertones of Forster’s most complex novel The Longest Journey.

“Essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s ‘all good now’ for the LGBTIQ community.”

‘Ambergo Empedocle’, the story of a strapping young Britisher, honest to his bootstraps and set for a life of convention, is an Italian-set tragedy akin to Forster’s debut novel ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’. It explores the state of closeting so accurately, and the desire for anything but inhabiting a life where the core restriction cuts to the soul.

Forster often sends his protagonists to other states instead of this world in the denouement of his stories. More often than not, author or protagonist label this a ‘dodge’, a kind of schoolboy’s mind game.

It’s a literary technique that comes straight out of classical mythology, but Forster’s use of it inspired generations of writers decades after he’d hung up his literary tools, including Joan Lindsay, the Australian author of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

While they blend myths and legends with a Sci-Fi edge, these moments reveal Forster capturing the genuine suicidal motivations experienced by a significant proportion of same sex-attracted people.

I have read and reread these stories all my adult life, and will continue to do so. They are essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s “all good now” for the LGBTIQ community.

In them, Forster is celebrating what he got away with sexually and emotionally, yet imagining what the risk could have cost him. Thank Jove he didn’t burn them, like he did some of his other gay-themed work.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.