The prophet Elijah got me published

ACADEMIC PROPHECY ‘Elijah reviving the Son of the Widow of Zarephath’ by Louis Hersent.

A Writer’s narrow escape.

BY the time I got to Sydney University to start my arts degree I was so sick and tired of essays, studying, research, and examinations, that I pretty-much floated my way through the whole year.

I was thrust into large, anonymous lecture halls, where everyone else seemed to be getting the jokes, was cooler, better connected, more studious, more artful and more alive than I was.

So I spent a lot of my time skulking around, mainly in the Fisher Library, reading titles that were not on my reading lists (actors’ biographies, mainly) and going to the movies in the city during the afternoon.

My results reflected this malaise, but even then I didn’t care. Years of academic competition at school had rendered any desire for tertiary achievement completely impotent.

I lived on campus in an all-male college, which was a total shock to the system. Escaping the ritual humiliation inflicted on new students was not actually very difficult – the older students doing the shaming really only wanted willing participants in their ridiculous ceremonies anyway. I would hide out in the cafeteria of the neighbouring hospital.

In terms of essay writing, I learnt very quickly how emotion and opinion were to be stripped-away. This made academic sense but put my enjoyment levels into the negative. I recall using the term ‘pure art’ in a Fine Arts paper, only to have it red-penned with great question marks. I couldn’t see why, if all the professors and tutors were having so much fun, that the words on the page had to be so damned boring.

In Ancient History I excelled, but only by default. Our chaplain had been the Ancient History teacher at school, so we had studied minimal Greece and even less Rome, but instead we’d gone through the history of ancient Israel in enormous detail.

The Old Testament of The Bible had come alive in those classes, not in an overtly religious sense, but as documentary evidence of societies long gone. This working knowledge of texts that have become so influential to modern thinking would prove invaluable in years to come, particularly as I joined one of the groups sidelined by the Levitical laws.

So it was a case of laziness when I selected an essay topic right in my field of knowledge – to examine another scholar’s views on the prophet Elijah. I can recall neither the scholar nor his views, but I brought the prophet himself as alive as I could, using neither emotion nor opinion. The trick was quoting far and wide, from dialogues full of religious fervour and belief, to soundly trounce my academic colleague for his lack of imagination.

In hindsight, the effectiveness of my argument was undoubtedly the way I suggested that in ancient Israel, blind faith conquered rational thought each and every time. I probably also felt that in three thousand years, not much had changed.

Prophets were always more three-dimensional than other biblical figures. They were cantankerous, usually because they worked hard at day jobs and resented the holy spirit taking them away from the basics of regular life. And they were funny – some of the only classic humour in the old testament appears in Elijah’s challenge to the high priests of Ba’al, when he heckles them into throwing more sacrifices onto their altars, shouting ‘Where is your God? Where is your God?’

Juxtaposition is everything, even in academic writing it seemed. For my word tricks, I got a high distinction, and an invitation to my Professor’s office one afternoon.

The thought that I’d been caught-out as a complete fraud did occur to me, but as I sat down in this man’s office, after he’d cleared a chair for me from underneath the layers of dusty papers and books, and looked at me through his thick glasses, blinking in the half-light, he said: “And what are you going to do with this high distinction?”, before blinking again and expecting me to speak.

HALLOWED HALLS The very English Quadrangle of Sydney University.

Nothing crossed my mind, except what a strange question it was. “Do better next time…?” I muttered.

“No!” the Professor boomed, banging his hand Elijah-like onto the desk.

“You’re going to do honours, and I shall help you. First, we are going to publish this paper of yours.”

Being published sounded like fun, and in due course, my fervour-filled evocation of the prophet took its place in the front of that year’s edition of Edubba, the Ancient History and Classics Department’s undergraduate journal.

Becoming an acolyte of this professor did not sound like any fun at all. Any chance of his fervent prophecy about me coming to pass was all the fuel I needed to get out of university by applying to drama school.

I completed my final exams, including one in which I answered questions about Roman writers whom I had read not one word of. I passed, miraculously, and waited for my escape plan to come to fruition.

That one essay is all I have left of my sole university year – I don’t have a copy, but it will be there in the Fisher Library somewhere, testament to my ability in writing to a prescribed, academic formula, but with a fine flame of life burning within.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

E. M. Forster – literature’s god of love

BARED IT ALL Edward Morgan Forster, 1911 portrait by Roger Fry.

A Writer’s first hero.

FROM the moment I saw the trailer for David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of his A Passage to India during an English class, I became a sucker for the literature of Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970).

I’d been ambivalent about the drab Penguin Modern Classics edition, but the sight of Judy Davis as Adela Quested, scrambling down the dry slopes of the Marabar Caves, bloodied by thorns, pith helmet rolling in her wake, dislodging rocks (and an ensuing British panic) gripped me into attention.

We had our toes dipped into the ideas of Bloomsbury and the racial overtones and class structure of Empire.

Merchant Ivory did the rest, with their iconic production of A Room with a View in 1985. Through their lens Forster’s English hypocrites and heroes came to life.

“Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.”

The icing on the cake was the word which I spied in the blurb of the edition of Maurice that my enthusiasm for Forster had garnered me at Christmas. The word, of course, was inescapable when describing that work.

I wonder now if it was the first time I ever saw the word in print? Only whispered around the schoolyard, it had, by that time, been uttered louder at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the mid 1980s.

But here, on the reverse of Forster’s posthumously published story of Maurice Hall and his gay sexual awakening, it brought a wave of validation.

I recall waiting for my family to register the word. Had my mother seen it when she purchased the book? Had my brother sneered about it when she gave it to him to wrap up for me?

When nobody mentioned “homosexual”, I took that as tacit approval.

I subsequently devoured all Forster’s novels. My favourite moment was starting Where Angels Fear to Tread when alighting my train to university, only to be flawed by a classic Forsterian-surprise-death before reaching the next station, just six minutes down the track. What great ignition for a story!

On summer holiday, during my first year in the United Kingdom, I came across a collection of Forster’s short stories at a hostel in Cornwall.

The inclement weather saw me feast on them, immediately hit by one in particular – Other Kingdom. The Irish Home Rule theme of this story went right over my head, but the gusto of the young Irish protagonist (Evelyn Beaumont), brought my consciousness to a standstill, while I tried to capture her, as did all the other characters in this shining example of Forster’s storytelling skill.

I agreed with Iris Murdoch, in that “I loved Miss Beaumont, because she bamboozled a pack of bores.”

Being a film school student, I had big plans. The biggest became my obsession to bring Other Kingdom to the screen.

I adapted it into an approved screenplay at the behest of the owners of Forster’s work (King’s College Cambridge) and tried for some years to tout it around the funding bodies, to no avail.

The central mystery of what happens to Evelyn Beaumont when she escapes from an ill-fated marriage into a dour English family could not be explained even by Forster himself, let alone by a potential screenwriter in a pitching session.

It wasn’t for another decade that I really understood my attraction to the story, when I realised a deep-seated wish for a solution just like Evelyn’s. I admired her escape in the light of my own need to find a way out of the life I was leading.

In the wake of my coming out, Forster continued to deliver. My second reading of Maurice brought the searing grief and triumph of his gay protagonists back to haunt my recovery from the death of my partner five years later, because Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder loved, no less ordinarily than any other couple.

Forster’s long-unpublished epilogue to Maurice was the heartbreaker. Anyone seeking to understand this novel should read Forster’s exploration of what happened to his characters, for it is no elemental conundrum like that of Miss Beaumont in Other Kingdom.

Forster’s trusted friends who read the drafts prior to 1933 suggested the epilogue be cut from the final manuscript, but I get the distinct impression they were baffled by Forster’s unsullied vision of Maurice and Alec happily ensconced as woodsmen, living rough, fused by the heart, and happy, despite their accidental discovery by Maurice’s unsettled sister Kitty.

Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.

Forster left as much written material about his childhood, his career, and his relationships as any biographer would ever need. Trouble is, few have used this resource – the ‘sexuality issue’ undoubtedly the main obstacle.

The finest work on Forster is Wendy Moffat’s A Great Unrecorded History. This study has done more to debunk the myth of Forster as simply a class-conscious comic novelist who stopped writing in 1924, than anything which came before.

PERFECT PANIC Adela Quested (Judy Davis) flees in David Lean’s screen adaptation of Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’.

Forster earns hero status from this writer for protecting his great love, policeman Bob Buckingham, from the criminal courts while he, Bob and Bob’s wife May lived-out a three-way relationship from 1930 until Forster’s death in 1970.

He earns it for politely, and with humour, pointing out the hypocrisy of those in positions of power and privilege in his literature.

He earns it for writing himself onto Hitler’s ‘hit list’ of authors with his WWII broadcasts exploring the axe of Nazism as it threatened to fall onto the neck of civilisation.

He earns it for not killing himself, despite as much cause for depression, isolation and marginalisation as Virginia Woolf cited.

He earns it for creating the archetype of the lusty English Gamekeeper. Long before D.H. Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors’ trysts with Lady Chatterley, Forster’s Alec Scudder hunted his way into Maurice Hall’s bed, and his heart.

And he earns it for diarising himself as he was, warts and all, and sometimes that meant writing about actual bodily warts.

For gay men, Forster’s humanist document on the entire life of a homosexual man will endure as a record of emerging and practical homosexuality which may well come to eclipse his novels.

E.M. Forster might not have physically embodied a Love God, but with his pen, in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, he carved a place in history as a Titan who turned from the affairs of men and women, to those between men and men. His publishers must have hated him for it.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Theatrical dags

STAR PERFORMERS Tom Roberts’ ‘Shearing the Rams’ c.1890 from the National Gallery of Victoria.

A young Playwright’s first theatre.

SOME of my earliest memories of growing up at ‘Paxton’ (the property my parents owned near Delungra in New South Wales), are of the shearing shed, and not just during shearing season.

Back then, ‘Paxton’ was not a particularly iconic or beautiful homestead, but my parents had made it habitable after years of standing derelict, and turned it into a viable farm.

The home itself was once two buildings – the main house faced the east, and, built onto tree stumps at the west stood what was probably the old kitchen, once separated. This was common practice from times when the risk of the house burning to the ground was great if the kitchen went up in flames.

“There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed.”

A falling-down chook run and an overgrown tennis court stood at each end of the home yard, and up the gravel road was the shearing shed – a cluster of corrugated iron buildings with sheep yards on one side and a rather large door.

This shed was a source of delight and surprise for me and my brother, probably starting when we found our Christmas presents behind that door, long before Santa Claus had a chance to deliver them that year. It was far enough from the house that our frequent secret trips to ride our new bikes were not discovered for some time!

Most of the year, the shearing shed was empty. Not being completely weatherproof, the elements had worked away at the wooden rails of the yards, which were over a child’s head height and enclosed tall weeds more than they did sheep.

But once a year, the building would fill with life, when the Shearers arrived. They introduced new words into my world, the most evocative being ‘Smoko‘, meaning a break, a few minutes to swill down a hot tea and smoke a cigarette, usually sometime in the mid morning. The other was a ‘Spell’ – a short sleep in the shade of a tree after lunch.

My brother and I carried an esky and thermos up to the shearing shed every day the Shearers were in residence. I have no idea where they lived – they probably camped in the shelter of the shed itself.

Paxton.
MAKING AN ENTRANCE Inside the shearing shed at “Paxton”, Delungra.

These were worn men, angular with years of bending into their task, hands burnished from holding their shears, and senses dulled from maintaining the loud engine which drove the complicated overhead shearing system – dangerous rubber belts and fast wheels which whizzed the clippers into action.

We were too young to do more than sweep up sheep crap and help with cleaning the shorn fleece, in the raucous masculine atmosphere which departed as quickly as it had arrived, leaving the shed empty and full of potential.

There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed for me, even now I cannot pass one by without getting a look inside. They are scattered across the Tablelands, often surprising you around a rural corner, usually well cared-for if the farm is still functioning. For me, however, the more dilapidated they are the better.

In the drafty darkness of an empty shed, the smell of decomposing sheep crap brings my childhood stampeding back to me. The odour is always tempered by lanolin, the oil from the fleece which builds up on all timbers where sheep have been herded and shorn, preserving wood better than any varnish ever could. The skeletal frame of a shearing shed endures for decades under this resin, whereas the outer shell rots away until it’s like driftwood, lending the place a graveyard quality.

But the most romantic element of a shearing shed is the journey of the wool. Corralled in the waiting yards, sheep are dragged through a timber gate onto the shearing floor, where they are clipped from head to toe, then shoved down a chute to the lower ground level outside to recover from the shock. Those chutes, slippery and steep, were our first fun park.

Each precious fleece, akin to a great fluffy jacket, is thrown over a large wooden table, allowing burrs and sheep crap (called ‘Dags‘) to be picked out, then thrown into the top of an enormous timber cupboard with great doors. There it waits until being pressed into bales and labelled by spraying across a tin stencil to create a mark identifying the wool’s source.

ROGUES & VAGABONDS Australian Shearers operating a wool press. From the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Those great doors held a kind of theatrical power, perfect for making dramatic entrances. In fact, for me, the perfect theatre would be a converted shearing shed, with the same hand-made quality as the original Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays first saw the light of day.

Thousands of pin-sized holes in the corrugated iron roofing sheets make a sky of stars overhead, especially on a brilliant sunny day. An audience could be herded onto the shearing floor, waiting for the actors to emerge from behind those great doors.

Perhaps it was the spirit of Shearer’s industriousness and camaraderie that inspired my love of shearing sheds? And probably their faces, full of weathered character, adept at entertaining youngsters.

In shearing sheds, as with theatres, roles are defined, achievements praised, young people trained-up. Vocabulary is important, for the sake of tradition as much as safety. Star performers are made every year. Sometimes they fall, overtaken by younger talent.

The existence of Shearers is tenuous at best, much like the lives of those who ‘tread the boards’. Both career choices rely on good economies and fair bosses, and entire careers can be judged on one day’s performance. There’s plenty of touring, you must go where the work is, and the pay is not great.

The end result of both these labours is something that enhances life without taking it. Such roles should be treasured forever, but they languish in danger of their existence.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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