Tag Archives: Creating Waves

Janelle McCulloch’s case of Picnic fever

A Writer’s review of Beyond the Rock.

FIFTY years since the publication of Joan Lindsay’s lauded Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, and with a much-anticipated television series being shot for Foxtel, ‘Picnic’ fever is in the wind again.

Cue a fresh analysis of Lindsay’s engaging story, in the commanding hardback form of Janelle McCulloch’s Beyond the Rock: The Life of Joan Lindsay and the mystery of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

A biography of Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) is long overdue. The publication of her memoir preceded ‘Picnic’ by five years and she understandably shied away from the tsunami of publicity that rose in the wake of Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation of her only successful novel. Much of the unwelcome attention sought a solution to what became of her three fictitious women who disappeared on the monolith on Saint Valentine’s Day, 1900.

McCulloch’s journalistic approach lends her work an investigative air, and with her skilled eye for design and heritage she quickly places Lindsay in context as a young Australian writer and artist with an Edwardian soul.

But this book is a confection. Seriously padded into something akin to an Art Nouveau ladies’ journal, I almost expected to find pressed flowers between the parchment-thick pages.

It’s not just that most of the content is too light for the gravitas suggested by the format, the problem lies squarely in the author’s complicity in a case of mass denial orchestrated by the original publishers of Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ novel.

The fact is, we’ve known the dénouement of the story about the three schoolgirls and their governess who go missing on a monolith, ever since the publication of the controversial last chapter of Lindsay’s book in 1987.

Originally submitted as part of her manuscript, Lindsay built one of the first credible bridges between European and Dreamtime mythologies in this conclusion, but her publishers decided Australians were not ready to cross it.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM The schoolgirls approach escape velocity.

The chapter was lopped off, allowing Miranda, Marion and Miss McGraw to disappear into thin air, a decision that firmly defined Joan Lindsay as a rather late-flowering Bloomsbury novelist akin to E.M. Forster instead of a modernist writer with the storytelling abilities of Janet Frame.

McCulloch does very little to analyse this critical decision, and nothing to place Lindsay in the era in which her book was written – the 1960s – a time when writers were experimenting in a similar manner across the world.

Instead, the supposition of Beyond the Rock rests on the same old sleuthing that has always seen news-hounds following the trail of purely fictional hints that Lindsay’s story was based on true events.

In lieu of evidence, McCulloch hypothesises around her conclusions and threatens that she could reveal something “when enough evidence is found to warrant publication”.

Despite acknowledging the Wurundjeri people, who were dispossessed of Hanging Rock in the 1840s, McCulloch is content to let the gossamer veil fall over her research with enough whimsy and flim-flam to satisfy those who would rather have their mysteries unsolved.

“Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form.”

I grew interested when she started to draw links between Joan Lindsay and the work of E.M. Forster, the English novelist often credited with inspiring Lindsay’s ‘mystery’ because he experimented much earlier with tales of people disappearing and being impacted by time slips.

McCulloch references his 1902 work The Story of a Panic, Forster’s first story, inspired by a walk into the hills near Ravello in Italy. In it, a boy encounters the full transformative force of classical mythology in his own time during an innocuous picnic.

In another of Forster’s short stories Other Kingdom a young woman disappears on a visit to a beech copse in an Edwardian remake of the Apollo and Daphne story. His Albergo Empedocle relates the encounter an upstanding young Britisher has with ancient forces in Sicily.

But Forster eschewed mythological plot twists in his long-form fiction, in fact he lampooned his own use of them in his novel The Longest Journey.

LADY LINDSAY Joan Lindsay (1896-1984).

This is where Joan Lindsay should be credited with achieving what Forster never could in the novel form; but only if her last chapter gets reinstated with its courageous surrealism. Until then, she’ll be mistakenly labelled an impersonator of ‘Forsterian genius loci‘.

What McCulloch wisely frames for the first time in a mainstream format is the work of academic Terence O’Neill, a friend of Lindsay’s who researched where her story came from.

A real picnic to Hanging Rock by girls and teachers from the nearby Clyde School (Lindsay’s alma mater) was written up in the school magazine in 1919. All the picnickers returned, somewhat dishevelled, after a twilight ramble to take pictures of the moon, but their experience inspired the telling of plenty of ghost stories.

Forty-five years later Joan Lindsay wove this true tale into a credible Edwardian fable with a surreal conclusion, during the era that spawned a time-travelling Doctor Who and popular novels marrying ancient and postmodern themes, such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.

“Despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day.”

Beyond the Rock beautifully connects many of the dots about Lindsay’s hitherto unknown life and work. Particularly revealing are the number of times she and Daryl attempted to live long-term in England, yet were not able to settle emotionally, financially and culturally.

They never became ‘Bloomsbury’ in the way other antipodean artists such as Katherine Mansfield did, but they were able to recreate it in Australia.

It’s after that acceptance of her sense of place that I place Joan Lindsay, sometime in the mid-1960s, seeing her environment for what it was: truly Australian, with its own genius loci, not Forster’s.

But McCulloch looks back from this time, not into it, or forward, to address her subject’s most compelling escape: despite her publisher’s reticence about the original last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lady Lindsay ensured it saw the light of day by entrusting it to her literary agent to be published posthumously.

She wanted the mystery solved, after all, and it’s probably past time Australia started looking.

It remains to be seen if the Foxtel-Fremantle Media adaptation is the catalyst. If it isn’t, the pathway to unravelling Joan Lindsay’s story lies not in chasing a schoolgirl adventure – that was done by O’Neill – but in finding the seeds of the Aboriginal mythology that must have inspired her.

A journey like that would take us further ‘beyond the rock’ than ever.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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

Lionel Shriver weighs her options

A Writer’s review of Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother.

FRESH from witnessing the fuss Lionel Shriver inspired at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, defending the right to use her imagination without being labelled a cultural appropriator, I took to this book with a half-baked plan to test out both sides of the argument.

“Hopeful, insane, self-fulfilling learning curve.”

That failed at the first hurdle, simply because Shriver’s prose is always so darned good it lifts readers high enough off the earth to forget ourselves; but since finishing Big Brother, with its infamous much spoiler-alerted conclusion, it’s easy to see Shriver’s imagination was not heavily taxed in this novel.

It’s a simple set-up: Edison Appaloosa is a failed jazz pianist who comes to stay in Iowa with his successful younger sibling Pandora. She’s turned her back on a catering business but had plenty of luck with her own start-up.

Last time she saw her brother, Edison was every inch the suave New Yorker, and Pandora anticipates being in his slightly louche orbit again; but the monster who appears at the airport is a man she fails to recognise, literally and emotionally, because the inches have piled onto his waistline.

Huge and hyper-sensitive, Edison is hiding the truth beneath the body fat, and his bluster is a challenge to Pandora and her husband Fletcher, nattily portrayed as a calorie-counting fitness junkie. It doesn’t take long for ultimatums to be issued that drive the drama to unexpected places.

Applying some of the plainest fiction I’ve read in a very long time, in Big Brother, Shriver calls to mind her journalism as much as she does any of her novels, lending realism to what might have been a far more clichéd set of characters.

It comes as no surprise that her experience of a chronically overweight brother Greg ‘fed’ both the need to write Big Brother and ‘flesh it out’ with many believable threads that leave the reader in no doubt the author witnessed morbid obesity up close, and shared its impact.

We are ‘stuffed’ with food references, on our screens and in our language, and Shriver’s book serves as an investigation into the Western obsession with consumption. In that regard, this hopeful, insane, self-fulfilling learning curve could have served as a ripping work of non-fiction by simply holding up the mirror.

But even Shriver admits to facing the very paradox she confronts Pandora with – trapped between her loyalty to a brother who has dead-ended his life by becoming grossly overweight, and her comfortable circle of attainment, complete with husband and career.

“As it happened, my brother’s condition abruptly plummeted again, and he died two days later. I never had to face down whether I was kind enough, loving enough, self-sacrificing enough, to take my brother on, to take my brother in. I got out of it,” Shriver wrote in The Financial Times on the book’s release.

When Pandora’s husband demands she make a choice between his fit lifestyle or the fat sibling, she eschews her marriage and embarks on a year-long, weight-loss odyssey that is Shriver’s imagination given free reign and healthy abandon.

Knowing the factual roots of the story only makes Big Brother’s pathos more powerful, because ultimately what Shriver construes is a startling piece of fiction, as unsettling as Tim Winton’s The Riders and every bit as capable of blindsiding readers.

The greatest part of the telling, for me, was not the exploration of weight but the surveillance suggested by the doublespeak of the book’s title, because Pandora’s solution for Edison is as Orwellian as its possible to be.

Despite being powerfully written in observational first-person, it’s in the minutia between siblings and spouses, unbridgeable even between those who ought to be close, that Big Brother makes the strongest claim on the human heart. See if you can keep it down.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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

Marriage Equality in 2019, just you wait and see

MARRIAGE Equality will be legislated in Australia no sooner than 2019. I know many will fly into a rage about that assertion, but let’s get real for a few moments: the current Coalition will never independently instigate a change to the Marriage Act allowing equal access to same-sex couples. Even this week, Malcolm Turnbull told us it’s a plebiscite or nothing, and despite the fact that he has no money for a public vote, he means it.

Before you lose your shit at me, you need to acknowledge that the majority of the Australian LGBTIQ community are okay with that. When the largest ever group of this demographic was recently polled on whether we’d be happy to wait for another government to hold a parliamentary vote instead of a plebiscite almost 60 per cent of us said yes.

We killed the Coalition’s unpopular ‘ask the people’ approach, but history tells us that pioneering same-sex equality law reform in Australia only ever occurs under Labor governments.

From South Australia’s decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1975; the first legislation recognising same-sex de-facto relationships in the Australian Capital Territory in 1994; the first same-sex adoptions in Western Australia in 2002; the federal amendment of 100 pieces of discriminatory federal legislation in 2009; the enabling of any adult to choose to identify as male or female in 2013, and the first same-sex marriages in the ACT in 2014 (overturned by the High Court less than a week later), the ALP can be relied on to get LGBTIQ equality started, eventually.

The notion of “eventually” is the key. We read it often in the media, and I’ve heard a hundred friends and pundits offer it as a panacea to tough times: “Eventually, it’ll happen,” they advise, probably wishing I’d just shut up and stop reminding everyone that we still don’t have federal civil unions for same-sex couples in this country, let alone marriage.

But honestly, I accepted this unwelcome advice years ago. Why would any informed observer not, when we compare our lack of reform with the equality wins of our closest cultural and political allies?

AT LAST Marriage Equality passes in the New Zealand parliament in 2013.

Australia’s decriminalisation of homosexuality lagged thirty years behind the United Kingdom’s and Canada’s, and a decade behind New Zealand’s.

All three of those nations passed civil unions over a decade ago, and same-sex marriage duly passed in all three – Canada in 2005, New Zealand in 2013 and the United Kingdom in 2014.

After you’ve done all the lobbying, it seems what you have to do in Australia to achieve LGBTIQ equality, is wait.

Some commentators bravely attempt to name the date. I’ve often quoted Guardian Australia journalist Gay Alcorn’s courageous prediction that reform would arrive by 2014-2015, but only because her remonstrations about being tired of the debate were delivered ten years after the start of the main game. Sorry you’ve got marriage equality fatigue, Gay, but hopefully you joined the end of the queue and got someone to share a pillow with you.

Waiting stinks, and progressives don’t like it, but when you force a nation to wait, strange things happen.

Waiting hijinks

This week has seen many classic absurdist hijinks that are the result of an immature Coalition putting the brakes on reform.

Aussies are known to imbibe a few rounds at the pub whenever there’s time to kill, and this week the fermented amber beverage was put to good use in ‘that’ corporate video produced by the Bible Society of Australia.

In the absence of anything practical to do about marriage equality during the current political impasse, Coopers beers were raised by two Liberal Party MPs in the name of civil debate, and merry hell was raised across the social media in the fallout.

CIVIL DEBATE MPs Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie pretending we need more of it.

Many couldn’t see the issue with (yet another) debate on reform that is already supported by the vast majority of Australians in any poll you’d like to pick; but just as many raged at the flippancy of “keeping it light” where delayed civil rights are concerned, and the attempts to fit the whole boring exercise into a hashtag for marketing purposes.

But I can understand why Tim Wilson MP needed some confected progress on marriage equality, because even he, with his enthusiasm and the ear of the PM, cannot get Malcolm Turnbull to pick up any existing bill and vote on it in parliament.

Lobby groups are also coming to terms with the delays.

You only have to look at and/or participate in Mardi Gras to see what fun can be had while we wait for equality, and letting off steam collectively helps many, but the event is no more or less sponsor-soaked than the Bible Society’s video, which is why key LGBTIQ lobby groups aren’t pointing the finger at the Society or the Liberal Party for forging a strategic alliance with Coopers Brewery: the bills have to be paid while the timeline for reform stretches out.

Happy to wait

As a solution to being forced to sit tight, the CEOs of more than thirty companies sent a letter (a letter!) to Mr Turnbull, demanding marriage equality be legislated. That ought to fix the problem, right?

Wrong. It’s yet another distraction in the waiting game. If Turnbull was going to deliver marriage equality as a conservative Prime Minister in the same manner as New Zealand’s John Key and the UK’s David Cameron, he would already have done it.

His hands are not tied, he’s just content to wait. It’s what conservatives do best.

Victim blaming

In the glut of social media after Coopers apologised and supported marriage equality, and the Bible Society pulled its video, plenty of impatient pundits engaged in victim-blaming of equality advocates. It was as eye-opening as always, seeing those who should know a lot better accusing people of shutting down debate if we boycott a commercial brand, or congratulate those who do, but it’s just the confused commentator’s way of dealing with the delays in reform.

They’re sick of twiddling their thumbs and we feel their pain. As worldy-wise, global thinkers, they’re embarrassed Australia is being shown up by a growing list of countries that have no problem legislating for marriage equality, but an astute LGBTIQ community – and our supporters – shouldn’t be blamed because Australian commentators are bored, ashamed, or just don’t get the Coalition’s problem with marriage equality.

Back in 2004, when John Howard and Mark Latham enthusiastically united Australia’s parliament to alter the Marriage Act and exclude same-sex couples, 2019 seemed an impossibly long way off. These days, this pivotal election year looms larger for Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition than anyone else in the country. Ironically, I can’t wait.

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