LEAVING a mark on history is usually the result of courage, but it always starts by simply making a stand.
Since 2009, Michael Burge has written about single-minded individuals who faced fear, grief and oppression, yet went through with defiant acts of social and cultural rebellion.
Pluck is Michael’s re-examination of several divas, dilettantes, groundbreakers, chameleons, rebels and heroes faced with crossroads, comebacks and reinventions.Many of them got a very bad name in the process, or had their motives shrouded in mystery.
This fascinating collection reveals new perspectives on fame and sheds a timely light on lives which may never be acclaimed, yet went where angels fear to tread.
“Remembering Orry-Kelly comes with a pretty big Hollywood revelation, one which has undoubtedly contributed to his relative anonymity in the country of his birth, because Kiama’s forgotten son knew another Hollywood icon, loved and lived with him, long before they both made it big on the silver screen …” from Orry-Kelly – the costume king from Kiama.
“Altering the plot of Pride and Prejudice by one degree would expose prospects for Georgian women which Jane Austen might never have contemplated. Kill-off Mr Bennet in the feared duel over his daughter Lydia’s elopement, and his women might land in the same boat as Mary Pitt and her five children, on a factual voyage from Dorset to New South Wales in 1801 …” from Grit and Gentility.
“A human side to this seemingly untouchable superstar.”
“It was reported that Whitney Houston had apologised to fans during a live show for not being able to reach the signature high note towards the end of her most famous song, which was odd not because an apology seemed so honest, but because this was Whitney Houston, ‘The Voice’. It showed a human side to this seemingly untouchable superstar, but in hindsight it was an indication that an extended silence was on its way …” from The soul searching of Whitney Houston.
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.
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?
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 Actof 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.
Yet 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.
WITH a second Academy Award under her belt, Australian-born actress Cate Blanchett joined an international cultural elite, and it was fascinating to watch the response of the Australian media to her accolade.
This was particularly true of News Corporation, which dubbed her ‘Carbon Cate’ when she joined a 2011 advertising campaign encouraging Australians to understand the benefits of the Labor government’s Carbon Tax.
But by the day of the Oscar ceremony, TheDaily Telegraph had reverted to calling Blanchett “Our Cate”.
Within minutes of her award, tall poppy syndrome had kicked-in, and News Corp’s news.com.au was questioning Blanchett’s contributions to the Australian film industry over the past decade.
The day after her historic win, which marked the first time an Australian actor won two Oscars, they buried Carbon Cate in the entertainment news, which is probably where they believe she belongs.
“It seems the cultural cringe is still alive and well in Australia.”
In case we need a reminder, ‘cultural cringe’ is the tendency of a colony to question the relevance of its artists against its ‘motherland’. It’s a kind of inferiority complex, if you like.
But this anti-intellectual process doesn’t only apply to the Arts.
He also had an agenda, which was not just anti-Cate, it was anti-science, and he probably knew very well that coining an alliterative derogatory term for his target would be highly effective.
So, it’s time for a reminder on the facts about Blanchett’s commitment to Australian industries and solutions to climate change.
Cate Blanchett is a local, who has lived with her family in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill for almost a decade.
In 2013 she ended a six-year stint as to co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), work she admits put a dent in the time she could commit to an international film career, yet led to a golden era in Australian theatre exports.
Yes, that’s correct: Australian theatre, exported.
Despite the level of Australian Government funding for National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) students, the local film, television and theatre industries they graduate into would not stand comparison with the reach and profitability of any other similarly funded Australian industry.
Before Cate Blanchett played the title role in Hedda Gabler for STC in 2004, Australian international theatre tours were few and far between. But in 2006, STC took the production to New York, where it played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a limited but sold-out season. It was not quite a Broadway experience for the company, but the touring cast and key creative crew were Australian.
The experiment was repeated and expanded with STC productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya touring to NYC and Washington; and Gross und Klein, which toured to France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Like all good international trade, the experiment was a two-way street, including collaborations with America’s Artists Repertory Theatre, and international artist imports, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Hurt, and Isabelle Huppert, to work alongside local creatives.
With Blanchett’s star power attached, local and international sponsorship was attracted to match government funding.
Consequently hundreds of Australian theatre practitioners were employed in a viable industry which did more than break even, it made money.
And Blanchett was smart and generous enough to include Sydney Theatre Company in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, in front of one of the world’s largest live audiences.
It was a form of product placement which every fledging industry needs, and there was absolutely no inferiority about Blanchett’s description of STC as, “one of the great theatre companies in the world.”
When STC’s production of The Maids, starring Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, opened at New York’s Lincoln Center last August, the experiment moved from its start at the fringe of one of the largest theatre industries in the world, right to its heart.
Instead of touring in an American or European classic, the way STC has done, MTC showcased an original Australian play – David Williamson’s Rupert – a bio about News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch.
Which brings us neatly back to Carbon Cate’s record of direct action on climate change.
In 2010, Blanchett and Andrew Upton, her co-artistic director and husband, oversaw the conversion of STC’s power supply to solar.
By the time they flicked the symbolic switch, which would light the company stages with energy from the sun, Blanchett’s appearance in the “Say ‘Yes’ to the Carbon Tax” commercial was still months away.
Her appearance in the commercial has undoubtedly been blown out of proportion over time. Michael Caton (who could easily have been dubbed ‘Carbon Caton’ but missed out on any ire from the Coalition) took the main role.
Blanchett was the last of the actors to appear, and her only line was simply: “And finally, doing something about climate change.”
In the light of STC’s conversion to solar, at the time one of this country’s largest solar capture operations, and the steps she and Upton had taken to ‘green’ their own home, Blanchett had earned the right to claim to have done something about climate change.
The irony is, her actions were as close to the Coalition’s ‘direct action’ as it gets, which only proves that many in Australia are not ready for an artist to show the way, even one at the top of her game internationally, with her feet, and her creative heart, firmly planted in home soil.