Though Frank Moorhouse and Barbara Baynton are inhabiting two very different Australias in these two very different stories, there is an odd similarity in their focus on the importance of the layabout in our heritage. In Baynton, we have Squeaker. In Moorhouse, we have Scribner. Squeaker is a turn-of-last-century Selector, violently useless, destructively complacent. Scribner is a 1930s Bachelor of Arts, known for his speechmaking (invited and not), and his way with anarcho-futurism and cordial naming.
‘Squeaker’s Mate’ came as a complete surprise to me. Never having read Baynton, her early bush gothic was a revelation. It’s a bloody and doom-ridden thing, laying out the slow destruction of a strong woman by a wilfully neglectful idiot man, his laziness confining her to helplessness and worse. The titular Mate, though she goes without name, is loathed by the Selectors' wives for her strength and independence. It bothers her little. Squeaker rides through life on her back, finding excuses to avoid manual labour wherever he can. As the story opens, he’s avoiding work by chasing a bee, leaving the Mate to chop down a yellow gum for fence posts and rails. This does not end well, though Squeaker is too stupid to understand the fate of his Mate until others point it out to him. Two pages in and flesh is burning and blood is spilling, and things are only to get worse, particularly when there’s dinner to fix and not much possibility of sex.
I read Baynton without biography, not knowing where she wrote from or when. Her prose is sparse and unrelenting. Unrelenting, that is, until somebody opens their mouth and caricatured dialect spews out in a weirdly cringe-inducing manner—'That’s wot’s wrong er yer, injoory t' th' spine'. You’re tempted to forgive this as colour for the era, playful brushstrokes for Bulletin readers, but there’s a strange contradiction between the careful simmer of her brutal portrayal of Selection life, and the sloppy imagining of a poor man’s voice. It’s almost, but not quite, her undoing, and when particular vernaculars are helpfully and patronisingly translated in parentheses—either by Baynton or editors; it’s unclear—I began to wonder what kind of slumming was going on.
As a piece of gender politics, ‘Squeaker’s Mate’ is radical and unsettling, if not always entirely pin-downable. It breaks dark quickly and stays there, ending in the midst of a catacylsm of crunching bones and betrayal, nothing certain about anybody’s fate, only misery assured.
Moorhouse, writing in 1974, goes nowhere so dark—he is visiting 1930 with tongue deep in cheek. As our narrator Mr McDowell and Scribner, his sort-of friend, hit the road to Sydney, one of them is on the way to the Annual Conference of the New South Wales Country Cordial Makers Association, the other is in need of buying his summer underwear. Scribner is that friend you have that you’re never quite sure why you like, who engages in the world only through the filters of pretension, but is sometimes, when you’re in the right mood, all the more seductive for that. A ‘truant mood’, for McDowell in this case, ‘when he allowed himself to go like a balloon in the breeze. Babbling on with fantasy and speculation.’ These days, we’d call them Cultural Studies graduates (disclaimer: I am a Cultural Studies graduate). Though the story is slight, being not much more than car banter, Moorhouse paints Scribner’s intellectual excesses with glee, and not a little love. It seems that, despite his towering intellect, Scribner’s greatest achievement has been writing copy for cordial labels. It is tough being the smartest man in the cordial factory. Or, as he lays it out: ‘it is a lonely and unrewarding life being the only Dadaist on the coast.’
If Moorhouse is saying something about the intellectual poverty of 1930s (or 1970s) Australia, it’s lost in the depths of the story’s own self-awareness. As fun as it is, ‘South Coast Dada’ plays out much like any philosophical conversation of this sort—like a conversation had while stoned that you’re sure you should be recording. It is a story sure that it is somehow vitally important, but when listened back to it in the morning, just sounds like hot air and enthusiasm.
So this round goes to Baynton, without a moment’s hesitation.
WINNER: SQUEAKER’S MATE by BARBARA BAYNTON
Patrick Pittman is a writer of journalism, theatre and the occasional bit of fiction. He is a sometime magazine editor, broadcaster and other things besides. He is guest-editing an upcoming edition of The Lifted Brow, and contributes to the likes of Smith Journal and Monocle.
Jess: To be totally honest with you, Ben, I didn’t initially hold much hope for Barbara Baynton’s tale in this competition as it is hard for me to take any short story seriously that has a main character named Squeaker. My early suspicion upon reading the title that the surprise twist in the story would turn out to be that Squeaker was in fact a dog was in no way allayed by the story opening with Squeaker chasing a bee. Classic canine behaviour, I’ve seen it a thousand times in my own pooch. But Baynton avoided what might’ve been a somewhat interesting plot direction and instead chose to write about a willfully neglectful idiot (hu)man. ‘Misery is assured’ in Squeaker’s Mate, and apparently that’s just the way judge Patrick Pittman likes it. Side note: ‘There’s Dinner To Fix And Not Much Possibility Of Sex’ was going to be the title of my forthcoming autobiography. Great, now I found out that line’s already been used. Back to the drawing board, I suppose.
Ben: It’s quite a coincidence, because the title of MY forthcoming autobiography is ‘Chasing A Bee’. But that’s as maybe. To be honest I was surprised at this result. I guess I underestimated the resilience of Squeaker’s Mate, but frankly I found The Annual Conference of 1930 and South Coast Dada an exciting competitor. So rarely do our local authors venture into the obscure yet fascinating world of cordial, and my hopes were high that if Moorhouse could battle his way to the pointy end of this competition, cordial might finally get its due in the Australian consciousness. Sadly, this was not to be—perhaps the inclusion of anarcho-futurism was just a little too much. Aspiring to bring colour and romance to a tale of cordial is surely challenge enough—bringing anarcho-futurism along for the ride possibly gave Moorhouse just too many balls to keep in the air, and if Baynton is known for anything among the literati, it is for her uncannily accurate instincts when it comes to judging how many balls are appropriate in any given situation. Moorhouse also erred, I feel, in his use of ‘South Coast Dada’, a phrase that couldn’t help but bring to mind its more entertaining progenitor, Sonia Dada, so that any reader, skimming the text whilst humming ‘You Don’t Treat Me No Good No More’. would be forgiven for taking a dark view in comparison. And so, once again, opaque points about intellectual poverty are struck down by the visceral thrill of bee-chasing. It was ever thus.