This speech originally delivered by Matthew Condon on 8 August 2015 as the Thea Astley address at Byron Bay Writers Festival.
As Australians, we honour the achievements of others in sometimes curious ways, and there in our vast swathes of suburbia there may be no higher, nor peculiar, honour than having a vehicular carriageway way named after you, the signs proudly cut and stencilled in metal workshops by our brothers and sisters of the prison fraternity, then unveiled with no ceremony atop a steel pole in some distant new street corner on the frontiers of our towns and cities.
And often, as is the Australian way, we honour our dignities and celebrities and artists in clusters, a new housing development, for example, in a fresh suburb, the Australian dream, the cement barely dry between the bricks, the fences still reeking of cut pine, the whole place a maze of Sir Walter grass. Clusters enhance the honour.
In the Gold Coast hinterland, for example, not far from the Pacific Motorway, is a humble clutch of roadways in a suburb called Parkwood, that demand we pause and reflect on the international greats of the cinema. You will find there Marilyn Monroe Court, that, perhaps fittingly, stops abruptly at a dead end. Not far away is the comparably tiny Peter Sellers Court. Dead too. As is the withering Errol Flynn Court, a wee cashew-sized appendage on the body of Google maps. All pale in comparison to a majestically swooping Lucille Ball Place, which hits a roundabout and, on the other side, magically morphs into James Cagney Close. You could hum the theme of ‘I Love Lucy’ on one side of the roundabout, and scream ‘You dirty Rat!’ on the other. It must be something wonderful, inspiring, creative, perhaps a little other-worldly, to see out your days in a brick box on Buddy Holly Close.
And if you’re interested in the world of writing, as we are, then there must be no greater place in which to live than the suburb of Franklin, in North Canberra. Franklin, postcode 2913, with its modest pale brick single-level dwellings, its concrete driveways and footpaths, its tiled rooves and variety of letterboxes, is a monstrous cluster of honours off Well Station Drive. A newish village, this, pushing north the dry, dun-coloured sheep grazing paddocks that is Canberra, our national capital and cradle of our democracy. Franklin, without the Miles. The estate 256 hectares in size. 1,294 dwellings. And with, according to the ACT government, ‘poor quality trees, many dead, which provide valuable habitat and impart a special character to the site.’
Here, the greatest literary minds of our country are honoured, many dead, which provide and impart special character to the site. There is Christina Stead Street, a huge thoroughfare that wraps a comforting arm around most of Franklin. It dwarfs Patrick White Circuit, which, though substantial, shares the limelight with Dorothy Hewitt Crescent and Eleanor Dark Lane. And right down the south-east corner of the estate, off Judith Wright Street is, at last, Thea Astley Court, a ribbon of bitumen that turns on itself, and on itself again, encasing a total of ten homes. Thea Astley Court sort of hangs off the edge of the estate like an appendix. There is a Bunnings nearby, and a spit roast catering company.
Thea Astley Court. Who might call it home? What sort of people live in Australia’s premiere literary estate, and especially in a little enclave honouring the great, Queensland-born, multi-award winning author Thea Astley, who once said that literary truth is derived from the parish, and if it is truth it will be universal.
Well, a quick scan of recent news stories reveals that a man from Franklin pled guilty last month to drug importation through his post office box; a drunk driver, from Franklin, was caught by police after wreaking a 300m trail of destruction in his vehicle, having crashed into other cars and a light pole and ripped through people’s gardens; a Mr Fischetti, charged with bank fraud, was ordered to, quote, remain in his Franklin home before facing the Supreme Court, unquote; a Franklin mother and contestant on The Voice television program declared a couple of weeks ago that given she was 36 weeks pregnant, she was prepared to give birth on the said television show if it came to that; and Franklin was declared, by Canberra pollen count researchers, as a hotspot for hay fever.
All of this is comforting, because these Franklin stories and characters absolutely belong in novels by Thea Astley.
What isn’t comforting is that she isn’t here to write them.
Never has this country been in greater need of a writer like Astley, with her unflinching eye for Australia’s absurdities and hypocrisies. For her reportage on the state of the nation’s soul. No one was sharper, funnier, more incisive and cutting, before or since.
I’d like to expand on that a little later, but I must first record the impact of Thea on my own writing career. I was a Dunlop Volley-wearing student at the University of Queensland in 1981 when I picked up the new Penguin edition of Astley’s Hunting the Wild Pineapple. This book was, for me, a genuine epiphany. And I knew a couple of things the moment I read this collection of linked short stories. I knew that Astley was a great writer. I knew she had been born in Queensland and wrote about Queensland and turned her observations into literary gold. And I knew, most importantly, that it was possible to write about Queensland in a way that it could become universal. This book convinced me that I could write about my place. It gave me license to think that I could write a book set in dreary Brisbane and make it remarkable. Her astonishing observational powers and turn of phrase demanded I open my eyes and start concentrating as a writer. Astley gave me the courage, and directly out of that came my first book—a collection of inter-linked stories set in Queensland—called The Motorcycle Café.
In 2004, at this very place, I was gifted the opportunity to personally thank her. It was August 2004, at this exact spot—the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. We got some coffee and sat under a tree and we smoked and smoked together, and, as I was to tell Thea’s biographer Karen Lamb, we giggled like children, both of us by chance born into the Queensland Club, a generation apart, but sharing the unspoken horror and hilarity of our history, and what it meant to be a Queenslander, and how precious the light was in Queensland. I once wrote of that light: ‘If you are born into it, this palette of gentle pinks and oranges at dawn and dusk, the lemon luminescence of mid-morning and mid-afternoon, you keep it with and measure all other light by it. If you live away from it, then step back into it, it is the first thing that tells you you’re home. It’s a light that can produce, at the right time of day, very black and very hard-edged shadows. It’s a light so raw it can put everyone in the city onstage.
‘It can be moody, unpredictable, beautiful and ugly, and its ability to shift and awe is what makes it a constant in your life if you were born into it.’
I didn’t need to tell Thea Astley that. She knew it like we know the creases in our palms. It felt like we shared things that nobody else knew about. That being Queenslanders was like having a secret Masonic handshake. There was no fakery about her. She cut through small talk and went straight to the main dish. On that day I rolled around at Thea’s hilarious descriptions of the passing crowd.
Just weeks later, on August 17, she was dead.
It didn’t seem possible. She was such a life force. She was the oxy acetylene torch that had fired up my passion, my career. And then she was gone.
This was the woman who had written in her wonderful novel, Drylands: ‘This will be a book for the world’s last read, she decided, chewing pen-end over an open exercise book. An easy, accessible script with notions formed from those twenty-six black symbols that induce tears or laughter. The miracle of it! Flyspecks on white that can change ideologies or governments, induce wars, starvation, or rare blessings.’ That’s what we lost on that day. A master of the flyspecks.
Drylands, her last novel, was an unsparing blast at her own country, one she believed had given itself over to violence, to small minds and small ambitions driven by materialistic desires. It is this I miss about the loss of Thea Astley. What might she have made of Tony Abbott, the pugilist Prime Minister with a penchant for lycra? How would she have interpreted his fierce Catholicism?
I think I know. She nailed him thirteen years before he’d even entered parliament. It’s in Hunting the Wild Pineapple.
Father Rassini was a suave man of God, neither one of the jeans-clad charismatics nor yet a traditionalist, a man who had survived the deliberate humblings of two seminaries with dignity, who believed strongly in the superiority of the clergy, the philosophic inferiority of all laymen, and the non-existence of women except in some cloudily defined area known as auxiliary where he believed them to be tea-makers for God. He lived in a kind of eighteenth century intellectual fantasy of self-conviction whereby any pronouncement he made … had more than a touch of the old ex cathedra.
And how I would give anything to know how Thea would have interpreted the Bronwyn Bishop Choppergate scandal, the fine European Hotels and the permanent limousines, part of the born-to-rule package that was the former parliamentary Speaker.
Then again, I just have to go to page 80 of Hunting the Wild Pineapple to find an answer of sorts.
‘She had early the confidence of her class,’ Thea wrote of her character Clarice. ‘She always appeared formidably silked and hatted and her bust was frightening … Breasts is somehow too pretty, too delicate a word to describe that shelf of righteousness on which many a local upstart had foundered.’
‘Along with the bust was a condescending familiarity with the town’s priest, two ministers of other religions, and four members of parliament whom she had seen come and helped go…with the years her looks fined and softened, and if she was not in fact a beauty, privilege made her just as desirable in a country where a fine bank account is as good for launching a thousand ships as a face; it’s even better.’
This is at the heart of Thea’s work and the work of great writers. They capture people before they’ve even been born. They write our history before it has happened. Thea knew her country and its people well, and she pinned us like butterflies under glass, there for all to see, if we dared peer into the museum cabinet.
And I would’ve given an eye tooth to read anything written by Thea on, most recently the Campbell Newman experiment in Queensland and its spectacular fall, and the regime of former peanut farmer and Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
She did have a stab at Bjelke, and surprise, surprise, it’s also in Pineapple.
‘This is the place where anything screwball is normal and often where what is normal is horrible. Life in the Golden Circle.’
‘Chuck the facts together and you get a freak collage landscape where politicians, goodness gracious, my goodness, believe in apartheid; where bomb squads can spend up to an hour defusing a case of mangoes; where we have our own Rapetown one of whose local thugs is accepted resignedly and affectionately as Virge the Ripper.
‘Yes, it’s a kind of carpet-bagger’s paradise.’
She loved and loathed Queensland. She once said it wasn’t until she moved from Brisbane to Sydney when she was 23 that she could publicly demolish Queensland while privately adoring it. When she moved from Queensland to New South Wales in the mid-1980s, according to Karen Lamb’s wonderful biography of Astley—Inventing Her Own Weather—a cranky Thea was asked by the Queensland Arts Council, if she would like to run a writers’ workshop. They addressed her as Thea Ashley. It solidified the loathing of her home State.
Still, towards the end she appeared to be reaching back to her childhood town of Brisbane through literature.
I remember her, under that tree and puffing on a fag, recalling Brisbane during the Second World War when the Yanks came to town (she called it ‘the American rape’), and the city brothels in Albert and Margaret Streets, where the soldiers queued around the block.
A decade after her death, I would interview scores of brothel madams, former prostitutes, pimps and convicted murderers for a series of true crime books, and not only do I think she would have approved whole-heartedly, I regret that I can’t report back to her what I have learned about Brisbane’s seedy underworld.
Critics described her as ‘comically outrageous’.
She described them as ‘the flies on the meat’.
She said of the literary scene: ‘I am incapable of playing the game of the writer taking himself seriously, seriously. Flippancy is my defence. What’s yours?’
She said of readers looking for symbols in her work: ‘Symbols? I don’t know. Anything can be a symbol. Was Moby Dick a symbol? A huge penis in the Atlantic?’
She said of the people who fascinated her. ‘The outsider interests me enormously. Not self-conscious, phony, arty outsiders, but bums and old ladies and people who are lonely, seedy and unsuccessful.’
And if her work had an overriding theme, she declared it was a ‘plea for charity’.
Where is Thea Astley when we need her?
We marinate today in a country controlled by a Federal Government that has forgotten it was elected by the people, for the people, this gaggle of cigar-puffing Treasurers offering theories on how poor people live, former parliamentary Speakers who do not even question how a quick helicopter trip at the taxpayers’ expense when a car might have sufficed, might stick in the craw of people struggling every day to put food on the family table, a Prime Minister who offers a budget that panders to the rich and rips vital funding and infrastructure from bodies installed to assist battered women, to uphold Indigenous rights, to keep check on environmental vandalism, to support culture in this country. We have an Arts Minister who has strangled the Australia Council and shaken out of creative tree all the smaller artists and theatre companies and journals that contribute to our uniqueness and are the bedrock of our unique storytelling. We have men in charge of this nation who see no fault in sexism and the damage it wreaks. We have had in return absolutely no substantial nation-building or vision, and the passing of no meaningful legislation that might contribute to the future of Australia.
We live in a place, today, without charity.
Thea Astley would have taken all of this with both hands and ripped in. Her sharp eye would have missed nothing. And she would have had the guts, in spades, to wield that acidic wit in the right direction.
At her best, and at her angriest, Thea Astley tore us all to shreds. The seemingly happily married couples. Suburbia. Government. Men. Women. Children. Our society. Our hypocrisy. Our fakery. Our worshipping of false gods. Our arrogance. Our self-pity. The sea. The land. Australia.
In her brilliant writing, she scorched our earth. But within the destruction, there was always the hope for the rebuilding of a better place.
That is what the best literature does; it exposes us to ourselves, with all the horrible truths that go with that.
That was the vital and enduring gift of Thea Astley, this woman who once sat down under a tree, not far from here, drew luxuriantly on a cigarette, and watched the world for us, and for our children.
If Thea is up there, out there, wherever she is, I can hear her repeating a line of dialogue from my Bible, Hunting the Wild Pineapple: ‘Like you talk a load of shit, man.’
She’s probably right.
But right now we need a Thea Astley more than ever.
That’s not a notion. It’s an imperative.
Open your eyes, I can hear her say. Observe. Feel. Experience. Take it all in. Don’t forget. Never forget. Uphold charity.
Now get out your pencil and notebook, and start writing.
Matthew Condon is a prize-winning Australian novelist and journalist. He is currently on staff with the Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine. He began his journalism career with the Gold Coast Bulletin in 1982 and subsequently worked for leading newspapers and journals including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Sunday Age. He is also the author of ten books of fiction, most recently The Trout Opera (Random House, 2008) and the non-fiction book Brisbane, (New South Books, 2010).