I migrated to Australia in 2005 with my knowledge of the country’s literature shamefully limited to one novel, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life, which I finished, with unconscious, heavy-handed symbolism, as the plane touched down in Sydney. In the ensuing years I’ve tried to read as many Australian books as I could, though in practice I read more short-story collections than anything else.
However, the three books that have come to represent Australia to me are not short-story collections, although they are so little read and so critically ignored they may as well be. I stumbled on them in my first 18 months in the country, not yet aware of what constituted the ‘Australian canon’, or even if there was one. For better or worse, when I think of Australia, I think of these books.
Drover’s Beach (2002) by Thomas Mills
In Australian literary criticism, ‘lyrical’ is almost always a synonym for ‘badly written’. Still, this is not the case with Thomas Mills’ inexplicably neglected, and wonderfully lyrical, Drover’s Beach. I first came across this novel in late 2005. Drover’s Beach was perhaps the third or fourth Australian book I ever read, which is perhaps why it struck me as so original at the time, though less
The novel is divided into two equal sections, ‘Part 1: The Beach’ and ‘Part 2: The Bush’, which tell of the childhood and adulthood of the protagonist, Larry Kingscliff. As a boy, Larry lives alone with his alcoholic father Bill after his mother’s death from drowning off the nearby Drover’s Beach. Young Larry spends much of his time gazing out at the ocean, allowing Mills to demonstrate his mastery of description through extended passages such as:
The tide comes in, the water a light blue, like the veins in my arms. I think about my mother, lost out there somewhere in all that vastness, and I wonder if this is what my life will be like now. Standing alone on a beach, watching the tide come in.
It could, of course, be argued that such thoughts are unrealistic, narrated as they are by a six-year-old, but this is entirely to miss the point Mills is making. Through Larry’s eyes, the banalities of Australian coastal life are laid out in painstaking detail. The death of Bill Kingscliff at the end of the first part of the novel is a masterpiece of restrained emotion. Mills has Larry note only ‘I feel quite sad.’ It is left to the reader to imagine the devastation the loss has caused the boy.
The second half of the novel finds Larry 30 years old and an English teacher at a secondary school a few kilometres from Drover’s Beach, a place he has not visited since his father’s death. Larry’s unhappy marriage is complicated by his wife’s terminal cancer, his children’s life-threatening asthma and Larry’s affair with Susan, a much younger teacher. Larry’s damaged masculinity only complicates matters, and his inability to convey his broken love for his wife is superbly conveyed through ordinary actions, which Mills freights with extraordinary emotion:
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask.
Jeannie looks up at me and smiles weakly. ‘A bit better,’ she says.
‘I’ll get you a cuppa,’ I say and as I turn round I knock a photo from the bedside table. The glass of the frame breaks. I pick it up.
It’s our wedding photo.
Larry’s last-ditch attempt to save his marriage, by taking the dying Jeannie and the two children to Drover’s Beach, ends in tragedy when he crashes his car, killing everyone but himself. After a long period in hospital, a bitter, despairing Larry buys a property in the bush, far from Drover’s Beach, where he wastes his days, alone and suicidal, a ghost in the beautifully evoked landscape: ‘Through the tick-tock of the cicadas, I wander among the paperbark trees, wishing I could shed the bark of my pain as they do. The wind picks up and I hear the screen door of the house banging.’
At the climax of the novel there is a flood, and Larry saves a terrified horse from drowning. He names the horse Dove and resolves to ride it back to Drover’s Beach, a journey that brings Larry a measure of peace and redemption at last.
Drover’s Beach remains the quintessential Australian novel and I only hope that the forthcoming stage adaptation, by Sydney’s Young Street Theatre Company, will revive interest in this contemporary classic.
Rooted (1994) by Dave Sweeney
This prototypical example of what came to be known as grunge lit was passed on to me by a friend who described Dave Sweeney as ‘Irvine Welsh, if Irvine Welsh had Tourette’s syndrome’. Despite being from Scotland I have never been overfond of Welsh, so it was some time before I got round to reading Sweeney’s novel. And yes, Rooted does contain a lot of swearing, drugs and grime, as this passage shows:
Richo pissed into the filthy sink, muttering ‘Bunch of wankers, fucking bunch of wankers’ to himself as his high began to wear off. They were all fucked. All of them. Fucked! His blurry eyes focused on a single black pubic hair coiled like an ampersand on the stained porcelain. Just because he was from Toorak they thought he was well born. Fuck that. He was Melbourne.
It would be easy to dismiss Rooted as a Trainspotting knock-off; the sole review I could find of the book was titled ‘Tram-spotting’. However, Sweeney’s only published work has an undeniable energy lacking in more polished examples of Australian literature, despite its many flaws.
Richard ‘Richo’ Smith is a 24-year-old self-proclaimed ‘fuckhead junkie’. His wealthy family have disowned him for his appalling behaviour, which includes assault, theft and smoking, snorting or injecting every drug he can get his hands on. There is a queasy wish-fulfilment aspect to the first half of the novel. Richo has no trouble attracting women despite the awful way he treats them, and the sex scenes exist apparently only to glorify Richo’s remarkable sexual prowess. It is a miracle these scenes are even readable, considering they violate the laws of geometry; Richo is a two-dimensional character, while his conquests are only one. For all his swearing and rooting, Richo is the typical Aussie larrikin, albeit on smack; he does more than thumb his nose at authority, he gives it the middle finger, then king hits it.
There are no likeable characters in Rooted. Richo is, as he admits himself, ‘an arsehole’ and his friends, Stevo, Gordo and Bruce, are even worse. What there is of the plot only coalesces in the last third of the book, when the multiple meanings of the novel’s title become clear. By then Richo has rooted dozens of women, only to realise that he is rooted too, as he cannot escape from his family, his roots. The final pages show Richo at least gesturing towards change; he reconciles with his brother, a police officer, and begins a relationship with a woman he does not treat appallingly.
Rooted is not a great book. By most measures, it is not even a good book. With Sweeney’s fetishistic focus on drink, drugs, piss, vomit and shit, it puts the dung in Bildungsroman. Yet despite being overlooked today, Sweeney’s influence can be seen in the novels that followed Rooted, including Luke Davies’ Candy and Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded (the title an obvious homage to Sweeney). For all its problems, Rooted’s vivid depiction of Melbourne’s dark side has never been bettered. Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give Rooted is that when I visited Melbourne for the first time last year, I kept glancing warily up at balconies, half-expecting Richo to spew vomit on me from the third floor.
Songs of the Kookaburra (1932) by Maud Hepplestone
Australian poetry was once memorably characterised by the poet John Forbes as ‘a knife fight in a phone booth’, and one of the earliest twists of the blade can be found in Maud Hepplestone’s collection, Songs of the Kookaburra. Like almost all dead Australian poets (and most living ones), Hepplestone’s work is obscure and forgotten. I first came across her poetry in 2007 in a yellowed copy of a long-defunct journal, The Swagman’s Muse, while carrying out research for my PhD. The July 1921 issue was dedicated to ‘Australia’s Three Greatest Bush Poets’, Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Maud Hepplestone. I had never heard of Hepplestone, and I spent a few moments glancing over her poem ‘Australia Bright and Beautiful’. Although I had read a little bush poetry I was not an admirer of the form, and Hepplestone’s verse, of which the following is a representative sample, did little to change my mind:
The gum trees in the paddocks, the stockman in his shack
The swagman at his billabong, blue heeler at his back
The farmer and his lovely lass, a rustic Aphrodite,
For all of these and more I thank our maker, the Almighty.
I should have forgotten Hepplestone the moment I finished her poem if she had not concluded with the triumphant lines ‘Let us never lose our faith in His most excellent plan / Australia now, and ever will, belong to the White Man!’ Hepplestone’s nationalism and racism were not, of course, unusual for her time, but the last couplet of ‘Australia Bright and Beautiful’ was sufficiently unpleasant to cause her name to lodge in my memory.
A year later, when I happened upon a footnote in Twentieth Century Australian Poetry (1999) that mentioned ‘Maud Hepplestone’s radically experimental collection Songs of the Kookaburra’, I was intrigued enough to place a special order to borrow the volume from the University of Adelaide. When the book, a slim volume, arrived weeks later, I glanced at the contents page, which bore titles such as ‘The Swagman’s Lament’, ‘The Bush Wedding Party’ and ‘Willy Wagtails in Wagga Wagga’. But when I turned the pages to begin reading the poems, I discovered the other pages of the book were entirely blank. Puzzled, I ordered a different copy, from the ANU library, and this too consisted of a contents page and blank pages. The question of Hepplestone’s book nagged at me for weeks, and I’m indebted to Vincent Buckley, in whose Studies in Australian Poetry (1957) I found the solution to the mystery.
In his essay ‘Jindyworobaks, Angry Penguins and Songs of the Kookaburra’ Buckley describes how Maud Hepplestone became unwittingly trapped in Australian poetry’s phone booth. By the late 1920s, Hepplestone’s bush ballads had gone out of fashion as modernism made its belated mark on Australian literature, and she was unable to find a publisher for her latest work. Undaunted, she turned to vanity publishing to bring forth what she considered to be her masterpiece, Songs of the Kookaburra, a collection of bush ballads that she hoped would surpass the works of Banjo Paterson in the national consciousness.
Unfortunately, Hepplestone, who was better known in Sydney’s literary circles for her parsimony than for her poems, endlessly badgered her printer in an attempt to cut costs, while also insisting on the highest possible production values. She then made the mistake of leaving on a trip to Europe before the book went to press. The printer, annoyed by Hepplestone’s high-handedness, calculated precisely how much work he was required to do for the money he had been paid. This resulted in Songs of the Kookaburra having a handsome back and front cover, a contents page and 64 blank pages.
Upon its publication, Hepplestone’s collection was seized upon by experimental poets as a brilliant subversion of bush poetry, and a demonstration of the form’s exhaustion; there was literally nothing left to say about billies and billabongs and stockmen. Banjo Paterson was furious with Hepplestone, convinced that Songs of the Kookaburra was a deliberate attempt to insult him and his craft. Hepplestone received an angry letter from Paterson in Paris on the same day that a laudatory review of Songs of the Kookaburra by Ezra Pound appeared in the Transatlantic Review. It was in vain for Hepplestone to protest to Paterson and Pound that she was a traditional poet of the bush and that this was all a misunderstanding. Throughout the 1930s Songs of the Kookaburra was praised, decried, admired, despised, annotated and even, on one occasion, burned, the scandal only receding with the advent of the Ern Malley affair in 1943. A mortified Hepplestone never returned to Australia and, as far as I can ascertain, never wrote another poem.
Hepplestone’s Songs of the Kookaburra remains almost completely unknown, even among scholars of Australian literature, and her poems have never been reprinted. And yet, if you were to turn to pages 98 and 99 of the landmark 2011 anthology Australian Poetry since 1788 as I did not long ago, you would find them entirely empty of text. The anthology’s publisher, the University of New South Wales Press, responded to my enquiry about these pages saying they were an unfortunate printing error, understandable if regrettable in such a large book. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this is a sly tribute to Hepplestone and her Songs of the Kookaburra. Whether or not this is the case, one fact remains: Maud Hepplestone is Australia’s greatest writer of blank verse.