Reading the Country
Peter Temple’s Miles Franklin Oration, 2011
Taken with kindly permission from: The Red Hand. Stories, Reflections and the Last Appearance of Jack Irish. Text Publishing, Melbourne October 2019.
I AM astonished to see so many people here. I was led to believe that only the women from Balwyn and the drunk man who used to come to Readings would be here. The purpose of the occasion is to pay homage to Miles Franklin. She loved the novel so much that she provided for an annual prize for novelists. It’s a great honour to me to be asked to give the first Miles Franklin oration…there, I’ve said the word…oration. It’s losing its power to terrify me. But I have to say with no disrespect to anyone involved, my negative side—and it’s more than a side, really, it’s perilously close to being the whole of me—has no idea why anyone would think me suitable to perform this task.
The only explanation I can think of is that when it was found that Peter couldn’t leave his Manhattan loft and Roger was off shearing again and David was in Greece and Tim had an unbreakable fishing commitment and Helen—no, perhaps not Helen—thoughts turned to me. Last year the Miles Franklin judges awarded the prize to me for my novel Truth. I don’t know whether any of them are here this evening to see once again what a rash decision that was.
There is of course no good reason to give novelists prizes. Firstly, one should not indulge a personality disorder that combines narcis- sism with an unnatural tendency to fantasise. Secondly, novelists have already won a prize. It’s called being published. The reward begins with the manuscript passing a daunting test. It has to win the approval of a twenty-one-year-old first-year publisher’s editor. Someone with an arts degree…preferably from Melbourne University. She’s often called Fiona, in my experience. It should be said that Fiona is often both the first and the last person to read the novel.
I’ve called my talk ‘Reading the Country’. It’s a talk about me. It’s the only subject I know anything about. And, believe me, there are gaping holes in that knowledge too. Weeks, months, at times. I should of course be talking about the state of the novel, the vitally important place of writers in the life of the nation. But I’m not that erudite. And I’m not that stupid, either. I should also be offering a view on why more men than women win the Miles Franklin. I’m not that stupid, either.
Australia has a long history of newcomers failing to read the country. The explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, the inspiration for Patrick White’s Voss, set a benchmark for failing to read the country in 1848 or thereabouts. The explorer Edmund Kennedy followed. He blundered around Queensland being kept alive by his wonderfully resourceful and brave servant, a man known as Jackey Jackey. How pointless it must all have seemed to Jackey Jackey. Then there was Robert O’Hara Burke of Burke and Wills, explorers who took failure to read the country to another level. This wasn’t surpassed until the British chose Anzac Cove for the landings in Turkey. Although the Poms should be given that credit.
Canberra: its very existence is a failure to read the country. But to be balanced there is the Goyder Line of 1865 that divided South Australia into arable and non-arable land zones. George Goyder rode around the countryside for years and years and years looking at the vegetation. And then he marked the line and said you shouldn’t go beyond that. And then it rained for two or three years. That was the end of that matter. The farmers stormed over the Goyder Line and from the air as you go over the scrub country you’ll see the remains of the farm houses of those who crossed Goyder’s Line. They ignored the theory of climate persistence, they were deniers of it, they paid the price.
So, settling in a new country, if you want to write you are going to have to read the country. And coming to a new country in midlife as I did is to become a child again. The grownups around you know everything and they have secret understandings. And while you can easily acquire the factual stuff, you can acquire the dates and all those things, grasping the significance of things to the people, to the inhabitants, is another matter entirely. Even when you speak the language, in my case a form of the language, coming to terms with cultural meaning is a very long process and it’s certainly not over for me. It’s made more difficult by first-culture interference and all the baggage you bring with you. You’re in a completely different environment, with completely different values.
Australia, when I arrived here in the late seventies, was still a small-scale country, I think. A small-scale society like Australia gathers a formidable collective memory. It’s something that on the one hand reinforces national cohesion and on the other hand it entrenches tribal loyalties. Everybody knows everything about everything. I don’t think there is an Australian baby boomer who hasn’t seen a documentary film called The Back of Beyond. It’s a dramatised documentary made by the Shell company, probably the best thing Shell has ever done in its entire existence and it’s about Tom Kruse, the postman of the Birdsville Track. It’s a remarkable piece of work. The text was in part written by Douglas Stewart, the poet, when he was literary editor of the Bulletin. And more than a million Australians saw The Back of Beyond in the first two years after its release in 1954. That’s more than a million out of a population of around about 9 million. Astonishing, don’t you think? Every school in the country seems to have had a reel in the cupboard along with the chalk and the spare blackboard dusters. I know people who have seen it at least twenty times. A lot of it is dramatised, and there is a sequence in which Sally and Roberta, two little girls—their mother has died on an isolated property—set out pulling a small cart behind them. Behind the cart is a little dog. The faithful dog walks out behind them as they go out into this absolutely aching emptiness. They’re walking in circles. And, at a point, the older girl realises they’ve come round to the same place. It’s a marvellous moment. She looks at her little sister and you know she’s not going to tell her. They are doomed. And she won’t tell her.
The message of all of it is Tom Kruse’s courage, endurance, a kind of laconic stoicism. Tom is the platonic ideal of an Australian male, the kind that is set up in heaven or in a place beyond heaven, as Plato put it. In impossible conditions, they go up sand dunes that are higher than this room. They plunge down the other side. They meet floods. They have to drive over the skulls and skeletons of what appear to be enormous dinosaurs. They fall into holes. They keep meeting strange people. It is a harrowing journey.
But throughout this Tom doesn’t blink. Tom is an Aussie male like no other. No other country has a person like this. England doesn’t have a person like it! You might have a postie riding around in his little van down the green lanes. This is the Birdsville Track. There’s nothing to be seen. Until you fall into it. Or it falls on you. There’s a memorable sequence in which a cow, the skeleton of a cow, is in a tree! Hanging up there, it’s completely desiccated, it’s just the skin and its horns and its skull. Tom just drives past in his truck, he keeps picking up these people, these weird people, he’s got a couple of people on the top of the truck too. The truck is loaded with everything you could imagine.
And Tom knows that the people of the Never Never depend on him getting through. And Tom will get through. It’s his job. He won’t fail them. And nor will his truck fail. It’s made in England and it’s called a Leyland Badger. What a wonderful name. An Aussie bushman and a Pommie truck. The old firm. You can’t see Tom crossing the Never Never in a Toyota Deli Boy, a Mazda Bongo or a Honda Duck, not to mention the Suzuki Cappuccino. This is a Leyland Badger.
But little Sally and Roberta, the two little girls, in the end join all the other skeletons in the Never Never. They’ve gone into that heav- enly graveyard. In Australian mythology there are many lost white children. All the way from McCubbin’s paintings in which you can see that these children are quite clearly doomed—they’re either going to wander further into the bush and never be seen again or a man is going to come out of the shrubbery and abduct them. And then of course there’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is directly in the great mythology of the menacing outback, the innocent people, the girls that live in it and it’s going to kill them. Like Leichhardt, Kennedy and Burke, these little girls could simply not read the country.
When I came here in 1979 it seemed to me that everybody knew everything about everything. The governor general’s dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, coming from where I came from, seemed to be a completely ordinary event. I came from a country where the prime minister had been stabbed to death in parliament. That’s an extreme form of dismissing the prime minister. It was well justified, and I was personally delighted, but that’s quite beyond the point.
It took me years and years to understand what the dismissal meant in Australian life. I simply lacked the background for it. I needed to understand what winning government after twenty-three years in opposition meant to Labor supporters. And twenty-three years is an extraordinarily long time in a democracy. I needed to understand the legends of Curtin and Chifley. I needed to understand what seventeen years of Robert Menzies meant. I needed to understand the relationship between the Australian communists and the Catholics. I needed to know the difference between kneelers and grippers. I’ve always loved the idea of kneelers and grippers. I would of course have to be a gripper. I needed to know about the subtleties of class and religion in Australia. I’d never paid much attention to religion at all. I didn’t think there was any class division in Australia. Only time teaches you these things. I needed to know about Doc Evatt and Bob Santamaria and about the Petrov Affair and the industrial groups and the Labor–DLP split and the divisions over the Vietnam War and the deeply divided nature of Sonia McMahon’s dress. There was no end to what I needed to know and to understand.
I came to Australia with a half-written novel in my knapsack, as it were, and thought I could just switch it over to an Australian setting. But after a few months I put it away. I could never ever, I thought at that point, write a novel that Australians would accept as written by one of their own.
I had been a fanatical reader since a very early age and I had started to demand that I have first go of my mother’s English Woman’s Weekly, probably after the age of eight or so. And in the 1950s no English woman’s magazine was complete without a piece of fiction that featured a young woman who travels to a remote sheep station in Australia to care for the children of the newly widowed owner. God knows what happened to the wives. Snakes, I imagine. The female mortality rate in the outback must have been appalling. And these Aussie farmers were all equipped with glints in their steely grey eyes, which is a characteristic of Australians that I expected to find anywhere I went, squinting, steely grey eyes. I was disappointed. Most of them didn’t have grey eyes. Anyway, the hapless young Englishwoman was completely adrift, unhappy, until in due course the squatter saved her from being trampled beneath the hooves of a herd of rampaging merinos. The English seemed to believe that merinos were roughly the size of rhinos. Twenty or thirty of them could lay waste to anything. Snatched from beneath their hooves, love was not far away. Now these tales, as you can see, made a deep impression upon me, an impression that some say is on full display in my books. People can be very cruel.
I’d also learnt something of Australia from my uncle, Bern Reardon, who was a farmer. He was the sheriff of a place called Warrenton, which was no bigger than two streets next to the Vaal River, which was just moving mud. And my uncle, in 1940, went to war in defence of the empire, with his brother and the two other men in the small town who spoke English. Only English-speaking people went to defence of the mother country. In North Africa he was captured briefly by the Italians, which he describes as one of the more pleasant experiences of his life. He found them absolutely charming and always wanted to go and live there afterwards. And in the course of this they got to know Anzacs, the Australians and New Zealanders, and one day my brother and I were sitting in the sheriff’s office, in his deep old cracked armchairs, the smell of toffee lost beneath the cushions, and old tobacco smoke. He’d have a pipe clamped in his teeth and we’d be reading ancient copies of the Friend, a newspaper. He was the correspondent for the Friend, and they sent him free newspapers. He opened them about once a year and so we could read all the comics in sequence. We were sitting there reading the adventures of Curly Wee, as I recall, when he made a comment about the Australians that he had met during the war. ‘Naughty buggers,’ he said in an inflected way, ‘you wouldn’t bring them home to meet your sister.’ And I have found that to be true. It may account for the fact that you had to bring all these English nannies out.
Anyway I moved from the Woman’s Weekly in due course and onto crime novels. I now know them to be crime novels, Enid Blyton’s stories, hard-boiled crime, middle-class children making mincemeat of inept baddies. The stories all involved caves, secret passages. I had never, having grown up in a town of only three buildings, seen a cave and I had never seen a building that could contain a secret passage. I liked the idea enormously. And I also read westerns, pulp westerns. I’m telling you all this to impress upon you how unsuitable I am to have been given this award. Hundreds and hundreds of pulp westerns. Titles like Ramrod, Rimrock, Crossfire Trail, High Vermilion (I remember that one well), Play a Lone Hand, Hello with a Gun, The Burning Hills, Last Stand at Papago Wells. And then there was the immortal Hondo, what a book that was. They were only about thirty pages long. I’d read them in an afternoon. Many novels should be no longer than thirty pages.
And at about that time, I think I was twelve, I was deeply influenced by a pulp western writer called Max Brand, his real name was Frederick Schiller Faust. Max Brand wrote about 500 of these tales. Under his influence I wrote a western, I wrote it in a class workbook, in pencil. It was called Kid Bellamy, Gun Slinger. I still think it’s the finest thing I’ve ever written. But I moved on, and at about the same age I read Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke. There were seriously bad people in this book. It had a seriously ornate style, it was set in London, fogs, full of menace. Immediately I managed to extricate myself from the children’s section of the library and, having got past the door bitch of the adult section, I started taking out adult books. But she wouldn’t let me take out Peyton Place, unquestionably the raunchiest novel of the 1950s. She knew this. I don’t know why. She didn’t look like somebody who read raunchy novels. When I tried to get past her she took it away from me. So I got my mother, my dear innocent mother, to take it out for me.
And I was reading it and my mother said to me, ‘What’s it about, dear?’
‘Nothing much,’ I said, drooling over a sex scene.
Much later I learnt that educated people had read great books. I was pathetically eager to join this group and so I read the great books. I made a long list of great books and I read them. Some of them proved to be entertaining. Others less so. Most of them proved to be stunningly boring. In particular those translated from Russian and French. The most highly regarded books I found to be the most boring. This was deeply embarrassing to me. It was obviously me, it was my fault, I was not worthy of these great books. I couldn’t tell anyone this and I still haven’t, until tonight. I still think I’m totally inadequate, there’s something lacking in me.
I resorted to reading books that captured me in a few pages, by people like Graham Greene, and the older Amis, and Norman Mailer, and Updike later and Carson McCullers, Ian Fleming, people like that. Books that I found drew me in quickly, moved me, in some way often changed the way I thought about things. And in a peculiar way educated me about things that I would never have learnt any other way.
The years passed and life changed and I started to try to write novels. I had many stabs at writing literary novels, by which I mean a novel without a dead person fairly close to the beginning. And I abandoned them one by one, exhausted by them, bored by what I was doing, bored by myself, realising I had nothing to say. I had no interior life that was worth relating. How could I possibly have? I still think lots of people should come to that decision much earlier.
And the years passed in Australia and one winter’s night, in Ballarat, where we were living—another failure to read the country, I might add—it suddenly occurred to me that I could write a novel set in Australia. By then I’d lived in Melbourne and had a damn good look at the country. And, I thought, I think I may know something about it. I felt I understood enough about Melbourne’s character and personality to do it. As you know, Melbourne has no shortage of character and personality. Indeed, Melbourne may have too much personality and character. This is, after all, a city where people go to the museum for the express purpose of looking at a dead stuffed racehorse.
Melbourne’s character, I found, was serious, high-minded, moral- istic. These attributes are big pluses when you come to write crime novels because, the bigger the gap between people’s actions and the things they profess, the more fertile the ground for the crime novel. In truth, much of Melbourne was seriously low-minded but most impor- tantly I found Melbourne to be a city with a very long memory. It’s a city of institutions and shrines to sport and war and power and money. Places with lots of shrines don’t forget and they don’t forgive. And even when you’re forgotten you’re still not forgiven. In the words, in the immortal words of the song.
Equipped with this reading of Melbourne, and fully confident that I had read the country, I created my character Jack Irish. Jack is a person who is no stranger to pain and love and sorrow. He values friends, he knows about guilt and recklessness and the exaltation and the misery of the punt. And he knows that every last thing has a price and, if you stick by your team long enough, the day will come and then all the years of enduring the jeers of the mongrels will have been worthwhile. Jack is in short a Melbourne person, as I have come to read Melbourne people. In finding my city, I found my vocation. I could enjoy writing and I could enjoy being a savage editor of my own writing, something hitherto reserved for other people. A student of mine recently wrote, ‘I remember the first assignment I handed in to Peter Temple and in writing on the bottom of it “If you intend to be a journalist, I suggest you recommence your education in kinder- garten.’” That’s an exceptionally cruel remark. Still, the writer seems to treasure the memory.
There are only a few stories available to us. But there are countless variations. Stories are valuable only and in proportion to the gifts that the storyteller brings to them. I don’t know if I have any gifts. I can only say that I’ve loved words. They haven’t loved me back but I’ve tried to do justice to the language and to its infinite malleability. But my God, I have tested that malleability in my time.
Truth is the end of the road that started with Bad Debts and Jack Irish. I have no idea of its worth but it speaks to me. It isn’t always easy to read because it wasn’t meant to be. It isn’t strong on explaining things and it requires a bit of attention to follow what’s going on. In part it’s a book about people who get up in the morning and go to sleep with violence and death, and are marked and set apart by these things. It’s a novel of violence and the bad things people do. It’s also a novel of childhood, of family and love and the barbed-wire ties that bind us to our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. But it’s also a novel about power and influence. About a city and its loss of innocence, its violation by the worst kind of exploitation, that which is done solely for money.
Towards the end of Bad Debts, Jack is in serious trouble. His former partner, Andrew, says to him, ‘Well, that’s the lecture, that’s the way the world is now and mate you have been wandering around in it like some yokel from Terang in town for the day. You think you’re doing something good, not so. You see it in terms of right and wrong. Justice, that sort of thing. But pardon me, you and I know the system’s not about fairness. It’s not about good and bad. It’s about power, Jack. I know that and you should know that.’
These are the themes that I’ve been drawn to and which are at the heart of even my most frivolous novels. My most frivolous novel?
They’re all fairly frivolous. I suppose I could have written the kind of fiction that Don DeLillo has scornfully described as ‘around the house and in the yard’. He was echoing Marcus Aurelius, who I know intimately, who wrote that to wonder about what so and so is doing and why they’re doing it or what they’re saying or they’re thinking or they’re scheming ‘distracts you from fidelity to the ruler within you’. He means the loss of opportunity for some other tasks. My instincts have all leaned towards writing the world beyond the back yard and the barbecue. And that world is an increasingly nasty and debased place.
Here are the thoughts of Stephen Villani in Truth:
He thought about himself at twelve. He knew many things by then, but he knew little of the intimate physical world of adults, he had only glimpsed the violence. Now, some children that age had seen every last sexual thing, every thrusting sucking beating strangling act, they had seen violence of every kind. Nothing was strange or shocking, they were innocent of trust, honesty, virtue.
What they had was existence in all its careless, joyless horror.
Gertrude Stein saw America as the oldest country in the world, para- doxically, because it was the first country to be truly modern and therefore the first of its kind and the oldest. It invented everything. It invented the assembly line, it invented time and motion study, it invented mass production and mass marketing and mass consump- tion. The hamburger, the cocktail and it set the standard for pornography. And now it’s conspired its own descent into the loss of innocence as the simple logic of capitalist production forces it to try continuously to make everything cheaper and to sell more.
Australia became modern not long after America. It’s also a very old country, in that sense. And it has followed America into point- less wars around the globe, against imaginary enemies. It will follow America into economic and social decline. Twenty years of selling rocks and coal to the Chinese will only postpone that. So perhaps it is the task of novelists now to record this late sad period in the life of their country. And that means writing novels that engage with the world, that turn the novelist’s gaze on the workings of the increasingly toxic and dysfunctional cities that we are creating.
To the dismay of my publishers and many readers I have been concerned to put language under pressure. To compress it into little bits that cease to squeak and then to put back in only so many words as are needed to restore meaning. My defence in this is that I have been encouraged by my adopted country’s ingrained habits of expression. Of saying as little as possible in dealing with one another.
Two tradies in the Golf House Hotel in Ballarat. ‘What’s she say?’ ‘Nothin.’ ‘What’d you say?’
‘Ugh, you know.’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Bloody hell.’ But is there anywhere a more poignantly laconic and meaningful passage than this one quoted in the voiceover of The Back of Beyond. It’s from the diary of the Birdsville policeman: ‘January 22. Thomas Crowe appears out of his mind. Some Inspector King shot himself while on the police station verandah. Another hot day. The heat.’
- Peter Temple: The Red Hand: Stories, Reflections and the Last Appearance of Jack Irish. Introduction by Michael Heyward. Text Publishing, Melbourne 2019. 322pp, AUD 32.99.