The link below is to an article that considers an Australian National Literature and who gets to create it.
Kangaroos are the most visible of Australia’s unique animals, but despite their charm and national icon status, Australian writers perpetually kill them off.
A kangaroo appears struggling in a rabbit trap, doomed and dying in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, while Tim Winton has one killed on the road, dissected and fed to dogs in Breath. These are just two of many Australian authors who have represented the kangaroo as a victim.
Kangaroos were a creature of wonder for early European explorers such as Dampier and Banks, but it didn’t take long for their public image to descend to that of a pest. Early settlers considered them competition, nibbling all the best pasture quicker than their sheep and cows, and they soon took up arms against the bounding menace.
The wild kangaroo population of Australia is still commercially slaughtered for dog food. In New South Wales, landholders and volunteers can be simply licensed to kill them for reasons of damage control, and some parts of Western Australia have an open permit system for non-commercial shooting. On any given day, there are usually several being mashed into the blue metal of highways, surrounded by crows and in various states of decomposition.
The expendable nature of the kangaroo may be a widely held view in Australia, but it’s a bitter irony that the creature which defines us to the rest of the world is perpetually under siege, in life and in literature.
Fiction’s dead roos
In Stephen Daisley’s 2016 novel Coming Rain, the author kills off a kangaroo with “a great thump” against the side of a truck, giving a gruesome description of the sweetening of the tail for stew.
The live joey almost has its head smashed against a tree but, owing to its “cuteness” it becomes a pet, wearing a straw hat. The stereotype of the cute joey is alive and well in children’s fiction too, but in adult fiction the kangaroo is dead.
In Tim Winton’s Breath, narrator Pikelet comes across surf guru, Sando, who has hit a kangaroo with his Kombi ute. Sando finishes it off with the jack handle from the car, pounded a couple of times into its head. His response to this act is very matter-of-fact: “This is what happens. And it isn’t lovely.”
Sando drags the “roadkill” into the tray of his ute and takes it home to butcher it. He is prepared for this, with a meat hook hanging from a tree, and he skins and guts the kangaroo. Pikelet observes this with some emotional discomfort, “shrinking from him a little” but accepts the flourbag of meat to take home to his parents who “wouldn’t eat roo meat in a million years”. He “hoiks” the meat into the bushes on the ride home.
Charlotte Wood considers the horror of roadkill in The Children, where Australian animals are killed by passing traffic and compared to contaminated “cushions”. Wood also kills a kangaroo (and a lot of rabbits) in The Natural Way of Things. Central character Yolanda snares a “large grey kangaroo” in a rabbit trap and finds it still alive:
Vainly, the kangaroo shifts and scuffles again. Then it lowers its head and lengthens its mighty neck, black eyes fixed on them, and lets out three long, hoarse snarls. Its snout fattens, nostrils flared.
Fearful of the sharp claws on its “delicate forefeet” they sit beside it, wondering how to set it free and instead bring it water and leave it to die slowly.
The image of the kangaroo is linked to death through earlier works from Australian authors too. The iconic 1940 poem, Native-Born by Eve Langley presents a detailed account of a dead kangaroo, while Randolph Stow’s 1958 novel To the Islands features kangaroos and wallabies being shot and eaten.
Australian fiction is, so often, deeply entangled with nature. Anxiety around the bush, as described in D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo back in the 1920s, is a feature of settler Australian fiction, tied together with violence, trauma and a sense of the uncanny.
Docile and violent all at once, the watchful gaze and twitching ears of kangaroos are, perhaps, reminders of that uneasiness the settlers felt.
The fact that Australian literature seems intent on killing off this national icon is deeply disturbing – but it is also deeply ingrained.
In contrast with kangaroos, thylacines are well and truly alive in Australian literature despite being extinct since 1936. They appear in over 250 works listed in the AustLit database of Australian literature, including 18 novels since 1988.
Among these are Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, Sonya Hartnett’s Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf and Louis Nowra’s Into That Forest, as well as children’s fiction, drama, film, short fiction and poetry. These thylacines often meet with violent ends, but their aliveness in fiction is astounding compared to the kangaroo.
Contemporary Australia is sentimental about the thylacine as a strange creature lost because of “ignorance”. They are now a thing of wonder, destroyed by misguided colonial settlers who are long gone. But if they weren’t extinct, would we treat them any better? Would we protect them? Often that is the point writers are trying to make by invoking the extinct “tiger” in the first place.
Our relationship with kangaroos (and thylacines), both in fiction and in reality, is symptomatic of what Stow called our “bitter heritage”. So perhaps it is unsurprising, given the violence of colonisation, that it has had (and is still having) an impact on the way writers represent the Australian landscape and all who inhabit it.
This article is based on research published in a forthcoming article for Antipodes.
Australian scientists have led many crucial scientific breakthroughs – from the manufacturing and processing of penicillin, to the first in-vitro fertilisation pregnancy. Yet there is still a need for science to be more widely appreciated in our broader culture.
One way of doing this is through storytelling. Novels with scientist protagonists can bring science to life and capture our imagination. They can personalise scholarly research and the drive for knowledge, and also make us think differently about the ethical dilemmas that emerge from scientific advances. Even stereotypical depictions of cold, obsessive “mad scientists” can get us thinking about the right and wrong way to do science, and about the role of science in culture.
Here, then, are eight stories set in Australia, presenting a variety of fictional scientists.
Dr Clive Kinnear, Wish
Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish reinterprets both Frankenstein and Pygmalion, exploring the ethical dilemmas of a group of scientists who push the limits of biotechnology to create Eliza, a charmingly human ape.
The central scientist characters – Dr Clive Kinnear and his associates – also teach sign language to the gorilla.
When Eliza’s language teacher falls in love with her, we are forced to re-evaluate our assumptions about the boundaries between animal and human, and about advances in genetic engineering.
The novel draws on actual research into ape-language acquisition carried out in the US in the 1960s and 70s. Goldsworthy also acknowledges Peter Singer, the noted Australian philosopher of animal welfare and rights, as an influence on the book.
Professor Koenig, Charades
Janette Turner Hospital’s novel Charades features a MIT physicist and candidate for the Nobel Prize, Professor Koenig, who has an affair with a provincial Australian girl in search of her lost father.
It is a wildly imaginative novel blending a personal story with nuclear physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (which articulates that the position and velocity of an object cannot be measured exactly).
The novel playfully revolves around Koenig’s academic writing and Heisenberg-inspired ideas such as the line: “a sense of the solidity of matter, is one of our most persistent illusions.”
Dr John Parker, White Eye
According to academic Roslynn Haynes, who studies stereotypes of scientists in pop culture, many stories depict scientists as maniacal and obsessed with their research to the point of madness and moral compromise.
Dr John Parker in Blanche d’Alpuget’s 1993 novel White Eye is an Australian example of the fictional ruthless, megalomaniac scientist.
A coldblooded researcher, he uses unethical methods to produce and test a vaccine against a virus that he more or less invented. This virus makes humans infertile as a side effect.
Parker wants to use this highly infectious and extremely virulent creation as a weapon against overpopulation – and he commits atrocious crimes to achieve his goal.
Della Gilmore, Fall Girl
Della Gilmore, the protagonist in Toni Jordan’s 2010 novel Fall Girl is an equally glorious caricature of scientist stereotypes.
Della’s father and grandfather travel the country in a buggy selling ‘Ol’ Doc Grayson’s “Magical Elixir good for bursitis, thrombitis, arthritis and anything that ails you at county fairs”. No wonder, Della becomes a con-artist herself.
In this novel she impersonates an evolutionary biologist and invents a fantastic research project (to trap a Tasmanian Tiger in Wilsons Promontory National Park). Her potential sponsor turns out to be a con-artist himself – one who humbugs the humbugger.
Jordan has previously worked as a molecular biologist. And this is a funny novel that invites us to think about the power of scientific jargon. Here, science is truly fiction.
William Caldwell, Love and The Platypus
To equally pursue “knowledge per se”, to unlock “the secrets of the organism” and to act as an explorer “not of untrodden lands, perhaps, but of the mysteries of nature”.
These are the reasons why the naturalist William Caldwell travels to Australia in Nicholas Drayson’s 2007 novel Love and The Platypus.
Caldwell’s research is “purely platypusical”: he aims to determine whether the platypus really does lay eggs.
But the “spirit of discovery – that was why he was here, was it not?”
Despite the obsessive nature of his scientific enquiry, Caldwell finds much more in Australia than just extraordinary animals.
Daniel Rooke, The Lieutenant
Daniel Rooke, Kate Grenville’s protagonist in The Lieutenant, is not a scientist, strictly speaking.
However, he is erudite and eager for knowledge – a “man of science” as he is called in the book.
Rooke moves from Europe to the newly founded colony of New South Wales, where he builds an observatory.
He hopes to add to the world’s sum of knowledge as dramatically as a Galileo or a Kepler, contemplating the universe and scanning the heavens in search for a particular comet.
But what he finally studies is human nature: of convicts, settlers, fellow officers and the Indigenous people he meets.
Charles Redbourne, Rifling Paradise
British novelist Jem Poster’s 2006 novel Rifling Paradise is the story of Charles Redbourne, a 19th-century English landowner who travels to Australia to pursue his passion as an amateur naturalist.
As he plunges deeper into the wilderness, Redbourne cultivates a flexibility of mind and comes to understand that his practice of science – and the expectations he had of his journey – were sophisticated modes of ignorance.
He understands that his “approach to the natural world is imaginative rather than analytical” and his expectations concerning his scientific journey here “had been tinged with fantasy”.
Crucially challenged by an artist he meets, he changes from a believer in science and a confident taxidermist into a vegan who realises that a marvellous order – and the sublime – can also be found in the world of thought and art.
Clayton Hercules Emmet, The Flesheaters
Clayton Hercules Emmet, a character in David Ireland’s 1972 novel The Flesheaters, both invokes and destroys the scientist stereotype.
Clayton, or Clay, is a “science person” whose “days were spent at the university killing small animals and waiting for a research grant in medical engineering”. His “constant effort to add to the sum of human knowledge has something of fever in it”. Indeed, Clay lives in a lunatic asylum.
One day, while trying to talk about science at a “worker-student-intellectual happening”, he fails to advocate the value of science as a means for social progress – its “saving truth”. Clay is a 20th-century caricature of a scientist who embodies the challenges of communicating the discipline to a broad audience.
When the author Richard Flanagan described Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker currently held on Manus Island, as “a great Australian writer”, he turned tired cliché into a pointed question: what makes an “Australian” writer?
Flanagan was writing in the foreword to Boochani’s startling book No Friend But the Mountains (Picador), which last night won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, the richest of its kind in Australia. Boochani also claimed the award for non-fiction, worth another $25,000.
This triumph cements Boochani’s status as an Australian writer.
Boochani was arguably the most important literary phenomenon in Australian literature in 2018. In part, this is because of the distinctive qualities of No Friend But the Mountains, an epic work that moves between verse and prose, reportage and fantasy, the mundane and the historical. The fact that Boochani’s political memoir of what he calls Manus Prison was ever published in book form defies the odds.
A journalist and experimental documentary maker, Boochani wrote the book as text messages on his mobile phone, sending them, sometimes through several intermediaries, to the academic Omid Tofighian for translation into English.
Indeed, beyond the recognition of Boochani’s book as a singular achievement in its own right, its success this week highlights recent intersections of human rights activism and the vocal political position-taking of the Australian literary community.
The publication of No Friend But the Mountains was accompanied by numerous public events, such as one at the Greek Centre in Melbourne in October 2018, where the conditions detailed in the book were discussed and protested, and Boochani participated via Skype. The same month, A “National Day of Action” organised by Academics for Refugees featured public “read-ins” of the book on university campuses nationwide.
Other Australian authors have also used their voices to bring attention to the plight of asylum seekers. During her acceptance speech for her second Miles Franklin Award in August 2018, Michelle de Kretser chastised politicians for their treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. To illustrate her point, she read a list of names of asylum seekers who have died there in the past five years.
It is tempting to dismiss such actions as gesture politics by an urban elite. But each individual action has served to raise awareness of the Australian government’s policy of “offshore processing” for asylum seekers, and to fuse artistic expression with political activism in a particularly forceful manner.
At the same time, and perhaps uniquely in the history of Australian literature, No Friend has seen the translation of human rights awards into convertible cultural capital in the literary field. The author has been awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award, the Amnesty International Award and Liberty Victoria’s Empty Chair Award. These humanitarian awards have confirmed Boochani’s rapidly acquired high profile in the literary field.
Last night’s news topped all of that to make Boochani the first “non-Australian” author to win the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The Victorian government established these awards in 1985 to honour Australian writing. The specific challenge this poses to the definition of “Australian writing” can be seen as an intervention by the literary community into the field of politics. If a non-citizen who has never set foot on mainland Australia can win, who counts as an Australian author?
Ironically, perhaps, Boochani’s success simply mirrors some of the prevailing trends in Australian authorship in an age of global literary circulation, which allow writers to transcend national borders. An example of this phenomenon is Nam Le who rose to fame with the publication of his very successful The Boat. This collection of short stories, informed by the author’s diasporic identity and upbringing in Australia, soon earned him over a dozen major literary awards in Australia, the United States and Europe.
Conversely, Boochani’s status on Manus Island has been defined by deterrence, indefinite detention and the spectre of refoulement. The narrative of this experience is one that he seeks to address directly to the Australian people from beyond Australia’s borders.
With no clear solution to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru in sight, the paradox of Boochani’s award success can only contribute further to public debate over the tangled logic of indefinite detention. It shows how cultural practices and political activism can be reconfigured to correspond with the newly created literary currency associated with refugee writing. For now, at least, Boochani is an “Australian writer” because Australia is morally implicated in what he wrote and how he wrote it.
Australians flock to the beach over the summer holidays: Bondi alone had 2.9 million visitors in 2017 – 2018. But while tourism campaigns often portray the beach as an idyllic, isolated haven, many of our beach stories depict it as a darker, more crowded and complex place.
Here are ten Australian beach stories (in no particular order) worth reading this summer.
Floundering by Romy Ash
Romy Ash’s debut novel Floundering, shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin award, is a captivating, sometimes chilling story of two young boys who are taken, without warning, by their mother to a beachside caravan park.
Left to their own devices, the boys must make the most of their time by the beach without anything but their school bags and uniforms.
The un-named regional beach in this novel is uncomfortable, “a location of risk and danger” as author Robert Drewe once described it, and sometimes reveals the worst ways in which nature and humanity meet. It’s a refuge for people looking to escape from city life, a stark comparison to more urbanised beaches.
Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey
When I tell people that I research the Australian beach, often their first response is to ask if I’ve watched Puberty Blues. Perhaps Australia’s most iconic beach text, the book (first published in 1979) is the story of two friends growing up in beachside suburbs of Sydney. It was adapted for film by Bruce Beresford in 1981.
Both the book and film, with their characteristic colloquialisms and Australian slang, capture a sense of Australian coastal identity while revealing uncomfortable truths about gender, sex, and drugs for the teenagers they depict.
Australian stories about the beach are often male-centred and written by men. Puberty Blues is an important contribution to beach literature because of Debbie and Sue, its female protagonists, and their perspectives on a blokey world.
Time’s Long Ruin by Stephen Orr
In 1966, the three Beaumont children disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide. They were last seen in the company of a tall, blond man. Despite continued searching, even earlier this year, they have never been found.
Time’s Long Ruin (2010) is a fictionalised account of the disappearance of three children as told through the eyes of their young neighbour. Loosely based on the Beaumont story, Orr captures the dread of the aftermath for those left behind who knew and loved the children, the challenge of dealing with false leads and unreliable information, and the growing realisation that they will likely never be found.
The case of the Beaumont children had an enormous impact on Australian culture. My mother, who was a young girl when they disappeared, still recalls how her parents would worry about her momentarily being out of sight at the beach at this time.
Breath by Tim Winton
On the surface, this novel is about surfing. But it asks deep questions about masculinity, and boys’ attitudes towards sex, while capturing the feel of Australian coastal life in the 1970s.
Winton’s writings often engage with the ocean, the coast, and the beach – usually in West Australia, where he lives. His memoirs have revealed his love for the coastal landscape. As he writes in Land’s Edge (1993): “There is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather be doing. I am at the beach looking west with the continent behind me as the sun tracks down to the sea. I have my bearings”.
The Empty Beach by Peter Corris
Peter Corris died in August, after publishing 102 novels. The Empty Beach (1983) was released early in his career and is the fourth novel featuring the private investigator Cliff Hardy – a homegrown, hard-boiled detective, firmly located in Sydney. It was adapted for film in 1985.
In this book, Hardy is investigating the disappearance of John Singer, missing and presumed dead. He begins his probe in the rough, working class Bondi of the early 1980s. Corris captures Bondi Beach through the eyes of his protagonist, depicting it as a seedy extension of the city.
Hassled by junkies, threatened by mobsters; Hardy spends much of the novel embroiled in the corrupt underbelly of Sydney’s criminal kingpins, never far from the now infamous shoreline.
The True Colour of the Sea, by Robert Drewe
Having lived in many coastal spots across the country, including Perth, Sydney, and Byron Bay, Robert Drewe’s stories regularly capture that very familiar, domestic sense of a beachside life.
Drewe’s The Bodysurfers (1987), a collection of short stories, became a bestseller.
His memoirs and short stories are all infused by the beach landscape, and this latest collection is no different.
As the narrator writes in Dr Pacific, the opening story in his new collection:
“One thing’s for sure – it’s my love of the ocean that keeps me going. You know what I call the ocean? Dr Pacific. All I need to keep me fit and healthy is my daily consultation with Dr Pacific.”
Atomic City by Sally Breen
Sally Breen lives and works on the Gold Coast, and that strip of high density development on the beach works its way into much of her writing.
With its high rise skyline under a big sky, Surfers Paradise has been called a “pleasure dome” by Frank Moorhouse. But Atomic City (published in 2013), set largely in the lofty apartment buildings and businesses that abut, and look out on, the beach, captures perfectly the grift and graft of this place.
Jade arrives on the Gold Coast to make herself over and get rich. Together with shady croupier “The Dealer” this is a beach tale of cons, scams and identity theft.
Not Meeting Mr Right by Anita Heiss
Prominent Australian Indigenous author Anita Heiss straddles both fiction and non-fiction, with her work often grounded in ideas around Indigenous identity. Her series of “chick lit” novels includes Not Meeting Mr Right (first published in 2007).
In the novel, Alice lives beachside in Coogee and regularly walks the coastal path between it and Bondi. A proudly single, Indigenous woman, Alice has a change of heart about marriage and decides to get serious about settling down – which means embarking on the rocky road towards finding love. In contrast to the challenges – including racism – she encounters along the way, the beach is a comfortably ordinary presence in this novel. However, Heiss also parodied the white Australian beach experience in an earlier book Sacred Cows (1996).
After January by Nick Earls
If you grew up in Brisbane when I did, there was a high chance you were reading a Nick Earls novel or seeing one adapted into a play. After January (first published in 1996) is one of Earls’ first works for young adult readers, and is set in the long break after finishing high school.
Alex is on holidays at Caloundra in his family’s beach house, a teenage boy uncomfortable in his skin but comfortable in the ocean. Although now more than 20 years old, this story still captures the uncertainty of burgeoning adulthood and the comfort the ocean can bring.
Bluebottle by Belinda Castles
For many Australians, the beach can be wrapped up in childhood memory. These memories can blend and blur. In my mind, my summers spent at the beach with my grandparents were never-ending, from the moment school finished until the day before I was set to return. In reality, we spent some time there, often weekends, and certainly never the entire school holidays.
Belinda Castles’ Bluebottle tells the story of the Bright family, and is filled with that uncomfortable tension that arises when we realise memory is fallible. Siblings Jack and Lou recount key moments from their childhood, starting with the disappearance of a local school girl and their father’s unpredictable purchase of a beachside property in Bilgola, Sydney. However, they learn that growing older can change perspectives on the past and, like the beach, it can be hard to tell what’s under the surface while the waves distort our view.
Peter Corris, author of the Cliff Hardy novels, died on August 30 2018 age 76.
By the 1970s Australian crime fiction was drifting.
The genre had a long history, back to convict days, when it dealt with unfair convictions and brutal treatments, most famously in Marcus Clarke’s For The Term Of His Natural Life (1870-2).
Being mostly published in London for the curiosity of the English, Australian crime fiction had followed European models, with some major success like Fergus Hume’s best-selling The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), and the fine series of mysteries by post-second world war women writers June Wright, “Margot Neville”, Pat Flower and Pat Carlon. But local crime fiction was little publicised and had little impact – the books mostly came into libraries from London.
English business interests and Australian outlooks changed as time passed. Then, in 1980, Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade appeared, a crime story which was American in its influence, fully Australian in its spirit, and both published and strongly publicised at home. The novel was the first adventure of a tough, but at times sensitive, Sydney private eye with the wonderfully Australian name, offering both geography and morality, Cliff Hardy.
Published by McGraw Hill, an American company newly adventuring across the Pacific, the novel was very well-received, and started Peter’s own long series of fiction. But it was also the first of a very striking renaissance (or even naissance) in Australian crime writing.
Within ten years Marele Day, Jennifer Rowe and Claire McNab were producing their sharp variants of female detection. By 2000, major producers such as Gabrielle Lord, Gary Disher and the powerful Peter Temple, who also recently passed away, were busily at work. They were asserting that the mysteries of death and detection could have a distinctly local and socially investigative thrust – as Corris had established back in 1980. No wonder he has been named the “godfather” of modern Australian crime fiction.
Cliff Hardy, though tough in his name, could be subtle. He lives in Sydney’s Glebe; he spent some time at the nearby university; and is capable of close analysis when needed. His cases are brought to him, but, as the masters of the form Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler established, the P.I. will also assert his privacy and make decisions about where his investigation is going to go.
As with the major American writers, the primary themes of the Cliff Hardy novels are urban corruption. But Corris’s expertise in Pacific history informs his writing. The first novel involves Pacific misdoings. White Meat (1981) makes Indigenous themes important – which return strongly in The Black Prince (1998).
True Blue? Crime fiction and Australia
Like the detective of Peter Temple, who no doubt learnt both confidence and approach from Corris, Hardy shows how local malpractice can have its roots in national and international criminal evil.
Though Australian crime writers have had very little success with the spy thriller, Corris’s Ray Crawley series – eight novels from Pokerface (1985) to The Vietnam Volunteer (2000) – are a capable version of the form.
More remarkable is his eight-book “Browning” series, from Box Office Browning (1987) to Browning Without a Cause (1995). In the series, the popular investigator Browning (one wonders why Corris chose the name of the wry learned 19th century English poet) adventures in part comically around the world, meeting on his way his compatriot Errol Flynn.
Corris also assented to the recent (and internationally very late) male Australian crime-writer engagement with police detectives – some of his leanest and sharpest novels are the three in the Luke Dunlop series about an undercover police agent, from Set-Up (1992) to Get Even (1994).
At first an academic historian, in the 1970s Corris became the literary editor of the much-regretted serious weekend newspaper The National Times. He had a wide range of knowledge and interests.
But what Corris will be most remembered for, and what he kept flowing in novels — and also in a number of short stories – were the adventures of Cliff Hardy. Cliff was drinking and chasing women a lot back in 1980. He calmed down in both departments, but kept at his investigations of corruption and malpractice, both business-oriented and personal.
Through his hero, with his physical and moral echt-Australian name Cliff Hardy, and through his lucid, calm plotting, Corris has matched Raymond Chandler in the modern world’s dominant crime form.
Both citified and individualist, the private eye story at its best demands personal, deep referential knowledge of the author – and calm stylistic skills. We have seen all this in the Hardy novels.
At the very end of Corris’s last Hardy novel, Win, Lose or Draw (2017) – in Australia, sport is always there – Hardy is smiling. So should his creator have been. With Hardy, he made a richly entertaining, very widely-admired, genuinely, lastingly, Australian international crime fiction hero.
Most countries produce crime fiction, but the versions vary according to national self-concepts. America admires the assertive private eye, both Dashiell Hammett’s late 1920s Sam Spade and the nearly as tough modern feminists, such as Sara Paretsky. Britain prefers calm mystery-solvers, amateurs like Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or sensitive police like Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based John Rebus. The French seem to favour semi-professionals who are distinctly dissenting – in 1943 Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma stood up to Nazi occupiers nearly as overtly as to Paris criminals.
Australia’s rich and varied tradition of crime fiction and detectives, though little-known and more rarely described, reveals a range of national myths, fantasies, and even elements of truth-telling about a country whose origin lay in convictions for crime.
The first Australian crime novel appeared in 1818, but production has been uneven. Most mysteries have been published here in the period since 1980, with substantial local publicity and reviewing. Before then, locally-written and Australia-set mysteries usually arrived from England, asserting colonial authority, and then banning American publishers through an “International Market Agreement”.
Writers sent manuscripts off to London, and a hundred or so hardbacks would arrive for local libraries, with almost no publicity and little impetus to develop the form here. But things changed with an American challenge to the “Agreement” in 1976 and the waning influence of Britain in general. In 1980 Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade began a flow of local productions – some from English firms now based here, like Allen and Unwin, who produced Jennifer Rowe with their Tolkien earnings.
Back at the start, transportation was a natural subject: in the first book of all, Thomas Wells’ Michael Howe, The Last and Worst of the Tasmanian Bushrangers (1818), Howe is a real escaped convict turned bushranger, with fictionally exaggerated adventures. Another theme was the wrongfully-convicted man like Quintus Servinton (1831) by Henry Savery.
The strongest convict novel is The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: he experiences harsh imprisonment, then escapes to live with bushrangers, and then mostly genial Indigenes: written in 1845, probably by ex-convict James Tucker, the novel was not published for over 80 years.
Criminal threats to free settlers were central to Tales of the Colonies (1843) by Charles Rowcroft: an immigrant Tasmanian family encounters the exciting land and its fauna but also bushrangers and the historical and rather noble Indigenous leader Musquito.
In Alexander Harris’s The Emigrant Family (1849) English incomers meet a vigorous native-born family as well as a range of trouble-makers. The settler thriller moved up to squatter level in Henry Kingsley’s rambling The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), which offers “every known cliché of Australian life” according to Arcady in Australia: The Evocation of Australia in 19th Century English Literature, an excellent critical book by Coral Lansbury – mother of Malcolm Turnbull.
Crime fiction illuminated the 1850s goldfields experience, mostly through short stories in the Australian Journal featuring police detectives known as “mounted troopers”, who controlled theft and crime of all kinds: they and the miners generated an early form of mateship.
The most prolific author was Mary Fortune who, Lucy Sussex’s research has shown, wrote hundreds of crime stories to the end of the century, and has begun to be re-published. The new gold-rich urban Australia was explored, especially when Donald Cameron produced the intriguing, and almost totally forgotten, The Mysteries of Melbourne Life (1873), followed by Fergus Hume’s highly readable The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): Melbourne-set and published, it then became in London the first best-seller in world crime fiction.
There had been retrospective fictions that essentially criticised the harsh convict colony and ennobled the transportees. The Broad Arrow (1859) by “Oliné Keese” (English visitor Caroline Leakey) is about a brave, true woman convict; His Natural Life by England-born Marcus Clarke offers a long, well-researched story of a maltreated, wrongly-convicted man, appearing first as a serial in the Australian Journal.
In that version he finally escapes from Norfolk Island, becomes a successful goldfields shopkeeper, and eventually returns wealthy to his much-diminished English family. But when it became a book Clarke was persuaded to drop the optimistic “Aussie-success” ending for popular novel melodrama: the escaping hero drowns tragically, and the title becomes the unironic For the Term of His Natural Life.
A more romantic and now fully Australian account of past crime and redemption was the very popular Robbery Under Arms (1881-2) by “Rolf Boldrewood”. The bushranger-turned-convict is no Anglo hero but a tough native Australian: he and his patient girlfriend end up as successful rural property-owners. So crime fiction developed a positive patriotic approach which would soon mesh with the bush myth asserted by popular writers like Lawson and Paterson – also fictional, as the cities grew.
In the late 19th century there were predictable urban mysteries and better rural dramas by writers like Rosa Praed and Mary Gaunt, as well as the distinctly Australian sporting thriller, notably those set at the races by Nat Gould, and also bold roving amateur detectors such as Randolph Bedford’s Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (1911).
But national mythic features could also be negative: notably absent have been police – while they were familiar overseas, here the memory of transportation limited them to Fortune’s people-friendly troopers, well-separated from convictism.
Equally lacking was any serious treatment of Indigenous people: they only appeared as lurking threats or helpful trackers, except in Arthur Vogan’s The Black Police (1890) in which an England-born New Zealander, who had taken a job in outback Queensland, told a bleak story about the racism he found there.
Between the wars, London publishers continued their dominance and there appeared two striking responses from local crime writers. Their novels can have “zero-setting”: though occurring in Australia they offer almost no local detail at all. Or they can be the opposite, “touristic” crime fiction, all bush and kangaroos, with the villain often consumed by the land itself in fire or flood.
The success of Arthur Upfield’s long series of “Bony” mysteries was not primarily based on his intelligent half-Indigenous detective but, including for overseas readers, came from the many grand outback landscapes that are so well described, to which Bony relates so strongly.
At the same time, interest developed in the formerly minor “crime novel”, the name for a story without detection and tending to sympathise with the criminal – an Adelaide-set series came from Arthur Gask. Classical mysteries were often set in the northern islands, as by Beatrice Grimshaw and Paul Maguire and, amazingly, the Hollywood actor and Tasmanian journalist, Errol Flynn, whose Showdown (1946) is a very capable thriller.
In the 1930s Jean Spender, adopting the English style, deployed an under-heroic police detective and she was followed post-war by other successful women. June Wright’s restrained policemen usually marry the young Melbourne lady amateur detective, but she also created a fine nun-detective, Mother Paul. Sydney-based Pat Flower, from Hell for Heather (1962) on, produced a sequence of psychothrillers as potent as those by international stars such as Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine (the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell).
Effective post-war male crime writers existed, such as Sidney Courtier and A. E. Martin, but they too were mostly England-published and little noticed or remembered. The American private eye had a brief presence in and after World War II, with many Americans in the country and English book imports rare: both US-based and local tough-guys thrived like those by the ultra-prolific “Carter Brown” (Alan G. Yates).
They faded, but the form would return when, feeling abandoned by Britain and looking more across the Pacific, readers were offered their own version of the American mode. The Dying Trade (1980), published in Sydney, with full local publicity, featured a truly Aussie tough guy, Cliff Hardy, and the author, Peter Corris, academic and journalist, stimulated more Sydney-based detectives, Marele Day’s elegant feminist Claudia Valentine, glamorous lesbian cop Carol Ashton by Claire McNab, and the thoughtful English-style amateur Verity “Birdie” Birdwood from publisher Jennifer Rowe. Now local readers could enjoy a wealth of their own national crime fiction, newly embodying many forms of contemporary conviction.
Melbourne soon followed with Shane Maloney’s wry amateur inquirer Murray Whelan and Peter Temple’s Chandleresque private investigator Jack Irish, so well realised on television by Guy Pearce.
The crime novel continued through Garry Disher and his genuinely tough Wyatt, while the psychothriller and other sub-genres flourished, especially from the ever-productive Gabrielle Lord. Finally, major male writers started to employ police – Disher by 1995 with Inspector Challis in The Dragon Man and Peter Temple’s very successful The Broken Shore (2005) introduced injured cop Joe Cashin.
Modern retrospection arose from Australian acceptance of the innovative mode of historical crime fiction pioneered by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1980). Melbourne led with Kerry Greenwood’s glamorous 1920s investigator Lady Phryne Fisher in Cocaine Blues (1989); later Marshall Browne offered a turn-of-the century Melbourne thriller series.
International gay crime fiction arrived: Claire McNab handled the female side forcefully, while for the men Adelaide’s notorious Duncan drowning was reworked in Roger Raftery’s The Pink Triangle (1981) and Phillip Scott’s amusing opera-related series started with One Dead Diva (1995).
Indigenous crime fiction writers also appeared. Mudrooroo Narogin produced, then as Colin Johnson, Wild Cat Falling (1965), a potent crime novel about a Perth teenager; later crime stories featured his Detective-Inspector Watson Holmes Jackamara, a figure both ironic and revealing. Archie Weller wrote a strong crime novel The Day of the Dog (1981) and tough short stories; Philip McLaren’s major novel Scream Black Murder (1995) has Indigenous police detectives, male and female, facing both public and personal challenges in Sydney’s Redfern.
Since 2000 Australian crime fiction has strengthened further, mostly with new voices. Day, Rowe and McNab all put an early end to their series and in 2017 Corris has called it a day – Cliff is smiling as the story finishes. Temple’s darkest novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin national prize in 2010, but his recent death has saddened readers.
Historicism has continued. Sulari Gentill explores the politics of the 1930s in her Rowland Sinclair series, and Lady Phryne has re-appeared, but Greenwood now also turns to the “cozy” tradition with large detecting chef Corinna Chapman. Police presence has grown, with notably realistic treatments by former female officers, P.M. Newton, Karen M. Davis and Y.A. Erskine; and there are others, like Leigh Giarratano’s subtle detective Jill Jackson and Felicity Young’s Senior Sergeant Stevie Hooper, tall, brave and based in Perth, like several other modern investigators, including Alan Carter’s “Cato” Kwong, a police detective from a long-present Chinese family.
Australian women crime writers are now in a clear majority, and they also offer private eyes: Gabrielle Lord has a series about Gemma Lincoln, and Angela Savage’s well-developed Thailand-based novels feature Jayne Keeney. The psychothriller remains vigorous: journalist Caroline Overington produced the intriguing Ghost Child (2009), while Honey Brown offers deeply imaginative stories like Red Queen (2009).
The crime novel thrives among male writers — Disher’s man re-asserted his presence in Wyatt (2010) and Andrew Nette produced the both local and international Gunshine State (2016); the comic crime novel emerged in Robert G. Barrett’s series about the idiotic bogan Les Norton. Other traditions continue: Tara Moss keeps feminism alive in her Mak Vanderwall series, while Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (2011) is a powerful Brisbane-based, Indigenous-oriented narrative.
Unique features appear in Australian crime fiction, and not just the five different authors who focus their mysteries on the Melbourne Cup. More notable are Leigh Redhead’s series about Simone Kirsch, the stripper-detective, starting with Peepshow (2004), revealing in several ways, and the two fascinating poem-based mysteries by the sadly late Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994) and El Dorado (2007).
Such brilliant exotics, and the richness of the tradition as a whole, show how far Australian crime fiction has come from convicts and bushrangers, without losing its continuing relationship with changing national concerns and the social and personal myths it can both test and validate.
Stephen Knight is the author of Australian Crime Fiction: A 200-Year History
Australian creators struggle to understand copyright law and how to manage it for their own projects. Indeed, a new study has found copyright law can act as a deterrent to creation, rather than an incentive for it.
Interviews with 29 Australian creators, including documentary filmmakers, writers, musicians and visual artists, sought to understand how they reuse existing content to create. It considered issues such as whether permission (“licences”) had been sought to reuse copyrighted content; the amount of time and cost involved in obtaining such permissions; and a creator’s recourse if permission was either denied or too expensive to obtain.
For the majority interviewed, seeking permission to reuse copyrighted content – for example, as snippets of music or video in films, or long quotes in written works – was a source of great frustration and confusion. The process was variously described as “incredibly stressful”, “terrifying” and “a total legal nightmare”.
Problems mostly centred on time delays and financial expenses. Creators found that the paperwork required to request permission was often long, complex and not standard across publishers and other rights-holder bodies. Many waited months for a response to a request; some never received one at all. Many reported feeling ignored and disrespected.
One interviewee, a composer, waited over a year for permission to set poetry to music. The music was due to be performed in a theatre production. The original poet was deceased but his publisher controlled the copyright.
After waiting months and not receiving a response, the composer was forced to painstakingly replace the words to the song with new ones that fit the same rhyme scheme, stresses, cadences and meaning as the original poem. This was a long and difficult process. Roughly a year after the play was staged, permission to use the poem came through from the publishers. By then it was too late.
Licence fees were also an issue for the creators interviewed. Licence fees can be expensive, even for very small samples. Many creators thought that copyright fees demanded for reusing small samples were unfair and stifling.
A filmmaker making a documentary about a small choir in rural Australia could not afford the licence fees to release the film to the public. To show snippets of songs sung by the choir, totalling less than two minutes of copyrighted music in a 20-minute film, with each snippet only seconds in length, the licence fees came to over $10,000. The project was ultimately abandoned because the filmmaker could not raise the funds to cover the licensing fees.
Avoiding and abandoning projects were common reactions to the restraints imposed by copyright law, although a very small number of creators proceeded anyway, hoping to “fly under the radar”.
Some changed projects to try to circumvent copyright restrictions. For example, filmmakers might degrade the sound on their films for scenes where background music might be playing, such as those filmed in a pub or restaurant.
Ideas were filtered out early at the brainstorming stage because they were “too risky” or licensing would be “too expensive”. Some people avoided entire areas of creativity, such as appropriation art, music sampling or documentaries about music or musicians, because it was all just “too hard”.
Court decisions such as the 2010 “Kookaburra” case have further aggravated the problems. In this case, despite significant elements of original creativity, the Australian band Men at Work were found to have infringed copyright of a 1934 folk song, Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree.
This case is a classic example of the gap that exists between law and creative norms. The law’s concern, in that case and others, is with what has been taken from an existing work. Creators, on the other hand, most commonly focus on the elements they have added to the work.
The study also highlights creators’ confusion about the scope and application of Australian copyright law. Creators were especially confused about legal exceptions to copyright infringement. In Australia, these are called “fair dealing” exceptions and they are narrow – they apply only to specified purposes (such as for research and study; parody and satire; reporting the news; and criticism and review).
Creators expressed concern about what, exactly, fell within “parody and satire” or “criticism or review”. What do those terms mean when applied to art? Once participant remarked: “Everybody is out there flying a bit blind about this.”
Other countries, including the United States, South Korea and Sri Lanka, have broader exceptions to copyright infringement, which permit reuse for things such as remix or appropriation art, provided that the use is “fair”. These exceptions are generally called “fair use”. Importantly, these exceptions do not require the use to fall within a predetermined category, like reporting the news. Each use is assessed on its own merits.
Courts apply some basic standards in determining what amounts to “fair use”, which include examining the purpose for which an original work has been used; the extent to which it has been transformed; and the extent to which a new work impacts on the market of the original work.
In recent years, the Australian Law Reform Commission and Productivity Commission’s recommendations that Australia adopt a US-style fair use exception attracted significant criticism from much of Australia’s creative sector. Many considered that such an exception would be too broad and too uncertain. However, the study suggests this criticism may be largely unfounded.
The creators interviewed used their own strong sense of morality and fairness to guide what reuse they considered to be acceptable. These principles and norms align quite closely with the factors that courts use in assessing fair use, including how much new creativity has been added to the existing work and whether the new work commercially impacts the existing work in an unfair way.
This new study suggests that more flexibility in the law might actually help to spur the creation of new Australian work.
A young woman of 23, Dorothea MacKellar (1885-1968), had a poem published in the London Spectator in 1908, titled Core of My Heart. She was the daughter of a wealthy pastoral family, educated privately, a graduate of the University of Sydney. She is said to have written the first draft of the poem in 1905 in response to the breaking of a prolonged drought on the family cattle and tobacco farming property, Torryburn, near Maitland in NSW. The poem was also written in protest against the anti-Australianism of many Australians at that time, excoriating them for their nostalgic love of English “grey-blue” landscapes and English weather.
Later, she re-titled the poem My Country and its second stanza remains the best known most quoted stanza of poetry in Australia, beginning with that belligerent, youthful and anthemic cry of “I love a sunburnt country”. She declared she could not share a love of “coppice”, “field”, “ordered woods” or “soft dim skies” because “My love is otherwise”.
She was in effect working to create not only pride at being here in such a raw and dramatic and vast place, but to make a new vernacular against the prissiness of English idioms of paradise. She even declared, defiantly, a love for the “stark white ring-barked forest” so common to Australia’s landscapes. We have forgotten how much of a rant this anthemic poem was in its time. It was a poem openly turning truisms on their head, giving a new generation its new native voice.
And of course, the poem exaggerated its argument, and opened itself to ongoing arguments over what it might mean to be in Australia, to be Australian, to find an identity in triumphant harmony with this place.
Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993), born on the banks of the Lachlan (Kalara) River at Condobolin, the youngest of eight children, found himself on the receiving end of, as he put it, “White Australia’s apartheid system”. In hospitals, Kevin Gilbert and his people were confined to verandahs and given blankets with “Abo” stamped on them. In his New True Anthem, he found his own moment of protest in the undiminished arguments over nationalism:
Despite what Dorothea has said
about the sun scorched land
you’ve never really loved her
nor sought to make her grand
you pollute all the rivers
and litter every road
Your barbaric graffiti
cut scars where tall trees grow
the beaches and the mountains
are covered with your shame
injustice rules supremely
despite your claims to fame
the mud polluted rivers
are fenced off from the gaze
of travellers and the thirsty
for foreign hooves to graze
a tyranny now rules your soul
to your own image blind
a callousness and uncouth ways
now hallmarks of your kind
Australia oh Australia
you could stand proud and free
we weep in bitter anguish
at your hate and tyranny
the scarred black bodies writhing
humanity locked in chains
land theft and racial murder …
It’s not so much MacKellar he had in his sights, for she was a fellow poet of protest, and a fellow poet in love with the land, but it was the profiteers, the racist systems, polluters and exploiters of every kind he wanted to expose. How that word “grand” has been mis-used and degraded, how far we are from being “proud and free”. No punches are pulled in this anti-anthem, and all the necessary questions are asked. Kevin Gilbert’s poem participates in the tradition of the corrective poem of insult, adopting the anthem as an anti-starting point.
Alec Hope (1907-2000) similarly used the moment of Australia’s commitment of troops to the Second World War to write his famous poem, Australia, allowing himself to speak over the top of Dorothea MacKellar to paint Australia as “drab green and desolate grey”.
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity
Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: ‘we live’ but ‘we survive’.
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.
And her five cities like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
There is nothing in Australia to celebrate and very little to admire in European modernism. Our only hope (Hope?), he ends gloomily, from a place we might call “love-hate”, is to remember that from such deserts as we have in abundance, prophets do come.
And now, the new voices of new poets come to this troubled tradition and make a claim to a voice, a language, an imagery that might wake us up to who we are and where we might be going. Omar Musa, raised as a Muslim, whose heritage is Irish-Malaysian, inspired by his poet father and the example of Muhammed Ali, is more famous as a novelist, a rapper, a slam performer and a You Tube sensation than as a poet to be read in a slim volume of verse.
His new book, Millefiori, is a solid and powerful and sometimes heartfelt incursion into poetry publishing, a book quickly read, but one that needs to be lived with and read over a number of times if the inner voice is to come through and the imagery work on its reader.
The longest poem in the book is Ranthem, an anti-anthemic poem in the tradition of Dorothea MacKellar’s and Alec Hope’s outspoken, youthful defiance and Kevin Gilbert’s hard won anger:
The people tell me love it or leave it. Fuck that.
How about love-hate it and stay? I’ll carry the flame.
They try to disqualify everything that I say
Cos I’m a big brown brother with an Arabic name.
They call me ungrateful and unpatriotic.
Sheeeeit! That attitude is straight idiotic.
If loving your country means wanting change for the better
That means criticizing the ugly
Side of society ASAP.
We need this kind of poetry to be published, to be happening, to be out there provoking us and projecting images of ourselves that might push us, in Musa’s phrases, to be “nuanced, shift the lens, be brave and consider again”. There might be more accomplished poets, more worthy commentators, but it’s clear that this one’s got a voice that says a lot of what needs to be said just now, and we’re interested.
Musa comes to his poems as both himself and, like Hope and MacKellar and Gilbert, as a voice made by a generation:
But do I have the right to commentate at all?
A middle-class Aussie man, that’s a lot of gall.
Cos this isn’t about me, so maybe adding my voice
Is just making the debate more cloudy …
but part of me feels it’s way worse if I don’t say shit.
You can’t help but admire the ways he catches phrases and phrasing, but you listen too to what he’s saying, hearing the reframing of the whole country going on inside those Ranthems.
As the debate continues over whether Australia Day should be celebrated on January 26, this series looks at the politics of some unresolved issues swirling around Australia Day – namely, the republic and reconciliation. And just for good measure, we’ll check the health of Australian slang along the way.
The Australian attachment to slanguage (slang language) goes back to the earliest settlements of English speakers in Australia. As Edward Gibbon Wakefield noted in his 1829 Letter from Sydney:
The base language of English thieves is becoming the established language of the colony … No doubt [terms of slang and flash] will be reckoned quite parliamentary, as soon as we obtain a parliament.
Wakefield’s observation was spot-on. The cant of the underworld (so-called “flash” or “kiddy” language) flourished in these early days. Slang had become an important way of fitting in and avoiding the label “stranger” (or “new chum”) – and, as linguist Evan Kidd confirms, it still is.
Yet, every few years there’s a furphy that our beloved “Strine” slang is doing a Harold Holt.
Reports of the death of slang downunder are total bulldust
Early in 2017, the Australian pie company Four’N Twenty expressed its concern that Australians hadn’t been “slinging slang” enough, and so launched its “Save Our Slang” campaign, aimed at promoting some 70 you-beaut, dinky-di, true-blue Aussie-isms (bloke, bogan, grouse, straya, you bewdy, and so on).
A few years earlier, in 2014, the appearance of Tony Thorne’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang sparked a series of articles heralding the end of the golden era of Australian slang, prompted by the fact that the work had added only three new (not terribly usual, to our mind) Australian terms: tockley “penis”, ort “buttocks” and unit “bogan”).
We commonly pin the blame for the death of Aussie slang on our anklebiters-cum-adolescents and their love of seppo (short for “septic tank”, rhyming slang for Yank) slang. But it’s worth noting seppo influence has been a lexical and moral concern at least since the introduction of American “talkies” in the 1920s, as documented by historian Joy Damousi:
… that influx of nauseous American slang and vile English which regularly appears upon the screen, and threatens to reduce the Australian vernacular to the level of the New York gutter-snipe.
It’s also worth noting that some of what we consider to be true-blue slang in fact finds its origins in – hold onto your Akubra – early contact with American English.
There was an influx of Americans to the goldfields from the 1850s, and they brought with them a bunch of American colloquialisms. These included bonza/bonzer, which is probably from American English bonanza (originally from Spanish and used in the US in the 1840s for a successful gold mine).
Even waltzing – “carrying” – is probably from American slang, or at least was used at the same time and in the same way. Sure, we have records of Australians “waltzing Matilda” in 1890, but Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were “waltzing” with this same meaning (albeit sans Matilda) in 1884.
Australian slang: like the eggs of the codfish
Some align the disappearance of Aussie slang with Australia’s maturing as a nation.
Certainly words, more than other aspects of language, are linked to life and culture, and perhaps the changes in Australian society are such that the days of the chiacking larrikin (or cheeky lovable prankster) have passed?
But it is the nature of slang that there will always be a turnover of terms – today’s cobber is tomorrow’s mate, ranga for a redhead replaces blue/bluey, bogan replaces ocker and so on.
As American writer Gelett Burgess put it in his 1902 essay, In Defence of Slang:
Like the eggs of the codfish, one survives and matures, while a million perish.
An expression that fills a need becomes accepted but, as Burgess describes:
… it is a frothy compound, and the bubbles break when the necessity of the hour is past, so that much of it is evanescent.
His own brilliant creation blurb for “a short publicity notice” was clearly one of the eggs that survived – and thrived.
We are continuing to sling slang
It seems we get so obsessed with the death of Australian English that we miss those many great terms that are being created beneath our very eyes in Australia and by Australians. Just look at the slew of recent additions to the Australian National Dictionary (most stemming from the 1980s and 90s):
… hornbag, snot block, checkout chick, houso, reg grundies, ambo, rurosexual, seppo, spunk rat (previously also spunk bubble), chateau cardboard, firie, tradie, trackie daks
And we continue to play with these terms – goon has been around for a while, but it keeps on inspiring new creations, including goon bag (1998), goon juice (2000), goon of fortune (2004), goon sack (2009), and so on.
The rhyming hoon is another great example of how language is always on the move. It’s attested as a noun in 1938 (“lout”, “exhibitionist”), but with the shift to “young hooligan, especially as a driver” in the late 80s, we see a rich proliferation of changes, including hoon as a verb (1988), and nouns denoting the act of being a hoon, including hoonery (1987), hoonishness (1993), hoondom (1998) and their weapon of choice, the hoonmobile (1994), with which they could be adjectives hooney or hoonish.
The other interesting thing about hoon is that it illustrates how one meaning can oust another. The driver sense of hoon has pushed out the pimp sense that existed alongside it from the 1950s to the turn of the century (a very rare case where a risqué meaning hasn’t won out).
So, slang continues to flourish. It’s also clear there’s no sign that we’re about to give up our shortenings – as seppo, firie and trackie daks attest, Australians still love abbreviations. And we are exporting them it seems.
Aussie contributions to world lexicon
Australian selfie was the Oxford Dictionaries “Word of the Year” for 2013 (the frequency of the word had increased by a whopping 17,000% since the previous year). Its success was astonishing – in the same year it was even crowned Dutch Word of the Year (no squeamishness about loanwords in the Netherlands).
But there are plenty of other success stories too: budgie, greenie, pollie, surfie, even mozzie are now also making appearances in global English, as are demo, preggo and muso. These join many other exports – no worries, like a rat up a drainpipe, to put the boot in, to rubbish (someone) to name a few.
Australia recently scored another global hit with Macquarie’s Word of the Year 2017, milkshake duck, “a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but is then discovered to have something questionable about them, which causes a sharp decline in their popularity”.
It’s a “patriotic pick”, as Tiger Webb points out. Coined by Australian cartoonist Ben Ward, milkshake duck not only marks an Australian contribution to the global lexicon, but also carries shades of an Australian cultural contribution: the tall poppy.
So, let’s not milkshake duck (verb) Australian slang by focusing too much on the past cultural cringe and underplaying the evolving nature of slang.
After all, it’s funny to think that at the same time as we’re complaining about Australian slang dying, the Brits are complaining about Australian language features slipping into their kids’ repertoires.
Catch up on others in the series here.