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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
Safe harbours protect internet hosts and platform providers from monetary liability for copyright-infringing content posted or shared by their users. For example, if you post the latest Thor movie to YouTube, YouTube won’t be responsible for copyright infringement if it takes down that video. In Australia, we only extend this protection to internet services providers, not general purpose websites.
This matters because technology firms rely on limits to liability to manage their risks. Companies like Facebook or YouTube, which host millions of pieces of user content, would face serious difficulty starting in Australia because our laws on copyright infringement are so strict.
The new legislation is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough to create an environment that fosters Australian innovation.
Excluding platforms from safe harbours doesn’t make much difference to tech giants like YouTube and Facebook, since they already operate within the United States safe harbours. But it does discourage Australian tech start-ups from the chance to experiment in a reduced-risk environment.
It is not just the US with broader copyright safe harbours than Australia – jurisdictions around the world extend safe harbours to internet intermediaries beyond ISPs.
The European Union, for example, provides that member states must ensure that any hosting provider will not be liable for unlawful content posted by users, provided it acts quickly to remove the content upon notice.
The copyright safe harbours came about as a result of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998. The DMCA represented an important bargain struck between the established content industry, such as big film and TV studios, and the burgeoning tech industry.
The content industry got a “notice-and-takedown” regime that required online service providers to remove material that infringes copyright. In exchange, the tech industry got copyright safe harbours.
Under this system, the service provider must quickly and efficiently remove infringing content if they are informed about it by the copyright owner. This notice-and-takedown scheme has become fundamentally important to the way the internet works today.
But in enacting the copyright safe harbours, parliament made a drafting error. Instead of extending protection to “service providers”, as the US law does, we gave protection to “carriage service providers” as defined in the Telecommunications Act.
Essentially, Australia only gave protection to internet service providers like Telstra, Optus and TPG, and not to platform providers like Whirlpool, RedBubble, YouTube or Facebook. For more than a decade, this has been a critical difference between US and Australian copyright law.
The new bill appears to close the glaring gap between US and Australian law by replacing the term “carriage service provider” with, simply, “service provider”.
But the bill defines “service provider” to be either a carriage service provider; an organisation assisting persons with a disability; or a body administering a library, archives, cultural institution or educational institution.
It does not extend the safe harbour to those who actually need it the most – Australia’s internet hosts and platform providers.
This is a seriously missed opportunity for Australian innovators. There is a real risk for businesses, both large and small, who want to provide online spaces for people to communicate.
Our copyright laws potentially make hosts liable for much of the copyright infringing content that users may upload or share. But it can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to pre-screen all content before it is uploaded.
This is one of the reasons why many large social media platforms don’t base their operations in countries like Australia, and why Australian businesses are at a major competitive disadvantage compared to those in other countries.
Why not extend the safe harbour to Australian innovators?
There were early indications that the Australian government intended to extend the safe harbours to all online service providers, but these amendments were shelved.
Entertainment industry groups have been lobbying hard in recent years for measures that go beyond the notice-and-takedown scheme that the safe harbours provide. They want what they call notice-and-staydown: proactive filtering of unlicensed copyright content by service providers.
At the same time, copyright owners want higher payments. They use the term “value gap” to describe what they see as the difference between sites like Spotify that pay hefty licence fees to make content available to users and sites like YouTube that do not.
Content owners are no longer happy with the bargain they struck in the DMCA – they allege that sites like YouTube are gaming the system of the safe harbours.
There is a false equivalency at work here. Spotify is not a site for user-generated content and does not purport to be; sites like YouTube have everyday users at their core. If we believe that creative discourse, engagement and play matters then there is a cogent reason why sites that facilitate user-generated content might need some legal latitude.
However, this debate misses a more fundamental point. Limited safe harbour provisions hurt Australian creators and innovators. They increase the risk to innovators developing new technology products and platforms.
And, importantly, Australian creators miss the opportunity to exercise greater control over their creations through notice-and-takedown mechanisms that are easy to use and far cheaper than copyright lawsuits.
However, there is still cause for concern about Australia’s literacy standards, with the PIRLS study showing that a substantial minority of Year 4 children continue to struggle with reading.
The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study
The study has been running internationally every five years since 2001. In 2016, it encompassed 50 countries. Australia has participated twice – in 2011 and 2016.
In 2016, 6,341 Year 4 students from 286 Australian primary schools took part.
The study focuses on two reading abilities – reading for literary experience, and reading to acquire and use information. Students were given texts to read and then asked to answer multiple choice and short answer questions. Example questions include:
How does the author show you what the red hen is like?
According to the article, what is one way people have made the sea more dangerous for turtles?
Signs of improvement
The results show Australia’s national average performance improved significantly between 2011 and 2016.
With the exception of the Australian Capital Territory, all the states and territories showed an improvement. The improvement was statistically significant in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.
The increase in the average scores in many states is due to better performance by students at the top end of the scale. This is a wonderful outcome for those students.
While the 2016 PIRLS results run counter to the trends in the most recent PISA and TIMSS international assessments, the improvement isn’t entirely unexpected. Recent years of NAPLAN results have shown an improvement in average reading scores for Year 3 students.
It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the reason for this improvement. But it’s fair to say there has been a strong focus on early reading since NAPLAN was introduced in 2008, putting a spotlight on progress in this vital area of education.
Indeed, the PIRLS results provide a very useful external validation of the reliability of the NAPLAN results, as they report similar trends in reading over similar periods.
The sting in the (long) tail
The improvement in average scores is certainly heartening. But the PIRLS data also show that when it comes to reading, many Australian children are still being left behind.
In 2016, 6% of Australian children did not meet the minimum (low) international benchmark for Year 4 reading. This is only a very small improvement from the 2011 figure of 7%.
Some 19% of Australian children in Year 4 did not achieve the intermediate benchmark. To reach this benchmark, children needed to be able to:
make straightforward inferences about things that weren’t explicitly stated in the text
work out the order of events in the text, and/or
find and repeat explicitly stated actions, events, and feelings in the text.
PIRLS describes this benchmark as a “challenging but reasonable expectation”.
In 2011, 24% of Australian children in Year 4 did not achieve this benchmark. So the figure of 19% in 2016 is an improvement. But it’s a poor outcome compared to other countries, including England, Canada, and the United States.
Despite some improvements, Australia still has the second-largest proportion of children below the international intermediate benchmark for reading among English-speaking countries.
Research shows that children who struggle with reading in their early school years are unlikely to ever catch up. These children need to be identified and supported much earlier.
This year, an expert advisory panel to the Australian government (which I chaired) reviewed early years reading assessments used around Australia. We found a deficit in the assessment of phonics skills in particular.
Phonics is the ability to translate the letters on a page into their respective sounds. It’s a skill that children (and adults) need so they can read and learn unfamiliar words. Without the ability to read and learn unfamiliar words, children have little hope of reading for meaning.
Based on the outcome of the review, the panel recommended (as have other experts) a trial and possible subsequent adoption of the Year 1 Phonics Check that has been statutory in English primary schools since 2012.
In this context, it’s worth noting that England’s results in PIRLS 2016 – the first group to take the Year 1 Phonics Check – are the best they have ever been.
But of those five components, there is good reason to believe that phonics isn’t being taught effectively or assessed consistently in many schools. For the children most at-risk of reading failure – including those from socioeconomically or language impoverished homes, and children with learning difficulties – the consequences are devastating.
Literacy on the agenda
This Friday, Australia’s federal, state and territory education ministers will come together for the year’s final Education Council meeting. Their agenda will include the need for a national Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.
The PIRLS statistics will be thoroughly dissected and debated. But it’s important to remember these statistics represent real children.
What does it mean to be unable to read? One mother of a Year 6 child poignantly described it as “not being able read the jokes in Christmas crackers around the table at Christmas lunch”.
This should not be the case for a child who has spent seven years at school. A literacy check in Year 1 could prevent many Australian children from falling through the cracks, and facing a lifetime of disadvantage.
Women have always been central to true crime stories: as victims, perpetrators, readers, and (increasingly) as tellers of these tales. Indeed, these tales, often dismissed as sensationalised violence, offer important opportunities to reflect on crime and crime control.
Many true crime writers today – including numerous women, working in a once male-dominated market – have been biographers, coroners, detectives, historians, journalists, lawyers, and psychologists. These backgrounds bring a style of storytelling that educates us about, not just merely entertains us with, crime. Importantly, many privilege complex and nuanced storytelling over simplistic stereotypes of women as just “bad” or just “good”.
The first Australian true crime stories were transmitted orally, jotted down in journals, and entered into official records. George Howe, editor of our first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, enthusiastically embraced the topic of crime: the paper’s first issue in 1803 included stories of fraud, attempted murder, and the brutal rape of 17-year-old Rose Bean.
The first Australian publication dedicated to true crime is Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers of Van Diemen’s Land (1818), by T.E. Wells. This short work is also the story of Howe’s companion, then victim, Mary Cockerill a young Indigenous woman. Cockerill supported Howe in a landscape forbidding and wild to the European settlers. After being betrayed by Howe – he shot her as they were being pursued, facilitating his own escape – Cockerill then used her knowledge of the bush to help authorities. Howe was captured and killed in 1818, bringing his bushranging career to an end.
In the colonial era, a woman’s status as a victim was upheld, or denied, based on her character and her ability to conform to social mores of the time. Today, women are often still judged by what they say and what they wear; their education and their occupation. How many sexual partners have they had? Are they too emotional? Are they not emotional enough? Likewise, some perpetrators have been seen as more heinous because they are women.
Women as perpetrators
In Captain Thunderbolt & His Lady (2011), Carol Baxter skilfully tells the story of Frederick Ward (“Captain Thunderbolt”), a bushranger in the mid-1800s, and his Indigenous partner-in-crime Mary Ann Bugg (“Mrs Thunderbolt”). Bugg – an intelligent, gutsy, trouser-wearing woman – is brought vividly to life, as she breaks the law and defies the feminine expectations of her time.
As Baxter notes, Bugg was dissatisfied with the social status quo, and, like many bushrangers, she received support and sympathy from the wider population. She was not all “bad” but not all “good” either. Indeed, some suggested Mrs Thunderbolt was merely blamed for the deeds of her husband. Bugg outlived her outlaw partner by 35 years, dying in obscurity in Mudgee in 1905.
One of the more dramatic true crime tales of the late colonial period, is the story of Louisa Collins. Caroline Overington looks at the life, and death, of Collins in Last Woman Hanged (2014). Accused of murder, Collins famously endured four trials in 1888, which, as Overington argues, were effectively trials of all Australian women. If women wanted equal rights, including the right to vote, “then, such equality had to be universal: women, too, would hang for murder”. In the first three trials, the juries failed to deliver a verdict. In the fourth trial, the jury found her guilty and Collins was hanged in 1889.
The Worst Woman in Sydney (2016) by Leigh Straw documents the life of Kate Leigh, born Kathleen Beahan, an icon of Sydney’s underworld from the 1920s through to the 1950s. A “famed brothel madam, sly-grog seller and drug dealer”, she is best known for her involvement in the “Razor Wars” when Sydney gangs used razors instead of guns. Leigh could handle a rifle (or any other weapon) and was “an intelligent criminal entrepreneur” who quickly capitalised on opportunities as they emerged. A hardened crook (who was in and out of prison), Leigh was also very generous; her Christmas parties for poor children, in Surry Hills, were legendary for the food and presents given out.
In Nice Girl (2011), Rachael Jane Chin looks at the many dreadful secrets kept by Keli Lane. Found guilty of murder and of lying under oath, Lane’s case is one that is still difficult to believe. Gender, and gendered ideals, stand out within it. Chin unpacks how Lane was a solid, middle-class young woman. She had her boyfriends but was not promiscuous. She was a teacher and had worked hard to become an elite athlete.
But underneath Lane’s “good upbringing and clean-cut appearance”, which earned her the benefit of the doubt from those around her, were five secret pregnancies during the 1990s. Two pregnancies were terminated, two infants were put up for adoption and one baby, Tegan, was murdered. Lane is serving her prison sentence, the crimes she committed as shocking now as when they were discovered. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.
Women as victims
In 1921 the body of 12-year-old schoolgirl Alma Tirtschke was found in an inner-Melbourne alleyway. Colin Campbell Ross was charged with rape and murder, as described in Kevin Morgan’s Gun Alley (2005, updated 2012). We learn the victim, just a child, was quiet but also clever and creative. As readers, we cannot help but speculate who Tirtschke could have grown up to be.
Ross was hanged in 1922: a result of false allegations, a flawed investigation, and a trial held in the press and in the courtroom. He received a posthumous pardon in 2008. This case is particularly important in the history of Australian true crime writing because, as Tom Roberts explains, it highlights the commercialisation of crime, focusing on the headline of the defenceless female, and media-driven moral panics.
One of Australia’s most famous crimes is the “Pyjama Girl Case”. In 1934 the remains of Linda Agostini, born Florence Platt, was found. She had been shot, beaten, and burnt. Most notably, Agostini was wearing yellow, silk pyjamas, patterned with a dragon: a flamboyant garment in Depression-era Australia. Agostini’s body was placed on public display in an attempt by the police to discover the name of the murdered woman but it took 10 years to identify the victim. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frank Johnson published his Famous Detective Stories series, which included The Pyjama Girl Mystery. Like many of Johnson’s true crime storytelling efforts, the woman at the centre of the criminal case is presented as a sexual object.
The story of Anita Cobby, born Anita Lynch, has been told many times. The first major telling of the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old in 1986, is Julia Sheppard’s Someone Else’s Daughter (1991). Sheppard contrasts Cobby and her numerous contributions to the community, as a charity worker as well as a nurse, with the senseless cruelty of the men who took Cobby’s life. Stories like this one, which have stayed in the public imagination over decades, highlight how the impacts of crime extend beyond the victim, family, and friends. They also show how women can be victims of completely random acts of violence.
Many women are victims of domestic violence. The murder of Lisa Harnum, by her fiancé Simon Gittany, is described by Amy Dale in The Fall (2014). Gittany threw Harnum to her death from their apartment balcony, situated on the 15th floor of an inner-Sydney building in 2011. This is a story of control, surveillance, and toxicity. Harnum was trapped in an untenable position: too frightened to leave but also too frightened to stay. When she did try to escape, the result was tragic. Gittany was sentenced to 26 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.
Changing true crime narratives
The once “either/or” binary of “bad/good” women has given way to demands from readers to see women as complex figures within these works. As a result, more and more writers are now increasingly focussed on the human cost of crime.
Women are also telling their own stories, as seen in Lindy Chamberlain’s work Through My Eyes (1990). Chamberlain was falsely imprisoned for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, at Uluru in 1980. This book delivers a very personal account of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history.
Crime is never without context and is never straightforward. Many writers – women and men – know that simplifying these stories with stereotypes, female or male, is just not good enough: for the innocent, for the guilty, or for readers.
In 1790, Watkin Tench, the first officer with the First Fleet and a member of the fledgling British colony, stood on what we now know to be “The Heads” of Sydney, hungry and pining for news of England:
Here on the summit of the hill, every morning from daylight until sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon in hope of seeing a sail. At every fleeting speck which arose from the bosom of the sea, the heart pounded and a telescope lifted to the eye…
Tench’s palpable yearning for the mother country is an early account of British despair upon first settlement in Australia. One hundred years later, the sentiment remained. Many settlers were still unhappy with their surrounds, as evidenced in Edward Dyson’s musings in his 1898 short story The Conquering Bush:
The bush is sad, heavy, desparing; delightful for a month, perhaps, but terrible for a year.
In Barbara Baynton’s works, meanwhile, tales of harsh female experiences were set against even harsher Australian landscapes, devoid of respite or pleasure. In her 1896 short story The Chosen Vessel, a young wife and mother left alone in her bush home is stalked, raped and murdered by a swagman:
More than once she thought of taking her baby and going to her husband.
But in the past, when she had dared to speak of the dangers to which
her loneliness exposed her, he had taunted and sneered at her.
For over 200 years, the white sentiment of desolation and anxiety about this “untamed” land has pervaded much of Australian literature. Children went missing, men went mad, and women suffered what writer Henry Lawson called the “maddening sameness” in The Drover’s Wife and Others Stories. “Oh, if only I could go away from the bush!” wails Lawson’s central character in The Selector’s Daughter.
The works of these early writers did much to reveal the challenging realities of the bush. Those eking out an existence in a land where soil and weather disagreed with European sensibilities and practices were met with hard work. And what a place to work! There was little room for bucolic tranquillity in a land of drought, flood and searing heat.
But, in the 21st century, there has been a change in how Australians read and write about the bush. Author and ecologist Tim Flannery, for one, urged his fellow country men and women to “develop deep, sustaining roots in the land” in his address as Australian of the Year in 2002 – which is what many of our contemporary writers seek to do. Unlike their predecessors, they’re increasingly likely to write about the bush as a destination for escape, rather than a place from which to flee.
Author Tim Winton’s Dirt Music does exactly that, as told through the tribulations of protagonist Luther Fox. After being forced out of his small south-west Australian town White Point for the crime of theft, he does not flee to the city; instead he journeys to a more remote region: the Kimberley.
Lost, injured and starving, Fox does not curse the land for his fate. Rather, he accepts his minor place in the universe and begins to come to terms with his family history through listening to and appreciating the powerful land:
He knows he lives and that the world lives in him. And for him and because of him. Because and despite and regardless of him.
Others, like Peter Temple in the The Broken Shore, highlight the beauteous potential of working with the land, as opposed to fighting it.
When the novel’s protagonist, Joe Cashin, leaves the city to return to his home town on the cold, south-west coast of Victoria, he does so a shattered man. With only the battering winds, shrieking cold and his dogs as company, Joe attempts to rebuild the home of his ancestors. He does not curse the sea for the death of his father or bemoan the land or its conditions. Rather, he finds a way to live in it alongside the people he grew up with:
Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquid ambers and maples his great-grandfather’s brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness…
Other authors such as Robert Drewe, Kate Grenville, Cate Kennedy, Murray Bail and Jenny Spence also create plots that entail leaving the city and finding refuge and peace in the Australian bush. This is a markedly different trajectory from that of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife or even the doomed schoolgirls in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, who journey through the scrub and rock to never return.
For the love of farmland
This sentiment toward the land does not aim to romanticise one’s “return” to nature. Rather, it’s as much concerned with exploring the cultural practices intrinsic to Australian land.
This is most apparent in literary interpretations of farming, or “pastoral” literature (writing that idealises country life). UK scholar Terry Gifford has coined a key term to consider here: “post-pastoral”, which is a “discourse that can both celebrate and take responsibility for nature without false consciousness”.
Gifford’s view is that post-pastoral is provisional and can be adapted to different regions. It does not idealise rural life. Nor does it exist only to highlight the harsh realities of life on the land. Rather, it seeks new ways of looking at the pastoral in all its forms.
In Australian writing, we appear to have an emerging “co-pastoral” discourse – a place where humans and the land co-exist. Humans do not, after all, always have to be the agents of disaster, and the land does not always have to be mundane and unforgiving.
This is the case for Winton’s follow-up play to Dirt Music, Signs of Life, where we learn that Luther Fox and his partner Georgie return from the Kimberley to live and work on the Fox family farm. At the end of the play, Georgie resolves to harvest olives on the land.
Christie Nieman’s 2014 novel, As Stars Fall, follows the story of a family stricken with grief after the death of a mother in a bushfire. The children and their new friend, a daughter of farmers, begin to heal by uniting to save an endangered bush stone-curlew – an injured bird whose chicks also perished in the flames. The farming father is an avid birdwatcher who, in the end, suggests building a native refuge for the stone-curlew on his property.
“Farmers aren’t what a lot of people think they are,” writes the mother who dies in the fire.
They care a lot about their land and the wild animals that live there. They really do want to know the best things to do, and how to help the natural environment in a way that doesn’t hurt their own livelihoods.
Here, Nieman attempts to cast new light on farm culture, as one deserved of respect rather than contempt.
Another key figure is Australian bush romance writer Rachael Treasure, whose work fits firmly in the co-pastoral lens. The bestselling author of five books and self-confessed “bushland babe” supports sustainable farming and partly uses her work for advocacy. Treasure says she “consciously writes for a wide audience, because storytelling is the most powerful vehicle to convey your message”.
Her message is that regenerative agricultural practices, such as pasture cropping, are the only way forward – not only to feed the country, but to heal a damaged land. If this needs to be told with a healthy mix of humour, tragedy and passion under the gum trees, then so be it.
“For the first time in her life, she saw the land with clear vision,” Treasure writes of her main character, Bec Saunders, in The Farmer’s Wife – who against the wishes of her husband and father, begins to farm without fertiliser, pasture crop, and build ground cover. Bec hopes that her children will “never see a sod turned again in their lifetime” and vows to “celebrate the seasons, not fight them”.
In this sense, Treasure’s work in The Farmer’s Wife is not environmentalist “green” literature. Farms mean clearing, crops, machinery, pesticides and animals whose hooves destroy the fragile landscape and whose methane contributes to greenhouse gases.
Co-pastoral literature does not dismiss the manufactured gardens, the introduced plants or the people who admit to wanting to work the land for profit. Nor does it forget the original Aboriginal landowners whose agricultural practices we now value. It does, however, seek to establish harmony between humans and the land.
Australian literature has long straddled this line between interpretations of bush life as harsh and incompatible, or of mutual benefit and interconnectedness.
But in fleeing to it, seeking refuge from it and working with it, our authors allow us, unlike the homesick Tench, to turn the telescope inward, toward the land and to ourselves.