Dull Australia: A Refutation [22 September 1934]

[Editor: This was written at a time when some literary critics considered Australian literature to be an inferior product. The writer promotes Australian books and attacks those who denigrate them. He favourably reviews “Landtakers” by Brian Penton and urges others to buy and appreciate Australian books as a way of encouraging the growth of Australian authors and Australian literature.]

Dull Australia.

A Refutation.

By Henry Drake.

This is not a vainglorious attempt on my part to apply a kind of national psycho-analysis; neither, lest your heart misgive will it prove an amateur dabble in economics. The problem is far simpler. Indeed, scarcely a problem at all — rather might my question be regarded as a rhetorical expression of surprise and dismay to find cropping up again, baleful as Medusa’s head, and as fantastic, an antagonism towards Australian books which the happenings of recent years had led me to believe had vanished — in our own country — for ever.

Is Australia dull?

As I write this I can lift my head and gaze — more often than is altogether good for coherence— and gaze again, upon the loveliness of the Avon Valley. The name carries the mind instinctively to Elizabethan England, and so to the buccaneering swaggering sons of the sea who furrowed the way to a Greater Britain, to a richer setting for that “precious isle set in a silver sea . . .”

Before me the hills slope, darkly banded with jam trees gilt-edged with the ever-recurring security of Spring. Beneath the trees, everlastings bloom to vanish, making rosy the earth for a passing month. The sky is clear, tenderly blue. Sunlight sparkles on the leaves of wandu and red gum as though they are diamond tipped, or mica-glazed like glistening rocks scarring the green hillsides. I can see little red houses, brown fallowed paddocks. I can hear cow bells, a dog barking, and, over in the wattle thicket, a kookaburra simply laughing its head off at the absurdity of my question . . .

Into this enchanting valley, a hundred years ago, came white men. The black hunters departed, leaving only in memory of their passing a place-name here and there— even an unverified legend that the town itself immortalises the name of a copper-tinted Helen whose charms loosed a hundred spears . . . Not far distant, across the hills, winds the track along which Bishop Salvado strode at the head of his oxen — singing hymns to the heathen bush as he blazed a trail, with axe and faith, to New Norcia. There is an old mill in sight — the mill at Hawthornden. There’s a Drummond of Hawthornden in the “Golden Treasury” too; between two songs from the Bard of Avon he greets the Spring:—

Night like a drunkard reels
Beyond the hills . . .
The fields with flowers are decked in every hue,
The clouds with orient gold spangle their blue . . .

He would not have found dull this valley his descendants helped to pioneer . . .

Out of sight lie relics more grim: the thick crumbling walls of an ancient gaol, with delicate irises abloom in a close-by burial ground where some graves face the east and some poor devils are planted any-how — as though it mattered not whether the chain-gang ever beheld the light of Resurrection. There’s a house, too, where one such poor devil, galled too long, took ghastly revenge before slipping his shackles and escaping to Eternity. And there are cottages where live men who went droving in those-all-but-forgotten days when it behoved a white man to keep his wits about him ; men who carted sandalwood from the hills for josses in Chinese temples; men who made vineyards and orchards — one who dreams still of the green lanes of England and a chance meeting with Charles Dickens . . . The Past: glamour; the Present: romance and reality.

A Neglected Book.

Or is it? Once again. Is Australia dull? I don’t think so, I can’t think so—and yet, up it peeps, that old antagonism! A man writes a book like “Landtakers.” A grim story about a grim stage in the evolution of Australia. And I see it dismissed to the shelves without comment, except as being a tale in the genre of Marcus Clarke’s masterpiece, as if that writer has already said the last word on the subject of convict Australia . . . Happily all critics do not take this casual view. “Landtakers” possesses, indeed, a new and vital difference: it is a powerful, reasonable and dramatic effort to explain the part that ghastly ball-and-chain period has had upon the Australian consciousness of today.

To be sure, there are many who would dearly like to shut the Past away, trusting the skeleton will remain decently in its cupboard; but this book, as its name implies, gives one man’s view of an irreparable influence which, however, much it be denied, must still persist in transmuted forms: he examines the characteristic glaze of the world’s newest national type, as it were, in the light of the furnaces of its history.

The mark of that period is possibly stronger in Eastern Australia than here. But no race can fight a desperate and lonely battle, such as ours has fought, and escape without stain — stain which in the end frequently lends a mellower tint, a deeper significance to the pattern of its life.

The Australian is noted for his resource and notorious for his disregard of authority. Who hasn’t at least one story in his repertoire concerning devil-may-care diggers (and by the way, whence that famous word but from the gold-rushes which taught men to stand lawlessly together?) diggers who refused to salute those they should . . . The author of “Landtakers” (Brian Penton) makes a neat point with a sardonic sketch of a free man, who once was not free, and of his rooted dislike of taking orders from his boss, a dislike assuaged in part by the glorious certainty that at least his boss cannot oblige him to raise his hat! Once he has been forced, under threat of the cat, to walk fifty times past some strutting official, lifting his convict’s cap for that gentleman’s personal gratification.

For many years Australian writers struggled, clumsily often enough, against a public apathy that was almost inimical. Art admittedly is a tender blossom — it must be fed with security and watered with appreciation. Times of national hardship and turmoil have rarely produced the finest specimens — and the Australian variety has had its first delicate shoots frequently withered by sarcastic indifference. A vicious circle arose — “Never read Australian books — not good enough!” Which attitude resulted in a state of affairs which even the most unimaginative and commercially-minded might reasonably have been expected to foresee — an obvious case of supply and demand.

Birth of a Literature.

But latterly, from somewhere — horror of horrors, can it possibly be due to the Tariff Board? — a warm zephyr has carried occasional showers of hard-cash appreciation, with almost magical results. For years we have possessed a hardy and brilliant school of Australian painting, perhaps because we have been too far away for one-man shows from Europe, as much as for any other reason. And very shortly we shall have also an Australian literature. “Is there a new Australian book?” is a phrase heard, at last, more often than the old sneer.

Hence, then, my reaction of surprise and dismay at seeing a significant and powerful book like “Landtakers” dismissed briefly in the same paragraph wherein an Australian’s romance about Lord and Lady Tom Noddy of Cadogan Square, or Half-moon street, or some such Arlenish haunt, received a graceful compliment. It was, indeed, a relief to discover an Australian author “getting away from the conventional and often tedious setting of the ordinary Australian novel.” . . . .!

What would happen in the book-world of London if some critic dared to suggest that Galsworthy or Coward would have less “tedious settings” if they took their characters from the creepy-crawly jungles of South America, or the nudists of Tierra del Fuego?

No setting in the world can be called tedious, provided the company prove exciting: and whatever word you may choose wherewith to praise or damn “Landtakers,” that one will surely be the last you think of. At best, it is a masterpiece — at very least it plays a big part in helping Australia towards articulation, towards that day so exquisitely foretold by Furnley Maurice, the poet, who has recently won the centenary ode competition with another of his works —

Sometime, someone
Will snare a song that will not pass away
And all your beauty’s bonds will be undone
For this unstoried forest calls fresh ways,
Fresh words, fresh music, arts not told nor tried . . .
. . the years seem long
While we by hope and search, by feast and fast,
Prepare the passage for our king of song
He will not suddenly burst into our day,
He will not come till we have cut the way.
’Tis more than one man’s life to strike the reef,
To delve the previous ore, crush out the gold . . .

We have forests, plains, rivers, seas of jade and sapphire, and reefs of rich gold . . . we have history and unwritten traditions. But out of that past which hides secrets so terrible, we have brought also reticence. The Australian, concerning that which touches him most closely, is perhaps the most silent of men. Therefore, it is doubly necessary that, before he speaks — or writes— he must be conscious of at least a desire on the part of others to listen. Not even the Bard of Avon could have minted his immortal gold had the people of Merrie England not cut for him the way.

The West Australian (Perth, WA), Saturday 22 September 1934, page 7

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