Patrick White’s Happy Valley sits somewhere between Moorang and Kambala. The novel is a fascinating glimpse of a master writer’s first forays into his craft. The prose slides into stream of consciousness and out again, flitting from one character’s perspective to another, building the cacophony of Happy Valley to a maddening din of intersecting dreams and desires.
Written in London in 1938, Happy Valley draws from White’s experience as a jackeroo on the Monaro. It was here that White became acquainted with a different landscape from his family home in the Hunter and lived amongst the human detritus that tended to collect around the remnants of goldmines and sheep stations. The vitality of White’s writing stems from the balancing act between hope and despair in each character.
Happy Valley is White’s best plot. The private longings of couples intersect and eventually combust in a tragedy that highlights the open wound of loneliness that seems to be the lifeblood of the Australian landscape. If these people could escape, then they would be happy, but it is the reasons they stay that draws White’s compassion or judgement.
The wasted potential of Dr. Halliday and the listless virility of wayfarer Clem Hagan stand out amongst the cast of characters, and to my mind, they are the closest to White’s experience in the Monaro. The book provides the first glimpses of other White mainstays – the lonely spinster and the overbearing socialite mother.
Whilst the assured contradictions of his later novels are more deliberate here, the raw ambition is breathtaking. White’s determination pours out of the novel, and this sometimes threatens to overcome our interest in the characters.
Happy Valley serves as an opening act to White’s cannon. It gives light to the origins of the motifs that were to weave their way through his work for the rest of his life. White knows these characters intimately. You can almost see the thin lipped writer acting out Sidney Furlow in his mind, as she lolls around her bedroom, applying lipstick ‘like a whore’.
Met with mixed reviews when first published in Australia, White refused to have Happy Valley reprinted in his lifetime. It is a harsh book, but this frames its moments of compassion, humour and acerbic self knowledge. As White’s first novel it is a marvel for what it signals and the ground it prepares. It represents the young writer’s desire for a maturity in the Australian character, and the start of a journey that would make him one of the country’s finest writers.
This review first appeared on artshub.com.au
This is an excerpt for my performance this month at the Bondi Feast Festival.
The stoics would meet on a covered porch and philosophise. They thought there was nothing good or bad in this world, but rather our judgements colour our beliefs and this determines how we feel about what happens to us. For example, someone you don’t know asks you to do something you don’t want to do. In front of a whole lot of strangers in a dark room. It’s not the request that makes you feel anxious, but rather the process inside you that first decides the request is bad. Your anxiety is caused by your judgement and not the request itself. That’s their first theory.
They had two theories.
The second theory is what they called the premeditation of evil. There’s two aspects to this theory. Holding onto anything in this world is dangerous because everything is finite. If we hold onto anything too dearly we will one day have to deal with its loss. The more accustomed you are to the idea of this loss, the easier it will be when it eventually occurs. So if you were my child or a partner I should imagine you dead or gone every day and eventually, I will be correct.
This is a bit of an exaggeration. I have to do that some times for theatrical effect.
The point of this exercise is to remind yourself of just how precious those things are. It’s an attempt to resist the leveling out of our lives, when everything we love kind of bleeds out into the background, like a watercolour with too much water. If you imagine something dead and gone, then you can imagine what it would be like to loose it and you are reminded of just how important it was to you in the first place.
The second aspect of the premeditation of evil is the one I want to revive tonight. When things go wrong, they usually go less wrong than what you were afraid of. Forcing yourself to experience a taste of something you’re anxious about will help you realise that it is not that bad. For example being naked in public. Your ass doesn’t fall off if people see it by accident. Most of the time the worst case scenario is something we are able to handle.
Which brings us to Bondi.
Ordinance No. 52 established in 1935 set exact dimensions for swimming costumes. It decreed that men’s and women’s costumes must have legs at least 3″ long and completely cover the front of the body.
Beach inspector Aub Laidlaw enforced Ordinance No. 52. He would patrol the beach and measure the length of swimming costumes on both men and women. If Aub decided that the length of the fabric was inappropriate, the offender would be taken to the changing sheds at the Pavilion, just below us, and ordered to put on some more clothes. If the piece of clothing was particularly offensive they may be arrested or escorted to a tram via the back door of the Pavilion. From a lot of the interviews Aub seems a little put out by the ordinance. He was a trained safety professional, and he was forced to become what was effectively the fashion police. There are some suggestions that he liked the attention.
Beach inspector Aub Laidlaw will make stoics of us all.
Before reading The Art of James Davis I had never heard of the man. Flicking through the handsome volume of his work, the lurid colours and dreamlike torsos seemed to challenge just about everything I had experienced of Australian visual art. As Ashley Crawford’s book sat on my desk during the week leading up to writing this review, numerous passers by were lured in by the bold primary shock of Davis’s Hellgate (1989) on the front cover. It became immediately clear that this was an artist that demanded attention.
We are more often reminded what is un-Australian than anything else. Like looking at a photo’s negative we see our national character inverted and position ourselves around this shady sport hating villain. This process of deduction is challenged by the Griffith Review 36. Optimism ripples through the collection of essay, memoir, fiction and reportage. All articles recognise the strong hand of cards Australia has been dealt and what this may mean for our combined self perception.
The quarterly poses itself no small task when it asks ‘What is Australia For?’ Its broad scope struggles to produce a collection of analysis greater than the sum of its parts, but it is an audacious task and the answers have never been so varied, pressing and complex. Bravery in intellectual analysis is always appreciated and so the collection is a thrilling and unpredictable guide to the myriad of Australian experiences today.
Australian history is littered with blind spots and this book stands as a testament to our new desire to look everywhere, to be mature enough to deal with any injustice and by doing so, help ease the knots in our history. Cameron Muir and Charlie Ward shine a light on some of Australia’s more obscure movers and shakers. It’s a timely reminder that the right role models to make the most of the ‘Australian Moment’ can be found in our own country’s history.
The great challenge is to pay homage to the diversity of voices but maintain specificity. This is achieved in large part through the highly personal nature of much of the content, from Frank Moorhouse’s near death experience in the outback to Maria Papa’s musings on cultural appropriation.
The personal is political, but these politics are dealing with the world as it is, and how they would like it to be within the limitations of our current epoch. The writers are passionate about that they are telling us, but prescriptions for the future are comfortably general. The collection does a good job of representing the issues, but it shies away from offering specific answers to hard questions. The onus is on the reader to assess what is worth cherishing and what needs to be changed.
A literal answer to the question ‘What is Australia for?’ would be ‘Chinese buildings and bridges.’ As our landmass is repatriated we can use this mental image as a kind of talisman to remember we have two options which both have a strong precedent in our history.
We can choose to contribute to a narrative told overseas or engender our own unique story. Meaning is no longer elsewhere. It is springing up from the land, as it has done for thousands of years before white colonisation. Meaning is about sitting comfortably with lived experience, taking inspiration from our own landscape and relaxing in our expertise. This too could be positively Australian.
The Griffith Review 36 – What’s Australia For?
Edited by Julianne Schultz