I have now returned from my Australian sojourn – it was wonderful, emotional, at times overwhelming and I know that I will have to find a way to make it back. In the mean time, I found the culture and history of the country absolutely fascinating. I am still trying to weigh up whether this is because on some level I am really Australian. For example, does the fact that having pie for tea makes me very happy relate to the fact that I grew up in the North of England or is it a sign of my Australian ancestry? It was surprising to me that pies were such a big thing Down Under and with so many flavours! There were few dining establishments which failed to offer some form of pie option. Between that and the chocolate cafes, the antipodean experience was a gastronomic delight. However, in terms of books, I had to hold off due partly to the fact that I was constrained by baggage limits but also because books are incredibly expensive! So, I did what I had to – I took photos of the book covers and am now in the process of tracking them down in the Northern Hemisphere. However, this list is by no means exhaustive and I would welcome recommendations to further my understanding of the land of my birth.
Girt and True Girt, David Hunt
I caught sight of these two during my first few days on the continent and then found myself checking every bookshop that I went past to see if either or both were discounted. Girt was waiting for me on my desk at work on my first day back (online ordering can be a wonderful thing) but having now bounded to the conclusion, I need to read the second volume of The Unauthorised History of Australia. David Hunt is very much my kind of historian in that he wanders off point whenever he thinks of something interesting. For the novice in terms of Australian history, these are ideal starter books to the subject and it’s been very exciting recognising places that I have visited and the names of people who clearly inspired the names of streets that I walked down. Australia really is a fascinating country with an alarming history and this is my first step to finding out more.
My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin
It’s a miracle really that I haven’t got to this one yet. My mother read this story of a young girl coming of age during turn-of-the-century Australia and decided that the central character was so amazing that if she ever had a daughter, she would take her as the child’s namesake. So up until the moment when I made my entry into the world and my mother realised that it really wouldn’t do, I was supposed to be Sybylla. Sybylla. I think I got off quite lightly really with Susannah. Anyway, other than a Radio 4 adaptation that I half-heard when I was about eight or nine, I never quite got round to finding out more about it. I nearly was Sybylla so the least I can do is read her book.
For The Term Of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke
Again, Radio 4 introduced me to this – I was hooked to the serial aged about twelve or so. Having found out odds and ends about the convict history within Australia through visiting several museums, I am really interested to read more about this contemporary account of the convict experience. For me, a twenty-odd hour flight was an arduous unpleasant that had me craving a shower, the idea of the one way trip and all one’s plans and prospects shattered – it’s horrendous to imagine. Then upon arrival, being trapped across the globe from all one knew before and doomed never to return. I picked up a copy of this while in Australia and can’t wait to find out more.
Cook, Rob Mundle
My boyfriend’s family are based around the village where Captain Cook grew up and they have had a long-term interest in celebrating the connection. Weirdly, the actual house that Cook was born and lived in as a child was taken to pieces and transported brick by brick to a park in Melbourne. We saw it and it does look rather out of place. While I knew about Cook and what he did (and what his ultimate fate was), I hadn’t quite realised what an iconic figure he is within Australian mythology. Luckily, Rob Mundle appears to have written a book about all of the senior naval figures of the period and so I am all set for finding out more about the job lot if I so wish.
Talking To My Country, Stan Grant
One thing that I found really alarming about Australia’s history was the blatant racism. When I was around fourteen, I read Rabbit-Proof Fence and also watched the film, an experience I found really draining but for me the most disturbing part was the obvious good intentions of the people carrying out these atrocities. If they were just villainous baddies akin to Voldemort or Sauron, that would be one thing that we could move on from, but instead Kenneth Branagh puts in a chilling performance in the film as the man genuinely believing that he is doing the right thing in breeding out the Aborigines. I was shocked to read of the ‘White Australia’ policy, of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party and to discover more about the Stolen Generation. A few people have recommended this book to me now, with Stan Grant being a celebrated writer of Aboriginal origins meditating on his country’s psyche. This promises to be an uncomfortable read but an important one nonetheless.
A Commonwealth of Thieves, Thomas Keneally
Similarly to For The Term Of His Natural Life, this book is part of my curiousity about the convicts. While we were visiting Hyde Park Barracks, there was a board with convict names, ages and their crimes. With boys only in their teens getting the same sentences for stealing ribbons as grown men found guilty of manslaughter, the whole system seems a particular kind of messed up. I would love to find out if there was method in the madness.
Ned Kelly, Peter Fitzsimons
My lovely stepmother recommended this one to me after I mentioned being interested in Ned Kelly – I read Peter Carey’s book about him years ago and have always wanted to find out the truth behind the legend. I know there’s a newly published book about Ned Kelly’s mother that was on release while I was in Australia, but I’d like to find out about the man himself first. The only upsetting thing is that this book is proving very hard to source in the Northern hemisphere. Unlike a lot of the others, it only seems to be available at the full whack.
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
As a child, I was fascinated by Aboriginal mythology, particularly around the Dreamtime. A personal bucket-list-goal was ticked off when we visited Uluru during my recent trip, but I do still want to read more and from all that I have heard, The Songlines seems to be an important book in terms of understanding this better.
The Harp of the South, Ruth Park
This one has come up a lot and as a family saga, it tends to tick a lot of boxes for me even without the Australian theme. A tale of Sydney suburban living during the early fifties, it seems to be something of a national classic.
Bush Studies, Barbara Baynton
I have bookmarked the web-page of the Australian publishing house Text Classics – I think they’re amazing. They’re everything that Persephone Books are not – accessible, affordable and wide-ranging in subject matter. I have already been gathering up the copies of their books which I have been able to find second-hand on Amazon – alas that they don’t seem to be stocked in bookshops Up Over. Bush Studies relates the experience of a woman living in the Australian bush at the turn of the century. It was however just one of several that I failed to resist, along with Aunts Up The Cross and Be Careful He Might Hear You. Expect to see numerous other yellow-covered books on the site in the near future.
Strine, Afferbeck Lauder
It is a strange thing that when I learnt to talk, I first did so as an Australian tot. Visiting my first ever home a few weeks ago was an odd experience, not least because it has quite frankly become a real dump in the two decades or so since we moved on from it (and seriously, it has, there was apparently a murder committed there last year). It was strange to really realise that in an alternate universe, I might possibly have been an Australian little girl. To be honest, looking at it with any degree of logic, it was never going to happen but I am interested in language and so a comedy book about Australian accents and dialect seemed a great way to get to know the continent better.
So – these are my picks – what else should I be reading, I am very keen to have more suggestions!