Janette Turner Hospital
- The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf
Chatto, 214 pp, £14.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 7011 6571 5
Almost forty years after the first European settlers pitched their tents at Sydney Cove, two men spend the night in a bush hut beside a creek on the inland side of the coastal range. Between sleeping and dreaming, the men talk intermittently until dawn. One of them, Michael Adair, is an officer in the penal colony’s regimental corps, and has just spent 48 hours in the saddle, riding up from the coast at the express orders of the Governor of New South Wales in order to oversee the hanging of the other man at dawn. The prisoner, Daniel Carney, guarded by the three troopers who captured him, is an escaped convict turned bushranger, the last man of the legendary Dolan gang whose other four members were gunned down nine days earlier. There has been no trial. In order to avoid any possible stirring of Irish anger or rebellion, Carney has been sentenced by Government House fiat to a swift death, in secrecy. Both executioner and condemned man are Irish.
During the night, while officer and felon talk, the three troopers and their black-tracker Jonas, bivouacked a stone’s throw away, have discussions of their own; each of the six men also communes with his own private memories and demons, so that sundry pasts in the Old World are evoked, as well as the raw present in the New, and the nature of justice – and rough justice – in both worlds is pondered, as is the nature of love, the nature of male bonding, the meaning of life and death. All these deliberations, both shared and inward, constitute the conversations at Curlow Creek.
The year is 1827, by which time the population of New South Wales is somewhere around 25,000, of whom two-thirds are convicts. Executive power is in the hands of Sir Ralph Darling, seventh governor of the colony. These facts are not mentioned, but are historically relevant to the action of the novel, since Darling earned a reputation as a stickler for upholding the King’s authority, and therefore implemented harsh measures against escaped convicts and against the Irish in general, fearing as he did (and as the free settlers did) a repeat of the 1804 uprising at Toongabbie, when about three hundred Irish convicts screaming ‘Death or Liberty’ turned on the officers who guarded them. The leaders of that rebellion were tricked into surrender, and the uprising brutally suppressed by government troops, but a legacy of fear about escaped convicts – particularly Irish ones – continued, and went hand in hand with the burgeoning folk romance of the bushranger, the colony’s own mythicised hybrid hero, a cross between a thuggish highwayman and Robin Hood.
The bushranger, as a symbol of the idea of liberty and of the possibility of defiance against a harsh penal code, was eventually to settle into the more-or-less-actual gigantic contours of Ned Kelly, a genuine wild colonial boy of Irish stock. Kelly was hanged as a felon in Melbourne on 11 November 1880, but his soul has gone marching on into immortality and into folk songs, literature and art. Though he lived fifty years later than the fictional characters in this novel, it is nevertheless against the backdrop of his bulky shadow that Malouf’s Carney and his Fergus/Dolan and Adair/O’Dare move, and are, at book’s end, transfigured and assumed into myth.
Vol. 19 No. 2 · 23 January 1997
Janette Turner Hospital (LRB, 12 December 1996) states that in 1827 the population of New South Wales ‘is somewhere around 25,000, of whom two-thirds are convicts’. I find it hard to believe that after 40,000 years, the indigenous population of the continent was ‘somewhere around’ 8250. Or maybe she is unaware that the old legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’, whereby Australia was deemed by the British to have been uninhabited in 1788, has been overthrown.
Vol. 19 No. 5 · 6 March 1997
As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with my novels, short stories and articles knows very well, I am indeed aware of what Gordon Kerry (Letters, 23 January) describes as ‘the old legal fiction of “terra nullius” ’ and of the long overdue changes to that Eurocentric doctrine that were signalled by the 1992 High Court ruling on Mabo v. Queensland. In Queensland, home to both Eddie Mabo and Pauline Hanson, we don’t have time for the armchair political correctness of Sydney.
As for language policing, the first sentence of my review of David Malouf’s Conversations at Curlow Creek makes my position clear to the informed reader. I do not speak of the ‘First Settlement’ but of the ‘first European settlers’. I rather thought the irony in my reference to the population figures for New South Wales would be obvious, ‘New South Wales’ being an arbitrary European construct imposed on an ‘unknown land’. It was Governor Darling (and, indeed, the characters in the novel, officers or felons) who did not think to include the indigenous peoples in their assessment of the colony’s population. In clumsily confusing the belief systems of characters in a novel with those of the reviewer, Mr Kerry is barking up quite the wrong tree – though I’m all for his drawing public attention to the issue whenever possible, and for displaying the changing of the colours from whatever treetops present themselves.
Janette Turner Hospital
Vol. 19 No. 7 · 3 April 1997
On the letters page of 6 March you print a submission from Janette Turner Hospital and once again display rather charming vagueness about distant places by giving her location as no more than ‘Ontario’. Other letter-writers are identified either with a London postcode or, in the main, by a town and county. Identifying someone as resident in Ontario is really not very helpful. This Canadian province is more than three and a half times the area of the entire United Kingdom. You could put Spain, Italy and the Republic of Ireland into the Province of Ontario and still have room left over for Rhode Island three times. Or perhaps Ms Hospital lives in the delightful city of Ontario, California?
Vol. 19 No. 8 · 24 April 1997
I have often wondered about the criteria behind what Ron Haggart (Letters, 3 April) calls your ‘rather charming vagueness’ on the matter of locating your letter-writers. I presume that the location depends on the address at the top of the letter. This must mean that academics always write from their college or university. Does that mean that business people, for example, do not write to you or, if they do, they write from home, without revealing where they work?
When it comes to non-university locations, the choice seems much more arbitrary. In the issue of 20 February, picked at random, Norman Finkelstein is identified as coming from Brooklyn, New York, whereas Mack Schlefer’s home is given as New York and nothing more. How would I be located? If I wrote from work, which is Cricklade College, Andover, Hampshire and not a university, would my college be identified? As I am writing from home, will it be Kingsclere or Newbury or Berkshire? On the Ontario principle identified by Mr Haggart perhaps it should be England. I wait nervously to find out.
Elk Lake, Ontario
Vol. 19 No. 11 · 5 June 1997
One consequence of my migratory flight paths and seasonal residences is that my mail trails a country or two behind, and catches up with me late, in redirected clusters; thus, in May, in Florence, I have just seen the March issue of LRB. Imagine my surprise to find that a letter I had written in, and sent from, London had been re-routed, and declared to have come from the vague vastness of Ontario. Apparently, the editors, like Peter Robb, the reviewer to whom my novel, Oyster, was assigned (LRB, 6 March), are smugly certain that they know my place better than I do, and cannot control their urge to put me in it.
The geographical ignorance, wittily commented on by Canadian readers, may be simply a matter of wide editorial latitude. But what can one make of the foggy climes in which Robb moves? It would be difficult to take as other than parodic his out-of-date Sunday-supplement level of acquaintanceship with Australian writers and painters, were it not for the awful suspicion that Robb takes himself very seriously indeed. What can one say of a reviewer who claims to be an authority on outback Queensland on the basis of having a friend who has been there? Gosh. I’ll bet he’s even got a friend who’s read a novel or two since Jane Austen, though he needs another who can slip him some potted journalists’ paragraphs, pitched to his level, on Proust, say, and Joyce, and a few others who so mistakenly thought that mythmaking, and explorations into the nature of time and memory, were the province of the novel. What scope, as yet unexplored, for Mr Robb to thump his little pulpit and preach his earnest and ridiculous sermons.
Janette Turner Hospital
Florence, London, etc