Friday, October 30, 2009

the area was indeed then very poor

Two days ago, dropping off books at the library, I picked up a copy of Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and, that evening, put down the book I'd been reading, and began on David. Omelette is a collection of articles she wrote for various newspapers, journals, and so on, most of them between 1952 and 1979, a miscellany of pieces that never managed to get incorporated into French Provincial Cooking or any of her other books. She has a nice knowledge of old cookbooks, and Omelette was worth reading for her commentary on them alone. Eliza Acton rather than Mrs Beeton, she advises. And let us pay attention to the translated works of the sensible Dr Pomaine, who

passes speedily from the absurdities of haute cuisine to the shortcomings of folk cookery, and deals a swift right and left to those writers whose reverent genuflections before the glory and wonder of every least piece of peasant cookery-lore makes so much journalistic cookery writing so tedious.

Travelling in Provance, David mentions the mistrals. Literary mistrals have been rising off the page at me since Lawrence Durrell's Avignon Quintet a few months ago with its "mistral sky" and "mistral clouds" and mistral-everything-else; as someone said, once a person is pregnant they notice pregnant people everywhere, and once I noticed the word mistral I kept coming across literary mistrals. I began to wonder if David and Durrell ever met. In an essay called Confort Anglais, French Fare, after numbers of mistrals, they did:

Lawrence Durrell, who lives not far away, and who I hadn't seen in a long while, reminded me that many years ago, about 1950, he and I happened to meet in Nîmes and that I complained angrily about the local food, swearing that I would never go back to the region. The area was indeed then very poor.

Confort Anglais, French Fare was published in 1984. Reading her Fruits de Mer, which begins with

Winkles and whelks, cockles and oysters, spider crabs, scallops, shrimps, langoustines, mussels, prawns, the little clams known in France as palourdes and in Italy as vongole

I remembered a time in Arnhem Land when L. was still alive, both of us walking across the black sheets of silt between the mangroves with women who had come to spear crabs there; and one toddler afterwards, holding a peeled crab claw as long as my hand on its fist, fixing its teeth in the boiled meat as if it had been an ice cream.

We were in Yolŋu country. When the Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature was launched in the UK in September, Clive James, introducing it, complained that too much Aboriginal writing had been included, and that this was tokenism. According to the Evening Standard:

James said there were far too many aboriginal writers included (12.6 per cent of the book) when this ethnic minority is not noted for its literary tradition. This tokenism was at the expense of good writers competing on a world stage who should have been included.

I don't know if "writers competing on a world stage" was James' formulation or the journalist's but if that's the standard the anthology was working to then we can knock out most of the writers in there, regardless of ethnicity. Surely, few non-Australians know who Katharine Susannah Prichard is, so away with her, and the rest of the world doesn't, as far as I'm aware, care about Henry Lawson, so we can dump him too, ditto Miles Franklin, and, oh, just about everyone who ever wrote for the Bulletin, under the motto "temper democratic, bias Australian" -- everyone -- except authors and poets who have attracted the attention of foreign publishing houses (which leaves us with who? Patrick White and his Nobel, Peter Carey and his Bookers, Tim Winton, Malouf and his IMPAC, although as Herta Müller has proven, an IMPAC is not enough to stop the English-language newspapers roaring, "Lo, what is this obscurity?" when your name turns up on a press sheet) and, of course, Australian journalists who have bolted to the UK, a category that includes not only Clive James and Robert Hughes, but many forgotten men from the 1800s onward. The whole idea of an anthology of Australian literature is going to look like tokenism to everyone except Australians, James, don't be so silly. No one but an Australian is interested in Barron Field's ludicrous 1819 address to a kangaroo

Kangaroo kangaroo!
Thou spirit of Australia!

If we were going on literary merit alone then Barron Field wouldn't be within a mile of this book, any more than you'd put William Collins or John Dyer's sweetly ambitious georgic The Fleece in a book of important 18th century poems. If the spectacle of a foreign group of people beginning to feel at home, mentally as well as physically, with an unsympathetic and unfamiliar country, is worth following from one example to another, even if those examples aren't always wonderful pieces of writing per se, then surely the spectacle of another group of people coming to grips not only with an alphabetised system of writing, but also an entirely new language, delivered to them by a group of strangers who arrived on their doorsteps with no intention of leaving -- surely that's worth a decent number of examples too, even if those examples aren't always brilliant, per se? It's not as if this is something that happens often.

In The Art of Australia, Robert Hughes describes the trouble British painters encountered early on when they tried to depict Australian landscapes. The countryside their eyes were seeing didn't match the countrysides their minds and hands had been trained to paint.

… soon the homesick [Thomas] Watling [(1762–c.1814)] was lamenting that, "The landscape painter may in vain seek here for that beauty which arises from happy-opposed offscapes. Bold, rising woods, or azure distances would be a kind of phaenomena." But his training in a Claudian schema was too strong to be overcome by nature. And so, ignoring the flat, fly-ridden heat of the Cumberland plain, he started improving its prospects once more.

Thus to a bare and dull view over the west side of Sydney Cove, recorded in his pen sketch in the British Museum, Watling added large feathery repoussoir trees which darkle attractively in the foreground and frame the vista. Other additions of poetic, and excisions of prosaic, material helped to produce the picturesque effect he sought in the final canvas.

Following the same line of thought, Field, in Botany-Bay Flowers, decided that the Australian landscape needed to be brightened up with Shakespeare:

Queen Mab would have no cause to fear
For her respectable approach,
Lest she could not set up her coach.
Here's a fine grub for a coach-maker,
Good as in Fairy-land Long-Acre;

If therefore she and her regalia
Have never yet been in Australia,
I recommend a voyage to us,
On board the Paper Nautilus

In On Visiting the Spot Where Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks First Arrived in Botany Bay it needed classical allusions to give it the right sense of grandeur:

But where's the tree, with the ship's wood-carved fame?
Fix, then, the Ephesian brass—'tis classic ground!

Genuine strangeness was evidently indescribable, or dauntingly difficult to describe. Therefore it was filtered through fairies and other conceits. Fairies were conventionally strange, quaintly, poetically, identifiably, respectably strange. The genuinely strange landscape seemed boring, flat, lacking in grottoes and graceful foreground trees. It was dismissed, downplayed, it didn't conform to the idea of what was interesting and strange (shades of Miles Franklin, looking at Christina Stead's strange style and seeing only obscenity; even people who think of themselves as radicals wear blinders). The kind of nature that Watling referred to is described in British poems like Anne Ingram's 1732 address to her father's garden in Castle Howard:

Lead through the park, where lines of trees unite,
And verdurous lawns the bounding deer delight:
By docile falls the docile ground descends,
Forms a fair plain, then by degrees ascends.
These inequalities delight the eye,
For Nature charms in most variety

The visitors to Australia looked at the countryside and saw the opposite: boring rocks, dull-coloured trees, no fair plain, no dramatic inequalities. The idea that

O'er all designs Nature should still preside;
She is the cheapest and most perfect guide

only obtained when Nature herself lived up to expectations. British explorers described Australia bluntly.

The aspect of the country which lay beneath them much disappointed the travellers: it appeared to consist of sand and small scrubby brushwood, intersected with broken rocky mountains, with streams of water running between them

wrote Gregory Blaxland in his Journal of a tour of discovery across the Blue Mountains.

Today people write about the Blue Mountains like this:

The Blue Mountains is perfect for exploring the best that nature has to offer. Bushwalking, galleries, fine dining, shopping, pampering day spas, golf, and numerous attractions. The Blue Mountains is the ideal destination for that romantic getaway or family escape.

While Elizabeth David's poor Nîmes of the 1950s has become this:

This elegantly grandiose city is jam packed with Roman heritage and offers a sophisticated blend of traditional culture and modern city living. Best of all, as it is surrounded by the magical countryside of Provence, the Camargue and the Cevennes, it is an ideal place to set up base during your holidays in the region. Travelling to Nimes couldn’t be easier with the A9 motorway cutting across its southern flank, an airport serving UK and Belgian destinations, and the TGV link at Avignon just 35 minutes away.

As for Barron Field, he eventually gave up and went home.

Lastly, a ship is poetry to me,
Since piously I trust, in no long space,
Her wings will bear me from this prose-dull land.

She did. He died in Devon.


  1. Hi Deanne, I enjoyed reading this! BTW, I've just picked up the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature from the library - have you had a chance to look at it yet?

  2. Not at all, but I'm checking my library's online catalogue now and they say it's "On Order." So maybe soon.