A macabre murder during the Women’s Australian Open golf tournament at one of Australia’s most prestigious golf courses sees food and wine journalist and amateur golfer Rebecca Keith on the murder trail once more. Fortunately, Rebecca’s sleuthing takes her on a journey of eating and drinking through many of Adelaide’s bars and restaurants. Little does Rebecca know that her visits to nearby Barossa Valley and Kangaroo Island will reveal clues that will become crucial in the hunt for a killer.
A Royal Murder, a light-hearted thriller full of intrigue and betrayal, features a full cast of eccentric characters set against the rich backdrop of South Australia and its lush food and wine culture.
Read an extract of the book below, as our heroine, Rebecca Keith, is first on the scene of a grisly discovery at the Royal Adelaide golf course.
The Adelaide-to-Grange Line
Rebecca had drunk more than she should have. When the phone alarm went off at five o’clock, she had to stop herself from flinging it across the room. She listened to the news and weather on the radio.
She couldn’t face breakfast and instead spent the extra time in the shower.
It was just before seven o’clock as she walked alongside the railway tracks at Royal Adelaide, heading to her position on the second tee. The course was again bathed in a golden glow. Her footsteps left imprints on the fairway still damp from the overnight watering.
Rebecca heard the train’s whistle, signalling it was about to pull off from the Seaton Park station. She could hear the ding of the boom gates. Within a couple of minutes, she saw the train in the distance as it emerged from the bushes by the fence line and started its journey alongside the fairway. Rebecca was surprised when she heard the train’s whistle again. It startled her. Something was wrong. The train only whistled as it approached walk-crossings on the golf course, and it wouldn’t be approaching one for a few hundred metres. It shouldn’t be sounding its whistle now, nor should it be putting on its brakes. She could tell by the screeching that the train was stopping hard. Rebecca looked along the tracks and spotted a large red duffle-like bag sitting squarely in the train’s path. There wasn’t enough time to stop. She watched as the red bag was flung aside, rolled down the embankment, and came to rest just on the edge of the fairway.
Rebecca stood up and started to jog toward the train. Before she reached it, the driver jumped out of the cab and ran toward the red bag. He looked distressed. Within moments, Rebecca was standing next to him and they were both looking at a bloodied, severed arm lying a couple of metres from the torn bag. The duffle bag appeared to be made from expensive silk, embossed with what Rebecca thought was Chinese calligraphy. She was in no doubt the rest of the body was in the bag. The protruding bloodied leg was a giveaway.
‘Oh my God,’ moaned the train driver as he lowered himself to a crouch on the ground, resting his head in his hands. Rebecca was pretty sure whoever was in the bag was dead, but she needed to know for certain. She walked up to it, undid the drawstring at the top, and gently lowered the silk to uncover the victim’s lacerated face. Rebecca stared. The glazed lifeless eyes appeared to be gazing up to the sky. Rebecca not only knew the victim was dead, she also knew who it was.
Join us at the Beetson Lounge at Grange golf club at 1.00 pm on Tuesday 13 February for the launch of A Royal Murder, in conjunction with the re-release of the first Rebecca Keith mystery, The Popeye Murder. If you cannot attend the launch, but would like to purchase a copy of the books, they can be found on our website, coming soon!
Valour and Violets, the latest release from Wakefield Press, is a meticulously researched catalogue of the stories of hundreds of South Australians who gave their country everything.
Close to 35,000 South Australians enlisted for service overseas during the Great War. Around 5500 never came back. Countless more returned with physical and psychological injuries that would affect them for the rest of their lives.
Valour and Violets brings together for the first time the stories of the campaigns and battles in which South Australians served, set against the backdrop of the South Australian home front. Here are the stories of Frederick Prentice, the first of three Indigenous South Australians to be awarded the Military Medal; Thomas Baker, the gunner who became an ace pilot; and Sister Margaret Graham, awarded the Royal Red Cross for her contribution to army nursing. Here too are lesser known stories, such as that of Alexandrina Seager, who formed the Cheer-Up Society back home and worked every single day during the war, despite losing her youngest son at Gallipoli. Or Clara Weaver of Rosewater, who not only lost five sons to the war but also her husband, George, who died at home before the war ended.
Drawing on the work of the many who have written on the subject previously,Valour and Violets provides a wholly South Australian perspective on the impact of the Great War on individuals, on families and on our state’s coastal, regional, and outback communities.
Copies are available online, and from our bookshop in Mile End.
Special thanks to Veterans SA.
Wendy Scarfe’s second novel, The Day They Shot Edward, tells a tale of a family in turmoil, set against the political mess of the First World War. Told from the perspective of a nine-year-old Matthew, the narration has an air of innocence, making the horrors of what is to come all the more confronting.
About the book:
It is 1916. The Australian community is riven over a referendum to conscript more troops for the killing fields of Europe. Nine-year-old Matthew’s family, divided politically and sinking into poverty, reflects the social conflict. Handsome, generous Edward is at the centre of the family friction. Gran hates the war as Edward does, Mother flirts with him to escape the misery of her marriage, and young Matthew adores him.
As patriotic frenzy takes hold, police informers spy on Edward and track his anti-conscription activities. Sabotage and anarchism are meaningless words to Matthew. Absorbed in childhood fantasies, he is unaware that he too is helping draw the net around Edward. It is left to Matthew’s German headmaster to teach him that, like music, people grow with love.
Praise for The Day They Shot Edward:
‘The Day They Shot Edward is a beautiful and compassionate story. The deep sense of mystery and heightened awareness of emotion, which are the spiritual gifts of the child, become lenses for examining fundamental issues of life, death, peace, and what it means to love.’ – Di Bretherton
Praise for Wendy Scarfe’s Hunger Town:
‘A powerful evocation of an era which is soon to lose the last of its witnesses … trust me, it is a compelling page-turner; it’s riveting reading.’ – Lisa Hill, ANZ Litlovers
The Day They Shot Edward is being launched at Brightbird Espresso in Warrnambool on Tuesday 13 February. For more information, visit our website.
Life as a fifteen-year-old boy is difficult for Sandy Douglas, who’s not only facing the challenges of girls and friendship, but battling the gut-wrenching grief that came from losing his mother.
With his brother Red, who is constantly filled to the brim with rage and his dad, who, despite his best efforts, struggles with their situation, Sandy endeavours to define himself in the Mallee.
Below is the first chapter of Mallee Boys. To read more, or to purchase the book, follow the link to our website, or visit us at our Mile End bookshop.
Chapter 1: Sandy
New Year’s Day
You know, when you walk into a murky river you could step on anything. I’ve never understood how easily some people will just leap on in when they can’t see a thing. I suppose it’s like life; maybe I could do with just stepping in more and looking less.
We’re staying at Uncle Blakey’s shack. We’ve been coming up here every summer for years. The breeze is baking today but at least the air is moving. It’s too hot to even go for a walk, almost too hot to swim, but the lure of the river is tempting, so I’m thinking about it.
‘Sandy, get your arse in here. It’s fine!’ Dad’s yelling from way out in the water.
He’s bright red. His big bald head bobbing on his big round body. A cheerful, bloody snowman. For a farmer he’s a surprisingly good swimmer. In fact he loves it. When we’re at the shack he gets up early and swims for hours against the flow and then drifts back with the current.
I decide to go in.
I wanna be part of the crowd.
The river is a soft brown colour, a perfect mix of water and mud. There’s absolutely no possibility of seeing anything. The mud squelches between my toes as I inch away from the bank. I’ve deliberately chosen the least reedy stretch but even here I can still feel the slippery stalks stroking my legs. I launch off. I’m not out very deep so the slimy bottom skims my bare chest. Yuck. I kick faster and harder to get away.
I swim like a dog, my neck stuck out as far from the water as I can manage.
‘Put your head in, Sandy!’ I can hear Dad heckling me before he fearlessly ducks down.
No way. Walking and swimming in this is bad enough without getting my head in.
I remember when I was learning to swim Dad used to hold me under and I never really got over it. ‘I’m gonna count to three. Here we go. One … two … three.’ His voice was all muffled as he pushed my head down. My body arched hard against his hand, pressing up, praying he wouldn’t mess up the count. So now that I can swim I never put my head in.
The water is cool and it does feel good. I feel clean, washed free of the summer dust. I roll over onto my back. I’d forgotten, since last summer, how nice it is just to float. To let something else do the work.
Dad’s shouting for me to swim over to him but I pretend I can’t hear him. I know if I go over he’ll start tossing me around and pulling my legs under. Then my head will be in for sure. I can hear laughing. Uncle Blakey and Big Joe Barrel have jumped in. They’re all splashing and carrying on, three old farmers acting younger than me.
‘That boy’s got an old head on young shoulders.’ If I had a dollar every time someone said that about me I’d be pretty cashed up by now. Apparently my mum, Ellie, even said it about me when I was baby. I didn’t have those weird rolling eyes that most babies had. I just looked hard and straight at her with my clear blue ones, which never did turn brown like the rest of them. So, why the bloody hell did they call me Sandy?
Think of someone called Sandy and I bet they couldn’t look less me. For a start I’m a boy. I was told the name comes from some rellie back in Scotland but secretly I think it comes from Dad’s first dog. So do I have blond or red hair? No. Do I have a big friendly smile? Nah, not really. My eyes are still blue, my hair nearly black and I’m tall but not filled out yet. I do smile but it’s one of those shy, less-teeth-showy smiles. I’ve left that to my older brother Red. His real name is Josh. Imagine him: a big handsome redhead.
So, un-sandy Sandy I am.
‘Get back over here, mate!’ Blakey calls.
I’m not going over to them. They wanna duck me, for a laugh. I push the back of my head deeper into the water and scull away from them, cocooned in the muffled silence. I don’t really think of sculling as swimming. It’s keeping me up but it’s more like flying, using little flaps of my hands as I look at the sky.
I’ll be sixteen in July, and Year Ten starts in a few weeks. I can’t believe it. This year is a big one, the last before things really change. Our country school is too small to offer much choice in Year Eleven and Twelve. We either have to leave, do some correspondence study – like that’ll ever happen – or go to boarding school in Adelaide or Melbourne.
I decided long ago I wasn’t going to Melbourne: too many bad memories. I flap out a little further into the river. What the hell am I gonna do next year?
I quite like school, not that I’d tell anyone, especially Red. He couldn’t wait to get out of the place and caused a lot of trouble on his way through too. But for me it’s been alright, once they realised I was nothing like my brother. I like looking at things, taking them apart, trying to figure out how everything works. It doesn’t seem hard. In a funny kind of way school makes more sense than a lot of outside stuff.
Dad’s yelling at me. Off they go again. I can hear them all
through the heavy wet.
‘Sandy, shift your arse! Quick! Hurry up!’
The tone is unusual, not the normal knockabout teasing. There’s a bit more urgency.
I roll over onto my stomach and then I see it. What the hell?
‘Sandy, get out of the way!’ But the warning is too late. The big brown thing is gonna hit me.
I launch into a pathetic dog paddle trying to get away. My legs kick in a frenzy beneath me and my neck stretches out like a llama. I feel a bash on the back on my head and it pushes me under. All the shouting from the bank softens. My heart is pounding as old memories of being ducked as a kid kick in. I can’t get the thing off me. I can’t see anything. I push up with my hands and they find something soft but really heavy. My head keeps butting up into it, trying to ram a way through. I panic. My brain doesn’t know what to do. My lungs are bursting. I’m desperate for a suck of clean, fresh air but don’t dare open my mouth. The burning is excruciating.
I can’t believe I’m gonna drown. Not today, surely?
There’s a jerk on the bottom of my legs. Something is yanking me under. This is too much. I can’t fight it anymore. I surrender with one last kick and then my mouth opens, hungrily gulping in water. My body wants it like air and it pours in.
There’s a bashing on my back, heavy and urgent, shaking me around. I’m floppy, with no resistance. My body stiffens. Rigid. Then the water comes splaying out of my throat and my chest heaves as it sucks in real air. Too desperate, I cough and splutter. I’ve got no control. My mouth sucking too hard competes against the spasms of my lungs spewing the water out. Eventually the craving and the coughing subsides enough and my heart settles.
Exhausted, I take a calmer breath. As I open my eyes I see I’m still in the river.
‘Ya right? Ya right?’
It’s Dad. He turns me round to face him, holding me afloat. I see how terrified he is. He hugs me so tight I start coughing again.
‘Bloody idiot, I had to bash the crap out of you.’
But there are tears in his eyes. He just holds me safe and strong till I settle. As his panic and mine begin to subside, he pushes me away slightly. It seems a bit awkward now for a grown lad to be clinging to his wet Dad in the middle of the river. We both get it at the same time and grin.
‘You’ve always been a crap swimmer, Sandy. Sometimes you get so lost in your own bloody head you don’t know what’s going on around you.’
‘Was it a log or something?’ I ask. ‘I just didn’t see it coming.’
‘No, it was a bloody dead cow! Looks like it died upstream and got washed down.’
I hear cheers and moos from the bank. Looking down the river I see the dead cow.
Bloated, floating and limp from trying to kill me.
Available as both a paperback and ebook, Mallee Boys is the winner of the 2016 Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript Award. It is Charlie Archbold’s first publication inspired by her time living in the Murray Mallee region in Australia.
Remembered for his contributions to music and his courage in being Australia’s first celebrity to reveal his struggle with HIV-AIDS, Close to the Flame is an homage to a humble and hardworking genius:
Stuart Challender had already proved himself as the most talented conductor of his generation, with invitations beginning to flow in to conduct renowned international orchestras, when he was diagnosed with AIDS . Bravely, he chose to become Australia’s first celebrity to reveal his struggle with the disease to the public.
A new definitive biography of Challender, Close to the Flame, explores his remarkable career, cut short when he was only forty-four years old.
Challender joined Opera Australia after twelve years of study and work in European opera houses. He was then taken up by the ABC and appointed artistic director and chief conductor of Australia’s leading orchestra, the Sydney Symphony.
Challender was a great champion of the music of contemporary Australian composers and responsible for the premieres of many important Australian works. In his final years, Challender struggled to continue to work while disease ravaged his body. His decision to go public about his condition brings the story to a moving conclusion.
A review by Matthew Westwood of The Australian reveals the depth of the impact Challender had on music in Australia in his short-lived career:
‘Challender’s legacy lives on in a few cherished recordings, not least his performances of Voss, orchestral music by Peter Scul–thorpe and Carl Vine, and Mahler’s Resurrection symphony. And there’s a little bit of Challender on the hour at the head of ABC news bulletins. The Majestic Fanfare is the arrangement by Richard Mills, performed by the SSO in 1988, with Challender conducting.’
Close to the Flame – Richards Davis’s fourth in a line of Australian classical music biographies – is not only a vital piece of Australian musical history, but an inspiring story of courage in adversity.
Close to the Flame (RRP$45.00) is available for purchase online, or from our Mile End bookshop.
Bitter Fruit is a showcase of a collection of early photographs, many previously unpublished, focusing on Indigenous Australians. Presented in a beautiful hardcover, this is a breathtaking document of the Australian experience.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned that this post, and the book associated with it, may contain images of people who are deceased.
Bitter Fruit: Australian Photographs to 1963 reproduces a selection of photographic materials – most previously unpublished – collected by Michael Graham-Stewart over a 15-year period. It unites orphan images recovered from all over the world, while also allowing little-known episodes in Australia’s fraught history to be told. The book takes as its starting point the year 1963, when the famed Aboriginal photographer Mervyn Bishop undertook a cadetship with the Sydney Morning Herald, and ends with an image of Tasmanian activist Lucy Beeton from the 1860s.
Bitter Fruit focuses on specific information known about the people who took the photographs and, more importantly, those depicted in them, rather than offering a single, overarching narrative that is bound to oversimplify. The authors wanted the book to offer a counterpoint to behemoth surveys of Australian photography that have tended to downplay the interaction between Indigenous Australians and white settlers. Bitter Fruit deliberately eschews critical theoretical analyses and language in the hopes of creating a sourcebook that allows for multiple interpretations and does not claim to offer a ‘last word’.
Graham-Stewart and McWhannell note, ‘We hope that the book will help other non-Aboriginal people to better understand and come to terms with the violent histories in which we are implicated, while also allowing descendants of the Aboriginal people in the images to access their ancestors. Our sincere hope is that more stories will emerge as Australians of all kinds continue to unearth information associated with these images – images that are often upsetting and difficult to look at, but that also represent truths about our past and present.’
About the Authors
specialises in gathering up colonial photographs in order to reconstruct the complex stories that such materials encode. His particular interest is in exploring the ways in which photography operates not only as an instrument of oppression, but also as a means of connecting with people of the past. Michael has published several books on photography, including Surviving the Lens: Photographic Studies of South and East African People, 1870–1920 (2001), Out of Time: Māori & the Photographer (2006), Framing the Native: Constructed Portraits of Indigenous Peoples (2011), and Negative Kept: Māori and the Carte de Visite (2013). A Scot, raised in England, he currently lives between London and Auckland.
is an independent writer and curator from Aotearoa New Zealand. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Museums and Cultural Heritage from the University of Auckland. He has contributed to various publications, including Painting: A Transitive Space (Auckland: ST PAUL St Gallery Three, AUT University, 2017) and Dynamo Hum: Denys Watkins: Selected Paintings 2004–2016 (Auckland: Rim Books, 2017).
All the Kings’ Men records the story of the oldest continuously operating cricket club still in existence in South Australia – the Hindmarsh Cricket Club which now operates under the name of West Torrens – and the stories of the people who built it.
This book also traces the evolution of Club cricket in the Adelaide metropolitan area from the birth of the colony until 1900. It highlights the development of cricket through significant and progressive changes in society, such as industrial relations, transport, education, the telegraph, the press, politics, class and the economy.
All the Kings’ Men teases out the social impacts of cricket in the new colony of South Australia and, in particular, the western suburbs of Adelaide, providing insights into the hardships that the working class endured to play competitive sport. The text profiles many of these players, and the detailed statistical records highlight the talented cricketers of the nineteenth century, such as Arthur Harwood Jarvis, the first South Australian cricketer to represent Australia.
About Denis Brien:
Denis Brien has been a lover of cricket and its history since school. He is a former 1st-grade player, administrator and has coached state women’s and junior men’s teams. Denis worked as a teacher and student counsellor and became a cricket historian on retirement. His keen interest in South Australia’s first international representative inspired him to write this history. He has also written publications on counselling, environmental studies and cricket and education history.
Wakefield Press is thrilled to announce that Carol Lefevre’s Quiet City: Walking through West Terrace Cemetery has been shortlisted in the Non-Fiction category of the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for literature. Winners in each category will be announced on Saturday 3 March in 2018 during Writers’ Week. Visit the Arts SA website to see the other shortlisted titles, and for more information on SA Writers’ Week.
About Quiet City:
I do not think that I believe in ghosts, but just for this morning, just for the time it will take to ramble through this quiet city under clouds the colour of tin, or of pigeons’ wings, I am going to believe in them.
Ordinary lives are revealed as extraordinary, as Carol Lefevre traces the stories of West Terrace Cemetery’s little-known inhabitants: there is the tale of the man who fatally turned his back on a tiger, and the man who avoided one shipwreck only to perish in another; there is the story of the young woman who came home from a dance and drank belladonna, and those who died at the hands of one of South Australia’s most notorious abortionists.
Said to be the most poetic place in Adelaide, in this heritage-listed burial ground the beginnings of the colony of South Australia are still within reach. Amid a sea of weather-bleached monuments, the excavated remains of Australia’s oldest crematorium can be seen, and its quietest corner shelters the country’s first dedicated military cemetery.
From archives, and headstones, the author recovers histories that time and weather threaten to obliterate. Quiet City is a book for everyone who has ever wandered through an old graveyard and wished its stones could speak.
Praise for Quiet City:
‘Lefevre’s touching, terrifying, courageous characters return to haunt us in this rich and companionable book – a treasure trove of social history and a fine writer’s personal reflection on death and living.’ – Nicholas Jose
‘[Lefevre] has done thorough research in the cemetery archives and state records, and then enlivened and enriched this information with a true story-teller’s gifts – an eye for vivid detail and a lyrical turn of phrase.’ – Jennifer Osborn,Transnational Literature
Quiet City is available online and at our Mile End bookshop.
Below is an extract from the new release Bush Mechanics: From Yuendumu to the World, edited by Mandy Paul and Michaelangelo Bolognese. The book explores the wildly popular TV series of the same name that aired on the ABC from 2001 – 2002, and goes behind the scenes showing readers the highs and lows of life in the remote Australian outback.
Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders are warned that this extract and video may contain the names, faces and voices of deceased people.
Extract from page 8 of Bush Mechanics:
‘While memories of the humour, indignity and anguish associated with a technology of invasion opens the Bush Mechanics series, the stories soon turn to the ways that Warlpiri themselves have taken to automobiles. While Europeans first brought motor vehicles into the Central Desert, now these Warlpiri men leave the community to bring them in for their own purposes and according to their own values. Cars and the things that yapa do with them have become saturated with meanings and embedded in practices that reflect the possibilities and constraints of life in Yuendumu. Perhaps most notably, the distinct car culture portrayed in Bush Mechanics is a contemporary expression of an earlier subsistence economy that continues to be strong in the present.
Crocodile, the dapper advocate of humpy living in the fourth episode, wonderfully demonstrates the ongoing importance of bush food in contemporary Warlpiri life. As he digs a kangaroo out of the ashes, Crocodile proudly declares that he is able to provide his family with a big feed without a supermarket. Automobiles are similarly placed, by choice and by necessity, within a local subsistence economy that continues to thrive alongside the cash economy. By incorporating cars within that system, the bush mechanics have devised ways around the material deprivations that characterise their lives in Yuendumu. They have created their own ways of being men with wheels, based on an impressive disregard for the orthodoxies of individual car ownership, the economics of the car market, and the professionalisation of automobile repair. In so presenting the bush mechanics as mobile makers – foragers of mechanical parts and disseminators of alternative solutions – the series offers upbeat parables of the men’s self-determined survival within settler colonialism.’
A brilliant example of the ingenuity and determination of the Bush Mechanics can be seen in the following video. The mechanics are returning home after a paying band gig in a nearby town and run into some trouble with their car – more than once!
Bush Mechanics is available online or in store at 16 Rose st, Mile End
Wakefield Press had the great honour of launching bestselling author Stephen Orr’s latest novel, Incredible Floridas, at the beautiful Carclew centre in November. Launched by John Neylon, the evening featured a performance from SINGular Production’s upcoming musical Innocence, based on Stephen Orr’s novel Time’s Long Ruin.
Below is the wonderfully researched speech made by John Neylon on the night:
‘Why do novelists write about artists and the world of art?
It’s a fair question because there it’s a well – established genre with historical form.
Consider: Emile Zola’s classic L’Oeuvre (The Work/Masterpiece), (1886) which like Stephen Orr’s Incredible Floridas takes as a starting point, a well-known artist – in Zola’s instance, Paul Cézanne. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), Joyce Carey, The Horse’s Mouth (1944), John Berger, A Painter of Our Time (1958), Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961) and Lust for Life (1934). More recently there have been a swag of novels that look at art or society through the prism of real or imagined artists including: Tracey Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs (2013), Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (2013), Ali Smith, How to Be Both (2014), and Don DeLillo, Underworld (1997).
Australia has made its own distinctive contributions including Peter Carey, Theft: A Love Story (2006) and Patrick White, The Vivisector (1970).
I suspect the reason writers are drawn to artists as subjects is that some lead interesting lives. Consider the ongoing public fascination with figures including Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Ai Weiwei, Andy Warhol, Tracey Emin and in Australia, Brett Whiteley. It’s the total package audiences are drawn to underlaid by the assumption that artworks are windows on talent and genius. And that brings us to Incredible Floridas. Stephen admits that the historical figure of Russell Drysdale fuelled the idea of writing about not so much him, but the idea of him, as a kind of artist. Roland Griffin in his book bears a close resemblance to the real life Russell Drysdale who, along with other artists (notably Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd), dominated Australian landscape art in the post–WW2 era. What propelled Drysdale’s imagery in to the public imagination was that he gradually populated his arid, some say, mutant landscapes, with Australians: Aboriginal people standing their ground and staring white society down, stockmen, cooks, diggers, rabbit trappers, families and above all battlers – the people he saw, sketched and photographed on his expended travels in land to the Top End from the 1950s onwards.
Through the agency of a fictional artist (Griffin) Orr deflects our gaze from Drysdale’s actual paintings with their seductive dramatics to the workings of a creative artist’s mind. In doing so he transports a kind-of Drysdale narrative into the realm of art with all its surprises and contradictions. Griffin’s circumstance epitomises the post–WW2 Australian art world scene where figurative artists, like Drysdale, were confronted with a global trend to abstraction – something which caused him, and many of his contemporaries to stop in their tracks and question if it was still possible for images sourced from everyday life, to have any power to mean anything. Add to this, the push back that expressionist and surrealist artists faced from a conservative public, pining for their lost blue and gold Australian Impressionist arcadias. That’s the back story. So yes, is does enhance the reading of Incredible Floridas to know how courageous artists were in this era in turning their back on comforting myths of nationhood. But you don’t have to get very far into Stephen’s compelling narrative to appreciate that it’s really about the total package, about being an artist and also a husband and father. The business of trying to be an artist often occupies centre stage. The incessant need to keep producing work, find suitable subjects, satisfy dealers and the like. To constantly battle the indifference and ignorance of people around him who wondered why he didn’t get a proper job. Or believe, as one character says of his, that it’s all dogs rooting fence posts. Good for hanging in dentist’s waiting rooms.
Then the heartland of the novel, his struggle (and that of his wife Ena) to continue to love and understand their son Hal throughout the destructive journey his demons lead him.
The manner in which the author constructs a sense of fractured relationships between family members and Roland (in particular the so, Hal) has the hallmarks of Drysdale outback townscape where everyone is watching each other, straining for some line, even a word that might lead to some authentic exchange of feelings. The frustration that Griffin feels as an artist is mirrored in the fragmented exchanges with Hal as he once again lashes out in tormented anger at everything and everyone around him. The depths are reached when Hal, on a North End trip, fires a gun which brings his father running. ‘I heard a shot’ Roland says. Hal’s bitter response: ‘You couldn’t paint a corpse.’
We are into the book almost 300 pages before Stephen rewards us with an extended exchange between father and son, on the road to Ayers Rock (Uluru). ‘At some point Roland felt the desire to hug him but knew that his son wouldn’t let him. ‘All he wanted, (as the text says) was to make him happy, make a journey for him and meet him on the other side.’
And so the narrative unfolds – driven both by the thoughts that spring to Roland’s mind and by others. These are classic ‘watcher on the cast iron balcony’ interludes with characters swapping roles between observing and being observed. They occur like cinematic jump cuts that underscore the fragmentary nature of relationships. In these exchanges both Roland’s take on his art, his family and life is exposed to the core. So too are the contradictions of Hal’s own state of mind which swings wildly from savant insights which go to the heart of the matter and inchoate rage.
Now, if I was writing this book I would have been tempted to get Rimbaud in to the act about midway and toss this brew of uncertainty and trauma into some metaphysical thermo mix and spin it into some mythic dish. But in keeping Rimbaud at bay – apart from the book’s title and referencing that author’s Drunken Boat (and also Drysdale’s depiction of a boy with a boat) when Roland shows him how to make a paper boat (‘as fragile as a butterfly in May’) the author takes us to a real ‘there’, one that can be recognised in the laconic language of what used to be known as working class Australians (whatchername, you gonna getta hiding) and numerous references to an Adelaide (based in part on the author’s own Thebby childhood) that has slowly slipping below the horizon such as ‘schizos’ (as Hal is name-called) being sent to Glenside, the Cheltenham racetrack, cheap lino from McLeay’s, Lawlers the White Ant People, making apricot jam, wet sour sobs, half –empty salt and pepper shakers on old country pubs, the drive in, jacarandas and blue stone gutters – and , one of the most evocative sketches in the book, ‘dozens of bored children falling from monkey bars into a sea of wild oats’ (Rimbaud – match that!). Then there are the broader mindsets of a bye gone era such as Hal’s response to school speaking for many (‘I hate the place – the shit about Hastings and Nefertiti’), to this the enduring idea that somehow, the inland desert experience cures all ills – the idea that Hal would be OK if ‘you could get him under the stars, talk, keep busy.’ ‘Sort him out’.
Through this fascinating counter posing of aspiration and reality aspects of what it means to lead a creative life appear. This life is often messy and holds no promises beyond the next act, the next painting – or book. In the end Roland had no clear idea of why he was ‘doing it’. ‘Except that a man had to do something to stop himself from going mad.’ Forget talent and genius. This is as ordinary and basic as it gets
Francis Bacon once said that ‘Painting has become, all art has become, a game by which man distracts himself. And you might say that it has always been like that, but now it’s entirely a game. What’s fascinating is that it’s getting more difficult for the artist. He must really deepen the game to be any good at all so he can make life a bit more exciting’. I rather like Hal’s perspective, ‘There were millions of things to do in life, but all you needed was one thing you were good at, and could bear repeating every day.’
In this regard, Stephen, in continuing to write, you have obviously come to terms with your destiny. And we are all the beneficiaries. Congratulations on Incredible Floridas – this not so crumpled paper boat is now launched.’