Janis Sheldrick is a lifelong resident of Melbourne who has always been strongly attracted to the landscapes of South Australia. She studied philosophy at the University of Melbourne, has a Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, and was awarded a PhD by Deakin University in 2000 for work on George Goyder and Goyder’s Line. Working as an independent scholar, she completed the rest of Goyder’s biography in the years that followed. Nature’s Line: George Goyder, surveyor, environmentalist, visionary is due for release from Wakefield Press this month.
We asked Janis a few questions about Goyder and the process of writing the book.
Can you tell us a little known fact about George Goyder?
Just about everyone who knows of him would be aware of his reputation for hard work, determination, and mental and physical toughness, but few would now know that according to those who knew him, in private life he was a different person. He had a wide circle of friends and was described as charming and as entertaining company – the ideal person to have as a companion on a long and tiresome journey – and as possessing a ‘magnetic’ personality. He also had a pleasant speaking voice and liked to sing Italian arias (when travelling), so he probably had a better than average singing voice as well. This large personal presence must have been a useful compensation for a diminutive physical one – he was only about 160 centimetres tall (a bit less than five feet four inches, according to a descendant).
What prompted you to write Nature’s Line?
I’ve been an intermittent visitor to South Australia from childhood and the ruined houses beyond the Mid-North made a powerful early impression on me, but I had no idea of the story behind them. When I finally heard about Goyder’s Line I was literally enthralled – I was full of questions and couldn’t wait to learn more. At the outset it struck me as an important story, and the more I investigated, the more certain of this I became. It was clearly not just about where not to grow wheat in South Australia, but about European settlers encountering a climate, the key characteristic of which – rainfall variability – they were entirely unprepared even to recognise and name, let alone to adapt to. What impressed me so much about Goyder was his unblinkered ability to see what was going on around him in the natural environment, to pay close attention to the natural world and to learn.
Do you know what project you would like to take on next?
At the moment I am working on something very different, although it is still about human awareness and perception of the natural world (among other things), with the working title Here and Hereabouts.
There are also two small things that I am working on. One of the characters in Goyder’s story is Eustace Reveley Mitford, a great-grand uncle of the Mitford sisters. The family resemblances, in literary style, social and political outlook, and physical appearance, are startling, especially given that the relationship is not that close, and I think he merits making a tiny contribution to the Mitford Industry. I have also been investigating Victoria’s Chinese dragons, the oldest of which go back to the nineteenth century.
After that, I’d like to return to a bigger project.
What’s your favourite type of ice cream?
Green tea – but I haven’t had any since the Japanese store that sold it closed. Perhaps Christmas pudding ice cream (my sister’s or from Fritz Gelato) is a more realistic choice – at least there’s an opportunity to enjoy it once a year.
What are your favourite Wakefield Press titles, aside from your own, and why?
Philip Jones’s Ochre and Rust: Artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers is the first that comes to mind. Its approach to the telling of history, working from particular objects, sidesteps the usual frameworks. And the book is a lovely object itself: good to look at and to handle.
The other two are about the work of Australian painters and both are connected to exhibitions at Tarrawarra Museum of Art (in Victoria). The first is Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011 by Barry Pearce. I particularly liked the inclusion of his early work in Adelaide.
The second, Russell Drysdale: defining the modern Australian landscape, by Christopher Heathcote, isn’t a favourite – I haven’t read it yet – but I am looking forward to doing so. The exhibition started as Tarrawarra in October and will be on until February 2014. I haven’t been yet, and I want to see the paintings before I read the book.