Category Archives: Culture

Hanging for the picnic’s end

By Michael Burge 

FORTY years since the premier of the Peter Weir film, it’s time for Australians to realise that Picnic at Hanging Rock has kept us completely fooled for five decades.

This evocative screen mystery burst into our consciousness the same spring that the constitutional crisis of the last months of the Whitlam government left Australians in an altered state.

“Australian cinema’s ‘new wave’ success story rose on the back of a terrible cultural lie.”

The original novel by Joan Lindsay was similarly about the impact of sudden change. When three schoolgirls and a governess do not return from a commonplace picnic at a local beauty spot in 1900, the mechanics of shock and denial challenge the very foundation of knowledge.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weirs 1975 film.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weirs 1975 film.

As French governess Mademoiselle de Poitiers farewells four of her charges wanting to explore the base of Hanging Rock, seeing Miranda turn away, she asserts: “Now I know”. The only one who hears is mathematics teacher Greta McGraw, who replies: “What do you know?”

Mlle de Poitiers is happy to believe she has seen an angel by an old master, although Miss McGraw appears to have her eye on something far more attractive.

Minutes earlier, this rational, scientific 45-year-old noticed her watch, like everyone else’s, had stopped, right on midday. The picnickers are suddenly, and literally, out of time.

This fictitious pre-Federation mystery perfectly captures modern Australia’s struggle to form an identity, because the answer to what drew Miss McGraw to follow the girls up the rock that timeless afternoon was always there, it’s just that others decided we were not prepared for it.

EVILANGELSA real-life disappearance occurred at another famous rock and challenged Australian identity all over again, when, on the night of August 17, 1980, baby Azaria Chamberlain was taken from her tent by a dingo at a campground near the base of Uluru – at that time known by its European name Ayer’s Rock.

It did not take long for the majority of Australians to decide this event was nothing more than a fanciful story, sprung from the imagination of Lindy, Azaria’s mother, who was jailed for life for her daughter’s murder.

We were far more willing to cry murder than countenance the reality of predators in our landscape.

Fred Schepisi’s film of John Bryson’s book on the Chamberlain case – Evil Angels – outlined the dingo story and subsequently bombed at the Australian box office.

We could barely look at the Evil Angels, whereas the romantic never-to-return ‘angels’ of Picnic at Hanging Rock we took to our hearts; but Australian cinema’s ‘new wave’ success story rose on the back of a terrible cultural lie.

Joan Lindsay complained of endless fan mail asking whether her story was based on fact, although I call her annoyance a dodge, because she brought all the attention on herself as soon as she allowed her publishers to lop off the last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock before it was published in 1967.

But her original Chapter Eighteen survived the butchering of editors: she entrusted it to her literary agent John Taylor in 1972, with strict instructions to publish it after her death.

This he did in 1987, by which time a cult had grown around Lindsay’s ruse. The twelve pages of Chapter Eighteen published in the booklet The Secret of Hanging Rock were framed by tongue-in-cheek essays by Taylor (claiming that Lindsay’s solution was “unfilmable”) and Yvonne Rousseau, a writer who’d spent years sleuthing Lindsay’s oeuvre.

Despite the attention Lindsay’s ‘solution’ received, it was not enough to challenge the trajectory of the film’s success. A director’s cut was released theatrically and on DVD, including a documentary in which not a single mention was made of Lindsay’s Chapter Eighteen.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM Seeking for a solution.
DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM Seeking for a solution.

Her long-concealed dénouement quite matter-of-factly revealed the missing schoolgirls and their governess had undergone the kind of transformation common in Classical legends, although Lindsay had created a credible bridge between European myth and Aboriginal Dreaming.

Other writers had attempted this earlier. Arguably the most famous was the fake Aboriginal Legend of the Three Sisters, the story of three Aboriginal women transformed into the famous rock formation by their ‘witchdoctor’ father, written by Sydney schoolgirl Patricia Stone in the 1930s and subsequently sold by Katoomba’s tourist industry as genuine Aboriginal legend.

But Joan Lindsay avoided cultural appropriation. Instead, she allowed her large cast of European women to be themselves appropriated by a Dreaming entirely appropriate for an Australian story.

“They were happy to escape a life of corseting, cosseting and control.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock screenwriter Cliff Green identified one of the major themes in Lindsay’s story as child abuse, and once the women do not return, the checks and balances of a ‘proper’ education gradually do reveal the physical and emotional weaponry of British headmistress Mrs Appleyard.

The missing schoolgirls and their governess, then, were not victims of crime or whisked away unwillingly. They were happy to escape a life of corseting, cosseting and control.

“I can hardly wait,” star maths student Marion Quade says in Chapter Eighteen, anticipating her chance to shuffle off the twentieth century and follow her transformed maths teacher Miss McGraw “without a backward glance”.

Marion’s escape route comes straight out of 1960s notions of Aboriginal Dreaming, atmosphere that undoubtedly challenged the original publishers into such a severe deletion. Far more preferable for daughters of the Empire to disappear into thin air than be seen to delight in a spiritual transition well known by the nation’s first people.

LADY LINDSAY Joan, Lady Lindsay 1896-1964).

The edit allowed Joan Lindsay’s fact-fiction flim-flam to become the focus of the book and film’s success, and even though all along she knew she’d not written a mysterious disappearance, she played her part very well by suggesting the audience decide what was true and what wasn’t.

Fans and detractors rushed to pore over the archives and trample across Hanging Rock, well off the scent of a simple look into Lindsay’s education at a Melbourne ladies’ boarding school.

It was Terence O’Neill in a 2009 La Trobe Journal essay Joan Lindsay: A time for everything who proposed that Lindsay can hardly have been unaware of her alma mater’s move from Melbourne to Woodend, close to Hanging Rock, in 1919, after her graduation; and, far more interestingly, the account in the school magazine of a Miss McGraw, teacher at the school in Lindsay’s time, who led the twilight expedition to Hanging Rock that inspired forty years of annual picnics and the telling of ghost stories on the way home. 

It’s also enlightening to analyse the corporal punishments Lindsay portrayed in detail – those that inspire adolescent fantasies about escaping the control of disciplinary adult paradigms – when seeking the real seeds of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Missing corsets and stockings, a maths governess seen climbing Hanging Rock availed of her skirt, and the discovery of one of the missing girls, are all clues in both book and film, but they remain the worst kind of red herrings without Chapter Eighteen.

Another red herring is the sound of Pan pipes played by Gheorghe Zamfi on the soundtrack, evoking the old Greco-Roman gods of different land altogether.

It’s probably un-Australian of me, but I call for a remake. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1)
MUCH TO LEARN Edith running from Hanging Rock.

Pan pipes would easily be replaced by a well-known Aboriginal wind instrument; and doubtless there is much to learn from the Wurundjeri nation, traditional owners of Hanging Rock, the rock formation they were dispossessed of in the 1840s.

Joan Lindsay’s literary stock-in-trade was time. I can’t imagine her not approving of a reappearance of Miranda, Marion and Miss McGraw in an episode of Doctor Who, or at least a mash-up adaptation like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The Northern Territory legal system took thirty years to come to terms with the facts about the dingoes that preyed on Azaria Chamberlain. Surely in that time we have grown enough to cope with Aboriginal Dreaming in one of our greatest novels?

As Gough Whitlam famously affirmed in 1972, ushering in the government that would transform the lifeless Australian film industry, led by Lindsay’s big-screen icon: “It’s time”.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.


The farm boy who grew the language

WRITER- WOOLGROWER William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
WRITER- WOOLGROWER William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

By Michael Burge 

NO writer in the English language ever had their life and times examined as much as William Shakespeare, a native of the rural Warwickshire market town of Stratford-upon-Avon who went on to become the world’s greatest playwright.

With few known facts and little primary evidence, speculation by academics, impresarios, directors and eccentrics has created the various ‘lives’ of Shakespeare that so often go unquestioned.

Just as many theories discredit Shakespeare, painting him as an uneducated buffoon from a farming backwater who must have covered for an educated person more deserving of the title ‘the greatest English playwright’.

But there is one easily overlooked element to Shakespeare’s work which indelibly links him – and his plays – to Warwickshire: his use of that county’s unique vernacular throughout his work.

“Just as many theories discredit Shakespeare, painting him as an uneducated buffoon from a farming backwater.”

Much of the Warwickshire jargon in Shakespeare is the vocabulary that anyone who grew up in the parish of Stratford would have picked-up from a very young age, and needed little formal education in.

Long before writing plays for the realm’s premier theatre company at London’s Globe Playhouse, William Shakespeare was born into a family like most in Warwickshire – one with strong farming connections, and rural language.

ARDEN AGRICULTURE Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden’s farm at Wilmcote, near Stratford-upon-Avon. (Photo: Elliott Brown)

Shakespeare’s Father John was at various times a leatherworker and glovemaker, and a wool dealer who served as an alderman on the local council. His mother Mary Arden’s family farmed for centuries in the Stratford region.

Although by the time Shakespeare was born his family were ‘townies’ living on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, both sets of his grandparents were farmers.

The Shakespeares had been tenant farmers on land owned by the Ardens, but there is plenty of evidence Shakespeare’s father broadened the family interests away from the graft of running farms to a more genteel, lucrative and often illegal income as a landowner, agricultural trader and money-lender.

And although he went on to achieve literary fame, his son William also followed his father’s rural buying and selling footsteps for his entire life.

If Shakespeare picked up an early education on the rural landscape from an array of older family members, by the time he was a trader in his own right, the language of cropping and grain selling, animal husbandry and wool sales, and the production of food and clothing from grain, fibre and hide, well and truly completed his knowledge of all things farming.

That’s not to say he poured this experience into his popular entertainments. Rather, like inconvenient seedlings throughout his work, they ‘crop up’.

Paul Englefield.
RURAL HEARTLAND Warwickshire crops and sheep (Photo: Paul Englefield).

It was historian Michael Wood who underlined Shakespeare’s use of the term ‘hayd land’ in Henry IV Part 2 in his series In Search of Shakespeare. Referring to a strip of land left uncultivated when a Warwickshire ploughman turned his plough around, London typesetters unfamiliar with the original term inserted it as ‘hade land’ in printed versions of the play.

Like Wood, Scott McCrea, in his book The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question, identified another piece of rural slang: “In Antony and Cleopatra, Scarus’s simile of ‘the breeze upon her, like a cow in June’ makes little sense until it’s understood that breeze means stinging gadfly in Warwickshire.”

Other researchers see reflections of a significant rural event – The Midland Revolt – in Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus. The infamous 1607 uprising saw thousands protest from Northamptonshire to Warwickshire and Leicestershire, unhappy at the latest round of Enclosure Acts that locked farmland away from common use.

The grain shortages in Coriolanus have parallels with the revolt, although any of the alternative authors suggested for Shakespeare’s plays – such as Cambridge graduate Christopher Marlowe – could have strung the contemporary reports of the Midland Revolt into a play; whereas if you really seek to claim Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays, you’re going to have to prove the Kent-born dramatist knew a swathe of Warwickshire slang; and not just workaday words easily picked-up in any market square, but practical farmers’ trading terms, the kind that typesetters got wrong in the 17th century and citified actors misinterpret to the present day.

You’ll also need to show how a great writer of tragedies like Marlowe was savvy enough to use these words to comic effect.

FLEECE FACTS Shorn wool in an English shearing shed.

Shakespeare didn’t require any special education to include the discussion on the price of sheep in Henry IV Part 2 between his comic characters Silence and Shallow. Nor did he have any problem accurately portraying the correct price of wool when a shepherd in The Winter’s Tale attempts to calculate the value of his fleeces:

“Let me see: every ‘leven wether tods; every tod yields pound and odd shilling; fifteen hundred shorn. What comes the wool to?”

One of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Shakespeare’s dual literary-farming legacy in Stratford-upon-Avon came in 1708, when London actor and theatre manager Thomas Betterton visited.

Almost a century after the town’s most famous son had died, there was no sign of the tourist mecca that Stratford-Upon-Avon would become. For a chunk of the interim period, including the Civil War, plays had been considered sinful and anyone who had anything to do with them treated as scum.

Betterton recounted what he found to dramatist, poet and Shakespeare editor Nicholas Rowe, who used it to write the first biography of the Stratford Shakespeares in 1709 – the basis for much of the later research on the subject of William Shakespeare.

Engraving of William Shakespeare's funerary monument in Stratford from the first volume of Nicholas Rowe's 1709 edition of his works. Gerard Van der Gucht
WOOL BALE? Engraving of William Shakespeare’s funerary monument by Gerard Van der Gucht  from the first volume of Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of his works.

Whether it was a case of Betterton’s bad memory, or an oversight by engraver Gerard Van der Gucht, but there was no quill or parchment in the engraving of the only visible remnant of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1709 – the monument and bust of the playwright in the town’s Holy Trinity Church.

Instead, there is what appears to be either a bag of grain, or a wool bale.

This yawning gap between a man who wrote plays and poems, many of which became preeminent in the English language, who never went to university and cannot be proven to have attended school – yet also made a significant living as a land and agricultural commodities trader – has always been too great for many in the British establishment.

By 1725, when another image of the Shakespeare bust appeared, someone had added a quill and parchment to the monument. Those who seek to separate Shakespeare the playwright from Shakespeare the farmer use this mysterious action as evidence that he did not write the plays that forever made his name.

“It’s hard to overlook the academic snobbery aimed at a non graduate who had airs above his station.”

I have something in common with William Shakespeare. I hale from a small farming community and, after we moved off the land, I went on to become a writer. Apart from one year at university, where I started an Arts degree, my tertiary education consisted of vocational training in the performing arts, which was undoubtedly more than Shakespeare received.

WRITER'S CUSHION? Shakespeare's monument as it appears today, with quill and parchment (Photo: Tom Reedy).
WRITER’S CUSHION? Shakespeare’s monument as it appears today, with quill and parchment (Photo: Tom Reedy).

Nobody knows for sure how Shakespeare got to London and took up acting and writing. There are missing years when he cannot be found trading in Warwickshire’s farming records, but his name – or a version of it – appears in a terse review by playwright and Cambridge graduate Robert Greene, who attempted to put a young upstart in the London theatre scene of the 1590s in his place.

Alluding to a line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 3: “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”, Greene wrote:

“… for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”

You have to hand it to Greene – his ticking-off of the young Shakespeare is witty. Not only does he call the younger dramatist a ‘Jack of all trades’, the use of ‘Shake-scene’ cements exactly who this ‘Jack’ is.

Greene also shows off his knowledge of Latin, his audience being university graduates, whose ‘feathers’ he accuses Shakespeare of using to call himself a serious playwright, although it’s hard to overlook the academic snobbery aimed at a non graduate who had airs above his station.

When I lived, studied and worked in the United Kingdom, I encountered the same competitive spirit. A vocational education in theatre practice was never enough to get me work on a stage or a studio, whereas declaring my country roots landed me a job in rural media in a flash. I suspect what has been in place ever since Greene’s put-down of Shakespeare is the pathway of entitlement that runs from Oxbridge straight to the West End.

Whenever British playwrights made a splash without a university education – the likes of Joe Orton, John Osborne and Tom Stoppard – there was a chorus from the establishment reminiscent of Robert Greene’s begrudging comments.

But William Shakespeare is an inspiration to this former farm boy who also became a writer, because he will forever wear the crown over the likes of Greene, having employed nothing but his ‘owne conceit’; and despite adding more than 1700 words to the English language, he also remembered those of his childhood landscape.

He remains an unsurpassed Jack of all trades who was a master yarn spinner, which, as anyone from the country will tell you, is exactly how they breed them in the bush.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

PLUCK PRThis article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

Follow Michael Burge on Twitter @burgewords

A Myall in my shoes

By Michael Burge 

IT has taken me a lifetime to get back to Myall Creek, a typical watercourse that traverses a remote country road like thousands of others in NSW’s New England district.

Here, between the towns of Delungra and Bingara, a corrugated iron hall by a long-disused pair of tennis courts has been a place of dances, Christmas parties, cricket meets and a century of community gatherings.

As kids, me, my siblings and school friends played on iron swings that were already old by the time we clambered over them, while our parents enjoyed social tennis.

On the sidelines between one of those matches, my mother parked herself next to me on the swing in her tennis whites and told me a story. 

LIFE SWINGS The tennis courts at Myall Creek Hall (Photo: Michael Burge).

She gestured along the creek that snaked its way close to the shed, across a field dotted with pepper and willow trees, and whispered how, long ago, white settlers had driven Aboriginal people over the edge of the gully to their deaths.

The injustice in her tone got my attention, but also her reticence to tell me publicly. In all the years since, I have wondered if she’d been told about this crime, casually, over a lemon barley water on the other side of the court, when some long-term local updated this city girl on the region’s history.

Mum got essential details wrong at that first telling, but what she told me remains one of the most indelible events in Australia’s Frontier Wars – the Myall Creek Massacre.

Life took my family away from the New England region less than two years later. Over the decades, we drove across Myall Creek many times travelling to family events, never stopping.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

But the story of the massacre stayed with me, cropping up in school projects and writing efforts. Eventually, I did some research at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, and read for myself the newspaper accounts of the Myall Creek Massacre trials, replete with the often quoted eye-popping racist responses from Sydney Morning Herald readers incensed at the white perpetrators being bought to justice.

The day I return with some of my family for the annual June Long Weekend Myall Creek Memorial, the paddocks around the hall are full of cars. 

I find my way back to the tennis courts, now covered by grass. The swings are still there. I spy the bridge over the creek, and the same gully my mother gestured to almost forty years ago.

By the time the crowd has moved up to the memorial site itself, it’s as though we cannot help but stand in racial groups. There is a hesitation about mingling. We don’t know anyone else. They don’t know us. We’ve all returned to Kamilaroi country because we remember.

Two Aboriginal men, helped by their kids, light a fire for a smoking ceremony. The sound of boomerangs being clapped together calls Aboriginal dancers into action. Smoke rises, wrapping around us, bringing us together.

WELCOME TO COUNTRY Smoking ceremony at the start of the Myall Creek Memorial (Photo: Michael Burge).

The air is heavy with a scent that wakes us into joining the respectful queue that forms at the head of the track leading into the memorial, and hands reach up to draw the white paint across our foreheads.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

The Myall Creek memorial is a short walk through scrubland typical of the region, with its basalt soils – chocolate-brown and ochre red – and the knee-deep sea of sandy coloured grass, lapping between stands of trees.

It’s also granite country. Small boulders lie everywhere, like markers, and as we walk, school students, some of them Aboriginal, read the plaques set into the stones while we progress.

Each tells part of the story of the killing of 28 unarmed Aboriginal women, children and old men in June, 1838. Most were felled by swords after being chained together, one chapter of the long conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal people.

The track leads us to the massacre site, a massive boulder set on the edge of a high place overlooking the remnant of the old Myall Creek Station.

In the distance, cattle feed and call. This was the land granted to squatter Henry Dangar, whose patch was eventually subdivided to create the nearby farm my parents worked in the late 1960s and 70s.

The familiarity of the farm noises comforts me, but when guest speaker Professor John Maynard speaks of the Aboriginal contribution to the wars Australia fought on foreign soil, his voice carries protest at the way Aboriginal history has been whitewashed. It’s a much-needed jolt of reality.

At the ceremony’s end, the next generation is encouraged never to forget the crime. Watching white and Aboriginal kids led by their elders, I am struck by what it must be like to not know about the Myall Creek Massacre.

Plenty of other massacres happened across Australia during the Frontier Wars – in other places, many more Aboriginal people were killed than at Myall Creek, in a variety of ways, from poisoning to shooting. Myall Creek stands out only because it was the first crime after which the bulk of the European killers were brought to justice.

Did the oral histories run deep amongst the white farmers because our ancestors were hanged for their crimes?

MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).
MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).

When American writer Bill Bryson came in search of the massacre site in the late 1990s, he found nothing.

By 2000, the place had been identified and marked. Occasional vandalism since has not dulled the growing spirit of reconciliation which will never be stymied by faceless racism. Now, a fundraising effort is behind a planned onsite education centre.

During the thoughtful walk back to the car, cautious divisions start falling away. We walk as one group. One people.

On the way to visit our old farm, we pause at a high point along the road where another farmhouse became derelict long ago. Very soon, other cars arrive, bearing various descendants of the other families who farmed down the same lane. They were all at the massacre memorial too.

Although we are all different ages, live across two states and our lives have followed varied pathways, one thing unites this group of relative strangers meeting on a tract of the Kamilaroi nation on this particular day – every one of us has always known about the Myall Creek Massacre.

This strong oral history has been handed down through generations and does not come with judgement, shame, or pity for white killers.

It comes with an unforgettable knowledge of what injustice really means in this country, and the desire to pass that message on.

Michael Burge is an Australian writer and journalist with an upcoming podcast and book about injustice in Australia – Questionable Deeds.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

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