Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Some thoughts about men who row boats and ride bikes

Here is something I wrote recently about the sealers of the 1820s and contemporary commercial fishers and 'outlaw' motorcycle clubs.

I worked as a deckhand with men who net the estuaries and inshore waters for fish and crabs. The irony that I was writing about men who also worked these same shores in small boats, albeit more than a century ago, did not escape me. One of the fishermen I worked for was proud to relate that he was a fourth generation fisherman and that one of his ancestors, a sealer, was accidentally shot through the neck and killed while working beaches east of Albany. This fisherman had a keen sense of his ancestry and natural history, and working for him was an ‘embedded’ process of research for me. I spent long hours on the coast learning how to handle boats, nets, stingrays, small sharks, and some interesting weather.

Contemporary commercial fishers can be clannish, with slightly anarchic tendencies towards the government arms of law and order, only complying for utilitarian reasons. They are comfortable living in bush camps and shacks for weeks or months at a time. They understand the cycles of nature – the winds, the swell, the natural predators and the seasons - their work is intimately joined with nature. Their income derives from a maritime-based primary industry plied from small boats. In these ways contemporary commercial fishermen are similar to yesteryear sealers.

In other ways, modern day commercial fishers are no duplication in sentiment or actions of the 19th century sealers: they are usually happily married, own land and pay large annual fees to maintain their fishing licenses. They do not kidnap women and imprison them on islands or shoot Aboriginal men and each other (though there are a few historic yarns of weapons being brandished over access to fishing spots).

However I do wonder what kind of men the fishermen would have been if they were placed in the same situation as the Hunter and Governor Brisbane crews in 1826: abandoned thousands of nautical miles from the nearest point of white population and legal censure for months or years on end. Phrases like ‘the thin veneer of civilisation’ and ‘men of their time’ go through my mind. These phrases are also common responses given to my wonderings out loud. There is really no way to answer this question, other than to judge each individual by evidence of their actions, either today or 160 years ago.

The ‘men of their time’ argument can be a simplistic way out of explaining a history of ill deeds, and of opportunities taken by people powerful enough to exploit those less powerful. But then communities do respond to learned morals, new legislation and social mores. Societies and laws change to censure behaviour that may once have been deemed inoffensive. Some examples within the last twenty or thirty years would be giving a child a ‘belting’, smoking cigarettes while pregnant, driving under the influence of alcohol, refusing to employ a married woman or forcing her into unpaid servitude, or leaving a child in the car outside a pub. Skinning a rabbit before it is dead.

The actions of twentieth century folk compared to the nineteenth century sealers is complicated by cultural and societal mores of the era. I have yet to find more than one example of an attempted prosecution of a sealer for kidnapping and enslaving an Aboriginal woman, and this reflects the unwillingness of the Van Diemen’s Land colony to legally censure such actions.(That prosecution was aborted not for a lack of evidence but a kind of sanguine ineptitude, by the way.) [1]

Arthur Veno, in his book on Australian outlaw motorcycle clubs The Brotherhoods, explains how young men with a background of familial violence and a self-perceived or overt exile from ‘normal society’ can form groups that are insular, violent, and reliant upon an internalised structure of regulation and law. In many ways the sealers of 1826 remind me of modern day bikies and the reception with which their exile and consequent self-government is still met by the legislators and media.

These clubs are characterised as having a constitution, a rigid organisational structure, and heavy levels of commitment to ensure their survival. They exist in their own world, cut off from mainstream society through a rigid system of rules and an inherent belief system.[2]

I grew up in a town in an era when many men were forced out of maritime occupations by the closure of the whaling industry, the imposition of tuna quotas and environmental disasters such as mass death of pilchards in the Southern Ocean with its flow-on effects to the other fishing industries. They left or they adapted. Some of the more disaffected folk joined up with war veterans to create a local outlaw club who were overtly misogynistic and racist  towards people who were not of their ilk. People spoke in whispers about the drugs, gang rapes of women, and fights or attacks between the motorcycle club and local Noongar people.

In observing interactions between contemporary groups of men such as bikies or commercial fishers and the law, (and I'm sorry to conflate them both here but it is pertinent) I noticed that power relationships were often the same as the ones between the law-makers and the sealers in the 1820s. It seemed to be a point of masculine pride: both parties distinguished themselves by their positions, that they never ‘cross over’ to the other side. Commercial fishers historically do not defer to fisheries officers unless forced to by law and bikies historically will never defer to the police or the media. In both cases, when they do cross over, it is self-serving for the purposes of the group, or the individual. When it is the individual, that man risks of permanent, and perhaps deadly, exile.

Another analogy of power and 'men of their time' is the language used by journalists and police regarding outlaw motorcycle clubs. It's remarkably similar to the language used by men such as Lockyer (Amity) or d’Urville (Astrolabe). The word ‘gang’ is used as a collective noun in both instances, described in the Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary as: “1. A band of people going about or working together, esp. for some antisocial or criminal purpose.”[3] 

Veno writes that the term ‘bikie gangs’ is a huge issue with motorcycle clubs, in quoting a Hell’s Angel: 
“It’s a law enforcement term. It’s used to try to make us worse than what we are. Once a club becomes a gang, then the police can get all the support from the citizens they need.”[4]

[1] John Baker was arrested for the kidnap of Trugernina’s sister Makerleedie in 1826. Plomley, Ed., 2006, p. 1051
[2] Veno, A., The Brotherhoods: Inside the outlaw motorcycle clubs, Third Edition, Allen and Unwin, NSW, 2009, p. 33.
[3]Ludowyk, F., and Moore, B., Ed., The Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Victoria, 2003, p. 332.
[4] Veno, A., 2009, p. 56.

Monday, June 22, 2015

And on a lighter note ...

The light is returning, although our winter has just begun. Happy Solstice folks!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Moennan and Manilyan

The two Menang women, who were kidnapped and taken to the islands by the Breaksea Island sealers, did not have their names recorded by Lockyer. Like contemporary victims of sexual assault, they remained anonymous, whilst their attackers' names were recorded (although they were never charged).

Naming characters in my historical novel Exiles was a bit of a problematic beast anyway and combining that with recorded and unrecorded Aboriginal names was even more curly. There is a section in my thesis where I argue that the only logical way through the conundrum was to manifest some of the characters' names myself. If I attributed historical names to people such as the two Menang women, it would be inaccurate, mess with incontrovertible facts in fiction, and quite possibly prove offensive and distressing to descendants of those people. However it was important to me that the two women were not peripheral, accessory characters to those blokes who wronged them or saved them. A major theme of my novel (I feel) is the responses of the women and children to their captivity; how they survived and adapted in extreme circumstances. So they had to have names. Really, really tricky!

Yesterday wasn't all fun and games. I did get some work done, including searching out the original references for my section on naming Aboriginal characters in historical fiction.
So there is this, from Captain Collet Barker, who was the Commandant at King George Sound in 1830.

"Wanting to know the ideas of the blacks of the origin of mankind, I got him [Mokare] this evening after some difficulty to understand my questions, when he told me that a very long time ago the only person living was an old woman named Arregain who had a beard as large as the garden. She was delivered of a daughter & then died. The daughter called Moenang grew up in course of time to be a woman, when she had several children, (boys & girls), who were the fathers and mothers of all the black people." 1.

I named one of the Menang women Moennan after reading this story. I liked the sound of the name spoken aloud and the way you have to move your lips around it.
Mokare's information is interesting on other levels though. His ancestral story has a distinctly maternal genesis. Also, that the ancestral mother of the Menang people is called Moenang.

Manilyan, who does not feature as largely in my novel as Moennan because she was taken away to Bald Island by the sealer McGuinness quite early in the drama, was named after a star.
Again, from Collet Barker's journal:

[Mokare] "Told me this evening that Moken had commenced, which he knew by the situation of the Black Magellanic cloud near the cross (Whitepepoy). They have some story which I could not clearly make out, of its being an emu and laying eggs. The larger White Magellanic cloud he called the Chucadark & mentioned the names of several stars. One brilliant one was shortly to be seen, called Manilyen. By his description I think it must be Jupiter & if so there is a rather there is a rather singular coincidence as 'Man' in their language signifies 'father'." 2.

In other wordlists, Manilyen is simply a star, Jupiter and occasionally Venus.

Venus revealed herself. 
“Venus,” said Bailey. “The oldest whore in the world. First one out at night and the last one to leave.”
“That Captain of the Astrolabe,” Black Simon nodded his head towards where the Frenchmen were moored below Venus, “He is famous in his country for finding Venus in a field in Greece.” When Black Simon spoke he was frugal with words, meting them out like precious shot. The whole camp stopped what they were doing to listen.
“The Venus de Milo, she was six foot tall and cool, white stone, as beautiful as the inside of a seashell. Her ears were pierced and her hair was coiled around her neck and she held an apple in her hand. He pulled her out of the earth, from a tomb.”
“No wonder the officers are asking after the women,” laughed Smidmore.
“He’ll get no classic Greece in the Sound,” said Jimmy the Nail, “just mullet and muttonbirds and blackfella women smeared with fish oil and red clay, feathers in their hair.”

Meremere, ah Meremere” sang Billhook quietly over his weaving.
Manilyan, Manilyan, Manilyan,” chanted Weedchild, who seemed to understand which star they were talking about, and then she burst into tears.

1. Mulvaney, J., & Green, N., Commandant of Solitude. The Journals of Captain Collet Barker 1828-1831, Melbourne University Press, 1992, p. 289.
2. Ibid. p. 284. 
3. The picture by Louis de Sainson is of the Astrolabe's sail maker camp, close to the channel of Princess Royal Harbour, Albany. In the background is the Astrolabe and beyond that, Michaelmas Island (left) and Breaksea Island (right) where the sealers lived. October, 1826.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


6.20 am. Went into the bathroom. Spent half an hour hennaing my hair. Came out with my hair piled into a cone of henna mud. Selkie the pup looked at me horrified, and fled out the front door, pissing the whole way along the carpet. So I chased her. I believe I was still wearing my rubber gloves and towel cape at the time.

9.50 am. Deposited a cheque via the ATM. First time ever. Very proud of myself. Wet hair.
10 am. Attended an obligatory interview with the local labour hire mob. I got there fifteen minutes early, sat on the couch to read the No Idea. A man walked in who was 'having a crisis' with a labour hire mob who'd just shut down and so he wanted to be transferred to another agency or he'd be cut off his unemployment benefits.
He spoke with an Irish accent as he scanned the noticeboard and said to the receptionist, "There's a job going for a butcher here. I've had some butchering experience. Can you give me the details?"
"Have you had any experience butchering kangaroos?"
"No. But isn't any animal the same when it's dead, now? Kangaroo tails are just bigger."

10.30 am. Took this picture outside the supermarket:

10.40 am. Had a quick interactive learning session with the council gardeners about pruning the Peace roses at the war nurses memorial garden.
11 am. Moved into a table at my favourite haunt to edit my thesis.
11.30 am. Went out for a smoke. Checked my phone. A message from my best mate saying she couldn't have lunch with me today as she was having a 'procedure' at 11.45 am to check her left boob for cancer. She'd told me about that lump weeks ago. She didn't tell me it was today. That is her way, anyway.
11.45 am. Go back to the thesis. Think about lumps. Try to organise the footnotes. Try to straighten up my arguments.
11.45 - 12 pm. Try to organise my thoughts.
12.30 pm. An old friend limps up to my table. When I ask him why he is limping, I realise his words are slurred and not as precise as when I'd last talked to him, and he's always been a clever, physical sort. "I've been in hospital for a whole month," he told me. "This part of my brain [he points to the base of his skull] just broke one day." His eyes were clear, healthy and bright. I always thought he was a grumpy sort but he seemed almost obscenely happy today, after his encounter with death.


1pm. Wait for academic mate. Order chips and more coffee. Ask for more aioli to eat chips with. Consume it all. Feel a bit sick. Continue editing. The woman sitting at the table next to me is wearing black jeans and stilettos. She stands and puts on her fake leopard fur coat to leave. She is fucking indomitably impressive in that moment.
1.30pm. Wait for said academic mate. Continue editing.
1.45pm. A journo who I have a lot of time for sits down at my table.
2pm. Academic mate shows up with a bandaged pruning thumb.
2pm. She sends a text message saying that according to the powers that be, her left breast looks like it has been in a massacre. I try to ring her and get to the voice mail.
2.15pm. Academic mate recounts how he saw bone and got ten stitches when he damaged his hand yesterday pruning vines. (Because that is what we do by the way, you non-academics. You may think we are posh but in the off-season when we are laid off teaching, we prune vines or clean people's gutters or pick fruit.)
2.45 pm. She sends a text message. She can't talk right now. She'll ring tonight.
2.50 pm. We talk about narrative non fiction, the journalist, the academic vine pruner and I. We talk about sharks and guns and history and culture and spark on the value of long reads. We talk about sleep deprivation, raising children and wilderness writing. The conversation gets exciting and I know I have an appointment at 4pm, so I keep looking at my phone.
3pm. There's no new messages from my best friend, so I think she must be sleeping.
3.45pm. I walk through the back blocks to my next appointment. Out the back of the Royal George Hotel they are throwing out the fittings of a disreputable establishment. Tradies have stopped for a fag. They are gutting the front bar and cleaning out the whole hotel to make it, I dunno, more respectable. I'd be happy if they owned their whaler, sealer past ... ahh stop it Sarah ... I walk up the hill to my next appointment with my therapist.

5pm. My car is covered in red flowers because I parked it under a flame tree and the birds are having a rather obscene ball with it all day. I drive five kilometres, fast, to blow their mating rituals away. When I got home the pup is so glad to see me that she literally turns somersaults.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"the algae bloom of everyday camouflage"

Here's a link to a piece of non fiction that I would like to have written: The Riflemaker Dreams of Africa, by Matthew Clark.

It's one of those big, fat, sprawling social history/road stories. I've had a crack at them before, in a less committed manner than Clark, through my interviews or work with old whalers, pigeon fanciers and fisher folk. This work of narrative non fiction reminds me that I can do better.

Image: Michael Doyle, The American, 2013. Courtesy Somerville Manning Gallery

Monday, June 8, 2015

Guest post: My Friend Bill

 I first met Bill in 1981. I have a vivid memory of him sitting on the sunny verandah of what was then ‘Claremont Technical College’ (later it was renamed ‘Claremont School of Art’). I was 21 and I couldn’t tell how old he was because he had pitch black hair and a white beard. That confused me and I wondered whether he dyed his hair, and then if he did, why he hadn’t dyed his beard as well. Because it was a dead give away. Now I think that was just the way he was – Bill wasn’t a deceitful sort of person so I suspect dying his hair black was probably not something he would do.

It was the 80s and there was a lot of money around for the arts. We had models everywhere – they were a fundamental part of our training. Especially as sculpture majors. Later I changed to painting but I think Bill stayed with sculpture – with his background in welding and construction he was in his element.
Yes, that white beard and black hair really had me baffled. It added to the enigma of Bill. He didn’t talk much. It wasn’t until years later I realised this was probably because he was a bit deaf from working in the steel industry. He was an anomaly at the school - sure we had mature aged students, but they were mostly rich middle aged women from Claremont and Dalkieth. They probably kept the college funded. But Bill was male and a full-time student like me and my young colleagues. So I often wondered what he was doing there – youth can be so narrow minded!

Now as a mature aged student myself I appreciate what he was doing, and also why he seemed to struggle at first. He worked very hard – much harder than I did because I didn’t really take art college seriously. Writing this I wonder what he thought of that. I assume he thought I was simply young and naive, but he was kind to me. Sometimes I feel a bit embarrassed when I think of the young me trying to engage a man like Bill in conversation – he was so much wiser than I was at the time. I was very lost and messed up and he seemed so together. That myth was busted later when he told me had been an alcoholic and a dogger – a dingo shooter - and that he had suddenly stopped when he saw 2 dingoes mating one evening. He never went dogging again. He wrote a story about it and gave it to me to read. That confused me too because I thought only the young felt angst.

And that’s the other thing I remember about Bill – he was an amazing writer – what he couldn’t speak out loud rolled eloquently from his pen when he wrote. I don’t really know why but during one summer break I wrote to him. It was typical of me to become overly attached to people – I was lost and floundering around. He seemed like the voice of reason. He wrote back to me in beautiful copperplate – I wish I had kept it but I have moved around so much that many semi-precious gems like that letter have been lost. I must have been asking for advice because the one thing I do remember is Bill saying he didn’t want to ‘offer me platitudes’. I didn’t even know what that meant so I looked it up. I really wish I had kept that letter – I’d love to read it now.

Sometimes in our drawing classes we would model for each other and I remember doing a portrait of Bill. My style then as now, is to idealise, to stylise – but in all truth – I didn’t see the wrinkles that must have been there on Bill’s face. I have carried that portrait around for more than 30 years and I think, I hope, I still have it somewhere.
Michelle Frantom 2015