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From a Distant Shore - launched by Adam Shoemaker

On Thursday 21st February 2013, Bruce Bennett and Anne Pender's book From a Distant Shore: Australian Writers in Britain 1820–2012 was launched by Adam Shoemaker, Monash University's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education). Professor Shoemaker's launch speech is reproduced below:

'From Whinging and Crying to Cosmic Nannies: The Virtues of the Expatriate
Bruce Bennett and Anne Pender, From a Distant Shore: Australian Writers in Britain 1820-2012, Monash University Publishing, 2013'

I found this an absolutely fascinating book.

When there are many who simply consider travel as a concept—naked of any cultural considerations of emplacement and displacement—this vibrant, insightful and genuinely pleasurable study charts its own course. Here the author (herself or himself) is paramount, as eclectically eccentric and defiantly iconoclastic as they may be. And here, the qualitative baggage of expatriatism which has bedevilled many earlier studies of the phenomenon is simply erased.

Despite the wonderful initial chapter title ‘Cringing, Whingeing, Crying, Strutting’ Bruce Bennett and Anne Pender’s book is one of the least complaining and self-regarding critical works I have read in a long time. It is precise and poetic. It is incisive and perceptive. It is refreshingly unpretentious but it is – at the same time – deeply scholarly and personal. In other words, it is a wonderful coda to Bruce Bennett’s lifelong contribution to the most civilised school and form of Australian literary criticism and Anne Pender’s equally fine analysis of the motivations (creative, individual, societal and cultural) to which many Australian writers have responded.

This is not an obsessive treatment, nor is it theoretically doctrinaire. But it is nuanced, witty and highly revealing. In a book of many highlights I could nominate stellar treatments of lives and a virtual libretti of loves and losses. But I do have to mention the excellent, brief treatment of the work of Pamela (or PL) Travers ‘born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough, Queensland in 1899’ – such a crucial and formative time in the life of a young baby and in the life of a country itself in the process of being created.

Bennett and Pender centre upon key phrases and ask wonderful questions. In the case of Travers, the memorable quotation from the last-published of the Mary Poppins books ‘I’m at home wherever I am!’ (pp 92-93) both parallels and undercuts the life of its author. As Bruce and Anne put it: ‘Is Mary Poppins English?’ Did Walt Disney Americanise her? Are her Australian origins as discussed by Valerie Lawson and others important? Or is she truly the ‘cosmic nanny’ (p 55). I love this last image for its cleverness as much as its transcendence – a wonderful and witty gesture towards Travers’s own interest in mysticism, fairytale and myth. This is quintessential criticism of the Bennett/Pender stamp, and its sophisticated pedigree is undeniable.

And the book is, itself, a paradigm of the personal – of interior insights whose ore is mined, paradoxically, from the most careful and comprehensive consideration of external factors.

So it comes time for some personal confessions about my own ‘external factors’. I am an expatriate son of an expatriate mother. My mother and her expatriate Australian novelist husband – my stepfather, Paul Ritchie – lived in the Balearic island of Ibiza in the 1960s, at a time when it was an expatriate (yet again) British artist (actor and author) colony. Paradoxically, under the Franco regime it was a haven for the comedians – Terry Thomas and his contemporaries – as it was for German Abstract Expressionist painters such as Hans Hinterreiter.

Significantly, it was from Ibiza (and from the redoubtable Bob Goldstone) that my stepfather came up with the idea of writing an authoritative book on his homeland, from the dry olive groves and cobblestones of the Mediterranean. That book, simply entitled Australia, was published in Macmillan’s ‘Nations Today’ series in 1968, at a time when literary authors held particular sway in the canon of national histories (the New Zealand novelist Ngaio Marsh, for example, produced the companion volume for that nation).

So picture this epitome of the expatriate dilemma. In 1971, as a year 10 student, at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, with snow piled literally two metres high outside and studying Latin with my (also expatriate) Scottish teacher, RU Wedderspoon, a friend ran up to me breathlessly between classes. ‘Adam he gasped…you won’t believe it, but I discovered a book in the school library dedicated to you!’ I hardly did believe him but decided to investigate.

And, there, sure enough, in the creaking corners of the venerable School library, right on the shelf next to the American Book of Slang and (no doubt) anticipating the yet-to-be-published (but highly relevant) novel, Ann Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, was that selfsame book, Australia, by Paul Ritchie. My friend—who had still not caught his breath—exclaimed, ‘check out the dedication page!’ And there, sure enough in formal and yet intimate language, were the words, ‘For Portia Innes Ritchie [my sister] and Adam Maximilian Shoemaker’. Never before has a book dedication done more to determine my future. The title was Australia, his homeland was Australia; from that point on I was impelled, induced, tantalised by the prospect of coming here. In short, I migrated – perhaps not accidentally – but, when I think of it, because of a man, a gesture of supreme generosity and a book. Is literature destiny – or was it just the power of personality? I leave you to decide.

Forgive this personal deviation from the genre of the typical book launch. But such questions are equally germane to Bruce Bennett and Anne Pender’s book. As you can now imagine even more clearly, this study speaks to me on many different levels. Bruce and Anne do this thing: they invite you to observe (like the viewpoint of an over-the-shoulder camera in a feature film-short) the key life-points and utterances of so many authors, from the earliest British migrants and transplanted (if not always transported) thinkers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, right up to the seminal figures of Patrick White, Randolph Stow and Morris West. I was genuinely fascinated by the chapter which explores the deep, literally ‘fantastick’ and often hilarious interactions between Patrick White and Barry Humphries circa 1962, at a time when both were premiering Australian dramatic works (respectively, The Season at Sarsparilla and Humphries’ A Nice Night’s Entertainment) to varying levels of local acclaim. It is these sorts of intersections, parallels and revelatory moments which enable Bruce and Anne’s book to really sing – and sing it does.

On that note, the great anthropologists Isobel White and Diane Barwick once wrote a tremendous work called Fighters and Singers: The Lives of Some Aboriginal Women, which emphasised the fact that Indigenous Australians excelled at both fighting and singing. Those themes are apposite to Bruce Bennett and Anne Pender’s work as well; as they prove, Australian expatriates in Britain have led, so often, with the pugnacious, the musical and the lyrical. It is remarkable how many transpacific and transatlantic Australians have commenced their literary endeavours in the UK and how many of them – from from PL Travers to Peter Porter; from Clive James to my own stepfather, Paul Ritchie –were first and deeply poets … just as a poetic sensibility, sense and atmosphere suffuses this most impressive of literary studies.

As a fitting and enduring legacy of Bruce Bennett and a further shining achievement for Anne Pender, From a Distant Shore deserves close reading, closer recognition and even finer appreciation.

Adam Shoemaker
21 February 2013

 

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Published: February 2013
Format: Paperback
RRP: AUD $39.95
ISBN (pb): 978-1-921867-94-1
ISBN (e-book): 978-1-921867-95-8
Series: Australian Literary Studies

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From A Distant Shore was launched on 21 February 2013 at the ASAL Conference by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Adam Shoemaker. Read Professor Shoemaker's launch speech.