Sunday, May 1, 2011

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

May, 2011: My father and I were talking about Moby Dick, and how weird and wonderful it is. I said, "It's not exactly a novel. There's some good story-telling at first, but as soon as Ishmael's on the ship, there's only one story-line - hunting down Moby - so it becomes more about describing and cataloguing. I mean, life on a ship is tedious and repetitive. Pretty hard to make a story out of it." Geoff said, "But not impossible - Two Years Before The Mast makes a story purely about life aboard a ship." I'd never heard of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., but according to Geoff, his account (published 1840) of the two years he spent on a buffalo-hide ship, was popular and much-praised for about a hundred years.

Dana is a clear-eyed, intelligent, unbigoted observer, the ideal guide for a reader through some colourful, by-gone material. It's always interesting to read about ways of life that used to be a common part of our society and now scarcely exist. I read about them, wondering, "For all the improvements we have made on this, might we have also lost something valuable? What have we replaced this with?"

I happened to be concurrently reading Patsy Adam-Smith's Folklore Of The Australian Railwaymen, and the hard work that people used to do is almost unbelievable. Dana writes about rounding the Horn in freezing conditions, none of them sleeping more than four hours at a stretch, their clothes never dry, their berths wet, their food meagre, not even a cup of coffee offered to them, their hands almost too cold to hold the ropes ('rope' being a land-lubber cover-all for the ten or twenty words that Dana uses), and losing their grip resulting in sure death. It is definitely an improvement that, in our society, no one labours in such terrible conditions for so little pay. And yet, pushing yourself to your furthest limits, and working not for an hourly rate, but out of a sense of duty and purpose, are two good things that are hard to find in our society today.

The problem about fair pay is: what is fair pay? Recently I had to think about how much I would charge for doing a day's portrait-painting-in-words for a corporate gig. My rate sharply increased from 50c per portrait (which is roughly what I get when we do it in the street) to approximately $300 per portrait. It's not that I got greedy (not just that I got greedy); rather, it's that my time is invaluable. It's impossible to pay me fairly for taking away my time.

And after reading What Good Are The Arts?, and Dissanayake's comments about the sense of well-being that comes from using your hands, I've extended that to the well-being that comes from using every part of your body - that's what our bodies are for! For example, my love of walking is simply to do with the good feeling that comes from using my legs. "My legs are my vehicle!" I walked from Cowra to Wattamondara a few weeks ago, along the disused railway track, partly to save Ken from having to pick me up, but also just because it felt good. I think we are haunted by a feeling of unfulfilled potential, leading the inactive life most of us lead.

So these were a couple of the thoughts that arose from reading Two Years Before The Mast. There is one passage that I'll partially transcribe, because I've never read anything like it:

For several days, the captain seemed very much out of humour[...]his displeasure was chiefly turned against a large, heavy-moulded fellow from the Middle states, who was called Sam. This man hesitated in his speech, and was rather slow in his motions, but was a pretty good sailor, and always seemed to do his best; but the captain took a dislike to him, thought he was surly, and lazy[...the captain] was down in the hold, where the crew were at work, when we heard his voice raised in violent dispute with somebody, whether it was with the mate, or one of the crew, I could not ell; then came blows and scuffling. I ran to the side and beckoned to John [the Swede], who came up, and we leaned down the hatchway; and though we could see no one, yet we knew that the captain had the advantage, for his voice was loud and clear-

"You see your condition! You see your condition! Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?" No answer; and then came wrestling and heaving, as though the man was trying to turn him. "You may as well keep still, for I have got you," said the captain. Then came the question, "Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?"

"I never gave you any, sir," said Sam; for it was his voice that we heard, though low and half-choked.

"That's not what I ask you. Will you ever be impudent to me again?"

"I never have been, sir," said Sam.

"Answer my question, or I'll make a spread eagle of you! I'll flog you, by G-d."

"I'm no negro slave," said Sam.

"Then I'll make you one," said the captain; and he came to the hatchway, and sprang on deck, threw off his coat, and rolling up his sleeves, called out to the mate - "Seize that man up, Mr. Amerzene! Seize him up! Make a spread eagle of him! I'll teach you all who is master aboard!"

The crew and the officers followed the captain up the hatchway, and after repeated orders the mate laid hold of Sam, who made no resistance, and carried him to the gangway.

"What are you going to flog that man for, sir?" said John, the Swede, to the captain.

Upon hearing this, the captain turned upon him, but knowing him to be quick and resolute, he ordered the steward to bring the irons, and calling upon Russell to help him, went up to John.

"Let me alone," said John. "I'm willing to be put in irons. You need not use any force"; and putting out his hands, the captain slipped the irons on, and sent him aft to the quarterdeck.

Sam is flogged. Dana says, "All these preparations made me feel sick and almost faint, angry and excited as I was. A man - a human being, made in God's likeness - fastened up and flogged like a beast!" After Sam has been flogged, the captain calls for John the Swede. The second mate stays still, the mate walked slowly, but the third mate, anxious to prove his zeal, grabs John, who throws him off. "The captain stood on the quarterdeck, bareheaded, his eyes falshing with rage, and his face as red as blood, swinging the rope, and calling out to his officers, "Drag him aft! - Lay hold of him! - I'll sweeten him!" &c. &c. John surrenders, "but as soon as the captain began to make him fast, the indignity was too much, and he began to resist."

When he was made fast, he turned to the captain, who stood turning up his sleeves and getting ready for the blow, and asked him what he was to be flogged for. "Have I ever refused my duty, sir? Have you ever known me to hang back, or to be insolent, or not to know my work?"

"No," said the captain, "it is not that that I flog you for; I flog you for your interference - for asking questions."

"Can't a man ask a question here without being flogged?"

"No," shouted the captain; "nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but myself"; and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on, his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out as he swung the rope, "If you want to know what I flog you for, I'll tell you. Its because I like to do it! - because I like to do it! - It suits me! - That's what I do it for!"

The man writhed under the pain, until he could endure it no longer, when he called out, with an exclamation more common among foreigners than with us - "Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ!"

"Don't call on Jesus Christ," shouted the captain; 'he can't help you. Call on Captain Thompson. He's the man! He can help you! Jesus Christ can't help you now!"

At these words, which I shall never forget, my blood ran cold. I could look on no longer. Disgusted, sick, and horror-struck, I turned away and leaned over the rail, and looked down into the water.

Later, Dana says, "The flogging was seldom if ever alluded to by us, in the forecastle. If anyone was inclined to talk about it, the others, with a delicacy which I hardly expected to find among them, always stopped him, or turned the subject. But the behaviour of the two men who were flogged toward one another showed a delicacy and a sense of honour which would have been worthy of admiration in the highest walks of life." Dana informs the reader, and reminds us several times, that the fate of Captain Thompson was, on his next voyage, to die miserably of fever.

I transcribe this passage both because it's shocking (reading it almost made my blood turn cold), but also because it's an example, one of many, of Dana's observational powers - he repeats the dialogue verbatim, describes the actions, gives what background information is necessary, and also describes what he thinks, feels and does, and all of this allows the scene to play out in the reader's mind - it reads real. When I'm ninety-eight and getting a bit senile, I might easily start talking about that terrible Captain Thompson, and the awful thing I saw him do to John the Swede. Dana's intention is simply to describe what happens. As a novelist, especially at this point in my novel-writing (fourth draft, or is it the fifth?, and really, now I know: it's the second, and the last), this is what I try to do, too: describe what happens. All those early drafts are just figuring out what happens. I'm sorry to say that my first novel, The Showgirl And The Brumby, was still a rough draft when it was published, still a figuring-out draft (though I rewrote it four or five times, over seven years). I didn't twig onto the truth about novel-writing until last Easter. Better late than never!

One particularly beautiful couple of paragraphs is Dana describing what the ship looks like in full sail, pointing out that few people ever actually see this - you have to be on the open sea (of course, when near land, a ship is slowing down and sailing cautiously), in the right conditions, and you have to be on one ship, while another ship passes in full sail. Dana describes his ship, white sails, wind-filled, piled up into the sky, and while he is gazing raptly at the sight, he hasn't noticed that another sailor is at his side, gazing too, until this sailor says, "How quietly they do their work!"

Ruth Park

May, 2011: WIthin a month, three people (Stella, Vanessa Berry and Nic) all recommended Ruth Park. I loved Playing Beattie Bow when I was a child, but that was the only novel of hers that I had read. So I bought The Harp In The South (1951). I was disappointed. The first disappointment was the story-telling, which was unsubtle, unnatural and predictable. But story-telling is so hard to do well; it was more, "Oh, well, I'm not in the presence of a master," than a disincentive to keep reading. And at least there was a story being told! But the main disappointment was Park's attitude towards her subjects:

The New Year was important in Surry Hills. It was really the great feast of the year, uninhibited by religious thoughts, and with a pagan finality about it. Those people, simple and primitive, but with a great capacity for feeling the abstract strong and vital about them...

Reading a book is like being guided by the author through the world that they have chosen for you, and it is essential to like and trust your guide, partly because you're going to spend many hours with them, and also because you need to know that they're going to direct your attention to the interesting things. But Park's view of our Surry Hills characters is condescending - her empathy fails, and she only objectifies. Dialogue that attempts to replicate accents is always a bad sign for me - it differentiates the characters (them) from the author and the readers (us). The working-class Surry Hills residents all drop their aitches and say "Gawd", Lick Jimmy, the shopkeeper, struggles with his 'r's.

"You like flire!," asked Lick Jimmy of Dolour as she bought the potatoes. "They bling flire bligade and put him out," he prophesied gleefully, his satin ivory face breaking into ten-thousand hair-fine wrinkles.

I just don't find that interesting. So my trust in Park as a guide diminishes, as I fear she is getting caught up in superficial differences and missing fundamental truths.

But there were some good bits. Charlie is a nice character, and it is unusual to read a book written in the fifties that has an Aboriginal man as a love interest for our main character, Roie (my trust in Park starts to rise again). And it was interesting to read about what Roie's family says about their Aboriginal prospective son-in-law:

"You won't get rumbustious, now, Charlie boy, because there's no offence meant, and heaven knows I'm not the one to skite meself, having a hangman in the family, but could you be telling me where the dark blood in you comes out?"

He sat panting, fiercely swiping at mosquitoes, for they were sitting out on the veranda in the shadow of the hanging vine.

Charlie said: "It comes out all over me, I guess," and sat courteously waiting.

Hugh blurted: "I mean where it comes from?"

"Well, my grandfather was white, and my grandmother was white, so it must have been long before that. It's funny how it shows long after."

"It is that," agreed Hughie, baffled, pulling at his pipe and sliding the worn stem up and down a little nick in his teeth. After a while he tried again: "Perhaps I'm rushing things a bit, and no offence meant if I am, but what about the children?"

Roie and Charlie's honeymoon in Narrabeen has a few good bits in it - it feels as though Park is finally close enough to her characters that she can grant them almost the same depth of feeling that she herself has. But nothing worth dog-earring!

Nic defended Ruth Park, when I reported that I'd been disappointed, and his defence is apt: that in Ruth Park's time, the people about whom she was writing were considered foul beasts, so it was comparatively perceptive of her to see them as simple primitives. And Nic also pointed out that she was revolutionary to write with sympathy about such things as pre-marital sex, abortion and a happy marriage between an Aboriginal man and a white woman. So, I concede, I am being hard on her - I was reading it as a novel, not a historical object.