Sci-Fi Twist on Reconciliation


Terra coverClaire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
(304 pages)

$20 paper, $5 e-book

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.

The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.

The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.

First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.

The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.

The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.

I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.

The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!

It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.

Poems A Head


Head coverIvan Head, The Magpie Sermons: Poems 2005-2017, Sydney: St Paul’s College 2017.  

Hardcover. Available for $35 from 48header@gmail.com 

Reviewed by Ted Witham  

This collection of nearly 50 poems is the second for Ivan Head. Dr Head is a West Australian priest, former director of AIT and Canon of St George’s Cathedral, who has spent the last 27 years as Warden first of Christ’s College in Hobart and then of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney. He and his wife Christine are now moving into retirement in Sydney. 

Many of the poems have been published in Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor), the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their presence in those publications suggests their high quality. 

Ivan is a poet who celebrates birds and flowers, trips by train and trips to London and the US. In some the words tumble just to celebrate language: 

Montezuma met a Puma going to the fair
Said Montezuma to the Puma let me taste your ware. 
Said the Puma
to Montezuma  
No I prefer my fare rare and so he ate him then and there.  

Many of the poems are complex with multiple levels of meanings. I enjoy recognising the double- or triple-meaning, but also knowing there may be more levels that I don’t get. In Swan River, Ivan reflects on boyhood memories of throwing a kylie, or thrusting a home-made gidgie towards a Cobbler.  And then: 

A boy knows that prawns rest beneath the sand by day. 
It is like knowledge of the Pleiades. 
Under the Narrows Bridge I stood for hours and left a line out all night just in case 
Something big went past.  

After the series of Noongar words and the reference to arcane knowing, the pleasure of ‘Something big’ might mean a fish to catch, or, it might mean deep knowledge of culture, Aboriginal and Western. And it might mean something even bigger.  

An undercurrent of Christian faith and theology, which on occasion rises to the surface level of the poems, holds them in a strong web of meaning.  

Ivan has a strong ear for the music of words, their sound and rhythm. All his poems are free-form and show the influence of modernist and Beat poetry.  

I found real pleasure in their Australianness. The poems are about the plants and animals of Cookernup (near Bunbury), Perth and Sydney. They are about our childhoods in the 1950s. Even when the subject is not directly Australian, Ivan’s attitude is. He punctures pomposity. Here he reduces the English Reformation to Henry VIII’s armour. 

…. And now he’s gone, 
the ghost isn’t in the machine. 
Just the carapace remains 

And what the commentator 
gawks at for the screen 
is the gigantic iron cod-piece 

With nothing in it.  

The Magpie Sermons is printed on quality high-gloss paper and bound simply in a hardcover embossed with gold leaf.  

Poetry lovers will enjoy reading, and re-reading, these poems of celebration, irony, contemplation and joy.  

 

 

9661-004-427119f4
Narrows Bridge 1963

 

Psalm 96 for Australia


7 Ascribe to the Lord, Australians and West Australians,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

8Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

bring an offering, and come into his breathtaking gorges!

Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness;

tremble before him, all Australia!

10 Say in W.A., “The Lord reigns!

Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

he will judge the peoples with equity.”

11 Let the Milky Way be glad, and let the South West rejoice;

let the Indian Ocean roar, and all that fills it;

12 let the golden canola fields exult, and everything in them!

Then shall all the jarrah trees sing for joy

13 before the Lord, for he comes,

for he comes to judge our nation.

He will judge us Sandgropers in righteousness,

and all Australians in his faithfulness.

 

Based on the English Standard Version

http://www.esvbible.org/Psalm+96/

grasstree1253-12

Taxing the church


I grow tired of the Atheist Foundation and others whingeing that the churches don’t pay tax. Their claim is false.For me it’s personal.

I received a salary from the church for 30 years. This salary was the major portion of parishioners’ donations to the church. I was very happy to pay tax out of this salary. At a quick calculation, I contributed between $150,000 and $200,000 to the nation’s tax revenue over those 30 years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (God bless them) put the number of ministers of religion in Australia in 2001 as just over 12,000. If we count these as 6,000 full-time equivalent employees, then their contribution to Australia’s tax revenue over 30 years is between 9 and 12 billion dollars.

The churches do pay tax.

The Anglican Church, as a responsible employer, put aside part of my salary into superannuation. Our super fund started before the Super Guarantee, and enabled me later in my career to put additional savings into the fund. This means now in retirement I live partly off my super. Without super, I would be receiving a bigger pension. My super fund makes a contribution by saving the expenditure of tax.

The parishes where I worked have parish centres with rooms that community groups use, either for free or at much less than the commercial rate. While it is true that the parishes were partially exempt from rates, they made a contribution to the community through the sharing of their facilities – again saving the expenditure of rates and taxes. Many self-help groups, political clubs and community organisations could not meet if it were not for the churches.

The churches do save tax.

It’s true that the tax situation of the churches is complex; there may be some unfair exemptions for the churches; there are churches that rort the system. If our community were designing this from scratch they would almost certainly do it differently. But we can only live with our history.

From 1788 Australia has had a ‘love-hate’ relationship with religion. Many convicts and early settlers had good reason to dislike the church. On the other hand, most Australians in the 19th and 20th Century considered themselves believers. Australian Governments look to the churches to provide services that the churches can offer more cheaply and hopefully with more compassion than Government bureaucracy.

Section 116 in our Constitution does not declare Australia to be a secular nation. Rather it acknowledges the existence of both church and state and proclaims that they are to be kept distinct, but not necessarily for the church to be kept out of public life. The church’s contribution to our public life is different from the state’s.

And in the meantime, we can get our facts straight. The churches do pay tax, and they do save taxes.

mi-cd959_aussie_p_20140714165237

Anzac re-visited


Stephen Daisley, Traitor, Melbourne: Text Publishing 2011, paperback 291 pages

from $AUD16 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Traitor is a sensitive exploration of the Anzac myth through the life of David Monroe, hero of Gallipoli and the trenches of France. While wounded, David takes it on himself to guard a young Turkish doctor, Mahmoud, who had been captured when the two of them were trying to save the life of an Australian boy. He forms a deep friendship with Mahmoud, who teaches him about Sufism and the poetry of Rumi. He decides to help Mahmoud escape to his home village, but they are betrayed by their Greek boatman. David is sentenced to death for desertion, but the war ends and he is pardoned.

David then returns to the quiet life of a shepherd in New Zealand, unable to ever make good in a society which never completely forgives him for his ‘treachery’.

Traitor is Daisley’s first novel, and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2011. Daisley is a West Australian writer who delves deeply into the Australian psyche. I found myself coming back to the book again and again, unable to put it down. The story begins with David being questioned by intelligence officers, a scene with a Kafkaesque edge, and then unfolds as the past impinges on the present.

I was impressed by the lightness of touch in the story-telling: it is beautifully crafted, and the reader is rarely aware of the mechanics of the story. I felt I was in David’s world, and that the little things in his present really did touch off his memories. I felt I could taste the cold in the New Zealand air and smell the after-birth as he moved about the lambing flats, and I felt nauseated by his descriptions of death in the trenches, and genuinely moved by his love for Mahmoud and the woman he could never marry, Sarah.

I am looking forward to diving into Stephen Daisley’s second novel, Coming Rain.

Moral Leadership?


I am glad the Australian Government has finally agreed to take more refugees. But what a missed opportunity for moral leadership! The politicians were dragged to it by a community shouting our willingness to respond compassionately and sensibly to the crisis in the Middle East and Europe.

Country towns like Katanning and Albany offering to re-settle asylum seekers, and householders with spare bedrooms reaching out to integrate new people into the Australian community have put the Government to shame.

Instead of leading with compassion and with sensible plans for bringing people to this continent, the Government have played politics firstly with numbers – can we stretch to 10,000 or 20,000? – and secondly with cherry-picking those considered in greater need than others.

At this point in the crisis, both limiting numbers and having the luxury to choose between desperate people are irrelevant. Sure, we need to be practical: Australia cannot take 800,000 refugees in a year like Germany, but there is no danger of that happening. Any discrimination in favour of one group, whether it is Christians or Yazidi, will inevitably be perceived as discrimination against other groups. This morning Muslims are complaining, and rightly so, that yet again, our Government is treating Muslims as less than human.

As citizens, we should thank the Government for their willingness to consider increasing our humanitarian intake and encourage the Prime Minister to stretch his imagination to be as generous as possible. (https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm)

We should also encourage those who express generosity and offer practical help to them if we are able to provide it (Katanning Shire President: alan@katfurn.com ; Albany Mayor http://www.albany.wa.gov.au/?receiver=146&page=feedback ).

We should also look around the facilities that are ours with the same generous imagination. Is there anything we can do as individual families, churches or community groups to welcome refugees, and what action do we need to take to initiate that welcome?

Boat People


This morning I came face to face with an illegal immigrant, and I felt compelled to expostulate:

Rabbit kitten just was sittin
In the grass as I passed:
Ears were flappin, heart was tappin –
this the question that it asked:

‘Immigration made this nation.
Came in boats that scarcely float:
rabbit pest turned out best
at forcing owners to be donors.

‘These the dangers from the strangers
Stealing terra bloodbath terror,
seize the riches, spread diseases;
chalk it up as holy error.

So small rabbit, who inhabit
second-hand wide brown land?
Put the queries, hear the theories.
For shame who shake at all we take?’

Rabbit plague
Terra nullius?