The Colours of Katharine: a special event

1969 screen cap

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s death on 2 October 2019. The KSP Writers’ Centre is commemorating with some special events. Louise Helfgott has written a play about the friendship between her brother, David, and Katharine, and it’s being performed a number of times over the week. One of the performances is on Sunday 6 October as part of a full day program, “The Colours of Katharine: Red Witch or Lavender Lady?” at Katharine’s old house in Greenmount.

I’ll be giving a speech at 10:10am:

10.10 AM    Katharine Susannah Until the End: KSP in 1969. Special guest talk by Nathan Hobby.

Katharine Susannah Prichard had begun to seem frailly invincible by 1969, the year she died. Having survived a stroke and published a novel in her eighties, she was still writing, still hosting visitors from around the world, and still keeping up her keen interest in world affairs. In this talk, her biographer Nathan Hobby traces the final stage of Katharine’s life through her weekly letters to her son, Ric, giving a picture of her daily life at 11 Old York Road Greenmount, as well as reflecting on the meaning of death for a biographer.

After that, Katharine’s granddaughter, Karen Throssell, will be launching the commemorative anthology from the competition earlier this year. I selected the fiction and non-fiction pieces and there’s some great work in it, adding up to a fascinating mosaic of Katharine, Hugo Throssell, and the mythology around them.

I’m also looking forward to a talk by Dylan Hyde about his new book:

12.30 PM    Book talk with Dylan Hyde: Art Was Their Weapon: the History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild (Fremantle Press, 2019)

The Workers’ Art Guild was a radical cultural and political force in Perth in the 1930s and 1940s, embracing new ideas in a provincial, isolated city. The Guild’s innovative approaches to theatre and art were praised by critics, but its left-wing politics, influenced by the Communist Party of Australia, were denounced by many. Police and intelligence officers kept close tabs on the Guild, censoring its activities and intimidating and jailing its members in the lead-up to World War II.

Through the lives of its key players, such as writer Katharine Susannah Prichard and theatre maverick Keith George, Art Was Their Weapon illuminates a fascinating era in Western Australian history.

The full program is here. I’m thrilled KSP Writers’ Centre has gone to such lengths to mark the occasion; for anyone interested in Katharine Susannah Prichard, it will be fascinating.

One Day in Collie: the prehistory of my childhood

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One-day-in-Collie

I spent my childhood, from ages two to fifteen, in Collie and it seems like a dream. I’m not really in touch with anyone who lives there and I’ve only returned a handful of times. The rest of my family lives only fifty kilometres west in Bunbury, but there’s no passing through Collie; it’s not on the way to anything else. It’s a coal mining town in a valley, surrounded by bush on all sides. Continue reading

Katharine Susannah Prichard Underground: Ten Weeks in Kalgoorlie, 1941

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This is a paper I presented at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Perth, July 2019. The conference theme was ‘dirt’.

Literature and politics were always interacting in the life and work of Katharine Susannah Prichard. The clash and confluence of the two are both apparent in her ten week research trip to the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie in 1941. The tensions in this moment in Australian history are suggested by the fact that much of our knowledge of Prichard’s trip is thanks to the files kept by two government agencies—one, the Commonwealth Literary Fund which was giving her money; and the other, the intelligence service which was surveilling her. The trip encompassed two forms of dirt—the ‘dirt’ of a mining industry and the ‘dirt file’ being kept on Prichard as a dangerous radical. Continue reading

Year five of my quest for Katharine Susannah Prichard

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You can’t really see it, but I’m holding a copy of my thesis and the “PhinisheD” mug on the day of my submission. Of course, I’m not really finished  – not even the thesis, which will probably come back with corrections after examination!

It’s five years today since I officially started my biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard. This is starting to be a long time. The decade was young when I began and now it’s finishing. In fact, I was beginning just at the start of the centenary of the Great War, and I submitted my PhD thesis on Katharine’s early life in late June, just before the centenary of Armistice. My thesis lasted the length of the Great War; the whole biography – extending the story to the end of her life – will take somewhat longer. Continue reading

‘Red Witch’: my speech on Tuesday

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I’m giving a talk called ‘Red Witch: the life and work of Katharine Susannah Prichard’ at Cambridge Library in Floreat on Tuesday 11 June 2019 at 10:30am. It will be an overview of her rich and dramatic life with time for questions afterwards. It’s free but places are limited so you need to book –  call the library on 9383 8999 or via email at library@cambridge.wa.gov.au.

It will be interesting to return to Cambridge – I had my first library job there from 2003 to 2005.

Photo: KSP (1949) by D. Glass, from National Archives.

 

Australian literary biography in 2018

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At the moment I’m working on the 2018 bibliography of Australian literature for the Journal of Commonwealth Literature with my co-authors Van Ikin and Margaret Stevenson (previous year’s here – but alas it’s paywalled). It has led me to discover some Australian literary biographies I missed, including four from Australian Scholarly Publishing. Together with Monash University Publishing, they are holding up the genre! Generously defined, there were eight Australian literary biographies in 2018 by my count – up from previous years.  I feel very remiss for having only read one so far. Continue reading

This is why we can’t have nice things

i.

Shorten conceding. He speaks in waves
And says the right words
Politicians have bigger selves than me
I’m only watching by accident
Having sworn off all politics a couple of hours ago
For years it’s taxed my time
And left me with a dry mouthful of shit

ii.

How many times do I learn the same lesson?
Salesmanship trumps substance

These are the things Australians choose:
Reality TV, franchise shopping, tabloid media, property speculation, the Liberal Party.

To be prime minister you need slogans and photo ops
You don’t need to answer questions
You don’t need policies
You don’t need to try to save the world
Let’s just carry on to hell as we were

iii.

Today I’ll turn off the news forever.
Today, tell me if you voted Liberal
So I can unfriend you and never speak to you again.
Today I’m retreating to aesthetics
I’ll look at paintings from long ago
And live for myself, it’s the Australian way now.
Today we’ll sell the house and go self-sufficient in Balingup.
Today we’ll gird our loins and replenish the armoury,
Planting seeds in the backyard with the kids
And saying you have to keep hoping no matter what.

 

 

The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas

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James Atlas The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale (Scribner, 2017, 400pp)

I’m drawn to biography’s sweet melancholy about mortality and recovering fragments of the past.  Biographer James Atlas’s excellent memoir The Shadow in the Garden captures the mood I feel about biography. Continue reading

The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie

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Kenneth (Seaforth) Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It is a beautiful prose-poem, a novel about adolescence which amazed me again and again with its evocation of states of mind and the experience of landscape. It tells of a year in the life of fourteen-year-old Charlie Fox, as he begins at a boarding school in Perth, with interludes at his mother’s farm in the South-West where he falls in love with a neighbour’s visiting niece. It’s shocking to read in 2019, with the sexual assault of Charlie by the other students as a hazing ritual in the novel’s opening and the grooming by a paedophile teacher presented as a normal part of school life. Continue reading