Thursday, August 7, 2014

Walter Mason on Literary Travellers

 As a travel writer I am always interested in how other people have recorded their journeys. This interest has led me to a book that has recently become an obsession with me, Susannah Fullerton's brilliant Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia. In it she records some of the reactions literary luminaries like Charles Darwin, Anthony Trollope and Joseph Conrad had to say about this country when they came here, and how they were treated by the local press and population. It is a great tease of a book for any writer, because one reads it and fantasises about the day one’s own arrival on foreign shores might be feted, celebrated and commented on by the daily papers.

Things didn’t always run so smoothly for our exalted visitors, though. Robert Louis Stevenson, sick and dishevelled, was snubbed and turned away by his Sydney hotel, an act they quickly came to regret. Rudyard Kipling commented on the inflated opinions of Melbourne people and was soon despised in that city, and Mark Twain blamed the inconvenient Australian train system for giving his wife rheumatism.

Susannah Fullerton is, I think, a gifted literary historian whose breezy, chatty tone and eye for a great story make the reader forget they are absorbing a great deal of information about writing, history and literary style. In writing about Jack London’s visit in 1909, for example, she manages to create an amazing scene of London and his wife going to see a hyped-up prize fight in Paddington. In just a few paragraphs she conveys so much information about the place and time - racial attitudes, gender inequality and the costs of shirts at Gowings – while never betraying the pace and excitement of her story.

She also provides us with a valuable and unique piece of Australian historical scholarship, collecting together the diverse impressions and journeys of writers to these shores, some of whose stories had been previously forgotten. I certainly didn’t know that Agatha Christie had visited Australia, let alone that she became slightly obsessed with Tasmania. Fullerton’s talents as storyteller and historian are admirable, and this book deserves to be much better known.

By far my favourite chapter in the book is the one devoted to Arthur Conan Doyle’s visit. The celebrated creator of Sherlock Holmes was, by that stage, one of the most famous writers in the world, but his visit to Australia was not prompted by any urge to self-promotion of his books and writing. Instead he came here in his capacity as missionary of the new religion of Spiritualism, and he confounded his gruff Australian audiences by expounding, not on detective stories, but on the messages of fairies, communications through the ether and the evidence of life after death. While here he visited celebrated Australian mediums, laid foundations for Spiritualist churches and was condemned by the mainstream Australian clergy as an “Abomination of the Lord.”

Arthur Conan Doyle - visitor to Australia

Each of the chapters of Brief Encounters ends with a photograph of the author’s plaque embedded in the pavements at Sydney’s Circular Quay. These wonderful and mysterious plaques are normally trodden on unceremoniously by tourists with their eyes fixed upward, but for any bibliophile they are a fascinating source of information about Australian writing and writing about Australia. So few people are conscious of them that the Rotary Club of Sydney Cove (the only Rotary Club in the world to meet on a ship) have produced a complete guide to the plaques.

Sydney Cove Writers Walk Plaques: The Guide is a fascinating directory to all of the 60 plaques that start at Campbells Cove and finish at the Sydney Opera House. Each is accorded a reproduction of the writing on the plaque, a photograph of it, and a brief explanation of the author and her/his importance. A complete labour of love by Roger Cherry, 100% of the sales of this fascinating and quite indispensable little book go to charity. For fans of Australian literature it also contains a couple of handy appendices listing chronologically the winners of various Australian literary awards (many of whom, of course, have a plaque on the walk).

So I hope I see you next weekend down at sunny Circular Quay with two books in your hand – the slim blue guide to the Writers Plaques and Susannah Fullerton’s fat red masterpiece Brief Encounters. You will come away a wiser person.

No comments:

Post a Comment