Audiobooks : We of the Never Never

We of the Never-NeverWe of the Never-Never pretends to be a novel, but its an autobiographical memoir. It is part of a Bolinda collection of books which are meant to teach listeners what it means to be Australian, so we start out with a brief introduction from Bud Tingwell, telling you that’s the experience you are about to undergo. It concerns a year in the life of a white woman on a cattle station in 1902: the only white woman, we are repeatedly told, within one hundred miles. I was unable to finish it, my patience being exhausted in the fourth hour, so, just before halfway.

It’s not a bad book, in the technical sense of not being badly written.  It’s not necessarily a dull book, in that it contains a lot of detail which, I presume, would fascinate people who have read less Australian history. I am having a hard time deciding what made me give it up, when I’ve listened to very many obscure audiobooks and liked them enough to allow them to finish.

The premise of the Bolinda collection is that by listening to it, you will learn something about what it means to be Australian, and in this case, I do not believe this to be so. Australia has always been an urban nation: its people have always clung to the coasts, and yet, somehow, used stories like these to claim that Australianess is found in the middle of nowhere where there are practically no Australians. I do not accept, and refuse to claim, the bushies of We of the Never-Never as the ancestors of Australianess, and so I consider the entire project, as framed by the publisher, dubious.

I note, particularly, that if you accept the premise that this is somehow a quintessential Australian community, then the quintessential Australian is male. Indeed, all forms of feminine influence are not just un-Australian, but anti-Australian.  Women are foreign and corrosive, if they bring any of their values with them into the bush, and make the masculine culture change in any way.  Now, the thing is: I come from a rural area, and I know perfectly well that, even today, in most communities, women do a vast amount of the unpaid work that keeps the social capital of towns together, and allows them to be resilient after natural disaster. I just don’t accept that modern Australian society, even modern Australian rural society, is a descendant of the turn of the century cattle stations. I think they’re a dead little cultural offshoot, with about as much influence in Australian culture as the sheep farmers in Farmer Wants a Wife.  I did not know I believed this until I listened to this audiobook, so perhaps I did learn something about being an Australian, after all.

The story itself has a very slow burn. I can see why it would have been revelationary to English readers at the turn of the century, but it’s lost a lot of punch since, in my opinion. Being whisked across a flooded river along a steel cable used for mail, or swimming a horse and holding fast to its tail, would have been terribly adventurous for readers in London, or even, perhaps, Melbourne, but to modern readers, who see floods every year, and rescues every year, the question is not so much “Is this new?” as “Why doesn’t she just get on with it?”

There’s quite a bit of that.  The narrator is quite like the ladies who go bush in movies, with the exception that her strategy for surviving is not to demand equal treatment and learn to do manly things, in the modern feminist way. Instead, she demands chivalry and evokes protection by being as weak as possible.  Her views are kept to herself, and she consistently is mortified by things which, to a modern reader, are really princess-and-the-pea issues. This makes her difficult to like, because she makes herself an encumbrance deliberately, which, although it turns aside male scorn in her presence, does in some degree justify the sexism she experiences at the start of the book.  Her detractors were actually right: she deliberately makes herself a continual source of difficulty. I know I’m meant to sympathise: I’m meant to feel chivalrous, but she’s surrounded by aboriginal women who get on with life, under rather worse conditions that they can’t opt out of by going back to the citiy, and I find I admire them far more.

The interaction between the aboriginal and white members of her tiny community is fascinating, and its a strong point in the book. I don’t wish to say the book has no features of interest, because it certainly does.  I just didn’t find them carrying me all the way to the conclusion, when there’s so much else I could be reading.