TT: Legends of the Last Continent

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page back and join the chat about when and where two (or more) heads are useful in the creative process.  Then come back and join Alan and me as we venture more deeply into the Last Continent.

JANE: Okay, Alan, when in Terry Pratchett’s novel The Last Continent,

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Rincewind is accused of stealing a sheep, he is astonished to find that everyone wants to turn him into a folk hero.  As one fellow puts it, “all our big heroes have been sheep-stealers.”  Just how firmly is this concept  rooted in Australian history and culture?  Have criminals become heroes?  Given what little I know about Australian history, this must be quite a change.

ALAN: I think the romantic outlaw is part of the folklore heritage of every country. Robin Hood in England, Jesse James in America, Ned Kelly in Australia.  Perhaps there’s a grain of truth in all of them, and maybe Australia takes the myth further than some other countries do.

An Australian actor called Jack Thompson was researching his family tree for a TV programme called “Who Do You Think You Are?”  When he found that he had a convict in his ancestry he said, “Well there you are – I’m a member of the Australian royal family.”

These days, that’s not an uncommon attitude. There was a time when Australians were a little bit ashamed of their history as a penal colony.  Robin’s mother would be quite horrified if she found she was descended from convicts (fortunately she isn’t – Robin’s been digging deep into the family history). Robin distinctly remembers this change in attitude happening in her lifetime. It seems likely that it is a side effect of the general liberalisation and tolerance that was part of the lifestyle of the 1960s peace and love generation. Certainly the baby boomers are very proud of their penal past and now that feeling is quite firmly entrenched.

Colloquially, the Australian outlaws were known as bush rangers. In The Last Continent, poor Rincewind gets them confused with park rangers. Let’s hope he never meets a real one; there’s nothing romantic or funny about armed robbery…

JANE:   Thanks, Alan.  It’s interesting to know when that transition in attitude happened.   An archeological article I read recently talked about how many of the early buildings had been destroyed because of their ties to the penal colony past.

ALAN: That’s true – though ironically the very first building the convicts built in Fremantle in Western Australia was their own prison, a grim building which remained in continuous use until 1991. These days it’s a tourist attraction. When the prison was refurbished prior to opening it to the public, it was discovered that one of the prisoners had spent his evenings drawing beautiful pictures on the walls of his cell. Since this was against the rules, every morning he would gaze his fill on his work and then camouflage his work by smearing his breakfast porridge over the pictures. The next night he would decorate another section of wall. His pictures remained hidden for almost a century, which says much about the quality of the porridge, not to mention the efficiency of the cell inspections.

JANE: Moving back to Pratchett: Was there really a bush ranger called Tinhead Ned?

ALAN: Tinhead Ned is a made up character, but he’s definitely an amalgam of the kind of people that populate these legends. The name Tinhead Ned is actually a Pratchettian homage to Ned Kelly who wore a homemade suit of armour with a big metal helmet that covered and protected the whole of his head.

The real Ned Kelly was hanged in Melbourne Jail. The gallows, and the condemned cell where he spent his last hours, are open to the public as somewhat ghoulish tourist attractions. I’ve sat in Kelly’s condemned cell. You can see the gallows from the cell. The execution area is open plan and highly visible.

JANE: How about the ballads?  Did Robin get taught these when she was a little girl?

ALAN: Yes, the ballads certainly exist. The ballads and poems are based very firmly on the English and Irish folk tradition. They do tend, on occasion, to be somewhat crudely structured – you will sometimes find the word order of sentences awkwardly changed just for the sake of the (often rather obvious) rhyme. But nevertheless there’s an undeniable power about a lot of them.

Banjo Paterson is probably the most famous of the balladeers – he wrote “Waltzing Matilda,” the unofficial national anthem of Australia. He also wrote “The Man From Snowy River” which tells the tale of an attempt to recapture the colt of a prizewinning racehorse which has escaped and is living free with the brumbies (wild horses). They made a film of that one a few years ago…

JANE: “Waltzing Matilda” always makes me cry.  It’s on a Rod Stewart album I love, but I always skip that one cut.  And, you know, I think there’s an allusion to that horse in The Last Continent.  Please, go on.

ALAN: Another very influential bush poet was Henry Lawson. Among other things, he wrote “Andy’s Gone With Cattle.”  Robin used to teach in a school in a mining town called Paraburdoo in Western Australia, way out in the middle of absolutely nowhere. One year they got an official visit from Princess Anne and Robin led the school choir as they sang:

Our Andy’s gone with cattle now
Our hearts are out of order.
With drought he’s gone to battle now
Across the Queensland border.

Of course everyone sang out of the side of their mouths with lips and teeth tightly clenched. Robin reports that Princess Anne listened politely but appeared mildly bemused by the whole business.

JANE: “Gone with cattle” – that’s so poetic.  If I’m translating correctly, this means he’s taken up cattle ranching and his family knows he’s up against a tough battle because of the continually dry weather.

ALAN: That’s exactly right. And the concern with drought is a very real fear. The subject obviously meant a lot to Lawson. He wrote two different versions of “Andy’s Gone With Cattle” but both had the central theme of struggling against drought.

JANE: All right!  I’m getting the hang of this Australian stuff now.   Pratchett is turning out to be a surprisingly good guide.   We’ve got the setting and some of the soul.  Now for something completely different…

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9 Responses to “TT: Legends of the Last Continent”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Hmmm. That’s one of the few Discworld books I haven’t read. I got my highly distorted view of Australia from reading my parents’ Arthur Upfield collection. Oh well.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I don’t know Arthur Upfield… Short description, please?

      Thumbnail sketch of _The Last Continent_ : Rincewind is lost. The wizards go looking. _The Last Continent_ proves up to this onslaught — which, given what either the wizards or Rincewind can do to any place they encounter, is remarkable.

      There’s also some very thoughtful commentary on the question of creation. And of how ridiculous rain is if you really think about it.

      And, as a grand finale, one of my absolutely favorite wolf jokes!

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Upfield wrote a long series of detective novels featuring Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (known as Bony), a half-caste aborigine. The novels are mostly set in the outback and give a good insight into the lifestyles of the mid twentieth century (Upfield started writing in the 1920s and died in 1964). The books are full of aboriginal lore. They were very popular in Australia and also in England (I read several of them in my teens).

      If you read the books as strict reportage, they sit somewhat uneasily on modern sensibilities (in one early novel Bony has to fight hard against the attitude that most people don’t regard the killing of an aboriginal as a crime). Upfield was a product of his times and the times were like that. But if you read the books a bit more thoughtfully it seems clear that Upfield does not approve of much of what he writes about. The simple fact that his hero is an aborigine speaks volumes.

      Since his death, social attitudes have changed a lot. The times aren’t like that any more. I think Upfield would be happy with the change.


      -Alan

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Certainly couldn’t have said it better. Thanks Alan.

    My mother still reads Upfield’s “Death of a Lake” when it gets over 105 F in the summer.

    I think Upfield spent a fair amount of time in the Outback and knew a mixed-race police tracker. That’s the fun part about reading his stories. Think of him as a precursor to Tony Hillerman.

    Upfield’s books have always been hard to find in the US, although he’s been popular here off and on. If you can find one (say in a library, or a bookstore specializing in mysteries), check it out.

  3. Roger Ritter Says:

    Nevil Shute also wrote several books set in Australia – On The Beach and A Town Called Alice are probably the most famous, but there are also several others. I can think of In The Wet and The Rainbow and the Rose off the top of my head. I can heartily recommend his works, whether set in Australia or not.

  4. Paul Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, “The Man from Snowy River,” but never knew the story origin before. Thanks, Alan! It’s one of my favorite pictures (I didn’t care for the sequel as much). “Waltzing Matilda” is certainly incorporated into its musical score. But the first time I ever heard it was when it was incorporated into the score of the screen version of “On the Beach” in the late ’50s, based on the Nevil Shute book that Roger Ritter cited.

  5. Alex Says:

    If “Waltzing Matilda” makes you cry, do not ever listen to “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” which is about the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. This battle, commemorated on ANZAC day, is of significance in both NZ and Oz. Wikipedia has an entry on the song if you are interested.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I learned about the battle of Gallipoli in college. I remember walking out of the lecture with the combined feeling a deep grief for a bunch of young men I never knew and confusion that such things could happen… That’s one reason the song can make me weep.

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