National Library Fellow in Australian Literature, author Dr Gabrielle Carey explores the inspiring and unique influence the Australian writer Ivan Southall had on a generation of young readers.
In the 1960s and 70s Ivan Southall’s books for young adults sold in the hundreds of thousands and he remains significant in the imaginations of countless Australians today. But Southall was also an object of controversy, his novels criticised for being too dark and pessimistic. Southall argued that he was trying to write about life realistically and to teach children resilience. It was a lesson that his readers responded to mightily.
Dr Carey’s research focuses on the hundreds of letters sent to Southall from his devoted readers and attempts to understand this unique reader-writer relationship.
She is author of several books, the earliest her much loved book Puberty Blues co-authored with Kathy Lette, and her most recent publication, 'Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family', which was the co-winner of the 2014 Prime Minister's Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
Dr Gabrielle Carey is a National Library of Australia Fellow in Australian Literature, supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust.
*Speakers: Robyn Holmes (R), Gabrielle Carey (G)
*Audience: (A) – no microphone
R: It’s pleasure anyway to welcome you tonight to Gabrielle Carey’s fellowship presentation on the topic – love the title – Like A Love Affair, Ivan Southall and the reader writer relationship. This is the first of six – a series of six fellowship presentations we have from now ‘til mid-December, a lot, and shows you the richness and the vitality of the fellowships program and I particularly welcome – we have three fellows, new fellows, newly arrived fellows with us tonight. [Sue Shewen Then] 00:32, Lesley Johnson here and Frances Steele who just arrived today so welcome, it’s a delight to have you too. I’m Robyn Holmes and I'm the Senior Curator with responsibility for the Fellowships Program and I begin with apologies from Marie-Louise Ayres. She herself is a scholar of Australian literature and she was going to do the introductions tonight ‘cause she was very, very keen to do so for Gabrielle’s project but she’s had to go home with the prevailing lurgy that’s in the buildings at the moment in Canberra so apologies from her. But she would have mentioned just how valuable the bequest is that was left to the Library by Eva Kollsman in honour of the Australian writer, Ray Mathew. And it’s this trust that really enables the Library to support so much Australian writing in multiple ways including Gabrielle’s fellowship for research in Australian literature.
Before commencing I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and recognise their continuing culture and contribution and we thank all their elders past and present and extend this respect to other indigenous peoples.
Gabrielle is a highly respected writer and researcher, creating a really distinctive body of work in the field of creative non-fiction writing. She’s also senior lecturer in the creative writing program at the University of Technology in Sydney. Like a Love Affair is the title of a book she has been inspired to write about the nature of the relationship between writers and their readers. For her fellowship research she has specifically examined the connection between young writers – young readers, should I say or maybe they’re young writers too as we might discover – and the author, Ivan Southall. Perhaps because it was reading Southall’s novel To the Wild Sky that inspired Gabrielle at the age of nine, I might say, to become a writer. This fellowship’s given her the opportunity to revisit Southall’s writing and reflect on the meaning, the influence and the inspiration the writer can have on a generation of readers. I wonder how many people in the room would remember reading Ivan Southall. I think we had some discussion outside and quite a lot, good.
Gabrielle published her own first book at the age of 17, Puberty Blues which you might have seen out on the table outside which she co-authored with Kathy Lett, became rather an infamous icon in Australian public culture around 1980 especially when transformed into a coming of age film by Bruce Beresford in 1981 and reorchestrated – what do you say? Re something or other cultivated as a television series only – is it three years ago? Only three years ago, I think. A really amazing thing to have a book that sort of re-enters the [ervoir] 3:24 in some other way at a much later stage.
While afterwards Kathy Lett followed a kind of celebrity pathway Gabrielle chose to focus her writing inwardly on the complex relationship between the personal and the literary forms. She has combined research with memoir and personal essay including works that reveal quite difficult turning points in her own private journey such as In My Father’s House and So Many Selves as well as coediting the Penguin Book of Death. Her most recent major book, Moving Among Strangers, Randolph Stowe And My Family was the co-winner of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and really helped to change literary, scholarly and public awareness of Stowe’s work with five of his novels republished, reissued in 2015 after Gabrielle’s work appeared. You can see outside that Ivan Southall’s work’s been republished as well, as well as your own work, Gabrielle, and our marvellous bookshop has actually organised books for sale by Southall and by Gabrielle tonight for 10% off as a special offer to you. And I’m very sorry but I just bought what I realised was the last copy of Randolph Stowe but you can order it through the bookshop, the Randolph Stowe book.
In my fellowships role I always find it fascinating to – it’s just how differently fellows can interact with and respond to collections during their research process and experience. In Gabrielle’s case I’ve found it really quite memorable to observe close up a creative writer really grappling with the collections of another creative writer and I put the emphasis on a creative researcher as against maybe a historian or an economist or – there’s a sort of interesting issue about critical distance and engagement that is quite fascinating to see how different people approach collections.
Gabrielle’s engagement with the letters she was reading was quite challenging at times for her, even confronting and moving. But just when she was despairing about her project and doubting herself she wondrously came up with a title that made sense of her research, that is that Love Affair title, and with it she found the inspiration, the voice and the joy to just get on and write this new book. So we look forward to the book and we welcome Gabrielle Carey to draw us into her love affair with Southall, experienced through hundreds of meticulously arranged letters from young readers to the author and his replies across the period 1954 to 1993. Welcome, Gabrielle.
G: Thanks, Robyn, for that lovely introduction and you can see she was being very subtle about watching me having a total meltdown at the beginning of my fellowship, what am I doing? I don’t know what I'm doing. And I remember ringing my daughter in the same kind of crisis and she said Mum, you’re always like this when you start a book. So she’s the wise one in the family.
Now okay yes, I was very happy about that title that I’ve only just discovered but I have to admit that it actually is borrowed from Southall and I did the same with my Stowe book, Moving Among Strangers. There’s a quote that’s taken from Stowe but it’s nice I think you know to pay homage to them in that way. So he wrote an essay called Something Like a Love Affair and that’s why I came up with Like a Love Affair.
Okay, here we have the man himself and he’s really quite handsome, I think as a young man. We’ll see him later after the decades of writing and what it does to you, doesn’t look so handsome after that. So almost – although mostly unread and unknown to young people of the present generation in the 1960s and ‘70s Ivan Southall was a literary superstar. Selling hundreds of thousands and translated into 20 languages Southall produced over 30 books for children and was the only Australian to be awarded the Carnegie Medal. While he was reviled by some critics and accused of racism, sadism and misanthropy his young readers loved him. The National Library holds hundreds of adoring letters that attest to a wide and devoted audience.
My adventures into Ivan Southall archives began with self-interest, when I first arrived at the National Library I was actually looking for a letter from myself. I have always been a compulsive letter-writer so it was just possible that I too had felt compelled to put pen to paper while in the afterglow of reading his novel To the Wild Sky. Okay so this is – that’s the first edition there.
I remember clearly the moment I got to the end of that novel and the feeling of containable excitement like someone who’d just fallen in love. It was in the grip of this momentary infatuation that I made the very hasty decision referred to earlier on to spend the rest of my life writing. Because this was one of the biggest turning points in my life I was more than curious to see if I can could find that letter I imagined I had written to Southall but after two days of reading thorough 25 folders of correspondence I was so ensconced in letters from other nine, 10 and 11-year-olds that my initial intention fell away and I found myself on a different quest altogether. I wasn’t sure exactly what which is what led to the breakdown partly, I just knew that I was enthralled with these children from the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I loved the handwriting, the candidness, their stories about their pets, their complaints about their siblings, their ambitions, their reports of daily mundanities and I especially loved their spelling mistakes as in this letter from Janie – you get a lot of these girly letters with their nice printed stationery and if you look in the second paragraph there you’ll see that she’s proudly saying I passed all my exams, p-a-s-t. Or like this one from Linda, I love this one from Linda, she says down the bottom I don’t think writing books is for me. I’m going to become a nurse if I can, I’m a guide and I’m going for my first aid badge. Writing books, w-r-i-g-h-t. So those kind of thi – I mean it’s not often when you’re up in the reading room and – that you, you know hear someone you know cackling away over what they’re doing, that’s what I spent a lot of my time doing.
Although many of the letters recounted ordinary events from the ordinary comparatively sheltered lives of the children of that era most began with adulation for the author. Dear Mr Southall – I won’t read it all – I’m writing to say that I love reading your books, I’m reading Ash Road and Over the Top. I wish to grow up to be an author and write wonderful stories like you. When I read your books I feel I’m really there. Bye for now, Mr Southall, Julie. So I wasn’t the only child whose experience of reading Southall made her want to grow up to be an author and there were many who sought out not just writerly advice but personal advice on all sorts of things. So here we have little Peter Dean. Dear Mr Southall, I wonder if I could come and see you some time. I know that you’re probably tied up writing one of those sensational books of yours but I just want to say that seeing you are a marvellous author maybe I could ask you a few questions and maybe you could tell me a few things. I would be very pleased to meet you as I have a few things to show you. Peter Dean.
At the top of each letter in Southall’s handwriting is the word reply and a date. No correspondent as far as I can tell failed to receive a response. Even Peter Dean who wanted to meet Southall, because he had a few things to show him, gets a personal invitation. At the top of his letter Southall writes reply yes, when he wishes. So that’s pretty – I mean he was unbelievably generous to his readers.
Southall began his long career in writing for children with a series of Biggles-style adventure books based on a superhero pilot named Simon Black. Simon Black in Peril and there we have more of – that’s one of those magazines that - Simon Black in Coastal Command. Books about boys for books – sorry, books about boys and for boys. Nine books in total written over a period of 11 years which he was later to dismiss of not deserving of the description, literature.
He said in an interview with oral historian, Hazel De Burk, Simon Black was six feet tall, black-haired, skinny, incredibly clever, incredibly handsome, me, you see, my superego. Typical of the time but mimicking in a way the books for boys I’d read as a child. All I was doing was perpetuating the old British imperial myth. Then one day a conversation with his brother resulted in a dramatic shift in style and content. Southall told the story repeatedly in letters, in conversations and in interviews as he explained in a letter to a reader in 1971. He said in the second paragraph there so in 1959 in the living room of my home then at Monbulk, Victoria, I asked my brother a question, what would happen to our children if they were left on their own and we were not here to look after them? He thought they would die, probably in a short time. I thought about it for a year and then decided to find out in story so I took some of those children who had been with us that day and a few that I knew, changed their names, put them in an imaginary town called Hills End and then discovered the story you read in the book. I didn’t know how it was going to work out and I didn’t know whether the children would live or die. To me it was a real adventure.
Hills End was the first of Southall’s trilogy of survival stories where the young protagonists are faced with disasters. The first follows the fates of seven children trapped in a cave while storms and floods wreak destruction of their town. The second, Ash Road, chronicles a bushfire and the third, To the Wild Sky, a plane crash.
Southall later described Hills End as an abrupt and major change of course that came to be regarded worldwide as a new departure in literature for children. A final draft was delivered to Angus and Robertson in 1959 but there were serious reservations about the author’s dramatic change in tone and subject matter. One of the readers for the publisher thought that it was too mature for young children and that the quote, psychological exploration of motives and moods, although interesting, were a little bit out of tune for the juvenile, unquote. The question of whether his stories were or were not suitable for children would dog him for the rest of his professional life. A and R editor, Beatrice Davis, disagreed with the reader, realising that the manuscript was the best that Southall had ever produced and the book was released in 1962.
What happened next was something that neither the author nor the publisher could have imagined. In 1963 – so we’ll just go back and look at the original – in 1963 Hills End was included in the list of New York Times’ Books of the Year and chosen by the American Library Association as one of 55 titles recognised as notable children’s books of that year. Translated into 10 languages it was developed twice as a television series, firstly in France in 1987 and then in Australia in 1988 which you can go and see at the Film Sound and Archives, I saw it last week, eight episodes. In Sweden it was dramatised for radio and in Japan produced as a musical stage show. Sales eventually ran into the hundreds of thousands. Southall had clearly struck a chord and his young readers wrote to him to express their appreciation.
So this – here’s a letter from Maine in the USA. I have read your book, Hills End, six times. And then another one from Hawaii, I think, yeah – oh sorry, no, I haven’t got this one printed, I’ll just read it to you so there’s another one – I haven’t got on the screen, rather – dear Mr Southall, have just finished reading Hills End, I have read hundreds of books but never have I read one twice. Hills End, I have read thrice. In the days they used the word thrice. He goes on to say it’s the best book in my library and the best I’ve read in all my life, brackets 12 years, 13 years come May. And he says your faithful reader, Robert. PS. I’m telling everyone about Hills End so he’s a little publicist.
Anyway so then we go to Linda from Hawaii and you – I probably don’t need to read out another one but anyway more admiration. And right from Tasmania we have the next one, on behalf of the grade 6 at St Mary’s College we have enjoyed your story, Hills End, and have had pleasure in reading it. Our class have designed a map of Hills End and what we imagine it to be like. We have had difficulty in placing the township road to Stanley and the River Magnus and would like you to correct the mistakes we’ve probably made.
And then this one I – was quite cute. Now part of my project began to be searching actually for the writers as grownups so my age and tracking these people down and this guy I just tracked down the other day who happened to still be in the same – at the same address. Dear Mr Southall, I have read five of your books and I like them all, Hills End is my favourite, I live in a small goldmining town in western Victoria, my great-great-grandfather was king of the splitters when Buninyong just began. We have an extinct volcano and the town is at the foot of it. I’m 10 years old and could I please have your autograph? And it’s really interesting actually, the one – that you know reading these tiny little letters and then getting in touch with the people and – because often they give a little clue about what they’re going to turn into. I mean he works now in environmental studies. I mean why was he – he was writing this tiny little letter and he was talking about volcanoes and his environment, you know? And then another one, if I’ve got time later I’ll show you and it made lots of sense that this man turned into a police inspector but I’ll let you know about that later.
Alright so this is from Betsy Holt in Illinois. Dear Mr Southall, I enjoyed your book, Hills End, your description of the children was so good I can see and hear them. I like the ending, I’ve never read a book like it. It was touching and exciting, it sort of had a lesson, children can get along. Please write back, sincerely, Betsy Holt. Now she really knew what she was talking about that, that’s exactly the message that he wanted to give children.
But what was it about Hills End that made it so exceptional? It was certainly dramatic, the little town is left in ruins and the children alone without shelter or food or an adult to protect them. But there was something that was new which wasn’t just about drama. Southall would later comment that Hills End was his favourite because quote, it was the first book I ever wrote that had something useful to say. The useful thing it had to say was that even amid disaster children were capable of rising to the occasion. In Hills End Southall was letting children know, whatever the circumstances he had faith in them. As Betsy says he had a message, children can get along and it was a message that children were thrilled to hear.
So – and that’s the new recent reissue of Hills End. And in the introduction the [YA] 20:35 author James Maloney writes, Southall’s ground-breaking theme in this novel is presented early and in the starkest possible manner, that adults believe children cannot survive on their own, that without the experience, good sense and courage of grownups they must inevitably fall into helplessness and chaos. The concluding chapter of Hills End is a private nod between the young protagonist and the children who read it. Don’t wait for grownups to give you credit for your fortitude, he’s saying, because ultimately you only have to prove it to yourself to be certain such qualities lie within you. Southall paved the way for John Marsden’s novels 25 years later. Marsdon’s Tomorrow, When the War Began series is in many ways a grand expansion of Southall’s scenario in Hills End.
And John Marsden of course was one of the people I also spoke to for this project and he admitted to being impressed by Southall as a young reader. He said he did have a level of psychological awareness that I probably wasn’t aware of as a reader but it was very effective. I think he was aware of the unconscious or at least endowed his characters with unconscious minds more than previous generations had done. In other words Southall’s dramatic material was as much internal as external. As he said, I am trying to introduce children to the idea that their greatest adventures, their greatest moments will belong to what goes on inside. Which is a practical radical idea, I think.
Southall was very rare and he was rare because he was as genuine professional in the sense that he earned his living from writing, that’s a bloody hard thing to do. But his success had not come easily. His father who had always been physically weak died after a period of deterioration in hospital leaving his eldest son obliged to leave school. And I’m quoting again from Southall, at 14 and five months I started working like a man at several jobs simultaneously. So the man who was to spend his life writing for and about children had in fact been robbed of a significant part of his own childhood. This explains in part why so many of Southall’s boy characters are suddenly and brutally thrown into roles that demand adult responsibility. It may also explain why many of his books struggle with the ideas of masculinity and the way in which boys make the treacherous journey from boyhood to manhood.
Like his father Ivan was not masculine in a physical sense. Nowadays he may have found a way to fit in by joining the legion of slim hipsters but in the ‘40s and ‘50s he felt inadequate. Quoting again, I am not over-blessed with manly strength, he said, I am conscious of a thin body. I dislike standing in a public shower or sunbaking on a beach, I feel eyes on me, my body worries me, unquote. Despite attempts at bodybuilding and weightlifting Southall couldn’t live up to the ideal of the Australian male and it was a deficiency he felt all his life.
Now I couldn’t actually find a photo that showed you just how tall and thin he was but never got over I think it was 60 kilos so that’s fairly light. Even at 14 Southall knew he wanted to write, he had his first story published when he was 12 in the Melbourne Herald Junior and sent off a new story every week to the same publication for the next three years. But his mother wasn’t impressed with her son’s aspirations. He should be told that writers starve, she commented. At 15 Southall started as copy boy with The Herald in their Flinders Street office running messages and making tea for the subeditors. Later when he tried for a journalism cadetship and failed he blamed his lack of education, a deficit that left him with a lifelong feeling of inferiority.
In 1941 at the age of 20 Southall presented himself to the Royal Australian Air Force to enlist for active service. While waiting for his callup he was conscripted to the 22nd field regiment and in December of ’41 following the Pearl Harbour bombing was sent with a group of other conscripts to defend the Victorian coastline. For months he alternated between lookout duty and resting in a cave shelter that the gunners had hollowed out from the foreshore scrub, an experience that later informed Hills End. Then one morning in 1942 Southall experienced something that would haunt him for the rest of his life, an Australian military aircraft came in from the sea and plunged violently into the ground. The impact from the blast, he said, speared my heart like a splinter of ice that never thawed.
Southall’s comment is immediately reminiscent of Kafka’s reflection on reading who – he says we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forest far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen seed inside us. Certainly Southall’s disaster stories created this effect on their readers but this is exactly what bothered the critics. Should children be exposed to disasters of this magnitude? Should they read books that grieve them deeply?
At one point in Hills End the children find their beloved teacher lying in the bottom of a ravine, seemingly dead and with each book that followed the degree of trauma experienced by the child characters increased. In Finn’s Folly a car accident leaves children orphaned alongside the corpses of their parents causing one critic to suggest that the novel violated the Children and Young Persons’ Harmful Publications Act and in Josh, the book Southall considered his finest, the young protagonist is so mentally tortured as to be diagnosed by one critic as intensely paranoid and amounting to a literary experience of quote, constricted bitterness and fatalistic if not nihilistic suffering. Even some of his devoted readers wondered at the extent of pain Southall inflicted on his characters such as Giselle, another person I did manage to get in contact with, who says dear Mr Southall, I love your books and I think the best was Josh. Was Josh true? If it was I feel sorry for him, if it wasn’t why did you make so much trouble for him? Fair enough question.
My impression is that Southall tested his boy characters in – to the very edge of endurance because it mirrored his own personal experience. Much of his writing seems to have its genesis in the death of his father and the son’s subsequent resuming of responsibilities. Southall’s books are populated again and again by young boys, always skinny, struck by disaster who are suddenly forced to become men. One critic suggested that most of Southall’s books could be subtitled, On Becoming a Man. Each novel is a portrait in one way or another of his own painful struggle with Australian masculinity.
So after the trilogy of highly successful survival stories Southall entered a new period that Agnes [Newenwisen] 28:08 – I think that’s how you say it – described as a phase depicting the inner struggles of boys who were different or trapped within themselves. Highly intelligent, sensitive, introspective, internally articulate boys struggle to overcome often imaginary but nonetheless real fears and hurdles. So that’s particularly – can be seen in this book, Bread and Honey. Michael Cameron, at the centre of Southall’s novel, Bread and Honey, resonated again with many young Australian readers of the 1970s as the correspondence shows.
Anne Getty is another person that I managed to track down, she was in the US and I spoke to her very elderly parents, they remembered her reading Southall, they remembered her writing to [her] 28:30, they remembered her getting a letter from him. So she says dear Mr Southall, your books and style of writing really thrill me, your characters seem so lifelike. Michael Cameron from Bread and Honey shows how human and how much like everyday boys – an everyday boy he is and how his mind works.
This is one of the things that they really loved about his work, that it was realistic, over and over again they say you know we love your characters ‘cause they seem so real. Again we’ve got the lovely Linda there. Wuv is wonderful when someone I wuv is you. So there’s lots of kind of almost flirtatious letters from girls. Oh that’s where she’s saying – oh she said in Bread and Honey, I love – yes, I love the way you describe the feelings, you made everything so clear. It was a strange story but most enjoyable. So again it’s about the internal they’re on about.
In 1971 a class from PLC Croydon in New South Wales read Bread and Honey and sent Southall a collection of book reviews and that was the lovely neat cover of the collection. Dear Mr Southall, we hope you enjoy reading these reviews of Bread and Honey, thank you very much for writing so many enjoyable books for children, we like them a great deal but not all the girls agree about the ratings. Our system is five stars for a really good book. So – yeah so he didn’t get all five stars. So here’s one from Sally, 11, and that was the other thing that overwhelmingly came across from the letters is just how many 11-year-olds, 11 seems to be this really important kind of cusp year.
Okay so but – and she says that she highly recommends – I think this is where she says I highly recommend this book for children, 11 years and over, who like stories based on real life. Again real life coming into it. I recommend this book because it has feeling and could well be true. It is set in Australia and does not get you muddled and with different days as it is a story of one day. I rate this a four-star book.
And then I recommend this book to any children who enjoy reading about other people’s problems, other children’s problems which is what we all like.
And then Michael seems to portray the crazy mixed up youth of today who needs help but no-one knows it. It is good however that he sorts himself out by the end of the book.
There is however one reader who has a criticism to offer. I thought Michael fought too much and didn’t speak enough, says Alison. So – that’s not Alison, that’s Sue, sorry. So I thought it – Michael fought too much and didn’t speak enough was probably an accusation that could have been levelled at Ivan Southall himself, he wasn’t a typical Aussie bloke. He didn’t hang around bars drinking beers and exchanging banter. If friends visited his house they were editors or writers, he wasn’t one for socialising. He spent most of his life thinking or writing in silence. In a sense the books from this period could be seen as reflecting his continuing struggle with conventional Australian masculinity.
Fellow children’s author, Jenny [Pasikov’s] 32:15 view is that Southall is one of the few writers who lets us in on what it’s like to be a bloke. She says I do think the whole process of deciding whether to be a full-on gay, a full-on guy or a gender resister of one kind or another is bound to be stressful. Most of us stop stressing at some point but perhaps Southall never did, making him both atypical and a good informant.
Bread and Honey is set on ANZAC Day, the Australian day for celebrating mateship. As a decorated veteran one might have expected Southall to celebrate ANZAC Day but he didn’t take part in marching or drinking with old war buddies. Even as an old man there was something of the introspective internally articulate boy who like Michael in Bread and Honey felt out of place with real Australian men. I suspect that if I’d met Southall in person this is an aspect of his personality I would have warmed to, the emotional, oversensitive, slightly tortured soul, the gentle man in a world of boofy blokes.
So after reading through hundreds of letters to Southall I had an idea, what if I tried to get in touch with some of the young correspondents who are now adults?
Would they be able to reflect on their personal exchange with Southall and illuminate the nature of the reader writer relationship? Would they be able to give me a sense of the real Ivan Southall?
First on my list of child correspondents to track down was Sue Harrington, a young girl from a convent school in Perth who wrote to Southall in the early ‘70s and there she is, dear Sue. Of all the letters I had perused hers was the most intimate and they had quite a you know correspondence that went over a couple of years, a lot of letters went backwards and forwards. So this is her first one, I won’t bother reading it out but she’s just saying you know how great he is and thank you for being you, your good and faithful friend to be, Sue Harrington. Notwithstanding the author’s overwhelming commitments which by then included supporting a wife and four children Southall embarked on a pen friendship enclosing at Sue’s request an autographed book and the correspondence continued for the next few years.
In Southall Sue found someone who could truly listen. She wrote long heartfelt letters, sometimes enclosing her own experiments in creative writing. When I finally tracked her down she was as thrilled to hear from me as I was to have found her. She said my relationship with Ivan was one of the most important of my life. Ivan Southall’s generous friendship with her as an adolescent in Western Australia in the early ‘70s made such an impact on her life that when she turned 35 she decided to seek him out to express her gratitude and here they are, she as a grownup when she went and tracked him down.
Among the devoted readers of Southall I found a number of contemporary writers, memoirist Ailsa Piper told me that quote, Ash Road and To the Wild Sky made me feel that my own story was something that had a place in the world of books, that those clothbound treasures were not only people up there on the other side of the world but they could also be opened to reveal me and my friends.
For critic and writer, Julie Williamson it was Let the Balloon Go that left an unforgettable impression. And for journalist, editor and nonfiction writer, Mark Mordue, he felt so indebted to Southall that in 2003 he penned an homage called The Secret Life of Us for the magazine, Australian Author. In it he wrote Southall established a world for me that was adventurous, harshly sensuous, distressingly solitary and distinctly Australian. In books such as Ash Road, To the Wild Sky and Finn’s Folly he helped me fall in love with reading, he also put me on the path to becoming a writer. I wrote that piece, says Mordue, to say thank you to Southall, I believe he was the children’s writer of the last century. To me personally he was as important as C S Lewis. At minimum he wrote half a dozen classics for Australian children but where is the recognition? Where is his plaque? Where is the prize in his honour? He had a decade of being the best children’s writer in the country, recognised the world over and a few decades later he’s utterly forgotten. It’s a bit of a lesson for people who are this month’s flavour, he says.
Southall responded to Mordue’s essay with a letter that was published in Australian Author a couple of issues later. So here he is looking <inaudible> 36:51 – that was a very sweet photo, actually, he can look very grave and he looks a bit less grave there. So here’s his response that was to Mordue’s article that was published in Australian Author. Personally, he says, The Secret Life of Us has put heart into me, warmed me, thank you. For so long I’ve lived the life of a target then as an object to be ignored, belittled or written off as probably dead. So Mordue told me when I read that letter which had so much feeling in it I thought what a cruel country we are, we undervalue people here, the cultural cringe is as alive as it ever was.
Mark’s comment – and then he went on to say Southall spoke to an entire generation of children, probably a lot of writers were born through him but some – for some reason in Australia we feel compelled to forget the past and be eternally caught up in an infantile present. Mark’s comment immediately reminded me of the final line from Bread and Honey when Michael’s grandmother is preparing to place a wreath on the ANZAC memorial. He asks this because people remember Grandma or pretend that they don’t forget?
So this is taken from the cover of one of his later books, The Mysterious Life of Marcus Leadbeater and I just thought it was really interesting because – I mean obviously it resembles him and that you know the more you read of him the more you just realise how much it is a story of his own psyche over and over again, coming to terms with what happened to him when his father died at 14 and having to become a man and so on.
When he was very young Ivan showed a story to his father hoping it would win him praise. The story was so good that Frank Southall didn’t believe his son could have written it and smacked him for telling lies. Decades later Ivan still remembered the hurt it caused when he recounted the story to his grownup daughter, Elizabeth. And then Elizabeth told me when I spoke to her, told me another story, she said in 2010 while Southall was dying of cancer and largely confined to his bed Elizabeth read to him aloud. By then he was also suffering from dementia. One afternoon Elizabeth decided to read her father one of his own novels, Fly West. When she got to the end he looked at her and said with feeling that author can really write. So I thought that was really lovely ‘cause he was giving himself his own kind of – own affirmation.
And that’s all, that’s – from my – the formal part of my talk but if we’ve got time I’ll just show you one more letter from the police inspector. So that’s what writing all your life does to you in the end. And okay, this is from Andrew Jay who I found a couple of – well actually it wasn’t me most of the time, it was the wonderful Ralph Sanderson on staff here at the NLA who helped me track people down. So here we have dear Mr Southall, I’ve just finished reading your book, To the Wild Sky. I enjoyed the story very much but I’m very disappointed with the ending. Why did you write an ending like that? Now I don’t know if they were rescued or if they died or if they lived there for the rest of their lives. Sincerely, Andrew Jay. Because if you know the book the plane crashes on this island, the kids are just there, they never get off and there are a lot of complaints in the letters. I never found it – I found it exciting but other people – others found you know Andrew Jay who was later – who looked like this when he read the book and last year looked like that. And again I thought it was interesting you know this guy who had to know what happened at the end, who had to kind of solve the crime, you know? And so – yeah so that’s his – and he was also thrilled to hear from me and see the letter and his 91-year-old mother was very thrilled as well so yeah, it’s been a really fun project so thank you.
R: I was just thinking about all the social media comments and whether they’d ever survive. Isn’t that an amazing story of a surviving picture of a different era but of letters that tell you so much and being able to track down the people when they’re older it’s fascinating, absolutely fascinating.
I’m sure Gabrielle wants to take some questions and I’m absolutely fascinated to see what you’re going to do with this in terms of the book but let me open the floor for thoughts.
A: <inaudible> 42:20.
G: Yeah, that – you see this is – it’s interesting because I started out with the idea that I wanted to find these adults and they would tell me these incredible stories about how it had changed their lives the way he’d changed my life and they didn’t have stories like that to tell me, what they could tell me was that they remembered very well the experience of the reading. They may not remember the plot or the characters but they remembered the intensity and they also remembered writing to him and they remembered the thrill of getting a letter back. And so that – and they were mostly very emotional about it, it was a very – when I had the – I mean one woman broke down in tears because she started talking about Ash Road and she’d been through the Black Saturday fires and then suddenly she was bursting into tears. In fact Sue, the first woman I contacted, she burst into tears the first time I spoke to her too so I was thinking God, the Ethics Committee’s going to be after me but – so it’s a felt memory, you know? An imprinted memory that is not so much about I can tell you what happened in that book but the experience, yeah.
A: <inaudible> 43:53.
G: Oh no, I don’t write fiction, no, it’s nonfiction so it’s a – it’s – so it’s a – partly biographical and partly an essay about the reader writer relationship and well I’m halfway through it, I’m still making it up as I go along.
A: <inaudible> 44:21.
G: Well Belle, was he translated into Korean? Was he translated into Korean, Southall? Yes, that’s why I'm just asking Belle because Belle would know. It’s probable that he was translated into Korean, yeah. We’ll look it up, we’ll find out for you.
A: <inaudible> 45:33.
G: No well lots of people never had that, yeah, an idealised childhood, that’s right.
A: <inaudible> 46:44.
G: Oh yes, plenty but I think all three of the disaster – the trilogy, yeah. Bread and Honey also won.
A: <inaudible> 47:07.
G: No, I didn’t ask those questions. I’ll write it down on my to do list. And there’s another lovely quote here from Mark here, I’ll just – to do with that where he says young people recognise that Southall helped them through a particular period, there are passages of time when you don’t know who you are and it seems that Southall writes about that pocket of not knowing, when the not knowing is as important as the knowing and that that seems to be the cusp that peaks at the age of 11. That was the very you know it was interesting to see all these 11-year-olds.
A: <inaudible> 48:35.
G: Oh 1990s? Wow.
A: <inaudible> 48:49.
G: How amazing.
A: <inaudible> 49:16.
G: Unfortunately – I mean look, I could be completely wrong but I just think he’s very much in that – he’s very much belonging to that period and I can’t see young people getting switched on to him. I think he had an incredibly important role in Australian literature and particularly obviously children’s Australian literature breaking new ground and allowing writers like John Marsden and others the freedom to do what they did so you know I think it was really important for his time but I can’t - I just don’t see 11-year-olds of our era really getting into him but look, I hope I'm wrong but I just think that’s how –
A: <inaudible> 50:12.
G: Oh, oh, can I please –
A: <inaudible> 50:17.
G: Tell me I’m wrong.
A: Yes, you are wrong.
A: <inaudible> 50:32.
G: You’re kidding.
A: <inaudible> 50:41.
G: Have they read this new edition, do you know or is it –
A: <inaudible> 50:49.
G: God, wouldn’t that be amazing if I was completely wrong?
A: <inaudible> 50:56.
G: Well thank you for coming along and putting up with all that blah so you could make such an important offering to the discussion, that’s fantastic.
A: <inaudible> 51:32.
G: Amazing the things we’re discovering.
A: <inaudible> 51:52.
G: Well I don’t know if you could call it an epiphany but there was certainly a sense that he helped them deal with difficult times and you know Sue, the school girl, is a really, really good example. She was – her mother died when she was really young, she had a stepmother who just sounded like a – archetypal dreadful stepmother and Southall really helped her deal with that. And obviously personally but through his books and yeah and I guess that’s part of why he puts these characters into these situations of such difficulty and adversity, to show that yes, you can you know you can end up in these situations but you will get through them.
A: <inaudible> 53:33
G: And there is a bit of an issue about kids not having resilience, I mean that’s –
A: <inaudible> 53:55.
A: <inaudible> 54:14.
G: Good, thank you.
A: <inaudible> 54:23.
G: Oh God, yeah, do I have to tell the truth? It was disappointing. Sorry, I don’t want to ruin it for –
A: <inaudible> 54:50.
G: Are you reading the text classic? Are you reading the text – oh so – right, okay.
A: <inaudible> 55:55.
G: Well that’s the problem, yeah, yeah, it’s like you know falling in love and then you were trying to go back and fall in love with someone that you were in love with, doesn’t – never works.
A: <inaudible> 56:32.
G: Yeah and it’s also you know going – yes, going back as a literary person and – yeah anyway we won’t – I don’t think we should go there.
A: <inaudible> 56:48.
G: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
A: <inaudible> 56:55.
G: Yeah, yeah, you’re right, yeah. Well it’ll be very exciting if there is a resurgence. I mean I have this kind of fantasy of launching my book and inviting all the Southall readers and having a Southall readers’ reunion. Do it at the National Library, yeah.
R: Are there any more comments and questions of Gabrielle?
A: <inaudible> 58:15.
R: I’d like to thank Gabrielle for giving us a superb case study I think of something that’s really powerful and clearly from the conversations we’ve all had you’ve engendered a conversation in the room including with our wonderful 12-year-old reader and that’s great that you’re reading these books but there is something really vibrant about this experience that is very precious and I suppose all of us in this room pray and hang onto the idea that children will keep reading like this and keep having this experience. And of course as collectors for the National Library the next question is how do we ever maintain and capture this into the future given that it’s mostly taking place by email or in social media and for us it’s a really important part of our new strategies about web archiving and about digital archives and so on, that we actually do retain this kind of historical record for people to come back and revisit as Gabrielle has done.
I really look forward to Gabrielle’s books, I think the combination that you give us – when I said before really creative writing but it is about the experience of being a writer as well as being a researcher and a critical writer about literature that Gabrielle brings together in the form of her writing. It’s a very special art form and I'm sure that you like I am greatly looking forward to reading this new book about the reader writer relationship and particularly through the work of Ivan Southall. So will you please thank Gabrielle and congratulate –
R: Join us for some more refreshments and a catch-up and outside you will find 10% off all those Ivan Southall books as well as Gabrielle’s books and she will even sign them for you so there you go.
End of recording