Posts filed under ‘Randolph Stow’

More on Midnite

I just finished it. This is seriously the funniest book I can ever remember reading. I bet the neighbours could hear me laughing through the walls. It’s about Midnite’s adventures as a bushranger, and then some other (typically Australian) things, but I don’t want to give you any more details so as not to spoil the pleasure of reading it for yourself. It’s just so funny and so warm-hearted, I’ve never read anything that’s left me feeling so happy.

I have been trying to read this book for years. A good friend of mine in Adelaide, who put me on to Randolph Stow in the first place, told me she’d lend it to me. But just then her son (who was my age and whom she was rather hoping I’d take a shine to, but we were both too shy) returned from teaching English in Japan. Not only that, but he was terribly sick with some fluey thing, and it was the time of the SARS outbreak, so he was whisked off to hospital as his plane landed and put into quarantine. To cheer him up, my friend lent him Midnite instead. Which is all well and good, except that because he’d touched it while he was quarantined it had to be destroyed!

The next encounter I had with Midnite was in Canberra earlier this year. I was trawling through the manuscripts of National Library, looking for stuff to help with my Phd. Going through the boxes of Randolph Stow manuscripts, I found an original copy of Midnite, written on a typewriter, with little notes scribbled all over it. Incredible. I read a few pages, but there were other, more pressing things to look at.

The past couple of months, I’ve been reading everything by and about Randolph Stow I could get my hands on. But the library didn’t appear to have a copy of Midnite. It wasn’t shelved with his other books, and when you type the title into the catalogue, it doesn’t come up. Haha, but it was hiding there after all! I typed ‘Randolph Stow’ into the keyword search, and there it was, buried in the ‘Stack English’ movable shelves in a deep and remote corner of the library. Only it wasn’t. I looked for it twice, and it wasn’t there – the books stopped way before its call number. I nearly gave up. But third time lucky, and there it was! I don’t know if some industrious librarian replaced a whole half-cabinet of books overnight, or if I have selective blindness. Libraries are mysterious places.

But I found it, and I read it, and now I’m smiling my head off. The man is a genius.


September 22, 2007 at 9:28 pm 2 comments


I have a new favourite Randolph Stow novel. Midnite. Written for children. Hilarious. Mitnite is a young bushranger with a gang of five animals, including, most importantly, a Siamese cat. Who speaks with a Siamese accent. And is much cleverer than him.

Once upon a time, in Western Australia a hundred years ago, a young man lived with his father in a cottage in a forest. The young man was called Midnite. At least, that is what I am going to call him, because that is what he called himself, later on, when he was famous.

His father dies, and he is very sad, so Khat tries to cheer him up.

‘Let’s have dinner,’ said Khat, ‘and then we will talk about money.’
So Midnite went into the kitchen and cooked the dinner, and they ate it on the verandah, so that Gyp and Major and Red Ned and Dora could listen to the conversation.
‘Now,’ said Khat, when he had finished his dinner and was enjoying a saucer of tea, ‘what are your plans?’
‘I have no plans,’ said Midnite, looking sad.
‘If I were you,’ said Khat, ‘I should be a bushranger.’
‘Would you, really?’
‘I should call myself Captain Midnight,’ said Khat, ‘which is a fine name for a bushranger, but I should spell it M-I-D-N-I-T-E.’
‘Why?’ asked Midnite.
‘Because that is more fierce and romantic,’ said Khat. ‘There is nothing romantic about good spelling.’

Hear hear!

September 22, 2007 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

Summer Reading

Now that the summer is ending (mercifully slowly – this weather is lovely!), here’s a quick catch up.

Lian Hearn, The Harsh Cry of the Heron

This is the fourth in a series, and they’ve all been wonderful. Set in a fantasy world reminiscent of medieval Japan, it is evocative and gripping and beautiful, and this book is my favourite yet. Don’t want to give too much away, but it’s just lovely. And she’s an Adelaide writer, hurrah!

Knut Hamsun, Hunger

One of my challenge reads, and more fun than I thought it would be, after the front cover glibly declared that it was one of the most disturbing books in existence. A young Nowegian hovers on the brink of starvation in nineteenth century Oslo, to proud to do much about it. It was disturbing, and the main character was difficult to like (I think this was the point), but I did find myself warming to him towards the end. There’s even the odd medieval reference, as he attempts to write a play set in the Middle Ages. It’s been compared with Dosteovsky, but is a little one dimensional in comparison.

Randolph Stow, Tourmaline

Read the previous post. What can I say? Bruce Clunies Ross says he has the linguistic equivalent of perfect pitch. I agree.

Randolph Stow, Visitants

Not good plane reading, because the perspective and voice switches every page and a half. Disturbing and compelling, and better on a second reading, when you know what’s going on. Set in the Trobriant Islands, it documents a gradual disintegration into madness against a backdrop of cargo cults and reports of alien star-ships.

A. J. Hassall, Strange Country: A Study of Randolph Stow

A thorough summary of everything Stow wrote, but rather bland, and ignores some of the most interesting aspects…

Nick Hornby, How to be Good

This one definitely is good plane reading. Deceptively light hearted, this is an essentially bleak appraisal of married life.

Mormonism for Dummies

I’m not about to convert, but I found this fascinating. Not sure about the regulation underwear, or whether God lives near a distant star, but did like the depiction of Eve as the brave, courageous founder of mortal life.

D.M. Cornish, Monster Blood Tattoo

Another Adelaide writer, who has created a world of monsters and sailing ships where things are not quite as they seem. Great fun. Can’t wait for the rest of the series.

And now on with the term! Stay tuned, posts here might become a little more frequent…

September 14, 2007 at 7:47 pm 2 comments


I say we have a bitter heritage, but that is not to run it down. Tourmaline is the estate, and if I call it heritage I do not mean that we are free in it. More truly we are tenants; tenants of shanties rented from the wind, tenants of the sunstruck miles. Nevertheless I do not scorn Tourmaline. Even here there is something to be learned; even groping through the red wind, after the blinds of dust have clattered down, we discover the taste of perfunctory acts of brotherhood: warm, acidic, undemanding, fitting a derelict independence. Furthermore, I am not young.
There is no stretch of land more ancient than this. And so it is blunt and red and barren, littered with the fragments of broken mountains, flat, waterless. Spinifex grows here, but sere and yellow, and trees are rare, hardly to be called trees, some kind of myall with leaves starved to needles that fans out from the root and gives no shade.
At times, in the early morning, you would call this a gentle country. The new light softens it, tones flow a little, away from the stark forms. It is at dawn that the sons of Tourmaline feel for their hertage. Grey of dead wood, grey-green of leaves, set off a soil bright and tender, the tint of blood in water. Those are the colours of Tourmaline. There is a fourth, to the far west, the deep blue of hills barely climbing the horizon. But that is the colour of distance, and no part of Tourmaline, belonging more to the sky.
It is not the same country at five in the afternoon. That is the hardest time, when all the heat of the day rises, and every pebble glares, wounding the eyes, shortening the breath; the time when the practice of living is hardest to defend, and nothing seems easier than to cease, to become a stone, hot and still. At five in the afternoon there is one colour only, and that is brick-red, burning. After sunset, the blue dusk, and later the stars. The sky is the garden of Tourmaline.

More Stow. And, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful openings to any novel ever written.

August 16, 2007 at 9:04 am Leave a comment

The Suburbs of Hell

This poor little blog has been neglected due to holidays and sickness and frantic catching-up on work, but as this novel is work, I thought I could justify five minutes of general musings. Another Randolph Stow, published in the early 80’s. It’s the last novel he published, in fact. Though I’m sure I’m not the only one hoping he has another one tucked away in his mind, just waiting for an excuse to be written. That’s the way he does things. A bit like Mozart, he has the whole thing in his head before he starts. And then he just writes it out in four weeks flat. Pretty impressive if you ask me.

The Suburbs of Hell is a murder mystery set in a coastal town in East Anglia. I read it several years ago and remembered it very fondly, particularly the dialogue and the incredible way he catches accents and turns of phrase. Stow really listens to the way people talk, and he is a master craftsman. But I’ll have to say, that although the novel is very impressive, I was a bit disappointed on a second reading. It is more like a short story than a novel, and you have to read it slowly. It is scary, and the characters he creates are wonderfully tangible, but you never discover a motive for the killings. I think I just don’t quite get it. Maybe when I’ve written about it some more I’ll change my mind about it. Stow says he intended it as a modern ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, so maybe if I reread Chaucer’s story it will give me some clues (it’s a very hazy memory at the moment). It’s also peppered with quotes from Beowulf about ominous monsters and imminent death. A very strange book. I’m just not quite sure what to make of it.

August 16, 2007 at 8:21 am 2 comments

Girl Green as Elderflower

For my entry on this novel, I had planned to cut and paste from the 2500 word conference paper I gave last week. I realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to work. This realisation brought home just how differently I write for different audiences. A conference paper is different from a thesis chapter, and not only in length, just as a conference paper for a medievalist audience differs from a paper for a postcolonial studies audience, even if I am actually talking about the same thing (in the former, I have to explain why I’m talking about Australia, and in the latter, the Middle Ages). In a blog post I don’t have to defend anything. Do I. What I like about blogging about novels, is that I can be as personal and effusive and anecdotal and cursory as I like. It’s fun.

I really love Randolph Stow’s Girl Green as Elderflower (1980). I love the title – the weight and balance of the words, the way they swing off each other. Stow is a pretty amazing poet, so it’s not surprising that he can come up with good titles. I love the structure of the novel, the way the medieval stories are embedded in the modern narrative, and the complex ways in which they reflect each other. And I love Stow’s prose, the seemingly effortless way he catches Suffolk voices.

Girl Green as Elderflower tells the story of the convalescence of Crispin Clare, as he recuperates in Suffolk from a traumatic experience – malaria and attempted suicide – in the Trobriant Islands. Stow himself had had a similar experience. As Clare slowly regains his health, he translates and rewrites 12th century Latin stories. These include the story of a fantastic sprite who was abandoned by her mother at birth and brought up by a witch, and longs for freedom, friendship, and her own family. He goes on to tell the story of the green children, as related by both Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh. According to these twelfth century sources, the two green children were discovered in Suffolk or East Anglia, and were taken in by locals. Initially refusing to eat anything, the children eventually feast happily on green beans, before growing accustomed to ordinary food and slowly losing their green colour. The boy eventually dies, but the girl grows up to be wanton and lascivious. When asked where they come from, they reply that they come from the ‘land of St Martin’, where ‘all dwellers and things of that region were tinged with a green colour, and that they perceived no sun, but enjoyed a certain brightness such as happens after sunset.’ In Stow’s novel, the green girl explains: ‘We are people of the land of the antipodes’ (p. 127).

Being now out of the sun the children gazed up at the knight, the most imposing man in the room, wide-eyed, and the beauty of their eyes amazed him like some stone never seen before. They were not of one unmixed green, but flecked or lined with different greens, and in each child’s eyes there was a different promise; for in the boy’s there was, as it were, a misting of blue, while in the girl’s was a haze of pale bird-breast brown.
Nor were their skins all of a single colour, but as there is variation with us (whose arms, for example, are darker above than below), so the skins of the green children verged in some places on the fairness of ladies. Noticing this, the knight thought first of the green of leeks, where that green meets white. But his second thought was of green elderbuds, at the point where they are transfigured into bloom (p.

Clare’s own alienation and displacement as an antipodean exile are reflected in the lives of the green children. Oh, there is so much to say about this book, and it will all go in my thesis. The medieval stories Clare tells are tragic, but the way they fit together, and refract the characters of his everyday life, is extraordinarily beautiful. Through the stories he tells, the strangeness of the Middle Ages enables Clare to face with courage the strangeness of the modern world.

July 19, 2007 at 10:00 am 6 comments

The Merry-go-round in the Sea

Back to Stow. This one is lovely. I read it a long time ago and had forgotten almost everything about it. It’s just so much fun to read – the sounds, the smells, the sorts of things a child would notice. It made me remember a big tree in my Aunt’s garden that’s covered in these purple berry things, which also used to cover us. Here’s a sample:

In every season the boy exalted in his senses, in his body. He exulted in the heavy sweetness of jonquils and in the frail scent of tomato leaves; in the harsh rasp of leaves on his skin as he climbed a figtree, and in the waxy dusty smoothness of the minute datepalm flowers; in the cold sea of early morning, and in the warm sea under the rain. He loved the rough taste of gumleaves and the sweetness in tecoma flowers; the red jewels in pomegranates, and the shells of rainbow beetles in the grey tuart bark (p. 125).

It’s also very sad, because there’s the second world war going on in the background, a long way away, and the narrator’s dear cousin Rick is a prisoner of war. He comes home, but never really gets over it. He doesn’t belong any more. Apart from some delightful portrayals of aging aunts and grandmothers, the book is very masculine, and there’s a tension in some of the relationships linked with Rick’s huge grief. It reminded me of the end of my favourite poem by Stow, ‘Ishmael’:

– and what have I to leave, but this encumbering
tenderness, like gear forever unclaimed.

Gives me shivers every time. The book’s also very funny. Here’s something for all you Brits who tease us for being colonial:

Nobody wanted to be a Pommy. Pommies might be gallant in wartime, but they had an unfortunate ancestry. They were descended from all the people who had declined to found America and Canada and South Africa and New Zealand and Australia. They were born non-pioneers (p. 224).


May 10, 2007 at 9:03 am Leave a comment

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