Wednesday, February 17, 2010

History as fiction

Every week, I take myself off to the local maritime museum to work on their newsletter. It’s part current events and part history – and yeah, okay, I do both.

When I put my historian’s hat on, I spend a lot of time on the National Library of Australia’s newspaper archive site. It. Is. Amazing! - oh, and distracting with the life and times...

I’m currently working on the people who started the shipbuilding industry in the local area, and the NLA’s site, plus the State Records Office, have provided me with lots of information to wallow in.

Obviously, this is not fictional writing here, but wait, there’s a point. Let me tell you a little story:

In 1816, James Dent was sent to Australia, convicted of forging banknotes. Four years later, he was granted a Conditional Pardon – that is, he was allowed to wander the colony, but not leave it. In 1820, he married and in 1824, moved out of the main township of Sydney to the Cooks River where he leased a farm.

His neighbour was one Dr Robert Wardell. Wardell and another lawyer, William Charles Wentworth, started the Australian newspaper and proceeded to criticise the Governor of NSW, General Ralph Darling, for his attempts at running the penal colony as a military camp.

In 1828, two separate incidents happened: James Dent was sent to trial for stealing timber from Dr Wardell’s property (he and two co-conspirators were caught when a constable, charging through the bush after a bushranger, found one cutting timber and tossing it over the fence to Dent’s side.) On the same day, a convict named John Jenkins was sentenced to three years transportation to Newcastle for robbing a fellow inmate.

Move forward in time to 1834. John Jenkins has returned. He and two other men are camped on... Dr Wardell’s land. Dr Wardell sets out to inspect his land and come upon the trio. An altercation takes place and Dr Wardell is shot dead. Jenkins and one other are convicted and sentenced to execution after the youngest member turns informer.

James had nothing to do with the crime. He died in 1837. His wife, Elizabeth, marries twice more before dying in 1858. She is buried at St Peter’s near Cooks River.
A son of James, George, eventually came down to the Huskisson area and began cutting timber for the new shipbuilding industry, and started constructing ships – an industry that lasted until the 1960s.

Now then. One of Australia’s greatest architects was Edmund Blacket. He designed and built a good portion of the cathedrals of NSW, including St Andrew’s at Sydney University. What’s interesting is that in 1875, he refurbished... St Peter’s near Cooks River. His son, Cyril, was also an architect and lived... near Huskisson, designing and building a lot of the houses here, including the local church.

History has a lot of co-incidences that seem incredible.

To me, this story is a metaphor for fiction: Wardell, Darling and Blacket are all listed in the Australian Biographical Dictionary – and rightly so; each man built a little piece of this country and left a legacy still recognised today. They are Literature.

Dent and Jenkins aren’t; they are unknown, forgotten, and yet stamped their own mark on history – they are Pulp Fiction.

The difference between the two groups is that one are written about, known about, are famous for what they did rather than who they are; the second group are no more than items in old newspapers or convict records, but are more interesting because of their connections to fame, because of who they are, more than what they did.

Two disparate groups: Literature filled with accomplishment, stories of conflict and noble triumph or bitter tragedy of ambitious men in building a new land; and clinging to Literature’s lower leg, Pulp Fiction, filled with struggle, action, mistakes, happily-ever-after and a villain brought to account, events repeated throughout colonial history. Common to virtually every convict family who also struggled to build a life for themselves in a new land.

One couldn’t survive without the other. Without Pulp Fiction, Literature has no basis; without Literature, Pulp Fiction has nothing to aspire to.

History is made up of both: the luminaries who came to Australia to ensure its’ success and guide the colony, and the convicts and free settlers, who did the labour and built the structures, who farmed the land, who desired to be free.

As a writer and part-time historian, I’m more fascinated with Pulp Fiction than Literati, because it is Pulp Fiction who move the nation without recognition, who have the gritty, complicated lives that engage the emotions – despite Literature thinking I should read it instead.

1 comment:

性感的我 said...