Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2013

The Following, by Roger McDonald

The FollowingThis week, it so happens I have occasion to feel pity for an Iranian hangman. (See Iran decides man who survived execution should be hanged a second time). This is an appalling situation: ghastly for the victim and his family, and as a long-time opponent of the death penalty I support the worldwide call to stop it.   But – ever since reading a short story by Balzac about a hangman wracked by guilt – I have been conscious too that capital punishment inflicts horror on the people who are tasked by society with carrying it out.   In Roger McDonald’s remarkable new novel, The Following, the reader meets a hangman – and learns to like him.

Like most civilised countries, Australia abolished capital punishment decades ago, but it was still in use in the early 20th century when McDonald’s novel begins.  The novel shows us that the hangman must keep quiet about his hideous occupation, and that there was ghoulish interest in guessing his identity…

But I should begin this review with a reminder that Roger McDonald is the one who christened me ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature’ when I met him at the Miles Franklin Award presentation in Melbourne in 2011, and I featured him in Meet an Aussie Author in the same year.  So you might think I’m predisposed to like his work, and indeed I did like his first novel 1915 (1979) when I read it earlier this year, I admired When Colts Ran (2011)  very much when it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin (see my review), and I also enjoyed Mr Darwin’s Shooter (1998) which was the first book I ever read by this author.  But I didn’t like the book which won the Miles Franklin Award, not at all.  Conscious of my contrariness, I tried to read The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006) three times and just couldn’t get interested in it.  [Update: The fourth time I tried to read it, I fell in love with it, and couldn’t understand why I reacted against it before.  See my review.]

So, dear reader, if you weren’t already confident that I can be objective about my favourite authors, I hope that my confession reassures you, and that you will trust me when I say that I was mesmerised by this unwieldy novel that stars an Australia that we barely recognise.

The Following is written in three parts, three novellas connected across time and space.  The title is a pun: the book traces the lives of generations which follow, and the political following that degenerates from idealism to ‘pragmatism’.  There are no chapters to disrupt the flow of events.  The writing is superb: at its best it reminded me of reading Patrick White because of the way the prose forces the reader to stop and re-read and mull over its impact.  But it is a demanding book: McDonald expects his readers to be conversant with historical events and patterns, and Aussies who have by-passed their own history may perhaps not recognise some of its treasures.

The first novella, entitled ‘The Friendly Knot’ was my favourite because it’s a loose fictionalisation of the life of Australia’s great reforming prime minister, Ben Chifley (1945-9).  The book renames Chifley as Marcus Friendly and it begins just before WWI when the romance of the railways was still supreme.  As I read in David Day’s very readable biography, Chifley: A Life there was a time when engine drivers had the prestige now accorded to airline pilots, and for the same reason: they held the lives of hundreds of people in their hands, in the days when there were none of the (hopefully) fail-safe mechanisms that operate in rail transport today.  In McDonald’s novel, Friendly does what Chifley did – as the railways snaked across New South Wales in its rural heyday he rose from dire poverty through the ranks to become an engine driver, and progressed from union activist to political representative.  Throughout his life the fictional Friendly enjoys the same admiration and respect as Chifley did: even today you can still meet elderly people who will nod sagely, and tell you that Chifley was the best prime minister Australia ever had.

This is a ‘political novel’ in the sense that it depicts how politics shaped the lives of ordinary people in ways now often forgotten.  In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the revelations about Stalinism, socialism is almost universally derided but in the early days of the 20th century it offered hope to the working class desperate for improvement in their living conditions, and there were welfare and industrial reforms which only occurred because socialism empowered working people to articulate their demands. The poverty described in such unmelodramatic fashion by McDonald is extreme: fettlers (the men who did track maintenance) and their families live in tents, and many are in such dire circumstances that they depend on largesse from the Dutchy Wolffs, father and son, who slaughter the ‘road kill’ flung aside by the trains as they hurtle through the night.

This was a period when many could never marry because they simply couldn’t afford to.  Not a matter of affording a wedding or a McMansion to live in, it was a matter of affording the inevitable children.  (There was no birth control available).  A punitive demotion meant the end of marriage plans:

The railways as a principle of organisation shaped Marcus’s understanding.  His ideals had brought him down in the big strike and destroyed his  expectations.  He was no longer on marriageable pay.

The working conditions were shocking:

Up to forty trains a day were put through at Harden.  Pairs of rails descended through switching levers at junction points leading to pairs of rails at the lower end of the shunting yards where the trains were assembled.  A braid of points, switching levers and signal lamps stood between life and death.  A shunter died here a month ago. Weeks before that, a man lost his leg.  The messenger boy running with Pearl’s letter was lucky to be alive the way he came flying over the rails with his flapping satchel.  Every few minutes goods trains were uncoupled and released, brakeless, down the incline.  They did not travel fast, but there was no stopping them once released as they clanked over points and rumbled past shunters before juddering on the buffers of the next wagon in line.  (p.57)

The theme that links all three novellas is a nostalgia for what we might call ‘old values’.  Marcus Friendly is fired by honest idealism which aims to better the lives of the working class, a term in the Australian vernacular now displaced by ‘workers’ which means something different.  In Friendly’s era conditions that were unexceptional then would not be contemplated in Australia now and there was a kind of heroism in being part of a movement to improve the appalling way that working class people were treated.  Engine drivers and firemen even had to sleep on the ground beside the railway lines before catching their shift.

Next day, mid-afternoon, the two railwaymen slept on the shaded side of their engine on a bypass line near Cootamundra.  It was hot and hard on the gravel at the side of the tracks, and how they slept.  The driver used three jute sacks folded like a narrow mattress while the fireman threw himself on the rough ground to wait it out. (p.63) 

This part of novel is full of revelations like this.  It’s like reading A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey, an autobiography which never fails to astonish people reading it for the first time because the author without a trace of self-pity writes of privations then commonplace that seem unimaginable from the comfort of the 21st century.

Marcus Friendly’s Australia is deeply riven, from the Conscription Referendum to the fear of socialism.  Friendly is a workingman, and everything he does is to promote the cause: improving the lives of his fellows.  He doesn’t enlist in WW1 so that he can serve the cause, and he’s an active unionist, supporting the general strike long after many engine drivers gave in to lesser conditions.  It was a time of oppositional politics when the idea of ‘making a fight’ seemed the only way.  Bosses and workers were always on either side of an irreconcilable divide.  In the wake of the Russian Revolution, socialism was no longer theoretical and unionists were targeted in efforts to stamp it out lest it spread.  Payrolls were scoured for membership of the international industrial union formed in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World a.k.a. the ‘Wobblies‘, the radicals who in McDonald’s story might shoot a copper because of what he was.

Socialism as a creed was on a sliding scale, that was the trouble  At one end, Marcus and Tim’s end, it created opportunities for free men to better themselves in their own way – socialism with a vote.  At the other end it became violent, where socialism told men what to do and be – men to be killed just for the idea of what they weren’t, plug a copper, do it. (p. 49)

These enmities were sometimes played out on the football field where teams drew on towns with much bigger populations than now,  their players often representing unionists with competing philosophies i.e. political action v direct action.  The Tottenham team was composed of miners, and Bathurst was a railway town.  In The Following Tottenham is where two ‘Wobblies’ were hung, and the ensuing match was not a friendly one.

This part of the book is absolutely fascinating, bringing the era to life with an authenticity that had me hooked from the start.

Book Two, entitled ‘The Morrison Hitch’, bypasses the long political somnolence of post-war Australia to the time of another reforming Labor Prime Minister, but the tone is entirely different.  There were parts of Book Two which made me chuckle: I like the way McDonald satirises the muddle-headed way we Aussies go about things, including the way that we self-sabotaged the process of choosing a new anthem to replace the British one, something we didn’t get round to doing until 1977.   In The Following Bounder Morrison’s ‘Confounded Blight’ isn’t chosen because it’s not respectable enough, and back in 1977 we were still anxious about being respectable and that’s why we didn’t end up with ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda, the national song that we love.  We ended up with the uninspiring, unloved Advance Australia Fair.  Neither stirring nor sentimental, it has risible lyrics (especially the second verse that mercifully, nobody knows) and the melody is a dirge.  *Ducking for cover* I think we should ditch it when we eventually get round to having a new flag, one that acknowledges our indigenous people.

Kyle Morrison in Book Two is 65 years old in the mid 1970s, and he’s the copyright trustee of ‘Bounder’ Morrison’s estate.  (Bounder is modelled on Australia’s bush poet Banjo Paterson (1864-1941).  Kyle’s not the son that Bounder wanted, ‘a standard, awkward, unemotional, stitched-up country bloke’ (p. 116) and he’s confused about his identity.  But it’s not just his identity that’s in a mess: the local pubs have started to betray their origins too.  ‘Tattersall’s’ was traditionally for the ‘grandees’ – station masters, engineers and railway commissioners – while Peterson’s was, until the decline of the railways, a ‘bloodhouse’ for the workers.  Now it’s become part of the ‘economically self-advantaging workingman’s wealth drive’.  The Petersons own a chain of other pubs as well, and Max Peterson – representing a new cynicism in union politics as it professionalises – operates remote from the workplace at Trades Hall in Sydney and (obviously very well paid) he drives a Jaguar.

As for the town’s literary heritage, that’s relegated to a dusty display of Bounder Morrison memorabilia and scornful commentary about him that makes Powys Wignall glad to be an ‘unread writer’.  McDonald has some sharp-edged fun with Powys, an author held in ‘contemptuous awe’ whose Cambridge education, posh accent and money suggest Patrick White.  His companion, Margaret Poole, a journalist travelling with him to research the Wobblies, seems like an amalgam of Kylie Tennant who went on the road during the Depression to research her stories, and Ruth Park who came from New Zealand en route to somewhere else but stayed and became one of our best-loved writers.  Like Park and Tennant, Margaret ‘elevated novels to a social purpose and only regretted that Powys’s writing lacked one’.  But she is only able to make this judgement because she ‘had reached a point in Powys’s writing where few readers had, apparently, where she saw things Powys’s way and could not stop reading’. (p.160)  Like White but perhaps dubious about writing that’s ‘not connected to anything but the hand that trailed the ink across the page’, McDonald has no illusions about Australians as readers.  I discern a nostalgia here too: the authenticity of Tennant’s and Park’s writing derives from lived experience, not a writing school.

On the plus side, this era begins the process of righting wrongs, and land cynically bought from traditional owners is restored to them.  Land – and the need to protect it from environmental degradation – is the undercurrent which runs through Book 3, entitled ‘The Yeoman’s Bend’.  The long, slow and painful death of Sonia Johnstone mirrors the long slow death of the natural environment, her husband Harry in tragic denial just as so many people are about climate change and the need for decisive action.  Here the focus is on the demise of idealism and common sense: the Yeoman of the title is ‘Tiger’ Yeoman, a PR hack and disappointment to himself among a ‘brilliant set’ of similar disappointments.  They’ve gathered at Crater Bay on the NSW south coast to idle through the summer.   Max Peterson – rumoured to be Marcus Friendly’s late-fathered son but bereft of any of his ideals – is waiting on a call to the Ministry.  He spends his time drinking to extravagant excess and eating oysters, and his local constituency tolerate his flaws only because of his parentage and because they’re resigned to the absence of anything better.   Women minister to the dying Sonia; Harry inflicts on her awful ‘new age’ alternative therapies that don’t work because he’s putting his own needs first.  Jake and Judith are environmental activists who disapprove of the excesses of the Sea Shepherd but are at their best when playing witty word games on their boat.

The Following is not particularly long at 260 pages, but it is complex and demanding, and it took longer to read than I thought it would.  Both Stella Clark at the Australian and Andrew Reimer at the SMH have reservations about it, but I really liked it.  McDonald writes beautifully, and the vast scope of the novel is conveyed with insight, wisdom and occasionally poignant humour. Like Amanda Curtin’s Elemental (see my review) The Following traces generational legacies and it seems as if the author is likewise challenging readers of the 21st century to consider how we might endure in a cynical world grown soft with indulgence.

Roger McDonald is a recent convert to blogging and you can find his thoughts here.  (And yes, I have tried to be mindful of his thoughts about ‘a good review’, but then, that’s my routine practice ever since I read Angela Bennie’s marvellous book, Crème  de la Phlegm).

PS I almost forgot to mention the symbolism of the knots all through the book!  He explains more about it here.

Author: Roger McDonald
Title: The Following
Publisher: Vintage (Random House), 2103
ISBN: 9781742759913
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $32.95

Availability

Fishpond: The Following


Responses

  1. Sounds fabulous! I wish I was able to read as many books as you devour (and then review) – but as far as books go my eyes are bigger than my belly. So I have shelves and shelves of TBR’s. I loved Mr Darwin’s Shooter and plucked up the courage to tell Roger McDonald when I saw him by chance on Observatory Hill in Sydney some years ago.

  2. Many of my choices of novels, or those I place on my TBR, follow your reviews, Lisa, I certainly agree with Roger McDonald’s description of you as ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature’; it is truly accurate. Your prodigious reading, and consequent incisive, realistically honest and detailed reviews are a joy to read. You write beautifully, too. I do want to thank you.

    • Thank you so much for your generous comments, Heather:) It’s lovely to come home after a tough day at work and find such encouraging feedback here.


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