Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 21, 2020

An Item from the Late News, by Thea Astley

If you didn’t already know that things tend to end badly in Thea Astley’s novels, the minotaur and its laconic audience on the cover of the 1984 Penguin edition of An Item from the Late News would signal the destination. But still, it comes as a shock.

The novel, narrated by a bitter middle-aged woman with considerable flaws of her own, is the story of a man denied the peace he craves by the venality of an outback town.  Signalled as Christlike by his name Wafer, he lives just beyond the town of Allbut in a shelter that he (naïvely) hopes will protect him from a nuclear bomb.  A survivalist of sorts, he’s built an underground bunker, and divested himself of the 20th century as best he can, earning him the scorn of the ugly rural males that Astley likes to portray.  He is understandably obsessed by his fear of bombs — he was a small boy in London when he saw his father obliterated in the Blitz.  But the catalyst for this novel expressing fears of nuclear annihilation, I suspect, was Australian and international protests against the 1966-1996 French Nuclear Testing Program in the Pacific (which subsequently culminated in state-sponsored terrorism: the bombing by French intelligence services of the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand in 1985.)  Other current issues in Astley’s sights include a coast miscalled Sunshine of the vanishing sand, the varicosed bitumen, the high blood-pressure of high-rise; and PTSD among Vietnam war veterans as portrayed by the sinister evil of Moon.

Gabby, so called by her father and brother because she’s always talking about things they deem to be trivial, has been married to men whose names she has forgotten.  She is a desultory artist, whose nervous breakdown seems to have been triggered by her mother’s insistence that she cannot live without a man. Astley’s mocking account of a car-salesman of a psychiatrist whose punishment for her ‘misdemeanors’ is a long-term long-sleep needle is an allusion to the Chelmsford Private Hospital Deep Sleep Therapy scandal (1963-1979), which triggered the Royal Commission into Mental Health 1988-1990 in NSW.

(I wonder how many of us would recall that scandal? There’s also an allusion to stone struck to muezzin life by the sun — how many of us knew what that was back in the 1980s?  I knew nothing about Islam until I taught my first Turkish student in 1985.  There are musical allusions too: I liked a largo droop to the shoulders but had more trouble with Hunding’s ominous theme referenced as a Wagnerian warning ignored:  I had to look up the plot of Das Valkyries for that one even though I’ve seen the opera three times, alas only on DVD. )

But although there are allusions that will remain obscure to many, there are also occasions where Astley deftly explains them.  When Gabby is being snooty in Denmark when she’s asked if she watches Dallas, she puzzles her hapless hosts by saying ‘It’s like the Mass in Latin’ — and then she explains to them (and her readers) that ‘the church used to argue for the use of Latin that it gave you a sense of familiarity anywhere in the world’ — and goes on to add in an authorial aside that “it’s amusing, isn’t it, to know that ‘Dallas’ or ‘The Incredible Hulk’ or ‘Hawaii-Five-O’ have taken the place of the Tridentine Mass. It’s no coincidence that her examples of TV shows are all American, and not from the BBC which was also standard fare on ABC TV in the 1980s: in the bush commercial TV was a recent phenomenon which was supposed to be enlarging our vision of the world.

With Gabby back in Allbut for her mother’s funeral, Astley uses two other funerals to signal the cruelty of the town towards anyone Other.  Arch who is intersex is still mocked in death, and Tommy Wildapple’s Indigenous sister Rosie is denied the opportunity to be at his funeral in the most humiliating way.  Gabby despises everyone from her father in his squatter’s chair to the entire town, but develops an attraction to Wafer.  His near neighbours are Moon, a loner with a quick temper and a dubious history whichever one you believe; and Colley, a failed architect with an overdose of charm and a 13 year-old daughter who is assaulted by Moon when he comes across her bathing in a pool.

Emmy flees to Wafer but nothing is done about the assault because of an accident of timing: Colley has broken his hip and in the kerfuffle they don’t tell him.  He remains unaware, unaware and he’s offstage leaving Emmy alone, which turns out to have great significance as events proceed.  Wafer alienates the town by helping the crew of an overturned circus train when the town would rather see the back of them, and he also commits the offence of being too friendly with the blacks.  But a much more serious cause for resentment is that nobody believes that he didn’t know that his beautiful talisman is a valuable sapphire, and that he doesn’t remember where on his travels he found it.  With a willing audience that includes Gabby’s complicit father and brother, Moon, the policeman Cropper, and Slobo the publican go to extreme lengths to force him to tell what he doesn’t know.

And Gabby, revealing herself as needy as a pathetic schoolgirl in love, betrays him horribly.

An Item from the Late News is brutal and relentless, and the title is a reminder that everyday violence is too often just a postscript to the news…

1982 First edition

Author: Thea Astley
Title: An Item from the Late News
Publisher: Penguin,1984 first published by UQP 1982
Cover illustration by Drew Aitken
ISBN: 014 006948 8, pbk., 200 pages
Source: OpShop Find


Responses

  1. I already ordered this one online – I’m hoping it’s not quite as depressing as Reaching Tin River – although I can forgive Astley in Tin River as she still demonstrates her scathing wit at times, mostly during the earlier part of the novel – you’re right about Astley’s endings so often being bleak! In Tin River the young woman protagonist, who is also the narrator, unwanted & ignored by her parents, comments on the only time her father touches her – when she is still unborn and her father runs his fingers over her mother’s pregnant stomach. A wonderfully poignant description of how unloved she felt.

    In Lamb’s book about Thea Astley she mentions that Bessie Mitchell, who was the Principal of my old public high school, (and whom I remember as someone you didn’t mess with, I think I was a bit scared of her) employed the brightest and best teachers, Thea Astley and Amy Witting being among them. I only knew Bessie Mitchell for my first couple of years at high school before she retired but she was a formidable intellect, and I just discovered she taught for some time in the town where I now live! I just love it when I discover snippets like this in these conversations!

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    • That is amazing, I wonder if the school has plaques up so that pilgrims can breathe in the atmosphere that nurtured these great writers!
      I haven’t got Tin River yet, but I’ve nearly finished Beachmasters and it is so different to the others I’ve read: it’s set offshore, for a start, and so she’s not doing her trademark critique of Queensland and it’s not bitter…

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  2. Chuckle!!! Yes if only I’d been aware back then of the greats that had taught there – alas before I attended… Shows how the headmistress had an eye for talented people though. She topped the School Leaving herself apparently. I can imagine she would have liked people like Astley- similar temperament! I wonder what Amy Witting was like..

    I also remember the Chelmsford scandal very well as I worked in a psychiatric hospital for some time and we were very well aware of what had happened at Chelmsford – in particular because we had a senior doctor requesting we “fake” hospital admissions in order to get greater funding – a worthy aim but one which put people such as Yours Truly in the situation of staff at Chelmsford – ie. legally liable for any such actions despite being under the orders of a superior – I had to get a Stat Dec done in anticipation of any legal/criminal hearing in order to protect myself!

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    • Good heavens, what a ghastly situation to be in! And of course it’s so stressful because you worry for years about what the repercussions might be…
      Schools are usually very good at bragging about famous alumni, but maybe Astley, being so stridently anti-Queensland, was not one they were proud of?

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      • I think I wasn’t at the age to be interested – I don’t think teenagers are! I look now and appreciate what amazingly gifted teachers our school principal had managed recruit – and this at a public school, not a fee paying private school I am glad to say!

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        • We need to do everything we can to attract teachers like that back into the system…

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  3. And I’d be interested to hear what you think of Beachmasters when you’ve finished it.

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    • I have about 40 pages to go…

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  4. […] for ANZLL Thea Astley Week; Lisa also reviewed the book for her […]

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  5. I’m sorry I can’t comment on Tin River Sue as it’s so long since I’ve read it, and it hasn’t stuck in my brain that way most of her other novels that I’ve read have – I think I read it during a very tired part of my life.

    Anyhow, Lisa, I enjoyed your review, and your reference to appropriate events that may have inspired or informed her novel.

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    • It’s been very interesting to have these old events stirring in my brain from so long ago…

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      • Haha, Lisa … a sign of getting older that we start thinking about the past?!

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        • Well, yes, but I was thinking more in terms of how these events lurk in memory where they have had no relevance to us at all, but were just things that happened and we read about them in the news and then life moved on. (Though it wasn’t like that was for Sue, working in a related field, so to speak, when Chelmsford occurred).
          And I was thinking that younger readers would in many cases simply not even realise that there was an allusion there at all, much less go about finding out what she was referred to, and why.

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          • And that’s the way of literature, ins’t it. We read Austen, now, and there are so many things there that make points that contemporaries would have known but that we miss altogether – yet, as with good writers, her works stand on their own anyhow. Astley is like that too isn’t she.

            BTW, I realised that’s what you meant Lisa – I always have a little joke about getting older, because we are, but I did realise you were thinking about how these things suddenly pop up when the occasion arises.

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            • Yes, though my own experience with reading the classics is that they’re so well known and so much the subject of scholarly attention that there can’t be much that passes us by.

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              • Oh but I think there is, or maybe I’m just not as well-read? I’m meaning the subtle things that signify, for example, wealth or status that we don’t pick up. Like, for example, styles of carriages. (though this is an easy one four us to learn.) In Austen, there’s the whole craze for new garden design and renovation that comes out in Mansfield Park, and that creates opportunity for some deeper satire I think than most readers would know. Austen engages with all sorts of contemporary discussion, and uses it to comment on characters, that I think most readers wouldn’t know? Certainly there are things I only know from the deeper research my Austen group does. But maybe this is not what you are meaning?

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                • I was thinking mainly of historical events and social/philanthropical issues in Dickens, Zola, Thackeray, Hardy and the Russians (Tolstoy et al) that we know about, and that are always explained in the introductions that are always there in contemporary editions. (I did Austen at university so I’m leaving her out).
                  But Astley is referring to events that aren’t so widely known…

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                • Yes, I guessed you were really, but I wanted to make the point about all the little clues we don’t know from other paces and times, because they are relevant too… And sometimes harder to research because you don’t know you don’t know them?

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          • You were right Lisa that although I covered myself with legal advice and legal documents – and I had to resign my position – I didn’t know for years whether the case would blow open and end up in criminal proceedings. It was the fact that staff at Chelmsford found themselves on criminal charges despite following orders from above that alerted me to the possibility of this happening to staff at our hospital. Hence I remember it all so vividly. I imagine this would be lost on many readers though. It’s fascinating that Astley was so aware of it.

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            • Yes, she must have kept very aware of current affairs. Of course, current affairs were different in those days: we had state based newspapers of integrity, and there were local current affairs programs on the ABC run by professional journalists, not like now.

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  6. Yes, though the difference might be whether the allusion stands out, Astley was overt with hers, you know she’s on about something even if you don’t know what it could be. Whereas you might not recognise Austen’s wit regarding fads in gardening, but it wouldn’t matter. You’d simply read on. Whereas if you came across “a long-term long-sleep needle” in this book you would be puzzled by it. And I’ve just Googled it, and what you get is sites about pins-and-needles, insomnia and nerve damage!

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