Sunday, 22 August 2021

Book Review - Cyclone Country

Cyclone Country: The Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature

Author: Chrystopher J. Spicer, 2020

Foreword by Stephen Torre

Publisher: McFarland and Company, North Carolina, 2020

ISBN: 9781476681566, paperback, 210 pages inc. appendices, bibliography and index


For North Queenslanders, cyclones are an ordinary, though disruptive, part of everyday life. We prepare our homes for the potential onslaught as best we can, we stock up on food and water and batteries, and settle in to wait it out. For the most part it’s all very routine, but the biggest, most destructive cyclones are embedded within our psyche, like neon signposts marking out our lived experience, both before and after a ‘big blow’. In most recent memory, the impacts of cyclones Yasi and Larry loom large for many, but even earlier cyclones — such as cyclone Althea, which devastated Townsville in December 1971 — can continue to possess a terrifying hold over those who lived through them. 


Chrystopher J. Spicer’s book Cyclone Country examines the use of the cyclone as a literary device in Queensland fiction and poetry by interrogating the works of writers such as Vance Palmer, Thea Astley, Patrick White, Alexis Wright, and Susan Hawthorne (among others). Spicer’s critical readings of these works facilitate his exploration of the ‘use of the cyclone trope as a metaphor for epiphany and revelatory apocalypse’.


One of those works, Vance Palmer’s 1947 novel Cyclone — a fictionalised version of the impacts of a real cyclone that caused widespread destruction and death in Far North Queensland in 1934 — purports to be a story of conflict and emotional tension accentuated by a ‘brooding cyclone’. But beyond that, Palmer’s novel utilises the cyclone as a catalyst for change and renewal to great effect. After the cyclone comes the opportunity for rebuilding, both physically and emotionally, through the resilience that results from survival. One of the novel’s characters, in surveying the physical destruction after the cyclone has passed, describes a scene that is all too familiar to many North Queenslanders:


‘Not a leaf anywhere; hardly a standing tree. It was as if a giant scythe had swept over the timber and undergrowth that came to the water’s edge, mowing a twenty-mile swathe to the hills inland.’[1]


Spicer notes that because Palmer had an intimate connection with the region where the novel was set (he and wife Nettie lived on Green Island for a short time), Palmer was ‘aware of the power of cyclones to change people’s lives physically and spiritually.’ Indeed, Palmer lost a friend to the 1934 cyclone, and Spicer argues that Palmer ‘sought in his imagination to understand and cope with the challenges of a North Queensland place that now included memories of catastrophe and chaos, along with those of paradise and peace.’


But quite apart from his finely nuanced discussion of such canonical works of Australian literature, Spicer’s chapter ‘The Naming of the Disaster’ is, in itself, a fascinating look at the history of naming cyclones and other destructive storms. He writes that ‘naming cyclones is an important aspect of how we perceive and conceptualize them in our minds’. By naming a cyclone, we are distinguishing it from other destructive weather events, so that ‘it becomes an individual entity in our imagination’. And Spicer suggests that ultimately, by naming cyclones, we are attempting to reduce such large-scale weather events that threaten to engulf us in chaos, to a more human scale, and potentially into something that we might have some control over.


A cultural historian and adjunct senior research fellow at James Cook University, North Queensland, Spicer has written books on Australian cultural history and the American film industry. 


The book has been meticulously referenced and includes a comprehensive index. There are also two appendices that list literary works featuring cyclones that are either written and/or set in Queensland, and international literary works that feature cyclonic storms. 


There is much to recommend about Cyclone Country. It’s a thought-provoking, sophisticated, and highly complex book that lovers of Australian literature, in particular, will find engrossing.


Trisha Fielding

[1] Vance Palmer, Cyclone, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1947, p. 181.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Townsville Bowls Club - a panacea for the ills of the world

Townsville's first bowling green, on The Strand, opposite the Criterion Hotel, was widely expected to be "one of the panaceas for all the worries and ills known to mankind." The Townsville Daily Bulletin made this rather ambitious statement in May 1914 when it reported on the progress of the search for a suitable location for a bowling green. Sites at The Strand, the grounds of Reception House, the Sports Reserve, Cameron Park, and West End were all considered, before a small parcel of land on The Strand was chosen.
Players on the green at the Townsville Bowling Club, possibly 1916-1918, with the Criterion Hotel in the background. Photographer Charles Hunt. Photo: NQID 01543, FGA Cooke Album, North Queensland Photographic Collection, James Cook University Library Special Collections.
Since there were already 70 people interested in becoming members of the Townsville Bowling Club - if a green could indeed be built - the Townsville Daily Bulletin predicted: 
... it is now practically certain that before long Townsville will possess its bowling green, which the local citizens, both old and young, will soon learn to appreciate as the source of many hours' keen enjoyment, and as one of the panaceas for all the worries and ills known to mankind.
The Townsville Council soon resolved to grant the Club a 15-year lease for a parcel of land on what was known as the Strand Park Reserve for the purposes of laying down a bowling green. There were a few conditions on the lease, one being that the Council could take the land back (after the expiration of the term of the lease) if it felt that the land was required for other purposes. Plans and specifications for the green itself and all buildings proposed for the site had to first be approved by Council. There was also a requirement for the club to allow "ratepayers and the public to have the option at all times of viewing from the banks all games played upon the green."
Players on the green at the Townsville Bowling Club, possibly 1916-1918. Photographer Charles Hunt. Photo: NQID 01544, FGA Cooke Album, North Queensland Photographic Collection, James Cook University Library Special Collections.

The official opening of the bowling green took place in July 1915, though the green had reportedly been in use for some weeks before the official opening. The green itself had cost
£579 14s 2p, and the building and fittings £106 9s. The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on the opening:
The green looked very attractive on the occasion, and the fence had been decked with flags, whilst over the pavilion floated the Australian flag and the club colors. The ceremony was timed for 2.30 and shortly after that hour, a large number of members and guests were present, the latter including a number of ladies, who were received by Mrs W. Hunt, the wife of the President of the Club.  
At its official opening, the Club boasted 10 life members, 10 country members, and 144 ordinary members. All members were men. Membership was not open to women, though the Bulletin reporter suspected that the women who attended the official opening might have liked to become members, noting: "Interest was taken in the games, and several feminine voices were heard regretting that ladies were not eligible for membership to the Club." The Club did eventually allow the "ladies" to get involved, and not just in preparing the afternoon tea! 

In 1991 - in a move that was probably as controversial as allowing ladies to become members - the Club converted the green to synthetic turf. Membership numbers reportedly dropped significantly after this.

Former Townsville Bowls Club, August 2021. Photos: Trisha Fielding.

Long outlasting its initial 15-year lease, the Townsville Bowling Club (the name was later shortened to Townsville Bowls Club) ran for 100 years. It closed its doors at the end of 2015. The site is now a pretty sad reminder of the glory days of the Club, though the vintage gates are still rather fabulous. Pictured below, they survived the onslaught of Cyclone Althea in December 1971 and are still standing proud today.
Gates of the former Townsville Bowls Club, The Strand, Townsville, August 2021. Photo: Trisha Fielding.  

The gates of the Townsville Bowling Club, still standing after Cyclone Althea, December 1971. Note the word 'Bowling' is spelled in full, while the top photo reads 'Bowls'. Photo: Townsville Bowls Club.

Damage to Townsville Bowls Club from Cyclone Althea, 1971. Photo: NQID02976, North Queensland Photographic Collection, James Cook University Library Special Collections.