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The highly entertaining Wayward Tourist publishes edited extracts from Mark Twain’s Following the Equator (1897).  Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, traveled to Australia in 1895 as part of a world tour of 150 lectures.  It is a fascinating, sometimes sad, but often very humorous excursion through Australia, its people, its cities and its peculiar histories.  In this sense, it’s really an early pointer to books such as the very funny Down Under by Bill Bryson.  They both successfully mix tragedy, success, history, culture, and bizarre travel experiences, and neatly wrap them in a laugh-filled package.  For lovers of Bryson and/or those with an interest in Australian history, this is a wonderful book.

The excellent introduction, written by Don Watson, summarises Twain thus:

… the essential American and the still small voice of the flimsy, paradoxical, eternal good in the democracy.  For most of those who have read him he still is.  The trick, as he said, was all in the telling.

Twain’s skill in ‘telling’ is evident throughout as he recalls his journey to and around Australia in short and amusing tales.  At the time of his visit, Twain was one of the most well known people in the world, and he and his family “were greeted – almost literally – like royalty, and the lectures, called ‘At Homes’ were triumphs.”

Twain also came to Australia at a very interesting time, with the rise in federalist sentiment, lead by Sir Henry Parkes and others, whom Twain met, that would lead to the formation only a few years later of the Federation of Australia.  Twain advised it would be ‘unwise’ and unnecessary for the colonies to ‘cut loose from the British Empire.’  The fact that Twain was such a keen observer gives us a fascinating insight into Australia at the time from an outsider’s perspective.

The stories start with Twain’s arrival in Sydney.  Twain finds the harbour “superbly beautiful” and then, on a “natural impulse … gave God the praise.”  The local he said this to suggested that Twain had only captured half of Sydney, stating: ‘God made the Harbor … but Satan made Sydney.’”  As a Sydney-sider myself, I have read this beguiling quote many times before and … cannot argue it!

Twain then describes, with some displeasure, the “most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show” … when he and all his fellow travellers must get out of one train and onto another in bighting evening cold near the border of NSW & Victoria because of the different track gauges used in the two states at the time.  He goes on: “Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth”.  Unfortunately for me, it seems the paralysis of transport planning still dogs Sydney, though Melbourne fairs much better.

Some pages read a little like reportage, but there is always a humorous anecdote to follow.  Some of the biggest events (and mishaps) in our fledgling history are explored.  Examples include the Rum Corps’ iron-grip on the early Sydney colony through its monopoly on rum imports; the Eureka Stockade which “may be called the finest thing in Australian history”; and the Melbourne Cup.  Twain is effusive in his praise of Cup Day: “The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, happy; … Cup Day is supreme – it has no rival.”  I’m happy to report that the fervent and national ritual of Melbourne Cup Day continues unabated.

We soon arrive at another of Twain’s famous ‘Australian’ quotes which Peter Carey used in introducing his wonderful Illywhacker, (a personal favourite).  Twain describes the splendour of Melbourne and reflects on how this “majestic” city grew from the most inauspicious, convict-laboured start.  He concludes:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place.  It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful of lies.  And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones.  It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened. 

It’s a perfect summation, and all the tales in this book reflect this.

Twain describes the locals as having “English friendliness with the English shyness and self-consciousness left out.”  But he can’t resist poking fun at the local accent, with its mislaid ‘y’, relating a chambermaid’s morning comments: “The tyble is set, and here is the piper [paper]; and if the lydy is ready I’ll tell the wyter to bring up the breakfast.”  It’s a perfect summation.

Twain is also much taken with the expression: ‘my word!’ He references it throughout the book, concluding that Americans “must import it. … spoken with the proper Australian unction and fervency … it is music to the ears … the first time I heard an Australian say it, it was positively thrilling.”

Everything Comes to He Who Waits describes Twain’s arrival into Adelaide, known in Australia as ‘the city of churches’ – and for good reason, as Twain tabulates the published census and the exhaustive list of religions, after which he delightfully observes that there are: “About 64 roads to the other world.”

Twain explores the collision of aboriginal and white settlers, particularly in Tasmania.  A staunch anti-racist, most of his observations are spot on.  However, some are not.  In The Conciliator Twain details the amazing story of one George Augustus Robinson, who set out in search of the remaining 300 Tasmanian aboriginals, in an effort to persuade them to be peacefully resettled on Flinders Island in Bass Straight.  This was the government’s last-ditch effort to save the aboriginals before they were exterminated.  Over four years he persuaded all of them, without shedding one drop of blood.

I say amazing, but it is also heartbreaking, for whilst Robinson was able to persuade the aboriginals, whose numbers had been decimated because of running battles with white settlers, the re-settlement was of course a complete failure.  The aboriginals were given religion and set classes and work and pay, but soon realised that they had been taken away from their land – their home – and the set structure of life on these foreign islands was a complete anathema to them.  Instead of a home they were given a prison camp, and many died of disease and broken hearts – one of the few times that expression will hold any truth.

(What Twain does not report is that Robinson reputedly offered inducements to the aboriginals that included the freedom to continue their own cultural traditions.  This was effectively denied them once they got to Flinders Island.  Robinson is effectively now seen as a negative figure for aboriginals despite what may have initially been good intentions.  Twain does capture the tragedy of the aboriginals’ loss, but there is some uneasiness in his notes that they widely practiced infanticide as a means of keeping their population low, as well as cannibalism; I have not heard of these before, and I thus suspect error; they may or may not be true, but I am unsure what to make of them without reading further.)*

I was hoping to find a quote of Twain on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, which I read some years ago, in which he compared it very favourably to his beloved Mississippi.  But alas, the Hawkesbury does not rate a mention and now I wonder whether I read such a quote at all!  Instead, we get a different river reference: Watson’s introduction explains that the pen name ‘Mark Twain’ originates from the river: “Mark Twain means ‘mark two’, the ‘two’ meaning ‘two fathoms’, meaning, on a paddle steamer … the river is twelve feet deep, which was the safe minimum for navigation.”  (You learn something new everyday).

I love thoughtful cover art for books – and this book is simple but effective, with a portrait photo of Twain on whose head sits a laughing kookaburra, perhaps Twain’s alter-ego for his trip ‘down under’.  I really enjoyed this entertaining read.  I can only sign-off on such a review with the surprised salute so-loved by Twain:

My word!

* Update: After reading Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers, as well as other primary sources of early colonial history, it is clear that Aboriginal peoples did commit infanticide in some situations, particularly when a suckling mother died. As Clendinnen states, the Aboriginals of the Sydney region were a warrior culture; men were extremely violent to women (a fact, of course, shared by white settlers too).

The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia by Mark Twain, with an Introduction by Don Watson

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 9780522854312

189 pages including Afterword and Notes, (plus an Introduction of an additional 27 pages)

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.


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