Boronia Tea Duelling

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the extensively expanded cottage that had once serviced the small whaling operation at Boronia Beach was turned into the Boronia Hotel. According to the Greater Hobart Trails:

“It was popular in the days when the old ferry docked at the jetty at Kingston Beach bringing day-trippers from Hobart. Folk would visit the hotel for a cup of tea and wander through its terraced rhododendron gardens down to Boronia Beach.”

Yet this tiny snippet of information is all that is available online. Questions are posed on the Internet, of the history of the hotel, and what happened to the building, and they go unanswered. Bloggers stroll beneath the cliffs of Boronia Beach, never seeing the historic homestead.

I only discovered how mysterious the old Boronia Hotel is after my partner and I started renting it a year ago, when it hadn’t been permanently lived in for about two decades. In my experience, the mysteries of the colonial building are usually: why is the possum screaming again? Where is this new leak coming from? Is that sound under the floorboards a wombat or the awakening of the undead?

Nevertheless, it has been the most perfect venue for hosting events. So, two years after the inaugural Antipodean Tea Duelling to celebrate my quarter century, inspired by the National Tea Duelling Championships I’d witnessed at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival, it was time to duel at Boronia.

We’d learned at the previous event that Arnott’s Nice biscuits were the most appropriate weapon, so contestants added milk and sugar to the tea*, dunked their biscuits for 3 seconds, and then competed to be the last to cleanly “nom” their biscuit.

Various strategies were employed: hovering the biscuit over an open mouth, eating the biscuit early and hoping that the others would push it for too long until the soggy biscuit collapsed, and sheer will power conveyed through eye contact. One contestant amused the crowd by rolling his sleeves, tying up a neckerchief and adding preposterous amounts of sugar to his beverage, but to no advantage as it turned out.

November again proved both convenient and an excuse to celebrate myself, so I pulled out one of those splendid unfolding teas, and my dear friends brought an array of impressive and delicious baked goods.

As well as the most spectacular, uniquely designed and hand-made tea duelling holster:

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Then there was feasting on baked goods, lawn games, more tea duelling, cuddling with the baby poultry. There was also the first known Tim Tam Slam-Off… which was only semi-successful and definitely needs more testing.

Then, in very Victorian fashion, the remaining party partook of a leisurely stroll down to Boronia Beach.

It was a glorious day, with glorious friends, although unfortunately not everyone could attend… ensuring that the tradition must be continued!

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*Tasmanian Breakfast Tea, from the very local Kingston company The Art of Tea.

Many many more photos on Flickr.

Antipodean Ginger Nut Tea Duelling

British traditions in Australia have had, for many decades now, a fierce Australian-ness to them. Take our names, for instance. Most of those Australians with British ancestry have a British name, but we tend to rampantly turn them into diminutives: David is Davo, John is Johnno, Shane is Shazza. For that matter, breakfast is brekky, barbecue is barbie, afternoon is arvo. And then there’s our flag, which is basically the Union Jack with the The Southern Cross stuck on the corner.

So it should come as no surprise that a competition involving dressing up in Victorian period costume and dunking biscuits into tea, a seemingly necessarily British activity, should incorporate a great Aussie bikkie* in the antipodean version. Or, in this case, several varieties of the same great Australian biscuit.

Antipodean Tea Duelling, The Duel

You see, back in the Victorian era, William Arnott, a Scottish immigrant to Australia, set up a bakery in New South Wales. (Even our place names are an Australianised Britain.) His sons continued to run this bakery in New South Wales, until amalgamations and acquisitions of interstate bakeries in the 1960s led to the national company. Then, disaster! The four bakeries, running out of different states, all using different recipes for Ginger Nut Biscuits, trialled baking them to the New South Wales standard. Non-New-South-Welshmen protested vigorously, and Arnott’s decided to maintain the four recipes, even when baking them in a single bakery and giving them identical packaging (apart from nutritional information).

According to the Arnott’s Facebook page (or at least a friend’s reproduction of this passage, as I can’t find the original!):

So now in Queensland, Ginger Nuts are thin and sweet, with a dark colour. In New South Wales they are small, thick and hard, with a light colour. In Victoria and Tasmania, they are bigger, softer and sweeter. While in South and Western Australia, the biscuits look similar to their Victorian cousins, but taste sweeter.

On this particular occasion, being the first known Tasmanian Tea Duelling tournament, we had only managed to supply the Queensland and Tasmanian/Victorian versions of the biscuit.

The tournament was ostensibly held in honour of the quarter century celebration of the year 1989: the year of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the fall of the Berlin Wall and – coincidentally – my birth year. Thus we had gathered a group of discerning gentlefolk in their best Steampunk attire at the Cascade Gardens, below the impressive colonial façade of the Cascade Brewery. We set up the picnic tables with tablecloths, laid out home-made baked goods, fired up the hiking stoves, and brewed ourselves a good Australian Breakfast tea with Ashgrove milk.

Then, the challengers stepped forward.

Tea Duelling is a brilliant sport that I’d seen played at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival in England a few months previous, so I’d decided to import it to the colonies. None of us had ever played before, but we were so eager that we decided to play four people off against each other in the first round.

Eyeing each other off, and under my command, the challengers added Ashgrove Milk (or not), sugar (or not), and chose from amongst the mix of Queensland and Tasmanian Ginger Nuts.

Then, it was time to dunk.

Using the British tradition as a guide, I counted for three seconds. The longevity of the round indicated that the Ginger Nuts were made with far more gingery strength than normal dipping biscuits, but it still turned into a surprisingly engaging spectacle. To our surprise, the milk-less competitor was at no disadvantage even with her hotter brew, and she came solidly second of the four. The winner became the new Tiffin Master, and thus the game continued, using Arnott’s Nice biscuits when we wanted shorter rounds. (This biscuit turned out to be the undoing of yours truly, since the soggy biscuit lost structural integrity at the vital moment, and collapsed partly onto my face, resulting in the winner being the first – and only – competitor to have nommed his biscuit.)

The result of this great Antipodean Tea Duelling Ginger Nut experiment? To be honest, we did not actually keep enough record to scientifically state the superior Tea Duelling variety of Ginger Nut. However, you can cheer yourself up by reading an excellent review of the teeth-breaking strength of the New South Wales Ginger Nut in this blog.

And you can further console yourself with the knowledge that Antipodean Gingernut Tea Duelling shall continue, until a Superior Tea Duelling Ginger Nut† has been determined.

*Bikkie and bikky are acceptable abbreviations of biscuit, but since Arnott’s themselves use bikkie I’ve adopted that here.

†Though we all already know that the Victorian/Tasmanian variety is the superior biscuit per se.

In my research on the history of Arnott’s, I also discovered a quiz answering what your biscuit preference says about your personality.

Sixty Lights, Gail Jones

“You want the maculate, not the immaculate…”
“Yes”, said Lucy. “The world is like this, don’t you think? Marked, and shadowed, and flecked with time.”

(Sixty Lights, 146)

If there was ever a book marked, shadowed and flecked with time, then this is it.

A work of historical fiction (neo-Victorian fiction, to be precise), Jones’ novel moves across the nineteenth century world with lyricism, whimsy and intentional anachronism to explore a nostalgic vision of the Victorian era.

This is the tale of Lucy Strange, who opens the book as a young and pregnant woman in India dreaming of death, and whose death at age 22 is revealed to the reader on the second page. This prologue is succeeded by the image of Lucy as an eight year-old in the Victorian colony of Australia in 1860, watching her mother’s pregnancy and death, followed in the same chapter by her father’s suicide. The narrator says before the imminent death of Lucy’s mother that “it is from this day that [Lucy’s] life enters the mode of melodrama” (7), and she is indeed thrown out into a wide and engaging world.

Lucy, orphaned with her brother Thomas, is sent to live with their uncle Neville in England. With Neville’s spiritual forays and financial ruin, the children are sent to work, and later Lucy to India. The rest of the novel is Lucy’s young adult life, including her forays into photography and her pregnancy and motherhood, and finally her pre-determined terminal illness.

It is aptly named, for Sixty Lights is a novel of sixty photograph-like chapters, each with their own tone, shade and images. Photo-graph, transliterated from the Greek as “light-writing”, is precisely Jones’ concern. Her chapters are illuminated in a variety of ways, from the candlelight and sunlight of Australia to the gas-lamps and magic lanterns of London, as well as employing flames and mirrors.

Throughout this novel, Lucy develops a philosophy of bioluminescence: that life creates light, and that light is connected with images, experiences and memories. This is a text that takes a less critical approach to neo-Victorian representation than some recent novels.* However, Jones is nevertheless no less self-reflexive or intertextual than many neo-Victorian novels, and she intersperses her nineteenth century narrative with “ghosts” from the present – anachronistic references, and modern sensibilities.

A neat analogy for the novel is a scene in which Lucy is charmed by her thumbprint on photographs (199). Lucy is recognising that in seeing her thumbprints she is being honest about the construction of them. This analogy can be applied to the book as a whole: in allowing us to see the ‘thumbprints’ of the postmodern world, Jones is celebrating the maculate nature of the world, and accepting the necessarily constructed nature of art. This is a poetic, nostalgic novel, whose characters are at times lost to the lyricism, but whose light-writing makes it a memorable read.

Sixty Lights

*This novel is much less critical of the Victorians than, for instance, Jack Maggs, which is Peter Carey’s re-writing of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Jack Maggs, Peter Carey

It is the mid-nineteenth century, and a man has secretly returned to London from the colonies. Having made his fortune in Australia, and anonymously forwarded it towards the prosperity and education of a young man who as a child was kind to him, Maggs now seeks out Henry Phipps.

Names and dates slightly changed, this is a familiar plot to any reader acquainted with Great Expectations. Yet a reader expecting a straightforward adaptation of the original from the Australian perspective would be disappointed. The characters of Dickens’ Magwitch and Carey’s Maggs immediately have marked differences, for Magwitch returns to London in 1829 at the age of 60, and Maggs returns to London at an earlier and more fashionable time of his life, and in 1837, emphasising Carey’s rewriting of the Victorian era.

Moreover, the familiar events all take place in the background of the novel, and it is Carey’s own fictions that fill the foreground. The liminal convict – a pivot for Great Expectations, but nevertheless a sidelined character – is the protagonist, and his plot is Carey’s re-writing of the novel. Maggs, like Magwitch, attempts to go directly to his funded English gentleman, but unlike Pip, Phipps is not at home, and the whole course of their interactions is thus radically altered. Instead, Maggs becomes a footman for the neighbour Percy Buckle, a former grocer and now another gentleman ‘made’ by the inheritance of a fortune. It is here that Maggs meets Tobias Oates, a young author who seeks to mesmerise Maggs in order to explore the ‘Criminal Mind’, in exchange for providing Maggs with the man who he claims can track down Phipps. The plot then follows these central characters, with few (and entirely negative) portrayals of the debauched Phipps.

The plot gets even more complicated with Tobias Oates, because far from being based on a character, he is based on the young Charles Dickens himself. Carey delves into and fictionalises his private life, blending Dickens’ idealising relationship with his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, with his adulterous affair with Ellen Ternan. This appropriation of literary figures as fictional characters is a trend in Neo-Victorian fiction. However, Carey is not simply reversing the roles of protagonist and antagonist, but drawing attention to the constructed nature of texts, and the convoluted nature of our relationship to the Victorians. It is put particularly well by Caryn James in a review in the New York Times:

”Jack Maggs” stands in relation to ”Great Expectations” as ”Great Expectations” itself stands in relation to Dickens’s life: it is a fictional extrapolation in which ”real” events and sources are merely glimpsed; they have been transformed into something fresh, which defies one-to-one correspondences.

In spite of this parodic approach, Jack Maggs convincing reads like Charles Dickens. The novel even borrows dialogue; yet it is these invocations of sameness that make the differences that do exist more potent. While the original Magwitch said “I’m much of your opinion, boy” (GE18), agreeing with Pip that he had the “ague” (fever), Maggs uses these same words to Tobias Oates (JM) in thinking that the boy Phipps was kind. In the former, these words are spoken derisively and off-handedly by a starving convict, in the latter, they are spoken contemplatively by a reminiscing philanthropist. These differences in perspective and focalisation are at their most powerful when alluding closely to the original novel, because the familiar becomes destabilised in reading one event in multiple ways.

This can be interpreted as the philosophy of the novel as a whole: revisiting the familiar territory of Great Expectations with a postcolonial perspective, and thus destabilising it. But there is always a dual relationship of Australia with Britain, of indebtedness and rebelliousness: for without Great Expectations, there could be no Jack Maggs.

Jack Maggs

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

Great Expectations comes with, oddly enough, a great number of expectations.

The author, Charles Dickens, was so renowned in his own time, and so well recalled and respected in our own, that “Dickensian” has come to connote most of our ideas of Victorian London. Great Expectations itself is widely considered one of Dickens best and most mature works of fiction, and is frequently set as school or university text. In fact, whenever there is suggestion of teaching less Dickens, there is a plea for him to be returned: “Our children must read Dickens to grasp the universality of the human condition, compassion for human suffering, and the reality of human heroism.”

So, does Great Expectations meet expectations? Does Dickens teach us about the universality of the human condition?

Well, this depends on what the question means. Great Expectations was was Dickens’ 13th and penultimate novel, and was published serially in All The Year Round in December 1860 to August 1861 before being published in the Victorian tradition of a three volumne book form* in October 1861. The story is about a orphaned English boy, Pip, and his journey into great expectations (of class mobility) with the financial assistance of an anonymous benefactor.

This story is most definitely a product of Dickens and the Victorian era, with much of its popularity depending precisely on its exemplification of so many of the traits of both: dramatic chapters grown out of a serial format; typical bildungsroman style (a story of personal, moral and physical growth); social commentary; eccentric and memorable characters; linear timeline with a realist representation of causal relationships.

Yet while this story is entirely a product of its time, it presents with sophistication and deftness some of the more universal struggles of humanity. Although Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, amongst others, remind us that the more basic tenants of universal feeling are physiological needs, Great Expectations nevertheless addresses some of the key struggles of modern culture. Pip is a satisfyingly flawed protagonist, beset by ambition, guilt and weakness, as well as courage and kindness. The plot may be driven by wealth and class struggles, but these are powerful institutions within most modern cultures, and they are treated accordingly by Dickens. And above all, Pip learns that wealth and class are institutions that do not necessarily come with human empathy or love. But perhaps most importantly, Dickens is currently one of most powerful figures of literature, and while his legacy may be considered problematic for a huge number of reasons, it is a legacy all the same. And reading that legacy, and being able to respond to it in an informed way, is a way of engaging with it.

So, for what it’s worth, I would recommend reading Dickens: it is time to meet those great expectations.

Great Expectations, Penguin Classics

For a short and lovely review of the book (and one that actually talks a bit more about the plot!), check out If You Give a Girl a Novel.

* This three volumne, or triple-/three-decker, form developed as a result of the popular circulating library in the Victorian era. With printing and binding still relatively expensive, this form offset costs for the publisher, who could borrow these services on credit and pay it back after selling the three-deckers to the lending libraries (especially the well-established Mudie’s Lending Library, the largest at the time). This form allowed multiple users to read different sections at once, encouraged people to finish the story by borrowing all three volumnes, and helped earlier volumnes pay for the publication of the latter. For more information, see the The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel.