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Bastards from the Bush, A Journey with Bob Ellis and Les Murray (1998)

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clip Taree High School education content clip 2

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Poet Les Murray recalls his experience of being bullied at high school to friend, writer Bob Ellis. Murray was psychologically damaged and recovered by writing a poem.

Curator’s notes

The sequence is shot with two cameras to ensure that reactions are captured as well as the speaker.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows footage of Taree High School in New South Wales as writer Bob Ellis provides a voice-over about poet Les Murray’s early days there. Bob Ellis prompts Les Murray to recall his memories of attending the school. Murray recollects painful events such as the bullying he suffered, especially from girls, and reflects on the effect of this bullying on his writing.

Educational value points

  • Les Murray (1938–), regarded as one of the greatest Australian poets writing in English, has won many literary awards and has been published in ten languages. In 1995 he won the European Petrarch Award for his life’s work. In 1999 he won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for his verse novel Fredy Neptune. A demonstration of his technical skill in writing came from his verse novel The Boys Who Stole the Funeral, containing 140 sonnets.
  • Les Murray is shown revisiting Taree High School, which he attended in the period 1955–56, and describing his experiences of bullying at the school. Murray claims that the ridicule, harassment and sense of being 'castrated’ by the girls’ behaviour at this school had a profound effect on his view of love and sex and contributed to the nervous breakdown he suffered 30 years later.
  • Murray talks about how 'I made a new body for myself’ and found a way to counterbalance the negative feelings about his body shape by creating a 'body of work’. Poetry became a means of working things out. The themes in Murray’s poetry include his concern with victimhood and defence of the outsider, together with his linking of schoolyard bullying to all forms of mob mentality, including fascism.
  • The influence of school bullying through social isolation on a child’s life and mental state is graphically told in this clip. Bullying usually involves one or more students teasing, taunting, threatening and even hitting another. It can also include social isolation of the victim through exclusion. Students who are victims of bullying often fear school and consider it to be an unsafe and unhappy place. They are typically anxious, insecure and suffer low self-esteem.
  • One of the themes Murray explores in his poetry is that of the tensions between urban and rural life and of usurpation, both of land and of culture. Murray grew up the son of an impoverished farmer who was later to be disinherited by his own father. In 1987 Murray returned from Sydney to live in Bunyah, New South Wales, the country home of his boyhood. The theme of the journey from city to country for health and wholeness recurs in his poetry.
  • Murray claims that writing 'Burning want’, a poem that he continued to revise, was to help him 'expose the demons’ and release the power of the depression that afflicted him for periods of time in the 1980s and 1990s. Murray called his depression 'the black dog’, a name that Winston Churchill created for his own depression. In 1996 Murray wrote Killing the Black Dog, an account of his battles with the illness.
  • Bob Ellis, who conceived of and wrote the documentary, is a long-time friend of Les Murray. This relationship between the two men facilitated the production of the documentary and contributed to the intimate nature of their conversations in this clip and the apparent ease with which Murray reveals the painful aspects of his troubled school days.
  • The writer–journalist, filmmaker and political commentator Bob Ellis gained success as co-author of the satirical stage production The Legend of King O’Malley (1970). He also co-wrote the acclaimed film Newsfront (1979) and wrote and directed the largely autobiographical Nostradamus Kid (1993) and Unfinished Business (1985). Ellis worked as a speech writer for Labor politicians, including Bob Carr and Paul Keating. He is the author of 17 books.

This clip starts approximately 23 minutes into the documentary.

Two figures walk towards the camera from a distance, under a canopy of trees. We see pictures of the outside of Taree High School, and hear author Bob Ellis in voice-over, quoting his long-time friend, poet Les Murray, as they stroll the outdoor corridors of the school.
Bob Ellis 'When I was a boy’, Les used to say, 'we were so poor we could scarce afford a roof to our mouth’. His next place of memory was not so sacred for him – more like profane. A place of unfinished business and unlaid ghosts that reached out for him over 35 years and grabbed him by the throat and shook him.

The two men stand in the schoolyard. At one stage in the conversation we see a picture of a young Murray in a military-style school uniform.
Bob I don’t like this, Murray. This is imprisonment. This is hard times.
Les It was a bit, yeah. This is Taree High School. It was, uh, the only school I ever disliked. Other little schools I went to were in my culture, I s’pose, country people, and I don’t remember any harassment or bullying there at all. But uh, came here and got off on the wrong foot somehow. I um, oh, I was a nerd or I was socially inept or ah, or something. And uh, so I was always ridiculous and uh, always called by nickname. No sentence addressed to me, um, ah, would-could fail to contain a reference to fat. But uh, I learned a couple of things. I learned that the heart of harassment is sexual; it’s designed to castrate you.
Bob Oh! mmhmm ok – go on, yeah.
Les You see, if you get it from your own sex, you can overcome it – you can fight ‘em or something. But if it’s from the other sex, you can’t do a thing.
Bob It’s unanswerable.
Les It’s unanswerable. And every day you’re going to be ridiculed in that department.
Bob You said in your book The Black Dog that they would – some girls would pretend to be friends with you and then run away and giggle and shriek with laughter.
Les Shriek with laughter. There’d be sort of heavy, uh, comings-on to me and then they’d run away shrieking with laughter. I learned a lot of things. Like, I would never go to a demonstration because at every demonstration, I can hear the sounds of this quadrangle.
Bob So any organised cat-calling is bad?
Les Yeah. Yeah. Ah, nothing that a mob does is clean. Any mob. What I really did, I s’pose, was to make a new body for myself out of poetry, a body of work. Since my, uh – the flesh body was unacceptable to womankind, I would make myself a perpetual body of poetry.
Bob But in 1988, you ran into…
Les ...one kid, and she used one of the, ah, terms…
Bob …nicknames.
Les One of the nicknames, yeah. And I just came apart. I started falling apart immediately. Ah, you know, crying, driving, and cigars gave me up, which was a- a benefit. And then I had uh, the sort of, uh, phantom heart attacks, which were really just panic attacks, and I slowly started to use the weapon of poetry to try and analyse it and dig out what was in my uh – what was sort of crosswires in my head and what was kind of making me crazy. And I finally got it. It was particularly in a poem called uh, 'Burning Want’.

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