Lie of the Land by John Clanchy

Sometimes I feel like writing one of those list books, even though I hate them.

This one would be called A Pile of Wonderful Books You Won’t Read Before You Die. Because Nobody Does.

And John Clanchy would feature. Although I know lots of avid readers in Australia, the only one who even recognises the name isn’t  connected to his writing, it’s because they both worked at the ANU. Sigh.

This is short stories and one episodic piece which is sixty-six pages. It concerns the Murphys and is called wait for it, pun coming: ‘Murphy’s Lore’.

On the dangers of reading.

No, it was the boy worried her. He got too much inside himself. It’s not good all that rummacking about inside your own head, and reading, and him to the library three times this week already, books are all right in their own way there’s value in books her own father would say and him never read one in his whole life, value in books, but you need to get out once in a while.

The boy asks if he can wear one of his father’s detachable collars. The father is reluctantly interrogating him.

‘What? What the devil are you talking about, boy? No, you can’t. We’re not here for collars. We’re here about your lying tongue.’

‘Well, later then?’

‘Look, we’ll have no more of your ‘later’. This is the last time I’ll ask you nicely. Your mother says you’ve been telling lies. Now I want a full list of the lies you’ve been telling. A full list, mind.’

Would they be here forever, then, and miss their tea?….

‘Well,’ his father was pulling at his arm, ‘what lies?’ Have you been telling more of your damn lies? Or not?’

That seemed to provide the best alternative so far. ‘No,’ he lied. He held his father’s gaze.

‘Well, let’s leave the lying for the moment. Now what about all this money you’ve been stealing?’

‘What money?’

They were unlikely to get any tea.

There is a marvellous section about a priest who teaches the boy and his friends at school. Perhaps it isn’t allowed at the moment, writing sympathetically about a priest in the schoolroom, but it is hilarious and who knows, maybe it’s good for the soul to read occasionally about a priest who isn’t evil incarnate.

And how did they know Father Tierney was mad? He had been perfectly normal in their last chemistry lesson.

‘God’s gift to man, boys. Science is God’s gift. I love Science,’ he had roared from the big desk at the front with the bunsen burners and the enamel wash basins set deep into the wood and the silver fountains at the bottom which were supposed to spurt water up at great force to wash out the beakers and jars but only ever dribbled miserably. Terry O’Brien said he could do better lying on his back.

‘What’ll we make today?’ Father Tierney rubbed his hands and stood grinning at them.

‘Well, don’t just sit there like a row of stone puddings. Participate,’ he yelled, ‘participate. This is your chance to share in God’s wonderful bounty.’

Gavin O’Meara flicked through the pages of his exercise book, page after page of notes dictated by Father Tierney when science classes had been held in the library following the last explosion in the laboratories. His hand went up.

‘At last. O’Meara?’

‘Could we see,’ he read, ‘the startling effects of sulphuric acid on one of God’s greatest gifts to man, copper?’


‘Could we see the startling effects…’

‘No, certainly not. I’ve done that with the fourth form. It’s not very interesting. What else? What else?’

‘I’d like to see the hydrolitic process in action, particularly in relation to the long-term effects on zinc,’ said one of the scholarship boys.

‘Five hundred lines,’ shouted Father Tierney.

‘But Father…’


He waited, staring at the boy, daring him to speak again. Father Tierney loved a gamble.

The rest of this scene I’ve read a dozen times, would happily read it a dozen more – I hope I’ve tempted you to get the book, just to carry on.

Feeling that Clanchy is at his sparkling best in Murphy’s Lore, I shouldn’t be surprised to see him say:

‘Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way.  I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length.  But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.’ Nigel Featherstone’s blog


“As a committed reader in the Age of Obesity,” he says, “I’ve cut the contemporary fat novel right out of my diet – too many carbs and too little nutrition at too large a price.”

I don’t really understand why the short story and in particular the novella is such an unpopular form to read. Apparently readers in general either want books that go on forever or things on the internet that are prefaced by ‘3 minute read’. Clanchy suffers from this mass thoughtlessness.

And perhaps from the priorities of his writing relationships too.

‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy

Come on guys. It’s so terribly depressing to look up a book like this on a site like Goodreads and see nobody has read it, reviewed it, or even heard of the author. We need more diversity on the internet. We know that all these sites channel people down narrow paths. Fight that. Start here! NOW!!!







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