For all their differences in approach, A Most Peculiar Act and Two Sisters (review here), both from Magabala Books in Broome, may be read as two sides of the same coin. They are written by confident, Indigenous women; they are set in the north, in respectively Darwin and the Kimberley; and they deal with the displacement of traditional peoples onto the periphery of white communities.
The principal difference is that whereas the Walmajarri people moved to an area where they could gain employment, the peoples portrayed in Munkara’s satire are herded into camps, in conditions of poverty and dependency, their every action governed by the NT Aboriginal Ordinances Act of 1918 (the ‘Most Peculiar Act’ of the title) and by the ways the police and the officers of the Chief Protector’s department chose to enforce it.
We know from the writings of Kim Scott and Doris Pilkington, for instance, that the situation, especially for women and children of mixed parentage, was no better in Western Australia, but that is not an aspect highlighted in Two Sisters, whereas it is the whole point of A Most Peculiar Act.
Resident Judge writes in her perceptive review of Munkara’s memoir, Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea (2016): “The narrative voice is simple and feels to me as if it belongs to a younger writer. Munkara is fifty-six, but sounds almost adolescent. This is not high literature by any means.” Munkara’s voice is simple, direct and street-smart, and to my mind reminiscent of another indigenous* author, Mudrooroo/Colin Johnson.
A Most Peculiar Act is set in 1942-3, but the war plays no part except that the (re-imagined) bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19 Feb. 1943 brings the book to a close. The principal characters are all caricatures: Horrid Hump the incompetent doctor/medical administrator made Chief Protector of Aboriginals where “he wouldn’t be able to bugger up a situation that was already buggered”; Ralphie, a patrol officer subject to “ailments brought on by drinking and whoring”; 16 yo Sugar, presumably the young woman pictured on the cover, whose “features were perpetually scrunched up in a scowl that left you wondering if she were in pain or if she were about to commit an act of extreme danger or lunacy”; Drew, a buxom woman, mistakenly employed as a patrol officer, whose “demeanour belied the right-wing red-necked racist that lurked within”.
To the extent there is a plot, and not just a series of funny situations whose subversive intent is to highlight the ongoing racism of the administration of indigenous affairs in the NT, Sugar gets pregnant (to Ralphie), has twins, leaves one of them behind in the hospital, returns to live in the Camp with her community, is segregated off into the Pound (for ‘coloured’ girls) and has her remaining baby stolen, becomes a servant for the lesbian wife of NT’s most senior public servant, the Administrator, and in the final pages, leads the wife and some of her friends to the relative safety of caves in the beachside cliffs when a party is broken up by Japanese bombing.
Ralphie loses his job, attempts to live with the indigenous communities in the Camp, gets leprosy and observes the bombing from the safety of the leper colony on the other side of Darwin Harbour; while Drew initiates a series of disasters and becomes the, willing, object of the Administrator’s affections.
Just one quote. Munkara was apparently herself one of the stolen generation and this is how she describes it:
‘I know the mothers are really grateful to us for finding homes for their children but as primitives they just can’t express it like we do’, said the Superintendent [of the Pound] recalling the traumatic scenes that he’d witnessed of native mothers being relieved of their offspring.
All my life I have regarded the Territory as a place of adventure and romance, but at every turn in this book Munkara rubs our noses in the indignities, the humiliations, the deprivations that indigenous people have endured under what was and in many ways remains, apartheid in all but name. If ever we needed a reminder of why indigenous stories should be written by indigenous writers then this was it.
Marie Munkara, A Most Peculiar Act, Magabala Books, Broome, 2014
*Colin Johnson’s heritage as an indigenous person is contested, but he was brought up as dark-skinned person in an indigenous community in WA’s south-west and is accepted, by Kim Scott for instance, as a contributor to modern indigenous literature.
I’m falling behind with my Indigenous Lit! Behind Lisa at ANZLL in particular whom I must thank for pointing me towards the two short books I am reviewing today (posted separately so they’re easier to find). The other is A Most Peculiar Act by Marie Munkara.
Two Sisters is the stories of two women of the Walmajarri people born and brought up in the 1950s and 60s in northern Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. The four authors are the two sisters of the title, Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Eirlys Richards who did the translation from Walmajarri to English and Pat Lowe who ‘edited the English to bring it to its present form’. Ngarta’s story was compiled and filled out by Pat Lowe over many discussions and interviews. Jukuna’s story was written, by her, in Walmajarri.
As well as the two stories, which of course are linked by the two women’s relationship (and which have interesting differences), there are two sections of colour plates of the women’s painting and of photos of the women back in country, Jukuna’s story in Walmajarri, and appendices on the Walmajarri diaspora, by Lowe and Richards on the writing of the book, and on the Walmajarri language.
Ngarta and Jukuna were born in the southern, most remote, part of Walmajarri country (maps here) and so were among the last of their people to migrate north to the stations around Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. Interestingly, Doris Pilkington in Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (my review) writes of the neighbouring Martu people gravitating south to the fence workers’ camp at Jigalong a generation or so earlier.
The Great Sandy Desert is an area of red, rolling sandhills, bound with light scrub, about 400 km square and with the Tanami, Gibson and Little Sandy Deserts to the east and south. As you can imagine, waterholes were an important part of the Walmajarri people’s lives.
The main waterhole for Ngarta’s family was Tapu. The people might spend most of the year travelling through their country, camping by one or other of the many waterholes, but Tapu was the place they came back to.
It was not unusual for people to break away from the main group for a time. They might follow tracks for a long distance out of their way, or take a detour to gather a particular food and then head for whichever waterhole happened to be closest at day’s end. They kept in touch with the others and let them know where they were by lighting big grass fires.
The sisters’ lives took different courses quite early on:
From the time Ngarta was a baby, her grandmother took care of her. Jukuna, only a few years older, stayed with their mother. Even when Ngarta got older she often went hunting and gathering with the old woman.
But the old ways were coming to an end. More and more families moved north to join relatives living on Kimberley cattle stations, “… until, at length, only a few people from [Ngarta’s] immediate family were still living in that whole region of desert. Almost all the men and youths had gone by now.” Eventually Jukuna too was claimed by a young man, Pijaji, and taken away to the north, leaving “just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother… They lived mainly on goannas and snakes and the many different fruits and seeds of the desert. Occasionally they killed a dingo, a fox or a cat.”
After a couple of years without any contact with the outside world, they are set upon by two men, outlaws from another community, who without warning, spear Ngarta’s mother and subsequently kill her grandmother and sister. Ngarta escapes, living on her own for a year, before she is retaken and probably, although she does not say so, used as a wife by one of the murderers. Ironically, when these two men do come into contact with the white world they are convicted, and briefly imprisoned for killing cattle for food, but no evidence is able to be brought of their other more serious crimes.
Jukuna then tells her story, clearly and concisely, of her time in the desert, moving north with her new husband to meet up with relatives living on Cherrabun Station, seeing a white man for the first time, and her conversion to Christianity.
Read this book! More even than Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis’ Pictures from my Memory (my review) this is a vibrant account by two members of possibly the last traditional indigenous community in the country.
Ngarta Jinny Bent, Jukuna Mona Chuguna, Eirlys Richards, Pat Lowe, Two Sisters, Magabala Books, Broome, 2016
Michelle at Adventures in Biography is such an enthusiastic advocate for the writing of Helen Garner that I could not help but add The Feel of Steel to the already considerable pile of books I had picked up at a recent UWA/Save the Children book sale. But at an average price of $2.50 I was doing ok, and now I’ve read it I realise I was doing very well indeed.
Garner is a little bit older than I expected, born in 1942 in Geelong, Vic, brought up, as she tells us, in Geelong and nearby Ocean Grove, and put on the path to privilege via exclusive girls’ school The Hermitage and Janet Clarke Hall/Melbourne Uni. For me, she has always been the author of Monkey Grip (1977), a seminal, semi-autobiographical novel of druggy inner-Melbourne. But she has also become increasingly well-known for her investigative non-fiction, in particular The First Stone (1995) and This House of Grief (2014).
The Feel of Steel (2001) is a series of essays, 31 in all, culled from sources as various as The Age, Women’s Weekly and Best Australian Essays. The title refers to an ‘old French’ phrase, “le sentiment de fer”, used in the sport of fencing. I found this collection much easier to read than a book of short stories for one reason, not because it is well written, although it is, but because the stories have one unifying focus – Helen Garner and her life from the end of her third marriage in the mid 1990s.
In the first story she shocks me, writing, “What’s home supposed to be, anyway? Is it the flat in Sydney where I live now?” Garner lives in Sydney?! Who knew? She has always been as quintessentially Melbourne as … well, the Fitzroy Baths. To my relief, a few stories later she is on her way back down the Hume Highway, pausing at Albury to catch her breath, then home:
My first breath of night carried the scent of grasslands, the mighty Keilor plains that lie northwest of Melbourne. I grabbed hold of the garden tap, swung my head under it, and guzzled the warm water till it became cold, and kept on guzzling till my teeth hurt. (Melbourne’s Famous Water).
The stories cover a wide range of topics, but always with Helen at the centre, from a trip to the Antarctic ice, to dealing with the grief of marriage breakup, to engaging with her family, her parents, her sisters, her daughter, her grandchild. She muses on what makes a reader and a writer and muses on the guilty secret of book people everywhere:
I’ve been asking around: I knew I couldn’t be the only person capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. I’ve found that people bluff when they talk about books. They pretend to remember things that they don’t remember at all. Intense anxiety and guilt cluster round the state of having read. Press the memory of a book, and it goes blurry. (Woman in a Green Mantle).
Garner it seems is a church goer, Anglican, regular enough that she is on the roster for reading the lesson, though I’m sure you’ll understand I skipped the chapter on bible reading. I did, however, bring myself to read the chapter on a diet involving constant enemas at ‘the Spa Resort on Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand’:
And twice a day you collect your numbered bucket of fluid and retire to your private bathroom. You hang the bucket from a rusty wire hook in the ceiling over the toilet. You take off all your clothes (this can get messy). … [You fit your ‘personal colema tip’] … You hold your anal sphincter closed for as long as you can tolerate the steadily growing sensation of fullness … (A Spy in the House of Excrement)
As with a couple of other stories, this is both a diary of her experience and close observations of her fellows, writing at which Garner excels.
Over the course of the book her elderly parents leave the family home and take an apartment in the city – Garner is shocked at her father’s lack of attachment to things and places – and her mother is admitted to a nursing home with dementia:
I am ashamed to recall how harshly we witnessed the years of her decline. When she told the same anecdote over and over, in exactly the same words and with the same intonation, we would roll our eyes at each other behind her back, or joke about it on the phone afterwards. (Our Mother’s Flood 1)
Inevitably in a book about Melbourne, Garner gets caught up in the footy – going to see Western Bulldogs players in a ‘Male Revue’ at the casino (including, as it happens, the father of one of the stars of the Bulldogs’ recent historic premiership), and later at a game, and watching her nephew play on a wet Saturday in the outer suburbs. Over the course of two stories she also takes up fencing and in the heat of her first veterans’ competition discovers the joy of competing:
And I won a medal. A bronze medal on a long blue ribbon. Typing this, I’ve still got it on…
We all, even the victorious hulk from the mountains, kissed each other and shook hands. It was a radiant companionship.
I’m different, since that day. My body feels taller, stronger, freer. At this late age I suddenly understand why people on winter Saturdays scramble and strain in mud. The devotion and patience of coaches, their severe heartening – all this is clear to me now. At last, at last, I get it. I yelled and sang with gratitude all the way home. (The Feel of Steel 2).
In the final story she spends some time in the backroom of a friend’s made-to-measure bridal wear shop, observing and occasionally participating in, fittings. Loving the rush as it all comes together. Helen’s never been married in a ‘big’ dress. There’s no mention of a number 4, but hey, there’s still time
Helen Garner, The Feel of Steel, Picador, Sydney, 2001
Helen Garner has plenty of fans among the Australian blogs I follow, so for more reading, Resident Judge (here) and Whispering Gums (here) have multiple posts. Michelle (here) and Kate W (here) review Garner’s This House of Grief (2014) and Lisa at ANZLL has posts (here) on the recent WA Premier’s Awards, including Garner’s success with This House of Grief and (here) for The Spare Room (2008).
Up The Country is the opening novel of the family saga Miles Franklin wrote under the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin. It’s set in the country she regarded as ‘home’, the high country of NSW’s alpine south, and specifically around her birth-place Talbingo, which in these novels she gives the name ‘Bool Bool’*, on the western slopes of the Great Divide and the Monaro (‘Maneroo’)high plains on the eastern slopes.
My 1984 Angus & Robertson edition begins with a Publisher’s Note which says that in 1951 when A&R took up the rights, editor Beatrice Davis worked from “a copy of the  Blackwood edition, to which Miles had made numerous changes… No attempt was made to subdue the floridity and syntactical eccentricity that are the hallmarks of Miles Franklin at her worst.” However, A&R discovered an older ms dating from 1927 “which told the story in simpler, fresher, more direct language”. The present edition, based on this rediscovered ms, “has been edited more severely than Miles Franklin herself would have allowed… We have also taken the liberty of deleting her long, anti-climactic ending.” How I feel about this, I cannot be sure. I’m a fan of Franklin’s unusual, exuberant writing and I’m worried we may have lost something. Jill Roe notes the re-publication but offers no opinion on the severity or otherwise of any changes.
The story begins in 1852. The heavens have opened and Three Rivers station will soon be isolated by floodwaters. The Mazere family’s Three Rivers homestead is hosting the owners of all the major properties around Bool Bool for the wedding of the lovely Rachel Mazere to Simon Labosseer, who has taken up grazing land on the other side of the mountains where he is the neighbour of ‘Boko’ Pool, a former convict made good. So we are introduced to all the principal familes.
The core of the novel is the tension between the Mazeres and the Pools. Philip Mazere senior is the descendant of French Huguenot aristocracy and doubts Pool’s honesty – bulls and stallions which go missing in the rugged mountains are obviously contributing to the bloodlines of Pool’s herds – so when, a few years prior to 1852, Mazere’s oldest son, also Philip, marries Charlotte Pool, he withholds his blessing. Within a couple of years Philip Mazere junior leaves for the Victorian goldfields and Charlotte, who for years following her mother’s death had been her siblings’ surrogate mother, finds herself a grass widow with two children and effectively the Mazeres’ housekeeper.
Over the course of the novel ‘Boko’ Pool gets a governess for his children, a lady who has left England to escape disgrace, marries her and, as he rises in gentility, adds an ‘e’ to become James Poole Esq. His son is the novel’s hero:
Bert, Charlotte’s eldest brother, a youth of seventeen and already one of the most resourceful, daring and accomplished bushmen in those parts …
Bert, who had never had a collar and rarely a shoe on him till Charlotte’s wedding, was only a shade less knowledgeable in bush lore than the Aborigines, from whom he had received some tuition.
… and though these and a score of other accomplishments were common to all bushmen worthy of the name, Bert’s prowess was already legendary.
Aborigines are mentioned off and on, including two or three who are friends with Bert. They are employed around the properties when stockmen take off for the goldfields but take little part in the action. Roe refers to “some of the most mountainous terrain in Australia, so rugged it had only ever been lightly touched upon by the indigenous Ngunawal and Ngarigo peoples.” (2008, p.1) Franklin certainly implies that there were very few indigenous people in the area by 1850 (after about 20 years of settlement) but gives no reason for this, except to say they withdraw to the coast to escape the snow over winter, which a website for the Shire of Monaro says is mistaken (here).
The early part of the novel is concerned with the wedding of Rachel to Labosseer and the coincident floods. Franklin lets rip a few times about the fortyish Mrs Mazere still regularly having babies, but otherwise reins in her feminist impulses. Except that, although Bert is the fulcrum about which the novel turns, the point of view is more often that of the women and the kitchen rather than the men and the great outdoors.
And so the novel proceeds. Bert heroically gets Mrs Mazere across a swollen river to rescue a woman in labour. The groom and the vicar finally arrive to conduct the wedding. Bert in his innocence and to Labosseer’s great annoyance hovers around Rachel at every opportunity. Rachel’s younger sister Emily blooms into womanhood but, like every other young woman, cannot attract the attentions of Bert who seems determined on bachelorhood. All the other young men in their little community swarm around Emily. Charlotte leaves to live on the diggings with her husband. Bushrangers move in and hold up all the homesteads. Suspicion falls on Bert, who attempts to catch the robbers single handed and ends up shot. The novel ends with a great tragedy which rings down through all the subsequent novels of the series.
Up The Country succeeds as history because Franklin has a great knowledge of and love for the high country and its pioneers and is able to describe in detail the homesteads, the day to day operations of farming and cattle grazing, and the precarious nature of communications and transport between and within the colonies. It succeeds as story telling because Franklin makes Bert and Charlotte and Emily, in particular, live. She makes us care about them, and she surrounds them with big, loving families whose members drop in and out of the stories as needed.
Some quotes. A woman’s lot –
Mrs Piper’s situation [a difficult childbirth] inclined Mrs Mazere to reflect that, had God given birth to His Son Himself instead of imposing the task upon a woman, it might have resulted in fundamental reforms
Bert in ‘Man From Snowy River’ mode –
On these expeditions he rode a small yellow bay with a dash of Timor, hardy and sure-footed as a goat. She knew the country as well as Bert did, and though seemingly dwarfed by her rider, she carried him up hills so steep that no amateur could have remained seated on her, nor any girths but those of sheer greenhide have stood the strain. Then down again, by a series of props.
Domestic detail –
The drays carrying winter supplies for Three Rivers reached the Yarrabongo punt the evening before [Charlotte’s] departure. The camp fires of the teamsters gleamed in the bend of the river on the flats, and the bullock bells combined with the orchestra of frogs and crickets with which the earth seemed to pulsate.
On reaching the homestead, the teamsters began to unload early next morning. The arrival of winter supplies was always a time of bustle for the household. Delightful it was to stow away the cases of currants and raisins, and the bags of white sugar and rice in the big ant- and mice-proof bins in the store room.
These days old Talbingo is under the waters of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme. I can remember sightseeing at nearby Adiminiby already abandoned but not yet flooded, in 1956. So when Miles made her visit to her Lampe grandmother’s property, still in the family, a few years earlier, hopefully it was then as it was in her memories and in this book.
Miles Franklin, Up The Country, Blackwoods, 1928. Reissued by Angus & Robertson, 1951. This edition Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1984
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
*Roe implies that Bool Bool is the township of Tumut (now a substantial town), 30 or so km northwest of Talbingo. However, she also says that the fictional ‘Three Rivers’ station presumably takes its name from ‘the confluence near Talbingo of Buddong Creek and Jounama Creek with the Tumut River’ (2008, p.294).
It is central to Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) that in the early years of white settlement around ‘Gebalup’ (Ravensthorpe, WA) the matriarch Fanny (Benang) and her white husband Sandy Mason witness a massacre of Fanny’s people gathered around the homestead of the ‘Done’ family.
Not far from the homestead Fanny – cautiously peering from the load, peeking over bales – saw a small group of men women children, running and falling before station men on horseback. (1999, p.174)
… [Sandy] could see figures leaping to their feet, helping one another up, running. And there were voices calling, calling. People fell, were shot. Were shot….
Flames and explosions leapt from beyond the outstretched arms of a man beside him. A Winchester, almost the very latest thing. The man bent over the bodies, lunging and hacking, faceless in the grim darkness.
‘They understand this.’ (1999, p.186)
The knowledge of the deaths and the scattered bones creates an ‘exclusion zone’ to which the narrator is taken by Fanny’s grandsons many years later.
Scott wrote Benang, a fictionalised account of his search for his Noongar ancestry, from bits and pieces of stories and official records. In Kayang & Me (2005), which he co-wrote with Noongar elder, Hazel Brown, he recounts how Benang was just about done when he met Aunty Hazel, and how they turned out to be related, both descendants of Fanny Mason’s family. Of the massacre, Aunty Hazel writes:
Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred some time after 1880 by white people at a place called Cocanarup , a few miles from the Ravensthorpe townsite. (2005, p.10)
Cocanarup was a property taken up by the Dunn brothers in 1872 as a sheep run. In 1880 John Dunn was killed by spearing, by Granny Monkey’s brother, Yandawalla, for his part in raping a 13 yo Noongar girl. Yandawalla (aka Yangalla) was subsequently tried for murder and acquitted. There was trouble over the next couple of years as Noongars raided the property for sheep and the Dunn’s retaliated. It seems they eventually got a permit “to kill the seventeen people that were residents of that place.” However, unknownst to them there was a meeting of Noongars nearby from the surrounding districts of Hopetoun and Jerdacuttup, to discuss initiations and marriages and so “there was over thirty people that were killed down there.” (2005, p.65)
The oral history passed down to Aunty Hazel is backed up by white histories. Scott reports Marion Brockway as writing in The Dunns of Cocaranup, Early Days (1970):
Terrible stories abound, but cannot be verified, of the vengeance exacted by John’s brothers on the Nyungars. One story is that a number of Aborigines were killed and buried in a mass grave near John’s grave, the site being marked by a circle of posts. The rest of the Nyungars in the vicinity were chased eastward, the Dunns poisoning the waterholes on the way back, to prevent them returning. (2005, p.70).
And Cleve Hassell in his 1973 memoir of his own well-known early settler family “mentions that the three remaining Dunn brothers ‘declared war’ and took it in turns to go shooting Noongars while one was left at home with their sister. He writes that a great many natives were shot.” (2005, p.71)
I got in touch with Professor Scott (Kim Scott is Professor of Writing at Curtin Uni.) and he was kind enough to send me some extra material, photos and extracts from newspapers. These included a full account of Yangalla’s trial, but this summary from the South Australian Register of 26 Nov., 1881 will suffice: “The native Yangala, tried recently for the murder of Mr. John Dunn, has been acquitted owing to the unsatisfactory manner in which the evidence of the black witness was interpreted.” I have commented previously that colonial officialdom often had a much more enlightened attitude towards Aborigines than did settlers at the ‘frontier’. In the trial –presumably in the Perth Supreme Court – His Honour (not named) was pretty sharp with the police over the way they took ‘voluntary’ statements and the Attorney General was quick to withdraw the evidence so obtained.
The following year, in the West Australian of 30 May, 1882 their Albany correspondent reports:
Great dissatisfaction is being expressed by the settlers to the Eastward, more especially by the Messrs. Dunn Bros., as to the want of proper police protection. Most of your readers will remember the painful circumstances of Mr. John Dunn’s death, and the acquittal of the supposed murderers. Since that time it has transpired that the natives did not intend to murder Mr. J. Dunn, but another brother… it is now believed that they still intend to murder the other brother when an opportunity arises, which benevolent intention they will probably carry out if some steps are not taken to prevent them.
In the same paper, three years later on 25 Sept., 1885 it is reported that James Dunn had been attacked on the 15th and on the following day Robert Dunn “went out to ascertain the intentions and strength of the natives. He met forty blacks coming towards the station who immediately attacked him.” Dunn fired, killing one, the Noongars retreated pursued by Dunn who “killed one and wounded several.”
There’s an interview with Robert Dunn, many years later, in the (Perth) Sunday Times of 20 May 1928 but it’s mostly ‘nigger’ this and ‘nigger’ that and doesn’t add much to the account.
Finally, the following appeared in the Western Mail of 17 Oct 1935 under the heading The Skull at Carracarrup, ‘eight miles SSW of Ravensthorpe’ by WIPECO of Leonora who ‘was told the story by Mr. Walter Dunn (now deceased)’:
[After John Dunn’s death] The remaining members on the station were then granted licence to shoot the natives for a period of one month, during which time the fullest advantage was taken of the privilege. Natives were shot from the station through Lime Kiln Flat, Manjitup and down to where Ravensthorpe is now situated. In the course of their guerrilla warfare, the whites arrived one day at the Carracarrup Rock Hole, and, knowing it was a watering place for the blacks, they crept quietly over the hill until they could peer down into the hole. There they saw two natives who had just risen from drinking. Two shots broke the stillness of the gorge and two dusky souls were sent home to their Maker. The bodies were left lying at the rock hole where they dropped as a grim reminder to the rest of the tribe of the white man’s retribution.
The Kukenarup memorial, on the South Coast Highway 15 km west of Ravensthorpe overlooks to the south the Cocanarup homestead and massacre site. The memorial, representing Noongar totems, Wedge Tailed Eagles and Mallee Fowl, includes the words:
This area of country has a harsh, complex and sometimes contradictory history. Many Noongar people were killed here, and all that death and the apartheid-like 20th century legislation meant many of our families were never able to return and reconcile themselves to what had happened.
The fiction of Terra Nullius has meant that the Cocanarup and similar massacres, not to mention all the deaths of Indigenous people from mistreatment and deprivation of resources, have too often been whitewashed out of official histories. We can only that hope our wilful forgetting is at long last in the process of being reversed, for without knowledge and then acknowledgement, there cannot be Reconciliation.
See also: Bob Howard, Noongar Resistance on the South Coast 1830-1890 (here)
For further information you should search on ‘Cocanarup’, ‘Kukenarup’ and ‘Ravensthorpe Massacre’. Google Map (here).
Kim Scott, Benang, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1999 (review here)
Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005 (review here)
Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance, Picador 2010 (review here)
Kim Scott’s writing over a number of books is a voyage of discovery of his antecedents as a Noongar man, that is of the Indigenous people of Western Australia’s South-West. The Wilomin, to whom Scott has found he belongs, are the eastern-most sub-group of the Noongar, occupying sandy, mallee country along the south coast between Bremer Bay and Esperance and inland around Ravensthorpe, the territory covered by his much awarded novel, Benang (1999). His later novel That Deadman Dance (2010) was set further west, around Albany and the jarrah forested Stirling Ranges, although characters and geography overlap between the two novels, even if the names they are given differ.
In Kayang & Me Scott and his Aunty Hazel alternate in telling stories around Scott’s Noongar heritage. Different fonts are used so it is always clear who is talking. Kayang, by the way, has the meanings ‘Aunty’ and ‘Elder’. Scott says:
Most of Aunty Hazel’s writing in this book comes from transcriptions of tape-recordings we did together. That method created some difficult decisions for us, most of which could be reduced to the particular problem of how to capture the distinctive nature of her speech while allowing it to be relatively smooth to read on the page.
Aunty Hazel, Hazel Brown “was born on the ninth of November 1925, at a place called Kendenup [north of Albany]… I was born in an old packing shed. Years ago no women had their babies in hospital, you weren’t allowed to.” Her mother, Nellie, who had a white father, had been taken from her home at Marble Bar and sent 2,000 km south to Carrolup Native Settlement where, perhaps to cure her running away, she was made to marry a Wiloman man, Yiller, who died when Hazel was 5. Nellie, who by then also had a son, Lenny, then married Yiller’s brother, Fred Tjinjel Roberts, and Hazel grew up with her brothers and sisters and her father’s “full blood relations”, living a relatively traditional life in the Ravensthorpe/Wilomin region, while her father worked as a farm-hand and shearer.
My father’s father was called Bob Roberts (also known as Pirrup) and his mother was known as Monkey… Most of my grandmother Monkey’s family were massacred* some time after 1880 by white people at place called Cocanarup, a few miles from Ravensthorpe.
Kim Scott (1957- ) writes “my father, Tommy Scott, was the only surviving child to an Aboriginal woman who died when he was ten years old, after which his Aboriginal grandmother continued to raise him until his Scottish father arranged boarding schools …”. He died young, in his thirties. Scott remembers him telling him to be proud of his ‘Aboriginal descent’. Growing up, in Albany, Scott knew very few of his extended indigenous family, and only some of those identified as Noongar, but he was aware that his father’s mother and grandmother had lived around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun.
As an adult enquiring after his family he was told, “go see Aunty Hazel. They reckoned Hazel Brown knew everyone who lived around Ravensthorpe.” And so it turned out, her husband and Scott’s father had been drinking buddies. “Your father was my cousin, she told me.” Scott had already put in a great deal of research to come up with the material that underlies Benang, now Aunty Hazel was able to flesh it out. The starting point from Scott’s notes was his great grandmother Granny (Fanny) Winnery, who Hazel remembered as Pirrup’s sister, having often visited her in Ravensthorpe as a young girl. Granny Winnery and Pirrup’s father, Old Bob Roberts, appears to be the ‘Bob’ recorded as guiding Surveyor General JS Roe along the south coast in 1849, and who ended up as a hated ‘black tracker’.
Hazel has stories of Old Bob and his brothers and sisters, who married whom, working for early settlers the Hassells, shepherding and on the wagons running from the coast to Balladonia 300 km inland. All of which Scott must reconcile with scanty written accounts.
Old Fanny Winnery, she had two daughters, didn’t she? She had two daughters. That’s right! Married Coleman twins. And after that one of their girls married the Scott.
Fanny Winnery is recorded as having given birth to a daughter at a camp east of Esperance, the father’s name given as John Mason. Mason had been a sailor and Scott finds an account, by a settler, of a marriage between a ‘Jack Tar’ who is shepherding for him, and an Aboriginal woman who was probably Fanny. More information comes from the records of the Chief Protector, enquiring after a John Mason who served in the First World War. He is the son of Jack Mason and Fanny ‘Pinyan’. Fanny died in 1913, in the house of her son in law Daniel Coleman, and she and Jack were buried together in Ravensthorpe. These names of course are all familiar to us from Benang.
Scott goes down to Ravensthorpe with Hazel’s brother, Lomas Roberts who is documenting a Native Title claim, to visit long time resident, Mrs Cox –
‘And you must have known Kimmy’s father’, Uncle Lomas said.
‘Oh yes’, she said, bursting into a smile, ‘I went to school with Tommy Scott.’
She remembered my grandmother too.
That was Harriette Coleman, daughter of Fanny, and mother of Scott’s Uncle Will. You can see the problem though – Fanny Winnery was dead before Aunty Hazel was born, so the Granny ‘Winnery’ she remembers seeing must have been Harriette. Reconciling Hazel’s oral genealogy with his ‘scraps of paper’ became a problem for Scott and held up the writing of this book. In the meanwhile we learn a great deal about the history of White/Noongar relations from both Scott and from Aunty Hazel, the murders, the imprisonments on Rottnest and other islands, the apartheid-like impact of the 1905 Aborigines Act, the ‘colour bar’ in country towns, the deaths caused by doctors refusing to treat black children.
But Aunty Hazel is a woman who knows her own mind, she and her husband had friends in the white community, and not all her stories are dark. At one time in the thirties a very young Hazel and her family were walking along a track between Ravensthorpe and Esperance –
Now these people came along. They had an old black motor and I don’t know … it was like a square top and it had a funny little front. It was like a little ute. … She was a woman that was going through to Esperance, and she was going to South Australia, and in some way she was connected to Daisy Bates. … she started sending Mummy the funny little magazine that Daisy Bates made.
Scott doesn’t speculate as to who this might have been. Ernestine Hill went from WA at this time to meet Bates, but by train. And she did her trans-Nularbor road trip with Henrietta Drake-Brockman in 1947 when Hazel would have been 22.
Aunty Hazel lectures Scott on truth in story telling, even when it’s told different each time: “We don’t wanna bore people, unna? We wanna tell a good story. You should know that better than me, you s’posed to be the writer.” This is a fascinating book, of genealogical enquiry, of the details of an almost forgotten way of life, of Scott’s attempts to interpret and interrogate his Noongar heritage. Aunty Hazel is a wonderful story teller and of course Scott is one of our finest writers.
Here is Scott’s (confronting) conclusion, which I think ties in with what I’ve be I’ve been trying to say about leaving space for Indigenous writers –
In order to strengthen Indigenous communities – and that’s the only means by which an Australian nation-state will have any chance of grafting onto Indigenous roots – we need some sort of ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous societies, a moratorium, a time of exclusion to allow communities to consolidate their heritages. After that, exchange and interaction from relatively equal positions should be possible, because that’s how cultural forms are tested and grow.
Kim Scott and Hazel Brown, Kayang & Me, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2005
See also: my reviews of Benang (here) and That Deadman Dance (here)
*I have not said any more about the Cocanorup massacre because there is too much to say. The authors provide pages of recollections, but as Scott says there is very little documentation. A search on Google brings up nothing and on Trove, one account of an expedition to the Goldfields in 1890. If I can I may put up more in a separate post at a later date. I have overcome these difficulties (with some assistance) and will put up a post on the massacre in a few days.
My ‘secret’ (reading) pleasures – Georgette Heyer, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Guy Crouchback novels, even Gilmore Girls – are stories of the upper classes at play. So it should be no surprise I also enjoy the works of Martin Boyd (1893- 1972), having first read his A Difficult Young Man (1955) in my matriculation year. The book being reviewed here, Day of My Delight (1965) is an autobiography, his second. The first, A Single Flame (1939), was necessarily part-fiction owing to so many of the people he wished to discuss still being alive, and was subsumed into this later work.
Boyd says of his frequent novelisations of the extensive Boyd and à Beckett (his mother’s) families that:
As far as I know I am the only one to put on record the kind of life led by these people, even if I have done it with a touch of levity. In the last century they were the “ruling class” in Victoria, and so have historical interest. Up to 1914 they still held the pre-eminence this had given them… I did not question that I was entitled to exercise this privilege. Our sort were soon overshadowed by rich squatters, who in turn have been overshadowed by rich business people.
He is at pains to point out that his family, his ‘sort’, were comfortable with their noblesse and also with their oblige, in fact he says, during the Depression his mother gave so much of her money away that she regarded herself as a socialist, and contrasts this with the crassness of the working rich, without titles in their backgrounds, the self-styled upper middle class. In fact a great deal of his writing, not just this autobiography, can be read as documenting and maybe even justifying class distinction.
Boyd’s father Arthur Merric Boyd, an artist with independent means, was the offshoot of Irish Protestant and, more distantly, Scottish aristocracy. Emma Minnie, his wife and also an artist (they exhibited together at the Royal Academy in London in 1891) was the granddaughter of Sir William à Beckett, first Chief Justice of Victoria (having replaced Resident Judge Willis in 1845). More importantly for their finances, Emma’s wealthy mother was the daughter of the founder of the Melbourne Brewery. For many years the Boyds and their relatives and in-laws, like artist John Perceval and author Joan Lindsay, were at the centre of artistic life in Melbourne, and a great deal of Martin’s social life both in Victoria and subsequently in England revolves around his extended family.
Boyd says of himself (in the early 1960s) that “I was recognised in England, if not in Australia, as one of the two major novelists of the latter country.” Kerryn Goldsworthy, who allows him half a page in the Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000), writes:
Boyd has fallen out of favour in recent years, his novels seen as little more than an expression of nostalgia for a vanished way of life and his technical skills less valued than twenty years ago, but there is much in his fiction and in his biography to engage contemporary critics in the fields of postcolonial theory, gender studies and Queer theory.
A quarter of a century earlier Geoffrey Dutton (editor) in his The Literature of Australia allowed Boyd his own chapter. There Dorothy Green rated him as “one of the easiest to read of the principal Australian novelists” but also credits him with raising, and attempting to answer, serious moral questions, especially around individual responsibility during war.
Briefly, in the 1890s the Boyds were living at their English property, Penleigh House, Wiltshire. The Melbourne bank failures of the 1890s greatly reduced their wealth and in 1893 they sold up in England and, largely bankrolled by Emma’s mother, were returning home slowly via Europe when Martin, their fourth son, was born in Switzerland. Back in Victoria they live at the Grange, the à Beckett family property near Berwick southeast of Melbourne. Then, describing what are now crowded, bayside suburbs:
For about eight years, until I was thirteen, we lived at Sandringham, near Melbourne. Apart from a few shops around the railway station, there were then only half a dozen scattered houses. We had the undisturbed use of a mile of golden beach, and tea-tree covered cliffs. …
My mother’s parents lived at Brighton, about three miles away, while my grandmother Boyd lived in St Kilda, in a grey, gabled house set in a large garden and surrounded by fields. We were always conscious of living against the background of our relatives.
The Grange is “Westhill”, the Langton family home in The Cardboard Crown series of novels, novels based to some extent he on the diaries of his grandmother à Beckett from which, he says, he quoted whole passages verbatim. Throughout the autobiography he matches real people and places with the novels he has ‘used’ them in.
After Sandringham the Boyds, having come into their Boyd and à Beckett inheritances, purchased a farm at Yarra Glen, on the banks of the Yarra, northwest of Melbourne. “Beyond the vineyards was Madame Melba’s [opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba’s] house, where she came back regularly from the homage of Europe to help her native land”. By this time Martin was a weekly boarder at Trinity Grammar. He did not do well enough to get into university and instead, considering a vocation in the Church, attended St John’s Theological College in St Kilda. Boyd belonged at the High or Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, which he discusses at tedious length and in fact although he is off and on agnostic, and sometimes very angry with the Church for their support of killing during both World Wars, in his last few days he converted to Roman Catholicism (but is nevertheless buried in a C of E cemetery).
After a year at St John’s his vocation is lost. His parents refuse to let him ‘laze around the farm’ – though they and their parents all had independent means and never a regular job in their lives – and is articled to a firm of architects in the city. Saved by the outbreak of war, he attempts to enlist with the AIF but, due to his being born in Switzerland, is not immediately accepted and so, accepts an uncle’s advice that he should go to England and get a commission (an option not available in the Australian army) among people “of my own class”.
Late in 1915 he enlists and begins training. Recruits were able to choose a regiment if they could persuade the colonel to take them. Boyd is accepted into the Buffs (Royal East Kent) on the basis that a cousin of his mother’s had married a daughter of the second Earl Kitchener and was a friend of the colonel’s. Boyd also has to tell us that the colonel’s grandson was Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who was, much later, the husband of Princess Margaret.
Boyd is passionately anti-war on the quite reasonable basis that politicians seek power and businessmen grow rich by persuading young men to kill each other, and increasingly civilians as well, on their behalfs. He believes the Germans were willing to sue for peace as early as 1916 but Lloyd George thought that if there were an armistice “it might be difficult to get the nations fighting again”. In the end he was in the trenches in Flanders for most of 1917, surviving by the merest chance as men were blown up all around him. “I was the only officer who had survived neither killed nor wounded since the day I joined the battalion.” At the end of the year he transfers to the Royal Flying Corp, whose losses were, proportionally, even higher than the army’s, but again he survives.
After the war he spends time in an Anglican monastery then, finally, he begins to write. He is not happy with his first three novels, which he publishes under the pen name Martin Mills (His brewer grandfather was John Mills). The second, Brangane (1926), is meant to be based on Australian author Barbara Baynton who by her third marriage was Baroness Headley, but sadly for us, except for one brief mention of an eccentric Irish peeress, he says nothing about having met her. The third was The Montforts (1928). Miles Franklin whose own career had finally got back on track with Up the Country, wrote late in 1928 to her friend Alice Henry:
Of course [Katherine Sussanah Prichard’s] Working Bullocks is the best book we’ve had for a long while. I was astonished when I was handed a 1928 book The Monforts… A book showing possibilities but so curiously put together. It covers eighty years and eighty years in Melbourne means a good deal…
Quite often, especially during the war, Boyd is invited by his companions to join them in their visits to prostitutes, invitations he always manages to refuse. Later when he is living in Cambridge he gets quite excited about the famous King’s College choir and it slowly becomes clear that he is often in the company of young men. This is as much as he says about his sexuality.
During the 30s, living between Sussex and Italy, he writes social comedies of little consequence. His first important novel is Lucinda Brayford (1946) with its Australian-born heroine and this leads into the four ‘Langton’ novels—The Cardboard Crown (1952), A Difficult Young Man (1955) , Outbreak of Love (1957) and When Blackbirds Sing (1962). A fifth was planned but Boyd says he refused to write it when his publisher demanded more sex. Boyd is probably proudest of When Blackbirds Sing which he considers a passionate argument against the evils of war.
In the 1950s Boyd tries to live back in Australia, buying and doing up the old à Beckett family home, but this doesn’t work out and he retires to Rome where in his final years, he is a supporter of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Martin Boyd, Day of My Delight, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1965 (Reprinted 1974)
Kerryn Goldsworthy, Fiction from 1900-1970, in Elizabeth Webby (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, CUP, Cambridge, 2000
Dorothy Green, Martin Boyd, in Geoffry Dutton (ed.), The Literature of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1964, Revised 1976
Brenda Niall, The Boyds, A Family Biography reviewed here by The Resident Judge