Disturbing Element, Xavier Herbert

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Xavier Herbert. No attribution for Artist

Disturbing Element is a memoir of Herbert’s young life and education until he finally manages to shake free of his parents at age 23. On the back cover of my Fontana paperback edition Manning Clark is quoted as saying ‘He writes with all the passion of a great lover and a great hater’, to which you should really add ‘and a great liar’. It reminds me a of Norman Lindsay’s autobiographical fiction, Redheap and so on, which also lists in boastful detail the author’s supposed conquests in ‘love’.

The ADB entry for Herbert begins:

Albert Francis Xavier Herbert (1901-1984), author and pharmacist, was born on 15 May 1901 at Geraldton, Western Australia, illegitimate son of Victorian-born Amy Victoria Scammell. He was registered at birth as Alfred Jackson, son of John Jackson, auctioneer, with whom his mother had already had two children, but his father was almost certainly Benjamin Francis Herbert, a Welsh-born engine driver. Amy and Ben had three more children [two of whom died young] before marrying in 1917.

Disturbing Element begins:

To avoid the heart burning that may otherwise be caused by so frank a history as I intend this to be, I am going to be non-specific in dealing with the people, the places and some of the events, concerned.

Herbert begins by being ‘non-specific’ about Geraldton, describing his birthplace as ‘a tiny seaport on the long, lonely coast of Western Australia’ and, apart from Perth, he doesn’t use any place names thereafter as his father, a train driver, moves his family around railway towns in the southern half of the state. Whether Herbert is called Fred or Bert or any other name as a child we never find out, but he is never in any doubt that Herbert senior is his father and only hears about his illegitimacy from gossip when he is in his teens.

About his mother he writes that she was left unsupported with two children, Bridget and Phil, on an eastern states goldfield and made her way west to join her father on the new goldfields there at the turn of the century. Herbert senior was at that time employed by her father and made a convenient husband. The marriage, although it endured, does not seem to have been a happy one.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago discussing inter alia J.J.Healy, Literature and the Aborigine in Australia ‘a detailed account of representations of Aboriginal people up to Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country (1975)’. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is ploughing her way through Poor Fellow My Country and will shortly produce a review (link here), but what I wanted to say is that Healy regards Herbert as an important figure in the representation (by whites) of Aboriginal people in Aus.Lit.  who struggles to separate his fiction from his personal history, describing him as a ‘literalist of the imagination’. What is interesting is that Herbert has almost no contact with Aborigines during the course of Disturbing Element, that is, up to his 23rd year. In only one country town does he approach a girl of mixed parentage and striking good looks, who has been seen with other (white) boys. This girl, Jilgie, appears later, in a Perth brothel where she rebuffs his attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ her, and also apparently, in Herbert’s later fiction.

Later in Disturbing Element Herbert becomes friendly, firstly, romantically, with a Jewish girl, Huldah, and then with two young Jewish men. Healy makes the link to Rifkah in Poor Fellow My Country who he says Herbert uses to draw an analogy between Germany’s treatment of the Jews under Hitler and Australia’s treatment of Aborigines:

…  Jewish culture as a way of life, The Jewish experience under the Nazis, give Herbert an access to the Aboriginal theme unprecedented in Australian discussion…

When [Rifkah] takes [the Aboriginal] Prindy into the hotel, Stunke, the policeman, breaks up a pleasant atmosphere by ordering Prindy to leave for breaking an Aboriginal ordinance. Her shock registers with considerable dramatic force. “It is not a free, happy country. I vos mistake.” In her subsequent account to Jeremy she makes her devastating point. It was not just Stunke. It was the look in people’s eyes. The same look that Germans had when they saw Jews being marched off by the SS or the SA. That look, she says, is the worst thing. Filled with detachment, indifference, hate. Inhuman. (1989, p.277).

In about 1910, Mrs Herbert is granted her fondest wish and the family relocates from the bush to ‘a seaport city’ (Fremantle). Romantically (to me anyway!), the Railways supply a couple of wagons so that the family are able to load up their own little train with their household goods, linking up with a regular train for the run into the city.

Then we were on our way, with the trees dancing and the old-men kangaroos sitting on their tails and staring menacingly and little whitewashed iron towns springing up out of nowhere. At every little station we leapt out to get a drink from the water-bag hanging with its bell-like iron cup, and Dad shook hands with the station master.

Herbert is enrolled at a local state school, but loathes, and is loathed by his schoolmaster, who disastrously, moves up with him year after year. He responds by being class clown and often playing truant, running free through the docks and the ships (no Border Force back then!) but discovers an aptitude for science, and also for story telling for which he is given no credit. He later says that there were no books at home and he read no novels before his late teens.

At 14 he leaves school and in pursuit of his dream of being a pharmacist, gains employment as bottle washer and delivery boy for a chemist ‘over the river’ – Mosman Park probably. I found it a great joy reading this book to guess the locations, most of which I know pretty well, from his descriptions.

His older brother and his father go away to the Great War. He discovers girls. He studies at night school, and for a while at a Christian Brothers school, to qualify to begin his apprenticeship as a pharmacist. While at the Christian Brothers school he works briefly as a strike breaker on the wharves. This is an episode about which I knew nothing, but the strike breakers formed a new ‘union’ and were employed at the expense of the wharfies, during and after the War, until the Fremantle Wharf Riot of May 1919, in which Herbert claims also to have played a part.

… we were too late for the best of it, which was the overwhelming of the troopers with a barrage of coal the rioters were carrying in sacks, the killing of one of the proletariat  by the single policeman who seems to have stood his ground, the chasing of the whitebreeched boys in blue through the railway yards, then the final assault on authority in no less a personage than the First Minister himself, who, being discovered on a launch in the river, trying to rally his forces of law and order, was sent flying before another coal bombardment. The Right Honorable the First Minister [Colebatch] went straight back to his Capitol and resigned.

Herbert qualifies as a pharmacist but now wishes to become a doctor. He moves to an ‘eastern capital’ (Melbourne) and enrolls in medicine at Melbourne Uni. His family join him and establish a pharmacy which for a while he manages for them, but his heart is not in it, nor in his studies. He has begun to write. A story, North of Capricorn “which was where I come from” (not true on the evidence of this book) is published, then another, The Unforgiveable – “My hero went pearling, to the Nor’ West again, and there, after brave dealings with the usual scoundrels, found true love …”; has a last Christmas with all the family; and sets sail for the rest of his life.

For two days and two nights I was one of a herd of human hogs. I slept with a dozen or so of them in a small wedge in the stern right over the roaring screws and under the ever-chattering steering…

I was appalled by the squalor of it, amazed by the revelation of the stupidity, the bestiality, or which my fellow men were capable. But I was never disgusted. I was even delighted, to find that after all life is not lived by rote so much as by inclination, choice, and as choice can be infinite, so can the variety of life. And life was my first interest, and not merely as something to study, but to live.

After, as they say, a long and varied career, Xavier Herbert died in Alice Springs aged 83 ‘and was buried in the local cemetery after a funeral ceremony at which Kungarakany elders and Patrick Dodson, an Aboriginal former Catholic priest, officiated.’ (ADB). Patrick Dodson of course has just this past week been made Labor Senator for WA, replacing the unregretted Joe Bullock.


Xavier Herbert, Disturbing Element, first published 1963 (my copy, Fontana, 1976)

J.J.Healy, Literature and the Aborigine in Australia, 2nd Ed.,UQP, Brisbane, 1989




10 thoughts on “Disturbing Element, Xavier Herbert

    • Good luck with your review. I can’t make out whether Herbert believed Australia should be reserved for white Anglos or whether it should be returned to its original inhabitants.


      • Healy says Herbert was nearly interned during WWII for his membership of Australia First or some such – might be the same mob DH Lawrence was mixed up with.


  1. Literalist of the imagination. Love it. Sounds a bit like a foot in both camps. This also sounds like an interesting book. Great title for a start – literal but imaginative too!!


  2. […] Elizabeth Jolley did not in fact live in the wheatbelt, though The Well is set on a wheat farm near York or Brookton, just over the Ranges from Perth, the location also, a century earlier when land clearing had just started, for The Boy in the Bush by DH Lawrence and Mollie Skinner. Two other well-known books not included are The Fringe Dwellers, Nene Gare, which is not about farming, but Mr Comeaway’s work on the Geraldton wharves would have been mostly lumping bagged wheat; and Xavier Herbert’s  memoir of growing up in the wheatbelt, Disturbing Element. […]


  3. I’m no longer such a big fan of Xavier’s once much loved yarns, which over time transcended into a load of pathetic self serving bulldust for mine. For instance, ones about his dad the dashing lighthorseman, who ended up spending his year in France moving between field hospitals being treated for piles and the ravages brought upon by old age, which eventually got him an earlymark.. For a set of parents, so much detested, Xavier and Sadie moved around the country within cooey of his folks until the fifties, apart from when he left with his pal Arthur to go poking around bush hunting for victims of his sociopathic urges, murder possibly included….Anyhow I’m more interested in poor Sadie Herbert and her life pre the monster who turned it into hell on earth for nearly a half century. Does anyone know about her first husband Wolf Cohen, who he was, where he came from, what he got up to and what became of him. I’m a very old ex defective (sic) and am working on two cold case crimes committed in the thirties and forties, which I’d like to hang on his nibs if possible. Cheers and Merry Xmas from Can Tho.


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