Alien Son, Judah Waten

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As a boy in the bush one of my great freedoms, especially when I was 13 or 14, was to go on weekend camps with 3 or 4 other boys from the Macarthur scout troop to Mt Eccles (now Budj Bim), to the sandhills of Yambuk on the wild coast west of Port Fairy, or just to a paddock along the Eumeralla, with no adults to stop us eeling, swimming, caving (Mt Eccles is a volcanic crater with a bottomless lake and extensive caves) or just sitting around a fire telling tall stories. I loved the Scouts (and they taught me to tie the knots I’ve used ever since as a truck driver). At the end of 1964 I attended the national Jamboree at Dandenong, a much more ordered affair than I was used to, and we boys from Western Victoria shared tents with boys from Caulfield. And there I had pointed out to me a boy who was a Jew! I’m sure there was more than one, but the point is that up till that day Jews for me were figures from books. It was a couple more years before I read Alien Son (1952) but it is no surprise that it was seized on by educators as an introduction to the Jewish immigrant experience in Australia.

Judah Waten (1911-1985) was Jewish, Russian, Communist and of course Australian, known to all school children of my generation for this account of his growing up in Perth and Melbourne after the First World War.

Waten joined the Communist Party of Australia while still at University High, was expelled in 1935 for ‘petty-bourgeois irresponsibilities’, rejoined and was expelled a couple of more times before making it to the national committee in 1967-70, but resigned in 1972 after the CPA went all hippy, and joined the pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia. He devoted much of his life to communist and Jewish activism rather than holding down a steady job, though ironically he was employed by the Tax Office during WWII, wrote 8 novels, 3 memoirs and an important history of the Depression.

As a critic Waten penned some of the earliest essays on migrant writing in Australia. From 1967 he reviewed widely for the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Australia Council writer’s fellowship (1975) and posthumously the Patrick White award (1985). He served (1973-74) on the Literature Board of the Australia Council and was appointed AM in 1979.

His significance to Australian literature as a Jewish-Australian writer, a communist writer and a writer on the migrant experience remains considerable despite the limitations of his restrained realist style. (ADB)

You can imagine that these days he would be more likely to be deported (he was born in Odessa) than to be awarded an AM.

During the whole of Alien Son, which takes the form of a series of linked, boyhood reminiscences, Waten resolutely refuses to give names to locations or dates to events. The first chapter, ‘To a Country Town’, begins “Father said we should have to leave the city.” You will have to take my word for it that “the city” is Perth and the year maybe 1916. The country town I can only guess – it is a few hours by horse and cart out of the city and does not appear to involve crossing the Darling Escarpment so I will hazard Gin Gin, 80 kms north.

Later, when they leave WA and move to Melbourne by boat, again the cities aren’t named but are easy to visualise as the ship leaves Fremantle, calls in at Adelaide and docks in Port Melbourne.

Father and Mother are almost stock figures from Jewish emigrant literature, Father a rag and bone man, Mother resolutely stay-at-home, pining for a lost Europe, really lost with the Great War and the 1917 Revolution, though neither gets much of a mention.

Waten’s politics seemingly play little part in the choices he makes of which stories to tell though later stories concern an Aboriginal family living in their street (in Melbourne), and a strike, leading to a lock-out, on the wharves. Although Judah roams widely around the surrounding suburbs, with his mates and with his father, Waten’s big concern is his mother who is determined not to fit in.

[Father] was no sooner in Australia than he put away all thoughts of his homeland and he began to regard the new country as his permanent home …

It was different for Mother. Before she was one day off the ship she wanted to go back. The impressions she gained on that first day remained with her all her life. It seemed there was an irritatingly superior air about the people she met, the customs officials, the cab men, the agent of the new house. Their faces expressed something ironical and sympathetic, something friendly and at the same time condescending … she never forgave them for treating her as if she were in need of their good-natured tolerance.

Wherever they go, in the WA country town and later in the inner suburbs of Melbourne (North Carlton), Father and Mother find community with fellow Jews, but Judah, who I don’t think is anywhere named, becomes increasingly Australian and this is disappointing in a way as the book becomes just one of a number of similar Australian memoirs, for example TAG Hungerford’s (here) which are as well much more evocative of time and place.

Still, when we were at school it was important that we come to terms with the huge and ongoing waves of post-WWII immigration and reading and discussing Alien Son was a small but significant part of that.

 

Judah Waten, Alien Son, Angus & Robertson, 1952. Sun Books (with a gold cover if I remember my old school copy) 1965. Picador, 1993 (pictured above. Cover painting, Yosl Bergner)

20 thoughts on “Alien Son, Judah Waten

  1. I too read Alien Son in my matriculation English Expression course, in 1965. So we may be contemporaries! But even if I did not enjoy the book, I remember it clearly because Judah was my maternal cousin.

    Novels can contain any details, of course, since they are by definition fictional. But biographies should be accurate. Thus it is fascinating for me to guess who was telling the truth about the family’s history – the novelist/professional story teller or my grandmother/proud matriarch who wanted to protect her version of family history.

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  2. And I wrote two blog posts about Yosl Bergner, because my late parents knew him well in Carlton.

    Hels
    Art and Architecture, mainly.

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  3. Judah Waten first crossed my path at university. I’d never heard of this until then. Since then, I’ve read about him, but I haven’t read him. One day.

    I did enjoy your comment about enjoying Scouts. I must say that I’m glad I learnt to tie some of those knots in Girl Guides too.

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  4. I haven’t read this book although my earliest and longest reading binge was Jewish literature, predominantly around WWII – it began when I was about 9 or 10 and continued until I was 15. I can’t remember what book started me but I do remember what I finished with – Lily Brett’s Auschwitz Poems. I was bawling and my mum took the book off me and said “Enough now” and suggested I try some different books! I did (and so began a phase of ‘well-written trash*’) but I do regularly return to Holocaust stories.

    *by that I mean Shirley Conran, Judith Krantz, Jilly Cooper – the stories were trashy and ridiculous but looking back, still well-written (compared to today’s trash).

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    • I remember from an early comment of yours that you were reading up to be an exchange student in Germany. I don’t know the authors you mention but I do agree there are gradations of ‘trash’ – you might have seen The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount in my most recent list of audiobooks.

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    • Yes, that was the cover. I think I might look out now for one of Waten’s more political novels. Interesting – hard to forgive – that he was pro-Soviet rather than pro-Czech, but apparently he felt very strongly about his Russian heritage.

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      • I’ve got the impression that for people who really believed in communism, the international movement outweighed the cost to individual countries. Like colonising to build an empire, and too bad if the colonies didn’t like it, they thought they were bringing a better world. It’s a different mind set altogether.

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      • Yes, definitely a different mindset. I have a family member who was high up in one of the communist parties, so I’ve been exposed to, though not retained, a fair bit of theorising.

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  5. Thanks for the post. I would have skimmed past any book that has aliens in the title… lesson learned. Mt Eccles! We lived in Branxholme/Grassdale area for ten years 1996-2006 and often spent weekends on family picnics to Mt Eccles. I always wanted to live in the little house which sits under the rise, just on the corner of the road into the park. (It was yellow last time I saw it).
    Since moved to Edenhope where we go to Mt Arapiles or Baileys Rocks for a dose of wonder.

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    • I thought that Alien Son was one of those books that ‘everyone’ read at school. Obviously not. Just old people from Victoria. I love the volcanoes of Western Victoria and don’t think they are very well known or promoted – not compared with the coast road and the Grampians. I’ve been past Mt Arapiles, don’t know Baileys Rocks at all. Used to know the Grampians well from scout and youth club camps and because rellos had farms nearby (Laharum and McKenzie Creek). Would be interested to know more about the Condah mission in your (old) general area. Macarthur was in the Condah parish but in 3 years I heard nothing about Aboriginal people nearby – nor about Framlingham for that matter.

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      • Condah mission seems to be one of those places where school children are taken for camps to learn a bit of history and bushcraft. There are fish traps there, and I’m sure there’d be evidence of coastal tribes further south, but they were killed off during the gold rush era. (I was researching whaling in Portland area when I learned they poisoned their water holes, enslaved them as sealers, shot them, and finished them off with white fella diseases). From what I can gather, Condah nods at their past, and only people who care would even know about it. There are few Aboriginal people around. In 20 years living in s-w Victoria, I’ve only ever seen one or two individuals. Maybe they just keep hiding. I wouldn’t blame them.

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      • Thanks for that response Jay. “only ever seen one or two individuals” is my experience too of growing up in country Victoria, but I had thought there might still have been a community around Lake Condah. There was one boy in Macarthur who was probably indigenous, though it didn’t occur to me at the time. His nickname was Darky. That might have been a clue.

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  6. Thanks for the review and personal context. Like you I prefer my memoirs to be place specific. I’ve come across Waten in my KSP research – I think they first met when his dad used to deliver milk to her and he was helping out.

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