The Cockatoos, Patrick White

Text Publishing — The Cockatoos: Text Classics, book by ...

Patrick White (1912-1990) is an unlikely candidate for the title of Australia’s best writer. Born into a firmly upper class life, he lived as a child in Sydney and on his family’s properties in the Hunter Valley (NSW), he and his sister were brought up by a nanny, and at age 12 he was sent to boarding school in England. He left school early and jackarooed for a couple of years on an uncle’s 28 square mile station in the Snowy Mountains (similar country to and maybe 100 kms SE of Miles Franklin’s families’ properties) before returning to England to study French and German Literature at Cambridge.

When his father died in 1937 White was independently wealthy, living and writing in London and for a while in the US. His first novel, Happy Valley, which he had commenced while jackarooing, was published in 1939. He enlisted in the RAF at the outbreak of WWII and served as an intelligence officer in Egypt, Palestine and Greece during which time he met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer, who became his life partner.

White lived with Lascaris for six years in Cairo before, in 1948, bringing him to live in Australia where they had a hobby farm at Castle Hill on the outskirts of Sydney. Their life as ‘farmers’ formed the background for one of White’s most admired novels (not by me!), his fourth, and the first written in Australia, The Tree of Man (1955). To be clear, Patrick White lived as an Englishman, rather than an Australian, until he was 36.

His fifth and greatest novel, Voss (1957) draws on the life (and death) of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt and also on White’s own time in the outback at another family property near Walgett, NSW. White wrote 13 novels all up and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. The Cockatoos, his second collection of short stories was published in 1974.

I always knew I should read White and attempted, unsuccessfully, The Aunt’s Story (1948) while I was at uni. Some time later I read and enjoyed Voss, and also the David Marr biography, and I read, and wrote about, The Aunt’s Story and The Twyborn Affair (1979) during my (very) mature age M.Litt. I have vague memories of starting others – I own A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and Memoirs of Many in One (1986) and I thought I owned the memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981) but maybe not.

I look up ‘Cockatoos’ in Marr. “So dry were the early months of 1973 that flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew in from the bush to plunder city gardens”. White is correcting proofs of The Eye of the Storm and putting together some stories written over the previous six years. “The latest story is called “The Cockatoos”, [White wrote], and that would be the title of the collection.” He submitted the stories in July and moved on to A Fringe of Leaves which had been lying ten years in a drawer waiting for Mrs Fraser “to recover from the mauling of librettists and composers” (see also: Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt).

Here are the stories and their lengths in pages:
A Woman’s Hand 104
The Full Belly 30
The Night the Prowler 58
Five-Twenty 34
Sicilian Vespers 86
The Cockatoos 59
so you can see why the collection is subtitled ‘Shorter novels and stories’.

Gail Jones in her 10 page introductory essay begins at the same place as I have, Marr’s “So dry were the early months of 1973 …”. She describes White’s work as “the singular project of someone for whom art offered questions, not answers, and an anguishing search for resolution in the irresolute business of being.” After waxing lyrical about The Tree of Man, she writes:

So what of The Cockatoos? Wonderfully broad in setting – the stories take place in Sicily, Greece, Egypt and Australia – they are also typical of White’s fiction in their combination of social comedy, inner quest and revelations of deep wounding. All engage modernist effects and concern melancholy and suffering.

I have read, struggled through, these stories. White’s work has layer on layer of meaning and intertextuality. They are mostly about older couples making do together, and White expresses his usual disgust with women’s bodies and with middle class Australians with deliberately ridiculous names like the Fazackerleys (A Woman’s Hand). The Full Belly is a short re-imagining of Greek life under German occupation, a period White was familiar with from his life with Manoly and the years he spent living in the Greek community in Egypt. The Night the Prowler Jones says strikes a false note. A couple attempt to come to terms with their daughter being raped, the daughter attempts to come to terms with being raped by becoming a sexual predator. This was made into a movie which I haven’t seen.

Let’s look at the final story, The Cockatoos. It’s a story of neighbours, people, middle aged couples mostly, living in the same suburban street, knowing each others’ names but hardly neighbourly. Mr Goodenough wears shorts at the weekend, showing his varicose veins. He and Mrs Goodenough have an only child, Tim, almost nine, who avoids other children, wanders streets and parks on his own. White makes fun of himself:

It bothered the father: what if the boy turned out a nut? or worse, a poof – or artist?

Mrs Davoren and her husband Mick, an Irish airman during the war, live amicably enough in the same house but avoid meeting, communicate through notes. Miss Le Cornu lives alone in the house left her by her parents. Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu both cook tea for Mick who puts on his hat and walks up the street to eat his overcooked steak and bed Miss Le Cornu before wandering home again while Mrs Davoren scrapes the teas she cooks into the bin.

Cockatoos settle on the Davoren’s lawn, are offered food and water until they briefly accept a better offer from Miss Le Cornu. The Davorens bump into each other in a dark corner and briefly reconcile. Figgis, the neighbour everyone dislikes, brings his shotgun into the street, fires at the birds. Mick Davoren wrestles him for the gun, is shot, dies in the arms of Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu, who afterwards sometimes speak. Tim spends a night in the park and beats a crippled cockatoo to death with a branch.

All very Patrick White. I’m sure it all means something.


Patrick White, The Cockatoos, first pub. 1973, this ed. Text Classics, 2019, Introduction by Gail Jones

29 thoughts on “The Cockatoos, Patrick White

  1. I’ve not read Patrick White but have been told to start with Voss. No idea if I’ll get to it. I have seen the book Cockatoo somewhere recently and wondered what it is about. Probably because I have two cockatoos that visit our house and sit on the porch railing begging for a handful of sunflower seeds every week or so. I think the one, if not both had been caged and escaped at one time and have managed to survive but are much tamer than the flock they hang out with. I know how destructive they can be but they don’t do anything to our place except drop leaves onto our brain injured cat that sometimes sits in the front yard to move him away from the sunflower seeds under the tree. The cat has neuro damage so can’t escape our fenced front yard as he cannot climb. They all manage to live peaceably so I think I would cringe at P White’s version of their species.


    • The Cockatoos is the last story of six. I wondered with all of them where White was going. He doesn’t like suburban, middle class people much and he makes the couples, especially the wives, very unattractive. But then, he had older parents who paid him very little attention. The last story is also about couples, the cockatoos just provide a point of interest. The Davorens leave out sunflower seeds and water for the cockies. I would too if I were you, we don’t leave them much habitat and you wonder how they, any birds, deal with all that glyphosate which farmers spray everywhere.


  2. Love the cover of this Text edition, says she offering something meaningful to the conversation.

    Actually, I do like White – a lot – and am intrigued by this. I don’t think I realised that the film The night the prowler (which I haven’t seen either) was based on a White story.

    Voss was my first White, and I loved it so much that I – a short story lover even then – next read his short story collection The burnt ones, which I also remember liking. I think I like his modernist angst-ridden writing, which may have something to do with when I was born and the sort of modern literature I was introduced to, like TS Eliot. Somehow these two go together.


    • In fact White wrote the screenplay. You and I were born at the same time (I think) but your parents must have been more progressive than mine. I grew up reading PC Wren not TS Eliot, so Modernism took some getting used to (even now I probably haven’t read much beyond James Joyce and DH Lawrence). Still, I believe White is ‘good’ if sometimes impenetrable.


      • We were born around the same time Bill, yes. My mother was more progressive in terms of literature, I’d say. But I did TS Eliot at high school. Perfect, as was White’s Voss, and Lawrence, for an angst-ridden teen, while Austen provided the antidote. We did The Dubliners at high school too, and, I’m pretty sure, Portrait of the artist as a young man.

        White can be dense!


  3. Hmmm I attempted Voss at uni, on my own…and failed to penetrate the impenetrable. I confess that I dumped him into the misogynistic old white guy camp and have never revisited his work. Despite my former boss rating him as the best Australian writer, ever! Not sure if I will ever try again (although one should never say never!) when I have so many marvellous Australian women writers I’d rather read.

    If anything I’m more curious about his life as time goes by. Living in a gay relationship in Australia during that time must have been challenging, let alone being an intellectual in Australia at that time.


    • I can’t recommend David Marr’s biography of White too highly. 700 odd pages, but very readable. And from memory it relates his life to his work in a way that makes lots of sense. I have two copies so we should meet one day for coffee and vanilla slice at Ouyen, the (former, probably) vanilla slice capital of the world, and you can have one of them.


  4. Thank you for the memory prompt! I have ‘The Cockatoos’ 1978 Penguin paperback on my bookshelf where it sits yellowing, unread and overlooked. It cost me the recommended price of AU$2.50 and I don’t know why I haven’t read it because I have struggled with several of Patrick White’s other works.


    • 42 years is a long time on the TBR! Probably you haven’t read it because you (we all) struggled with Patrick White. But there are some writers so important you just have to read them and I’m afraid White is one.
      When I see old prices I have to think what I was earning, probably $300/week in 1978. Multiply both by 7 and that $2.50 is equivalent to say $18 today, half what I usually pay.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a cringey author. It sounds like he’s writing whatever he thinks is shocking from his privileged seat because he has such little real life experience of hardship. I may be talking out of turn because he enlisted in the RAF, but I don’t quite know what he ended up doing while in service, if he was more of a hang-around-the-office-in-a-cute-uniform guy, or up in the air with weapons shooting at Nazis.

    I did catch that line about it being horrible to be a “poof” despite the author’s partnership with Lascaris and wonder what to think of the sentence. . .


    • I’m torn about White’s privileged (and English) upbringing. We basically ignore class in Australia, and so fail to realise just how entitled the born-to-rule mob think they are. And White for the latter part of his life lived in a townhouse facing Sydney’s version of Central Park, and entertained all the ‘best’ people in Arts and Politics.

      But the point is he is clearly in the upper, upper ranks of good writers; and he had a lot more life experience than he is sometimes given credit for – working on family properties, living in the Greek community in Cairo, and serving in the desert, yes behind the lines but not I think out of danger, for a number of years in WWII And interestingly, he wrote from an Australian rather than a world perspective.


      • Huh. This sounds like someone about whom I’d rather read a biography than one of his novels. I especially enjoy reading the stories of people who traveled a lot throughout their lives.


  6. I had to read A Fringe of Leaves in my final year at high school, and was scarred by the experience! A few years later I subsequently struggled through Tree of Man and decided that was enough. I may yet be tempted by Voss but can’t see it happening any time soon. Wasn’t Patrick White’s work used to prank a bunch of Australian publishers a few years ago? Someone mocked up one if his works as an unpublished manuscript, put a different name on it and sent it around to the slush piles. No-one picked it up.


    • White is definitely hard work, but I’d be pleased if one of his ‘easier’ works remained on the Year 12 Eng Lit syllabus. I searched on ‘Patrick White hoax ms’ and came up with this defence by the publishers’ readers concerned
      it’s an interesting story. The readers claim:
      It was Ch.3 of Eye of the Storm which doesn’t make sense without the preceding chapters;
      the cover letter was amateurish, ” following none of the conventions that we request”; and
      the hoax was demonstrative of the lack of serious literary journalism in Australia (and was copied from a similar hoax in England using the work of VS Naipaul)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I must admit that your review made me laugh a few times. Both because of your own wit and also because of how ludicrous some of these stories sound. I will admit, White’s writing doesn’t sound like it will appeal to me. And I don’t think it did to you, either (though, honestly, I cannot tell entirely due to your seemingly very dry wit!). But I can understand why such an author would be important to Australia. The history lesson is quite interesting! Perhaps I’ll hunt down this biography you recommended on White… 😉


    • Flattery will get you everywhere Jackie. By all means read the biography if you’re interested. But in general, writers like this we need to be aware of because they are influential in shaping contemporary writing. But whether we actually need to read them, well that depends on how much time we have.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hahaha. Your last line made me snorty-laugh. The only book of his that I’ve read (I think) is The Aunt’s Story, which I expected to be a really difficult read but ended up thoroughly enjoying (it was for a bookclub somewhere along the way and I don’t think the others enjoyed it as much as I did, but perhaps I am misremembering).

    He is a writer who interests me intensely because my grandmother started to read him late in her life (on the recommendation of a younger reader than she, who was studying English and had come across White in the course of studies in a Canadian city) and she found it difficult to grapple with his themes and preoccupations and spoke passionately about it (against it, mostly) but still continued to read some of his stuff and continued to be torn about the fact that she was intended to admire this way of telling stories and, yet, it didn’t speak to her, in the same way it touched the reader who recommended White to her. I wasn’t aware he’d written short fiction though, so I enjoyed reading about these.


    • I certainly enjoyed The Aunts Story much more at 60 than I did at 20. Patrick White is important for his writing, as is say Virginia Woolf, but he is also surprisingly Australian in his themes. I think even all that time he was away he was thinking about it.


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