Such is Life (09), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)
Such is Life (08)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.

Ok. Spoilers. You would have to be made of stone for the central part of Chapter V not to bring a tear to your eye. We are on Mondunbarra station, and a large number of bullockies, tank sinkers, and other similar contractors, and of course Tom, have settled for the evening in two camps on a rare, well-grassed paddock.

It’s a warm moonlit night and the men begin listlessly swapping stories about the hardships they have encountered and the wrongs done to them by station owners. Gradually it comes round to Tom’s mate, Steve Thompson’s turn.

Thompson told a story well. I verily believe he used to practise the accomplishment mentally, as he sauntered along beside his team. He knew his own superiority here; his acquaintances knew it too, and they also knew that he knew it. Hence they were reluctant to minister occasion to his egotism…

[some filler, Thompson is on Kulkaroo, yarning, when the station manager rushes up]

“‘Child lost in the scrub on Goolumbulla. Dan O’Connell’s little girl – five or six years old. Anybody know where there’s any blackfellows?’ Nobody knew. ‘Well raise your horses wherever you can, and clear at once,’ says he.”

By ‘Dan O’Connell’ they are referring to the Irish shepherd Rory O’Halloran, father of Mary, whom we met in Such is Life (04). Steve goes with the Kulkaroo men and gives a blow by blow description of the search. Which is heart breaking. The search goes on for days, one stockman following Mary’s footprints over soft ground and hard, others following and casting around, finding her discarded boots, finding where she slept, stopping to sleep themselves.

It is not clear why Steve hadn’t told Tom straight away, or for that matter how Tom had not been told the day before up at the homestead. But although it is a central part of the novel, Tom glosses over it, and the men around the fire go on to tell their own tales of children lost in the bush – an enduring theme of Australian storytelling.

One tells of a boy crawling into a hollow log to escape the searchers, bogey men as he thought, calling his name; and another of his young brother missing, never found. “It seems to me the most likely thing … was to get jammed in a log like that other little chap. Then after five years, or ten years, or twenty years, the log gets burned, and nobody notices a few little bones, crumbled among the ashes.”

The other subject this chapter brought up was the presence, or otherwise, of Aborigines. Aborigines on farm country were quite early on herded into reservations. This is not farm country but semi-desert grazing country. In northern Australia graziers seem to have tolerated ‘traditional’ life in camps away from the homesteads as long as the men could be relied on for mustering cattle – and of course as soon as they were obliged to pay them, in the 1970s, the pastoral companies forced all Indigenous people off their stations and into town.

The situation in the southern half of the outback seems to have been different. Those properties all ran sheep, and maybe had not the same need for men. Shepherds, who lived in huts on the outer portions of each property, were by Tom’s account mostly married white men, probably attracted to Australia by the goldrushes of the 1850s. In earlier days shepherds were mostly convicts. How the Aborigines were dispersed I don’t know, but it seems to have happened quite early.

Speaking of the search for Mary O’Halloran, Steve Thompson says

Did anybody know where to find a blackfellow, now that he was wanted?

Seems there had been about a dozen of them camped near the tank in the cattle-paddock for a month past, but they were just gone, nobody knew where. And there had been an old lubra and a young one camped within a mile of the station, and an old fellow and his lubra near one of the boundary men’s places; but they all happen to have shifted …

Eventually it is the old woman who is brought up and completes the search.


Mondunbarra. Except for Chapter IV which Tom spends naked on the banks of the Murray, the action has mostly been situated on a few stations along the Lachlan River, west of Hillston, NSW. Hillston was established in 1863, so 20-25 years before the events described here, but I don’t recall Tom mentioning it, though it would be closer than Ivanhoe, Hay and Deniliquin which he does mention.

Dan O’Connell. ‘The Liberator’. Politician and fighter for Irish Catholic rights in early-mid 1800s. (here)

Lubra. Australian pidgin word for an Aboriginal woman, possibly Tasmanian in origin. First documented by GA Robinson Protector of Aborigines in Tas. and then Vic. “sometimes derogatory and inherently sexist, since there was no equivalent term for an Aboriginal male.”

Aborigines. Frances Devlin-Glass in the paper I was referencing last month, “Furphy, Race and Anxiety”, devotes a section to Aborigines. She says that in the first decade of white settlement in Victoria the Aboriginal population declined from15,000 to less than 3,000. By their relative absence (in the 1880s) you would imagine the decline in the Riverina was similar. In Furphy’s The Buln Buln and The Brolga, basically short stories excised from the original Such is Life ms, Bob expresses the opinion: “Fact, most tribes is dyin’ out o’ their own accord, even where they ain’t interfered with”.

Furphy generally seems to hold the view of liberal conservatives today, that the Indigenous population should be honoured for it’s skills, that their time is past, and it’s not his fault. “While one finds in [his work] a refusal to objectify the other, there is also an unquestioned ethnocentrism, a fantasy of the progressive Australian (of European origin).”

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903

FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).

By month 9 I’m stretching for new covers. I couldn’t (at first) identify who produced the cover above though Penguin used the same image for an anthology of Australian bush writing. The painting is ‘The Selector’s Hut (Whelan on the log)’ by Arthur Streeton in 1890 (see NGA here). Searches more, finds it on ebay, publisher CreateSpace, more searching, on-demand publisher owned by Amazon.

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Next. Such is Life (10) >

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24 thoughts on “Such is Life (09), Joseph Furphy

  1. Victorian author Jill Blee wrote a novel set in Ballarat which references O’Connell in The Liberator’s Birthday. You may be able to locate the audiobook read by Stanley McGeagh:)

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  2. I figure by the time I get around to reading this (like Sue) I will have forgotten any spoilers!

    Lost children in the bush is such an enduring Australian theme, with good cause. We had a 3 yr old boy just last week lost for 3-4 nights in the bush around Putty. He has autism and by the 4th day we all feared the worse. Then at lunch last Monday the news notification popped up on my phone saying he’d just been found, sitting in a small muddy pool having a drink. I was reminded of the song Little Boy Lost from my childhood, that local radio used to love playing to tug on your heartstrings. But, of course, not all these stories have a happy ending. I hope that Mary’s story was one of the happier ones.

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  3. I really like the way you zeroed in on the theme of missing or dead children in this section, Bill. I could easily follow along and take something from this entry, especially the part about burning a log and what are a few bones. Nice job!

    Your post reminded me that recently there was a big news story about a missing baby in my area. The parents left her with a friend who claimed the baby was dead when he woke up, but where was she? No one knew. He eventually admitted he buried her out in the woods. For some reason, children keep ending up dead in the woods in this same area just to the west of South Bend, somewhere between my city and LaPorte county where that serial murderer lady lived.

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    • Thank you Melanie (Sue, stop reading!) Missing children is probably a universal theme but in Australia it is associated with a fear of the Bush. In the case Brona refers to above, the child was alive and well, only moved a few hundred yards over two or three days, and was almost certainly very close to searchers without being seen (was eventually discovered by a helicopter, drinking from a stream, I think).

      We had a similar missing baby – Jaidyn Leskie – some years ago, who went missing while being baby-sat by the mother’s boyfriend. The boyfriend was charged and acquitted. Jaidyn’s body was found after about 6 months, in a dam, with a broken arm, and weighted down with a crowbar.
      We have our own white trash here – you might look up pig’s head in relation to Jaidyn Leskie – but not so many serial killers.

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      • I saw the toddler in the bush on the news here! All I could think when I saw that helicopter footage was, “Baby, put that puddle down. You will get puddle diarrhea.” My youngest niece drank some pond water from behind my parents’ house when she was a couple years old and had diarrhea for a week.

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      • Thanks Bill …. I don’t think I saw The little boy lost movie. When you say you think you can name all 18 movies you say during your childhood, how do you know it was 18 (because they are the ones you remember?) and when do you count your childhood as ending? I have no idea how many films I say in my childhood, but it wasn’t a lot – unless you count midday movies on TV when I was a teen. I do remember seeing some movies at the drive-in.

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      • 18 is the number I remember remembering. The first two were The Ten Commandments and The Ten Commandments – I moved towns while the film canisters made their way round Victoria. My childhood ended at 17 3/4 when I left home and went up to uni. Sometimes a local would show old movies on his projector, Laurel and Hardy and that sort of thing. We didn’t get television until I was 15 (and only watched ABC). I remember The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and Cinerama in primary school, The Sound of Music, West Side Story and a John Wayne African on in junior high. The first movie I took a girl to was Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday. One time in Melbourne Dad took us to the drive in to see Hard Day’s night, but it was sold out and we saw Diamond Head instead. I only went once to the drive-ins with a girl but I don’t remember what we saw (I still know the girl, I should ask her).

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      • Ah, I never did see The Ten Commandments. We had television briefly in my late primary years but then we moved to Mt Isa where there was no TV. (We bought a Radiogram instead and lots of LPs of musicals!) We moved to Sydney when I was 14 and got TV again, and that’s when I remember the midday movies. We loved the drive-in but didn’t go a lot. However, we did see Hatari. All I remember of that is the “Baby elephant walk”. Great tune and dramatic footage in the movie. I’ve just looked it up and it starred John Wayne!! We also saw Oklahoma. I had seen most of those classic musicals before I came to Canberra in my early 20s. I know I saw Sound of Music too but can’t recollect when or where but certainly in my teens. I remember wanting to see movies with Cliff Richard and Elvis at the Drive-in but my parents weren’t interested!! Dad did buy me a Beatles record in my mid teens when he relaxed a bit, but those scary pop star movies!?

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      • Yes, Hatari. We’d go to a movie sometimes in Hamilton the local regional centre when dad had a meeting of headmasters. The bit I remember is mum made me take B4 age 5 to the toilet and I missed the truck rollover!

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  4. I’m not sure if there’s a parallel in early Canadian literature. I think the closest would be the phenomenon that Margaret Atwood considers in her Survival (lit crit originally published in the ’70s about fledgling, then, CanLit), the question of WinterSnowDeath, which really comes for every age. It surfaces in almost all the classic tales and, as others have described above in regards to children missing in the bush, continues in present-day news coverage, when people are locked out or lost or addled and freeze to their deaths in winter.

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  5. It hadn’t really occurred to me that Canada wouldn’t have its own version of the child lost in the bush (forest) but of course lost in the snow is much more tragic – we do get them here sometimes though mostly adult cross country walkers or skiers.

    The bigger question is Why was Can.Lit fledgling in the ’70s? Is it because the study of Can.Lit was not a discipline before then? Or did you not have books? (Apart from A of GG of course).

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