The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Randolph Stow

AusReading Month 2021

Randolph Stow (1935-2010) was born and grew up in the regional port town of Geraldton, WA, 430 kms north of Perth, nestling between the Indian Ocean and the line of hills separating it from a narrow band of wheatland and then endless kilometres of desert sand and scrub divided into enormous stations running merino sheep.

Inland 300 kms and connected to Geraldton by the Northern rail line were the Murchison Goldfields – Mt Magnet, Meekatharra, Sandstone, and in the distance Wiluna. All territory I’ve covered before, writing about Daisy Bates, the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls, KSP and Coonardoo/Turee Ck. Neville Schute’s Beyond the Black Stump (1956), which I have read and not reviewed, is also set in that country out towards Turee Ck,

Geraldton was the home of Nene Gare, a district nurse, her husband in charge of local State Housing, and the setting for her The Fringe Dwellers (1961). More recently John Kinsella and Charmian Papertalk Green have written (here) about Mullewa, on the Northern Line 100km east of Geraldton where they both lived, at different times, and attended school in Geraldton.

With The Fringe Dwellers and The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea we see Geraldton from the bottom and from the top (sorry, but conventional hierarchies have it that way) from the Indigenous unemployed (as seen by a judgemental white woman) and from the squattocracy, the great landowners. And more or less at the same time, the 1950s, though Stow’s recollections, and this is autofiction, begin in the early years of WWII.

The merry-go-round had a centre post of cast iron, reddened a little by salt air, and of a certain ornateness … The post began as a square pillar, formed rings, continued as a fluted column, suddenly bulged like a diseased tree with an excresence of iron leaves, narrowed to a peak like the top of a pepperpot, and at last ended, very high in the sky, with an iron ball. In the bulge where the leaves were, was an iron collar. From this collar eight iron stays hung down, supporting the narrow wooden octagonal seat of the merry-go-round …

[A small boy] went, scuffling leaves, to the merry-go-round, and hanging his body over the narrow seat he began to run with it, lifting his legs from the ground as it gained momentum. But he could not achieve more than half a revolution by this means, and presently he stopped, feeling vaguely hard-used.

And so we meet Rob Coram, whose story this is and a merry-go-round, though not “the merry-go-round in the sea” which is actually the mast of a freighter sunk in Geraldton harbour, whose rusting away over the years maybe signifies Rob’s loss of childhood innocence. The year is 1941. Rob is six and his idol, Rick, a 21 year old law student, a cousin in his mother’s extended family, is about to leave the Maplestead family property, Sandalwood, and go overseas with the army.

Rob, his little sister Nan, and his mother, Margaret, and lawyer father live in Geraldton. The father, who has also enlisted, is on army exercises at the weekend, but mother brings the children out to Sandalwood for Rick’s last day at home.

The hairs on the back of Rick’s neck were golden. Two crows were crying in the sky, and everything was asleep. The day, the summer, would never end. He would walk behind Rick, he would study Rick forever.

The summer goes on, endlessly as summer holidays do. Full of aunts and great aunts and little girl cousins. Rick is in Malaya, which we know, which the adults know, has fallen to the Japanese.

A man stood in the in the starlit rectangle of the doorway. He stood swaying for a moment, then stumbled forward… The hut was pitch-dark, steam-hot. It stank of men and the tropics.

And so we see we are to follow two tracks, Rob’s and Rick’s. Rick has just met Hugh McKay, who will be his life-long mate, in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

As the Japanese advance through Indonesia, as Darwin and then Broome are bombed, the sense of war, for the boy, becomes very strong. There are strange boats in the harbour, strange people in strange clothes in the town. Refugees. The house gets an air-raid trench in the tennis court. There are air-raid sirens. Preparations are made to evacuate inland to Mt Magnet. When these are not followed through, the family’s boxes are left at Mt Magnet station where “the black ladies opened them”.

In the early part of the novel Rob’s perceptions are often what he has heard adults say. This is the first time Aboriginal people are mentioned. Subsequently, at a visit to the “hand cave” on Sandalwood, Rob asks (about the people who made the hand paintings), “Are they like the blackniggers in town?” It is interesting to observe, as Rob grows to adulthood, that he increasingly discards his mother’s prejudices.

As the war recedes, for Western Australians anyway, Rob resumes school in Geraldton and then Guildford Grammar in Perth where all the men of his family have attended. Just an ordinary boy’s story, very well told.

Finally, Rick comes home. The one letter he and Hugh received in four years was a postcard from Rob, in which he said he weighed 4 stone 6 lb. “And Hughie and I weighed 5 stone apiece,” Rick says.

The last third of the book is Rick’s failure to settle down, as Hugh gets a wife, a house in the suburbs, a family. And Rob’s struggle to understand. A wonderful book. An Australian classic.

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Randolph Stow, The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea, first pub. 1965, this edition (pictured) Penguin, 1968. 276pp


Sandalwood. The Maplestead (Rob’s mother’s family) family property. Stow mentions location names from time to time, but I wasn’t taking notes. On the first trip there (in the novel) they first go south from Geraldton to Greenough and then inland to another family property. I got the impression Sandalwood was further inland, so maybe 60-80 kms west and south of Geraldton.

24 thoughts on “The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Randolph Stow

  1. The contrast in the protagonists’ lives sounds very powerful in that one. I think I’m reviewing my second AusReading Month tomorrow for publication on Sunday, I’m all behind myself or in front of myself, not sure which! It’s a hard one to review without coming over all holier than thou and I think I need to sleep on it! (It’s Terra Nullius by Sven Lindqvist).

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  2. One of my favourites! I read this 12 years ago (according to my blog), long before I’d even visited WA much less lived here, and I loved its sense of time and place and childhood innocence. At the time most of Stow’s work was out of print and I was desperate to read more. The only one I could find was Too the Islands. Since then, Text has, thankfully, reissued his work in their Text Classics series. I do think he deserves to be more widely known.

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    • I have a few Stows. Whether I’ve actually read them, I’m not sure. But this one is beautifully written. And I agree, he captures perfectly that feeling of the endless summer of childhood – or a country childhood anyway, which is the only one I had.

      When you get the chance visit Geraldton. It’s just past the best time for wildflowers in the coastal heath country on the way up (and The Brand Hwy through the heath is a much more interesting drive then the new coast road). Maybe re-read Stow and visit all the places he mentions. I’ve stayed a couple of times in the hotel overlooking the harbour, and from there made day trips to Kalbarri, the Murchison, Walkaway, Northampton and come home inland via Yalgoo.

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      • Yes, if I ever get my own car I’d like to do some exploring… my work car is limited to use only in Perth metro area, which, let’s face it, is H U G E, but it does mean I can’t really go further than Joondalup or further south than Mandurah. The cars are demo models, so as soon as they hit a certain mileage (around 5k) they get confiscated for sale if they haven’t already sold before then. I’ve literally driven dozens of vehicles in the past two years.

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  3. After being tired & emotional upset last night that I had lost this comment, I woke this morning, with a much happier mind and wondered if the history tab might be my friend. It was!
    The lost comment was just sitting there waiting for me to find it and send it 🙂

    I hope it’s worth the wait!

    I’ve only read a bio on Stow and his children’s book Midnite, so all I have to offer up right now is some observations from Gillian Mears.

    I’m currently reading her biography by Bernadette Brennan. It’s extraordinary and quite a who’s who of Australian literature in the 1980’s & 90’s. One of the many authors that Mears wrote to at various times throughout her life was Stow (her main correspondent though was Gerald Murnane. They both understood that everything they wrote to each other would be archived by both!! Mears has 154 boxes archived at the State Library, which I believe is the second largest collection they have.)

    Her high school English teacher (and later-to-be husband) introduced her to Merry-Go-Round as a teenager. She reread it many times and wrote that Stow’s words evoked ‘strange feelings in [her] belly and bones’.

    In 2001 she sent him one of her stories, and signed off by saying “I would like to know more of your life but not in a vulture like way.” He did not reply.

    When she took off in her van to drive around Australia, with only 2 shelves for books, Stow’s Tourmaline was one of the books she picked.

    I’ve often wondered which Stow I should start with, and this one sounds the most accessible/appealing?

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  4. Often when you say you’ve lost a comment you wonder if the replacement will be up to the build up. But there’s no doubt about yours. I’d be t&e too if I’d done that much work and it disappeared – which happens too often on my phone.

    I write to people off and on. We talk about our lives, but I can’t see that ‘tell me about your life’ would work for anyone, not even your therapist probably.

    Yes, start with this one, not because I know anything about Stow’s others but because it sets out perfectly his childhood.

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  5. My reading group did this a few years ago, and it was one of our top reads that year. I need to read more Stow, but still haven’t. Is To the islands a novella?

    I liked his description of landscape, the times, and what I believed were insights into his own feelings. You get the sense in Merry-go-round of a young person taking in all that’s going on around him and trying to work out his own views and values.

    I wrote this about Carey’s book on him: “She paints a picture, in the end, of a man at odds with the country in which he was born though exactly why is hard to say. Did he reject Australia – with its “depressing tolerance, even worship, of the second-rate” (his words) – or did Australia reject him with its inability to understand his work.”

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    • I can’t answer your question, but: Stow is of an age where arty people felt that Australia was not simpatico, and in the end, Rick at least has to leave; nevertheless, in this book the young Rob seems totally Australian, at home in Geraldton, in the endless summer of boyhood, at home on the family property, at home droving sheep with Rick and Hugh from Sandalwood to Mt Magnet (you don’t get much more Australian than that).

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  6. I always find it so curious that when we are very small we attach ourselves to people who are not quite our parents’ ages, but much too old for us. I used to be absolutely obsessed with these boys down the road from my house, and I loved absolutely everything about them. Just this past weekend, Biscuit and I were talking about them. We looked them up, and this is when I realized the oldest had graduated high school when I was in 4th grade. What was I doing swooning after this MAN? His brother was only two years younger than he.

    When I was in elementary school, I used to chase around after my female cousin in high school, and I chalked that up to me wanting to feel like an insider, perhaps a “big girl,” but I never could figure out my deal with the older boys, whom I almost never talked to.

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    • I wasn’t so extreme, but yes I too wanted to hang round with mum’s youngest brother and mum’s younger cousins (and had a bit of crush on one of them) every time I was up on the family farm. And no they didn’t include me, but on the other hand I was mostly forgiven for pranging my uncle’s ute when I was only meant to be taking it around the corner to give it a wash.

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      • Oh, Bill! You are a treat! I remember when my grandma finally convinced me that I could drive a go cart on her farm (I was terrified of everything), the first thing I did was hit the gas, forget to turn the wheel, and drove straight into the garage. There are actually many stories in which a young Melanie forgets to turn the wheel and crashes/splashes into something. I think I must get some kind of fear paralysis, though I do know one occasion was due to daydreaming.

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