The Red Witch, Nathan Hobby

Back in 2015, when MST told me she had started a blog, Adventures in Biography, I started following the people she was following – Whispering Gums, ANZLitLovers, Nathan Hobby (then A Biographer in Perth), The Resident Judge, Stumbling through the Past, Historians are Past Caring (Marion Diamond and my favourite blog name ever). They were kind enough to follow me when I started blogging and soon, mostly of course through WG and ANZLL, I had met all of you.

It has been a great privilege to follow the progress of Michelle (MST) and Nathan as their books, first Michelle’s and now Nathan’s, in 2015 only a gleam in their eyes, have made it through to publication.

Before I link to my review on the AWWC site, I want to update you on my ongoing interest in Prichard’s trip to Turee Creek in 1926 to gather the material for the novel Coonardoo, which I first wrote about in one of my earliest posts Ventured North by Train and Truck (1 Jul, 2015).

From The Red Witch I get that KSP’s husband, Hugo Throssell, had worked on neighbouring station Ashburton, in the Peak Hill region, before WWI. And it was the Ashburton Road, past Peak Hill that I travelled last week, taking me to within about 50 km of Turee Creek. Nathan writes, “Joe Maguiure [Turee’s owner] described the location of Turee in a letter to a British newspaper: ‘We are just 198 miles from Peak Hill, our nearest post office. Our nearest neighbour is 80 miles away, our nearest railway 267, and nearest port 300 miles …'”

I can only imagine Maguire was prone to exaggeration. And that Prichard was mistaken when she wrote (and her son Ric later repeated) that she “travelled four hundred miles beyond the end of the railway” (Meekatharra according to Ric, who was at the time aged 4) in the station’s T-model Ford Truck to reach Turee Creek.

The distance from Meekatharra to Turee is near enough 320 km (200 miles). Peak Hill is roughly half way, so 100 miles. The nearest ports, Carnarvon or Onslow (KSP went home via Onslow), might be “300 miles”, they’re about 400 km/250 miles as the crow flies.

I was hoping Nathan would find something to clear up this little obsession of mine, but sadly, not.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

A comprehensive literary biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) is long overdue. We, Nathan’s fellow bloggers, have waited long years through his PhD, fatherhood, being taken up by Melbourne University Press, and finally a year’s delay due to ‘Covid’, for this month to arrive. We have learnt a lot about Prichard in the meanwhile, but that doesn’t compare with finally seeing the book in the hands of readers. Read on …

The Letters of Rachel Henning, David Adams ed.

This month’s post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge is of a similar period to my last (Gertrude the Emigrant), the 1850s through to the 1870s, though the letters were in fact not collected and published until the 1950s and only after being severely pruned and polished. Which is what you might expect, but in fact the extent of David Adams’ editing was not largely understood until quite recently.


The-Author-3-225x300 by Bill Holloway

Rachel Henning (1826-1914) came out to Australia, in the wake of her brother Biddulph and sisters Annie and Amy, for the first time in 1854. Torn between England and Australia, she eventually settled in Australia, writing regularly to her sisters, particularly Etta who remained in England, all the while.

Her letters were offered to the Bulletin by her family almost forty years after her death. Edited by Bulletin editor David Adams into a continuous narrative and illustrated by the Bulletin‘s most famous artist, Norman Lindsay, ‘The Letters’ when published in 1954, was an immediate and ongoing success. Read on …

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (2)

North America Project 2022

Continuing on from Melanie’s essay, Malcolm X was one of those names emblematic of the great revolution occurring in America in the sixties when I went up to university in far away Melbourne, Australia. But my interest was in the anti-Vietnam War movement and I couldn’t have told you anything about Malcolm X the man except maybe the words ‘Black Rights’ and ‘Nation of Islam’.

So basically it has taken me half a century, and a big shove from Melanie, to rectify that, to listen to Malcolm X’s life on Audible (read by Laurence Fishburne).

Although the cover above – I wonder if it is the original – doesn’t say so, the autobiography is an “as told to” compiled by Alex Haley, a decade later the author of Roots, from interviews conducted with Malcolm X in 1963,4. Haley was a journalist and the style of writing reflects that, clear and straightforward with no literary flourishes. Wikipedia (here) gives a very good account of the “as told to” process, and while it is clear Malcolm X maintained control over the content, the construction and writing is all Haley’s.

Malcolm Little was born in 1925, the fourth of seven children, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. His father, a preacher, had his his house burned down and was subsequently bashed and pushed under a streetcar, officially suicide, but more likely the work of white racists. This was the Depression and without the father’s income the family were in desperate poverty. Under constant harassment by state welfare, the mother had a breakdown and the children were dispersed to orphanages and foster homes.

As an older teenage Malcolm moved to Boston, to his older half-sister Ella who lived in the relatively middle class Black suburb, Roxbury. Malcolm I’m sure appreciated Ella’s support, but throughout the book he is scathing about Blacks with even a little bit of money, who are ‘Tame Negroes’, if I remember the wording correctly, more concerned with integrating into white America than they are with asserting themselves.

Malcolm got into the fringes of the Black music industry, graduating from a shoeshine stand to marijuana supplier, becoming a notable lindy hop dancer, hooking up white men and black women and vice versa, and ending up with a white (later married) middle class girlfriend of his own, of whom he is completely contemptuous.

When the US enters WWII he manages to dodge the draft, dope dealing becomes difficult, and he forms a burglary gang, with his white girlfriend and her teenage sister scouting for likely targets, until they are finally caught. Malcolm believes that the appropriate sentence would have been two years but because white women were involved he got ten.

In jail he resumes his education, mainly through extensive non-fiction reading, and becomes a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which preaches obedience to Allah with Elijah as his most recent prophet. There’s a lot of sciency stuff about the origins of mankind, Black of course, in Africa, to which I paid little attention. As a religion it seems unexceptional, arguing against Integration for a separation of the races. Socially, it was very conservative, the husband ruled his family, and adulterers and pregnant single women were expelled.

Interestingly, Malcolm and all the preachers, were given the surname X to signify their disowning of the surnames which their slave forbears had taken from their owners.

Malcolm rose through the ranks, setting up new congregations throughout America. Eventually he was made the leader of the Harlem congregation, and there became a prominent spokesman in the national press, while Elijah Muhammad and his sons established The Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago.

Malcolm X’s increasing prominence, and the discovery that Elijah Muhammad had been getting all his secretaries pregnant led to a break, followed by Malcolm making a pilgrimage to Mecca and being taken up there by ‘official’ Islam.

The autobiography ends with him still speaking highly of Nation of Islam but attempting to set up his own organization while living in anticipation of attacks from his former fellows.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first pub. 1965


On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when a man shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.

One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan), was beaten by the crowd before police arrived. Witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. These three were convicted and given life sentences. Hayer disputed Butler and Thomas’ involvement and named four others who were never charged. Butler and Johnson were finally pardoned in 2021, well after they had been released on parole. (Wiki) (NYT).

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

North America Project 2022

My friend Melanie at Grab the Lapels is an American, a generation younger than me and was for some years a professor teaching creative writing where she would use Malcolm X’s story “as told to Alex Haley” as a teaching aid. She persuaded me to include it in my reading North American Black and First Nations writers project this year with the promise to write up her own experience. And here it is…


In the U.S. we are incapable of acknowledging our history and healing from it. When the oppressed have had enough, they make a lot of noise, leaving conservatives confounded. After so many years of Confederate soldier statues scattered throughout the country, especially in the South, why are protestors mad now? Does it desecrate the memory of a war leader whom some revere that others see as a symbol of hatred? History belongs in a museum, activists said. And when conservatives did not listen, activists turned to property damage, toppling monuments and leaving them in pieces. Is not a decorated white leader someone to turn to when racism makes a racist feel bad?

I began my education in 1990, and not once during that time can I recall hearing the name Malcolm X. A contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X could not be packaged nicely like the wise Southern pastor who included men and women, black and white, Southern and Northern in his group of supporters. In contrast, Malcolm X felt that African Americans do not want to live where they are not wanted and advocated for reparations in the form of land for the descendants of slaves. Any effort to integrate was a ruse, he thought, a way for “the white man” or “the white devil” to infiltrate black neighborhoods, steal their resources and abuse the residents, and then leave for the white side of town.

The fight over Critical Race Theory raging in the U.S. today appears to lean into the idea that white children will be made to feel bad if they learn that adults who look like they do were also adults who did everything in their physical, legal, and financial power to exploit human beings based on the darker color of their skin. Malcolm X begins his autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, with a story from before he was born. While his father was out of town, the local KKK attacked Malcolm’s mother and older siblings. Only her pregnancy — that was Malcolm — kept them from murdering the family. Later, under suspicious conditions, Malcolm’s father is found beheaded, but because it was set up to look like a suicide by train tracks, the insurance company did not pay out on the father’s life insurance plan. Plummeting into starvation and incessant visits from white social workers who attempted to pit the children against their mother left Malcolm’s mom in a mental health crisis from which she never recovered.

Sometimes life is so awful it’s hard to believe the stories of those who experience blatant discrimination, but Malcolm X writes a convincing narrative explaining how his youth, from his parents being torn apart to teachers discouraging him from learning because he’s just a black kid, led him into a remorseless young adult life of crime. Righteous folks like to claim we always have an option, but a person’s environment has loads to say about his level of education, empathy, and experience. After his time as a numbers runner, drug dealer, and then thief who dared cavort with white women, Malcom X was sent to prison where he learned to read, devoured the well-stocked prison library, and found the Nation of Islam. The NoI, developed by a black African American man from the South, is a form of Islam that Malcolm later realizes Middle Eastern Muslims to not recognize as true Islam.

Between his studies in prison and discovering that the NoI was not what he thought, Malcolm X developed intellectual political, economic, and social theories about how “the white man” is “the devil” harming the black community. Nothing he saw nor experienced proved contrary. Using the rhetorical savvy of a lawyer and supported by ten years of intense study of languages, history, and philosophy while incarcerated, Malcolm X exploded into the media, terrifying white people with his “hateful” statements about white communities. He served as an antithesis to Dr. King, an example of what an “angry black man” looks like when folks should just all get along (and be compliant). For as much as Malcolm X was in the media, to not know his name after I attended public education is baffling until I think back to how Malcolm X supported segregation. He doesn’t fit into a warm and fuzzy narrative about slavery being over, about how the Civil Rights Movement made everything alright and we can now feel good about our white selves.

After Malcolm X took his first trip to Mecca and learned about true Islam, which had worshippers from every country and skin color, he completely changed his mind. The white man is not the devil, he realized. “White” is a state of mind, not a skin color, hence the “Uncle Tom’s” in politics. And so why did I, a white woman in her thirties, teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X for five years, semester after semester? What would compel me to give this book as a gift at high school graduation parties rather than the expected $20? The ability to change with more information.

In the U.S. change is a slur we use to shame people we don’t like. We call them wishy-washy, flip-floppy, and even suggest they are lying. We hold a record of change against public figures, especially politicians and how they voted, even if it was twenty years ago. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that with more information comes a need to change. Doubling down on facts from last year, last month, last week, even, could kill us. But looking at the bigger picture, holding fast to outdated information has led Americans to a stubborn place marked by ignorance. And if I can teach change through the narrative of a prolific American leader and thinking like Malcolm X, if only one person at a time, I’ll do it for as long as I can.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X , first pub.1965

Thank you Melanie. I’ll put up my own review in a couple of days, Bill

Poppy, Drusilla Modjeska

Drusilla Modjeska (1946- ) is an Australian writer and academic, born and bought up in Hampshire – there’s a comment somewhere that Jane Austen posted her mail in a market town nearby – and university educated in PNG and Australia.

Poppy (1990) is a fictional biography of her mother, and of her mother’s influence on her, though I didn’t realise that it was fictional until I began this review and read Modjeska’s ‘My Life’ on her website. Despite, I’m sure, having read a number of reviews on other blogs over the years.

Modjeska’s first book was Exiles at Home (1981) which was the basis for my write up of AWW Gen 3, and I also have, unread, the anthology, Sisters (1995), but I haven’t read any of her – other – fiction (Wikipedia has Poppy under ‘Novels’).

Reading, I was impressed, willing to compare Poppy favourably with Brian Matthews’ Louisa, my gold standard biography (sorry MST), but “fictional” … now I am up in the air. The style is biographical, there is none of the sizzle of my other gold standard, Normal People, perfect autofiction. And the introspective elements, the views of the daughter through the eyes of the mother, can either of these be trusted, how are we to know to what extent they are self-serving?

I just don’t find Poppy – the name Modjeska assigns to her mother – particularly interesting as a fictional character.

You will say that the things that this fictional author in Modjeska’s place writes about her mother, her mother’s catholic priest lover, her father, her sisters, herself and her lovers would be impossible in a biography at this little distance from the events described/invented. You might even say that the then young, well 40-ish, academic Modjeska was subverting our expectations by using the forms of biography for a work of fiction.

Miles Franklin, for instance, wrote a series of ‘autobiographical’ fictions – My Brilliant Career, My Career Goes Bung and Cockatoos – and by comparing them, with each other, with her other works, and with what we know of her life we can learn a great deal about her, as a person and as a writer. Should I do all this work for Modjeska too? I think not. Poppy will have to stand alone.

So when I read through what I’ve written, as one does a letter before it is posted, I realize that it is the story of the life I live off the pages of this book that pleases me, the glimpse of a present and daily reality I never intended to reveal.

I will describe the work, and say that I read it with a great deal of interest, as an insight into a difficult life and the effect it had on the daughter. I struggle to say why I feel so betrayed discovering that it is all (or part, but which part) made up. When Modjeska writes ‘my mother did this, I felt that’ I cannot help but accept it as truth, that’s the way the biographical form works. Yes, we write routinely ‘all biographies are fiction’, but they purport to be true, and that’s the difference. Here, the made up bits cast doubt on the whole.

Poppy, the daughter of a rich scrap metal dealer, and an uncaring mother (‘China’) marries Richard, an upper class lawyer. They raise three girls in the south of England where Richard can commute to work; Poppy has a breakdown and spends a number of years in a sanatorium; the author is sent away to school. Poppy gets out; Richard leaves her for Cicely; the author marries straight out of school and moves with her husband to Australia (Sydney – the two are treated throughout as synonymous).

Poppy gets closer and closer to Roman Catholic priest Marcus, becomes a probation worker, opens a home for deliquent boys, visits Sydney, goes on a pilgrimage to India, visits Sydney again, collaborates throughout, somewhere between unwillingly and resigned to being misunderstood, with the writing of this biography. Marcus dies of cancer. Poppy dies of cancer.

I’ve written all of the above with a chapter to go. It’s called Friends, and while the underlying theme of the book is Poppy’s search for a meaningful, spiritual life – against Richard’s failure of understanding and Marcus’ controlling and self-serving certainties – this last chapter is of the finding of friendship in love.

Whatever has happened to me, or has not, with husbands (de facto and de jure), continuity and security have been built on the excellence of friendship; and when I look at Poppy’s life I can see that this was so for her too. Yet these connections between women are taken for granted, a backdrop to the real business of life: Husbands, children, jobs. It takes only the slightest change of focus to see that these neglected intimacies, independent of more passionate demands, can offer the terms on which we best learn to be ourselves.

I must say I am tempted to let Modjeska have her cake and eat it too; to let her be Lalaj, her mother ‘Poppy’, her lovers ‘unnamed’ and G and Thomas; to let her hide behind ‘fiction’ and nevertheless let this be her own coming of age; to accept her account of 1950s and 60s England, to accept that the pressures and difficulties she describes are the pressures and difficulties she grew up with.

Otherwise, what was the point of writing it?

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Drusilla Modjeska, Poppy, Penguin, Melbourne, 1990. 316pp.

The Helen 100, Helen Razer

Melbourne journalist and communist Helen Razer is one of my favourite people. I used to always be able to read her in the daily political newsletter Crikey, and later in the (related I think) arts newsletter Daily Review. Her opinions are always incisive and quite often funny. Unfortunately, however often I subscribe, the Daily Review never actually arrives in my inbox, so I haven’t been sure for the last year or so whether it has survived and if so if Razer is still writing for it.

The Helen 100 (2017) is a memoir of the year when Helen was  41 43 and the woman who had been her partner for 15 years has left her. The memoir – it’s described as Memoir, so I suppose it is – begins with Helen lying on a table getting a bikini wax and it only gets more graphic from there. This may well be the most scatological work I have ever read. Ok. you are warned.

Be more specific. Well, I was more specific. As I felt him pull on my hair and resume his interest, by which I mean cock, I was able to say some really specific shit … a great stream of Kerouac Kink written on a single sheet of longing … All I can remember is that it involved a lot of ‘arse’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hurt me, Georges’, and possibly an offer from me to clean his kitchen in my scanties.

The woman waxing her ladyparts has persuaded Helen that the only way to get over a failed relationship is to go on as many dates as possible, Helen determines to go on 100, men or women, and no.12 is into bondage and sado-masochism. She asks him for more than he is willing to give.

Wanting sex, I have since learned, is a fairly standard middle-class female response to the shock of separation. I believe it comes a close second to going to Italy and Finding Oneself.

This is an astonishing work if it is indeed memoir as I’m sure many of the people represented here, not least Helen’s ex-partner, would be instantly recognisable in Melbourne’s inner suburban media/artsy set. It’s all told in that snappy, smartarse way of professional colour piece writers in the weekend pages, which I mostly despise, but Razer gets a leave pass from me for her fierce communist politics (only evident in passing here). And it feels true. I’ve been in a messy relationship breakup -not Milly! – and this is what it feels like.

Helen breaks into her ex-partner’s PC and discovers the break up, her partner’s involvement with other people, has been coming a lot longer than she realised.

I should have brushed my hair. I should have done my nails, I should have taken the best advice of all marriage manuals and not worn elasticised waistbands for months in the company of my spouse. I had worn elasticised waistbands for months and for months. I had been tolerably miserable.

She blames her horrible job, coming up with a constant stream of copy for an online discount advertiser. A job which early on she stops doing. A job which it turns out she was using to support her partner, a not very good artist. Going so far, in an effort to save their marriage, as to pay for a threesome. In a posh hotel. In New York.

On a dating/instant sex website after lots of truly bad exchanges (as a pedant she’s mostly upset by the bad spelling) she starts talking to John, a witty, intelligent text messager, but it’s a while before they meet. Meanwhile she’s busy racking up her 100. Sort of. Anyone she interacts with ticks the counter over.

She has a cat, Eleven, with whom she shares fried chicken. The fried chicken delivery man counts as a date. She has a therapist, Cheap George, who advises her no one ever gets over divorce, they just do something different and pretends that’s “growth”. Anyone she spends any time with she lectures on workers rights.

There was a spectre haunting my vagina. It was the spectre of communism.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I think you’re cute. But you really need to shut up.’

It’s a while before she actually scores. John occasionally reappears and they do good conversation. They meet. He has his faults. By date 53 she’s getting into the routine of it all, but Cheap George is right, “What you need is just one mild truth: you’ll never get over your fucking divorce.”

And where did I find this amusing memoir? On my ex-wife’s shelves, where I was idly pulling books out in preparation for boxing them up for her big move. I don’t know about you, but I can’t box books up without inspecting them as I go. Neither Milly nor I remembers, but I’d say I bought it on spec two or three years ago then gave it to her for xmas thinking I could read it later. Which I now have. I wonder who else of you would like it. Neil@Kalaroo maybe. He’ll read anything.

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Helen Razer, The Helen 100, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2017. 305pp.

see also:
Helen Razer, Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young (2017)

Snake Cradle, Roberta Sykes

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes (1943-2010) was a prominent Black activist in the seventies, and a poet with Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Acts published in 1979. Snake Cradle (1997) is the first volume of her 3 volume autobiography. My focus this week has been on women’s activism but of course Bobbi Sykes takes us also to another aspect of the Gen 4 period, Black Rights.

It is necessary at this point to make clear that although Sykes never met her father, nor got much information from her (white) mother, he was almost certainly an African-American serviceman passing through Townsville, where Sykes was born and grew up, during WWII.

Sykes implies a connection with Indigenous people, not least in the title of this book, and that caused her some trouble. She did not grow up within the Indigenous community as did for instance Mudrooroo, her contemporary, from the other side of the continent, and with similar ancestry, but there is no doubting she suffered from racial prejudice, nor her commitment to activism.

I should admit here I made a mistake. This being the first volume of Sykes’ autobiography it stops when she is 18, so we see nothing of her life as an activist in the 1960s and 70s which is what I was really interested in and which would have been most relevant to this generation of women. As a literary work it has almost no merit at all, which is not to say it is not plainly written and readable, but that it is just another kid’s life: this happened and then that happened.

You could say I have read and loved two memoirs of childhood recently, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Inseparables and Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row, and why is Syke’s childhood so white bread compared with those two. And I would have to say, good writing makes you think about more than just the events taking place. Perhaps it is as Murnane says, good writing makes you know the narrator.

Anyway, I will take you quickly through the events of Sykes’ life. They are not typical of what we read about growing up Black in Australia, but of course they were formative and still illustrate aspects of racism in Australia and Queensland. I could say ‘at that time’ but Queensland remains Queensland, and it is only 17 years since Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee died of tripping over a stair in the Palm Island police station after singing ‘Who let the Dogs Out’ while a police car was passing.

Syke’s mother was a white woman who for reasons of her own chose to be single mother with two daughters by a Black US serviceman, Roberta and Dellie, and one by a Chinese Australian greengrocer. It turns out late in the book that Roberta also has a much older brother who has no contact with them. Two older girls also live with them from time to time, Leila and Desma. Sykes is told they are both orphans though Leila’s father, a Finnish seaman, boarded from time to time in the house next door and would occasionally come over to do chores, or to take them for a drive.

Are we told her mother’s name? It’s Mrs Patterson, but let’s call her Mum, as Sykes does. Mum is compulsively secretive and hard working, taking in laundry to be washed by hand, and also when she’s short of money, boarders. She owns their small house on the outskirts of Townsville, an important port in north Queensland, and later buys and sells others. Queensland houses are typically up on stilts and if there were too many boarders Roberta or Mum or both would have to sleep out on the verandah or in a corner under the house.

Mum’s family are from Cairns, further north, but the one sister, Glad, she stays in touch with lives in Brisbane, 1,000 miles (1,600km) to the south – a day and two nights by the Sunlander train.

Roberta is accepted at a Catholic girls school and does well there. She, and later Dellie, are the only non-whites, and for long periods Roberta forgets that she is non-white, though she is often chased and taunted by state school kids on the way home. She is a small, skinny child, often ill and eventually missing a year of school with meningitis, her only consolation while at home a set of encyclopedias bought on time payment which she reads from end to end. To her chagrin, younger sister Dellie is introduced to bras before she is.

The nuns attempt to direct her down the ‘domestic’ stream, but Roberta is determined to be a doctor. The only compromise that can be reached is for her to do the domestic stream and the maths/science stream side by side, and in this, luckily, one of the teachers helps her out with early classes. But as soon as she turns 14, the senior nun makes an excuse and turns her out. As far as this book is concerned that is the end of her schooling, though I see that in 1983, so at age 40, Sykes received a PhD in Education from Harvard, the first black Australian to graduate from a United States university.

Roberta’s only contact with Indigenous children is at the Saturday afternoon movies, where she makes friends with some and returns with them to their home suburb, Garbutt. At various times she speaks with older Indigenous men and implies that they see her as belonging to the Snake totem, hence the book’s title, and her later problems with Indigenous colleagues.

The last quarter of the book is concerned with her moving to Brisbane, living first with Aunty Glad and then in rooming houses, working notably in the pineapple factory – we all grew up eating Golden Circle tinned pineapple – and going out dancing. After a midnight movie she is left stranded without transport, accepts a ride with some men, is taken to a farm on the outskirts and is beaten, raped and left for dead. For all the times that she is picked up by police and questioned does she have documents permitting her off the mission, this time a detective believes her and over the course of a year pursues the men involved and brings them to justice and long prison sentences.

Roberta returns to Townsville, is only slowly brought to realise she is pregnant, turns down two proposals of marriage, and so at 18 she is a single mother with a son.

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Roberta Sykes, Snake Cradle, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997. 330pp.

Child of the Hurricane, KS Prichard

There are no covers of this book on the web, that I could find, so I had to photograph my own, which as you can see has plastic over the dustjacket, courtesy of my father I guess who gave it to me 10 years ago. First edition, very good condition, I hope the kids look after it.

Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969) was born in Levuka, Fiji during a tropical storm. ‘..natives gazed in awe at the baby the hurricane had left in its wake, “Na Luve ni Cava,” they exclaimed. “She is a child of the hurricane.”‘ This sets the tone for this autobiography, which for all that KSP is a competent writer, reads like a journalistic colour piece.

Thirty years earlier, Prichard’s father’s family had migrated to Australia on the same ship, the Eldorado, as her mother’s family, the Frasers. My mum’s family, the Nixons, came to Melbourne the same year, 1852, on the Castle Eden (Out of Plymouth. The Eldorado sailed from Liverpool). Both the Prichards and the Frasers stayed in Melbourne (the Nixons went up to the gold fields at Maldon) and began inter-marrying.

KSP never asked her father about his young years. He said that he was “apprenticed to a saddler and ran away when the job didn’t suit him.” In any case he read widely and began writing. Around 1868 – and Prichard is infuriating in not dating much of what happens in this book – Tom “went adventuring to the South Seas, and returned to Melbourne after many years”, perhaps 15, during which time he had owned and wrecked a schooner and “become a person of some importance” on Fiji as editor of the Fiji Times.

KSP’s mother, Edith Isabel Fraser was born in Melbourne and was brought up in the Fraser family home, a rambling. colonial style house in ‘North Road’ (probably East Brighton). She would have been in her teens, maybe 15, when Tom left and approaching 30 when he returned to marry her. They lived on Fiji for another three or four years, during which time Edith bore three children, Katharine, Alan and Nigel, and then returned to Melbourne, initially to the welcoming Fraser house, and had more kid(s).

I’m not interested in all the cute things young Kat did as a child, just the influences that made her a writer, and her father’s restlessness which spoiled her education. In the late 1880s (I’m guessing) Tom Prichard was editor and feature writer for the Sun, the family lived near grandmother’s, and KSP began school. Tom’s next job was in Launceston, Tasmania. The family lived well, and happily – illustrated by excerpts from The Wild Oats of Han (1928), clearly the story of her childhood, and I think, her first novel, though not the first published. When that job failed, the Prichards were sold up and returned to Melbourne, again, to live on the charity of the family, until eventually Tom found work again.

KSP’s first short story had already “appeared in the children’s page of a Melbourne newspaper” and on her return to Melbourne, another, That Brown Boy, won a prize.

Although Father did not take my efforts at story writing at all seriously, Mother began to give me books to read which, no doubt, she thought would develop any literary talent I might have.

She gave me Tennyson’s Idylly’s of the King, Keat’s Endymion and other poems, Longfellow’s Evangeline, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, some of Scott’s and Dicken’s novels, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

There is no mention of her reading let alone being influenced by the generation of Australian women writers who preceded her, although by the 1890s Tasma for instance was very well known with Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (1889); Ada Cambridge was also writing in Melbourne; as were Catherine Martin and Mary Gaunt; Rosa Praed was well known, at least in England; and you’d think the wonderful Clara Morrison (1854) by Catherine Helen Spence was still around.

And with the turn of the century we have Barbara Baynton and Miles Franklin. But only minor novelist and poet Mary Fullerton gets a mention, later on, when they meet in connection with the suffrage movement.

After a spell at home helping Mother with a new baby (Bee/Beatrice) KSP wins a scholarship to South Melbourne College, for two or three years up to matriculation (Miles Franklin was angry about her schooling). She was happy at school and did well, editing the school magazine in her final year (following on from ‘Elsie Cole‘ whom I had to look up). The following year, instead of preparing for university, she again stayed home, with her mother who was ill, and then at age 19 “I went off … to be governess to a doctor’s children in South Gippsland [at Yarram, east of Melbourne]. It was an adventure into life, away from books.” This was to be the location for her first published novel, The Pioneers (1915).

My next governessing took me to a station in the back country of New South Wales. The story of this was told in Letters from the back of Beyond, written on the station … the New Idea paid £20 for them. A fabulous sum it seemed in those days…

The Letters are nothing if not a revelation of how young and foolish I was. They even referred to the aborigines* as “niggers”, unforgivable to my way of thinking later, and showed no understanding of the rights of working people, merely reflecting a station-owner’s attitude towards strikers..

You get the impression that KSP, much as did Nathan Hobby half a century later, thought her ‘life’ was worth three volumes, and so we make our way easily through becoming a journalist, travelling, working in London, the onset of the War, meeting Hugo Throssell VC and then, all of a sudden, the second and third volumes, marriage, Perth, novels, communism, Hugo’s death, must be be packed into a final chapter.

An entertaining read, informative about her early years in a chatty way but which left me wishing she’d at least written the second volume, about her middle years and the literary and political theory which informed her writing.


I know you all want to know. I checked in with Nathan Hobby and he wrote back: “The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard due out April [2022]. Currently in proofs, takes many months to print a hardcover .. I must have read CotH more times than any other book in my life”

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Katharine Susannah Prichard, Child of the Hurricane, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1964. 266pp.

see also:
Nathan Hobby’s review (here)
Other KSP reviews, AWW Gen 3 page (here)
That Brown Boy (here). The Federalist, Launceston, Sat 15 April 1899, by ‘Katharine Tudor’


*Aborigines – should be capitalized. See Blak, Black, Blackfulla, Jack Latimore, the Age, 30 Aug, 2021

Tell Me Why, Archie Roach

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

Archie Roach (1956- ) is a much loved Australian Indigenous singer-songwriter. This is his memoir, read by himself in the kitchen of his home in Port Fairy – a fishing and now tourist/sea-changer village in Western Victoria – with his guitar in his hands. Port Fairy for him is home country, his mother was from nearby Framlingham Mission – his father was an Indigenous (Bandjalung) man from the NSW North Coast – and as he researches his life he slowly becomes closer to the people there, the Gunditjmara. A number of clans were aggregated at Framlingham, though Archie doesn’t look back that far, and many of them were then further concentrated at Lake Tyers, in eastern Victoria. Archie mentions that the World Champion boxer and country singer, Lionel Rose, famously from Lake Tyers, is his cousin.

One dark day on Framlingham/Come and don’t give a damn/My mother cried go get their dad/He came running, fighting mad

Mother’s tears were falling down/Dad shaped up and stood his ground/He said, “You touch my kids and you fight me”/And they took us from our family

Took us away/They took us away/Snatched from our mother’s breast/Said this was for the best/Took us away

Archie Roach, They Took the Children Away

Archie was about five. He was first fostered to an abusive family, whom he refuses to describe and then to the Coxes, Scottish migrants in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs. The Coxes had children of their own and then two or three Aboriginal boys. Archie was happy there and shy and studious at school. The Coxes’ youngest daughter, Mabel I think, taught him to play the piano and Mr Cox bought him a Hammond organ and taught him to sing Highland ballads.

But. At age 14 or 15 Archie received a letter at school telling him he had sisters, then living in Sydney, and his mother who had coincidentally been living in a nearby eastern Melbourne suburb, had just died, his father having died some years earlier. This jibed with occasional memories he had of a different life, in the bush, surrounded by brothers and sisters. Unable to deal with his feelings he turned first to the Pentecostal church he had already been attending, separately from the Coxes, and then struck out on his own altogether. He never saw or contacted his adoptive mother and father again.

The ugly truth at the heart of this story is that many Aboriginal people form communities around the excessive consumption of alcohol. This was true for Archie, for all his family when he finally caught up with them, and for his life partner Ruby Hunter.

Archie sets off to locate the sister who had written the letter; is derailed for a couple of years when a ride in a (unbeknownst to him) stolen car leads to his first stint in jail and then two years probation; gets to the boarding house address on the letter only to find his sister has moved on; and finally has his name recognised in an inner Sydney pub and is introduced to three of his sisters. He learns the story of his and their forced removal into ‘care’, about his wider family including his brothers, and his childhood nickname, Butterboy.

You will have to read this yourselves to get all the dates and places, but he lives with his sisters, the older ones move back south, lives by begging and odd jobs, lives for the next flagon or beer, leaves his youngest sister to fend for herself and moves back south to Melbourne, lives in tiny housing commission flats with his sisters and their partners and children, sings occasionally, country standards, joins up with his brother two or three years older, drinks, lives rough in the (inner suburban) Fitzroy area, specifically ‘Charcoal Lane’ near the old briquette works where I was living too at that time, in a tiny terrace house on Alfred Cres., and never saw a Black face.

Side by side/We walk along/To the end of Gertrude Street/Then we topple in muster for a quart of wine

Thick or thin/Right or wrong/In the cold or in the heat/We cross over Smith Street to the end of the line

And we laugh and sing/And do anything/To take away the pain/Trying to keep it down as it first went round/In Charcoal Lane

Archie Roach, Charcoal Lane

I forget the order now, but there’s a stint in Sharman’s boxing troupe touring eastern Victoria, where his oldest brother and I think his father had fought before him, more jail, moves on to Adelaide, finds a room with the Salvos and, still a teenager, meets Ruby Hunter, a Ngarrindjeri woman, from the lower Murray, east of Adelaide. Slowly forms a relationship with her that was to last until her death more than 30 years later in 2010.

Eventually Archie is persuaded to sing in public, in a talent quest, is heard by Paul Kelly and the result is his first albumn, Charcoal Lane and the rest of course is history. Archie and Ruby have children. Ruby begins to write and perform too. They battle alcoholism. Finally dry out for good at Indigenous clinics in Melbourne.

This is wonderful story, told with heart and enormous honesty by a wonderful man. Read it.

Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home/Crawled out of the bushes early morn/Used newspapers to keep me warm, then I’d have to score a drink/Calm my nerves, help me to think

Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home/There was nothing that I owned, used my fingers as a comb/In those days when I was young, drinking and fighting was no fun/It was daily living for me, I had no choice. It was meant to be

Ruby Hunter, Down City Streets

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Archie Roach, Tell Me Why, Simon & Schuster, 2019. 384pp. Audiobook, 2020, read by Archie Roach. 10 hours

see also: Archie Roach Tell Me Why tour (here)

Vida, Jacqueline Kent

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Given that I specialise in unmarried turn of the C20th women, Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) is one of my favourite people, and I have been meaning to read this recent (2020) biography for some time. I finally got it on BorrowBox and listened on the way over to Melbourne. I had a heap of deliveries throughout rural Victoria and had set aside Tuesday to get them finished, but as it turns out, I finished early, Mum is unvisitable in these Covid times, and so for once I had a day off. Hence this review.

Vida Goldstein was a suffragist, a pacifist and a socialist; she stood for Federal Parliament, unsuccessfully, three times; she undertook popular speaking tours of England and the US.

Kent’s biography, and her reading of it, are pretty dry. There is none of the life which made Sylvia Martin’s Passionate Friends for instance so enjoyable. Passionate Friends centres on Mabel Singleton and Mary Fullerton who were committee members of Goldstein’s Women’s Political Association, and on their friend, Miles Franklin, but provides lots of detail about early WPA meetings.

I imagine there are not many mistakes of fact, but Kent makes a couple in regards to Franklin, whom she claims for Vida as a significant friend. MF only lived in Melbourne, Goldstein’s home town, once, in about 1904. The two met then – MF had introductions from Rose Scott, the Sydney suffragist with whom she had stayed in 1902 (see My Career Goes Bung) – and they remained lifelong correspondents. They met again, briefly, in 1911, when both were in London. And except maybe in later years when MF was back in Australia and moving around a bit, that was it.

For whatever reason MF didn’t attend Goldstein’s meetings in 1904 – she didn’t meet Mary Fullerton until the 1920s. And in London they were attracted by different branches of the suffragist movement – not mentioned by Kent. Goldstein was a firm supporter of the Pankhursts’ Suffragettes, until they took a pro-war stance in 1914; while Franklin was a member of a breakaway group – the Women’s Freedom League.

What really got up my nose was the sentence which went “when she was about 20 Franklin’s family moved from her birthplace Talbingo to Penrith” [then a country town on the outskirts of Sydney]. Talbingo was MF’s birthplace, but it was her mother’s mother’s home. Mrs Franklin famously rode 60 miles through the snow to get there for the confinement. The Franklin’s lived at the Franklin family property Brindabella until MF was 8 or 9, when Mr Franklin moved them all to a dairy farm nearer to Goulburn. My memory is that MF had already left home before the move to Penrith and was a trainee nurse, though she was familiar enough with the town to set her second published novel there, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn.

I don’t have any more criticisms, well one small one, and a surprising one coming from me, Vida is overwhelmingly parochial, nothing important (in suffragism etc) seems to happen except in Victoria. (White) female suffrage was achieved in Victoria in 1908, in NSW and Federally in 1902, and in South Aust in 1894. Rose Scott and Louisa Lawson in Sydney are barely mentioned; Goldstein’s struggling newspaper the Woman’s Sphere is never compared with Lawson’s much more successful Dawn. The mother of Australian suffragism, Catherine Helen Spence, a South Australian, does not come into it until she congratulates Goldstein after her first campaign for the Senate.

Kent awards Goldstein the accolade “the first woman [in the British Empire] to nominate for Federal Parliament”, though eventually four women stood in that 1903 election; and Spence had been Australia’s ‘first female political candidate’ when she stood for the Federal Convention in 1897.

I’ll skip over Goldstein’s adherence to Christian Science, which played an important part in her life, to the extent that when she retired from politics she became a minister. There were two questions in my mind, coming into this book: How did Vida get started? and what about Cecelia John?

Kent is discreet about John, whom Sylvia Martin implies might have been in a relationship with Goldstein. John was a flamboyant type, I picture her on a white charger with a green and purple standard leading a peace march (maybe in connection with the first conscription debate of WWI). When she came into the WPA she was quickly given responsible positions and the two travelled together to England. That’s about it really. One time I wrote to Martin about one of her books and suggested John might be her next subject, but probably not.

So how did Vida get started? Her father, despite his surname, was an Irish protestant (his father was a Polish Jew). Her mother, Isabella, was from the Scottish/Australian squattocracy of Victoria’s Western District. Mr Goldstein was in business, in rural Victoria and then in Melbourne and was able to send Vida to PLC, Melbourne’s principal girls’ school (other alumnae include Henry Handel Richardson and Nettie Palmer). Both parents were involved in charities and Isabella was with Annette Bear-Crawford in obtaining the funding for Melbourne’s first women’s hospital, the Queen Victoria, in 1897.

Initially, Vida and her sisters supported themselves by running a co-ed preparatory school. But Vida quickly discovered an aptitude for organizing and speaking alongside her mother and Bear-Crawford, and by the time the latter died unexpectedly in 1899, Vida Goldstein was undisputed leader of the radical women’s movement in Victoria.

The book goes into some detail in relation to each of Vida’s campaigns, for the Senate and for the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong; her attempts to get women’s suffrage through the Victorian state parliament – always stymied by the upper house, the Legislative Council; her public speaking and her newspaper.

During the War Australian suffragists generally took a pacifist position and Goldstein received some flack about her name (its German-ness rather than its Jewishness). She seems to have become increasingly open about declaring herself a socialist, without ever abandoning her essential upper-middle-class persona.

This is a book I needed to read, for all its imperfections. I’m still a Vida fan and, while I might argue with her emphases, I’m sure Kent got the facts of her life right.

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Jacqueline Kent, Vida, Viking, Melbourne, 2020.