The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

A few years ago, when I was just starting out in this business, I listed ten works I thought were contenders for the Great Australian Novel (here). The list holds up pretty well, Voss is still clearly no. 1. I need to make room for Benang and The Swan Book. And The Pea Pickers, I’m not sure what induced me to leave it out back then, I wouldn’t now. The big problem is just how long it is since I have read most of them, more than forty years in some cases, including The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) which I see from the inscription “Happy Birthday, 1973, with lots of love from the Young Bride”, I got almost hot off the press.

It, as it happens, stands up very well to re-reading, though I’m sure I see things I didn’t see first time round, particularly Ireland’s problem with women. As I wrote earlier (here) David Ireland (1927- ) is a generation older than us boomers, he was in his forties before his first work was published and I think had been for most of the preceding years a blue collar worker, notably in the Silverwater (Sydney) oil refinery complex, the setting for this, his second, where he calls the complex ‘Clearwater’, on the ‘Eel’ River (Paramatta Eels football team. Get it?)

With hindsight I can see now that his politics are ‘Hansonite’: nationalistic, pro-worker and anti-union, the cry for help of a worker deep in the bowels of the system, hating the foreign owners who take all the benefit of his labour (all Ireland’s workers are he’s), hating the white collar parasites who have no knowledge of what his work entails, but on whose decisions he depends, hating that his ability to progress or even to remain employed is completely out of his own hands.

All the workers at Clearwater, at the refinery operated by the 100% foreign owned ‘Puroil’, are prisoners, prisoners of the system, bearing deep blue ankle scars genetically inherited from their shackled convict forbears.

… prisoners were allowed to drift jobless to the few large coastal cities from all over Australia as soon as they left school, to choose their place of detention… They weren’t compelled by others to apply to any one place of labour, but they understood that once accepted for detention their boss or commandant had power over them just as great and far more immediate than the government of the country.

‘The Unknown Industrial Prisoner’ is a slogan graffitied overnight on oil storage tanks, is the name of a work fashioned from twisted paper clips, is an artwork of roughly cut and welded metal displayed in a gallery to the loud acclaim of people who have never seen a scrap-metal yard.

The work is divided conventionally into chapters: 1. One Day in a Penal Colony, 2. Termitary [a termite mound housing the shiny bums, overlooking the refinery], 3. The Home Beautiful … But is broken up again into short, named sections of half, one or two pages. I think Ireland prefers (or maybe, is only able) to write this way, in short bursts, so his novels are collages of ideas and stories.

If the novel has a narrative arc at all, it is the actions and reactions of the workers (operators) as Puroil makes a series of blundering upgrades to the refinery to get it to the stage where it will run without operator involvement. The protagonists are the Samurai, a skilled operator and mostly willing worker; and the White Father, who maintains ‘the Home Beautiful’, a few shacks in the mangroves on an island within the refinery boundary, where a beer fridge and six prostitutes on rotation provide the workers with more comforts than they enjoy at home.

They are opposites in that the Samurai believes in the power of a job well-done, where the White Father believes life should be enjoyed right now. Another worker, the Glass Canoe (a name used as the title of a later Ireland novel), represents a third extreme. He is incompetent, but believes that if he works, studies and puts himself forward Puroil will recognise his devotion to the job and raise him to foreman. His decline into madness illustrates the futility of expecting bureaucracies to make rational or even informed decisions. Every decision made by every person within Puroil, except the better operators, and they are never recognised, is driven entirely by self interest.

Is this a post-modern novel? I don’t have enough theory to say. But it is beyond Social Realism. Philosophically it is Absurdist, a demonstration that meaning cannot be found in work, that the bureaucratic workplace is inherently irrational. (Prime Minister) Malcolm famously said at about this time, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”. What he meant, and this is Ireland’s thesis, is “Life isn’t meant to be fair.”

There are dozens of supporting characters – the plant manager, the Wandering Jew, who is kidnapped late in the novel and taken to the Home Beautiful to meet his workers, gets drunk and joins in the dancing; Blue Hills whose wife the Samurai uses, because he can, but she does manage to take a small revenge; Two Pot Screamer, one of two operators writing a book (this book?); the Python, the Black Snake, the Brown Snake, shiny bums with power over the plant operators; and so on.

The operators sleep on the job, are led into dud agreements by the company union, drink, steal, lie or run with the prostitutes (the Sandpiper prefers doing it outside), make informed, ignorant and random adjustments to the plant causing chaos and constant pollution – in addition to the ongoing pollution of river and air that Puroil  pays to keep ‘hidden’.

This is a brilliant book; innovatively written; an insider’s account of the madness of large organizations; an account of modern slavery giving the lie to the myth of the independent, larrikin Australian worker.

 

David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, Angus & Robertson, 1971. My edition, A&R Classics, 1973.

Other reviews:

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
The Glass Canoe (here), Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

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When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

When the Pelican Laughed

Sue/Whispering Gums mentioned recently that she was thinking about writing about “As told to’s” and whether that is/was/might once have been an appropriate way to publish Indigenous stories. It certainly works for non-writing sports people.

Readers my age might recall from their schooldays I, the Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood, as told to him by Alawa (Roper River, NT) man, Waipuldanya, aka Phillip Roberts. When I reviewed it (here) four years ago I expected to find it surrounded by a great deal of dismissive commentary, but in fact it seems to be regarded as a quite faithful account, although expressed in Lockwood’s fluent journalese.

The story around When the Pelican Laughed is slightly different in that it is more recent, 1992 rather than 1962, Marsh and Kinnane were working on an oral history project about Aboriginal women forced to work as servants, and Alice Nannup knew Kinnane’s (Indigenous) grandmother. But there is another, much greater difference, and that is that the words are all Alice’s.

‘You, Wari, you’re lucky to be with us, because you nearly got drowned one time.’ This is a story my mother told me about when I was very young. She told it to me in language.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that it is important that oral histories be collected, but the author credited should be the teller not the writer. In this case all three are credited.

This book also brings up another much more important issue and one that Australians have nearly always swept under the carpet and that is, whether Aborigines were slaves. In The Great Australian Loneliness (1940) Ernestine Hill writes of pearling at Cossack (near Roebourne, south of Port Hedland and 1500 km north of Perth WA):

Nearly all the pearlers employed aboriginal divers… A bag of flour and a stick of tobacco bought a human life… From hundreds of miles inland the blacks were brought, men who had never seen the sea and now were to live and die in it. A dark sentence of history tells that when they refused to come voluntarily they were lassoed from horse-back, and dragged.

There was a form of agreement to be signed in Cossack… With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants. Few of them lived longer than two years.

Alice Nannup, who was born in 1911, tells of her own position as a 19 year old on Ida Valley station 7 hours drive (maybe 200 km) from Leonora, itself a remote desert town 240 km north of Kalgoorlie in WA’s eastern goldfields (map).

Thinking back, I’d say Beeginup and Ida Valley were the two places where I was the most flat out. It was really terrible. All of us – Jess, Mary and myself – were just worked and worked. I was supposed to get five shillings a week there but they never paid me. They never paid any of us [and wherever she worked she almost never had days off].

This was on a ‘society’ property. “People would come from stations all around there, and the Bunning girls and Nellie Manford used to come up from Perth to have these big parties and play tennis.” Those were big names when I first came to Perth. Whether they still are I don’t know, though the companies bearing those names have been subsumed into others.

Alice was born on a station in WA’s north west, “Abydos Station, out from Port Hedland”. Her father was a small-scale cattleman, Tom Bassett though Alice didn’t find this out until after she had been removed to Perth as an 11 year old. Alice’s mother mostly worked for Bassett, though she moved around a bit.

My mother’s name was Ngulyi, that’s her Aborigine name… She was born on Pilbara Station, which is between Roebourne and Marble Bar and she belonged to the Yindjibarndi tribe. My mother spoke five languages as well as English – Nyamal, Palyku, Kariyarra, Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi. I spoke Kariyarra and Ngarluma the most, and, of course, English.

These languages belong to the Ngayarda group, around and inland of Roebourne, bordered to the south by the Yamaji, and to the east by the Martu, the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples (I learn as I go, so I hope I have this right. See a previous post (here)).

Wari (Alice) lived a quite happy life, an ordinary bush life with lots of cousins, at a time when all her people were station hands, until her mother was tricked into allowing a White family to take her south “to be educated” where they delivered her into the hands of the Chief Protector and she was held at Moore River, not educated at all, but made to work until she could be sent out into ‘service’.

Bassett came down and attempted to recover her, but he was soon thwarted from even visiting, and she never saw him or her mother again. This is where the question of slavery comes in. Of course Aborigines under the 1905 Act were not owned by individuals and so could not be bought and sold, but they were effectively ‘owned’ by the State. They had no freedom of movement; they had to work where they were told; if they were paid, it was a derisory amount, half of which was paid into an account held by the Chief Protector and which they could sometimes beg to be allowed to spend (on necessaries); and by Alice’s account they worked tremendously long hours, seven days a week. Late in her life, Alice discovers she had been the sole beneficiary of Basset’s will – £400 – but the money had been paid into an Aboriginal Affairs account, was lost, and they had made no attempt to tell of his death or of the earlier deaths of her mother and sister.

Alice mostly worked as a servant on farms, which involved both inside and outside work. The farms of course were all down south. The Chief Protector made sure that northerners only worked in the south and southerners only worked up north, to reduce the possibility of abscondment. Alice did in fact walk off Ida Valley and once picked up was able to resist any attempt to return her.

[A policeman] told us that Mr Neville had said we should go back to the station, and we should never have run away because it was dangerous. So we told the policeman how we were treated and that, and he said, ‘Well, I can’t force you, so you’ll have to come into Leonora.’

Here they found work until they were able to return to Perth. Alice knew Neville from having been a maid in his house, so she got him to give her a pass to go and work with a previous employer, but after only a few months, Neville wrote to her saying that Will, her boyfriend had the chance of a married position so she should return to Moore River, which was the only place he would allow Aborigines to be officially married.

They found work around Meekatharra but eventually settled at Geraldton, on the coast and began raising a large family through the Depression and WWII in a series of camps, shanties, reserves, and all too infrequently, reasonable houses, experiencing all the while both casual and official racism. Eventually she and Will split, I think Alice was a pretty forthright woman, and although she continues to live and eventually retire in Geraldton she is contacted by relatives in Roebourne and is able to reconnect and make peace with her past.

Towards the end of the book she is able to say,

… I had thirteen kids, they had forty children between them, and their kids have had forty six. So altogether that makes ninety nine. I have another great grandchild due in 1992 which will make it one hundred – and maybe I’ll get a telegram from the Queen.

Alice Nannup was a sober and abstemious woman. Originally C of E, she moved on when a South African vicar began discriminating against the Blacks in his congregation, and found a home with the Seventh Day Adventists. And if she didn’t get the material rewards she deserved for her tremendous hard work, she ended up secure in her culture and with an enviable network of family and friends.

 

Alice Nannup, Lauren Marsh, Stephen Kinnane, When the Pelican Laughed, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1992. Cover painting by Michael Francas (taken from a photo of Alice but with a background clearly of the country inland of Roebourne).

see also: My review of The Fringe Dwellers by Nene Gare (here), which is set in Geraldton. Gare’s husband worked in Aboriginal Housing, so Nannup knew him and was friends also with another Aboriginal woman working with Nene Gare on the book.

 

City of Women, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976),  A Woman of the Future (1979) and City of Women (1981) are his fifth, sixth and seventh novels. Before came Burn (1974) a fictionalised life of an Aboriginal VC winner which I found unbearably racist, and after came Archimedes and the Seagle (1984) which I found twee first time around but which I suppose I must one day attempt to re-read.

I mention the three together not because they make up a trilogy but because thematically they form a triangle of intersecting issues. So, The Glass Canoe is a series of linked stories about the drinkers in a working man’s hotel, basically an exploration of the culture of (white, Australian) blokes. A Woman of the Future is a surreal story from the point of view of one young woman –

… sketches of her moral upbringing and of a dystopian suburbia in which her neighbours suffer an inexplicable wave of biological mutations.

She is compelled to explore and observe the limits of her organism, including sexual free will in which masturbation, incest and masochism each have their place.

Bonny Cassidy, Sydney Review of Books, May 2018 (here)

In City of Women Ireland again attempts a woman’s point of view, this time an older woman, Billie, who lives in a flat in central Sydney, a Sydney from which men are barred from entering by (female) armed guards. The story is very similar to The Glass Canoe, both in structure – a series of linked stories about drinkers at The Lover’s Arms, and in the celebration of a love who is effectively off-stage.

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Sydney CBD 2019 (not much changed since 1981) (c) Google Maps

The Lover’s Arms is in Cathedral St, on the right of the map, at the bottom of the yellow freeway section. Billie’s flat is a little further south, near William St (the thick white street running east-west) and must be quite high up. Strictly, this area is Woolloomooloo, once an old working class area around the wharves, and the CBD proper is on the other side of the parks (I think. I’m not a Sydney person).

Out of my window … I look across to the brown cathedral [St Mary’s], the deep green foliage of the Sydney Domain, below me to the school, across again to the steel-blue harbour, the pastel colours of the Woolloomooloo terraces.

Billie mourns her missing love, Bobbie, in a series of asides in which we see Bobbie both as daughter and as lover. She has been adopted by a leopard whom she also names Bobbie so she may continue to use the name. She walks Bobbie around Sydney on a leash and takes her to the Lover’s Arms, and talks to her almost constantly.

I think it is very unlikely that Ireland is attempting to use this format as a way of better understanding women. Rather, by putting women in the position of men, he is again shining a light on Australian working men’s culture, as he did in The Glass Canoe and more famously in The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (which I must re-reread and write up next).

Billie was an engineer with the Water Board, made redundant, and is now at 62, a therapist. Bobbie studied engineering to work with her but has gone away.

My engineer is at the back of beyond. I thought I held her like a bird in my hand, happy to be there.

The women drinkers are tough old birds, or sometimes young, with a wide range of strange illnesses..

Donna McDevitt is a miser, a woman of great debility… she’s eighty-seven… Doctors had treated her at various times for head bounce, foot fester, labial pus, tongue crumble, lung quake, hand bunching, nipple destruction: she was a walking catalogue of decay.

Billie tells their stories – do they build? It’s hard to say. We gradually form a picture of an inner Sydney where all the manual labour is done by women, where women have walked away from husbands and children, where renegades will sometimes go ‘outside’ for sex with men and are shunned, where marriages are between women, and children somehow come about, where women get men “into trouble”.

The unifying story in the background is that there is a rapist, Old Man Death, who abducts women and cuts them, depositing his semen in the cavity and then sewing it up. What is the point of this? Who knows. Perhaps it is Ireland releasing his inner misogynist. It certainly involves a fair amount of gratuitous violence.

The Glass Canoe ends with the redevelopment, gentrification of the men’s pub, the Southern Cross and likewise the City of Women seems to come to an end too. Not with the closure of the pub but with the ageing and dying out of the women. Ireland has been describing a period in time now past, when drinkers were tribal, barely troubled by outsiders. By 1981 Gough Whitlam had been and gone but Ireland’s drinkers still seem to be of the generation that voted futilely for Arthur Calwell.*

 

David Ireland, City of Women, Allen Lane, Melbourne, 1981. Cover illustration and design Helen Semmler (the cover illustration goes on round the back, ie. to the left, but I couldn’t find an image of it).


* The election of the Gough Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 marked Australia’s coming of age as an interesting, multi-cultural nation. Whitlam’s predecessor as Labor leader, Arthur Calwell had enforced the white-Australia policy as Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Labor government, before heading into 23 years on the opposition benches.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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The Glass Canoe (1976) was David Ireland’s fifth novel and his second (of three) Miles Franklin Award winners. It’s a blokey book, everything I’ve read of Ireland’s including, as I’ve already argued A Woman of the Future (1979), is blokey, reflecting his age, his generation. The Glass Canoe is set, although it’s nowhere stated, in the 1950s, in the years after the War when Ireland was in his young manhood, but before the white Australian working class was swamped by waves of southern European immigration.

The writing however is of its time, post-60s and the sexual revolution, one of the reasons that Ireland’s age – he was born in 1927 (here) – sometimes comes as a surprise. If he were younger this would almost be ‘grunge’.

This is the story of a young man, Lance, the Meat Man, ‘Meat’, in Sydney’s west, out Parramatta way, he calls it ‘the Mead’ – Westmead? (map) – working as a groundsman at the local golf club, a serious drinker at his local, the Southern Cross, and secretly recording the stories of his ‘tribe’, the men who gather daily to drink in this dilapidated, yellow-tiled, suburban blood house.

On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.

The Mead was our territory, the Southern Cross our waterhole. The next tribe west drank at the Bull, and on the other side the nearest tribe holed up at the Exchange. While your tribe’s waterhole flowed, you never went walkabout to another tribe’s waterhole.

Unless there was trouble, some little matter to be settled.

The novel consists of short chapters of half, one or two pages each, sketches from his life, his past, his work, his darling, sketches of his mates and their lives as members of the tribe. A style reminiscent in both the writing and the layout (as I remember them) of Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971).

In many ways this is what the Australian Legend had come to – from bushmen cutting out their cheques at the nearest pub in the 1890s after months shearing or droving, to working men in the endless suburbs gathering daily to drink and fight. There are women, as there always are, to serve the beer, to wait at home and cook the dinner and shout at the kids, to have down the creek or up against a wall or in the back of the car, there are even some, as big and tough as the men, drinking at the bar, and then there is his darling, petite, beautiful, endlessly pleased to see him.

To the extent there is a plot it concerns Sibley, the boy who chose to escape from the Mead but who returns to study drinkers, whom he sees as outside of and beneath society, for his PhD; Meat’s ongoing and probably failing relationship with his darling; and the decline and eventual redevelopment of the Southern Cross, foreshadowing the decline of the Tribe.

Ireland uses Meat, who was good at school but chose not to do anything with it and instead muses whimsically about how things work, from record players to the universe, without ever wishing to know, to tell the story, but uses another character, Alky Jack whom Meat admires, to present Ireland’s own libertarian views.

‘The population must be kept passive,’ I heard him say. ‘This is done by myth. These myths are put in your cornflakes every morning …’

‘… that it’s a free society … human rights are respected … we’re all equal, the elite is generous and just and the best people to be in charge … that our bosses work like buggery and the mob is lazy, they’re honest and we’re dishonest, they’re superior and we’re inferior. That’s the myth.’

The Glass Canoe is a contradiction, and I think this is true of much of Ireland’s work, brilliantly written and politically, hopelessly old-fashioned, though he’s pretty modern, gross even, about fucking and fighting. The following year, 1977, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip came out, another novel of inner suburban substance abuse in which the characters are clearly a generation younger than Meat’s ‘tribe’ (though the MF judges went with another old fashioned work, Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings). Ireland is old fashioned to the point of being reactionary about male bonding, about the subservience of women, and about the irrelevance of Aborigines and the appropriation of their stories

Being forced to drink at another pub was cruel. Like black men forced to leave their sacred places and water holes and become strangers in another tribe.

In the 1970s and 80s I devoured Ireland. I still think he is one of our great writers. But it is obvious too that I had absorbed the myths of Australian manhood and hadn’t – despite a decade’s immersion in socialist, anarchist and anti-war philosophy – begun to even remotely understand the problems race and gender identity.

Do I think you should read The Glass Canoe, yes I do. It’s an accurate portrait of working men, of working men who drank, of our fathers’ generation. If you’re a baby boomer who spent endless afternoons and evenings in the backseat, in the car park of the local hotel, then you will know Meat, you will know King and Mick and Serge and Alky Jack and Darkfella. David Ireland is worth reading, but read him (read everyone!) critically.

Above all, read David Ireland and post a review so I can share it and link it to my page (it’s coming!).

 

David Ireland, The Glass Canoe, Penguin, Melbourne, 1976

see also:
Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers (here)
Kim’s review at ReadingMatters (here)
David Ireland (here)

My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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My masters was built around My Brilliant Career, my truck is named after it, I have done innumerable (well, 23) posts about Franklin, but I have never posted a review of this her first and most famous novel. Luckily however, Emma of Book Around the Corner, last year, and now Karen of Booker Talk – who coincidentally, being respectively French and Welsh, bring an ‘outsider’s’ perspective to the task – have stepped up to the plate for me.


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Every time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image.  That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes.  Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.

Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn. Read on …

In the Mist of the Mountains, Ethel Turner

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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Brona of Brona’s Books has reviewed and enjoyed this little known novel by Ethel Turner, the author of the much loved classic, Seven Little Australians. Brona mentions that Turner is the same age as and was at school, Sydney Girls High, with Louise Mack and that Ethel and her older sister Lillian produced a school newspaper in competition with one produced by Mack. I will post a review of Mack’s fictionalised account of that school year, Teens, later this week.


178d3c9b3c81ff378159e63c4ba1500a.jpg  Brona’s Books

Thanks to Bill @The Australian Legend’s Australian Women Writer’s Gen II Week I have read my very first ebook from start to finish.

As with almost everything in my life at the last moment, I left it to the minute to prepare for Bill’s Gen II week, even though I’ve known about it for months. I really enjoyed reading my first Ada Cambridge story, Sisters, for last year’s Gen I event, so I didn’t want to miss out. But with only days to spare, I realised that I had no unread AWW Gen II books on my shelf. Anything I did select would have to be easily sourced and a short story if I was going to have any chance of reading & reviewing it in time. Read on …

Billabong series, Mary Grant Bruce

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

The author of this guest post is Michelle Scott Tucker (MST of Adventures in Biography) whose Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World came out in April (2018). Lisa (ANZLL) and I were at the launch party to wet the baby’s head, and within weeks the book was into a second print run. During 2018 Michelle became Executive Director of The Stella Prize, Australia’s pre-eminent literary prize for women writers.

Michelle’s essay on her childhood love of the Billabong books leads AWW Gen 2 Week. Thank you Michelle.


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The books, old and musty, were stashed at the back of a cupboard for want of shelf space. They’d been there for quite a while. A friend of my mother had owned them once, but had passed them on, suggesting vaguely that “Michelle might like them.” I was in primary school, probably, an avid reader but not much tempted by the heavy, old-fashioned tomes, with no dust jacket or blurb to hint at what lay within.

Not tempted until boredom drove me, one weekend, to dig out those books. Reader, I was transported.

My newest favourite character, Norah Linton, lived with her widowed father and beloved older brother on a huge and prosperous farming property, called Billabong, in country Victoria in the early 1900s. And oh what jolly adventures they had. I would eventually discover that there were 15 books in the series (the cupboard held maybe only 5 or 6), but even within the first, A Little Bush Maid (1910), heroine Norah at the age of 12 manages to save, quite separately, the lives of two men and a valuable flock of sheep. One of the men was a deeply grateful lion tamer (!) but her family seemed more impressed by the saving of the sheep. It’s all very Enid Blyton meets the Australian bush, with effectively parentless children going on picnics and having improbable adventures. In one of the later books, they discover enough gold to start their own mine… Norah, however, was always appropriately modest about her efforts, and rightly so, because far more important to her – and to me, marooned in deepest darkest suburbia – was the ordinary, day to day life of the farm.

On Bobs, her perfect pony, Norah raced her brother Jim and his two best chums across the paddocks. Accustomed to working beside her father, Norah mustered cattle, thought nothing of driving a cart seventeen miles to the nearest town to collect the mail, looked after a menagerie of pets, and fished in a nearby river.  Norah is, in short, a paragon but she is painted with such love and good humour that her character fairly lifts off the page. And, in a very Australian way, the books are genuinely funny. The children are realistically prone to pranks and teasing. They fall in the water, they fall off horses, and the boys fall asleep in the drawing-room after dinner – only to be gently awakened by Norah pouring a “trickle of water on their peaceful faces. Peace fled at that, and so did Norah!”

First published between 1910 and 1942, Mary Grant Bruce’s hugely popular Billabong books influenced, alongside Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, our concepts of The Bush and Australian identity. Her work “was characterised by fierce patriotism, vivid descriptions of the beauties and dangers of the Australian landscape, and humorous, colloquial dialogue celebrating the art of yarning.”

The Billabong books, and Bruce’s two dozen or so other books for children, championed the values of independence, mateship, hard work (for women and children, as well as men), and bush hospitality. The children age as the series progresses, and several of books of the series follow Norah’s brother Jim, and his best mate Wally, as they serve in WW1 – so even the ANZAC spirit gets an airing (even though they served in the British Army, rather than the Australian one – it all makes sense at the time).

But, and sadly there always seems to be a but, my beloved Billabong books belong very much to the era in which they were written.

Almost every writer I know cites Enid Blyton as one of their favourite childhood authors. She transported them in a way few other writers could. But almost every writer I know is also sorrowfully aware that once you’ve grown up there is no going back to Blyton’s magical worlds. The racism, the class barriers, the gender stereotypes are just too distressingly obvious to make Blyton an enjoyable adult read. And so it is for Billabong.

A footnote to later editions, published in the early 1990s, noted that “Some of Bruce’s earlier works are considered to have had offensive and dated content, particularly in regards to racial stereotypes of Australian Aborigines and Chinese and Irish immigrants, and her earlier belief in the theory of Social Darwinism. More recent reprints of the Billabong series have been edited to remove controversial material.” I haven’t looked into those later editions, and frankly I’m not sure how all the ‘controversial material’ could possibly be removed without materially altering the story, because there certainly is a lot of it.

The Linton family are very much lords of their Australian manor, ruling in a benignly patronising way. The house (large enough to have ‘wings’) is staffed by a doting cook and various ‘girls’. The decorative front garden is maintained by a Scotsman, the vegetable garden and orchard at the rear by Chinese Lee Wing (and oh isn’t his silly accent funny!) Numerous unnamed men work the farm itself with one of them, called Billy, seemingly assigned to be the children’s personal slave. Billy is never, ever described without with an adjective like “Sable Billy” or “Dusky Billy” or “Black”. And in case the reader hadn’t quite caught on, he is also variously described as careless, lazy or – just once – as a n—-r. At 18 years of age Billy is older than the children and, according to Norah’s father, the best hand with a horse he’d ever seen, yet the children casually order him about and call him Boy. Billy, like every 18 year old bossed by a 12 year old girl, living without friends or family, and with no girlfriend in sight, seems perfectly content with his lot.

The class barriers are there too, in the patronising colloquial dialogue and simply in the assumptions of the day. Norah, left at home for several days while her brother and her father are away, will inevitably be “desperately lonely with only the servants to talk to.” A stranger who might otherwise be mistaken for a tramp is immediately identified, when he speaks with a cultured accent, as “not your ordinary sort of swagman.”

Crucially, though, gender stereotypes are played with a very light hand. Well, sort of. We are talking about books written a hundred years ago.

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Mary Grant Bruce (1878-1958) was herself born and raised in country Victoria, in East Gippsland. At the age of twenty she moved to Melbourne and fairly quickly made a modest living as a freelance journalist. Her first Billabong stories were serialised in the Leader, before being published in London by Ward, Lock & Co. The success of the first led to an ever-increasing demand for more, until Bruce was producing a book each year, in time for Christmas. She didn’t love the Billabong series quite as much as her fans, and she eked them out – one year producing a Billabong book, the next a stand-alone title, and the following year another Billabong book. She married an army officer, lost two of her three children in tragic circumstances, and lived variously in Ireland, Australia and England. She was, in her day, one of Australia’s most successful writers. She has, in this day, very nearly been forgotten.

Bruce was a typical country conservative who, just as many do now, believed that men and women were equal, but necessarily separate. Bruce herself wrote that “the position of women in Australia today is largely what the pioneer women made it. They took their place definitely, equal fellow-workers with men, the more secure because no one had any time to talk of women’s rights.”

In Norah, Bruce epitomises the self-reliant country woman who can hold her own with a man, without becoming (or threatening) one. Norah is, categorically, the star of the Billabong show. She loved music, and was a good cook but “lived out of doors, followed in Jim’s footsteps wherever practicable (and in a good many ways most people would have thought distinctly impracticable) and spent two-thirds of her waking time on horseback…her chosen pursuits brought her under the discipline of the work of the station…she had all the dread of being thought “silly” that marks a girl who imitates boyish ways.”

For Norah, her brother and father are at the heart of all she does and loves. Male activities are valuable and worthy, female ones much less so.  Norah “had no little girl friends” partly because none were closer than the town seventeen miles away but mainly because “little girls bored Norah frightfully.” Little girls, apparently, are prone to prattle about dolls, and play dress up and ‘ladies’. “When Norah spoke of the superior joys of cutting out cattle or coursing hares over the Long Plain, they stared at her with blank lack of understanding. With boys she got on much better.”

Reader, c’est moi. Or so I wished. While I lacked a prosperous county estate and a fine, well-bred pony full of life and go (yet without the smallest particle of vice), I spent many happy hours with Norah enjoying hers. Her esteem of male pursuits echoed my own, as did her disdain for most things girlish. I too was a little girl always seeking her brothers’ and father’s approval. I sobbed when Norah’s pony died, and was on tenterhooks until Jim and Wally came home safe from the war (spoiler alert – they come home safe from the war). Norah and the boys grew up and married but they never really changed at all, and I loved being part of their world.

But it’s a world long gone now, if it ever was, and that’s for the best.

The Billabong books, in their original unedited form, remain readable, funny and even entertaining. They are also profoundly disturbing. Their value now is more for their insights into a not-so-distant historical period and mindset, rather than as a book that a modern child might thrill to read by torchlight, under the covers.

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Want to know more?

Yes, the now famous Australian biographer Brenda Niall’s very first book was about Billabong. She and Alison Alexander must have been cross, though, about their books coming out in the same year!