Mt Catherine Massacre

Buried in Print and I are read-alonging Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields trilogy in which, Nathan Hobby in his recent biography of Prichard says, KSP made a serious attempt to tell the Aboriginal side of the story, as well as that of all the white (mainly) men who rushed out to Southern Cross, Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie and beyond, into the dry, mostly scrub country east of Perth, in search of gold.

Interestingly, her POV in book 1, The Roaring Nineties, at least, is a woman, Sally Gough who insists on accompanying her husband, Morrie. Sally, while camped at Hannan’s (Kalgoorlie) in 1895, makes friends with an Aboriginal girl who is the mistress of Morrie’s then partner, Frisco [the young woman, Maritana, is left with Frisco, off and on, by her older husband in return for food]; and she is later rescued while suffering typhoid on a trek north (to the new Darlot discovery), by Maritana’s mother Kalgoorla and is returned to Kalgoorlie in the care of Kalgoorla’s tribal group.

Kalgoorlie and the Goldfields is Wangkatja country, of the Western Desert peoples, though immediately to the south (and east) was/is the smaller Ngadjunmaya nation (map).

Prichard, who researched this work in the 1940s, explains that men prospecting as far north as present-day Laverton had antagonised the locals by polluting their waterholes and stealing their women, and that isolated prospectors would quite often come under attack.

In Chapter XXVI, Sally hears of a prospector, ‘Mick Gerald’ who has discovered ‘a mountain of gold’ a couple of hundred miles north east

He and Bill and Syd Parry struck a big quartz hill … and called the place Mt Catherine… further on [they] discovered another reef which they intended to register as Daisy Bell.

While they were out prospecting, natives raided the camp, and speared the pack horses. They went out after the natives and met Ned Robbins who had struck the far end of the Daisy Bell reef and pegged a lease there. Ned went with them to settle with the natives.

[Back in Kalgoorlie ‘Gerald’ and the Parry’s register their claim to Daisy Bell, cutting Robbins out]. Robbins swore to get even with them.

He gave information to the police about that massacre of the blacks. [Mick] Gerald and Bill Parry were arrested. Syd Parry [subsequently] gave himself up.

The Coolgardie Miner came out with an article drawing attention to the ill-treatment of natives by certain unscrupulous prospectors. “Blacks had been killed wholesale”, it declared, “without regard to age or sex. Infants had been taken from their mothers and the brains battered out of their tiny bodies with rocks, innumerable outrages were perpetrated on the women and the unfortunate savages slaughtered ruthlessly.”

It was easy enough to find that story again, in Trove, in The Coolgardie Miner of 12 Feb 1895, and days following. Interestingly though, there is no massacre at that time/location on the Newcastle University ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres’ map (here).

Prichard had changed the names of the miners just slighty, so that ‘Mick Gerald’ was actually Michael Fitzgerald and ‘Ned Robbins’ was ___ Robinson. The words Prichard used above, “without regards to age or sex etc.” are Robinson’s (“The Mount Catherine find”, The Coolgardie Miner, 16 Feb 1895, p.6).

The Mount Catherine find was made on 7 Jan 1895. But a couple of weeks earlier, according to the Miner

a raid by blacks took place at the camp at Eucalyptus, where a part of the party was stationed. The natives stole a great quantity of provisions, clothes, ammunition etc. and speared a horse. On the return of the prospectors (who here consisted of Fitzgerald and the two Parrys) they started in pursuit of the n*ggers and tracked them to where their trail joined that of a big tribe. It was deemed prudent to go on to the Pendinni camp, find reinforcements and horses, and then proceed in pursuit of the thieves. [Robinson joins them]

The pursuit was continued until after New Years Day and what occurred in that time is not clearly stated. The party however, recovered none of the stolen goods.

When Robinson returns to the site of the massacre with the police, they are only able to find two bodies, of two young men who have been shot. The police charge Fitzgerald and the two Parrys with murder, with the case being heard by the Resident Magistrate at Coolgardie on Mon 25 Feb., 1895. Only Robinson gives evidence as to the events leading to the deaths, and the defendants are discharged. Robinson is arrested and held overnight, before he too is discharged.

It is interesting that Prichard would include this story in her work. And sad too that its publication in 1895, and its republication by Prichard, had so little effect on the Australian public, who even today are largely happy to accept the myth of ‘peaceful settlement’.

By the 1940s there was some sympathetic writing about ‘Aborigines’ – Prichard was clearly angry about the taking and rape of Aboriginal women, which she approaches first in Coonardoo (1928) then again here; Daisy Bates was in the newspapers from the early 1900s on, with her anthology, The Passing of the Aborigines coming out in 1938; then there’s Ion Idriess – Drums of Mer, Man Tracks, Nermaluk; Xavier Herbert, Capricornia (1938); and Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land (1941).

Ernestine Hill brings up Aboriginal slavery in The Great Australian Loneliness (1940), but Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties seems to be the first – outside of actual newspaper accounts, of which there are plenty – to include a massacre.

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References:
Katherine Susannah Prichard, The Roaring Nineties, first pub. 1946
Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911) –
Tue 12 Feb 1895, Page 3, ‘THE LATEST FIND’ (here)
Sat 16 Feb 1895, Page 6, ‘THE MOUNT CATHERINE FIND/THE PROSPECTORS ARRESTED ON SUSPICION OF MURDER’ (here)
Tue 26 Feb 1895, Page 3, ‘THE MT CATHERINE TRAGEDY/THE PROSPECTORS DISCHARGED’ (here)
Sat 2 Mar 1895, Page 6, ‘RESIDENT MAGISTRATES COURT/ALLEGED MURDER’ (here) – a full transcript of the evidence from the trial.

see also my posts:
Australian Genocide, Sydney NSW, 1779 (here)
The ‘Battle’ of Pinjarra, Pinjarra WA, 1834 (here)
Wardandi Massacre, Wonnerup/Lake Mininup WA, 1841 (here)
Cocanarup (Kukenarup) Massacre, Cocanarup Station, Ravensthorpe WA, 1880s (here)
Kimberley Massacres, 1886-1924 (here)
also in WA:
Flying Foam Massacre, in the Pilbara, 1868 (here)
Forrest River massacres, 1926 (Wiki here)

Wheel Tracks, WW Ammon

This is of course pure indulgence, but my recent adventures up dirt roads reminded my of this book of early Western Australian trucking which someone with a very neat hand gave me in 1985, my father, I guess. It has since led a hard life and not many of the pages are still attached to the spine.

Though Carnarvon, on the coast of Western Australia, has firmly established itself as the banana town of the west, it was not always so. Once wool was its only industry; and those who carried the wool from the out-lying stations were the truck drivers who are the theme of this book.

… trucks had come to stay, chiefly through the resourcefulness and initiative of that peculiar breed of person, the truck driver. What makes a young man love a motor so?

The trucks, little high-pressure-tyred vehicles always grossly overloaded, were pitted against those hundreds of miles of rutted wheel tracks, endless loose sandhills, washed-out river crossings, tropical deluges and a pitiless sun.

The map, though of course Ammon doesn’t say so, is all Yamaji country, bordering on Noongar at the bottom. Geraldton, which dates back to 1851, is not shown but it is more or less opposite the name ‘Indian Ocean’. The North West Coastal Hwy which is the road I use to go that way, now comes up from Perth between Three Springs and the coast, through Greenough to Geraldton, crosses the Murchison R at the Galena bridge and then follows the route labelled Sandalwood Track to Carnarvon, Minilya, Winning and northwards on to Karratha today, and back then, the 1920s, to Roebourne and Cossack (WA map).

Which reminds me, I am still unable to recognise sandalwood whose harvest was once an important WA industry, nor most of the other trees and shrubs the author casually mentions, “thickets of jam-trees … with cork-trees, mulga and beefwood, while a tangle of wild wattle, bluebush, quandongs, and a species of wild plum grew in abundance.”

And just for Melanie, “scorpions, six inches long with claws on them like the gilgies [fresh water crays] down south. And centipedes half as long as your arm, that can run like the very devil … Lizards won’t hurt you, but there are plenty of nasty little spinifex snakes about …”

On his first trip he learns to charge up sandhills, making multiple attempts and laying brush down to stop those hard, narrow tyres from digging in. Then someone invents trailers! First with one axle and only carrying a few more wool bales, then with two and carrying up to 18, or 3 tons. So now a hill they may have charged over, they are dragging this dead weight and are bogged all the time.

Of course these new-fangled trucks were fiercely resented by camel team drivers – a team of 23 camels, a wagon and all the gear might represent an investment of two to three thousand pounds. Nevertheless the camel teamsters lost contract after contract, hence the ferals I photographed the other day (maybe 400 km due east).

These days you see signs along the road about Charles Kingsford Smith, our most famous pioneer aviator. He made his start in this region delivering mail and the author for a while is driving a truck which once belonged to him.


Realizing the great potential for air transport in Australia, Kingsford Smith formed a partnership in 1924 with fellow pilot Keith Anderson. They raised the capital to buy two Bristol Tourers by operating a trucking business from Carnarvon, the Gascoyne Transport Co. ADB


I have to have a truck photo, so here’s a Graham truck manufactured in Evansville, Indiana, in the 1920s and the first truck Ammon drove.

Some things never change. Ammon was on trip rates, 3d a mile, no matter how long he spent loading/unloading or broken down repairing his truck on the road. Sixteen hours averaging 5mph would get you one pound/day. Today you might earn 44c/km, and average 90 kph for 14 hours, let’s say $500/day or 250 times as much. If that matches inflation then an average Perth house, $500K today would be the same as one thousand pounds then. I can’t find any figures to suggest whether or not that was the case. I suspect the 1925 house price might have been less.

And of course, other drivers “never passed another driver on the road without stopping for a yarn or boiling the billy with him. If he was in trouble they stayed …” I’m pleased to say drivers out here still stop, if you’re in trouble anyway.

There’s always a sad story in Australian bush yarns. Jimmy Stewart who taught Ammon the ropes, on his last trip before going home to Edinburgh to marry his sweetheart, was found dead on the track. He’d leaned out to look back at a dodgy tyre on his trailer, had lost his grip, fallen, hit his head, and the truck had carried on without him.

Carnarvon is at the mouth of the Gascoyne River, which is often dry for months at a time – “nothing but a sandy watercourse 500 miles long.” Carnarvon only has around 10 inches of rain/year so when the river floods it is generally from rain hundreds of kms inland. The streets of the town are quite low compared with the river and these days are protected by a long levee. Even so, one xmas 10 or 12 years ago I was held up there for a week, water all round so that they finally sent us dozen or so trucks an early xmas dinner by helicopter to keep us going. When the water went down the road south was so badly cut that we had to go home the long way (picture: the convoy setting out north along the river), 400 kms north, 400 kms inland, then 1400 kms south to accomplish what should have been a 900 km journey. Ammon describes getting across swimming, by boat and as the river went down, in trucks towed by camels.

As trucks got quicker, roads got worse, broken up by corrugations. Within a few years and before he was thirty, “Snow” Ammon was out of trucking for good, his back destroyed. Now, before I end I want to return to the Yamaji. How the West was won was pretty brutal – and the excerpt below is describing the situation, not so long ago, in my, and maybe your, grandparents’ time.

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WW Ammon, Wheel Tracks: Trucking accross the great north-west, Angus & Robertson, 1966. 220pp.


Early on, the author gives a lift to “a pair of young aborigines returning to Bigemia Station”.

“One of these boys answered to the name of Charcoal, the other to Jumbo. These were the white man’s names for them and illustrated, I thought, the status they held in the white man’s world – a brand by which they answered the crack of the white man’s whip and did his bidding in return for a few shabby clothes and the scraps from his kitchen … a kerosene tin [into which went] all the left-overs, the slops and the scrapings from the dishes, the tea leaves … At the end of the day an old gin came from the native camp … and carried it away to be shared as the evening meal.

In the north I was often told that an aboriginal only understands what you bash into his head with a piece of wood. And while I have seen plenty of this kind of thing done, I never have believed, and never will believe, that the native appreciated it…” [!]

Such is Life (12), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)
Such is Life (08)
Such is Life (09)
Such is Life (10)
Such is Life (11)

The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021. And here we are at no. 12. At last!

Tom has left Jack’s (formerly Nosey Alf’s) hut and is making his way to Runymede homestead in the impressive costume with which Jack has supplied him (supplemented by his own glasses and the famous meerschaum pipe).

[previously] I lacked, and knew I lacked, what is known as a ‘presence’. Now however, the high, drab belltopper and long alpaca coat, happily seconded by large, round glasses and a vast and scholarly pipe, seemed to get over [that] difficulty; and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I enjoyed … the consciousness of being well-dressed.

We run into a fellow on a poorly broken horse and Tom discourses, with examples, for a number of pages on the nature of good horsemanship until at last we are able to proceed – to the store, where goods are both kept for the station and sold to travellers. Montgomery, the storekeeper undertook in the last chapter, though I kept it from you, to spread rumours about Tom which Mrs Beaudesert might believe, and so give up her intention of marrying him.

We hear news for the last time of Nosey Alf, headed way north, up the Diamantina Track, into western Queensland.

Montgomery repeats the story Mrs B was intended to overhear (“which is more than I can do”, interpolates Tom). They get into an argument over whether Tom is dishonored or disgraced.

“Poverty, for instance is disgrace without dishonour; Michael-and-George-ship is dishonour without disgrace. In cases like mine, the dishonour lies in the fact, and the disgrace is in the publicity.”

All the men go in to lunch, including two swagman who Tom has previously injured, though neither recognises him, and so he is not called to account. Now he must face Mrs B and enact “the aristocratic man with a past … Such is life, my fellow-mummers – just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity.”

THE END

Was I happy to see that ‘THE END’! When this is done, I’m going to go back to reading books, not studying them. But for the nonce, let us go on. We are clear of course that Tom Collins is not Joseph Furphy. John Barnes writes, “In many ways Collins is an exaggerated, ironic self-portrait, in which Furphy regards humorously – and not too severely – the vanity of the “learned bushman. Tom Collins is a role that Furphy assumes, turning his irony against himself.” And further on .. “Furphy planted the clues that enable us to see the truth that Collins misses. As the reader grasps the relationships, the patterns of cause and effect which elude the cock-sure and loquacious narrator, he will come to recognize the cunning of the book’s construction.”

It is clear that in his years in the bush, often alone and reading by the light of his campfire, Furphy read voraciously and widely, though the fact that he carried a pocket Shakespeare wherever he went is evident from his frequent and often obscure quotations. On finally settling down in Shepparton, he began submitting stories to the Bulletin, as did many bushmen/writers. But what he brought to this novel was not just years of reading and bush experience but “also a fascination with the nature of fiction. In his sense of literary tradition and his conscious pursuit of originality, Furphy had no real counterpart …”

Such is Life is a unique work, a landmark in Australian literature, incomprehensible probably to non-Australians, and, outside literary circles at least, still carrying the burden of having originally been lumped in with Bush Realism. It is in fact the first, great work of the Modernist era, and so you will find when you read it.

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

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

The cover is of the edition I own. A&R Classics is of course an imprint of Angus & Robertson. This edition dates from 1975, reprinted 1978, with a Foreword by John Barnes.


Meerschaum. German for sea foam. A meerschaum pipe is made from the mineral sepiolite sometimes found floating on the Black Sea.

The ideal rider. “… wants  – or rather, needs – a skull of best spring steel; a spinal column of standard Lowmoor; limbs of gutta-percha; a hide of vulcanised india-rubber; and the less brains he has, the better … his thinking facilities should be so placed as to be in direct touch with the only thing that concerns him, namely the saddle.” He goes on …

A spill that perils neck or limb, a simple buster is to him, and it is nothing more, paraphrasing Wordsworth’s Peter Bell
A primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him
And it was nothing more

Michael-and-George-ship. KCMG (knighthood) awarded to colonials for services rendered. “Its possessors were prostituted instruments of British imperialism whose price had been paid in honours and titles.” The Boomerang.

John Barnes (1931- ) Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University, author of The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy (1990)

Irishness. This is a footnote to previous posts really, but in between finishing writing this post and putting it up, I read an essay by Francis Devlin-Glass in the ALS Journal of 30 Sep 2021, ‘Defining the Field of Irish-Australian Literature’:

“Furphy is not only a cornerstone of nineteenth-century Australian literature, but his critique of sectarianism, one of the most urgent cultural issues in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Australia, has not often been marked. It makes him and his Shandyesque manner of narration, unique in Australian fiction, of both cultural and literary interest to a study of Irish-Australian writers. That he is the only Australian writer … alluded to in detail in Finnegans Wake is another curious index of a transnational flow in the Irish direction.”

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< Previous. Such is Life (11)

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.

The Young Fur Traders, RM Ballantyne

#MARM2021

For the third consecutive weekend I am home and not working. The problem this causes is that I am not driving, listening to my (second) #MARM2021 read, On Writers and Writing (2015). So for a change, I have commenced listening in the hour between finishing reading and falling asleep.

However, being home does give me the opportunity to re-read, in connection with Canada if not directly with MA, a childhood favourite, The Young Fur Traders (1856), given to me by my paternal grandfather – going by the handwriting of my name on the flyleaf – sixty years ago this xmas. I looked along my top shelf to see if I also have his copy, I don’t, but I do have my father’s, though uninscribed.

According to Wikipedia, Margaret Atwood (1939- ) “spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec, and travelling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto.” This is reflected in the two works of hers that I have reviewed, Cat’s Eye and Surfacing. RM Ballantyne (1825-1894), a Scot, spent five years in Canada, from ages 16 to 21, working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. On his return to Scotland he wrote Hudson’s Bay: or, Life in the Wilds of North America (1848), then around 100 adventure stories for boys, of which this is the first.

We begin with Charley, 15 and his sister Kate, 14 planning their futures on the banks of the Red River – his as an adventurer in the wilds, hers home caring for their parents, their father having that day removed them from school.

In the very centre of the great continent of North America, far removed from the abodes of civilised men, and about twenty miles to the south of Lake Winnipeg exists a colony composed of Indians, Scotsmen and French-Canadians, which is known by the name of Red River Settlement… At the time at which we write, it contained about five thousand souls, and extended upwards of fifty miles along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers… The banks were clothed with fine trees; and immediately behind the settlement lay the great prairies, which extended in undulating waves – almost entirely devoid of shrub or tree – to the base of the Rocky Mountains.

This, I discover via Google Maps, is now the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on the far side of the Great Lakes from ‘Atwood’ country, but similar sounding in Ballantyne’s descriptions, to the island in Surfacing.

Given Ballantyne’s stated commitment to accuracy I am interested most in his descriptions. So voyageurs were “descended, generally, from French-Canadian sires and Indian mothers [uniting] some of the good and not a few of the bad qualities of both … the full, muscular frame of the Canadian with the fierce passions and active habits of the Indian.” “They were employed … in navigating the Hudson’s Bay Company boats, laden with furs and goods, through the labyinth of rivers and lakes that stud and intersect the whole continent … or in the pursuit of bisons which roam the prairies in vast herds.”

Charley is accepted by the Company and is conveyed up the Red River and across Lake Winnipeg to Norway House. He meets on the way an Indian guide who tells him a story of his first raiding party, with the Knisteneux [Cree] against the Chipewyans. He becomes a hunter and – we skip a year – joins a small party opening a new trading post in uncharted country north of the Sakatchewan. Charlie and an older hunter whose native language was any one of English, French and ‘Indian’ [surely, there’s more than one].

In truth, this is more travelogue than adventure yarn – though there a few of those as we go along – but an extraordinarily interesting one. Nineteenth century Canada seems like an inverse Australia – a vast unpopulated hinterland but (below) freezing cold with great forests and innumerable streams and lakes and of course endless snow to match our red sand, desert scrub and dry creek beds under a blazing sun.

In fact Australia pops up a couple of times – a horse as long-legged as a kangaroo, and an outpost as desolate as Botany Bay.

Ballantyne describes at length the clothing of the hunters and of the Knisteneux; their feasts and their travelling rations; takes us shooting rapids in bark canoes – after teaching us how to construct one; and hunting for wolves, birds, foxes and of course bison.

And where is Ms Atwood during all of this. Talking quietly into my right ear each evening. She has marvellous diction, largely unaccented. Perhaps modern Australian English is more American than I realise. Into my right ear so it can go out my left. Not much is sticking. I am sure she would enjoy the scenery of this novel, home territory for her, if a few hundred kilometres north and west. I wonder if her father or her brother had Ballantyne’s book. Surely every middle class household in the Dominions at least had Coral Island.

I recall no First Nations presence in Surfacing and Cat’s Eye. I wonder why that is. Here the ‘Indians’ are central, not as protagonists, though one is on the edge of the action throughout, and another is assigned the role of villain. They are exotic, colour, as is always the case in travel stories; it is they with whom the Hudson Bay Company trades; but sadly it is not a trade between equals.

There is a hierarchy. Young Charlie is soon a boss, a bourgeois, in charge of a small outpost. Beneath him is a hunter of 40 years experience of French-Canadian and Indian blood, and beneath them are any Knisteneux who have come into the camp for work. The Knisteneux chief is harangued for failing to bring in enough furs to satisfy the trading post commandant.

In all these Boys Own type books, society is entirely masculine. A few men, years away together, enclosed throughout the winter months into small, shared spaces. Perhaps it’s a product of their schools, Eton, Winchester and so on. The voyageurs are fathered by French Canadians, the British don’t do that sort of thing.

Ms Atwood goes on, reading, talking. I wake with a start, I really must review her properly. I hope it gets past I was a cute little girl, I was a beatnik in college. Charley finally gets to go home to his beautiful sister – the language with which they describe each other is nauseating – but luckily, approaching adulthood, her attentions are directed elsewhere. Boys Own writers do romance really badly, but all ends well.

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RM Ballantyne, The Young Fur Traders, first pub. 1856. My edition (pictured) Ward, Lock & Co.


A discussion we’ve had before: “the canoe entered one of these small rivulets which are called in Scotland burns, and in America creeks.”

Reaching Tin River, Thea Astley

AusReading Month 2021

Apparently I have read this before. Inside the back cover there’s a boarding pass Melbourne-Adelaide with my name on it and the date 03Jul16. Why the hell was I flying from Melbourne to Adelaide? And on the back of the pass there are notes, extracts and page no.s. Having got so close, I wish I’d gone on to write it up.

Checks back through blog… My posts for that week are Benang and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. My work diary is a little more informative. I’d been staying with mum. On Sat Jul 2 I swam 3km in the morning and had dinner with mum and B3 that evening (for B3’s upcoming 60th). Sun 3 is blank. Mon 4, Fly home. Go with Milly to see Psyche belly dancing. I give in, I must have flown home Sun night/Mon morning with a connection through Adel.

Reading now, bits are familiar, but not the overall story.

In the Comments after West Block – my ACT read for this month, as this is QLD – I finally began to get my head around the fact that AWW Gen 4 Week is coming up fast and I have given very little thought to the underlying theory. I said then that I thought Sara Dowse’s writing was based on/was an advance on the Modernism of, say, Eleanor Dark and that this would likely prove typical of Gen 4.

Reaching Tin River (1990) is a late Astley, written at the end of the Gen 4 period (1960-1990), so that the author has had the whole period, one in which Postmodernism was increasing in importance and influence, to develop her writing. It shows.

Astley’s earlier novels reflected most the Postcolonial aspect of Postmodernism, dealing with the legacy of white oppression of the Indigenous inhabitants of particularly her home state, Queensland. There are aspects of that here, but muted. The protagonist, Belle, grows up in and subsequently takes us on a journey through central Queensland. In that context she mentions the Hornet Bank Massacre* a number of times without taking it much further.

The novel is an exploration of Belle’s progress from childhood to her thirties, told in simple, almost diaryish style, in the first person. There are subsidiary themes running through – the unsatisfactoryness of marriage (for women); music, and in particular her dislike of the piano practice piece The Rustle of Spring; and Euclid’s rules of geometry – I get frustrated when arty people misuse maths, especially chaos theory, the uncertainty principle, and Schrödinger’s cat – Belle uses Euclid’s rules as similes for her attempts to locate her ‘centre’.

I am looking for a one-storey town
with trees
river
hills
and a population of under two thousand
one of whom must be called Gaden Lockyer

Or
Mother was a drummer in her own all-women group, a throbber of a lady with midlife zest and an off-centre smile

Or
I have decided to make a list of all the convent girls who learnt to play ‘The Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding between 1945 and 1960.

This is how the book begins, in fact it’s nearly the whole of the first page. I think I’m in for Astley in experimental mode, but she soon settles down. The plot is straightforward. Belle and her mother, Bonnie live on Bonnie’s parents’ farm ‘Perjury Plains’ near the (fictional) towns of Drenchings and Jericho Flats. Belle’s absent father, for whom she later goes looking, is a mediocre trumpet player and and US serviceman from the Korean War.

Belle on a school excursion learns of and subsequently becomes infatuated with turn of the century farmer politician Gaden Lockyer (ie. someone who is long dead).

She becomes first a teacher, then a librarian. Inexperienced sexually, she marries an older workmate given to mansplaining and is soon disillusioned.

Finally, she sets out on a road trip to discover Gaden Lockyer, to put herself in places where he has been and this crosses over (fairly successfully) into Magic Realism as he, Lockyer, becomes aware that a ghost from the future is haunting him.

There’s lots of other stuff and other characters. Bonnie, who was never an attentive mother, becomes more hippyish as she gets older. We learn pretty quickly to dislike Sebastian, the mansplaining husband. Belle’s father and Bonnie are never divorced but stay in remote contact on opposite sides of the world. We get to stay in some pretty shabby boarding houses – in fact I’m not sure Belle and I don’t walk to work together in the early 1970s when we both lived in New Farm boarding houses and walked across the Valley to the Courier Mail building – and end up in one that was once the nursing home where Lockyer saw out his final years.

An enjoyable book. Yet another Astley swipe at provincial Queensland (ie. all of it). And an interesting text for the influence of Postmodernism on Australian writing.

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Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River, Minerva, Melbourne, 1990. 222pp (cover painting by Faye Maxwell)

All our Thea Astley reviews are listed on Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)


*Hornet Bank Massacre: In October 1857 Rosa Praed was at a corroboree which presaged the massacre of seven members of the Fraser family, and one Black worker, on neighbouring Hornet Bank Station (map), in retaliation for the usual ‘dispersal’ of the traditional inhabitants and misuse of their women. Following the massacre, posses of white settlers, in which Murray-Prior [Praed’s father] was prominent, virtually wiped out all the local Yiman people.

Oldest son, William Fraser who had been away at the time of the massacre, returned and began murdering Black people – without hindrance from the police – at every opportunity, including two men exiting Rockhampton courthouse where they had just been acquitted. Astonishingly, Fraser is the model for Colin McKeith, the hero of [Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land] – extract from my review.

Hornet Bank is in the vicinity of Taroom, Qld about 470 km north-west of Brisbane (good cattle grazing country, though now subject to extensive fracking)

A recap of the Massacre story in The Queenslander, 15 Sep 1906 (here)

Such is Life (11), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)
Such is Life (08)
Such is Life (09)
Such is Life (10)

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

My aid to understanding this month is an essay by Ivor Indyk, Reading Men like Signboards: The Egalitarian Semiotic of Such is Life. You’d think my own Literature degree would have taught me to come up with titles like that. But it must be another step, reserved just for initiates.

Chapter VII, the final chapter, begins with another variation of timeframe, “the routine record of March 9 [1884] is not a desirable text. It would merely call forth from fitting oblivion the lambing-down of two stalwart fencers by a pimply old shanty keeper”. And so Tom settles on March 28,29 for “another glimpse of Alf Jones. Also the peculiar scythe-sweep of my style of narrative will take in rencontre with another person, to whom, in your helpless state as a reader, you have already been introduced” – meaning probably, Andy Glover, the swagman he meets and ‘helps’ prior to the getting naked in the Murray episode, and who was jailed for for the haystack fire actually started by Tom (as a diversion while he stole a pair of _____).

On the evening of the 27th Tom was camped about 30 miles distant from Runymede homestead, which is his destination, but with a “slight” deviation he can call first on Nosey Alf (Jones), an excursion which takes most of the 28th, and which involves stopping for a long conversation with a couple of workers at Patagonia tank; being blown off his horse by a duststorm; rescuing an unnamed swagman from the same storm; and sharing with him his water with “Bligh-like impartiality”;

till, just at that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman to prayer, and the no less faithful sundowner to the station store, I reached my destination.
One glance was enough. Two strange horses were in the paddock; the kerosene tins still stood in the sheltered angle by the chimney, but the flowers were dead; the smooth-trodden radius round the door was no longer swept except by the winds of heaven, and was becoming a midden …

The new occupant is Jack, a sailor who can’t speak without swearing. He replaces Tom’s hat, which had been blown away, with an incongruous bell topper which, with a new jacket, gives Tom an appearance above his station when he subsequently arrives at Runnymede

“Now, if you’d a pair of skylights athort your cutwater, you’d be set up for a professor of phrenology, or doxology, or any other ology,” suggested Jack, with one oath, two unseemly expletives, and two obscenities.

And so an evening passes in conversation. Over the course of 10 or 15 pages we learn the origin of Tom’s meerschaum pipe; Pup insists on being fed; and in the morning Tom heads off for Runymede and the final day of this rambling story.

Ivor Indyk’s thesis is that on publication “Furphy’s bullockies and swagmen were taken to embody the egalitarian ethos considered fundamental to the definition of the Australian character.” Though, far from being ‘Australian’, all of the characters are “English first or Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Chinese, Dutch, German, French or Aboriginal – with each group having its own distinguishing dialect.” Then there are the differences of religion, particularly Protestant/Catholic, and of class, “for Furphy presents sectarianism as an instrument used by the propertied class to divide and conquer the labouring class.”

But following its republication in 1944 the novel’s true value was “seen to reside in its portrayal of the complexity and diversity of life.”

Such is Life explores the limitations of reason and the problems of choice and moral responsibility, it demonstrates the inadequacy of any single framework or set of principles, the uncertainty of knowledge, the futility of human endeavour.

Tom is constantly encountering and relating stories which demonstrate that these diverse men and women, in their movements over this vast and largely empty space, are in fact a community, and that the actions, the choices made by one, have consequences, often unintended and unexpected, for them all.

Furphy uses the unreliability of Tom’s version of events to make us reconsider our interpretation of all events.

What bothers me is the extent to which I rely on the annotations and commentary for explanations of what is going along. Nosey Alf’s back story is in the text, but I’m not sure how aware of it I would have been without assistance. Certainly, by the end of the chapter (and my next and final post) we will know where Nosey Alf is, but who Nosey Alf has been is another story altogether.


lambing down. Defrauding a ‘chequed up’ bushman by keeping him drunk until his funds are exhausted (From helping a ewe to give birth).

Patagonia Tank. “On a well-managed station like Runymede, a tank is, whenever possible, excavated on the margin of a swamp. The clay extracted is formed into a strong wall.” In other words, a dam. When the swamp is full, a portable pumping plant is used to fill the dam.

Bligh-like impartiality. On his long voyage by rowboat after the Mutiny, Bligh divided the dwindling stores with his crew using a set of improvised scales.

that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman to prayer. Sundown

a pair of skylights athort your cutwater. a pair of glasses on your nose. The cutwater is the leading edge or prow of a boat.

Lachlan River. I don’t mention the Lachlan this month but following unseasonal rains it is, this week (ie. in Nov, 2021), in flood upstream, above Forbes. It will be interesting to follow the progress of the flood waters westwards, past Hillston, and to see whether Tom’s prediction comes true, and they flow across the plains south of Menindee and into the Darling

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

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

Ivor Indyk, Reading Men like Signboards: The Egalitarian Semiotic of Such is Life, Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 May 1986

The cover is from one of the many post-copyright versions. Who was behind publisher “Australian Classics” I can’t say – the closest I can get is ‘Modern Publishing Group’ in the 1990s. The photo would appear to be of timber cutters sitting on a giant log, maybe a river red gum (though Google Images would have it that it was a ‘locomotive’).

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Such is Life (10), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)
Such is Life (05)
Such is Life (06)
Such is Life (07)
Such is Life (08)
Such is Life (09)

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

We are at VI, the penultimate chapter. Tom’s diary, open at Sat., February 9th, 1884, reminds him that he was once again on Runnymede, on whose home paddock the bullockies were camped in Chapter I. It is a standing joke amongst all his acquaintance that the housekeeper of Runnymede, a widow formerly of some social standing (in the bush), is intent on marrying him. And now, due to government business, he has been spending some days within her reach.

No spoilers this month, though the answer to one of the novel’s little underlying mysteries, who is Nosey Alf, is within Tom’s grasp by the end of the chapter if only he realised. In fact, it is only by reading the commentaries that I am aware of just how many mysteries run as undercurrents through the stories Tom relates and listens to. Tom knows his saddle is better than it should be, but from whom was it stolen? Where did his kangaroo dog, Pup, come from? What happened to the swagman he ‘helped’ the night he got naked? Is he still in touch with Jim (Jemima)? and so on.

Tom begins the chapter by philosophising about the minute gradations of class on a station, “The folk-lore of Riverina is rich in variations of a mythus, pointing to the David-and-Goliath combat between a quiet wage-slave and a domineering squatter …” At the homestead, each class has its own quarters, from the house for the boss and his family, to the barracks for narangies, to the men’s hut, to “the nearest pine ridge” or a hut by the woolshed for swaggies. Tom, in his official capacity, “being a little too exalted for the men’s hut, and a great deal too vile for the boss’s house” was quartered with the narrangies.

Social status, apart from all considerations of mind, manners, or even money, is more accurately weighed on a right-thinking Australian station than anywhere else in the world.

Mrs Beaudesert, the housekeeper, had made £25,000 marrying and burying her first husband, only for her second, a refugee from Belgravia, to get through it at £10,000 a year, and so she was reduced to living on the charity of her old school friend, the boss’s wife. Unfortunately for Tom, she had a mistaken belief about his lineage and prospects, and “such was her hypnotic power, or my adaptability, that in the atmosphere of Runnymede I became a Conservative of the good old type.”

Eventually, after adjudicating in an argument between Mrs B and a servant girl, he begins to make his escape. The mail brings a letter from head office, but it is only a love letter and he discards it. As he is mounting, another horseman wishes to discuss ‘Was Hamlet mad?’. There is a contretemps with a bullocky taking a short cut across the best paddocks instead of going back out the front gate and around the long way. But at last Tom makes his own way across the station to Nosey Alf’s hut on the boundary.

Nosey Alf, in fact had no nose, having been kicked in the face by a horse. Tom describes Alf variously as “more beautiful, otherwise, than a man’s face is justified in being”; with “lithe, graceful movements”; and “no scrub to burn off, except a faint moustache”; not to mention “unbecomingly clean for a Saturday”.

They exchange “swapping books” and discuss Zola, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Longfellow. Alf corrects Tom’s characterization of bombazine as “cheap, carpetty-looking fabric” for women’s gowns, leading Tom to assume Alf had been a draper’s assistant in his Sydney days.

Tom gives Alf news, at some length, of their mutual acquaintance, the misanthropic Warrigal Alf.

Alf takes out a violin –

.. he didn’t confine himself to the comfortable vulgarity of popular airs. He played selections from Handel, Mozart, Wagner and I don’t know whom; while the time past unnoticed by both of us. At length he laid the violin across his knees, and, after a pause, his voice rose in one of the sweetest songs ever woven from words.

As he takes his leave in the morning, Tom’s final, grateful thought is that never once did Alf attempt “any witticism respecting Mrs Beaudesert”.


Runnymede. At that time, in a 200 mile stretch along the Murrimbidgee there was only one station, Pevensey, that did not have an Aboriginal name. “Perhaps Pevensey, the site of a king’s victory, suggested Runnymede, the site of a king’s defeat.”

Narangy. A self-appointed boss of doubtful authority. A man who transmitted orders but didn’t formulate them. From similar Aboriginal words recorded in the Sydney region meaning small or junior.

Love letter. Possibly from Jim as her father had Tom’s work address

Was Hamlet mad? A burning question in Melbourne in 1867, following rival performances, and a spate of letters to the Argus.

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

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

Vance Palmer edited two editions of Such is Life, the second, published by Kate Baker in 1917, and the abridged edition published in England by Jonathon Cape in 1937. The cover above would appear to be of the latter (here). My earlier post, Such is Life Abridged! (here)

Last month one of my brothers (B3) wrote and said that if I was short of covers I could use his, which was a Xmas present from our parents in 1972. I had already set up my covers for the rest of the year but here’s his, as a bonus, a hardback from boutique publisher Lloyd O’Neill. The cover painting is Tom Roberts’ Charcoal Burners (1886), though the colours appear a bit off.

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Such is Life (09), Joseph Furphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next. Such is Life (10) >

< Previous. Such is Life (08)

Such is Life (08), Joseph Furphy

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

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

We’re up to Chapter V, nominally January 9th, 1884, but more accurately, Jan 8-10. It’s dry, mid-summer of course, feed is short and Tom’s two horses are skin and bones. Ch. V contains a significant moment in the overall novel – when some of the men we have met before are sitting round a campfire swapping yarns – so what I plan to do is discuss the men gathering, and then dispersing the following morning, this month, and then the campfire and the yarns next month. So this may be the last month without spoilers.

Tom in his peregrinations has returned to Mondunbarra, the station Warrigal Alf was camped on in the last chapter. Alf has presumably gone off with the squatter Stewart. Tom has business with the managing partner, Smythe, who is “away in Melbourne”, so he leaves the paperwork with Smythe’s younger brother, Bert and makes preparations to depart. Bert directs him to camp in a paddock which Tom finds in the morning is completely devoid of grass.

I found myself slowly approached by a Chinaman on a roan horse. And though it is impossible to recognise any individual Chow, I fancied that this unit bore something more than a racial resemblance to the one from whom I had recovered Alf’s bullocks. Moreover he was riding the same horse.

The Chinese boundary rider, who has adopted the name Paul because he is a Christian, declines to drink tea with Tom but tells him of a well grassed paddock some miles off, and thence Tom makes his way. He has barely settled down and lit his pipe when he is accosted by a familiar voice, and is joined by his old mate Steve Thompson.

Daylight had now melted into soft, shadowless moonlight; and the place was no longer solitary. Dozens of cattle were scattered round, harvesting the fine crop of grass; and Thompson with his two confederates joined me … Before the first match was struck, a sound of subdued voices behind us notified the coming of two more interlopers.

And later they are joined by another – “Seems like as if people couldn’t fine a bit o’ grass without the whole (adj) country jumpin’ it”.

They wake to find they have all been the victims of a carefully executed sting. Smythe, not in Melbourne at all, has had his stockmen lure the bullockies into camping on his land; all of their cattle and horses, “254 head of overworked and underfed beasts”, have been rounded up before dawn and been driven back to the station yards and impounded. Working out who owns, and owes, what takes all morning, till at last there are only 10 bullocks left. “How many bullocks are you working?” Smythe asks Bob, his last ‘customer’. “Well, I’m workin’ ten, but …”. “No buts … Take your ten and GO!” So Bob takes his eight and the two Mondunbarra bullocks that have got in amongst them, and the score is counted, by everyone in the know, as even.


The annotations don’t have a lot to tell us this chapter but I have a paper about Furphy and racism from the Australian Literary Studies Journal by Frances Devlin-Glass, one of the annotators, titled “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”.

“Furphy’s positions on the Aboriginal and Chinese questions were a debating point within the editorial group and we were aware the we were disturbed by them. In the brief space afforded by the convention of annotations, we had argued that, though he certainly subscribed to the social Darwinist and left-leaning socialist views of his time in his attitudes to Chinese, he was by contrast with many of his contemporaries, a moderate.” She claims that Furphy’s ‘anxiety’ on the subject of race frequently manifests as humour and irony.

While Furphy’s work may be read as a “call to nationhood, to one (white and assimilationist) nation,”…”to stress this hegemonic aspect of the work is to overlook the relish Furphy clearly took in nationally and ethnically marked diversity and ethnology. This is most obviously apparent in the care with which he represents dialects and accents.”

Devlin-Glass says that “Furphy anticipated the modernist .. preoccupations with irony, point of view and unreliable narrators” which makes it difficult to apply to him all the opinions expressed by Tom, especially as the most frequent subject of his (Tom’s) “sardonic wit and satiric reduction” is his own countrymen.

It is important, both with the novel a a whole, and in relation to this issue, that what Tom says and what is actually happening are often quite different. Tom says in the quote above that he doesn’t recognise the ‘Chow’, but one of the ‘mysteries’ threaded through the novel comes about because there is also a European he repeatedly fails to recognise. Further, when Tom speaks pidgin to “Paul” Sam Young – which I don’t quote – the Chinese man is happy to insult him straight back; and later they have an exchange in which Tom acknowledges the cleverness of the sting and Paul accepts that he will one day be stung in turn.

What Devlin-Glass is saying, and I agree, is that while there is some racism, there is no racial animosity. Furphy, she says, engages in “an ironic dismantling of racial prejudice”; his work demonstrating, whatever Tom says, that it is the class system, squatter vs worker, which is the real concern of European and Chinese workers alike. 

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

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

Frances Devlin-Glass, “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”, Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 November 2000.

This month’s cover is from Perry Middlemiss’s Australian Literature blog. He implies it is from the Angus & Robertson 1956 edition (I have previously used the cover of A&R’s ‘original’ 1944 edition). Middlemiss discusses Such is Life here. I disagree that Tom Collins is Furphy’s pen name, it’s the name of the fictional biography’s protagonist. Though that’s probably just a quibble and Furphy did use Collins as a pen name for some of his Bulletin short stories.

Middlemiss, whom I haven’t come across before, describes his Aust.Lit. project here. He also reviews classic SF. How good is that!

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