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.
Chapter IV, and Tom’s diary has moved us on to “SUN. Dec. 9.  Dead Man’s Bend. Warrigal Alf down. Rescue twice. Enlisted Terrible Tommy.”
Dead Man’s Bend on the Lachlan River, marks the junction of three properties, Mondunbarra and Avondale on one side, and on the other Yoongoolee. Last Chapter we were down on the Murray and now we are back in the general region of Chapter III (Wilandra) though probably a little to the south.
How easy it is to recall the scene! The Lachlan river, filled by summer rains far away among the mountans, to a width of something like thirty yards, flowing silently past, and going to waste. Irregular areas of lignum, hundreds of acres in extent, and eight or ten feet in height, representing swamps; and long, serpentine reaches of the same, but higher in growth, indicating billabongs of the river. The river itself fringed, and the adjacent low ground dotted, with swamp box, river coolibah, and red gum ..
To complete the picture … you will imagine Cleopatra and Bunyip standing under a coolibah – standing heads and points, after the manner of equine mates; each switching the flies and mosquitos off his comrade’s face, and shivering them off such parts of his own body as possessed the requisite faculty. And in the centre of a clear place, a couple of hundred yards away, you may notice a bullock wagon, apparently deserted; the heavy wool-tarpaulin, dark with dust and grease, thrown across the arched jigger, forming a tent …
In the foreground of this picture, you may fancy the present annalist lying – or as lying is an ill phrase, and peculiarly inapplicable just here – we’ll say reclining, pipe in mouth, on a patch of pennyroyal, trying to re-peruse one of Ouida’s novels, and thinking … what a sweet, spicy, piquant thing it must be to be lured to destruction by a tawny-haired tigress with slumbrous dark eyes.
Tom is loafing, his next appointment a day or two ahead, reading a romance as we have just seen, and thinking of Jim (Jemima) when he is accosted from the far side of the river, a repeated call of “Ha-a-a-a-ay” which he ignores over the space of two or three pages, until finally he pays attention and a mate – the Riverina is full of Tom’s mates – tells him that the seemingly abandoned wagon is Warrigal Alf’s and that Warrigal Alf’s carrion [bullocks and horse] are on the road to Yoongoolee yards and no doubt from thence to Booligal pound.
Tom goes up to the wagon to discover Alf ill and in his own mind anyway, dying. He had tried to keep his bullocks in this remote corner but, as it turns out later, a stockman from one station had herded them onto the neighbouring station and the stockman there had herded them across the river.
Tom gives Alf some water then goes off after the bullocks. Divesting his outer clothes (again!) to cross the river, his “undergarment which I cannot bring myself to name” is ripped by a low branch and he discards that too. He catches the Yoongoolee stockman, a northern Englander whose conversation, in dialect, is incomprehensible (to me anyway), persaudes him to return Alf’s cattle and also the stockman’s wife to let him have some ‘Pain-Killer” patent medcine for Alf. For modesty and to temporarily cover his sunburn he has borrowed the stockman’s coat but for some reason I don’t follow he returns it to the stockman’s wife and rides off near-naked again.
Back on his own side of the river he persuades a Chinese stockman – the ‘Terrible Tommy’ of the heading – to let the bullocks stay a while (more dialect) and then encounters on the road a station-owner, a Scot (yes, even more dialect), who eventually volunteers to employ Alf and safeguard his bullocks.
This was a difficult chapter, both to read, and because nothing much happens. Though Warrigal Alf tells Tom four versions of one story about a wife’s adultery which I think will later prove significant. Also the annotaters point out that the text over those three pages where his mate is calling “Ha-a-a-a-ay” and Tom is lost in reverie represents one of the earliest instances of stream of consciousness – an important (though not necessary) characteristic of modernist writing, which I said earlier we should look out for.
AG Mitchell writes that we should accept such chapters: From one day to the next there can, on the face of it, be no connection except the reappearance, in fact or by report, of familiar persons and places. But as we read we discover connections … We find a thread of narrative, dropped earlier, being taken up again, puzzling events and characters explained after a long interval … Ragged ends are taken up and woven into the fabric of the book. And such is life.
Ouida. Pen-name of Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908).
Tawny-haired tigress. Probably refers to the villainess, Marion Vavasour in Ouida’s novel Strathmore who “takes delight in destroying the men who are helplessly attracted by her beauty.” We must see if Tom feels ‘lured to destruction’ by Jim.
Warrigal Alf ill. Alf’s symptoms are congruent with Ross River fever, prevalent in NSW in the C19th [and more recently]
Dialect. The English stockman replies to an implied threat with “Foak bea n’t gwean ter walk on hutheh foak” which apparently means he is not a walkover.
Stream of consciousness. “Rather earlier than historians of literature usually look for it (though Randolph Quirk has found it fully developed in Dickens; see The Linguist and the English Language).”
AG Mitchell. Such is Life: The Title and the Structure of the Book. In Clement Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism, OUP, Melbourne, 1967
Buckley. The quintessentially English squatter protagonist of Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) [which I really must write up one day]. I skipped over him in my summary above but he gets a couple of scornful mentions during this chapter and later on. Kingsley only spent two or three years in Australia and Furphy is intensely critical of his representations of outback life and of the regard in which his book was held in city circles.
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).
This month’s cover is from the Dodo Press (here) “a Moscow-based micro-publisher, established in 2009. We all work almost entirely as volunteers, most of our publications are financed by crowdfunding. We tend to publish non-mainstream weirdly brilliant books, mainly in translation from English. The Dodo Press team consists of three people, with about 300 books translated, about 500 edited, and about 50 years in publishing, between us.”
The cover image is from the painting The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair by French realist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).