Trooper to the Southern Cross, Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) was born in England of good upper middle class stock. Her father was professor of poetry at Oxford, Rudyard Kipling was a rello and her godfather was JM Barrie. She was tall, good looking and rebellious, married a bi-sexual, professional signer to disoblige her family, as they say, had two sons, divorced him, and near the end of the Great War, married George Thirkell, a captain in the AIF who had served right through from 1914 – Egypt, Gallipoli, France. Thirkell’s family had land in Tasmania, but he was an engineer.

“Early in 1920 the Thirkells returned to Australia aboard the Friedrichsruh, a horrendous voyage when rank-and-file diggers became increasingly assertive. After a sojourn at Hobart, the family settled in suburban Melbourne. In January 1921 a son, Lancelot George, was born. Thirkell’s business activities as a director of a small engineering firm won only modest rewards.” (ADB)

Angela, needing money, began writing satirical essays and short stories. In 1930 she made her second visit home and stayed there. From 1931 on, for 30 years, she published a novel a year, middlebrow stuff set in Trollope’s Barsetshire, which she said she wouldn’t want her friends to read.

Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934) is something else, a fictionalised account of her post-war voyage to Australia, biting in its contempt of incompetent officers and sometimes laugh out loud funny, which was originally published under the male pseudonym Leslie Parker.

The story is written in a chatty tone in the first person, by Major Bowen a doctor in the AIF who had, like Capt Thirkell whom he no doubt represents, served right through the War.

I have always wanted to write the story of the old ‘Rudolstadt’ which took a shipload of Australian troops home after the War, but there were so many reasons against it. At the time we were all very angry, because it isn’t a fair deal to put families on a troopship where there isn’t any dicipline ..

opening lines

Bowen’s background is as the son of a Western District (Victoria) property owning family with whom he has only distant relations. I was impressed by Thirkell’s local knowledge, though I waited until I had finished the book to look up her history. It doesn’t say, but perhaps she travelled a bit during her 10 years in Australia. Bowen talks of his mother cooking for shearers – chops for breakfast, a roast joint for dinner and the shoulder for tea. Do people still eat like that! My grandparents did, and sandwiches for morning and afternoon lunch in between, and tea, tea, tea, and maybe a slice of cake for supper.

Still, that’s only the first few pages, and a couple more to deal with the War. But because Bowen mentions fighting in Egypt (in 1914, though it was actually 1915) before Gallipoli, I had to look that up too (here). The AIF landed in Egypt for training at the end of 1914 and some must have taken part in the defence of the Suez when the Turks attacked from Palestine to retake Egypt from the Brits.

After the Armistice, Bowen takes a position at a hospital in Leeds, meets a girl, Celia, to whom it turns out he is related, marries her and after a year or so the Army tells him he is to be repatriated on the Rudolstadt along with many other officers with their wives and children and hundreds of diggers (troops). He wrangles a decent cabin for himself and Celia. His mate Jerry has a suite for his wife, two children and young nanny, but the junior offices are crammed into small cabins below decks not necessarily with their wives; the diggers are a level further down, and beneath them are the cells for hardened criminals who soon have their jailers bluffed and the keys to the cells chucked overboard.

I don’t have to tell you the plot – they sail to Australia, the men cause a lot of trouble, and despite an incompetent CO and his adjutant, Owen and Jerry with the assistance of a few loyal sergeants, save the day. Repeatedly.

The pleasure of the book is in the humour, a lot of which is the author slyly making fun of her husband (whom she had already left). Here they are on first meeting –

The girl didn’t know what back-blocks were, so I had to explain they were way out beyond everything. So I asked her if she had read ‘On Our Selection’ … but she hadn’t. And she hadn’t read ‘We of the Never Never’, nor ‘While the Billy Boils’ so I knew she wasn’t literary.

And here, on wifely duties –

As for Celia, the poor kid didn’t know the first thing about cooking, but she soon got the hang of it, and I can tell you it was good-oh to know there would be a nice hot supper my little missis had cooked, whatever time I got back from the hospital … [he and a mate would] go off somewhere and get a drink and get yarning, and often I’d bring the chap home with me … It was great to walk into our own little sitting room and say “What about some tea, babe?” and introduce her to my pal.

Sometimes I’d take my boots off after supper and Celia would give them a shine for me … She was a great hand at polishing boots, as good as a batman, and it’s a job I’ve never liked somehow.

There’s all that stuff of my father’s and grandfathers’ generations about not swearing in front of women, not even hinting at sex. One bounder shows some officers’ wives a pornographic Indian carving which accidentally ends up overboard. And a great deal of racism about unwashed Egyptians, ‘gyppos’ and Irish Catholics, though the RC chaplain on board shows he’s made of the right stuff.

All in all a fun, nostalgic, read.

.

Angela Thirkell, Trooper to the Southern Cross, first pub. 1934. Sun Books (pictured above, right), Melbourne, 1966. 177pp. ex libris J. Terry

see also: Sue/Whispering Gums’ review (here)

The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

KSP writes in the preface to the 1963 edition: “Notes for The Pioneers were made in 1903 when I was twenty and living in South Gippsland. But it was not until 1913, in London, that I was able to take six months off earning my living as a journalist to write the story …”. The novel, her first, was published in 1915 and was a success. Nathan Hobby, whose Prichard biography is at this moment at the printers, has more to say about the book’s origins here.

She goes on: “It grew from the yarns and gossip I heard at Port Albert, Yarram, Taraville, and my wanderings in the lovely ranges beyond them. The Wirree river referred to may be recognised as the Tara, which was an escape route for convicts from Van Dieman’s Land [Tasmania] in the early days.” And hence we may infer that Wirreeford stands in for Yarram.

For the benefit of foreigners, Gippsland is that part of Victoria to the east of Melbourne and south of the Victorian Alps (map, Yarram out to the east, near the coast). It is hilly, damp, fertile and green, home once to enormous eucalypts, their range now greatly restricted by clear felling for farming and timber milling. Though, as I remember from my childhood there, the sandy coastal regions feature mostly scrubby paper barks. South Gippsland is Gunai country, though Prichard doesn’t pay the original inhabitants much attention. The Gunai were dispersed by a series of massacres of which you may read more here.

The Pioneers is historical fiction covering the early days of white settlement, which began, in this area, in the 1840s. Miles Franklin claimed in the 1930s (I can’t locate a source for this statement) that she and Steele Rudd were the progenitors of a uniquely Australian school of fiction dealing with the lives of ordinary families in the Bush, which she distinguishes from the ‘mateship’/Lone Hand/ Bulletin school (Gen 2); from the urban modernism and social realism of the years between the Wars (Gen 3); and from earlier ‘upper class’ novels of bush life, such as those by Henry Kingsley and Ada Cambridge (Gen 1).

I have written before that in the 1970s, John Hirst and Judith Godden posited that the myth of the Independent Bushman/Lone Hand (“the Australian Legend”) had been ameliorated in the 1930s by the general adoption of a Pioneer myth. Miles Franklin was a big part of that, but it is clear that The Pioneers, which predates MF’s re-flowering as a writer of pioneer fiction by a couple of decades, must earn KSP at least co-progenitor status.

That said, The Pioneers is more Robbery Under Arms than All That Swagger, but with an admirable dash of Independent Woman thrown in, and some lovely descriptive prose.

The novel begins with Donald and Mary Cameron making their way inland from ‘Port Southern’ into hilly, forested country. Donald is a Scot and Mary is Welsh. Sticking closely to ethnic stereotypes, Donald is as well known for being tight-fisted and Mary tells stories about fairies. I’m not sure that without the notes we’d know where or when we are. It is clear that the couple are pioneers, squatting on uncleared land in the bush but the nearest we get to locating ourselves is the arrival of escaped convicts from Port Arthur/Hobart Town over the water (though that’s hardly specific as Mary Bryant for instance escaped by boat as far as Jakarta).

A few months later .. A one-roomed hut, built of long, rough-barked saplings, ranged one above the other, and thatched with coarse reddish-brown bark, laid on in slabs, stood on the brow of the hill not far from the dray’s first resting place.

A light under the door indicates a restless night and in the morning Donald emerges with a bundle wrapped in a shawl, his son Davey. Unlike most pioneer families, that’s it for issue and Davey remains an only child.

The convicts above are important because they arrive when Donald is away, but Mary, apparently unafraid, helps them, making of one a friend for life, who when he returns a few years later with his daughter Deidre, becomes the local schoolmaster.

Donald prospers. Davey and Deidre grow up side by side. A little township forms. A bushfire sweeps through while Donald is away (again) and Mary is saved by the Schoolmaster. The pioneer side of the story declines in importance and instead, as we concentrate on the second generation we get into Walter Scott territory with villainous publicans, rival lovers and cattle rustling.

Deidre watched Davey going out of Narrow Valley in dim starlight of the early spring morning, the mob, hustled by Teddy and the dogs, a stream of red and brown and dappled hides before him.

I’ve read a few KSP’s – Working Bullocks, Coonardoo, Haxby’s Circus that I can think of – and I’ve generally found her prose awkward, stilted. That is not the case here. Perhaps as is so often the case, her first book was her best book. The descriptions flow. The action flows. It’s a good story, well told.

.

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, first pub. 1915. Revised edition (pictured) Rigby, 1963. Kindly loaned to me by Lisa/ANZLL.

For other KSP reviews see AWW Gen 2 page (here)

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

This, to my great surprise, is a guest post from Lou. I didn’t know he was reading Australian fiction, let alone, as he says, Bush Lit. Now all my children have contributed a post.

Lou is a teacher, currently in the Northern Territory. Over the past 15 years he has taught mainly in the working class western suburbs of Melbourne, but also in London, Kenya (where the photo below was taken), Morocco and Malawi.

A Kindness Cup (1974) is set some time in the past in a small country town in Queensland and was “loosely” based by Astley on the massacre at The Leap in 1867.

Lead on, Lou …


I approached this text as a piece of Australian bush lit, as I approached a fresh posting in a rural town in Australia. Should I say ‘Country’? It seems a thing that might be capitalised, and asserted thus, here. A particular context of its own. It is conceptually a long way from anywhere I’ve been at home before. I am extensively familiar neither with the genre or the context. I came to both from a wary but willing second hand acquaintance. As an earnest, highminded and alien teacher, I felt prepared from the outset to take the part of protagonist, Dorahy.

In this story Dorahy, a schoolteacher, has encountered an act of racist brutality. The perpetrators of ‘the incident’ were exonerated and the teacher left town in disgust. This is prelude to a time, much later, when the leading lights of the town are inviting former denizens back to celebrate their success in making something to be proud of.

That Astley engages with race I understood entirely from theaustralianlegend. So I was surprised at how little a part the Black characters played. I recognise the impulse to shirk the challenge of characterisation- I am, as I say, much better prepared to describe the internal life of the white teacher from the city. I recognise the weight of responsibility such a task entails.

In a meeting last week I watched my team leader, a Black woman from a local mob with much the same experience and qualifications as myself, hedge around descriptions that specified race. We were discussing students with problems, or maybe problem students, and race arose as a factor for consideration (the school being 70% Aboriginal, including a mixture of local communities and displaced outsiders). Me being new, and the third teacher being very young, I expect that any particular language or opinion she wished to assert would have been accepted as her right, but she was clearly as careful and awkward as a white professor presenting a lecture on Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, white masks’.

Later in the week, the middle-aged-white-boy school principal, with long experience of working in very remote Aboriginal community schools, led us in consideration of the ‘school opinion survey’. He apologised a lot for the numbers, and launched repeatedly, unabashedly, into direct descriptions (perhaps intending wit, or displaying sympathy) of his experience of the differences between ‘middle class white boys’ and ‘our community kids’.

So Astley’s characters are not black, or brown. Indeed, their racial/cultural/language group origins are unremarked, while the Blacks are consistently identified by their ‘mob’ (conversely: my paternal grandmother, from a generation of Country similar to Astley, might not know the names of any Victorian first-nations, but she could sure as hell tell you who in whichever small town was Anglican, or Methodist, or Catholic). The characters are heartfelt and thickly outlined- the shortness of the text does not provide space for sophistry. Dorahy’s snaggly toothed middle-aged (“youngish” in his own memories) idealist is caught in classroom vignettes, while his bitter, worn-down old man is made clear mostly though his impression on those around him. One imagines Astley, like even the most sympathetic of her townsfolk, finds his long-fermented ardour for recognition a bit on the nose. Lunt, who is brutalised and mutilated in the affair, spends much of the text as a removed, saintly example of the victim. The horror of it lies in that he, too, is white.

Nor, mostly, are Astley’s characters women. It is men who have acted in the affair in question. The one female character who is drawn beyond a few words is Gracie Tilburn, a singer and former town darling. The women are barely active enough to be ‘damned whores or god’s police’, but Tilburn has the character of the former, while her considered regard (or otherwise) for the men about her signals their virtue. She likes ‘young’ Jenner (a good kid from Dorahy’s class, and a blandly successful man in the present day), but wakes up with the villain Buckminster, and derides his chubby thighs (alike to her own), and ushers him out the door with barely concealed loathing (for both self and other). Spoiler: As the text draws to a close she is asked to choose between the (“fat, shapeless, and unheroic to look at”) town hack, Boyd, who (showing “virtue.. in his face or his smile”) has been amoral, except in the end), and the unredeemed, (also unattractive) mass of the status quo (including Buckminster of the unfortunate encounter). I was engaged sufficiently at this point to hope the hack’s smile was virtuous enough to invite a happy ending.

As the arbiter of what is good, Teacher Dorahy is, I assume, an acolyte of Arnold (I’ll let theaustralianlegend check the dates [Headmaster of Rugby 1828-41] ). His mission to enlighten the savage Country-men comes with a book and a burning cane (although he is light on the cane- he shows his disdain for young Buckminster after ‘the incident’ not by whipping him harder, but by declining to whip him at all). His wisdom is punctuated with Greek and Latin (presumably from vitally important texts, “the best of all that has been thought and done by mankind [north of the Mediterranean]”, which I’ll get around to once I’ve mastered the canon of Australian bush literature). The townsfolk show their substance in a hierarchy of economic satisfaction- from the comfortably established, to unlucky (or incompetent) Lunt who can’t find a farm with water, to the poor Blacks. They show their virtue in a willingness to offer charity to those lower on this scale. The best of them do not blame the Blacks for their collectively pitiable condition, nor do they root the Black women (the topic arises several times, and is met with shame or disgust depending on circumstances).

But, perhaps this is not sufficient to judge Astley’s morality. From a distance, the trio of Dorahy, Boyd and Lunt might represent the intelligentsia, the media and the common man. Dorahy speaks of morality, but his manifest actions are only in speaking. Boyd, while afraid to rock the boat, has actively done good (taking in the orphan of the incident), and tries to end his career (albeit with little to lose) on a moral note. Lunt is the victim, but he is also a battler clearly written for greatest sympathy. His character is clearest when, invited to take part in the mob, he declines:

“You’ll warn them?” [he is asked]

“I’ll do whatever I think proper.”

“You’ll regret this,” Buckmaster threatened.

“No. You don’t understand,” Lunt said. “You never regret obeying conscience.”

Lunt indeed suffers for his moral choices, and still manages goodwill – righteous vengeance is never his agenda. Perhaps bush lit writers, like school teachers, sit somewhere between the press and the intelligentsia, and this is an exhortation to yet another lumpen ‘other’ to be better (under our hand). Far from being the ‘common man’, Lunt is exceptional, and perhaps the most unlikely, among a slate of characters that are almost caricatures of the familiar.

Indeed, from the awkward sympathy for the subaltern, to the burning of the free press, this town seems familiar in everything but its buggies and traps. Astley captures the tension between those who would celebrate the past and those who would flay it bare. Her conclusion is a simile for the times as bitter and unleavened as anything by Orwell. Our times or hers, or those of the setting, seems to make little difference.

But to read with the righteous anger of Dorahy is only to find part of the truth. I take it as worthwhile reading, but I also see in the constituency of the Country (and I do not mean Australia, but as defined above) much to redeem it. The problems characterised by the incident are real and ongoing: manifest in my class and my colleagues today, but I meet any number of people trying expressly to find their way through. Many of them are Black. Perhaps a hundred years is just too little time.

A Kindness Cup is a passionate and valuable narrative depiction of an Anglo struggle. It is not the whole story, but a fragment. I had expected Australian bush lit to be a foray into something as distant as green Mars, and instead found myself engaged in one of the most vital discussions of our times.

.

Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, first pub. 1974

see also Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)

Drylands, Thea Astley

ANZLitLovers Thea Astley Week, 17-25 Aug. 2020

2888577.jpg

Thea Astley (1925-2004) was one of Australia’s finest and fiercest writers. We can argue at another time whether she belongs in AWW Gen 3 (1919-1960) or Gen 4 (probably the latter). A Queenslander, her concerns were Queensland’s shocking history of Aboriginal oppression and murders, and women’s rights – in this book, the antediluvian attitude of rural Queensland men to their wives.

Astley never actually lived in central Queensland though she seems to know it pretty well. She grew up in Brisabane, lived for a while in the far north, and she surely knows that long train ride up and down the Queensland coast which appears in this and some other of her books.

Drylands, the small dying town hours west of Rockhampton, which is her nominal subject here, is based on Springsure, an hour south of Emerald (which she calls Red Plains). Years ago when I was road training Melbourne – Townsville, I would cross the NSW-Qld border from Bourke and run up through Roma, Injune, Carnarvon Gorge, Rolleston, Springsure, Emerald and on to Charters Towers (map). Good country, heavily treed through the Carnarvon Gorge, but achingly dry as Astley describes it.

I was through there again last year and I’m not sure that Springsure is as small or as near death as the fictional Drylands, but that’s poetic licence. To make sure we know where she’s talking about she mentions the Madonna on the mount (Virgin Rock) – which, like shapes in clouds, is a bit hard to pick out – and the proximity to Carnarvon Gorge.

No more geography. Drylands (1999) was Astley’s last novel and the fourth of her Miles Franklin winners. For the first couple of chapters I thought she was struggling. She starts with the fictional writer writing this work, the go-to cliche of tired postmodernism,

Thinks: I could begin onceupona or manyyearsago or inadistantcountry. It’s been done. I don’t like it. Or a spot of Calvino clutter – no matter how meticulously brilliant – as if some gabmouth has found a defenceless alienist and vacant couch and is determined, the nerd, to fill the poor bastard in on every nuance of landscape, movement, his reactions thereto …

then more or less flings random words at the page before finally settling into some sort of rhythm. The novel proceeds as a series of interconnected stories featuring Janet typing away upstairs from her dying newsagency; not-Franzi Massig, a whistleblower from the south, forced to adopt another man’s name, who squats in a shack by the creek on the land of failing farmer …; Jim Randler who, memories vivid of his one trip to the coast as a boy, decides to build himself a yacht he can live in; Clem and Joss who own the pub, the Legless Lizard, failing despite determined drinkers fed a constant diet of beer and sports; Paddy Locke, the one woman intellectual centre of the town, and sole occupant of the ladies lounge; Benny Shoforth her determinedly peaceful neighbour who has his house resumed by the mayor …; Howie Briceland whose father had taken the opportunity of his wife’s taking the kids for a holiday to rape the 12 year old Aboriginal maid, before packing her off to a reservation where she had and was promptly separated from her baby  … Benny. And so it goes round and round.

There are other women who appear for just one chapter and are harassed and assaulted by men. Eve, contracted by the government to take writing classes to women in the bush, attracts a stalker; Ro, one of the four women in the class, whose farmer husband regards getting his own lunch out of the fridge as a threat to his manhood, and belts Ro in front of the other women to make his point; Lannie, saddled with a husband who needs his ‘quiet time’ and six footballer sons, who walks out, gets committed, and quite enjoys the peace; Joss, co-owner of the pub, who gets chased out of town by two men, who pursue her to the coast when she finds work there.

Drylands is a severely dysfunctional and dying town. I’m sure Astley intends it as a microcosm of all that is wrong with rural Queensland (although she fails to mention widespread illegal land clearing and water theft). What I suspect is that it is also a ‘microcosm’ of a bigger book. That she was too ambitious in what, at 70 years of age, she set out to do. And so we are left with an unsatisfactory framing device; characters who flit in and out with very little meat on their bones; a minimal plot – people get old, or tired, or worn down, and leave or die, Queensland men are bastards, the town dies.

Shabbiness defeated her. The shop. The Town. The empty street outside in the brightening late morning. And in addition the meaningless quality of her years. The victory would be in leaving.

Astley is a better writer than this. Perhaps her MF in this year was a consolation for her missing out three years earlier with The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow. I check what else was shortlisted and see that Drylands was in fact equal winner with Kim Scott’s Benang. I am gobsmacked. The MF judges’ capacity for timid decisions knows no bounds.

 

Thea Astley, Drylands, Penguin, Melbourne, 1999

 

 

Home is where the heart is

Journal: 051

Sunset country

Sunday. Here I am home, so no excuses for not keeping up with your posts, for a week or so anyway. I actually got to the outskirts of Perth last night, but it takes a few hours to run two trailers down to the yard, go back, get the other one, get the ute going, unpack my gear from the truck, and my body seems to prefer Victorian time to WA time, which just makes it all another two hours later, and I was already looking at midnight, so I pulled over, slept one more night in the truck and did it all this morning then wandered over to Milly’s, too late for pancakes but there’s always toast.

She of course wanted to go shopping, so I went home and got cleaned up. We both need new stovetops, mine’s not working at all, Lou making do with the oven and an electric frypan. I think we found what I want. I did the regulation traipsing while she looked at stuff she might want, then diverted her to a local Greek for an excellent lunch – saganaki, honey, walnuts how do I moan in text – (we did eat other stuff as well) and a bottle of white. I’m not properly home till I have that first bottle. I was feeling so mellow I drove half an hour to a native garden centre and helped her spend a couple of hundred hard-earned.

That’s boring I know. Stuff you do all the time. Well all the time there’s not a deadly virus raging through your community. But I spend days and weeks on my own (willingly!), on zero blood alcohol, and boring days doing stuff with Millie, the kids, the grandkids is what I look forward to. And sitting at the computer writing, reading. It might take me a day to talk myself out and after that I’m back to solitary stuff.

The other side of ‘home’ is that this trip, for the first time, I road trained through home territory, Victoria, where I grew up, the last mainland state to hold out. Going over, I dipped a toe in the water and crossed the northern tip, to Mildura, but coming back I went the whole hog, assembled the road train at Charlton north of Bendigo (map), ran straight up the highway through Berriwillock and Sea Lake where mum went to school, and her parents before her, and a cousin still farms, then Ouyen, Underbool, Murrayville, all tiny farming towns where a brother was born, dad taught, I went to school, Sunset country, Mallee country. Home.

My uncle Les, mum’s youngest brother (and father of the cousin who still farms there) ran trucks from the family farm between Berriwillock and Sea Lake, bought his first when he was 20 and I was 16, set me on the path I still follow. He married a year or so later, telling me that if I washed his stock crate I could come to the wedding. I did but Grandma vetoed me. If I came, all the cousins would have to come and there were too many. I’d been at my other uncle’s wedding a few years earlier aged 10 maybe, one of only four or five weddings I’ve been to in my whole life, though for my youngest aunty’s I was stuck in the car with my brothers, outside the church hall, fed sausage rolls through the car window by the ladies of the church auxiliary.

les's truck aaco

Les started off carting sheep. My first job as an owner driver was carting cattle. I ran into him a few times at Newmarket, the Melbourne saleyards across the road from Flemington, posh terrace housing now. I remember telling him one time I’d broken down and he was too busy to stop and help. He took over the family farm and we loss contact except at big family get-togethers but in later years I think his older daughter was happy to take over the tractor work and he ran a few trucks, trading and carting grain. It’s a while now since he died in an accident, but I think of him each time I run up that way, he could have hooked up a couple of trailers behind his biggest Mack and road trained right out the farm gate, and I’m sure he would have.

I should think of dad, too, though he was a very reluctant truck driver. Either the summer before he married mum, or the summer after, Granddad made him get his truck licence so he could take the old ex-army International 7 tonner, rocking and groaning with ten ton of wheat over the dirt roads to the Boigbeat silo, a few miles up the line from Berriwillock where coincidentally I took the ‘sunset’ photo above.

 

Recent audiobooks 

Loren Estleman (F, USA), The Sundown Speech (2016) – Crime
Paolo Bacigalupi (M, USA), Pump Six and other stories (2008) – SF
Erica Wright (F, USA), The Granite Moth (2015) – Crime
Elizabeth Aston (F, Eng), Miss Althea Darcy (2004) – Romance
Dan Simmons (M, USA), Endymion (1996) – SF
Dave Barry (M, USA), Tricky Business (2002) – Crime
Kirstin Chen (F, Sing/USA), Soy Sauce for Beginners (2013)
Will Wiles (M, Eng), Care of Wooden Floors (2012)
Lee Child (M, Eng), The Midnight Line (2017) – Crime

Currently reading

Patrick White, The Cockatoos
Martin Boyd, The Cardboard Crown
Christine Merrill, Regency Liasons. Milly’s working a few days a week at a Red Cross shop and brought this home so of course I started it while she was cooking tea and will finish it before I do anything else. Like choose a book for ANZLL’s Indigenous Literature Week (July 5-12, 2020) for instance.


“Home is where the heart is”. Proverb. Origin uncertain.

Miles Franklin, Majorie Barnard

Miles-Franklin-The-Story-Of-A-Famous-Australian-Marjorie-Barnard-OzSellerFast

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born on her maternal grandmother’s property in the high country of southern NSW in 1879 – there’s a line I could write in my sleep, this might be my 25th Miles Franklin post – after an epic ride by her mother through the snow from the Franklin property at Brindabella, south of present day Canberra, up into the mountains to the Lampe property at Talbingo.

Marjorie Barnard was 18 years younger (ADB). As I wrote a week or two ago, the two met in the early 1930s at the Fellowship of Australian Writers when Franklin returned from years abroad, in Chicago and London, to keep house for her recently widowed mother in Carlton, an inner Sydney suburb, where she stayed for the rest of her life.

Barnard’s Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian was published in 1967, thirteen years after Franklin’s death in 1954, and three years after the release of her papers though she doesn’t appear to have made much use of them. This is a strictly literary biography with some reference to Franklin’s childhood and only such references to Franklin’s years in Chicago and London as Barnard gleaned from conversation with that unreliable witness, Miles Franklin.

The best references for Miles Franklin’s years abroad, apart from Jill Roe’s great work, are Verna Coleman’s Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career (Chicago) and Sylvia Martin’s Passionate Friends (London). Colin Roderick, who did have the advantage of Miles Franklin’s papers – in which he himself appears in a less than glowing light – also wrote an MF biography, though as I’ve written elsewhere, not one worth reading.

Barnard and Franklin moved in the same circles for twenty years so Barnard knew her well and it is this acquaintanceship which informs the biography and Barnard’s reading of MF’s works, rather than any great research.

[Franklin] was spirited and provocative in conversation but her audacity smacked of the 1890’s. All her daring had an antique air. She was, and remained, an enfant terrible. She might have shocked people by her forthrightness fifty years ago. She obviously thought that it would shock them still and felt a little snubbed when it did not.

Because she was vulnerable, Miles was secretive. There were other reasons too. She loved a mystery and used it partly as display and partly as cover… She was fiercely virginal yet even to the end of her life she was habitually flirtatious… She wanted to cut a figure in the world of literature, she wanted to hide… I am tempted to say that, like the spoilt child she once was, she still wanted everything her own way. The child lived on in the woman and was bitterly hurt by life.

All Franklin’s best work is rooted in her adolescence, in her exile from her families’ stations in the high country and in the lives of the men and women of her grandparents’ generation who pioneered that country.

Franklin achieved instant success with My Brilliant Career (1901), wrote two follow-ups in the next couple of years without being published, wrote the mediocre Some Everyday Folk and Dawn (1909) and then as far as Barnard is concerned, disappeared from view for decades.

In fact, Franklin was in the US from 1906 to 1915, where she wrote two books of which Barnard seems entirely unaware The Net of Circumstance (1915) and On Dearborn Street (1981); then in London and Serbia during WWI – which she reported on extensively I think, though again Barnard is unaware, and I’ve seen no evidence that MF ever revisited this writing to have it collected; and then London, with one visit home around 1927, until about 1932 [I’m writing without access to Roe!] when she returned to Sydney for good.

Barnard devotes the first couple of chapters to Franklin’s family and childhood with most of the material drawn from Franklin’s own writing, Childhood at Brindabella (memoir), and My Brilliant Career and Cockatoos (autobiographical fiction). She deals briefly with Franklin’s failure to find a publisher for My Career Goes Bung, and then moves on to the (mistaken) heart of her thesis ‘Thirty Years in Exile’. Barnard looks to Ignez, the heroine of Cockatoos and the absent centre of Back to Bool Bool for an explanation.

The days in [the USA] were, in so far as the development of her special talents were concerned, wasted. She had fallen among reformers, and that for an artist is more fatal than for a merchant to fall among bandits. Her heart was frozen by a secret tragedy. [Back to Bool Bool]

MF did fall among reformers, the National Women’s Trade Union League of America, and had to deal with the tragedies of the loss of her singing voice, which she had hoped to make her first career, and of the death back in Australia of her nearest sister, but she also continued to write both then and in London after the War.

I have written elsewhere that these were her middle years stylistically when she attempted contemporary fiction at which she proved to be less than good. Barnard treats the work written around 1925 and published much later as Prelude to Waking as Franklin’s first attempt at returning to writing after a long hiatus.

Perhaps this book had to be written to get Miles into the habit of writing again. It did not have to be published.

I’m not clear whether by 1967 it was known for sure that Brent of Bin Bin was Miles Franklin. Barnard surmises that ‘he’ was and goes on to analyse in some depth the five books of the Up the Country saga published under the Brent of Bin Bin name, and then the books published under Franklin’s own name: Bring the Monkey, Old Blastus and her crowning achievement, All That Swagger, all written in the space of ten years from 1926 to 1935.

At that point inspiration dried up. There followed her collaboration with Dymphna Cusack, Pioneers on Parade (1939), a biography of Joseph Furphy and a book of essays, Laughter not for a Cage arising out a lecture series at UWA, Perth. Franklin in fact quite often gave public talks in these last 20 years, but her career as a novelist was over.

This is a flawed work, the biographer too close to her subject, but nevertheless probably remains the best and most comprehensive treatment of Franklin’s work.

 

Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin: The Story of a Famous Australian, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1967 (the cover above at the time of writing, is from a UQP reprint, but I will replace it with a photo of the dustjacket of my own first edition when I eventually get home).

For more of my (and other bloggers’) reviews and writing about Miles Franklin go to my Miles Franklin page (here)

The Black Line

TheNightingale2019.jpg

This year’s Anzac Day post was sparked by an argument with my daughter. Psyche and I argue pretty noisily, which was a problem when we were both teenagers (OK, I was 40) and neither was prepared to back off. Not so much now that I’m a bit older. We were watching the Australian movie The Nightingale (2018) and the argument was about whether Aborigines made guerilla attacks on white settlements, as implied by the movie. I said Yes, and she said, No they didn’t she works with and talks with Aboriginal people and they only made reprisals.

School children learn the names of Aboriginal Resistance leaders these days and Perth’s new city square, Yagan Square, is named after one. Another, in the Kimberleys in WA’s north, who came up when I was writing up Kimberley Massacres was Jandamurra. There are others in every state. The page, Aboriginal Resistance (here), lists many instances culled from just a few sources, stating “when this many are seen in such a long list they help to explode the myth that Europeans walked in here and took over without any real resistance” .

The Nightingale is set in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825, only a few years after white settlement began in earnest. A young Irish woman convict, Clare, working as a servant is raped by a British lieutenant and her husband and baby murdered. The lieutenant and a small party head off through the bush towards Launceston pursued by Clare intent on revenge. She secures the assistance of “Billy” an Aboriginal man who speaks perfect English . Billy, real name Mangana, is seeking to rejoin the women of his family who have been taken north. There are more rapes and a lot more bloodshed, and some stuff about the Aboriginal and Irish cases being equivalent. Let’s say 3/5.

So. Time for research. If I were home I’d turn to Henry Reynolds, the historian most responsible for arguing that white settlement involved a series of frontier wars. I have a couple of his books, but here I am in Darwin (or there I was at time of writing).

First, the Black Line.

Prior to European colonisation, there were up to 15,000 Aboriginal people in Tasmania living in nine nations. White settlement began in 1803, and ramped up quickly following the end of the Napoleonic wars. The reaction of the original inhabitants was hostile (unsurprisingly) and by 1824 the two communities were clearly at war. In 1826 all Aborigines were declared to be “insurgents”, meaning they could be shot on sight; in 1828 Governor Arthur declared martial law; and in 1830 he commanded the white community to form a line, the Black Line, across the island in order to drive the remaining Aboriginal population south to the Tasman Peninsula where they could be rounded up and relocated to reserves on islands in Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland)

The community being called upon to act en masse on the 7th October next, for the purpose of capturing those hostile tribes of the natives which are daily committing renewed atrocities upon the settlers … Active operations will at first be chiefly directed against the tribes which occupy the country south of a line drawn from Waterloo Point east, to Lake Echo west …

Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, George Arthur, September 1830

The operation resulted in only two captures and two deaths, but nevertheless had the desired effect of forcing all Aboriginal people off lands claimed by white settlers. (Source: National Museum of Australia, here).

And that brings us to The Conversation, 24 Apr. 2014, Tasmania’s Black War: A Tragic Case of Lest We Remember (here). The author, Nicholas Clements, a researcher with University of Tasmania, believes that the proximate cause of Aboriginal anger was not so much white settlement as the constant taking by white men of Aboriginal women for sex. This accords for instance with the causes given for the killing of whites in my recent post on Kimberley massacres (here).

The toll from eight years of war, the most violent anywhere in Australia, was Colonists: 223 killed, 226 wounded; Aborigines: 306 killed, thousands dead of disease, just 200 survivors remaining to be exiled to Flinders Island.

The National War Memorial, which is happy to memorialize not just two World Wars but our participation in immoral conflicts from the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion to Viet Nam and Iraq, refuses to recognise the combatants on either side of Tasmania’s Black War for the spurious reason that neither side involved ‘Australian’ soldiers.

I’m not sure the War Memorial – which is increasingly being repurposed as a temple to glorify the Nation, rather than to deplore the conflicts to which the division of the world into nations inevitably gives rise – is in any case the appropriate place to confront our bloody history.  But until we, the right as well as the left, do acknowledge our history then there can be no hope of Reconciliation, and today is a good day to remember that.

 

Jennifer Kent writer/director, The Nightingale, 2018. Featuring as Clare: Aisling Franciosi; Mangana: Baykali Ganambarr, an Elcho Is, NT/Galiwinku man

see also: My review of Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows (here)

Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko

40229412. sx318

Miles Franklin Award: read the list of winners and weep. Too Much Lip is not a bad book. Once it got going somewhere after the halfway mark, it even had me interested. But the year’s “novel of the highest literary merit”? What a joke. I have no doubt it was given the award by ABC-quality middle of the road, politically correct judges for exactly the same reason as they awarded The Hand that Signed the Paper, to show how cool they were. They were hip with right wing East Europeans back then – and only back-tracked when the right winger turned out to be an Anglo – and they’re hip with lippy Black women now.

Did the judges who gave Lucashenko last year’s prize even read Gerald Murnane’s A Season on Earth?  Of course they didn’t. They were in too much of a hurry to get back to the latest Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver. The Miles Franklin sad to say has become a reward for story telling and mediocre writing. Look no further than 2014 when Evie Wyld’s All The Birds Singing won ahead of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book which may well be the great Australian novel of the century.

So, Melissa Lucashenko is not literary in the way that Murnane, Wright or Kim Scott are, and she’s not satirical in the way that Marie Munkara is. But she tells a story. She is a Bundjalung woman of the NSW north coast, as is her protagonist Kerry Salter, and the patois in which the book is written is presumably the usual langauge of that people, though I’m guessing Lucashenko is an educated woman, as the patois sometimes feels a bit forced.

At the beginning of the novel, Kerry Salter, a 30ish Aboriginal woman, and her partner in crime and love, Allie have robbed a bank in Qld. Kerry escaped but Allie was arrested and gaoled. Allie feels abandoned and declares the relationship over. Kerry on a stolen Harley Davidson, with a backpack full of money, heads over the border to her family’s country in the hinterland of NSW’s north coast beaches.

Revving the throttle, she looked straight in front of her, down a long gravel driveway to the house that jack shit built. It huddled beneath the spreading arms of a large leopard tree. Same old fibro walls. Same old roof with rust creeping into a few more panels each wet season,

In the house are Kerry’s mother Pretty Mary, a reformed alcoholic; her older brother Ken, once a fine athlete, now an unemployed drunk, prone to unpredictable violence; his anorexic, teenage son Donny, who lives mostly in his computer games; Pop, her grandfather, dying now, a former Golden Gloves boxer and farm worker for the Nunnes, the original white settlers; and Elvis, their old dog. Kerry has other siblings, Black Superman a gay civil servant in Sydney, and Donna who went missing aged 16 20 years earlier and who has never been found. And there are various Uncles, Aunties and cousins in the surrounding towns.

There’s a silly plot: Jim Buckley the local real estate developer and mayor, sees the backpack on the back of Kerry’s bike and takes it for himself. Kerry stays on at her mother’s but despite being stoney broke makes very little attempt to get it back. There’s the central plot: Buckley has rezoned land he owns so that a prison can be built on it. The land for the prison is adjacent to a bend in the river and an island that has always been regarded by the Salters as their own. The race is on to get the surrounding land recognised under Native Title law or to get Buckley indicted for corruption before clearing commences. And there’s a parallel plot, Martina has been transferred from Sydney to work in Buckley’s real estate office. Martina was ambitious and successful in Sydney, but there’s another reason she’s unhappy to be transferred up north.

And of course there’s a love interest plot. Steve, a former shy, skinny schoolmate of Kerry’s now has the whole six-pack thing and is back in town to open a gym. Kerry, who forgets that she prefers women, and Martina, both get the hots for him.

This all takes a while to pull together, and there’s other stuff, a friendly local cop, the bogan white family next door, Pop’s funeral, Pretty Mary’s fortune telling. The novel gathers strength in the second half as the various plots come together, and as the effects of past traumas, White on Black, Black on Black, are seen to play out.

I have no doubt that the detail of Aboriginal lives lived on the outskirts of town, and the language used to express it, is authentic, but that doesn’t make it literary. In the end, Too Much Lip is not much more than just another middle of the road small town family drama.

 

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much Lip, UQP, Brisbane, 2018

Other (more positive) Reviews:
Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here)
Kim, Reading Matters (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)

Road Training

Journal: 043

20200215_053613

Many years ago, 35 or so, I was a manager with Fleetxpress, then Australia’s fourth largest transport company and, coincidentally the owner of Luya Julius, a major presence in Qld, started by my great great great grandfather. After giving up truck driving and moving Milly and the kids to Melbourne I was out of work when they employed me as a salesman in Taxi Trucks. When that division was shortly after sold and I was to be made redundant I pointed out to the MD that I was their only employee outside of Accounts with a degree. He put me into Car Carrying as acting State Manager, I dumped the Ford account which was losing money and saved the GMH account, for the cartage of all Holdens throughout Australia, by introducing computerised vehicle tracking.

Unfortunately my complete absence of people skills was already evident and although I set up the new National Car Carrying division, I ended up as National Admin Manager under a newly employed GM. A year or so later Fleetxpress was taken over, I didn’t hit it off with the new owners and I began a decade or so as an independent computer programmer.

Which is by way of saying that I was at the company which introduced B Doubles into Australia (in SA), and got back into trucking just as they were becoming entrenched – was in that last group of drivers able to transition their licences from Heavy Vehicle to Multi Combination without doing the course and the test.

At the turn of this century it was ‘apparent’ that the future lay with B Triples which were then running on a test basis between Geelong and Melbourne and Melbourne and Sydney. I wandered off to WA for 17 years and was considerably surprised on my return to the eastern states to find that they were now giving permits to old fashioned road trains (A trains) and that B Triples were less preferred, especially in Victoria.

This year I have upgraded my own B Double to a B Triple but am struggling to get a permit to cross northern Victoria which is automatic for A trains. Going over last trip I detoured north via Broken Hill, came down to Wentworth and then ran along north of the river (along the Edwards River in fact) to Moama/Echuca, 200 km north of Melbourne, where I broke up to enter Vic. (Map 1)

Coming home I had to do a pick up in Adelaide which meant hooking up at Moama, and then breaking up again to do the 150km between Mildura and the SA border (that is, I had to do the 150 km 3 times – over, back and over). But from there it was a nice run through Loxton and Waikerie right into Adelaide’s northern industrial suburbs, then home (Map 2).

Waking up on Saturday morning in Waikerie, which I haven’t been through for many years, I found I was parked, on bitumen now, exactly where 45 years earlier I had broken down in my old Atkinson, had stripped the motor down in the dust beside the road, to fit a new piston (see The Grapes of Wrath), stripped it down again when I realised the big end bearing shells were coated with sand, then driven off without the sump plug in properly, remembered in time to save the motor, walked back into town where the best replacement I could get was the small bung of a 44 gal drum (200l or 50 US gal.s), siliconed it into place where it stayed until the next and last time, when that poor old girl finally gave up the ghost (her name was Miss Take, but I never did get it painted on).

Atkinson Near Benalla Sep 75

Of course, I’m really just making excuses for not having read or reviewed … anything at all for the best part of a month. Hopefully I won’t get any more work until after this weekend and so will get The Passing of the Aborigines out of the way, as well as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones which took up a whole trip, Friday till Monday, all that roundabout way from Melbourne to Perth.

Recent audiobooks 

Edith Wharton (F, USA), A Son at the Front (1923)
Jeff van der Meer, (M, USA), Annihilation (2014) SF
Anne Tyler (F, USA), Ladder of Years (1995)
Henry David Thoreau (M, USA), Walden (1854)
Anne Stuart (F, USA), Never Trust a Pirate (2013) Rom.
Lee Child (M, Eng), The Affair (2011) Crime
Dorothy B Hughes (F, USA), The Fallen Sparrow (1942)
Henry Fielding (M, Eng), Tom Jones (1749)
Emily Gould, (F, USA), Friendship (2014)
JD Robb (F, USA), Kindred in Death (2009) SF/Crime
Sayed Kashua  (M, Palestine), Let it be Morning (2006)
Marion Chesney (F, Eng), The Viscount’s Revenge (1983) Rom.
Elizabeth Aston (F, Eng), The Darcy Connection (2008) Rom.
Piper Kerman, (F, USA), Orange is the New Black (2010) Mem.
Andrea Camilleri (M, Ita), The Overnight Kidnapper (2015) Crime
Douglas Adams &  (M, Eng), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978) BBC radio SF
Peter Fitzsimmons (M, Aus), Eureka (2012) The author’s breathless anticipation every other paragraph left me unexcited. DNF
Sofie Laguna (F, Aus), The Eye of the Sheep (2014) DNF
Daniel H Wilson (M, USA), Robopocalypse (2011) SF
Boris Akunin (M, Rus), The Winter Queen (1998) Crime/His.Fic.

Boris Akunin is the pen name Russian writer Grigori Chkhartishvili uses for his Historical Crime Fiction. Under his own name Chkhartishvili is apparently well known for his work in Japanese. I just want to point out that Bakunin was a famous Russian anarchist and that the author is probably having a little joke here: “Akunin” (悪人) is a Japanese word that translates to “great bad man”. In his novel The Diamond Chariot, the author redefines an “akunin” as a great evil man who creates his own rules (Wikipedia).

Currently Reading

Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines
Jane Palmer, The Planet Dweller
Jane Palmer, Moving Moosevan
Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island
Chris Owen, Every Mother’s Son is Guilty
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

Daisy Bates

Image result for daisy bates

Daisy Bates was probably the best-known Australian woman of the first half of the C20th, that is, her name was, but very little was known about her – just that she was an old woman who wore C19th dresses and lived in a tent in the Aboriginal community at Ooldea, a rail siding way, way out in the Nullarbor, in western South Australia.

There was a rail siding at Ooldea for the same reason as there were Aborigines – there was a permanent soak, the only fresh water for a very great distance, which the railways commandeered for their steam locomotives.

With this post I will reprise Bates’ biography from my thesis (Lisa, who has already read it, is given leave to stop here). And with my next I will review the collection of articles which, with the unacknowledged assistance of Ernestine Hill, was published as The Passing of the Aborigines (1944). My principal source is Elizabeth Salter’s Daisy Bates (1971).

I own and have read the de Vries ‘biography’ but it is a journalistic nonsense hanging off the revelation of Daisy’s marriage to Breaker Morant. If I met her, I would ask de Vries one question: If Bates had the poor start you make out, then how did she later have the money to buy the lease of a cattle station? The money can only have been the remnants of her inheritance from her father. However, I don’t deny that, throughout her life, Daisy told a great many falsehoods about her antecedents.


Daisy May O’Dwyer (1859-1951) was of the minor Irish (protestant) gentry. Her mother died early (in 1862) and Daisy was mainly brought up by relatives, in particular her Grandmother Hunt, and it was on her grandmother’s property in rural Roscrea where she was mostly in the care of her illiterate and superstitious (and Catholic) nanny that she mixed freely with the rural poor who, in the years after the Great Famine were still living lives not only of intense physical poverty but also of great spiritual richness, that, years later, she said enabled her to emphasize with and share the lives of Australian Aborigines.

She eventually, somehow, received a good education, not staying long at any school but guided by her father in her reading, particularly Dickens, and later touring Europe with the family of Sir Francis Outram, learning grammar, languages and manners with their governess. In 1883 her father died, leaving her a small inheritance, and she, like a great many of her countrymen, chose to emigrate, in her case to Australia, to another friend of her father’s, Bishop Stanton in Townsville, Queensland.

Some time in her first year in Australia she took a position as governess on a station near Charters Towers, where she probably married Edward Henry Murrant (the famous Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant). She may also, the following year, have married Ernest Baglehole a well-born seaman whom she had met on the voyage out, and further, by her own account was also in the same year to have married Phillip Gibbs, who inconveniently died. In any case she subsequently – and probably bigamously – married Jack Bates, a drover, in 1885 and by him, a year later, had a son, Arnold. And that was the end of intimacy, ‘“I had rather a hard time of it with the baby,” she is reported as saying, “and Jack, the best of men, never came near me after that.”’

She and Bates persevered for a number of years, thinking, or hoping, that he would use her money to establish a cattle property suitable to her station, but Bates, an archetypal ‘lone hand’, was, perhaps not surprisingly, happier to be away droving. Daisy would sometimes go with him, travelling throughout the backblocks of eastern Australia and learning the bush skills that stood her in such good stead in later life. But, by 1894 she had had enough. She placed Arnold in a Catholic boarding school and set sail for London.

There, near destitute due to the property crash and bank failures of 1892, Daisy was doubly lucky to be taken up by the philanthropist W.T. Stead, for he not only found her a place in a home for penurious gentlewomen, but gave her a job on his journal Review of Reviews and so introduced her to journalism which was to provide much of her income for the rest of her life. She stayed at the Review for two years, starting off by dusting the library and learning to type and ending as assistant to the (lady) editor of Borderland, a journal of spiritualism. Although the circles she moved in included both spiritualism and women’s emancipation she was impressed by neither.

In 1897 she took another library position in Norfolk where she mixed with the county set and, apparently accepted as a widow, and with introductions from one of her innumerable upper class cousins, she attended weekend house parties, “hunting and shooting” during the day and dancing at night. At least two men she stayed with, Richard Attwater of Ratfin Hall and Carrick O’Bryen Hoare, were sufficiently taken with her to propose marriage, but in 1899 her bank offered to refund her a shilling in the pound (ie. one twentieth of her nominal deposits), Jack wrote to say he and Arnold were in Western Australia looking for a property in the newly opened up North West and Daisy sailed for Perth. Two years later, the property finally purchased, Daisy named it Glen Carrick, in remembrance no doubt of all she had given up.

Although she later claimed to be a correspondent for The Times, the more likely story is that she contacted The Times and offered to write them an account of clashes in WA between settlers and aborigines, which she finally did in 1904. Daisy was certainly interested enough to obtain an introduction to a scientist in London knowledgeable about WA and, through him, an introduction to the elderly Catholic priest and champion of the Aborigines, Dean Martelli who was returning to Perth on the same ship.

In Perth she moved in the upper levels of society, she gave lectures at, and was accepted into the Karrakatta Club, was invited by club members, Perth’s principal matrons, into their homes, attended Government House, and was persuaded by the Premier, John Forrest, of the necessity of recording the languages and customs of the aborigines before they died out.

Meanwhile, Jack’s mentor, Sam McKay of Roy Hill Station in the Pilbara, had found Jack 180,000 acres of leasehold, good cattle country which he would help finance. Daisy sailed north to Cossack (present day Karratha) to meet Jack and made with him a remarkable journey inland by buggy through rugged country to the new ‘Glen Carrick’, at Ethel Creek, near Jigalong, Martu country, then back across the plains to the coast at Carnarvon (a round trip of at least 1,000 kms (map)), writing up her observations for the Journal of Agriculture, including detailed accounts of the local Aborigines.

Her next journey was even more remarkable. Martelli had introduced her to Bishop Gibney who was famous for his struggles on behalf of the Aborigines, and she persuaded Gibney to take him with her to a Trappist mission at Beagle Bay near Broome, 8,000 acres which was meant to be a model farm for the local Aborigine community. Daisy stayed 3 months, helping the Bishop bring the farm up to scratch for renewal of the lease, and her writings of their progress were taken up not only by Australian but by London newspapers.

With no stock and no house on Glen Carrick, Bates took a position as manger on a station, Roebuck Plains, near Broome where Daisy joined him and was able to indulge her new – and lifelong – enthusiasm, documenting and, more importantly, being accepted by, the Aborigines, and becoming an honorary correspondent of the Anthropological Institutions of England and Australia. After a season at Roebuck Plains, the Bates decided to take advantage of high cattle prices in the south by buying and droving 770 head of cattle, to Perth, resting en route at Glen Carrick and leaving enough cattle there to form the basis of their own herd. The West Australian described it as “one of the most arduous trips that any lady has undertaken and … what must be a record in the endurance of the “weaker” sex.” Unfortunately, the 200 head intended for Glen Carrick were lost, and the Bates effectively separated, more or less for good.

For the next couple of years Daisy worked as a journalist, travelling throughout Western Australia. Importantly, in 1904 she wrote to The Times (London) defending pastoralists against charges of exploiting the blacks, cementing her acceptance by officialdom as an authority on all things Aboriginal and in May that year she was appointed by the Registrar General to record the customs and dialects of the Aboriginal population “before they died out”. For a year, she worked from an office compiling reports collected by officials throughout Western Australia, then, taking advantage of some remaining Noongar being encamped at Cannington, a swampy area a few miles south of Perth, she was, reluctantly, permitted by the authorities to camp with them, which she did, in a tent ‘fourteen feet in diameter’, for the next six years (here). During this period, she wrote and rewrote her grammars, corresponded indefatigably with anthropologists interstate and overseas, and published popular articles in the local papers, all the while struggling with the government for ongoing support.

In 1910, almost ready to publish her formal study, she was persuaded to join a major expedition by Oxford and Cambridge Universities, under the leadership of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (later Australia’s first professor of Anthropology at Sydney University) and, inevitably, her ‘amateur’ work was subsumed into his and the opportunity for publication was lost.

In 1912, she applied for the position of Protector of the Aborigines for the Northern Territory, for which she was unsuccessful ‘as the risks involved would be too great for a woman’. Instead, and somewhat inconsistently, she was offered the, unpaid, position of honorary protector for the district of Eucla in South Australia. In November she put her property up for sale and moved to a station near Eucla, initially staying with friends, then camping once more, on the edge of the town, venturing out into the desert for days at a time with Aboriginal companions, on horseback and by camel-drawn buggy, exploring and hunting wild dogs. Already well known throughout the country due to her both own and other journalists’ reports of her activities, she now became famous, and then a ‘legend’. That is, the ‘idea’ of Daisy Bates developed a life of its own.

After the war (WWI) she moved to Ooldea, a fettlers’ camp and water stop for steam trains on the newly completed Trans Australia railway, where she was to stay for the next 16 years, all her money gone, an object of curiosity to passengers, with no hope of official support, but still, determinedly, writing up her observations.

Ernestine Hill, who sought her out in 1932, wrote:

Living unafraid in the great loneliness, chanting in those corroborees it is death for a woman to see, she had become a legend, to her own kind… To the natives, she is an age-old, sexless being who knows his secrets and guesses his thoughts – Dhoogoor of the dream-time. (Hill 1937, p.252)

Following Hill’s visit, and her widely syndicated articles, Daisy began, slowly, to benefit from her renown, she was asked to Canberra to advise the government (her suggestion of a huge reservation for the remaining Blacks with a white administrator from Britain, “an Anglican and a gentleman”, was not taken up), she was awarded a CBE, and some of her papers were sold to state and national libraries. Although she refused all requests to collaborate with ‘real’ anthropologists, in 1934 Hill persuaded Daisy to work with her on the series of articles eventually published as The Passing of the Aborigines.

For four years Daisy worked to prepare her papers, 94 folios in all, for the national library, for the pittance of £2 a week, living in a tent north of Adelaide, and then, 80 years old, half blind with sandy blight, and with the nominal title of Consultant for Native Affairs, she returned to camp life near Ooldea. In 1945 she was admitted to Port Augusta hospital suffering from malnutrition. She struggled for a few more years in Adelaide and Streaky Bay to obtain funding for further publications but in 1948 she was admitted to a convalescent home, and on 18th April 1951 aged 91 or 92 she died.

Miles Franklin and her Sybyllas and Eve Langley’s Steve represent the ‘pure’ form of the Independent Woman, but Daisy Bates with her love affairs, her unsatisfactory marriage, her tremendous feats of endurance in the Bush and, above all, her fierce resolve to forge her own path, represents not only the ‘real’ Independent Woman but surely also one of the finest examples of the Australian Legend, man or woman.

 

References and other reading:
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1944
Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates,  Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1971
Sussanah de Vries, Desert Queen, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2008
Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1945
Ventured North by Train and Truck (here)
Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)
The Breaker, Kit Denton (here)
The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)