The Glass Canoe, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin

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

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


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

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

In the Mist of the Mountains, Ethel Turner

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

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


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

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

Billabong series, Mary Grant Bruce

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Want to know more?

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

 

The Legend of the Nineties, Vance Palmer

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

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Sisters in law have their uses. Millie’s youngest sister on a visit from Sydney over the New Year was sorting through the bottom shelf, the junk shelf of the bookcase in Psyche’s old room and came across not just the last extant copy of my dissertation but my long missing First Edition copy of Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties (1954).

This is not just an important book in the history of ideas about what it is to be Australian, but a gorgeous book of nearly A4 (I guess Quarto) size on gloss paper and with one or two illustrations on every page. Palmer begins …

… there has grown up a legend of the Australian nineties as a period of intense artistic and political activity, in which the genius of this young country had a brief and brilliant first flowering. Something new, it is claimed, emerged into the light. A scattered people, with origins in all the corners of the British Islands and in Europe, had a sudden vision of themselves as a nation, with a character of their own and a historic role to play, and this vision set fruitful creative forces in motion.

Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend, arising out of his PhD thesis, was published four years later. So clearly this idea of the 1890s as a period of revolution in Australians’ idea of themselves was ‘in the air’, and of course we achieved federation and (limited) independence from England on 1 Jan 1901. However, Palmer argues that:

The truth seems to be that the various impulses, ideas, and aspirations that made up the Australian dream cannot be limited to a particular decade. They sought expression, in one form or another, during the whole period from Eureka [1854] to the First World War…

If the nineties have seemed to stand out with special prominence it is partly because of the lively journalism that flourished at their beginning: weeklies like the Bulletin, the Boomerang, the Worker gave a suggestion that the national mind was in ferment as never before.

The very first subject Palmer deals with is White Australia, the fears rational or otherwise raised by the influx of Chinese onto the gold fields – “by the end of the fifties, in Victoria, one adult male in every seven was a Chinaman”, and the complete exclusion from consideration of Aborigines –

This culture, this imaginative life, had so little concrete form, was so much a matter of primitive habits and observances, that it had small chance of being taken seriously by people whose minds were preoccupied with a particular kind of progress.

But that is also the last he has to say (about Aborigines – our preoccupation with the “yellow hordes” remained front and centre).

For all its ‘leadership’ in democracy, Australians and their politicians were largely uncaring of the freedoms they had obtained more or less by accident – “the democratic forms that were taken for granted had not, like the Americans, a philosophic base.” But whether or not he could express it, the ordinary working man felt free. “The People in Australia breathes free,” wrote one English observer in the 1880s, “It does not feel the weight of the two great divisions of the middle class that are above it: the well-to-do and the gentle folk. Workmen here do not go slouching down the streets as they do in England, crushed under the sense of their inferiority.”

Palmer believes that the ordinary working Australian, as a type, began to appear as early as the 1820s and 30s. Visitors observed that locally born children were taller and hardier than their parents; the custom of a man ‘taking the track’ always throwing in his lot with a mate was well established; as was the custom – commented on often by Miles Franklin – of feeding passing travellers. “So we find, in less than a couple of generations after the first landing, a national type appearing …”

The Legend began in the Bush because the (white) men there were one people, unified by common experience and by the constant movement throughout the interior of livestock and workers. The cities, although more populous, were stratified by wealth and class, unionism didn’t take as well even in the manufacturing centre, Melbourne; and there was no commonality of purpose between the classes.

That the great bulk of Australia’s arable land, up until the Land Acts of the 1860s, was divided into the enormous runs of the squatters meant that by necessity the bulk of the rural workforce was itinerant, their myth making oral, almost entirely through ballads and tall stories, long lost even before the turn of the century. When Banjo Paterson began collecting ballads the earliest dated back only to the 1860s and the famous bushrangers: Ben Hall, Harry Power, Ned Kelly.

Compulsory schooling meant that by the 90s literacy was widespread; and newspapers and magazines circulated freely. “A great deal of the importance of myths, it must be insisted, lies in the way they reveal values actually held by their makers.” In the 1890s the myths of the Bush were circulated in written ballads, but still the old ways held. Miles Franklin recounts in the semi-autobiographical Cockatoos that young men into town for the Show would stand around a fire each waiting to recite his scrap of Paterson or Adam Lindsay Gordon.

Of the weeklies mentioned above, the Boomerang and the Worker were founded by William Lane, who with 800 followers, the cream of the recently-quashed union movement according to Palmer, sailed to found the utopian New Australia in Paraguay in 1893. That left the Bulletin under JF Archibald to become the bushman’s bible.

The Bulletin … stood for a republican form of government; payment of members; one person, one vote; state revenue derived directly from the land; complete secularization of education; reform of the criminal code and the prison system; a united Australia and protection against the world. It denounced religious interference with politics, foreign titles, the Chinese, and imperial federation.

Archibald’s greatest gift was “discovering men of talent”. Palmer, despite being married to one of the greatest, makes no mention of women of talent.

For some years Archibald’s Bulletin was to act as the chief instrument for expressing and defining the national being.

This is more a history of the period rather than of the development of the Legend, which is probably why Russell’s work continues to have relevance while Palmer’s does not. He spends a chapter considering the writers and painters of the Bulletin:

… the liveliness and importance of the early balladists and short story writers is not to be judged by the absolute value of their work… Archibald’s Bulletin was planned as a unity: one item gave support to another … The result was something unique in journalism, a paper that rippled with gaiety, democratic feeling, masculine humour …

In 1893 AG Stephens came to the paper, and his ‘Red Page’ became an important showcase for Australian writing. Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson who wrote for the Bulletin from the earliest days, and later Joseph Furphy and Steele Rudd, and all the other now forgotten or anonymous contributors embodied in their ballads and stories all the important elements of the myth of the Lone Hand, the Australian bushman – strength, independence, mateship, laconic humour (and of course the complete absence of women).

The final chapters discuss politics, the rise of organized labour, the even more effective rise of employer organizations (plus ça change etc.), the land bubble, banking failures, Federation.

In the interior there was little talk of federation but the essential unity of Australia as a country with common interests was taken for granted: in the capital cities, federation was discussed as an important issue, but it was regarded as an alliance between countries foreign to one another and having rival economies.

After discussing the great Queensland shearer’s strike of 1891, in which armed soldiers protected non-union labour, Palmer writes that

political democracy had not been fully achieved, there was a breach between Government and the mass of the people, particularly the workers. Even among those who had no sympathy with the strikers there was an uneasy feeling that the Government had come to the aid of the employers in a way that could not be justified …

Palmer finally returns to the Legend in his conclusion:

From the sketches of countless occasional writers of the eighties and nineties, as well as from the more permanent work of Lawson and Furphy, a special type emerged – a laconic but sociable fellow with his own idiom and his own way of looking at things. He had humour of a dry sardonic kind, a sensitive spirit with a tough covering, initiative and capacity that were qualified by ‘near enough’ standards of achievement…

A tradition of democratic writing was thus established, and it has not been lost, for it is strongly marked in the Australian novel and short story of today.

Vance Palmer (1885-1959) grew up in rural Queensland and began writing at the end of the period he describes here. He became a respected though now largely neglected novelist and alongside Nettie (his wife), was at the heart of Australian writing for decades. How he then manages to completely overlook women’s writing is beyond me.

 

Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, Curry O’Neill Ross, Melbourne, 1954.
Cover: Detail from Princes Bridge (1908) by Frederick McCubbin*


*”Frederick McCubbin painted [the] oil sketch, Triumphal Arch at Princes Bridge, Melbourne in 1901, possibly during the procession. In May the grand ceremony of the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament took place and this temporary arch was created for the triumphal procession of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.” (NGA)


related posts:
Bohemians at the Bulletin, Norman Lindsay (here)
Poetry Slam, Lawson v Paterson (here)
My Henry Lawson, Bertha Lawson (here)
In Search of Steele Rudd, Richard Fotheringham (here)
The Drover’s Wife, Frank Moorhouse (here)
Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer (here)
Louisa, Brian Matthews (here)
Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin (coming!)

The Pioneers, Katharine Susannah Prichard

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

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Lisa at ANZLitLovers has already put up a review for AWW Gen 2 Week. She makes some important points discussing the different ways this important first novel from KSP can be categorised.


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Bill is hosting AWW Gen 2 over at The Australian Legend, and The Pioneers is the book I promised to read for this important literary week in the Australian Literary calendar. Bill defines this second generation of Australian writing as the period between 1890 and 1918.  To my surprise I didn’t have a single book by a woman writer for that period, so I decided to chase up Katharine Susannah Prichard’s output for these years and found her debut novel The Pioneers. Read on …

 

Cake in the Hat Box, Arthur Upfield

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Coming out of Albury last trip, west along the Murray Valley Highway, which follows the river along the Victorian side, I stopped at Strathmerton to check my load and found myself opposite both an op shop and a patisserie. The combination was irresistible and I soon found myself with a cauliflower pie and another Western Australian Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte novel.

Cake in the Hat Box (1955) is set in the Kimberleys, in WA’s North West, rugged, tropical cattle grazing country. Unlike Mr Jelly’s Business (review) which is set in a real town where the author worked in the 1930s, the setting for this story is a fictional settlement, Agar’s Lagoon, maybe based on Durack which marks the turn-off from the ‘Great Northern Highway’, in those post WWII days a primitive dirt track, to the port of Wyndham.

I’ve only been to the very north of WA a couple of times – something I hope to rectify in the coming years – but the descriptions of country sound authentic and Upfield’s ADB entry says, “In 1948 he led a 5000-mile (8047 km) expedition through the Kimberleys, Western Australia, for the Australian Geographical Society.”

The murder at the centre of this novel is that of a policeman found dead in his Landrover on a remote road. His Aboriginal companion (‘black tracker’), Jackie Musgrave, who is missing, is the initial suspect. However, Boney believes that he is dead and explicitly leaves his murder to be discovered and punished by his fellows, the Musgrave mob who live to the south, in the desert. The Aborigines around Agar’s are of a different language group and ‘belong’ to the various stations – one of the principal characters says that her Aborigines are as much the property of the station as the cattle.

The AITSIS map (here) shows just how many language groups there are in the East Kimberley, and the book Two Sisters which I reviewed (here) some time ago gives an account of Aborigines, Walmajarri people, moving out of the desert, although a bit to the west of this story, and onto the stations.

I like Boney mysteries, and have listened to so many that I was unable to read this one without hearing the mellifluous Humphrey Bower in my head. However, as I have said before, Upfield is not free of the racism of his time, and that is particularly true of this story where the mainly white principal characters are interacting all the time with Aborigines.

Sam left the seaport of Wyndham on August 16th, his six-wheeler loaded with ten tons of stores for stations south of Agar’s Lagoon. For ten miles the track was almost level as it crossed the flats south of Wyndham, a ship sailing on a sea of grass as yellow and as tall as ripe wheat. Thereafter it proceeded up an ever-narrowing valley between flat-topped ranges sparsely covered with stunted scrub and armoured with red and grey granite. The ranges merged into a maze with walls a thousand feet high, and the surface of the track was of loose stone and slate, level at no place for more than ten feet.

Gotta love a good trucking quote! Later, an old station owner describes how he used a wagon drawn by 52 donkeys to get over the range. Sam discovers Constable Stenhouse who has been shot dead and reports the death in Agar’s, where fortuitously Boney has been held up on his way home from Broome to Queensland. Stenhouse, married to a local girl, had been a notorious wife beater:

‘Wife got knocked round a bit. She was only two hands high, and couldn’t take it. If she’d been my sister, Stenhouse would have been sitting dead in his jeep years ago.’

Though the speaker goes on:

‘Fair’s fair, I reckon. A good belting don’t do any woman any harm, but no woman is expected to take punches from a bloke like Stenhouse.’

In fact Stenhouse’s wife had died of her beatings some years earlier and now her brother, a cattleman, is the principal suspect for the murder of her husband. Boney does a tour of the neighbouring properties; the ‘Musgrave mob’, never seen except for their smoke signals, come looking for Jackie; we meet some interesting people, White and Black; and a conclusion is soon reached.

But to to return to my argument, the best you can say about Upfield’s views, here expressed by Boney, is “patronising”:

‘Those aborigines have many traits similar to dogs … They’re full of knowledge and helpful in their own country, and are nervous and suspicious when away from it. We feed them and clothe them and we bring them to understand enough of our language to communicate. They smoke our tobacco and ride our horses, many of them drive our cars and trucks, and are able to repair windmills and pumps.

‘Nevertheless, they retain their tribal customs and cling to inherited instincts and convictions. They are loyal to white men living for a long time in their own locality, and suspicious of all others… Be patient. A thousand years are as nothing in this timeless land, and when the last aboriginal sinks down to die, despite the veneer imposed on him by our civilization, he will be the same man as were his forebears ten thousand years ago.

After that, should you read it? My answer is a qualified yes.

The mystery is well done, with the right number of red herrings, and Boney is an engaging character. The landscape of the Kimberleys is spectacular and Upfield describes it well, as he does the male-dominated drinking culture. Ernestine Hill provides similar descriptions, a couple of decades earlier, in her travelogue, The Timeless Land, which no doubt Upfield had read, and she actually hitched a lift with (famous station owner) Michael Durack in this area. Northern Australia is still racist, in a mostly off-hand way (ie. murder is now frowned on, though there are still ‘deaths in custody’) so the depiction of White attitudes is not so wide of the mark. The description of Aboriginal activities is probably accurate, and to a large extent, sympathetic, but Upfield’s descriptions of Aboriginal motivations are inherently racist and should be discounted.

 

Arthur Upfield, Cake in the Hat Box, first pub. 1955. My edition (pictured) Pan Books, London, 2nd printing 1966.