All That Swagger, Miles Franklin

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Angus & Robertson 1952 ed.

By the 1930s Miles Franklin, in her fifties, was at last established as a writer, both in her own mind with the relative success of the first three Brent of Bin Bin novels published in 1928, 1930 and 1931, and with the publication, under her own name for the first time since 1909, of Old Blastus of Bandicoot in 1931. Permanently back in Sydney from years overseas in Chicago and London, as “spinster-daughter-cum-housekeeper” in her mother’s house in Carlton (Jill Roe’s words) she was also a leading member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers – with Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson – and was often called on to give talks.

In her last years in London Franklin had written two ‘Mayfair’ novels. One eventually came out in 1950 as Prelude to Waking (by Brent of Bin Bin), the other, Bring the Monkey, was published in 1933 but sold only a few hundred copies. This marked the end of an excursion into writing about town-based women, her lived experience since the turn of the century. She had already returned to the Bush where her heart had always been with Brent of Bin Bin, but All That Swagger was to be her great triumph.

Jill Roe believes that this was the book Franklin had to write. The trigger was the death of her father – the novel is a fictionalized account of her Franklin grandfather’s pioneering exploits – but Miles “seized upon the Franklin experience over time as the perfect vehicle for what she wanted to say about contemporary Australia, with its still-uncertain culture and fragile environment.”

Ignoring her commitments to publishers Blackwood for another Brent of Bin Bin novel – Mary Fullerton was told to tell Blackwood that ‘William Blake’ (Brent) was probably in the United States – it took her only a few months, to Aug. 1933, to knock out a rough draft of 400 odd pages and two more to come up with a first typescript.

I have written before that Franklin gave up on her feisty independent heroines to write a novel that men would approve of – though I can’t find any evidence that she ever said this out loud – a story of men taming the Bush, mainstream Oz Lit, and when the novel came out in 1936 they did approve and were at last willing to praise her.

The saga begins in the 1830s in County Clare, Ireland. Free-thinking (ie. non-religious) Danny Delacy, whose Trinity College-educated father runs a small school, persuades Catholic Johanna, the daughter of the local ‘squire’, to elope with him to Australia.

Danny gains employment with a squatter on the Goulburn plains (inland of Sydney) but he is determined to be a land owner and all the best land is taken. Eventually he is assisted by his employer to take up a “sliver of land” on the Murrumbidgee.* “The new place was called Bewuck by the blacks for the hauls of cod they caught in the fish hole, almost in front of the homestead.”

The land is heavily treed and must be cleared. “Guarding the illusive land were throngs of giants – the stateliest trees on the globe. Delacy was like an ant in the aisles of box trees and towering river gums, but he attacked them as an army.” Johanna makes the best of her primitive house and begins having children. Although Franklin’s stories generally include a central matriarch, Johanna, while fitting the bill, takes second place to Danny.

Later in the novel as Johanna dies and Danny declines into old age the spotlight shifts not to their sons, and certainly not except briefly to their daughters, but to their grandchildren, cousins Clare Margaret and Darcy, both surrogates for Franklin herself. Clare Margaret the idealised bushwoman Franklin might have been had her father remained in the mountains; and Darcy, whose ineffective cow cocky father and domineering disappointed mother enable Franklin to express her unhappiness with her own situation both growing up and now, at her mother’s beck and call.

The Brent of Bin Bin novels are based on Miles’ mother’s family who had extensive holdings in and around Talbingo on the opposite, western slopes of the Australian Alps. The Franklin family appear in these novels as the Milfords, and Agnes ‘Ignez’ Milford is effectively Miles herself. As far as I can see though, the Milfords and the Delacys, both fictional, both based on the Franklins, have completely separate stories (I expected bits of Up the Country and Ten Creeks Run to cross over into All That Swagger but it doesn’t happen).

Although squatting was by the 1840s technically illegal, the NSW government took no action other than to charge an annual fee and to mandate that small parcels of land must be released to settlers. Danny aspires to virgin land in the Alps –

He could never ascend from his gorges to the higher land of Quebarra or Glenties without exalted emotion. He would gaze towards the Australian Alps and collaterals, extending for eighty or a hundred miles around the translucent horizon, and feel as a poet drinking from the fountain of inspiration. There lay a land to be wrought to the heart’s desire. With this attitude of the visionary was interwoven the need for energetic action. In the rare moments when he sat with Johanna before retiring he talked of going up the Murrumbidgee with his surplus stock and settling in a valley the blacks called Burrabinga.

Miles Franklin has her shortcomings and this novel is just a straight recounting of one family’s beginnings, generating little narrative tension. But Danny and his mates, fellow struggling squatter Sandy Urquhart and publican Hennessy, his sons Robert, William and Harry are all well realised, as are Johanna and her older daughter Della. There are many supporting characters, so many that following marriage prospects and side stories – for instance that of Bella Rafferty who rises from a hovel to become first a servant then wife of a squatter – is hard work. Later generations, around Margaret Clare, are rushed; Miles’ feminist concerns are snuck back in by roundabout routes, but they’re there; the renditions of Danny’s philosophical musings in Irish brogue are bearable, Johanna’s scoldings are often amusing; and above all the descriptions of country and horsemanship are outstanding.

I won’t give you the ins and outs of the story, the opening up of Burrabinga; Danny lost for months, losing a leg on a journey out into the plains; Burrabinga abandoned, reclaimed; the establishment of a great breed of horses; Danny’s banishment from the marital bed; (son) Robert’s adventures in manhood etc, etc right up to a pioneering England-Australia flight by a fourth generation Delacy in the 1930s. But allow me one more excursion.

We are all, rightly, becoming concerned with how Australian literature takes into account Indigenous points of view. Franklin in her writing is sympathetic to the plight of ‘blacks’ but appears to subscribe to the then widely (and conveniently) accepted dying out thesis. In the middle of the book she writes of the second generation marrying, starting families, “All were behaving in a way becoming to an empty continent where population was in demand.”

I get the impression there was a general acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights in ‘liberal’ circles at this time of writing. As a case in point, Eleanor Dark’s A Timeless Land was published just five years later.  Franklin ascribes to Danny a viewpoint acknowledging prior and ongoing occupation of ‘his’ land. In the early days local Ngarigo people came each year to Bewuck to fish for cod and Danny would pay them a bullock to slaughter for their land, though it is clear the people soon stop coming. She also mentions that Danny did not approve of nor take part in any shootings – which we are learning were far more commonplace than previously accepted. Danny also ‘adopts’ two Aboriginal children who fill a place somewhere between retainers and friends for the rest of their lives.

My verdict: still well worth reading.

 

Miles Franklin, All That Swagger, Sydney, 1936. Published as a serial in The Bulletin after winning that year’s Prior Prize, then as a book, also in 1936, by Angus & Robertson (see my post ‘Prior Prize Winners, All That Swagger’). My edition Sirius Books, 1986.

For all Miles Franklin reviews and other posts on her see my Miles Franklin page.


*I had difficulties with the geography, but I think the first Delacy homestead Beewuk was on the Murrumbidgee south west of (present day) Canberra. Late in the novel Beewuk is resumed by the Federal Government as part of the Australian Capital Territory.

Burrabinga, the property in the Alps, is presumably Brindabella, where Franklin spent her first 8 years, but as far as I can tell it is not upstream on the Murrumbidgee, but on a tributary. (Map The Murrumbidgee is a faint white line running south to north through the centre of the map). Sue/Whispering Gums, can you add any more?

 

 

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Journal: 008, How I live

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When I’m home, which these days is just two or three days a fortnight, I get to go home to my flat in Rivervale (Perth, WA) looking out as you can see over lower units in the complex to the Swan River and a park and lake beyond (map) which is why I bought it, at the top of a falling market as it turns out. I have a spare bedroom, and a study lined with books so I’m pretty happy, though Milly says I’m an idiot to have bought a flat at my age up two flights of stairs. She lives a couple of suburbs south in a little cottage, 20 minutes by pushbike straight down the Armadale rail line, and Gee and the kids who used to live close by now have a rambling 60s brick house in the suburbs south of Fremantle, coincidentally just a few minutes from my trucking depot.

But of course, I’m mostly away.

Last trip, I didn’t get out of Sydney as easily as I’d expected and as I wrote this post had been waiting around days for ‘top loading’ to go onto the 30 tonnes of stainless steel tubing I’d loaded on the first day. ‘Waiting around’ for out of town truck drivers generally means parking up at a crowded BP truck stop – why BP I don’t know, I guess it has the biggest truck stops and sells the most diesel fuel – snoozing, sitting in the truck, in the tv lounge, or in my case at the counter with power connections (but no free wifi) to write on my laptop, and eating overpriced mass-produced meals. As you can imagine there is very little I can eat – eggs, toast, baked beans for breakfast, roast vegies or battered fish and salad for tea.

I eat better when I’m on the move – coffee, porridge for breakfast, salad, tuna, egg for lunch, nothing for tea or maybe salad sticks and hommus, and fruit all through the day, 2 or 3 sliced cheese on rice biscuits for snacks. I’ve been a vego for nearly 30 years now. Milly was always thoughtful about food and in the ’80s we tried different diets – she cooked, I ate – Scarsdale which gave me headaches, more headaches, I was already losing a day a week from migraines, and then Pritikin, which was hard work (for her) but excellent food. From there it was a short and seemingly inevitable step to vegetarianism, taking up swimming again, and other familiar symptoms of “mid-life crisis”.

During this time I visited Dr Gruber, a real doctor specialising in “natural” solutions. He thought my aura was too blue (or insufficiently blue, ask Milly, she’ll remember) but also found my blood pressure much too high and started me on (conventional) medication which continues to this day and which has the not inconsequential side effect of eliminating both migraines and hangovers.

I didn’t get out of Sydney straight away so went exploring, found the Minchinbury Fruit Market and bought a bag of oranges, 2 containers of fruit juice (guava and pink grapefruit, a treat, I mostly drink filtered water), 2 packets of ‘nuts’ (trail mix and overland mix), a bag of mandrines, 4 pink lady apples, a kilo of grapes, no plums, they’re finally out of season. That’ll get me home (3-4 days) though the grapes might not make it to tea time.

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When I bought this truck my criteria were a 600 HP engine, a wide bed (king single), a high roof so I could stand up, and plenty of storage. I started out looking at American/Australian bonneted trucks but the Volvo I’ve ended up with suits my needs pretty well. The cab is wider, and it’s 2m (inside) from the floor to the roof so I can walk around between the seats. As well as the lockers at each side accessible from outside, there are lots of overhead lockers inside for clothes, spare bedding, books and dry food. Between the seats 2 drawers slide forward from under the bed, one of them a 20L fridge – smaller than I wanted but it is such a convenient fit that I am happy to work round it.

I have had fitted an inverter which supplies 240v power to my kettle, to recharge my laptop and potentially to run a sandwich maker or microwave (I don’t think I need a microwave. Or a TV.) and may fit a lithium battery powered airconditioner to keep the cab cool overnight – this is new. To date sleeper cab airconditioners, ‘icepacks’, have typically been diesel powered and bloody noisy.

The problem with truckstops is people wanting to talk, not strangers so much, though there’s often some gabby guy at the next table, but fellow workers unable to keep themselves entertained. I can do truck talk in small doses, but mostly keep to myself. That said, I’m grateful to Dave, another old-timer, aren’t we all – the average age of long distance truck drivers is well over 50, just one cohort of us starting at the end of the 1960s and when we’re gone, we’ll all be gone and then who will drive the trucks – who went with me to yesterday’s pickup to keep me company, keep me heading along the right roads, to introduce me to the staff at the steel place, and we spent a good part of the remainder of the morning ‘making a mile’ through the outback, both of us, amazingly, having braved the track from Broken Hill through Tibooburra, up and down following wheel tracks over endless sandhills from Cameron Corner (NSW, SA and Qld) to Moomba, the only landmark one ancient signpost to Merty Merty Station (YouTube).

When, if I ever, leave this place – you could write a JG Ballard story about truck drivers trapped in the wastelands of concrete and stationary juggernauts at a truckstop – I will drive till 9 or 10 pm, sleep 7-8 hours then for three full days drive for 14 hours in 3-5 hour blocks until I get home. On interstate I have a mandated 24 hour break every seven days, not as flexible as WA which allows 15 hours driving a day for up to 12 days straight a fortnight. Listening to books as I go, not taking notes (not unless I get a Dictaphone), generally not bothering to search the radio for Radio National, nor for football while Hawthorn is doing so poorly, and reading Comments and Posts during my half hour breaks.

That top loading never did turn up and after three full days I took my b double out past Newcastle (no b-double route directly over the Blue Mountains) to Dubbo, spent half of Saturday night swapping trailers around in the dark and set off home with a b-triple (map).

Recent audiobooks

Anne Rivers Sidons (F, USA), The Girls of August (2014)
Jack Schaeffer (M, USA), Shane (1949)
Caroline Mitchell (F, Eng), Silent Victim (2017)
Liane Moriarty (F, Aust/NSW), The Husband’s Secret (2013)
Monica McInerney (F, Aust/Vic), At Home with the Templetons (2010)

Currently reading

Miles Franklin, All That Swagger

 

 

The Turning, Tim Winton

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Tim Winton (1960 – ) is a presence in Western Australia, Fremantle’s public intellectual, replacing Ben Elton. We have fairly low standards for public intellectuals over here. The public intellectual of the other end of town is a sharemarket miner, one of whose floats came good, and not just for those in at the beginning.

The boyishly personable Winton is not my favourite author but I feel constrained to keep up with what he is writing, a task made easier by much of his output being on audiobooks and by a lightness of style. His subject matter, other than in Cloudstreet (1991), is almost invariably adolescent boys in seaside towns in WA’s south west, ie. himself. Cloudstreet, as I remember it (not fondly!) is an evocation of suburban Perth in the 1960s, an excuse to bring up again the Rivervale mass murderer, Eric Cooke, himself just an extreme example of the Rivervale men I knew, first or second-hand, but for Winton a plot device, a base to touch. Rivervale, my home, slowly gentrifying now due to its closeness to the city, but for many years row upon row of fibro and galvanised iron State Housing houses on desolate sandy quarter acre blocks, which I have always imagined as the setting for Cloudstreet though apparently it is not.

The Turning (2004) is a novel in fragments. Wikipedia uses the expression “This multi award-winning collection of short stories” but I don’t agree. My reading is that this is one man’s story over time, focusing on his adolescence in ‘Angelus’ (Albany, Winton’s boyhood home town and a substantial regional port city in WA’s south) through a series of interconnected vignettes. Which of course implies that the  stories in which the man/boy – Vic Lang – doesn’t appear, still serve to illustrate aspects of Vic’s story, of his, and Winton’s, generation.

So, the opening story, Big World, is of two boys from Vic’s high school class who head off after graduation, heading north in their Kombi, picking up a girl along the way, growing apart. An essay on boyhood friendship and that Australian staple, mateship.

Right now, standing with Biggie on the salt lake at sunset, each of us still in our southern-boy uniform of boots, jeans and flannel shirt, I don’t care what happens beyond this moment. In the hot northern dusk, the world suddenly gets big around us, so big we just give in and watch.

I said above that Angelus, the setting for many of the stories, is Albany, a port city on the south coast with a history of whaling. This is clearly the case, despite many reviews referring to it as a small fishing town, though I do sometimes get the impression Winton has included aspects of smaller towns on the west coast, Augusta for instance. White Point where Vic’s family camp on holidays is a real place, a remote beach south of Augusta. In passing, Augusta is the setting for much of Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans and Albany, ‘King George Town’, is both Kim Scott’s boyhood hometown and the setting for That Deadman Dance.

And speaking of Kim Scott, the defect in this book, and in Winton’s work generally is the way he almost completely ignores the substantial Noongar presence in the south west. The “Aboriginal kids from St Joe’s”, however favourably portrayed, who come up in a couple of these stories, are at best tokens. I can’t imagine Winton the environmental warrior is racist, or even ignorant, so can only imagine he has taken the conscious decision that Indigenous stories are not his to tell -which I would applaud – but that is no excuse for implying that Whites and Noongars do not interact.

Over the course of the stories we look at Vic’s relationships with girls, with his wife and with his father. We see Angelus’ underbelly of drugs, crime and corruption, Vic’s policeman father eventually disappearing, a cleanskin forced out and into hiding, discovered years later in a tiny remote community of old men in the Goldfields north of Kalgoorlie. We see also, over a number of stories, the Leapers, Frank a football star, Max an abusive husband, who come together after years of estrangement in a Winton-esque high moment of big wave surfing and sharks.

They bellied down the long, smooth face and beneath them the reef flickered all motley and dappled, weaves of current and colour and darting things that were buried with Max and him as a thundering cloud of whitewater overtook them. The blasts of water ripped through Leaper’s hair and pounded in his ears. The reef was all over him but he held fast to his brother, hugging him to the board, hanging on with all the strength left in his fingers, for as long as he could, and for longer than he should have.

I like The Turning. I think Winton has had a shot at writing something a bit different and it has largely worked. The movie too had good reviews and I must make an effort to see it.

 

Tim Winton, The Turning, Picador, Sydney, 2004 (interestingly, the cover of the copy I have – which was given to me by my sister in law, M to review two or three years ago – has a different, blacker cloud formation in the background, and others have a beach campfire instead of a car). Audio version, Bolinda Audio, read by Humphrey Bower and Caroline Lee

All My Love, Anne Brooksbank

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The best image I could find

As if I didn’t have enough books in my own TBR – mere hundreds – I borrowed this one, a gift from my Henry Lawson fan brother and his young family a quarter of a century ago, such a long time ago, such a short time, mid-life crisis time for me and my young family, from my mum when I was there recently.

The author, Anne Brooksbank (1943- ) wife of the late Bob Ellis, commentator and script writer whom I still remember vividly with Mungo MacCullum and John Hepworth (and Sam Orr, Michael Luenig, Morris Lurie how could I forget) in the Nation Review (1970-81) “lean and nosey like a ferret”. Sorry, I shouldn’t define a woman by her husband. Brooksbank has a number of novels to her credit, many film and tv scripts, some I think in collaboration with Ellis, and has recently rewritten All My Love as a play which seems to be touring Western Victoria as I write.

All My Love (1991) is the story of the romantic relationship of Australian poet Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) and the iconic Henry Lawson (1867-1922). Gilmore’s ADB entry says ” Her account of an unofficial engagement and Lawson’s wish to marry her at the time of his brief trip to Western Australia (May-September 1890) could be accurate regarding dates, but there is no other corroborative evidence. There was clearly, however, a close relationship between them in 1890-95, but it was broken by his frequent absences from Sydney. Mary’s later comments on his career were always somewhat proprietorial but the extent of her influence on his literary talents and her contribution to his literary education remain unsubstantiated.”

The words ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’ pop up regularly in accounts of All My Love on the net, but nowhere in the periphalia (there must be a word) of the book itself, though right from the first chapter it is clear we are in the territory of historical fiction rather than even ‘imagined biography’ – there are no footnotes or endnotes and the letter young schoolteacher Mary Jean Cameron (Gilmore) gets from her mother is so full of framing information (about Louisa Lawson and Dawn) that it could not possibly be real.

Brooksbank doesn’t say where Mary was, but it was Silverton in outback NSW in 1889. She describes the drive into Broken Hill (also not named) with the coachman shouting Adam Lindsay Gordon ballads to his horses, and then the train rides to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney as Mary takes the long way home (map) to spend Christmas with her mother who had some years earlier left her husband in southern NSW, and Mary as the eldest to care for her siblings, and “gone off to work as a breezy and often inaccurate journalist for a Sydney paper”.

On her first day in town Mary is introduced to Louisa Lawson, even taller than she is, nearly six feet, is commissioned (ordered) to write an article about miners’ women, and is told by her mother and Henry’s that they are to meet.

In the third chapter Henry goes off to meet that “wretched young woman”. That is, while still in the third person, the viewpoint switches to Henry, and so it alternates for the rest of the book. The meeting is of course awkward (Lawson’s deafness is not mentioned till later). Still, they go for a walk and he shows her the ‘real city’.

Henry, who couldn’t spell, and in fact was in real life defensive about not having had much of an education, would bring his poetry to Mary to correct, and “seemed quite glad to relax into the role of being instructed, and it bothered her that he did. He had clearly been ordered about by his mother for most of his life …” Mary herself had already had a few poems published and began to write more, “in competition”.

Henry on one of their walks takes her to rooms above a Castlereagh St bookshop where he has a few drinks and recites (bellows) Sons of the South and she meets William Lane.

There is some discussion of their differing attitudes to Aborigines. Henry “had been brought up the child of poor selectors who saw the Blacks as a lost and inferior people” whereas Mary had been taught by her father who had known and learnt from the local Wiradjuri. Mary’s early nurse was a Wiradjuri woman but “there was secret approval given from Sydney for the wiping out of the Blacks … I never saw her again.” This would have been in the early 1870s, around Wagga. (“The allusion to massacres by Mary Gilmore here and elsewhere and other oral traditions suggest there were further killings of Wiradjuri from the 1870’s on.” Wiradjuri Heritage Study by Wagga Wagga City Council).

Mary gets a North Shore (Sydney) school for 1890 and the two meet most days, until Louisa, angry with Mary’s mother, attempts to force a separation by sending Henry and his brother Peter off to the WA goldfields. Henry responds by proposing to Mary, but she is not ready. (What is it with Henry and the WA Goldfields? The next time he heads off, in 1906, he rushes into marriage with Bertha and even then doesn’t make it past a camp on the river at East Perth and soon returns home).

Mary takes a room at Louisa’s and Henry is soon back, but not soon enough. Louisa has been intercepting his letters to Mary and she has lost heart and moved away. “In the months that followed, and the year after that, Mary heard of him from time to time. Heard that he was raising a few eyebrows with his drinking …” Years pass. Henry gets sent out west by the Bulletin, “You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here. Men tramp and beg and live like dogs“(HL). William Lane sails for Paraguay. Louisa prints Henry’s first book [Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894)] and while he is out delivering it, he and Mary finally bump into each other again.

But. Despite clearing up the heartbreak of the missing letters, he’s a drunk, he’s sleeping with the bookshop owner’s plump young step-daughter (Bertha), and she’s off on the next ship to William Lane’s Cosme in Paraguay.

There, Mary marries the uneducated bushman, Will Gilmore and they have a son. Cosme fails. Sailing home (the long way again) via Patagonia and Liverpool they are invited to stay with the Lawsons,  by then living in London, and are persuaded by Henry, and Bertha’s doctor, to take the mentally unstable Bertha and her two children back to Australia with them, an horrendous journey. Bertha is jealous of Mary and says so loudly. The ship breaks down, and they are joined in Bombay, where it is being repaired, by Henry unable to remain in London without his children. He takes a separate small cabin for himself in which, on the way home, for the first and only time Brooksbank imagines them in bed (based on a Mary Gilmore poem: “I lifted up his head/And laid it on my breast“).

And that’s just about it. A fascinating subject which Brooksbank never really succeeds in bringing to life.

 

Anne Brooksbank, All My Love, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1991

see also:
My review of My Henry Lawson by Bertha Lawson (here)
My review of Louisa by Brian Matthews (here)
Janine, The Resident Judge’s review of A Wife’s Heart: The Untold Story of Bertha and Henry Lawson by Kerrie Davies (here)

Journal: 003, On the Road Again

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This is Monday night, meant to be the end of my first day owner-drivering, but Dragan had an ’emergency’ on Saturday and called me in to work early – I almost never say no when I’m asked to work: first you knock back jobs, then you don’t get offered is a ‘rule’ engraved on my heart, or on my anxiety gene – while I was driving son Lou to the airport. Still one daughter, Psyche, with one day left of her holiday with us, but she gave me permission and off I went. Hopefully I’ll make it up to her with a trip to Darwin.

An odd, diverse, needed holiday, spent getting permits etc in place for the truck, and my back, a few visits to the physio to get it into place (successfully), a week with all the kids in town for the first time in a few years, babysitters in place for the grandkids and a night out in the city with ex-ML & the kids and their favourite cousin (Hi Cait), a couple of days in Melbourne with mum, coinciding with Michelle Scott Tucker’s book release – boy, is she (justifiably!) excited.

But, as I said, work. So no time for a leisurely setting up, just chuck in the bedding, tuckerbox, a few days’ fruit and veg, tools, work clothes. Hook up and go. Fuel up; run one trailer to Kewdale road train assembly area (near the airport a few km from the CBD); go back for a second, hook them up (pic above). It’s already late; head out of town and over the Bindoon hills. Sleep near New Norcia. Hook up a third trailer at Wubin, the northern edge of the wheatbelt, on the Great Northern Hwy, before the scrub and desert that stretch north forever. Destination Karratha, 1,500 km up the coast but 1,800 km by this inland route.

The first breakdown of my new career occurs an hour out of Wubin. The left hand steer tyre blows as I’m pulling out of a parking bay and the left side of the truck settles almost to the road. My first reaction in any breakdown is to despair, then to phone someone and share my despair, and only then to begin working on a solution. It has given me a reputation for being unmechanical – which is true – but ignores the fact that I generally get going again.

Unluckily the first 300 km out of Wubin is out of phone range – no towns, no mines – so I despair on my own. Until I see that I can jack the truck up by reaching my arms through the wheel arch and using blocks and two jacks to progressively lift the axle high enough to get the wheel off and the spare on. There are other problems, in particular the wheel nuts are too tight, but other drivers stop to help, and eventually it’s all done.

And that’s the key, “other drivers stop to help”. I’ll write a longer post one day about truck drivers and the Australian Legend, but suffice it to say for now that as long as long distance truck drivers preach and practice ‘stopping to help’ the old ways of the bush aren’t dead.

Because Dragan got me going late on Saturday, because of the time lost broken down, because my bloody airconditioner is out of gas, tonight I’m comfortably ensconced in a motel and I’ll unload in the morning.

I was going to write a ‘literary’ post about this trip, about the old towns Roebourne and Cossack that Daisy Bates came to 110 years ago and that Karratha replaced, but I’ve written about them before (here) so I’ll just mention my favourite artist, whose works of Indigenous-Impressionist grasslands I can’t afford, Marlene Harold of the Roebourne mob, Yinjaa-Barni (here). Not forgetting that tomorrow I’ll be unloading on the Burrup Penninsula, a gallery of Indigenous rock art with a history in millenia to match the Louvre and Notre Dame’s centuries, and as much significance, except in the minds of mining-mad Western Australians.

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When I pulled up tonight I was three quarters of the way through Prime Cut, a Western Australian crime fiction novel. I wouldn’t give away the ending in any case (see this very interesting Daily Review article about ‘spoilers’) so this is as good as time as any for a mini review.

I don’t know Alan Carter but I’d be surprised if he’s not an English migrant resident in WA. The story begins with a double murder in England coinciding with Sunderland’s surprise win in the 1973 FA Cup then moves to the WA south coast, Kim Scott country, in the 2000s.

The protagonist is DSC Cato Kwong, demoted to the Stock Squad (investigating stock, ie farm animal, theft) for taking short cuts in a murder investigation. He is called to Hopetoun, coastal hamlet become thriving dormitory town for the new BHP (here called Western Mining) nickel mine outside Ravensthorpe 50 km inland, where an old very ex-girlfriend Tess Maguire is sergeant in charge of a two-person station.

Her offsider is Indigenous and there is a nod to the Cocanarup Massacre and the possibility of a non-white history for Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe.

A body, or at least a torso is washed up on shore – discarded by a frenzy of sharks – and subsequently a matching head washes up as well. Meanwhile a retired ex-copper from Sunderland now living in Busselton (also south of Perth but on the west coast) becomes aware of an old murder in Adelaide almost identical to the Sunderland one and of sightings of the principal suspect in WA.

The two streams of investigation come together (inevitably), a policeman is murdered on the jetty at Hopetoun  …

If you want to know whodunnit or if Cato has it off with Tess then you’d better ask me on Weds when I’ve had some driving time to listen to the end. Though I did mean to say that the reading is for the Association for the Blind, WA and that sometimes their readings are a bit flat. However, in this case their reader, Jim Malcolm, an Australian of British extraction by the sound of him, is a natural and does a good job.

Recent audiobooks

Mark Billingham (M, Eng), Time of Death (2015)
Alan Carter (M, Aust/WA), Prime Cut, Fremantle Press, 2011 (Audio edition: Association for the Blind of WA, 2012)

Currently reading

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text, Melbourne, 2017
Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest, 2008 (translated Joel Martinsen, 2015)

 

 

 

 

Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox, T.A.G. Hungerford

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TAG (Tom) Hungerford (1915-2011) was born in Perth, WA, fell into journalism, served in the 2nd AIF in the Pacific in WWII, and eventually, around retirement age, became a full time writer. His four novels include Sowers in the Wind (1954) which won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but “was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces.” (wiki)

Lisa at ANZLitLovers recently reviewed, and loved, his collection of autobiographical stories, Stories From Suburban Road (1983) (here) and that inspired me to see what I had on my own shelves – I have purchased a lot of pre-loved Oz Lit in bulk over the past few years and so have only a vague idea of what I own – coming up with Hungerford’s first collection of short fiction, Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox (1977) published by our own marvellous Fremantle Arts Centre Press (on which more here).

In 1990 the Fremantle Arts Centre Press (now just Fremantle Press) established the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for unpublished Western Australian writers. Previous winners include fellow blogger Nathan Hobby with The Fur (review) and Robert Edeson with The Weaver Fish (review). I see I also have the 1990 winner, Brenda Walker’s Crush so I’d better review that too.

The first story, the title story of this collection sets the tone (the period is the 1920s when Hungerford was around 10 years old) –

You mightn’t think there’d be a very strong connection between an old Chinese market gardener and a pillarbox owned by the Queen of England – but there was: a long and intimate, and in many ways a romantic one too.

Both the pillarbox and the Chinaman first knew South Perth as a rushy riverside retreat of cow paddocks and market gardens and bush, where the settlers along the river bank had their own jetties, and flat bottomed boats for travelling to and from Perth, and horses leaned thoughtfully over every second front fence along the one main road through the suburb.

South Perth is now an upmarket suburb of apartment buildings and big houses facing across Perth Water to the CBD, though there are still 1930s brick houses in the less favoured streets. I live just a few kilometres upstream in a riverside flat in a formerly working class suburb of uniform fibro boxes on sandy, quarter acre lots. But what I love most of all is the connections to my own past – to the employer who ran cows on the South Perth foreshore before the War, to the Chinese market gardeners keeping to themselves on the highway in Stawell (Vic) when I lived there in the seventies, to the horses still drawing milk floats when I was at high school in Melbourne, and my great aunt’s lovely house, a refuge for all her country rellos, with stables out the back, in Surrey Hills (Melbourne).

Eventually the pillarbox with its “VR, 1857” is gone and the market gardens, and the Chinamen too, all called “Charlie”, living in tin sheds on their lots, and Suburban Rd, now Mill Point Road, is no longer a “ribbon of red gravel” through “a double line of the loveliest trees”, though the trees are still there, where the road passes the zoo and drops down towards the freeway.

The next story is of a woman, pregnant, drinking and smoking with a neighbour, unable to understand her young daughter and particularly her determination to watch what sounds like Playschool on TV. My parents weren’t drinkers but I have plenty of mates who’d identify with these Saturday nights –

“What do you do with …?” The friend nodded in the direction of the doorway. “When you go to the club I mean?”

“Oh … wrap her up, and put her in the back seat. Duck out a couple of times, to look. She sleeps OK.”

And Sunday sessions. I remember Sunday sessions! (The Lady in the Box)

Some of the stories are straight out of the Australian Legend playbook, the mainstay of Oz Lit for a century, the lone Aussie guy in the outback with and without his mates. With variations of course. A Lithuanian reffo makes his way outback and is finally accepted into the brotherhood when he solves a problem for his tough, station foreman (The Talisman); a tough alpha male in his forties, a fishing boat skipper in a North West hamlet, is on the way down and his ‘mate’ is looking for greener pastures – or as the title implies, wishes to attach himself to another shark (Remora)

Because this is Western Australia, Aboriginals play an important part. Of course Hungerford is old fashioned, about feminism too which clearly bemuses him, but not unsympathetic. In Perth, in these stories, the Indigenous locals are in the background – ‘scarecrow “blackies” and their stick-insect children, whose tangled black hair and blazing eyes I can still see, all these long years after they have gone to their dreaming … [trudging] through the streets of the quiet riverside suburb which they used to own’ – or servant women, probably brought down from up north, who ‘would hang their heads so that their curly brown hair made a curtain before their faces.’ But in ‘The Only One who Forgot’ an Aboriginal boy is front and centre. An orphan just coming into adolescence, he befriends a little blonde girl and his (white) foster mother, out of fear of his coming sexual awareness, beats him –

She swung her open hand across his mouth, hard. The blood ran from his lips and he stood still, his fingers creeping along his jaw toward it. The woman’s eyes blazed.

“Nigger!” she cried, shrill with fear. “Damn black nigger!”

We get on to love and marriage, or sex and marriage not working out more often, but the story I enjoyed most takes a diversion to Hong Kong, after the war, when the narrator runs into the daughter of the big house on the hill above the South Perth foreshore, whom he had met when he was a ten year old accompanying his piano tuner father, and she gives him some surprising explanations for things which he had then only dimly perceived (Green Grow the Rushes).

An excellent collection, in many ways evocative of a time not quite past, not in our imaginations anyway, and to which we continue to cling.

 

T.A.G. Hungerford, Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1977. Cover image and ‘text collages’ by Robert Birch.

Elizabeth Macarthur, Michelle Scott Tucker

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Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World (2018) is Australian (Melbourne) author Michelle Scott Tucker’s first work. It doesn’t show. This is an assured account of the life of a woman whose name we all know, but who has always – till now – lived in the shadow of her husband John.

Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was born in Bridgerule, Devon where her father was an affluent farmer, in or aspiring to the lower reaches of the landed gentry, and able (and willing) to provide his daughter with a good education. She married army Ensign John Macarthur in 1788 and when, on half pay and needing to support a wife and young son, he joined the newly-formed NSW Corp as a Lieutenant, she sailed with him on the Second Fleet to Sydney Cove, the only officer’s wife to do so.

Michelle points out that Elizabeth was only 9 years older than Jane Austen and that the circumstances in which she was raised would be familiar to readers of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. I’m friends with Michelle and on reading the early chapters of her book was imprudent enough to text her, asking if she thought Elizabeth was a ‘Lydia’. “No idea,” she replied, “I don’t make stuff up”. And she doesn’t. Although her account gets along at a cracking pace, it is clearly documented at every step.

To get back to Elizabeth’s Lydia-ness though, I formed the definite impression that Elizabeth was both strong willed and besotted by John. When their first child is born it is clear marital relations had begun before the marriage, indeed it is probable Elizabeth accompanies John on an uncomfortable trip to London in late pregnancy just to be out of sight of family and villagers doing simple arithmetic; there is that lovely cameo on the front cover, so different from the responsible matron (below) she was to become; she alone of the officers’ wives accompanies her husband to what was little more than a campsite on the other side of the world; and later, although I accept she was a devoted mother, I also suspect that when John returned from his long sojourns in England, bringing with him the older children, it was John she welcomed first not the children. Well, maybe the first time anyway.

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Elizabeth Macarthur, undated, State Library of NSW

Elizabeth Macarthur’s letters home have always been an important source for writers about the early days of white settlement in NSW. We are lucky that she was a constant correspondent with her childhood friend, Bridget Kingdon, daughter of the Anglican vicar at Bridgerule, because to her she allowed herself a little more freedom in writing than she did to her mother. After Bridget’s untimely death in 1802 Elizabeth continued to write to Bridget’s younger sister, Eliza. Later, when John was forced to return to England, they exchanged letters about family and business (though Elizabeth’s to John have not survived) and we also have correspondence between Elizabeth and friends she made in the colony, notably Capt. John Piper.

Elizabeth’s story is often told in Elizabeth’s own words, using short excerpts from her letters, giving an immediacy to the writing that makes the biography flow like a novel without resort to passages of imagination, so-called ‘faction’. And we end up with not just Elizabeth’s story but a whole new perspective on the early years of the colony.

In a way I’ve had years to prepare for this review and it was my intention to have reviewed by now Watkin Tench’s two accounts of the first days of white settlement, MH Ellis’ John Macarthur (1955) and the Eleanor Dark reimagining of first contact and the early days of settlement, The Timeless Land (1941). As it happens I only got to the Tench (here, here).

Tench writes of his shock at the terrible state of the convicts on the arrival of the Second Fleet and Scott Tucker fleshes this out, as the Macarthur’s cabin on the voyage out was actually down with the women convicts. Briefly, with the Second Fleet the British government ‘privatised’ the transport of convicts and the successful tenderers and their ships captains economised on the food and conditions of especially the male convicts in order to sell the left over supplies at extortionate prices on arrival in Sydney. Of the 1017 convicts who were despatched from England 258 died, from starvation, illness, from being almost constantly in irons.

The Macarthur story is well known (to Australians). The initial farm, Elizabeth Farm, on the river at Parramatta (20 km up river from Sydney Harbour). The land grants at Cow Pastures, 20 or 30 km further out, which eventually became Camden Park. The importing of merino sheep, from South Africa and from the King’s flock in England. John’s two long absences in London (1801-05 and 1809-17), the first for a court martial and the second after he, now a civilian, led a rebellion against Governor Bligh. The slow growth of the fine wool industry to serve the mills of England and the Industrial Revolution.

Scott Tucker slowly and surely builds a lawyerly case for John’s fecklessness, right from the beginning. The rushed marriage, his constant disputes with his fellow officers, duels, risky business decisions, grand plans for the future. As he gets older he complains of frequent debilitating bouts of depression, interestingly recognised as illness by both the sufferer and Elizabeth, eventually interspersed with bursts of mania until we, and his family, recognise that he is out of control, in modern terms is bi-polar, and his sons become his guardians.

The bulk of the story concerns naturally Elizabeth’s management of the family business while John is away. He and later their older sons are valuable envoys in London, but they must be supported in style and Elizabeth must manage the flocks, the horses, the home farm and orchards, the large numbers of convict servants and farm workers, the younger children – the boys were schooled in England, keep the accounts. Above all she must improve the quality of the wool and get it off to England. She has some standing in Colony society both as a modest gentlewoman and as a relatively (though not always!) prosperous businesswoman. Scott Tucker does not think she mixed with convict and emancipist women, but on the other hand neither does she seem to have been a social climber.

There is a proper emphasis throughout the account on the Eora people who were displaced by the colonists, beginning with early friendly relations. But as the original inhabitants, and particularly the Gandagarra from the mountains enclosing the Sydney basin, begin to fight back, Elizabeth’s attitudes harden and she goes along with the retributive raids by government forces which culminate in the 1816 Appin massacre.

Right at the end Michelle allows herself a little whimsy:

Elizabeth was a real-life Elizabeth Bennet who married a Wickham instead of a Darcy – albeit a Wickham who loved her as much as he was able.

So no, not a Lydia.

As John became increasingly incapable of dealing with his illness, he demanded, in 1831, that Elizabeth leave him. In 1833 the family confined him to Camden Park and Elizabeth who had been living with other members of her extended family was able “to return to dear home” at Elizabeth Farm. John died in April 1834, and Elizabeth, without ever carrying out her oft expressed wish to return to Bridgerule, in February 1850.

 

Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World, Text, Melbourne, 2018

see also:
Author Interview, Michelle Scott Tucker (here)
Lisa at ANZLitLovers’ review (here)