A Literary Tour of the Mallee

Sue/Whispering Gums a year or so BC set me the task of devising a literary tour of the Mallee – the northwest corner of Victoria, a triangle bounded by the Murray River to the north and northeast, the South Australia border to the west and let’s say to the south the 36th parallel, so a line from a bit north of Route A8 to the Murray north of Echuca.

This country is all sand over limestone, rainfall around ten inches (250mm) per year, and of course mallee gums along all the roads and throughout the desert national parks which comprise probably half its area. In the towns and around farms the most common trees are sugar gums, peppercorns (introduced from South America, probably via California) and jacarandas (ditto) and along the river, river red gums. Though I should probably include red flowering gums (from WA) which schools seemed fond of planting.

I am struggling to identify the region’s Indigenous people. It seems the Wergaia occupied the main part, with a number of other groups along the river, before they were forced onto Ebenezer Mission to the south and then, later to Lake Tyers way over in eastern Victoria. The Indigenous people along the river most likely retreated to the NSW side which was much less settled.

The arable country was broken up into square mile (640 acre) blocks in the 1890s and allocated to selectors on easy terms – as long as they established a home and began clearing and fencing they could repay the government over 40 years. Most farms were mixed sheep and wheat (though my grandmother’s family, the Coxes, had a Clydesdale horse stud at Culgoa). Mum was indignant to learn at school that the Mallee was flat when she could see that it had hills, albeit gently rolling sandhills which when stripped of cover move across paddocks engulfing fences and becoming the source of choking sandstorms.

The Mallee country along the Murray, known as Sunraysia, is heavily irrigated for citrus, stone fruits and grapes. As we all learnt at school, irrigation was begun in 1887 by the Chaffey brothers. There is no other fresh water except bore water which was ok when we lived at Murrayville but was elsewhere mostly salty. During the Depression channels were built to carry water from reservoirs in the Grampians (a couple of hundred kilometres south). These were replaced by pipelines in 2010 which, as we are learning, greatly reduces water to the environment, though I’m pleased to hear Green Lake (one of a number of ‘Green Lakes’) near my grandfather’s old farm south of Sea Lake is once again being filled for recreation and to preserve the surrounding woodlands (mainly sheoaks from memory).

Sea Lake is named for Lake Tyrell, a large salt pan and one of a number throughout the Mallee, most notably Pink Lakes near Underbool, between Murrayville and Ouyen.

The tour for the Gums begins in Melbourne where they wave goodbye to younger Gums and head out through the western suburbs towards Bendigo. Bourke and Wills set off in this direction on 20 Aug. 1860, camping the first night at Moonee Ponds (about 10 kms out) so the flamboyantly incompetent Robert O’Hara Bourke could ride back into town to farewell (again) opera star Julia Matthews (Frank Clune, Dig, 1837), and maybe because a number of the wagons were bogged and/or broken down. The expedition with its 27 camels and six wagons passed a little east of Bendigo after 6 days and reached Swan Hill – where they camped at Booths & Holloway’s Station – on 6 Sept. (Alan Moorehead, Cooper’s Creek, 1963) And from there they headed north into eternal notoriety (and are much criticised for their incompetence in the first chapter of Such is Life).

There had been two earlier explorers through the Mallee. Major Mitchell in 1836 came down the lower reaches of the Murrumbidgee to its junction with the Murray (between Swan Hill and Mildura), down the Murray to the junction with the Darling (just west of Mildura) and then back up the Murray – where he attacked and killed a party of local Kureinji and Barkandji peoples at Mt Dispersion (so-named by him) on the NSW side of the river – to the Loddon, past Swan Hill, from whence he headed south. (Mitchell wrote his own account of these expeditions but there must be others).

In 1838 Joseph Hawdon drove a mob of cattle almost the entire length of the Murray River, on the Victorian side until Mildura, eventually delivering them in Adelaide (Joseph Hawdon, The Journal of a Journey from New South Wales to Adelaide, 1952).

Meanwhile, the Gums have probably stopped already to have coffee with Michelle Scott Tucker, author of Elizabeth Macarthur, who lives that way, not far out of town. In the distance they can see the looming shape of Mt Macedon, named by Major Mitchell on his way home, and just past it Hanging Rock (Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1967). Still not 100 kms out of Melbourne, we should mention Kyneton, home (for a while) of turn of the century authors Joseph Furphy and Tasma, and a little further on Malmsbury, the setting for Tasma’s Uncle Piper of Pipers Hill (1888). Closer to Bendigo, and off the highway a bit, are old gold mining towns Castlemaine (Mt Alexander in Catherine Helen Spence’s Clara Morrison, 1854) and Maldon, childhood home of Henry Handel Richardson. In Bendigo my cousin Kay gives the Gums a tour of the School of Mines’ famous domed library, then it’s back on the road and at last we’re in the Mallee.

From here I’m a bit lost, not as to where to go: Big Desert Wilderness Park (no glamping, sorry WG) , Pink Lakes, Lake Tyrell, the Murray River, Wycheproof where the steam trains once ran down the main street (which fascinated me as a boy); but what books I can reference.

My Auntie Win wrote an account of the early days of Berriwillock (south of Sea Lake): Winifred Nixon, While the Mallee Roots Blaze, 1965. My father’s books include another account of early settlement: Allan Keating, And then the Mallee Fringe, 1983. Fiction seems a bit light on. Two courtesy of Lisa/ANZLL are Bill Green’s Small Town Rising (1981) and Wearing Paper Dresses (2019) by Anne Brinsden. I gather Sophie Laguna’s The Choke is set on the river but further east. There must be stories set at Lake Boga, where Milly’s grandmother’s boyfriend worked on Catalinas during the War, or Mildura or somewhere. Help me out!

In 2019 I wrote a post about Sea Lake, which is when the idea of a literary tour came up, and there followed a quite extensive discussion. Sue put up Mallee Boys (2017) by Charlie Archbold, which seems to be yet another set on the river. Lisa put in the hard yards and “consulted Peter Pierce’s Oxford Literary Guide to Australia” for the following list:
Boort: (80 km west of Echuca) birthplace of poet, short-story writer and novelist Myra Morris, 1893
Chinkapook: (a tiny locality between Ouyen and Swan Hill) John Shaw Neilson’s family farmed here. Also mentioned in Douglas Stewart’s poem about the 1917 mice plague ‘The Mice of Chinkapook’
Hattah (between Mildura, Ouyen and the river): Ben Eggleton was a ranger in the national park and wrote such titles The Bull Ant Country (1980) and The Little People of the Kulkyne’(1983). Alan Marshall often visited [his The Aborigines’ Grave appears to be set there]. Mary Chandler wrote ‘Tribal Lands to National Park, 1980.
Murrabit (on the Murray, 50 km upstream of Swan Hill): Rolf Boldrewood had a sheep farm there from 1858 until forced to sell out in 1863. JJ Healy, Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (1978) makes the case that Boldrewood covers up the realities of squatter/Aboriginal confrontation in his fiction and dates this from his time in the Western District in the 1840s. But Boldrewood would also have had to deal with local Indigenous people at Murrabit.
Red Cliffs (40km south of Mildura): Site of the largest of the soldier settlement schemes after the Great War. Mary Chandler wrote its history in Against the Odds (1979). See also Marilyn Lake, The Limits of Hope (1987).
Sea Lake: John ShawNeilson and his father took up uncleared land north of Sea Lake in 1895 and saw ‘rabbits by the hundred thousand’, before moving after 5 years to 2400 acres at nearby Chinkapook (parish of Eureka).

Poems set in the Mallee generally, include: CA Sherard, Lost in the Mallee (1884), Nancy Cato, Mallee Farmer (1950), and Tractor Driver in the Mallee; by Cyril Goode (ADB).

I checked Nancy Cato’s All the Rivers Run (1958) and it’s set just outside our area, at Echuca, as are parts of Furphy’s Such is Life and Rigby’s Romance.

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Picture credits: Map is a screenshot from Google Maps. Bendigo TAFE library by Kay Smith.

Such is Life (02), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)

One of my intentions in doing this slow read is to make the argument that Such is Life is the first major modernist text in Australian and one of the first in World Literature. As seminal in Australian Lit as Ulysses was later to be in English.

The predominant view of Such is Life would have it as Bush Realism, showing us real Aussie bush workmen from the late C19th. Of course it does no such thing – there are not many working men then or now able to converse at length on world affairs, philosophy and literature, in English and in Latin. Furphy’s project in fact was to disrupt the tropes of bush life, the Bulletin version of what it is to be Australian, AND to disrupt the tropes of writing about Australian life.

To further my argument, today I am reading a 2003 essay by Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life . Cowden argues that the 1890s saw the end of Victorian certainties; the rise of Socialism and Feminism (Suffragism); and saw too for the first time the working classes and rural battlers being written about by writers of their own class, writers like Furphy, Henry Lawson and Miles Franklin.

So, when we left Tom he had caught up with some bullocky mates, one of whom was his old schoolmate Steve Thompson. They are discussing where to camp for the night. The Riverina has just returned to drought and the only grass and water has been fenced off by the local landowners who tend to regard bullockies as the enemy rather than as their partners in getting wool to market. The feeling is reciprocated – this is very much a novel of class struggle (see quotes from Cowden below).

It is also a novel of digressions, and most of the plot, such as it is, is carried forward in the yarns the men tell each other, so that characters and episodes rise and fall in importance and often without forewarning.

In this context, some men roll up heading the other way, and of course stop to talk. One of them is Warrigal Alf who is later important (and not to be confused with Nosey Alf), then comes along McNab, a fencing contractor, who talks Tom into trading horses with him. An exchange in which Tom for once comes out on top. The new horse is misleadingly named Cleopatra (hint: it’s not a mare) which “will necessarily play a certain part in these memoirs”.

There is one more point I need to make before we let the teams move on to their camp for the night and that is that most Australians swear almost constantly and Furphy has great fun with this without ever writing an actual swearword. So …

“You got Nosey Alf, an’ Warrigal Alf, an’ (sheol) knows how many other Alfs.”
“I ain’t (adj.) fool enough to believe in curses.”
“Well,” said Price emphatically, and qualifying every word that would bear qualification ..

The Palmers’ abridgement (see below) made the mistake of removing much of the ‘swearing’ and thus much of the humour.

The men break down the fence to the ‘home’ paddock and after a long and philosophical discussion about what makes a gentleman – Willoughby, travelling with them, is an English gentleman entirely without funds (or saleable skills), but a nice bloke – fall asleep under the wagons while the bullocks help themselves to feed and water. In the morning they are roused by a worker from the property and scramble to get their cattle out before the arrival of the foreman; Tom finds Cleopatra likes to buck; a bullock has to be dragged out of the dam; they hitch up and head off; one wagon becomes bogged, is towed out; and then another …

Thirty-six picked bullocks planted their feet and prised, and a hundred and seventy feet of bar chain stretched tense and rigid from the leaders’ yoke to the pole-cap. The wagon crept forward. A low grumble, more a growl than a bellow, passed from beast to beast along the team – sure indication that the wagon wouldn’t stop again if it could be taken through. The off front wheel rose slowly on the harder ground; the off hind wheel rose in its turn; both near wheels ploughed deeper beneath the top-heavy weight of thirty-eight bales –
“She’s over!” thundered Cooper …

The wagon slowly settles on its side and the wool – which goes about six bales to the ton – must be laboriously reloaded by hand. And so we reach the end of Chapter 1, 50pp supported by 36 pages of annotations, so I still have some reading to do!


Such is Life was first published by the new books division of the Bulletin magazine in 1903. It was immediately recognised for the masterpiece it is but gained no great readership. A second edition (using sheets left over from the first) was brought out by Furphy’s literary executor, Kate Baker in 1917 with an Introduction by Vance Palmer. In 1937 Jonathon Cape of London published an abridged version with Vance Palmer named as the ‘editor’ although the actual abridging was done mainly by Nettie Palmer and daughter Aileen (Such is Life, Abridged!). Angus & Robertson then brought out an unabridged version (pictured above) in 1944 and only then was the novel’s future assured. The most recent version apparently is from Text, 2013 (here).

“The opening page of [Such is Life] is thus one which suggests an openness to an exploration of the ‘relation between reading, interpretation and writing’ (Devlin-Glass et.al, 315), which, as other commentators have noted, anticipates the high modernist literature of writers like James Joyce.” Cowden p. 152

“Socialists argued that unemployment, poverty and criminality, were not failings of individual ‘character’, but were a product of the immiseration created by capitalism. In its day this link offered a profound and fundamental challenge to ideas about ‘character’ which were cornerstones of Victorian morality.” ibid p.153

“Furphy clearly saw these acts of sabotage [thefts from landowners] as a form of working class resistance, and hence the newness of his perspective is both literary and political; in a political sense he is trying to work out on an intuitive basis how a different form of morality might operate. In a literary sense he is trying to work out a new way of telling a story that will reflect this” ibid. p.156

50:32 belahs. Bilaar is a Wiradhuri word used for several [types of] trees. Here is it probabably a sheoak (casuarina). There are annotations for everything! I give this one as an example because I have written quite often in the past that there are no Indigenous people in SIL, so one of my tasks over this year is to see how correct that assertion is. I can’t believe there weren’t Indigenous communities along all the rivers. There are now and there were in the 1950s when I was a boy. I must also mention that the rider on Cleopatra when Tom obtained it was an Indigenous man working for McNab.

McNab. The edition I am reading renders this M’Nab, but as with Miles Franklin I am certain this comes from older printing presses not having a raised lower case ‘c’ (and nor does WordPress).

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Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, first pub. 1903.

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

Stephen Cowden, Colonialism, Nationalism, Modernism: Rethinking Furphy’s Such is Life, Kunapipi, Vol 25 (2003) (here)

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy (here)
theaustralianlegend, Such is Life, Abridged! (here)

The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

The Timeless Land.... eleanor dark ..1960

It’s Saturday as I type and I’m on the road home. But an email has come in (or to be honest, I have just checked yesterday’s emails) from Neil@Kallaroo. We’ve done very well with Eleanor Dark this week. Here you go Neil, the space is all yours.


Let’s cut to the chase. I read about one third of The Timeless Land before I gave up. That’s not a reflection on the book so much as a reflection on what I enjoy reading. Once upon a time I read a book from cover to cover, but there are so many books to read, so nowadays if I’m struggling I give up and move on.

The Timeless Land is the first in a trilogy about the European settlement of Australia. It is told from many viewpoints, such as Governor Arthur Phillip, Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Trench of the Marines, the Reverend Mr Johnson, Andrew and Ellen Prentice, convicts, and the indigenes Bennilong and Barangaroo. There are plenty more!

The different viewpoints expose us to the many issues around the settlement, from concern with the food supply, convicts trying to escape, and interactions between Europeans and First Settlers. The story progresses chronologically, with minimal flash-backs, and even though the viewpoint changes frequently, it is not hard to keep track of what is going on.

So why did I struggle with the story?

I guess I knew the plot already, though not the nitty gritty. So there was minimal novelty to engage me. The writing is a bit dry and academic (possibly as a result of Dark’s extensive research), and there wasn’t much witty repartee to humour me. I didn’t crack many smiles.

I was uncomfortable with the thoughts and actions attributed to the indigines. One phrase in particular caught my eye:

“Arabanoo, who was so gentle and so patient that he hardly ever beat his wife.”

Ouch. Did indigenous husbands beat their wives regularly? I know that alcohol currently contributes to domestic violence (universally!), but I am not at all sure wife-beating was a feature of the indigenous population in 1788. Mind you, Dark has a rather sly comeback:

“Bennilong, therefore, had felt no pity for the woman, but he wondered why she had been so held up to the execration of the whole tribe instead of being privately beaten by her husband in the normal way.”

And finally, I struggle with historical fiction in general. Is it fiction or faction?

So should you have a read of The Timeless Land? If you are looking for something light and fluffy, with witty repartee and plenty of action, probably not. But if you are interested in a warts and all approach to the problems of settlement, offering more than a European-centric story, then definitely have a go. Hopefully you can make more progress than I did.

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Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land, first pub. 1941. Cover image Collins, 1960

see also reviews of:
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (1) (here)
Tim Flannery ed., Watkin Tench (2) (here)
Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth Macarthur (here)
James Tucker, Ralph Rashleigh (here)

The Pea Pickers, Eve Langley

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Brona of Brona’s Books has set herself an ambitious schedule for AWW Gen 3 Week for which I am extremely grateful. First up she has written about one of my favourite authors, Eve Langley, and her first and most famous novel.


178d3c9b3c81ff378159e63c4ba1500a Brona’s Books

My first illness was that one most common to the children of the poor…a bad education and, like the bite of a goanna, it was incurable and ran for years.

Ethel Jane (Eve) Langley was born in Forbes on the 1st September 1904. After her father, Arthur died in 1915, her mother, Myra moved her small family back to Victoria…

In 1924, Eve and her sister June … travelled and worked around the Gippsland countryside as farm labourers and pickers for the next four years. She kept a diary during this whole time of her doings, her thoughts, poems and stories. Read on …

Coonardoo, Katharine Susannah Prichard

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

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Lisa Hill/ANZLitLovers, for this our second year looking at the writers of Gen 3, has produced a scholarly take on what is probably Katharine Susannah Prichard’s best known and most important novel.


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I’ve departed from my usual practice in reviewing Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo from 1929: I’ve read other opinions about it, both before and after reading it.  I also re-read Mairi Neil’s post about the play Brumby Innes and its place in the history of Australian drama because Prichard first used the theme of the novel in the play.

I did this additional reading because this work has a contentious place in the history of Australian literature.  Coonardoo is the first detailed representation of Indigeneity in Australian fiction, but the author was not Indigenous herself. Read on …

Such is Life (01), Joseph Furphy

If you were paying attention, you might have noticed I plan to slow read the annotated Such is Life over the course of 2021. Such is Life, which is the first great modernist classic of Australian Literature, was published, by the Bulletin, after a long struggle, in 1903. I have written about it previously in Such is Life, Abridged! (here) and in Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin (here).

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912) was born near Yarra Glen, Victoria, the second of five brothers. Miles Franklin describes an almost Austen-esqe home environment of shared reading and writing with mother keeping journals of the boys’ writings, ballads and odes to lost loves. In 1852 the family moved to Kyneton (90 km north of Melbourne on the road to Bendigo) where Joseph went to school. In 1868 they took up land, “Sand Hills”, around Lake Cooper (map) in the names of Samuel (senior), Joseph and Isaac, building themselves homes which survived into the 1950s.

At Glenlyon he met Leonie Selina Germain, of French descent. They were married at Christchurch, Daylesford, on 27 May 1867; Leonie was 16. His wife was to remain an enigma to him and a mystery to both her contemporaries and to later observers of the human scene.

ADB, Manning Clark

After five years Joe gave up, rented nearby while he tried a bit of gold prospecting, then with a wagon and bullocks, he uprooted his tiny, French wife and their children to follow him as a bullocky through the backblocks of NSW. His oldest son Felix, not a budding writer, who had command of Furphy’s second wagon wrote to his grandfather in 1883 –

“I have no books hear but the third book and the story of the too dogs and father reads nothing but shakspere everybody carries books but they are yellow novels …”.

Older brother John, a blacksmith, had in the meanwhile set up the famous Furphy Foundry in Shepparton. When Joseph’s enterprise failed, due to drought and disease in the cattle, Leonie wrote home for help and a position was made for Joseph at the foundry. At last, around 1887, already in his forties, Furphy had a settled home and could begin to write. Still it took him till 1897 to write up his great work and another six years of typing, cutting and emendations to get it published.

Introduction

Contrary to usage, these memoirs are published, not “in compliance with the entreaties of friends,” but in direct opposition thereto …

SUCH IS LIFE

Chapter 1

Unemployed at last! …

… Whilst a peculiar defect – which I scarcely like to call an oversight in mental construction – shuts me from the flowery pathway of the romancer, a co-ordinate requital endows me, I trust, with the more sterling, if less ornamental qualities of the chronicler.

And so we are underway with the fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, “a Government official, of the ninth class; paid rather according to my grade than my merit… Candidly, I was only a Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector..” Having chosen at random from his 22 Lett’s Pocket Diaries, he plans to give us a record of the week beginning Sunday, the 9th of September, 1883, as an example of his life.

The fore part of the day was altogether devoid of interest or event. Overhead, the sun blazing wastefully and thanklessly through a rarefied atmosphere; underfoot, the hot, black clay, thirsting for spring rain, and bare except for inedible roley-poleys, coarse tussocks, and the woody stubble of close-eaten salt bush; between sky and earth, a solitary wayfarer, wisely lapt in philosophic torpor. Ten yards behind the grey saddle horse follows a black pack-horse, lightly loaded; and three yards behind the pack-horse ambles listlessly a tall, slate-coloured kangaroo dog, furnished with the usual poison muzzle …

… the level black-soil plains of the Riverina Proper … away beyond the horizon, southward still, the geodesic curve carries that monotony across the zone of salt-bush, myall, and swamp box; across the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee, and on to the Victorian border – say, two hundred and fifty miles.

… and against the background of a pine-ridge, a mile ahead, I saw some wool teams.

There were five bullock teams with wagons loaded with bales of wool, bound for the river port of Echuca on the Murray River which marks the Victoria/NSW border – Steve Thompson’s twenty; Cooper’s eighteen; Dixon’s eighteen; and Price’s two teams of fourteen. Collins, knowing Thompson, Dixon and Price settles down with them and joins their consultations. The bullockies’ pressing need is to settle somewhere for the evening where their cattle can get feed and water, and where they won’t be chased off by the actual owner of the paddock they choose to camp on.


The annotations are endnotes, with no indication in the text that there is one, so that you must read the front and the back of the book at the same time, for text and annotation to match.

Such is Life The thematic phrase which gives the book its title did not originate with Ned Kelly, though the belief that he used it at his hanging explains its currency in Australia. It is at least as old as WJ Temple, 1796: “This interruption is very teasing; but such is Life”.

Kangaroo dog. A greyhound-deerhound cross

Riverina Proper ‘This central point of the universe’. In the C19th the term applied to all southern NSW north of the Murray, east of the Darling and west of the Great Divide.

Pine Ridge We are out on the Hay plains, whose almost perfectly flatness, hence ‘the geodesic curve’ of the horizon, is broken in places by lines of sandhills bound by the Australian cypress pine.

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

Not Writing, Truckin’

Journal: 061

Last trip was meant to be my last trip for the year. Milly was insisting that I be in WA in time to get my mandatory 14 days isolation out of the way before the family sat down to Xmas dinner. After years of FIFO Xmases in early January, she chose this one to be on the day!

But Homer had freight to move and he knew I was a soft touch. Last Monday we calculated that I could get to Perth, unload, reload, have a 24 hour break, be back in Melbourne early this week, unload, reload and still be back at the WA border by the last possible day, Thu 10 Dec.

So far, I’m on time. But not much time for blogging!

The photo is of me coming in through north west Victoria yesterday evening. I chose it so that Jackie (Death by Tsundoku) could see “My Brilliant (?) Career” above the visor. If she is not otherwise occupied.

Anyway, this is just to let you all know I am still in the land of the living and will resume posting just as soon as I’m home with my feet up. I hope you all have a book ready to read and review for AWW Gen 3 Week Prt II 17-23 Jan, 2021. I hope I do.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, first pub. 1974

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