Brona and Whispering Gums have contributed to this Week with reviews of short fiction, and WG further devoted a Monday Musings to discussing Indigenous SFF. I’ll provide links from here so that those (very few) of you who haven’t already seen them might do so. Bron says one of hers isn’t strictly SF but given that we have been discussing that problems we have been putting off dealing with – Climate! – are now upon us, I don’t think that matters.
WG: First Nations Australia Speculative Fiction
I have seen various terms applied to SF, or what I prefer, though Bill doesn’t, to call Speculative Fiction. Introducing their anthology, Unlimited futures, Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail speak of Visionary Fiction. Read on …
WG: Ambelin Kwaymullina, “Fifteen days on Mars”
In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”. Read on …
Brona: Everything Feels Like the End of the World, Else Fitzgerald
[A] speculative fiction short story collection ‘exploring possible futures in an Australia not so different from our present day to one thousands of years into an unrecognisable future.’ The manuscript won the 2019 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. Read on …
Brona: Before He Left the Family, Carrie Tiffany
[T]he story of a family breakdown told from the perspective of the teenage son, Kevin. Both boys know that their parents only married because their mum got pregnant on the first date. Read on …
Brona: The Animals in that Country, Laura Jean McKay
What a mad, mad ride Laura Jean McKay takes you on … a flu virus – the ‘zoo flu’ as it becomes known in the book – causes the communication barrier between humans and other animals to disappear. Read on …
Will there be more? I’m not sure. I was hopeful of another author interview. But, and this is the big but, today is my only day off work, though I may have another forced on me by, you know, 26 Jan and all that goes with it, including not being able to get loaded. We’ll see. Anyway, I hope to be home and unloaded by next Weds latest, when I undertake to take Milly to dinner (and to write up a Summary).
Buried in Print and I are read-alonging Katherine Susannah Prichard’s Goldfields trilogy in which, Nathan Hobby in his recent biography of Prichard says, KSP made a serious attempt to tell the Aboriginal side of the story, as well as that of all the white (mainly) men who rushed out to Southern Cross, Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie and beyond, into the dry, mostly scrub country east of Perth, in search of gold.
Interestingly, her POV in book 1, The Roaring Nineties, at least, is a woman, Sally Gough who insists on accompanying her husband, Morrie. Sally, while camped at Hannan’s (Kalgoorlie) in 1895, makes friends with an Aboriginal girl who is the mistress of Morrie’s then partner, Frisco [the young woman, Maritana, is left with Frisco, off and on, by her older husband in return for food]; and she is later rescued while suffering typhoid on a trek north (to the new Darlot discovery), by Maritana’s mother Kalgoorla and is returned to Kalgoorlie in the care of Kalgoorla’s tribal group.
Kalgoorlie and the Goldfields is Wangkatja country, of the Western Desert peoples, though immediately to the south (and east) was/is the smaller Ngadjunmaya nation (map).
Prichard, who researched this work in the 1940s, explains that men prospecting as far north as present-day Laverton had antagonised the locals by polluting their waterholes and stealing their women, and that isolated prospectors would quite often come under attack.
In Chapter XXVI, Sally hears of a prospector, ‘Mick Gerald’ who has discovered ‘a mountain of gold’ a couple of hundred miles north east
He and Bill and Syd Parry struck a big quartz hill … and called the place Mt Catherine… further on [they] discovered another reef which they intended to register as Daisy Bell.
While they were out prospecting, natives raided the camp, and speared the pack horses. They went out after the natives and met Ned Robbins who had struck the far end of the Daisy Bell reef and pegged a lease there. Ned went with them to settle with the natives.
[Back in Kalgoorlie ‘Gerald’ and the Parry’s register their claim to Daisy Bell, cutting Robbins out]. Robbins swore to get even with them.
He gave information to the police about that massacre of the blacks. [Mick] Gerald and Bill Parry were arrested. Syd Parry [subsequently] gave himself up.
The Coolgardie Miner came out with an article drawing attention to the ill-treatment of natives by certain unscrupulous prospectors. “Blacks had been killed wholesale”, it declared, “without regard to age or sex. Infants had been taken from their mothers and the brains battered out of their tiny bodies with rocks, innumerable outrages were perpetrated on the women and the unfortunate savages slaughtered ruthlessly.”
It was easy enough to find that story again, in Trove, in The Coolgardie Miner of 12 Feb 1895, and days following. Interestingly though, there is no massacre at that time/location on the Newcastle University ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres’ map (here).
Prichard had changed the names of the miners just slighty, so that ‘Mick Gerald’ was actually Michael Fitzgerald and ‘Ned Robbins’ was ___ Robinson. The words Prichard used above, “without regards to age or sex etc.” are Robinson’s (“The Mount Catherine find”, The Coolgardie Miner, 16 Feb 1895, p.6).
The Mount Catherine find was made on 7 Jan 1895. But a couple of weeks earlier, according to the Miner
a raid by blacks took place at the camp at Eucalyptus, where a part of the party was stationed. The natives stole a great quantity of provisions, clothes, ammunition etc. and speared a horse. On the return of the prospectors (who here consisted of Fitzgerald and the two Parrys) they started in pursuit of the n*ggers and tracked them to where their trail joined that of a big tribe. It was deemed prudent to go on to the Pendinni camp, find reinforcements and horses, and then proceed in pursuit of the thieves. [Robinson joins them]
The pursuit was continued until after New Years Day and what occurred in that time is not clearly stated. The party however, recovered none of the stolen goods.
When Robinson returns to the site of the massacre with the police, they are only able to find two bodies, of two young men who have been shot. The police charge Fitzgerald and the two Parrys with murder, with the case being heard by the Resident Magistrate at Coolgardie on Mon 25 Feb., 1895. Only Robinson gives evidence as to the events leading to the deaths, and the defendants are discharged. Robinson is arrested and held overnight, before he too is discharged.
It is interesting that Prichard would include this story in her work. And sad too that its publication in 1895, and its republication by Prichard, had so little effect on the Australian public, who even today are largely happy to accept the myth of ‘peaceful settlement’.
By the 1940s there was some sympathetic writing about ‘Aborigines’ – Prichard was clearly angry about the taking and rape of Aboriginal women, which she approaches first in Coonardoo (1928) then again here; Daisy Bates was in the newspapers from the early 1900s on, with her anthology, The Passing of the Aborigines coming out in 1938; then there’s Ion Idriess – Drums of Mer, Man Tracks, Nermaluk; Xavier Herbert, Capricornia (1938); and Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land (1941).
Ernestine Hill brings up Aboriginal slavery in The Great Australian Loneliness (1940), but Prichard’s The Roaring Nineties seems to be the first – outside of actual newspaper accounts, of which there are plenty – to include a massacre.
References: Katherine Susannah Prichard, The Roaring Nineties, first pub. 1946 Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911) – Tue 12 Feb 1895, Page 3, ‘THE LATEST FIND’ (here) Sat 16 Feb 1895, Page 6, ‘THE MOUNT CATHERINE FIND/THE PROSPECTORS ARRESTED ON SUSPICION OF MURDER’ (here) Tue 26 Feb 1895, Page 3, ‘THE MT CATHERINE TRAGEDY/THE PROSPECTORS DISCHARGED’ (here) Sat 2 Mar 1895, Page 6, ‘RESIDENT MAGISTRATES COURT/ALLEGED MURDER’ (here) – a full transcript of the evidence from the trial.
see also my posts: Australian Genocide, Sydney NSW, 1779 (here) The ‘Battle’ of Pinjarra, Pinjarra WA, 1834 (here) Wardandi Massacre, Wonnerup/Lake Mininup WA, 1841 (here) Cocanarup (Kukenarup) Massacre, Cocanarup Station, Ravensthorpe WA, 1880s (here) Kimberley Massacres, 1886-1924 (here) also in WA: Flying Foam Massacre, in the Pilbara, 1868 (here) Forrest River massacres, 1926 (Wiki here)
This is of course pure indulgence, but my recent adventures up dirt roads reminded my of this book of early Western Australian trucking which someone with a very neat hand gave me in 1985, my father, I guess. It has since led a hard life and not many of the pages are still attached to the spine.
Though Carnarvon, on the coast of Western Australia, has firmly established itself as the banana town of the west, it was not always so. Once wool was its only industry; and those who carried the wool from the out-lying stations were the truck drivers who are the theme of this book.
… trucks had come to stay, chiefly through the resourcefulness and initiative of that peculiar breed of person, the truck driver. What makes a young man love a motor so?
The trucks, little high-pressure-tyred vehicles always grossly overloaded, were pitted against those hundreds of miles of rutted wheel tracks, endless loose sandhills, washed-out river crossings, tropical deluges and a pitiless sun.
The map, though of course Ammon doesn’t say so, is all Yamaji country, bordering on Noongar at the bottom. Geraldton, which dates back to 1851, is not shown but it is more or less opposite the name ‘Indian Ocean’. The North West Coastal Hwy which is the road I use to go that way, now comes up from Perth between Three Springs and the coast, through Greenough to Geraldton, crosses the Murchison R at the Galena bridge and then follows the route labelled Sandalwood Track to Carnarvon, Minilya, Winning and northwards on to Karratha today, and back then, the 1920s, to Roebourne and Cossack (WA map).
Which reminds me, I am still unable to recognise sandalwood whose harvest was once an important WA industry, nor most of the other trees and shrubs the author casually mentions, “thickets of jam-trees … with cork-trees, mulga and beefwood, while a tangle of wild wattle, bluebush, quandongs, and a species of wild plum grew in abundance.”
And just for Melanie, “scorpions, six inches long with claws on them like the gilgies [fresh water crays] down south. And centipedes half as long as your arm, that can run like the very devil … Lizards won’t hurt you, but there are plenty of nasty little spinifex snakes about …”
On his first trip he learns to charge up sandhills, making multiple attempts and laying brush down to stop those hard, narrow tyres from digging in. Then someone invents trailers! First with one axle and only carrying a few more wool bales, then with two and carrying up to 18, or 3 tons. So now a hill they may have charged over, they are dragging this dead weight and are bogged all the time.
Of course these new-fangled trucks were fiercely resented by camel team drivers – a team of 23 camels, a wagon and all the gear might represent an investment of two to three thousand pounds. Nevertheless the camel teamsters lost contract after contract, hence the ferals I photographed the other day (maybe 400 km due east).
These days you see signs along the road about Charles Kingsford Smith, our most famous pioneer aviator. He made his start in this region delivering mail and the author for a while is driving a truck which once belonged to him.
Realizing the great potential for air transport in Australia, Kingsford Smith formed a partnership in 1924 with fellow pilot Keith Anderson. They raised the capital to buy two Bristol Tourers by operating a trucking business from Carnarvon, the Gascoyne Transport Co. ADB
I have to have a truck photo, so here’s a Graham truck manufactured in Evansville, Indiana, in the 1920s and the first truck Ammon drove.
Some things never change. Ammon was on trip rates, 3d a mile, no matter how long he spent loading/unloading or broken down repairing his truck on the road. Sixteen hours averaging 5mph would get you one pound/day. Today you might earn 44c/km, and average 90 kph for 14 hours, let’s say $500/day or 250 times as much. If that matches inflation then an average Perth house, $500K today would be the same as one thousand pounds then. I can’t find any figures to suggest whether or not that was the case. I suspect the 1925 house price might have been less.
And of course, other drivers “never passed another driver on the road without stopping for a yarn or boiling the billy with him. If he was in trouble they stayed …” I’m pleased to say drivers out here still stop, if you’re in trouble anyway.
There’s always a sad story in Australian bush yarns. Jimmy Stewart who taught Ammon the ropes, on his last trip before going home to Edinburgh to marry his sweetheart, was found dead on the track. He’d leaned out to look back at a dodgy tyre on his trailer, had lost his grip, fallen, hit his head, and the truck had carried on without him.
Carnarvon is at the mouth of the Gascoyne River, which is often dry for months at a time – “nothing but a sandy watercourse 500 miles long.” Carnarvon only has around 10 inches of rain/year so when the river floods it is generally from rain hundreds of kms inland. The streets of the town are quite low compared with the river and these days are protected by a long levee. Even so, one xmas 10 or 12 years ago I was held up there for a week, water all round so that they finally sent us dozen or so trucks an early xmas dinner by helicopter to keep us going. When the water went down the road south was so badly cut that we had to go home the long way (picture: the convoy setting out north along the river), 400 kms north, 400 kms inland, then 1400 kms south to accomplish what should have been a 900 km journey. Ammon describes getting across swimming, by boat and as the river went down, in trucks towed by camels.
As trucks got quicker, roads got worse, broken up by corrugations. Within a few years and before he was thirty, “Snow” Ammon was out of trucking for good, his back destroyed. Now, before I end I want to return to the Yamaji. How the West was won was pretty brutal – and the excerpt below is describing the situation, not so long ago, in my, and maybe your, grandparents’ time.
WW Ammon, Wheel Tracks: Trucking accross the great north-west, Angus & Robertson, 1966. 220pp.
Early on, the author gives a lift to “a pair of young aborigines returning to Bigemia Station”.
“One of these boys answered to the name of Charcoal, the other to Jumbo. These were the white man’s names for them and illustrated, I thought, the status they held in the white man’s world – a brand by which they answered the crack of the white man’s whip and did his bidding in return for a few shabby clothes and the scraps from his kitchen … a kerosene tin [into which went] all the left-overs, the slops and the scrapings from the dishes, the tea leaves … At the end of the day an old gin came from the native camp … and carried it away to be shared as the evening meal.
In the north I was often told that an aboriginal only understands what you bash into his head with a piece of wood. And while I have seen plenty of this kind of thing done, I never have believed, and never will believe, that the native appreciated it…” [!]
Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Sykes (1943-2010) was a prominent Black activist in the seventies, and a poet with Love Poems and Other Revolutionary Acts published in 1979. Snake Cradle (1997) is the first volume of her 3 volume autobiography. My focus this week has been on women’s activism but of course Bobbi Sykes takes us also to another aspect of the Gen 4 period, Black Rights.
It is necessary at this point to make clear that although Sykes never met her father, nor got much information from her (white) mother, he was almost certainly an African-American serviceman passing through Townsville, where Sykes was born and grew up, during WWII.
Sykes implies a connection with Indigenous people, not least in the title of this book, and that caused her some trouble. She did not grow up within the Indigenous community as did for instance Mudrooroo, her contemporary, from the other side of the continent, and with similar ancestry, but there is no doubting she suffered from racial prejudice, nor her commitment to activism.
I should admit here I made a mistake. This being the first volume of Sykes’ autobiography it stops when she is 18, so we see nothing of her life as an activist in the 1960s and 70s which is what I was really interested in and which would have been most relevant to this generation of women. As a literary work it has almost no merit at all, which is not to say it is not plainly written and readable, but that it is just another kid’s life: this happened and then that happened.
You could say I have read and loved two memoirs of childhood recently, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Inseparables and Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row, and why is Syke’s childhood so white bread compared with those two. And I would have to say, good writing makes you think about more than just the events taking place. Perhaps it is as Murnane says, good writing makes you know the narrator.
Anyway, I will take you quickly through the events of Sykes’ life. They are not typical of what we read about growing up Black in Australia, but of course they were formative and still illustrate aspects of racism in Australia and Queensland. I could say ‘at that time’ but Queensland remains Queensland, and it is only 17 years since Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee died of tripping over a stair in the Palm Island police station after singing ‘Who let the Dogs Out’ while a police car was passing.
Syke’s mother was a white woman who for reasons of her own chose to be single mother with two daughters by a Black US serviceman, Roberta and Dellie, and one by a Chinese Australian greengrocer. It turns out late in the book that Roberta also has a much older brother who has no contact with them. Two older girls also live with them from time to time, Leila and Desma. Sykes is told they are both orphans though Leila’s father, a Finnish seaman, boarded from time to time in the house next door and would occasionally come over to do chores, or to take them for a drive.
Are we told her mother’s name? It’s Mrs Patterson, but let’s call her Mum, as Sykes does. Mum is compulsively secretive and hard working, taking in laundry to be washed by hand, and also when she’s short of money, boarders. She owns their small house on the outskirts of Townsville, an important port in north Queensland, and later buys and sells others. Queensland houses are typically up on stilts and if there were too many boarders Roberta or Mum or both would have to sleep out on the verandah or in a corner under the house.
Mum’s family are from Cairns, further north, but the one sister, Glad, she stays in touch with lives in Brisbane, 1,000 miles (1,600km) to the south – a day and two nights by the Sunlander train.
Roberta is accepted at a Catholic girls school and does well there. She, and later Dellie, are the only non-whites, and for long periods Roberta forgets that she is non-white, though she is often chased and taunted by state school kids on the way home. She is a small, skinny child, often ill and eventually missing a year of school with meningitis, her only consolation while at home a set of encyclopedias bought on time payment which she reads from end to end. To her chagrin, younger sister Dellie is introduced to bras before she is.
The nuns attempt to direct her down the ‘domestic’ stream, but Roberta is determined to be a doctor. The only compromise that can be reached is for her to do the domestic stream and the maths/science stream side by side, and in this, luckily, one of the teachers helps her out with early classes. But as soon as she turns 14, the senior nun makes an excuse and turns her out. As far as this book is concerned that is the end of her schooling, though I see that in 1983, so at age 40, Sykes received a PhD in Education from Harvard, the first black Australian to graduate from a United States university.
Roberta’s only contact with Indigenous children is at the Saturday afternoon movies, where she makes friends with some and returns with them to their home suburb, Garbutt. At various times she speaks with older Indigenous men and implies that they see her as belonging to the Snake totem, hence the book’s title, and her later problems with Indigenous colleagues.
The last quarter of the book is concerned with her moving to Brisbane, living first with Aunty Glad and then in rooming houses, working notably in the pineapple factory – we all grew up eating Golden Circle tinned pineapple – and going out dancing. After a midnight movie she is left stranded without transport, accepts a ride with some men, is taken to a farm on the outskirts and is beaten, raped and left for dead. For all the times that she is picked up by police and questioned does she have documents permitting her off the mission, this time a detective believes her and over the course of a year pursues the men involved and brings them to justice and long prison sentences.
Roberta returns to Townsville, is only slowly brought to realise she is pregnant, turns down two proposals of marriage, and so at 18 she is a single mother with a son.
Roberta Sykes, Snake Cradle, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997. 330pp.
Apparently I have read this before. Inside the back cover there’s a boarding pass Melbourne-Adelaide with my name on it and the date 03Jul16. Why the hell was I flying from Melbourne to Adelaide? And on the back of the pass there are notes, extracts and page no.s. Having got so close, I wish I’d gone on to write it up.
Checks back through blog… My posts for that week are Benang and Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. My work diary is a little more informative. I’d been staying with mum. On Sat Jul 2 I swam 3km in the morning and had dinner with mum and B3 that evening (for B3’s upcoming 60th). Sun 3 is blank. Mon 4, Fly home. Go with Milly to see Psyche belly dancing. I give in, I must have flown home Sun night/Mon morning with a connection through Adel.
Reading now, bits are familiar, but not the overall story.
In the Comments after West Block – my ACT read for this month, as this is QLD – I finally began to get my head around the fact that AWW Gen 4 Week is coming up fast and I have given very little thought to the underlying theory. I said then that I thought Sara Dowse’s writing was based on/was an advance on the Modernism of, say, Eleanor Dark and that this would likely prove typical of Gen 4.
Reaching Tin River (1990) is a late Astley, written at the end of the Gen 4 period (1960-1990), so that the author has had the whole period, one in which Postmodernism was increasing in importance and influence, to develop her writing. It shows.
Astley’s earlier novels reflected most the Postcolonial aspect of Postmodernism, dealing with the legacy of white oppression of the Indigenous inhabitants of particularly her home state, Queensland. There are aspects of that here, but muted. The protagonist, Belle, grows up in and subsequently takes us on a journey through central Queensland. In that context she mentions the Hornet Bank Massacre* a number of times without taking it much further.
The novel is an exploration of Belle’s progress from childhood to her thirties, told in simple, almost diaryish style, in the first person. There are subsidiary themes running through – the unsatisfactoryness of marriage (for women); music, and in particular her dislike of the piano practice piece The Rustle of Spring; and Euclid’s rules of geometry – I get frustrated when arty people misuse maths, especially chaos theory, the uncertainty principle, and Schrödinger’s cat – Belle uses Euclid’s rules as similes for her attempts to locate her ‘centre’.
I am looking for a one-storey town with trees river hills and a population of under two thousand one of whom must be called Gaden Lockyer
Or Mother was a drummer in her own all-women group, a throbber of a lady with midlife zest and an off-centre smile
Or I have decided to make a list of all the convent girls who learnt to play ‘The Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding between 1945 and 1960.
This is how the book begins, in fact it’s nearly the whole of the first page. I think I’m in for Astley in experimental mode, but she soon settles down. The plot is straightforward. Belle and her mother, Bonnie live on Bonnie’s parents’ farm ‘Perjury Plains’ near the (fictional) towns of Drenchings and Jericho Flats. Belle’s absent father, for whom she later goes looking, is a mediocre trumpet player and and US serviceman from the Korean War.
Belle on a school excursion learns of and subsequently becomes infatuated with turn of the century farmer politician Gaden Lockyer (ie. someone who is long dead).
She becomes first a teacher, then a librarian. Inexperienced sexually, she marries an older workmate given to mansplaining and is soon disillusioned.
Finally, she sets out on a road trip to discover Gaden Lockyer, to put herself in places where he has been and this crosses over (fairly successfully) into Magic Realism as he, Lockyer, becomes aware that a ghost from the future is haunting him.
There’s lots of other stuff and other characters. Bonnie, who was never an attentive mother, becomes more hippyish as she gets older. We learn pretty quickly to dislike Sebastian, the mansplaining husband. Belle’s father and Bonnie are never divorced but stay in remote contact on opposite sides of the world. We get to stay in some pretty shabby boarding houses – in fact I’m not sure Belle and I don’t walk to work together in the early 1970s when we both lived in New Farm boarding houses and walked across the Valley to the Courier Mail building – and end up in one that was once the nursing home where Lockyer saw out his final years.
An enjoyable book. Yet another Astley swipe at provincial Queensland (ie. all of it). And an interesting text for the influence of Postmodernism on Australian writing.
Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River, Minerva, Melbourne, 1990. 222pp (cover painting by Faye Maxwell)
All our Thea Astley reviews are listed on Lisa/ANZLL’s Thea Astley page (here)
*Hornet Bank Massacre: In October 1857 Rosa Praed was at a corroboree which presaged the massacre of seven members of the Fraser family, and one Black worker, on neighbouring Hornet Bank Station (map), in retaliation for the usual ‘dispersal’ of the traditional inhabitants and misuse of their women. Following the massacre, posses of white settlers, in which Murray-Prior [Praed’s father] was prominent, virtually wiped out all the local Yiman people.
Oldest son, William Fraser who had been away at the time of the massacre, returned and began murdering Black people – without hindrance from the police – at every opportunity, including two men exiting Rockhampton courthouse where they had just been acquitted. Astonishingly, Fraser is the model for Colin McKeith, the hero of [Praed’s Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land] – extract from my review.
Hornet Bank is in the vicinity of Taroom, Qld about 470 km north-west of Brisbane (good cattle grazing country, though now subject to extensive fracking)
A recap of the Massacre story in The Queenslander, 15 Sep 1906 (here)
Such is Life (01) Such is Life (02) Such is Life (03) Such is Life (04) Such is Life (05) Such is Life (06) Such is Life (07) Such is Life (08)
The fictitious memoir of Tom Collins, a NSW Government official, “of the ninth class” and former bullocky. Being reviewed in 12 parts over the course of 2021.
Ok. Spoilers. You would have to be made of stone for the central part of Chapter V not to bring a tear to your eye. We are on Mondunbarra station, and a large number of bullockies, tank sinkers, and other similar contractors, and of course Tom, have settled for the evening in two camps on a rare, well-grassed paddock.
It’s a warm moonlit night and the men begin listlessly swapping stories about the hardships they have encountered and the wrongs done to them by station owners. Gradually it comes round to Tom’s mate, Steve Thompson’s turn.
Thompson told a story well. I verily believe he used to practise the accomplishment mentally, as he sauntered along beside his team. He knew his own superiority here; his acquaintances knew it too, and they also knew that he knew it. Hence they were reluctant to minister occasion to his egotism…
[some filler, Thompson is on Kulkaroo, yarning, when the station manager rushes up]
“‘Child lost in the scrub on Goolumbulla. Dan O’Connell’s little girl – five or six years old. Anybody know where there’s any blackfellows?’ Nobody knew. ‘Well raise your horses wherever you can, and clear at once,’ says he.”
By ‘Dan O’Connell’ they are referring to the Irish shepherd Rory O’Halloran, father of Mary, whom we met in Such is Life (04). Steve goes with the Kulkaroo men and gives a blow by blow description of the search. Which is heart breaking. The search goes on for days, one stockman following Mary’s footprints over soft ground and hard, others following and casting around, finding her discarded boots, finding where she slept, stopping to sleep themselves.
It is not clear why Steve hadn’t told Tom straight away, or for that matter how Tom had not been told the day before up at the homestead. But although it is a central part of the novel, Tom glosses over it, and the men around the fire go on to tell their own tales of children lost in the bush – an enduring theme of Australian storytelling.
One tells of a boy crawling into a hollow log to escape the searchers, bogey men as he thought, calling his name; and another of his young brother missing, never found. “It seems to me the most likely thing … was to get jammed in a log like that other little chap. Then after five years, or ten years, or twenty years, the log gets burned, and nobody notices a few little bones, crumbled among the ashes.”
The other subject this chapter brought up was the presence, or otherwise, of Aborigines. Aborigines on farm country were quite early on herded into reservations. This is not farm country but semi-desert grazing country. In northern Australia graziers seem to have tolerated ‘traditional’ life in camps away from the homesteads as long as the men could be relied on for mustering cattle – and of course as soon as they were obliged to pay them, in the 1970s, the pastoral companies forced all Indigenous people off their stations and into town.
The situation in the southern half of the outback seems to have been different. Those properties all ran sheep, and maybe had not the same need for men. Shepherds, who lived in huts on the outer portions of each property, were by Tom’s account mostly married white men, probably attracted to Australia by the goldrushes of the 1850s. In earlier days shepherds were mostly convicts. How the Aborigines were dispersed I don’t know, but it seems to have happened quite early.
Speaking of the search for Mary O’Halloran, Steve Thompson says
Did anybody know where to find a blackfellow, now that he was wanted?
Seems there had been about a dozen of them camped near the tank in the cattle-paddock for a month past, but they were just gone, nobody knew where. And there had been an old lubra and a young one camped within a mile of the station, and an old fellow and his lubra near one of the boundary men’s places; but they all happen to have shifted …
Eventually it is the old woman who is brought up and completes the search.
Mondunbarra. Except for Chapter IV which Tom spends naked on the banks of the Murray, the action has mostly been situated on a few stations along the Lachlan River, west of Hillston, NSW. Hillston was established in 1863, so 20-25 years before the events described here, but I don’t recall Tom mentioning it, though it would be closer than Ivanhoe, Hay and Deniliquin which he does mention.
Dan O’Connell. ‘The Liberator’. Politician and fighter for Irish Catholic rights in early-mid 1800s. (here)
Lubra. Australian pidgin word for an Aboriginal woman, possibly Tasmanian in origin. First documented by GA Robinson Protector of Aborigines in Tas. and then Vic. “sometimes derogatory and inherently sexist, since there was no equivalent term for an Aboriginal male.”
Aborigines. Frances Devlin-Glass in the paper I was referencing last month, “Furphy, Race and Anxiety”, devotes a section to Aborigines. She says that in the first decade of white settlement in Victoria the Aboriginal population declined from15,000 to less than 3,000. By their relative absence (in the 1880s) you would imagine the decline in the Riverina was similar. In Furphy’s The Buln Buln and The Brolga, basically short stories excised from the original Such is Life ms, Bob expresses the opinion: “Fact, most tribes is dyin’ out o’ their own accord, even where they ain’t interfered with”.
Furphy generally seems to hold the view of liberal conservatives today, that the Indigenous population should be honoured for it’s skills, that their time is past, and it’s not his fault. “While one finds in [his work] a refusal to objectify the other, there is also an unquestioned ethnocentrism, a fantasy of the progressive Australian (of European origin).”
Joseph Furphy, Such is Life, Bulletin, Sydney, 1903
FD Glass, R Eaden, GW Turner, L Hoffman eds, The Annotated Such is Life, by Joseph Furphy, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999. 297pp (plus 170pp notes and annotations).
By month 9 I’m stretching for new covers. I couldn’t (at first) identify who produced the cover above though Penguin used the same image for an anthology of Australian bush writing. The painting is ‘The Selector’s Hut (Whelan on the log)’ by Arthur Streeton in 1890 (see NGA here). Searches more, finds it on ebay, publisher CreateSpace, more searching, on-demand publisher owned by Amazon.
Merciless Gods (2014) is Tsiolkas’s first collection of short fiction. I have been listening to the stories over a couple of months as I had time to kill, the Audible version, read, sadly, by Humphrey Bower whose educated, rounded tones are a very poor match for Tsiolkas’s frequently rough and ethnic protagonists.
Melanie/Grab the Lapels wrote, when she was reading Tsiolkas for the first time (The Slap) that she felt she “was being pursued by penises”. James Ley writes of these stories, “they are notable for their preoccupation with sex and violence, which they frequently bring into uneasy alignment.” (Sydney Review of Books, 1 Sept 2015). I can only say that Christos Tsiolkas writes with his dick.
If you are interested in a proper review, follow the link to Ley. I’ve been listening to these stories over a number of months and barely remember the last few I listened to, let alone the first. I would not have attempted this ‘review’ at all except that one story, Civil War, concerns a young man hitchhiking from Perth, getting lifts with truck drivers across the Nullarbor. Just for you, I am going to have to listen to it again, at my desk, so I can pause it and take notes.
Here’s an admission, discussing this story with Milly over dinner at the Balmoral, she looks it up. Now, days later, I can’t find what she found, a list of chapter headings/story names. Luckily, she gave the story a name, the reading doesn’t (yes it does, I just wasn’t paying attention), and searching on ‘Civil War Tsiolkas’ I find an earlier version published in the Barcelona Review, Issue #86 (here), so suddenly excerpts are a whole lot easier.
I am thinking about God, what it would look like, taste like, smell like. Outside the window of the truck the ochre ocean of the Nullarbor spreads out before me. The massive vehicle I’m travelling in is dwarfed by the grandeur of the prehistoric earth. Its deep guttural snorts, its thundering wheels are no competition for the explosive silence of the desert. God is absent from this landscape. Or rather, God too is eclipsed by the rocks and the dirt, the scrub and sand.
In fact, truck driving is a cocoon, insulating you from the sounds, the smells, even the temperature outside. Your preoccupation, to the extent that you are paying attention, is the road, always the road, what’s ahead – traffic, kangaroos, rest stops – and how your truck is doing. Looking around requires effort.
Nothing can withstand the hold of the desert. The truck driver, over a working life of breathing in this landscape, is also becoming part of it. ‘Don’t you ever get bored by it?’ He laughs loudly and points out to the plain. ‘You can’t get bored by this. I get real fucking bored by this road, by the asphalt and the bloody white lines. But you can’t get bored by this,’ and again he points across the scrub. ‘This land that looks like an atom bomb hit it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’
This is interesting, to me anyway, but is not the point of the story. In Perth, a “white city [living] in fear of the shadows cast by its black inhabitants”, the narrator has had a lover, a young Aboriginal man, who has died of a drug overdose.
I sat next to him and gently pulled out the syringe and took off his T-shirt, wiping away the vomit from around his mouth and chin. I cried, but I’m still not sure if it was for him or for myself. I had not yet got to know this man who was still so very much a boy. I had been up his arse, I had sucked on his cock, but I knew very little about him. I knew that there was someone I should call: the police? the ambulance?
We move backwards and forwards, from the death and funeral of the young man, to the truck, a truckstop, a meeting of likeminded drivers.
‘People are getting ready … arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.’ He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying.
The drivers are certain that a civil war is coming, that Aboriginal people are being armed “by the Jews”, and that they, we, must be armed to put them down. The truck moves off again, night falls, the narrator dozes, wakes to see a dark shape in front of them, a thump, ‘Sorry, mate, I think I might’ve just hit some pissed coon.’
A week later he’s in Sydney, making a new life.
I will feel safe and I will not question this safety. But occasionally, when a hot wind blows in from the west, I will remember that they are gathering guns in the outback.
Do truck drivers really talk like that, is that what’s going on in the other Australia, the not-Melbourne-Sydney? Maybe. They certainly use that language, and the idea that “The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars” is widespread. But no one imagines that Indigenous people are armed, and hopefully the days of “dispersions” are over.
What really impressed me was not Tsiolkas’s “knowledge” of truck drivers but his self awareness as a white man that these thoughts are not entirely repressed in his own mind, nor in ours. As he leaves the family gathered around a fire in the backyard after the funeral –
And what about you, you bastards? I was thinking. What about you lot? You were family. You should have done something. And now you insult him. You were too busy drinking and getting out of it in your own way. You fucking good-for-nothing lazy black bastards. I’m ashamed even as I write these words. But it would be more shameful to pretend I did not think them.
I don’t recommend you read Merciless Gods. I don’t even recommend you read ‘Civil War’. Tsiolkas is a fine writer but his endless sex and violence is wearing.
Christos Tsiolkas, Merciless Gods, Allen & Unwin, 2014. Audio version Bolinda Books/Audible read by Humphrey Bower.
The Silence (2020) is an Australian mystery by an English woman which I came to via a review and author interview on an American blog – Grab the Lapels (Melanie). Author, Susan Allott spent a few years in Sydney, as a teenager I think, but homesickness got her and she’s now back in England. She says that between having an Australian husband and her own time here, she became interested in and angered by the policies which led to the Stolen Generations. In my opinion Allott has managed to write a book which is both interesting and entertaining in itself, and which manages to discuss the issue of the taking of Aboriginal children without assuming to speak for the Indigenous community which these policies were intended to destroy.
The principal character of the novel is Isla, who in 1967 is a four year old whose parents, Joe and Louisa, have come out from England and settled in an ordinary northern Sydney beach-side suburb. While her mother works, Isla spends all day with Mandy, their next door neighbour. Joe is a construction supervisor in the city and well on his way to becoming an alcoholic, while Mandy’s husband Steve is a policeman whose only job, seemingly, is to drive his ‘truck’ into the outback to take Aboriginal children from their families.
And for those, like our Prime Minister, who like to claim that this stuff only occurred way back in the past, I should point out that the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board authorised the taking of Aboriginal children up till 1969. That is, there are Indigenous men and women, who were born at the same time as the Prime Minister, and in the same state, who were stolen by people of his and our parents’ generations.
The story proceeds on two timelines in parallel, and via the viewpoints of all five main characters. The second timeline begins in 1997 when Isla, who is working in London, returns to Sydney to stand by her father who is a person of interest in the belated police investigation into the disappearance of Mandy who, it turns out, has not been seen for 30 years.
I’m guessing Allott has chosen ’67 and ’97 to fit in with Aboriginal ‘Protection’ ending at the end of the ’60s, although this does make The Silence Historical as well as Crime Fiction. Particularly in the 1967 timeline, there will be a radio on in the background with Harold Holt defending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the Sydney Opera House under construction and so on, to remind us of the period.
In the earlier timeline Louisa is unable to deal with her homesickness, nor with Joe’s drinking and violence, nor his inability to understand, and despite being pregnant, she flies home to her mother (at a time, the author says, when flying was still expensive and relatively unusual. My grandparents went ‘home’ by sea in the early 60s but flew for other trips later in the same decade*). Allott says she originally intended Louisa to be the principal character so she could discuss her own homesickness, many years later, but the Stolen Generations part of the narrative took over.
Isla feels a distance between herself and her mother and is much more comfortable with Mandy who has no children of her own, and likes it that way, but is happy to have Isla around her feet or to take her down the beach at the end of the street. Mandy has to deal with Steve’s distress each time he returns from a trip which has resulted in another Aboriginal child being dragged from its mother’s arms to be put into care, and also with his unhappiness at their having no children of their own. I must say Isla remembers a lot for a four year old. All I can remember is some very big blocks in kindergarten.
‘Steve’s back!’ Isla held onto the back of the couch and sprang up and down, her backside in the air. ‘He’s back, Mandy!’ Mandy stood at the window and looked out. Steve had parked up already, and the truck was filthy, as always. Mud-caked wheels; brick-red dust at the fenders. The windscreen was covered in muck but for the small double-arc of the wipers. Steve turned the engine off and slumped over the steering wheel, resting his head on the bridge of his hands. Mandy’s stomach turned. ‘Here we go,’ she said, as he lifted his head. She stepped away from the window, afraid to catch his eye.
Australian writer, Sara Dowse commented recently in Whispering Gums about crime fiction: “.. when it’s done well it’s often where you find the best characterisations, and the feeling of place and time.” That was in the context of a Gary Disher novel, though my own examples would be Ian Rankin or Camilla Läckberg. This novel is not of that standard but Isla and the four adults are well defined and we understand them better as the novel progresses, though this is less true of the locations, which are relatively generic.
This is not a classic whodunit, but 1997 Isla works her way around indifferent policing to prod her parents and the hard-to-find Steve until she and we get some idea of what happened to Mandy and why. I’m not sure Allott got 1967 Australia exactly right, but in the end I found the novel both plausible and interesting.
Susan Allott, The Silence, The Borough Press, London 2020. 350pp.
*The era of cheap international flights began for Australians in 1971 when Qantas introduced into service its first Boeing 747.
Note: This review talks about rape and sex with children.
A couple of years ago a post of mine about the Mallee (Victoria’s semi desert north-west, if I haven’t made that clear by now) inspired Lisa/ANZLL to buy and readSmall Town Rising. She then sent it on to me and now I’ve read it. For that reason I went back to her review before writing my own – I am sometimes careful about what I say. Lisa’s verdict was “This is a well-intentioned novel but there are some flaws.” My verdict is that this is a racist and misogynist book, which should not be excused for being of its time -1981 – and I intensely disliked reading it.
Bill Green (1940-2011) grew up in the Mallee, went away to school at Geelong College, worked in Australia and overseas as a journalist before settling in a small country town down south (Camperdown, Vic) with his wife and children. I look that stuff up because I always wonder what sort of feel the author has for his subject.
Now, to be fair to Lisa I think the author’s intention was to shine a light on small town racism, not something we generally think about in Victoria. And that he was just totally ham-fisted about it. There’s an Indigenous family, the Stirlings, – who might “pass for white” – living in town. The local police sergeant would like to pin something on them. There’s an Aboriginal community living in a camp on the NSW side of the river. The sergeant would like to stop them hanging around the town and Mayor Blossoms is willing to go along with him. Doctor Cavett, thinks ‘something should be done’ about police racism. His son John aged about 11, is friends with Chasa, the youngest Stirling.
Green is uninhibited about the racist language used by the cops, the mayor, and anyone else they rope in for assistance and we might put that down to that’s just the way people speak (unfortunate but true). Where he comes completely unstuck is in his treatment of women. He has a thing about legs. Girls barely in their teens have short skirts and long legs; a girl getting a lift home lets her skirt ride up which the driver, the doctor I think, totally gets off on; a teacher in her twenties sits so that her 11 and 12 year old pupils can see up to the tops of her stockings. The same teacher, called in to babysit, wrestles with John in his bed, and goes back for a second go when he, did I say he’s only 11, gets an erection.
This is all made worse by the author’s third person omniscient point of view which means we get told what everyone, mothers and daughters, victims and perpetrators are thinking.
The plot is basically this: John and Chasa do various YA things. John thinks more about sex than an 11 year old should. The mayor’s daughter Kay, in John and Chasa’s class at school, wanders away from an evening picnic…
[Mayor Blossoms] had flushed and shifted uncomfortably as the boong had passed his girls in their short dresses. Their long straight legs were beginning to give them problems: Kay’s especially. He had seen her looking at the boong as he passed.
Once in a childish game he had moved his hands beneath her knickers and over the tiny perfection of her buttocks. It could have been an affectionate fatherly caress, but he now thought of it as uncontrolled masculinity. Her cry of delight had affronted and frightened him.
… When Mayor Blossoms comes looking for her, Kay’s lying on the river bank some metres from Linny, Chasa’s older brother. The mayor rushes at Linny, treading on his daughter, and Linny understandably dives in the river. Kay says nothing happened. The doctor determines Kay is still a virgin and is unmarked (except for the bruise caused by her father). Linny is charged with molesting her.
The police sergeant gets up a party to burn down the Aboriginal camp on the other side of the river, ie. not in his jurisdiction. Chasa’s sister aged maybe 14, is invited to the movies by her young boss, who takes her home and rapes her. She tells her parents, who have been expecting it to happen sooner or later, and she’s not sure she feels terribly bad about it. The next picnic Kay is at she invites John down the river bank and they do some mutual touching inside knickers etc. Chasa goes missing. Life goes on.
I’ve thought a bit about the setting and it’s probably the early 1960s (John goes to see a re-release of The Maltese Falcon which first came out in 1941), and that Strong Lake is most likely based on Swan Hill, which as it happens I occasionally visited at that time, from my grandparents’ farm, and remember seeing Aboriginal people in the street and sitting in the parks, the only place in Victoria I ever did so.
Bill Green, Small Town Rising, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1981. 167 pp. Cover illustration – it wraps around the back -‘Monto in Landscape’, Gil Jamieson (1978) [as it happens, Monto is in Queensland, near Bundaberg, and 2,000 km north of the Mallee]
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.
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)