The Savage Crows, Robert Drewe

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The subject of The Savage Crows (1976) is the love life of a young man, Stephen Crisp, as he collects material for a thesis on the extermination of Tasmanian Aborigines – the Parlevar people – who after 50 years battling introduced diseases and frontier war, had been reduced from maybe 15,000 people down to a couple of hundred. In 1833 those few remaining tribespeople were persuaded by missionary George Robinson, acting on behalf of Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, to permit themselves to be removed to Flinders Island in Bass Strait, north of Tasmania.

The book has two completely distinct narrative streams – fragments of Crisp’s life up to the present where he is living alone in a flat whose toilet window overlooks a portion of Lavender Bay, Sydney Harbour; and the (imagined) journals of George Robinson as he makes his way around Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) as a ‘conciliator’. Both streams continue throughout the book and there is no marker when you step from one to the other. Although it is common these days for novels to contain both the story of a writer and the story being written, these two bear so little relation to each other that I found the switches annoying, rather than ‘experimental’ or ‘ambitious’ as claimed.

Crisp, as you might expect in a first novel, is a stand-in for Drewe himself, and lots of the material around Crisp’s early life in the leafy, upper-middle class Perth suburbs between the river and the sea, is familiar to readers of Drewe’s later memoir, The Shark Net (2000). Over the course of the novel we learn, not sequentially, that Crisp has an ex-wife and daughter; that he has a girlfriend, Anna; that his mother died young, some years earlier; and that he has a difficult relationship with his father and with his younger brother who has stayed in Perth to make money mining mug investors on the stock exchange, which is how most West Australians make their fortunes.

The two streams intersect briefly when Crisp, holidaying at his brother’s Dalkeith (Perth’s Toorak) house, tackles his brother, Geoff, about his racist jokes:

‘Why do it?’ he asked, sipping one of Geoff’s tawny ports. ‘Isn’t it a shade racist?’ The women had gone to bed. The dogs lay comatose at their feet, trembling at busy dreams.

‘Just for a laugh. Where’s you sense of humour?’ A propos of nothing, or something, Geoff said, ‘Ever rooted a coon, by the way?’

Crisp works his way through his relationship with Anna – at a party one of Geoff’s gyno friends points out that Anna is pregnant, but Crisp is oblivious; is divorced by his ex-wife; forges some sort of relationship with his father; and, finally, makes a visit to Tasmania and Flinders Island, where I suppose the two streams merge again, but not to any great effect.

The Robinson stream, the imagined journal, has a monotone quality, not quite as turgid as a real C19th journal, but not free-running narrative either. Robinson makes his way around Tasmania, accompanied by Truganini – famously the ‘last Tasmanian’ – and a small number of others from her language group, particularly another woman, Dray, and Truganini’s husband, Wooraddy.

My endeavours began on 30th March 1829 when I left Hobart Town at 9.30 am in a large whaleboat with six hands bound for Bruny Island lying close to the mainland due south…As I saw it … I had been placed in the vanguard of the movement for the amelioration of the natives…

Robinson’s plan is to befriend the Aboriginal inhabitants of Bruny Island, and to create a settlement for them with huts, vegetable gardens and a school. He is concerned to separate the locals from white settlers on the far side of the island who were “enticing the natives with food, clothing and tobacco for which the women were submitting to immoral practices”. In this he is less than successful and in any case the Aboriginals are nearly all wiped out by an unidentified disease.

The following year he makes up a party of half a dozen convicts and the four remaining Bruny Islanders to make contact with the Indigenous inhabitants of southern Tasmania, during which he undergoes various adventures, the purpose of which – I mean the author’s purpose – seems to be to demonstrate Robinson’s willingness to conciliate and learn rather than confront. Robinson develops a certain affection for Truganini, but Dray deserts the party and takes up with locals.

This is all in preparation for horrifying scenes of White bastardry, as shepherds massacre Aborigines and force them over a cliff:

A narrow path led down to the ledge; at its farmost reach was a dead-end – a high rock wall. Beneath the ledge was a drop of a hundred feet or more on to angular rocks stippled with brightly coloured lichens. The ledge was strewn with Toogee bodies – men, women and children lying among their scattered food baskets in a morass of blood and ripe fruit. The Dorsetman and the second Scot moved among them, swinging bodies over the cliff on to the rocks…

I remained there, gasping out prayers, as the shepherds flung the last mutilated bodies over the edge, collected their carbines and muskets and sauntered up the path to me. Below them lay the object of my endeavours, the Toogee tribe. Chamberlain led the way. ‘Morning sir,’ he said. ‘A bit of crow hunting for the company.’

As I understand it, Arthur, who had already instituted martial law so that it was legal to kill Aborigines, claimed to support Robinson but at the same time stepped up the war on the Indigenous population, a war amounting to genocide, with the ‘Black Line’ “in which 2200 civilians and soldiers formed a series of moving cordons stretching hundreds of kilometres across the island in order to drive Aboriginal people from the colony’s settled districts to the Tasman Penninsula, in the southeast” (Wikipedia). From there, 46 survivors, including Truganini, accompanied Robinson to Flinders Island. Their numbers rose to around 200 over the next couple of years as stragglers were rounded up, but declined thereafter due to disease and, no doubt, heartbreak.

A reader asked, after my post on Thea Astley’s The Kindness Cup (here), what other books there were from this period (the 1970s) on Aboriginal massacres. From what I could find, historian Henry Reynolds had begun documenting the War in Tasmania, and JJ Healy (who I discussed here) in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia (1978) was particularly tough on Rolf Boldrewood’s part in massacres in Victoria’s Western District and also discusses the Hornet Bank massacre (of whites) in 1857 and the part played by Rosa Praed’s family in the reprisals, and where this was reflected in her writing.

But as for novels, apart from The Savage Crows, the only others I could come up with that might come close were Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (1938) and Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). So I guess The Savage Crows is important for its subject matter, but in my opinion the execution, the forming of the two narrative streams into a coherent whole, leaves a bit to be desired.

 

Robert Drewe, The Savage Crows, William Collins, 1976 (my ed. Picador, 1987)

A Kindness Cup, Thea Astley

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A Kindness Cup (1974) is a short (150pp), powerful novel on the savagery that underlies white settlement in Queensland. Set in a fictional coastal town in the far north at the end of the C19th, it is a story of Aboriginal men casually murdered for no reason; of a town whose sugar industry is based on the slave labour of Pacific islanders; a town of mindless citizens, happy in their wilful ignorance; and above all, the story of the few white men who tried to help or speak up, bashed and sidelined.

I own a few Astleys and I guess I must have read them over the past 40 or so years, without retaining much, but this is the one that has stayed in my mind, the one that for me typifies her writing. Thea Astley (1925-2004) was born and educated in Queensland before moving to NSW with her husband in 1948. Without having read all her books, I get the impression that Queensland is at the heart of her writing. And I believe she writes so ferociously about Queensland in A Kindness Cup because so little had changed. Her fictional township is a perfect metaphor for Brisbane and Queensland in the venal, racist years of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his coterie of corrupt cabinet ministers, police and businessmen.

The premise of the novel is that Dorahy, a classics teacher, has been invited back to a town reunion on the 20th anniversary of … I’m not sure we’re told, and about 18 years after a massacre of local Aborigines which he (imperfectly) witnessed. We proceed along a number of timelines at once. Dorahy making the six day voyage up the coast from Moreton Bay to attend the reunion; Dorahy teaching a class which includes the gentle Tim Jenner and the oafish Fred Buckmaster; Fred Buckmaster, a Trooper Lieutenant in the police, being grilled at an inquest into the massacre; the even more oafish Buckmaster père and the oily politician Sweetman threatening and blustering both ‘now’ and 20 years earlier; the seven days of the reunion; and so on.

Other characters who play a part are Boyd who prints the local newspaper and is philosophically opposed to Buckmaster and Sweetman, but mostly keeps his head down; Lunt a farmer on the edge of the district who is sympathetic to the local Indigenous people. Women in this novel are mostly in the background, there are just Kowaha, an Aboriginal woman friendly with Lunt and Dorahy, and who has a new baby daughter; and Gracie, a girl competed for by Tim and Fred, who goes on to become a professional singer down south, but returns for the reunion.When fights break out at a town meeting –

Gracie Tilburn, her red hair ablaze, rushes to the footlights and pleads for silence. It is so outrageous for a woman to assert herself among men, the hall is temporarily shocked and muted.

The massacre becomes inevitable when Buckmaster and Sweetman form the intention of ‘dispersing’, ie. shooting, the local Aborigines under the pretext that they had abducted, starved and abandoned a local (white) child, despite it being clear to everyone else that the child was lost, had been rescued by the tribe, had been unable to eat Aboriginal food, and had been returned to a place near her home.

Lunt warns the Aborigines, who are camping at a waterhole on his property, of the impending attack, and undertakes to care for a sick old man whom they are unwilling to leave behind. When Buckmaster finds them gone he approaches Lunt in a rage, shoots the Aboriginal man in his bed and lashes Lunt to him. By the time Lunt is discovered, days later, gangrene has set in in a minor wound in his leg and it has to be amputated.

Buckmaster orders his son, by now a policeman, to conduct a raid without waiting for a warrant or instructions, and a party is made up of troopers and townsmen. They find the tribe in the bush around a local peak, Mandarana, and fan out, herding them up to the top.

The world, the stupendous views, narrowed to a horror of shots and shouts and screams as they burst in upon the score of blacks herded into the inner circle of rocks. One spear caught Roy Armitage in the shoulder, but the others flew wide as the natives, awed by the bullet, became only a huddle of terrified flesh. They cringed against rocky shields…

It was truly time to make arrests, but Buckmaster had lost control of his men who went forward and in, shooting steadily and reloading and shooting until the ground was littered with grunting men and there was blood-splash bright upon the rocks…

‘Leave the gins!’ Sweetman roared in a moment of sanity. ‘Leave them!’

Kowaha breaks free from her fellows and leaps to her death holding her baby, who survives! Dorahy, Boyd and Tim Jenner and his father come up at that moment, having hoped to impede or at least bear witness to the ‘dispersal’.

Dorahy and Lunt are forced to leave town. The inquest uncovers Fred Buckmaster’s guilt and incompetence but, as is always the case in Queensland, exonerates him anyway. He too leaves town, to become a publican.

And so we come to the reunion. Sweetman tries to persuade Dorahy to forget his grievances,  “That’s all over now. So long ago no one remembers.” But Dorahy, old and frail, is determined to make a scene and ropes in Boyd and Lunt. The ending isn’t happy.

 

Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup, Penguin, Melbourne, 1984 (first published 1974)

see also reviews of the recent Astley biography: Karen Lamb, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather, UQP, St Lucia, 2015; by Sue/Whispering Gums (here) and Lisa/ANZLitLovers (here)

Ten Creeks Run, Miles Franklin

Brent of Bin Bin #2

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The Search Party (Talbingo), (c) Kevin John Best

Ten Creeks Run (1930), is the second novel in the saga based loosely on Miles Franklin’s mother’s family and their neighbours in the upper Murrimbidgee and Monaro alpine regions of southern NSW, and published under the penname Brent of Bin Bin.

It follows on from Up the Country with a lapse of about 30 years, putting it in the 1880s and 90s, which has the interesting consequence that John Franklin and Sussanah Lampe are already married and their first child Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879-1954), who is of course the author, is alive and kicking. MF’s principal reason for withholding My Brilliant Career from republication was the embarrassment she felt it caused her parents. As they were still alive in 1930 (they died in 1931 and 1938 respectively), it will be interesting as I make my way into Ten Creeks Run to see if and how they are portrayed.

Miles was born in her maternal grandmother’s house in Talbingo after Susannah famously “rode seventy miles two months before I was born” from the Franklin property, Brindabella, to Talbingo. “She went by impossible tracks negotiable only by a mountain-bred horse, at such angles that those unaccustomed could not retain a seat. For miles the horse plunged to the girths in snow.” (1963, p.19)

Brindabella is east of Talbingo (towards Canberra and Goulburn) and outside of the real high country which is the territory of the first two novels. Towards the end of the period covered by Ten Creeks Run, John moves his family further away again, leaving the family properties, to become a humble ‘cocky’ at Thornford near Goulburn. A few years later, in the mid 1890s Miles’ alter ego Sybylla, in My Brilliant Career, goes to stay with her widowed maternal grandmother who has living with her her son Jay-Jay and daughter Helen. Sybylla is re-written as Ignez in Cockatoos, the next in this series, and John’s family’s story is fictionalised in All That Swagger (1936), published under Miles’ own name. So are all MF’s stories intertwined.

Ten Creeks Run begins with a horse muster at Bool Bool, with all the surrounding families gathered to sort out their herds –which mostly run free in the bush – demonstrate their horsemanship, socialise and celebrate the opening of a new bridge over the Tumut River. Oh and of course to introduce the new cast of players and farewell the old. The central figure once again is Bert Poole, now in his 50s but still single. Old Mrs Mazere is still around and her daughter, the beautiful Rachel Labosseer, now a widow and a grandmother, is no longer the centre of Bert’s attentions. The Healey’s and Stantons are represented by younger generations and Milly Stanton and Aileen Healy in their teens and early twenties respectively, are the cynosure of all eyes.

Interestingly, in the context of the dying out of the old hands, is that one ‘feminist’ innovation introduced by old Mrs Mazere is her attendance at funerals “against the usual custom for women”. This was probably told to MF by her mother, but while the basis of these first two books is family legend, it would be interesting to know at what stage MF began accumulating stories, and what steps she took to refresh both her history and her geography, given that by the time she began writing she had been out of Australia for 18 of the preceding 20 years*. Walter Scott says in his General Preface to Waverly (1814), “I had been a good deal in the Highlands at a time when they were much less accessible, and much less visited, than they have been of late years, and was acquainted with many old warriors of 1745, who were, like most veterans, easily induced to fight their battles over again for the benefit of a willing listener like myself.” It is unlikely that MF had access to any similar sources, at least after 1906, and likewise her descriptions of country must come from childhood memories. However, by fictionalizing her stories she has, like Scott: “like a maiden knight with his white shield, assumed for my hero, Waverley, an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall hereafter be pleased to affix to it.”

Franklin clearly loves the high country and always regarded Talbingo as home. I am not going to explain how squatters used ‘dummies’ to secure land otherwise available to new selectors, but here is a typical description:

Stanton turned back from Wamgambril Flats where the lone selection of his dummy secured the eye of a mountainous horse and cattle run. He retraced his way across creeks and ferny gullies through the cool depths of thousands of square miles of timber broken only by the tiny spring-head flats of the plateaux amid the ranges.

 Franklin basically uses her people/locations as an excuse for a romantic romp, very much in the style of Georgette Heyer (wouldn’t she hate me for saying that!). The last GH I read, ‘The Quiet Gentleman’, had the back cover blurb: “There are sub-plots and counter plots, a delightfully practical heroine, a fair charmer, and various villainies, all engagingly sustained on a diet of humour and excitement.” And that pretty well covers Ten Creeks Run too.

I won’t tell you who ends up with whom, though you’ll see soon enough when I progress to Cockatoos, but one young girl is ‘sold’ to an older suitor who has got hold of the family mortgages, a dashing young woman gets pregnant and requires an extended stay in Sydney, there is a child lost in the bush (of course!), the melodramatic rescue of a stolen horse, and a young man attempts rape to force marriage.

In a familiar MF trope, Milly grows from schoolgirl to young woman, is kissed, and then suffers terribly until she is reassured that she is neither pregnant nor automatically betrothed.

Some interesting historical points arise: travellers not only changed trains at Albury, but went through Customs; Canberra was already a place (I thought it was just a paddock until 1912), “Over the nearer rolling widths the spire of Canberra church came to view in its Plain, and Mount Ainslie”; MF airs allegations of cannibalism: “ould Bowes saw wan of the gins with a white child’s arrum [arm] in her dilly bag”, and also has station hands recounting hunting parties “in Queensland” where the Blacks were shot and the “gins” raped. I don’t think MF was racist, rather the opposite; perhaps she thought the best way to illustrate the race problem was to present accurately what men say. During the period of this book there was a Depression caused by the general failure of the banks. This comes up from time to time, here for instance:

The Isaacses [storekeepers], for example, had their hands full in standing to the district with liberal credit till money should circulate again, and dispensed it with a friendly generosity that gave them first place with the old inhabitants till the end of their days.

Mrs Isaacs and Mrs McHaffety, the publican’s wife, are used by MF effectively as a Greek chorus, with interludes throughout where they comment on the action and exchange gossip for the general advancement of the plot. Although stockmen are also very good at disseminating rumour, and are likewise used to good effect.

And so, do young Stella (MF) and her parents make an appearance? In two ways. Firstly Milly is a ‘Sybylla’ clone, which is to say an idealised version of Miles herself – independent, chaste, determined and a fine horsewoman. And then, Ignez Milford, who is the central character in Cockatoos, which at its core is autobiographical, makes a small appearance, along with her parents, in the search for the lost child. Interestingly, Ignez’ maternal grandmother, who is so important in My Brilliant Career, is not old Mrs Mazere, whose death marks the conclusion of this story, but Mrs Mazere’s widowed daughter Rachel Labosseer.

The writing in Ten Creeks Run sparkles, and the action proceeds at a cracking pace. This is a fine book, not literary of course in the way that Christine Stead’s writing is, but also not deserving of its present obscurity.

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Talbingo Hotel circa 1905. Henry Pether propr. (Terence McHaffety in the novel)

Miles Franklin, Ten Creeks Run, Blackwoods, 1930. Reissued by Angus & Robertson, 1952

Miles Franklin, Childhood at Brindabella, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1963

Georgette Heyer, The Quiet Gentleman, Pan Books, London, 1971 (first pub. 1951)

Illustration: Kevin John Best’s paintings for sale here. (My book had no dust jacket)


* Added 14 Dec 2016. MF visited the high country for 10 days in 1924, staying with her mother’s people, the Lampes (Roe, 2008, p.258); and again, for 2 months in 1928, after completing the first draft of Ten Creeks Run (p.296).

Here Where We Live, Cassie Flanagan Willanski

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I came to Here Where We Live via Sue’s review at Whispering Gums a couple of months ago and bought it straight away. My dilemma then was that although I saw it, and bought it, as part of the project that quite a few of us are undertaking, to better understand the representation of Indigenous people in Aust. Lit, I didn’t want my review to come out on top of (be overshadowed by!) Sue’s. Still, I’ve read it now, and thoroughly enjoyed it, so here goes.

Willanski says, and yes I’m one of those people who reads the Foreword, or in this case the Author’s Note first, that her project was to “reflect some of the attitudes I discovered in my research”, for her MA, into changing representations of Indigenous people by white authors. Interestingly, to my mind that’s not quite what she has written. And this is presented as a book of short stories, and I’m not quite sure that is what she has written either.

To start with, Willanski is, says she is, a white woman, probably in her 30s (I did google a biographical piece but I found it distracting). Towards the end of the Author’s note she writes that the first story derives from a trip she took “out west”. The story begins: “This is my daughter’s country./That mallee sea with the undulating dunes and the rockholes where we take her back to camp.”

My immediate thought is that she’s in Kim Scott country, on the south coast of WA, but she’s not, and it slowly becomes clear, she’s in South Australia and ‘west’ for her is west of Port Augusta, or in this case more probably, west of Ceduna, where the mallee forests on the edge of the Nularbor meet the Southern Ocean.

I’ve lived in SA, and worked there off and on most of my life, and it’s different. Adelaide is not as cosmopolitan as Melbourne or Sydney, nor even Perth, and not as redneck as Queensland. It is a little pocket of homogeneity that keeps itself to itself. And so when Willanski describes the world, the world she is describing is South Australia.

In that first story, My Good Thing she imagines having a child with an Indigenous husband and visiting his, and her daughter’s, country. In Stuff White People Like the pov is that of a guy, Oliver, a white teacher who decides to work with Aboriginal kids in Ceduna. He and his wife, Clay attend a corroboree and his and white people in general’s awkwardness mixing with Indigenous people is closely and hilariously observed. Stuff White People Like, a satire on white liberal attitudes, is also the name of the book they are reading and they use it to good effect to poke fun at each other:

‘I think that book’s kind of offensive’, Oliver said after a five minute silence.

‘You’re only meant to be offended on other people’s behalf, not your own. Proper white people hate themselves.’

They laughed again, but the laugh was tired.

Importantly, Willanski describes the husband’s pov but I don’t think she ever stops imagining the woman’s. Obviously, this is not a book of polished ‘gems’, self-contained, each with a beginning and an end. Neither is it like, say Henry Lawson, a collection of yarns, sufficient unto themselves. It’s more the journal of a woman imagining herself in different situations and from different perspectives, but in the end always the same, underlying, thirtyish, South Australian woman.

In other stories, she imagines a divorce, from the pov of a mother with children and then from the pov a young girl whose father leaves. She imagines an 8 yo boy, Oliver, a ‘difficult student’ who may be the Oliver, the teacher, in Stuff White People Like, on a school excursion. She takes up Oliver and Clay again, but from Clay’s pov. Clay would like to get pregnant but she’s stuck on the fact that she has previously had an abortion. Until she accepts that a life has been lost, and begins to grieve, she can’t find her way forward.

She becomes an old white woman, whose husband was involved in the British atom bomb tests on Aboriginal country at Maralinga, in a delegation with two Indigenous women to a conference in the US desert of women against the storage of nuclear waste on Indigenous land; she’s ‘herself’, rejoining conservation activists on a trip north to blockade a uranium mine; and finally in a tour de force, she writes a story from two povs at once – an old woman living in a shack in the dunes behind the beach whose (female) partner has recently died, and a 17 yo girl trying to be a woman tagging along with her boyfriend who wants to snorkel on a wreck, a story interrogating the way that relationships begin or don’t begin, work or don’t work.

All the while we’re working with the fact, or facts, that this is someone else’s land, and that we are destroying it. Over the years, the water level of the Murray at Hindmarsh Island drops [as it is stolen by the Barnaby Joyces*]; we look again at the unresolved scandal of the tests at Maralinga; and in passing, the enormous amount of ground water sucked up by the uranium mine at Roxby Downs. Oliver’s school excursion is to Aboriginal sites, one of which they damage; the divorced woman moves to the (greener) south east, driven out of Adelaide by years of drought, and finds herself in a house with Aboriginal neighbours and with Aboriginal ghosts; the boyfriend in the final story is researching a thesis on the survivors of a wreck, who swam to shore only to be captured and eaten. And yet survivors of an earlier wreck had been aided by locals and escorted along the coast to Victor Harbour. One more quote:

We will drive right out the top of South Australia onto Aboriginal land. There will be the old activist faces from across the country, transforming the grief and outrage into smirks of shared intent. There will be our hosts, the humour and dignity of the Traditional Owners strategising with the big-shot campaigners against the blank grey faces, the plastic simulations, the grey site hidden from the highway so as not to appear real. We will camp every night with fifty others. Our campfires will make patterns, maps of our families. People weren’t meant to live separately in houses.

The kids will be baptised in red earth. (Her Thoughts Heading North)

This is a stunning, beautifully written and original work and I advise everyone to read it.

 

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here Where We Live, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2016


* Barnaby Joyce, the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, is from and still effectively represents St George in Qld, the home of Cubby Station which is licensed to take 460,000 megalitres of water per year from the upper Murray-Darling system, the equivalent of all irrigation entitlements downstream in north-western NSW.

Ion Idriess

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Ion Idriess (1889-1979) was, with Frank Clune (1893-1971), the foremost of a number of author/journalists, Ernestine Hill was another, who reinforced Australian Bush archetypes with their easy-to-read story-telling.

According to a website maintained by fans (who call Idriess by his nickname, Jack):

From his first attempt in 1927 to his final book published in 1969, Jack published 53 books…

Jack sold more than three million books when his target audience (Australia’s population) was less than seven million and this record must also be set in the context of the Great Depression. In the 1930’s, when Australia was in the depths of depression, people still bought his books by the million.

Of the 53 several were novels but, according to The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, “in the main he wrote basically factual stories, imaginatively re-created, with the invented conversations that are a feature also of the works of Frank Clune.” (for a Bibliography see Wikipedia). Quite a number were about, or included accounts of, Aborigines. The Introduction to Gems from Ion Idriess (1949), a book intended for schools, says of Idriess who in his twenties was in Queensland prospecting:

[On Cape York Peninsula] he made contact with aboriginal life by becoming a prospecting mate of two half-caste brothers. These men were the leaders of a tribe of aborigines. The three wandered with the tribe for months at a time.

From [his] relatively primitive mainland brothers, Idriess learned many strange things. He became acquainted with age-old aboriginal customs and beliefs that have adorned the tales he has set in the land that was once theirs.

The Introduction goes on to say, “His is no cultivated style. He possesses a natural talent that springs from his own Australia: he is an instrument through which the genius of the country speaks, for it has become a part of his mind.” Further, he brings vigour to Australian writing. “In this he resembles Walter Scott, who first led the English man in the street to read poetry.” The Introduction is by the ubiquitous Colin Roderick (ADB Whispering Gums).

Following on from Lisa at ANZLL’s recent Indigenous Writers’ Week I thought it might be a good time to review a writer who was, in his day, influential in forming attitudes amongst urban readers the great majority of whom spent their lives then as they do now, remote from Aboriginal contact. My brothers have (and my father had) extensive collections of Ion Idriess, so I have to hand:

Nemarluk: King of the Wilds (1947)

Gems From Ion Idriess (1949)

The Red Chief: A Mighty Aboriginal Warrior (1953)

Gems consists of 34 excerpts, of about 5 pages each, from longer works. I don’t remember seeing it during my schooling in Victoria and the inside cover is stamped Broken Hill High (the Class is listed as I or 1 BP) so it may have been a set text in NSW in the 1950s. There are a couple of stories from the book Lasseter’s Last Ride (Lasseter was an explorer who claimed to have discovered a fabulous reef of gold in the NT at the turn of the century but who lost his life in 1931 in remote desert on the WA border while attempting to re-find it). One describes an emu hunt:

The warriors rushed in, striking with their wommeras, leaping aside from those flail-like legs, striking at that dodging head which struck viciously back. Lasseter danced with the others. Here was meat, plenty of meat!

In another, Idriess describes a Kaditcha man laying a curse. Arthur Upfield tells similar stories – it seems to be an Indigenous story that white authors ascribe to quite widespread groups – of a man wearing shoes “of emu feathers clotted together with blood” who cannot be tracked and whose power comes from the spirits of the dead. In this story Lasseter is ceremoniously presented with a long, intricately carved spear by a group of tribesmen. But when it is shown in Alice Springs, Lasseter’s party is told, “This stick is one of the sandhills gods. You people might best understand my meaning when I use the word ‘god’. It bears the record, the life history of a tribe from the time that tribe began.”  The stick has been stolen and the curse on the stealer transferred to Lasseter. ‘“He will never come back,” said the man, and was gone.’

Another story deals with Aboriginal burial platforms, but it is obvious the overall purpose of Gems is to inculcate students with good, Bush values.

Nemarluk is the name of a tribal leader on the rugged coast south-west of Darwin, between the Daly and Victoria Rivers. He was “chief of the Cahn-mah, King of the Wilds …  six feet two inches tall, broad chested with a springy quickness of body … a magnificent young savage”, leading his chosen men:

Light of heart the Red Band walked on. Nature’s children these, primitive sons of primitive men. This the land they loved, the life they loved. … These and their tribesmen in Australia’s last few isolated places are the last of the Stone Age men.

And let’s not forget Marboo, “Nemarluk’s young wife, the happiest, proudest little woman in all the Wild Lands.” The landscape is also a ‘character’ as it is in many outback stories. In this case the mangrove swamps, and the canoes gliding through them, evoke de Heer’s 2006 movie, Ten Canoes, set further east, in Arnhem Land.

Much of the 220 pp is taken up with informative and picturesque descriptions of day to day Indigenous life but the main story is that Nemarluk’s group ambush and murder the crew of a ‘Jap’ fishing boat come into shore for water. The police hear of this and with their fierce ‘black-tracker’ Bul Bul set out in pursuit. Nemarluk evades them for months, rampaging across the lands in classic outlaw fashion. “This was their country; they would fight against the white man’s law.” This is not a bad story and the action is well described, but of course Nemarluk and all his warriors, in their home country, are no match for a couple of white policemen and their few Black assistants and eventually they are all locked up in Darwin’s famous Fanny Bay Jail. Nemarluk escapes and makes his way home but he no longer has fighting men to support him and after a series of adventures he is recaptured.

The Red Chief, according to Idriess’s Preface is the story of an earlier Aboriginal leader, told by Bungaree, the last remaining Gunnedah (NSW) man, in the late 1800s, written down and passed on many years later to Idriess.  Red Kangaroo (the ‘Red Chief’) by a series of adventures consolidates the tribes of the Liverpool Plains and becomes their paramount leader. Here he gains himself a couple of brides:

Red Kangaroo, cautiously following, grew hotly eager to lay his hands upon these two attractive girls, as desirable as any he had ever seen. And soon they would be at his mercy… gripping his nulla, he stepped towards the nearer girl … Lifting his club, he brought it smartly down with just the right force upon that thick mop of hair.

He treats the second girl likewise and secures them in a cave, where he tells them:

“I am a warrior of the Gunn-e-darr… Learn that I am a good warrior, as you are going to be good wives!”

Let me finish with two points. Firstly, even allowing that he was well meaning and had first hand information, Idriess’s Aborigines reflect nineteenth century stereotypes which might equally have been applied to ‘Red Indians’ (native Americans) or South Sea warriors; and secondly, following on from Resident Judge’s reference* to Graeme Davison at the recent AHA conference, whether the writers of the ‘Australian Legend’ are from the Bush or from the City, the consumption of such writing by mainly urban Australians was the product of their great thirst for stories which reflected their view of themselves as laconic, independent, resourceful inheritors of an Outback culture. And yes that culture was male-centric and probably the readership was and is too. (Apparently Idriess still sells).

Nermaluk

*Resident Judge blogged each of the four days of the recent 2016 Australian Historical Association conference. Graeme Davison’s essay Sydney and the Bush: An Urban Context for the Australian Legend was mentioned in passing on 6 July and piqued my interest.

Disturbing Element, Xavier Herbert

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Xavier Herbert. No attribution for Artist

Disturbing Element is a memoir of Herbert’s young life and education until he finally manages to shake free of his parents at age 23. On the back cover of my Fontana paperback edition Manning Clark is quoted as saying ‘He writes with all the passion of a great lover and a great hater’, to which you should really add ‘and a great liar’. It reminds me a of Norman Lindsay’s autobiographical fiction, Redheap and so on, which also lists in boastful detail the author’s supposed conquests in ‘love’.

The ADB entry for Herbert begins:

Albert Francis Xavier Herbert (1901-1984), author and pharmacist, was born on 15 May 1901 at Geraldton, Western Australia, illegitimate son of Victorian-born Amy Victoria Scammell. He was registered at birth as Alfred Jackson, son of John Jackson, auctioneer, with whom his mother had already had two children, but his father was almost certainly Benjamin Francis Herbert, a Welsh-born engine driver. Amy and Ben had three more children [two of whom died young] before marrying in 1917.

Disturbing Element begins:

To avoid the heart burning that may otherwise be caused by so frank a history as I intend this to be, I am going to be non-specific in dealing with the people, the places and some of the events, concerned.

Herbert begins by being ‘non-specific’ about Geraldton, describing his birthplace as ‘a tiny seaport on the long, lonely coast of Western Australia’ and, apart from Perth, he doesn’t use any place names thereafter as his father, a train driver, moves his family around railway towns in the southern half of the state. Whether Herbert is called Fred or Bert or any other name as a child we never find out, but he is never in any doubt that Herbert senior is his father and only hears about his illegitimacy from gossip when he is in his teens.

About his mother he writes that she was left unsupported with two children, Bridget and Phil, on an eastern states goldfield and made her way west to join her father on the new goldfields there at the turn of the century. Herbert senior was at that time employed by her father and made a convenient husband. The marriage, although it endured, does not seem to have been a happy one.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago discussing inter alia J.J.Healy, Literature and the Aborigine in Australia ‘a detailed account of representations of Aboriginal people up to Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country (1975)’. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is ploughing her way through Poor Fellow My Country and will shortly produce a review (link here), but what I wanted to say is that Healy regards Herbert as an important figure in the representation (by whites) of Aboriginal people in Aus.Lit.  who struggles to separate his fiction from his personal history, describing him as a ‘literalist of the imagination’. What is interesting is that Herbert has almost no contact with Aborigines during the course of Disturbing Element, that is, up to his 23rd year. In only one country town does he approach a girl of mixed parentage and striking good looks, who has been seen with other (white) boys. This girl, Jilgie, appears later, in a Perth brothel where she rebuffs his attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ her, and also apparently, in Herbert’s later fiction.

Later in Disturbing Element Herbert becomes friendly, firstly, romantically, with a Jewish girl, Huldah, and then with two young Jewish men. Healy makes the link to Rifkah in Poor Fellow My Country who he says Herbert uses to draw an analogy between Germany’s treatment of the Jews under Hitler and Australia’s treatment of Aborigines:

…  Jewish culture as a way of life, The Jewish experience under the Nazis, give Herbert an access to the Aboriginal theme unprecedented in Australian discussion…

When [Rifkah] takes [the Aboriginal] Prindy into the hotel, Stunke, the policeman, breaks up a pleasant atmosphere by ordering Prindy to leave for breaking an Aboriginal ordinance. Her shock registers with considerable dramatic force. “It is not a free, happy country. I vos mistake.” In her subsequent account to Jeremy she makes her devastating point. It was not just Stunke. It was the look in people’s eyes. The same look that Germans had when they saw Jews being marched off by the SS or the SA. That look, she says, is the worst thing. Filled with detachment, indifference, hate. Inhuman. (1989, p.277).

In about 1910, Mrs Herbert is granted her fondest wish and the family relocates from the bush to ‘a seaport city’ (Fremantle). Romantically (to me anyway!), the Railways supply a couple of wagons so that the family are able to load up their own little train with their household goods, linking up with a regular train for the run into the city.

Then we were on our way, with the trees dancing and the old-men kangaroos sitting on their tails and staring menacingly and little whitewashed iron towns springing up out of nowhere. At every little station we leapt out to get a drink from the water-bag hanging with its bell-like iron cup, and Dad shook hands with the station master.

Herbert is enrolled at a local state school, but loathes, and is loathed by his schoolmaster, who disastrously, moves up with him year after year. He responds by being class clown and often playing truant, running free through the docks and the ships (no Border Force back then!) but discovers an aptitude for science, and also for story telling for which he is given no credit. He later says that there were no books at home and he read no novels before his late teens.

At 14 he leaves school and in pursuit of his dream of being a pharmacist, gains employment as bottle washer and delivery boy for a chemist ‘over the river’ – Mosman Park probably. I found it a great joy reading this book to guess the locations, most of which I know pretty well, from his descriptions.

His older brother and his father go away to the Great War. He discovers girls. He studies at night school, and for a while at a Christian Brothers school, to qualify to begin his apprenticeship as a pharmacist. While at the Christian Brothers school he works briefly as a strike breaker on the wharves. This is an episode about which I knew nothing, but the strike breakers formed a new ‘union’ and were employed at the expense of the wharfies, during and after the War, until the Fremantle Wharf Riot of May 1919, in which Herbert claims also to have played a part.

… we were too late for the best of it, which was the overwhelming of the troopers with a barrage of coal the rioters were carrying in sacks, the killing of one of the proletariat  by the single policeman who seems to have stood his ground, the chasing of the whitebreeched boys in blue through the railway yards, then the final assault on authority in no less a personage than the First Minister himself, who, being discovered on a launch in the river, trying to rally his forces of law and order, was sent flying before another coal bombardment. The Right Honorable the First Minister [Colebatch] went straight back to his Capitol and resigned.

Herbert qualifies as a pharmacist but now wishes to become a doctor. He moves to an ‘eastern capital’ (Melbourne) and enrolls in medicine at Melbourne Uni. His family join him and establish a pharmacy which for a while he manages for them, but his heart is not in it, nor in his studies. He has begun to write. A story, North of Capricorn “which was where I come from” (not true on the evidence of this book) is published, then another, The Unforgiveable – “My hero went pearling, to the Nor’ West again, and there, after brave dealings with the usual scoundrels, found true love …”; has a last Christmas with all the family; and sets sail for the rest of his life.

For two days and two nights I was one of a herd of human hogs. I slept with a dozen or so of them in a small wedge in the stern right over the roaring screws and under the ever-chattering steering…

I was appalled by the squalor of it, amazed by the revelation of the stupidity, the bestiality, or which my fellow men were capable. But I was never disgusted. I was even delighted, to find that after all life is not lived by rote so much as by inclination, choice, and as choice can be infinite, so can the variety of life. And life was my first interest, and not merely as something to study, but to live.

After, as they say, a long and varied career, Xavier Herbert died in Alice Springs aged 83 ‘and was buried in the local cemetery after a funeral ceremony at which Kungarakany elders and Patrick Dodson, an Aboriginal former Catholic priest, officiated.’ (ADB). Patrick Dodson of course has just this past week been made Labor Senator for WA, replacing the unregretted Joe Bullock.

 

Xavier Herbert, Disturbing Element, first published 1963 (my copy, Fontana, 1976)

J.J.Healy, Literature and the Aborigine in Australia, 2nd Ed.,UQP, Brisbane, 1989

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/herbert-albert-francis-xavier-12623

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Fremantle_Wharf_Crisis_of_1919

 

Remembering Babylon, David Malouf

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David Malouf, and his novels The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996) and Remembering Babylon (1993), have been brought to mind by a recent post at Whispering Gums (Spotlight on David Malouf) to which I commented that I had found The Conversations at Curlow Creek “dishonest”. My reason for saying that was that I had covered this book in my course work 7 or 8 years ago and had thought then that Malouf, with his hero an Irish Catholic in the English Army in the mid 19th Century, had entirely airbrushed the ongoing English occupation of Ireland, and furthermore, that to the extent that the ostensible setting of the novel was outback Australia, there was only passing reference made to the Aboriginal inhabitants.

Comment in haste, repent at leisure would seem to be a good motto for the blogosphere, as elsewhere. So I thought I had better check my facts and then re-read both Conversations and, following Sue’s suggestion, the earlier Remembering Babylon.

Firstly, in a student essay on Myths, and referring to Conversations and to Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I wrote:

The last, great myth, left unstated by both books, is the myth of Terra Nullius – that in 1788 all the land was claimed by Arthur Phillip for the Crown and that no other person was in possession of any part of it. Joseph Furphy’s Rigby typically refers to “this magnificent virgin continent” (Rigby’s Romance, p.111)

Malouf may be excused, he makes some of the right noises – the troopers are engaged “to police the colony and keep a watch on the western tribes” (p.7) and Jonas, the black tracker, gets to play a small part in the story; but what of Carey? In an area [north eastern Victoria] where there are still Aborigines living along the Goulburn and Murray Rivers, where Kingsley has Aborigines roaming the ranges, and Furphy has Aborigines on the Riverina plains, the land is Terra Nullius indeed. Not one Aboriginal camp follower or incidental character, not in the supporting cast nor in the background, just the six “murderous” black trackers brought down from Queensland by the police.

Clearly, my main beef was with Carey, but maybe I have since softened my opinions a little, at least in the case of Malouf’s representation of Aborigines. I think that Malouf makes it clear, as Carey does not, in both his novels set in outback 19th Century Australia that the whites are acting/settling in Aboriginal lands, but Malouf’s Aborigines are a presence rather than, or only rarely, individuals.

Further, Conversations is a novel about an Irishman, Adair, looking back from Australia to his growing up in Ireland, and almost only incidentally about his little band of troopers and the convict they have recaptured. Malouf makes it clear in the first few pages that in New South Wales Adair is operating in occupied territory and more or less leaves it at that.

In Remembering Babylon, Malouf tries something more ambitious in relation to describing Aboriginality. His central character, Gemmy, has spent so long living with Aborigines (in the 1840s in north Queensland) that his thinking has become Aboriginalised and Malouf attempts to describe for us how that might work. Again, there are not actually any Aborigines in this story. They are a presence, indeed they are the Enemy of which all this little white community is fearful, but they are not present as individuals.

The story of Remembering Babylon starts with Gemmy – who was in London a rat-catcher’s “boy” and then a sailors’ boy, before being abandoned on a north Queensland beach – finally emerging into a little farming community inland of Bowen, after sixteen years attached to a local tribe.

Unlike Buckley for instance, who lived from 1803-1835 with the Wathaurang on Port Philip Bay and then became an interpreter for the new settlement, Gemmy has retained very little English and is not trusted. Although he is given shelter by the family he first approached, the McIvors, he is treated by most of the community as a representative of the Blacks, a spy or a turncoat, and it is not clear that Gemmy doesn’t feel this way himself. At a fairly hostile town meeting, Gemmy mimes and splutters an account of his experiences, which are taken down by Frazer, the vicar, and Abbott, the schoolteacher.

From the beginning there were those among them, Ned Corcoran was the most vehement, for whom the only way of dealing with blacks was the one that had been given scope elsewhere. ‘We ought to go out,’ he insisted, controlling the spit that flooded his mouth, ‘and get rid of ‘em once and for all. If I catch one of the buggers round my place, I’ll fuckin’ pot ‘im.’

So [Gemmy] hummed and harred and chewed his tobacco, and when he was forced to speak at last, put them off with answers which, by shifting a landmark and counting a few dead in with the living, set his people further north than they actually were and made them more numerous. He felt a heavy responsibility.

Gemmy settles down at the McIvors’, living in a lean-to alongside their rudimentary hut, and helping out around the farm. One day he has two visitors from his old tribe. Malouf describes what he imagines is an Aboriginal, almost telepathic, meeting of minds:

When all the proper formalities had been exchanged, and the necessary questions asked and answered, the silence became a conversation of another kind; and the space between them, three feet of baked earth where ants in their other life scurried about carrying bits of bark and other broken stuff in the excited scent of a new and foreign presence, expanded and became the tract of land up there under the flight of air and the stars of the night sky, that was the tribe’s home territory, with its pools and creeks and underground sources of water, its rock ridges and scrub, its edible fruits and berries and flocks of birds and other creatures, all alive in their names and the stories that contained their spirit, for a man to walk into and print with the spirit of his feet and the invisible impact of his breath.

Here, and later when he’s discussing “women’s business” in relation to Gemmy helping Frazer categorize edible plants, I think Malouf gets very close to the “boundary” of what a white man can reasonably say about Aboriginal business.

Malouf is a poet and a fine writer but I found this novel unsatisfactory for other reasons too. There is no one central character and the point of view jumps around, from Gemmy, to the school master, to the vicar, to Mr, Mrs and young Lachlan McIvor, to the neighbour’s hired hand, and so on. We don’t really get to sympathise with any of them, and character development is consequently patchy, good while it’s occurring, but then we move on to someone else. Likewise, just when you are getting settled, more characters are added in, until it’s all rather crowded for what is a fairly short book. Then finally, there is an entirely gratuitous epilogue, 60 years later, which contributes nothing to Gemmy’s story at all.

And what happens to Gemmy? After the meeting with the tribesmen is disclosed he is roughed up, is moved to another property where he is more out of the way and finally, it seems, drifts back to the bush, to his adopted people.

 

David Malouf, Remembering Babylon, Random House, Sydney, 1993

David Malouf, The Conversations at Curlow Creek, Random House, Sydney, 1996