Such is Life (09), Joseph Furphy

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).”

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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.

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Next. Such is Life (10) >

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The Bluebird Café, Carmel Bird

I see Carmel Bird around from time to time, commenting on Whispering Gums or ANZLitLovers. I imagine her as Tasmanian, which is where she was born and, I think, grew up. According to her bio in the short story collection The Babe is Wise (1987) “Carmel Bird was born in Tasmania in 1940 … [she] now lives in Melbourne and is working on a novel The Bluebird Café.” And here we are.

The copy I have, which of course I picked up second hand somewhere unrecorded, for $2, was published in New York. The copyright material mentions a Canadian edition (Penguin) but no prior publication in Australia or England. I hope it was at least distributed here.

Being cautious, I check Bird’s bio on-line (she’s still with us) and see she received The Patrick White Award in 2016. A mixed blessing. No one minds $25,000, but the award of course is for writers who have been insufficiently recognised over the course of their careers. And she’s still working. The Bluebird Café was her second novel and her eleventh, Field of Poppies, was published just two years ago.

The Bluebird Café is set in Tasmania, probably in some sort of whimsical alternative reality, I haven’t been there. There are two locations – Copperfield Historic Museum Village, a hugely successful theme park, owned by the Best family, which has replaced the suburb of Trevallyn on the cliffs above Cataract Gorge …

Copperfield is on top of Cataract Hill which overlooks the Gorge where the South Esk meets the North Esk to form the Tamar River at the city of Launceston in northern Tasmania…

The Historic Museum Village of Copperfield was inspired by the original town of Copperfield on the Welcome River in the far north-west of Tasmania at Cape Grim [map].

… and the original Copperfield, which by 1985 “had become a ghost town where only one person lived. This was a woman called Bedrock Mean”. Bedrock Mean lives in the Bluebird Café started by her grandfather, Philosopher Mean. She waits there for her daughter Lovelygod who disappeared 20 years earlier at age ten, “one of those mysterious and tragic Australian children who vanish, leaving no trace”, while her (Bedrock’s) twin brother Carillo travels the world, searching.

Among the wax figures of miners and Aborigines in the Historic Museum Village is one of Lovelygod, just two feet tall, with the sign “Lovelygod Mean, midget, born 1960, disappeared 1970. The mystery of her disappearance remains unsolved.” Visitors are invited to write down their theories.

The next character introduced is Virginia O’Day, who in the 1980s is commissioned to write a play celebrating Launceston’s new tourist mecca. Virginia grew up in Launceston and at age 18 had holidayed in Copperfield where she wrote the play The Bluebird Café Murders which “enjoyed considerable success in the West End and on Broadway”. The previous year, 1950, Bedrock and Carillo then aged 10 had holidayed at the O’Days. Virginia would not eat. She had got her weight down from 8 stone to 6 1/2 and was aiming at 6. When Bedrock and Carillo went home to Copperfield, Virginia went with them, her parents hoping a change of scenery might help. They travel by train. Of course I have to check. Current maps show rail lines along the north coast, and Bedrock remembers “the little railway in from the coast that has not run for many years”.

Copperfield – there is a minor Charles Dickens theme running through the novel – and its little railway are, I assume, made up. I’m not aware of any mining up there in the north west corner. Queenstown is further south.

The Best family, who own everything in northern Tasmania, and in particular Nancy Best, are mentioned more often than I have indicated here and may be a satirical reference to Edmund Rouse, who was for decades Tasmania’s leading businessman and owner of the Launceston Examiner, until in 1989 he was sentenced to three years gaol for attempting to bribe a politician (instead of following the more usual path of Australian businesses of offering him a high-paying sinecure).

Virginia is writing both a novel and a journal. Part two of the book, consists of her journals for that year in Copperfield; part three is the transcripts of interviews she does in the ‘present’;

Virginia: [speaking of her novel] … giving away the plot won’t stop people reading it. Everybody knows all the plots, don’t they?
Interviewer: If everybody knows all the plots, why do you think people keep reading books?
Virginia: Perhaps it’s very reassuring to keep being told the same things in different ways. And every storyteller puts the story together in a different way. It’s nice to see how it’s done each time. You can arrange plenty of surprises for the reader.

.. part four is a short interview with Virginia’s sister Rosie; part five, an even shorter piece from the Los Angeles Times of Dec. 1989 under the heading ‘Waiting for Lovelygod’; and part six is an essay by a Japanese student speculating on the causes of Lovelygod’s disapperance. These are followed by a 22 page Readers’ Guide with an alphabetic listing of terms and names used and their meanings.

I can only imagine Bird got lost in post-modern theory and somehow found a publisher who was willing to inflict it on us.

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Carmel Bird, The Bluebird Café, New Directions, New York, 1990. 180 pp