The Rainbow-Bird and Other Stories (1957) is a collection of short stories from earlier Vance Palmer anthologies, edited and introduced by Allan Edwards, Professor of Eng.Lit. at UWA. It must have been a set text in one of Edwards’ courses as my copy is covered in very nicely written notes (in real ink!). Edward’s Preface begins with ‘”My purpose in writing,” says Vance Palmer, “is to set down Australian rhythms.”’ and goes on to claim that “Palmer’s stories are among the best written in Australia”.
Edward Vivian (Vance)Palmer was born in Bundaberg, Qld in 1885, and without actually naming Bundaberg, a shipping port on the Burnett River, a few km inland of Wide Bay on the Queensland coast, a number of these stories are set in Queensland river port towns which more or less match this description.
Palmer was educated in state schools and at Ipswich Grammar, trained as a journalist, travelled to Europe, establishing himself in London from 1910. By Edwards’ account Palmer was in London when war broke out and came home to enlist in the AIF. We know from Sylvia Martin’s biography of Aileen Palmer (my review) that Vance was actually on honeymoon with his new wife Nettie in France when the Great War commenced, but in this bio she doesn’t rate a mention, not even in the context of “his many contacts with artists”. So much for all Nettie’s sacrifices!
Palmer had 17 novels published but was better thought of for his short stories. He was influential in Australian literary theory and his The Legend of the Nineties (1954), on the influence of the Sydney Bulletin in the 1890s on all subsequent writing by and about Australians, predates Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) although is not so accessible or well-argued. Palmer was Chairman of the Commonwealth Literary Fund’s Advisory Board from 1948 to 1953 and died in Melbourne in 1959. (ADB)
The thirteen stories presented here are not dated, nor are the original anthologies from which they were taken named. However, they seem to be ordered, if not by date of writing, then at least roughly by date of setting, but with one longer, earlier story, Mathieson’s Wife, saved for the end.
The title story features a young girl treasuring her glimpses of the eponymous rainbow-bird (a colourful bee-eater which nests in tunnels in the ground, info here) before its destruction by a bee keeper. Early Australian writers were often ponderously sentimental about little girls – think the lost child in Such is Life, or Harold, the squatter in My Brilliant Career who carts around on his shoulders the daughter of one of his workers, and Palmer is no different. A couple of other stories also have little girl protagonists. A slight one on the death of a school mate being announced at assembly, and an attempt at descriptive writing about waking to find the mare has foaled:
And then again the queer whinny! She sat up in bed, a flicker at her heart, staring out through the fly-netting. Near the woodheap she could see the thick form of Dozy, standing quite still and looking enormous against the rising ground in the dim light, her winter coat puffed out with cold. Her head was sunk low, her heavy forelock had fallen over her eyes, she seemed rooted in the waxy earth. But round her flickered something wavery and uncertain, a small, glimmering shape like her shadow in water, and from it came a light whickering. (The Foal)
Palmer is too self conscious to be a good writer, tries too hard to squeeze in an extra bit of description, even according to Edwards he is too writerly and lacks the easy flow of the master, Henry Lawson. Except for his year* in the AIF, he lived a comfortable life, surrounded by other writers, or overseas, and his exposure to the bush life he writes about was minimal.
The best story, The Birthday, and like all the others it’s just a little slice of life, is the one he was most able to write from lived experience. A father returns home overnight from being away, bearing birthday presents for the two children. They might be in a holiday house, a queenslander on stilts near the beach – maybe the house Vance and Nettie took for a while at Caloundra while Aileen and Helen were little – a day passes with a couple of minor dramas (the story would have been better with none), but still Palmer tries too hard in the wrapping up:
Moving away, Darrow began to feel emotion rise like a small, warm bubble in his brain till it softly burst.
“Life! … he thought vaguely, feeling for the spade in the darkness of the outhouse.
Most of the stories are Henry Lawson-standard issue – miners doing it hard out in the desert, stuff he’s read about or heard about rather than done himself. I don’t doubt his childhood in rural (not outback) Queensland, and his time in the army would have given him plenty of material – background and characters – but to be honest, I don’t understand why he wanted, why he tried so hard, to be a writer, when he was so much more suited to being a literary academic.
One story, Jettisoned, had the effect of making me uncomfortable. I don’t suppose I am alone in always identifying with the protagonist, but in this story, set on the coast, the main character is a bit of a loser, a scab during an earlier strike, an outsider in a tight community and who, in the resolution to the story, dobs in to the authorities his ‘mates’ in a mildly illegal activity as revenge for a perceived slight. Another story, Home Front, also has a protagonist with whom it is difficult to sympathise. A go-getter businessman flies into Perth from Port Hedland, during the Second World War, and bullies his way into a hotel which is full of American officers. He is put at a table with a taciturn Australian soldier whom he harangues about the importance of business compared with soldiering. It turns out the Australian is temporarily home from New Guinea, recovering from a head injury and I think we’re meant to draw our own conclusion.
As he got older it seems Palmer wrote stories taking the form of an older man looking back to his youth, interrogating his follies so to speak. They seem very old fashioned now, and might have been even when they were written. In Mathieson’s Wife he remembers back to being 13 or 14 and getting a crush on the flighty young woman recently married to their old parson in a small, inland country town. In this longer, 20pp, story other characters are introduced, including a handsome (and of course untrustworthy) stranger and the boy’s feelings are shown developing over a couple of years.
Palmer, and others of his ‘generation’, of the first half of the Twentieth century, Ion Idriess, Darcy Niland and so on represent the Australia of white bread and boiled cabbage and men in hats that my father idolized, and that I escaped from in the 1960s, and I’m not sure I was ever going to give him a fair reading. So be warned. They’re not bad stories, they’re just not very good.
*I originally wrote 4 years, as Edwards implies Palmer enlisted in 1914 on his return from London. According to ADB he did not enlist until 1918, and in fact arrived in France a few days after the end of the war.
Vance Palmer, The Rainbow-Bird and Other Stories, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1957