Such is Life (12), 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)
Such is Life (09)
Such is Life (10)
Such is Life (11)

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. And here we are at no. 12. At last!

Tom has left Jack’s (formerly Nosey Alf’s) hut and is making his way to Runymede homestead in the impressive costume with which Jack has supplied him (supplemented by his own glasses and the famous meerschaum pipe).

[previously] I lacked, and knew I lacked, what is known as a ‘presence’. Now however, the high, drab belltopper and long alpaca coat, happily seconded by large, round glasses and a vast and scholarly pipe, seemed to get over [that] difficulty; and, for perhaps the first time in my life, I enjoyed … the consciousness of being well-dressed.

We run into a fellow on a poorly broken horse and Tom discourses, with examples, for a number of pages on the nature of good horsemanship until at last we are able to proceed – to the store, where goods are both kept for the station and sold to travellers. Montgomery, the storekeeper undertook in the last chapter, though I kept it from you, to spread rumours about Tom which Mrs Beaudesert might believe, and so give up her intention of marrying him.

We hear news for the last time of Nosey Alf, headed way north, up the Diamantina Track, into western Queensland.

Montgomery repeats the story Mrs B was intended to overhear (“which is more than I can do”, interpolates Tom). They get into an argument over whether Tom is dishonored or disgraced.

“Poverty, for instance is disgrace without dishonour; Michael-and-George-ship is dishonour without disgrace. In cases like mine, the dishonour lies in the fact, and the disgrace is in the publicity.”

All the men go in to lunch, including two swagman who Tom has previously injured, though neither recognises him, and so he is not called to account. Now he must face Mrs B and enact “the aristocratic man with a past … Such is life, my fellow-mummers – just like a poor player, that bluffs and feints his hour upon the stage, and then cheapens down to mere nonentity.”

THE END

Was I happy to see that ‘THE END’! When this is done, I’m going to go back to reading books, not studying them. But for the nonce, let us go on. We are clear of course that Tom Collins is not Joseph Furphy. John Barnes writes, “In many ways Collins is an exaggerated, ironic self-portrait, in which Furphy regards humorously – and not too severely – the vanity of the “learned bushman. Tom Collins is a role that Furphy assumes, turning his irony against himself.” And further on .. “Furphy planted the clues that enable us to see the truth that Collins misses. As the reader grasps the relationships, the patterns of cause and effect which elude the cock-sure and loquacious narrator, he will come to recognize the cunning of the book’s construction.”

It is clear that in his years in the bush, often alone and reading by the light of his campfire, Furphy read voraciously and widely, though the fact that he carried a pocket Shakespeare wherever he went is evident from his frequent and often obscure quotations. On finally settling down in Shepparton, he began submitting stories to the Bulletin, as did many bushmen/writers. But what he brought to this novel was not just years of reading and bush experience but “also a fascination with the nature of fiction. In his sense of literary tradition and his conscious pursuit of originality, Furphy had no real counterpart …”

Such is Life is a unique work, a landmark in Australian literature, incomprehensible probably to non-Australians, and, outside literary circles at least, still carrying the burden of having originally been lumped in with Bush Realism. It is in fact the first, great work of the Modernist era, and so you will find when you read it.

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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).

The cover is of the edition I own. A&R Classics is of course an imprint of Angus & Robertson. This edition dates from 1975, reprinted 1978, with a Foreword by John Barnes.


Meerschaum. German for sea foam. A meerschaum pipe is made from the mineral sepiolite sometimes found floating on the Black Sea.

The ideal rider. “… wants  – or rather, needs – a skull of best spring steel; a spinal column of standard Lowmoor; limbs of gutta-percha; a hide of vulcanised india-rubber; and the less brains he has, the better … his thinking facilities should be so placed as to be in direct touch with the only thing that concerns him, namely the saddle.” He goes on …

A spill that perils neck or limb, a simple buster is to him, and it is nothing more, paraphrasing Wordsworth’s Peter Bell
A primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him
And it was nothing more

Michael-and-George-ship. KCMG (knighthood) awarded to colonials for services rendered. “Its possessors were prostituted instruments of British imperialism whose price had been paid in honours and titles.” The Boomerang.

John Barnes (1931- ) Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University, author of The Order of Things: A Life of Joseph Furphy (1990)

Irishness. This is a footnote to previous posts really, but in between finishing writing this post and putting it up, I read an essay by Francis Devlin-Glass in the ALS Journal of 30 Sep 2021, ‘Defining the Field of Irish-Australian Literature’:

“Furphy is not only a cornerstone of nineteenth-century Australian literature, but his critique of sectarianism, one of the most urgent cultural issues in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Australia, has not often been marked. It makes him and his Shandyesque manner of narration, unique in Australian fiction, of both cultural and literary interest to a study of Irish-Australian writers. That he is the only Australian writer … alluded to in detail in Finnegans Wake is another curious index of a transnational flow in the Irish direction.”

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Such is Life (11), 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)
Such is Life (09)
Such is Life (10)

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.

My aid to understanding this month is an essay by Ivor Indyk, Reading Men like Signboards: The Egalitarian Semiotic of Such is Life. You’d think my own Literature degree would have taught me to come up with titles like that. But it must be another step, reserved just for initiates.

Chapter VII, the final chapter, begins with another variation of timeframe, “the routine record of March 9 [1884] is not a desirable text. It would merely call forth from fitting oblivion the lambing-down of two stalwart fencers by a pimply old shanty keeper”. And so Tom settles on March 28,29 for “another glimpse of Alf Jones. Also the peculiar scythe-sweep of my style of narrative will take in rencontre with another person, to whom, in your helpless state as a reader, you have already been introduced” – meaning probably, Andy Glover, the swagman he meets and ‘helps’ prior to the getting naked in the Murray episode, and who was jailed for for the haystack fire actually started by Tom (as a diversion while he stole a pair of _____).

On the evening of the 27th Tom was camped about 30 miles distant from Runymede homestead, which is his destination, but with a “slight” deviation he can call first on Nosey Alf (Jones), an excursion which takes most of the 28th, and which involves stopping for a long conversation with a couple of workers at Patagonia tank; being blown off his horse by a duststorm; rescuing an unnamed swagman from the same storm; and sharing with him his water with “Bligh-like impartiality”;

till, just at that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman to prayer, and the no less faithful sundowner to the station store, I reached my destination.
One glance was enough. Two strange horses were in the paddock; the kerosene tins still stood in the sheltered angle by the chimney, but the flowers were dead; the smooth-trodden radius round the door was no longer swept except by the winds of heaven, and was becoming a midden …

The new occupant is Jack, a sailor who can’t speak without swearing. He replaces Tom’s hat, which had been blown away, with an incongruous bell topper which, with a new jacket, gives Tom an appearance above his station when he subsequently arrives at Runnymede

“Now, if you’d a pair of skylights athort your cutwater, you’d be set up for a professor of phrenology, or doxology, or any other ology,” suggested Jack, with one oath, two unseemly expletives, and two obscenities.

And so an evening passes in conversation. Over the course of 10 or 15 pages we learn the origin of Tom’s meerschaum pipe; Pup insists on being fed; and in the morning Tom heads off for Runymede and the final day of this rambling story.

Ivor Indyk’s thesis is that on publication “Furphy’s bullockies and swagmen were taken to embody the egalitarian ethos considered fundamental to the definition of the Australian character.” Though, far from being ‘Australian’, all of the characters are “English first or Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Chinese, Dutch, German, French or Aboriginal – with each group having its own distinguishing dialect.” Then there are the differences of religion, particularly Protestant/Catholic, and of class, “for Furphy presents sectarianism as an instrument used by the propertied class to divide and conquer the labouring class.”

But following its republication in 1944 the novel’s true value was “seen to reside in its portrayal of the complexity and diversity of life.”

Such is Life explores the limitations of reason and the problems of choice and moral responsibility, it demonstrates the inadequacy of any single framework or set of principles, the uncertainty of knowledge, the futility of human endeavour.

Tom is constantly encountering and relating stories which demonstrate that these diverse men and women, in their movements over this vast and largely empty space, are in fact a community, and that the actions, the choices made by one, have consequences, often unintended and unexpected, for them all.

Furphy uses the unreliability of Tom’s version of events to make us reconsider our interpretation of all events.

What bothers me is the extent to which I rely on the annotations and commentary for explanations of what is going along. Nosey Alf’s back story is in the text, but I’m not sure how aware of it I would have been without assistance. Certainly, by the end of the chapter (and my next and final post) we will know where Nosey Alf is, but who Nosey Alf has been is another story altogether.


lambing down. Defrauding a ‘chequed up’ bushman by keeping him drunk until his funds are exhausted (From helping a ewe to give birth).

Patagonia Tank. “On a well-managed station like Runymede, a tank is, whenever possible, excavated on the margin of a swamp. The clay extracted is formed into a strong wall.” In other words, a dam. When the swamp is full, a portable pumping plant is used to fill the dam.

Bligh-like impartiality. On his long voyage by rowboat after the Mutiny, Bligh divided the dwindling stores with his crew using a set of improvised scales.

that hour which calls the faithful Mussulman to prayer. Sundown

a pair of skylights athort your cutwater. a pair of glasses on your nose. The cutwater is the leading edge or prow of a boat.

Lachlan River. I don’t mention the Lachlan this month but following unseasonal rains it is, this week (ie. in Nov, 2021), in flood upstream, above Forbes. It will be interesting to follow the progress of the flood waters westwards, past Hillston, and to see whether Tom’s prediction comes true, and they flow across the plains south of Menindee and into the Darling

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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).

Ivor Indyk, Reading Men like Signboards: The Egalitarian Semiotic of Such is Life, Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 May 1986

The cover is from one of the many post-copyright versions. Who was behind publisher “Australian Classics” I can’t say – the closest I can get is ‘Modern Publishing Group’ in the 1990s. The photo would appear to be of timber cutters sitting on a giant log, maybe a river red gum (though Google Images would have it that it was a ‘locomotive’).

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Next. Such is Life (12) >

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The Yield, Tara June Winch

Journal: 076

Since moving back to running up north I have settled into an easy routine – load Thurs/Fri, unload Sun/Mon, back in Perth Tues/Wed, for a round trip of about 3,000 km. Running over east I would do one round trip Perth-Melbourne, 8,000 km, every 3 weeks. So now, over 3 weeks, I’m running a little further and getting a bit less time off – though it doesn’t feel like it – and earning about the same money (but as I’m not always running as a road train, I am using a fair bit less fuel).

Over the course of a weekend I listen to about 20 hours of audiobooks, say three books a week. This trip just past (actually the trip before last by the time this goes up) I listened to The Yield, Max Barry’s wild Jennifer Government (thank you Emma), and Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself.

I originally wrote this post as a review, but as it’s mostly just me bitching about stuff, I’ll keep it between us and won’t put it up on the Australian Women Writers Challenge site.

Tara June Winch (1983- ) was born in and grew up around Wollongong, a steel manufacturing and port city 50 kms south of Sydney. She now lives between Sydney and France. So not a bush person then.

Winch’s father is a Wiradjuri man. Wiradjuri country is roughly contiguous with the Riverina region of NSW, which is to say the country we are looking at in Such is Life, the open grassland and semi desert country of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers, north of the Murray, and the southern reaches of the Bogan and Macquarie Rivers (such as they are).

“The Wiradjuri language is effectively extinct, but attempts are underway to revive it, with a reconstructed grammar, based on earlier ethnographic materials and wordlists and the memories of Wiradjuri families” (Wiki). Winch acknowledges the actual people working on this grammar, but in her novel ascribes it to the fictional Albert Goondiwindi. (I don’t have a problem with that).

The Yield (2019), which won the 2020 Miles Franklin, is an exploration of Wiradjuri heritage and language through the eyes of a young woman protagonist, August, returned from London for the funeral of her grandfather, Albert Goondiwindi. August, now thirtyish, had been brought up by her grandparents, following the arrest and imprisonment of her parents on drugs charges, on the family property, a 500 acre wheat sheep farm on the banks of the (fictional) Murrimby River outside the town, and shire centre, Massacre Plains (also fictional).

The problem I had with the novel, which others clearly did not, is that it is based on learned rather than lived experience and the history is, as the author says, a composite of the average experiences of this sort of community. Still, it is well written, indeed innovative in the way Albert Goondiwindi’s Wiradjuri dictionary is woven into the text.

There are three stories, with different voices: a foundation story, set in the 1880s – ie. at exactly the same time as Tom Collin’s stories in SIL – told by the Lutheran missionary who gathered the Goondiwindi community onto one property; Albert Goondiwindi’s story of his childhood in the 1940s; and August’s story of her return to be with her grandmother and to attempt to save the family property from (tin) miners who are about to commence mining their land. There is also a further story running in the background, the disappearance of August’s sister, Jedda, as a child, which we hear of first from August then from Albert.

The one definite location we are given is that Massacre Plains is on the Broken Highway, which runs from Dubbo to Broken Hill (more or less horizontally across the centre of the map), shading from cotton farming, to scrub, to open desert capable of supporting only feral goats and pigs, and with, beyond Nyngan, and the cotton country on the Bogan, just two towns – the mining community of Cobar, and the run down rural community of Wilcannia on what is left of the Darling River.

My guess is that Winch was thinking of Nyngan for Massacre Plains, though there would be little chance of making a living off 500 acres there, and the nearest wheat farm would be further east or south. Maybe Nyngan has a modern, three storey shire office, it’s two or three years since I was last through there, but it’s a long way to the Darling, where Albert takes the local kids camping.

The names too, are puzzling. The family name Goondiwindi is from southern Queensland, and Jedda comes from the story of an Aboriginal girl in the Northern Territory (and Australia’s first colour movie).

I could go on but you get sick of my pedantry. And luckily for you, books that I listen to rather than read, I can only make notes in my head, and most of them I forget. Anyway, it’s only fiction you say. But that’s the point, it’s not. We are meant to read The Yield as representative of Aboriginal experience. I’m sure that it is, but compared with, for example, Marie Munkara’s visceral lived experience of colonial racism, Winch’s telling feels second hand.

A better comparison might be with Benang, Kim Scott’s exploration of his Wirlomin/Noongar heritage and his family’s experience of the actual, not invented (or “composite”), Cocanarup Massacre. Even leaving aside the magnificence of Scott’s language compared with Winch’s, the way he incorporates his search for identity into the text is clearly superior to Winch’s regurgitation/reconstruction of stuff she has read.

I’ll admit that as the story went on, August’s and Jedda’s stories in particular, I became more engaged. But did I like it, Melanie? No, not a lot. The problem (for my point of view) of course is that the Wiradjuri’s story needs to be told, and if not by Winch then who? But firstly, I think it could have been told better, and without the inconsistencies; and secondly, from memory, there were actual massacres, the Bathurst/Wiradjuri Wars for instance, which might better have illustrated her telling.

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Tara June Winch, The Yield, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2019. Harper Audio, read by Tony Briggs. 9 hours.


The map is of the rivers of New South Wales (I forget where I got it now). For scale, it is about 1,000 kms from left to right. Sydney is under the ‘River’ of Nepean River. The Great Dividing Range runs parallel to the coast and about 100 kms in, forming the eastern boundary of Wiradjuri country. The western/northern boundary would seem to be some distance east and south of the Darling.

Such is Life (10), 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)
Such is Life (09)

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.

We are at VI, the penultimate chapter. Tom’s diary, open at Sat., February 9th, 1884, reminds him that he was once again on Runnymede, on whose home paddock the bullockies were camped in Chapter I. It is a standing joke amongst all his acquaintance that the housekeeper of Runnymede, a widow formerly of some social standing (in the bush), is intent on marrying him. And now, due to government business, he has been spending some days within her reach.

No spoilers this month, though the answer to one of the novel’s little underlying mysteries, who is Nosey Alf, is within Tom’s grasp by the end of the chapter if only he realised. In fact, it is only by reading the commentaries that I am aware of just how many mysteries run as undercurrents through the stories Tom relates and listens to. Tom knows his saddle is better than it should be, but from whom was it stolen? Where did his kangaroo dog, Pup, come from? What happened to the swagman he ‘helped’ the night he got naked? Is he still in touch with Jim (Jemima)? and so on.

Tom begins the chapter by philosophising about the minute gradations of class on a station, “The folk-lore of Riverina is rich in variations of a mythus, pointing to the David-and-Goliath combat between a quiet wage-slave and a domineering squatter …” At the homestead, each class has its own quarters, from the house for the boss and his family, to the barracks for narangies, to the men’s hut, to “the nearest pine ridge” or a hut by the woolshed for swaggies. Tom, in his official capacity, “being a little too exalted for the men’s hut, and a great deal too vile for the boss’s house” was quartered with the narrangies.

Social status, apart from all considerations of mind, manners, or even money, is more accurately weighed on a right-thinking Australian station than anywhere else in the world.

Mrs Beaudesert, the housekeeper, had made £25,000 marrying and burying her first husband, only for her second, a refugee from Belgravia, to get through it at £10,000 a year, and so she was reduced to living on the charity of her old school friend, the boss’s wife. Unfortunately for Tom, she had a mistaken belief about his lineage and prospects, and “such was her hypnotic power, or my adaptability, that in the atmosphere of Runnymede I became a Conservative of the good old type.”

Eventually, after adjudicating in an argument between Mrs B and a servant girl, he begins to make his escape. The mail brings a letter from head office, but it is only a love letter and he discards it. As he is mounting, another horseman wishes to discuss ‘Was Hamlet mad?’. There is a contretemps with a bullocky taking a short cut across the best paddocks instead of going back out the front gate and around the long way. But at last Tom makes his own way across the station to Nosey Alf’s hut on the boundary.

Nosey Alf, in fact had no nose, having been kicked in the face by a horse. Tom describes Alf variously as “more beautiful, otherwise, than a man’s face is justified in being”; with “lithe, graceful movements”; and “no scrub to burn off, except a faint moustache”; not to mention “unbecomingly clean for a Saturday”.

They exchange “swapping books” and discuss Zola, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Longfellow. Alf corrects Tom’s characterization of bombazine as “cheap, carpetty-looking fabric” for women’s gowns, leading Tom to assume Alf had been a draper’s assistant in his Sydney days.

Tom gives Alf news, at some length, of their mutual acquaintance, the misanthropic Warrigal Alf.

Alf takes out a violin –

.. he didn’t confine himself to the comfortable vulgarity of popular airs. He played selections from Handel, Mozart, Wagner and I don’t know whom; while the time past unnoticed by both of us. At length he laid the violin across his knees, and, after a pause, his voice rose in one of the sweetest songs ever woven from words.

As he takes his leave in the morning, Tom’s final, grateful thought is that never once did Alf attempt “any witticism respecting Mrs Beaudesert”.


Runnymede. At that time, in a 200 mile stretch along the Murrimbidgee there was only one station, Pevensey, that did not have an Aboriginal name. “Perhaps Pevensey, the site of a king’s victory, suggested Runnymede, the site of a king’s defeat.”

Narangy. A self-appointed boss of doubtful authority. A man who transmitted orders but didn’t formulate them. From similar Aboriginal words recorded in the Sydney region meaning small or junior.

Love letter. Possibly from Jim as her father had Tom’s work address

Was Hamlet mad? A burning question in Melbourne in 1867, following rival performances, and a spate of letters to the Argus.

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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).

Vance Palmer edited two editions of Such is Life, the second, published by Kate Baker in 1917, and the abridged edition published in England by Jonathon Cape in 1937. The cover above would appear to be of the latter (here). My earlier post, Such is Life Abridged! (here)

Last month one of my brothers (B3) wrote and said that if I was short of covers I could use his, which was a Xmas present from our parents in 1972. I had already set up my covers for the rest of the year but here’s his, as a bonus, a hardback from boutique publisher Lloyd O’Neill. The cover painting is Tom Roberts’ Charcoal Burners (1886), though the colours appear a bit off.

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Next. Such is Life (11)>

< Previous. Such is Life (09)

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) >

< Previous. Such is Life (08)

Such is Life (08), 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)

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.

We’re up to Chapter V, nominally January 9th, 1884, but more accurately, Jan 8-10. It’s dry, mid-summer of course, feed is short and Tom’s two horses are skin and bones. Ch. V contains a significant moment in the overall novel – when some of the men we have met before are sitting round a campfire swapping yarns – so what I plan to do is discuss the men gathering, and then dispersing the following morning, this month, and then the campfire and the yarns next month. So this may be the last month without spoilers.

Tom in his peregrinations has returned to Mondunbarra, the station Warrigal Alf was camped on in the last chapter. Alf has presumably gone off with the squatter Stewart. Tom has business with the managing partner, Smythe, who is “away in Melbourne”, so he leaves the paperwork with Smythe’s younger brother, Bert and makes preparations to depart. Bert directs him to camp in a paddock which Tom finds in the morning is completely devoid of grass.

I found myself slowly approached by a Chinaman on a roan horse. And though it is impossible to recognise any individual Chow, I fancied that this unit bore something more than a racial resemblance to the one from whom I had recovered Alf’s bullocks. Moreover he was riding the same horse.

The Chinese boundary rider, who has adopted the name Paul because he is a Christian, declines to drink tea with Tom but tells him of a well grassed paddock some miles off, and thence Tom makes his way. He has barely settled down and lit his pipe when he is accosted by a familiar voice, and is joined by his old mate Steve Thompson.

Daylight had now melted into soft, shadowless moonlight; and the place was no longer solitary. Dozens of cattle were scattered round, harvesting the fine crop of grass; and Thompson with his two confederates joined me … Before the first match was struck, a sound of subdued voices behind us notified the coming of two more interlopers.

And later they are joined by another – “Seems like as if people couldn’t fine a bit o’ grass without the whole (adj) country jumpin’ it”.

They wake to find they have all been the victims of a carefully executed sting. Smythe, not in Melbourne at all, has had his stockmen lure the bullockies into camping on his land; all of their cattle and horses, “254 head of overworked and underfed beasts”, have been rounded up before dawn and been driven back to the station yards and impounded. Working out who owns, and owes, what takes all morning, till at last there are only 10 bullocks left. “How many bullocks are you working?” Smythe asks Bob, his last ‘customer’. “Well, I’m workin’ ten, but …”. “No buts … Take your ten and GO!” So Bob takes his eight and the two Mondunbarra bullocks that have got in amongst them, and the score is counted, by everyone in the know, as even.


The annotations don’t have a lot to tell us this chapter but I have a paper about Furphy and racism from the Australian Literary Studies Journal by Frances Devlin-Glass, one of the annotators, titled “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”.

“Furphy’s positions on the Aboriginal and Chinese questions were a debating point within the editorial group and we were aware the we were disturbed by them. In the brief space afforded by the convention of annotations, we had argued that, though he certainly subscribed to the social Darwinist and left-leaning socialist views of his time in his attitudes to Chinese, he was by contrast with many of his contemporaries, a moderate.” She claims that Furphy’s ‘anxiety’ on the subject of race frequently manifests as humour and irony.

While Furphy’s work may be read as a “call to nationhood, to one (white and assimilationist) nation,”…”to stress this hegemonic aspect of the work is to overlook the relish Furphy clearly took in nationally and ethnically marked diversity and ethnology. This is most obviously apparent in the care with which he represents dialects and accents.”

Devlin-Glass says that “Furphy anticipated the modernist .. preoccupations with irony, point of view and unreliable narrators” which makes it difficult to apply to him all the opinions expressed by Tom, especially as the most frequent subject of his (Tom’s) “sardonic wit and satiric reduction” is his own countrymen.

It is important, both with the novel a a whole, and in relation to this issue, that what Tom says and what is actually happening are often quite different. Tom says in the quote above that he doesn’t recognise the ‘Chow’, but one of the ‘mysteries’ threaded through the novel comes about because there is also a European he repeatedly fails to recognise. Further, when Tom speaks pidgin to “Paul” Sam Young – which I don’t quote – the Chinese man is happy to insult him straight back; and later they have an exchange in which Tom acknowledges the cleverness of the sting and Paul accepts that he will one day be stung in turn.

What Devlin-Glass is saying, and I agree, is that while there is some racism, there is no racial animosity. Furphy, she says, engages in “an ironic dismantling of racial prejudice”; his work demonstrating, whatever Tom says, that it is the class system, squatter vs worker, which is the real concern of European and Chinese workers alike. 

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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).

Frances Devlin-Glass, “Touches of Nature that make the Whole World Kin: Furphy, Race and Anxiety”, Australian Literary Studies Journal, 1 November 2000.

This month’s cover is from Perry Middlemiss’s Australian Literature blog. He implies it is from the Angus & Robertson 1956 edition (I have previously used the cover of A&R’s ‘original’ 1944 edition). Middlemiss discusses Such is Life here. I disagree that Tom Collins is Furphy’s pen name, it’s the name of the fictional biography’s protagonist. Though that’s probably just a quibble and Furphy did use Collins as a pen name for some of his Bulletin short stories.

Middlemiss, whom I haven’t come across before, describes his Aust.Lit. project here. He also reviews classic SF. How good is that!

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Such is Life (07), 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)

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.

Chapter IV, and Tom’s diary has moved us on to “SUN. Dec. 9. [1883] Dead Man’s Bend. Warrigal Alf down. Rescue twice. Enlisted Terrible Tommy.”

Dead Man’s Bend on the Lachlan River, marks the junction of three properties, Mondunbarra and Avondale on one side, and on the other Yoongoolee. Last Chapter we were down on the Murray and now we are back in the general region of Chapter III (Wilandra) though probably a little to the south.

How easy it is to recall the scene! The Lachlan river, filled by summer rains far away among the mountans, to a width of something like thirty yards, flowing silently past, and going to waste. Irregular areas of lignum, hundreds of acres in extent, and eight or ten feet in height, representing swamps; and long, serpentine reaches of the same, but higher in growth, indicating billabongs of the river. The river itself fringed, and the adjacent low ground dotted, with swamp box, river coolibah, and red gum ..

To complete the picture … you will imagine Cleopatra and Bunyip standing under a coolibah – standing heads and points, after the manner of equine mates; each switching the flies and mosquitos off his comrade’s face, and shivering them off such parts of his own body as possessed the requisite faculty. And in the centre of a clear place, a couple of hundred yards away, you may notice a bullock wagon, apparently deserted; the heavy wool-tarpaulin, dark with dust and grease, thrown across the arched jigger, forming a tent …

In the foreground of this picture, you may fancy the present annalist lying – or as lying is an ill phrase, and peculiarly inapplicable just here – we’ll say reclining, pipe in mouth, on a patch of pennyroyal, trying to re-peruse one of Ouida’s novels, and thinking … what a sweet, spicy, piquant thing it must be to be lured to destruction by a tawny-haired tigress with slumbrous dark eyes.

Tom is loafing, his next appointment a day or two ahead, reading a romance as we have just seen, and thinking of Jim (Jemima) when he is accosted from the far side of the river, a repeated call of “Ha-a-a-a-ay” which he ignores over the space of two or three pages, until finally he pays attention and a mate – the Riverina is full of Tom’s mates – tells him that the seemingly abandoned wagon is Warrigal Alf’s and that Warrigal Alf’s carrion [bullocks and horse] are on the road to Yoongoolee yards and no doubt from thence to Booligal pound.

Tom goes up to the wagon to discover Alf ill and in his own mind anyway, dying. He had tried to keep his bullocks in this remote corner but, as it turns out later, a stockman from one station had herded them onto the neighbouring station and the stockman there had herded them across the river.

Tom gives Alf some water then goes off after the bullocks. Divesting his outer clothes (again!) to cross the river, his “undergarment which I cannot bring myself to name” is ripped by a low branch and he discards that too. He catches the Yoongoolee stockman, a northern Englander whose conversation, in dialect, is incomprehensible (to me anyway), persaudes him to return Alf’s cattle and also the stockman’s wife to let him have some ‘Pain-Killer” patent medcine for Alf. For modesty and to temporarily cover his sunburn he has borrowed the stockman’s coat but for some reason I don’t follow he returns it to the stockman’s wife and rides off near-naked again.

Back on his own side of the river he persuades a Chinese stockman – the ‘Terrible Tommy’ of the heading – to let the bullocks stay a while (more dialect) and then encounters on the road a station-owner, a Scot (yes, even more dialect), who eventually volunteers to employ Alf and safeguard his bullocks.

This was a difficult chapter, both to read, and because nothing much happens. Though Warrigal Alf tells Tom four versions of one story about a wife’s adultery which I think will later prove significant. Also the annotaters point out that the text over those three pages where his mate is calling “Ha-a-a-a-ay” and Tom is lost in reverie represents one of the earliest instances of stream of consciousness – an important (though not necessary) characteristic of modernist writing, which I said earlier we should look out for.

AG Mitchell writes that we should accept such chapters: From one day to the next there can, on the face of it, be no connection except the reappearance, in fact or by report, of familiar persons and places. But as we read we discover connections … We find a thread of narrative, dropped earlier, being taken up again, puzzling events and characters explained after a long interval … Ragged ends are taken up and woven into the fabric of the book. And such is life.


Ouida. Pen-name of Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908).

Tawny-haired tigress. Probably refers to the villainess, Marion Vavasour in Ouida’s novel Strathmore who “takes delight in destroying the men who are helplessly attracted by her beauty.” We must see if Tom feels ‘lured to destruction’ by Jim.

Warrigal Alf ill. Alf’s symptoms are congruent with Ross River fever, prevalent in NSW in the C19th [and more recently]

Dialect. The English stockman replies to an implied threat with “Foak bea n’t gwean ter walk on hutheh foak” which apparently means he is not a walkover.

Stream of consciousness. “Rather earlier than historians of literature usually look for it (though Randolph Quirk has found it fully developed in Dickens; see The Linguist and the English Language).”

AG Mitchell. Such is Life: The Title and the Structure of the Book. In Clement Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism, OUP, Melbourne, 1967

Buckley. The quintessentially English squatter protagonist of Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859) [which I really must write up one day]. I skipped over him in my summary above but he gets a couple of scornful mentions during this chapter and later on. Kingsley only spent two or three years in Australia and Furphy is intensely critical of his representations of outback life and of the regard in which his book was held in city circles.

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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).

This month’s cover is from the Dodo Press (here) “a Moscow-based micro-publisher, established in 2009. We all work almost entirely as volunteers, most of our publications are financed by crowdfunding. We tend to publish non-mainstream weirdly brilliant books, mainly in translation from English. The Dodo Press team consists of three people, with about 300 books translated, about 500 edited, and about 50 years in publishing, between us.”

The cover image is from the painting The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair by French realist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).

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Such is Life (05), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)
Such is Life (04)

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.

Have I persuaded you yet that Such is Life is a major work of Modernist fiction, and probably the only reason Joseph Furphy is not up there with Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence is, you know, cultural cringe.

Such Is Life … “was instantly seen as a major example of the “radical nationalism” of the time and praised for its realistic representation of life on the frontier in the 1880s. But it was forty years before many readers realized that the novel was also a subtle comment on fiction itself and that within it were hidden stories that revealed a world of “romance” within its “realist” representation of life. Such Is Life can be read as the first experimental novel in Australian literature and the first Australian literary expression of a twentieth-century sensibility of the provisionality of life and reality.”

Julian Croft, ‘Joseph Furphy.’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 230

On with the show, to Chapter III, another month on, in which Tom goes for a swim and causes a minor sensation.

The pages of the —— Express, the journal of record of a town on the Murray River, between Echuca and Albury, report two apparently unrelated stories from the night of 9th of November, 1883. In one a naked man, a “Lunatic at Large”, was sighted in various locations along the river. An ‘Inspector Collins of the NSW Public Service’ told the paper that he believed the man was an escapee from Beechworth Asylum who must subsequently have drowned. And in the other, Mr Q____ , a farmer lost a valuable stack of hay by fire.

Tom, as is his wont, takes his time relating his part in these stories, but on the afternoon of the 9th he was camped near a mate’s place on a bend in the river, on the NSW side. It is germane to this story that the Murray takes such a convoluted course that there are places along the river where Victoria is north of NSW, and this was near one such place. After several pages of smoking his pipe and philosophizing, and several more having a cup of tea with a swagman, he is accosted from the other side of the river by a farmer, B____ he knows and is persuaded to cross to the Victorian side using an improvised ferry – a bark canoe and a wire across the river between two trees.

Once again, he chooses between seemingly inconsequential alternatives and fate has him in its grip.

Halfway across the river a huge log is bearing down on him; he stands in the canoe and lifts the wire above it; Pup, his kangaroo dog chooses that moment to join him in the canoe, overturning it, and leaving both of them stranded on the log; no worries, he’ll strip off his clothes, tie the bundle to his head and swim for it; once more Pup intervenes, leaping from the log to his head and the clothes are lost; Tom swims to the northern shore thinking to walk back to his campsite; and finds himself on the Victorian side, after nightfall, stark naked.

His adventures as he accosts each passing traveller in the dark, most of them spooning couples from a Sunday School reunion picnic, is constantly attacked by mosquitos and walks through nettles and into unseen fences, are of course farcical.

Such is Life has seven chapters so for a couple of months I’ll have to cover a whole chapter, but not this month. I’ll leave you hanging with Tom naked by the roadside, or as he puts it, “into which, according to immemorial usage, I had been born without a rag of clothes”.


B____ – named later as Binney. The owner of the burned haystack, Q____ is likewise later named (though instead of giving the name the annotations point to 131:49 (page:line) where I find Jim Quarterman who no doubt turns up again later).

Victoria to the north. This puts the location of Tom’s adventure in the vicinity of Barmah (map). As does his mention of the locality ‘Moira’. I probably shouldn’t point out that heading downstream NSW is always on your right, why spoil a good story. Let’s say Tom was momentarily confused and swam with the setting sun on his left.

Quotations. Every third or fourth line seemingly, Furphy uses a phrase alluding to some other literary work. For example Tom looks in a cottage window seeking a man to help him out but sees only a woman and her children. “Like Enoch Arden (in my own little tin-pot way) I turned silently and sadly from the window, for I wasn’t wanted in that company.” In Tennyson’s ‘Enoch Arden’, Arden, believed lost at sea, returns to see through the window his wife re-married.
As Tom turns away he treads on a cactus (of course) and falls to the ground “comforting myself with the thought that a brave man battling with the storms of fate is a sight worthy of the admiration of gods”. From “Pope’s Prologue to Addison’s Cato“.

according to immemorial usage. cf. Job 1:21 – “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither.”

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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).

The book cover at the top is the 2nd Ed., published by Furphy’s literary executor Kate Baker in 1917 using pages printed for the Bulletin’s 1st Ed., but not used, and with the addition of an Introduction by Vance Palmer. See the UNSW Digital Collections Library (here).

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Such is Life (04), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)
Such is Life (03)

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.

We resume near the end of Chapter II with Tom visiting an old friend, Rory O’Halloran and his wife and five year old daughter, Mary, who live in a shepherd’s hut in a remote corner of Willandra Station. Tom spends the evening talking to Rory and Mary – Mrs O’Halloran is taciturn, no doubt unused to company. The next morning he accompanies Rory on his rounds, but the sight of a particular tree recalls to Tom’s mind the traveller he saw resting, and who hadn’t after all come up to the house for tucker.

Suddenly a strange misgiving seized me, and I asked involuntarily, “Do you have many swagmen calling round here?”
“Nat six in the coorse o’ the year, ” replied Rory … [who then relates that someone from the station had told him a couple of weeks ago that there was a man blind with sandy blight, making for Ivanhoe “fur till ketch the coach”]
“A found a swag on the fence a week or ten days ago, an’ a man’s tracks at the tank a couple of days afther; an the swag’s there yit ..”

Of course they find the traveller, under the tree, dead that morning, in sight of safety if he could have seen. “Such is life, and such is death.”

AG Mitchell in Semmler ed., 20th Century Australian Literary Criticism (1967) writes –

there is an appalling incongruity between the trivial, light-hearted reason for Collins’ checking his natural impulse to speak to the man, and the consequences of his action …

Such is Life abounds in incidents of this kind, on larger and smaller scales; happenings which not only mock the most careful judgement and patient forethought but which twist themselves into stranger shapes than invention could contrive.

Mitchell argues that the underlying thesis of the novel is, What is the nature of Providence? and that this is a question which Furphy is never able to resolve to his own satisfaction. There are, Mitchell says, four “qualities attributed in literature to the spirit or force sustaining and governing the universe in its relationship to man:
Benevolence, Malevolence, Indifference and ‘Sport'”
And the author “represents all four ideas, either explicitly through one of his characters or implicitly through a series of events seen against a background of individual character, motive, responsibility, intention.”

I make Tom’s account of a few hours in the evening and the following morning sound very straightforward, but in between he’s discussing with us the beauty of Mary’s Celtic features –

Mary O’Halloran was perfect Young-Australian … she was a very creature of the phenomena which had environed her own dawning intelligence. She was a child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees. The long-descended poetry of her nature made the bush vocal with pure gladness of life …

the history of the Celts in Ireland, England and Europe; Rory’s writing – a twenty page treatise titled A Plea for Woman

.. no mere abstract can do justice to the sumptuous phraseology of the work, to its opulence of carefully selected adjective, or to the involved rhetoric which seemed to defeat and set at naught all your petty rules of syntax and prosody.

then there’s Eyre’s expedition along the shores of the Great Australian Bight; American Presidents; the Massacre of Cawnpore; the real location of the garden of Eden. Rory has questions for Tom which he answers off the top of his head: the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (6 miles); Renaissance painters who painted Calgary with a skull at the foot of the Cross (Schoen, Limousin, Durër).

Kerryn Goldsworthy writes in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000) “Such is Life [is a] sprawling, opaque and very funny novel … at once a late experiment in realism and a very early anticipation of postmodern techniques of fragmentation, allusion, pastiche and authorial self-consciousness.”


The next morning – Tom, at the beginning of this chapter, determines to relate the events not of one week, but of one day of each month. But now: “I have already exceeded the limited exactions of my diary record”.

Swagmen – men walking the backblocks looking for, or avoiding, work. Barbara Baynton, often left on her own (as it happens, nearby-ish and at this time) was understandably terrified of them – see her short story, The Chosen Vessel. A swag is a bedroll, maybe containing as well a change of clothes.

Ivanhoe, NSW – is north west of Willandra, so O’Halloran’s hut would have been on the blind swagman’s way. There must have been a coach service from Wilcannia, north of Ivanhoe, to Hay (map) which is due south and probably on to Deniliquin and Echuca. And no, Ivanhoe’s one place I’ve never been and have always wanted to (if only for the romance of the name).

Sport – As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods,/They kill us for their sport (King Lear).

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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).

The book cover at the top is from US publisher Standard Ebooks. Their ebooks are free (here). They say they have made very few changes (eg. Mahomet to Muhammad) but they don’t say if they were working from the “standard” version – Angus & Robertson, 1944 – but from what few checks I made, they appear to be.

Cover image not credited, but appears to be from:
Frederick McCubbin, Down on his Luck, 1889
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia

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Such is Life (03), Joseph Furphy

Such is Life (01)
Such is Life (02)

We’re at Chapter II which begins with Tom giving up on his idea of describing minutely every day of one week and instead determining “to pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day for amplification and comment, keeping not too long in one tune, but a snip and away”. This “transports” us to 9th October 1883 and a hundred miles northward, to Willandra Billabong, real black-soil desert country on the middle reaches of the Lachlan River which in dry times peters out and in flood spreads across country as far west as the Darling.

On the verandah of the Willandra Station men’s quarters an argument breaks out as to whether cattle can smell water. This leads of course to a story, in this case of Tom as a bullocky delivering fencing wire to Willandra two years earlier (his bullocks dying of thirst stood next to water without realizing it was there), and on to a second story of meeting an Irish shepherd at that time whom he had previously known when he (Tom) was a settler in northern Victoria, and thence to a considerable digression on the British fomenting trouble between Irish Catholic and Protestant tenant farmers.

Tom determines to call in on the shepherd again on his way northwards and soon he and his horses are fed and he’s ready to depart –

A few minutes afterward, Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down by means of the exercise with which he habitually opened the day’s work. But this was to be expected in the same spirit as the abusive language of a faithful pastor, It was all in the contract. ..I dare say I might have gradually weaned him from his besetting sin, but I didn’t want to be pestered with people borrowing him.

Travelling through “the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub” which he clearly loves, “painted by nature in its Impressionist mood”, he muses on its virgin state “sheltering little of animal life beyond half-specialised and belated types, anachronistic even to the Aboriginal savage” before running into the Irish shepherd, Rory O’Halloran, some miles from his hut. They travel together until a Rory sees some task to be done and sends Tom on ahead.

A half mile or so from the hut Tom espies a traveller resting under a tree. Etiquette stops him from hailing the traveller who would probably prefer to arrive at the hut after dusk when there was no danger of his having to chop the wood in exchange for a feed. But the author wants us to mark that this was a decisive turning point, and then discourses for some pages, citing Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet to make his point, that an option once taken cannot be reversed and will always have unexpected consequences.

Or put it in allegorical form. The misty expanse of Futurity is radiated with divergent lines of rigid steel; and along one of these lines, with diminishing carbon and sighing exhaust, you travel at schedule speed, At each junction, you switch right or left, and on you go still, up or down the way of your own choosing. But there is no stopping or turning back; and until you have passed the current section there is no divergence, except by voluntary catastrophe. Another junction flashes into sight, and again your choice is made; negligently enough, perhaps, but still with a view to what you consider the greatest good, present or prospective.

So Tom goes on, to meet the unwelcoming Mrs O’Halloran and their five year old daughter, Mary whose fate rings down through the novel.


transports you (saving reverence of our ‘birth stain’)” – A small pun on our origins as transported convicts

as far west as the Darling – The Lachlan nominally runs into the Murrumbidgee but this country is very flat.

Willandra – near present-day Hillston, in the middle of this map, and on the road-train route from Melbourne to North Queensland which I know well.

Willandra Station – have I made it clear that in Australia a ‘station’ is a very large grazing property on unimproved country, running sheep or cattle. Squatters are station owners. The state governments at various times – as late as the 1950s – made the squatters give up portions of their land to Settlers, but the squatters generally managed to hang on to the best watering places; and would sometimes put in Dummies to act as settlers on blocks they wished to retain. In passing, this policy of breaking up stations is why the anger of white commentators towards Zimbabwe’s Mugabe was a total confection. Yes, his execution of the policy was corrupt (or corrupted) but it was a policy common in all settler countries.

Tom, a settler – In 1868 Furphy, his father and brother took up land at Sand Hills between Bendigo and Shepparton but Joseph was unable to make a go of it (see Such is Life (01)).

The Irish question – Tom is presumably English Protestant but the Furphys (as was the shepherd) were Irish Catholics, from Tandragee, County Armagh in 1840.

“Cleopatra was shaking this refreshment well down” – you might recall, Tom’s horse responded to being remounted by bucking.

Tom in his musings “appears to subscribe to the Terra Nullius theory that completely disregards the long history of the country’s Aboriginal inhabitants, but this is at odds” with Furphy’s own published views. (annotation 66:7)

On re-reading, this is a very slow post, and it reflects the book’s slow build up to the underlying dramas. What I have failed to convey is the amusement derived by the reader from the individual stories as Tom wends his discursive way.

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

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