Randolph Stow (1935-2010) was born and grew up in the regional port town of Geraldton, WA, 430 kms north of Perth, nestling between the Indian Ocean and the line of hills separating it from a narrow band of wheatland and then endless kilometres of desert sand and scrub divided into enormous stations running merino sheep.
Inland 300 kms and connected to Geraldton by the Northern rail line were the Murchison Goldfields – Mt Magnet, Meekatharra, Sandstone, and in the distance Wiluna. All territory I’ve covered before, writing about Daisy Bates, the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls, KSP and Coonardoo/Turee Ck. Neville Schute’s Beyond the Black Stump (1956), which I have read and not reviewed, is also set in that country out towards Turee Ck,
Geraldton was the home of Nene Gare, a district nurse, her husband in charge of local State Housing, and the setting for her The Fringe Dwellers (1961). More recently John Kinsella and Charmian Papertalk Green have written (here) about Mullewa, on the Northern Line 100km east of Geraldton where they both lived, at different times, and attended school in Geraldton.
With The Fringe Dwellers and The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea we see Geraldton from the bottom and from the top (sorry, but conventional hierarchies have it that way) from the Indigenous unemployed (as seen by a judgemental white woman) and from the squattocracy, the great landowners. And more or less at the same time, the 1950s, though Stow’s recollections, and this is autofiction, begin in the early years of WWII.
The merry-go-round had a centre post of cast iron, reddened a little by salt air, and of a certain ornateness … The post began as a square pillar, formed rings, continued as a fluted column, suddenly bulged like a diseased tree with an excresence of iron leaves, narrowed to a peak like the top of a pepperpot, and at last ended, very high in the sky, with an iron ball. In the bulge where the leaves were, was an iron collar. From this collar eight iron stays hung down, supporting the narrow wooden octagonal seat of the merry-go-round …
[A small boy] went, scuffling leaves, to the merry-go-round, and hanging his body over the narrow seat he began to run with it, lifting his legs from the ground as it gained momentum. But he could not achieve more than half a revolution by this means, and presently he stopped, feeling vaguely hard-used.
And so we meet Rob Coram, whose story this is and a merry-go-round, though not “the merry-go-round in the sea” which is actually the mast of a freighter sunk in Geraldton harbour, whose rusting away over the years maybe signifies Rob’s loss of childhood innocence. The year is 1941. Rob is six and his idol, Rick, a 21 year old law student, a cousin in his mother’s extended family, is about to leave the Maplestead family property, Sandalwood, and go overseas with the army.
Rob, his little sister Nan, and his mother, Margaret, and lawyer father live in Geraldton. The father, who has also enlisted, is on army exercises at the weekend, but mother brings the children out to Sandalwood for Rick’s last day at home.
The hairs on the back of Rick’s neck were golden. Two crows were crying in the sky, and everything was asleep. The day, the summer, would never end. He would walk behind Rick, he would study Rick forever.
The summer goes on, endlessly as summer holidays do. Full of aunts and great aunts and little girl cousins. Rick is in Malaya, which we know, which the adults know, has fallen to the Japanese.
A man stood in the in the starlit rectangle of the doorway. He stood swaying for a moment, then stumbled forward… The hut was pitch-dark, steam-hot. It stank of men and the tropics.
And so we see we are to follow two tracks, Rob’s and Rick’s. Rick has just met Hugh McKay, who will be his life-long mate, in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
As the Japanese advance through Indonesia, as Darwin and then Broome are bombed, the sense of war, for the boy, becomes very strong. There are strange boats in the harbour, strange people in strange clothes in the town. Refugees. The house gets an air-raid trench in the tennis court. There are air-raid sirens. Preparations are made to evacuate inland to Mt Magnet. When these are not followed through, the family’s boxes are left at Mt Magnet station where “the black ladies opened them”.
In the early part of the novel Rob’s perceptions are often what he has heard adults say. This is the first time Aboriginal people are mentioned. Subsequently, at a visit to the “hand cave” on Sandalwood, Rob asks (about the people who made the hand paintings), “Are they like the blackniggers in town?” It is interesting to observe, as Rob grows to adulthood, that he increasingly discards his mother’s prejudices.
As the war recedes, for Western Australians anyway, Rob resumes school in Geraldton and then Guildford Grammar in Perth where all the men of his family have attended. Just an ordinary boy’s story, very well told.
Finally, Rick comes home. The one letter he and Hugh received in four years was a postcard from Rob, in which he said he weighed 4 stone 6 lb. “And Hughie and I weighed 5 stone apiece,” Rick says.
The last third of the book is Rick’s failure to settle down, as Hugh gets a wife, a house in the suburbs, a family. And Rob’s struggle to understand. A wonderful book. An Australian classic.
Randolph Stow, The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea, first pub. 1965, this edition (pictured) Penguin, 1968. 276pp
Sandalwood. The Maplestead (Rob’s mother’s family) family property. Stow mentions location names from time to time, but I wasn’t taking notes. On the first trip there (in the novel) they first go south from Geraldton to Greenough and then inland to another family property. I got the impression Sandalwood was further inland, so maybe 60-80 kms west and south of Geraldton.