Little attention is being paid to the works of Xavier Herbert, one of Australia’s outstanding novelists. So why are they so rarely recommended in school text lists? His best-known novels, Capricornia (1938) and Poor Fellow My Country (1975) were judged as highly significant, winning major awards. So, are his novels forgotten or repressed?
On the 40th anniversary of Poor Fellow My Country winning the Miles Franklin Prize for Australian Literature, this keynote lecture and panel discussion provides a timely reflection. Herbert wanted to write the great Australian novel, but there was little glitter in his portrayals of greed, racism and rapaciousness towards Aboriginal women and the land. As a literary figure, he was a great self-stylist, assuming the persona of the bushman crusader. Eager to explore new ways of imagining a more mature Australia, his legacy is overdue for examination.
- Dr Jeanine Leane, ANU
- Professor Ann McGrath, ACIH, ANU
- Dr Liz Conor, LaTrobe University
- Professor Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair, UWA
- Professor Russell McDougall, University of New England
Transcript for Xavier Herbert: Forgotton or Repressed
Speakers: Stuart Baines (S), Jeanine Leane (J), Ann McGrath (A), Jane Lydon (JL), Liz Conor (L), Russell McDougall (R), Audience (AU)
National Library of Australia
SECTION 1: Dr Jeanine Leane, Australian National University
S: ... including the originally largely handwritten manuscript to the Capricornia which you’ll be able to view next door at lunchtime. We also have a series of letters written by Herbert to various friends and lovers about serious and light-hearted subjects. Those written to close friend Arthur Dibley often touch on Herbert’s concerns about the treatment of indigenous Australians which of course we will see writ large in his published stories.
Our keynote speaker this morning is Dr Jeanine Leane from the Australian National University. Jeanine has completed her doctorate in literature and Aboriginal representation after a long career teaching at secondary and tertiary levels. She has been a research fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, has completed a post-doctoral fellowship at ANU and is currently a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History, also at the ANU. Her 2010 volume of poetry, Dark Secrets After Dreaming: AD1887-1961, won the Scanlon Prize for indigenous poetry and her manuscript, Purple Threads, won the David Unaipon Award at the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and was shortlisted for both the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literature Awards. Please welcome Jeanine.
J: Thank you. Thank you for coming out today and I’d also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people whose land we’re gathered on today and for my privilege of earning my living here on Ngunnawal Country and also acknowledge Wiradjuri people who are my ancestors. Thanks.
Now it’s not very often actually I get to talk about Xavier Herbert really though or teach ... in a long career of teaching I have really only been taught two of his books ‘cause I was a specialist in Australian literature and ... but you had to sort of seek them out and I can’t say I’ve ever really been called on to teach his works too much either. So it’s interesting why. So Xavier Herbert for me is probably one of the most interesting and least talked about Australian authors and he’s just one of the many settler authors whose mind was pre-occupied by Aboriginal Australians. In fact it’s arguable that his two greatest novels, Capricornia 1938 and Poor Fellow My Country published in 1973 but with a very long gestation time couldn’t have been written without Aboriginal people as subject matter.
So then what is the difference between Herbert, or is there a difference, between Herbert and a long string of other authors who used Aboriginal Australians to express themselves and their concerns at the time of what they thought and what they thought were the concerns of the nation. But before I get onto that I just want to spend a minute deconstructing some of the problematic terminology that I’m confined to use and used in the opening. In particular terms that the author uses that I’ll refer to, half-caste, full blood, terms that you hopefully don’t hear anymore and ... but in particular I use the term subject matter and I believe that some of the terms that this ... that the author uses and that I’m going to talk about are important to use because at the time I think they begin to express what is a great Australian failure, not just for Herbert’s works but for many works in the settler literary canon that grapple with what they on the one hand attempt to represent as the Aboriginal problem.
So Aboriginal people as the subjects in Australian literature are vast and this is not usually questioned for why they are there or why Aboriginal people are used as subjects in Australian literature. Attention focuses largely around what each particular picture says at each particular time and Herbert’s is an enigmatic and problematic one but the subject position is very important here. The colonial subject are people ... can mean two things and for Aboriginal people I guess both. A people under dominion rule and a people as an object or a scene or something chosen by an artist for representation as a literary subject or this ... and so Aboriginal people are both the subject of a regime and the subject of the literary imagination and Aboriginal people probably occupy at this time the ultimate kind of subject object position in both colonial Australia pre-1901 and the nation post because we’re excluded and marginalised under the sovereign dominion but interestingly enough over represented in Australian colonial and national literature.
So from the late 18th and 19th centuries and the second half of the 20th century Aboriginal people were quite present in the national landscape through an abundance of perhaps footage, historical, anthropological, archaeological discourses, artistic representations and literary representations and amidst this abundant of images it’s interesting that there’s an absence of voice. There’s a silence. The subject matter, the Aboriginal people, don’t speak, we’re spoken for or spoken through.
So I am not entirely cynical about authors such as Herbert who tell an Aboriginal story. There could be some sense or some cause for cynicism to the extent that a number of Australian authors, settler authors, openly admitted that Aboriginal people, Aborigines, made good subjects for stories. For example, Katharine Prichard wrote Coonardoo after she visited a friend on a cattle station in the Kimberleys and witnessed a corroboree and later expressed to her friend and fellow author, Vance Palmer, that what she saw was dramatic and thrilling and could be produced largely for foreign or southern audiences. Patrick White likewise was inspired by the journals of explorer’s encounters with Aborigines in the interior for Voss and for A Fringe of Leaves inspired by Eliza Fraser’s journals. But on the other hand though I appreciate, for the large part, these writers couldn’t imagine an Australia or even someone writing in Australia in the second half of the century like righ ... White, sorry, or Herbert couldn’t imagine an Australia where Aboriginal people are writing as we are now.
So on that it’s easy to be cynical about their representations in retrospect but I think that particularly with Herbert’s work who represents a great failure of ... he’s representing a great failure of an imagination of a nation that he sees is not going to come to fruition. So such writers as Herbert couldn’t imagine a future other than that which is bleak and incomplete or a limbo or purgatorial existence for both black and white Australians.
So writers such as Herbert though, although I have said he’s under-read and under-taught and under-discussed, still are considered as nat ... sorry, national writers. I’ve heard his book described as a great classic, the great Australian story. Stella Miles Franklin, well who we all know was a cultural nationalist, and the award named in her honour since its establishment in 1957 reflects this as well, this type of cultural nationalism and with only probably three or so exceptions, these being the Noongar writer Kim Scott, who won the Miles Franklin in 1999 for Benang and 2011 for That Deadman Dance and Waanyi writer Alexis Wright whose wonderfully vast narrative Carpentaria opens with the lines, a nation chants but we know your story already, won the award in 2007.
Most of the winners chosen for the Miles Franklin Award tend to reinforce rather than challenge some notion of Australians or phases of Australian life. And following the 40th century of the ... sorry, 40th anniversary of the Miles Franklin award in 1997 literary scholar Patrick Allington pointed out that most of the winning books could fall into three quite broad themes and the first of these are great comings and goings, leaving Australia and coming back, and in doing so realising what a great place Australia is. I’m thinking for example Jessica Anderson here, Patrick White, David Malouf, great journeys away from Australia that lament Australia or ... so that’s the first one.
The second one is Australia at war and once again David Malouf, Christopher Kott but noticeably only overseas wars and it takes until Kim Scott or Alexis Wright before any kind of frontier or civil war or cultural genocide gets a mention in this body of works that awarded the Miles Franklin Award. It’s mostly talking about wars, nationalistic wars like the First or the Second World War or that modern life is hell or modern life is somehow problematic and this has shifted these kind of ... the works that fall within this theme. They’ve ... it’s shifted a bit perhaps in the last 10, 15 years.
In particular I mentioned two Aboriginal writers but before that I tend to agree with Patrick that the overall ... overall the Miles Franklin canon was confined to the ... those themes and to some extent Herbert still falls within these three broad themes although there is an extent to which he pushes the boundaries of those themes. For example he is less concerned with comings and goings in his work although between Carpentaria ... sorry Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country there are comings and goings between ... but not between Europe or Britain like the other Miles Franklin award winning works exhibit or have ... are examples of but comings and goings between South East Asia, between Indonesia, between places that are close to Australia. So he’s exploring a different geographical sphere in terms of Australian positioning there and he’s talking about a lot of comings like comings of the settler and stayings too rather than goings. War definitely not so much perhaps the war itself but he’s definitely very thrown, very concerned by post-war changes and after that he’s noted to say that Australia became bourgeois after the Second World War and he was very disillusioned.
But definitely yes, on modern life the second points leads to the third one and yes, on modern life is hell, that’s probably the one that his work most complies with because he does grapple with changes and he grapples in a way that I think is quite pessimistic. But Miles Franklin said something though that is of interest, or always of interest to me, and then she said without an indigenous, with a lower case I, without an indigenous literature people can remain alien in their own soil. So I think she’s right about that. Creating an identity and a literature of place is an important facet of shaping a socio-cultural landscape however Miles Franklin, like Herbert and like Percival Stevenson and other notable literary critics and essays at the time they could only imagine this new nation as a Commonwealth, as a loyal exile of Britain, as the sort of isolated socialist utopia with a small population and the Second World War changed that ... those kind of aims and Stevenson, for example, said in 1935 a new nation, meaning Australia, a new human type is being formed in Australia and culture in Australia, if it ever develops indigenously, with a small I, begins not from the Aborigines who have been suppressed and exterminated but from the British culture and I think that Stevenson et al express a belief at the time, that was held at the time, they’re no more or less perhaps racist than any other author mentioned.
They are a product of this national belief. They’re a product of the passing of the Aborigine and Herbert comes in on the tail end of that national belief. So yeah, the passing of the Aborigine or I think the passing of the Aborigine as we were perceived in the national imagination or trapped in the literary imagination of national writers and national writers get by, like the nation itself really, by creating and recreating an imagined state. Like all modern nations they’re the product of some sort of collective imagination of a group of citizens and Herbert begins to grapple with the national picture, particularly by the time he comes to write Poor Fellow My Country. Carpentaria perhaps ... Capricornia, begins with more hope I think but yeah, he grapples with the national picture and in doing this he has ... he expresses a huge amount of lament and he laments the promises of something unfulfilled and my understanding of 20th century Australian history is the ... not that it’s a question of whether you were a nationalist it’s more of a question of what kind of nationalist you were and the years between 1945 and 1975 Capricornia had been completed by then, Poor Fellow My Country just published and was being written during these post-war changes were difficult ones.
So between 1945 and 1975 the Austra ... the debate around Australian nationalism was a difficult one for both conservative and radical camps and the isolationist tradition of radical nationalism began to crumble after World War Two and the white Australia policy that Manning Clark described as a giant act of protection became more and more unsustainable as massive immigration from Italy, Greece, eastern Europe, etc, made necessary by post-war economic growth radically altered the population and the debate on Australian nationalism was very intense during that time.
Australian historian Geoffrey Serle, for example, in 1967 in an essay called ‘Godzone: Austerica Unlimited’, said it has always been difficult to be unselfconsciously Australian. It was briefly possible perhaps in the 50s after that the US took over. And in the same year in an essay called ‘The New Australian’ Geoffrey Blainey spoke of utopias, of the pa ... of the future vaguely glimpsed at or of the past more confidently envisioned.
So post-war Australia became fully fledged in the minds of these historians and Herbert himself a fully fledge bourgeois society and it was against this profanity, this irresponsibility of this new bourgeois Australia that Herbert rallies, that he reacts to and his protest forced him back to a point in time from his point of view when the Australia that he imagined was still possible. When the future was still open not closed and this meant the years between 1936 and 1942. And in between the time that elapsed between Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country I believe that Herbert came to feel and understand a tremendous sense of betrayal and he felt betrayed by the promise of those years and Capricornia most poignantly comes to fruition during that time and begins with a promise that ends rather bleakly.
But Herbert at least tried to mount a substantial critique of what the nation is built on and what it was built over but there are things from which he can’t escape because he is part of the nation. So in looking at his narratives, his two narratives, more in detail, in depth, I’d like to ... I’d like you to consider three major themes or three major tropes that comes through them all and one is blood, one is land and one is belonging and these mean different things to the different characters in the book, Aboriginal characters or settler characters.
So Herbert’s two narratives that represent Aboriginal people as you know are over 20 years apart in terms of production and 30 years in terms of publication and the most vivid and striking thing for me about these two works as an Aboriginal reader is that they’re asking the same question of the readers, and that’s by the author’s own admission, and raising the same problems by the author’s own perception that he raised in ... raised earlier but they are still unresolved and accentuated as time has passed and the problems still are blood, land and belonging.
In Poor Fellow My Country he asks the same the questions more explicitly, more forcefully and more brutally and to me also his consciousness of Aboriginal presence and the future and the nation is probably one of the bleakest and pessimistic of all but Herbert actually knew Aboriginal people personally whereas some of the other authors that I have briefly referred to didn’t or only briefly encountered them. As literary critic Geoffrey Dutton noticed Herbert grew up with the raw material of Capricornia and as a child and an adolescent he grew up with full blood and mixed blood fringe dwellers and I think it’s the mixed blood fringe dwellers that are the real concern of his work and the motifs of blood and fringes are very prominent.
So he worked on a Darwin newspaper as ... and was a fettler in the Rum Jungle where he boasted of inheriting a harem of lubras from his predecessor and among other jobs between 1935 he was a superintendent of Aborigines in Darwin and for 10 years he struggled to write a book called Black Velvet and with the help of his wife this is the manuscript that became Capricornia in the early 1930s and Angus and Robinson rejected the manuscript in 1934 because they found it too long, too depressing and also I think another reason could be because Herbert is so critical, so unflattering of Australian settlers. His representations of Aboriginal people are also problematic but he is quite brutal, quite unflattering about the settlement as well. The idea of pioneers and his more ... he does probe perhaps the cost of that to an extent.
Eventually in 1938 W.J Miles took on and published Capricornia in time to enter the sesquicentenary literary competition and after Herbert won the prize for Capricornia he wrote to Miles Franklin and said when the news came, the news of the award, I was stunned for a moment but only for a moment and I promptly bought a case of beer and called on all the bums, bagman, Greeks, Chows and yeller fellas about and got well and truly tanked and so it is the yellow fellows or these people ... the people who are half and half in this limbo state who occupy Herbert’s consciousness because no matter how small or how large their blood quotient of Aboriginal blood may be the blood is obvious and it impacts on their ability, one’s ability, to be truly black but at the same time prevents one from being white or acceptable to whites either and so there are two representations of dominant, prominent, of Aboriginality that span Herbert’s novels.
There’s the full blood savage, most vividly read through the character of Bob or Bob Wirridirridi and the mixed blood fringe dwellers in both societies, Norman, for example, in Capricornia and Prindy in Poor Fellow My Country. So Norman’s mother, Norman in Capricornia, is a traditional woman of the Yurracumbunga tribe and his father is white but in a brilliant visual image when Norman is born the reader’s first image of Norman is the colour of a cigarette stain on his father Mark’s finger and so the image of mixed blood children here, a stain on the white man’s hand, has been quite an enduring one.
But Norman is an essentially flawed character because he dwells in two worlds but he’s unable to belong to neither. He’s sent to the south to be educated like a white man and he emerges from this sojourn as elegant, intelligent and highly skilled but on his return to Capricornia, which is the Northern Territory, he is just a yeller fella and Norman’s ambivalous identity impacts on his ability to form meaningful relationships with blacks or whites and when he flees to the bush to avoid trouble he hears the song of a golden beetle, the song of promise. It’s a song of promise, it’s a song of return or the promise of return to something lost but later when he is lost and stranded and he is unable to read the weather he takes comfort in this song and he takes comfort in the full bloods he meets. One of the old men tell him proper good country this one, plenty kangaroo, plenty buffalo, plenty bandicoot, plenty yam, plenty goose, plenty duck, plenty lubra, plenty corroboree, plenty fun, plenty everything, number one good country, more better you sit all the same with black fella hey Norman but Norman can’t own his country, he can’t listen to it, he rejects the song of the golden beetle and he can’t stay and accept the offer of this older man and he dismisses the beetle song and the lifestyle of the people he considers the full blood.
So when dealing with whites Norman repudiates his Aboriginal heritage and in this way he is for the settler imagination a true half-caste, he’s caught between the full bloods who accept him but who he disavows and rejects and the white whom he emulates but who reject him and this ambivalent situation leads to the tragedy at the end of the novel where Norman ... where does ... sorry, where does Norman belong in the nation. Even though he acquires a white man’s legitimacy through his inheritance of a property he has no children, no prospect of a partner who will accept him either black or white. He has no capacity to continue his line and this inheritance is a tenuous one at least and most likely impossible to continue.
And Poor Fellow My Country opens with Prindy, the central character, described quite distinctly in blood and I’ll just quote from our first introduction to Prindy. He could pass for any light skinned breed, even tanned caucasian, but his eyes were grey with curious intensity of expression probably due to their being set in cavernous Australoid orbits. His nose fleshed and curved in the mould of his savage ancestry, he could be anyone, a beautiful creature to any eye but the most prejudice but in Australia he was just a boong. So the plot of Poor Fellow My Country, as I see it, is essentially a custody battle for Prindy, this young Aboriginal boy who’s half settler, half Aboriginal, but neither and it’s a battle for the heart and mind of a young boy who could be many things to many people but it is his Aboriginal blood, even though he’s actually described as a quarter-caste, that is the strongest point of his identification and leads ultimately to his demise.
Every religious viewpoint, every cultural force, every family connection wants a piece of him from Bob Wirridirridi, who is the sinister representation of a clever man or a witch doctor, Dr Cobbity, Faye McPhee the journalist, Kitty Windyer the classical musician, he is a genius even to Rifkah the holocaust survivor to Monsignor Leonard, even to Lord Vesty, who is actually a representation of ... sorry Lord Vaisey who is actually a representation of Lord Vesty from Victoria River Downs Pastoral Company at the time. Everybody wants to claim Prindy because he has so much potential, he’s a genius yet Prindy grows from adolescence to manhood through a series of events some of which are comic and many of which are tragic and violent but it is his Aboriginal blood that dictates the course of his life.
In one of his many letters, Herbert’s letters, cited by his biographer Frances de Groen, Herbert wrote if white fellows don’t confront and fully understand or make reconciliation with what has happened in the invasion of black Australia and the mucking up of the initiation and other processes they will keep stuffing up even if their hearts and minds are in the right place as Jeremy’s is. The rest of them will be spineless cowardly bastards who have no understanding of the country that they live in.
Yet his attitude to Aboriginal people is very ... is enigmatic to me because on the one hand he expresses what appears to be great concern but on the other hand his constructions ... his representations of Aboriginality have no hope, they’re hopeless but then again a lot of his characters are quite ill-fated so what to make of that I’m never quite sure. The more I read him the more ill-fated I find his works.
Okay. Sorry, I lost my ... there it is. Okay. The failed initiation scene that concludes Poor Fellow My Country is an example of such a hopeless future. The author never witnessed an initiation and admits to constructing the scene to make a point but it is a very problematic one. The initiation procedure itself is cruel. The Aboriginal Elders are like automatons, devoid of human emotion and empathy. They are led by the Pookarkka. Led by the Pookarkka they rape and brutally murder Prindy’s pregnant fiancé, Savitra, for intruding on a ceremony. Prindy then undergoes a trial by ordeal and is speared. Prindy’s white grandfather, Jeremy, who wanted him to belong to both worlds and did not oppose the initiation, in fact encouraged it, is brutally killed in this scene and in this scene I am trying to think back to some of the earlier comments that Herbert made about embracing or settlers embracing Aboriginal Australia or coming to terms with Aboriginal Australia, he used all those words but then as he constructs such a brutal and fatalistic scene for all concerned I’m wondering how his readers could have possibly done that at the time ‘cause I am ... I still find it hard to see how that could happen from such a scene and I still find that scene really disturbing.
In both narratives the mix blood children, Tocky, Prindy and their offspring die in tragic, violent circumstances and Herbert’s contribution to Australian literature on race and the nation for me is that his discourse on race purports to distain racial prejudice but his exploitation on the other hand of racial stereotyping for comic and melodramatic effects serves in some ways to feed the prejudices that he seeks to attack.
Felix Marr, who I once did a radio interview with on rare books and Capricornia was one of the rare books that they featured on the AB ... on an ABC 666 segment and I once did an interview with Felix Marr who is a musician and composer who wrote a précis for Poor Fellow My Country for the Baz Luhrmann film Australia. And Marr was a personal friend of Herbert’s, he knew him well, he read Poor Fellow My Country several times and he saw Poor Fellow My Country not only as the great Australian story but as the great Australian song and I mean certainly there is plenty of music in the novel but for me it doesn’t really synchronise and it can’t come together, it’s contesting rather than complimenting and for me I think it’s the great Australian angst and I’ve discussed this book with some of my Aboriginal colleagues and Poor Fellow My Country, given that it does depict post-war Australia from the vantage point of the 60s, when we look back on the history of country and people from where I stand these decades were for us times of heightened activism, radical change and reasonable optimism for our future.
For example Aboriginal scholar Cliff Watego wrote in 1988 that the most important waves of social change filtering from abroad was the ascendant position and activism of the blacks and the swiftness of the media to report on such events and Watego went on to say that during the 60s many educated Australians were conscious of the indications of change despite the conservative Menzies era and he went on to argue that the prevailing mood abroad cannot be discounted as having a prefe ... having an effect on relations at home and some examples of that are the 1946 Aboriginal stockmen’s strike, the 1963 Yolngu Bark Petition, the 1966 Wave Hill walk off, 1965 Freedom Rides, the 1967 Referendum and the re-establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972 as evidence of this and so I wonder sometimes whose country does Herbert see poor in the face of such resilience.
But Herbert wrote a letter to his wife, Sadie Norman, and said of course Prindy is myself, just like Darcy, Jeremy and Clancy is all my parts and this is the key I think to interpreting the novel. Prindy’s a symbol not just of Aboriginal people embodied through youth and unrealised potential for Herbert but he is also a symbol of an Australia for Herbert that he sees passing with unrealised potential and that will die quite tragically like Prindy does. The death of a certain set of ideals I guess.
And so in the time that elapsed between when he wrote Poor Fellow and ... sorry, between when he wrote Capricornia and Poor Fellow many things had happened for Aboriginal people, many positive developments, and the half-castes he depicts from my close reading in Herbert’s narratives are symbolically half people, half formed beings, incomplete in their blackness and their whiteness and here therein I think is the problem, those who are neither black or white can’t develop or progress in either of these narratives and such figures have either been trapped in static traditionalism that is a figment of his imagination or they perish like Tocky, Prindy and Norman and unfortunately as the bleak endings of both narratives foreshadow that the need to be considered ... sorry, foreshadow that Herbert could not imagine a future for other Australians, either Aboriginal or not, and his works need to be considered I think not so much for their failure of prediction as Aboriginal people have proved to be resilient in the field of literature particularly so since the late 80s but I think his works need to be considered for their ability to articulate a great Australian failure, probably the great Australian failure of race relations, race relations with Aboriginal people and with post-war immigrants like Rifkah.
And also I ask too when I’m reading his narratives why is the advice of Aboriginal characters like Prindy, who is a genius, disregarded. Why is the advice of his mother, who straddles two worlds quite successfully, disregarded too? Prindy is the only one for whom the whites around him appreciate but this is problematic for Herbert who by his own admission lives through the character of Darcy and why is it Darcy who makes the decision that Prindy should be initiated into Aboriginal society not the Aboriginal society itself and particularly not his mother and why does he seek to preserve him in the past that is in all other ways, as far as Herbert’s concerned, gone and why has he got ... why has he sought to put him in a past that he goes to great lengths to portray as brutal and regressive and I’m not saying it was like that but that’s how Herbert constructs it. So why does he want to put a boy with so much potential there.
So in concluding perhaps I would like to perhaps consider why Herbert is so under taught and under discussed perhaps, except in circles ... except in specific literary circles and I’d like to offer the following reasons. So as a literary figure both in his own time and retrospectively he was quite unconventional and this may seem a contradiction but one of man ... but in the many great Australian traditions of
non-conformism but I think this is a myth, like many other Australian myths, that Herbert questions, like the nation founded in peace or the nation that’s never experienced any civil unrest or the nation that has never had to implement martial law and he was shameless and open about his bad behaviour. In his own biography, for example, a disturbing element, he’s shameless about the relationships he has with Aboriginal women, particularly younger Aboriginal women and he got up the nose of some of the great lit ... some of other ... his literary contemporaries at the time, such as Patrick White.
Also Herbert’s works challenge some of the dearly held settler myths of foundation and I think he comes closer to any other settler author perhaps to telling the truth or the literary truth about settler violence and the irresistible attraction that white men have for Aboriginal women. Miles Franklin said that ‘black velvet’ was the skeleton in the colonial closet but beyond making this statement she did nothing, nor did any other literary person, one of her literary peers, to open that closet, Herbert did and the initial manuscript that, as I mentioned, eventually became Capricornia was originally called Black Velvet and it’s ... you know I wonder sometimes why he didn’t keep that title and I can only speculate that it was too explicit for any potential publisher at the time and he had enough initial difficulty in securing a publisher for Capricornia anway.
So at the time of writing too Herbert was quite radical. He wrote in the 30s and he wrote in the late 60s and he did name the Aboriginal people that he was writing about. He named the Yurracumbunga people in Capricornia and the Laperna people in Poor Fellow My Country and that was radical at the time compared to other settler authors whose representations of Aboriginal people were well known from the late 1920s onwards. For example, Katherine Prichard’s 1929 novel Coonardoo doesn’t mention that she’s depicting the Njikena people in the north-west Kimberley region. They are just the Aborigines.
Some decades later in the 50s when Patrick White ... Patrick White neither acknowledges the country of Dugald or Jackey Jackey in Voss, 1957. They were also just the Aborigines. Alf Dubbo in Writers in the Chariot is the abbo or the half-caste and in a Fringe of Leaves his female protagonist, Ellen, now in the place called Fraser Island, goes through an ordeal with a tribe. This later novel of White’s is particularly interesting because in the course of writing Fringe of Leaves White did actually speak to some of the descendants, briefly, of the Butchulla People who rescued Eliza Fraser on whom he loosely based his character Ellen and the Butchulla People had a very different version of the story as a rescue, not as a captive narrative, but White chose to disregard that story or chose to ignore that story and more ... and ... because, I think, it was more important to construct a generic representation of a tribe back in 193 ... 1836 and more poignant to this discussion is that White knew he was conversing however briefly with a people who belonged to a place but he chose to ignore this and it was important to construct this generic representation and placelessness of the tribe of noble savages.
But when Herbert names the people he writes of they become at least geographically and historically connected to an Aboriginal country that the nation seeks to consume, to say the least, and the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples becomes very uncomfortable at some points for the settler reader and it’s a lot easier I think to displace, as in the earlier narratives, generic Aborigines like Prichard and White do because they can be represented as wandering and drifting aimlessly through the pages of their narratives and across some newly acquired settler property and you could say that White and Prichard are a product, moving on from this, of their times and apart from Aboriginal people ourselves there were very few settler people who were aware of or who recognised Aboriginal diversity but when you consider, as I’m asking you to consider further, that David Malouf wrote Remembering Babylism ... Babylon in the 90s, post-invasion, post bicentenary and more particularly he was writing as the Mabo claim was paying out ... playing out and still didn’t name the people whose country he was writing about.
This makes Herbert ... when you consider that, this makes Herbert all the more radical for his time and this leads me perhaps to one of the final points on why and I can’t decide whether the book was forgotten or whether the book is repressed, whether it vacillates between ... whether his works vacillate somewhere between the two but these are just possible suggestions, but Herbert implicates himself within the settler violence and the culture genocide. He does this in his own autobiography, to a lesser extent in his fictional forms but he doesn’t stand outside or above the story as some of the other authors do or he doesn’t use a stepladder approach, he doesn’t exempt himself from the violent process that the nation has been built on whereas I think some of the other authors are in danger of doing that.
So Herbert, the stories articulate the great Australian failure of an imagination of a nation, Australia, caught somewhere in the promise of a golden age, of an interwar Australia, especially in the 1940s and 30s and 40s, that was Herbert’s golden age and he feels betrayed and he writes of the realism of failure but for who. Who is betrayed by the nation, what is the nation and Poor Fellow My Country is written, I believe, on the cusp of the great failure of the imagination. The great failure of ideals for Herbert and people like Herbert, that particular settler audience that he was writing for and that he is a part of and he feels the betrayal of ideals and broken promises.
More recent books that are also positioned on such cusps are, although they’ve won some of the nation’s most prestigious awards like the Miles Franklin Award, are also positioned on the cusp of failures or difficult changes and they’re also under read as well. So I offer that perhaps by way of explanation that these books capture an important sense of change, disappointment, failure. Another book like that is Alexis Wright’s book Carpentaria which is written on the cusp of the disappointment of the failed promise of reconciliation and the failed promise of an apology as it was written at the time and it’s also greatly under read even though it’s a Miles Franklin winner.
So Herbert is betrayed by his ideals and his Aboriginal people are betrayed by a fate, a destiny, by events that they can’t escape because he can’t imagine Aboriginal people outside of a past that is a very static dreamtime and in the great Australian passion or tradition to aspire to great things there’s the great Australian emptiness, the great Australian silence. Herbert’s books have been described as the great Australian classic, it’s also the great Australian lament, the great Australian failure of isolation and utopia and of a national and socialist utopia with a small relatively homogenous population and Herbert’s dreams are in tatters and this is represented through the characters if Prindy, Norman and Tocky, a dream. Herbert is stuck in a dream. His Aboriginal characters are stuck in a dreamtime, a timeless place removed from historical co-ordinates and his ... and Herbert is trapped in a historical moment, a time warp like the song of the golden beetle in Capricornia that Norman hears and could hold so much promise, this brief song, but it goes silent and Norman fails to embrace it and Herbert sees that ... and I see that as very symbolic, that golden beetle that Herbert constructs there, it’s very symbolic of what he sees as the end of a golden age for an Australia that he believed in and he rages very much against this death, particularly in Poor Fellow My Country and the promise of a nation made all the more bitter I think because he rages against an unfulfilled promise, something that he can only imagine of ideals not brought to fruition. Of half formed dreams that will never come to fruition, never develop. A bit like the half formed people in his narratives that will never fully come to their potential and so he was not a person of moderation, he was one of great extremes, of peaks and troughs, of rises and falls and perhaps I think didn’t appreciate the decline of one thing or the death of one dream might just be the awakening of another. Thank you.
SECTION TWO: Professor Ann McGrath, Australian Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University
A: Thank you. And thanks everybody for coming and yes, it was Jane Lydon and Liz who sort of dug up Xavier Herbert again as a topic. So I thank them for reviving our interest in this important man. So I call my talk ‘Camping with Xavier in Quinkan Country, North Queensland.’ And it’s very much a memoir and it’s very much work in progress. Unlike Jeanine’s very polished, well thought through presentation, this is a little bit more like a tale of two diaries in conflict. And I thought that the National Library of Australia was a very appropriate place to discuss diaries and also to read out excerpts from diaries.
So as I said in the précis, my talk will tell the story of a camping trip that I undertook with Xavier Herbert, Dick Roughsey and Percy Trezise in the early 1980s. And it will consider what it told me about Xavier Herbert, Australian colonial history, the mythology of the bush legend, men, rock art, the stars and my younger diarising self.
So first I’ll introduce you to my younger self. I am 24 and I’m living in Darwin and Xavier was 79. And he had only lost his wife Sadie in 1979, the year before. So we met in 1980. So I’m going to read from a little excerpt from my own diary in 1980 and then something from Xavier’s diaries. And then something from my diary when I was at Laura on this camping trip. And then some more notes from Xavier diary. Or something like that, in that order. And then make a few observations and conclusions.
So where did I first meet Xavier? I think perhaps like many of you it was through his books. And my PhD supervisor, who was at La Trobe, in Melbourne, John Hurst, suggested that if I was going to do a PhD about Aboriginal people in the cattle industry, I should definitely read Xavier Herbert. And he said Capricornia’s absolutely wonderful, Poor Fellow My Country is just a whole lot of waffle, you know, don’t bother with it. And so anyway, so I read Capricornia first. And I do admit I found it hard to start off reading it. And then I … it seemed very masculine and nothing to do with me and then of course when I look back I think I was reading Kate Millett and I was reading all this 1970s feminist stuff about women owning their sexuality and owning their womanhood and being women and celebrating being women.
So it was a bit of a shock to read this very male thing. But once I got into it I was really impressed, because I was a historian, I still am a historian. But historians were not dealing with these issues. I mean in Capricornia they dealt with class, race and sex and sex between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, colonialism. This was a time in the … you know, like I started my thesis in ’77, my PhD thesis, and there was very, very little written by historians on any of these topics in relation to Australian history. So I don’t actually remember reading Capricornia, but I do remember being entranced by the map that he had in the front and this fantasy world which was clearly Darwin renamed. And so he had this … there was this interesting play between reality and fiction. And it’s interesting to hear some of the commentary actually call it social history and, you know, social realism I guess.
I do remember reading Poor Fellow My Country. I remember I was living in Delbridge Street, North Fitzroy and I was on this little single bed at the end of the house, and I think I stayed in that bed for about three days just reading it in one big lot. Which was great, because it was just like … I felt totally entranced by this other world. And I think I was very interested in his renditions of landscape and imagining this landscape. And I can’t actually remember then whether I’d been to the Northern Territory or not, I’ll have to sort of check up on a few things to work that out. And I think I preferred Poor Fellow My Country. I suppose it seemed to have hope in it and revolutionary prospects and also this appreciation of Aboriginal culture and its spiritual dimension, cultural relations connected with land. And so I found that quite a revelation in a novel.
So I read an excerpt from my diary. Sometime in 1980. Worked hard today. The Northern Land Council Finniss River claim and pastoral land tenure thing that I wrote finally finished and Bob Layton and Peter Cameron came in and Bob … Bob was the anthropologist working on the land claim, and Peter Cameron was the lawyer. Latest amazing news, I’m appearing in court, dot dot dot, with Xavier Herbert, exclamation mark, exclamation mark. Shit. (Chuckling) Somehow seemed to have to play expert at something I know nothing about. Will have to move very quickly. Lunch with AD Hope the other day. Also Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University. Mum had lunch with Vincent Price. (Chuckling)
I sort of thought this was relevant, you know, something to do with being interested in people who were famous and sort of Xavier was blending into this famous crew with Vincent Price. But Darwin was like that in those days. A lot of people stopped … you know, the pass‑through, and you’d meet these just incredible people like AD Hope and so forth. But Xavier Herbert was probably far more my hero than any of these other characters because I was very entranced by the daring I suppose of him trying to explore these national silences and shameful things and basically the violence and the brutality and callousness in so much of Australian history.
Back to the diary. Wow, life has been moving so quickly. Shifted into the new house. It felt so dismal that first night, working all day on the land claim, getting a phone call from police re me stealing petrol from a self-service. Hearing a … I didn’t mean to, I just forgot to pay. (Chuckling) Hearing a fight at Bagot and … which was next door, the Aboriginal community, Jim not home, house huge and empty and scary. There are day and off to Twin Falls which with all its people I wasn’t really looking forward to. Well we had a lot of … I was working with a lot of very strange people at the Darwin Community College and even though like Twin Falls is just one of the most beautiful places in the world, these people, like they included peeping toms, and all sort of people who basically were renegades and exiled from their home state or their home country. And you may think I’m exaggerating but I have a witness here who’s going to testify that I am not exaggerating.
Amy Laurie is in town and she was the woman who really inspired me and the book that followed, Born in the Cattle, she was a drover, a Garundji woman who lived in the Kimberleys. And it was great to see her again, her daughter’s very ill though. And so I went to visit her at Casuarina Hospital. When I went to Bagot looking for Amy where she’s staying, they asked if I was a social worker. When I went to the hospital they asked the same thing. When Peter Sutton saw me at Bagot he asked if I was doing field work. And I suddenly realised there’s still apartheid going on between whites and Aboriginal people in Darwin. There was a lot. It was like you still didn’t cross the borders without having a professional role to play.
So I’m about to appear as an expert witness in an Aboriginal land claim which was very exciting. And I suppose, you know, for people who believed in Aboriginal land rights it was just great to feel you could make a little contribution yourself. And of course the Land Rights Act had only passed in 1976 so this land claim, the Finniss River Kungarakany claim was one of the very first to be heard and Justice Toohey was the Land Commissioner. And so that’s one of the reasons it seemed to be a pretty exciting time in the Territory too, because it was the beginning of land rights. But it was also the beginning of uranium mining and, you know, there’d been deals done and so it was more complicated than that.
So I’ll see if this … if I can work this thing. There is Xavier Herbert appearing as an expert witness in the Finniss River Land Claim. And he was in the news, he was on the front page of the Northern Territory News and he sort of got in front of the crocodiles for once in that paper. And it was a big homecoming for him. He saw it as very symbolic and he loved being back. And he also loved his reunion with the McGuinness family, who he’d known very well in the 1930s and sort of grew up with some of them, known them all his life. And that is me when I was giving my evidence. It’s the first time I’d ever appeared in anything to do with court. Fortunately I wasn’t taken to court over the petrol. But it was … I was … one of my friends, probably Lenore Coltheart, who’s here, told me that I should wear conservative clothing to this. So I did wear … I didn’t wear my usual hippy sarongs and this type of thing. So I think I got this from a second-hand store and I, you know, put my hair back and this type of thing.
But the most intimidating thing was having to point to things on a map because historians don’t relate to these very specific topographical sort of maps. We’re using … our information’s coming from archives and so in the archives the places being talked about and the people are often not connected with maps. Where this, being a land claim, everything had to be very specifically about place. Which was a good lesson for me as a historian to learn about place and the many layers of history that happens in place.
So another amazing incident, Xavier Herbert asked us to go out to dinner with him. So myself and my friend Micky Duhu went out to dinner. And Micky had read Poor Fellow My Country five times and so she was way ahead of me in admiring Xavier Herbert. But Xavier was sort of … you know, he was quite flirtatious and he said I’m looking for somebody to write my biography, you know, are either of you young women interested? And he said but you’d have to be totally devoted to me if you write it. And Micky, my friend, with all her good sense, said I’ve found the true love of my life. I don’t … I couldn’t write your biography, it would distract me from my great true love. You know, so she’s very dramatic. But I on the other hand didn’t have a true love, so I don’t know, I just thought it was a bit of a fanciful thing and probably nothing would happen. But then Xavier Herbert did actually ask me to go to the caves with him, and by the caves he meant these Quinkan country amazing rock overhangs and caves.
So I actually didn’t think much of it ‘cause there was a lot of drama going on in my life and he didn’t get back to me after this idea of the caves. But then suddenly he rang, I think it was late November, and it was the time of year when, if you’re a lecturer, you have finally marked your essays, and if you’re doing a PhD as well, you can finally write your chapters. So I was going finally I can, you know, get back to this thesis, write my chapters. And anyway I get this phone call and he says do you want to come to Cairns? We can go on a trip to the beautiful wilderness, Quinkan country with Percy Trezise and Dick Roughsey. And so he said I want to write a great novel before I die about the revolution that really happens in Australia and leads to a true commonwealth finally, and a true republic.
So anyhow, in the diary it just says another amazing incident. Xavier Herbert asked me to Cairns. He wants me to be a collaborator in his final novel. And then I say, the sun hotly bites and scorches me, turn over. So I must have been lying near a pool or something at the time.
So, Xavier Herbert’s diary. A lot of his diary in November 1980 talks of his lost love, his dear Sadie. But he also is obsessed about Peggy Hayes, who he’s become infatuated with. And I think if I remember properly he met her on the phone calling long distance, and she was a telephone operator. And it seems they have a very tumultuous relationship and he must have really fallen for her anyway. So in his diary it says, 1525, I wrote to Ann, four pages so far. ‘Til I went to the mall at 1130. I came back and did some more. ‘Til moved on … moved to go in and there were some chores. I felt tired about 1300 and lay down. 1630, I got to page six of the Ann McGrath letter. Must stop now and bathe and get tea eventually. And want to get it done to get the whole thing off my mind.
Friday, November the 28th, 1040. Have been busy finish … with finishing letter to Ann McGrath and other matters that demanded attention. Some bad writing I can’t read, and PR Stevenson. And I can’t … yeah. And then he talks again about Peggy. But I realise the letter he was writing was about inviting me to help him write this great novel. So he continues. After I got home I fell to thinking that it would be nice to have Ann McGrath over for an excursion. If Percy would take her and if she came. I made the decision suddenly. Rang her. My womanising, question mark. (Chuckling) I’d said I’ve simply got to have a woman by me to build the book.
Then I rang her. Got her at once. Yes, she’d be delighted. If she could get a plane, because none tomorrow. She said she’d see at once and about how to get here and ring me at 2100. And sure enough she did to say she will be leaving on a flight at 2:00 am tomorrow, getting here at 5:55. I was beside myself with delight. How lovely. I’ll be taking her to open the archway with me on my arm, as I told Percy, who laughed heartily. And I am laughing. I’ll keep on laughing. There’ll be no silly business as with poor Peggy. I am going to enjoy the company of this sweet girl, just her company, not a liberty unless it’s offered me. I won’t be looking for offerings. (Chuckling) Now to bed. It was strange reading this diary. (Chuckling) Now to bed, I must sleep. Out by 5:30, up before 5:00 and out by 5:30. So here goes for another and surely better adventure in that way of adventuring I love the best. Womanising. (Chuckling)
Now this is how I recall it. (Chuckling) I got a phone call from Xavier Herbert and I got really angry. How dare he presumptuously think I’m just going to drop my PhD, run off to the north and go off with his friend in some plane and, you know, what a gall. How could he do this to me? And I’m all just about to sort of write this chapter. I tried to stave him off by telling him there were no planes leaving and that I’d, you know, get back to him if I could find any plane. As I recall I conferred however with my friend, Lenore Coltheart about how presumptuous it was of him to just ring out of the blue. She told me I had no choice, Xavier Herbert had asked me to go on an adventure with him and I could not say no. I could … I had to … I could do my PhD another time. (Chuckling) So that was clear. I must go. My … Lenore was my mentor, you know, she was my feminist mentor, so I had to do what she said. (Chuckling) She’s hiding over there. (Chuckling)
So Xavier again. Sunday, the 30th of November, 1155. Just six hours since I met her at the airport. A dainty little figure in half male pants. I don’t know what male pants are, but it must be a Second World War fashion or something. A prettier, daintier little thing than I remembered. Perhaps because formerly mostly in jeans and looking academically scruffy. I begin to talk eagerly at once and well, although quite tired, I got her breakfast about eight. So we talked before that for one hours. No doubt about it, she was interested. I’m glad to say that I was scarcely aware of her femininity, only that she was female. Then I sent her to bed. She has just now come out. ‘Cause, you know, it was like I arrived at 5:00 am, so. I hope she slept. There was fearful mowering on every side and people rushing by. I can’t recall a more noisy time. It is pleasant to be concerned for another’s comfort.
Sunday, the 30th of November. Already I’ve spoken of my need of female help with tasks. She seems interested. I’ll tell her about Peggy later. This afternoon as we go to Percy’s to introduce her and so that she’ll know Percy’s books. He has all his illustrated books there. I’ll buy her a copy of me … of each. Monday, the 1st of December, 1610. Out at Jowalbinna, Percy Trezise’s place. A little Laura River. Yesterday I recorded the coming of little Ann McGrath while she slept. She woke at noon. Thereafter we spent a pleasant day talking all the while, except for the time between 1715 and 1600. We didn’t … that was the only time he wasn’t talking. We (chuckling) retired about 2200. Most of the talk was about Peggy. I tried to get at the essence I … of that strange affair.
Jowalbinna. To leave here in a couple of hours for Laura, then for home on Percy’s aeroplane. It has been a lovely spell of testing my physique and tough going and myself perfectly fit, capable of doing what young people can. This in the delightful presence of Ann McGrath, towards whom I believe I’ve got closer every day, crossed out, oh sorry, possibly loved by her, confesses conflict over being my consort or not. I don’t actually remember him using the word consort, but, you know, maybe he did. 7th of December, 1550. Somewhat settled down at home alone. Ann suddenly made up her mind to leave on a special flight to Darwin, leaving Cairns at 0030 on Saturday morning. I was glad in a way, otherwise she would have been here ‘til tomorrow morning. (Chuckling)
So, now you get my diary. I mean it was very exciting to be asked on this trip. My diary, Jowalbinna. My … I probably really should tell you what happened before we got to Jowalbinna. Which was that we got in a plane, Percy Trezise is a pilot. And so it was a plane with Xavier Herbert sitting next to me in the plane. In the cockpit was Percy Trezise and a dingo. Percy Trezise’s dingo was sitting at the front. And I’m not sure, I think Dick Roughsey was already up there. And anyhow, so we get in the plane. I was quite used to small planes because I was living in Darwin and you had to get around often in small planes in tropical thunderstorms even.
And anyway, so we take off from beautiful Cairns airport, and Percy does what I later heard is called loop‑the‑loop, which sort of involves the plane flying upside down and possibly turning the engine off as well. And so I did get a little bit motion sick (chuckling) and both of them were looking … staring at me and they’re saying you look really green, you know, are you going to vomit or something? I’m going, well, yes, I might, you know. And this was my first test as a female, you know, was I going to be tough enough? Was I going to enjoy being in a plane flying upside down? So they were both like pretty into this masculine bravado thing.
Anyhow so in my diary in 1980 we’re already at Jowalbinna. Got there safely. My brain’s speeding along, wish I had a tape in this amazing country North Queensland, Quinkan country. Beautiful familiar smells, like my childhood in Brisbane. And pink grass, deserted of sap, glistening like glass and the trees have so much muscle, strength, resolutely they tower. The thought crossed my mind about whether this was a masculine land. No. Of course get to the river, see the caves. And this reveals actually my project which … my little agenda was to try to study this male ethos. I was interested in the Australian legend and Russell Ward and I thought these guys are like living out this Australian legend. They see themselves as optimising, symbolising some sort of a men in the bush thing. And so I was wanting to study this.
And so what I didn’t realise was of course they were studying me as a specimen of the other sex as well. And testing me out. So I was a bit shocked by this masculine image because a lot of the young guys, guys that were my age, were not doing this bravado. Like this is the era before having biceps was fashionable. You know, it was more the sort of scrawny Mick Jagger type and so forth. So to me this was like … you know, it was quite a different assertion of masculinity that I was witnessing with … especially with Percy and Xavier. So Xavier’s conversations are so discursive, he works things out as he talks. He’s … his style twists and meanders, always returning back to the story, the point, a few philosophies of life, numerous generalisations, the frequent sprinkling of stunning but simple perception of the way things are. The sociologist or social scientist he says he is, that that’s the reason he says he likes Soldiers’ Women so much of the best of all his novels, because they don’t have the problem of social comment.
So Sadie his wife, he … Sadie his wife, he seems to totally idealise. Only once he said, sure she had her faults. And I should mention that at the dinner that we had we sort of said, look, so are you Jeremy Delacy? Like in … you know, is that really based on you as a character? And he said how could you say that? And he got quite annoyed. He said Jeremy was flawed. (Chuckling) So he did say Sadie too was flawed. But anyway, I found it so stimulating. And I said I feel like painting, writing, listening, writing my PhD. I feel incredibly lucky to have such an opportunity. But the main reason I can’t take it up, that is this being the muse for his novel, is that I have to finish my PhD. I feel getting to know Xavier would help me understand men much more, especially men of his era, and also what it’s like to get older and whether people change as they get older.
So, okay, it’s late, I’m tired, but I just can’t stop thinking. I seem to be drawn to Xavier’s scheme as I get to know him more and away from some of my preconceptions. I tried to stop seeing him as the author of these novels that I admired and as a person. So I was making that distinction. But his life, his biography really fascinates me. The deal was if some … if I agreed to help him on … in writing this final novel, that he would let me write his biography. And I was very interested in like writing his authorised biography.
So, Tuesday, went to the magnificent gallery, a wide variety of cave art, including a lot of decorative figures, some Quinkans. And what they said were female sorcery figures, flying fox, dingoes, etc. The views were breathtaking. It’s got a different feel to the Territory, but difficult to identify exactly what it is. The light seems different and the greens seem different. Xavier is constantly talking about things he’s done, walking from Anthony’s Lagoon, getting lost and snake bite and how he cured it. And one night he went out and talked about Orion and the stars and then he talked about the Kunapipi legends associated with the dilly bag and so forth. So he was drawing in stories from all over Australia, so it was a bit of a like pan-Aboriginal homogenisation and his idea of what Aboriginal people thought.
Whereas Dick Roughsey was a Mornington Island man who was with us and so he did know a lot about that country and its stories. And that’s what Dick and Percy were doing there, they were illustrating legends for children’s story books. So they were quite busy working on those. So I’ll just show you some of … that is Cathie Mills and Vi Stanton and Justice Toohey looking out at [unclear] country. And that is Xavier, second from … on the right, when he was mining at … on Finniss River country, the paper barks. And it was pretty rough, gold-mining in that country. But it was part of his whole scheme. He wanted to have an Aboriginal owned or as he called part Aboriginal owned mining company.
And then he was involved in setting up this … I think Tommo was referring to this half-caste association it was actually called, with the McGuinnesses. And the McGuinnesses were very conscious of having a different identity to the … a lot of the other Aboriginal people around because I think … yeah, because of government policy and special schemes for people who were classified as mixed descent. There’s Sadie in the late 1920s, early ‘30s there at the mine. And I think this is when Xavier for a while took over the Kahlin Compound, and I think this is where that photo’s taken. That’s back near the mine. Xavier, about the time that he won the Sesquicentennial Prize for Capricornia in 1938. Sadie at Kulaluk where he … he was actually like the superintendent for a year or so.
He had a terrible falling out with Cecil Cook. He actually lobbied very hard, Xavier wanted to be the protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. That was his dream. He was very upset when he didn’t get it, when Cecil Cook got the job. And he hated Cecil Cook and … ‘cause he … ‘cause Xavier had to do what he says, you know, this menial work, this hard work on the road, whereas Cook was viewed as a professional, had more opportunities with a medical degree. But he did have this job of running Kahlin Compound for a while and it doesn’t seem like he actually did a very good job. Because conditions weren’t much improved and the food wasn’t very good during his time there.
Sadie, having a swim. And then I was just sort of thinking the context of him thinking about nation in the 1920s/1930s is just sort of like PR Stevenson. They were trying to … this idea of national self-respect for white men of the white colonies, it was quite a big force. And yet they were using these classical nymph-like figures and sometimes Aboriginal figures to try to appropriate or, you know, create a sense of belonging through literature. And that’s the map which is very much a bit of a satire about the real names of these places in the Territory, in the very Top End, in Darwin. And of course the Larapuna people, he’s actually put language names up there, which are just slightly changed names, from nearby linguistic groups.
And this was when Capricornia was released in the US. Thought it was interesting that the Daily Telegraph of London calls it an Australian history. No Australian history is going to be such intimate and convincing information as this prize-winning story of the empty north. And of course he’s … must have been quite thrilled to have it released in the US, with a forward by Carl Van Doren. HG Wells. And that is the brochure from … Percy Trezise was wanting to make money out of sort of eco-tourism way back before it really became popular, and he used to fly people to his property, ‘cause it … you could fly to Laura where there’s an airstrip to … and then you had to go by four-wheel drive. It took quite a long time to get there from the little town of Laura.
But what comes out clearly in his brochures and clearly also on the camping trip, was that both he and Xavier were very proud of being white pioneers. So as much as they were sort of countering this rapaciousness of white colonialism, they were celebrating their own discoveries. They … they’re claiming they discovered these places. They discovered the wilderness. They discovered these caves. And so it’s this interesting layering that they have where they’re trying to write themselves into the white Australian nation’s legends. And, yeah, at the same time, they actually were engaging with Aboriginal legends and certainly through Dick Roughsey who was sharing those stories of the country.
So, today at the camp. Brief summary of day. Much talk of revolution. Now I can challenge Xavier, have arguments with him readily. Give productive suggestions. It’s still uneven. I’m the listener for 70% of all of the time. Of course to write his biography would take years and years. He’s done so many different things. I was a bit shocked by how they kept talking about discovering the country, pioneering the country. But then they know so much about the bush. They knew about the lady apples, so we picked bush foods and they … you know, I really admired the fact that they knew all this bushcraft. So, this is also covered in Xavier’s diaries about how we went swimming in a water hole and so I said look, I’m interested in the biography. He said no, the biography’s only payoff for getting involved and being part of this other project. He said that the person to take on this task would have to be someone who didn’t have other important goals in life. He said that I was a force on my own who wanted to do things. He said I had a Gretchen-like face and golden hair. (Chuckling) I can see myself stuck in a novel already.
He reveals so much about himself and gets people to reveal themselves too and I guess provoking people to anger is part of that. This is all in my diary. He repeated the love and hate thing and wants … because when I was saying he was annoying me, he’s going yes, love and hate, they’re very close and that was his theory, which is … you know, is a pretty true one. I was frustrated and got angry at him, told him that my work was important. This was his project, I couldn’t be subordinate or give in this way. But I could if it was an equal thing with a partnership with a contract. I told him that Sadie had given him complete service and being subordinate. I wasn’t going to answer his telephone or take … do messages for him. He said I believe in destiny. This is not your destiny. It’s going to be somebody else’s great destiny.
He’s … and anyway he goes on … I say I raved on in a feminist way for some time. Who’s going to be the nurturer, the supporter for women who want to do great things etc? I really gave it to him and he listened. He’s really far more astute than I give him credit for. (Chuckling) I … he … anyway, he said I’d adapted well to the situation, had a real interest in bush and cave art, and history, and had made him feel like a man, which was very important to him. And then he started telling me the story of his artificial knees and how lucky he was to have them. The shared bigotry of Percy and Xavier re Chinese, dagos, wogs, etc, came as a shock. It’s not just a joke, but they also made a lot of abo jokes, like putting Dick on a chain to stop him getting drunk. Dick showed us his OBE today. Xavier hates it, yet wanted to emphasise the honour. It reminded me a little bit of bronze plaques and kings. But Percy’s very much the boss of Dick and I couldn’t really work out that relationship, how that looked, whether it was really I was seeing that correctly or not.
While being totally fed up, the other part of today, I now feel renewed hope again. And I love and hate him. He respects me. Oh, and also said I hadn’t yet developed originality because I thought his ideas were too way out. And anyway so as we’re eating dinner they make a lot of chunder jokes and also as we’re having dinner, Percy just got out his rifle and starting shooting in the air right next to me. And he’s shooting all these flying foxes that were flying over, which then the dingo ate. So, you know, it had a reason, but it was … I’m sure, like he just did it … and he also needled me quite a lot, Percy, and started to go on about how women didn’t know how to change a battery. And women had no sense when it came to practical things and bushcraft and so forth. So this really riled me and of course Xavier came in and said don’t be mean to my friend, she’s intelligent. So that was probably a … that was probably something they had worked out between them (chuckling), ‘cause they both seem to parade as misogynist pigs. And then they’d sort of say, oh, we’re just being pigs, aren’t we? You know, so it was sort of like they knew what they were doing.
So, next time Xavier has a swim in the pool he starts flexing his muscles, so I got my camera out and took some photos. And yes, I couldn’t find the photo, but (chuckling) maybe if I ever publish this I will have looked through everything and find that photo. And of course when I went back to Cairns he insisted on me getting them developed straight away, so he could have pictures of it.
So it was amazing, like the country was incredible and … however we started to like fight and Xavier started to boss me around a lot. Like he kept asking me why I was yawning and wanted me to take caffeine, which he took. He had all the powdered caffeine, being a chemist. And when I read back he said was I anaemic? Did I have a problem? Did I have sleep apnoea? And he kept sort of … so clearly I think I might have been yawning because he never stopped talking. But that really upset him that I yawned. And then I was eating an orange in the car and he grabbed it off me and threw it out the window and said you shouldn’t eat an orange in the car. So that … so he did these sort of odd things which were … got on my nerves and then I felt like he was like getting into my personal space and bossing me.
And … but when I actually said you keep bossing me around, he said … he got really worried ‘cause he said oh, maybe that’s what put Peggy off. You know, do you think that would have upset Peggy? (Chuckling) And then … oh, we went to the pub and I wanted to have a mango and beer, and he said you can’t have a mango and beer. Like looking back I can understand that (chuckling) … why he said that, but he just like would not let you do … just … it was like you’ve lost your freedom with him. He was a control freak or something. But I know that I’m not the only one to have had trouble getting on with him. I know that … you know, it was just happenstance that he … that Peggy and him had had a fight and that he decided to ask me and had this dream. And he would have wanted Peggy to otherwise do this job of the muse, and writing his biography, except that they had a fight, you know. But it was also the happenstance that poor Sadie had died. So he was very, very lonely and quite desperate.
And he wanted me to go to this art opening of Percy and Dick’s books about legends, so he could show Cairns’ society that he had this young woman with him. So he made quite a thing of me having to dress up for this event, instead of looking like an academic scruff, right, with my … actually after the four-wheel drive trips and that, I think my hair had gone into like one knot (chuckling) and so I definitely had to do something about this. And so I put on harem pants, which were very … you know, like you bought them from Indian shops and they were very lovely and cool, and put my hair up. And so the reason I remember this is because Xavier writes about exactly what I was wearing, very soldiers’ women style, in the diary. Like he’s very observant of detail.
And so these are the … Percy and Dick were writing up legends for children, but they were also replicating images they actually saw. It was like an art gallery, walking around there it was absolutely full of the most incredibly rich art. Just as you walked around the bush, like it was absolutely incredible. And through the partnership with Percy and Dick, they actually had access to the stories. And I think … I didn’t really take that much notice of this going on at the time, because I suppose I sort of thought oh, they’re children’s stories. But of course there was a lot of cultural control going on there because a lot of Aboriginal stories aren’t suitable for adults or for white people or the general public, unless they’re told at a simple level and so this could well have been a cultural decision to keep them in the children’s stories. And both Dick and Percy did the paintings. And, you know, at the time I sort of thought, oh, they’re sort of very amateurish or something. But in fact when you look at them they really depict the country quite beautifully in their own way. And it really … you know, there’s something very evocative about it. And it … and the characters in the story too, and I really … my children enjoyed them and I took them back and my children really loved reading about those stories.
But what I think is interesting is the connection between the rock art and the continuity of telling the stories in different formats through books. So they’re doing something which academics hadn’t cottoned onto at all. And the other thing that I didn’t cotton onto at all at the time was that I was looking for this white Australian bushman legend thing in real life, which, you know, was when Xavier Herbert had sort of styled himself into a character a bit like this. Whereas in fact, they were engaging, Percy and Dick, with these legends of the landscape. So what is it about our country, where these legends somehow aren’t seen as the great Australian legends? I mean what’s going on in that there’s this like total dislocation in thinking about the great legends.
And of course these legends are also about gender and relations between men and women too. So there’s almost a mirroring going on there in the rich, powerful narratives that in fact a lot of people now call song lines, that actually do connect up around many, many parts of Australia. And they have tendered to be homogenised, you know, they turn into English. It’s like there’s one big lot of Aboriginal legends and, you know, the books that were published in the ‘30s and ‘50s, and in fact Oodgeroo Noonuccal did publish a book of Aboriginal legends which she called Unwritten History. So it’s interesting that there’s these gestures towards history, gestures that Xavier Herbert’s novels are really histories. There should be a careful interrogation of whether these stories are histories, ‘cause they go back thousands, tens of thousands of years. They’re … you could argue that they’re the very important Australian histories that are being overlooked.
And yet at the same time thinking of Poor Fellow My Country, he did popularise the rainbow serpent as a pan Aboriginal dreaming story, and he did get his information from Spencer and Gillen, and these … you know, that was the Aranda people in Central Australia. So even though he wrote Poor Fellow My Country up here in Quinkan country, in his Land Rover, he was using library books that were sent to him from the Fryer Library and different librarians, who were giving him the sort of canonical Aboriginal legends.
Mary Durack and Elizabeth Durack were also doing legends for children at the time. And they also were talking about this dream concept. Of course it’s been very critiqued now, the dreaming idea. I won’t go into that, but there was … this … Jeanine referred to the timelessness and the absence of time that’s often portrayed in white representations of indigenous narratives or indigenous life, pre‑British arrival.
And that’s some of his diaries about the arguments we had and how I apparently went off in a huff when I said how will I be introduced at this launch for Percy’s books? And they said as his … as Herbert’s mistress. (Chuckling) And so Xavier … this is Xavier’s, I made a mild protest. I made a mild protest. I feel that she went to bed somewhat offended by that. And the talk of her … is that loudness? I can’t read that word actually. Tardiness, loudness. So … touchiness, of course. But there was also an incident about a hat. He kept telling me I had to wear a hat. So I was wearing his hat which was a great privilege to wear his hat. But then he’d suddenly pull it off my head. It was just things like that got to me. And I told him he reminded me of my mother, and stop treating me like a child. You know, when you’re 24 a lot of people do treat you like a child.
So I’ve still … there’s so much in his diaries and so …she said yes. She said that I was bossy and I bugged her when I … some of it I’ll have to spend a lot of time trying to decipher I think. She was tired from the journey, I hadn’t read that bit. That’s nice. And this is about how we got close. How I was wearing a skimpy one-piece bathing suit, like, yeah, (chuckling) and tiny green briefs. I mean how I could have been wearing that with my bathing suit I don’t know, but … but yeah, you sort of realise you’re being seen as a sexual object when you think you’re being this great, you know, future intellectual trying to be like a historian one day. And so (chuckling) trying to write a biography, and he’s more interested in the colour of your briefs. Yeah, right. (Chuckling)
So, anyway, so this thing about but if she became my consort, she would still want to be free to socialise and how he was insulted when I went to a party that was held in his honour, and I took a boyfriend. And so, you know, this … he’s a very needy sort of man, I think, ‘cause we hardly … that … this was … you know, we hardly knew each other at this point. So anyway, then the story goes on and I realise I have to wind up. But I then asked my friends … because after I’d got over this wanting to leave and suddenly taking off, I then thought oh, it would be good to still be able to write his biography.
And so then I consulted my friends. What should I do? Should … you know, Michael Blashem, enthusiasm. Harry, ditto. Lenore, great enthusiasm. I should give up everything and follow Xavier Herbert. (Chuckling) Me, I’m afraid I can’t turn back. In other words I must go. Sue, an old friend … mother, mother didn’t even say don’t do it, that’s surprising. Roz, caution. Alan Powell, I can’t tell ‘cause he was a lecturer. Kate, enthusiasm. Odd people I meet in the street, yeah, take it. Carmel Shute, well-known feminist communist historian, yes, go for it. John Hurst, my supervisor, who I wrote a letter to to ask him whether I should do it. He said yes. Academic jobs aren’t secure anymore. (Chuckling) So, anyway, as you probably know, I didn’t end up doing it and so it’s one of those stories that never happened.
SECTION 3: Professor Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair, University of Western Australia
JL: I want to explore some of the visual traits that structured Xavier-Herbert’s 1975 novel, Poor Fellow My Country. Herbert is often described as being ahead of his time in his concern with the plight of Aboriginal people. Poor Fellow followed 37 years after Capricornia published in 1938 and echoes the themes and settings of the earlier novel. Both novels set out to expose the hypocrisy and injustice of the treatment of Aboriginal people, especially in the north. However, I argue that it also reflects many shifts in seeing and representing race relations that had taken place during the intervening years. In the end I suggest Poor Fellow to be seen as a re-enactment. Set in Herbert’s and a nation's past and coloured by more recent social changes facilitated and communicated through the camera's lens. Like all re-enactments, it is written in the past conditional. It asks what if things had been different.
In each novel Herbert explores themes of hybrid identity and especially, as Russell McDougall knows, sexual relations between white men and Aboriginal women. Herbert’s fascination was originally prompted by an international genre concerned with the interracial sex in the tropics. Unusually Herbert saw mixed decent not as a problem, but rather as offering a multicultural or hybrid future. So in the slide you can see Herbert at the age of 37 in 1938 in a portrait held by the State Library of New South Wales. This is ... it’s inscribed on the back that this is the day that he heard that he won a Sesquicentenary Library Prize.
So what were these major social changes that intervened between the two novels. This 30 year period saw the outbreak and conclusion of World War Two, the adjustments and optimism of the 1950s and the turmoil and activism of the 1960s. I want to examine especially for post war use of images of violence and atrocity that became integral to demands for human rights and decolonisation around the world. Some scholars of human rights have gone so far as to claim that we can only understand rights when we see their violation. I think this is too narrow, but I do agree that the visual culture that developed after the war born of the confluence of new photo journalistic technology with the atrocity of war did give a photographic imaginary a new power.
By the 1960s international developments were affecting Australia too. Facilitated by global visual media that allowed images and footage to be shared around the world. A key event that raised international outrage was the March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre when South Australian Police opened fire on black anti-apartheid demonstrators. So you can see here the great ... the police violence that was enacted on the protestors before the massacre and then its bleak aftermath. So black and white photographs of the scattered corpses documented this terrible aftermath and focussed attention on the indigenous treatment around the world.
Australians were also very much aware of racial clashes in the United States of America over these years as key events in the African-American Civil Rights movements were viewed by television and popular media. As historian Jennifer Clark had argued, change was hastened by a trans-national intellectual context shaped by decolonisation in British and French Africa. In the United States media and photography had long been powerful tools in black hands, and the civil rights movements made active and comprehensive use of photography seizing on the ability of photographs to convey political meaning.
In May 1963 for example, the world was shocked by images from Birmingham, Alabama that showed black children, students and protestors felled by water cannons or attacked by dogs. In 1964, Martin Luther King praised the crucial role of photographic evidence in imprisoning police brutality at Birmingham within a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world and disrupting southerner’s self-image of patience and expertise in managing racial affairs. Shocking violent photographs became the embodiment of truth. In Australia, Aboriginal activists and like campaigners also made effective use of images of degradation to reveal ill treatment and argue for rights.
As early as 1928, Dr William Delano Walker had photographed conditions at Alice Springs bungalow home for half-caste children, although these had limited circulations being confined to a confidential government report. After the war it became common to photograph Fringe Dweller Camps sometimes likened to Nazi Concentration Camps. Poor Fellow also makes frequent reference to Nazis as the embodiment of evil and Jewish characters such as Rifkah emerge as damaged, but transcendent a force for good.
By the 1930s, a campaigner such as Dr Charles Duguid, medical doctor, Charles Duguid used images of ill treatment such as neck chains to argue for reform. So this 1936 article for example, juxtaposes a full length photograph of an Aboriginal man in chains with the neat photographic portrait of the same man after three months humane treatment. So here he’s using this photographic contrast to demonstrate the injustice done to Aboriginal people.
So by 1975 when Poor Fellow was published, the media, and particularly photojournalism, had become a significant force for influencing public opinion and reforming Aboriginal policy. There are two moments in the novel that I want to focus on that show how Herbert was drawing on these new social currents to re-imagine 1930s Darwin. First, the revelatory power of photojournalism is deployed to expose poor conditions in the Kahlin Compound where Herbert himself had worked as superintendent between October 1835 and 1836. In Poor Fellow the obnoxious Dr Cuthbert Cobbity represents the real life Cecil Cook who had been Chief Medical Officer and Chief Protector of Aborigines since 1927. Cook was a proponent of breeding out the colour by uplifting half-caste Aboriginal women to the status of white. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of removing children to institutions, reporting in 1934 that practically all half-caste children of both sexes formerly left to live with Aboriginals in the compounds and bush camps had been removed to half‑caste institutions under government control. Cook however ignored the terrible conditions prevailing within these compounds and homes. So it wasn’t until 1937 when a range of complaints were made that reform began. In Poor Fellow, conditions in the Kahlin compound and the half-caste homes for children are a major threat of critique. As upon her arrival the young school teacher, an Aboriginal protector, Alfie Candlemas immediately begins to institute reform, taking over cooking food for the children, for example. As acting superintendent, Herbert had reported in 1936 that the porridge cooked the day before already was sour and roped from the mould in it. And when doused with the thin milk gave up the corpses of weevils by the score. The bread was even worse. Stringy grey rats around congealed glue, the whole cased in charcoal. The tea had most of the leaves floating on top.
So in the novel, Alfie agrees to reveal her experience of the compound to the abrasive journalist, Fay McPhee. An attractive set for the wicked Captain Shane entailing sabotage of the telephone exchange, a dictaphone and a hidden microphone. Trumping this Boy’s Own scenario, however, is a photographic evidence obtained by McPhee who organises a flight that actually lands in Kahlin compound to take photographs that will service evidence for the poor conditions of its inmates. McPhee’s story appears under great banner headlines, terrific indictment of official callousness causing a national stir as well as a massive local scandal.Alfie complained about the lack of effect of this exposé, but McPhee argues that it’s working slowly. Every time you hit the bastards you put a crack in them and their rotten system and eventually they and it are going to fall to pieces.
The second moment I want to look at in Poor Fellow concerns the treatment of Prindy, the beautiful quarter-caste child. As Jeanine Leane has suggested, the plot of Poor Fellow My Country is a custody battle for Prindy. The perfect golden skin child is made to bear the hope of the entire nation as Frances Devlin-Glass agued. None more memorable perhaps than the moment he’s lured in to Ali Baba’s Golden Finch Nest by the power of music and is thought to be an Indian god, all shiny golden skin and tousled hair so luminous of eye and calm.
In a powerful episode, Prindy and his child-bride Savitra are arrested, chained by the neck, and taken by train to Port Palmerston or Darwin. However, his shrewd grandfather, Jeremy Delacy, Herbert’s own alter ego arranges for a reception by the press. As Denny, the policeman, steps onto the platform with the two chained children shackled to his wrist, pop, pop like ripple gun shots, but with the blaze of lightning. And again, pop, pop, flash, flash. Everybody for the moment blinded and too astounded to speak. Denny's superior officer hisses at him. ‘“For Christ’s sake, Denny, why did you have to do that for?” Denny said in a strangled voice, “It was only for their protection, sir. I didn’t want to them jumping out of the train.” “And now you’ve got them jumping right into the front page of bloody truth. Police brutality to innocent Aboriginal children, you God damn bloody stupid bastard.”’ Later when Prindy has been rushed by motor car to Alice Springs to be locked up in a boys' home, this newspaper story is the means of his rescue. His captor, Eddy, stops at the Boulder Creek Pub filled with European immigrants and refugees who have paid attention to the article. So Herbert writes, and those who could not read English particularly paid attention to the pictures in it, and not being Australians and bred to regard Aboriginal persons as not quite human, they might have very different feelings from what generally would be felt about children chained by the neck and shackled to a lanky, bearded, laughing policeman.
So neck chains had been used to restrain Aboriginal prisoners from the late 19th century across Northern Australia. It was only in the late 1920s that the use began to be debated by some and not until 1959 that they were finally outlawed. They were not customarily used on children, however. So here Herbert has enhanced the scene with his usual melodrama. Such images were used by campaigners, particularly after World War Two. For example, in December 1946 in the Melbourne Herald, the anthropologist Donald Thomson finally published a photograph he had taken of an event that he'd witnessed at Aurukun on Cape York 14 years earlier. He'd witnessed five people being summarily arrested on the word of the superintendent, [unclear] that chained and marched off one foot to Laura in mid-summer heat and ultimately to end up on Palm Island, the penal settlement. His photograph of this event and the terrible conditions that the mission became the basis for his activism after the war. By 1975 the year that Poor Fellow was published, neck chained prisoners had become an icon of colonial oppression and injustice as they remain today. News for example, this is Bertal’s 1910 image was reused in a land rights poster during the earlier 1970s.
So in conclusion, Poor Fellow was a historical novel set in Herbert’s and a nation's past. Written across the tumultuous decades, the post-war change and decent. In Poor Fellow, Herbert is re-imagining his time in Darwin and how things might have been different. He is harnessing the power of the intervening years and their social change and technologies of activism to re-imagine 1930s Darwin and its rigid social control to challenge the authorities and the terrible conditions he witnessed. Alfie Candlemas quickly banishes the mouldy, ropey porridge Herbert had condemned, for example. The neck chains stolen children make front page news and embarrass the authorities two decades before the stolen generations became mainstream. These moments point to Herbert’s utopian ‘what if,’ or past conditional, and his mode of seeing the north. For the older Herbert, postwar social change and especially civil rights campaigns that had challenged the world through media allowed him to re-imagine the things of his youth as what might had been. Through this past conditional lens, he re-enacts his youth and the Darwin he had experienced during the 1930s as if, as if his own view had been shared more widely. As if his characters, Alfie Candlemas, Ray McPhee, Rifkah and of course, Jeremy Delacy had won their battle for Aboriginal people. As if Pindy's hybrid potential had been recognised as the nation’s future. Despite the novel’s ultimately bleak conclusion in which Prindy, Sarah Vasta and Delacy all die, the novel is infused with Herbert’s own wistful uncertain desire for an alternative past and future.
SECTION 4: Dr Liz Conor, Monash University
L: So in a telling, yet uncharacteristic concession, to propriety Xavier Herbert changed the title of his 1938 novel, as Jeanine said, from the neologism ‘Black Velvet’ to Capricornia. His shying away from the title is descriptive of the veil conventionally drawn over interracial intimacies which is what I’m going to talk about today. As well as ... I should forewarn you that I’m actually going to show some images of Aboriginal women that are highly, highly offensive and I do so in the spirit of wanting to really expose that racism and misogyny hinge in very particular ways in Australia and it’s a history that we should be aware of so that we’re able to you know pursue reconciliation, recognition with understandings about these precedents so that’s why.
Alright so he’s shying away from a title as descriptive of the veil conventionally drawn across interracial intimacies, as well as the repression of his catch phrase in print media but it certainly isn’t descriptive of the themes that Herbert pursued in both Capricornia and his 1975 Poor Fellow, My Country. Both works not only shattered the hypocrisy and dissembling that went on around white men’s sexual use of Aboriginal women but they also movingly detailed the pain and desire felt across the racial cleave and the tragic experiences of half-caste children often unacknowledged by their fathers and under the assimilation regime.
In Capricornia the character Peter Differ gives an impassioned defence of interracial sexual relations to Oscar Shillingsworth, uncle to the half-caste Nawnim, or also known as Norman, whose genesis in the casual sexual relations between white men and Aboriginal women forms the spine of the book as it does Poor Fellow. Differ puts the confronting question, “‘What chance,’ he says, ‘do half-caste girls ... do half-caste women have to do anything else but whores ... have to be anything else but whores?’” And he contends moral sense is something taught, it’s not taught to half-caste girls, they’re looked upon from birth as part of the great dirty joke, Black Velvet. Differ decries that decent white men can’t woo and marry one honestly without being labelled a combo. Complaining ‘it makes his guts bleed,’ Differ explains that despite there being 20,000 half-castes in Australia this common practice is hidden. He lambasts Oscar’s shrugging and shirking saying ‘You’re like the majority of people in Australia, you hide from this very real and terrifically important thing and hide it and come to think after a while that it doesn’t exist but it does, it does.’ Differ laments that, when, the men who raise their kids are despised, while the rest go combo mainly on the sly.
Clearly Herbert’s exposé of interracial sexual relations particularly in northern Australia was a radical departure from the repression and dissimulation around colonial intimacies but in Differ’s justification it is taken as a given, an unquestioned reality that white men in remote stretches must have a sexual outlet. If white women aren’t accessible in the remoter reaches of the north their only recourse is either Aboriginal women or to become sexual perverts, as in homosexual. He calls these relations with women quite natural flutters and insists how can they help it? The men rueing that any ... how can they help it, the men? Rueing that any resulting children are just ignored.
So the sexual schemer that Herbert both eroticises and exposes of white men’s access to black women was at odds with the sexual mores of the day even putting interracial sex to one side. Companion at marriage and romantic monogamy were the order of the day. Poor Fellow was published the same year the Family Law Act of 1975 made provision for no fault divorce. But prior to this, under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1959, a spouse seeking dissolution of marriage had to prove marital fault through 14 grounds of which adultery was but one. The 1975 Act was the culmination of decades of reform to laws deriving from Victorian era sexual politics such as the British Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. At the time of writing Capricornia sexual relations outside marriage let alone across race were subject to the double standards, gender inequity and ecclesiastical codes inherited from Victorian Britain. Monogamy was the only permissible form of European sexual relations or all the proliferation of sexual practices and identities in the Victorian era and beyond but it was also racialised. Polygamy comprised the third prong in conceptions of savagery along with cannibalism and infanticide, both un ... oh hang on ... from the time of the exploratory voyages exotic marital rights such as bride capture and child bestal, both unsubstantiated, were a particular fascination for Europeans within the burdening genre, native ... genre of native marriage rights.
Over the period Herbert penned his two major works, state protection boards intensified controls over interracial intimacies ostensibly as a protective measure against the manifest abuses against Aboriginal women and girls, scapegoated onto lower order males, men, but really these controls were a means to realise a racially homogenised white Australia under the pitiless regulations of the assimilation regime. European and colonial strictures around monogamous marriage were not distinct legal realms but were rather set in contradistinction. In Ann McGrath’s analysis of the variegated formations of marriage across the Australian frontier, she shows the dependence of eighteenth century notions of civilised marriage on rebuffing those of the primitive and discusses the significance of property to the ordering of monogamy, thus property and the institution of marriage mutually confirm each other.
European marriage law passed on inherited property through the agnatic blood lines. Monogamy, particularly women’s, guaranteed. Polygamy thus disqualified indigenous men’s property and women’s bodies, and by extension I think, in land tenure and it was property, particularly that invested in land, that was contested under settler colonialism thus monogamy, inheritance, the custody of children and land were critical schemers to the settler colonial project. Aboriginal polygamy, along with commonly held views that Aboriginal men prostituted their women, were a means to dismiss Aboriginal men as licentious of their women and thus not entitled to or capable of holding property, rather conveniently also land. If the settler colonial project rested, as Patrick Wolf has argued, on a logic of elimination of the indigenous, Herbert’s advocacy for interracial marriage met Wolf’s description of that chronic negator of the logic of elimination, namely the white man’s libido. Herbert’s novels are set in the historical milieu when assimilation was formally adopted as federal policy and Herbert not only behaved badly within this schema of elimination but he crowed about it, crediting himself as the biggest gin rooter in the Territory. And he wrote about it with fervour and splendour, I think, and then took out national prizes for it. Despite the demise of these policies Herbert’s works have since slipped from the national imaginary.
So the desire that white men felt for Aboriginal women was thus critically important and arguably its expression was repressed. Until the cynical and entirely scientifically spurious yet state-enforced administration of biological absorption, of breeding out the colour, this desire threatened to upend the settler colonial project. Fiona Probyn-Rapsey has detailed the fantasies of breeding that underlaid both Chief Protector Cook’s and Herbert’s utopian racial destinies. But Herbert did not want to absorb the black race into the white but rather give rise to a new race, the hybrid Eurasian who brought together the best traits of European and Aboriginal embodied in the golden boy, Prindy. The policy of assimilation assumed rather naively that white men having sex with Aboriginal women would marry them and since they rarely did the policy depended on the removal of half-caste children ostensibly because they weren’t being recognised by their white fathers. But also to regulate Aboriginal women’s sexuality through controlling their sexual contact and marriages. Cohabiting was prohibited under the Aborigines’ Ordinance and marriage needed the consent of a Chief Protector.
In Poor Fellow, Herbert exposes the prevailing notion among outback men that Aboriginal women were ‘easy for the taking,’ as Ernest Knighthill [?] put it, in the rape of Nelyerri by one of the Knowles brothers. Herbert rent apart the veil conventionally drawn across interracial sexual activity and he complicated the notion that all interracial gendered contact was prostitution. Hitherto, aside from the indignation of a handful of sympathetic humanitarians, or piously appalled missionaries and clergy, encounters with white men were secreted from the wider public or given glancing acknowledgment as a necessary evil in remote regions suffering a frightful want of females, expressly white.
In openly expressing white men’s desire for Aboriginal women, Herbert laid bare the causal chronology that impelled the assimilationist regime, kicked off by white men’s desire. So it’s worth understanding the nature of that desire therefore before we can situate Herbert’s quite radical intervention into these structuring absences into what we might identify as a distinct arena and modality of sexuality that was intrinsic to settler colonialism. How did racialised beauty reveal the foundational genderedness of settler colonialism? It wasn’t just the irrepressible virility of the priapic pioneer that excited the trysts that Herbert so lovingly details. Herbert broke with convention by openly acknowledging and intimately describing Aboriginal women’s desirability which he both racialised and revered.
In Mark Shillingworth’s—Norman’s father—first treepanger expedition, Mark approaches a native camp to purchase some tourist memorabilia and is offered a comely girl. Herbert’s description is a lingering blazon of yearning, which he evidently derived considerable pleasure from writing. He writes “One who was observant and aesthetic would have gloated over the perfect symmetry expressed in the curves of the wide mobile nostrils and arched septum of her fleshy nose, would have delighted in her peculiar pouting mouth with thick puckered lips of colour reddish-black like withered rose, withered rose. In illustrious irises and fleckless white of eggwhites of her large black slightly tilted eyes, in her long luxuriant bronzy lashes, in the curves of her neck and back, in the coppery black colour of her velvet skin and its fascinating musky odour and might have kept her talking in order to delight in her slow, deep, husky voice or laughing in order to delight in the flash of her perfect teeth and gums and the lazy movement of her eyes.”
Nelyerri, the mother of the exquisite hybrid boy, Prindy, around whom the narrative of Poor Fellow trajects, is also lovingly detailed, as is Jeremy Delacey’s Aboriginal wife, Nanago. The public expression of this sexual adoration of Aboriginal women was for 1938 highly unusual. There had been many thinly veiled declarations of enthralment ... how do I do this? ... of enthralment of the native belle, which I’ve elsewhere described in publications emanating from the South Sea voyages of Cook and others. It was therefore ... I didn’t do that ... it was therefore ... it was there, albeit draped in classical conventions, and she’s quite Europeanised in Augustus Earl’s circa 1826 painting, Women of New South Wa ... Woman of New South Wales. The native belle was purportedly unselfconsciously beautiful, hers was not a beauty of artifice and therefore modernity, it was natural.
Images such as this photograph of the woman, Janjoo [?], originally taken by photographer Lint was variously captioned, a brunette beauty, the regular ... damn it ... the regular oval features and beautiful eyes of this Aboriginal girl might be the envy of many of her white sisters and she was a perfect type of Aboriginal girlhood. Settlers clearly had an investment in indigenous beauty ranging from sexual desire to romantic nostalgia for a natural femininity that was vanishing. So Herbert salvages the girl’s unwitting beauty as a kind of redemption from the ruin of the tribal. So beauty was racialised within this visual schema. It entered into the vista of the native, exploratory surveying gaze in the conquest of the world as perspective along with scientific racism and ethnological security, those things had shaped the lens through which indigenous women were seen and perceived as racially distinct. But the overt sexualisation of their beauty, the unguarded expression of European desire, that was rare. Significantly the expressions I have found appeared in the span of years between Herbert’s two major novels. So this glazed ashtray nakedly referenced the desirability of Aboriginal women and was as such very rare. Indeed I think this may be the only image of Aboriginal women in lingerie. Damn it.
Pervading the colonial scene was the unstated frisson, mostly nostalgia, for visual access to the near naked bodies of traditionally living Aboriginal women. This ethnoporn was referenced by the post-war images of Martinez [?] and you’ll know his ... there are many of these ... who perhaps not coincidentally painted onto an actual circus of black velvet. It was also lampooned rather salaciously by Eric Joliffe in his popular Witchety Tribe cartoon series. And anecdotally I hear that these cartoons were quite enjoyed in the north in Aboriginal communities at the time they were published, the 60s and 70s.
But the native belle was bookended by women who were scorned and derided for their appearance. Conventions of the monstrous savage inhabiting the antipodes endured from early accounts dating back to Dampier’s evaluation of the people at King’s Sound as having not one graceful feature in their faces. He was still quoted uncritically in 1947 in the magazine Walkabout, and these precedents shaped Herbert’s description of Mark’s Shillingsworth’s conflicted desire. He wrestled with himself for seeing beauty in a creature of a type he had been taught to look upon as a travesty of normal humanity. Mark directs all his conflicted contempt towards the Aboriginal man who had offered the girl to him, hating him for a procurer and thinking him utterly base. Herbert unusually however adds the caveat that Mark couldn’t know that this exchange was from part of their customs, that the Aboriginal man was only doing what he’d ... what he had learnt to expect to be asked of him by every white man with whom he had ever come into contact. Herbert notes that Mark also hadn’t realised that the man and his kind might love their womanfolk just as much white men do even though they were not so jealous of their conjugal rights.
In Poor Fellow, Herbert overlays his challenge to double standards about interracial sexual relations with passionately held notions of national belonging. He directly advocates, as we’ve talked about today, a creole nation of Eurasians instead of being just lousy copies of the stock we come from. Delacey expounds, “In my opinion a beautiful breed of people could have been created if only our forebears had had the courage to breed with the Aborigines like men instead of just like dirty little boys.” And one that would have loved the land because they truly belonged to it. But this all came about because of the traditional woman-lending of Aborigines which is how he argues the country was actually settled. Delacey explains you’re bound as a black fellow to lend your woman to a trusted stranger who has none. Use of his women by others means nothing to a black fellow, it’s more than ... it’s more to do with friendship, relationship or trade and the women themselves? According to Delacey they prefer the white man every time, even if he’s rubbish.
Of course this depends on the longstanding European construct of promiscuous primitive sexuality, which Delacey draws on in describing the blacks as the true Bacchanalians. Delacey then asks “Have you ever thought what the Australian nation would have been if the pioneers had suckled their hybrid offspring?” He answers “The boss’s bed could have been the foundation for harmony and a new society.” What a man like Xavier can do with his penis, hey?
Having bemoaned the lack of white women as the cause of the irrepressible sexual activity of white men the entrance of white women into the remote areas who saw the use of Aboriginal women as exploitative could only stall such a quest as Herbert’s for naturalisation. Delacey complains the trouble was there ... the trouble was there ... there was ... sorry, I don’t know why that’s back to front ... whether white women that had to be reckoned with. Eventually they’d come looking for their men and find them gin jockeying as they say, they’d empty out their black rivals and call in the police at any show of resentment and that’s how the country was settled, settled and civilised.
So this repression of a distinct national sexuality, an Australian race, by white women was only effective, however, for as long as white men tolerated it. The problem was that Anglo Celt men were too afraid of their “prudish harridans,” their white wives, he says. Whereas it was the missus who put the stockwhip around the dusky interloper she found with her old man in this country, the Spanish-bred master would put it around his wife for intruding in his private business. I feel sure that but for the fear of women ... but for the fear of women ... our forefathers would have been proud enough of their half-breed bastards at least to feed them, or rather honest enough in their pride because the pride is there still, in secret.
I stress this thing about our women because it’s the crux of this thing, it’s the crux of this thing.
So with Aboriginal women and their men suitably compliant ... and you notice Aboriginal men don’t really figure as sexual beings. There’s this little boy, there’s Bob Wirrideri, there isn’t a kind of masculine Aboriginal virility in these words, I don’t think. Could be wrong but anyway ... so with Aboriginal women and their men suitably compliant and white men perpetually rampant it is only white women who can inhibit the realisation of a nation authentically inseminated to spring from the lean loins of the land thereby rectifying white men’s spurious claim to it. And I reckon that’s the crux of the thing, white men’s spurious claim to the land.
So to conclude, while at first glance Herbert’s novels are a pained interracial intimacy, you know, hooray!, including marriage, and a nativist identification with miscegenation, it is worth heeding Anne Stoller’s caveat that hierarchies of privilege and power were written into the condoning of interracial unions as well as into their condemnation. Within Delacey’s marriage to Nanago, and I have to say the passages around Nanago and Delacey, the explicit passages are some of the most beautiful and tender passages you’ll read ... sexually explicit passages, they’re absolutely beautiful and very unusual in that way too, I think. But within his marriage to Nanago her tolerance of his affairs is descriptive of this kind of frontier sexual utopia he inscribes and its dependence on Aboriginal women who were neither jealous of their conjugal rights over white men. So ultimately Herbert debunked the racially inscribed binaries between desire and reason. Native instinct and white self-discipline, subversive unproductive sexuality and productive patriotic sex. Yet he was unable to do so, I don’t think, without deploying a robust and unquestioned gendered dichotomy as it had been conventionally enforced through monogamy which itself rested on racialised notions of civilised versus primitive conjugal rights.
SECTION 5: Professor Russell McDougall, University of New England
R: My name’s Russell McDougall. I am at the University of New England where I’m professor of literature. I’ve been working on and off on Xavier Herbert for most of my career I suppose. And so I’ve sat many, many hours in this library reading those manuscripts with a magnifying glass, and also in … well in the Queensland Library and so forth. And I’m hoping at long last my biography of Xavier Herbert will appear next year with a Dutch publisher, Bril Rodopi. There’s a comment on the …
R: Yeah. I did the ODB entry and …
R: Yeah. There’s a lot of mistakes people make in Xavier Herbert’s biography, like, no-one’s made it today actually, but, you know, for example, assuming that he’d been superintendent of the Aboriginal Compound before he wrote Capricornia, whereas he actually wasn’t. You know, it was something where life imitated art, rather than the other way around. Anyway, I’ll give my paper.
Thanks for staying ‘til the end. (Chuckling) So, this is the definition of genius that appears in Xavier Herbert’s own personal copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the 1929 edition revised by HM Fowler. Which up until Herbert’s enlistment during World War Two, he carried with him wherever he went. From the Aboriginal Compound in Darwin to his remote bush camps in the Finniss River country and beyond. And this is it that I have with me. So you can see that it still has its thick canvas bound cover, custom made by Van Chung Lum, Darwin’s most prominent Chinese tailor. The cover was fitted in 1938, although Herbert must have had the dictionary for several years by then because the front pages contain a draft list of characters for Capricornia in his own handwriting. And some of those characters are in Capricornia and some of them not. Some of them are slightly different.
So we can be pretty sure that he had that dictionary with him while he was working on Capricornia and he must have read it continuously. He was an autodidact and he just sucked everything up like a sponge, which is why he could … partly I suppose, he could never stop talking. And I know he read it continuously because he’s marked words through it, from A to Z. And I don’t know what interested him particularly about those words but certainly genius was one of them. And interestingly he also added some Aboriginal words to the dictionary, in his own handwriting, which must be very, very interesting and ahead of his time for thinking to do that. But this one word, genius, stands out. For one thing, it’s a word he used in every one of his novels. In different contexts and with different shades of meaning. He uses it four times in Capricornia, eight times in Seven Emus. Yeah, I know. (Chuckling) Which of course is a much shorter book. He uses it seven times in Soldiers’ Women, and 26 times in Poor Fellow My Country. I’m not going to do some ratio. But I will have a look at some of those uses later on.
It’s important to note though here, that Herbert’s increasing interest in the concept of genius over his career, was completely out of kilter with mainstream public interest. In fact a search of the content made available through Trobe by the National Library’s Australian Newspaper Digitisation Program across the whole of the 20th century, confirms a dramatic decline in interest in the concept of genius. A restricted search for references like literary genius reveals an even sharper decline from what was a pretty low baseline to start with. As a point of comparison, you might like to think about musical genius, which starts from a baseline twice as high as that of literary genius, and through the 1920s it actually begins to rise, but then it falls away too to almost nothing. Sorry?
R: Not as much. No. But it … I think I stopped … that’s why I stopped in 2009, because they have got a bit beyond that, but I think it’s fairly full up to the end of the 20th Century. But, yeah, there’s some … look, there’s some variables here, the novel were … particularly with the one about Xavier Herbert’s usages, ‘cause I don’t know how you compare a novel that’s the longest novel in the English language, 26 usages, compared to Seven Emus, which is not even really a novel, it’s a novella. So I just … this is very crude kind of stuff.
R: That’s alright. Baseline for public interest in evil genius at the beginning of the sentence, is three times higher than for literary genius. And five times higher than good genius, although that’s hardly surprising because Milton showed us that Satan has a great many more lines than God in ‘Paradise Lost.’ But the overall trend of decline in public interest in genius in Australia is I think interesting in relation to the question at the heart of this symposium, which of course I don’t need to reiterate. Because the ideas of genius are crucial to Herbert’s fiction.
And I don’t think that the fascination with genius in his work can be merely sheeted home to his own egotism. As early as 1935 in a private lament, written in the agony of waiting and wondering if Capricornia would ever be published, and thinking how he’d already half killed himself for his genius, he came to the conclusion my genius is not I. True, the subsequent success of Capricornia did give him a sense of destiny, but the pressure of expectations arising from that belief soon proved crippling. It was like most of us, he had insecurities and vulnerabilities which in his case, ran deep. And which along with the confusion and interruption of World War Two, denied him the career trajectory that he’d worked towards and that he’d imagined for himself.
The first application of genius in Capricornia is to Norman Shillingsworth, who in the racial terminology of the time, is a half-caste. Although until he reaches puberty he is under the belief that his mother was a high caste Javanese, rather than an indigenous Australian. But at that stage of his life at least Herbert subscribed to the belief that genius is transcendent and will always find a way to express itself. Yes. This is to show that genius is not always transcendent. And Norman’s adoptive uncle Oscar is on the verge of packing him off to the south to avoid likely embarrassment when Norman surprises him by establishing a means of permanent water supply on the driest part of the station. The novel identifies this explicitly as proof of genius, likening it to a magical device for converting dry season cattle carcasses into gold. And to contrasting it with the expensive and fairly useless hydro-electrics plant that his father Mark Shillingsworth has erected at his camp on the island of Flying Fox.
I think that’s particularly interesting in view of the fact that at the time as the industrial world was turning to oil and it seemed that Australia had no oil wells, and the dominant belief was that hydro-electricity schemes such as those that have already been established on a small scale in Tasmania, were generally too costly and impractical. And as the research had indicated, it would always be possible to obtain adequate supplies of oil on a payable basis. And at the opening of the 1930s the Hume Weir had been under construction for more than a decade and the idea of a power station to produce either electricity from it seemed like a pipe dream.
It’s also interesting to consider Capricornia’s discourse on dams. We can safely say that Norman does not inherit his genius from his father. Herbert did originally conceive of Mark literally as an artist at heart. But he cut that from the manuscript before he published the novel, leaving the more satirical reference to Mark Shillingsworth’s rather Heath Robinson design skills. Norman’s design rather is simple and based on careful environmental observations. Mark’s design is intricate and ingenious but it’s useless because it only works when the tide is running, which is when it’s not needed.
So I want to observe three things there. First, the stress on environmental observation and understanding and on accommodating culture to nature. Which puts Herbert way ahead of his time environmentally. Of course … sorry, the second thing is the distinction between ingenuity and genius. Which is to say between false and true genius. And the third thing is the fact that true genius as a force of nature is associated with a deep sense of place. It’s often said that genius is an 18th century idea, because that’s when theology lost its battle with psychology and genius came to be seen, as Edward Young put it, the God within. Before that it had an external spiritual point of reference, from Socrates’ idea of the demon, to the Christian idea of the guardian angel.
But from the 18th century on, genius is individualised and essentialised and its core feature is originality. You could have talent and by careful study and rigour and application of established rules, you might produce something pretty remarkable. But genius by definition refused to follow rules. Genius was intuitive. In Young’s highly influential conjectures on original composition published in 1759 he distinguished between two different literary methods. The imitation of works by other authors and the imitation of nature. The first he described as a kind of manufacture, brought up by those mechanics, art and labour, out of pre-existing materials not their own. But the second was of a vegetable nature. It rises spontaneously from the vital root of genius. It grows and it can’t be made. In other words, genius gives us an original creation, whereas talent can only give us some kind of duplicate of what we’ve got already. The imitator is a transplanter, or to put this in a post-colonial context, an importer of goods and ideas that maybe won’t grow so well in foreign soil. Whereas the original writer creates something new, seemingly out of nothing.
So fast forward to June 1935. To escape the overpowering influence of his prospective publisher, PR Stephenson, Herbert has relocated from Sydney to Darwin. He’s got a job as the acting superintendent of the Kahlin Aboriginal Compound, and he’s hoping to make it permanent. He’s also hoping for pre-selection with the Labor Party. And out of the blue he receives a package in the mail from Stephenson, containing his manifesto, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, the opening chapter of which is titled ‘The Genius of Place.’ We know that Herbert was inspired by this, but we don’t know exactly what he thought of it. This is Herbert’s copy, the one that actually arrived in the mail when he was in … superintendent of the Aboriginal Compound.
And in the back of it he scribbled a rough draft of a kind of creole creation story, which he’s never … which was never published. I think he lost this in World War Two. And the title of that story is [unclear]. Of course you know what [unclear] means. But [unclear], which is to turn it into something kind of Aboriginal. (Chuckling) Or the other title is the Singing Girl. And it begins ‘Once the wattle grew about Katoomba,’ and as you can guess it concludes in a blossom of golden cloud. So in between you learn the story of how wattle came to grow in Katoomba. It’s got a story form that Basil Hansen … he’d like that … that Basil Sansom, in his anthropological discussion of Herbert’s literary production in the middle years of his career, between Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country, calls an eruption story. For which reason he accuses Herbert of being a looter of Aboriginal culture, pretending to originality, but in fact being nothing more than an imitator.
It’s a story form that Sansom found in the Daly River area, with which Herbert was familiar. Characterised by an eruption of dreaming into post-colonial history. Always at some crucial moment, which is the turning point of the narrative, after which it turns the action to dreaming purpose. So the charge of bad faith here I think is important, because as Sansom observes, while the novels Herbert wrote between Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country were arguably his worst, the stories he wrote over that time were in many ways his best. I don’t have time to go into the pros and cons of Sansom’s argument with which I disagree in a complicated kind of way. Which is not so easy for a literary scholar to argue with an anthropologist anyway. But it is worth pointing out that Poor Fellow My Country itself is structured around two eruptions of dreaming. And that these are roughly equivalent to two symbolic moments in the structure of Capricornia.
In other words, the two novels reveal structural consistency that I would argue refutes Sansom’s characterisation of the middle period as one of plagiarism. In Capricornia the two moments are the set piece of contact history in the first chapter called the ‘Coming of the Dingoes,’ and ‘The Death of a Kangaroo,’ which is Tim O’Cannon’s death at Black Adder Creek. Which is cast as a kind of metaphysical blessing in disguise in reward for his loving and adopting a half-caste child to which he’s not obligated by blood. The equivalent eruptions in Poor Fellow My Country are first the opening set piece, again set at a waterhole, as in Capricornia. But this time where the cult man, Aboriginal magic man, materialises from out of the bush shadows like the golden flicker of the catfish arising from the emeralds depths of the pool of the unconscious. And the second moment when Jeremy Delacy is asleep in a creek, not unlike Black Adder in Capricornia, and in a waking moment of twilight dreaming he’s given a glimpse of his own Aboriginal soul.
Now I do want to say something about Herbert’s response to Stephenson’s Foundations of Australian Culture. At the beginning of that period that Sansom calls the middle period of Xavier’s career, of Herbert’s career, and which in my biography I designate as the lost years. A few years earlier Stephenson and Herbert had agreed that Australia’s cultural development should be based on what they both called the spirit of place. Capricornia expressed this clearly as an indigenous spirituality, heard in the song of the golden beetle. But Stephenson had come to believe that political action was necessary to emancipate Australian culture from English domination. And his interest in indigenous culture had lessened as Herbert’s had grown. Where Herbert envisaged the creole nation, Stephenson saw a new Britannia, racially pure.
Herbert tried to tell him, we’re not Australians, only these lucky people are. He’d stopped calling them half-castes by then and he was calling them true Australian, eur‑Australians. He loved them and he envied them and he cursed the fact that he’d been born a colonial pommie. Stephenson’s nationalism on the other hand was heading towards fascism. Herbert’s was heading towards some kind of Jindyworobak ideal of a cultural fusion. He was an unpublished writer. He wasn’t an unpublished writer, he was an unpublished novelist. He wasn’t taken seriously. He didn’t publish any popular fiction magazines. So let’s call him an unpublished literary writer. In an uncultured frontier town. A lapsed Catholic who lived with a Jewish woman, who he said was a widow to avoid the embarrassment of the fact that she was married to someone else. He lived in the Aboriginal Compound. He was hated by Darwin’s white society. And he felt himself constantly diminished.
It helped for him to think of himself as a victim of mismatched identity, a biological error unacknowledged by science. An Aboriginal soul trapped in a white man’s body. On a good day he could stand back and cheer his own performance. He was such an interesting and surprising cove, extraordinarily open-minded. On a bad day the idea of mental illness gave him relief and refuge. He began to forget that he was supposed to be in charge of the Aboriginal Compound and he imagined himself as an inmate. He took an Aboriginal woman as a lover. And as he acknowledged Stephenson’s package with a strange exclamation, imagine Capricornia written by a half-caste.
Clearly his idea of genius had begun to shift. He felt himself to be a poor copy, a colonial pommie. How could he be original if he were not Aboriginal? And he had an answer, which was love. His idea of the true commonwealth before this had been broadly socialist, but the nation of reconciled racial difference that he now envisaged was one spiritualised by the genius of love. Which as he saw it was actually an indigenous concept, the genius loci. And that’s where it all started (chuckling) to go wrong.
After Capricornia and his experience of fame, after the incarceration of his publisher as a threat to national security, and after his own completely debilitating experience of military service in the Second World War, he withdrew from society and isolated himself almost completely to avoid confusion and distraction. He closed himself within, self-reflected and loveless. He became more interested in knowing himself than in knowing others. And this inevitably distorted his sense of self and he became more frustrated and fearful of failure. He was torn between the [unclear] spirit of his imagination, his good genius, and the destructive capacities of his evil genius, self-interest, resentment and anger, rather than empathy. His genius became his enemy. Like Charles Kett, the evil genius of Norman Shillingsworth in Capricornia, a character who lives in constant shame and fear. An illegitimate and an outcast, who hates half-castes, as he hates all natives who remind him of his own illegitimacy.
The Chinese-Australian poet Ouyang Yu accuses Herbert of bad faith in loading the dice again Kett by making him part Chinese and part Aboriginal, as opposed to Norman Shillingsworth, being part white and part Aboriginal. In the identity stakes in other words, people of Asian background in Herbert’s fiction don’t have a chance. But evil and good genius as Herbert saw them were not exclusive categories, they were inter-related. At one stage while he was writing Poor Fellow My Country and in an effort to secure his own happiness, he cast his partner Sadie in the role of the custodian of his genius. But there were inevitably times when she seemed not to understand his genius, or perhaps not to be interested. And when those times came he worried that she might be the projection of his own evil genius, luring him toward damnation as Hitler had lured Stephenson.
Since his death and the minor industry of Herbert’s scholarship that has followed, as Robert Darby notes in his review of Frances de Groen’s biography, Herbert has been convicted of nearly all the seven deadly sins, barring sloth and gluttony. De Groen described in often painful detail his displays of aggression, anger, ingratitude, manipulativeness, ego-centricity, some homophobia, racism, and above all, misogyny. Sean Monahan, author of the one extended critical study of Herbert’s writing, laments the failure of the biography to acknowledge Herbert’s positive achievements, but ends up disliking him just the same.
As Harry Heseltine said in his review of Monahan’s book, the case for the real genius of Xavier Herbert is not assisted by what appears to be the critic’s increasing dislike for his author. On page 95, for instance, Monahan identifies Herbert’s twisted attitudes to women. On the following page the focus shifts to his self-centredness on a grand scale. As the study progresses Monahan reports his repulsion at among other traits, Herbert’s arrogance, his unconscious racism, his unquestioning assumption of masculine superiority. Most of it if … is probably true, but it does not lay a very happy foundation for the argument which occupies the last third of the book, that Poor Fellow My Country is a masterpiece.
The worst of Herbert’s vices, as Robert Darby says, appeared only after the success of Capricornia, the middle period, the lost years. And more precisely in the 1950s when nothing seemed to be going right for him. It was then that he began prescribing and injecting himself with steroids for the purpose not only of maintaining his vigorous masculinity into old age, but also to maintain his creative viability. Over the next 30 years of that continuing drug regime he became more angry, aggressive and paranoid. Thus the dislike of him as a subject is at least a response to a drug-induced psycho‑pathology in his later life, which made him less tolerant, but also enhanced his creative performance. In an age when steroid abuse is increasing worldwide and we do know that more and more athletes are presenting with psychiatric symptoms and disorders of mood stabilisation, including hypermania and in the long term, depression. I’m not denying Herbert’s difficulties as a subject or the contradictions of his writing. Manning Clarke was obviously correct when he said that Herbert wrote with the passion of a great lover and a great hater.
It’s hate however that seems to be mainly what we now recall. It’s unfortunate I think that the fascinations of Herbert’s psycho-pathology, partly brought on by drug abuse in his later life, seem to emphasise this hating at the expense of his loving. The limits of love depend upon the capacity for empathy and in the 21st century empathy is an under-valued virtue. It’s also a vital one. Prejudice, the inability to identify with another person, has always been damaging on any other scale. But with the growth of the global economy binding different peoples and different nations more closely together, and with environmental degradation and climate change throwing human and non-human destinies into the balance, prejudice is clearly by far the biggest threat to world peace and prosperity. And empathy is the greatest hope for salvation. Herbert devoted his life’s work to exploring the interplay of prejudice and empathy, and to envisaging the emotional states and [unclear] destinies that would inevitably arise from sacrificing either one to the other.
As I said in my introduction to the recently published 40th anniversary edition of Poor Fellow My Country, the continuing relevance of that novel, and I would say Capricornia also, is not contained in its re-interpretation of a particular set of events, or a particular period of Australian history, however important that seemed at the time of publication in the 1970s, or in the case of Capricornia, in the 1930s. What’s important is that these novels draw us into a process of identity formation whereby we become aware of how we might experience this nationality. Depending on whether we’re white or black, or some other colour or ethnicity. How we experience belonging or alienation or asylum, the states of being in between. And how that process affects who we really are, individually and collectively. If books are machines to think with Herbert has a lot still to tell us I think about the social function and the community value of a hut. The seductions of personality, both individually and collectively. And the morality of reconciliation.