Under Australian Skies by Phyllis Power

Remember, almost a year back, when I started a project to re-read my childhood books and write a post about each before culling it? I only got two books in, and then was side-tracked with so many other things. So this next book I am featuring was actually many read months ago.

My edition was published by the (UK) Peal Press Reward Library and cost 2 shillings and 6 pence, which dates it before 1966 when Australia introduced decimal currency. My best guess it was published in 1964, when I was nine.

I was astounded as I read this book. To think we were given this fodder as impressionable juveniles. The contents are so dated, and frankly, (these days) so offensive in parts, that before posting I went in search of more information about who wrote it.

This is what I sourced from http://www.austlit.edu.au: “Phyllis Power spent her early childhood in Australia, then travelled to Europe. In London, on 1 July 1906, in her Introduction to Two Stories, she wrote ‘Australia is the land of my birth. It is my country … The bush calls ever and anon to me, reminding me that it is Home.’ Power returned to Australia in 1934. She also wrote From These Descended, a history of the ladies of one of Australia’s great pastoral dynasties, the Clarke family, published in 1977, the year of her death.” From another source I learned she was born in 1877 meaning she lived to one hundred!

Okay, that puts this book in context. Written from a white pastoralist’s viewpoint, it is set on a remote cattle station somewhere in Central Australia’s outback. As best as I can place, it is south-east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, on the edge of the Simpson Desert with the MacDonnell ranges behind. The family running the property is actually named Clarke, so it is probably largely autobiographical. Marion, a young, imaginative, would-be author, lives in a bark-roofed home with Mum, Dad and six sisters, whose “whole thoughts are given to cattle and horses which roam at will across hundreds of square miles”. Nat Clarke, the father, doesn’t own the property, ‘Wander Nella’. He manages it for an English company.

The book offers a valuable historic insight into life where all the supplies have to be carefully ordered, hoarded and kept in good condition because the nearest town is three hundred miles away across a bad stretch of desert and steep ranges, “still infested with hostile or Myall blacks”. (No mention here of the Myall Creek Massacre, where in 1838, white men – convicts assigned to station owners – killed twenty-eight men, women and children from a nearby tribe. In a highly unusual move, they were actually tried for the crime. But it took two trials, and they were only found guilty of the murder of one young child. Their defence was “they were not aware that in destroying the black natives they were violating the law”. (The Bundaberg Mail & Burnett Advertiser, 15 Nov 1911, Page 3)).

The “blacks” feature all through the book, because who else is actually running this station? The house “lubras” take care of the house cooking and cleaning, and the men do the stockwork, but they don’t have quarters in the house. They live in an encampment elsewhere on the station. Bill, the mailman, comes through several times a year, with a couple of black boys and a dozen packhorses. (Apart from them probably doing all the loading of the mail, I’m guessing Bill would get lost in the desert without their help).

Early in the story two men – one white and one black – unexpectedly arrive on camels, with two pack animals following. This turns out to be John Flynn and his companion-guide. This is interesting. The Very Reverend John Flynn, (Flynn of the Inland) born 1880, was a Presbyterian minister and missionary, probably best known for establishing the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the late 1920s. In the book he is explaining to Mrs Clarke how she will be able to put in a radio call and speak to a doctor hundreds of miles away. (The caller powered the radio by peddling as if on a bicycle). So now we have a date in which the book is set.

The younger girls get in to all sorts of scrapes, especially when they team up with the “piccaninnies”. One of the girls speaks Arunda (Arunta – the language of a very significant tribe of Central Australia. The famous artist, Albert Namatjira, for example, was Arrernte, and his watercolour depictions of the MacDonnell ranges are iconic.) Various station hands have to rescue them, for example Ah Lee, the Chinese station cook, has to shoot a python snake that attacks one of them. “Him worth plenty much money” he exclaims as he throws the fifteen foot skin over a bough to dry after having rubbed its inside with salt. Shortly after, a plane buzzes overhead and drops a bundle of newspapers and a tin of sweets. Clearly an open cockpit, probably a bi-plane. “Welly good thing, aeroplane” Ah Lee chuckles.

Later, another plane arrives, bringing VIPs. Sir Charles Gatley, who fans himself with a silk handkerchief, and his wet-behind-the-ears son, Ivor. This is one of the Directors of the English consortium who own the property. Lot of stereotyping going on here, he’s practically too fat to ride a horse, and has difficulty understanding they don’t have any wheeled conveyance as it would get bogged in the sand anyway, but eventually it all ends well. He recognises the homestead needs building improvement, and organises to supply a refrigerator powered by wind-driven electricity and how to get the component parts on site. And Ivor gets left behind to become a man.

Ah, there’s so much more: floods, people lost in the desert, attacks by wild pigs, near-death experiences while mustering horses and cattle, more visits by Bill the mailman, wildlife, even a trip to town and a first taste of ice-cream. You can see why this was stirring, adventurous stuff that told us “our” history. But our Indigenous are cast as the side-players. There is no recognition that all this is actually taking place on their land. There is a scene where the girls sneak down to watch a men’s-business corroboree, and another where a rogue (read dispossessed), mutinous gang of disgruntled blacks wage war on the station blacks.

Much of the point of view and language is offensive today. In the lead up to the confrontation, Mrs Clarke notices not so many of the station hands have gathered this Sunday morning for “Missus sing song yabber”. Marion is pleased when, “My story about the abos”, is printed in the newspaper. “Dad will love to have a white man about the place,” Mrs Clark exclaims when the decision to leave Ivor on the property is made. When Bill the postman tries to come when the river is in flood, there is no sign of the black’s camp because the entire area is underwater. But it doesn’t matter, because they’ve all gone “walkabout” – men, lubras, piccaninnies and dogs. Only the Anglicised Lunelly stays behind. “Him all gone make one big corroboree longa big stones. Silly fella thinkem stone makem plenty yam. Him black fellow business him stupid. Only God gib tucker,” she says, “with a most superior air.” Who was she imitating?

Towards the very end, Phyllis Power redeems herself when she acknowledges the blacks are “awfully clever”, but it’s “when it’s anything about food getting … because if they weren’t, they’d starve”. Is this an acknowledgement that paying them in tea, flour and tobacco was insufficient?

Eventually the English holding company offer to sell the property to Nat Clarke. ” ‘Yes, Wander Nella will really and truly be our very own.’ Dad kept repeating, as if he couldn’t believe the wonderful news himself”.

Grrrr.

I was for throwing the book out, but some author friends suggested I keep it, as the day may come I need to use the dialogue for inspiration. So I’ll hang on to it, but I’ll stick it on the highest shelf where I’ll need my steps to get it down. In other words, I’ll have to really mean to revisit it.

Footnote:

Prior to the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not counted towards Australia’s population, with estimates of Aboriginal people made by authorities responsible for native welfare. In December 1976 the federal parliament passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. It was the first legislation in Australia that enabled Indigenous people to claim land rights for country where traditional ownership could be proven. In 2018 Southern and Eastern Arrerente Native Title Rights were recognised. Arrente is spoken by more than 1,800 people who live around Alice Springs.

17 thoughts on “Under Australian Skies by Phyllis Power

  1. Excellent revisiting and reinterpretation of an old and nowadays unacceptable text. Can’t imagine anybody giving such a book to a kid these days. Just in passing reading the other comments I think some folk are a little bit rude and a touch patronising. I don’t think you overdid it at all. If I had received such precious comments I just wouldn’t authorise them. I find that’s easier than wasting time engaging with them although you wrote a top class and informed rebuttal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Agnes. The feedback was valuable, because it caused me to think and delve deeper into what I was saying. We Australians need to face up that our forebears, for whatever reasons, “stole” land and life from our First Nations people, and it all happened in relatively recent times.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it is important to read books and see history in the context of their time and not be judgemental. This is how we are losing statues in the UK.

    This is simply an observation – The English were good at leaving behind useless people on Aboriginal land might be considered offensive by some.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, thank you for your level-headed response, and in the clear light of day I can see how that throw away line could be misconstrued, so I have deleted it.

      All the same, you might be interested in this newspaper quote from the late 1800s. It is in reference to “Remittance” men coming in to Queensland. At the time, there was an immigration scheme whereby (British-born) people already in the colony could bring their relatives out. Many families in England took advantage to send their sons who had blotted the copybook at home (my grandfather was one of them), and pass them on to be their relative’s problem. Here is the quote, “Wastrels, black sheep and ne’er-do-wells, whom their relatives and friends at home, in sheer despair of knowing what to do with them, have shipped off to the colonies.”

      You are right also, that we need to look to the value of these old books to give us perspective. It assists in framing the context as to why there is such a push for truth-telling from our First Nations people. These vast rural properties would not have survived and flourished without the free labour of the Aboriginal people who had been usurped of their traditional lands, ( and in many cases, murdered to drive them out ). Even at the time, many newspaper reports protest this as a form of slavery, while property owners defend themselves by saying that the “blacks” don’t understand money, and are happy with a new set of clothes once a year.

      Reading these old newspapers, which are digitised and freely available worldwide from our National Library’s system “Trove”, makes breath-taking reading.

      When I went to school in the 60s we drowned in British history and recited Kings and Queens who meant little to our way of life, while learning nothing about Indigenous history. Zip. As I mentioned earlier, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders weren’t considered citizens of Australia until 1967, the year I was entering high school.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We do need to keep the perspective, Gwen. Even fiction offers an important look into how things were. and a chance to compare the differences. You should hold on to them. I haven’t reread Nevil Shute’s in the wet. I enjoyed the read all those years ago, but remember that there are elements in it that would make me cringe today.

    Liked by 1 person

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