From Blyton to Lavransdatter
I was weaned on The Famous Jimmy, Enid Blyton’s first publication, a subject that she did not pursue, perhaps finding ducks had not much future, Xmas presents passed down from my siblings followed, so I never seemed to actually own any books, devouring pass-me-down Arthur Ransomes about the largely sailing adventures of the Blackett and Walker families in small boats in the Lake District, the most interesting child rejoicing in the name of ‘Titty’.
Ransome devoured, for the other 364 days of the year, maybe twice a week, I was tutored by my father from our bookcases, where he would extract something for which he thought I might be ready, so that I waded through many classics beyond my appreciation at the time, Now, seventy years later, their substance (if not their flavour), is largely gone and forgotten — not so Kristin Lavransdatter, a triology of historical novels by Sigred Undset earning her a Nobel Prize, about a C14 Norwegian noblewoman, an early example of women’s liberation. I waded through them aged thirteen and still recall the thrust if not the detail.
On Turkey Heath
So that ten years later, I was not derailed by being dispatched to seek out a suitable piece of land within the scope of monies from scholarships I had won that had been put aside for me by my father rather than spent on my schooling, plus one or two windfalls from great-aunts and grandparents. With the help of John Rymill of Penola Station, family friend, Corriedale man and leader of the highly successful British Grahamland Expedition (1934-1937) to the Antarctic on the good ship Penola. We inspected possible properties and I bought what came to be named Turkey Heath after the wild bustards that once roamed the yakka and cutting grass plains. There was a weatherboard cottage and a two stand shearing shed and fencing needing to be done.
Perhaps through modesty (or could it have been depression) I camped on a little bed in the room off the back porch rather than occupying the master bedroom, aware that there was work that needed doing. Eventually, I found my way across paddocks and some gates to next door Harvey’s on its proclaimed town site of Lindsay, where lived a bloke, young Bill almost exactly the same age as me, whose father had been a WWI Soldier Settler, farming twice the area.
In bed with brilliant Randolph Stow
I shot through Lindsay and across the VIC/S.A. border 25km or so to the thriving centre of Mt Gambier – softwood and livestock. In the beating heart of the town that had been the home of Adam Lindsay Gordon and Max Harris, there was a sort of pixilated central square around a blowhole with gardens descending to the bottom – on one side was Jen’s Hotel and on another was Elders – next door was a nice little bookshop run by a girl and there I discovered Randolph Stow, bloody hell three years younger than me!, already a published author of three novels, A Haunted Land, The Bystander and To The Islands. Not that I had any ideas about writing then. I went back to my new home and lay on the bed and read Stow.
There never seems to have been much rhyme or reason in the order or content of the brilliant writer’s output, though some are attached to obvious places of residence or jobs. His ability to write about the common man on all levels of society is unusual, more like a Shakespeare or a Dickens than other Australian writers. Again and again, with the bushwhackers of Tourmaline, the middle class family of The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, the colonial servants of Visitants, one feels totally at home — there is never a false note, though the writer covers a monumental range of society and subject matter, always at ease’.
Nothing much is said about the antecedents of the Stow family as pioneers in S.A., where Randolph’s great grandfather, pioneer and founder of the Congregational Church in that state — the Stow Memorial Church bears the family name as does the mid C19 library at my old school (where I was Librarian in 1949 and had the agreeable task of working with a literary master on a monthly purchase of new books).
However, one Augustus Stow was Chief Secretary in South Australia, a title amounting to main executive and liaison officer between the Crown and Parliament, for a fortnight in May 1870, while William Morgan bore the same title from March 1865 to October 1866 before becoming Premier, so that our great-grandfathers would have known each other somewhat.
Basking in Godfather Bald and the Great Poet
I have yet another one to introduce, my godfather, Robert Cecil Bald, 1902–1965, a close friend of my father in Adelaide when they were at Adelaide University together, who went on to Cambridge, then a distinguished academic career as Professor of English at Cornell and then Chicago. I first actually had some contact with my godfather, when I had won the Tennyson Medal for English Literature in the Adelaide University Intermediate, 1946, aged just fourteen. (Those were the days.) Professor Bald, of Chicago University as he then was, promptly posted me three excellent tomes, distinctly trans-Atlantic in their presentation, these books from U.S. publishers that I devoured but of which I have since lost track.
Four years later, on my arrival after a five-week voyage to go up to Magdalen College, Oxford, I was staying in London House, along with my brother, Peter, and Professor Bald, who was working on the first biography of John Donne and much else in C16 and C17 English literature, generously took us both to Etoile in Soho, more than I deserved. No doubt I chattered on until our host suddenly froze – T.S. Eliot was sitting at the next table. Despite our host’s own literary distinction, I don’t think he had met Eliot and we merely sat on, basking in his presence.
Some years later, Professor Bald was about to take up a chair In English literature at Monash where Patrick McCaughey was preparing for his arrival the following year, when the news came through in August 1965 that Professor Bald had died suddenly in Billings, Montana. Alas, I don’t know whether he’d ever read Stow!