In these troubled times, a good read may be almost as good as a vaccination! And the venerable 84-year old Tom Keneally has pretty much always offered a rattlin’ good read over an incredible fifty volumes. Intriguingly, his last two have contained significant First Nations content, despite that being considered politically incorrect in certain quarters for a whitfellar to tackle the Indigenous.
I doubt the Barkindji of the Darling and Paroo Rivers of western NSW (or Paakantji as Keneally spells the tribe) will complain about ‘the dickens boy’. For they get very favourable treatment as a result of the inspiration for the book coming from the real life Frederic Bonney, pastoralist, photographer and amateur anthropologist of the 6000 sq km Momba Station in the 1860s. He was a serious sympathiser with the darks in the face of the aggressively expanding sheep industry, disease and the murderous behaviour of the Queensland Native Mounted Police, massacring from just over the State border.
As the book puts it, Fred Bonney’s photos provided visibility for the slaughtered. And many were published in ‘The People of the Paroo River’ in 2010 by Jeanette Hope and Robert Lindsay.
Bonney’s sympathies compared favourably with so many other male ‘pioneers’ of that era, identified in Pamela Lukin Watson’s excellent book, ‘Frontier Lands & Pioneer Legends’, in which she compares the writings of males and females in the Channel District and finds the males wanting totally in sympathy, even humanity for the original inhabitants. In ‘the dickens boy’, Keneally discovers a man of the cloth in the same league: God has given us this endless country fresh from the hands of the ungrasping Aborigine.
That unusual usage, the darks emerges, Keneally tells me from the letters that formed such a key foundation for this book, written by and to ‘the dickens boy’ “ Charles Dickens youngest son Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, better known by his father’s nickname, Plorn. For Plorn was but one of many sons who their father sent to the colonies “ in his case to join Bonney’s Momba Station as a jackaroo. Australia was a particular favourite for the likes of Plorn and his older brother Alfred, not to mention fictional characters such as Magwitch, Mr Micawber and Little Em’ly in ‘David Copperfield’. Death or Australia (or both) was the fate of many unfortunates in the Dickensian canon “ and Keneally uses that fact as a reason for the exiled brothers to debate their Pa’s motives in their own cases. Plorn is, throughout, motivated by a desperate effort to prove his ‘application’ in this new world to ‘the guvnor’ .
Australia “ in Keneally’s reportage “ certainly reciprocated Dickens’s interest in it. And it’s part of Plorn’s sense of self-doubt that he, unlike just about everyone he meets from bush-rangers to potential brides, hasn’t read and can’t quote substantial chunks of his father’s books. As one store-keeper puts it, It’s astounding that you are the closest thing to the great magician himself. The dazzling civiliser of rough men like me! In the remotest huts he brings us to noble tears and evokes a sensibility we did not know we possessed. Needless to say, Australia treats Dickens’s death as a major event demanding a State commemoration, and his two transported sons are iconic figures at that moment. Indeed, the mere fact of Plorn’s ancestry relieves Momba Station from the depredations of amazingly reverential bush-rangers.
In a Dickensian manner, and in an appropriate pastiche of the master’s own literary style, Plorn’s ‘application’ eventually leads him “to penetrate those armies of paragraphs” that make up ‘David Copperfield‘. It’s part of an ending to the tale that tries perhaps a little too hard to reconcile Plorn with a father who died before hearing news of this application. But then Keneally revealed to me that he’s tempted to follow up ‘the dickens boy’ with more of Plorn’s life and times “ hopefully married to the lass he’s set his heart on, but, sadly, not in truth starring in either the wealth or the politics of the Colony.
Apparently, he nearly became Western Australia’s Protector of Aborigines and might have done a better job than the notorious AO Neville. But Keneally believes Plorn’s career fell foul of both the bush running out of the luck of its Aboriginal inheritance of waist-high natural grasses through over-grazing and hardening of the soil, unhelped by drought in the 1880s and 90s, and his inability to go all the way with the burgeoning labour movement in the shearing sheds and the mines. But I found a fascinating reference to young Dickens in the ‘Western Grazier’ of 1910 regretting that rural cricket had fallen in a heap since the days when EBL Dickens used to bring in his doughty men from Mt Murchison Station properly garbed…..and three of his best men were dusky denizens of the soil “ local Ranjitsinghs, wasting their sweetness on a soil of which they were the proprietors, if they had the power to enforce their rights.
How did Dickens himself become informed about Australia? Tom Keneally refers obliquely to his informant in the book “ Baroness Coutts, whom he persuaded to set up a home for fallen girls who could then be redeemed in Australia. Caroline Chisholm was his local connection. Australia was a good place for redemption, Keneally assesses. By the 1840s it had become apparent that convicts were finding salvation, so Dickens concluded that you could send any rough trade out to give them a chance.
Not that the old Charles was as interested as Bonney or Plorn in the antediluvian people moving across their country. Interesting use of ‘their’ by Keneally “ an implicit denial of terra nullius. which would surely have been unlikely at the time. Via Fred Bonney’s anthropological lectures in London, Keneally adds considerable information about male initiation rites, about bull roarers and about the gypsum ‘helmets’ worn by widows. He also gives individual Paakantji character without ever attempting to enter their minds “ an important distinction that Keneally admits he learnt after his experience with ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith‘. However, Tom is unrepentant about mixing reality and fiction despite criticism at the time that his great, Booker Prize winning book ‘Schindler’s Ark’ was not really a novel.
I was brought up in Kempsey, he explains about his ongoing interest in the Indigenous, continually aware of the underclass Aboriginal camps outside the town, so that I’ve never forgotten the impact of their world on mine. I simply can’t write about a world in which Aborigines exist without using a white point of view regarding them…from racism to enlightenment. My last book was ‘Two Old Men Dying’, which was about me and Mungo Man “ me, possibly not recovering from cancer, and he, 42,000 years dead in the world’s first ceremonial funeral. I regard him as the human inheritance of Australia “ which we simply have to acknowledge. Mungo Man’s reburial at Lake Mungo in 2017 should have been a national event “ as big as any celebration of events in 1915. But both Canberra and Macquarie Street just ignored it.
Sadly, Keneally’s ill-health at the time meant he spent no time promoting ‘Two Old Men Dying‘ and it, too was largely ignored in Australia. In fact, I first learnt of it in an interview he did with the BBC! I shall seek it out.
You should seek out ‘the dickens boy‘.