When I left home in 1968 at the age of nineteen to go to art school, like most students, I couldn’t take very much with me. Three weeks later I went home for the weekend. My mother led me up to my bedroom and said, “Surprise! Isn’t it lovely?” The room had been completely redecorated, and most of my possessions had been thrown away. She had no idea what was materially valuable or nostalgically important, and I had to stand there and say how nice the room looked. All my drawings went, and my writings, and most of my books. It used to upset her that I read the same books over and over again – not to the exclusion of anything else, but because I loved them and wanted to re-enter that world. So – thank goodness for the Internet.
But what has been particularly interesting has been re-reading these now. I notice things I never saw then, understand things that were completely beyond my experience. 20th Century Short Stories really did give a snapshot of life in the first half of that century. The absolute authority adults had over children – young ones, as in the case of the rebellious and enterprising Nicholas in Saki’s The Lumber Room, and older adult ones, as in the downtrodden and indecisive sisters in Mansfield’s Daughters of the Late Colonel. Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums was totally alien to a naïve sixteen-year-old only child from suburbia. References to pregnancy and descriptions of laying out the body of a dead miner when I didn’t even know what a naked man looked like went right over my head. As did life in a back-to-back house in a mining town. To me, it sounded like something out of Dickens – which in, those days, we did at Junior School when we were ten! I had no idea Science Fiction existed until I read The Machine Stops, by E.M.Forster. The casual callousness of the teenage gang in The Destructors, by Graham Greene, opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone thought the same way as me, although losing a house means far more to me now than it would have to me then. A terrific collection.
But more interesting, in a way, are the two Australian brumby books. Friends who have tried re-reading their childhood favourites have told me that they’re nearly always dreadful disappointments. But when I re-read Tam I was struck by how extremely well-written it was. It wasn’t sentimental or sloppy, and gave a vivid picture of life and death in the outback. Mary Elwyn Patchett (1897 – 1989) grew up on a cattle station in Queensland, but moved to England in 1931. The first book she had published was Ajax the Warrior, about a dog owned by a young girl, and Tam the Untamed was the second in the series, about a horse. At one point Tam goes off to join the wild brumbies in their secret valley, a lush green oasis that can’t be overlooked from above – at least, it would be possible from a plane but as the book was probably set in the early part of the twentieth century this is fair enough. My clue for this is that one of the books has Mary, the heroine, getting lost in a forest of giant prickly pear. This cactus had originally been introduced from Spain to feed cochineal beetles – and then spread out of control, with devastating consequences. The destruction of this forest is the first example of a successful biological control – Cactoblastis caterpillars were introduced in 1926, and the moths died out once they’d eaten all the cactus. But the secret setting rang a bell – as exactly the same valley occurs in all the Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell. Mitchell (1913 – 2002) lived all her life in Australia, and wrote many more books than Patchett. Was the valley a coincidence? Or was it a real place that they had both visited at different times? Or had Mitchell read Tam the Untamed, and decided to use the location?
Tam is written in the first person from a human perspective:
…The steep rocky cliff sheered away beneath us for fifty feet or more, then it began to crumble and lead less steeply into a great, rock-ramparted hollow. Grass grew on the floor of it, and from where we were we could see the gleam of water in a rock pool, evidently caught when the heavy rains stormed down the cliffs. In this secluded spot, so completely hidden from the outside world, which could see only the hard, bare outline of the mountain, a herd of brumbies cropped the sweet grass…
Of all the horses running in the mountains, Bel Bel alone thought she knew the secret hiding-place that enabled Thowra and his herd to disappear from all their hunters… she wondered if he had found again the deep valley that was like a cleft in the hills at the back of Paddy Rush’s Bogong, the valley with the grassy Hidden Flat that could not be seen from the top…
There are occasions when we writers honestly think we have invented something, but in reality we’re remembering it without realising it. It’s a minor issue – I was delighted to discover that I’d been reading some quality writing, and it’s a pity that the only way to get hold of the books is by searching online. The Silver Brumby series has been reprinted every so often, and an e-book version is available. But I don’t suppose anyone remembers a book called Claud the Seahorse, do they?