AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - AUSTRALIAN DICTIONARY OF BIOGRAPHY
Dictionary of Biography
Volume 10, 1891-1939, Lat - Ner
Melbourne University Press, 1986.
Published in National
This volume is also a delightful read.
Well it might be, with its list of principal characters: Daniel Mannix
and Sydney Myer, Henry Lawson and Norman Lindsay, Jack Lang and Joe
Lyons, Essington Lewis and Walter Lindrum, Nellie Melba and Keith
Murdoch, John Monash and Breaker Morant, Hubert Murray and Cardinal
The pleasure of this text is sustained,
not by that galaxy alone, but also by reconstructing the ‘typical
Australian’ out of the variety of experiences documented here. The
diversity of behaviour makes it a nonsense for biographers to assert
that some action was “out of characters”. That rule is as true for
national character types as it is for individuals.
So, according to the evidence of volume
10 of the “Australian Book of the Dead”, what was the typical
Australian like between 1891 and 1939?
He – and the typical Australian
remained male – “cleared salmon gum, gimlet and morrell by chopping
and burning and battled the dry climate by carting water, learning by
trail and error to avoid the salt”. By 1904, he had purchased a
combine harvester from H. V. McKay and, like that industrialist,
continued to oppose the basic wage, but unlike that gentleman, our
farmer also opposed tariff protection.
Although his farming responsibilities
prevented him from volunteering for the Great War, he found time to
assist with the tarring-and-feathering of an anti-conscriptionist
neighbour whose offence had been to write an anti-war poem almost 20
year earlier. After the war, our typical Australian diversified into
rural distributorships, obtaining the local franchises for goanna oil.
He opposed the introduction of myxomatosis for the eradication of
rabbits because it would reduce his sales of traps and poisons. As a
mark of respect on the day of his death, the Bendigo stock exchange gave
no morning call.
His widow, who treasured her memory of a
1921 performance of Chu Chin Chow,
became more active in the Country Women’s Association, traveling to
meetings in the bigger towns where she took every opportunity to attend
the silent pictures which she went on preferring to the talkies.
Their daughter and grand-daughter had
both died of the Spanish Flu within hours of each other in September
1919. Polio crippled another grand-daughter in 1937 and although doctors
kept her in splits for eight months, she never walked again.
Our legendary one’s older brother had
lived as a woman for several years and, thus disguised, did intelligence
work in Belgium at the time of the Boer War, but was never effeminate.
On returning to Australia, he set up house with a sea captain, inherited
that mariner’s fortune and then abandoned the life of a transvestite.
He became a professional etymologist and am amateur conchologist who
filled his spare hours with philately.
A third brother came home from the war
and took himself off to Papua where he closed “the European
freebooting saga begun by Cortes in the Sixteenth century”. He treated
the natives with respect by always shooting to kill. His marriage
happily ended in divorce.
Their half-sister took up painting and
moved to Melbourne where her works were deservedly neglected.
The eldest son played Rugby Union and
volunteered for the Great War in which he was twice wounded and thrice
decorated. He returned to take up wheat growing and National Party
politics, which meant that he opposed Australian nationalism. This son
eventually won the seat vacated by the State’s attorney-general who,
twenty years later, would e convicted of murder an died in a home for
the criminally insane. The son’s political career reached its zenith
with his chairing of a Royal Commission into fruit, vegetables and jam.
A second son joined the Royal Air Force,
was credited with 47 planes brought down, not including his own which he
kept crashing, frequently before takeoff. So eager was he to engaged the
Hun that eh sometimes bumped into them mid-air. Following one his
unexpected landings he had both legs amputated. After rehabilitation, he
established a reputation as a wireless engineer with AWA.
The youngest son went to Cambridge in
1933 to study chemistry, became a journalist and joined the Communist
A grandson served for fifteen yeas on the
shire council before being run over by a vehicle driven by a council
And that, according to this volume in the
humane comedy is the story of how Australians got to be the way were are