Australian Dictionary of Biography
Volume 10, 1891-1939, Lat - Ner
Melbourne University Press, 1986.

Published in National Times.

“The Typical Australian”
Reference books supposed to be plundered for bit of information, not devoured from cover to cover like a Dickens novel. There is no denying that the Australian Dictionary of Biography is a standard reference work,, the tenth in a proposed sequence of more than twelve volumes to detail the lives of people who at least set foot on Australia.

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 Moran.

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 Party.

A grandson served for fifteen yeas on the shire council before being run over by a vehicle driven by a council employee.

And that, according to this volume in the humane comedy is the story of how Australians got to be the way were are today.