Review of Journey to Horseshoe Bend, by TGH Strehlow

This was first published in Sydney Review of Books, July 2016, under the name of Paul Galimond.

By the late 1960s, when T. G. H. Strehlow was writing what would become Journey to Horseshoe Bend (first published in 1969 and reissued in 2015 by Giramondo), he had already produced key works of Australian ethnology, such as Aranda Phonetics and Grammar (1944), Aranda Traditions (1947), and many articles and papers on Australian Aboriginal societies. His magnum opus, though, proved to be Songs of Central Australia, which was written between 1945 and 1953 but not published until 1971. In the words of Strehlow’s biographer, Barry Hill, Songs of Central Australia would become ‘a huge, marvellous, astonishing gift of a book’. It is also a very commanding work. With great care and thoroughness it transcribes the musical structures of Central Australian song while drawing extensive parallels between those songs and the Western poetic tradition. One example in the book of this comparative approach is when Strehlow argues that Indigenous Australians have in their own way achieved an ideal similar to that expressed by William Wordsworth in his poetry. He quotes from Wordsworth’s ‘Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, painted by Sir George Beaumont’:

Ah! Then, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the Poet’s dream …

Strehlow then argues that something akin to this ‘gleaming light of poetry’ was what ‘transfigured the landscape of Central Australia for the natives into a home fit for their totemic ancestors’. Journey to Horseshoe Bend is about a passage through that totemic land, but the book’s poetic precept derives from Wordsworth, in particular, the poem ‘My heart leaps up when I behold’:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man:
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

The child in this poem is ideally formative of the kind of man the poet will become and would always like to be. He is what Wordsworth called, referring to his childhood self, ‘Thou child of joy’, a phrase which appears in ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. In this poem we read:

To me alone there came a thought of grief;
A timely utterance gave that thought relief.

Some critics have argued that the ‘timely utterance’ here is in fact the poem ‘My heart leaps up’, which Wordsworth wrote shortly before ‘Ode’ in March 1802. ‘My heart leaps up’, then, is a poem for the revival of a childhood joy — a joy that can ward off grief and remind one of the wonder of being alive. In Journey to Horseshoe Bend Strehlow aims for this Wordsworthian poetic renewal of childhood joy and its attendant affirmations of life over death and hope over despair, but within the context of Central Australia.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend tells the story of the journey Strehlow made with his family and others in October 1922 from their home at Hermannsburg, one hundred and thirty kilometres southwest of Alice Springs. They were hoping to go all the way to the railhead at Oodnadatta, and then by train to Adelaide, where Strehlow’s father, who was suffering from dropsy, could get medical assistance. Horseshoe Bend was to be a stop along the way. The route they selected — the shortest route — was south, along the dry riverbed of the Finke River and through the Britannia Sandhills. The heat was cruel and the journey unforgiving; his father suffered greatly.

Given the personal circumstances informing the book, one would expect to find first-person narration and a focus on personal experience. This book is anything but. It is not a subjective account of a journey. Strehlow writes a third-person narrative and characterises his fourteen-year-old childhood self, or persona, as ‘Theo’. Thus the story is told as though it happened to someone else, focusing more on external life and events than on feelings and memories.

Theo is hardly present in the book. His appearances are brief, Strehlow using them to evoke that Wordsworthian sense of delight in natural beauty and innocence:

Sitting near the edge of a thick fringe of bulrushes, he watched the black-and-yellow butterflies flirting about gracefully among the blue flowers that grew along the damp bank of the quiet pool, over whose calm waters delicate-bodied, red dragon-flies were hovering in quest of water insects. … From time to time the faint whisper of a summer breeze sighed through the rustling stems and sharp leaves of the bulrushes, and then the clear outlines of the trees and the surrounding cliff walls temporarily lost their mirror-like keenness. The twittering of small birds sitting on the tree branches, the cooing of the large-eyed crested rock pigeons on the stony ground below, and the occasional rush of wings as a flight of long-necked ducks with gleaming green-and-black feathers skimmed low over the water: these were the only sounds that filled the ancient scene with their gentle, age-old music.

Here Strehlow is renewing the child’s joy, the child who is ‘conscious only of the peace and beauty of one of the loveliest landscapes he had ever seen’. But this is only a passing awareness within a much larger consciousness of land and history as Strehlow situates the child and his innocence within an adult world of tragedy and horror:

[T]he race whose love and imagination had given to Irbmangkara its rich store of songs and myths had gone sadly down in numbers since the advent of whites. Theo recalled Jack Fountain’s remark that until the turn of the century the figures of aboriginal hunters had often been visible in the Finke valley upstream and downstream from Irbmangkara, stalking animals that had left the game sanctuary precincts of the sacred site.

They are camped at Irbmangkara, and Strehlow provides a detailed account of massacres connected to that place, ranging from revenge killings between regional groups of Aranda people to the white men who later invaded the land, men who wielded what Strehlow calls ‘a mercenary attitude’, which is based solely on use-value. Use-value is a quality upheld and deemed worthy insofar as it finds its material application in money and power. As Strehlow writes: ‘generally speaking, civilised man normally associates dignity only with power and with money. Even fellow human beings who are lacking in power and in money tend to be regarded as inferior creatures, fit for all kinds of exploitation’. One example Strehlow gives of the ‘mercenary attitude’ is that of Mounted Constable W. H. Willshire, who was eventually arrested for murdering Arrente people. Yet as Strehlow tells us, Willshire was later freed by the verdict of a Port Augusta jury, which had listened to a speech on Willshire’s behalf made by ‘Sir John Downer, Q. C., who had been premier of South Australia from 1885-87, and who was to hold this office again from 1892-93’.

Though Theo may be an attempt by Strehlow to reprise a sense of his childhood as ‘Thou child of joy’, his remoteness from the narrative seems to mirror his remoteness from his father (there is no exchange between them in the book). Strehlow is not concerned with telling us how Theo feels (and therefore how he himself felt) about his dying father. He instead goes to great lengths to show how important his father was, not so much to him (though he was), but to everyone else who had held the man in high regard as an admired and well-respected community figure. The book is actually a kind of gift to the legacy of Strehlow senior:

Hermannsburg had become a symbol not only for aboriginal welfare but for aboriginal rights and aboriginal dignity under Strehlow’s management. Would, or rather could, there ever be a successor to equal him?

In Journey, Strehlow’s father Carl wrestles with his Lutheran faith, and parallels are drawn between his inner struggles (‘an all-exhausting battle of his own heart’) and those of the figure of Christ during his last night in the garden of Gethsemane. And the father’s cry of despair at Horseshoe bend — ‘God doesn’t help’ — is seen by Strehlow as representing, ‘in a way, a free version of the psalmist’s despairing cry, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me”?’ Interestingly, and in keeping with an objective narrative style, Strehlow reveals the growing awareness of his father’s death without reference to personal memory and emotion. Instead, he records his father’s plight through the analogy of Job’s trials and sufferings in the Old Testament. That Job was a man whose patience and piety were tried by undeserved misfortunes is telling, for as Philip Jones observes in the ‘Afterword’ to the book, ‘Strehlow had sought to attach blame for his father’s catastrophic condition to the Lutheran hierarchy’s apparent negligence in delaying his evacuation from Hermannsburg until it was too late’.

But this is not a personally religious book, despite descriptions of religious discourse and Christian belief. And although there are depictions of his father’s religious doubt by way of biblical reference, Strehlow’s concern lies more with what he calls ‘storied land’, that is, with the mythical ancestral lands of the Australian Aborigines. Yet even here religious feeling is not the point. In fact, Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a very secular work, for the book sees literature (or narrative, or writing) as the vehicle by which a loving attention, that abiding sympathy, can be achieved. And anyway, the land for Strehlow is metaphysics enough. The ‘storied land’, that is, which is everything, is ecology, nature, religion, myth, metaphysic, song, art, and poetry.

Indeed, some of the most inspired writing in Journey to Horseshoe Bend is in Strehlow’s narratives of ‘storied land’. Many ancestral stories relating to animals — wallabies, emus, fish, birds, snakes — are lucidly and meaningfully given. There are accounts of important Aranda ceremonial sites and their local myths, and the waterholes along the Finke River valley are shown to be points of travels of the ‘Unmatjera-Aranda fish ancestors’. The smaller permanent pools also have ‘mythological episodes attached to them’. Yet there is pathos here too. ‘This wealth of sacred traditions,’ writes Strehlow,

had been comparatively easy to preserve during the pre-white days. The wide and fertile Finke flats carried a profusion of the larger game animals, in particular of kangaroos, emus, and rat kangaroos; and the sandhills were rich in carpet snakes and all those smaller marsupials that stood in no need of drinking water. Since the Britannia Sandhills had, in the old days, yielded these additional highly prized food supplies, the middle Finke Valley dwellers had once been a very numerous group. There had never been any dearth of males who could be called upon to preserve the rich local heritage of myths, songs, and ceremonial acts from one generation to the next.

Strehlow also imbues the narrative of ‘storied land’ with some evocative nature writing:

The flourishing desert oaks, standing well-spaced apart, looked magnificent. Their straight, dark, ridge-barked trunks rose to an average height of from twelve to fifteen feet before the first strong, crooked branches were reached; and the many hundreds of young desert oaks which soared up around the big trees in the form of slim, straight saplings showed that the Britannia Sandhills had enjoyed a long run of good seasons in recent years. … The fresh bluish-green needles of the desert oaks contrasted with the shiny dark-green leaves of the willow-foliaged ironwoods, and with the grey-green leaves of the mulgas. The spinifex tussocks on the flats between the dune crests, expanded by a succession of excellent years till each spiky clump touched its neighbour, were in full ear; and the swollen spinifex seed-heads closely resembled the heavy ears of a waving, ripe cornfield.

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is intensely a book of land. It is, among other things, a compendium of nature writing, but nature writing connected to the wider complexities of ecology and the history of settlement. Strehlow might begin, for example, by noting a closely observed detail such as the ‘resinous scent emanating from the bulging tufts of spinifex which the donkeys kicked with their plodding feet’, and then go on to meditate how this ‘resinous fragrance drew attention to the … dangerous waterlessness of the huge inland sandhill regions’. He might also describe signs of recent abundant rain in the desert oaks, ironwoods and mulgas, all ‘clad with luxuriant foliage’. Or perhaps he’ll note the quality of the soil in wide silt flats, and how ‘the dense network of roots under the cane grass tussocks had enabled the ground covered by them to withstand the gouging action of the ripping, tearing floodwaters’. He’ll observe, too, the way in which ‘nature had used the soil differences to put a sharp line of demarcation between the habitats of … two kind of eucalypts’, and how the river gums demand ‘clean white sand for their roots, and the box gums … clay soil’. Finally, he might remark on the negative impact grazing has had on the land — the great increase of dust and flies — and how ‘the whole country had been powdered and churned up by the twin-clawed hoofs of hundreds of wandering cattle’. But Strehlow will then also interleave the ecological with the mythological. Thus, the narrative can go from the smell of spinifex and observations on rain totals to Theo contemplating the haunting loneliness of a moonlit landscape, where the scene is no longer the adult’s one of environmental awareness but, as night falls, the child’s one of ‘the spectre shapes of the iliaka njemba that had frightened him as a child’.

So it is that Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a skilful and clever essaying on different orders of reality. The narrative shifts and layers various modes of writing and areas of enquiry. Whether it is the fairy tales of childhood, environmental degradation, the fate of ‘half-caste’ women at the stations and missions, the local histories of pastoral settlements, or even human loneliness and cruelty — all of which are featured — this book marvels at rediscovering the child’s landscapes as it describes the more worldly or historical ones of the adult.

Actually, Journey is a thoroughgoing work of selflessness, one given over to the histories and hardships of others. In this respect it achieves a deep abiding sympathy, one that goes beyond (yet while no doubt still including) the sympathy of subjective feeling to a loving attention to country, a term — specifically an Indigenous Australian term — that unifies both the natural and the metaphysical. According to Roslynn D. Haynes country is an interrelationship between three sets of entities:

the Ancestors, spirit beings who created and continue to nurture the land in which they dwell; all the biological species, including humans, that they created; and the living, sustaining land. In this triad the land provides the vital nexus between the physical and the spiritual, between temporal and eternal, since, as the dwelling place of both supernatural beings and living creatures, it connects both realms.

Conceptually, Strehlow’s narrative expands on this triad. His book is witness to the relationships between spirit beings, the living, sustaining land, and the Aboriginal people for whom these things are so vital and important. And Strehlow knew first-hand what such interrelationships meant. He was born in Ntarea (the Aranda for Hermannsburg) and brought up and educated alongside Aboriginal children at the Lutheran Hermannsburg mission. ‘German was his mother tongue; Aranda that of his youth; English running between them’, writes Barry Hill in the biography, Broken Song.

As for Theo, he comes to the fore only as the book concludes, experiencing ‘an overpowering sense of loss’. And as a great thunderstorm hits Horseshoe Bend, ‘the rain that was falling on his father’s grave had come to represent the symbol of life’. Theo awakens now to an affirmation of life and to the strength of a positive response to land, to how he is ‘linked indivisibly with one special site in the country of his birth’; and he entertains ‘the hope that some day he might return to his own Aranda country and steep himself in its ancient traditions’. Steep he did. The result was Songs of Central Australia, a work, as already mentioned, of poetic grammar that shows ‘parallels’ between Aranda song and the Western poetic tradition. ‘In pointing out these parallels’, writes Strehlow,

I have not had any desire to suggest any special affinities between the Aranda and the old European traditions. My intentions have been quite different. … The European parallels are designed to achieve a more sympathetic attitude in the mind of the white reader towards aboriginal verse and toward the aboriginal world of ideas. For once it can be shown that some of these apparently crude, cruel, strange, or disgusting ideas were once to be found also in ancient pagan Europe, then more thoughtful readers may hesitate to reject them as utterly valueless.

Strehlow devoted much loving attention to knowledge deriving from Aboriginal Australia. Songs is a book of vast erudition and technical knowledge, an encyclopaedic work spanning many fields of enquiry and interest, and yet woven throughout is sadness, mourning for the destruction of Aboriginal culture and society. And though the story of Journey is sometimes told through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old, the narrative, as Melinda Hinkson notes, in fact turns, like Songs, ‘upon a lifetime of acquired knowledge and careful research’.

What ‘Thou child of joy’ was for Wordsworth, knowledge was for Strehlow. Not knowledge as a comfort to the soul but as an amplifying awareness of being alive. Journey to Horseshoe Bend is the story of Theo’s awakening knowledge of the wider historical complexities of not only who he is, but also where he is, and the significance of that. And his rite of passage is one of intellectual purpose and ambition, curiously coinciding with his father’s painful death. Whether such ambition was ultimately the means by which to deflect personal grief, the reader cannot tell.


Roslynn D. Haynes, Desert: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books, 2013).
Barry Hill, Broken Song: T. G. H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession (Knopf, 2002).
Melinda Hinkson, ‘A Mythic Last Journey’, Arena Magazine (No. 140, Feb/Mar 2016, pp.51-2).
T. G. H. Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Giramondo, Classic Reprints, 2015)
— Songs of Central Australia (Angus and Robertson, 1971)

Inattentions of Reading

This essay first appeared in Meanjin, Autumn 2019, in a slightly different form.

Whatever else it is, reading is surely one of the central activities and interests of literature.  Literature itself, though, is hardly a central activity or interest in contemporary culture.  So it seems odd that readers of Gerald Murnane who are also critics or reviewers like to point to the author’s eccentricities: he has never worn sunglasses, for example; he’s reclusive, never flown on a plane, and doesn’t like to travel; he never watches films, doesn’t like the sea, and, among other things, he’s obsessed with horse racing, keeping colour-coded files on races, horses and jockeys which can be recalled or retrieved at will, and so on.  But, we might want to ask, isn’t literature itself (of which Murnane may be an Australian exemplar) already an eccentric activity or interest?  Certainly a passionate interest in and a devotion to literature today isn’t as eccentric as it gets, but nevertheless it’s unconventional and slightly strange. 

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Image: Morganna Magee, for The New York Times.

Labelling Murnane an ‘eccentric’ merely helps to reconventionalise all the other so-called literary fiction that isn’t like that, reassuring writers and readers in the belief (and commercial prospect) that they are central to some ongoing project, and that they won’t be pushed to the outer ‘eccentric’ rim.  Murnane may or may not be as central as ever, but he’s certainly distinctive.  And no doubt his books can work in very idiosyncratic ways (if only for the idiosyncratic reader).  To read them is perhaps to feel a powerful inducement to write about the experience, an experience that just has to be accounted for and cannot be let to pass, as if to read Murnane is, for some, to be roused not only into more words but also into new words, and that these just have to be set down in writing.   His books, in short, can evoke profound responses in a reader. 

One account of such an experience of reading Murnane is an essay by Luke Carman in the Sydney Review of Books (‘In the Room with Gerald Murnane,’ 24/04/2018).  For Carman, Murnane is a writer who can inspire passionate reading, and his essay seems to suggest (if only in its method and style) that to read Murnane is to be inspired to read in one’s own way (unconventionally, idiosyncratically).  ‘Efficiency is not my forte as a reader,’ he writes.

I am cursed with the inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure. The writing I most enjoy tends to get me so exercised by its effects that I am soon deep in a fugue state of mind, a kind of dissociative wandering from which I am required to return before I can come back to the page which started me off in the first place.  No sooner have I read a sentence or two of this stimulating prose, which seems to awaken some novelty of consciousness in me, than I find that I have spent the afternoon hours pacing back and forth about the house, the book which started the whole thing in motion having been long abandoned on a bench in the hallway.

Carman here reveals what extraordinary possibilities there can be in the relationship between reader and text.  When he reads the books he loves (which include Murnane’s) he becomes intensely preoccupied by thought (‘so exercised’).  Inspired by the sentences he reads, language, ideas and images rush in and take him over, leave him disassociated from himself, as though a book can conjure up other selves (even seemingly new selves — ‘some novelty of consciousness’) and throw identity into doubt or have it flee.  In Border Districts, Murnane writes: ‘sometimes, while reading a work of fiction, I seem to have knowledge of what it would be to have knowledge of the essence of some or another personality.’  Perhaps Carman’s ‘novelty of consciousness’ is Murnane’s ‘essence of some or another personality.’  Moreover, when Carman writes of an ‘inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure’ we could say that this is a way of forestalling that pleasure in order to, paradoxically, keep it alive as a future possibility, postponing it to a later date (the book is unfinished and perhaps one day will be returned to).  But this admission by Carman of course also suggests that the pleasure is in fact too overwhelming.  It is indeed curious that he sees this as a curse and is a little hard on himself (perhaps to make a point or for stylistic effect).  Of course, you would have to allow for his being ironic here, that his reading experience is a curse or affliction only in the sense of it being strongly impressionistic and, as he posits in the essay, when pitted against ‘efficient’ readers, those readers who could construe in academic circles what he calls ‘an acceptable defence,’ as though academics hold all the cards when it comes to reading and supposedly knowing what reading is and what it can do (and of course the idea of efficiency also suggests a productivity measurable to monetised outcomes).  What we therefore need, Carman seems to suggest, is not only evocative reading that is peculiarly individualist but also idiosyncratic accounts of it, rather than (or as well as) ‘acceptable defences’ and ‘efficient’ readings that merely gather information and leave little room for curiosity and perhaps even less room for risk.

Murnane has stated that when reading novels, he sometimes fails to ‘follow plots and comprehend the motives of characters’.  In Barley Patch he writes:

a person who claims to remember having read one or another book is seldom able to  quote from memory even one sentence from the text.  What the person probably   remembers is part of the experience of having read the book: part of what happened in his or her mind during the hours while the book was being read.

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Image: Still from ‘Words and Silk: the imaginary and real worlds of Gerald Murnane.’ Director, Philip Tyndall.

If memory is memory of desire — as psychoanalysis would put it — then what is remembered here is desire, and one of the marvellous things about reading is that it can make you think not only of the words on the page before your eyes but by association many other things about yourself and the world as well.  In its associative power, reading could be if not equivalent then at least analogous to dreaming, powerfully activating primary processes of the unconscious mind; and as with dreaming we may have trouble recalling what has happened, left only with glimpsed images and the hauntings of voices, which are also the creative movements of the mind.  And there is an interesting aside to all this, that in trying to create a piece of writing, sitting at the desk and staring at the page, trying to think of the words for what comes next, you get up and leave off, and as soon as you do this — go out of the house and do something different — the words come to you but you’re now in no position to write them down, so you remember them (which could attest to writing’s primordial function of documenting what needs to be remembered).

In his essay Carman mentions — again, rather self-critically — his own forgetfulness when reading.  ‘There’s no excuse,’ he writes, ‘for professional readers whose memories are faulty.’  This is not a point about poor memory but about experience.  In other words, not to remember what you have read is to focus on the experience the activity of reading has created for you — the effects, the evocativeness of reading — and not on the recall of information.  Here Carman aligns himself more with Murnane and with readerly ‘inefficiencies’ than with so-called academic readers. 

There is, moreover, another point to be made here about reading and forgetful inefficiencies.  Carman argues that Murnane’s writing is ‘an extension of lapsed religious liturgy.’  To be lapsed is of course to no longer follow the rules and practices of a religion.  But a lapse is a brief or temporary failure of concentration and memory, even of judgement, and so if as Carman says Murnane’s writing is a form of lapsed worship, to read it is therefore to undertake an experience of spiritual inattention, which remembers the ecstatic and the revelatory and forgets, as Murnane would say, the unremarkable, or what isn’t evocative and moving.

There are many accounts of writing in our culture — how to do it, why to do it, what is happening when you’re doing it, who is doing it, who isn’t doing it, who should and shouldn’t be doing it, who is and isn’t winning the prizes, and so on, as if this is a culture of writing.  But rarely are there strong accounts of the reading experience.  One reason for this is that reading might be a more idiosyncratic activity than writing, and thus more difficult to account for (and the academic or so-called ‘efficient’ method would therefore become the easy way out).  Carman, it would seem, wants to keep something alive, a form of reading that needs to seek its fit (or match) in a powerful account of it (and his essay certainly has a kind of free-floating, digressive strength and energy about it; it’s also quite intricate, as in full of tricks and perplexities).  It’s as though a book is a force of nature, and what reading therefore stirs up are desires whose powerful excess needs expression through writing, as if writing is the only way to attend to this experience, a way not only of rereading the text (experience regained) but also of redescribing that which the text has elicited from within (language regained) — redescribing and not describing because, as one might assume, this experience (as Carman has documented it) has happened before, has perhaps even been sought out again and again (reading is thus the seeking out).  It’s as though to forget the words of the book you have been reading and enjoying (at least for Carman and Murnane) is to remember words of your own that are about, or have been inspired by, that book; that to forget is to make available something else of yourself — and of language, as selves are of course composed in language — that the book has brought into being, which is to continue the pleasure and associative power of reading in another way, in a writer’s way.  Writing is therefore describing and redescribing the varieties of our reading experiences.

And so when Carman describes the journey taken by the narrator of Border Districts from the city to the border town as ‘a temptation of associations’ and being ‘caught up in an immense digression of connectedness,’ this sounds very much like an apt description of the form his essay takes in response to reading Murnane.  These associations and digressions are the connections that arise out of evocative reading.  At the end of his essay Carman quotes a critic who says about Murnane: ‘I wonder if we will one day understand what we have here, in this man.’  Carman leaves the question (if it is a question) unanswered.  But there’s really no need (as the critic seems to imply) to be mysterious or overly precious about it.  What we have is a variety of reading experiences, whether efficient or inefficient or both together or something else entirely.  Perhaps, though, for Murnane’s work to survive what it needs is inspiring redescriptions by writers who keep trying to account for their powerful reading experiences.  Indeed, Murnane’s works may be the kind of writing that needs creative reading, needs a spiritual inattention.  Carman attempts this, and a reader of his essay may well think it fortunate that he’s the kind of writer who is also an inefficient reader.

Paperless Pilgrims

This review first appeared in Arena Magazine, Number 150, 2017. It appears here in a slightly altered form.

Oscar Martinez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail is an important book for anyone who wants to know why people are forced to flee their home for life in another country.  It is the first English translation of Los migrantes que no importan, or, ‘the migrants who do not matter’.  The Spanish edition was published in 2010; the English in 2013. 

Enthralling and humane, The Beast is a work of great daring.  It contains, however, stories that are quite horrific.  One of these is the story of Erika.  When she was a girl Erika was treated like a slave and sent out into the streets of Honduras to sell fish and firewood.  If she didn’t get rid of everything her adoptive mother would whip her with an electrical cord.  Beaten so badly, Erika had open sores all over her back.  Salt was used to cover the sores and Erika’s twin brother was made to lick it off.  The brother became sick and died.  Erika was told it was parasites, but she knew the punishments were the cause.

When Erika herself fell sick she was taken to the hospital, but no one came back to pick her up.  So thereafter she lived on the streets.  One day several years later she happened to run into her adoptive mother, who convinced Erika to come back with her.  But nothing would change.  Soon her step-brother was raping her.

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Óscar Martínez, The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail, translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington (Verso Books, 2013)

No wonder that at fourteen Erika left Honduras for a better life.  Like many other Central American migrants she would try to get to El Norte, the United States.  But once she was over the border and in Mexico she had endured enough.  And she needed money.  Migrants don’t get anywhere without money.  They have to pay Mexico’s borderland gangs and they have to pay the polleros (or people smugglers, who themselves are subject to gang-rule).  So, needing money, Erika spent her nights dancing and working clients in a strip club.

‘Erika paints a typical portrait of the Central American migrants whose suffering lights up the nights of border towns,’ writes Oscar Martinez in his powerful book.  Erika (not her real name) is one of the women who, without citizenship papers or other such forms of identification like a Birth Certificate, live and work in southern Mexico’s brothels, and whose story is recorded with great humanity by Martinez in The Beast

Since 2007, when a law was passed in Mexico against human trafficking, the plight of women and prostitution has been a much publicised issue.  Martinez, a journalist who has written for Latin America’s online digital newspaper, travelled Mexico’s borderlands to see for himself what was happening to people, particularly young women like Erika, who were poor, sexually enslaved, beaten, and whose bodies were ‘little more than a ticket from one hell to another hell.’  A woman migrant’s body is known colloquially as cuerpomatic, an idiomatic expression that means the body becomes a credit card which, as a community worker tells Martinez, ‘buys you a little safety, a little bit of cash and the assurance that your travel buddies won’t get killed. … It buys a more comfortable ride on the train.’  Between 2008 and 2010 Martinez documented the heartbreaking experiences of migrants (Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans) who were trying to flee to the freight trains that would take them north to the United States.  The trains are known collectively as Le Bestia, or The Beast.  Martinez encountered not only migrants, but also polleros, migration agents, police, journalists, and priests who run migrant shelters. 

In The Beast Martinez concisely documents the very well-organised criminal networks of gangs, or cartels, and their operations that involve everything from kidnapping to extortion.  For cartels like the notorious Los Zetas — who own, run and administer whole towns and regions, influence local police, and have the migration agency turning a blind eye — migrants are third in line after the other businesses of drugs and arms trafficking.  Martinez describes Los Zetas as a ‘metastasizing cancer.’  As he explains, ‘Migrants are recruited.  Soldiers are recruited.  Policemen, mayors, businessmen — they’re all liable to become part of the web.’  In this enlightening book Martinez vividly depicts the hopelessness of what he sees, and shows that a sense of fatalism pervades everything.  This is a deterministic world.  People’s wills are not their own, their fates decided by cartels; for only cartels possess a will and the right to use it.

So where is the hope?  For the migrants it is of course in the chance of getting to the US.  But for the reader it’s in the writing.  Martinez’s writing has great purpose.  He sees it as ‘an ethical responsibility’.  Bringing the facts, he also writes a heart-breaking story of struggle, sorrow, brutality and suffering amongst the people who are marked by the magnetic pull of the United States.  But he doesn’t dwell on violence for its own sake and isn’t gratuitous in his telling of it.  And he’s not out to make the reader feel depressed.  He understands that the evidence will speak for itself.  Above all, Martinez writes to inform and dispel ignorance.  He wants the voices of people like Erika to be heard within the context of what they have to deal with.  Yet at the same time he keeps the narrative moving swiftly and episodically through those borderlands and beyond.   

What also makes The Beast so astonishing and so eloquent is the way Martinez is alive to language (his own and that of others).  He’s alert, for example, to the ‘subtle wordings’ used by traffickers and pimps which make ‘trafficking not sound exactly like trafficking; the suggestion that it’s the girls’ decision.’  Also, Martinez employs simile and metaphor very sparingly, but when he does they leap off the page: ‘In Indeco walking the streets is like stepping on a spinal cord, a touchy boundary line between two countries in conflict’; ‘The Beast is the Rio Grande’s first cousin.  They both flow with the same Central American blood’; ‘bones aren’t a metaphor for what’s past, but for what’s coming’; ‘a migrant passing through Mexico is like a wounded cat slinking through a dog kennel.’  Moreover, his style eloquently captures the everyday while hinting at the epic:

The highway snakes through the rocky hills in this vast, open desert.  Only the Gran Desierto of Sonora and Arizona is as large.  The hills here reach as high as 6,500 feet above sea level.  And the huge cold rocks that cover them resemble Olmec heads, as though fallen in some long-past Biblical rain.  These hills form into chains that stretch beyond the horizon.  In the middle of this desolate landscape lies the small truck-stop town, La Rumorosa.  It’s a town of little more than gas stations, twenty-four-hour restaurants, small cafes, and vacant lots where long-haul truckers like to pull off the road and doze.

From the vastness of desert to mythical and religious analogy the narrative sweeps down to the roads of a desolate town and ends with truckers dozing in their cabins.  This passage is typical of the way Martinez concisely and evocatively introduces his scenes.  It also shows how landscape becomes an important part of the migrants’ stories.  Climbing up a steep pass Martinez looks out across the land:

Rock after rock.  Hill after hill these men and women have to cross.  And then they have to navigate the dangers of getting caught along the distant highway.  This is the first clear crossing point we’ve come upon, and we realize that it’s just as dangerous for migrants as crossing through a narco zone.  It’s not a human hand here that kills the migrants, but the system that pushes them to walk this far.

Then there is La Arrocera, in southern Mexico — a remote area dense with overgrowth and vegetation that Central American migrants must pass through if they want to get to the train at Arriaga.  But travelling through La Arrocera means going unprotected.  So vast is the region that police cannot cover it, and bandits are better equipped (or armed) than cops.  This is the brutal reality of the land.  Martinez is an explorer of this reality, and because human realities are based on systems of value, The Beast is also an enquiry into such systems and the cartels who enforce them.

The accumulative power of the migrants’ stories and the episodes of Martinez’s journey through Mexico impel the reader on.  The Beast is in fact a compilation of chronicles or ‘Crónicas,’ artfully structured so that the book has thematic continuity.  Crónicas bring the news, report events and issues.  But they’re usually a long-form genre of writing that also offers analysis and interpretation, as well as the journalist’s perspective on his or her experiences ‘in the field’.  The journalist is part of the story in a chronicle.  The New Journalism of the 1960s in the US is something similar in intent to crónicas.  But Martinez’s book may be closer to Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926) than to New Journalism.  Like Babel, Martinez’s interest lies in the humanity which is buried in a world of dire circumstance.  Babel set out to tell a story of circumstance and what it was like to be trapped within it when he wrote of the experiences of a Jewish news correspondent who joins the Red Cossacks and reports on frontline action during the Soviet-Polish War.  Similarly, Martinez aims to chronicle the horrors of his time and place: extreme violence and a cruel indifference to the value of human life.  And though his commitment as a writer is to fact and event, the intensity of Martinez’s involvement never fails to come through.

The ingenuity of the book is that Martinez is learning for himself the extent of ruin and systematic, well-organised depravity.  Such is the law of much of Mexico’s borderlands, where evidently the only people immune to narcos are not polleros, justice officials, police, migrants, migration agents — not even military personnel — but priests.  In a world where ‘gangs consider migrants as part of their long-term business plan,’ priests, we learn, do not have to pay a ‘tax’ to the cartels.  It’s not that priests are sacred. They’re just a mere exemption and have to pay their dues the old-fashioned way — to God.

Australian Realism

This essay was first published in Sydney Review of Books, July 2015, under the pseudonym, Paul Galimond. It appears here in a slightly altered form.

In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1962) Frank O’Connor argues that a defining feature of the genre is what he calls ‘submerged population groups’.  ‘It may be Gogol’s officials’, he writes, ‘Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape’.  If, in his short stories, John Morrison’s characters are a particular class of ‘submerged’ people, it is due to the labours of work and material hardship — to ‘battling’.  These are his principal themes, as well as the consoling virtue of working-class solidarity informed by his socialist convictions.  These themes derive from the fact that Morrison discovered his subject in his breadwinning life as a waterfront worker, a jobbing gardener, and a rouseabout, occupations which became the social settings of his stories.  Highly regarded as a short story writer who bridged the gap between Henry Lawson and post-1960s Australian fiction, by the time of his death in 1998 John Morrison had eight story collections to his name, two novels, a collection of essays, and a collection of autobiographical pieces.  In 1963 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society.  In 1986 he received the Patrick White Literary Award and in 1989, the Order of Australia.  Today, all his books are out of print and his name has fallen into neglect.

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Morrison’s writing strengthened Australia’s socialist realist tradition.  While the classification ‘socialist realist’ might today seem merely to designate a particular mode or method of writing, albeit an historical one — ‘socialist’, as distinct from, say, ‘magical’ realism — for Morrison, in the context of Australia in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, it was more than that; it was a living reality.  A socialist realist writer was to work with facts and certainly during the Great Depression the facts were plain enough: massive unemployment and poverty.  Morrison felt the pressure of these hardships.  His circumstance was a working-class one, and his decision to write grew out of the desperations he was himself witness to.  Thus, to write was for him a moral choice.  To put pen to paper, so to speak, was to invoke a spirit of indignation and be driven by a compelling sense of social crisis during the Depression:

Around that time I went through what might be described as a social/political awakening.  I was never out of work myself, but many of my friends, good men, went through a bad time.  I came to understand what was the real cause of it all, and this so influenced my attitude to writing that I turned to stories with deliberate social content.

The values expressed in Morrison’s writing are those he lived.  He was of the belief that writers make their impact primarily by the things they have to say, not primarily by the way in which they are said.  In an essay in The Realist he said that he would never underestimate ‘the importance of form, technique, and style … nor of the need for writers to experiment with new methods’.  But he insisted that ‘above everything else, the writer must believe in the importance of what he has to say’.  This belief was true for Morrison from the very beginning, when he began to write a ‘deliberate social content’ by documenting the labours of the working-class in Melbourne.  His first stories were based on his ten years as a Melbourne wharfie, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, and they turned out to be the catalyst for his career as a writer, attracting the attention and encouragement from trade union journals, Meanjin, and the Communist Review.  The realism of the early stories was particularly well suited to Meanjin, which published sixteen of them during the 1940s and ‘50s.  (The stories were later collected in Black Cargo [1955] and Stories of the Waterfront [1984].)  The editor of Meanjin at the time, Clem Christesen — a ‘radical nationalist’, in the words of the academic John Docker — saw in Morrison a writer concerned with class consciousness and encouraged his narratives of proletarian life.

Some critics, however, thought these stories were nothing more than pamphleteering.  James McAuley, on the literary right, wrote that they ‘consisted in propaganda for the Waterside Workers’ Federation’.  But Morrison’s waterfront stories, kinds of documentary fictions of industrial Melbourne, are rich in social history.  They detail procedures for getting work, artfully document pay rates and the hierarchical nature of the industry, and describe, often in the Australian vernacular, the transition from being a ‘Blank’ to a ‘fair-dinkum wharfie’ (see, ‘The Compound’ [1944], for example).  More substantial than mere pamphleteering, they also raise important social issues.  For example, ‘The Welcome’ (1947) gives us a meditation on racial prejudice and on reactionary attitudes toward the impact of immigration on employment: ‘Racial prejudice is bad medicine’, we read, ‘but it never runs more than skin-deep.  It’s largely a matter of simple economics, of whether you think the other fellow threatens your job, your conditions, your standard of living’. 

Moreover, Morrison’s waterfront stories are full of ironies about the thrills and frustrations of earning a living and are thus important as studies in working-class psychology.  ‘Going Through’ (1949) is an exemplary account of the anxieties and joys of getting work and being admitted to the Waterside Workers’ Federation.  The narrator, Jim Lamble, is one of three hundred who are all hoping to become Federation men and be ‘in on the big money’.  They’ve endured ‘workless weeks’ and ‘bitter struggles … for all the wretched scraps of jobs … for all the muck they’ve tossed out at us’.  But now there is the prospect of bigger and better things to come.  This story is an attentive observation, ‘alive to every sound’, on how workers are ‘caught up in an atmosphere of suspense’, and despite ostensibly being a form of ‘industrial’ realism, it is also a story about rite of passage, as the title suggests.  It is, in fact, a journey narrative.  In one sense it tells of a journey of admission to membership to the Federation and of the opportunity of steady employment and more money.  But in another, more symbolic, sense, ‘Going Through’ is also a story of camaraderie.  Making it through into the Federation means being rewarded with the ‘warm acclamation of one’s fellow men’.  ‘We feel suddenly rich’, says Jim Lamble.  ‘And not because of the bigger pay envelopes to come.  We’ve got ourselves three thousand mates.  We’ve come through’.  Ivor Indyk writes that the ‘centrality of labour’ in Morrison ‘ensures that the question of value is always to the fore’.  Here, in ‘Going Through’, that value is socialist solidarity, and so the journey is also one which moves toward a final triumph of harmony over conflict.  The present tense of the narrative gives this journey a sense of immediacy and places Jim Lamble as eye witness to the perils of admission into solidarity.  ‘Warm-hearted men who have advised me’, he says, ‘helped me, talked to me — about their homes, their wives, their children, their multitudinous little interests’, suddenly turn and become ‘part of the beast that rose up and snarled’ at a solitary worker accused of scabbing.  This ‘beast’ was a ‘roar of angry voices’ and a violent mass of crashing chairs.  Finally, in offering his observations on the trials his fellow workers have gone through, the narrator then concludes by imparting a kind of wisdom, saying, ‘bitter experience has taught them that they assemble here in defence of all that they have’.

The theme of worker solidarity is also apparent in ‘The Ticket’, a story which first appeared in Overland and later in the collection Twenty-Three (1962).  Johnstone, a young Englishman new to Australia, takes a job on a farm in the Riverina to ‘milk, kill and generally [be] useful’.  He soon comes to feel that he is on the ‘threshold of worthwhile experience, of having got into a man’s world’.  This is confirmed when he joins the Australian Workers’ Union and experiences a ‘warm feeling of comradeship’.  This sense of solidarity was Morrison’s own.  When he arrived in Australia from England he was ‘socialist by conviction’.  But working here as a rouseabout on stations, like Johnstone in ‘The Ticket’, meant poor pay and poor conditions, which only ‘speeded up’ his convictions, as he said in a 1989 interview.  ‘It grew on me’, he said of socialism, ‘like the urge to write did’.


John Gordon Morrison was born in 1904 in Sunderland, north-east England.  The second of four children, he was brought up to the clank of shipbuilding and within sight and sound of the grey and turbulent North Sea.  His father and mother were both Sunday-school teachers, and his childhood home was strictly Presbyterian.  For Morrison, Sunday evenings in the chapel were ‘horrors of boredom’, as he writes in the autobiographical essay, ‘The Moving Waters’.  This boredom is perhaps one reason for his agnosticism later in life.  As a writer, Morrison took an irreligious view of humanity, though he does raise the contentious subject of faith in the story, ‘Christ, the Devil and the Lunatic’ (1947), which tests religious belief against the struggles of working life in Melbourne during the Depression.  Morrison’s sympathies in this story clearly lie with the unlearning of religious sensitivity and conscientiousness in favour of a ‘tougher’ economic cunning, which he sees as the best way not only to get by in the world, but also to overcome anxiety.  He in fact thought of anxiety as ‘the great sickness of the lowly’, who in trying to make ends meet live with ‘the abiding fear of what tomorrow may fail to bring forth’.

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Morrison’s working life began early.  He left school at fourteen and got a job as an assistant to the curator of Sunderland Public Museum, where he had the run of the library.  His ‘sealed treasures’, as Saul Bellow once described the private experiences of reading books, were the Russians: Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gorky.  These were the writers (in translation) who moved and excited him, particularly their short stories, which he read in John O’London’s Weekly.  Such reading experiences were decisive for the direction of his life.  In Sunderland Public Museum his imagination, fired by the reading of literature, co-existed with the practicalities of working and becoming independent.  In fact, throughout his life Morrison had to maintain the balance of such a co-existence.  He never knew the luxury of making a living solely from his writing and of therefore being able to give up working to write full-time.  There were, however, two occasions — the first for six months, the second for a year — when he was able to stop work completely and write the novels The Creeping City (1949) and Port of Call (1950).  On both occasions he received a fellowship from the Commonwealth Literary Fund.

These two novels (his only novels) draw on Morrison’s experiences while he was working as a labourer and gardener in the Dandenong Ranges during the first few years after his arrival in Australia in 1923.  The Dandenongs and Sherbrooke in particular cast a spell on Morrison.  He instantly felt at home among the giant mountain ash trees and the valleys brimming with early-morning mist.  Indeed, Leo Mishkin in The Creeping City seems to speak for Morrison when he says that not a thousand letters could convey the majesty of the Ranges, which have ‘a wistful sleepy beauty … comparable to nothing else in all the world’.  The Creeping City is, however, more than a descriptive account of the wonders of the Ranges.  Importantly, it focuses on labour and what Ivor Indyk insightfully calls the ‘transit between two competing economies’.  Mishkin is one of three berry farmers and property selectors in Mabooda, Morrison’s fictional name for Sherbrooke.  He belongs to a strong and independent farming class and as such serves as an important symbol for the health not only of the rural way of life, but also for the importance of the natural area.  But this peaceful, self-sustaining economy of land cultivation comes under threat from a suburban, middle-class encroachment:

The ever-growing number of red-roofed bungalows spotting the ancient green of the hills, the ever-growing FOR SALE signs sprouting amongst the abandoned berry-farms, the ever-growing number of cars and hikers swarming up from the city on Saturdays and Sundays.  Worse than anything else, the ever-growing preoccupation of the settlers with questions of land values and slick ways of making a living.  They didn’t talk now of what they could get out of the land; they talked of what they could get for it.

Regardless of the form — short story or novel — Morrison’s writing is invariably witness to the relationship between the social and the economic.  In The Creeping City community life begins to disappear and the weekenders and day-trippers flood in from Melbourne.  Public gives way to private enterprise, and as Ivor Indyk says, ‘labour on the land to entrepreneurial ventures and the service industry’. 

Port of Call also registers the bourgeois process of social and economic change, but in this novel the setting of the Dandenongs represents a kind of freedom.  In Port of Call, Jim Boyd, a sailor who abandons his life at sea to take work cutting blackberries and milking cows in the Dandenongs, experiences a ‘fine feeling of freedom and release’ in the ‘hazy blue vistas’; and of his journey by train to Ferntree Gully, at the foothills of the Ranges, he says: ‘It was a strange journey, a beginning to the big adventure fantastically different from anything he had ever dreamed of’.  Boyd’s feeling here could quite easily be Morrison’s own when he first went out to the hills in the 1920s looking for work.  In the autobiographical ‘Pommy in Wonderland’ Morrison writes that ‘Australia went to my head like wine’.  It is not hard to see how these intoxications of freedom — in the writing and in the life — were the result of Morrison’s leaving ‘the depressing climatic, economic, and social airs of England’.  Haunting the docks of Sunderland, he was itching to break free from his family and play out fantasies of independence and adventure that he had read about in books and magazines.  He once ran away from home to London, heading for where ‘the really big ships set out for all the points of the compass’.  He found inspiration for this rebellious journey in Jack London’s short story, ‘The Apostate’, and with ‘no comparable justification’ identified himself with the young adventurer in the tale, ‘lying back on the bags in the railway truck and gazing luxuriously up into the sky’.  But London (the city) didn’t work out, especially when his father turned up to bring him home.

He nevertheless found a new spirit of independence in the stories of Joseph Conrad.  In ’The Books That Drove Me On’ Morrison writes how Conrad offered everything to a youth like him, ‘whose head was filled not only with dreams of becoming a writer, but also with dreams of sailing the high seas and having wonderful experiences in distant and colourful places’.  Morrison was ‘transported’ by Conrad’s tales.  He had read Youth (1917) and the author’s note, where Conrad says that he was appointed to the barque Otago in Australia for his first ship command, and how the story was ‘a record of experience; but that experience, in its facts, in its inwardness and in its outward colouring, begins and ends in myself’.  Reading Conrad, Morrison’s ambition to write combined with a wanderlust for faraway places.  Australia would fulfil that ambition.


Morrison ‘stands not merely on the side of his proletarians but among them’, writes the critic A. A. Phillips.  ‘He responds to life as they do’.  Extolling the virtues of the worker and the solidarity of the proletariat as true subjects of literature, Morrison was writing a ‘socialist’ rather than simply a ‘social’ kind of realism, and as David Carter argues, radically marking out a difference from bourgeois fiction.  As a movement Socialist Realism was to be an applied method of writing, that is, put to practical use.  Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary to the central committee of the communist party in the USSR, encapsulated the theory of socialist realism at a meeting of the union of writers in 1934:

Comrade Stalin has called our writers the engineers of human souls. What does this mean? … It means, in the first place, to know life in order to depict it truthfully in works of art, to depict it not scholastically, not lifelessly, not simply as ‘objective reality’, but to depict actuality in its revolutionary development.  Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of artistic description must be combined with the task of the ideological transformation and education of the working people in the spirit of socialism.  This method of literature and of literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.

While socialist realism was ‘but the final stroke in a long series of consistent attempts by the Party to promote application of the fundamental principle of Leninist political orthodoxy to all forms of cultural life in the Soviet Union’, as Edward M. Swiderski says, it is also true that it could be different things to different writers.  Interpreted differently, yet still within the context of Marxist-Leninist ideology, it could be taken to be an artistic method developing out of the rise of the proletariat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  ‘To its proponents’, writes Cath Ellis, ‘socialist realism is a world-wide development in literature which manifests only local peculiarities’.

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One of those ‘local peculiarities’ was the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group (Melbourne’s wasn’t the only group but it did lead the way).  Morrison was a member of this group along with authors such as Judah Waten, Frank Hardy, Alan Marshall, and David Martin.  ‘From the outset the Realist Writers’ movement incorporated twin aims’, writes Ian Syson: ‘the encouragement and development of worker-writers and the continuation of a perceived national, democratic and realist tradition’.  The Group was indeed socialist, and as Susan McKernan says, its rhetoric was often that of Australian Communist Party Publications.  It could be anti-elitist.  T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Graham Greene were ‘out’ because they corrupted Realism with Modernism, promoting only ‘indecision, futility, boredom’.  But it had an important function.  As the novelist and poet Dorothy Hewett says, the Realist Writers’ Group, of which she was a member, operated within the Communist Party and trade unions ‘to establish the role, importance and need for the writer as part of the forces of social change’.  Moreover, the Group published a magazine, Realist Writer, which defined realism as ‘word pictures of life as it is lived’, a picture that would emphasise class conflict and the corruptions of power.  A typical example of a novel in the service of this ideology is Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory (1950), which tells the story of John West, a poverty-stricken man who by means of extortion and corruption rises above his working class origins to become rich and powerful.  Another example would be Katherine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy: The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950).  A monumental story of industry and living conditions on the West Australian goldfields, the trilogy depicts early struggles for worker rights and collective bargaining, as well as the mechanisation of the mines, though not without a certain — and clearly apparent — ideological preoccupation (Prichard was a member of the Communist Party of Australia).

Morrison, however, was something of an exception to the rules of Realist Writers’ Groups.  He was of the view that ideas had to be reconciled to people, not the other way round.  ‘It was the human situation creating the political attitudes’, writes A. A. Phillips, ‘which he wanted to illuminate’.  Though early on Morrison was keenly socialist, he would later disagree with the ways in which Realist Writers’ Groups restricted the work of writers to socialist causes.  In a letter to Frank Hardy, for example, he wrote that the Party should ‘leave the bloody writers alone’.  In 1966, Morrison explained his position in a letter to the Moscow journal, Foreign Literature Magazine:

My conception of realism was always just that — realism coloured only by faith in the intrinsic human decencies.  Writing of Life as it IS, and of men and women acting as they DO act and react.  Certainly I believe that the writer has a responsibility to society that he should be a lover of his fellow men, and that he should be on the side of right in the struggle against the wrong. … What I believe is, in short, that writers should concern themselves PRIMARILY with man in conflict with himself, and not primarily in conflict with society.

Morrison was not an ideologue.  Underlying this passage is the attitude that writers cannot solve all the problems of the world; they cannot ‘fix’ society.  Better to get on with the task of writing good stories which present the problem (or conflict) from the standpoint of individual experience.  Morrison does this through his working-class characters who often lapse into introspection when faced with the objective demands placed upon them by a specific time and place.  For example, in ‘Tons of Work’ (1947), Joe Creed is having a slow day waiting for work on the docks at the pick-up and his mind has a habit of pondering over his own feelings of disempowerment and the struggle to make ends meet.  Suddenly a barrier flies open and calls for work are made and we read, ‘No more reflections, Joe!  Here’s reality … Australia, 1940!’  This is not Joe speaking.  It is the free indirect style of Morrison’s narrative as it voices Joe’s thoughts out loud.  The narrative shares Joe’s sense of duty and obligation to earn a living by reminding him (and the reader) that reality is a kind of personal responsibility (as well as a specific time and place — ‘Australia, 1940!’).  Through the free indirect style of ‘Tons of Work’ Joe’s ‘reality’ is also the author’s conception of reality, which is not necessarily a ‘picture’ of the world or of society.  Rather, it’s what one has to do to get on in the world.  Reality is keeping one’s mind on the job.

In Morrison, the job, or the work to be done, is far from being straightforwardly naturalistic.  Work takes on a symbolic significance, transforming many of his stories into marvelous parables about what Ian Reid calls ‘the competitive principle on which capitalism operates’.  Morrison in fact writes of an interplay between innocence and experience, translating what William Blake called these ‘two contrary states of the human soul’ into the capitalist domain of work.  In their struggle to maintain a living, Morrison’s protagonists face the impossibility of innocence, or at least his version of it, which is to remain free from the conflicts and entanglements of others.  This is apparent in ‘The Battle of Flowers’ (1955).  The narrator of this story, Johnston, a gardener, becomes caught up in the action he describes.  The action is the rivalry between two sisters, Isabel and Theresa Haven, who are fighting over ownership of their prize-winning Beaumaris garden.  The sisters ‘clearly represent bourgeois self-interest’, as Ivor Indyk points out, and the intensity of their conflict is such that Isabel moves out, buys the property next door, and in her competitive drive for excellence, conscripts Johnston into a private war against her sister.  Under the ‘driving power’ of this rivalry, the Havens pour money into their gardens with the aim of making them the best in Melbourne.  ‘Each became the victim of a fixed idea, lived for but one purpose’, says Johnston, who despite having to work for Isabel against Theresa’s newly appointed gardener, Egan, and despite ‘the imp of avarice’ awakening in him, nonetheless seizes the opportunity for more work to support his family — the money, squandered or not, might as well fill the bellies of his children, he says.  Told with such élan and weaving together both absurdity and seriousness with suspense and complexity, this story importantly shows competitive self-interest to be destructive, not only for the sisters in their hatred of one another, but also for the gardeners, who become enemies.

Similarly, in ‘To Margaret’ (1958), another of Morrison’s excellent garden stories, the narrator-gardener learns that his predecessor, Hans, had fallen in love with his employer’s daughter, Margaret Cameron.  One morning Hans was sacked without explanation.  Being one step ahead of his employer, however, Hans had anticipated his dismissal and planted a tribute in a prominent flowerbed.  After he is gone, ‘thousands of tiny linaria seedlings’ bloom and spell out ‘TO MARGARET right across the square of rich brown earth’.  The new gardener, who needs the work, then finds himself caught between Mr Cameron’s instruction to dig up the flower bed and Mrs Cameron’s request not to.  Here is the new gardener, Johnston (yes, another Johnston), with the situation before him:

Hans is gone, and Margaret is gone, but the garden is full of their presence, and every day that passes the symbol will grow and grow.  The little plants will push out, tumbling over and filling in the spaces between the letters.  And as the name itself vanishes something else will take the place of form, and the message will lose nothing in eloquence.  There will be colour, all the tender pastel shades of a flower I know well, framed in the deep lilac of alyssum.  And to the understanding eye it will never read anything but TO MARGARET.  And when the hot winds of summer come, and the exhausted plants huddle closer to the earth with every shower of rain, it will still be Hans who is speaking …

The writing here is lyrical and may seem quietly at odds with a method of ‘deliberate social content’.  But a closer look reveals that the understanding eye is Morrison’s own, and that the lyricism of this passage derives from a desire to preserve something against the passage of time.  What is seeking preservation is of course Hans’s love for Margaret.  Yet the brilliance of Morrison’s writing here is that it suggests something else to be preserved besides this love.  That something else is in the narrator’s relation to the garden and therefore to his predecessor.  The flowers are for Johnston the vanishing name not only of someone’s lover, but also, I would suggest, of the socialist ideal itself, or worker solidarity.  Keeping the ideal alive, the narrator pledges a form of solidarity with his predecessor — ‘it will always be Hans who is speaking’.  But this solidarity, like Hans’s love for Margaret, can now only be preserved symbolically, and always against the odds, for Morrison then moves the story back to the pressing reality of the Cameron’s private dispute over Hans and their daughter.  Johnston the gardener is no longer an innocent observer but an active participant wrestling with how best to get out of destroying the flowers (without losing his job).

In his stories Morrison favours a first-person narrator who is typically like those in ‘Going Through’, ‘The Battle of Flowers’, and ‘To Margaret’.  Working-class, observational, and usually caught up in a difficult situation in which a decision must be made about work or money, this narrator is an avatar of Morrison’s own methodology.  Morrison once told a creative writing class that he didn’t invent stories, that they didn’t suddenly appear in the mind.  Rather, they came in through the eyes and ears.  As avatars of his experiences, Morrison’s narrators are our eyes and ears, observing what is seen and reporting what is heard.  In Helen Daniel’s words, they act as ‘a go-between, mediating between the obsessive or beleaguered characters and the reader’.  They are essentially storytellers passing on their experiences of finding their way in the world.  But they are also exclusively male.  A good case in point is Morrison’s story, ‘A Man’s World’ (1957).  The title does indeed say it all.  In this story there is the unchallenged division between the ‘man’s world’ of work and the ‘woman’s world’ of the home.  ‘It’s a man’s world I’ve got to live in, not a woman’s’, says Frank McLean to his wife Liz.  ‘I’ve got to go out in it’.  But Morrison’s approach was more nuanced than this example suggests.  He often reveals the ridiculousness of hard-headed and stubborn men who live by this ethos — men who are consumed by egotism, such as Mr Cameron in ‘To Margaret’, a man disliked by his employee for his ‘Julius Caesar stare’ and his possessiveness, which denies his daughter a life of her own.  And there is Roy Davison in ‘Pioneers’ (1964), whom the critic Stephen Murray-Smith called a ‘prime bastard’.  Davison is a dogmatic man who rules over a puritanical home, denying it the emotional warmth and vitality expressed by his wife and daughters.  Bob Johnson, the narrator in ‘Pioneers’, observes of the Davison’s home: ‘I’d have given much for a homely sound such as the purring of a cat’.  Johnson is also critical of Roy: ‘if only he had allowed his wife to come into the conversation’; ‘if only Ada had been allowed to talk’. 

Despite the exclusively of a ‘man’s world’, there are female characters to whom Morrison grants full dignity and independence.  The nurses in ‘Ward Four’ (1962), for example, run their wards with humour, efficiency, and nous; and Barbara Cameron in ‘To Margaret’ is strong and assertive, eventually leaving her husband after confronting him over his stubborn and arrogant stance toward their daughter.  ‘He didn’t think she would.  It’s given him a shock’, says the housekeeper to the gardener.  ‘Not so sure of himself — walking the floor half the night’.  But for the most part Morrison presents a ‘man’s world’.  In response to questions about the continuing tone in his stories of the predominance of men, Morrison said:

The world of men was the world I lived in.  I was never a professional writer, I always had bread and butter jobs … I write of nothing that I haven’t experienced.


There is a kind of Morrison story, the best kind, which imbues his particular style of realism and its economic orientation of work with an intensely menacing atmosphere.  According to Ivor Indyk, this atmosphere consists in ordinary details being placed in a strange light.  In the words of A. A. Phillips, it is ‘darker-hued’, and death is an important element.  Morrison’s most anthologised story, ‘The Nightshift’ (1944) is a good example of his ‘darker-hued’ fictions.  In this story the economic orientation is readily apparent in class divisions between wharfies Joe and Dick and the well-dressed ‘Toorak set’ with their ‘Collins Street coiffures’.  The ‘Toorak set’ are going to dances and theatres in the city, while Joe and Dick are going to work on the nightshift.  Later, as these two wharfies travel up-river to work on a sugar cargo, the story begins to move toward a darker, more menacing aspect.  We read of the ‘hushed’, fog-bound river and its black still water, and of the distant sounds that have ‘the quality of a peculiar hollowness, so that one senses the overwhelming silence on which they impinge’.  I was reminded here of the novel Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain, which was made into a film of the same name in the classic noir style by Billy Wilder.  In this novel Cain writes, ‘there is nothing so dark as a railroad track in the middle of the night’.  In ‘The Nightshift’ Morrison seems to say that there is nothing so dark as a river in the middle of the night, a menacing atmosphere which conspires to establish the scene of Joe’s death when he falls from the wharf.  There are, however, social reasons for this sense of menace.  Joe’s death is the result of hazardous working conditions, and in this story Morrison is never far from social protest: ‘The nightshift swarms up the face of the wharf, cursing a Harbour Trust which provides neither ladder nor landing-stage’. 

‘Goyai’ (1962) also has this ‘darker-hued’ aspect.  It is the tale of a deranged man who has given up on life, living alone in a hut at the top of a hill in a forest.  Wild with despair, he looks for coincidences in everything, thinking they are signals from his estranged lover, Claire.  The narrator, Quaife, is a bushwalker who has strayed from the path, and his arrival at the hut is taken by the hermit to be a message sent by Claire.  Morrison wonderfully builds tension in this story, hinting at the possibility that the hermit’s psychosis may turn criminal.  As soon as the opportunity arises Quaife cannot get out of the hut quick enough and back to the world.  The real story here, however, is one of social isolation.  Given Morrison’s emphasis on a socialist form of solidarity and his celebrations of camaraderie, ‘Goyai’ may seem out of place in his work.  But it is not.  In ‘Goyai’ Morrison stands against social isolation, which he takes to be a denial of the importance of the values of solidarity and the condition of being morally bound to society.  We should be living by these values, Morrison seems to say: for they can help ease the burdens of inequality, and may even save you from yourself.


Carter, David. ‘Documenting and Criticising Society’, The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, ed. Laurie Hergenhan, (Penguin, 1988), pp. 370-389.

Daniel, Helen. ‘At last, the return of the real short story,’ Review of North Wind by John Morrison, Age, 17 April 1982.

Docker, John. Australian Cultural Elites: Intellectual Traditions in Sydney and Melbourne, (Angus & Robertson, 1974).

Ellis, Cath. ‘Socialist Realism in the Australian Literary Context: With Specific Reference to the Writing of Katharine Susannah Prichard’, Journal of Australian Studies (21, no. 54-55, 1997).

Hewett, Dorothy. ‘The Times they are a’Changin’’, Hecate, (21, ii, 1995).

Indyk, Ivor. ‘The Economics of Realism: John Morrison’, Meanjin, (no. 4, 1987).

Martin, David. ‘Three Realists in Search of Reality’, Meanjin, (no.78, 1959).

McAuley, James. Quadrant editor’s report to AACF – Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, (December, 1963).

McKernan, Susan. A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years after the War (Allen & Unwin, 1989).

Morrison, John. Sailors Belong Ships, (Dolphin Publications, 1947).
The Creeping City, (Cassell, 1949).
Port of Call, (Cassell, 1950).
Black Cargo and Other Stories, (Australasian Book Society, 1955).
Twenty Three, (Australasian Book Society, 1962).
— ‘What Shall We Do About The Australian Tradition?’, The Realist (no. 15, 1964).
Selected Stories, (Rigby, 1972).
Australian by Choice, (Rigby, 1973).
— ‘The Moving Waters’, Australian by Choice, (Rigby, 1973).
— ‘Pommy in Wonderland’, Australian by Choice, (Rigby, 1973).
The North Wind, (Penguin Books, 1982).
Stories of the Waterfront, (Penguin, 1984).
This Freedom (Penguin Books, 1985).
The Happy Warrior: Literary Essays (Pascoe Publishing, 1987).
— ‘The Books That Drove Me On’, The Happy Warrior: Literary Essays (Pascoe Publishing, 1987).
The Best Stories of John Morrison, (Penguin Books, 1988).
— ‘John Morrison tells Katherine Kizilos about his life and work’, Herald, (12 Jan., 1989).

Murray-Smith, Stephen. ‘Introduction’, The Best Stories of John Morrison, (Penguin, 1988).

Phillips, A.A. ‘The Short Stories of John Morrison’, Overland, (Winter, 1974).

Reid, Ian. ‘Introduction’, Selected Stories by John Morrison, (Rigby, 1972).

Swiderski, Edward, M. ‘Review of Soviet Socialist Realism, by C. Vaughan James’, Studies in Soviet Thought (17, 3, Oct. 1977).

Syson, Ian. ‘Out from the shadows: The Realist Writers’ movement, 1944-1970, and communist cultural discourse’, Australian Literary Studies (15, 4, Oct. 1992).