After the brief boom of the 1880s Australia experienced the slump of the 1890s. The attempts by the unions to secure better conditions and a closed shop were crushingly defeated in the maritime and shearers’ strikes of the early 1890s. A combination of blackleg labour, protected by police and armed troops, and of successful prosecutions for conspiracy against the unions, broke the newly-emergent labour organisations. There was large-scale unemployment; wages dropped. The Workingman’s Paradise, as Henry Kingsley had called Australia, turned into an exploitative hell. This was the time that William Lane formed the New Australia movement which settled some four hundred men, women and children in Paraguay in an attempt to establish a socialist commune. It was into this depression that A.B. Facey was born in Victoria in 1894.
Facey’s father set off for the new Western Australian goldfields with the two eldest sons of a family of seven. He died of typhoid fever. The mother went to join the sons, took a job as a housekeeper and married her employer, but could not bring over the rest of the family. They were left with the grandparents and after the grandfather’s death the grandmother had to go back to work as a midwife and to take in washing. When she got sick and could work no more, she sold up and made an attempt to reunite the children with their mother, but without success. Finally she took the children to an uncle who was shortly to open up a thousand acres of land in the west. Young Facey, Bert as he was known, was six years old. From then on it was a life of labour for him. He never went to school.
A Fortunate Life is that rare thing, an account of labour, of arduous physical work. Generally, those who are able to write about work as ennobling or degrading find a way to escape into an easier life. Jack London was fending for himself as a 14-year-old, but the experience of the hardships of that life gave him the impetus to educate himself and to escape into writing. Bert Facey worked all his life. A Fortunate Life is his account of it, and the title is not sardonic, not embittered. The story he tells is one of physical endurance, of exploitation, suffering, heartbreaking setbacks, yet it is told without recrimination, with a tranquillity of spirit. It is a marvellous book, all the more powerful for the equanimity with which it is expressed.
Grandma and Aunt Alice used to take all us kids, who were too young to walk the long distance to school, to hunt miles around for places where prospectors had camped. The prospectors lived on tinned foods. When the tins were emptied they were just thrown into heaps near the camps.
Aunt and Grandma gathered the tins, then we would gather bushes, scrub and sticks, spread them onto the ground, and pile the tins on top. A pile would be left for a few days until the bushes and scrub, which were mostly green, dried enough to burn. Then we would come back and set it alight. The heat from the fire would melt the solder that was in the tins, and it would fall down into the ashes and onto the ground. Then, when the fire finished burning and cooled off we used to sieve the ashes and the ground under the ashes, to get the solder that had melted into small lumps. We put these into a bag and took them home. When we had enough Aunt Alice would melt them in an iron pot. Then she would wet a small piece of level ground, make impressions in the damp soil to the size of a stick of solder, and pour the melted solder into them. When the solder cooled she used to wash it and take in into Kalgoorlie where she got five shillings a pound for it. A fairly large heap of tins would be worth about thirty shillings. All this used to help, and, as Aunt Alice said, it gave us something to do.
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