Solid Advice

Michael Wilding

  • A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey
    Viking, 331 pp, £10.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 670 80707 9

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.

This grinding poverty was not unique. There were thousands trying to subsist in just such ways all over Australia. When Uncle Archie took up his land under the Government’s conditional purchase scheme, conditions remained as hard. The trip to the land was made on foot, since the money spent on the purchase of a horse and cart and harness took any money that could be spent on rail fares. The cart carried the possessions. Except for the driver everyone walked: ‘The trip took us nearly three weeks, but we made it. We kids went without boots on the trip – it was Grandma’s idea, as we couldn’t afford to buy new ones when the ones we had were worn out.’ And then everything had to be done from scratch: clearing the land, building a house, fencing. The only income until the ground could be planted came from snaring possums and selling their skins at a shilling each.

On one of his trips into town, 26 miles away, Bert’s Uncle met a man

who wanted a small boy to stay with his mother while he was away from home. He explained to Uncle that he and his three brothers were away for long periods. He said they were contractors and did all sorts of contract work, such as clearing and fencing and horse-breaking, and often went into the bush kangaroo hunting and catching wild horses. His mother was getting very old and was nearly blind. He said the boy wouldn’t have much to do in the way of work, just be a companion for the old lady.

It would mean one less mouth to feed, Grandma explained. So, aged eight, Bert was sent off to work. From daylight to dark, he was kept busy feeding the pigs and fowls, minding the sheep, milking the cows. Paid nothing but his keep, his clothes turning to rags, he was a virtual slave to a gang of horse thieves.

It is a harrowing episode, and it culminates in a hideous incident when he is flogged by one of the sons in a drunken rage with such violence that he barely survives. As soon as he is able to walk again he escapes; he sets off by night in footwear made of bags he has sewn together, and heads for his uncle’s property. These episodes recall Marcus Clarke’s great novel of the Australian convict system, His Natural Life – based in its turn on hideous documentary reality. The escape recalls Huck Finn’s escape from the brutality of his father. Facey’s story equals those incidents in its graphic realism, in the concision and resonance of this true tale.

One of the most powerful features of A Fortunate Life is its narrative suspense. The narration itself seems totally artless. The manner is so simple, so direct. It is not naive, but it is certainly free from the devices and tricks that the professional writer habitually uses. And yet it succeeds in creating suspense that makes the reader want to skip ahead to see if and how the incidents are resolved. Will Bert survive the whipping? Will he escape from the bottom of the 140-foot well that collapses? Will he survive Gallipoli? Of course we know that he will survive these fearful episodes because he must have survived in order to write the book. And yet, reading the calm, lucid, even prose, the reader becomes so involved, absolutely caught up in the immediacy of the predicament, that the dominant sensation is one of anxiety, trepidation, fear. This is the sort of power that Balzac could draw on. It is something that arises from the directness of the narrative, not from any calculated verbal ingenuity. Indeed, it is painful to read some of these episodes: the stomach contracts, the breath is held in a way that fiction can rarely achieve any more.

The unpretentious manner creates a sense of authenticity. And this is reinforced by the Robinson Crusoe-like episodes of clearing the virgin bush and establishing a farm. This was the activity of Facey’s early years: clearing, fencing, preparing the ground. After escaping from the family of rustlers, Bert goes off to work for other impoverished settlers. Some promise to pay him yet never do; others offer kindness and generosity. It is not all hardship and horror, and the humane gentlenesses are lovingly remembered. The daily toil of the small farmer, the snakes and enraged boars, the horrors of fire, the comic episodes, the loneliness are unforgettably evoked. The economical manner never palls. When Bert explains to a new settler how to clear the bush, build a house and open up a farm, much of this detail is in effect recapitulation. Here 18-year-old Bert is summing up the ‘Solid Advice’ – the name of the chapter – gathered over these ten years of experience, and it is far from tedious or repetitious. The excitement of starting afresh – and Bert is the expert giving advice now – vividly communicates itself to us. This is the sort of chapter you want to file away for when that residual dream of returning to live off the land becomes a possibility.

It is a romantic story. Out of the hard toil, the betrayals of trust and the battling with all the varieties of nature, emerge episodes that are elsewhere the core of fiction, epic and romance. There is an encounter with a cattle thief, the long overland trek of the cattle drive, a stampede. These are remarkable stories that Facey tells and yet at the same time they represent the experience of many men and women. A Fortunate Life records these ordinary tales of heroism, decency and endurance. The huge popularity of the book in Australia is due in large part to the recognisability of the incidents and of the emotions. If few readers have experienced directly all that Facey has experienced, have had to work and fend for themselves from the age of eight, and to teach themselves to read and write, others have had parents and grandparents who have led such lives.

A Fortunate Life offers the materials of folk history, the recorded detail of pioneering a new life in a new land. These are confrontations that are the basis of folk myth: not the myths of kings and queens and other-worldly visitors, but the myths of labour, endurance, courage and transcendence of suffering, the great positive stories of coming through. Those death and rebirth motifs so beloved of abstracting mythographers and anthropologists are here recorded in all their material reality. Mrs Phillips suddenly engulfed in fire during burning-off, Bert pushing her under water in the soak, and nearly being knocked out for his troubles by her husband who saw only what looked like death by water, not escape from the flames. Young Bert, flogged within inches of his life, unable to speak, hearing the nurse speculate on his chances of death or survival: ‘If you can hear me just close your eyes and open them again.’ Or Bert lost in the bush after the cattle stampede, disoriented, living on leaves and grasses and weakening, and watching an aboriginal cut up a kangaroo; then eating the kangaroo’s liver and vomiting endlessly; then waking up surrounded by blacks who take him with them, and build a fire, and after the terrors of the imagination, finding the fire is to send smoke signals of his discovery. Or being trapped alive down the bottom of the well, an absolute nigredo, buried alive, and yet clambering up to the light again. The primal quality of these episodes imprints them on the memory.

This is the sort of mythic narrative that is so often anonymous. And in a sense this is still the case with Facey. He wrote it down at the end of his life. He lived only nine months after the book was published, and though it rapidly achieved acclaim he did not live to witness its full success. Indeed, that success is only at its beginning now, for there is no doubt that the book will live on. But the writer himself is accessible to us through the book alone: unexploitable by talk shows, interviews, television features, demands for sequels, he remains anonymous. What we know of him is strictly controlled by what he wrote. And there is no need for more than that.

Although the portrait of outback Australia is the strength of the book, Facey’s story is not confined to that. He spent some time with a boxing troupe, touring country towns. If the stories of Marcus Clarke and Henry Lawson about being being lost in the bush provide one set of analogies, Jack London’s ‘A Piece of Steak’ provides another. Facey travelled up to Sydney to see the Burns-Johnson fight that Jack London covered for the American press: ‘The fight itself turned out to be a complete waste of time. I was never so disgusted in all my life. It wasn’t sport at all – they were both nasty and spiteful.’ Facey worked for a while platelaying on the railways, and gives a fine account of solidarity when his workmates supported him against a ganger. The issues are personal more than political. In later years Facey became a unionist, and he describes a successful tramways strike, but political activity is a minor part of the book; the accounts of the conditions of labour make their own political point without any explicit commentary. Then in 1914 he volunteered for army service and served at Gallipoli.

The slaughter of Gallipoli has particular resonances for Australian politicians: baptism of blood, the nation achieving manhood, service to the Empire. Facey presents the senseless carnage with very little comment. But there is one incident that carries the note of Australian resentment of British attitudes:

We had a distinguished visitor – a high-ranking British officer. He came along our main front-line trench with several of our Staff Officers and Commanding Officers. He got a whiff of the smell coming from No-Man’s Land and asked the Australian officers, ‘Why don’t you bury the bodies?’ Our Commanding Officer explained that the Turks opened fire every time this was attempted and that we had lost men trying. The officer’s reply to this shocked all of us who heard him. He said, ‘What is a few men?’ He was standing only about ten feet from me when he said this and I was disgusted to think that life seemed to mean nothing to this man. We referred to him as ‘Lord Kitchener’ from then on.

The full horrors of trench war are conveyed but not interpreted. The slaughter, maiming and bloodshed are described, but what it was all about is never even considered. Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. Gallipoli is constantly being exploited in Australian cultural production. Recent years have seen books, television series, films. They presumably function as part of the softening-up of the population for another lunatic sacrifice, part of that militarisation of fashion, entertainment and culture that even in its ostensibly ‘anti-war’ note serves only to habituate us to and to naturalise massacre, slaughter, ‘sacrifice’. And by presenting that incontrovertible British military cynicism towards Australians as expendable cannon fodder, the episode now serves to encourage that remorseless bonding with the USA as the new, clean-handed, big-brotherly protector. There is none of this ideological manipulation in Facey, however. Badly wounded, he is shipped home. Compared with the strong youth who enlisted, he is now a broken man, carrying his war wounds through a succession of jobs as the great depression grows.

Facey had often told these stories to his children and friends in later years, before ever thinking of writing them down. As Jan Carter points out in her afterword, he partook of that marvellous tradition of natural storytelling, and she points out how often in his narrative he settles down to tell people what has happened to him, to ‘have the talk of our lives’.

This experience of storytelling lies behind the success of the book. The individual episodes are beautifully paced. Nothing is ever too long drawn out. That famed Australian laconicism, given literary expression in the stories of Henry Lawson, here lives on. It is the timing of the true storyteller who knows with confidence the appeal of his material. And it is the product of storytelling that knows its audience, knows that if it carries on for too long, if it is overblown, then the listeners will vanish. These are not pub yarns: Facey was a strict teetotaller. No alcoholic maunderings here: these are the concise episodes of the brief smoke-oh, the break in the day’s work, the brief evening relaxation before the early bed for the early rise. And it is a heartening, positive book. Facey’s response to the natural environment, his love of the trees and birds and animals of the bush, communicates itself movingly. His shyness is touchingly conveyed. His response to human warmth and comradeship, his portrayal of the real generosity of isolated workers opening up the bush, offer a splendid demonstration of the possibilities of human love and co-operation: ‘I have lived a very good life, it has been very rich and full. I have been very fortunate and I am thrilled by it when I look back.’