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No Whingeing!

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I can’t remember now the order in which I read them, but I doubt I would have begun with the first of Mary Grant Bruce’s novels, just because of its title: A Little Bush Maid. It was Billabong itself – the Australian outback station in the north of Victoria, seventeen miles from the nearest settlement – that first caught my imagination and that sent me back to the library in the South African town where I lived to find more of the same:

[The] country lay bare enough in the early winter – long stretches of stone-walled paddocks where the red soil showed through the sparse native grass; steep, stony hillsides; oases of irrigation, with the deep green of Lucerne growing rank among weed-fringed water channels; and so on and on, past little towns and tiny settlements . . . But Norah did not want the towns; she was homesick for the open country, for the scent of the gum trees coming drifting in through the open window [of the train], for the long, lonely plains . . .

Until I was 9, my mother read aloud to my brother and me every evening – and why bother to read to yourself when someone will do it for you? I could read if I had to, as my father had discovered when he came back from POW camp in Germany and thought he’d better teach me himself. My mother eventually solved the problem by reading a very exciting story to the middle of a chapter, then closing the book abruptly. ‘If you want any more, you’ll have to read it yourself,’ she said. By the time I was 10 I was such a voracious reader that I needed not single novels but series. That was one of the advantages of the Billabong books: there were fifteen of them to search out (and I remember, when I got to the last of them, the same sense of outrage as I was to feel years later when Updike killed off Rabbit with an early heart-attack).

There weren’t that many specifically South African novels a youngster could read: Jock of the Bushveld, of course, but it was by any standards a bloodthirsty story. Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm wasn’t regarded as suitable for children. Mainly, there were the English ‘standards

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I can’t remember now the order in which I read them, but I doubt I would have begun with the first of Mary Grant Bruce’s novels, just because of its title: A Little Bush Maid. It was Billabong itself – the Australian outback station in the north of Victoria, seventeen miles from the nearest settlement – that first caught my imagination and that sent me back to the library in the South African town where I lived to find more of the same:

[The] country lay bare enough in the early winter – long stretches of stone-walled paddocks where the red soil showed through the sparse native grass; steep, stony hillsides; oases of irrigation, with the deep green of Lucerne growing rank among weed-fringed water channels; and so on and on, past little towns and tiny settlements . . . But Norah did not want the towns; she was homesick for the open country, for the scent of the gum trees coming drifting in through the open window [of the train], for the long, lonely plains . . .
Until I was 9, my mother read aloud to my brother and me every evening – and why bother to read to yourself when someone will do it for you? I could read if I had to, as my father had discovered when he came back from POW camp in Germany and thought he’d better teach me himself. My mother eventually solved the problem by reading a very exciting story to the middle of a chapter, then closing the book abruptly. ‘If you want any more, you’ll have to read it yourself,’ she said. By the time I was 10 I was such a voracious reader that I needed not single novels but series. That was one of the advantages of the Billabong books: there were fifteen of them to search out (and I remember, when I got to the last of them, the same sense of outrage as I was to feel years later when Updike killed off Rabbit with an early heart-attack). There weren’t that many specifically South African novels a youngster could read: Jock of the Bushveld, of course, but it was by any standards a bloodthirsty story. Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm wasn’t regarded as suitable for children. Mainly, there were the English ‘standards’: The Wind in the Willows, Alice, Lorna Doone, Gulliver, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, Swallows and Amazons; but novels which bore some direct relation to one’s own landscape – where if you went into a thicket you might as well meet a snake as an elf – were rare. Of course, in one sense northern Victoria was as foreign as the Lake District, but at least an Australian Christmas was stinking hot, not snowy. A Little Bush Maid began as a serial, from newspaper articles which Minnie (as she was christened) Grant Bruce – a jobbing journalist in Melbourne – had contributed to the children’s page she edited. Popular demand made her editor suggest they might make a book. Though it still seems thinly episodic, it does introduce the main cast of characters: David Linton, the owner of Billabong, who had turned ‘in a night from a young man to an old one’ when his wife died; Norah herself, a tomboy and apple of her father’s eye; her big brother, Jim, away at boarding-school some of the time, an athlete and no intellectual, but straight as a die; Wally Meadows his mate, dark and cheerful, ‘a wag of a boy . . . [who] straightaway laid his boyish heart down at Norah’s feet, and was her slave from the first day they met’; Mrs Brown, the cook, ‘fat, good-natured and adoring’; black Billy, the stable-hand, whose command of English is limited to the word ‘plenty’; Mr Hogg the gardener; his sworn enemy, Lee Wing, the Chinese vegetable gardener (complete with queue, or pigtail); Mr Groom, the English storekeeper, who tries to teach Norah to play the piano by more than just ear; Murty O’Toole, head stockman; Dave Boone, one of the station-hands; Sarah and Mary, Irish housemaids; and of course the dogs and the horses, particularly Norah’s pony, Bobs. At the centre of the plot is the Hermit, whom Norah befriends and who turns out to be David Linton’s long-lost friend, an accountant wrongly accused of dishonesty, who as a consequence had faked his own death before hiding away in the bush. Mates at Billabong is technically a much fuller and more coherent novel. There are a series of set-pieces, vividly typical of their place and time: the Billabong dance; Christmas celebrations; the cricketmatch, Cunjee v. Mulgoa. The plot, however, centres on Cecil, a small, dapper, beautifully dressed cousin, who comes to Billabong to recuperate. Unusually, the country does not reform the lad from the city, and Cecil leaves much as he came, a selfish drip and a coward. Mary Grant Bruce’s liberal sympathies are shown in her treatment of two Indian hawkers, Ram Das and Lal Chunder (that name obviously hadn’t then taken on the connotation which Barry Humphries was later to popularize, if that’s the right word). Mary the housemaid, who has been alarmed by Lal Chunder, actually says of him, ‘It’s my belief he’d kill us all in our beds as soon as wink! Scarin’ the wits out of one with his pink top-knot arrangement – such a thing for a man to wear! Gimme white Orstalia!’ Norah laughs at her, and it transpires that Lal Chunder is the hero who, in return for her kindness to him, later saves Norah from an evil swagman, intent on theft and probably more than that. These are not soft books: the landscape may be hauntingly beautiful, but there are snakes, bush-fires, thunderstorms, criminals on the run. The Hermit nearly dies of typhus; David Linton breaks a leg when he is thrown from his horse in the bush; Norah’s pony Bobs breaks his back in a fall; and Norah herself risks her life in a bush-fire to save her father’s prize sheep. The value-system is much the same as that of the Australian balladeers such as ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson: one works hard, plays hard, doesn’t whinge, sticks by one’s mates, doesn’t show off, doesn’t care much about ideas, keeps emotion to oneself, does what one has to do because that’s what one does, and judges people by what they do, not what they say or (most of all) what they are. The writing is surprisingly unmawkish: the sentiment is in the situation, not in the words. I am glad to find A Little Bush Maid is still in print, though I suspect it might seem as dated to the present-day young as do illustrations (mainly by J. Macfarlane) of youngsters riding in jackets, collars and ties. I wouldn’t want to put the Billabong books in the pantheon of great children’s literature, but they still bear joyful rereading, more than fifty years after I first read them.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 6 © C. J. Driver 2005


About the contributor

C. J. Driver was for more than twenty years a headmaster, but is now once again a full-time writer. He has published six books of poetry. His fifth novel, Shades of Darkness, was published by Jonathan Ball (Johannesburg and Cape Town) in 2005 – and a sixth is now complete and in need of a publisher.

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