Last year, my main writing for publication outside my weekly newspaper column and the blogs were two chapters, one a long one, in a book to be published to mark the 75th anniversary of the New England University College, the 85th anniversary of the Armidale Teachers’ College. I spent a fair bit of time on those chapters, trying to write as well as I could while ensuring proper historical referencing. I was looking forward to holding it in my hand as tangible evidence of my work. Frustratingly, the book hasn’t been published. First it was due to be published last year, then by the end of March this year, now who knows?
Last year, too, I began what would be two attempts to turn some of my existing writing into book form. Both stalled because of the degree of rewriting required. Now I am having another go, but this time in a different way. Instead of trying to edit and restructure my existing writing, I am writing from scratch in an area that I already know where I can draw from my existing work.
The working title is New England Travels – journeys through space and time. Part autobiographical memoir, part travel story, part history, my story meanders wherever it will take me. New England provides the unifying element, the frame if you like, but I am not restricted to that; the sands of Arabia, Lugard’s Nigeria, spying in Japan, boxing and boxing tents, life and death on the frontier, the rise and fall of dynasties and the strange by-ways of family life are already there, sketched on the canvas I have created; my choice now is to select.
I am not being too ambitious. For the moment, I have an income to earn, other things to write. My writing target is 300 words per day. So far I am sticking to it, although it’s very early days. For the present at least, I am finding the process liberating, an anodyne to other frustrations that bedevil me. I know that the draft will change greatly as I write. Even now it has changed several times as I strive to capture the right words, to achieve the balance I want. Accepting that, this is the present start of the book.
“Dalwood House stands on a rise. From the side verandah, mown grass runs down to the old vineyard. The Hunter River lies beyond, hidden within its high banks. It was hot and still, the silence broken only by the distant sound of a crow. Even the working properties on the hills on the other side of the River were still, remote in the faint heat haze.
This was only my second visit to Dalwood. Many years before I had read Australian writer and poet Judith Wright’s Generations of Men, the story of her grandparents and the establishment of the Wyndham and then Wright pastoral dynasties; the book gripped me. I was especially caught by the almost lyrical descriptions of Dalwood House as seen through the eyes of Charlotte May Wright nee Mackenzie, Judith’s grandmother.
By chance, I had just finished the book when I went out to dinner in Canberra. Talking about the book over dinner, my hostess, herself a member of the Wright family, said “The house is still there, you know, although it’s a ruin now.” I got directions and visited it with a friend on my next trip to Armidale.
Many parts of Australia now claim Judith Wright as their own. Up in Queensland, the State Government has expropriated her for a performing arts centre. Her New England connection is dismissed in just a few words: “Judith Wright was a Queensland resident for over thirty years. She was born in New England, in regional New South Wales, and came to Brisbane as a young woman”. Later, Canberra and Braidwood would claim her too.
In all this, Judith remained a quintessentially New England writer. That was where her views were first formed, although her later experiences and especially her relationship with the older novelist and philosopher Jack McKinney would exercise a powerful influence over her. Judith met Jack McKinney when she moved to Brisbane. He was a much older man, some twenty four years her senior, only two years younger than her father. They fell in love, moving to Mount Tamborine in 1950; daughter Meredith was born in that year. In 1962, Jack and Judith finally married. Four years later Jack died, leaving a hole in Judith’s life.
Jack McKinney was the second of three powerful men in Judith Wright’s life. The first was her father, Phillip Arundell Wright, with whom she shared a middle name. The third was H C “Nugget” Coombs, a noted Australian economist and public servant, with whom she had a twenty five year love affair. Coombs was again an older man, in this case by nine years. Both were major public figures. Judith was a widow, Coombs long separated from his wife. Both shared common interests, including Aboriginal advancement and the environment. Judith moved to Braidwood to be closer to the Canberra based Coombs, but the affair was kept secret, if open to their friends and the Canberra network within which they moved.
Each man had a powerful impact on Judith, but I think that it was the father that formed her core views. It was he that gave her that love of the environment and of the country. It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letter between them.
I knew her father as a much older man. PA, we all spoke of him as PA, was my grandfather’s friend; my grandfather was godfather to his son who bore the same first name; my copy of Generations of Men carries my grandfather’s signature, bought in the year the book first came out. To me, PA was a somewhat remote figure. I saw him at events and at the New England New State Movement Executive meetings that he sometimes chaired. I and my fellow students at the University of New England where he was chancellor poked gentle fun at him for his sometimes mangled English. It would be a number of years before I came to properly understand his contribution to Northern life and the causes he supported.
Judith loved her father, she loved the Fall country in which she grew up, she loved the life on the family properties. Her earlier works reflect that love, and then the joy she found in her relationship with Jack McKinney. Later, there would come a darkening of spirit, erosion in optimism, a rejection of elements of her past. “You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?” she wrote in Skins. “They dropped off several incarnations back.”
Judith had the misfortune to be born a girl in an age when men inherited. After the death of PA, she became separated from the properties and life she had loved. Towards the end of her life, she saw the end of the Wright family empire that had been carefully built by her grandparents and especially grandmother May Wright. The ABC TV Dynasties program recorded the event in this rather dramatic way:
By December 2000, he (brother David) had lost it all – his properties, his cattle and his wife to cancer. His sister, the poet Judith Wright, watched in despair and died soon after.
Six years later David, my grandfather’s namesake, died suddenly. On his death, University of New England Professor Bernie Bindon described David as one of the pioneers of the scientific research underpinning today's Australian beef industry. "I can't think of a beef industry person” Professor Bindon said, “who's made a bigger contribution to not only the growth of the beef industry but the science that underpins the beef business," The Herefords that formed the base of the V1V and V2V Wright brands began their life at Dalwood. It was Judith’s grandparents, the core characters in Generations of Men, who began the breeding program that created the Wright cattle.”
I hope that this will give you a feel for what I am trying to do.
Message first via the UNE Facebook page and then a personal email from Jennifer Miller UNE Alumni Officer to say that the UNE book was back from the printer with a launch being organised. I was so relieved.