Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Light Horseman's Daughter

I sometime cannot resist those pop quizzes designed to test popular opinion. The two most recent ones I completed showed me (again!) as left of centre on one side, as a weak libertarian on a second. I can always tell where I am going to end up on these tests from the first questions.

I mention this for two reasons.

The first is that I have been trying to get my mind around the changing meaning of the labels right and left, the way this has varied over time and between countries.

When I look at the Obama administration, for example, I struggle to see how this can be described as left wing, let alone socialist. To my mind, Mr Obama is actually a conservative. When I look at the Tea Party Movement, I see a group that is best described as populist radical rather than right wing. These are an outsider's view, of course. I actually find it quite hard to get my mind around some streams of thought in the US.

The second reason is that having read about David Crooke's The Light Horseman's Daughter in John Ryan's Tales From New England, I then found the Google books preview. I still have to buy the book, of course, but the preview is sufficiently detailed in terns of chapters to give a feel.

The Light Horseman's Daughter is a romantic novel that sprawls across Southern Queensland, New England and down into Sydney during the years of the Great Depression. A review in the South Australian Police Association Journal described the plot in this way: 

The year is 1931. Australia is in the throes of the Great Depression. The McKenna family is being evicted from a property in drought-stricken Queensland, which the family has owned for three generations. The father, who has loyally served his country in Palestine during the First World War, resists eviction and is shot dead.

With a crippled mother and 12-year-old twin brothers to care for, young Emma is forced to work as a seamstress. A rich Sydney lawyer, Stephen Fairchild, falls passionately in love with her, but their very different social situations and Stephen’s foolish involvement with the paramilitary New Guard oblige him to enter a loveless marriage, abandoning Emma at her moment of greatest need. But Emma is not easily defeated.

The Light Horseman’s Daughter offers a panoramic view of Australia in the 1930s - the big landowners of the outback, the corrupt bankers who supported them, the wealthy elite of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the battlers of Redfern and the bush, and the idealists who joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Within this broad plot, David Crooke manages to fit in a variety of subplots: the twelve year old brothers are forced into a Roman Catholic orphanage outside Towoomba that seems to combine most of the worst features of farm homes and orphanages; a place for Emma's mother is found at a home in Armidale, where Emma becomes a seamstress making clothes for students at the local boarding schools; the paramilitary New Guard is combined with the New England New State Movement, the Country Party and right wing Sydney politics; while the treatment of the Aborigines features early, with Emma's mother turning out to be part Aboriginal.

The world that Crooke describes is, in fact, the world I so often write about, if from the other side of the fence. I say the other side of the fence because I come from the political stream - New England populism - that actually features as part of the baddies. Some of his baddies are my goodies!

So what do I think of the book so far? Well, it strikes me as a pretty good yarn. Certainly the bits I have read make we want to buy and read the whole book.

I was unable to find out any details of David's life from a web search. However, some of his knowledge of detail is pretty good. For example, the boarding house in Armidale where Emma stays takes Teacher's College students. This may sound a trivial thing, but it actually says a lot, because such boarding houses were carefully vetted.

Where the plot fails in historical terms, however, is in the nexus established between the New England political movements and the paramilitary New Guard. The Northern New England political leadership - I say Northern New England because the position in the Lower Hunter with its coal mining and industrial interests was different - was far too involved with constitutional forms to find the Sydney based sometimes quasi Fascist New Guard attractive.

For the benefit of international readers who lack background, at its peak the New Guard was reputed to have 50,000 members mainly in Sydney and possessed considerable military muscle.

The sheer flashiness of the New Guard means that it has attracted considerable attention. However, it was only part of a complicated political mosaic that included, among others, the more shadowy Old Guard. I say shadowy, because the more conservative Old Guard is only partially known.  

There are elements here that we will never know because so much was based on contact between people without formal record keeping.

What we can say, I think, is that there was one absolutely critical meeting of the New England leadership that, in retrospect, changed Australian history.

The question at issue was whether or not New England should formally secede from NSW.

While this issue has been treated by later historians almost as a side-show, political posturing, it was in fact very serious. The parliamentarians involved covered the majority of New England by area. The majority of newspapers were on-side, as were the town and rural elites over much of the area. Secession would have been a mass movement that would then have triggered other and potentially unknown actions by, among others, the New Guard.  

The majority view going into the meeting was clearly yes. David Drummond, Member for Armidale in the State Parliament, a senior Movement leader and former Minister, argued no: if we start this course, no man can see the outcome. His arguments carried the day. A compromise path was agreed upon.

In recording details of the meeting late in his life, Drummond clearly regarded his approach at this meeting as one of the important events in his life. It is clear that this was no political sideshow in his mind.

Whether you think that Drummond was right or wrong is a matter of perspective. Looking back at what we now know, it could well have triggered civil war. However, the resulting comprises would probably have given New England self-government.

When I look at David Crooke's book, what stands out to me is not the issue as to whether his interpretation of events was right or wrong. Wrong interpretations can be corrected. What, to my mind, is important is that his writing actually gives emotional content and context to events that might otherwise drop altogether from popular perceptions of Australia's past.          

New England populism

For those interested in finding out more about my perspective on New England populism see:

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