JILL ROE Our Fathers Cleared the Bush: Remembering Eyre Peninsula. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
Our Fathers Cleared the Bush is a captivating combination of regional history and memoir.
‘When I say I come from Eyre Peninsula, I am sometimes met with a blank look,’ wrote the late Professor Emerita of History at Macquarie University, Jill Roe, in opening her first chapter. No doubt many Sydneysiders have blank looks regarding anywhere west of Penrith, but as Roe points out, Eyre Peninsula is actually Australia’s second largest peninsula after Cape York and so must merit recognition from at least those people who can read a map.
I have lived almost my entire life in South Australia, have no difficulty reading maps, have made two long trips around the world, but only ever once gained a toehold on Eyre Peninsula by spending a night in the industrial city of Whyalla at the northern end of Spencer Gulf. I’m sure West Coast people would say that didn’t count.
Jill Roe, born in Tumby Bay, died in January this year, but we are fortunate that she completed this final book and lived to see it published in 2016. We are fortunate, indeed, that she has told the story in the way she has, revisiting her roots, dustying her boots, walking all but one of the peninsula’s jetties, its many beaches and much beyond.
The story begins with ‘Getting There’, which concentrates on changing means of transport (ship, rail, cars, buses, trucks, air) before discussing various aspects of country life, water resources, farming, church and community, the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Port Lincoln in 1954, the Yallunda Flat Show, Aboriginal survival and continuity, and change since the 1960s.
One of the delights of the book is how it moves from personal experience to wider spheres and back again. The magic of place names that roll off the tongue – Buckleboo, Kimba, Wudinna, Ceduna, Koppio, Kyancutta and Pygery – is seductive. The places are also connected to a larger whole. And the connection is strengthened by the excellent use of photographs – of silos, the Big Galah, a train carriage, buses, a light aeroplane, a pumping station, a reservoir, churches, war memorials, museums, working animals (Clydesdales, Coffin Bay brumbies and kelpie), pictures from schooldays and family snaps – which convey a sense of both struggle and making good.
The Roes and her maternal family (the Heaths) might have cleared the mallee, but the ‘making good’ is only for some:
The Roes and the Heaths assumed themselves part of a people’s history of Australia – a history, however, that excluded Aboriginal peoples, who had long since been rounded up on reserves and driven to fringe-dwelling despair in the early squatting age. For myself, I revelled in the mallee: it was child-sized, my first home, though in the years at Pygery I saw it mainly from the car or from the front of my Uncle Doug’s would-be racehorses. I was too small to play beyond the pepper trees and the boobialla protecting the flat-roofed farmhouse from the north-west winds, which are the most unpleasant feature of the South Australian climate.
Eyre Peninsula is a dry place and the Roes were fortunate to have the Kooltatta Creek, a year-round watercourse, run through their farm. An 1840 report by explorer Robert Tod that he had discovered a veritable Mississippi proved way off-beam. The Tod River is a much more modest stream but the Tod Reservoir was established in the Koppio Hills in 1922 and a pipeline to Ceduna/Thevenard was proudly proclaimed as the longest gravity-fed water reticulation system in the world. Roe comments that she found the shutting of this reservoir in 2004 ‘quite shocking’ and is dismayed by the over-reliance on the pipeline from the River Murray.
‘The School Bus’ chapter is an entry point into educational history and the part played by one-teacher schools (of which there were once 7000 in Australia) and area schools. For Roe (as for Randolph Stow in The Merry-go-round in the Sea) it was also a ‘microcosm of our world’:
And it was fun. On the bus I tried learning to yodel. We all listened to the hillbilly half hour on the radio, station 5DN as I recall, and Mavis Walter, who liked to dress as a cowgirl, actually could yodel. Every morning between 6.30 am and 7 am the station played Tex Morton and others doing their stuff. Could one song have been ‘China Doll’: ‘I’m tired of crying/and all your lying/my China doll’?
Echoes of a lost world.
Farming is both fun and hard work but churches (and there are plenty of them) provide more than religion. Bible readings, hymn singing and Sunday School were important, but more so were the cultural events: dressing up in best clothes, the opportunity for conversation after services, and social occasions.
In writing about dancing for the Queen in 1954, Roe enlarges from a personal role to a local response to a unique event, to consider new ways of writing regional history. The Queen’s visit was ‘more like the end of an era than the onset of a new one’. In Eyre Peninsula (as elsewhere) much has changed and this means a wider appreciation of Aboriginal history, urban dimensions and cultural experiences such as sport and tourism.
The final chapter remarks on the peninsula’s population of 80 000 having remained at the same level since the 1960s. This might suggest stagnation, but there is also social mobility. Whyalla has been the biggest loser with its population reduced from 33 000 to 22 000, but other towns (particularly on the coast) have made gains in the wake of increased tourism. Roe writes of ‘comers’ and ‘goers’, the ‘comers’ being the town dwellers, while the ‘goers’ were the teachers, clergy, bank and postal workers, doctors and nurses who came and went ‘having enriched the communities they served’. As for the Roe girls (Jill and her three sisters), she admits that they represent an older ‘foot-loose’ sub-category who left the district to undertake career training.
As one might expect of a leading historian, Roe refers to a large number of community, institutional and family histories, and government reports, but she wears her scholarship lightly.
From my youth I remember a book with a striking title, Where’s Piednippie? It was on Eyre Peninsula and so, as an Adelaidean (not unlike a Sydneysider), my response then was, ‘it’s over there’. Roe’s book has caused me to think afresh. Port Lincoln must be worth a visit. Poonindie, Yallunda Flat and Ungarra as well. And how can one resist taking a branch road off the Flinders Highway near the coastal town of Sheringa and heading inland to Tooligie? It leads to a place called Nowhere Else. I kid you not.
What I love most about Our Fathers Cleared the Bush is its warm tone. You might like it too.
Jill Roe Our Fathers Cleared the Bush: Remembering Eyre Peninsula Wakefield Press 2016 PB 249pp $29.95
Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is Adelaide Oval: A Photo-Document 2009.
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