One Life: Extract


After my mother died in 2002 it took me a few years to get out all the papers she’d left and look through them. I was afraid it would be a mournful thing to do, but the first exercise book I opened spoke to me as if she was beside me, the warmth and humour of her voice alive still: “I have often thought about writing a book – other people do it all the time – it can’t be that hard. Up till now I’ve never had the time or the right pencil but now that I have one foot in the grave it’s time to get on with it.” I opened another. There was her workmanlike handwriting saying: “There must be a way of writing a story – other people seem to do it without any trouble – I’m going to try this time to write it backwards.”

Mum’s many hopeful starts all petered out after a few pages. What she left was a mass of fragments. They often began with the stories about her forebears that she’d heard from her mother. Others were about her childhood. Most were about her adult life, up to her middle forties. They taper away after that, perhaps because by then she felt less need to look back and try to understand.

She often quoted Socrates’ famous words: “the unexamined life is not worth living”. That terse judgment stayed with her all her life, shaping her actions and consoling her when things seemed bleak. Her sense of the past and the great sweeps of change she’d seen made her want to record, and to do more than record – to work out how her own individual life was part of the wider world. That was the urge behind the rich patchwork of fragments I was reading.

My mother wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about. She wasn’t famous, had no public life beyond one letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, did nothing that would ever make the history-books. But I think her story is worth telling. Not many voices like hers are heard. People of her social class – she was the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers – hardly ever left any record of what they felt and thought and did. They often believed their lives weren’t important enough to record, and in many cases they lacked the literacy and the leisure to write. As a result, our picture of the past is skewed towards the top lot. Their written records are the basis for our histories, the nice things they owned fill our museums, their sonnets and novels shape our imaginations. In my mother’s memoirs I had a first-hand account of a world largely left out of those histories and museums and about which no sonnets, as far as I know, have been written.

Yet her story represents that of a generation of people whose lives were unimaginably different from the lives of every generation of their families before them. When my mother was born, Australia and New Zealand were the only countries in the world where women had the vote. Free universal education stopped at primary school. Very few women worked outside the home. Only a handful of working-class children went on to university or had professional training, and of those only a tiny number were women. Even when they did work, women were paid half a man’s wage. There was no public assistance to supporting mothers. There was no organised child care. The only reliable form of contraception was abstinence.

By the time my mother’s children were growing up, all that had changed. Two world wars, an economic depression, and a series of social revolutions had changed the lives of hundreds of millions. Many families would know stories like my mother’s about their parents and grandparents. Her story is unusual in some ways, but its basic shape – the coming of a new world of choices and  self-determination – echoes the lives of countless others.

When Mum started talking about her life, she often started five generations before she was born. The point of her story was that it was part of a bigger one.

Solomon Wiseman, her great-great grandfather, arrived in Australia in 1806. He was an illiterate lighterman on the Thames, had been caught stealing timber, and was transported for the term of his natural life to New South Wales, along with his wife and young son. He quickly got his freedom and “took up land”, as the euphemism goes, on the Hawkesbury River. There’s nothing in the record about exactly how he “took up” that land from the Darug people, but the chances are that he was part of the wave of settler violence against the original Australians.

The stories that have come down about him are unflattering. He was brutal to his convict servants and was crooked in business. He’s supposed to have killed his first wife by pushing her over the balcony, and when one of his daughters became pregnant to the riding master he’s said to have thrown her and the baby out of the house to die. Although he became wealthy he refused to have his children educated, on the grounds that if he sent them to school they’d be humiliated because of the convict taint they carried.

His daughter Sarah Wiseman married an Irishman, John Martin Davis from Cork. Davis was a free settler, but  not a wealthy one. He acquired land in the Hunter Valley and the Liverpool Plains, lost most of it in the depression of the 1840s, and retreated with his wife and children to a small holding at Currabubula Creek, in northern New South Wales, where he started a pub. Paddy Davis’s Freemason’s Arms became a well-known landmark on the stock route to Queensland. The Davises prospered and as the village of Currabubula grew, they owned most of it.

Their daughter, another Sarah, married an illiterate Cockney, Thomas Maunder. As a seventeen-year-old he’d been brought out with his family to work on Goonoo Goonoo Station near Currabubula. Goonoo Goonoo was the biggest pastoral estate in the country, run by the Kings, who were descended from one of the early governors. In the family stories Mr King was a hard man to his underlings. Maunder was hardly off the boat, a boy from London who’d probably never seen a sheep, when King made him take three rams – notoriously hard to handle – from Goonoo Goonoo to Quirindi, by himself and without a sheepdog. When Maunder’s sister died, Mr King made him dig her grave. Worse than these were the humiliations. If Mr King had to speak to Maunder, he’d say, “Stand back, my man, at least ten yards. You harbour the flies so!"

But Thomas Maunder worked hard and made enough money to buy his own small farm near Currabubula. One of his brothers did even better, and made sure his children got the best education Tamworth could offer. Thomas didn’t send his children to school. He kept them home to work as shepherds – children were cheaper than fences. The exception was his youngest, Dolly, born in 1881. Just as she was coming up to school age, one of their neighbours was prosecuted under the new laws for failing to send his children to school, and Maunder didn’t wait to be next. He sent Dolly along to Currabubula Public School. Apart from her grandfather Davis, who probably had at least some education, Dolly was the first of her family to know how to read and write.

Currabubula Public School only went up to Grade Six, the end of primary school. Like all the other pupils, Dolly sat in Grade Six doing the same work over and over until she was the legal school leaving age, fourteen. High school was out of the question. There were only six government high schools in the whole state and the nearest was two hundred miles away.

When she left school at fourteen, Dolly wanted to become a schoolteacher. Maunder said no, he had enough money to support his daughters until they married. A daughter going to work would shame him. Over his dead body she’d be a teacher!

Dolly fell in love with a local boy, Jim Daly, and would have married him but he was Catholic and the Maunders were nominal C of E. For a Protestant to marry a Catholic was unthinkable. In any case, Dolly’s parents had their eye on someone else.

Albert Russell was born in Currabubula in 1882. He was the illegitimate son of a woman called Mary Russell, his father unknown. Like Dolly, he went to Currabubula Public School. When he left at fourteen he went to work for Dolly’s father. He was a big strong man who became a champion shearer. Dolly’s mother fancied him as a son-in-law because, she said, no-one could cure and slice the bacon the way she liked it except Bert.

Dolly put off marriage for years. Several times she went to Dorrigo to stay for months on end with a friend from school. But in 1910, when she was twenty-nine – nearly on the shelf – she had to give in. She and Bert married and set up house on a farm called “Rothsay” that Maunder owned near Gunnedah.  They worked it as share-croppers, mostly growing wheat. Bert continued to go away shearing for ready money. A year after they were married, Frank was born.

Frank was nine months old and Bert was away when Dolly found a locked trunk in the shed. She broke it open. Inside were child support payments that Bert had been making. She recognised the name of the recipient straight away – it was a girl who’d worked for her mother. While Dolly was off at Dorrigo, Bert had been busy with this girl. It was Dolly’s mother who’d organised the girl and the baby to go away. She’d arranged the payments and made Bert keep it a secret. For Dolly that was the worst part, that her mother had tricked her.

When Bert came back there was a tremendous row and he went off again, for good this time. But what could Dolly do, alone on a farm with a baby? She sent word for him to come back. Nine months later, in August 1912, my mother Nance was born.


The first memory was of crying too much and being put under her father’s arm like a log of wood. He took her outside into the night, the cold struck chill against her face, there was the horse-trough full of water glittering in small moonlight, and her father pushing her head under. The terror of it, the cold black water up her nose, in her throat, choking her. It was only the once, but it was never forgotten.

The house at “Rothsay” was a big kitchen with an enormous wooden table and the warm stove. Her father would leave his boots, heavy with black mud, at the door and padded into the house in his socks. He’d ruffle her hair with a big hard farmer’s hand, took her on his knee. Her mother seemed always scolding. Always her voice high and angry, a piece of wire cutting through the room. Her own name came to be an accusation. Nance! Nance!

Outside it was the paddocks, sky everywhere you looked and a lovely long flowing of days. Sheep in one paddock, cows in another, and the rest ploughed ground with wheat coming up green and tender. The river down the hill, the still pool with the trees hanging over the bank where a platypus rippled along the surface at dusk, the end of the pool where the water mumbled over the rocks.

Frank was eighteen months older, like another self, but stronger, faster, cleverer. He made a cubby for them. The sounds were different when you were in there, the sun different when it came through the holes and lay along the dirt in bright bars. The peaceful feeling, in there with Frank, the two of you safe and quiet. Max appeared after a few years, a new brother, but he was just a bundle of clothes with a red-cheeked face, of no interest.

And always the weather like another person leaning over the household. Rain so thick you couldn’t see the shed from the house, and the river turning from a quiet thing lying between its banks to something dimpled and dangerous, rising over the paddocks, the new wheat under the water, trees up to their knees and the sheep crying together on a little island. Frightening, because the grown-ups were frightened. Was the house going to float away? Then the sun blazing again and the water drying up, the river shrinking into a chain of pools, and all the new wheat shrivelling.

Between the floods and the droughts, she was five before she saw wheat ready to harvest, each stalk swaying with the weight of the ear, the field rippling gold in the breeze. They woke to a day so hot and still the air was like something solid. All morning a cloud gathered on the horizon and by afternoon it filled the sky, dark with a dangerous green underbelly like a bruise. Then one great blast of wind, and the hail starting all at once, like someone spilling peas out of a colander. Nance saw the white things bouncing off the dirt, the ground writhing under them. Ran out to pick one up, felt them hitting her back, her head, a mean little pain like spite, but she picked up a gnarled piece of ice and ran back with it, put it in her mouth but it tasted of nothing but dirt. Her mother shouting, screaming, but for once not at her. Nance could hardly hear her, the roar of the hail on the roof too much even for her mother’s scream. Under it the rumble of her father’s voice with a note in it she hadn’t heard before. Nance looked where they were looking and saw the wheat paddock flinching under the hail, all the stems bowing down, the waving paddock flattened before her eyes into muddy straw.

She and Frank lay that night in their little room listening to their mother and father argue in the kitchen. Seven years!  their mother kept shouting. Seven bloody years and not a single bloody bag taken off! Rain or drought or the bloody grasshoppers! Now the bloody hail! Bert rumbling something, Dolly cutting over him. No, Bert, that’s it! We’re going!

Nance was a week short of her sixth birthday when she and Frank were roused out of bed in the dark. Bert sat her on the edge of the kitchen table putting on her shoes. Then lifted her into to the buggy, squashed in with bedding, the cooking pots rattling around in the back, and her mother shouting back towards the house, Goodbye Rothsay, I hope I never see you again!