Of bullocks and bulldust

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Joseph Furphy’s classic novel, Such Is Life, was published in Sydney on 1 August 1903. My love affair with it began nearly 50 years later. Strangely, this happened in Beijing in the early days of Mao Zedong’s China.

One of a dozen idealistic young hopefuls selected to study communist theory in China for three years under Chinese and Soviet lecturers, my smartest move in preparation was to buy great works of fiction of which I had read virtually nothing. Such Is Life accompanied multiple volumes of Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens. These made my suitcase heavy but became a significant part of our spare-time reading during the icy winter nights and the annual long hot seaside vacations each summer.

One evening early in 1952, many months after our arrival, Eric Aarons handed me my own 1945 edition of Such Is Life—which I hadn’t read. He had it open at page 342. ‘Read these next few pages,’ he urged. It was Jack the Shellback’s yarn about the man-o-war hawk, the hungriest thing on earth. I became hooked for life.

Most of our group read the book. The man-o-war hawk, tawny-haired tigresses with slumberous dark eyes, the doings of Pup and other snippets of Such Is Life rivalled Dickens’ Pecksniff and Mrs Gamp, Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep in our everyday talk throughout three long years in China.

Such Is Life has never achieved a wide readership. It’s been ignored or put aside. Nevertheless, it has remained in print for a century, and fine judges rate it as one of Australia’s greatest novels. Stephen Murray-Smith wrote: ‘I revere Lawson and Richardson but Such Is Life is a book I should like to be buried or burnt with me …’ A.D. Hope regarded Furphy’s work highly: ‘For all his limitations Furphy is about the best prose writer the country has produced.’

In Marion Halligan’s Storykeepers, Rodney Hall argues that the wholesale neglect of Such Is Life is ‘the greatest oddity in Australian literary history’. He refers to it as a ‘gloriously inconsequential, learned and earthy masterpiece’ with an absolute Australianness and a ‘compassionately mocking tone that never lets up’.

Others, like Manning Clark, complain that no-one has been able to establish clearly what Such Is Life is about. These worries remind me of stories concerning such disparate writers as Virginia Woolf and Frank Dalby Davison. To The Lighthouse is interpreted by many academics and students, yet in a letter to a friend Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘I meant nothing by The Lighthouse.’ She believed readers would place their own construction on it and ‘make it the deposit for their own emotions’.

Likewise, when short-story writer John Morrison quizzed Frank Dalby Davison about his novel Man-Shy—asking whether there was truth in the suggestion that the little red cow represented mankind’s struggle for freedom—Davison, with a dry smile, replied: ‘It’s just the story of a bloody cow, John.’

So being a simple soul, my search for Joseph Furphy has never dwelt overlong on unravelling the obscurities that sometimes spice his yarns of the bush, his forays into social life via biblical and Shakespearean ramblings, his fanciful philosophising and his assertions of democratic and nationalistic ideals. Rather, I became curious to know something of the scenes in which the novel is placed, to find the site that provided the prototype for the Runnymede Station of Such Is Life, to see the spot on the Lachlan where Warrigal Alf was ‘down’.

Furphy (1843–1912) set his novel in 1883—a long time ago, as some wider, oddly assorted events of that year may demonstrate. Henry Lawson, then a teenager, left the NSW countryside to live in Sydney. Bella Guerin graduated from the University of Melbourne, the first woman graduate in Australia. Karl Marx died in London. The volcano Krakatoa between Java and Sumatra erupted, killing some 30,000 people. Parnell’s popular Irish National League campaigned for Home Rule. Ethel Florence Richardson, aged 13, became a boarder at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College.

How long ago it was became apparent when my 1992 quest began. The three surviving letters to his father, written by Furphy in 1882–3 during his bullock-driving years in the Riverina, mention five huge sheep stations to and from which he had carted goods. These were Coan Downs, north of Hillston; Conoble, Boondarra and Mossgiel, north of Booligal; and Paddington, south-west of Cobar.

These properties still exist and are marked on road maps. Phone calls to Shire Councils, police stations, post offices and local historians yielded names and addresses of current owners and other sources. The responses were invariably co-operative, even though Furphy and his book were not known and station records and documents going back to the 1880s seemed to have disappeared without trace.

Exultation came with a long and informative letter from Tony Mackinlay who then owned Conoble Station. His father had ‘drawn’ Conoble in a ballot in 1947 when large holdings in the Western Division of NSW were cut up for closer settlement. The 25,000 acres obtained by the Mackinlays was about one tenth of the original property.

Tony Mackinlay’s parents lived on the station from 1947 until 1979. A lecturer in biochemistry at the University of NSW, Tony ran Conoble under a share-farming arrangement with a neighbour, visiting the place periodically. He had read Such Is Life and puzzled as to whether Furphy had based the Runnymede of the book upon Conoble—an assumption argued strongly by Julian Croft in The Life and Opinions of Tom Collins (1991). He encouraged me and my wife Dawn to visit him at Conoble in August 1992.

The trip up through Echuca, Deniliquin and Hay was both exhilarating and depressing. The worst drought for 20 years had gripped the Western Riverina. Between Echuca and Hay the road was lined with litter and dead kangaroos. After Hay the litter decreased a little, with dead sheep replacing the kangaroos.

Northwards, across One Tree Plain, we gazed in awe at the widest horizons and biggest skies we’d ever seen. On that flat and treeless earth the world was three-quarters sky, turning cars, humans and animals into insignificant specks. Jill Ker Conway represented this country with exactness and panache in The Road from Coorain:

Because of the flatness, contrasts are in a strange scale. A scarlet sunset will highlight grey-yellow tussocks of grass as though they were trees. Thunderclouds will mount thousands of feet above one stunted tree in the foreground. A horseback rider on the horizon will seem to rise up and emerge from the clouds.

Such is the country that provided the scenes for most of Such is Life—through which the fictional Tom Collins rides, dreams, yarns, pontificates, pompously airing opinions and advising, helping or hindering friends and acquaintances.

And so on past Mossgiel to Ivanhoe and out to Conoble, on a dirt road beside streaming mobs of giant red kangaroos. They were bounding at high speed through sparsely timbered paddocks, looking  much grander and faster than the greys we are used to.

The ‘new’ Conoble homestead was built in the 1950s, several hundred metres from what remains of the old one. We walked to the old site in the chilly breeze common to plains country in winter. Mirages danced in the distance but the stench from the kangaroo die-off was real enough. High above the derelict, sagged and rotting structure was an eagle’s nest on top of a dead tree. The hulk of a 1923 Dodge and other vehicles and implements rusted and rotted.

Standing there in desolate drought, it was hard to imagine that in Furphy’s day this was the centre of a community of nearly 300 people. Apart from the homestead no trace remained of the living quarters for single and married men, stables, blacksmiths’ forges, sheds, cookhouses and graded dining rooms for management, jackaroos, stockmen, labourers and travellers.

That afternoon, Tony Mackinlay drove us across the red-and-black soil plains of Conoble. When he told us we were near the middle of Lake Conoble I felt like the bloke in Lawson’s story: taken to see the Paroo River he asked where the river was, only to be told he was standing in it.

This Conoble district was the setting for large parts of Such Is Life. From the nearby Gladstone Station shearing shed, Tony pointed out the dark timberline some ten to 12 kilometres to the north. Somewhere not far away was the scene described on page two of the novel:

Overhead, the sun blazing wastefully and thanklessly through a rarefied atmosphere; underfoot, the hot, black clay, thirsting for spring rain, and bare except for inedible roley-poleys, coarse tussocks, and the woody stubble of closely-eaten salt-bush; between sky and earth, a solitary wayfarer, wisely lapt in philosophic topor. Ten yards behind the grey saddle-horse follows a black packhorse, lightly loaded; and three yards behind the packhorse ambles listlessly a tall, slate-coloured kangaroo dog, furnished with the usual poison muzzle—a light wire basket, worn after the manner of a nose-bag.

Mile after mile we go at a good walk, till the dark boundary of the scrub country disappears northward in the glassy haze, and in front, southward, the level black soil plains of Riverina Proper mark a straight skyline, broken here and there by a monumental clump of pine-ridge.

In October 1882, Furphy informed his father he had to cart five tons of timber to Boondarra and then go on to Conoble to get a load of wool, about seven tons, to take back to Hay.

My reading had linked Boondarra with Harry West of Hillstone—its manager for over 20 years into the 1950s. Harry West had died but his wife, Mary, was very much alive. At 24, she had married him in 1938. What a shock it must have been for a young woman from high-rainfall Gippsland to find herself amidst the heat, drought and dust storms of the western Riverina plains—the nearest neighbours miles away, no other women close by and the telephone operating quite irregularly. She mothered five children there.

Mary West was tall, handsome, intelligent and witty. Droll humour spiced her stories on Boondarra, people and incidents. She recalled the terrible heat waves of 1939. A drop from 117 degrees Fahrenheit to 107 the next day seemed like a cool change, when the Coolgardie safe proved useless and birds dropped dead out of the sky.

She described the amazing changes to the land after big rains, when the countryside rioted in glorious growth and hosts of wildflowers. She bemoaned the loss of trees, especially quandongs and native pines. Boondarra adjoined Coorain so she knew the Kers well, and read The Road from Coorain as she had Such Is Life long before.

Our visit to Boondarra found no-one living there and the homestead demolished. Only an old shearing shed, sheep yards and piles of debris remained. We saw the famous ground tank (then dry) that kept the homestead in water for so long during the 19th century. We found, too, what could have been a swimming place in the old days. Its size, attributes and distance from the homestead site bear considerable resemblance to the swimming hole at Runnymede in chapter VI of Such Is Life—where Collins had his midnight swim and, while returning, found Priestly, the bullock driver, and Pawsone, a travelling saddler, at their midnight pilfering of Runnymede’s prime horse- and cattle-feed.

All this, however, reinforced the conclusion reached by John Barnes in his biography of Furphy, The Order of Things (1990), that Furphy wrote ‘… of a region that is geographically exact, though
specific locations cannot be pin-pointed …’ Furphy, it seems, borrowed features from various western Riverina stations and places to give a realistic but fictional account.

A lot of the original version of Such Is Life was set along the Murray in northern Victoria between Echuca and Barmah. Great hunks were cut and later reshaped into Rigby’s Romance and The Buln-buln and the Brolga. However, the third chapter of Such Is Life has Collins lose his clothes in the Murray while crossing it on a log. He is then swamped by Pup, the gormless kangaroo dog. This long chapter of sustained humour is set near Barmah.

Collins, after plunging into the water and being carried downstream and scrambling ashore naked, cannot tell whether he is in NSW or Victoria. This had always seemed far-fetched to me. But some years back, while lunching on a scenic bend of the Victoria side at Barmah, I saw a houseboat go upstream and moor. Then, later, I called to Dawn, ‘It’s moved across to the NSW side.’ In fact, we found it to be still on our side of the river. The curliness of the river makes such mistakes easy.

The Echuca-Barmah region was well known to Furphy. While bullock-driving in the Riverina, he passed this way several times on the long ride to visit his parents. The terrible 1883 drought killed most of Furphy’s working bullocks and ruined his carting business. He appealed to his brother, John, who owned a flourishing foundry in Shepparton. The family moved to Shepparton to a foundry-owned cottage, in Welsford Street, and he worked at the foundry for over 20 years. The Furphy foundry is famous in Shepparton and throughout Australia; my feet often rest on a Furphy fender in front of an open fire.
In the tiny sanctum that he built behind the house in Welsford Street, Furphy wrote Such Is Life by lantern light after work and at weekends. Offices and shops now occupy this place. A plaque on a Wilga tree, which Furphy planted himself, stands on the edge of the footpath as monument to the man and his book. People and traffic rush by.

In Shepparton today the name Furphy is associated with the foundry much, much more than with the writer. Only a few copies of Such Is Life are sold annually, while the library caters for a tiny readership interest.

The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985) says:

 … for all the cleverness and appropriateness of his literary allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, Sterne and other authors, there remains a certain self-consciousness about his literary style; the effect, when the ponderousness and pomposity natural to the character of Tom Collins are added, is to make Such Is Life difficult to read, if increasingly enjoyable to reread.

The words ‘increasingly enjoyable to reread’ are appropriate probably to much of the world’s best literature. The Furphy masterpiece is no exception.

John Sendy lives and writes in north-west Victoria.



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Hey mate you didn't find any old maps or drawings of conobal station as I'm am there now and would be interested to look into the past
Jacob Jenkins | 05 June 2013


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