Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Maslyn Williams - the beginnings in Tenterfield and beyond

Maslyn Williams: one of Australia's best post war documentary makers before turning his hand to writing. This the second in a series on growing up on the Northern or New England Tablelands
“He should go to Australia, to his mother’s people,” Uncle George said, “that’s what she always intended.”

The lad listened. Aunt Yvonne was not convinced. ”But he’s got a good brain. He should go to Cambridge like his father.”

Uncle George, a Whitehall civil servant with a practical mind accustomed to shedding responsibility, would have none of this.

“He can go as an immigrant for next to nothing. I’ll arrange it. If he doesn’t like it, he can come back.”

“He should go to Australia, to his mother’s people” Uncle George said; “that’s what she always intended.”.

The lad listened. Aunt Yvonne was not convinced.

”But he’s got a good brain. He should go to Cambridge like his father.” Uncle George, a Whitehall civil servant with a practical mind accustomed to shedding responsibility, would have none of this.

“He can go as an immigrant for next to nothing. I’ll arrange it. If he doesn’t like it, he can come back.”

Robert Ronald Maslyn Williams, the listening lad, was probably around 17. He had been born in 1911. His father, a career military officer, had been killed in the Great War. His mother had just died.

Fate decided, the lad joined a group of young immigrants on the journey to Australia and, in his case to station outside Tenterfield to become a jackeroo. There he fell in love with Australia, ultimately becoming one of this country’s best known documentary film makers and writers.

It is clear that the lad was interested in writing from the beginning, although his taste first ran to poetry. He kept notes, wrote descriptions and long letter to his Aunt Yvonne.

In 1988, the 77 year old Williams used those notes and letters to write an award winning biographical memoir, His Mother's Country (Melbourne University Press), looking back at the lad (he refers to himself as the lad through out) coming of age on the Tablelands. It was a time when life seemed to be “permanently sunlit”.

The first part of the book outlines why he came, the voyage, reactions to Sydney and describes the long train trip to Tenterfield on the Brisbane Mail, a description that would be instantly familiar to older New Englanders.

The lad knew little of Australia, less of the country or farm work and nothing about his destination. This was his introduction to the new, to strangeness that would soon become familiar.

At Tenterfield, the lad was met by the boss who managed the station on behalf of the family and taken to his new home. It was a large and well established place, a self-contained world, a small village.

One core focus in the book from this point is station life, work and people, as the lad learns to do his job and establishes his place. A second is the lad’s growing involvement in the life of Tenterfield and, to a lesser extent, the nearby big town of Glen Innes.

Final acceptance comes when the irascible and taciturn overseer Old Mackie, the Old Man, is hurt in an accident and the lad has to go for help. Two days later, a heavily bandaged Mackie comes in for breakfast, sits down and looks straight at the lad and says “G’day”.

The book ends with the lad’s departure for England following a further intervention by Uncle George. It’s clear, though, that the lad will return to Australia.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 27 June 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017here 2018 


Johnb said...

A requiem for that Australia Past. Having recently returned to Oz after a 40 year absence I can see just how much the Australian media culture has changed as well as that of the urban Coast I have returned too. One of the hazards of ageing I suppose Jim.

Jim Belshaw said...

I couldn't help laughing, John. Indeed. I think a fair bit of what I do is a requiem! As a matter of curiosity, what do you see as the main changes?

Johnb said...

To my mind Jim the most important change has been to Housing Policy. I was genuinely shocked when I came across the numbers that near 40% of the Housing stock in Coffs Harbour is rented accommodation. My grandparents, their children and myself when we came off our dairy farm under Doug Anthony’s farm build up scheme, all bought our block of land and either built ourselves or engaged a builder to build a one off for us. Rental accommodation was hard to find and Australia was a nation of home owners. Not a Crown Land Auction in sight now most development proposals are already spoken for post approval, my cousins son operates a home builder franchise and receives an allocation of blocks in each new development to build properties out of his franchisors pattern book. Those with finance, mostly Capital City retirees buy the package. Globally, Australian millennials have the second lowest percentage of home ownership and significant student debt, those two factors along with changes in the workplace have meant family formation has been significantly affected. Coffs is still a country town, though one that has grown, but that doesn’t explain the reporting on a weekly basis of cash business’ facing armed robberies, a machete twice last week. There has even been a gangland shooting via a hitman sent up,from Sydney. Shopping centre car parks need a deal of care negotiating, I’ve had to jump myself and heard abuse hurled at others. Basically there is a lot of Aggression out there way beyond the ‘beer fights’ of old. I also think the accents changed, you can tell the older generation simply by listening to them, sight unseen, but then I should recognise my peers. Educational provision, particularly at Sexondary level has also changed significantly with the growth in State funded fee paying schools, my own grandchildren attend one such. Loads more but it is still good to be home.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting, John. I'm glad that you still find it good to be home!

One of the big changes in New England in general has been the growth in poverty (relative and absolute) often concentrated in particular places and among particular groups leading to increased social problems. A second connected issue has been an increased drug problem.

I find it a bit hard to adjust to the bigger Coffs!

Johnb said...

In the process of moving back into Bellingen Shire Jim, much more my scale. Yes poverty (relative and absolute) is silently growing amongst us in a different manner to the past. Currently involved with A local Council sponsored Affordable Housing Action Group trying to make a difference.

Jim Belshaw said...

Will be interested to see how you go with that, John. I spent most of the last ten years on and off working in the social and affordable housing arena.