Secondhand Rows 

Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.

On Myrtle Rose White and revisiting an old friend

 - Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Myrtle Rose White

Before retiring for the night in the clean but sparsely furnished bedroom, I crept forth to take a dejected survey of the outside world. I had heard the saying 'the sky's the limit', but here there seemed no limit to the sky. Sky - sky - such an immensity of sky. One half of its circle dropped down to an horizon as level as if ruled off with a ruler; the other half merged with the round naked summits of far hills and the serrated tops of low scrubby tree... the young moon lay on its back on the western skyline. It was a gilded boomerang... the myriad stars were diamonds of the first water... but what an appalling loneliness! And what a dreadful menacing silence held the world in thrall!- Myrtle Rose White (1888-1961) recalling the landscape on arrival at Lake Elder outback station, near Lake Frome in north east South Australia in 1910, as a 22  year old mother with a four year old daughter, Doris (the Little'un).  
What a find! This trilogy of memoirs describes life on outback stations in South Australia and the West Darling district between 1910 and 1938. Born the third of ten children at Broken Hill, Myrtle's family moved to the Barossa Valley where she attended school at Williamstown. She was working as a domestic servant when she met her future husband, Cornelius White.
No Roads Go By narrates the seven years they spent on the drought prone 8000 sq mile cattle station in the sand hill country. During that time, two sons Alan and Garry-'Boy' and 'Little Brother'-were born. The isolation and hardships of outback life are simply and unsparingly related mail delivered fortnightly, provisions twice yearly. The two young boys were frequently ill, the nearest doctor was four hours distant. Rabbit plagues, dust storms, clearing the constantly silted up water bore with a string of camels, dispatching drought stricken cattle with a blow to the head, are all chronicled in restrained prose.
'Pleasant milestones' are also recorded: the three children sliding down sandy slopes 'with shrieks of happy laughter'; the 'Little'un' with handfuls of flowers; the beauty of a mob of wild horses; sighting flocks of birds across a 'darkling sky'; the unexpected return of 'The Boss' after weeks of absence.
In 1922 the family moved to the west Darling district where Cornelius managed seven stations for 'Cattle King', Sir Sydney Kidman (1857-1935), including Morden and Wonnaminta, comprising over a million acres (404,690 ha). In 1937 Cornelius retired and the Whites opened a guest house in Adelaide. 'The Boss' died three years later. Both sons enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. Alan survived World War II, but Garry was missing in action.
Encouraged to write by Mary Gilmore (1865-1962), Myrtle White also formed friendships with authors Jean Devanny (1894-1962), Miles Franklin (1879-1954) and Gwen Meredith (1907-2006). After the war, Myrtles' daughter Doris and husband Jim Chambers took over the running of Wonnaminta. Many of these episodes are presented in Myrtle White's two sequels, Beyond the Western Rivers and From That Day to This.
After her death in 1961, Myrtle White's ashes were interred at Wonnaminta.
My maternal grandmother, Lilian Hiscock (1915-2007), spent her childhood and young life, married at 19, growing up on a farm near Mulgildie in remote Queensland. I'm sorry I never really asked her all that much about those times until late in her long life, when she tended to paint the past in rather glowing colours and minimised much of the hardship. So reading these books allows a glimpse of  this hardy, vanished generation.
In the introduction to the original edition of No Roads Go By (1932), Mary Gilmore wrote: There is nothing in this book that is not true. I knew similar country years ago... there have been times when tears have pricked my eyes in a sudden sting of recollection of things half forgotten. In other books, the Outback story has been told by men. Here it is written by a woman who has lived it, suffered it and loved it. In it you will find not only the fellowship of men, but unaffectedly and richly, the fellowship of women.
No Roads Go By. (PB. 1973 reprint. Originally pub. 1932).
Beyond the Western Rivers. (PB. 1969 reprint. Originally pub. 1955).
From That Day to This. (1971 reprint. Originally pub. 1961).
All books have slightly worn covers but are otherwise in quite good condition. Price $12 each.

 Coles' Little Funny Picture Book

Cole's Book Arcade, Cole's Book Arcade
It is in Melbourne town,
Of all the book stores in the land
It has the most renown.
Full forty thousand sorts of books
Are stored within its walls,
Which can be seen, looked at or bought,
By anyone that calls.

Stanzas from the Song of the Book Arcade-sung by an animal choir including Doctor Fish, Master Goose, Lady Pussy and Canon Ostrich, along with 35 other titled birds and beasts-which appears in the opening pages of this handsome reissue of a true Australian children's classic.
A memory of my childhood in the 1960s-at about age 9-is one of sitting with my Granny in front of a large fire during a visit to her farm near Ballarat and spending hours leafing through her copy of the original book, we two reading parts of it aloud to each other. I also remember getting a copy for a birthday and attempting to 'improve' it by colouring in several of the black and white illustrations!
So I let out a gasp of surprise when I spied this volume in the shop and quickly flicked through to find it included my favourite section, Picture Puzzle Land (pp.162-69), wherein you tried to find a hidden picture within a picture.
Created by bookseller Edward Cole (1832-1918), the original Funny Picture Book appeared on Christmas Eve 1879, and it's enduring popularity over the next century was astonishing. Marcie Muir-an authority on Australian children's book publishing-states that it was the most popular book published in Australia between 1890 to 1940. It ran to 74 printings up to 1987. In that year Cole Turnley, Edward Cole's grandson, published a compilation of the original work, combined with two later volumes of varying lesser quality. Total sales by 1987 were 885,000 copies and this new volume claims over a million copies sold! I was last able to order a copy for a customer in 1994. This book has been unavailable for two decades.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography lists Edward Cole's numerous occupations as merchant, goldminer, plant collector, religious writer and-most importantly-bookseller and publisher. Born in Kent, England, Cole migrated to Melbourne in 1852. He opened his first bookshop in 1865. As a bookseller he prospered. In 1873 the first Book Arcade was opened in Bourke Street in central Melbourne. Several expansions took place between 1882 and 1904. By 1896, the Arcade consisted of a three storied glass-domed building with a frontage of 13m (45 ft) and a depth of 180m (600 ft). It contained an aviary, a fernery and a tea salon, as well as a stock of over a million new and second hand books! Try and imagine that today.
Sheet music, stationery, art supplies and chinaware were also sold. Music recitals were performed daily. A giant rainbow decorated the front facade and became Cole's publishing trademark. The book arcade survived the death of its founder by a mere eleven years, being wound up in 1929 and demolished in 1932 to make way for a department store.
The subtitle of the original edition is Family Amuser and Instructor. Through numerous rhymes, puzzles, pictures and jokes, Cole sought to provide 'moral instruction' to children in an entertaining way. Chapters in the book warn of the perils of young readers visiting 'Laziness Land' , 'Temper Land' and 'Greediness Land'. One illustration shows a young boy looking very ill after indulging in the 'tobacco poison' (p. 50). By contrast, 'Dolly Land', 'Play Land' and 'Santa Claus Land' were rewards for good children.
Michael Brady, editor and 'Curator' of this new edition, has done a (mostly) good job of selecting the highlights of the original work-within the constraints of 21st century publishing and PC. The new book is now half the size of the original-hence the 'Little'  in the title. The new format is certainly handier. The rainbow still appears on the cover. Numerous reprintings had led to an inevitable deterioration of the quality and detail of the black and white illustrations. They are superbly reproduced here. Perhaps a pristine copy of the original book has been used to create this new edition.
Now for some personal brickbats and bouquets regarding the selections. I am dismayed to see the beautiful coloured frontispiece featuring various varieties of apples has been left out. Cole was a firm believer in 'An Apple a Day...' Also gone is another favourite 555 Boys and Girls Names and their Meanings. However I laughed again at the-surprising-inclusion of the steam-driven whipping machine for naughty boys and the electric- powered scolding apparatus for naughty girls (pp.18-19).  The Shadow Puppet Chart, which demonstrates how to make various animals, also reappears (p.63). I spent quite a few hours trying to copy them.
A quick comparison glancing through the original sees that, thankfully, several offensive verses, captions and illustrations have been silently removed. I used to stare in astonishment at one such. It showed a figure brandishing a scimitar and was entitled Here is the cruel Turk, Where is the poor Greek-a contemporary reference to various 19th century European conflicts and atrocities. Some pieces I had forgotten. For example, Cole's prediction of a mechanical flying machine being built in his lifetime and the (serious) offer of £1,000 to its  inventor-provided they could travel a distance of 100 miles in it &  land, where else, in front of the Book Arcade. (p.153). As a young boy it  used to fascinate me to think that such a wonderful place full of books could even exist. Now I work in one!
What remains, after 135 years since the original appeared, is the sheer sense of fun and humour this book contains. Anthropomorphised animals-Mr. Rabbit dressed up in Victorian finery, frogs riding penny farthing bicycles, Mr. Pig the Barber giving a haircut to Mr. Goat,  a rich little Kitten out with Mr. Puss strolling through the townóare enduringly amusing. Also timeless are the gentle examples of honesty, charity and kindness towards others, which are also clearly demonstrated in this unique pictorial work.
Nearly a decade ago I reviewed a second hand copy of the original book and stated that 'it is now unlikely to ever reappear in any form whatsoever'. I am delighted to be proved wrong.
Welcome back, 'Professor' Cole! Stephen Reid