|Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews|
Central Queensland University Press, 1998 243pp
ISBN: 1 875 998 39 X
"The loop around the rail acted as a pulley and brought the animal to his knees, nose crashing hard against the bottom rail. Jack allowed the horse to regain its feet. It shook its head and trotted unsteadily to the other end of the small pound yard. Jack reefed the rope and repeated the performance."
If your idea of breaking-in horses is to whisper in their ears and blow gently up their noses, descriptions like this may be a bit hard to stomach. But Jack Vitnell did not have time for such niceties. Nor was it in his nature. His aim was to dominate the animal, his methods were brutal, and he like nothing better than "a bad horse and an audience". Vitnell was not a lovable man. He was hard-riding, hard-hitting, hard-drinking, arrogant and selfish, and he drank himself to death at the age of forty-one. But he was a legend from Queensland to the Kimberley in the nineteen-forties and fifties.
Why anyone should want to immortalise such a man in print I find hard to fathom. But it is the stories Geoff Allen tells of the world in which Vitnell lived which make this book worth reading. These are (mostly) true stories of stock-camps and station-owners, drovers and ringers, horse-duffers, poddy-dodgers, wild blacks and outlaws in a harsh, unforgiving land. Allen's story-telling is in the tradition of Henry Lawson, and his characters (most of whom really did exist) spin their yarns in a rough, Australian vernacular and with that typical Aussie understatement and humour which leaves you wondering just how tall the stories really are.
Lester, the old cook Vitnell meets on a Northern Territories station, is a fine tale-spinner. Lester is half-Afghan and grew up in a blacks' camp on the edge of the Kimberley Underworld - unexplored rough country north of the Leopold Ranges in North West Kimberley. At fourteen, he became a joey (a lookout) for the "biggest cattle-duffer of all - Old Smokey". The way Lester tells it, cattle-duffing is an almost respectable occupation imported from Scotland where, he had heard, "all the Scotchies ever did was drink whisky, fight the Hinglish and steal each other's cattle". Of the "Ten Temptations of Man" which Lester had read to him as a boy, he believed that only two applied to people up North - "not to kill anyone and not to take another man's swag" - the rest were "only put in for the people living down South".
The tales Lester tells are of an era which has passed: of a time before road-trains replaced the drovers, and helicopters took over cattle-mustering and replaced the hard-riding ringers. They are not at all politically correct, but they give an authentic picture of the way things once were for men and women in the 'Top End' of Australia. There is the tale of bullock-thieves who are relieved of their stolen bullocks and their horses after being enticed into a pond by three young aboriginal women diving for lily roots: "Them three fellas had to hoof it into Wyndham, sixty miles away". And there is the story of Rusty, the red-headed wagon-woman, her outlaw lover, a cattle-rush, and a phantom wagon. And the account of the Walmajiri woman, Susie, and the strange events which led up to the aboriginal spearing to death of her white man, Bob Anderson, in 1935.
Between the brutal horse-breaking and horse-training episodes surrounding Jack Vitnell, there were enough stories of old-timers and old times to keep me reading. Prospecting for gold in Halls Creek, for example, Jack meets the metho-pickled old-timer, Ted McKean. Ted was once prosecuted for drinking his way through a wagon-load of grog he was supposed to deliver to the Fitzroy pub. He and his wagon had got bogged in the Wet for three months. Ted's lawyer got him off by arguing that he had been protecting his load from marauding blacks and had needed a few drinks to keep him going. "How many ton you have on, Ted?", he is asked. "Twelve. Wasn't more than a couple of cases of whisky left when they rescued me. Lucky most of the load was beer...".
These were hard men in a hard country doing work which was often extremely dangerous. Their stories should not be forgotten and Geoff Allen tells them entertainingly and well. His bush-ballad chapter-headings are less successful, especially towards the end of the book where the meter of some limps like a lame horse, but a little judicious editing could have prevented this. Judicious editing of the photographs, too, would have made this a better book. I would have liked a simple map showing the towns and the vast cattle-stations which were so important in the lives of Jack Vitnell and the people with whom he lived and worked. But only the tales of the old-timers, like those Geoff Allen remembers, can really capture the frontier atmosphere of lives such as theirs.