Apr/May 1999 Book Reviews

Lipstick, Swag and Sweatrag

Beth Beckett
Central Queensland University Press, 1998 196pp
ISBN: 1 875998 37 3

reviewed by Ann Skea

Beth Beckett is a resourceful, intelligent and immensely practical woman. Ideal qualities for someone who spent eight years of her life as, amongst other things, scout, assistant motor-mechanic, bush-clearer, camp-cook, hostess to Vice Regal visitors, nurse, wife and mother. All this, whilst driving thousands of miles on rugged, often unmade, outback roads in a Chevrolet utility which was, quite literally, home to Beth and her Patrol Padre husband, Ken.

In 1947, the year he married Beth, Ken Beckett became a minister for the Presbyterian run Australian Inland Mission. Since 1912, under the influence of John Flynn ('The Flying Doctor'), the AIM had looked after the physical, mental and spiritual welfare of people living in isolated and remote areas of Australia. Small, minimally equipped hospitals, a library service and mobile ministers catered for some 200,000 men and women. Ken's parish was the huge Kimberley region of Western Australia and for eight years Beth, and later baby Colin, accompanied him on all his rounds.

Beth wryly records her first trip and her vain attempts to find room for a hat-box and three hats in the overloaded Chevrolet. No lady in Australia in 1947 went anywhere without a hat. Not even, in Beth's mind, on sandy, pot-holed, bull-dust covered or mud-bogged roads. Hats, however, were to be the least of her worries as she learned to re-use every precious drop of water and helped to negotiate flooded river-beds, dig the utility out of deep, muddy holes and set up camp under the stars.

Ken's official job was to officiate at weddings and christenings, and to provide church services whenever possible - which was sometimes only once a year, since his parish was so large, and in unlikely-sounding venues, like the Six Mile pub at Wyndham.

Unofficially, he was counsellor, handy-help, operator of the one of the few pedal wireless sets in the area, and (eventually) mobile picture theatre manager - setting up his projector at camps and homesteads and on pub verandahs all over his parish. He was, too, a capable and inventive motor-mechanic, an essential skill for travellers in isolated and lonely areas. Beth, who often sat with the car-manual on her knees, identifying parts and their location, remarks that flies rarely go under cars, and that on occasions this was the most comfortable and cool place to be whilst repairs were made.

Beth's account of her remarkable journeys is as plain and practical as her nature. For the reader, this is both good and bad. In an historical sense, it is good. She accurately records names, dates and places and we feel we can rely on her record of a lifestyle and an Australian scene which has now largely vanished. Even in life-or-death situations, her descriptions are brief and factual. Writing of her own near death due to a ruptured ectopic pregnancy far from surgical help, she calmly recalls telling Ken that if her self-diagnosis was correct she would not be alive by the time the doctor could be contacted by pedal-radio next morning. And potentially lethal situations, like wading into crocodile-infested rivers to test their depth, are simply recorded.

Beth's nursing training was often essential and she was at the centre of many dramas. But histrionics and exaggeration are not Beth's style. The bad thing about this is that her book is unlikely to be a best-seller, although I suspect Beth will not mind too much about that. It is an interesting book, but not gripping. There are times when "amusing incidents" are mentioned but not described, which is a pity. And the snapshots which illustrate the book are unashamedly amateur. Even so, they could have been more carefully chosen, and cropped to focus attention on the subjects.

Some photographs, like that of Halls Creek - a few scattered, tin-roofed buildings in a treeless landscape - are fascinating. Especially when Beth tells us that this was the place Lady Slim (wife of the then Governor General of Australia) chose to visit in 1955. Beth, whose home at that time had been upgraded to a Dodge truck, and whose wardrobe consisted mainly of practical home-made seer-sucker dresses, was asked to act as hostess and to arrange Lady Slim's itinerary. The visit, apparently, was a great success. Beth organised her own wardrobe, co-ordinated Lady Slim's schedule and even cooked a five-course dinner for the official party.

Sadly, other photographs are poorly focused and poorly captioned. This may give the book an appropriately unpretentious, outback Australian look, but it may also prevent the book from attracting a wider readership. Which is a pity, because Beth's story is a unique and valuable part of Australia's social history. And city-dwellers, like me, who take modern services, buildings, amenities and fast, easy electronic communication for granted, do need to be reminded that there has been, and still is, another sort of life in outback Australian, which is closer to nature and not so easy.


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