“WHAT turned your thoughts to literature? What are your methods of work? Had you any trouble in finding a publisher? What have been your adventures with the critics? Which of your characters do you like best? Does literature pay?” inquires the Editor; and one reflects.
Gordon’s poems, and the stories and verses on the bush from the pens of “Bulletin” writers of fourteen years ago, must, in a large measure, be blamed for my intruding in literature. ’Twas no fault of mine—nor of any of my people. My father would gladly have made me a ploughman. He was not proud. My mother, had circumstances been favourable, would cheerfully have turned me out a clergyman. Mother was ambitious. I am glad, for my own sake, circumstances were not favourable. If there’s one thing in this happy-go-lucky merry-go-round of a world of ours which would be more disagreeable to me than another, it would be kicking myself along on a poor horse. Give me something exciting—a German waggon or a switch-back railway—anything rather than the dejected moke.
THE INFLUENCE OF THE BUSH.
Reared in the bush, the life and incidents revealed in the work of these writers had a fascination for me. Intimate with much of it—had lived some of it—I understood it all. It called up memories of the past, and made me miserable in the city. Contracting “Australian book” fever in a dangerous form, I bought or borrowed all scraps of literature that came in my way containing anything of station or selection life, travellers, stockmen, sundowners, or shearers, and devoured them in bed at the boarding-house. They delighted me. Eschewing selfishness, I ventured to share my happiness with those about me; I read poems and things about “sick stockmen,” and “jolly country girls,” and “mulga and lignum,” and “grinning skulls,” and “wild dogs” to my friend and room-mate, B——, a keen law-student and an enthusiast in Irish oratory, and lost his respect. In the lean but kindly boarding-house-keeper, though, I found much sympathy: I read some pieces to her. She enjoyed them. One passage I poured into her drew tears, when I expected merriment. She wiped her eyes with her apron, and broke into lamentations about the landlord, and rent, and discontent amongst the boarders, and annoyed me.
I didn’t seek her sympathy any more.
I continued reading Australian literature till I felt I must write something or burst. I didn’t burst; I wrote a sketch and sent it, unsigned, to a Brisbane newspaper. Next day purchased a copy of the publication, and with a fluttering heart retired to a back lane. Flung the rag away disappointedly, and bought another next day; bought one every day for a long fortnight, and was working up bitter malevolence towards the editor, when—joy! my contribution appeared, and saved him—and me from a watery grave. Hurried to the “diggings” with it. A fellow-lodger, a tailor, greeted me at the door with an infernal draught-board. I ignored him, and bounced up the stairs, six at a time, and burst in upon my learned friend, who, in the words of Robert Emmet, was holding forth to a jury, or a judge or someone in the bed-room.
I APPEAR IN PRINT.
“That’s mine!” I gasped, shoving the print into his uplifted hand.
He ceased declaiming to the wall and washstand, and, in a calm mood, seated himself on the bed and commenced to read me. I wiped myself dry, and fought for composure. There was an ugly twitch lurking about his lips, all through the piece, which I didn’t like.
He dropped the paper upon the floor and complimented me.
“You showed some brains anyway,” he sniggered, “when you didn’t sign it.”
I picked the paper from the floor and moved to the verandah to look over it again. An oldish boarder—a bachelor of the stern, frigid type—was there, engrossed in a copy of the same publication. I sat in a chair and stole glances at him, to see if the old iceberg would read me. He passed me over several times, then yawned, and grunted “Eh-hoh!” I felt his opinion would be worth something. I called out my reserve resources. Feigning reading awhile, I chuckled as one enjoying himself.
“See this?” I said, pointing out my sketch to him. He glanced sharply at the title, then back to his own rag, and made a great noise tossing it about till he found the place. He seemed anxious not to miss anything good. He bent his head and read. The blood danced in my veins.
“Umph!” he grunted, throwing the print away, “awful rubbish they do print sometimes!”
Still, I wasn’t cured of the malady. For years I contributed, casually, to various local weeklies, and it didn’t cost me anything—nor them either.
My screed at this stage, I fancy, showed signs of improvement. A “poem” about “going on the land” brought from B—— some advice; he asked nothing for it, either. He was subject, a little, to absent-minded-ness. He said, “If you want to become a writer, send something to the ‘Bulletin’; if they print it—well, there’s some hope for you.”
I ATTRACT NOTICE.
I sent “something” to the “Bulletin”; then studied its “answers to correspondents” closely for weeks, and subjected my emotions to a lot more wear and tear. I was hopeful. Somehow I felt sure my screed would attract notice. It did. It attracted the Editor. “A.H.D., Brisbane,” he said, “An opium-sodden dream, without beginning, middle, or end.” Not exactly what I had expected, but I didn’t swoon! I sat heavily on the bed, and began to think. I thought B—— was a fool. I also thought it prudent to cut that “answer” out, and chew it up before he came in. Then I kicked the “Bulletin” under the bed, and resolved to forget it. And I believe I would have forgotten it if the next day had been other but Sunday. The Sabbath isn’t always the day of rest it’s made out to be! I was lounging on the balcony with several brother-boarders; we were stealing glances at girls tripping by to church service, and telling lies. A long, hulking mercantile clerk—who, thank God, was not in my confidence, and didn’t know my initials, stalked from his room with his copy of the “Bulletin” under his arm, and joined us.
“The ‘answers to correspondents’ in this paper,” he said, planting his big feet on the railing, “are the best things in it.”
Suspicion crept all over me. I felt lost. I was sure my sins had found me out. But he was innocent.
“Listen here,” and he began to read those wretched “answers” in a loud, cheerful key.
The others listened intently. They enjoyed him. He came to mine. I knew he would. It got a great reception. I fancied the mirth seemed louder, and a lot heartier. He read mine again. I chuckled a little myself the second reading. ’Twas a sickly effort, though—the worst I ever made (and I’ve heard J. L. Toole). But before he reached the end of the column I was as good as any of them. I led them.
“Wonder what some of those fellows think,” the mercantile clerk drawled, philosophically, “when they read those answers?” and his eye roamed from one to the other. But it didn’t catch mine. A plucky, perky, cocky, little chap instantly rose up and scoffed at him.
“Fakes,” he snapped, “fakes! Y’ don’t think they’re genuine, do y’?”
I was glad he didn’t ask me.
Two years later, under my present pen-name, I took another chance with the “Bulletin,” and survived. Joy! A cheque came along. Great jubilating! B—— and I went and had two drinks apiece.
I felt I could write for a kingdom now. Some verses followed, and the Editor replied, “Good; kept for illustration by ‘Hop.’” More wild rejoicing, and we filled ’em up again. Inspired with confidence, I beat out a heavy packet of “poetry” and directed it at the Editor. It was deadly. He dodged it, and warned me to be careful.
AN UNTOUCHED FIELD.
Matters rested for perhaps six months. Meanwhile I pondered well an idea that came to me. I thought I saw a big field open—a field, so far as I was aware, hitherto untouched by Australian writers—a field all my own. Reared on a selection, I knew well what a mortgage meant. Knew how those on the land had to toil, how they had to fight against fire and flood, how they faced adversity and misfortune, and how, when seasons smiled, they rejoiced and shared each other’s society and successes. Why, then, shouldn’t I tell these things—tell them with sincerity, with sympathy, and—who knows?—prompt legislative action in the interests of the struggling selector? Such was my “idea,” anyway. I know now it was wrong to dream such philanthropy; but I was young. I was sentimental. Since then my mind has been expanded—have travelled extensively—been all round the country, two hundred miles or more, in company with a band of police of various colours, and swags and billy-cans, and an unmitigated, unwashed scoundrel, with handcuffs on, for whom I assisted to establish an alibi; and I’ve been down to Sydney; and I’ve been in and out of the Queensland Civil Service, and now run a magazine, and much prefer it. Travel is a great teacher.
B—— meantime having drifted north, I confided with a solicitor’s clerk, a person of my own prejudices and sympathies, and an ardent reader of things Australian. He shook his head.
“A big field,” he admitted, “and one that hasn’t been touched much, but” (he paused there) “it would require skilful handling.”
I hadn’t reckoned on any “skilful handling,” and that phase of the project was disheartening. But Vanity sustained me. I began and wrote a sketch, that which now forms the first chapter of “On Our Selection.” Showed it to a brother Civil servant. He said it was “rot.” I had confidence in him, but not sufficient to decide upon destroying the MS. just then. I locked it carefully in a drawer at the ofiice, and left it for months. At regular periods my brother servant reminded me of it. He would insert his head through the door, and, with a grin, inquire what I had done with those “lovely coruscations of wit”? I took it out one day, to give the solicitor’s clerk a treat. He read it; and shook his head thoughtfully, and said nothing. Confinement, I was convinced, had not improved it. In a reckless moment I dragged it to the light again, packed it, and mailed it to the editor of the “Bulletin.” An hour later I reproached myself. Was sure it would get me into trouble. To my surprise, though, it was promptly printed and paid for. Dilatation and delight! Tried some more. “Our First Harvest” and a “Splendid Year for Corn” followed, and cheques for these were sent back instead of cheek. The barrier was broken. I saw the “big field” ahead, and sat and wrote for it in grim earnest. Then came words of encouragement and advice from the keen, kindly Editor:
“Dear Mr. Davis”—he wrote in his own hand— “Herewith cheque for ‘Fourteen Years Ago’—which we’ll keep awhile, for a special occasion. Those selection sketches of yours should he very interesting when collected and published one day.—Yours very truly, J. F. Archibald.”
“‘Lady Comes to Shingle Hut’ printed this (coming) week. It is a fine yarn; by such things is your name made. Take my advice, and don’t consciously write below your standard.”
May his days be long in the land!
Any trouble finding a publisher? None. He couldn’t lose me.
THE TRUTH OF “OUR SELECTION.”
Allowing for embroidery, the incidents related in “On Our Selection” are for the most part true. Any of the characters, with the exception of “Dad,” perhaps may be met with in many places. The only one of the group strictly drawn from life is “Cranky Jack,” who is still to be found on a farm on the Darling Downs, where he continues to entertain those around him with his eccentricities. But “Dad” I drew from several sources. He’s a triangle, or a “trinity”: he is three in one.
Does literature pay? Not so well as wool, or beer, or town properties, or old clothes, perhaps. Still, it pays. And to prospective Australian authors I say: Let your first book be equal to “Robbery Under Arms,” or “While the Billy Boils,” or “The Man from Snowy River”; your second not worse, and your third a lot better; use your brains on the publishers, and I see no reason why your incomes should not average £600 per annum. Should England call, by all means pack up and clear; but, until she does, play in your own backyards—write in Australia, on Australia, for Australia.