Some time ago, I started writing New England Travels, subtitled journeys through space and time. Part history, part travel, part personal reminiscences, the book gave me an opportunity to write beyond the usual confines set by the need to record sources, to sit within boundaries. Like so many of my projects, it is only part written, but I thought that I might share some of it with you.
Dalwood House lies on the Hunter River near Branxton.
This was only my second visit to Dalwood House. Many years before I had read Australian writer and poet Judith Wright’s Generations of Men, the story of her grandparents and the establishment of the Wyndham and then Wright pastoral dynasties; the book gripped me. I was especially caught by the almost lyrical descriptions of Dalwood House as seen through the eyes of Charlotte May Wright nee Mackenzie, Judith’s grandmother.
By chance, I had just finished the book when I went out to dinner in Canberra. Talking about the book over dinner, my hostess, herself a member of the Wright family, said “The house is still there, you know, although it’s a ruin now.” I got directions and visited it with a friend on my next trip to Armidale.
Many parts of Australia now claim Judith Wright as their own. Up in Queensland, the State Government has expropriated her for a performing arts centre. Her New England connection is dismissed in just a few words: “Judith Wright was a Queensland resident for over thirty years. She was born in New England, in regional New South Wales, and came to Brisbane as a young woman”. Later, Canberra and Braidwood would claim her too.
In all this, Judith remained a quintessentially New England writer. That was where her views were first formed, although her later experiences and especially her relationship with the older novelist and philosopher Jack McKinney would exercise a powerful influence over her. Judith met Jack McKinney when she moved to Brisbane. He was a much older man, some twenty four years her senior, only two years younger than her father. They fell in love, moving to Mount Tamborine in 1950; daughter Meredith was born in that year. In 1962, Jack and Judith finally married. Four years later Jack died, leaving a hole in Judith’s life.
Jack McKinney was the second of three powerful men in Judith Wright’s life. The first was her father, Phillip Arundell Wright, with whom she shared a middle name. The third was H C “Nugget” Coombs, a noted Australian economist and public servant, with whom she had a twenty five year love affair. Coombs was again an older man, in this case by nine years. Both were major public figures. Judith was a widow, Coombs long separated from his wife. Both shared common interests, including Aboriginal advancement and the environment. Judith moved to Braidwood to be closer to the Canberra based Coombs, but the affair was kept secret, if open to their friends and the Canberra network within which they moved.
Each man had a powerful impact on Judith, but I think that it was the father that formed her core views. It was he that gave her that love of the environment and of the country. It was he that gave her that love, affection and unstinting support that seems to shine through in the letters between them.
I knew her father as a much older man. PA, we all spoke of him as PA, was my grandfather’s friend; my grandfather was godfather to his son who bore the same first name; my copy of Generations of Men carries my grandfather’s signature, bought in the year the book first came out. To me, PA was a somewhat remote figure. I saw him at events and at the New England New State Movement Executive meetings that he sometimes chaired. I and my fellow students at the University of New England where he was chancellor poked gentle fun at him for his sometimes mangled English. It would be a number of years before I came to properly understand his contribution to Northern life and the causes he supported.
Judith loved her father, she loved the Falls country in which she grew up, she loved the life on the family properties. Her earlier works reflect that love, and then the joy she found in her relationship with Jack McKinney. Later, there would come a darkening of spirit, an erosion in optimism, a rejection of elements of her past. “You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?” she wrote in Skins. “They dropped off several incarnations back.”
Judith had the misfortune to be born a girl in an age when men inherited. Especially after the death of PA, she became separated from the properties and life she had loved, although the family ties remained close. Towards the end of her life, she saw the end of the Wright family empire that had been carefully built by her grandparents and especially grandmother May Wright. The ABC TV Dynasties program recorded the event in this rather dramatic way:
By December 2000, he (brother David) had lost it all – his properties, his cattle and his wife to cancer. His sister, the poet Judith Wright, watched in despair and died soon after.That’s dramatic, but the loss was a profound one. Generations of Men is dedicated to the children of May and Albert, to her father and his brothers and sisters. The phrase generations of men comes from Blake’s Milton; the verse is quoted on the book’s title page:
The generations of men run on in the tide of timeIf you look at those words, you can get a feel for Judith’s sense of loss.
But their destn’d lineaments permanent for ever and ever.
Six years after Judith’s death, David, my grandfather’s namesake, died suddenly. On his death, University of New England Professor Bernie Bindon described David as one of the pioneers of the scientific research underpinning today's Australian beef industry. "I can't think of a beef industry person” Professor Bindon said, “who's made a bigger contribution to not only the growth of the beef industry but the science that underpins the beef business," The Herefords .that formed the base of the V1V and V2V Wright brands began their life at Dalwood. It was Judith’s grandparents, the core characters in Generations of Men, who began the breeding program that created the Wright cattle.
Not long before David’s. death, Aunt Helen and I revisited my grandfather’s old property, Foreglen, for the first time for many years. It was Christmas, and the family had gathered together in Armidale for what would prove to be one of our last family Christmases. I was perhaps four or five when the property was sold. My last visit had been the clearance sale. That’s a long time ago, yet I had very clear memories of the place. I remember the clearance sale in particular because I still felt that the place belonged to us. I remember playing with other kids, clambering over the machinery and playing on the ancient Model T Ford, telling my companions about the place. I don’t think that I properly realised what had happened.
After that Christmas lunch, I said let’s go out to Foreglen. Everybody groaned, too full of food and wine to want to move. However, Aunt Helen finally agreed to come with me and also acted as pilot. I couldn’t quite remember how to get there!
Foreglen was now owned by David Wright. The old homestead had been vacant, we thought that it still was, but we found it occupied by a nice Chinese couple with two young kids. They agreed to let us look round. Our host was an accountant employed by David to work on ways of restructuring the pastoral business. Both he and his wife had grown up in the crowded world of Hong Kong. This was their first exposure to the Australian countryside. At first, they found it difficult to cope with the quiet and absence of people. Now with a vegetable garden, their own chooks and with the kids settled in school, they were trying to encourage their Chinese friends in Brisbane to go bush.
David lost Foreglen with his other assets. I have always wondered about that Chinese couple. Did they go back to Brisbane? I will probably never know.
In 1959 when Generations of Men was first published, all these events lay in the distant future. They still were when I first visited Dalwood House. Then I wandered around trying to fit the now decrepit reality into the vivid images created in my mind by the book. Now I looked again with the knowledge of what was to happen fresh in my mind.