Nicky Boynton-Bricknell & Duncan Richardson (editors), All We Could Do: Queensland flu stories 1918–1920 (AndAlso Books 2020)
AndAlso Books is a self-described boutique publishing house based in Brisbane. Last year they published Bjelke Blues, an excellent collection of reminiscences about the Jo Bjelke-Petersen days, which was a startling reminder that Australia is not immune from erratic authoritarianism. When I read that at the beginning of May this year AndAlso had published a collection of prose pieces about the flu pandemic in Queensland 1918–20, I was in awe of the timing. And who better to initiate the project than commissioning editor Matthew Wengert, whose City of Masks: How Brisbane Fought the Spanish Flu was published in 2019?
I’m sorry to report that my overwhelming sense of this book is of a wasted opportunity.
The history is fascinating, The New South Wales border was closed and hundreds of travellers were stranded in Tenterfield and then Wallangarra. The flu came to Queensland late, but it did come. The town of Mackay went into self-isolation, completely cut off from the rest of the world for a time. Beef tea, eucalyptus oil and occasionally raw onions had almost talismanic status. Masks, isolation and quarantine chime with out current experience. Then as now, heroic individuals put their lives on the line to care for the infected, and for the general community in small towns. Over it all, there was the terrible reality that the pandemic followed on the heels of the Great War.
But the book feels as if it was put together on a shoestring without the input of professional designers or proofreaders. The latters’ absence is most desperately evident in what might otherwise have been one of the most engrossing pieces, which seems to have been saved from MS Word with the Track Changes button left on – so that original text and replacement are both still there. This isn’t just me being my usual nitpicky self: the reading experience was often physically unpleasant and in on a couple of pages the text was unintelligible.
Having said that, there are fascinating photos including some of the quarantine camps at Wallangarra and Tenterfield, and one of the contents page of a booklet of Recipes for Invalid Cookery that made me glad all over for Australia’s current cultural diversity. And most of the stories are worth the struggle.
Matthew Wengert’s introduction describes the pieces in the book as ‘creative non-fiction narratives’. That description covers a range – from historical fiction to narrative history, with various hybrids in between, of which the most successful to my mind is a fictional narrative interspersed with historical documents. Call me rigid, but I like to be clear about the relationship what I’m reading has to what we know really happened.
The piece I found most engaging is ‘Breath of Life’, a straightforward piece of fiction by Edwina Shaw, who (full disclosure) is my niece and my reason for having heard of AndAlso at all. ‘Breath of Life’ is the Maryborough story, though a good half of it is taken up with the wartime experience of its protagonist. We don’t care if the protagonist is based on a historical person. The writing makes us believe in the physical reality of his experiences of mustard gas, of killing a young German man at close range, of re-entering civilian life, of contracting the flu.
Andrea Baldwin’s ‘Love and Duty’, the Eidsvold story, does a nice job of incorporating bush-fiction tropes into its tale of a doctor called out to attend sick stockmen, and then in a short Author’s Note lets the fascinating historical context come tumbling in.
Steve Capelin’s ‘Two Zero Eight’, the North Queensland story, is a first-person narrative about an Italian migrant. shockingly, Italian men living in queensland were rounded up by Australian military police and shipped off under guard to do military service in Italy. The troop ship SS Medic set out from Sydney on 2 November 1918. The war ended before it got much New Zealand and in an eerie pre-echo of the Ruby Princess it brought the virus back to Sydney. The story ends with the narrator admiring the view across Sydney Harbour from his grave in the Third Quarantine Cemetery (the grave marker doesn’t bear his name, just the number 208).
‘Just Plain Scared‘ by Ron Glazebrook and Matthew Wengert, is the Townsville story. Townsville was ‘the heart of the Red North’, and there was a massive demonstration of waterside workers and others demanding successfully to have an approaching ship properly quarantined. This story gives a clear, straightforward account of the history interspersed with short diary entries by a young railway worker. I would have liked a note telling us whether the diary was real or invented.
The other piece I want to single out is ‘Big Sickness Come Ailan’ by Samantha Faulkner and Rita Metzenrath, Thursday Island/Weiben’s story. This is the only piece to have First Nations characters at the centre, though others refer to the devastating effect of the pandemic on some First Nations communities. (And I note in passing that as a North Queenslander I noticed the absence of Chinese and Islander voices, but you can’t have everything.) Samantha Faulkner is a Wuthuthi/Yadhaigana woman from Cape York Peninsula and Badu and Moa Islands, and Rita Metzenrath (whose name is given incorrectly in two places) is a senior officer at AIATSIS. The story is strong, of a terribly bereaved Torres Strait Islander man forming an alliance and friendship with a white woman from Rockhampton, but the kicker comes in a short endnote: there were 96 deaths recorded for the Torres Strait and Cape York, though the “exact number of Torres Strait Islander people who were affected by and died during the influenza pandemic is hard to quantify as they were collectively included under the term “coloured people” with Malays and Japanese.’
The AndAlso website promises a new book for publication this month: Our Inside Voices:Reflections on Covid-19, featuring writers such as Nick Earls, Samuel Wagan Watson and Jessica White. If they spend the extra money on a proofreader it should be something to look forward to.