Category Archives: Family history

Frederick Macdonald’s Caruse of the Kanowna

The Caruse of the Kanowna: Frederick Macdonald’s 1914 Diary, Edited by Colin Macdonald (published by Colin Graham Macdonald 2005)

I read this for a family history project.

In August 1914 when my maternal grandfather was 32 years old, he was the officer in charge of 500 young men bound for New Guinea on board the liner Kanowna, possibly the first troops to leave Australia for service in World War One. This is not something that was ever spoken of in my childhood; it came to light through my sister’s research.

Frederick Macdonald, 19 at the time, was one of the 500. This little book, produced by Frederick’s son Colin, is built around his diary entries from 1 August to 21 September 1914, which tell the story of the ill-fated expedition: ill-fated because woefully undertrained and woefully short of food, water, clothing and other necessities. The Kanowna was eventually sent back to Townsville without seeing any action, thanks to what some would see as a providential refusal to work by the non-military firemen on board. (A couple of days after they moored in Townsville they heard that other, better equipped and trained troops had taken German establishments at Herbetsöhe, Rabaul and Simsonhafe.)

The diary entries, which account for just six of the book’s 56 pages, mention my grandfather by name only once, when he addresses a parade in Townsville the day young Frederick receives his discharge, but the diary is fascinating regardless of any special connection a reader may have to it. For example, the entry for Wednesday 2 September, mail having been received a little after ten o’clock the night before:

The parades this morning have been called off to allow the men to read their mail and to write and answer same. The dinner today was the worst we have yet had. The tea has been cancelled at dinner time owing
to shortage of water. The haricot beans were not well cooked, the sago was nearly raw and the bread [was] stodgy and sour. Several men from D company paraded with their meal to the OC and the result was a
rousing on for the cook.

The supporting material – an introduction that provides context, many photographs, an excerpt from The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, selections from the Naval archives – is beautifully done. My ancestor is mentioned again, though for the sake of family pride, I wish he hadn’t been. Evidently, according to one Colonel William Holmes, he ‘had very little military training or experience, and, in addition, lack[ed] personality and self-reliance’. Oh dear!

I got hold of a copy of The Caruse of the Kanowna on interlibrary loan from the Australian War Memorial. I’ve since discovered that it’s available for apparently legitimate download from this site.

Esme the critic

My mother, Esme, left school at 14 or 15 in the mid 1920s. She married my father when she was 19 and lived on a sugar-cane farm outside Innisfail in North Queensland for the next five decades. As her five children went off to boarding school and then spread out over Queensland and beyond, she wrote letters to each of us, weekly to start with and then less frequently but still with a shaming regularity. Mostly she kept us informed on one another’s doings and home-front developments. Occasionally she would comment on literary matters.

Here are some of her passing comments on the literary scene, which I find interesting in all sorts of ways:

17 December 1971: I’ve just finished reading Thomas Keneally’s The Fear & enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read for ages. So nice & clean & sort of old-fashioned.

7 March 1972: I’ve just read [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s] Cancer Ward. It’s really absorbing but very frightening really. I’m sorry I’ve finished it really. … You’ll be pleased to hear A was reading [Germaine Greer’s] The Female Eunuch. I have to own that I burnt my copy. M & N said, ‘At least you could have passed it on to us.’ Perhaps I should have saved their money as curiosity will get the better of them I’m sure.

25 July 1972: I am reading a book of yours that MA found in her box. I’m not liking it as much as The Fear. It is [Thomas Keneally’s] Bring Larks & Heroes.

28 November 1972: Thank you so much for remembering my Birthday. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the books. I’ve started [the first book I worked on in my editing job with Currency Press, David Williamson’s] The Removalists. It’s nice & easy to read. [Later in the same letter:] Having read The Removalists I’m glad it was a gift from you Jon because from you it is meant as a shocker. [It wasn’t.] From anyone else I would have a sneaky feeling that he/she might imagine I liked that sort of talk. If he’d made it a story of police brutality without the four letter words I feel sure it would have been just as big a success or even bigger.  Anyhow now I’ve started the [Gerald] Durrell one [probably Catch Me a Colobus] & it is really my pick. I’ll be able to lend it around.

25 December 1972: It was only today I learned that it was you who gave [my nieces and nephews Maurice Sendak’s] Where the wild things are. I had made a note of it to buy for [another grandchild]. It is the most read & the most cherished book in their house & yet it looks ghastly really.

24 February 1973: Of course I have not burnt The Removalists, Jon. As a matter of fact I have a waiting list of about a dozen women, as ignorant as myself, wanting to learn all about life!! seeing that M & N & E & V think that I have no ears to hear with. ‘Surely you’ve heard such talk,’ even in the street. Well I haven’t. Actually I think [youngest daughter] Liza knows more than I do but I certainly don’t feel underprivileged because of my ignorance.

28 March 1973: We have watched some of Certain Women on your recommendation Jon. I missed the name of the writer last night (not being in the habit of reading all those names, though I do notice that the writer, who should be the most important, is never so). It was the ‘model’ girl & I think it could have been Keneally as he is sort of old fashioned. I thought the Williamson one was the most – real is the word I suppose. He certainly understands today’s youth, don’t you think?

8 April 1973: Our Repertory Group put on [Richard Beynon’s ] The Shifting Heart last week. Roslyn Watt played the Italian mother & she was perfect. Seniors must have to study it this year because the night Dad & I went there was a bus load from Tully & the night E & V went there were 2 bus loads from Cairns.

9 July 1973: Last week there was a play on TV, The Cherry Orchard Chekhov [an MTC production with Frank Thring, Googie Withers, Irene Inescort] & knowing how interested [oldest son] Michael is in plays (He was in a Chekhov once) & feeling it would give me some culture, we watched it right up to the end of the first act then turned the TV off. It was played to packed houses in Melbourne for ages so the ad said. I wonder if you watched it & don’t say you enjoyed it. To me it could have been Innisfail repertory doing it for the first time. Dad stayed home from Poker to see it too which made it worse.

1 August 1973: I see [Peter Bogdanovich’s] What’s Up Doc advertised at the pictures somewhere in Sydney. Do go & see it if you can. [I did.] It’s really a scream, Makes you laugh till it really hurts – just absolutely stupid but I’m sure you couldn’t help enjoying it.

23rd October 1973 (after a visit to Sydney): I managed to get a Sat Aust(ralian) with Katharine Brisbane [my boss at the time] write up of the play [probably Rex Cramphorn’s cutting-edge production The Marsh King’s Daughter, which she mentions in a later letter] & I agree with her and the more I think back on it the more I like it really. Then today I found Jock Veitch’s write up which is downright lousy – even saying he couldn’t hear. I feel like writing & telling him to go again & wear his glasses & take along his hearing aid.

4 February 1974: Poor Mr Solzhenitsyn is having a rough time. Have you read Cancer Ward, Jon? [I had.] It is the best I’ve read. It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like him, so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

March 1974: Innisfail had Godspell during the week,  packed the Shire Hall. We didn’t go, we left it to the young. The [Marist] Bros all went & raved on about it – more an experience than a show etc. They took 45 boys along so deserved a free ticket.

31 July 1974 (reporting on a time in Brisbane): We went to see [my cousin G’s] production Fetch Me a Figleaf. There were 10 of us … G sat with us so we had to say all the right things. It was rather naughty but really entertaining all about gods & goddesses on Mt Olympus.

13 October 1974: Well! we were trapped into a bit of culture last night. If we’d been at home we’d have turned it off but we were babysitting so left it on & were really sorry it had to end. It was The Misanthrope, Moliere’s play. The man who did the translation [not named on IMDB] must be a marvel & all the players were lovely. It says ABC production but I can’t believe it was. It was too good.

7 March 1975: Have you seen a book Watership Down? It’s about rabbits, all about rabbits. I’ve just read it & loved it. [I still haven’t read it.]

22 June 1975: We’re all reading The Towering Inferno, actually it’s called The Tower. Dad’s on it at the moment and doesn’t even answer when spoken to. It’s really suspenseful.

Late September 1975, from Launceston: We went to see [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown & thought it pretty ordinary. Being overheated didn’t help. I’d put on woollen sox & extra cardigan & shed everything except the sox as the theatre was heated.

And that – when she was 61 and I was 28 – is where I stopped carefully hoarding her letters.

LoSo RhyMo 6: My mother enforces modesty

When I put up my fifth sonnet yesterday I was averaging one every three days. I’m going to have to get cracking if I’m to reach my goal of 14 in the month. I’ve been mulling over scenes from my childhood. Here’s one:

Sonnet 6: My Catholic mother enforces modesty
Our mum, mock-shocked, would cry, ‘Ooooh Venus!’
if any child by running nude
allowed a glimpse of bum or penis
(we called them ‘bom’ and ‘tail’ – less rude).
Though this was fine for either sister,
I whinged that I’d grow up a Mister,
so ‘Venus’ seemed a little wrong.
Deferring to my little dong
she’d call ‘Adonis!’ should I streak.
How glad I am (Oh yes, I glad am!)
She didn’t cry out ‘Eve!’ and ‘Adam!’,
invoke the sex-as-sin mystique.
We covered up – it was our duty –
not sinful shame, but ancient beauty.

Anybody want to buy my childhood home?

The auction is on 13 November.

It’s quite a while now since it left our family. Cyclone Larry wasn’t kind to it, and tragedy struck the man who bought it from my brother and sister-in-law. So here it is again, shorn of cane paddocks and big trees, looking for a new owner.

Bath 2 Bed 4 [having been home to at least two seven-member families] Car 5
7 acres so close to town – red soil
Large queenslander – 2 sheds – High & dry
Fantastic views of river & surrounding area – very private

From the family archives: skills

Not really from any archive, but from my mother’s letters, here’s this gem. In 1972, when my nephew Matthew was five years old, my mother was told of the following conversation – not (‘of course’) by any of the protagonists. The only background you need to know is that Matthew and his family had Oxley Creek flowing past the back of their Brisbane home, and there was a little rowboat pretty much permanently moored at the bottom of their yard

Matthew: Daddy, I can  swim.
Michael (Matthew’s father): How do you know? It’s winter and the pool is empty.
Matthew: I fell out of the boat.

My mother’s comment: ‘Thank God he could swim, eh?’