How epic faith replaced hulk convictions

REVIEW in Annals Australasia December-January Edition

by Ian MacDonald

Review of Prison Hulk to Redemption
by Gerard Charles Wilson

On his ancestral string, its strands mostly British, Gerard Charles Wilson has hung what is effectively a history of Australia from the earliest European sightings to subsequent landfalls, encounters with the original inhabitants, settlements and the achievement of a hard won prosperity.

Wilson’s meticulous research has encompassed official documents, newspaper file and a wide range of books. His constant focus is the way his ancestors from a variety of religious backgrounds came to focus – or refocus – on the Catholic faith despite prejudice.

To give a keen sense of the way it was, Wilson’s key text is Donald Horne’s The Education of Young Donald, from which he quotes judiciously to indicate the attitude to Catholics in Horne’s hometown of Muswellbrook.

But it was in our distinction from the Catholics (who made up a fifth of the town) that we members of the ascendancy most clearly characterized ourselves. In the Masonic families, it is doubtful if we considered Catholics to be fully human. My school friends and I believed that the 250-or so boys and girls who went to the convent were different physically from us; their faces were coarser than ours – more like apes. I can still see my childhood image of a Catholic child: flat-nosed, freckled, scowling, barefoot, tough – and as white skinned as a grub (white skin was an evil in a sun-worshipping society)… That the Catholic Church occupied the most commanding of the Muswellbrook Hills was acknowledged by the Masonic families to be evidence of the Catholic ‘pull’. Trust them to get the best position in the town, our parents would say. There’s no doubt about Catholics – they stick.

Wilson registers amusement at this passage, and asks how anyone could be so nutty before letting Horne go on to make then point for him.

This belief was held despite the fact that there was not one Catholic family of any significant wealth or position in the whole district… Our intolerance had no necessary relation to special cases. One of the priests visited us on some charity work, and we were inclined to consider him a fine man. When I was sitting in the sun at home recovering from bronchitis…some nuns called, and these black figures of superstition spoke quite pleasantly to me. Much more important: Miss Irene Morley, my teacher for four years at school, was a Catholic, yet, after my parents and grandparents, I considered her the most admirable person living.

Wilson noted that Donald Horne was born in Kogarah as was Clive James on whom he does not dwell as favourably as on Horne, one of the distinguished line of Bulletin editors, and advertising man and an adviser to Paul Keating on cultural matters.

Possibly his time frame prevented Wilson from noting that Clive James has moved on from the attitudes evident in his Unreliable Memoirs. He has completed a much-praised translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, greatest of openly Catholic works of fiction (Shakespeare’s work is crypto Catholic).

Wilson does not wallow in nostalgia, however. He makes shrewd observations on current attitudes. ‘There are Australians who in the name of equality separate themselves into an elite class and think they’re entitled to sling off at anything English, identifying the English with the British which is not exactly the same thing… It is as if they feel they can’t be truly Australian without the putdown.’

As a counter to what might be called Bulletin pommy-bashing, he finds in Manning Clarke’s Short History of Australia, the English man of letters, Francis Adams, who fixed on the ‘Britishness’ of Australians [during a visit 1884-1889].

The first thing that struck me on walking about Sydney one afternoon…was the appalling strength of the British civilization… Everywhere are the thumb marks and the great toe marks of the six fingered six-toed giant… These people in Sydney have clung not only to the faith but to the very raiment of their giant. The same flowing dresses, cumbrous on the women, hideous on the men, that we see in England! …the same food, the same overeating, and overdrinking, and (observe how careful we are) at the same hours…

Obviously Adams, what with his reference to the six-toed giant, was not on a visit subsidised by some equivalent of the British Council and the Australian Tourism Board; Wilson takes trenchant issue with him, pointing out that he probably, ‘never had anything to do with an Australian like my Great-Grandfather John McGroder, the son of an illiterate convict and seven times mayor of his thriving country town. Or my Great-Great-Grandfather James Joseph Wilson… From the rank of a determined thief, he underwent a process of radical transformation in the Australian social and physical environment. He adapted and modified the essentials of the culture he left behind in London. His bequest to his descendants was his modified character.’

Wilson’s epilogue contains a succinct comment that makes you wonder whether or not he has relied too much on eminent opinions. ‘The history of colonial Australia scarcely has its equal. It is the story of exceptional heroes and intriguing villains. Among Australia’s foundational heroes are some of the governors-general. The Colony in the beginning would not have survived without the judicious, principled supervision of these, despite the weaknesses some had. After self-government they performed the indispensable task of guiding the members of the new Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly who sometimes behaved like an ignorant rabble.’

The volume under review covers the period 1788-1900; subsequent volumes are projected to cover World War I, the Great Depression, World War II; Wilson and his friend Pete; and their boyhood under the title of Billycarts and Two-Wheelers.

Two factors appear to drive the work: first, the dubious state of mainstream publishing, reflected in current debates about copyright and parallel import of books from overseas; second, the widespread interest in tracing ancestral lines made relatively easy through the internet availability of records once locked in archives.

Wilson’s generous and scholarly acknowledgement of the help of relatives and his references to other writers in this field creates a sense that in uncertain times they, in a manner akin to the Irish monks of the Dark Ages, are keeping the flame of family culture alight.

With advantage, a copy of his first volume could go to the Australian Human Rights Commission as a source on how prejudice can be eroded, if not defeated, by individual and community virtue, religious, civil and military, rather than bureaucratic diktat.

Writer … and still in the fifties