YESTERDAY’S HERO

We should trea­sure the literary legacy of Glenville Pike, chron­i­cler of for­got­ten places and aban­doned times, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

When Glenville Pike re­traced the path of the old By­er­stown Road up Cape York by four­wheel-drive in 1993, ex­actly six decades had passed since he first rode that way as a child, to­gether with his literary-minded mother and his aunt, camp­ing with their pack­horses at creek sides where the penin­sula drovers camped. At that late stage in his long, tor­mented life, Pike, born in Toowoomba in 1925, had al­ready writ­ten the lion’s share of his 26 books and nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles on Cape history. He was the guardian of the pi­o­neer­ing past, the recorder and reteller of its mem­o­ries — and at last he was com­ing back to his own.

Spread out be­fore him was the old Nor­manby Range sec­tion of the road and the no­to­ri­ous “Gen­tle An­nie” steep grade climb. He could see the wide val­leys stretch­ing in­land, and the milk­woods and the mango trees. There were the old bam­boos in their thick stands, creak­ing and snap­ping in the Cooktown wind. Mid­dle Oakey Creek: home, as it once was, a thou­sand scrub acres (405ha), leased from “Strike-Me-Lucky” Jack Thompson for the equiv­a­lent of $1.50 a month — a slab house, half-burned stock­yards, fence lines of bro­ken post and rail.

“There was pi­o­neer­ing history be­fore my eyes ev­ery day,” Pike writes on the last, nos­tal­gia-laden page of his Palmer River gold rush history, Chas­ing the Rain­bow. History was all around him, still in­tact, but fad­ing fast: “I grew up with it.”

Close by the house, on the gold­fields track, were the re­mains of a ho­tel, and store; a black­smith’s shop, too, and the ad­join­ing yards where Cobb and Co had changed their horses. Pike used to ride bare­back into Cooktown and bring back the food sup­plies in split-bags on his sad­dle: 32 miles (51km) all up in a sin­gle day. It was in this land­scape, he writes, “that I ab­sorbed a love for the history of my own land” — a fas­ci­na­tion with the past that drove him to re-cre­ate it in his mind, to write about it in de­tailed nar­ra­tives from his 12th birth­day on­wards, to fre­quent bush ar­chives and make the de­serted back­blocks his con­stant hunt­ing ground.

Why, though, should we read him, or even re­mem­ber him, this ob­scure pro­vin­cial chron­i­cler? Pike’s short­com­ings as a writer are very ev­i­dent. His style is at once gruff and monotonously prolix; he had no sense of nar­ra­tive struc­ture, no real grasp of history’s mo­tive for- ces, no in­ter­est in prob­ing the hid­den well­springs of events. He idolised the first ex­plor­ers and the gold­field dig­gers of the north in blan­ket fash­ion. He was an am­a­teur, and of­ten a self­pub­lisher, quite in­no­cent of the editor’s in­stinct: he quotes lib­er­ally from his own back­list and re­peats him­self from page to page. In­deed, a good num­ber of his books are, in truth, the same book re­vised, re­pointed and rep­re­sented.

His out­put, in short, is a mess. And yet there is some­thing worth pre­serv­ing, and trea­sur­ing, in Pike’s literary leav­ings. He loved de­tails and at­mo­spher­ics, and he had a demo­cratic eye that saw and gave due at­ten­tion to each one of the many sto­ries he alighted on. There is a poetic touch that sur­faces from time to time amid the more baroque and over­wrought of his de­scrip­tive pas­sages. Above all he has a strik­ing ca­pac­ity to con­vey the look and feel of aban­doned places and long for­got­ten times.

Here he is, on song, vivid, imag­in­ing old Port Dou­glas, in the most fully re­alised and fre­quently reprinted of his ti­tles, Queens­land Fron­tier, which was a near-best­seller for Rigby Books when it first ap­peared in 1978: “Three ships were dis­charg­ing cargo, and although un­sur­veyed the town was rapidly tak­ing shape as a bustling gold­fields port. Store­keep­ers Thompson, Thred­gold and McMa­hon were in busi­ness, and a baker brought out the first batch of bread at the high price of a shilling a loaf.’’

Cal­ico hos­tels, new trad­ing houses, stores selling iron bed­steads and hur­ri­cane lamps and lengths of tim­ber — these are the kinds of things Pike thrilled to list. The de­serted dig­gings of the Palmer were his favourite haunt: the ru­ins of May­town, where there had once been 35 ho­tels and a score of gam­bling dens, and min­ers with a strike would buy tub-fulls of cham­pagne and in­vite the crowds in the streets to dip their pan­nikins and share. He turned the gold rush story over from ev­ery an­gle, even imag­in­ing the thoughts of the Abo­rig­i­nal war­riors look­ing down on the river val­ley “lit by a thou­sand flickering camp­fires and pin­points of light from kerosene lanterns, and the air heavy with wood-smoke”.

Pike made his re­search pil­grim­ages re­peat­edly into the back­lands, and these too were epi- sodes to be recorded: “In Septem­ber 1948 I fol­lowed the old wagon road down the Hodgkin­son as far as the Mitchell River junction in a Four-Wheel-Drive Blitz truck — the jour­ney was ac­com­plished only with great dif­fi­culty be­cause of the very deep rocky gul­lies.”

How he would have loved to ex­pe­ri­ence the old days on the Cape dig­gings, when the camps were full and the hills shook from the muf­fled det­o­na­tion charges in the deep shafts un­der­ground. There were horse thieves, opium smug­glers and teams of Chi­nese work­ers; there were news­pa­pers such as the Golden Age, and bush ge­ol­o­gists and bro­kers; there was ev­ery trade and pro­fes­sion money could at­tract and buy. Pike paints the scene: Build­ings of bark, slabs and can­vas were erected in the dense iron­bark for­est. There was a rough hos­pi­tal and two doc­tors, Cal­laghan and Daw­son. Pa­tients lay on straw mat­tresses on the antbed floor. The doc­tors op­er­ated — mostly am­pu­ta­tions with­out anaes­thet­ics — on a ta­ble of rough-hewn planks in an ad­join­ing bark hut that also served as the kitchen. Wa­ter was boiled in one of the two iron boil­ers over a smoky open fire a few feet away. The sec­ond boiler con­tained the pa­tients’ sta­ple diet — soup. Flies hov­ered in clouds, and pa­tients were tor­mented by meat ants. Fowls and stray dogs fought amongst the refuse out­side the door.

Such was the world Pike’s books and es­says

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