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