Hermits and Home Truths in Old Borroloola

In 1962, a battered and dusty Land Rover rolled into Borroloola, an abandoned town on the banks of the McArthur River by the Gulf of Carpentaria. On board was a very young David Attenborough and his BBC film crew. Attenborough was there, in the middle ‘of Northern Territory nowhere’ to interview and film three modern day hermits who had cut themselves off from the civilised world. For the observant viewer, there is much to contemplate in Attenborough’s half-hour film, first broadcast by the BBC in 1963.

Superficially it was about an ‘old Australia’, of the booms and busts, as the pastoral and mining settlements rolled out across the north over the one hundred years from 1860. But there are deeper narratives in the film — stories about the human condition, the colonial encounter, what this land of Australia means to us as a people, as well as the inherent transience of human cultures and civilisations and, indeed, even thoughts on what really constitutes a meaningful life. Attenborough exposed glimpses of these narratives through the lives of the hermits with much the same ease of commentary that would serve his audiences well for the next 60 years.

As I watched this film, so rich in artistic and philosophical metaphor, I came to believe that it should be viewed as a great cinematic work of Australian art from that period, along with Xavier Herbert’s writings, the portraiture of William Dobell and Albert Namatjira’s landscapes.

The final scenes in this short film bring forth in me a flood of emotion — the Florence Syndrome some folks call it —  and continue to do so every time I watch them. A lump forms in my throat and tears appear as I realise that, for me, here is a piece of art that goes a long way to laying bare, in an Australian context, the human condition.

After beguiling the audience with a line of questioning that puts the hermits, and indirectly the viewer, so much at ease that we open our heads and hearts to some deep conversations on the meaning of human loneliness, peace, contentment, wisdom, the presence of God, the pursuit of money or not, and, indeed, what it means to be human and have a good life, Attenborough then overwhelms us when we are at our most vulnerable. He holds open the door to our hearts to the music of Max Bruch as we watch two contented men going about their day’s labours in the presence of God’s stunning wildflowers and one of Namatjira’s lone, desert ghost gums – a solitary, smooth-skinned beauty living and thriving in the harshest but most beautiful landscape on earth.

Sometimes we need an outsider, or an outside event, to awaken in us the recognition of what we actually have in Australia and why it is good, and why it is worth defending. For example, Attenborough’s depiction of the ‘Library of Borroloola’ is a brilliant metaphor, which hints at the transience of civilizations – a library housing the great literary works of a society that no longer values them; its teachers having lost the will to ‘profess’ and hand their culture on; its young wandering off distracted by other things; and thus, the books are left to rot and to be slowly eaten away by white ants. Does that sound like campus life in 2024?

Maybe, just like Aboriginal societies, who were said to have collapsed after their youth failed, or even desired, to learn and carry on their tribe’s cultural traditions after the coming of the ‘white-man’, modern Australia is facing a similar, existential crisis for which the ‘Library at Borroloola’ offers a warning – the great works and the ‘blue-prints’ for our cultural achievements are remembered and revered only by a few old codgers who will take that knowledge and appreciation with them to the grave.

This may sound overly dramatic, but consider this: when, for example, Geoffrey Blainey and his ‘Library of Australia’ finally passes, who will we reach out to and consult when answers to the great questions of our history and culture are required? Give me a list of the respected historians who could take Blainey’s place as our trusted, general history elders? Your very short list just confirms my point.

Viewers of the film might find, like me, many other metaphors pertinent to Australia today. For example, the idea that no matter where we come from, whether we are descendants of 50,000 years of aboriginality, or colonial and more recent Irish, English or Chinese immigrants, or ‘native-born’ sons and daughters – this country melds us together like multicoloured clay. Overtime, the whites became more like the blacks. The Irishman in Attenborough’s film, Jack Mulholland, walks around barefoot, lives on flour, tea, sugar, tobacco and bush-foods, and works hard enough to survive, but is not so financially ambitious that overwork impedes his search for the contentment he derives from having time for contemplation.

The blacks too become more like colonial whites. Biddy and sister Maggie in real life had fallen prey to opium addiction in Pine Creek, 700km north of Borroloola, where Roger Jose found them. He persuaded them to live with him at Borroloola, and we see in the film that Biddy has donned a floral dress and settled in as a homemaker to Roger, while invariably her tribe’s menfolk are off working on cattle stations or adopting that convict heritage of ‘bludgernomics’ – the cadging of a living on government handouts while doing the minimal amount of work necessary, a lifestyle that seems to still have much currency amongst many in Australia today. Assimilation, the great leveller, works both ways.

But there was dark side to Australia as well. Evil, and man’s inhumanity to man, was lurking just below the surface. Roger Jose alludes to this matter-of-factly in his rendition of his poem, which I have to the best of my ability transcribed here:

Here doddering in senile decay, my memory harks brightly away
to pink dawns when I’d creep, on blacks fast asleep
and knock them hell West and all of a heap
a bravo? just hired to slay
That their weapons could scarcely compare
didn’t cause me much care
nor the fact that they slept, while shear? men murder crept
by red embers guided and no sentinel kept them apprised
of the sinister shapes lurking there…

Stories of massacres disturb us today, but recent events in the Middle East only prove that this evil is still with us, just as surely as it was both Australia’s colonial days and, before that, in pre-colonial Aboriginal societies (see Warrowen Massacre in Brighton, Victoria and Massacre of Running Waters in Central Australia).

Speaking for myself, it has always been difficult to articulate, or perhaps even to really understand, “what is great art.” But with this film, and the words of Australian art critic Robert Hughes below, I may have finally gained a clear understanding. Now, when I look at an Albert Namatjira watercolour, I will no longer just think, “that’s very nice”; instead, as my heart rate rises and tears will well up in my eyes, I’ll remember that lone  Borroloola ghost gum and its messages on the meaning of life. Robert Hughes from the BBC’s The Shock of the New (1980):

There is a “kind of direct, sensuous and complex relationship with the world around [us] that … is the Lost Paradise art wants to give back to us…

The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible. To restore it to us in all its glory, and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling; and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you; and in this way to pass from feeling to meaning.

It’s not something that committees can do. It’s not a task achieved by groups or by movements. It’s done by individuals, each person mediating in some way between a sense of history and an experience of the world. This task is literally endless and so although we don’t have an avangarde anymore, we’re always going to have art.

16 thoughts on “Hermits and Home Truths in Old Borroloola

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    Just beautiful Roger, an amazing piece of celluloid to capture such hermits living alone together. It leaves me with so many questions. Did they all drink alcohol ? were any alcoholics or drug addicts – the notes indicate, that even back then the Aboriginal women had become adducted to opium … and I see that much of the problems of isolated Aboriginal settlements arise from not just ‘alcoholism’ but also significant addictions – from petrol sniffing children to marijuana and ‘ice’ or amphetamines. I can see ‘amphetamines present in much of the violence and mayhem around the young kids in the Alice Springs twin camps at present. Fancy Frank Hardy sitting up there in the Humpty Doo pub jus out of Darwin writing his first famous book – “The Unlucky Australians’, whilst organising the Wattie Creek strike as the communist he was – using the AWU and Dexter Daniels to deliver food and supplies to the strikers at Wattie Creek, and colonising Aboriginal politics (forever it seems) with ‘resentment” and dis-satisfaction – whilst living in such a simple paradise?

    • MungoMann says:

      Thanks Patrick,
      Yes I have been digging deep in the archives and found lots of references to alcohol and drugs having caused, and continuing to cause, the problems in Aboriginal communities of which you speak. But although it will perhaps never be fully solved, it can be largely controlled – I know many Aboriginal people who are avowed teetotallers and I know from my own working class background in Melbourne that “drinking”, and its associated domestic violence, has been dramatically reduced from when I was growing up in the 1960s-70s.

      But like a balloon which is squeezed at the end marked “alcohol” it just gets bigger at the end labelled “recreational drugs” – we have a massive drug scene – coke, weed, MDMA, LSD – in Melbourne. It seems that many humans – convicts, workers, stressed managers, aborigines, showoffs – just have this need to go on periodical benders to forget their self-perceived problems!

      And the reference to Frank Hardy is apt – “intellectuals” and do-gooders have a lot to answer for regarding the parlous state of life in many of today’s remote Aboriginal communities. The hermit Roger Jose looks to many as being a “no-hoper” but I just wonder whether he has done more good for Aboriginal Australia than all the Frank Hardy, self-serving do-gooders put together. And being the philiosopher that Roger Jose was I am sure he would agree with that quote from Pascal:

      “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
      ― Blaise Pascal, Pensées


      • Michael Mundy says:

        Pascal may have medalled in Seoul’s ‘Space Out’ Competition. It’s been running since 2014 and this year over 4000 contestants applied to make a final field of 117 and a popular vote selects the 10 audience favourites to be evaluated on their ability to do nothing without dozing or sleeping The contestant with the most stable heart graph wins and recieves a Rodin’s Thinker stauette as their prize.

      • Patrick McCauley says:

        Up North, in the out of the way places ( even caravan parks) I have seen both men and women ( and couples together) sit in a chair all day in utter silence together – staring at a tree, or out at the bush, or at the ocean – in utter peace and contentment, without even a radio going in the background. Yes when ‘sit quietly in a room alone’ you have the whole wide world in your hands.

      • Stephen Ireland says:

        Thanks, Roger, for recreating a past that many of us share in some shape or form. Thanks also for that apt aphorism to which I would like to add this, also from Pascal’s Pensées:

        ‘What people want is not a soft and easy life, which leaves us with time on our hands to brood over our unhappy lot, or to worry about the dangers of war, or the burdens of high office. In busyness we have a narcotic to keep us from brooding and to take our mind off these things. That is why we prefer the hunt to the kill.
        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
        Telling a man to rest is the same as telling him to live happily. It means advising him to enjoy a state in which he is completely happy and which he can think over at leisure without meeting something that will distress him. Those who give this kind of advice do not understand human nature.

        Therefore, those who are naturally conscious of what they avoid, avoid rest like the plague. They would do anything to be kept busy. It is wrong to blame them.’

  • Dr Gary Johns says:

    It’s a striking piece of writing and an excellent recall; bravo.

  • vickisanderson says:

    It is so incredibly “warming” to read a piece that speaks to your heart. There is an existential quality to this lovely essay by Roger. Many of us who have had both a background in our country’s rural expanses, and a substantial (or even a passing) relationship with our Kooris, will relate to the observations. Sadly, in this age of division, one is often mocked or reproved for a sympathetic approach to the issues of current Aboriginal affairs.

    It’s funny, too, to encounter quite a different assessment of Attenborough’s work. Mind you, I think this applies more to his early work as a (handsome) young naturalist, than to his sometimes pompous words of his elderly years.

    I’m not familiar with the “Florence Syndrome”, but I know what it is like to react with emotion at confronting events which seem to register with some buried understanding beyond the intellect. Roger is right that the most troubling aspects of human nature erupt from time to time – as in the events depicted in this piece – and ,of course, most distressingly, in events like 7 October.

    • MungoMann says:

      Yes, I think we need to avoid falling into too much of a state of “pessimistic Conservatism” – Things are bad in many ways, but then one could also claim things have always been bad in their own way, in their own times. It is perhaps time again to go and smell more roses. We need sometimes to say to ourselves – and our ideological enemies too – ‘hey we are all in this together.’

      I am hopeful – Australians are pretty slack and indulgent in the good times (and why not), but when the going gets tough we always seem to pull together and do the right thing – Australians perhaps have done their best in bad times – from a penal colony with an incarceration rate of 50% [Makes Noel Pearson’s lament for “his” people’s 2.5% incarceration rate look pretty paltry] we have built a successful modern Australia that handled, droughts, floods, depressions, massive influx of migrants, wars in Europe, bombings by the Japanese and even dodged the bullets of the Republic and the Voice!

      Australians do muddle through sometimes and can be slow to change, but that is deliberate – we want to read the message very carefully before we sign up to the messenger’s plan [another snake-oil salesman usually].

      Australians are of goodwill towards Aboriginal people and it only because of great sympathy for their plight, which was often woeful, in the past that things have ultimately improved. Deep down, despite what the modern-day activists tell us, we all really know (as do most Aboriginal people I believe) that full citizen equality and assimilation (or integration if you prefer) is the best way forward for all Australians – Aboriginals, migrants, refugees, muslims and bogans.

      We all need to sign up to a joint statement of basic rules then get on with living our own individual and family lives within these rules and stop telling other what they should be doing.. No talk of self-determination, Sharia Law, Affirmative action polices, or special voting rights for so-called Indigenous. And if you want to be a desert hermit or a company CEO that should be your right – provided you comply with the basic rules which entail leaving other Australians who are different to you alone. Roger

    • Jessie says:

      Many thanks Roger for this wonderful piece of research and your paper. I had read originally on the Dark Emu Exposed website and was still mulling over the enormity and beauty of the stories.

      vickisanderson, I also had not heard of this ‘Florence Syndrome’. After some decades of visiting the capital city life and now ‘regional’ areas I now realise the application of the purported medical terminology

      The syndrome is produced in audiences observing/listening to invited visiting guest speakers of full blood (or near) status (ie they don’t have to self-identify) and the many esteemed anthropologists/subject experts. Folk generally invited to such ‘think-tanks’ or media talks and the endless exhibitions and copious humungous Indigenous ‘art’-works with associated narrative in every offices and foyer of STEM banks, law and science and economic buildings.
      Stendhal’s Syndrome

  • KemperWA says:

    Yes Roger, campus life is as you described. The smartphone generation don’t want to read, they want to be told the answer by Google’s first answer off the rank. I was the only student in my agricultural degree to bring a book into class. I often spent hours in my university library, like a kid in a candy store. It was also interesting to see the books from degrees long dropped e.g., viticulture, horticulture, animal husbandry, cookery.
    It is very likely nowadays that Australian employers will be taking on graduates who had never read a text, field guide or even written on a piece of paper during their three or four years of lecturing.
    In my final year the library was being remodelled because the academic powers-that-be declared ‘we will be moving the library toward electronic knowledge and digital research first’ with the book collection being ‘scaled back’. Very sad. I picked up a few valuable books from the withdrawn section. I would have kept at least 20 science books but the university would have imposed a $70 replacement fine for each one. The thought of these books, factual, dispassionate and free from propaganda and opinion going to landfill, aye I cannot bear.
    These younger generations have wholeheartedly handed over their brain, conscience and decision-making to manipulative activists and their movements, to the detriment of themselves and us common-sense folk.

    • MungoMann says:

      Yes the fate of our libraries and their books is an idea worth exploring – but there is one upside to their being forgotten by this generation of administrators and students. Imagine being a fully “digitised” young person in 2030 or 40, who has only ever been online and has never “smelt” a galley of bookshelves stuffed with 100 year old books. Imagine they serendipitously go to one of the few surviving great libraries (Say La Trobe in Melb – apparently the third most visited in the world!) and imagine their amazement turning to fascinating delight as they select a Morocco leather bound book on anthropology, filled with descriptions and photographs of what Aboriginal people used to be like, and looked like – how outback Australia really was in 1890. They will feel that they have just opened a lost tomb full of long lost scrolls of wisdom….it will be like a whole new world to them, for them to rediscover what we have taken for granted.

      It’s not so far fetched. When I was growing up, my mother and us kids would not have been seen dead in an Op-shop. Now all the Op shops (8 of them!) where I live in Prahran in inner city Melbourne are doing a roaring trade with the young in ‘retro-fashion and ideas’ . It is also where I buy lots of great books – all from the deceased estates of old codgers – for my one-man ‘save Australia’s books project.’ A ‘whole new world’ from the past has been opened up to the young by these Op-shops. Hopefully that delight will re-occur with physical books in the future.

  • NarelleG says:

    Thank you Roger!!

    Just heard the principal at Ramsgate Primary has been playing a rapper song EVERY morning from Birdz; it is an anti-white song.
    Calls Cook a treacherous murder.

    Quirindi Year 12 English class has spent several days with the local natives leaning how to weave!!!!!

    Thank you for this paper Roger – I look forward to reading more!!

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Such a redolent and beautiful essay on aloneness rather than loneliness, and on the contemplation of nature, in the light of civilisation and its ills. Throughout world history, some people in many cultures have always chosen to live on these undisturbed fringes of social existence, seeking the silence in which to personally review life, death and the hand of fate, eschewing the world into which they were born and which failed to satisfy them. We know from scattered records, including the Bible and other ancient accounts, that far back then some were happy enough, others were religiously ecstatic, and some were simply in a sorry state..

    In Australia’s past as the ‘wide, brown land’ such isolation was often a matter of necessity, as those on the social fringes found a way to survive, as horsemen and trackers and itinerant workers, on the move as drovers and shearers and agricultural hands. Realistically too, we should recognise that there is often a sort of desperation in such ‘awayness’, a sad sort of resignation, a desire to disregard others and focus instead on only the self. Paradoxically, this can involve a certain ‘masking’ of the self, so that days can be filled with a sort of shutting down, a staring out, almost a blankness. Sometimes it is a calmness that seems admirable. Sometimes it is simply coping behaviour; one thinks of Lawson’s drover’s wife here.

    I am 82 years old in one month, and spent some formative years in early adolescence in the hot and lonely share-farming and dairy backblocks of what was then a small settlement on Sydney’s western railway steam-train line called Mt. Druitt, true rural scrabble country. I remember hearing of a local woman who went out west regularly with her husband, a fencer, who decided to ‘punish’ her during these months-long trips by refusing to speak to her; she had no other social contact during these trips, although he did. Such tales emphasised that life was tough and one’s ‘lot’ was to accept it and be glad it wasn’t worse. It was not unusual in those days of the early to mid-fifties of the last century in this region to still see a swaggie humping his bluey along the dusty dirt roads in his broken old boots, stopping among rural folk to sleep in a barn and ask for some water and a crust, an old workie down on his luck.

    We had hermits living nearby too: old Mr. Major across the road and down a bush track was one of them. He had put up a bag and old bottles humpy, where I used to visit him and listen to his tales, not all of them believable. Then, bored, I’d leave him to his possums, magpies, memories and his scratching mutt of a dog. My own father ended up like that up the north coast of NSW, in a chocked-up broken caravan out bush, warmed at night by his dog, surrounded by the few cows he had left on agistment, whom he loved far more than people. Lightning Ridge, when I visited there twelve years ago, had quite a few in the settlement outskirts living like this.

    In my thirties, an anthropologist by training and inclination, I visited with a few elderly aboriginal people in central-western NSW who refused the alcoholic disturbances of the ex-mission village and had stayed in isolated humpies looking over some sacred hills, happy to die there, taking their old world of sacred ceremonies and on-the-run bushrangers with them. It was fonder in memories than it was in the living of it though; they made that plain to me, caught as they had been with a head full of of the old ways, including its deprivations, and a need to adapt to the new.

    Attenborough seems to have captured some of this, the Old Australia that we of a fading-out generation once knew of wherever we lived. Good to see Quadrant publishing essays like this still, as well as the current affairs it does so well.

  • STD says:

    Good work Elizabeth, and a wonderful heartening walk down memory lane Roger.
    I think the Australian immigration program, if we have to have one. Should look into ditching the thorough personality and character lobotomy that has been the multicultural mainstay and standard fare since corporate, political and banking elites have culturally and clinically monetised the immigration program in favour of Indian’s, Chinese and Muslim’s . We have had half a century of an immigration dictatorship favouring every culture known to man except what is in Australian cultural interests. Would it be possible to swing immigration back in favour of our own kind before all the immigrants take everything including Australian Jobs and housing our forebears worked hard to create for future generations of Aboriginal and Anglo Australians?
    Do you think that all the very happy immigrants are going to give a fair go and look after Aboriginal and white Australians once we become a diminished and trashed minority in our own country.
    Peter Dutton don’t just lower immigration, give all the Australian people, either a referendum or a plebiscite on the(your) elites immigration program- give the majority of Australians a say on immigration….. we want a voice on this before Aboriginal and White Australian culture are consigned to the sub continental, asiatic ,middle eastern dustbin of history.
    The likes of the Jack Mulholland’s of (in the above video) this world are far more compatible with the now tenuous genocidal cultural existence, of Australian cultural integrity’ and character, than the general quality of immigrants that we the Australian people are being forced to accommodate through gritted teeth and sufferance.
    Enough is enough all the traitors on both sides of politics who have signed this country up for the unfamiliarity that is cultural obliteration don’t have to live with the consequences of their handiwork – I’m talking about the likes Whitlam, Fraser, Grasby and the rest of the treasonous cabal since, including the libs that have well and truly betrayed this country, her people and her culture.
    How dare you despicable people treat the average punter in this country with utter contempt..
    The likes of that contemptible flea bag Kevin Rudd told mainstream Australia on behalf of the the UN, the banks ( the big 4) as well as the multinational and so called Australian corporate elites that he makes no Apology( I presume a snub to average Australia) for a large Australia…….. how dare he tell us, the Australian people how it’s going to be without one considered thought of giving us the Australian people a chance to tell the elites what we the majority want…. Oh,no, you couldn’t have that, that would ruin the immigration party monopoly.
    And you know what is even more disappointing is that even the good guys such as Hawke?,Howard , Costello, Abbott and Joyce, and for that matter probably even Pauline Hanson,; these people all know and knew that there is an agenda, a deliberate agenda to completely transform the face of this country without a scintilla of consideration of asking second class Australians how we would like Australia to be. Why won’t you gutless lilly livered mealy mouthed hypocrites tell we the Australian people, your own people what the global agenda is ?
    There is not a single politician in this country with the backbone to go in and bat for the Australian people , not one.
    It really saddens me to think of those returned service who have fought and died for this country, it has all been in vain because several generations of treasonous politicians have sold out the efforts of these fair dinkum people in the interests of their own laziness , superannuation and self expediency .
    We the Australian people are and have been poorly and never represented on the subject of immigration by our so called democratic representatives.
    I hope the Australian people wake up and give all you political creeps a size 10 boot at the polling booth.
    Which politician is going to put the interests of Australia first ( not Palestinian’s) instead of both the corrupt autocracy’s of the IMF and the United Nation’s…. As Christ said about Sodom and Gomorrah “ show me a just lot (non corrupt) and I will spare the impending fate.

  • call it out says:

    Roger, just beautiful. The film captures a spirit of old Australia, black and white, that has been mostly lost.

  • Greg Lloyd says:

    Enchanting and much needed. Thankyou.

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