Xavier Herbert’s One-Man Cubbyhouse

xavier herbertXavier Herbert (left, in his later years), author of door-stopper Poor Fellow My Country, granted me an interview when I was a callow Perth reporter of 24. Herbert is the only Australian author to have literally disappeared up a gum tree, of which more later. That temporary disappearance must have occurred a few days before my interview.

Poor Fellow, which he published 11 years later in 1975, is a third longer (1463 pages) than War and Peace and weighs  two kilograms. It’s much-mocked as ‘Poor Fellow My Typewriter. Critics say his 510-page Capricornia of 1938 is better. Both depict the unjust pre-war race relations in the Northern Territory and promote land rights. Geraldton-born, he’d been sponsored for a three-week Adult Education Board tour in early 1964 of his old WA haunts. But he publicly called the tour off and high-tailed it back to the East, pausing only to slander – via myself –  the board’s director Hew Roberts, a gentlemanly chap of academic mien.

Herbert seemed in a rage when I arrived for the interview, unless he was just posturing for publicity. Maybe he’d been overdosing on his steroids and methyl-testosterone, though of course I didn’t know about  the injections at the time. Truth is, he hadn’t sacked the board: the board had sacked him.

Why bring it up now? Last month I happened across a letter from Roberts to then-State Librarian Mollie Lukis, setting out Roberts’ side of the story. The egomaniac Herbert (1901-84) was up to his old tricks of betraying friendships and picking fights, Roberts explained.

This fracas, though interesting to me, ranks low on the Richter scale as Xavier Herbert stories. So I’ll consign it to the end of this piece and start with more entertaining stuff. The first tale is about him circumcising himself at 45 as a wedding present for his Jewish bride; the other concerns his failed effort at 79 to recruit a 24yo rabid feminist (her own description) as his live-in secretary and bed-mate, in exchange for  authoring his official biography. This lady, Ann McGrath, is now an ANU history professor with an OAM.

Herbert had been running an affair since 1930 with an uneducated Cockney woman Sadie Norden. They married in 1946. For nearly 50 years she took a role as servant to his genius, while he flaunted his affairs and treated her like dirt.

herbert pointsXavier Herbert was reluctant to trim his brick-like tomes, not so the staff of his manhood.

The circumcision saga, chronicled by academic Russell McDougall,[1], has origins in the epochal Fremantle wharf riots of 1919, where one striker was killed when rival unions went to war.  A young scab, Herbert jumped in to help a besieged constable and a striker landed a punch that broke his nose. Herbert became an ardent advocate of the Left after that and dubbed himself Broken-Nosed Sam. As decades passed, he began theorizing that his creative writing emanated from “the body” and his busted schnoz was giving him writer’s block and maybe suppressing  his virility. In addition, he subscribed to a view that male Jews have big noses, but with an inverse relationship to penis size. (Author McDougall uses the tactful term “Jewish nostrility”). Herbert also wanted to match his bride-to-be’s Jewishness, but he was uncircumcised. There’s a lot of symbolism going on here. He started his new life with the nose job.

McDougall writes,

Herbert wanted Sadie’s wedding this time to be sensational, and he determined to give her an unbeatable gift, a surprise on her wedding night, by appearing to her fully undressed – that is, circumcised. Over the years he had developed quite a psychological complex over not being ‘pruned’ as a child, exacerbated by his knowing that, according to Jewish law, his uncircumcised penis was the sign of a barbarian. He had gone into the House of Israel by the back gate, uncircumcised, but he was determined not to leave it that way.

 “In his heart he clung to Catholicism, for he loved the True Church even as he could not believe in Jesus, who in his view was a ‘phoney.’ … Still, he was ashamed to present himself uncut to his bride, and he determined to reshape himself. It was his way of making his wedding day the Day of Atonement and claiming the higher innocence of those who are forgiven their sins. He presented himself to Sadie streamlined, wrapped in gauze.

“It is hard to say if she were impressed, and of course there is no way now to prove beyond doubt that the story is even true. But for him it had the imaginative truth of art; and it would appear that, recalling the power he had gained from the straightening of his nose, he was encouraged to think that, once circumcised, he might also become more decisive. Thus, on July 1, 1953, he recorded in his log, ‘the beginning of the great days of my life — my Great Days, let me call them — in which I am able to do anything I want to do.’

None of this makes the cut (no pun intended) in Frances de Groen’s dispassionate biography of Herbert.[2] Maybe she didn’t believe it.

When Sadie became terminally ill, Herbert treated her as a nuisance[3], and when she died he wasted no time casting about for a worshipful younger woman as servant/slave. Women found his literary fame and apparent hyper-masculinity enticing, and in short order he had fetched up a middle-class Melbourne divorcee half his age to his home in Redlynch, near Cairns. She had imagined Herbert as a kindly protector and took off down south again when confronted with her bed duties. The overtures repeated, with  Ann McGrath among the refuseniks. He finally gravitated to a platonic and professional relationship with a young Cairns bank clerk as his secretary. He left  her his whole estate, which he had long pledged to Aboriginal rights, Israel, and aspiring Cairns writers.

Now for that tale by Ann McGrath.[4] Around 1981 she was a new-minted lecturer at Darwin Community College. She much admired  Herbert’s writings and activism for Aborigines, the environment and the republic. From 1977, she said, he was her “great man”.[5]

She initially didn’t like the macho elements of Capricornia. “It was the era of high 1970s feminism, with me busy reading writers like Doris Lessing and Kate Millett” she writes. But  researching cattle workers, she was struck by the book’s 1920s frontier tales of cruelty, race and class division, pretension, snobbery, and violence.

She was an expert witness on the Finnis River Kungarakany land claim and awed to learn that Herbert would also give evidence at the venue, a Darwin church.  McGrath dressed in a ‘school marmish’ way, trying to look conservative and mature for the court case. She had dropped the tie-dyed hippy look in exchange for a very prim retro linen dress and jacket, and put her hair in a bun.

“Xavier Herbert invited me out to dinner. I suggested that I also invite Mickey Dewar (1956-2017), a history graduate from Melbourne University who was undertaking a Diploma of Education.”

McGrath was 24,  Dewar 25, and Herbert was 79. For the dinner McGrath wore cream and maroon printed Indian harem pants, perhaps the wrong choice. Herbert was bereft of female comfort, as he had been since Sadie’s death a year or so earlier.

Over the meal, Xavier made a proposition for both of us to consider.  He explained that he lacked a muse, which was essential to his ability to continue to write. To finish his planned last great novel — one that, if I recall correctly, would see Australia transformed and become a successful and fair republic, a ‘True Commonwealth’ — he needed a helpmate. This woman would be essential in enabling him to meet his last writing challenge. She would also gain the right to author his official biography. It sounded attractive in a way and unpleasantly subservient in another. So the deal was – you got to write his biography in exchange for looking after him in a devoted way –  to replicate the role that a ‘traditional’ wife was supposed to perform. We were not given details.

Despite being a rabid feminist, I could not help but feel excited by the idea of writing the biography of the ‘great man’ I so admired.

Mickey was also a fan. She was absolutely gorgeous, plus brilliantly flirtatious and sexy.

Mickey had read Poor Fellow My Country five times. As a dedicated Herbert fan, she was equally dizzy at this unexpected privilege of dining with Xavier.

When he put the muse/biography proposition to us, I was willing to think about it, albeit sceptically. I was a young PhD student, with much yet to do on my thesis, yet the idea of being the one to write the biography of a famous, still living, ‘outback legend’, Indigenous rights activist and patriotic reformer was exciting and tempting.

Mickey was much more sensible than me. Without much ado, as the dinner neared its end and the proposition was to be considered, she proclaimed: ‘I’m not the one. I have already found my great love.’ Mickey was one for dramatic moments, and although taken by surprise I was much impressed by her decisiveness.

I prevaricated, we had letters going to and fro about my duties, and so the story goes on. [But she never took up his offer].

One of the reasons my younger self was fascinated by Xavier was because he seemed to embody ‘the Australian legend’ – the ‘real bushman’  … To understand Australian history better, I wanted to understand an exotic, probably dated, form of Australian masculinity… I later realised that his was a carefully self-constructed character that he enjoyed conveying to the public, especially urban audiences. 

herbert and kylieIn a modest footnote about the muse role, McGrath records, “When I later tried to get more specific details it included secretarial duties such as answering the phone and all the other support and services a husband could apparently expect of a wife. Sex was optional but clearly on his mind.”

Kylie Tennant catches a lift with Herbert aboard his BSA in 1964, about the time of his visit to WA.

Subsequently, she accepted his invitation to a camping trip, with Aboriginal artist Dick Roughsey and rock-art expert Percy Trezise. She slept in a separate “lady’s tent”. Herbert and Trezise talked incessantly and she was understandably glad to bug out early. Both she and Herbert kept diaries and when she read his after he died, “his version of events is rather different from mine.” Duelling diaries, she called it, sparing us the details.

Now for my own Xavier encounter when Herbert aborted his speaking tour of WA’s northern and eastern wheatbelt. I have dim recall of a nuggetty blue-eyed bloke in irascible mood. His career was at a low ebb, with his latest novel Soldiers’ Women dubbed by critic Geoffrey Dutton “an appalling  and embarrassing flop”. My report included,

He was sick of being treated like a  naughty schoolboy by the Adult Education Board. He said that he had had a row with AEB director Hew Roberts, on Monday. Mr Roberts, he said, had criticised him for having criticised WA in the press and had said he was making everyone wild with his unbridled criticism.

“He went on like a  schoolteacher, nag nag nag,” Mr Herbert said. “He said he was not going to allow Commonwealth money to be spent for me to go around abusing WA.”

Mr Herbert said he had assured Mr Roberts that he would only talk about his writing in his lectures but Mr Roberts had asked for an assurance that he would not upset people who asked him questions after a lecture.

“I said I had better go home where I belong and Mr Roberts said, ‘Do’”.

Mr Roberts had since made four requests and had written him a letter asking him to stay but he had ignored all of them.

He would have been quite happy to do the tour alone on his motor cycle, talking to people whenever he felt like it, but the board had kept arranging and delaying things, and wanted him to go with a driver and organiser.

“I’m not a man like that,” Mr Herbert said. “It drove me mad.”

Hew Roberts in my report responded diplomatically and mentioned that Herbert had refused any Commonwealth money. Roberts’ real feelings are in this letter I recently turned up, written three years later. He was forwarding to Molly Lukis at the State Library some press clippings about Herbert’s visit which he found when cleaning up his house.[6]

“It occurred to me that [the clippings] represent a portion of the biography of Xavier Herbert as he saw himself.

In  the short time he was with us, Molly and I developed a great affection for Xavier, slightly tinged with pity. While abusing the board and me in the press,  he virtually lived with us. He loved anomalies and would let our cat  eat from his plate while having his meals and talking with the boys. He was quiet in speech  and a warm personality, but he was entirely shut up within himself.  He would ride away on a powerful motorcycle he had borrowed, and of which he was obviously scared – all part of a deep fear of growing old – old and undramatic.  He was the only person we have met who was genuinely an egomaniac.

Do you remember Herbert McClintock [Communist artist], who painted under the name of Max Evert and used to exhibit in the West Australian Newspapers Gallery, and was the first “modern” painter living here? He was somewhat the same. The moment he began to be well-established he would feel trapped in his own style. He would then hate his previous work as Xavier hates Capricornia with an almost vitriolic hatred. McClintock could have been as great as Dobell or Nolan, but for McClintock. I suppose Xavier Herbert could have been as great as Patrick White, or greater, but for Xavier Herbert.

Best wishes, Hew.”

Herbert’s WA trip makes it into Francis de Groen’s biography, which sheds further light on Herbert’s dummy-spit:

Few people knew or cared who he was or what he had written and he felt both snubbed and isolated.  He responded by quarrelling publicly with the Board of Adult Education  over his accommodation and itinerary then going into hiding, emerging only to denigrate his home state.  Fluctuating between exaltation and depression, he spent his days wandering alone around Fremantle and Cottesloe, haunting the sites of his youth and reminiscing about the happier moments spent there … Except for Henrietta Drake-Brockman and Mary Durack, the WA literary community also ignored him and he reciprocated in kind.  He arrived late and drunk to a party organized by Mary Durack and disappeared up a gum tree into a cubbyhouse where he sulked…In late April the Adult Education Board terminated his contract. He pretended that he had withdrawn his services to protect his right to criticize his home State.

This isn’t an article about Herbert’s literary merit. I’d just mention that to 1960 Herbert garnered three Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowships and in 1963 he got a CLF Literary Pension for Life, at 7 pounds a week [$200 in modern money] and indexed to inflation. Today’s supplicants: eat your hearts out.

Tony Thomas’s new essay collection The West: An insider’s tales – a romping reporter in Perth’s innocent 1960s, can be ordered hereTo get tickets to the launch in Carlton at 6pm on October 10, click here.


[1] The Materialization and Transformation of Xavier Herbert: A Body of Work Committed to Australia.McDougall, Russell.Cross / Cultures, suppl. Literature for Our Times; Leiden Iss. 145,  (2012): 187-200,409.

[2] University of Queensland Press, 1998.

[3] When she asked him to cook potato chips for dinner, he whinged “I was to end my days as housekeeper to a sick old lady.” At a literary wake for Sadie, he threw punches at guests and stormed off into the street.

[4] Ann McGrath is the 2017 Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University. She has published numerous articles and books on gender, colonialism and most recently on deep history.

[5] Xavier Herbert: Forgotten or Repressed? Conor, LizMcGrath, Ann.Cultural Studies Review; Carleton  Vol. 23, Iss. 2,  (Sep 2017): 62-69.DOI:10.5130/csr.v23i2.5818

[6]  Lukis is justly famed as WA’s first archivist (from 1945) and first director of the Battye Library of WA History (from 1956).

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