Intro: These are the first two sections of a verse novella. Told by an English journalist it charts his 60 year friendship with an Australian ‘bluestocking’ and her family, whom he meets on a tour he takes of the British Empire’s Dominions in 1913-14. The work also charts Anglo-Australian relations in the context of the Empire’s decline.
In Our Four Dominions
for Louise Byrne
‘Proud? Most certainly we’re proud!’
In this land we’ve a first of everything!’
And Mayor Moriarty, seed merchant,
escorted me up, through, down and around
his suburb’s first town hall.
And if, as I were to find, his womenfolk
checked him just one side of humbug,
still this silly man seemed to prefer them
schooled and daunting.
Jean surely was.
‘We’ve a surprise,’ the Mayor seemed pleased.
‘My most brilliant girl has volunteered
to enlighten you on what our younger set believes,
and if our younger set means Jean,
and Jean believes what Jean believes,
I’m sure you will be charmed and thus adjust.’
I had to. For outside his mayoral chambers,
with a pixie-slight demeanour I sensed would prove
disarmingly robust, there she was.
And chaperoned by their municipal chauffer
we headed to the Boat House where in its Palm Court,
to an overlay of tea dance numbers
flirtatious chat commenced.
‘Though I’ve been introduced as Jean,
you may refer to me as Minx, father does:
His Worship being something out of Mr Arnold Bennett,
I’m something out of Mr H G Wells.
Welcome to that kind of place where women
in case you weren’t aware
possess the vote and our last PM before the last
was “Affable Alf”.
That kind of place and
these kind of women, with Jean forever to remain
this small and bustling girl with eyebrows raised
and quizzing sidelong glances.
Attempting one better to top her catalogue
seemed my only option.
‘Recall the attribution,’
she was asked, ‘from our Colonial Correspondent?
Well Miss Moriarty, I am he!’
and the sidelong glance returned, ‘elsewhere may think themselves
in such a fashion, Australians though are a Commonwealth now,
up-to-date as can be allowed and when we aren’t…
let’s make it up!’
Little ‘side’ then in this most pragmatic
of Dominions, merely an insisting cheek that I,
this visiting London journalist Should try us out!
The very reason I was there.
My uncle, an outward-looking man,
also was my editor. And believing I wasn’t yet a drab,
and trusting I wrote both wittily and well
made this proposal.
‘On balance then,’ he stated
(since he loved to state) ‘what quarter of our globe
seems better blest than where we British truly reign
yet fairly rule? Reasonable?’ he asked..
‘Very,’ I replied as he arose and pointed
to his map.
‘India,’ he announced, ‘our jewel…
Africa, our mission…whilst for a spread of sheer diversity:
Middle and Far East, the South Seas and the Caribbean. But…’
he paused (since he also loved to pause)
‘what of those partners-in-empire, our Dominions?
Having learnt so well from us (and aren’t they us?)
what indeed might we learn from them?’
Knowing who they were,
he and Britain wished to know who and what
they truly were. And such would be my brief:
(with backing from certain chaps of clout
and six months touring our Dominions)to discover
who indeed and what indeed they were.
Somewhere my uncle had his list:
those he knew, those he’d met and those his correspondents:
very chaps of clout in Cape Town and Melbourne,
Sydney and Auckland, Vancouver and Toronto.
And though he planned I’d meet them Uncle warned:
‘In ten or twenty years they may or will
be heading fogey. So as an extra brief seek out
those men of your age, chaps of the future,
for both articles and an eventual book.’
‘And such if you like Miss Moriarty,’
(how we enjoyed such fake formalities!)
‘are the reasons I am here.’
‘Chaps of clout?’ quizzed and answered Jean.
‘Chaps of the future? Seed merchant mayors or
seed merchant mayors-in-training?’
This Sunday evening though,
might I be free to visit the Moriartys at their Bella Vista?
If Father may have seemed the Minister,
Mother it was who ran the Ministry.
‘Book us into your calendar,’
he might say.
‘Now,’ she’d fine-tune, since someone
must employ that side of the initiative,
‘let’s arrange those dates…’
She allowed him though
his MC role: ‘May we present, starting with our eldest,
Heléna, Jean (you’ve met) Edward (Ted)
Stella and Vera our own Gemini.'
Yes, let’s meet
the Moriartys: first up their medium pacer,
middle order, all-rounder of a son who,
beyond even that, was a wag confessing:
‘Surrounded by such girls-and-girls they’ll say
he’s spoilt, spoilt with all a lightweight’s faults,
excepting you can trust him:
for if and when a stoush arrives he’ll be there,
he’ll have to be.’
And doubtless believing
After saying things like that, one does things like this
Ted stroked his trim moustache.
‘And how did you find us Moriartys?’
I had an uncle taking pride
in just how many men he knew throughout
the Empire, her husband being a friend of
one of these.
‘I think we can agree,’
Ted offered, ‘that’s how our Empire’s run.
One sends a cable knowing it’ll be read,
And more than opinions
he seemed to offer his very self as a small, yet necessary
anchor of Empire: you commenced with Ted,
then his father, his father’s friend, my uncle and next to him
the Colonial Office, the India Office, the Foreign Office and
‘We’re so glad to know, ‘ Jean humoured him,
‘your place in the great-Imperial-chain-of-being.’
‘Do you play charades?’ a Gemini enquired.
I had been known to.
‘Then please return,
return and play!’ her twin kept urging.
‘And this is Heléna,’ Father intervened,
‘with an accent on her second e, now don’t forget,
the Empire’s only one. She invented that when she
was twelve.’ (For he was a man well proud
of all he was connected to.)
‘And may I book you in?’ Heléna asked.
‘I’ve heaps to be informed upon.’
The twins re-intervened:
might we make a picnic and watch Teddy play?
And did I play?
(Always out first ball, alas.)
We embarked for dinner, we disembarked
from dinner. Soon, I was told, the chauffer
would arrive, taking me to the Windsor.
‘See our guest out will you Jean?’
See me out? Oh yes Jean would!
Was her mother thinking that somehow
I might be a man to give an extra meaning to
this daughter’s life?
Though what ‘extra meaning’
might she need if the family supplied enough?
‘I love my little brother,’ Jean confessed,
‘I always have. But then: ‘So he’s in college?
So he’s attending university and wishes to become
Sir Edward Moriarty KC, so?’ And then:
‘I think all snobs are sad and that Heléna is
the saddest snob of all with not the remotest brain.
She never went to varsity whilst I did.
I studied French and wish one day to use it.
I only read French nowadays, I’ve very few
to speak it with…might you?
‘Alas,’ I let her know,
‘my languages being purely classical, I’ve missed out
on all this modern stuff!’
With her look announcing
I can and will both understand and even enjoy this man
yes Jean liked that!
enough of that! She’d to make it known
what kind of friend I would be getting.
‘History,’ (was this some lecture?) ‘still informs me,
although I’m well beyond mere Whig.
You sir see a Roundhead. But what can I,
what will I do about it? Don’t suggest school mistress,
the very thought of being one and what I was
at school makes me right glad for all those girls
I’ll never teach. And never please suggest the wife
of any famous man. Throughout the municipality
His Worship’s constantly famous for being
His Worship, and what does that get mother?
An avalanche of mere good works
with all their attendant tut-tut-tut.
Just give me works; but what?’
The chauffer had arrived, I too had ‘works’:
seeking out those with their clout who’d tell me where
we British stood, this corner of the Empire;
to meet their sons, the future, those I’d recommend to be
the kind of chaps Britain might rely upon;
and finally to interview four of the men who ran
this Commonwealth of theirs: the affable Mr Deakin,
the combative Mr Hughes, the gentlemanly Mr Fisher,
the rather plodding Mr Cook; nor could I forgo the luncheons,
dinners and smoke nights, though I sensed where I’d be
welcomed most, those weeks in Melbourne.
(‘Liberty ’all young man!’ the Mayor,
her father offered, putting forth ‘side’,
if his special, unaffected brand of ‘side’.)
When I was younger, though hardly that much younger,
night after night entranced by some light opera soubrette,
I would return to gaze on her alone, and mouth
Unlike the stage though,
each Moriarty evening was a premiere,
and I’d make my return just to re-discover
what Jean (and even I) might be saying next.
Name a soubrette who could announce:
‘From hereafter, year-upon-year,
you men will need us more and yet still more,
need us and our vote. In those countries where we’ve
got the vote!’
‘You’ll notice if you haven’t yet,
how my older sister acts like she’s some maharani?’
(Aspects were noted if hardly that descriptive.)
‘And you think I’m unmarried…’ (Well I hadn’t.)
‘Poor woman’s set on forgetting just how old she is
and will become. But can’t. She knows she’s twenty six
and still hasn’t seen England her England.
That’s why His Worship’s set she’ll go, and go they will
in ’15, ’16 or ’17, to find herself this England
or a husband. For me your country may as well
Though at times we talked
of little else.
‘Even if,’ she proposed, ‘we’re British,
as many think we are and this is a British world,
it’s far more yours than ours, yours to accept,
interpret and amend, in particular amend.
Yet this is a world which cannot last,
you’ve doubtless heard
On dune and headland sinks the fire,
and stuck on its less-than-certain edges
we’re the dunes and we’re the headlands.
Aren’t I correct?’
That currently was part of what
I’d set myself to find.
Here though was the start
of my credentials: those interviews arranged and held
with Messrs Deakin, Hughes, Fisher and Cook.
Smiling I lounged back just a touch and watched.
‘Well done,’ she cheered, ‘well done!
An Englishman who understands there’s something
far beyond mere England in its tepid, three week
Why spoil this game reminding Jean
she’d no more been there than Heléna had?
It simply underscored all I enjoyed about her,
as the Colonial Correspondent returned
(most late afternoons now) seeking to discover
what this Australian bluestocking truly thought.
‘Since,’ I asked, ‘women in this country vote,
what do you suppose they might want next?’
And fearing he had made himself her foil,
Jean’s latest innocent mug, their dinner table paused.
‘Why birth control!’
‘And that’s our Minx!’
With embarrassed pride her father beamed, spluttered,
then continued beaming, egging on Jean
so that she might rise and further rising
rile her mother.
Part comic, part preposterous,
was this some kind of game certain Dominion
families played? Well the Moriartys did
and an idea bloomed, oh how it bloomed
Jean’s saying what her father wishes he could say
except his wife won’t let him…
as yes the wife was riled, riled and recoiling
‘Oh must you Jean!’
And being twenty four yes
yes Jean must she must.
As being twenty six Heléna mustn’t
so she squirmed.
Seeming as tall as Jean was tiny,
Heléna had those kinds of hands on those kinds of arms
made for sweeping, know-it-all dismissals;
though she lacked her sister’s sense to check,
bemused, who or what was right before her.
‘One really tries,’
Jean had to explain, ‘not to consider
one’s parent’s conjugal relations.
But with the sheer variety of the Maharani, me,
Teddy and our twins, something somehow
must’ve happened. And she’s known, Heléna’s known
since birth, that if an impression’s to be made
she will be the first to make it.’
Which Jean didn’t?
Well not with all that throaty bombast gushing
from her older sister.
‘Shall we pity her?’ I’d ask myself.
‘Though why? How often does Heléna get her chance
to seize on any British accent, matching it with her own
Yes pity would’ve been considered,
except Heléna hardly understood her prattling,
nor would she ever.
‘Yours is a land,’
I tried, ‘that uses space so well:
its broad streets and roads are near to boulevards.
How old is your city? Less than eighty years,
so even better everything is new!’
Did she flinch?
Heléna didn’t need it new, whilst any praise for
this Dominion proved, like her father’s pride
(Jean’s too) in how they were forging their traditions,
foreign and perverse.
‘Ah yes,’ Heléna itemised,
‘traditions: heat, dust, flies and boors: mutton breeding,
mutton digesting, mutton-chop whiskered boors…’
which hardly equated with those I’d met,
the trim-bearded ‘Affable Alf’ Deakin for one,
who could have strolled straight into the Asquith Ministry.
‘Out of date by forty years, Heléna!’
Jean seeing an opening had pounced.
‘Those squatters are either shaved and civilised by now,
Thinking I’d understand what she understood
Heléna in reply was tragic:
‘My sister and her most Australian twang,
I know you’ve heard it, I do every day.
What man will respect her if she talks like that?’
I wouldn’t bite the bait.
Some men might enjoy this ‘twang’ if indeed
there was one; some other men, I include myself,
would near-love her ‘twang’ or no.
I was so pleased
I’d met a world that wasn’t an unending reproduction
of certain men with whom I had attended school,
or their sisters. Rather it seemed I had been bred
to tour the Four Dominions and even more befriend
If not Heléna.
For now we were to talk on what she really knew.
How about my club, wasn’t I the member of a club?
(Once it had been proposed I be proposed.)
Did I by chance know a duke, an earl?
A marquis, baron, baronet?
I never got a chance to answer since
I must have.
For now her catalogue commenced:
highwaymen and their saucy wenches,
Hearts of Oak and Drake’s Drum,
the honest toil of simple folk and what The Bard
had given the world, yes yes she admitted,
almost all ephemera but but surely it wasn’t about
mere knowing one’s place for no no it was about order,
an order seeing to it all flourished, was she not correct?
Then, as we caught Jean’s eye-rolling and finger-drumming
Heléna pursed a smile’s preliminaries,
pleased she might show a certain toleration
towards a younger sister.
‘So might you,’
I was asked, ‘have one of these?’
as a hand was lightly flapped in Jean’s direction.
Did she mean (she did) that I had sisters?
‘Well I have two...’
Though none like Jean,
ushering me down the steps into Bella Vista’s garden,
who bemused yet seething asked:
‘You see the Maharani, hunkered there on our veranda,
taking up the white woman’s burden,
staring down the hordes amassing at the gate?
Of course she’s tried Theosophy, says it calms her,
but other than ghosts there’s very little prospects.
Teddy will marry, Stella shall and Vera,
whilst I am certain to remain bluestocking me.
But Heléna? She’s betrothed you know, beyond betrothed
to Old Father Thames and Mother England.
I’d call it comic but the comedy’s too tragic,
call it tragic but the tragedy’s too comic.
Though be the outcome sobs or giggles
I’m sure we’ll need each other, one day!’
Oh no Jean didn’t!
Already seeing herself as some middle-aged companion to
that vapid sister, what sort of bluestocking was this?
To rescue her from such a future the Colonial Correspondent
would fix that!
And very soon,
one hot afternoon, striding back to the Boat House
she’s hearing this unedited tumble of words concluding:
‘Haven’t you potential, Jean? Why stymie that potential?
Come with me and see the Dominions, the Dominions
and beyond…’ for more than any Colonial Correspondent,
Jean this is your suitor announcing:
‘After we wed let’s head to the nearest liner!’
Not exactly the silliest thing he’d ever said,
though he’d never be as young as when he was
‘Liner?’ he hears. ‘Ocean liner?
Ah no we won’t.’ Since she will never marry.
‘I don’t know why and even more don’t think
I’ll ever know although…what a scandal,
what a superb scandal we would make.’
No sidelong glancing now, Jean raising her head
looks her straightest at him:
‘I like you more than any man I’ve met…’
which seems the sort of phrase needing to end in
but except Jean (who’s sensing diplomacy’s time
is now) knows any qualifying but would hurt,
and never adds it. That’s how much she likes him.
‘So this,’ I’m hearing,
‘I’ll respond like this: you remain here.
With Melbourne always needing chaps of clout
we’ll get you introduced; and if our ladies rarely
seem viragos, still I foresee that kind of girl
you may require. Who isn’t me. Stay and I will be the one
reporting on our four Dominions.
We knew that wasn’t viable.
For it was safe, still safe Chez Moriarty,
where you were cultivated as a very clever girl,
the family Roundhead. It would take much more than
this suitor-in-transit to make her what she wanted to become
(which then neither of us knew).
Though Jean had commenced understanding something:
‘I’m just starting out. Even if he didn’t wish to
any man would stifle me. Better this way isn’t it,
Colonial Correspondent. We may never agree,
but I believe you understand me. Correct?’
Though after laying such a temperate siege to Jean,
Milady of Clout, Milady of the Future,
any girl I might require in this modern adequate city
would seem passé.
would seem passé.
Bio: After 18 & ½ years teaching poetry at the University of Wollongong Alan is retiring to Melbourne to continue writing & publishing Grand Parade Poets books. His next volume as a poet THESE THINGS ARE REAL appears from Giramondo in 2017.
More sections from Alan Wearne's verse novella In Our Four Dominions will be posted on BM in about six months.