On Our Selection is a collection of comic tales now regarded as an Australian classic, and I have categorised this post as Australian literature, but I don’t think literature is what it is…
Steele Rudd (real name Arthur Hoey Davis 1868-1935) wrote for The Bulletin in its heyday, publishing the triumphs and – more often - the travails of the quintessential Selector family trying to carve out a living in the backblocks of the country. I think these stories have a value from an historical point of view for they depict the grinding poverty, the determination and resilience of early settlers, but after a while they begin to pall.
The illustrations, by no less than five different artists, are excellent. It is these pictures that show the pitiful condition of the nag that Dad enters in a horse race, the joy of Kate’s wedding, and the poverty they endure. Today, in the age of the credit card, handouts from charities, the pension and other benefits, it is hard to envisage being so destitute that there is no sugar for their tea and the pigs must go hungry so that the family can dine on pumpkin. Each disaster – damaged fencing, a mirror smashed by a lunatic swaggie called Crazy Jack, failed crops and disastrous fires - strikes the modern reader with a kind of horror and profound sympathy for these people, yet for generations Dad and Dave were much loved as comic characters and their adventures can still be seen on DVD.
There isn’t much in the way of character development. According to the introduction by one Cecil Hadgraft, Dad becomes more taciturn and unlikeable as the years go by, but I gave up reading before getting that far. Dad is a tiresome old bully, Dave is his long suffering son. The women do hard manual labour, and Ma produces a baby much more often that she probably wanted to, but she screams and goes ‘girly’ if they encounter a snake to be dealt with. There are various money-making schemes characterised more often by unfounded optimism, and readers can soon tell that all of them are doomed to failure. The environment is something to be mastered, and its creatures are obstacles to be overcome, not to coexist with.
While I got tired of the episodic nature of the tales, what I really disliked was the sickening disregard for animal welfare.
Smith’s horse pranced and marked time well, but didn’t tighten the chains. Dad touched him again. Then he stood on his forelegs and threw about a hundredweight of mud that clung to his heels at Dad’s head. That aggravated Dad, and he seized the plough-scraper and, using both hands, calmly belted Smith’s horse over the ribs for two minutes, by the sun. He tried him again. The horse threw himself down in the furrow. Dad took the scraper again, welted him on the rump, dug it into his back-bone, prodded him on the other side, and threw it at him disgustedly…
The horse lay in the furrow. Blood was dripping from its mouth. Dave pointed it out, and Dad opened the brute’s jaws and examined them. No teeth were there. He looked on the ground round about – none there either. He looked at the horse’s mouth again, then hit him viciously with his clenched fist, and said, ‘The old -, he never did have any!’ At length he unharnessed the brute as it lay – pulled the winkers off, hurled them at its head, kicked it once – twice – three times – and the furrow horse jumped up, trotted away triumphantly, and joyously rolled in the dam where all our water came from, drinking-water included. (University of Queensland Press Edition, undated, pp72-74)
This is ‘robust humour and rollicking satire’ as claimed on the blurb?
Black Beauty, a horse story written by Anna Sewell to teach animal welfare, was published in 1877, thirty years before the first publication of these stories by The Bulletin, so I don’t think we can excuse these scenes of outrageous cruelty by suggesting that Steele Rudd was a ‘man of his time’.
On Our Selection is a window on a past that I think we are all glad is over.