Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 11, 2009

Opening lines: To the Islands by Randolph Stow (1958)

To the IslandsI’ve been blogging the opening lines of my Miles Franklin winners collection – but somehow had placed To The Islands by Randolph Stow in the wrong position on the shelf.  To keep these posts in order, I should have done it before Careful He Might HearYou (1963) because To The Islands was the second winner of the Miles Franklin, in 1958.   (I don’t yet have the winners from the intervening years).

These are the opening lines:

A child dragged a stick along the corrugated-iron wall of a hut, and Heriot woke and found the morning standing at his bed like a valet, holding out his daylight self to be put on again, his name, his age, his vague and wearying occupation.  His eyes, not yet broken to the light, rested on the mud-brick wall beside his bed, drifted slowly upwards to the grass-thatched roof.  From a rafter an organ-grinder lizard peered sidelong over its pulsing throat.

Collecting himself from sleep, returning to his life, he said to the lizard:’I am Heriot.  This is the sixty-seventh year of my age.  Rien n’egale en longueur les boiteuses journees –

(Penguin paperback 1962, p11)

The French quotation itself signals the book’s period.  Few Australian writers today would begin a novel with a French quotation whereas Stow could safely assume that educated people would know what it meant.   With school French, and a recent refresher, I translate it as ‘Nothing can equal the length of boring days.’    The protagonist is clearly fed up…

But what is an ‘organ-grinder lizard’?  A Google search brought up the Yukulta website which gives the aboriginal word ‘wakurtatyi’ but that’s all I could find.

Update: I’ve since acquired a copy of the first edition, which has a cover not nearly as appropriate as the one Penguin chose for the paperback!  Maybe this is because these London publishers had a stereotyped view of places like ‘the islands’?

Author: Randolph Stow
Title: To the Islands
Publisher: Penguin (the paperback)/ MacDonald & Co 1958 First Edition
Source: Personal library


  1. Just a guess, but could it be one of those lizards that lifts a front leg and waves it to warn other lizards away from its territory? To someone familiar with barrel organs, that gesture might look like the owner of the organ winding the handle to produce music.

    I’m not sure that it fits the book’s setting, though. I seem to remember Stow mentioning “the tropics” and the only lizard I can find that likes to wave its arm (I’ve just whipped through a quick search) is the jacky lizard, which prefers a dry environment. So, h’m.


  2. Hello DKS and thanks for joining in the conversation:) This idle question of mine is like a small prickle in my foot, gently irritating me because I can’t find the answer on Google like I usually do. I don’t know what the proper name is for an expert on lizards, but I hope one stumbles on my blog one day and enlightens us!


  3. Herpetologist. I wanted to be one when I was a teenager but my mother put her foot down, not liking scaled & crawling things in general.

    Now this question is niggling at me too. I’ve tried shortening it to ‘”organ lizard” but all this gives me is a collection of links to pages with the words, “Duck Sex Organ, Lizard Tongue.” Which does not help. One page gives “Organ grinder” as a nickname for the Northern Nailtail Wallaby. “When moving at speed, a nailtail wallaby extends its forelimbs outwards and downwards from the axis of the body. The apparently circular motion described by these limbs is responsible for the old vernacular name, ‘organ-grinder’.”


    • Oh *chortle* you are making this up! Lisa


  4. Nup, nup. I just wish I could find the name of this lizard. No luck at all. I thought the internet was supposed to know everything, and the more obscure your particular Everything was, the better the internet knew it. Not so.


    • Ok, this is going to be a quest! Someone, somewhere in Oz is an expert on these lizards – I just have to find him/her. In the meantime I have emailed the ABC Natural History unit because on their Tips for your Backyard website, someone actually refers to these lizards as commonplace in Darwin. We shall see what comes of that!


  5. Good luck. I hope somebody has the answer.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: