Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2016

Sensational Snippets: Poor Fellow My Country (1975) by Xavier Herbert

Poor Fellow My CountryDon’t hold your breath waiting for my review of Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country, which won the Miles Franklin award in 1975.  This reissued edition by Harper Collins under the A&R imprint, is 1443 pages long if you include the glossary of Aboriginal terms at the back of the book. I’m only up to page 103…

But if you’ve ever been to a bush race meeting, you’ll love this – and I just had to share it:

The patron’s call for cheers for the horse was the signal for the parade of all the beasts that would be racing – a circling of the area between the grandstand and post by excited animals led by nervous owners and trainers, round and round, prancing, rearing, bay and chestnut, black and white and roan and grey – while the mob packed along the rails of the flat named them – Bonny Beau, Silver Lad, Frangipani, Red Rory, Night Queen, Rajah of Timor, Last Toss, Last Hope and all the rest – and pronounced grave judgements on their chances with statistics of their breeding.  Included in the parade was the youngster who would be First Prize in the Golden Horseshoe lottery, a handsome little black colt named Sir Brunette, donated by the North Australian Pastoral Company, another great foreign land-holder, subsidiary of British banking interests.

(Herbert doesn’t miss a single opportunity to wear his politics on his sleeve!)

At the head of the parade, mounted on a white horse and tricked out in the get-up of an English huntsman, was the steward, otherwise known as Charlie Bishoff, the stock inspector.

(The reader has already figured out that Herbert despises the aping of British traditions, not to mention absentee Imperialist land-holders who bought up properties bankrupted by the loss of young men sacrificed to WW1.  His scorn for the hypocrisy of those who tug the forelock to the Brits is withering, especially if they’re Irish).

First race was the Maiden Stakes, with untried colts and fillies, fearful of the crowd and suspicious of each other, quivering, sweating, chomping, stamping, bucking, striving with might and main against the intentions of their exasperated jockeys and Charlie Bishoff’s directions, bunching at the barrier, tangling, swinging from it, essaying to run the race the other way, coming back to tangle and bunch again, a hopeless mess of variegated horseflesh, of tossing manes and swishing tails, of multi-coloured silks and flaying whips – until, as if by the intervention of some unseen power, chaos for an instant became order, the field was strung out behind the barrier, and the steward signalled, the barrier shot up – ‘They’re off!’

The shuffle of hoofs became a sudden steady drumming, waxing to rolling thunder, as heaving rumps and flying tails and flickering hoofs and the flapping silks of crouching backs vanished in a cloud of dust, and the thunder waned with distance, only to be seen as a flying ruddy cloud at which the crowd stared in silence.  Then round the first curving quarter of the great oval of the course, the two-furlong mark. the creatures of the storm appeared again as what they were, hard striving units of flesh and blood.  Binoculars were raised, and voices: ‘Blue Bob’s leading’ – ‘Last Hope Lassie next’ – ‘Come on Blue Bob!’

The course was one mile, the distance for every race, except the Cup, which was a gruelling two.  No fancy little gallops and sprints for these beasts, emphasis being placed on stamina as much as speed and more so, since the underlying purpose was to breed horses for stockwork.  Rarely was a gelding run.  The champions of these events became the stations’ studs.  Nevertheless, it was racing, chief interest of the so-called Nation of Australia.  (p. 81)

‘So-called Nation of Australia’?  In the introduction, Professor Russell McDougall from the University of New England explains that this novel is a lament for what might have been, what Herbert called a True Commonwealth.  Although some of his rendering of Aboriginal characters is cringe-worthy now,  Herbert was a champion of land rights and has his character Jeremy Delacey express a desire about the land that still resonates today.  He wants to

…simply to learn to love it enough to feel something of what those it was stolen from feel for it… so as not to die feeling like an alien and a thief. (p.92)

For Herbert, Australia could never be an honourable place until these issues were resolved.  Pre war, he was associated with radical nationalists whose anti-imperialism became anti-British, and although in WW2 he disassociated himself from the extremism of the Australia First Movement, he felt the loss of Australian identity as a wasted opportunity.

Born in the year of Federation, he habitually measured his own life against that of the nation.  Poor Fellow My Country focuses the period he regarded as the most significantly destructive in Australian history, ending in 1942. (p xiii)

AustraliaNicole Kidman’s role in Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 film Australia, based in part on Poor Fellow My Country, is (depending on your PoV about Luhrmann films) a caricature or a parody of the snooty British aristocrats that Herbert wanted to mock in his magnificent epic.

Is it The Great Australian novel?  We shall see…

Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert, Harper Collins A&R Classics, 2014, ISBN 9780732299460, first published 1975

Available from Fishpond: Poor Fellow My Country and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. My favourite
    I have a copy inscribed to me dedicated to the Melbourne launch.
    When the mss came to the office it came on a carriers trolley it was so big; even the paper for the first edition was a cross between paper for “rollies” and what the bibles were printed on.
    My subscription book contains pre publication sales made to bookshops like The Bookshop of Margarita Webber 50 copies and Bookshop of Charles Dickens 100 copies, A&R Elizabeth Street took 100 copies as well.

    Dennis Jones
    Dennis Jones & Associates Pty Ltd
    The Australian Distributor for Independent Publishers

    Gardners Sales Agent Australia & New Zealand

    Port Campbell Press
    Digital Publishing & Distribution Solutions – Regionally & Globally


    • Oh, wow, that is a very special copy indeed! I have a first edition, but I’m keeping that pristine (or as pristine as it was when I bought it second-hand). (What I’m reading is the reissue because my son gave it to me as a present).
      Where was the Bookshop of Charles Dickens? I’ve never heard of it.


  2. I take it you are going to press on! I’m not sure I’ve ever read it right through, but I enjoyed and plan to review (one day) his memoir Disturbing Element – at which time I can provide a link to your eventual review and save myself some reading


    • Of course I’m going to press on! I’m going to read all the MF winners in due course, with a couple of exceptions i.e. the inreadables from recent years, and maybe not The Hand That Signed the Paper, I have mixed feelings about that one.
      I’d love to hear about his memoir, yes, it would be very nice to be able to link to that…


  3. Yikes that will take some stamina. Not sure if that classes as the great Auatralian novel unless greatness is defined by sheer size.


    • Maybe not, but a GAN needs to tackle big issues, and this one certainly does.


  4. I had an unexplained desperate need to read this one last year, but wasn’t available in the UK. I bought a second-hand hardcover edition of Capricornia instead, which I hope to get to at some point…


    • Tell you what, I wouldn’t normally say this because I hate eBooks as you know, but this might be one to try and get as an eBook. It’s so big and heavy, it’s quite awkward to read. Definitely not one to read in bed!


  5. […] so dense with characters and intersecting plot lines that I can only read it in the daytime.  (Like I said before, don’t hold your breath waiting for the review, I’m now up to page 265 of 1400+, […]


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