Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 26, 2018

Stories from Suburban Road, by T.A.G. Hungerford #BookReview

I loved reading this this collection of autobiographical short stories from T.A.G. Hungerford.  I had only ever heard of him in connection with the W.A. award that bears his name.  The TAGH Award has unearthed some very good writers –  winners who’ve gone on to write books I’ve enjoyed (and reviewed) include Robert Edeson, Jacqueline Wright, Natasha Lester, Alice Nelson, Simone Lazaroo and Brenda Walker, and although I haven’t read it yet, also Nathan Hobby, a regular visitor to this blog, and who is writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard.  Nathan won the award in 2002 with his novel The Fur. 

I found out about Thomas Arthur Guy Hungerford from the Fremantle Press website.

[He] was born in 1915 and grew up in South Perth. He served as a soldier in World War II before travelling to Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force after the war. In 1948 he moved to Canberra, where he worked for the Australian War Memorial and began to write. In 1988 the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for unpublished Australian writers was created in his name. He died in 2011.

He won some impressive awards in his day, including the National Museum of Australia Special Recognition Medallion in 2003, the Patrick White Award in 2002,
and the Order of Australia for services to Australian Literature in 1987.  He wrote four novels, including The Ridge and the River (1950); Riverslake (1953); Sowers in the Wind (1954) and Shake the Golden Bough (1963), but none of these seem to be in print any more.  (Which is a real shame with Sowers in the Wind, which was held back by publisher Angus & Robertson because it dealt with the economic and sexual exploitation of the Japanese after the War by Australian occupation forces. The novel won the 1949 Sydney Morning Herald prize for literature but was not published until 1954.  I’d be very interested to read that one because I’ve never ever heard anything about that aspect of the Occupation in Japan).

The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Fremantle Press TreasuresWhat is available however, is Hungerford’s collection of autobiographical stories, Stories from Suburban Road.  This year Fremantle Press is celebrating forty years of publishing and to mark the occasion they are publishing their Treasures Series, of which two are available so far.  (The other one so far is The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Fremantle Press Treasures by Elizabeth Jolley, first published in 1981.)  These short memoirs are just wonderful: gentle, amusing, nostalgic evocations of a time that is now just beyond living memory.

Arranged in chronological order, these stories begin in the 1920s when Hungerford is about five.  The outer suburban Perth that he describes is a paradise for a small boy who likes to go crabbing, to add to his collection of birds’ eggs and to explore in the bush just beyond his home.  Of course he has many chores to do, sometimes with the firm hand of his mother to encourage him, and there is also school where he excels in writing – but that is not his real life.  His real life is off with his mates, (escaping his sisters as soon as he can) getting into scrapes and enjoying an independence that kids today can’t even imagine.  There are occasional references to being hard up and his mother feeding kids from families even worse off than they are – but these recollections – even allowing for rose-coloured glasses – are tales of a wonderful childhood.

My favourite story is called Coodie Crab Co.  On a day that was a real scorcher, one day during the Christmas holidays when he was down at the river by himself, he had a good day’s crabbing and a gent came along and offered to buy his catch.  He bargained for a good price, – old enough now to be able to calculate 33 crabs @ threepence each – but he had to deliver them, and he’d forgotten that he didn’t have the money for the ferry until he was paid. The hard-hearted ferryman wouldn’t let him on board, so…

I thought about it for a moment, and decided what I’d do.  I pulled my canoe around to the steps and promised another kid thrippence, when I got paid, to steady it for me while I put the crabs in – onw bag at each end to balance it. Then I got in myself, very carefully, and settled myself in the middle, between them.  Then I paddled away from the jetty.

‘Gawd!’ someone yelled out after me.  ‘You gone barmy, or something? Paddling to Perth!’

I didn’t think it was all that much to shout about.  We used to run canoe races out to the second and third channel posts, and it was nothing. I reckoned to paddle to Perth would be just like doing maybe five or six races out to the third post.  I looked around me.  The water was as smooth and shiny as our dining room lino, and when I looked over the side of my canoe it was so clear I could see the bottom as plainly as if I was looking at it through a pane of glass.

It would have been different if it had been like the floods last winter when the waves had been as high as the sea, and the current in the middle of the river was like the rapids in Canada, and the water was dark brown with mud… (p.118)

It takes him an hour to paddle to Perth, and his shoulders were aching and he had pins-and-needles in his leg by the time he got there.  The Fremantle Doctor came in on the return journey – which made the water choppy and he had to bail with a jam tin.  But the real danger was waiting for him at home, when he had to explain about the money he’d flourished on the kitchen table!

‘A bloke,’ I said.  ‘A real toff.  He offered me thrippence for each of them if I took them in to that place, the Weld Club.  You know? In town?’  I suppose I was too full of myself to see how dangerous it was getting. ‘I took them over in my canoe.’

‘You what?’ My mother sat down suddenly and leaned her head in her hands, hiding her eyes.  I stared at her.  I wondered what had happened to her.  After a moment or two she took her hands away and stared back at me.

‘You paddled right over to Perth, in your canoe, with two bags of crabs in it?’

‘Yes, mum.’ All of a sudden I knew what I’d said, and what I’d be in for. ‘It wasn’t…’

‘Jesus God!‘ my mother said.  She almost never swore… (p.124)

Stories from Suburban Road is a perfect gift for the young, and for the young at heart – and I mean that in the nicest possible way.  My father retained his habit of daily reading right up until the end of his life, but there did come a time when he couldn’t manage reading novels any more.  Short stories seemed like the answer and he enjoyed reading them with me – but it was a struggle to find the right kind of stories.  He didn’t like the sort of grim stories that feature in today’s contemporary collections, and he also preferred straightforward chronological storylines.  He would have loved Stories from Suburban Road, and anyone who enjoys a nostalgic slice of life from the interwar years will love them too.

Author: T.A.G. Hungerford
Title: Stories from Suburban Road
Publisher: Fremantle Press (Treasures Collection), 2018, first published 1983
ISBN: 9781925163636 (hbk, with a ribbon bookmark)
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from Fishpond: Stories from Suburban Road: Fremantle Press Treasures or direct from Fremantle Press where it is also available as an eBook.

 


Responses

  1. I rarely re-read novels, but Stories from Suburban Road is one of my favourite short story collections. I have lent it to friends but have always made sure it comes back home.My favourite story is of the bantam he nicks from the zoo! I picked up a copy of his first short story collection (Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox- out of print but found through Abe Books) but haven’t delved as yet :)

    • Hello Jenny, nice to meet a fellow enthusiast! Yes, I loved the one about the bantam, and I love the way he characterises his mother, LOL always too busy to carry out her threats, or so he thinks anyway!

      • Such a lovely collection. Perth is my home and it is always nice to read stuff that carries the bittersweetness of nostalgia, yearning for a time when things were simpler (those rose-coloured galsses certainly get a workout sometimes!) :)

        • Well, yes, they do, but I still think it’s important that stories like this aren’t lost to future generations. I’d love it if my grandparents in England had written something similar…

    • I found there was a copy of the novel I want at Abebooks, but the price plus postage was a bit steep…

  2. My grandmother must have read this a hundred times. It was the landscape and suburb she remembered from childhood, and it brought her so much joy and, I think, comfort. Great review, Lisa.

    • I can imagine. It’s just so beautifully written, it makes me feel as if I remember it myself.

  3. I see a couple of anthologies, used OOP, which include this author. (Amazon US)

    • I didn’t think to look there…
      (I hate Amazon)

  4. I worked with a man who grew up at that time and in that place. He told me so much about that environment and I learned a great deal about the social history of the place as a new resident from the other side of the country.

    • I love listening to old stories like this.
      Years ago I had to go to an RSL function, which was (as you’d expect) full of old diggers. But they didn’t yarn about the war (thank goodness) they yarned about other things and it turned out to be a great night (which I wasn’t expecting it to be!)

  5. Sounds delightful! I’m glad Freo Press are publishing this as part of their 40th birthday celebrations. His four novels would be lovely as a boxed set, maybe?

    I really enjoyed ‘The Newspaper of Claremont Street’ when I read it a couple of years ago, too—has a good twist at the end!

    • A boxed set would be very nice indeed!

  6. As a swimmer I appreciate that open water (in Perth) is much choppier in the afternoon, but if he’d come from down river -which the channel posts imply – then he would also be paddling into a head wind.

    On reading your post I checked my shelves of unread Australiana and lo and behold Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox (1977), pub. by Fremantle Arts Centre Press in a series that included Eliz. Jolley’s Five Acre Virgin & other stories.

    • No wonder his mother was livid!
      Yes, I remember when they were called Fremantle Arts Centre Press… I bet you’ve got some treasures of your own on that shelf:)

      • Haha, Lisa I do too, and I still can’t quite get the new name right.

        This book sounds excellent.

  7. I love the quotes you pulled – they automatically take you to a place. Will have to look out for this very lovely Fremantle Press edition.

    • He writes so brilliantly, Kate, I think you would love this.

  8. […] reviewed, and loved, his collection of autobiographical stories, Stories From Suburban Road (1983) (here) and that inspired me to see what I had on my own shelves – I have purchased a lot of […]

  9. […] just discovered the writing of T.A.G. Hungerford through the Fremantle Press reissue of Stories from Suburban Road, I was delighted when Bill from The Australian Legend lent me Wong Chu and the Queen’s […]


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