Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 5, 2018

Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox, by T.A.G. Hungerford #BookReview

Having 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 Letterbox – which Bill reviewed here.

Wong Chu was published in 1977 by the not-for-profit Fremantle Press in its early incarnation as the Fremantle Arts Centre Press, which grew out of a community arts program (including amongst its luminaries, a creative writing tutor called Elizabeth Jolley).  This collection was the third in a series called West Coast Writing, which was, as it says on the blurb at the back of the book:

…devoted primarily to the work of Western Australian writers whose work has been published in journals and anthologies but who have not yet had a collection published.

(Other writers in the series were Nicholas Hasluck, with a collection called Anchor, and Elizabeth Jolley with the now scarce as hen’s teeth Five Acre Virgin and other stories.)

Hungerford was widely travelled, thanks to the war and his work as a journalist, and he is equally at home describing the remote coastal towns a long way north of Perth as he is in Hong Kong.  He was also adept at elegant settings, describing in detail the expensive clothes of some of his wealthy female characters:

She was dressed with that deceptively simple elegance which cripples bank accounts, in a long-sleeved blouse of some sheer white stuff tucked into a full-bottomed skirt, knee-high, of some black stuff.  At collar, wrists, waist and hem, deep bands of Chinese brocade on which the design had been picked out with seed-pearls and semi-precious stones.  After two marriages to expensive women, I have a pretty lively appreciation of the look and cost of good clothes. (p.25)

In ‘No more than You can Afford’:

The perennial slacks, sweater and sneakers Tom remembered from their association had given way to what he recognised as a Chanel suit, black with white braid, and a coral and diamond cluster over the right collar bone. (p.99)

But it’s Hungerford’s descriptions of the land that are unforgettable:

Cow Spring lay about thirty-five miles east of the homestead.  Behind it, a narrow gorge split the mesa-like ranges, its rock pools and palm groves hidden behind deep, steamy thickets absolutely impenetrable to horses. During the wet, a river thundered out of it in a bloody torrent, as though the red desert behind the hills were bleeding to death.  As the rains eased off, the flood dwindled and dried until only the trickle of Cow Spring remained.  (‘The Talisman’, p.46)

(Reading this today, one can’t help but wonder what Indigenous place name was replaced by the prosaic ‘Cow Spring’.)

I must get my hands on one of Hungerford’s novels!

Author: T.A.G. Hungerford
Title: Wong Chu and the Queen’s Letterbox
Publisher: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1977
ISBN: 0909144060
Source: loan from Bill from The Australian Legend

Availability: Out of print.  Try Brotherhood Books, your local OpShop or your library.


Responses

  1. I found a copy on Abe Books and am in the process of reading a chapter every night before I go to sleep. I have tried reading his novels in the past but they didn’t appeal, I do like his short stories though, maybe I should give his longer writings another go…

    • That’s how I read it too… although these are thought-provoking stories, they’re not demanding in the sense that you need to keep your wits about you to follow what’s going on, so they’re good to read at night:)

  2. Thanks for the link. I loved the sense of place, but of course I live just up the road. Though as you say, his descriptions of places other than South Perth, and of people, are very good too.

    • It’s so nice to find your own places in the pages of a book. I’ve just finished reading Enza Gandolfo’s The Bridge (review embargoed till the 14th) and it’s set in the western suburbs under the West Gate Bridge. I know that area well because – before the bridge – we used to take the ferry across the river and drive through those suburbs on our way to Ocean Grove where the Ex and The Offspring were members of the surf life saving club. (I used to do the radio room, to avoid the sand). It’s the experience of seeing the place in your mind’s eye as you read that’s so pleasurable:)

  3. Met Tom once and have a precious letter from him. The shop / house he grew up in is now a bookshop cafe near where I live.

    • Oh, wow, a letter, that is precious indeed. What are you going to do with it when you pass on?
      PS Could you find a reason to take a photo of the house and put it on your blog?

      • I’d better come up with a plan :)

        • LOL You could do a post about the issues involved in finding a subject’s homes and just tuck in the Hungerford house along the way?
          BTW Is there a plaque or something so that passers-by can know whose house it was?

        • I’m sure in 50 years time it will be with the N Hobby papers at the Battye

  4. There is a plaque on the other side of the road, from memory. Bill, I appreciate your optimism!

  5. Bill will add this site to the literary tour of Perth that he’s going to escort me on, when I make my next trip to Perth. (LOL somehow I have to fit this in around his excursions into the bush).
    Seriously, Nathan, what if there’s someone writing a bio of Hungerford, how would they know that your letter exists? I don’t mean that you should give it away, but is there some register somewhere so that a biographer could find you to see it, if they needed to?


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: