Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2023

The Big Smoke (1959), by D’Arcy Niland

I nearly didn’t read this novel. I had a bad feeling about it based on the cover art of my 1978 Penguin edition, and then the first paragraph features a character using some truly awful, awful racist language.  But because I made a hesitant decision to keep reading this author of social novels, I now know that Niland was reproducing what would have been an authentic way of talking about Australia’s First Nations in the era and milieu of the novel, and he had a purpose for doing that. He goes on to show with confronting clarity how endemic racism impacted on some of his characters.

And he also shows that his central character, against all the odds, had agency in his life and made a success of it.  And that’s why we see this character as one of a couple dressed in smart middle-class clothing, with a derelict old white man behind them on a park bench.

The 1959 Angus & Robertson cover is entirely different. I don’t know who did the cover art but it clearly signals the ‘noir’ character of its contents.  The ‘big smoke’ is Sydney in the 20s and 30s, and this Sydney is ‘.. is a character. It talks. It works on its own. It plays fair and it plays foul.’  Niland’s Sydney is peopled by characters living in poverty, and they are not blessed by affectionate communities or loving families as in the fiction of his wife Ruth Park, the author of novels also set in Sydney: The Harp in the South (1948); Poor Man’s Orange (1949) and their prequel Missus (1985). To quote my review of The Harp in the South:

…while they live in one of the roughest parts of Sydney, and there is drunkenness and violence, theirs is a community which will offer friendship and compassion when it’s needed.

That’s in short supply in The Big Smoke.

Niland (1917-1967) was the son of an Irish shearer.  He began his writing career as a copy boy at the Sydney Sun, working at the Redfern railway sheds to augment his earnings.  But he then chose to travel, work and live amongst the people he wanted to write about.  In Australia and the Pacific, he worked as an opal-miner, a circus hand, a stevedore, and a woolshed rouseabout and these experiences amongst ordinary working people and the underclass informed his fiction and gave it powerful authenticity. Characters in The Big Smoke — a steeplejack, a street sweeper, a night watchman, a paperboy, a seamstress and a waitress come from the world of poorly paid dead-end jobs doing manual labour.  (Actually, I’m not sure that Veronica’s aunt and Gemma’s father pay anything at all to the relatives who work for them.) Small business, such as it is, consists of Sleepy Gus’s burger café, Spitz’s rag-and-bone trade, Aunt Bridie’s dressmaking, and Chiddy Hay’s work as a boxing promoter.  There’s also a priest, a prostitute and a couple of housewives.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The Big Smoke begins and ends with a fight promoter called Chiddy Hay, a loser who has grand dreams of making serious money with a star fighter called Frankie Tarcutta.  Frankie doesn’t really want to be a fighter, but boxing was one way for an Aboriginal man to make a bit of money. Chiddy’s ambitions collapse yet again when Frankie’s powerful punch fells another Aboriginal fighter called Jack Johnson in a row over a girl called Milcy, and Frankie disappears out of Chiddy’s clutches (and the novel) for his own safety.

Milcy is an Aboriginal girl adrift in Sydney. From this one sexual encounter, she has Jack Johnson’s baby, and this child becomes known in the streets as ‘Jack Johnson’s boy’ although there was never a paternal relationship.  ‘Jack Johnson’s boy’ links the ten short stories that comprise the novel.

Families in The Big Smoke are patched together with what’s available. Chapter 2 introduces Ruby, an ageing prostitute whose income now comes from renting out rooms.  She takes in Milcy, delivers the baby, and then (willingly) fosters him when Milcy shoots through.  Medical care for the poor is also in short supply in this Sydney, and when Ruby dies from cancer a faded actor called Old Halley takes over the care of the boy.  Fate has to find another ‘family’ for him when he is mixed up in a murder that he didn’t commit, but he also plays a role in finding a family for Young Frosty, a lonely steeplejack searching for a young woman seen only through a third-storey window.

There’s violence and tragedy too.  Ocker White inadvertently kills his wife when ‘glassing’ a man he suspects of flirting with her; Father McGovern is almost killed by Big Lew, the thug who stole his watch; and Spitz beats his wife and children until his boys are big enough to beat him instead.  One of the most harrowing incidents concerns the old derelict who steals sixpence for a meal from a paperboy and can’t return the stolen money until pension day next week.  The paperboy’s revenge is to grind those two pies into the dust.

Are things any better for people on welfare in the 21st century when the pension money runs out too soon?


What is the value of reading a book like this, which to contemporary readers, has problematic elements?  Well, I wouldn’t advise anyone to mount a hunt to find a copy. (It also has a stereotyped Jewish character who plays a sort of Shylock role in the novel, and its portrayal of accepting family violence is out of step with contemporary values.) Yet it was a serious attempt in 1959 to depict some aspects of the world endured by people of colour.

‘They’ll laugh,’ [Gemma} said. ‘They’ll point and make remarks.  They always do.  It’s horrible.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘It’s always been like that in the jobs I’ve had.  They don’t want to talk to me.  They insult me, the girls even, and the men are worse.  They think I’m… I’m low.  I’m just for poking dirt at because I’m…’
‘Because you’re dark.  Yes.’ (p.188)

Where Niland gets it wrong is that Gemma then tells her mother she’s used to it now and it doesn’t hurt any more.  And her mother says that she didn’t let it get her down. Where he gets it right is when he writes that Gemma lives in expectant fear.  It could break out anywhere, any time.  And it does.  Horribly so.

Would it have been better if it had been written by a First Nations author?  Of course it would.  But it wasn’t.  As the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature shows, First Nations writing began (as far as we know) in 1796 with Bennelong’s letter to Governor Arthur Phillip, but it was not until 1924-5 that the first Aboriginal author David Unaipon was published.  However, Unaipon did not publish fiction and as far as I know, no First Nations novels had ever been published when Niland wrote The Big Smoke. 

Whatever its flaws, The Big Smoke was a brave attempt to confront Australians with some hard truths about the poverty they ignored and the racism they inflicted.

Author: D’Arcy Niland
Title: The Big Smoke
Cover art by Cosmos Julien
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia, 1978, first published 1959
ISBN: 0140049649, pbk., 224 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Diversity Books, $6.00


Responses

  1. That bit about getting used to it (no) but also the constant vigilance (yes) reminds me of a chapter from Gwendolyn Brooks’s novel Maud Martha, where it becomes clear just how much the title character is always, to a certain extent, awaiting the moment where a conversation or an interaction with a white person becomes racist. She never stops fighting it.

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    • I think people are becoming more aware of how exhausting it is to deal with behaviour that is always waiting in the wings.
      I looked up Maud, it was published in 1953. I don’t have a coherent grasp of the history of American Lit, not enough to place milestones on a timeline when it comes to publishing fiction by people of colour. For UK Lit, I know about Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoner in 1956, but the first *novel* I ever read by a First Nations Australian author was Butterfly Song by Terri Janke, published in 2005. I’d read heaps of FN memoir throughout the 80s and 90s, but no fiction. I don’t know whether that’s because there wasn’t any, or because I just hadn’t come across it.

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  2. I have a copy of this… the one with the two Aboriginal people on the cover… which I bought about a decade ago after having read The Shiralee, which I loved. I managed to purchase all of Niland’s novels secondhand (the benefit of living in the UK at the time with all its dozens and dozens of online secondhand bookshops) but am yet to read any of them. I’ve only just unearthed them from my London TBR.

    The Shiralee also has some casual racism in it (I noted this in my review) but I can’t recall whether it was directed towards Jews or Aboriginals.

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    • I have this vision of you sitting on the floor surrounded by teetering piles of books on all sides, and you reading one of them oblivious to the peril.

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      • LOL. Yes, it was a bit like that when I unpacked them. Not a huge amount but enough to fill one wall of new shelves that Tim built for me with glass doors. I was most excited to rediscover my Irish collection and my pristine Penguin Modern Classics!

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  3. Well I certainly agree we have to read old books, and critique them from our newer POV. Noongar playwright Jack Davis was born the same year as Niland but No Sugar, his most famous play, is set in the 1980s. (checks Wiki) It seems he didn’t really begin writing until his fifties, which is to say, around 1970.

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    • You are not of the Let’s Cancel Them school, then, and neither am I.
      But (remember Jeanine Leane’s article in Overland) I think they should be treated with extreme caution. I bristle at the sexism in some old novels but it doesn’t hurt me, even though it’s ongoing. But racism, even when it’s depicted to expose it, as I think it is here by someone whose heart is in the right place, is more visceral.
      In one way, I’d like to see a review of this by someone from our First Nations, but then, in another way — since reviews of *any* books by First Nations reviewers are thin on the ground — I’d prefer any such reviewers to focus on contemporary literature which is much more widely read and therefore more influential.
      PS There are some early First Nations plays in the Macquarie Anthology, I saw them yesterday when I was looking for the first novel. But I haven’t got time now to look ’em up. Off to the optometrist again, I think the opacification in my RH eye is back. *sigh*

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  4. Oh Lisa, I hope that your eye is okay, or that it will be. Eye problems are awful.

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    • Well, the good news is, it’s not opacification. But the bad news is I have damage to my cornea and it keeps getting worse because the drops I use to form the film across the surface of the eyes (normally done by one’s own tear ducts) is breaking down so there are significant areas of the surface of my eye not covered by tear film, making the damage to the cornea worse. So, more eye drops, more often. Fingers crossed that it improves!

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  5. I think in a good way to read books like this to see how far we’ve come when reading stories about our First Nation people. A couple of years ago I read A Town Called Alice and the description of our First Nation people “abos” I was taken aback just how casually the author describes these people. If I come across this book you’ve posted, I would be interested in reading this.

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    • Thank you Miffta, I think you are right about seeing how far we’ve come because it’s easy to feel depressed (or furious) about ongoing racism. But the book shows us that progress has been possible and will be possible now and in the future.

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