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Somewhere around the corner

"Just shut your eyes and picture yourself walking around the corner." that's what my friend told me. Somewhere around the corner and you'll be safe."

The demonstration was wild, out of control...

 

Barbara needed to escape. She closed her eyes and did precisely that: she walked somewhere around the corner - to another demonstration - to another time. Barbara was lucky she meet young Jim who took her out of this strange, frightening city to his home. It was 1932, when Australia was in the grip of the depression, and Jim lived in a shantytown. But Barbara found a true friend and a true home - somewhere safe around the corner. 

Some notes on the book

‘Somewhere Around the Corner’ was written in celebration of the Poverty Gully 'susso camp' that was once just below our property, where people on the 'dole' or 'sustenance' or 'susso', a form of Government assistance (mostly food), camped or built their shanties.

The Australian Depression lasted from 1929, following the American stock market crash, until 1938/9, when Australia entered World War II. Officially one person in three or four was unemployed, but this didn't include women who had lost their jobs or teenagers who had never had one. In some areas nine out of ten people were officially unemployed, and perhaps nineteen out of twenty looking for work. Drought and falling prices meant that many farmers also lived in poverty.

Families who had fallen behind with their rent were evicted into the street; clothes, furniture and toys were seized and sold to settle debts. Riots developed when people tried to prevent them, with many injuries and a couple of deaths. The newspaper and newsreel images of these evictions - a young pregnant woman clinging to a door jamb while being pulled at by a policeman, small children crying, old people looking lost and confused - helped change Australia's social conscience.

'Susso' camps sprang up outside all the major cities. Thousands of people camped in shanties and tents, with children scrabbling in the rubbish dumps. The unemployed were generally given food tickets (the 'dole' or 'susso') that had to be used at certain stores, not money, though gradually with dole strikes and unemployment marches this changed. Some men worked for 'sustenance' on public works, perhaps one day a fortnight or one week in five, building roads with picks and shovels or planting forests in rain and mud or heat and flies, living in tents, often hungry, without medical treatment or proper tools or clothes.

Thousands of people 'took to the road', 'jumped the rattler' ( or goods trains) and descended on towns along the railway lines. Confrontations between the unemployed and townspeople were often violent, as communities grew afraid of the growing numbers of unemployed.

Poverty Gully was different.

Most 'susso' camps are recalled with horror. People speak about the quarrels, the starvation, the mud, the dust, the weevils in the flour. When I asked about Poverty Gully people poured another cup of tea and smiled as they remembered.

'Yeah, we had the dances Friday night - it had to be Friday 'cause if we danced on Saturday night we had to stop at twelve for Sunday and we liked to dance all night. You remember those dances Ned? I used to go barebacked all Friday so I had my shirt clean for dancing. My word that Gully Jack could play the fiddle. You remember that time he danced with the wattle tree?'

'Wednesday was bridge night. It must be years since I played bridge. None of us could play in the valley but Big Barney decided he'd teach us... you remember Barney, Ned? His wife used to write poetry, we had some good times then... '

I tried to work out what made Poverty Gully different

Partly I think it was because it was a long journey from any major town. Most came to look for gold and only the most determined stayed on. Poverty Gully also had resources that camps close to the cities lacked - a plague of rabbits to trap and eat and skins to sell, a creek for eels (the gold mining killed the fish), wood to burn and to use for shanties, good soil and locals who could explain how to grow things.

Mostly I think it was the fact that the local farmers were in much the same situation as the 'dolies'. While other 'susso' communities simmered with the tensions of poverty the valley people worked together, and produced poets and peach orchards and doctors and musicians. That is their legacy, though the shanties have fallen down.

Poverty Gully was abandoned at the beginning of World War Two. Blackberries and thornbush grow where the shanties stood and lyrebirds scratch where there were once hundreds of people.

Most Australian children don't know about the susso camps or why the swaggies roamed the roads. The Depression is a time that most people try to forget. Poverty Gully is still spoken of with affection by those who knew it, or who can recall the stories of their parents.

Most of the characters are based on real people, though they've been muddled and merged together. Dulcie of the Dairy Farm did feed soup to the susso kids, and scones and home made jam, but she didn't marry Sergeant Ryan. Gully Jack did fall in love with her, but he never told her so. Ned Wisbey remembers looking out the window at 4 am and seeeing Gully Jack dancing with a wattle sapling, singing 'swing her in the corner Dulcie'. But he never spoke a word to her, said Ned, and he lived and died a bachelor.

Some of Bubba/Barbara's experiences are my own.

The story is true to the spirit of the valley though - the people who worked together, who refused to be forgotten.... and who established what is now a multi-million dollar peach industry from peach stones they foraged in rubbish bins, clearing the slopes by hand and carrying water in kerosense tin buckets. (Ned Wisbey didn't have a pair of shoes till he was in his twenties, and washed his only shirt on Friday's so it would be clean for the dance. He and Bess spend their winters in Europe now or somewhere where there's sun... but he spends his summer's gossiping in the peach sheds, still without a shirt or shoes.)

1995 CBC Honor Book for Younger Readers; shortlisted 1995 WA Children's Book of the Year; shortlisted 1995 ACT COOL Award; shortlisted 1995 NSW Family Therapist’s Award

© Jackie French