'I was written out of the family story. This book is my attempt to write myself, and my mother, back into it.'
In this singular memoir, historian and biographer Jim Davidson writes about his fraught relationship with his authoritarian and controlling father, whose South African background and time in Papua New Guinea and Fiji prompted his own post-war mini-empire of dominance. A manipulative and emotionally ferocious man, he rejects his son and creates a second family, shutting Jim out and eventually disinheriting him, but never really leaving him alone.
Traversing territory across Australia, South Africa, India, and London, this beautifully written book tells of a time of crushing conformity, sharply reminding us that some experiences can never be written out of our personal histories.
'The book calls into question the popular myth that the family is a nurturing and loving place and reminds us, in timely fashion, that families can be destructive and dangerous environments. Davidson gives us a vivid and disturbing portrait of a family in which no one knows how to love properly.'
- ALEX MILLER
A Fuhrer for a Father review: Jim Davidson and surviving a tyrannical parent - Read the review in The Age newspaper here
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Read an Excerpt
How much of us happens before we're born?
Martin Flanagan, The Age, 14 January 2012
There is a photo of him – inaccessible to me now – of my father (with Hitler moustache) gravely advancing towards the camera. He has just stepped off Princes Bridge, so part of the city of Melbourne is ranged behind him; he always drew on it more than he cared to admit. In his right hand there's a walking stick, with a silver top: it had been given to his grandfather by a prominent Chinese merchant of the town. Father's firm grip indicates a governing principle of his life, the control of the exotic. Functionally, the stick would turn a limp after a motor accident into a stylised, emphatic strut. It became an instrument of authority.
Some ninety years earlier, in the 1840s, his grandfather had been baptised in what is now styled St James Old Cathedral; this detail was recorded on the fly-leaf of the family Bible. But – apart from the preposterous claim that the man would later be set upon by footpads and murdered in Albert Park – Father rarely spoke of his ante-cedents. Certainly not of the original Davidson, Henry, who as a bricklayer helped to build the rising city. Rather, there was vague talk of fortunes won and lost on the goldfields (something of an urban myth in mid-twentieth-century Melbourne). Perhaps Henry went to the diggings, perhaps not. Whatever the case, while professing indifference, my father was sufficiently socially aware to cultivate cousins who had gone into the law. A mounted photograph he valued showed their boom-style mansion in Hawthorn, shortly after it was built, with the relatives ranged outside.
The one relative he spoke of admiringly was his Uncle Arch, who seems to have been a freebooter – that is to say, one of the colonial-born who was happy to regard the British Empire as his backyard, advancing his own interests as it expanded. The grandfather ran an import– export business, and may have been undone in the bank crash of 1893. Whatever the case Arch, with Bert (an older brother and my father's father), decided to leave Melbourne for South Africa. Following the recent gold discoveries which led to the mushroom growth of Johannesburg, prospects there were good. Not all Melburnians leaving for goldfields headed for Western Australia; in an unfederated Australia, sailing to the Cape was not much different from sailing to WA – both were British colonies, only South Africa took longer to reach.
Arch would be drawn to the frontier, to the new country being opened up and styled Rhodesia. (It sounded like a province of the Roman Empire, but memorialised the greatest freebooter of them all, Cecil Rhodes.) Arch was photographed on horseback with rifle at the ready and bandolier slapped over his shoulders, patrolling the country in the Matabele War and the subsequent rebellion. Later he went off to the Sudan. But Bert seems to have stayed in South Africa. There is no evidence of what he did there during the Boer War, and little else that has survived. But from early boyhood I was shown photographs, on thin crinkly paper, dark brown rather than sepia, of lonely houses on treeless plains, and sturdy ironframe bridges flung across rivers sometimes reduced to sputtering streams. They dried up in winter, I was told. The bridges had been built by my grandfather, I was again told. Perhaps he had become an engineer – a term used at the time with remarkable looseness; at the very least he would have been an official of the Central South African Railways, organising materiel and labour. There were certainly a number of these bridges, all part of the reconstruction after the Boer War. And the work took him to some out-of-the-way parts of the country.
One of these was the Marico, a district well known for its laconic Afrikaners. Bert was working on the construction of the new railway to Zeerust; a photograph of the festivities at its opening was a treasured possession. It was here that he may have met Frieda, his future wife. But it is also likely that they could have met at Ladybrand, a rising settlement at the foot of the Maluti mountains. A number of English-speakers had, since the war, been taking up farms in the Caledon valley. Bert, having left the railways, was one of them.
Frieda, who spoke a flawless English, exhibited a Germanic blend of earnestness and amenability; though generally good-natured, she did not have much of a sense of humour. Instead she had a temper: once, when enraged, she hurled an axe at a Basotho 'boy'. African subservience was simply taken for granted. The Boers had grabbed this territory, adding it to their Orange Free State republic, and had driven the Sotho across the river. They were now no threat. They streamed in to work on farms or the distant mines – but the mountains teemed with them. For all the easy dominance of white over black, colonial life sometimes seemed like riding an elephant.
It was in Ladybrand that my father, James Albert (Jim), was born in March, 1908 – exactly nine months after the Zeerust festivities. He always claimed that 31 March was his birthday – but since for him the truth was always mal-leable, I strongly suspected 1 April. That would never do, since it would make him a figure of fun. When I finally saw his South African birth certificate, it brought the surprise that actually he was born some days earlier.
Another fudging concerns when the Davidsons left Ladybrand, and indeed South Africa. For Father this was always adjustable. About the age of eleven was a favourite – although he did commit the venial sin of writing after his name in a book, 'Pretoria University 1928'. But it seems the family came to Australia shortly after he was born. Bert's farming and orcharding venture had run headlong into a serious drought; he had not done well. Indeed, around this time, a number of Australians who had gone to South Africa before the war, and were now in poor circumstances, were actively helped to return by the new federal government: Bert Davidson may have been one of them. Certainly the Davidsons left Ladybrand when my father was an infant. Once, as part of a birthday celebration, I gave him an old postcard of the place (sent in the year of his birth). It was a test. He examined the image with an air of affectionate curiosity, but identified nothing.
It seems that Bert – suffering from fever – had gone to Tasmania for a holiday for New Year 1909. He was struck, as were many veterans of imperial climes, by its pleasant summer. The district of Spreyton was tucked in behind the Mersey estuary, which could pass for an antipodean Cumberland; a nearby curling railway line introduced the necessary progressive element. Spreyton was 'going ahead' on the basis of apple-growing. Bert – perhaps with his wife's family money – bought fifty acres of land for an orchard, and was back within three months.
Dignified and affable, and buttressed by Frieda's nononsense deliberativeness, Bert soon became a respected leader of a growing community. A newspaper article appeared about the spread of orcharding in the Mersey Valley, taking its bearings from his property. Sensibly, he had avoided planting on the flat land adjacent to the road, since it was marshy; the apple trees were planted on a gentle slope (good for drainage); there were also experimental peaches, plums and quinces. On the crown of the hillock, surrounded by large wattles, stood the homestead. The Advocate reporter noted how well tended the property was, and also commented on the seam of coal it contained. That sustained a small two-man mine – also called Illamatha. The name is not an African one; this was to be a new start.
Jim was the only one of the children born in South Africa. Eighteen months later came Hector. Taller than Jim, there was not much likeness: his prominent teeth were often displayed in a friendly smile while he held himself cautiously; a touch of reserve went with his equanimity. At first Hec accepted a natural lieutenancy in relation to his elder brother, who was intellectually quicker. But Jim's behaviour was not predictable: once they climbed a mountain together, and on reaching the summit, Jim swept Hec's cap off his head and threw it down the other side. Puzzled, Hec retrieved it. In time, as Jim moved away, Hec came into his own, as an amateur boxer and a crack shot who did well in shooting competitions. (Later, during the war, he would rise to lieutenant.)
Considerably younger was Laura, the only girl. Partly because she was as strong-willed as he was, Laura attracted Jim's particular derision. He would play tricks on her, a favourite story being how he (and a compliant Hec) had placed a bucket up a tree. 'Pull the rope, Laura', he urged. After some hesitation she did so, and was drenched with water. Having no patience with Laura, Jim had no patience with femininity – his habit of disparagingly imitating women's voices probably began in the wars with his sister. Their scepticism towards each other endured for as long as Laura lived, their relationship oscillating between estrangement and amnesty.
Finally there was Bob, the ill-starred member of the family. Eight years younger than Jim, Bob was not strong; he complained of headaches, had an episode in a mental hospital, and would develop goitre – a very Tasmanian complaint. Surprisingly, he was outgoing, and took part regularly in cycling events, pottering along. A simple fellow, Bert intended the orchard for him.
Jim was not a team player. Money may have been tight, for he was pulled away from school at the age of fourteen. This probably impeded his socialisation. He played in a football team, for a while, but his chosen recreations were more solitary. In addition to mountain climbing, Jim became a marksman, participating in archery, rifle and shotgun contests. But it was boxing he always listed first. Years later he claimed to have been a Tasmanian champion, but that seems to have been Daddish for being able to lick anybody he chose: he was certainly aggressive. Meanwhile his horizons broadened, as he moved away to work on farming properties. For a time he worked in a sawmill, and also on a ketch servicing the islands of Bass Strait. He often made a good impression, and took pains to keep in touch with those he had found to be formative influences.
At the beginning of 1927 Frieda was in a state of advanced pregnancy. When her time came, she went into the Devon Hospital. Complications set in: it proved to be a difficult birth, and shortly afterwards the baby died. Her milk, in Jim's words, 'became infected'; as he told me this over fifty years later, there were tears in his eyes – something I'd never seen before. For his mother died too, missing South Africa to the end. There had not been a silver hair on her head. Bert had an unusually high gravestone erected in the Latrobe cemetery: a monument to her loyalty and gift of expatriation, as much as to the wife and mother of his children. Jim, just nineteen, had a nervous breakdown. Something else – like a romantic disappointment – may have triggered it, but basically it was a response to the loss of his mother. Around this time he was climbing through a fence, and looked back at the house. For a second, in his heightened nervous condition, he saw it standing forlorn and empty – abandoned.
Jim left. For a time he stayed with his hospitable friend Bob Mackenzie on their family farm beyond Burnie, right on the sea; there was a consolatory romance with Bob's sister. Then he decided to go further afield, to Queenstown. The Mt Lyell copper mines were then in full production; set in a lunar landscape, it was an entirely different world from the North-West Coast. There Jim found companionship, roistered, may have drunk a lot and, in reaction, even signed the Pledge – for in later life he was always a moderate drinker. (He probably feared the loss of control.) Queenstown was a small community, packed with incident. It was as well, because the town was isolated. There was no road into the place; only the railway line connected it with Burnie and the world beyond. For something to do, people would go down to the station to welcome the daily train.
Even as he relished life there, Jim was planning the next move. Putting his free time to good purpose, he began attending classes at the School of Mines – in engineering, maths, and machine design. The goal became obvious, even as the Depression began: he would go to Melbourne.
LESS THAN A HUNDRED KILOMETRES FROM SPREYTON LIES one of the loveliest parts of Tasmania. Advancing westwards from Launceston, the old road – sometimes lined with hawthorn hedges – leads you to plains spasmodically dotted with sheep and clumps of cattle; the Western Tiers beyond, often of a uniform blue, are surprisingly trim for a mountain profile. It is the English colonial dream made real. A number of Georgian houses are prominent in the landscape, and two or three villages still have an early-nineteenth-century charm. The one that doesn't, Hadspen, nevertheless retains the shape of its claim to distinction: it is one of the few in Australia that, like a number in England, grew up at the gates to serve a 'great house'.
It is a serene landscape now, but rural Tasmania (at least in the early-settled parts) often gives the impression of still recuperating from its violent first fifty years. My mother's Hay ancestor was partly shaped by them. David Hay arrived in the colony in 1832, as an indentured labourer; an obituary (a bit loose with dates) told of him leading a small party crossing untamed rivers and avoiding 'marauding blacks'. Some time later – but well before the birth of his grand-daughter, Marion – he came to the Westbury district as a tenant farmer on one of the great estates. She would be of the third generation to live there – under the watch of Quamby Bluff – on what had become an independent farm.
Marion had no intention of remaining in the Westbury district. Deep class divisions, all the stronger for there being a considerable Irish Catholic community, spurred her on to develop social ambitions. Marion would claim – over-compensating for convict-clouded Tasmanian origins – that she was a cousin of the Earl of Erroll, who was a Hay; a claim later briskly dismissed by her eldest daughter. Diminutive, unsmiling, and fiery, she crossed the Straits with her sister, and before long appeared with her on the front cover of a Melbourne weekly. The photograph was captioned 'Two Tasmanian Belles'.
Quick-spoken and spirited, Marion had qualities which Norman Tiernan realised he lacked. An early photograph shows him, around the age of thirty, as clear-eyed and good-natured, satisfied with himself and with the world, given his place in it. There were stories on this side of the family, too, of fortunes won and lost on the goldfields, but the Tiernans had also soundly invested in real estate, with astonishing results. Grandma Tiernan – a forceful matriarch – sold a property at the Bourke Street entrance of the Royal Arcade in 1920 for £100 000 (around $7 million today). She then made, on a first-class steamer, the enviable trip Home, something Norman never managed to do.
Norman had done well at school in Latin, and for a time was an accountant. While reliable and dependable, he was also indolent by nature. Being a gentleman – in Edwardian times technically meaning that he didn't have to work for an income – suited him very well. Marion would provide the energy which formerly came from his mother. But there was a problem: she was Presbyterian, he Catholic. She would never agree to her children unilaterally being brought up in the faith. And so a compromise was reached, of a kind not uncommon, then: any boys would follow their father, and any girls would be Presbyterian like their mother. That settled, Marion and Norman were married in 1896, and went off for their honeymoon to the newly fashionable Bayside resort of Sandringham.
In the event, the three children that followed were all girls: Olga, Norma, Tasma. The recurring 'a' of these names, when recited, reveals the musical pulse that ran through the family. This came from the Tiernan side: Norman was so much a Gilbert and Sullivan fan that he named their Elsternwick house 'Iolanthe' – only to wince whenever he heard the postman call it 'I-ole-unth'. (In those days house names were common, as newer streets often lacked numbers.) Yet it was from Marion that the quickness vital for a good performer came. In Olga, it combined with her father's placidity to lead her to the harp, and basically to a secondary role, producing a softening, sweetening effect. 'I love harmony', she would say, for by temperament she was a peacemaker. With Norma, one of the younger twins, that quickness exploded on the keyboard, producing the bright melodies of the 1920s, 'Chopsticks' and even honky-tonk. But the star of the sisters was the other twin, Tasma: her emotional intensity and spontaneity, allied with an impressive technique, made her an exceptional cellist. She was the one professional, fortunate in that when she was starting out radio – and radio orchestras – were becoming big. She toured to Perth a number of times, and developed quite a following. As one admirer sighed,
When Tasma plays the 'cello My heart joins in the tune:
Excerpted from "A Führer for a Father"
Copyright © 2017 Jim Davidson.
Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
I A frontiersman marries,
II A challenge beyond bearing,
III Pieces of silver,
IV In tranquillity,