A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
In the book's opening passage, Colin Thiele invites readers to feel the wild and lonely spirit of the Coorong.
Storm Boy lived between the South Australian Coorong and the sea. His home was the long, long snout of sandhill and scrub that curves away south-east-wards from the Murray Mouth. A wild strip it is, windswept and tussocky, with the flat shallow water of the Coorong on one side and the endless slam of the Southern Ocean on the other. They call it the Ninety Mile Beach. From thousands of miles around the cold, wet underbelly of the world the waves come sweeping in towards the shore and pitch down in a terrible ruin of white water and spray. All day and all night they tumble and thunder. And when the wind rises it whips the sand up the beach and the white spray darts and writhes in the air like snakes of salt.
Thiele characterises the Coorong as a place that attracts two types of humanity: those who dream and those who destroy. Storm Boy and his fisherman father, Hide-Away Tom, are dreamers who live in a makeshift humpy in the sand dunes by the sea.
The boy grows up supple and strong and spends his days befriending the living creatures, combing the beach for sea treasures, and spending time with their only neighbour, Fingerbone Bill. This wiry Aboriginal man, with his knowledge of country, shares with Storm Boy the language of the wind and the waves, and the scribbly stories made by creatures trekking across the sand hills at night.
These three characters live in harmony with their environment until destroyers intrude with guns and idiocy. When a band of young men make a raid nearby, killing pelicans and smashing their nesting area, Storm Boy rescues three surviving chicks. One of them, named Mr Percival, is close to death before he nurses it gently back to life. Hide-Away Tom insists they must be released into the wild to fend for themselves, but Mr Percival returns.
“‘Look! Look!” cried Storm Boy…..
…as if hearing Storm Boy’s startled voice, it suddenly spread out two big wings and launched itself into the air. As it banked against the western sun its beak and big black-tipped wings glowed in the shooting beams of light. For an instant it looked like a magic bird.’
So Mr Percival stays and a powerful bond grows between the boy and the bird. On the day when Mr Percival is indiscriminately killed by hunters, a distraught Storm Boy and his father bury him in a high golden sand hill looking out to sea. Storm Boy’s father tells him: ‘In the world there will always be men who are cruel, just as there will always be men who are lazy or stupid or wise or kind. Today you’ve seen what cruel and stupid men can do.’
The Coorong is in the heartland of country that was dear to Thiele. These 142,500 hectares of freshwater, estuarine and marine habitats comprise one of Australia’s most significant wetland systems, known for its rare birds, fish and plants.
In January 1960, Thiele had made a short car trip from his holiday home in Port Elliot to the seaside town of Goolwa with his friend and fellow lecturer John Baily. From Goolwa they set out on foot to the mouth of the Murray River as Baily, an artist, wished to paint a scene there. On the way he shared with Thiele his idea for a story about a lonely boy, set against the vast, isolated stretch of water and sand dunes. He had come up with the title Storm Boy and he wanted to illustrate the book that he hoped Thiele would write.
Conservation and protection of the environment were close to Colin’s heart. He had recently read of vandals in the area who had killed birds and smashed their nests, and he thought this would give him the story he needed.
Back home in Adelaide he started, writing in his usual longhand as he believed it helped him to see the emerging pattern of a sentence. He would shift words and phrases about on the page by targeting them in a circle, indicating their new positions with an arrow. He enjoyed the way that a change in the position of just one word could alter the balance of a sentence. Further walks in the Coorong had helped form the shape of the story in his mind and the writing came easily.
It is a simple tale, sparse yet lyrical, both intensely joyful and sad. Thiele had ‘to squeeze and wring the words till they do what they’re supposed to do. They have to be fresh and lively: walk when they’re supposed to walk, and run when they’re supposed to run,’ he said. ‘Then the sea comes rolling across the pages. We have to know, to feel in our spirit what we are writing about.’
The book was just fifty pages long and Thiele’s publisher said it needed fleshing out. Thiele shot back: ‘A story is as long as it has to be,’ and refused to let him tamper with it.
Storm Boy was published in 1963 and attracted fine reviews. From The London Times Literary Supplement: ‘No large bookcase is needed for the lasting children’s classics and it is a lucky year that will add one to the number. However, room could perhaps be made on the shelves for Storm Boy…’
Geoffrey Dutton included Storm Boy in The Australian Collection: Australia’s Greatest Books (1985). He reasoned that: ‘Critically, Thiele is a much underrated Australian writer, especially as a poet and author of children’s literature…Any reader of Storm Boy, young or old, will recognise what a wise and kind man can do, especially if he is also a highly skilled writer with the imagination of a poet.’
Young readers loved it too. One wrote: ‘I will never shoot any of our bush things because I will alwas [sic] think of Mr Percival…’ The letter was signed ‘Richard Kumar. PS I am ten’. And since that first publication, well over a million copies of Storm Boy have sold.
Colin Thiele was born in the South Australian rural town of Eudunda and spent his childhood on a farm in the Barrossa Valley. His family had German origins, as did many who settled in that famous wine growing region, and Thiele spoke only German until he started school. He described the small farming community where he spent his childhood as ‘a fine backdrop for human existence…an enveloping world of solitude – but never loneliness.’
They say that all of us have known only one child in our lives – the child we once were. Whether this is true or not, I know one ageing child who still sees clearly a long-ago world of sunrise and starshine through a boy’s eyes high on the hilltops in the Hundred of Julia Creek.
After service in the RAAF, he became a high school teacher, then a college lecturer, and he ended his teaching career as principal and director of Wattle Park Teachers’ Centre in Adelaide. He married Rhonda, an artist, and they had two children.
According to his daughter, Jan Minge, he was a gifted teacher who could clarify a muddle with a few sentences. His publisher said: ‘He restored my faith in human nature every time I talked to him.’ Early in life he developed rheumatoid arthritis, which caused him constant pain; he met the condition with fortitude but its legacy could be seen in his hobbling gait and his physical awkwardness.
A number of abiding principles shaped his life and writing. Thiele believed solitude was essential for the human spirit.
I do believe that “out of the deserts the prophets come” and one can find insights and understandings…one can find oneself, as we say, much better in solitude.
With his love of wide-open spaces, many places in South Australia were special to him, from the Murray and Barossa, to the Flinders, the outback and Eyre Peninsula; but Thiele remained especially enchanted by the Coorong.
…as a direct result of the joy I felt over that watery world…I sometimes went out walking or fishing before sunrise, between four and five o’clock in the morning. All the things you could hear and see, and feel, were there. The fresh clean mornings with water and reeds, bubbles and gurgles, birds of all kinds flapping or talking or floating. It made you feel very keenly; it made you aware. Like Rat in The Wind in the Willows, I just couldn’t help feeling and thinking these “poetry-things”…
Experiences like these found their way into poems like ‘Murray Mouth’ and this extract from ‘Below Goolwa’, published in his fourth book of poetry Man in a Landscape in 1960:
Below Goolwa, in a world of reeds and wide water,
In a rippling kinship of birds and boats,
All things make unity –
Nothing here but wades or flaps or floats.
In tandem with Thiele’s love of nature was his fierce desire to protect it. In the book Coorong, featuring the photography of Mike McKelvey, he wrote:
The Coorong, above all else, is spirit – peace of isolation, regeneration of solitude, therapy of loneliness. Spirit that man desperately needs, yet masochistically tends to destroy.
Thiele feared that the environment of the Coorong would be damaged due to increasing population pressures, and wanted to preserve its spirit through fiction. His biographer, Evans Steggall, believes Thiele ‘recognised that children, with their sensitivity to hurt and wrong, were the ones to alert; would be the caretakers of the future.’
Thiele had enormous respect for indigenous people, admiring their affinity with nature and their belief that elements of spirit come from the land. A number of his books convey his sadness about their expulsion by European colonists from the land they cared for so well. In Storm Boy, Fingerbone Bill is a beautifully drawn character, his inclusion being an acknowledgement of six thousand years of Ngarrindjeri habitation of the lower Murray River, Lower Lakes and Coorong.
A man who spent a great deal of time with children, Thiele gave a lot of thought to the problems children encounter while growing up and the ways in which the outside world can intrude upon the process. This ‘strange journey we all make from childhood to maturity’ is such an important one, and the role of caregiver is a sacred task.
Books grow out of the inner lives of authors – their convictions and beliefs. These provide themes. For me it was conservation, preservation of the environment: the beautiful, rare Coorong. There is my love of solitude too, and my belief in its value, my interest in the process of growing up and the things that influence us when we’re young. We cannot escape the world. Its intrusive forces will always seek us out and find us, so we have to learn to stand on our own two feet. In Storm Boy, all these things play a part…Does every worthwhile book teach us something? Yes. Storm Boy teaches something of the grief and joy of life, of beauty of natural places and preserving our precious heritage – the richness of the life of the Aboriginal people – and it is about the cruelty, stupidity, kindness and wisdom of humans.
Storm Boy (1976) Soundtrack, composed by Michael Carlos
Composer Michael Carlos created a sensitive and understated soundtrack for the first film version, building mood with the discreet layering of strings. He went on to produce a score for another adaptation of a Colin Thiele novel, Blue Fin.
Before European settlement, thousands of Ngarrindjeri people lived on these waterways, making it one of the most densely populated regions in Australia. They referred to the region as their supermarket. There was an ample supply of fresh water and salt and they could feast on cockles, mussels, fish and waterfowl. There were turtles, kangaroos, possums and vegetables. They could gather medicinal plants and the fruits of the native cranberry, and collect rushes for baskets and shelter. The area was so rich in food and resources that these groups were less nomadic than other Aborigines and this allowed them to produce a wide range of cultural items and artefacts.
As with many other Aborigines, their culture features Dreaming Ancestors who provided the people with meaning, laws and social norms before departing the world to dwell in the sky. For thousands of years the myth of Ngurunderi, one of their great ancestral Dreaming heroes, has been shared along the shores of the Coorong. The significance of this Dreaming story about Ngurunderi is discussed in a video on the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority (NRA) website and one of the versions of this story can be found on the Murray River website.
Much later, in 1889, the Scottish poet Will Ogilvie spent a decade in Australia and also fell in love with the Coorong. In My Life in the Open he wrote in 1908: ‘Once seen it is never forgotten; and so it is that over here in Scotland, among the most beautiful scenery in the world, one would give a king’s ransom to hear the sudden whistle of the black duck’s wing and the little whisper of the wave upon the sand…’
Most Australian children growing up in the seventies and well into the eighties read and loved this book, and so did I. When the film was released in 1976, our class was taken to see it and most of us secretly cried our eyes out. I have a dear friend who has read this book to generations of children. Even the toughest critter in the class would shed a tear, he tells me. Doug says that when he reached the point where Mr Percival dies, he would need a few seconds to compose himself and control the lump in his throat. He had the good fortune to receive teacher training from Colin Thiele, who later visited his school. He remembered him as an inspiring speaker; a man his community greatly admired.
A new generation of children is being introduced to the boy and his pelican with the release of a new film adaptation of Storm Boy in 2019, although it seems many prefer the first version.
Friends took me to see this special place in 2016. We saw a little of the wetlands and walked to the mouth of the mighty Murray from Goolwa as Thiele had done in the early sixties with his friend John Baily. As we strolled along Goolwa Beach, the sky was blackening for a storm but the sun stubbornly shone, turning the sea to silver. It was late spring but when a wind began to blow I had an inkling of winter, ‘as it came sweeping up from the Antarctica, with ice on its tongue’. Like Storm Boy, I tasted the wind’s whip, the salty sting of the spray on my cheeks, and the ‘endless hiss of the dying ripples’ at my feet.
Thiele’s concern that overpopulation would stress this environment has come to pass. In 2009, the cumulative impact of drought and over-allocation of water across the area led to unprecedented rates of water salinity, soil acidity and erosion. Habitats were lost and the Coorong and neighbouring Lower Lakes teetered on the brink of environmental collapse. The South Australian Government has put in place a range of environmental management practices and actions to help this ecosystem regenerate over time.
Colin Thiele: His Work and Legacy is a video of a series of talks given at the University of Canberra in 2015. One of the guest speakers was Thiele’s daughter Jan Minge, who shared memories about her father.
A trailer for the first, 1976 version of the film Storm Boy, directed by Henri Safran, and starring Greg Rowe, David Gulpilil, and Peter Cummins.
The Ngarrindjeri Culture Hub has produced a video featuring Ngarrindjeri artists talking about their work and culture.
David Gulpilil, the actor who played Fingerbone in the 1976 adaptation, is a Yolngu man. He is one of the few Indigenous people of his generation to be raised in the bush and grew up to be an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial dancer. Here is a short from his film Another Country which ‘is about what happened to my culture, when it was interrupted by your [white European] culture’.
Ngrugie ngoppun, means good walk in the Ngarrindjeri language, and a great one is the walk from Goolwa to the Murray Mouth, beginning at beacon 19, near the Goolwa Barrage. It is a track through the sand hills and tussocky shrubs, ending with a swoop to the spectacular sea. This and other walking trails are described on the Coorong Country website.
The Coorong is a protected area and was established as a National Park in 1966. The National Parks South Australia website provides a comprehensive range of maps and information.
Details about accommodation and places to visit can be found on the Visit the Muray website.
Steggall, Evans, Stephany. Can I Call You Colin? The Authorised Biography of Colin Thiele, New Holland, 2004
Thiele, Colin. Coorong, Rigby, 1972
Thiele, Colin. Storm Boy and other Stories, New Holland, 2001
Colin Thiele: His Work and Legacy, A series of talks given at the University of Canberra.