Book review by George S: Trooper to the Southern Cross is a novel by Angela Thirkell, first published in 1934 under the pseudonym of ‘Leslie Parker’.
She had married George Thirkell (her second husband and an Australian) in 1918, and in 1920 traveled with him and their children to Australia on a troopship. This book is a fictionalised version of that voyage.
The narrator is Tom Bowen, an army doctor, heading home with his new English wife. First he gives a brief account of his war experience, which sets the book’s tone as unliterary, sceptical and realistic:
You don’t want to hear about the fighting on the Canal, where the worst misfortune I had was when my horse put his foot into a hole on the Turkish side, and the hole was all full of a Johnny Turk who had been buried long enough to be pretty far gone. Talk of an escape of gas! All that Canal bit has been written about by real writers. Some of them were good on the job and some weren’t.
The book is a triumph of ventriloquism, as Thirkell defines her narrator by the way he speaks, and makes his reactions to events at least as interesting as the events themselves. She obviously really enjoys this blunt and brusque man, who embodies Australian moral forthrightness and lack of fuss and pretension. Australia as presented here is a tough place full of individualists. There is a glimpse of Tasmania, the wild and empty island where ‘the escaped convicts used to eat each other – there wasn’t anything else’.
I think, too, that she enjoys writing as a man. Now and then the narrator refers to word and jokes that he won’t repeat because they are unsuitable for ladies.
The narrator’s judgements are brisk and often brutal. Racial epithets are common. Sometimes comments are cruel; for example, after he’s visited his wife’s family in Leeds:
We said goodbye to Leeds, where I think I’ve never seen so many ugly women in my life unless you can count the day I went to Sheffield.
(I apologise for any distress and consternation caused when I quoted this passage at the Reading Group in Sheffield)
The narrator has no time for officers who can’t handle the men, and so are not up to the job. Colonel Picking, the Colonel officially in charge of the soldiers on the ship, is utterly useless, and the tough-minded officers have to sort things out without him. The ship contains not only the Australian soldiers in very crowded quarters, but there are cells where criminals are kept – murderers and deserters being brought back to Australia for punishment. Very soon the criminals have captured the keys of the cells, and they can’t be stopped from doing more or less what they like. Formal Army measures are generally useless. At one stage a court-martial for some of the soldiers is suggested, but in the confines of a small ship this would provoke a mutiny. Everything needs to be handled by knowing how to talk to the men – knowing the language and behaviour that they will respect.
Angela Thirkell was a second cousin of Rudyard Kipling’s, and in this book she is often in Kipling territory; like him she is fascinated by the dynamics of Army life, and especially by the difference between the official version of how things should be and what actually happens. She also shares Kipling’s delight in violent horseplay and his admiration for those with a natural talent for copious and inventive swearing. There is maybe a slightly competitive dig at Kipling when the narrator describes his literary taste and says that he has read ‘most of Banjo Patterson and Adam Lindsay Gordon’ and says ‘I much appreciate Robert Service and some of Kipling’ (my italics).
The tone of the book is more blokeish than the average bloke, more Australian than the average Australian, more Kiplingesque than Kipling:
The War had many a bright moment even for the diggers so far away from good old Aussie. For instance there was the day the diggers got wild with the English A.P.M. And somehow lost him in the canal. I did my best with artificial respiration, but the bugger had me beat. We had one of the best laughs over that we’d had for many a long day.
It turns out that the A.P.M.’s crime was pulling rank and being bossy, rather than talking to the men as humans.
The book has plenty of lively events, but little plot. The characters identified as useless at the start continue to be uselss; those who are clearly good blokes continue to be good blokes; diggers keep on behaving like diggers. Despite this, the book keeps the reader’s interest through its sheer gusto. I hugely enjoyed it.
Fans of the book include Barry Humphries and the Australian poet Peter Porter (who thought it ‘accurate to the point of pain’). Angela Thirkell’s son (the novelist Colin MacInnes) write rancorously about his mother, but singled out this as the only one of her books that he liked.