By Robert Darroch



The VIP yacht, Lady Hopetoun, steaming down Sydney Harbour last Saturday evening, as a brilliant sunset brought the DH Lawrence Society of Australia’s annual cruise to a spectacular conclusion

AN INEVITABLE – perhaps regrettable - consequence of you receiving this, my weekly blog, is that it is largely about me, and my interests

I can only really write about what I know

but I hope that some of what I do write about is also of interest to you

for I try hard to make it so

The DHL Society of Australia was formed by a group of us over 25 years ago

initially as a pressure group to try to save Wyewurk

the house DH Lawrence stayed in at Thirroul, on the NSW South Coast, when he visited Australia in 1922

In the late 1980s, a local South Coast real estate agent acquired the 1911 Californian bungalow, perched on a cliff overlooking McCauley’s Beach, and was seeking local council permission to add a second Cape Cod-style storey to it

Which would have compromised, not only its literary and historical significance (I will explain both in a moment)

but would have irrevocably ruined what is in fact the oldest Californian bungalow remaining intact in Australia

(ie, it had very considerable architectural and heritage significance, as well)

The eminent Australian historian, the late Manning Clark, agreed to become chairman of our Save Wyewurk Committee

Patrick White (whose literary hero was DHL), along with many supporters, wrote letters of protest against this potential act of cultural barbarism

I became, due to my interest in Lawrence, the committee’s secretary

and through my friendship with my former Bulletin colleague Bob Carr (then NSW Planning Minister) we managed to have a preservation order slapped on Wyewurk

and so we did indeed save it

(Our fellow Club member, the Australian heritage architect Ian Stapleton, was subsequently commissioned to design some less destructive renovations to the cottage, and these have now given the estate-agent owner some relief from the restrictions placed on him and his historic bungalow)

In the aftermath of this campaign, we decided to harness the interest generated

and form the DH Lawrence Society of Australia

and in the 20-or-so years since then we have, each year, held a number of events for our members...

(we are the second-biggest literary society in Australia, after the Jane Austen Society)

...of which our annual Harbour cruise on the steam yacht Lady Hopetoun is probably the most popular

(see above photo, taken by our President, John Lacey)

We do what we can to make our events meaningful, in a DHL context

Last Saturday evening we organised a jacaranda cruise, steaming

(the Lady Hopeturn is powered by a boiler and furnace, stoked by coal)

round the Harbour viewing the wonderful display of jacarandas – and other effusions of horticultural colour – along the foreshores

...our “justification” being that the Lady Hopetoun, launched in 1902, is the only vessel still operating, when Lawrence was in Sydney in 1922

Tenuous, maybe – yet Lawrence’s connections with Sydney and Australia are anything but tenuous

Kangaroo, the novel he wrote in Thirroul between the end of May and the second week of July, 1922, is his eighth major novel, his third last, and one of his better ones

It is – and has been acclaimed as such – possibly the greatest novel written about Australia

It is certainly the most perceptive

It is the only novel by a major international writer – people in the same league as Eliot, Hardy, Forster, Austen, Dickens, James, et al – set in Australia

Indeed, Lawrence is the only major literary figure who has visited Australia and written extensively about the experience

Twain, Conrad, Trollope, Stevenson all came here, but only the last wrote a book about it – a minor co-authored novel also set, most curiously, on the South Coast of NSW, near Thirroul

(When he was in Sydney, Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in our Club)

John Pringle, former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and the author of Australia Accent -one of the most perceptive non-fiction books written about Australia - said Kangaroo (to which he devoted an entire chapter in his book) was perhaps the only profound work written about our country

Yet the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) accolade given to Kangaroo was from Professor J.I.M. Stewart, who, when asked to deliver the inaugural Commonwealth Literary Fund lecture on Australian literature in 1948, said that, as he could find no examples of literature written by Australians, he would instead give a talk on DH Lawrence’s Kangaroo

(I think he was poking borak at what then went for literature in Australia, which in 1948 was pretty thin on the ground)

As many of you are probably aware, Lawrence and Kangaroo are my special area of interest, and expertise

In 1980 I wrote DH Lawrence in Australia, and have studied Lawrence, with particular relevance to Australia and Kangaroo, since the early 1970s

During the cruise on Saturday I was asked by a new addition to our complement

(we welcome new members – click on the Rananim link below for free membership details)

where the main centre of Lawrence studies was in Australia

...I replied:  “My study.”

(A bit over the top, no doubt – Professor Paul Eggert is probably Australia’s most renowned Lawrence expert - but I could hardly miss the opening offered)

However, I will not beat my drum any further, for if anyone should be interested in the long saga of my involvement with Lawrence, they can go to our DHL Society website:


and click on “Kangaroo’s secret army plot” (also see there some more photos of the cruise in the latest online edition of our DHLA journal, Ranimim)

Because, indeed, that is what Kangaroo is about – secret armies - and thus why it is so significant

For when Lawrence came to Sydney in late May 1922, he happened to stumble – incredibly, unbelievably – on an actual secret army

And Kangaroo is an almost day-by-day fictionalised record of that encounter

In fact it remains today the best account we have of a real, live, Australian secret army

...its leadership, structure, philosophy – even direct quotes from its two chiefs, Sir Charles Rosenthal and Major Jack Scott

(whom, even more amazingly, Lawrence later also portrayed in two subsequent works!)

But Kangaroo is also a great novel in its descriptions of Australia, Sydney and Thirroul

For Lawrence could write (and, equally importantly, he could see)

And what he says about his time here has not, in my opinion, been equalled by any other writer, home-grown, or foreign

(with the possible exception of his greatest Australian disciple, Patrick White)

Perhaps the novel’s most chilling quote sums up Lawrence’s reaction to the political/social situation he found here

He is describing, towards the end of his novel, the outward beauty of Australia – the bush, the coast, the wonderful air, and the surface democracy of Australian society

But, then, he says, sometimes an icy, primeval, wind can come off the land, then...

It is as if the silvery freedom suddenly turned, and showed the scaly back of the reptile, and the horrible paws.

...an insight that no other writer has ever perceived, let alone captured, of our enigmatic country


FOOTNOTE:  I was asked recently at the Club why I didn’t write a book about Australia’s secret armies, so frequently do I mention them in these blogs.  I certainly know a great deal about them – though my colleague, Dr Andrew Moore, knows much more.  (His The Premier and the Secret Army is the standard work on the NSW Old Guard.)  If, however, a book were to be written about this undoubtedly important area of Australian history and politics, then The Scaly Back of the Reptile, and the Horrible Paws would be a good title for it.