Ripping yarn set in Boer War
BYE-BYE DOLLY GRAY
by Antony O’Brien
(Melbourne: Artillery Publishing)
Paperback: 305 pages
Rec. price $27.50
Travelling in South Africa recently, following the landmarks of the Boer War, I was indebted to Melbourne author Antony O’Brien’s historical novel, Bye-Bye Dolly Gray, for directions to the grave of the controversial Australian hero Harry “Breaker” Morant.
O’Brien’s novel is based on his grandfather’s experiences in the last of imperial Britain’s colonial wars, and provides an entertaining and informative – if partisan – account of the main phases of the conflict.
The author has travelled extensively in South Africa, has a knowledge of Afrikaans, and has first-hand experience of the places which provide the setting for the events in his novel.
He peppers much of the dialogue with Afrikaans words, and has his hero, Patrick McCarthy, fluent in the tongue, on account of Dan, his father, having spent time in South Africa before settling in the Kelly Country, that is north-eastern Victoria.
If there is a flaw in the dialogue, it is in the colloquial speech of the Australians, which sometimes seems to come from a later era, and is certainly not that of Henry Lawson. Pat is a crack shot and a superb horseman, and he and his mates are in stark contrast with the floundering British soldiery whom they encounter.
Throughout Bye-Bye Dolly Gray there is a ring of authenticity, which is enhanced by the reproductions of photographs of the period and the sketch-maps and extracts from Pat’s diaries.
As it is an historical novel, the reader’s credulity should not be strained by his chance meeting with Winston Churchill, numerous miraculous escapes from danger, flippant encounters with buffoon British generals, and his fortuitous summons to be a witness to the executions of Harry Morant and Peter Handcock.
However, readers will find the astonishing finale back in north-eastern Victoria a little hard to swallow.
We are positioned from the outset to reject the hypocrisy of the British imperial claim to be invading the Boer republics to protect Uitlanders and Kaffirs. Those of Irish-Australian background especially will revel in the real purpose of the novel, which is to outline the difficulty with which a much larger but cumbersome British Army overcame the smaller but more mobile and better-led Boer forces in the first phase of the war in 1900, and to decry the barbaric policies employed by Lord Kitchener to suppress further resistance during 1901-2.
In the first phase, Pat with his Rough Rider mates and units like Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers make the difference, while generals like Buller and Warren, who “waddle” rather than walk, contradict their own orders and retire from the fray for long afternoon teas. Indeed, O’Brien has the Boer General Louis Botha say that he would shoot any man who killed a British general, so much did he appreciate their contribution to his cause.
But it is in the second phase when O’Brien hits his straps, with Pat unwillingly carrying out the burning of Boer farms, slaughter of cattle and deportation of civilians which characterised Britain’s scorched-earth policy. He establishes friendships with Boer fighters and civilians alike, and as a junior officer fluent in Afrikaans he is able to exercise some leniency towards those whom he is meant to ruin.
During much of the novel, the emphasis is on the vendetta against Pat and his mates, Blue and Dobba, carried out by members of Kitchener’s dirty-tricks department, in order to silence them for what they know.
Major Rogan and his associates Rimmer and Hurrel, together with the latter’s lover, the deformed and depraved Hettie, have honed their skills in Ireland and India, and represent pure evil as they carry out their war crimes against Boers and honourable British and colonial officers alike. Hettie, with her “muff” gun, almost ends Pat’s career out on the veldt, and his mates fare even worse.
There is even time for romance, as Pat and Blue have their trysts with lovely Boer girls, but the hero’s behaviour is ever upright, in contrast with the sinister Angus, one of Rogan’s men, who delights in rape and murder. In fact, Patrick McCarthy is a paragon: a bushman of consummate skill, with a classical education and a habit of religious reflection developed under the Jesuits.
This is in evidence towards the end of the novel in his resistance to the charms of a rather sophisticated courtesan who plied her trade among the sleeping compartments of the Adelaide-to-Melbourne express, and in his fidelity to his Boer sweetheart.
However improbable was Pat’s ability to play both sides of the conflict with dash, honour and impunity, Bye-Bye Dolly Gray is a truly ripping yarn, told in a thoroughly plausible voice.
The production and printing, in Melbourne in 2006, are almost flawless, while its graphics give it a real sense of authenticity. It certainly deserves a wider readership than it has had to date.