A review by Professor JS RyanSchool of HumanitiesUniversity of New EnglandAs seen in the Journal of Colonial History
These three large and closely printed soft-covered volumes have been described as The Red Cedar - Red Gold Trilogy. The actual wrapper for the set refers to them - and justly - as 'true stories and bushmen's tales about the last days of cedar getting on the North Coast of New South Wales'. The three works constitute a wide-ranging and extraordinarily rich saga of the last and most difficult phases of the North Coast's traditional industry, that of 'getting' the harder/more hidden and dangerous cedar, even as they also comment variously on the task of felling and bringing out many other timbers from (smaller) stands still amazingly difficult of access.
The steadily evolving plot - for we are dealing with 'faction', or the use of facts to create time, place and socio-cultural circumstances - is one that radiates out from a central location, a river town with many small sawmills feeding it. It is given the fictitious name of 'Brown's Landing', on 'the Spencer River', somewhere on the lower Mid-North Coast, and it sounds much like Wingham or Taree, as it/they might have been earlier in the twentieth century. For they are mouldering, long-memoried, and strangely evocative of a ruthless age that succeeded the convict one, but retained many of its predatory and ruthless characteristics.
With numerous characters - and a touch of indebtedness to Charles Dickens' arrays of the remarkably quirkish - and a sprawling plot to it, the whole is played out in three separate but linked time-sequences. For it focuses on a symbolic period for the nation of about thirty years, with many flash-backs in time, and authorial reflections on the recurring chief villain's pretentious, or even sham Yorkshire background. This is nicely appropriate since he is a sort of late nineteenth-century remittance man, long concerned to exploit and often bankrupt the much more honest Australian-born sawyers, bullockies, prospectors, and simple men who like living and working on their own. He targets especially 'hatters' and other solitary eccentrics who much prefer to work alone as they prospect for tin or gold, seeking secretively to locate forgotten clusters of overlooked cedar trees and so finance their hard-won survival and independence in the bleak economic conditions.
Thus the first book begins in 1919, and it is focused on the arrival 'in town' of one Robert Andrews, a modest young man, a veteran of the Polygon Wood horrors in France, a shell-shocked soldier seeking his first peace-time job as a bookkeeper for a sawmill near Brown's Landing. Arguably he is still fighting a cunning and ruthless enemy. The second book begins nearly a decade later, interpreting 1929 in the same area, and so to the seismic shocks of the flow-on to all finances in the years of the Great Depression. Then lastly, the third is set at the end of World War Two, and is concerned with the often forgotten social and financial uncertainties of that time, and with the continuing of many war-time rackets, especially as to the ownership of felled timber, the legality of which practices stretch cynically the practical interpretation of Forestry Department licenses for 'cutting out'.
The enormous number of figures involved, the 'cast' of these chronicles is as considerable as those of the English chronicles from Galsworthy, works which afford a sort of parallel, since both are much concerned with the arrogant who reject any age changes or social challenges to their automatic usurpation of so much power and so their consumption of the financial / social resources created by the unfortunate little men. This cast - that assigned to these tightly-crafted chronicles - is a considerable one, and by the end of the tale, one is (vaguely) familiar with the lives of perhaps a hundred figures, including: crooked solicitors, conniving bank managers, bullies and stand over men, as well as honest sawyers, shop keepers, and all manner of timber workers and their suffering yet loyal families, for whom the financial situation is uncertain and unpredictable and yet somehow just kept under control. Accordingly, for all the difference of their plots, Ridgway can be put alongside Frank Hardy, Darcy Niland and those others who catch the not quite desperate mood of the later 1930s, and the wholly unexpected and further drawn-out post-war harsh austerities to the daily round in the 'bush'.
However, the great power of the texts to engage their fascinated readers must be recognised by them: the writer's knowledge of the timber-getting industry over a hundred years and more; his hauntingly evocative depiction of the forest giants hidden away in the mountains; his descriptive skill in his vignettes of the last of the straining bullock teams, somehow inching forward as they finally bring out the great logs of impossible weight; and the actual technical and dangerous processes of the mills in sawing, kiln drying, and seasoning a vast array of tree species.
The writer, Ian Ridgway, still in later middle age, and long a woodwork teacher and timber craftsman and saw miller, has achieved a considerable feat: (1) in melding his vast knowledge of timber getting; (2) in keeping clear the patterns of family history of several engaging clans of simple folk that extend over a century and more; and (3) in communicating his own passion for all tall trees, but, particularly, the cedar giants of the North Coast. This array of purposes coheres well because of his impressive respect for all aspects of the traditional and more recent lifestyle of the region's timber-men. While some parts of the 'plot' seem a little melodramatic, this reviewer much prefers to see the whole as a proletarian version - set in our parents' Australia - much like those of the social panoramas of John Galsworthy in England, with some figures at the top of the 'class' range, but, in general, with much more of the lowly chronicles, then as in those from Arnold Bennett. In our case, of course, they all encapsulate the highly significant, if seemingly slow moving, attitudes of the Australian nation.
I feel that Red Cedar should be read slowly, reflected on, and then long remembered as: an extraordinary tribute to red cedar, the building material of colonial cities, and to all who located it, extracted it and worked it; as a fine and memorable proletarian history, that of solitary workers in the Australian bush in an industry that has long been forgotten; and, perhaps most significantly, as a chronicle of the raw, trusting, and so sadly exploited folk of a 'company town', one built on the dangerous and unrecognised labours of working men who only survive by virtue of the magnificent heroism of their womenfolk. As noted, these books should not be read quickly, but given considerable reflection, since they move from the time of 'Craig's Line'2 in the earlier nineteenth century to less than fifty years ago. And their style of under-statement and respect for all the eccentric or 'hatter' types is both totally sincere and true to a much more innocent time than the early-twenty-first century.
In a private conversation with me, Ian comments that much of the skullduggery is true to facts as known to his family members, as is the pathetic and immoral arrogance of Australian so-called 'professional men' of the first half of the twentieth century, especially as they lived and exploited the 'cockies' and other 'little people' in small 'bush' or country towns. The book was launched at Timbertown, near Wauchope, and there may well be more writings from Ian about a high country cattle run. [Statements made in the Focus Magazine interview of April 2008, are to be found on the web.] We will certainly savour more from this quiet, reflective and morally conscious style that has a little of the world of Bunyan to it, even as it is completely convincing and totally authentic as a record of the style of the shy bushmen who somehow contrived to live on into the later twentieth century.
Professor J. S. Ryan