'A “Bookshelf” Holiday' - by Vigilant, Westralian Worker, 26 October 1917, page 2

Fitzgerald writes:

Vigilant confides that the writing of this “literary column” requires a continuous, heavy course of “reading new books and re-reading old ones”; “eternal…forever” vigilance, or vigil-keeping, as it were, at night? (cf Cyril Connolly: “re-fill the tank”.)

Also, that he has been heavily caught up in “the welter of election campaigning “ (W.A. State poll was held on 29 Sept).

Both these facts are consistent with Curtin’s authorship. He had to refresh his memory and extend his reading on topics such as evolution and the history of drama in order to inform his readers: “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”

Elsie Macleod says her parents lived near Cambridge Street, Leaderville.

Still, the quality of observation and descriptive writing is surprising; and revealing, if Curtin’s authorship is accepted. Curtin determined in this life to make himself, as much as possible, [a complete man] a “full man” (Bacon). [1]


Our Bookshelf graphic
A "Bookshelf" Holiday by Vigilant

Some, perhaps, there are who would question the appropriateness of “Vigilant” as a pen-name for the writer of a literary column. To some, no doubt, the name suggest the platitudinarian politics and amazing mathematics of a certain column in a certain contemporary; but, after all, “we had it first.” However, the name is appropriate, for the price of a literary column – to its author – is eternal vigilance. He must forever be reading new books, and re-reading old ones. And thereby hangs a tale, or rather, confession.

For the last few weeks, amidst the welter of election campaigning, “Vigilant” has been able to give but scant attention to either new books or old – in fact, apart from the uninspiring pages of electoral rolls, he has had time for no books at all. And so, all of a sudden, he finds that he has bottomed the well of his erudition. In fact, he feels like a holiday.

Well, to change the person, come with me for a “Bookshelf” holiday. The Library, for the time, is closed; let us seek the Bush, whose gates are ever open. After all, the Bush is a mighty book. Its pages are broader and deeper, its illuminations more gorgeous, its symbolisms and figures of speech more subtle and holy than any written scroll can unfold. What writer has not been tempted to catch its accents? To translate into verse the weird whispering of the she-oak? To find the master word to compel visions of fern gully and waterfall to rise before the eyes? But one and all fall short, for the language of the Bush is a tongue so sacred that its mysteries and ritual may be spoken in none of the tongues of the cities.

Cambridge-street is a long, red road. One end of it is an ordinary city street, but the other end juts out quite a distance into the Bush, and there cuts off abruptly. But a maze of sand tracks branch off from the end, and these lead, more or less directly, to an old tramway line, which, once on a time, used to carry loads of limestone from the hills near the ocean beach. Long since the rails and sleepers have disappeared, but the formation remains, and serves as an Ariadne clue to the King’s Park bushman. Half an hour’s stroll brings us to an unexpected scent. A small lake, or large pool, part of it occupied by paper-bark swamp, fills up the foreground, while at the back rises a steep limestone hill, with three humps on its back. A few low, long buildings, shed-like, and made of limestone – ancient coral rock – stand between the pool and the hill, and a sleek dairy herd bears witness to the perennial character of the former. When the shadow of the hill darkens the pool, and especially when a dark sky throws a gloom over the Bush, we find this pool quite a little suggestive of the uncanny. We would not be surprised, at any moment, if we ran across a Bunyip, or even Fafnir, the monstrous fen-dweller of Celtic fable.

But a closer look discloses, if not any monsters of fable, at least some not less terrible denizens of pool and pond. Thousands of mosquito larvae swarm in every few feet of the water. Active, fantastic little mites, they are - something like a diver in his helmet, to look at, but furnished with a minute screw-propellor in the portion of their anatomy corresponding to the diver’s shoulders. Every now and then one will come to the surface, hang on for a moment to take a breath, then off again, with its queer, jerky progression. When we say “hang on,” we must realise that the surface of the water – the most fragile thing in human experience – is to the mosquito an impassable wall. The adult can walk on it with safety, like a skater on ice, while the young hang to it from below when taking a breath.

But lo! Why the commotion? It is the water tiger – the dragon-fly larva – the most terrible of the pond monsters. And this one is a fine specimen of his kind, nearly two inches long, and fearfully armed with claws and suckers. He pounces upon a water-boatman – an interesting little water-beetle, two of whose legs have been modified to form feathery oars – and in an instant, despite the creature’s hard shell, the juices of his body have been withdrawn to nourish the monster. “Nature red in tooth and claw” we find exemplified in the quiet pool, equally with the jungle and the fishing banks.

  In the scrub the ubiquitous insect is still at work. Here is the case-moth caterpillar, enclosed in his tough case of silk, strengthened with short sticks, or even with small – very small, pebbles, and secure against the beaks of the cleverest birds, except only the ferocious “ring-eye,” or “silver-eye,” one of the few amongst the Bush creatures that kills and tortures for “sport.” “It is a fine day; let us go out and kill something,” as a cynic said of the Englishman.

Yonder again is a cluster of saw-flies – or rather, of their young – commonly called “spit-fires”. Nothing more obscene in appearance could be imagined. A dozen to thirty ugly over-coloured grubs, slinging tightly together, with but their heads free, twisting and writhing like the snakes on the head of Medusa. Ugh! Without their objectionable habit of spitting, they make us shudder. But after all, these dirty creatures are kind enough to advertise their presence by their “warning” coloration and pungent stench. They are not, after all, so morally degenerate as that beautiful spider, with the yellow spots on his back. Ah! You were deceived? You thought it was a flower? No, his (or rather, her) web is hung between two bushes, low down. In the centre are two small greenish-yellow pads, on which she places her feet. The yellow back completes the suggestion of a beautiful orchid. The “Spider orchid” is familiar to all. This creature might be called the “orchid spider.”

Let us leave the low ground, with its luxuriant growth of scrub – banxia, wattle and blackboy, amidst larger growth of jarrah and tuart, and matted with creepers of various sorts, with undergrowth of magnificent blue hovea – and climb the limestone ridge. First we pass the old lime-kilns – relics, ‘tis said, of convict days – then gradually mount higher into a belt of thorny, but fleshy-leafed scrub. Down lower the vegetation is fed by a perennially damp sub-soil; here the shower falls, and flows away, or is sucked down, down, too deep for the roots to reach. But as it falls the water is sucked up greedily and stored in the thick, furry leaves. So Nature adapts herself to desert conditions. Close to the ground are little bushes of heather, with sharp, horny leaves, and a brilliant red flower. The hard leaf is another desert trick of Mother Nature’s. The moisture stored up inside cannot escape when bid by the drying easterlies.

Well, we reach the first hump of the hill, and find to our surprise, that we are nowhere near the summit. Still, the view of the pools, the dairy farm, the sleek herd, and the encircling Bush is worth a pause. The vivid green of the pasture contrasts glaringly with the darker shades of the eucalyptus.

But on we go, past the second hump, and up to the real summit. Gradually the scene opens out; peeps of the city, reaches of the river, and the blue range in the distance, and on the other hand a chaos of sand hills and limestone dunes. At last the top, and almost without warning the open ocean bursts upon us. Below lies Fremantle, beyond is Cockburn Sound, and out to the South-West, the festoon of islets and rocks – Garden Island, Carnac, Rottnest – like the teeth of a marine monster protruding from the blue. Far away to the north, on the very rim of the horizon, are three indistinct humps. They are the Three Sisters that overlook the Yanchep Caves.

Well, the sun is sinking to rest behind the ocean. We must retrace our steps. Back to the city, and the library. We may take from our shelves “The Insect,” by Jules Michlet; “The Spider,” by J.H. Fabre; “Mutual Aid,” by P Kropotkin; or “The Life of the Bee,” by Maeterlink – all magnificently written works that hold places equally high in Science and Literature. Or, nearer home, we may renew our acquaintance with our bush friends by glancing at the pages of some of our own Australian bush lovers and nature-students, such as MacDonald, Hall, and Leach, whose little handbooks on wild-life in general, birds, insects, etc., are written in simple style and without needless technicalities.

Well, my friends, I trust you have enjoyed our “Bookshelf” ramble in the wilds of West Leederville. If it has done you as much good as it did me, [sic]


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36