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The Missing Heir: The autobiography of Kylie Tennant

The Missing Heir: The autobiography of Kylie Tennant

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The Missing Heir: The autobiography of Kylie Tennant

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Oct 1, 2012


Kylie Tennant's novels are known for their vitality and social realism, and The Missing Heir is in the same tradition. Wicked pen-portraits of her forebears and parents set the scene before the narrative moves on to Kylie herself.

The story of her life unfolds vividly. Kylie Tennant has never done the easy or the obvious thing. It is hardly surprising to read that the writer who went to jail so that she could write about it accurately, and who tramped the dusty roads of the outback during the depression, was a misfit at school and hated her first job. The thread of the Missing Heir runs through the book. Kylie Tennant relates her father's attachment to the romantic idea of himself as the Missing Heir of the Tennant Clan. As a small girl she scorned this pretentious notion, and others like it, and set about asserting her independence. In time she herself, then her son and her son's son all became the Missing Heir in their turn. Kylie Tennant's life has been restless, sometimes difficult and tragic. Yet she has given us wonderful books capturing the broad canvas of Australian people, society and landscapes. In this book she has given us another - The Missing Heir.
Oct 1, 2012

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The Missing Heir - Kylie Tennant


1. The Missing Heir

‘The older I am the more I dream of my childhood,’ the Parent said just before he died. He was nearly ninety-five. ‘I’m riding out with my father to hunt rabbits. It’s so vivid I can hear the creak of the Old Man’s saddle, as he rides just ahead of me. When we came on any rabbits the first thing he did was to make sure I was safe behind a tree. Where is Tommy? Where are you, my boy? Of course, by the time he had fussed around making sure I didn’t get shot by accident, the rabbits were long gone.’

Grandfather (T. Hately) Tennant was a doctor. He had begun his career as a Presbyterian missionary to China and decided that what the Chinese needed was not so much spiritual salvation as medicine. He returned to Edinburgh and discarded his Greek and theology for a scalpel. He never went to China but was in America for a time. The Parent will have it that the ‘Old Man’ came out to Australia with Lord Carrington ‘as part of his suite’. He was probably a ship’s doctor in 1870, a refugee from the Glasgow smog. After his marriage he went from Ballina to Tenterfield with a side excursion to Sydney with a weak chest and ended up as medical officer in Hillston. These far-stretching plains provided — for coronal enquiry — many not-so-fresh samples of people who had ‘done a perish’. ‘Body-snatching was very rough in those days,’ a cheerful undertaker once told me when I visited Hay. From one such unsavoury remnant Dr Tennant contracted a septic infection and knew he had only days to live. He betook himself to the barber to have his hair and beard trimmed.

‘I look like an old crow,’ he said disgustedly. ‘It will be a big funeral and I’m not going to have them all peering into my coffin to see me like this.’ It was one of the biggest funerals ever seen in those desolate parts.

But the Parent preferred to remember the Old Man in his glory, a bewhiskered monarch of medicine: ‘He’d drive up to the hospital with me in the carriage and the coachman on the box. He always wore his top hat — he kept his stethoscope in it. And there would be all the hospital staff drawn up on the steps to greet him, from the Matron down.’ This great spectacle impressed the doctor’s son. He felt himself a child of rare promise. When they travelled in Cobb & Co.’s coach he was allowed to hold the reins. ‘Even as a baby,’ he announced, ‘I was a King Baby.’ There is indeed a photograph of the Parent in a lace christening robe looking uncommonly like a small sucking pig.

The boy was told that he was the head of the Tennant Clan in Scotland. After the doctor’s death — and a queer episode in which the coachman Cracky (who had followed his friend the doctor all over the world) got drunk as, I gathered, he often did, and the house burnt down — the widow, her two young daughters and little Tommy beat a retreat to her relatives in Sydney.

She was deaf. She had been deaf since a swimming accident in Middle Harbour, when, as a girl, she nearly lost her life. Her husband had, my aunt told me, taken her to seven doctors but none of them could do anything. It was the Parent’s delusion that she had been a seamstress for a fashion house in Woolloomooloo before her marriage but my aunt said she couldn’t sew very well and hated sewing. It was a pathetic return the widow made to her family’s orange orchard at St Ives. The small boy heard the women wailing: ‘Who will take care of little Tommy?’ and from that time onward little Tommy took very good care of himself.

It was expected that little Tommy would become his uncle’s heir. He remembered the fountain in the garden, and once took me to gaze pathetically through the wrought-iron gates at the ruined house, the weeds, the slimy dry fountain. Instead of bequeathing this domain to his nephew, Uncle Cates married the widow’s housekeeper. This action the family regarded with horror because the housekeeper was — a Catholic. Naturally she renounced this questionable position on her marriage but it was, my aunt said, ‘always held against her’. ‘They hated Catholics. None of them would have anything to do with Maude.’

Part of the Parent’s legend — we will not call it family history — concerned this dark shadow of the Roman Catholic Church. A certain Cardinal Curran in Ireland was supposed to have had two girls, nieces, as wards, and their brother who strangely enough later came to Australia as a cardinal. Their name was Moran. One of the girls became a nun and the other was to follow her into the order. However, a young man, a gardener who wooed Miss Moran by leaving posies of flowers on her windowsill, fell in love with her. Naturally they had to come to Australia because he was a Protestant. ‘I think his name was Scarlett,’ the Parent once said vaguely, ‘but they changed it to Cates.’

In Australia they decided to settle on land beyond what is now Canberra. The delicate Irish girl trudged behind the dray which held her piano and the glass windows for the house they would build on their property at Braidwood.

When I was later writing a book called The Battlers I took a horse and cart over part of the road they must have followed through the gloomy scrub and I reflected on what the thoughts of the Irish girl must have been on that long-ago slow journey.

The young gardener had no sooner established himself on his property than all the convict servants ran away to the goldfields. Their employer thought he would try his luck there too. Leaving his wife and children he set off to make his fortune. ‘He came back with the arse out of his pants,’ the Parent stated. Once back in Sydney the family took up land at St Ives, now a suburb but then only bush. Here Cates became a prosperous orange grower and his wife, whom he called ‘Pinky’ from her Irish complexion, had a carriage with white ponies. ‘He worshipped her,’ my aunt told me. ‘In the evening at five o’clock she came out to walk in the gardens and all the paths had to be swept before she did. There was not a leaf underfoot where she walked.’ The family were brought up to a fear and dread of Catholics. When he was dying the husband of the Cardinal’s ward said at the last: ‘Well, the priest didn’t get me.’

I remember as a child that my father and mother — in all else domestic enemies — were both agreed on the dark cunning of Catholics. Although at one time when N.S. Wales was a penal colony a third of the Australian population was Catholic, from Ireland, the predominance of Protestants continued until possibly World War II. The Labor Party was mistakenly supposed to be, in its origins, influenced by the Catholics. ‘Oh, no, dear,’ my mother would say, ‘They’re frightfully common people.’ In World War I, owing to the troubles in Ireland, Cardinal Mannix and the anti-conscription campaign, there was still extant this feeling, among the middle-class Australians, that the Catholics were up to no good. When I married a man who had meant to be a High Church priest, an Anglo-Catholic, although this was condoned, the idea that I now frequented a church which had incense, confessions and stations of the cross sent a shiver of superstition through my parents which they handsomely disregarded.

My father did not forget, as a boy, that he was head of the Tennant Clan. Unfortunately, when out picking Christmas bush with his sisters, he fell over a cliff and nearly ended his life. The little girls had to run a long distance for help.

He had the most expert doctors of the time. ‘And it was all free,’ the Parent would say sunnily, ‘because I was a doctor’s son.’ He liked anything he didn’t have to pay for.

‘You can’t tell me it doesn’t come against him,’ my mother would say when the Parent was in full foam in one of his rages. ‘He fell on his head.’

Be that as it may, his importance as the centre of concern to his mother and sisters, to Aunt Grace, a stewardess on the coastal line who lived with them, and her daughter Eddie, was established in his growing years. He was surrounded by worshipping women. He expected it. Was he not the Heir, the bearer of the Tennant name?

This did not prevent him, as a boy and later in life, from exercising his accurate memory for detail (alas that I did not inherit it! I need to write everything down in a notebook). And I will insert at this point some reminiscences of the Parent’s boyhood so that you can know the tone of his talk: he could speculate on some meaningless trifle and build it up into significance — for him. As a child I found this habit very boring. He would drag us out in the rain to search for Aboriginal carvings on a rock. He knew when mushrooms would be pushing up on the golf links and insist on going to look for them. He taught us to eat wild currants (very sour) and would, later, stop the car and prowl through graveyards. ‘That’s a very old stone,’ he would say solemnly. ‘That is the year I was born.’ It was 1884 and hideous. He was firmly rooted in the past, his past, in his legend, which was not mine.

‘I’m telling you this, my father would say, ‘because Fred Smith was my cousin.’ (My father believed that it branded his tales as true if he could say he was related to one of those in it.) ‘At least, Fred Smith and I had the same aunt — Aunt Emily Sandy.

‘The Sandys built the big house, Verata, on the Cowan Creek Road — Norfolk Island pines, ballrooms, fountains. I roller-skated in the ballroom. They lived like the plutocrats of old. My grandfather had bought practically the whole of St Ives for a pound an acre. He grew flowers, acres of violets; and that’s how my father met my mother, because the young men from the city would ride into the country at the weekend along the bush roads through the orchards. Now, at weekends, you can see swarms of cars going out bumper to bumper along the North Shore track that they took.

‘It was all orange orchards around Chatswood. In the early days, the convict timber-getters cut immense trees on the ridges of North Shore, and the timber mills on the Lane Cove River would turn out weatherboard for houses and slabs and shingles for roofs. They were a tough crowd — in with all the bushrangers. But then there were only enormous stumps; and respectability set in.

‘The only convict I knew when I was a boy was a splendid old chap. He said he had been sent out for dressing up as a woman and going to a show for a lark. His family are all doctors and professionals today.

‘Jenkins had a huge orchard and ran the steamer Nellie, which took the fruit and vegetables down the Lane Cove River, calling in for cornflower from Clifford Love’s mill. When I was a boy we used to fish off the wharf. The big flathead appreciated the pollution from the flour mills and the prawns liked the mucky mud. I was washing my feet one day on the Nellie’s wharf when I saw the engineer from the flour mill jumping about on the high ground and waving his arms. He could see this monster shark only feet away from me. As I threw myself back, the wash from the shark went all over me. That shark killed a young fellow swimming there two days later.

‘The district was isolated, but it was being opened up. About that time Verata was cut up into scores of little farms. The Sandys had made a lot of money importing bananas from Fiji. They used to ripen them in a honeycomb of tunnels under the old Queen Victoria markets. Turn them yellow with little gas jets.

‘Willoughby was the big centre for the North Shore, but the roads were being put through as the big Chatswood estate was opened up. Anyone who couldn’t get a job would be stone-breaking for the roads. You’d get a bag and sit on it with two or three little hammers and make heaps of rocks all the same size. You were paid by the yard.

‘We had to walk four or five miles to school at Chatswood, and would wait for Anthony Hordern’s van to hang on underneath. But the place was too far out for most people. They had to drive to Milson’s Point to the passenger ferry — sometimes they raced each other — and a vehicular ferry there took them across. Old Blind Freddy sat on the wharf for years with his concertina, and when he heard the ferry coming he’d start up. You’ve heard people say, Even Blind Freddy could see that? It was a favourite saying of Ben Chifley in Parliament, when I knew him.

‘Tell you how isolated it was at Chatswood — a friend of my uncle’s in the city could read his paper in the morning, fold it up, address it neatly and put it in the post. Uncle would be reading it that evening. At Roseville, there was Archibald’s, Pymble’s orchards at Pymble, my grandfather, Cates, and the Sandys at St Ives.

‘Well, Fred Smith, my cousin at the time the Boer War broke out, was a tall, gangling cove. He was eighteen and couldn’t get a job so he enlisted. He was in the Australian Bushmen, and you had to be able to ride with those feathers in your hat. It was only the second military contingent ever to leave Australia. My uncle was in the first one to the Sudan. He was in the camel corps, and they rode two to a camel. The cove hanging on behind him was killed by a dirty big spear. They were Dervishes in those parts, followers of the Mad Mahdi. Our men and the camels would be chasing the Dervishes, then they would camp for the night, and in the morning when they set off they would find that the Dervishes had sneaked round behind them and were creeping up, spearing them from the rear.

‘Anyway, when the Boer War broke out and Fred Smith enlisted, you wouldn’t believe the money that was collected for widows and orphans of those who went from our district. I was in the Chatswood School Cadet Corps and we were all out begging, Please give a penny, sir, for the soldiers’ orphans. We had a verse to recite.

‘And when it was all over there weren’t any widows or orphans. Fred was the only one killed. He was shot at Bloemfontein, and he hadn’t any time to provide any widows and orphans. He was only eighteen. I think there was another chap died of fever later. What were they to do with all that money? There was only one name on the war memorial fountain when they put it up — F.V. Smith.

‘It was down at the end of the Chinamen’s gardens, where there was a big dam we used to go swimming in. It was pretty filthy but we didn’t care. Then the Chinamen’s gardens were made into playing fields, and the war memorial fountain was dismantled and lay for years behind the lavatories at the back of the grandstand. Later, a rose-garden was made up near the railway station and this drinking fountain was taken there and put together again. On Anzac Days they used to go there to hang wreaths and hold memorial services.

‘It’s no use you trying to check on me because what with the one-way streets and the big shopping centres, there’s not a place to park your car. But if you do you’ll see the name: F.V. Smith, Killed at Bloemfontein. Never did know what the V stood for. I am telling you this,’ my father would say wistfully, ‘because nobody would remember who F.V. Smith was. He was Fred, my cousin.’

When the Parent was seventeen he had a truly magical moment. The Tennant family in England advertised for Thomas Walter and sent his aunt Elizabeth to Australia to look for him. By this time he was an office boy in the firm of Lysaght, importing steel from England. He was to go to England and become a cadet in the family business. His mother, an austere lady of frugal habits, wanted to know how much he would be paid. His allowance would be about twenty pounds a year. He was earning fifteen shillings a week at Lysaght’s. Of this his mother allowed him five shillings and saved the rest for him. She thought poorly of sending the Missing Heir away from home. ‘Until he is twenty-one,’ she declared, ‘he is my son and he stays here. After that he can do as he likes.’ She refused to let him go to the splendour that awaited him. Whenever the Parent spoke of Sir Charles Tennant, the head of the firm, that being sounded like God the Father in gold clouds in a stained-glass window. The redoubtable Sir Charles, who had left smoggy Glasgow to become an international financier, was not lacking in offspring. He had sixteen children from two wives.

‘Of course, when I was twenty-one,’ the Parent would say wistfully, ‘I married. So I never did get to be Sir Thomas. Ernest took over the place I should have had and became Sir Ernest.’ Women again — spoiling a man’s prospects! (Actually he married at twenty-three.)

When I was a child I detested the Tennant family. The Parent’s pompous references to his cousin Margot, who had married Prime Minister Asquith, his side glances at Lord Glenconner and so forth sickened me. I became a terrible little anti-snob and decided to join the Communist Party when I grew up, having heard the Parent speak of the Communist Party.

As a handsome young man living in Artarmon where his mother had a roomy house of ugly brick — she also owned two houses in nearby Chatswood — the Parent was set to follow his father into the Presbyterian ministry. He became a lay preacher. However, he told my husband, he was seduced, in a hammock, by the lady organist. This made him lose faith in the Presbyterian Church. He should have been warned against lady organists because my mother was one.

He also had dreams of military glory when World War I broke out. Had not his father, Dr Tennant, formed a regiment at Tenterfield which was, according to the Parent, known as Tennant’s Own? On one occasion this regiment of horse was to be reviewed by some notable — the Parent said it was the Duke of Edinburgh. To present a more uniform appearance it was decided to dye the horses brown. One can imagine that this may have been some ploy of the shadowy Cracky the Coachman. The horses were dyed with Condy’s crystals, but it came on to rain and they all turned green. I can imagine the vast laughter of the local horsemen as they spoke of Tennant’s Own.

I still have my grandfather’s cavalry sword — a heavy long blade, a metal scabbard, a twisted metal hand protector. I don’t quite know how I came by it but my mother was in the habit of foisting anything she didn’t want on me. She certainly wouldn’t have wanted the sword around the house. Nevertheless, my father had a photograph of himself as a handsome cadet in the cadet corps of Shore where he won the King’s Medal for marksmanship. Yes, the World War must have offered opportunities. I was two years old in 1914 and my sister a small baby — that would not have held him back. But he contracted appendicitis — or peritonitis — and lay in hospital with a large jagged wound across his stomach while other men were enjoying that masculine mateship of muck and danger. He lay at death’s door once again without firing a shot.

I remember visiting him in hospital when my sister was a baby. He was, of course, the life and soul of the ward, making friends, learning the life history of every one of his ward mates. Limping out of hospital he attained importance in the collecting of funds for the troops in an organisation known as the War Chest. He mingled with the great, leaving my mother in a pokey terrace house with two tiny daughters, while he attended functions and banquets.

I remember being taken to see lines of khaki-clad soldiers marched down Macquarie Street to the troopships. Some kind of road repairs were going on and we stood on the edge of a ditch of yellow clay as though it were an open grave. The nurses in their white uniforms passed, the men in khaki went by with a squeak of leather boots, a pounding of a huge drum that filled my heart with terror. There were cheers but below the cheers, the blare of the bands, I felt a terrible silence with the ominous drum thudding over all. I hated the procession — I hate all processions because they are a false showing, changing individual worth to a fused blind clamouring of power. I always weep at processions and circuses — the circuses because little children are being asked to applaud the cruelly trained animals and the stupidities of clowns. They are trained to think circuses — the remnants of the old arenas — wonderful.

My father was in his element. Recovering from his stitches he even took us for a holiday to Stanmore Park, a beach on the South Coast where my parents spent their honeymoon. There on the verandah of the boarding house, an officer in uniform, who was trying to flirt with my pretty mother, picked me up and teased me. I screamed at him. To me he represented all that masculine arrogance which later made me a pacifist. The World War I period had an hysteria of a hateful falsity that a child could sense. But, as I said, in the fund-raising festivities my father shone.

My distaste for masculine violence spread to a wider social field when as a half-grown girl I made the acquaintance of a certain Major Jacobs who lived next to my grandmother Tennant at Artarmon.

‘You ought to go and have a yarn with Jacobs,’ the Parent advised, ‘Went all through the Gallipoli campaign. I think he’s a bit cracked about it. Never stops talking.’ On one of the family’s rare visits to Grandma Tennant I was reaching for one of the half-wild lemons with thick skins which grew along her fence when I made the acquaintance of the famous major. I mentioned politely that my father told me he had fought at Gallipoli. I was invited through the crack in the fence and the major — a thin dark man — brought out album after album of scenes in the trenches and launched out on a description of what had happened from the landing on the beach until the survivors were evacuated. I hope those albums are now somewhere in the War Memorial at Canberra and that no busy relative loaded them on to a bonfire. I listened to the major for several hours — until, in fact, my mother, with her sweetest falsest smile came peering at the fence to ask whether I shouldn’t come inside as the major must be very tired of talking to me. The major relinquished me — wistfully. He would seldom have found a better listener. I should, when I grew older, have gone back to take notes but by that time the major had died.

To say that he made an impression would be an understatement. He was recounting the period of life when he had lived at peak but to a stern-faced little girl his narrative reinforced my lurking suspicion that there was something very wrong with the society into which I was born. I resolved that I would not only never do anything to assist any war effort whatever but I would do everything within my weak power to oppose, resist, defeat, thwart, any of the glory boys, the diplomats, the rich, the army heads who sent men to become lumps of mud and blood in some far corner of the world. I knew about the splendid horses sent to Flanders because the old men still thought World War I would be won by cavalry charges. The horses died of pneumonia and poor feeding, standing in the rain behind the front lines. The Australians who went with them and loved those horses also died of pneumonia — some of them — waiting hour after hour and day after day in the lashing downpour while officers conferred about more important matters.

The Turks and the Australians at Gallipoli had no particular quarrel but they killed each other on orders from England in the biggest fiasco of a long line of military fiascos. And in Australia on Anzac Day people marched with bands to war memorials to celebrate a hopeless defeat. It didn’t make sense. Many years later when I was on some panel on the radio I was asked: ‘What are your views on Anzac Day?’ ‘It is on a level with the Japanese shinto — the worship of the ancestors —’ I responded. ‘It should be abolished.’ Naturally, I was never again asked to speak on that program.

‘Lord Glenconner,’ a friend of mine once mused. ‘If they were out here they’d be the Conners of Conners Gully. A glen is a kind of gully.’

The Tennant Clan, the Glenconners, were the curse of my childhood: rich, aristocratic, owning a castle and various mansions, they led the Parent to contrast his own circumstances of suburban anonymity in a second-class country on the backside of the world. ‘You have to have influence,’ he would repeat. ‘If you don’t know the score where are you?’ Underneath this not unusual layer of discontent he was an average Australian with the Australian’s naive generosity, curiosity and interest in everything whether it concerned him or not. He had a capacity for enjoyment and good fellowship; he made friends easily and busied himself with his friends’ affairs. He had an extraordinary charm when he cared to exercise it. If there was a scheme for money-making, however fantastic, he was into it. He had money in shares. At one time he even owned the fourth part of a race horse but

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