18 JUNE 1994, Page 35

Why do you sit behind mulga and mallee in gloves?

Michael Davie

DAISY BATES IN THE DESERT by Julia Blackburn Secker, £15.99, pp. 288 In the recently published Oxford Illustrat- ed Dictionary of Australia, Daisy Bates (1863-1951) is described as an 'anthropolo- gist and welfare worker', born in Tipperary, who spent most of her life living with Aborigines in the outback. A photograph shows a smiling, middle-aged woman standing with a group of sullen Aborigine children; she is dressed like an Edwardian school-marm in a straw boater, high collar, and long skirt.

Daisy Bates was already a legend in the 1930s. An Australian journalist, Ernestine Hill, described how she had visited this `quaint little figure' in her camp along the blisteringly hot sandhills on the edge of the Nullabor Plain; she had a tent for sleeping and reading, a tin tank for a library, and a breakwind of dead mulga and mallee to keep out the howling dogs; yet her hands were always elegantly gloved. And who exactly was Daisy Bates? She was, Hill reported, 'a daughter of the old sporting gentry of Ireland, a rider to hounds and a fluent linguist' who had worked as a jour- nalist in London before inheriting a prop- erty in the Australian north west, where, after an epic journey, riding for months behind eight drovers and 800 of her own cattle, she had come into touch with the Aborigine in all his native simplicity. Thereafter she had devoted her life to the Aborigines, become their trusted friend and helper, and had been hailed on three continents as the most reliable authority on their lives and sacred customs. But all Hill's information came from Bates herself.

Julia Blackburn begins this biographical investigation by describing how she, in England, some 25 years ago, first heard about Daisy Bates from an elderly acquain- tance who had spent some time in Aus- tralia during the Thirties and concluded that Daisy Bates, whom she had not met, was the only interesting person with a white skin who had ever lived in the entire continent. The idea of the woman in the desert stayed in Blackburn's mind. Later, she bought in a London street-market an album of old photographs — the record of a world tour made by a vaudeville troupe — some of which she recently noticed were taken at the remote Australian settlement and railway halt not far from the camp where Daisy Bates spent much of her life. The photographs showed not only the vaudevillians but Aborigines:

So these battered remnants of humanity, drifting on bare feet among the dust and rub- bish, are the people whose lives she wanted to share.

Blackburn soon realised that Bates was a liar — or, to put the point more generous- ly, a fantasist who gave different accounts of her life at different times. Her origins were not grand; she was never exactly a Been to any good barbecues recently?' journalist, though she was employed briefly by W. T. Stead. At one time in London she may have worked as a prostitute. She seems to have been a bigamist.

What is undeniable is that she was a most extraordinary woman who, however much she may have lied about her past, certainly struck up a close relationship with Aborigines over many years. Blackburn has tackled her subject in an equally extraordi- nary way. Her method is reminiscent of a short story called 'The Drover's Wife' by Murray Bail, in which the narrator explains the true (that is, imagined) story behind a real painting. Blackburn's biography is illustrated by small blurred old photographs. Do they show Bates, or not? They are uncaptioned, and no provenance is given. What Blackburn is doing, using the hints supplied by these fuzzy images and by Bates's equally ambiguous (though voluminous) notes and diaries and journals, preserved in various Australian archives, is to create her own highly personal interpre- tation of who Bates was and what she was doing in the desert. Most daring of all, Blackburn writes the central section of the book in the first person: one trembles for her, up on the high wire, but she never puts a foot wrong.

It is of great importance to the success of this risky enterprise that Blackburn is a first-rate writer. The quarry is elusive, but Bates's circumstances are described in detail and with precision: the hostile ter- rain, her typewriter, her belongings, her means of survival, the lizards and white owls, the shadowy presence and rituals of the Aborigines. This is where Blackburn is at her most adroit. Having established Bates as a liar, the biographer does not have to worry about the accuracy or other- wise of Bates's accounts of Aboriginal life and customs. She is free to concentrate instead on trying to understand the impres- sion they make on Bates and her attitude to them — 'my people'. Did they practise cannibalism? Bates said so. Blackburn is not required to agree or disagree.

The case against this approach, of course, is that if you want to know whether a sacred ceremony was or was not as described, you will not find out from this book. Did Bates in fact meet the Prince of Wales when his train stopped nearby on an Australian tour? One cannot be sure even that she 'really' had a tame bicycle lizard; no doubt she wrote about such a lizard in her notes — Blackburn does not say — but that creature too, like her double-barrelled relations, might have been a fantasy.

An orthodox biography would have tried to disentangle these questions. One doubts, though, whether it could possibly have been more successful than Blackburn's in perceiving, or apprehending, the truth about Daisy Bates. The book is so ingenious that it may well tempt others to apply similar methods to different subjects. But they will need to be very clever to avoid coming a cropper.