My grandfather was a police Superintendent and officer in charge of the north west of Western Australia immediately before the Nookenbah dispute. I was always brought up to think of my grandfather as ‘harsh but fair’, including with his relationship with Aboriginal people. He talked about his respect for ‘full blood’ Aboriginal people in the North West, and apparently he had good relationships with Aboriginal leaders in all of his postings: my mother tells a story of him regularly visiting an Aboriginal elder when he was in Quairading (a wheatbelt country town) in the late 50s, to get information about what was going on in the community: when she wanted to see him, she’d come to the police house and tap on the verandah with her stick. He spoke with some sorrow about Aboriginal men who would drink themselves into oblivion, saying, ‘Shit, I like a drink, but not like that’. But he was also scathing about ‘half castes’ who caused trouble, and if you thanked him for doing something, he’d say, ‘I’d do the same for a black fella.’ He told me that Al Grassby, Whitlam’s Immigration Minister, came to visit his station in the north west, and accused him of being racist. ‘Mate, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick,’ my grandfather replied. (I would love to know why Al Grassby said that, but I guess I’ll never know.)
I have been asked some questions about Bye, Beautiful and race by one of Tony Eaton’s honours students. As I said to her, it’s the aspect of the novel that was most overlooked in reviews, so I thought I would provide an edited version of my response here, in case anyone’s interested (yes, my one reader, I know you are!)
I apologise in advance if there is any content that offends.
So, I was left with a confused impression of my grandfather’s approach to Aboriginal people in his job. I read the transcripts of interviews with individual policemen about their attitudes towards Aboriginal people, which were conducted after the death of John Pat in custody in Roebourne in 1981, and I’m sure my grandfather didn’t possess the kind of racism evident in those accounts – they were truly appalling. But he was not immune to racism, and I used his response to the relationship of Marianne and Billy to explore how racism operates, even in otherwise decent people.
During the writing of the novel, I spent (thank you, Australia Council!) a lot of time in the Battye Library in Perth, reading accounts of Aboriginal and other experiences in the 1960s to get a general feel for the time and the attitudes – including memoirs of policemen who served during that period. I read copies of The West Australian and the Merredin Mercury from the period, to see how Aboriginal people were described, if at all. Most useful was being granted access to the existing occurrence books from police stations in country areas in the 1950s and 1960s, held at the State Records Office – because of my grandfather, the WA Police kindly allowed me to read them. So many of these were destroyed in the late 70s (ironically, my grandfather wrote to the Commissioner to argue for the value of archiving them instead: his pleas fell on deaf ears), but the ones that exist give a fascinating account of individual policemen’s attitudes: the way they described situations involving Nyoongah people gave clear clues as to how they might have treated them in their work, and I was surprised that there was a vast difference between officers, even in the same station.
I also learned, in the course of my research, that Aboriginal people could be arrested if they were on the streets of small country towns after 6pm, and that most wheatbelt towns had reserves on the outskirts of town for Aboriginal people, and that even in the 60s there were ‘crow bars’, separate bars (or windows) where Aboriginal people could buy alcohol. To my shame, I had had absolutely no idea about any of that.