Outback Penguin: Richard Lane’s Barwell Diaries
The Lane Press (Black Inc.), $49.99 hb, 448 pp, 9781863958172
On 7 September 1922, seventeen-year-old Richard Lane left England on a six-week voyage to Australia, not to set foot in his home country again for three and a half years. For much of the intervening time he would work as a government-funded 'Barwell Boy', or indentured farm labourer, on small rural holdings outside Adelaide and in western New South Wales.
Richard Lane, despite his ultimate profession, was not an inspired writer. His earnest diary entries, intended for the edification of his relatives, read at first like letters home from boarding school. From the SS Bendigo, with its airless, porthole-less cabins in a converted cargo hold, each housing eight boys and redolent with human smells, he begins by doggedly listing, in short declarative sentences, meals that vary from substantial to putrid, his chronic seasickness, and the peculiarities of his travel companions, which range from habitual drunkenness to insanity requiring incarceration in irons. Young Richard, gently raised in an affectionate, upright family in Bristol, is shocked, on the second day out, to discover 'one of the worst evils of this world': two of his young compatriots are playing cards for money. We quickly surmise that this voyage will constitute a sharp learning curve. Days out, the passengers learn of a radio message from a sinking German ship; another vessel is closer, and they need not detour to join the rescue.