Care and compassion, a fair go, freedom, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, and tolerance. These were the nine ‘Australian values’ that former Liberal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson demanded be taught in schools, especially Islamic schools, across the nation in 2005. How? Partly through the tale of John Simpson and his donkey, Murphy. They clambered selflessly up and down Gallipoli’s Shrapnel Valley with the bodies of Anzacs on their backs like Sisyphus’s boulder, their forty days of toil ended by a sniper’s bullet. Never mind that Simpson’s real surname was Kirkpatrick; that he did the equivalent work of many nameless others; or that Simpson was an illegal Geordie immigrant who had enlisted just for the free ticket back to England. ‘The man with the donkey’ has consistently proven too useful a tool to question for war recruiters and other patriotic tub-thumpers.
Wayne Macauley, long one of Australia’s deadliest satirists, has also found it difficult to leave Simpson and Murphy alone. His short story ‘ Simpson and his Donkey Go Looking for the Inland Sea’ first appeared in Westerly back in 2001, before being republished in Macauley’s surreal collection, Other Stories (2010). This new novella expands but does not dramatically alter that story. In both, Simpson has survived Gallipoli thanks to a mysterious vial of water given to him by a wounded soldier named Lasseter. Simpson, back on Australian shores but still committed to his role as ‘helpmate to the dying’, believes that finding more of this magical substance will allow him to save the country’s ailing: ‘I will stand knee-deep in the healing water baptising all our downtrodden.’ Confusingly, this quest leads him not towards Lasseter’s famously misplaced gold reef but to the Inland Sea, the enormous (and non-existent) body of water that once tricked Charles Sturt into dragging a boat from Adelaide to the Simpson Desert and back again. This conglomeration of Aussie myths and legends is slightly disorientating at first – one almost expects Simpson to encounter a drop bunyip-yowie – but it is effective as a broad allegory for the way solutions to this country’s deepest injustices always shimmer just out of reach.