Randolph Stow

Join Dr Kate as she explores the life and cultural legacy of WA writer Randolph Stow (1935-2010), known as ‘Mick’ to family and friends.

Winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1958 for his novel ‘To the Islands’ and Patrick White Award in 1979, Randolph Stow published 8 novels, several collections of poetry, a children’s novella and a libretto. Growing up in Geraldton, the mid-West landscape and history had an enduring impact on his writing.

One of his most well-known and loved books ‘Merry Go Round in the Sea’ (1965) was inspired by his childhood experiences in Geraldton in the 1940s. A prominent theme in Randolph Stow’s writing concerned the legacies of colonisation in WA, described in his novel Tourmaline (1963) in its opening passage ‘I say we have a bitter heritage, but that is not to run in down.’

Randolph Stow moved permanently to England in 1969, only returning once to Australia in 1975. He moved to Suffolk and Essex, which is where his colonial ancestors had emigrated from to the Swan River Colony and South Australia.

The State Library collections hold Randolph Stow’s published works as well as unpublished archival material within the Hallie Stow collection and audio recordings and oral histories with Stow. His private papers are held by the National Library of Australia.

Randolph Stow is in the WA Writers Hall of Fame.


Christine Layton: So a few weeks ago we were talking about your favourite WA writers and a number of you mentioned this name to me. Now Dr Kate Gregory is the Battye Historian at the State Library and she’s been looking into the life of Randolph Stow who is in the WA’s Writers Hall of Fame and here she is, hello Kate.

Kate Gregory: Hi Christine.

Christine: Now you would not believe, a number of people said to me a few weeks ago, “You have to read this book, you have to read this book, it’s so good” and so my friend is going to give me a copy. So who was he? Who was Randolph Stow?

Kate: Yes, look absolutely, you are quite right. I’ve been delving into the incredible biography and creative output and influence of Randolph Stow. So this is…I guess because we’ve got the Premier’s Book Awards on Friday the 17th June and so we’ve got the WA’s Writers Hall of Fame and in fact there will be a new writer who will be inducted into the WA Writers Hall of Fame next week which is very exciting but there are 17 writers that are part of the WA Writers Hall of Fame and they include the likes of Tim Winton and Shaun Tan - I heard you talking about The Arrival. Yes, so Randolph Stow is one of these writers in the WA Writers Hall of Fame. He was known as ‘Mick’ to his friends and family and look, Randolph Stow was an incredible Australian writer. He produced 8 novels, several collections of poetry, a children’s novella. He won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1958 and that was for his book To the Islands; his novel To the Islands. He also won the Patrick White Award in 1979 and he has just got a fascinating biography and his writing is…it is wonderful. I think many people will be familiar with Merry-Go-Round in the Sea and that is written…that is kind of a memoir and it’s about his childhood in and around Geraldton and it’s just such a captivating portrait of time and place and landscape.

Christine: I know this is a random question Kate, but if anyone knows the answer, it will be you. Why ‘Mick’? His name is Randolph Stow. [Laughs]

Kate: [Laughs] Yes, I did look into this and in fact he himself couldn’t even remember. He never knew…it was just something that as a very early on in his childhood he was ‘Mick’. I think from toddler age, so and in fact ‘Randolph’ was a family name and it recurs in generation after generation throughout his family so he himself recalls in an oral history later on but nobody really knew why ‘Mick’…was Mick [Laughs].

Christine: Good to know! I thought you’d know. So, what were some of his early influences Kate?

Kate: Well look I think it was really his life and community and the landscape and place of Geraldton and the mid-West. I think that his family had a really prolific incredible influence on him and I guess on both sides of his family they had been…they were fifth generation and they’d both been involved with the pastoral colonisation of Australia and so he had a real interest in his colonial ancestry but at the same time this was kind of ghosted by the violence of Aboriginal dispossession and he was always aware of this tension and this paradox in the pastoral endeavours around the mid-West so…and in fact that’s early on, I think that was a really strong driver for his writing. He was just…his family history captured his imagination but at the same time he was troubled by it and it was this expression of that complex kind of legacy of colonialism that he was grappling with early on and he was very…I mean he was…as a child he was obviously quite brilliant and he…by the age of 22 he had published two novels and a collection of poetry which is just…you know it’s extraordinary. So he was early on quite prolific and…

Christine: Were there writers in his family? How many members of the family were there?

Kate: Well he had one sister. I think he was the eldest. So a younger sister and he had lots of cousins and sort of extended family and aunts…quite prominent aunts in his childhood but no there weren’t…on one side of the family the Stow side, there were many lawyers so they were very much…his father was a lawyer so they were sort of educated people and you know…he started off actually studying law at UWA but then dropped that in favour of just an arts degree, so he clearly…he had in his family that kind of literary element from his father’s side but his mother’s side were very much kind of pastoralists and farming and look they were…his mother’s side of the family actually were very early colonists to the Swan River and had farms around Chittering and then fairly early on went up to Champion Bay and around Greenough River and established Sandsprings Station so yes, and that was still prominent and Mick would have visited Sandsprings as a child, had lots of memories and connections with that station. So yes, look I think he didn’t so much have sort of immediate writers influencing him and he went to Guildford Grammar, so he was educated at Geraldton Primary School and then went to Guildford Grammar and then he went on to UWA to St George’s College and at the time that he was at University, he did start kind of getting involved with the WA…actually it was the Australian I think Fellowship of Australian Writers. So the likes of Henrietta Drake-Brockman and Mary Durack and others were influences and he certainly had connections with at that time so he was immersed in a sort of the early 1950s in a cultural writerly and artistic environment in Perth at that time.

Christine: Ah that makes sense.

Nearly 20 minutes past two.

You are hearing the voice of Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian. We are talking about the life of Randolph Stow, an author that you mentioned to me a few weeks ago just so happened that Kate was doing this research anyway and picked it as the topic for today.

Leonie in Freo says “Merry-Go-Round in the Sea was one of the novels we studied in English in the late seventies. Loved it!”.

What else did he write about? You mentioned that he had eight novels and a children’s novella. What topics?

Kate: Yes, so that’s right. So I mean, look he really did take inspiration early on from the history of the Geraldton area and the landscape of the Geraldton area so his first published novel in 1956 was called A Haunted Land and that was precisely exploring the underbelly of colonisation and the dispossession of Aboriginal people and this kind of really quite tension filled…I mean the title says it all really doesn’t it? A Haunted Land. So he is kind of grappling with these very big themes and I think that was quite striking for an Australian novelist at that time and that was his first novel too.

So then he goes on to write…I guess he publishes also a number of books of poetry but his next sort of really big, well known novel would be To the Islands and that was published in 1958 and that was based on his…I mean it’s quite extraordinary to think of it, this experience that he had working and living up at … in the Kimberley at the Forrest River Mission in 1957, so he was developing an interest in the experience of Aboriginal Australians and he…or he…I guess really wanted to explore. He was looking into anthropology and developing an interest in anthropology as well so he went to Forrest River Mission and spent a period of time at the mission immersing himself in the community and he didn’t do a great deal of writing while he was in the mission but it’s known that To the Islands is based on his experience at Forrest River Mission so there’s some really interesting…I think that was a really important kind of moment in his life and after that point in time, look he publishes another book the Tourmaline in 1962 and Merry-Go-Round in the Sea comes a bit later in…

Christine: Can you repeat that one? What was it? How do you spell it?

Kate: T-O-U-R-M-A-L-I-N-E. And that’s 1962 and…look I think with Tourmaline he’s really starting to bridge prose and poetry. It’s a really poetic…I guess poetic style of writing that he’s starting to embrace and that one is set inland in a sort of…well it could have been Gwalia could have been a model for it. So it was an old mining town that had seen better days and was close to becoming a ghost town I think, so he…yes Tourmaline was about sort of inland WA and he actually does say that it was based on where his mother’s family had a large amount of land and yes…so he is always tying in his family history with this kind of observations of the landscape and the specialness of the WA landscape.

Christine: Yes, interesting. I’ve got so many good texts coming in Kate. People enjoying this chat. Yes, so I’ll read some of them to you.

Riley in East Perth says, “I found Randolph Stow’s copy of Arthur Rimbaud poetry at Mainly Books in Northbridge. It was full of his annotations and translations”.

Kate: Oh my goodness!

Christine: What a find! That is…you’re jealous. I can hear it in your laugh. [Laughs]

Kate: [Laughs] That is absolutely wonderful. That is very special. That is very special, hang on to that.

Christine: Riley...wowee!

This one: Micky Stow. Micky Stow did attend Geraldton High for one year at least. “Same class as one of my sisters”. His sister Helen also attended Geraldton High. So lots of people familiar with his story. And what documents of his do you have in the collection at the State Library Kate?

Kate: Yes, well look, we’ve got…it’s interesting because I actually found out that Mick actually started looking into the Battye Library collections in the fifties with Molly Lucas who was then the State Archivist in about 1956. Mick started to go in looking into his family history and we have got a number of…right across the particularly the colonial collections, a lot of material relating to his ancestors so he was actually starting to investigate our collections back in the fifties looking for kind of…piecing together his own family history which I think is fascinating but in recent years, only in the last I’d say probably two or three years we’ve had a really significant donation come in which is the Stow family and so this is the Hallie Stow collection it’s called and this is a collection that…it’s really wide ranging and it documents the story of the Paterson, Stow and Shellam families and their migration to WA in the nineteenth century and the contributions that those families made across government, pastoralism, the church, literature, banking. It’s really a significant collection and so in amongst it, Stow…we’ve got letters from Stow and particular correspondence between Geoffrey Shellam who recently passed away in the last few years and Randolph Stow, so we were really excited to discover those letters from Randolph Stow but as well as that we’ve got these wonderful interviews and oral histories.

Christine: [Gasp] Yes, yes!

Kate: I think of these as audio treasures. It’s just so special to be able to hear his voice. Randolph Stow of course passed away in 2010 so he is not with us anymore and he…look it’s quite incredible. He moved to the UK, to England; East Anglia in the late sixties in about 1969 and he only visited Australia once until 2010, so he came back once in 1974.

Christine: Why, do we know? Why did he move?

Kate: Well look, well he moved because…he…throughout the sixties he was moving around a lot in the early sixties. He was teaching at various universities across Australia, England and America so he spent time in Leeds, in Scotland, in New Mexico, in Maine, in Malta. He was really quite an itinerant living across Europe and England and I think he eventually did gravitate to East Anglia which is actually where his…both sides of the family, his family ancestors had emigrated from. So it was kind of like he was returning it away to where his family had originally come from in England and it’s really interesting and then in 1969 he settled permanently there in Suffolk and then in Essex, East Anglia is the area and look I think…I don’t know if it was kind of by design or just sort of by the fact of just the way things panned out that he just stayed there and he did come back though to Australia in 1974 but didn’t return again which I find quite staggering.

Christine: Yes, wow because apparently according to the text line, Helen, Randolph Stow’s sister Helen lives in Byford. Somebody on the text line had said so thank you.

Kate: Yes…well, and we should, yes that’s right.

Christine: We should get in contact with her or call me Helen.

“Tourmaline is a precious gemstone”, this text says.

This text: “Ernie Dingo in Black Swan Theatre did an immersive version of Tourmaline, awe inspiring.”

And I’ve got some audio of Randolph Stow. I really want to play this because you put us onto it. Now this is him reading his poem Sea Children in 1975. Here we go:

When the sun blew over the hills on the dry east wind
and the town was lit with sun flowers; when the sea
grew flat and green in the harbour, and blue beyond,
and Pietro sang in his dingy off Sicily,
then the children would lie in the sand
and bar with a lazy hand
the glare of the stunning sun, and all time to be.

For the children the sea was deeper, and the dive
longer, the things to be found in the tangled weed
richer and stranger: coral, writhing, alive;
a hairclip formed like a bow, or a coloured bead
-rare things. And at times they saw,
brown on the pale sea-floor,
the flat threat of a stingray stopped to feed.”

Christine: Oh that was beautiful; Randolph Stow Sea Children.

Kate: Isn’t it? It’s just gorgeous isn’t it? Really wonderful. Actually, I read one critic recently described his style of writing as “oceanic pastoral” which is really, really interesting. But look it’s such a vivid….

Christine: It has its own rhythm much like the ocean. So what’s his legacy now Kate?

Kate: Oh well look I think…you could speculate…I think his legacy is…I mean he paved the way…he was at I suppose at the cutting edge of Australian modernism you know in the fifties and really branching out into very new literary territory I think but as well as that, the writing about Western Australia as a place and sort of giving voice to the landscape and that contested history, I mean I think it paved the way for writers like Tim Winton so…

Christine: That’s so true isn’t it when you think about it.

Kate: Yes, I think so. I think so. And look I think his legacy…he is obviously…he is an extraordinary writer and I think in some senses…there was recent biography that was published by Suzanne Falkiner and that was published just a few years ago. Really comprehensive biography published in, let me see the date, 2016 and I think since then there has been renewed attention on the significance on Randolph Stow as a writer and his contribution to world literature. So yes, I think there’s more work to be done on his place in the Australian kind of literary history.

Christine: But how great that you have such an archive to draw from including those audio clips which I think are just so valuable.

Kate, it was so good to catch up. You know I’m going to be moving house when the Premier’s Book Awards are announced so I really want to know who gets inducted into the Writers Hall of Fame but…

Kate: I’ll let you know, yes.

Christine: Yes, that will be good. We’ll catch up soon.

Thank you so much for coming on Kate.

Kate: Thanks Christine, thank you, see you next time.

Christine: Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian from the State Library of WA talking about Randolph Stow and it was so funny that you said to me a few weeks ago, “You’ve got to check this book out”, and I will [Laughs].

So this is from John G in Margaret River:

“I could listen to Dr Kate all day. Such a beautiful speaking voice and so interesting.

She does a mountain of work for this segment, I have to say. She is just incredible.


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