True tales of the white army

Wednesday, October 16, 1991

Defending the National Tuckshop
By Michael Cathcart
McPhee Gribble/Penguin. $14.99 pb
Reviewed by Bob Scates

Appropriately I finished reading Defending the National Tuckshop at the Wedderburn swimming pool in north-west Victoria; Cathcart's book begins with two white army volunteers defending Wedderburn's water supply from a threatened Bolshevik attack in 1931.

The Bolsheviks never arrived — but the threat of an uprising of communists and/or unemployed in early 1931 was real enough for right-wing vigilantes to mobilise in much of rural Victoria.

I now spend my life between inner urban Richmond and the old railway town of Korong Vale, at the junction of the Sea Lake and Robinvale lines. Wheat trains heading to or from the Mallee are a regular sight. But there are now no passenger trains for the unemployed to jump!

Most editions of the Bendigo Advertiser seem to carry a story of rural poverty. I have no idea what proportion of Korong Vale's population is unemployed, but I would guess it is significant.

A V-Line retrenchment package may look generous when it is negotiated, but a couple of years down the track it looks somewhat more Spartan. The local school bell still rings to herald recess and lunch breaks, but the kids' prospects in this town are anything but bright.

Cathcart writes about the right-wing backlash to Lang in NSW, but especially about the role played by respectable citizens in towns like Donald and Wedderburn. Part of his research was spent driving around the Wimmera, following leads on the white army and talking to old locals. But Defending the National Tuckshop is more than an oral history. The author has made extensive use of the private papers of conservative figures of the 1930s, and especially police and military records.

A quote from a manufacturer about the depression, when capitalists regarded rent and profits as sacred while arguing that wages were fit for the guillotine, sets much of the atmosphere of that time. Despite stories of individual kindness to the unemployed, a handout or a meal, much of the hot, parched Wimmera and Mallee must have seemed very depressing indeed to hungry tramps and former factory workers.

The book may seem slightly disjointed at times as it moves from sponge cake and cups of tea in the Donald of the 1980s to the conscription referenda of World War I. But Defending the National Tuckshop is easy to read, either on location by the Wedderburn swimming pool or anywhere else.
Bob Scates is the author of Draftmen Go Free, a history of the anti-conscription movement in Australia.

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