Longtime Revisited, Blue Mountains Life, December/January 2011

The Hawkesbury of writer Hesba Brinsmead.

In the preface to her book Longtime Passing, Hesba Brinsmead noted: ``Like Grandfather Truelance’s stories, this one is at least half-true; but, as I have tampered with the truth, to make a more coherent story, I have preferred to present the whole as fiction.’’
To her extended family, Brinsmead’s mythical Longtime is more fact than fiction and a real place, Berambing on the Hawkesbury/Blue Mountains border. Her tales in the trilogy (Longtime Passing, Longtime Dreaming and Christmas at Longtime) tell the story of real characters and the essence of real events.
Brinsmead’s interpretation of the history can make for rather sad reading. There’s a sense of nostalgia of a lost time and place and a way of life gone forever. Then there’s the loss of faith and ideals, and the giving up of cherished dreams.
Brinsmead’s parents Ken and May Hungerford were Seventh-Day Adventist Church missionaries to Indonesia. While May remained devout until she died, Ken lost his faith and fervour when he left Asia after seeing how they had damaged the culture. The couple moved to Berambing on their return to Australia, where Hesba Fay was born on March 15, 1922, and where Ken and his brothers were farmers and operated a saw mill.
As the youngest of five children, the young Hesba, or ``Pixie’’ as she is still known within the family, was the only child at home with her siblings at school in town and was often lonely.
Early education was given by her mother around their kitchen table before she left Berambing for high school in Sydney at age 13. Hesba left home in her mid-teens and became a teacher before completing a correspondence course in journalism in her 30s.
However, she did not begin her writing career until she was aged 40 and a married mother-of-two helping husband Reg run his week spraying business in Victoria. However, she was productive and churned out 24 books during the next few decades.
While her most famous book remains her first, the award-winning Pastures of the Blue Crane, set in the Tweed district and won her international acclaim, Brinsmead also won a Children’s Book of the Year Award for Longtime Passing (1971), the first of a semi-autobiographical trilogy outlining her childhood at Berambing.
The series details her unusual home life – the failure of her parents’ missionary work, their ill-matched union and her father’s lifelong struggle with depression. On one level they are children’s adventure stories and on another an exploration of family life.
The trilogy also tells of the often tragic European history of that side of the mountains: the convict labourers, the struggles of the first settlers. Brinsmead also addressed Aboriginal history, exploring issues like sacred sites and spiritual beliefs years before such subjects were accurately broached.
In fact, throughout her books, Brinsmead covered many risqué topics for their day: irresponsible property development, racism, sexism, environmentalism and narrow-minded conformity of Australian society.
Brinsmead’s ire was raised when, after moving to a sprawling property on the Tweed coast with pristine panoramic views of the Gold Coast to the north and near Nimbin to the south in 1975, she became concerned about the steady march of housing developments she felt were destroying a tranquil way of life. Then there are her ``Tasmanian’’ books which outline the environmental struggles in the Apple Isle.
However, niece Ros Allatt says Brinsmead’s ideals and opinions were not unusual in a family of strong women who spoke their minds. Hesba’s sister Hope was ``asked not to return’’ to her church for sprouting opinions. Their mother May was a businesswoman who sold cut flowers.
But Pixie was the one who wrote the books and became the public figure.
Authors Michael Pollak and Margaret MacNabb wrote her biography (Days Never Done: The Life and Work of Hesba Fay Brinsmead, Unity Press) and met her numerous times before her 2003 death in the NSW North Coast town of Murwillumbah aged 81.
They wrote her obituary for the Sydney Morning Herald (November 29, 2003): ``Brinsmead was a generation ahead of her time...She led the way as a sensitive and wry commentator on Australian society, a chronicler of pioneering days, a keen and witty observer of family life, and was among the first authors to tackle indigenous issues. She was a valiant writer, who overcame adversities that would have stumped a lesser person.’’
To Ros, who lives on part of the land at Berambing where it all happened and opposite the house in which Hesba grew up, now owned by Ros’ brother, the hardships and trials outlined in Pixie’s books were not extraordinary.
``They were very poor. We were very poor when I was growing up, we were desperately poor, except that I had no idea. We were fed, and what else do you need? We had a new dress every year, which was mother’s old dress that had enough bits on it to make another dress from it and it was cut down to fit. I thought that was fantastic – it was a new dress for me. That was all of us, though, that was everybody.
``We all like being in the bush, we all like the outdoors and to walk. I don’t really know how you can not think conservation is not a good idea. When Papa and his brothers cut down the trees they’d pick the one they wanted and left the rest. They looked at the country as a whole and took what they needed, they didn’t just do wholesale slaughter because it was easy.’’
Traipsing around the tiny pile of sandstone, wood and tin which housed the Hungerford family with Ros spilling memories is like wandering through Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It feels like nothing has changed since they were all here with Ken and his brothers working the sawmill and May growing flowers for sale.
It has of course. The bullock track has been replaced by a busy tarred road, there is electricity and running water, the property has been carved up into smaller allotments and the little cottage in the woods is in disrepair, May’s beloved gardens overgrown and misshapen.
But the small pile of beams and stones hidden beneath undergrowth near what used to be the front gate takes on new meaning, as does Brinsmead’s book Once There was a Swagman when you know what it once was.
``There used to be a little hut in there, about 2m by 3m, and all my childhood there was a tramp living in it,’’ Ros says, pushing away the weeds with her foot. ``Pixie talks about a tramp in her books that lived in a shed on their property. There were a series of them. I can remember two or three of them. He did his own cooking and had an open fire and a billy that he used over the open fire, and a table. And he never bathed, and I always thought the smell was just amazing. He was always home. We used to visit the tramp. He’d get the old age pension and he always had beer. There was no beer in the main house but there was always beer here. That was part of Granny’s Christian ethic, that you look after the less fortunate.’’
Hope too had a series of ``the boys’’ who lived in the shed down the road.
``They were always the unfortunate members of society,’’ Ros says. ``I don’t know where she found them or how they came across her, but there was always this series of boys who lived in her shed, and she’d give them a lift into town and they were always in trouble with the police and social security and had medical problems, there was always stuff.’’
Brinsmead’s The Ballad of Benny Perhaps (1977) also harks back to those Berambing days. It is the story of a young drifter and deals with youth's hopelessness, mandatory sentencing, racism, alcoholism and the grinding despair of society's rejects. It's a story about human folly and human dreams.
For Brinsmead fans, the old plot at Berambing is the setting for Longtime and the swagman. For her remaining extended family, it is their roots and Hawkesbury history with an icon they’re proud of thrown in.
``She was one of the family, she’s a Hungerford as far as I’m concerned, and Hungerford’s are very proud of their family history,’’ Ros says. ``But she’s a fairly important icon. I think everybody has all her books, I mean, wouldn’t you?’’
Despite early ambitions to be a writer, Brinsmead did not begin it until aged 40, but as soon as she was able to scribble down notes in cafes, in doctors’ waiting rooms, at the beach and, later, an old caravan in the backyard, she did so with all the gusto of someone filled with artistic vengeance. Brinsmead took risks from the start, launching into the unexplored teenage market and tackling controversial issues.
Her books include Pastures of the Blue Crane, Longtime Passing, Beat of the City, A Sapphire for September, Longtime Dreaming, Christmas at Longtime, Isle of the Sea Horse, The Sandforest, Who Calls From Afar, Listen to the Wind, Someplace Beautiful, Bianca and Roja, Once There was a Swagman, Under the Silkwood, Echo in the Wilderness, When You Come to the Ferry (Stoat), Season of the Briar, The Ballad of Benny Perhaps and Giovanni Paolo's Land.
Back at Longtime, much of the old family has gone now and the Hungerford land broken up. However, the family still has a presence, with smaller piles owned by several members including the old house.
``There would have been a lot more bush back then,’’ Ros says. ``All this was heavily wooded and the next door property was part of the old property, and there’s clearing on the ridge lines whereas.
``Electricity came through in the mid-50s. Before that it was all kerosene lamps. I can remember getting a telephone. There was a bullock track through the trees – that was the first Bells Line of Road. Cars and traffic didn’t really come up here until about the 1970s, basically after I went. Up until then we thought very hard about going down the hill: that was a long way and you had to think about that – can I afford the petrol to do it? Once you had ten things to do you’d go and spend the day and do them.
``This was a farming community. All this top part here was orchard.’’
But Ros doesn’t believe Brinsmead would have deplored the change.
``Pixie wrote about it after it was all gone. I don’t think she was too sad: she was a globe trotter. She wrote about it romantically, but that was what she did. I don’t think she looked back at it in that sort of way to regret it. She was very pragmatic.
``She used to visit here. We used to play with her children when we were kids. Sometimes we’d go to her place. I’ve been to her place in Melbourne, then up in the Tweed Heads. My mother used to ring her up regularly and exchange letters with her. My mother used to say Pixie’s letters were really good because you got extra value out of them because the writing was so bad you had to read them about ten times.
``She was good fun, very hospitable, very family oriented, didn’t get on with everyone in the family which is pretty normal, but you look after everybody regardless of whether they’re your best friend or not. That’s what family is about.’’
Rounding the side of the house where violets once grew in abundance, Ros waves her hand towards things as they spark new memories: the old fuschias, the port wine magnolia, remnants of an old stone path, maples, a tulip tree, a rhododendron.
After years of snatching snippets of writing time when and where she could, Brinsmead had her own retreat built on the property. She named the little board shack with a tin roof Pitto, which she said meant ``the little one’’ in Indonesian. In it was all she needed in her seclusion, a toilet and one room with a kitchenette, basin, desk and bed.
The sandstone used on the main house, Sookaboomi, was cut by Ken Hungerford on the property, probably with help from his brothers.
``When I was a child I used to think this house was a palace because it was so much bigger than the house I grew up in,’’ Ros says. ``If I had all the money in the world, I’d do it up as a B&B because there are people who would be interested in seeing it as it was.’’
Walking across the yard to May’s memory garden with a small stone monument set with plaques commemorating those that once were, Ros says: ``In one of her books, Pixie talks about Ken pulling the whistle at lunch time, then he’d walk from there to there, and by the time he got there Granny would have the meal on the table. That happened here.’’ She sweeps her arm across the yard strewn with daffodils and snow bells in bloom.
``They lived here, so you just want it to be. There’s no economic value or use in the land but you want to appreciate it for what it is, you don’t want to get rid of it. It doesn’t hurt you. Leave is as it is.’’
The world finally caught up with Longtime, but not until long after Pixie left, not until after Ros left did the day trippers arrive in their cars, the great trucks rumble through the place and electricity cables hang over it.

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