Life’s highway

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‘After nearly eight decades near association with the man’, Brady wrote of himself in 1949, ‘I have come to look upon him as the most successful failure in literary history’. This energetic booster of Australia’s potentialities was well aware of his own life’s mocking irony. ‘He has not… made the wages of a wharf laborer out of book writing’, he continued, ‘yet he persists in asserting Australia is the best country in the world!’. 1 It was a recipe for bitterness—a poet who had fallen out of fashion, an artist diverted from his calling, a failed businessman, a disappointed utopian, an old man struggling to the end to leave his family more than just a catalogue of dreams. ‘I had succeeded and failed’, Brady concluded, reflecting on a life that had never quite fulfilled its promise, ‘Should I end up, therefore, on a melancholy note?’ 2

In the last years of his life, Brady penned a series of autobiographical notes under the title ‘Life’s highway’. 3 The open road was Brady’s metaphor, his source of meaning. Even though much of his later life was spent in Mallacoota, Brady was rarely still. The promise of space, the possibilities of travel, continued to prod his mind along the byways of discovery. The open road brought new horizons, new experiences, but it also brought escape. When Brady headed north aboard his covered wagon in 1899, he was fleeing the bitter breakdown of his second marriage. 4 His quest to know Australia joined with a need to get away, to forget. In River Rovers, his planned stay in Mildura was cut short by news of a friend’s death. ‘Bad news makes hateful the most pleasant place of abiding’, Brady wrote mournfully, ‘I strained to open the gate of departure to go forth again into a wilderness of salt bush and sere sand’. 5 Just as Australia’s ‘empty spaces’ were laden with dangers as well as opportunities, so the journey along ‘life’s highway’ was measured both in achievement and regret, pride and self-reproach. Movement excited the senses and dulled the pain.

According to one biographer, Brady was ‘a perennial optimist, full of vitality and good humour, with a touch of the flamboyant and debonair’. 6 Brady’s optimism gave him strength and succour, nourishing him always with images of a future in which the conflicts and compromises of the present would be resolved. The journey itself would bring the answers. But there was fear too in Brady’s restless yearning. As a young child, he had suffered severe burns in a household accident. Alone, in his pain and delirium, the stricken child found himself travelling ‘a strange road’, one he would later recognise in Poe’s ‘Ulalume’. Somewhere ‘out of Space and out of Time’, Brady journeyed onwards, deeper into the ‘Valley of Shadow’. He knew he was going to die. ‘All of my life, as a consequence’, Brady confessed, ‘I have suffered from a nervous apprehension, a recurring dread of impending calamity, which requires some philosophy to overcome…’. 7 The optimism of the open road guided Brady from the depths of oblivion, but the darkness lurked nearby. He had to keep moving.

Australia Unlimited articulated a vision of wealth and destiny, of riches unbound. But for Brady, the vision brought disappointment and frustration. His plans to capitalise on the book’s success were thwarted, and his own attempts to foster development failed. With his undoubted flair and charm came a reckless zeal, a fondness for grand gestures, that oft-times led him into doubtful business ventures. From grass trees to gold mines, his many plans brought little success. 8 Brady’s restive, romantic dreaming carried him quickly from scheme to scheme, unable to focus his energies, or make the most of his undoubted abilities. ‘Life’s highway’ called him ever onwards, but to where?

Australia Unlimited was not a portrait of Brady’s utopia. His hopes for an ideal society extended beyond possibilities for national development to questions of ownership, distribution and justice. Australia Unlimited was a means, not an end. In the midst of compiling his great book, Brady took a moment to respond to the Socialist League’s request for a donation, quipping: ‘One day, (after I have established a few more capitalistic enterprises), I shall send a more liberal donation to the Socialist fund’. 9 Brady’s sense of irony masked a constant, nagging ‘warfare’ between ‘the idealist and the entrepreneur’. 10 Even as the would-be businessman sought out opportunities for financial gain, railing against the ‘dead hand of officialism’, he imagined a world where money offered no measure of wealth, a system that guaranteed health and security for all. 11 Brady, the high prophet of ‘Australia Unlimited’, was a former secretary of the Socialist League, an early member of the Labor Party, a hopeful revolutionary whose commitment to social justice and the plight of the working man rarely faltered. 12 The contradictions ‘harrassed’ him, and yet, Vance Palmer argued, they ‘kept him alive’. 13

What was the meaning of progress in this land of unlimited opportunities? The man who dreamed that Australia’s empty spaces might be filled with the clamour of human progress was happiest away from crowds and bustle. ‘He cannot live for any length of time in cities’, Brady said of himself, ‘because parallelograms, rectangles and mechanical noises affect his nerves’. 14 He sought instead the tranquility of nature, and, in times of stress, always found his way back to Mallacoota: ‘an Australian Arcadia where Virgin Nature abided, an Arcadia yet innocent of progress, still undisturbed by despoiling hands’. 15 But even as he revelled in the quiet simplicity, Brady excitedly imagined roads and railways pushing through the forest. He looked forward to a time when the land would be cleared, when new communities would be established, when Mallacoota would become a thriving commercial centre. The idealist and the entrepreneur battled constantly for the mastery of paradise.

Just as Brady’s campfire dreaming was suffused with a sense of nostalgia and loss, so the inevitable changes wrought by the onward march of civilisation were sometimes greeted with ambivalence. In King’s Caravan he pondered the ‘rapid decay’ of the Aboriginal population, ‘exterminated because the Age of Steel is stronger than the Age of Stone’. ‘Savages fortified by muskets’ had taken the land from ‘savages armed with stone-axes, spears and boomerangs’. ‘Civilisation—which is as yet only savagery slightly veneered—has treated the aborigine diabolically’, Brady concluded, ‘but no worse than it treats millions of white slaves’. 16

Neither was science a guarantee of improvement. Brady, always a keen student of the latest scientific discoveries, showed remarkable foresight when, in 1907, he pondered a world powered by ‘intra atomic energy’. ‘The steam engine, the petrol motor, the electric generator will be as out-of-date in the civilised world as greenstone axes are today’, he suggested in The Native Companion. 17 But for all its revolutionary potential, Brady was unsettled by this new vista of scientific achievement. Without ‘a corresponding change in the system of ownership and distribution’, it seemed that this new source of energy would ‘further enslave mankind to the machine’. 18 And what of the possibilities for destruction? ‘Seventy six years of life have passed over my head’, Brady wrote, shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, ‘for the last thirty-seven years I have watched in alternating hope and apprehension for a discovery which may either end terrestrial life or invest it with a beauty and benevolence, beyond the dreams of poets’. The moment had finally arrived. ‘Mankind has come to the cross roads of destiny’, the worried old man concluded. 19

Ernest Lane fondly remembered a time in the 1890s when he and Brady were ‘overflowing with enthusiasm and ideals of human emancipation and brotherhood’. 20 Such hopes stayed with Brady till the end; his enthusiasm dented, but never lost. Even as he contemplated the awful possibility of a third world war, he looked to ‘a New World, a World of Reason and Decency’ that might emerge yet from the ‘whirlwind of blood and fire’. 21 The journey along ‘life’s highway’ was riven with contradictions that could only be resolved in the potential of humanity, in the ultimate triumph of goodness. Brady’s was a desperate quest for hope and meaning in a world that rewarded dreams with disappointment, that crowned optimism with irony. Acting on his utopian impulses, Brady provided land for a community farm, a place of refuge for unemployed workers during the Great Depression. The scheme failed, and he sank further into debt. 22 Instead of moving forward towards an ideal society, Brady was forced to sell the simple fibro shack he had built with the proceeds of his one great success, Australia Unlimited.

‘Life’s highway’ brought no guarantee of glory, no easy path to riches and success. ‘I do not care two hoots what they inscribe on my tombstone if I get enough to eat, live the life of a free man and write’, wrote the man now remembered as ‘the author of Australia Unlimited’. 23 Brady provided a vivid portrayal of Australia’s future destiny, finding in the country’s empty spaces the guarantee of greatness. But it was an emptiness brimming with the modest hopes of ordinary people, bridged by bonds of friendship and responsibility. The pull of destiny could be found only in the expression of a nation’s humanity; the inevitability of progress could be sustained only by individual acts of will and defiance. We look to Brady expecting to find simplicity and naivety, but are reminded instead that the meaning of progress is something complex and contingent. It is woven from our dreams and disappointments, invested with our loves and insecurities, given strength by our fears and longings. We may no longer believe in ‘progress’, but still we live each day in its expectation.

This chapter has examined some of the ideas of space, distance and movement that contribute to our understanding of progress. We have traversed this domain in the company of EJ Brady, for whom knowing and travelling were closely entwined. But while progress seems to compel us upon paths from which there can be no diversion, no turning back, the ironies of Brady’s life remind us that journeying is a process where the promise of new lands is suffused with a sense of memory, loss and regret. This chapter has restored to Brady some of the choices and possibilities that history has tended to deny. In doing so it has sought to question the grip of linearity upon the destinations we imagine, the stories we tell, the answers we seek—the way we imagine the future.

Brady continued to write and continued to struggle. He remarried, and at the age of seventy-seven became a father once more. Life brought more successes, more failures. ‘Should I end, therefore, on a melancholy note?’ Brady’s journey along ‘Life’s Highway’ was nearing its end, but still he looked to the horizon. No, he answered, ‘that would be ratting on the Anzac spirit’. There was no disgrace in living, no defeat in hoping. He was a sick old man with every right to be bitter, but he would not be overtaken by the ‘cinematograph of time’. ‘I decline to become mournful’, he defiantly proclaimed, ‘I refuse to grow old’. 24



Notes:

  1. Brady, ‘E.J. Brady, by Himself’, p. 23
  2. Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (concluded)’, Southerly, vol. 16, no. 4, 1955, p. 201.
  3. Extracts from the manuscript were published in Southerly beginning with vol. 13, no. 4, 1952, and concluding with vol. 16, no. 2, 1955.
  4. Brady, ‘E.J. Brady, by Himself’, p. 22.
  5. Edwin James Brady, River rovers, George Robertson & Co., Melbourne, 1911, pp. 92-4.
  6. Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, p. 440
  7. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts’, Southerly, vol. 13, no. 4, 1952, pp. 194-5.
  8. Many of Brady’s business failures are described in Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, for example: farming in the NT, timber production at Mallacoota, pp. 64-5; oysters, grass trees, East Coast Railway, film production, salt, pp. 72-5; gold mining, publishing, pp. 86-7.
  9. Quoted in Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, p. 66.
  10. Palmer, ‘A note on E J Brady’, p. 291.
  11. Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (concluded)’, p. 198.
  12. Brady’s political views are discussed in Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, ch. 3.
  13. Palmer, ‘A note on E J Brady’, p. 291.
  14. Brady, ‘E.J. Brady, by Himself’, p. 23.
  15. Brady and Rubinstein, Dreams and realities, p. 121.
  16. Brady, The king’s caravan, p. 113.
  17. Edwin James Brady, ‘A Columbus of science’, Native Companion, vol. 2, no. 1, 1 August 1907, pp. 50-52. The possibilities of atomic power also inspired Brady’s poem, ‘Steam (obit 1912?). An epitaph’, Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 1550, 28 October 1909, p. 43.
  18. Edwin James Brady, ‘The almighty atom’, Midday Times, 1 September 1945, p. 8.
  19. Draft of letter from Brady to Midday Times, undated (letter was published 1 September 1945), in ‘Science and discovery’ cuttings book, Brady papers, NLA: MS206, Series 14.
  20. Quoted in Webb, ‘A critical biography of Edwin James Brady’, pp. 21-2.
  21. ibid., p. 107.
  22. ibid., pp. 172-4.
  23. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 15, no. 4, 1954, p. 282.
  24. Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (concluded)’, p. 201.

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