Randolph Stow at Adelaide University, October 1957
Collection: ABC publicity photograph: National Archives of Australia NAA
One of the surprising things about researching the life of Randolph Stow is to find out how surprising he is. Outside Western Australia at least, and among those who remember him at all, people tend to think of him as a quiet recluse, associated in his childhood with rural Geraldton, who in later life lived in an English backwater and, after writing a handful of extraordinary novels, gradually retreated from public life.
But for someone reputed to be shy, Stow—‘Mick’ to his familiars—certainly had a lot of friends. From his solemn, even sombre, mien in most photographs, not many outsiders would have guessed that the craggy visage hid a dry, often scurrilous sense of humour and an endless delight in word play. Having effectively honed his talent for satire while still at school, at university his favourite radio program was the Goons, and as an undergraduate he produced an endless stream of witty review material and satirical articles for student publications. He also wrote wonderful letters to his friends. Apart from his regular missives to family, one sequence of correspondence lasted fifty years; other private collections span decades.
And, far from being hermitic, young Mick was a vagabond. After spending time at Forrest River Mission in the Kimberley, he left Australia in 1959 for Papua and New Guinea. Sojourns followed in Suffolk, London, Leeds, Scotland, Malta, France and New York—the starting point of a road trip that ultimately took him in a giant, meandering loop of some 30,000 miles around 46 American states, with extended stops New Mexico, Maine and Alaska—before he settled in the late 1960s in East Anglia, the land of his English forebears.
In these years Stow’s meanderings seemed sometimes purely impulsive, as he carelessly discarded offers of jobs and opportunities, almost as if blown about by the wind. After the Trobriand Islands, he gave up a writing scholarship to Stanford University in California in favour of travelling to London, with no definite plan beyond meeting his English publisher. Within a week of arriving he had applied for a job in the Congo—what he might have written, one wonders, had he succeeded in that? Teaching stints at universities invariably gave way to a longing to live away from cities and academia. A summer spent learning Bahasa Indonesian at Yale in 1965 was intended to lead to a teaching job in Malaysia, but instead he escaped to Alaska, where he started writing about New Guinea. Rebutting a friend’s suggestion that he had left Australia for the cultural nirvana of England, Stow responded dryly: “I didn’t leave Australia for more civilisation, I left it for less.”
To keep pace with his footloose adventures, to his secondary school Latin and tertiary-level French and German, Mick added some rudimentary Russian, Indonesian and Malay. At Forrest River he absorbed a smattering of the Umbulgurri language; at Sydney University he swotted up on Dutch so as to read the Afrikaaner poets, and in the Trobriands he taught himself Biga-Kiriwina. By the early 1960s he had a working knowledge of Spanish and Maltese. On board ship between England and Australia he picked up some demotic Greek from the crew, and in 1974 supplemented his Portuguese while returning to Britain via the Azores. By 1982, in Pisa, he was able to deliver a talk in Italian, and by then had also acquired some Swedish and Danish. In later years, pursuing his own private research, he read original documents in old Dutch and Scottish Gaelic. Aside from literature, languages and anthropology, his study interests included botany and herbal medicine, cartography, the history of navigation and exploration, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of his own family genealogy. In his spare time, he wrote over thirty erudite book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement.
At one point in this saga, after I had remarked on the difficulty of encompassing this extraordinary range of intellectual activity in a book, a sympathetic Stow fan, an old bushman, sent me a quote from the prologue to Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s biography of Lewis Carroll, The Story of Alice (2015), where the author writes:
Every few days I arrived in a new city, checked into a budget hotel, and then hunkered down in an archive with no company other than a handful of academics tapping away at their laptops like eager woodpeckers.…Each morning involved the same routine: rubbery breakfast eggs (“table for one, sir?”), a short walk, a polite exchange with a librarian, and then long hours working through scraps of writing that gave the illusion of order, as they arrived in their neat cardboard boxes, but stubbornly refused to settle into a meaningful pattern.
This certainly rang a bell for me, as over several years I made repeated trips to Canberra to make my snail-like way through endless cartons of papers in the National Library. However, it certainly didn’t describe my time in Perth, where I stayed in a cheap city hotel which, rather than obsequious waiters, was filled with of cheerful young FIFO miners with full sleeve tattoos, or in Geraldton, where the hotel balcony overlooked the esplanade and beach where Aboriginal kids rode their bikes and played in the water park. After that came a trip to the Trobriand Islands, where the current paramount chieftain of Kiriwina granted me an audience, and a small boat took me voyaging through an endless, empty blue sea to the outer island of Kitava, a setting for Stow’s superlative novel . Gossipy interviews over lunch with literary people in London followed, along with excursions to the quiet villages of East Bergholt and Old Harwich, where research seemed mainly to consist of talking to people in Mick’s favourite pubs, along with a reflective moment at his grave in the forest at Wrabness.
Getting to know Mick in this way involved so much adventure and pure unadulterated fun that I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I hope the biography reflects that.