As drought again grips NSW, there’s a certain resonance in the news that Jill Ker Conway, the distinguished Australian-born author, academic and business achiever, has died at the age of 83. Dr Ker Conway, who spent most of her adult life in the United States, made headlines in Australia when in 2000 she became the first chairwoman of Lendlease Corporation.
It was a fitting achievement for a woman who, 40 years earlier, had been rejected on gender grounds for a traineeship with the then Commonwealth Department of External Affairs. Among rural Australians, Ker Conway will always be best remembered for her autobiographical book, The Road from Coorain, which describes her childhood growing up on her soldier-settler father’s property near Mossgiel in south-west NSW. It’s a painful yet powerful story, as I was reminded while thumbing through the pages again following the news of the author’s death.
It traces the family’s fortunes on the 18,000-acre Western Lands block awarded to her father, Bill Ker, in 1929: the early years of hardship, the short-lived prosperity following good rains in 1939 but then four years of unremitting, soul-destroying drought. As Ker Conway tells the story: ‘After the June shearing of 1944, we knew that if it did not rain in the spring our gamble (of borrowing to hand-feed) was lost. The sheep would not live through until another rainy season....We waited for the rain which never came.’
Tragedy came instead, as her father went out alone one December morning, supposedly to check the water in a distant paddock, and was found later that day, drowned in the dam. Ker’s death was put down to “heart failure”, but his daughter was never sure about that. Ker Conway is another in the pantheon of women writers who, in my view, have been the sources of the most insightful books about pastoral Australia.
These women authors make a powerful impression because they write not just about acres, animals, seasons and transactions, but about human emotions, relationships, aspirations and frailties. And in time of drought, such as most of NSW is going through right now, it’s these psychological factors that can weigh just as heavily on a farming family’s survival as the day-to-day practical challenges.
At least in this day and age, unlike in Ker’s, farmers (and others) have access to institutions like Lifeline and Beyondblue which are there to help talk them through times of desperation. They can also look to governments for help, whereas the 1940s drought was playing out against the more pressing priority of world war and imminent threat to Australia. But thus far, government drought assistance in NSW has been falling well short of what’s needed, while the spending on bread and circuses for city voters continues apace.
- Readers seeking support can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.