Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life (1981) is a classic Australian autobiography which tells the “fortunate” and extraordinary life of an ordinary Australian. Published in 1981 several months before Facey’s death at the age of 88, it became an overnight bestseller. Writing in the Afterword, Jan Carter says:
Albert Facey, the unschooled, octogenarian, kitchen-table writer became a famous figure. In the last nine months of his life there were receptions, dinners and press conferences, telegrams from Premiers and letters from the literati. Hundreds of people – children, teenagers, old people, immigrants, trade unionists … wrote to Albert. But Albert’s declining health signalled the end of his short, surprise career as a best-selling author.
Facey, says Carter, was “Australia’s pilgrim”. Like John Bunyan, Facey wrote about his life as one long journey. Born in 1894 in Victoria and abandoned by his mother together with his older siblings into the care of his grandmother at the age of two, Bert never attended school and was illiterate until the age of 19. His early years, like much of his life, was a struggle for survival as his family, poor and rural, made homes and a life for themselves out of the Western Australian bush. Facey himself was an accomplished bushman at the age of 14 and worked as a farmhand from the age of nine, starting off his working life as a ‘boy’ to a family of what turned out to be cattle rustlers.
His description of a brutal bull-whipping at the hands of one of these rustlers at the age of 10 makes for chilling reading. But his subsequent escape and his resilience over many years in the face of a string of adversities provide touching and exciting stories. At 18, Bert was a professional boxer, travelling around Western Australia with Mickey Flynn’s Boxing Troupe. At 20, he was a private at Gallipoli, where thousands of young Australian men lost their lives fighting against the Turks. Facey himself lost two brothers at Gallipoli and was badly wounded in the trenches. On his return to Australia, he met Evelyn Gibson and together they raised seven children during the hard years of the Great Depression. Facey was a farmer, a tram-driver, a trade unionist and local government member and, finally, a celebrated writer.
At times Facey’s autobiography reads like a classic adventure story and, like some of the best heroes, Facey is the shy, somewhat reluctant male protagonist who is compelled into heroism through necessity and circumstance. And for a simple and plainly-written series of stories, it is surprisingly powerful. One Australian reviewer, Hovalis, writes:
The book itself is written in very simple language, and has the style of someone telling you a story. His voice comes out very strongly through his words on the page, and it’s easy to see him telling the tale to his children and grandchildren. It’s an easy read, and an unpretentious one. Although you may not agree with his point of view on many subjects, he states his reason for them plainly and simply.
One aspect of the book that stands out strongly for me is the power of narrative to make sense of and integrate experience. Facey had such an eventful life that it was inevitable that he would tell stories to make sense of it all. It’s also to be expected that he plays up some stories and downplays others. His relationship with Evelyn for example is largely glossed over. She was wonderful and the most devoted and loving wife that a man could wish for. But a sentence such as the following is just asking to be unpacked a little more:
“My wife had presented me with another baby boy – George – on July seventh the previous year and was due for a holiday. So I sent her off with the three children to her parents’ place in Bunbury ….”
I couldn’t help wondering how much of a holiday she could really have had with three small children. And I like the way Evelyn “quietly informs” Bert about her seventh (and totally unexpected) pregnancy here:
“Early in 1939 we got the shock of our lives. Our youngest child, Shirley, was now seven years old, and one day Evelyn quietly informed me that she was going to have another baby … [...] what a time Evelyn had bringing him into the world. We nearly lost her. I haven’t ever seen so much suffering and pain, as the doctor wouldn’t help her. He didn’t believe in giving anything to ease the pain.”
Unfortunately Bert is not able to give Evelyn much of a voice in this autobiography but the few instances in which we see it are quite touching. One that stands out is the first (indirect) contact between the two of them when he is at Gallipoli. The soldiers each get a randomly-assigned parcel from back home. Bert receives socks with a note attached: “We wish the soldier that gets this parcel the best of luck and health and a safe return home to his loved ones when the war is over.” It’s signed: Evelyn Gibson. Hon Secretary, Girl Guides, Bunbury, W.A.
The sections on frontier life and Gallipoli are very well done and provide fascinating insights into a world very different from our own. I feel fortunate to have read Facey’s 68 wide-ranging and extraordinary stories.