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Fiction reviews


John Hepworth - The Multitude of Tigers

30 May 1990

The Multitude of Tigers
by John Hepworth
Illustrated by Michael Leunig
Pascoe Publishing

Published in The Age

Nation Review's gutter humour and waspish politics got me, and many a decent person, through the seventies. Its back page was given over to the genius of Leunig, and the beautiful literary meanderings of John Hepworth.

Hepworth wrote about everything: the retirement of Sir Arthur Rylah ("Will he take his 14-year-old daughter with him?"), bras in trees, Sir John Kerr ("that prigged and periwigged fellow tokenly representing the hollow crown of England"), country members, country matters, splendid Mss, and playing the piano in a whorehouse as a boy. Hepworth was always decrying something, like "thin-lipped wowserism"; or celebrating something, like the death of Frank Packer. He was my first and last encounter with stylish writing in an Australian newspaper.

The Multitude of Tigers, Hepworth's answer to the nineties, is the tale of Foulmouthed Freda - whom you may remember from Nation Review - meeting up again with her oldest comrade, amid troubled times:


It was perhaps a wise safeguard that in the high country, on the drover's track, there are certain conventions of terse words in greeting. However long it has been since meeting, however deep the emotion felt. Which means that it can never be said clumsily, or badly...

"G'day,'"she said.

"G'day," said her trusty lieutenant, the brave blowfly Benjamin.

Blowflies, those ancient, spiritual creatures, have been all but exterminated by the faceless, evil power under which the once-great Australia now languishes. Freda has charge of the last blowfly hive on earth. When it is stolen by the forces of darkness, she, Benjamin and their team of flying camels, set out on a magical quest to save the hive, the species and the nation's soul.

Freda and her party stop at a house by the ocean where pirates, and other escapees from the Dark Age, gather at night to drink, make love, and deal in forbidden Imperial measures - inches, feet; even the legendary perches and rods - which they smuggle in from an Asian region known as the Imperial Triangle. Her hosts present Freda with a quality Ounce upon her departure.

In the chapter How Seldom is the Thylacine, the intrepid party meets the Tasmanian Devil and Tasmanian Tiger. They push on to meet the Australian talking champion, B'Larney; watch an old dogger die in a pub (he sawed off his own leg after a tree fell on it); and meet the legendary white dingo. They end up at Euloloolo, to attend the lizard racing carnival. Just about everyone is at Euloloolo: James Wood (sitting alone), Blind Freddy, Rafferty (of rules fame), and a woman with a bum three axe handles across - the fabled Jessie. Let's hope that, after thirty years of Californian television, Australian readers still recognise them.

A bleeding cedar forms a map which reveals, at last, the enemy citadel where the hive is imprisoned. In the climactic scene which follows, Hepworth summons every Australian creature - extant, extinct and expedient - to the aid of Foulmouthed Freda and Ben, in a battle of destiny for the hive. (And, don't forget, the nation's soul.)

On the surface Hepworth's tale seems like a slightly obscene childrens' story. (I've left out the rude bits to preserve the nerves and dignity of family readers.) Certainly the writing is less acerbic than it was in Nation Review, and the jokes are a little less subtle. This is probably due less to decrepitude than the fact that Hepworth is a natural essayist: and essayists don't automatically write great novels. Comic fabulistic novels, moreover, are probably more difficult (and exhausting) to write than any other type. However when the hurly burly's done - when the battle's lost and won - the tale does haunt you.

This is perhaps because of the backdrop against which it is written: the brave new world we entered when Malcolm Fraser supplanted Whitlam's patriotic vision with the yet-unbroken mould of cynical pragmatism. Hepworth evokes that change of consciousness - that lowering of expectations - with a pleasing clarity. There are no hawks and peacocks in his final battle: maybe that would have been too cheap. But the post-1975 bandwagon of self-interest - onto which journalists, politicians and ordinary people clambered in such unseemly haste - is never far from the story's horizon.

The publisher tells us that Michael Leunig "is sometimes described as a cartoonist, but his genius far exceeds anything conveyed by this term". (Who could disagree with that?) He adds that Leunig has, for this book, "adopted a line and technique completely new to him". Whatever that technique is (details are omitted, but a brush uncharacteristically predominates), Leunig's understated images perfectly reflect both the whimsicality of Hepworth's prose, and its dark underpinnings.

Hepworth's voice needs to be heard again. In his home city - which is endowed with more columns, and wind, than the Parthenon - he has not been given space in a major newspaper for some years. To that, those who recall his brilliance could only murmur, "Oh Melbourne, Melbourne. What a heartbreak old town you are."

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