A Dry Patch

Douglas William Herbert Morton - a boy off to war.
Douglas William Herbert Morton – a boy off to war.

I guess it happens to real writers: that when they finish something that has been demanding and absorbing they feel bereft enough to find the challenge of writing too much to confront.  That’s how I’ve been for six or eight weeks. I finished the Christmas at St Mary Mead story and should have jumped straight into a sequel; instead, I’ve been wasting my time on what could most kindly be described as “pulp fiction”.  Never mind: inspiration will strike soon, I hope.

In the meantime, I want to share something of the backstory for the Christmas detective thriller. As I explained in the Introduction, the writer of the diary that is the spring for the whole story is my grandfather, Douglas Herbert Harrison Morton. He grew up in Warwick where his father was the manager of the local flour mills. The family lived in respectable comfort and Douglas was sent off to school at Toowoomba Grammar School.  The comfort and the respectability all collapsed when his father, Percy Morton, committed suicide; the family story [which may be true] is that he had defrauded his company. The family moved from Warwick to Brisbane and what must have been something like genteel poverty.


Douglas was a student at Gatton Agricultural College when World War 1 broke out and he entered a false age so that he could  enlist. In the photograph taken at the time, he looks pathetically young.  Douglas was not among the very first young Australians sent off to battle but he followed soon after; in fact, his experiences in the Gallipoli campaign perfectly match those of the two young men, Archie and Frank, in the Peter Weir movie.  Like them, he trained in Egypt, had hi-jinks in the bazaar in Cairo and at Shepheard’s Hotel and went ashore on the Peninsular in reinforcements once the campaign was hopelessly bogged down. He was evacuated from the war zone with enteric fever – a dysentery that killed thousands of allied servicemen. He was taken to a convalescent hospital in Gibraltar and then to England.


Douglas recovered his health and was returned to active service in 1916. He served with the Ninth Battalion in the battles on the Somme around Pozieres; here he was badly wounded and returned to England to recover.  That’s when I have him at Mrs Rattigan’s ANZAC Buffet. After some months, he was well enough to return to Australia where he worked in recruiting. The wounds he carried stayed with him all his life. His skull was held together with pieces of silver and for years he suffered from excruciating headaches.


He was a conservative soul in the world of politics and you can imagine the potential for conflict with me: I as an idealistic, socialist teenager at the University of Queensland at the height of the Vietnam War.  I decided not to mention the political demonstrations I had attended but Grandad would have none of that. He asked me directly and listened with ill-disguised scorn. He boasted that in Brisbane in 1918 and 1919 he had taken part in real confrontations with the police. He spoke of street fighting between returned soldiers and police on horseback during strikes inspired by the recent revolution in Russia.  I didn’t want to dig too deeply in case Grandad turned out to have been in some Queensland version of the Freikorps that was killing trade unionists in Munich and Berlin.


The political turmoil subsided when Douglas was fortunate enough to meet a wealthy Brisbane family who helped him establish a farm on Coochie Mudlo Island. It was thought that the quiet of the Island would contribute to his recovery. In 1920, Douglas met and married Mary Colburn, the daughter of a local Victoria Point farmer.  Their life on the island would be a rich seam for lots of novels – most of them full of pain and hope and courage. My grandfather was one of the great mentors of my life and I loved opportunities to stay with him and hear his stories. There were times when he would say little about his life in the war; on other occasions he would be much more open, but always, I realise now, with a self-censoring blue pencil editing what he would share. He recalled the day to day squalor of life in the trenches and the braver of individual friends and mates. He would speak at length on the incompetence of British officers but rarely mentioned the horror of the hand to hand fighting and the stench of death.

So: I’m looking for new inspiration.  I think I might head back to China and have my little heroines taking on the villains of the Boxer Rebellion. That might make for a good yarn.

Joan's mother
My grandmother, Beatrice Mary Colburn
Grandad after his enlistment with his grandfather
Grandad after his enlistment with his grandfather