Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Farwell, George Michell (1911–1976)

by Stuart Inder

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

George Michell Farwell (1911-1976), author and traveller, was born on 3 October 1911 at Bath, Somerset, England, elder son of George Douglas Farwell, motor engineer, and his wife Eleanor Grace, née Jones. George attended a number of schools, in later years recalling with affection the Progressive School at Battersea, which encouraged creativity, and with abhorrence the Cardinal Vaughan School, Westminster, which he described as Dickensian, 'its burly, black-robed brothers obsessed with faith, but strangers to charity or hope'. He was rescued from this agony by his uncle, the prominent barrister Tyldesley Jones, who paid for his tuition at Seafield Park, near Southampton.

His mother died in the year that Farwell left Forest School, Walthamstow, prematurely at 17; his father died some months later, leaving him and his brother a small bequest from investments. Disenchanted with clerical work and six months on the dole in Depression-ridden London, in 1933 George joined an expedition to search for buried treasure in French Polynesia. The search came to nothing, but it gave him an eighteen-month idyll in Tahiti—'so enchanting I could hardly believe it real'—and it nourished a wanderlust that propelled him into new adventures for the rest of his life.

Farwell arrived in Sydney in 1935. With his bequest, good looks and sense of style, and an aptitude for making useful contacts, he savoured the city's café society for eight months before being motivated to work, taking jobs as a deckhand, casual wharf labourer and goldminer. He also began writing adventure stories for the Sydney Mail and acting in radio serials. Drifting into freelance writing, he used his experiences as raw material, subsequently noting that he made as much from writing about gold as digging for it. But his first few years in Australia were lean times. On 15 February 1938 at the district registrar's office, North Sydney, Farwell married a secretary Grace Patricia Minty; they were to have two children. Patricia found the early days of marriage special and exciting, but George found marriage a folly that was 'not amenable to rational explanation', and left it in 1953, although he was often absent for long periods before then. They were divorced in 1958.

The outback had become an obsession and the setting for most of Farwell's books, articles and radio broadcasts, as he travelled constantly through Australia, later visiting North and South America, Europe, South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands, sometimes for months. His first book, Down Argent Street (Sydney, 1948), was about Broken Hill, and his favourite was Land of Mirage (Melbourne, 1950), the story of the Birdsville Track and its people. Articles or books inevitably succeeded his travels, for his twin loves—travel and writing—fed on each other. Last Days in Paradise (London, 1964) followed a return to Tahiti and Mask of Asia (Melbourne, 1966) a stay in the Philippines; the latter won the Rothmans-Moomba Festival book award in 1967 for the Australian book of the year. He published twenty-two books, including biographies of Charles Sturt and E. D. S. Ogilvie, and the autobiographical Rejoice in Freedom (Melbourne, 1976).

Books were only a portion of his considerable literary output. Farwell contributed to magazines and newspapers, broadcast short stories and talks, and wrote some fifty documentary features for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He spiritedly supported the Fellowship of Australian Writers (president 1944) and fought against the miserly fees proffered to freelancers. While continuing to freelance, he edited Australian New Writing (1943-46), the monthly Australasian Book News and Library Journal (1946-48) and Australian National Airways Pty Ltd's monthly Air Travel (1949-51); he wrote for the Commonwealth's News and Information Bureau (1952-58) and the Adelaide Advertiser (1958-62); and he was public relations officer for the Adelaide Festival of Arts (1959-64) and for the Australian pavilion at Expo 67, Montreal, Canada.

A capable, professional author without academic literary pretensions, Farwell chose to write about real people and places, and did it with great clarity and with insight, yet to describe him as a travel writer does not do his work justice. H. M. Green considered that Farwell's short stories, Surf Music (Sydney, 1950), 'remind one of Lawson' and thought that his radio play, 'Portrait of a Gentleman'—included in Leslie Rees's anthology, Australian Radio Plays (1946)—was 'as good as anything Farwell has written'.

Tall and distinguished, with a neat moustache, Farwell was noted for his good manners and even temper, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends, particularly in literature and the arts. He had a great talent for living, and a distaste for the commonplace and ordinary. At home he preferred to spend his time and money on paintings, food and wine, and played host around a large dining-table at convivial dinner parties, often lasting well into the night.

At the bride's home at Cremorne, Sydney, on 6 September 1958 Farwell married a journalist Noni Grace Irene, née Rowland, the divorced wife of S. J. Baker. They had no children, and George saw the relationship as a partnership of 'staunch mates in the battle to survive'. Noni willingly supported him in his priorities: freedom to travel and freedom to write. Survived by his wife, and the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died of a ruptured dissecting aneurysm on 6 August 1976 in his home at Kingswood, Adelaide, and was cremated. His ashes were scattered on the Birdsville Track. A selection of his work between 1946 and 1976, Farwell Country (Melbourne, 1977), was published posthumously. Andrew Fabinyi wrote: 'It is hazardous to predict the future fame of a writer and his books. I believe however that the essence of George Farwell's writing . . . will become an integral, and much enjoyed, part of the body of Australian literature'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Farwell, Farwell Country (Melb, 1977), introd A. Fabinyi
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Mar 1944, 23 Nov 1945, 9 Nov 1951, 30 Apr 1966, 8 Jan 1977
  • Australian, 2 Dec 1971
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7 Aug 1976
  • M. Farwell, unpublished biography of Farwell (privately held)
  • H. de Berg, interview with G. Farwell (transcript, 1969, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Stuart Inder, 'Farwell, George Michell (1911–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/farwell-george-michell-10159/text17945, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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