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Alan Marshall (1902–1984)

by John McLaren

This article was published:

Alan Marshall, 1975 [detail]

Alan Marshall, 1975 [detail]

State Library of Victoria, 49326978

Alan Marshall (1902-1984), writer and humanist, was born on 2 May 1902 at Noorat, in the Western District of Victoria, fourth surviving child and only son of Victorian-born parents William Bertred Marshall, storekeeper, and his wife Adameina Henrietta, née Leister. He was named William Allen. Alan was attending Noorat State School when he contracted poliomyelitis at the age of 6; it left him crippled but undaunted. Through a painful convalescence he avidly read boys’ adventure comics and books. Rejecting attempts to patronise him, and with the encouragement of his parents, particularly his father, he insisted on sharing all the activities of his schoolmates. He went rabbiting and rambling on crutches through the bush, and learned to ride and swim. His physical disadvantage generated his desire ‘to record life as it really was’.

In the Western District, Marshall later wrote, the wealthy and the poor, the Scots Protestants and the Irish Catholics, lived side by side. The Marshalls attended the Presbyterian Church: Alan refined his debating skills in its Young Men’s Guild and later began his literary career as, briefly, the editor of the guild’s Gazette. Like his father he sided with the poor. Influenced by reading Robert Blatchford and by a crippled neighbour, Frank Smith, an atheist, he became increasingly revolutionary in his outlook, rejecting all religions.

After two troubled years at Terang Higher Elementary School, Marshall left to work with his father. In 1920 the family moved to Diamond Creek, near Melbourne, so that he could pursue studies at Stott’s Business College, to which he had won a full scholarship. He left without completing his qualifications and moved through several temporary jobs. His story ‘Retribution’, submitted to the Bulletin in 1923, brought the encouragement ‘crude but strong . . . keep at it’. However, none of the twenty-eight stories he wrote between 1923 and 1934 was published. In 1930 he became an accountant at Trueform, a Collingwood shoe factory. Following the factory’s closure in 1935 he determined to become a full-time writer.

Often unpaid, Marshall contributed to a variety of left-wing journals, sketches of lives blighted by prevailing economic conditions. From 1937 his ‘Proletarian Picture Book’ appeared, sometimes under the name ‘Steve Kennedy’, in Workers’ Voice (a weekly published by the Victorian branch of the Communist Party of Australia), the Communist Review and, as ‘Australian Picture-book’, in the British Left Review. He won the Australian Literature Society Short Story Award three times, the first in 1933. In 1940 the Victorian Writers’ League published in an austere, grey-covered roneoed format, These Are My People, six stories including his most popular: ‘Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo’. He contributed articles supporting the campaign against the deportation of Egon Kisch, and edited Point, an anti-fascist magazine.

From the mid-1930s, through his opposition to fascism and war, Marshall was engaged in various communist activities. He became president of the VWL in 1938 but never joined the party, believing that the work of writers suffered from the discipline of party membership. While he dismissed reports of persecution of Soviet writers, he believed they were pressed to distort their work in the interests of the state. From 1949 he was under frequent surveillance by the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation.

Marshall’s first commercial publication had come in 1934, when John Hetherington accepted ‘The Little Black Bottle’ for the Sun News-Pictorial and Smith’s Weekly published ‘It Happened One Night’. In 1937, when he was writing eight thousand words a month, he earned £184 13s 4d. His first novel, How Beautiful Are Thy Feet, also completed that year, remained unpublished until 1949. Based on his experiences at Trueform, the book vividly portrayed the misery of Melbourne in the grip of Depression. He also gave talks on radio-station 3LO, provided the text for three comic strips and wrote a play. In addition he collaborated with the artist Rem McClintock, the journalist Kim Keane and the writer Leo Cash on another play, Thirteen Dead, the story of a disaster in a Wonthaggi coalmine, which was produced by the New Theatre League in July 1937. Through the Writers’ League he met Olive Dulcie Dixon, a divorcee; they married on 30 May 1941 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne.

Having become well known, Marshall was selected by the editors of A.I.F. News, a weekly paper published by the army for the troops in the Middle East, to tour Victoria gathering messages from their wives, mothers and friends. In February he and Olive set off in a horse-drawn caravan. His reports appeared in the News from 30 May 1942 until February 1943—only interrupted in June 1942 by his fall from a horse and three months in Swan Hill hospital. These trips provided characters and incidents on which he drew for many later stories, and for his book, also titled These Are My People (1944), published by F. W. Cheshire.

While on the road, Marshall provided a correspondence course on freelance journalism for Melbourne Technical College, and in 1944 he was engaged by the Army Education Service to deliver a series of lectures. In 1945 and 1946 he drove by car through Queensland and the Northern Territory, where his first extended encounters with Aborigines included visits to sacred sites. The result of these experiences was Ourselves Writ Strange (1948), reissued as These Were My Tribesmen (1965), and two later books on Aboriginal myths.

Although Olive supported Marshall during these journeys, there were tensions between her desire to settle down and his determination to travel and write. They had several separations and were divorced shortly before her death in 1957. Marshall did not marry again, but had many warm epistolary and personal relationships with women. His weekly advice column, ‘Alan Marshall’s Casebook’, ran in the Argus from 1952 until the paper’s cessation in 1957, and was distinguished by its common-sense approach to lonely men and women, wives with drinking husbands, bewildered teenagers, troubled parents and self-righteous straiteners.

Marshall’s first commercially published volume of short stories, Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo (1946), was followed by two collections of newspaper sketches, Pull Down the Blind (1949) and Bumping into Friends (1950). Yarns of the mythical Speewah station, published in How’s Andy Going? (1956), showed his interest in Australian humour and folklore, and with the artist Doug Tainsh, he later developed these tales into a series of comic strips for the Argus.

In 1954 Marshall received a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant to work on the first volume of his fictionalised autobiography, I Can Jump Puddles (1955), his best-known book. Selling not only in Australia but abroad—particularly, in translation, in Russia and eastern Europe—it was an inspiring account of courage in dealing with a devastating handicap, and also succeeded in showing through a child’s eyes the life and variety of a country town. In the darker second and third books of the trilogy—This Is the Grass (1962) and In Mine Own Heart (1963)—Marshall wrote of Melbourne in the 1930s.

Living at Eltham from 1955, Marshall became a keen defender of the shire’s natural and cultural heritage, in publications including Pioneers and Painters (1971). He continued to write prolifically, producing several more collections of short stories and humorous sketches, as well as The Gay Provider (1962), a commissioned history of the Myer Emporium. He received another CLF fellowship in 1961. His earnings from writing had totalled £36 198 or a little less than £1600 a year.

Marshall was the subject of radio and screen documentaries, and several of his works were later filmed—notably I Can Jump Puddles, in a Czech version (1970), and as a television series for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1981. In his later years, he became interested in the sexual needs of the disabled, and campaigned to have their rights recognised. In 1974 he worked with Fred Schepisi on a film about the employment of the handicapped, and in 1979 assisted Genni Batterham with a documentary, ‘Pins and Needles’ (1980), on the problems of the handicapped. His letters gave her the title of a second film, ‘Riding the Gate’ (1987).

In 1972 Marshall was awarded an hononary LL.D by the University of Melbourne. In 1977 he received the Soviet Union’s Order of Friendship of Peoples. He was appointed OBE in 1972 and AM in 1981. Enduring increasing weakness, he moved to suburban Black Rock where he was cared for by his sister Elsie, until forced to enter a nursing home in 1982. His long professional partnership with Frank Cheshire had ended when the latter declined to publish Marshall’s Hammers over the Anvil (1975), believing that the violence and cruelty seen through a child’s eyes in this work would destroy Marshall’s image as a kind, brave and sympathetic individual. Yet Cheshire was so horrified by the conditions in which Marshall was living that he arranged to move him into nursing quarters that he had purchased for himself, but these too proved unsatisfactory. Marshall died at East Brighton on 21 January 1984, survived by his two daughters. He was buried in Nillumbik cemetery, Diamond Creek. The Victorian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers instituted an award in his name.

Marshall believed that positive human qualities always arise from suffering. His letters showed the same skill in storytelling as his published work, and revealed his gift for friendship. People who knew him from his writing or talks wrote to him in trust and affection, and his replies elicited moving accounts of their lives. Some took pride when he incorporated these stories in his own; others he encouraged to seek publication for themselves. Always working from experience, he saw life as a series of peaks and plains, a writer’s task being to describe the view from the peaks. Millions of copies of I Can Jump Puddles were sold worldwide. The darker stories of Hammers over the Anvil did not achieve the same popularity, but they perhaps represented his greatest achievement, entering as they did into the most painful corners of life with sympathy for those who suffered from the power of others or from their own weaknesses. Marshall saw even these aspects of life with a child’s sense of wonder and an adult’s rage and pity.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Marks, I Can Jump Oceans (1976)
  • J. Beasley, Red Letter Days (1979)
  • J. Morrison, The Happy Warrior (1987)
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol 260, 2002, p 204
  • Marshall papers (National Library of Australia)
  • J. Smith papers (National Library of Australia)
  • G. Hardisty papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • A6119, items 511, 3449, 3450, 3460, 3461 (National Archives of Australia).

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Citation details

John McLaren, 'Marshall, Alan (1902–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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