22 October 2019

The Life and Times of Ron Tullipan

Not too many people these days have heard of Ron Tullipan, which is a shame because he was a very good Australian novelist during the 1960s. Somewhat like his reputation, his South Brisbane Cemetery grave has also been neglected, and it has become something of a recent mission of mine to revive the public's memory of Ron.

Ron Tullipan.

He died in 1975 at the age of 58, and while his life was relatively short, it was a full one. Ron was born in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, in 1917, the fourth son of travelling showman Edgar Tullipan, a travelling showman, and his wife Vera. The 'Tullipan Bros. Circus' travelled regional Australia, with such acts as buckjumping, acrobats, 'sword bouts', 'high-jumping greyhounds', and horse-riding monkeys. Ron's childhood was somewhat erratic, and his parents divorced when he was 12, and for some time he was a State ward in the St Vincent's Orphanage in Nudgee.

Advertisement for Tullipan Bros. Circus. (Western Champion, Barcaldine, 10 April 1909)

As a young man, Ron worked on farms in the Warwick district, and during the Depression of the 1930s he went on the road, travelling from town to town to find bits of work here and there. He was then employed as a labourer. These were all vivid, Steinbeckian life experiences that he was to draw upon later as a writer.

Ron got married in 1937 with a Catholic ceremony at St Ita's Church, Dutton Park. He was aged 20, and his bride was 14-year-old Katie Power. They had four daughters together but sadly two died in infancy - Patricia aged 2 years in 1940, and Helena aged 17 months in 1943. The family were living on Gladstone Road, Highgate Hill, at the time and the girls were interred in the South Brisbane Cemetery.

Along came World War II and Ron joined the army in July 1941. He wanted to serve overseas but was posted to the 5th Armoured Regiment, which never left Australia. He became discontented and played up a lot, and served numerous periods of detention for disobedience and being absent without leave. Ron was eventually posted to the 58th/59th Battalion and sent to Bougainville in December 1944, where he was wounded in action about six months later. The war ended soon afterwards and he was discharged.

It was during his time in the army that Ron developed what he called a 'fever to write’, and he taught himself by analysing the work of others. He divorced Katie in 1947 and moved to Sydney, where he hoped to establish himself as a writer. He lived there with Vi Murray, who along with her young son adopted his surname. Literary success eluded him, and in the early 1950s they moved north to Cairns where Ron worked on the wharfs and became a union man. He had strong sympathies for the struggles of the working class, which is also reflected in his writings.

Ron had some short stories published around this time, and also earned money as a commercial artist. He and Vi travelled overseas in the 1950s, and visited the Soviet Union. In 1958-60 they ran a lolly shop in London, and Ron took art lessons.

When they got back to Sydney in 1960, his first novel Follow the Sun was published, based on his time working on the waterfront. He wrote in the Social Realist style, focussing on the hardship and exploitation of workers.

His next two novels were also very autobiographical. These were Rear Vision in 1961 and March into Morning (1962), which both won Dame Mary Gilmore awards. During the 1960s he lived in the Blue Mountains and lectured for the Australasian Book Society and was the president of the Sydney Realist Writers' Group. He completed his last novel Daylight Robbery in 1970, drawing upon his knowledge of bushranger history.

Sadly, his writing and art were not selling well at this time, and in 1973 Ron and Vi moved to Brisbane where he became vice-president of the Queensland branch of the Artists' Guild of Australia. He died of a brain haemorrhage in November 1975.

Ron was laid to rest in the South Brisbane Cemetery, in the same grave as his infant daughters Patricia and Helena. This grave, like others around it, has fallen victim to a badly-placed tree that drops large amounts of debris and completely covers everything below with dead leaves and bark sheddings. Ron's grave sometimes requires comprehensive clearing just to make it and the memorial plaque visible (thank you, Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, especially Lisa, Dan and Tracey). The state of the grave was perhaps analogous to the state of Ron's literary reputation, which is also in danger of becoming forgotten to history.

I do my bit to try and raise awareness of Ron, and stop at his grave to tell his story during our occasional 'Dying Arts' tour of the cemetery, and am making my way through the book March Into Morning. The thematic influence of Steinbeck is clear in that novel, as is the autobiographical nature of the work. A teenage orphan, sent to work on a Queensland farm, runs away during the Depression to experience the 'freedom' of the road, travelling from settlement to settlement and developing his class consciousness and socialist sensibilities through a series of incidents and encounters along the way. The political narrative can be quite unsubtle at times but I am enjoying the book. I've sat by his grave a couple of times to read some passages, which I like doing because of that weird and irrational sense you sometimes get that the person in the grave might somehow be aware of you being there. It feels like I'm showing him he hasn't been forgotten. Ron Tullipan couldn't be described as a major Australian author, but his life and times are well worth remembering.

Plaque on the Tullipan grave, South Brisbane Cemetery. (FOSBC)

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