Lower him down, softly there, matey,
Though little he’ll heed a rough journey.
This is thy last trip, Victor, beneath earth’s surface,
And eight unwilling hands are lowering thee.
“Victor” was my great-grandfather – Franz Paul Victor Streich. I’m working on a biography of him, and thought I’d introduce him to you.
I had grown up being told that my great-grandfather was an Important Man in Australian History. I knew that he was a scientist, that he had been “the geologist on the Elder Expedition” and that a mountain was named after him somewhere out in the desert. If I got a particular atlas down from the bookshelf behind the winged armchair in the sitting room – the only bookshelf in the house apart from a low, dusty shelf under the louvre windows in the sleep-out, to where my grandfather’s medical text books had been relegated – I could sit on the floor in the space between the shelf and the chair and open it to the page where, in tiny text, surrounded by a little ring of lines, were the words Streich Mound. The numbers beside it meant nothing to the ten-year-old me. But, full of smugness – the Streich name was in the atlas! – I imagined this to be a big mountain, solemnly named by some fat men in a wood-panelled room somewhere, because they knew my great-grandfather to be Important.
There was piece of silver on a table in the corner of the sitting room, on which was engraved “To Clara and Victor” and some other words that I can’t remember. I can’t remember what the object was, either; it may have been a wedding present. I don’t know where it is now; whether it’s still in the house where my brother lives, among other family things passed down, or whether it’s with one of my Streich cousins. I’d like to know, for sentiment sake, now; I’d like to see it again. I’d like to know so much that I didn’t know then.
I must have been a very uncurious child! I don’t think I had even clocked that Clara was the “Nannie” that my mother used to speak of so often and with such affection. Although she was much mentioned, Nannie seemed to have no other name, and Victor (who I think was simply referred to as “Grandpop’s father”) was only spoken of in reverential tones for what he had done, not who he was or what he was like. He was just someone who had died a long time ago – in Coolgardie, my mother said – and I suppose that was why there weren’t many stories about him like there were about Nannie, whom my mother had known and loved. Victor had just … been. And had been, apparently, Important.
So, I didn’t realise that Clara and Victor were Nannie and the famous explorer, or that Nannie and the man with the mountain named after him were even connected to each other.
I had no idea how little I knew, and had no way of knowing how important Victor’s story – and my own ignorance of it – was going to feel later in life.
My mother and my grandmother liked to set us apart from other families. My mother’s father, “Grandpop”, who had died two years before I was born, had been the much-revered local doctor, with a road named after him and a wing at the hospital. He was still a real presence in our house, the big house full of furniture my grandmother pointedly told me was antique.
There were stories about how my English-born grandmother had had maids back in the day, sometime in the 1920s and 30s – in Kelmscott, then a rural backwater in Western Australia, connected to Perth, 20 miles away, by a gravel road. There was a lot of talk about the Rochford Manor House back in England where rich Uncle Joe lived. My mother sometimes referred to our bathroom, when she wanted to reminded herself of the glory days, as “The Maid’s Room”, because that’s what it had first been used for.
With this as my domestic example, my ignorance didn’t stop me skiting in the playground, “My great grandfather”… did I even know he was my great grandfather? Perhaps I just said, “One of my family was an explorer on the Elder Expedition”.
None of my school friends seemed particularly impressed, actually. Perhaps the Elder Expedition meant as little to them as it did to me. And anyway, no one likes a show-off.
I finally acquired in adulthood some curiosity about the world around me, when I developed an interest in my family history. I’ll talk more about that in my next post.
[i] Frank Brown. The Sun, Kalgoorlie, Sunday April 23 1905.