Ion Idriess, Forty Fathoms Deep

Ion Idriess, Forty Fathoms Deep (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1937)

Review essay by Pamela Blakeley, December 2019

By the early 1930s Broome in Western Australia was a thriving town, ‘a tiny place, yet the richest and greatest pearling port the world has ever known’. Idriess spent more than a year there and wrote Forty Fathoms Deep based on his own experiences and first-hand information.

The main story is about the romantic, guitar-playing Castilla Toledo from Manila. He is a young, good-looking diver on Bernard Bardwell’s lugger Phyllis, and he is desperate to find a pearl so that he can marry the white girl of his dreams. Every now and then a pearl is discovered inside the pearl shell which is the basis of the industry. Approximately one pearl shell in 500 contains a natural pearl. At the time a single pearl could fetch hundreds or thousands of pounds in Broome and far more when it was resold in Europe. Bardwell warns Toledo against the girl, an adventuress from down south, and indeed she marries another man as soon as Toledo has put to sea. Toledo finds
another girl. He still needs a pearl in order to marry.

Toldedo returns to sea and works like a demon, provoking the crew to introduce chilli powder into his lifeline to force him to come up from the bottom of the sea. Towards the close of the season, an unrecognised vessel fishes nearby for several days. Then one afternoon a dinghy comes off her and races towards the lugger. A white man jumps aboard in great excitement. The master immediately takes him down below. The man, naïve in the cunning ways of Broome, has found an exquisite pearl and wants to show it off! The master estimates its worth at over £5000 and suggests showing it to his diver, Toledo. ‘Toldeo’s heart leapt at the sight of the pearl, the world stood still for him.’ They drink and smoke and admire the pearl. They have dinner. Toldeo drinks little himself but keeps the glasses of the two men full. Soon the men are drunk, and the wind has whipped up. The visitor finally wraps the pearl in soft paper, puts it into a match box and, helped by Toledo, takes to his dinghy and rows away unsteadily. However, the pearl is in Toledo’s pocket, the empty matchbox in the pocket of the other man.

So begins a story befitting a gripping crime novel. By the time the precious pearl is lost at sea, there has been one murder, three men have been hanged at Freemantle Gaol for that murder, one man has committed suicide, another has died of premature heart failure and Toledo himself has drowned in a shipwreck after earlier surviving more than 24 hours adrift at sea clinging to a grating.

Idriess meticulously explains the circumstances and relationships between the many races of people who comprised the work force of Broome. The owners and masters of the fleets of pearling luggers were British or Australian and lived apart in pretty, spacious cottages in a line back from the beach. Further inland were the crowded quarters of the Philippinos, Malays, Indonesians, Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines, South Sea men and the more recent arrivals, the Japanese, who were poised to take over, first, the jobs on the luggers, and later the industry itself. Idriess attributes this to their communal, ambitious, painstaking and fatalistic character. We also meet the sophisticated and cunning itinerant pearl buyers who make the real money in international markets.

Woven throughout the central story are descriptions of the years of training which is required of a diver. Idriess details the work practices on a pearling ship and how they became safer and more efficient. For example, the British Admiralty solved the problem of divers’ paralysis which is caused by too much nitrogen in the diver’s blood. The solution was the ‘staged ascent’ which saved many lives. Staging was both a prevention and a cure for paralysis. If a diver came up distressed or apparently dead, he had to be sent back to the depth at which he had been working and brought up gradually.

There is a vivid account of the three days of the Japanese Riots in Broome during the seasonal lay-off in 1920, an example of the racial tensions always brewing in Broome and sparked by the growing profile of the Japanese. ‘Many a lugger had only one white man aboard, living lonely and aloof amid a mixed crew. On his management of this sailing hot bed of jealousies and sometimes hate depended the success of the season’s cruise.’

The later section of Forty Fathoms Deep details the ‘bushmanship’ required to work on the ocean and the sea floor. (Forty fathoms was the absolute maximum depth at which a diver could work.) There are the tides, the cyclones and hurricanes, the ‘tigers’ of the sea such as crocodiles, giant gropers and octopi, the devil-ray, sawfish, sharks and whales and giant clams all presenting special dangers. Fortunately, through vigilance, the diving suit, and help from above, the tigers of the sea are seldom fatal to divers.

There are beautiful descriptions of the plants and fish living in the sea, such as the turtle, a delicacy favoured by men and sharks. There is an extended description of the monkey-fish who frantically builds a sandcastle while his companion, the blue parrotfish, keeps guard, swishing away intruders with his tail. The monkey-fish is one of the ugliest creatures in the sea, while the parrotfish is one of the most beautiful. Divers call them Beauty and the Beast. The monkey, if deeply in love, builds a roomy bucket-sized home on the seafloor with hard walls of sand above it. He then mates but the female soon leaves to lay her eggs elsewhere. The blue parrot fish returns, and this unusual pair resume their friendship. The monkey is especially popular with divers for his bad temper and tempestuous behaviour if annoyed.

Another large flat fish with stripes on the back is a great lover, always seen with his ‘wife’ who he protects. He sometimes kisses her. While she rests, he keeps guard. The pair have big, kind eyes and the divers call them Romeo and Juliet.

We are taken to the sea floor to admire the strange beauty of the plants illuminated by the phosphorus given out by certain fish. ‘Lights come floating down … of fairy-like loveliness. They pass like tiny parachutes of illuminated silk glowing with the sheen of mother of pearl. From these hang clusters of red and green beads, and luminous tendrils drooping down all tasselled with glowing fire.’

The real-life characters are unforgettable, especially the villainous Con, a bosun on the Chamberlain until he retires to the comfort of Broome to chase women and practise his black magic. The volatile and dangerous Pablo Marquez and Simeon Espada, both of Chinese/Philippino background and from Singapore, belong to a secret deadly Chinese tong. There is Elles, the master pearl cleaner. We read of many storms and shipwrecks and the rebuilding which always follows, and the heroic efforts made by all to save the lives of those in peril at sea.

If you are fascinated by Australia’s labour and race relations, maritime history or Australian history and geography in general, it is time to revisit one of Australia’s most prolific writers, Ion Idriess (1889 – 1979).

Paul’s Canberra calendar, late August 2019

Comrades, here are political / activist events in or near Canberra (updated 19th August 2019).

#StopAdani Canberra:

Meetings, 5:45 pm every Monday. Organising to stop the proposed massive Adani coal mine in central Queensland. Conservation Council office, Ground Floor, Lena Karmel Lodge, 14/26 Barry Drive (opp. Watson St), Acton. Contact

Our politicians need to see, hear and feel community pressure everywhere they go. Join us to take action, in your community:
Join your local group:
▪Follow on Facebook:
▪Let your Federal MP know what you think.

GHD, don’t help Adani wreck our climate! 12:30 – 1:30 pm, Fri., 23rd August 2019, 16 Marcus Clarke St, Civic; and the following week, same time / place. Australian engineering company GHD is reported to be contracting to provide services to Adani. A strange choice for a company that prides itself on its environmental reputation. Please join our peaceful lunchtime gathering outside GHD’s Canberra office, asking the company for a public statement that it will not work on Adani’s “carbon bomb” coal mine. This will be our 5th week of peaceful events outside the office, part of the nationwide call to GHD to step away from Adani. Organised by #StopAdani Canberra and Canberra.

#BlockadeAdani Organising Space. Adani is on the move; we need to stop them! They are looking to build a train line to meet existing tracks which service their Abbot Point coal terminal. If this line gets built it will be very hard to stop this catastrophic project. We need you to join us up here on the blockade. Information on carpooling, convoying, and cheap tickets can be shared here. For updates, go to and take the pledge. ❤ Frontline Action on Coal (FLAC) Camp: (07) 47634032;


Nonviolent Direct Action Training. 1:30 – 6:30pm, Sun., 25th August 2019. Corroboree Park, 47 Paterson St, Ainslie. Book by emailing Organised by Extinction Rebellion ACT and Extinction Rebellion Australia.

Beyond Uranium Canberra meeting. 5:30pm, Tues., 27th August 2019. The Food Co-op Shop & Cafè, 3 Kingsley St, ANU / Acton. Organised by Beyond Uranium Canberra.

Politics in the Pub, 6pm, Wed., 28th August 2019. Union Bar, 3 Rimmer St, ANU. Join the Australia Institute and Jess Hill to discuss her new book: See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse. An investigative journalist and author, Jess Hill has reported on domestic violence since 2014. She has worked for ABC Radio, as Middle East correspondent for The Global Mail, and as an investigative journalist for Background Briefing. She was listed in Foreign Policy‘s top 100 women to follow on Twitter, and her reporting on domestic violence has won two Walkley awards, an Amnesty International award and 3 Our Watch awards. Jess Hill puts domestic violence perpetrators – and the systems that enable them – in the spotlight. The book is a deep dive into the abuse so many women and children experience – often reinforced by the justice system they trust to protect them. Critically, it shows that we can drastically reduce domestic violence – not in generations to come, but today. Combining forensic research with riveting storytelling, her book radically rethinks how to confront the national crisis of fear and abuse in our homes. Copies will be available to purchase on the night from Paperchain Books. RSVP here.

Protest Religious Exemptions Bill: No Right to Discriminate! 11am – 12:30pm, Sat., 31st August 2019. Garema Place, Civic. In October 2018, a YouGov Galaxy Poll found that around 80% of people opposed the right of religious schools to expel LGBTI students or sack LGBTI teachers; an even larger majority than the 61.6% who voted YES to marriage equality in 2017. Despite huge support for LGBTI rights, the Liberal government wants to further entrench and broaden discrimination in a so-called “Religious Freedoms” bill. Senior members of the Opposition have said that the Labor Party should support the bill. A bitter conservative minority is attempting to roll back progress after our community’s smashing victory for equality in 2017. Join the protest to tell parliament and the bigoted minority: End religious exemptions! No to homophobia and transphobia! Message our page for more information and if you would like to get involved! Organised by Equal Love Canberra.

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School Strike 4 Climate on 20 September

Canberrans old and young are organising to support the School Strike 4 Climate, on
Friday, 20 September in Glebe Park, Canberra, 12 noon till 2 p.m.

Students will be leaving school to attend; working people plan to walk out of their offices and work-sites to join them, hoping by force of numbers to get the message through to this government that all is not well. We demand action on this climate emergency. We urgently need a speedy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Not in town that day? Don’t worry, people across the country will be doing the same thing that Friday at noon.  (You can find out where at

This past July has just been the hottest month in the world’s recorded history. The global climate strike draws attention to the United Nations climate summit, to be held in New York three days later on the 23rd.

Vintage Reds will be there in our VR T shirts at Glebe Park: please join us, and help the students get their voices heard.

We have always lived through hot summers. But this is not the summer of our youth. This is not your grandfather’s summer.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres

A little war?

Christina Stead, A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948)

In this prescient novel the characters feel eerily familiar, despite the book being written over seventy years ago. In particular, the analysis of the sexual politics between the older powerful men and the young women feels horribly contemporary. We are taken to the heart of a class of floating racketeers and crooks as they wait like vultures for America to enter World War 2. As the main character Robert Grant explains …’going to be fifty years of capitalism here, want to go and see a new world coming out of the old world. A chance to construct a new world and  remake your life-how do you like that? Let’s go to a cabaret’. When active war in the Pacific begins, so do black market days. Among other shady deals, Grant acquires properties at rock bottom prices from desperate sellers fleeing for their lives; a manor house in England, a farm in Bordeaux and another in Normandy, properties in Germany and Dublin, a brown stone in New York and a house in Rome.          (Photo: National Library of Australia)

Set in New York in the mid-1940s, the ultra-wealthy Grant is at the apex of his own group of hangers on, desperate women and employees. Nominally a cotton dealer, he chisels, blackmails and deceives daily, but in sentimental fits of delusion, he sees himself as a good man and a victim. He believes that he is a socialist, although ‘must a socialist turn out his pockets and say, “rob me”? No sir. Must socialist mean nitwit?’ As a megalomaniac, he is obsessed with having a play written about his search for the perfect woman, to be called The Girl I Want.

To Grant, life itself is a war as he outwits those around him to get his percentage. His attitude towards women parallels his attitude to business. He says ‘the debts of society are scaled so high, only men can pay. Ha-ha!’

After using and abusing a string of younger women who to him have only their sex appeal to barter with, Grant meets his match, a woman called Barbara, who he refers to as the Blondine. He believes that she – promiscuous, dishonest and petty – is his soul mate. She is just like him and she will complete him. Grant’s explains his relationship with Barbara as ‘like a war map, with front lines and strategic retreats and lines of communications and hidden depots, spies and forces’.

The two conduct a passionate but calculated affair with both sides playing hard and dirty. Grant however loses interest and breaks it off when he has her submission. She retaliates by leaving and marrying another man, before leaving that man and conducting a string of affairs. Grant then pursues her around the country and has her spied on. He spends a fortune to win her back. Eventually, he becomes entangled in the Blondine’s divorce as a co-respondent. Barbara defiantly explains that she lives on the same terms as Grant.

Stead develops this world mostly by letting the characters speak for themselves as they rush through their days. Grant stamps his feet, yells and bullies his way round New York, with pauses to sweet talk and seduce the women who circle his honeypot. He is as mysterious as Jay Gatsby but highly animated and at the front of the action. In a Trumpian moment, Grant claims that he doesn’t need to analyse anything, he knows it already.

It is chilling to see the effects of the actions of the wealthy, game playing and immoral characters on their underlings. People commit suicide, some are completely ruined. Grant is prepared to allow his old favourite Laura to die in order to secure a property title. Miss Robins, Grant’s long-suffering secretary who does most of his work, says to Grant’s son, Gilbert, ‘It is time you knew your father; you don’t know how he made your money or how he wastes it. It’s a shame how he wastes what we work so hard to make.’

Christina Stead, an Australian writer who was living in New York at the time of writing, is still well known for her early novels The Man who Loved Children and For Love Alone, both partly set in Australia. She deserves more attention for her incisive, politically charged later work. The forensic observation in this novel is astounding as is the quality of the writing.

Does Grant get his just deserts in the end? Stead tell us that people like Grant usually don’t get what they deserve. However, thanks to Barbara, he almost does.

Pam Blakeley
August 2019

NB  If you are looking for books or other texts that are rare or out of print, try the non-profit Internet Archive, This is a collection of millions of free books, movies, software, music and more.

Paul’s Canberra events calendar, August 2019

We recommend Paul Oboohov’s calendar, with forthcoming events for the remainder of August. Paul is a long-time activist in Canberra and a Vintage Reds member. (Updated 4 August)

Canberra: Uni Student Walkout for Climate Action!
Noon – 1pm, Friday, 9th August 2019. Kambri Precinct, 154 University Ave, ANU. On August 9 students across the country will be walking out in protest demanding real action on climate change. Our demands: – Stop Adani! – No new coal or gas – 100% renewables – Sustainable Jobs. Organised by Uni Students for Climate Justice, ANUSA – ANU Students’ Association, NUS National Union of Students, PARSA – ANU Postgraduate and Research Students’ Association, and StopAdani Canberra.

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Women of Steel – the Jobs for Women campaign in Wollongong

At our July Vintage Reds meeting, Robynne Murphy spoke briefly about a new film in the making, WOMEN OF STEEL. A 10-minute excerpt of the film received a tremendous response at this year’s May Day toast in Wollongong. Now the filmmakers are seeking support for the completion of WOMEN OF STEEL, the inside story of the Jobs for Women Campaign (1980-94) which relentlessly took on BHP — from direct action at the Port Kembla steelworks to the High Court of Australia. Some may recall that the campaign resulted in a landmark victory for anti-discrimination. It drew together activist/working class/migrant women, supportive unions and their members, women’s organisations and other allies, and lawyers navigating NSW Labor’s new legal reforms. It took 14 years but the women refused to give up and the campaign remains an inspiring story today. The patrons of this documentary include former MP Jennie George, Ann Curthoys (Historian, Professor Emerita ANU) and the ACTU’s Sally McManus.

The director, Robynne Murphy returned to filmmaking after leading the campaign and 30 years as a steelworker. She has already raised over $100,000 from trade unions and individuals to get WOMEN OF STEEL to a “rough cut” stage. Recently she has been joined by Martha Ansara, veteran filmmaker (Life Member, Australian Directors Guild — Hall of Fame, Australia Cinematographers Society), to raise a final $60,000 for the finishing costs, including music and payment for the essential archival footage. The composer Jan Preston (for the ABC series, Bastard Boys – about the 1998 MUA waterfront dispute), has also come on board. Phil Crawford from Beyond Empathy is the editor.

The team is now reaching out to everyone who might be interested in helping: donations are coming in from “unemployed seafarer”— $20 — all the way to retired politician — $10,000. (From each according to their ability, as they say…)

Tax-deductible donations for the film’s completion are invited via the Documentary Australia Foundation: No amount is too small — or too big, of course!

The WOMEN OF STEEL promo can be viewed here:

For further information you can visit the website: or email: Or click on the flyer (then click again!)
Photo credit:

Support for whistle-blower David McBride

Canberrans were up early on a cold morning last week to support David McBride who had an appearance at the ACT Supreme Court.

McBride faced charges dating back to 2017 for providing classified documents to ABC journalists, who used them to run “The Afghan Files”, a series of stories alleging war crimes committed by Australian soldiers.

There has been alarm at raids by Australian Federal police on the ABC, along with reports that the AFP had requested a journalist’s travel records from Qantas, and an earlier AFP request for two journalists’ fingerprints. Concern about an erosion of Australian press freedom was expressed most recently at the Global Conference on Press Freedom in London.

Vintage Reds were among supporters who taped over their mouths to protest against the government’s heavy-handed attacks on press freedom. UnionsACT’s Alex White spoke at another gathering for David McBride at a court appearance earlier in the month.