A Meeting with Max Fatchen

© Janeen Brian

The first time I saw Max Fatchen and heard him speak was at a children’s book shop at Kent Town, in Adelaide, over 30 years ago, where he was launching a book called Southern Rainbow, by Phyllis Piddington, who had been one of my speech and drama lecturers at Wattle Park Teachers’ College in the 60’s. To say I was gobsmacked wasn’t the half of it. Not only was it the first launch I’d ever attended, but I’d never dreamed that anyone could do such a magnificent job with such fun and such wit. Max had written a poem as a speech – I guess you could call it a spoem or a peech!

As he spoke, I felt myself creeping closer, anticipating the rhyme, a smile already waiting in the wings, my heart beating with the rhythm. When Max had finished, it was difficult to then sip drinks and pass the pretzels. I was captivated by the content and malleability of his words.

The second time I met him was at a May Gibbs special event at a park behind the Botanic Gardens. The prestigious author, Christobel Mattingley, was leading a fight to save Nutcote, the home of May Gibbs, but later I shyly approached the cheerful man who was nestling among the great muscley roots of a Moreton Bay Fig tree. The reason was, I wanted to let him know that we both had poems published in many of the same anthologies. I practised what I’d say first, in case he thought me brash, cocky and too bold for words, but Max’s smile was as wide as the tree in front of which he stood and from that moment I was hooked. We chattered about poems and this and that.We’ve chattered many times since.

Max was born in the winter of 1920, and cradled in a world where the senses could vibrate in their family farm at Angle Vale, north of Adelaide; the gentle resonant ticking of a clock will still remind him of rain on a corrugated iron roof. There were smells of animals, hay and country cooking – and being of Cornish descent, he lays claims even today of being the greatest consumer of Cornish pasties and says that Badenoch bakers were deeply concerned that one day he might resist.

From being up early on the farm to feed the horses, Max later developed a habit of doing much of his writing before breakfast. The horses that helped cement that pattern became Max’s friends.

Old Horses (from 100 Australian Poems for Children)

Old horses
Leaning on fences
Old horses
Rubbing on trees
Old horses
Lazy rumps pointing
Towards the cold gusts
Of a southerly breeze.
Old horses,
Never a gallop
Old horses
Heavy hoofs slow.
Old horses, down by the creek-bed,
Down on the flats
Where the sweet grasses grow.
Old horses,
Sweeping tails twitching
Old horses
Tossing their manes
Old horses
Gone are the hauling
The shouts of the driver
The tug of the reins
Old horses
Sleepy heads hanging
Old horses
Of yesterday’s teams.
Old horses
Soft nostrils breathing
The wheezy contentment
Of hay-scented dreams.

Max was a dreamy boy whose early perimeter of life was the fence of the farm; who came to know the clouds, the seasons, the animals and the height of dreams because his father lifted him high and told him about the world. He learned of all other things too because of get-togethers at his home and those of neighbours, where he’d listen and observe, subconsciously absorbing idiosyncrasies, the sounds of words, stories, the
glib-and-glab of everyday chatter, and he became full of words that hummed and buzzed in his head. And his mother saw how they delighted him, how he could make poems and perform them ; his first at seven.

Though nations may tremble
Though kingdom may quail,
Though empires may totter,
There’s still Angle Vale!

Max was an only child, so did a lot of listening.

Ears (from Tea for Three)

Have you thought to give three cheers
For the usefulness of ears?
Ears will often spring surprises
Coming in such different sizes.
Ears are crinkled, even folded.
Ears turn pink when you are scolded.
Ears can have the oddest habits
Standing rather straight on rabbits.
Ears are little tape-recorders
Catching all the family orders.
Words, according to your mother,
Go in one and out the other.
Each side of your head you’ll find them.
Don’t forget to wash behind them.
Precious little thanks they’ll earn you
Hearing things that don’t concern you.

Max was dearly loved and encouraged as a child, so he couldn’t see really what else school could offer. He had Sunday School outings, and a pedal car, made by his practical, resourceful father, he had the cooking smells in the kitchen, music to listen to and the whole world outdoors to watch and explore in privacy.

He had a tin dingy that he and his father would paddle along the mangrovy shores of St Kilda, or he’d sit on a bag of chaff as the horse – drawn trolley carried him to a beach – a place which Max came to love.

From Fish Fingers (100 Australian Poems for Children)

If you hold a shell to your ear, they say,
You’ll hear the sea winds blow.
I held one to my ear. It said:
‘Ullo,’ullo, ullo.’

But despite Max seeing no reason to go to school, he had to. At first he was fearful of other children, fearful of others’ expectations and fearful of the springtime maggies that hedged the walking way to Angle Vale Primary; a small one-roomed, thick-walled country school, with a waterbag hanging outside and the desks drilled with inkwells.

Magpie Mayday (From Tea for Three)

Black and white
From gum tree height,
With terrifying swooping,
Aerobatic magpies come,
Swiftly loop-the-looping.
Past my face
The fliers race,
Dip and dive and veer.
Feathered pest
It might be best
If you returned my ear!

Soon Max grew more comfortable at school, and the walks were for contemplation. He could easily escape to another world.

Control Calling (From Off the Planet)

Just when I’m conducting
A manoevre tactical
On my spaceship galactical,
Using my unidentified-object locators,
With my forward disintegrators
Whamming and shooting,
And my astro-clad officers saluting
Amid the rocketry swirls and swishes,
My sister Kate
Cries, ‘Activate!’
And I’m back on earth
drying dishes.

More than anything, Max wanted to keep writing; it was what he loved most and was so good at, but farmwork was an inflexible master and his help was needed. His father wanted him at the farm, but after much hard-wrought discussion, Max was allowed to go to Gawler High School, but for only one year.

During the following summer holidays, however, he was to plough the paddocks using a team of soft, clod-along, Clydsdales, but his mind was on the book he was reading and the horses wandered somewhat. His father shook his head. Max was a dreamer. So, lucky for all Max’s readers, of his poems, novels, articles and newspaper columns, his father agreed for him to return to school.

It was serendipity that first landed him a job as a copyboy at the Adelaide News, and always sensitive to sensory perceptions, Max embraced the sights and sounds of the newspaper world, developing friendships with other memorable literature identities such as fellow copy boy, Max Harris and reporter, novelist, Nancy Cato, of ‘All Rivers Run.’
After five years in the Services, Max became a journalist with the News and later the Advertiser – by which time, he had married Jean and they’d begun their family.

But in 1966, Max began to write for children and has continued to do so – and it’s as well too, because Max has tried very hard not to grow up too much; and he treasures children’s wonderful, individual source of language, and easily relates to their fears or their delights. Food is big on the Fatchen agenda.

(From Fractured Fairytales, p30)

Jack Horner’s thumb, stuck in a pie,
They may have overlooked.
I found my slice was rather nice
I like a thumb well-cooked.

What a Peel! (Fractured fairytales, p30)
‘Oranges and lemons’,
say the bells of St. Clements.
But no one plays tunes
About prunes.

Max’s poems are often about animals. Especially cats.

Cat Call (From Tea for Three p46)

You put out the cat,
That sly lump of fur?
Then why is my pillow
beginning to purr?

And birds of the beloved beach.

The Cormorant From Tea for Three, p30)

A diving demon, bird of doom,
The ocean is my dining room.
I’m speeding like a javelin,
The terror of all scale and fin.
When above the waves I rise,
I shake the salt drops from my eyes
Then with a thrust, a dive, a dip
I’m on another fishing trip.

I fish in calm or when it’s rough,
And when I feel I’ve had enough
I sit upon a mooring post,
The dreaded phantom of the coast,
And there, between the sea and sky,
I hang my feathers out to dry.

Max Fatchen is a hero. Many of his dozens of books have won awards; he’s received the Order of Australia in 1980, the Advance Australia Award for Lit. in 1991, the Walkley Award for journalism in 1996, the Primary English Teaching Associations Award for children’s poetry in 1996, the SA Great Award for Literature in 1999, the Centenary of Federation Medal in 2003, and was made inaugural Life Member of the SA Writers Centre in 2004.

Max is also is a man I fell in love with under the big Moreton bay tree, who tells me over the phone that watermelons are wonderful dribblers, that as he becomes more ruinous looking, his editors become younger and more beautiful, and that sometimes he puts his head under the tap to make sure he’s still alive.

Well, I for one am glad to have met him
And as I walk my own writing tracks
I can smile and say quite proudly
I’ve rubbed pages alongside Max.


7 thoughts on “A Meeting with Max Fatchen

  1. Pingback: Weekly updates | Australian Children's Poetry

  2. Love his poetry ever since
    I came across Now isn’t it amazing. Obviously a man who never forgot what it is to be a child. Mary M co. Dublin ireland

  3. I met Max at Auburn Primary School in the 80s (I think) for presentation of the Max Fatchen Awards. He was the big man, standing quietly, with a little smile on his face and his ample chin jiggling in mirth, as he chuckled at the children playing. He delighted in their simple antics and no doubt was already composing some more brilliant verse in his head.

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