Monday, November 20, 2017

Ever Heard of the Hobyahs?

I have. When I was in my second or third year of primary school we had as our reading book Book Two of the Victorian School Readers. These had been put together in the period between 1927 and 1930 and so were already very dated - but post war shortages of books and other education materials which lasted well into the fifties I guess meant that Education Departments had to make do with whatever they could find. The Victorian Readers had a moral agenda intending to teach their readers among other things appropriate behaviour as well as an appreciation of literature, patriotism and their place as Australians in the world. The later books were also a reflection of their times in the casual racism they expressed. If you're interested this very readable article - The Victorian Readers by Claire Bradford - on the Austlit website gives more information.

What brought this book to mind was a recent column in the local West Australian newspaper by Robert Drewe. Drewe's columns are entertaining musings on whatever he's thinking about at the time and recently that was The Hobyahs, which was one of the stories which featured in my Victorian Reader at the time.

The Hobyahs is a grim tale of a little old man and a little old woman who live with a little girl and their dog, Little Dog Turpie, in a house made of hemp stalks. Every night the hobyahs come in from the bush saying 'Hobyah, Hobyah, eat up the old man and the old woman and carry off the little girl.' Every night Little Dog Turpie barks and drives off the hobyahs but his barking annoys the little old man and so he bit by bit dismembers Little Dog Turpie by the first night cutting off his tail, then one leg, then another and so on but the dog keeps on barking his warning until finally his head is cut off. The hobyahs then kill the man and woman and carry off the little girl in a sack which they leave hung up while they go to sleep - because hobyahs sleep in the day. The girl cries so much that a passing man with a big dog hears her and rescues her and puts his dog in the sack. When the hobyahs wake up the dog jumps out and eats them up. I gather from Robert Drewe's column that in the next edition Little Dog Turpie became Yellow Dog Dingo in an attempt to make what was according to the book originally a Scottish tale more Australian. All that did to judge from the flurry of letters that resulted after Drewe's column was to terrify a whole new group of children.

Why anyone would have thought this was a suitable tale for seven and eight year olds I have no idea. As you can see the details are firmly fixed in my mind many, many years on. It didn't give me nightmares but it certainly did to others of my generation and I wonder if the fact that I had access to and frequently read a book of the original versions of fairy tales set in obviously distant lands was the reason I was able to understand this was not true. The fairy stories I was reading were certainly not lacking in brutality - Cinderella's stepmother cut off the toes of one of her daughters so she could fit into the glass slipper, someone else had magically red hot shoes placed on her feet as a punishment and someone else had shoes that forced her to dance until she dies magically fitted are only a few examples that I remember - and I do wonder now if my parents had actually read this particular book. If they had I'm pretty sure I would have been banned from reading it since it also had a whole bunch of Greek and Roman myths which were, to put it mildly, problematic reading for a seven to eight year old. Who knows, though, it might have contributed to my ongoing interest in speculative fiction of all sorts. If it did I'm grateful but I have to say if you mention hobyahs to almost anyone of my vintage who went through an Australian school at the same time you are likely to set off fearful shivers at the memory.

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