On my coffee table

I’d like to share with you two of the books on my coffee table which have special meaning for me.

What Colour is the Sea?

Cover of What Colour is the Sea by Katie Stewart

The first book, What Colour is the Sea? is written and illustrated by my sister, Katie Stewart. It’s published in hardback by Fremantle Press.

What colour is the sea? Like many apparently simple questions in real life, the answer is “it all depends”. Sometimes the best way to get an answer to your question is to go and see for yourself.

As Koala discovers, and as your favourite little listener will learn, sometimes the sea is blue or green. Sometimes it’s black. It can even be silver or gold. Or no colour at all.

While your child is following Koala’s adventure and meeting with some of Australia’s iconic animals, they’ll also be happily learning with her about colour, perspective and the value of searching for their own answers.

But don’t buy this book for its educational value. Buy it for its luscious full-page illustrations and well-written, heart-warming story.

Once: A selection of short short stories

The other book on my table is Once: A selection of short short stories. As the title suggests, this is a collection of very short stories, flash fiction and hybrid fiction, all by West Australian writers. It’s edited by Linda Martin and Laura Keenan and published in a pocket-sized paperback by Night Parrot Press.

It’s on my coffee table for two reasons. The first is that the stories are just the right length to read while I’m drinking a coffee. I like to dip into it, relishing the variety of styles, from traditional to crazy, romantic to amusing, humorous to puzzling. It covers an amazing array of talent.

The second reason it’s on the table is that it came to me as an unexpected gift from my daughter, Amy Budrikis, who wrote three of the stories. I’ve already come to appreciate her skills as an editor. Now I’m looking forward to reading more of her writing in future.

Mr James Cowan

Edith Cowan’s name is familiar to most Australians. She has a federal electorate named after her, as well as a university. Her face appears on the $50 banknote. But her husband James Cowan is almost forgotten.

Edith’s fame is well deserved. In 1921 she became the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament when she won the state seat of West Perth. But prior to her election she had spent a lifetime working to improve the rights and welfare of men, women and children in her home state of Western Australia.

As I was writing The Edward Street Baby Farm, I was conscious of Edith Cowan’s tireless activities in the background of all that went on. She was on the committee which, in 1890, set up the House of Mercy, a home for “fallen women”. The home unwittingly provided baby farmer Alice Mitchell with many of her clients.

Mrs Cowan was also on the committee which established the Children’s Protection Society in 1906. That organisation took a keen interest in the Alice Mitchell case and its outcome.

Edith and James Cowan in a garden in the 1920a
Edith and James Cowan in the 1920s
(Photo from wikimedia)

The reluctant public servant

But it was James Cowan who played the most prominent role in the Edward Street story. He was the police magistrate who in 1907 found himself appointed as acting coroner for the inquest into the death of Baby Booth. It was he who sent Alice Mitchell to trial for murder.

It was not a role he took on willingly. In fact, according to Peter Cowan (his grandson and Edith Cowan’s biographer) James was a diligent but reluctant public servant all his life. Had life played out differently for him, he would have preferred to live in the country and run his own farm.

James Cowan grew up in a rural area. His father, Walkinshaw Cowan, arrived in the Swan River colony in 1839, as secretary to Governor Hutt, and married locally-born Elizabeth Dyer in 1842. Not long after James’ birth in Perth in 1848, his parents moved all their belongings by bullock cart to York. There his father took up the role of Native Protector and Justice of the Peace.

At the age of sixteen, James was appointed post master and secretary to the Bench of Magistrates in York. In 1870, he moved to Perth to become clerk to Police Magistrate Landor. That began a career as a public servant which often involved him filling several roles simultaneously.

At one point he became part owner of a cattle station with his brother. But his dream of being a farmer and working on the land never came to fruition.

Marriage to Edith

James met Edith Dircksey Brown, his future wife, while she was a student at a boarding school run by his sisters. They married in November 1879, not long after he became Registrar to the Supreme Court. He was thirty, Edith was eighteen.

Their marriage lasted until Edith’s death in 1932. While Edith had to overcome the prevailing attitude that women were not suited to public life, James faced the less obvious problem of being a husband publicly out-shone by his wife. Despite the jibes he sometimes suffered, and the unspoken mocking, he supported her with good humour and provided the stability that she needed in her hectic life.

Cartoon of Mr James Cowan by Pas, 10 Mar 1907
Cartoon from Truth newspaper, 10 Mar 1907

During the 1907 inquest, acting coroner Cowan sometimes came across as uncertain and prone to making gaffs. As a police magistrate, he had a dry wit, but often seemed unsympathetic to those who appeared before the bench. But Peter Cowan’s biography of his grandmother suggests that, while Edith was respected by all, it was James who held the family together and elicited the lasting affection of his grandchildren.