Back of Beyond by Jenny Old

This memoir, initially entitled McAllister, was first independently published by Ocean Reeve Publishing and marketed widely in Australia by its author.  Its enthusiastic response prompted Allen & Unwin to seek to republish and market to an international audience.  With the intention of attracting American readers it was reintroduced with a new look and title, Back of Beyond.  The author’s home photos again adorned the cover, but designer Rovina Panetta arranged the pictures in a way that spoke more of the outback that Americans could envisage than the previous version which displayed a personal snapshot of the author’s life.

It is some way into the book before the owners of the McAllister station are revealed.  I confess that until I realised it was owned by shareholders, I wondered how three very young people could acquire a sizeable chunk of Australia’s Gulf country.  Despite their youth, to work a cattle station was clearly an opportunity that Rick Old and his equally enthusiastic friend Paul Williams could not pass up.  It was into this mix that Rick’s girlfriend, Jenny Bull arrived in 1969.

From their first months in a small shed with wings propped up on one side, to the years in the self-sustaining outback homestead they created, this story is one of resilience, optimism and the ardent enthusiasm of youth.

Jenny Old has written in an easy conversational style with every page documenting the adversities of the cattle business, joys in the friendships forged, and elements battled in this amazing wide brown land.  Jenny had her babies, raised domestic animals, an orchard and kitchen garden, nurtured an oasis of lawns, shrubs and flowers around a house she and Rick had created themselves out of mud bricks.  When she wasn’t doing all that, she was hostess to a steady succession of jillaroos, stockmen and guests who were invited or invited themselves for work or business or simply out of curiosity.  Somewhere in there the Old’s also welcomed family who generously reminded them they were loved beyond McAllister. 

Then there was the stock.  A motely lot of various breeds to begin with, eventually they ran 5,000 head of Brahman cattle on 234 square miles of the outback.  Jenny, who’d grown up on a farm in New South Wales, honed her skills as a musterer and fencer working beside the men in the harshest of conditions.  A sincere compliment about her capabilities from an Aboriginal stockman was the ultimate proof of her worth.  In the early seventies when the bottom fell out of the beef business, the Olds had to diversify – they built a road house at the junction of four of the old beef roads and borrowed money to buy the McAllister shareholders out.  Assuming the debt themselves saved the worry of the others being inconvenienced – and yet, now deeply in debt, their boundless enthusiasm prevailed.

This is not just a wonderful memoir, but a slice of Australian history that shares stories of the beef industry and weather events, the resilience of youth and the cooperation between hardy people living in extraordinary conditions. And it’s a testament to the love of country.

I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading its prequel – Innocent Nurses Abroad which documents Jenny’s life before her adventures in the Gulf country.