50 Treasures: Life on a Barrier Reef Island or Island Interlude

Our twenty-fifth treasure is an unpublished manuscript from an important north Queensland literary and political figure. From the Library Archives comes Life on a Barrier Reef Island or Island Interlude by Jean Devanny.

Liz Downes answers the question "why is this significant?"

Jean Devanny’s unpublished manuscript, Life on a Barrier Reef island, was written in the 1950s. Newly arrived in Townsville, which was to become her final home, Jean spent several months in 1950 and 1951 living on Magnetic Island, confessing she was first attracted to the place by the presence of its windmills! It was an odd interest but once she had settled into her free and easy guesthouse at Alma Bay, made a friend of the landlady (and her dog) and become acquainted with her neighbours, she found there was so much more to explore, discover and celebrate—by day and night—than windmills.

Life on a Barrier Reef Island or Island Interlude, an unpublished manuscript by Jean Devanny. Photograph by Michael Marzik.
What leaps off the neatly-typed pages is her exuberant delight at everything and everybody she encounters. Entranced by the shapes and vivid colours of the landscape and its riot of tropical flora, she claims the view from the hill above Alma Bay surpasses one far more ‘traditionally romantic’ that she had enjoyed in Sicily. Even the holiday-makers added to this rainbow palette: ‘Almost nude bodies ranged from pallid-white to honey-brown. The girls lived in their polychromatic swimsuits, older women wore garish sunfrocks and carried gorgeous beach umbrellas.’

The nights were equally bewitching when the calm waters off the jetty would flicker with the reflection of stars appearing like ‘a host of fireflies’ and shoals of little fish would leap clean out of the water, to fall back ‘scattering showers of diamonds, with a splash.’

Jean Devanny with Stan White and Dr Hugo Flecker examining a nesting site of the nutmeg pigeon on Woody island. Photographer: Michael Sharland. Jean Devanny Album, NQ Photographic Collection, NQID13965
It was perhaps the wildlife that fascinated her the most. Her great friend, Cairns doctor Hugo Flecker, had undoubtedly inspired and encouraged this interest. She proved an alert student, soon writing articles for the newly-formed North Queensland Naturalists Club. So it was a matter for fascination not alarm when, on her first night at Alma Bay, her bedroom became ‘a menagerie of creatures, flying, hopping, running or creeping’. Moths collected ‘in droves’ on the walls, frogs dropped from nowhere onto the bed and scarab-beetles ‘hissed and phizzed’ inside her mosquito net. Outside flying-foxes squealed in the pawpaw trees and possums leaped and scraped on the roof above her head.

Everything absorbed her, from the stone-curlews ‘wailing like tortured spirits’ to the mating habits of the St Andrew’s Cross spider, or the massing together of the strange day-flying moths. The soaring flight of the red-backed sea-eagle was as captivating to watch as the mud-wasp patiently constructing her nest, one tiny mud-pellet at a time. The incredible spectacle of a whale defending itself from a pack of thresher sharks is so thrillingly related that readers can imagine they, too, are watching the drama from the same vantage point.

Jean Devanny (right) and friend on Magnetic Island, Jean Devanny Album, NQ Photographic Collection, NQID13769
Despite the exhaustion and ailments which had begun to dog her later years, Jean’s physical feistiness is evident in her determination to walk everywhere, spurning offers of lifts or the island’s buses. Her bold spirit led her to make friends even with the reclusive Clarrie Scrivener, who built his shack at White Lady Cove, accessible only by boat or a low tide scramble round a rocky headland. She dubbed him ‘The Dreamer’, either for his philosophical cast of mind or his poetic turn of speech. She thought nothing of inviting herself aboard a fishing lugger headed to the outer barrier, sleeping between coils of rope on the deck, alert to the magic and mystery of the ocean and its inhabitants and ever curious about the skills and character of those who made their living from the sea. And while she might have been terrified at finding herself in one of the small, flat-bottomed dories being pursued, buffeted and nearly overturned by a hammerhead shark almost as big as the boat, it is clear that she was thrilled by it too!

Townsville Bulletin, 21st November 1969
The manuscript reveals aspects of Devanny’s character that could too easily be overshadowed by her stormy political activity and her literary ambitions and achievements. Here we discover her irrepressible sense of adventure, her endless fascination with nature and her considerable knowledge about its multitude of life forms. We sense her lust for life and the openness of her nature which attracted around her a motley company of friends eager to be her guides and companions. Her descriptions of the island’s landscapes, vegetation and wildlife reveal an artist’s appreciation of form and colour and a naturalist’s powers of observation and capacity for enchantment. For today’s readers it is her talent as a descriptive writer of place and her absorbing interest in her fellow human beings that bring the manuscript so vividly to life.

Ms Jennifer Tompkins (Special Collections Volunteer) working with the Jean Devanny Archive. Note that the books by Jean Devanny in the picture are from the North Queensland Collection.
For those of us who also know and love ‘our Maggie’, whether that knowledge and affection is recently acquired or has grown over decades of visits and holidays, Jean Devanny has left us something very precious; an intimate portrait of the place in simpler, less sophisticated and, dare I say, more eccentric times which will soon have slipped beyond the reach of living memory.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University. 

Author Biography 
Liz was employed at JCU library from 1975-2011 and also studied for a BA, specialising in English literature and Australian history. She now volunteers with Special Collections, writing blog posts about collection items. Apart from keeping up with the lives of her two grandsons, Liz’s major interest lies in wildlife conservation. She is currently vice-president of the local branch of Wildlife Queensland (WPSQ) which tries to raise community understanding and appreciation of the natural environment as well as undertaking practical projects and conservation advocacy with all levels of government. Before retirement made life too busy, she sometimes wrote poetry.