GOING DOWN THE RIVER by Phoebe Moloney

Julie Janson, a Sydney based artist, teacher and writer, she has penned ten plays: Black Mary, Eyes of Marege. This year she published her first novel , The Crocodile Hotel.

Janson is a Dharug woman, whose relatives were some of the first to encounter the violence of colonisation. (The Secret River). For Julie, the knowledge of her ancestry has been many stories and lifetimes in the making. The Janson family left their Aboriginal identity unuttered.

Growing up on the "wrong side' of Hunters Hill during the '60s', Julie found herself surrounded by Anglo-Australians and new immigrant families.

"Ordinary white English Australians, I just didn't get." Julie says. "I was attracted to the girls who were culturally different.

The rebellious daughter of Italian immigrants, my Aunty Chrissy fitted the bill. 

Chrissy remembers teenage Julie as a cracker of an artist.. She recalls the one time she ever saw their disillusioned art teacher smile. During class, Julie plunked a sculptured bust of their teacher's exact likeness on her desk.

At 17, Julie's life took a grievous turn. Her Dad was killed in a car accident.

Neville Jedda Janson.

Julie recalls her father as, "a very gentle, loving man who was always cracking some joke."  He was a returned serviceman, and the family lived in a soldiers housing commission home on the Lane Cove river. Openly identifying as an Aboriginal would have cost Neville his job as a Fire Brigade Officer.

"My father used to sit down at the table with a beer in one hand and a lamb chop. He'd tell stories about his life, the war, his great uncles. He was a great story teller.

Julie's father only ever hinted at the history of his family, his mates called him Jedda and gave him cardboard didjeridoos. Julie remembers going down to Lane Cove River with her father. At low tide they would collect oysters and crabs.

"We kind of lived off the river, it's a wonder we didn't die. I'm sure it was polluted."

The rest of the Janson family lived in a sprawling house in Chatswood, where each of Neville's siblings shared a room with their kids.

"We'd go there for Sunday lunch and we would love that because we would see all our wild cousins. And my grandmother would bring out lunch for twenty people. They had horses and rode them down to the river to trap rabbits. That was Chatswood."

Julie never told her friends about the family secret, which even among the Jansons was rarely articulated. "I knew, but we didn't talk about it".

"The stigma for being Aboriginal was so great you were really despised. You were worse than an animal."

"If you were dark looking you would tell people your were Spanish or a Maori, anything other than Aboriginal."

Julie's father found the families in Hunters Hill  strange. "He would say, ' why don't they go fishing with me and the kids? Why don't they go prawning?"

Neville's death blew the family apart. Her brother developed a serious mental illness and Julie escaped by throwing her self into theatre studies at UNSW. She had a baby at 21. Her mother pushed her towards teaching, as a young single parent she struggled.


Julie accepted a job working as a head teacher on a cattle station in the Northern Territory, it was a remote Aboriginal school, 400 kilometres from the nearest town. 

"I had 52 students from the ages of 4 to 18 and none of then could read or write. There was no telephone, no radio, no tv. I had a cassette player and a few cassettes."

So began the story of The Crocodile Hotel. Julie's first novel is fictional but the detail at the heart of the novel is painfully true. Her experience of the NT changed inexorably when she learnt why the Aboriginal clan elders would not speak to her.

"They looked at me and saw a white teacher, a white person. The people who had killed their grand parents." Julie was living near the site of a massacre.

In 1929, the Aboriginal men and women were shot and the women chased down by white men on horse back from the East African Storage Company. Australian history is one huge slaughter."

Julie said this knowledge provoked something in her she had not felt before, something that she couldn't get away from. She calls it, "waking up and realising you're complicit."

As she travelled between remote communities around Katherine and Arnhemland, Julie became increasingly aware that a history of hatred prevailed. 

One night, Julie's truck broke down while she was with her class. They were stranded for hours with little water. They arrived at a cattle station , a woman answered the door, she refused to help them,. "You can drink at the cattle tank," she said. She gave Julie one tin mug and her class passed the water between them.

The Crocodile Hotel captures the fear inherent in a situation where the segregating borders of cattle station s were demarked by wire fences, vicious dogs, white men and utes. Aboriginal communities were constricted to live on single acres of their traditional lands. Station managers lived off the welfare cheques of their Aboriginal wards, whoe lands they were alsp being paid to manage.

At this time Julie became friends with a young historian from Canberra who was living in the NT recording oral stories of tribal elders. Professor Peter Read, now a renowned historian, describes the atmosphere of the NT in the 1970s as hostile.

"Land Rights were in the air, pastoralists were not at all keen at having people like Julie and myself around. To them we were young radical -looking white people spreading ideas about Land Rights and encouraging people to put applications in for land."

"Of course, there was already talk about Land Rights in Aboriginal communities". "there were people talking about massacres to Julie and I. The pastoralists thought these things were best forgotten or made up."



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Profile about Julie Janson and her life. By journalist Phoebe Moloney: