On January 1, 1915, the only enemy action to take place on Australian soil during World War I erupted on the outskirts of Broken Hill. That morning, as a full train of open ore wagons departed for the annual Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows picnic in Silverton, it was set upon by two residents of the North Broken Hill camel camp, Mullah Abdullah and Mahomed Gül. They shot dead four and injured seven more. The ensuing siege, in which the pair held off an assortment of police, army and Broken Hill rifle club members, lasted several hours.
This is a largely forgotten episode of Australian history and little is known of the perpetrators. In Oddfellows, a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the attack, Nicholas Shakespeare seems content to leave some aspects of the story obscure. In fact, he spends much of the novella telling a different story altogether. This concerns a young woman, Rosalind Filwell, and the marriage proposal she has been told to expect from local miner Oliver Goodmore. It is only when Rosalind strikes up a friendship with cameleer turned ice-cream vendor Gül, who is despised by Oliver as a “Turkey lolly” (though he came from what is now Pakistan) and who gives her a glimpse of a world beyond country NSW, that we see the two narratives collide.
The social fabric of Broken Hill was torn apart by the war. As trade with Germany was suspended, many young men lost their jobs and enlisted to fight. The resentment of those who remained fell on the residents of “Ghantown”, whom they saw as competition for work. Shakespeare captures this historical moment beautifully and in elegant prose creates a complex inner life for Rosalind, who is a wonderfully drawn character.
He feels slightly less at ease writing from Gül’s perspective. He gives us the facts. Both men were being persecuted by local bigots and both left notes declaring their allegiance to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed V, who sided with Germany and declared a holy war against Great Britain and her allies. Yet Gül’s jihadist radicalisation feels sudden and you are left wanting to know more about him and his life.
It’s a fascinating story, however, and skilfully told. It is also timely. Not just because it is the centenary of the battle this month, but because the story Shakespeare tells resonates so deeply with current tensions. It is weightier than its length might suggest. SH
Vintage, 128pp, $14.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Nicholas Shakespeare, Oddfellows ". Subscribe here.