Often I find myself wanting for words when I set out to say things about Rowan Scrymgeour. A dozen discarded notebooks contain the wreckage of earlier efforts, and fragments scribbled on receipts and napkins litter my desk like shrapnel from a blast. The problem is not that words escape me altogether. The problem is that they burst into babble the moment I try to commit them to the page. It’s as if the soul of Scrymgeour himself refuses to abide containment in words and thwarts all my efforts to concentrate him into some expressible form. But I don’t mean to begin with a writer’s complaint so much as a concession to the inadequacy of writing. Every last word that follows from here is a word I have tortured out of myself. If what I have written sometimes warbles towards the inarticulate, that is the price exacted by torture and the price of articulating Scrymgeour at all.
What compels me to speak of Scrymgeour now is the total, deceptive erasure of his complexities in the only other likeness of him in public view today. The statue was unveiled on June 18, 1971, outside the council chambers of the town of Jericho in the deserts of central Queensland. I have been there and I have seen it, twenty-two miles east of the site on which Scrymgeour built his homestead and a century after the settler was slaughtered while his dwelling was burned to the ground. Mounted atop a sandstone plinth in a weatherproof coat that licks at his heels, he stands beneath the scorching sun to gaze out over the western plains with the determined demeanour of the visionary pioneer. His deepsunk eyes should be shielded from view by a brow pinched into a squint by the glare, and his high cheekbones and tight, thin lips should have been warped by a scowl, but the certainty of the sculptor’s mould has forgiven his every crudeness. It’s likely that what suggested his features to whoever cast him in three dimensions was a scratched and faded ferrotype portrait taken in 1890, or one of the reproductions Scrymgeour published in broadsheet newspapers that year, and so it’s possible that the flaws in the art say less about the sculptor’s skills than about the shortcomings of his source. But the face in that portrait has haunted me for more than half my life, ever since my mother showed me a copy when I was a boy, and looking at it now I see that it undermines the statue’s authority by clearly afflicting the settler with hardships missing from the bronze.