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Marshall, Alan (1902–1984)

Alan Marshall, by Joh Ebeli, c.1970

Alan Marshall, by Joh Ebeli, c.1970

Eltham District Historical Society, 00666

Sometimes I do resent death – life isn't long enough." Alan Marshall was 78 when, four years ago, he delivered that pronouncement, so typical of his whole-hearted approach to life.

The life that Marshall couldn't have enough of ended on Saturday in the Melbourne nursing home where the author had spent his last years; but few have better demonstrated how courage and persistence can triumph over disability.

Marshall was crippled by polio as a six-year-old, and the story of his determination to overcome the handicap of a withered leg served as the subject matter for 'I Can Jump Puddles', his most famous book, which sold more than eight million copies internationally and was filmed for television and the cinema.

Two other autobiographical works, 'This Is The Grass' and 'How Beautiful Are Thy Feet', deal with his later struggles to find acceptance; and it is typical that his last published work, a collection of his early stories and journalism, should be titled 'Alan Marshall's Battlers'. As his life-long friend and fellow author Judah Waten has remarked, the unemployed, itinerant workers and other battlers peopled Marshall's stories.

Polio made Marshall a battler from his early years, but he refused to see his disability as a limitation.

"They call us handicapped now, not cripples," he told an interviewer several years ago. "But I've never felt handicapped, and it is a great mistake to think of the life of a cripple as tragic. I've never let my crippled leg stop me doing what I want to do.

"You see, I've never suffered because of my affliction, but I did suffer because of other people's attitudes toward it. What you give out people take back, so, if you feel like a cripple, they accept that and treat you accordingly."

Marshall was born at Noorat, Victoria, in 1902, and though he at first studied accountancy he decided early on to make his living as a writer. He worked as a bookkeeper and at a variety of journalistic jobs, and although his short stories won a number of awards in the 1930s, his first book, 'These Are My People', was not published until 1944.

Apart from numerous short stories, Marshall wrote 24 books. He also received many fellowships and awards. He received a Commonwealth Literary Fund Fellowship in 1954; in 1972 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1981, in recognition of his services to literature, a member of the general division of the Order of Australia.

Notable among his awards was that of the Soviet Order of Friendship, made in 1977 in recognition , of his life-long commitment to fostering friendship between Australia and the USSR, the first country outside Australia to put his works into print. He was for many years president of the Australia-USSR Society and 'I Can Jump Puddles' sold five million copies in the Soviet Union. His books were admired there, he maintained, "because none are political and all deal with, childhood".

Alan Marshall's name will be perpetuated by the Alan Marshall Award, an annual prize inaugurated by the Victorian Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1976, but above all he will be remembered through his books, and the perception and courage revealed in them.

"Handicaps are common to us all," he told the Washington reception in 1981 at which he was one of 22 authors honoured for their contribution to literature about the disabled.

"When I realised this, my problem ceased to be a personal one. It became one of the problems of living, and there were times when I welcomed it like a worthy antagonist. It enlarged my understanding of people, and people were the source of my writing".

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Citation details

'Marshall, Alan (1902–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/marshall-alan-14935/text35394, accessed 26 August 2019.

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