Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The Wonder of Little Things is the life story of Ngadjuri Elder, Vince Copley, who in his 85 years helped make life a little better for First Nations people. At the urging of his wife, Brenda, he embarked on this writing with the help of Irish-Australian Lea McInerney who also grew up on the traditional lands of the Ngadjuri people in South Australia. Lea’s writing has been published in the Griffith Review and other literary magazines.
The writing style follows that of a personal narration – ‘Welcome to my story. It’s a simple story of a simple person, who’s lived a long life now’ (4). After reading the book, it is hard to think of Vince Copley as a ‘simple’ person. This book tells us that at an early age he was well known as a great cricketer, footballer and premiership-winning coach, being awarded many medals. Photographs in the book show his dark face among the rest of the white team players. His contribution is acknowledged by the Vince Copley Medal, an award that recognises the ‘most outstanding cricketer’ at the annual Lord Taverner’s Statewide Indigenous Carnival.
Later in his life, he became a great diplomat helping to change South Australian race legislation. With his lifelong friends from school, Charlie Perkins, John Moriarty and Gordon Briscoe he brought about much change for aboriginal people throughout Australia.
Their work involved much travel, here in Australia and overseas, where they met many well-known and influential people such as Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, David Gulpilil, and The Queen. Vince says that great people have an aura about them. You could feel their greatness (266). He talks about these times with sincerity and humour. They met with Ali in Kuala Lumpur where Vince says, ‘He was in the penthouse, and we were in the basement’ (223).
I was interested to discover what it was about this man that allowed him to achieve what he did. We know that as a part-Aboriginal person, he struggled along the way under Australian laws at the time, when First Nations people were not counted in the census and their every move was under government scrutiny and control. He lost his father and older brother when young and his mother died when he was fifteen.
The book tells how he worked his way around racism and tried to keep positive and enjoy life. He learned quickly that dark skinned people were treated differently but that it was best not to let yourself get upset. It was better to just walk away (123).
St Francis’s Church of England boy’s home, where he went at age ten, had a great influence on his life. Experiences in the home welded the boys together. These friendships lasted a lifetime. Between them they’d eventually work things out, one way or another (91). They believed that life has to go on. You’re part of a team and you do the best you can. That then becomes the reality (103). Six boys from this school became recipients of the Order of Australia, five played international sport, some received university doctorates, others bravery medals while another designed the Aboriginal flag (280). But he never forgot his mother’s words, ‘Always remember you’re as good as anybody else’ (166).
Young and fit, he was not afraid to work hard. He says that he tried to make it part of his life that he was consistent and didn’t let anyone down (142). He wanted to present himself as a good clean person and a good dresser to show white people that aboriginal people are not much different from them (142). In his own little way, he was contributing to a different type of thinking (197).
At his funeral early in 2022, his daughter said that people didn’t see colour with him at all. He was just a good mate to so many people. He just had this gift, and I think part of that was self-respect. He exuded confidence and self-worth. He didn’t let the colour of his skin stop him from dreaming, or from pursuing goals and then achieving them. These sentiments are evident in the stories shared in the book.
Through writing this book, it was Vince Copley’s hope that the reader would come to understand a different impression of what life was about and appreciate the existence of other people in the world.
The cover of the book is the painting Mimyma Kutjara by Venita Woods which tells the story of two sisters as they travel home across country. The text is enhanced with sixteen pages of photographs which verify much of the facts provided. I believe the title of the book explains the many things Copley enjoyed learning throughout his busy life. He tells the reader that he didn’t learn a lot in school, not in the classroom, but he learned a lot from life. From his travels he learned much about people, places, different foods, customs and ceremonies. When in Alice Springs, he learned things from traditional Aboriginal people that he did not know. All these things he found wonderful.
This book shares the life’s work of a First Nations man who approached life in his own unique way and used his sport and other skills to break down many barriers making life better for people who had been disadvantaged.
The Wonder of Little Things
by Vince Copley with Lea McInerney