Review: A Man Called Yarra by Stan Yarramunua with Robert Hillman

Erich Mayer

Yarramunua recounts his early years with a touch of nostalgia.
Review: A Man Called Yarra by Stan Yarramunua with Robert Hillman

Stan Yarramunua's A Man Called Yarra, published by Nero Black Inc.

Stan Yarramunua was born Stan Dryden. His mother, Charlotte, was an indomitable Aboriginal woman; his father, Frankie, was a charming white Australian petty criminal who was also an alcoholic with an unquenchable wanderlust. It is no secret that now Stan Yarramunua is a successful artist and the owner of popular art galleries in Melbourne, St Kilda and Daylesford. He has raised money to open a place for kids who want to stop using drugs. He eschews government money for that purpose because ‘if you take [it] you have to appoint a committee before you can open a window’. Yarramunua prefers a more personal approach, seeing himself as a person ‘the bad boys, the lost boys who need saving’ listen to – because they know he was once a ‘bad boy’ himself.

Yarramunua recounts with a touch of nostalgia how his first few years were spent in an overcrowded shack near Swan Hill in Victoria. It was a dilapidated home populated by siblings, numerous aunts and uncles, and relatives and friends who would stay for a while. School was the great outdoors. From about the age of five he joined his father on journeys to various parts of Australia, learning how to live hand-to-mouth by stealing, scamming or whatever opportunity chance or ingenuity presented. He learned how to stand up for himself from a father who believed that the best way to settle an argument was with his fists, though his father never assaulted women or children and also hated any form of racism.

By the age of 16, Yarramunua was an experienced criminal who was ready to form his own gang in Shepparton. His reading and writing abilities may have been hampered from a lack of schooling but there was no doubt about his leadership qualities, complemented by personal charm and an astute mind.

Yarramunua tells the story of his early life with amazing candour. He loved and valued his wife and children but that did not put a brake on his numerous casual and not-so-casual affairs. He recounts stories of the jobs he tried and failed at and the jobs at which he succeeded. He may have lied in the past to get this or that employment opportunity but his memoir has the clear ring of truth to it.

By the time he reached his early twenties, it was clear that he found a conventional life difficult; this is not surprising given his upbringing. He was strongly influenced by what he refers to as ‘his hunger for the open road’ and he writes longingly of how ‘what me and the million other blokes…really want is the wind in our hair and not a damned thing to worry about’. It was hard for him to stay in one place and do the same thing day in and day out. Still, he did try to settle down and for a time succeeded. But in spite of the genuine love of his wife and family, he could not seem to curb his self-destructive ways; by that point, Yarramunua was an alcoholic increasingly out of control.

Fortunately, on the tenth anniversary of his father’s death he had what can best be described as a spiritual moment and resolved to give up alcohol. His determination endured and he has not touched a drop since.

From that point on, his life changed for the better. Almost by accident he discovered he could paint, and not only paint but do so instinctively with an Aboriginal vision and style. His organisational ability, charisma and networking skills all led to commercial as well as artistic success.

Yarramunua was always proud to identify as an Aboriginal man and this pride became one of his driving forces. It helped him to withstand some personal tragedies too, the worst of which was partly of his own making. He was also proud when he was designated ‘wise fella’ by an Aboriginal elder who had watched him ‘nat away to a kid who needed a bit of advice’; he has since supported and encouraged countless Aboriginal artists and kids. 

‘Yarramunua’ in fact means ‘wise fella’, and the ways Yarramunua has accrued wisdom throughout his life make for compelling reading. He was also wise to team up with award-winning author Robert Hillman to write this memoir, and the result is a rewarding and inspiring tale.

4 stars ★★★★

A Man Called Yarra
By Stan Yarramunua with Robert Hillman

Imprint: Nero
Biography and Memoir
Black Inc.
Release date: 28 May 2018
Paperback ISBN: 9781863959650
eISBN: 9781743820513
Imprint: Nero
Format: Paperback
Size: 234 x 153 mm
Extent: 256pp

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog