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BOOK REVIEW: This Accidental Present — A Story of Two Families

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This Accidental Present is the little-known Brisbane story of the connection between two prominent Australian families, the Cilentos and the Noonuccals, and the birth of a child in 1953 that could not be acknowledged, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

THIS ACCIDENTAL PRESENT is the fascinating story, both intimate and international, of the intersecting lives of extraordinary people. Sir Raphael and Lady Phyllis Cilento were among the most important families in Queensland in the 1950s and Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), was an Aboriginal woman who went to work for them in 1951 as a domestic.

Ross Wilson’s exploration of this story of two families began with listening to members of both families. This Accidental Present is the first telling of this extraordinary story. Wilson has nurtured this vivid story from many long conversations with members of both families, as well as close friends of the people in the story. He tells the story with permission and support from those who generously shared their memories with him.

When Oodgeroo Noonuccal (the “unknown”, but named Kath Walker) went to work as a housekeeper for one of Brisbane’s most influential families – the Cilentos – she couldn’t have guessed how much her life would change. Kath Walker’s daily life through the 1950s was in the shadow of “The Act”, which governed all Indigenous people in Queensland.

In 1951, Kath Walker became the live-in housekeeper for the Cilento family, an illustrious Brisbane medical family with connections to the United Nations, and – through Diane Cilento and her husband, Sean Connery – global show business. The Cilento family lived a largely public life in medicine, politics and the arts. It was probably Queensland’s most worldly family through its connections.

In 1953, Kath had a son, Vivian, with the scion of the Cilento clan, Dr Raff Cilento Jr, who didn’t acknowledge his paternity.

By the 1970s though, she travelled the world as one of Australia’s most important writers. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, as she was known by then, became a best-selling poet in Australia and an important Aboriginal activist, while Raff Cilento Jr would become a neurosurgeon in New York.

Vivian Walker became a renowned choreographer and dancer in Sydney and London and, for a while, part-owner of the world’s largest gay disco in West Hollywood.

Examining the extraordinary life of Kabul Noonuccal – who changed his name from Vivian Walker at the same time as his mother – as a performing arts polymath and his premature death from AIDS, makes for a riveting study by documentary producer and writer Ross Wilson that makes 20th-century Brisbane come alive.

Yet at the heart of the lifelong relationship between these families was a secret. On her deathbed, Ooodgeroo wanted to know whether Lady Cilento ever knew that Vivian was her grandson.

The Past (Oodgeroo Noonuccal)

Let no one say the past is dead.

The past is all about us and within.

Haunted by tribal memories, I know

This little now, this accidental present

Is not all of me, whose long making

Is so much of the past.

This Accidental Present is published by AndAlso Books and was launched at Lourdes Hill College on 1 June 2023. Ross Wilson was joined on stage by David Malouf, Professor Valerie Cooms, a niece of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Raymond Walker, Oodgeroo’s grandson.

Ross Wilson was born and educated in Brisbane. For the last 30 years, he has worked mostly in television either as a film/video editor, writer, director, producer or executive producer. For many years, he worked at Nine’s Sunday programme. His most recent credits include Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian, Miriam Margolyes: Australia Unmasked, The Mosque Next Door and The Swap.

This Accidental Present is his first book.

This Accidental Present is available from AndAlso Books for $33 (paperback) RRP.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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