decay & doubt: James Keir

decay & doubt – open book

The true story of James Keir, the father of the Keir family, a market gardener, a devout man in the Church of Christ, who arrived in Australia in the 1850s.  My neighbour – if I was alive in the lmid to late-1800s.

Eight of his 13 children and about 12 grandchildren died before reaching aged ten. 

But he was long-lived – dying of senile decay, and asthenia in 1903, two years after the death of his wife, Catherine who died of heart failure and asthenia.

I don’t know if the word asthenia is used that much these days, I have not heard it before. Yet it crops up a lot on old death certificates. It means unduly weak and fatigued. When I think of James and Catherine Keir, I imagine the mother worn out from bearing 13 children and dying of a broken heart; and James, the father, similarly worn out by hard work and despair, and mad with grief.

JAMES KEIR death certificate,
in the final column you can see the list of his surviving and deceased children.
excerpt from The Third Schedule, Deaths in the District of Cheltenham, in the State of Victoria, Registrar Walter Meares

This is an imagined conversation he is having with himself, god and angels as he faces the end of his life as he grapples with his past and his faith through the fog of senile decay. The text in this book comes from a number of sources. As James was deeply religious, some passages as the one below, are from the bible.

After my father died I ended up with his church missal, and not being a person of faith myself, re-deployed some of this into the book as well. Other text comes from the beautiful and strange book, The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox.

Page one, James and Catherine leave Scotland. The text is from Matthew 9:1
decay & doubt, concertina book, 23 pages, 16 x 27 cm


Being embarked, I passed over and came to my own town

Point Nepean Road

Each prayer uttered

each storm

each danger

each death

each sickness

each deliverance granted you

gives you a pull God-ward



I was a willing servant of Christ

I found work as a gardener

cultivating vast plantations of suffering

my mind is full to the brim with corpses

untasted fruit withered around its seed.

Lucifer sent me

I am sure

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

He cried to the lord in their need

Waterfalls of death


until you can’t get another breath


it was as I’d had my skin stripped off

a sudden wail

pale past with present


in the thousand tongues of humankind

Peace, Perfect Peace

“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall 

ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you”

Well, that’s what they say.

You’re wrong, Father.

I didn’t care to lose my safe place in the world,

God is merciful”, 

The angel whispered,

‘Come back into the church’

A god who will not explain himself, who won’t be questioned

who wants to be obeyed, not understood

who blinds people with their own light

their own world’s loveliness

I had a girl once.

“Little girl, I tell you to get  up”

young girl I say to you arise”

Wake up, please

Please lord

He flatly refused

But she died

“My God, My God, 

Why have you abandoned me?”

Does he see me?

Are you feeling calmer?


I should have cut off my hair and put it in their little hands

Before they were buried, as widows still do in the pays.

Other children died

Two babies

One four year old


the girl

a son

a tiny child

my blessed granddaughter


He could hear his voice

wild with exhaustion


with its terrors

Stripped of all human expression

Scarely able to speak.

Their childhoods, their youth


throat so swollen

to scarlet fever or diphtheria

and rash



How is it that you have no faith?

Ask God.

3 thoughts on “decay & doubt: James Keir

  1. What a beautiful work. I am curious about your thoughts on the use by artists of the personal stories/histories of other people in their own work. I am working on an artist’s book which deals with some painful chapters in the life of a now deceased member of my family. I struggle a bit with the responsibility inherent in the use of someone else’s story in one’s own work, particularly of someone who is no longer around to give or deny permission. May I ask where you came upon the story of the Keir family? Again, my compliments on your lovely and powerful work.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and kind comments Patricia. Well, I think it is the role of artists, writers and others to interpret lives – hopefully sensitively. It can be a bit tricky when there are challenging or sensitive stories to tell. You can read about the inspiration for this work in another post on my website … KEIRLAND; there is so much more awaiting to be uploaded! Warm wishes. Anne

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