Eyrie, Tim Winton

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In mid 2003 I was working out of Newman carting concrete sleepers for a new iron ore rail line. There was accommodation supplied but I was staying with ex-Mrs Legend who had been living and working up there for the previous 15 months. As it happens she was getting ready to leave and showed me the accounts for a Fremantle vegetarian cafe she was interested in – I do sometimes, infrequently, use my accounting degree. Only after I said I could see some problems did she tell me that she had already bought in.

The cafe was in the bottom floor of Johnson Court, a ten storey, State Housing-built block of flats in the centre of Freo, where her sister, M lived. Milly battled away with those problems for years, moving to bigger premises nearby and establishing the cafe as a successful (and still ongoing) business. But the long hours wore her down, halved her weight till she was just a shadow and eventually she sold out to her chef and went back to mining.

A few years later, living again in Newman, she bought a flat on one of the upper floors of Johnson Court and then when she moved back to Perth and bought a house I bought it from her and one day in the not so distant future will retire there, surrounded by restaurants, book shops, the Luna-SX art house movie theatre and working wharves.

I say all this because Johnson Court is the apartment block Winton calls the Mirador in his 2013 novel Eyrie, set in the period immediately following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. I remember visiting M at that time. She had moved her millinery business to one of those shops on the ground floor and my friend Janet and I had our bikes stolen while we were inside talking to her. We didn’t see Winton, but M says she sometimes saw him around town.

Winton describes both the exterior and interior of the flats accurately, as he does Fremantle in general, its many disturbed inhabitants, its buildings, the South Beach, the river, in great detail and with some contempt, but with one odd item of artistic licence – he turns the block around by 90 deg so that it is front on to Adelaide Tce instead of side on and has consequently much better views over the city to the river mouth, the container port and the sea.

Eyrie might be the novel where the protagonist – Tom Keely, 49, a long time spokesman for the Greens now unemployed and suffering a nervous breakdown – is closest to being the adult Winton himself, not in situation I hasten to add, but in character and background. The story is that Keely has been subsisting for some time on alcohol, prescription drugs and what’s left of his severance pay when his isolation is penetrated by a woman and six year old boy who move into another nearby flat on the same, upper level. The woman, Gemma turns out have been someone he knew in childhood, who with her sister would turn to Keely’s mother, Doris for protection when her father came home drunk and violent, and who had to some extent, at that time displaced Tom’s sister Faith in Doris’ affections – or at least in her attentions.

The Keely’s had moved away from that neighbourhood when Tom was 14. Tom and Faith (and Doris) had gone on to university educations and prominent careers. Tom had married, but had divorced or been divorced by his lawyer wife when she got pregnant to a workmate. In his younger days Tom had sometimes seen Gemma around – at the trashy end of blonde, leggy and beautiful – but without ever speaking to her.

The child with Gemma turns out to be her grandson Kai, his mother, whom Gemma had had at 16 to an unnamed father, a druggie, in prison. Gemma ignores Keely’s indifference and turns to him for company. He in turn begins to feel responsibility for Kai, left nightly on his own while Gemma stacks shelves at the local supermarket.

The themes which Winton uses this book to explore are – of course – families and growing up, but also the difficulties/responsibilities of acting in loco parentis; and failures of communication across the middle class/working class divide.

Winton, like many of Perth’s middle class, is furiously envious that they are out-earned by the working class, skilled and semi-skilled, bogans in mcmansions. In the novel and again in his interview with Kim (Reading Matters) he vents about a woman driving buses on the mines: “It’s absurd that you can make $150,000-$200,000 driving a bus in the Pilbara”. But Gemma is not just working class but on the bones of her arse, and in hiding from her daughter’s violent, drug-dealing partner. She both wants Keely to be attracted to her, to acknowledge that he once lusted after her, and distrusts him for his education, cannot trust him not to look down on her, a situation with which I was achingly familiar during my last, failed marriage.

I had been following some debate about Winton’s most recent novel, The Shepherd’s Hut in Reading Matters which brought me to this in Tony’s Book World:

… Winton throws this brilliant setup away and forsakes this vivid family story to give us entirely something else, and that is where I think Winton loses his way.

Great literature is about character, and Eyrie has the makings of a great novel, but in the end Winton squibs it here too, unable to pull off the ending without throwing in gratuitous elements of action, suspense and gangsterism, making it a different, less satisfactory type of novel altogether.

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Tim Winton, Eyrie, Hamish Hamilton, 2013. Audiobook: Bolinda Audio, read by Michael Veitch (11 hours)

see also:

my reviews of Winton’s The Turning (here)
Kim/Reading Matters: Eyrie (here), Interview (here), other Winton reviews (here)

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Journal: 011. The Heaviest, Longest, Run in the World

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During the mining boom, say from 2009 to 2013, the company I drove for had what was probably the heaviest regular long-distance run in the world. With heavy duty prime movers towing four trailers each, loaded with 100 tonne of powdered cement for an overall gross of 152 tonne, our fleet of 10-12 trucks delivered on average two loads a day from Perth to the Nifty copper mine in the Great Sandy Desert, east of Port Hedland, taking five days for the 4,000 km round trip.

So for all that period the Nifty paste plant took a couple of hundred tonnes of cement each day, mixing it into a slurry of waste water and tailings which was pumped underground to backfill tunnels no longer required for extracting ore. In fact the basis of my employment as a tanker driver for 15 years was mines taking hundreds of tonnes of cement and lime – daily in the case of the bigger mines – for backfilling, waste treatment and ongoing construction.

There are companies using quads – four trailer sets – all through the North, some with higher gross weights than we operated at, but most on leads of no more than 400 km, fuel tankers running out to the mines and side tippers delivering ore to port or processing plants where establishing a dedicated rail line was deemed uncommercial. But as far as I can tell, we were unique in the world for a long distance run at our weights. By comparison, European and American long distance trucks, “18 wheelers”, operate at 38 – 45 tonne, Australian b-doubles at 64T, double road trains at 80T and triples at 110T.

My truck, “Buffalo”, was a Mack Titan with a 600 HP 15 litre Cummins diesel engine, an 18 speed Roadranger gearbox, and heavy duty drive axles with lockable diffs, a 48” sleeper cab with king single bed, and three airconditioners – one in the dash, one in the sleeper for when the truck was running, and another in the sleeper with its own powerpack for nights. Given that we were running out past Marble Bar, the hottest town in Australia, they were all needed! There was a big fridge under the bed, a 240v power supply, and storage lockers everywhere, but not quite enough headroom to stand between the seats. I had this Mack from new and drove it for six years.

Sitting at home on a scheduled break, or an unscheduled – Nifty had a history of poor maintenance and then there was the rainy season – I might get a call in the middle of the day to go and load. I would take my lead trailer down to Munster, Cockburn Cement’s 1950s-era cement works, pull up under the MineCem silo and load 24T – purely by guesswork based on estimated rate of flow and the air pressure gauge on the trailer suspension – drive to the weighbridge, check weigh, go back, top up, weigh again, print out delivery dockets. Meawhile Pete or Steve would be doing the same with my b-double set. We would meet back at the yard, I would hook up a dolly

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(a tri axle set with a drawbar to the trailer in front and a turntable to connect to and support the trailer being towed) behind my trailer, reverse it under the front of the b-double, set Road Train signs fore and aft and I was off.

At this stage I was grossing about 110T (and I was still in the middle of Perth, so watch out who you cut in front of!). Round to the BP for fuel, 1,700 litres, and then I was really off. Round the airport onto Roe Highway to Great Northern Highway, through the vineyards of Upper Swan, stop at Gingers for coffee, fish & wedges, getting dark, through Bullsbrook, open road again, one last set of traffic lights at the intersection with Brand Highway (the coast road) and we’re into the hills. First climb Little Bindoon Hill to Chittering Roadhouse (very nice home made pies but keep going), cars and trucks backing up behind then swarming past in the short overtaking lane, down the other side through Bindoon and on to the one big climb, Bindoon Hill, hit it at 90 kph, then quickly back through the gears – top, hi split, lo split, 7th, 6th, 5th, into low range, 4th lo, will it hold?, it does, the engine barking, straining but not dropping back. 1700 RPM, 22kph. Up we go. It’s a precarious feeling, all that weight just waiting, for the engine to cough or the wheels to lose traction, to drag you backwards 2, 3 kilometres to the bottom again. Two bends, the road starts to level out, go to 1800 RPM grab 4 high, back into high range, 5 lo, we’re over, 5 hi, 6 lo, starting down the other side, using the engine now to hold us back, slowly gaining speed, round the first bend in 7 lo, letting go, rounding the last left-hander at 100 kph, a short valley and into the next hill, one steep pinch you can do in 5 lo, then over and flat out down a steep drop and one last short climb and that’s the worst of it.

Do a walk around at the next parking bay then it’s more, gentler hills, jarrah and marri (big eucalypts) country still, only partially cleared, flattening out gradually as we slow through New Norcia, old stone convent buildings right up to the road, then the wheatbelt and little, half abandoned farming towns, Dalwallinu the prosperous exception, to Wubin, an old weatherboard roadhouse where everybody stops, and the roadtrain hookup – 20 hectares of sealed surface, trailers in a row and in disorganised ranks around them and on a dirt block too across the road when it’s really busy.

Hopefully it’s around 9.30pm and I can pull up just short of town for a mandatory 7 hour break, away from the constant racket of fridge motors, ice packs, road trains assembling/disassembling, pulling up outside the roadhouse.

Five am start, make coffee, down the street to the hookup, look for a dog (a trailer with a dolly at the front), there’ll be several but some of them will be empty, dropped by trucks heading home. This is the complicated bit: drop my b-double where there’s plenty of room in front of it, drive round to my dog, back onto it (now I have 2 trailers, are you keeping up?), go back so I’m lined up ahead of the b-double, reverse onto it, make sure all the couplings (Ringfeders) are closed and locked, airlines connected, taps open (an easy one to forget till you get to the first long hill and find you have no brakes). Pull forward slowly in Lo/Lo – we have two ‘crawler’ gears below first – the engine roars, we’re off, moving slowly up through the gears, swing wide to miss the power pole at the exit, call out a warning on the CB, “roadtrain, quad, northbound from hookup”, pull out onto the highway, onto the dirt on the far side, watching in the mirror as that last trailer comes round the pole, straighten up, leaning into the weight, still only 30 kph as we crest the hill out of town. Then it’s bends, shallow hills, mallee and the northern fringes of the wheatbelt as we head out, through the westernmost edges of the Great Western Woodlands and into mostly acacia scrub, once sheep country, now largely ungrazed. Set the cruise control at 90 kph, but there’s still plenty of work to do, 200 km, past the two or three houses and the old roadhouse that make up Paynes Find, before the road levels out. Through the gold mining townships of Mt Magnet and Cue, stop for fuel at Meekatharra – 775 km, 900 L – then 400 km of gibber plains broken by (mostly) dry river crossings to Capricorn roadhouse outside Newman, stop for a shower, then on, heavy traffic from here on, trucks servicing all the iron ore mines along the way, workers’ utes, grey nomads (though far fewer than the coast road), quads hauling ore to Hedland. Up the big climb out of Newman, in the dirt, crushed ore really, off the bitumen if there are too many held up behind, much nicer country now, rocky but well treed, on the fringes of the Karajini ranges, past the turnoff to Tom Price, down the long descent through Munjina Gorge, past Auski, the sixth and last roadhouse between the outskirts of Perth and Port Hedland. Over the Fortescue River flats, up and on to a great grassy plateau, then down again, praying Andrew Forrest doesn’t have an ore train on the level crossing gifted him by a state government too servile to demand road/rail overpasses from the big miners. Dark now and lots of cattle. Time to find a parking bay.

Five am, coffee, muesli bar, fruit, yoghurt, call in at Hedland for fuel, then out on the Broome road, 50 km, turnoff to Marble Bar, open, grassy cattle country into the Coongans, a rocky little mountain range, 10 kms of winding, single lane road, call out on the CB to negotiate right of way with the ore tipper quads coming the other way, then down to the T junction outside Marble Bar, plenty of parking, pull up for a walk around, my dash thermometer has shown 50 deg C here, then out on the Woodie Woodie road, one climb, Mt Everest, not bad eastbound but unrelentingly steep and long for the ore trucks coming the other way, make a run at it, back through the gears in a rush, there’s a vertical pinch at the top, if you’re shedding speed too quickly then it’s grab second before you come to a stop and crawl over. Coming the other way the ore trucks are under strict instructions to select second at the bottom and come all the way up at walking pace. Still they break down, drop trailers halfway up, sheer their tail shafts, so check at the top the road down is clear, you can see for miles, let her go, out across the plain to the next climb, over in 5th on a good day then down again, river crossings, concrete fords just above water level, ignore the turnoff to Telfer, 50 kms into Woodie Woodie, past admin, past the mine and out onto the Nifty road, 50 km of graded dirt and sand and twisty little hills, along a line of sparsely vegetated red sandhills and into Nifty.

I’ve waited days to get unloaded at Nifty, sitting in a holding yard in the middle of nowhere, with other drivers or on my own, eating and sleeping in the camp; flew home once and came back two weeks later, after cyclone Rusty, when the road out was closed; have been held up by floods at Karalundi outside Meeka, at Kumarina and at Oakover River near the Telfer turnoff. Have got halfway up the incline on the edge of the pit to the paste plant, as in the pic at the top, lost traction in the rain, slid backwards, been towed up. Have had innumerable problems unloading, turning around in the tailings area to get back out, mud and water knee deep some days, till they finally, after years, made a road through for us. Held on after the boom on short hours and short trips hoping Nifty would come good again, or another contract like it, but it didn’t and here I am, in Brisbane today, driving twice the distance but only half the weight. Ah, those were the days!

Nifty evening (1)

Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford Ginibi

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934 -2011) was a  Bundjalung woman from the NSW north coast. Last week I said Hetty Verolme (here) was the same age as my mum, well so was Ruby Langford. and three Australian women couldn’t have had more different lives. We just need a Toorak or North Shore matron to complete the circle, though of course there would be points of similarity as well as difference. So mum and Ruby grew up in rural communities, with not a lot to go round in those years before and during WWII, did well at school but left early and were soon saddled with young children.

Ruby’s oldest, Billy was born the same year I was and Pearl a year later. Seven others followed, to other fathers, and while mum and dad like most of white Australia, working class and middle class, began to leave post-Depression poverty behind in the 1950s, that was not true of Ruby and her fellow Kooris. Indeed, as I read this book there seemed to be many times until her children were all grown that she seemed to be going backwards.

Ruby’s mother and father separated when she was six. Her mother went to Sydney and raised a new family and it was a long time before Ruby regained regular contact with her. For a while she and her sisters Gwen and Rita were ‘mothered’ by Aboriginal clever man, Uncle Ernie Ord, then her father took them to “Aunty Nell and Uncle Sam in Bonalbo“. She lived an ordinary country life in Bonalbo, which she always looked back on as her home town, her father seeing them occasionally while working away, and a mysterious self-contained Aboriginal stockman who was sometimes in town turning out to be her grandfather.

Ruby describes herself as always having her nose in a book, and a good student but at 16 she left home to join her father and his new family in Sydney and began working as a machinist, sewing shirts. Of course she becomes interested in boys and is soon pregnant. This is a warts and all autobiography, an Australian classic, and another view of Sydney and NSW working class poverty which we are familiar with from the works of Kylie Tennant and Ruth Park. Ruby lists her husbands and we see each of them as real people, but they are also a type – rural workers without trades, drinkers, womanizers and violent when drunk.

At each setback, the man finds work fencing, burning off, labouring, Ruby establishes a home – in a hut or a tent – keeps the home clean, the children fed, pitches in with the outside work, has another baby (gets to spend 2 or 3 weeks in hospital) and then one day the man doesn’t come back, or comes back drunk and belts her.

I felt like I was living tribal but with no tribe around me, no close-knit family. The food gathering, the laws and songs were broken up, and my generation at this time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse than the poorest of the poor whites, and in the case of women living hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and then more kids came along and the men drank and gambled and disappeared. It happened with Gordon and later it happened with Peter [Langford], and my women friends all have similar stories. Neddy [Nerida, her best friend] and I have talked about it often as we get older, and how it’s not always different for our daughters and their kids, but those stories are for later.

There are glimpses of hope – that is I, the reader, thinks she may grasp an opportunity to move towards a middle class life – she is an early member of an association formed by Charles Perkins and is appointed editor of their magazine, but is gone before the first issue; and she wins a prize with a short story. But that is it, she descends into urban poverty and welfare dependence, her children start getting into trouble, Pauline dies, struck by a car, Billy dies next, Ruby begins to drink heavily and becomes morbidly obese. Another son is victimised by police, fires a gun, is beaten and charged with resisting arrest, is jailed, escapes, is recaptured, beaten etc. etc. On release he settles down, buys a house, the solicitor steals his money, he gets into fights, is victimised by police, fires a gun …

Ruby gives up the grog, joins a women’s group, starts writing, gets interested in Aboriginal affairs, in particular the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. As I have said elsewhere and as Ruby Langford documents here, Aboriginals have mysterious accidents when in the hands of police who of course are always found to be not at fault.

Slowly she becomes aware of Koori success stories as well as the failures. Her sister Rita has trained as a teacher and works in teacher ed. At the top of her list of books that shouldn’t be taught is We of the Never Never, Mrs A. Gunn.

Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) made Ruby Langford a success story in her own right and she went on to honorary degrees and four more books. I hope I haven’t given the impression she had an unhappy life, she lived and – so she writes – enjoyed a life of considerable exuberance and love. If you haven’t already, read this book!

 

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988

 

 

The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty E Verolme

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I’ve made known before my ambivalence about Holocaust stories (here) and won’t repeat them, but this one which in any case is not new, was worth listening to and adds to our understanding of the huge variety of places and backgrounds Australians come from.

Hetty Verolme (1930 – ) was born a year or so before my mother and they are both now probably happily and comfortably retired in Melbourne, but their experience of the War was completely different. While mum was attending school in the Mallee and living in relative if frugal post-Depression comfort on the meat, milk, eggs etc of my grandparents’ farm, Hetty Werkendam was confined with her parents, grandparents and two younger brothers, Max and Jack, to the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, her father paying all he could raise to the SS in a vain attempt to have the family sent to neutral Portugal in exchange for German prisoners of war.

Their neighbours being rounded up around for transport to concentration camps, her grandfather mistakenly volunteering to go to a ‘work camp’ (in fact Auschwitz), it was only a matter of time before the Werkendams too were transported, in 1943, to Bergen-Belsen. There – and it is a week or so so since I listened to this – the family were able to stay ‘together’ for a while, mother, Hetty and Jack in a women’s hut, father and Max in a men’s hut, but gathering in the women’s hut until the nighttime curfew. Mother working long hours in the ‘peel room’ attached to the kitchen and bringing back scraps of carrot. Father too having to work and held in a cage for some time for disobedience.

Food is of course inadequate, mostly watery soup and sometimes potatoes. The Germans enforce long daily assemblies in all weathers to maintain their counts of the prisoners but also out of sheer bastardry. This is a ‘solid’ account, told without a lot of emotion, though the facts, like the dead bodies, pile up and have their own force. My initial feeling was that the account was a bit wordy but on reflection I think the word constructions which I found awkward are just reflections of the author’s underlying Dutch language.

Soon father and mother are transported, separately to other camps. The 30 or 40 Dutch children left behind are moved to their own hut under the care of two Polish (and I assume Jewish) women prisoners, in particular ‘Sister’ Luba who, despite Hetty’s initial suspicions, goes to great lengths to secure food and clothing for the children.

Late in the war, the older children are also moved away, but Hetty alone, by then going on 15, secures permission to stay on, in her role as ‘little mother’. She describes the horrors of the other sections of the camp, seen as she walks through it to the kitchen. No gas chambers – though word gets back to them from Auschwitz – but starvation, hard work, sickness and punishments.

She describes a group of women dressed in rags railed in and housed in tents which blow away in a storm. She does not say so but this group includes fellow Amsterdam teenager Anne Frank, soon dead of typhus.

Hetty is herself almost dead of the same disease, which had understandably swept through the camp, when the war ends and the camp is liberated by British troops – the Germans surrender the area around the camp before the end of the war and it is still apparently British territory. The children, clinging to Sister Luba are moved to a comfortable camp where they begin to recover, but are then flown to a school building without facilities in the countryside outside Amsterdam.

The children, and their father are soon reunited. Mother, who has ended up somehow in Sweden is held up for months before she too can return to Holland. Hetty is interviewed for the BBC and elements of her story have been in the public record ever since.

The British on their arrival at the camp found tens of thousands of bodies awaiting burial. Hetty describes them being dumped in great piles visible from her sickbed window. If you have the stomach this Time-Life story includes photos. Pits were dug and SS guards, men and women, were forced into burial details.

Hetty found herself unable to return to school and entered the fashion industry – her father had been a cloth merchant. She migrated to Australia in 1954 and in 1972 was named “Most Successful Migrant”. She was a founder of a trust for the children of Belsen towards which are directed the proceeds from this book. She surprised herself by attending the 50th anniversary of the end of the War at Belsen and found many old friends.

 

Hetty E Verolme, The Children’s House of Belsen, 2000, Audiobook: Bolinda, 2011, read by Deidre Rubenstein

Wikipedia has these as her published works –

  • The Children’s House of Belsen. Published by Werma Pty. Ltd. Perth, Western Australia 2009, 2013 as Trustee for “The Children For Bergen Trust”. ISBN 978-0-9922973-0-5. First published 2000 by Fremantle Press, Western Australia.
  • Hetty: A True Story, Fremantle Press 2010, ISBN 978-19-2136-133-3

see also my ‘Anne Frank’ review: Mirjam Pressler, Treasures from the Attic (here)

The Forgotten Islands, Michael Veitch

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Michael Veitch (1962 – ), the author of this interesting account of the usually overlooked rather than ‘forgotten’ islands of Bass Strait is one of those moderately well known people who have been off and on our screens for years – since the D-Generation of 1985 in his case. I’ve put his photo at the bottom of the post if you want to jog your memory. He writes that he is often half-recognized and that the most puzzling, he says existential, question he is asked is ‘Didn’t you use to be [semi-famous comedian]?’ Strangely, if I met Veitch in a bar that is exactly what I would ask too – an inarticulate compound of “you look familiar” and “aren’t you so-and-so?”.

The book is framed around a story told to him by a friend of his father’s, of the disappearance of a lighthouse keeper’s assistant while fishing off the rocks on Deal Island and the subsequent sighting of the tentacles of a ‘giant squid’. Veitch retells this story often, honing it as he does, interested in whether it may be true, and eventually forms the intention of making his way to the Bass Strait islands, and Deal Island in particular to see for himself.

Veitch of course is a polished performer, making his living by speaking, as a broadcaster and by touring one man shows, and this book, while written in ordinary English, too shows signs of having been ‘polished’. The story telling is slick, the narrative around the ‘giant squid’ story is maintained and tension is built as he makes two or three unsuccessful attempts to reach Deal Island before finally succeeding. And even then he only gets down to the rocks at the last minute.

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Bass Strait (map), the narrow waterway between Victoria and Tasmania is notoriously treacherous, funnelling the westward currents of the Southern Ocean into a narrow, shallow channel and out into the Tasman Sea. Only 7,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, this was land and the many Bass Strait islands a mountain range. The islands are mostly uninhabited, only King Is in the west, with its substantial (Japanese-owned) dairying industry having a reasonable population (1,566). Flinders Is at the eastern end of the Strait is larger, but is mountainous and supports fewer people.

Flinders Is is well known as the last refuge of the Tasmanian Aborigines, collected there after they were almost wiped out by the Black Wars (1820-32). Veitch talks a number of times about the end of the Aborigines and about Truganini (1812-1876) as the last Aborigine, both of which I think are disputed by present day Indigenous Tasmanians.

The book begins as a memoir of childhood summers spent at the holiday home of family friends, during which the ‘giant squid’ story is told, but soon transitions into first a history of Bass and Flinders’ ‘discovery’ and naming of the islands, then to shipwrecks and finally into travelogue. He begins with a visit to Stanley, a fishing port at the western end of Tasmania’s north coast, protected by The Nut, a great granite rock which he climbs and suffers for for days after.

He visits nearby islands, Hunter or Three Hummocks, I forget now, with a long-time former resident. Goes back to his home in Melbourne. Consults a marine biologist, who tells him that a creature from the ocean deeps like the giant squid would explode in the shallow waters of Bass Strait. Visits Flinders and King Islands (separately). Joins a sailing trip from Victoria’s Westernport Bay to Deal Island which fails to reach its destination and turns back to the Prom for repairs. Veitch is furiously seasick all the way, and put ashore at the Prom to rest up strangely finds a hut in the bush full of beer-drinking men who take him in.

He attempts unsuccessfully to join official parties making the journey to Deal Is by boat from Flinders Is, before finally receiving a phone call at home in Melbourne saying that there is a boat with a place for him amongst a party of lighthouse enthusiasts and he at last sets foot on the island.

Of course we are in the hands of someone who tells stories for a living, so first we must make the steep climb to the lighthouse, noting the side track to the beach of the ‘squid story’ on the way. Then lighthouse ascended and admired, we head for the track … no, the party are going to investigate the wreckage of a WWII “bomber” which Veitch, the author of a number of books about WWII flying, recognizes as a light Airspeed Oxford lost, as it turns out, on a training flight from the airforce base at Sale in Eastern Victoria in 1944.

At last, with warnings about the dangers of missing his ride out ringing in his ears, he makes his way down the disused track to a rocky beach, it doesn’t fit the story, we digress to the story of a another shipwreck whose remains can be seen, but then a few steps, he looks to the left, and there surely is the rock slab from which the lighthouse keeper’s assistant was lost.

 

Michael Veitch, The Forgotten Islands, Penguin, 2011. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2016, read by the author.

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Michael Veitch

see also: my review of Robert Drewe’s The Savage Crows (here)

Journal: 010, Day by Day

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At the moment I seem to be doing one round trip a fortnight and I wanted/want to give you an idea of what that is like, day by day. I started making notes but a) diaries are boring, just lists of stuff done; b) after a few days the word count was out of control; and c) I could call it minimalism (see GTL here) but that still wouldn’t make it either interesting or good writing.

So I’ll attempt to both condense and provide a (minimal) narrative arc, a tiny amount of character development and zero dialogue.

Starting at the end of the previous trip: It’s Tuesday arvo June 5. I pull into the depot, wash my truck, go home in the ute, clean up, switch on the desktop pc (which I prefer over my laptop and phone) and later in the evening, pick up Milly from a meeting nearby and run her home. Difficult teenage granddaughter is watching tv/dogsitting. Milly makes us a scratch tea. I go home.

Milly works one week in the city, one week out on a mine. Getting up, having breakfast in time for a bus ride out from the camp and a 6am start means she’s definitely early to bed/early to rise. Most times I visit I’m hanging round for a chat and a third glass of wine and she’s pushing me out the door at 8.30.

Next couple of days I’m mostly on the computer, but on Weds Gee wants me to pick up a second hand double bed. In the rain. I buy a tarp from Bunnings, deliver the bed, get a light tea – fetta salad and pancakes. Read miss 6 and master 8 Ahn Do’s Weirdo. Thurs I meet Milly in town, take the ute, street parking is ridiculously easy for a ‘major’ city, and we have Japanese for a change – I’m still not sure what Ramen is but it had meat in it so I had spring rolls, whole small crabs and sweet potato chips.

Finally, Friday I get a load – so that’s my social life done for the fortnight. Or should be, in fact the load is to Bendigo where mum is visiting B3, so I road train to Echuca (which involves veering all over southern NSW (map)), break up, bring one trailer in, have a pub dinner with mum, B3, sister in law and cousin Kay, go back to Echuca for second trailer etc etc. Next day, unload, park one empty trailer at my nephew’s, run the other to Melbourne. Find a truck stop in the western suburbs. Taxi into Footscray to meet Lou, wander the streets until we finally choose a Vietnamese restaurant, cafe really, but it has a licence and I get to have a drink. Ok, so that’s really the end of my social life (for this 14 days) – well unless I run into old Tom or Dave, but I’m spared.

As is always the way with Dragan’s “you’ll be loading straight home” I don’t. My road train load turns out to be six tonnes. I stick it up the front. At the end of the next day I get a large van for the back half of the trailer. Then hurry, hurry “we have freight for the other trailer in Sydney”. On the freeway back to Bendigo to reunite my trailers, in bumper to bumper nighttime traffic way out into the country – MST’s daily commute, I don’t know how she stands it – B3 who has run our mother back home (Blackburn, Melb) calls to say he’s just behind me. We pull into a truckstop, the coffee franchise is closed and there’s no way I’m drinking McCoffee so we have a chat, I don’t have time to follow him home for tea and a shower, and that’s really the end of my social life for the fortnight. I roadtrain to Hay, leave the loaded trailer at the Caltex, push on to Sydney and put on half a load of steel in the evening and after inevitable delays waiting for something better to turn up the next morning (Sat), put 3 cars up top as pictured above and head for Perth.

Is that the end of it? No it’s not. Another driver has been stuck two days in Goulburn having problems – in his head mostly. His load is now late and he doesn’t look like moving. We swap trailers, I have a smooth run home, the last I see of him he’s at Hay hooking up. At Port Augusta I hear he’s managed to take the wrong road and his lights aren’t working. His name’s Ewan, but I don’t think we’ll see him again.

I get home, ie back to Perth, drop the trailers at Tolls (a parcel express company, once Australia’s largest, now owned by the Japanese Post Office). It’s Tuesday, I go round to Milly’s, make some soup, pick her up from Spanish class.

Image result for blood tony birch

Blood (2011) was Tony Birch’s debut novel, after two short story collections, and was shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin. Why, I don’t know as it’s a bog standard YA melodrama, two brave kids – a teenage boy caring for his younger sister, indifferent mother, evil adults, set in various locations in Victoria and South Australia with some dodgy geography, particularly along the Western Highway connecting Adelaide and Melbourne, and a token cave with Aboriginal paintings with a roadside sign (no doubt saying name carvers and spray painters this way) referencing the token aboriginality of the teenage boy. Lots of you liked Birch’s second, Ghost River (2015), so I approached this one hopefully thinking I might review it. But no. Admittedly it wasn’t helped by the flat delivery in a regional English accent of the old, male reader for the Queensland Narrating Service.

Recent audiobooks

Erle Stanley Gardner (M, USA), The Case of the Fabulous Fake (1969)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (M, Eng), The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard (1894)
Dick Francis (M, Eng), Under Orders (2005)
Robert Galbraith (F, Eng), Career of Evil (2015)
Tony Birch (M, Vic/Aust), Blood (2011)
Lisa Genova (F, USA), Every Note Played (2018)

Currently reading

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don’t Take Your Love to Town

 

All That Swagger, Miles Franklin

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Angus & Robertson 1952 ed.

By the 1930s Miles Franklin, in her fifties, was at last established as a writer, both in her own mind with the relative success of the first three Brent of Bin Bin novels published in 1928, 1930 and 1931, and with the publication, under her own name for the first time since 1909, of Old Blastus of Bandicoot in 1931. Permanently back in Sydney from years overseas in Chicago and London, as “spinster-daughter-cum-housekeeper” in her mother’s house in Carlton (Jill Roe’s words) she was also a leading member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers – with Marjorie Barnard and Frank Dalby Davidson – and was often called on to give talks.

In her last years in London Franklin had written two ‘Mayfair’ novels. One eventually came out in 1950 as Prelude to Waking (by Brent of Bin Bin), the other, Bring the Monkey, was published in 1933 but sold only a few hundred copies. This marked the end of an excursion into writing about town-based women, her lived experience since the turn of the century. She had already returned to the Bush where her heart had always been with Brent of Bin Bin, but All That Swagger was to be her great triumph.

Jill Roe believes that this was the book Franklin had to write. The trigger was the death of her father – the novel is a fictionalized account of her Franklin grandfather’s pioneering exploits – but Miles “seized upon the Franklin experience over time as the perfect vehicle for what she wanted to say about contemporary Australia, with its still-uncertain culture and fragile environment.”

Ignoring her commitments to publishers Blackwood for another Brent of Bin Bin novel – Mary Fullerton was told to tell Blackwood that ‘William Blake’ (Brent) was probably in the United States – it took her only a few months, to Aug. 1933, to knock out a rough draft of 400 odd pages and two more to come up with a first typescript.

I have written before that Franklin gave up on her feisty independent heroines to write a novel that men would approve of – though I can’t find any evidence that she ever said this out loud – a story of men taming the Bush, mainstream Oz Lit, and when the novel came out in 1936 they did approve and were at last willing to praise her.

The saga begins in the 1830s in County Clare, Ireland. Free-thinking (ie. non-religious) Danny Delacy, whose Trinity College-educated father runs a small school, persuades Catholic Johanna, the daughter of the local ‘squire’, to elope with him to Australia.

Danny gains employment with a squatter on the Goulburn plains (inland of Sydney) but he is determined to be a land owner and all the best land is taken. Eventually he is assisted by his employer to take up a “sliver of land” on the Murrumbidgee.* “The new place was called Bewuck by the blacks for the hauls of cod they caught in the fish hole, almost in front of the homestead.”

The land is heavily treed and must be cleared. “Guarding the illusive land were throngs of giants – the stateliest trees on the globe. Delacy was like an ant in the aisles of box trees and towering river gums, but he attacked them as an army.” Johanna makes the best of her primitive house and begins having children. Although Franklin’s stories generally include a central matriarch, Johanna, while fitting the bill, takes second place to Danny.

Later in the novel as Johanna dies and Danny declines into old age the spotlight shifts not to their sons, and certainly not except briefly to their daughters, but to their grandchildren, cousins Clare Margaret and Darcy, both surrogates for Franklin herself. Clare Margaret the idealised bushwoman Franklin might have been had her father remained in the mountains; and Darcy, whose ineffective cow cocky father and domineering disappointed mother enable Franklin to express her unhappiness with her own situation both growing up and now, at her mother’s beck and call.

The Brent of Bin Bin novels are based on Miles’ mother’s family who had extensive holdings in and around Talbingo on the opposite, western slopes of the Australian Alps. The Franklin family appear in these novels as the Milfords, and Agnes ‘Ignez’ Milford is effectively Miles herself. As far as I can see though, the Milfords and the Delacys, both fictional, both based on the Franklins, have completely separate stories (I expected bits of Up the Country and Ten Creeks Run to cross over into All That Swagger but it doesn’t happen).

Although squatting was by the 1840s technically illegal, the NSW government took no action other than to charge an annual fee and to mandate that small parcels of land must be released to settlers. Danny aspires to virgin land in the Alps –

He could never ascend from his gorges to the higher land of Quebarra or Glenties without exalted emotion. He would gaze towards the Australian Alps and collaterals, extending for eighty or a hundred miles around the translucent horizon, and feel as a poet drinking from the fountain of inspiration. There lay a land to be wrought to the heart’s desire. With this attitude of the visionary was interwoven the need for energetic action. In the rare moments when he sat with Johanna before retiring he talked of going up the Murrumbidgee with his surplus stock and settling in a valley the blacks called Burrabinga.

Miles Franklin has her shortcomings and this novel is just a straight recounting of one family’s beginnings, generating little narrative tension. But Danny and his mates, fellow struggling squatter Sandy Urquhart and publican Hennessy, his sons Robert, William and Harry are all well realised, as are Johanna and her older daughter Della. There are many supporting characters, so many that following marriage prospects and side stories – for instance that of Bella Rafferty who rises from a hovel to become first a servant then wife of a squatter – is hard work. Later generations, around Margaret Clare, are rushed; Miles’ feminist concerns are snuck back in by roundabout routes, but they’re there; the renditions of Danny’s philosophical musings in Irish brogue are bearable, Johanna’s scoldings are often amusing; and above all the descriptions of country and horsemanship are outstanding.

I won’t give you the ins and outs of the story, the opening up of Burrabinga; Danny lost for months, losing a leg on a journey out into the plains; Burrabinga abandoned, reclaimed; the establishment of a great breed of horses; Danny’s banishment from the marital bed; (son) Robert’s adventures in manhood etc, etc right up to a pioneering England-Australia flight by a fourth generation Delacy in the 1930s. But allow me one more excursion.

We are all, rightly, becoming concerned with how Australian literature takes into account Indigenous points of view. Franklin in her writing is sympathetic to the plight of ‘blacks’ but appears to subscribe to the then widely (and conveniently) accepted dying out thesis. In the middle of the book she writes of the second generation marrying, starting families, “All were behaving in a way becoming to an empty continent where population was in demand.”

I get the impression there was a general acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights in ‘liberal’ circles at this time of writing. As a case in point, Eleanor Dark’s A Timeless Land was published just five years later.  Franklin ascribes to Danny a viewpoint acknowledging prior and ongoing occupation of ‘his’ land. In the early days local Ngarigo people came each year to Bewuck to fish for cod and Danny would pay them a bullock to slaughter for their land, though it is clear the people soon stop coming. She also mentions that Danny did not approve of nor take part in any shootings – which we are learning were far more commonplace than previously accepted. Danny also ‘adopts’ two Aboriginal children who fill a place somewhere between retainers and friends for the rest of their lives.

My verdict: still well worth reading.

 

Miles Franklin, All That Swagger, Sydney, 1936. Published as a serial in The Bulletin after winning that year’s Prior Prize, then as a book, also in 1936, by Angus & Robertson (see my post ‘Prior Prize Winners, All That Swagger’). My edition Sirius Books, 1986.

For all Miles Franklin reviews and other posts on her see my Miles Franklin page.


*I had difficulties with the geography, but I think the first Delacy homestead Beewuk was on the Murrumbidgee south west of (present day) Canberra. Late in the novel Beewuk is resumed by the Federal Government as part of the Australian Capital Territory.

Burrabinga, the property in the Alps, is presumably Brindabella, where Franklin spent her first 8 years, but as far as I can tell it is not upstream on the Murrumbidgee, but on a tributary. (Map The Murrumbidgee is a faint white line running south to north through the centre of the map). Sue/Whispering Gums, can you add any more?