Childhood

Journal: 020

 

William Inverloch 1955

Coming out of Caiguna on the way home, listening to G&S’s The Gondoliers (Youtube), the USB stick I dug up to save Project Gutenberg audiobooks on turning out to contain my long lost ‘classical’ music selections, I started planning a post on childhood memories. A few rousing songs in – I’d listened all the way through earlier, and was this time just seeking a musical interlude between books, not that I couldn’t listen to endless G&S, Pinafore is my favourite, though The Mikado is probably their best – I started my next book, coincidentally The Night Child (2018) by Anna Quinn, a story of one woman’s repressed memories and her consequent PTSD, which has had the effect of colouring how this post is written. An hour and a half later I came to a bend and realised I’d travelled the length of the Ninety Mile Straight without noticing. You may conclude I’m not an attentive driver, it took me ages when I first started crossing the Nullarbor to even work out where the Straight was.

I had an idyllic childhood. I often said so once, but not so much as I got older. Perhaps now I’ve written My Father was Busy and I’m still Angry I might feel easier about saying so again. I grew up in country towns all round Victoria, a life of sunshine and freedom: visiting my grandfather’s, my uncles’, my friends’ farms; exploring the countryside on my bike; school, at which I excelled and which I always enjoyed; camping, in the Mallee, in the Grampians, down the beach at Yambuk or in the bush at Mt Eccles, with scouts and youth groups; swimming, playing football, tennis, cricket, hockey; going to country dances, “50:50s”, from the time I started high school, back when all ages danced to the same music.

Writers write about childhood because they can? Who knows. But we read writers writing about their childhoods because we love their writing, because we want to know their childhood influences. I don’t think childhoods are intrinsically interesting, well, except for my own and my children’s. Out on the Nullarbor I could only think of two, Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella, and Sartre’s Words. I will review the Franklin one day when I’ve run out of other stuff but it’s a terrible book. I pulled down Sartre when I got home, it’s years since I read it, the front cover proclaims “I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it.” Of course I soon thought of others, Gerald Murnane’s fictionalised in Landscape with Landscape, Ann Frank, The Children’s House of Belsen, Norman Lindsay’s Redheap trilogy, The Getting of Wisdom, there must be hundreds of others, The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony, MF’s two Career books and Cockatoos.  Fellow blogger Nathan Hobby’s The Furan SF bildungsroman which I imagine draws heavily on his boyhood in WA’s southwest. Funnily enough Alien Son, the earlier parts anyway, is the one that feels closest to home.

Wm, Underbool 1952

My earliest memory is of crawling up the stairs into the rear of the one room school building where my father was teaching, at Underbool in 1953 probably, or maybe Bonnie Doon in ’54. Our house was in the school grounds and the little girls would play mothers and fathers with me as baby. I can remember in the ordinary, patchy way most of my life from about 1955 on. The rooming house above the fish and chip shop we lived in in Inverloch when dad got Leongatha but no house; the subsequent 3 BR housing commission weatherboard, one of five in a row down a dead-end gravel street, facing out onto paddocks of cows and blackberries; hiding in an abandoned car with the girl next door (one year older!) and taking down our pants for mutual inspections; a party for my sixth birthday – I said to Gee yesterday that it was the only party of my childhood, my next was a joint 20th with my housemate, Russell, and the next after that was my fortieth, and she said that we had only given her one too, her eleventh, though I reminded her that Milly and I had gone out for her fifteenth, which she wasn’t game to for our granddaughter’s fifteenth last month, and come home late to a garden full of bottles – at which I got a cowboy belt and holster and a new 24″ bike, blue, which mum pushed round and round the clothesline, giving all us boys a ride, and it occurs to me only now that she was then, aged 24, 20 odd weeks pregnant with B4; the next two years I would ride everywhere through Leongatha and then, when we moved to Murrayville in the Mallee at the beginning of grade four, for miles out into the bush or along the highway.

Television came that year, which for nearly all my growing up I would see, especially the commercial stations, I Love Lucy, The Man from UNCLE, Laugh-In, only at the homes of other children.

For the move from Leongatha to Murrayville, dad and I left mum and the boys at grandma’s and came back to supervise the movers. Dad’s grade six, the big kids!, had performed Pinafore at speech night and as we set off back to Sea Lake, 300 miles, in the FJ, dad sang the whole thing from beginning to end.

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Milly and I had superficially similar childhoods, hers in working class Hammy Hill, mine in the Bush, those seemingly innocent, long passed 1950s and early 60s, a contradictory mix of books and all day out of doors, but problems at home truncated her schooling, left her with stuff she talked about quite freely in those first weeks I first came west and stayed with her and Xenia, (and Psyche, and Rivervale girls constantly in and out) but didn’t start dealing with really until everything else fell on her, me leaving, Psyche leaving, Psyche getting us all into family therapy.

She says she chose me for my ‘stability’, an illusion I fostered through equal measures of ignorance and confidence. An ignorance compounded by my all-boy childhood in no way alleviated by adolescent fumblings, and an almost total lack of empathy. I think I was 40 before I even began to understand that listening involves a lot more than just listening.

The thirty something woman protagonist of The Night Child has some pretty vicious childhood stuff to deal with when it all starts coming back, and if her acceptance of her repressed memories, her ‘voluntary’ hospitalisation, and the subsequent resolution through therapy, all feel a bit pat, then others, and women in particular, may feel differently, I’m not in any position to judge. Either way, it’s a well written and dramatic story. And set in Seattle which seems to this outsider to invoke more genuine affection in its residents than any other US town.

The Man Who Loved Children with it’s controlling father I should also have remembered. Christina Stead, somewhere, told an interviewer that every word of it was from life, from her own childhood in Watsons Bay, Sydney.

 

Recent audiobooks

Anna Quinn (F, USA), The Night Child (2018) Read by Cassandra Campbell
Jane Austen (F,Eng), Pride & Prejudice (1811) Audiogo, Read by Lindsay Duncan
George Orwell (M, Eng), 1984 (1949) Blackstone, read by Simon Prebble
Ruth Rendell (F, Eng), The Babes in the Wood (2004)
Heather Graham (F, USA), A Dangerous Game (2017)
Ian Rankin (M, Sco), Mortal Causes (1994)
Gaston Leroux (M, Fra), The Phantom of the Opera (1910)
Herman Koch (M, Neth), Summer House with Swimming Pool (2011)
Wendy Wax (F, USA), The Accidental Best Seller (2009)
John Le Carre (M,Eng), The Spy who came in from the Cold (1963)
Ann Patchett (F, USA), Commonwealth (2016)
Emile Zola (M, Fra), Thérèse Raquin (1867) – a seven hour sermon on the sin of Adultery contained within the metaphor of Murder. Lisa at ANZLL gives it a more favourable review here.

Currently reading

Toni Morrison, Beloved
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel

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Crossing the Nullarbor

Journal: 018

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The Nullarbor Plain (nul-arbor: no trees) lies across the WA/SA border and its cliffs hold back the Southern Ocean. Technically, the highway only crosses the plain around Nullarbor Station at the head of the Bight, but generally a Nullarbor crossing is the 1200 km from Norseman, WA to Ceduna, SA, though the Eyre Highway continues another 500 km across the Eyre Peninsula to Port Augusta (map).

The Plain is largely uninhabited except for the roadhouses every 60-180 km and the quarantine workers at the border (Eucla/Border Village Roadhouse). Driving across from west to east, the clay soils of the Goldfields and the Great Western Woodlands give way after Balladonia to limestone plains, light scrub and saltbush until well into South Aust. and the Mallee woodlands around Yalata. The Nullarbor itself is “the world’s largest single exposure of limestone bedrock”, but as far as I can see, sand, limestone and mallee scrub extend all the way across SA and into northern Victoria.

Much of the plain is fenced for grazing, sheep I imagine, though you never see any. Then from around Nundroo – a couple of houses and an old service station – scattered wheat farmers scratch a living from marginal soils and even more marginal rainfall. Penong, 70 km before Ceduna, is the one township, with a truck stop, a couple of shops and a police station. A while ago, I wondered why Kim Scott’s great grandmother Fanny (Benang) and her husband carried supplies from Esperance (on the coast) to Balladonia, 180 km east of Norseman. It was not a sheep station as I thought but a township, although for what purpose I cannot imagine, and is now long gone.

The signs along the highway, when they’re not being stolen by backpackers, warn of camels, kangaroos and wombats. There’s no shortage of kangaroos, or emus or wedge-tailed eagles; camels are a problem when they venture this far south, which is luckily not often, because their weight and high centre of gravity cause a lot of damage when you hit them; wombats dead or alive, you used to see a lot of at the eastern end of the plain, but not so much now.

I can only think of two literary references to the Nullarbor, Daisy Bates’ The Passing of the Aborigines, a selection of articles written by her and collated by Ernestine Hill, and Hill’s biography of Bates, Kabbarli (here); and Stephen Orr’s The Hands with its improbable Herefords (they certainly wouldn’t get fat!) and mathematically impossible train sighting (one hour horizon to horizon at 100 kph). Though at the edge of my memory is an SF novel written by Sean McMullen, a workmate of a friend but now apparently famous, Mirrorsun Rising about a post-apocalyptic future which somehow involves Victoria at war with Western Australia.

The Indigenous map I rely on (here) shows a major language group extending from around the Goldfields (Kalgoorlie) along the Bight to Nullarbor Station in South Australia. As best I can discover, the original languages along the coast were Ngadjunmaya to the west and Mirning to the east, both now extinct. The people of the Goldfields and out into the desert are Wangkatja, Western Desert people

Further east, from Yalata to Ceduna, were the Wirangu whose language was subsumed by the related Kokatha, another member of the Western Desert family of languages to their north, following the establishment of the Koonibba mission near Ceduna (map). Yalata on the highway has been a mission, a roadhouse and is now an Indigenous community centre. And the roadhouse where you could once stop for souvenirs and snacks is closed.

Not just out on the Nullarbor, but in the roadhouses I use in WA, in the Goldfields and the Pilbara, and in outback SA and NSW, you never – I think I can say never – see Aboriginal workers. Racism probably. Chinese-run roadhouses don’t prosper either, though there are a couple of Indian ones. Truckies it seems, like to be served by (white) housewives and backpacker girls.

White 9000 Adelaide 1976

The SA end of the Eyre Highway was sealed in 1976 and I made my first crossing at the end of 1977, so I never got to cross on the dirt, though long sections of the old road still run parallel to the bitumen. I’d always wanted to run east-west and my business, I was an owner-driver then too, was registered as “Go West”. I got my chance when Holymans in Sydney offered me a load of lawn mower grass catchers. I’d brought a mixed load of oranges and general freight up from Adelaide and the Riverland, unloaded Sunday night at the markets, went round to Holymans who had me going by Mon evening; was in Adelaide Tues arvo to top up; and more importantly pick up my girlfriend Tommy who had promised to introduce me if I ever got a load to Perth, to her busty blonde friend Xenia; arrived Perth Thurs, pulled up in inner suburban Rivervale outside Xenia’s duplex; and were met at the front door not by Xenia but by her slender younger sister  …

Milly and baby Psyche. I went off and unloaded. Xenia came home from work and took us down the beach. By that night I had been awake 6 days. I fell asleep in the shower, was discovered, crawled behind a couch and there lay oblivious to the five women who hadn’t seen Tommy for years since they were all together in Alice Springs, and now had a lot to say.

The next morning I woke early. Milly was in the kitchen feeding Psyche. We talked, we sat and read, I held Psyche. Later, the girls said if I was ever back in Perth I should come and stay. I rang Adelaide, organized a load for Xmas Eve. Took Tommy home. “You’ve fallen for Xenia, haven’t you,” she said – resigned after repeatedly losing boyfriends to her in Alice. “No,” I said, “her sister.”

Drove all day Xmas Day, absolutely no traffic, was back in Perth Boxing Day and stayed for 2 weeks. Down the beach, Cottesloe, Swanbourne, New Years Eve at Steve’s (a famous pub). The time of my life. Got regular east-west work, took Xenia to Melbourne, took Milly’s best friend to Melbourne. Brought my Monaro back, to take Milly to the drive-ins. It took a while to convince her. And where was the Young Bride you ask. In Holland as it happens – a story for another day.

I struggled to get work for my trailer, a pantec (van), so borrowed B2’s flattop. Rolled it with a load of jarrah when I came over the rise into Ceduna and there was a train on the line, took it off the road out into the sand and laid it gently on its side. Bought a new trailer but was soon broke and declared bankruptcy. Was a salesman for a few months, then a driver again, crossing the Nullarbor twice a week each way, two-up (one driving, one asleep) with Ipec fast freight. Rolled another truck in the Blue Mountains. Flew home. Retired. Lou was on the way.

After five years in Perth I dragged Milly and the kids to Melbourne where we stayed for fifteen years. Milly flew home sometimes and we made two trips by car, Mitsubishi Magna station wagons, a trailer for the tent and supplies. The first time the two youngest sat in the very back (with seatbelts!), talked and played games, Psyche listened to music, Milly read to me and kept everyone fed. The second time Lou had a broken leg, a corkscrew fracture when he was tackled by all his fellow scouts, including his sister, playing british bulldog, and he got the back. Psyche flew home early that trip to celebrate her 18th birthday while we came home round the coast, the Big Tree at Pemberton, Denmark, Albany, Esperance.

In 2001 Milly had had enough of Melbourne and drove back to Perth in her little Daewoo, came back to see us in July and again at the end of the year when she sold up. I hung on for a couple of months then drove my lovely Triumph 2500 TC I’d bought all those years ago back in Perth, round to the wreckers, piled all I had left in the Mitsubishi and drove over to join her (share housing you understand, we’d been separated a while). Started running out of Perth to north Qld for Sam, till in December (2002) a co-driver foisted on me for a quick trip to Darwin rolled the truck with me in the sleeper and I packed it in. And that was it for Nullarbor crossings until I rejoined Sam and Dragan earlier this year. The rest you know.

Indigenous Stories

Train refuses to stop for injured Aboriginal, Ooldea, 1941 (here)
Aboriginal Astronomical Traditions from Ooldea (here)
Our People, Ooldea (here)

Recent audiobooks

Ian McEwan (M, Eng), Sweet Tooth (2012)
Jonathon Kellerman (M, USA), Heartbreak Hotel (2017)
Margaret Atwood (F, Can), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Kerry Greenwood (F, Vic/Aust), Death at Victoria Dock (1992)
Kate Chopin (F, USA), The Awakening (1899) – Project Gutenberg

Currently reading

Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language
Yelena Moskovich, The Natashas