It’s seven o’clock on a newly minted Auckland morning when I step on board the Overlander for the twelve-hour journey to Wellington down the Main Trunk Line. The announcements begin immediately. They still have famous railways pies. By which they mean fatty mince pies with the NZ addition of melted cheese. They have coffee in a bag. They don’t have cappuccino, macchiato, latte or mugaccino. They just have coffee in a bag; sounds like ‘beg’. The emphasis on what they don’t have reminds me of an old flatmate whose stroppy two-year-old would be asked what she wanted for breakfast, along with a reminder of everything that was unavailable. ‘I know you love cocoa pops, Lily, but we don’t have cocoa pops’, ‘WAAAAH’, and ‘I know cornflakes are your favourite but we don’t have them either,’ ‘WAAAAHH!’ by the time the list of what we didn’t have was finished the child would be incandescent with rage and thwarted desire. It was as if her mother was directing the scene and she playing her part.
I take my seat beside a tall woman who turns sideways for me to shove my bag under the seat. I can’t pick her accent but she turns out to be Jan from Queensland. When she finds out I’m a writer she tells me she’s done a Masters in Creative Writing and loves the work of NZ writer Janet Frame. She quotes some favourite lines from Frame’s Living in the Maniototo, ‘Memory Country is a place bathed in cloud and light where the planes and ships rarely call now’, as we pull out of Auckland Station past container yards, car yards and increasingly basic housing in South Auckland. Large Mitre 10 Home Improvement stores seem to implore action which the householders are just not taking. The houses look like a child’s drawing of a house.
‘Memoir is fiction’ my neighbour tells me as we come into Papakura Station on the outskirts of town. It’s a bleak day, rain streaking the windows and the platforms are empty. Smokers are told they’ve got time for a quickie. The staff have promised to let smokers know the right time for a smoke and they’re delivering on that promise. Dave across the aisle moans, ‘Only in New Zealand would they tell them that!’
There are vast greenhouses and fields of corn south of Papakura. The volcanic soil looks rich and fertile. The announcements intrude, reminding us that the lounge area is definitely not for sleeping and we ‘have to share’. There are three large lounges at the end of our compartment and people take turns occupying them to stretch out and chat as the landscape streaks by, illuminated in the big picture windows.
Jan tells me she came from Western Queensland and used to take three trains home from her boarding school in Brisbane to Blackall. The guard would wake her in the early hours of the morning on her second train at Jericho, and she’d wait for the final steam-train ride home through the dawn light with tall red anthills beside the tracks wreathed in smoke.
Outside our window it’s low cloud and driving rain. ‘We won’t see much of the mountains today,’ I tell Jan. She says she believes the sun will come out. ‘Not that I’m a cockeyed optimist!’
After the large town of Hamilton, we pass through Otorohanga, Maori for ‘food for a long journey’, named for a Maori chief who passing through town on his way to Taupo used magic incantations to make his food last longer. Dave says he doesn’t think incantations will help the railway food he’s forcing down. ‘You wouldn’t want it to last any longer…’
He tells us he’s been up to the Bay of Islands to buy a property from a failed resort development. It was a steal he tells us, at $320,000 with five-star inclusions right down to sheets, towels and teapots. He’s gloating over five pages of inclusions and waiting for a message from his solicitor to confirm the deal has gone through. Every so often we hear a squawk. ‘Miele dishwasher!’ ‘Egyptian cotton! 200 thread count!’
Outside there are sharp, gorse-covered hills and a rainbow outlines a hill. We can see both ends of the rainbow. Two pots of gold? Jan snaps photos with the passion of a new traveler to this land. I’m an old traveler in this landscape but her enthusiasm is infectious. I remember many trips with our theatre group up and down this main trunk route. Often we traveled by night, which was cheaper, sitting up with the sound of the guitar breathing the night hours awake. ‘Knock three times on the ceiling if you want me. Twice on the pipe if the answer is no…’
The sun is coming out, just as Jan predicted. There are hills like frills and sheep like sleep; witches hat hills and beehives by the rail line, willow blessed creeks. Or cursed. ‘Half a dozen Bohemia crystal wine glasses,’ Dave chortles.
At Taumaranui, a local identity afflicted with some illness that makes him jerk and dance, dressed in an official hat from some unknown office and a yellow jacket that says Intercity Coachlines, cavorts and capers as he gives long sharp whistles to send us off. He looks as if he comes to the station every day to perform this office. A family with kids have also come to see this once daily event. The only passenger train on the line.
The housing is rusty roofed and simple. Sheep scatter as the train clatters by. Autumn trees are changing colour, leaving the evidence of the season on the ground.
Next to Dave a tiny Maori man or woman, impossible to tell which, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses sits silent among us keeping his/her counsel.
Dave reveals he’s bought the property up north because he’s leaving his wife of thirty five years. He’s an atheist and she’s a fundamentalist Christian and her devotion is getting overwhelming. She’s up at 4am praying. She goes to Germany to take missionary courses. She is surrounded by her group of friends, living in a love bubble with 24/7 texting of support.
We pass a road sign that says,’Free Range Children.’ Jan repeats to me the last sentence of The Great Gatsby which she thinks one of the best ever written: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
We’re approaching our long lunch stop via Raurimu Spiral, a great engineering achievement at National Park in an area of still active volcanoes. There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that the driver of a long freight train was confronted with some glowing red lights ahead and pulled his train to an emergency stop only to discover he’d caught up with his own guard’s van. Ruapehu… Ngaurahoe… the cloud still lowers stubbornly over the mountains, though, and they remain hidden. Tapu ground, they tell us, forbidden. A man behind calls his friend and asks him to move his cows one paddock forward. ‘Sorry, mate, meant to do it before I left. There’s plenty of fuel in the bike.’
In the hour till we reassemble after lunch the smokers manage two or three smokes. Another announcement as we approach Ohakune, carrot capital of New Zealand: ‘Should there be anybody there to wave us down please remain on board till we come to a complete halt.’ Nobody waves us down and we are requested as we sidle slowly by to have a good look at the ‘heritage station,’ one of only four left on the Main Trunk Line. What they mean is any kind of station building at all. Most seem to be platforms with no infrastructure around. All gone.
The Hapuawhenua viaduct rises above a sea of ferns as we pass Tangiwai, meaning Sea of Tears in Maori. On Christmas Eve ,1953, 151 people passing by on a train were swept away by a lahar. I didn’t know what a lahar was but apparently it’s a mudslide or landfall caused by volcanic eruption. I remembered hearing about it next day on my grandparents’ radio in their lounge room at Drummoyne and everybody saying how awful at Christmas and all.
Suddenly the sun comes out and lordly Mt Ruapehu appears, finally deciding to grace us with its presence. Jan just clicks away and refrains from saying ‘I told you so’.
Taihape next. I know I couldn’t die happy in Taihape. I go up to stand on the tiny outdoor platform. ‘Best seat in the house,’ a man standing there says. He tells me that as kids they always bought tea at Taihape then tried to drink it before the next viaduct, so they could chuck their cups down into the gorge. ‘Gave you a great feeling!’
The outdoor platform is a NZ institution that all their trains have. They sum up the best of NZ. It’s fun to stand there being almost blown off your feet talking easily and naturally with other passengers because you’re in this windblown, rain-sodden, snow-spackled world together. New Zealanders have a great sense of fun. Maybe they caught it from the Maoris. I clutch the rail as the train rushes over the high gorge where cups are to be dropped, as my neighbour tells me he’s got twin daughters but no wife now. His wife’s found a new jockey, he tells me. He’s a floor sander.
‘How do you go with those awful chemicals?’ I ask.
‘They mess you around all right,’ he acknowledges.
‘Can you protect yourself? Wear a mask?’
‘Yep, but then you don’t get the buzz!’
Back in our carriage, Dave tells me he feels lighter than he thought he would about the change in his life. Like a burden’s been rolled away. He’s told his wife she can come too, but she says God needs her to stay where she is, cocooned in the love bubble.
Toitoi fern stand to attention like the feathers in the caps of soldiers in the Light Horse Division. Blasted willows hover near fully clothed neighbours. The river, fast flowing, foaming over rocks, hurtles through the gorge below with stony edges like a grandfather’s rough lap and chalky cliffs above. There is a strange sideways movement of the water as if it’s smiling, trying to fill the width of the gorge.
Dave prepares to get out. He tells us his wife’s friends are always smiling. Only an idiot smiles all the time, the Russians say. Jan tells us the Chinese say, ‘Do not open shop if no smiley face.’
Jan and I wonder if we’ll see his wife pick him up. We press our collective noses to the window and sure enough there she is, in an indeterminate colour car. We see her get out to let him get into the driving seat. ‘Tight,’ Jan says. I nod. Everything about her. Hair. Clothes. Mouth. Set tight. Poor woman. We wonder how they’ll go on. Clearly he still loves her if he’s offering her the chance to come with him. He told us, ‘I’m the last man standing. Everybody else has given up on her.’
His stop, Fielding, is called the cleanest town on the coast. He says it should be called the prettiest. It’s modeled on Manchester in England and has a town square, unusual for NZ, where there’s normally just a main street. Unfortunately he told us the town square is surrounded by Edwardian buildings that they’re thinking of demolishing as an earthquake risk. The Christchurch earthquake, where masonry behaved badly, has set everybody’s nerves on edge.
Jan gets off shortly after. I really like her, but wonder if we’ll meet again despite exchanging emails. She is staying with friends in a rural valley near Palmerston North. That’s where my ex-in- laws, now long dead, lived. Fred and Jessie, small and round like salt and pepper shakers, were a loving and generous couple who fostered many children once their own two were teenagers, including my former husband, Paul, and a boy who later killed someone with an axe. He’d practiced for this years earlier by chasing Paul’s foster mother and sister round the house with a similar axe. Jessie never gave up on him, still writing to him when he was locked up for good. Paul had to share a room with the boy, who stole his pocket money every day on the way to school and, more disgustingly, stored used toilet paper in their shared wardrobe. Fred and Jessie, undaunted, just carried on offering children in need a loving home.
I travel onto Wellington with a smile on my face, despite the weather closing in with the well-known Wellington gloom. It’s like Armageddon, dark, windy, squally and wet as we pull in to the station. Heritage, of course. ‘You’ll pay for coming here!’ Wellington threatens. But I’m game. Wellington threw everything at me in the past. It can’t hurt me now.
I’d never thought of my father, Len Smith, as an imaginative person. He’d always seemed very practical and applied to the task at hand, so to speak. However, I began the eulogy at his funeral with a short anecdote describing an innovative tactic he had used to make some money, as a boy, in the early 1920s. It was the sort of story you can use at a funeral. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised at how much laughter it generated.
He’d told me about how they used to snare seagulls. He and his mate, Ray Jones, would fashion a string of snares out of fishing net twine and lay them out on the dry sandbar. They’d cover them a bit with sand here and there and then spread dried, broken and torn bread about the place. They would then ‘draw back a’ways’ and wait.
The gulls would swoop down together and land. Then as they ran all about pecking at the bread they’d snare their feet and get captured, three or four at a time, by trying to pull away. They literally caught each other up by tightening all the snares with the jerking and tugging as they struggled to fly off. It was an ingenious trap. And their fate was in his hands.
He often told us about how there wasn’t money for things when they were kids and how you had to make your own fun and all. But this was the other side of the coin. This was about making a few bob. The boys clipped one wing on each of the gulls and then they hawked them around to people; sold them to eat the bugs out of their gardens and off their vegetable plants. It was a shilling for the black-legged ones and one and threepence for the red-legged ones, ‘because the red-legged gulls looked better on the lawn’.
Maybe the recollection generated a surprising amount of laughter because of the way I told it. Or maybe because it was the first formal opportunity to release emotion for all these people, who had been arriving, greeting and filing in through the last half hour or so. But it worked like a charm, I settled a bit and launched into the rest of the eulogy; it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life, I guess.
There was a good-sized contingent of local Koori fishermen from Wreck Bay present. When I was talking with them after the service, at the graveside, one of the younger Adlers, Paul, whom I’d never met before commented on the seagull story saying how he enjoyed it. I’d started at the beginning of my father’s life and it was nice to have one of the local Wreck Bay crowd comment on it. And then he gave me one of his recollections of Dad and his grandfather, old Charlie Adler, from the last part of their lives.
He recalled how Dad had arrived out at their place one time with his ‘new discovery’ and he was so excited it made them laugh, as he told old Charlie about how you could see right through the water with these new Polaroid sunglasses. He’d brought a pair for himself and another for Charlie. Dad and Charlie often sat up on the sand-hills watching to see the travelling mullet coming along. When they saw a patch they would yell and wave and indicate to the boys at the water when to shoot the net around them. And now here they were sitting together, the two of them wearing their Polaroids and as pleased as punch with themselves and their newfound sight.
I had heard some version of this story before, perhaps from Dad himself, or more likely, Mum. But it seemed more real hearing it from the younger Adler bloke. Perhaps because he’d been there and it was like an echo or seeing through a reflection. Anyway, it had a real lively feel about it, there by the grave.
I was born and raised on the foreshores of Botany Bay at the end of an era, the end of a place called Fisherman’s Village. Four generations of my family had been fishing professionally in Botany Bay since the early nineteenth century. The Fisherman’s Village community was situated around the area known as Booralee in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay. It grew into a community of about two hundred people. My great-great grandfather, Charles Smith, joined it in about 1840. However, vague records show how some families, like the Puckeridges, had been there for decades at that time. A group of families – Smiths, Duncans, Thompsons, Jones’s, Byrnes, Bagnalls and more – established a working community and developed a fishing family lifestyle that evolved and continued for over 150 years. Gradually the cart tracks became Booralee and Luland Street and Fishing Town, as it was also known, centred around these streets, growing to encompass an area of about fifty acres.
At the bottom of Booralee Street was a large expanse of shallows in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay where the original mouth of the Cooks River flowed into it. This area provided good mooring for the boats and the fishermen could work from here and sail or row their Carvel and Clinker-built, open twenty-foot ‘yachts’ to anywhere in the bay. They were net fishermen. They worked by ‘shooting’ hundreds of metres of rope and net out from the beaches and sand bars in large semi-circles and then slowly hauling them in. Sometimes they trawled the shallow floors of the bay for crabs and prawns. Occasionally they set nets in a straight line across a large, tidal shallow and waited for the fish to ‘mesh’.
The fishing village community developed a working lifestyle and culture that, while integrated with the emerging South Sydney area, maintained certain internal patterns that were determined by the weather, the seasons and the travelling schools of fish that would come into Botany Bay to feed and spawn. The bay provided the community with a focus for both work and recreation. They used sailing to survive but also for leisure. Working practices and strategies for recreation evolved and changed in relation to the greater Sydney community. My father, for example, became a very accomplished sailor and raced ‘eighteen footers’ on Sydney Harbour. He eventually skippered an Australian boat in the world championships in New Zealand in 1950.
However, during the late 1950s, the area known as Fisherman’s Village was absorbed into a greater industrial zoning in Botany. This generated the situation wherein I was raised and the Fisherman’s Village was compromised until the time my father and uncle retired as the last two full-time professionals from Fisherman’s Village, in the late 1970s. For myself, Botany Bay was always a place to leave, not to stay. When the last professional net fishermen retired they moved south to Jervis Bay and I headed off in the alternative culture drift that drew many people to the north coast of NSW in the mid-1970s.
Botany Bay was the official site of first British contact with Australia. It has been marked as a place of Captain Cook’s arrival in all official, symbolic and historical contexts but I had a very real sense of the place as a site of deterioration. It remains, symbolically, the site of the ‘first landing’. But the decision to establish the colony in the harbour to the north was like placing a metaphorical time bomb in Botany Bay. As I grew up the industrialization swallowed the houses, paddocks and sand dunes, slicked the foreshores and then poisoned the water. By the time we left they were measuring the mercury content in the fish. Breakwaters built for the protection of shipping caused erosions and ruined spawning grounds for the large travelling schools of fish. Dredging for airport runways reshaped the shorelines and then came the reclamation of most of the north shoreline for the port.
This inversion and the contradiction that I took for granted has always stayed with me. I watched the fishermen moving against a changing background. A backdrop of industry was replacing their foreshore scenery. It gave me an appreciation of the irony of life whilst providing an underlying sense of loss that I later came to see reflected in many aspects of recent, Western culture. And the irony of the loss of the native Kameygal people to small-pox, displacement and their nation, compared to the relative comfort of the displacements of my generation, is haunting.
This essay is part of a longer work that was first published in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Space Eds. Barbara Holloway, Jennifer Rutherford. (UWA Publishing, 2010). For more information about the Botany Bay fishing village, go here.
People who work in small independent bookshops often find themselves going to great lengths to satisfy customers, no matter how idiosyncratic their tastes might be. But the truly dedicated bookseller must even be willing to go beyond his or her jurisdiction and tackle non-book-related requests in order to please a customer, or potential customer.
Take the following case.
Some years ago I worked in a Perth bookshop which opened late seven days a week. Around 9.45 one Friday night, the shop was empty and I was in the middle of assembling a dump bin. This was in itself something of a challenge. The dump bin comprised two cardboard trays mounted, one on top of the other, upon a cardboard base. A number of hooks folded out of the base, their purpose being to lock into corresponding perforations in the trays and thereby hold the structure together. But every time I hooked one of these hooks into its slot, a hook I’d already hooked into a slot somewhere else invariably came undone.
As I wrestled with the dump bin, I happened to look up and notice a young man patiently watching. It seemed he’d witnessed the entire performance.
‘Having a bit of trouble there?’
I stood up. ‘Stupid things. Can I help you?’
‘Yeah. Do you have any shirts?’
‘Yeah – out the back or something.’
I explained that we didn’t have any shirts, and that he might want to try Myer when it re-opened for business the following day.
‘No,’he said.‘You see, me and my mate want to get into the nightclub up the road, but the bouncers won’t let my mate in without a proper shirt.’
It turned out they’d been up and down the street, trying to buy a shirt, but, apart from the bookshop, the only places open along the strip at that time of night were cafes, restaurants, and a cinema.
‘Where’s your mate?’I said.
He called out:‘Tony! Get over here!’
Tony appeared from behind some shelves. He was wearing an All Blacks top.
‘This is Tony. I’m Lachlan.’
There were introductions all round, and then Lachlan pointed to Tony and said:‘See? He can’t get in with that.’Tony looked suitably forlorn. I said that while I sympathised, we simply had no shirts on the premises.
We stood there trying to figure out how Tony might get hold of a shirt at five past ten on a Friday night in Leederville. Then Lachlan had an idea.
‘Hang on a sec, he said to me.‘You’re wearing a shirt.’
Being in no position to deny that I was wearing a shirt, I replied:‘That’s
‘And you guys look about the same size. How about we do a swap?’
‘Just for now. We’ll bring it back tomorrow. Plus we’ll throw in half a carton of VB.’
Although it was an unusual request, I felt no attachment to that particular shirt, which I’d bought at Target for $24.95 some months earlier. Besides, maybe my good deed would inspire them to purchase a book. So we adjourned to the rear of the store and exchanged garments. Tony and Lachlan, now both suitably attired for the nightclub, were exceptionally grateful and said I was a‘top bloke’.
‘While you’re here,’I said, as we walked back out into the shop,‘how about a book?’
‘Nah, that’s okay,’said Lachlan. ‘Maybe next time. But you’ve got half a carton of VB coming your way, all right?’
‘Don’t lose that jumper now, bro,’said Tony on the way out. The All Blacks top obviously meant a lot more to him than my polyester shirt did to me.
Or perhaps not. Lachlan and Tony didn’t return to the bookshop the following day, or at any time after that. Whether I was the victim of an elaborate scam designed to rob people of cheap casual menswear, or whether they’d simply overindulged at the nightclub and Tony woke up in a strange shirt with no recollection of how or why, will never be known for certain. All I could be sure of at the time was that I now had an All Blacks top in practically mint condition. I seemed to have come out ahead on the deal.
The All Blacks top is in my wardrobe to this day. Every now and then I put it on to commemorate the night I went above and beyond the call of duty in the name of customer service – even though this didn’t actually culminate in the sale of books.
But two questions remain unanswered.
(1) Whatever happened to Lachlan and Tony?
And more importantly:
(2) Where is my half a carton of VB?
The poet said fuck on stage. It doesn’t sound like anything extraordinary and nor would it have been, but for the context and the fact that her mother sat in the front row. I admit I looked over to the poet’s mother when I heard the resounding, almost yelling of ‘fuck’ on stage, and she didn’t really react. Not that I’d met her before so it would be hard for me to know. Even as I realised the mother didn’t react, I was aware that perhaps she felt so self-conscious that she was using all her energy to indeed appear to not react.
Then the poet said masturbate.
It wasn’t said with the gusto she’d said fuck, nor the clarity, but rather a touch of speed and an almost-muffle, but it was there. I heard it, others heard it, and I imagine her mother heard it.
Again, her mother failed to respond.
I know it sounds odd that I’m surprised she didn’t react, or more that I’m surprised the poet said fuck and masturbate on stage when she knew her mum was there. Even I’m a little surprised I’m surprised.
On the same stage almost two years beforehand, my own mother sat near the front as I performed my first featured poetry set, and I said fuck too. More than once.
Fuck is a word my brothers and I got into trouble for saying when we were kids. Mum used to say shit all the time and I said it once when I was starting high school. Mum wasn’t impressed and before she dished out consequences I reminded her that she said shit all the time and asked how she could expect us not to. I didn’t get into trouble that day, nor any other time I said shit.
But Mum never said fuck and it seemed, even by my own argument, fuck was off limits.
When I was planning my poetry set I knew I was going to say fuck in front of her. Of course, as an adult, I had no disillusions of any consequences, although I didn’t want to make my mum feel uncomfortable, or myself, for that matter.
When I got to the bit where I had to say fuck I chose not to look in her direction. Same the next time I had to say fuck. I tried not to imagine her reeling a little, perhaps sitting up straight all of a sudden and wondering whether she worried that people were staring at her. Though I suspect, unlike the other poet’s mother, my own did reel a little, whether or not it was because I said fuck or whether it was the context in which I said it. Though I didn’t say masturbate in front of her, nor do I think I would. (Although I realise it’s to say this when that word does not feature in any of my own poems. To date.)
Even considering this and knowing I would again say fuck in front of my mother for the sake of poetry, it still surprises me that this poet did it.
Perhaps it’s some crazy double standard, or maybe it has something to do with me having a good understanding of my own relationship with my mother and knowing nothing about this poet’s with hers. Maybe it has something to do with the age gap between the poet and myself, which makes me almost old enough to be her mother. Though really, I suspect it has more to do with context.
By that I don’t mean that I said fuck in the middle of a humorous piece about being in labour while this poet said it in a more, let’s say, aggressive, piece that suggested she less than loves her life, or more specifically, one aspect of it. Although that does have something to do with it.
I don’t remember the context of her saying masturbate, other than, as I’ve already suggested, it seemed rushed, like she was aware her mother was listening and hoped she could somehow disguise it so her mother mightn’t notice. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable saying it at all.
I do recall the context of the poet’s message though, the thing the poet, through the various poems she delivered as part of her featured set, was trying to say. She hates being a parent.
No two ways about it, considering the context of her overall performance, I have no doubt the poet hates, more than anything else on this earth, the responsibility that comes with caring for a dependent child.
At least she did when she wrote the poems.
A poem that involved no swearing was perhaps the most disturbing she delivered. It was the kind of poem that, as I listened, I wondered what would happen in the future, when her toddler grew up, could read, could ask questions like, ‘Why did you hate me so much, Mummy?’, ‘Why didn’t you want to play with me, Mummy?’ and ‘Did having me really ruin your life Mummy?’
Because this poet is angry. Angry about being a mum, angry about being responsible for a dependent child, angry about not getting enough time to herself to be herself, angry about her marriage breaking up, angry that her life isn’t what she hoped it would be. Angry that she was tricked into the responsibility of being a parent when she had a completely, albeit naive, expectation of what it might be like. Angry with society’s attitudes toward mothers.
I feel for her. I’ve been her. I feel the pain she’s suffering. I feel the pain her daughter may suffer in the future. I feel for her mother who sat and listened to her daughter’s pain, unable to do a damned thing but sit still and listen.
I understand where the poet is coming from, the things she feels right now, the desperate need to break out of it, at all costs. I’ve been there, although not so publicly. I felt ashamed of such thoughts, struggled to come to terms with them in the safety of my lounge room instead of belting them down a microphone in a dimly lit suburban pub. On one hand, I admire her for being brave enough to say some of the things I wasn’t, even though I’m all for getting the messages out there. I mean, half the reason she feels like this to start with is because talking about the things she’s expressing are taboo, but that’s a separate issue.
I think her poems are important. I agree the world needs to know what it can be like for new parents, how it can be difficult to adapt to new responsibilities, particularly when, as she pointed out in one of her poems, you become invisible to the rest of the world when you have a baby. But I’m not yet decided whether she’s brave, or whether she just needs some help. Even if she doesn’t need help, perhaps her poems will show others that many new mothers do. And that they often don’t know how to get it. I look forward to the poems she’ll write next.
I hope she’ll write some that offer the right balance to give these dark ones the strength the message in them deserves. The kind of poems that show the light side of parenting, that show she learned something valuable from this dark place she’s in.
While I could argue that other poets write about the happy times and this poet’s experience provides the balance, I can’t help but feel that without her providing a balance herself, the audience, instead of hearing her message, will just think of her as the poet that said fuck on stage. And masturbate.
If you can’t judge a book by the cover, can you judge it by the blurb on the cover? Whether supplied by a fellow author or lifted from a review, the blurb plays a critical role in the marketing of any title. The following introduction to the art of blurb writing (and blurb reading) will, to quote author and celebrated blurbist Oliver Herford, fill a much-needed gap.
A blurb’s primary purpose is to tell us that the book is good and we should buy it. One way of saying a book is good is to describe it as ‘readable’, as in ‘intensely readable’, ‘hugely readable’, or perhaps even ‘compulsively readable’. Clearly, ‘readable’ means ‘good’, even though you might think that being readable is the very least a book can do. If a book fails in this capacity, then there’s not much it’s good for, except perhaps propping up a rickety shelf. But it would be counterproductive to describe a book as ‘compulsively prop-up-a-shelf-able’, no matter how excellently it performs this function.
Perhaps a step up from ‘readable’ is ‘gripping’. The best way to convey that a book is gripping is predict the reader’s response to the actual pages in the book. Take these blurbs on Joseph Finder’s thriller Vanished. Note that they have been penned by other thriller writers.
‘I dare you to read the first page. You won’t be able to stop’ – Tess Gerritsen
‘Open one of [Finder's] books and you won’t be closing it until the last page is turned’ – James Rollins
It can be inferred that, while a readable book will stimulate you to turn the pages at a regular speed, a book like Vanished will compel you to turn the pages slightly faster. Blurbs on thrillers can be enhanced by inserting words like ‘chilling’ and ‘spine-tingling’, or asserting that the book involves a ‘web of intrigue’.
Still another way of praising a book is to employ the elegant phrase ‘life-affirming’. Philip Ardagh’s Guardian blurb describes young-adult novel Numbers by Rachel Ward (not the actor) as ‘Intelligent and life-affirming’. Another YA novel, Before I Die by Jenny Downham, is considered to be ‘Incredibly inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming’ (Exepose), ‘Incredibly life-affirming’ (lovereading4kids.co.uk) and ‘Ultimately… life-affirming and uplifting’ (JUNO). ‘Life-affirming’ can be interpreted in two ways: (1) having read this book, the blurbist has decided to go on living; or (2) the blurbist had already intended to go on living, but this book has reinforced that intention. Either way, it’s a useful phrase which can be applied to almost any book (think twice before using it on euthanasia manuals).
What about humorous books? How do we say a book is funny? There are two possible approaches. The first is to say: ‘I laughed out loud’. Sometimes this is written in upper-case letters, as in novelist Matt Dunn’s review of Robert P. Smith’s debut novel Up a Tree in the Park at Night with a Hedgehog: ‘I LAUGHED OUT LOUD, while cringing in guilty recognition.’ The other way is to describe the book as ‘wickedly funny’, as in ‘Augusten Burroughs’ new book is wickedly funny, painfully honest’ (you could achieve a similar effect with ‘painfully funny, wickedly honest’).
But what if you want to be a bit more imaginative with your blurb, and at the same time advertise your credentials as a serious reader? An effective strategy is to use what I call the ‘If’ technique. Here, the blurbist attempts to convey the flavour of the book by invoking the work of two or more other authors. Take this evaluation of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars from the Independent on Sunday: ‘If Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, Harper Lee and John Grisham all washed up on a desert island together, they might well come up with something like this…’
Here’s another from Sydney Morning Herald writer Erik Jensen on Kenneth E. Hartman’s prison memoir, Mother California: ‘If Charles Bukowksi had committed a murder and done time, this is what he would have written.’
Martin Amis himself has used this formula. Here he is on Will Self’s short-story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: ‘If a manic J. G. Ballard and a depressive David Lodge got together, they might produce something like The Quantity Theory of Insanity.’
The benefit of this technique is that it enables you to show off your knowledge of other authors. The downside is that if the potential book buyer (PBB) has not also read those authors, they will be left none the wiser, and their resulting level of interest in the book – what can termed their post-blurb enthusiasm – will fall slightly below or at best remain equal to their pre-blurb enthusiasm.
A technique often used by master blurbists like Stephen King and James Patterson is the sweeping statement. Here, the writer uses simple wording to make a huge claim. The claim may be based more on personal taste than genuine authority, but it’s formulated in a way that leaves no room for argument. Below are two from Patterson. Pay careful attention to his use of the word ‘best’.
‘Her best yet’ (Look Again by Lisa Scottoline)
‘Koryta is one of the best of the best, plain and simple.’ (The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta)
Stephen King, perhaps one of the most prolific blurb writers in the publishing industry, uses the technique to great effect in this pronouncement on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Other Stories: ‘[Gaiman] is, simply put, a treasure house of story, and we are lucky to have him in any medium.’
King and Patterson harness the latent power of seemingly innocent phrases like ‘plain and simple’ and ‘simply put’ in a manner unmatched by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
But what about when a book is really, really good and you want to bring out the big guns? It’s difficult to go past ‘A tour de force’, or, even better, ‘an absolute tour de force’. On the other hand, is there a more unequivocal statement than ‘a classic’, except maybe ‘an instant classic’? ‘Extraordinary’ is also hard to beat (note the economy and power of a one-word blurb). However, most experts agree that you simply can’t top ‘a triumph’, except, once again, when it’s written in upper-case letters. The Guardian’s well-known review of Paul Torday’s The Girl on the Landing combined several of the above techniques (‘EXTRAORDINARY… A TRIUMPH’), guaranteeing huge sales.
Thus far we’ve examined the blurb as a straightforward endorsement. But every now and then the situation may arise where, for whatever reason, we are called upon to provide a blurb for a book we don’t really like. How do we tackle this problem? A neat example is supplied in the case of Will I Think of You?, a book of verse and photography by noted poet Leonard Nimoy, published in the 1970s. To begin with, the ‘blurb’ on the back cover is not attributed to any person or publication. Then the ‘blurb’ itself asserts that Nimoy’s book is: ‘…written with mature conviction and illustrated with extraordinarily appropriate photographs taken by the author himself.’ Note that it avoids any indication of whether or not the book has merit, focusing instead on the author’s good intentions; after all, any book, no matter how terrible, could be written with mature conviction. But the real stroke of genius is the phrase ‘extraordinarily appropriate’ to describe the photographs – not just because it diverts our attention from the poetry, but because it is a masterful example of a technique I call the ‘extreme cop-out’, in which the blurbist appears to be making a strong assertion while in fact saying nothing.
The technique is also used by Publishers Weekly in its assessment of Robert J. Sawyer’s sci-fi novel Wake as ‘wildly thought-provoking’. It disguises the cop-out ‘thought-provoking’ (translation: I can’t think of anything good to say about this) with an explosive adjective (see also: ‘compulsively readable’). Both are superb pieces of non-committal and yet extraordinarily appropriate blurb writing.
Returning to our study of unambiguously favourable blurbs, let me conclude with an absolute tour de force. I speak of Tom Clancy’s four-word masterpiece on Clive Cussler’s The Wrecker. It simply says: ‘The guy I read’. By making himself the blurb’s centre of attention, Clancy has not only torn up the rule book, he has taken to it with a blowtorch and stomped on the charred remains. It’s a risky move, and only someone of Clancy’s stature can pull it off. Whether or not Cussler is any good is beside the point; what matters is that Clancy reads him. And it cannot be overemphasised that Cussler is not just a guy Clancy reads, but the guy – the implication being that Clancy doesn’t read anyone else, at least no other guys. But even more importantly, we know from the sort of books Tom Clancy writes that he is an extremely tough dude. If he reads Cussler, then obviously he’s telling us to read Cussler, and I, for one, am not about to disobey Tom Clancy.
At last year’s Adelaide Writers Festival, during a session on The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature, an impassioned argument broke out on the subject of Australian writing. Robert Dessaix declared that, in our current age of globalisation, where national identities and national cultures are harder to define, there is no longer any such thing as Australian writing. ‘Do any of us write as Australian writers?’ he asked his fellow panellists Chloe Hooper, Michelle de Kretser and Malcolm Knox. ‘I know I don’t. I write as moi. I don’t write about Aborigines and sharks.’
Hooper (who could be crudely said to have written ‘about Aborigines’ in her 2009 smash-hit The Tall Man) argued that the diversity Dessaix saw as signalling the demise of Australian literature is in fact at the core of its identity. She demonstrated this by citing the Macquarie anthology, which encompasses de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case, set in Sri Lanka, and Dessaix’s engagement with the world beyond our shores. ‘I feel proud to be in an anthology of Australian literature,’ said Sri-Lankan born de Kretser. ‘It does give pleasure to some people and make them feel like they’re finally accepted as being Australian.’
But Dessaix’s interpretation of Australian writing as being about ‘Aborigines and sharks’ – or, as it’s more commonly summarised, bush and beach – is alive and well, as shown by this year’s deeply (and variously) controversial Miles Franklin shortlist. From the setting of a sheep station, Roger McDonald’s When Colts Ran explores the loss of optimism and confidence in rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. Kim Scott’s That Deadman’s Dance tells the story of the post-colonial destruction of the indigenous Noongar people and their traditions, and the possibility of a new world created by the encounters of very different peoples. (It should be noted that contrary to some post-Miles commentaries, Scott is not yet another example of an Anglo male writer being favoured. He is an indigenous writer, one of only two ever to win the Miles Franklin: Benang was joint winner, in 2000, with Thea Astley’s Drylands.) And finally Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a Gothic novel set in the aftermath of World War I during the Spanish flu epidemic, as an Australian soldier returns to the scene of a terrible crime in his country hometown, hoping to somehow reconcile the past.
The three novels were described by judges as sharing ‘a distinctive, indelible Australian voice’. That those three books were all written by men, and all shared a historical rural setting, sparked immediate and furious discussion about just what Australian writing is – and about the definition of Australian writing recognised and rewarded by the literary establishment. ‘Isn’t it striking that Australian life, according to the Miles Franklin judges, is still represented by the past and the outback, and is written in a male voice,’ wrote Angela Meyer on Crikey’s LiteraryMinded, barely an hour after the shortlist announcement. ‘Sheep stations, war, colonisation … I’m sure the books are good, but I feel the award continues to narrowly define “Australian life”.’
Meyer’s observation was echoed the next day by Wheeler Centre programming director Michael Williams. ‘The definition of “Australian life in any of its phases” that has consistently been favoured by successive judging panels is one with a bias towards the historical, towards the rural, towards the Anglo,’ he wrote on the Wheeler Centre website. ‘If our notion of a “sufficiently Australian” novel adheres to these constraints – to a sunburnt country and its battlers – then it’s little wonder judges tend to favour male stories.’
Six months earlier, driven by the Adelaide Writers’ Week argument, I’d begun to research the question of what we mean by ‘Australian writing’, driven by my own belief that a national literature – telling and reading our own stories – is vitally important to our sense of self. How can a generation of storytellers grow up believing that their voices are worth listening to, that a life lived in Melbourne is as culturally valid as a life lived in New York or London, if the only stories we celebrate come from elsewhere? And if Australian literature is narrowly defined as something alien to the way most of us live now, how many writers will feel inspired and emboldened to embark on a writing career?
‘I think it’s more like having an Australian accent than being an Australian writer,’ responded novelist Charlotte Wood when I posed Dessaix’s question – Do you identify as an Australian writer? ‘I guess I’ve written about what I’ve seen around me in contemporary Australia.’
That idea, of writing with an Australian accent, comes through in Wood’s most recent novel, The Children, about a family reunited by a serious accident, which brings the scattered adult children back to the rural NSW town where they grew up to visit their ailing father. There are no lush descriptions of landscape, little Australian vernacular (except for a couple of stray bloodys), no surfing or sea – but it’s deeply and instantly recognisable as the kind of country town you might have driven through, or indeed have lived in; a place where most of the children grow up and gratefully leave in order to broaden their choices. ‘I wrote about what I see of country towns rather than a kind of lost romantic idea about what a country town is,’ said Wood, pointing out that in our film and television, more so than books, we see a cliché of ‘a dusty, weather-beaten, corrugated iron kind of place’, or the patronising quirkiness of shows like Seachange or the film Mullet, that doesn’t reflect what a contemporary Australian country town is, so much as a national myth.
In Wood’s fictional town of Rundle, there’s a Liquorland, a Best & Less, kids dressed in surf gear far from the sea. A climactic family dinner takes place in a pub dining room with plastic-coated menus and exotic-sounding dishes like Tuscan Lamb, the culinary labels wistfully signalling elsewhere. Town residents are proud of the recently revamped pub though city visitors disdain it as embarrassingly pretentious. On one level, it’s generic – it could happen anywhere – but on another this geographical inferiority is deeply Australian. Eldest daughter Mandy works as a war correspondent, reporting back from far-away places, and even her mother Margaret reflects nostalgically on her teenage dream of being an air hostess.
‘The things that make me Australian are more psychological,’ says novelist and former publisher Sophie Cunningham. That much of her writing is set overseas makes the definition of ‘Australian’ particularly tricky in her case. Her first novel, Geography (which included canny descriptions of the Sydney–Melbourne dichotomy and rich evocations of swimming at Bondi) was set between California, Melbourne and Sydney. Her second, Bird, is set entirely overseas. ‘You could argue that just the mere fact of being a long way from everywhere else drives the plot a lot. Australians are some of the biggest travelers in the world. And you do travel more and longer; it forms the character of the novel. But it’s a subtle point.’
It’s a point fellow novelist Patrick Allington agrees with – and he offers that while Bird is ‘not an Australian book in any sense or form, to me it feels like it is somehow. I can’t say why in any tangible sense.’
Allington’s debut novel, Figurehead – set mostly in Cambodia, following the twinned stories of Pol Pot’s right-hand man and a Wilfred Burchett-like Australian foreign correspondent – was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2009. ‘In my own writing, what I’ve been thinking about a lot is the role of Australia in the world and the tyranny of distance that doesn’t exist as a geographical thing elsewhere in quite the same way. It seems to me it carries on in our heads quite powerfully.’
It’s interesting that both Allington’s novel and Wood’s The Children – two very different books – feature the key character of an Australian correspondent (Allington’s Ted and Wood’s Mandy) who, on their return, experience ‘home’ as alien and shockingly removed from the rest of the world.
When asked if he identified as an Australian writer, Allington replied: ‘I do, but that makes it sound as if I’m sitting around doing random surveys to make sure I’ve mentioned gum trees often enough per page, or weaved a platypus into the plot somehow. Which is what I think people think about when they think of Australian writing.’
In my conversations – with booksellers, publishers, writers, critics – the same names cropped up again and again when it came to contemporary Australian writing: Tim Winton and Peter Carey. There was a sense of weariness in these references, even while most praised the skill and in no way disparaged their success. When other writers considered the question of being Australian, they compared themselves against these elements: Australian vernacular; bush and beach, explicit explorations of colonisation or national history.
‘I get very frustrated by the sense that rural culture is where all the authenticity is happening,’ said Cunningham, who was one of the key publishers responsible for the ‘grunge’ wave of young Australian writers in the 1990s – which was really, in hindsight, urban fiction. Her alumni include Fiona McGregor (Au Pair, Chemical Palace, Suck My Toes), and Luke Davies (Candy).
Scribe fiction publisher Aviva Tuffield is an enthusiastic champion of Australian fiction; she started Scribe’s fledgling list nearly six years ago, in 2006, after a long stint as deputy editor of Australian Book Review. Describing her thought process when it comes to commissioning writers, she said, ‘I’m thinking – maybe wrongly – that audiences are looking for good writing, by writers who live here, that has an Australian accent, or really talks about what they know – the things that are most relevant to them. But it’s not narrowly defined at all. I think the definitions of bush and beach have been outdated for quite a long time.’
Kerryn Goldsworthy, one of the editors of The Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature agreed, saying that we’ve moved ‘well past’ the city–bush split once looming large in our literature, and that contemporary Australian literature is a broad field, with ‘many, many things that can fit under this umbrella’.
Goldsworthy reflected on the recent history of this evolution, drawing on the expertise and hands-on experience of her decades of work in the field (including as an editor of Australian Book Review, a Miles Franklin judge and an Australian Literature academic). ‘English departments in universities in the 1960s were run by English people,’ she said. ‘It was a British view. No such thing as Australian literature.’ The resistance to Australian literature in universities lingered as late as the 1970s, followed in the 1980s by fights to get migrant literature, indigenous literature and writing by women taught and read. ‘There was a great swathe of short story anthologies that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s really heavily dominated by male writers and nobody even noticed let alone remarked on it,’ Goldsworthy recalled. ‘Then there was this kind of flowering of women’s writing in the 1980s with Helen Garner and Beverly Farmer and Kate Grenville; older women like Olga Masters who had begun to write in their middle age; and people like Thea Astley, who had been there all along.’
Viewed in this context, it seems that there has always been a war to recognise Australian writing that reflects the broader Australian experience – and we’re in the midst, it seems, of the next battle.
On the Adelaide Writers’ Week panel, novelist and former Sydney Morning Herald literary editor Malcolm Knox talked about The Slap’s journey to publication overseas. He said it came up against all kinds of difficulties because it was about suburban life in the Western world, rather than the exotic settings of the outback or a coastal surfing town. ‘In The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas is in Melbourne writing about his world in Melbourne with the confidence of Philip Roth writing about his world in New York,’ he said. He suggested that the reception of the book – then yet to be published outside Australia – would challenge international definitions of Australian writing, and would be a kind of test case for whether suburban Australian writing can travel. Of course, it went on to sell over 100,000 copies in the UK and was longlisted for the Man Booker.
Did The Slap mark an expansion of what we define as Australian writing? Not really, said most of those I spoke to. It’s simply a terrific work of storytelling. ‘If I asked friends in the UK if they would read a book set in suburban Australia, I think they’d say, “It depends entirely on who’s writing about it”,’ said Kerryn Goldsworthy. ‘Alice Munro writes about small towns in Canada, and she has millions and millions of people hanging on her every word. And it’s not because she’s writing about small towns in Canada. It’s because she’s really, really good at what she does.’
Goldsworthy did think, though, that The Slap was a perfectly timed novel that ‘hit the Zeitgeist smack in the middle’ and delivered a kind of story about contemporary Australia that readers were hungry for. ‘It was a novel whose time had come in the same way that Monkey Grip was. It was exactly the right time for someone to say what had been happening in these places and to these people for the past few years.’
Aviva Tuffield sees another salutary lesson for Australian writing in the success of The Slap. It’s an excellent example of the importance of supporting a writer through their early work, and nurturing them as they develop their career – something that is becoming rarer these days, with the advent of BookScan, which shows exactly how many copies an author has sold, making it tougher for them to be signed up for that notoriously difficult second novel.
Tuffield used the example of her author Chris Womersely, whose second novel Bereft they’d worked on intensively in the editorial process. ‘I think his third book will be something really ground-breaking,’ she said when we spoke in November 2010 – months before Bereft was longlisted then shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin. ‘You don’t know what you would have had by supporting local writers if you don’t do it,’ she reflected. ‘You don’t know when you’ll see the next Tim Winton or whoever – the next great writer who’ll come out of the fact that someone took a punt on their first book, and again on their second book and their third book.’
Sophie Cunningham also emphasised the significance of The Slap being Tsiolkas’s fourth novel, coming after his debut Loaded (one of the ‘grunge’ novels), his difficult second novel The Jesus Man, and the critically acclaimed Dead Europe, winner of The Age Book of the Year (2006). Both Tuffield and Cunningham made comparisons to Jonathan Franzen, whose third novel was The Corrections.
I asked Cunningham if she thought maybe there’s been a generational shift in the idea of what an ‘Australian’ writer can be. (And, reflecting now, perhaps that shift hasn’t yet made its way to the Miles Franklin judging panel.) She agreed that people like Tsiolkas – and Nam Le, whose worldwide phenomenon The Boat was published simultaneously in New York and was set all over the world – are opening up that definition.
Back to the time of writing, and the all-male, rural, historically set Miles shortlist. It’s been heartening to see the widespread public reaction against the lack of diversity, from writers, critics, and passionate readers alike. ‘I think the “Australian Voice” is a multi-cultural one and an urbanised one,’ wrote Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages and Pages, president of the Australian Booksellers’ Association. ‘While Australia is a large land mass, the overwhelming majority of Australians live on the coastal fringe in cities and towns.’ A commenter on his blog replied, ‘One of the reasons I read less and less Australian “literary” fiction is that it’s often of little relevance to me – blokey, historical and rural – all things that I’m not.’ Bookseller Martin Shaw of Readings Carlton believes that most enthusiastic readers ‘want to read something quite regularly that’s set in their own time and place … they’re looking for something that’s sort of explaining their world to them’.
That’s why Australian writing is still important. It reflects our world, our places, our subtle rhythms of speech and communal psychological drives and cultural assumptions. Not all Australian writing speaks to all Australians – that would be an absurd notion. But the diversity of our writing represents the diversity of Australia itself. And that’s a good thing – something that, it seems, Australian readers are increasingly keen to see reflected in the kind of Australian writing we value.
The Miles Franklin debate is not simply about one prize, albeit our leading national literary prize. It’s an argument about who we are. ‘I like to see my world represented in art,’ said Charlotte Wood. I think the same is true of most of us. It doesn’t have to be about the bush or the beach. It can be as varied and universal as an Australian accent.
Thanks to all the talented writing, publishing and bookselling people who took time out of their busy lives to share their thoughts on this subject. Not all were able to be directly quoted in the article, but all made valuable contributions to the conversation. Thanks to: Patrick Allington, Jon Bauer, Sophie Cunningham, Lisa Dempster, Chris Flynn, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Martin Shaw, Louise Swinn, Charlotte Wood and Chris Womersley.
ABORIGINES, SHARKS AND AUSTRALIAN ACCENTS On Australian Writing first appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Issue 6, July 2011.
One night, washing up after dinner, I hear the click of the side-gate. A dark-haired figure lopes past the window and my husband calls out, ‘Joey’s here.’ My body tenses, my heartbeat quickens. This shouldn’t happen when my own son comes to visit. But it does, because I never know what to expect. Who will Joey be today – Mr Happy, Mr Sad or Mr Angry?
‘Hi Mum!’ he says as he comes through the back door. I glance up from the sink. He’s smiling broadly, his brown eyes alight with mischief. Mr Happy.
I smile back, thinking how handsome he is when he’s in a good mood. ‘How’s things, Joey?’
‘Good … good.’ He leans against the kitchen bench and sniffs deeply. ‘It smells like updog in here.’
‘Hmmm …’ I murmur, keeping my response minimal, wondering what he’s up to. Probably a farting joke. Theo comes out of his room, still dressed in his high school uniform. Joey calls his brother over. ‘Don’t you reckon it smells like updog in here?’
‘What’s updog?’ asks Theo.
‘Nuttin’ dog,’ answers Joey in a thick gangsta accent and a big grin. ‘What’s up wit’ you?’
Theo reddens, caught out, while I chuckle over the dishes. Joey can be very funny.
‘Want to go for a drive, Mum?’
Nightly drives have almost become a ritual since Joey moved out of home. I tell myself it’s quality time, an opportunity for us to talk without the other kids around, but it doesn’t usually turn out that way.
‘Not really,’ I sigh. ‘It’s been a long day.’ But I know our two year-old is nearly asleep, and our second youngest is trying to finish his homework. I also know how hard it is for Joey to be quiet. I grab the keys from the top of the fridge. ‘Maybe just a short one.’
As I reverse onto the street, Joey plugs his MP3 adaptor into the cassette player. The thumping beat of rap fills the car. The music is so loud people stare as we go past. Each time I turn down the volume, Joey turns it up even louder. I shouldn’t have agreed to go out with him. ‘Put on a song that doesn’t have so much swearing!’ I snap. ‘I don’t want to hear ‘motherfucker’ over and over!’
‘Alright, alright,’ he says, searching through his songs. ‘You don’t need to get angry. Let’s do a lap around town and check out Hungry Jack’s.’
I drive around the block, fuming. Why do I do this? Week after week, month after month? As we cruise past the back of Hungry Jack’s, a local hangout, Joey scans the crowd for someone he knows. He doesn’t seem embarrassed to be hooning around town with his mother. Most boys his age would be learning to drive, saving up for a car or motorbike of their own. But Joey’s never shown any interest in getting his license.
‘Stop here a minute,’ says Joey, leaping out to ask the whereabouts of one of his friends. I wait in the car, a faithful servant. When he jumps back in, we drive to an address on the other side of town, in the housing commission area. I already know this won’t be a ‘short drive’. Joey doesn’t seem to notice when I purse my lips and exhale loudly with resentment.
We stop in front of a brick house. Joey gets out to see if his friend is home. While he’s chatting at the door I remember a phone call with my mother the previous week. She rang to tell me about her friend’s grandson, a young man who was often in trouble with the police. ‘He joined the army and became a different person,’ she said. ‘Maybe this would be a good thing for Joey.’
I wasn’t sure if I wanted Joey to become a soldier, fighting someone else’s war. But the next day I’d looked up the Defence Forces website and read through an impressive list of trade jobs available for army recruits. Definitely worth a try.
On our drive back to town, I sneak the volume down a notch. ‘Oma reckons it might be a good idea for you to join the army.’
Joey looks at me in surprise. ‘I’ve been thinking about doing that already … I want to be a driver.’
‘You could learn a trade,’ I say, pretending I haven’t heard. With a brain like his he could do anything. ‘Telecommunications, or mechanical engineer or systems analyst.’
Joey shakes his head and sighs. ‘You remind me of Marge Simpson.’ He turns up the music again; end of army conversation. This is how it always is when I bring up something serious.
Later I drop him at his place. When Joey moved into a share-house, only a block away from us, I worried it might be a little too close. I was right. He pops around whenever it suits him, wanting food, money, lifts, his clothes washed. Mainly, though, I think he just wants me. For his first year of life, it was only him and me. I’m sure he’d still prefer it that way – to have my undivided attention so I could listen to his stories for hours, spend the nights driving him around town with rap music shaking the car, do all his cooking, shopping and washing.
Give my life over to him.
— If it’s mediocre, it will be called average. (Bryce Courteney, Colleen McCullough)
—If it’s average, it will be called good. (Robert Drewe, David Malouf)
—If it’s good, it will be called great. (Tim Winton, Nam Le)
—If it’s great, it will be ignored. (Gerald Murnane, Patrick White)
‘Where you from, mate?’
That makes ‘em laugh, for some reason.
When people overseas ask me where I’m from, I naturally say “Australia.” When people interstate ask, I say “Sydney.” When people in Sydney ask, I say “Blacktown,” and they look askance, as if to say: Where the bloody hell is that?
For some, the Western Suburbs are some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale, blurring into a distant, blank space, uncharted territory, a no-man’s land of strange terrors and cultural desolation that evaporates into Emu Plains. A faraway boganville. With no atmosphere, no culture – and definitely no reason to visit. A place to leave rather than to return to, a place from which to seek asylum.
The Italian writer Aldo Busi says that ‘we travel like lobsters, our heads over our shoulders.’ Which is to say, we’re always looking back, looking away, our eyes fixed not so much on the horizon to which we’re heading, but what we left behind around the corner we just passed.
But in Sydney, where ‘executive waterfront investment opportunities’ grab at the hem of the foreshore, stabbing the skyline like upturned fingers, once-vibrant harbourside neighbourhoods are now silent but for the sound of the security buzzer, everyone as blinded as dazzled by the Harbour’s glistering, dancing light.
And, unlike the starving colonists of Old Sydney Town, who looked westwards for salvation (and installed the Governor in Parramatta Park), it seems, at least from reading the papers or listening to the radio, nobody looks West, least of all those of us who grew up there. I left as soon as I could, moving to Town, where I imagined everything happened, finding myself apologetically justifying my place by doing everything I could not to appear a Westie, even if I was still obviously a darkie.
In Greystanes, where I grew up, and where the only water views were the Beresford Road stormwater drain or the Prospect Reservoir, our gaze was always fixed on Town, as distant as another country. From the milk bar at the top of Ettalong Road, the sky bleached and laundry-dry, our paddle pops dissolving into the incandescent asphalt, you’d see the city, so far away, shimmering in the burnt-blue distance, a mirage reminding you how far away you were, despite being so close.
And at night, Town’s candy-coloured lights would flicker uncertainly as the humming sodium streetlamps of the Great Western Highway swallowed them up into the stifling night.
‘No, where you really from?’ they ask.
‘Well, I was born in Blacktown,’ I reply. ‘But don’t tell anyone – we don’t want to lower property values.’
They laugh a little less.
The Australian academic and critic Stephen Muecke observes that ‘a language like English is like a group of textual suburbs,’ each with its own character, the differences expressed not just through space and distance, but in a cultural and political geography, crowded with meaning, like, say the difference between Blacktown and Circular Quay or Greystanes and Girraween.
It’s always struck me, Greystanes or Girraween or even Doonside aside, how incongruously Western suburbs are named. The imperious names of posh suburbs like Northbridge or Edgecliff or Palm Beach describe them perfectly: there is a bridge there, it is on the edge of a cliff, and there are lots of expensively transplanted palms within the high-walled gardens of those luxurious weekenders.
But if you’ve ever been to Merrylands or Pleasure Point or Silverwater, you’d find it hard to see the merriness or pleasure or silveriness over the belch of exhaust fumes and the roar of motorway traffic. The only high walls on the Cumberland Highway are there not to protect the residents from the invasive gaze of outsiders, but from the pollution and noise and collisions that the many smash repair shops all the way to Smithfield take advantage of. Sometimes it seems, the roller shutters clamped down against the yellow heat, that even Westies don’t want to look around them.
Only Blacktown, where I was born, seems apt: named after a school established to educate the natives in ‘civilised’ English ways, its Indigenous Dharug name long lost. Now it’s home to Sydney’s biggest population of Indigenous Australians, immigrant Indians and Sudanese refugees.
A black town, indeed, even if Greystanes did feel, growing up, as it sounded: a regretful smudge, only an incremental shade from darkness.
‘No, seriously, where’s your family from?’
‘Seriously? Actually, Greystanes. I grew up there.’
They stop laughing.
Just as for those who’ve never ventured any further down Parramatta Road past Annandale, the Western suburbs is uncharted territory, written on the blank page of an imaginary map, my geography is an emotional one. The longer you’re away, you realise that the landmarks aren’t the things you sped past on the way to the Cumberland Highway on-ramp: those mysterious, windowless hangars; the anonymous storage facilities; the cut-price hotel-motels; the shabby shops selling soiled seconds; the heavy machinery yards, the dead skeletons of cranes and earthmovers hung, fossilised, in the still, suffocating air… but the spaces they once were – and more importantly, the people who inhabit those spaces.
Unlike the heritage-listed million dollar terraces of Paddington or Rozelle, the streetscapes of Western Suburbs like Padstow or Rosehill are constantly changing, from minty fibro cottages to brick veneer bungalows; now lurid McMansions and strange glassy-faced apartments thrown onto empty stretches of Parramatta Road staring out at caryards or the acrid remains of the Homebush Abbattoirs. Could you tell Australia’s second white settlement was established at Parramatta, now in danger of being rechristened Westfieldamatta?
Horrified faces seem to ask: how could anyone want to live there? As if you only live there because you can’t afford to live anywhere else, seeking asylum from even worse places. When I was due back after a couple of years in London, my mother couldn’t understand my reluctance to return. ‘There’s a new Gloria Jean’s in the Boral Brick Pit,’ she said indignantly, referring to the Pemulwuy development over the spar from the Reservoir. ‘And the coffee, frankly, is quite adequate.’
Unlike the phó, the raw beef larb, the kuttu roti, the bhelpuri or bipbimbap, which are phenomenal. Growing up eating chevapi from Fairfield, pastizzi from South Wentworthville, kofte in Auburn, at little lunch, I’d swap my puris and dhal for Marko’s csabai roll; after school, Carlo’s mum would stuff us with cannoli or we’d gobble devon-and-sauce sangers at Kieran’s.
There’s a danger, though, in regarding the Western Suburbs as a kind of food court, like a series of little China- or Viet- or Korea- or Lebanon- or Serbia-towns, enjoying the cuisine but disregarding the cultures that cooked them up, leaving “them” to deal with the mess between “authenticity” and “assimilation.”
And there’s a danger in perpetuating the false perception of “us” and “them”, East and West, when the borders are always shifting and easily crossed – as long as it takes to get on a train (or, given Western Sydney’s unending public transport woes, just getting on the motorway) – or, perhaps, more importantly, within us.
Yet it seems odd that most of the city’s population, coming from the Western Suburbs, must make the effort to engage, at least culturally, with thousands spending hours on the train or motorway to line the Harbour and crowd the Domain every January for the Sydney Festival, as if there was nowhere else to go, when while the road ends at the foreshore, there are countless directions heading the other way going West into Australia’s dark heart.
However, for “native Westies” like my mother, living in the Western Suburbs is not simply a question of affordability but community: the ‘ethnic ghettoes’ pilloried by those opposed to diversity exist only as new immigrants find their feet in a strange land among friends. It seems that the transformation in public opinion from ‘ethnic ghetto’ to celebrated ‘cultural precincts’ like Norton Street or Dixon Street takes only a generation. Just as from Ettalong Road to Centrepoint, it’s only twelve miles, even if in Sydney traffic, it sometimes it feels a world away: another country, as foreign as the past, in these forgotten places where everything seems demolished, where certainties seem erased.
But it’s in those places, like the meaning hidden in the spaces between words, where just as much, if not more, is gained in the translation, as was ever imagined lost.
‘Where were they born?’
‘Well, my parents were born in India – ‘
‘Right, so you’re Indian?’
I eat tandoori chicken I do on the barbie; I’ve read the Mahabharata, but only in English. I’m not sure I’m really Indian and yet people aren’t really sure I’m not. ‘Indianness’ is a concept as foreign to me as ‘Australianness’. Let alone ‘Westieness.’
I was born in Australia, I speak with an Australian accent, I don’t speak any Indian language, but I look Indian: what you might call a ”coconut,” white inside and brown out. It’s funny: when I tell people in India where my parents are from, they laugh and ask me where I’m really from. It’s only in India that I’m Australian… and perhaps vice-versa.
In more supposedly cosmopolitan quarters I’d find people kindly reassuring me I wasn’t really Indian, or Westie for that matter, and being surprised I took such exception.
Such questions don’t bother my mother, adjusting her sari defiantly. ‘I’m a Westernie and proud of it,’ she says, well, proudly.
But what would a Westie look like anyway (or, while we’re asking, an Aussie)? Who wears flannie shirts with Winnie Blues tucked into the sleeve over an Ackadacka tanktop stuffed into skinny jeans – and, most appallingly, with thongs?
(Actually, walking down the trendier quarters of Bondi or Surry Hills, it seems everybody. It seems strange not just that such privileged young slashies should be copying Westies, but that their Westie contemporaries might imitate them, imitating their own Westie parents.)
And it’s ironic that with Sydney’s exorbitant house prices forcing people further west, many of us who left are now returning – and those same Eastern Suburbs or North Shore denizens who might wonder who’d live in the West find themselves on its doorstep, newly arrived immigrants in enclaves like Petersham or Ashfield, where the multicultural atmosphere – with older Portuguese and Greek immigrants rubbing shoulders with newer Chinese and Anglo arrivals – is celebrated.
Much is made of Sydney’s multiculturality: after all, as Australia’s largest city, home to Australia’s busiest airport, and the first destination for many immigrants (such as my parents), it has the most and most diverse ethnic communities.
But, on a recent trip to Bondi, packed with foreign tourists, it struck me that I was the only non-white person on the street: a strange, unsettling feeling I suddenly realised I’d never have back home, out west.
And it occurred to me that the Gateway to Australia wasn’t at Circular Quay, but somewhere around Parramatta, Sydney’s demographic and geographical heart, its streets alive with exotic aromas and unheard of dialects, offering at once the reality of Sydney today, and its possibilities tomorrow. Lost for words, I thought of Muecke again:
‘When we write, we sometimes run out of words. This is because we come to the edge of the city of words, where there are no more words left in the place we find ourselves.’
‘No, mate, I’m a Westie. And proud of it.’
And it seems, just as the geography of a place is one more of meaning than merely location, so too a nation – especially a nation of immigrants like Australia – is not so much a collection of gazetted borders or place names but an idea, agreed upon by the majority of the people who claim citizenship of it.
But like any idea, like any nation, like any city, like any community, it cannot exist statically in the ghetto of some idealised past or limited to any particular definition: it can only be enriched and strengthened by debating it and expanding it, the changes keeping it alive.
And nowhere is that more true than the Western Suburbs, constantly demolishing and building and reinventing, its face changing with every new wave of arrivals, building their own ideas of Australia on the foundations of their own imaginary homelands.
Although the Indonesian-Chinese-Australian theorist Ien Ang acknowledges the conflict between questions of ‘where you’re from’ over ‘where you’re at,’ particularly for immigrants and their children, and while the idea of being where you’re at is more relevant in finding your place, it shouldn’t discount where you’re from. Why, as Salman Rushdie asks, should we be excluded from any part of our heritage, whether it’s being treated as a full part of society, or drawing on our roots – whether Oriental or Westie – for our art or identity?
In his classic The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (set in of all places, Western Australia), Randolph Stowe’s semi-autobiographically based protagonist, Rob, whose uncle is Maltese, wonders ‘if he would ever go as far as Malta, and hear people talking foreign languages in the streets.’
We needn’t travel so far: once we open the shutters and turn towards our hearts, it’s there, where it always was, and if we look hard enough, we can see it never really left us, or us it. Just as I cannot disavow my apparent Indianness, how can I deny the role my Westieness has played in my own history, my own personal journey, in my life and writing?
After all, a culture’s artists aren’t its privileged informants, but its outsiders, always on the margins, looking in: not offering new certainties, but new ways of questioning accepted ones. Like Westie Asians, accidental Orientals, from Blacktown to Chinatown, all of us double outsiders, looking in from the edge of elsewhere, offering new insights, new visions, new illuminations?
And best of all, not just artists or writers. For one marvellous month in Greystanes, we wander once silent streets, shining with fairy lights and children’s laughter and the jingle of carols. The Caruanas, the Browns, the Sabouhs and the Wongs all festoon their front windows with puddings and elves and animatronic Nativity scenes, steaming in the Mr Whippy gloaming, the sky radiant with rosy resplendence, all of us swelling with Christmas spirit and community pride: Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims. My two little girls, dark-skinned, blue-eyed, half-Indian, half-Anglo and wholly Australian, are as enthralled by these Christmas decorations as they are by the Deepavali ones at the Murugan Temple up the road.
The Parramatta Advertiser proudly reports how many people come from all over the city to delight at Greystanes, of all places.
And, amidst the excited clamour and electric lustre, nobody notices the spray-on snow or sweltering Santas dissolving in the dusk, or the way each of us has added a little of our own traditions and expectations to make something shinier, more colourful, more inclusive: different, but not discrete. Nor, as the rainbow sparkles and tinkling carols shimmer along Cumberland Road, the uncertain glimmer of Town, so far away.
We’ve no need to look longingly over our shoulders that one marvellous month, for we can see that light right in front of us, where it always was: round the corner from home, in our neighbours’ and children’s faces, sticky with choc top and lit with joy.
‘Country and Western’ was published in Best Australian Essays 2010.
My father is not yet dead. People who knew him say there is a likeness in this drawing. I can still see him breathing, can you? I still feel warmth when I bend to kiss his head in salutation; I feel a pulse through his skull against my lips. I imagine his gaze on me. Hello I hear him say, do I know you?
He doesn’t have long now to live. It is only a matter of hours. He dies the next day.
Maurice Blanchot once wrote: Look again at this splendid being from which beauty streams: he is, I see this, perfectly like himself. And someone says to me, kindly: Francesca, he’ll be tangle free you know, when he’s gone he’ll be at peace.
Death skewers the heart of those left behind, no matter what the age of those who are dying. One minute I have a father and he’s with me in the flesh. The next minute he’ll be gone, really gone, disappeared. All breathing stopped.
These images of my father’s body span two notebooks. You can see the ordinariness of the lines and checks on the paper I’ve drawn across. When I was called to his beside in Toowoomba, I didn’t think I would be drawing his figure as he lay dying: I thought he would be already dead. I didn’t think there would be enough room for me to spread out around his bed, not room enough to measure stillness like this. There are too many of us for that. We fill up his room, bodies everywhere. Nurses stay away.
Did you know, with six children in a family there are six children trying to say goodbye to six fathers? In mathematical terms, there are 720 different sorts of relationships the six of us can have – a multiplication of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6. Add my father into the equation and multiply that figure by seven, to take it to 5040 combinations and permutations.
I draw him with a pencil found at the bottom of my bag.
Was it John Ruskin who said: but only draw what you see?
I watch my father find breath with my marks. The nurses tell me, when checking respiration, it is important to also note whether a person has any difficulty breathing.
Did you know that on average we take 15 to 20 breaths per minute? That’s 900 to 1200 breaths per hour and 21600 to 28800 breaths per day. If we think of a year, we take 7884000 to 10512000 breaths in those 365 days – millions in other words. For my father who is 90 he has taken 709560000 to 946080000 breaths until now, to these, his very last.
My father is dying and I wonder what he is thinking, is he thinking at all. Does he still wish he will go to heaven to be with Angel, my mother? Is that his dream? Or has his Alzheimer’s clouded his view of any possible a f t e r l i f e?
I read once: in death, the rictus is an oddly painful unexpected ugly fact. The mouth is all wrong.
My father died when he was ninety. In mathematics, the number nine is at the end of the primary series beginning with one and finishing with 10. It denotes a complete circle, 360 degrees or, to put it another way, 3 + 6 + 0 = 9.
In French, the word neuf means both nine and new.
Nine is a lucky number.
I draw my father with my lucky ring on, from Hanoi. I call it lucky because it is in nine pieces – a silver ring with the palest of white Halong Bay pearls shaped in a grid of 3 x 3. I sometimes think of it as my noughtsandcrosses ring.
Thinking of my father I think of kissing him goodbye for the final time – with these nine pearls, these nine kisses, and with my story in nine drawings.
This requiem for my father in nine drawings complements a photo-essay I wrote for Overland entitled ‘My father’s body: creation, evolution and Alzheimer’s disease’.