Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Town Mouse, Country Mouse

It's getting closer to full moon and the magpies have started carolling through the night. I live out of town now. It's country to cows, alpacas and green, green paddocks. It is what is quaintly termed 'semi-rural', which means that as the town spread, the dairy/sheep holdings on the edges of town were sold off and split up into manageable lots for families who didn't want to farm ... but sort of did. To this day they are trying to find a shearer who will do a dozen sheep, the bloke who will contain their three heifers within a decent electric fence.
The bandicoots and possums that inhabited my old digs are not here. I blame the foxes. In town, the native marsupials live in fruit trees, road side burrows and under the floorboards. Town (and especially Bob's house) thrives with the critters.

However, I've had a few bonfires in town but they have been generally met with a neighbourly grumpiness about washing, flying embers or that the ferals are taking over.
On a few acres, you can invite the neighbours, crack open the kerosene and party, while the piled-up eucalyptus remnants of the year's storms crank their fire fairies into the sky.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cross Hairs

Two weeks ago Digger took off on a most excellent adventure with his new girlfriend, a slinky mastiff cross from the Pilbara. She's got short, shiny black hair. The two of them haven't been heard of since. In this sort of country, when the local ranger hasn't logged these two big two big personalities at the pound, it means they have probably been shot by a farmer whilst hurtling across a paddock after some sheep, or maybe a chicken ...

Digger and his girl. It's been a bit rough for Pearlie and Stormboy, particularly Stormboy, who doesn't say much.

When I was in Dunedin we used to visit the Otago Museum. Usually I wanted to finish an essay and I set the kids loose for the day while I wrote furiously on a couch on the third storey. But occasionally I'd venture around the place. One day, on the top storey I found myself in the room where all the animals lurked like ghosts. There sat two stuffed lions, squatting, like married sphinxes.

My notes read:
'The Otago Museum has a stuffed lion and lioness that escaped in Lawrence from a Carlos Circus performance in 1978 and 'unfortunately had to be shot.' The female's legs are tawny, spotted with orange, her paws as big as my outstretched hand. A beautiful preserving job. They make me so sad. Order. Carnivora. dogs. wolves. bears. cats. weasels. seals and walrus. The males' head is much broader, cleft of joined fur up the length of his nose to his crown, where the mane begins. Thick, dark fur along his belly, very little fur on his tail, slung low, like any cat.'

Imagine those two great cats. They'd been cooped up for a lifetime. They were probably born in cages. When they escaped, they set off into the wilds of New Zealand as a lion husband and wife. For a few short days the lioness and her lion roamed the Otago hills, across the paddocks, leapt over the dry stone walls, crept through those valleys of deep, deep green.
Until the bullets found them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

This is Not a Book Review

The caveat lector that must accompany this post is that the author of To the Highlands buys fish from me; flathead to be specific. Doust also chats to me about writing over coffee and has been known in his frequent position of MC to make me stand up in a crowded room, excruciatingly beetroot, so he can loudly extoll my virtues as a writer and catcher of flathead.

So yes. Pressure. Writing about Jon Doust's new book could be Lose/Lose for me in that he may never buy another flathead again if I really get stuck into it - or you guys won't take me seriously because I'm cosying up to the locals. I could just bail out of this whole exercise but there is something grabbing me about To the Highlands, well lots of things and they are not going to let me go until I get it out of my system and write about them. Rather than a review, here are some musings.

The novel is set in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1968 and is the second of a trilogy. The first installment Boy on a Wire was long-listed for the Miles Franklin and dealt with the character Jack Muir's school days at Christchurch Grammar. Jack has now botched his final exams, sorely disappointed his parents as the younger ratbag bro of one of those perfect sibling types who go on to be lawyers, and exiled himself to work as a bank johnny at the Colonial Bank of Australia.

Whilst Boy on a Wire had an awful lot of masturbation scenes, it was a book I was happy to let my eleven year old read for its pathos, humility and hilarity (and probably the rest, I don't think it harmed him too much anyway). To the Highlands is more challenging, darker. Jack Muir's own Heart of Darkness. The press release notes call it 'disturbing'. Yep.

To the Highlands enters the 1960s world of white expat men in their long white socks; often sleazy, generally damaged and brutally blunt about which variation of local colour meant sex and which shades meant stay the hell away. My take on it was that the racism and misogyny expressed so relentlessly are a projection of a perceived rottenness within Jack Muir and that the narrative is the process by which this boil is finally lanced.

Doust teases out Muir's small town preconceptions - to women, to colonialism and racism. But Muir is eighteen, he has just been laid for the first time and he is not really in a position to nut out the whole Madonna/Whore fallacy whilst drinking a bottle of vodka every other night with a Native Welfare officer who gets black women to lift up their skirts for Muir and call him 'Masta'. However this is essentially a redemptive book. Where Ruark or Hemingway's writing would revel in the sweaty eroticism of the exotic other after a hard day spent shooting elephants and drinking whiskey, Muir's life becomes a bit of a self propelled trainwreck ... and anyway, Ruark and Hemingway both came to bad ends that reflected their worst foibles. Jack Muir begs you to forgive him and then screws up again, like a loving dog who can't help but destroy your favourite shoes.

The language in To the Highlands is a sparse, straightforward style which suits the heat and the roughness of the expat environment. I would even say that Doust's prose is part of an emerging, distinctly West Australian style, if there is such a thing and if you could include the words blunt and poetic in the same sentence. It was interesting reading this book because I also know how Jon speaks; his cadences and repetitions. In certain parts I was hearing him in the prose. It was slightly confusing and comforting at the same time, an interesting experience.

The other night I sat down to a pre gig dinner with some friends, most of whom have read To the Highlands. The conversation ended up being about misogyny, what it was and what it meant.
"Is the book misogynistic ... or does it depict misogyny?" someone asked.
The opinions of the men and the women sitting around the table were cleanly divided by gender.
"It's about misogyny," said one man. "It's about a young man learning what misogyny is and therefore, the kind of man he doesn't want to be."
A friend shook her head. "He eroticises these women, their calves, their breasts, how available they are. They are like the classic one dimensional 'black velvet' ..."
"Muir eroticises them, yes, makes them one dimensional, " he interjected, 'but the author and the subject are two different people, I think."

I hadn't read the book at that stage but it struck me then and after reading it, that this may be a difficult book for women. Maybe because reading an honest portrayal of a horny teenager's values when it comes to women can be an experience akin to seeing hard core p*rn and thinking "Is that how they see us? Is that who we are?" Maybe because all the female characters are frozen within a white male teenager's gaze. In any case, Doust doesn't let his boy off the hook. Kim Scott nailed it on the book's cover endorsement: "...with our prim censure destabilised, Doust helps us move toward an altogether more complicated and perhaps more compassionate attitude."

(And here is a really interesting article if you want to read more about the white male gaze in lit and film, with a quick quote: "Gaze isn’t a neutral thing. It’s immensely powerful and complex, yet subtle. The structure of gaze is always dominated by the social and political context of the other who is gazing.")

The thing is that despite all the heart of darkness stuff, Jack Muir's voice is authentic and beguiling as an innocent abroad and he is also very funny. We've all fucked up as teenagers or adults. Not many of us would excoriate our hearts enough to draw out all that pus again and write a book about it. And yes, it's time to say that it is a memoir of sorts, though veiled by a disclaimer and diversions into pure fiction for the purposes of narrative. Jon said that it was a difficult book to write. I don't know if I could do it. He said he needed a psych while he was writing it. I told him that after reading it, I probably need one too! I feel as though To the Highlands is not going to leave my mind in a hurry, that it will lurk about in there and reemerge with different perspectives as I grow.

And that is the beauty of a damn fine book, yes?

Jon Doust, To the Highlands, Fremantle Press, Western Australia, 2012. 

She Swells

The waters of the inlet have risen almost two foot from the rains ... past the high tide mark left by last year's sea kelp. Here are pictures of the inlet when we arrived in May:

 Spoonbills and snowy egrets fed from the tubeworm coral in May.

Above is the same tree (M. raphiolepsis, I think) now with her boots in the briny, one week ago.

Above, the long bay, where the kangaroos and emus tracked through the cracked mud to the other side, has filled with water and there is now bream to be found in there.

 All of the coral-encrusted logs and rocks have disappeared beneath the surface. Great, because we don't get bogged anymore - and slightly nerve wracking when they can't been seen anymore, while hurtling along in the tinny!

It must be a huge catchment to fill up the inlet like that - and the bar hasn't broken so it has nothing to do with the tides - just the mountains and all those storms, melting hailstones and a river that is running again.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Night Work

In and out of mobile range at the fishing camp, a text message came through from a someone who has been my friend since we were seven years old. She lives in the city five hundred kilometres away and we haven't contacted each other in twelve months.
Springsteen blasting, joyful tears and memories of us and our first tastes of delightful and inspired freedom. Yay! Thank the lord for u beautiful girl & our crossed path.
I'd given her my vinyls when I ran out of record players and started having babies.

I answered her, walking down the hill to get some reception:
How sweet! Had a Springsteen moment myself this week. 

Out at Pallinup fishing. Sideways rain, leaking tent and not a handsome fisheries officer in sight.

Then I went back to the fire and stood with my back to it, warming up from the river chill, still drying out my woolen jumper from the morning's effort. A four wheel drive crept down the gravel track, boat trailer clanking along behind.
"Hello," said Old Salt. "Nine o'clock at night. They're up to no good."
"I'll go down and tell them where our nets are," I said. I didn't want amateurs chopping up the nets and fouling their props in the middle of the night.
Old Salt nodded at me.

When I got down to the riverbank, I walked towards the cars' headlights. Two doors opened and slammed shut. The motor was still running.
"Hello Sarah."
I shielded my eyes against the lights but all I could see was two looming shapes coming towards me. That's when I turned on my head lamp.
"Er. Hello there." Oh boy. Serendipity. Or ... just ask and you shall receive. Or ... trust in the universe and she will provide. Whatever the hippy philosophy, it was cranking because two handsome fisheries officers stood before me less than four minutes after I'd invoked them.

"What are nice blokes like you doing in a place like this?"
"We're heading up to the Paperbarks for a look around," Brad said as he patted the dog and then he asked lots of questions about who was about the inlet. I asked lots about who else was catching what elsewhere. (See, I'm learning ... and Grievous' Bro has lotsa fresh squid by the way). The journalist in me was just aching to jump in the boat with them and go up the river to scope out clandestine poachers. What a great story. But I knew they would say no. Like I have written before, fisheries officers and commercial fishers are the Montagues and Capulets of the southern seas. Plus, I work for a clandestine poacher and that makes the whole scenario kind of complicated.

They launched their boat, strapped on the night vision goggles and started the quietest little outboard motor I've ever heard. I went back to the camp and sent this message to my old school mate, fourteen minutes after the last one:  
Ha ha. You wouldn't credit it but they just turned up. Amazing.

I went to bed. Lay awake listening to the whales and read Rearranging the Dead Cat by Bruce Pascoe. Hours later, I heard them load their boat, no talking, shouting, no clanking of oars and anchors. Even the winch must have been oiled. Their headlights glowed against the walls of my tent as they drove away.

Selective Hearing

One of the Old Ladies told me that her and the kids swam a net out at Pallinup, caught all this mullet.
"Where'd you catch that mullet?" Old Salt asked her.
"Oh, over by the bar. Then we set another net, caught some more, cooked it up on the beach wrapped in paperbark."
"Which beach? What side of the bar?" Listened intently to her directions.

Old Salt has been itchy about mullet, seeing as that latest theory is that they've swum up the river where we are not allowed to work as commercials, so we were out on the inlet this week trying to work out where this woman had caught her fish. That evening was so still and clear that as we planed across the inlet, it felt the boat wasn't even moving, just the sky and the red cliffs moving towards us. We set two nets into the paperbarks where a furtive campfire smoke smudged the trees.

The next morning it was raining sideways. I kept shouting to slow down as we roared out to the nets because the raindrops were drilling me and I hadn't found my sunglasses in the half dark tent. As we picked up, I began to realise we'd started at the wrong end of the net which meant that Old Salt had to start the motor again and reverse along it because the wind was blowing the boat across the net and getting everything tangled. I also realised that my wet weather gear was no longer water proof. All of the plastic had worn away from the insides when I'd left my pants and jacket pegged on the washing line during the storms. This may seem like a minor technicality but dodgey wet weather gear -  in sideways rain when the nearest hot shower or clothes dryer is sixty kilometres away - is a real bastard.

As all these thoughts crept in, Old Salt backed into the net and bound up the prop in monofilament. You know the Concords song Business Time? Yeah, well. It's Whingeing Time. Six in the morning, the sun not yet wakened and my expletives were already spraying around deck. Old Salt always thinks my tantrums are very funny, so to up the entertainment, he backed into the net a second time after I'd untangled the first one from the propeller.
It's not easy in strong winds to climb over the stern of the dinghy, lean into the outboard and start fiddling with strands of nylon on the prop. Plus I was not longer waterproof. (Have I mentioned I wasn't waterproof?) Old Salt couldn't do it because he wore his waterproof waders which severely constricted his movements. 

"I know what's going on," I shouted over the sleet, surf spray and other flying rhetoric. "You've got a deckie! No one else has a deckie. If you didn't have a deckie, you'd be thinking about how to make your job easier. But no. No. You've got a fucking deckie."
He looked a bit bemused, like when he can't hear me speaking, like when he just sees my mouth opening and shutting in the middle of a meaningless torrent of strange and vaguely humorous facial expressions. He's good at looking like that.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Monday, July 9, 2012

Have a last winedark gander at old, Old Salt stories

I've just remembered that I promised Fremantle Press to take down the Old Salt posts, seeing as they have bought the rights to a lot of the stories that I posted before September last year. If you click on this link HERE and head back from there to 2008, you will be able to find Old Salt stories for another few days and then ... phhffft! (is that the sound when something online is deleted?) ... they will be gone. Gone I say! And the next time you see the stories they will be in a real BOOK. It sounds immodest but I'm a bit proud of them and some are shining gems, so have a butchers while they are still here.

By the way, the photographs won't be in the book, or at least I don't think so at this point. So I will create a linky thingy or even another pagey thingy with all of my fishing photos from the estuaries and bays of the south coast. There will be new Old Salt stories on A WineDark Sea. Don't fret. He's still fishing and so am I.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


You have to sleep. It's been so many days and nights that you haven't slept. So while we lie on this mattress on the floor, I'll talk and tell you stories and you have my permission to fall asleep in the middle of it all. Okay?
Put your hand there, on my hip. Good ... I'll tell you about when I was a child on the cusp of being a teenager and my Dad drove me to Broome. Mum stayed in the south with the baby sisters. I'm not sure why she stayed home. We were in a brown Holden Kingswood. All our gear went into the boot. This meant the car sagged on its back wheels but at least we didn't look like tourists. Incognito, he reckoned.

We drove past the city, past the trees turned over by the wind, past Geraldton and we camped by the big soup bowl intergalactic speakers in Canarvon. The whole way up the west coast my Dad told me stories. He used to live in Broome. He'd left his comfortable city home in his late teens, of academics and ballerinas, gone hitchhiking north with a gun and a bag of rice. He told me stuff about Chinatown, about the pearling boats, cattlemen and the pearling masters in their white linen, the Malay divers, the Aboriginal women, about how when the Japanese bombed the town, they'd taken out the Dutch refugees trying to leave in sea planes with all their riches, how a beachcomber had found their diamonds and stashed them.

That drive north of Exmouth was a moonscape and the roadhouses owners were jealous of their water. We slept on the banks of extinct rivers, nearly hit the tribes of floppy-eared desert cattle, so different from the green grass milky breeds down south. The sky got bigger and bigger. Ant monuments loomed by the roadside.

We turned off at the Roebuck Bay roadhouse. Dad was beginning to get excited. It had been twenty years after all. The heat was like nothing I'd ever experienced. We passed a cow, dead on the verge, upended, its legs stuck straight up, a gash of red streaking its black flanks, its body horribly swollen by heat and internal gases.

That was my introduction to Broome. The dead cow. The next sight was rows of corrugated iron houses, shimmering in the heat. I didn't get it. I'd had a two thousand kilometre lead up of him telling me the stories and this place looked like a fresh hell to me.

He took me to the graveyard where the Japanese pearl divers were buried. The graveyard was overgrown with grasses and out of them sprung sand stone monuments with foreign writing cut into them. I think that's where I began to understand Broome. Then he took me to the pearl sheds. A few days later, he pointed out an island, just off Roebuck Bay. "It's named after a pirate. Well, he was a pirate once, before he became an explorer. You can get out there ... but I think the tide is a bit high right now." Still, he set out through the mangroves towards the island.

He wanted to show me the Catalinas. As soon as the tide was low enough we walked across the mudflats to where the wrecks of the Dutch planes lay. I didn't really understand what he was on about. It was a trek out there and lurking shellfish and mangrove spikes ambushed my soft southern feet. By the time we got out there the sun was going down.
He said, there they are.
Around us lay the barnacled engine blocks of the planes that were shot down during the second world war.

The tide was coming in. An Aboriginal man stood on one of the planes, his toes splaying across the metal. He was fishing the incoming tide. He wore not much, maybe a pair of shorts or a sarong or something, I remember as a kid (on the cusp of adolescence) that the late sun shone against his bare chest, that he held a fishing line and that he was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen.

I can hear your breath change.
Yes ... you are sleeping.
No ... I won't move.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Tonight the aluminium window slid shut on its own and my daughter Pearlie peered outside, a bit spooked, to see Bobcat staring at her in the dark eve before the moonrise.
"Don't worry. That was Bob," I said and at that moment I realised what day it is.
It's been four years.
Hey Bob ... hello there mate.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Mokare', man of peace

Last night for NAIDOC Week, we did some fireside yarning with local Noongars, immigrants and settler families, in the park in town. Nearby the bronze of Menang Noongar man Mokare' glowed under the street lights, clad in a wallaby cloak.

 One of the Elder's daughters who was helping out peered over to the statue and said, "Have they painted him white again?"
"Nah, it's the sea gulls."
"Someone paints him white, every year." She laughed a bit sadly. "It's so bloody wrong, ey? They think he should be a white man for Aborigines' Week."
The yarning went well, after a chaotic start. The Chinese couple made a connection with a Noongar man. "My Granpa was a Chinaman," he said. "Ah Loo. He lived out Ravensthorpe way." Other connections were made through football teams, migration schemes and refugee scenes.

This afternoon, I walked down the main street and saw a cluster of sad and stirred up and bemused-looking Noongars standing around Mokare'. Someone from the TV was filming the statue.

The young man, who came up to the fire last night after we'd thrown green peppermint and tea tree leaves over it and brushed the smoke all over his body, came over.
"The journo asked me to say what I thought, on camera," he said. "I said, "Nah, mate. No. Then I thought about it and went back and said, 'You know, for change to happen, everybody has to change.'"
"Nothing much has changed," said the Elder's daughter. "Well, it has a bit, but it's so bloody slow. Just look at what they done. I can't believe I said that last night, Sarah."
I picked up a stray emu feather that must have fallen to the ground from a dance or something. I didn't really know what to say.

Another journalist turned up. Two Japanese tourists were taking photos of the whitened Mokare.
"They can't do that!" said Elder's daughter.
I remembered something that her mother said the night before, about how her attitudes towards the Japanese had been shaped by her parent's 'baggage', and wondered what was going on now. "What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, they'll go back to Japan with those pictures and everyone will think Mokare' was a white man!" She said. "Go and tell them, Jimmy. Go and tell them what happened last night."

So he did and then the young man's little daughter came running up to him, slammed into his legs. "Did you paint that man white?" She asked him, cheeky.
He said, "No way! I'd get a hidin'. See that Old Fella there?" He pointed over to an old man with a walking stick, whose frame and stance still showed his early days as a champion footballer. "That Old Fella, he'd give me a hidin' if I did something like that."

It is so loaded, painting a Blackfella's monument white, that the act doesn't make much more of a point than just unsettling and upsetting everybody. A bit like cutting off Yagan's head for a second time, I guess.

For those who have never heard of him, here's a bit about who Mokare' was and what he means to people here: 

(Mokare) is one of the most interesting and complex characters known in some detail from any part of Australia during its first post-European half century. Mokare accommodated himself and his people to the European occupation and made no attempt at active resistance, actually advising and guiding the invaders. Perhaps for this reason Aboriginal activists and revisionist white historians have not elevated him to that heroic pantheon reserved for more violent leaders, such as Yagan and Pemulwoy. Who is to say that he did not achieve more to his generation, however, though not being the stuff of future legends?

The key to Mokare's self confidence and ease when in the settlement lay in the fact that his family owned the land on which the British chose to settle. His sister Mullet actually lived adjacent to the farm ... That he was both intelligent and affable was testified by many witnesses other than Barker. Collet Barker's journal also shows his awareness that the land belonged to the Aborigines.

John Mulvaney & Neville Green, Commandant of Solitude, the Journals of Captain Collet Barker 1828 - 1831, p. 244.