Thursday, May 29, 2014

Have I forgotten you?

A query, as the gathering winter makes the cool, sharp crack of my axe into a lump of swamp mahogany sound like a gunshot through the valley. The kangaroos quit grazing and stand on their hind two legs, lean back on their tails, listening.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"They died hard"

Kase (I've always known him as 'Kasey' but apparently his first name is spelled Kees or Cees) Van der Gaag died this week. He was one of the last of the whalers in my town; a man who has in his own quiet way proved instrumental in the cultural shift from whale-killing to whale-watching in Albany. He was born in the northern hemisphere but chose the  Antipodes to live out the rest of his life.

Occasionally when I visited old whalers to interview them or say hello, Kase would drop by with a bottle of whiskey. He was a dignified man with a blue-eyed, romantic and practical demeanour that made me feel comfortable as soon as I met him. He reminded me of my father. He had the most excellent manners. He summed people up quickly. He sparkled with a gentle, old knowledge and something of the new world too. The title of my post tonight is a reference to something he said during his whaling days .. he was just a beautiful renaissance man, really.
He hated seeing those whales die.

This week, one of the world's great storytellers was offered up to our earth. When I read in the local paper that he'd gone... for a quiet still  moment, part of my life broke away. I knew that another library had burned down and still I drifted happily out to sea with him ...

Chris Pash, who has been following this story since the 1970s  has written an obituary to Kase here:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Interview with a pigeon fancier

This afternoon I visited a man to interview him about his racing pigeons. We sat out the back of his house in the sun. He'd been in bed with the flu. He's 87 and appreciated the sun's rays. After a bit of a chat, I followed him up the hill to the hutches, where pigeons sat on the roofs, gleaming iridescent, eyeing me cautiously.

"They say I have a way with birds and animals," he said. "But I can tell you another story if you want to listen. It's all in here." He stabbed with his fingers at his West Coast Eagles beanie. "Have you ever heard of the Kalgoorlie Race Riots of '34? I was there. I remember it. It's all in here."
"Lets go and sit down," I said. "Do you mind if I record what you have to say?"
"Nah, nah, mate. I'm happy to talk. You can tape it if you like."

The recording, because I couldn't work out how to do a voice recording on my phone in the seconds I had before he started talking, is a ten minute video of a pigeon fancier's sock in a black plastic sandal. (And apologies in advance for the derogatory racist titles but this interview was about a racist uprising and has been transcribed verbatim.)

"They reckon they were doing slingbacks, you know? To make a bit of money on the side?"
"Who, the Italians?"
"Yeah. And the Aussies. Anyway. That's only half the story. This day ... er. The bloke's name was Jordan. And the Ding's name was Mataboni, he was the one who owned the -"
"Was that Maroni?"
"Nah, Mataboni."
"He threw this bloke Jordan out of his pub, you know? But when he hit the ground, he was stone dead. And some stupid bastard yells out, 'he's got a knife!' but Mataboni didn't have a knife at all but anyway, the game was on."
"So the Australian man was dead?"
"Yeah. But anyway, it was one of the best sporting families in Kalgoorlie, the Jordans. The game was on. So this Saturday morning, six or eight o'clock xxx come to our place, said to my Mum, 'we're gonna give the Dings the run around tonight Mum. You know ... lucky for me I got it all in here. And that next night it was on mate. They burnt all their hotels down. We were kids. I remember it all. Then they burnt all their houses down. All their shops down. Ah ha. Then anyway. There was a copper there called xxx and he's taking all the kid's names, you know? He couldn't stop them, this lot of bloody maniacs, anyway, this is true. they were going along 'this is a good one,' 'this is a bastard, we'll burn his house down', this is true. So they came to this house and this Slav is standing in front of his house trying to protect his family and the bastards shot him dead, see?"

"My old mate, he said 'you can't do that,' he said. He said that. They were his exact words. He said 'I don't mind burning his house but I don't wanna shoot no poor bastard.' They were the exact words he used to me but he died years ago so I'm using them myself now, you see."

"You may think it's bullshit but it's not bullshit mate ... but anyway ... two days burning houses down and a bloke called Joe xxx who had more testosterone than bloody brains, so all the Dings were down by the railway line building trenches to save themselves, dig themselves in and this bloke got his mates together and they pulled all these pickets off the fences and used them to charge them, they charged them. It's true!"

"That was nineteen thirty ...?"
"Was that the same year as the Kristallnacht? You know, the night of the breaking glass, with the Nazis ... ?"
"Nah, nah that was a few years later."
"Oh. Okay."
"Yeah well. There was other blokes see? My father was a very violent man. You wouldn't know it from looking at me but he was. Oh, but he was a violent bastard. Anyway, so that night, he got his .22 out the bloody corner and a packet of cartridges out the cupboard, I can see it now. Like the other night. I didn't know he was gonna go out and find this Ding though and bring the poor bastard home, see? One of his mates from up on the mine. So he brings him home and hides him for two days and two nights. I didn't even know he was there. Two days he hid him. I'll bet that'd open your eyes, hey?"

"I tell you what, the people who were there, there's no one left alive now. All my mates are all dead. One of my mates said afterwards, 'you couldn't find any young men between 16 and 20 in Kal after that. They'd all bolted!"
"Right. So you reckon men between 16 and 20 were the ones who were burning and -"
"Oh yeah. All over the world, it's the same age, no bloody brains ..."
He laughed then and I could see the tension of the story leave him for a moment. "I was six, you see? Six. And I can remember that bloke saying to my Mum, 'we're gonna give those Dings some hurry up tonight, Mum.'"

"But of course it goes back a lot further than that. Hoover the bastard. He sacked all the Aussies from the mines and kept the Dings and Slavs on. Bloody well cut their wages and increased their hours! It'd been bothering the Aussies for a long, long time. You know how that is?"
"Mmm. Yeah, I get that."
"There was another bloke too. Everyone reckoned he was getting slingbacks from the Dings so they burnt his house down too that night. And while they were burning his house down, he was trying to put it out and someone chopped off his hose with a bloody axe. That's the truth."

"Jesus Christ, that's the truth. It'd open your bloody eyes, eh?"

He finished up at this point, wiped his eyes and put his glasses back on. I turned off the recorder.

Then he said, "You know, two days later me and my Mum were looking out the front window at these Italian women walking down the road, in the middle of the road with wheelbarrows full of tents and pots and pans and things. Those women were as black as the clothes they wore ... from the soot, you know. My Mum was watching them, and crying."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fairweather's Raft

In April 1952, the reclusive and oft-titled genius artist Ian Fairweather set out from the shores of Darwin for Timor on a raft he'd built from the flotsam of WW2 - fuel tanks, parachute sails and driftwood that he'd picked off the beach.

Here is an artist's 2004 recreation of Fairweather's raft:

 Michael Stevenson.

"It was not a suicide attempt."
"He never actually said why he did it. It wasn't a very bright idea at all."
"It was absolutely insane. He nearly lost his life."

Later, Fairweather said, "I find that one's vision when you are really exhausted ... your vision becomes extraordinarily acute. I saw the most gorgeous colours there ... conscious colours."

Fairweather's life and his sixteen day Timor Sea vision quest is now documented on a beautiful episode of Poetica with poetry and commentary by Dael Allison. It's one of those radio documentaries that is a must listen if you are into these kind of ripping yarns.

The storm has gone but the sea still heaves like the breast of a righteous mother
Each sigh a dark subtext.
So many gulls turned to spindrift, 
The sea sticky with feathers.
So many welcoming rocks.

This escapade might spit me out anchorless.
Those who dismiss dreamers as fools
Will content themselves as being right.

Dael Allison

 It's just bloody great and it's here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Writing on Salt Story

Salt Story had a really good book review in the UWA mag Uniview recently. It's in the back pages where the trajectories of university graduates come to rest, for the moment. As someone wrote to the magazine, it's also the first place where other graduates go to see who is doing what. I agree.
So here it is ... or bits of it:

Reviewers are unanimous that UWA graduate Sarah Drummond has produced a heart-felt book that sweeps readers into a community of professional South West fishermen who battle storms - natural and political - and struggle to make a living in changing times.

"It's a lovely read," concluded The West Australian. "There are times you can almost feel the small boat bumping against waves and taste the salt spray as they lurch about in storms, navigate netting politics and haul in their catch."

Salt Story: of sea-dogs and fisherwomen (Fremantle Press) is Sarah's first book and it's a tribute to the inshore and estuarine commercial fishing industry and a fading way of life that, as one reviewer put it, "is under threat, dying of a thousand government cuts."

The author admits that as a wayward teen she was drawn to the jetties and beaches and to the lot of fishermen, yachties and truckies whose 'purposeful shiftlessness and nomadism raised a middle finger to the myth of the Great Australian Suburban Dream.'

Interesting that bit ... the author admits. Of course any Australian teenage girl looking for mayhem, meaning and adventure will be beckoned by seafarers and artists, roadhouses and jetties.
I'm leery of the words 'admits' or 'admission' in this context, because it reminds me that society demands that women rescind or regret their earlier wild child experiences, and at the same time it strives to censure those brave, girly new worlders of the next gen - to make sure they behave themselves.

Anyhoo, that is another thesis or book. In the meantime, this is one of the nicest reviews of Salt Story that I've read, and particularly because it comes from my peers, from the uni where I found my feet as an academic and a writer. Plus the reviewer mentioned that Salt Story had sold out in two months and that a reprint is already in the bookstores. Which was very cool.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Just another take on the Great Australian Novel

How to Write the Great American Indian Novel

All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.

The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.

If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man

then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.
If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white

that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.
When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps

at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.

If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.
Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.

Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.
Indian men, of course, are storms. They should destroy the lives

of any white women who choose to love them. All white women love
Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust

at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.
White women dream about half-breed Indian men from horse cultures.

Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian man
unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.

There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.
Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.

Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions
if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian

then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry
an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed

and obviously from horse cultures. If the interior Indian is male
then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.

If the interior Indian is female, then she must be a healer, especially if she is inside
a white woman. Sometimes there are complications.

An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman
can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,

everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.
There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.

For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender
not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.

In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts. 

Sherman Alexie. Here