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Rick Morton, One hundred years of dirt (#BookReview)

April 1, 2020

Book coverWay back in the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate university student, I did some sociology, and one of our set books was The myth of equality by Tom Roper. It, and the courses around it, have informed ever since my understanding of how our society operates. Morton’s book One hundred years of dirt would have been perfect recommended reading for these studies. At the end of his first chapter he says this:

the single experience of my sister’s road to this point detonates the argument that equality of opportunity is stitched into our nationhood.

One hundred years of dirt, in other words, is not a simple memoir, as it might initially appear, but is, rather, a cry to Australians to see that the ideas, the myths we hold dear, are just that, myths.

But now, back to the beginning. Rick Morton, a thirty-something journalist, grew up tough. Born on a remote outback cattle station to a family of violent men, he experienced more than his share of trauma. Besides the intergenerational violence, he saw, when he was 7 years old, his older brother nearly burn to death and then, while his mother was away with that brother in hospital, saw his father carry on an affair with the governess. Not surprisingly, this caused a family breakdown, resulting in his mother leaving with her three children and no financial support. Poverty was theirs from then on. Morton speaks eloquently of the struggle to make ends meet, making it clear that families like theirs have no time to consider issues of the day, like climate change, when even a mooted $7 Medicare co-payment “could be the difference between eating or not for a person on the poverty line.”

Time, in fact, is an interesting issue – and one that resonated with me, too, as a feminist. Time is a commodity and how we choose to spend it – or are able to spend it – is political. Like hours at the hairdresser for example. (I know I am treading on sensitive toes here, but so be it.) Anyhow, as Morton says, “only some people have the time” to be “woke”. Just “living for so many people in Australia is exhausting“.

So, on the surface, One hundred years of dirt could be seen as your standard misery memoir: Boy from poor and violent background struggles against the odds to make it good as a journalist and successful author, with the help of a loving mother. It is that, superficially, but it’s much more too.

There is a general chronological movement to the story. It starts in the present, when that point quoted above about “equality of opportunity” is made. It then flashes back to the family’s origins on huge cattle properties in southwest Queensland, focusing particularly on grandfather George Morton and his hard, violent ways. From here, Morton moves more or less chronologically through his life, but each chapter is framed around a theme, so the chronology is not exact. The chapters, in fact, could be read as individual essays on their specific topic, such as drug (ice) addiction, mental health, being gay, class, and otherness or outsiderness. For some readers – as some in my bookgroup found I think – this departure from a more typical narrative flow may make the book feel disjointed. However, for me, the clear heralding in the first chapter that One hundred years of dirt was about more than one life had me engaged and ready, perhaps, for anything!

That anything turned out to be a personal exploration of how inequality plays out in contemporary Australia, supported by smatterings of socioeconomic data. Morton is, after all, a journalist, and so he brings his journalistic nose for facts to bear on his and his family’s personal experiences. In doing so, he provides example after example of how out of touch the knowledge class or “commentariat” is with the lives of those at the bottom end of the income stream. He discusses, for example, unpaid internships and the incomprehension that there are people who just can’t afford to take advantage of them. Journalism, which is rife with unpaid internships as a pathway in, has become one of “the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century”. Morton describes the complete ignorance many in the middle-class have about their privilege:

There are those who have had the good fortune to never have felt other than the silkiness of privilege, their bubbles so perfect they cannot feel the gravel underneath.

He also writes:

As a nation, we have convinced ourselves that all of us has the same standing start, but this is neither true for the working class whites from broken families nor for those with black or brown skin. It’s not true for those without a proper education nor for those who were abused.

However, this book is not just bitter medicine. It has a spoonful of sugar. There are some genuinely funny moments – some of them black of course – and there are Morton’s wonderful turns of phrase which illustrate his meaning beautifully. He talks, for example, about working in a workplace surrounded by colleagues from “moderately wealthy and upper class families”:

… my colleagues [whom he did see as “dear friends”] could not fathom the life I had led. There were frequent attempts at empathy but it sounded a lot like people who were reading pre-prepared lines. Imagine a fish turning up to discover her psychologist is a Very Concerned sea eagle.

Love the fish analogy, but ouch, really, ouch! I feel I have a good understanding of inequality of opportunity and the ways in which it underpins disadvantage in Australia, but finding the right language in face-to-face encounters is not easy.

I have probably made this book sound like a sociological thesis or polemic. There is that, but it is still, at heart, a memoir. It’s simply that I have focused on what I see as the book’s main message. However, this message is wrapped up in a story about human beings, and particularly about Rick and his dearly loved mother Deb. He describes her as “the hero of this piece”, the mother who

sees boy as special, tells him he was sent here from that big night sky by beings unknown to report back on what he sees. She invented the aliens because she couldn’t see herself as the protagonist. She outsourced the explanation for her own success as a mother to the aliens out there.

Lovely Deb; thoughtful, provocative Rick. This is a powerful read.

Rick Morton
One hundred years of dirt
Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2018
ISBN: 9780522873153

14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2020 21:20

    I’m thinking about the substance of your review (and I think even the very poor should be worried about climate change which after all is just another way we are getting ripped off by the very rich). But Tom Roper, there’s a blast from the past. He must still have been head of the National Union of Students when you were at uni. I was going to say, what happened to him, but he was something in the Victorian Labor Government, in the 1980s, and after that?

    • April 1, 2020 22:05

      The question Bill is not whether they SHOULD be, but that they just don’t have the time or energy to engage with issues like this when they are living hand to mouth. This makes complete sense to me.

      As for Tom Roper, there’s a brief page on him in Wikipedia, Sounds like post retirement he’s engaged in Climate and other issues. Still has the fire in the belly it seems. Wikipedia says that in 1970 he was a Tutor at La Trobe, but it sounds like he wrote The myth of equality, published in 1971, under the auspices of the National Union of Students.

      • April 1, 2020 22:35

        If you read the old socialists they were adamant there was no such thing as not enough time and would insist on a Marxist analysis of every situation. Of course they were never a majority but by and large I agree with them.

        • April 1, 2020 23:27

          I understand, Bill. I agree with them theoretically, but Rick Morton would have those old socialists’ guts for garters I reckon if they told him that. Time is a commodity and it is in short supply for people on the poverty line. The old sociologists can do the Marxist analysis to their heart’s content, I reckon, while the poor old worker goes about trying to survive.

  2. April 2, 2020 00:03

    I think he’s got a point about journalism as a middle-class enterprise these days. In the old days, poor boys like Alan Marshall got a start through cadetships but now as you say they have to be able to afford unpaid internships. That’s true in some publishing too, which if we didn’t have such a diversity of small indie publishers, would lead to to the same kind of monochrome industry.

  3. April 2, 2020 06:17

    Your usual quality review, ST: this memoir sounds rivetting (two ts ?). No, you don’t make it seem miserable: yes, you do make it sound truly interesting.
    And after all, what more does a book need ?

  4. April 2, 2020 07:05

    Terrific review. It sounds as if the author has some things in common with another Aussie journalist who has written (albeit in fantastical fiction form) in ways informed by his tough, disadvantaged childhood. I’m thinking of Trent Dalton. I wonder if he and Morton know each other? I imagine they’d have much to talk about.

    • April 2, 2020 08:52

      Thanks Denise

      Yes, good one. We mentioned that in reading group in fact. Both are journalists, and both are Queenslanders too. You’d have to think they’ve met wouldn’t you.

  5. April 4, 2020 19:35

    This sounds like a very worthwhile read. Without a doubt economic inequality, or being poor, disadvantages people in almost every way. It eliminates equality.

    I also agree that time can be one of our greatest commodities. Like most things, being poor disadvantages people in that area too.

    • April 4, 2020 20:09

      Thanks Brian. It really is, and would be right up your alley, I think. Morton makes that point about the very clearly.

  6. April 11, 2020 01:15

    This sounds really well done and fascinating too. Love the fish analogy as well, made me laugh! Imagine indeed!

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