Delicious descriptions: John Hughes on Newcastle

Recently, Bill (the Australian Legend) commented on a post of mine that reviewers rarely talk about place or “think geographically”. I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I think, partly, he wants us to discuss whether we think what we are reading accurately depicts place.

Now, I love descriptions of place, for all sorts of reasons, but particularly for the tone they convey, and for the way authors use place to describe character or to underpin their themes etc. Place in literature was the prime topic of a book I reviewed last year, Chrystopher J. Spicer’s Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature. It offers a fascinating approach to studying place in literature. In a recent Delicious Descriptions, I briefly looked at Sara Dowse’s use of place in her novel, West Block, and in another I commented on place in Gay Lynch’s novel, Unsettled. Pure accuracy, you’ll have seen, is not something I focus on.

I have heard writers talk about place many times. It’s a popular topic at writers festivals. At the inaugural Yarra Valley Writers Festival, Karen Viggers (The orchardist’s daughter) and Alice Robinson (Anchor Point) spoke about it. Viggers said she uses place to orient herself as a writer, and then to explore our connections and help us reengage with the natural world and each other. The challenge, she said, is to bring readers in and engage them with ideas they may find uncomfortable. Robinson said that Anchor Point was based on landscape she grew up in. She was interested in how we have engaged with the landscape, and have failed to care for it.

For some authors, getting place right can be critical, more to avoid reader criticism, than because absolute accuracy is that important to them. They don’t want their novels to be de-railed by pickiness about, for example, whether the church was on this corner or that (which I have heard readers do!)

Anyhow, all this is to say that I think place can be very important in novels for a raft of reasons, and that I enjoy reading about place for the said same raft of reasons. John Hughes’ The dogs, while being about “big” human issues, is also very much set in place. Mostly this is Newcastle, and its environs, though there are vivid scenes in Europe, particularly Venice, and Surfers Paradise. Here, though, I’m focusing on Newcastle (which, I might add, has been written about by many authors, including Dymphna Cusack, Elizabeth Harrower, Marion Halligan, and Michael Sala).

Newcastle is probably best known to Australians as an industrial town, but, it is also a coastal city near beautiful beaches. Hughes draws on these beaches. At the end of Part 2 of the novel, protagonist Michael spends a day at a beach just north of Newcastle with his potential new love interest Catherine, and in Part 3, he and his son Leo spend a glorious day together, which takes in a Newcastle beach.

Here is an excerpt from the day with Catherine:

A cold sea breeze hit us when we got out of the car. There was no one on the beach. Catherine tied a scarf around her neck and pulled her shawl in tight around her shoulders. It was just like her to come so prepared. I, on the other hand, was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. It certainly cleared my head. We took our shoes and socks off and left them in the car, then walked down the small grassed slope. On the soft sand Catherine displayed for me the best way to walk without sinking. … But I’m a sinker by nature …

It’s all rather blissful, particularly when Catherine hikes up her skirt to paddle:

It was quite a sight, all that bare leg, and it made me lightheaded myself, my mind no longer on the surroundings, which were spectacular. When I looked up, the sky seemed higher somehow, like someone had lifted the roof.

There’s hope here for a new beginning for both these lonely people, but, soon after

At the top of the beach, in the soft dry sand she finds a small dune which offers some protection from the wind, which has picked up again while we’ve been walking. A few clouds have appeared in the sky and the sun moves in and out behind them, as if in the game of hide and seek.

Not long after this, their happy moment takes a downturn … This could be many beaches, I suppose, but the description of place seems accurate to me, and Hughes uses it to such great effect.

Then, in Part 3 comes our lovely father-son day in which this somewhat estranged pair plan to do something deadly serious – but first, there is the day together. It starts with Michael picking up Leo from Newcastle airport, and Leo taking the wheel:

I’m enjoying the world from the passenger seat and anticipating the view from the top of the bridge, which always takes my breath away even though I’ve seen it a million times. Above us, pens dipped in blue-black ink, Pacific swifts (on winter sabbatical from Siberia!) write their signatures on the sky and blink their wings. They leave no mark except in recollection, hurled into space with sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns, rapid wing-glides, accelerations, gear shifts. I’d like to point them out to Leo but I don’t want to distract him as he glides into the overtaking lane …

I don’t know this part of Newcastle, but what an evocative description. It made me stop my reading and think – the way nature and machine are seamlessly linked, and the bird metaphor for life with “sudden changes of direction, hairpin turns …”.

This book is full of delicious descriptions like these, descriptions which read so well on the surface, but which suggest so much more in terms of mood and meaning, whether we specifically notice it or not.

John Hughes, The dogs, Perth, Upswell, 2021

Delicious descriptions: Ida Vitale and Byobu on literature and humanity

I couldn’t include in my recent post on Ida Vitale’s Byobu all the ideas that grabbed my attention. It’s impressive how such 85-page book could contain so much, more than I can even include here. However, I do want to share (document) a few more ideas here, for my own benefit at least, before I shelve the book away.

Literature and reading crop up frequently in the book. A favourite reference occurs in “Sensitive toad”, in which Byobu has a surprising experience with a toad that would be hard to believe, except that he has a witness. However, we are told that

Of course a witness isn’t needed for him to write it: there’s no need for the truth when creating literature, good or bad.

We are then told the story, but this point had me thinking about what Vitale meant. For me, there is a need for “truth” in literature, but not necessarily for “facts”. What is written here – presuming the translator has conveyed Vitale’s intention – is “the” truth which could mean “facts”? I’m not sure exactly what she is saying but I think she is challenging us to think about literature and what it means for us? Certainly, from the first chapter, “A story”, the idea of stories threads through the book – the stories we are told, the stories we tell.

In “Anguish”, the idea that literature can alleviate one’s pain is raised:

Supposing that other people’s unexpected words might subdue it [his anguish], he walks toward the public library, in search of those bound inside its books. He’s welcomed by the concerns of the world; each book holds a different form of anxiety, malaise, sickness, or grief that asks: isn’t my situation worse? Each one – a soul fighting for its salvation, a hostage rescued, provisionally, by the hand that chooses it – calls out with its delightful devices, tempting and distinct. And Byobu gives in, rarely joining another’s joy, and in the end finds himself liberated from his own asphyxia, less serious than some he has glimpsed. This was not an act of magic: he has learned to minimise himself.

Again there’s a sort of paradox here. There’s the idea of feeling better because others are worse off. Is this OK because these “others” are characters in books? There’s also the idea of minimising oneself. Is this a positive thing?

In “Oral frustrations”, the idea of oral versus written stories is explored. Byobu wants to be able to tell stories to an unnamed person who pronounces people are boring because they don’t tell stories. The kicker is that the stories must be well-told and Byobu “lacks even the rudiments of the art of oral storytelling”. He is reminded of a wife whose husband would remove himself from conversation abandoning her “to her words turned monologue”. The wife would insert an irrelevant, “unexpected twist” into her story to recapture his attention. “One of these days,” we are told

Byobu will devote himself to inventing who knows what variety of frightening tales, littered with outrage and explosions, which will act as spring traps to catch that [aforementioned] restive protomalcontent by his auditory foot.

I have no idea what the translator was presented with, but this writing is gloriously funny, and yet so real too.

Meanwhile, a concurrent thread deals with humanity – with the idea of being human, and what it means. It is partly because of this that I read Byobu, the character, as being a sort of Everyman. It’s clear to me, as I think I mentioned in my review, that Vitale is concerned about where the world is heading. Seemingly throwaway lines like “imagining himself in other times, when humanity was human” suggest this – though, really, have there ever been such times?

In “Byobu and the acceleration of history”, Byobu considers the work of

the scientists and specialists who work day and night to better the health – how could anyone say otherwise – of the human race, of which, despite all his recurring doubts, he knows he belongs.

And so the book continues its elliptical way, throwing out thoughts from the mind of a habitually indecisive character who is muddling through the chaos, though a world in which “horrendous, coveted knowledge survives [like] ways to ascend in society …”. No answers are offered, except perhaps one – the idea of letting the imagination, magic and mystery back into our lives. By being itself, rather mysterious, Byobu does just this – I think!

Ida Vitale, Byobu, Charco Press, 2021.

Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on Canberra

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block. Soon after, I wrote a Delicious Descriptions on West Block, promising another one on Canberra – because, well, I can, and Canberra is my city.

Introducing that West Block post, I said that I love reading for its ability to take me to other places, lives and cultures – of course – but that there it is also special to read about one’s own place and life. It can reinforce our own impressions; it can enable us to just sit back and remember; and, most interestingly, it can encourage us to look at things from a different angle or perspective. West Block does all of these for me.


So, Canberra. As many of you know, it’s a planned city, designed from the start to be Australia’s federal capital. It was formally “named” in 1913, but, of course, the land it was built on had been occupied for over 20 thousand years before that by Indigenous people, including the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples whom we honour today. In colonial times, it had also been farming/grazing country. All of this is referenced in West Block, though it is the contemporary built and natural environment which take precedence in the descriptions because they are what directly impact the characters.

Early in the novel, Dowse addresses the creation of the city when describing old-school George Harland’s decision to move to Canberra from the “hell” of western Victoria, the hot, dry “grass, scrub, dusk”. It had been the same, he thinks, in Canberra, but

With effort and planning and the help of some mountain streams they had beaten it. Everyone planted, in a peculiarly catholic way: silver birches and liquidambers, poplars, willows and rowan-trees, mixed with all manner of eucalyptus and acacia; the claret ash and grevillea, banksia, oleander, jonquils and hyacinth, till the colours of spring splashed over the streets, and autumn cart such a brilliant shadows they could never forget how they came to be.

I suspect there’s an intimation here too of the “catholic” development of Canberra’s population, of its comprising all sorts of people who came to work in this government city. Most of us were transplanted from elsewhere, like the exotic shrubs and trees; few of us had a family history in the place to ground us. Nearly 50 years on that has changed dramatically, but it wasn’t so at the time West Block is set.

Harland’s chapter in the novel contains some of my favourite descriptions of the city. I loved the account of his walk to work, and the various references to Canberra’s paradoxical nature as a city of physical beauty which also lacked “animation”. Harland thinks of Canberra’s past in terms of the farms, the “fields of lucerne that in earlier times had grown on the river flats”. It’s his Canberra-born daughter who reminds him of those for whom it had really been home. She takes him to her favourite park, telling him:

When I first started coming here I had no idea where I was. I mean Corroboree Park. Well, there’s nothing unusual in that. We’ve taken their language just as we have their land, and everything else. To make use of it as we will. But then I found out that this is really where they came to meet, all the tribes of this region, I like to imagine, under this very tree.

The novel is not about Indigenous dispossession and politics, but this reference, along with mentions of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and of refugees, gently introduces the idea of all the people, in addition to Cassie’s women, whose needs were being ignored.

As well as its beautiful autumns, Canberra is known for crisp winters and clear, blue skies. There is a scene just after the new-style, more proactive bureaucrat, Henry Beeker, has been through a bruising IDC (interdepartmental committee) which had to prepare a joint submission to Cabinet on uranium development and the controversial Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. Games are played and deals done to get the relevant departments to “work out some of the differences” between their ministers. Beeker goes outside with Cassie:

Outside the ground was damp from the morning’s frost, melting now with the warmth of the midday sun. Their feet made soft squishes in the turf. The sky was an uncompromising blue. Clouds bumped into each other, as if they too were invigorated by the crisp winter air.

These descriptions – “melting”, “uncompromising”, “bumping together” – perfectly evoke the physical environment but surely also reflect what Beeker has just gone through?

I have focused on a few examples that particularly speak to the novel’s meaning, but I revelled in all its descriptions of this beautiful city I call home.

Do you love reading novels set in your place – and if so, please share some!

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on West Block

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block, in which the novel is set. I am remedying that now.

But, I’ll start by saying that, like most readers, I love reading because it takes me to other places, lives and cultures. Not only is this stimulating, but it helps me understand others more – and that can only be good. However, there is also something special about reading about one’s own place and life. Sometimes it reinforces our own impressions, sometimes it just enables us to sit back and remember, and sometimes it encourages us to look at our things from a different angle or perspective. Sara Dowse’s West Block, which is set in the city in which I’ve lived the majority of my adult life, does all of these for me.

When I say I’m going to remedy that now, I mean I’m going to partly remedy that now because I’ve decided – for my benefit if for no-one else’s – to make two posts, one on West Block and one on Canberra.

West Block

So, West Block – which features on both the original Penguin cover and the new For Pity Sake one. You can find a succinct history of the building on Architect and Heritage Consultant practice Lovell Chen’s site. West Block is part of what was the Parliament House Secretariat group of buildings designed in 1925 by the Chief Architect of the Commonwealth Department of Works and Railways, John Smith Murdoch. The central building was Provisional Parliament House (now Old Parliament House, since the completion of our current Parliament House in 1988). East Block was the other building. The architectural style was, says Lovell Chen, “Stripped Classical”, though changes, including an additional wing, were made to West Block over the next couple of decades. 

As I wrote in my post, West Block housed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Dowse describes the regular trips made by its inhabitants through some of the parliamentary rose gardens to Parliament House. Another point made by Dowse is that across the road from West Block were – and still are – the British and New Zealand High Commissions.

However, by the late 1970s when the novel is set, the building was 50 years old, and it was showing. Not only was Cassie’s Women’s Equality Branch (WEB) to be moved out of the Department, but Departmental head, Deasey, had “pulled a deal” to move his Department to another nearby building, so West Block could be demolished. Cassie is “appalled”, but no-one else seems to be:

They had no sense of history, these men.

West Block was being discarded, just like the WEB! (In the event, West Block has survived, but in what form is still unknown, though a boutique hotel is, controversially, the latest. Seems anomalous in the location, to me, but …)

I enjoyed the many descriptions of the building – of the light playing on the walls, of what could be seen out of the windows – but another issue related to the characters’ offices. As in most hierarchical organisations, where you are in a building says something about your status. So …

Economist Jonathan’s boss, Kenneth Olman

had one of the best rooms in West Block. Red silk drapes. Mahogany walls. On which he hung original Australian paintings, the kind that were bound to increase their value. A Whiteley. A Williams. An Olsen. Jonathan used to gaze at them during lulls, love his eyes from on to another, congratulating Olman on his taste and good sense.

We learn here of course, about the building, and about the characters of Olman and Jonathan.

Another senior bureaucrat, Harland, also had a good room.

a large, teak-panelled room with windows facing west and south. His desk was poised between them. He liked to turn in the swivel chair and, flexing his fingers, look down on the cars below, streaming along Commonwealth Avenue.

Facing west and south aren’t ideal, of course, but he did have a view of Commonwealth Avenue and those High Commissions I mentioned. However, the aspect meant that it was cool in the morning, and in the afternoon,

was filled with shadow.

And little else.

It formed part of the executive section, the refurbished front of West Block that faced the rear of Parliament House, and hid its own rather mangy tail. Despite certain luxurious touches – panelling, furniture, carpet, drapes – his office had all the persona of a monk’s cell.

Harland, we come to know, is a sober, reliable public servant – and his corner of West Block tells us that!

Can you guess where Cassie’s office is? On the “gloomy” side of the building, albeit the wind does blow in “wattle smells from Yarralumla and the embassies”. This building, Dowse conveys, was old and had no air-conditioning. It was cold in winter, but, on the plus side, they could open windows! As for Cassie’s interior decoration?

Under Rita’s supervision, the Women’s Equality Branch had dressed Cassie’s wall, with posters left over from International Women’s Year.

These are just a few examples of how Dowse describes the building, and uses it to evoke the characters of its people and their relationships. You don’t have to know West Block – which I have never entered – to enjoy Dowse’s writing about it. It lives – we have cold and sun, we have shadows and floral scents, we have views and some old building idiosyncrasies – and it acts on its occupants.

Have you loved novels in which buildings are quintessential?

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

Delicious descriptions: Gay Lynch on place, in colonial South Australia

Book cover

In my recent post on Gay Lynch’s historical fiction novel, Unsettled, I spent so much time writing about it, that I didn’t share any quotes as I usually do, so I’m using a Delicious Descriptions post to share just a couple of descriptions of the setting, which is around Gambierton/Mt Gambier in South Australia.

In one scene, Rosanna is looking for a lost child – a deft use by Lynch of the “lost child” motif common in colonial Australian literature – and comes across “a formidable rock-face … pigface flowers rioting across its surface.”

Her head spins when she finally looks down, searching the red rings like the contours of cut gum that encircle the unbroken walls of the crater. A wagtail aggravates a flock of swallows, resting on their tails and diving off, riding invisible currents over the startling void. Not a flutter of childish frilly clothing. Father Woods and Skelly have long conversations about the Pleistocene period when molten lava cooled forming the solid parts of the south-east landscape and great seas retreated, leaving behind corals and small crustacaens. Moorecke has told Rosanna Booandik stories about giant Craitbul’s cooking mound, for that is what she calls it.

In this little excerpt Lynch not only describes the physical landscape, but she conveys Western and Indigenous understandings of it. She doesn’t presume to tell Indigenous stories but she lets us know that other stories about the land exist. She also conveys here the relationship Father Julian Tenison-Woods (a real historical character) and Rosanna’s brother, Skelly, have concerning exploring and documenting the natural environment.

My second choice describes a ride Rosanna takes, with Moorecke, to the shipwrecked Admella (which many of you know was also featured in Jane Rawson’s 2017 novel From the wreck):

Moorecke directs Rosanna due west. Up to his girth in water, skirting sinkholes, Lucifer crosses deep bogs. They pass through long grasses, scrub and stands of black-wood. He takes logs in his stride with Moorecke jolting like a post office package, hands on his haunches, and Rosanna standing on the balls of her toes in the stirrups. They curve their backs against the stiff salt wind like crooked trees–like carratum, Moorecke says. A swamp harrier drops before them and screams as it rises, a scrabbling creature dangling from its talons.

White mist settles like a ration-blanket around their shoulders. They approach the sea, making their way with caution past sink-holes and through limestone-littered clearings. Sea heath and spear grass cling to the dunes. Lucifer begins to flag. Fingers stiff with cold, Rosanna lengthens his reins. The hollow roar of the sea reminds her that she has seen these limestone cliffs undercut by ferocious waves on a ride with Edwin. ‘I know this place. There is a spring.’

‘No stopping here.’ Moorecke lifts Rosanna’s hair to bellow in her ear. ‘Blackfellas’ caves’.

Once again the landscape is described, but Lynch imbues it with a disturbing sense to prepare us for the horror they are about to confront. Again, too, there is reference to Indigenous culture, and the implication that some places are sacred and should not be visited. In such ways do historical novelists show rather than didactically tell the things they want us to understand.

Any thoughts?

Gay Lynch, Unsettled,, 2019.

Delicious descriptions: Madelaine Dickie on Indigenous language and Uranium

Book coverMy recent post on Madelaine Dickie’s Red can origami was getting too long – and I just couldn’t cover in detail all that I wanted to, so I’ve decided to do one of my rare Delicious Descriptions posts to expand some ideas from the book.

Concluding my post, I commented that the novel is an effective consciousness-raiser as well as a great read. One of the many points Dickie makes concerns the intrinsic significance of language to cultural identity. (This issue, in fact, was discussed much during last year’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.) Here is Dickie in Red can origami (and do note the second person style – “you’re invited to sit …”):

You’re invited to sit in on a Burrika language session at Gubinge District High. It’s the first week of term one and the session’s being funded through the community benefits package. The language teacher is fishing-club-Keith’s wife Kylie, an intimidating, bearded old girl, with a deep wrinkle line between her eye. She stands in front of a class of teenagers. She explains that in Burrika, there are six words to describe anger, four words to describe jealousing and that there’s even a word for someone who’s a serial liar. Here, she looks pointedly at a young woman wearing heavy eyeliner. Then she says some people think the Burrika language is only used to describe things like berries and barramundi. Here, she looks pointedly at you.

Language comes from country, she tells the kids. Language comes from the rocks, the desert waterholes, from the creeks that twist through the mangroves. Language comes from the sky. When you don’t know your language, you can’t tell country you are coming, and you can’t look after your country. (p. 195)

With Indigenous language revival programs popping up around the country, some of which I’ve mentioned in my blog, Dickie was spot on to make this point in her book.

The issue of uranium mining and its potential for problems, if not disaster, underpins the novel’s plot. It also provides a good example of how Dickie teases out different attitudes from the various stakeholders – the Indigenous people, protesters, the people of Gubinge, the mining company employees, and Ava herself as she navigates spin versus facts and reality. And as Ava ponders the issue, the second person voice brings us on her journey with her. Whenever we hear “you”, there’s that little initial reaction, “who, me?” Anyhow, Burrika leader Noah patiently tells a radio presenter,

No-one wants to see a uranium mine on their country. Not the mob at Jabiluka, not the mob in South Australia, and not the people in Gubinge. But when you’re under duress, when you are given a choice between something and nothing, you choose something.

These are the sorts of real-world challenges that are posed by the novel.

At the book’s launch, Dickie referred to Japan’s involvement in uranium mining in Australia, and mentioned the Fukushima disaster. She quoted from the letter written in 2011 by Yvonne Margarula of Kakadu’s Mirarr people to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon concerning the Fukushima disaster:

Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.

The sense of extended community responsibility expressed in this letter is surely something we could all learn from – and this, I’m sure, is what Dickie hopes her book will encourage its readers to consider.

Madelaine Dickie, Red can origami, Fremantle Press, 2019.

Delicious descriptions: EM Forster and downsizing

EM Forster, Howards EndMy reading group’s next book is EM Forster’s Howard’s end which I first read at university in 1973. (My lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition cost me all of $1.20.) It’s a delicious read and I’m falling in love with Forster all over again. My full post on it will go up some time next week, after I’ve finished it and book group is over. But, I can’t resist sharing this little section on moving house, because it feeds into all those discussions that have been happening over recent years – in the media and in my personal circles – about downsizing and decluttering.

THE Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor. When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next. Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push, and send toppling into the sea. But there were all their father’s books — they never read them, but they were their father’s, and must be kept. There was the marble-topped chiffonier — their mother had set store by it, they could not remember why. Round every knob and cushion in the house sentiment gathered, a sentiment that was at times personal, but more often a faint piety to the dead, a prolongation of rites that might have ended at the grave.

It was absurd, if you came to think of it; Helen and Tibby came to think of it: Margaret was too busy with the house-agents. (Ch. 17, opening)

My first reaction was plus ça change. My second was how I love Forster’s language and writing, and how this paragraph (or so) shows exactly why I love the writing – the language, the voice and tone, the gentle satire and social commentary. And my third was that I must share it with you all.

Are any of you Forster fans?

Delicious descriptions: Laurie Steed’s divorced mum

Laurie Steed, You belong hereI don’t do many Delicious Descriptions these days, but I did want to share another quote from Laurie Steed’s You belong here which I reviewed recently. The book concerns a marriage break-up and its impact on the family. This quote comes from the point-of-view of the daughter, Emily, who’s around 19 at the time, thinking about her mum:

Her mum hit-and-miss, since, well, the break-up. Better than before, but still not great. Emily thinking maybe she’d turn a corner. But she’s a mum, not a Transperth bus, and so she never made the left, the right, or the shift to second gear. Instead, she’d stalled, middle lane, hazards flashing, with her daughter and two sons in the back; the family coping, surviving as you do, when you’ve broken a window, but you don’t yet have the money to fix it.

I enjoyed so many of Steed’s metaphors throughout the book, not to mention the way he captures the vernacular of the time. Such enjoyable reading despite the subject matter (as I think I’ve said before!)

(And, isn’t it a great cover? All credit to the lovely little Margaret River Press)

Delicious descriptions: Marie Munkara on cars

Marie Munkara, Of ashes and rivers than run to the seaI don’t usually post Delicious Descriptions before I review a book but this one seems apposite. Yesterday, we did a tour of the Tiwi Islands – of Bathurst Island in particular. This is where Marie Munkara’s memoir Of ashes and rivers that run to the sea, which I mentioned in my last Monday Musings, is set.

So, the tour … we disembarked from the ferry, wandered up the beach to wait for our local guide, and soon saw a car pull up. One of the other tour members exclaimed, “Look, it’s got no windows!” And no, it hadn’t. Well, that’s not quite true, it had a broken front windscreen. However, it had no side or back windows. Regardless, a horde, seemingly, of locals, climbed in. Now, if you’re an Aussie, particularly if you’ve also seen the TV documentary series Bush Mechanics, you’ll know a bit about indigenous people and their relationship with cars – demonstrating both their resourcefulness and their lack of concern about material things. We saw and heard much evidence of this during our trip.

Anyhow, Marie Munkara certainly learnt about it, the real way – that is, through personal experience. This excerpt comes from the occasion when she agreed to go buffalo shooting …

I can deal with the early start, it’s just the vehicle he’s driving that leaves me dumbfounded. It defies description. I can tell from the rusted skeleton before me that it was once a 4×4 but I wouldn’t have a clue what make it is. A cloud of black smoke billows from the truncated exhaust, and the motor sounds like it’s running on one cylinder. There are no mudguards and the bonnet appears to be borrowed from another car and held in place with fencing wire. There is no tray left on the back anymore –time, salt-water and bad driving have taken care of that. Instead my four brothers are perched on packing crates that have been lashed onto the subframe. They busily light up rollies and shiver in the cool dawn air while early-morning sunlight filters through the bullet-holes in the roof above Colin’s head. My face must be registering concern as I look at the packing crates because Colin laughs and tells me that I have the seat of honour in the cabin. The door is rusted shut so I clamber in through the open window (there’s no glass anyway) and promptly go through the floor. I look down to see myself standing on the road. They were all waiting for that and laugh uproariously as I inspect the gaping hole and wonder where I’m supposed to put my feet. I see that Colin has a similar problem, both floors are totally rusted out.

‘Look there,’ says Colin and I see the rope tied from the window-winder to the steering column that I can rest my feet on as we drive along. Feeling a breeze on my neck I turn to see a gaping hole behind me: the rear window is also missing. Colin explains that this happened when he pulled up and Danny’s arse went through the window and got stuck. How Danny managed to get jammed in that space is beyond my powers of comprehension so maybe Colin’s pulling my leg. I test my foot-rest and it holds, though the thought of what might happen if one or both of my feet come off it as we are driving along almost makes me climb back out again. But I think of what I might miss if I did so I stay. I pretend I haven’t noticed there isn’t a seatbelt and off we go.

I have no idea how fast we’re going because none of the gauges are working, but I can tell it’s fast as we glide over the corrugations in the dirt road like it was smooth bitumen. Colin hoons around the corners like a racing-car driver and I hang onto the seat for dear life and push my feet hard against the rope. I manage to screw my head around without falling down the hole in the floor and look out the rear window. Despite the clouds of dust that enshroud them and Colin’s crazy driving, my brothers are still there, no one has fallen off their packing crate yet.

And that was only the start of an adventure which saw them all limping home, in the rain, after the car ran out of fuel, an event which didn’t surprise Munkara and which our Arnhem Land tour driver seemed to suggest is a common occurrence.

The thing about Munkara is that she’s laugh-out-loud funny. She’s also willing to giving things a go (mostly, anyhow!), and most of all she writes with respect and affection. All being well, I’ll post my review next week.

Delicious descriptions: Elizabeth Jolley on the value of libraries

Elizabeth Jolley, The orchard thievesRegular readers will know that in June I joined in Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) Elizabeth Jolley Week by posting two reviews, one of which was for the novella Orchard thieves. In that post I mentioned the sly humour, but I didn’t really share a quote to demonstrate it. However, I knew that I could always write a Delicious Descriptions post, so here it is.

It comes when the grandmother is walking home from the library. She had urged one of her extra library-book tickets to another library patron because “she knew how awful it was to get home only to discover that the books were familiar, having been read before.” As a librarian by profession, I loved it.

Anyhow, our grandmother is also a bit of a worrier, regularly thinking about various disasters that could befall her or her family:

On the way home the grandmother thought about the special kind of wealth there was in the possession of library-book tickets. They were reassuring and steady like the pension cheque. She never went anywhere without her purse. You could never know in advance what the day had in store. There might come a time when it would be necessary to offer all she had to appease an intruder. She knew of women who spread crumpled and torn newspapers all round their beds at night so that they would hear an intruder coming closer. Or, she might be held at knife point by someone in the street. She would offer all she had in her purse, small change, pension cheque and the library-book tickets. There would be absolutely no need for the villain to either strangle or stab her in order to snatch her purse. She would hold it out to him and tell him he could have it and be off. She would tell him this in plain words. The library-book tickets might even make a changed man of him, especially if he had never had a chance to use a public lending library during a life with all the deprivation brought about by being on the run.

I mean, really, don’t you love it?