Monday, 11 November 2013

And the Mountains Cried


 

 

This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world.

 The Return of the King, J.R.R Tolkien

 

It’s dark as I lie in my bunk bed, straining my ears for a faint tapping sound coming from beneath our house at Edgeworth in Lake Macquarie. Everyone else is sound asleep, but I can’t sleep because I’m scared of what is lurking in the shadows of my room. I’m sure I just saw something move in the partly opened wardrobe, and any second I expect a monster to jump out and devour me. To distract myself I think about the men toiling in the coal mines underneath our street. My mother told me when I couldn’t get to sleep that I should listen carefully and I might be able to hear them down there. The miners, I imagine, look like the dwarfs from Snow White, whistling merrily as they work, with long white beards and tools slung jauntily over their shoulders.

To me they are almost mythical creatures, and I’m desperate for some evidence they actually exist, but try as I might I hear nothing except my father’s snoring. My mother mutters “shut up, John,” a dog barks in the distance and my sister stirs in the bunk below, then there is silence. It doesn’t matter, though. It is enough to know that even when I close my eyes and fall into the abyss they will still be there, working hard to extract the coal to chase the darkness away. Human progress, it seems, knows no bounds when the blackest recesses of the earth, where the scariest monsters lurk, have been penetrated by the beacon of light on the miners’ hats.  It’s not until much later that I discover that human progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and monsters don’t always hide in the shadows.

***

The mine that extends under the home where my parents still live is part of the Glencore Colliery at West Wallsend. Coal has been mined in the area since 1888 and underground mining has taken place since 1969. When my parents brought their block of land in 1971 they were told they couldn’t build a brick home due to subsidence issues. This may seem unusual but the reality is that most of Newcastle is under mined, including the CBD, apart from the railway corridor. Mining takes place so deep underground that it would be impossible to hear miner’s working down there, but I have never forgotten my mother’s words.

 The Glencore Colliery is located in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area, which was created in 2007 and covers 3937 hectares. Conservation areas have been created by the state government ostensibly to “protect and conserve significant or representative ecosystems, landforms, natural phenomena or places of cultural significance.” 1There are 219 species that live in the area, including 16 that are endangered. Longwall mining is currently conducted under 23 per cent of the conservation area, 2 making a mockery of the notion of conservation and betraying the governments true commitment to environmental protection.

A major portion of the reserve is taken up by Mount Sugarloaf, a 412m range with two huge television antennas perched on its pinnacle. I was fascinated by these antennas as a child and I used to imagine scaling their ladders and vanishing into another world just like Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk.  The antennas back then looked like giant robots that might come to life one day and trample everything in their path. They were further examples of the dizzying reaches of technology, just like Skylab, the American space station that came crashing back down to earth in WA in 1979, and the massive computer at my father’s work that took up an entire room. Only the bushfires that occasionally ripped over the mountain in fiery red lines like lava from a volcano hinted that there are forces beyond human control.

Because it was so close to our home Mount Sugarloaf lookout was a popular destination for family picnics and lazy Sunday drives during my childhood. I remember my ears popping in the car as we rose towards the clouds and my sisters and I strained to catch glimpses of the world we knew receding between the trees. I can understand why the mountain was important in the Dreamtime stories of the Awakabal tribes that lived in the area because it is truly a special place. From the top of the mountain you can see as far as the ocean and the twinkling blue waters of Lake Macquarie. It is a lovely view but it is marred by the ugly, gaping scar where the Pasminco zinc and lead smelter once stood.

The smelter, where my father worked for years, was until recently, a dominant feature of the landscape, sending its plumes of smoke high into the air and dispersing its pollution far and wide. It coated the surrounding houses with lead dust, causing lead levels in people’s blood to soar and children were banned from living in the immediate streets around the smelter. It remains one of Australia’s most disgraceful cases of industrial pollution, and I still recall the strange smell my Dad used to bring home on his clothes every day.

In 1991 the company lobbied the government for exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act so that lead levels in its workers’ blood would be allowed to “exceed the level at which foetal damage occurs in pregnant women.”3 The application was denied but it shows very clearly the companies disregard for its workers. I’ll never forget the stinking, stagnant pools of water near the smelter, or the creek down the bottom of our street that we avoided as kids because it was filled with sludge. An old lady told us that when she was young the creek had been crystal clear and people had fished and swam in it. The smelter closed in 2003, not because of the damage it was inflicting on people’s health and the environment, but because it was no longer economically viable. The land where it stood is now a barren wasteland, and a stark reminder of the legacy of environmental neglect.

There are fewer houses to be seen on the other side of Mount Sugarloaf and more open green and gold fields, dotted with trees. It’s a God’s eye view of the world, and for a young child it was as wonderful as any place could be. Even the name of the mountain was magical, and what made it even more wonderful were the stories my parents told about the day it had snowed there in 1974. There were cars lined up all the way down the mountain, they said, and kids had had snow fights and built snow men. We sometimes slid down the grassy slope on cardboard on sunny days, and photos from this time show all of us smiling and red cheeked, with the view stretching out behind us.

Later when I got my licence I drove up the mountain regularly, and gazed down upon a world which was so rich with possibilities. I had only one dark memory of Mount Sugarloaf until recently, and I can’t help thinking about even now when I visit, after all these years. A young man who lived in the next street over from my parents murdered his girlfriend and then drove up the mountain and crashed his car, killing himself. It was a terrible, senseless tragedy and a reminder that even the most peaceful of places can be marred by ugliness and destruction.

****

I currently live many hours away from Newcastle and only get to visit my family a few times a year. It was during my most recent visit that I learned about the damage to the Sugarloaf Reserve caused by longwall mining. As I read the Newcastle Herald at my parents’ dining room table I only had to raise my eyes to see the mountain in the distance. It looked as untouched and enchanting as ever in the deepening twilight. I was overcome with burning fury as I read about the neglect and sheer contempt which has caused massive, irreversible damage from subsidence. Cliff faces have collapsed, huge cracks have opened up in the earth, and all the trees in one large area have died. Even a waterway has been filled with grout, and I imagine the anguished tears of the mountain have been frozen there in time.

The extent of the damage was uncovered by Fairfax Media reporters who visited the site to witness it for themselves. The Newcastle Herald’s photographer, Darren Pateman, wrote:  “On the journey towards Mount Sugarloaf I had no idea what to expect.” 4 What they found was concrete being pumped out to fill the myriad cracks opening up in the ground. As they followed the cracks they “slowly they became bigger. Crevices sliced through what used to be a waterfall, cutting off big slabs so any water trickling down led into dark depths….. they have tried to fill in many of the holes, but some of them are just too deep.” 5

Pateman’s horror is palpable: “Seeing the creek bed had shocked us but it paled into insignificance when we followed more trails of destruction further south and over a hill. I don't really have words to describe what we stumbled upon. The land had just given way, it was a massive chasm, like a construction site, like a bulldozer had driven through it. The sight blew us away and the amount of destruction was astonishing. It was quite eerie, imagining how the earth would have trembled and groaned when it collapsed. Once again the cracks disappeared off the edge of a cliff and continued, we could only guess how much further they travelled.” 6

Through my own tears I was reminded, as I read this, of The Scouring of the Shire, a chapter in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this chapter the Hobbits return to their beloved Shire to find it has been terribly disfigured: “It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through the rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater road every tree had been felled.” 7

Tolkien, of all people, would understand my anger and heartbreak over what has happened to the sacred land of my childhood. He had a deep and abiding love of nature which was expressed in his books. His views were shaped by the effects of industrialisation that he witnessed on the English countryside, and he was greatly alienated by the ugliness of the modern world with its "mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic.” 8 Tolkien has been dismissed by some as a Luddite and a hopeless romantic because he longed for an “oasis of sanity in a sea of unreason.”9 I think he just wanted to live in a world where nature and “progress” are not seen as mutually exclusive. We’ve been conditioned to believe that such a world is an impossible dream. Instead rampant, irresponsible development and endless new mining ventures are portrayed as inevitable. Economic disaster is wielded over the heads over those who dare to question the continuing reliance on fossil fuels.

The catastrophe at Sugarloaf reserve is further evidence that governments cannot be relied upon to protect the environment. Companies like Glencore act with impunity because they know the consequences for their negligence will be minimal. Sugarloaf Action Group has accused the company of ‘‘sitting on its hands for nearly a year’’ over the matter. According to the group’s president Anne Andrews, “the mine appears to be a law unto itself and the government seems happy passing the buck from one department to the next so no one has to take responsibility. This is not good enough. How can we ever trust the government’s regulation of mining when this is allowed to happen and they choose to cover it up until they are caught out by the paper?” 10

Community outrage has forced the company to take some steps towards dealing with the issue at Sugarloaf reserve, but this is like putting a band aid on a life-threatening wound. It is far too little too late. Have any lessons been learned from this and other environmental disasters? Has longwall mining been banned under conservation areas? Will the government be more vigilant in protecting the land in the future, or will they always bow to pressure from industry? The fact that new “mega” mines are being approved in the face of overwhelming consensus from the scientific community on global warming suggests that nothing is going to change. Those with vested interests pour concrete into the channels of public debate by denying the existence of climate change while “once-in-a-lifetime disasters” and “record-breaking” weather events multiply with alarming frequency.

Shortly after learning about the damage to the conservation area I went for a drive to Mount Sugarloaf with my eight year old niece, Ella. As we ascended towards the sky I wondered what state the planet will be in when she and my other three nieces are grown up. The afternoon light filtering through the trees was gentle when we got to the top, and none of the devastation is apparent from the lookout. Unlike so much else in this rapidly changing world, the smoky BBQs and old wooden benches in the picnic area were exactly as I remember them. Apart from a couple of people taking photos with their iPhones, this place felt untouched by the technological revolution of the last few decades. If you try to forget the ugliness that lies so near, the mountain is somewhere you can still go to listen to birds sing and watch clouds drift by and hear yourself think. Up here it’s easy to feel that you are part of something bigger.

As I get older I’ve become much more conscious of how precious and fragile life is. This awareness only grows stronger as I watch my parents’ age. It won’t be too long until they sell their house and move into a retirement home, and a huge part of my childhood will be gone forever. I try to cherish every moment I have with them and appreciate the beauty in the world. The love I feel for family is inextricably tied up with my love of the sky and the trees and the earth beneath my feet. When I learn of the reckless, senseless destruction of the land it feels like a huge fissure has opened in my heart. Tolkien knew that protecting the environment is not just about romanticism or good sense. When we degrade nature we degrade our own souls and lose touch with what makes us human. The land is part of us, of our bodies our heritage, our memories, our lifeblood.  How can we allow it to be treated with such contempt?  Urgent action is needed now, not tomorrow or the next day.

I still think about climbing the antennas on top of the mountain and disappearing into the swirling clouds. Maybe there’s a saner, kinder world up there where stupidity and greed don’t rule. Down on earth the monsters I was so afraid of as a child no longer lurk in the dark. Now they are bold enough to show themselves in the light of day, and there don’t seem to be any heroes brave enough or strong enough to really take them on. I try to find comfort in Tolkien’s words which seem more relevant than ever, but they can do little to stem the wound in my heart:

 The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.10

Without action to back it up it, love alone cannot save us from what lies ahead.


 

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Plains: A Short Story


 
 

Ouroborus is a tiny outpost in a vast sea of nothingness. No one can remember how the town got its name or why it took root like a desert flower on the Hay Plains in NSW, Australia, where only low bushes and clumps of brown, tussocky grass thrive beneath a barren sky. Lizards and snakes take shelter beneath the bushes from the heat and scorching winds that whip across the plains, but these are the only other living creatures to be found for miles.

The landscape around Ouroborus bears more resemblance to the moon than the earth, and for some, the sheer magnitude of the emptiness is soothing to the soul. They can lose themselves in this no man’s land and forget who they are. For others, the desolation of the land gives them nowhere to hide, and it is their own fears they try to outrun as they hurtle through the void in air conditioned cars, their eyes on the distant horizon.

***

“God, is this it?” said Danielle as they pulled up in what passed for a main street in the shitty one-horse town. There was nothing but a general store, a post office and a derelict looking pub. “What a dump. I won’t be long.”  Tom leaned back against the headrest with his eyes closed, his hands still on the steering wheel as if they were frozen in that position. She hadn’t wanted to stop here but he’d insisted he needed a break, and she couldn’t very well argue considering he’d done most of the driving since they left Adelaide.

“Get me a coke,” he said as she opened the door. These were the first words he’d spoken in almost an hour. The conversation had petered out when they got to the plains, and after a few attempts to revive it she’d given up and stared out at the flat, ugly scenery. She was still glad they’d decided to drive to Julia’s wedding instead of flying because it gave them more time alone together. They had a long way to go yet but it had done them good to catch up with old friends.

They were booked into a motel a couple of hours away for the night, and she hoped Tom didn’t want to stop here for too long. In years to come they would both look back on this day and recognise Ouroborus as a very significant landmark in their lives but now Danielle just wanted to get across the plains and back to civilization. Being out here in the middle of nowhere gave her the creeps.

The heat assaulted her as she stepped out of the car and she could feel her skin shrivelling beneath its onslaught. No wonder all the people they’d seen on the road looked so dried up and defeated. Nothing could thrive in this sun; it sucked the life out of you and left you feeling like a piece of old meat. She raised her hand to her face. Her skin felt paper thin beneath her fingers, like her grandmother’s when she’d stroked her cheek as a little girl. She immediately pictured Rebecca with her dewy, supple glow of youth, and she made a mental note to book in for a chemical peel as soon as they got back to Sydney.

Danielle realised she should have brought her hat, but she couldn’t be bothered going back to the car for it when she was already halfway across the street. She kept going, glancing around at the deserted town. It was just after three in the afternoon and apart from a couple of ancient cars parked in front of the pub, there was not a single sign of life. Even the breeze was absent.

Pushing open the door to the dim general store she expected to find some relief but it was even hotter in here. The shelves were filled with tinned and packet foods and there was a small fruit and vegies section. She looked around for the drinks fridge but it was behind the counter. There was no one in sight and she drummed her fingers on the laminated top and wished she had her phone to look at while she waited. A fly began buzzing around her head and she waved it away.

She could hear movement out the back and she cleared her throat a few times then called out, “Hello, is there anyone there?” A soft dragging sound came from that direction, as if someone very old was shuffling towards the front of the shop. A tingle danced down Danielle’s back as she waited to see who or what was going to emerge from the backroom. She smiled at her overactive imagination. She would have to tell Tom about it because it was the kind of thing they used to laugh about all the time.

Before the mysterious person could come into view something outside caught Danielle’s eye and then drew all her attention to the window. It was a long black hearse gliding slowly down the street, right past their car. The glare from the shiny vehicle was intense in the hot sun and she raised her hand to shield her eyes.  The driver wasn’t visible behind tinted windows but in the back the gold-handled coffin was covered with wreaths of red and white flowers. Danielle drew her breath in at the vision which was so unexpected it almost seemed like death itself had come calling.

 “Funeral in town today,” said a voice behind her, causing her to whip back around. “It must have just finished.” A lady with silver hair pulled back in a bun and a faded smock over her clothes stood behind the counter. She was old but not quite the withered crone Danielle had been imagining.

“Oh,” was all she could think to say.

“Sally Brown. Only 35. Three kids. Breast cancer’s what took her. Terrible disease.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that,” replied Danielle.

“Real nice lady she was, not like some of the other nut jobs around here.”

Danielle began searching through her wallet for money.  “I’m just after a couple of cold drinks. Coke will do.”

The woman didn’t answer immediately but turned and took something from a shelf behind her. “Can’t help you there, I’m afraid,” she said as she turned back. Danielle looked at her in confusion. “The power’s been out since early this morning and I don’t want to open the fridge. You’ll have to go to the pub, they’ve got a generator.” It was insect spray she held in her hand, and as she spoke she walked around to the front of the counter and took aim at the fly that had followed Danielle in. It dropped to the ground and the woman moved over to the fruit and vegetable display and waved her hand over it. A cloud of tiny insects rose up and scattered in all directions. “Damn bugs,” she muttered as she pointed the can over the top of the food and sprayed. Danielle watched in horror as the fine mist drifted down over the vegetables like summer rain.

“Okay, thanks,” she said, trying not to let her disgust show as she turned and left the store. The sound of the fly’s death throes followed her out the door. She was still shaking her head as she crossed the road and wondering who she could report the woman to when she saw that Tom was leaning against the car, smoking a cigarette. He looked so handsome in profile that the sight of him caused her heart to jump slightly in her chest. After all this time he could still affect her.

He flicked his ash as she approached then dropped the cigarette on the ground without bothering to stamp it out.

“What happened to the drinks?” he asked.

“We have to go to the pub. There’s no power anywhere else.”

“Suits me just fine. I could do with a beer.”

***

Danielle expected the pub to be deserted like the rest of the town and she was surprised to see there were over thirty people in the front room. The walls were covered with old black and white photos and it smelt of smoke, sweat and dust. Cobwebs trailed along the ceiling like wispy clouds. A couple of old men were seated at the L-shaped bar and they glanced up from their beers as they entered and then looked away without interest. Behind the men was a pool table that separated the main bar from a long section furnished with faded lounges and a wooden table with a lace cloth over it.

 Most of the people were gathered in this area and it wasn’t until they’d found a seat near the door that Danielle noticed that only the men appeared to be drinking alcohol. The women wore old-fashioned floral dresses and head scarves and all of the men had beards. They must be some kind of church group, she decided. As she continued to observe them she noticed a photo on the table of a dark haired woman. There were flowers around the photo and the table was laden with plates of homemade food.

“Oh no, we have to get out of here,” she whispered urgently to Tom. “We’ve walked into a wake.”

“Oh shit. Well, they wouldn’t have let us in if it was private,” he whispered back. “We’ll just stay out of the way over here.” Feeling very uncomfortable Danielle tried not to stare at the mourners as she sipped her drink, but there was one man she couldn’t look away from. His sadness was etched so deeply into his face that he looked like a statue of grief. Three children, including a little girl with long blonde hair in plaits clung to his side and she guessed they were Sally Brown’s family. The girl was around the same age as Emily and Maddy. Danielle smiled gently at her, but she turned away and buried her head in her father’s sleeve. Oh, what a waste of life to be taken so young, she thought. And those poor children left without a mother. The unfairness of it tore at her heart and reminded her of how important it was for them to work things out for their own girls’ sake.

Pulling her eyes away from the melancholy scene she told Tom about the strange woman in the store. He just grunted in response. “Can you imagine living somewhere like this? It would be so hard,” she said, trying to coax him into conversation.

“I don’t know, it might be nice to escape from all the stress,” he replied.

“And what do you have to be so stressed about?” she asked, her tone light and teasing. “I think we’ve got it pretty good compared to a lot of other people. At least we have each other.”  Unconsciously she glanced back at the bereaved husband.

Tom didn’t answer for a long moment but just stared into his drink. “You’ve really got no idea have you, Danielle,” he said finally, looking up.

“I was just kidding, we all have stress from time to time, it’s part of life,” she said, trying to divert the conversation away from the dark alley he seemed intent on dragging it into.

“It’s more than stress. I haven’t been happy in a long time but every time I try to talk to you about it you just don’t want to hear.”

 A lead weight dropped onto her chest. “My God, you’re still seeing Rebecca. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

 “No.” The word was said softly but it came from a place of such deep anger and frustration that it exploded in her ears. “This isn’t about Rebecca, it never has been. It’s about me, about us and what we’re going to do.”

“But we’re fine, everything is fine between us now. This trip is proof of that. Haven’t we had a good time?” she said, her voice rising.

“This is exactly what I mean, Danielle, you never listen,” he said. “You never listen and you never see what to see what you don’t want to see. I can’t do this anymore.”

 “What do you mean you can’t do this? You can’t just give up like that. I thought we agreed you need to focus on your family and get over this early midlife crisis or whatever it is before you destroy everything…….” The rest of her words were drowned by a deafening roar from outside.

Tom swallowed his beer in one gulp and stood up abruptly. “I’m getting another drink,” he said. Danielle watched as he walked towards the bar but then kept going right past it. He disappeared through a door leading out the back. She wanted to follow him but his words had been like a punch in the stomach and she couldn’t stand up. As she tried to compose herself the front door of the pub flew open and a man with the black leathers and tattoos of a bikie stood on the threshold. Behind him were two other men dressed the same way. They didn’t appear to be locals and as they entered they glanced around like animals staking out their territory before claiming the pool table as their own.

Danielle barely noticed them or the tiny bugs struggling to stay afloat in her drink as she stirred it mechanically with a straw. As her shock subsided, anger arose to take its place and she stood up and walked out the back to the beer garden where Tom had gone. There was nothing out there but dry grass and the skeleton of a lizard trapped beneath an upturned glass on one of the tables. Back inside she asked the middle aged barmaid if she’d seen Tom. The woman was wearing a sleeveless singlet top and her upper arms wobbled as she pulled a beer, reminding Danielle of her own loosening flesh. Was that why he didn’t want her anymore, why he’d found somewhere younger and firmer like Rebecca? She could have worked harder to stay toned, and she still could if he’d just give them another chance.

The barmaid hadn’t seen him so Danielle went back to the car in case he’d gone there, but it was locked and empty and Tom was nowhere in sight. Her phone was in her bag inside the car so she had no option but to go back to the pub and wait for him there. This time she sat outside on the veranda and watched the trucks roar through town, barely slowing down even though it was a 50km area. The air was thick with diesel fumes as they passed.

“It’s the UFOs, you know,” said an old man with a white beard sitting a couple of tables away from her. He was the only other person on the veranda.

“What?”

“On the plains. That’s what brings them here.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, hoping he’d take the hint and leave her alone.

The man got up and moved to the table next to hers. “Them lot in there. They’re waiting for the UFOS to come and take them away to somewhere better. They think if they wish and hope for it enough it will come true. They spend their whole lives preparing.” Danielle vaguely remembered reading something about a religious cult that lived out this way, but it was the last thing she cared about at this moment.

“I don’t believe in UFOs,” she said dully.

“But you should,” he moved his chair closer, scraping it across the cement. “It’s not like that lot think, but they do come at night. I’ve seen the lights on the plains.” His eyes shone and Danielle flinched as he leaned in closer to her. “They might come tonight.”

“I have to find my husband now,” she said, getting up and stumbling towards the door leading back into the bar. Her eyes were stinging with unshed tears and she wasn’t watching where she was going when she crashed hard into someone coming the other way.  The man was built like a road train, and even before she looked up she knew it was one of the bikies who’d come in earlier. As her gaze moved over him she noticed he had a large tattoo on his upper arm of a serpent swallowing its tail. She expected him to be irritated but to her great surprise she found only sympathy in his expression.  

 “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, steadying her with a hand on the shoulder. He had obviously mistaken her for one of the mourners and she shook her head and tried to correct the mistake.

 “Oh no, I’m not …...” For some reason the words wouldn’t come. The tears she’d been holding back spilled down her cheeks instead.  “Thank you,” was all she could manage to get out as he patted her on the shoulder before and moving away. She had lost something and she could no longer deny it. Tom might still be in their marriage physically but in his heart he had left her a long time ago, and no amount of wishing and hoping was ever going to change that. It was time for her to accept the fact that her marriage was over and that her husband didn’t love her anymore. This was one thing she’d never be able to fix not matter how hard she tried.

***

She found him an hour later in a tiny park on the edge of town, just staring into the distance. The afternoon shadows were beginning to stretch over the land and the temperature was dipping with the sun. She took a seat beside him without saying anything. There was nothing to see at all out there except emptiness, but for some reason she couldn’t look away.

“You could just walk into it and disappear,” he said softly. “No one would ever find you.”

“You don’t really want to disappear, do you, Tom?” He turned to look at her, shook his head almost imperceptibly.

“Come on, let’s have one more drink,” she said, standing up. She was not in a rush to leave now. There was no reason to hurry. The old man was still sitting on the veranda when they returned to the pub. He called out to them as they passed him.

 “They’ll be here soon, I can feel it in the air. The planets are aligning and there are big changes coming. You do believe me, don’t you?”

 Danielle tried to smile at him as Tom held the door open for her and she stepped back into the pub. The UFOs might not come tonight but there was some truth in the man’s words. Nothing would ever be the same again.





 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Literary Stage Fright



A while ago I wrote a blog post about university creative writing courses and whether they're a waste of time. I came down on the side of those who believe writing skills can be taught and that these courses are an excellent way of learning about the finer points of writing.

Now I'm nearing the end of my second semester of a creative writing course through Macquarie University, I can speak from actual experience about this subject. I wish I could say that my writing has improved dramatically and that I've learnt a great deal that I can use, but it's not that simple. Don't get me wrong, my classes have been extremely enriching, and I've learnt a lot about how to critique other people's writing and my own, but the downside of reading so much good writing, both by published authors and my fellow-students, is that I look at my own writing now and see how substandard it is. I also suffer from the literary equivalent of "stage fright" because when my writing is going to be read and judged by others, whether for a workshop or assessment, I find that I freeze and lose my spontaneity. This is the thing that make writing fun, so to lose it is quite concerning.

I enrolled in this course to "find my voice as a writer" (so pretentious, I know) so it's pretty ironic that instead I feel I've lost it. Sometimes it seems like I'm trying to force my writing into a mould that it just doesn't fit into, and the only answer is to stop trying to force it. The trick, I believe, is to listen and take on board everything about literary technique and style, but not let it stifle your imagination or cripple your own unique personality. Even though I haven't seen much obvious improvement in my writing I'm hoping that in the long run I'll benefit from all this learning. The unconscious is a funny thing and sometimes you just have to let information simmer there for a while, especially with something like creative writing, which delves very deeply into the hidden and mysterious reaches of the mind.

I have to make a decision very soon about whether to apply to continue this course next year, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to take it to the next level. Reading and analysing stories is something I enjoy so much that I could do these kinds of classes forever. My educational qualifications are starting to look ridiculous on my resume, especially considering I'm not even using them at the moment. Maybe one day it will all be worth it. If not, at least I'm doing something I love. I can't think of any better reason  for persevering against what seem like crushing odds sometimes.




Saturday, 28 September 2013

The Neglected Mother of Detective Fiction



Everyone's heard of Edgar Allan Poe, the so-called father of American mystery fiction. Everyone is familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most well-known detective in literature. Of course we all know who Agatha Christie is, so why is the author Anna Katharine Green, who was a major influence on both Doyle and Christie's writing, so unknown today?

Green is the author of The Leavenworth Case, which was the first detective novel ever written (Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue was the first to have a detective hero) TLC was published in 1878, nine years before Sherlock Holmes appeared on the literary scene. In her books Green established many of the genre conventions that are still used to this day. At the time her book was a bestseller. Critics predictably claimed that a novel which displayed such a detailed knowledge of the criminal system couldn't possibly have been written by a woman. Unlike Poe, Doyle and Christie's books, TLC has slipped into obscurity, along with the many other novels she wrote.

Green was a prolific writer, penning a book a year for five decades, spanning two centuries. Many of these books are now available for free on Amazon, which is how I discovered this badly neglected author. I downloaded a copy of The House of Whispering Pines, and from the opening page I knew I was in the hands of a master storyteller. When I did a bit of research on the author I was truly shocked that I'd never even heard of this woman who has had such a major impact on mystery and detective fiction. So what is the reason for this neglect?

Some reviewers have claimed that her books are too wordy and old-fashioned for contemporary audiences. I disagree with this argument. Other classics from the same era which are much harder to read are still enjoyed by many. My feeling is that because of her obscurity Green just hasn't reached the audience that will appreciate her work. There are several editions of The Leavenworth Case on Amazon and the highest number of ratings for any edition is seventeen. All of her other books have only a handful of reviews. Goodreads is  little better, where reviews number in the hundreds for TLC and two other books have over one hundred ratings, but this is a mere drop in the ocean compared with Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue which has nearly five thousand ratings for one edition. Most of Green's books on Goodreads have less than fifty reviews.


There's something very wrong with this picture and I don't think it's just a coincidence that Green, a woman who wrote the first fully-fledged detective novel ever, has conveniently been erased from literary history. Sure Agatha Christie was, and still is,  an extremely popular female mystery writer, but it's one thing to be a great author in a particular genre, and another thing to actually play a key role in establishing that genre.

Have you heard of Anna Katharine Green? I'm willing to bet that most people reading this haven't. To help rectify this situation, I urge you to go to her Amazon page and download some of her books. They're free so you've got nothing to lose. And spread the word about this author who deserves a lot more recognition than she's received. I can't put it any better than Michael Mallory who wrote in his article The Mother of American Mystery: "If any American writer is due for a major rediscovery, even if only on the basis of historical importance, it is Anna Katharine Green. While largely forgotten today, her novels paved the way for…well, for just about everybody working in the mystery genre." I for one am thrilled to have discovered this forgotten author with a very large body of work to immerse myself in.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Land of Pain and Redemption


 
There are some places where the veil that separates the past from the present seems to be thinner, where the people that once lived and breathed and dreamed in this space are still there, just out of reach, their invisible presence stamped indelibly on the landscape. Lake Cargelligo in central-western NSW is one such place for me.

The wide expanse of water known as Lake Cargelligo is located in the town of the same name, 600 kilometres from Sydney. You can get there via the Hume Highway, turning off just after Yass and heading deeper inland through Temora where the legendary racehorse Pale Face Adios stands guard over the main street. Another route is over the Blue Mountains through Orange and Parkes where trees and green fields give way gradually to flat vistas of swaying, straw-coloured grass stretching as far as they eye can see.

The first time I visited Lake Cargelligo in January, 2003 the crippling drought that was to last over a decade had just started to spread its tentacles across the land. The drive from Sydney without air-conditioning seemed endless, and the scorching sun threatened to cook the engine of our struggling Mitsubishi Magna. A blown head gasket would have been a disaster on this trip to visit my partner David’s estranged father whom he hadn’t seen in several years.

The only relief from the unchanging landscape were the occasional rusty wheat silos or faded farmhouses that loomed out of nowhere and then receded into the distance again. It felt like we were striking out into unknown territory, and I wondered how anyone could live in such a bleak place. I was also quite apprehensive about what kind of reception we would receive at the end of our journey. I’d heard some unsettling stories about David’s father who had been an angry, sometimes violent man when David was growing up. Both his sons had left home before they turned 15, preferring to spend time on the streets rather than live with him.

When we finally arrived in town after a seven hour drive the lake and surrounding parkland with its green lawns and swaying palm trees materialised at the end of the dusty main street like a shimmering mirage. Stepping out of the car into the fresh, cool breeze from the lake was as refreshing as a glass of icy cold water. What was even more surprising than my first sighting of the lake was my meeting with Ian who was very different from what I’d been expecting.

David’s father had been just 21 when he was born, and most of the photos I’d seen of him dated from this period in his life. In these pictures he was a tall, handsome young man with a bright future. Forty years later time and heartbreak had literally shrunk his body and he barely reached David’s shoulder. He’d been on the disability pension for decades and had been taking medication for depression and mental illness over this whole period. He was also almost completely blind due to untreated macular degeneration.

It was shocking to see him in this state, but as I got to know him on that visit I discovered a very different side to Ian that made me warm to him almost immediately. He enjoyed talking about books and writing, and he was especially fond of puns and word plays. He also clearly loved his sons and was filled with regret about the way things had turned out. I couldn’t help wondering what in his past had caused him to turn his back on his family and move to this town where he knew no one. Why had he descended into a deep depression when David was a child that kept him in its grip until the end of his life? David’s way of coping with the trauma of his childhood has always been to block it out. His family history on both sides is so full of secrets and rumours that he couldn’t provide any real answers to my questions.

Due to a twist of fate we now live close to Lake Cargelligo in a tiny town just like the ones I looked at with such disdain on my first trip out this way. I wish that I could tell you that the wounds of the past have been healed and Ian is now an important part of our lives, but sadly he passed away almost a year to the day after our first visit. His habit of smoking two packets of cigarettes a day finally caught up with him on a stifling January afternoon in 2004 when he was found by David’s younger brother, Derryn, in his airless bedroom.

 What made his passing more poignant was the fact that it was the first time Derryn had seen his father in a long time. He too had been estranged from his family for many years, and father and son got to spend just a few short weeks together before Ian died of a heart attack. The experience was especially difficult for Derryn, who suffers from schizophrenia and has also been on a disability pension all of his adult life. Derryn has now been absent from our lives for well over a year and we have no idea what’s become of him. There’s nothing we can do but wait for this lost son to reappear again and pray that he is okay.

I think about Ian a lot when I visit Lake Cargelligo because his presence feels so strong in this town where he lived out his final days. I always plan to take a brisk walk on the path winding around the lake’s edge, but often find myself waylaid on a bench, gazing at the ever-changing view for hours. On sunny, calm days the lake is a perfect blue mirror, its surface broken by the occasional fish splashing to the surface, or pelicans that glide so gently to rest on the water that they barely make a ripple. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing pelicans and seagulls so far from the coast. On rainy days it becomes slate grey and choppy, blending with the overcast sky, and the birds take shelter in the trees that line the far shore. A couple of roofs are visible amidst the trees across the lake, and I can’t help resenting the people who built their houses there and spoilt the untouched view.

John Oxley was the first European to stumble upon the lake and he noted his first impressions in a letter: “The noble lake before me gave a character to the scenery, highly picturesque and pleasing.” 1  The history books record that Oxley “discovered” the lake in 1817, as if it did not exist until Europeans set eyes on it. The lake has been an important place for Aboriginal people for thousands of years, and many Indigenous artefacts have been found on its shores, including shell middens and wooden tools.2

I imagine the first occupants of this land on summer afternoons as I gaze out across the smooth expanse of water and watch the sky change from blue to pink and gold. At this time of day it seems like heaven has opened a door and let some of its light escape to bathe the earth. In my mind’s eye I can see men from long ago fishing with spears while naked children splash about near the shore. I can feel the deep sense of stillness and silence that must have permeated this land long before cars and boats and power tools were invented. Even now, in this noisy age, it is always quiet at the lake, and the buzzing of speedboats seems muffled by some invisible force. There is a deep, ancient serenity that seeps into my bones and seems to stretch back to the dreamtime.

Was it Ian’s Indigenous heritage that attracted him to this town as he searched for the sense of wholeness and connection that had been missing from his life? I know this connection to the land exists because I’ve felt it both at Lake Cargelligo and on another occasion at a remote spot on the Barwon River near Bourke where the land is flat, scrubby and snake-ridden. The earth out here is unsuitable for crops or animals, and there are miles and miles of red dirt and gnarled, twisted trees. I lived here for three years while working as a teacher at an Indigenous school, and for a long time I could see no beauty in the land at all. Sitting on the shore of the river one afternoon I was overcome by a profound realization that I was experiencing the same stillness and silence as the first Australians would have known in a place that had changed very little in thousands of years. There is an intense beauty and peacefulness to this land that you can only appreciate by sitting quietly and observing.

It was just after I’d had this insight on the river bank that afternoon that a man’s voice broke the silence. He yelled only one word that we didn’t understand, and nothing more. It was probably someone fishing further down the river, but it was eerie and I couldn’t shake the impression that we’d been permitted to linger for a while in a sacred spot by the spirits who watched over the land but that they were letting us know it was time to move on.

This spot is also not far from the site of the Hospital Creek massacre that my students told me about when I first began teaching at the remote school. According to local history up to 400 Aboriginal men, women and children were rounded up and shot by settlers after a white stockman was killed. Some Aboriginal elders dispute this version and claim that the massacre was instigated by two Aborigines killing a steer on private property.3 It is a sad truth that both versions are equally plausible. The Hospital Creek massacre represents yet another disgraceful chapter in Australia’s blood-soaked history, and the reverberations of these terrible events are still being felt today.

My Indigenous students taught me that the past is still very much alive in the present, most obviously in the deep-seated rage many carried with them. This anger manifests in the addiction, violence, crime and premature death rates that blight so many Aboriginal communities. I knew far too many kids who were sent to juvenile detention or who dropped out of school in Yr 9 and spent their days hanging around the streets and getting high.  It was a place you couldn’t walk around safely at night, and we once returned from a weekend away to find that thieves had kicked a hole in the wall of our house to gain entry. Given Ian’s own Indigenous background I can’t help but wonder if it’s just a coincidence that his life was blighted by many of the same problems that afflict Indigenous communities?

David’s grandfather, Harold, was of Aboriginal descent and one of the stolen generation, raised by the Salvation Army at Cherbourg, in Queensland. In keeping with the attitudes of the day, his Aboriginality was a source of shame to him, and as his skin was not very dark he was able to hide his background to an extent. When he asked David’s grandmother, Phoebe, to marry him, it caused him great distress to tell her about his heritage. He expected her to reject him but she took his hand and told him it didn’t matter, that she would marry him anyway. They tried to keep his background secret from her family but some relatives found out and refused to have anything to do with them.

David’s Aunty Alison told me that her father, Harold, had simply said that his childhood was filled with sunshine and happiness, and then one day everything went dark. The fact that David didn’t find out about his grandfather’s background until he was 26 gives insight into the lingering sense of shame felt in the family. David’s own life had been very troubled since he ran away from home at the age of fourteen and nine months. He was living at Mount Gambier when Alison came to visit one day, telling him she had something very important to impart. Her news about his Aboriginal history meant little to him at that point in his life. His path had already brought him into contact with many angry young Indigenous men and he bore direct witness to the hopelessness and despair felt by them.

Harold went on to open his own plant nursery in the Southern Highlands and he raised his family to be hardworking, respectable citizens like him. He was active in Salvation Army until his death, and he played in a Gumleaf band which was a form of music that originated in tribal society, but overall his Aboriginal heritage seemed to be something he wanted to forget about. His son’s later descent into depression and his grandson’s troubled lives seem to suggest that it’s not so easy to overcome the wounds of the past.

Teaching in an outback school showed me that there are also other, more subtle ways that the past lives on in the present. Storytelling is very much a shared experience, and asking students to read quietly on their own can be an exercise in futility. It took me a while to understand that the reason my students loved reading aloud wasn’t because they were lazy but because they got much more out of a story when it was shared. Stories that resonated with them were embraced with an enthusiasm I’ve never encountered anywhere else. It was so very heartening to run into a student outside of school who had been disengaged and disruptive and have them ask: “Are we going to read that book again this week, Miss?” Films were also deeply meaningful to my students, and it was wonderful to have some many great Aboriginal movies to show them.  It doesn’t surprise me that filmmaking has become an area where Indigenous people are making their mark. I hope that through telling their own stories and exploring their experiences some of the hurts of the past can be healed.

My brief stint at the high school at Lake Cargelligo showed me that all the same problems exist in this town with a significant Indigenous population. The lake was once an important meeting place for Wiradjuri tribes before colonisation, but many Indigenous people were moved to a mission outside town early last century. The people who live in the town are drawn from many different places, just as Ian was.  He now lies in the town’s graveyard with words of Robert Browning inscribed on his headstone:

Oh, never star was lost here but it rose afar.

It’s my hope that Ian has finally found the wholeness that eluded him life, and that his spirit is somehow a part of the great peacefulness I experience when I visit the lake.
 
 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A Poetic Response to the Syrian Crisis


Obama-Osama -Bin Laden-Barack
Prime your dogs of war for another attack
Rain down your brand of terror on another hapless land
Not all great Neptune’s oceans can wash the blood clean from your hand
Spread your lies of mass deception, though they’re faded and threadbare
Continue beating the same old drum: fair is foul and foul is fair
Unleash your vaulting ambition, uncheck your black desires
Let the milk of human kindness burn up in their scorching fires
And when you close your eyes at night, tell yourself it’s all okay
You’re in blood steeped so far now that there is no other way
But I and many others no longer dream of electric sheep
For we did hear a voice cry out ‘Obama murders sleep’


 
 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

How Worrying Can Save Your Life



Picture this: It's a chilly winter's morning as you get in your car to drive to work. The windscreen is frozen over but the sun is starting to come out  as you drive out of the tiny hamlet you call home and it looks like it's going to be a lovely day. A few kilometres out of town you unexpectedly hit a thick blanket of fog, but it only lasts for a few seconds. There are a few more patches but they don't faze you as you've driven through plenty of fog before and you actually like the eeriness of it. It makes everything seem so ghostly and ethereal. You can almost see the headless horseman or some other phantom creature looming out of the mist. The road you take to work is a two lane highway that serves as a major trucking route between two states. Semi-trailers roar up and down it but you've never had any close calls before. The biggest problem on this stretch are the kangaroos whose mangled carcasses litter the side of the road .

You drive along enjoying the beautiful scenery which is very green after a week of rain that has given the farmers cause to rejoice. Your good mood is marred a little by the news on the radio. A high speed train has crashed in Spain killing at least 70 people. About 10 kilometres from your destination you suddenly come into a much thicker patch of fog that lasts longer than the rest. There's a break in the fog and you speed up because you're running a bit late. As you emerge from it you see a strange sight in front of you. It looks like a truck. On the wrong side of the road. Heading straight towards you. You have about three seconds to make your decision. There's really only one decision to make because the truck is in the middle of overtaking a car and there's nowhere for it to go. Doing over 100 kilometres an hour you are forced completely off the road and onto the dirt shoulder. The truck whizzes past, missing you by metres. You are in a state of shock as you move back onto the road, not realising how fast you are still travelling. The car fishtails a couple of times before you get it under control and you continue on your way to work. 15 minutes later you are standing behind the counter serving people and trying to stop your hands from shaking 

That was my day on Thursday, and here's why I believe it pays sometimes to be a worrier. If you have a tendency to expect the worst then chances are you have played all of the worst-case scenarios over in your mind. I'd pictured this exact situation countless times on my 55km trip to work so that when it did happen I was ready to take action instead of becoming paralysed by fear.

Worriers are the best people to be around in a crisis because we have already scoped out all the emergency exits and know where the first aid kit is kept. We're less shocked than anyone else when bad things happen because we've been expecting them for so long. We were the kids who had our own personal fire evacuation drill worked out in our heads, knew what we'd do if an intruder broke into the house in the middle of the night to kidnap us and had a secret weapon stashed in our room in case our family turned into a pack of flesh-eating zombies. We know the best place to hide out in a nuclear attack or alien invasion and our cupboard is always well-stocked with tinned food and candles. We have a morbid fascination with shows like I Shouldn't Be Alive and take note of all the survival techniques so we are prepared if (when) we find ourselves lost and alone in the Amazon jungle or with a broken leg on the rim of an erupting volcano. We also know how to bribe officials in Indonesia if we are ever accused of drug smuggling in that country. (Tip: Never go to the media).

Worriers are constantly told to relax and chill out because stress kills, but I'm here to tell you that worrying isn't always a bad thing and sometimes it can even save your life. So for all the worriers out there stop worrying about worrying and accept that it's your nature to consider every possible eventuality, which in turn makes you more prepared than others for what lies ahead. Of course I'm talking about the looming financial meltdown and breakdown of our civilization which we worriers know is just around the corner. Or is it the massive earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis that will spell the end of life as we know it? Either way we will be ready.

Don't Always Look On the Bright Side of Life