Rolling Column

When I first picked up a copy of Jackson’s Track: A memoir of a Dreamtime place (Daryl Tonkin and Carolyn Landon, Viking 1999), I expected to find the life story of an Aboriginal woman. The striking cover photograph the 1940s of Euphemia Mullett in high-heeled shoes and light summer dress, standing beside a white man and his horse in a forest clearing suggested it, as did the reference to the dreamtime in the book’s title. I soon discovered my mistake. Jackson’s Track is instead the memoir of the white man in the photograph, Daryl Tonkin, who owned land and a timber mill at Jackson’s Track, West Gippsland, for over forty years from the mid-1930s. During this time, an Aboriginal community of over 150 people established itself at Jackson’s Track, setting up camp in the forest and working for Tonkin, felling timber for the mill. Euphemia Mullett was with those people attracted to the promise of work at Jackson’s Track, and she would go on to live there for over thirty years as Tonkin’s wife.

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The Australian literary scene has always been more depressing that it is lively, especially when critics and writers are quick to display their battle scars in public places where oftentimes the debate hardly rises above fawning or fighting. The walking wounded are encouraged to endure. This is about the only encouragement extant. I remember the Simpson episode, not O.J. but Bart, who arrived in Australia for a kick up the bum. Perhaps the emulation of Britain has reached such an unconscious proportion that no ground can be explored beyond the grid bounded by Grub Street and Fleet Street, where youngsters need to be caned for reasons more prurient than wise, and where small ponds become the breeding pools for goldfish pretending to be piranhas dishing up more of the same stew. Thus, British writing, apart from its internationalists, hath come to this sad pass. Or where, given the brashness of being itself a young nation unused to finesse, Australia’s grand ideals end up as populist opinion – a talkback republic of letters irrelevant to its real enemies.

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Have you noticed what’s happened to the daiquiri? It’s been reinvented, by the Teen Literati. Now it doesn’t seem fair to blame the Industrial Revolution for what happened to the daiquiri, or to Writing in Australia in the 1990s, but the Industrial Revolution started it – you know, the steam engine, World Wars, radiation poisoning, filter-­tipped cigarettes, Mickey Mouse, germ-free hamburgers, and air travel holidays for the working family. And the Industrial Revolution was kick-started by the bourgeoisie. That’s right: you people, the middle class.

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I don’t make a point of skiving off to every literary festival in the country but, once in a blue moon, comes an invitation that’s hard to refuse (commerce enters into it, yet I want the heady feeling of selling a book, too). So I went to the third, and probably last, Hawthorn Writers’ Week in March. Why ‘probably last’? Read on.

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Western society’s thirst for ease and comfort is insatiable. Every innovation which minimises effort is leapt upon, not always with respect for social and environmental costs. Cars are automatically-geared, air-conditioned, full of devices to save even the effort of winding windows. Unaware of the strain such comforts may cause on natural resources (unless we exert ourselves to find out), we expend scarcely any personal effort on traversing huge distances, where our ancestors who had to walk knew exactly how much energy their travel needed. Living in comfortable homes where clean water is a tap’s turn away, we need give no thought to what sustains the supply, where our forebears knew precisely how much effort was needed to get water (and therefore used it more carefully). Even in pursuit of pleasure we welcome less effort. We love the technology which brings the sound of huge orchestras into our living rooms. We expect to see all kinds of cultural display at the touch of a remote control.

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