Back on the Wool Track
Vintage, $24.95 pb, 352 pp
Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean was born in Bathurst, New South Wales, in 1879, but his family moved to England ten years later. Bean returned to Australia in 1904 and became a junior reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald. On assignment in western New South Wales to produce a series of articles on the wool industry, Bean decided that the most important part of the industry was the men on whose labour it depended. He collected these articles in On the Wool Track, published in 1910. Bean’s monument is his official history of Australia in World War I, which can be – and has been – interpreted as an exegesis of his famous sentence: ‘it was on 25th April, 1915, that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born’. But the earlier On the Wool Track is an Australian classic, also: an elegant memorial of a vanished pastoral age.
Michelle Grattan has been reporting on Australian politics since 1971. Her desire to retrace the steps of Charles Bean and to write about the experience stems from a combination of things: the impression made on her by On the Wool Track; a family connection with the country; an assignment she did for The Age in 1990; and interest from a book publisher. She writes: ‘this book attempts to give a feel for the man as well as for his outback writings, and for the country now.’ The attempt, I think, is not very successful, and the reasons for this are interesting: they seem to reveal much about the linkages between writing style, writing subject, modes of writing and the influence of writing conventions.