This morning, as I rummaged through my bookshelves in one of those periodic, vain attempts I make to try and organize them, I came upon my copy of Australia Fair?: Recollections, Observations, Irreverences (edited by Russell Braddon, Methuen, London, 1984). I had purchased it in 2000, in Sydney, at the Berkelouw’s bookshop on Oxford Street in Paddington, shortly after I moved to Australia to start my post-doc fellowship. Australia Fair? includes–as might be expected–from the title, a series of essays which attempt to flesh out, through the personal memoir, some notion of what an ‘Australian identity’ might be. An elusive task, no doubt, but certainly an intriguing and entertaining one. I was under no illusions this collection would make me an expert on Australia, but I was keen to experience more of the distinctive Australian writerly voice, and to see what it made of its own land and peoples.
Among these essays, and one that I read with great gusto, because its subject matter seemed so close, is Craig McGregor‘s ‘Growing up in the bush’. In it, McGregor describes his childhood and early adult life in: first, Jamberoo, on the New South Wales coast, south of Sydney, then Gundagai, in south-west New South Wales, and then finally after an interlude in Gundagai township and Sydney, to ‘a farm on the North Coast at Repentance Creek, near Mullumbimby, not far south of the Queensland border.’ McGregor is unambiguous: the bush life, despite the natural beauty that encloses it, is hard scrabble, often lived on the margins, nature is unforgiving, and as adult sensibilities and responsibilities (including children) make their appearance, the bush appears ever more to afford only a tenuous hold for human habitation.
This point is illustrated quite colorfully by McGregor’s final passages:
I think it got to me, finally. We all loved it, and I rarely thought the bush was hostile, even when I was picking a tick off my balls or slashing lantana for hours on end with a brush-hook. We walked naked through the long grass and climbed rocks up to Minyon Falls, swam in the creek, and once when I startled a bronze-wing pigeon below the cow-bails and felt, rather than saw, it go flapping and swooping through the dark tree-trunks and hanging vines, the sun trickling through the leafy canopy onto the forest floor, I thought: I will never leave this place. Yet the sense of being exposed and vulnerable never went away. We weren’t used to it, of course; many people spend their entire lives in the bush, and wrest a living from it, whereas we weren’t even farming the land, just living on it. I came to realize however, that living so close on the land and its elemental nature can grind away at your sensibility until, over the years and or perhaps generations, someone like the familiar Australian countryman is fashioned: stoic laconic, unimaginative, and possibly cruel.
One summer’s day, sitting on the front verandah, I heard this terrible howling and screaming, half-human, half-animal. Our farm dog was rushing around and round under the house, as though chasing something, yelping; it took me a while to realize it was her, and that something was wrong; she kept banging into things. The children managed to catch her and bring her up to the verandah steps, but she was trembling like a child with fever and biting at them, and foam was starting at her mouth; she got to her feet and staggered drunkenly across the verandah, her legs giving way every few steps; fell down the back steps, ran off down the hill, stumbled into the barbed-wire fence; we ran after her but she kept running and falling over and howling and snapping at us when got near; she had a mad, glazed look about the eyes. We chased her all the way down to the creek, calling to her, trying to comfort her; she finally collapsed in the dry grass, jerking in fits and spasms, legs kicking, neck stretched out. When she had calmed down enough we wrapped her in a towel so she couldn’t bite us and drove for half an hour to the nearest town with a vet, but she was dead when we got there. It was the most shocking and pain-wracked death I have ever seen.
We couldn’t find it. It was probably living under the house. The house was up on stumps, and the kids played under there.
We stayed on another three years.
I’m writing this in Bondi Junction.