Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Road Trip #1

"The inspiration for The War of the Worlds came one day when Wells and his brother Frank were strolling through the peaceful countryside in Surrey, south of London. They were discussing the invasion of the Australian island of Tasmania in the early 1800s by European settlers, who hunted down and killed most of the primitive people who lived there. To emphasize the reaction of those people, Frank said, 'Suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly and begin taking over Surrey and then all of England!'"
Malvina G. Vogel, Forward to The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, 2005 edition.
I've long held a fascination for Tasmania, usually from afar, but occasionally felt its soil and trod some beaches. The country strikes me as paradoxical: beautiful, gothic and mysterious with a silent undercurrent of trauma. A most ferocious Fall, plastered over by a blithe tranquil Eden.


 I first stumbled broke and alone off a yacht at the Salamanca docks after weeks at sea and no idea what I was going to do except fake it. I'd just turned eighteen. My face peeled in flaky layers and the ground swayed beneath my feet. I hitch hiked out of town on the road near where MONA is now. I got into a beige Subaru with a man who'd seen me while he was driving into the city.
 People, don't ever get in with a driver whom you just saw going in the opposite direction. Just don't.

After disentangling myself and my gear from the drunken Romanian who'd insisted he was driving me to Launceston where I was to be his chattel and wife, (it may have been a cultural misunderstanding ... nah ... he was just an arsehole) I found myself in the tiny midlands town of Oatlands, where tumbleweed blew down the single street lined with grim Georgian buildings with small windows. I found a job in the last pub north to sell Cascade and the first beer I ever poured in my life was a Guinness. Because there was a new barmaid, the whole town was there to watch that one.

Recently I was telling this story to a Tasmanian man as we drove from Perth to Albany. Jim's ancestor was one of the sealers living on Breaksea Island in the 1820s; a white man who wore wallaby skins and moccasins, a rough man up to no good in pre-colonised King George Sound. He later returned to Van Diemen's Land and married a Pallawah (Vandemonian) woman. Their descendant Jim is an Aboriginal activist, writer, poet, playwright and fisherman. We were driving down to Albany so that I could interview him alongside Kim, a brilliant local Noongar author, for the Great Southern section of the Perth Writers Festival.

Pallawah politics can be divisive, rambunctious, adversarial, strategic, emotional, cohesive and informed ... all of those things from a people who, a century after the death of Trugannina, were getting rather tired of being told they didn't exist, yet copping the social stigma of being Aboriginal.

   
During the drive, I talked about the first time I met Michael Mansell and Jim nodded, grinning, the whole way through the tale. I'd wandered into the Hobart Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre as a very naive eighteen year old, thinking I'd like an image of a turtle for a tattoo. Yep. I still blush when I remember the smooth, good-looking man in a grey suit and tie sit me down on the green vinyl bench and give me an eloquent ten minute lesson on Pallawah culture and why I should probably just go away.

Jim's worked with Mansell for thirty or forty years. 'Here's the recorder on my phone,' I gave it to him and showed him how to press 'record' and 'stop'. I knew that Jim had gone with Mansell to see Gaddafi in Libya in the 1980s. He had a tale or two to tell and he was happy to tell it, as we drove.

Jim has the edginess of the political brawler himself but when he's not travelling or writing poetry and articles about Pallawah sovereignty, he sounds like he's happiest cutting rust out of the old ute on his Cape Barren Island home, going fishing and cooking up a mean sea pie. He is a gentle, gracious, thoughtful soul who swears that mutton bird oil keeps him limber. He was an absolute treasure to be around during the week he stayed in Albany.


 His talk with Kim began with historical comparisons between what was going on in the 1820s at opposite ends of the Southern Ocean. King George Sound was presented as a model of frontier civility whilst run by the Commandants and later given the (contested) label the 'Friendly Frontier', whereas in exactly the same period Governor Arthur had declared martial law in the north of Van Diemen's Land, effectively sanctioning the wholesale murder of Aboriginal people. There were roving parties, the Black Line and an intense, violent war that raged for four years. Walyer ran her own war, leading a guerilla band across the north, settling scores with Europeans and Pallawah alike, cementing her mythic status as the Vandemonian Boudiccea.

('I want to write about Walyer,' I said to Jim, still smarting from his laughing at my turtle tattoo story. We'd stopped for lunch on the highway. 'I'm not Pallawah. I'm a rank outsider but I've been obsessed with her for years.'
'Do it then,' he said. 'I know a bloke who can help you out with that.')

That two contemporary Aboriginal writers from such different histories could come together in one room and potentially find common ground in a room full of people was something that I was both thrilled and bloody bald naked terrified about - but the session seemed to work. It did work. It was just great.

Regarding Jim's Albany Highway recording of his trip to visit Gaddafi and his years of activism, fishing and family life, I am still transcribing. It's a ripper of a yarn, coming soon to A WineDark Sea near you. X




Sunday, February 15, 2015

October 1826




“How many?” Jimmy asked Neddy.
“They all want to go.”
Twertayan gestured to his brothers; an older man with a long beard and intricate scars worked over his chest, a small man with curled fingers, Albert and a young man about the same age as Neddy.
Jimmy pointed to the rowlocks. “Neddy and Billhook will row you,” he said to the men.

Neddy and Billhook climbed into the boat after the black men. Randall stood beside Neddy as the others started pushing her out. “Neddy, Billhook. Take these men to Garden Island,” he lowered his voice, “leave them there and come straight back.”

The sea took the boat and the two sealers began rowing hard to get it past the breakers before the next set. The black men talked to each other, happy to be heading out to hunt and shrieking when they were hit by a wave. Neddy didn’t talk to them. He didn’t know their language. His face was different, his straight hair and canvas clothes made him different too. As a group, the black men treated him the same as they treated all the sealers; one eye on his cutlass and the other on the opportunity.

The oars were wrapped in spirals of kangaroo skin, fastened with copper nails, and they creaked as Neddy and Billhook laboured out to the island. With each creak and splash, Billhook wondered about Jimmy, whose mind was always on the game and the trap.

They beached on the north side of the island where it met the deeper water and crunched gently into the rocks. Twertayan tumbled over the side and the four others followed him, their spears clattering against the gunwales. They waited for Neddy and Billhook to stow the boat. Neddy hefted his oar out of the rowlock. Billhook watched him. “Push off!” Neddy hissed at him, his eyes wide.

Billhook knew what they were about to do. He looked back to the best of the black men in King George Sound – the five strongest, the five best hunters and protectors – grinning, rubbing their thorny feet on their slim shins in anticipation of the bird hunt. Those two girls, foraging for tubers in the forest. Billhook knew all about it then. He could have stopped it but he did not.

“They do not swim, Neddy.”
“Push off, Billhook. Randall tol’ us so.” Randall had broken Neddy’s little brother’s arm over his knee on Kangaroo Island.
“They do not swim!”
Neddy shoved an oar against a stone scrawled with the white markings of strange creatures and the little boat heaved away from the island. The whaleboat, with its pointed bows ahead and astern was perfect. No going about or shoving a clumsy transom against hard water, just turn the body and row the other way fast - a quick lurch away from a cranky humpback, from swell smashing against granite, or from desperate people.

Billhook tried to ignore the lamentations of the marooned men but he was watching them the whole way to shore. Checking over his shoulder for bearings was his only reprieve. Five dark figures, their arms waving, silhouetted against their green and pink meadowy prison. Billhook rowed with a deadening in his stomach, that same blackness, when the only reward for his ill deed was shame clawing deep into his body.
“There is no water for them, Neddy,” Billhook’s concern, spoken aloud did not unravel his guilt but only made him a weaker man.



Moennan meets Billhook



With fresh supplies of powder and shot, Jimmy the Nail, Hobson, Billhook and Samuel Bailey sailed to Whalers Cove. The heavy rain of the previous few days were blown away, leaving scudding clouds and flashes of sunlight. They pulled the boat onto the beach. Jimmy and Hobson agreed to head sou’ east over the hill to Observatory Island. Billhook and Bailey walked west along the little beach, over the sheets of granite that sloped down to the sea and along the next beach to where the spring seeped out of the hill.

Billhook stopped to drink the brown water. It tasted good, if a little of the trees that grew above. They climbed the isthmus until they could see the harbour, stepping over the short, scrubby reeds, using the plates of stone as their path. As they walked down the other side towards the karri forest, Billhook found one of the roads the blacks had made, a neat path of chopped grasses and worn with many feet. The only sound was their footfall on the slippery leaves blown down from the last northerly.

Bailey started baiting.
“How did you find that Captain Cook, Billhook? Tasty?”
“Did not meet the man, Bailey.”
“He musta been a tough old man, an old boiler, hey Billhook?”
A thorny branch with yellow flowers flicked past Billhook's rifle and into Bailey’s face. He swore.
“Something impolite about eating your own kind.”
“Too salty anyway. The white man’s flesh is tainted with salt.”

Bailey’s silence quickened around him. Sometimes Billhook watched his broods and imagined that inside Bailey's chest, things crashed around and tore at each other to bits like crabs in a barrel. He glanced behind him and saw Bailey’s face. One day, Samuel Bailey would like to leach my body of blood, he thought. But it is not my destiny to die in this country with its fires and pale skies and dry, prickly earth. Where would my soul go?

Suddenly, there was Woman. She stood shining and brown, naked but for the possum string wrapped around her waist. Her sister, for they had the same berry faces, sat on the ground, her bony knees butterflied. Billhook breathed in a quick shock of delight and felt that breath course down to his loins and stall.

Her heavy hair swayed as she raised her head. She looked straight at him. She was not afraid. All was swollen silence with that stare. The clouds flew across the sky but they were in the forest now and the air was oily from the sweating trees. There was no sound in that moment, not even the alarm calls of the birds.

Her sister leapt from the ground and stood by her side.
Bailey thudded into Billhook’s back, lost in his own dark meanderings. He swore again and then stared. When he spoke, his voice was like rocks in a hopper.
“So this is where they hide their titters.”

The skin broke and everything fell through. The young women shrieked together, an unearthly noise in that thick still air. They ran into the forest, a splash of brown knees, feet, hands, hair. All that was left was the Frenchmen’s compass, shining all moony on a flat, lichened stone. Next to it was a woven bag half full of tubers. While Bailey sniffed into the deep, dappled green, Billhook weighted his pocket with the sun-warmed compass.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Near death haiku

Aussie and I taught
the pup to swim at Sandpatch
today. All alive.

Vale Kenji Ekuan

The man who designed his way into our households:

Just 16 and recently released from a naval academy, Kenji Ekuan witnessed Hiroshima’s devastation from the train taking him home. “Faced with that nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for human culture,” he recalled from the offices of G. K. Design, the firm he co-founded in Tokyo in 1952. “I needed something to touch, to look at,” he added. “Right then I decided to be a maker of things.

He died in a hospital in Tokyo last Sunday. He was 85.

More here and here

After designing a soy sauce bottle for Kikkoman in 1961, Kenji Ekuan went on to design everything from motorcycles to a bullet train.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Not sure if 'mansplaining' is gendered

Most  online op eds* tend to talk about workplace gender politics like it all goes down in a boardroom or an office somewhere. I suspect most Australian workers don't spend their working days in cubicles in front of screens as opposed to, say, barmaiding, wiring, teaching or digging holes. I'm wondering if the folk who type (thanks Capote, maaate) daily click bait reflect little more than their own personal universes. My caveat anyway is that I've never worked in an office and so I have no idea of how office politics fester and solidify into something toxic.

But I'm bloody good at making cement.

I love mixing cement. Last week I did at least thirty loads in one day. Shovelling and counting. Blue metal 3, sand 3, cracking open cement bags with a shovel, concrete 2. Getting it right, watching dirt and water and concrete dust spiralling into a mix that, once dried, will hopefully stay put for a century or so. I love watching the hopper spin, clag up, go lumpy and then get to that sweet spot where the mix starts to peel away from the back wall of the hopper. I'll chuck another half cup of water in at this point just to perfect it. Pour it into a wheelbarrow. Inspect my work.

The whole time I'm thinking such ephemera as Western colonial expansion in the 17th century, who I'd like to fuck, what day the rubbish bin goes out, or maybe even an article I read on my phone that morning about how the Macquarie dictionary has deigned 'mansplaining' as their word of the year.

I get the mansplaining thing. I get it. It's when you know what you are on about, and some bloke will still stopper you and say, "Shhh, stop talking. I'll explain it all to you, darling."
When I was building my shack with the help of a mate, he said, "Quickset cement? You can't just drop that stuff into the uprights. That's not how it's done. This is how you do foundations etc ...etc ... etc. Blah blah blah."
In the end I acquiesced and helped him mix quickset cement in a wheelbarrow so he could trowel it into the foundations. "Oo ... shit, well it's setting pretty quickly now, isn't it?" as he desperately troweled out the cement into the holes before it, like, set really quick.

One of my best examples of mansplaining was quite recently. I'd just brought the motherlode of Moort honey home from the hives in Kundip and taken them to the local apiarist to be tested for water content and purity of nectar. He dipped his finger into the twenty kilo bucket, put it on his tongue and looked at me quizzically. "It's Moort."
"Yes. The Moorts are flowering out there at the moment."
"But there's no Moorts at your place," he said. "They're further up the road, at Kundip."
"I am at Kundip and there's Moorts flowering there."
"No, you're in Mallee country, at Elverstone."
"No, I'm at Kundip. That's where the hives are."
"No! No. Your hives are in the Mallee country." He was so sure that I began to doubt myself.
He showed me some samples of Moort and Mallee flowers. "Which one is growing at your place?"
"This one," I picked up the Moort.
"But that grows at Kundip."
"Yeah ... that's because the hives are at Kundip."
"But you're at Elverstone mine, where the shack is, and that's Mallee country. Mate, you've got it all wrong."
"No, I'm at Kundip. Look." I drew him a map in the sand. "See Road 11? I'm back one kilometre. I'm at Kundip."
He stared at my drawing. "Did you build a shack there?"
"She built a shack there," Kyabla said helpfully.
"That's where the hives are," I said, again.
"Did you really build that shack at Kundip?"
"Yes!"
"Then I'll have you know," he said, "that's Moort honey you have there, Sarah."

My feeling about the new word 'mansplaining' is complicated ... Yes, I've encountered Macquarie's interpretation of mansplaining often throughout my life but it has always been an interaction that makes me laugh at the Byronesque factor rather than enrage me. Is it about gender? Have women always, quietly, pulled the same kind of stunt anyway? Yes, they have. Mary Wollstonecraft saw the revolutionary girls' way out as "her individuality as a way to escape the mindless conformity of the mass media machine." And I do believe one of her daughters may have had something to do with the writing of Frankenstein.

At the moment (I may change my mind) I see the word 'mansplain' as a censorial, finger wagger that doesn't do anything special, really. I think men and women both say really stupid shit at barbeques and pull power trips in their workplaces to override or bully their inferiors. But at least it's a new word that 'splains something.

That is what's so interesting about this language thing.

*And isn't 'op ed' short for opinion editorial? In which case shouldn't they be written by the editor of a publication and not an intern/freelancer/late night cleaner with a password? Dunno. Please enlighten me here.