A Writer’s first critic.
I WAS born at Inverell, New South Wales, the second child of a city girl and a farmer, one of the last generations to marry under that great misguided matchmaking code.
We lived on a farm called “Paxton”, on Dufty’s Lane, off the Bingara Road west of Inverell in the New England region. My mum recalled a tree growing in the main bedroom of the long empty farmhouse. She shed a tear years later when watching We of the Never Never (the 1982 film based on the memoirs of Jeannie Gunn), especially the montage where Jeannie makes-over the derelict homestead.
“Prejudice is dangerous to write about.”
My brother and I went to Delungra Public School. Mum remembered the day when we came home talking about how the two Aboriginal children in our class were supposedly ‘different’. I cannot remember who’d pointed it out (it was not one of the teachers), but it proves that racism is not born, it is learned.
Mum dealt with the potential for us to develop certain prejudices by highlighting how other people thought the kids of the man who cleared the ‘dunny’ (the old ‘night soil’ man) were ‘dirty’, and that was just ridiculous, and we should just forget anything people like that said.
Less than ten kilometres from our farm was a hall at Myall Creek, where our parents played social tennis. There was a set of old swings, stands of willow and pepper trees, and the shallows of Myall Creek itself.
Sometime before I turned seven, I can recall mum saying, in between tennis matches, that a group of Aboriginal people had been herded over a nearby cliff by white settlers, long ago.
The image of those people being forced to fall to their deaths stayed with me. It was translated into a recurring dream in which my family led me up the steep gorge beside Myall Creek, and flung me off. When I saw my small body spinning down in the air, I was black-skinned. Back in my body, I grabbed at whatever I could find to stop my fall, but the bright green boughs of orange trees were so slippery I could get no grip. As I hit the ground, I woke up.
Seven years after leaving Inverell, in the wake of my parent’s divorce, mum’s re-telling of the story of the Myall Creek Massacre came back to me in the form of inspiration for what I believe was my second short story, now unfortunately lost.
I recall the scope of what I wanted to examine in words was quite weighty. Having learned that Australian artist Tom Roberts visited Inverell and painted in the region, I put myself (by then a burgeoning artist in my own right) into the story of a young visiting artist obsessed with a local farmer’s daughter, Erica. In the opening scene, he observed her lovingly from a distance while painting at Myall Creek, as she helped local Aboriginal people collect water for their camp site. When the massacre happened, Erica was caught-up in events beyond her imagining, slaughtered at the hands of men who had no sympathy for Aboriginal people, or any farmer’s daughters who spent time with them. My painter included Erica in his picture of the massacre, and was run out-of-town by the locals.
Not a bad set-up, in hindsight. No attempt at writing in the voice of an Aboriginal person (which Thomas Keneally said he regrets doing in his 1972 novel The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith). My projection of the emotional impact of the massacre onto Europeans is typical of a great disconnect, however. It continues to this day in some Australian writing (the last time I noticed it was in Baz Luhrmann’s 2008 production of his screenplay collaboration Australia in which Anglo-Australian characters are responsible for registering most of the impact of the Stolen Generations on the Aboriginal characters in the film).
I recall a temporary English teacher pulling me up on calling Aboriginal people ‘blacks’ in the mouths of my 19th century characters, as though I was overdoing the racism. I refused to change this (silently) on the grounds of verisimilitude. I also recall her trying to tell me that you should write ‘the carriage went passed the pub’ instead of ‘the carriage went past the pub’.
Here were some weighty lessons on my plate: that many people feel they have a greater knowledge of the past than others, that prejudice is dangerous to write about, and that critics will always try to find the smallest thing to pull down a good piece of work. I passed the most important lesson, however, about sticking to my guns creatively.
In 1987, during my Higher School Certificate exams, I shirked all last-minute study (I didn’t need any by then… I’d been studying for two years’ solid because I didn’t have a life) and started writing a novel about the Myall Creek Massacre. We’d studied Tim Winton’s 1982 debut novel An Open Swimmer for two years, and the very real voice of the main character, Jerra, had prised my consciousness wide open.
Even my small amount of research revealed much more than mum’s evocation of events. Infamous for being the first time white settlers were tried and hanged for the murder of Aboriginal people, the atmosphere of this 1838 massacre is laid bare in newspaper accounts and court records. The racism in the reporting is so extreme it’s almost laughable, making it ridiculous for my teacher to expect me to lessen the prejudiced vernacular of the characters in my story.
I enthusiastically embarked on a two-level narrative: small boy learning racism at country school, counterpointed with local historical massacre. No white girls to register the emotional truths, only the young station hands, witness to the bloody killing of innocent men, women and children. This fragment of my work also does not survive, written into the back of my studious notebooks, destroyed some time later in the upheavals to come.
The Myall Creek Massacre would come back into my life again, and I’d learn more about the truth and impact of the events, but not for a very long time.
My first short story was written sometime in 1985. I had fantastic English teachers at secondary school: Beatrice Mayer (year 7-10) and Yvonne Smith (year 11-12). Mrs Mayer introduced me to Shakespeare, and a host of Australian work, but one week she opened up a whole world of possibility to me in the form of Katherine Mansfield, and what were described as ‘unpleasant stories’ in which the characters and plot need not necessarily be ‘nice’. It was a Friday, and we read one of Mansfield’s excellent works. I cannot remember which, but the knowledge that she was from New Zealand, a ‘modernist’, and died young (of tuberculosis) was enough to evoke a host of romantic themes.
Our challenge was to write a whole short story with ‘unpleasant’ characters. I think we were given a week, but I walked home that day brimming with inspiration, and poured-out my story (alas, also now lost) that very evening, and re-wrote it over the following days. I also recall the pen I used, one of those new erasable-ink pens with a rubber end, handy for changes-of-mind and grammatical corrections.
I recall it was about a boy my age on his paper run, encountering his neighbours as he delivered the news, including an old woman and a dog, and a blind man. I think the penultimate scene was on a railway station, where despite the old man’s ‘unpleasantness’, he saves the boy’s life. Everything else is lost to my memory, apart from the 20 marks out of 20 I received in red ink after getting my exercise book back the next week.
It was a whole, living, breathing story. It had life. It was deemed worthy. It was the start of an exciting, creative time for a young man coming into his own.
Recalling these three brief years now, I am happy to remember that even my end of school exams didn’t get in the way of the act of sitting down and writing. I must have been doing something right, because my early work was attracting critics, and my inner critic wasn’t too strong. It’s also interesting to note that my work revolved around themes of prejudice.
Trouble was, nobody encouraged writing as a career choice. Mrs Smith made a fleeting (probably hopeful) mention that I ‘had a novel in me’, but amidst the ‘importance’ of university applications, and deciding what to do with my life, my inner world of writing was left far, far behind.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.