A Blue Room Book Review – Five Bells – Gail Jones


The start of my timidity came that day on the beach; it marked the time from which my reduction had its beginnings. At least it does in my mind. Perhaps it was also age creeping up on me, but the surety I had prided myself on slowly started to dissipate from that event on, gathering momentum markedly in my last few years. But it could have been so much worse – it could have turned out as with James in Gail Jones’ remarkable ‘Five Bells’.

By that time I was in my fifties – and the final decade of my teaching career. The camp to that point had gone smoothly – only a few minor hiccups to be expected when a large group of students are in each other’s company for three days and two nights. I had an experienced crew with me and after having led so many during my previous thirty years, my organisation was down pat. In the back of my mind, though, was always the law of averages. I’d done so many without major incident, would my luck continue to hold. As it turned out – it didn’t.

It was the last morning. We’d packed up the students at Detention River and took the buses to Boat Harbour Beach for a swim, lunch and culminating in a return to school by three – a laid back day to wind down after the frenetic activity of the previous two.

Camps have a pattern – or at least mine did. We were dealing with students on the cusp of teenagehood – youngsters with the juices of adolescence already flowing, for the most part – always extremely pent up about being away from families and with their mates for such a period of time. Some were new to the school, being understandably nervous about the new cohort they found themselves in. The aim of the first day was to push the students reasonably hard in their activities in daylight, as well as keeping them up as late as reasonably possible before bed to cut down on the amount of post lights out misdemeanours. Sometimes it worked, invariably it didn’t – but generally tiredness prevented much that was untoward from occurring. We would have them up very early the next morning as well, ready for another full day. By the end of that second day, usually finished off with a social, the campers were well and truly out on their feet and the second night was a doddle. But still, all of this took its toll on the supervisory staff as well, but at least a better night’s sleep was had. I was starting to feel the pinch after all these camps – I wasn’t getting any younger. The weekend following usually was a write off and I struggled to be fresh come Monday, the start of another teaching week. I was already thinking of pulling the plug. The events of that last day gave me the excuse – at least to myself.

Boat Harbour Beach is one of the most beautiful on the island. A narrow road wends its way down a steep decline to its dazzling white sand and when Bass Strait is blue, its little cove is a glorious vista – as it was that Friday morn. It is also notably safe – a constant venue for school events. I had the usual arrangements in place – a senior member of the local surf club to oversee, the other staff changed and ready, just in case. Being a non-swimmer, I excused myself from that role and attended to other duties.

Soon after we arrived Bruce, the life saver, bought his surf-ski out from where it was stored. A little later he moved it down onto the beach. Just before I started to get lunch ready for the horde, I noticed he had moved it to the water’s edge. I found out later he was reacting to changing conditions, imperceptible to the untrained. He was deeply attuned to wind and tide, with his prescience being one of the reasons I never became a ‘James’. The second was the lunch siren which I rang shortly after. It bought the bulk of the students out of the water where they were having a ball – but when tucker is in the offing all else for most becomes secondary.

It was then the rip hit. Unbeknown to myself, whilst I was serving up, Bruce and the other staff had gone into the sea, urging out the stragglers to shore quick smart. Still a few became caught and Bruce used the ski to get them in. One lad was a fair way out and starting to panic. Bruce was onto it in a flash and retrieved him before he was in any real danger. Still he was in shock and we rang the school to get his parents, as well as those of a few others who seemed somewhat affected by the scare, to come and retrieve them. It was whilst I was comforting that lad, in the warmth of the club rooms, that it finally hit me how lucky I’d been, how fortunate for us all we had Bruce and the lunch siren. There was no going back for me after that. I didn’t want to push the odds any further.

Claiming age and the intrusion into staff’s family life, the following year I changed tack to a series of day excursions for the students under my care – and that seemed to work just as well, without the risks. Boat Harbour still cast its shadow over me as annually the school picnic was held at the beach. As part of the management team I often found myself on these days again responsible for large numbers of swimming students as other senior people would find reasons to keep themselves at school on picnic days. It gave me the heebie jeebies. I began to dread that day. I came increasingly insistent that when large numbers left the school for excursions etc, more than one management person went along. As time went on and I more and more reflected on that day at the beach, the more the wind was put up me when it came to student safety – particularly when a nearby school actually lost a student to drowning on an excursion. Reading of James in ‘Five Bells’ bought it all back to me in the ‘safety’ of retirement.

At just over two hundred pages, Jones compresses much into a day in the life of Sydney’s fulcrum – Circular Quay. I recently stayed in a Rocks hostelry, just across the road from the Museum for Contemporary Art, which features in the book but was sadly closed whilst I was there. I can attest to the vibrancy of this sweep of urban, harbour fringed land around from the Coat-hanger to the Opera House. Jones zeros in on four visitors to the hub, relays to the reader their back stories, then uses a fifth, a missing child, as the lever to bring the disparate quartet together at the one point in time. It is so beautifully done, with glowing prose. This is, as one would expect, a story of love and loss, as well as of reconnecting. Also featuring are the Cultural Revolution, Victoria Guerin and Kurt Cobain, The lovemaking between the youthful James and Ellie is lyrically wrought – ‘He could feel her own breathing like it was lodged in his own chest; the union had not broken but there was the warm pounding of their hearts, almost pressed into each other, like a new organ shared.’

Of course there are parallels to Slessor’s iconic 1939 elegy on the 1927death of his mate Joe Lynch. His fate is similar to one of the novel’s foursome, without giving too much away. I am sure a discerning reader will nut others out as well. This somewhat (hopefully) discerning scribe couldn’t find a false note in this engrossing read and was sorry he had waited so long to get to it on his bedside pile. He just thanks She up in heaven that a man wise to the sea and a screeching siren prevented the James thing afflicting his later years too. ‘Five Bells’ is terrific.



The Sydney Morning Herald on the author = http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/novelist-gail-jones-explores-tacky-tourist-traps-20110204-1agdg.html

1 thought on “A Blue Room Book Review – Five Bells – Gail Jones

  1. Oh my gosh. What a terrifying thing to happen! I had only one scary incident when I was at St Virgils, when a student absconded while I was in charge of an excursion to the movies. We got him back easily enough – he was a very big lad so he stood out like a sore thumb – but still gives me the shivers thinking about it. Has nothing on your experience, though!


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