‘The Boy behind the Curtain’ ‘Island Home’ ‘Scission’ – Tim Winton
He’s a living national treasure. In his fiction Tim Winton takes the pulse of what has and does make us tick as Australians, particularly those of us who grew up on our nation’s great littoral and away from the mega-cities. He connects us to the sea – and to where the bush or desert meets the sea. His books, like the television series such as the iconic ‘SeaChange’ and these days ‘800 Words’, despite the latter being set in NZ, help nurture the urge to make our own lives more elemental, less digitalised; less rapacious. Perhaps just plain simpler – maybe somewhat the way it used to be.
Of course ‘Cloudstreet’ has been the golden egg for him – and for many Australians it is the best book written in this country. It’s a classic, but if this scribe had just one of his to choose from to snuggle up to on a desert island with it would be ‘The Riders’ – perhaps with ‘Dirt Music’ in reserve. But no less important has been his fare for younger folk. His ‘Lockie Leonard’ trilogy hit a nerve for a generation, linked in with its own televsion series. The lad going scumbusting was a favourite staple of mine in the classroom for years. ‘Blueback’ is another treasure.
As Malcolm Knox, no slouch in the wordsmithery department himself, has commented on Winton that he ‘...has been shy about revealing himself through the clearer glass of non-fiction writing.’ This has changed, though, in recent times. Long content to pass on certain messages through the words of his fictional characters, he first started to expose himself with the fight to save Nigaloo Reef. Then, last year, TW peeped further above the parapet with ‘Island Home’. And in 2016 went bravely over the top with ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’ – so in his later years the shyness has dissipated.
‘Island Home’ was much about the landscape and its effect on the mind. With the latest publication, it is more about the mind itself – revealing what, indeed, makes him tick. But, of course, I, as a long time reader, thought I had a fair handle on that anyway. I was wrong. We all know of Winton’s love of the briny, particularly surfing, that, for some, can take the form of a religion. Then there’s his impressive ‘get’ of our indigenous people’s connection with country. In both of these non-fiction tomes there’s passion expressed on the big issues, developed through his personal history. He may be slow to rouse, but in the end, he’s pulling no punches. He knows the way it has to go – all of us do if we have a brain to bless ourselves with. But with the likes of Abbott – as well as Abbott-lite in Turnbull – we’ll never get there. In the bigger picture, throwing Trump into the mix, it would seem the task is pretty hopeless. Knowing doesn’t develop the collective will, but Tim W’s writing in both of these outings sure gives encouragement to make headway.
The major aspect of the author’s make-up I didn’t know was his connection to evangelical religion. When Winton was a kid his father, a motor cycle cop, had a near death experience when he came off his bike. A pall came down on young Tim’s household as his dad battled to recover from his ordeal. One of his carers was deeply into religion and his father was converted. Back in the day this resulted in the whole family becoming church-goers. Most of us are formed by home upbringing and school as the power of organised religion wanes. For Tim it seems it was family and the Bible. ‘Even if the Australian society of my childhood was militarily irreligious, the church was my first and most formative culture. It was, in effect, the village I was raised in, and in many senses this meant I grew up in a counter culture, although it was the sort in which beads, feathered hats and granny glasses were worn without the sense of performance that arrived with the hippies.’
His family became happy-clappers, joining the Church of Christ, an Americam import. All this ran kilter to my impressions of Winton, but undoubtedly it had a profound impact. In the tale ‘Twice on Sundays’, from ‘A Boy Behind the Curtain’, even though some of what occurred to him as a member of this church’s congregation seems a tad spooky, it was here, rather than at school, that he was exposed to story. And we, as his readers, excusing the pun, thank heavens that he did.
Much in both books has seen the light of day in stand-alone airings for newspapers and journals, but there is mint new writing as well. In ‘TBBTC’s’ ‘Stones for Bread’ we have an example of his passion as expressed back in March of 2015 for the Fairfax Press. Here we have Winton using his pen to scribe his disappointment at our politician’s appalling treatment – anti-Christian treatment – of those refugees asking our country to keep them safe. With this article his whole being is exposed for pot-shots to be aimed from the far right and our odious shock jocks – but, of course, there’s safety in numbers, to an extent. His is by no means a lone voice decrying our leaders’ hypocrisy, on many fronts, in placing the innocents into such dire situations on off shore islands.
As one would expect, there’s some lovely stuff in ‘Island Home: A Landscape Memoir’. The image on the cover and endpapers, with their immense beach and tiny human figures, gives our first indication of how this writer views the vastness of a country, a vastness that isn’t entirely confined to the Outback alone. There are a humongous number of kilometres of almost untouched coastline. Early on here he remarks on how he found the difference from his homeland to what he found on his European adventurings. Visiting that continent he struggled with scale, in that ‘...the dimensions of physical space seemed compressed. The looming physical pressure of mountains cut me off from the horizon. I’d not lived with that kind of spatial curtain before…For a West Australian like me, whose default setting is in diametric opposition, and for whom space is the impinging force, the effect is claustrophobic. I think I was constantly and instinctively searching for distances that were unavailable, measuring space and coming up short.’
I loved the essay ‘Barefoot and Unhurried’. Here Tim writes of the pleasures of grandfatherhood – of how he’s watching his offsprings’ children ‘…taking the world in through their skin…Being short and powerless kids see the world low down and close up…In childhood you own little more than your secret places, the thoughts in your head…’ and so on. Magic stuff – stuff that I see in my own precious granddaughter and will see in the one on the way. He went on to recount his own childhood of freedoms where there was, ‘...strange comfort in the hiss of the stick I trailed in the dirt all afternoon, and in the whispery footfalls on the empty beach.’ That bit got to me. What got to Delia Falconer, in her review of ‘Island Home’, was when Winton went exploring the cliffs facing Ningaloo and he happened on a cave. He entered and discovered it seemed to be the place the local kangaroos came to die, their carcasses then mummified by the dry desert air. These were, he writes, ‘…still themselves, still beautiful…like an ancient priestly caste keeping vigil even in death.’
For a while our four times Miles Franklin winner-to-be lived in Albany in the era when Australia’s last whaling station was in operation. As a callow kid he loved going down to where the flensing yards were located to watch the tourists, on their viewing platforms, turn green and retch at the smell and sights before them as the behemoths from the deep were disemboweled. ‘This was what the town was built on – a century and a half of seizing, killing, breaking and boiling.’ That kid went on to write ‘Blueback’. He tells of the men, in ‘Corner of the Eye’, that helped shape the values he holds today in regards the environment. They came to him, via television, into his family lounge room. There were Harry Potter, Vincent Serventy and dare I say it, Rolf Harris, in ‘Rolf’s Walkabout’.
Another strong impression was made on his mind by a recluse. This story is told in ‘Waychinicup’, relating to an area now a national park. Frank was ‘… a squatter in search of peace and quiet.‘ and the future Booker Prize double nominee became ‘… a puppy like nuisance intruding on the space of a bloke who treasured his privacy.’ Frank, with his wheelbarrow, used for carting goods to his remote location, became the inspiration for the old hermit a lost couple encounters in his tale ‘Wilderness’, featured in his first short story collection, ‘Scission’, from 1985. Several yarns, the now 56 year old, relates from his childhood in the two books under review here, such as when he and his father came across an accident victim during his youth, were inspiration for tales in this collection.
With ‘Scission’ one can see that, at this early stage, his writing is not the powerful beast it becomes. And not all his stories work – for this reader anyhow. To me he was fine in the core, but endings were problematical. Perhaps he learnt that he’d be more at home in the longer form – he certainly would be once he prised the remarkable ‘Cloudstreet’ out of himself. Still, there was much joy to be had in ‘Scission’ with tales such as ‘A Blow, a Kiss’, ‘Thomas Awkner Floats’ and ‘Neighbours’. In these we can sense the future.
‘When I was a kid I liked to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people.‘ This was the unsettling opening sentence to ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’. We’re sucked in from the get-go. For Winton, as for me, guns were a part of life as a child in our shared era. We were easy around them. My father taught me the fundamentals and the dangers – and in no uncertain terms were we to not deviate from the guidelines he laid down for their use. We knew where the ammo was kept – and there it would stay, unless we were in his company to discharge it. For our country Port Arthur changed everything, but I had long before distanced myself from any form of gun culture. But as a kid it was fun to imagine – even if Winton took it a little further.
And in another story I found out what a boodie is. Reading about this animal here I felt a bit like Martin Clunes who came to Tassie as part of his documentary series, ‘The Islands of Australia’, discovering, as well as actually holding, an animal he’d never heard of – our quoll. I doubt I’ll ever handle a boodie. Winton had never heard of the creature either until he was outback and a station leaseholder, John Underwood, introduced him to the animals’ deserted burrows. John explained to Tim that the little creatures were extinct on the mainland since the 1960s, but still could be found on a couple of isolated islands in Shark Bay. Tim was explained to that the boodie was a relative of the woylie??? It became clearer for Tim when he heard they were types of bettongs. Tim doubted he would ever get to see one. Slowly, carefully the boodie is now being introduced back into highly protected areas on the mainland. It was a delight to read of the author, along with Tim Flannery and Luc Longley, of basketball fame, helping to introduce boodies to their new surrounds. So Tim got to handle a boodie.
In ‘The Boy behind the Curtain’ there’s so much to give pleasure. His paean to Elizabeth Jolley, an early mentor, is very engaging. He also takes us into the arguments concerning sharks’ rights, when it comes to the shallows, and he examines his own role, when he first put his head above the parapet, in ‘The Battle for Nigaloo Reef’.
‘We rise to a challenge and set a course. We take a decision. You put your mind to something. Just deciding to do so it gets you half way there. Daring to try.’ This quote is from Winton’s 2013 novel ‘Eyrie’. The legend has been a published wordwrangler since 1981 and as with the quote, he has dared himself in so many ways, when he’s been at the crossroads during his career. He dared to write at so young an age, dared himself to get involved in causes that were right and he dared to open himself up to scrutiny in ‘Island Home’ and ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’. You can keep the reader at arm’s length with fiction, but now we know much more about the man, thanks to these two publications. What will he dare to do next I wonder? We wait in anticipation.
Link to Winton’s 2015 Fairfax article ‘Stones for Bread’ = http://www.smh.com.au/comment/tim-wintons-palm-sunday-plea-start-the-soulsearching-australia-20150328-1ma5so.html