Another Night in Mullet Town – Steven Herrick

In the north western homelands of my youth I became a mullet fisherman. That was post-mobility though. Prior to my father giving me my first banger, a Fiat with suicide doors, I was confined. I couldn’t get to mullet. My fishing was down at what is now termed Burnie Port which is, in this litigious age, well and truly off limits to the general public. But back in my youth it was a mecca for kids having their first fishing experiences. On the seaward side of Ocean Pier was a ledge, and we wanna-be fishermen flocked there after such piscatorial delights as ‘couta, mackerel and cod. A barracouta was the prize and we all possessed a supply of ‘couta lines. They were so delicious, fried and doused in vinegar – it seems a rarity these days. We’d walked through the gates of the wharf area, dodge the trucks and trains disgorging their wares and say good day to dozens of stevedores working at unloading the cargo vessels in those halcyon pre-containerisation days. My town’s seawater was decidedly polluted from the heavy industry around Burnie’s shores, all spewing effluent into the waters of Bass Strait, giving our briny a red tinge most of the time. But we would have our mum’s cook up our catch – it hasn’t seemed to have done us any lasting harm.

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Obtaining my wheels freed me up to take my rod and reel to more distant locations in search of heavier bags of fish. One such destination was the mullet hole on the Inglis River, just west of Wynyard. The main feature of this angling nirvana was that the hole just happened to be under a pipe that would gush bloody waste from a chicken processing factory on the opposite bank. If our luck was in and the pipe had recently deposited we simply had to cast our multi-hooked line in and there were dozens of mullet for the taking, and sometimes some tasty by-product, such as bream, as well. Mullet is considered poor eating by some aficionados, only good for cray-bait, but I thought they were just fine – even if, from that particular source, they had a slight poultry flavour. It didn’t matter much what you baited those hooks with there. In the feeding frenzy those silvery fish engaged in there any grub or sand-worm looked much the same as chook gizzards. Bag limits didn’t exist in our world, so you pulled them in until you were tired of it. The fish could be filleted and frozen, given away to the neighbours or provide cat tucker for months.

All good things come to an end and heading south to uni virtually ended my days as a fisherperson. But I am delighted that my son now possesses the urge to take to sea in search of scaly denizens of the deep, so I cast my line in these days vicariously. But it’s not mullet that excites him, I’m afraid.

So maybe I was destined to love Steven Herrick’s evocative verse novel ‘Another Night in Mullet Town’. I have followed Herrick’s career since he took up wordwrangling thirty or so years ago – once he realised he wasn’t going to be the next Beckham to take the soccer world by storm. He has been producing sublime reading fodder for youngsters and the young at heart for decades now, many in the verse format. Earlier titles such as ‘Love, Ghosts and Nose Hair’, ‘Water Bombs’ and Love Poems and Leg-spinners’ I once used in the classroom to bring joy to my students, as well as to prove to them that poetry was alive and well and a living art.

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‘ANinMT’ focuses on two mates, mullet catchers Jonah and Manx, living in almost coastal Turon, a place that has seen better days – but with property developers circling to make a bucket with the sea-changers. For now, though. the place is a struggle-town and marriages, including those of the parents of the two boys, struggle too. So when a big-city moneybags comes sniffing around, complete with an obnoxious offspring, who joins their Year 10 class, the life for the lads becomes suddenly more complicated. The obsequious money-bags, Mr Lloyd-Davis, is intent on buying up all he can in Turon town to turn the hamlet into another blandsville full of McMansions. He figures he can make a killing. The lads mount a guerrilla campaign to thwart him. Here we have shades of ‘Lockie Leonard Scumbuster’ and from the tele, ‘Sea Change’, with more recently, ‘800 Words.’ But Herrick does it so well he is not at all derivative. The book is a mere 200 pages, easily consumable in one or two sittings and it’s more than a David and Goliath tale. It’s about sticking by your mates, familial love and coming of age. Jonah has his eye on Ella, Manx on Rachel – two feisty young townsmaidens. It takes a bit of courage to step across the line and make the first move on them. It’s as hard to commit. Herrick writes engagingly on just how getting to grips with girls is not easy – the body is ready but the mind just cannot find the right words. Ella is a beautiful creation. She tenderly guides Jonah into losing his virginity in such a beguiling way. Herrick handles this with utmost sensitivity, indicated by his depiction of the reaction of Jonah’s dad when he realises just what has occurred for his son.

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Herrick’s 2011 offering, ‘Black Painted Fingernails’, was a recent favourite of mine. ‘Another Night in Mullet Town’ is up there with that. So I say well done Mr Herrick – may you continue to give us these gems of books for young and old for many years to come. And you’ve given me cause to return, in my mind, back to those faraway days when I pulled the humble mullet out of a river by a chook factory.

Steven Herrick’s website = http://www.stevenherrick.com.au/

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