There and Back Again (with apologies to Bilbo Baggins)

The choice

This is the choice: join the procession of cars and trucks conga-lining up the Hume Freeway, or, catch the train from the station a few minutes’ walk from home.  My destination is Bowral where I will meet a friend travelling from Sydney. It is to be a recreational day; I opt for the train.

My ‘home’ station is Queanbeyan. Built in the 1880s, the station, according to its heritage listing, is ‘a fine example of a Victorian first-class station building … signifying Queanbeyan as an important location in Southern NSW, even prior to the declaration of Canberra as the nation’s capital.’

As Canberra evolved, Queanbeyan regularly suffered the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. It was derided as a shabby ‘struggle town’, eking out its existence on the border of the booming capital. But when I arrive at the station building on the morning of my journey, the sun is bursting warmly above the trees, and there’s a welcome party of magpie song and cherry-plum blossom. The slings and arrows pass me by.

Company on the journey

I board my train at 06:54 precisely and begin the slow crawl through the cuttings and tunnels beside the Molonglo River. I unzip my Kindle from its joey-like pouch. I have two newly downloaded books. One is Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race, the other, Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter. I have been anticipating the latter for some months, but I opt for delayed gratification and choose Clarke’s memoir instead.

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Clarke’s book seems more fitting in a week dominated by community debates over whether a cartoon in Melbourne’s Herald Sun, depicting tennis player Serena Williams, constitutes racial vilification, and whether, given the choice, Indigenous youths in Western Australia would apparently prefer death by drowning over arrest and incarceration.

In Clarke’s prologue, I read her personal reflection: The cumulative effect of being subject to racially motivated incidents is ‘like a poison: it eats away at the very essence of your being. Left unchecked, it can drive you to the unthinkable’. Just like those boys in Perth.

The lie of the land

The train mooches on, oblivious to the trauma on the page, and rattles into Goulburn. Entering country towns via the railway tracks is like coming into a house through the servants’ entrance. The rail route exposes the face that is usually turned away from public view. We slip past rolling stock and shipping containers and empty wooden pallets, the detritus of industry.

Schlerophyll forest_1

Schlerophyll forest and mproved pasture

Moving off again, we pass a jigsaw landscape of dry sclerophyll forest and ‘improved’ pasture. A green skin lies across the cleared paddocks – a false hope in the midst of drought. A truer story is told in the cracked earth of empty dams. I wonder how we conceived the term ‘improved’ pasture for this denuded land; how we came to think of it as an improvement on the grasses and trees that had adapted to the soil and climate conditions over millennia.

My phone rings as the train pulls into Bowral station. My friend is waiting for me at the junction of Wingecarribee and Bong Bong Streets. Both names reference the region’s Indigenous past. ‘Bong Bong’ is Bowral’s main street, the name linking back to one of the groups of Gundungurra people who call the area home. There used to be a white settlement called Bong Bong, on the road to the present-day town of Moss Vale. The settlement was short-lived, unlike the culture of the people who bear the name.

Book towns

After coffee at The Press Shop and a perusal of the stationery at Bespoke LetterPress, my friend and I make our way into the Spring sunshine. We roam up and down Bong Bong Street, venturing into several bookshops. In the plainly named Bookshop Bowral, I come across a copy of Alex Johnson’s Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word. Although Bowral does not appear in the International Organization of Book Towns (IOBT) register (the one Australian entry is Clunes in Victoria), Johnson includes the Southern Highlands town in his list.

According to the IOBT, a book town is ‘a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty.’ I think back to the largely unremembered history of the Bong Bong people and the beauty of a dry sclerophyll forest. I’m not sure this is what the IOBT has in mind.

Reading on…

It’s time to re-trace my steps to the railway station and make my way back to Queanbeyan. On the return trip, I pick up Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race once more.

My reading will continue on after my train journey ends. It will be several days before I reach the section in which Clarke recounts being repeatedly given abusive notes during her school days. On one of these notes was ‘a cartoon drawing of a black girl. Her lips were swollen to a ridiculous size. Her afro was tatty and minstrel-esque. The girl’s broad bulbous nose took up half her face…’ I could be reading a description of the cartoon published by the Herald Sun.

The thing is, unlike Clarke, I can put this book down at my reading journey’s end and walk away in the relative security of my white skin. Although, that’s not completely true – every journey changes me, if I let it in.

Links and sources

Bowral Station platform

In Praise of Newspapers

I read newspapers every day. In hard copy. In all their inky glory. I even read them when I’m on holidays. They offer a window onto my own society and culture, and that of others.

Cultivating a reading habit

The Age masthead (2018)

Reading the paper is a habit formed in my youth. Dad was a voracious reader of political news and, let’s be honest, any news relating to the Carlton Football Club. (Rest in peace, dad. Good times will come again.) Our breakfast tablecloth regularly disappeared under the sprawling broadsheet pages of the Melbourne Age. It was the era of Menzies and Bolte, of the Vietnam War and moratorium marches, and – to save us from utter despair – Carlton’s ascendancy.

When I left home to go to university, I immediately arranged a newspaper delivery to my residential college. If Canberra Airport was fog-bound on a winter’s morning, and the interstate papers couldn’t arrive by air, breakfast became a disappointing start to the day. Later still, when I moved to a tiny rural town in New South Wales, my request to have the Age delivered to the general store was met with equal measures of incomprehension and suspicion. (They were right to be suspicious.)

And so it continues…

Jump forward a few decades. I still subscribe to a capital city daily – now it’s The Canberra Times. In recent years,  this stablemate of The Age has turned from broadsheet to tabloid format and it’s no longer possible to split the main news section from the sports section so two people can conveniently read at once. That’s a frustration. My solution is to keep the whole paper for myself and not share it at all. At weekends, I sometimes treat myself to The Australian, a national broadsheet that has several separate sections (oh, joy!), as well as a glossy magazine that keeps me in ‘idle-hours’ reading all week long.

My commitment to reading the paper on a daily basis remains unchanged even when I’m on holidays. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I generally purchased The Guardian at some point during the day or, failing that, I snaffled a copy of one of the free dailies available on the London Underground. (As an aside, the reading of these gratis newspapers prompted the only rail-carriage conversations I witnessed. For the most part, travel was conducted in eyes-downcast silence, within private cocoons of ear buds and electronic devices.)

A window onto a culture

A newspaper provides a window onto a culture. It shines a light on what is important, and of interest, to a people. In the UK during my visit, Brexit machinations were trumped only by England’s World Cup heroics. (If you doubt my ‘heroics’ tag, you simply weren’t there.) Politics and sport. UK/Australia. Same/same. But … not quite.

While there are plenty of similarities between the cultures of Britain and Australia – the seeding of Empire in the Great South Land saw to that – there are differences, too.

Take the Guardian issue I bought on my first day in London. Filling page three was a review of a newly opened exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. A whole page given over to art, without even a single advertisement. I am old enough to remember when page three of a tabloid was reserved for shapely women in various states of undress. (Perhaps there are still papers like that, I wouldn’t know.) I have never seen a focus on a museum or gallery exhibition, comparable to that in The Guardian, in an Australian newspaper. Like Dorothy, I had a feeling I was not in Kansas anymore.

The Saturday Guardian revealed another cultural discrepancy. In the ‘Weekend’ section, I came upon a crossword. It was simply headed ‘Crossword by Sy’. Now, despite the best efforts of intelligent friends, I am entirely bamboozled by cryptic crosswords, but I do enjoy completing a daily ‘quick’ crossword. Of which variety would Sy’s be?

Opening clue, 7 and 11 across: ‘In what was Keats much travelled before looking into Chapman’s Homer? (6,2,4)’. I have no idea. The next batch of clues defeat me, also. I am about to give up when I read 16 across: ‘… Jones, Covent Garden architect (5)’. Ooh, I know this one. (If in doubt, when it comes to a question of construction in the UK, try Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Inigo Jones. You’ll be right  80% of the time.) I get to 21 across: ‘Where, according to Coleridge, Kubla Khan decreed his pleasure dome (6). I’m on a roll now. (Thank you, Olivia Newton John.)

I eventually completed Sy’s crossword, but only because the answers were given on a separate page. I cheated and looked them up.

The crossword included clues about the works of Shelley and Bryon and Rossetti and ee cummings. No Australian paper I’ve read has featured a crossword based on the English literary canon, let alone one centred on Malouf and Winton and Oodgeroo and Garner.

I was clearly a long way from my usual cultural milieu.

As the holiday spooled forward, and I continued to take my daily dose of print news, I often turned to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’, a natural history column. There I read, for example, about the tumps that populate the hillside near Kirkham Abbey in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t the slightest notion what a tump was – the word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Macquarie Dictionary. (In case you ever need to know, a tump is a little hillock, often home to moles or ants.) Again, there is no similar column that I’ve come across in an Australian newspaper. (I, for one, would read a regular piece about the ‘wide brown land’ in which I live.)

What’s the point of hard copy newspapers?

As I write, Fairfax Media, one of Australia’s longest-running newspaper organisations, is merging (subject to the required approvals) with an entertainment conglomerate. Fairfax publishes both the newspaper I cut my teeth on (The Age) and the one I subscribe to now (The Canberra Times). I want to keep reading a print paper. In turning the pages, I often pause to read articles I would never seek out online from their ‘clickbait’ headings. (Heavens, I sometimes even read columns in the business and finance sections as I turn the newsprint pages en route to the sport.)

I read more broadly and diversely in print. Although the papers I choose may reflect a particular ideological stance, they are well-rounded to the extent that they cover manifold aspects of life. As a consequence, I hope I am more well-rounded in my understanding and appreciation of the world. And when I travel, I hope to continue buying print newspapers for the insight they offer into lives other than my own.

Links and sources

Guardian mastheads, courtesy of the Guardian (UK)