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OUR BOOKS > HAIL AND FAREWELL! AN EVOCATION OF GIPPSLAND

Hail and Farewell! An evocation of Gippsland
Non-fiction
Written by Chester Eagle
Edited by Bridget Everett
Design by Derrick Stone and then John Sayers
Cover art by David Armfield
First published 1971 by William Heinemann, Australia
Circa 104,000 words
Number of copies unknown
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

Gippsland is an area unique in Australia; backed by mountains, bounded by the sea, cut off from the main Sydney-Melbourne axis of Australian history, it lacks those starker elements of the Australian mainland which have captivated our artists and visitors. Yet, in many ways, Gippsland still embodies the nineteenth century Australia celebrated by those who search our past and present for a national ethos. It seems to have a rare capacity to absorb change without altering its basic nature.

In 1956, Chester Eagle was sent to Gippsland, to Bairnsdale – a town of whose existence he was only dimly aware – as a Victorian Education Department appointee to the local technical school. On arrival, following initial dislike, he felt challenged, stayed twelve years, and ‘fell in love with the place’.

In Hail and Farewell! An Evocation of Gippsland he has brought to life Gippsland and its people. History, main street gossip, bar talk and daily incident are combined with affectionate portrayals of local identities and reverential descriptions of the divine landscape. The place and its people live and breathe in its pages – the lean-to scoreboards, stump carvings, salmon trawlers and towering trees; the post-pioneering villages and their inhabitants – earthy, insular, and all acutely aware of each other. All are set down by an author who is deeply committed to his subject, yet has the necessary detachment to see it clearly and portray it with a sympathetic but wholly objective eye.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
‘You’ll be right!’
‘Why don’t you shoot your bloody self?’
Landscape and people
Length of stay
Fire
Dick Ewell
Names
Mount Baldhead

To read about the writing of this book click here.

You’ll be right!

Yet, as Vance and I walked with the Councillor to look at the botanical characteristics of Eucalyptus camphora, it seemed that we were over-shadowed by the men who would shortly be riding and driving back to the workmen's hut. In a few minutes, all three of us knew, the overpowering code of the stockmen would be reimposed. Then hard living, hard doing, hard drinking, and no overt display of sensitivity or talent would be the guide-lines and values of the conversation for hour after hour.

Yet Lochie knew the beauty of his country. One January, at the full height of summer, he drove his sister Gail and I out from Black Mountain on the track across to Benambra. We came to a sloping high plain fairly covered with wildflowers; I wanted to stay, but Lochie hurried his lunch and got us moving again. We approached a creek running through sodden black soil. Lochie plunged the Rover in, revved the engine wildly and buried the wheels deep in the mud. Oh my God! How would we ever get out of this? 'Easy,' said Lochie, 'we'll build a corduroy.' A what? 'Oh, shit,' he said, 'look!' In no time he had pulled out an axe and was whaling into arm-thick saplings. One after the other he laid them down under the wheels and across the track for a few feet, then he hopped into the driving-seat again. He deliberately flooded the car-burettor so that there was a ten-minute period of anxiety, then he set the Rover engine roaring and the wheels skidding wildly. Inch by inch we crept towards dry ground, then we leapt forward again. 'Nothin' at all,' he said. But all this was only making his point that the 'real' matters, when they arose, could be dealt with by him. A few miles later we stopped at one of -Bon Boucher's huts. 'You like a bit of country,' he said. 'Walk through there a bit.' 'Where, Lochie?' 'I'll meet you up at the track.' 'Where's that?' 'Oh, coupla miles; two or three miles.'

My heart sank. The little high plain in front of me was so inviting, but I dreaded being lost. In the back of my mind was the map I had been examining the night before. The spot where I must now be standing would be heaven knew how many miles from human habita-tion. The only landmarks were peaks of fearful loneliness like The Pilot, Wombargo and The Ram's Head. I dared not leave the Rover. 'There's a few poles,' Lochie said, 'just follow them. You'll see where stock's been through. Bit of shit here and there. You'll be right.' With a sinking heart I got out of the vehicle and closed the door. Was this one of Lochie's jokes? Was I being set up to prove just how bloody silly a non-bushman could be, even with a compass in his belt? Was I about to create another tale of the outsider's ineptitude when put to a real test in the bush? 'Fuckin' compasses,' Lochie would say, 'you just know country and you jist go.' I moved away from the Rover full of doubts, fears, and resentment at what Lochie had sprung on me, and I headed off down the plain for what came as close to walking through a paradisal garden as this earth affords.

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‘Why don’t you shoot your bloody self?’

The panes in this window were usually greasy, but if we cleaned them down we used to watch the sunlight gild the tips and peaks of the ranges across the Snowy. Lochie used to stare at the sunset's light effects, say 'Hmmm,' and produce his transistor gramophone. Then we would hear 'Bold Tommy Payne', "The Scottish Soldier', The Wild Colonial Boy', or Kathleen McCormack's infinitely affecting songs of Irish poverty. She would sing, 'Now I've got a shillin', and I'm takin' my boots to be mended, mended, mended,' and Lochie would say, over a leisurely beer, 'By Jeezus, them Irish must have been poor. Didja read about the potato famine they had that time?'

But things were different then. Now the farm was sold and he was to hand over possession in six weeks to the day. The Ord River still beckoned, at the diagonally opposite corner of the continent, but this did not lessen the failure. His feelings about this were shown at the time of the big fires. A few weeks before the sale was made, two gigantic fires got loose in Gippsland. One swept in a great arc from Briagolong to the Tambo River, darkening the sky for days. Another one began with a lightning strike in timbered country near Nunniong Plain and swept eastwards in huge leaps and bounds. Spot fires were breaking out miles ahead of the main blaze. There was an ominous glow in the sky behind Mount Statham, then the wind got up and in an hour or two a fast-moving wall of flame sped across the Butcher's Ridge country. One man claimed to have heard Lochie sing out, as it entered his property, 'Let it go, let the*whole bloody lot burn,' and I can well imagine the apocalyptic fires stirring a sort of satisfaction in his unhappy mind.

As the drinking entered the second carton, Lochie started looking for a diversion. There was always the pleasure of terrifying Ellery. He found his revolver—Harold! Harold!—and a dozen bullets. He said he was going to blow the light out, and blasted off a shot. It missed and made a hole in the ceiling. Ellery protested and was told to be quiet. The shooting went on. When the first six shots had bored holes in the hut— one thinks of the coloured pictures from The Women's Weekly which Mum had pasted on the walls—Lochie refilled the magazine, despite Ellery's protests. He kept firing, and Ellery's complaints were exactly the incitement he needed. Somehow he couldn't quite hit that light. It is not hard to imagine his gloating smile as his shaky hand brought the barrel into line with the light and his stupefied anger when he missed again. Ellery's whimpering brought out a domineering streak in Lochie. He said, 'If you don't shut up, I'll shoot you,' no doubt getting satisfaction from Ellery's fear. Ellery's reply, though hang-dog in tone, was fateful. 'Why don't you shoot your bloody self?'

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Landscape and people

Having now left the far east in favour of the ugly, widespread city, I find heart, mind and spirit asking to explore once more the wide spaces and brief time—unrecoverable human years; historically a sliver—when those three in this body, younger then, had Gippsland as their familiar ground. Great hazy mountain spaces, with bristly foothills, long-running ranges, and winter snow merged in cloud; lowland plains, lakes, and the long rind of sand blurring in sea-spray; wind-stricken beach dunes, whitecap water and the endless sea; I lived there, and I left, and would look again to see what world it was I inhabited.

Such all-embracing views of country come to practical men more often than to aesthetes, as I found when Gavin Humble took me as an observer of his daily work. Gavin is a fish-spotter who lives in a weatherboard farmhouse at Meerlieu. Every morning, if the weather is right for fishing, his alarm-clock rings in darkness. Gavin leaves the double-bed to his wife and lights the lamp, eats briefly, if at all, and passes dogs and fowls on his way to the shed. He starts his Land-Rover and drives to another shed in a paddock. It could contain hay, or a tractor, but the headlights show an aeroplane. This morning's flight, commonplace to him, is an experience both profound and enchanting to me as my random viewings of the area over four years piece together, forming the grand and whole design I now know Gippsland to be. On the way out to Gavin's I sense this coming, and begin to fear a last-minute calling off of the flight. But no, last night's call on the wall-mounted phone ascertained that the sea will be calm enough for trawling. Thirty-five miles away in Lakes Entrance the Miller brothers will be stirring their Viking frames to get the boat ready to answer Gavin's call. Gavin does his drill on the plane, checks fuel and instruments, stuffs fruit and sandwiches and a magazine into a space and climbs in. First light is in the sky. Gavin trundles the plane out into the paddock, checks his controls and races down the strip. Dry grass drops away, horses become farm toys, fences change to lines and we rise to see burning-gold clouds in the low eastern sky. In the valleys far behind us are beds of mist and beneath us is fog, a dewy cotton-wool rimple blanketing the lakes and stretching miles out to sea.

Somewhere in the hidden water there will be shoals of salmon, which we aim to find. The Millers are modern fishermen; Gavin says shoals of fish are visible from a boat, but miles of coastline stretch either side of Lakes Entrance, so that when a trawler comes out the entrance, which way does it go?

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Length of stay

Length of stay is the major class distinction of Bairnsdale. True, there is a wide gap between the Housing Commission homes, identical in being different, and the doctors' homes, perched on vantage-points around the town. And Gerard Fearnley, the dentist, driving over the Alps to return with a Land-Rover full of vineyard-bought wines is a far cry from Wally Hicks sidling out of the post-office when the mail is sorted for a few mid-morning beers at the Commercial. Still, Doctor Wanless—astringent, abrupt with some, charming to others. ('After all, you do need a twenty-square house if you want to live, and I could have twenty squares, but [smile] I'd have to give up grog.')—Doctor Wanless fronts up to the same counter in Edgar Jensen's licensed grocery as Pineapple, the town drunk. Both play out their lives before the same people, both are judged and valued in the same public opinion. Each, of course, gets his due; Doctor Wanless's preferences are mentioned to wine buyers with hushed respect, whereas Pineapple has to stand humbly to one side while there are other customers in the shop. Once when Edgar and a customer were carrying on a between-connoisseurs line of dialogue, Pineapple delighted me by holding out a cheap Orlando port and saying, 'This is a good wine.' Edgar was jovially condescending in ignoring this, chatted the customer out of the shop, then turned to Pineapple with a brisk, 'Now.'

All the same, Bairnsdale opinion had a place for Pineapple, for all that he was last and lowest. Once again, it was Tim who told me most of what I knew. Tim is a painter. He works for himself, without any helpers, which means that the big jobs, like the new State Public Offices or the Albion Hotel, go to one of the teams of German painters, such as Rudy Hollenberg's highly-expert crew. Tim is content to pick up Public Works Department jobs (They're slow in paying, but you know you'll get it.') or to paint the hundreds of humbler weatherboard homes of the town. He is used to picking his way over skillion roofs weighted down with axles or rusty pieces of forgotten farm machines. He is used to little annexes covered with painted malthoid, or to decaying gutters hanging by a piece of wire from a nail. He knows just when to touch with his brush and when to leave well alone.

He is also very astute at finding out how people live with a minimum of questions asked. It was when he was working for Pineapple's sister that he found out about the old toilet being used as a bedroom. This was the haven to which Pineapple and his drinking-partner, Sympathy, returned every night. Pineapple and Sympathy, also known as Pineapple and Strawberry, were a town institution. They could regularly be seen about the town, their faces ominously flushed under the grey scurf of four days' growth. Schoolboys used to delight in coming on them under a huge peppercorn tree down by the river, where they would sit in the shade on a summer's day, still wearing their dirty, dun-coloured gabardine overcoats, and working their way through the bottles of cheap wine in their sugar-bags. The boys used to offer them rides on their bikes. Neither could ride, but both were willing to have a try. It was a common sight to see lines of boys shrieking out laughter and advice as the two alcoholics, heads hunched into their shoulders like trained monkeys, wavered about in unsteady circles or fell ignominiously in the dust. Such scenes continued until the five-to-one bell sounded from the school, when Pineapple and Sympathy would return to their shade, or perhaps mooch along the river-bank path to another spot down by the old wharf. Pineapple eventually became confident enough to ride a bike through the streets of the town. He got in the way of a car one day, was knocked down, and had his leg broken. Tim was at the hospital when the nurses took him into a room to strip his clothes and wash him. He let Tim glimpse the lid of a small whisky bottle and said, 'They won't get this off me.' Then Pineapple was taken in, and out through the half-open door came his squawks and every last stitch of his filthy clothes. That night when Tim went through the public ward Pineapple grinned, reached under his sheet and flashed the little Corio bottle at him. Tim told this as one who understood the tiny triumphs of unimportant people.

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Fire

At one in the morning a hot wind got up, whipped the red glow into terrifying activity and ran the fire fifteen miles to Cobbanah. Every leaf in every valley it ran through was burnt, every trunk was blackened, the gravel took on a scorched appear-ance. Cobbanah's post-office and only house was abandoned just in time as sparks and burning leaves fell miles in advance of the main fire. The streets and gardens of Bairnsdale, thirty miles away, were scattered with ash and seared gum leaves. Then for a week and a half the fire sat in the valleys off the Dargo road, flames ankle-high licking through the grass and bulldozers scraping lines to contain it. For a week the sky was a yellow-brown murk, with the sun a sullen yellow in the eastern sky and a baleful red in the west. People recalled the 1939 fires ('They had the street-lights on in the day; you couldn't see the other side of the street.') and wondered what was coming. On a Wednesday the wind got up again and fire raced down the Dargo road, through Glenaladale, over the Mitchell and into Melwood. Further north, Bullumwaal huddled in its valley breathing in smoke and spraying water on logs in the mill-yards. Long tongues of fire ran across the Nicholson country, one almost touching Marthavale at the feet of Baldhead. At night, in half a dozen directions, clouds reflected the smouldering red beneath them.

Thursday was still, so was Friday morning. Then the wind lifted again, the sky went brown as a dust storm. In Bairnsdale itself there was a hush, as if in the middle of a hurricane. Then tankers and peculiar reports began to fill the streets. 'They reckon it's got to Lakes.' "They reckon the Bruthen road's closed, they sent the school buses home at half-past-two.' "They reckon the line's down to Buchan, there's nothing been heard from them since ten o'clock this morning, there's been cars through, they reckon it's pretty bad.' On Friday night the flames ran through Wy Yung, igniting gas from the dry grass and the eucalypt leaves in balls of fire far ahead of the main fire. From Bairnsdale's Picnic Point the other side of the river was a mass of glowing stumps and blazing grass. The wind was streaming off the fire towards the town's western end where, between the houses following the ribbons of road, were dangerous fields of long dry grass. An invasion by the fire demon seemed certain, but the tanker crews quelled the blaze. In the morning it seemed certain again, with hot winds billowing in from the north. The town was rife with rumour—'They reckon it's into Bruthen; Sarsfield's gone. It come in there west of the pub.' The rumours were not far from the truth, but their point was to create a garrison-town mentality, which was heightened by dramatic aerial photos in the Melbourne morning papers.

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Dick Ewell

Take Dick Ewell, who is driving the Purvis's truck. 'Hello, Mr Purdue,' he will say, or 'Hello, Mr Dowling,' to the school headmaster he sometimes drinks with. His tone is the respectful old retainer, but the ironical undertone hints at his many years in the town and his way of seeing that all feet, including his own, are clay. In the store, he will stand at the foot of the chute from the store loft, putting the cartons to one side as they come down to him. An acquaintance hesitates at the deep-freeze, so he goes up solicitously and has a little gossip, eyes roaming as he talks. A stranger enters just as one of the storemen idles past with a light armful. Dick whispers without altering the line of his lips, 'Norm Quirk.' A girl makes her way to the vacant checkout-point and Dick raises his eyes to the acquaintance but murmurs to her, 'Quirk. Ridgy-didge. Quirk,' then continues, as the senior partner of Purvis's comes nearer, 'They make a very good marmalade, too. We have it, and we're not people who go much on marmalade.' He is a master of inter-class skirmishing, carried on more vigorously when the other side is only there symbolically.

Look now at Dick sweeping out the Mechanics Institute on a public holiday. He pauses with his hands clasped over the broom handle as if prayerfully reversing arms, and laments the state of the country, 'Bloody politicians, what good are they? They're just in it to make big fellers of themselves. The country could go to the dogs and they couldn't care less so long as they got all their trips. Aaarrrch.' He sets to sweeping, still denouncing. 'That bloody Menzies . . . arrogant bastard!' Swoosh, down the polished floor goes a chair. 'That bloody Holt. Look at the last budget. What did he give the pensioners? Sweet [lip movement] all!' Swoosh, another chair goes flying. 'That little pipsqueak McMahon, what'd they make him a minister for?' Away goes Mr McMahon in a cloud of dust, and finishes up on his side about seven yards away.

Dick at the bar of the Commercial—thongs, fashionably-striped shirt, whisky glass and jug beside him—has sophistication, even a Confucian air, but his wit only lightens the disillusion which seems to be endemic with cleaners. Tom Fisher, cleaner at the Tech., keeps the young graduates and diplomates at a disadvantage by calling them Mister and never sitting down in their presence. If he wants to talk, he too clasps hands on broom-top, giving a ritual swish between anecdotes. Of these there are plenty, many of them about Ben Damman, retired farmer and three times Shire President. 'Oh, Ben, known 'im all m'life. He started off in Omeo, same as I did. Oh yeah, I used to run teams up there, horses. When he come up there, oh, tellya, he had the arse out of his pants. He was a Pom.' Tom watched Ben court his first wife. 'She left him though, couldn't live with him. She was a lovely girl, but, ooohh, he was a mean old so-and-so.' More details flow out, then, 'Ooohh, of course, he's a big feller now,' managing to convey that it's only in his own estimation; success is a hollow thing.

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Names

The Santa Claus figures and bridal couples have scarcely changed their dress this century. They stand in the glass-top case among golfers with baggy brown pants and footballers whose black knicks are too long by thirty years, each on his little island of icing. The past is gentle here in Hammonds'—Black's—though the door bangs hard and the lino where you step inside is quite, quite worn away.

The bread parcels here have their names also ... SOUTHEY ... taunting the policeman that night on the Bruthen road when the Aborigine was hit by a car ... LEYLAND .. . working around at Collie's . . . MORRIS .. . of Tambo Upper, and Buchan, big powerful Archie down to see his sons in hospital . . . RAWLINGS . . . there she is, behind the counter now . . . names, names, contact and half-awareness... STRINGER ... was going to be married so Collie and his friends gave him a bucks' party the night before. Well and truly primed, after midnight, they chained an anvil around his leg and Collie soldered two links together so it wouldn't come off; they only took it off half an hour before the service ... BULMER . . . how many of them? Minister founded Lake Tyers, early Bairnsdale photographer, director of Fishers, gift-shop across the road . . . LIND . . . Sir Albert used to be the Minister for Forests, family at Mount Taylor, Hazel Dell and Sunny Dell, Oliver Stanley Theophilus Lind . . . HILL . . . pretty blonde Betty singing in The Mikado, married Harvey West, lost him in a car accident at Trafalgar, early morning, big Pontiac, hit a truck ... so tears then for Betty and her child and her man. Great roistering for Collie and company with their anvil beautifully poised in symbolism between holding him single and showing him, in bachelor eyes, married; the drunken groom mauled in gentle initiation by the married and cast off by the single. Amazement at so small a world that a Richmond policeman coming near Bruthen has to be shown he can't throw around orders away from his home ground. For Sir Albert? Bernard Shaw's maxim that the least incapable general in a nation is its Caesar, the least imbecile statesman its Solon. And for all the names not shown, those who do not buy bread at Black's? For you, friends and strangers, goodbye. Like the monument in the street, I say Hail and Farewell! You have spent from the purse of years where I did, for more or less return. Permit me then the intimacy of slipping between you as I move away, out of sight and mind.

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Mount Baldhead

I discovered this lordly mountain during my second winter in Bairnsdale, and two years later, something of the history of the area surrounding it. My first trip along the forest track around Baldhead was such a heart-in-mouth venture that it was amazing to discover, later, that this route had once been mooted as the main road to Omeo. This was in 1891, when the tannery was young and the dated buildings in Main Street were new. Carriers' freight to Omeo was expensive, and the road in the Tambo Valley was sometimes impassable for weeks, coaches being unable to ford the Tambo or slither up the muddy gullies. The mountain way was not so isolated then, with miners at Brookville, the Nicholson and the Haunted Stream, and Bairnsdale traders employed a Mr O'Grady and a Mr Andrews to leave Bairnsdale railway station at the same time as the coach, Mr O'Grady vowing that he would beat the coach to Omeo by seven hours.

In fact he did even better, arriving for morning tea instead of lunch, with the coach due at seven that night. He said, 'I spent a very trying time in endeavouring to get through to time in such virgin country in the dead of night and I would have been in Omeo for breakfast but for the difficulty I had in overcoming one or two obstacles met with passing Mount Baldhead ... I was surprised at the mushroom rapidity with which buildings of all descriptions have sprung up in Omeo in the last six months, including a fine new post-and-telegraph office. My companion and I rode right over the top of Mount Baldhead. In fact we were in two minds whether to camp there or to push on to Mount Delusion. We chose the latter in order that I might have Omeo well in hand at daybreak. We stopped there for three hours and Mr Andrews lit a fire and boiled a billy of coffee.' The two horsemen must have passed within a mile of the upland flat where Giles Wainwright was soon to settle, their fire in the night like a presentiment of the blaze at the tree-house, half a lifetime later.

When the Hurley brothers took me to the site, they knew the tree-house would not be there. Nick said, 'They burnt it, they come back and burnt it.' In answer to my queries, he explained, 'Well, as soon's the old feller went missin', they all cleared out, just walked out and left it. They even left the door open. It just stayed there for years and years, and then they opened up that mill at the White Bridge. The fellers at the mill used to go down to Wainwright's and have a poke around, reckoned it was a bit of a joke, this place they had. Dick and Chris and them got to hear of it, they mustn'ta liked them laughin' at it, so they came out and burnt it.' Tim put in, 'It was Easter when they did it. They waited till the mill fellers were all away for a few days, then they snuck out and did the job. They must've got a lot of little stuff up against 'em and set alight to it. It would've gone for days. Huge, they were. The old fella didn't muck around, he got the biggest trees there were.'

Finding the old place was not easy. We had to chop a tree off the road and scores of little branches had to be dragged clear for the car to pass. With every corner we turned there was discussion between Tim, Nick and Leo as to how they'd recognise the right gully. When the moment arrived there was no mistaking it. Six feet of mossy paling-fence leaned across the head of a gully and there were gooseberry bushes gone wild. There was some rusty wire in the bracken. Then we hurried down the gully, shoes getting wet from the sodden grass. The moisture became a trickle where little springs came in, and soon there was a tiny rivulet of purest water Bowing over the grass. I almost ran to reach the clearing, with Nick beside me, Tim not far back and Leo lagging along, smiling quietly as he found a way around fallen branches. The Wainwright selection was just over a slight rise from our water-flow, and was in complete contrast. They had cleared a hundred and eighty acres and most of it was still bare, eaten right out by rabbits. The ringbarked trees were all on their sides, grey hulks on a fox-brown field. Out on the fringes the wattles were on the verge of blooming, but the one-time farm was quite barren.

Except for a plot of daffodils! Sixty years after the Wainwrights made their strange home, they were still in flower, sumptuous and golden. "That's where it was,' said Nick, 'right here. They were just behind the fireplace. Mhhh! They must be part of it.' 'They' were two burnt-out bits of log lying eight feet apart, small enough to throw in a trailer. Tim came up. "That's all that's left, eh? Unless the old feller's lurkin' around somewhere, eh?' The brothers laughed. 'Hoh, he was an old coot,' Tim said, 'A fair bugger to get on with. He never done anything for Mrs Wainwright or the kids. They were better off without him.’

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The writing of this book:

I was given a teaching appointment in Bairnsdale, and I thought it a dreary place. No cultural life, no nothing, much. I had a terrible time in my first year at the Technical School and I determined that I wouldn’t leave until I could do so on my terms. I wasn’t going to be driven out. I got myself a Volkswagen and started to explore the mountains. By the end of the second year I was in love with Gippsland, its atmosphere, its stories. I invited city friends down to explore its places with me. Gippsland was so different from the inland plains where I’d come from. After a time my love of the landscape centred itself on two peaks – Castle Hill and Mount Baldhead. The first became a locus for my mysticism, and the second for the slowly developing view of life as something that could be seen with a whole or unified vision if only you could get yourself in the right place. (This probably means seeing it with the right habit of mind.) I had a feeling that I would write about Mount Baldhead one day, but I also knew I wasn’t ready yet. What I had in mind to do required a maturity I didn’t possess.

Eventually I married, my wife wanted to see new places, and I was ready too. I knew that I was bringing a unique experience to an end, and I started to write about it, before I left and then in the following year, in Melbourne. In my Gippsland years I had been heavily influenced by Hal Porter, Bairnsdale librarian for some of my time, though I knew that I could never write in the way that was natural for him. What would my writing be like? I started with a section on ‘The lonely men of Gippsland’, because there were plenty of them scattered around, reminders of the pioneering days, perhaps. (Hal always used to call Bairnsdale a frontier town, and I had only to look at the Main Street buildings from one street back to see what he meant.) I saw that ‘The lonely men’ gave one aspect of Gippsland an importance that was too great for it, so I scrapped that section. Then I wrote about my very mixed encounters with ‘The Men from Snowy River’. This came easily because it was vivid in recall and because I was having my first experience of what I shall call writing to a shape. It seemed to me that the experiences I was describing had given me my first great opening up to a manhood that was mine as opposed to one conferred on me by my family. So far so good, but the same experiences led me to contemplate the limitations and the terrible end of my friend Lochie (Sandy McDonnell). So the writing had to narrow down to its inevitable end, and it did.

What to do about the major part of the book, the evocation? I began by writing a series of sketches of three or four pages (on foolscap, if anybody remembers those long sheets!), but I grew dissatisfied. I was examining the bits and missing the whole. I fretted for some weeks, then I started again, and wrote the ‘Landscape and People’ section that forms the greater part of the book today. I had to learn to let the book meander in its own way, trusting that it knew what it was doing. This may sound silly to those who are not used to writing at length, but for me it is essential to be humble in the presence of writing’s processes. I am sceptical about the existence of writer’s block. I think books use us to get themselves written, that writers should do everything they can to equip themselves with command of the skills, vocabulary and – essential! – forms they may require, and then they should put themselves, humbly, at the service of whatever needs to be said. As an egotistical and forceful young man, I didn’t find this an easy lesson to learn.

The book was published by William Heinemann after long deliberation. People’s reactions to it were strangely mixed and the months surrounding publication were an often painful experience. Let me say a little more.

Reviewers were a mixed bunch. Hal Porter, whom I’d revered, ignored the book. Alan Marshall, who’d been a friend of Hal, praised it in the first ever published review of my work. Some reviewers refused to accept what I had to say. Others saw it in ways that I hadn’t imagined were available. And so on. A bigger shock came earlier, when I sent a copy of sections of the book to the two Gippsland families that I felt – knowing the power of gossip in small communities – had the right to know what was on the way. The Merlo family, whose reaction I feared, were delighted. Lochie’s family, whom I expected to respond favorably to my portrait of him, were outraged, and wrote to the publisher, complaining. The publishers brought in their lawyer, and he, the editor and I had sessions working through his queries. Minor clarifications were made here and there, and I was forced to take out one allegation about the disappearance of a man whose story I thought central to the book. I could only accept this because I felt sure that I would return to his story at some later time.

So my first book was in the world. People looked at me differently. Everyone, I discovered, lives inside some construct of their lives and they dislike, or fear, those who may alter their concept in a way that makes them uncomfortable. A writer says that the world is so, and people don’t like anybody to have this power unless the verdict, the judgements they hear, are ones that suit them. Writers have sharp eyes and clear voices so they need to be intimidated, bought off, or kept out of the way. Sidelined. People who hadn’t read my book told me what I should and should not have written. The whole experience made me wary, and it hardened me. I saw that I wouldn’t be able to keep writing unless I developed a tough skin. I did.

Through this painful experience I was strongly supported by my wife and though we are no longer together I am very grateful to her for shielding me in that difficult time. Thank you Mary. I was also lucky in my publisher, Dennis Wren, whose reaction to the complaints emanating from Gippsland was the simple and traditional, ‘Publish and be damned!’ Thank you Dennis.

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