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OUR BOOKS > MAPPING THE PADDOCKS

Mapping the paddocks
Non-fiction
Written by Chester Eagle
Edited by Hilary McPhee
Designed by Diana Gribble
First published 1985 by McPhee Gribble, Fitzroy
Circa 47,000 words
First edition 5,000 copies; reprinted 1986, quantity unknown
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

‘If, searching for an answer, I parade before me the people who inhabited my childhood, I hear their voices more clearly than I see their bodies. Nor do I see their clothes, apart from a few scraps of memory attached to people – the clomp of Father’s gumboots; the shiny back of Arthur Coulter’s vest; the round, priest-like hat of Pud Marantelli, driving his gig to Finley: as we approach him in our car we recognize him because his heavy frame slumps on the side of the vehicle where the springs have weakened so that he, hat and the arm he flings along the back of the seat are forever at angles to each other. We usually say, passing him, that we pity his horse.’

Three miles as the crow flies from Finley, thirty-four miles from Deniliquin in New South Wales, stretched the avenue of peppertrees leading to the farm on the plain where Chester Eagle grew up in the 1940s.

This is a book full of resonances: the charting of a family and a way of life which is at once uniquely the boy’s and as familiar to all of us as the fact of Hiroshima and the mythical figure of Bradman astride the land.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
Farm kids and town kids
England and the Nigger Minstrels
Fire
The Simpsons
Bradman
Johnny Hamilton
We’re the Guards!
Hiroshima

To read about the writing of this book click here.

Farm kids and town kids

Farm kids were different from town kids, a little more withdrawn into their silences. Solitude, and learning how to handle it, was the unique factor of living down a lane branching from one of the roads, dusty in summer and boggy in winter, which began with a signpost at the end of Murray Street — Deniliquin 37; Jerilderie 22; Tocumwal (Toke to the locals) 13. The exit for Berrigan (also 13) was a right turn at the war memorial, with a bend at the railway crossing. Kids from Toke and Berrigan came to the upper levels of Finley school, bringing with them an indefinable feeling of their towns. Lanes, mostly stock routes, entered Finley's back streets but took their atmosphere no further than the saleyards. Dust filmed everything. Milk jugs had to be covered. People edged gardens with bottles, or bricks thrust in at forty-five degrees. The Melbourne papers arrived at 4.10 if the Melbourne train and the diesel from Narrandera met punctually at the border. A hoot from the diesel, returning from the Murray, meant an early release for the farm kids clustered at the newsagent's.

Winds crossing the plain could make riding hard for cyclists; it was therefore better to live on the eastern side of town because if the wind changed during the day, as it commonly did, you got a tail wind both ways. Our farm was to the west; thus I was pleased when Mr Murdoch or Mr English, my teachers, brought a message. 'Your mother rang. You're to meet her at the Post Office at half past three.' This meant waiting with Mother, if she could be bothered, until the grid which meant the end of sorting had been lowered, then packing my bike in the boot of the Ford. The Post Office was more lonely than the newsagent's because the papers always came eventually, while there was no certainty that the letters one longed for would ever come. There was a feeling of abundance in opening Box 64 to find it stuffed full of letters, and of shame if, reaching clumsily for this treasure, I pushed a letter back and had to go to the counter to reclaim it. The deepest loneliness came on the afternoons when the sorting was late, the sky cold, and there was nothing to show for my waiting. Negotiating the last bend out of town I felt I was looking at infinity, and my moods were made worse when the drivers of trucks and utilities who could have put my bike in the back of their vehicles failed to stop. How I envied the kids who had horses, enduring beasts that didn't mind headwinds!

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England and the Nigger Minstrels

I had no idea what another country might be like. The English were supposed to be most like ourselves, which was why we were fighting for them. I felt some stirring at the patriotic song,

There'll always be an England,
And England shall be free,
If England means as much to you,
As England means to me.

but was no less moved by 'God Bless America' and 'The Marines' Hymn'. What the Germans and the Japanese sang I had no idea until the Allies adopted 'Lili Marlene'. Of Germany's other musical tradition I knew nothing except the facts about composers' lives which Miss Allen, who taught grades one and two, made us copy in our books. 'How do you spell it, Miss?' we asked, confronted by Bach (bark?), Handel and Schu(shoe ?)-mann. We dutifully listed the components of Mozart's output- forty-one symphonies, twenty-seven piano concertos and the rest -never believing that a kid of seven could compose, let alone play an early version of the piano before some Grand Duke at the age of five. It was all a bit much, and when Miss Allen played us a 78 of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream overture, turning over in the middle, I couldn't see what the fuss was about. Nothing emanating from the wind-up gramophone made me think of fairies; indeed, since we knew fairies didn't exist, it wasn't clear why famous people wrote such tripe.

The most popular numbers in our School of Arts concerts were given by the Nigger Minstrels. It seems that we had a taste for the exotic, because Tom Wells, clad in Arab headgear and singing excerpts from The Desert Song, made me feel that I knew as much about the French Foreign Legion as Father did from his reading of Beau Geste. The only people recognized by the town as foreign, yet ac-cepted, were the Heterelezis family, safely anchored in the Wattle Cafe. My brother went there because Johnny, who was the same age, and Nick, a year ahead of me, gave him double helpings of lavishly topped sundaes. Sometimes I joined my brother and his friends, feeling there was something odd about a place where the sons could disburse their parents' profits. Everything should be paid for! Nick Heterelezis was held to have a beautiful voice, but the more remarkable aspect of his performances at the variety concerts which drew the district to the town on Saturday nights was that he had the confidence to sing before the town. The very thought of singing solo was, for me, embarrassing. I felt Nick deserved his ovations, but was always relieved when he was replaced by items where adults, and preferably groups of adults, held the stage.

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Fire

Another time, in summer, Father went to cricket in Jerilderie. Early in a sullen afternoon, I noticed a column of smoke in the west. The day was still, but our strongest winds came from the west, and if a wind got up, we could be burned out. I called Mother. She had none of Father's skill in reading horizons. We watched the smoke, debating whether or not the fire was getting bigger. We decided that it was. Mother rang Maxwells. No one answered. I felt exposed. We walked to the woodheap to get a better view. The column of smoke was higher. It was not hard to imagine a fire seething in someone's stubble with the peculiar crackling sound of dry grass burning, and an acrid smell which didn't reach Mother and I as we stood looking through the line of pepper trees which shaded the stockyards and cowshed. I felt my chest tighten. Mother said she'd ring Jerilderie. We went back to the house.

The telephone was mounted on the passage wall. Standing at the back door, at the spot where, soon after I was born, Mother had had her white Tuscan china teaset, with its green rims and green-tipped handles, knocked from her hands and broken by a door whipped by a gust of wind, leaving only two cups and two saucers as survivors, I watched Mother, heavy hearted and anxious as myself, turn the handle of the phone. Finley exchange gave her Jerilderie exchange, who said there was no phone at the ground. They offered to put her onto one of the hotels, where someone might know something. While she waited for this to happen, I went for another look. The fire hadn't got any bigger. I went back with the news. Mother kept making phone calls. I kept studying the fire. The sky grew more ominous, the column less distinct. I wasn't sure what this meant. Mother spent ages turning the handle of the phone or holding conversations which produced no information. Eventually we heard a vehicle on the back road. This was something of an event at any time; Mother and I went to the fence over which she threw scraps for the chooks and over which, in the reverse direction, horses leaned to munch the tops of our carrots, the only provocation which, to my knowledge, ever caused Mother to say bloody and bugger. The engine we'd heard was that of a cutaway Chevrolet, altered to allow its chassis to support, in somewhat sagging fashion, a corrugated iron watertank and a hand operated pump. The Finley fire brigade! Two or three men clung to the tank, and another sat beside the driver. 'At least we know there's someone fighting it,' Mother said, trying to reassure me. I was far from con-vinced. We passed the afternoon making phone calls, waiting for Father. The fire appeared to be neither soothed nor maddened by the brigade's arrival. Nor did our tension decrease, but I felt, as the afternoon wore on, a numbness, a feeling of inevitability about whatever happened. This was perhaps my deepest, my most prolonged, blooding in rural ways. By the time Father came home, we'd discovered that the fire was out. The danger was over but I was now aware, as Mother had always been, that there were certain agents of fate over which we had no control.

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The Simpsons

There were also stories of the rougher identities of the district, told over the dinner table with the task of recall passing from one member of the family to the other, each disclaiming that they knew much about the events recounted. Thus, if conversation touched on the Simpson family, who worked for Father's brother Aston, dialogue of this nature might ensue:

Cousin Mary The Simpsons were those crazy people that lived in a caravan at Aston's, weren't they?

Aunt Olly Yes, a whole tribe of them. I don't know what they lived on.

Mother Didn't Mrs Simpson try to keep the place neat?

Olly Oh, she tried in a sort of a way but with a mob like that it was an uphill struggle. And she wasn't all that bright.

Father Jack Simpson was a character, but by God, rough!

Me (sensing something) Why, what was he like?

Father Oh, I don't know …

Olly Tell him about the time he told Aston to sell the sheep.

Me What was that?

Olly You know that one, don't you Alice?

Mother I believe he did do something like that. You know what happened, Norm ...

Father This agent rang up and offered Aston a price on some sheep he had ... and Jack Simpson was listening in.

Me How could he do that?

Olly They had a party line, didn't they, to Aston's house and the Simpsons' van?

Father Aston always claimed that whenever he answered the phone he could hear a click as one of the Simpsons picked up the phone to listen ...

Mother What a cheek!

Me And what happened?

Father Well, Aston kept hanging out for a higher price.

Olly Of course he knew he'd have to sell, he just had no feed at all …

Cousin Mary Did the agent know that?

Father He might've ... but Aston was hoping he wouldn't know, and he was hanging out ... 'Oh, I don't know,' he was saying, 'I might hang onto them a bit longer.'

Mother He knew he'd have to sell eventually.

Olly Yes, but he was after a price ...

Me What did Jack Simpson do?

Olly Well, he was listening in ... and what did he say, Norm? He just couldn't contain himself in the end, he had to say something ...

Father He must have got it into his head that Aston didn't know what he was doing, because suddenly he burst into the conversation. 'For Christ's sake, Aston, sell! You know you haven't got any grass!'

Me (in the general mirth) What price did Aston get?

Father I don't know, I'd have to ask him.

But the question would never be asked. Father's family weren't interested in detail, and the purpose of their folklore was to make them look good against a background of less capable, less discerning people. I wanted the stories recorded, but no one had a mind to do it, and, recalling the tales when we were back in the house we'd bought from Mr Erskine, I found that they lacked the feeling of shared adventure they'd had in a room full of uncles, aunts and cousins. In my cousin Alison's room there was a photo of a slender youth in the uniform of an Australian soldier. Alison claimed it was her father. Since my uncle Teddy was a corpulent and to me slightly amusing figure as he pedalled, at 11.15 every morning, from packing shed to pub, with a session on the sofa after lunch, I couldn't believe her. How could this boy be Teddy? Nevertheless, both Grandma and Aston, now a paunchy figure in waist-coat and chain, had on their walls photos of another slender soldier with emu plumes in his hat; something about his nose was recognizably Aston's, so I had to believe that these youths were my uncles. I never heard them speak of France, Germany or war.

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Bradman

Fancy dress balls were common in my childhood. They were the adult, public form of charades and dress-ups. Some weeks before one of these occasions I observed Mother stripping labels from jam tins and cutting out the brightly coloured pictures of fruit which they featured. She also looked through magazines, scissors at the ready. These pictures were then pasted or sewn on a simple blue dress she made; from the night of the ball I retain a memory of myself craning into the dancing crowd to find Mother, who'd entered in the section where costumes had to relate to a well known slogan: Mother was eat more FRUIT!

She didn't win a prize but I won one for her another night when she dressed me in a white shirt, white trousers and sandshoes. A bat was put in my hand. I felt very pleased with myself, circling the hall under the eyes of the judges and parents in the section called Character Impersonation. At Mother's signal, my brother underarmed a tennis ball. Blissfully free of selfconsciousness, Don Bradman hit the ball into the orchestra and was awarded the prize. Searching my memory of that occasion, I remember feeling that I had deserved the award through some merit of my own; Mother's ingenuity in tapping the public adulation for my benefit is something that only becomes clear to me now.

Bradman was Father's only hero, and when he stood for the Don returning to the Melbourne wicket, I felt my life had caught up with Father's and with everything the cricketer represented. While the great man batted more sedately than I, expecting fireworks, would have wished, Father's friends discussed the condition of the Melbourne ground. It had been used during the war, I learned to my surprise, as an army camp. I found it hard to replace, in my imagination, the applause rippling from the stands with bugles and shouting sergeant majors. Where had they slept and eaten, these soldiers? There was no trace. The prewar world had reconstituted itself, but Bradman, despite centuries in Sydney and Brisbane, was not what he must once have been until an English bowler aggravated him with bouncers; the Don smashed two of them to the boundary with devastating power and I knew that I had at last seen the man behind the reputation. The two boundaries, and a third hook intercepted by a fieldsman, had something invincible about them. No more bouncers were bowled at him and he returned to normal, more fallible batting, playing a ball onto his wicket when he was 21 short of the century I wanted him to score. Going back to the hotel that night with Australia 6 for 255 and the Herald saying ENGLAND ON TOP, I felt, for the first time in my life, inside events: I had seen, and would see again tomorrow, things Herald readers would only read about.

Bradman's second innings also fell short, ending at 49, but his presence on the field was strong, and his throws from cover good enough to remind me of the single stump and my own attempts to hit a kerosene tin. His most convincing demonstration of mastery came when he interrupted the bowling of his left arm spinner to give advice, then removed himself from cover to a position on the drive, three quarters of the way to the fence. Hutton, whose prewar innings of 364 had broken one of Bradman's records, moved to drive the next ball, checked his stroke, and lifted the ball in a graceful arc; the Don had only to run back a few paces to take the catch on his chest. It was so simple. Bradman congratulated his bowler. Hutton departed. Father and his friends nodded knowingly. I marvelled that one man could so easily outwit another.

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Johnny Hamilton

Johnny lives alone but is related to McGills, who run the shearing shed. He pedals a bike with a hessian bag hanging from the bar. His felt hat is battered, his nose is hooked and his voice is a rumbustious instrument for shouting 'Hoy!' at sheep. If he lumps wheat he doubles a chaff bag so that it cowls his head and shoulders. He leases his farm because his inheritance doesn't include the knowledge required to run it. Father rents Johnny's five hundred acres so he can put in extra crop. Johnny's gates contain the ingenuity not visible in the rest of his life. They are fascinating contrivances of chains, bolts, wires and levers, like puzzles; which part do you move first, and what happens? Johnny also hangs rusty iron - mostly machinery parts - from his fruit trees to frighten birds; his garden is therefore heavy at all seasons with the most improbable fruit. This doesn't dis-concert me as much as his way of blowing his nose; bending, he presses one nostril with a thumb and blows snot from the other. Some delicacy allows him to do this only in our paddocks and our large yard, not in our garden - but where, I wonder, does he do it at home?

Johnny works in McGill's shed when the shearing is on. His job is to work the press. When his nephew, Wagga McGill, decides that a bin is full, wool is lifted into the bale slung under the press. The press is lowered, the wool squeezed. More wool is added. When the bale, to my childish observation, is crammed, almost as much wool again is added. It can't possibly be squeezed in, I think, though the bales already sealed prove me wrong. The wool will only fit if Johnny, in greasy trousers and a singlet of grey flannel, can exert enough force on the lever. Steel bands will be needed to restrain the bulging bales once his job is done ... but how can he do it? Sometimes when the men have knocked off for tea, which they drink from enamel mugs, with milk supplied from a sauce bottle, I look at the task in front of Johnny, disbelieving. Usually I go outside because I can't bear to watch him straining, but sometimes, if he's penning the next batch of sheep, I study the press, convinced that human strength isn't equal to the task. I know Johnny can do it but I'm scared that he'll find, one day, that he can't; how then will the wool be baled?

It is also, like the job of stacking wheat bags, an occupation so entirely physical that I'm daunted. Is Johnny only a working bullock? The shearers, too, sleep in sheds of corrugated iron standing on ground from which sheep have eliminated any trace of grass. On the job, they rush into pens, dragging wethers backwards between their knees. They stand stiffly, spines taking time to straighten, when the whistle goes for smoke-oh. Their shears cut through the fleeces, sometimes gashing the skin; the sight of blood absorbed by what's left of the wool seems to me even more brutal than the way in which shorn animals are hurled down the slide. The shed smells of shit trodden into the boards, as well as of wool, so that in some sense the New Zealand Loan warehouse in Melbourne has gained a measure of distance, of abstraction, from the source of what it contains. Have I?

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We’re the Guards!

Hundreds of ordinary mortals not only win Military Crosses and Air Force Medals, but gain bars to their decorations, so it seems possible for people to go, more than once, where fear and commonsense should stop them going. The papers tell me about men sprinting up beaches, dodging machinegun fire, to drop grenades in the mouths of pill boxes. Their courage is held up for admiration. The feelings of the German gunners as they see their fate tossed through the slit, and their activities in the seconds before annihilation, are never considered. They are the enemy. We are us.

We must win.

I don't doubt that we'll win, just as I don't believe Father will be killed by a horse rolling on him, or a machine. Vera Lynn sings 'There'll be bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover/Tomorrow, just you wait and see,' and I ask Mother why these cliffs are a symbol of England. She explains that the cliffs are a returning Englishman's first sight of his native land. This I understand. I know the poem 'If I should die/Think only this of me/There is some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England.' Father tells me that one of his uncles died on a troop ship returning from the Boer war; this strikes me as peculiarly sad. Death in a foreign land is the likely lot of soldiers, but death on the water is an unresolved passage into extinction. I ask what happened to my great Uncle Alfred; did they throw him overboard, weighted, or bury him in Perth? It seems to matter. Only one of my family, my cousin Jack, is in the present war, flying fighters 'some-where in the Pacific', as the papers say. The whereabouts of troops is never stated precisely because, says the propaganda machine, the enemy listens! I wonder if I'm supposed to know about the trains that go through Finley, but decide there aren't any spies I could tell even if I wanted to, thus there's no danger in riding up to the station after school and staring in awe at the guns and armoured cars as they roll through. A photo of cousin Jack, smiling in a blue R.A.A.F. cap, sits on the piano at my Uncle Aston's house, not far from his father in his slouch hat with its emu plumes and its side turned up. If Father is proud of Aston for having fought, it is more because of his Australianness than for the details of his service, about which Father knows little. He likes to repeat Aston's story about his troop encountering a British column in a narrow lane in France. There is no room to pass and the mud is deep on either side. The two forces come to a halt. A British officer makes his way to the front of his men and urges the Australian lieutenant to give way. The Australian refuses. The British officer grows exasperated. 'It seems,' says Father, enjoying his exposition of something British to which he doesn't adhere, 'that in the British army there's a tradition that the King's household regiments, the Coldstream Guards, the Grenadier Guards, and so on, take precedence over other regiments.' Resuming his brother's story, Father says, 'The Aussie wouldn't budge and the British officer got very annoyed. My man, he said, don't you know who we are? We're the guards! And the Aussie,' Father said, 'replied, I don't care if you're the bloody engine drivers, we're not getting out of the way!' I loved this story, which I heard often. It was right that the British should be outfaced by colonials. That my uncle should be one of them was a matter of pride. Poms! I shared Father's scorn.

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Hiroshima

Who then designs the mighty warships, the powerful fighters which, unlike our Wirraways, can stand up to the Zeros, and the landing barges which disgorge marines for death or glory on Pacific atolls? Is there some other breed of Americans manipulating these gullible, loudmouthed men who break the peace of my town? I think of America as a vast machine, producing Liberty Ships at the rate of one a day by some adaptation of the production line philosophy of the originator of our Ford, with its stylishly written F on the radiator, and above it the thin metal strips slicing the breeze which, seen side on, say V8. English cars are no good in Australia, Father tells me; they're weak in the springs, underpowered and unreliable. They haven't the guts of a big V8.

So there is something about the Americans we can accept, if our car is any criterion; they, too, are big unhampered people, not tied down by the traditions which tie down, and strengthen, people in Europe. Is there some connection between the titles which the British aristocracy hold dear, and the Rumanian officers' corsets? I have the feeling that the forms and traditions of Europe have weakened; the French have some validity left, but it's mostly to be found in the followers of de Gaulle and the resistance fighters who risk their lives to get our airmen across the Channel. Where then are Australians? Who are we?

We are the rising sun soldiers (no one makes a connec-tion between the badge on our slouch hats and the red and white rays of Japanese imperialism) whose deeds 'some-where in the Pacific', 'somewhere in North Africa', make our name in places of ancient civilization and in cannibal domains far worse than blackfeller country. We are playing in the big league, impressing ourselves and, we hope, the powers who protect us. We admire the American who says 'I will return', we hope to be there on the day. We're not fussy about how the Axis is brought down. Mussolini is strung up by his feet. Hitler suicides in his bunker, Eva Braun beside him. Goebbels puts himself and his children to death, a nest of poisonous spiders. The Japanese High Command are expected to take out their ritual swords ... It's satisfying to think of these creatures covered by a blanket and thrown on the scrap heap of history, whose judgement can't be doubted. Postwar reconstruction can then begin, and a period of peace, with less injustice than in the past, can roll back the war, light replacing dark. Cartoonists are altering their symbols. Mercator's map lies ready for rainbows. The Americans drop the bomb.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki.

It's too much. The means used to bring peace have altered the meaning of peace forever. 'Those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind,' clergymen say, supporting our efforts against Germany and Japan, but now it seems that this is true for victor and victim alike. If we've won, it's at a price humanity can't pay. Father tells me the Harbour Bridge isn't paid for, as well as being endlessly in a state of repainting. I understand that this has to do with interest, and repayment, and that these will go on forever. 'Can't we just say to Britain,' I say to Father, 'here's some money, that's all you're going to get, so just clear off!' He smiles. 'It isn't like that,' he says. 'If you default on a loan, they'll get it out of you some way, and then you won't get another loan when you want it.' I can't see why we want to owe British people money so they can live in big country houses but no one sees any way out of the financial system; I perceive that the Depression, which Father and Mother hope never returns, has to do with all this, but what about the bomb? I know most of the terms of finance, like foreclose, mortgage, security, and so on; Father, who has never voted Labor in his life, says Jack Lang did farmers a service when he stopped banks taking people's properties and putting in managers who were then paid a higher wage than farm families needed to live on. 'What they were doing was sheer bad business,' says Father, and I wonder why bankers, who are supposed to be clever as well as greedy, did what they did. Jack Lang could also be frustrated, I see, because when he gave himself the honour of opening the nation's grandest bridge, someone rushed in front of him with a sword. I ask Father what Jack Lang did about that, and he says, 'They tied the ribbon together and he cut it with scissors,' It seems a poor second best. Grandma did better at Barham. Jack Lang's big moment turned out to be less than he'd expected.

So has mine. I stare down Mr Erskine's avenue, the air sickened. The radio gives details of the raid. Hiroshima's been burnt alive. A surrender is awaited. It's described as if it's the Japs' problem only; at twelve I know better.

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The writing of this book:

I had been working for over a decade in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. As with Bairnsdale, my previous teaching appointment, I was at first appalled by my situation, then became sympathetic. Preston was inhabited by Italians, Greeks, Maltese, others from the early waves of migration, and of course quite a few old-style Aussies who hadn’t moved into Carlton, Collingwood or Fitzroy, or out to the new suburbs to the north. The sons and daughters of the newer settlers had aspirations to tertiary study – upward mobility – which it was the job of me and my colleagues to assist. We did, willingly. It was a time and an activity of which I feel rather proud. Quite a bit of good was done. A side effect on me, however, was to make me realise that the world had changed and my assumptions about it were getting out of date. I had been brought up at a time when people who worked the land felt that they were central to Australia’s traditions, and its economy. Not any more. I had always thought that my family’s experience of the world was central to Australian life. Not any more. The country was changing, I was close to the centre of that change, and the ways of the Eagle family and the many thousands who’d been like us, were fading into history. I decided I’d better get them written down.

There was another influence, closer to home. I had a daughter and a son and when they got into bed at night their father liked to sit with them, or lie on their bed for a while, getting close to them, hearing about what they were thinking, and so on. They often asked me to talk about my own childhood. ‘Tell us about the farm!’ All those things that had been so natural, so everyday, for me, were exciting, faraway, for them. So I told them about the farm, over many, many nights. Our chooks, our dogs, our cows. Most of what I told them is in Mapping the paddocks. It was an easy book to write. As I like to say, and believe, it wrote itself. To give it shape, I kept in mind the photo of Don Bradman that had rested on our mantel, up in New South Wales. The Don! I am not, today, a lover of the way the media create sporting gods for the public’s adoration, but I cannot get around the prodigious figure of the Don, who soared through the skies of Australian life for the years in which he played the nation’s game: national because it was the way we represented ourselves vis-à-vis the British, the Poms, the bastards, the people who ruled their empire from the remote and wealthy London.

Australia was far away but was proving, via its cricketers, that it too was marvellous. This Australia, the one that I had grown up in, and my mother, and my father too, was vanishing, and my children wanted to hear about it, to put it down as a sub-stratum for their minds as they built their understandings of the world they were entering.

I had it in mind, as the book began to get itself onto paper, that it would have two parts, a light and a dark; the first would be about our farm in New South Wales, the second about Melbourne Grammar, the school my parents sent me to at about the age of twelve. One book was my plan, but as I keep having to say, books have minds of their own, and the two ideas divided. I’ll say more about this when I get on to Play together, dark blue twenty, the book that came next.

I have already referred to the way in which the job I was doing at the time I was conceiving this book added an awareness of something special to the things I was recalling. We develop a sense of the world when we’re young: now, growing old, I realise how partial, how shaky, that apparently certain sense of the world really is. We believe, when we’re young, because we have to believe, and if nothing shakes those beliefs then we have a fair chance of feeling secure, and, further, if we feel secure there’s a fair chance we will be secure. This is odd. Looking at our origins is something we need to do in order to get some understanding of ourselves. I was lucky. My origins were almost totally positive, despite the great depression affecting our land. Nothing broke my parents’ pride. They lived simply and didn’t compromise themselves. My father, like most Australians, believed in nothing very much, except Bradman. My mother also relied on nothing but the fierce pride she had in virtue. Someone unobservant might have taken Mother for a Christian but she wasn’t. Her virtues were Christian ones but she showed no interest in redemption or a life hereafter. You must help those who need it and you must learn to help yourself. Both Father and Mother, by being stern with themselves, made themselves capable of being good to others, as they usually were. I grew up with the best possible influences, I think I was myself a good father when the time came, and for the most part I am sceptical about people who aim to fix the world’s ills by any means apart from increasing the love and care of parents for their children.

This book won an award from Melbourne’s Age newspaper but more important for me was a phone call from a teacher, a Sydney man, posted to Finley, the town where I’d grown up. He said he arrived there on a one year appointment to find the flat plains and high skies depressing, but reading my book had made him aware that it was possible to feel at home on the plains. He invited me to talk to his students, who were ‘studying’ the book. I drove up, one rainy day, to be greeted by two very courteous young people from his sixth form. I spoke to their group but I had a feeling that the things I’d found so special in my act of recall seemed uneventful to them. Not worth talking about, really. I had lunch with them and I left, and I thought, on driving away, that my visit had been special only for the Sydney teacher. A few months later the town of Finley had a ‘back-to’ celebration. I got an invitation. It told me that the crowning feature of the back-to weekend would be an address by the coach of the Hawthorn football club, Allan Jeans. I remembered Allan from my first year at Finley State School, a little boy in the seat behind me. I had liked him then and was prepared to like him now, but I was wrily amused at the priorities of the back-to organisers in turning to the football coach, not the writer, for some thoughts about the place where we’d all begun.

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