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OUR BOOKS > MINI–MAGS > CASTLE HILL

The Saints in Glory
Memoir
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover design by Vane Lindesay
Cover art by Rodney Manning, 2009
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Circa 5500 words
Electronic publication 2011
Print edition of 200 copies, 2011
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To read some extracts from this memoir click here:

1968
Preston
By The Skin Of Our Teeth


To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

1968

I thought I had understood Castle Hill at the time I reached it but it’s only now, in writing this piece, that I am beginning to see what the second peak meant to me then, and has become for me since.

Here’s a little of what I wrote in 1968, my first year back in Melbourne:

This eminence, seen from the western side, looks like a higher plain raised above the plateau and guarded by a sheer face resembling the irregular rock walls of the Incas. From the east it has more the air of a fortification, savagely eroded, with numberless ledges and crannies to catch the snow. At sun-up, in winter, inspecting the crag from forty miles distant, it is common to see a glittering lacework of white hung over the eastern edge. For a few wonderful seconds it has the sun to itself before the light drops on to Bleak Hill to the left and The Pinnacles to the right. By mid-morning the snow-lace has gone from the Castle and you must look further round to Wellington and the Gable End for the ice-creamy drifts that put a nip in the air, even on a cloudless day. When the wind comes out of the west and grey clouds scud through the foothills, people in Bairnsdale rub blue fingers and say, 'Sssswww, straight off the snow.'

I could see the Castle from the back yard of my house in Bairnsdale whenever I went to the clothes line, the outside toilet, or the car that would take me to work. It was far away and yet inside me. I needed to go there to find a part of myself. I was forever asking how to get to this place, and a handful of people knew something about the track; you parked your car at Castleburn Creek, on the Dargo road, you found your way along the stream and after numerous crossings, you followed a ridge that took you higher and higher until, at about four thousand feet, you reached ‘The Jump-Up’. Tired as you might be, that was when the hard work started. Getting to the plateau involved stretching and straining rather than jumping, but when you found your way through the trees, the Castle was a grand sight, almost attainable. Anyone with experience of bushwalking will know that reaching a peak is easier than finding one’s way back, because going down, though easier, involves maintaining a direction. After my first preliminary excursion I made sure I carried a compass, not intending to get lost between the Castle and the edge it overlooked. The compass wasn’t needed once the Jump-Up had been reached and the descent began, but taking the right direction on leaving the peak and not getting lost before the track was reached required sightings and a modest amount of vigilance for the un-practised bushwalker that I was.

Castle Hill. I never knew who named it and this was interesting, because humbling. I’d already been in the Mount Baldhead area with Sid Merlo, who said of that peak, ‘There’s his majesty!’, making me aware that sometimes words from the mouths of those not used to speaking for effect had a stronger claim, were more poetic, than things said by the educated. The name imposed a certain reverence on anyone who approached it, surely?

It did. When, with a group of friends, I managed to climb the Jump-Up and get to the plateau from which the Castle rose, I had a feeling it would change me. I’d already been told about it by Bill Gillio, a Briagolong bushman who’d ridden and worked in the mountains for years:

‘Your best way’s round the far side. Eh? Like, that’s from here, yeah, the east. There’s big sorta crevices there, you’ll be able to get up one o’ them alright, oh, you might have to hand each other up a bit, you know, but you’ll be alright.’ And on top? ‘Oh, there’s nothing much really. You git a good look out though. See jist about everything.’

And so it was.

Everything includes almost all the towns of Gippsland. They lie unnoticed by day, in the blur of distance, but by night each shows itself with a sprinkling of lights. On a full moon night, with heaven’s stars diminished by their queenly competitor, these shine out of an ocean of black as if the firmament is reversed, until the moving lights of a car set one identifying its destination. There is Lindenow, there Bairnsdale, there Stratford, Sale and Maffra, an hour’s journey indicated by the flick of a finger.

It was cold on top, we had sleeping bags, and we lit a fire, wondering if anybody on the lowland might see us if they looked out as I had done so many times, dreaming of what it might be like to look down.

Magic, mystical night! The old rockpile sits up like an offering left by the retreating earth, a place of exposure to the void. To lie there is rejection, the world put away, the self opened in ecstasy for the shining white light. An opulent moon floods the Castle top and half the planet besides. Leaf-edges glitter and smoke-grey branches rise out of shadow. The valleys breathe out a mist that laps against the rim of the high country. In the early hours of morning it steals over the parapet and washes against the Castle. Then the sun announces morning, the breeze lifts and swirls of mist fume about as if hot springs are gushing. The sun is a red spot, swelling and fading, then the mist clears, the wonder fades, and one is left with Gippsland spread quietly around and a long, long walk to the car.

It is a peak of experience, unwillingly left. It hurts, tramping down, down, down, to think of the old crag accepting noon, sundown and night, moon, mist and sunrise with the blandness of immortals. If one could only stay there forever ... but the mind must go on, seek further ...

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Preston

When I left Gippsland I went teaching in Preston, a dreary, stubborn suburb on the northern side of its city, largely treeless, home of subject-people. Those who were being educated wanted to get out, those who thought it was better than the places surrounding it wanted to get in. I looked on it with scorn. It seemed to me a place for minds enslaved, a place desperate for whatever the experience of the arts, some exposure to the life of the imagination, could provide. There were no flat-top peaks in Preston! It dawned on me that the limitations of Gippsland had been made considerably more than bearable by the relief of nature – lakes, mountains, wattles flowering along the highways, trees, storms, snow, the sound of waves on the Ninety Mile Beach on nights when winds brought waves pounding on the shore. These were still in my mind, but their realities were far away. I could make trips back to Gippsland with my family, but city life, which I’d re-embraced, wouldn’t allow me to keep living in the old way.

A substitute had to be found. My teaching, central to my life for many years, changed its tactic, even though it still centred around making my students different, if possible, from what they were. In Gippsland, I’d based my teaching on the limitations of people who seemed, to me, a little too secure. They needed to know more and I tried to lead their minds into larger worlds than they were (too) comfortable with. In Preston, it annoyed me that even the brightest young people, and there were many, had an instrumental view of education. They wanted to know the tricks of getting qualifications as a way of getting out. If you could move up in society – that is, earn more money and buy better things to live and drive around in, if you could marry beautiful and successful people, then you’d made it. Making it involved getting out, but with a minimum of changes to the self. Trickery was not rejected as a means of getting out. If it worked, it was probably okay. It seemed to me that the people of Preston had come to believe the idea-systems that made them slaves. They failed to see that the dreariness of the place where they lived had become second nature in their thinking. Their suburb was flat, in the broadest sense of the word. Their definitions of life contained no high ground, no places of the spirit, no peaks to which, or above which, one might soar. Dubious semi-religions like scientology infected the area and had to be fought. Old faiths, like that of Anzac, the country’s military tradition, hung on grimly. People saw that sport created avenues for at least a few Prestonians to reach fame. Quiz knowledge was real knowledge. I remember my scorn when I heard that an orchestra practised regularly at the Town Hall. A symphony orchestra? Pig’s arse! The tradition of European music couldn’t survive in a place like this. Teachers had a job to do, and the main component of it was to prepare young people in ways that they and their parents hadn’t dreamed of, for getting out.

Up and away!

I can’t be sure of the effect such remarks will have on readers, especially those who have never been associated with schools and teaching. Readers, particularly parents, may object to the attitude that people can’t be left as they are, but must be improved. Others, prepared to spend large sums of money on their children, may be seeking some form of the ideas I’m expressing here. Schools with high fees like to think that their graduates are in some way better than the average surrounding them, that is, that the ordinary is never good enough. Tipped into a school with no traditions in the humanities, no resources, no considered courses of study, the only choices facing me were to despair or to create the tradition – the higher ground – that I saw was lacking.

And so, in my teaching career, and as a vital part of it, I sought to create that higher ground, a satisfactory place for engaging with whatever else life dealt out to the people I had been employed to teach. They had been struggling, on their endless flat, for an eminence that didn’t exist. We would see if we couldn’t raise the ground beneath their feet a little, at first, then, eventually, a very long way indeed.

When we finished, they’d find that they too had an elevated view, a system of values and perceptions which they could use to transform the world they’d been placed in.

What did this mean for those of us who were teachers, especially in the humanities?

It meant that we saw ourselves as proponents of civilisation, that state so difficult to define, and that we saw our students as needing to be led from incomprehension to that state of manners, knowledge, awareness and perception to which we – rendering unto ourselves the power of definition – gave the status of civilisation.

Teachers looking on the world in this way could hardly expect to be popular because the young, like everyone else, crave to be accepted as they are. The idea that humanity needs improvement – or in its strongest form, redemption – is one of the leading facets – curses, perhaps - of the civilisation that came to this land from Europe. (The Chinese, having no truck with such ideas, concentrate on the creation of harmony instead.) For teachers, on the other hand, there is an attraction in such ideas because the teacher at the front of the class (Note the positioning!) has the moral advantage of stating where the students, sheep in search of pasture, should be feeding. In the dangerous situation of the sheep turning into beasts to attack, or flee, the teachers’ alleged superiority is something that can be clung to, even wielded.

This may seem far from any consideration of a mountain that had captured my imagination, but I am trying to establish a link between the feelings that drew me to Castle Hill and those which governed my attempts to teach city students in a way that did them some good, whether they admitted it or not. I was quite happy to be working for the future effects, not for the short term.

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By The Skin Of Our Teeth

Man is proud and most certainly dominant, but with this extra paradox that it’s our dominance that allows our weaknesses to face less challenge than they should. European civilisation has encouraged the belief in a god responsible for the universe, and the co-belief, an unfortunate one, that it’s man who’s closest to god, and so long as man is obedient to god – his mental look-alike – then what man does is fine by whoever’s in heaven. One has only to put it so simply to see how silly it is. We have to take full responsibility for our actions without having anything or anybody to tell us what to do. This involves anxiety and a thorough searching of our doubts, when what we want to do, what we do most naturally and easily, is to act in our immediate and passionately perceived interests. To manage the world without having a divinity to appeal to may be beyond us; we haven’t really tried yet, in any conscious way. Ceding power to some world body is the most obvious of solutions but most of us are scornful of the United Nations, knowing how little control it can exercise over the jurisdictions of ‘nations’ as corrupt as they are stupid. Even the most mature democracies are often indecisive, causing people to think that benevolent dictatorship might be the best form of government. The only problem, of course, is to keep the dictatorship benevolent. It’s a new form of turning humans into the god who, in not existing, is beyond our ability to create. We really have to give up on the idea of god, perhaps humanity’s longest-lasting failure, and therefore the hardest to admit and the one most difficult to wean ourselves away from. We have to admit restraint as a saving grace of which we are constantly in need.

Endless growth, that underlying item of faith in our financial system, is one of the first ideas we’ll have to give away. Stasis, permanence, is the thing we have to plan to achieve. It’s what we’re living with anyway, so admitting our situation shouldn’t be absolutely beyond us?

Or is it?

Many years ago, playwright Thornton Wilder wrote The Skin Of Our Teeth, suggesting that humans had escaped crises by the narrowest shaves at numerous times in the past and were still managing to do so. How we got away with it was more than he could say, but we did have, he thought, some genius for survival when we ought to be making the final mistake that wiped ourselves out. Will we do it yet? Possibly not; we haven’t done it so far, in a long history of disasters. We’re still in there, struggling. In many things, in many ways, we’re getting better. We’ve got a lot going for us, if only...

If only what?

If only we could control ourselves, managing our energies so that the survival and then the improvement of the world’s species was our primary purpose, rather than the illusory benefits for themselves which individuals seek.

What did I want, as a young man, when I went in search of Castle Hill? I wanted to be out of my daily life, looking down, able to see more than I saw when I was embroiled in the events, duties, satisfactions and problems of community life. I wanted to be increased in soul by seeing everything at once. I wanted to be as like a god as was possible for a mortal. I wanted to know what it was like out there, up there, looking down, and now I know. It began with getting to Castle Hill, somewhere about 1963, and getting there again. After that, it took years of absorbing what it meant to have that high-handed way of seeing the world, and trying to turn it into a benefit for myself and others. In fair measure, I’ve succeeded. I’m a responsible citizen with no debts and no great stains hidden under the carpet. The world has no need to be ashamed of me. I’m a fair contributor, I think, as I was taught to be, by my parents and my school, by the poor but reasonably proud community I grew up in. I’d like to be leaving the world better than I found it but can’t feel certain about that. The risk will still be there that we – humanity – will still manage to wreck things for ourselves as well as for everything else. The only peace I can make with this is that, as Thornton Wilder – a great writer; have you read The Bridge of San Luis Rey lately? – pointed out, humanity’s way has always been risky. We think compulsive gambling’s a scandal but it’s one of our main ways of proceeding. We’re always putting ourselves forward for a throw of the dice. Remember those American pilots who ferried nuclear bombs day and night, never knowing when their secret orders would say go on, and drop? They’ve been expunged from our consciousness now, but they were America’s, and therefore the world’s, way of keeping the peace (!!!) for years. Madness, you may say, and madness I say too, madness all the way, but that’s the way we operate, isn’t it, and it was done under the blessing of a representative democratic system, supposedly the best safeguard humanity’s yet invented to prevent the abuse of power.

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The writing of this memoir:

Both these mini-mags (Castle Hill and One Small Step) take reader and writer back over forty years. One Small Step links a trip that I made with my wife and family, all those years ago, with another journey being made at the same time; the somewhat more historic arrival of mankind on the moon. Linking the two may seem to be an improbable claim, but the effect I wanted is more modest. I think that the Eagle family’s trip to Innamincka can be seen as being in accord with the spirit of its times. Not everyone was closing in on Innamincka when we were!

The two journeys were alike in taking humans to inhospitable places. The wonders of space travel can’t disguise from us that the moon is awfully bleak. Of the two, I’d rather have Innamincka, largely because of the occasional kindness mentioned in the memoir, and much appreciated at the time. The jug of rainwater (for washing my wife’s hair) and the aboriginal stockman appearing out of the fog remain with me still, reminding me, along with the daisies in the sandhills, that the trip, trying as it was, had its uplifting moments.

A word now about the purple bath to be found early and late in the piece. It’s as eloquent, I think, as the moon in this memoir. I find myself wanting to say ‘It stands for ...’, but in my prose at least things have to stand for themselves. The bath is there representing everything fatuous in the civilisation pared down by the outback. Whatever else they may have had at Innamincka, they wouldn’t have had a purple bath. The one we washed in was made of cheap metal and made no claims on beauty. It was functional only, and it worked. Having a purple bath was an indulgence of the people who had owned the Ballarat house before my friends, the Murrays, and it was ghastly. There are worse things than being in a harsh environment. In fact, those who lived there probably knew the cleansing effects of harshness: needing to plan, and order, far ahead in order to ensure long term viability of the station. Doing without has its benefits too.

I find it’s good to examine these snippets of the past; they often contain moments that have value, even today. I mention an attractive young woman whose mother was the postmaster (mistress?) at Tibooburra. Whatever became of her? For that matter, what becomes of anybody? Everybody? For me, she stood out at Tibooburra, but it may be that her resistance, and her attractiveness, didn’t last long. Or the reverse may have been the case. A writer’s curiosity is endless and will only occasionally be satisfied.

Castle Hill is a case in point. I got there a few times, my curiosity was satisfied, I would have said, until the later realisation, expressed in the memoir, that I’d been, in some sense, living on the flat-topped peak for all those years between the first achievement and the later realisation that I’d never left. That pulled me up and made me have a look at myself. One of the benefits of growing old, for those of us who get there, is that we can see more deeply into things we thought we’d understood. We give ourselves explanations as a way of shutting our minds to what we’re really doing, but later recall, as in this series of memoirs, makes us see that things have been going on beneath the surface which we’d not previously admitted. This is humbling, and therefore good.

Humbling and therefore good. I’ve already moved on to another pair of mini-mags, about my exploration, my discovery, of Europe many years ago, and I find that one of the major discoveries I made, not long after I thought I’d put Castle Hill behind me in the past, was that, proud as I was of my family, my life and my country, my pride was of a different sort from the sharper, more ruthless pride that ran like a strip of colour through Europe’s history. Another discovery was that I like writing mini-mags in contrasting pairs – two of them about Europe, the discovery and the turning away – and two of them about journeys long ago, each of them affecting the way I think today.

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