Sunday, December 18, 2016
Tim Winton- New Collection of Essays
A TEACHER of secondary students that I know recently read Tim Winton’s ‘The Turning’, found it impressive, and threw it up as a possible text for the next year’s curriculum. He was, apparently, met with horrified glances, even snorts of derision. ‘Tim Winton? You are kidding!” There we have it, the ‘cultural cringe’ lurking in the corridors of a Victorian secondary school, banished from even the remotest corners of a curriculum filled no doubt with golden oldies like Shakespeare from the UK, and acceptable American masters like Arthur Miller and F Scott Fitzgerald, all who apparently have more relevance to young Australian lives than Tim Winton.
I was riveted to last year’s ‘Island Home’ and finding his new book of essays, ‘The Boy Behind The Curtain’ in Readings recently, was an exciting surprise. Winton’s non-fiction essay writing is filled with just as many thought provoking ideas and lovely prose as his fiction.
The new collection begins provocatively with an essay about boyhood which starts with ‘When I was a kid I liked to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people’. Readers of Winton’s short stories will recognize the idea in his story ‘A Long Clear View’. It is about the odd things we do in the safety of our family homes when we are children, particularly when our parents are not at home. The essay provides a lovely reminder that often the best art and inspiration comes from real life experiences. Winton has always been a hunter, fisherman and shooter. He might be a bit like Hemingway in this regard- (which reminds me of another cultural cringe hangover people have about him- yes, his prose is unashamedly muscular, and masculine)- here he is, a young teenager, basking in the glow of being home alone, bringing out the .22 Lithgow and holding passers’ by in the street in the weapon’s sight. For months on end. There was no bullet in the breech. But it did give the young Winton a thrill- it placed him in ‘a febrile mood that was almost erotic’. Here he uses the most militaristic of language- ‘I’d stalk into the front room’, ‘survey the street’, ‘when I took up my sentry post’, ‘I’d draw a bead on them’, ‘a person seemed smaller, easier to apprehend’, and so on. Winton’s reflections on dangerous childhood games morphs into a discussion about gun violence in general, and inevitably on to Martin Bryant, murderer of 35 people in Tasmania in 1996. The link between the young and lost Winton, and the equally lost Bryant is chillingly made. Winton, it seems, found words, but words never came easy to Martin Bryant. As for my own childhood misadventures, for me it was blindly hurling pebbles in people’s backyards, waiting for those enthralling seconds to pass before you could discern what the pebble actually hit. A tin roof, perhaps, or a woody tree, or even a sheet of glass. Once I stood on top of a fence and saw how close my pebble was to striking a frightened woman standing on her back yard porch four or five houses away. The thought that the pebble might have felled her was too chilling to think about, and this sudden recognition was what made me stop. Hardly a match for Winton’s gun, yet in its own way far more dangerous and potentially deadly.
What follows is Winton’s recollection of a great cinematic experience. Seeing ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ at the tender age of eight absolutely baffled him but at the same time had a profound impact. He sees it as not just an ‘introduction to the possibilities of cinema’, but also ‘a wormhole into the life of the imagination…’. Much of what I see film-wise these days is on the small screen I am looking at now as I type this 7:47 at night. When these kinds of smaller scale laptops came onto the market back whenever it was, I saw a film being played in an electronics store. Previously it had been in VHS mode on a television. Then I saw it- a Tom Cruise film I think- being played on a laptop in the store, and the intimacy with the screen fascinated me. How easy to pause on images, to choose another chapter, to watch at your leisure with a cup of coffee in bed. I couldn’t wait to buy a DVD I could shove into the drive at the side of the computer. It probably takes away some of the spectacle, but it’s how I studied the Dekalog films by Kieslowski, most of Ingmar Bergman’s catalogue and of recent times, loads of Charlie Chaplin films on youtube. For certain other films, I would always prefer the big screen spectacle, as in the case of A Clockwork Orange or 2001, and definitely for the colour and sound and sheer delight of a film like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that bursts at the sides of the big screen.
Winton likes recalling extreme family moments or other moments of searing intensity that stay with you forever. His father sounded like an interesting chap. That’s him on the police motor bike on the front of the book. His son details his father’s biggest road accident, and it is horrific. Winton uses these incidents in his fiction, as all good writers do. Stay at home and do nothing and you won’t have much to say. Unless, perhaps, you are Emily, Anne or Charlotte at home in Haworth or traversing the moors. In Winton’s case, his father had a horrendous motorbike accident which cries out to in his fiction somewhere.
His chest, shoulder and hip were crushed after being slammed into a brick wall by a driver who had run a stop sign. His painfully long, subsequent recovery caused a ‘fog of dread’ in the house. Sometimes the fog of death can be caused by a single horrific accident. Sometimes it can be caused by a terrible illness. I am thinking of Georgia Blain who died the other day at the age of 52, just a few day’s shy of her birthday. Her mother, Ann Deveson, died on her birthday.
Accidents abound in Winton’s fiction. I’m pretty sure I remember a drowning in Cloudstreet, or at least a near miss. There’s a scene similar to a scene in the film Gattaca in a short story from The Turning when one man saves his brother from drowning. For five years Winton lived with his wife ‘in the very literal shadow’ of Fremantle Hospital. He describes the ‘electricity in the air’ of a place that ‘provided a startling amount of free entertainment’. This is where TW is interesting as he combines truth with imagination- patients ‘beat at the windows…crawled bleeding and intoxicated through the hedges… (a car) ramming the doors of a mental health unit… the puddles of blood and the shitty nappies and the needles and broken glass and the pools of piss…’. It makes you wonder, as a reader, if the writer lives in a different universe.
Besides observer of pain and darkness, and chronicler of memories and films, Winton is also a modern day eco warrior. His chapter about the part he played in the ‘Save Ningaloo Reef’ campaign is perhaps the best essay in the book. There was a proposal for a marina and a resort to be built close to the Ningaloo Reef, 12oo kms from Perth. Wikipedia tells me that the Ningaloo Coast is a World Heritage Site. The reading might be entirely different had there not been a campaign to save the reef from developers. Winton explains in some depth the conservation angle- the beauty of the reef, its ‘terrestrial wilderness’, the threat to various whales, turtles, sharks and dugongs. But he goes further and offers fascinating insight into the politics of the day and the toing and froing, the developers’ point of view, the strength of the Gallup government, and so on. There is the tension at the meetings, the transformation of towns caught in the midst of things, like Coral Bay and Exmouth, and shrewd insights into the crucial part that the media plays. 1500 people turned up at one public meeting at the town hall in Fremantle. There are fundraisers, auctions, banners, MP’s, websites. Then there were the celebrities. Winton himself, and Toni Collette offering a hand, and before that Luc Longley, and Eddie Vedder chiming in when Pearl Jam came to visit. Being a prolific novelist, you would think, might be all-consuming. Winton’s love of the land and the sea, and in particular all things WA, contribute to making him quite a charismatic figure.
Winton’s affinity with sea creatures well and truly encompasses sharks. He remembers, at 13, witnessing men ‘blasting holes’ into sharks from close range in Albany in 1973. The sharks are there because of the mass of blood in the water from dead sperm whales. Thankfully the blasé attitude has long gone and he has become a vocal defender of the shark just as much as he has been a defender of eco systems. In his book he bemoans the fact that the ‘barbaric trade in shark fin’ prospers. That people in Sydney and Melbourne enjoy eating flake, even ‘as the numbers decline.’ That people everywhere have their ‘shark prejudices’, that millions of people swim in the water every year, yet there are very few shark attacks, yet almost ‘a hundred million’ sharks are killed every year.
Besides a touching, affectionate piece reminiscing his time under the tutelage of Elizabeth Jolley at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT), and further eco system stuff, and a short piece about visiting what was once a cultural Mecca for the Winton family (Melbourne), TW finishes with a debate about something that he sees is ‘festering in the heart of our community’: the refugee debate. He remembers the old days of welcoming strangers after the Vietnam War years, and writes about the way in which we have become ‘afraid of strangers’. That ‘our leaders’ have taught us ‘we need to harden our hearts’. That a policy has developed where mainstream parties ‘pursue asylum-seeker policies based on cruelty and secrecy’. That ‘pity is no longer a virtue but a form of weakness’. That our policies ‘ruin the lives of children’ and it ‘shames us and it poisons the future’. This essay of Winton’s would be a good one to refer back to in, say, twenty or thirty years. Place it in an envelope and bury it in a time capsule. Open it around the time of the inevitable Royal Commission, and wonder at how it could ever have happened. It’s all there, as another reminder of why it’s worth reading Tim Winton.