Unlike my ancestors, I have never thought of England as ‘home’. However, I did grow up confused about my national identity. At primary school in Tasmania we stood before the flag on Empire Day and sang God Save the Queen before being handed a packet of boiled lollies. (I was so disappointed when it became Commonwealth Day…and we received a damn apple!) In the classroom we studied the Battle of Hastings and the wives of Henry VIII, but very little Australian history. Years later my niece asked for help on a project about Hume and Hovell and I had never heard of them (well except for the Hume highway). I grew up reading Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, and books set in English boarding schools.
Like many others, I ‘escaped’ as soon as I could, heading for Europe on a working holiday. Later, when I began submitting articles to Australian newspapers and magazines they were largely stories inspired by my travels around France and Britain. As an author, my first two books were on British topics, published in London. Finally, when my partner Rob and I bought a holiday house, it was not located at an Australian beach resort, but by the River Thames in Buckinghamshire.
A STIRRING OF THE SPIRIT
About ten years ago, everything changed. During a period of extended drought, Rob and I drove from Sydney to the Murray River via the Central West. For the first time we saw stockmen grazing cattle by the roadside …..known colloquially as ‘The Long Paddock’. We passed dead kangaroos and dry dams, and I recalled Les Murray’s wonderful poem, Rainwater Tank. Murray compares an empty, corrugated iron tank to a pile of bank stacked coins. His final lines conjure an image of frogs, calling from the last puddle of water;
The downpipe stares drought into it.
Briefly the kitchen tap turns on
then off. But the tanks says Debit, Debit.
We turned south at Goolgowi and watched with guilty relief as the landscape changed from dust and empty dams to the irrigated citrus orchards and vineyards around Griffith. At nearby Leeton we called at the Visitors’ Centre, built in 1913 for the head of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation area. A glance into the exhibition room said a lot about big-hearted rural communities. Every surface was covered with trays of food. All the old Aussie favourites were there; lamingtons, Anzac biscuits, jelly cakes, buttered pikelets and slices of iced, cream filled sponges. The food had been prepared by the Leeton Breast Cancer Support Group, as part of a national charity event; Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea. I doubt there was a business in the town which had not ordered one.
Outside in the rose garden stands a bronze statue of a woman peeling a peach.
It is a touching memorial to the ladies who worked at the Leetona Fruit Cannery ( including my dear friend Yvonne). Sadly, the factory closed in 1994, a victim of both domestic and foreign competition. But still going strong is the Art Deco Roxy picture theatre, opened in 1930 by the much loved Australian singer, Gladys Moncrief….affectionately known as ‘Our Glad’. The theatre was Yvonne’s ‘escape’, where she too dreamed of faraway places.
Around 170km further south we had our first view of the Murray river. It was alarmingly low, and there was something so vulnerable about its exposed banks that I was almost moved to tears. The bordering red gums were full of noisy corellas, surviving by feeding on rice from a local grain depot. Both my partner and I were struck by the harsh beauty of the scene.
For me, this little road trip was an epiphany. It dawned on me that my ‘faraway tree’, had never been one of the giant beech trees along the Thames, but the old Lucerne tree in the backyard of my childhood home in Tasmania I remembered my father carting water from our farm dams in dry seasons with draught horses and sled, and checking the levels of the homestead rain tanks. I have been writing almost exclusively about ‘my country’ ever since.
People may think it’s a bit naff to quote Dorothea Mackellar, but her words (written in 1908) still hold true;
Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
One of my stories was written in tribute to our wonderful female ancestors….pioneer gardeners and home makers in the bush. EVE’S PARADISE