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Autography 5

John Kinsella

John Kinsella writes about a life spent between Jam Tree Gully and Cambridge and the contrasts between the two

There’s a photo of me (of me—of so many) taken when I was maybe a month or two old, on Wheatlands Farm with the entire family on my mother’s side. My auntie, my farm cousins, my uncle, grandparents, great-grandparent and father. The farm spreads off in the background, dry and dusty and bare. Long before the tree-plantings to repair damage done. I was born at the beginning of February, and summer aches through the black and white. I can’t recall being there, but with a shifting backdrop of family members, would stand on my own feet in that same place year after year and have photos taken, or make photos in my head. So much of memoir is consolidated or validated through photographs. That’s me, and this is how I think about me now.

But living away from the wheat belt again for a long period of time, and with various conflicts going on at ‘home’ making fraught the intensity of the relationship I have with that place, especially Jam Tree Gully, photographs take on a new meaning for me.


Main gate of St john’s College, Cambridge.
Photographed by the author’s mother, Cambridge.

My wife Tracey and I spent five solid years living in Cambridge in 1996–2001, plus much coming and going through to mid 2008 before I decided to remove flying from my life (I have flown once since then). I find it hard being away from Jam Tree Gully. The residues of Jam Tree Gully, good or bad, are deep. I am not sure what I can send back from the fens, as attracted to them as I am, and I am uncertain how I can get what I need from Jam Tree Gully from such a distance in space and psyche.

Mum and her partner, John, help me through this by sending photos of Jam Tree Gully on a regular basis, tracking ‘seasonal’ (what seasons?) change and the acts of time. They report on tracks and scats of animals—roos, echidnas and whatever else passes through, and the fate of the vegetation, which kicked back a little late last year after life-saving rains arrived. The 90,000-litre water tank is full, and John has put in many dozens of new trees; the firebreaks are in good order. I ask for ‘up-close’ photos to track the changes in lichen and moss, the breakdown of granite. An eagle’s shadow cast on the ground, an eroded gully down the hillside from a sudden storm. This is all processed now through thoughts of absence, even exile, and the politics they create for me. Photos become conduit and dialogue. They are memories made on seeing but designed to be overlaid, then lost. An apprehension, an anxiety of what the next set of photos will bring, means they are vanquished the moment a new, if temporary, truth presents itself, is manifested.

I take a photo in my mind’s eye of the River Cam between the locks, from Jesus Greenup to Silver Street. It has been drained. It is strewn with rubbish: bikes, old umbrellas, bottles, cans, plastic. An annual cleaning. What lives in the mud? The punting poles have been working it over and over. Ducks look on, bewildered. College stone starts to break down through the change—ever so slightly. Build in other ways. Riparian ecology, so under pressure, so manipulated, hesitates.

Cambridge Reboot
In just over a decade this 800-year-old university and this much older town have changed in dramatic ways. The rate of change is probably greater in many ways than in any similar time span over its history. To the casual visitor, Cambridge probably looks much the same now as at any period they visited during their lives. The old colleges look like the old colleges, the Backs like the Backs. Though a recent culling of alders along the Backs, as part of a ‘process’ to encourage the long-term growth of planted oaks, might shock a few. The newer colleges, Robinson and Murray Edwards (which was New Hall all the time we lived in Cambridge before), are becoming slightly older colleges. Wittgenstein is still buried in a small cemetery just up behind Churchill College.


Kitchen Bridge over the River Cam, St John’s College.
Photograph by the author’s mother, Cambridge.

Rather, the changes are either outside the centre of town, or attached to buildings of the old town (mobile-phone masts), or deep inside the psychology of the place. A new shopping arcade at Lion Yard does not a revolution make, but the new technologies are reshaping and the new conservatism, especially towards education, politicising Cambridge University (and other universities in the town/region) in overt ways.

Education cuts affecting staff and students, threats to staff pensions, the impetus of the Occupy movement, and an overwhelming distrust of capitalism for sizeable clusters of students (though many remain apathetic), have made the last academic year a volatile one. I have stood on picket lines with academics, marched with students, moved between the occupation at St Paul’s in London and that in Cambridge (where I donated money for vegan food), and been vocal in my opposition, along with hundreds, even thousands, of others, regarding the university disciplinary system’s treatment of protester Owen Holland for his part in ‘shouting down’ the universities minister, who had come to defend his government’s education cuts. That Owen spoke poetry (with others), over the minister, adds a particular edge to the incident. Poetry as activism indeed! That the university authorities singled him out of a group, concentrated their attack on one student, and punished him severely, will be a rallying cry for students here for decades. That officialdom claimed he was thwarting ‘free speech’, when the minister has full access to media and manipulates the discussion in so many ways, is an irony that will never vanish. Owen Holland’s prosecution was a dark, dark day for free speech in the university, and in the United Kingdom.

What has excited me about this resistance is that it is not so obviously motivated by class or a sense of elitism. Rather, there’s a broader consciousness in the student body that they are part of international resistance to the excesses of capitalism, that it is in its endgame. In such a privileged environment as Cambridge, this consciousness is potent—it destabilises the very classes of educational privilege that emerge from its colleges and ranks. It sends shudders through the establishment. But the establishment won’t ever let go here. Whether it’s the money and rituals of the old colleges, or the belief that knowledge is worth any cost.

Two Journal Entries


The author at Cambridge Botanical Gardens.
Photograph by Tracey Ryan, 2012.

After the initial indignation of ‘exile’ there’s a lull in angst due to (over)familiarity with one’s new place (which has long been a ‘second home’ for me). One is lulled. But after a time the sense of gmaloss and displacement outside ‘choice’ starts to creep in and substitute. A mimesis of the old by the new, through the old, over the old, that heightens loss later when you ‘remember’. Photos. Imitation always brings distress.

I ‘see’ from Cambridge. I hear. I read. What will the photos tell me? Wreckage?

Third storm in as many days about to hit the WA south-west, including Jam Tree Gully. Last storm carried winds of 146 kph—highest ever recorded in that region. Highly destructive. Exile/absence from JTG reverberates intensely at such times. Not a fear of damage to dwelling/abode, though that could happen … an unroofing, a laying-bare of at least part of you. The absent body. Not of objects or possessions, but texts and spaces of participation/living. More especially, the block we are ‘responsible’ for (the cost of that word, ‘responsible’—its exclusions, its overlays, its easing of conscience, its theft), the reserve, the locality we feel part of (though many of its human residents might wish we weren’t part of it, with our objections to rallies, guns, poisons). But even away, here, one feels the organic connections, the split and splice of flesh and thought. Of the animals and plants, the rocks themselves. Every tree that might fall and all that live in them or rely on them. Storm of exile. Storm threat. Tension of not being able to ‘protect’ or assist in the inevitable clean-up, even to view the damage beyond photos, messages from there.

I frequent the cast gallery in the Classics department; one of the last great collections of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures. As it says in the gallery’s catalogue, ‘Cast collections in museums and institutions were common until the middle of the twentieth century. Then the plaster cast fell out of fashion—with a crash. In the 1950s and 1960s many collections all over Europe were (literally) broken up’ (p. 7). In the decades of recovery, consumer growth and boom after the Second World War, it would seem ‘copies’ were denigrated. The lust for the original, for the new, worked hand in hand with the capitalist lust for reproductions that were new. A paradox of fetishisation. Of faux originality. Prêt à porter with a whiff of couture.


Bridge of Sighs over the River Cam, St John’s College.
Photograph by the author’s mother.

I sit in the cast gallery and write poems because they are copies. And, what’s more, many of the Roman statues are copies of Greek statues anyway. Cambridge has always been a place of copying with originality. I write a penillion, ‘Penillion of the Apotheosis of Homer (a plaster cast)’, a relief of the late second century BCE found (and later cast) from western Turkey. I ‘edit’ my copy of the catalogue. Various Aphrodites, a sketch of ‘364 Metope from Late Temple of Athena at Ilion. Depicts Helios in his chariot. Found at Ilion (Troy). Hellenistic (Berlin).’ A quick sketch to remind me … The gallery is cluttered and well curated at once. You don’t want too much space. The Cape Artemisium god directs his power over you. Small reliefs tell diabolical stories. Aphrodite has been vandalised again. And again. The curve of her Venus pencilled, her breasts signed with nipples. I rest beside a satyr. Students recite Greek. There are some photos in the book of these mostly white entities. But photos won’t do. Only the casts.

In Cambridge we see more of our Australian friends than we do in the bush. The wheat belt. Perversely, we are closer, more at hand, easier to reach. And the college provides an ecology of human interaction, structured on principles of silence and dialogue. God is absent (or relegated to the ecumenical chapel not part of the college in essence), but humans tackle and discuss the elements. Human-induced-climate-change deniers, and those such as myself who are convicted and committed to resisting human denial. Cambridge and Jam Tree Gully, linked. We send photos from Cambridge ‘home’. Young Tim at the observatory behind the college with its historic telescopes. Watching Venus through daylight. The rabbits that inhabit the lush grounds being exterminated. I cover his eyes and turn away, and write letters of complaint.

© John Kinsella



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