The very last thing I read was a US magazine piece online about 9-11, because I was chasing a curious and allegedly true fact circulating the internet that ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ by the Bee Gees was playing in a Twin Towers foyer when the planes hit. It turned out to be half-true—it was a muzak version. But still. ‘…and you come to me on a summer breeze, keep me warm in your love then you softly leave…’ The song is now rendered differently, as if it’s gone through some sort of machine that has made it more haunting than it ever was.
I prefer books to strange online rabbit holes, but I like to do both every day. Right now, like everyone else in the world, I have just finished Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years of Dirt. It is wonderful and also brutal in terms of its thinking around the politics of poverty, the proximity of the writer to that poverty as well as acute mental health conditions and suicide in a family.
I think it’s a really important Australian book. I suppose it’s a memoir, although the author is a young man. He’s been through a lot. The fulcrum of it is his mother, Deb. Her pragmatism and strength while all around crumbles and falls and self-destructs—and spoils any hopes she may have once had for stability—is extraordinary. I can see her in my mind. She is that wiry, mostly staunch woman from remote Australia we all know or have met or need to meet.
Rick—who worked at The Australian as a social affairs reporter but then quit—talks a lot about unseen Australians, like his own family. It’s subtle in the book’s context, but I really love the way he has written into it a real sense of the outback town, or house, or school, or dirt, without describing sunsets. Well, maybe one or perhaps two but the skies are big, hey? He’s not romanticising anything but there’s a strong sense of the ground on which he stood, out there and out of sight. Likewise, when he moves away to the Gold Coast and Brisbane and the family ‘condition’ continues in complicated new directions, there’s a separate sense of place and tone. It feels different because it is different. It’s writing full of empathy and humility, and the fortitude to call out the pervasive myth of Aussie egalitarianism.
I’ve recommended the book to my friend E because she grew up beyond Dubbo in NSW, in the land of the cotton. The backbone of Rick’s story is his background in outback Queensland, and I reckon she’ll appreciate lines such as, when describing his region’s Flying Nun (literally a nun in a plane)—‘Outwardly, she didn’t look like a nun at all, which was a touch disappointing. The Presentation sister wore jeans, a flanno shirt and work boots, so during my earliest years I thought Jesus was somehow affiliated with a long-haul trucking outfit.’ I can hear E laughing out loud at that, and maybe recalling her own remote Australian childhood in which her mother shot snakes with a gun.
E passed me a book to read this year—Romany and Tom by Ben Watt, about his parents. Ben Watt was the guy in Everything But The Girl with his wife Tracey Thorn, and back in the late 80’s they wrote an album I love, Idlewild. He sang a song on it called ‘Goodbye Sunday’ about escaping the past—‘…that box of diaries and old letters…’ I soon found that this lovely book about his curious parents’ lives was basically that box of memories and paper exhumed.
His mother Romany was an actor and journalist who knew Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They lived in London. His father Tom was a 60s jazz musician. E said, ‘You’ll like this one’, knowing that I had untold struggles with my own parents and was left to consider my father, who I liked, as a sort of anchorless boat drifting further and further away from wherever I happened to be standing.
I finished Romany and Tom on holidays, back in the summer, in Sri Lanka. After that I read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro because my eldest son, who was about to start Year 12, had it with him for school. I’d watch Tommy on trains or planes or just sitting around, he’d read a few pages then stare into space with a strange look on his face. Sometimes I even saw him shaking his head in a kind of recognition of it being absolutely disturbing and weird. He said, ‘you’ll like this one,’ knowing these are elements of stories I enjoy. I read it in a couple of days, a short, dystopian nightmare full of secrets and wounds and very little hope. At first I thought it was wrong to read such a thing in a such a beautiful, dreamy place. Soft winds and green mountains and such, and some golden expectations about the year ahead. I remember reading the War Fever stories by J.G. Ballard on Koh Lanta. But I don’t mind where I read or what I read there.
I loved what Never Let Me Go had to say to me. The near-future nightmares of Ballard and Ishiguro are already here: the burning jungles and sinking cities, an unhinged celebrity President, offshore detention. These are not fictions. Ishiguro was talking about de-personalisation, I think: the stripping of identity. What happens when our reason for being is all messed up? What happens when they farm us?
I think of wonderful nonfiction books like Romany and Tom and 100 Years of Dirt as the opposite—as re-personalisations. They take you back to where the heart is. In Watt’s book you can feel the strange, enduring love of a real-life family in very intimate ways. Father and son seem bemused with each other throughout their lives. They circle each other. They want to get to know each other more than they ever actually do.
In 100 Years of Dirt Rick Morton asks us to inspect his family’s mess, the whole dirty lot of it, without judgement or prejudice; thereby teaching us a little about judgement and prejudice, and truth. These sorts of books are reboots. You can feel the blood circulating; they help you get back to the centre.
Chris Johnston is a Melbourne nonfiction writer and co-author of The Family (Scribe).