Reviewed: George Seddon, Searching for the Snowy (Allen & Unwin, 1994); Swan Song (Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, UWA, 1995); A House, a Cottage and a Shop (Bookmark Publishing House, 1996).
Australian science broadcaster and author Robyn Williams has dubbed George Seddon ‘the Professor of Everything’. The name is apposite, for George Seddon appears to have done more in his lifetime than almost anyone else I can think of. He is a geologist with an international reputation who has made many important discoveries in his career. He has also taught in the English and Philosophy departments at the University of Western Australia, he has been Director of the Centre for Environmental Studies at the University of Melbourne, and he has held the chair of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales.
Had he lived in the seventeenth century, George Seddon would surely have been known as a man of prodigious natural parts. Indeed, his works seem to belong more to that era, with its possibility of knowing all of a more circumscribed world, than in the expanded universe of the present.
Searching for the Snowy won the 1995 Eureka Book Prize, which it richly deserved. The book will doubtless stand as one of Seddon’s greatest achievements. It is the result of a lifetime obsession with the Snowy River that has seen Seddon visit, often on foot or by kayak, its most inaccessible reaches. He has met most of the old-timers and other characters who live by the river, and he appears to have read almost everything that has been written about the region. The work had a long gestation, the manuscript being drafted by 1986, but revision and delay saw it published only in 1994.
The synthesis that results from this lifetime of enquiry is extraordinary. We see the river and its geological setting from the point of view of geological history, from the point of view of Aboriginal people, and finally through the eyes of its European settlers. Seddon writes himself into the story in a charming manner, describing his many journeys and encounters in delightful detail. The description of his various attempts to discover the long-lost Snowy Falls, which Seddon first saw in an old painting, is a masterpiece of travel writing. Because I am a fellow geologist and writer of environmental history, however, the broad outline of the story told in Searching for the Snowy was already familiar to me, and perhaps for this reason it did not command my interest in the way that Swan Song did.
Swan Song is a different kind of book from anything I have read before. It represents a kind of history writing with which I am unfamiliar and which compels attention. When I mentioned my absorption with Swan Song to Seddon he seemed to be quite surprised, and candidly confessed that he had not expected the work to cross the Nullarbor.
Swan Song is a compilation of excerpts from his earlier books, essays, lecture transcripts and book reviews which relate to Perth and its surrounds. These were first published between 1956 and 1995, the majority between 1972 and 1988. Each essay or review has a postscript bringing Seddon’s ideas on the topic up to date. Because the essays, lectures and reviews were written over a long period and for a variety of books and specialist and non-specialist journals, their style varies enormously. Some are turgid, almost technical; others relate to events or publications now largely forgotten.
What makes the book so absorbing to me, in spite of these difficulties, is the story it tells of Perth. Perth is a city I have never felt comfortable with. There is something about it which disturbs me in a diffuse, almost subliminal way. My response to those feelings has been largely to ignore them. If I ever examined them at all, I put them down to the fact that Perth is the city that had spawned the likes of Hancock, Bourke, Lawrence and Bond. Swan Song was an important book for me in that it made me confront my negative reaction to the city. As I read the book, I began to understand the history of Perth, which is very different from that of every other Australian metropolis.
Seddon explains early on that for a very long time Perth was very small. He notes that ‘Western agriculture in the colony was able to feed, by 1890, half as many mouths as Aboriginal land use had sixty years before. As an agricultural colony, it was a failure, one that barely persisted.’ Even as late as 1881 Perth and its satellite towns had a population of only 9000. At the same time Hobart supported 27,000, Adelaide 92,000 and Melbourne 268,000 people.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century gold brought new growth and prosperity to Perth. Seddon describes the effects of this event as ‘incalculable’. Much of the local culture that had developed in the city was swept away by massive immigration (much of it from the eastern states), and the majority of the older buildings were torn down to make way for the new.
Perth underwent another period of growth beginning in the 1960s, when iron and other mineral discoveries brought new wealth on a massive scale. Again immigration (primarily from the east) swelled the population and a new city rose on the foundations of an earlier one built on gold. Again the culture and roots laid down by earlier settlers, who had slowly adapted to their environment, were largely swept away.
This peculiar history of repeated, massive invasion and destruction has seen the city of Perth essentially reinvent itself with each new period of prosperity. The result today is a city with few apparent roots. The new skyscrapers and freeways which greet the visitor from afar as they advance across the flat landscape seem to have sprung, new-formed and imposing, out of the ether.
To a biologist this impression of a ‘rootless city’ is even more apparent. Perth, a grand, almost brash city, rises anomalously from an infertile coastal plain. It is, to the biologist, a city without visible means of support. Behind, there are no mountain ranges or fertile hinterland to provide water and agricultural goods (the Darling Escarpment being an extraordinarily modest prominence, especially when seen from the air). The patent inability of the local environment to sustain such a metropolis seems to give the lie to the city’s existence. Perth has no visible means of support because, in contrast to our other capitals, it has always been nourished from underground. It is mineral wealth which has built the city, and mineral wealth which still supports it. Even Perth’s water supply is drawn from underground.
Perth’s social life has also been shaped by its strange history. No-one is quite so vociferous in his defence of a cause as the recent recruit—whether it be a religious convert, newly arrived immigrant, or new member of a football club. It seems likely that the chauvinism which pervades Perth society has its roots in this phenomenon, for over the past century the great majority of Perth’s inhabitants have been recent arrivals.
I had the good fortune to read Swan Song while travelling. I began the book while working in a remote village in Irian Jaya and finished it in Adelaide. It made me think a great deal about villages, towns and cities and the factors that shape them. I began to see parallels between the tiny, seaside village in which I worked in Irian Jaya and a nascent Fremantle. I also began to see Adelaide in quite a different light.
Adelaide is an opposite to Perth. There, the full magnificence of a vital, Georgian city has been largely spared the horror of modern development. How has this happened? The answer is, I think, that Adelaide began with a bang, but growth soon dwindled to a whisper. The resource boom that fuelled the building of Adelaide was largely agricultural. The soils of South Australia were mined to produce a flash of wealth which has never since been matched in the city’s history. In Adelaide’s truly beautiful cityscape I began to see what was bought with the extinction of South Australia’s medium-sized mammals, with the displacement of its Aborigines and with the destruction of its very soils.
When I met George Seddon in March 1996 he told me firmly that his book Swan Song would be just that. He felt that his book-writing days were over. I hope it is a portent of things to come that not three weeks later I received yet another of his books in the mail. It accorded very well with his current interests, which are with the local community, its history and ways of doing business.
A House, a Cottage and a Shop: 186 High Street, Fremantle is a small book which deals with the history of the property which George and Marli Seddon share. The property is wonderful, all the more for the intriguing history which Seddon reveals. As with all of Seddon’s writings, the book reveals much more than the title promises, for it is as much a social history of Fremantle as the history of a historic house. It is, I am sure, not the last we will hear from George Seddon.
The places and times at which a book is read doubtless affect our impressions of it. Somehow it seems to me that most of Seddon’s books are made to be read on the move. Certainly, one could do no better than read Searching for the Snowy in Australia’s high country. Swan Song, I feel, should be read while visiting another city. A House, a Cottage and a Shop is the exception. Nothing would do better than to read it in the comfort of your own home.