Who will ever know all that lies in the secret heart of certain works?
To learn how to read any map is to be indoctrinated into that mapmaker’s culture.
Lorne, Victoria, 1937. Who could say the name of the pollen that was billowing through the air along the road towards the pier? Who could say how many dolphins were in the pod arcing across Loutitt Bay? Who was to say how best to catch the purple crays crawling through the pools of the shelving shore, or what the name of the lemon-browed bird was bobbing in the currents between the waves?
But look, here comes a recent thing, a motor car, a dark maroon Standard Tourer, with a soft top, rumbling along through the pollen fibres and beneath the dappled light of the blue gums on the point. The driver of the car has an aquiline nose and a dark complexion under a short-brimmed Stetson hat. He is heading for the Grand Pacific Hotel. The car slows. Approaching the impressive building it veers off the road and parks out front. Out of the motor car steps the man. He is middle-aged, of middle height and is wearing grey suit-pants and a casual pullover.
He looks around, stretches his back after the long journey. Leaving his car door flung open he walks slowly then across the quiet road, unwinding after the excitement and ordeal of driving the long road from the city and out over the high sea cliffs. On the ocean side of the road he stands and gazes down towards the long pier reaching into the vast expanse of blue water below the hotel. No ships are tied there but one fishing ketch bobs among the deep shadows of the pylons.
It was less than an hour back along the road that through the windscreen of his Tourer the man had laid eyes on the ocean for the first time in his life. Yet nearly 100 years earlier his grandparents had arrived off the boat at Pt Henry, just up the coast a little way at Geelong. How could that be? What is 100 years in a place like this? Is it a long time, a short time, a long enough time to lose sight of what you know?
• • •
There are many types of silence, as many as there are sounds. Every silence has the blood of its listener pumping through it, as does any landscape of personal significance. When Archie Roach sings, in his song ‘A Child Was Born Here’:
Be careful where you walk in this land
Because a child was born here
And a child was born there
he expects to be taken literally. He is singing his people’s history. Both in utero and in extremis. Just as there is blood in our ears so too are our hearts in the land and sea. See that memory under the tree just there? Remember that morning in the rockpool?
There is no silence without a listener, no landscape without a beating heart. Nowhere in my life so far have I been without the sound of the ocean, no matter how far I am from shore. And no footstep I have taken on my home-coast has laid itself down upon a blank. Here is a live screen.
• • •
All those splash marks on the surface of the bay? They look like a hundred cotton seams stitching themselves across the water into the south-west. If a man has only recently seen the ocean for the first time how could he know what is causing this effect, whether it has anything to do with the seasons, the currents, the angle of the sun or the phases of the moon? How could he ever understand the language of what the ocean was writing there?
Now, in the distance, beyond the flurry of the dolphin pod, he sights the white architectural stalk of the lighthouse standing sentinel. He knows the name of that headland as Split Point. He passed through it on the Ocean Road only half an hour before. He could hardly miss the lighthouse of course, but he had particular cause to notice the name ‘Split Point’ on the map because a friend had mentioned it to him before he left Melbourne.
Perhaps a tear comes to his eye. Perhaps he turns away, from the lighthouse, the ocean and the pier. Perhaps he looks up at the ornate filigree of the Grand Hotel’s high verandah. Perhaps he wipes his eyes. Perhaps he walks back across the road, closes his car door, and begins to ascend the hotel steps.
• • •
When environmental music pioneer Ivr Teibel went out onto Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, in 1969 to help record the sound of the ocean for a friend’s film, he wasn’t expecting what he found. In his studio the next day, as he began to edit and loop his recordings of the waves, cutting out any extraneous human sounds as he went, he began to notice that unlike all the other field recordings he’d worked with this one didn’t start to grate on his nerves in a way that made him want to turn it down as he worked. Instead the opposite was happening. He was becoming more and more relaxed.
From all accounts Teibel was no nature boy. But he was interested in creative technologies, in photography, in sound and the effects of sound. After he had made a few more ocean recordings—on Martha’s Vineyard and in Virginia—he took one of his loops to a friend, Louis Gerstman, a neuropsychologist specialising in speech synthesis. Gerstman fed Teibel’s ocean loop into a huge old IBM 360 and began smoothing and modifying what he had captured, just as he would the recorded sentences of his patients. For Ivr Teibel the finished result turned on the proverbial lightbulb in his head. He promptly formed a company called Syntonic Research Inc. and released the hour-length recording on a vinyl LP, complete with a Bauhaus-inflected sleeve design. He called it Environments 1: Psychologically Ultimate Seashore.
Remarkably, for a record of ostensibly unadulterated ocean sounds with no artist listed as its progenitor, Environments 1 was licensed by Atlantic Records and sold lots of copies. These days it is seen by some, along with Erik Satie’s Vexations, John Cage’s 4.33, and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, as a pioneer album of ambient music. Less auspiciously it has also spawned a global industry using the sounds of the natural world as kitschy relaxation and healing aids.
Through the remainder of the 1960s and the 1970s Teibel released a further ten records in the Environments series, which included other such curated phenomena as rainforest sounds, sailing boats in the wind and the sound of thunderstorms.
Maybe the nature of a particular can be understood only in relation to sound inside the sense it quickens.
• • •
In a slew of broken concrete we are attracted to a blade of green grass. It doesn’t even have to be green either, it can be wheaten, the colour of bone. When our eye lands on high viridian cliffs with the ocean lapping and roaring at them from underneath we want to sing. At least to speak. Or, if not, to listen as well as look.
Biophilia is the attraction of life to life. When entomologist Edward O. Wilson first coined the term, he would have had perhaps some inkling of the energy his idea itself would attract. Part of his biophilia theory implies that life longs to marry life, to acquaint itself with life, to cohabitate with life. For the speaking, singing, dancing, painting human this can be described as the biosphere having a call. The heart lifts, either in fear or wonder, and wants to provide an echo to that call or, at the very least, an interpretation.
Here then is my position on the map, here then are my coordinates of heart and mind, grief and vision, history and its impact.
Wilson suggests a force of attraction between life and life, which cannot help but remind us of the force of gravity in our atmosphere. And so when the hills above Bass Strait curve down from sky to shore in such grand scale I cup my ear for the correspondence in local human culture. Some song or text or dance or image that those who live here have made in response. But what happens when the human voices of such a compelling landscape, or any landscape, have experienced a rupture more akin to a gravitational attraction to death rather than life? Is that necro, rather than bio, philia? Does our inheritance of that disruption leave us wanting to offer a reply to the life of the place but only capable of making a shrill one?
Philia—Philia (/ˈfɪljə/ or /ˈfɪliə/; Ancient Greek: φιλία), often translated ‘brotherly love’, is one of the four ancient Greek words for love: philia, storge, agape and eros. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,
philia is usually translated as ‘friendship’ or affection. The complete opposite is called a phobia.
• • •
Once he enters the Grand Hotel building the man removes his hat. Immediately he sees the golden ribbed horn of a gramophone on a table near the bottom of the staircase at the far end of the foyer. But even before that he hears the sound. Perhaps he heard it coming up the steps. The doleful strains of the orchestra. The crackle of the needle. The voice.
Caro mio ben,
Senza di te languisce il cor.
It is just before midday. He stands alone with the music.
Il tuo fedel
Eventually a member of the hotel staff appears through a side doorway. A young man, he comes initially with a bustling gait, but sensing the stillness of the visitor listening there with his hat in his hands, he slows and acknowledges the music with a smile.
It is our visitor who speaks first.
Good day to you.
And to you, sir. Can I be of assistance?
Please, yes. The visitor nods towards the gramophone. Can you tell me who is singing?
The concierge smiles once more, but also with the beginnings of a laugh. I can sir, he says. Normally I am no officianado but Mr —, who owns the hotel, only recently bought this record. He has made sure it is known to us all.
The singer is Beniamino Gigli, sir. There is a second ‘g’ in the surname but you don’t pronounce it. Italian, sir. At present we are playing the record rather a lot.
You like it, sir?
Well yes, I do.
Can I ask then, if you don’t mind. Do you understand what he is singing about? That’s what always stumps me.
Our visitor frowns. Not really, he says. Perhaps a little. My mother was half Italian.
The young concierge raises his eyebrows in surprise. I see sir, he says.
There is a pause in their conversation, and briefly in the music. Sish, sish. When the arias recommence the concierge says: Now then sir, do you have a booking for a room? Or can I help you with anything else?
• • •
When I was a teenager, making my first acquaintance with a degree of autonomy from my parents’ authority, the accom-panying olfactory ingredients in the coastal environment—moonah blossom, zinc cream, dusty leucopogon leaves, mosquito coils, sand, estuary silt, marram grass, the surf, just to name a few—became forever associated for me with feelings of freedom. An important component of this freedom, I believe, was what classical scholars might describe as eros. Due to the fashions of the era (the late 1970s and early 1980s), I enjoyed a cultural soundtrack to this combinatory and impregnated environment of freedom and discovery in popular songs on the radio and on cassettes and vinyl records. One artist who seemed to harmonise best with the type of psycho-ecological correspondence I was experiencing was the Canadian musician Neil Young. Subsequently, I discovered that many of the songs of Neil Young that I was listening to were written or recorded in his house and studio on the Pacific coast in California. I also became aware at this time that both the Great Ocean Road area (my eros-environment) and the Grand Pacific Hotel (where my grandfather stayed in 1937), are in a way scions of that Californian culture in which he lived. Henry Gwynne, who built the Grand Pacific in 1879, had been inspired to do so by a journey he made along the Californian coastal highway a few years earlier. I know a spot, he must have thought to himself, where only the wind blows. Into that assumed ‘vacancy’ he inserted his plan.
Many years later in 1919, when Messrs Howard Hitchcock and co of the philanthropic Great Ocean Road Trust were devising the idea of a road that would open up the scenery of the Otway coast, it was the Californian ocean road that provided a template. It’s very existence, along with the road through Ilfracombe in Devon, England, gave a real-life imprimatur to their vision.
Why then does the hotel, and the road running to it, inspire something more in us than mimesis? Are we that live in and around this coast:
gannet, myrtle beech, crayfish, bull ant, blue gum, wattlebird, bandicoot, leucopogon …
suffering from our lexicon of borrowed names?
If I call you Susan and your name’s actually Joy, do you feel the miss?
• • •
The hotel’s guest is our grandfather. By the time he went to bed that first night in the Grand Pacific it is possible that he had taken Gigli’s voice, the melodies and the sentiments of the record the publican had purchased, into the very salt of his bloodstream. If nothing else it had put him in a listening frame of mind. When he went down for lunch after being shown his room it may have been Panis Angelicus, ‘the bread of heaven’, coming from the golden ribbed horn. Later on in the day, when he stepped out through the foyer to stroll down the slope and inspect the pier, it may have been Bassani’s Posate, dormite. The eternal sleep of heaven. Whatever the case he was caught, in his very own mappamundi, between the two poles of heaven and hell.
He died before I was born so I can only imagine him standing at the end of the pier looking back across the bay towards the lighthouse. The image makes me also think of Jay Gatsby gazing across at the East Egg light. Despite the fact that the very existence of the Grand Pacific Hotel in Lorne was inspired by Henry Gwynne’s tour along the North American coast, why in this case does the involuntary association feel like a trivial literary allusion? Is it only because our grandfather’s situation is a real-life one, and therefore to be deemed more important than that of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional character? Or is there some other reason, something caught not between our judgements of what is real and imagined but between our notions of this world and the next?
For our grandfather there was no Daisy Buchanan to yearn for just across the bay. Quite the opposite. His young wife, Rita, our grandmother, had only recently died after a long, gruelling illness. William Day was a widower in the midst of his mourning. That’s why he had been persuaded to come on his own to Lorne.
• • •
All that is told of the sea has a fabulous sound to an inhabitant of the land, and all its products have a certain fabulous quality, as if they belonged to another planet, from seaweed to a sailor’s yarn,
or a fish story.
—Henry David Thoreau
In 2009, as I was composing the third of my Mangowak novels, The Grand Hotel, a consultancy company based in Melbourne called Village Well was commissioned by the Great Ocean Road Coast Committee (GORCC) to produce a document on the future development of Point Grey, at the southern extent of the township of Lorne. By September of that year this document materialised as the 125-page Point Grey & Slaughterhouse—Place Essence Report.
Point Grey, site of the Grand Pacific Hotel and the Lorne pier, along with the nearby former slaughterhouse area of the colonial town, was considered by GORCC, the commissioners of the report, to require fresh ‘investigation and planning’ for ‘future use and management’. The creators of the Place Essence Report, Village Well, described themselves in the document they produced as ‘place makers’. The document also incorporated their self-description as being specialists in ‘the 5Ps of Place Making—People, Place, Product, Program and Planet’.
Is it confusing that the word ‘place’ is itself included in the list of ingredients that make up a place? My head hurts. Is the term ‘tautological’ sufficient to describe this anomaly? It prompts the question: wasn’t the place they’re purporting to make already there? If not, where did the sound of the sea come from that our grandfather heard in 1937? And exactly what void-like absence is capable of producing the luminous pollen filaments that billow along the point every spring?
Due to its apparent failure to account for the place already in existence before the potential existence of the ‘place’ that they had taken it upon themselves to make, I wonder if Village Well’s Place Essence Report isn’t a belated corporate manifestation of the dreaded terra nullius. But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Maybe something deeper is going on. Maybe the Place Essence Report actually encapsulates Village Well’s inherently metaphysical view of the world, and the vague imprecision of its language implies the presence of some unseen spirit realm, a possible unexplained foundry that produced all these supposedly indescribable prior phenomena that have been just waiting like sculptor’s clay for Village Well’s particular skill-set to arrive. Things such as
gannets, crayfish, bull ants, blue gums, wattlebirds, sheoaks, bandicoots, leucopogon …
• • •
In one of the first books published by an Aboriginal Australian author, David Unaipon’s Native Legends of 1929, the following explanation is given for the coming of humans to the Earth:
… when the appointed period arrived Spirit Man made the Great Decision and adventure to be clothed with earthly body of flesh and blood, his Spirit Consciousness experienced a great change, for he was overshadowed by another self, the Subjective Conscious-ness, which entirely belongs to the Earth and not to the Sacred Realm of Spirit, Immortal dwelling place, just at the threshold of the Greater Spirit, the Father of all Mankind—Eternal Home. He began to realise that his Spirit Self was controlled by an earthly Subjective Consciousness which bound him to earth’s environment with all its blessing, disappointment, discomfort and its pain and sorrow. Being a stranger in a strange land he found it most difficult to adapt himself to earth’s environment. His Spirit Self began to fret and pine for its Heavenly Home. The Living Creatures of the Earth saw his plight and were moved with pity and sympathy.
The town of Lorne was named in 1871, in honour of the Marquis of Lorne from Argyleshire in Scotland’s marriage to Queen Victoria’s sixth daughter, Princess Louise. Point Grey, however (the supposed yet-to-be-a-place of Village Well’s Place Essence Report), being itself a more noticeable outcrop of the land into the sea, especially when viewed from a ship, was given its English name well before this, probably in 1846, by surveyor George Smythe in honour of the Portugese-born George Grey, governor of South Australia from 1841 to 1845.
Nicholas Baudin, the French explorer and cartographer, and leader of the Napoleonic expedition to map the coast of Australia, sailed past current-day Lorne in March 1802. In an onamastic fervour typical of hydrographers of the era, he bestowed French names on numerous features of the coast as he sailed past, some of which have been retained to the present day. Curiously Baudin recorded no name for Lorne nor the yet-to-be-a-place that has come to be known as Point Grey, but he was inspired to call the headland just north-east of Lorne, Pointe des Souffleurs, or ‘Point of the Blowers’. These days that headland is known locally as ‘Cinema Point’ but I like to think that in choosing his name Baudin somehow presaged the kind of hubris contained in Village Well’s Place Essence Report. It’s far more likely of course that Pointe des Souffleurs refers to whales seen blowing from their spouts as he passed by.
• • •
Only a few months before our grandfather’s arrival at the Pacific in his Standard Tourer he had emerged alone one morning from the front door of his brick and weatherboard house in Wishart Street, East Kew, Melbourne. Between the door and the gate out onto the street was a narrow pathway. On either side of the pathway were a series of white standard rose bushes, which he had planted for his young rose-loving wife Rita not long after they married. Now our grandfather, a public servant of the Lands Department, a secretary of the Victorian Athletics Association, born at Hyanmi near the family farm at Mologa in 1884, bent down to pull out each of the white rose bushes one by one with his bare hands.
I have been told how quiet and gentlemanly he was, not inarticulate as such but not prone to gales of expressiveness either. I have inherited the notion that silence, rather than words, was his medium. The rests, or spaces in-between. So he has always existed for me in a quietude with its own very personal harmonic. His wife had died that morning. Her body lay still in the house. He had three children: two teenage daughters and a younger son, Adrian, my father. He was known to his friends as Bill Day and pulling up the white roses was the only way Bill Day knew how, on that well-mannered street in East Kew, to howl like the wind.
Our grandmother had been sick for about a year before she died. Our grandfather had looked after her at home and our father, who turned ten on the day she died, shared a bed with her during that final year. I’m not sure which of his friends recommended, a few weeks later, that Bill get away on his own for a few days down at Lorne. Their logic, as it was told to me by his second daughter, my aunt Joan, was that he needed a spell from work and the responsibilities of his new predicament as a single parent. He had had no time on his own to recover from what he had endured. So things were arranged: a room at the Pacific, a week’s leave from the Lands Department, and his two older daughters to look after young Adrian.
Those anonymous friends who sent him to the coast, their names lost now, fallen through time’s perforations in the pages of our family history, had no way of knowing what they were setting in train. But it was surely a good thing they had arranged and it has always had a famous companion story in my mind. In 1910 Henry Lawson was also sent by a group of his friends for a break at Mallacoota when he had come out of Darlinghurst Gaol. The south coast was unfamiliar to him. The small amount he wrote about it, a few ballads and prose sketches, is full of Lawson melancholia but is also noteworthy for being ventilated by an occasional breeze of healing air:
Free from Fortune’s slings and arrows,
From all thoughts of rent or meal,
Where the islets, creeks and narrows
Teem with fish and swarm with teal.
You could not say that the funds raised to send Lawson away for a break significantly altered the course of his life, but like in the case of my grandfather Bill, the gesture was appreciated at the time and seemed to have the desired effect.
Sometimes the effects of such acts of kindness persist beyond the moment and for many years to come. From the top-storey sea-facing rooms of the Pacific the view is still beautiful in the present day. I take a room for the night to see it all over again for myself. The windows face east across blue water beyond the point and the pier towards Split Point Lighthouse, also to the northeast through the tops of the blue gums on Scotchman’s Hill. Across the gentle arc and frith of Louttit Bay you look directly over to the timbered hills of what is nowadays known locally as North Lorne. This Grand Hotel, built in 1879, was an outpost of empire, a framing of natural wonders, a taming of a treacherous sea.
Despite the many ships that had become wrecked on the coast the cove of Lorne quite literally had its back to the wildest weather and a navigational light always in view. But being out on the southern edge of the point the Pacific is less protected. It is closer to the experience of the sublime so sought after by the exponents of early tourism. It catches the full brunt of the southerlies and the glancing edge of the south-westerlies while the centre of the town can remain immune. And when the strong easterly hits, no-one, either at the edge or in the centre, can escape the whirling grain of salt, foam and stipple that the sea brings to the air. As Burke says in his Philosophic Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ‘a clear idea is another name for a little idea’.
Right there among the awesome scale of nature and the wild unpredictability of life, the Pacific offers a viewing platform, an ornamented haven, a late Victorian parenthesis built out of Erskine River stone, Gadabanud clay bricks and colonial mortar.
• • •
It seems strange staying in the hotel on what essentially is my home turf. It feels in itself tautological, or like I’m an imposter. So, at dinner time, rather than going downstairs and suffering the blandishments of the staff, I step outside and take a stroll down to the restaurant by the pier. I drink a coffee at the bar and enjoy some banter with its proprietor, Sammy Gazis, whom I know from my years spent working in the fishermen’s co-op next door. Then I walk across town on the rocks and beach at low tide to eat with the godmother of my youngest son at her house in North Lorne. We have a pleasant time. Lindy leaves the front door open to the surf across the road as we talk. I listen as much to it as to her. Perhaps she does too. Around nine o’clock I say goodbye.
On the walk back I am annoyed by the bright strip-lights they installed when they built the new promenade-pier in 2007, around the time GORCC was considering the commissioning of Village Well’s Place Essence Report. The pier is lit up like an airport runway except only flesh-and-blood birds want to land. The lights are good for catching squid, but not for much else. They detract from the night sky, the stars. Heather Le Griffon, in her study of the failed Bunting Dale Aboriginal Mission at nearby Birregurra, pays homage to the original inhabitants of this area and the devastation they endured during the years of the first European settlement. Their view of the stars as the campfires of their ancestors is embedded in the title of her book, Campfires at the Cross.
I walk the beach and savour the particular quiet of closed shops. When I arrive back at the Pacific, I go straight through the foyer and up to my room. I make myself a cup of tea and get into bed. I think about playing some Gigli on my iPad but read Raffaela La Capria’s Capri or no longer Capri instead. But only for a half an hour or so. And then the moment comes when I turn out the light and lay my head on the pillow.
• • •
gannet, myrtle beech, crayfish, bull ant, blue gum, wattlebird, sheoak, bandicoot, leucopogon …
Pull these words out by their roots and see how little soil is clinging to them here. Pull the very same words out by their roots in old England (gannet, myrtle & beech, wattlebird, sheoak), in France (crayfish, bull & ant, blue & gum), in Andhra Pradesh (bandicoot), in ancient Rome (leucopogon), and you could be sitting around the campfires of the ancestors for at least 1001 nights.
Perhaps what Ivr Teibel had discovered in his Psychologically Ultimate Seashore was not so much the modern concept of ambient music but the ancient resonance of the amniotic grotto. Respected psychoacoustic research overlaps to some extent with the smarm of new age ‘healing ocean’ CDs in its correlation of the effects of sound with our somatic preconditioning. It shows that the chain of our psychoacoustic responses to life is predicated on the fact that hearing is not only a biological but also a perceptual activity. It begins in the realm of nano-physics, with the fact that all atomic matter vibrates. The frequency of these vibrations produces sound, which, among other things, can ultimately be moulded into what we call music. In utero the human ear begins to form almost immediately after conception and is fully grown and functioning after only 16 weeks gestation inside the womb.
It is during this formative period that we begin our life as listeners to the atomic frequencies of life, for at this early stage we are listeners more than we are seers, or sniffers, or touchers, speakers or thinkers. The sound we hear assists in the growth of our brain and nervous system. In utero all is fluid sound, we hear the rhythm of our mother, her voice as she speaks to us, and we vaguely perceive, by listening, the enigma of a wider world coming towards us through a thin membrane of flesh and blood. Encased in the maternal body we are immersed in the sonic energy of life. There are no plastics like there are in the anthropocenic sea, and no technology other than that which our mysteriously organic existence has made.
By simply re-presenting the sound of the sea in 1969, Teibel’s Environments 1 struck a fundamental chord, and not just with the hippies. By leaving out any form of human musicianship other than sound treatments in the studio, Environments 1 placed us in proximity to an original mode of entrainment, which is a term psychoacousticians use to describe how sounds change ‘the rate of brain waves, breaths, or heartbeats from one speed to another’. If one is prepared to believe that the womb, or amniotic grotto, feels to the foetus like a natural and safe place, providing it with everything it needs as it grows towards the state of maturity required for it to encounter the wider world, then one must also credit that the sish sish of the ocean at night quite possibly triggers in us some kind of elemental memory of that prior condition.
• • •
Issuing from this amniotic dream there is a road without a sign, a coast without a real estate agent, a place without a name. For one or maybe two days of the year, usually in February, there is also a sea without a wave. This is the moment of the seine-net and the flounder-spear, when the kiss of tide on sand drops to a whisper, when the ocean bed is visible, when the deeper shapes can be made out. This still weather of a lake-like ocean comes at the tapering end of a run of northerlies, and has always reminded me of Franz Marc’s painting The Sleeping Bull. For a moment the stereotypic mode of brute power is withdrawn. Even Polyphemus must dream.
The Earth moves elliptically, it is neither flat nor round and some integers of time have names dreamt in the memory only. Some have no names at all. In Greek the source word elleiptikos implies a defectiveness in all this but elleiptikos in turn comes from elleipein, which means to ‘leave out’, to ‘fall short’. The implication is the truth of imperfection.
A stitch is missed. A space is created. Some things are beyond description. These spaces encourage human yearning. There is a yearning for explanation, which often results in science, or what is called mythology. But there is also a biophiliac yearning to somehow sensually match the feeling or physical sensation of the space. The space our grandmother’s death left behind. The space in our grandfather’s heart that the sound of the ocean filled. This leads us to singing.
It follows that true songs of this space exist first as caves, contours, passing gullies. We feel their magnetism and tumble towards them. But they come and go, they dip and rise, teasing the solidity of the canon. They are harmonics of the world’s fundamental note, indispensable in the timbre of the music of our dreams.
• • •
Did you hear the ocean last night?
It took me a long time to work this out, the partially obscured signal that has come down through the bloodlines, the story that dwells like the sibilance of the ocean itself, under everything I have written. Perhaps precisely because it is a story that is positioned so subliminally in the family, just like the ocean at night, it has magnetised my imagination. Long before 1841, when James and Mary Day arrived off the ship in Geelong and settled at Moriac and then ultimately on the Barwon River at Inverleigh, the cove of Lorne had another name. The beach sat like a crescent moon carved into the steep edge of the forest, a foyer to Gadabanud country, or King Parrot country. In the language of the Wadawurrung across the bay at Split Point the word for King Parrot was Yukope; in the Peek Whuurong or ‘kelp lip’ language further west of the Otways around Port Fairy it is Waetuurong. But the ancient local word for the cove of Lorne itself has been lost. It has become a word more like a fallen star, mingling among the sound of the waves in my grandfather’s ear …
If the lost word feels like a falling star it follows, in a conflation of the metaphor entirely consistent with biophilia, that the spirits of the campfire ancestors of the night sky are always descending and walking among us. These are the type of personages, the living, dying people of the deep amniotic past of this country, that it is natural for a human with a love of the area to have a hunger to meet. But can I presume that of others who live around me? Certainly not. So then, I ask myself: is every song, every story, every poem and novel I write, a cooee into the darkness? Or to put it another way, as Paul Carter does in The Sound in Between, ‘Sounds always come from elsewhere; the voice is always an answer’.
I cock my ear, I raise my antennae, I watch watch watch, listen listen listen …
• • •
It was not the sight of the blue sea in Lorne’s famously limpid light that had the biggest impact on the solitary widower in 1937. Rather it was the sound of the sea at night.
When our grandfather returned to East Kew after his week at the Pacific he said two things to his young boy Adrian about his trip away. The first thing that had struck him was the voice of an Italian tenor that he had heard playing in the hotel. He would listen almost religiously to that voice for the rest of his days. The second thing that had struck him, and a magical thing it must have seemed to a kid who like his dad had never seen the ocean, was the sound of the sea under his pillow at night. My father was told it was the most beautiful sound on earth.
For a man who didn’t usually express his innermost feelings and sensations, this testimony of our grandfather’s seems to have left a deep emotional groove. In the house without its mother it immediately took on the quality of a myth. Yes, there was another world, a world transcending the pain and rupture of death, a world apart from the dry parsimonious paddocks of Mologa and the hard bustle of Melbourne. It was a natural world, a beautiful world, the world, as it happened, of our ancestors. In that place the sound of the sea came each night like a mother’s lullaby.
Our grandfather’s anecdote about the sound of the sea under his pillow at night became an alternate harmonic to unspeakable grief in the eaves of my father’s childhood home. They could all hear it now, his father, himself and his sisters: the sound of the ocean at night in the midst of a city wedged between the deprivations of the Great Depression and the brutalities of the Second World War. Even just the idea of the sound became a soothing flageolet in the house-timbre, a high and consolatory correspondence produced from a fundamental note of sadness and pain.
In the years after 1937 everyday life in Wishart Street, East Kew, never became normalised. My grandfather and my father’s elder sisters were loving towards the boy, but the mother he had slept with through that last year of her life, the mother who passed away on his tenth birthday, had entered her afterlife as an all-encompassing yet subliminal sensation. For my grandfather it was an assuaging memory. The surf under his pillow in the high front room of the Pacific at Lorne. For my father: a wonderful tale, a sonic lure, an acoustic myth. A fabulous antidote to the sharp fact of her smell still permeating his pyjamas and pillowslips.
As soon as he was old enough he would head himself straight for the coast. We have been here ever since.
The sound of the ocean at night. Her loss was its key. Everything was wrong, but it would also be all right because far from the city a beauty equivalent to hers existed in a peaceful cove at the end of a heavenly road. The stars shone at night above a Grand Hotel on the point, and you could fall asleep and dream to the sound of sish sish, sish sish … •
Gregory Day’s five novels are all set amongst the Bass Strait landscapes of this essay. His work has won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal, the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and the Manly Artist Book Award, and has been shortlisted for numerous others. His most recent novel, A Sand Archive, was published by Picador in 2018.