Tagged: books

Questions Raised by Quolls

All Harry Saddler really wanted to do was to see a quoll in the wild.

It was November 2019, and the Melbourne-based author was enjoying a surprise publishing success: his small book, The Eastern Curlew, a telling of the extraordinary migration of Australia’s largest shorebird, had sold through its hardcover print run, opening a new niche in Australia for natural history writing.

This was when Australia’s Black Summer bushfires were beginning to choke the eastern states, and before the pandemic that would force Saddler to write from home. It changed his focus. “It became impossible to write about the state of the environment in Australia and not confront those things head on,” he says.

Saddler’s new book, Questions Raised By Quolls, became more a work of moral philosophy than natural history. Written quickly, it became part-treatise on the legacy of colonialism, part-family history: Saddler’s ancestor Michael Farrell was transported as a convict to Sydney from Ireland in 1816.

“I think that aspect of the family story in the book was a way to write about the human effects of colonialism without co-opting other people’s stories,” Saddler says. “I touch on the damage done to Indigenous societies in the book too, but I was conscious that those are not my stories to tell.”

Another consequence of colonisation has been a wave of mammalian extinctions: 34 Australian species have been officially extirpated since European settlement. Eastern Quolls disappeared from the forests of the mainland decades ago and are now confined to Tasmania; Western, Northern and Spotted-tailed Quolls are all threatened.

It helps that these predatory marsupials are charismatic animals. Saddler wonders briefly if he should have written about rodents instead: “They’re the unsung heroes of the Australian mammal fauna, and they’ve really copped the brunt in terms of mammal extinctions,” he muses. “But it might not have been as appealing.”

So, instead of paying tribute to rodents, Saddler writes about those doing the work on the ground to save them – quolls and much else besides – in sanctuaries like Mulligans Flat in Canberra and Arid Recovery Reserve in northern South Australia, where long-gone species are being reintroduced in fenced-off environments.

“All these places run on the smell of an oily rag, because there’s no money in conservation at all, and yet people are nonetheless doing incredible work to restore ecosystems as best they can to bring the animals back, and you can see tangible results in some places,” Saddler says.

Unfortunately, the pandemic confined Saddler to writing about these places from his desk. Somehow, it increased the urgency. “Being someone who’s prone to introspection at the best of times, I think it helped me look beyond the four walls of my house, because I was thinking about larger things, looking back into the past, and potentially into the future.”

Writing Questions Raised By Quolls enabled him to focus on hope, instead of submitting to grief. “There is an understandable urge to despair in terms of the environment [but] there is still an enormous amount in the world to be saved. Yes, we’ve lost an extraordinary amount, but we haven’t lost everything, and we have to fight for everything that we have left,” he says.

It also raises ethical questions not often touched on by men. Saddler’s father instilled in him a love of bushwalking. Now in his early 40s, Saddler wishes he could pass on the knowledge he inherited to children of his own: “I get clucky when I see baby magpies begging for food,” he admits. (Saddler is currently single.)

But he worries about the world he would be bringing a child into. This is not, he says, a question of overpopulation: “I really strongly reject that argument, primarily because it presupposes that our systems and ways of living and organising society and our economy are just fixed and immutable and are never going to change.”

Saddler is more concerned with the question of raising a child on a planet that is literally burning up. But he prefers to imagine a more equitable world, where sustainability is possible – in which case the question of the Earth’s ultimate human-carrying capacity is less urgent.

It was with his own father that he saw his first Eastern Quoll, hiking in Tasmania nearly 20 years ago. Soon, he hopes, he may be able to see one again. “If you’re going to write a book about an animal, you should be able to see the animal, that’s half the fun of it,” he says. “At least I saw some Eastern Curlews writing The Eastern Curlew.”

First published in the Guardian, 28 July 2021

Guardian Book Club: Jimmy Barnes

When singer Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Boy was released in 2016, it caused a sensation. Barnes’ account of his childhood went beyond the usual adjectives like “raw” and “harrowing” on the cover to something much more purgative: here was one celebrity memoir that hadn’t been written for the sake of a generous advance. Barnes had wrestled the demons of a traumatic childhood in private for decades. Now he was doing it in full view.

The other thing that made Working Class Boy so shocking, frankly, was that Barnes had written it himself. Wasn’t piano player Don Walker the literary genius behind Cold Chisel, with “Barnesy” the red-faced screamer out front? Barnes further upended expectations by gambling on the story of his pre-fame years first, but his way of telling it was riveting. His voice was urgent, empathetic, as wry as it was moving, with a gut-wrenching turn of phrase.

Inevitably, the sequel Working Class Man followed. This was the proverbial sex, drugs and rock & roll memoir that perhaps was originally craved, and certainly expected – but it was far more compelling for us knowing where Barnes had come from. Jimmy Barnes – the rock star, and sometimes the caricature – had been a fixture of Australian life for so long that we had underestimated him. It turned out we had known little of the man born James Dixon Swan.

The first book was subtitled “A memoir of running away”. The second, “A memoir of running out of time”. Barnes’ life was far too big to be contained in just one volume. And now we have a third: Killing Time is a collection of short stories – 45 anecdotes, jokes and sideways reminiscences that didn’t fit into the first two narratives. But these are more than leftovers: they’re essential stories from the spaces in between. And it’s these stories, and the books that came before, which will form the basis of the next edition of Guardian Australia’s book club.

So much of a life in music is spent waiting. The Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts, asked (in 1987) what it was like to have toured with the band for 25 years, quipped he’d only worked for five of them; the other 20 he’d just been hanging around. That’s a lot of time to kill. Barnes eventually realised, while waiting, he was slowly killing himself and causing terrible suffering to those around him – most importantly his beloved wife Jane, whom he refers to as his saviour.

Barnes is in a steadier place now. Like all of us, he still has his demons, but three books and an album later (last year’s superb My Criminal Record is perhaps his best solo work, a lyrical extension of the first two volumes) he’s wrestled them to the ground. “After all those years on the road, all those years of drifting, with no sense of belonging anywhere, I finally feel I have found my place in the world,” he writes.

A slight disclaimer is necessary. Early last year I wrote an artist bio for My Criminal Record, my first real contact with Jimmy. Twelve months later, I was diagnosed with advanced valvular heart disease, requiring open heart surgery. In July, while on the short list and waiting for the hospital to call me in, the phone rang from a private number. My enlarged ticker skipped a beat. “This is it,” I thought – only to hear Barnesy’s familiar Glaswegian chirp on the other end.

Like me, Jimmy had been born with a bicuspid aortic valve, and had joined the “zipper club” in 2007. He was checking in on me, offering support. Over the next couple of months, either side of my surgery in early August, I took several calls from Jimmy and Jane, sending their best wishes. I’ve since discovered I’m far from the only one they’ve offered their kindness and generosity to in a time of strife, both to people you might have heard of and others you probably haven’t.

Jimmy says he’s not killing time anymore. “Every moment is precious,” he writes – and after my own surgery, it sounds true, not trite. Every second feels like a second chance. His books are precious, too, because they touch on things that are common to us, in all our flawed humanity.

Please join us as we talk about love, life, music, family and time – killing it, marking it, wasting it, making up for it – and have your own questions ready, too.

First published in the Guardian, 1 October 2020

Andrew McGahan 1966-2019

If you grew up in Brisbane in the 1970s and 1980s, Praise, the debut novel by Andrew McGahan, was to the city’s literature what the Saints’ (I’m) Stranded was to music. Appearing in 1992, when it won the Vogel award for best unpublished manuscript, it captured the town’s torpor and the ambivalence of its inhabitants better than any book since David Malouf’s Johnno.

But whereas Malouf luxuriated in detailed poetic descriptions and may have been the first writer to describe Brisbane as a “big country town” (and Johnno moved at about the same pace), Praise was full of pent-up energy. A classic of Australian dirty realism, it’s a novel in which not a lot happens – but like Brisbane itself, all the action is happening beneath the banal facade, fuelled by frustration and repressed rage.

“Look at this city,” complains one of its minor characters, on holiday from a bigger, brighter world. “There’s nothing happening. There’s no one on the streets. How can you stand it?” Gordon (whose very name is used as a metaphor for the town’s plainness) replies that things are happening: “You just have to look a little harder. At least no one bothers you. There’s worse places than Brisbane.”

“There’s better,” comes the reply.

Malouf would have agreed. “Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely!” he wrote. “I have taken to wandering about after school looking for one simple object in it that might be romantic, or appalling even, but there is nothing. It is simply the most ordinary place in the world.”

Johnno was set in the Brisbane of the 1940s and 50s; Praise, though, is set in the aftermath of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Moonlight State and the Fitzgerald Inquiry, as Queensland emerged, blinking, into the late 20th century. It’s not a political book – Gordon’s main traits are his aimlessness, his sexual neuroses and dysfunction – but the atmosphere of the era, and of Brisbane, is embedded in every one of its bullet-tipped sentences.

Praise was followed by a prequel, 1988. It’s regarded in some quarters as even better than its predecessor, but left open the question of whether McGahan could move past semi-autobiography.

That question was answered with Last Drinks, a superb mash-up of historical fiction, crime and murder mystery inspired by the police brutality and corruption of pre-Fitzgerald Queensland that contained this description of its parliament:

“Queenslanders were always wary of the more sophisticated types – they liked their representatives to be awkward and stumbling. They mistook it for honesty. So much so that the Queensland parliament sometimes bordered on a sideshow collection of the ugly, the misshapen and the incoherent.”

If that sounds like a cruel or inaccurate representation now – with the Fitzgerald Inquiry casting what is now the LNP into purgatory for well over a generation, and the state governed by a female leader and deputy – cast an eye over certain Queensland representatives in the federal Senate. Published in late 2000, Last Drinks won the Ned Kelly award for crime writing; personally, it was a direct inspiration for my book Pig City. I owe McGahan a lot.

He was born in Dalby on the Darling Downs, the setting for his next book, The White Earth, which won a swag of awards including the Miles Franklin in 2005. Compared to Patrick White’s Voss, it was a move away from dirty realism and into a new kind of (deep) northern Gothic, set against the Mabo judgment, native title legislation and the spectre of Hansonism and white supremacy. Some sections that read as far-fetched at the time seem prescient now.

That goes double for Underground, an unashamed stab at popular fiction that eschewed the subtlety of its predecessor entirely. Published in 2006, it was a paranoid dystopia with a back-jacket blurb that now seems even more eerily prophetic: describing an Australia “transformed by the never-ending war on terror [where] suspect minorities have been locked away into ghettos. And worse – no one wants to play cricket with us anymore.”

From there, he moved into young adult fiction, with five further novels including the four-part Ship Kings series, with the final instalment published in 2016. A final manuscript, a thriller set in Tasmania titled The Rich Man’s House, was completed before his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 52. He is survived by his partner, Liesje.

First published in The Guardian, 2 February 2019