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Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds or is it an approaching bushfire?

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds on the horizon or is it an approaching bushfire?

It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.

All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.

On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.

Keep reading at Overland.  Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.

Without help it would be impossible to find Roger McDonald.  The set of directions to his property near Braidwood in south-east New South Wales contains references to ‘turn left at the end of the bitumen’ and ‘pass the shearing shed’ and ‘cross the paddock and through the gate with the white patch adjoining the chook-yard’.  Helpfully he also advises to follow rural tradition: ‘If gates are open, leave open, but close them again if shut’.

I diligently follow every direction – if a fog closed in and I lost my way I’d need the SES – and after a morning of travelling I eventually point the Barina up a winding steep incline, then hold my breath as a beautiful architecturally designed house of corrugated iron and stone reveals itself perched comfortably on a high saddle.  It’s a place that brings an instant electric buzz to the stomach.

McDonald used to set up camp on the property, and the house and its various outbuildings appear to have grown from the layout that tents once made here.  The view – the extraordinary view – is of rolling wooded hills and undulating Monaro paddocks which after the recent spring rains are almost as green as Ireland.  During the day there are no houses to see and at night, so I’m told, only the lights of two neighbouring properties can be spotted.  Idyllic is the word, particular for a writer who has spent much of his career exploring the hope and despair of the rural Australian experience, which is at the heart of McDonald’s new novel When Colts Ran.

However, before our interview can take place there’s been considerable email correspondence between us resulting in an agreement to have a preliminary chat over lunch in a Goulburn cafe.  I may have got this wrong, but it could be that I’m being checked out, which is fair enough because in this Internet age I might be anybody.  Or it’s because Roger McDonald is protective of his life and the place where he and his family live.  Perhaps for McDonald that rural tradition could be, Close all gates no matter whether they’re open or closed, and keep them bloody well closed.

So we have our preliminary café conversation; we circle around each other as we negotiate how the interview might occur.  Roger McDonald is unexpectedly slight, and at sixty-nine has a handsome, sculptured, yes, rural face – it’s not hard to believe that he has two brothers who’ve had careers as professional wool-classers.  Although he clearly longs for the endless hush that isolated rural living offers, he is engaging company and very generous with his time.

A week later we’re sitting in his surprisingly modern home office overlooking a thickly treed gully where apparently wombats and roos are often seen.  ‘When I think about where I’m most truly myself,’ McDonald says dreamily, ‘it’s stepping out under some gum trees with crackly bark and a few dry leaves.  When I was growing up there was so much talk, but when you’re in the bush you can retreat into a silence where there’s a mystery of the self, and the self is always a mystery – you can dabble in that.’

Born at Young in 1941, McDonald is the middle son of a Presbyterian minister, Hugh McDonald (‘a good servant of the church’), and the esteemed historian Dr Lorna McDonald, whom he speaks of with such love and affection it’s as though he’s only now realising how lucky it is to have her in his life.  He spent his childhood in the NSW country towns of Bribbaree, Temora and Bourke, but moved to Sydney to attend Scots College and the University of Sydney.  He’s been a school teacher, ABC producer, book editor, and commenced his writing career as a poet before shifting to writing novels because, he says, of the form’s more expansive possibilities.

McDonald’s novels include 1915, winner of The Age Book of the Year and turned into a highly successful ABC-TV mini-series.  His account of travelling the outback with a team of New Zealand shearers, Shearer’s Motel, won the National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction.  Mr Darwin’s Shooter was awarded the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Premiers’ Literary Awards, and the National Fiction Award at the 2000 Adelaide Writers Week.  His best-selling The Ballad of Desmond Kale won the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.

‘I’ve won a lot of prizes,’ he tells me, obviously wanting to make that point but also as if his achievements surprise even himself.

When Colts Ran is a complex, sprawling work that grew out of a set of long short stories, almost novellas, one of which was awarded the O. Henry Prize as one of the best twenty pieces of short fiction published in the USA in 2008.  On his publisher’s blog – he says the word ‘blog’ as if it’s from a world he doesn’t really want to know anything about – McDonald writes, ‘The main character of the novel is Kingsley Colts, whose ‘run’ starts at the age of sixteen and is still going when he’s well into his eighties.  Fleeing Sydney, Colts goes bush and ends up spending the rest of his life there.  Great expectations blighted him when he was young.  As an orphan and ‘ward of Legacy’ too much was asked of him.  In the rhetoric of two world wars he was the inheritor of national sacrifice.  Could anyone really be worthy of that?’

At home and in his office McDonald admits, ‘God only knows there might be something essentially me in Colts – the alcoholic I never became.’

Does he have a cultural vision for this latest novel?  ‘Yes,’ is his swift reply, ‘but what that is exactly, well, I paraphrase Bernard Shaw: If I could have put it in two words, I would have.  It’s just about using the material at hand, speaking out of the landscape, using people’s use of the place and their working lives, their accent, the dust in the throat kind of thing, hope and despair mixed up together.’

Speaking out of the landscape. How good is that!

What part of McDonald’s background has had the most impact on him?  ‘Connection to the Australia countryside and rural landscapes.  This has always been not so much an escape but a wonderland.  When we lived in country towns as kids all our connections were with sheep farmers.  My parents’ friends and parishners would always be inviting us out for afternoon teas and lunches.  My brothers would ride horses and I’d drive the sulky and we’d swim in the dam, and it was an ideal life removed from the way we lived.’  McDonald pauses briefly.  ‘What never appealed to me was the actual work of a farm.  After 1915 was published I was able to buy a place in the country.  That was a joyous moment – to be able to live in the country but not have the difficult business of gaining the main source of income from it.’

Roger McDonald has an enormous love of language.  ‘If I read a sentence in Shakespeare or Saul Bellow or whatever I feel like I’m almost chewing the words, and yet they have a delicious taste as well.  There’s a real pleasure in those words.  So the feel of language and the rhythm of sentences – this is what drives me.  I don’t have a moral axe to grind, though a novelist might need to grind that moral axe to get the words working right.  A book may have very strong and clear themes but from the writer’s point of view they’re patterns.  In When Colts Ran there’s the pattern of the way men might connect, there’s the pattern of what people derive from the pressure of the hard landscape through drought and flood and distance.’

What hopes does McDonald have for his latest work?

‘The only hope I ever have,’ he replies, ‘is to have someone come up to me and say, I read your book and I absolutely loved it, I got caught up in it, and I was in that whole world while I was reading it, and now I’m sorry that it’s finished.  My God, someone has really read what I have written!  And then you hope that that can be multiplied and you have lots of readers, because the most difficult thing for a writer is to labour hard over something and then get no response.

‘When I got my first advance copy of When Colts Ran I spent a week going through it and thinking, this has the feeling of it being beyond me.  Even though I made everything that’s in it, its elements combine in a way that I hadn’t quite predicted, and it’s possibly good in that way.  That doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to like it, or everyone’s going to think it’s good, but for me it has that quality of excelling what I originally put into it.’

Our conversation meanders on, traversing enjoyable terrain, such as influences (Patrick White, David Campbell), faith (McDonald doesn’t have one but is interested in the ‘spirituality of connection’), and Australia’s pioneering history and its impact on Indigenous culture, but all too soon we’re done.  I’m invited to stay for lunch with his wife Sue, a relationship mediator and ceramicist, and over a home-cooked frittata and salad we talk about dogs and foxes and chooks.

When sadly it’s time for me to go, I drive away in silence, which is odd for someone who enjoys nothing more than travelling in the country to music.  But drive away in silence I do.  I breathe deeply and slowly, my mouth closed, my heart making its beats.  The sky develops from cloudy to overcast, and then a light rain falls on the windscreen and the naturally harsh land and living outside.  In this silence, for every minute of the hour and half it takes to get home, I hear Roger McDonald speaking wisely and deliciously out of the landscape.

The following was first published as ‘Nature of his Tale’ in Panorama, Canberra Times, on Saturday 13 September 2010.  Many thanks to Roger McDonald.  Thanks also to Gia Metherell.

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