Our man up there

GIL JAMIESON SAT looking over Three Moon Flat, a shotgun across his sarong-covered knee as the sound of the crows in a vast gum tree filled the air. "They make a hell of a racket," I said, stating the obvious.

"They know I've got the gun out," he smiled. "Smart bastards. I killed one yesterday and they haven't shut up since." He stood up, put the old Browning to his shoulder and aimed it at the tree. The birds lifted in a dark spore of a cloud and wheeled about overhead, cawing with one voice. It sounded vaguely human, like the eerie soundtrack to a Hieronymus Bosch painting, if there were one.

"I'll leave the bastards today," Gil said. "I think they've got the message." And the message was – leave the damn chickens alone or you'll end up hanging upside down full of buckshot outside the henhouse. The tatty ebony corpse dangling there was proof of that.

As the crows still protested from above, we went inside and Gil brewed some strong espresso coffee. I knew of nowhere else in Monto where you could get a short black. At the milk bar in the main street you could get a milky cappuccino but it was hardly worth the having. I'd been in town for several months without strong caffeine so appreciated the visits to Gil's property for coffee and cultural conversation – both of which were otherwise thin on the ground.

Gil was an artist of national repute, better known in the salons of Melbourne than in Queensland. A figurative expressionist painter, he had been a fringe member of the groundbreaking Antipodean movement, along with Fred Williams among others, in the late 1950s. He was also briefly part of the Heide circle and had his first solo show with John Reed at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne in 1960. He exhibited with Kym Bonython in Adelaide and Rudy Komon in Sydney. But in the decades that followed, he preferred being back home in the north on his share of the family property just outside Monto, where he lived with his wife, Maureen, and children Matthew and Alicia. He ranged out across northern Australia – painting Kakadu before it was trendy to do so, journeying into the deserts and ranges to produce exquisite gouaches and unruly oils. Some adorned the walls of the family home, a bungalow shrouded by trees on the edge of Three Moon Flat, a large expanse sliced by Three Moon Creek.


MY FRIENDSHIP WITH Gil was as accidential as my life in Monto. I'd come to the tiny town in Queensland's North Burnett District in 1979 to visit a friend and had stumbled into a job on the local newspaper, the Burnett Herald. Well, I wasn't doing anything else at the time, so why not? It was all a bit of an adventure. Unlike my contemporaries, I yearned to go bush, to travel north, to revel in the real Australia the way others yearned to rush to the imperial bosom. So I found myself falling north instead of towards England. Having spent most of my childhood in Hong Kong and my teenage years on the Gold Coast, I knew nothing about Australian rural life, although I had read Kenneth Cook's quintessential outback novel Wake in Fright.

I thought about that slim, chilling volume after my first visit to Gil Jamieson's place, as I reeled home across the paddocks. Drunk and directionless, I vomited in the pitch darkness, trod in most of the cowpats along the way and tore my clothes on barbed wire climbing through fences. My baptism of fire in Monto hadn't been a drunken kangaroo shoot but a night of philosophical discussion in the artist's studio. I was living in a house a mere kilometre away, on a hill overlooking Hurdle Gully Road and a piggery, which made the cooling evening breeze unwelcome.

The artist singled me out as a kindred spirit after an abrasive meeting in the main street, and invited me to his home. He'd poured as much alcohol into me as he could over dinner and then we retreated to his studio to discuss poetry and art and smoke fat Cuban cigars. Not what I'd come to expect of an evening out in Monto. Instead, it offered proof that there was cultural life beyond The Brisbane Line. In fact, Monto and district has produced a few art notables including Gil, the late Patrick Hockey from the nearby hamlet of Abercorn and Gordon Bennett, who was born in Monto.

Gil took great pride in his home town and its characters. That first night he filled my head with stories of the town and its people; wonderful, awful stories, soon lost in the oblivion of drunkenness. I didn't exactly wake in fright the morning after but I was certainly very crook. That morning as I watched the crows rise and wheel, cawing piteously in the merciless, cloudless sky, I was woozy. Gil was fine, confirming the distinction in drinking prowess between city slicker and countryman, artist and neophyte. In fact, Gil and I had come together because of the differences, as well as the similarities, between us. Even though Monto was his town and the surrounding landscape was his country, he still felt a little alien. As an artist, he was enough of an outsider to detach himself, to chronicle the place in his work. I was a complete alien.

In my first weeks in Monto, writing poetry in my friend's house, I was a mere visitor. Soon I would become a resident, a victim of circumstance. A report came back from the pub, with some urgency, that the editor needed another reporter. I was urged to take the job. On the strength of a flimsy scrapbook of cuttings, the result of half a degree in journalism, I got the job.

I threw myself into it, aware of the literary possibilities of such an experience. As the local reporter I legitimately entered into the daily life of the town and district and its 1700 inhabitants. As an alien I was met with suspicion, but as a reporter I was welcomed: in homes and at meetings, at saleyards and rodeos and wherever my beat took me. I quickly learnt about cattle and lucerne, pigs and sawmilling, and saturated myself in the life of the town. To me, Monto was an exotic world as far removed from my previous life as I could imagine. The fact that I had long hair and an earring, which marked me as an outsider at first, became less relevant when I had a job to do.

There were still occasional mutterings when I passed people in the main street but no outright challenges. I confounded their suspicion I was gay (long hair, an earring – must be a poof) when I danced The Pride of Erin with a local schoolteacher.

There were the usual hierarchies in the town and various sorts of snobbery prevailed even (especially) among such a small population. Life beyond the town was another world altogether and many of the larger landowners were a breed apart. They tended to look down on the townies; they'd been to expensive private schools in the big smoke and their properties were like little city-states dotting the countryside. An unofficial aristocracy, they were likely to have extensive libraries and decent art on the walls. But the town itself was generally starved for culture, despite its famous sons such as Gil Jamieson and the actor Michael Caton.


WHEN I FIRST saw Gil he loomed large on Newton Street, the main drag; a wild man with long, dark hair tucked under a beaten bushie's hat, an errant beard and a kangaroo-skin jacket. He'd just blown in from the Northern Territory and wanted to know who the hell I was and what I was doing in his town. I'd been asked that a few times.

Getting to know him was my entrée to the psyche of the place. He was realistic about the town but he knew and loved country life, warts and all. And there were plenty of warts. I'd romantically imagined rural life to be essentially noble. Through his eyes the flaws became clear. Racism was the ugliest. Monto is an Aboriginal word (it means "ridgy plains") but the indigenous presence was sketchy. It was stronger in the nearby town of Eidsvold, known locally as Coonsvold. When a local service club held a country music jamboree at nearby Cania Gorge, where evidence of continuous Aboriginal settlements during the last Ice Age has since been discovered, a boom gate was erected. "This is our coon bar," a club member boasted. If Gil had been with me he would have driven his four-wheel drive straight through that bloody gate. In his travels in the north he had become close to indigenous people, particularly in Kakadu where his best mate was the Aboriginal elder Nipper Gabreekie. Nipper showed him the secrets of his country and Gil painted them with reverence and considered that work part of his own whitefella dreaming.

But back in his home town racism was endemic, the worm in the bud of this aspiring town, a town that was constantly trying to revive itself from its brief glory as the hub of farms carved out for returned soldiers to settle on, despite being in a seemingly terminal decline ever since. Civic pride was enshrined in events like the jamboree, the dairy festival and the Monto Show, which Gil enshrined in a huge oil painting, now buried deep in the bowels of the Queensland Art Gallery.

Outside town, the Aboriginal presence could be felt strongly but mostly in emptiness. Around Cania Gorge, rock art was a message from the past, from the original inhabitants, but their absence and the silence of the landscape were palpable. In the bush behind my place, above the piggery on Hurdle Gully Road, I imagined I saw silhouettes of figures, spears in hand, stalking through the parched, crackling scrub. The lost history seemed more enticing than the official local lore, which lionised white pioneers and celebrated "closer settlement", the seal on the destruction of 40 millennia of history – forgotten history. As a child, Gordon Bennett must have sensed this horror at the heart of the town, the searing wound in the soul of the district.

Gil captured Monto's decline in his expressionist paintings, which sometimes depicted the unrelenting harshness of country life – pigs being slaughtered, men brawling in a pub, a drunken farmer slouched over his dinner while his bereft, abused wife attends the sink. But he also captured the resilience of its people and the haunting beauty of its landscape – the mystery of its forests, the wonders of the light, the surprising jauntiness of the main street on a Saturday morning. Gil was a prism through which I viewed the place. Monto was his Milk Wood and he exported it to the southern salons where such a place seemed an artistic invention. For me, it was a raw but fascinating place as alien as Bundanyabba, the blighted town in Wake in Fright.

MONTO SOON BEGAN to feel claustrophobic. Gil urged me to try Rockhampton, the provincial capital, a city of the coastal plains a couple of hours north-east, where he exhibited from time to time. So I packed the Falcon with my meagre belongings and moved camp to beef city – or Rock Vegas, as it was known at the time (with apologies to The Flintstones). It was generally known as the arsehole of the universe.

Once there, I managed to talk my way into a job on another local newspaper, The Morning Bulletin, which was once a red rag in the days when Fred Paterson, once Australia's only communist MP, was active in North Queensland. It had long since become another mouthpiece of the land of Joh. The general manager was a wine buff who was so impressed that I had been born in the Hunter Valley that he gave me the job.

As a reporter, I ranged across the countryside again. At times being in the north felt like being in the Deep South. The black population of Rockhampton was highly visible, both Islander and Aboriginal communities were strong.

I recall one day, driving to the coastal town of Emu Park past the vast meatworks (owned by Lord Vestey) and seeing a team of black workers labouring on the railroads, their images shimmering mirage-like in the heat. Big Bill Broonzy pumped on my car cassette player and the scene, accompanied by guitar picking and talking blues, evoked Mississippi – to me at least. The Islanders, descendants of Kanakas, had been brought to the area to work as virtual slaves. Local indigenous populations had been less useful and were systemically slaughtered in numerous horrific events played down by the civic fathers in local histories.

The colonial grandeur of Quay Street, where I worked, a road that flanks the river and boasts numerous gracious heritage treasures, was built on the foundations of murder and enslavement, like much of the new world.

I was a stranger in a strange land here and the feeling of alienation must have been very strong indeed because I penned a long poem about it called An Alien Writes Home To His Love From The Rockhampton Show, which was published in a local student literary magazine. In the poem (suggested, it must be admitted by Bruce Dawe's A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love), I'm standing in the middle of the local showground overwhelmed by a sense of otherness, considering how strange it all seems and wondering how on earth I had descended to this weird planet.

I managed to make myself at home in Rocky by aligning myself with a small, subversive poetry movement, which centred on the local college of advanced education, now the Central Queensland University. Poetry was something I kept to myself mostly, though Gil always insisted on referring to me as a poet rather than as a journalist. The poetry was important, he reckoned. Everything else was just a sop to mammon. As well as poetry, openings at the Gallery Uptop were part of my cultural life in Rockhampton. This gallery, an oasis of art and something of a salon, was run by Lal Lanyon, a gracious woman, Gil Jameson's art dealer in that part of the world.

Not long after I moved to Rockhampton, Gil had a show there with the painter Bill Yaxley, now nationally known and living in Tasmania. He lived among his fruit trees at Byfield in those days, just north of Yeppoon and not far from the famous Iwasaki Resort, an unwanted development championed by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his white-shoed cronies and the site of a largely forgotten terrorist attack. A couple of safari-suited local fishermen were marched off to court after that sensational but long-forgotten business. They were both eventually acquitted and most locals felt the bombing was justified anyway as payback for World War II. They have long memories up north where that conflict always felt closer.

Bill Yaxley had come down from Byfield for his exhibition at the Gallery Uptop, which was on the second floor of an old colonial building on Quay Street. The murky Fitzroy River flowed past just across the road. Gil had come across from Monto for the event and I watched him roll up outside in his dusty four-wheel drive and jump out looking like Rasputin, while his dog, a very scary Alsatian named Franz Kafka, bayed like the hound of hell inside the cabin.

Yaxley's gorgeous naïve miniatures shared the wall space with some of Gil's gouaches, poems in paint composed en plein air in the wilds of northern Australia. After arriving, the artists proceeded to drink as much rum as they could in an hour and Lal Lanyon eventually locked them in the gallery's small kitchen so they wouldn't frighten her clients. The scuffling and shouting behind the kitchen door suggested the pair had subsequently got into a fight but no one was game to open the door wide enough to see.

Perhaps that's the sort of thing you could expect at an art exhibition in Rockhampton, which still had something of a frontier feel, even in 1980. The city, meanwhile, was the gateway to the vastness of Central Queensland. As a reporter on The Morning Bulletin, I could expect to be sent to any corner of it on any given day. Gil reckoned I was Rocky's Clark Kent and he upgraded the joke along the way, promoting me to Superman – a nickname he continued to use years later.

I was probably more like cub reporter Jimmy Olsen – one day fighting to stay awake at a Fitzroy Council meeting, the next covering a court case in Emerald or following up a lead in Dingo, where any lead was probably a dead end. I was sent on many wild goose chases but any foray into the hinterland was colourful and kind of fun, even when nothing happened.

One day I arrived at work to find my name down to cover the Banana Shire Council meeting in Biloela. (I still can't believe there is a council named after a fruit but behind the Banana Curtain anything's possible.) I groaned at the thought, knowing what I did of Biloela. Not a bad little town, as far as bad little towns go, just beyond Thangool on the drive north from Monto, a journey I used to make regularly before moving to Rockhampton. (Thangool had a small airstrip that Gil called Thangool International Airport)

"Take Athol (the photographer) with you and see if you can come up with any other stories while you're out there," said the news editor, an eternal optimist. Stories in Biloela on a lazy weekday – I didn't think so, but Athol was my buddy and pretty good company so that was fine. After a couple of hours' drive through the motley towns of the hinterland, places like Mount Morgan and Jambin, we arrived at Biloela and duly reported to the council chambers. They seemed eerily quiet. "We're here for the council meeting," I announced to a bored young woman behind a bland counter.

"Council meeting?" she said. "Geez, you're keen. That's not until next week." We spent a month in Biloela that day, poking around looking for a story.

"There must be something happening out there," the news editor said when I rang in. "Have you checked out the mine? Maybe there's a strike pending? And what about the cop shop?" We flogged ourselves around town for a while hoping like hell we didn't come across anything. The senior sergeant at the local police station scratched his head and looked at us as if we were stark raving mad.

"Anything happening around here?" he asked, incredulously. "I hope you haven't come all the way from Rocky just to ask me that. I could have phoned the news in – no matey, there's nothing happening out here." He chuckled as we left, shaking his head. We went out to the local coal mine, too, where it was as hot as Hades. It looked like a back lot for Spartacus. There certainly didn't seem to be anything happening there either besides a bit of coal mining, which seemed fair enough. What was the paper hoping for anyway, another Eureka Stockade? Embarrassed and not knowing who to ask, we left.

"No strikes, no murders, no nothing," I told the news editor when I reported in again from a payphone.

"Yeah, well keep looking." We did the rest of our looking, however, over pots of beer around a pool table in a local pub. Days like that in the north seem like fiction in retrospect. You couldn't make them up though and for oddities like that to occur you need time – the long laconic days that the north allows, where the heat saps energy and you can almost see the Dali clocks melting on the horizon. Gil captured this in paintings where the sun seems frozen above the landscape and under it both man and beast both revel and suffer in friezes of tropical torpor.

In some of the towns around Rockhampton time seemed to have stood still completely. Mount Morgan was a good example. In this once-prosperous town in the Dee Ranges, built on the mountain of gold that started many a fortune, the population was constantly fighting a rearguard action against the past, which seemed to be catching up with it and threatened to swallow the town whole. The glory days of mining were long gone and the ramshackle cluster of houses seemed to be a ghost town populated by the living. The townsfolk kept up a valiant façade and still went ahead with their lives and held wan festivals and sparsely attended events.

I was sent once to cover the Miss Mount Morgan beauty pageant in which there were more judges than contestants. There were only two local girls vying for the title, if memory serves me correctly, but the committee went ahead with the charade anyway, crowning one winner, the other runner-up, in a sad hall in front of a thin crowd. The runner-up seemed to crumple on stage when she was vanquished but the winner was jubilant and was immediately whisked around the dance floor by her ham-fisted boyfriend, hair slicked down fresh from the shower, in a tragic victory swirl. Three hours previously he had been slaughtering cattle. Only in the north.

My mate Gil based an entire oeuvre on this region hovering around the Tropic of Capricorn. In the south, he was an exotic outsider, an artistic Crocodile Dundee who could never be confined by the suburbs, but here he was at home and so well known that he encouraged mail to be sent to him addressed simply: Cigar Smoking Artist, Monto. The letters always found him.

Occasionally, while living in Rockhampton, I'd head back to Monto to visit him and his family. Over steak and spaghetti, rough red wine and endless cigars, we'd discuss art, the novels of Patrick White or Kafka, even Swift, and afterwards stroll under the brilliant sky that stretched above the flats of Three Moon Creek.

When I left Central Queensland after three years I did so suddenly, upon my father's death. Whisked away in the middle of embracing my exotic sojourn in the north, I felt like a remittance man called back from the colonies – come home, all is forgiven. And for that reason, the memories have crystallised. It was a case of experience interruptus, the experience strengthened, sharpened, heightened by the sudden cessation.


MONTO WIZENED IN THE YEARS THAT PASSED UNTIL MY NEXT VISIT, A DECADE LATER. By then the town looked like a closing-down sale. Gil remained, a marooned artistic oracle squatting in the bush, still painting his wild, tempestuous oils and gnarly portraits, still ranging across the continent's north, returning home with his gouaches, bright landscapes or nocturnes knocked out by moonlight.

In one painting, In the Graveyard, he depicted something closer to home – the Monto cemetery. They had put a seat in there for visitors to sit on while remembering their departed loved ones. Gil was vastly amused by this addition that apparently had previously been part of the local railway station. It had a sign on it saying "Monto".

"But nobody in there is going anywhere in a hurry," he roared. And that's where he ended, of course. Cut down by cancer at the age of 58, he died in his home town in 1992 and was laid to rest in the place that he'd immortalised in that painting with all the brilliant grimness of Goya.

I haven't been back to Monto or Rockhampton since his death and the memories of my northern sojourn are now embellished, fermenting with time. I shan't be looking in on the Monto cemetery when I do go back though. I'll be listening for Gil's voice below the crows' foul song and in the wind chafing at the dry leaves across the Three Moon.

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