The exotic at home

EARLY IN 1982, when I had just finished Fly Away Peter and was writing back and forth to my publisher at Chatto about how it was to be published, I wrote an afterword to the book. It was an account of my experience with the world of birds and of my early discovery of flying.

At 21, I had spent five days on a hunting trip to the Valley of Lagoons in Far North Queensland, a vast waterland swarming with game birds of every description. Earlier I had discovered something of the wonder of flight. On my seventeenth birthday, in 1951, I had joined the University Air Squadron, was taken up in a Tiger Moth and, on our first camp at Amberley Air Base, outside Ipswich, had spent a good deal of my free time, when I could inveigle one of the officers in the mess into taking me, on one of the flights that in those early days after the war were still being made in the big wartime Liberators. These flights covered most of southern and Central Queensland and I got used to seeing, laid out in a map below me, a world I already knew at ground level. I took it in turns with my friend GS to hunch in solitude in the rear gun turret under the tail, where there was nothing between me and the landscape below but a thin wall of Perspex and empty air.

In the event, the afterword never made it into print. Here, 25 years later, are its opening pages, which themselves refer to a period, 25 years before that, when I first went north; a vision of the Far North as I first imagined it, then saw it in August 1955, just 50 years ago.


IN THE FAR-OFF 1950s, when I was just out of university and knew nothing of the world beyond books, I set off alone and for the first time to the Far North. I took the train from Brisbane to Cairns. Not the new, air-conditioned Sunlander, but the second division Pullman that left Brisbane at nine o'clock on Thursday night, made its first stop for late supper at Landsborough under the Glasshouse Mountains and, all being well, and the Burdekin and other streams permitting, would arrive at Cairns about two o'clock on Saturday afternoon.

I had chosen the Pullman because it appealed to the romantic side of me. It looked like the old trains in Western movies. With its brocaded curtains and upholstery thick with decades of dust, ironwork luggage racks and all its loops and scrolls and filigree, pressed-metal ceilings and cedar panelling, it belonged to a century when the railways were still new, and equally reminiscent of those days was the speed at which it travelled. The Queensland Railways, with its narrow gauge lines, had a theme song: I walk beside you.

One of the advantages of travelling on the old Pullman was that you had time to get used to travelling. You could watch the country change, feel the temperature rise, the air dampen and tell yourself as you counted off the hours that the journey you were making was almost the equivalent of Paris to Moscow. That, somehow, in those days, made the distance real. Brisbane to Cairns had no such currency, and might, if you were to justify the time spent and the conditions endured, have put more pressure on the landscape, and on your fellow travellers, than either would bear in the way of variety or interest. There were no borders to cross, no bearded and uniformed officials, no changes of coinage or tongue, no colourful peasants to clamber aboard at windswept junctions, no little mujiks to tap away under the wheels.

That was a long time ago. I would feel differently now, but the things glimpsed from the Pullman window, and even some of my fellow passengers, have stuck in my head longer than I could have believed. The journey north was every bit as crowded and colourful as anything Europe was to provide five or six years later, but of another kind, and it took another eyewhich was also mine, but whose visions had not yet surfaced in my mindto see it.

It was a world of its own, the North Queensland Mail.

People started out formally dressed as on other journeys, insulated, as is proper, behind magazines or the sleeves of sweaters they were knitting. But two and a half days is a long time, especially when you are moving deeper and deeper into tropical heat. More than the superficial upper layers of our clothing were discarded as the journey progressed. By the time we had crossed the Tropic, the carriage, and beyond that, the train, had become a society with its own loose rules and its own subtle adjustments of the private to the communal, the life outside to the life within.

You learned a good deal about people on the North Queenslander, and living in close proximity over so long, and in poor conditions, led to revelations that might not otherwise have been made. For clever young people like myself, who had education but no experience, it was a travelling university offering postgraduate degrees in the stuff of life. I learned to deal with cardsharps, drunks, prostitutes who used the train as a beat, seasonal canecutters, immigrant farmers, bands of rowdy schoolboys going home for the holidays, National Servicemen, young mothers travelling with children who, when the corridor was crowded, had to be held out of the window to see.

The openness of Queensland houses, in which by convention no door is ever closed, let alone locked, has created notions of privacy that are more common, perhaps, in India than in other parts of the Commonwealth. You do not hear what is not meant to be heard in such, or see more than you are meant to see. The train extended these conventions.

Couples could make love in the corridor, provided they covered themselves with a blanket, or even, if they were reasonably quiet about it, in the compartment. After all, life had to go on. I saw that often enough. And once, near Ayr, while the train waited at a crossing, I saw a man who had had a heart attack handed down into a yellow ambulance with a red light on top that had been racing us for the last eight kilometres through the thickening dark.

But that first train journey, for all its richness of person and scene, was not yet a story for me, and it still isn't. The "story" was my first sight of a place I hadn't heard of till then and have never heard of since, though it exists. It is called the Valley of Lagoons and it lies inland from Innisfail on the far side of the Great Divide. All the great rivers of North Queensland, those that flow south and east to the Pacific, the Burdekin, Burnett, Isaacs, and those that flow away north-west to the Gulf of Carpentaria, have their source there in a chain of waterlily swamps, lagoons and tropical forest the size of a modest republic. It is a kind of primeval garden and was, for me, an early vision of nature untouched, a great green place that existed entirely without man but did not resist his appearance, and was neither hostile nor predatory. It presented a different Australia from the one that is sometimes offered as the real, the harsh, the authentic one. It was not a desert but a vast water park crowded with creatures. I went there for five days on a shooting trip and have never forgotten it. Its paradisaical light at all times of day, the great flocks of birds that haunted its shores, filled its skies and were reflected in its waters, stayed with me for years afterwards. I could summon them up at will, and knew always that I would write something one day that would owe its existence to them and would try to give that existence back.

When I returned to Brisbane I tried to catch the place in poems. It would not be caught. Recently, reading a few paragraphs in a literary review, the whole scene suddenly swarmed about me. I found myself as if at the centre of a marvellously recaptured dream; the suggestion of a plot presented itself, a little complex of characters appeared, and the thing I wanted to write, and had always meant to write, was there complete. I had only to enter the landscape and let it occur.

No piece of writing, of course, is ever so inevitable, so effortless as that first glimpse of it may promise. The clarity of that first view is exceptional. It is not in itself the work. But whenever I wanted, after that, to "see" what I was doing, I had only to let the light into my mind of what I had recalled of the Valley of Lagoons as it was some 25 years ago and all was clear. The landscape of the story and its weather, and the tonality and pace of the whole stretch of what I had to write, was immediately before me, though the "story" was not, in fact, set there, and what I had in mind had no source in the events of my five days in that extraordinary place or in the lives of my companions: the owner of the pub at Atherton where I had been staying, who was sufficiently engaged by my youthful enthusiasm and lack of experience to offer me the chance of going; the local mayor and his son (a boy of my own age, but a country boy, utterly unlike myself) and the professional kangaroo hunter who was to be our guide.

I learned something in those days that was relevant to what I have now written, but only indirectly. I learned to live rough. I learned to handle the dogs we had with us, which I had to hold while Cam, the mayor's son, shot his first pig. Most of all, I saw a whole range of native birdsscrub turkey, western bustard, spur-winged plover, brolgas and a dozen varieties of duck and pigeonand these creatures, having once entered my world, have never quite left it. The sight of spur-winged plovers rising out of the early-morning mist, with sunlit drops of water flying from their wings and the swamp water breaking in circles belowthe white of them, and the brilliant yellow of their wattles and the scarlet of their feet, is one of the clearest of those images I carry about with me, and one that returns, unbidden, with a freshness as of something utterly new-made and springing into the world as for the first time, on occasions to which it is in no way relevant but to which it brings, as I see afterwards, an energy that was itself a source of renewed being.

It means something more than itself, that image. It is the real beginning of this novella, and the work, however far it stands from the original, is an attempt to re-create that meaning, not by wringing the plover's neck but by allowing the landscape it leaps out of to surround me, yield up its events and, through them, its significance.


WHAT I WAS  after 1955, as this piece makes clear, was the "exotic". That is hardly unusual. What was unusual, I think, is that I was looking for it at home.

North Queensland, in those days, at the end of two days' train journey and more than 1600 kilometres away, was barely known. It was part of the state but on the other side of an imaginary line, the Tropic of Capricorn, that put it in another zone. It was still sparsely inhabited, a lot of it still largely untracked. I knew people who came from "up there". They were like us but had the light of another order of experience in their heads: the wet season, cane toads, crocodiles and the darkness of impenetrable rainforests. Even the cultivated land was different. Cane fields evoked the Caribbean, molasses the Deep South. The wisdom, even in Brisbane, was that white men would never live there. Italians did, and Maltese, and in the rush of migrants immediately after the war, Balts and Yugoslavs – only the men. They went up there to work as canecutters. Bonded teachers and bank clerks were sent there and put up in rooms at pubs. They were temporary. When they had served their time they were brought back – before the climate and the easy pace got into their blood.

Australians still thought of themselves in those days as cool-weather people. Because our forefathers, for the most part, had come from cool-weather countries, they had settled in the parts of Australia that still felt like "home" and could be reshaped to resemble it. Most of Queensland could not. Even our part of it. The North definitely couldn't.

These days we have redefined ourselves as hot-weather people. Australia from Kempsey north is now the norm. But when I was growing up, Brisbane, the big, sprawling, one-storeyed wooden town I thought of as mine, the place that was closest and most familiar to me, was too far north to be the norm.

Among the Australian states Queensland's status had always been doubtful, anomalous. Up to the eve of Federation its sugar plantations had been worked by black labourers, Kanakas, from the Pacific. When the Australian government, in 1942, called on American troops to save us from invasion, and discovered that some of these troops would be Negroes, they objected, then reluctantly agreed that black Americans wouldbe acceptable, but only in Queensland. Brisbane was "segregated" through most of my childhood: black Americans were restricted to the south side of the river. So my hometown already harboured within it a hint of the exotic and would reveal itself, when I looked at it closely at last, as the most exotic (that is, strange and unknowable) place I would ever know. I was just beginning to grasp that in the middle fifties – the period of Johnno, the events of which, at that time, I was still living through. Meanwhile, North Queensland represented our version of the exotic – neat. That is what drew me there.


OVER THE NEXT three years, I went North on three occasions. Once, it was on a return trip to the Atherton Tableland to see the lakes, Eacham and Barrine, the Tully Falls, and back to the coast to stay at Innisfail where, in those days, half the town gathered on Saturday nights at the Exchange Hotel. Another time, I drove north up the coast road and back on the inland highway via Charters Towers, Claremont, Emerald and the Brisbane Valley with a friend who had been born at Chillagoe in 1933, when it was a rich mining town of some 11,000 souls. We went there in the little two-carriage train that ran from Mareeba, through country stacked with three metre-high anthills, all built in the same direction along a magnetic line, while great herds of kangaroos raced along beside us in the swiftly falling dusk.

When we got there, Chillagoe turned out to be a single chimneystack sticking up out of acres of ruins under waist-high lawyer vines. There were five surviving buildings, including a pub and a general store, and nine surviving inhabitants, who had different memories of where the street might have been where my friend had lived until he was three years old, where the Catholic Church used to be, and the site of the oval where his father had played football. All the houses had been lifted off their stumps in the late thirties, loaded onto trucks and taken to Mareeba, the little tobacco-growing town we had started out from earlier in the day.

Another time, I spent a whole sweltering summer in Townsville – a stony place in dried-out scrub country, not at all a tropical paradise, except on Saturday nights when we went across by boat to the all-night dances beside the beach on Magnetic Island.

Later, of course, the exotic quality that to me was hidden under what I saw as a local untidiness of tumbledown fences, peeling paint, buckled corrugated iron, rampant lantana and lawyer vine and swathes of ineradicable morning glory, was repackaged and commercialised for the tourist industry. Places I had seen as wild, Port Douglas, for example, thanks to air-conditioning and architecture and cash, and some imagination, became oases of good living – a fair example of what the wilderness can be when it is neatly contained, and what can be made of the exotic when it is taken out of the realm of mind and made "real" in the form of ponds and discreetly placed elements of the international post-modern. The Far North, with its profitable tourist industry and its mines, is now a "resource".

It is easy to be condescending about this. To pretend that the "old" North, the one you had to discover on your own, was purer and more authentic, because it had not yet been given a public form, had not yet been tidied up and packaged for general use.

In fact, the tidying up, if you look beyond the smoothness and glitter, is not very successful. How could it be when the elements are so extreme, the energy with which things push up and grow so excessive, the air and the smells, especially the sweetish smell of rotting vegetation, so heavy, the dampness so intrusive as it gets in and causes rust and covers boots and leather belts in a wardrobe with mould and there are so many Aborigines in the streets and under the trees along the Esplanade who are unwilling to disappear into the landscape and undisposed to present themselves as happily industrious or indolently picturesque.

There are many elements in the North that remain outside control. And wasn't it just this, the belief that there might be "up there" a place that was uncontrolled and uncontrollable, that first attracted me and attracts me still? Isn't that what I meant by the exotic? A hope that somewhere close there was a place that belonged to us and was in that sense ours, that had escaped the laws we like to impose, and the interpretations, and remained unknown within us: darkly mysterious; overgrown and hard to find our way into; not yet mapped or fully described; where we, too, when we entered it, might become other and unknown, even to ourselves.

I see now that that was what I was after when I lined up and bought my ticket on the second division of the Queensland Mail all those years ago and set off hopefully for the North. I found it, too. And then found it again, more powerfully, closer to home, where it had escaped me because I didn't yet have the eyes for it and hadn't discovered where to look. In the familiar streets of Brisbane itself. In the rooms of the house I had grown up in.

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