Literature Opinion

Celebrating some of our Great Australian Places

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Jim Kable reviews a new book by Graham Seal featuring stories of the funny, curious and downright astonishing parts of our country.

TO BE FRANK, the only true blue Aussie yarn spinner I’ve properly heard of in recent years is Jim Haynes OAM – a colleague from my own early teaching days from nearly 50 years ago in Inverell in northern NSW – when he lived at Gum Flat and my wife and I lived at Rob Roy. Jim was later the creator of the “everycountrytown” Weelabarabak and of many collections of Australian stories and yarns. Just like Graham Seal

I was an exchange teacher in western Japan over 30 years ago where I became acquainted with Koizumi Bon, a professor of folklore at a local college. The first time I had heard of such an area of study, through being a teacher of history, it made perfect sense.

Professor Koizumi was the great-grandson of Koizumi Yakumo, born Lafcadio Hearn on the Greek island of Lefkada – also referenced in Seal’s book – 1850-1904. The son of a British surgeon, he then moved to Cincinnati and New Orleans, with nearly two years in Martinique before heading to Japan in 1890.

My wife and I taught in various far-flung corners of NSW and from our earliest teaching days felt compelled to “explore” by car to Queensland’s far north, to most corners of NSW and Victoria and Tasmania, through South Australia and across the south and southwest of WA. Later, we travelled through the northwest of WA and up through the centre via Alice Springs (Mparntwe) to Darwin and points south and east.

Over the past six years, we have revisited all the states and their capitals, reacquainting ourselves with the beauty and their varied histories. Since the early 1980s, one difference in our search has been a specific focus for us on First Australians' presence and culture of the places. Learning the names of countries we are visiting (for example, in NSW: Yuin, Gundungurra, Ngarigo, Ngambri/Ngunawal, Wiradjuri, Yorta Yorta, Eora, Darkinung, Awabagal, Wonnarua, Worimi, Birpai, Gumbaingirr, Bandjalung Gomeroi Eualaraay, Barkandji, Ngiyampaa.) And finding kinship connections, too — even better. 

So following on from ‘Chapter 1: Pioneering Places’ (brief explanations running no more than two or three pages at most) and ‘Chapter 2: Dangerous Places’, it was good to arrive at ‘Chapter 3: Sacred Places’ — not only, as we might suppose, of the sacred and secret places of First Australians (and how often Graham Seal sadly adds a nod to vandalised sites) but of places of loss and burial and tragedy.

But this is not the only chapter highlighting First Australians; such stories are scattered throughout. When I reached his tale, ‘The Star of Taroom’, I thought I knew what he was going to be writing about — but I was wrong. This was the story of an ancient carved rock from the Land of the Yiman (Iman) people, souvenired from near Taroom and later returned by a descendant of the collector.

So, what did I think it would be about? In 1857 (still part of colonial NSW), the household at Hornet Bank was mostly slaughtered. The elder son of the Fraser family (and no doubt highly implicated in the causes of the attack, interfering with the local Yiman girls) was away and returned to confront the deaths of his family. A little brother surviving (and in ways, not too dissimilar to those Graham Seal describes of the similar slaughter of the Wills household further north in Queensland at Cullin-Lo-Ringo in 1861) and a posse of men gathered, setting off in pursuit of the alleged murderers. Among them, a distant kinsman of my own. I discovered just a few years ago that Professor Marcia Langton is a descendant of Yiman people.

There are seven chapters, most having 13 sub-chapter headings, so there are close to 90 places examined.

I have twice trekked into Wingen’s Burning Mountain and looked across the valley to the Maid of Wingen on the south-facing point of a flat-topped outcrop. As a child of seven or eight in a car travelling south from Tamworth to Newcastle, having the Maid pointed out to me, it was not for many more decades that I actually understood what I was looking at.

And as for Crooked Mick of the Speewah, I relished those tales as a young teacher at Hay War Memorial HS in the early 1970s. In the pre-season rugby league competition knockout finals in Colleambally in early 1971, I could only liken the giants of the team from Goolgowi to Crooked Mick-like characters, so pleased to still be alive at the end of the game (I weighed around 52 kilograms, positioned as a winger) that I promptly resigned. And I’ve been a friend in recent years of Gordy Parsons, son of the singer-songwriter Gordon Parsons, who is largely credited with Slim Dusty’s hit song, A Pub With No Beer

I was taken with the piece on Capricornia near the end of ‘Chapter 6: Imagined Places’. Graham examines changing state boundaries and proposals for new states, the far north of Queensland being one such dream of some. I grew up in the 1950s/1960s when there was a New State Movement in northern NSW, centring on the Hunter and Newcastle as the possible capital. It all carried a romantic kind of notion for me, though I am sure there were darker vested interests at play.

Earlier last year, I received from Ted Egan a copy of his latest book, Kulilkatima (Seeking Understanding). The front cover shows a map of Australia with states in different colours — but what’s this? All of Australia and its offshore islands north of the Tropic of Capricorn are depicted as a new state called North Australia and Ted provides a cogent and intelligent analysis of how and why. Alice Springs/Mparntwe lies just below that cut-off point and becomes part of South Australia. The dreams do not disappear.

At every turn in this book was a place I’ve been, a name I’ve heard of or an event I’ve attended. This is a book for the widely travelled in Australia, a bookish version of Heather Ewart’s Back Roads series – a celebration of the land – and it’s a book for “new chums”, too. To know this land is to love and respect it, and to be armed against those who would try to disguise and change it for divisive purposes.

I believe Graham Seal already has his fans. My positive review can only hasten sales no doubt already on their way through this recent festive season and on through this new year.

Great Australian Places is available from Booktopia for $26.95 (paperback) RRP.

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

Jim Kable is a retired teacher who taught in rural and metropolitan NSW, in Europe and later, long-term in Japan. He is also a member of the steering committee of political party The New Liberals.

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