Monday, June 7, 2010

a fast launch in a costume

His latest job is diving after turtle from the deck of a fast launch in a costume that consists of Japanese boots. Most people prefer to wait until the mother comes up on the beaches to lay her eggs in the sand in summer, and then turn her over. Gregson is the first white man to emulate the black in an unfailing all-the-year-round method. To him, riding a turtle down into five fathoms is every bit as exhilarating as picking up your handkerchief in your teeth in a flying gallop across the Steppes.

I've been reading Ernestine Hill's The Great Australian Loneliness, a book that isn't as stark or as critical as the title and the cover photograph (two sepia people wary by a tent) let me expect. Her version of the Loneliness ("a magnificent empty land") is well-populated. Give her a huge desert with a single man in it and she'll write a sentence about the desert and half a page about the man. Hill was a journalist, an adventurer, and Loneliness was put together out of articles she wrote for "the Australian National Travel magazine, Walkabout," along with a collection of state newspapers, Herald, Argus, Courier-Mail, West Australian, all of which she thanks in the credits, "For [their] co-operation and most kindly consideration."

It was in July, 1930, that I first set out, a wandering 'copy-boy' with swag and typewriter, to find out what lay beyond the railway lines. Across the painted deserts and the pearling seas, by aeroplane and camel and coastal-ship, by track and lugger and packhorse team and private yacht, the trail has led me across five years and 50, 000 miles, a trail of infinite surprises.

She is patriotic --

Australia is like its own unique and glorious jewel, the opal. A great jagged square of colourless crystal, you must hold it up to the light to catch the flashing fires of romance.

-- and she punches up this patriotism with a combination of drama and journalistic phrasemaking, those "flashing fires of romance" (oh the ongoing determination of Australian writers, in that earlier time, to make their country interesting, and by extension themselves: well, why not: great thirsts there, and only human) that "flying gallop across the Steppes," or, imagining a man dying of thirst,

Horribly he licks his own salt sweat, and bites his lips for the blood

or, when she writes about the blackbirding of inland men to serve the Western Australian pearling trade, "With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants." Occasionally she uses "nigger" to mean "Aboriginal," not in a deliberately cruel way, but usually in idioms, or, if dismissively, giving it to somebody else ("To some of the first white colonists, particularly the multitude of the gold rush, they were just niggers, the boys shot at sight, the women used brutally"), but, herself, casually, cheerfully, conversationally, not expecting anyone to take offence --

Bare as a nigger and nearly as black, Gregson has lived magazine-cover adventure since childhood, when he ran away from a merchant service training ship ...

I had a vision of 1930s Australia, a time in which popular magazines would blithely publish racial slurs, over and over again, for years and years and years. ("The true character or spirit of an age," wrote J. Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages, "is better revealed in its mode of regarding and expressing trivial and commonplace things than in the high manifestations of philosophy and science"* --: or, what seems ordinary to its contemporaries is evidence to the eye of the future -- or: we look at the past like bush trackers) This bare Gregson is the same man whose job it is to dive after turtles in his Japanese boots. He lives in a fading West Australian sea-port town named Cossack and works for an English soup company. Once dead, the greenback turtles are "butchered of their calipash and calipee, and boiled, shell and all, in steam-jacket broilers with distilled water, a few secrets from London chefs, and a liberal allowance of sherry -- three days from the sea to the soup-plate." Hill is delighted.

Showing their equestrian prowess of turtle-back down under, and battling against difficulties of water-shortage and isolation, the Cossacks of Cossack are so far winning through, and with an encouraging success beginning to realise the wealth of these tropic seas, and to introduce Australia's epicurean delicacies to the dinner-tables of the world.

Today, more than three decades after Hill died in 1972, the greenback is classified Endangered by the IUCN, and the dugong, which she suggests "may be 'floated' into a company," in other words, slaughtered and marketed for its skin, meat, and oil, is doing only slightly better at Vulnerable. I once worked in the same office as a woman who had a sideline in sea turtle conservation. This woman pinned turtle pictures to the wall in her cubicle, and kept statistics on hand in case you wanted to know how many eggs had been stolen, or how many turtle-mothers saved. She would have regarded Hill in something of the same way that Hill, in other parts of the book, regards Aboriginal Australians -- a primitive, a mental child, someone whose comprehension of complicated matters was inadequate, feeble, ruinous -- although my co-worker would have chucked these words at her with anger, with fury, probably shouting into the other woman's face, while Hill describes her fellow Australians as "children" with a kind of romantic pity. "A wild creature of the woodland, civilisation is his doom."

This romance is one of her weaknesses, I think. As long as a thing is dramatic and accords with the expectations of her audience, or her beliefs about those expectations (bushmen are lone gentlemen, pioneer woman are hardy angels, and the offspring of white and black parents are drawn, irresistibly, tragically, by their genes, to the primitive) then she will treat it as though it were true. Excited by the various surfaces and existences of things, she is less interested in their roots and causes. She is so indefatigably romantic that it flattens everything out. Triumphs and deaths are described with the same relish. Everything is overheated and sometimes it is crowded. Bruce Chatwin, cool, classical, and pointed, could have done a lot with some of the anecdotes that she scatters.

In one benighted gully I came upon a white man in a thatched log hut cobbling his boots with raw-hide. He did not arise when we drew up, he seemed too broken in spirit. In front of him a ragged little hen, crazed with heat, turned over and over in vertigo.

"It won't die," he assured me. "I wish to God that it would."

* I found Huizinga quoted in William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth, a book that makes an interesting contrast with this one. Heat-Moon travels too, but across one small area of Kansas, for six hundred pages. Give him a desert and a man and he'd write a chapter about each of them. He calls his book a "deep history."

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