I don’t want to overstate the case here – there are many, many more spectacular sights in nature than the tide-turn at Styx Creek – but in my world this brings me a sense of joy every time I see it.
Last week I was reading Why Nations Fail. The topic is of close interest to me, but the book was an aggravating mix of the detailed and insightful ideas, and of furious handwaving substituting for a central framework[fn1]. The day was too pleasant for aggravation, and called for greater things. So I turned from the topic of institutions to another topic in which I have a deep, but decidedly niche interest in.
Dog walking in Newcastle drains, and what I like the most in Australian art.
The Styx Creek, perhaps one of the more epically named waterways in the country, is intended to remove from the low lying areas of Newcastle the water that traditionally belongs near an estuary. Most of, if not all of, the time it does just this. It’s a long straight scar of concrete through and below the human world, and a home to refuse and wildlife. It and all of the others that crisscross the city have long fascinated me beyond good reason. We played cricket in one next to school. I did an art project in one (albeit only after our teacher could no longer pretend he didn’t know we were climbing on the school roof). When I was 17 I created a game parodying metaphysical rumination; inevitably, in a world beyond material substance, there was still a drain. And because they have hard, angled surfaces to bounce off and a constant flow of foul smelling liquid they are also popular with dogs.
Mark MacLean saw fit to put his experiences in the Styx Creek into a book (and blog), and this is what I turned to. It details seasonal changes in weather, wildlife and rubbish, mid 20th century urban planning, dog behaviour and conversations with homeless people. It is about the most mundane book I have ever read. And I loved it.
A large part of that is simply because it is an Australia that I live in. This is true both as a Novocastrian drain dog walker, but in a broader sense.
Australian art (in the form of literature and film) is afflicted with three horrible Australias that substitute for the Australias we actually live in.
The first is the fake hinterland. The small country town, the drover, the bush. Australia has always been mainly urban, but this doesn’t rid us of the idea that the rural is an authentic part of a nation’s soul, and the city a false one – so we end up with a literary bush that represents neither Australia, nor even the bush that exists. We should be thankful I guess. This distrust of the urban led to pogroms elsewhere, here it just led to shitty literature.
The second is focus group suburbia. Apparently the same demographers that control political campaigns also write dramas for television. They’re understanding of the country is as strong, and as fruitful in both contexts. The resulting product is for an average Australia in suburban Sydney or Melbourne that doesn’t exist, and is resolutely (and carefully) boring.
The third is determined to address the chronic underrepresentation of middle class white people on TV. They’re there to remind you that the self conscious Fitzroy/Newtown monoculture is fascinatingly distinct, despite all evidence to the contrary. To remind you that all one needs to know about an entire society is found in a shallow pond of wealthy lawyers.
The portrayal of these Australias share a few rules;
- One can only learn about Australia through Big Issues like drugs and murder and adultery, regardless of the limited role they play in the lives of most people.
- People can only express themselves to each other through confrontation, which always them to exposit their viewpoints and motivation without them having to actually be developed characters.
- Under the Australian Film and Drama Act (1992) they must also do this in full sentences with pronounced full stops – speaking like a human being would be inauthentic…
[This part originally went on for much longer, my hatred for the iron tropes of Australian film and drama is exceeded only by my hatred for the iron tropes of journalism - not coincidentally both are dying by auto-erotic asphyxiation. But I'll avoid the aggravation for happy things, like a comic about using a trolley in a drain to move a TV. I like drains.]
I love the mundane in art. Two years ago I posted about Collaborative Autobiography, a collection of mundane stories about Cabramatta. This was a work of reaction against the approbrium against the suburb – now shifted in large part to Lakemba. But it may as well have been a reaction against the ignoring of our Australias in favour Fauxstralias that dominate Australian art. Despite the apparent gulfs in experience and ethnicity, the stories of shopping and leagues clubs felt more like the Australia I knew than most that I read or watch. Likewise, if I was to nominate a Great Australia Novel, it would be a children’s book filled largely with the minutae of outer suburban school life – after all, children are not smart enough to full themselves into thinking that the Australia they know isn’t authentic, or “biting”, or insightful enough for art.
This could be a Newcastle thing. It is the city that would produce productions like “100 Newcastle Letterboxes“. A city that is fiercly parochial without any particular desire to point at any reason to be proud of simply lovingly documents everyday aspects of itself. I just extend that love to the rest of the country.
Nonetheless, what I would really love out of Australian art would be something like Treme, David Simon’s portrait of New Orleans post Katrina, and a portrait constructed from quite ordinary lives. I imagine such a portrait of Newcastle, Toowoomba or Brisbane (all of which have recently been inundated), or of Wollongong, Townsville or Adelaide. I imagine it written by people with an ear for these cities, rather than an ear for what plays for authentic at Australia Council funding boards. I imagine it cast with people who know how to act, rather than those who know How To Act.
But this won’t happen. So I’ll keep reading about dogs in drains.
[fn1] Let this review stand in partially for my own.