‘100 Hundred Years of Dirt’: a classic Aussie memoir

NEWOne-Hundred-Years-of-Dirt-CoverWhen I picked up journalist Rick Morton’s memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt I had a sense it would be a great read.

This was partly due, I think, to the evocative photograph on the front cover  – a lonesome tin-roofed shack set against the contrasting colours of the deep blue sky and that distinctive red earth – and the title, which suggested this would be a gritty tale embedded deep within the Australian landscape.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Morton, a journalist with The Australian newspaper, has written a fine book which draws comparison in its storytelling to the works of Helen Garner, Clive James and Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net.

I mention Robert Drewe as I just finished reading The Shark Net for the second time, a rare effort on my part.

The Shark Net chronicles Robert Drewe’s childhood and early adult life as cadet reporter in Perth during the time crazed serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was on the loose. It is also an evocative depiction of suburban amid Perth’s sand dune suburbs in the 1950s and 60s.

Rick Morton also chronicles a young journalist-to-be’s life in the making (he is only in his early 30s). But whereas there is an overall lightness to Drewe’s middle-class Perth tale (his father was a Dunlop executive who hosted tennis great Rod Laver in his living room),  Morton presents a modern ‘Heart of Darkness’ that begins near the very bottom of the socio-economic sphere.

First our young hero (to steal from Clive James) has to navigate the brutality of a remote outback station, then the oppressive poverty of a hand-to-mouth existence in a conservative Queensland country town and then later – as a young gay man – battle anxiety and depression amid the neon lights of the Gold Coast.

It’s certainly not light reading, nor its it easy reading at times, but thankfully Morton adds dollops of wry humour, fascinating family anecdotes and insightful academic research to his tale of tragedy and woe.

It’s of course something of a miracle he survived it all, let alone emerged triumphantly as one of the country’s top journalist writing about social issues – though after you read his memoir, you realise how well-qualified Morton is for that particular journalistic beat.

The ‘dirt’ in the title refers to the origins of the Morton family – in remote outback Queensland – who at one time owned five enormous cattle stations near the Birdsville Track in an area known as ‘Channel Country’ that collectively were the size of Belgium.

“It’s that red earth…,” Morton reminisced in a radio interview. “I’ve always been disappointed with regular dirt.”

It is here that we hear about his grandfather, the legendary cattleman George Morton, who ruled the family’s vast pastoral lands with great cruelty and vengeance.  It was his grandfather – Morton informs us – who discovered the bodies of the Paige family who succumbed to this most “vicious” and inhospitable of landscapes when they got lost in Christmas 1963.

It is in this inhospitable terrain, where deadly Brown snakes invade the homestead, kitchen, that tragedy unfolds when Morton’s brother Toby is horribly burnt in a terrible accident.

It’s also where he learns that his father, Rodney, is having an affair with the teenage governess. When his father abandons the family and takes off with the governess, Rick, his mum, his badly burnt brother and two-month old sister ends up in Charlesville in emergency public housing with no money. Later they move to Boonah, south of Brisbane, where the struggle to survive continues.

In many ways the book is a tribute to the stoicism of his mother Deb, who made up for a lack of money with unconditional devotion and love for her children (including her self-destructive son Toby, an ice addict) and who realised her younger son Rick, was cut from a different cloth (she lovingly referred to him as an “alien” to explain his more sensitive and intelligent nature) and potential to make something of his life.

It’s also a meditation on social inequality and its inherent unfairness (the family’s finances were so tight they did not have enough money to take advantage of ‘two for one’ offers in the supermarket) and how hard it is to break out of that cycle, with Morton drawing on his own experience trying to make it in a profession dominated by the private school-educated middle classes.

“There’s this creeping sense, this argument that poor people are morally inferior, which I think is repugnant for a start,” Morton said in the same radio interview – his poignant memoir is a powerfual antidote to that snobbish view.

It’s also about what can emerge from the dirt and grit of a tough upbringing.

 

 

 

Sins of the father: reviewing “The Blood on My Hands” by Shannon O’Leary

front-cover-676x1024The Blood on My Hands is a self-published account of how Shannon O’Leary survived a horrific childhood on a rural holding in Hornsby on the outskirts of Sydney and later Port Macquarie in the 1960s and 1970s.

It recounts the abuse – mental, physical and sexual – O’Leary and her family suffered at the hands of their father, Patrick, a psychopath with multiple personalities (The Devil, The Baby, The Games Man and others) who she witnessed murder numerous people.

O’Leary describes one horrific scene after the other (in one her father hacks a woman’s head off in full view of the author and kicks it like a soccer ball, in another he leads the author and a young woman to an isolated spot near a train station and strangles her with guitar string and then drives a rail spike through her mouth) with only brief moments of domestic normality when her father was either away or not psychotic. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have survived even a fraction of what the author and her family endured year after year.

Dad said he “knew the devil and God” and I realised that they had somehow gotten inside him and they popped out when no one else was around. I didn’t know how they had gotten inside him; I wondered if my father had eaten them at church.

But survive it she did raising a family of five children, obtaining numerous degrees and post-graduate degrees according to her Facebook profile, which notes also that she is an “author of several books of poetry and children’s stories, and has won many awards for song-writing.

It goes on to say: “O’Leary has acted and directed on the stage and on Australian national TV, and she runs her own production company. …and lives with her longtime partner in Sydney, Australia.”

Shannon O’Leary is not her real name. She told me in an email that she adopted a pseudonym at her family’s request.

She adds: “I self published because I was afraid of rejection and wanted to protect myself from criticism. It was psychologically easier for me to press the publish button than wait for some one to say they liked or disliked the book.”

As for her murderous serial killer father, Patrick died on May 16, 2009 a free man, never charged for a single crime.

Of his death when it finally came she writes: “It was as if the bell jar shattered and the clawing, scrambling mouse was free.”

The Blood on My Hands is well written, particularly for a self-published work which has not been professionally edited. It’s a raw, extremely brave memoir with the author sharing in graphic details all the horrendous ordeals, many of them in the creepy, rickety house built by their father. As a reader, I was glad to get to the end which ends at least with the author able to live without fear.

I lived for about six months on a farm near Hornsby, so I can well imagine the rugged wilderness she brings to life with its long grass, deep valleys, caves and venomous snakes.

Even when I lived there, in 2010, it was semi-rural – peppered with small hobby farms and without street lights – so I can well imagine it being almost deserted bushland when the O’Leary family lived there in the Sixties and Seventies, providing the isolation necessary for the evil acts of Patrick O’Leary to go undetected.

Just how much of it is actually true is hard to say. Because of the use of pseudonyms its impossible to research the story in any way while its hard to ignore the fact that the author was a small child, as young as four or five when some of these horrific events occurred.

Based on the memoir, Patrick O’Leary would have killed at least a dozen people all of whom disappeared without a trace.

A note at the end of the book by a “C. MacKenzie” who accompanied O’Leary in 2007 to one of the murder sites she remembered from her childhood and attempted to find evidence of some of the crimes she recalled remarks: “All my efforts to identify possible victims to support the author’s story have so far been fruitless”.

But MacKenzie also highlights the poor record keeping of the police during those times and notes a page one headline in the Sun newspaper from November 1974 that between 1968 and 1972, “299 girls under the age of 16 were missing and never found”.

While memory is never perfect, especially what we remember as children, if even 20 per cent of this book were true (and I believe that figure to be much higher) it would be a truly incredible feat of bravery, courage and triumph of the human spirit to survive it and live as productive a life as O’Leary has.

And so I salute Shannon O’Leary, whoever she may be.

(And many thanks to Kelsey Butts from Book Publicity Services for sending me a review copy)

The Christopher Hitchens guide to drinking (for the young) and artistically minded

christopher-hitchens-drinkingTowards the end of the marvellous memoirs of the late journalist, thinker, philosopher and humanist Christopher Hitchens – Hitch-22 – there’s a little gem of a section where he dispenses some advice “for the young” on drinking.

Hitchens loved a drop or two and could by all accounts – including his own – handle his booze pretty well.  He claimed to never miss a deadline or an appointment or class due to booze, though admits to being mildy tipsy once on the BBC (though no one, he says, noticed).

When writing at home he maintained a certain discipline when it came to drink.

He was partial to whiskey – “a decent slug of Mr Walker’s” – at about half-past midday cut with Perrier water and no ice, then at luncheon (not quite sure how soon this was after midday) “perhaps a bottle of red wine, not always more but never less”, no after dinner drinks but maybe a nightcap “depending on how the day went – though never brandy.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland and can help provide…the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing,” says Hitchens with his brilliant wit, charm and self-deprecation.

But he maintains “he was never a piss artist”.

Here then, faithfully transcribed by yours truly are his “simple pieces of advice for the young” (and the artist I think) when it comes to drinking:

1. Don’t drink on empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food.

2. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood.

3. Cheap booze is a false economy.

4. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain.

5. Hangovers are another bad sign (as is watching the clock for the start-time to your next drink) and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night (If you really don’t remember, says Hitch, that’s an even worse sign).

6. Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed – as are the grape and the grain – to enliven company.

7. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available.

8. Never ever think about driving if you have taken a drop.

9. It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man. I don’t know quite know why this is true but it is.

10. Don’t ever be responsible for it.