Arts

An unseen distance

One of Tim Winton’s most recent works, The Boy Behind the Curtain is an absolute gem that delves deep into the author’s past and reflects on his inner musings of life and the world around him. The collection of 22 stories, 16 of which have been previously published, is intimately woven together and draws upon the past to delightfully expose Winton’s innermost mind and the heartbeat of his childhood.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Winton’s past is filled with simple yet dynamic day-to-day events. Winton describes his experience of being the son of a policeman, what it was like growing up in the church, and an ever-growing passion for and relationship with the environment. The poignancy of the novel is not just in the description of his stories, but his ability to express how these events shaped the man he is today. The plethora of his unique life experiences takes us directly into the shoes of a schoolboy on a farm, a university undergraduate enrolled in the only creative writing school in Australia, a surfer, and an environmental activist. No matter the outcome of each story, Winton’s reflections focus on how his underlying views and beliefs shape his response to the situation. More often than not, Winton’s inextricable connection to the marine environment provides the lens through which he views the world - that is, a world that is so precious, so unique and yet delicate; that is worth all that we have to protect it from human exploitation. Given our strong marine connections at Wild Melbourne, it’s also where I spend most of my time exploring.

For any reader of Winton’s novels, his strong connection with and passion for the marine ecosystem is well known. Nothing is lost in this novel, either, when Winton ingeniously recreates feelings of life in between the land and the shore; the shoreline, the waves and what lies beneath. This is where Winton thrives.

The chapter titled ‘The Wait and Flow’ is just one example where the author delves into his love for surfing. To Winton’s surprise, he was asked one day why he surfed when most of the time it’s just bobbing in the cold ocean waiting for waves. Even as a surfer myself, I concede that’s a valid point! Winton responds, ‘And I didn’t know how to answer. Almost everyday of my life is shaped according to the weather, most acutely to swell, tide and wind direction. After surfing for over fifty years, you would expect I’d be able to give a better account of myself.’

Of course on later reflection, surfing for Winton is so much more than that and I certainly agree. The wave turns up ‘from the unseen distance’. If you manage to meet it, ‘you live for a short while in the eternal tense. The feeling is divine.’

Winton also explores the seemingly simple yet methodical sway of the tides. At first glance, there appears to be nothing particularly special about the incoming and subsequent outgoing tides that occur four times a day. Merely an empty beach with little signs of life present one day, then a beach full of life the next.

And yet it holds me captive, has me returning morning and evening, high tide and low, because it’s never the same place. It holds its secrets close.

He then challenges the idea of not ‘objectifying’ whatever is washed up on the beach. Instead of seeing the piece of bleached coral or the ragged seaweed holdfasts as objects just washed up on the shore, they are subjects each with a story to tell: ‘For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies face-down in the rockpool is shelter to the deadly blue-ringed octopus, but before this it was home to half a million lives… a minuscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on earth’. Furthermore, ‘To tread here and never pay tribute, to glance and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished.’ A subtle yet powerfully different way to view the world around us.

In  The Boy Behind the Curtain , Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches.  Image:  James Donaldson  on  Unsplash

In The Boy Behind the Curtain, Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches. Image: James Donaldson on Unsplash

Finally, Winton explores and challenges the peculiar demonisation of sharks in Australia in the chapter ‘Demon Shark’. In general, Winton describes how it’s true that Australians tend to have a very positive and sympathetic attitude to the treatment of animals, ‘whether it’s a dog being beaten or a bear tortured for its bile, cruelty and thoughtless slaughter offend us.’ When it comes to sharks, however, it’s a different matter: ‘Other cultures have their wolves and bears… our demon is silent and it swims.’ Winton candidly explores the way that governments have managed the perception of sharks and openly criticises parts of the media for fear-mongering in order to sway public opinion; as Winton argues, ‘fear sells’.

This novel has it all, with a particular focus on the way life takes you in all directions, eventually shaping the person you are today. Readers will reach the end of the novel with a sense of how this particular man experiences life — metaphorically, philosophically. How he carries things; feels and makes sense of the world around him. This selection of short essays beautifully captures life in Australia and provokes a sense of inner searching that can only be done in the quietness of one’s room or reflecting in nature itself. It is a must-read for any Winton admirer or lover of the Australian environment.

The Boy Behind the Curtain is the third title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

You can also read our reviews of Winton's Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir and Island Home: A Landscape Memoir


Stephen McGain studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope of further contributing his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Josh Withers on Unsplash.

Discovering the World of Alison Lester

At our beach, at our magic beach, we swim in the sparkling sea…

Alison Lester’s Magic Beach is one of those childhood books that was read so many times that now, when I revisit it, the words come back to me like an old favourite song. Not only am I filled with nostalgia over the familiarity of the words and pictures, but also that classic Aussie childhood experience of summer days spent at the beach.

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    ‘We swim in the sparkling sea’ from  Magic Beach  by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 1990).

‘We swim in the sparkling sea’ from Magic Beach by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 1990).

My mum is a children’s book designer, and has worked with Alison for many years – Magic Beach was actually finished on our dining room table while I was crawling around underfoot. Now that I’m all grown up, I caught up with Alison to have a chat about her books, and that indescribable feeling of connectedness to nature that she so expertly captures.

Alison grew up in South Gippsland, and many of the places visited by the characters in her books are based on real places, particularly in that area of the state. For instance, Magic Beach is based on the beach at Walkerville.

‘It does have bits of different places – there’s no jetty at Walkerville,’ says Alison. ‘But mostly that’s Walkerville.’

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       Noni the Pony goes to the Beach  by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 2014).

Noni the Pony goes to the Beach by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 2014).

I’ve since visited Walkerville Beach, and despite the lack of castles, princesses and smugglers, it does have a beautiful variety and seclusion to it that makes it special. As Alison puts it: ‘It has a bit of everything.’

‘Of all the books, Magic Beach is one of the least translated and I think it’s because the way we visit the beach in Australia is different to how others do it. We tend to go to the beach and really revel in the sand and the sea.’

Wilsons Prom – ‘that area where the mountains meet the sea’ – also features largely in Alison’s stories, and her psyche: ‘Often I’ll do something completely unrelated, and someone will mention how it reminds them of the Prom, even though I didn’t mean it to. It’s very subconscious.’

Her grandfather, father and uncle were some of the last to hold grazing rights for the Prom, and her family would visit every Sunday for a picnic.

We grew up thinking that it was our place, I think everyone feels like that about the Prom.

Nature is an ever-present backdrop of Alison’s books (‘I would never do a book that’s set in the city’), and they all celebrate the connection between people, and their connection with the natural world.

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    ‘… alone in the moonlight…” from  Imagine  by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 1989).

‘… alone in the moonlight…” from Imagine by Alison Lester (Allen and Unwin, 1989).

‘The natural world is the best thing,’ says Alison, as our conversation turns to how her books – and children’s books in general – can help connect people to nature.

Alison talks about how encouraging kids to get out into nature and drawing what they see can really push them to notice the world around them, and by noticing things, they can come to appreciate it. She thinks that by showing her characters out in nature, she can help her readers feel more closely linked to the natural world.

‘You’ve got to get people familiar with it, because if they are unfamiliar with it they can find it quite scary, and so they don’t relate to it. If they feel they belong in it and it’s theirs, and that leads them to care and not chuck rubbish into it. It’s all those little things that make a difference at the end of the day.’


Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.

 


Banner image: ‘Droving on the beach’ from My Farm by Alison Lester (Allen & Unwin, 1992).