As you know if you read my recent post about the Bendigo Writers Festival, one of the sessions I’m presenting there is The Chronicler of Oz, in conversation with Roger McDonald. I know Roger’s work through his novels, which I’ve been reading since Mr Darwin’s Shooter was published in 1998, but I wasn’t familiar with his non-fiction. So I was delighted to find that Shearer’s Motel (which won the 1993 National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction) is still available, and I’ve just finished reading it.
As readers also know by now, I am an indoors sort of person, and like Anita Heiss‘ I find that ‘Five stars are the only stars I want to sleep under‘. But if anyone can convince me of the wonderment of outback life, it’s Roger McDonald, with stunning evocations like this:
He came to the summit of a low range, hardly more than twenty or thirty metres’ inclination above the dark scrub. Mild as the elevation was, it had the effect of pushing the horizon down all around, creating a star arena. He had never seen such stars. He was at the centre of their wheel. They put him into their system, shifting across the cab of the truck as he moved along, cramming against the windshield, heaping overhead and cascading down and around and below. Stars filled the rear-vision mirror and reflected on the insides of the windows, stars overlaying stars in sheets and panels of smoky, frozen light. He was drunk from repetition and delay as he stopped and went on, stopped again to piss into a ground-fog of Mitchell grass and prickly shrubs with his head tilted back under the stars; stopped to sit on the heat-creaking bonnet of the truck, then leant back with his spine arching like a space-surfer, afloat on stars, surrendered to them, taken aback. He wanted nothing but this rising into the star-sky. (p. 176).
Based on McDonald’s own experience working as a cook for shearing teams, Shearers’ Motel recounts the story of ‘Cookie’, a man in search of his own story, cutting loose from his wife and children and their small farm to venture into remote outback life. He says he’s doing it to earn the money they need, maybe $1000 each week, but really, newbie pay is less than half that. His motivation is that he is drawn to the kind of world he grew up in. It makes him come alive, being drawn to half remembered places. From one station to the next, living and working in conditions that would test most of us beyond endurance, Cookie joins shearing teams in outback NSW right at the time that Kiwi shearers were entering the industry… undercutting pay rates and challenging long-standing union dominance.
McDonald has earned the title of The Chronicler of Oz because of this ability to realise a vivid world with memorable characters whether real or imagined, and at the same time to interrogate a bigger picture. On one level, Shearer’s Motel is a story of man trying to find himself, in search of somewhere to belong, knowing that he wants to be a writer, but needing a story to tell. Without sentimentality, McDonald contrasts the brief joyous life of Cookie’s Jack Russell terrier living in the moment, with that of a man who always belonged where he was headed, never where he was. On the stations Cookie plays the role of an outsider, accepted by the other men because he meets their needs, giving them ‘Australian food': meaty, barley-think, soapscud-grey soups, stringy roast legs of mutton and coarsely baked potatoes, thick yellow custards and heavy steamed puddings but also baking memorable bread and rolls, taking pride in a job well done. If you fancy yourself as a cook (as I tend to do) it’s chastening to read about the difficulties under which he works…
But the book does more than this: it shows us a presser who grew up near Cookie being ashamed of working in a non-Australian shed in Australia. He’s a union man with a long memory and he feels like a traitor to his mates. At the same time, McDonald undercuts the reader’s empathy by revealing this man’s racism. He likes the Maori as individuals but he doesn’t like them moving around in controlled teams, having power and agency. He preferred the way things were, with the occasional Aborigine working invisibly and ‘in his place.’
But Cookie also listens to why the Kiwis have come. In New Zealand they worked hard in tough jobs seven days a week and got nowhere. They have come to Australia because they want a better life for their kids.
Shearer’s Motel is an ironic title, given that the living conditions of shearers is utterly unlike even the shabbiest of motels. Wilga station is shown to be disgusting. These working conditions were a revelation to me, I had no idea that people could be expected to put up with them, and did. Maybe they still do. In one case, the boss-cocky’s contempt for the men on whom he depends for his income, is made obvious. It’s apparently the usual rule that the station supplies freshly killed meat on the first night so that the cook can put a meal together for the team as it arrives, but at Grogandi he gets told that can’t be done. Later, Cookie goes into the homestead to make a phone call and discovers the perfidy:
As he drank, he eyed the killing cradle. Fresh purplish blood sparkled on the cement. Fresh meat hung in the meat house. This was rich. It showed contempt for people. Up at the book-keeper’s room, a spray of blood marked the shiny brass doorknob, and on the cream-painted door-panel there was a bloody thumb print. No station hand would be so careless around a boss’s office. This was a boss’s doing. He’d lied about not killing his own meat, and now he was off somewhere in his Piper Tri-Pacer, chasing preselection for the Liberal Party, and talking about his respect for the workers. (p.147)
This book is rich in exquisite language and imagery but my favourite part of all comes from the chapter called ‘Driving Across the Sky’. Cookie is driving to his next job in his battered old truck, when he hears an archaeologist talking on the radio:
Upper Egypt had gone back to the desert, she said. Goats and sheep had eaten the place down to the roots and trampled the fragile humus. Before the sands blew in, tomb robbers operated, broaching hoards of treasure and stripping dead royalty of jewels. They came in secret, through darkness at a late hour. They came like locusts devouring like browsers and grazers, like anyone with a need, a craving, a determined and driven motive to strip until finally nothing worth taking was left. Smoking torches were doused, a rock was rolled over the door, sand drifted in, the air grew thick and stale and nobody entered the tombs for thousands of years, when anything at all, any fragment, any leftover told a story. And there was always something left. Something to take away, said the speaker.
He understood this. It was where he came in. The tale of the local lout, the opportunist, the farm worker and the family man challenged the story of kings. A trail of broken stones showed what had been. The throne of painted timbers, the barge of bales, the noble dog on a taut leash. It was all there in the shed life. The patterns of the stars ruling. (p. 174)
I also like McDonald’s intense awareness of Australia’s ancient history. Ours is an immigrants’ country, and the yarns the shearers tell are part of our national story, but…
All of them trod over what had ruled before, before there were sheep or white men, in this spirit country stretching down into time, past empires of Egypt, and secularised, now, by the economy of sheep. (p.175)
Shearers’ Motel brings to life an industry which most city-dwellers never see.
Author: Roger McDonald
Title: Shearers’ Motel
Publisher: Vintage, 2001
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books.
See the Random House website; Fishpond currently has second copies as well.