It’s a sad thing to discover an Aussie author’s work only because he was killed in an atrocity, (see Vale Liam Davison) but it has been a delight to read his first novel. Actually it’s a novella, of only 137 pages, but it’s a remarkable debut. It’s called The Velodrome and the Vogel judges shortlisted it in 1987, signalling the emergence of a writer of considerable talent.
(Davison lost out to Ilias by Jim Sakkas, a novel which its own author thinks he might have won [the Vogel] because it was the beginning of interest in more diverse novels, the era of multiculturalism. In an interview with an un-named critic at The Australian, for a post-Darville Demidenko article exploring ‘one-hit wonders’, Sakkas – who admits that he was a hobby-author, not someone hoping to make a career of writing - thought that The Velodrome should have won. (My apologies if the link fails at The Australian’s paywall). Having now read both novels, (Ilias back in 1997) I certainly agree with Sakkas, whose novel was alas so forgettable that it failed to trigger any memories even with the help of my trusty reading journal. In the event, Davison went on to become a highly regarded author, winning the National Book Council’s Banjo Award for Fiction in 1993 for Soundings, and shortlisted for literary prizes such as The Age Book of the Year Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. He was also a recipient of the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, and a Fellowship from the Literature Board of Australia. I can’t help but wonder if there is another manuscript-in-progress amongst Davison’s effects… After all, John A Scott took ten years to write his brilliant N, eh? (See my review).
The Velodrome is a coming-of-age novel, introducing its narrator – Leon – losing his virginity underneath the Velodrome. This moment is seared into his memory as he looks up through the cracks to the racers above:
The noise was getting louder again, rattling right down to the bottom of the track where we were, down through my hunched-up shoulder blades, and with it came a wind pushing down through the cracks from the whirling pedals causing puffs of dust to curl up into my eyes. Through it all I could see their faces straining down over the machines as if they were trying to peer down through the cracks at us – my father’s face twisted into a grimace, scowling down at me, Eric’s face squinting beside him, Sam Ballard pushing great breaths out from under his moustache, and the faces of men I didn’t know all watching, watching, then Jody grabbed my hand and put it somewhere where it was warm.
I heard the pedals lock together, metal right against metal. Something heavy buckled above us and all the bikes came tumbling down, twisting and wrenching out of shape as they came to lie in a tangled mass just above our heads. With them came the cyclists, still curved over their twisted frames. They made dull thuds as they hit the wooden track and rolled awfully down to the bottom. (p. 6)
Leon’s father is killed in this fall, and his cycling mate Eric is so badly injured he’s confined to a wheelchair.
The Velodrome is a novel of unsatisfactory fathers. Leon’s mother, out of an over-developed sense of duty, marries Eric, while Sam Ballard tries to be a substitute father to Leon and to Eric’s daughter Jody, (who is now suddenly Leon’s sister forcing yet another reappraisal of a relationship). Leon’s attitude to these father-substitutes is signalled by the way he refers to these men: Eric is always Eric, and Sam Ballard is distanced by the use of both Christian name and surname. Leon is a lost boy, always out riding on his bike, escaping the claustrophobia of his altered home and in search of his identity and what he has lost.
Eric is an eccentric, cataloguing every moment of his life in minute detail because he has an obsession with facts. His daughter Jody baits him, moving out of the reach of his chair as if to jerk him into realising that she is lost to him in other ways as well. Sam Ballard, who installed the ramps and moved the door handles to facilitate Eric’s movements into and around the house, can’t stand Eric’s obstinate refusal to see the bigger picture. While Eric is gloating over his new encyclopaedias, he barely notices that Jody has gone missing at night again, and Leon’s keen eyes note that he’s more interested in starting an argument with Sam Ballard than he is in his daughter’s whereabouts:
‘Collecting bits of knowledge and putting them into books doesn’t mean we’re getting better, Eric. Ordinary people don’t even know your precious facts exist. They don’t make any difference except to people like you. Aren’t you worried about your daughter?’
Eric pushed down hard on his wheels, happy that he’d started an argument and confident surrounded by his books. ‘Don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference,’ he said. ‘Don’t tell me it doesn’t make any difference that a man stood on the moon and we’ve got a record of it. Do you know how many ordinary people died to build the pyramids? That’s what progress is all about.’ The wheelchair moved like a little chariot, twisting between the boxes and piles of books as Eric followed Sam Ballard, shouting at him to listen. ‘That’s what it’s all about – leaving some sort of record behind to show you’ve been here.’
Sam kept moving away from him, trying to avoid a confrontation with the wheelchair. ‘We all leave records behind,’ he shouted back. ‘Whether we want to or not. Even you, Eric, you’ll leave something behind, only it might not be what you want to leave behind. You can’t create your own history in that little cabinet of yours you know. That’s not what it’s all about. You can’t choose what you leave behind.’ (p. 47-8)
(I must admit that reading these last words had an eerie resonance, given the manner of Davison’s sudden death).
Leon’s father would not have chosen the memories left behind for Leon. History doesn’t work that way. History has a habit of choosing for herself. (p. 122) What Leon remembers is his father - the air-traffic controller at Moorabbin Airport, high in his tower – always scrutinising his son’s behaviour, alienating Leon by his refusal to acknowledge his interests as different to his own, and oblivious to his wife’s needs. Leon, looking back on this time, realises that his own indifference to his mother’s individuality was adolescent, recognising at the same time that his father never grew out of that adolescent unconcern. In Leon’s memory, his father always took his wife for granted.
In the wake of the fall and its consequences, Leon’s strange family makes an abortive trip up north to Queensland, Sam and Eric in the front, and Jody and Leon and his mother metaphorically and physically squeezed between them in the back seat. Sam’s bike hangs off the bike rack at the back of the car, and Eric’s chair is on top. This road trip is Sam’s reality trip: he can’t ‘fix’ his unreliable car, and when he takes to pedalling along behind, he can’t keep up as Jody manipulates the driver into speeding up the hills. It’s a portent that he’s not a member of the family, and he never will be – though as it turns out, not in the way that the reader expects. There’s an unexpected reconciliation too, but I won’t spoil that.
One of the strengths of this novel is the sense of place. The Chelsea Velodrome is about 15 minutes by car from where I live – and I pass the Moorabbin Aerodrome (which now hosts the Australian National Aviation Museum) on my way to work every day. As Leon rides the streets around his home on his bike, the suburbs – as they were in the late 1980s when this novel was written - come alive: the Edithvale golf course, the bridge at Patterson Lakes, the Nepean Highway running parallel with the Frankston train line as it travels north, and the vast flat plains of suburbia where the only hill of any note is Oliver’s Hill at Frankston that overlooks Port Phillip Bay. I visualise this breathtaking view from the cliff, a view that Leon doesn’t notice as he searches for his stepsister Jody. These days it’s a $2million view but it was affordable housing back then – and today the weatherboard homes that Leon dismisses are prized as period homes and worth as much if not more than the banal brick veneers of the 1980s:
As I headed off down the hill from our gate I could see the street lights and the lights from the houses coming on in the streets below, but it wouldn’t be dark for another hour yet. I could still see cars and people moving. At the bottom of the hill I turned left along Boundary Road. The houses there are set well back from the streets behind couch lawns and buffalo grass, with low fences separating them from each other. The high numbers between South Road and the shopping centre are all cream brick, while further down in the seven hundreds, near the edge of the aerodrome, they turn to weatherboard with picket fences and letter boxes made of tin. (p. 49)
The sense of the past - perhaps unintended at the time of writing this novel – is exacerbated by the book as object. My first edition hardback is beautifully constructed on expensive silky paper, with sturdy boards and fine gold lettering on the spine. The dust-jacket features commissioned artwork by John Mitchell, and design by Hand Graphics. Back in 1988 a debut author of promise could be published in fine quality editions like this, and judging by the publication of Davison’s ensuing novels, his talent was nurtured. It makes me wonder what talent we may fail to support in the 21st century world of publishing. ..
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Davison’s novels. My thanks go to Larsen’s Books from Exeter WA for getting The Velodrome to me so promptly this week.
Author: Liam Davison
Title: The Velodrome
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 1988
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Larsen’s Books via AbeBooks, $20
Out of print. Try your library, or second-hand Aussie bookshops, the heroes of the bookselling industry for backlist and out-of-print books.