The ace of spades

Selected for Best Australian Essays 2010

THE ACE OF spades is the highest card in the deck, and is also the death card, used as such by American troops during the war in Vietnam. When an artist places this card in a painting, the viewer does well to take notice. And when a publisher puts on the cover of a book an image of a man with an ace of spades in his breast pocket, the reader must pay attention.

My personal library used to contain a paperback copy of The Lucky Country by Donald Horne, published in 1964. I am not sure when I first got the book, but it was probably a few years after it was first published. The library has travelled with me for nearly fifty years and has shed some books while acquiring others. The image on the cover of the lost book stays with me – a painting of a man's head by Albert Tucker, a head brutally carved from some hideous yellowy-brown substance, perhaps metallic, with a hawk nose and a grim, humourless prognathous jaw, wearing a battered Stetson with a cockatoo feather stuck in the band. The man is holding a mug of beer in his paw-like hand, and there in his top pocket is the ace of spades. He is a gambling man; he's an Australian. Years after the appearance of the man on the cover of The Lucky Country, Malcolm Fraser became the Prime Minister of Australia. I thought the image of the man resembled Fraser, while he in turn resembled an Easter Island statue. I expect all that says is that the man on the cover has a recognisable Australian face, but it was a nice comparison.

Behind the man shimmers a bright blue sky – heaven, you might say – and there are sails of yachts that suggest sharks while also repeating the crisp white collar of the man's open-neck shirt. The sun in the top left-hand corner looks quite pale and small and benign. How I hated that picture when I got the book. Has the great thick blight of the dominant drinking-gambling man with his back to the sea blotted out the carefree summer's day? I am afraid it has. The picture nicely sums up the ironic twist of the title, which arose from the sentence towards the end of the book where Horne says that Australia is a ‘lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck': fighting words that have been largely forgotten. The title and the cover image play on each other to deliver the cry of the book, which was a wake-up call to Australians to start to understand the ‘distinctiveness' of their own society in order for that society to remain ‘prosperous, liberal and humane'. In a double irony, the title was taken up as a mantra intended to prove once and for all that Australia is so lucky that it can just sit back, produce the ace of spades, drink up, reap the benefits of luck and enjoy life.

In November 2009, when the federal Opposition was in disarray just before the bill on carbon emissions trading was about to go to the Senate, the image of the Tucker painting kept coming into my mind, and the phrase ‘lucky country' kept ringing its hollow ring. Was the very luck on which the country relied finally running out, like sand through the floorboards of each house? In 2009 Australia was being described as the hottest and driest country on the planet, and a great deal of second-rate behaviour and thinking was coming to the fore as the critical vote on the carbon tax bill drew closer. I searched the bookshelves for The Lucky Country and that was when I realised it had gone.

I wanted an old copy, one with that man on the cover. So I went to a place called Book Heaven in Castlemaine, Victoria, and there it was. I confess I had forgotten about the beer and playing card. How could I have forgotten the ace of spades? The sweet irony of the second-hand bookshop's name is obvious: Book Heaven. But what was I doing in the old gold-mining town of Castlemaine?


TWO YEARS AGO I left Melbourne for Castlemaine, shedding a thousand books, among which perhaps was The Lucky Country. I have spent much of my life writing (in both fiction and non-fiction) about aspects of the distinctiveness of Australia, generally seeking to uncover on the one hand, beauty and goodness; on the other, those forces that play against humanity, often in the very name of prosperity and liberality. I have had a particular interest in policies regarding Indigenous Australians, and also in the racial and religious fabric of this country. I can to an extent trace these interests to having been born in Tasmania during World War II.

When I was a child I was conscious that the island state of Tasmania was a kind of abject Australian joke, not part of a ‘lucky' country at all, a place of negative importance nationally and internationally. How interesting it is to see how this perception has changed, with the advent of green politics and powerful political activism of various kinds, as well as clever tourist campaigns. Tasmania is now a destination of choice for people seeking clean air and beautiful wild scenery. My leaving of Tasmania was thus: I was twenty-two, a teacher in the Education Department, going along in lucky-country fashion teaching French and English. Then suddenly I received a transfer to go to a tiny island in Bass Strait, King Island. Now, King Island is world-famous for cheese, but in 1962 it was seen as the young female teacher's gulag. Yes, it could have been a challenge to the brave person I was not. To me, it was a call to arms – I left the state, packing my library of Racine and Voltaire and Rimbaud and Yeats into a big old cabin trunk, and went to teach in a private school in Victoria. I had, in a small way, rebelled. I had gone, as Tasmanians used to say, ‘over the other side', meaning mainland Australia, not the afterlife.

I thought of this act of, if you like, disobedience when I read recently in a newspaper the story of a young Melbourne priest who was musing on his vow of obedience. He reportedly said that if his bishop ordered him to move from Brighton to Castlemaine, he would have to go. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but it seemed to me that he was putting the pleasant life among the sanitised mansions and rose gardens and tennis courts of Brighton against the grim spectre of the bacon factory and the prison of Castlemaine, and was feeling challenged. Of all the places he could have chosen to put up against Brighton, he chose Castlemaine. He caught my attention by that little slip of the pen. Perhaps he was just working his way through the alphabet.

Anyway, he got me thinking about places of obedience and places of choice. I chose to come here to live, making, as it is cutely said, a ‘tree change'. Simply stated, since I can pursue my profession of writer just about anywhere, I followed my daughter and her young family here. But why did they come to Castlemaine? Well, she and her husband got teaching jobs here, and they thought it would be good to raise children in the country. I shed those thousand books and a lot of furniture and clothes, sold a house and bought a house, and here I am. It has been a short enough journey, from Tasmania to Melbourne to Castlemaine, with a year in LA and a year in Paris thrown in. Most of my life has been spent in Melbourne, and now that I look around at Castlemaine I can see – in the terrain, the size of the town, the winter cold, the old houses, the old gardens, the pear trees and the prunus trees, the stars in the clear night sky – vestiges of Tasmania in the 1950s.

Perhaps I am just projecting childhood scenes and feelings onto it, but that is my perception. I suppose I am fulfilling some childhood dreams of having a place with a lily pond and a covered walk draped in wisteria – like entering the images on some of my favourite swap cards. The choice of location was made for me by my family, but the choice of residence was my own. In fact, there was very little choice, and ending up with the lily pond and the wisteria vine was a matter of chance. That favourite Australian quality, chance.

The streets of Castlemaine soon tail off into forests and wild places. The town is two hours from the city of Melbourne. Civilisation here winds through the countryside in fairly thin slivers. I can lie in bed and glimpse the Melbourne train as it flashes through the trees in the near distance, running over an old arched brick bridge. I watch the black cockatoos perch in a crackle on the blue spruce outside the bedroom window, and listen sometimes in dismay to their throaty cacophony. Green parrots habitually dangle and twitter on the slender branches of the grey box. Sometimes a kangaroo hops down the road beside the house or takes a short cut through the front garden. And once I found a bewildered koala lurking in the branches of a tall dark cypress. I am reminded at every turn that I have exchanged the streets of Melbourne for life on the edge of the forest, have exchanged the waters of the bay for the dry inland.

In early spring the streets are lined with the dreamy clouds of pink prunus blossoms, and a little later on the verges are washed with waves of the dark golden stars of gazanias. The air is often sweet with the perfumes of many aromatic plants. The drought here is severe and long-lived, so there is an obsession with water. I am obsessed. I grew up in a state that was obsessed with water, to begin with. One of the first things I did here was install a water tank, and then I restored the empty lily pond, removing a dense, dry infestation of dead irises. Living among the irises was the biggest, blackest, knobbliest toad, which I relocated in a deep dark corner of the garden. Since then I have not seen it. I filled the pond and stocked it with water plants and with goldfish which disappeared into the depths, seen only occasionally as a lovely flash in the sunlight.

One day, as I was sitting with friends beneath the wisteria vine beside the pond, I noticed that many of the fish had suddenly decided to swim out in the sunlight and I later discovered that the level of the water in the nearby swimming pool was rapidly dropping. Some of the water from the pool seemed to have moved through the pond, killing off the fish which had multiplied since I had put them there, and which now floated sadly on the surface after their final desperate moment in the sun. Throughout the winter the level of the swimming pool kept falling, owing to the failure of the plug that holds the water in.

During the months when the pool was out of action, the filter pump was turned off. Came the day in late spring when the pool was refilled, I turned on the pump. With a horrible whine the pump, useless, began to give off smoke, for curled up inside it was a dead blue-tongue lizard which had been in residence over the winter months. Stiff and cold and stripy. I buried the blue-tongue and ordered a new pump.

Meanwhile, I restocked the pond with goldfish, in time for the mosquito season. The buds of the waterlilies were just beginning to break the surface of the water. So there I was again sitting happily beneath the wisteria with friends, when a tall heron came swooping gracefully down, silent, alert. He landed on a rock beside the pond, paused, took a quick inventory, but perhaps because we were now watching, flew off. He would be back for the goldfish in due course. The wire mesh below the surface of the water can stop a small child from drowning, but can't stop a heron from fishing.

One of my favourite lines in literature comes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: ‘There was a table set out under the tree in front of the house.' I think of it often when I come out and have tea under the plum tree: the round red teapot and the red-and-white-striped milk jug with its beaded cover to keep out the bugs that might tumble in. There is a cloth on the table, a bowl of red roses, and yes, we sometimes have cucumber sandwiches. Such civilised rituals so close by the busy industry of birds and fish and lizards and toads and bugs. Not to mention spiders and snakes. There is of course no paradise without a serpent as standard issue, whether real or metaphoric. And I realise that Alice was walking in on a mad tea party.

I spend a lot of time reading, writing or taking tea under the wisteria's sweet dreamy purple drifts in spring, and under the green umbrella of its leaves in summer. Well, there I was again. It was the day I buried the blue-tongue, and as we sat there, a black swarm of bees moved swiftly overhead, a loud thrumming shadow. For an instant the air was humming with threat; then it was gone. It is a relief and pleasure to see bees, though, since they are endangered, and without them human life will not survive. So if they are going, everybody is going. There are all kinds of superstitions about bees: some say that a swarm overhead is an evil omen; some say it is good. Let's say it's good, then. Will the omen of the bees have the power to counteract the evil promise of the single silent crow – the biggest, blackest, shiniest crow – that took up residence the following day on the blue-tongue's resting place? As I backed away from the crow I saw, among the poppies that were almost flowering, the first ladybird I have seen in two years. It was tiny and shiny and bright, bright glittering scarlet. A busy little bead on the grey-green poppy leaves. Now these bugsare a good omen, and the sight of one always lifts the spirit. Except the rhyme you must say if you accidentally kill one is distinctly unsettling as spring turns to summer and the threat of bushfire haunts the heart. Close to the surface of everyday life in rural and not-so-rural Australia lurks the fear of fire. So who wants to hear the words in the rhyme ‘Fly away home. Your house is on fire'? The rest of the verse is something I have always found unspeakably awful: ‘Your children are gone.'

Something else I have missed since I have been here are the snails. In late spring there was a burst of fierce hot weather. The hardy gazanias by the roadside were suddenly all burnt by the sun. Then there were days and days of black thunderclouds and lightning and lashing rain. And then, one grey day, crawling up the bricks by the front door came a small snot-coloured garden snail. One. I do not wish for snails, but this little creature inching up the wall was the possible harbinger of more sweet rain. Dams and tanks were full and overflowing, and everyone attended public meetings to discuss strategies for the coming fire season. It is so obvious that the patterns of weather in Australia, like elsewhere, have changed, and that extremes of drought, heat and storms are becoming more frequent and more dramatic, and that human behaviour must change accordingly and quickly. Restrictions on the use of water apply not only in the country towns but also in the city. People in the city also now have water tanks. In the 1970s in Melbourne I wanted to put in a tank because it seemed such an obvious thing to do, but council laws forbade it. Times change.

As hot, wet November moved on to December, and summer drew closer and closer, the reports of tragic stories of the early 2009 bushfires kept coming, offering a dreadful background of truth and detail to the hourly twists and turns of the power struggles in the Opposition, mingled with the government's struggle to pass the bill on the carbon emissions tax in the Senate. The two stories seemed to me to be entwined, each embedded in a narrative where the weather is the real villain and chance is driving the plot.

Bushfires are more fierce and more common than they used to be, and I am more alert to them now because I live close to the forest and have a fire plan for the summer. The level of the sea is rising. The polar ice is melting. I have re-read The Lucky Country, which I rescued from Book Heaven, and I feel the deep wisdom on Donald Horne's simple enough message of a call to consciousness. But every time I close the book I see the image of the man in the hat and I wonder about the plot. Who will reap the benefits? What are the benefits? What's the weather doing? Is the ugly Australian still holding the highest card, and does he realise it is the death card?

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