Thursday, July 5, 2007

History of my birthplace

My Australian background is linked to a pair of bridges. One, of course, is the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The other is the double-decker road/rail bridge over the Clarence at my birthplace, Grafton.

When it was constructed in 1932, a span at the South Grafton end could be raised to allow shipping to pass. As a youth, I saw this span raised dozens of times. These days, sadly, there is no longer any river traffic on the Clarence. So, the local authorities decided to use the lower level of the bridge as a support for metal pipes, and this means that it can no longer be raised. Last year, when I walked across the lower-level footbridge, I had the impression that our once-splendid bridge was like an aged invalid, doomed to remain constrained forever to his bed. In any case, this bridge is totally antiquated, since it was designed to handle road traffic of 75 years ago. On the afternoon that my sister Jill drove me out of Grafton last year, we got blocked in a traffic jam, at the northern approach to the bridge, which was as bad as peak-hour situations in Paris. Meanwhile, I'm trying to understand why my native Australia—which is supposed to be a wealthy land—doesn't have modern bridges (and trains, too) such as the high-tech marvels we find in France, named Tancarville, Normandie, Millau...

After a lengthy and serious selection process, the municipality of Grafton has just chosen a Sydney-based researcher—described as a professional historian—to write the history of the city, and they've allocated a substantial sum of money to cover the expenses of the writing project. While wishing the winning candidate well, I must say that I've had serious doubts concerning the worthiness of this project, since I've never believed in committee-ordained creativity. Besides, the subject itself is so intrinsically uneventful [little of a profound historical nature has ever happened there since Grafton was first settled, in the middle of the 19th century] that it would take a gifted story-teller to add a little literary luster to the tale of my birthplace. Today, having seen a telling sample of the kind of writing signed by Grafton's future scribe [download], I'm convinced that my birthplace, in a couple of years' time, is going to hatch one of the most boring historical eggs that potential readers could hesitate in purchasing. It is a perfectionist mistake to imagine that a researcher can write the history of a place simply by filling in informational slots associated with a vast typology of themes. In any case, the result is sure to be dull reading.

A priori, Australian history is not however a dull subject. At the start of Australia: Her story, Kylie Tennant [1912-1988] quotes these words from the great US humorist Mark Twain [1835-1910]:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place. It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.

Talented story-tellers abound in Australia. Islands of Angry Ghosts by Hugh Edwards, the story of the Batavia shipwreck, is a masterpiece. In a different register, I love the style of Les Hiddins, the popular "Bush Tucker Man".

We have, of course, a great and unexpected historian in Australia: Robert Hughes. When we were together at Sydney University, at the end of the 1950s, I recall Bob above all as a talented cartoonist, allegedly studying architecture. He went on to become a Time journalist, then he blossomed magically into a splendid Australian historian. I would even say, in measuring my words, the most eloquent Australian historian ever.

It would take a writer like Hughes to capture the vital past of Grafton. I'm thinking of the pioneering epochs when there was a bustling timber industry and vast pastoral activities. I have a fascinating book here, with data compiled by Tony Morley, that lists no less than 60 pubs in Grafton and its immediate surroundings. I often wonder: Who were the folk who once stayed, dined and drank in all these hotels?

I'm particularly familiar with one of these old-fashioned hotels: an establishment in South Grafton that was purchased in 1881 by my Irish-born Catholic great-great-grandfather from County Clare, Michael O'Keeffe [1831-1910], when it was still known as the Steam Ferry Hotel, because that was how you crossed the Clarence up until the bridge was built. [And don't forget that we're talking of a community whose bridge-building capacities have not exceeded one construction per century.] A century ago, Michael O'Keeffe gave the hotel to one of his daughters, married to a Walker from Braidwood, and it was known as Walker's Hotel for half a century. Once upon a time, it was a hub of affluent society. I stayed there last year. The building still retains a lot of its former charm, but the hotel business is now downgraded [to use a euphemism].

My Irish-born Protestant great-grandfather from County Fermanagh, Isaac Kennedy [1844-1934], used a bullock team on his property named Riverstone, further up the Clarence. This anonymous hand-colored postcard shows the kind of setting in which my Braidwood-born great-grandfather Charles Walker [1851-1918] worked on the Kennedy property as a so-called boy in charge of the bullock team.

Isaac Kennedy was a prosperous pioneer, and his commercial operations often brought him down to South Grafton, where he would stay at the Steam Ferry Hotel. Isaac had five unmarried daughters—one of whom, Mary Jane Kennedy [1888-1966], would become my maternal grandmother—and he never lost a moment in doing his best to find them husbands. At the bar of the Steam Ferry Hotel, after a drink too many, Isaac was capable of taking a handful of golden coins from his coat pocket and spreading them out on the bar for everybody to see, while declaring: "There's a lot more gold of that kind waiting for any eligible young man who wishes to be betrothed to one of my five lovely daughters." A wag responded: "Isaac, if you give me a fair price in gold, I'll take the whole five." If local history is to be readable, I believe it should include authentic anecdotes of that kind.

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