Showing posts with label Grafton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grafton. Show all posts

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.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Illustrious Graftonian

The latest issue of the newsletter of the Clarence River Historical Society [click here to see their website] presents a drawing of a member of the state parliament of New South Wales whom I knew and admired: William Weiley [1901-1989].

Bill Weiley [father of my friend John, the celebrated Australian cineast] was a friend of my parents and grandparents. Around 1960, John took me along to Sydney's Parliament House for a luncheon with his father, and this encounter made a great impact upon me. It was neither the food nor the parliamentary splendor that impressed me, but rather Bill Weiley's enthusiasm for a theme he had just discovered: the Dead Sea Scrolls. I've never forgotten his words:

"Take a Sydney phone directory. Tear it in half. Reduce it to confetti, and mix it up. Now throw away two-thirds of your confetti. What you've got left is akin to the state of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

I was terribly impressed by this didactic demonstration, no doubt exaggerated, of the precariousness of our Biblical past.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Traces of the past

As a child, I often used to accompany my father, of a weekend, to his bush paddock near South Grafton, at a place called Deep Creek, where Dad would leave the Jeep and wander around on foot, inspecting the cattle. Although it was not a particularly wild or remote setting, I always liked to nurture the absurd thought that we were surely the first human beings, since the dawn of Creation, to stroll over this virgin land. It was fairly easy to cling to this illusion, in spite of the fact that this land had no doubt been exploited by previous proprietors for beef grazing. Except for my father's barbed-wire fences, there were no visible traces of human intervention in that dull environment.

Here at Gamone, the situation is totally different. I often have the impression that I'm a usurper on a territory that belongs to hordes of more or less ancient phantoms. Yesterday, Natacha sent me a paper written at the end of World War I concerning agricultural activity in the Bourne Valley. The author points out, not surprisingly, that the male work force was decimated, here as elsewhere in France, by the ravages of war. But he adds: "From Rencurel to Pont, no land is abandoned. Women, old people and children make sure of that." That's where Choranche is located: between Rencurel and Pont-en-Royans. Today, alas, there is no longer much agricultural activity here. In emptying the French countryside of its rural families, the economic attraction of urban areas has been even more effective than warfare.

The soil nevertheless remains a vast storage house full of traces of the past. After reading Natacha's paper, I was out in the yard digging up a plot of earth to plant tomatoes, and my hoe unearthed this curious iron object (which I've cleaned up and painted with anti-rust liquid).

It's a bullock shoe, which must be quite old. I would imagine that a Gamone farmer once used a pair of bullocks to drag a plow on the slopes. When I think of the effort involved in planting a tiny plot of tomatoes, I realize that it must have been incredibly difficult for these individuals to survive in such a place. In any case, I look upon trivial traces of the past such as this old piece of metal as small treasures. I have a tremendous respect for the hordes of phantoms.