Friday, 31 July 2009

Review: Penelope Goes West, Tim Bowden (1999)

I had surmised that Tim Bowden was either a cheap liar or an unreformed scribbler. It was an either or situation, clearly. But I was finally forced to admit - and I should have suspected it as he is a journalist of repute - that the latter was true. I found on page 193 that he kept a diary during the trip.

In the introduction to the book, Bowden asserts candidly that the idea for the book came during discussions with friends he’d been regaling with his anecdotes about the recent road trip (with caravan) from Sydney to south-east Western Australia along the Great Australian Bight.

The diary is evidence of foresight, at least.

One photo included in the book shows Bowden hunched over a nifty, old-school word processor (note the publication date, above) with a screen the size of a cigarette packet while wearing protective headgear like that worn by beekeepers. This last item is not, I guess, intended to ward off dead galah blood (the book contains stories from local areas, like the one about galah culling in South Australia).

What the book does do is demonstrate that any berk on a road trip can manufacture a memoir simply using a set of quick aide-memoirs sketched down en route plus whatever national history has been consumed over the preceding 40 years.

But Bowden’s history knowledge is both impressive in its depth and stimulating in its deployment. And his humorous, often tongue-in-cheek recounts of daily events on and off the beaten track are an excellent counterpoint.

Drawing on the old, hoary favorites - Eyre and Flinders - he weaves the old-time sagas into the woof of his present-day adventures along the roads that stretch across the southern half of the Australian continent.

There is a lazy comicality about Bowden’s journey. Deprivations suffered by early explorers engaged in intrepid acts of discovery, resistance and ingenuity compare with modern concerns, such as leaving all fruit and veggies at the Western Australian border as required by law, and fastening the trailer-home properly on the towing ball. It’s a tough trip and requires a well-serviced car but it’s not to be compared with foot-slog over unimaginably vast distances and severe water shortages.

While Bowden and Ros, his wife, must jetison their Tasmanian honey, Eyre witnessed the death of his lieutenant amid the savage wilderness above the Bight.

The intimacy Bowden generates by talking to each individual reader is possible because he doesn’t stint on detail. The stories of old and the anecdotes in the present are delivered with a journalist’s eye for the telling fact. The author is enjoying his craft, we feel, just as he enjoyed the trip across the largest island in the world.

He also gives us an enlightened perspective. Not only does the book end on a note of caution that Steve Irwin would applaud, but we see Bowden searching for an internet connection (again, see publication date) so that he can stay in touch with colleagues back in Sydney. More remarkable is that the author is at the time in his 60s.

Notch up another big tick for journalists. By the time you finish reading the book you want to add dozens more. By the end you are likely to have scored him, with marks in neat groups of five, a solid 60 for ambition, persistence, attention to his surrounds, and historical knowledge.

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