Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Review: Back on the Wool Track, Michelle Grattan (2004)

Unaware of what to expect, a couple of weeks ago at a second-hand bookshop I bought this. Most journalists know how to write well, and this was my main motivation in buying it. Which is fitting, as I suspect that Grattan's main motivation in following in the footsteps of early-20th century journalist CEW Bean was from a sense of kinship.

Certainly, Bean is not overrepresented here, either in terms of space given over to quotes, or to musings on his martial, xenophobic, and oddly fascistic opinions. For example, Bean's belief that West country Australians were the best 'type' of Australians gets short shrift from Grattan. The period was full of racial stereotyping and crazy beliefs in the superiority of the Ango-Saxon 'race', and there is no doubt that Bean held to similar opinions.

But Bean's success as a journalist and his strangely modern ideas about writing for a popular audience have struck a chord with Grattan who is, as we know so well, one of the premier political journalists in Australia today. Bean was not. He was sent out West by his employer, the Sydney Morning Herald, to write pieces about the best route for a railway into the deep West. He then took on another, greater challenge, when he was chosen by ballot to go with the AIF to Gallipoli and Europe to cover events there, following the declaration of war in 1914.

Grattan does not follow him overseas, thankfully. What she does is quite special, however. This is a very entertaining and readable book that is only very loosely based on a (probably) rather unlikeable character. In essence, Grattan brings us up-to-date on the far West, the country around the Darling River, which is sporadically fed by monsoonal rains falling in Queensland and provides a very uncertain subsistence for people living along it.

Wool was the staple then. Grattan pokes her nose into innumerable shearing sheds. In true journalistic style what she does best is to talk to people. There are thousands of different voices in the book, all adding their tones and tales to building up a picture of life on the driest land east of the desert. It is marginal land, and the stories are of people living with change, a constant flux between plenty and dearth.

Grattan ends on a note similar in tone to this, but it is not the main point. She modestly reserves the summing-up to a brief epilogue. The vast bulk of the book is useful (for those who know nothing about the area, and about Bean) and entertaining. The book is therefore recommended highly.

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