“My island home is waiting for me”
– Neil Murray, ‘My Island Home’
I had a wonderful and humbling experience this week. I picked up a copy of Tim Winton’s new book Island Home – with very little expectation – and started it right away. I have always had a complicated relationship with Winton’s books; I have struggled to read many of them. The first one I came across was Lockie Leonard in the early years of high school and really, really disliked it. Many years later, I attempted Cloudstreet several times and never made it more than a chapter in. A few years ago I read Breath and felt like I had missed a higher meaning and then read Eyrie and didn’t connect to it at all. Winton has always mystified me a little; I have often regarding him as being aloof, cool and his writing pretentious. Island Home has taken a side ways step from fiction and into memoir. For Winton, it was confronting to come out from behind the curtain. For authors, it is easy to hide behind the characters and the story. He started writing Island Home as an exploration of the changes in his life and those of our beautiful country.
Last night mum and I attended an event at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne hosted by Readings and Tracee Hutchinson. It wasn’t the first time I have seen Tim Winton in person but it was the first Q & A event where I had attended and seen him animated and passionate. Having started the book only two days before, I was immediately swept up by Winton’s words. I love my country, in particular my hometown of Melbourne. I love the buzz of city life and the calming nature of the great outdoors; I spent much of my childhood outside, camping throughout the year and spending time at the beach every summer. I had suddenly found my place among the pages of Winton’s book. All of a sudden, he made sense. I was finally swept off my feet by his incredibly beautiful words and his powerful and evocative descriptions of this place we call home. Island Home pays homage to our country and to place, finding somewhere where we belong.
His story begins in childhood as a young boy playing in the natural world, forming a connection to the land beneath his bare feet. He described children as being wild savages and as they grow older, they are tamed and broken in by the harness, bit and saddle. “There’s an intimacy with our surroundings we struggle to find later on in life. By the time we’re grown ups we’re too busy thinking.” Isn’t it ironic that “once we acquire the agency of adulthood we seem to spend a hell of a lot of time seeking out the gifts and instincts of our powerless childhood. Peculiar that we should have to learn to relax, strive to let go.”
Winton maintains that he was saved as a young boy by the ocean. He discovered the south coast of Western Australia at a time when hormones were ready to explode and it kept him away from ‘fast cars and drugs’ and all other means that young people find to push the limits. He was humbled, awed and utterly dominated by the sea. “Half of a young man’s rebelliousness is the quest for a worthy force, something large to submit to…flying across a breaking swell, I loved the giddy speed, but what I needed most was the feeling of being monstered by a force beyond my control. This was how I came to understand nature and landscape. By submitting. And by waiting.” It was the coastal town of Albany where he also began to see the damage humans were doing to the world he was learning to love. Albany was the last whaling port in Australia and he slowly became aware of the ‘greenies’, a group of people looking to change the local laws. Over time, he became involved behind the scenes and later became the face of one of their campaigns. Winton learned that you didn’t need a gun to defend your country. “Activists did not conjure collapsing fisheries, soil erosion, curdling wetlands and species extinctions from nothing. They just noticed. They paid attention to their surroundings.” Winton spends a great part of the book examining the importance of understanding the natural world. Large masses of our country have been written off as waste lands because the ecosystem is foreign to even those who have studied the land. We spend so much time cooped up in cars, planes and trains, learning the land from afar. “Sometimes it pays to be sceptical of the aerial view…Commuting over plains, deserts, woodlands and ranges at ten thousand metres, we flatter ourselves when we assume we know what it is we’re seeing.”
It was not just the activists that Winton listened too. He has spent periods of time in the northern parts of Australia around the indigenous communities, listening and learning from them. “We’re barefoot but you are poor,” said the blackfella to the whitefella. Winton wonders why we are loathed to listen to a ‘guru’ in our own backyard. Instead we seek the answers abroad to those who are paid to tell us how to live our lives. Why don’t we listen to those who know us better than we know ourselves? The word of the indigenous elders is weighted more and more, helping to make changes in the highest levels of the Australian courts of law.
I cannot express how much I love this book. As I grow older, I love Australia more and more. As Islanders, we have no borders and no frontiers and we intrinsically search for answers across the seas. We seek adventure and meaning and we yearn for a connection bigger than what we are. Every word Winton has written has penetrated my being; I haven’t found an expression of what it means to be Australian quite like Winton’s and it resonates in a way I didn’t think possible. I am so pleasantly surprised by his words and the explanations he gives. I love that I finally have a glimpse into what makes him tick, and the life that he writes into his books. Through travel, experience and maturity, perhaps I am ready to try those books again!
Island Home is inspired by Neil Murray’s song ‘My Island Home’ and despite Winton’s insistence that he is in the ‘business of creating useless beauty,’ I think it is far more important than he gives himself credit for. It is a stunning read and one that I will be recommending for many, many years to come.
My Island Home by Neil Murray
Australian World Heritage Sites
Protection of the Ningaloo Reef (won by Tim Winton and peers):