‘We had no choice’: the silver-haired nannas guarding Australia’s environment

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Property damage, midnight cement mixing, secret meetings with rogue public officials: in her new book, an Australian environmental protester has described the surreal experience of doing what she felt was right, only to find herself on the wrong side of the law.

As debate rages in Parliament over a bill to remove the historic ‘Roe 8′ road classification from Perth’s Beeliar Wetlands, West Australian writer Nandi Chinna has taken readers behind the scenes of the protests on the eve of the state’s 2017 election that won the wetlands’ eleventh-hour reprieve and stopped the clearing for the road.

Chinna, who has published four previous poetry collections and whose doctorate research documented lost wetlands, has just launched The Future Keepers, describing how ordinary people risked injury, confrontation and criminal charges as they wrecked fencing, chained themselves to trees and faced off with police horses; and how public servants risked getting the sack, to support the protesters.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth's last remaining large urban wetlands.

The protesters sought to stop a highway being built through one of Perth’s last remaining large urban wetlands. BILLY AMESZ

It describes the lead-up: years of attempts to toe the line and work within approved Environmental Protection Authority and Supreme Court channels, and the eventual failure of these attempts leading to the last resort of physical protesting. One of the biggest Perth has witnessed, at its peak huge police teams were on site daily, protecting machinery the outgoing government rushed into action before election day.

Chinna’s poems flicker through images like a film: of official meetings at the EPA offices, conservationists and public officers poring over a 368-page report full of tea-stained maps; of clandestine meetings in anonymous cafes, where government workers against Roe 8, but afraid of losing their jobs, used cafe detritus – napkins, salt, sugar and water bottles – to demonstrate the scientific principles that would bolster the protesters’ arguments.

“How alienating it is to talk about nature in those terms, to have these graphs and statistics and offsets … if we take this we will give you something else,” Chinna told WAtoday following the launch of her book.

“They can measure the species, the flora, the fauna, hydrology, geology, but they don’t mention things like the experience and reality of it, the wonder and beauty, the extraordinary.

“To go through all these supposedly protective channels … then to find that there is no protection.”

Chinna reveals, after all else failed, the dislocation of being an everyday citizen – a longtime community volunteer, who saw herself as a good and law-abiding person – suddenly undertaking acts of civil disobedience in an increasingly hostile conflict that saw numerous injuries, arrests and charges laid.

Nandi Chinna

Nandi Chinna. FREMANTLE PRESS

 

Anxiety rises from the pages like steam as Chinna describes damaging fences by night, the local hardware store running out of spanners as the contractors repaired the boundaries daily.

So many older women took part that they had to cover their silver hair so it would not shine in the moonlight as they wielded their spoons – not over mixing bowls of biscuit batter, like good grandmothers, but over buckets of cement to be poured into the holes of the fence posts.

They recorded licence plates of utes driving in and out, even followed them, in their efforts to document gaps in the wildlife trapping process; and they donned armguards, thumbcuffs and even nappies, preparing not for admittance to a nursing home, but to trespass barriers and spend long nights chained to trees.

One passage shows protesters trying to stop the movement of a drilling rig, a mounted police contingent forming a line to drive back the people who tried to hold their ground.

“A friend held my hand, and they kept coming and came straight into us and knocking us out of the way with their horses,” Chinna said.

“We were stumbling and falling as this line of police and horses just kept pushing.

“We were just a bunch of people; of all ages, old ladies, older men and women and all sorts of people there just standing in the road.

The footage appears to show a police horse trampling on protesters at Roe 8.

“A lot of the police in attendance were very decent people, but there were just like in any crowd, people who were pretty rough.”

She described a young policeman, who confiscated her phone.

“He was only about 20, and being so rude and aggressive, I said to him: ‘You know, I’m old enough to be your Nanna.’ He snarled at me that I should start acting like a proper nanna. And I thought, I am! I am trying to protect this world for future generations. Isn’t that what a nanna should do?”

Chinna said the effort to attend repeatedly, as one poem puts it, to “the latest urgent request to bear witness” caused tension so intense it was at times nauseating.

“To watch a place you know intimately to be destroyed is a gut-wrenching, horrible thing,” she said.

“There were several times there when I suppose I lost it. I cried when I watched the tawny frogmouths being killed, the woody pears being torn out of the ground, the beautiful flowers that I had known from years of walking and being among them, weeding and planting.

The Future Keepers is out now.

“But … that was the only way we were going to stop this thing. We didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think the police enjoyed having to be there. But at the same time we felt that we had no choice.”

Meanwhile, government and media commentary painted them as ‘dole-bludging scum’, she said.

One morning, she stopped by the blockade about 7am on her way to work, and stood there with an elderly woman.

“People would do that; before work, or after, or some would get the day off work if they needed to,” she said. “Someone drove past and honked and yelled, ‘get a job, you bastards’. This lady turned to me and said, ‘I am a retired teacher. I am 80 years old. What do they expect me to do?’

“We were all sorts of people just asking the government for better solutions for transport. I know there’s been talk about putting Roe 8 back on the agenda and it seems to be the battle that is never won; but really I think people should learn from what happened in that suburb: that the community really won’t put up with this anymore.

“We want progressive solutions … to retain green spaces … not just ovals; places other species can live in. To have our shops and goods and transport and retain our natural systems as well.”

It was this hope that lay at the heart of her work, Chinna said; hope and celebration of conservation work taking place in Perth, such as at Kings Park and Botanic Garden, where Chinna was the first ever Writer in Residence in 2016, and which inspired a whole section of her book as well as its titular poem, The Future Keepers.

“The quietness of the work they do is such that I don’t think people know about it,” she said.

“They work all over the state and internationally working to revegetate old mine sites and preserve endangered species; they are at the top of their field and they are such amazing people.

“There is a metaphorical thread through this book that we can work together, respect Indigenous knowledge, and protect this extraordinary planet.”

The Future Keepers is published by Fremantle Press at $24.99

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Torn from two mothers: Perth MP’s 10-year labour brings stolen boy’s story to life

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

 

On Christmas Day 1957, Bruce Trevorrow’s father Joe was concerned about his baby son’s incessant crying. He knew little Bruce wasn’t well.

In bookstores now.

Joe was an Aboriginal man, who had no way of getting from his home in South Australia’s Coorong region to Adelaide Children’s hospital, a two-hour drive away. He walked in the blistering heat, cradling his feverish son, into the nearest town and pleaded for help. A relative of his wife agreed to drive Bruce to hospital, to the panicked father’s enormous relief.

That was the last time he ever saw his son.

Fifty years later, Bruce Trevorrow became the only member of the Stolen Generations ever to sue an Australian government for compensation – and win.

Tony Buti, now a member of the West Australian Parliament, was at that time a legal academic and expert on the Stolen Generations.

After reading the judgment on the Trevorrow case handed down in 2007, Dr Buti could not forget it.

“It was an incredibly beautifully constructed judgement; logical and at times poetic,” he said.

“I wanted to bring this story to life.”

Six years of interviewing and research followed, considerably slowed by the sheer volume of material and by his election to Parliament.

“I essentially did it over summer periods and weekends but I could never spend long stretches, because in this job there is always another commitment,” he said

“I considered giving up … but I felt an obligation to the people that I interviewed.

“I also knew this story should be given to a wider audience.”

Buti after a long road to publication.

Buti after a long road to publication. FREMANTLE PRESS

It took ten years to complete A Stolen Life, launched this month to a sell-out crowd just ahead of NAIDOC Week, an account of the ruining of a child that is all the more devastating for the careful precision of its language.

Joe and Thora’s home was a shack Joe had built himself. It was basic, with a swept dirt floor, but clean. ‘Native welfare’ officers had inspected, but not reported it unfit for children. They found no evidence of neglect. None of Bruce’s siblings were ever removed.

Yet on January 6 the hospital allowed a foster family to take the recovered baby ‘Brucey’ home without so much as a fostering licence.

The laws of the time stated that to remove a child from their family, there had to be either parental consent or a government order. Neither happened.

Bruce’s frantic mother, unable to get to the hospital, wrote multiple letters to authorities asking how Bruce was and when he could come home.

They responded that her baby was still not well enough. Thora only discovered the truth when it was far too late to reverse.

Bruce’s foster mother had her own mental health issues, which worsened when he grew older and began to display signs of emotional trauma.

“There was love there, but it was always a problematic relationship,” Buti said.

“She was having difficulty coping, he was being a difficult child and she would threaten to send him away so he felt this great sense of insecurity.”

When Bruce was around eight and his skin had noticeably darkened his older foster sister bluntly broke the news of his Aboriginal heritage, and the boy’s sense of rootlessness deepened.

He eventually met his birth mother Thora on his ninth birthday and soon afterwards authorities abruptly decided he would be better off – after all – back with her.

They told Bruce he was going to Thora’s for the school holidays and removed him from his foster mother without warning or allowing for goodbyes. The 10-year-old, with little experience with Aboriginal environments, who had not been emotionally prepared to leave his foster mother, was thrust back into an Aboriginal environment he had no knowledge of and taken to meet a host of strange relatives.

Bruce’s father had already died. He never bonded with his siblings or mother and adulthood brought full-blown psychological problems and alcoholism.

The adult Trevorrow was always able to work but he grew familiar with psychiatric hospitals and ended up in court repeatedly for hitting his wife. He never connected with his children.

When this lost soul walked into the office of Joanne Richardson, who was working at Adelaide’s then-equivalent of the Aboriginal Legal Service, he was her age but she couldn’t believe how much older he looked.

“He was a man who didn’t feel comfortable anywhere. He didn’t exude warmth. He wasn’t an attractive person to be near,” Buti said.

“But when Bruce told her his story, she felt it needed to see the light of day.”

It took thirteen years for that day in court.

The ALS had few resources. Richardson carried a heavy load, dealing with civil matters, and had a couple of paralegals and another lawyer assisting her but was engaging barristers to help out. Every time she engaged a barrister, that barrister would then get promoted and leave.

Things turned a corner when Richardson’s persistence secured the now-famous Julian Burnside QC, whose initial reluctance to take on such an uncertain case turned into a burning determination to win after meeting Trevorrow and, like Richardson before him, being shocked by his appearance.

The trial went for 38 days. The state threw everything at it; no member of the Stolen Generations had yet successfully sued the state and they were worried about opening the floodgates. There were skilful advocates on both sides and keenly contested expert evidence.

Trevorrow, although he had difficulty communicating, was a good witness in the very truth of how he stood in court: as a broken man. The appearance of his siblings, who had had every success in life, underpinned his case. Their strong family upbringing and connection to culture meant they coped with their ups and downs in life, ending up with important leadership roles in the Aboriginal community. His older brother even lectured at Harvard.

This brother, Tom, told the court Bruce was very quiet, and “different”, from his first visits.

“He’d missed out on – how could I say – our way of life, because he was raised differently and we had to be aware sometimes when we talked, and we’d talk in our language,” he said.

“We’d talk about somebody, or we’d talk about something, that Bruce wasn’t familiar with … even sometimes our actions of what we do with our body language, our Ngarrindjeri ways.

Tom told the court later in life, Trevorrow would sit with family on his intermittent visits, and “tears would run down his cheeks in front of his eyes, he was hurting and didn’t want to show it … everybody knew of what happened to him and it wasn’t fair and we knew that the way he was carrying on is because he couldn’t fit in again, even though we tried helping him fit in, he couldn’t … it’s hard to put into words sometimes; it’s what we feel as blackfellas, as Ngarrindjeri, inside, what we sense about each other.”

It was hard, he said, to put into whitefella words.

“They belonged to a world that Bruce never belonged to,” Buti said.

“Bruce … was caught between two worlds, unsure of who he was, and without the security of a family that would allow him to forge his own identity.

“He was stolen and it just seemed so cruel.

“That they weren’t told what happened to him. That the state lied about it. That he never saw his father again. That he was not prepared to be stolen a second time. That he could not form a close relationship with his mother, or his siblings. That he could never reconnect with his Aboriginal world or the non-Aboriginal world. And perhaps most greatly that he could love or care for his own children.”

Justice Tom Gray awarded damages in respect of injuries and losses, unlawful removal and detention, misfeasance in public office and false imprisonment, totalling $525,000. Bruce Trevorrow died the following year, aged 51, months after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his famous apology.

A Stolen Life is in bookstores now.

This story originally appeared on WAtoday. 

Review: Driving into the Sun, Marcella Polain

How can she go forward, go anywhere but back, when the past is all we see? Future a creature always approaching, striking us always from behind?

 

I like a balanced book diet. Classics to further my education and knowledge. Non-fiction to give insight and navigation skills for the modern world. Random recommendations, to ensure ‘wild cards’ and connect with my loved ones who are also readers. Literary fiction to challenge myself intellectually and inspire me and savour words. Easy children’s, crime and horror novels to relax and escape.

All give equal joy, in different flavours, and keep my brain healthy and happy.

Like all diets it could be improved. I could seek out more international authors, for example. More books from minority voices. But already there is so much and sometimes such a program gives rise to an uneasy consciousness that there isn’t enough time.

It was this mindset in which I picked up Driving into the Sun, the first literary fiction work I’d read for a while, and felt myself trying to storm through it like it was the new Dervla MacTiernan crime thriller.

Well, it does open with a death: the cruelly sudden taking of a man, a husband and father.

For Orla, a child living in suburban Perth in 1968, her Daddy was everything.

After his death she, her mother and little sister are ripped from their comforting nuclear bubble into a fractured family with a single working mother, in financial and personal limbo.

Orla’s mum is not particularly maternal and her little sister Deebee is not particularly sweet. They all cope in their own private ways, leaving scant room for comforting each other.

Orla, already a quiet child, folds into herself as she grapples silently with a new situation she can’t accept in a world she already scarcely comprehended.

She lacks the bearings we get as adults: the means to tell ourselves stories about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.

This book strips away that comforting narrative, catapulting you back to a time in which you had no power and no meaning, except that you could make from your senses, and later, scraps of sentences caught from adults who tossed them carelessly away within earshot.

Orla had overheard her mother telling Kit that he was living with a woman up north. At school, Orla has looked in the atlas. There was a lot of world up north. Maybe Cora missed him like Orla missed her father. If she did, she never let on. And they were adults, Cora, Henry, Kit. She was a kid. And they must know what’s best: not talk about things pretend everything’s normal, and that way it would be.

Privy to Orla’s sight, touch and hearing, and with the benefit of experience, the reader is in the unusual position of knowing what is happening to a character better than the character herself.

This is the second novel of Western Australian author Marcella Polain, whose first novel, The Edge of the World, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

She has also published three books of poetry – and who but a poet can better speak the sense-language of a child, inhabit those levels below conscious meaning?

There was a sound like the flap of a bird’s wing that made her press her eye to one of those gaps. She had seen the old lady before, folding clothes at the washing line next door and she was there again, her back turned, this time pegging up a shirt. She bent slowly, took another from the basket, held it along its bottom edge and flicked it, one, two, three times, that wing-billow sound, then pegged it up beside the other. Shirts hung upside down like kids on monkey bars.

Yet like when reading poetry (or growing through childhood for that matter) a different pace applies. When I tried to read it fast, to find out ‘what happens’, impatient with Orla’s fumbling through life, it began to slip through my fingers.

I was recently at a writing workshop with the author Brenda Walker who spoke about books such as Elizabeth Jolley’s, or Joan London’s – books that “take the reader on a kind of dance”.

“You don’t read them to be taken on a charge through the plot,” she said. “You read them for the atmosphere.

“You have to throw yourself into the sea … it’s quite frightening, but it bears you up.”

She noted that forces such as Netflix and the TV revolution have fundamentally changed storytelling, made it almost entirely about plot and character.

That readers seldom now want to truck “with the oblique and the poetic” – that they respond instead to “limpidity and simplicity”.

I don’t want to be like that, I thought suddenly, 80 pages in. I just bought a novel that took 10 years to write. Why this need to get it done in a weekend?

I slowed down, and began to concentrate. And then I fell in love with this book, which is one of the most pure and true descriptions of grief I have ever read.

It teases you with hope and the possibility of simple redemption and healing, only to trick you back to square one again and again – just as grief itself does. On page 237, completely absorbed, I began to cry.

Polain captures utterly what she has herself phrased as “the complex interior life of children”: that time in which you were so aware of the way everything looked and felt and sounded and tasted, somehow bigger and more intense than now; that time in which your parents were your entire universe, frightening and mystifying and utterly necessary.

So don’t buy this book if you want a whodunit. Buy it if you love words, and want your heart, like Orla’s, to lurch “with loss and wishing”. If you want to explore the deepest experiences of human existence: grief and love and guilt and coming of age.

Buy it if you want to throw yourself into the sea, and have it bear you up.

 

 

Review: River of Salt, Dave Warner

‘I’ve made some enquiries on your behalf. Shaloub’s bodyguard is a giant, name of Granite. Granite’s no professor but he remembers absolutely every piece of tail set foot in the Cross.’
You might already know Dave Warner’s name. He’s an Australian musician who’s authored three previous crime novels, one of which won the Ned Kelly Award.
He was recently in Perth to promote his latest book, River of Salt, and I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about – I hadn’t actually heard of Dave Warner myself, but I do love Australian fiction and crime fiction, and I was intrigued by the jacket quote from prolific thriller writer Michael Robotham: ‘Part Goodfellas and part love letter to Australian coastal towns, this wonderfully imagined crime novel is like riding the perfect wave.’
It’s 1961 and Blake Saunders, a former Mob hitman from Philadelphia, has escaped that life to start again in a sleepy town on Australia’s east coast. He owns his own bar, the Surf Shack, plays in a band and surfs compulsively, slowly washing clean the sins of his past. But he can never quite lose the feeling there’s a target on his back.
So when a prostitute is brutally murdered in a nearby motel and a piece of evidence at the scene points towards the Surf Shack, Blake feels compelled to act, to clear the wolf from his door once and for all by solving the murder the police seem eager just to tick a box on.
I’m attracted to the writing early – it’s strong and clean and loaded with evocative similes. Like,
skies grey as an elephant’s belly.
And,
The wind probed their clothes like the fingers of a dead man.
And,
His belly pressed flat into the board, which gently rose and fell like a crumb on the chest of a snoozing giant.
And,
He moved quietly as cancer.
If similes don’t excite you as much as they do me you’re a fool, but I’ll tell you more anyway.
Warner spends the early part not launching straight into the mystery, but sketching out a compelling cast of characters who hook you just as well as a bloodied corpse opener would:
Blake, a brooding heartthrob with a dark past and a killer’s instincts, full of guilt and regret. His yardboy Andy, a simple sap who loves the fish in The Surf Shack’s giant tank, and knows them all by name. Bar manager Doreen, beautiful and capable, but nursing a deep loneliness. Crane the beach bum, an alcoholic and a poet. Kitty the innocent, but smart and gutsy teen who wants so much more than what her hometown can offer.
The scene shift from Philly to Australia makes for an attention-grabbing contrast, and the menace and darkness of the Mob bleeds into the new setting quite perfectly. I had wondered how convincing it was going to be, the American fish out of water, but the details laced through are perfect, consistent and never overdone.
And 100 pages in, this simmering mystery comes to a rolling boil, with twist after twist keeping me wildly speculating, heightened in drama by Blake’s personal drive for a solution – and for absolution.
Blake is bound to appeal to readers: the man with dark stains on his conscience, but a moral imperative to act, and a strong sense of justice. Like Jack Reacher, but with a humanising longing for love and redemption.
Perhaps he should have let it go, left it to Harvey to get it right. But he couldn’t … He did not deserve any of this: playing his guitar in his own bar with a beautiful woman like Doreen working alongside him, surfing in the crystal ocean, watching the sun rise like a gold coin over a sheet of pure silver. He’d suspected all along it hadn’t just been gifted to him, that there must be more to it, some fine print like on a winning lottery ticket. This was the fine print. You have to help those who can’t help themselves, you have to protect and serve those who serve you.
Warner has strongly evoked a time and a place; but he has also riffed on honesty, human connection, guilt and love – and how the past will never, really, quite let you go.

‘Girl Painter also Good Cook’: The story of a (female) artist

“Until Nora entered, winning the Archibald had remained the province of male artists for seventeen years. It would be another twenty-two before a woman won a second time.”

In bookstores now.

So begins the biography of Nora Heysen, Australia’s first official female war artist and the first of the country’s biggest art prize, the Archibald Prize for portraiture.

The biography was launched this week by Perth writer and journalist Anne-Louise Willoughby.

And on Thursday, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Willoughby attended the launch of a Melbourne exhibition seeking to restore Heysen to what the author describes as her “rightful place” of prominence in the Australian art world.

Heysen worked alongside her father Hans Heysen, known for his distinctive paintings of the eucalypts surrounding their family home in Hahndorf, South Australia. But she also worked all over the world and made a lifelong friend in urban landscape painter Jeffrey Smart, who regarded her so highly he made himself available to contribute to this biography before his death.

But Heysen spent her life struggling to be recognised as an artist first, and a woman second.

“What was so extraordinary is that while her work and its historical context is covered in art collections, we didn’t know anything about her life,” said Willoughby, a writer with a background in art history.

“These things kept cropping up in my study, that nothing was known about her save a list of her works.

“Why was she the first woman to win the Archibald? How did she come to be the first war artist of Australia? Things like that don’t happen out of the blue.”

Read the rest of this story here on WAtoday.

New Australian fiction: Afternoons with Harvey Beam, by Carrie Cox

As a young man, Harvey Beam got the hell out of his hometown, confirming his suspicions that you can successfully run away from your problems. But after forging a big-city career in talkback radio, Harvey is now experiencing a ‘positional hiatus’. The words aren’t coming out right, Harvey’s mojo is fading and a celebrity host is eyeing his timeslot.

Back in Shorton, Harvey’s father Lionel appears at long last to be dying. It seems it’s finally time for Harvey Beam to head home and face a different kind of music.

In wading through a past that seems disturbingly unchanged, the last thing he expects is a chance encounter with a wonderful stranger…

Perth journalist Carrie Cox is the author of Coal, Crisis, Challenge and You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Bus. This is her debut novel but it reads as though she has been writing fiction for years.

The premise sounds rich with the promise of drama and the narrative didn’t disappoint, unfolding in a way that kept me guessing right up until a neat tail-twist I never saw coming.

Cox has a gift for evoking places and people with deft, apt descriptions that are never laboured or overdone.

Her characters are filled-out, humanly flawed and likeable.

She gracefully manages the balancing act of focusing on and building the internal life of Harvey Beam, while spinning you through the story.

She invites you to understand the joy and madness, the peculiar intimacy and alchemy of the talkback radio world.

She has unerring insight into people and families, but still respects the mysteries at their centres.

Her creation of an eye-rolling teenager in Harvey’s daughter Cate is spot-on. It’s no caricature, however, but a sympathetic and sweet portrait of a girl who becomes an unexpected sidekick for Harvey in his family drama.

The topics are deep but Cox’s touch is light; all the while she is unfailingly, confidently funny.

She has nailed it and I can’t wait for the next book.

*Afternoons with Harvey Beam is at bookshops now. I got mine from Boffins.