Athenapallas's Blog

December 12, 2011

THE MAN WHO LOVED CROCODILES and other Adventurous Australians


By Marg Carroll, published by Allen and Unwin 2011.

(A short version of this review is published today in Newsbite the e-magazine of the NSW Writers’ Centre.)

This book is the third of a series written over the last decade about rural Australians both indigenous and non-indigenous: the first  Ordinary people, Extraordinary Lives 2001, the second Re-inventing the Bush: Inspiring stories of young Australians, 2008, and now this third book about 15 adventurous older Australian,  all up 57 remarkable men and women across the continent.        

The Man Who Loved Crocodiles

This last book in particular is a perfect companion for us                  

 city folks who are apt to whinge a little

and forget how our land was forged by such people

 as inhabit the pages of this extra-ordinary book.

Marg tracks real lives,

 ‘wherein lie the ingredients of the best dramas: bold dreams and overcoming mighty obstacles’.    She is motivated by her own search for inspiration, the result is she succeeds in inspiring her readers as well.

 This is a book to be treasured over time. Open it up anywhere not only at the Crocodile story,

but maybe the one about the Camel Lady who rode a camel       

The Camel Lady

across the desert following in the tracks of Burke and Wills,

or the Torres Strait Islander who dived for pearls and

then became a national singing star, or

 the Czech immigrant who survived 13 Nazi prison camps through the power of meditation,

or the Supermum who raised 13 children mostly on her own,  finally learning to read after she recovered from a brain tumour in her seventies,

or the Indigenous entrepreneur who created a tourist enterprise, conservation haven,and education foundation for bush Aborigines,

or the woman who founded an organic skin care business, or…..

The story of a person who has lived long and well is a privilege beyond price’, Marg asserts and the process of delving into another life is ‘akin to uncovering a treasure’.

I was struck by the importance of curiosity and being involved as key ingredients to a well-lived lasting life and as Marg tells these stories she reflects on the nature of courage and daring. In fact she felt that all 15 of her story tellers could have won awards for courage revealed in so many unique ways. These are not fearless people but people who keep engaging in life and who face their fears and triumph over them.

Marg has found these people like a bush Hercule Poirot following up all sorts of leads, looking in surprising nooks and crannies via networks, friends, family, the internet and the media but most of all she has followed her own sense of adventure for exploring issues close to her heart like the environment, a better life for First Australians, the protection of endangered species and nurturing young people.

In these stories there were many brushes with death and she unearthed a variety of spiritual beliefs but in all there was a respect for the beliefs of others and real openness of hearts and minds.

 Not only did Marg find these special people, she formed remarkable alliances with them so that they could trust her with all of their stories, the good and the bad. It was a true collaboration and Marg became in some way or other an extension of them and their families.

She is the master of the first paragraph in all of her stories, immediately giving you a succinct word picture of the person and their character and whetting your appetite to learn more.

 Novelists and short story writers need to take lessons from her. Take the first paragraph in her very first story:

 ‘You may not pick Heather Innes─ slight in stature with short-cropped reddish hair, a cheeky grin and quick wit─ as a champion sports woman, top pilot or formidable crime fighter. Her modesty and mastery of understatement ensure no hint of an illustrious past.’

She is also the master of the concluding paragraph.

She finishes her story of Back Country Milkman with the following:

 ‘He has experienced the three most significant events of the last century, the Great Depression, the fall of Singapore and the dropping of the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had the longest milk run in Australia over 3 decades and he just signed up for another milk run by which time he will be 96’.

One of the strengths of this book is how the author weaves historyand relevant often startling statistics into the stories so that the reader is learning not just about the people                 

Marg with the Desert Writers 2010

 but about the broader society and culture in which they lived. 

Some of this is confronting and surprising for people

who have never met a bush Aborigine,

watched the sunrise in the desert

 or seen buffalo or crocodile at close quarters or

 grown up living in a bark hut papered with old copies of the Women’s Weekly!

(Marg workshopped her some of her writing for this book on Jan Cornall’s Desert Writers Trek in 2010.)

Some statistics in the book blew me away: of the 330,000 prisoners of war who toiled on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway  one in three died, repeating a common belief that they buried a man for every sleeper laid and  11,000 POWs lost their lives from Allied bombings.

Our story-teller, Bush Country Milkman survived both the horrors of the railway and one such bombing in a ship bound for Japan only to end up working in a coal mine 10 kilometres from Hiroshima just before the A-bomb hit.

Ian the Indigenous entrepreneur/philanthropist of Kings Creek Station with his wife Lyn help the local people,who in the absence of a health clinic, come to them with ear infections, scabies, pneumonia,starvation and the impact of alcohol and he  has recently established an education foundation to send young people to schools in Adelaide to escape the downward spiral of life in their own communities. 

Lyn, Lizzie and child Kings Creek Station

Every day he sees bush people trying just to survive.                          

‘I listened to PM Rudd’s apology

 to the Stolen Generation that is a white man’s term.’

 His wife, Lyn calls these bush people the Neglected Generation

 while he sees the official apology as only words and instead urges action. ….

‘Why didn’t Kevin Rudd apologise to the kids who are uneducated and starving,

 to the old ladies who are waiting for dialysis,

to the people who are committing suicide, to men who have no work.

 That would be a real apology.’

In the story of Peter  the last of the buffalo hunters we learn that   20,000 bulls were captured and killed in an industry in which indigenous and non-indigenous people worked side by side producing leather hides to be used for a huge variety of industrial purposes as well as saddles, buckets for windmills, seat coverings,  and hand bags. After synthetic leather hit the market in the fifites the industry collapsed.

Another striking thing about many of these stories are          

Peter and Lena

 the enduring partnerships  

which survive through periods of great hardship

and strain and the tragedy of illness and loss,

 like  Peter and Lena both of the Stolen Generation…

Lena received horrific injuries protecting her husband from a crocodile attack…

A theme of such partnerships, even when not tested in such an extreme way, was that they gave strength to each other and even when they ended helped  to forge a new life for themselves.  And in many cases, the comments and ideas of family members whom Marg interviewed, become a mirror in which the person is also reflected, often candidly without flattery but with droll humour and affection.

Beautiful and original descriptions  abound in this book.

As Marg approached Claret Ash Farm where Jan harvests and produces her organic skin care products that are exported  to exclusive outlets in Japan, Marg comments,            

Jan at Claret Ash Farm

 ‘Even on a perishing day bright flowers light the garden-

 the orange of marigolds and nasturtiums, purple lavender

 and the last of the autumn roses.

Floppy pink petals of Echinacea, yellow yarrow,

blue-starred borage

and the white frills of chamomile daisies are scattered

through beds of pumpkin, rhubarb and silver beet….

All Beds face the north east for maximum sunlight and slope down to a dam where Black Angus weavers graze.

This is an oasis in my journey from the parched east.’

In her lovely story of the Artist Ada still a working and recognised artist at 79

who at  the age of 64 established her own Gallery and Studio in Milthorpe 

Ada at Mt Canoblan

 after her beloved husband had died tragically,                                        

 Marg describes one of her paintings:

 ‘The fine strokes of Japanese calligraphy adding dimension

where there was none, colour where white prevailed and

 becoming a landscape of the  mind as well as what we see before us.’

In other stories like the one of Pam, the founder of the Landcare movement, Marg makes great use of  quotes to illustrate what Pam was able to achieve.

For example Margaret Mead’s statement,

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed that is the only thing that ever has.’

And later as she describes Pam’s extension into local government and her advocacy for women at all levels of decisions making, she quotes from one of Pam’s speeches,

‘Shakespeare made his woman characters as strong as men and his men as tender as women.’

I love it when we see more of Marg in the stories as she is undoubtedly one of the characters we get to know when she travels with her husband and with her story tellers while they show her how they live and work.

 She is one gritty lady, not just for following the Man who loved Crocodiles,the famous film maker, hunter and conservationist, as he flushed out lethal salties in the bush,

but also for the many times she sat and listened and recorded peoples’ pain,deep secrets and experiences of the whole gamut of human emotions as they recalled sometimes unimaginable horror and deprivation.

There is plenty of humour in the stories which comes as much from Marg as from her subjects.

 I like her account of flying to Horn Island in the Torres Strait to meet  Seaman Dan, the oldest person at 74 to win an ARIA award. This island was also the site during WW 11, she tells us, of an Australian airforce base for 5000 men and nine women!

‘Swirling around the islands that Seaman knows so well,                          

Marg and Seaman Dan

the waters are turquoise, merging into cobalt depths.

The water looks inviting but beneath the wharves lurk crocodiles,

 A fresh breeze lifts off the sea. Islands surround us:

“Tuesday, Wednesday and that’s Friday Island,” Seaman points out.

Weekends don’t rate a mention.’

Marg must have the last word to this wonderful book:

‘Real stories can touch our humanity and move us to understand not just the person we are reading about but also ourselves. Rich lives such as these build a mosaic of Australia over the past century-surely a priceless legacy.’

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