David Sornig’s history of West Melbourne’s Dudley Flats provides an absorbing and evocative portrait.
Residents of North and West Melbourne would be well familiar with Dudley Street. The busy roadway passes by the Flagstaff Gardens, the iconic Festival Hall and down into the Docklands area. What is less known is the Depression era shanty town, the Dudley Flats, that was once located at the end of Dudley Street, south of Footscray Road, roughly on the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and Harbour Town shopping centre now sit.
The Dudley Flats had its heyday, if it could be called that, between the 1920s and 50s. When the land belonged to its indigenous people, a beautiful blue lake occupied a large part of the area. The lake was surrounded by a magenta coloured pigface flower, which grew in wild profusion. But along with European incursions into the land came intense industry, and rendering factories caused the blue lake to be polluted. By the 1920s it was the site of several council and railway tips. It was the tips that formed the backbone of the Dudley Flats economy. Residents foraged in the tips, sold scrap metal and other finds, and built their shacks with reclaimed materials.
The population of the “tin town” at its height was around forty people. It had a notorious reputation. Many of its residents drank, committed petty crime and got involved in fights. Despite this, authorities thought the Dudley Flats were no worse than many of Melbourne’s slums. Authorities who visited saw the makeshift homes were quite well put together and opined that the residents showed considerable resourcefulness.
Novelist and historian David Sornig grew up in Sunshine and well remembers the regular train journey from Footscray to North Melbourne station, a journey that roughly covered the area that once held the Dudley Flats. It’s a stretch of land that has always haunted the author, with its eerie, no man’s land quality.
In Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, Sornig concentrates on three characters who lived in the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. In telling the stories of these three characters, Sornig also tells the strange and wild history of the landmass along Footscray Road, a West Melbourne badlands if ever there was one.
Elsie Williams would walk the streets of North Melbourne, drunk and singing, picking fights, experiencing the racism that went along with the White Australia policy. Lauder Rogge had the misfortune of being German when Australia was frequently at war with that country. He experienced the humiliation of being interned as an enemy alien during the First World War. And finally Jack Peacock, who the authorities spent years trying to remove from Dudley Flats. An outsider, he preferred the lifestyle at the shanty town and never wanted to leave.
David Sornig has written a haunting and humane history of Melbourne’s Depression era, with its focus on the often lawless Dudley Flats, the down and out people who made a life there and the eerie, hostile zone of land that to this day still refuses to be gentrified. Blue Lake employs a novelist’s prose and imagination, bringing to life a seedy part of our city’s history, but done with a great sympathy and sensitivity. A book of superb imagination and scholarship that will transport you to a strange yet familiar land.
Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322743 RRP: $35
Review by Chris Saliba
A little known 1983 Swiss novel about man's brutal relationship to animals makes a welcome return.
Beat Sterchi is a Swiss writer whose only novel, Cow, examines in exhaustive detail the way animals are treated by humans as either amusing sentient beings or merely a commercial product on an abattoir factory line. Originally published in German under the title Blosch (meaning “blush”, as in the colour red), Cow is a work of great originality.
The novel has two narratives which alternate, chapter by chapter. The first chronicles a season at Farmer Knuschel’s dairy farm in the town of Innerwald. A Spanish foreign worker, Ambrosio, turns up as cheap labour and Farmer Knuschel is pleased with his work, but there are xenophobic rumblings in the town and some locals start agitating for the farm hand’s removal.
Another main character in this first narrative is the dairy cow, Blosch. She is described as an empress, the reigning queen of Farmer Knuschel’s stable of dairy cows. She has been producing bull calves for her entire reproductive career, but Farmer Knuschel would like her to produce a female calf.
The scenes in this first narrative have an idyllic, almost dreamlike quality, shot through with gentle satire and irony. They’re almost like something out of a story by Chekov or Gogol, with lush descriptions of rolling hills, green fields and hypnotically mooing cows.
The second narrative takes place seven years later, when Ambrosio is working at a nearby abattoir. The whole tone of these chapters is brutal and frank in describing the work of killing, dismembering and processing animal carcasses. It’s ugly, filthy and dangerous work. Intestines, lungs, hearts and all manner of body parts are pulled out, thrown onto assembly lines, dunked in sterilising baths and readied for sale. Workers, who are poor or foreign, often lose body parts due to the dangerous nature of the work. It’s really a hell on earth.
Into this bloody nightmare walks Blosch. After her majestic appearance in chapter one, it’s a shock to see her terrible fate in chapter two, the alternate abattoir chapter. Sterchi describes her awaiting her fate:
“She was civilised inside and out, horn to udder, even on the abattoir platform she remained submissive and meek.”
In further scenes the horror continues when one of Blosch’s calves is also sent to be slaughtered. As the novel continues, alternating between farm and abattoir, the idyllic is contrasted against the monstrous, even though both worlds are intimately connected.
Beat Sterchi trained as a butcher, and he seems to have had first hand experience of every aspect of how an abattoir is run. The detail is exhaustive - written almost with a poet’s eye for image and metaphor - and not simple shock value alone. The double narrative is well sustained over 400 pages and never gets bogged down, despite the subject matter. The energetic pace, mixed with the wide cast of characters, keeps the reader on their toes. Cow reads like a classic, with its own unique voice, language and themes, all effortlessly woven together.
There are obvious parallels with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the classic expose of Chicago’s meat packing district. Cow exposes the ruthlessness of the capitalist system (the workers are always under pressure to work faster and produce more meat, no matter the dangers) and how foreign workers are exploited for their cheap labour. It also examines the relationship humans have with animals.
“The cow stood and bled, and it was as though she knew the long history of her kind, as if she knew she was one of those mothers cheated of their rich white milk, who had offered their teats for thousands of years, and for thousands of years had been devoured in recompense.”
Cow doesn’t preach a message, although it does hold up a mirror to the human soul. The view is dark and unsettling.
Cow, by Beat Sterchi. Head of Zeus. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fiendishly funny comedy of clashing personalities and competing interests.
Mitch Bishop is having a bad year. He’s up against it on all fronts. The Water Authority wants him to upgrade the channel on his struggling farm, an exorbitant expense he can ill afford. His conniving, rotten-to-the-core wife, Mandy, is working against his best interests, literally sleeping with the enemy. She’s got the hots for Stacey, an easily corrupted official from the Water Authority, and does some horse trading of her own during their afternoon trysts at the local pub.
When Neralie McIntosh moves back to their small town after a five year stint making money in Sydney, the sparks are set to fly. Neralie was Mitch’s only true love. It was only through a series of unfortunate circumstances that Mitch ended married to the awful Mandy. But Mandy isn’t about to let Mitch and Neralie live happily ever after. Over her dead body. Not that she’s jealous, or wants Mitch for herself. Her interests are purely financial. She wants to reap whatever the farm’s worth and is ready to trade the property’s water rights.
Rosalie Ham’s The Year of the Farmer is a fiendishly funny novel set in a small farming community. It has a wide, fully fleshed cast of characters, all convincingly drawn and true to life. The dialogue is whip smart and sharply observed. Ham really captures the laconic, clipped, no-nonsense language of the Aussie pub, shopping strip and home kitchen, with all its humour and blunt irony. This is an Australia you’ll easily recognise. The plot is a chunky, interlocking affair, dealing with farming politics, pointless bureaucracy, government agency corruption, fast moving town gossip and fractious personal relationships.
At the centre of The Year of the Farmer is Mandy, an astonishingly malevolent force. She’s a bad seed who delights in ruining everyone’s day. She scratches a drawing of a penis and testicles on an enemy’s car, leaves the lights on so her elderly father-in-law will have to get up out of his chair, hopes the children at the local playground will break their necks and generally makes life intolerable. Mandy’s a brilliant comic invention, almost an Australian version of Thackery’s crass Becky Sharp. We know she will eventually have to get her comeuppance, as a small town can’t survive such a poisonous force, oozing bile everywhere.
The dedication at the start of the book is “For the Hams, farmers all”, and every page is full of intricate farm knowledge - of animals, weather, machinery, the land, water, farming science. Rosalie Ham seems to write from personal experience. The style and unflinching humour shows someone determined to lay the truth of farming life bare. She doesn’t eulogise the wonders of living on the land, but sticks to the unglamorous reality of petty fighting, miserable luck and the few yet considerable pleasures that the farming affords.
Tough, complex and funny, a cathartic read that also mesmerises with its skill, intelligence and wit.
The Year of the Farmer, by Rosalie Ham. Picador. RRP: $32.99
A buffoonish, pleasure-seeking state bureaucrat tries to suppress nightmare memories from his past.
Ma Daode has recently been appointed director of the China Dream Bureau. The Bureau’s project is one of national rejuvenation, a restatement of Communistic values. Ma decides the best way to do this is by erasing troubling memories of the past. He works on the idea of a ‘neural implant’, a chip that would be implanted in the brain, allowing the subject to live more perfectly the China Dream.
All should be going well for Ma. He has position, authority, wealth and a virtual harem of lovers. If only he weren’t troubled by such terrible memories, horrific images from his past. The worst memories are from the Cultural Revolution. In his youth Ma denounced his parents as “rightists”, joined a political faction and involved himself in killing, betrayal and ritual humiliations. His parents committed suicide and he can never forgive himself.
It is torture for Ma, trying to forget. He tries all sorts of diversions, but nothing works. Eventually he goes to a Qigong healer, Master Wang, who gives him a recipe for a concoction that will hopefully help him forget.
Chinese author Ma Jian, an exiled dissident who now lives in London, found the idea for this novel from President Xi Jinping’s call for a “China Dream of national rejuvenation”, one that would maintain economic success and restore China to its former glory. The novel is part satire and part political allegory, a study of the conflicted nature of the Chinese national psyche: past horrors such as the Cultural Revolution must be expunged from memory, even though they form a vital part of the country’s history.
China Dream is written with concision and clarity, perfectly animating its surreal and absurdist subject matter (full marks to Flora Drew’s superb translation). The character of Ma Daode is described almost as an affable fool. It’s easy to feel some sympathy for this clownish bungler, despite the terrible confessions from his past. Ma Jian’s surreal and ironic novel is reminiscent of Russian greats such as Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Bulgakov. It’s a work that examines the deep contradictions found in any national character that tries to suppress its past and has a universality beyond being a spoof of President Xi Jinping’s state propaganda.
China Dream, by Ma Jian. Published by Chatto and Windus. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books