Authors: Robert Manne
Published by Black Inc.,
an imprint of Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd
Introduction & selection: Â© Robert Manne and Black Inc. 2014
Robert Manne asserts his moral rights in the collection.
Individual essays Â© retained by authors, who assert their
rights to be known as the author of their work.
Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders
of material in this book. However, where an omission has
occurred, the publisher will gladly include acknowledgement in any future edition.
ISBN 9781863956956 (pbk)
ISBN 9781922231871 (ebook)
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any
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the prior consent of the publishers.
* * *
This is the second innings of my invitation to edit
The Best Australian Essays.
By now I have a clearer view of the task. Originally, I had thought of an
as any brief piece of nonfiction prose. I no longer do. I have learnt on the job what I think an essay is by discovering what I think it is not.
An essay is not an article written for an academic journal, with its specialist audience, arcane language and scholarly apparatus of references and endnotes. Nor is it a piece of long-form journalism whose purpose is to report objectively on one or another state of affairs where the voice of the author is (or at least appears to be) erased. Although some essays might begin their life as speeches â I once heard Isaiah Berlin deliver his dazzling essay on Turgenev, âFathers and Children', in a baroque theatre in Oxford â an essay is not the record of the kind of speech that cuts corners and deploys rhetoric to stir the political passions of an audience. What is it, then?
For me at least, an essay is a reasonably short piece of prose in which we hear a distinctive voice attempting to recollect or illuminate or explain one or another aspect of the world. It follows from this that no essay could be jointly authored. It also follows that, with an essay, we trust that the distinctive voice we hear is truthful or authentic, even when perhaps it is not. One of the essays I most admire is George Orwell's âShooting an Elephant', which I read as a schoolboy. I was rather shocked when I later learned that the incident which the author recollects in the first person might have been an invention. Sometimes, as with one of my favourites in this collection, the line between the essay and the short story can be unnervingly unclear.
What, then, is an
essay? Originally, I thought the answer to this question was straightforward. An Australian essay was one written by an Australian citizen, resident or expatriate. On the job, I have come to think things are a little more complicated. Sometimes an essay written by an Australian has nothing to do with Australia, and is obviously written with a particular non-Australian audience in mind. I am reluctant to think of this kind of essay as Australian. Sometimes, on the other hand, an essay written by an outsider is so revealing about an aspect of this country that I think of it as an Australian essay.
Last year I included an essay on Australia and coal by the world's leading global-warming activist, who had paid us a fleeting visit. This year I have included an essay by an American who, disguised as an asylum seeker, journeyed from Afghanistan to Christmas Island. I have included it because, for us, the asylum-seeker issue is now so overshadowed by two decades of cultural combat that in its compassionate but cool-headed empiricism it is the kind of essay no Australian could write.
There is another dimension to this question. While some of the essays collected here have no direct connection to Australia â on Kafka, or the poetry of D.H. Lawrence, or Doris Lessing, or the television masterpiece
â in each case they reflect the fact that they are written by an author deeply engaged in and sensitive to the intellectual life of this country. It is also important to me that the majority of the essays either directly or indirectly concern what is truly distinctive about this country's history, politics, culture, society or landscape. Although thoughts about this question were not in my mind as I made the selection, it now strikes me as obvious that an annual collection of Australian essays which is not vitally interested in the peculiar and particular quality of life in this country would be both odd and somehow disconcerting.
How does one decide what are the year's
essays? This is the most difficult issue of all. Some essays in this collection plunged me into thought. Some caused me to weep. Some brought tears of laughter. Some essays won me over by the power of their writers' imaginations. Some by their analytic clarity. Some by their excruciating honesty. Some by the pain of things past or present faced without flinching. Two forced their way into the collection by a single final line. I was attracted to several striking memoirs â which seems to me, as it did last year, one of the strongest forms of the contemporary essay â but not to those that seemed self-preoccupied. I was also attracted to serious essays but irritated, perhaps unduly, by the quality of earnestness. It was important to me that there was a balance not only of gender but also of age.
Inevitably, many of the essays I regarded as this year's best were written by this country's most admired writers. Two of my personal favourites, however, were written by authors almost entirely unknown to the general public. The collection moves from the private to the public world, and from the specific to the general. My hope is that through its order (concerning which I am obsessed) it will add up to at least a little more than the sum of its parts. There were very many essays I would have liked to include for which there was insufficient space. To these authors I offer apology. There is no task more likely to cause unintended offence than editing a collection of best anythings. Before writing this introduction I asked if I might see the page proofs. Only then did I realise what the word âbest' meant for me. It was an essay that one had already read several times and looked forward to reading again.
Sincere thanks are due to the in-house editor of this collection, SiÃ¢n Scott-Clash; to my very good friends and collaborators in many enterprises, the estimably intelligent publisher at Black Inc., Chris Feik, and its creative and generous guiding spirit, Morry Schwartz; and above all to the authors in this collection, whose words helped restore flagging faith in this presently wayward but fundamentally decent and interesting country.
Listen to me. I am going to tell you a story about America in the days when there was poverty in San Ginese and we used to go there to make money. I will try my best to tell it well, with skilful use of words and with the addition of some feeling from my heart.
At the age of twenty-four my father Vitale started working for the Madera Canyon Pine Company in California as a Whistle Punk. From Whistle Punk he was promoted to Teamster. His favourite horse was a docile, intelligent giant of an animal, a French Percheron.
The Percheron waited patiently for the man to tell him when to start pulling, when to stop, when to back up. Vitale, who had been living at an Italian working men's hotel in Fresno before moving to the logging camp, spoke no English. He was lonely in California and missed his family and the life of the village so the horse was a welcome companion.
Although there was a good camaraderie between the men in the camp, and the team even included some Italians from north of Venice near the Austrian border, who were expert timber-cutters and tree-fellers, Vitale was most at home with his loyal Percheron. He was what was known then as a proper Tuscan peasant and knew the proper Tuscan peasant's work. This meant he was used to working with animals, in particular the cows back in the village that pulled the haycarts and ploughs and gave milk that was made into butter and cheese and every year gave birth to a calf which could be sold. The stable near the back door of the kitchen at his father's house always housed one or two cows and their calves.
Now that he was responsible for looking after a horse, feeding it, grooming it, making sure it was strong and healthy and happy and ready to pull the log, stop or back up, Vitale was proud. He was the Whistle Punk when he first started, as this was the work they gave to young or inexperienced men, and he was proud of his promotion to Teamster. In San Ginese only the rich people owned horses and looking after this horse made him feel rich.
He was happy that he could at least feel rich as his American adventure had not been as successful as he had hoped it would be. In seven years he had earned his own living but had not made his fortune. That would come soon but he did not know it yet. He intended to return to Italy when the time was right and marry. That too would come, but in the pine forest that day he was reflecting on his bad luck and felt disappointment and frustration.
The day before the incident government officials visited the logging camp and asked him and the other men a lot of questions. The officials completed a form with all his details. They asked him whether he claimed exemption from the military draft and he said he did claim it. He did not want to join the army because he wanted to look after his parents (or âfolks', as the American official wrote on the draft card). This was not the only time they had come looking for him and he was always worried that they were going to conscript him. Although he did not know this at the time, this had already happened to two brothers of his future wife, who were from a neighbouring village (Colognora, which had an ancient cherry tree his Australian grandson would climb one day). So his future brothers-in-law were drafted and sent to fight in France. What he did know was that right now there was a war in Europe and he did not want to go to the war. He managed to lie low and on a few occasions when he felt it would be safer to hide, he hid. Even his employers helped hide him, so that after the war he was able to return to Italy without serving in the army of the United States of America.
As he was reflecting on his poor American luck he was also troubled by this official visit. Thoughts of bad luck and ominous officialdom chased each other through his head and gave him no rest the night before the incident.
On that day the Percheron was reluctant to follow the man's instructions. He sensed the man was distracted. The Percheron waited to be acknowledged, for his presence to be appreciated. Just a word, a friendly tap on the shoulder. He could not work unless he sensed the partnership between him and the man. Then he realised that not only was the man distracted but that he himself was too. He could no longer read the signals coming from the man. He didn't know whether he was being asked to pull or stop or back up. Having failed to establish the working rapport he tried very hard to work without it but kept getting it wrong. And yet they had worked together for several months now. The horse loved the man and responded well to him. He sensed that the man was an experienced handler of draft animals, although the horse didn't think of himself in those terms exactly. He didn't think of himself as a draft animal. The Percheron thought of himself as himself.
Vitale knew that the only way to work with a horse was to use a psychological approach, because a man's strength cannot match that of a horse. He normally tried to anticipate the horse's likely behaviour and gently and consistently encouraged responses consistent with the needs of the work. So what happened that day was a shock to both the man and the horse. Vitale was surprised to learn that he was capable of doing such a thing, he who in his later life, as he grew to be very old, would have a reputation in the village and the surrounding district for gentleness of manner and whose son would tell stories to his grandchildren about their gentle grandfather. When the village spoke about him decades later mention was made also of his father Tista, from whom the mild manners were inherited, and how the gentle nature was in the blood of the family.
Vitale spoke to the horse and tugged and tapped the horse in the usual way, and the Percheron did not move. He called out again, louder, and shook the reins. The horse tried to back up.
Vitale lost his temper and picked up a tree branch from the floor of the pine forest and struck the horse on the side of the head.
Now, the eyesight of horses is designed to see well for grazing and looking out for danger at the same time, but they adjust their range of vision by lowering and raising their head. Horses are also a little colour-blind. In the pine forest the Percheron could see the green of the trees but not the browns and greys of the carpet of pine needles, could see the blue of the sky but not the white of the clouds. In what is therefore a landscape resembling a drab mosaic, objects that are still convey very little information to a horse. Nor can horses see things nearer than three feet directly in front of their faces without moving their heads.
The Percheron did not see the blow coming, although the man was quite close to him.
Maybe it was his mind churning over the bad luck, the government officials, their questions, the war. Perhaps it was his true secret nature, tired of being buried under the gentleness and kindness that would become his trademark, that for once in his life ripped its way out of his guts and into the freedom at last of the warm June air.
The horse quickly pulled back and reared up and away from the blow, tossed its head and screamed, pawed at the ground and continued screaming in pain. The scream of a horse may sometimes be referred to as a whinny or a neigh but these words may disguise the horror a horse can feel. A horse can indeed scream and it is a horrible thing to hear.
Hidden in the screams was a frantic wish for the pain to stop and a prayer that it would go away, and panic at a world that had turned upside down in an instant. The man was a stranger suddenly and a monster.
But the eyeball had popped out of its socket and was split and the horse was blind in one eye.
Vitale pulled hard and held the leather reins tight to prevent the horse from bolting. He struggled with his friend the horse and spoke to him reassuringly. He was finally acknowledging the horse's willing presence. He hid his own disgust at his own violence from himself as well as he could. When the horse had calmed down and was crying in silence and Vitale was exhausted, not only physically but also in his emotions, and barely still holding on, he removed his shirt and wrapped it around the horse's head and over the frightening eye. He took water from the drinking bucket and soaked the improvised bandage hoping the cool would soothe the pain.
With the noise of the horse some of the other men came running. Vitale understood the enormity of what he had done. He told the boss that the horse had walked into a low-hanging branch and had poked its eye out and that he had done his best to calm it down. See how he had bandaged the head? The gentle man accompanied the Percheron back to the camp in silence, one hand stroking the thick, powerful neck. The precise details of the Percheron's fate after this are not known as Vitale did not remain with the Madera Canyon Pine Company much longer.
Soon after, he left the logging camp and continued working in the vineyards around Fresno where he made his fortune.
I was a little boy when my father Vitale told me this story and I cried all night at the thought of the large, innocent, blind horse. My father later added a brief epilogue to the story of the blinding, and that was that the horse continued to work with one good eye. When I became a man and reflected on this I wondered whether this little addition to the story was true or whether my father made it up. I also wondered why my father would tell me the story of the Percheron, and decided that it was because the truth is sometimes necessary, especially to a gentle man seeking absolution.
After I had emigrated to Australia and had been away sixty years and my father was long dead, I myself having reached the age at which he died, the time came when all that was left for me was to reflect on certain events in my own life. It was then that I imagined that sometimes at night, in the silence of the old house, my father Vitale, the gentle man who lived to be eighty-nine and whom everybody loved, remembered the Percheron and wept.