Monday, 17 October 2016

Peripheries, centres, home part 2 - Tim Winton and WA

What is peripheral and what is central are, obviously enough I suppose, relative terms. When we moved back to North Wales, a Southern English friend said "but it's very remote." It's a long way by UK standards from there he lives, and he clearly saw it as a periphery. But where we live now is about as far from Manchester airport as Bristol is from Heathrow.

When as a student in 1967 I rented a delightfully primitive cottage from an Anglesey farmer, we were settling the rent in his kitchen and he asked me where I was from. To cut a longish story short, I said "London." He nodded, said "I went there - once..." and left it hanging in the air. It seems once was enough, for him. London was a distant periphery to his world, his preoccupations, responsibilities, interests.

Not that I want to set up one of those pointlessly polarised north-south, us-and-them arguments. Southerners, I've found, can occasionally arouse resentments at worst and piss-taking at least amongst Northerners, just by being Southerners. And let's not even get into Welsh/English stuff... Let's stick, quite neutrally, to ideas of centres and peripheries, home and away.

Five years later, in Grundisburgh, Suffolk, Joe Pike the osier (basket-weaver) who looked and sounded like someone from a previous century, asked us where we lived. "Waldringfield," we said. His face lit up, as he told us that when he went there, someone was selling oranges on the river-bank; "yis," he said, "I bin there once." It's about eight miles from Grundisburgh to Waldringfield.

In the eyes of the world, London is more significant than Grundisburgh, of course, and that's not just its size. Scienceartseducationtradegovernmentfinance. But surely what we do is set up our own centres, to which other places seem peripheral, unknowable, even, no matter what the world tells us.

The novelist Tim Winton

 is not only Australian, he's from the West Australian coast, where he still lives and writes. He's lived and travelled abroad, but he's a creature of this coast - which is huge, and mostly, outside Perth and a few other smallish coastal towns, very empty. "Underdeveloped," as people who want to make money out of a place might say. It's about as far from Albany on WA's southern coast to Karratha, on the northern coast, as it is from Santiago de Compostella, the NW corner of Spain, to Amsterdam.

Winton writes what I think are very fine novels, and he is known and celebrated around the world. His novels are mostly set in rural/coastal WA; he is, as one critic wrote, a man "of the littoral," a fisherman, surfer, writer, naturalist. 

WA is peripheral even to many Australians; there are fewer people living in WA than there are in Wales, and the population density is 0.9 people per square kilometer. (Says Wikipedia.) In Wales it's 148, and very much higher in England, of course. WA, even Perth itself, is the one place many visitors to Australia don't get to. So you could say it's on the edge of most people's consciousness as well as on the edge of a continent.

In his collection of essays "Island Home" Winton describes how in his youth, Australian references in novels risked seeming merely local and parochial - possibly incomprehensible to readers in Europe or America, the great "centres" of literary awareness and production. Or worst of all, quaint - like the occasional Aussie entertainer on BBC children's TV in the 50s. Tie me kangaroo down, sport, indeed. Anyone else over 65 remember Shirley Abicair?
                                                                  I rest my case.

What Winton has done is what any powerful "regional" writer does - make his region a centre. Hardy's Dorset, Dickens' London underworld, George Eliot's Midlands. He uses his context and makes it open out to people who have never visited it. He makes that context absorbing, specific yet also relevent anywhere in the world where a reader enjoys his books. 

Winton's local identity he takes further, in his own life, by arguing for a re-alignment of Australian attitudes, away from seeking to master the environment (the huge challenge for early European settlers) towards accepting and giving, being a part of it; he draws on and champions Aboriginal cultures' understanding of the natural world. He has fought, fiercely and successfully, as part of the movement to stop the exploitation of the Ningaloo Reef, WA's equivalent to the Barrier Reef.

Winton writes interestingly, in "Island Home," of how he came to think that he could reach a wide readership despite filling his work with local references - flora, fauna, land-forms. I often have to look them up, and I like that sort of independent, take it or leave it attitude. His world matters as much as, say, Ian McEwan's London, because he has written it out across the world.

What, I hear you cry, has all this to do with my usually meditative themes? 

Because the whole idea of centres and peripheries might be superficially useful, but it is ultimately problematic - potentially misleading and restrictive. As an old boss of mine used to say (when the waste products hit the ventilation arrangements) "well, OK, but we are where we are." 

Winton didn't become an Aussie import somewhere else, in one of the great litrary capitals. He made where he was a node of awareness, let's say, rather than a centre.

Maybe each of us, wherever we may be, is a node of awareness. Looking for the centre somewhere else in some other time is a false trail. (On the practical level, in the age of the internet this is even more obviously true.) We haven't all got Winton's power to bring a geographical edge into the centre of the consciousness of people all around the world. But each of us can turn away from a fruitless quest to be somewhere else that seems more important.

Someone I know well, living in Delhi, said he wanted to travel more widely in India. Natural enough, of course. But he also said he wanted to see "the real India." But the real India, for him, was what he saw every morning when he opened his eyes. The other India was merely a future possibility. We need to keep it real, whether we are in Bloomsbury or Greenough WA. 

Hats off to Winton for doing just that in his books, e.g. "Dirt Music," "Breath," "That Eye The Sky," " The Riders," (set in Ireland, if I remember well, which is only an even bet) "The Turning" (stories) "Eyrie" (set in a tower block but still I think, in WA - I haven't read it yet) and "The Shallows," set in a fictionalised version of Albany, the last whaling town in Western Australia, where Winton spent part of his youth.

No comments: