Tim’s Winton’s latest, a memoir of his childhood that also touches on life on the veranda at the edge of the sea is the kind of book an author can only really get away with if they have climbed over the fence into the land of respected critical darling. It’s tremendously slight (weighing in at a scant 113 pages of quite large typeface), the kind of book you will easily read in an afternoon – and yet, for all that, it’s quite beautiful and affecting and wise, in that ‘when was the last time you stared ruminatively out to sea and pondered the workings of the world’ sort of way.
What the book reveals to us is a writer for whom both the world – where he was ‘fishing, diving, swimming, surfing, lighting fires, rowing boats, feeling the landscape rush in from all sides’ – and the world of books had powerful and lasting impacts. After discovering the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and The Coral Island in a relation’s library, he writes:
‘In many ways I’m still that open-mouthed boy, turning the pages, wanting to know what happens next; who pored, perved, flicked and sniffed his way from wall to wall every afternoon all those years ago.’
His place in a community that exists on the edge, with desert on one side and sea on the other, helps foster in Winton this idea of life that stretches back through Thomas Wolfe to Ernest Hemingway: life to be lived and books to be written and read. He regales us with stories of ‘the frenzy at Cape Cuvier, the presence of the whale sharks at Exmouth [and] the dolphins at Monkey Mia’, experiences that Winton feels help explain what it is to be Australian:
‘Blessings? Miracles? Blame it on a childhood of Sunday Schools if you like. Call them marvels or natural wonders. At the very least they are rare and precious encounters, and some of them are all the more vulnerable, all the more uplifting because they are so public.’
The writing, as you’d expect, is frequently beautiful, like a description of alien and unfamiliar terrain:
‘Scalyfin and silver trevally turn carefully from me and a breaksea cod hovers above the brow of the reef and the shadows of the overhand are thick with pomfrets, buffalo bream and even a foxfish that lies orange and upside down like a wilful bohemian.’
More than anything, what we are given here is a glimpse into the inner workings of Winton himself, an opportunity to ponder those things that move and inspire him. Here he is talking about daily rituals:
‘Where I live, if I don’t see the ocean every day, even if it’s just the eight a.m. ritual of rolling by the jetty for a minute where everyone in the town seems to gather before work to see the state of things, then I become restless and anxious. I have the same feeling if I don’t have a book to read or when I haven’t worked for several days in a row.’
Any Cop?: Fans will of course want to read this but it’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a good introduction to the novels. The writing here is the hook. If you read this and feel it snagging your cheek, make a beeline for Dirt Music. You won’t be disappointed.