Saturday, 30 January 2016

Island Home

Tim Winton’s ‘landscape memoir’ indicates his central thesis: that the sense of place that is unique in Australia is what shapes him, and if we follow Winton’s logic, all of us (if only we would allow it). While the chapters are not completely sequential, he opens in County Offaly, Ireland, in 1988, and ends on Anzac Day (in what feels like a recent reflection). Most of the memoir is about Winton’s Australian life and the local landscape, though he does take us to Europe on occasion– where he feels that architecture cannot compensate for the lack of a wide sky since he ‘was calibrated differently to a European’ (p.14).

For various personal reasons of my own travels, I really enjoyed the chapters that dealt directly with expatriate issues: ‘The Island Seen and Felt’, ‘Waychinicup, 1987’, and particularly the essay, ‘The Power of Place’. Winton has spoken on these matters before – that sense in which he is a writer on the wrong side of a continent on the wrong side of the hemisphere. Here he links questions of language, and engagement with place, to the colonial hang-ups and the need for Australians to embrace the land more directly, as he has so wonderfully demonstrated in this memoir. Despite misgivings about urban development and threats to the land from commerce and mining, Winton remains optimistic that a cultural shift is occurring on his island home:

Most of us are better at claiming than being claimed, and when it comes to thinking about land and home this is a hard lesson Australians have been learning since settlement. But after two centuries of demanding and seizing, many non-indigenous Australians have finally begun to commit. Our reverence, from love, in a spirt of kinship to the place itself’ (pp.221-222).

I very much valued reading Winton’s insights into place, not only from a geopolitical, post-colonial outlook, but also for the language he brings to bear in the descriptions of ‘rocks and stones and trees’ (to sound a little post-Romantic). The memoir is an object lesson in itself, in other words, to the idea that Australian writers and painters need to engage more deeply with the land in their works, for that is what is not only distinctive but ultimately what is important, moving towards an understanding of the sacred. Not for crown or state, but kindship to family and love of place.