This was written for a proposed tenth anniversary re-issue of Time's Long Ruin in 2020. It explores some ideas about the book.
Time’s Long Ruin starts with long walks around Croydon, a city fringe suburb in Adelaide’s west. Down-at-heel, nonetheless, it allows me a backdrop – homes to fill with families, a row of shops that have been empty for years, since the first supermarkets destroyed this perfect blend of cold store, house, gossip, shared plums and an envelope, with five quid, slipped under a neighbour’s door when he was out of work. On my way to the train every morning I pass a cottage and bungalow in Thomas Street that soon houses the Rileys (three kids, mum and dad) and the Pages (nine year old Henry, his detective father and troubled mother). Despite ten years of media tags, running something like, ‘Stephen Orr’s Beaumont children book’, the story was always about Henry, how he grows up, his friends, Adolf Eichmann, the couple across the road who’ve lost their son, the neighbourhood clairvoyant, and a dozen others. It’s Henry’s take on the world, how this boy – wanting to see the best in everyone, to believe in his father, to love his mother, needing whatever passes for normality, a set of values – learns that life isn’t always contained in, or explained by, books, but in the way people act towards each other.
Henry is the most unusual of Australian kids. His club foot makes him slow, clumsy, happy to watch, observe, write things down and turn them into stories. This, of course, is a writer describing a writer’s childhood. The reluctance to bother with sport, to accept the agreed upon version of life most kids then, and now, receive at home and school. A critical thinker, but more importantly, someone who wishes for a different world. Sets out to see if his can be changed, and discovering it can’t (Australia, with its love of red meat, full forwards, sunny days and simple stories) retreats into his old house, his books, the small things that remind him of those days in 1960.
This book is hand-written on five hundred foolscap pages, typed up, edited (not much – every writer believes in an already perfect version of his or her world) and entered in an unpublished manuscript competition. Strangely, it’s scribbled in the basement of Adelaide University’s Barr Smith Library, within reach of books about molluscs, Ribbentrop and differential calculus. Just the sort of place Henry might spend his days exploring. As the boy becomes real, wanders the page, growing more defined and believable, demanding I keep writing, despite a sore hand and twitching finger, and the woman who takes hours to re-shelve a few books. But even she’s worth watching. The way she searches the shelf, finds the spot, widens it, blows the dust, inserts the volume, lines up the spines. Like all of this might add up to understanding – books telling stories, stories making books.
The book is named The Second Fouling Mark. Interesting, because it a) sounds arty and impenetrable and b) sums up another theme of interest: not knowing. Henry, unable to explain a distant mother; Bob Page, unable to find the three missing kids from next door, letting down his neighbours, his son, his city; Con and Rosa and the miraculous tree in their yard. And here’s me, on a tram, passing a sign that says THE SECOND FOULING MARK, and wondering what this means. I don’t know; no one knows. What if, I ask myself, it can’t be known? What if the kids aren’t found, Henry never recovers, we, none of us, really work out who we are, why we’re here? But of course the mystery makes it (doesn’t it, Henry?) worthwhile. I mean, explanations aren’t really explanations. And if you find out, and if you know, what do you know? Just things. Nothing that matters. Con and Rosa settle on God, old Henry chooses Voltaire.
The manuscript wins the competition, emerges, almost two years later, in its present form. The reviews are generally understanding, with one or two people saying it’s not my job, my right, to screw around with other people’s stories. Although when I explain that this is what fiction does (given, some stories with bigger gaps between the thing and the word), some can’t accept, or perhaps understand, my choice of material. Everything, apparently, has to be put through the wash, bleached, made generic, and if your story is too close to something that’s happened, then there’s a certain arrogance, a presumption (not to mention an obvious lack of originality) involved. I, apparently, had not covered my tracks enough. In the same way Patrick White mixed up Leichhardt and Voss, Jimmy Governor becomes Blacksmith, not to mention the hand that didn’t really sign the paper. This was hard for me to fathom. I concluded, later, that certain stories should be left lying, quietly, in the shade, because the events, and their implications, are too uncomfortable. But I don’t think anything is beyond the grasp of fictions that attempt to tackle the unspeakable, the unthinkable. What’s unthinkable? Nothing. In this (and now I am talking about the disappearance of the Beaumont children in 1966) lies a chance to make sense of a moment, a few whispered words that have been obscured by niceties that have done nothing by way of correction.
The book sells well, is reprinted and, in 2012, becomes the South Australian selection for the National Year of Reading’s Our Story promotion. Many people hate this. I mean, there are happier books, aren’t there? I speak at libraries, the standout being the wonderful people of Yorketown, who turn the Melville Hotel into a sort of reimagined Thomas Street. I take Henry to Port Augusta, Roxby Downs, and beyond. Since then, the story you hold in your hands has led to piano music, a yet-to-be performed opera (libretto by Adam Goodburn, music by Anne Cawrse), and the usual film interest that dissipates in the haze of the next bloke-dog yarn.
Through all this, Henry persists, wandering his lounge room, vacuuming the Berber that should, he believes, see him out. I’m not sure what works, or doesn’t, in this story; what causes people to pause, place the book in their lap, and think for a moment. I certainly don’t know if it has any chance of lasting. I didn’t set out to answer any questions, least of all what happened to Jane, Arnna and Grant. Some people think I should’ve. I’ve had them at my front door, emails, letters, photos of where the kids were supposedly taken, and kept, and far worse. I’ve been attacked (as have the makers of Innocence, the opera) on the front page of grotty newspapers by commentators (having never read the book) who seek to misrepresent the story as gruesome, tasteless. I’ve heard the curses on talkback, the Goebbelish rants of shock jocks continuing the fine Australian tradition of kulcher-bashing. All because I was fascinated by the problem of continuing (as Samuel Beckett said: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on’), when this seems impossible. And isn’t that all of our lives from time to time? In exploring Thomas Street, in life and in the literary dream, I tried to understand something big by describing something small. Any failure to do so is entirely my, and Henry’s, fault.
SO February 2019
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, microgrammes, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.