A COUPLE of months ago, I was talking with a fellow Novocastrian about the pull of the city where we were born.
That Newcastle boy is John Olsen, one of Australia’s greatest painters. Olsen was born in Cooks Hill, and, while his family moved to Sydney when he was seven, Newcastle has remained in his soul and his art. Olsen’s memories and observations of the harbour city at the mouth of a river-nurtured region have helped guide his brushes through a new painting, King Sun & the Hunter, currently being exhibited at Newcastle Art Gallery. As we chatted about Newcastle and his painting, Olsen quoted from another source of inspiration for the image, the poetry of T.S. Eliot.
“I do not know much about gods,” Olsen recited from Four Quartets, “but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god …”
As I looked at the blue line of the Hunter River squiggling through Olsen’s landscape, I thought of another line from Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Home is where one starts from”.
Just as John Olsen had followed that blue line back to where he came from, drawing deeply from the river and the harbour, I was also preparing to set out on a new adventure in a place people warn you to never visit: the past. Where John had journeyed in paint, I was about to travel to in reality.
GROWING up in Newcastle, I loved watching the ships glide past Nobbys and out to sea. As the great carriers shrank while they headed for the horizon, I wondered where they were going and what it was like over there. In time, I had the opportunity to be like those ships and travel to other parts of the globe.
Nobbys drifted out of my sight but never out of my mind. Nor did the people and places that gave me that opportunity. After all, home is where one starts from.
In early 1984, I was employed as a cadet journalist at the Newcastle Herald. I was delighted to be offered the cadetship, because I was being paid to write stories, and I could drop out of the Arts degree I was studying for in Sydney. I was 19, and what I lacked in general knowledge I papered over with layers of feigned confidence. The cadetship improved both of those shortcomings. Each day, I would meet some fascinating person or be afforded an amazing experience and then be given time and space to write about it. Consequently, each night I would go to sleep knowing something I had no idea about when I had woken up that morning. More than feed my desire to see the world, the cadetship was teaching me to watch it, and to learn from it. As my knowledge increased, I realised how little I knew.
Soon after completing my cadetship, I enrolled at the University of Newcastle to finish the Arts degree.The Herald allowed me to keep writing a weekly column about rock music, which, other than words, is a passion of mine. Once I graduated, not even words and music were enough to quell youth and wanderlust. I travelled in parts of Asia and spent about 15 months in Tokyo, studying and working part-time as a teacher, and as a copy editor for the Japanese public service, all the while trying to improve my language skills and modify the inflections I had learnt by copying my female lecturers and tutors at uni in Newcastle. As one of my Tokyo colleagues advised me, “You speak Japanese like a woman!” This both surprised and flattered me. I thought I spoke Japanese like a child.
Returning to Australia, I slipped back into journalism, but I’ve never had a career. That would imply some structure. Still, my meandering approach has taken me to some wonderful, and occasionally scary, places and led me to some extraordinary people. Which has allowed me to tell some interesting stories. But I haven’t felt lost in my wanderings. My reference point has been the Hunter, and the lessons I learnt here.
That’s why, after I returned from a posting as the ABC’s Moscow correspondent in 2010, I paddled down the Hunter River in my kayak, pulling into the banks and talking to people about what that body of water meant to them. I wrote a book about the journey, and later made a documentary, but it was also a wonderful way to remind me who I am.
Now I’m back to where I came from, physically and professionally. Yet it doesn’t feel like the past.
For one thing, I’ve changed. Just take a look at that photo exhumed from the archives. Advice to my younger self: “Get a haircut!”. But like the river that has nurtured and inspired me, life doesn’t go backwards. It twists and turns, but essentially the current flows one way. So I haven’t returned to my past. I’m heading into my future.
But one thing hasn’t changed. I still go to bed each night having learnt something I didn’t know that morning. I have a lot more to learn from, and about, the people and places of my home region. And I’ll write about what I learn. As T.S. Eliot wrote in one of those poems that inspired John Olsen:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.