Thursday 19 October 2017

Australian national treasure looks back on his boyhood

Essays: The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton, Picador, hdbk, 320 pages, €20.49

Recalling a childhood: Surfer Tim Winton grew up in Perth
Recalling a childhood: Surfer Tim Winton grew up in Perth
The Boy Behind the Curtain

Tim Winton is one of Australia's best-loved novelists. Melancholy but humorous, lyrical but boisterous, his stories feature strong women and troubled men, struggling in a land of "utes" (pick-up trucks), "thongs" (flip-flops) and the occasional "roo". In 1997, he was officially declared a National Living Treasure, and in 2010 his face appeared on a postage stamp.

The Boy Behind the Curtain is a collection of autobiographical essays. Several recall his boyhood in the working-class Perth suburb of Karrinyup and the town of Albany, where "battlers" enjoyed nosh-ups of mince on toast, while exuding the odours of "fags, sugar and the beefy whiff of free-range armpit".

Most connect to his fiction, sometimes directly. The title piece recalls how, at the age of 13, soon after the move to Albany, when Winton felt quite lost, he liked to lurk behind the Terylene curtains of his parents' bedroom and aim an unloaded.22 rifle at passers-by, a "charged and sneaky compulsion" that gave him a "queasy buzz". In his story 'Long, Clear View', another boy does the same thing, only the rifle is loaded.

One of the longer pieces is 'Havoc: A Life in Accidents'. It begins when he was nine, driving home in the dark with his father, and they were overtaken by a motorbike, which crashed. He recalls the biker's screams, his "twitching, mutinous legs" as he tried to stand up, the way his face had become raw meat.

This prompts an earlier memory of how, four years earlier, his father, a policemen, was almost killed by a careless driver. Then his memory spools forward to yet another car crash, when he was 18, which left him with a "stiff and flukey spine", but was in its way a gift, as he married his nurse, and it compelled him to begin writing in earnest; by the time he left university he had written three books.

Those accidents also supplied him with his principal subject. "Being a copper's son, I've always got one eye out for trouble. I can't help it." The editor of a New York magazine once rejected a story of his on the grounds that "the shark attack came out of nowhere". But that is obviously what shark attacks do, as does trouble generally. "Although trouble loves the careless and the impulsive, in the end it's pretty democratic; it'll jump anyone, really."

In 'Twice on Sundays', he remembers the strenuous worship demanded by his family's Calvinism - "a yeoman farmer's religion, the province of humble folk and autodidacts". There were sermons that "softened you up, stalked you around corners, and ended up as muggings of the first order", and communion was celebrated with water crackers and grape juice. His mother's side of the family thought the Wintons "wowsers" (killjoys). As a "post-evangelical", he now prefers liturgical worship, "the more bells and smells, the better", but puritanism has bequeathed him a useful hatred of the bad faith involved in political correctness, and he recalls it with fondness and respect. The Authorised Version prepared him for Shakespeare, taught him about language, and launched him as a writer.

So, too, did surfing, which he has been doing for 50 years - "a completely pointless exercise", which is the beauty of it. At his desk he turns up and waits for hours, "bobbing in a sea of memories", until a wave of energy arrives, and he rides it. "Then it's all flow. And I'm dancing."

There's some wonderful sea-writing, about whales ("shining slabs twisting in the air as if blown out of the water)", and naturally about sharks, "our secular substitute for the Devil". Sharks are "beautiful and misunderstood", and unjustly persecuted. "Bees kill many more Australians than do sharks every year," he points out, "but there is no war on bees".

Winton is a fierce conservationist - his role in the 2002 campaign to save Ningaloo Reef helped it become a World Heritage site - but he is a polemical champion of people, too: of Aboriginals, who he says are worse off now than they were in his childhood; and of refugees, whose treatment he deplores as a betrayal of Australia's "tradition of mateship".

Clive James, born 20 years earlier than Winton, into the same class but in metropolitan Sydney rather than provincial Perth, set a high standard for this sort of thing with his Unreliable Memoirs. Winton is a more reliable writer, and more sober (though he can be exuberantly funny), but The Boy Behind the Curtain meets that standard, and will delight even those unfamiliar with his fiction.

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