Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton

It’s four years since I left WA and in that time I keep hearing about how it’s changed. ‘It’s so expensive.’ ‘The airport is full of miners in fluoro.’ ‘The place has changed.’

But I brush it off – I’ve been back many times in these four years and the port city of Fremantle where I grew up has been much the same in many ways. The differences have been small enough to ignore — after all, I’m there on holiday so it’s easier to stay disconnected.

Sunset from South Beach – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Gold 100 (exp 1989)

But after hearing Tim Winton speak at a Wheeler Centre event at Melbourne’s Town Hall in late October, all this talk about WA is starting to sink in.

I had mixed feelings going to see Winton speak about his new novel Eyrie. It’s set in Fremantle, one of the two places I call home. I was nervous about this famous novelist – even though he’s from the west – getting stuck into my town in his fiction. There was something odd about seeing Winton speak on the wrong side of the country – as though I might be mistaken for an east coaster, a Melbourne bohemian looking across the desert with a condescending eye towards that distant western city.

While that distant western city is so important to Winton’s Eyrie, his conversation with Michael Williams at the Melbourne Town Hall illuminated far more than the novel itself. I came away with a sense of the intellectual milieu in which Winton operates, driven by a strong consciousness of class divisions and of environmental degradation.

Yet it would seem Winton writes not with specific intent to provide social comment, but rather to tell the story of his characters – characters who arrive, fully formed, in his imagination. His characters ‘bubble up out of the ecosystem’, Winton said, for that’s where he starts – ‘with a place’.

This language of nature is woven through Winton’s words, not only when discussing environmental issues but also when discussing writing. Like elements of an ecosystem, Winton’s characters would be little on their own: the depth of his fiction lies in the interactions between them.

Even Eyrie, at first a story of a man hiding from the world, by all accounts (I am yet to read it, as I’m saving this particular pleasure for my next visit home) is a novel that ultimately turns on relationships. Like an ecosystem, the characteristics of the landscape determine what grows there; so too the ‘place’ of Winton’s fiction determines the characters that emerge to him.

It makes sense then that Winton’s most scathing critiques are of environmental degradation and class inequalities. In the ‘place’ of Eyrie – Western Australia and specifically Fremantle – the mining boom has driven both these problems.

These problems sit tightly enmeshed for Winton: both are products of greed, of a society where economy and profit are prime. That which stands in the way (nature, environmental advocates) or cannot keep up (those in the lower-geared sectors of the economy or people who fall through society’s gaps) are pushed aside, stepped across and left behind.

Winton believes that class is a taboo subject no-one is game to discuss; the backlash against Wayne Swan’s criticisms of wealthy miners last year is perhaps one symptom of this. This taboo haunts Winton, a child of working class parents who has made good – now, he says, I’m ‘bourgeois’.

He places his gratitude for this class shift – one replicated throughout Australia over recent decades – in education. Winton, like my mother, the retiring professors at the university I work at and many of our senior politicians, was the beneficiary of university education that was made increasingly accessible in the 1960s and 70s. Winton clearly thinks it’s unacceptable that Australia, wealthy as we are as a nation, does not offer free university education. Scathingly, he noted that today’s politicians seem to be pulling the ladder up behind them once they reach positions of power.

Fremantle harbour from B Berth – MinoltaXG2, Fuji Superia 400

The 1960s, Winton said, allowed an ‘opening up’ of opportunity and he benefited from this – accessible university education, a freedom to live outside the predetermined expectations of society and a shift away from the stifling post-war cultural cringe. Winton’s writing is now steeped in this legacy: there is no cultural cringe in his novels.

This author who is now comfortably middle-class thanks to ‘the power of the pen’ sees a retraction or contraction of those opportunities that gave him so much. He describes a ‘retreat from a community into an economy’, so that ‘economy is no longer a product of endeavour but an end in itself’.

By his account, the characters in Eyrie reflect this: slipping through the cracks and lacking a community to look after them while all around the economy booms, Fremantle becomes ever more yuppified and the state grows fatly richer on the banks of a glistening Swan River.

My Western Australia is a place of sunshine and broad spaces; of bright, barefoot summers and beaches that are only more beautiful in winter. But Winton in his novels has never been blinded by the isolated magic of Australia’s biggest state. After hearing him speak, I suspect Eyrie might be the novel that cuts most deeply to the heart of a changing west.

First published on Kill Your Darlings on 11 November 2013.

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