Big in Coombah
I can report that Aunty Thel was wrong, and that there is something - I use the word 'something' rather loosely - on the 'Silver Highway' that connects the Murray River with Broken Hill. A mere hundred and fifty kilometres from the river town of Wentworth, the settlement of Coombah offers visitors tea, petrol, booze, maps, and insect repellant, as well as one or two unexpected literary treats. Coombah consists of a roadhouse, a couple of petrol pumps, and a toilet block whose stained doors flap in the wind that blows perpetually over the flat far west of New South Wales. A large board mounted beside the toilet block reprints the work of an anonymous 'local poet':
Most come here to shit and stink,
Others come here to sit and think.
Please make your stay in our dunny short
Or pull off some paper and take a walk.
As I approached the Coombah roadhouse I noticed a spectacularly fat man sitting on the verdandah of the building, resting his feet on a filthy brown rug. As I climbed the roadhouse steps, I noticed that the rug was a German shepherd. Man and beast snored and wheezed in tune.
Like many establishments of its kind, the Coombah roadhouse attempts to function as a store, a petrol station, a cafe, and a news agent in a space the size of the beer fridge of an average big city liquor store. As Skyler tried to pay the preoccupied attendant for some petrol, I wandered to the back of the dusty room, where a rack of fishing and auto magazines, maps, and paperbacks stood under a large sign that read THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY!
I was about to give up any attempt to browse when I discovered that Coombah's second literary treasure - a pristine copy of The Supply Party, Martin Edmond's account of the last months of Ludwig von Becker, the German artist and collector who met an obscure death on the famous Burke and Wills expedition.
Since The Supply Party appeared last year, courtesy of the Aussie outfit East End Publications, I have slogged my way from bookshop to bookshop, seeking it out. I'd dismissed the absence of Martin's tome from Auckland's bookstores as a symptom of the national chauvinism of Kiwi booksellers, but The Supply Party had proved elusive in Melbourne as well. Now, though, I was staring at the exquisite Orange and black cover of the book at the back of the Coombah Roadhouse. It looked great beside Big Tits Downunder.
Shouldering a sweaty bloke with a slab of XXX out of the way, I slammed Martin Edmond on the counter and began to thank the roadhouse's puzzled manager for her taste in literature. 'I admire Martin's writing greatly, and know him a little', I gabbled. 'You know Becker?' she replied, gazing down at the cover's blurb. 'No, not von Becker - Martin Edmond' I said desperately. 'Oh - I didn't realise it was him who wrote it. There's his name right at the bottom though. Lots of people are buying it as they come through. We've sold a few this week.'
As we drove away down the superbly straight Silver Highway toward Broken Hill, I realised that the presence of The Supply Party in Coombah was not as odd as it seemed. The Silver Highway runs parrallel to the route that Burke and Wills took, towards the end of the first stage of their trek across the Australian continent. It was at Menindee, a Darling River settlement a couple of hundred kilometres east of Coombah, that Burke paused to purge and split his expedition party before plunging into the conjectural landscapes of northern Australia.
Burke was an incompetent bully, but he became posthumously famous in an Australia desperate for martyrs. Every town in Victoria and western New South Wales seems to have commemorated the man with the name of a street or a primary school or with a poorly constructed statue. Even those who are left cold by the jingoism surrounding the official commemoration of Burke are fascinated by the whittling of the massive, handsomely resourced expedition party that left Melbourne down to a handful of skeletal men paralysed by beri beri in a corner of the continent's far north. To many of us, the fate of Burke and Wills seems like a lesson in imperial hurbis, and in the power of the outback, rather than as an inspiring example of sacrifice.
The continued fascination with Burke and Wills is reflected in the bookshops of Victoria and New South Wales. Even in the newsagents of small country towns, Sarah Murgatruyd's thorough 2002 book The Dig Tree: the Story of Burke and Wills is prominently displayed. Murgatroyd was dying of cancer when she wrote her bestseller, and it is hard not to read her precise but sympathetic descriptions of the agonies of men like Burke and von Becker as autobiographical.
Martin Edmond is a more adventurous writer than Murgatroyd, and The Supply Party forsakes the linear narrative of The Dig Tree for the sort of digressions that made books like Luca Antara and Chronicles of the Unsung so rewarding. The popularity of the book's subject, though, seems to have allowed it to share the Coombah literary spotlight with the anonymous bard of the bogs. The question is: why don't the booksellers of Auckland have the same good taste as the Coombah roadhouse?