Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Big in Coombah

In her efforts to persuade Skyler and me not to visit Broken Hill, my Aunty Thel warned us about the outback mining town's isolation. 'There's nothing between the Murray and the Hill', she told us, 'nothing at all. If you break down on that road you're in trouble.' Like my mother, Thel has a horror of the more arid spaces of Australia that stems from a childhood in the Mallee, a region of northwest Australia which would be a desert if it were not for the turbid intervention of the Murray River. If the tight little towns, irrigated fields, coffin-shaped barns, and Methodist churches of the Mallee are the last fragile outposts of civilisation, then the scrubby country north of the Murray - country as rich in silver, lead, uranium and prehistoric artefacts as it is poor in grass and water - is an irredeemably barbarous place.

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?


Anonymous Jono said...

Somewhat tangential but since you are talking about great books about colonial adventures in expansive lands with tragic ends...

I can't tell enough people how simply stunning Evan S. Connell's "Son of the Morningstar" is. The book is was published more than twenty years ago but it sings.

Its about Custer and Little Big Horn by the way, but I cant really do it the service it deserves in a comment box. If you read one other book this year, try this.

9:16 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Son of Morningstar: Custer & the Little Big Horn.
Connell, Evan.
Average Customer Review: 4.5 (59 reviews) Latest Reviews

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About the Book

Bibliographic Details

ISBN 10: 0865471606
ISBN 13: 9780865471603
Publisher: North Point P., 1984.
Publication Date: 1984
Binding: Hard Cover
Edition: Later edition

441p. BCE Copy. Bookseller Inventory # 44-350
Editorial Reviews:

A runaway bestseller in hardcover and paperback, Son of the Morning Star will now bring the adventurous tale of General George Armstrong Custer to a new, even wider audience. Ties in to a two-part CBS television miniseries airing this summer. A new American classic.--Time.


Part anthropological study of Plains Indian life, part military history, and part character study of the principal actors in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Evan Connell's justly well-known book presents a balanced and critical account of George Armstrong Custer's career. More...
(Why he was esteemed as an Indian fighter is puzzling, Connell remarks. None of his frontier campaigns demonstrated particular skill or insight.) Connell also examines the lives of Captain Frederick Benteen and Major Marcus Reno, the admirable General George Crook, and their foes Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Rain in the Face. Reno comes out worst: he held the dubious distinction of having the worst record before or since in the history of the United States Military Academy, and he was dishonorably discharged for incompetence after failing to get his column into battle in time to save Custer's command. Connell's thrilling story has all the inevitability of a tragedy, but there are no tragic heroes to which to point. ...Shrink

Review: "[A]n epic work of nonfiction that perhaps more than any other piece of American literature can compete with WAR AND PEACE (doing for the Plains Wars what Tolstoy's novel did for the Napoleonic ones)....He moves freely through time and space, flashing backward and forward but always circling and circling, like the war-hollering Sioux on their ponies, around the mystery of what happened on that Montana hillside...."

Dee Brown
Customer Reviews:
Average Customer Review:4.5 2009-09-05
Son of the Morning Star Sheds Much Light on American Character. By: Zara Raab

As you might expect of a book hailed by Larry McMurtry as one of the best treatments of the Great Plains in American history, this book is an elegantly and devilishly plotted story of an elegant and devilish man, George Armstrong Custer. Taking as its central focus the Battle More...
of the Little Bighorn,it spins out the stories of the other major players, including Crazy Horse, by weaving back and forth in time and across the vast prairies, and shows how the dishonest treatment of the Indians by our government led to violence and warfare that did not occur in, say, Canada. For anyone with an interest in American history, especially the period of westward expansion in the 19th Century, this book is essential reading. ...Shrink
Average Customer Review:4.5 2009-08-17
Very Enlightening By: John Langston

Very good. Very factual and informative. I have read it several times and because of this book I drove 1500 miles to visit the battlefield.

9:40 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Looks like an interesting book. The book Scott got talks about the Aussie explorers. Martin Edmonds is a good writer.

He is rather reclusive though...but he writes of rather strange people...Interesting to see his angle on B & Wills

I have copy of something about Burke and Wills but I never read it...I never got around to reading the book 'Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee' another missed one.

9:47 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I lent my copy to a colleague while we were on a work trip together a couple of weeks ago. He was off to the American west on a two-week work junket a week after our own trip so I lent him the book for the flight. He devoured it over several evenings and finished it before he took off!

The idea of it being a best seller might put some off, but I havent obsessed over a non-fiction book like this for some time.

10:24 am  
Blogger mark young said...

I'd believe Ern Malley in northwest Australia, but I'd put the Mallee in northwest Victoria which is what I think you intended to do..... :-)

11:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the answer lies in the closeness that the booksellers in Coombah have to the landscape depicted in the stories they sell.

Chauvinism Auck style? Try finding NZ books in Sydney. I did find Helen Leach's pav book recently in Abbeys. I resisted that one, despite some fascination with social anthropology.

10:34 pm  
Anonymous Penelope Todd said...

Hello Scott, Can I interest you in reviewing an essay of Martin's that I'm about to publish in ebook format? Winged Sandals, about the history of taxi driving and his experience of it in Sydney. Regards, Penelope

3:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can such praises for Martin Edmond's The Supply Party be worthy? After all you are a fictionist! There are no steps into the Coombah roadhouse, is it not a licensed venue. There has never been a large fat male owner. The only german shepherd at Coombah was owned by a tiny woman ( no Fat husband)in the early 60's. There is a poem on the toilet wall, though nothing like your description and the doors are not stained , nor swinging in the wind. Not even the laudanum stupors of Byron, Shelly or Poe could have brought about such fanciful delusions! Yet served with this pure fantasy is a review of literary account? This is not poetic licence nor reverie witt, it is contemptuous.

11:23 pm  

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