Thursday, October 1, 2009

Albert Gaston

October, 2009: In the W.A. Maritime Museum, Fremantle, I bought Coolgardie Gold, by Albert Gaston (1940). I was going to Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie the next day, on flight QF1894, which just happens to be the year in which Earthly Things takes place (Chapter 1 being set in Coolgardie). Albert Gaston arrived in Coolgardie in 1892, three weeks after Arthur Bayley made his discovery of gold public knowledge, so it’s pertinent research for me, but better still, it’s well-written and a good read. Overall, it’s a description of a decade spent adventuring, lured on by the hope that he could ‘make it’; at the end of the decade, Albert is as broke as he was at the beginning, having collected only some vivid memories of a wild, risk-taking existence, which will cast the rest of his life in a quiet shadow. This is poignant – who’s brave enough to say, “My life’s peak has been and gone”? It reminds me of Robbie Robertson saying (about being in a touring band), with pride, regret, longing, in The Last Waltz, “It’s an impossible way of life!” It also reminds me of a certain nearly-ninety-year-old man who, describing his younger self and a compadre to his new girlfriend, said, “We were gods!” I’m more adventurous now than I was in my twenties; I wouldn’t like to be sighing to myself, “Well, fun’s over.” But lots of young men (young women, too, but less often, or rarely to the same extremity) do seem to have a superhuman, unsustainable capacity for risk, adventure, pushing their bodies past their limits. Maybe they’re relieved when that urge burns out; maybe they think, “Phew! I survived the madness – just.” Of course, this is the urge that is exploited by war-lords.

Here are a couple of passages of Coolgardie Gold I liked:

Cobb & Co’s coach arrived from Southern Cross every evening about eight o’clock, and at nine o’clock the delivery window was opened and one of the staff would call out the addresses on the letters…I have seen a crowd waiting at the window…They were in single file and sometimes the line of waiting men was over five chains long. It was a case of first in the line first served…Some of the deadbeats got onto an easy way of making a little money. They would get in early and secure a good position in the line then offer to sell their turn for a few shillings.

Deadbeats! In 1894! I also thought that it’s the kind of low-brow money-making scheme my characters might have resorted to. And:

The population was now increasing faster than ever. Cobb & Co’s coach was crowded and every team carried swampers, and great numbers were travelling by other ways, some of which were very crude. One man I heard of placed all his goods and chattels in a barrel and rolled it from Southern Cross to Coolgardie…I saw one party of four with a buggy wheel in the centre of a square frame, with a handle on each corner. They had enough loading on it for a draught horse to pull. Such was the eagerness of men to reach the field with as little expense possible.

Albert Gaston had simply walked, carrying his belongings on his back, the three hundred miles from York to Bayley’s goldfield.

When I like a writer from this period, I am curious - and apprehensive: will they disappoint me? - about what they say about Aboriginal people:

The blacks are wonderful trackers [a skill Gaston has had reason to value most highly]. Show them a horse or a camel track and they will follow it through hundreds of other tracks over any kind of rough hard country and never be at fault. In their wild state they are very revengeful for any wrong done them, especially any molestation of their womenfolk – the cause of most of the trouble with them.

There is no doubt we have treated the blacks very badly. We have taken their country from them, and destroyed their game – thus removing their only means of living – and then expect them to change to our laws and standard of things. We have taught them all white man’s vices and then left them to die of starvation and disease.

It is to our lasting shame.

I actually felt a bit twee to be reading Coolgardie Gold on my way to Coolgardie. I might have felt even more twee if I’d been reading Coolgardie Gold a week or two earlier, while I was in Coolangatta.

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