I didn’t go back to the suburbs deliberately. And when I say go back I mean in my imagination. It was an accidental return. The Art of the Engine Driver and all the subsequent Glenroy novels started with a particularly vivid dream. I’ve spoken about this before but it’s worth going over again just to put things in perspective.
I woke early one morning in the late 1990s – I’ve forgotten the year – the dream I’d just woken from still extraordinarily vivid. What we now call virtual in its reality. In the dream I could see my father, who is now dead, my mother, and myself. The three of us were standing in my old street looking out over a vacant paddock. We were a frozen formation, a sort of tableau vivant. As viewer I felt I could walk around those figures as if it were an installation, they had that kind of solidity. I knew exactly what part of my old street we were standing in. And because it was still a dirt street, unmade, I knew pretty well when the dream was taking place. Roughly the late 1950s – but for some reason I settled on 1957. And from the colours of the street, the khaki grass of the open countryside surrounding it and the sky itself, I knew that it was summer. After a long, hot day, a summer evening was settling in. It was actual, but dream-like. Real, but surreal. It set the mood, the tone of the book that came from the dream – The Art of the Engine Driver – and the way I looked at the location of the story, the suburbs. In this case, a post-war suburb being born. A hybrid, somewhere between farming, country community and modern suburb. But I must emphasise again, what I was doing in this book was simply going back to a particular summer evening in my youth – the territory of the suburbs simply came with the journey back. I didn’t say to myself – I shall write about the suburbs – I simply responded to the urgency of the dream and wrote about that night, the people, the time and the place.
And the dream determined the way I went back. Instead of reading a book, I wanted the reader to feel as though he or she had just picked up some artefact from an ancient, distant civilization. Let’s say an urn. And the act of reading the book, synonymous with brushing the dust from the urn and turning it round in the fingers, staring at the scenes depicted on the urn, fascinated by them, as if having stumbled across the tales of some lost, fantastic tribe, wondering who on earth they might have been – what their customs were, their daily activities, their stories and songs – and, at some stage, realising that that lost, fantastic tribe was, in fact, that post-war, suburban us. So, what the dream had done was to exoticize the utterly ordinary. And what it emphasised was the way in which we so often look for the exotic elsewhere, and rarely see it in ourselves. Rarely look upon ourselves as others might.
So when I came to write the book I wanted it to capture the mood of the dream. Actual, but dream-like. The book, like the suburb itself, hovering between two states.
The suburbs, in Australian writing, tend, often as not, to be the subject of TV sitcom or social satire, melodrama or slightly gothic genre fiction – more than likely, patronising. Not often the stuff of literary fiction. And when it was, often as not, it was written in the manner of social realism. Not that I don’t like social realism, I do. And Australian writers such as George Johnston and John Morrison (in particular a story called The Night Shift), impressed me as a high school student and still do – as do English writers such as Alan Sillitoe. In fact, when I was trying to find a title for the book (which was originally called The Engagement Party) I looked for something that had the unlikely lyricism of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. So, social realism had its place in the conception of things, but I also knew that I had to find another way of depicting ordinary suburban life and not simply repeating past styles, styles that were once valid, and valid for other writers, but which had the dust of history on them.
The challenge throughout the whole sequence of Glenroy novels was, and still is (there are two more books to come) not to fall into that trap. To not follow the trodden path, but find another one. To, as it were, renovate the subject. At least, that’s how it felt. And, as much as it’s exciting to be writing these books, and, as deeply satisfying, artistically, as it feels – it’s also extraordinarily hard work. They get easier as they progress, but there remains the abiding feeling of building them from the ground up. Of almost creating your own mythology as you go – and not leaning on a ready-made one.
In between the Glenroy novels – and I mention this simply to illustrate the point – I’ve been writing a cycle of novels about TS Eliot, revolving round the Four Quartets. In comparison to the Glenroy novels they are a breeze to write. And are usually written very quickly, in a sort of white heat – but only after a lot of conscious thought. I’m one of those writers who needs to know just what the story is – even how it ends – before I start. This doesn’t mean that the story won’t change as you write or that the ending, by the time you get there, may not be entirely different from the way you originally thought of it – but, at least, there is a foundation from which to launch into the novel, even if those foundations shift as you go. Life is short, and books are long – and the less time wasted the better. And there is no substitute for knowing what you want to say and where the book is going. So, for better or for worse, a lot of conscious thought goes into all of the books before I even start. But with the novels The Lost Life (which revolves around Burnt Norton) and A World of Other People (Little Gidding) I had the whole of Modernism to lean on and draw from. A large and deep well. But I didn’t have that feeling when writing the Glenroy novels, of having something as readily available as that to lean on and draw from – which is why, for all the joys of doing them, they are also extremely hard work and there is this abiding feeling of building the body of work from the ground up.
And as much as the dream gave me a way in – it wasn’t enough in itself. Which is why the famous passenger train, the Spirit of Progress, became important. Assumed even, crucial importance. The whole Enlightenment notion of Progress was an integral part of the History of Philosophy I’d studied at university. It drew me, then and during the writing of the books, in its various forms – say, for example, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism (a knowledge of which was compulsory for all undergraduates in the 1970s) and its iron laws of History. To an extent, whether it was right or wrong, didn’t interest me. It’s was the aesthetics of the theory that did. There was a beautiful symmetry to it. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, thesis ... And, if it was wrong, it was beautifully wrong. So, an awareness of the concept was already there, but when it drove directly into my novel it wasn’t concept – it was steam, diesel and steel. Progress on eight, six foot driving wheels. Motive force capable of drawing carriages on a railway – and I draw that directly from Bagely’s Victorian Guide to Locomotive Engine Driving, which my father had to memorise in order to pass his driver’s licence tests. So the idea of Progress entered the novel – and the subsequent novels – as naturally as the train itself did. And it became, throughout all the novels, a way bringing big picture, grand narrative preoccupations, to the small, detailed picture of everyday suburban life. And so, when the suburb celebrates its centenary in The Time We Have Taken it is also celebrating Progress and the suburb sees itself as emblematic of Progress. History, its job done, lies down to rest on its sprinkled, green lawns.
The train, the Spirit of Progress never crashed, in fact, but, with a name like that, as I progressed through The Art of the Engine Driver,the temptation became irresistible. It was all a way, if only for my sake, of re-invigorating the subject of the suburbs, a way of keeping me interested in what I was doing, and not falling into the trap of things past.
And, throughout the whole time I was writing The Art of the Engine Driver, and, I think, the book that followed, The Gift of Speed, I deliberately never went back to Glenroy. And, what’s more, I never named it. I wanted the suburb in the books to have a mythic quality. My Glenroy had been, over the years and in my imagination, transformed into a mythic place. And I decided, right from the start, that I would draw solely on the mythic memories. That is where the creative charge is, in the mythic memories. We remember things, and often get them wrong, but, in the process, create a kind of truth that never happened or never existed. And, to an extent, the most powerful memories are the ones that have re-created reality not replicated it. We have, consciously and unconsciously, chosen to remember a place in a particular way, and there is in that a certain resonant, personal truth – even if it is wrong. These were the memories I chose to trust because, ultimately, they were the most powerful. And, had I returned to Glenroy when I was writing these novels, the experience may have shattered that fragile link I had with past. Furthermore, there is freedom in myth that fact doesn’t allow.
When Joyce was writing Ulysses he was continually referring to street maps of Dublin (to the extent that he claimed that if Dublin were sink from sight it could be re-created as it was, street by street, from his novel). He even asked a friend to leap over the back fence of number 5 Eccles Street – as, indeed, Blazes Boylan does – just to make sure it was do-able. I never felt the need of that kind of verification. My Glenroy is basically a rectangle of land about a mile long and a half mile wide. It is a rectangle that contains all the landmarks of my youth; my house, the railway station, the flour mills, the Rendezvous milk bar, the Girls Home, St Matthews church, the cricket nets and the golf course as well as many, many more. I didn’t need maps, they were in my head – all, no doubt, transformed by time. And when I finally made an accidental return to Glenroy (with an ABC film crew who just happened to turn into my old street and park there), it confirmed my choice. For the first time in decades I strolled along my old street, the street I walked up almost every day to and from primary school and high school, I could barely recognise half of it. Houses that were so clear in my mind had been converted into townhouses and villa units, but, miraculously, when I reached the end of the street, where my parents and I had stood in my dream before a vacant paddock – the paddock was still there and it was still vacant.
As it turned out, though, I needn’t have worried about the inconvenient reality of the place diminishing the power of my memories of it. I have returned a couple of times since, to read at the Glenroy library. I know the place as it is now – and it is a different place - but my Glenroy is still there, lingering below the surface, beneath appearances, preserved in mythic memory.
The dream, the aesthetics of engine driving, Progress, the deliberate mythologizing of place – they all provided me with a way of looking upon the utterly familiar and re-imagining it, and, hopefully, turning it into something both familiar and strange, banal and exotic.
But, it might also be added, that although the given subjects were a suburban street, a suburb, with the continuing themes of Progress, being and becoming – the underlying subject of the writing may well be writing itself. All, in the end, ways and means of creating a place in a manner that is consistent with the thing that I carry around with me, in my head, all the time.
In the end we can only write by responding to what is urgent in us – what calls to be written. The dream I had was, if you like, the call – and the continuing sequence of Glenroy novels, the answer. Or, at least, the best one I could come up with.
Let me finish with this comment. From the moment I started writing The Art of the Engine Driver – and all subsequent novels – I knew, for the first time (after having published three novels), that I was on solid ground. This was my place and these were my people – and nobody was going to tell me I got it wrong.