I hadn’t taken up writing until I’d turned 60 but had long been an avid reader of what had been referred to at the time as ‘Australiana’. This was published by a tiny group of authors such as Ian Idriess and Frank Clune whom I’d found extremely refreshing after the drab British history of my school days.
My interest in the ‘Australian story’ had first been ignited by my German grandfather who, while taking me for a stroll along the Frankston Foreshore one morning in 1935, turned to me to remark:
‘See that mound of shells over there, Michael? Well, that’s where Black-fellows used to sit down to eat their dinners’.
It had been the first time I’d ever heard mention of black people here in Australia. They were never mentioned at home nor in church or the playground nor would they be referred to in my later twelve years of schooling.
Somehow, my grandfather’s remark had stuck with me and would return at Saturday matinees in the local cinema. As the lights slowly dimmed for the show to begin, an old man with a white beard would sidle in from a side-door and sit alone in the very front seat. We boys referred to him as King George since King George V had been the only one back then who had sported a beard. When the lights came up again, he’d be gone! In a town where everyone knew everybody else, it had seemed a little strange that nobody appeared to know nor care where 'King George' lived.
My next encounter with blackfellas had been in World War II when as a secondary school student I'd be dispatched up to Goulbourn Valley each Christmas to pick peaches and apricots in a class-mate’s parent’s orchard. Each Saturday afternoon, the orchardist and his wife would drive us lads into Mooroopna to entertain ourselves whilst they completed their week’s shopping.
On the first of these sorties, I wandered down to the Goulbourn River and stumbled upon an Aboriginal encampment — a dilapidated shanty-town alive with ragged black-skinned children and dogs playing around a hundred or more corrugated-iron and hessian huts strung out along the water’s edge.
To me, it had been like a bolt from the blue. Surely not here in our prosperous Australia?
And so, in the years ahead, I set about learning as much as I could about the enigma of the two Australias. At first, I began reading about Aboriginal people which at the time was precious little. Each Friday after work I would head for some local library and return home with an armful of books to browse in my leisure hours. When I had exhausted local sources, I began to make trips into the State Library in the city back in the days when it had had a Lending Section. No computer files back then, simply cards organised alphabetically in drawers, the Aboriginal section confined to just two drawers outrageously labelled ‘Abo Files’.
A year or two later with all available sources again drying, I signed up for a number of Council of Adult Education courses in the city to flesh out my understanding of my chosen subject. One course that I chose was Australian Archaeology, another was Geology, so that I might develop an understanding of the that appeared to be so important to the Aboriginal world. Another course, for similar reasons, had been Astronomy.
For me, each subject had opened up an entirely new world of information expounded upon by university lecturers keen to showcase their knowledge in tutorials and tours of relevant sites. This had proved particularly productive for me since Archaeology had qualified me to attend two end-of-year Summer Camps - the first based in Yambuk west of Port Fairy, the other at Wood Wood on the Lower Murray. Each morning at Yambuk we'd start the day with a 6.00 am lecture before piling into 4-Wheel Drives for day-long surveys of what little remained of the the seasonal camps of the region's 'mound people' who, because of the Lava Country’s poor drainage, had been obliged to raise their seasonal camps up above the damp winter flood-plain.
At the end of that year’s survey, four of us students were allocated the task of excavating a clifftop midden at Thunder Point, west of Warrnambool, in strict accord with our tutor’s instructions. Enclosed within a cyclone-wire fence, it took us an entire week to complete our metre-deep ‘dig’ down to the cliff-top where to our surprise we found laid out upon its ancient surface the remains of a fireplace enclosed within a circle of Subninella shells. Each shell within it, blackened on its inner side by the long-dead fire, the fuel used still visible as charcoal strips radiating from the fire's centre. Using tweezers, we carefully collected carbon samples which we were informed had last burnt some 5,200 years ago. That 2,000-odd years before the construction of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza! Our tutor's explanation was that a storm had probably swept sand over the fireplace soon after it had been lit. This was living proof to me of my grandfather’s words that blackfellas had once sat down along the Victorian coast to eat their day’s catch.