Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Where else are you fifteen steps from work, you go home for lunch, and when the children are visiting you see them all the time and not just after a long day at work? There are no traffic snarls, you never have to worry about finding a park, there are no tolls, and you can walk anywhere in town within a few minutes…The sandhills look like no person has ever walked on them…The changing colours stop even experienced desert travellers in their tracks. At night the stars are so close you feel you can reach up and touch them…this timeless untouched land is all around you. (127)
So describes Neale McShane of the world he lived in for ten years when he was the Outback Cop in Birdsville. Telling his story to Evan McHugh he details all of the aspects of living in that isolated spot and provides an insight into a world that is closed to most of us. McShane comments wryly, “Birdsville [is the] land of plenty – plenty of heat, dust, flies, snakes, camels and salt of the earth outback folk.”
The account of McShane’s ten years as the Officer in Charge of the Birdsville district provides a glimpse of this interesting character. It tells us a lot about the man – about his readily understood desire to get out of the loop of prosecuting in court for everything from traffic tickets to serious crime, year after year with little opportunity to engage with the wider community. His excitement at the posting is revealed in his persuasive efforts to enthuse his wife and is told with conviction through his first trip out.
While McShane remains an interesting man throughout the rest of the book, the same cannot be said of the narrative. That does not mean that McHugh is a lousy writer, but it does raise questions about whether he was the best choice to be the voice of the outback cop. McHugh simply clarifies the policeman’s role in these particular circumstances. Much of the policeman’s job is routine – to be a shepherd to his flock, to set them straight when they get into trouble and then move on to the next event. But even so, there is so much scope here for exciting narrative, so much opportunity to get beneath the policeman’s skin, so much that could be said about the wife and mother in such an aquarium-like life. But the book does none of these things. It narrates a string of episodes that vary little in the telling.
Perhaps this is the major shortcoming I feel is there. It’s a dead-pan account of a life that we cannot know at first hand. There is mystery in the very thought of a job in a place as remote as Birdsville. A greater effort in the telling might have produced a more exciting tale. It is undoubtedly a true account, but it is a pedestrian attempt at telling what could have been a more emotional reveal. There is very little attention on what McShane was feeling in the long, often lonely, times and, while the man tells us about the rescues in which he was involved, there is no excitement in McShane’s voice as he relates his story. If a man is a boring storyteller (and there is no evidence that he is), it is the writer’s job to make his story interesting and attractive to the reading audience. This was an opportunity lost.
For someone who wants to read about the life of a policeman in a remote area and wants nothing more, the book will provide that information. Just don’t expect to learn too much about the underlying motives and thoughts of the man. They are not revealed. Do not expect to read too much about “how Neale and his family thrived on the adventures and colourful times that come with the territory in the furthest corner of our country.” This is not art in vivid acrylic but rather a representation in pastel colours. And that’s a pity.
By Neale McShane with Evan McHugh
Penguin Random House