Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Great Australian Places contains funny, curious and downright astonishing stories from across a big country, so the cover of this book tells me. The cover also depicts travelling in the outback from a time mid last century and has the original Australian lifesaver superimposed on the scene. Inside the book can be found several black and white photographs of years gone by.
The author, Graham Seal – Emeritus Professor of Folklore at Curtin University – is probably the most qualified to impart stories from the early years of one of the largest landmasses on the planet (3). The Introduction to the book is titled ‘What a Place!’ and gives a broad overview of the history, topography and culture of the people who have lived here. The reader is told that, ‘Although we tend not to think much about it, the meanings we give to places are made up of their stories and traditions that we cannot escape’ (4).
The stories that this book contains can be found in seven sections where the major headings link the approximate dozen short stories within them in some way – Pioneering Places, Dangerous Places, Sacred Places, Unsettling Places, Wild Places, Imagined Places, Our Place.
As the title suggests Pioneering Places includes stories from first European encounters, the convict years, the building of infrastructure to connect us to the rest of the world and to service many outback enterprises. The reader learns about the laying of undersea cables and the construction of the overland telegraph line and water pipes to the gold fields.
The stories published in this book are diverse and highlight the pioneering work done, upon which society today has built. Individual people have been highlighted adding a more personal touch to the facts shared.
The section Dangerous Places, tells of some of the more questionable activities which were undertaken during the goldrush times, earning the suburbs around Kings Cross the title of ‘Cesspool of the Southern Hemisphere’ (74). There are stories about environmental dangers, bushfires and atomic testing as well as ‘the Killer Track’ (81-83) a giant, concrete, doughnut shaped sporting venue which claimed many lives. One particular story called Two Up, One Down is about how in 1940, leading aircraftman, Leonard Fuller, achieved the unique feat of landing safely two aircraft at the same time near Albury, New South Wales (87).
Australia, like any other country, has places that are held sacred. These may be physical features of the land or places where particular events look place like Walloon, Queensland. Here in the Henry Lawson Bicentennial Park, one will find beautiful bronze statues of ‘two young girls dancing hand in hand on a mosaic of waterlilies’ (113-114). Nearby is the sad story of ‘the babies of Walloon’ together with Lawson’s poem on the tragedy. Other stories depict hallowed grounds for the sport’s fans, war memorials and sacred Aboriginal places.
There are stories of the many places with unhappy memories which ‘frequently provide a haunt of ghosts and other unexplained events’ (163). Some of the titles within this section include The Massacre Hill, Unexplained Ipswich Phenomena, The Spirit Stones, rocks which fell from the skies at various times and places over a period of sixteen years (173) and Toxic Town, Australia’s Chernobyl (180).
In the other groups of stories one can read about the burning mountain near Scone, the yowie, First Nations astrology and red palms in the desert. There are many poems included and stories of the BIG things to be found around the country.
This is the type of book all travellers around Australia need to keep in their glovebox so that their journey can be enriched as they pass through the various towns. It is also a book which can be visited time and again as all the knowledge contained within it cannot be retained just from one reading. It has the advantage that it is made up of short stories and you can pick and choose which story you would like to read whenever you have a few minutes spare. There are plenty of conversation starters in this book.
Great Australian Places
by Graham Seal