[M]emory resides in the guts and arse as well as the head and heart – Niall Griffiths
Those of you who, for whatever strange reasons, follow my blog on a regular basis will not be surprised to find that I have never read a travel guide before. The main reason for that is that I’ve never been anywhere where I needed a travel guide mainly because I’ve never really had any great desire to go anywhere. That was not always the case. When I was a young boy I developed a fascination and lasting affection for the country of Australia. I have no idea where this originated (it’s not like we had family there), as Australia was not exactly well represented in the media at that time (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Rolf Harris for the most part – perhaps I had a wee crush on blue-eyed blonde Liza Goddard), and yet I had a great big map of Australia on my bedroom wall and imagined that when I grew up I would marry a blonde, blue-eyed Australian girl; the hair- and eye-colour were mandatory. (As it happens I’ve ended up with a green-eyed, grey-haired American – what can I say?) Somewhere along the line I lost any active interest in all things antipodean but it was rekindled in the early seventies when one of my school friends shortly after leaving school packed his bags and emigrated to Australia. Some years later I met his mum in the street and she told me that Neil was back home for awhile and I should pop up for a visit but I never did and I’ve felt guilty about that for a good thirty years now.
Thirty years is a long time. But that’s the time period covered by Niall Griffiths’ memoir Ten Pound Pom. Ten Pound Poms is a colloquial term used in Australia to describe British subjects who migrated to Australia after the Second World War under an assisted passage scheme established and operated by the Government of Australia:
Created as part of the "Populate or Perish" policy, the scheme was designed to substantially increase the population of Australia and to supply workers for the country's booming industries. In return for subsidising the cost of travelling to Australia — adult migrants were charged only ten pound sterling for the fare (hence the name), and children were allowed to travel for free — the Government promised employment prospects, housing and a generally more optimistic lifestyle. However, on arrival, migrants were placed in basic hostels and the expected job opportunities were not always readily available.
Assisted migrants were generally obliged to remain in Australia for two years after arrival, or alternatively refund the cost of their assisted passage. If they chose to travel back to Britain, the cost of the journey was at least £120, a large sum in those days and one that most could not afford. – Wikipedia
On 4th July 1975 the Griffithses – expectant mother, father, sister and two sons (Niall and his older brother, Tony) – clamber aboard BA flight 940 which was waiting for them at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3 ready to head off to Brisbane, Australia pausing only for two short pit stops at Doha (the capital city of the state of Qatar in case, like me, you didn’t know) and Singapore. I imagine my mate Neil took a similar trip only he’ll have left from Prestwick or Glasgow most likely. Thirty years later, Niall, now a successful writer (novelist mainly but sometime travel-writer) decides to repeat the journey and Tony tags along for moral support and to watch his back – it needs watching:
Accumulations of sight and sound and taste and touch. A life is made then measured in a million drips and drops.
Certain events we remember vividly, others through a fog of uncertainty, and the clarity of our recollections has nothing to do with the importance of the incident. And we remember things that might not have happened at all.
This then is, it is fair to say, a very personal “memoir, travelogue, rant, paean, elegy and the closest thing to an autobiography that” we can likely expect from Niall although from the sounds of him I suspect that were he ever to go the whole hog and write an actual autobiography it might prove entertaining reading if this short sojourn into his past is anything to go by. The book’s disclaimer sets the scene:
DISCLAIMER: This book is not a work of fiction, but the reader is advised not to assume that every event recounted herein took place entirely within the confines of the real world.
There are a couple of reason why this might be the case, firstly, the passage of time and the vagaries of human memory, and, secondly, the fact that Niall does enjoy his drink and much of his trip is spent the worse for wear from the previous night’s indulgences. By way of illustrating my point:
I will get drunk tonight, I think. I will drink to dead things, things that rot inside me and the world beyond my flesh, or if not rotting only then also resting under rich soil and pretty flowers, and never to re-awaken in the forms in which I loved them, still love them. […] I feel abandoned and estranged within this skin.
Okay, so this book is not always a riot but what did he expect? As I said, thirty years is a long time. The houses he lived in, schools he attended, places he adventured and misbehaved in were not just going to sit around waiting on his return or if they have they’ve been repainted and appropriated for other uses; chippies have become hairdressers, pubs have gone upmarket. But some things haven’t changed, the distance between Brisbane and Perth for example which he, as did his family before him, decides to drive: he in a rented Britz campervan fully kitted out with “a fridge and a stove and a microwave and a sink and a table and two beds and some overhead storage which can be turned into another sleeping space” and along a new road, his parents in a Holden station wagon along what was not much more than a dirt track back in 1976. The bulk of the book is devoted to this trek, a drive of over 2200 miles.
Since the arrival of Neighbours on our TV sets in 1986 we in the UK have become far more interested in Australian culture than we ever were in its cricket team. I think before that and post-Skippy the only things I’d ever seen with an Australian setting were Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Ned Kelly (1970) and I might have only seen the trailer to Ned Kelly or a couple of clips on Film 1970. I always understood the Australians considered Ned as their version of Robin Hood but I really knew nothing much about either of them. Beechwood is on the brothers’ way to Perth and so both times, in the past and in the present, the travellers stop to get better acquainted with history:
There’s something about New Kelly that provokes an emotion in the boy which he can only equate with liking something. He’s been told that Kelly was ‘a crook, a killer, a thief, a bushranger’, but there are things about him… the armour, the last words, the last stand, the bullets pinging off his helmet, even the internally-rhyming name… the boy finds a part of him being drawn to all this, slowly, like a houseplant towards a window. He’s heard the Fonz use the word ‘cool’ on Happy Days and he thinks that word, in the way in which Fonzie uses it, might be applicable to Ned. He thinks. He’s very young.
I’m older now. I still think there’s something of the Fonz about Ned, even though I realise that the ‘natural’ state of enmity between himself and the law that he frequently mentioned was a consequence of his rustling, and that his appeals to Irish emancipation from repression are deeply undermined by the fact that those whose livestock he stole, and the police officers he shot at Stringybark Creek, were themselves Irish-born or descended. Still, the whole story’s seductive, isn’t it? The armour and that. And, by God, what a turn of phrase the uneducated and supposedly subnormal feller had.
Times have changed though, he notes, and Australia’s perception-through-marketing of the whole Ned Kelly myth has changed too:
How different this is to the figure of national shame and embarrassment that Kelly was when I was last here, all those years ago. […] As was his mother, Ellen, a tinker-Irish, bred like a rabbit, Mick harridan carting her clatter of snot-nosed kids up to be thieves and rustlers. Now, according to a leaflet written by Noelene Allen, she’s a ‘woman of sprit and courage’, who, when a child in Antrim, used to love ‘exploring the beautiful rolling hills around her home searching for wild berries, bird’s nests and flowers’, who ‘loved to sing and dance… A free spirit with a strong rebellious streak’.
The town of Glenrowan, Niall notes, would hardly exist were it not for its Kelly connections although he refrains from visiting Ned’s Pizza Parlour, Kelly’s Inn or any of the other establishments trying to claim some connection to the old rogue.
Of the neighbouring towns, however, it’s Beechworth that maintains that it is ‘Australia’s Best Preserved Ned Kelly Town’ but these towns are not the only ones wanting to stake a claim to fame: there’s Holbrook – ‘Australia’s Submarine Town’ – with a huge U-boat half-buried in its centre or Meckering – ‘Australia’s Earthquake Centre’ (that must really pull in the tourists) – or Adelaide – ‘Australia’s Murder Capital’ – or Tamworth – ‘Country Music Capital of Australia’ and ‘Tidy Town Winner 1999’ apparently – or Glen Innes – ‘Celtic Capital of Australia’ with its “pan-Celtic theme park, with rings of stones and a mock-up of Excalibur protruding from another stone” – or Kingston – ‘WINNER 2005 BEST MEDIUM-SIZED TOWN’ – and I have to agree with Niall on this last one: “That’s scraping the barrel till it bleeds.” This, of course, is nothing unique to Australia and it speaks more about how much marketing is now a part of our lives: everyone has something to sell, even those with nothing to sell. Just look at the Scottish towns fighting over which one of them will be the birthplace of Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise.
The things that delighted the young Niall are pretty much the things that delight the adult Niall: Australian flora, fauna and natural features. Essentially these things haven’t changed and, if extinction can be avoided, won’t change much for millennia. Possibly the most magical happens to the young Niall on a “school trip to Early Street Pioneer Village – wells and log cabins and people wearing Victorian attire.” He notices some movement in a tangled bush and can’t resist the urge to investigate:
A dragon is hiding in the leaves. Small dinosaur, a spiked ridge of flesh on its back and a green wattle at its throat. Its claws curl like nail parings and its yellow eyes turn to the boy and a pulse beats lightly in its throat and a heavier one beats in the boy and he slowly removes an Opal Fruit from his packet and offers it to the lizard. Ridged nostrils sniff. A tongue flickers out. Rubber lips open and close and teeth bite. The boy is absolutely absorbed, completely rapt. There is no thought in his thudding skull other than the assimilation of what he’s doing, what is entering his eyes, this lizard chewing on the sweet and the boy takes in the tiny chasms between every scale and the fine mesh of the skin and the silvery claws and the sickle-shaped shadows that mackerel the back and flanks and he wants nothing more in the world, just this.
Other things have changed. The ‘abos’ for a start. At school “[h]e makes friends with an aborigine girl. Two outsiders together.” On his return he is appalled when he comes across her people living as down-and-outs, begging on the street:
This is nothing new. It certainly existed when his family were driving across the country. At one point a man at a petrol station warns the father:
One thing to watch out for, the man says, –on the desert. The abos, like. They’ll come running out of the bush towards you, waving for help. What you won’t know is, they’ll have a spear between their toes, dragging it, like. So whatever you do don’t stop.
It happens, just like the man said, and despite his family’s protestations that the man might actually be in trouble, the father doesn’t stop or even slow down.
The boy thinks about this. Ambush. Spear. Robbery on the highway. He’s been warned many times in Oz to look out for the ‘abos’ but he can’t help but find them fascinating. They’re so strange, to him. They have such kind faces.
Niall can’t help but wonder about the mentality of the Australians:
See, the convict strain seethes deep in the collective Oz psyche; it shouldn’t, really – sons don’t need to pay for the sins of the fathers – but it does. It smoulders in the marrow of the Australian Everyman. It means that he really doesn’t trust others, that he feels anger and shame at not being trusted himself. The shallowness of the available history – an 80-year-old telegraph station is seen as an ancient ruin – is reflected in the general mental attitude, which is happy to accept whatever lies on the surface and has an intense aversion to investigative endeavour. In Oz, history is not what you live; history is something other countries have. The aboriginal historical narrative is closed and removed, unless trampling over their temples such as Uluru can bring in the tourist dollar, and the aboriginals themselves, when encountered in cities and towns, are either doing funny dances in face-paint for small change, or have been reduced to wretched drunks. Australian culture is, largely, at your shoulder, right in front of your nose; it’s all immediate. By and large it has no depth...
Now, before any Australians take too much offense you might want to have a look at my review of The Dreams of Max and Ronnie which I read a few weeks back. Especially in the first piece, Ronnie’s Dream, Niall points the finger at the UK and he does not miss us and hit the wall. Yes, it’s easy as an outsider to take a drive through Australia and criticise it especially returning to it after a thirty-year break and seeing it changed, possibly ruined. I never lived there but after viewing TV programmes like Underbelly and films like Samson and Delilah and some of Jane Campion’s work (like Sweetie) I also feel there’s like trouble in paradise. But then there’s trouble everywhere.
It won’t surprise you to read though that by the end of his journey, once they reach Perth, Niall is more than ready to get on a plane and fly home:
I’m out of Oz. Sick to the gizzard of Oz.
Once home he drives to his parents’ house and the first thing he tells them is: “Thank Christ you brought us back from Oz.”
Between 1947 and 1981, more than a million Britons took advantage of an assisted passage scheme introduced by the Australian Government. […] Some people hated Australia instantly and so intensely that they never left the camp, waiting it out until their two years was up. For the 10-pound Poms, there was a 25 per cent return rate but then half of them went back to Australia, realising it had been better after all. – Annie Brown, ‘Scots families tell how they set off in search of a better life and found their dream in Australia’, Daily Record, 30 January 2010
The Griffiths family last until June 1978; Niall was then twelve and had just discovered the Sex Pistols and knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. (Yes, Niall, didn’t we all?) They survived three years: three years of culture shock, three years of intense heat, of creepy crawlies, of pommie-bashing, of homesickness. On the plus side Niall did experience his first kiss and see a girl’s naked bum but 12,000 miles is a long way to go for that and there’s nothing wrong with the good ol’ British girl’s bum let me tell you. Needless to say Niall never managed to become a rock god:
He spent years moving from one short-term job to another, from sorting mail to stacking machine-guns, the worst being a stint "cleaning closed-tank muckspreaders. You had to climb into the tank, dizzy with methane, and shovel it out". He eventually moved to Aberystwyth to study for a PhD, but dropped out.
The years that followed provided him with plenty of material for novels which would become known for their portrayal of disaffected, marginalised characters living for drink and drugs.
"If you go on these binges sometimes you reach these bright and shining places, where great witticisms roll off people's tongues, but in a sense your life is wasted, because you forget. So I'd go on these binges, and spend a day recovering, then write what I could remember, and gradually the writing became more important than the 'research'. That's where Grits came from.
"I know my parents are proud of my achievements, but I wouldn't actually want them to read my work. When my books are first published, I make sure I send a copy to my mum and dad, but I tell them not to read the contents." – BBC Wales Arts
I enjoyed this book. I’ve only read one other thing by him as I’ve said, The Dreams of Max and Ronnie, but it was because of that that I agreed to have a crack at this one. The style is similar, in your face, confident. It reads more like a blog than most books I’ve read. The language is relaxed, peppered with expletives and honest. His honesty won’t do much to win him antipodean friends but as his publisher says:
Ten Pound Pom promises to attract a lot of attention but’s not likely to win him Australian of the Year or a commendation from the Queensland Tourist board. God Bless Australia?
I have to second that. In between the lines though I think there’s more to this book than you might first imagine especially looking at its cover – just what demographic are they aiming at there? – because if you forget about the fact this is set in another country and simply read this as a man looking back on his plooky youth with predictable ambivalence this is a book that most of us grownups-so-called will be able to relate to. That he had to get on a plane and travel to the other side of the planet to visit it whereas most of us can take a train or a bus or just look out the back window adds some significance to the journey and also to his level of expectations: he probably expects the return to be directly proportional to the effort expended and it is not. Left, right and centre he is disappointed and it’s easy to view his disappointment as being with Australia but I think if his family has spent three years in South Dakota he might have written a very similar book considering the number of times he tips the hat to Deadwood.
Great literature this is not. Great entertainment? I was certainly entertained well enough despite the fact it all felt a bit rushed, especially once they actually get to Perth, and another 50 or even 100 pages wouldn’t have done the book any harm. Perhaps though the book simply reflects his growing need to be done trawling through his past like this. I don’t know. I do know I won’t be rushing out to buy his Real Aberystwyth or his Real Liverpool any day soon. That said if you are planning a trip to either place in the near future I think you might do well to consider them. Because if there’s one thing I can say about Niall Griffiths is that he’s real.
Niall Griffiths was born in Liverpool in 1966, studied English, and now lives and works in Aberystwyth.
His first five novels are: Grits (2000), a tale of addicts and drifters in rural Wales; Sheepshagger (2001) – telling the story of Ianto, a feral mountain boy; Kelly & Victor (2002); Stump (2003), which won two Book of the Year awards, and Runt (2006). Grits was made into a film for television, and Kelly & Victor and Stump are also being made into films.
Niall Griffiths has also written travel pieces, restaurant and book reviews, and radio plays. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novella.