The great Australian journey is almost always characterised by a trip inland. But what about the call of the coast in shaping our national identity? MARK MORDUE speaks to an artist, a musician, a filmmaker and a poet about our Pacific dreaming and how it connects us.
Whenever we talk about discovering Australia the big stories are almost always about heading inland to find something authentic, even spiritual. For some reason the coast gets left behind in any serious discussion of our national identity, and with it one of our most powerful and common experiences, a trek along the Pacific Highway.
There’s a suggestion in all this that there’s something inferior about the coast and what it means to us. That as the central character in Patrick White’s magisterial novel Voss (based on the nineteenth century German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt) says, “It’s a pity you huddle.” Explorers and missionaries, bushrangers and pioneers, these were the people who paved the way for us, ideologically as much as literally. These were also the people who created the mythology of our nation, its journey into being - and their life stories usually determine how we relate to the landscape and how we define what might be called ‘Australianness’. Our artists, musicians, filmmakers and poets often beat a similar path into the dust today.
The painter Ian Smith takes a very different tack. “Highway One is becoming my subject,” he says. “And the scenes from that road are my landscape. But I’m not like a farmer who sits and knows the landscape he’s in, I’m more a passing-by character. And the road is my moving standpoint. I’m an artist of people in landscape - where the towns breakdown into the landscape really. It’s a shantytown thing I guess.
“I’m not looking at a desert obviously. It’s something closer to home,” he says. “Painting those things people think they know – an empty billboard, that bend in the road – and finding something strange or magical in that banal world. I’ve always thought common experiences have a lot of grandeur about them; the things people see every day. People have always felt the mythology of the outback and the bush, but they still think they don’t need it in their own backyard or street corner.”
Smith says that when “I’m on Highway One I follow the same path and yet I always find something new. But it’s not just a matter of finding something new; it’s about knowing something better. So I don’t see the road as a journey into the continent, I see it as something that runs along the edge. Highway One connects a lot of people who are where they’re at rather than people who are starting off and going somewhere. I like that. They’re mostly not making journeys to unfamiliar places. When you drive up and down that highway you know you aren’t in that voyager-explorer thing. You’re revisiting the known and building on it somehow. And there’s a growth in that. I guess I’m just saying some people find something new, others find something better.”
Certainly the coast roads have their own energy, their own special place in our make-up, an odd mix of the hedonistic and the regretful as much as the more obviously secure, familiar or settled. Classic Australian bands like Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil, INXS and The Cruel Sea have all made their mark touring the coast roads and building up support among the communities beaded along them. For someone so increasingly countrified and parched in his own musical interests, former Cold Chisel songwriter and solo musician Don Walker still professes a fascination for what he describes as a Pacific sound, “something that connects Chet Baker, Jane’s Addiction, The Doors, Dragon… there’s a real similarity there, this demonic, exotic sea children vibe that I like in all of them.”
This liberty – and the libertine streak that underwrites it – is easily left behind in our youth, much as it might be intrinsic to what could be called our spiritual physique on the coast. Perhaps it fits our ‘nature’ as a young western democracy trying to grow up that this coastal vitality should keep calling to us in its coarsely material and hedonistic as well as naturally beautiful way. For all our aspirations to maturity and seriousness as a culture, there’s always a highly physical pleasure principle at work that we both relish and somehow seek to rise above (if only to find we have lost something along the way).
It’s something of a curiousity that on Sydney’s north shore people still have ritual parties based around Richard Clapton’s Goodbye Tiger to recall the experiences of growing up and partying by the coast in the 70s, singing along, only half-obliviously, to songs of loss like ‘Deep Water’: “Sitting out on the Palm Beach Road, I’m so drunk and the car wont go. And my crazy eyes keep looking out to sea. The Sunday drivers are cruising around. I wish they’d all go back to town. What do they expect to find? Sure as hell ain’t peace of mind…”
The world renowned surf filmmaker Albert Falzon, whose Morning of the Earth revolutionized the local cinema scene when it first emerged here in 1972, says ideals about the coast roads were crucial to the feel of his groundbreaking documentary and the counter-cultural spirit of the time. “Surfers are great explorers, it’s part of the whole culture they’re a part of,” he says. “That feeling that just over the hill is a perfect wave. It’s almost a mystical thing - that search mentality inside them. When we made Morning of the Earth we took the journey from the north coast of New South Wales all the way up into Bali, which no one had ever heard [back] then. It was a very heightened experience for everybody and it opened the road to Asia for surfers and then for the tourists that followed. Whether that was good or bad in the longer run, I don’t know.”
“Unfortunately surfing is so commercialized now. It’s also much easier to get from point A to point B; everything is so accessible,” Falzon says regretfully. “I think the road these days is like the mall for kids. They’re just saturated by the commercial side of surfing; it’s ingrained. So the road is the newsagents, video games, surfing stores. Not the real experience of pulling in to a beach and sleeping in your car. Twenty years ago when surfers went to these locations up and down the coast, a lot of them never went back on the road. They just said this suits me and put their rucksack down and never left. You drive from Sydney to Byron, turn off anywhere, and you will still find these beautiful little fishing villages, these great beaches. It’s still only a step away.
“The funny thing is I’m still on the road. It’s just that it’s a small triangle of driving ten minutes every day. There are about half a dozen other local cars that I pass when I head off to the coast from my little farm in the morning, and every one of the drivers knows me, and waves when I pass. I can still pull up to a beach with no houses. I actually follow a little dirt road that runs along the coast for about 10 kilometres that takes in about six beaches, all absolutely pristine. Maybe I meditate on the beach. Maybe I just stop to look at the empty horizon.
“When you jump off the land and paddle into the water – whether you recognize it or not – you’re letting go, you’re no longer attached to land. It’s subconscious. Maybe this letting go flows into the lifestyle of surfers. There’s more trappings now but it’s still there I think. Back when I made Morning of the Earth it was just easier to get to. You know, I was born in Redfern. I had no desire to see the world. It wasn’t till I started surfing and let go of the land that I got ‘on the road’ in every sense - and when that happened the world was my oyster.”
The poet Robert Adamson is a coastal creature of another kind. He tells me he first took to the road with his girlfriend when he was 17, travelling up the coast in a 1948 Ford Mercury. “We shot through to Queensland with child welfare in pursuit. She was under-age at the time, just under 16. She didn’t look it though. She looked older than me. We lived in that car for about six weeks. I ended up getting arrested for carnal knowledge. When I tell that story I always forget to say how old I was. I’m 58 now. People say why did you go to prison Bob? And I say carnal knowledge and they look at me funny.”
“When I was taken to court the judge said I wasn’t showing enough regret for what I had done. I said why would I your honour, I’m in love with her. But this is a carnal knowledge charge he said. I said its knowledge, but there’s nothing carnal about it. He said one more thing out of you and I will have you in contempt! I said haven’t you ever been in love your honour? And that was it. They took me away,” he laughs.
“I used to be really embarrassed about my past you know. All the artists I knew were university educated or art school trained. They were successful from school on. They hadn’t fucked up their lives like me. The first time I left home was when I was 14. I just lived on the road. It was always like that for me. Cars became my version of a house. That’s why I always had an extravagant car. In the ’70s when cars were seen as a symbol of capitalism and American materialism, I had this big Ford Mustang. I was really proud of it too. A uni friend said, ‘I didn’t realize you were a bogan at heart Bob’. I said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’
“To be honest, before I became a poet, I wanted to be an ornithologist. When I discovered I couldn’t do that, I wanted to be a racing car driver. David Malouf tells this great story about me driving him across the Harbour Bridge. He always says I almost killed him. I was just showing him how fast the car could go! I had Bob Dylan on the stereo and Malouf beside me looking calm, I thought. I didn’t know he was terrified.”
“That whole open road myth really helped launch me. I live by the Hawkesbury now and have my own boat and do a lot of fishing, but the river and the open road are similar things to me. Go out on the Hawkesbury River at night and it’s just a big winding road when you are on it. I called my last book of poetry Black Water because of that. It’s just like this big, curvy highway heading out into the abyss, the Pacific.”
- Mark Mordue
* Story unpublished. Love this piece but never been able to get anyone to run with it. It's a couple of years old now but still hasn't dated at all in my opinion.