Thursday, July 21, 2011

Guest writer Adrian Hyland writes about Black Saturday

 I recently received an email from an Australian DJ I know who lives in Adelaide.  I have copied it below.

Life in the Australian Army....

Text of a letter from a kid from Eromanga to Mum and Dad. (For Those of you not in the know, Eromanga is a small town, west of Quilpie in the far south west of Queensland )

Dear Mum & Dad,

I am well. Hope youse are too. Tell me big brothers Doug and Phil that the Army is better than workin' on the station - tell them to get in bloody quick smart before the jobs are all gone! I wuz a bit slow in settling down at first, because ya don't hafta get outta bed until 6am. But I like sleeping in now, cuz all ya gotta do before brekky is make ya bed and shine ya boots and clean ya uniform. No bloody horses to get in, no calves to feed, no troughs to clean - nothin'!! Ya haz gotta shower though, but its not so bad, coz there's lotsa hot water and even a light to see what ya doing!
At brekky ya get cereal, fruit and eggs but there's no kangaroo steaks or goanna stew like wot Mum makes. You don't get fed again until noon and by that time all the city boys are buggered because we've been on a 'route march' - geez its only just like walking to the windmill in the bullock paddock!!
This one will kill me brothers Doug and Phil with laughter. I keep getting medals for shootin' - dunno why. The bullseye is as big as a bloody dingo's arse and it don't move and it's not firing back at ya like the Johnsons did when our big scrubber bull got into their prize cows before the Ekka last year! All ya gotta do is make yourself comfortable and hit the target - it's a piece of piss!! You don't even load your own cartridges, they comes in little boxes, and ya don't have to steady yourself against the rollbar of the roo shooting truck when you reload!
Sometimes ya gotta wrestle with the city boys and I gotta be real careful coz they break easy - it's not like fighting with Doug and Phil and Jack and Boori and Steve and Muzza all at once like we do at home after the muster.
Turns out I'm not a bad boxer either and it looks like I'm the best the platoon's got, and I've only been beaten by this one bloke from the Engineers - he's 6 foot 5 and 15 stone and three pick handles across the shoulders and as ya know I'm only 5 foot 7 and eight stone wringin' wet, but I fought him till the other blokes carried me off to the boozer.

I can't complain about the Army - tell the boys to get in quick before word gets around how bloody good it is.

Your loving daughter,


What struck me about this email, other than an explosive laugh as I reached the end, was that it arrived just as I had started reading Australian Adrian Hyland's wonderful book Gunshot Road.  His Diamond Dove won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel in 2007.  After university, Adrian went to Central Australia in the 1980s and worked among traditional Aborgines.  He had the opportunity to spend time with people who had known the area before mines were opened there with the associated influx of white-fellers.

Adrian's protagonist, Emily Tempest, is as the Penguin Books blurb says "small, black, as snaky as a taipan's tooth and is the woman least likely ever to embark on a career in policing." She also reminds me of Susan above, except that she is an Aborigine living in the middle of the Australian Outback.  The trouble she gets into!  

In Gunshot Road she joins the police as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer under a prim and proper Superintendent Cockburn - a white-feller from the east coast.  And immediately sets out to find out who killed an old geologist friend of hers - despite there being overwhelming evidence that the police have the right man in jail.

This book is much more than a police procedural (Emily follows no known police procedures).  It is also a charming and alarming glimpse of the life of Australia's indigenous people living in a white-feller's world.  It is a vivid picture of the spirit world and how people have forgotten how to live on this planet.  "You move too fast: more better you slow down, take time for the country to know you," Emily is told after she is nearly bitten by a king brown snake.
I loved this book.  It reminded me of Aboriginal and Bushman paintings I have seen.  And it abounded with humour similar to that in the story above.

You can find out more about Adrian at J. Sydney Jones' Scene of the Crime blog by clicking here.

Please welcome Adrian, who tells us more about another remarkable and frightening Australian occurrence - Black Saturday.

Stan - Thursday

My life of late has been full of fire.

I live on a twelve acre property in the foothills of the Kinglake Ranges, near Melbourne.  A beautiful place to raise your family – the kids can gallop around on their horses, marvel at the orchids, watch mobs of kangaroos drift across our front lawn.

It’s also, alas, the most fire-prone place on earth.

A couple of years ago – February 7, 2009 -  a terrible bushfire swept through the ranges. One hundred and seventy three people died on what we now describe as Black Saturday, the vast majority of them in the Kinglake Ranges. An awful lot of them were our friends.

Like everybody else, I’ve struggled to make sense of the disaster. As a writer, the only way I know how to make sense of things is to write about them.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure where to start; the disaster seemed overwhelming. Then I began hearing about the heroism shown on the day by a neighbour and good friend of mine, Roger Wood, the police officer who was in charge of Kinglake on the day.

Photo by Alex Coppel
He had absolutely no warning that it was coming, but when it came roaring out of the bush, he immediately swung into action. He and a colleague spent the day frantically attempting to rescue people; he went charging into burning buildings, led a convoy of cars full of critically injured people down the burning mountain when it was deemed unsafe for the ambulances to come up. At the height of the fire, he received a desperate call from his wife to say that the fire was hitting their own property, and then the line went dead; he spent the day fearing the worst for her and his four children.
After the fire had passed, he and his colleagues then had the heart-wrenching task of going from house to house, uncovering the bodies, many of them people they knew.

I decided to turn his story into a book. Kinglake 350  - the ‘350’ was Roger’s radio call-sign-  is coming out shortly. In it, I try to capture this day from hell. It begins with my main character climbing out of bed on the Saturday morning, looking around and thinking: “Christ, bloody hot day today.” It finishes with him staggering home twenty four hours later, battered, burnt, badly injured, staggered by what he’s seen and the gruesome tasks ahead.

I’ve also attempted to put his story into a universal context, to understand fire and its role in our environment and culture. I’ve been completely enthralled by this journey of discovery.

Did you know, for instance, that fire is, as far as we know, unique to this planet? And that while the Earth was formed around four billion years ago, fire has only existed for the last four hundred million of them.  

Or that the ancient cultures which regarded fire as a living entity – the Slavs, the Ainu, the Vedic Indians – weren’t that far from the truth. It’s not alive, of course: it’s a chemical reaction between oxygen, fuel, and heat. But fire and life are inextricably bound. Fire only became possible with the appearance of life – prokaryotes in the first instance, which simultaneously produced both oxygen and fuel.

Fire has also been an important lever in the ascent of humanity.
There is a cave at Swartkrans, in South Africa, that dramatically illustrates this fact. Among the layers of fossil evidence uncovered there, three are of particular significance. In the first, the bones are those of hominids, scattered and torn so as to suggest they were eaten by predators. Then there is a layer of charcoal. In the final stratum, the bones are those of antelopes and warthogs, and they are burnt: cooked, by the hominids. The tables have turned. Somewhere in the intervening period, around the time of that second, charcoal, layer our ancestors learnt to control fire, and it had a transfiguring effect upon their relationship with their environment. It gave them a primacy from which we have never retreated.


  1. The letter was wonderful, and shows how soft we city dwellers have become. Of course, the end evoked a big laugh. Your fires are very daunting, and I wonder what we will be seeing as drought and heat continues to plague the earth. Oh, I am seeking out your new book after I write this.

  2. There should be more women like Susan around to put people right. There is nothing better than the opportunity to laugh at our preconceptions.

    Fire is fascinating and beautiful until it isn't. We are mesmerized by bonfires and there is something so comfortable and soothing about the warmth of a fireplace. I live in an area of the US that is not prone to wild fires but every year we see the devastation in areas like California where high air temperatures and low rainfall totals combine to create fires that destroy miles of land. Some of what is destroyed is woodland but some of it is inhabited and there is loss of life as well as loss of property.

    I always think that if the authorities told me I had to leave my home because of an imminent disaster, I would do so without question. Yet, if it really happened would I leave my home without a second thought?

    Firefighters can never be paid enough money for the work they do. Every call could be their last. I don't believe in capital punishment but I think arsonists should be given the death penalty. It is the act of a coward who has no regard for any life but his own. I hope KINGLAKE 350 is a best seller; people need to be reminded that underneath all the heavy clothing and equippment is a man/woman, someone's son/daughter,father/mother, brother/sister.

    The death toll in New York City's fire department on 9/11 should be mentioned on every anniversary. When everyone else was running out of the towers, the firefighters were running in.

    Thank you, Stan and Adrian, for a wonderful entry on this wonderful blog.

    Adrian, I will now track down your book.

  3. Adrian,
    Gotta read your book now!:)
    Great letter! Great post!

  4. I feel as if I've hit the lottery, Stan--three mesmerizing posts in one! By the way, I assume the author of the letter was a Johnny Cash fan for she took care to write "your daughter" before "Susan."

    And Adrian, you have got a new fan. Good luck with the new book.

  5. Hi Folks

    Thanks to you all for dropping by and commenting on my post. (I should add that this one is very different from my usual style, which is shot through with colloquial humour)

    The book is just about to be issued - you can read an extract at:

    Best wishes to you all