Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: February, 2014

When I first moved permanently to the Central West about a year ago, I had a conversation with a local amateur historian from a family who has lived in Orange for generations – pretty much since the town was little more than a camp called Blackman’s Swamp. The conversation went something like this:

Me: ‘I’m really interested to know what stories you might have of the Wiradjuri who were originally here – I can’t find anything on them.’

Local: ‘That’d be because there aren’t any, really. They did some bark cutting for the settlers when they came, they wore possum skin capes and then pretty much disappeared. We don’t think Orange was a place they actually lived in.’

Me: ‘Yeah, right.’

Pretty much terra nullius then, ay? Hm.

I mentioned this exchange to my husband, who’s also a Central Westerner, born in Bourke but raised in Orange, and he said: ‘Well, that sounds like a bit of bullshit. Hadn’t the bloke ever heard of Yuranigh?’

Apparently not, and neither had I.

Yuranigh was, in his time, a famous Wiradjuri son of this part of the country, a stockman hailing from the Molong district just to the north-west of Orange. He was a guide and great friend to the surveyor Sir Thomas Mitchell, accompanying him on his 1846 expedition into central Queensland. Yuranigh, along with two other Aboriginal guides, enabled Mitchell and his party to survive the trip, finding them water along the way and acting as cultural interpreters when they encountered groups of other Aboriginal men who were not so much pleased to have them in their country.

No-one knows when Yuranigh was born but he was probably in his mid-twenties when he and Mitchell first met. It was a relationship that obviously deeply affected the much older Scotsman, Mitchell describing him as ‘guide, companion, counsellor and friend’, and writing of him that ‘his intelligence and his judgment rendered him so necessary to me that he was ever at my elbow … Confidence in him was never misplaced. He well knew the character of all the white men in the party. Nothing escaped his penetrating eye and quick ear.’

They remained friends until Yuranigh’s death five years later. Such great friends that Mitchell arranged the formal fencing of Yuranigh’s traditional Wiradjuri grave at government expense and had a headstone erected there at his own, inscribed: ‘To Native Courage Honesty and Fidelity. Yuranigh who accompanied the expedition of discovery into tropical Australia in 1846 lies buried here according to the rites of his countrymen and this spot was dedicated and enclosed by the Governor General’s authority in 1852’.

So famous was Yuranigh, a lagoon, a district in Queensland and a creek near Molong are named after him. His grave still sits where it always has, between Molong and Orange – you can visit it anytime. But what I’ve written here is just about all we know of him. And this is a shame.

History is lost all the time, of course. And it’s always a shame when that happens. It’s like forgetting an essential piece of ourselves. A kind of collective dementia that plagues us humans.

Which is why we should do whatever we can to keep telling and retelling our stories – and passing them on. So that we can try to understand our history whole, both the bits that require black armbands of sorrow and the bits that evoke pride and joy. So that we can keep pushing for a better crack at the future for all of us who live here and those to come. Keep pushing for the respect and understanding that Yuranigh and Mitchell shared.

(Information on Yuranigh sourced from Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1967)

‘Anything worth doing is scary,’ so says seven-year-old Agnes in The Blue Mile. Having a red hot go at life means taking risks. Being brave enough to back yourself. For Agnes, growing up in Sydney in the 1930s, it means believing her big brother when he tells her his sandshoes make him stick like licorice to the Harbour Bridge where he works as a labourer in a riveting gang. Scared out of his mind just about every day.

Courage – what it is and where it leads us – is a recurrent theme in all my novels. It’s an inescapable theme in Australian culture generally. We love our heroes, don’t we? But from the bronzed Anzac to the boofheaded front row forward, we tend to equate heroism with men doing violent things. Politicians like to stand beside them for photo opportunities. Oi.

The courageous men who inspire me tend not to be football players, though a few have been soldiers. I’ve had the privilege and joy of working with two of the loveliest soldiers this country has ever produced: the late Sir Roden Cutler and the still-yarning-strong Ernest Brough, one an officer, one an ordinary enlisted man, both gorgeous. Both mind-blowingly courageous in war.

It’s not only our soldiers who do crazy brave things, though. The quiet, unsung heroes who build our everyday world possess a courage that fascinates me. Construction workers, miners, engineers, truck drivers, linemen…my stories are filled with the kinds of men who make what we take for granted.

Each day they go to work there is a risk that they might not come home. For me, this makes the world they build for us even more beautiful.

Why do they take these risks? Because the money’s all right, because they love the outdoors work, because they love the blokey atmosphere they work in? Maybe. But more often than not the ordinary hero does it to pay the mortgage and the kids’ school fees, to buy that engagement ring, to take his very best mate, his wife, on that holiday they’ve been planning for years. He does it to build the life he wants for those he loves.

One way or another, it almost always comes back to love, doesn’t it? The reason behind every good thing we do. That happens to be the scariest thing that any of us ever do. The biggest risk we ever take. The greatest dare. Love.

(Photo credit: Henri Mallard, 1930, National Library of Australia)

I always blink whenever I hear someone say, ‘Oh, I’m not very creative.’ We’re all creative. Sure, some of us enjoy being spectators more than playing the showoff, but we all express ourselves creatively, whether that’s in secret scribblings, or making patchwork masterpieces, magicking up feasts, dancing a mean tango, crafting a piece of furniture from wood you’ve turned yourself. That treasured thing you do requiring skill, imagination and love that can only come from you and no-one else.

Maybe this reticence to admit to our own creativity comes from an idea that only things of artistic value are truly worth acknowledging. Which always makes me wonder: what is art? There are as many definitions of that word, it seems, as there are expressions of creativity. Who decides what art is anyway? Well, usually vested interests – duh. Not so much gate-keepers of our culture as people with mortgages and overblown credit cards who, creative in their own ways, are compelled to justify their jobs as curators, publishers, critics and commentators, however they must.

I have to try to remember to forget all that crap about worthy and unworthy art myself or I’d never write another word. It’s crushing to pour yourself into something and have others dismiss it as rubbish. It’s hideous to put yourself out there knowing that someone will sneer and say you have no taste and no purpose. They might not do it to your face, but rest assured, some self-appointed arbiter of all good things will say you’re a waste of oxygen. Which all makes the definition of ‘artist’ quite easy. The artist is the one who says in return, ‘Stuff you, Joe Blow, I’m doing it anyway.’ Or has a nervous breakdown. I’ve done both in my time, on occasion all at once.

If the artist is the one who persists, who is fired by curiosity and love to keep going deeper, keep burnishing that treasured thing, despite knockbacks, setbacks and little financial reward, then that’s me, or at least that’s what I try to be. And in one way or another it is, I suspect, most of us. But most of all, whatever it is you do to bring your treasure to the table, however large or small, it is always a good thing to do. As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut said so perfectly:

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something (from his essay collection, A Man Without a Country, 2005).

Who is anyone to nay say that? No-one.

Be bold then. Feel the wind in your hair as your heart races with joy and fear. Do it. Live.

Like this fellow in the photograph above. He’s called Frog Extraordinaire, created by sculptors Stewart Caldwell and Mark Oates, and he sits on the Mitchell Highway outside the scrap metal yard he presently calls home at Molong. Who says the Central West is not a premier centre of artistic excellence, hm? Whatever, I doubt Mr Frog gives a flying tricycle.

(For more info on the work of Caldwell and Oates go here or contact the scrap metal yard at Molong direct.)