‘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)