Stephen Orr on Transitions

Hello all!

Hope you’re keeping warm. We have a lot going on over here at Wakefield Press, not least of all the release of Stephen Orr’s latest book, The Hands, later this month.

To keep you going until then, we’ve got Stephen’s wonderful keynote speech on transitions for the Gawler Festival of Words, reprinted with permission here:


So let’s look at some famous transitions. Australian culture. In the 1950s, absent, or derivative, aping American and British models? Transitioning to…hold on? Television: dumb, filled with ads, populated by lightweight personalities….wait a minute? Newspapers: once, full of analysis, facts, observation, with all editorial comment clearly defined. Now, an attempt to tell people what to think, how angry they should be, what to take offence at. Noam Chomsky explained this in his book Hopes and Prospects. He outlined how we, the Consumer, with a capital C, can be convinced to buy anything from dog food to presidents and prime ministers. ‘The Obama campaign greatly impressed the public relations industry, which named Obama “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008”, easily beating out Apple computers. A good predictor for the elections a few weeks later. The industry’s regular task is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices…’

We used to have Ben Chifley, John Curtin, Christ, I’d even be happy with Hawkey, but now, as I’ll explain later, we have more propaganda.

What about music? We used to have Cold Chisel, now we have, well, I’m not sure, because they only last six months after X Factor. We used to have decent neighbourhoods. Ah, for the days of swapping fruit over the back fence. Now, we mind our own business. We used to give way, now we pull out. We used to trust our teachers, now we assume (because we’ve been told to by Today Tonight) they’re all idiots. We used to like each other, now we just like each other. We used to talk to each other. Now we just laugh out loud. The late American writer Neil Postman said we were becoming ‘the giggling society’, where, to quote, ‘Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot mean to any meaningful action.’
So, have I got you worried? Are you sitting there thinking, My, he’s very angry, isn’t he? Well, don’t worry, I’ll lighten up. But my point being. What is a transition? From ignorance to enlightenment? From being less to more happy? The majority being less well-off to more well-off? This is the worry. Is it that civics, manners, decency and consideration are no longer guiding change? That, now, it’s okay to ‘trust’ the government with all those boats full of refugees.
So what’s happening?

I grow up in a fibro house. The woman next door has six hundred cats. The guy next to her spends his days at the pub. Trevor, across the road, is always fiddling with his Monaro’s engine, constantly revving it. Across the road, Rod (not his real name) operates a car-seat business from home, so we have people parking in our driveway. We have a nude sun-bathing neighbour, so it’s not all bad. We’re behind the Ford workshop on North East Road, so there are always clanging spanners and really loud talkback radio. And that’s my childhood. Fantastic.
Cut to last week. I drive down my old street. Nearly all the fibros are gone, replaced by two-to-a-block townhouses with high walls so no one has to bother talking to anyone else. Say what you want about Lanark Avenue, but everyone talked to everyone. All the time. At your front door, in your front door, in your room, like we were some sort of Korean cult. What else did I see? Gardens, everyone had gotten rid of them. That’d mean you’d have to go out and risk talking to someone.

Mrs Smith’s (not her real name) orange trees? Gone. That’s the stuff you buy in bottles, made from imported Brazilian concentrate, the big supermarkets doing a deal to make sure there’s no transitioning going on in the Riverland (except to welfare).

Instead of citrus we have (ironically) little yard sculptures saying things like ‘G’day, mate’. So we can at least remember what it was like to have a friendly neighbour. But anyway, the old street had new paving, and fancier signs, and everything looked nicer. But it just got me slightly depressed. That, on the surface, we, as a community, have transitioned. But, in so doing, have lost sight of the things that matter.

Oranges, swapped. Mrs Floyd (not her real name) standing on her porch with a Winnie Blue, checking out the goings on, filing them in her gossip memory bank, before going in to iron another hundred handkerchiefs.
So, why do I reminisce? Well, there’s one house. The original inhabitant still lives there. He’s let the place go; it looks like something from ten minutes after the Hiroshima bomb. But, he’s obviously decided not to transition. Not sell the house to two-for-one developers. Not to paint it, fix the gutters, mow the lawn, water the garden. Not. He’s given the world the victory sign. And I ask myself why? Is it that he doesn’t think much about the way the world’s gone? That he doesn’t want to join our current dollar-fest? That, in short, he thinks the world stinks?

Transition. A warm day. 1985. The author (here) steps from a red hen, considers Gawler Railway Station and wonders what he’s got himself into. If anyone’s seen Wake in Fright 

Anyway, there is a bus to the college, and me and a few other gawky, suburban teenagers climb aboard. Torn leather. The side-burned driver crunching gears. And off we go. My first transition, from childhood to tertiary student; son of the suburbs to semi-rural student of natural resource management; half-interested Matriculant, to marginally-interested undergraduate; living at home to living in the halls of residence; a quiet life, to a wild life, watching semi-naked ag students saunter from the horse tarts’ bedrooms. Shock! Although there was more to come.
We arrive, settle in, make our way to the dining room for the first of a rotation of seven meals repeated, ad infinitum. Lecture, study, eat, sleep, go to the tavern for a few beers. But within months it’s sleep-in, skip lectures, spend a lot more time in the tavern, cram for exams, miraculously pass.
Thirty years ago. I remember my time at Roseworthy as a free and easy semi love-in, the smell of sheep shit and rotting grapes, Friday night movies and the inevitable aggie versus nat rat conflicts. Slightly pathetic, in retrospect, but the farmers couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. And since then, more university study, wife, children, jobs, mortgages, books written, rejected, published, remaindered, forgotten. A whole life, full of transitions. But this arrival in Gawler was the first turning point. And it’s strange how we remember turning points, key moments, life’s biggest mistakes and strokes of good fortune. We, as self-interested individuals. But the world has also transitioned. Back then, no mobile phones. A HP computer with floppy, perhaps, but it couldn’t do much more than find a mean statistical value. People still bought Australian cars, went to pubs to see Australian bands, purchased Adelaide houses with median values of $72,200 (although Sydney’s was $88,000, which shows how much things have changed in a generation) – all this paid for by an average wage of $250 per week.

And, may I suggest, we’ve transitioned. From a much more easy-going people, happy to laugh at Strop, get about in Target shorts and thongs, to live in our fibro (before a home became an investment, not a place to live). To serious, worried people, concerned that our neighbours might be earning more, going on better holidays, sending his or her kids to better private schools.

Perhaps the degree of transitioning, coinciding with the deregulation of financial markets in the nineties, has been too much, too soon, and we are left wondering, where did our lives go? The things we value? When did people stop indicating, letting others merge? When did we all decide it was important to have an opinion on everything and everyone, and share it, all day and every day, on social media? When did we all become offence takers? You know, the sort who won’t join a conversation, but if (God help you) you say something they’re not happy about …

So what I want to suggest today is that change needs to be considered, and generally isn’t. Driven, as it is, by corporations, pushing governments to put computers into every student’s hands, despite a lack of data suggesting this might help them. Governments telling us that suburban sprawl should stop at Munno Para, while palms are greased with the endless release of former farming land, destined to be new themed suburbs. All so we can keep the dream of suburbia. But Gawler was never suburbia and, I suspect, many don’t want it to be. But what I’ve seen since I first arrived in this town a generation ago suggests you’re gonna get it anyway. Which is a pity. Best of town and country. Perhaps, but it was always more than that. Gawler, to me, was always a sun-baked town, full of cockies in utes parked out front of the bank, going in to have it out with the manager. Gawler was the place I bought my first Crowded House record, went shopping every week with my housemates when I entered third year, and a share house. Gawler was (less so now) the country, deciding it didn’t want to get any closer to the city. And there was always that gap – those few paddocks as you drove north. But it’s closing. The shops coming. The fast food joints. And Gawler is left asking, What do we want to be? But in a way, succumbing. To the $7.95 burger and chips meal. The hydro shop, adult magazine shop – all of the joys of city living.
Anyway, back to Roseworthy. Fist drunken encounters, bit of a spew in the communal bathrooms. Speaking of which – this was scary for a shy 17 year old who’d never seen another adult body. The farmers came into the shower block, whipped it off, soaped it up, had a yarn, as I stood shaking in my tinea-proof thongs (although they weren’t). How the hell are yer?
Point being. It wasn’t an easy transition. It never is, really. I caught a rash from that bathroom, and had to go to the doctor for the first time as a semi-adult, show him what I’d contracted in the Roseworthy showers, as he twirled his mo and said, Bad show, old chap, we better get something onto that!
And the meals. Basic. Chops, and mash, and three veg from a can. Suet pudding, although we came to believe it was something left over from the artificial insemination workshops.
Transition. Out of my comfort zone. Which is what we all need, I guess.

And if you’d asked me at the time if I wanted to stay, I’d have said no, but now, looking back, I remember it as an ongoing fun-fest, drinking nights around a camp fire at the old dump, trips to Broken Hill to study arid zone land management, but even that had more to do with the calibre of NSW public houses.

And so, armed with my degree, and a diploma in education, I applied for a teaching job. Nothing, of course, in SA, so I accepted a position at Hervey Bay in Queensland. Arrived, on a hot and steamy February day, case in hand, at a tin-pot airport, a stray dog wandering the tarmac. No one to meet me, so I called a taxi and made my way to the Desert Palms Motor Inn. And this is where I stayed for the next two weeks, until my furniture arrived from Adelaide. The other teachers drove me around, helped me find a rental, which I eventually secured in lovely, downtown Pialba. More dogs wandering the roads, which were only half-tarred, in the middle, because the council didn’t have enough money to do them all.
Yes, another transition, from my home town, to a state where they have actual jobs. Permanent, full-time. And here’s another failed transition. South Australia. Still hobbling along with high unemployment, its young and talented still leaving for their own Hervey Bays, allowing the unchecked growth of a public service that seems to employ half the state. There are many reasons, most concerning our failure to adapt to a loss of the Playford legacy – that is, manufacturing growing out of what was previously an agricultural economy. But there was never another Playford, seeing the future, leading us towards education-based industries, advanced manufacturing, encouraging the long-term investment that other states are now beginning to profit from. And this is sad. When I returned to SA in the late 1990s there were still no jobs. And even now, with the nation’s highest unemployment, we’re faced with the reality that we didn’t transition. From the comfortable, cable-knit cosiness of our childhoods, to a vibrant, pulsating economy, the basis of jobs, wealth, and ever-increasing employment.
Anyway, back to Hervey Bay. I transitioned into a classroom on stilts, from a semi-educated dweep from Adelaide, to a semi-educated Queensland dweep. Twenty kids looking at me like, You’ve got no idea what yer doing, do yer?
As I adapted to the realities of teaching. Twenty-five pairs of eyes waiting for you to say something half-intelligent.
Well, guys, who wants to help me balance this equation?
No response.
The reactants, here, the products here…it’s easy!

Until the second or third Saturday morning, down at the local Target, where one of my less-inclined students called out across a busy mall: Hey, Mr Orr, you f*** c***.

I stopped to think a moment. Perhaps I’d misheard. But come Monday morning, all was denied. I was left wondering what I’d done. A new career. New town. New life, with a child on the way.

A funny transition. From a comfortable to a challenging life. But this, I guess, is the only way humans can grow. We soon moved from Hervey Bay to Maryborough, made some of the closest friends we’ve ever had, learned to love the sleepy old town. And now, in retrospect, it seems that nothing can really be achieved in life without moving from your comfort zone.
And is this, I wonder, what we have failed to do as a state? Imagine our own futures? Act. Take risks. But there’s no rush, apparently. There’ll always be the footy, and the netball, like a long Saturday afternoon in Kadina (another one of my teaching transitions). As we ask, wherever we are, if we’ve gone stale? Here in Gawler, perhaps? Is staying the same really an option? Railing against shopping centres, housing developments. Is it that those of us who like it as it is, or was, have no real vision of a future Gawler, or Adelaide?

As a writer this worries me. South Australians like their culture in measured doses. A festival here and there – but nothing too taxing. And books. How many Croweaters could name more than two or three South Australian writers working today?

Or poets, who always seem to get a raw deal. Maybe this is because so many of our creative people head interstate. I know many. But why? All of the great American writers were regional (Faulkner, Thomas Woolfe, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck – the list goes on). Maybe size doesn’t matter. Maybe creative people like to feel at least a bit valued. Maybe, despite what many say, they can’t work in a vacuum, mostly ignored. People like Barbara Hanrahan and Colin Thiele did relatively well, but try finding any of their books in your local bookshop. And what about poor old Caroline Carleton? Heard of her? She moved to Australia with her trainee doctor husband in 1839, wading ashore at Glenelg. She was tough. Both of her children had died en route. Her husband’s medical career fizzled and he ended up working as the superintendent of West Terrace Cemetery. While living on site (it had its own crematorium in those days), Caroline wrote a poem called Song of Australia which won the Gawler Institute’s competition for a patriotic poem. You all know the story of failed German potato farmer Carl Linger, who set this tune to music, but it was Caroline who started it all. This song would be sung the nation over, in classrooms, and in March 1936, for SA’s centenary, 3000 adults and 800 children filed past Caroline’s grave at Moonta Cemetery in recognition of a great South Australian.
We shouldn’t smile. Chances are, this is what fate has in store for most of us. But, it seems to me, perhaps we haven’t progressed a lot, culturally, from the days when artists were only ever slightly glorified amateurs. Poetry, for instance. Yes, we honour a few, like Les Murray and the late Judith Wright, but most poets scribble at night, teach, rack their brains to think of a way to get their work out to a wider audience. Maybe this is the true value of new festivals like the one we launch today. Not so long ago the Salisbury Writers Festival was small beans, but this year they feature Julia Gillard and William McInnes.

Which leads me to you, the readers and writers – the whole point of Gawler’s latest transition into cultural cosiness. And the bond shared between the maker and consumers of stories. The plot, the characters, the themes, the very human concerns. SA has many writing groups, from Friendly Street to Mutant Stepchildren, from the SARA (romance authors) to Starship Mawson. SA is a place where anyone can try their hand at anything. I’ve always wanted to crack the Mills and Boon market. I’ve practised, written a few experimental pages, but each time the characters have descended into existential darkness.
This all started when I was a kid. It wasn’t a very booky household, but I noticed, watching the better episodes of MASH, that there was some sort of truth in a story, as long as it was well told. I believed Hawkeye’s relationship with his father was special. Which was strange, because everything else on television at the time was complete crap: The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Arcade, Prisoner.
This led to me sniffing out books at my primary school library. Easy stuff at first, Asterix, Tin-Tin, but by the time I was in Year 11 an outstanding English teacher had put Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment in my hands, and it all started to click. The transition to writer had begun.

Year 12 was spent writing my first novel, A Drop in the Ocean, a Dickensian story about the troubled relationship between a child and his Catholic priest father. Okay, I hadn’t done my research, but I wanted to write.

This was Walt Whitman’s procreant urge – to make, forge new worlds out of words. By the way, this manuscript was burnt on a pyre of childhood disasters some years later.
Transition. As a teacher, I assume there’s at least one potential writer in every class I teach, and it’s my job to do for him or her what my Year 11 teacher did for me. Offer encouragement. As the writers among you know, we can prosper on very short rations. When I see a kid reading a book at lunch, I always ask what it is, and start the conversation. The conversation – that makes writers. The transition, from one who reads to one who writes. It’s not that great a leap. Like a musical improviser deciding to write down what he’s playing. The transition. And writing sometimes seems so marginal, so it’s hugely important to encourage our young writers. They’ll have to tackle a society that would rather see them spend their Saturdays shooting goals.
Anyway, my great novel was finished, wrapped in brown paper and sent off to Penguin. Scene: editorial room at Penguin publishers, sometime in the mid-80s.
Hey, Gazz, you seen this one – A Drop in the Ocean?
Yeah, mate. Laughed for hours.
What, a comedy, was it?
No – but that’s the funny thing.
Not to be deterred by the rejection letter (in the days they still sent them – now they don’t bother responding at all) I gave up on literature.
But, of course, you can’t.

And this is another thing I tell kids. Writing is like tuberculosis. Once you’ve got it … you can fight it, ignore it, medicate it, or try and reason with it, but it will win. In a year, two, ten, fifty. Like a visit to KFC. Each time you say, I’ll never eat that crap again, but you do, don’t you?

And so, there I was, in my mid-20s, teaching in Hervey Bay, starting to scribble again. The thing being, once you’ve transitioned to creativity, you can’t go back to your old life (as Thomas Woolfe said, You Can’t Go Home Again). I finished a book based on the disappearance of two jackaroos in the desert in 1987, sent it off to more publishers, had it rejected by all of them and decided, perhaps, I wasn’t so good at this after all.
Back in the drawer, and back to the classroom, chairs flying all around me as I remembered how I’d felt, as a kid, watching Alan Alda talk about the important things. How I’d thought, Surely there can’t be anything more important than this?
As I waited another few years, kept scribbling, then entered my jackaroo story in the Australian/Vogel award for young novelists. Runner-up. Which was enough to bring me to the attention of Allen and Unwin, the same company that had rejected the same manuscript a few years before. This time they offered to publish it, and the promises of Hawkeye, and Klinger, were realised, sort of.
And the lesson here. Writing’s a nasty business. One part (the publishers and market place) are at odds with the other part (the slightly shy, mal-adjusted person scribbling in his or her bedroom). All writers suspect they might have something worthwhile to say, and they look for other’s approval, and often, don’t receive it. Which leads me to today, and the importance of writing groups, festivals, even a casual remark, something said as we read our kid’s homework.

So what the hell have I been rabbiting on about? Well, the idea, when I started, was that we all grow, develop, change, and what we want from life changes. Perhaps this is the process of working out what we think to be really important. Yes, kids have to be fed, mortgages paid, lawns mowed, but also, societies have to focus on what humans need. Not just more shopping centres, but also, bookshops, cafes, theatres. Not just more footy fields, or freshly surfaced netball courts, but places for quiet reflection. Libraries, for instance.

A 2013 report in The Guardian UK showed that the number of people visiting a library at least once a year in the UK had dropped by 25% since records had begun in 2005. This, the authors suggested, was at least partly caused by the closure of hundreds of libraries (9% over the same period) by cash-strapped local councils.

This seems like a bad transition. Some would argue it’s caused by the availability of e-books, online libraries and the like, but this has never really been quantified, and it may be, as I suspect, that our kids aren’t reading Little Women on their iPads as much as … well, you know, women, generally.

I’ll leave the last words to my favourite author, Patrick White. He believed we were an easily distracted people. He suggested that a lot of us were really kidults, unwilling or unable to cope with the complexities of the world. He suggested this was leading us down a raspberry-flavoured path or silliness and trivia. He wondered whether every transition was a good one. As an example, he told the story of Prime Minister Ben Chifley. How, after a goodwill visit to Longreach in 1947, he strolled back to his hotel with a local journalist. How he stopped to talk to a local drunk, wish him well, before heading up to his room. White described Curtin as a ‘calm, self-contained, solitary figure.’ He said, ‘One wonders, do today’s private jets and army of minders make for better government? How, in the space of forty years, did it all get so much out of control?’
A question we’re all left wondering. When our present world fails to live up to the promises of our early visions. As we’re forced to ask ourselves, again, What should today, what will tomorrow look like? And will I like it?