Rick Morton is a social affairs writer for The Australian, and 100 Years of Dirt is both his memoir and his commentary of class and disadvantage in Australian society. It’s a very tricky line he’s had to balance himself on; this book could have all too easily turned self-indulgent. However, instead, Rick comes across as very candid about both his family history and how we in Australia deal with these issues, making for a grim read.
Rick’s grandfather, George was the owner of several large cattle stations, whose total area probably rivalled those of a small European country. This comparison is NOT hyperbole; such landholders exist in more remote regions of the country, and they behave as lords unto themselves. George, by Rick’s account, was a real iron-fisted bastard, who treated his whole family horrendously, but he seemed to have it in for Rick’s father, Rodney especially.
However, much of the sympathy built up for Rodney dissipates rather quickly when Rick starts talking about his childhood. When Rick’s brother was about seven, he was involved in a freak accident which resulted in burns covering large parts of his body. As the family lived in such a remote area, his brother, along with his mum and months old sister, had to be flown to out to the nearest major city for treatment.
Which left young Rick home alone with his dad – where he then witnessed Dad’s affair with the teenage governess; this resulted in the break up of his family, and his mum, Deb, had to start over as a single parent in a small Queensland town. Reading these chapters, you have to hand it to his mum – she seems made of some pretty stern stuff.
While writing about this incident, Rick doesn’t just stick to his family narrative. He goes off on tangents, providing context to the story. His family was living at Mount Howitt Cattle station – and he explains to the reader who that is and what lessons were not learnt about it. He also gives background on the Royal Flying Doctor Service, who are responsible for evacuating his brother to Brisbane and saving his life.
This pattern continues throughout the book. When talking about memory and intergenerational trauma, he’ll sidetrack for a few paragraphs to mediate on the nature of memory, or whether or not stress can be passed on epigenetically. It can read as a little eclectic at times, but it works in adding body to the story and draws attention to the fact that these things can have long-reaching effects that we may not be immediately aware of.
However, the one message that stuck with me was that the long lauded idea our society supposedly celebrates – that of the ‘fair go’ – is full of shit. We have an issue with class in this country, and most people are not willing to talk about it. Moreover, it’s so much more than just the working-class whites that cop this – it’s basically any minority. Not white? Mentally ill? Queer? Someone in the family has problems with addiction? We are kidding ourselves if we think we’re all working from the same standing start.
Because Rick is a journalist, he spends quite a bit of time discussing how this affects his profession in particular. Modern journalism favours recruiting from the more privileged classes, and this has adverse effects on reporting. Old fashioned cadetships have all but vanished, leaving unpaid internships, which cut a lot of the less wealthy young people out. If most of the people studying journalism are from upper-middle-class backgrounds, then much reporting they end up doing is going to be focused on middle-class grievances, which means the more important discussions we should be having are neglected.*
The university bias was one of the main things I could relate to specifically. While my institution was not as strongly biased against people of a low socio-economic background as the private Bond University, there was still a definite skew in favour of the privately educated. And this only got worse as we travelled through graduate school. A friend and I once did a breakdown of whether or not our fellow PhD students came from public or private schools (Local and international students were treated as separate cohorts), and the results were downright depressing. And this is in a country where tertiary education for locals is subsidised.
It’s not all miserable though. There’s a wry sense of humour that cuts through the entire book. There is also a surprising tenderness, especially when Rick talks about his childhood aspirations and his relationship with his mother. The book is sad – but not depressing, and hopefully the message that we should be a little kinder to the disadvataged is taken to heart. And please, let Rick’s mum get all the appreciation she deserves.
This my Home Sweet Home bingo square, even though sweet is not the way I would describe this book.
And that’s a bingo, I believe?
*Hello, Liberal Party of Australia (Victorian Division)? It would have helped if you had read more widely before going into this weekends state election…