Review: James Leyon Vincent and Morton

City Mouse, Country Mouse

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I have the notion
To jump into the river and drown

— Leadbelly

The divide is at least as old as Aesop, whose fable of the town mouse and the country mouse presents us with the familiar stereotypes of condescending urbanite and unsophisticated rustic. The stereotypes endure because they contain their measure of truth. Towns and cities are centres of wealth and power. The more populous they are, the more they recommend themselves as sites of concentrated creative activity, luring us with promises of glamour and excitement, decadence and sin, intellectual and political foment. No one of any real ambition stays in the provinces. The first line of the school song at my old regional high school (‘Armidale, though far away we will remember …’) took it for granted that we would all bugger off at the earliest opportunity, which most of us did. I have come to regard that terrible song as evidence they genuinely wanted the best for us. 

From the power imbalance derives the rule that larger towns look down on smaller ones. In highly urbanised Australia, it is a commonly held notion that nothing much happens outside the major cities, or at least nothing of any importance. If you’re not living in Sydney, a former prime minister is supposed to have quipped, you’re camping out. Provincial life tends to be either patronised for its eccentricity, lamented for its tedium and cultural stasis (‘there’s no change / there’s no pace / everything within its place …’), or damned for its ignorance and intolerance. We are all aware (are we not?) that small towns are inhabited by rubes and oddballs, just as we are all aware that they harbour dark secrets and don’t take kindly to strangers.

Of course, people know when they are being patronised and stereotyped. This is no doubt part of the reason why the disdain of the cities for the regions is repaid in kind. Country people routinely deride city life, not entirely unreasonably, for its disreputable combination of clamour, pretentiousness and immorality. They construct their self-image in contradistinction to louche city types, claiming for themselves the virtues of groundedness, hospitality, decency and honest toil. The moral of Aesop’s fable, recall, is that the lavish lifestyle of the boastful town mouse requires him to live in a constant state of fearful vigilance, something that allows the country mouse to appreciate the superiority of his humble rural existence, which is uneventful but safe and serene.

Though the notional antagonism between city and country is hardly unique to Australia, it does manifest itself in some specific ways. The symbolic opposition runs through the national literature, from Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton to contemporary authors like Wayne Macauley and Shaun Prescott, who have recognised that the divide expresses underlying anxieties about class and identity. It has become something of a stock critical idea that depictions of the Australian landscape as alien, inhospitable and haunted betray the sublimated guilt of a violent settler-colonial state, which knows on some level that it is illegitimate, but cannot bring itself to acknowledge the extent of its crimes. Those once romanticised avatars of (white, male) Australianness — the squatter, the drover, the cocky, the swagman — are little more than embarrassing clichés these days, hopelessly unreflective of the reality of modern Australian society, but their ghosts may be heard whenever a paunchy politician in a stupid hat tries to soft-soap regional voters by speaking as if they are repositories of rugged authenticity and common sense, unlike all those effete city dwellers with their trendy ideas about not transforming the planet into a scorched wasteland. 

In contrasting ways, Sam Vincent’s memoir My Father and Other Animals and Rick Morton’s anthology Growing Up in Country Australia complicate clichéd notions of rural life. The former is the story of Vincent’s return to Gollion, the family farm where he grew up, a modest parcel of Ngunnawal country not far from Canberra, where he becomes an apprentice to his ageing father. The book is an account of Vincent reorienting his life away from the precarity of his urban career as a journalist and academic researcher, gaining an agricultural education, and coming to have a deeper appreciation for the natural world, the history of the region, and the intricacies of various environmental issues. Growing Up in Country Australia includes work from a wide range of contributors and is consequently something of a mixed bag, but it moves in the opposite direction. Most of its essays are written by escapees who are now safely ensconced in one or another major city. Though some of them write appreciatively of the social bonds and relaxed pace of country life (growing up in a country town, notes Bridie Jabour, ‘teaches you to look out for other people and that community is important’), many contributors reflect on the unhappy conditions that made them want to flee. Where My Father and Other Animals is a wholesome book with some serious arguments to make about sustainability, Growing Up in Country Australia is spiked with tales of alcoholism, drug abuse, racism, homophobia, sexual assault, and death by violence or misadventure. 

Growing Up in Country Australia makes no great claims for itself. Morton states in his introduction that he wants to present a ‘modern account’ that avoids ‘the romance of days long behind us’. To this end, he has adopted an elastic definition of ‘growing up’. The collection signals that it is not taking its sociological theme all that seriously in the first essay, in which Sami Shah cheerfully admits that he in fact ‘grew up’ in Karachi (population 24 million, location Pakistan), going on to explain that he did, however, spend four years as an adult in a remote flyspeck town in Western Australia, where it was very quiet and nothing of note happened. This is followed by an on-brand comic sketch from Annabel Crabb, who describes what it is like to live in the middle of a mouse plague (spoiler: it’s disgusting).

But it is the recurring note of condemnation that makes the collection interesting and, in a sense, comes to define it on a conceptual level. Growing Up in Country Australia is part of an ongoing series that also includes Growing Up Asian in Australia, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, Growing Up African in Australia, Growing Up Queer in Australia and Growing Up Disabled in Australia. A different publisher has produced an anthology about growing up as an Australian Muslim. A volume about growing up Indian is apparently forthcoming. The rationale behind these books seems clear enough. The personal testimonies they contain are seeking to instantiate and affirm the experiences of individual members of these various communities and group identifications. In doing so, they insist on the plurality of Australian life. The act of self-expression is presented as validating in itself, but also as a challenge to generalisations and prejudicial assumptions, on the grounds that clichés and stereotypes will naturally appear less credible when they come into contact with the messy specificity of lived realities. Implicit in the conceptualisation of the series is the idea that the contributors, in the very act of speaking for themselves, are resisting the determining pressures of a dominant culture that marginalises their voices and discriminates against them.

Growing Up in Country Australia has an interestingly ambiguous relationship to that implicit principle of affirmation, partly because so many contributors are kicking against their regional origins, but also because hailing from a country town does not necessarily mean you are condemned to a life of marginalisation and discrimination. The disadvantages of being raised in a backwater are clearly not equivalent to the persistent racism faced by Indigenous or African Australians. Formative experiences are meaningful by definition, but having grown up in the country is something that lends itself to being worn lightly as a marker of cultural identity. Once you reach a certain age, no one much cares where you grew up. This gives the socio-political dimension of the book (such as it is) a somewhat paradoxical quality. One of its conspicuous features is the conscious emphasis it places on diversity. Many of the essays could have appeared in one of the other volumes in the series. Collectively, the contributors depict country life as less homogenous and more culturally complex than is often assumed, even as many of them are individually seeking a more durable sense of personal identity elsewhere, defining themselves in opposition to its retrograde qualities, and thus reinforcing negative stereotypes on a sliding scale from boredom to Wake in Fright.

The proposition that the political importance of autobiographical writing is its ability to validate experiences and challenge received notions is widely accepted, to the extent that many would probably regard it as something of a truism. In Growing Up in Country Australia, this idea runs up against the limitations of the personal essay. Most of the contributions take the form of brief reminiscences that do not presume to reach beyond the intimacy of their immediate concerns. The premise of book itself provides the framework for whatever broader cultural significance one might want to attribute to them. But a memory is not the same thing as a thought, even if the concepts can often seem to be closely entwined. No matter how vivid or emotionally charged or personally significant a memory might seem, its implications are not self-evident, nor does it follow that it should matter to anyone else, just as the mere fact that something once happened to you that affected you in some lasting way does not automatically make that incident culturally significant. What ultimately counts in autobiographical writing is the intellectual labour of drawing out the latent meanings of such experiences, connecting them to wider contexts. 

On this point, it is notable that many of the best inclusions in Growing Up in Country Australia are those in which the authors have sought, within the inherent constraints of the short essay, to exploit their temporal distance from the events they are describing to create space for reflection. Michael Winkler, for example, foregrounds his attempt to think his way into the milieu of his childhood, hindsight giving him a much clearer understanding of the racism, poverty and violence that coursed through his home town, even as the memories themselves are fragmented and hazy. ‘One of the persistent myths of Australia,’ he argues, ‘is egalitarianism.’ Claire Baker also takes the opportunity to think through an issue, meditating in an admirably even-handed manner on the social implications of her vegetarianism and attendant environmental questions from the perspective of someone who grew up immersed in a farming culture where the consumption of meat symbolised ‘strength and robustness’.

The combination of personal reflection and serious analysis, when done well, can be a winning formula. This is certainly true of Sam Vincent’s appealing memoir My Father and Other Animals. Its title is a homage to Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical novel My Family and Other Animals and a fair reflection of its amiable tone. The book presents itself, initially, as an affectionate portrait of the eponymous David Vincent, who is depicted by his writer son as the embodiment of a certain kind of unreconstructed masculinity. He is a smart, hard-working and practical minded man, who is hopeless when it comes to domestic chores, slightly accident prone (he injures himself in the opening scene when he ignores the safety warnings on a woodchipper), and prone to being a little muddle-headed (he builds the family’s kit home back-to-front, again because he doesn’t read the instructions properly). 

The memoir soon reveals its substantial thematic ambitions, which are themselves embodied in the figure of David Vincent. As a free-market economist turned environmentally conscious farmer, he is something of an oddity, not simply because of his unusual career trajectory from white-collar worker to full-time redneck, but because his approach to farming scrambles a number of received cultural assumptions. Our political discourse has long sought to position economic imperatives and environmental responsibility as antagonists — the interests of one, we are supposed to accept, can only be advanced at the expense of the other. The historical problem with unfettered capitalism (well, one of its problems) has been its readiness to exploit resources to maximise short-term profits without concern for long-term consequences. Post-industrial society has treated the natural world as if it were an inexhaustible resource: something that can be cleared and mined and commodified and polluted and destroyed with impunity. We are now in the process of learning just how catastrophically wrong these assumptions have been. Near the end of his book, Vincent observes that farmers like to present themselves as the real environmentalists, the people who understand and care for the land, and yet many of them

don’t see themselves as custodians of the landscape, but producers of a commodity. They are engaged in a kind of mining, of topsoil instead of copper or iron ore. When their deposit is exhausted, they move on or go bust. This is the view that pits caring for country and making a living in irreconcilable opposition.

My Father and Other Animals sets out to deconstruct this opposition. The essence of the philosophy David Vincent imparts to his son is that the economic virtue of maximised efficiency and the environmental virtue of sustainability can be harmonised if the innate fecundity of the natural world is respected and cultivated. ‘Our job is to see what we can do for nature,’ he counsels, ‘then get out of the way.’

That concept of seeing comes to play a crucial role in My Father and Other Animals. The book includes substantial and interesting discussions of the practical issues of optimal grazing patterns, orchard planting, and the environmental consequences of cattle farming. But the central component of the education Vincent receives is the refocusing of his vision. He learns how to be more attentive to changes in the landscape and how to read those changes. 

What makes My Father and Other Animals more than just a feelgood back-to-the-land sustainability fable is its serious engagement with the historical and cultural dimensions of its theme. Vincent recognises that philosophical differences and social hierarchies exist within the agricultural sector, at least some of which can be traced back to the old distinction between the squatter luxuriating on his stolen acres and the cocky condemned to scratch out a meagre living on an inferior patch farming land. More importantly, he understands that there is nothing new about the idea of attentive custodianship, which has been part of Indigenous culture for millennia. The necessary reorientation towards more sustainable practices, he suggests, will require a genuine acknowledgement of the historical reality of dispossession and a final dismantling of the myth of the settler farmer as a ‘nation-builder who battles an “unforgiving” land to put food on our tables’.

As moral lessons these are easy to state, of course, harder to realise, particularly since the politics around such issues over the last couple of decades has been so diabolical, tortured into all manner of bizarre shapes by the looming fact of global warming. 

On the ideological dimensions of the issue of sustainability, Vincent is invariably measured and qualified, careful not to overreach. He makes his case judiciously and the instantiation of the memoir form serves to ground and contain his argument. He does not dwell, for example, on the encompassing social and political questions raised by his economist father’s principled aversion to government subsidies. Australian farmers are not referred to as ‘agrarian socialists’ for nothing, but the proposition that such subsidies are rewards for poor land management (a credible claim on a certain level) presupposes the idea that the removal of those subsidies would naturally lead to the decline of bad land managers and their replacement with more enlightened land managers. This seems optimistic, given that the current environmental crisis provides some pretty compelling evidence that free-market economics does not give a rats whether the planet will be liveable in fifty or even twenty years time. Such subsidies, however imperfect and rortable they may be, are one of the few mechanisms we have to expedite the kinds of structural changes that will be necessary to save our miserable skins. The real question would seem to be where and how to direct them.

Near the end of My Father and Other Animals, Vincent remarks upon the way in which the climate crisis has shattered public discourse into a multitude of niche concerns and differing prescriptions. It does appear to be the case that the overwhelming scale of the danger we face might be recalibrating the political landscape in some significant and perhaps lasting ways. At the last federal election, it was hard not to see the poetic justice in the fact that the Liberal Party of Australia — the party of the social establishment and the financial elite, the ideological champion of neoliberalism, whose supporters have traditionally congregated in the most exclusive inner-city suburbs — was comprehensively pantsed in those same electorates by environmentally conscious candidates. Such was the party’s comeuppance for having spent decades jeering along with their rural-based coalition partners the National Party at environmental issues, denying their legitimacy, dismissing them as boutique indulgences of inner-city latte and chardonnay quaffers. 

On the other hand, the National Party — the party of the aforementioned agrarian socialists — seems to have suffered no adverse electoral consequences. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.