I’d like to begin by thanking Ian and Greg for giving me the honour of launching this book, which I believe is an important new addition to Australian literature. Black Diamonds and Dust is an historical novel, dealing with a very significant period in Australian history: from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, during which time of course the nation of Australia came into existence and certain features of Australian culture which came to be thought of as characteristic of the nation as a whole, were formed. The art of the ‘Heidelberg school’, for instance, that group who created arguably the first distinctively Australian depiction of the landscape and its people, forms part of the backdrop against which the events of this novel take place.
I have long been of the view that we as Australians don’t know enough about our own history. ‘History’, for most of us, sits in our head as the sum total of ‘great figures’ (usually men), great events (like wars), and set of official dates and numbers, that happened before we were born and that we and perhaps our parents can’t remember. Most of the time, learning about history means learning such things as how many boats there were in the ‘first fleet’, when they arrived and who was the fleet’s leader. Encountering history of this kind, and learning about history in this way, is an experience on a par with watching infomercials at four in the morning. It’s not very interesting.
Black Diamonds and Dust tells a different history. It is a history of ‘ordinary’ working people, a history of the real forebears of most of us. The novel tells us about the actually conditions in which people of the Newcastle area in New South Wales, lived (for people from that area, this is a particularly special book), it tells us about the kind of people these were – the work they did, the way they related to each other, the problems they had, the pleasures they enjoyed and the pain they felt – and in telling us about these social conditions, and the beliefs, feelings and psychology of the individuals of the time, the author has told us something about how history actually happens, about the process of change. When history becomes a living story about the process of change, it can become an experience on a par with listening to your best friend tell you about their first sexual encounter, with the school PE teacher, and how this has affected the rest of her life; that is, interesting.
The characters of this novel – Edmund, Mary and Clarence Shearer and their family, friends and neighbours – are products, and to a certain extent victims, of their environment:
Edward for example works in the Devonside colliery. He is a hard worker but is frightened of the mine, and with good reason. Serious accidents are not uncommon, death is not unheard of. At the beginning of the novel Edmund’s life revolves almost solely around his work. He eats only to get energy to work. His entertainment is largely that of wiping himself out through alcohol. He has no real friends. He does not speak to his wife. He is a brutal and brutalising person, a machine for cutting coal. His whole frame of mind and way of life is determined by the nature of his working conditions. The author describes a number of times how the characters live so close to coal that it actually finds it’s way into their bodies.
So Edmund and the other workers and their families are victims of these working conditions. But they also struggle to re-shape those working conditions and the social environment in which they live. The achievement of the characters of this novel is to rise above the brutalising effects of mining work, to turn themselves from extensions of the mine machine into more whole human beings. They do this variously through industrial struggle, a determination to attain education, and an indestructible capacity to love. Mothers try to find other jobs for their sons, men encourage each other not to use alcohol as a crutch and to avoid using violence in the home. A brass band gives the township a form of entertainment and the workers establish culturally enriching Mechanics’ Institutes. In spite of broken marriages and family deaths, people give of themselves emotionally and become new lovers, brides and bridegrooms, and parents.
As an artistic form, the novel has I think an unmatched capacity to draw us into a different world and make us feel the emotions of others. Black Diamonds and Dust contains great human drama: there is physical conflict, love and sex both inside and outside of wedlock, there are shouting matches and subtle innuendo, mine cave-ins and a nature that both floods and burns. The physical texture of the life of these characters emerges: what they eat (porridge, roast beef, dripping, potatoes and pumpkins, onions, radishes, nutmeg, pastry etc.), and drink (mostly beer), how they clean themselves (with hot olive oil, to get rid of ear-wax, for your information), the houses and tents of whitewashed hession they live in, the flora and fauna around them, from kangaroos and rabbits to yellow-breasted cockatoos. The vernacular accents and turns of phrase are all specific to this time and place:
Our own time is not an age when Literature celebrates heroic struggle – by and large we’re in the age of the satire – but this novel reminds us of the heroism of ordinary people.
Over the course of this novel, ‘history’ changes from being that set of official ‘great’ names, dates and events, to becoming a process that our own parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents took part in and helped to shape. Through reading Black Diamonds and Dust we come to recognise our debt to these people, we feel a kinship with them, we feel a sympathy for them and also an admiration. Over the course of the novel, for instance, my feelings towards these people on the front cover changed; by the end of the book I felt I knew them and somehow I now look at them in a different way, with both more understanding and more respect.
In our society it is easy to forget where you came from. Perhaps the overriding message that is fed to us by the powers that be is that you owe no debt to history, that you can become whatever you like and attain whatever you like: we live in a land of opportunity and all you need to do is work hard, be creative and perhaps have a little luck. It’s no coincidence that we treat old people the way we do. How many of us have a real sense of what life was like for our grandparents? How many of us even know anything about our great-grandparents?
As human beings we have a longing to know where we came from, who we really are. And of course the same people who feed us the bullshit about Australia the land of opportunity, also take time to fill us in on who we really are. At the moment, we’re really ANZACs. We may look like ordinary people who do ordinary jobs and spend a fair bit of time watching TV, but we’re actually, at heart, the greatest soldiers the world has ever seen. (It’s interesting, as an aside, that our reverence for the ANZACs has increased as the soldiers themselves, in all their flawed humanity and ordinariness, have disappeared: now they’re purely mythical creatures of sacrifice and heroism, an endless resource of mindless jingoistic nationalism.)
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera made an observation that I have often had cause to reflect upon: ‘The struggle of people against oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. In creating this historical novel, Black Diamonds and Dust, Greg Bogaerts has helped us to remember who we really are – at least, many of us will identify with this history and take from the novel an expanded sense of our identity: we are the children of extraordinary, ordinary working people. Bogaerts has also told us who we’re not: we’re not the offspring of flawless beings of the type who stormed, or attempted to storm, a certain ridge in Turkey in 1915. The characters of Black Diamonds and Dust are nothing if not human, and as such they have the neuroses and occasional psychoses of you and me.
The author has put us back into history and put history back into our lives. He has demonstrated that history is an ongoing process that we’re taking part in.
This is a significant and laudable achievement; I congratulate Greg and his far-sighted publisher, and declare Black Diamonds and Dust well and truly launched.