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Posted on 5 Aug 2016 in The Godfather: Peter Corris |

The Godfather: Peter Corris on a year in Gippsland Part 2

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peternewpicWeather was the determinant of life in Gippsland. It was autumn when we arrived, with pleasant, mild sunny days in which you could do anything out of doors. In the early weeks we had fairly frequent visitors from Melbourne and other parts.

We rented an old weatherboard cottage in the small township of Boolarra, in the middle of a dairy farm. The farmer and his family had built a new brick house in the town. Jean gardened; she also did some teaching at the Institute in a course with an Australian literature component. I chopped wood and split kindling for the stove. We both read books from the travelling library. One daughter was at school in the nearby town of Yinnar and the other was in a day-care centre for part of the week. I was only required at the Institute for three days a week and I worked on my research projects.

Visitors took walks along the country roads and men from the city chopped and stacked wood to show that they could.

We made friends with people like artists Robin and Virginia Wallace-Crabbe and several academics, and saw Peter Kerr frequently for dinners and pub nights.

Boolarra consisted of little more than the pub and a few shops. Newcomers were viewed with suspicion at first but were eventually welcomed. In fact the region was in decline; the railway had closed and there were threats of further reductions to transport and services.

We played tennis in the fine weather, enjoyed the clean crisp air well away from the mines and power plants and went blackberrying and mushroom gathering as the year wound on.

It was a portent of the severity of local winters when the farmer enlisted my help to fill the woodshed. He’d dragged many fallen branches there and I proceeded to attack them with a chainsaw. I lifted, carried, held the wood in place and stacked the results – lengths for the stove, for the big fireplace in the kitchen and the smaller one in the living room. We amassed much more than I thought necessary but he assured me we’d need it and he was right. We got through it all in the long, bleak winter.

Visitors fell away as the nights drew in. Our car, an ancient Holden station wagon, was troublesome and sometimes had to be left at the top of an incline for it to be started on frosty mornings. One day it was so low in petrol it wouldn’t start and I thought the farmer wouldn’t mind if I filched a gallon of fuel from his pump set-up. I did, the car started, blew enormous clouds of blue smoke and stopped halfway down the track. In my ignorance I’d put in kerosene and had to call the RACV to flush it through. It dawned on me then that I wasn’t really well adapted to the rural life.

My dislike of tertiary education trends intensified and I took refuge in my research, trying my hand at short stories and writing book reviews for various newspapers. (I’ve written in an earlier column on how this came about.) Waiting to see whether one of my reviews had been published provided an excitement entirely lacking in my job. Jean began writing and publishing the stories that later became her first book, Country Girl Again (1979).

As I‘ve written, we were chronically short of money but not as much as some others. We took a break in Melbourne and left a friend to look after the house. Jean had made a vast batch of green tomato chutney and put up about 20 jars. When we returned we found that our house minder, who had no money, had lived entirely on loaves of sliced white bread and the chutney and had consumed it all. It became a story to tell.

Another concerned a dog. We acquired a handsome kelpie and attempted to keep him confined to a large fenced yard behind the house. He jumped the fence; when I built it up he burrowed under it. A day came when he herded most of the dairy cattle into the creek and the farmer discovered them there in distress. The dog went off to another farmer who could spot a talented cattle dog when he saw one. 

  Event by event, including my dislike of teaching and preference for other kinds of writing, it became clear that academic life was not for me and country living was not for us. The Dismissal, approved of in the district and by some of the conservative academics, was, in a way, a last straw. We concocted a not altogether untrue account of the effect of the climate on our elder daughter’s health. With relief, I resigned my lectureship  and we returned to Melbourne with a plan  to make a major change – to move to Sydney.

We might well have echoed Tom Collins – Unemployed at last!