Last weekend a Writers Festival came to town and filled the streets of Newcastle, along with my calendar. I was one of many volunteers on two of the three days, as well as a finalist in the festival’s inaugural Microlit competition for short fiction (200 words or less).
The first session I saw while volunteering was a meeting of two Newcastles – old and new, steel and sky, blue collar and white. John Lewer spoke about his new book, Not Charted On Ordinary Maps, which documents the period between the announcement of BHP’s steelworks closure and the actual day the gates closed for the final time. It was two-and-a-half years, and for the 5000 mostly male workers must have been a time of great pain and uncertainty, despite the overall hope that many in Newcastle, including myself, held for a future unfettered by the dirty great industry that had been its making.
The room was full of men who had clearly seen all those things – the making of an industry, the pain of its loss. Lewer recounted the incredible figures around that two-and-a-half year period – the productivity gains, the almost negligible absenteeism. Back then these men had something to prove, and though it ultimately fell on deaf ears, I don’t think it was lost on a single person gathered at City Hall last Friday. I doubt whether most of those gathered had ever been to a Writers Festival, though of course I could be wrong. It seemed they were there seeking answers of some kind, these middle-aged and elderly men who carried with them a life of hard work and resignation. I think I winced when Lewer quoted from his book the cruel observation that, when the death knell finally sounded for BHP’s Newcastle steelworks, the unions and workers alike were instrumental “in their own demise”. The words could not have been easy for these once-strong men to hear, even 17 years later. They, like the city, are connected far beyond knock-off time to a place beyond the physical, to a comradeship that helped them rise above the politics and brutal conditions they endured for most of their working lives.
The title of Lewer’s book comes from a passage in W.A. Metcalfe’s academic article ‘Mud and Steel: The Imagination of Newcastle’ and when Lewer read out the passage I was hanging on every word:
‘Not just space, then, nor just bricks and mortar, Newcastle is rallying calls, pledges of loyalty, moral terrors … the analyst of Newcastle must explore memories, dreams and imaginings not charted on ordinary maps.’
It reminded me of a poem I wrote last year.
I recognise this place.
I’d know that stifled optimism anywhere.
A place full of heart,
If you believe the paper.
But all your major arteries are empty.
Beards have replaced the boilermakers
And there are different tracks,
All going nowhere.
Cafes have cropped up
Where corned beef used to be the rage
And you don’t do smoko now,
Just coffee to go or kerbside espresso.
You’re going places.
Always have been.
Your ship’ll come in,
But then it’s gone by dawn
Down the old Coal River
And out to new horizons where I can’t see
And you’ll never be.
- Jodi Vial
By Saturday I was in a much more optimistic mood. The sun was shining, the streets were buzzing, and I was standing outside the Civic Playhouse with my volunteers' clipboard smiling and saying hello to Drusilla Modjeska, one of many wonderful authors who visited the city for the festival. I snuck in later to see part of her session, in which she discussed her writing life, and caught an anecdote that will stay with me for a long time.
Modjeska related the story of taking some visiting Papua New Guinean women to a large Australian shopping centre so that they might buy some clothing and souvenirs to take back home. She recalled seeing the matriarch of the group, “one of the most powerful women I have ever known, and I have known some very powerful women”, suddenly lose all her strength and begin to look panicked. When Modjeska asked the woman what was wrong, her reply came from generations of connection we can only imagine, having begun to lose our grip on it some time ago. “Where is your ground?” the woman pleaded. “Where is your ground?”
That night I was back in City Hall for a discussion on microfiction and the screening of all four finalists in the festival’s Microlit competition. I was disappointed not to win, just a little, but loved hearing the other works and my own, voiced by professional actors and with audiovisual enhancement by Melbourne writer and artist Richard Holt. I can’t provide you with the full package here, but following is the piece for which I was shortlisted.
I know how it feels to be seeking ground, but with this work and the continual work of writing and learning, I believe I have found mine and hope it will never be lost to me again.
There are two bare feet below her on the weathered boards. She is unsure if they belong to her or someone else. Either way they anchor her as her body tilts and rolls through another wave of pain and she comes out gasping with exhaustion and relief. The boards breathe along with her, with the spirit of the women who came before her, who birthed and were born in this house, held above the earth by this floor and beneath the sky by this roof but no less a part of them both. She lifts her head to take a great belly full of air before the next wave and she sees a small bird, a swallow, rendered in plaster but moving, flying, as surely as if it were feathers and bone. The swallow’s wings lift her spirit but her body is still anchored to the dusty floor and filled with pain and purpose. She braces against the nearest door, claws at the timber as though she might bring the whole place down. Her baby is at the threshold of the earth and she is reborn with him, into a motherhood and sisterhood from which she will never return. Jodi Vial 2015