A teenage Throsby and a gathering of oddball mates took to walking the drains around Newcastle at night, decades ago.
We were – nearby locals soundly asleep at those wee small hours would have been comforted to know – far too nerdy to be hooligans. We didn’t rock street signs loose and throw them into the drain. Nor would we have hurled soon-to-be-ubiquitous shopping trolleys into the concreted waterways either.
No, we just walked and talked about life, the universe, and everything. While our minds postulated and debated all things from atoms to stars, from amoeba to gods, our feet took us from the high reaches of Styx Creek, past (or under) the Gully Line, and onward towards tidal waters at Islington. Then back, usually in time to fall asleep, exhausted, as the sun rose.
So it was with considerable sympathy that I plunged into Mark Maclean’s book on his adventures along Styx Creek. His study of the minutiae of dead creatures and broken detritus was punctuated by broad sweeps of the landscape, loving observations of teeming bird life in “Hamilton Botanic Gardens” and ready expeditions into history, philosophy, and, well… life, the universe, and everything. Not to forget greedy little Jambo.
Through air as suffocatingly thick as damp cotton wool I hear the bells clanging at the Clyde Street lights. Within a minute a train crosses the bridge, a two-coacher coming from Newcastle and heading – according to the backlit sign – to Telarah. I stand and watch it rattle past and people look down at me and Jambo looking up at them. If home is contentment with place then home is here, now, under the bridge with Jambo as a train goes past and the tide comes in.
I certainly wondered how Mark would fill a book on drain-walking. There’s only so much one can say about concreted watercourses. But well before the end of Chapter one I had succumbed to his charming English banter, and was internally narrating with an imagined Cumbrian accent – one suitably Strine-ised from a decades-long assault upon his hearing by our lazy nasal twang.
Mr Maclean is, you’ve now gathered, a Pommie. One, he readily admits, of the only-occasionally whingeing kind – chiefly in the cruel month of December when the heat and humidity make even thongs and singlet clad Aussie hard-arses turn equally to weather whining. So he’s just one of us anyhow.
Important for the book, however, is that Mark is well-travelled. He’s from England, returns often to visit the ageing Dad. Spent his first decade in Alice Springs, became a Novacastrian and founded a family.
Of recent years he appears to have gone walkabout into the desert and slowly, one imagines, dissolved within the arid endless landscape. Lightning Ridge school teaching was his announcement upon terminating the Hamilton North blog – much to our disappointment.
As missives back to the coast from Learning about Lighting slow and flatten, like features illustrated in that blog, our disquiet increases at the apparent loss of another adopted child of the city. Watching this slow-motion fade from blogdom, our thoughts are teased by that cautionary myth of a school teacher consumed by a desert town, and who – when it was far too late – did, indeed, wake in fright.
But, you ask… the book?
It’s a short but lively, well-written, informative, and most pleasing adventure. Published almost a decade ago, it then inspired his much-loved blog about the city’s smallest suburb: Hamilton North.
Mark’s friendly conversational style makes for an easy read. And the tale he tells will engross any Novacastrian fond of this small city. If you’re like Throsby – whose life began and will likely end as an inner-suburbanite – then The Drain is for you. If you spend idle hours wondering about what ‘this’ or which ‘that’ led to whatever part of the city you’re pondering, then The Drain will fill in gaps that have likely lurked in the back of your mind since, whenever.
The first chapter you spend adjusting to the strange idea that a book was written about a drain – in this case, one named Styx Creek.
Into the second chapter your doubts are allayed. You understand that “A Year Down the Drain” is scratching an itch that nagged subliminally for probably as long as you’ve lived here. A never-resolved question about that central feature of the inner suburbs of Newcastle: those ubiquitous concrete “drains” that crisscross the suburbs and carry storm water (and our carelessly misplaced detritus) to the mouth of Throsby Creek, then via Carrington Basin to the harbour and beyond.
By chapter three you are indeed caught (happily) in Mr Maclean’s world, as it ranges from the small plastic bric-a-brac and tiny dead creatures lining the “beck,” through the wilds of a heavily polluted former gasworks and fuel storage (termed the “Botanical Gardens”), across the breadth of suburbia from New Lambton to the TAFE.
Then perhaps a quick trip to Cumbria and his Dad’s “pebble-specked” cottage.
Mark Maclean’s book is one of those charming interludes chanced upon by fingers walking the digital trails of online torn fences, bushes, derelicts, and broken-link backblocks of this homely town’s growing web presence.
Its reading only increases a fondness for this place. Maclean’s incessant digging and probing amplify the wonder we locals of the inner precincts carry, forever surprised that a string of accidents began with a bunch of coal-digging convicts and collided for two centuries to improbably form this unique provincial city on the east coast of an ancient land.
At which point we somberly acknowledge the brutal theft and desecration of a pristine paradise from beneath the feet of its owners, the Awabakal and Worimi.
A paradise Mark Maclean implicitly yearns for in his every written word.
Twenty-plus years ago, standing on the roof of my Valiant station wagon and staring out at the Macdonnell Ranges rolling like breakers into the purples and mauves and lilacs and violets of a Namatjira sunset I willed myself to feel a sense of attachment to what lay before me.
I did the same when lying in a swag in the Tanami or next to the sound of the night breeze through a grove of casuarinas, the earth so small in relation to the vastness of the sky that I could see its curvature dipping away from me on the horizon and the heavens so immense that I could actually feel the planet rotating so quickly that if I didn’t reach out of my swag – right now – and dig my fingers into the crumbly dust of the desert I’d be flicked off and up and out and into the Milky Way at any second, right past the Seven Sisters and into the soupy band of the ten trillion other galaxies.
The book of the blog of the walk, A Year Down the Drain: Walking in Styx Creek, January to December.
Where to buy (non-affiliate link!) ~ www.markmaclean.com.au