Wednesday, 8 April 2020

One hundred years of dirt by Rick Morton

With COVID-19 social isolation in force, Minervans decided to meet via WhatsApp. Our discussion was therefore a ‘written’ one, and so is unlike any other normal bookclub meeting we have had.

Our book was Rick Morton's memoir One hundred years of dirt, which included essays on life in the Australian outback and our society’s attitudes to poverty, class, equality and family. As one member said ‘he used his life to explore ideas that he thinks are important.’

This ‘genre-bending’ memoir was published in 2018. Morton spent his early years on a cattle station near Mount Hewitt, Queensland. He and his older brother Toby and their parents lived a reasonable life for a few years until an awful accident occurred when Toby was severely burnt all over his body.

Deborah Morton and baby daughter flew with Toby to hospital in Brisbane and from that day on their family life was never the same. Rick and his father were left behind, and as their relationship was not caring before this accident, they both suffered great trauma being separated from Rick’s Mum. Rick’s Dad, Rodney was a product of a destructive father-son relationship.

Subsequently Rick and his siblings left the property and lived with their impoverished mother in a small town (Gympie?) outside Brisbane. Rick won a scholarship to Bond University and a cadetship at The Australian newspaper and eventually he has made a life for himself as a gay man happily living in Sydney working as a journalist. He is still racked by trauma and guilt about his early life and the life of his brother and mother. He also suffers guilt because his life is relatively well-endowed with money, education and promise.

The memoir not only includes details of family life but also Rick’s thinking and analysis of Australian society. It includes his thoughts on living in poverty, class attitudes, loneliness and questions of equality.

First impressions from our group


  • Gritty, uncompromising, honest, lots to ponder
  • Energetic discussion of big issues
  • Tough, raw, painful but compassionate, some funny bits
  • Searing moving memoir, hard scrabble, class and gender divides
  • Violent toxic masculinity, raw female perseverance, analytical
  • Intergenerational poverty and violence
  • Bit chaotic, needs edit
  • Fierce, compassionate, clear sighted, engrossing, loved its myth shattering themes
  • Destroys bush resilience stereotyping
  • Bravely written, shocking, sad, illuminating, loved it
  • Too many themes all jumbled together
  • Loved the language


The ensuing discussion


Structure

It has an interesting structure reflecting where he was in 2018 when it was published (aged 32). Some members didn’t like the way Morton jumps around but others liked it once they understood what he was doing. Others felt it was in a reflection and essay convention rather than a true memoir.

One member said, ‘This memoir in essay form isn’t linear but tight within that form. I think he had a great way of writing with digressions and it is basically chronological. I loved how each chapter had a theme.’

Another member disagreed ‘What we read could be a first draft for an even more powerful book – it jumped around too much.’ ‘It went off on tangents but all related to specific topics at the time’. One member felt some of the diversions detracted from the strength of his story.


Masculinity

Rick wrote well about the intergenerational trauma from father and son down three generations at least which his family has experienced and is still experiencing.

We all agreed that Rick is a hero. He is same age as many of our spoilt ‘children’ but one who has had to live through so much in comparison to our kids.

There is a horrifying level of "machismo" shown by his father and grandfather. It ruined their lives and the lives of their children ultimately. For instance, Toby is very like father Rodney and shows similar characteristics and self-destructiveness. Rick also went through a suicidal period in his life and took drugs to help kill the pain.

We had a short discussion about epigenetics. For more discussion of epigenetics see Wikipedia.

Nature and nurture are both vitally important in the life of a child.

So Rick’s idea of the outback Queenslander guy is not Crocodile Dundee – there is no softness in their violence. These guys are still bullying and killing women and gay men even in the 21st century.

The trauma of their childhoods and ongoing effects live with them throughout their lives and this environment made Rick escape. He is not like them. He is not like his father or his brother or his extended family. He is gay and educated and sensitive and caring about the females in his life. He would also like to be loved. This is closely linked to his sexuality too.


Gay and trans people

Sadly, gay and trans people have a record of self loathing and self harm when coming out. This is especially true for country kids. So Rick’s suicidal actions may have been partly due to being gay as well as everything else going on in his young life.


Poverty and class

There are lots of US studies on brain development of poor kids. They are measured from age 1, and show that they are behind from the beginning of their lives.

One member felt that the novel's main theme was a question of equality. So many people believe hard work will still get you rewards, but near the end of chapter 1, Morton states

the single experience of my sister’s road to this point detonates the argument that equality of opportunity is stitched into our nationhood. (Page 10)

Another member said he was strong about equality but was not sure where he was going with it.

Rick Morton challenges his readers to care about the poor and the disadvantaged.

Deborah, his mother

We discussed her for quite a while. Most members admired her resilience and her strength. ‘I thought she was amazing and gave her full credit’ for bringing up the children. They also thought she was long-suffering, heroic and loving. They loved her story that Rick is an alien and one day he would be recalled to the mother ship. One member quoted Rick's comment that Deb used the alien story as a way of not taking credit for the love and support she had given Rick.

Rick is caring and loyal to his mother. One member disagreed that his mother was quite so wonderful. She felt that Deborah was jealous of Rick’s life and education, and that she was sad that she had made wrong decisions about her life and was/is unable to grow as Rick has done.

Rick is very protective of his mother’s opinions, for example, about climate change. He feels that she is too busy putting food on the table to worry about such esoteric matters. Many members agreed with this proposition and felt for her. Poor people don’t have time to be ‘woke’. This is just so important to realise. I liked his Mum’s pragmatic approach to politics.

(I don’t agree – rich and poor alike can educate themselves if they want to in the 21st century.)

It was also felt that Rick’s Mum is similar to the women in Pachinko (see our review).


Toby

Rick’s older brother. He has always challenged life. He would not listen to Rick‘s sensible advice even when he was much younger and it was as if the two boys came from different families. We agreed that many of our kids are different too but maybe not quite so much.

Toby processes trauma differently from Rick. We felt that Rick’s depiction of the spur of the moment decisions that some young men make was good. ‘These guys skate close to disaster and sometimes it works and sometimes it does not’. Rick writers:

It’s the Faustian drama that punctures the lives of anybody who loves. (page 79)


Rick

Is he slightly autistic? The general opinion is that he isn’t but he certainly likes analysis and statistics. One member thought he is just being an old-style journalist using evidence.

Rick also doesn’t have any inhibitions about asking questions and stepping into traumatic situations because he doesn’t have any middle class ‘manners’. He isn’t preachy. He is also very honest.

He did suffer mental health issues. We thought that his reflections on memory were very apt. He is very open about the process he is going through to reconstruct the memories of his family history and his understanding of it.

Some members thought there were some funny stories in there amidst the other, such as the stories about the horse’s teeth and the attitudes to shooting pigs, and also the fence fight between Rick's grandfather and his brother.

We felt he was angry writing this book but he still had lots of compassion towards his family. One member said that ‘He still needed his Dad’s approval even though he was unlikely to achieve it. It’s an elemental thing needing a parent’s love.’


Bond University

When I went to University in 2005 I was the first of 21 cousins on my father’s side and a third of 10 on my mother’s side. As the nation moved towards a knowledge class, the Mortons doubled down in their suspicion of it. (page 156)

One member thought that Uni life was the equivalent for Rick to Toby’s struggles with drugs. They both bore a different cross. The University life separated him from his family and mother in particular but then it became an important thread in their relationship. Rick is still grief-stricken over his brother and mother.

The question of what separates my brother and I has haunted me for the better part of a decade. (page 96)

One member admired his courage (while still at Uni) nicking off to Singapore to witness the hanging of the young Vietnamese Australian.’


Journalism

Having a member who was a journalist gave us insights into this career. Rick was lucky to win a cadetship at The Australian. Our member who also worked there said it was a really tough place and ‘felt sorry for the news hacks’. The Commentariat elites got all the attention.

Most journalists are middle class now and don’t understand those from poor or violent backgrounds. We felt there was a similarity here with the author Trent Dalton (Boy swallows universe - see our review), who is also a young Queenslander working for The Australian. Dalton is still there but Morton has moved on to a decidedly left-wing paper now (The Saturday paper). He is also an occasional guest on The Drum on ABC Television.

One member thought Rick’s analysis of journalists is spot on. There are quotas for women, Catholics and private school types in the employ of the media. Most are now graduates from educated families. ‘Poor bloke working at The Oz surrounded by the right-wing elite. He must have been angry enough to write a book. He needed to redeem his mother.’

Conclusion

We wondered how his family felt about the book. In an interview Morton said that his brother hadn’t read it but his mother liked it.

We all agreed that Rick Morton is incredibly open and honest in this ‘memoir’.

Rick explodes a number of myths about the great outdoor bloke.  As one member concluded, ‘Trent and Rick have given us a peek into what many kids live with that we have no idea about’.

Members present: 10

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