“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





09 February 2009


So what? It’s cool again. Big deal.

That relieving wave of weather chased our heat across the border and blew little Victoria to bits.

Maybe we should have stuck with the heat. Somehow kept it here. It wasn’t so bad.

It’s the beginning of a new week. Like many Australians, I couldn’t sleep, but tossed about the cot with the wireless chattering about the exploding horror across the border. The heartbreaking floods in northern Queensland. The little kid who chased his dog into the creek and got snapped up by a croc...

Somehow that very Australian death seemed bigger than the Victorian toll that ticked sickeningly upwards all through yesterday, and will, no doubt, do it again so reliably today, as the fireys find the bodies.

The surreal Pompeii bodies, grey with ash, but alive short hours ago. With living mates and relatives wondering where they are.

What do you do about that?

Sick of bed, I rose at five: showered guiltily; and walked around the vineyard while the first dim of the day pushed the filling moon’s honest brightness aside.

Now the heat’s all gone to Victoria, the birds have reappeared, and viticulturers wander back out into the vineyards to see what’s left. The men arrived at six-thirty, and silently went to work taking the big rolls of bird netting from the storage shed, to wrap the shiraz, chardonnay and roussane that somehow survived those thirteen devilish days of heat.

It’s easy to wallow on about survivor’s guilt, but the memories of those blistering days are suddenly hollow as we swallow the horror of what’s happening in Victoria.

Swallow and swallow and swallow.

If you don’t swallow, you’ll puke.

The netting seems pitiful: blokes who’d netted before the heat found it holding the canopy down, still, so the leaves couldn’t move in the odd breeze and burnt more dramatically in the sun. There were no birds then anyway: Bacchus only knows where they went to pant those days away.

So how bad will next weekend’s heat be? How long will that last? Will this net hold those last leaves down so they too burn?

As the work progresses, there are mumbles about mates across the border, whose vineyards were in the paths of the fires. Save a vineyard? Not when people are perishing on their verandas as their melting water buckets fall off their handles and slop pitiful water on the shoes that burn anyway.

My godson came yesterday, and we went to the shop. We felt like smoking cigarettes. There was an impossibly young lad there, with his first tender goatee, buying toothpaste or something in preparation to catch the plane to go and fight fire in Victoria. His face told us that he knew he would come home tainted with horrors none can imagine, and none can prepare for.

“So you’re going over?” the lady asked.

“Yeah”, he said, taking something from the shelf. “We’re going over.”

“Be careful”, she said. “Good luck.”

“Thanks”, he said. “We’ll be back Friday. Sounds like big-time fire danger here again on Saturday. It’s gonna get real hot again.”

“Yes”, she said. “Yes.”

We sat outside in the new cool and drank a bottle of Paul Petagna’s moody black Diavolo: shiraz cabernet from down the Vales, from a vineyard that probably won’t be picked this year: it’s toasted.

It wasn’t enough. So we drank another: Jules Barry’s soberingly beautiful Good Catholic Girl. Shiraz, from Clare.

While we drank, and smoked, my mind wound through the Victorian vineyards I’ve stood in, and drank from, and loved and worshipped, which were right then being whipped by flaming banshees. Blazing coals, falling from towers of soot and hell that reached right up there to heaven. Bendigo, Kyneton, Gippsland, Tallarook, all through the Strathbogies and The Great Dividing Range, through the Yarra Valley to the very edge of Melbourne.

Beautiful vine gardens: the work of good people. Gastronomes. Mates. Lovers.

Then David gave me a box of French oak offcuts for my smoker. He’s made himself a beautiful parquetry floor from discarded barrels.

“Smoke”, I said. “Thanks, bro.”

What is it with smoke?

All through these hills people are clearing trees and scrub and leaves away from their homes. They’d started it half-heartedly before the heatwave, but gave it away when it grew too hot. Now they’re using the cool spell to prepare for more heat. They’re looking at their plastic water tanks, suddenly aware that they would melt in seconds in a conflagration like they’ve just watched on television.

The plastic garden hoses.

Last evening, when David had gone, the news of the Beechworth fire took a nasty turn for the worse, so I rang Julian Castagna, who lives there in his perfect vineyard, in north-eastern Victoria.

“We’re sorry”, the machine said, “but we’re unable to take your call... ”

Of course, I muttered. They’re busy. I hung up without remembering whether I left a message or not, wondering whether they were still alive. Whether that was the last time I’d hear Julian’s voice...

But he rang back within minutes.

"Yes", he said, in the helpless adrenaline-driven illogic of one confronted by abject horror. "I can see the fire. It's really bad. It's terrible. 30,000 hectares! Listen, why don't you come over and stay for a week. We've got a room. You can keep to yourself. Give yourself some time to think... You'd have your own shower. We could do a retrospective..."

Today, there's no answer. But from what I can ascertain, the fire's blowing away from Castagna, towards the north-east.

Wishing and hoping.


Aha! A call. Carolann says they're okay, but the wind has changed and is now pushing a lot of smoke at them from the north-east, which is not what they want.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your writing is the only beauty in this tragedy. This column is what I will choose to remember. Thank you.