Almanac Literary: The shifty shadow of a lifetime with ‘Cloudstreet’


The shifty shadow of a lifetime with Cloudstreet


The first time was an accident. Or maybe I was just a pawn in some sort of divine plan. I was reading Cloudstreet while waiting for a tram on Elizabeth Street. A couple of seconds after the bell dinged and the tram started rollicking away, I realised I had left my book at the tram stop. I got off at the next block and wandered back. There was a bloke sitting there, reading it. He was sweating through his cheap polyester suit, his briefcase perched on his lap – a Starbucks coffee in one hand and my book in the other. He was a few pages in. He was already beyond Fish Lamb’s prophetic vision of all the living and the loving that the pages ahead would soon detail for him. He was just about to read about the muted and ordinary tragedies that would see the Pickles and Lambs converge together in the old house at number one Cloud Street. A Pentecostal talking pig, Lon’s FJ, the Nedlands monster, Earl Blunt Egypt, Oriel’s tent and the girls on the switchboard all awaited him. Who was I to argue with the shifty shadow of fate? I ducked into Dymocks and picked a new copy for myself.


We studied it in VCE Literature. You never forget your first time. Now, I’m an English teacher myself and doing a little bit of work for the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority (the VCAA for those of us who life has acronymised already). I remember floating it as an option for our year twelve curriculum when it was back on the syllabus for a while. ‘Pffft… don’t you think that Cloudstreet is a bit too much?’ was one retort from one of our battle-hardened veterans. I remember going to a professional development seminar around the same time and learning that very, very few schools had elected it from the many options presented. ‘Not many teachers are brave, brilliant and belligerent enough to manage Cloudstreet in the classroom’ the presenter noted. My literature teacher, Ms Dargie, died a year or two after I finished year twelve. We didn’t realise what a warrior trailblazer she was at the time. We didn’t really know what the prefix ‘Ms.’ was all about then. Now, when I re-read Cloudstreet, I am eternally grateful for her belligerence, her bravery and her brilliance. Gawd knows where I’d be now without her.


One time I deliberately left my just finished copy at a bus station in Auckland. In 2010, I visited Paris which was where Tim Winton actually wrote Cloudstreet. I was there on a work trip with a cavalry of other Australian teachers. In my homesickness, I sent postcards to my wife and newborn back in Traralgon whereas Winton wrote the great Australian novel. I left a copy of Cloudstreet on the Paris Metro and smiled as a I saw a well-coiffed elderly Parisian lady scoop it up as she alighted. In 2018 I left one on a bench near the Colosseum in Rome. I traded one for twenty Guatemalan worry dolls in a street market in Chichicastenango and also left a copy on a statue in the Plaza Barios in San Salvador. In early 2019, my wife and I visited China. I finished a copy I’d bought at Tullamarine a few days later in Shanghai and left it in the hotel. These Cloudstreets, who knows. They may have been discovered, discarded or perhaps they are still dormant, waiting. I love knowing that I’ve left an Australian diamond for some unknown beneficiaries in different corners of the world.


It’s the book I throw into every suitcase I pack. I won’t ever lend you one of my copies, but if you give me twenty minutes I’ll pop down to K-Mart and buy one for you. I always grab it if I see it in an op shop or a second-hand bookstore. If they are asking for ten cents, I give them ten dollars and let them keep the change. I’m not certain how many copies I own or where they all are. Sometimes I’ll find them in the boot of my car, or on my desk at work or in a bag I thought I’d unpacked. In the same way that millennials reach for their mobile phones and start subconsciously scrolling, I reach for Cloudstreet when I have a few minutes to spare, let it fall open somewhere and start reading. I like knowing it’s nearby, wherever I am. Every time there is a new edition or reissue, I buy it. The slight change in typeset, a quote from a review you’ve never read, a new cover image. They are all keys to doorways of discovery and insight that you may have walked past the first twenty times you’ve read it.


It is my go-to gift, both when I’m buying for people I know well and for those I’ve just met. Even for an anonymous Kris Kringle. It doesn’t matter who you are, treasures abound. It is nostalgic yet contemporary. Aspirational yet accessible. Limitlessly hopeful, yet heart breaking. When, decades later, Winton published some of his personal memoirs in ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’ it made clear what we keen readers suspected all along. That the Sam and Sadie Mifflin and the Les and Olive Winton that he offered thanks, love and gratitude to in the dedication at the start of the novel were indeed his own grandparents. Hitchcock’s little cameos in his films have nothing on Winton inserting himself into his own masterpiece with the birth of ‘Wax Harry’ towards the end of the novel.


There are some I know who don’t immediately warm to it. The erudite but so familiar Aussie vernacular that I luxuriate in is a hurdle for many. At first, Winton’s prose can seem impenetrable in the same way a toddler’s first steps are a little wobbly. ‘Too many metaphors’ they will say as Mozart was once accused of using ‘too many notes.’ I’m in too deep to fully understand those who view it as too much, too Australian, too indulgent. When it comes to Cloudstreet, to steal a line from Winton, I’m like a pensioner at the pokies – gone for all money. If you leave the Sistine Chapel complaining about the newly acquired crick in your neck, you’ve sort of missed the point.


Reading Cloudstreet, for the first, tenth or fiftieth time is always going to be an all you can eat seafood banquet for that will take you mind, body and soul and require a nap on the couch afterwards. This is a big country, one of sweeping plain excess and hard-earned literature thirsts. It takes a novel like Cloudstreet to make those of us from the Eastern seaboard to recognise that our real heart and soul will never be measured by population density, architecture or the price of smashed avocado. Even if we’ve never been to Geraldton, Margaret River, Perth or Albany; our pony tailed laureate from the other side of the Nullarbor knows exactly what makes us tick. Like all true diviners, he sees our best and he sees our worst and loves and luxuriates in both.


It’s a novel that says everything that will ever need to be said about us. By ‘us’ I’m not sure if I just mean we antipodeans or the whole world at large. My friends from overseas have loved it with a type of tourists’ envy. When they read it, it’s something akin to a visit to Uluru or taking photos of the Great Ocean Road. They’re peering over the fence, wistfully. Some of us are lucky enough though to share citizenship with Winton’s sprawling mob, and doesn’t this book make you feel grateful for that.


It’s mid-December. I’ve got about one hundred pages to go before finishing my latest new copy. Sometime next week I’ll be leaving this copy for someone to find. Maybe in one of our cafes in Traralgon, or a fish and chip shop in Lakes Entrance. Now that travel restrictions have eased, we will be doing a bit of driving over Christmas to visit the family. Maybe I’ll leave it on top of a petrol bowser somewhere along the way. Next year it will be thirty years since it was it first published. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope it’s you who discovers my discarded copy. The spinning knife will end up pointing at you one day. Let me know how you get on. Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of spare copies.



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About Shane Reid

Loving life as a husband, dad and teacher. I'm trying to develop enough skill as a writer so that one day Doc Wheildon's Newborough, Bernie Quinlan's Traralgon and Mick Conlon's 86 Eliminatiuon final goal will be considered contemporaneous with Twain's Mississippi, Hemingway's Cuba, Beethoven's 9th and Coltrane's Love Supreme.


  1. And so more of the Shane Reid onion layers are gently peeled back… Wonderful of you to ‘indulge’ with this ode to Cloudstreet, mate.

    I’ll keep an eye out when I’m next in Lakes.

  2. Never read Cloudstreet. But borrowed it as a Talking Book from an Adelaide Library when I was getting things together in the early 2000’s. Poking the CD’s in the car dashboard at 5am on the way to pick grapes. Listening on the way home and as I went to sleep. Skipping back in the morning to find where I left it before nod overtook me.
    It was a wonderful companion. Affirming of the characters and life I’d grown up with. Plenty of good and bad examples. Made me feel understood and less alone. I could take what I wanted and leave the rest.
    Love your pay it forward gift of Cloudstreets to the world.
    If I leave a Kindle at a bus stop with a return address?

  3. Love your passion Shane. It’s a great read…though I never could quite understand the sudden engagement between Quick & Rose (after having barely communicated for twenty years). Maybe I missed something?
    I love Winton. I thought ‘The Turning’ would be hard to top and then I read ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’. Wow. What a book.

  4. Shane- that’s a great story about the stories of you reading and sharing one of our greatest stories. I found Cloudstreet charismatic and hugely engaging. Initially the indirect speech was disconcerting but I soon settled into the strange hypnotic nature of this and it then seemed a natural way to learn about the characters.

    I spent about ten minutes with Tim Winton years ago at an Adelaide Writers’ Week event and his ponytailed, singletted appearance and wholly unaffected manner were a great contrast to many of the more formal attendees. He was brilliant- funny and interested and interesting.

    Note that a film version of Dirt Music is upon us. Will check it out.

    Thanks Shane.

  5. Shane Reid says

    Thanks JL, too kind.
    Peter thank you, I can find audio books a bit hit and miss but did listen to Cloudstreet one time and enjoyed it. One I really liked in the audio book format was Breath, the prose seemed to suit.
    Fair call DB. I guess when your families share a house for twenty years it doesn’t; take long. I’m a fan of most of his stuff. The Turning gets better with every read. I need to give The Shepherd’s Hut another go soon. Looking forward to the Dirt Music film Mickey. I’ve always thought The Riders would be a ripper film as well. I’ve met him a couple of times at book signings, lovely guy.
    Thanks everyone

  6. Thanks for this, Shane. Totally agree with you, I have loved “Cloudstreet” from the first time I read it. I was, however, a little disappointed by the tv version. It sits easily within my top 5 Australian books.

    If I ever happen upon a stray copy of Cloudstreet in my travels, I will know from whence it came.

  7. Shane – I love your story. Such a terrific idea to leave idle Cloudstreets around the place.

    I was 19-years-old when I received this book. An unexpected present from a young woman who filled my waking days and nights. Back then, we were just friends.
    The story swept me up. Every bit of it.
    The place of Cloudstreet for me only grows in significance.
    Later, that young woman was driving my car on the day of our Big Accident. In the accident I received a closed head injury and brain damage with it. Reading Cloudstreet again years later, I swallowed Fish Lamb in a new light. Such a magnificent character of truth and wondering and beauty and everything in between. At a time when I felt quite lost, he seemed to speak for me. it was uncanny.

    After reading your story, I have taken Cloudstreet from the shelf and look forward to reading it again.
    It remains my favourite story.
    I aim to emulate your practice of setting Cloudstreet into the wild.
    Thank you.

  8. Hi Shane

    What a wonderful read. Like you I am so onside of Winton’s writing, his vernacular, clear-eyed dreaming and empathy as gravity, his humour and his slightly crooked grasp of us and the world and things. He has certainly been one of the pipers I have followed whatever the tune he is playing.

    I had the good fortune to “work” with him in 1991. Friends and I had set up a small theatre company in Perth, creating plays for schools. We had the wacky idea of turning a Winton story into a play (at that time it hadn’t been done) so we wrote him. And he replied. He loved the idea. We met a number of times and things were heading in the right direction but our little theatre troupe was coming apart at the stitiches.

    He was everything you would imagine – decent, considerate, generous and genuinely interested. We bonded when I told him his writing remined me of Flannery O’Connor. He beamed like a seal and told me she was his favourite author. I moved to Melbourne and a few months after I had settled here I got a call from one of my friends in our theatre company. Linda said that Tim had called her to pass on an author to me. One Cormac McCarthy. He is another piper that I have followed ever since.


  9. Shane Reid says

    Smokie, thank you. I liked the tv series more than I expected to but it couldn’t capture everything.

    ER, thank you for sharing your own story. I hope your reread brings joy and that I stumble across one of your jettisoned copies one day.

  10. Thank you Rick.I wonder what story it was you were looking at for the the play? I haven’t read any of Flannery’s work yet and not enough Cormac McCarthy, I did like All the Pretty Horses and The Road. Thanks for sharing your history and for the reading list suggestions

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