Anson Cameron: Silences Come and Gone

by Paul Mitchell

Intro: Melbourne author Anson Cameron’s debut novel, Silences Long Gone, which dissects the issue of Aboriginal land rights, has received unanimous critical acclaim. A pleasing result for a man who knew himself from a young age to be a writer…but didn’t write…

Drinking coffee is meant to be a relaxed, friendly pastime. Anyone who has seen the Nescafe television ad soap opera should be aware of its place in Western culture. But Melbourne author Anson Cameron obviously hasn’t tuned in too often lately to free-to-air TV. Drinking coffee with him in his home reminded me strangely of nights at the pub trying to avoid a power drinker’s next shout.

The rounds of coffee kept coming. And coming. Long, strong percolated mugfuls.

As the coffee took hold and our conversation accelerated, I discovered my reminiscence about hard drinking nights wasn’t out of place: “I always intended to be a writer. In my mid 20s, I thought I’m ready, but then I thought, I haven’t finished my drinking yet and I’ll write too much bullshit, so I’ll wait another couple of years,” Cameron said, downing the remnants of a mug.

Cameron’s decision to wind down full-throttle drinking occurred, as planned, in his late 20s. Since then he has produced award-winning short stories, collected together in Nice Shootin’, Cowboy, and a critically acclaimed debut novel, Silences Long Gone.

While Cameron himself may have sawn off some rough edges to make room for his craft, his characters are often pot-holed and desperate. Many exist in hard-drinking, brutal worlds where the confluence of opposing social forces that the “ruling elites” ponder are solved by a bunch-of-fives, a swift crime or an underground deal.

They are the people who built the tracks and then settled down on the wrong side of them. From there they can hear the long, slow whistle of the train which carries their dreams of prosperity. They drown it out with John Laws and Mike Munro, the clatter of voices at the pub, or the footy played loud through half-tuned transistors.

Reading Cameron’s fiction you could begin to imagine him as a voice for the down-trodden Australian. His work poignantly explores those, especially, white Anglo Saxon Australians who live trapped between fin-de-siecle Hansonism and Howardism. Learning that he was raised in Shepparton in regional Victoria and has worked in blue-collar jobs all his life seems to complete the picture.

But Cameron refuses to sit still for the portrait.

“I don’t know if I’m a voice for the downtrodden or the oppressed,” he says. “I haven’t advertised it too much but I went to school at Geelong Grammar. Plus Peter Carey went to school there and people might try to make comparisons…” A laugh rises out of his angular features and across his large, crafted kitchen table. And he pours two more mugs of coffee.

So it appears Cameron’s a visitor to the wrong side of the tracks. He’s travelled on the train carrying the prosperity of which the ‘battler’s’ dream – and he’s jumped off. He’s turned his back on the path that leads to status as he’s laboured in mines, warehouses and car yards to support his art.

“I’ve seen both sides of Australian society. And funnily enough the proletariat are more snobbish than the upper class. They’ll look at you and go, ‘Aw, you’re a silvertail’, whereas the people I’ve mixed with at the other end of society tend to do that a lot less. You don’t hear that said very often, but I think it’s true.”

He settles back on his kitchen chair, drains his mug and tells a story to illustrate the point.

“At the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, I gave this talk, ‘Nothing’s Sacred’ about a guy exposing his dick in church. About quarter of it was true. The rest I bent to make fit the premise I was putting forward, that nothing should be sacred.”

He said afterwards two women in their 80s trotted up for a chat. “Feisty old dames they were and one of them said, ‘Good on you, you’re a tilter at windmills. Who got to you, was it the [Christian] Brothers?”

Cameron told the pair he went to Geelong Grammar and had quite a relaxed childhood. “They looked at me with daggers coming from their eyes and one of them drew herself up and said, ‘Hmmph, you’re a silvertail’ and turned straight round and walked off.”

You get the feeling Anson Cameron likes a stoush, doesn’t mind challenging cherished assumptions Australians have about each other. He’s been called a “brave” new voice in Australian literature in an age when “brave” is often a pseudonym for “politically incorrect”.

Silences Long Gone, less densely populated by variously weaponed misfits than his short stories, has at its core one of the most controversial contemporary Australian issues: land rights. Perhaps it’s the assurance brought by life experience within different social strata which gave Cameron the confidence to craft his first novel around this divisive issue.

The very white, working class Belle Furphy, who could be one of the feisty old dames Cameron encountered at the Writer’s Festival, has an ‘Aboriginal experience’. She lives in the mythical mining town of Hannah, WA, which is being dismantled around her. The mining company insists she leaves. So do the soon to be reinstated Native Title holders. But Belle refuses because her husband’s and daughter’s ashes are, illegally, buried amongst her rose bushes. It’s sacred ground.

“It was a fairly simple idea to test the faith of the black person against the faith of the white person, throw them into conflict and see where that led,” Cameron says.

It’s impossible to explain how this conflict ends without giving away the plot. Suffice to say the characters struggle to identify the heavy machinery, real or metaphoric, needed to shift Belle. A non-Aboriginal reader could find themselves questioning whether a mining company’s desire to build on a cemetery where their relatives were buried would intensify their view of land rights. The same reader could also find themselves questioning whether Aboriginal people have a greater right than white people to claim spiritual allegiance to the land.

Cameron admits that his novel’s subject matter, especially where it ventures into the latter proposition, may not have been received as readily in the years pre-Howard and Hanson. We approach a new millenium in an Australia where Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians, a book directly challenging the social behaviour of minority racial groups, can top the charts for a number of months. It seems then that the path has been smoothed for the reading public to digest a novel which openly questions Aborigines’ right to claim special allegience to the land.

“The whole question of land rights is vexed,” Cameron says, drawing out the sentence, aware of the baggage behind its mundaneness. “I made Jack Furphy [Belle’s estranged son sent in by the mining company to help eject her] a Real Estate agent to show at one end of the spectrum land could be pretty much currency and at the other end it could be pretty much religion.”

In Silences Long Gone, Belle’s resolve is strengthened not only by the reality of the ashes in her garden, but also by her fundamentalist commitment to the Christian God, radioed in to WA through the voice of a missionary in the Philippines. With the Rainbow Serpent also coiling into view in the shape of the Kunimara people, a religious showdown ensues for the shifting sands where the town of Hannah once stood. The novel becomes a microcosm for all the confusion and passion of the native title debate.

Cameron is quick to assert that he is in favour of Aborigines receiving land rights. However, he is equally quick to present his views about the other side of the argument. Though he is now, like so many urbanites, ‘protected’ from the debate’s trench warfare, he draws on relationships he has maintained with people in Shepparton to illustrate the white person’s point of view.

“Around Shepparton the Yorta Yorta people have claimed the whole Murray Goulburn river system,” he says, as one coffee is drained and another poured. “It may well be an ambit claim, but that’s the sort of thing that throws fear into white people.”

One local told Cameron he knew the Yorta Yorta were going to receive rights to his river front forest lease and that he didn’t begrudge this reality. However, like Belle in Silences Long Gone, this man was aware of his own ‘religious’ commitment to the land. “He said to me that he didn’t want them to tell him they have a special affinity with the place and he doesn’t. He said ‘I’ve spent my whole life on this river and I’ve never seen one of them here. They’re always at the pub or whatever…’”

Cameron realises this story can be interpreted as fighting words in a hypersensitive debate. “I’m just saying this to show the confusion some people can feel when they are told they don’t have a special affinity with the land and others do.

“I think the good-hearted bulk of Australian people are saying okay we understand this land is your religion. But everyone has a religion; it’s just a matter of what your religion costs. And we’re prepared to accept and make room for your religion. But there is a cost and if the cost gets too great, well, you’ve got to draw the line.”

Cameron verbalises what Silences Long Gone illustrates: he doesn’t know what the cost will be and he doesn’t know where the line will be drawn. In the same way that his novel sets a conflict in motion and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, his own opinion on the matter ultimately appears divided. On one hand he is thankful for Aboriginal’s ability to forgive the injustices done to them, and on the other he is fearful of one group in society receiving special treatment in perpertuity and so diluting democracy.

“I think both sides are right to some extent and it’s going to be one of those things that is never going to be resolved.” I put it to him that this negative view doesn’t square with the feeling abroad that the issue can eventually be straightened out, even by 2001 if the Prime Minister’s working group hits the bulls-eye. But Cameron remains intensely sceptical.

“It’s just going to go on forever, reconciliation. Which professor or philosopher is going to put up his hand and say we’re reconciled?”

The steam rises out of his mug and his rhetorical question hangs in the air. He puts down his coffee and a truce is called in the battle that drinking the substance with him entails. “I don’t claim any special knowledge,” Cameron says finally. “I’m just someone banging out some thoughts on the matter.”

This article first appeared in AQ in 1997.

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