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Trumble's way

by Angus Trumble, 29 January 2015

At the end of a summer break one is tempted to say that there is nothing much to report. Isn’t one restful holiday very much like another? Yet I am writing this from Metung in East Gippsland, which for me is surely the ideal spot in which to read Marcel Proust. This is something that I have meant to do for years, but I have never quite made the mental space or set aside enough time to attack it properly. However, I took a deep breath and bought the boxed set of paperbacks at the Hill of Content in Bourke Street, Melbourne, at Christmas. Not yet finished with Swann’s Way, I am kicking myself for not having done it sooner. Apart from the astonishing brilliance of the work itself, and the tricks he plays with time and memory, I have this week been amusing myself in two ways. First, by framing the précis: Artistic only child of weird pious bookish extended upper middle-class country family needs goodnight kiss from Mum, but is delayed (merely delayed) by dinner-guest Swann. This drives him mad. Years later the flavour of a morsel of Aunt Leonie’s cake soaked in tea brings back to him not just that scenario but everything else as well… Second, the points of resonance for me here are numerous and uncanny. After all, there are the benevolent ghosts of grandmothers, parents, aunts and uncles, family friends and acquaintances. There is an old house, rich in childhood memory. There is eating, lots of it. There is the recollection of books devoured on hot nights with childish wonder. There are eccentric locals, and memorable effects of light including the starry night sky with the southern cross. But instead of those few crumbs of madeleine in the spoonful of tisane one might substitute an Arnott’s Milk Arrowroot gobbled in Gran’s dark sitting-room next door, the nocturnal drone of a mozzie, or the delicious sensation of sunburn. It all comes flooding back. I suppose everyone has the capacity to discover their own Proust-world, but maybe his greatest achievement was to beguile us into believing we actually have one.

The original block of land belonged to our grandparents, who built their house Balmadies nearly 90 years ago, however the family had been coming here for at least thirty years prior. From Sale they took the old steamer to Cunninghame (which is what Lakes Entrance was then called), and spent summer holidays there. Our great-grandfather, so they say, mused over the choice of a spot for a suitable seaside retreat, but never made up his mind. After he died suddenly and Kilmany Park was sold in 1919 our great-grandmother bought a house called Allambie at Metung, and settled there until she, too, died in 1923. Allambie is still there, and is simply enormous. It perches high above the mouth of Chinaman’s Creek and I fancy the agapanthus, cypresses, the big jacaranda (now in full bloom) and the Norfolk pines were planted by her. I have no way of knowing, but I sense this is true mostly because the texture of the garden so closely resembles that of Kilmany. Our grandparents gravitated down to the water’s edge, though, exchanging the breadth of outlook for proximate access to the water for boating. By 1926 they had a big slice of Shaving Point.

Over the intervening decades it has been cut up into various chunks. Our Borthwick cousins still own Balmadies next door, but Dad built our little house to his own design with his bare hands in the early 1960s. He used to come down from Melbourne with chums on a Friday evening, build like mad all day Saturday and Sunday, and be back in the office on Monday morning. I don’t know how he did it, but I’m very glad he did. A separate boat shed was, at some point, prized free of Balmadies’s L-shaped jetty and shifted onto Mum’s portion of dry land. By stages it has been turned from a plain shed for boats that opened onto a sandy beach, into a cosy habitable nook that commands a magnificent view across the lake.

Like everywhere Metung has changed a lot in the fifty years I have known it. Bull’s Shipyard has gone, now replaced by holiday flats. Mr. and Mrs. Humphries no longer run the old general store. The Post Office has vanished, as has the butcher’s shop. The place has grown at leaps and bounds into the hinterland, and there are nowadays such outlandish amenities as hairdressers, gift shops, realtors, a number of restaurants and even a nine-hole golf course where of course none at all existed before. A couple of greenies have bought and fixed up tremulous old Mr. Peacock’s tiny cottage not far from Nyerimelang where, on our way into Lakes Entrance, out of pity Mum used to stop and buy a few pathetic punnets of strawberries, but his tenuous orchard and sparse veggie plot have long since disappeared. The weatherboard church (St. John’s) is still there, the little primary school, the Metung Yacht Club, and the pub—all pretty much unchanged. The previous pub must have been a beauty, a spacious, wide-verandah-ed Edwardian number right by the pier overlooking Bancroft Bay. It was called, somewhat aspirationally, the Scarborough Hotel. In the late 1940s it burned down under mysterious circumstances, and, according to Ted Bull, when this occurred the publican and licensee Ray Dunn already had finished plans for the new one neatly stowed in his brief case. In order to keep the license going a little humpy was erected behind to serve thirsty patrons while construction took place, but this was long before my time.

What has not changed much in all the years I have known this place is the dawn chorus: These days there are more sulphur-crested cockatoos than I remember there being, with their appalling squawk, and more little green parrots. But the rest are pretty much as I remember them: kookaburras, seagulls, Australian magpies, minors, honeyeaters, whip birds, mutton birds, the occasional bellbird, and the still rarer Uncle David Borthwick-bird, bellowing instructions from the next-door jetty. Uncle David died some fifteen years ago, but I fancy I can still hear him. At the edge of the lake you can, in fact, hear everything. Contemptuous remarks of envy uttered over the sound of an outboard motor by gormless day-tripping youths sailing past in a rental, rather closer to shore than is locally acceptable; the semi-erotic drunken revelry of the Russian short-term summer tenants two doors down; a string of expletives prompted by the deft stubbing of big toe on cleat, or by hitting one’s head on the boom, mid-jibe; or else a sharp domestic disagreement, the kind most often generated by and in boats—these drift over the water with bell-like clarity, and vice versa. Those of us who are aware of the phenomenon tend to be guarded, rather like some demure species of hermit crab patiently lying in wait for delicious morsels of sea cucumber. Indeed when I am here I think I could gaze out across the bay indefinitely and never lose interest, for there is always something going on, quite often Falstaffian. I don’t bother with the newspapers; the outside world seems impossibly distant, and you’re inclined to feel that nothing much could really disturb, incommode, upset, or intrude.