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Hoarding and its discontents

Brian Matthews |  18 September 2016


When the skip arrived and a cheerful young bloke named Troy backed it into our tricky, narrow driveway with insolent ease, I knew the game was up.

Hoarded magazinesMonths of sporadic, amiable discussions had now reached a suddenly irrevocable conclusion. Our agenda — what to do with 'hoarded' papers and notes, drawers of never-to-be-worn-again clothes, children's picture books and abandoned Lego, decades old back copies of magazines — was called to order by a higher power and my filibustering and equivocations abruptly ended.

And so, out came boxes, drawers, long-forgotten suitcases sheltering in out-of-reach cupboards, diaries, note books and typewritten letters of lost or indeterminate relevance. Not to mention the photographs of an unrecognisably youthful couple and their several small children none of whom had given any indication of the towering height from which in later years they would look down on their parents ...

The trouble is that to decide what must go and what can stay you have to actually read documents, correspondence, notes and random marginalia lest you consign to the waiting skip some personal or domestic gem or irreplaceable apercu or forgotten but vital document (yes, yes, I know: if it's long forgotten how can it be vital? Well, it just can.)

And it was in this frame of mind that I encountered a 22 page typed blow-for-blow account of a massive split in the department in which I spent much of my working life. As Vincent Buckley memorably wrote, 'God knows, English departments are strange places ...'

It's not that I'd forgotten this long-running disaster, but the fine detail (well, using 'fine' loosely) was fascinating to recall — and amazing: how on earth did we reasonably intelligent people get ourselves into such a mess? It took me a couple of hours to study this item before deciding that it must not be thrown out.

I then salvaged some credibility as an anti-hoarder by summarily removing sheafs of venerable bank statements, overdue notices and old newspapers but was again stopped in my tracks by a remarkable find at the bottom of a box of books — a neatly bound, 35 page document entitled 'The Writers Train — 1992: Production Itinerary'.

I had often fondly recalled the couple of weeks I spent on the Writers Train, a literary adventure dreamed up and brilliantly realised by the mercurial Laurie Muller, then managing director of University of Queensland Press (UQP).


"My contribution to the skip had been, so far, minimal but my sense of the vitality, promise and energy of the Australian literary imagination was re-invigorated."


Our group of 13 writers — Thea Astley, Ross Clark, Nick Earls, Mabel Edmund, Beverley Farmer, Sue Gough, Victor Kelleher, Komninos, Hugh Lunn, Bill Scott, Mavis Scott, Rosie Scott and me — boarded the train in Rockhampton at 9am on Sunday 12 July. We were bound for Blackwater and Emerald and then Anakie, Bogantungan, Alpha, Blackall, Jericho, Barcaldine, Ilfracombe, Longreach and parts further west until we rolled eventually into Mount Isa to perform at the Civic Centre on 25 July. Preceding us at each stop was the Queensland Arts Council bus loaded with technical gear ('4 x Par 56s — Medium Beam; 1 x 4-channel dimmer; 2x Electro voice S200 full range speakers ... lecterns, books, signage ...')

We gave readings or, as Laurie called them, concerts in town halls, schools, civic centres and on station platforms; and brief performances, chats and workshops at 'whistle stops' and lonely outback sidings where the sight of our small, one-carriage train bemused even the kangaroos. We overnighted in hotels, motels, pubs and billets in homesteads like 'Kooroora', 'Redland Park', 'Milgery' and 'Strathfield'. Everywhere we went, people flocked to hear us, travelling sometimes hundreds of kilometres to intersect with the train — to hear, as Anna Funder and Richard Flanagan among others have put it, 'their own Australian stories'.

Town Halls and theatres were booked out for our arrival; schools closed so the kids could come to listen and, on occasion, perform for us in their turn. We were welcomed with hospitality and good will at every venue. When one of our group enquired about some red wine to go with dinner in a remote and pleasantly rowdy pub, the barman searched and searched till he found two bottles of Jacobs Creek shiraz, apologising that 'only one of them was cold'.

To a Blackall Memorial Hall audience, I read a story about two workmen who quietly give up and slip away when they discover that a fence post they had been asked to remove had been in place for 30 years and was seven feet down. During interval, a lined and weatherbeaten bloke told me he'd enjoyed the story but he was worried about 'that post bein' seven feet down' because at such a depth 'you couldn't get any dirt on the bloody shovel'. I assured him I'd just made that bit up and he grinned with relief.

The light was fading when, mellow with nostalgia and memories, I finished reading every page and paragraph of the Production Itinerary for the 1992 Writers Train. My contribution to the skip had been, so far, minimal but my sense of the vitality, promise and energy of the Australian literary imagination was re-invigorated. That train, with all its stories and ideas and creations, must not be diverted or derailed.


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.



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Submitted comments

Well. What a loco-motion adventure. I'm proud to reflect that our recent Governor-General, Q. Bryce, hails from Ilfracombe, not it's only claim to fame of course. Your article, Prof. Matthews, reminds me of a very recent conversation with my eldest grandchild who told me, very earnestly, that she could never throw out any of her books as "I love them all". A future hoarder, no doubt about it.

Pam 19 September 2016

Lovely to see this, Brian. While I'd be the last to complain about the profusion of well-managed writers' festivals, we should also have more literary adventures in our lives. I remember the Blackall reading of 'A Couple of Strainers'. On the subject of festivals, I was at Canberra's a few weeks ago and caught up with Annie Daley who, in 1992, was the teenage jillaroo on Dagworth Station who drove me in a ute to the Combo Waterhole on our expedition there.

Nick Earls 19 September 2016

A Hoarding Notification Database reveals -No area is immune. Desirable suburbs report multiple cases - houses stuffed with household rubbish, homes, running not only the risk of fire, but "cave in", as hoarders force family members to negotiate towering edifices and teetering canyons, inundated driveways and porches stacked like tip-trucks with decades of stuff that should've been heaved a long time ago. * hoarders are often very smart highly functioning people who own their own home.

A J Stewart 20 September 2016

"The trouble is ,,, to decide what must go and what can stay..." This applies not only to material things, but also to memories, and spiritual ideals. Traditions which were established in much simpler situations and life-styles can linger in our lives long after their spiritual values have died and decayed. Nostalgia can be sweet, but can also hold back progress. Insights that were seen as lofty ideals, like high rungs on a ladder to be reached up to, later need to be put under foot as we move higher. Thinking that 'OUR' Religion,(whichever one it happened to be), is the one and only path to God needs to be seen as just the one tailored to our degree of development and culture, but that there are other paths for other people with different cultures and traditions. Sifting and refining is needed by all, to allow the harmony and the light of universal love to emerge and flourish

Robert Liddy 20 September 2016

What treasure you saved from the skip! I wish I could have heard those readings. My plea to anti-hoarders is don't heave - re-home! Our kids played with lego passed on by 2 older families. Then it went on (after washing) to other small grateful hands. Some of the picture books we read to our kids had 3 earlier names in them. It is lovely to think of them still being thumbed through on different beds in different homes. Skips are strictly for builders' waste. Everything else can be recycled or re-homed.

L C Mooney 20 September 2016

Hoarders of text obviously don't believe that a picture is worth a thousand words. They are obviously sceptical that the life that flashes before their eyes in images at the moment of truth will be an adequate summing up of their life to that point. But never fear. There is a book of life at the Pearly Gate containing everything one has ever said and done, or not said and done, the implications of which, or extrapolations from which, would have on earth, in order to do justice to this one life, required legions of literary titans to note even before exploring.

Roy Chen Yee 21 September 2016

A appropriately unfaceted diamond of a piece about the mess and grace of life and its hapless intentions, not quite, nor ever likely to be, brought to fruition in this life. I wish I'd written it, as it perfectly captured a similar moment of mine. Thank you.

Michael Furtado 30 September 2016

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