There seems to be a deluge of misery-memoirs recently and from the title and the stark cover image, I expected this to be another one. However One Hundred Years of Dirt, although it has its share of pain and cruelty, is much more than this. It is a reflection on family patterns, addictions and mental health, class, and a love letter to Morton’s mother, Deb.
In telling his story, Morton turns back two generations to his grandfather, George, a pastoralist in remote far-west Queensland. A violent and cruel man, he abused Rick’s father Rodney, and Rodney in turn rejects his family, plunging them into poverty. It’s a pattern that is repeated from one generation to another, and Morton is aware that his father has shaped him as well:
To understand a person, you must understand his father. This is true of Rodney and it is true of myself, too. Ours is a trauma passed from one generation to another, family heirlooms that are bequeathed by the living. There is an emotional and financial poverty that flows from these wounds…Try as they might to contain the damage, it seeped through, father to son and father to son. Desolation moved like a slinky through them all.p.29
When Rick’s brother Toby was horrifically burnt in a farm accident, his mother bundled Toby, herself and her newborn daughter into the Royal Flying Doctor Service aeroplane. Rodney, left alone on the station with Rick, turned to the governess. When the marriage broke up, he was ruthless. Deb and her children ended up impoverished, in a Housing Commission house where she brought up her children on an income that was measured to the last cent. A weekly hot-chocolate at a cafe with ‘the girls’ from work was a carefully-budgetted luxury.
Rick won a scholarship to the private Bond University on the Gold Coast, where he always felt out of place. His journalistic career started at the Gold Coast Bulletin – perhaps not the most illustrious of starts – but at the time of writing this book he was working at the Australian. He found himself out of place there too: a working-class kid in Australia’s conservative-leaning, national newspaper. He now works for the Saturday Paper and often appears on the ABC’s The Drum where, although the politics might be different, the intellectual and social milieu is still far removed from his childhood.
Now that being a Marxist seems something from undergraduate, 1970s student life, we don’t know quite how to talk about class. Or, at least, I don’t. Howard’s ‘battlers’, Scomo’s utes on the weekend, workers in the mining industry, immigration, the much-derided ‘McMansion’ – these have all confounded and complicated the idea of class. Morton’s view is more pragmatic and clear-eyed:
Class is access. To resources, to culture, to the conversations people are having about you. For the longest time, as a child, I had no idea the conversation about us and people like us was even out there. My ignorance was built on generations of accumulated concerns: survival, rent, food, repeat. No time to make the world big. No-one to make it big for you. That it happened to me is still a matter of confusion.p.169
We don’t normally hear this from journalists from the Australian or from the Schwartz media stable either. For Morton, it’s not a matter of politics, but a matter of a new Great Australian Silence of class.
We don’t need more journalists from the right or from the left. It’s the wrong approach entirely. What the media needs- what it should desire, actually – is more reporters with the ability to understand their subjects. There is a small problem with the repetition of our egalitarian myth and that is this: repeating it doesn’t make it true. We never hear from the people for whom this myth failed and when we do, we feel instinctively that they are to blame.p.161
When reading this book, I veered between viewing it as expansive and wide-ranging, or alternatively, undisciplined. He is narrating a story deeply embedded in his own experience and then – wham!- there is a dispassionate, rather abstract discussion about a particular report, or a collection of statistics. Is this the journalist in him coming out? – having to ‘tell’ and ‘inform’ us? Or is he signalling “Hey- look over there!” when something is getting too close to the quick, too painful? I don’t think so, because when he comes to the most intimate part of the book where he describes his depression and anguish over his sexuality, his loneliness, his hopelessness, there is no intellectualizing there: it is just straight, honest writing.
This book is much more complex than the misery memoir I thought it would be. It is funny in places, veined with pain, but suffused with love and generosity.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library