Saturday, April 9, 2011

Books I'm reading - Ten Pound Pom

Niall Griffiths is a writer of apparent contradictions. A Liverpudlian living in Wales; a sensitive man who delights in the profane; alive to nature yet a long time stoned or blotto. Actually, none of these are necessary contradictions - but to use his own writing style, it does make him an awkward fucker.

And so it's no surprise that his latest book, Ten Pound Pom, chronicles a country which he variously describes as racist, over-legislated, Blackpool in the sun... and shite. By the second chapter it's clear there's lots about Australia that Griffiths doesn't like, and he gives the impression he knew this before he travelled. But then writing a guide book was never the point of Ten Pound Pom.

Griffiths' parents were Seventies migrants, seeking a better life under the Australian Government's assisted passage scheme. After the War, more than a million British people came to Australia hoping to find a new England; the scheme was part of a wider policy that actively discriminated against non-white immigration. Griffiths himself was nine when he arrived. He stayed for three years before his parents returned to Liverpool.

Thirty years on, he travels overland from Brisbane, retracing the journey he'd made with his parents and siblings in a station wagon. The route takes him through New South Wales, to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne -  hugging the coast of South Australia, before crossing the vast, mind numbing, scorched, remote, stultifyingly dull and seemingly never ending plain of Western Australia. The trip ends in Perth, from where he flies home, 'sick to the gizzard of Oz'.

But in fact, Griffiths recounts three journeys, each in dialogue with the other. The original trip, told thorough the mind and words of a somewhat introverted boy; his return, through the more self confident and darker eyes of a man. And in between, both in time and the pages, is the journey of Griffiths himself, his attitudes, addictions, inspirations and rites of passage.

Ten Pound Pom is a book about returning. 'Of course we ageWe get old and we die. But how many of us regress like this, to the other side of the planet, to revisit ourselves at a distance of three decades and 12,00 miles?'  And a few pages later.  'This isn't just me touring Australia, this is touring a large and formative part of my life. I'm a tourist through my own childhood. Stange jaunt this; I become more alien to myself with each passing day.'

It is also a book about history and culture and depth - or the lack of it. Griffiths does not universally dislike Australia, but it's significant I think that his best moments are in the landscape, close to nature and the sense of wonder it brings. He is sympathetic to the Aboriginals and alert to those aspects of Australia's history that were shaped by injustice and dissent; the legend of the Kelly Gang is of particular interest. And he is openly hostile to what he sees as the all too prevalent  narrow minded, supercilious and smug attitudes of modern Australia.

The book is also a lesson in self-reflection. For if Niall Griffiths is anything as a writer he is searingly honest, and in so being, he make us look at ourselves as much him. Whether you agree or not with his views on the nature of Australia (and I can't comment, having never been there), and regardless of whether you approve of his attitudes to authority, alcohol, culture... so many things,  you can't fail to read Ten Pound Pom without questioning your own attitudes to the same.

I've long held that Niall Griffiths is one the best fiction writers in the UK. His books are not for the faint hearted, but they look deeply at what it is to be human, to live on the edge of civility. His characters are a world away from my comfortable life, and yet in parts, they are uncomfortably close. We're lucky to have him in Wales, and I couldn't agree more with his first words to his parents on returning home, 'Thank Christ you brought us back from Oz.'

Ten Pound Pom is available from good books shops, from Amazon or the marvellous Parthian Books


  1. Thank you not only for the superb review but also for bringing the book to my attention. The wife and I have a real fascination with Australia but all we hear or see is positive spin... would be nice to read something a little more balanced... of if not that, something that dares to dwell on the darker side of the coin.

  2. He sounds like someone I would enjoy reading. Thanks for a great review.

  3. This is an excellent review, I shall seek this book out, thank you.
    Good luck with the cycle ride.

  4. Sounds like a good read, I'll look out for it.

  5. PS I noticed you were a fan of moths. (I have an elderly neighbour who is something of a mothman).

    Have you read he novel The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams? I recommend it.

  6. Great review and sounds like a good read. I enjoy when you recommend books that otherwise might get missed.

  7. I doubt if I could digest such a book without some background in Australian culture. When I was still teaching in the late 1960s, one of the guidance counselors flew to Australia and hiked across the "outback" which to him was a vast wilderness of desert-like conditions and a simple highway that was straight as an arrow punctuated by an occasional animal knocked stone dead by a large truck hauling an endless string of trailers. He felt he could stick out his thumb and hitch a ride with the first bloke passing him and if they didn't stop he would flash his "V" for victory fingers.

    And he began to notice these people were giving him the "fuck-you" sign in response to his "V" for victory finger sign. He said somebody picked him up and hauled him to their station and explained what the "V" for victory sign meant.

    Forty three years have passed and that guy poking across the outback is even older than I am. I am at the point in life where remembering is a virtue and forgetting is an unavoidable fact if life. So I don't remember what was explained to him about his finger signals – perhaps you do?

  8. A beautifully crafted review in which you present this book as an enticing and engrossing read,for various reasons. As one who is drawn to themes of home, identity and place, this sounds like a book I would enjoy. As a immigrant to Australia, and one who is proud to call it home, while fully acknowledging it's less than attractive aspects, I'm sure it would challenge me on many levels. Thanks Mark.

  9. Good review. My kind of edgy writer by the sounds of him. My wife spent many weeks travelling south and eastern Oz a few years ago. I didn’t go. When she returned I asked what her biggest impressions were of Oz and Oz people. She said it was very brown, very barren, mostly very boring and they all seemed to want to leave it. That was pretty much the extent and end of her conversation about Oz, even to this day.

  10. One of the few books I have read about Australia was THE SINGING LINE by Alice Thomson, about Charles Todd, a young scientist from Greenwich, who travelled to Australia to follow a dream, stringing a telegraph wire across 'one of the last uncrossed colonial windernesses'. He took with him his young wife Alice, after whom Alice Springs is named.
    Great review, but doesn't sound like my kind of book.

  11. A great revue : the value of which is shown by the fact that I am now going to seek the book out.

  12. Like Griffiths, my family were seventies migrants. Also like Griffith I too have been 'back' to retrace my childhood adventures. I shall track down a copy of his book.

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