Saturday, April 9, 2011
Books I'm reading - Ten Pound Pom
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 age, We 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