Hearing Lost Voices

The cover of Christopher Koch’s new novel, Lost Voices, features a painting, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australian, 1852 by William Strutt.

It‘s a rather romantic view of bush ranging, bright colours with the thieves’ victims sitting patiently in a row, a bit tired, somewhat annoyed, but nevertheless, seemingly safe, while their goods are rifled by the men with guns.  It’s a romantic view of bush ranging, nothing to do with the fear that being held up generated in the victims, or the brutality of the life on the run.

Lost Voices is in part about bush ranging, but it’s a more brutal representation than Strutt’s.  It’s actually two interwoven stories. One is of an educated, idealist bush ranger, Lucas Wilson, and his attempts to establish an utopian society in the hills behind Hobart in the 1850s.   He and his gang supposedly only rob to fund their dream of building a settlement where all are equal and everyone’s work is valued.  Wilson, known as The Captain, though, is the charismatic leader. Some bush rangers are more equal than others.

Wilson’s right hand man, Dalton brings young Martin Dixon back to the hideout after encountering him during a robbery at the Dixon farm.  Martin has asked to accompany Dalton to learn more about Wilson and his Nowhere Valley, to write a story for the local newspaper.  When Dalton agrees, in a prescient understanding of good PR, Martin has the wherewithal to take his father’s new camera with him – despite its size and weight – to take a photo of the renowned Wilson.

This photo of Wilson provides the link to the second story, which features Martin’s great grandson, Hugh Dixon.  Set a hundred years later in 1950s Hobart, Hugh is a commercial artist working in advertising while also trying to establish himself as a painter.  He re-engages with his great uncle, Walter, an aesthete who loves European art and culture and willingly agrees to loan Hugh money to undertake further studies. Walter also gives Hugh Martin’s photo of Wilson.

While Koch’s characters are complex and well drawn, he is also a master of creating place, and in Lost Voices, as in his other novels such as The Double Man and Highways to a War, he lovingly recreates Hobart in the 1950s.  It’s emerging from its remoteness at the bottom of the globe, and his recollections of the city, its architecture and layout are described in fine detail.  Anyone who has lived in a city established in early colonial times will have no problems envisaging the kinds of buildings and the sense of history he relates.

The two stories in Lost Voices explore the theme of the embodiment of evil.  Both Martin and Hugh encounter men whose behaviour is unsettling and questionable, and who seem to be able to influence and hold sway over others only by suggesting or focusing on an idea.  Convict Roy Griffin ends up joining up with Wilson’s gang basically by inveigling and influencing Dalton – he escapes from Port Arthur with him and Dalton doesn’t seem to have a choice but to take Griffin with him.  This ability to influence others and their actions ultimately has a catastrophic and detrimental effect on the settlement as its struggles with the landscape and remote location.

In the 1950s Hobart, Hugh meets up with a photographer and commercial artist, Max Fell, whose machinations almost cause the downfall of Hugh’s friend, Bob Wall.

Koch has drawn these kinds of evil characters in the past, most notably in The Doubleman, but elements of characters in The Memory Room, his spy thriller set in and around Canberra, also explore those who dabble in evil.  The characters seem to use elements of knowledge of “other worlds” to manipulate or control others – call it witchcraft or hypnotism or mind manipulation – they’re a bit mad, and bad to know.

While Koch’s characters’ complexities are well drawn, the landscape is the other major character in this novel.  It provides both a cloak for the convicts escaping, amazingly, from Port Arthur as they work their way into the hinterland of the island.  But it is also an adversary, for Dalton and Griffin as they escape, and for Wilson and his community in Nowhere Valley.  Their remoteness is an advantage – the police cannot find them.  But the tough climate and lack of easy access ultimately hinders them in their goal of independence from society and its strict rules.

Linking Hugh’s and Martin’s stories, Lost Voices is a rich history lesson and a study of two young men’s rites of passage in two different eras.  It’s a great read, and is up there with Kate Grenville’s recent works exploring white settlement in Australia in giving us a sense of the past and how it can resonate in the future.

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Rocket Man fires up

Last night’s Elton John concert in Canberra had something for everyone. Lots of the hits, which was to be expected on this tour that was branded as the Rocket Man tour, celebrating forty years since the song was released (two years after Bowie’s Space Oddity, which is a completely different kettle of fish.) This set up an expectation that the rest of the show would be full of all of the other hits, too, and they didn’t disappoint.

Being not so interested in hits, I was still delighted that he swerved sideways and included Tiny Dancer and Levon from Madman across the water; Grey Seal from Yellow Brick Road; and the opening bars of Are you ready for love? brought tears to my eyes. I played this 45 single obsessively in my flat on Old South Head Road in Bondi, but haven’t played it for years. I will dig it out this weekend.

The hits came thick and fast – Yellow Brick Road, Saturday Night, Bennie and the Jets, I’m still standing, Sad songs, I guess that’s why they call it the blues … and it made me wonder whether it was a Clayton’s farewell tour. I have had the good fortune to see Elton live four times now, mainly in the early to mid 1980s – once with the full band like last night; once with percussionist, Ray Cooper; and once solo; and then last night’s show. All were excellent – Elton’s and the band’s musicianship is stunning, his recall of lyrics faultless – and although last night the voice was somewhat faded and he was backed by five singers, it was still a great show. They even managed to fix the sound distortions caused by the flaky wind fairly quickly. (But the best show was the gig with Ray Cooper.)

There was no standing on the piano and he was certainly moving carefully. But however hackneyed it sounds, his music has played a big part in my life’s soundtrack and I wanted to see him just once more.

Did the crowd love it? Yes. Some unexpected treats? Definitely. And I think it’ll be a long long time until I forget it.

Canberra Times review is here