I’m just back from my first trip to Australia since COVID. Airlines are still not operating the kangaroo route at full capacity and tickets are eye-wateringly expensive. I booked with Lufthansa, one of the few airlines that had continued to fly to and from Australia the whole way through. The travel agent who told me this boasted of getting people ‘in and out’ of Australia via Frankfurt, as if Lufthansa were some kind of evacuation service. In the darkest days of 2020–2021, the prospect of being legally prevented, as a citizen, from leaving Australia, had tickets been available and affordable, was as awful as that of getting COVID.
(Side note: I will never fly Lufthansa again. It was my worst long-haul airline experience in 30+ years of flying UK–Oz.)
Ever since I left home at 18, returning to the country town where I grew up has had an element of time travel. I was impatient for adulthood and experience, and keen to get away, into the future, but ‘home’ continued to exist, a repository of old feelings and memories.
My mother sold my childhood home during my first year in Japan, not long after she’d remarried, and bought a new house with my stepfather. I had no nostalgia for the old one, a late 1970s brick-veneer box on the dusty flatlands north of the city centre. There were no trees; the cramped, oddly shaped blocks were divided by splintery paling fences that offered little privacy. The new house, built of cream-painted breeze blocks, with single-glazed picture windows, is on a hill overlooking a public sports ground (a memory: the utter misery of school sport and PE). There is a view of distant mountains, with snow visible in the winter. The modest traffic from the local airport cuts across the sky on a schedule known to my stepfather, sitting on the veranda with his evening glass of wine.
When I first went overseas, I left boxes, mostly of books, at my mother’s house. In the Australia of the 1980s and 1990s, going ‘OS’ was a major trip, not a mere holiday, often undertaken between third and fourth years of uni. I returned to the UK for the first time since we had emigrated and came back to Australia 18 months later, from Japan.
Almost ten years later, I left again, this time permanently. I left behind not only books but household effects and clothes, packed in spidery supermarket boxes that had been used in multiple house moves and stored in my father’s post-divorce unit. I don’t know what I thought would happen: that one day, I would be ‘settled’ and post my cheap, scratched Teflon pans and annotated Penguin Classics to my notional future self?
On visits to Oz, which I trained myself not to call ‘home’, I always opened up these boxes, an almost compulsive ritual. It was like broaching a time capsule, if not a very well preserved one. My old effects became alien and even slightly disgusting, like dusty objects in a badly maintained local museum or funky-smelling clothes in a charity shop bin, before charity shops became respectable retail and colour-coded the clothing racks.
Over the years, I sent small boxes of books from my past self to my current self via sea mail. On one trip, I did a massive cull of the old pans and plates and tea towels, some of which my mother absorbed into her caravan. My hoard was reduced to books and papers, but still substantial, consolidated into a large wooden chest that a Chinese ship’s carpenter had once made for my mother to ship home a camphor wood chest from Hong Kong. This chest, entirely functional but the product of human craft and therefore imbued with qualities absent from its industrial equivalent, used to live at my father’s place, and when he died, it was moved to the garage at Mum’s place, protected (mostly) from the damp by a sheet of plastic.
This latest trip was the first I had taken since buying (finally!) my own small flat. I had a notion that I’d (finally!) ship or chuck my chattels. After all, I could buy a new set of Penguin Classics (Russian and classical literature) for less than what it would cost to ship them, even sea mail.
The latest layer of artefacts, accumulated during my post-postdoc year of exile and unemployment, had already gone ‘off’. When I returned to the UK in 2017, I wasn’t ready to bin excess stuff (cheap T-shirts and nightdresses, almost empty bottles of perfume and body lotion from the discount chemist) if it was still usable. Five years later, the vital link was broken and it had all become rubbish.
Some things are not replaceable, yet I have no need of them in my current life. My childhood and university diaries, written in biro in lined A4 journals with black covers and red trim, because ordinary exercise books lacked the necessary dignity. The photographs from that first year in Japan, my 21-year-old self, surrounded by schoolchildren in sailor suits and black Prussian tunics who are now middle-aged themselves; a folder of photographs from Okayama, where I studied for a year in the mid-1990s. A plastic zip-wallet of letters and aerogrammes. Good-luck charms (御守り) from temples I can’t remember visiting. The manuscript of my first published novel, in handwriting I can no longer reproduce; then the typewritten version, enclosed in a black vinyl two-ring folder, the title inscribed, oh so neatly, in silver pen. At the age of 16, I felt that the momentousness of completing a novel required this extra touch. A document wallet of typewritten letters from my editor, an icon of Australian children’s publishing, who died only two years ago. The polite, personalised rejection letters from other publishers. I marvelled at the courtesy expended on a precocious, presumptuous teenager. These days, a template rejection via email is the exception; silence is the default reply.
And this is not just my history: if someone wants to write a history of Australian publishing in the 1980s and 1990s, or the development of Young Adult Fiction, or the prestigious university press that dumped me at book four (because teenage fantasy novels don’t sell), or a biography of my first and only editor, then my story is part of that. My box of papers is not just private, narcissistic rubbish (yes, this does occur to me, and frequently). But the humanities in Australia are being destroyed; the days when such projects could win research grants and power a career are gone. Australian literature isn’t even a university subject, and literature itself has been absorbed into ‘cultural studies’.
The busy Dymocks on George St, a regular stop on my Sydney transits, gave me some hope: Australians are still reading, although most books are first published overseas, just like the old colonial days.
After consulting the Australia Post website, I modified my ambitions to send several boxes back to Scotland. Heating my flat now costs about £7 a day, even with the thermostat set to 19 degrees, and I’m still working from home. My literary archive, such as it is, can stay in the wooden chest, along with old manuscripts and the diaries written by a distant, other self, and the books that I’m not quite ready to be rid of. Perhaps next time, in another incremental cull.
In the meantime, my morale and sense of self restored by that first manuscript, I’ll republish that classic of Australian YA fiction myself because such things are now possible and no longer despised. A personal archive may be an indulgence, but time travel reminds me of who I am, however blurred and uncertain this has become in the present.