Ben Stubbs practises full-on, embedded reporting. Trying to understand South Australia, he paddled, dived, swam (near a Great White shark), talked (at great length), walked and drove (endlessly, across interminable scrub in intolerable heat).
Now a lecturer and formerly a journalist, Stubbs is a relative newcomer to the land of the crow eaters. His perspective, formed through a dauntingly thorough set of journeys, dialogues, vignettes, anecdotes and impressions, is essentially sympathetic. That point of view has been earned, not just by the appalling drives but by alert curiosity in seeking out the quiddities of South Australia. Stubbs' technique is not new; after all, Herodotus adopted the same approach to exploring two and a half millennia ago: travel tirelessly, meet lots of locals, ask earnestly what matters to them, then record what they say without judgment, recognising that everywhere custom is king. Stubbs, though, deserves particular credit for enthusiasm, sincerity and respect for Indigenous traditions works and traditions.
This book therefore celebrates the dog fence, Muslim "Afghan" camel drivers in the 1860s, Chinamen's Wells in the Coorong, the Murray Cods rowing team of 1913, the Adnyamayhanha footprint at Wilpena Pound, and the sole scallop diver on Kangaroo Island, Whimsy is allowed to intrude through some sweet asides. Stubbs runs into a roadhouse sporting a cock-keyed advertisement for "beef karma". He passes by a "magic poo ride" but pauses at a bucking mechanical animal called "Malcom the Turnbull".
The reader is treated to lots of potted histories. Leaving aside Burke and Wills (and, surely, writers now should) those stories are engagingly peculiar. Mark Twain turns up in Goorwa to make a bit of money. The Millpuddie family sleep in a nuclear bomb crater at Maralinga, and are treated shabbily afterwards, like many other victims of British nuclear testing in the South Australian desert. In a revealing supplement to the usual story, Stubbs advises that air hostesses landing at Maralinga were instructed to keep their feet on the airline steps lest their reproductive systems be damaged. Early copper mines disfigure the Burra landscape. Kangaroo Island was so named not as a tribute to nature's wonder but because Matthew Flinders found lots of docile 'roos to kill there. The answer posed to the implicit question in Stubbs' title is: yes, they have, but only in desperation, usually in winter. Who knew?
Stubbs knows that he needs to include all this quirkiness and more. He starts his book off by observing that "South Australia often sits happily on the periphery of Australian understanding, out of sight and out of mind". Elsewhere, Stubbs suggests that the State "looks like an apologetic frown on the southern edge of the Australian mainland". He is quite aware that residents of other States might claim that, with Haighs' chocolates and RM Williams' boots now available throughout the continent, the incentive for visiting South Australia has declined. Such sceptics might inquire about Snowtown's corpses sealed in barrels, or mock the affected Adelaide habit of asking which private school you attended.
Stubbs' response to those who regard South Australians as staid, snobby and stuffy may well be: not the ones to whom I am going to introduce you. Many of Stubbs' characters seem genuinely hard-bitten, rough-hewn specimens. In a way, The Crow Eaters represents a dare, teasing and enticing other Australians to sample something more than a picnic at a Barossa vineyard. In return, South Australians could promise not to remind us once more that their State took no convicts.
Oddly, the maps at the front of Stubbs' book include one of Adelaide's CBD. Stubbs, though, is much stronger on the outback than the city, out in the realm recently opened up again in Heather Ewart's Backroads or Don Watson's The Bush. In myth and romance, Australia seems easier to find out there. The landscape is more vivid, the animals weirder and closer, the stars more numerous, the risks more compelling, memorable local characters more frequently encountered.
Stubbs certainly clocks up lots of eccentric denizens of the outback. One distinctive set of readers for The Crow Eaters might be those Stubbs jokingly characterises as an introduced, invasive species, the grey nomads. Few busier readers could ever make the time to emulate Stubbs' road trips.
Back in town, in central Adelaide or out in Elizabeth, those folk whom Stubbs meets seem more prosaic. Evidently their lives have been less hard, their choices less tough. Car factories close, people of faith go about their worship, Haighs' are eaten and RM's' worn, but out there in the outback, the horizon for both author and characters alike seems wider and grander.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra reviewer.