From the Edge by Mark McKenna – the book launch

For one moment I reflect on the irony of ‘launching’ a book that that features shipwrecks.

But it is a book that involves us all. The Bega Valley is on the south eastern edge of a continent occupied by our vast, imperfect nation state. This book reports from the edge.

In the introduction Mark visits Mascot, a symbol of how easy it is nowadays to roam the world and which looks across Kamay or Botany Bay to the place where Cook’s men shot an Aboriginal man and took his shield, which is currently being claimed from the British Museum by Rodney Kelly, a local Aboriginal man. This is a prelude to the key episode of the book, the wreck of the Sydney Cove, which led to the 1797 long walk during which the shipwrecked mariners made first contact with the Aboriginal people of our region. It’s remarkable that a written record of their ‘adventures’ survived. Significant events happened only 10 km away from the nowadays town of Bega. Read about their adventures near Tathra and the mouth of the river….

We’ll come back to that later, after the book is officially launched, when we’ll have a conversation and plenty of time for questions.

Meantimes let’s consider the other three corners of the book. From the Bega Valley and that very long walk, we have Cooktown only 2400 km as the crow flies,  Pt Essington 3000 and Murujuga a mere 3,400km away. That is some decent mileage that had to be covered during researches. Distances that would daunt less ambitious historians. The book covers, from the end, Gangaar or Cooktown, from Captain Cook’s visit to Kamay in the Prelude to his shipwreck. Gangaar is the point where everything changes on the way northwards, the last place of substantial settlement, still there after a chequered life. It’s here where we find ways to move forward.

The next place is now deserted: Port Essington, a strategic location to defend the continent, was a wretched, ill-fated, fever-ridden settlement in the far north visited by our own Oswald Brierly after his time on Twofold Bay. I must add that Mark has spared his readers some of the worst, I recall that one of the sailing boats visiting became so overrun by cockroaches they had to sink it. The cockroaches washed onshore in great mounds, only to be avidly consumed by Aboriginal people who appreciated the special delicacy. Who would not prefer cockroaches to the flyblown salt meats of the doomed garrison?

Coming closer to the beginning, we find Murujuga, the biggest and oldest art gallery on earth. Unfortunately the Pilbara has a sordid background in the treatment of its Aboriginal people, and in the disregard of the values of the Aboriginal artworks by industrialisation. Anywhere else in the world it would have world heritage protection.

And what is it that holds such diverse material together? What binds these 4 places at the edge of the continent so many thousands of km apart into a unified work of history?

It’s not just what is common to the stories, it’s not just the uncomprehending meetings between the Europeans and the old people, it’s not just the voice of a very special historian bringing the scenes so brilliantly to light. Essentially for me it lies in the rhythms of his prose, the majestic prose poetry that works on an epic scale like a Homer painting in word-music his Iliad and Odyssey, as if Mark is rediscovering songlines that connect these places in the imagination, that majestic McKenna music, as divine as Bach, that creates a new pastoral for the continent.

The old pastorals were about the rustic life, man and woman at peace with their countryside, shepherds and their sheep. Idealised, idyllic. But here, without rose-coloured glasses, we learn the shock of discovering each place as different Countries of one continent, of utterly disparate ways of life meeting for the first time. And those meetings are weirder than science fiction, stranger than the clash of alien cultures from far corners of the galaxy we get in the movies. Mark shows us that beside the tragedies & conflict & commonalities there are glimmers of hope for the future. But we don’t get there without acknowledging the past.

Here it is, a very beautiful book, generously illustrated and printed on a paper that will outlast most of us. It will take you to places you might never have imagined, places that demonstrate the many countries and needs of our continent, eerie, strange places once well populated and managed but not perhaps suited for settlement, they are places essential in the story of Australia, where we have come from and where we’re going.

Read the book. Take these journeys with Mark McKenna. It’s now launched, From the Edge


About the author

Mark McKenna is one of Australia’s leading historians. His most recent book, An Eye for Eternity: The life of Manning Clark (MUP) won five national awards, including the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. He is also the author of Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: An Australian History of Place (UNSW Press), which won the Book of the Year and the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction in the 2003 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. His essays, reviews and political commentary have appeared in The Monthly, Meanjin, ABR, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian.

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