Australia 2013: sport (Gideon Haigh’s ‘On Warne’ wins the Nib Award 2013) and mining (Craig Walsh’s Embedded)

9780670076604This morning at the Margaret Whitlam Recreation Centre in Bondi, Gideon Haigh‘s On Warne won the 2013 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature. It seems apt that a cricketer should be the subject of Haigh’s second Nib Award (his first was for Asbestos House: The Secret History of James Hardie Industries).

Apt because the Nib is awarded for research and writing. That Haigh’s book deserved to win on the strength of his writing is uncontested. There is so much elegant and penetrating writing in this book. Here is one example:

‘In our age, only two other cricketers have enjoyed comparable renown, dealing with it rather differently. Sachin Tendulkar veered one way, preserving his excellence by sequestering himself from a clamouring public; Ian Botham veered the other, allowing his legendary self-belief to become self-parodic. Warnie swaggered down the middle of the road, living large but always bowling big, revelling in the attention while never losing the love of his craft, seeming to treat the tabloid exposes as lightheartedly as sixes hit off his bowling. Just an occupational hazard. He’d put things right soon enough.’

The Nib judges called Haigh ‘arguably the finest prose stylist of his generation’.

Gideon Haigh with Gretel Killeen (l) and Mayor Sally Betts (r)

Gideon Haigh with Gretel Killeen (l) and Mayor Sally Betts (r)

But why it is particularly apt and what was more interesting to me – especially as I had to interview Haigh about it at the breakfast – is the matter of research. Haigh wrote On Warne in one month and said it just flowed out. (Which is how it reads, effortlessly, seamlessly.) But what sort of research can be done in just 31 days? Of course! Haigh has been researching this book all his life. He has lived, played, watched and written about cricket all his life. Or, as the judges put it: ‘If the dimension of research in this book is not at first apparent, that is because the author is one for whom research into cricket is as natural, and as necessary, as breathing.’

And Haigh has also lived Warne. He said that for that one month he inhabited Warne – which, given they are almost polar opposites, was often extremely uncomfortable. This inhabitation also shows. Haigh brings a rare sympathy to this confounding and unlikely cricket star who on his Test debut ‘actually looked like that friend of a friend who turns up to help your club out on a Saturday who used to play but hasn’t for ages, who didn’t have anything on and thought it might be fun to have a bit of a run-around, albeit he’d had a few the night before and maybe you could put him somewhere quiet.’ And within 18 months had bowled ‘the Ball of the Century’.

Perhaps the best thing about Haigh’s Warne for me was the way Haigh ‘put flesh on the myth (sometimes rather a lot of flesh)’, and explicated the complex, impossible art of spin bowling – without taking away from either the myth of the man or the mystique of his bowling. And that he reminds us how wholeheartedly Warne played cricket for his entire career:

‘Cricket is not after all so important; I’m bound to say that by several rigorous measures it may even be judged quite trivial. But being day in, day out for nearly two decades the best at something that there has ever been is assuredly not. To approach every day of that period with zest and zeal is to accomplish something worth celebrating.’

For the first time this year there was also a People’s Choice Award, won by John Hamilton for The Price of Valour, the story of Hugo Throssell who was awarded the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli and married the writer Katharine Susannah Prichard. The other shortlisted books were Matthew Condon’s Three Crooked Kings, Michael Fullilove’s Rendezvous with Destiny, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights and Helen Trinca’s Madeleine.

So from sport to mining, that other pivotal player in Australian life and key to my work on the novels of Alexis Wright.

After the Nib Award I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see Craig Walsh’s fascinating sounding installation Embedded, which is drawn from the Pilbara in northwestern Australia (quite literally: 21 industrial bins full of Pilbara iron ore are installed in a darkened room). The work developed out of a commission from Rio Tinto and the MCA, which allowed Walsh to spend time in the Pilbara’s Barrup Peninsula (Murujuga).

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For me the Pilbara is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and potent lands in Australia. More importantly, it is Aboriginal Country and home to sacred sites and rock art. It is also one of Australia’s richest mining fields. We are digging it up, tearing it apart. I wondered what Walsh would make of these tensions. These different registers.

Walsh acknowledges the tensions in a note at the exhibition entrance: ‘The Pilbara is a place of extreme contrasts. Here, the idea of land as a source of spiritual and cultural identity and the idea of land as commodity co-exist.’ And the installation represents these two very different aspects of the Pilbara, with its bins of iron ore and its multimedia installations of interviews with some of the Country’s traditional custodians – the Elders of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation – which are projected onto meaningful sites of the landscape.

What most overwhelmed me about Embedded was the pungent smell of that iron ore, the earth of the Pilbara transported to a Sydney art museum. And the recordings of crickets. The darkness. But it perplexed me more than undid me or blew my mind, as Mike Kelley‘s mining of American culture did at MoMA last month. I felt kept out, rather than affected or embedded. But perhaps that’s the point. I’m still ruminating on it.

Mining is also the subject of Malcolm Knox’s new book Boom: The underground history of Australia, from Gold Rush to GFC (great title), which apparently ‘reveals the history of mining as the Australian story, for better or worse’. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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