Meeting Isabel Crook

‘Put that down, mum’, he said. ‘Someone is here to see you’.

He strode into the room, while I paused at the door and looked inside to see Isabel Crook for the first time. Books spilled out of ceiling-high shelves and were piled on the desks that surrounded her. Sitting in the only free space in the room, she had been reading. She did not look up at first, but focussed on putting the book in its place. She stood and walked to the door of her own accord.

Her 60-something son and began to introduce us, somewhat loudly.

‘Hello, I am Isabel Crook,’ she interrupted. ‘Pleased to meet you’.

I replied in kind, with a clear and strong voice.

She smiled. Her no-nonsense hair may have been grey, and she may have been slightly stooped and a little shrunken. But the sparkle was still in her eye and I immediately saw the origin of her son’s energy.

It was the middle of May, 2015, in an apartment built in not long after the communist revolution. They had lived there ever since the 50s, in Beijing.

In the common room – for eating, guests, discussion – she paused and pointed to a poster on the wall: ‘This is priceless’. A youthful Mao Zedong was watching over a long line of marching men and women, holding the red flag aloft.

‘You can’t read the writing now’, she said. ‘It has faded over the years’.

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

‘These posters were all over Beijing when it was liberated in 1949. I managed to get hold of one. It was amazing. We looked all down the streets … students all with red triangular flags waving … the incoming army … cavalry, which was very exciting. It was the most joyful event I’ve ever watched’.

Isabel Crook, along with her husband, David, had been with the Red Army on that victorious day. Most men and women had walked thousands of kilometres in order to get from Yan’an to Beijing But since Isabel was pregnant with their first son, Colin, she was provided with the comfort of travelling in the back of a truck. Given the conditions of the roads after decades of civil war and the anti-Japanese war, I am not sure an old truck in 1949 would have been so comfortable. But she was obviously a tough woman.

We – Isabel, Michael (her second son) and I – sat and talked over a cup of tea. We talked of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, China today, Marxism, as also of families and the initial matters of what one is doing and why. Later, a couple of other people joined us and we made the most of the spring weather to have lunch at a simple outdoor restaurant somewhere on the edge of the Summer Palace grounds.

Isabel and I gravitated towards each other – as we did on later occasions – given our common interests in Marxism and indeed religion. She was born to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China, way back in 1915. While she was brought up as a Christian in China and attended a Christian school, she followed the path of so many, from Christianity to communism. Crucially, her parents – Homer and Muriel Brown – were Christians with a social conscience, although they looked askance at communism (and Isabel’s future husband, David Crook). They reconciled themselves to the fact that a social cause was better than pure self-interest.

After anthropological study in her parents’ home country, Canada, she returned to China in 1940, under the auspices of the National Christian Council in Sichuan province. By 1942 she joined David in England, where she joined the communist party and where they married. Further study ensued, only to return to China in 1947. She has remained there ever since, becoming a participant-observer in the communist revolution itself and especially socialism in power. Many are the jobs Isabel has had, from anthropological researcher, through language teacher to lifelong social activist. Indeed, her commitment was of the sort that led one to action – to supporting an actual communist revolutionary movement on the ground.

Her story has been told many times (as of David), from foreign sources to many outlets in China. Her 100th birthday was saluted by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), her commitment to education and research is often noted (playing down her communist credentials), and even the Wall Street Journal managed to come up with a story. Of more interest are the accounts on CCTV and, above all, the website that tells her own story, simply called ‘Isabel Crook’. With all this information available, I do not need to dwell on all the details.

Her witness of socialism in power is, for a foreigner, second to none. In Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a communist area of Hebei province, she and David witnessed the profound effects of land reform already underway. She saw first-hand millennia-long practices being dismantled and replaced with socialist approaches. As she observes: ‘The land reform was obviously going to change the whole future of China’s history, because it would get rid of the feudal system … it would put the farmer in power, rather than going on with the old way’. The result was a hugely influential book, written by her and David, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

And of course, there was the teaching. The new China would need people skilled in English, so they were asked to stay and teach. Over the years, their work would become one stream that fed into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Over dinner one evening, I mentioned to Isabel that I had been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Her eyes lit up.

‘I have had students from North Korea’, she said. ‘Ten of them, sent by the government to study English’.

‘How did they go?’ I said.

‘They were very good,’ she said. ‘Although one struggled. I believe in giving marks for actual performance, so his grades were not so good. As they boarded the bus after the course, this student was crying. “Why is he crying?” I asked one of the others. “He knows he will be reprimanded for not doing so well in the course and failing his country.” I wanted to stop the bus and hug him’.

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

‘During the Cultural Revolution, I was suspected of a being a spy. So I was put in prison for three years’.

‘Did it make you doubt the communist movement?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, she said. ‘My sons were on their own, but I knew they could manage’.

‘What did they do?’ I said.

‘They were teenagers’, she said. ‘And they knew how to take of themselves. One day, they realised their visas had run out, so they sent the youngest to the immigration office, hoping they would be deported. The woman behind the desk simply stamped the passports – another two years!’

We laughed.

‘Another time’, she said. ‘Before I was imprisoned but during the Cultural Revolution, one son was in hospital. I was on my way to visit him and the gardener out the front said, “Your son is fine”. In reply to my complete surprise, he said: “I’m the doctor. I am doing my duty as gardener now”’.

‘But what did you do in prison?’ I said.

‘I knew they had made a mistake and decided to make the most of it’.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘I asked for something to read’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The Selected Works of Mao Zedong’, she said. ‘I read the four volumes through many times. I even noted how many times laughter appears. Do you know how many?’

‘No’, I said.


We laughed, with Isabel assuring me she remains as ardent follower of Mao Zedong.

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A Journey Through Easter – After a Death

This journey is a little different from most – a journey from death to life, if I may call it that. Or rather, it is a voyage of meaning, turning around the unexpected ramifications of Easter, of all things, after a death.

Easter had often been a weary, worn and empty time of the year for me. With bodily memories of short nights, midnight and dawn services hard after one another, of an emptiness as to what one might say, I was always thankful I was no longer in ministry when Easter came around. And I was puzzled at the way a supposedly once-off event, the pivot of history, the high point of revelation and salvation, had to be repeated, every year, ad nauseam. It was as though the old pagan celebration of the dying and rising god, the one that Christ’s death and resurrection had supposedly condemned to the dustbin of history, had returned with a vengeance. Rather than lifting himself above such annual cycles, he had become one more name in the legion of resurrected gods.

But two events set me on the road from this dreary point of origin. One was a prolonged bout of atrial fibrillation, which eventually passed with the assistance of a mild electrical shock. Not immediately fatal, it had the potential to lead to blood clotting in the heart; should it form, parts of that clot may break away and happily journey to one’s leg, arm or brain. It also meant my heart was not pumping blood efficiently, especially with exercise. This second-by-second reminder of my own mortality opened up – quite unexpectedly – an appreciation of that strange narrative of suffering, death and new life.

I found myself drawn to a liturgy, directed by an older priest with an extraordinary, almost shaman-like, ability to sense one’s immediate need and direct his attention there. The church was from my Reformed heritage, but through Lent I was there, usually at the simple and brief evening prayer on a weekday. By Palm Sunday I was part of the flow, participating in the harrowing experience of Maundy Thursday, joining the vigil for a short while, quietly slipping in for the stark Good Friday service, attending a renewal of baptismal vows with a small crowd on Saturday evening, and then joining the vast celebration of new life on the Sunday morning. Pomp and ceremony it was, far more than the simple story warranted; hints of cloying piety were there at odd moments. But the drama resonated in a way it had not done earlier.

At that Easter service were my father and mother, enjoying a stimulation of all the senses that was absent at their own church. By the following Easter my father was dying from cancer. To experience the death of someone intimately close, with whom I had argued and struggled and whom I had loved for a lifetime, to see him fade as the cancer took hold, to share with him in ways that had never happened before, to see him take his last unconscious breath, to see the pulse stop, to hear the rattle of internal fluids, to dress his body already stiff from rigor mortis before the funeral directors arrived, is to absorb death into one’s own life.

As he lay dying, he asked me: ‘How old are you?’

‘Forty eight’, I said.

‘I was forty seven when my father died’.

Unlike me, he had not been present, day by day, at that time, not even afterwards, for his father had died in the night from a stroke (perhaps brought on by that hereditary fibrillation – who knows?) and my father could not afford the trip, half way around the world, to the Netherlands for the funeral. His quiet regret at not having seen his father one last time had stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The following Easter, after we buried him that August, touched me even more deeply. I was drawn down, out and then up with the richness of the Easter cycle at the cathedral. At the recollections of the last supper and the austere moments of Good Friday I felt much greater sense of what it means to die, to breath one’s last and pass on. Throughout the quiet morning prayer at the cathedral on the Saturday (with one or two gathered, quietly reciting the prayers) I thought of my father. And he was very much present at the morning blast of music, colour, eucharist and sermon of Easter Sunday.

In the midst of the celebration, I recalled his of faith and fear, his hobbling presence the two Easters before. He may have been staunch in his faith, holding to it through a life of ups and downs. For all his assertions that he knew where he was going, my father also realised, with some trepidation, that he did not quite know all there was to be known about the destination or indeed the journey there.

Only in China

Is it still possible to have a unique experience, one that you cannot have anywhere else? Or has the world become thoroughly homogenised? Sometimes it seems so. Wherever you go, it is the same experience, over and over again. A European city centre, a restored historical village, a hotel room, a museum, food, coffee, beer – in one place after another they seem eerily the same. Should tourism begin on Mars, it too would have the same experience.

I beg to differ. It is the unexpected moments that are unique, moments that can easily pass you by in the myriad events of everyday. To see them, you need a peripheral vision, a seeing out of the corner of your eye; or, as I prefer, a relaxing of the shoulders, a slowing of the breath and an easing of the mind so that you can catch them before they pass.

Mao’s Statue

We had been talking about a possible trip to Suzhou, a little up the road from Shanghai. She was keen to show me around the fabled town, with its canals and boats and cuisine. Indeed, beautiful girls come from Suzhou … or so goes one of the sayings.

As a neophyte to matters Chinese, I asked: ‘what time suits you best?’

‘How about Friday morning?’ She said.

‘Excellent’, I said. ‘Where shall we meet?’

‘I’ll meet you by Mao’s statue – the big white one at the front gates – at 9.00 am’. She said it as though it was the normal suggestion in the world.

Student party meeting

Over a simple lunch of long noodles, two students and I sat talking. Spring it was, after the first rains of spring in a cool Beijing. They had wanted to take me to a kosher dining hall, provided for the Chinese Muslim students. It had the reputation for good quality clean food. We had lined up to order our dishes and I tried to read the menu on the wall above. Some characters I could recognise, some not. They translated where necessary while we waited our turn. Soon enough, the dishes were ready, announced on the loudspeaker. We picked up our bowls, found some seats and slurped away.

The dapper student looked at his watch and made to move.

‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I need to go to a student party’.

‘A party’, I said, thinking it was one of the regular student parties that happened with extraordinary frequency. ‘At lunchtime?’

They laughed.

‘No’, he said. ‘It’s the student branch party meeting. I am the secretary’.

It hit me: ‘Are you a member of the student branch of the communist party?’ He had not struck me as a typical member, but then what is a typical party member?

He smiled. ‘Yes, and I am the secretary, so I need to be at the meeting’.

Young Pioneers

Intrigued, I began to ask students about party membership. At an afternoon gathering some weeks later, we discussed reasons for joining the party. Some said it was for a better job, others because a grandparent was a member and had influenced them deeply, and others because they felt they could contribute on their own small way to the collective good.

‘What about young pioneers?’ I asked.

‘We have that in the schools’, a young woman said. ‘It is a mark of honour to be invited to join the young pioneers. It may be for academic achievement or for sport or even for some service’.

‘Were any of you members?’ I asked.

Nearly all of them nodded.

‘Do you have young pioneers in your country?’ Said the young woman.

Of course, every country should have such an organisation.

Foot Binding

A slightly older student, of about 30, had finally realised her dream to come to Australia and spend a year of study here. She spent a good deal of the time travelling and a little less on her study.

In one of our many discussions, she said:

‘When I was six years old, my grandmother said to me that I should have my feet bound, just like her. I was really frightened and lay awake at night’.

‘She must have been born before the communist revolution’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But she was very traditional in her attitudes’.

I had thought that such a practice had been abolished with the communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Perhaps not in the minds of some.

She continued: ‘During the revolutionary war, women used to fight in the Red Army. They would have natural feet and cut their hair. When one of them was captured by the Guomindang nationalist forces, she would be shot immediately. They assumed that if she had natural feet, she was a communist. The practice of foot-binding goes back to the Qing emperors. Since they were Manchu nationality, they made the majority Han women bind their feet as a sign of subjection – or at least those of the upper class. It became a custom.’

‘Did your grandmother ever make moves to bind your feet?’ I asked.

‘No’, she said. ‘But it really frightened me, since children are supposed to show deep respect for grandparents’.

That’s Socialism

Another young woman and I were walking past a student dormitory, where washing hung in the windows.

‘How many students share a dormitory?’ I asked.

‘Six to eight for undergraduates’, she said. ‘Four for masters and two for doctoral students’.

‘Does anyone have a single room?’ I asked.

She laughed. ‘No, we all share’.

A little later we had eaten in a dining hall and were on our way out.

‘I usually eat there’, she said. ‘The food is cheap but freshly cooked’

‘Who else eats in a dining hall?’ I asked.

‘Everyone’, she said. ‘Students, professors, gardeners, maintenance workers …’.

She paused for a moment and said: ‘That may be socialism! I guess we have it in ways we do not realise’.

East-West – A Myth

East-West: this distinction is pervasive in many an Asian or indeed Eastern European country. You need not be there for too long to realise how pervasive it really is. My recent experience is from China, where I am based for up to four months each year. Here the distinction takes on a particular form, where ‘China’ stands in for whatever the ‘East’ is. Some examples:

Chinese food (Zhongcan) – Western food (Xican)

Chinese medicine (Zhongyi) – Western medicine (Xiyi)

Chinese medication (Zhongyao) – Western medication (Xiyao)

Chinese clothes (Zhongfu) – Western food (Xifu)

Chinese culture (Zhongguo wenhua) – Western culture (Xifang wenhua)

Chinese language (Zhongwen) – Western language (Xiwen)

Chinese style (Zhongshi) – Western style (Xishi)

The list goes on and on. More specifically the opposition ‘zhong-xi’ means ‘middle-west’, with China being the ‘middle’ and indeed embodying the ‘East’. The comparisons run through Chinese thought and perceptions of the world. However, ‘Western’ is a slippery term indeed. Try to pin it down and it excludes most of the world and refers to ‘Western’ Europe, but the next moment is means the whole world apart from China. It is clearly a northern hemisphere distinction, focused on the Eurasian land mass with its complex history of imperial struggles, massive migrations and shifting powers.

As a result, I refuse to use the terms. They obfuscate rather than illuminate. One solution is to use other terms, such as ‘Chinese’ (zhongran) and ‘foreign’ (wairan), but this risks the ‘inside-outside’ binary. Another solution is to specify exactly what the reference means, by referring to the specific place in question. But this risks identifying something as characteristically French, or Russian, or Korean or indeed Chinese.

Perhaps it is better to analyse the function of the terms ‘West’ and ‘China’. I suspect that ‘West’ really functions as a mythical category. I use the term ‘myth’ quite deliberately. Due to the complex history of the term, it refers simultaneously to a fiction and a deeper truth, to a construct with little basis in reality and to a form of language that seeks to locate a truth that cannot be expressed in the usual referential terms. The various myths of the world’s origins comprise one example, the myths of an ideal future world another.

The fiction is that the ‘West’ as conceived in such a binary opposition simply does not exist. This ‘West’ moves about so adroitly, changes its meaning and shape so effortlessly, that it will never be found. So what is the deeper truth?

I suggest that says much more about China (on indeed any other place that likes to use the ‘East-West’ dichotomy). From the eighteenth century, it became clear that China was losing for a time its millennia-long status as the world’s leading power. As it did so, the obsession with the ‘West’ began in earnest. Again and again, comparisons were made between ‘China’ and the ‘West’, with people moving between one category and the other. Sometimes they rejected one in favour of the other, at others they sought a mediation between them. But all the time, the search was to find what ‘China’ really means. It was and continues to be a search for self-definition by creating a mythical other that is everything ‘China’ is not.

Indeed, the great Chinese story, Journey to the West, insightfully captures this double sense of a mythical ‘West’. The Buddhist monk from the Tang dynasty court and his three comrades make an immensely long journey to the ‘West’ – in this case India! – to find copies of the Buddhist Scriptures. But when they arrive, they find that the ‘West’ in question is nothing like what they imagined. The Scriptures they are given are blank pieces of paper on which nothing is written. It turns out that the journey itself is the real discovery, for it is a parable of self-enlightenment.

One Day in Argentina

One day can make all the difference.

Until then, the fabled Buenos Aires had not drawn me in: the steaks, wines, football and tango everywhere on offer were not my thing. I drifted, sat about my room, attended a conference. Soon enough I recalled a Chinese saying: the monkeys on both banks are still gibbering (Liang an yuan sheng ti bu zhu). I left the conference monkeys early and began to think of home.

But I had one day remaining. Three moments defined it.

The Walk

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I took a guided tour. A guided tour? Yes, I actually joined one. To be avoided, I had always thought. I prefer to make my own way around a place, finding points that interest me. But now I braved exactly such a tour.

I had a blast. Our group was from Central and South America, with a few Spanish-speaking Germans and me. All were young (apart from me), for we were all dwelling in one of my favourite haunts, a youth hostel. Our guide addressed us in Spanish, and then repeated what he had said to me in English as we walked along to the next point.

He thoroughly enjoyed himself as we explored all manner of topics. He was studying singing through an alternative method with a private tutor. His family had been moderate landowners, but had sold it all in the financial crash of the early 1990s. Our talk turned to politics and he confessed to being a Peronist, despite his family’s history. The setting enhanced the conversation, for we were in the old wealthy part of town. He relished telling stories of petty quarrels between the landowning families that had built the ostentatious ‘palaces’ (on the models of Paris and London). One had funded a lavish church, while another had built a tall building to block its view. Neighbours would not speak to another, for old landed wealth viewed the nouveau riche as upstarts. Yet these were nothing compared to the violent repressions of even mildly left-wing groups that litter Argentine history.

The Recoleta Mausoleum captured the contradictions of our talk and setting. In the midst of this city of the dead, where the old ruling class desperately seeks immortality through monumental tombs, lies the final resting place of Eva Perón (or Evita). This champion of women and the poor remains, we were told, the most important person in Argentinian history. Dying of cancer at 33, the fate of her body acted as a barometer of Argentinian politics. As the Perónists and old ruling class struggled with each other via elections, military dictatorships and regular violence, her body was embalmed, kidnapped, recovered, buried and exhumed, finally to be laid to rest among those whom she had challenged for her short life.

The Meal

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After the tour, I wondered the streets on my own. A restaurant beckoned and I responded. Serendipitously, I was seated in a corner out on the footpath, where I could watch people passing, entering the restaurant, or gathering around a disabled busker with a stunning voice.

A father and daughter came in to eat, he with a love of books and she with a love of her smart phone. An old woman sat nearby, enjoying the mix of solitude and companionship the restaurant provided. A burly man came merely for a coffee and a serious chat with the cook. Out on the street, I was struck not so much by the myriad variations in facial hair but by the way everyone sought to enhance the impression of their behinds. Argentina really is the land of the big, round buttock – and that is merely the men.

One fascination was eventually replaced by another: my meal. It was simply the best risotto I have even eaten. Mushrooms spilled out of rice perfectly cooked. This was no soggy mess that tried to pass itself off as risotto, but rice saturated in the juices of mushrooms, which still had a slight crunch to them. So filling was this lunch that I needed no dinner.

The Talk

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On our guided tour had been a stunningly beautiful woman, Mariana. I noticed a young Mexican man try to hit on her, only for him to be thoroughly disappointed and somewhat annoyed when her mother inserted herself between the two. Amused, I had talked briefly with mother and daughter at the end, only to wish them well on their further exploration of town.

Later and back at the hostel I was absorbed in my own reading when who should slip into the seat beside me but Mariana. She began to read as well. Our Mexican friend arrived at the same time, circled the room a few times and sat in a corner, scowling. Soon enough, Marianna and I were engaged in conversation, our books forgotten. She confessed to being shy, although I did ponder how she defined the word.

She spoke of Argentina, her home town Corrientes in the north-east on the Paraná River, her progressive politics (‘we are an ordinary family, how can it be otherwise?), her family of parents as teachers and four brothers, her studies of law and now of English, her personal life and dreams, her love of being on her own and travel, and her desire to spend time abroad in an English speaking country.

She clearly wanted to continue, so I asked her for a drink in the bar downstairs. She went to tell her mother, who was resting, and we continued our conversation as a band was warming up. I asked about nightlife and eating habits, learning that one usually eats close to midnight and parties on until 8.00 am in the morning. Since I had a plane to catch at about that time, I realised that the Argentinian way of preparing for departure would be simply to stay up all night. ‘But what about work?’ I asked. ‘Oh, if we have to work’, she said, ‘we sleep for a couple of hours and then the day begins’.

As our faces drew closer together, mainly to be heard through the noise, her mother arrived. Her brief protective look slipped away when I stood up and greeted her warmly. Now Marianna was able to act as translator, with her mother encouraging her to do so. But then she began to mix up her translations, speaking to me in Spanish and her mother in English. ‘I am a disaster’, she said, laughing.

From time to time, I could not help wondering: why speak with me rather than the young Mexican who was obviously keen, perhaps too keen? Was it my aura of fecundity, in light of numerous offspring and their respective offspring? Hardly, since my youngest daughter was her age.

I suspect it had a little to do with the fact that I was a safe option precisely because I am a grandfather. And it had much to do with the opportunity to practice English, for too few opportunities are available for such an experience in Corrientes. Indeed, we spoke much about the trials of learning languages. The theoretical knowledge of grammar and syntax may be fine, but conversation is another matter entirely. For those structures to become natural, one needs a constant conversational partner.

But my body clock was not on Argentinian time. I needed some sleep at least before the long haul home so could not continue forever. Reluctantly I farewelled both mother a daughter, with an extra hug for her mother.

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New Tracks, Old Tracks

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Journeying on a restored railway line for the first time – what is it like? A new line may have its own thrill, an old familiar line another. But a restored line that is both familiar and new?

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Many years ago I had lived and worked in the country town of Armidale. Often, I walked past the grand railway station, which forlornly awaited trains that never came along disused and dilapidated tracks. Often, I would cross the line itself, on foot or on bicycle, pausing and looking up and down the tracks as though a train might be coming. Often, I travelled by bus to Tamworth, more than 100 kilometres to south, in order to catch the train there. On our way, we would follow the unused railway line, with its occasional station and signalman’s cottage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought at the time, if this line was restored? All of the hard work had been done almost a century ago: easements, rail-beds, cuttings, tunnels and the route itself. Restoring the line would merely require some tracks, signals and repaired bridges – and political will.

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And then it happened: someone with political will decided to restore the line. Work began while I was living in Armidale, but it proceeded with its usual caution. Days, weeks, months passed as the line slowly found a new life. Eventually, the day came when a train once again arrived at Armidale station … but I was about to leave town, seeking my fortune elsewhere. So I never had the opportunity to catch that train.

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For more than two decades it has been on my mind – a desire to take the train to my former home. Towards the end of a hot summer, my chance came: a few days cleared and I jumped at the opportunity. My simple bag packed, I stood on the platform at my local railway station, awaiting the grand train to the northwest – all six carriages of the ‘Northern Explorer’.

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The initial part of the journal was familiar enough, winding up the Hunter Valley through vineyards, horse studs, mines and farms. We chugged over the Liverpool Range and into the Goonoo Goonoo Plains, before pausing at Werris Creek – a true railway town – to split the train. Two carriages went west to Moree and four turned northwards. Now the real pleasure of the journey began, for I was travelling on the restored tracks.

A curious experience it was. I have travelled old lines aplenty, following familiar paths, well-known habits – so much so that some are able to evoke the memories and even the feel of moments in my life decades ago. From time to time I have also journeyed on freshly laid tracks, enjoying the novelty of the experience, testing myself, before they too became habitual and were drawn into the network of the familiar.

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But the run from Tamworth to Armidale was different in unexpected ways. I knew this territory from decades past. Much of the line, the lie of the land, the occasional stops were all part of a former fabric of life. Yet to travel this way, along the railway line itself, was a new experience. I had never before seen the cuttings and twists and tunnels of the Moonbi Hills. I had not stopped at Bendemeer or Walcha Road or Uralla by train before. And I had never in my life disembarked onto the railway platform at Armidale.

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At the same time, it was an old, old line. Many decades ago trains full of people had travelled this line. When roads were rougher and cars slower and fewer, the railway line was the vital link – for people and food and produce. After being closed, it had lain idle for many a long year before being restored in a different era. I felt as though it was simultaneously a very new experience, a new venture, and yet an old one, which I knew intimately. Perhaps I can put it this way: I was discovering a way of journeying, touching other lives that felt both strange and familiar.

At some points, especially on the climb up to the New England Plateau, we travelled at the speeds of older trains – 15 or perhaps 20 kilometres an hour. The engine strained, the curves were tight, the gradient steep. Once on the plateau, we sped along in a way that older trains might have only imagined. The rolling plateau was still full of trees, perhaps more now that farmers had understood the benefits of bush on their land (instead of seeing it as a curse). The villages and towns seemed largely the same, for in country towns you do not have the sped-up process of destruction and building so characteristic of cities.

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I have to confess that I remained glued to the window, relishing each point passed, each turn of the train, each announcement of a station and the leap onto the platform to stretch my legs. But too soon did it arrive in Armidale, for the run from Tamworth is barely over 100 kilometres. At Armidale, the line stops and the train itself is parked into a secure bay to rest before the return journey the next day.

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Long did I look further up the line, where the tracks remain in a state of disrepair. The railway line once continued through the rest of the plateau, making its way eventually to Brisbane via the overland route. I began to anticipate that the remainder of the line would one day be restored, as no doubt it will when people realise the need to do so. I hope it happens in my lifetime, for I will take that train as soon as it begins that new journey over old tracks.

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The Molten Bitumen Ride

At 38 degrees Celsius, bitumen begins to melt. Shiny black bubbles, even long strips of molten bitumen appear. It sticks to my tyres; flecks fly onto the frame of my bicycle. The overheated bitumen sucks my tyres and slows their roll. Pedalling becomes more tiresome, or at least I imagine it so.

So it was for most of the 450 kilometres from an old home of many years ago to my new one, from Armidale to the northwest to Newcastle bythe coast. I had wanted to do this ride for so long, but at last my chance came – a few days free in the late summer of 2014-2015.I packed the bicycle into a box and caught the train – really a rail motor – to Armidale.2015 February 015 (320x240)

The rail line had been restored just as I was aboutto leave the place so many years ago, but I had never had the opportunity to travel along the old tracks made anew. I was mesmerised by the familiarity of the new on old, seeing the lie of a land I had once known well from a new perspective.

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Caravan of Dogs

In Armidale, it was not yet hot, at least not hot enough to melt bitumen. The town sits 1,000 metres above sea level, so while the sun can burn you quickly in summer, days are mild and nights fresh. I found myself in a camp ground by Dumaresq Creek – named after some long-forgotten Frenchman who happened find himself in these parts, far from home. Or rather, I found myself in a camp ground full of dogs and their extraordinary owners. Groomed, puffed, buffed and pampered, the dogs had their own caravans, tables and chairs and cutlery sets. Their owners lived in the dog kennels. They continued to arrive as I desperately searched for a campsite, away from the yelping, growling and barking – and that was just the owners. I thought I had found such a campsite, by a pond on some lovely grass past a sign that said, ‘no camping’. But soon enough the dogs came by one after another, walking their owners in the evening before putting them to bed.

I woke to a veritable dog heaven, as combs and sprays and powder prepared the dogs for their day on show. But it was not heaven for me, so broke camp early and hit the road. On my way out of town, up the long hill to the south, my muscles slowly became accustomed once again to being on a bicycle. And the bodily memories flooded my senses. Here was the pre-school my older daughter first attended and began learning to read; here was the primary school my two boys attended for a couple of years; here was the park where we played baseball and some cricket; here was the running track I traced out on a daily basis, as my fix after giving up smoking; here was the church we attended on a weekly basis; and here was the weatherboard house where we lived, much the same except for two grand pine trees in the front yard. I had forgotten about the trees, which I had bought at a school fete more than two decades ago. Slow growers, I was told, but long-lived. They stunned me, a visible sign of my former presence here. They will be there for many decades to come.

Moonbi Chook to Tamworth

The day passed, at a gentle pace and with the wind on my back, through the undulating New England plateau. At the 80 kilometre mark, I was sorely tempted to stop by the creek at Bendemeer. A simple camping area surrounded the only establishment in the village, which was simultaneously shop, post office, petrol station, library, pub, medical surgery and international research station. But I had time on my hands, so with a long look back I pointed my front wheel towards Tamworth, almost 40 more kilometres down the road. ‘Down’ was the operative word, for soon enough I hit the Moonbi ‘Hills’.

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In the direction I was headed, the near-vertical drop of the ‘hills’ requires emergency stopping beds for out-of-control trucks, buses and bicycles. I dared not look at the speedometer on my handle-bars, for I was sure that I was breaking the speed limit.

Suddenly Moonbi was upon me. Moonbi! Here is the famous ‘Moonbi Chook’, I recalled at the last minute. I dragged on the brakes and pulled up, for I had to see whether the chook was still on its perch. Sure enough, at the only park in town, the chook stands as it has always done. A massive angular construction rearing into the sky, it attempts to rival the big peach, the big prawn or even the big mosquito in northern NSW. I sat beneath its shade for a while, wary of a possible giant egg dropping out its rear end. Someone had given the Moonbi Chook a new coat of paint, so it could survey its demesne over the slopes of Moonbi. And that demesne incorporated thousands upon thousands of chickens, who vastly outnumbered the human beings hereabouts.

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Tamworth at last, town of the Country Music Festival, with the massive golden guitar (no rival for the Moonbi Chook!), guitar-shaped swimming pools, guitar-shaped houses. Hell, even the town is designed in a guitar shape, around which the hoons in their machines roar around endlessly. For some reason, I skipped the strumming glories of Tamworth, keen instead on a shower, food and a long sleep.

Sticky Tyres to Murrurundi

By next morning, the heat of the day was upon me early. Soon enough it would top 42 degrees, and the ride out of Tamworth through the Goonoo Goonoo Plains was marked by the regular ‘click, click, click’ of popping globules of molten bitumen. As if the energy-sapping heat was not enough, I met two gut-busting mountain ranges. They divide the Goonoo Goonoo Plains from the Liverpool Plains and the latter from the Hunter Valley. This was not supposed to be, I thought. The ride was meant to be a gentle downhill affair, all the way from Armidale to Newcastle. Instead, I found myself in granny gear for a final ten kilometre climb, tyres dragging in the molten bitumen.

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Murrurundi was a blessed relief, especially after the drop out of the range into town. Pausing at the pub to gain my bearings, I watched warily a beaten up car, with two men inside smoking and drinking beers. More hoons, I thought, with time on their hands. The doors opened and they stepped out, only to reveal a couple of old men, somewhere in their seventies. Once a hoon, always a hoon.

The last time I had stopped for a night in Murrurundi, I was 16, on one of my last camping trips with my parents, brothers and sister. Then we had camped by the showground, fleeing cyclonic weather. My father had found a tick on his head, on the first occasion of removing his hat for over four weeks. While he went in search of a doctor to remove the tick, we packed the car with all the camping gear – a glorious feeing, since he always reserved the right to pack everything on his own, since only he knew the best way.

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These days, camping was no longer allowed at the showground, so I found the only camping area in town. Now I really felt in touch with another dimension of life. My only concerns were a good spot for the tent, cleaning the bicycle, a shower to clean off the sweat of the day, and some food. But at the campers kitchen, I happened upon the evening ‘Happy Hour’. At least four campers seemed to be happy on this occasion. Grey nomads: they drank beers, talked of their ailments (from gout to heart disease), of places visited, of vans and prices and places they might visit on their endless desire to make the most of the few years they had left.

Molten Road to a Singleton Drama

The next day was the hottest I have ever ridden: 45 degrees at the peak. Heat shimmered from the road, sweat dried the moment it appeared, and I arrived completely busted. In a slightly dazed state, I had ridden 120 kilometres from Murrurundi to Singleton. I have a curious knack of arriving in Singleton on a bicycle in a busted state. The town seems to have that strange effect on me.

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But the drama that unfolded at the caravan park more than compensated. As I made my way lustily through two family-sized pizzas, the bikie next door told me his life story. Smoke in one hand and beer in another, he was watering his mother’s garden. He had passed me on the road into town and thought I was a complete idiot at the time for being out on such a day. His mother was a permanent at the park. She clearly wore the toughness of life, aware of decisions made at crucial junctures, now living alone, but with a son who did his best to help. He found that such help also entailed the imbibing of copious amounts of both legal and illegal substances, so that by late evening he was in a state of loving the universe.

Meanwhile, at the campers’ kitchen, the real drama was unfolding. A young girl of 14 had disappeared with a man in his twenties. She had been under the care of her grandparents, who lived at the park. Soon, the girl’s angry and concerned mother appeared, having just finished her nursing shift. Phones rang, the man’s mother appeared, more phones rang. Eventually, the girl returned, only to be roundly told off by her mother and grounded for a few weeks. The young man was nowhere to be seen, although his voluminous mother did her best to apologise. The possibility of another teenage pregnancy was clearly on everyone’s minds.

I and the grandfather in his stained white singlet talked politics. Instinctually Labor, he could not stand the current conservative government and sincerely hoped the prime minister’s days were numbered – ‘before he ruins the country!’ The inebriated bikie vehemently agreed, so we stood for a while cursing the rich ruling class who had no concern for the everyday lives of people who do it tough. I was inspired: there it was, the innate Left of the lower working class. Yet the party that has their allegiance shows little enough attention to their concerns.

Headwind Home

By morning I realised that I should have taken a rest day. Instead, I broke camp and mounted the bike for one more day. I will take it easy, I thought, since it will be a short day’s ride. In this case, ‘short’ meant 97 kilometres. As for taking it easy … it was at least cooler, but that was only because I had a gale-force headwind. But much of the ride was along a new section of expressway. Such types of road may seem like the last type of ride a bicycle tourer might choose. Far better, is it not, to find lonely country roads, single lanes meandering through farms and national parks? But an expressway seems to draw me, with its wide shoulder, gentle gradients and rest areas where I can switch off and think.

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This piece of road intrigued me more than most. I cursed the sheer expense, running into the billions. I thought of many better projects upon which the government money might be spent. Yet I was intrigued by the state-of-the-art engineering and especially by the way the environment around the expressway actually seemed to be improved. Water courses had been cleaned and treated with natural features to ensure their health. Animal crossings abounded, both under the road and over it. Regular rope lattices were strung across the expressway to enable possums to cross. And the whole road had been developed and planned with extensive consultation with the local Awabakal people. Song lines – ancient maps – were evoked, features named for important local animals, thousands of artefacts found and given to the people, and the abundant sacred sites in the nearby hills had been carefully noted and skirted.

The ride remained with me for days afterwards. My body reminded me of the pain and thrill at being taken to the edge of my endurance. But my mind remained longer on the ride, pondering the innate Left of the lower working class and Marx’s insight that human beings have always been part of and engaged with nature and land in the process of labour.

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