Returning to St Alban’s

Would this be my last time here?

This question played on my mind as we drove through the dark of a late night to a place that has drawn me for many a long year. Three or four former lives came back to me, reminding me that things change, don’t they?

I speak of St Albans, at the edge of the Yengo Wilderness, between Sydney and Newcastle. Its core is the Settlers Arms – an inn originally built in 1836 for travellers on the Great North Road to Newcastle. I am still such a traveller, seeking out the road yet again to stop for a while in a place that has had a curious pull on me.

A river valley, rugged and densely bushed mountains, a village of a dozen houses, a common and free camping area by the river, a sandstone inn built in a style long ago abandoned in light of Australian conditions …

Such a list does not capture the pull the place had had on me, the beckoning curve of a path that opens out to an ancient spreading tree or two, which invite you to sit and reflect, or the community of locals in for a drink and a smoke after the tourists have gone, or the smallest bar in the world, a window really, where one person at a time can order a drink, or the mists of the morning, when the towering cone-shaped crown of the rare Deane’s Gum is lost in the fog while the birds noisily shake off the drops of the morning, or the memories of a lifetime the place invokes, or the wilderness all about that draws me in, the chance to sense a way of being that is slower and quieter, along ancient Aboriginal paths. …

On this late evening, we – my partner and I – had arrived after a harrowing summer. St Albans, at the Settlers Arms, was a respite, a place where there is no phone coverage, where we could be free from the world and its demands (our preferred mode of being).

Much may have changed in my life to this point, but St Albans seemed to have remained the same. In its very continuity, it has been able to map the phases of that life.

The quietness of the place initially had much greater appeal during times of turmoil and frenetic demands. I recall stumbling across it in the early 1990s, a detour taken along a dirt road while exploring wilderness camping with young children. Through that decade I had a dreadful job, the children grew and a relationship broke down. At first we would all go, camping up the road at a quiet spot (Mogo), just by the Great North Road – the slave road from the 1830s, built by convicts. My parents seized the opportunity to come along, my father still fit enough to camp, growing close to my children over those years. But as the two boys became teenagers, they preferred to do other things, and as their mother increasingly preferred not to camp, I took the two girls, still with my parents coming along. Once, in 1998 I think, we stopped at St Albans on the way through to the camping spot and my youngest ate the ‘best mashed potato’ she had ever had. Mention St Albans today and she will say the same thing.

St Albans was the point where many different paths collided at the end of the decade. We tried to repair a relationship with a romantic weekend at the Settlers Arms in those last years, hoping to do it yearly, but it happened only once. I met another woman there later, who would bring a glimmer of hope and then much turmoil and pain.

And I indulged in my preferred mode of travel to get there too – a bicycle. At times with one or two companions, we would pedal the 100 km or so to get there from western Sydney, drink, eat up and then pedal home. On the last event of that life, in the first year of the new millennium, it was just me and a close friend, following the river on a different route. At the time it seemed like a farewell of sorts. We camped by the river out the front of the pub, drank many dark ales, I smoked a few cigars (for I had taken up smoking in the mess of my life) and we talked late into the night.

But after a few years – the ‘lost years’ – I returned, first in tragic circumstances and then to feel the old pull.

On a fateful winter’s night in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, my second son almost died in a house fire as I camped out the front of the Settlers Arms during a long-anticipated ride along the Great North Road. My world felt out of kilter that night and I was spooked by the place for a little while – but that occult sense draws one in as well.

Yet a couple of years later I would return with a woman whom I wished I had met in my youth, a woman from across the seas and halfway around the world. She at first fell in love with the place, relished the beer under the ancient tree, the sandstone inn, the low, smoke-stained ceilings, the long deep rest in a warm bed. We would return again, I on my bicycle to the camping spot and we with her parents to stay at the inn in the last year of that decade.

Some years passed without a visit, as my life – with the only one who really had become my soul-mate – took on many new dimensions.

But one Saturday during winter, my second son phoned me to say – in his characteristic nonchalant way – that he was getting married. This was the son who had entered his terrible twos and left them at about 25. At last, he had met a down-to-earth woman who knew when he was trying to charm. They grew closer together, but surprised everyone with the announcement.

And they wanted to get married in St Albans. Or rather, they wished to do so in the old ruins of St Joseph’s church, a few kilometres out of the village. I had ridden past the ruins many times, noting the broken-down walls, vegetation growing as it will and the missing roof. Of late, someone had stabilised the ruins, cleared the vegetation and added a roof that highlighted the ruins. The church was converted into a function centre, with kitchen facilities, seating and accommodation upstairs. My son and his fiancée had asked me to officiate at the wedding, recalling a life of many years ago when I undertook such tasks.

So I returned to St Albans, still with my soul-mate from across the seas. As we wound our way along the dark road, I became – momentarily – acutely aware of the years that had passed. Memories came flooding back. Many lives collided with one another. The wedding itself would happen soon enough, with its expectations and duties – which I would perform with deep appreciation. Given our complex history, my son and I had drawn very close and the feeling ran very deep.

Yet St Albans had truly remained the same. In the past, it beckoned to deeper continuities, to passions deeply held and commitments one is reluctant to relinquish. As we talked late into the night, sharing in a way that is rarely possible with another human being, we realised how much we had changed, how much we had seen of the world, how other places beckoned and how our commitments had changed.

Perhaps we will return to this place, but more likely not.


Throwing Out My Library

In 1931, Walter Benjamin penned his piece called ‘Unpacking My Library’. It is a piece cherished by bibliophiles throughout the world. You know the ones: they collect whatever books they happen to find, whether outrageously expensive or found in a dump. It matters little what the books concern, for it is the nature of the book itself that is the object of desire, if not fetishism. Benjamin himself had a fetish for antiquarian books, first editions that he would caress and peruse before placing them on a makeshift shelf in what whatever makeshift lodgings he found himself.


Once I too was such a bibliophile. I had books I purchased for a few cents from the library of the high school I attended in the 1970s – by Joseph Conrad or Joyce Cary. I had books I faithfully gathered from a second-hand bookshop in Sydney during the 1990s, on a weekly ride on my bicycle. My panniers would be empty on arrival, overflowing on departure. Later, I scoured the discount shelves as a poor student at international gatherings, seeking a good deal and then hugging the books all the way home. And in my itinerant life, I devoted much energy and time to carting such books from one place to another, packing and unpacking them each time. As a passer-by observed when I was engaged in such a transfer some years ago, the history of my life was displayed in such books.


But what does it mean when I came to throw out my library, or at least substantial portions of it?

In the past, I had made vain efforts to trim my books, but after hours of perusal I could find only one or two that had to go – strange acquisitions, gifts, or simply bad books. But on a particular day, it struck me: I will never read many of these books ever again. The thought of leaving my children to sort through thousands of books on my death made me realise how unpalatable such a prospect would be for any of them.


Here were books that seemed extremely important at the time, but whose relevance had swiftly disappeared. Their shelf-life – quite literally – was ephemeral, to be forgotten by history. And upon perusing them again, I realised they were not as good as I thought they were at the time of acquisition. Here was a collection by an author for a chapter of a book I was writing at the time. But upon completing the chapter, I already knew that I was not so taken with the author and would not return to their works. Here was a whole sub-discipline with which I had finished working. I would not read most of the texts again, apart from one or two of greater importance. Here was a whole series of useless books I had to read for another study (on Lenin and Stalin, for instance) – books I read then for the sake of knowing a field, but books that were of not much use in any substantial way even then. And here were the odd books, bought on a whim: on gardening in Europe, on veteran and vintage cars, on Australian poetry, or on non-passerine birds. I had hung onto them to recall the moment they drew me, but they now seemed to be clogging my shelves.

So I began. One or two books soon became a pile. A pile soon became many piles. Shelves were emptied, boxes filled for carting away. Once you begin, you realise how many are simply not worth keeping. Where to take them all? The local second-hand bookshop would quail at thousands of books suddenly dumped on their doorstep. A church book sale? A charity sale? Gifts to students? All of these and more became clearing houses for my library.

At the same time, it was difficult to do so. I felt often that I was tearing out a part of my own history, my own identity. Had not these books defined who I was then, who I had become today? Yet, it was also deeply cathartic. I recalled a moment many years ago, when I was in the process of divesting myself of a phase of life and work. One evening, I stood outside by the garbage bins, having wheeled them out onto the street for collection. On the spur of the moment, I stripped down and threw all of the old clothes I was wearing into the bin. It was cleansing and liberating, for I had cast off of my skin, my old self.

Or, to change the metaphor, it signalled a change of horses, one that I had already made and was now enacting. So also with the books.