Professor Graham Seal’s Great Australian Places is a collection of essays grouped according to theme: Pioneering Places, Dangerous Places, Sacred Places, Unsettling Places, Wild Places, Imagined Places and Our Place.
This allows the reader to enjoy the stories according to mood; this is a volume that can be devoured in one sitting or relegated to the bedside table or wherever it is best placed for casual access. The latter would have been facilitated by a good index.
Seal is an acknowledged expert on Australian cultural history, so you can have confidence that the stories he tells have been well researched. (He also includes notes indicating his sources.) But this book is not aimed at academics. He deploys a direct matter-of-fact style that makes his tales eminently readable.
Each section is preceded by an apposite black and white photograph. But in a book about places, I found myself longing for a host of colourful illustrations to complement the word pictures. These days, that is technically feasible without making the book too expensive.
Some of the essays are confined to the recounting of facts, some are opinion pieces, and some, like ‘She’s a Beauty!’, explore a singular Australian phenomenon:
‘Despite its place in our affections, historians point out that the Holden was never really an “Australian” car, owned as it was by an American company, and at various times, largely assembled rather than made here. But Australians took Holden cars to their hearts and wallets . . . The Holden Kingswood, Monaro, Commodore and other classic models are still fondly remembered by many.’
In the Dangerous Places section, Seal reminds us of the 1950s atomic blasts that killed so many First Nations people at Maralinga. He reminds us that ‘Even today, a one-kilometre circle of sterility means no plants can grow around ground zero . . . No wonder the Maralinga Tjarutja call it “Mama Pulka”, or “big evil”.’
Under Sacred Places, Murray Island – where Eddie Mabo came from – gets a guernsey. But the essays are not solely confined to First Nations history. They cover explorers, asbestos mining and imaginary places like CJ Denis’s Cuppacumalonga Hill and Gordon Parsons’s ‘Pub with no Beer’. And of course, no book about great Australian places would be complete without mention of the big galah, big banana, big chook, big boxing crocodile and so on.
Seal is an accomplished storyteller – a raconteur who does not hesitate to colour his presentation with his personal opinion – right-wing readers beware. But the value of a book like this goes beyond providing the pleasure of reading good stories. It reminds the reader of important historic events and even knowledgeable well-read people may discover things about places that they did not know or find new ways to look at them.
Great Australian Places, Graham Seal
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Publication date: 29 November 2022