This is Kate De Goldi’s introduction to the reissue of Sydney Bridge Upside Down, published in the Listener originally as an extract in January 2010.
‘New Zealand literature began in 1882 with the introduction of refrigerated shipping.” This was the inimitable opening line of the New Zealand literature course offered at the University of Canterbury in 1981. It was delivered by Patrick Evans, whose undergrad fame preceded him, and whose jokes were so good people actually wrote them down in lectures. Evans’ thesis, as it unfolded, was mesmerising – and deeply unsettling. Born out of discussion with Peter Simpson, developed through his lectures and burnished in several provocative essays published in the late 70s and early 80s, it went something like this:
Refrigerated shipping – the vehicle for the frozen meat trade – entrenched the basis of the nascent New Zealand economy: the farming and slaughter of animals. The consequent despoilation and industrialisation of the landscape, and the transformation of the New Zealand colonist into “a systematic and calculating” butcher, described the progress of the “New Zealand dream” from an imagined South Pacific Eden (a “better Britain”) to a fallen society with blood on its collective hands. New Zealand became not the pastoral paradise envisioned by British utopians, but a society in which an industrialised violence was merely the sanctioned version of other widespread malignancies. In short, we passed from innocence to a decidedly ugly experience.
New Zealand literature, Evans argued, oscillated between work that danced around the “truth” of this national mythology and work that confronted it in various compelling ways. Using short fiction and novels from the mid-19th century through to the late 1960s, he laid out the evidence for a “slaughterhouse fiction”: the farmer in Edith Searle Grossmann’s The Heart of the Bush confessing to his wife that he is not only a sheep slaughterer, but also the killer of their beloved childhood dog; Pat, the servant, in Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude, beheading a duck for dinner in front of the Burnell children (“Even Isabel leapt about crying: ‘The blood! The blood!’”); the very title of Jean Devanny’s The Butcher Shop; the “severed heads, human incineration, necrophilia, drowning, car crashes” of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s fictional world … and much, much more.?
It was chilling stuff and somehow, in 1981, the culture around us seemed to be disposing itself in ways that underscored everything Evans was pointing out. The Springbok Tour (always spoken of in upper case) was under way and the violent clashes between protesters, police and tour supporters revealed the fault-lines just below our country’s apparently harmonious surface. Significantly, those lines ran between town and country. The laagers of farm vehicles providing barriers against protesters at provincial games were one of the more potent symbols of a country at war with itself.
I was 21 that year, newly politicised, idealistic, eager to anatomise our cultural tics and hypocrisies, to debate the national stories we comforted ourselves with (land of plenty, racial harmony, egalitarianism, social radicalism, shared visions, etc). Evans’ alternative cultural narrative seemed like nothing so much as an eerie annotation to the ugly community upheavals we were all witnessing.
Reared as I had been on British and American literature (children’s and adult), this immersion in New Zealand fiction and the invitation to assess it on Evans’ terms, was nothing short of a cultural awakening. Book after book that year galvanised and disconcerted me. Our damaged relationship with the landscape, our repressive puritanism, the casual violence of family relationships, the inarticulate gropings of romance Kiwi-style, the sweat and tedium of work, and, so often, a watching child – a child doubly burdened by preternatural insight and fatal misunderstanding of the behaviour and events unfolding around him or her.
These themes, and the fictional worlds that buttressed them, blew open my reading habits and preconceptions; they certainly marked a crucial step in my own progress to becoming a writer.
The book that contained all the foregoing, and some other, haunting quality, the book that really knocked me sideways, was David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down.
There are many ways to describe Sydney Bridge (in our house, the words “sydney bridge” are always the book, not the splendid piece of Australian engineering): a coming-of-age story, gothic anti-romance, ruined-pastoral thriller, family tragedy. It has been variously assessed as proletarian fiction, young adult fiction and post-provincial fiction. It is all those things, of course, and is also the pre-eminent example of slaughterhouse fiction – an abandoned meat-works is both the central symbol of the novel and the site of the story’s most troubling events.
For me, the most piquant description of the book was Evans’ own. Sydney Bridge Upside Down, he said when introducing it to us, is the great, and unread, New Zealand novel. Merely picking up the book to read it, then, was instant admission to a select literary community. Actually, reading it was a beautiful and sinister and unforgettable experience.
Ironically, my first reading was in a sheep-shearers’ hut on a Canterbury high-country sheep station. It was waning autumn and the day after a wedding. I lay in a hard, cold bed most of that day, incapable of leaving the story, which – in the way of these things – was hung about with the emotional and sensory circumstance of the reading. So, though the story is set “up the coast that summer” (almost certainly Hick’s Bay, on the east coast of the North Island) and in the mid-1960s, it somehow became shot through with the melancholy colours and light of late April, the mountain air and the queasiness of the morning-after.
Nearly 30 years later, the novel’s opening is still one of the most entrancing I’ve ever read:
There was an old man who lived on the edge of the world and he had a horse called Sydney Bridge Upside Down. He was a scar-faced old man and his horse was a slow-moving bag of bones, and I start with this man and his horse because they were there for all the terrible happenings up the coast that summer, always somewhere around.
The DNA for the novel is so artfully laid down in that passage: the mythic setting (“up the coast”); the faintly threatening old man and his horse, suggestive of Quixotic notions and old conflicts; intimations of watchfulness, of secrets and decline. And there is the sing-song voice of the storyteller, evoking a fairy tale ambience, alerting us to an “other” world and the possibility that nothing is quite as it seems.
It seems, on the surface, that Harry, his brother Cal, and his dad, are simply waiting out the summer in their tiny hometown, Calliope Bay (referencing the muse of epic poetry is entirely deliberate, of course), while Harry’s Mum is away in the city. Harry’s holiday is marked by forbidden adventures at “the Works” with his mate Dibs and the trailing Cal; picnics with the Kelly family; spiky exchanges with his snoopy neighbour, Susan Prosser; and, most excitingly, naked morning frolics with his sexy cousin Caroline who has come to stay. Caroline is, for the summer, de facto mother and sister, but something much less comfortable, too – the object of male frank admiration and a thoroughly sophisticated sexual tease.
So, beneath the surface of this summer-holiday story, behind the faux-innocent narrative voice, is a simmering and most disturbing sexuality – the sense of danger around sex permeates the novel. Harry’s innocent romps with Caroline give way to agitation about his cousin’s safety and an increasingly frantic desire to protect her. Meanwhile, Susan Prosser is watching narrow-eyed over the fence. Mrs Kelly, Cassandra-like and enigmatic, intones meaningfully as she hands out the picnic food. And Mr Wiggins, the laddish butcher, is disconcertingly ever-present. Only Harry understands the multiple pending threats.
I have read Sydney Bridge a number of times since that first fervid immersion, and each time it has been equally powerful but subtly different – because, of course, I am different, and because a great book always accommodates a revisit and provides new insights. Most recently, it seemed more sinister and somehow much sadder than I can ever remember, but I marvelled all over again at Ballantyne’s restraint and control and at the quietly brilliant way he wrong-foots the reader. This is a novel of suppressions and elisions. You must pay attention to what is not on the page. It is, after all, and among much else, a thriller, and much of the story’s impact comes from the reader’s growing anxiety around exactly what is happening and who is responsible for the “terrible things”.
The last chapter remains as mysterious and seductive as ever. I have spent hours anatomising that epilogue. And every time I have anticipated and dreaded the final two sentences, knowing they will break my heart.
Perhaps the real mystery is why Sydney Bridge Upside Down is still – more than 40 years after its original publication – the great, unread New Zealand novel. In a sort of faithful, hopeful, ongoing test of Evans’ long-ago claim, I check it out quite regularly, and ask people – book groups, librarians, teachers, other writers, devotees of New Zealand literature, all – if they’ve ever read it, if they’ve even heard of it: nope.
One reason, of course, is that it’s been out of print for 30 years. But why has it stayed out of print? Evans had a characteristically provocative theory about Ballantyne’s critical neglect and lost readership. Ballantyne, he argued, had never attained a recognisable public persona, or any public persona for that matter – and since this has become an almost essential condition of literary success, it was his, and the book’s, burden. He memorably contrasted Ballantyne’s lack of serious attention with the reverence accorded Janet Frame and her work, insisting that Ballantyne, too, was a writer of “considerable skill and coherence of vision”. But Ballantyne presented a picture of New Zealand that was, 40 years ago at least, unpalatable to his potential readership: a dark, unredemptive vision challenging some of our most clung-to mythologies.
But that was then. I enjoy imagining Evans’ inevitably mordant comment on the fact that it’s taken an Australian publisher to give us back our great, unread novel – and take it to the world. But I’m thrilled that the team at Text have recognised the power and beauty of Sydney Bridge Upside Down and thrilled to know it will be out there again, finding its readers, pulling in a new generation, giving them the opportunity to experience what all great fiction offers, and what this book has always delivered in spades: transport, discomfort, and, ultimately, transformation.