Corellas and the archive

It’s a while since my fingers clattered across the keyboard and pushed behind the detritus of my life and all its busyness into the limbo of my past.

The corellas are back in all their caterwauling glory and the dog is fearful to go outside for a pee. Those squawking monsters in the sky that drop white feathers and shattered acorns can terrify a small dog. Corellas like mind-clutter. They arrive every autumn to visit the pin oak in our garden. The oak spreads its branches wide like an ancient muscle man to block out the light in summer until the leaves fall. 

In my dreams this morning, a neighbour chopped down the tall jacaranda beside our side fence and I was distressed at how much shade we would lose when the summer sunlight streamed through the upstairs bedrooms, already hot given their height, but soon to be impossible. The corellas woke me then and I was not able to slip back into the easy sleep of a Sunday morning.

Before the corellas came, Ross Gibson died and took with him a mind I have admired for its ability to investigate the past in ways I could only imagine. Gibson peered into the archives, crime scenes from Sydney between wars, in photographic form. The photos were abandoned in a basement of a Sydney police station, detached from their descriptive moorings, photos that so haunted Gibson he studied them with his eyes, mind and imagination then brought them to life through haiku. 

Many were prosaic, as he described, but others held a pulse or flair that made him catch his breath. We look for these diamonds among the ordinary gemstones of an archive, he said in an interview with the wonderful Maria Tumarkin, because they bring out the depth of the ordinary in our past lives. And something of the ordinary captured his imagination as it captures mine.

If I was to approach the archive of my life in the same open way as Ross Gibson approached scenes from the past, which he also explored elsewhere, including in scenes from the Mallee, to look for imprints of what once was, I could find things I do not yet know. 

When I was a child and my father took up photography, he lined the bath with pictures he had printed in trays of chemicals in his dark room. He chose them from the negatives he had pinned along a line of string fixed over the bath. A line of negatives I could never reach, black and translucent, like clouds in a darkening sky. These images awed me for their incomplete state. Like ghosts hanging from a ceiling. Ghosts that might one day become ancestors, or the living, should my father soak them in the chemical baths of his dark room. To bring them into life.

Some he tossed aside in a flat cardboard box that once carried Nestle baby food. The orange birds in a nest feeding a worm to their hatchling on the side of the box, the familiar logo that lets you know you’re buying food from this company I once thought of as a source of goodness, before I knew of their practices in employing child labour to collect cocoa beans. Shades of slavery. Other people’s ancestors and Ross Gibson might have wondered about them, too. But I was stuck with the cast-off photos if my family, all shapes and sizes, some cut to rectangular shape with crimped edges, some with straight line edges from the guillotine. 

So many casts off, including the thumb nail sketches my father developed of me and my siblings, one after the other, for the family album.

I collected a series of such tiny photographs and created my own album from scraps of paper I sewed together with a thick needle and thread. I wanted to create my own archive.

One that has not stood the test of time and lives on only in my imagination.

I placed my siblings’ images in chronological order on the grey backdrop of pages I had pinched from my father’s dark room, pages he kept for his own meticulously planned albums. 

When they first married, my father made an album with all aspects of my parents’ wedding included, the invitations, the registry details. In Holland you needed first to declare your plans to marry at the registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages in your town and only later could you marry in a church or registry office of your choice. 

The album was cream coloured and the archive it contained had yellowed with age. All of it in Dutch and hard for me to dismantle but I could guess the nature of each item, including the letters my father pasted inside, the telegrams congratulating my parents on the day they wed. 

There were other albums my father assembled once the babies came along, the four babies born in Holland. But by the time my mother and her four children arrived in Australia he stopped creating albums and my older brothers took on the task. The official record of our family life included for posterity, a type of family archive that displays only the respectable and leaves out events and people we can only imagine when we trawl through the detritus of memory.

I’m sad Ross Gibson has died. His death has saddened me in ways I find hard to describe. He was someone I met only twice. Once at a conference on creative writing, where he gave a talk on his crime scene photographs and I was stunned by his verbal acuity that accompanied such extraordinary humility. So much so it was nothing to go up to him afterwards for a chat. 

The next time we were together on a panel on memory at Swinburne University where we, among others, spoke of our various takes on memory and later that evening we went as a group for dinner in a nearby Malaysian restaurant. I sat beside Ross, and he told me that fate had not given him and his beloved partner of many years, children. But I considered the many other children he brought into the world in the form of his ideas and his respect for other people’s children from the past.

Previous generations. And if we investigate their archives, including our own, we can see things there that hint at the way others lived then, a precursor to the way we live now.