Drover's Wife echoes in computer data loss

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Echoes of the drover's wife in computer data lossIn Henry Lawson’s great story, ‘The Bush Undertaker’, an old shepherd—isolated, eccentric, if not frankly rather mad—is collecting bones and other relics when he comes across a corpse. He can tell by the state of the boots that the man was a “sundowner”. A rum bottle by his side tells more of the story. He concludes that he has stumbled on the mortal remains of his long lost mate, Brummy. He carries the body back to his shack with the intention of giving Brummy a decent burial but this weird funeral procession is stalked by what the old man thinks must be “a flock” of goannas but which he later realizes is simply one determined "thunderin' up-jumped" predator following the body.

Like the drover’s wife in another famous Lawson story, the old man resolves to sit up all night to watch for the goanna. Eventually he shoots it as it comes crawling over the ridge pole: and he watches it die in "violent convulsions" on the ground just as the drover’s wife watched the snake burn in the fireplace after she and her children had killed it. With this mystery solved, the old shepherd turns to the task of burying Brummy but can’t work out what kind of ritual would be in order.

"Theer oughter be somethin' sed", muttered the old man. "Theer oughter be some sort o’ sarmin." He buries Brummy, muttering now and then, "I am the rassaraction", then, with the job done, he hesitates, trying to remember what “oughter be" said. He removed his hat, placed it carefully on the grass, held his hands out from his sides and a little to the front, drew a long deep breath, and said with a solemnity that greatly disturbed [his dog] Five Bob: “Hashes ter hashes, dus ter dus, Brummy—an'—an' in hopes of a great an' gerlorious rassaraction!" Then he collects his gear and walks wearily away. And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush—the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird.

The old man knows that buried back in his past is a formula, a way of behaving about the dead and their burial, and that this ritual is connected in some way to the supernatural. But he can’t remember either the form of the ceremony, or its gestures, or its words. The desperate attempt to remember produces fragments which are deeply moving and yet at the same time are parodies of the larger, solemn picture he cannot reassemble.

The drover's wife, though much more rational than the shepherd, is as cut off from the ceremonies and rituals of the past as he is. "All days are much the same to her; but on Sunday afternoon she dresses herself, tidies the children, smartens up baby, and goes for a lonely walk along the bush-track…She does this every Sunday. There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet." She knows that Sunday some time in her life has been different and special. She clings to the memory of significance and re-enacts a version of it which has been emptied of that significance. In trying to do it from flawed memory she parodies its original: there is nothing to see, no one to meet, no other soul.

The trouble with losing something that you can only really retrieve by reconstructing the whole experience is that the temptation to try to remember detail by detail is almost irresistible. This is the wrong option. Not only is memory fallible and feckless, it doesn't have a deep structure. It flies about, latches on to this and that, raises the dust of distraction, darts into side issues, becomes panicky, conflates, flatters, distorts…

Echoes of the drover's wife in computer data lossWell let me come clean. Last week in a moment of shocking suddenness which no expert so far has been able to explain, I lost ten thousand words—about three weeks work. It was not just the actual wordage: I had devoted a lot of thought—sometimes of the agonized and desperate variety occasioning communication failure and domestic tensions—to working out how to solve problems and undo knots that this narrative of mine kept throwing up, and how to get words round these resolutions that would be—if I may modestly put it this way—not half bad. Now with all of it gone, I can’t stop myself trying to remember what I said—a fatal attraction, because I can’t possibly recall detail or sequence and will produce only a ghost of the original.

'They' reckon that everything you write or record or save on a computer is retrievable. It is there somewhere. The ghost in the machine. The "thunderin' up-jumped goanna" haunting my lost and funereal words. I hope they’re right.



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Brian, that's terrible! I hope you manage to recover the story.
chloe andrews | 18 April 2007


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