Road much travelled

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The road in question is the 873km of highway between Sydney and Melbourne known as the Hume. The story is about the road and the people who made it, whether as builders or travellers. It is a story of love and death, goodness and folly, and the uphill and downhill of the human journey.

Bypass is in many ways a sequel to Michael’s Things You Get For Free, which recounted his adventures on a long promised trip to Europe with his mother and, at the same time, poignantly reflected on the making and unmaking of his life as a Jesuit and a priest. In Bypass he rides an ordinary bicycle from Sydney to Melbourne. He wants to explore the Hume slowly. He encounters all kinds of people on the way, and he threads their story into the story of the road. In particular, he is joined by a dancer with a superior bike, and a more intimate journey in life begins.

The busiest highway in Australia may seem a very exposed location for such a private story, but the polarities of the public and the personal gives the book its direction. The public detail ranges from Hume and Hovell’s pioneering overland journey to the proposals for the final bypass around Albury. The personal details include the confessions of truck drivers, café proprietors, curators, publicans, burger flippers, mystics, long-distance runners, poets, prisoners, priests, farmers, ghosts, Olympians, and anybody else Michael meets on the way. He has a gift for engaging people and an ear for the particular turn of phrase that captures the uniqueness of each spirit.

The story of the road is also a short history of Australia. Aboriginal people, explorers, convicts, pioneers, bushrangers, war heroes and writers are all brought to life. Places associated with them are visited, and people who knew them are engaged. Various monuments along the way are considered, from Anthony Hordern’s tree to the Dog on the Tuckerbox, with many war memorials in between. Informal and less obvious memorials are also duly noted, particularly those marking the untimely death of loved ones on the road. Michael observes, ‘The Hume hides evidence of many such rituals.’ He typically takes time to telephone a number left beside one such memorial to assure a grieving family that their monument is not neglected.

There is some irony in the fact that I read this book while flying from Melbourne to Sydney and back, all in the space of 36 hours. The Hume itself is now a bypass for most of us, yet many Australians will have travelled it at some stage in their lives. The trip used to be long enough and varied enough to constitute a minor Australian rite of passage, with many memories made and lost.

Those who grew up with the highway will love this book. It is good to be reminded of the long haul through the western suburbs of Sydney, the Razorback, the Liberty Café in Yass, the Niagara Café in Gundagai, and Pretty Sally. When Michael enters Victoria the story flattens out, as did his rear tyre. That may have something to do with the terrain and the length of the journey; or perhaps it is because his attention, and the reader’s, has shifted to his companion on the journey and away from the road itself.

This is a bigger book than Things You Get For Free, full of allusion and information. My disappointments were few and minor. First, while almost every guise of the Hume was detailed, I didn’t catch any reference to Highway 31 (perhaps this has to do with Michael’s preference for the literary over the mathematical). Secondly, I would have liked a story or two about the Sheahans behind the Sheahan Bridge and the Sheahan driveway at Gundagai (the story I heard had to do with a local magistrate and politician, ‘Frank the felon’s friend’: the omission may have to do with the modesty of the current generation of Sheahans). Thirdly, I wanted to know if the Hume in question was related in anyway to David Hume, the author of A Treatise on Human Nature.

David Hume’s philosophical project was based as much as possible on empirical data and as little as possible on intuition. If you couldn’t see it and touch it, it didn’t count for much. Australia’s secular and public traditions are very much shaped by his ideas. Michael McGirr’s project, on the other hand, is about what the philosophers call the isomorphism of matter and spirit, that is, the claim that you only have souls where you have bodies, and you only have graces where there are places. There is something sacramental about exploring the ‘evidence of many such rituals’ and respecting the invisible reality behind the visible signs.

John Honner first travelled the Hume in 1956, squeezed between his older brother and sister in the back seat of the family Holden, reading NRMA strip maps.

Bypass: The story of a road, Michael McGirr. Picador, 2004. isbn 0 330 36493 6, rrp $30



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Having recently traveled down memory lane,I look forward to hearing more from this distinguished author.

Jean Isobel Myers | 23 July 2008  

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