Montebello : A Memoir
by Robert Drewe
Listen to me,’ my mother says. ‘They’ve let off an atom bomb today. Right here in W.A. Atom bombs worry the blazes out of me, and I want you at home.’
In the sleepy and conservative 1950s the British began a series of nuclear tests in the Montebello archipelago off the west coast of Australia. Even today, few people know about the three huge atom bombs that were detonated there, but they lodged in the consciousness of the young Robert Drewe and would linger with him for years to come.
In this moving sequel to The Shark Net, and with his characteristic frankness, humour and cinematic imagery, Drewe travels to the Montebellos to visit the territory that has held his imagination since childhood. He soon finds himself overtaken by memories and reflections on his own ‘islomania’. In the aftermath of both man-made and natural events that have left a permanent mark on the Australian landscape and psyche – from nuclear tests and the mining boom to shark attacks along the coast – Drewe examines how comfortable and familiar terrain can quickly become a site of danger, and how regeneration and love can emerge from chaos and loss.
1 The Fats Domino Voice
It was that fabled occasion, a dark and stormy night, the sea just a blacker inked line in the distance, and I was lying in bed in the deep gloom of three a.m., singing Blueberry Hill in my Fats Domino voice.
We were on the trailing edge of a cyclone and wind buffeted the timbers of my rented cottage on the cliff edge at Broken Head. The house’s rocking gave the sensation of being in a sailing ship. Palm fronds lashed and rasped against the window, more rain, endless rain, thundered on the tin roof, and I’d hardly have been surprised if the cottage, an architectural folly that resembled a nineteenth-century schooner almost as much as a house, sailed over the cliff onto the sodden sugarcane fields below.
If we’re speaking of the true life, of genuine self-awareness, it was a night of pivotal moments when things could go either way. I could either plummet to the depths or shape up, brush myself down, pick myself up, pull my finger out, turn a frown upside down. Basically, get a grip. The odds at that stage favoured plummeting.
Anna, my anxious seven-year-old daughter and my youngest child, was insisting I sing to her, and had chosen the song. As the rain crashed down, she complained, ‘You need to sing louder.’ If I sang any louder I’d lose the throaty timbre of Fats Domino. Anyway my breathing was still shallow and irregular because I’d just killed a brown snake by her bedroom. read more…
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.