Walkabout magazine, January 1972
THREE HOMES RULE MY LIFE – Author David Martin
If ONLY every new Australian, before being sucked into the city, could spend a few months in a place like Putty. Putty is an unvillage like village in the bush between the Hawkesbury and the Hunter rivers, just north of Sydney. Motorists following the old coach road – long abandoned – would call out “Where’s Putty?” only to be told they were right in it, which puzzled them. You can be in Putty and not know you are there.
In 1949 Putty was a line of houses strung out thinly along a creek. The school was closed and the people were looking for an incumbent. The families rarely decamped, and the school was crammed with the mementos of three or four generations. The kids could look up the records and see why Grandpa got a belting and why Nana still had such trouble doing the milk accounts. Fly speckled, the portraits of three monarchs gazed down upon them.
The weight of time presses down heavily on unmapped places like Putty.
When we arrived in Putty my heart sank. Such loneliness! It was evening. The nearest light glimmered from what I thought was miles away; it shone from across the creek which cut us off from our neighbours. Coming from Singleton, the truck had delivered us – my wife, myself and our young son – at the house that was to be both home and work place, the school where Richenda ws going to teach. The sun was going down behind the hills, making them glow as if fires were burning within. I could not remember ever having seen such a sunset.
In Putty we lived one year, and that’s where I wrote Spiegel the Cat. I have written a dozen books or more since then, and in one way or another they bear, I suppose, the signature of the places where they were created. It could hardly be otherwise, for each taught me something about myself and about Australia, my new country.
But Putty was the most important because it came at the beginning and because it lies in the bush, the real bush.
The bush is no longer central in the
Australian experience (and perhaps it isn’t), I won’t argue the point) it was central in mine. Putty gave me what no other spot could have given me – a feeling for how time and space merge in this continent.
The year was 1949. We had reached this country from India, where I had worked as a newspaperman. A rolling stone, but some time during those 12 months a decision must have been made that put an end to the rolling, yet I cannot say exactly how or when. All I know is I needed a period of quiet, my wife is a teacher and Putty people were looking for someone to take charge of their school.
That is how things came together, but what I could not foresee was how much I would come to like Putty, and what in its odd little way it stands for.
You must have heard the saying, Up to Putty, which brackets with things being Crook at Tallarook. Nothing much ever happens at Putty, the Puttyites say, but who knows how big small happenings may become to a man? The goanna on the roof, disorganising a morning’s lessons. The horse keeling over in the school paddock, from old age or snake bitten; speculation remains open. Mr Martin falling into the creek from the slippery guide log at the bottom, or making a fool of his bearded self, trying to get a fire to blaze up for his mates and splashing the kerosene into the billy. “Tastes a touch queer,” they say as they drink the tea, and grin. He is learning about that driest of dry styles of leg-pull they practice, and which one day will help him to appreciate Steele Rudd.
Fourteen or 15 kids come riding in with the sun or the rain, bush children of all ages, as I take pen and paper and retire up the hill or, with the new house finished, into what is known as the Progress Hall, a stone’s throw away. A good place to work in. The heat batters the tin roof; the long grass crackles with it. Stillness complete. A beast tracks by – they raise vealers there – and parrots come streaking over, but it’s a wonderful aloneness, once you let it speak to you.
And, as I say, at the heart it holds tragedy, gently understated. One of the boys has a kinsman, shot while out hunting, and buried at Putty. That made my first Australian poem. (A ballad: The Bulletin made 10 changes in it.) I saw, by-and-by, that the bush is safe, wide and immeasurably beautiful, but deep as a very deep pool. The swagman who jumped into the billabong did not kill himself merely because he had pinched a jumbuck. He had other reasons, but to state them is so devilishly simple that no one has yet managed it.
Putty is like a long novel in one chapter. What about? Death, I think, or perhaps fate, for here you are for ever aware that the last line is given in the first. Heat on the roof, the tank drip, drip, dripping as it overflows in the wet; suckers springing from sandy paths, the chalky bones of dead birds; old grievances hung to air on the wires of the party line; and that terrific sky, a prehistoric cupola rent by such thunder and riven by such lightning as the world never saw. Not possible to live with raw eternity and survive, unless you can turn it to jesting irony.
I am glad I did not read Patrick White in Putty; it was too soon for that. I read Lawson, Miles Franklin, Xavier Herbert, Brian Penton and Eve Langley. And I wrote my story-poem about an imagined cat in an imaginary Swiss town. Putty is perfect for writing about towns that never were. For all its earthly presence, there are moments when I wonder whether Putty is, whether it exists.
It is easier to slice it into self-contained parts than to see it whole, having no entry and no exit. A story: The woman who has eight daughters. She loses her wedding ring and finds it again under her house, the day she shoots the snake.
Cameos: The children dress up in fancy clothes (how they love it!) and give a concert on a rock-strewn slope. A note sent to the tacher, authorising her to take the strap to a lad who can break wild horses and shoot a hawk out of the sky.
Pigs munching plums; writer pursued by a sow, Aurora Australis. Creek runs a banker, riding across bare-arsed. The lavvy open to the universe, true philosopher’s seat, except you get swoooped upon by a willy-wagtail. Sunday service in the Progress Hall, the harmonium accompanying a bush lark. Food, food, food at the ball after the picnic races.
The empty house on the empty side of the creek, surrounded by a wild orchard where I sometimes go to read and to listen to the bees. Watching hornets weaving about the room in their building time. Swallows nesting on the veranda. The bullock that keeps knocking down our fence. The slow, sardonic friendliness.
Our dog, Pop, was mainly terrier. An hour after we left Putty he broke free and went looking for us. He never came back. No doubt the bush has him now, the clean, lovely, heart-breaking bush.
About the author
David Martin, author of Walkabout 1972 article 3 Homes Rule My Life
David Martin was a novelist, poet, playwright, journalist, editor, literary reviewer and lecturer.
He was born in Budapest, Hungary on 22 December 1915, named Ludwig Detsinyi. He adopted the name of David Martin after he moved to England.
Martin was educated in Germany and during his last year at school he wrote his first poem. He left Germany in 1934, travelling to Holland, where he worked on the reclamation of the Zuider Zee, spent time in Hungary and lived in Israel on a kibbutz. In 1937 he travelled to Spain where he served as a volunteer in the medical service of the International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army, his poor eyesight preventing him from more active service.
In 1938 Martin joined his father in London, working in his clothing factory. Although he spoke no English on his arrival, he was a gifted linguist and within twelve months was publishing poetry, which he had written in English. In 1941 he was employed in Glasgow as a correspondent with the Daily Express. He returned to London where he was employed by the European Service of the BBC until 1944, and in 1945-47 he was literary editor of Reynolds News. In 1948 he travelled to India as British correspondent for the Daily Express. In 1941, Martin married Elizabeth Richenda Powell, great-granddaughter of the Quaker Elizabeth Fry. They had one son, Jan.
In 1949 the family moved to Australia, to Putty where his wife took the position of teacher at Putty school. The article 3 Homes Rule My Life included an account of life in Putty at that time; his impressions resonate vividly with those living in Putty today. It was in Putty that he wrote his children’s book Spiegel the Cat.
The Martins settled in Melbourne, where David commenced work as a freelance journalist and editor of The Australian Jewish News. He quickly became part of Australian literary and political life. He joined the Communist Party in 1951, was active until 1956 and remained a member until 1959, when he was asked to resign.
Apart from several trips overseas, Martin was to spend the rest of his life in Australia. He continued to work in journalism, both in Australia and overseas. He had weekly current affairs columns in Free Press (1951-52) and the Sunday Observer (1969-71) and was foreign correspondent for the Indian newspaper Hindu (c1946-67) and for the Canadian newspaper The Montreal Star (c1966-69). In addition, he contributed an enormous number of articles, short stories and reviews to a variety of newspapers and journals, covering a diverse range of topics.
His first book – a collection of his poetry – was published in 1942. He went on to publish a number of books, which included further collections of his poetry, novels, short stories, children’s books, plays and his autobiography. It is a remarkable achievement that he was able to write so successfully in such a variety of genres. Many of his works have been published overseas and some have been adapted for theatre and television.
For a number of years, Martin lectured on literary related topics for the Victorian Centre for Adult Education. As well as lecturing, Martin was often approached to speak about his work at literary events and to community groups.