Monday, August 17, 2009

In Review: Bypass: The Story of a Road

~ At the age of 40, former Jesuit priest, Michael McGirr – armed with not much more than a copy of Anna Karenina, some spare clothes and a less than state-of-the-art Chinese built bicycle – set out to ride the 880 kilometres (547 miles) of the Hume Highway which links Sydney and Melbourne.

While the ride forms the backdrop to McGirr’s book Bypass: The Story of a Road, like all good travelogue’s the ride itself is really just a frame to hang the real story around, which as the title suggests, is the story of the Hume Highway.

From its humble beginnings as a rough track across the Great Dividing Range, to it’s current state as a modern dual carriageway, the Highway continues to serve as the major thoroughfare linking Australia’s two largest cities.

Bypass takes you on a wonderful journey covering the history of the Hume, and the politics that helped shape it. Along the way you meet some great – and not so great – Australian characters that have helped imprint the name of the highway into the Australian psyche. People like the 61 year old Cliff Young (great), who in 1983 won the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne foot race against competitors half his age. And men like Ivan Milat (not so great) who was convicted of the murder of seven young backpackers and hitch-hikers, all of whom he buried in the Belanglo State Forest.

Then there are the explorers Hamilton Hume (after whom the Highway was eventually named) and William Hovell, who in 1824 along with at least six others, set of from Appin (near the present day Sydney suburb of Campbelltown) for the first successful quest to reach Melbourne. We also meet truckies; the bushrangers Ben Hall and Ned Kelly; the dog that shat on – or in – the tucker box; and the poets ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson. We attend a Catholic Mass in Tarcutta – officially the halfway point between Sydney and Melbourne – where apart from the priest and two parishoners, the only other people in attendance are the author of Bypass and his companion Jenny, who has by this time joined him on his ride to Melbourne.

We visit almost every country town along the route of the Hume Highway, and learn something about each of them. Towns like Goulburn, famous for the Big Merino and Goulburn Jail (where Ivan Milat is currently serving seven life sentences). We visit Holbrook and learn why the outer shell of the Oberon Class submarine HMAS Otway now sits in a public park in the middle of town. In Chiltern we pass by the childhood home of the Australian writer Henry Handel Richardson, and learn that Henry’s real name was Ethel Florence. We learn too, that like other female writers have done throughout history, Ethel wrote under a male nom de plume because at the time it was felt that women didn’t have what it took to be great writers. And we also visit the town of Yass, and drop by the Liberty Café for a meal before continuing on our journey.

Now, I have to confess this section of the book took me completely by surprise, and was one of the great unexpected pleasures I got out of Bypass. Let me explain why.

Some years ago, I was returning to Adelaide from Australia’s national capital, Canberra, and on a whim decided to pass through the town of Yass, which is some 60 kilometres or so from Canberra. Because I had been on the road less than an hour, and because I could see no reason to stop in Yass, I simply left the Hume Highway, drove into town and up along Yass’s main street, while all the time looking left and right taking a mental snapshot of the landscape. I then headed back out onto the Hume and continued on my way.

It may seem such an odd thing to do, but then I am prone to do odd things on no more than a whim, and this was one of those occasions. The reason I write about it now is that as I drove up Comur Street, Yass’s main throughfare, my gaze fell on a small dining establishment called the Liberty Café.

At this point I should mention that apart from putting this blog together, one of the other ‘strings’ I’ve added to my ‘bow’ is songwriting. So within minutes of passing through Yass I began writing a song called The Liberty Café*. This song subsequently appeared on my second album American Dream, and remains one of my favourite songs. Never the less, I had always regreted not stopping in at the café as I drove through town. I’m pleased to say I made amends for that lapse earlier this year, when in April, I again drove to Sydney, and this time I did stop at the Liberty Café for a meal break. In fact, I stopped there for a second time on my way back to Adelaide. So, as I say, it was a delightful surprise to read about the Café in Bypass, and know that of all the restaurants and cafés in Yass, Michael McGirr had also been drawn to the Liberty.

Across its many short chapters, Bypass also introduces us to some of the thousands of bumper stickers that adorn the rear ends of many Australian vehicles. In fact, McGirr uses stickers as chapter headings to introduce us to every aspect of his journey. Thus, the bumper sticker THE OLDER I GET THE BETTER I WAS, allows him to explain some of his own personal story and the reasons for his decision to ride the Hume Highway. In the chapter THE GODDESS IS DANCING, McGirr introduces us to his riding partner Jenny, and in DEATH IS THE MANUFACTURER’S RECALL NOTICE, we pause to learn about some of the many roadside memorials that mark the sites of fatal road accidents that line the Highway.

To conclude, Bypass is a book that ticks a lot of boxes in terms of my personal criteria for a good travelogue. The book is immensly readable, always entertaining and informative, often surprising, and constantly filled with odd facts and humourous anecdotes. These keep the story moving along smoothly and effortlessly – which can not always be said of Michael McGirr’s monumental bike ride.

I began this review by writing “like all good travelogue’s the ride itself is really just a frame to hang the real story around, which as the title suggests, is the story of the Hume Highway.” But it should also be said, that Bypass: The Story of a Road is not merely the story of one relatively short (by Australian standards) stretch of highway. It is also about the history of this country, and about the people who have helped build and shape it into the modern land it has now become.

UPDATE, MAY 2011: At the time I wrote this review Bypass...  was out of print. However, I'm delighted to report the book is back in print and available from Amazon.Com. Michael McGirr has also written Things You Get For Free which is also available from Amazon. To make the purchase of both books easy for you, I've added direct links for both books below.

Click here... Bypass: The Story of a Road to purchase Michael McGirr's book. Click the link below to purchase McGirr's Things You Get For Free.

Further Reading at Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. It's back in print now! It's on the VCE English text list.


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