Train journeys with my mother, between Melbourne and Hamilton in the Western District of Victoria, were a highlight of my school holidays in 1950s Australia. Early departures from Spencer Street station on frosty winter mornings, our knees covered with tartan travelling rugs and our feet coaxing tepid heat from antiquated foot warmers. Avoiding cinders blown in through open windows during hot summer journeys. Sprinting along the platform at Ballarat, where the train stopped briefly, to minimize time spent queuing at the station buffet for meat pies whose hot gravy burned our chins.
My maternal grandparents lived on the outskirts of Hamilton, on a one-and-a-half acre block, quite large enough for a boy reared in the suburbs to develop a love of the land, even if he was intimidated by territorial magpies swooping down from gum trees or by country cousins’ warnings of snakes recently sighted in the paddock. In later years visits to friends’ farms, at Kialla in the irrigated north of the state and Koonwarra in the lush South Gippsland hills, provided insights into what it took to be a sheep or dairy farmer in Victoria.
Given this personal history, Carrie Tiffany’s quirkily titled first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, struck an immediate chord when the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced. Its intriguing plot turns on a state government-funded ‘Better Farming’ train, which rattles around rural Victoria in the 1930s, loaded with agricultural and domestic scientists preaching the gospel of science to farmers and their families. This was a book that demanded to be bought and read with the insistency of loud bells and flashing lights at level crossings. I was not disappointed.
The novel is a thought-provoking journey through Australian national identity in the 1930s, and also a wry social history that made me think about what it meant to be an Australian then and what it means now. It also made me reconside
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