Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Balfour Correspondent by James Dryburgh - review

In many places across our island there are towns and camps and dwellings that have sunk back into the earth, there are hut depressions and extant chimneys and, in some places arches that stand amongst newer saplings of eucalypts. There are middens and daffodils, patches of naked ladies and arum lilies, and there are gravestones that have been swallowed by bush and eroded by waves.

Balfour is one of those places, now almost folded completely back into the damp bush from whence it rose, another lost, another vanished mining town in the northwest of the state. It is also one that we can celebrate again, or at least get a sense of what it was like, with the publication of this beautiful new book, The Balfour Correspondent by James Dryburgh.

Dryburgh, who is best known for his informed and well written, often political essays ‘found’ Sylvia McArthur in her letters to The Weekly Courier, which she wrote early last century. She wrote six letters, and then she died a few days after her 15th birthday, most likely of typhoid. She was buried in Balfour, where her grave still stands amongst the encroaching bush today.
Even in her scant correspondence we can read her vivacious, genuinely friendly and curious spirit. The structure of the book is primarily a correspondence between then and now, with Dryburgh writing back through the ages, addressing Sylvia and her long lost town. Sylvia was 14 when she moved with her family to Balfour, her first letter describes the lengthy and convoluted journey her family made to get to Balfour, which is described as “new, wet, rude and remote,” by Dryburgh.

Sylvia, like many people of her day (early in the 1900s) read the children’s pages, or the ‘Young Folks’ pages of Launceston’s Weekly Courier, and indeed she wrote in to the paper becoming known as the eponymous Balfour correspondent, just as other children around the nascent state did. She recounted in a lovely unassuming manner her daily life in the town, her trip down the mine her father worked in, her naughty little brother and even, delightfully, what books she was reading.

The book design is also gorgeous. A slim red hardcover, with a painting of a young girl by Barbie Kjar on the cover, which revealed itself to be eerily reminiscent of Sylvia herself, but only after completion of the painting, and a photo of the girl herself was unearthed. The hardcover adds a fine heft to the beauty of this publication, as do the inclusion of maps from the time, and some lovely line drawings by Rachel Tribout. The book even contains photographs of Sylvia that she has written about her in correspondence.

Despite the fact that it is made clear from the outset that Sylvia died young, I was still crying by the end. There is something delicate and simple about the premise of the book, and it is a reminder of our impermanence. Dryburgh handles her life with sensitivity and I recalled the line from Blake “to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower,” in so far as the simple correspondence between a man in 2017, and a girl who died in 1912 has afforded us a greater insight into the human condition.

This is a book that is published by the Bob Brown Foundation, and all profits are returned to the foundation. As Bob writes in his introduction “His (Dryburgh’s) empathy for the beauty and tragedy of Sylvia’s life is her redemption”. It is true, it is her redemption, and our gain. I challenge anyone to not be moved by this exquisite tome.

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