Rick Morton found writing his memoir painful enough. Then he had to read it aloud | Books

When Rick Morton wrote One Hundred Years of Dirt – the most talked about Australian memoir this year – he had no idea that five months later he would be trapped in a claustrophobic studio with no air conditioning, reading his own words for hours on end.

Yet that is exactly where Morton found himself this month as he recorded his audio book, published by Bolinda, on a stinking hot summer’s day in Melbourne.

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“On one particular spot I just kept failing and being played back in from the sentence before which was, inexplicably: ‘The chickens continued being chickens,’” he says. “I don’t even remember writing that and now it is the only thing in my head. Still.”

If there were funny moments, there were also painful ones. Morton grew up on a remote cattle station in far-west Queensland, a five-hour drive from the nearest large town. At the age of seven he walked into the kitchen to find his father kissing the 19-year-old governess. His mother, Deb, was in hospital, nursing his infant sister and older brother, who had suffered horrific burn injuries in an accident.

She returned to find her husband was leaving her. Pushed out of their property, Deb scooped up her children and moved into emergency housing commission accommodation in dreary Charleville. Denied child support, and with scant workplace skills, the family was thrown into a hand-to-mouth existence.

Even today, “I will look for clues and signs that I have been abandoned and left,” Morton, now the Australian’s social affairs writer, tells me over coffee in Canberra.

A silver lining to the hardship of his childhood and troubled family legacy – through which, as he writes, “desolation moved like a slinky” – is literature. Published in July, One Hundred Years of Dirt is already in its third print run, has been “highly commended” in Australia’s richest literary prize, the Victorian premier’s literary awards, and was long-listed for a Walkley. Christos Tsiolkas has called Morton a “crack storyteller”; Tim Winton wrote him a hand-written letter to say he had been “moved”.

Sometimes savage, sometimes bitter, sometimes sad, One Hundred Years of Dirt is never self-pitying. Morton’s dry wit and droll humour emerge as he struggles through financial penury, the complications of growing up gay in a conservative rural community, debilitating anxiety and numerous family sagas. These include coming to terms with a history of violence that runs through the Morton men and, later, watching his brother Toby self-implode as an ice addict.

Writing is one thing. Reading traumatic memories out loud, particularly in a suffocatingly small room, is another.

Morton initially thought, when recording the audio book, that he wouldn’t have a problem: he had read extracts multiple times on book tour. “But there is something intimate about the recording process and it caught me off guard. There were moments where I had to try really hard to keep it together.”

Particularly difficult were the parts in which he discussed his own mental health battles. “Those were the darkest moments in my life and the wounds are still raw,” he says, adding that frequent cigarette breaks were necessary.

As a young boy on the property, Morton would cut out the bladder of a cow and kick it around as a soccer ball; his first training as a journalist was in a local newsroom, where he covered the town pie show and, at one point, wrote about a 4.3kg pawpaw. But Morton never quite felt at home in the country. It was a macho world and he was nerdy, intellectual, unsporting and – worse still – gay.

Homosexuality was something seen on TV dramas but never real life. Morton recalls “this real crippling anxiety: that people are out to get you, that you’re going to be found out. It was a dangerous place to be gay.”

One of the book’s harder revelations is Morton’s continuing battle with intimacy: he craves romantic companionship but, at the age of 31, has never found it. A scene in which he cuddles – and caresses – another male friend, feeling a surge of love, is heartbreaking.

“I had to be as honest as I could,” he says. “I knew I had to just pull the Band-Aid off and put everything on the page.”

Cover image for One Hundred Years Of Dirt by Rick Morton

So why has One Hundred Years of Dirt hit such a nerve? One reason is that it is quintessentially Australian. The first chapter features a wild pig hunt and the bush, in the vein of great Australian literature, is a character in its own right. Another is that it is an unflinching and unapologetic look at class – a topic often ignored in the “land of fair go”.

Growing up, “I didn’t know there was a hierarchy because I couldn’t see the rest of the ladder from where I was,” Morton says. It was only at university that he realised his mother’s meticulous planning of finances – every bus ticket, every coffee, every tin of baked beans agonised over and accounted for – was not normal.

Morton rails against the myth that everyone is equal. That all you have to do is join your local surf club, where “‘You can be a mining CEO or school cleaner, you are racing from the flag, you are one of us!’ There are inherent problems with that: if you come from regional Australia, that’s not your world.”

There is also, he says, a narrative peddled by the powerful that if you end up on government benefits “you are morally inferior”. Social mobility, as he puts it in One Hundred Years of Dirt, “is not a train you get to board after you’ve scraped together enough for the ticket. You have to build the whole bloody engine, with nothing but a spoon and hand-me-down psychological distress.”

Australia is the richest nation in the world in terms of median wealth. Yet 700,000 people – some 3% of the population – still live in entrenched disadvantage. Morton sees a “lack of understanding amongst ordinary Australians what it is like to struggle”. And the state of journalism today, where unpaid internships are standard, has crystallised it as a career for the privileged.

“We don’t hear enough voices from the working class because it’s fucking hard to succeed without financial backing,” he says. “If we don’t have people from that background telling us about ourselves, what are we learning?”

One Melbourne single mother living in public housing wrote to Morton: “Thank you for giving me a reason to forgive myself.”

Another young woman lined up at a book signing to see him. When it was her turn, she couldn’t speak, but she handed him a typed note in which she discussed her anxiety: “Lacking in words is my permanent state, which is maybe what makes your storytelling ability seem so beautiful and otherworldly.”

If there is a hero of the book, it isn’t Morton but his mother: the stoic, funny, ferocious Deb, whose voice he has attempted to mimic for the audio version.

“My mum is such a good storyteller,” he says. “So many bad things happened to us over such a long period of time. And the only thing Mum and I had to cling to was the idea that we had a story to tell someday.”

One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton is published by MUP and available as an audiobook through Bolinda in 2019


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