Every morning I walk my dog, Jambo, down Styx Creek. We cut across from Boreas Road and go down the old night-soil lane, coming out on Bates Street. I let him off the lead and I run down the steep concrete banking and into the creek … It reminds me of running pell-mell down a long hill, arms madly coptering for balance with the exhilarating possibility of a massive face-plant at any second.
What it’s about
Hamilton Northerner Mark MacLean, aged 49-and-a-bit, takes his dog Jambo for regular walks in the concrete-lined drain known as Styx Creek. Sometimes they see interesting things, like a rusty shopping trolley or a tennis ball. Mr MacLean decides to write about this on a blog, and then in a book that details his exploits month by month for a year.
It’s due to the talents of Mr MacLean that the resulting book is actually really, really good. I didn’t actually know that when I bought it though.
Why I read it
A year down the drain came out not long after I’d had a zine/book (zook?) of my own Newcastle-inspired stories on sale. Totally different league to AYDTD of course – mine were self-published (insert ‘oof’ here) – but the point was, I’d just had a product out there, the sale of which basically relied on novocastrians being interested in their surroundings and willing to support a local writer.
So when my favourite neighbourhood book shop owner showed me he had AYDTD in stock, I kind of felt an obligation to support it. Also, I used to live in Hamilton North myself. Also, he gave me a discount. Sold.
Turns out it was good.
Why it’s good
I’m about to make an analogy that’s going to make me* cringe, but which I think will be worthwhile. Hold onto your hats.
This super-great analogy** holds up on more counts than the obvious, which is that I have actually read The Happiness Project but haven’t ever touched a copy of Eat, Pray, Love (or indeed a full O’Hanlon novel). What I’m actually getting at is that while it’s relatively easy to have breathless, inspiring, life-changing adventures on the other side of the world (Bali, for example, or in a jungle full of things that want to eat you), it takes a different and, I think, more admirable person who can find interesting stuff and make sense of their life in their own suburban postcode. In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin learns to find peace and joy in the act of organising her cupboards and taking her kids to dance lessons. In AYDTD, Mr MacLean finds it in Hamilton North.
Not only does he find it in Hamilton North, he finds it in a concrete drain full of plastic bottles, beside an overgrown former gas works, in a post-industrial suburb whose history reasserts itself every time there’s rain heavy enough to make the toxic sludge sleeping in the soil leach through the cracks in the concrete and join the run-off on its way to Newcastle Harbour.
How does he do it? I don’t know exactly, but here’s my best go at working it out.
1. Spend your childhood in a country where you don’t get exposed to public safety announcements that tell you walking in drains invites a hideous death
Did any other Novocastrian readers get an instinctual jolt of horror at the idea this guy was walking in a drain? Everyone knows from those old ads that the moment you do that, a huge roiling tsunami of brown water will monster up behind you and sweep you to your death. Mr MacLean grew up in Cumbria, though, so is pitifully uneducated. It’s amazing he’s made it this far.
2. Be a pedestrian
We are rapt at Mr MacLean’s descriptions of the foreign landscapes he walks in – but they’re foreign not because they’re far away but because you can’t get to them by car. In fact, most of us drive over them every single day without realising they exist or at least having a mental picture of how they all join up. Mr MacLean finds these places and reports back.
3. Practise mindfulness
Walking in the drain, Mr MacLean notices little things we’d dismiss, like the graffiti of POAS, or a pigeon egg, or a ripple of water running upstream, or the carved sandstone chimney on a derelict building. In them, he sees larger things: subversive adventure, and the cycle of the seasons, and the memory retained by water, and the craftsmanship of a bygone era. He also sees larger stories about life and identity and what it means to feel you belong somewhere, if anywhere.
He does it all in a wonderful humble kind of way. Just when you are starting to feel like he’s convinced you that yes, walking down the Chatham St drains could really be one of the Wonderful Things In The World, he busts out (in August, as he’s about to turn 50) a bit of a ‘What the crap has gone wrong; how did I end up living a life where my daily highlight is walking down a drain taking photos of washed up tennis balls?’ But we know, because he’s taught us, that the drain is actually pretty special after all. And National ABC Radio and the Independent Best Seller list and others agree.
Another thing: he doesn’t say in the book, but I later found out he’s the guy who founded my favourite bookshop of my former neighbourhood.
The drains and me
I used to live in Hamilton North – although Mr MacLean himself would deny this, because I was outside the boundaries he says delineate the suburb. I was just south of Griffiths Road on Dorothy St – but I swear I was still entitled to the 2292 postcode.
In any case, I never walked in the drains but I spent a lot of time cycling and walking on the paths that ran beside them. It made it pretty cool to read descriptions of these places in an actual book. For example, there’s this crazy little narrowing of Chatham Road right up at its north end that I hated riding my bike around, because you always felt it was funneling cars right into you. It’s a small T-intersection in an unedifying landscape of high grass and railway crossings and second-hand shops, and here it is in a book, with the author telling you that I shit you not the Queen herself drove along there when she visited Newcastle ages ago. Also, there used to be a factory up near there that made most of Australia’s light bulbs. Ding! What an idea, Australian manufacturing.
And what an idea, a written work that creates a sense of place out of a toxic landscape full of urban debris.
*yes, and you
** Not that great. That analogy, in fact, is to Mr Maclean’s writing what Elizabeth Gilbert’s books are to Redmond O’Hanlon’s.***
*** In my mind, that is, because, as I’ll remind you, I haven’t actually ever read anything by Ms Gilbert, and only extracts from Mr O’Hanlon.