Cover of Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
Wayne Macauley

satire of exquisite poise and confidence
If more Australian literature was of this calibre, we’d be laughing
Macauley has the soul of a poet and his surreal novella is stunningly written
Cameron Woodhead, The Age
original Australian writing at its best
Graham Clark, The Courier Mail


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Book Description

The rain fell hard and unending on the roof. All the ghosts of ur were sleeping. The night was as dark as a whales belly. She passed by swiftly, cried out softly; I wasnt listening, I couldnt have heard.

Bram has a reluctant story to tell. Excavating common objects from the mullock heap of a failed housing estate, he records the lives of those who lived there. One-eyed Michael, fencing contractor and ideologue, his daughter Jodie, Slug the real estate agent, Layland from the Ministry and Tony the bricklayer-in-waiting: these are just some of the players in a laconic comedy of circumstance.

Prize-winning short fiction writer Wayne Macauley has made, as Peter Craven has noted, ‘something almost like allegory.’ His compulsive telling ensnares us in an escalating series of remarkable events. An old leather satchel holds the documents for the fatal vessel of the title...

Beguilingly simple, eccentric and original, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe is a fable of ownership, and an elegy for a dream.

stunningly written... If more Australian literature was of this quality, we’ be laughing.
Cameron Woodhead, The Age

Cover drawings by Ian Bracegirdle
ISBN 187604442X
Published 2004
147 pgs
Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe book sample

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Fifteen chapters

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Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog (online), 23 February 2013

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Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, 31 May 2007

Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe is an odd little book and beautifully quirky. It borders on the ridiculous at times, and yet the characters motives never lose their believability. Quite a fine balance really!

The author is Wayne Macauley, an acclaimed Australian short story writer. The title relates to the old saying - ‘Up shit creek in a barbed-wire canoe without a paddle’ (although I must say I have never heard of the barbed-wire canoe bit before). And in fact, the barbed-wire canoe, a symbol of hopelessness and doom (because how far can you really get in it?) becomes the symbol for the entire story.

In a way that only an Australian can, Macauley writes about the suburban dream of housing estates, and sets his story in a satellite estate - one that has been built far out from the urban fringe, but lies waiting for buyers and the long-promised freeway (which sort of gains mythical status throughout the book) to catch up to it. Like the canoe, the little community is doomed before it even begins, by bad planning and shoddy workmanship.

Yet despite this (or perhaps because of it), Macauley painstakingly shows us the development of a society in the estate that becomes known (by letters falling off a sign) as ur - a clear parrallel to the doomed Sumerian city of the same name. The core characters stubbornly do not leave the development, despite the lack of plumbing, electricity, and eventually income that they are subject. Instead, they band together and survive using each of their unique skills.

At what point they story may verge on the ridiculous will change with every reader. Some will say it is the building of the wall around the estate (do I hear East Germany anyone?), while others will vote for the senseless deaths or the sheer lunacy of Michael’s attempts to draw attention to their plight at the end.

Bram, our narrator (and now think biblical reference) tells the story if the demise of the estate and all of their dreams after the event. But how reliable is he? His is a love story, and yet the object of his affection is strangely silent and absent. I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this.

It’s a really original read - which makes it great. Certainly it’s not for everyone - but no good book is. Trying hard to please everyone just makes for a bland read.

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Real Life? Some Recent Fiction
Paul Gillen
Overland, No. 182, Autumn 2006

Wayne Macauley’s Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe is an eccentric parable about a prematurely constructed housing estate abandoned by the vagaries of property development. The estate, which comes to be called, sardonically and Biblically, ‘Ur’ after most of the letters have faded from a gateway sign, could even be the same estate, a few years down the track, that is called ‘Another’ in [Joel] Deane’s novel [Another]. Macauley commands a rich and flexible style, ranging easily through satire, intensity and reflec­tion. There is nothing in this exemplary suburban Gothic tale to place it specifically in Melbourne, or anywhere, but there is something undeniably ‘Melbourne’ about its ironic brew of community, weirdness and failure.

...Even more striking than their attachment to place is the attachment of these books to the past. Overwhelmingly, they look back. The Singing [Stephanie Bishop] and Barbed-Wire Canoe are retrospective narratives...

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Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe

Graham Clark
The Courier Mail, 17 December 2005

Beguiling, eccentric, tapping the hidden heart of a different Australia - call Wayne Macauley’s work what you like, but after Bram gets through musing about life in the scrapheap of a failed housing estate; the last eventful canoe voyage of Jodie and her rabbit skin hat; the black-humoured tale of the one-eyed ideologue Michael the former fencer; Slug, the real estate agent who arrived in that government-sponsored estate with the grandest plans for making a million and eventually washed up on barren shores dispensing home brew - Macauley’s work, so the publishers say, is a fable of ownership, and an elegy for a dream. But that’s selling it short - this is original Australian writing at its best, sifting through a series of seemingly everyday events to unearth the real story of that derelict estate and its characters, which could be a parable of modern life seeking meaning anywhere.

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A descent into the wildness of isolation
A. Bronwyn Rivers
The Sydney Morning Herald, 5-6 June 2004

With its isolated characters, gothic elements and sense of degenerating humanity, Wayne Macauley’s Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe is reminiscent of Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well, or even William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Macauley has imagined an engagingly creepy setting. City planners create an unusual new housing development in the countryside north of Melbourne. The ‘Outer Suburban Village Development Complex’ is supposed to be a brave new type of town organised around a central square, with residents enticed by cheap housing and the promise of a fast freeway to the city. Its circular layout is mischievously suggestive of Milton Keynes or Canberra, those triumphs of 20th-century city planning.

But the promised freeway never eventuates, the town dies, and eventually only a few obstinate residents remain. The interest begins when officials attempt to erase this failed urban dream and the residents bunker down against the outside world.

The story is perhaps intended as a salutary fable about the horrors awaiting our disaffected modern citizenry: these isolated urban dwellers, abandoned by government and their fellow citizens, descend into wildness. Macauley displays a strong sense of situation, he keeps the action moving, and he creates lasting visual images and resonant symbolism. These strengths are let down by uneven narration. The voice of the narrator, Bram, is rather bland, and too often Macauley states the obvious, rather than allowing themes to grow out of suggestion.

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Mark Tredinnick
The Bulletin, 11 May 2004

Wayne Macauley’s novel feels like a short story that got away, a dense and implausible suburban fable about... it’s hard to say what. There are times when you wonder not only how this tale will end, but if it will. Which is not to say it’s a bad book. But reading it felt like falling into a bail of barbed wire in the dark and fighting to get out till morning. The more I struggled, the more it got under my skin.

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Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
Cameron Woodhead
The Age Book of the Week
The Age, 24 January 2004

More than 50 kilometres north of Melbourne, a model estate is built in a flush of quixotic enthusiasm. It turns into a town-planning disaster. Three years later the seven identical culs-de-sac are virtually abandoned - no jobs came, the freeway extension was never built and the inhabitants fled back to the city. Bram, excavating the wreckage of the site, tells the strange stories of the people who moved there. Wayne Macauley has the soul of a poet and his surreal novella is stunningly written. Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe evokes a series of quirky characters, the humour set against suburban decay. It is a satire of exquisite poise and confidence and a timely corrective to the noxious utopianism of, say, Caroline Springs advertisements. If more Australian literature was of this calibre, wed be laughing.

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The Latest Word
Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
Emmett Stinson, Wet Ink, Issue 2, Autumn 2006

Wayne Macauley’s novella tells the story of a failed government-funded housing estate. Envisioned as a village of 1,000 people 50 kilometres north of Melbourne, potential residents are offered incentives, such as the building of a highway and petrol discounts, to relocate. But these promises never materialise and the community dwindles to seven people. Stranded far from the city, the remaining develop an informal commune increasingly isolated from the outside world.

The novella (though billed as a novel) feels more like a bloated short story in form and scope and Macauley’s tale spirals into an absurdist surreality reminiscent of Fat Man in History-era Peter Carey. The residents of the estate (pseudo-cleverly renamed ‘Ur’ because those are the only two remaining letter of its official name - the Outer Suburban Village Development Complex) square off against vandals, government freeway builders, and the creation of an adjacent garbage tip. Eventually two are driven to a bushranger/guerilla insurgency that evokes Ned Kelly.

To Macauley’s credit, the plot remains bewitching and ethereal, lending a vaguely allegorical bent to the story, which seems to reflect on Australia’s own settlement and antipodean isolation from the West, as well as the alienation of modern suburban living.

Unfortunately, the characters remain flat and unbelievable - and while this may be the point, evoking ‘types’ rather than rounded characters, this approach often comes off as affected rather than effective. Bram, the novel’s narrator, claims to be in love with Jodie, but she remains a secondary character and inexplicably disappears from this short book for dozens of pages at a stretch - despite his supposed infatuation. At other points, important information is delivered after the fact (e.g., after cleaning a gunshot wound, one character conveniently mentions her background as a nurse). Macauley’s prose, though verbose enough to suggest an intellectual narrator, is staid and uncomfortably ridden with cliches (such as ‘ridden with cliches’).

The book’s nadir occurs when a character literally navigates up a sewage-drenched river in a barbed-wire canoe - a premise trying so hard to be clever that it nearly cripples an otherwise enchanting story.

Still, the hallucinatory power of Macauley’s tale ultimately manages to surmount these shortcomings. His novella remains ambitious and experimental - and it succeeds more often than it fails. In an era when many Australian novelists are playing it safe, Macauley’s literary gambits are refreshing even when they don’t pan out. Most impressively-for a work that is consciously literary, intellectual and experimental - Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe makes for a page-turning, accessible read. It is not a masterwork, nor even an unqualified success, but its high aspirations and ability to tackle multiple issues in a small space suggest that Wayne Macauley is an ambitious talent worth watching.

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Radio National Books & Writing Interview with Wayne Macauley

Romana Koval interviews Wayne Macauley
27 November 2005

Blueprints For A Barbed-Wire Canoe


We’re up the creek without a paddle this week. Ramona is in conversation with Wayne Macauley about his first novel Blueprints For A Barbed-Wire Canoe. It’s about a failed suburban housing development. And while the story is firmly rooted in the complexities of contemporary urban Australia, it also has the timeless feel of a fable or allegory to it.

The new housing estate promises its residents a marvellous lifestyle, but what they end up getting is a life they could never have imagined. It’s a bleak, funny, and utterly original take on the Australian dream of owning your own home and living a happy life.

Ramona Koval: Hello, Ramona Koval with you on ABC Radio National. This is Books and Writing, and this week we’re all going up the creek in a barbed-wire canoe. Wayne Macauley is the bloke who’s taking us there. He’s the author of a book called Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe. It’s his first novel, published by a relatively small publisher, Black Pepper, and unusually for a first novel it’s just gone into reprint. It has also now found its way onto the Victorian certificate of education English curriculum reading list, and it’s a book that’s firmly rooted in the complexities of contemporary urban Australia, but it also has the timeless feel of a fable or allegory to it.

Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe is the story of a failed housing estate, an outer suburban development in Melbourne that offers the people who go to live there affordable housing, a village lifestyle and the promise of a fast freeway to the city. But in reality the services and amenities never arrive. Eventually only a few obstinate residents remain, feeling conned and isolated. As Wayne Macauley writes of their situation, and it’s a strange but actually very apt way to put it; ‘We had no mighty river of a freeway to irrigate us, to give us cars and life.’

Wayne Macauley: Yes, it’s an odd metaphor, isn’t it, because it almost goes against the grain. We’ve been trained to dislike freeways, but in fact, yes, that’s right, almost every outer suburban development is totally dependant on them. So if we were to look at a symbol that represented what actually provides life, work, travel to an outer suburban housing development, then the freeway is it.

Ramona Koval: So these people were promised a freeway, and they were encouraged to really go to a suburban utopia.

Wayne Macauley: Yes, you’re buying a home not a house, you’re buying a life…it’s more the advertising that annoys me about the idea of utopia. I think it’s possible for people to dream about utopias, and I think dreaming about them is fine, but selling them as a package is another thing entirely.

Ramona Koval: So these citizens who’ve bought here in the ‘outer suburban village development complex’, as it’s called, and they’re expecting this freeway as a river, giving them cars and life, and they suddenly realise that they have been really let go by the planners, politicians, and it has turned into a suburban dystopia. It doesn’t turn into that immediately but slowly, slowly, and it starts with a smell. Tell me about the smell.

Wayne Macauley: It’s the smell of sewerage flowing into a creek from a pipe that was never connected. As simple as that really; the smell, the first scent that something may be wrong. I suppose the idea of the smell, of something that’s on the nose, continues throughout the book, as also a rubbish tip is then put nearby, to the residents’ horror, to the residents’ disbelief, and that smell also wafts across the estate.

Ramona Koval: Interestingly though, Bram, who’s... well, I guess in a sense he’s the author of this, it’s his history...

Wayne Macauley: He’s a narrator.

Ramona Koval: He’s a narrator, but he is writing, he’s trying to write a history, and he’s an archaeologist in a sense too because we meet him kind of at the end when he’s digging through the stuff and he’s finding artefacts and he’s telling us about those artefacts and how they got there. Why does he stay in his stinking house?

Wayne Macauley: Initially it’s because he’s staying there out of protest. He believes, and most of the other residents do, that this can’t be true, that what has been promised will come, utopia will happen. But then eventually I think there is a point at which the logic of that disperses and there is something more strange and perhaps insane that takes over.

Ramona Koval: There’s also a kind of Ned Kelly twist, there are some urban bush rangers that get developed during the plot, and all sort of twists like that. But it’s a kind of bleak book with amusing bits.

Wayne Macauley: I love that. That’s very quotable.

Ramona Koval: Did you mean it to be whimsical?

Wayne Macauley: There’s a certain element to myself that enjoys whimsy. Whimsy’s a bit wet for me but... humour, I can’t help it. Amusing bits, I can’t help it. And of course there’s another side of me that is dark, troubled... not troubled but that worries about things a lot. So I suppose it’s those two things coming together. I’d have to say that some of my favourite bits are those bits where, as a reader, I would say, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Am I supposed to laugh here or not?’ And I love that moment where any art form takes you to that very uncomfortable place where you know you want to laugh but you’re not sure whether you should be, given the circumstances. But in fact that’s often where the best laughter comes from.

Ramona Koval: In the suburbs, and in fact in this particular suburban dystopia, the name of the suburb is Ur, because it was... now what’s the phrase again?

Wayne Macauley: Outer suburban village development complex. However, all the letters from the sign which, on the roadway into the estate, have fallen off or been souvenired by the vandals, and after some time everything except the two letters from ‘suburban’ are left; ‘ur’, Ur.

Ramona Koval: Which is also, strangely enough, the name of a ancient city. Tell me about Ur, and tell me about the fragments of poems at the beginning of the book.

Wayne Macauley: There’s an epigraph at the beginning of the book which is from an ancient Sumerian poem. Most of those Sumerian poems are hymns, laments, threnodies... they mourn the loss, mostly in fact, of cities, and this being an extract from a poem called ‘Lamentation for Ur’, I think it is. Ur is famous for a couple of things. Ur is in the Mesopotamian Valley in present-day Iraq...

Ramona Koval: And Abraham came from Ur too.

Wayne Macauley: Correct, yes. That’s one of the things that it is famous for. In a sense it was the place in which Monotheism began really, and those three great religions then sprang from that. Judaic myth and legend tells the story where Abraham one day had a fit with his old man Terach who was a maker of idols, and said, ‘You’re making all these idols to all these gods, this is bullshit, you know? There’s only one God,’ and he actually picked up all the idols and smashed them on the floor. That’s what I think of your polytheism, Dad! And off he went and ended up, of course, going to the Promised Land as we know it in that particular strand of mythology.

Ur was also an extraordinary place because it was also generally acknowledged as the birth of civilisation. That is to say, some of the fundamental things started there, particularly urban living. People moved in off the plains and actually settled down, built houses, brick houses, and they planted crops, they actually settled, and they established all those kinds of city things that we know about. They had pubs and cafes and stuff and they started to live an urban existence. Also writing as we know it (symbols that imitate the phonetics of speech) was invented in a.... which I find really intriguing, but that’s where writing, as we westerners understand it, began.

And also probably the most important thing of all; beer was invented in Ur. So Ur was a very interesting place, but of course as it relates to this book clearly there’s a couple of things... one is the idea of an ancient civilization, an original civilisation, and from my nihilistic view of how in some ways the civilisation of the west since then has got so messed up and so screwed up. There is some sense of; what is civilisation? Civilisation of cities, urban civilisations; how can we be getting it so horribly wrong?

Ramona Koval: But then again, how can we expect that anything will last forever, because things have always diminished after they’ve been built up.

Wayne Macauley: Look, true, and in some ways that’s the metaphor running back to ancient Ur, which is precisely that; it rose and it fell, it rose and it fell, and that’s what civilisations do. The other interesting thing is archaeology because we only know about these civilisations by digging them over...

Ramona Koval: Through their rubbish dumps.

Wayne Macauley: Well, that’s absolutely true; we actually dig over their rubbish, and we pull them out and these things are precious items that we display in glass cases in museums, and it’s what tells us about those civilisations. So in some sort of small way, the metaphor of all the letters but ‘ur’ falling off the sign out the front of the estate points us in this direction of an attempt at civilisation, an attempt at urban living that unfortunately does go wrong and is lamented over. But there are signs and symbols there, there is debris embedded in the ground that we can go back and we can hunt though and look through. As readers we can hunt through and look through the clues and signs in this thing called a book. We can go back, dig that over, have a look in there and see what we can find out about these people; who they were, how they lived their life, and also maybe where they went wrong. What happened? Why? Did they screw it up or were they sacked by invaders or...? For me that’s the perhaps tenuous thread between some place that rose up out of the desert, out of the flat landscape 4000 years ago and an estate in some time roughly concurrent with ours that springs up on the northern plains out of Melbourne.

Ramona Koval: Blueprint for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, this story of an urban nightmare, begins with days of pelting rain and the discovery of the washed-up remnants of a canoe and the body of a young woman called Jodie. Later, the narrator Bram is given a leather satchel. Inside is a piece of writing that gives the novel its title. Here’s Wayne Macauley reading what his character, Bram, has discovered in the satchel:

Wayne Macauley [reading from Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, pgs 104-106]:

Be sure you’re sick of life, say to yourself: I’ve had enough. Take a roll of rusted barbed-wire and some pieces of nail-infested wood and shape it into a canoe. Choose a moonless night, a night with no moon, the darkest night; you are the only witness, the only one who should see.Take your canoe down to the filthy creek when the stench is at its worst, tighten the chin strap of your hat and button your jacket up hard—the journey will be long and fraught with danger. You will use no paddle, you will need no paddle, but will carry a big jar of salt with you and throw handfuls from the stern. This will propel the canoe away from the dark unfathomable ocean, of which the salt is a cruel reminder, upstream towards the pure crystal waters at the source. Recite the prayer: Nothing Matters, I Don’t Care—three times every hour: this will give you strength. Hold your head up high. Never doub tthe wisdom of your journey, do not ask Where or Why; the canoe is a sensitive one, it may turn on a pinhead and rush you back to the ocean or drop like a stone beneath you. All night you will travel and well into the following day. When the salt runs out do not despair, the waters will be clearing now and the canoe will know it has safely left the muck behind. Dip the empty jar over the side and hold the contents up to the light; you are looking for water so clear that it seems not to be there, that the jar itself appears to dissolve in your hand. If you do not find it onthe second day, do not despair, go on, if you do not find it on the third, repeat the prayer more often and hold your head a little higher. If you do not find it on the fourth or fifth, don’t worry, go on. If after a week the jar does not dissolve and the water in it is still putrid and thick, take heart, go on, the second week may yet see you safely to your journey’s end. When in the third week the canoe starts leaking, bail it out, be brave, go on, and when in the fourth week you find yourself becalmed and feel it slowly sinking beneath you, bail harder, keep faith, don’t worry, go on. It is then, and only then, as your carefully thought out and well-constructed vessel sinks slowly towards the muddy bottom that you may allow yourself to cry out: Help! But do it softly, don’t make a big show of it, you are the only witness, the night is moonless again and you are miles away from home; do it softly, sweetly, and as the waters engulf you don’t whatever you do forget to keep your head held high.

Ramona Koval: So the way you read that, of course, there is a bit of whimsy in that too, and then you say, ‘don’t forget to keep your head held high’, but actually that is when the person is actually drowning, isn’t it?

Wayne Macauley: Yes.

Ramona Koval: And it’s a kind of ‘never give up’, ‘keep your head held high, no matter what’s happening to you, don’t lose your dignity’... but this is a suicide not.

Wayne Macauley: Yes, it could be thought of as that, but it’s also in some ways a summation of the thread that runs through the book which is precisely that. Maybe it’s a little folksy and homespun but, yes, keep trying, things might get better, if not today maybe tomorrow. And that’s, in fact, the core of belief amongst, I must say, these very ordinary people who go to this place with a dream. So it’s not unreasonable for them to keep hanging on to the dream, and really the blueprints, as articulated in the book, the blueprints for a barbed-wire canoe are in some ways a statement of fact of how these residents have lived their lives.

Ramona Koval: But then it starts saying, ‘Be sure you’re sick of life. Say to yourself, I’ve had enough, and then take a roll of rusted barbed-wire and some pieces of nail-infested wood and shape it into a canoe.’ I mean, that’s the suicide bit, I think.

Wayne Macauley: I don’t know, I’m not going to necessarily agree that is a suicide note.

Ramona Koval: It’s a recipe for suicide.

Wayne Macauley: Well, life is a progression from birth to death and in that sense it’s one long walk to suicide if you want to think of it like that. I actually think those blueprints are more (in that sense) philosophical. The saying—to be up shit creek in a barbed-wire canoe without a paddle—is something that I think expresses…what is it? It’s a way of saying how dreadful life can be, how appalling the situation is, whatever, but ah whatever, you know? I’ll go on, I’ll keep going. So it’s a fine line, as you say, between darkness and humour. But I don’t know if it’s a suicide note.

Ramona Koval: I suppose I thought that because we see this woman getting quite dead in the beginning of the book from following exactly this blueprint.

Wayne Macauley: It’s true that the canoe doesn’t work and that’s a fact, that you can’t actually sail upstream, up a creek...

Ramona Koval: With a jar of salt.

Wayne Macauley: Even with a jar of salt. You can’t, you’re not going to make it. But, again, the philosophy expressed in that, and perhaps again in the book as a whole amongst these ordinary people, is that should that stop you from trying? If you start from nihilism it’s all up from there, you know? I guess that’s, to some extent, what we’re talking about.

Ramona Koval: The book is going to have a young readership now. It’s been set for the 2006/2007 Victorian certificate of education English and English as a second language curriculum, which is marvellous for you.

Wayne Macauley: It’s fantastic, it’s great, for two reasons; one is that it’s a first novel, so that’s obviously a nice pat on the back, but also it’s by a small publisher, Black Pepper, who are a small independent publisher in Melbourne. So on both counts I think it’s a real statement of faith...

Ramona Koval: About nihilism?

Wayne Macauley: And humour. Nihilism and humour.

Ramona Koval: What do you think young people will make of it?

Wayne Macauley: I look forward to finding out. I mean that really sincerely. I’m excited about that idea. I do think it’s a book that will stand up to more than one reading, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why it’s been selected, that there are a lot of things to think about in there, contrary perhaps to the picture you were painting—it’s not all bleak because it’s leavened by humour a lot and also some characters that I think you can emphasise with. So, again, those things are attractive to people who are perhaps engaging with literature for the first time. I think the main thing is that it feels that it’s got stuff to say and be discussed, which is a great thing to know that your book will be talked about. It’s also a great thing to know that your book will be talked about (perhaps hated, who knows, it doesn’t matter) by people at that very formative point in their lives, because I can remember that moment.

Ramona Koval: Oh yes, and bleakness or nihilism or passion or... it’s all very much part of the make up...

Wayne Macauley: It’s all that moment of time and I remember that time vividly, and it shapes you as a human being, no question, those years. So, look, I think it’s a great privilege to have your work read by people of that age and discussed by people of that age and argued with or whatever the case may be. It’s a wonderful thing.

Ramona Koval: What sort of a young person were you?

Wayne Macauley: I was a bit rebellious and I kind of took a while to get my head straightened out.

Ramona Koval: Where were you living?

Wayne Macauley: I was living out in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Mitcham, just the burbs. But I had that epiphany that everyone has to have, and it was HSC (as it was then), year 12, and I chose to do English literature and this drop-dead gorgeous teacher walked into the room. We did Joyce, we did Hamlet, we did Voss, we did Eliot’s The Waste Land... bang! It all went off in my head, and I was a changed man. I was a man.

Ramona Koval: She made a man of you.

Wayne Macauley: Yes, that was really the moment where I discovered what writing was, what you could do with it, why it was there and how it could just blow your mind compared to the thrashing around I was doing. Something went clunk in my head.

Ramona Koval: And then what happened?

Wayne Macauley: Then I left school and worked on a market garden, and I saved some money and I travelled around Europe. Then I came back and I did a year at university, which was good, and then I applied to go to a drama school too, the Victorian College of the Arts drama school... out of nowhere. I saw an ad in the paper and saw ‘arts’, and extraordinarily I got in. I was in my early 20s. I went to drama school, dropped out of that too, travelled, wrote, travelled, wrote... and at some point, when people asked me what I did, I started saying ‘writer’. And it takes a long time to arrive at that point. No matter how long you’ve been doing it, it actually takes a long time and it is a statement of faith. It’s a moment where you (even if you don’t have a lot of work out there) say ‘this is what I do’. I guess that is who I am.

Ramona Koval: What had you written then, when you were calling yourself a writer? Were you published by then?

Wayne Macauley: No, I hadn’t been published. I’d been writing for theatre and that was initially what I was doing. I was writing for theatre and having it performed. I’d been writing short prose, stories, none of which I think I’d even tried to place. It was a very internal world I was working in. But then I guess it was not long after the morning that I woke up (so to speak) and called myself a writer that, yes, I did have my first story placed, and then had progressively stuff that I had written previously and maybe reworked and worked on and redrafted... then I began to have my stories published. Then I knew I was writer... well, a writer of fiction anyway.

Ramona Koval: The book is dedicated...  it’s for your father ‘as promised’. What was that promise?

Wayne Macauley: It’s emotionally complex. It’s a promise as much to myself as anything, but partly to him as well. My dad died quite young. In fact my dad died the same age I am now, which is 47, which I consider quite young because I am 47. That was around that upheaval time, really, that we were talking about before; I was 20 when he died, so I was only just discovering this thing called literature, you know? And he passed away, and I don’t think he knew what the hell I was on about, what on Earth I was doing with my life...

Ramona Koval: What did he do?

Wayne Macauley: He was a builder. He worked on big building sites in the city, and contracted early-onset emphysema which was actually related to his work, breathing the stuff. So he was sick for a long time, not a well man for a long time. So obviously, me having seen the drop-dead gorgeous literature teacher and had my epiphany, we were obviously going in separate paths at that time. So obviously that, as I’m sure it does for a lot of people who lose their parents young... it stayed with me and affected me in many ways. I know that progressively over those lost years, before I called myself a writer, that I was trying to work that stuff out. So I knew that one day I would have a book published and that when I finally did it would be dedicated to him.

Ramona Koval: There’s a lot of building in this book actually. There’s a lot of building, there’s a lot of constructing.

Wayne Macauley: There’s a lot of building in my work generally, as a couple of people have pointed out recently. So, yes, how much of that is conscious I don’t know, and how much is subconscious. Yes, there is, that’s right, and the idea of the house, the home, the great Australian dream... my dad... actually his dad too was a builder and they built our house, the house I was born in and brought up in, out there on the edge of the known universe. So that also is something that runs very strongly in what I do and who I am, but also how I see myself in this place. Somehow that strange collusion between my father, what he did, his death, me becoming a writer, being an Australian, being a Melbournian even more so, all those things somehow are coming together in my work. I guess they have come together in Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe in that sense because it’s about the great Australian dream, building your house on a block of land and living a happy life.

Ramona Koval: Wayne Macauley. And Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, his first novel, is published by Black Pepper. And another novel by Wayne called Caravan Story will come out early next year. That’s Books and Writing for now, which is produced by me, Ramona Koval, and Amanda Smith.

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Author Notes on Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe

Delivered at the 2005 VATE Conference


It had rained for three days solid, in some places the creek had already burst its banks; she’d waited for nightfall, a night with no moon. No-one can say how spectacularly unsuccessful the launching was, no-one was there on that dark night to bear witness. Though the remnants of the canoe were found the following day wrapped crazily around an overhanging branch almost a kilometre downstream, there is little point speculating on how much of the journey was made on the surface as hoped and how much of it tumbling in the putrid waters beneath. The body itself outdistanced the canoe by a kilometre and a half and was recovered two days later wedged between the root of a tree and the grey mud of the bank. It wore, ridiculously, the uniform prescribed; the rabbit skin hat still held in place by a chin-strap, the jacket still neatly buttoned.

I was asked into town to sign some papers and I drove there dazed and shaken. Patterson himself seemed genuinely upset. It was, we both knew, a strange and futile end to a strange and futile saga. Little was said, little could be said; I saw the body, identified her as Jodie and drove back home with the image of her blood-drained face and quiet closed-forever eyes before me.

The rain wouldn’t stop, it came down in endless thin silver ropes, pelting the roof and bursting out of the gutters; it was washing everything, washing everything clean, the whole sad sorry story, across the paddocks and ruins, from trickles to rivulets to the creek into the far-off sea. That night, as I sat down at my table and prepared to break the news to Michael, I knew, at last, that my days here were done.

Michael! Mad, bad, cockeyed Michael! That it should all come to this! All the twisted lines of our journey, the scratches, the cuts, the bruises, were marked on her face. But serene, so serene, ghost-white and pure. Michael! Oh Michael! That it should all come to this!


I loaded the car up with beer from the pub in town and pulled the table up that night to within arm’s reach of the fridge. Empty cans littered the table, the rain drummed hard on the roof. Hours passed, they could have been years. I couldn’t write to Michael, there were no words to fix the image, wrap it in sympathy and carry it safely to him: six screwed up pieces of paper lay strewn across the floor. I raised myself unsteadily from the table, stood at the back door and looked out at the rain. It had already washed the gravel from the path leading down the back to the creek and the paddocks beyond lay shrouded in darkness and damp. She’d have passed by here, just down there at the end of the path, beyond the murky shaft of light, where I could hear the sound of the boiling, rushing water even now. Was she standing, head held high as instructed, or already tumbling, groping, lost? I’d have been sleeping, the rain on the roof. And she passed by softly: I couldn’t have heard.

I put on my coat, took up the lamp, and walked out into the rain. I made my way down North Court and trudged to the top of the mountain of rubble that overlooked the Square. It was a lake now, a low lake of muddy water in which a few persistent gorse bushes still stood. Nothing to suggest the summer evenings of suffused orange light, the clinking of glasses and the hubbub of talk; those long magical evenings now a lifetime away. Grey sky, grey mud, grey water, drenched by an unending rain. I walked down the eastern side of the hill towards the few houses that still stood, miraculously, north-east of the Square. My boots were caked with mud, my steps were leaden. Thick weeds, gorse and thistle had long ago claimed the streets; they slapped at my thighs, tore at my flesh and wet my trousers through.

I walked into the lounge room of an empty house; it reeked of dogs, bird droppings and damp. A bird flew out the window, leaving the echo of its flapping in the room. I remembered Michael, and our meeting in the abandoned house on West Court all those years ago. Flies buzzed in zigzag patterns around the broken light fitting and the dogs stretched and yawned on the burnt-brown lawn. That summer was the worst, the paddocks around us were dead grass and dust; the streets melted, the gardens withered, a heat shimmer wobbled and distorted everything in the middle distance and beyond. Days on end spent waiting for night, nights on end spent dreading the days, we cowed beneath an open sky, hugging the walls and shadows, listening with one ear cocked to the distant rumblings whose source we could still not name. He was her father, I was in love with her, all my words were servant to these truths.

I trudged back home, my boots and the shoulders of my coat soaked through, and lit a fire in the grate. Steam rose from the boots on the hearth and the coat flung over the chair: it hung below the ceiling like a cloud threatening rain. Rain, rain, everywhere the rain. It battered the roof and dripped with an insistent rhythm into the saucepans. I sat at the table and gazed again at the objects assembled there: a piece of glass from a broken beer bottle, a chipped house brick, a charred rabbit bone. I arranged and rearranged them on the table before me, imploring them to tell a story, to reconstitute themselves into a whole. But they remained stubbornly themselves; inert, mute, adrift. So are these few reliquiae all that I have salvaged from the ruins of those years? Small things, absurd, earth-encrusted things. Had I not come back to dig them out they would still be sleeping peacefully where they should be, in the all-forgiving earth.

[pgs 1-4]

It is a great privilege to have your book listed as a text for study, particularly if it’s the first book you’ve had published. It says, I think, that your book is considered worthy of being looked at more than once. And that for me is what a good book is all about. The books I like, anyway. They ask to be read again. They say to you: I’m more than just surface, there are layers here too.

Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe is a work of irony, and as such, I think, it can stand a bit of archaeological excavation. But that doesn’t mean that what’s beneath the surface is going to be easily read. I don’t think that’s what literature’s about: a book should get you thinking, but it shouldn’t tell you what to think. Fiction-making is a speculative enterprise, and it’s in these imaginative spaces the speculative enterprise opens up that the real pleasure of storytelling and story-reading can be found.

My story is set in the barren cow paddocks to the north of Melbourne, familiar to us all, but it is also set in ancient Sumeria, in the fertile delta between the Tigris and the Euphrates. By that I don’t mean that I jump back and forth between these two places, as some more cosmopolitan globe-hopping authors might; no, my story takes place exclusively on the plains north of Melbourne but beneath it, as subtext (to use the old term), lie those other more fertile plains of ancient Mesopotamia.

In the Mesopotamian valley, between about 3000 and 2000 BC, some amazing things started to happen. Nomadic tribes started to, as they say, ‘settle down’; and the idea of a house, a home, was born. Why wander the desert looking for food when you can grow it - grains especially - in the fertile soil of the delta? People started grabbing blocks of land and putting solid brick houses up on them. They dropped by to meet their new neighbours. They became a civic community. Writing was born - yes, writing as we now understand it, the permanent marking down of symbols to imitate the phonetics of speech - and, soon outgrowing its purely market-driven origins, this writing started to convey not just recorded facts but possibilities too and not just thoughts but feelings. We find poems and stories (the Epic of Gilgamesh is one), hymns and laments, that, once part of an oral tradition, were now part of a written tradition too. And all this activity - drinking, thinking (the Sumerians invented beer too)... drinking, thinking, despairing, writing - reached a peak around the second millennium BC in one particular city in the Mesopotamian valley called Ur.

And in this city called Ur - to keep ourselves in Mesopotamia for a moment - around 2000 BC, something very significant happened, something that would in due course drive a wedge between the Old World and the New, and set Western civilisation in particular (if civilisation we can still call it) on the path it is now on. Because in this city lived a young man called Abraham, who, distressed and confused about all the idol-worship going on around him - An the God of Heaven, Utu the God of Sun, Enlil the God of Wind, Enki the God of Rivers, Nanna the Goddess of Moon, Ishkur the God of Rain, Ninurta the God of Floods, Inanna the Goddess of the Morning and Evening Stars - one day heard the voice of a new monotheistic God talking to him. Forget about all these other gods, Abraham’s new God said, there is only one God now, and that’s Me. Come away from all this confusing, primitive polytheism and journey now to a place called Canaan, the ‘promised land’, which I have set aside for you. We’ll start afresh, God said.

...and they went forth... [says Genesis] from Ur of the Chaldees,
to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there...

The idea of a utopia, a promised land, runs deep through the Australian psyche - the early explorers’ belief in the existence of an Inland Sea, the events of Eureka and its secessionist subtext, wacky young Ned’s Kelly Country Republic. And what has undoubtedly fed into all these utopian dreams is the idea of Australia - Terra Australis, Terra Nullius - as herself a Utopia. From the picture painted by the ancient Greeks of Antipodean giants sitting under their umbrella feet drinking Vodka Cruisers in the sun, to the Ramsay Street of Neighbours, ‘promised land’ utopianism has always clung to us like a green and gold lycra body suit. We represent Hope with a capital ‘h’: in hope people come here, in hope people live here. We are western civilisation’s dream home, the one down the end of the street upon which the sun is always shining and in the window of which fresh smiling faces can always be seen. In us and only in us rests the possibility of creating western civilisation anew, of avoiding the screw-ups, of getting it right...

The Estate was built in record time and the official opening was attended by many dignitaries, the most important of whom, the Premier no less, unveiled the small bronze plaque that up until the destruction still stood on the grass plantation in the centre of the Square. It was all a cause for great civic pride at the time and those of us who were there, the first residents, guinea pigs if you like, felt that we were taking part in an event of great national importance. Speeches were made, a large marquee covered the Square and beer, wine and savouries were served. I hope, said the Premier, one hand on the podium to prevent his speech being carried off by the wind, that this will become the model of things to come.

And yes, despite its questionable location and the hurry to completion, despite everything that has happened since, the Estate was a model of the new planning ideas at the time and was, in its way, absolutely unique. It was designed as a kind of self-contained village; a main Square in the centre surrounded by shops, a bank, a post office and so on, with four streets radiating out from this Square to each point of the compass. Each of these four streets then crossed a ring road some forty metres out from the Square with all except one terminating on the other side in three bubble-shaped cul-de-sacs or courts. The fourth or eastbound street crossed the ring road and continued on for a little over a kilometre until it met up with the main highway to the city - the only access, by road, to the Estate. Four further cul-de-sacs or courts branched off from the ring road, making seven in all.

Map from Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe

So that the whole thing resembled, if seen from the air and with a touch of imagination, the great wheel of an old sailing ship bound for exotic new lands. The four streets and seven courts were named according to their corresponding positions on the compass; North Street, East Street, North Court, North-East Court etc.... And they all, including the ring road, were lined with houses - two hundred and twenty in all and all identical in design: three bedroom solid brick with front yard, back yard, driveway and garage. On the basis of four and a half persons per household, the designers had calculated on a population of nine hundred and ninety people.

It was, to anyone’s way of seeing things, an extraordinary achievement.

[pgs 7-9]

My book is set on those flat basalt plains north of Melbourne, where the last scraps of the outer suburbs tumble over into overworked, weed-infested cow paddocks. It’s the place ‘in between’, the most interesting place when you think about it; a place of ‘possibility’. It is neither city nor country, urban nor rural. It’s the paddocks north of Craigieburn, the flatlands out the back of Melton, the Western Highway past Caroline Springs. It is a place of hope, of new possibilities - in a world supposedly of no new frontiers it is just that: the new frontier. Every day another pioneering family loads the wagon and heads out there. They carve out their quarter-acreage and put up their dwellings: frontier outposts in a hard inhospitable landscape. They put up fences and within them set about cultivating, taming, civilising, the landscape. Instant turf, a weeping cherry, a passionfruit vine along the back fence. They make a ‘home’ for themselves (these are not ‘houses’, these are homes) and prepare to raise children in them.

I come from the outer suburbs, and have always had an ambivalent relationship to them. On the one hand I find them absolutely stultifying, mind-numbing, awful, and on the other the idea of the suburbs as a tabula rasa - possibility as opposed to actuality - is the premise that underpins almost everything I do as a writer. For me they represent the true essence of this country’s white settler culture (the only culture I have any real familiarity with): a culture built on our absolute, even irrational, belief in freedom, opportunity and prosperity. It is the landscape of possibility.

The suburbs are and always have been this country’s political barometer, whether we like it or not what goes on out there (out here) shapes our politics in ways we often have trouble dealing with. The last two federal elections were fought and won in the so-called ‘mortgage belt’ where the twin threats of interest rate rises and invading foreigners delivered everything that could be asked of them. It’s in the suburbs that this kind of stuff bites hard, because it’s in the suburbs that our grandest utopian dreams are played out. The politicians know the suburbs are where it’s at. I wonder if the reason so much of our art is so out of touch with our politics is that our artists are too embarrassed to admit that our policitians may be right. It seems we’d prefer to live, both actually and imaginatively, in some eucalypt-scented bush, some revved-up translatlantic metropolis, some Tuscany - or in the past. But not in those wide streets, those well-fitted houses, those shopping centres, those arterial roads. There is a constant imaginative flight from the suburbs, as if it were a place unworthy of us. Is it? Or is it actually who we are?

Outer Suburban Village Development Complex the sign on the access road had read, but over the years all but the letters ‘ur’ from Suburban had either fallen off or been souvenired by the vandals. In time to come we would take this name - ur, a kind of laconic mumble - as our own and keep it as our own private joke, but either way, both then and later, the name remained hidden from everyone but us. We had never appeared on a map under any name, old or new; the cartographers had barely begun to sketch us in before they were forced to erase us again. The dilapidated sign out on the access road was all we had to call attention to our existence and rare now, if ever, were the times when foreign eyes fell upon it. Occasionally, on a weekend stroll, one of us might see a car pull up out on the access road and a poorly-dressed family stand gazing for a while at the strange collection of houses in front of them. But if they had come to consider the idea of moving into the Estate then the idea quickly deserted them. The family dog that had scampered down to the ring road corner to sniff the tails of the others who had gathered there to greet it was quickly whistled back and leashed and the family got in and drove away, carrying with them the first chapter of the story they would tell to other poorly-dressed families back in the city, a story that would end with the words: No, don’t bother, we’ve seen it and it stinks.

It did stink. Though the sewage produced by a mere seven individuals may be rightly considered a trifle, it was more than enough to infect the slow-moving creek and the market garden with a rich rotting smell that often and particularly in summer hung over the northern part of ur like a poisonous cloud.

[pgs 25-26]

When I was in Form 5 at Vermont High School I wrote an English assignment, since lost, that must have revealed the first stirrings of the piss-taking poetic satirist in me. I can’t exactly remember what I wrote, I’m sure I was just being a smart-arse, but, after giving me an ‘F’, my English teacher, Mrs Whitrod, suggested I read something called ‘A Modest Proposal’ by Jonathan Swift. I didn’t, of course, I was a smart-arse. But years later, secretly, I took up her suggestion and when I did I realised why. She was suggesting that even this rebellious, aggressive sixteen year old energy, this cynicism, this facetiousness, that even this, of all things, could be turned into art.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the work Mrs Whitrod was referring me to but I’ll quickly revisit it anyway. ‘A Modest Proposal’ was written in 1729 by Swift, an Irishman, at a time when the ‘Irish Question’ was being hotly debated in the English parliament. A lot of high-minded speeches were being made, and paternal suggestions put, about how to deal with the poverty and overpopulation of Catholic Ireland. Swift, in the guise of a public-spirited citizen, offers his ‘modest proposal’ - that many if not all of Ireland’s problems could be ameliorated if the babies of poor Irish parents were sold as table meat to the rich. It is a brilliant proposal, brilliantly argued. It walks that fine line between the believable and the outrageous in a way that still makes me envious. It is a satire of the highest order. Swift - and this is the essence of it - is not talking as Swift, Swift doesn’t seriously think we should sell our babies for table meat, Swift is taking on a character, he is ‘impersonating’ someone (from the root ‘persona’), he is an actor speaking with a character’s voice, he is trying something on, he is doing a ‘what if?’. He’s finding a way, an artistic way, to use all his, Swift’s, anger, cynicism, and disgust. He’s being cool, rational, reasonable, logical. He is - and this is my point - putting the reader in a very difficult position. Should we believe him? Do we take him seriously? Is this meant to be fact or fiction...?

Shortly after, as the first of the autumn rains began sweeping in across the paddocks, Michael started building the wall. I had neither the presence of mind nor the wherewithal to stop him. He seconded Alex and his bulldozer (at the point of a gun, as I later discovered) and had him knock down half a dozen empty houses on the edge of South-East Court. He sorted the good bricks from the rubble, ferried mud for mortar from the creek, and day by day the wall grew higher. It rose on the outer edge of the ring road, with the footpath for a foundation, and one by one over the winter that followed all the houses outside its confines were demolished to provide the bricks. Michael worked every day until the light gave out, often in the drizzling rain, carting mud from the western branch of the creek on a flat-topped barrow made from scraps of wood and an old bicycle wheel and laying bricks with a home-made trowel. A few of the others tried to talk him in - we feared for his health above all - but Michael could not be swayed. The wall eventually rose to thirty courses, over two metres high, and ur was in the end contained exclusively within the confines of the old ring road, its size reduced by more than half. As Alex’s bulldozer bore down on the last house left standing in North Court I resigned myself to the inevitable, packed up my things and moved to a vacant house on the corner of North Street and the Square, diagonally opposite Slug’s. Closer to Jodie, I remember thinking, as if that were any consolation.

As winter drew to a close, Michael topped the wall with a tangle of barbed-wire and broken bottles and constructed a huge barbed-wire gate to stop up the access road entrance. With the first days of spring, Vito began planting his new crop in the Square (he’d already dug up all the front lawns of West Street in preparation for his new system of rotation): the last vegetables had been picked from the old farm and it would now be abandoned. ur had become, by a roundabout route, the village it had never been before, and now within the confines of Michael’s wall its security seemed assured. Some of my forebodings diminished; there was still reason to hope. I cleaned out my new house and unpacked my things. But then, like all the lights flickering in all the houses of a vast suburb before the power fails completely, there followed a series of otherwise unrelated events that could only be read as premonitory signs of the great upheaval to come.

[pgs 50-52]

I said at the start that Blueprints was an ironic work. So what what does that mean? Soren Kierkegaard, in his fabulous book, The Concept of Irony, said irony is ‘a nothingness which consumes everything and something which one can never catch hold of...’ Irony, he was saying, is a slippery thing, hard to catch, is actually nothing, a metaphysical space. I like to think of it as the space the author puts between himself and his subject, a space then into which (a space, again, in between, of possibility) the readers’ imagination can be let loose. But Kierkegaard also said irony ‘is something in its deepest root comical’. I think that’s equally true. For all that I’ve been going on about the things my book might be and might not be about, I should remind you that in the end it is a essentially comedy, built on this Kierkegaardian nothingness of irony. A writer takes on a persona, through that persona invents a world, into that world invites a reader, then asks that reader to engage in this invented world’s dialectic. The essential ingredient of an ironic or satiric work is that it can’t be judged by what it appears to be, or what it appears to say. (Swift wasn’t really suggesting the Irish eat their children.) Irony’s about being difficult, playing games with the reader, screwing with their expectations, undermining their confidence in what something is ‘about’, landmining their comfort zone. It shouldn’t create a settled world of known, comfortable truths but a world built on speculative what-ifs.

What if there was an Ur not only on the plains of ancient Mesopotamia but also on the paddocks north of Craigieburn? And what if there was someone called ‘Bram’ living there? And what if he was trying to write, to record this place’s goings-on? And what if the kingdom of Ur fell, and there was a great rain and a great flood? And what if after this great flood Bram left for another place, a place in the West, a place where it would all become clear, where he’d be told how to live, what living was for...?

The skies have cleared, the lakes and puddles out on the paddocks have drained away and dried, the creek trickles past at the end of the garden, returned to its former size. Though the fertile silt washed up all around looks like a gardener’s dream, I haven’t bothered to re-plant my vegetables nor do any of the things I had planned to do when the weather finally cleared. The smell of the earth after so much rain is a strange and intoxicating thing; I’ve been content most days just to stand at my door and draw it languorously into my nostrils. Since the rain stopped and my story was finished I’ve done very little else, though I’ve managed to re-bury most of the junk I’d collected back in the hole in the hill. That took me a week, in a slow-moving dream; I barely had the strength to lift the shovel. For three days I anguished over what to do with the tangle of barbed-wire in the corner; in the end I dumped it unceremoniously back into the creek. Most of the things in the house are packed, my bundle of papers snug in a cardboard box. Today I went to the top of the hill to take one last look over old ur and saw the bulldozers trundling towards me in the distance. The freeway was coming again. It will be a sharp turn to head west from here, I thought, and in the years to come the drivers encountering it on their way to Haranhope will mutter a low curse at such shoddy planning. And yes, in the end old ur will perhaps only be remembered as a dangerous bend in the freeway north of Melbourne, just where it crosses a dry creek bed before turning sharply left towards the New Estate in the west. Patterson arrived in the afternoon - his last benevolent gesture - to help tow my car from the bog. I spent the remaining daylight hours packing the last of my things. There was little to do then but sit and think - it’s a pleasant pastime, that. About Michael, Jodie, my neighbours, all gone, and the sometimes silly things that happen in this life and that so soon pass into the obscurity of history. It was only an experiment, I thought, built too far out in the wrong direction, favoured or flawed by its own possibility. Should someone dig it all up again one day I’m sure they’d make a damn sight more sense of it than me. I had my bundle of papers, certainly, and some time, somewhere, on an evening like this, they might bring me a little edification and take the sting out of that day’s particular disillusionment. But I would not be setting sail on them, hat on head and jar in hand. No, that nonsense is over, my days here are done, tomorrow I leave for Haranhope where a barrow of bricks lies waiting. This time I’ll start from the bottom up and see what comes of that.

[pgs 146-147]

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Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority book profile from 2006 Text List

Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe

City planners create an unusual new housing development in the countryside north of Melbourne. The Outer Suburban Village Development Complex is supposed to be a brave new type of town organised around a central square, with residents enticed by cheap housing and the promise of a fast freeway to the city. Its circular layout is mischievously suggestive of Milton Keynes or Canberra, those triumphs of twentieth-century city planning. But the promised freeway never eventuates, the town dies, and eventually only a few obstinate residents remain. The interest begins when officials attempt to erase this failed urban dream and the residents bunker down against the outside world.

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Launch Speech

Guy Rundle (editor, Arena magazine)

Guy Rundle photograph

There are many ways I thought of to begin the launch of this novel or fable or myth (call it what you will).

One of the first ways is to reflect on the idea that Australian writing/Australian culture is about the shift between two different poles, one of which is Australia as God’s own country, the ‘promised land’ and the other is what Manning Clarke called ‘The Kingdom of Nothingness,’ the idea that we had finally released ourselves from the deprivations of history and Europe and death and we had finally reached the land where we could make something for ourselves and there was nothing to make. There was nothing but nothingness. And that’s obviously a theme that has run through a lot of our culture (a lot of our more reflective culture).

From the opening pages of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo where there is the arrival that takes the train through Sydney and sees all these bungalows which team with nothingness, through the novels of David Ireland, the short stories of Peter Carey… and I think right up even to manifestations in popular culture, such as in ‘Kath and Kim.’ In something like ‘Kath and Kim’ you get, in a comic way, all the sort of angst about this nothingness that you get in a more serious way in David Ireland or Peter Carey or Wayne Macauley. You get an absolute fear that running beneath the way we live, who we are, what we can be, nothing matters, we have no ground… there is nothing… if you go into the soil, there is nothing but sand and desert.

And another way of beginning was to lead off from the Sumerian poem that has been the motif that Wayne begins his myth with. And that was extremely interesting because when I agreed to launch the book I had no idea that Wayne was so interested in that so early urban history. I had just been reading a lot of that early urban history, a history of first city states, the first civilisations founded around the area of what is now known as Iraq, whose name derives from the first city state called Uruk. And reading the poetry that is still extant from those eras about people going to taverns, people participating in festivals, people living in houses and feeling alone, and realising that in six thousand years of urban habitation, nothing has really changed. That the stories that you read in the epic poems of those early cities are about the same sort of people that we are.

And that plays back into the ‘promised land’ thesis… that’s the idea of Australia as this promised land, because a lot of people have always seen that as a sort of re-staging of the myth of Judaism and one of the interesting things about that is that Abraham, the founder of Judaism, is as everybody who has read their Old Testament knows, described as Abraham who is from Ur of the Chaldees. In other words, he is from the city of Ur. And although we often think of Judaism as a type of desert religion, it is in fact an urban, cosmopolitan religion. It got transplanted to the desert by Abraham leaving the city of Ur. So Abraham was really this sort of person who lived in the city in the same way that we did. He lived in a city with apartments, with taverns, that sort of thing. He probably had people around for drinks. It is a very strange circular reasoning if you like about who we are and where we are from, made even more resonant for me by the fact that the lead character (the speaker) in Wayne’s myth is called ‘Bram.’

And that reminded me of a third way of beginning which was that we aren’t really…we’d never really been caught between this idea of the promised land and the kingdom of nothingness as a relationship to where we live; as a relationship to the desert that has been a motif that’s been drawn out whether in Patrick White’s The Tree of Man or anything like that. All these ideas of the kingdom of nothingness only began to merge within the 1920s and 1930s when we had comprehensively moved to the cities, when we’d become the most urbanised population in the world. And the desert then became a motif, a metaphor for what it wasn’t, which was, urban living. And so in Wayne’s story what you get is an incredibly powerful myth of a people who have been put in this place called Ur, which is actually the two letters surviving from the sign which says ‘Outer Suburban Village Development Complex.’

On the flood plains outside the city somewhere, disconnected from everything by a lack of public transport, a lack of freeways (a lack of everything) we have those who have to make their own meaning, their own life, who are their own found objects, if you like. And that connects back really to a sense of our Europeanness, our urbanisation where we are not grappling with the wilderness outside (not the desert) but the wilderness ‘within’ cities, the wilderness of these found ways of living.

So those are all the ways in which I was going to begin to talk about this book. But I think that the only really effective way to express it is that it is weird. It is a weird book. This is a fucking weird book! This is a book that you can assimilate any number of myths to. As I have said, the myth of Abraham, the myth of Ur, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Song of Solomon, the writing of Kafka, they all swell around inside and you can recognise them all. But none of them really explain it. There is a certain of contingency, a uniquely Australian sort of vision. A vision that you get if you take a random bus ride through the outer suburbs in the sort of endless suburbs of Melbourne or the West of Sydney which seem to go on forever and wonder what it is to be here, why are we here - what does it mean to be really the first people to have ever turned a sod of earth or whoever made a breath or whoever laid a foundation? The strangeness within this book that is aptly captured in the second half of the book by the metaphor of the wall and the freeway, which seems to conjure up a sense of our history. Are we going to be a fortress, or are we going to be on the freeway to everywhere or to nowhere?

But once again, nothing really explains itself in any easy, join the dot way. It’s this story of people who are living on an expanding garbage heap, trying to make meaning of their lives, trying to make a community... faced by these sorts of forces. And that really connects you back once again, or connects me back, to how we first learnt about ourselves as city dwellers; how we learnt about our own history in Ur and Uruk and all of those other cities was because of their garbage. Because all of these cities were for us, when they began to be discovered in the nineteenth century, layers of garbage, different layers of garbage, that denoted a city. That one city had been built on another, then it had been destroyed or had been sacked or pillaged by another city and someone had started building again. And so it goes, layer upon layer upon layer upon layer... a sort of testament to the fact that although everything that we do is contingent, everything that we do is fleeting, it always leaves some sort of trace. It always leaves some sort of mark of our presence, a mark of our passing. And that was one of the most meaningful parts of Wayne’s book - that ultimately, all we are is garbage, and there is no higher calling.

And finally, it ties in with an incredible moment that happened about eight months ago, when once again, the enthusiasm for ‘Kath and Kim’ was at its height, and a journalist in The Sunday Age who shall remain nameless, wrote the now famous article in which he said that ‘Kath and Kim’ were such a success that people were taking on its language as if it was real. And they were talking about the world of ‘Kath and Kim as if it was real. Why they even referred to the shopping centre of Fountain Gate as if it was a real place. And I think, perhaps, captured in Wayne’s work about these people who live and love and try and make a world between the wall and the freeway and the garbage dump - that in a way, that journalist was right, that Fountain Gate isn’t a real place. It is something that is made mythical by works such as this.

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Writer tells of urban myth
Kate Kyriacou
Moreland Leader, 15 March 2004

He may have written Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe ten years ago, but Brunswick resident Wayne Macauley’s darkly comic tale of a failed housing estate is more relevant now than ever.

Macauley’s first novel has received rave reviews since its release earlier this year.

But the local writer is hardly new to the game, having written numerous short stories and theatre productions.

‘The book is set in a suburban housing estate - which is partly my background,’ he said.

‘The story concerns issues of urban planning and Australia’s need to take up all the empty space that’s available.’

Macauley said the plot deals with the Australian dream that ‘everyone should own a house, no matter what the cost.’

‘There are seven main characters within the estate and the reader is told the stories of the people who live there,’ he said.

‘The estate is built as a kind of utopian environment - at least that’s what it's intended to be. But things don't work out as planned.’

The people move out, leaving seven desperate residents clinging to their great Australian dream.

‘They remain holding out for their dream to the point where government representatives come in and try to get rid of them because they've become an embarrassment,’ Macauley said.

The first draft took six months to put together, but three years passed before it was ready to send out to publishers.

‘It takes a certain amount of grit and determination to see it through,’ he said.

‘But it's been received fabulously so far.’

Macauley won The Age Short Story Competition in 1995 and his work was featured in Best Australian Stories 2001.

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The Age Education

Little Aussie Battlers

Text Talk: Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
A bleak take on the Australian dream of owning your own home
Bob Hillman
(senior English teacher at Trinity Grammar School, Kew)
The Age Education VCE Express, April 16 2007

When I finished reading Wayne Macauley’s outer urban exploration, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, the first image that came into my head was a television advertisement of a husband and wife hugging one another as he leaves on a trip. The husband repositions his wife so he can gaze in wonderment at the roof of his new home, which just happens to be in one of Melbourne’s burgeoning outer estates.

There are promises made within the advertisement that somehow this roof, this house, means more than just a place of residence. Likewise, Australia’s long obsession with a house being so much part on an individual’s identity and sense of self is apparent in the classic film The Castle.

Both that advertisement and the film reinforce the main character Bram’s dream of ‘a vague notion of a house, a family and a happy life in the former housing estate north of Melbourne’.

Macauley’s novel, however, demolishes this idea and challenges the middle-class beliefs that everyone is entitled to a supposed suburban Utopia. The problem lies in that Melbourne’s suburbs were once within sight of the city’s heart. Today, with the ever-growing population, the estates are moving further and further out. The residents in the novel become victims to a careless and negligent bureaucracy. Macauley paints a dark picture of those who are responsible for the ‘Outer Suburban Village Development Complex’. While the estate is completed ‘in record time’ and the grand opening includes dignitaries, politicians and even the Premier, it is not long before all those who should take responsibility wash their hands of ‘ the estate and the people who live there.

Australians’ natural suspicion of, and aversion to, government is reinforced throughout the story. We are told of the chicanery, deception and downright fraud by those civil authorities whose job it is to look after citizens. When the residents fail to accept defeat and acknowledge that the experiment is a failure, the local council, in league with the Government, places a garbage tip next to the estate with the underhanded purpose of driving them away.

A parade of representatives is sent with hollow promises and pronouncements, none of which prove sincere. When Loch and two security guards arrive at ur, the residents are presented with an eloquent declaration of support and Macauley uses the opportunity to emphasise to us ‘that there is something decidedly wrong with a system that has driven a group of otherwise ordinary citizens to this end. I am shamed bv it.’

The residents of ur have become an embarrassing reminder of governmental failure and neglect. The authorities are prepared to do anything to rid themselves and the public of a symbol of their incompetence and negligence. The Government even closes a bank account that the residents communally opened. It is suspected that the vandals who destroy some of the few civilised aspects of life in the estate are hired by those who have a vested interest in its evacuation. They become forgotten and ignored by the outside world.

While Macauley describes parts of his novel as containing ‘amusing bits’, he also acknowledges that ‘there’s another side of me that is dark, troubled’. The plight and behaviour of those who eke out an existence over 11 years is nothing short of gloomy and depressing. They endure dreadful odours from the open sewerage and the tip. As the story unfolds they eat anything they can get and live in squalor. The electricity and water are turned off, their lives are miserable.

There is a fine line between the awe we may feel at the indominatability of the human spirit, even in the most horrific circumstances, and the appal we feel for the steady deprivation that the residents of ur impose on themselves. There is little to celebrate as the life of each resident disintegrates. Unwashed, hungry and isolated from the outside world, they can only find some solace in each other’s company.

There is a community spirit but even that collapses in the face of poverty and the idle existence away from other humans. The few moments of celebration come when outsiders arrive and offer improvements. Jodie’s arrival added ‘a new spirit of enterprise’ and Marie-Claire’s appearance, all the way from France, enlivens the mood and atmosphere for a time.

One by one, however, individuals can no longer bear the deprivation of their existence. Slug perceives the hopelessness of the situation and flees in the night. Instead of understanding, those left behind ignore the contributions he has made to the community by opening a cafe, but instead delete ‘all trace of Slug’s influence’ and ‘from that day on he became ur’s much needed bete noir’. In his return there is some substance in his claim that he has done everything he can to help them with the authorities, but he is reviled and chased away with a blast from Michael’s rifle.

Vito is responsible for enormous contributions with his resourcefulness. He possesses left-leaning ideologies and offers his talents as a vegetable gardener, but he too steals away in the night after finally succumbing to the reality of their plight. Even Alex disappears, driving his bulldozer through the wall built to keep the world out.

Although Bram does not leave, he recognises ‘it’s an unguarded stairway, easily descended, from the warm house of solitude to the dungeon of loneliness and I had without knowing begun to descend it’.

Once the improbable deaths of Nanna and Dave occur, it is left to five defiants who are under the influence of Michael. At first he is a somewhat comical eccentric, but as the tale unfolds, it is clear that he is dangerous - to himself and others. Symbolically, his visual handicap occurs when he creates the tension of a wire too tight and it snaps. Michael, too, is psychologically stretched tight and ultimately snaps. His menacing presence seems to drag the inhabitants of ur down with him, ‘no one dared argue with him’. Not even his daughter could influence him and ‘his behaviour became increasingly reckless and bizarre’. It is interesting to note the allegiance this madman is able to elicit even when it is clear his actions are not in the interest of those around him. He has become ‘like some prowling animal, his mind completely gone’. This does not, however, diminish his influence. The narrator ‘could hardly look Craig in the eye, so infected had he become with Michael’s madness’.

It is a madness that is played out in the actions of Jodie, his daughter, which opens and finishes the tale. According to the blueprints for a barbed-wire canoe, she must ‘be sure you’re sick of life, say to yourself: I’ve had enough’.

Her drowning in the creek and the death of Bram’s and her unborn baby is the final chapter in a tragic story. As Bram completes his archaeological dig and unearths artefacts, he writes the history of a failed estate and its destruction of those who tried to make a life out of hollow promises on ‘40 hectares of abandoned farmland’.

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Study Guides

VATE Inside Stories: Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
Insight Study Guide: Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
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Insight: Sample Exam and SAC Essays for Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe
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Macauley biography
Macauley, Caravan Story
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