Common Module: The Boy Behind the Curtain

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Common Module: The Boy Behind the Curtain

Form, genre and key themes

The Boy Behind the Curtain is a collection of non-fiction, often personal, essays by celebrated Australian writer Tim Winton. While not strictly an autobiography, many essays contain autobiographical elements, and each essay is influenced by Winton’s personal connection to the subject matter, whether the subject is family life, the decision to write, or the environment. The essay form, often discursive in style, offers Winton great flexibility in terms of his approach to his subject matter. Scientific fact, personal anecdotes, intertextual references and personal philosophy all combine in Winton’s series of essays. Key themes that recur across the essays set for the Common Module include the power and beauty of language, spirituality, the writing life, the environment, formation of one’s identity, and the complexities of family life.

“Havoc: A Life in Accidents”

Brief summary

Winton explores the role of chaos in human experience. Taking as his starting point the formative influence of motorcycle and road accidents on his childhood and choice of career, Winton moves between personal anecdote and more general commentary on the importance of chaos in shaping human lives. Havoc provides the writer with material to explore because havoc is central to human experience: it shapes our present, our past (and memories) and our reaction to it provides insight into who we really are.

Human experiences: identity and self-knowledge

To know oneself is the challenge of the individual. Living out this challenge is a key aspect of individual and collective human experience. Although individuals may approach the challenge differently (including by attempting to avoid it), the desire to know oneself and carve out a sense of one’s identity is a central human desire.

Winton explores a link between this desire and a craving for danger. His friends seek out danger as a means of self discovery, the take risks because “As they like to say, when you’re safe you think you know yourself, but in extremis who are you really?”.

This craving for danger is one way of coming into contact with havoc and its potentially transformative power. In relation to his own identity, Winton claims “I know” in answer to the central question of who he really is and he suggests that his self-knowledge arises from his life experience, coming into contact with havoc.

Human qualities and the power of storytelling

The ability to use language is one way of defining what makes us distinctly human.

Winton examines the power and importance of language first by illustrating what it feels like to lack words for a traumatic experience. When his father assisted at a motorcycle accident, Winton describes his younger self’s experience: “What I saw was my father under siege. And I couldn’t help him. I stayed where I was, lashed to the wheel, in a state I had no language for.” Winston’s younger self lacked words to give a name to his intense emotional reaction to the accident and this lack of language meant that Winton’s younger self was unable to create distance between what had happened and what he felt by representing his experiences in words. Instead “[that] scene has puzzled me all my life – haunted me, in a way”. Winton recounts another instance in which he lacked language. In this instance, his younger self was unable to represent to himself and others the impact of his father’s accident. Instead “I had to be ‘wise beyond my years’, to assume an unlikely authority, to understand what I could not pronounce.”

Winton suggests that these experiences of wordlessness affect the way we experience traumatic events and how we remember them. Lacking language to represent our experiences to ourselves and others, we may come to be “haunted” by memories of the events. In Winton’s case, one motorcycle accident recalled his father’s earlier crash and its disruptive impact on his family’s life. This lack of language not only allows us to be haunted by traumatic memories but can create a sense of disintegration. Winton suggests that “the twisted motorbike, a ghastly echo of the old man’s smash, had an effect. But I wasn’t just upset, I felt as if I were unravelling.” Being able to put our experiences into words can help us to make sense of our experiences. This absence of this ability can be devastating.

Winton’s career as a writer has allowed him to revisit these early experiences of lacking language and to reimagine them.

Fifteen years later… I wrote a short story, ‘A Blow, a Kiss’, about an incident very similar to that night’s. In the fictional version the boy behind the wheel can’t bear to watch the scene play out another moment. He leaps from the vehicle in defence of his father and king-hits the drunk with the lantern. In a sense I let the character do what I’d been incapable of, and though I doubt it served any therapeutic purpose, I’d be lying if I said I took no pleasure in letting him off the leash on my behalf.

Our memories are one form of storytelling. Winton moves from individual narratives of his past (individual memories) to drawing on his own experiences to create stories of his own. The power of storytelling in this instance is perhaps that it does not reflect what really happened but it does reflect what was really felt. Winton takes as his starting point genuine emotions and explores alternative courses of action. Storytelling (drawing on memory) also allows Winton to explore changes in perspective from his younger self to his older self, and his older’ self identity as a writer.

Paradoxes, anomalies and inconsistencies

Winton explores three key paradoxes.

  1. humanity’s paradoxical capacity for both great good and terrible destruction,

Key quotes:

“cops are never fresh and after a while they can’t disguise their endless disappointment in people…And as a kid you sense this. As if by osmosis you learn what humans do at their lowest moments, at their most idiotic or vile, and you register the outcomes, which are invariably awful. Humans, you come to understand, are frail creatures. Yet in a second, from thin air, they can manufacture chaos and carnage.” (37)

“All I can say is that I witnessed Dad’s swift restoration and renewal and was grateful for it… I think of it as an act of grace. Maybe that’s just a fancypants way of appreciating the loving-kindness of humans. But when there’s so much opportunity for people to be vile, it strikes me as a miracle that they choose mercy, restraint and decency as often as they do.” (43)

  1. havoc’s paradoxical potential to destroy but also to create positive change,

Key quotes:

“Before the accident there seemed to be plenty of time in which to find my way, but now I thought differently. Suddenly time was precious. So once I recovered I went to work and by graduation I’d written three books. Havoc, it seemed, had leant in and set me running… I’d always figured I could supplement my income with physical work…But in the wake of the accident my back was never the same…With my plan B now shot, I had to rely on my wits alone or I was buggered. And in this sense the prang was a gift.” (46-47)

“Without strife the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with.” (52)

  • the paradox of humanity’s desire for stability but need for disruption.

Key quotes:

“But while I savour routine – I thrive in it – I’m conscious that despite its virtues and comforts the regulated life has its own dangers. Just as an ecosystem requires cataclysmic disruption now and then, the mind and body need a similar jolt. Communities need this too. Eventually a state of seamless predictability – a life without wildness – is a kind of sleepwalking.” (50)

“in the most prosperous enclaves, some have come to believe we’ve domesticated chaos.” (50)

“For many, certainty has become the new normal, but it’s an illusion…We’ll forever be vulnerable to havoc.” (51)


Brief summary

Taking as his starting point his grandfather’s car Betsy, the car becomes a symbol for the complexities of family life and individual identity, as well as the changes in perspective that occur with the development from youth to adulthood.

Paradoxes, anomalies and inconsistencies

Winton explores three main anomalies and inconsistencies:

  1. the complexity of individual identity and the apparent inconsistencies that this complexity involves
  2. the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of individual families
  • the changing nature of perspective and the inconsistency between one’s earlier views and later, mature thoughts.

Identity: the complexity of individual identity and the apparent inconsistencies that this complexity involves.

The complex nature of individual identity is explored in relation to Winton’s grandfather and his apparently inexplicable decision to buy Betsy, a dowdy car seemingly not in keeping with his eccentric character.

Key quotes:

“Les Winton was a pastry chef and shopkeeper and his chief mode of transport was the ’35 flatbed Chev he used for deliveries. But he was also a muso and paterfamilias and for his off-work activities he favoured the Harley…As a kid I loved to hear stories of him riding home from a gig at the Blue Room while his ventriloquist dummy rode shotgun, gums flapping in the wind, beside him. For a few years after the war he sported a Depression-era Rugby tourer whose side curtains were X-rays salvaged from the repat hospital around the corner – a vehicle worthy of his vaudevillian spirit. So I never understood why he purchased the dour little sedan he called Betsy…”

Note the vivid description of Les Winton’s more eccentric vehicles.

“[Betsy] was a dumpy colonial sedan of unmistakably British provenance, a testament to modesty and low expectations. Its duco was cardigan grey… On a good day the interior smelt like an abandoned cinema.”

Note the caustic tone, sensory imagery and simile.

Family: the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of individual families

The eccentricities of family life is visible in Winton’s personal anecdote concerning his grandparents’ living arrangements:

My nan had a certain local reputation. She lived in a tent in the backyard while Pop shared the bedroom with the kids and the in-laws. She tied 20 yards of twine to Pop’s big to so she could be alerted to development indoors. All he had to do was yank on the string and his crash cymbal would shimmy cacophonously along the path….Every Sunday we left their place after the ritual visit. Nan stood in the street and waved us off with a long and jaunty waggle of her right leg. Always and without fail – it was her signature move. Knee stockings and all.

Winton zooms in on minute details of his grandparents’ way of living, using alliteration to draw attention to their idiosyncratic method of communication (crashing cymbals). Note also Winton’s choice of diction (‘jaunty waggle’) and the humorous tone.

Perspective: the changing nature of perspective and the inconsistency between one’s earlier views and later, mature thoughts

Growing up Winton considered some aspects of his family’s behaviour a source of shame. These behaviours are linked in the text by their connection to Betsy. Winton feels shame on account of his grandfather’s car and his father’s desire to drive him to school in Betsy (once the car was passed on to him). While writing the text as an adult, Winton contrasts his boyhood perspective with his changed, more mature perspective.

Key quotes:

Referring to Betsy’s quaint signal arms, Winton’s older self reflects: “Now, of course, I smile at the memory, but back then they were badges of family shame.”

In relation to his father’s decision to drive him in Betsy to his new school, Winton reflects that it “was kind, I know, but the gesture was wasted on me.”

Betsy becomes a symbol of endurance and as such she stands in contrast to rising consumerism in modern life. Winton thus ends by reflecting that:

“In our time of instant obsolescence, her endurance is sobering, and as I age I wonder if perhaps I was a little hasty to spurn her. We’re such merciless judges in our youth. And she’d be a vintage ride now.”

“Twice on Sundays”

Brief summary

Winton explores his changing relationship to spirituality and organised religion. He discusses the impact of religious language and Biblical stories on his appreciation of the power of language, story, music and metaphor. Aside from exposing him to the beauty of language, church also provided a sense of community (although at times fragile) and encouraged him to take seriously the question of how to live.

Collective human experiences: belonging to a counterculture

When Winton was growing up and attending church with his family, religious adherence was no longer part of mainstream Australian life. Being part of a spiritual counterculture provided Winton not only with a community and exposure to the mystery of faith but also a critical perspective on the benefits of conforming to mainstream practices: “religious life was like a childhood inoculation against social conformity.”

The church community took seriously the question of how to live. Winston recounts an unlikely connection between the largely working class church congregation and Tolstoy: “I’d be surprised if anyone at my boyhood church had read even a page of Tolstoy, but it seems to me now that the question that ate at him so late in his life was the central issue for us, too. What then must we do?

Human qualities and the power of storytelling through time: the importance and power of language, metaphor, music and story

One way of understanding what makes us human is our linguistic ability, our capacity to use language to represent ourselves and our world. Winton explores the importance of language but also its limits and how his experience of churchgoing brought language alive for him.

Key quotes:

“It was in church that I learnt how perilously faith depends upon story, for without narrative there is only theological assertion, which is, in effect, inert cargo. Story is the beast of burden, the bearer of imaginative energy.”

“the occult power of metaphor revealed itself”

“Language, I was to discover, is nutrition, manna without which we’re bereft and forsaken, consigned like Moses and his restive entourage to wander in a sterile wilderness. As a novelist I seem to have spent every working day of my adult life in a vain search for the right word…”

Limits of language

“A lot hung on that single word [wine], as it did later upon slave, demon and menI…. For some of us, though we didn’t know it yet, there were family traumas lying buried like landmines in those words. Matters of social organisation, justice, mental health and sexuality could depend on the interpretation of a single biblical term. Expressing faith is not unlike expressing love, for both involve fraught searches for exactly the right phrase when it often seems there are non good, true or safe enough to do the job, and a wrong word at the wrong moment can be catastrophic.”

“In the face of mystery, it seems no language is sufficient. Every expression is partial, contingent, as if written in sand… At its best [theology] is poetic, for any discussion of the divine rests on metaphor, but what a peculiar task it is to describe silence. Even the grandest poetic language is hard-pressed to contain or carry an intimation of grace. Language is not an experience itself….Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: ‘Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words.’ In matters of the spirit words are poor cousins to music. At best they are muted echoes.”

Individual experiences: self-actualisation and finding your place in the world

Although his childhood religious experiences shaped Winton’s identity formation, changes in the church community and in his own experiences resulted in him leaving that community. Winton values and is strongly connected to the natural world. For him, this world, our world, the natural world is our home. We should not be misled by religion into thinking that “this world is not my home”. Winton is deeply critical of that idea:

The contempt for creation bothered me… During the Cold War they welcomed the eve of destruction as an opportunity to ‘go home’ and as a result they turned their backs on temporal concerns. The poor and all structural injustice could be ignored. So too the planet’s ailing health… It was bitterly ironic, given how often we all intoned our favourite Bible verse…. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

Winton seeks to establish a relationship between religion and the natural world that coheres with his sense of identity. Winton’s identity is strongly connected to the world around him: “I wanted to live in a community where matter still mattered.”

“The Wait and the Flow”

Brief summary

Winton explores the question of why he surfs and what draws people to surfing. He examines the history of surfing and his personal connection to the sport, also drawing a parallel between the ‘wait and flow’ of surfing and the practice of writing.

Individual experience: surfing as a philosophical and spiritual experience, surfing as a metaphor for writing

Why surf?

“there wasn’t much to tell him, because there is no point. Surfing is a completely pointless exercise.”

“The most obvious attraction of surfing is the sheer momentum, the experience of rushing toward the beach. It’s a buzz… It looks repetitive but no ride is ever the same; it feels like a miracle every time you do it and I’d hate to lose that sense of wonder.”

“To me surfing has always been a matter of beauty and connectedness. Riding a wave to shore can be a meditative activity; you’re walking on water, tapping the sea’s energy, meeting the ocean, not ripping anything out of it. Few other water pursuits are as non-exploitative. Humans exist by creative destruction; there’s no evading that reality.”

“The physical sensation of sliding along a wall of water, vividly awake and alive, is difficult to describe to the non-surfer; it feels even more beautiful than it looks.”

The experience of flow: a different way of experiencing time

“What we craved was flow. The activity influenced our conceptual framework in ways that aren’t always credited. Non-surfers, it seemed to me, strove for symmetry, linear orders, solid boundaries. Waiting and flowing were anachronistic notions…but to me they were part of an imaginative lexicon, feeding something in me that had to do with more than surfing…I suspect surfing unlocked the artist in me.”

“When I get in the water I slow down and reflect. That’s the benefit of all that bobbing and waiting. I wait and wait and then I glide and flow….The wider culture expects you to hurl yourself at the future. Surfing offers a chance to inhabit the present.”

“you live for a short while in the eternal present tense. And the feeling is divine.”

Surfing as a metaphor for the writing life

“The wait and glide has become a way of life… I come to the desk every day and mostly wait… When some surge of energy arrives, I do what I must to match its speed. While I can, I ride its force. For a brief period I’m caught up in something special, where time has no purchase, and my bones don’t ache and my worries fall away.”

“In the Shadow of the Hospital”

Brief summary

Hospitals, symbols of illness and injury, birth and death, reveal our bare humanity. Winton explores the suffering and yearning that gather in the hospital setting and the way in which extremity makes each human’s story more visible. The hospital with its artificial environment and particular practices stands in contrast to the life of the healthy outside. Visitors must travel from one world to another, from the outside world to a world of yearning and suffering inside the hospital.

Individual and collective experience: bare humanity

Key quotes:

The shadow the hospital: from the literal to the metaphorical

“For five years we lived in the very literal shadow of a major metropolitan hospital.”

After Winton’s meeting with his dying friend who could see Winton’s house from his hospital window: “Afterwards I often looked up at that dreary building as the sun lit its windows and thought of strangers staring out in hope and regret as the rest of us went about our days oblivious. It was sobering to think of all the yearning that spilt down amidst the treetops and roof ridges, a shadow I’d never properly considered before.”

Suffering and yearning: human frailty and limitations

“In hospital you become needy, greedy, callous.”

“Within a block or two you could feel the atmosphere around it become feverish and the closer you got to the foot of those towers and their yawning electric doors, the more you noticed the vortex of suffering and need that sucked and boiled around you. There was electricity in the air, latent havoc.”

“It was sobering to think of all the yearning that spilt down amidst the treetops and roof ridges, a shadow I’d never properly considered before.”

The human story revealed by suffering and yearning

“On any street in any city, there’s a human story walking past you at every moment but it’s usually withheld. In the lee of a hospital the social camouflage slips away, and what’s usually disguised is on display. Where else do people where their own narratives so openly? Body language is heightened, almost balletic. Patients who step out for a fag by the taxi rank will pace and smoke and weep like actors in a film noir.”

“People literally carry their troubles on the pavement before you: their sick and shrieking child, their disoriented parent, the demon hissing in their ear.”

“At the kerbside shocked and grieving families unravel in public…I’ve seen people flog each other with cardigans, shoes, bunches of flowers.”

“The Demon Shark”

Brief summary

What do sharks represent in the Australian psyche? Why are we so afraid of them when cars and heart disease are many, many times more deadly? Winton explores this irrational and paradoxical fear of sharks and attempts to challenge readers’ assumptions. Rather than demonising sharks, we need to help them: many species are threatened with extinction as a result of our lack of our fear and exploitative treatment of sharks.

Human qualities and emotions: deep-seated, irrational fear and how it shapes our behaviour

“As a beach kid I knew there were things to be leery of – sucking currents, stings and jagged rocks – but I still felt the sea was utterly benign. It was an intimate and mysterious as a mother…. I was an innocent in my Eden.”

Demonising the shark

“The benign sea suddenly had its Satan.”

Sharks as “the living shadow”

“Australians have a peculiar attitude towards sharks. It’s pathological and runs deep. Other cultures have their wolves and bears, their lions and tigers – the carnivorous demon lurking in the shadows. Here there’s no growling menace out in the dark. Our demon is silent and it swims.”

“I guess it’s what you’re left with when you’re no longer allowed to burn witches. The shark is our secular substitute for the Devil.”

How we allow our fear to justify appalling treatment of sharks

“As a kid I saw a few dead specimens. Divers often killed sharks for sport… These displays were like public executions, the criminal species strung up for the crowds, as if the only good shark were a dead shark and we needed to see this butchery acted out again and again for our own wellbeing.”

“in the popular mind it’s a terrorist, an insidious threat we must arm ourselves against.”

Why are we drawn to sharks?

“We pressed our noses to the glass and thumped it with our fists…This was it, the lurking fear in plain view. They were appalling, these creatures, but seductive, too.”

Paradoxes, anomalies and inconsistencies and challenging assumptions

Why are we so afraid of sharks when other threats are many, many times more deadly?

“Bees kill many more Australians than do sharks every year, but there is no war on bees.”

Contrast between road deaths and shark deaths:

“The year 2011 was the worst for fatal shark attacks in Australia in living memory. Four people lost their lives… That same year we suffered the lowest road toll… with only 1292 Australians killed….The very likelihood of being mangled in a car is something we’ve domesticated.”

Should we be afraid of sharks? Or should sharks be more afraid of us?

“Like most Australians, I grew up with an irrational fear and disgust for the shark. Not that I ever actually saw one. Not alive, not in the wild.”

“the number of attacks is but a handful. But how many sharks are killed annually? Almost a hundred million. That’s 270 000 sharks killed just today.”

Hypocrisy: why are we only concerned about the treatment and conservation of some species but are indifferent to the fate of sharks?

“Most people hate to see creatures mistreated. Whether it’s a dog being beaten or a bear being tortured for its bile, cruelty and thoughtless slaughter offend us… But the endangered shark? By and large nobody cares.”

The power of storytelling: a power for good or evil?

Creating and fanning irrational fear and panic

  • the trailer for Savage Shadows
  • the influence of newspapers on creating panic

Revealing the majesty and mystery of sharks and our complex relationship to them

  • Blue Meridian (Peter Matthiessen)
  • the influence of Winton’s own text (consider especially section III where Winton comes into contact with a shark but doesn’t flee the water, instead continuing to surf).

“Barefoot in the Temple of Art”

Brief summary

Winton contrasts a visit to the National Gallery of Victory as a child with a more recent visit, noting the increasing democracy and openness of the art world to visitors and artists of different classes and cultures. Winton reflects on his childhood self’s response to art and suggests a connection between his childhood trip to the art gallery and his decision to pursue a career in the arts as a writer.

Storytelling through time and challenging assumptions

Who is art for?

As a child Winton and his family are about to be barred from entering the gallery because of a lack of shoes. This lack of shoes reflects the family’s working class, Western Australian origins.

“We were on our best behaviour. Mum gobbed on her thumb and cleaned our faces, but when we presented ourselves at the ticket office, we learned that we would not be admitted. Barefoot supplicants were not welcome in the temple of art.”

“It seemed there was a cultural moat between me and the speculative dreamworld I later learnt to call art.”

Times have changed since Winton’s childhood experience. Visiting the gallery as an adult, he notes: “The temple of art no longer spurns the young and uninitiated.”

What is art? What role does art play in human experiences?

As a child, Winton and his siblings are chastised for playing in the gallery’s fountain pools: “like the heathens we were, we dunked our feet and splashed about and were happier than we’d been all day…Even before our parents arrived, adults were sooling us out of the water. Dunking, they said, was disrespectful. Didn’t we know this was art? Once we’d dried off on the hot pavement, we knew better than to touch the tantalising sheets of the water wall that lay like a shimmering curtain between the portal arch and the mysteries within.”

Attitudes concerning how visitors can experience and interact with artworks have changed. Winton describes children enjoying the wall of water that he as a child was careful to avoid: “kids linger to feel the current sluice through their fingers. It’s a treat to watch them. It takes me back.”

Seeing the world of possibility represented by the artworks had a powerful effect on Winton as a young child: “There seemed to be no limit to what people could think of, and that was a giddy feeling.”

“I first entered the NGV barefoot and cowering, but I was so taken with what I saw that I forgot to be embarrassed. I strode out of the place like a man in boots.”

Who gets to tell the story?

Winton’s experience as a child inspires him to pursue a career in the arts, despite cultural and geographical barriers.

“There was no single experience that made me want to live by my imagination, but I don’t doubt the pivotal effect this visit had. Within a year I was telling anyone who’d listen that I was going to be a writer.”

Returning to the gallery as an adult, Winton notes the changes in the artists included in the exhibitions. Art is no longer represented as simply the works of white European men: instead “[at] the entrance to the Asian collection is a smouldering piece by an Indonesian artist, Haris Purnomo. Orang Hilang, a work of remembrance for the disappeared activists of the Suharto years, has the happy effect of inoculating the occidental viewer against narrowly ethnographic expectations.”

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