'Homage to a local hero'
The Weekend Australian 28 August 2010

The legacy of Hal Porter lives on in the Gippsland town of Bairnsdale by Kerrin O'Sullivan

My pilgrimage to Bairnsdale in Victoria is a form of literary homage. The quest? To see for myself the town that featured so prominently in the life and writings of Hal Porter. To see with my own eyes, the Bairnsdale that Porter described in his own idiosyncratic style; at times misogynist, at times outrageous, yet always erudite and rewarding.

They have long memories in Bairnsdale. The locals still talk about Gippsland's brilliant son, and not always approvingly. "The problem is he made little effort to disguise the identities of those he wrote about," volunteers one whose father went to school with Porter, "And Bairnsdale is a small town; everyone knows everyone."

Born in 1911 in the Melbourne suburb of Albert Park, Porter moved to Bairnsdale at the age of six, leaving in his teens to teach in Williamstown after a stint as a cadet reporter.

Still on English curriculum reading lists, Porter's autobiographical work, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, depicts his growing up in Bairnsdale. In the mid-1950's he returned to work as the librarian and in the 70s made extended visits to write the acclaimed Bairnsdale: Portrait of an Australian Country Town, an affectionate log of its history.

Along with the autobiographical trilogy, his prolific output included several novels, works of non-fiction, short stories, poetry and plays.

I decide to invent my own itinerary following Porter's Bairnsdale experiences chronologically, clutching not a guidebook, but the town map and a backpack full of Porter's works that relate to his time here: Bairnsdale, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, The Paper Chase and The Extra. On my bed-side table back at the hotel, sits a collection of his short stories.

My trek begins at the 1891 Bairnsdale Railway Station, one of the town's lovely red-brick heritage buildings, where Porter arrived by train from Melbourne in 1917.

"My first sight of Bairnsdale strikes me breathless and still and smaller. Space! Infinity! Light!" he wrote.

On Macleod Street, I pass the Grand Terminus Hotel with its traditional wide verandas and ornate cast-iron balconies, where Porter stayed with his parents and two siblings for a week on arrival.

"I remember the blots on the morocco-inlaid surface of the writing table, the pewter ink-well,

the brass pen-rack, the writing paper with a blurred engraving of the hotel at the top."

Portentous signs of the writer-to-be, I wonder?

Mitchell Street, where Porter lived most of his childhood, is easy to locate.

"It is a shortish street on the way to nowhere,'" he wrote.

The house, at that time four doors down from a deserted Chinese joss house, was diagonally opposite the common where Porter played "chasey" and "hidey" on moon-lit nights with the other Mitchell Street children.

At the street's end, I discover Porter's beloved Tannies, the acreage set aside to be developed as the Botanical Gardens, a scattering of oaks, elms and pines still testament to what might have been before the bowling rink, tennis courts, pool and kindergarten took up the public land.

Porter described the Tannies of his childhood as a -

"magnificent miniature of Windsor Great Park, an open aviary of thornbills, silver-eyes and magpies."

At the other end, I join the Mitchell River Walk in search of other riverine Porter-esque landmarks. With the exception of the caravan park sited where the Mitchell Gardens graced the riverbank, I am struggling to match the past with the present. The Historical Museum, however, helps.

There, I have the good luck to stumble upon an exhibition of the work of Mona McLeod and photographs of old Bairnsdale. McLeod's evocative black-and-white photographs shed light on places Porter mentions, now vanished. There are photos of the rowing club on the river, just below where the gracious East Gippsland Art Gallery now resides; and of the river swimming pool, long gone, where Porter would go for a dip.

"We swim hour after hour after hour in the green water under the willows by the Rowing Club," he wrote.

The museum abuts the Macleod's Morass and on the day I visit, a biting wind rises. What becomes obvious to me as I wander the town is the scale of the area Porter, as a boy, was free to roam; river flats, paddocks, the morass.

"I burn to escape and race reinless…"

The morass lures me as it did Porter, "swan-and-snake haunted". I explore the wetlands with its boardwalks and nesting boxes, its bird hides amongst the reeds and bulrushes. The calls of frogs and waterbirds create a unique soundtrack. Beyond, I find the old cemetery, "like a spilling of shapes in marzipan".

I detour back past State School 754 with its high "alp-steep" roof and false gables, where Porter loved learning and raced through six years in four. It was here, he once learnt by heart all the verses of Harry Dale the Drover, instead of just the single verse he was set for homework. In a confusion only a visitor to Bairnsdale could create for themselves, I attempt to find Porter's old high school.

I end up at Bairnsdale Secondary College; obviously the newer incarnation. The upside of my error, however, is that I find myself at the monthly farmer's market. I pick up a home-baked rye and caraway loaf, some Cobbamah hazelnuts and a jar of fig jam. As I head back to my car, contemplating returning for some Dargo walnuts, a stall-holder selling proteas breaks the code for me. Where we are now is the site of the former racecourse and golf links, and Porter's high school has become home to the community college. I turn back towards town to Dalmahoy Street to check out the old school; it's not hard to imagine it as Porter would have seen it:

"The High School is of bricks, and is draped in Virginia Creeper, wisteria and bougainvillea."

There Porter studied subjects "whose names sound exotic and romantic to me- Civics, Algebra… French.'" and vowed to become "a famous actor, a famous writer, a famous painter, perhaps all three …"

My next stop is the Bairnsdale Advertiser where Porter experienced early writing success, winning first prize in their short story competition for children, and where he later worked as a cadet reporter

"earning money by writing of some dollop grotesquely overdressed, that 'the bride looked charming in' etcetera"

I weave my way along the boulevard-style Main Street noting various Porter-portrayed landmarks: the Water Tower, St Mary's Church with its murals by Francesco Floriani (the Italian ex-peapicker whom Porter was sent to interview), the Campanile, the Main Hotel where Porter spent his scandal-provoking honeymoon one week after meeting the Ardath cigarette girl, Olivia Parnham, during a drinking session.

I determine that the soda fountain at Russo Brothers, where Porter revelled in double lemon spiders and banana sundaes with maraschino cherries and coffee wafers, has gone forever. His writing, however, remembers.

Worth visiting, The Porter Study housed in Bairnsdale's library, formerly the Mechanics' Institute where Porter was librarian from 1953 to 1958, re-creates a corner of his private study as it existed in his Ballarat home.

Porter's marble-topped desk and the displayed contents of the drawers, look uncannily as if he is about to return at any moment to start writing again. His wallet, Ballarat Turf Club Membership, pens, pencils and staples are all visible. His framed Order of Australia Medal, which he called "one of Whitlam's trinkets", hangs on the wall. On the mantelpiece is a Japanese dish; a memento from his time as a teacher attached to the Occupied Forces in Japan.

In the bookcase, his books are displayed as he left them and the titles reflect his diverse interests; The Life and Times of Goethe, Ancient Japan, The Touring Guide to Ireland. What draws my eye is the Oxford English Dictionary (all 12 volumes), belonging to the man who poet Fay Zwicky described as a "word-haunted ephebe". I am impressed.

I drag myself away from this little window into the Porter universe for some sustenance at Paper Chase, the bookshop-café named after the second book in his autobiographical trilogy. While I decide between Kafka's soup of the day and Steinbeck's smoked salmon on multigrain, a collage of Porter memorabilia attracts my attention. In the black-and-white photographs I recognize Porter in the garden, with family; plus a particularly modish shot of him leaving the Star of the West Hotel in Port Fairy, a favourite holiday spot.

Exploring Bairnsdale offers an abundance of material from Porter's life and writings. According to Mary Lord in her controversial biography, Porter was a man of many parts, of "exceptional charm and incredible gaucheries" and as "capable of treachery as of loyalty", who relished being seen as one of Bairnsdale's characters.

Porter is gone, of course; buried in Ballarat where he died in 1984 from injuries after being hit by a car. Yet, in Bairnsdale, there is much of interest for the literary pilgrim. In his writings, Hal Porter the writer will always live on.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan