Famous Reporter 18

December 1998



Review: Geoff Dean's 'Over the Fence'

Geoff Dean is mainly a short fiction writer. Anyone who has read his several books of short stories will be familiar with his fascination for bushwhackers. Over the Fence brings a whole community of cockies or bushwhackers together, somewhere near a small town centre with a pub and a  few shops, at a place called Montvale.

Over the Fence is obviously based on Dean's knowledge of farming and the farmers who mostly scratched a living some thirty years ago in what could be described as a typical Tasmanian outback setting of the times. For those who know little or nothing of the rural industry as it was for Geoff Dean when he was a practising dairyman/pig farmer, it is worth making the point that the greatest rural revolution ever, occurred this twentieth century. In the early nineteen hundreds cows were being milked by hand, just as they had been before the birth of Christ, as described in Virgil's Georgica, and a hundred years ago by Thomas Hardy in his Wessex Tales. After the Second World War and the development of world markets the pressure for change increased. Work horses and the old farm machines were being replaced by modern and more efficient means of production. This automatically caused the development of the farm/bank philosophy - Get big or get out - a corollary of which was to produce more on bigger farms with less labour.

Geoff Dean's Montvale is a community which accepts change as best it can but still continues to plant, sow, harvest, much as always; marvelling at the new and better machines, which they can not afford. The people generally are country hicks, but strangely, even the baddies and the idiots are lovable rogues rather than criminals. The cityites are a foreign race; the local police sergeant is a good bloke, there to keep the peace, not to drag people before the courts - but alas; it's just not fair: just because Phylis, that's Albie Barnes the baker's wife, plays up a bit with the Sergeant - well! Then there's Cliff Randall, the publican who hears all, sees all, says little unless it's worth his while; once he tries to out-smart Rolly Hills, but doesn't quite; Rolly earns a living by buying and selling; no-one trusts him, but everybody, while they may think of him as Montvale's biggest rogue, will still use him for, what they think, their own ends. About the only snob in the district is the biggest landowner, ex-colonel Foote, educated, superior, a bore who thinks he is smarter than he really is - but, oh dear, there's that bloody Rolly Hills again. Then there are the women. You don't see them in the bar. They're in their rightful lace: caring for - putting up with - looking after - doing everything you could rightfully expect of any mother and wife and part-time farm worker. But behind the scenes Phylis Barnes, Grandma Pike, Else Gerhardt, Nola Prate and - yes, there are a few of them who cleverly manage to direct things their way, but -

As one who has lived a long life in the country, after reading these bush yarns, I am reminded of the built-in chauvinism that is associated with country life and farming in particular. Women generally have been an essential part of the farmer's requirements when purchasing a property. Practically always the man accepts he is responsible for all the heavy work and long hours (often 80 or 90 a week) which the agriculturist must do if he is to survive; while he generally expects his wife to care and cook for the whole family, as well as doing the housework and gardening; and it would mostly be expected that if she had any spare time she would help out with general farm chores.

It is obvious that Geoff Dean is conscious of the joys and difficulties of a farming community. His sense of humour and his capacity as a writer delights in recovering, and no doubt, restructuring situations, even the sad and the depressing, turning them into a nostalgic remembering of a way of life that progress has finished with.

Since Dean left the land there has been a continuing increase in the size of individual properties, at the same time a tremendous reduction in the need for manual labour. This is sad. Remember that ancient English comedian who solved all problems by his: "The answer lies in the soil!" It is a fact that country people very often develop an intrinsic characteristic which no amount of schooling can produce, that is "common sense"; it is something that comes with living with nature, learning to accept that "man" does not have all the answers. I remember in the army if it were necessary for someone to check out a certain dangerous situation, the person selected was not someone with a PhD, rather one with common sense: i.e. a country hick. For a lot of people there is no occupation as satisfying or as character building as one which is animal and soil related. By being forced to sell off smaller farms, (often to neighbours), to allow for big technology-based units, the displaced farmer and family often migrated to towns or cities, sometimes retiring, sometimes in an attempt to search for another job.

I would recommend Over the Fence both as a humorous, relaxing read, and - a bonus - a treatise on the lives of farmers and their families in the early postwar period. For older people who related to the Montvale-type farm experience, the book would bring back numerous similar memories. For me, as one who always lived in and loved the country, there is a certain sadness that so much of the old style rural living is gone; but assuaged to some degree by older retirees and young people with families going away from built-up areas, to a house and a few acres or to rural communities, in search of that essential and rewarding relationship with the soil.

When I was a kid, Tassy was The Apple Isle. Call it the Garden State, call it what you like, if yuou can't afford to move out of the city to enjoy the bonuses that go with country living, Geoff  Dean's Over the Fence will at least give you something to smile about.

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