A Season on Earth

Gerald Murnane

March 4, 2019 
The following is from Gerald Murnane's novel A Season on Earth. Finishing what A Lifetime on Clouds started, this novel presents sixteen-year-old Adrian’s journey in full, from fantasies about orgies with American film stars and idealized visions of suburban marital bliss to his struggles as a Catholic novice. Gerald Murnane is the author of eleven works of fiction, including Tamarisk Row, The Plains, and Border Districts. In 1999 he won the Patrick White Award and in 2009 he won the Melbourne Prize for Literature. He lives in western Victoria.

Adrian didn’t tell his parents that he planned to give up study and spend the rest of his life as a public servant and poet. He spent the last of his money for textbooks on a book called The English Countryside in Colour, a railway map of the British Isles, a loose-leaf folder and a ream of foolscap paper.

A week after his interview he received a letter advising him of his appointment on probation to the Administrative Division of the Public Service of Victoria. On the following Monday he caught a train to Flinders Street station and walked through the city streets towards the Treasury Gardens and the State Offices. The footpaths were crowded with office workers and shop assistants. Adrian saw they were no better than the city dwellers of the nineteenth century who had made Arnold so unhappy.

He knew much of ‘The Scholar Gipsy’ by heart. Along Flinders Street he recited appropriate passages under his breath. He hissed:

…this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims

at a young fellow who was thumping his leg with his rolled- up newspaper as he walked, and staring through the locked glass doors of a cinema. He murmured:

And then we suffer; and amongst us One,
Who most has suffer’d, takes dejectedly
His seat upon the intellectual throne

when he saw an old fellow in a gaberdine raincoat sitting at a tram stop with his lunch in a brown paper bag in his lap.

When he rounded the corner into Spring Street, he almost broke into a run. Ahead of him were the Treasury Gardens—a walk of five hundred yards between trees and shrubs before he reached the State Offices. Because it was winter and the elms were bare, he recited the stanza describing the Scholar Gipsy’s winter journeys.

He said the words aloud quietly until a fellow with rubber-soled golf shoes came up quietly behind him. When he saw the fellow beside him, Adrian started singing the words as though they were part of some sentimental ballad from the hit parade. But the fellow still looked at him suspiciously. He had a small brown leather case and he was heading for the State Offices. If he turned out to be one of Adrian’s immediate superiors, Adrian would have to start singing whenever he passed his desk or met him in the corridor to convince the fellow that he hadn’t really been talking to himself in the Treasury Gardens.

Adrian began work in the Teachers’ Branch of the Education Department. The officer in charge of the branch said, ‘We’re up to our eyes in work and we haven’t even got a proper desk for you yet. If you wouldn’t mind taking that table and chair we’ve pulled up beside young Stewie’s desk and giving him a hand. He’s your Section Leader. He’ll show you what to do.’

The officer in charge left Adrian with a man in his twenties named Stewart Coldbeck. Coldbeck put a few bundles of papers in front of Adrian and gave him some instructions. Adrian obeyed without knowing what it was all about. He spend the rest of the morning finding names of teachers or telephone numbers of schools or going to a big cabinet and reading details from teachers’ record cards.

In the afternoon Adrian began to understand what was going on. Coldbeck and the fellows in his section were arranging temporary appointments of teachers to primary schools. The second term of school had just begun, and many teachers had transferred from one school to another. The Teachers’ Branch was supposed to ll the vacancies that had arisen as a result of these hundreds of voluntary transfers. The branch couldn’t send just any teacher to ll a vacancy—only a teacher whose present appointment was a temporary one.

Coldbeck explained: ‘They’re at our mercy, the temporaries. We just ring up the headmasters of their present schools and bung these forms into the mail and they go wherever we tell them to. Most of them are young—the experience does them good.’

Adrian looked at the form that Coldbeck bunged into the mail. It was headed in bold capitals:


He had never dreamed he would handle anything so powerful on his first day in the public service. He put the form carefully back on its pile and said to Coldbeck, ‘You mean, even if a teacher had lived all his life in Melbourne you can use one of these forms to send him to Portland or Mildura?’

Coldbeck said, ‘If they’ve only got a temporary appointment we can give them another appointment anywhere in the state. Mind you, we’re supposed to be reasonable. If Ouyen or Sea Lake needs a temp we sometimes try to find someone who’s already in that area. The trouble is we hardly ever have time to search through our lists for someone like that. We’re usually so busy we just grab the first temp we can lay our hands on.’

After a few days Adrian began to understand the work of the Teachers’ Branch. On the Friday afternoon he found himself with nothing to do. (Coldbeck was out of the room organising the weekly tipping competitions for the races and football.) He studied the list of state primary schools in Victoria. There were hundreds he had never heard of. Teddywaddy, Tempy, Traynors Lagoon—most of their names were uninviting by comparison with the places he studied each night on his map of England.

Yet on each page of the Education Department’s list he found a few names straight from England. Maccles eld, Malmsbury, Mortlake—their green fields and leafy hedgerows promised peace and poetic inspiration far from the dust and scrub of the Mallee and the Wimmera.

Suddenly there was work to do. Adrian sharpened a green pencil from Coldbeck’s desk and turned to the first page of his list of schools. When he found a name from England he put a tiny green dot beside it. He worked through page after page until five o’clock. Then he took the list home in his leather satchel and spent most of the weekend with it.

On the Monday morning Coldbeck came in and threw his newspaper on his desk and said, ‘Now, young Adrian, let’s get cracking and shift some more of those temps.’

Adrian grinned at him. He was looking forward to his day’s work. His life in the public service would not be drudgery after all.

The headmaster at Horsham needed a temporary assistant urgently. Coldbeck told Adrian to find someone for Horsham from the list of temporary teachers. Adrian paused a moment and thought of the little village of Horsham. Someone from his list was about to be transferred to the green fertile countryside of Sussex.

The first name on the list was Rosalie G. Mentiplay. She had a pleasant name that would have sounded well among the farmlands of Horsham. But she was already in England—at Blackburn, a well-situated town in the north- east, if he remembered correctly.

Adrian left Miss Mentiplay at Blackburn and considered the next name—Rodney W. Louch. Mr Louch was at present in a temporary position at Warragul. This was just what Adrian had been looking for. He would move the young man from the uninspiring haunt of Gippsland Aborigines to Horsham. With any sort of imagination, Rodney W. Louch could turn his temporary transfer into a spiritual pilgrimage from the harsh landscapes of Australia to a greener country.

Adrian made a note of Louch’s journey on his blotting pad. He wanted to think of the fellow during the next few days while he was actually travelling to Horsham. Then he took all the necessary details across the room to the typist so that Louch’s Notice of Appointment would be in the mail that afternoon. He didn’t ask Coldbeck for his approval. He planned to present Coldbeck with the notice already typed and pretend he had forgotten to show it earlier.

The next few vacancies were at schools with names unconnected with England. Adrian chose temporaries to ll them without much interest and passed the names to Coldbeck’s desk for his approval. Then the school at Penshurst required a temporary teacher.

Adrian was ready. Penshurst, he knew, was buried among the hopfields and green swards of Kent. It was a worthy destination for any traveller. Brenda Y. Epworth would welcome the chance to set out from grim-sounding Black Rock for the rural peace of Penshurst.

At the end of the morning, when Coldbeck was approving Adrian’s transfers he frowned at the two that were already typed. But then he shrugged his shoulders and initialled them and took them with the others to the officer in charge. Adrian kept a straight face, but he was overjoyed. He realised he need not have taken special precautions to get his English transfers past Coldbeck. All temporary teachers were a nuisance to Coldbeck. So long as Adrian filled the vacancies, no one would query them. Every day he could send two or three young men and women on long arduous journeys that would bring them at last to idyllic English landscapes. It was about as satisfying as planning poems or studying maps of England at night. In his poetry he was trying to describe spiritual journeys from everyday drabness to serene landscapes of the imagination. At work he was sending people to places whose very names evoked poetic imagery—but they were real people and real places.

He remembered a term at St Carthage’s when his class had spent their Christian Doctrine classes studying Catholic Social Justice. Afterwards he had written an essay on the rights of the worker. Every worker should be free to work at a task that gave him a sense of fulfilment. Adrian had written that without fully understanding it. Now, in the Victorian public service, he knew what it meant and fully agreed with it.

During the next week Adrian sent nine young teachers on pilgrimages from colourless Australian places to destinations in rural England. When the demand for temporary teachers was over, Coldbeck gave him other work to do. But in his spare time he prepared for the transfers in the third term. He prepared a list of the most deserving cases—the temporaries in suburbs of Melbourne such as Brunswick, Coburg and Maribyrnong—and made a note to give them first priority when vacancies occurred at places on the map of England.

Each day at lunchtime he walked in the Treasury Gardens. Many other public servants were there—middle- aged men strolling in threes and fours around the paths, groups of young women on seats around the lily pond, young fellows playing football with a bundle of newspapers. But Adrian avoided them all. He walked fast, backwards and forwards over the least-frequented stretches of lawn and in the shadows of thickets and beds of shrubbery. He was looking for places where he could stand and see nothing but lawns and trees in any direction, with no sight of a city building or an asphalt pathway.

His method was to find first a secluded spot where a mass of bushes hid the whole facade of the State Offices to the north. Then he would pace a little way in different directions trying to bring other foliage between himself and the city skyline to the west. Sometimes when he had got rid of the city, he looked back and found that a corner of the State Offices had come into view again. When this happened he had to move slowly backwards, one foot at a time, trying to watch the city and the State Offices until both had disappeared again. When the north and west were filled with greenery he turned to the south and tried to eliminate the Jolimont railway yards.

During his first week in the public service he found two spots from which he could see only trees and lawns and sky. He carefully noted their bearings on a piece of paper and decided they were enough for his purposes for the time being.

On the following morning before he left home he took his book The English Countryside in Colour and let the pages fall open. They opened at a picture of Symonds Yat, Monmouthshire. He read the text and looked once more at the picture to get the mood of the scene. At lunchtime that day he went to the first of his chosen spots in the gardens. He stood on the lawn and moved his feet by inches until he had turned a complete circle. He did this several times with his eyes fixed on the slowly changing vistas of greenery. And all the time he tried to see around him the landscape of Symonds Yat, Monmouthshire.

Next day he stood at the second of his spots and performed a similar mental exercise that took him to Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire. The day after, he contemplated Poynings, Sussex, from the Devil’s Dyke. There were only forty coloured scenes in his book, but if he found more of the right spots in the gardens he could combine each of them with each of the forty illustrations and provide himself with hundreds of poetic landscapes to savour.

In the evenings he drew up plans and tried to devise a title for a long poem about a man who discovered early in life that every landscape gave rise to a distinctly different mood in his heart (or soul—Adrian had not decided which of these words to use). There were sensual landscapes, landscapes suited to romantic love, religious landscapes and purely poetic landscapes. After viewing all four kinds, the man decided to dedicate his life to the fourth—the poetic. But then he made a tragic discovery—the landscapes that for him were most poetic were all in a distant country. Because it was impossible for him to visit that country he had to make a supreme effort of the imagination to recreate its landscapes in his everyday world. He tried various ways of doing this, but he realised in the end that the best way was to delineate them in his poems.

Here Adrian’s rough drafts became so complex that he seriously considered abandoning rhyme and metre and using free verse to express himself more easily. Even so, he saw it would be hard to write a poem about poems containing landscapes that inspired poems. Sometimes he thought it would be easier to save up his public-service salary for a few years and travel to England and take his poetry notebook to a shady spot in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire and look out at the hills and hedgerows and let the verses roll off his pen.


From A Season on Earth. Used with permission of Text Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Gerald Murnane.

More Story
31 Books in 30 Days: Elizabeth Taylor on Yunte Huang In this 31 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 14, 2019 announcement of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle...