September 2018


‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

By Helen Elliott
‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton
A social affairs reporter turns the pen on himself

Class is access. If Rick Morton hadn’t mentioned anything else in his book (Melbourne University Press; $29.99), you wouldn’t have wasted your money. But Morton, social affairs reporter for The Australian, has a hundred and one equally interesting things to say, as he enquires into the nature of social and family structure via a raw and confessional autobiography. Morton is only 31 but his has been a life less ordinary. Perk up: this is no misery memoir.

The Mortons have owned millions of acres in the Queensland outback, around Birdsville, for more than a century. To Morton’s ancestors, the outback was land that didn’t want to be worked and was happy to kill you. They responded in kind. Whatever happened to the Mortons, there was violence, destruction, cruelty and obsession with ownership of the land. So much for the fabled bush aristocracy. This was outback Game of Thrones. The trauma was inscribed across generations.

When Morton was seven, his mother took him, his baby sister and his older brother, who was recovering from massive burns, from the station his father was managing and started over as a single parent. Rick became working class in an equivalent Queensland town.

What Morton writes about is people experiencing the opposite of entitlement. There isn’t a word for this state. “Disenfranchised” isn’t right because these people never felt “franchised” in the first place. The opposite of entitlement is to feel that there are things in the world that are wonderful but they will never be for you. Rick Morton had, and still has, a remarkable mother, Deb, who steadfastly provided for her children and loved them unconditionally. One theme of Morton’s enquiry is why, given his adversity, he should survive so well. He knows it has to do with his mother but, then, his brother is an ice addict.

Rick Morton got an education and a job that is a vocation. He is smart but has also had daft luck and wants to know, why him? His mother, in her amused way, always insisted Rick was an alien sent to report back about Earth. And so he has. He still harbours a pure clean anger at the myriad injustices of which he has been aware all his life. But the anger is filtered through humour, a warm heart, a lack of self-pity and a journalistic eye for facts.

Morton mines questions that most of us feel too exhausted even to glance at. How did we get to be ourselves, and is it possible to change? And how can we begin to understand others who might seem like aliens? Morton is fresh. His book is brilliant, he’s brilliant, but I wish he had called it “One Hundred Years of Squalitude”.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

In This Issue

Image of David Sinclair

Can David Sinclair cure old age?

The Australian geneticist believes ageing is a disease we can treat

The AFL’s concussion problem

Is the league running interference on the damage concussion can cause?

Image of Laurie Matheson

Laurie Matheson, our man in Moscow

Was ‘Australia’s James Bond’ working for the KGB? Or ASIO? Or both?

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime