September 2018

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.

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The Australian geneticist believes ageing is a disease we can treat

The AFL’s concussion problem

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Birth of a larrikin

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Black Summer at Currowan

Lessons from Australia’s worst bushfires

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Unfinished business

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