The Boy Behind the Curtain
By Tim Winton
Context and Purpose
Winton’s collection of personal narrative essays capture the socio-cultural changes Australia was experiencing in the 1960s, from the perspective of a young boy growing up in Perth. His essays reflect a particular focus on the changing role of family values and religion, the emergence of a more multicultural society, and the beginnings of the proliferation of technology. Within that shifting socio-cultural landscape, Winton examines what those developments meant for the place of the individual, especially within the context of a more materialistic society.
Central to that discussion of materialism is a growing awareness of the impact of human behaviour on the natural environment. Ultimately, Winton’s purpose can be understood as one of self-reflection and represents his search to locate his personal experiences amid a backdrop of sweeping changes that forced he and others to recalibrate their sense of identity.
Havoc: A Life in Accidents
Winton begins Havoc by recounting his family’s long history with vehicle-related accidents. He begins by recounting how, as a child, he attended the scene of a motorcycle accident with his father, a police officer, and was told by his father to sit in the car and wait while his father went to the injured man’s aid. From the outset, we get a sense of how this event haunted Winton, as he watches his father assist the injured man before getting into a fight with the victim’s drunk father, who was trying to prevent the paramedics from helping.
Winton then moves to discuss his father’s own vehicular accident, which left him bedridden for months and motivated a conversion to Christianity. It was the care of a good Samaritan in particular that led his father to Christianity. Eight years later, it was Winton himself who was the victim of an accident, which left him badly injured but also had a profound spiritual effect on him, as it motivated him to become a writer.
The essay concludes with Winton describing assisting at the scene of a car crash as an adult. While driving with his family, they came across a young girl walking barefoot and in a daze, who led them to the accident site. Winton helped the girl’s mother until ambulances arrived. The author was left traumatised by this incident.
Throughout Betsy, Winton recounts the embarrassment he felt towards his family’s car when he was a child. His father inherited the car from Winton’s grandfather, and Winton describes it as “an aesthetic travesty, an offence to youth.” He tells of the embarrassment he felt when being driven to school in it, desperate to avoid being seen by anyone he knew, but also fully aware that everyone would be looking at it due to its appearance. The story concludes, humorously, with his father finally getting rid of the car after realising that it was more trouble than it was worth.
Twice on Sundays
In Twice on Sundays, Winton discusses his family’s faith and devotion to the Church of Christ. He also reflects on how this faith and the church community impacted on his sense of self and his ambitions as a writer.
In the first half of the essay, Winton employs a self-deprecating tone as he jokes about the family being “God-botherers,” and how the children were bored during Sunday services. He does however make space to highlight the powerful influence of religious teachings and writings in forming his own appreciation for language and writing.
There is a tone shift in the second half of the essay to one that is more reflective and meditative, as Winton describes how as a child, his inquisitive nature presented a challenge to his Church community, which was grappling at the time with anxieties stemming from the Cold War. He concludes by stating that while although he remains an active participant in his Church community, he is “worn out by the labels and definitions” people seek to attach to him, and for him to embody.
The Wait and the Flow
Winton in this essay explains his love for surfing, and why he is addicted to it. He begins with a discussion of his first experience of surfing as a child, before he gave it up in the 1980s as it became overly-corporatised, which significantly muted its appeal for him. He returned to surfing later in life, where as an adult, he was able to appreciate it for how it “offers a chance to be in the present.”
In the Shadow of the Hospital
Throughout In the Shadow of the Hospital, Winton reflects on the emotional experience of living across the road from a hospital. He charts the development of his responses to witnessing patients, visitors and staff, as he moves from being intrigued and almost excited by seeing their displays of emotion, to realising the despair and anxiety they must feel. Winton acknowledges he is granted a special access to people’s most vulnerable moments because of where he lives; it is in these moments that people reveal their true selves, as they believe they are alone. The essay concludes with Winton recounting his own personal experiences in hospitals, some of which he appreciates, and others he resents.
The Demon Shark
The Demon Shark is divided into three essays that capture divergent perspectives on sharks.
The first essay, titled ‘Holy and Silent: On Peter Matthiessen’s Blue Meridian,’ describes the fascination Winton felt towards the production of the documentary Blue Water. He reflects his interest with how the director balanced his genuine interest in sharks with the somewhat questionable motivations of the other people who were working on the production.
The second essay, ‘Predator or Prey,’ captures Winton speaking directly to his audience, as he pleads with them to stop killing sharks and to respect them. He cites the low number of human deaths by shark attacks in comparison to the amount of sharks that are killed for recreational purposes or for food.
Finally, in ‘Passing Strangers,’ Winton recounts a personal experience with bumping into a shark while waiting to catch a wave once.
Barefoot in the Temple of Art
In this deeply personal and evocative essay, Winton describes a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria. Upon arriving at the gallery after the long drive from Western Australia, Winton was initially disappointed by the quality of the works on display, which were too abstract for him to understand or appreciate. The children were initially denied entry to the gallery because they were barefoot, much to Winton’s mother’s disappointment. They were eventually allowed in, and as Winton wondered the halls of the gallery, his intellectual curiosity was gradually awakened, and he became so fascinated that he refused to leave when it was time to go.
Years later, on returning to the NGV, Winton is happy to find that it has become a more welcoming and relaxed place, where families are free to enjoy the works without worrying. AS he revisits the same works he looked at all those years ago as a child, he is pleased to find that they have retained their power.
Human Experiences Explored
Experiences of Violence and Trauma
There is a tension within Winton’s Havoc that we as the reader are left to grapple with: the apparent normality of such violence, evidenced simply by the rate at which Winton personally encounters car crashes, and the traumatic effects those events have on him, which is communicated by the visceral imagery he uses to describe those experiences. The deep-rooted emotional impact of witnessing violence and trauma is reflected through the imagery “Everything was way over my head. And the mayhem wouldn’t stop.” It is important to remember that Winton is recalling his thoughts as a young boy, who was unable to make sense of the carnage he was bearing witness to. However, through “My father’s life had been spared and we were glad, but we were no longer the safe, confident people we’d been before,” Winton describes how recurrent experiences with violence have prompted a deepened appreciation for his own mortality – they have changed how he views the world.
Celebrating Intellectualism and Creativity
The narrative arc of Winton’s Havoc reflects how such experiences can prompt a deeper appreciation for one’s mortality, but can also inspire intellectualism and creativity, which are used to confront the reality of death. It is this new awareness that allows Winton to embrace change rather than shy from it. A discussion of this human experience should be intertwined with an examination of experiences of violence and trauma, so that the overall argument should be something resembling “experiences of violence and trauma inspire intellectualism and creativity as individuals confront the reality of their own mortality.”
Twice on Sundays demonstrates how central to Winston’s growing curiosity and rebelliousness are his maturing intellectual self and creative streak. He reveals that “Scripture stories were my bread and butter,” and formed the basis of his creative imagination. The power of language and storytelling is reflected in “Over time, by a process I don’t understand even now, the occult power of metaphor revealed itself.” Indeed, Winton urges for intellectualism to be celebrated more widely in society, as it provides a stabilising sense of community and inspiration, while also nurturing his creative mind: “At eight or ten years its tough having to crunch ethical and cosmic dilemmas as we did every Sunday morning.” He speaks of the positive role the Church had in shaping his intellectual curiosity in all areas of life: “church life was my introduction to politics, high language, story and music.”
That view of the natural world as possessing spiritual qualities is both a contributor to and product of Winton’s creative imagination, evidenced by his use of a surfing analogy to describe his writing process: “That’s how I experience writing, which is its own compulsion. I show up. I wait. When some surge of energy finally arrives, I do what I must to match its speed. Which I can, I ride its force.”
Throughout Barefoot in the Temple of Art, Winton reveals how the reality of his childhood meant that being intellectually curious as an adult was actually highly unlikely – he speaks of growing up in a “hardy, utilitarian environment.” However, as the reader we see that it is likely for that exact reason – being deprived of much intellectual stimulus or motivation as a child – that Winton did pursue writing, and endeavoured to see the world through a spiritual and imaginative lens rather than a practical one. That development is reflected by Winton in “It seemed to me there was a cultural moat between me and the speculative dream world I later learned to call art,” as he reflects that it is with determination that one can overcome the obstacles that they experience earlier in life. The transformative power of art is captured in the emotive tone at the essay’s conclusion: “I first entered the NGV barefoot and cowering, but I was so taken with what I saw that I forgot to be embarrassed. I strode out of the place like a man in boots.”
Betsy captures the universal human experience of being embarrassed by one’s parents, and the tension between childhood and maturity that underlies that embarrassment: they seemingly exist as two completely separate, irreconcilable worlds. That embarrassment is addressed directly in “As the old man hoisted the natty indicator-arm and set sail for school at a pace that was plausibly nautical, I’d press me lower back against the seat springs and take a passionate interest in the inner seems of my bag.” Winton makes clear the extent of his vitriol for the car in “I didn’t just hate riding in her. I was offended by her very existence.” Through his use of hyperbolic language, Winton endears himself to the reader, as we imagine a young child in shock at his parent’s choice of car.
Where Betsy captures the embarrassment we often feel towards our parents as children, Twice on Sundays examines the corresponding internal conflict between feeling compelled to do as we are told, and the emergent curiosity at the prospect of pushing boundaries. Twice on Sundays is rich with self-awareness, as Winton states “I wanted to live in a community where matter still mattered, and I was saying so, but I was doing it without elegance or diplomacy.” Here, Winton reflects his attempts to question the authority of the Church, but acknowledges the lack of grace he did it with.
The Wait and the Flow examines the intellectual changes we experience while growing up in by charting Winton’s fluctuating relationship with surfing. The arc of the text reveals how it is only with the passage of time that we can come to truly appreciate how experiences in our youth contributed to our sense of self in the present, as Winton engages extensively in retrospection and introspection. He directly acknowledges the role of surfing in forming his sense of self: “I credit surfing with getting me through adolescence. When I was lonely, confused and angry, the ocean was always there, a vast salty poultice sucking the poison from my system.”
Throughout Barefoot in the Temple of Art, Winton captures the intellectual inexperience of youth. The line “There were many things that I didn’t understand, stuff that made me uneasy, stripes and splashes and globs on pedestals that had me scratching my head” humorously establishes his childish confusion at the complexity of the world of art, but as the essay progresses, that confusion is replaced by curiosity, which parallels the trajectory all humans go through as they mature and investigate their creative imaginations and the world around them.
Appreciation for the Beauty of the Natural World
Winton’s The Wait and the Flow highlights the restorative power of the natural world, especially for a youth struggling to find themselves. Winton states that his love of surfing stems from his love of nature: “To me surfing has always been a matter of beauty and connectiveness.” That engagement with the natural world has a meditative quality, which he exploits to escape the worries afflicting him as a youth, and even as an adult, as reflected in The Demon Shark: “I was an innocent in my Eden.” Here, we also see Winton incorporate a religious reference, demonstrating the extent to which engagement with the natural world is for him an inherently spiritual experience.
Winton reflects on his non-conformist ideals extensively throughout his work. They are on display in Twice on Sundays, but are also touched on throughout The Wait and the Flow, as he describes how “In an era of shiny surfaces, new appliances and suburban indoor order, surfers were heretics.” Through this juxtaposition of consumerism and individualism, Winton reveals his passion for surfing to be informed by his desire to not be defined by external sources and the world around him, but rather by his own thought and action.
Human Behaviour in Traumatic Situations
The way in which traumatic situations reveal an individual’s truest and most unguarded sense of self is explored in In the Shadow of the Hospital. This is conveyed through the metaphor “In the lee of a hospital the social camouflage slips away, and what’s usually disguised is on display.” Winton describes how people’s sense of morality becomes somewhat obscured by the urgency that dominates in the hospital environment – they “become needy, greedy, callous.” Witnessing this collective emotional breakdown gives pause to Winton, as he describes feeling ashamed by witnessing people during these moments of panic and vulnerability. He ends with a tone of optimism though; “Despite all that bad weather, kindness still endured in the lee of our hospital, even if it sometimes took a little concentration to notice it.”
Embracing the Good in the Bad
Winton’s Havoc most effectively demonstrates how positives can be drawn from challenging situations. His father’s accident provides the impetus to change from viewing the world with cynicism to living with a deeper appreciation for the beauty of life: “Because, like the accident, it had a profound effect on my own trajectory. It’s no small achievement to confound a copper’s lowered expectations of humankind, for that’s a tough carapace to penetrate.”
The accident leads Winton’s father to a strengthened faith, which in turn allows him to see the good in life. In a more practical sense, Winton also reflects how such moments of crisis provide opportunities for the best of humanity to shine through. This is particularly evident in his discussion of the strangers who came to his father’s aid: “His actions taught me something new about strangers – that while they could wreck your life and do you harm they were also capable of mysterious kindness.” The strength and energy Winton draws from being able to view challenges in life as an opportunity for goodness is captured in the line “But to be afraid is to be awake.”