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The Romanticisation of Bush Life: a review of Todd Alexander’s “Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and Pig Called Helga”

I picked up Todd Alexander’s memoir Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and A Pig Called Helga because, to put it simply, wine and pigs are a few of my favourite things. The memoir also takes place in cities and regions where I grew up, and I wanted to feel that nostalgia of having my hometown in a book. Yet I finished the memoir with some uneasy feelings relating to how Australians treat the bush.

Australians have been in love with the bush since it was invaded and subsequently colonised in the late 1700s. Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem, My Country – “Core of my heart, my country” – has fuelled the romanticising of the bush and our “sunburnt country” along with many others. Writers and poets have also celebrated country jobs and country life like A.B. Patterson’s Clancy of the Overflow – “Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.” – where droving, shearing, and cattle work is praised. What is it about the bush that has taken over our hearts and minds?

There is a simplicity in working on and with the land. Humans are animals before anything else, and we crave nature just like any other of our kin. It is perhaps the biggest lie that we tell ourselves because we are not above or separate from nature. Yet we distance ourselves from it. Big city life is filled with creating, selling, and reproducing things that are often intangible to us. Liquidity, profits, and KPIs are not as satisfying as seeing the wool, right there in your hand.

But living off the land is not easy, nor should it be treated as a cure for our city woes. Those who have grown up in bush and farming communities have a very different way of life, and I see no reason why we should not respect this. The bush is serious business, and going there for a ‘tree-change’ can come off as disingenuous for those who have their blood and sweat in that soil.

The other worrying factor is the gentrification of country towns. This is a difficult topic to discuss because on the one hand, fancy boutique shops popping up attract tourists looking for a little something from the bush to take back to their concrete jungles, yet on the other hand, I also wonder and worry about the accessibility for those who live locally.

In saying all of that, it is hard for me to judge or know the true intentions of Alexander and his new life in the bush. His memoir promotes awareness of some of the issues that country towns face, yet the inclusion of country folk is rare. Perhaps it is because they are stand-off-ish to these outsiders, but I felt that Alexander missed an opportunity to include more bush voices. Also, if you can dedicate a whole chapter to veganism, you could at least mention something about the indigenous groups from the regions you are inhabiting.

There are some funny moments in Alexander’s memoir, especially when it comes to their cluelessness about large-scale farming. There are some hints at the difficulties surrounding the treatment of homosexuality in the bush, which is a killer and factor in suicide rates in the bush. Weaved throughout the memoir is a theme of self-realisation and self-determination. A late coming-of-age story if you will.

With all of that in mind, I feel torn about this memoir. Perhaps when Australians talk about the bush, we are always walking a fine line between blind love and tone-deaf. What do you think? As always, share the reading love.