“And you can never quarantine the past” Gold Sounds– Pavement
There are days in Australian history which are remembered for the bushfire events which occurred on those days, the 7th of February 2009, now forever known as Black Saturday, is one of those days. The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper tells the story of one the fires on Black Saturday, moving from the fire on the day and the devasting impact it had, to the investigation and eventual arrest of the person thought responsible for the fire, the story of the accused himself and then finally the court case and sentencing. For anyone this is not an easy book to read, as a resident of the region in which the fire occurred, both then and now, the book is even harder to read. For those who were directly affected by the fire on the day I cannot imagine how they would have the strength to read this book.
Instead of reviewing The Arsonist I have chosen to write about some of my reactions to the book. I do this because as an almost lifelong resident of the Latrobe Valley and also a former long term employee of Hazelwood Power Station I don’t believe I can be impartial in my views. I trust there is still something to learn from what I write and although I do have some minor quibbles with some things Chloe Hooper has written, I believe The Arsonist is an extraordinary achievement and she should be wholly congratulated for it.
There are always times in your life when you remember what you were doing at a given day and time. At just after 6am on the 8th of February 2009 I was in a queue waiting to use the car wash near Mid Valley Shopping Centre in Morwell. Apart from the windows which I managed to clean so I was able to drive my car was covered in ash which had been rained down onto the car the evening before. Once I was able to clean my car I headed to Hazelwood Power Station to start day shift. I had my first real view of some of devastation wreaked by the fire the previous day as I walked from the car park towards the power station. There would have many times during the day when I could look across to Churchill and see the blackened hills behind it. In the first chapter of The Arsonist Chloe Hooper describes how the investigators on that Sunday worked out where the fire started in two places behind Churchill. As I read this it gave me a very strange feeling to realise that as they worked I was looking across to where they were.
I will remember the tears in my eyes after reading the second chapter of The Arsonist for many years to come. Most of the stories of what happened to the victims of the fire I already knew, in one case I know someone who was on a nearby property and survived. There is another story in the chapter which I was told by someone who was there. What Chloe has written and what I remember being told shortly after the fire are almost exactly the same thing. The chapter also brought back many other memories of that time. There were family and friends who lost homes, even now I can still meet someone who was directly affected by the fire, it is a signpost in the lives of everyone who lived in the Valley that day.
It is at this point I’ll admit that I struggled to know what to write about the second and third parts of The Arsonist. I’m not one who bays for blood, I rarely read the local paper, detest talk-back radio as a medium and only read the sport pages of the Herald Sun during footy season. That Brendan Sokaluk was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced for the Churchill fire is a distant event to me. Do I believe Brendan Sokaluk was guilty, until I read the book I didn’t know, after reading it I’d have to say yes. That’s my opinion and Chloe Hooper has skilfully written The Arsonist so that everyone who reads the book can make that decision for themselves. I do have some thoughts about Brendan Sokaluk’s history detailed in the book which I don’t wish to share. Also, as mentioned earlier I have some minor quibbles about the book, they are related to Latrobe Valley history and for the moment I’m going to keep them to myself.
Finally, in reading The Arsonist I recognise that I have been one of the haves rather than have nots in the Valley. Much of the economic deprivation described in the book has never applied to me because, until Hazelwood Power Station was shut down last year, I was full time employed in the power industry for over thirty years. Now I’m a casual worker for a local business, it is a job which requires me to be discreet and therefore I won’t say what I do. If Black Saturday was ever to happen again, I know what I may be asked to do, I don’t relish that prospect.
Image: Late afternoon sky, 7th of February 2009.