Truth, honesty, I could throw justice in here as well ... words that stir memories of the opening credits to The Adventures of Superman.
Truth and honesty form the basis of creative nonfiction writing, and writing about the community that once existed on the Sewerage Farm at Werribee (the Farm) for more than 70 years. It’s a community that mostly disbanded from the Farm by 1974, with one remaining family leaving in 1980. And yet it’s a community that is still very much alive.
Truth can create speculation, however. What is true to one person may not be truth to another and could in fact be something entirely different. Take a football match of the early 1950s that women from the Farm played in that was recently discussed.
‘That’s Charlie in the middle,’ says MC.
‘No, it’s not,’ says MH. ‘That’s definitely not him.’
‘Yes, it is. Look at this other photo. It’s the same person.’
‘No, I don’t think you’re right. That’s not him.’
And on went the conversation. Yet the two discussing Charlie at this event of more than 60 years ago, were both there, both in the photo with Charlie.
Writing about life on the Farm involves various forms of investigation. Examining archival material to gather factual data is important, but at the core of this research is the capturing of the oral history. This is done by conducting interviews that can often extend over several hours and involve further questioning and talking.
People recollect memories that are discussed and captured as true stories. Truth can come unstuck here though because memories and recollections can be considered as subjective, with some believing they cannot be regarded as ‘truth’. They question, what is truth?
I’ll throw in some theory here where the creative nonfiction form of writing can be defined as a vehicle for telling true stories. Creative nonfiction is “true stories well told” (Gutkind, 2012).
Creative nonfiction allows for capturing the oral history of the Farm community through the exploration of complexities in events and people in full humanity. (Ricketson, 2014) Writing in this way provides an opportunity to explore and be curious, to discover what’s going on in the world. It can be a motivator to seek the ‘truth’.
Another story told recently is of the grocer from many years ago who made deliveries to households on the Farm. The grocer would take orders one day and return a few days later to make deliveries one household at a time. He’d never stay and move quickly from one place to the next, except for one home where he would stop for two or three hours.
He’d leave his horse and jinker loaded in goods outside and in that time, his horse would slowly make its way along the street while eating the grass. After a while, the local kids noticed this and the goodies in the unattended jinker and helped themselves to fruits, lollies and soft drinks.
Upon realising the missing, unpaid for goods, the driver soon stopped making his long house visits to Miss H.
L said to me before he told me the story, ‘Now this might be telling tales, but it’s the truth.’ It’s not only a truth in L’s eyes as he was there and saw it and was one of the kids doing the taking, it’s a truth as part of a life that is full of nuances, a true reflection of life in its full spectrum. It’s a truth expressed.
Sometimes, truths take time to germinate in that vessel of trust, like the story of a head bobbing in the sewage as it flowed in the channel onto the Farm. Upon close inspection, it was realised the head belonged to a foetus, an aborted or miscarried baby. That story took some time to be told but once it was, unravelled further. It was found that many foetuses had flowed into the Farm in the sewage channel. These were aborted babies in a time where abortion was illegal and thrown into the sewer, along with miscarriages. Watermen would find these foetuses, haul them out and bury them on the Farm. These whispers took months to be spoken of and can now be confirmed as true stories.
Seeking the truth is fraught with considerations and dilemmas. There are truths that aren’t expressed, for fear of reprisal, being outed and embarrassed, and of repercussions or being held accountable or liable, or because of an inability to face the truth for whatever reasons … can they be considered an untruth? Perhaps a lie?
Recollections expressed as a ‘pure truth’ as distinctly remembered or even a twist on the truth that has slowly grown into a legendary tale over time, they’re easy to work with. A fabrication however, where a memory can't be recalled even though it has been well documented and in the public arena, that kind of 'non' recollection requires patience and persistence to carefully think through, investigate and discern, especially when it can impact other people.
Many recollections can be the only remaining truth in existence, to become the only truth. They can't be verified and sometimes capturing them can become a race against time, where people become unwell, too unwell to recall memories, and cease to live. I have arrived too late to speak to many who would have had a garden full of wonderful recollections to share if their memories and heart allowed.
Sometimes when the memories become so scattered and confused, only the heart knows the truth and miraculous things can happen. A stirring of the heart can shine a place of pure, unfiltered truth. It can emerge as a most glorious sunrise when us humans allow it.
Sharing truths, recollections and memories, can stir the heart and get people talking and asking questions. That’s got to be the silver lining in a project that has set out to document a social history.
These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.
The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.
For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm
The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.