Christmas Nostalgia: Chris Hammer on holidays as a child

Christmas Nostalgia: Chris Hammer on holidays as a child

Words // Chris Hammer:

As a child, Christmas meant one thing: Melbourne.

And Melbourne meant everything: Christmas lights, street decorations, Bourke Street crowds, the windows in Myers, the beach, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, grandma’s dog, presents, food and lollies. Melbourne had it all, much of it experienced for the first time: lunch at a department store cafeteria, ice-skating, cricket at the MCG.

There was only one problem: getting there.

My parents were from Melbourne, but we lived in Canberra. And if Melbourne was the Emerald City, the Hume Highway was no yellow brick road.

Nowadays I can drive from Canberra to Melbourne in under seven hours. The Hume is duplicated the whole way, the driving near effortless. My car is air conditioned, cruise-controlled and stereo-endowed.

In the late sixties, we were lucky to do the trip in twelve.

The highway was a potholed, single-lane death trap. Underpowered trucks would lumber up hills, slowing almost to walking pace, trailing clouds of consumptive black smoke, contemptuous of the cars strung out in their wake.

Even when the traffic thinned, as it sometimes would, my father refused to drive at more than fifty miles-per-hour – eighty kilometres-per-hour in today’s currency.

In later years he harvested his fair share of speeding tickets, but back then he was mindful of the safety of his young family. And fair enough. This was in the days before cars had seat belts, before airbags, disc brakes and rack and pinion steering, before random breath tests. The road toll, particularly over summer, was a constant refrain on the news reports. The death toll in 1970 was 3798 when Australia’s population was half of today’s; in 2017 the toll was 1225.

There was another factor in slowing our progress. Vomiting.

I was a heaver, the last of the family. At some point early in our trip, after fighting it back as long as possible, I would utter the dreaded words: ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’ Indicators were flashed, drum brakes deployed, swear words uttered. And I would be ejected from the car moments before I in turn ejected the contents of my stomach, painting the road side with carrots and embarrassment.

I want some sympathy here, some understanding. Our old FC Holden was an oven, defenceless against days nudging century heat. The bench seats were vinyl, so hot that they would burn exposed skin. The suspension was so soft the car was in constant side-ways motion. I’d start in the middle of the back seat, wedged between my older brother and sister. A few vomits in, and I’d be in the front seat, wedged between my mother and father, dehydrated and miserable.

‘Are we there yet?’ ‘How much further?’ ‘Can we have an ice-cream?’ The temperature would rise, tempers would fray, fights break out. Dad would threaten to turn back, or abandon one or other of us beside the road.

There were no ipods, no DVD players, not even a radio. ‘I spy with my little eye,’ quickly wore thin; there was bugger all to spy: trees, paddocks, sheep, sky, clouds, cars, the occasional windmill. My brother’s claim he had spied something starting with G.E.G (a green-eyed gnome, it transpired) sunk the game for all time. One time my father spent several hours explaining the evils of communism; I found myself missing ‘I spy’.

And then finally, after it all, we’d reach Melbourne. And the final test: Sydney Road. No Tullamarine Freeway, just mile after mile of traffic lights, pollution and bumper-to-bumper traffic. And trams, hell-bent on ramming us.

But then, at long last, we’d arrive at our grandparents’ houses. We were in Melbourne, the magic city. And suddenly it was Christmas, everything was right with the world and everyone was happy again.

At least until the drive back to Canberra.

About the author:

Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV’s flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than 30 countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age.

His first book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award.

Chris has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master’s degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.

You can read our review of Chris’ latest novel Scrublands here, and purchase a copy here.

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                  Publisher details

                  Scrublands
                  Author
                  Chris Hammer
                  Publisher
                  Allen & Unwin
                  Genre
                  Fiction
                  Released
                  01 April, 2019

                  Synopsis

                  Set in a fictional Riverina town at the height of a devastating drought, Scrublands is one of the most powerful, compelling and original crime novels to be written in Australia. In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself. A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don't fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can't ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest's deadly rampage. Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town. The bodies of two backpackers - missing since the time of the church shootings - are found in a dam in the scrublands. It's the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin finds himself caught in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal. Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town's secrets stay buried.
                  Chris Hammer
                  About the author

                  Chris Hammer

                  Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV's flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than thirty countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first book, The River, published in 2010 to critical acclaim, was the recipient of the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award and the Manning Clark House National Cultural Award. Scrublands, his first novel, was published in 2018 and was shortlisted for Best Debut Fiction at the Indie Book Awards, shortlisted for Best General Fiction at the Australian Book Industry Awards, shortlisted for the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and won the UK Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Debut Dagger Award. His second novel, Silver, was published in 2019 and was shortlisted for Best General Fiction at the Australian Book Industry Awards, shortlisted for the 2020 ABA Booksellers' Choice Book of the Year Award, and longlisted for the UK Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award. Chris has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Charles Sturt University and a master's degree in international relations from the Australian National University. He lives in Canberra with his wife, Dr Tomoko Akami. The couple have two children.

                  Books by Chris Hammer

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