This front page screamer from the weekly Guardian, May 24, 1978, and the story below, affected me deeply, and I hope, also moved the readers of the day. The effect was such that the poem I wrote in response to the story was a completely different style from most of the others.
“Scores of Newtown schoolchildren have become addicted to petrol sniffing.
“Police and medical authorities have been shocked at the extent of the addiction.
“An appeal to all the shopkeepers in the area has been made by a distraught Newtown mother whose eleven-year-old son is getting a ‘Buzz’ from petrol sniffing.
“Many shopkeepers are unaware that children are buying lighter fluid for this purpose,” she said.
“My local fruit shop proprietor last week told me he sold my son two cans of lighter fluid in two days, and said he thought he wanted it to start a fire.
“All the time he was telling me this, I knew he knew what he really wanted it for,” she said.
“She told the GUARDIAN that there are many places where children, as young as six years old, have been meeting and getting off on “the Buzz”.
“One of the places visited by the GUARDIAN was the old graveyard at St Stephens Church, Camperdown. GUARDIAN staff were horrified to find, scattered around in a very small area, 20 Ronson Lighter Fluid cans — all empty!
“My son has been known to go through six cans a week,” she said.
The Guardian article detailed the horrific physical and mental effects of the kids’ petrol sniffing, information I repeated in my poem, ‘The Graveyard’:
The shopkeepers know,
when the kids buy lighter fluid day after day after day. They
don’t want to see the sweating, the sores around the nose
and mouth, the terrors. They’d rather pretend the kids are
‘just kids’ out to light a few fires.
[The reason that all cigarette lighters these days are disposable is the result of legislation passed some time in the mid 1980s mandating non-refillable lighters, specifically to tackle the problem of lighter fluid sniffing. Correct disposal and recycling of disposable lighters is an incidental and less horrific problem.]
In October 2017, I went back to visit St Stephen’s cemetery, Newtown, after an absence of five or six years. Despite regular caretaker work, many of the older graves had collapsed completely, and without these landmarks I could not find the Admiral’s wife’s grave, which I used to visit often, as a bee colony had established inside her tomb through a crack. I would watch the bees flying to and from the grave, and on warm days there’d be a delicious honey smell. I wrote about this in the opening stanza of ‘The Graveyard’ before moving to the grimmer details.
… In the long grass
beneath crumbling headstones or caged
behind rusting iron fences lie grave slabs
cracked and fallen. Bees hum industriously
around the admiral’s wife’s last home,
sweet murmurings and scented flight
purposeful in the hot noon.
A caged grave, not yet collapsed
Sadly, I fear the Admiral’s wife’s last home has collapsed and disappeared. The bees have been given modern new hives closer to the graveyard wall. However, the giant Moreton Bay fig mentioned in the Guardian article is still growing near the church, and is believed to be about 170 years old. It has been photographed many times, including several times by me.
‘The Graveyard’ is one of only three poems in the verse novel that are not linked to any particular character speaking or thinking. The first is the Prologue, in which the street itself seems to express the attitudes of ‘old Australians’ to the newcomers from overseas.
Towards the end of the book, ‘What Tom doesn’t know’—like ‘The Graveyard’ — is the spirit of Newtown speaking.