Caroline van de Pol reviews Slipstream by Catherine Cole


By Catherine Cole

Valley Press

ISBN: 9781915606341


As an admirer of Catherine Cole’s earlier novels, short story collections and memoir such as Sleep, Seabirds Crying in the Harbour Dark and The Poet Who Forgot, I awaited the publication of her new book, Slipstream: On Memory and Migration, with great anticipation. I was not disappointed. The book’s subject matter of memory and migration had its appeal for me as the daughter of an Irish immigrant and Australian mother.

The book was inspired by a flight between Australia and the UK when Cole sensed that she ‘had been infected in some way by a blight common amongst the children of migrants; that desire to experience a life missed in the country abandoned by my parents.’ (Cole, p. 12). A little while later during her Hong Kong stopover she enviously watched the locals laughing and sharing stories or pointing things out to one another. ‘The city teemed with families who seemed welded to their lives there. They went back a long way, I decided, generations and generations, or so it seemed to me on that humid, solitary day.’ (Cole, p.14)

Cole dedicated the book to her brother, Brian, who as a small boy, travelled with his parents in 1949 from Yorkshire in northern England to Australia under the Ten Pound Pom scheme to Bankstown in Sydney’s South Western suburbs. Brian died in 2022 so he didn’t see the book in print but he and Cole spoke regularly about his memories. This loss of a brother adds a tinge of sadness to the book, an imperative also that we need to talk about our lives and acknowledge the courage with which we live them. I have lost family members too and this plangency echoed with me. I was drawn also to Cole’s thoughtful examination of what migration means to people and communities, especially her parents’ experience of migration.

There were many moments during my reading of Slipstream when I thought about family and friends from Vietnam, China and India who also have shared both joyful and devastating memories of migration. These dichotomies are well illustrated in the book in its reflections on the wider themes of migration and also in stories about what Cole describes as ‘reverse’ migration, her six years spent in the north of England. Cole also challenges the idea that Australia is a new country. In her chapter, Becoming Australian, she notes:

It rankles when people speak of Australia as a new country or part of the ‘new’ world. That is a colonial construct about who ‘discovered’ the place, denying its original people their land and culture – the oldest continuous surviving culture in the world – asserting that the continent was empty. In fact, we live on a thin veneer of history, a ‘relatively short span of Australia’s British settler colonial history, a history that has barely scratched the land’s surface.’ (Cole, p 123)

The layering of wider issues beyond migration, of the split self as depicted in Cole’s reminiscing and reflecting, is a feature of the texture of this tale of contrasting worlds: the sacrifices of leaving home and family in search of a better life. Migrants leave their old homes to seek a new one in a new place. Like so many post war migrants, Cole’s family built their own home first living in a garage sized temporary homes as the permanent home took shape. Cole reflects on what this rehoming means and how home takes on a whole new meaning when sacrifice and optimism meet. She quotes the social historian Ghasan Hage who wrote that a home:

has to be a space open for opportunities and hope. Most theorizations of the home emphasize it as a shelter, but, like a mother’s lap, it is only a shelter that we use for rest before springing into action and then return to, to spring into action again. (Hage in Cole, p102)

Slipstream also explores what has changed since the post war experience of migration and why we are far less tolerant towards migration today. Early in her book, Cole poses the question of changing sympathies for migrants and refugees. While her parents’ journey in 1949 was part of one of the world’s largest mass migrations and one in seven people have now made a new home somewhere in the world, she interrogates this shifting attitude:

Why then, are we so unsympathetic to those who need a safe place? When watching as people flee wars, march towards closed borders or apply fruitlessly for economic migration, it is easy to forget just how fortunate our own families were. (Cole, p 16)

Slipstream also examines the impact of migration on family members, especially those families where some of the children were born overseas and others in the new land. Cole explores a migrant’s grief and loss and the way in which they often cling to their former cultural identity to assuage these feelings. Slipstream offers a humorous and heart-warming story of Cole’s own split between two worlds (the one of her parents in northern England and that of the sandy shores and sunburn of Sydney) while also witnessing from a young age, the struggle of her parents to ‘fit in’. She writes, ‘I want to chronicle how they plaintively memorialised the old world while staying ambitious and optimistic for the new one.’ (Cole, p20) This chronicling takes a number of forms throughout Slipstream. As well as her reflections of migration history and the ways in which other writers have pursued the topic, Cole uses anecdotes and memories to heighten the book’s atmosphere and affect. In one she recalls the way the old world entered the new Australian one via letters and parcels from Yorkshire:

One of the first things my father built on our block of land was a letter box, a neat tin affair with a sloping lid that made it look like a little tin house on top of a post, or like one of my brother’s Hornby tin train stations. The number 80 was painted clumsily on the front. It waited daily for the postman, who rode on his bike down the hill to our place, to deposit whatever thin aerogramme he had in his mail pouch that day. Sometimes he brought a parcel wrapped in canvas or parachute silk, but as time progressed these thinned out to birthdays and Christmas. (Cole p109)

Cole’s search for self in this classical memoir is engaging and offers a balance of distance and introspection. She longs for more detail about her parents’ former lives in their Yorkshire mining village and the shock of Sydney’s western suburbs in comparison. Yet she manages to draw a rich portrait of those early years:

I also want to revisit my parents’ old ‘stomping grounds’ to talk to the ghosts who populate their former lives. What might I gain from these encounters? Self-understanding, historical context, peace of mind in regards to my oddly misshapen identity, that layered self I carry about with me; Australian, British, global, one of the ‘citizens of everywhere and nowhere’. (Cole, p.20)

A feature of Cole’s approach in this important memoir is the inclusion of other views, writers and academics who have looked closely at migration and what it means for them personally and for society. The discussions of migration’s impact on individuals and communities offers perspectives, including writer George Kouvaros who wrote that migration is about a ‘dispersal of the narrative details that we use to understand the people close to us’. The book also draws on the research of historians Paula Hamilton and Kate Darian-Smith, and Hammerton and Thomson in the UK whose research focused on families such as Coles, calling them ‘Australia’s Forgotten Migrants.’

The ways in which the children of migrants feel torn between their parents’ old culture and their own new one offers reflections on the passion for travel that Cole and her peers pursued in backpacking holidays to the ‘old’ country. Cole made several such journeys to her parents’ homeland, the first a six-week journey on a ship bound for England, as a backpacker when she was still a teenager. The significance of the sea – its moodiness, the inability to hold on to it, this kind of ‘slipstream’ permeates Cole’s story and travels. She notes that it is no accident that she first travelled to England by sea – all her life she had heard stories about her family’s passage to Australia on the Empire Brent and here was her opportunity to experience their sea voyage in reverse:

Travelling by sea seems to open vast philosophical conundrums. It causes you to rethink your size and shape and mobility. It offers danger, beauty, secrets. You ponder them at dusk as the sun sinks into the ship’s churning wake and syrens call you to them.’ (Cole, p 41)

Reading about Cole’s desire to trace her parents’ footsteps around northern England – in particular, the roads and lanes and coal mines of Yorkshire – I was reminded of my own desperate longing to live the life I felt I missed out on. This desire to keep our dead relatives living through writing is well-documented by memoirists around the world. Cole writes about her journey through Yorkshire with the ghosts of her family, following them north across Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumberland to their stepping off point on the Clydeside docks of Glasgow. In similar sentiment of the longing and remembering shared by Palestinian author, Atef Abu Saif, Cole shares her yearning to keep her family and her dying brother alive and moving forward.

Cole’s travel is revelatory. She waits ‘like an animal ready to pounce’ on any new insights or stories that help her to understand her own family and their place in the world’s migrant stories. All the while, she is wishing for the conversations with her parents – more stories, more jokes or explanations – she never got to fully enjoy before both had died. It’s true that our thanks to our parents for their sacrifices often come too late. ‘Waiting for the next story and the next,’ she writes, ‘those narratives which, stitched together, make a person who they are and what they understand of themselves.’ (Cole, p 210)

The shape and structure of Slipstream is both meandering and provocative, encouraging the reader to see more than one view of the places Cole visits or where she resides, Bankstown, Liverpool, London, Melbourne, Sydney and of the people and politics she encounters. A favourite part of the memoir for me was a recall of her university days and the reforms made possible to our generation by the Whitlam Government of 1972 – 1975. Those years transformed Australia with their visionary changes, including those to migration policies and multiculturalism under the guidance of Ministers such as Al Grassby. Slipstream also captures the tyranny of memory and the ways in which we remember our families. One particular passage felt particularly poignant as the child Cole lines up for a family photo underneath a flowering jacaranda tree:

Our family home in Bankstown also retains a tyranny of memory. Now both parents are dead, my siblings and I rarely talk about the house, nor about those unsettled early years when we became Australians, in theory at least. The house might rise before us when a memory needs verification. Was it then? Where was that? Waiting for older siblings’ memories to act as the binding agent for something not quite formed. Our parents can’t be asked at all. But the dead speak through photographs and tape recordings, in a flickering family home movie of us all standing self-consciously in front of the flowering jacaranda opposite the back door, its bell flowers drifting above us like purple snow. (Cole, p.113)

Cole’s migrant parents sacrificed so much of themselves and their history for her and her siblings but their story suggests they had no regrets about leaving. Once settled in their new lives they eventually embraced Australia’s way of life, all the while retaining their quintessential Yorkshire ways and accents. Now Cole’s extended family is a multicultural one. The Cole children marries partners from Maltese, English, Irish, Austrian, Indian, and Italian backgrounds. The opportunities of work and education available in Australia in that era are well documented in Slipstream too and they convey how much countries benefit from and can support diverse communities. This is the hope and promise of migration.


CAROLINE VAN DE POL is a writer and university lecturer in media and communication. She has a PhD in creative writing and teaches writing workshops internationally. Caroline has worked as a journalist and editor and is the author of the memoir Back to Broady (Ventura 2017). She lives in regional Victoria.