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Getting to know David Murray

David Murray graduated from the University of Newcastle with a first class honours including the University and Faculty Medals, before going on to complete a PhD in Creative Arts in 2012. Murray’s research into the criminal and cultural history of convict Newcastle has resulted in a series of true crime vignettes, published online by UON’s Coal River Working Party research group.

We talked to Dave about what drew him into writing, and particularly the ‘addictive’ intrigue of the lives and crimes of convict Newcastle.

Tell us about your background, including what drew you into creative arts?

I’m Newcastle born and apart from a few years in Sydney have worked and studied here. I got into poetry at high school after discovering the French symbolist poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire (in good translation). I tapped out some juvenilia on a second-hand typewriter after finishing school and had one poem published in the Sydney Morning Herald (in the 1980s), but was too intimidated and embarrassed by the idea of what I thought a writer was meant to be to go too public.

Things stayed in a manila folder until I returned to University in the early 1990s where the English department at the time had a newish creative writing course run by Professor Paul Kavanagh. A hard, but generous taskmaster who wouldn’t allow ‘any stories about goblins or magic’ in class, Paul pushed and taught me that criticism is useful, while writing is a craft that for most requires constant redrafting and practice. He worked on the basis that there aren’t too many Jack Kerouacs who can mythically hammer out a finished novel in one sitting.

What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?

I love true crime that reads as cultural history rather than sensationalist psychopath narratives, but I hadn’t considered it as a vehicle for writing until some unrelated research drew me towards colonial Newcastle’s haphazard and chaotic origin as an experimental open prison. This led to my PhD – a true crime/social history of convict Newcastle focusing on ‘everyday’ individuals and their daily lives. Creatively reimagining this world was about trying to understand how people got drunk, fought, loved, hated and fed themselves etc.

My archival research into these hidden lives and forgotten crimes proved highly addictive and satisfying in itself, while providing the bare bones for my major narrative. One thing I hadn’t expected was the uncontrollable ‘Magic Pudding’ of randomly interconnected people, places and events that emerged from the research. These fragments fed new stories demanding to be retold in their own right. I found that even the most ironclad creative plan could end up as an unmapped and indefinite journey.    

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Image courtesy of University of Newcastle Cultural Collections

Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?

There are some brilliant researchers, writers and cultural excavators working in creative non-fiction today. It is a broad and esoteric genre that has produced some exquisite writers who are transforming complicated, obscure and arcane subject matter into accessible and riveting reads. Helping to drive this is digital access to archives. While you might argue that the abundance of stuff on the internet makes for a lot of poop to trawl through, the amount of quality extant material now available at a finger click is astonishing. For someone like myself, the online digitisation of The Old Bailey’s historical proceedings or the Australian Newspapers by Trove saves days, even months of record trawling.

In terms of ritual and keeping me on track, I keep two reminder quotes handy when I’m typing. One is from Ezra Pound who suggested that poets should ‘keep your curiosity and don‘t fake it’, and the other is Einstein who reckoned ‘if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it’.

You’re writing a series of True Crime vignettes, published on the Coal River Working Party website. Can you tell us a little about how that opportunity came about?

The Coal River Working Party is an under-appreciated cultural gem and city knowledge bank. The website for example is a brilliant resource that doesn’t get the exposure or community engagement it deserves. I originally hooked up with Gionni di Gravio and his helpful mob after starting my PhD research. On finishing that degree I was left with a mountain of stories that didn’t fit into the final creative narrative, but were interesting enough as short, standalone true crime narratives. I emailed Gionni and being the generous and insanely enthusiastic archivist he is, he said to send them through, and he’d do a series on the website.

What are you passionate about? Can others in the community get involved?

It’s a very interesting time for the city’s future. I think we underestimate how far we’ve moved on from our dirty and weary industrial 20th century into being a handsome coastal city with a massive working port. It’s healthy that everyone has an opinion on where we should be going, but I think we need to be brave and positive and maybe a bit more adventurous in our big picture decision-making.

I would love to take some sceptics to a forward thinking city like Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Similar to Newcastle in terms of size and industry, it was flattened by German bombing in World War 2, but is now a mind-blowing, living laboratory of contemporary urban renewal that unashamedly mixes the old, the new and the avant-garde. Walking through Rotterdam is seeing how the 21st century will work: retrofitted city spaces designed sustainably around pedestrians and public transport. A similar philosophy is driving projects in cities as diverse as Copenhagen, Melbourne and parts of New York City.

It‘s difficult when you‘re a car dependent city like Newcastle, but somewhere like Rotterdam proves change is possible, intoxicating and the way the future is rolling. That said we could also probably be a bit more inclusive and sophisticated in debating the advantages if we want a greater part of community to join in and trust a blind jump into the dark.

What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing?

Learning to craft true crime stories that people want to read. That said, I have barely scratched the surface of stories waiting to be told. I’m starting to piece together the Coalopolis period of the late nineteenth century when the Newcastle docklands were a cosmopolitan wild west. Some people mightn’t realise for example that Frank Butler, one of Australia’s first celebrity serial killers (who gruesomely lured his victims into the Blue Mountains to murder them) tried escaping to San Francisco via Newcastle using the stolen identity of one of his victims – a merchant seaman from the East End. He is just one of many stories that suggest a whole anarchic underworld waiting to be uncovered I think …

What’s been your proudest achievement to date?

Joe and Shani (my son and step-daughter) – well I bathe vicariously in their achievements anyway.

What would be your dream project?

Being offered to write an offbeat or esoteric cultural/crime history for some unfashionable city or neglected period/era. Maybe along the lines of Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York (1927) – trying to flesh out what made ordinary people and social groups tick, or do what they did.

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What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?

It’s more a fond memory really: the ungentrified and dishevelled Cooks Hill and East End of the early eighties. I tend to romanticise it a bit, but I do remember tight, working class villages full of mostly long term residents who more often than not embraced the renting hordes of bumptious student types invading their world.

In the present day, Renew Newcastle is doing a pretty cool job regenerating the joint, bringing us a bit of Brooklyn’s shabby charm with their low-key, energetic and committed vibe of small project shops and just getting on with it. 

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Can you name a local hero?

It might sound a bit twee, but the remaining traces of inverted, working class Novocastrian snobbery in my blood keeps me in awe of people who just get through their shift at the hospital, the call centre, the sandwich shop, the studio or the factory; day after day after day. Regardless of your background, social connections or bank balance, your labour doesn’t define you as worthwhile, but it is part of who you are as a person. There is a distinctly similar attitude in working New Yorkers, and while Novocastrians don’t articulate or celebrate it so verbosely, both ground the unstated dignity of work in the Whitmanesque sense of social connections having an unsentimental beauty. I find it much more inspiring than Dancing with the Stars or an injured sports star playing out the game.  

What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?

The beach – water is the city’s compensation. I bought a mini-mal surfboard a couple years ago hoping to relive my South Newcastle surfing years, but the young kids today are too fast and snappy in the water and my balance isn’t so sure any more, so I often substitute with a late afternoon bike ride around the beaches and harbour.

And winter?

I’m a bit obsessed with psychogeography at the moment, which is a fancifully overblown term for walking around with (or without) a camera that nonetheless encourages you to consider your physical environment and its human lifetime: in simple terms you might reflect on what a street name, faded sign, graveyard, an abandoned building or graffiti means or triggers in you. For some it’s unplanned while others use walks to investigate cultural tracings the fragments might suggest. Mostly though it’s about drifting and giving in to your curiosity. It has helped my story writing in as much as I get a geographical or architectural trace for a long gone or transformed part of town I’m looking into. The walks can be pretty annoying for Michelle and Shani (my wife and daughter) who often suffer me forever stalling a relaxing family walk by stopping to photograph something.

Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?

I don’t tend to eat out much, but Michelle and Shani take me out occasionally for unpretentious and tasty Greek at The Village in Hamilton. Lovely owners and staff, the menu also satisfies our family dynamic: I basically eat meat while Shani has been a resolute vegetarian since she was six.

Best place to getaway to?

We like a Melbourne weekend when we can get there. It’s pretty groovy having Australia’s second best city just a kiddy flight away. Pretty close to that is visiting my son and his partner in New York, which is also psychogeography heaven.

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Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?

For a few gold coins, take your visiting relos or friends and climb the spiral staircase of Cathedral bell tower to the top for a fine panorama of the city. It’s a nice and meditative ‘shilling for the experience’.

Read David’s stories online at the following links: 

True Crime: Mason, Young and Hooper
True Crime: Tiernan, Smith and Desmond: The Men from God Knows Where
True Crime: The Sandhills
True Crime: Jacob’s Mob


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