We had the pleasure of printing the beautiful book, ‘The Black & White Braid’, a fully-illustrated hardcover written by Benjamin Allmon, in collaboration with photographer Carin Garland.
181 roads walked
We asked Benjamin a few questions surrounding his printing decisions, how to secure government funding, and the journey that brought ‘The Black & White Braid’ to life.
FPP: Where did you grow up, and where are you now?
Benjamin: I was born in Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 1977. My family moved to the Gold Coast in the late ’80s, and aside from a few periods overseas or interstate, it has been home ever since. Although because the city changes so fast and has grown so much, it’s a weird home. If you don’t go into a certain room (i.e, a suburb) for a while, you find that someone has completely redecorated it while you weren’t looking…or added an entire wing! A few years back we moved to Mt Tamborine, so our son can grow up in a slightly mellower environment.
FPP: What does a day in the life of Benjamin Allmon entail?
Benjamin: I wake up early – often around 3 or 4am, and start writing. It’s when my brain is most fertile, productive and creative. It’s also good because there’s no distractions – phone calls, emails, or my beautiful but chatty eight-year old son. I can go deep, creatively, and know I’m not about to be pulled out of that state. Depending on domestic duties I’ll continue in that state until around noon, at which point my creative brain is tired and so I switch to the operational stuff; research, answering emails, all the stuff associated with running the business. Evenings are for cooking, playing with my son, trying to wrest control of the remote from him so that I can watch Jeopardy. After I put him to bed I’ll put in a few more hours’ work, sack out around 10 or 11 and then do it all again tomorrow.
FPP: You hold a lot of titles…writer, father, musician, composer, lyricist, audio engineer, adventurer, journalist, film producer, guitarist, bassist, singer, and occasional pianist…just to name a few.?
Benjamin: God, what a laundry list, eh!!?? But if you took any 43 year-old and sat them down to compile a list of the roles and responsibilities they’ve acquired in their lifetime you’d have a similar amount, I’d say. Mine are perhaps a bit less conventional, I suppose. I got into playing music as a teenager because I wanted to get girls but can’t dance. I learned bass and guitar and played in bands, travelled to the States and had a wonderful time. Still didn’t get the girls. I recorded an album, toured it by walking for 51 days from the Gold Coast to Sydney, like a troubadour of old. As I walked I kept a journal of all the things that happened and people I met. By the time I got to Sydney I realised that although I loved playing music, writing was the road I was made for. Everything flowed from there – being a freelance journo, then writing four books. I kind of fell into the film production because I wanted to document the canoe making of the Bundjalung for my second book, The Saltwater Story. Of all the roles, father is the only one that really matters.
FPP: As such an accomplished artist, what advice do you have for people who are too afraid to move out of their comfort zone?
Benjamin: When I was doing The Saltwater Story project with the Bundjalung fellas, the knowledge holder, Kyle Slabb, once said to me that without risk there can be no reward. I constantly see that struggle to leave the comfort zone in my son as he grows, and help him navigate it – when he does, and it goes well, his reaction is a perfect illustration of Kyle’s point. The feeling of surprising yourself and accomplishing something hitherto deemed impossible or scary is sublime, and incentive to keep expanding your comfort zone. Whether its learning how to produce a film, navigate a 200K project with multiple stakeholders (including Government and Councils), paddle in shark-infested waters, walk 1000km, write a song with a Grammy-award winning producer, or even just doing interviews on radio, I never feel as though I really know what I’m doing, but learned long ago not to worry too much about it.
More about the book.
FPP: Firstly, we’d like to know a little about the process.
Benjamin: The Black & White Braid tells the story of a journey that photographer Carin Garland and I took on foot around the Scenic Rim, a region in southeast Queensland. We walked for 700km over thirty days, and tell the history of the region through the prism of the roads – the black and white braid – and who they were named for, who walked them first, and who walks them now. The black and white also alludes to the two cultures whose stories are woven into the land, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and I wanted to accord equal importance to both. We interviewed over 140 people, from Indigenous Elders to 4th generation farmers, South Sea Islanders to Polish monks, young mothers to 102 year-old great great grandmothers. It is through all these people that the story comes alive…as well as the tale of Carin and my often bizarre odyssey.
FPP: What first inspired the idea for this book?
Benjamin: As with most stories, it was the collision of two ideas. In 2016 an old farmer here on the Mountain told me that my road was known as the Do-It-Yourself Road, because in 1958 the locals grew tired waiting for the Government to put in a road to the Coast, and so they did it themselves. Then, in 2018, a local bookstore owner suggested I write the story of the Scenic Rim – of which Tamborine Mountain is a part – and asked me how I would do it. I flashed back to that yarn with the farmer and thought of the interesting story behind my road. I thought the roads would be an interesting prism through which many Scenic Rim stories could be told – in the end Carin and I walked 183 of them!
FPP: From the first words to make it onto paper, please share more about the process of creating both Volume I and II?
Benjamin: The hardest part was knowing which roads to walk, which stories to tell, which had already been done and which I couldn’t afford to miss. How do you know what you don’t know? These are country towns with 140 year histories that local authors have written many books about and are peopled with multi-generational families whose grasp of their own history is formidable. I didn’t want to be some young upstart presuming to waltz in and tell them what was what. More importantly, the stories of the First Peoples are even older, harder to discover, and as I learned with The Saltwater Story, often stories which I have no right to ask, as they are deeply cultural and not for wider dissemination. The solution was to ask the six local Councillors who the “memories” of their towns were – the oldest, the wisest, the last. Then I sat with those people – invariably lovely, fascinating and generous with their time and coffee – and over the course of many hours with each, determined the best routes to walk in order to tell the best story I could. Of course, one person led onto another, just like roads do, so the hardest part was keeping my hands around the story. With the Mob, it was the relationship and trust I developed with Kyle Slabb and the Bundjalung that facilitated my entry into the Mununjali peoples in the eastern half of the Rim, and provenance that led me to Uncle John Long of the Ugarapul in the western half. They gave me the architecture of the story. The thirty days on the road gave the story colour and richness, and the subsequent eighteen months of research, fact-checking, and interviews contextualised the story.
FPP: How did you ensure no important part of a story was missed – were you writing along the way and recording interviews?
Benjamin: I keep a journal when I go on adventures…I learned years ago to write things down as they happen, or as soon after as possible. You may remember the day, or the event, or the person, but the language and feel of it will evaporate. Also, your brain changes on long journeys. I find it always seems to happen after the third day. The shackles of your old life loosen, and your normal way of thinking alters, becomes roadbrain. The language and thoughts of roadbrain are impossible to replicate when you are sitting back at your computer months later. And recording interviews is crucial – not so much for information, which I retain very well – but for the turn of phrase of each person. They have patterns of speech that are theirs alone, and by incorporating that, you have an authenticity to that dialogue that is also impossible to conjure any other way.
FPP: What was in your backpack?
Benjamin: Well, I carried the tent, sleeping bags, food, cookware and both of our clothes, because Carin had to carry her camera equipment. Both our packs were between fifteen and twenty kilograms (occasionally there was a bottle of red in there, and of course Carin took to smuggling food when I imposed sandwich limits…she hid things in my camelpack over the course of weeks before I discovered what was going on!) The most important thing from a storytelling aspect was a pen and a journal…sometimes, if the inspiration was so immediate, I’d simply write it on my hand and arms, as getting the journal out took too long.
FPP: The Black & White Braid is supported by The Queensland Government through Arts Queensland, and Scenic Rim Regional Council through the RADF Program. For others who may wish to take on a similar project, do you have anything to share about this process?
Benjamin: To get grants you need a few elements, I think – originality, professionalism, a plan for the project to reach a wide audience…most of all, you need to know exactly what story it is you’re telling, and then explain it succinctly to the grant bodies. I strongly believe it has to have some benefit to the community, because it is taxpayer dollars you are receiving…so many projects I see are more about the self-aggrandisement of the artist, or are so insular that they have little benefit to the community who ultimately paid for it. The other thing with grants is resilience – you are going to get knocked back. The key is to work out why, and then go again. It isn’t personal – they get about twenty times more applications than they can fund.
FPP: Can you tell us about the people you met along the way? Is there a story that has really stuck with you ever since?
The older people certainly stand out, because they are able to paint a picture of a very different world to the one we now occupy. To sit with 93 year-old Bill Geissmann, who was the dozer-operator responsible for 1958’s Do-It-Yourself Road (now Tamborine Oxenford Road), or with Allan Rosser, a 95-year old resident of Tamborine Mountain whose recall of history is like sitting with an Oracle, is a privilege. An afternoon that I shall always treasure was with 102 year-old Josie Arthy of Chinghee Creek. To sit with someone born in 1917 and whose hands – the skin of which was like the finest parchment – had helped hold her community together for generations, was like sitting next to some great natural wonder. To hear her talk of life during the ’20s, the Depression, the War…not stories passed down by her parents, but her own lived experience, was incredible, because there are so few now who can do that. Sadly, Josie passed away before the book was finished, but her stories and images are preserved now.
Sitting with Natalie and Kakae Pakoa, South Sea Islanders descended from the first ‘blackbirded’ workers brought to Queensland, was an eye-opening experience, a window into a very poorly known story of what happened to their people in this country. A story of cultural disconnection, sadness, but ultimately strength and hope as they seek to reach out to the wider community, not in anger or bitterness, but in a spirit of unity. Humbling, to sit with such people.
But it was walking country for months with Ugarapul Elder, Uncle John Long (Burragun), who was the last of his Mob to live traditionally, up until the age of fifteen, in the Kooralbyn area, that will forever remain with me. The lorekeeper for his people, he shared the stories of his people with me freely, and we developed a very close relationship – he called me Neph. He loved Carin, too, and that feeling was very much reciprocated. You can see in her portraits of him the affection and trust they shared. So much of what he carried in his heart, head, and soul is woven throughout the book, his wisdom, and his desire for all people to have the connection with the land that he had. He passed away the day this project ended, almost as if he had seen it through. I miss him very much.
About the printing process.
FPP: The books are stunning. Please share some insight into your design decisions for print finishing, paper stock, the cover, and binding.
Benjamin: The books are also enormous! So much so that the graphic designer I had enlisted to put the book together basically said that she wouldn’t be able to do it in the time available, and that she knew of no-one who had designed a book so long (it is two volumes, 290K words, 240-odd images, 670 pages all up). I got a few quotes from designers, all of which were in the 10-15K ballpark, which was 10-15K more than I had. But Steve Finlay at FPP suggested that Karla Allen could teach Carin and me the basics of Adobe inDesign, which she did in a couple of sessions, and so we did it ourselves (a bit like my road!). Of course, that entailed three months of 20-hour days, learning the program, selecting formats for layout, incorporating imagery on the right pages, typesetting, editing on the fly to make it all fit, and then stepping back to look at it as a whole, because you can get too close to it sometimes. It was a very collaborative effort between Carin and I, and then Karla and us…she was a tremendous help. As for the design decisions, they were informed by the team at FPP, especially Steve, whose knowledge of the binding made that an easy decision to make. Originally it was supposed to only be one book, but the story grew and grew so with Steve’s advice we split it into two, which was the right call. The final decision on stock was Carin’s, because they are her images, and the paper had to suit her vision. We went with a matte paper rather than a glossy one, because the subject matter was earthier, more natural. I love that the machine the book was printed on is environmentally friendly, and the colour so true across every book.
The cover of Vol I is of Lions Road in Running Creek, a road built by a community of volunteers over a long period and a massive effort to link Queensland and New South Wales…it represents what can be achieved when people pull together. Vol II’s cover is of Tarome Road in Tarome, and represents that intoxicating feeling of standing at the start of a long road, an adventure before you. It is the black and white braid, not just in the road, but in Mt Castle in the background. Its white history is fascinating – dubbed the Sleeping Assyrian by Queensland’s first archbishop, the site of Charles Chauvel’s earliest films – but it is also Butcha, the greatest of the Ugarapul warriors, who died defending his people and whose reclining profile can be seen in this image. The black and white braid of stories that are all around us is represented in Carin’s beautiful image.
FPP: How was the experience printing with Fast Proof Press? What are your recommendations/suggestions for artists and writers hoping to print and publish their work?
Originally I was going to have the book done in China, because of keeping costs down. But when Covid hit and they couldn’t guarantee supply, I looked around closer to home.
Discovering FPP is one of the best things that happened to this project – I love that I am supporting my own community, that money that could have gone overseas stays here. Right from the start, Steve was welcoming and up front, as I was with him, and that set the tone for a wonderful working relationship that then extended to Dan and Matt and Karla and the team.
The advantages over China are many – to be able to speak the same language on the phone, or drive thirty minutes and be able to walk through the factory and see the book being printed, to know that I’m not going to get some awful surprise at the docks in Brisbane when the books arrive – no covers, wrong paper etc – was wonderful. But it was the extra effort they went to…guiding me through a process I have never been through before with patience and often out of hours, that meant that I will use their services for every subsequent book I release. To those thinking of following a similar path to me, I would say that the money you save by going to China is negligible when compared to the peace of mind, the trust, the friendliness, the extra mile they’ll go, but above all the quality of the end product at FPP. It is a terrible thing to have poured your life into a book, only for it to be something you’re embarrassed to show others. I am prouder of these two books than anything I have written, and part of that is the confidence I have in how they look and feel.
FPP: Where can we get our hands on the books? Will they be stocked in stores around Australia?
My website – benjaminallmon.com – is probably easiest, but they are available in all the bookstores and visitor centres in the Scenic Rim, as well as Big B Books in Burleigh Heads. I’m yet to talk to my distributor about further afield – the first run of 500 sold out in just over a month, the second is moving fast too, so I’ve been too busy! – but the plan would be to at least have a presence in every capital. Online sales have been all around the country, even America, and the demand for a book that I had assumed to be very localised in its buyer demographic has been a pleasant surprise.
FPP: Where is the road leading? What’s next for you?
Heh heh, after eighteen months of writing and researching I’m ready to get back on the road, if only to combat writer’s body!! The next project is the big one I’ve been planning for a decade or so, which will be a multi-part book series and a documentary. It deals with the Murray-Darling Basin, the Great Barrier Reef, the shape of the states of Australia and the need to refederate into a more meaningful collection of states based around shared natural resources, such as the Basin or the Reef. Of course, the place to start is at the beginning, so I’ll be meeting up with Mob at the Brewarrina fish traps in western NSW, arguably the oldest human-made structure on earth, and go from there. And of course I’ll do what I usually do, which is to walk, go slow, listen, and learn from all the peoples of each region. Best of all, my son is getting old enough to come on these adventures. He’s even written his first book – I’m prouder of that than anything I’ve ever written.