Tag Archives: Biff Ward

2015 favourites

Each December we – that is, me and the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student – compile a list of our favourite books and films of the year. We’ve been caught this year with minimal internet coverage (and maximal sun, sand, beach, bush and rain, especially rain) so we’re running a bit late.

Three movies made both our top five lists:


Testament of Youth (directed by James Kent), from Vera Brittain’s memoir, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi: A World War One film in the year when idealising  Gallipoli  was big in the headlines, it doesn’t focus on the battlefield but on the effects of the war on the combatants and their families and loved ones. It makes a powerful pacifist argument.

Meet the Patels (Geeta Pavel, Ravi Patel 2014): We saw this at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it’s a very funny documentary about match-making among first generation Americans of Indian heritage. It’s really about intergenerational relationships. The EA says it’s a must-see for every parent.


He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim 2015): Another documentary, this one could be seen as hagiographic, but Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable young woman. I loved the way she spoke with the absolutism of teenagehood from a position of influence to tell the president of Nigeria to do his job and ensure the safety of the girls abducted by Boko Haram.

The Emerging Artist’s other two:


Selma (Ava DuVernay 2015): A flawed movie, but it conveyed the experience of ordinary people taking part in Civil Rights marches. The leadership of the march across the bridge was particularly interesting: how to think strategically, resisting the push to be seen to take ‘decisive action’. The filmmakers weren’t given permission to use Martin Luther King Jr’s actual speeches, but the ones written for the film caught his style brilliantly.

 The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse 2015): The humour, the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of it. Kate Winslett was marvellous. So was Hugo Weaving. In fact, there were no weak performances.

My other two:

 Ex Machina (Alex Garland 2015): The thing that stays in my mind is the image of the artificially intelligent creations – a fabulous effect where we see the cogs and wheels whirring away inside what is otherwise a human head. The story worked very well too.


Far from Men (David Oelhoffen 2014): Apart from enjoying the easy irony that there were only men in most of the film (should it have been called Far from Other Men?), I was transfixed by this slow, beautiful film of a pied noir (Algeria-born white Frenchman) escorting an Arab prisoner through the austerely photogenic Atlas Mountains.

The EA’s top five books:

The EA’s reading year was bookended by titles that brought home the harshness of the oppression of gay men and lesbians, even in times and places where one might think it was comparatively mild. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals with novelist E M Forster’s agonising life in the closet, and the part of Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, that tells the story of her coming out is genuinely harrowing.

But those books are in addition to her actual top five. Here are those, with her comments:


Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: This is a bracing book that everyone needs to read. We all know about climate change in a general way, and we know that powerful vested interests fight attempts to respond effectively. Naomi Klein gives detail and challenges us not to look away.


Jean Michel Guenassia,  The Incorrigible Optimists Club: A novel about Soviet bloc refugees in Paris at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, this includes a coming of age story.


Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands: Excellent memoir of a 50s childhood. Buff Ward’s father was prominent left wing historian Russel Ward, so the domestic story includes elements of red-baiting. But the real power of the story is in her mother’s intensifying irrationality and the family’s attempts to deal with it.


Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: The birth of liberalism without the US-style individualism. This is not a travel book. It’s very accessible, thoroughly researched history that compelled at least one person to read big chunks aloud to her partner. The history of Europe looks different after reading this .


Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya: Vivien Johnson has been involved with the Western Desert artists for decades. An earlier book told the story of the great Papunya Tula artists. This book tells the story of Papunya itself, especially after many of those artists left. Art is still being made there, by a new generation, mostly women.

My top five books:

I read at least 12 books in 2015 that did what you always hope a book will do: delighted, excited or enlightened me, changed the way I felt and/or thought about the world. I whittled the list down to five by selecting only books that touched my life in explicit ways. Here they are i order of reading:


John Cornwell, The Dark Box (2014): A history of the rite of Confession in the Catholic Church. The confessional was a big part of my childhood. I’ve dined out on a story of going to confession with Brisbane’s Archbishop Duhig when I was about thirteen. He asked in a booming voice that I was sure could be heard by everyone in the cathedral outside, ‘Would these sins of impurity have been alone or with others?’ Cornwall’s book felt like a very personal unpicking of that moment and the whole cloth it was spun from.


Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). What can I say? I’m white. In laying out the way a word or phrase between friends or strangers can disrupt day-to-day life, so that the ugly history of racism makes itself painfully present, and linking those moments to the public humiliations of Serena Williams and the violent deaths of so many young African-American men, the book is a tremendously generous gift. It and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me share this generosity of spirit.


David Malouf, A First Place (2015): I haven’t blogged yet about this collection of David Malouf’s essays. It feels personal to me because David lectured me at university, but also because he is a Queenslander, and these essays explore what that means. Even though he is from what we in north Queensland used to call ‘Down South’, these essays fill a void I felt as a child – I was a big reader, but the world I read about in books only ever reflected the physical world I lived in as an exotic place.


Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (2016): I was privileged to read this ahead of publication. Stan Grant is a distinguished Australian TV journalist. This book, part memoir, part essay, gives a vivid account of growing up Aboriginal. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as the result of generations of pain inflicted by colonisation refusing to stay at bay.


Jennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (2015): I love this book in all sorts of ways. I love the way the image of the fox recurs – a literal fox, a fox as in Japanese folk lore, Whig politician Charles Fox. I love the chatty voice, and Jennifer Maiden’s trademark linebreaks after the first word of a sentence. I love the argumentativeness. I love the playful, almost silly, resuscitation of the distinguished dead to confront those who claim to be inspired by them. I love the way Jennifer Maiden makes poetry from the television news the way some poets do from flowers.

And now, on to 2016! I’m already about eight books behind in my blogging.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.

Emily Bitto’s Strays

Emily Bitto, The Strays (Affirm Press 2014)

1straysThis is a novel about a fictional artist’s colony in Victoria in the 1930s. Though the colony bears some resemblance to the Heide group, and a couple of historical figures, notably Bert Evatt, are mentioned or make brief appearances, it would be a mistake to read it as a roman à clef. At least, I hope so – if not, Heide was quite a bit nastier than I’ve heard.

The narrator, Lily, looks back in middle age to her girlhood friendship with Eva, whose father, Evan Trentham, is a modernist painter and a towering figure in the Australian art scene, and to the years in which she became a virtual member of Eva’s family – one of a number of ‘strays’, of whom the others were young modernist artists. From a deeply conventional family herself, young Lily is fascinated by the bohemian life of the Trentham household: adults who are so engaged in their own pursuits that they leave children to fend for themselves, earnest talk, ‘reefer’ and opium seeds, erotic art, casual nudity, and the smells and sights of a group of working artists and their models.

Of course, all is not well in Bohemia. Eva and Lily, friends since they were eight, drift apart in their early teenage years in ways neither of them can acknowledge, and when calamity strikes the household, it brings the death of their intense intimacy as well.

The book is beautifully written. The characters are vividly realised: Evan the alpha male; Helena his wife and presiding goddess of the household; their three daughters – Bea the responsible eldest, bold Eva and deeply resentful Heloise; and the young adult members of the colony – including Jerome, the young artist who will eclipse his mentor and whose transgressions undo the community.

For all its manifest virtues, though, I couldn’t get excited about the book. It’s not that I was bored, and there are some wonderful things: there are moments when the intensely physical intertwining of young Lily and Eva comes brilliantly alive, so that the distance between them when they meet again as adults is devastating. But over all I couldn’t tell why any of it should matter to me, or actually why it mattered to the author. Interestingly, it’s as if the novel knows that concern needs to be addressed. In the over-long, loose-thread-tying section in which the main events of the novel are in the distant past, Lily tells Helena and Eva that she is thinking of writing a memoir about her days with the family. Helena asks the question that had been playing in my mind for 200 pages: why write it? The question leads in the short term to a tense exchange of blame and counter-blame. But later, Lily reflects (omitting spoilers):

The events of the Trenthams and their strays have long since been recorded in the pages of art history.  … Always, … the artist himself was at the centre, with Helena, Eva, Heloise at the distant peripheries. They were cast as ‘events’ that accounted for the prevalence of particular themes, detailed in the same manner as the influence of the war on Jerome. Heloise’s life a footnote explaining Jerome’s brilliant work.

So the narrator’s motive for writing is clear – it’s a feminist redress of the dominant patriarchal narrative. And we can extrapolate that as the novelist’s motive as well. But any passion behind that motivation didn’t make it to the page, or at least didn’t communicate from the page to me. Perhaps the book’s beginnings as part of a PhD left a subliminal sense that it was being written for an examiner’s eye. Perhaps it’s that I read The Strays after the Biff Ward’s grimly real In My Mother’s Hands, and was unconvinced by Emily Bitto’s inventions. Or maybe I’ve finally reached the predicted old-man condition of not liking fiction much any more. Certainly my lukewarmness seems to be a minority response.

aww-badge-2015This is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Biff Ward’s In My Mother’s Hands

Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014)

1743319118When my Book Group were picking our next book, someone asked about In My Mother’s Hands, which was on my teetering to-be-read pile. ‘It’s a misery memoir,’ I said, and we moved on to other possibilities

I was wrong. There’s misery in it, but there’s a lot else. Biff Ward, born in the early 1940s. gives us a lovingly detailed portrait of family life in suburban, regional and Canberran Australia. Early in the book, she describes how her mother would wash her hair when she was little:

She began by folding a towel around my neck in an efficient, nurse-like manner to stop drips and breakaway runnels creeping down in my neck. The water was a delicious, perfect temperature and it streamed over me. She believed in rubbing the scalp with her strong fingers, making sure not even a tiny spot was missed. I closed my eyes, I gave myself to the warm wetting, the soaping, the rubbing, the rinsing, the divine sense of clean. Next she flopped the towel on my head and scrubbed vigorously before saying, Bend over.
She then wrapped the towel around my head, tight at the neck behind, a turban twist on top like a woman in a magazine, the way I still do today. I walked or sat carefully for five minutes until my hair was dry enough for the towel to come off. Sometimes, she then sat beside me saying, I’ll just give it a bit of a squiggle to get the curls going.

Not a lot of misery in that! I don’t want to give a false impression, though. This benign intimacy is a long way from representative of the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of the book: in fact, it’s a memory that might never have been recalled if it hadn’t been triggered by a companion washing the writer’s hair in her 30s. The passage does illustrate the book’s loving attention to detail, an attention that is shot through not just with the need to tell (a defining feature of misery memoirs?), but also with the need to know, to understand, to deepen the writer’s grasp of things and to take the reader with her.

This could be a beautifully written memoir of any child’s family life from that time and place, except for two major differences. First, this child’s father is Russel Ward, eminent historian, best known for The Australian Legend, a one-time member of the Communist Party, a man of the word. This means that Biff Ward’s recollections and those of the friends and family she interviewed are supplemented by a formidable archive, including numerous public statements made by and about her father, and also his extensive personal correspondence – including agonised letters to his parents about his wife’s condition. Which is the second major difference: her mother, Margaret, was  delusional and self-harming, and Biff and her younger brother ‘breathed it in, the irrational in her, the grief in him and the unpredictability all around’.

The book’s title deftly signals a double concern of the book. First, it tells what it was like to grow up in the care – in the hands – of someone who spent most of her time withdrawn into a private world of suffering and delusion, whose behaviour was often bizarre and sometimes deeply alarming, and who may well have drowned her first baby in the bath. Second, it seeks to fathom the story of someone who continually gouges at her hands with sharp implements and keeps the damage hidden by wearing gloves. It’s a book of deep compassion, not just for the mother, but also for the father who, far from faultless, struggles heroically to provide a stable life for his children, while protecting his wife as long as possible from the depredations of the psychiatric profession.

The children felt that the were living with a huge, terrible secret. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the story is the writer’s discovery much later that there was a whole circle of friends who knew the situation, and tried to help in the inarticulate and largely ineffectual way of the time. A fellow academic even wrote a short story based on the Ward family.

This is a truly marvellous book. I ought to say that I have met Biff Ward a couple of times, and have been close to some people who appear in these pages. But the books makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of  families, of Australian intellectual history, and of the horrifying ordeal known in the medial profession as mental illness.

aww-badge-2015This is the sixth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.