Tag Archives: Esme

My mother and the non-binding, non-compulsory postal survey on same-sex marriage

Here’s a modest contribution to Australia’s ‘debate’ on same-sex marriage.

My mother and the non-binding, non-compulsory postal survey on same-sex marriage

My long-dead mother would have voted yes.
She’d be five score and four this year and still
devoutly Catholic, her faith no less.
The Church’s many scandals couldn’t kill
her heart’s still centre. I believe she’d bless
a Jack who’d wed a Jack, a Jill a Jill.
You say she’s voiceless now to say I’m wrong?
I’ll put my case. Read on. It’s not too long.

Point 1. Back then, I doubt Mum would have thought
that marriage was a right. More like a duty,
a sacrament, life sentence – though the sort
she had embraced. Outside it, rooty-tooty
[not her term] was forbidden. She was taught
that when you wed you’re locked, her nuptial beauty
(she wore her mother’s veil) proclaimed a life
henceforth not hers: five children’s mum, Dad’s wife.

When my first son was born some forty years
ago, we’d skipped the patriarchal rite.
She wouldn’t talk. No worse if I’d hurled spears
into her heart, it seemed rebellious spite.
But she might lose a son, her worst of fears.
‘Your baby’s in my prayers,’ she said one night,
and later (did a priest give her the nod?)
she said, ‘You’re married in the eyes of God.’

Heart led. Head followed as its mate,
not as its slave. Her reasoning was sound.
The sacrament needs neither priest nor state:
what’s sacred is the vows. And so the ground
had shifted. It was 1978.
And not just her. She asked her friends and found
her story echoed back. That coin was spent.
Non-marriage had become a non-event.

Point 2. A woman heard mass every day
in Innisfail for decades, but she never
took Communion: public price to pay
for marrying a man divorced. Whenever
Mum spoke of her, compassion steely-grey
and horror at the cruelty would hover
in her voice. The Church gave so much pain.
Thanks be to God the State was more humane.

Point 3. She rarely spoke of sex. She burned
her Female Eunuch (‘Why write about that?’).
She was in her fifties when she learned
that same-sex sex existed – in a chat
with youngest daughter. Memories now churned
to yield new meanings: like the nun who spat
such puzzling venom when two schoolgirls kissed
each other’s lips (they’d aimed for cheeks and missed).

Or Rod, the tenor star of Merry Widow,
White Horse Inn in local Choral Soc:
she’d called him pompous, now knew he was ho-
mo-sexual – a wonder, not a shock.
To see his lover (male) he had to go
two hundred miles each way. She didn’t mock.
Lover? Not her word. Mate? Boyfriend? Friend?
The language failed her. Could it ever mend?

Of sixteen grandkids, two came out as queer.
The Church said they offended God above.
’Don’t shout it from the rooftops,’ said her fear,
but they were hers and when push comes to shove
head follows heart. Her heart’s deep idea:
Thou never shalt disown the ones you love.
She’d pray for them, part hoping they’d be cured,
most wishing for them happiness assured.

Point 4. The love and marriage song, the rhyme
with horse and carriage broken. Church and State:
you can have one without the other. Crime
if Church law hurts these children, but she’ll wait:
a pope will change it. State law: now’s the time –
the State asks her opinion – now that gate
can open. Put an end to this distress.
She’d opt for love, her love, and she’d tick Yes.

She’d sympathise with Abbott, I suppose,
and his split lip. She’d certainly abhor
Ben Law’s most famous tweet, and hold her nose,
but she’d tick Yes, Yes, Yes. Of that I’m sure.

Go little verse, more heavenly than prose,
float up to meet the eyes of Esme Shaw.
I hope, on reading it, not only she
but all the saints and angels would agree.

.

Esme the critic

My mother, Esme, left school at 14 or 15 in the mid 1920s. She married my father when she was 19 and lived on a sugar-cane farm outside Innisfail in North Queensland for the next five decades. As her five children went off to boarding school and then spread out over Queensland and beyond, she wrote letters to each of us, weekly to start with and then less frequently but still with a shaming regularity. Mostly she kept us informed on one another’s doings and home-front developments. Occasionally she would comment on literary matters.

Here are some of her passing comments on the literary scene, which I find interesting in all sorts of ways:

17 December 1971: I’ve just finished reading Thomas Keneally’s The Fear & enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read for ages. So nice & clean & sort of old-fashioned.

7 March 1972: I’ve just read [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s] Cancer Ward. It’s really absorbing but very frightening really. I’m sorry I’ve finished it really. … You’ll be pleased to hear A was reading [Germaine Greer’s] The Female Eunuch. I have to own that I burnt my copy. M & N said, ‘At least you could have passed it on to us.’ Perhaps I should have saved their money as curiosity will get the better of them I’m sure.

25 July 1972: I am reading a book of yours that MA found in her box. I’m not liking it as much as The Fear. It is [Thomas Keneally’s] Bring Larks & Heroes.

28 November 1972: Thank you so much for remembering my Birthday. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the books. I’ve started [the first book I worked on in my editing job with Currency Press, David Williamson’s] The Removalists. It’s nice & easy to read. [Later in the same letter:] Having read The Removalists I’m glad it was a gift from you Jon because from you it is meant as a shocker. [It wasn’t.] From anyone else I would have a sneaky feeling that he/she might imagine I liked that sort of talk. If he’d made it a story of police brutality without the four letter words I feel sure it would have been just as big a success or even bigger.  Anyhow now I’ve started the [Gerald] Durrell one [probably Catch Me a Colobus] & it is really my pick. I’ll be able to lend it around.

25 December 1972: It was only today I learned that it was you who gave [my nieces and nephews Maurice Sendak’s] Where the wild things are. I had made a note of it to buy for [another grandchild]. It is the most read & the most cherished book in their house & yet it looks ghastly really.

24 February 1973: Of course I have not burnt The Removalists, Jon. As a matter of fact I have a waiting list of about a dozen women, as ignorant as myself, wanting to learn all about life!! seeing that M & N & E & V think that I have no ears to hear with. ‘Surely you’ve heard such talk,’ even in the street. Well I haven’t. Actually I think [youngest daughter] Liza knows more than I do but I certainly don’t feel underprivileged because of my ignorance.

28 March 1973: We have watched some of Certain Women on your recommendation Jon. I missed the name of the writer last night (not being in the habit of reading all those names, though I do notice that the writer, who should be the most important, is never so). It was the ‘model’ girl & I think it could have been Keneally as he is sort of old fashioned. I thought the Williamson one was the most – real is the word I suppose. He certainly understands today’s youth, don’t you think?

8 April 1973: Our Repertory Group put on [Richard Beynon’s ] The Shifting Heart last week. Roslyn Watt played the Italian mother & she was perfect. Seniors must have to study it this year because the night Dad & I went there was a bus load from Tully & the night E & V went there were 2 bus loads from Cairns.

9 July 1973: Last week there was a play on TV, The Cherry Orchard Chekhov [an MTC production with Frank Thring, Googie Withers, Irene Inescort] & knowing how interested [oldest son] Michael is in plays (He was in a Chekhov once) & feeling it would give me some culture, we watched it right up to the end of the first act then turned the TV off. It was played to packed houses in Melbourne for ages so the ad said. I wonder if you watched it & don’t say you enjoyed it. To me it could have been Innisfail repertory doing it for the first time. Dad stayed home from Poker to see it too which made it worse.

1 August 1973: I see [Peter Bogdanovich’s] What’s Up Doc advertised at the pictures somewhere in Sydney. Do go & see it if you can. [I did.] It’s really a scream, Makes you laugh till it really hurts – just absolutely stupid but I’m sure you couldn’t help enjoying it.

23rd October 1973 (after a visit to Sydney): I managed to get a Sat Aust(ralian) with Katharine Brisbane [my boss at the time] write up of the play [probably Rex Cramphorn’s cutting-edge production The Marsh King’s Daughter, which she mentions in a later letter] & I agree with her and the more I think back on it the more I like it really. Then today I found Jock Veitch’s write up which is downright lousy – even saying he couldn’t hear. I feel like writing & telling him to go again & wear his glasses & take along his hearing aid.

4 February 1974: Poor Mr Solzhenitsyn is having a rough time. Have you read Cancer Ward, Jon? [I had.] It is the best I’ve read. It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like him, so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

March 1974: Innisfail had Godspell during the week,  packed the Shire Hall. We didn’t go, we left it to the young. The [Marist] Bros all went & raved on about it – more an experience than a show etc. They took 45 boys along so deserved a free ticket.

31 July 1974 (reporting on a time in Brisbane): We went to see [my cousin G’s] production Fetch Me a Figleaf. There were 10 of us … G sat with us so we had to say all the right things. It was rather naughty but really entertaining all about gods & goddesses on Mt Olympus.

13 October 1974: Well! we were trapped into a bit of culture last night. If we’d been at home we’d have turned it off but we were babysitting so left it on & were really sorry it had to end. It was The Misanthrope, Moliere’s play. The man who did the translation [not named on IMDB] must be a marvel & all the players were lovely. It says ABC production but I can’t believe it was. It was too good.

7 March 1975: Have you seen a book Watership Down? It’s about rabbits, all about rabbits. I’ve just read it & loved it. [I still haven’t read it.]

22 June 1975: We’re all reading The Towering Inferno, actually it’s called The Tower. Dad’s on it at the moment and doesn’t even answer when spoken to. It’s really suspenseful.

Late September 1975, from Launceston: We went to see [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown & thought it pretty ordinary. Being overheated didn’t help. I’d put on woollen sox & extra cardigan & shed everything except the sox as the theatre was heated.

And that – when she was 61 and I was 28 – is where I stopped carefully hoarding her letters.

The Tree of Man revisited with the Book Group

Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955, Vintage 1994)

Before the group meeting:
My mother’s letters in the 1970s would occasionally report on her reading. She once transcribed a paragraph from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children because it seemed to describe the noses of our family. The other day when I read the first page of the Drought chapter of The Tree of Man, I wondered if she’d thought, as I do, that this description of Stan Parker evokes aspects of my father (allowing for the fact that Dad grew sugarcane rather than running a dairy, and was never ‘broad’):

He was respected. He was inseparable from the district, he had become a place name. His herd was small, but of good quality for the herd of a man in a small way, neither rich nor ambitious, but reliable, the cans would always reach the butter factory to the minute, without fail. He went to church too, singing the straight psalms and rounder hymns, in praise of that God which obviously did exist. Stan Parker had been told for so long that he believed, of course he did believe. He sang that praise doggedly, in a voice you would have expected of him, approaching the music honestly, without embellishing it. Standing in the pew, singing. the back of his neck was by this time quite wrinkled, and the sinews were too obvious in the flesh. But he was a broad and upright man.

I’ll never know if she made that kind of connection, but she mentioned the book in passing in a comment on Cancer Ward:

It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like [Solzhenitsyn], so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

Not bad, eh? She made no claim to literary sophistication, but she picked White’s affinity with the Russians. And she found his prose simple!

The prose is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s also impossible to read fast, lacking what A D Hope believed a novelist needs: ‘a plain style, a clear easy stride, a good open texture of language to carry him [sic] to the end of his path’. But it’s certainly not ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’, as Hope famously described it. It does constantly pull you up and make you look at a particular word or image – or, if you don’t stop, leave you with an uneasy feeling that you’ve missed something. The point of view frequently moves around within a single short sentence, or rather within a grouping of words between consecutive full stops, since White is a great user of what are sometimes known in the editing trade as frags. Even the very first sentence, innocuous enough at first glance (‘A cart drove between the two big stringybarks and stopped’), has the reader slightly wrong-footed with its abrupt rhythm, its lack of a human, or even animal, subject, its slightly skewed use of articles (‘the cart drove between two big stringybarks’ would be more natural, but of course it would mean something quite different).

The book’s peculiarities, and its arrogance, intimidated me in first year university in 1967. But not this time. True, I came close to genuflecting at the first four chapters, which tell of the primal encounter of ‘the man’, ‘the woman’ and the bush. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the intensity of the prose for the whole 480 pages. But once the narrative emerged into something resembling a social world, I was less enthralled. In fact I became increasingly irritated. I just don’t believe in the nastiness of most of the characters. I can’t stand the snobbishness of the narrative voice. The drunken Irish shenanigans (read domestic violence, despair, wretched poverty and, towards the end, dubious religion) of the O’Dowds fail to amuse me. The pretentions of the nouveaux riches Armstrongs are awkwardly unconvincing, as is almost everything about the younger Parkers. The book seems to assume that some people, inarticulate or otherwise, have an honest capacity for rich inner lives, while others (most?) don’t, and must settle at best for synthetic souls with occasional exalted glimpses. For all the towering strengths of the book – and they certainly aren’t limited to the first chapters – I became increasingly obsessed with calculating what fraction of the pages I had yet to read.

Perhaps the most striking disappointment is the vast, gaping silence about Aboriginal Australians. When Stan’s cart stops between the stringy barks in that first sentence, it’s definitely in terra nullius. ‘Blacks’ are mentioned twice, once when young Ray refers to their arcane knowledge of how to survive in the desert, and again in the closing pages when the missionary mentions sex with black women as a sign of his youthful depravity. The phrase ‘dream time’ occurs twice. The first time, Stan and Amy have come to an ‘uneasy dream-time’. Since that probably signifies that neither of them was fully awake in relation to the other, the Aboriginal reference may be coincidental, but in the second, near the beginning of the fourth and final part, Stan looks back on his first days at the farm as ‘the dream time’. Here the phrase does refer to a time of creation, of beginnings, and it must disturbingly invoke for any Australian reader now, and surely for some in the 1950s, this continent’s history of genocide, dispossession and cultural appropriation. Invoke without acknowledging. The Irish are despised. The working class barely exist. Aboriginal people have been erased and over-written.

Then, here’s Stan, further down the first page of the Drought chapter:

There were certain corners of his property that he could not bring himself to visit, almost as if he would have discovered something he did not wish to see. […] Once he had been looking at a crop of remarkably fine sorghum that was almost ready to bring in, when he remembered that same stretch of land after he had cleared it as a young man, and on it the white chips lying that his axe had carved out of the trees, and some trees and young saplings still standing and glistening there, waiting for the axe. So that he forgot his present crop and went away disturbed, and thinking.

In a book that makes much of ‘things that are too terrible and wonderful to speak of’ is it too much to imagine that in this moment the thing Stan does not wish to see is the silenced Aboriginal history? That the dispossession on which Stan’s settlement of the land is built is almost forcing its way into the narrative? Surely it’s not just my idiosyncrasy that those white chips of wood remind me of the bones in the red earth of a massacre site in a William Yang photograph?

There may well be hundreds of learned articles about this disturbed silence, but that’s my two bob’s worth.

After the group meeting:
Tonight we met in a pub in Paddington, rather than in someone’s home. All but one of us turned up, and almost half had read all or most of he book. We had an animated discussion. Only one of us really loved the book. One, who may not have read it, considered it to be dated imperialism. The two of us who read the Vintage edition agreed that the cover was absurdly inappropriate (a horse? northern hemisphere trees?) No one shared my unease about the absence of Aboriginal characters: the consensus seemed to be that the original inhabitants of the Parkers’ land had been dispossessed long before Stan and Amy arrived, and that my reading of the white chips passage was drawing a long bow. As someone said, what’s the point of a bow that’s not long? And I still think that the general silence enacts a kind of genocide.

Whatever, unlike Anna Karenina, The Tree of Man couldn’t hold its own against the need to discuss Other Things – the sins of the ALP and the worse sins of the Coalition, our various adventures in work and education, travel and the weather. As always it was a fun evening.