Tag Archives: memoir

Annie Ernaux’s Years

Annie Ernaux, The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions 2022, from Les Années 2008, translated by Alison L Straya 2017)

Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, which probably accounts for my long wait for this book at the library. It was worth the wait.

It’s a memoir, covering roughly the first 60 years of the author’s life, from listening to adults telling heroic stories of the Resistance in the late 1940s to presiding over family gatherings at the turn of the century full of lively exchanges in which ‘there was no patience for stories’.

It’s not like any other memoir I’ve read. Ernaux describes how she imagined it, referring to her past self as ‘she’:

This will not be a work of remembrance in the usual sense, aimed at putting a life into story, creating an explanation of self. She will go within herself only to retrieve the world, the memory and imagination of its bygone days, grasp the changes in ideas, beliefs and sensibility, the transformation of people and the subject that she has seen … To hunt down sensations that are already there, as yet unnamed, such as the one that is making her write.

(Pages 222–223)

Earlier (on page 162), she says she wants to assemble the multiple images of herself that she holds in memory, and thread them together with the story of her existence – ‘an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation’.

So it’s the story of the changing attitudes and sensibilities of a generation (the broader ‘they’ and the more specific ‘we’), and of an individual member of that generation (‘she’), embedded in an impressionistic account of France’s political, social and cultural history over half a century.

Algeria gains independence but anti-Algerian racism persists. 1968 happens, and leaves a deep mark on Ernaux’s generation, including those like her who weren’t actually throwing cobblestones. Catholicism vanishes ‘unceremoniously’ and consumer capitalism invades all aspects of life. There’s AIDS, wars and climate change.

The early sexual experiences of Ernaux’s later memoir A Girl’s Story (the link takes you to my blog post) take up a couple of paragraphs. ‘She’ marries, divorces, becomes a grandmother, teaches, retires, ruminates on the approach of death, and writes.

As I read this book, I often just let a series of specifically French references wash over me – resigned to never knowing everything. An Australian The Years might mention Gough Whitlam pouring sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hands, Jack Thompson’s nude centrefold for the first edition of Cleo, or Auntie Jack threatening to rip your bloody arms off: immediately recognisable to some readers, mystifying to others, and opening a whole new vista to the latter if they go exploring.

My practice of looking at a single page is a good fit for this book – the writing is so compressed that practically every page cries out for detailed explication.

Page 76 focuses on the general scene, talking about ‘we’ and ‘they’, as opposed to the passages that begin with a photograph of ‘a woman’ – always Ernaux – and talk about ‘she’. (It’s a book where you watch the pronouns.)

It’s 1962, near the end of the Algerian liberation struggle. Page 75 has described an incident in October 1961, when Algerian demonstrators were attacked by police, and a hundred of them thrown into the Seine, largely ignored by the press. Page 76 begins:

Try as we might, we would see no resemblance between October’s heinous attack on Algerians by Gaullist police and the attack on anti-OAS militants the following February. The nine dead crushed against the railings of the Charonne Métro station bore no comparison with the uncounted dead of the Seine.

As with many passages, I’m happy to guess at the general drift, but since I’m blogging about it, I’ll delve a little.

The OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète / Secret Armed Organisation) was a violent rightwing organisation opposed to Algerian independence. A demonstration against them was organised in February 1962 by leftist groups including the Communist party. The nine victims of police violence at the Charonne Métro station received a lot of publicity and the event came to be seen as a defining moment in the struggle. Ernaux reflects that ‘we’ – her generation, and I would add most people since – give value to the things the press highlights and have trouble giving full value to the sometimes much greater things it ignores. The narrative doesn’t pause to sermonise on the underlying racism.

Nobody asked whether the Évian Accords were a victory or a defeat. They brought relief and the beginning of forgetting. We did not concern ourselves with what would happen next for the Pieds-Noir and the Harkis in Algeria, or the Algerians in France. We hoped to go to Spain the following summer – a real bargain, according to everyone who’d been there.

You probably guess, correctly, that the Évian Accords were the treaties that brought an end to the Algerian war (Wikipedia entry here). The Pieds-Noir were the Algeria-born whites who opposed independence; the Harkis were Algerians who supported French forces (shades of the people abandoned when the USA and Australia quit Afghanistan). ‘We’ don’t include those people, and though our sympathies are with the freedom fighters we’re more interested in our next holiday abroad (again, a familiar syndrome).

The next paragraph shifts smoothly from ‘we’ to ‘people’ and then ‘they’. Though it’s not a hard border, Ernaux is no longer talking specifically about her own cohort, but about French people generally. It’s a characteristically brilliant summary of the mood of a time, beginning:

People were accustomed to violence and separation in the world. East/West. Krushchev the muzhik/ Kennedy the leading man, Peppone/ Don Camillo, JEC/UEC, L’Humanité/L’Aurore, Franco/Tito, Cathos/Commies.

Peppone and Don Camillo are a Communist mayor and a priest who clash in a series of popular books (Wikipedia entry here). JEC is Jeunesse étudiante chrétienne / Christian Student Youth); the UEC is Union des étudiants communistes / Union of Communist Students). L’Humanité was the Communist newspaper; L’Aurore was a centrist mainstream newspaper. All these dualities can be reduced to the almost affectionate diminutives ‘Cathos/Commies’.

The paragraph continues, now definitely in ‘they’ territory, a clear distance between Ernaux’s student grouping and the attitudes described:

Under cover from the Cold War, they felt calm. Outside of union speeches with their codified violence, they did not complain, having made up their minds to be kept by the state, listen to Jean Nochet moralise on the radio each night, and not see the strikes amount to anything. When they voted yes in the October referendum, it was less from a desire to elect the president of the Republic through universal suffrage than from a secret wish to keep de Gaulle president for life, if not until the end of time.

I suppose every French person would know that Jean Nochet was a vehemently anti-Communist broadcaster and that the referendum of 1962 meant that the French presidential election moved from a US style electoral college to direct popular vote. The motive attributed to the electorate reflects De Gaulle’s changing status in Ernaux’s mind over the years.

And then, a characteristic change of focal length, this time from national politics to Ernaux’s own group, with just a whiff of a suggestion that the students at that time didn’t pay much attention to politics (which was to change six years and a few pages later):

Meanwhile, we studied for our BAs while listening to the transistor. We went to see Cleo from 3 to 7, Last Year at Marienbad, Bergman, Buñuel and Italian films.

As I write this blog post, I recognise a way the book touched me personally. My oldest brother was pretty much the same age as Ernaux. Like her he moved from home in a small town to go to university in a large centre. This list of movies reminds me of the enthusiasms he brought home on uni holidays. He certainly talked about Last Year at Marienbad. I don’t remember if Agnès Varda featured. It was probably in 1962 when he took me on an excursion from boarding school to see my first subtitled movie, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Though the book might not be for everyone, it’s a richly instructive evocation of an era, and at the same time I’m pretty sure most readers would find something in it that speaks directly to their own experience.

Bryan Hartas, Hard As

Bryan Hartas, Hard As: My Life as an Orphan Boy (AndAlso Press 2021)

Full disclosure: This book was edited by my niece, Edwina Shaw. ‘Edited’ is an understatement for the process that she and the author undertook together. She describes it in an Editor’s Note:

I first met Bryan several years ago as a participant in the creative writing classes I run at Lotus Place, a resource and support centre for Forgotten Australians. Bryan often spoke about wanting to record his whole life story, despite having difficulty with literacy like many Forgotten Australians.
Over a period of years, Bryan and I have sat together and I have written down his words as he spoke them, later shaping these notes into a chronological narrative …
Over the past couple of years, I have read the story aloud to Bryan and he has added and changed details.

The book tells the story of just one of more than half a million children who were failed by Australian society and its institutions in the 20th century, under the appallingly ironic heading of ‘care’. They are the ‘Forgotten Australians’ – the term used by the 2003–04 Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care:

Children were for many reasons hidden in institutions and forgotten by society when they were placed in care and again when they were released into the ‘outside’ world. … These people who spent part or all of their childhood in an institution, children’s home or out-of-home care background have been the forgotten Australians.

(‘Introduction: Conduct of Senate Inquiry – Submissions:1.16‘, Forgotten Australians Report, 2004, from Wikipedia)

In the first dozen pages of Bryan Hartas’s story, he is relatively safe in his mother’s care. He very rarely sees his father, but hears him attack his mother when he comes home drunk at night. There are two photos, one of Bryan as a chubby baby and the other, a classic of its kind, showing him aged seven with his three siblings grinning awkwardly at the camera. A man whose head has been torn from the photograph, possibly the children’s father, stands behind them. Bryan’s mother was taken away in an ambulance soon after that photo was taken, and he never saw her again. Then the true horror began.

Completely neglected by their father, the children were taken into care, where they were separated. Years of mistreatment followed, including terrible hunger and vulnerability to sexual assault by older boys. In Bryan’s account, he was singled out for special mistreatment because he was ‘ugly’. The treatment meted out by the nuns and others was terrible. As he grew older, he was sent to work with the men around the place, but still given the paltry food allotted to the children. At times he had no bed, but had to find a spot in a shed where he slept under a pile of hessian bags. He was sent out to work on farms. In one of them he was treated well, given decent meals, and received some affection, which he soaked up. But mostly he was treated worse than the farm animals. It may be that he fell through the cracks in the system, but the system itself was hideous. He was sent to a correctional institution after some failed attempts at escape, and while still a teenager he landed in Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane. Possibly the most horrific moment in his narrative is when he talks bout the relief he felt in gaol: he was safe and well-fed, with a bed of his own. On his release he committed a crime so as to find a way back to safety.

He manages to have relationships with a number of women. The narrative glides over the details, but none of the relationships endure. He does have a number of children. He gives up alcohol, does volunteer work, and at the time of telling the story he has a good connection with his children. It’s a story of survival.

The subject matter is gruelling, but it’s a gripping read.

To give you a taste, here’s a story of what happened on the Willises’ dairy farm near Fangool, out past Biloela, when Hartas was fourteen years old. (I can’t find a town called Fangool – maybe it’s a name made up to protect the guilty, and maybe it’s only accidental that it sounds like an Englishing of a common Italian swear word, which could be Bryan’s joke, or possibly Edwina’s.) Another boy from the home, James, was also working on the farm, and for some reason he was treated much better than Bryan. The farm was rundown, and a lot of the equipment – the truck, the milking machines, the windmill, the riding gear – was in disrepair. Inevitably, there was an accident. When Bryan was bringing cows in to milk one afternoon, the girth on his horse’s saddle broke. He fell on some jagged rocks and was knocked unconscious:

When I came to, I had blood on my head and terrible pain on the right side of my back and in my shoulder. I came to in a panic, knowing I’d been badly hurt, that I needed help. So I started back to the house as fast as I could. Staggered and ran and staggered and ran all the long way to the farm. I didn’t know where the horse was.
When I got back, James told me to go over to the house. Mrs Willis gave me a pain killer and told me to sit on the back veranda for a few minutes then go back to work. It was my left shoulder, my dominant hand, and my arm was hanging useless beside me, yet she forced me back to work. After a while, I got up and went to the dairy, but I couldn’t do anything properly because I was in so much pain. I could barely lift my arm. I should have gone to hospital. It was a serious injury.
I got no sleep that night or for many nights for months after that because of the pain. I didn’t even get another pain killer from the Willises. For months I couldn’t use that arm at all and had to fumble around with my right hand trying to put cups on teats and do the other jobs. Many decades later, I still can’t throw a ball with that arm. Only recently, the break and damage was revealed. X-rays showed my shoulder blade had been cracked and the ball joint of my shoulder was chipped. I told the Willises I was in agony, but they still didn’t take me to a doctor.

(Page 75)

This is characteristic of Hartas’s vivid manner of telling. It reflects the confidence he felt in his editor/scribe – confidence that she would record his story with integrity, but also that she is listening with respect and empathy. There’s an insistence on how terrible things were (and elsewhere on how much his mother’s love meant to him) that reflect his wanting her – and us – to understand. I know I’m probably prejudiced because the editor/scribe is my lovely niece, but it seems to me that what shines through in this book is her ability to listen well, and her ability to render the chaos of the spoken word (which anyone who’s ever transcribed their own or anyone else’s speech knows is close to universal) into smooth prose that still sounds like a speaking voice.

I’m glad I read this so soon after reading Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Haunted by the Past. The books are similar in many ways. Together they bear powerful witness to the lived experience of suffering and resilience that lies behind labels like Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and Forgotten Australians.

Annie Ernaux’s girl’s story

Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L Straya (Seven Stories Press 2020, from Mémoire de fille, Gallimard 2016)

There’s an AI app that‘a in the news just now. I asked it to write a review of Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story/Mémoire de fille. Here are some excerpts from what the app came up with:

“A Girl’s Story” by Annie Ernaux is a highly acclaimed and celebrated memoir that tells the story of the author’s childhood and youth. …

The book is written in a simple, straightforward style that is both raw and emotionally charged. …

She vividly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood, and her descriptions are so vivid that the reader feels as though they are right there alongside her. At the same time, the author’s reflections on her life and experiences are both deeply personal and universally relatable, making the book accessible to a wide range of readers.

Lazy students be warned: almost every word in those paragraphs is misleading. The AI clearly hasn’t read the book.

The book does NOT tell the story of the author’s childhood and youth.

It scrutinises barely two years of the author’s life, when as an 18-year old in 1958 she left her parents’ custodianship for the first time, had her first sexual experiences, developed an eating disorder, read a lot (including Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), attended a prestigious college, decided against entering the teaching profession, worked as an au pair in London, and began her career as a writer.

The book is NOT written in a simple, straightforward style.

Take the opening sentences:

There are beings who are overwhelmed by the reality of others, their way of speaking, of crossing their legs, of lighting a cigarette. They become mired in the presence of others. One day, or rather one night, they are swept away inside the desire and the will of a single Other.

The science-fictional feel of ‘There are beings’ probably isn’t there in the original French, where it’s not unusual for elevated prose to refer to people as êtres (literally ‘beings’). But even without that bit of translationese, you’d hardly call these sentences simple or straightforward. In fact, they almost stand as a warning: if you want a simple, straightforward story, go somewhere else. The hint (‘or rather one night’) that the story is going to involve sex is neither simple nor straightforward, but at least it promises spiciness.

The style is NOT raw and emotionally charged.

The style is intensely intellectual, as is only right for a text that is concerned with the process of remembering. Memories are often there as single images, without a clear sense of how they connect with each other. Where memory fails, the narrator quotes from ancient letters and diary entries, or simply speculates about what ‘the girl of S’ (as she is called from the start) must have been feeling. From the older person’s perspective, the sexual experiences are terrible, but as far as the narrator can tell (remember?) ‘the girl’ didn’t see them that way. See the opening lines quoted above: it’s a story of a young woman who loses and regains her sense of herself. One strand of the book is a troubling inquiry into the nature of consent.

The reader does NOT feel as though they are right there alongside her.

Annie Ernaux considers that she is no longer the person who had those experiences as an eighteen-year-old. It took me several pages to be sure that ‘the girl of S’ is not someone other than the author. If we are ‘right there alongside’ anyone it’s the 70-something writer who sets out to ‘explore the gulf between the stupefying reality of things that happen, at the moment they happen, and, years later, the strange unreality in which the things that happened are enveloped’. At least that’s how she describes her initial intention. The book is more complex, recursive and elusive than that.

She vividly describes the sights, sounds, and smells of her childhood

No. Just no!

The author’s reflections on her life and experiences MAY BE deeply personal and universally relatable, but not in the way the AI implies.

This calls for discussion of an actual piece of writing. I’ll pick the moment (on pages 74–75) when the girl, still in the last year of high school and working as a counsellor at a children’s camp, has had two sexual encounters with H (the ‘single Other’ of the book’s first paragraph, which I quoted earlier). After the second time, of which the narrator says she remembers very little but which certainly wasn’t pleasurable for the girl, H promises to come to her room and say goodbye the next morning, the last day of camp. The girl knows that he is engaged to someone else, but nevertheless spends a sleepless night imagining that ‘H is her lover, truly and for all eternity’. When he doesn’t come at dawn, she goes to knock on his door. Though he can see his back through the keyhole, he ignores her. This is definitely a ‘deeply personal’ moment, but the narrator isn’t interested in capturing its emotional intensity. She writes:

Even if it had crossed her mind (and I think it probably did) that by promising to come and say goodbye, he was simply trying to shake her off, no objective sign of reality – the fiancée, the unkept promise, the lack of a meeting arranged for later in Rouen – can possibly compete with the novel that wrote itself in a single night, in the spirit of Lamartine’s The Lake, or Musset’s Nights, or the happy ending of the film The Proud and the Beautiful, with Gérard Philipe and Michèle Morgan running toward each other, or the songs (that Esperanto of love) I can list without a second thought.

She goes on to list five songs, all of which are as unknown to me as the novels and movie. I googled one, Dalida’s ‘Histoire d’un amour’, and it’s as romantic as you’d expect – on YouTube here. You don’t need to be familiar with the references to see that the narrator is considering the girl from an ironic distance. She isn’t mocking. Her project is more intellectually rigorous than that, and much more interesting: she wants to understand how ‘the girl’ really experienced the moment, at the same time as knowing that complete understanding is impossible.

After listing the songs, Ernaux does two things. First, she asserts that this kind of self story-telling is common:

At this very moment, out in the streets, the open spaces, on the metro, in lecture halls, and inside millions of heads, millions of novels are being written chapter by chapter, erased and revised, and all of them die as a result of becoming, or not becoming, reality.

This reminds me of the way Proust’s narrator in In Search of Lost Time writes at length about how he imagined what places were like based on their names, only to be almost always disappointed by the reality. Annie Ernaux explicitly suggests that this is a universal thing. So maybe it’s ‘relatable’ after all.

(By describing this fantasising as novel-writing, Ernaux seems to be suggesting that her writing life began that night, a whole other dimension of the memoir.)

The second thing she does is to leap forward in time:

When, in the subway or the RER, I hear the first notes of Dalida’s ‘Histoire d’un amour’, sometimes sung in Spanish, within a second I am emptied of myself, hollowed out. I used to believe (Proust had a comparable experience) that for three minutes, I truly became the girl of S. But it is not she who suddenly revives but the reality of her dream, the powerful reality of her dream, spread throughout the universe by the words sung by Dalida and Darío Moreno, and covered up again, buried by the shame of having had that dream.

(The RER is the rapid transit system serving Paris and its suburbs.)

This paragraph could be seen as encapsulating the book as a whole. Annie Ernaux the narrator grapples throughout with the nature of memory. Here, she realises that in the intervening years, in non-rigorous mode, she has believed herself to be reliving that moment, becoming once again her eighteen-year-old self and losing all sense of who she is in the present. But with her rigorous mind at work, she realises that what is being revived is the dream, the pattern of thinking and feeling that came into play at that moment. Any mockery that may have been implied in the ironic distance of the previous paragraphs is identified as coming from shame.

It’s no accident that Proust is mentioned here. His ghost hovers over the whole enterprise. At one level, his huge novel tells his alter ego’s life story, while A Girl’s Story tells the much smaller story of a teenage girl’s first more or less traumatic sexual experience. (Proust’s narrator’s first sexual experience is of the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it variety.) At another level, they are both philosophical inquiries into the nature of memory and desire. Ernaux’s book doesn’t have the queerness or the comedy of Proust’s, but it is just as serious, just as challenging, and has the added passion of feminist horror.

Michael Galvin’s Ben Book

Michael Galvin, The Ben Book: A Father’s Memoir (Ginninderra Press 2020)

Michael Galvin is a self-described ageing baby boomer, a former academic whose son Benjamin, born in 1984, lived with the disease known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, from which he died when he was 22 years old.

The Ben Book tells their story. A brief introduction says the book was written in the first years after Ben’s death, and some of it was clearly written when grief was raw, but it took more than ten years ‘to be able to face up to its publication’. It is an intensely personal memoir about a relationship, about being a carer as well as a father and a friend, even a best friend. According to the introduction, the book is published with at least two types of reader in mind, those who are ‘involved in the muscular dystrophy community’ and those who have no involvement with the world of disability. I belong in the latter group, so have no comment on the book’s possible reception in the former, except to say I hope people new to that group will find validation and some kind of reassurance in its pages.

For me as an outsider to the world of disability, the book is full of revelations. It doesn’t dwell on the physiology of Ben’s condition, but gives a strikingly dynamic portrait of Ben himself and how he dealt with the progressive weakening and breakdown of his muscles – from a physically active boy, to a teenager who needed a wheelchair to get around but still played wheelchair sports, to a young man who could do almost nothing physical without assistance. There are gruellingly detailed descriptions of the kinds of intimate assistance he needed, exhilarating moments of joy, encounters with able-ism ranging from the irritating to the devastating, and a tactfully vague account of the toll taken on the parents’ marriage and on Ben’s younger, non-disabled sister. At its heart is a loving portrait of a resilient, thoughtful young person, who was discovering new things about the world until the end. The book must have been unbelievably difficult to write. It’s a heroic book about a heroic young man and the heroic family he was born into.

To give you a sense of the writing, I’ll talk about page 75. Ben was 22 years old. He and Michael had been going to a counsellor for some ‘mutually beneficial anger management’. On this day Michael had been ‘overwhelmed with all the sadness [he] felt about Ben’s condition’. He wept and spoke from his heart about how much he loved him and how devastated he would be to lose him. Michael the narrator describes his words as ‘dramatic, self-centred statements’. That’s evidently not how Ben heard them – Galvin tells us that he replied calmly, over and over, ‘I know, Dad.’ When they left the counsellor’s office a significant milestone had been passed – there was to be no more avoiding the imminence of Ben’s death:

We walked aimlessly for an hour or so in the Parklands, saying little, grateful to be alive, and to be together (I speak for myself; I think I speak for him too). I think we noticed every bird that chirruped, on that particular afternoon.

A toilet stop was needed, and there’s a glancing reference to the probability that the toilet is a gay beat – nothing is made of this except the mild comedy of the ‘strange and confusing sight’ that a stranger would have encountered. Then the narrative rests a while on what happened in the counselling session, beginning with a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

Because the question for me was always whether that shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact.

Galvin often reaches out to literature as a sustaining reference point. As well as this and other quotes from Cormac McCarthy, there are Les Murray’s ‘A Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’, Victor Frankel’s From Death Camp to Existentialism, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Joan Didion, Isabel Allende, and more. There is a brief section about the importance of religion, particularly the religion of one’s childhood, but it’s secular literature that’s woven into the texture of the telling to provide perspective and emotional resource. I read this particular quote as a caveat, warning the reader that Galvin may be an unreliable narrator. (Someone once said, and as an Eng Lit academic Galvin knows, all memoir is unreliable.)

Referring to the counselling session, in one of the few moments where he writes about his life before parenthood, Galvin writes:

Ben reacted better than I did when the same things happened to me when I was young. I was a callow fifteen-year-old, about to go to boarding school. For fifteen years, I had been very close to my granddad, a stern man, an unemotional man. The night before I was to leave, I was with him when he burst into tears, and told me how lonely he was going to be when I went away. Until that moment, I don’t think I had given his feelings a moment’s thought. Now I was that old man … When his turn came, Ben showed more empathy and guts than I ever did.

The book is subtitled A father’s memoir. It’s as much Michael’s story as it is Ben’s. This small passage, possibly more than any other, shows us the depth of the father’s admiration for the son, rooted in a sense of his own limitations. It’s a strength of the book that it refrains from generalisiing about courage and disability. Ben isn’t brave and empathetic because of his disability, but he has risen to its challenges with courage and empathy. (I’m reminded that when I briefly had Bell’s palsy some decades ago, the only two people who responded to it with unembarrassed empathy were a small boy who had endured much surgeries because of how his body was at birth, and an older woman with post-polio syndrome.)

On a personal note: I met Michael Galvin when he arrived at that boarding school as a fifteen year old. I was the year ahead of him, a significant difference at that time of life, but we were friends until we both graduated in English at Sydney University. We lost touch soon after that, for nearly 50 years, and only recently renewed contact by email. When he told me about his son and this book, I immediately ordered a copy from Ginninderra Press. I don’t recognise the man in the photo on the cover, and reading the memoir was an uncanny experience: I knew they were the words of a man I knew when we were both young, but they were in the unrecognisable voice of someone who has been through the mill. I’ll give him the last word here:

Writing this account has been driven as much by need as desire. The desperation of a man, getting close to retirement himself, struggling to survive emotionally, his nerves as worn out as old shock absorbers, wanting to make sense of the biggest things in his life … I somehow cling to the crazy idea that, if I can keep Ben alive in words, I might keep him alive, or at least not dead, in other ways.

Well, it turns out that was the second last word. I get the actual last word: The book does keep Ben alive in words, and as a result he lives ‘in other ways’, in the minds of readers, including me.

Charmian Clift’s Mermaid Singing

Charmian Clift, Mermaid Singing (©1956, in a single volume with Peel Me a Lotus, HarperCollinsPublishers 2001)

According to their standard biographies, Charmian Clift, her husband George Johnston and their children Martin and Shane left London in 1954 to live on the Greek Island of Hydra and write full time.

But between London and Hydra, there was Kalymnos, where they lived for most of a year writing a novel together. The publication of the novel, The Sea and the Stone aka The Sponge Divers, meant they could move to the more hospitable island of Hydra.

Mermaid Singing is Charmian Clift’s account of their time on Kalymnos. Though I’ve read several of George Johnston’s novels and have my eyes on Nadia Wheatley’s selection of Clift’s newspaper columns, Sneaky Little Revolutions (NewSouth 2022), this is the first of her books I have read.

It starts out as a charming, chatty account of a modern Australian family, fresh from expat life in London, arriving on Kalymnos seeking respite from hectic big-city life. They are met with enormous hospitality. The young, blond children are taken to the hearts of the community. Cultural differences are perplexing, and often hilarious to both sides.

Mermaid Singing was published the same year as a book I loved as a child, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a memoir of Durrell’s time with his family on Corfu in the 1930s. The opening chapters of Mermaid Singing remind me strongly, not so much of that book – which is written from a child’s point of view – as of the TV series The Durrells. Like The Durrells, these opening chapters make rich comedy out of the visitors’ shock at the condition of the house they have rented, and the locals’ only half comprehending attempts to make them welcome and comfortable. The Durrellesque comedy continues with escapades like one involving a ruined toilet, and there’s even a pet rabbit: the locals struggle to grasp that the children’s pet isn’t intended to eventually become food, and their attempts to console the children when it dies made me laugh out loud.

The book moves well beyond comedy. The treatment of the rabbit’s funeral, insisted on by the distraught Martin and Shane, is a good example. It goes from high comedy to this:

By the time we reached the top of the stairs the procession was fifty strong, and all across the mountain slope dark figures were flitting among the scattered houses, converging on us. The children clustered close about Martin and Shane suddenly began to chant softly. Behind us a woman took up the chant and tossed it, shrill and unexpected, down the massed moving line.

The ludicrous reason for the procession was lost and forgotten. We were caught in something else, an old rite the meaning of which had melted in a time lost long ago but the form of which was part of that dim race memory we inherit at our births. That wild cry of lamentation was not for a stiffening rabbit. It was for Tammuz dead, or the springing red flowers where Adonis’ blood was scattered, or a woodland king torn on the sacrificial oak. Straining and stumbling on the loose boulders we toiled up the dusk-wreathed mountain. The chanting rose deep and sad from a hundred throats, and a boy with a torch (or a lantern or a candle or a blazing cypress brand) moved to the head of the line and led us on. High over the noble rock that soars above the town one star hung in the great blue night. I thought perhaps we were climbing to reach it.

(Page 109)

The book moves well past the comedy or the romance of cultural difference. The Johnstons get to know people, and to understand something of the realities of life in that traditional Greek community whose survival depends on the dangerous work of collecting sponges from the sea floor, work that is disappearing as synthetic materials replace sponges in many of their uses. They develop real relationships of mutual respect and affection. The chapters on gender politics – one on the women’s lot, and one on the men’s – are brilliant. For the women, there’s the everyday indignity of being referred to as gorgonas and the appalling toll taken by seemingly endless childbearing. For the men, there are months away at sea each year where ‘their daily lot is danger, hardship, privation’.

It’s basically a travel book, with rich and/or amusing descriptions of landscape and local customs. But it’s more than that. Through it all, George and Charmian are working on their novel, and keep a parental eye on their children. Even for its first readers, part of the appeal must have been in the element of memoir. Nearly 70 years after publication, when we know that George went on to substantial fame with My Brother Jack (1964), that the Johnstons’ time on Hydra has an almost mythic status (as in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard), that Charmian became an enormously popular newspaper columnist, that the charming little boy went on to write brilliant and challenging poetry, and that all their lives were to be touched by tragedy, the book is filled with astonishing light.

A personal note: Martin Johnston and I were born in the same year. I knew him when we were in our 20s, and was in awe of him as a poet. It’s tempting the read the book’s final image as somehow prophetic. The family have been swimming with two of their local friends and helpers. A blue boat with a tan sail arrives and is being hauled to shore by some children. They call to Martin to join them:

He turns his head slowly towards the boat and the other children. Slowly he goes towards them, almost reluctantly, the kelp trailing forgotten from his hand, looking back over his shoulder as he goes, as though he is watching for something … or listening …
If I stay for a moment, only a moment, perhaps I might hear it too – that one rare mermaid, singing.

(Page 211–212)

Added later (14 July 2022): Fran Munro has pointed out in a comment that Charmian Clift’s biographer Nadia Wheatley recently appeared on Caroline Baum’s Life Sentences podcast, where she talks interestingly about Mermaid Singing and Kalymnos. The relevant part of the conversation, if you’re interested and have limited time, runs from 20’45” to 27’28”.

Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Boy

Jimmy Barnes, Working Class Boy (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

This is a terrific book.

These days, Jimmy Barnes turns up on social media as a genial grandfather who makes music with his large family for the pleasure of a nation beleaguered by Covid and other ills. Once he was a hard living, hard-drinking rock star whose songs ‘Working Class Man’ and ‘Khe Sanh’, the latter sung as front man of Cold Chisel, have anthem status.

At the end of Working Class Boy, he more or less promises us the story of how he made the transition from then to now. This book is a prequel, a back story: ‘How I became Jimmy Barnes.’ It begins in poverty-stricken Glasgow where alcohol-fuelled violence is the norm in the streets and in the home. It takes us through the small boy’s emigration with his dysfunctional family to South Australia, where the town of Elizabeth is hardly less violent or alcohol-riven than Glasgow. It leaves off as Jimmy, now as addicted to alcohol and other substances as the next knockabout young man, sets off for Armidale with the newly formed Cold Chisel, not with any hope of peace or stability, but at least with the possibility of making it as a rock band.

It’s a harrowing story, but it doesn’t ask for pity, and it doesn’t feel as if it aims to shock. The writer uses his great skill as a yarn-spinner to keep the narrative alive, at the same time never letting the reader lose sight of his serious purpose, as he articulates it in the Acknowledgements:

There’s a lot of my past that I wanted to push out of my memory and never see again. But I couldn’t. I tried to drown my past in every possible way, but as long as it was festering inside me I could never really move on. My childhood affected every step I took over the rest of my life. It twisted the way I thought and the way I interacted with normal human beings. Eventually I realised that these wounds needed to be brought out in the open and aired if I ever wanted them to heal.

So I started trying to write things down.

(page 359)

I read Working Class Boy at the Emerging Artist’s suggestion, when I told her about Shuggie Bain. I’d read that novel for the Book Group (blog post to come in a couple of weeks), and was uneasy about its insistence on the main woman character’s wretchedness and victimhood amid alcohol-fuelled violence and poverty in Glasgow – was it a kind of misery porn? ‘Jimmy Barnes’s childhood was in Glasgow,’ the ER said.

It turned out that reading the books in close sequence increased my appreciation of both of them. I won’t talk about Shuggie Bain here.

None of Jimmy Barnes’s characters is a straightforward victim. He doesn’t hold back from telling us about his own violence, and sexism. He makes no excuses, but gives us glimpses of the inner struggles, and terrors, that he was dealing with at the time of his worst behaviour. The effect is that when he tells us about his mother’s and father’s violent moments, we aren’t invited to sit in judgement. It’s understood that they too are wrestling with demons. I was struck by his account of how his first son, David Campbell, was conceived and born when Jimmy was just 16. This episode of teenage sex and consequences can’t have been easy to write, but Barnes tells it with generosity to all involved, including David when he learned the truth of his origins. Then he says:

I don’t need to say much more about this time. Not to you guys anyway.

(Page 317)

How’s that for telling the reader to respect the writer’s boundaries?

Comparing the two books made me appreciate the quality of Barnesie’s humour (I hope it’s OK to call him that). Even as he laments the terrible damage wrought by alcohol and poverty, he celebrates the wit and resilience, and the sense of community, of the people involved. I came away from the scenes in Glasgow wanting to see a lot more more of the Glaswegians, though I’d prefer to be out of striking range. Many of his adolescent exploits have a terrific derring-do about them. There’s the time he drove a half a dozen drunken mates to the drive-in cinema in a car with no brakes, or the occasion when he and a few of his mates took LSD and got drunk before turning up at a party given by ‘a quiet young guy’ from the foundry, to find that the young guy ‘was a drag queen in his spare time’, and the party a great success.

The book pulls off the minor miracle of taking the reader along on this wild ride, feeling the excitement of it, but not losing sight of the human cost both for the writer and the other young men like him, and for the many people – girls, women, strangers – they damaged. I’m not drawn to celebrity autobiographies, but Jimmy Barnes’s Working Class Man (HarperCollinsAustralia 2018) just made it onto my TBR list.

Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why

Archie Roach, Tell Me Why: The story of my life and my music (Simon & Schuster 2019)

This book. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a memoir by Archie Roach, whose song ‘Took the Children Away’ became a kind of anthem for the Stolen Generations. It’s a warm, generous account of a life well lived, as a member of the Stolen Generations who went in search of his lost family, and having found them struggled with addiction to alcohol, won the love of a remarkable woman, and became an internationally celebrated singer-songwriter and respected Aboriginal elder and activist.

The telling doesn’t minimise the systemic racism he has faced or the destruction it has brought on him and the people around him, culminating in the deaths of many loved ones, especially the great love of his life, Ruby Hunter. The book’s title bewildered rage at the cruelty of colonialism and racism.

But the book focuses on the goodness, kindness and resilience of Aboriginal people, as well as the kindness that he has encountered from others all through his life – from his much-loved foster parents and an occasional exceptional police officer, all the way through to singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and British actor Pete Postlethwaite.

There’s not a lot of laugh-out-loud humour, but the book is far from unrelentingly grim. To give you a small taste, here’s a passage that comes when Archie has gone to Melbourne to spend time with his family, leaving Ruby pregnant in Adelaide, and has stayed longer than he intended, hitting the grog. Horse is his oldest brother:

‘Tell me about this little woman of yours,’ Horse said, surprising me.
I told him about her – she wasn’t tall but had flowing dark hair, and big cheeks that matched the deepest brown eyes you’d ever seen. I told Horse she was the most beautiful girl.
‘Is that her behind you?’ he asked.
I turned. It was. She had her hands on her hips. It wasn’t good. If looks could kill, I’d be a dead man.

{Page 145)

Each chapter of the book begins with the lyrics of a song, and we are told the origin stories of some songs. This is wonderful for someone like me who has a limited knowledge of Archie Roach’s music, and I was glad to discover that there’s a companion album with the same title, with eighteen songs from the whole range of his extraordinary career. It’s now on my phone.

Walk Like a Cow with Brendan Ryan, plus November verse 4

Brendan Ryan, Walk Like a Cow: A memoir (Walleah Press 2021)

I take Brendan Ryan’s poetry personally. His childhood and mine didn’t have a huge amount in common, but his poetry about cattle – working with them, observing them, even loving them – and about growing up Catholic resonate hugely for me. There were only five children in my family, as opposed to his 10. I spent my childhood on a sugar farm in tropical North Queensland, hard to imagine a climate further removed from his western Victoria. We had just a few cows, of which two were milked by hand in the mornings, rather than a hundred that had to be milked by machine day and night. And I left the farm behind me when I went to boarding school aged 13, whereas he kept working on the farm, much harder than I ever did, into young adulthood. But I recognise so much of what he writes about, and am grateful that he has done the work of wrangling his experiences and observations into words.

This book is a welcome backgrounder on the poetry, and it’s very interesting in its own right. It’s a collection of memoir essays: a version of one of them, ‘Ash Wednesday: A memorial’, published in Heat in 2010, first introduced me to Brendan Ryan’s writing, and I have read versions of several others in Heat and Southerly since. It’s good to see them brought together to form a narrative: his parents’ story, his childhood on the farm, Catholic school and then work away from home in late teenage years, the move to Melbourne, shared houses, pub music scene, odd jobs, and the beginnings of his lifelong relationship. Through it all there is his appreciation of cows, his learning from them how to walk the country (as opposed to Henry David Thoreau’s advice to learn to walk like a camel), and his development as a poet.

There’s a moving account of his relationship with poet John Forbes, who was a mentor. The life with cows and then living in the city with a paddock in his head, so vividly rendered in his poetry, are described here at fascinating length. It’s delightful to read that the first publication of a poet who is so rooted in place, so earthy and so accessible, was a self-published limited edition of 14 copies, bound in paperbark from the trees of St Kilda and selling for $50 each.

Here’s a taste of his writing about cows:

While a cow walks in a straight line, not moving from side to side, it also walks a deviating line. This line seems to be closely linked to two elements a cow encounters each day: the geography of a paddock and habit. Due to their physical size, cows will walk across a hill rather than down the steepest incline. Being a herd animal, a cow will mostly follow other cows along the track they walked the day before. Their cow tracks meander around bumps and ridges in the dirt, ands so the tracks suggest the intimate knowledge the cows have of each paddock. Each day the cows walk along these tracks, perhaps for security, most likely because the tracks have a more practical basis. When viewed from a distance the cow tracks describe the routine of a cow’s day. One track will lead straight to the water trough. Another track will fork off toward shelter on the boundary fence, while other tracks converge like veins around a heart at the paddock’s gate.

‘Walk Like a Cow’, page 202

Because it’s November, inspired by Brendan Ryan, here’s a little verse tribute from me to the Jersey cow that led our herd of mostly Australian Illawarra Shorthorns, with a couple of Friesians:

November verse 4: Cows I have known
For Brendan Ryan
Beauty was our herd's true leader.
Bulls might think they'd be obeyed,
but all the herd would turn to read her
every move, and move her way.
Bony ancient, grey as morning,
with no need for roughhouse horning,
queenlike, she assumed her rank
and strolled from shade to water tank.
Bullocks, calves and springing heifers, 
roan, and black and white, and red,
chewing, calling to be fed,
crumpled horned, with swinging udders,
lifting tails to drop their loads –
they all followed. Beauty led. 

Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

Anita Heiss (editor), Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc 2018)

I’m coming to this book late, but it’s a book that will remain fresh for a long time yet.

It contains 52 essays from First Nations people of Australia. The range of contributors is huge: people from all parts of Australia, urban and remote, from Cape York to the Western Australian wheat belt; some who are household names, some who should be, and some who live quiet lives far from the limelight; people who were strongly connected to culture and community as children and people who discovered they were Aboriginal only in adulthood; old (several contributors were born the same year as me, 1947) and young (one was 13 at the time of publication); sports stars, poets, novelists, classical musicians, prisoners.

Anita Heiss writes in her introduction:

There is no single or simple way to define what it means to grow up Aboriginal in Australia, but this anthology is an attempt to showcase as many of the diverse voices, experiences and stories together as possible.

The attempt succeeds admirably.

I was struck by the sheer number of almost identical incidents in which someone challenges a young person’s Aboriginal identity. Here’s one of them, as told by Keira Jenkins, a Gamilaroi woman from Moree in New South Wales:

I was six years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor in my checked dress, which was slightly too long for me, looking eagerly up at Miss Brown – at least I think that was her name – the first time I had a blow to my sense of identity. We were learning about Aboriginal people and I piped up very proudly.

‘I’m Aboriginal.’ I waved my hand in the air.

‘No, you’re not,’ my friend Alison said. ‘You’re too white to be Aboriginal.’

I don’t remember what happened after that; I just remember feeling ashamed.

(Pages 119–120)

The challenger isn’t always another child. Sometimes it’s an adult in authority, sometimes even another Aboriginal person, but the confident refusal to accept that a child with fair skin can be Aboriginal occurs again and again in almost exactly the same words, never without impact on the child. No wonder Andrew Bolt was taken to court over his 2009 slur against ‘light-skinned people who identified as Aboriginal’ (news story here if you don’t know about that): the people bringing the case must have been desperately sick of that pernicious stuff.

The sameness of attacks stands in striking contrast to the tremendous variety of the life stories. I loved reading how eleven-year-old Miranda Tapsell refused to go to an event as Scary Spice just because Scary Spice was brown like her, and risked the ire of her non-Indigenous friend by going as their shared favourite, Baby Spice; how Adam Goodes disobeyed a teacher on a zoo excursion and stared at a gorilla; how Karen Davis, a Mamu–Kuku Yalanji woman who grew up n Far North Queensland in the 1970s and 80s sang songs on long car trips with her family pretty much the way I did with mine in the 1950s.

Some of the stories defy belief. William Russell, who describes himself as ‘a black, fair ex-serviceman with PTSD, blind and with a severe hearing impediment, and a long list of other physical problems from military service’, is a case in point. He tells of a time when his mother, with a babe in arms and four-year-old WIlliam by her side, faced a crowd of drunk, angry white men in the tiny town in Victoria where they had just come to live as the only Aboriginal family. Her grandfather stepped out of the shadows to save the day, naked ‘as always’, painted up in ochre and kaolin, and discharging a shotgun. This was in the 1950s. Hm!

There are tragic stories of the damage done by of colonisation to individuals and communities,featuring alcoholism and addiction; diabetes and diagnoses of mental illness; family violence and dysfunction; premature death. And there are stories of heroic resilience. Tony Birch’s story of his father is a beautifully told study in reversing fortunes. After years of violence and anger, followed by years of medication, electric shock treatment and institutionalisation, he ‘is saved’:

The Aboriginal community of Fitzroy gather around and care for him: men and women who had known him when he was a kid, during the years before any of them were ravaged by the force of racism and exclusion. He moves to the countryside and begins working with young blackfellas in schools. The experience is life-changing, for both my father and his family. I discover, a little to my own surprise, that I love him.

(Page 35)

My copy of Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia is a loan from my Book(-lending) Club. I consider it belongs in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021: it’s edited by a woman, and more than half the contributors are also women. So I’m counting it as the eleventh book I’ve read for the challenge.

This blog post is also a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Annabel Crabb’s Men at Work

Annabel Crabb, Men at Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap (Quarterly Essay 75, 2019) – and correspondence in Quarterly essay 76

Women’s surge into the workplace has been profound over the last century. But it hasn’t been matched by movement in the other direction: while the entrances have been opened to women, the exits are still significantly blocked to men. And if women have benefited from the sentiment that ‘girls can do anything’, then don’t we similarly owe it to the fathers, mothers and children of the future to ensure that ‘boys can do anything’ means everything from home to work?

Men at Work, page 65

In this Quarterly Essay Annabel Crabb addresses the ‘baked-on’ cultural assumption that mothers must be the ones who do the real parenting while fathers are meant to help and support, and the economic, political, social and industrial structures that hold that assumption in place, and to some extent enforce it. She points to a number of examples of departures from this norm, harbingers of change: apologising for the predictability, she describes parental leave regimes in Norse nations, but also to developing policies closer to home in For example, at Medibank, in the context of general flexible working provisions, the notion of primary and secondary parents has been shelved and parental leave and other possibilities have been implemented – and are turning out to be good business practice.

Like some of the correspondents published in the subsequent Quarterly Essay (Peter Hartcher’s Red Flag), the essay led me to reflect on my own experience as a parent. I’ve been a father for nearly 42 years and belong to what Annabel Crabb says – and I have no reason to doubt her – is a tiny minority of men who have spent time as ‘stay at home dads’. My sons were born in 1978 and 1983, and with the exception of the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act passed by the Whitlam government in 1973, none of the legislation, policies or studies referred to in the essay existed yet. Because the ways the Emerging Artist (then the Community Worker) and I dealt with the challenges of parenthood differ so radically from the norm described by Annabel Crabb, I hope it will be OK to spend the rest of this blog post telling part of that story. (Some of my readers were there – please correct any errors and feel free to add to the story.)

The EA/CW was a feminist who had been in consciousness-raising groups, worn overalls, worked in women’s collectives and, significantly for this story, shared money and futures (that’s how they expressed it) with another woman. I’d been thrilled by the emergence of Women’s Liberation at Sydney University in the late 60s, and had taken to heart the words of a teacher of mine: ‘If as a man you want to counter domestic sexism you have to decide you’re going to do all the work in the home; that way you may end up doing a fair share.’ He’d also said, ‘Fathers can do everything that mothers can do except breast feed.’ So from the beginning we thought of ourselves as a parenting team – I got up when the baby cried in the night, and brought him to his mother. I was still at work in those first notoriously exhausting weeks, and I’d slip away to the toilet to snatch a couple of minutes sleep with my forehead resting on the roll of toilet paper.

The EA/CW had no maternity leave, so went back to work three months after the birth. My workplace – in the NSW public service – was flexible enough that I could take three days a week unpaid leave for an extended period to look after our baby. We lived a quarter of an hour from the EA/CW’s workplace; for the first couple of months when he gave signs of needing a feed I’d bundle him into the car and take him to the breast, usually arriving before he was desperate. While his mother fed him I’d sit on the verandah of the centre – often with a group of women talking animatedly in Italian at the other end. I was able to reassure them, ‘Non capisco niente.’

I looked after the baby three days a week. We weren’t well off, but the times and our circumstances (see mention above about sharing money and futures) were such that we could afford to pay friends the going rate to look after him the other two days. I don’t remember them doing the breast-feed dash, so some bottles of formula must have been involved.

As a man looking after a baby in public, I was a rarity. At the local playgroup I was treated as something rich and strange, and congratulated for looking after my own child. I don’t think I was ever rude in response, but I was nonplussed. Once, long haired and – I guess – not obviously male from behind, I was struggling with baby, stroller and nappy bag up a flight of stairs at a railway station. A burly chap helpfully grabbed the stroller, and was obviously a bit shocked to realise he was being gallant to a bloke.

As there was virtually no accessible childcare at the time, a number of parents in the inner west of Sydney banded together to form what we called the Kids Co-op. We took over an abandoned house with an empty lot next door belonging to the Princess Alexandra Children’s Hospital, and they were eventually happy to let us have it for a peppercorn rent. For every child, the ‘parental unit’ had to do two half-day shifts a week, and there was a very small fee. We were a mixed bunch, and men were well represented: a couple of tradies, a baker, a Qantas steward, a drop-out lawyer, a telephone exchange operator, an editor who managed some casual work (that’s me). The women were equally varied. What we had in common was an openness to finding collective solutions to the collective problem.

The Co-op was often chaotic. The weekly meetings ranged from tedious to hilarious. Some people would come to one meeting or do one shift and then never be seen again. The food was basic, and maybe that’s praising it too highly. But the young ones formed strong bonds: at the end of the day, our two-year-old son would plead to go home with one of his friends, or vice versa. And as the parents had generally worked with each other on shifts, their pleas were often enough successful. This little constellation of families meant there was rarely any difficulty finding babysitters.

As the young ones turned three and four, we started a ‘co-op preschool’. Here there was one paid early-childhood educator, and once again parents did shifts as assistants.

In later years, the EA/SW and I lived for a time with former Co-op members, and many friendships that began there – among both generations – are alive and thriving.

I don’t think the Co-op could happen today. Health and safety regulations would be an obstacle, and new parents are much more isolated. The pressure to work long hours is more intense, and the neo-liberal worldview’s emphasis on individualism is still a powerful force in the culture.

Annabel Crabb gives a string of examples of men whose lives have been enriched by the opportunity to be actively engaged with their children, as full-time or part-time ‘stay-at-home dads’, sometimes sharing the joy with the ‘stay-at-home’ mum. She also writes of ‘a storm-cloud of resentment building among millennial men’, who see themselves as ‘lumped with the transgressions of an older generation, while missing out on entitlements that should reasonably be theirs’. The park playground near our flat is full of fathers and small children on sunny weekends, something that we just didn’t see 40 years ago: the men are willing, but the system, though it has softened, is tight.

Men at Work is the third book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.