Tag Archives: memoir

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.

Vicki Hastrich, Charlotte Wood, Night Fishing on the Weekend with the Book Group

Before the meeting: This month’s designated Book Chooser gave us two books to tide us over the summer break, a collection of memoir essays and a novel. The author of the novel makes a brief appearance in one of the essays, and it’s possible that the novel is set in a version of the locality that is the focus of many of the essays.


Vicki Hastrich, Night Fishing: Stingtrays, Goya and the Singular Life: A Memoir in Essays (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Before the Meeting: I reserved both books at each of the two libraries I belong to. Night Fishing became available within a day, though I was unable to renew my loan because seven people joined the queue while I was reading it. By contrast, there were 50 and 80 people respectively in the queues for The Weekend, but I was saved by the Emerging Artist, who bought it as a Christmas present to herself.

Night Fishing is a collection of thirteen essays that range from 4 to 34 pages in length. They don’t really amount to a memoir, as the title page claims, but they do have memoir elements. They are personal essays, most of which explore aspects of the waters near Woy Woy, where Vicky Hastrich’s family had a holiday house in her childhood and which she now visits often.

The first essay, ‘The Hole’, is filled with rich childhood memories of the place, and the excitement of rediscovering a favourite fishing spot with her brother. They go out in the author’s much-patched fibre-glass dinghy, the Squid, and are just about to pack up for the day, crowded out by half a dozen fancy, gizmo-laden boats, when she gets a bite:

The rod bent. I pulled the big, slow thing up and Rog got the net. It seesawed, it yawed, it took forever, but finally a dark shape materialised. Rog leant out and the shape nosed serenely into the net, though only its head seemed to fit; simultaneously Rog lifted and in a heavy, dripping arc in it came, landing thickly in the bottom of the boat. A huge flathead. Biggest one we’d ever seen – by a mile. Adrenaline pumping, we whooped and screamed.
 Suck eggs, you plastic heaps! Go the mighty Squid,’ I hollered.
We were grown-ups.

There are many moments like this in the essays. Hastrich’s deep love of that place is infectious, and it’s the best thing about the book – in ‘The Hole’ and ‘From the Deep, It Comes’ (in which Western writer and deep-sea fisher Zane Grey makes a guest appearance). She also writes engagingly about her writing life, including an unfinished colonial gothic novel that seems to haunt her, and about the way her past as a television camera operator affects her way of seeing (both in the same brilliant essay, ‘My Life and the Frame’). There’s a wonderful essay, ‘Amateur Hour at the Broken Heart Welding Shop’, about her grandfather, who was a ‘first-class amateur’ engineer – Hastrich describes herself as an amateur writer.

Less successful for me are the essays that are in effect reports on experiments: going fishing at night with only a non-directional lantern on the dinghy (‘Night Fishing’); taking the dinghy out at low tide to The Hole with a bathyscope (‘The Tomb of Human Curiosity’); filming herself as she sleeps two nights in a row and taking 112 selfies on the day in between (‘Self Portraits’). The contrived set-up of these pieces stops them from quite taking off.


Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Three women in their seventies meet at a beach house for a weekend over Christmas, but not to celebrate the holiday. Christmas just seems to be a non-event. None of them has family to celebrate with: Wendy is a widow with alienated adult children, Jude is the long-term mistress (old-fashioned term, but accurate) of a wealthy man who spends the holiday with his family, Adele is a once-famous actress who has become increasingly unemployed, alone in the world, and on the brink of homelessness. Nor have they taken refuge with each other as Waifs and Strays. The beach house belonged to Sylvia, the fourth in their little group of friends, who has died recently. They are there to sort out her stuff and prepare the house for selling – for the benefit of Sylvia’s partner, who has left the country,

We are told that these women have been friends for forty years. We are told they are feminists. But as they arrive at the hut, separately, they barely greet each other. Each is allocated a section of the house to clean up, and they proceed to do it in isolation. No calling out from one room to another – ‘Oh my God, look what she kept!’ ‘What should we do with all these gorgeous clothes?’ ‘That’s my saucepan that she borrowed and never gave back!’ – let alone any shared whingeing about the partner who has skedaddled and left them to do what should be her work. They do think such thoughts, but there’s no commonalty in the task. No sense of solidarity in grief either. And only the sketchiest idea of who the recently deceased woman was apart from the her role in keeping the friendship group together. When the three go for a walk on the beach, no one waits for anyone else but each remains wrapped in her own thoughts.

Not a lot happens in the first two thirds of the book apart from reports on the internal monologues of each of the women, and descriptions of the undignified deterioration of Wendy’s deaf, arthritic, incontinent dog. Towards the end, each of the three is delivered a devastating blow, they stumble into a Christmas midnight mass, and they find some solace and forgiveness with each other, but though there’s a terrific evocation of a storm as the blows are delivered, by then I was past caring.

I was so looking forward to this book, because I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (my blog post here). It can’t just be the subject matter that led me not to like it – I’ve been known to be very interested in women aged 70 or thereabouts, and I was enthralled by Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (blog post here). I think it’s something to do with the way the narrative generally works. To take a passage pretty much at random, here’s Jude after she’s realised that Adele has claimed the best bedroom without any discussion:

She didn’t care about the bedroom at all – she wasn’t fussed by trivia like that – but still, a fleck of disdain formed itself: how had Adele not, in all these years, developed a shred of restraint, of self-discipline? It was how and why she was an actress, Jude supposed. They were all children, the men too, as far as she could tell. She could see the appeal, when you were young, the liberation of it. But what did it mean when you were old? What were you left with, still a child at seventy-two?

(page 75)

This is the kind of writing I meant by ‘we are told’ in the earlier paragraph. It’s shaped as if it’s giving us Jude’s internal monologue. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that no one thinks like that. Take the generalisation about actors. It’s mean and judgmental, and absurd, but that’s not my problem with it: why shouldn’t Jude be meanly, absurdly judgemental? My problem is that the omniscient narrator is giving us a rundown, an abstract, as if the writer has figured out what Jude’s character is, and is giving us little snippets to illustrate it. We’re not inside Jude’s head, which is where we need to be if we’re to get lost in the story. Sadly, this is pretty much how the narrator’s voice works for most of the book. It feels as if these characters created no surprises for their creator. This reader remained generally disengaged.

Many people have said The Weekend was one of their favourite books of 2019: Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers, for example, have both written elegant, well-argued, positive reviews of what’s recognisably the same book but seen through very different lenses from mine. I’m glad, because I don’t want any book to be unloved – well, hardly any book. I’m sorry this one isn’t loved by me.


After the meeting: We met in the carport of our host’s newly purchased and not yet completely habitable house in Balmain with a spectacular view of the Sydney skyline, and had pizza. Once we’d got over the splendour of the setting, and tales of cricket from this summer and summers long past, and one or two fabulous tales of adventure in the city involving weddings and mistaken identity (though not in the same tale), we had an animated discussion of the books.

My sense is that no one was as negative about The Weekend as I am. Where I missed the casual back and forth of old friends, the book’s main proponent said he had read that sort of thing as understood but not part of the book’s focus: that the narrative was interested in the characters’ internal lives. another chap said that the main thing the book did for him was to have him reflect on decades-old relationships that are full of obligation but not much else; in particular, there are people who are nominally his friends but are really his wife’s friends, and if she were to disappear he wold gladly never see them again. He wasn’t saying that the three women in this book were like that, but he certainly read their lack of mutual warmth as having a similar source: Sylvia was the glue that held the group together, and no one was sure it could continue to exist without her. Yet another said he wasn’t fazed by the lack of communal grieving: that had already happened, as he read it, and now each character was withdrawn into her own individual grief.

It’s interesting that my main misgivings – which I’m not sure I even articulated – were addressed from so many fronts.

Night Fishing provoked some interesting discussion. Notably, towards the end of the evening, one chap said he was embarrassed to realise that this was the first thing he’s ever read about a woman fishing. His embarrassment was widely shared, and led to some interesting surmise about fishing and gender: men often fish in order to indulge in reverie, that is to say, be alone and do nothing. Is it the same for women? Or does it tend to be a more practical task for women. Today someone sent us a link to Lyla Foggia’s 1997 book Reel Women: the world of women who fish (link here).

On a more general readerly level, while the word ‘patchy’ evoked some head-nodding, we liked the book. A couple of passages were read out to general approval. One of our younger members said the book tapped into a vein of nostalgia. He didn’t get to enlarge on that thought, and I didn’t get to reply, but I think it’s not exactly nostalgia in these essays: the author revisits a place she loved as a child and explores it in a number of ways as an adult, deepening and enriching her understanding of it, and so of herself.

Someone said that they felt that Night Fishing was written by a person, and The Weekend was written by a writer. Obviously Wood and Hastrich are both writers, but there’s something to what he said. Hastrich describes herself as an amateur, which is a different thing from a dabbler or a learner – it points to the elements of vulnerability and lack of subterfuge that make her writing so attractive. The Weekend is Wood’s sixth novel, and even though I was disappointed in it, I didn’t ever want to give up on it.

One last thing: Charlotte Wood has put up on her podcast The Writer’s Room a wonderful interview with Vikki Hastrich that provides fabulous insights into the kind of beast Night Fishing is. Here’s a link.


Night Fishing and The Weekend are the first two books I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter

Nadia Wheatley, Her Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir (Text 2018)

When Raimond Gaita wrote about his parents in Romulus My Father (1998), he brought his finely honed philosophical mind to the task. In Biff Ward’s long experience as a feminist activist permeates her exploration of her parents’ story, In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin 2014). The parts of Rozanna Lilley’s Do Oysters Get Bored? (UWA Publishing 2018) that deal with her famously tell-all parents can focus on her own experience, with their lives pretty much reduced to back story. Lee Whitmore, filmmaker, told the story of her grandmother in a sweeping visual drama, the comic Ada Louise: A life imagined (Susan Lane Studio 2016).

Nadia Wheatley is a historian: her The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (HarperCollins Australia 2002) has been described as ‘one of the greatest Australian biographies’. She is also a children’s writer: her collaboration with Donna Rawlins, My Place (Walker Books 1988) was an instant classic. Her Mother’s Daughter is a work of history, and some of its key moments are told from a child’s point of view.

Neen Wheatley, nee Watkin, died in October 1958, when her only daughter Nadia was nine years old. Nadia had clear memories of her as a loving mother who became unhappy and sick, caught for too long in a painful relationship with her husband John. Though Nadia loved her mother and feared her father, she grew up being told she was like her father, and was told once, when she took a political stand that her mother’s relatives disapproved of, that her mother would have hated her. The book, as its title suggests, is an act of reclaiming her allegiance to her mother, and her deep affinity with her.

It’s a work of history. At any given moment, the reader knows the source of the story that’s being told: Nadia’s own childhood memories of her parents; things that were said about them by their family members and the family Nadia lived with after her mother’s death; interviews with women who were Neen’s friends before she married (‘the Girls’); interviews with Neen’s family, including her much loved youngest brother, whom Nadia didn’t meet until he was 89; interviews with John’s surviving relatives; Neen’s wartime correspondence, and a detailed journal of her time working for the UNRRA after the war; official records of the displaced persons camps in Germany where John and Neen had positions of great responsibility, and where they met and fell in love; Neen’s medical records from her final years.

This historical discipline is at the service of a passionate quest to reclaim her mother from oblivion. When Wheatley discovers that Neen, whom she had been told was bitterly anti-Communist, used to go to shows at the left-wing New Theatre when young, her joy at the discovery is only partly that of a historian finding evidence of a counter-narrative; it’s also the joy of getting her mother back. Likewise, when she finds evidence that her father behaved unethically during his early years as a doctor in England, it comes as confirmation of what she knows of him from the domestic experience.

The book is in four sections with self-explanatory titles.: ‘Neen’, ‘Nina and John’, ‘Nina, John and Nadia’, and ‘Nadia’. Wheatley’s craft as a writer for children shines in the third part and in a brief prologue. In both of these the young Nadia has conversations with both her parents separately, and is used as a pawn in her father’s relentless undermining of her mother. The little girl’s passionate attachment to her mother, her helpless yielding to her father’s manipulations, her bewilderment at her mother’s death are all captured with great poignancy. The father’s repeated question when he is showing her hideous images of human suffering, ‘Do you understand, Nadia?’ is as horrific as any fairytale witch’s incantation.

I found this book deeply affecting. I learned a lot about the role Australians played in post-war Europe. I was reminded how resistant to evidence sexist assumptions can be – in this case in the medical profession. I remembered my own enjoyment of the Tintookies, a puppet show that I saw in North Queensland and Nadia in Sydney. I had my eyes opened to just how inexplicably vile adults can be to small children. I am in awe of the discipline that could wrangle such pain and loss and love into such an effective narrative.

Her Mother’s Daughter is the twenty-sixth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living

Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018)


I’m a member of two book clubs. One of them is all men, and at each meeting we discuss one book that there’s a sporting chance a majority of us will have read. The other is all about swapping books, and there’s a rule (one of many: one club member is a high-flying lawyer) that no book may be discussed for more than 30 seconds. Generally each of us brings three books to the club, and takes a different three home. At our last meeting I borrowed Diane Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! (my blog post here) and The Cost of Living. I loved Alive, Alive Oh!

The Cost of Living is exactly the book that some writers of genre fiction, disgruntled at being dismissed as of a lesser breed, describe as LitFic. It’s a very short, introspective first-person account of the life of a woman writer after the end of her decades-long marriage, rich with threads of metaphor and learned allusions, studded with aphorisms and beautifully described scenes. It has at least two big subjects: the end of a marriage and the death of a mother. I was half way through it when I happened to read on the dustjacket flaps that it is the second instalment of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’, the first volume of which is a ‘memoir on writing, gender politics and philosophy’.

I didn’t hate it. I read all 187 pages. But it’s not my cup of tea. Someone who really loved the book might think that’s because I’m a white, heterosexual man of a certain age, eligible for the nickname ‘the Big Silver’ which the narrator/author bestows on one of the book’s many men who patronise, ignore, disregard or otherwise deny the humanity of women. But I didn’t dislike the gender politics as such. I just kept wondering why I should be interested in this book. I got a lot of clues: the author mentions several other books she has written, and a possible movie deal, and famous people she knows (we are carefully informed, for example, that Celia – no second name – the woman who lends her a garden shed to write in, is the widow of the poet Adrian Mitchell*). And of course, the first part of the memoir – Things I don’t Want to Know – may have set the reader up to be interested.

Look, here’s a short passage. It contains a few darlings that should have been killed, though to be fair there are possibly more per square inch than in most of the book. If you like it you’ll probably find the whole book something you can enjoy and benefit from more than I did. She is writing about the gardener who tends Celia’s garden:

Sometimes he’d pick a small bunch of herbs and winter flowers from the garden and bring them to me in the shed. I could not tell him that it was flowers that triggered some of the most painful flashbacks to my old life. How can a flower inflame a wound? It can and it does if it is a portal to the past. How can a flower reveal information about minor and major characters? It can and it does. How is it that a flower can resemble a criminal. For the writer and criminal Jean Genet, the striped uniform of convicts reminded him of flowers. Both flowers and flags are required to do so much of the talking for us, but I am not really sure I know what it is they are saying.

(page 107)

*She’s Celia Hewitt for whom Adrian Mitchell wrote his wonderful poem ‘Celia Celia’ (you can read it here)

Alice Walker’s Chicken Chronicles

Alice Walker, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the angels who have returned with my memories – Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A memoir (The New Press 2011)

chicken.jpg

The Chicken Chronicles consists of 37 short chapters, originally blog posts, about keeping chickens. Not just keeping them, but spending time observing them, enjoying them, being sat on and pecked and fed by them, communing with them, falling in love with them as individuals and as a species, and following the mind wherever they take it.

One of Alice Walker’s childhood chores was to wring the neck of  a chicken each week for the Sunday dinner. Chickens, or more specifically roosters, featured in her 1992 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy – as a nightmarish presence to do with the genital mutilation of little girls. It’s tempting to read The Chicken Chronicles as Walker’s joy-filled atonement for those sins and slanders of the past.

The first chapter describes an encounter with a mother hen who was ‘industrious and quick, focused and determined’. The memory of that encounter kept resurfacing, and Walker writes:

I realised I was concerned about chickens, as a Nation, and that I missed them. (Some of you will want to read no further.)

I took this as a warning and a challenge to anyone who finds that capitalised ‘Nation’ ridiculous or even offensive: if you read on, be prepared for some tendentious animal-liberation rhetoric, perhaps. I did read on, and I was glad to have been forewarned, especially when there is a change of register after half a dozen chapters, and from then on Walker addresses the chickens directly and refers to herself as Mommy (and the person who until then  had been her partner as Daddee), telling them about her travels and her admiration for figures such as Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh, or delivering little sermons to them and the eavesdropping reader. Like this:

Mommy’s mind is dizzy and her heart sore from all the troubles in the human realm. She sees pictures of other birds, no less wondrous than you, covered with oil and dying of suffocation and despair. How can they fathom what is happening to them? How can they understand they are not to blame? What have they done but be themselves, flying about eating insects and grubs, while appearing marvellous to the human spirit, even whole doing so? She learns soldiers from her country have shot and killed two pregnant women in Afghanistan, one of them Mommy of ten. What is an Afghanistan? You will wonder. Is it edible? Mommy has never been there but she used to wear beautiful long dresses made of velvet and embroidered in many colours, which came from Afghanistan.

There’s something real happening here: in addressing the chickens, the mind can go to some basic questions. But any grumpy and humourless children of the Enlightenment should probably stay away from this book. I’m grumpy but not completely humourless, and had to work hard to appreciate passages like that one,  and I found a lot to enjoy elsewhere.

The chapter that picks up the notion of ‘sitting with the angels’ from the book’s title is an example. (I’ve just discovered that a version of this chapter is online in Alice Walker’s facebook timeline – you could do worse than read the whole piece.) As she spends time with the chickens, sitting in her ‘meditation chair’ in their enclosure, Walker finds that memories of her childhood come back to her:

For, spending time with you, not only did Mommy recall and visualise her own mother’s thumb with its deep, beloved scar, and from the thumb begin to see her mother’s face and actions, but she also began to see, in stark detail, the house near Ward’s chapel: the final and most wretched of all the grey shacks; the house that her mother attempted to hide, as she camouflaged all the others, behind a vibrant wall of flowers. And inside the house that shook when anyone walked from room to room, there was Mommy’s room papered with real wallpaper, though too thin and delicate to actually touch! While in her parents’ room her mother had done the Mommy thing that was so typical of her: she had papered her own bedroom with flattened cardboard boxes and brown butcher’s paper.

As she describes the way the chickens gave her back these memories, she also gives memories back to the reader – at least to this one. We had chooks in my childhood home, though I didn’t have to wring any necks and our chicken meals were a lot less frequent than the Walker family’s. This book is full of wonderful descriptions of chickens – their behaviour around roosting, their alarm at predators (river rats and hawks in my case, North American beasties in Walker’s), their joy at being fed and called to by humans’ crude impersonation of their cries. These felt like a generous gift of memory. Walker brings to her chickens with the kind of attention I remember from my childhood, and her descriptions of them capture beautifully the joy of being close up to other species.

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored?

Rozanna Lilley, Do Oysters Get Bored? A Curious Life (UWA Publishing 2018)

oysters.jpgDo Oysters Get Bored? is in two parts, a series of essay-memoirs followed by a selection of poems, both dealing with the same two main themes, the author’s life as a girl and young woman as the daughter of Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley, and her life now as the mother of Oscar, who is high functioning autistic. It’s a bit like a big haibun – the Japanese poetic form that’s made up of a piece of prose and haiku, usually a single haiku coming after the prose as a kind of distillation of its meaning or a related epiphany.

When I read one of the essays, ‘The Little Prince, and other vehicles’, in a 2014 Southerly, I wrote this:

[Rozanna Lilley’s essay] would be wonderful reading whatever her parentage: it’s very funny on the subject of inter-generational bad driving and builds to bitter-sweet reflections on her relationship with her father. But as Lilley’s parents were Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley … it makes a substantial addition to the lore about that magnificent couple. For example, the passing mention that Rozanna had hidden her father’s rifle away from him in his erratic old age is particularly chilling in the light of Merv’s book, Gatton Man, which argues plausibly that Merv’s father was a serial killer, and convincingly that he was capable of murder.

In the context of the whole book, ‘magnificent’ is quite wrong. The essay is still funny and bitter-sweet, but it’s also chilling. The dark side of Merv’s erratic behaviour, and of Dorothy’s sexual libertarianism are brought to the fore when seen through the lens of their impact on their daughter. Two chapters, ‘Fear of Flying’ and ‘A Bitter Pill’, tell of young Rose’s early exposure to sexually explicit conversation, her participation in the ‘mildly pornographic’ movie Journey Among Women, and her experience of sexual abuse. These are the chapters that have received a lot of attention in the press, especially from right-wing culture warriors (Jeff Sparrow’s excellent commentary here), and I think they bear significant witness to aspects of our cultural life. The book names no perpetrators (though Lilley has named names in press interviews), gives no salacious details, indulges no ‘Mommy Dearest’ self-pity or outrage, but it pulls no punches. Her mother, she says, did not intentionally hurt her by – at best – turning a blind eye to sexual assault, but in effect she was ‘propping up a predatory patriarchal sexual economy’, a judgment that would certainly have shocked Dorothy to her core, but which, I hope, she would find impossible to reject if she were alive to read it.

The other main subject of the essays is Lilley’s experience as the mother of Oscar, who was diagnosed with autistic disorder at age three. There are no high profile cultural figures here, but a loving, joy filled, often hilarious portrayal of a young boy that shatters negative stereotypes of autism on every page. Lilley is described on the back cover as an ‘autism researcher’ and mentions occasionally that she works in universities: she wears her academic garb very lightly here.

One of the most appealing qualities of these parts of the book is the way they highlight people who behave well around Oscar, while making it very clear that his behaviour can be testing. There’s a wonderful account of the family of three attending an anxiety clinic – at the end of which one of the clinicians confides in Rozanna that they all think Oscar is hilarious (as do we readers). And there’s a searing account of a prolonged hospital experience. But my favourite episode is Oscar’s tenth birthday party, where his autism is clearly not a social disadvantage:

The afternoon passes in a blur of play and pizza and ice-cream brain freezes. Oscar sometimes turns the TV on, momentarily disengaging from the festivities. His friends simply join him on the sofa, chuckling away at the same Tom and Jerry gags we used to laugh about at primary school. As I’m baking the chocolate cake, kids take it in turns to come out to the kitchen and tell me their favourite story about what Oscar said or did at school. It seems that his oddities and social incomprehension have landed him a starring role. ‘Last year Miss Malady said, “If you’ve finished, just read a book and don’t call out.” Then Oscar put up his hand, and called out, “Finished.”‘ Or ‘We were looking at machines on the computer. And Oscar yelled out, “Boring!”‘ The stories pour out, each one punctuated by laughter and followed by headshaking at his wondrous behaviour. Indeed, these small acts of classroom indiscretion appear to have made my son a local hero.

As the party continues, Oscar’s non-neurotypicality meets with a lot of delighted squealing. It’s Rozanna’s parental attempt to join in the merriment that produces the only awkward silence.

The book touches my own life in two ways. First, in my mid 20s I worked for Currency Press in an office just down Jersey Road from the Hewett–Lilley household, and met them regularly, though I knew very little of their domestic or social lives. I was in awe of Dorothy, mildly terrified of Merv, and intimidated by the poise and sophistication of Kate and Rosie.

Second, a young friend of mine, whom I’ve known all his life, is on the autism spectrum. I know at least a little of the difficulties that he and his mother have had in navigating the sometimes hostile neurotypical society.

These real-life connections give me some inkling of the extraordinary courage and intelligence that has gone into the writing of this book, both the remembered daughter story, and the current mother story – the courage, intelligence, and pervasive good humour. I haven’t said anything about the poems. Let me end with the final lines of ‘Dream Mother’, in which the poet’s mother comes to her each night in dreams:

It turns out none of it was true__she was
never heartsick__crippled__cancered__she never betrayed her daughters__and

when I finally tell the despairing-all___she is my comfort

Do Oysters Get Bored? is the thirteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty

Ann Patchett, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2004)

truth.jpgI probably wouldn’t have read this if not for the exigencies of travel. Because we both find reading books on screen unsatisfying (though the Emerging Artist can read what she calls junk), we’ve done the old fashioned thing on this trip – taken books we both wanted to read. When the EA was browsing in in a fabulous London bookshop and spotted two Ann Patchett books she hadn’t been able to find at home, they were more or less automatically added to me To Be Read list. This is the first.

It’s a memoir about Patchett’s friendship with writer Lucy Grealy. Lucy had a rare form of cancer when she was very young, and had her jaw surgically removed. A good bit of her life from then on was dominated by seemingly endless rounds of reconstructive surgery, most of it experimental and none of it completely successful. Apart from anything else, Truth and Beauty is a persuasive recommendation of Lucy’s 1994 memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which is definitely now high on my To Be Read list. Truth and Beauty is in fact much more than that: it’s the story of an intimate friendship between women; of a relationship between writers (Ann and Lucy met at the Iowa Writers’ workshop, and their careers – as a poet and a fiction writer respectively – progressed in close parallel); of a brilliant woman living with tremendous gusto, and at the same time battling the sense of unlovability and ugliness internalised from the social response to her appearance; of women friends rallying around someone crisis; and a lot more. It’s rich, passionate, intimate – especially so through the inclusion of a number of Lucy’s letters to Ann, which enable us to hear her own unmediated voice.

Lucy’s sister Suellen Grealy wrote an article for the Guardian excoriating the book soon after it was published – in 2004, two years after Lucy’s death from an accidental heroin overdose. At this distance, it’s clear that the real subject of the article is the way the family’s grief is complicated and in some ways intensified by their sister’s public profile – in a painful echo of the way Lucy herself had to deal all her life with people who felt they knew her, first because of her appearance and later for her creative achievements.

Especially in the book’s last quarter, as Lucy’s life is clearly heading for tragedy, I was reminded of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, not in any of its particulars, but in the way both books capture something about women caring for each other in crisis.

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Hate Race

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race (Hachette Australia 2016)

haterace.jpgI finished reading The Hate Race on the eve of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrated in Australia as Harmony Day, and this year the day on which the Turnbull government put forward legislation intended to make it legal to insult, offend or humiliate someone on the basis of their race.

As a result, soon after finishing the book I read Adam Liaw’s Twitter thread being ‘a bit frank about race’ (well worth reading), and some of the painful contributions to the thread #FreedomofSpeech initiated by Benjamin Law. These read almost as continuations of the book, placing it as part of a vast, continuing, necessary conversation. The connection became explicit when Benjamin Law tweeted a recommendation to ‘read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir of growing up black in Australia. Utter punch in the guts’. And it’s true that Clarke’s book gives devastating heft to the abstractions ‘insult’, ‘offend’ and ‘humiliate’.

But it would be a mistake to think of The Hate Race as an extended tweet about racism, whether micro-agressive, casual, everyday, or viciously intentional. It’s a beautifully written memoir about growing up as an Caribbean–African-heritage girl in suburban Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Its focus on racism gives it power and coherence, but doesn’t stop it from being very funny in places and heartbreaking in others, from having a satisfying (and surprising) overall narrative arc, and any number of story-telling pleasures along the way. The narrator tells us again and again that she is making a story out of her experience. ‘This is how it happened,’ goes her refrain, ‘or what’s a story for.’

There’s a wonderful tale involving Cabbage Patch Kids, and Maxine’s time on the debating team in high school is a source of complex humour. There are stories of teenage love, of intellectual adventure, of defiance, smart-arsery and righteousness. I expect that anyone who has been to school in Australia will recognise the truth of the playground politics.

There’s one passage I’m tempted to quote as most vividly transcending the extended-tweet form and exemplifying the book’s complex honesty – for those who’ve read it, I’m thinking of the ‘incident with Baghita Singh’ from Chapter 19. But I’ll avoid spoilers. Here’s a taste, from Chapter 7, of the world as seen by little Maxine, one of many such tiny gems:

I have only one memory of entering a church with my mother. In it, I am about four years old. We are walking, my mother and I, along Wrights road on the way home from preschool, when the heavens unexpectedly open. Sheets of freezing rain pour down on us. Umbrella-less, we huddle under the small awning of the nearby white-painted timber Anglican church. But the rain seems to be chasing us, curving in under the church awning in piercing darts, as if directing us into the arms of the Lord.
—–When my mother eases open the heavy wooden church door, rows of polished pews with plush red cushioning reveal themselves. Light streams through the pretty stained-glass windows.
—–‘What is this place?’ I am breathless with awe. ‘It looks like the inside of a Pizza Hut restaurant.’

At about the halfway point, I was filled with vicarious terror for the people whose names are named: Carlita Allen, Maxine’s vicious nemesis from the first day of preschool; Mrs Kingsley, the preschool teacher who smilingly refused to believe that a little black girl’s father could be a mathematician; Mrs Hird, who turned a deaf ear to racist taunts and objected furiously to the use of the word racism;  the vile bullies Derek Healey and Greg Adams; all the abusive children and adolescents, the obtuse or collusive teachers. It was a relief to read in the acknowledgements that all names apart from the author’s have been changed. But I do hope that Carlita and Greg and Derek and the rest read the book and are inspired to do some hard thinking. As a white man, I’ve been pushed to face at least bystander behaviour on my part. Perhaps even John Howard and Pauline Hanson, offstage characters whose names are not changed, might have their worlds expanded if they open these pages.

aww2017.jpgThe Hate Race is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Gary Ramage’s The Shot

Gary Ramage with Mark Abernethy,  The Shot (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

y648.pngGary Ramage, currently News Corp’s chief photographer at Parliament House in Canberra, won the Nikon Walkley Photo of the Year last year. Once a soldier himself, he has photographed soldiers in action in Somalia, Bougainville, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. In between stints in conflict zones, he has shot politicians in Canberra, visited Buckingham Palace and  done the paparazzi thing for Murdoch. This book is his story.

Let me state my prejudices here: I know that to earn a living in a capitalist economy almost inevitably   involves supping with the devil, but working for News Corp is supping with a short spoon; I’m suspicious of the practice of embedding journalists with troops in conflict zones, because it seems likely to lead to reports that uncritically support the war effort; I loathe even the idea of paparazzi, particularly since the death of Diana Spencer. So this book is way out of my comfort zone.

And it’s fabulous.

It’s a funny, dramatic and at times powerfully poignant account of a man discovering his calling and learning his craft, meeting challenges with ingenuity, courage, compassion and a touch of swagger. Ramage’s commitment to documenting the experiences of soldiers in conflict zones transformed my understanding of ’embedding’: this isn’t about backing the war effort, but about making sure that the men who are sent to kill or be killed aren’t consigned to oblivion. And as for the paparazzi action: I confess I shared his glee when he managed with great cunning to invade the privacy of some royals, and I was barracking for him in a long sequence towards the end of the book when he endures great personal discomfort and inveigles News Corp into spending vast amounts of money on semi-legendary equipment in order to get a single blurry forbidden shot that serves no purpose beyond tabloid titillation.

I’ve been photographed for the newspapers a couple of times myself – when my high school results were deemed newsworthy by the Catholic Weekly, when my younger son and I provided cute visuals for a report on a childcare demo, and recently for an article reporting, not 100 percent accurately, that I’m on a solar powered gravy train that will soon grind to a halt. Each time has involved an awful lot of fiddling with light and positioning, checking and re-checking. Ramage’s art of (mostly) getting himself in place, equipped and ready to catch the shot, is a matter for awe.

And the photos scattered through the text and especially those on the sixteen-page centre section are brilliant.

Colleen Z Burke’s Waves Turn

Colleen Z Burke, The Waves Turn: A memoir (Feakle Press 2016; for availability see here)

waves turn.JPG

Colleen Z Burke is a Sydney poet whose work, as David Brooks says in his introduction to her Home Brewed and Lethal (1997), ‘has not received the attention and awards it’s deserved’. She is a poet of place, particularly inner-city Sydney and the Blue Mountains; a poet of domestic life, feminist and fiercely maternal; a historical poet, exploring the stories of working class Australians  and her Irish heritage. I’ve blogged about a couple of her books (here and here) and our paths have crossed in a number of contexts. The word that comes to mind is ‘staunch’. The Waves Turn tells the story of her first three decades.

Colleen was born in the early 1940s into a tight working-class Irish Catholic community in Bondi, not a hundred miles or many years from the world of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South. She was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, whose treatment of their young charges in Colleen’s day would not have helped the cause of their founder Mary MacKillop’s canonisation half a century later. Leaving school at 15 to help with the family finances, she landed a public service job, but was already snatching moments to write poems and read widely. With a friend she dared to venture into Sydney’s bohemian milieu, but remained enough her mother’s daughter not to plunge into their pre-feminist sex and drugs lifestyle. From there it was small dramatic step into the thriving folk music scene, where she was courted by singer Declan Affley, whom she eventually married, and began to discover her deep connections to Ireland.

Declan’s personality dominates the second two thirds of the memoir, as they negotiate their relationship, travel together to North Queensland, to Melbourne and to Ireland and England, struggling to earn enough money to live on (mostly it’s Colleen who earns while Declan’s work as a musician is paid pathetically), joining causes, and making music. In an extraordinary range of contexts, almost in the shadows, Colleen finds a place for her typewriter and works away at her poetry. This was before the days of creative writing courses, and it was a lonely enterprise, requiring a heroic determination to hold to her own course against all expectations – from bohemians and folkies as much as from Catholics – that she would make a man the centre of her life.

In 1975, which is as far as the book takes us, Colleen was in her early 30s. She had finally gained a university degree, the first in her family to do so. Her mother had died, her first book, Go Down Singing, had been published in the feminist Khasmik Poets Series, and half a dozen of her poems were included in Kate Jennings’s landmark anthology of Australian women poets, Mother I’m Rooted. We know from occasional mentions that she will have children, and from her poetry that Declan will die young and unexpectedly, that there will be more hardship, so it feels as if the book just stops rather than coming to an end point. The final sentence reads:

And as waves turn I’m unsure what the future holds but look forward with anticipation.

Where some memoirs read like novels that claim to be factual, The Waves Turn is more like a careful accumulation of facts in which a story can be discerned. The image of an archaeological dig comes to mind: Colleen Z Burke has delved patiently into the layers of memory, brushed the dirt from the innumerable artefacts she found there, labelled them and arranged them chronologically. Sometimes, in talking about the folk scene for example, memory has almost certainly been helped by festival programs or similar documentation.

There were places where I found the accumulation of detail fascinating, such as the points of similarity between Colleen’s childhood and my North Queensland Catholic childhood half a decade later: the same bottles of milk curdling in the sun at school (why?), the same ‘worms’ made by Vegemite in biscuits with holes (which I read just the other day will soon cease to exist), the same songs of Irish nostalgia. In my 20s, I followed in some of Colleen’s paths: to the edges of the Push and the folk music scene, to protest against the US and Australian war in Vietnam, to the ferment of women’s liberation, to the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University (though in that case I was there half a decade before her) … the list goes on. There’s pleasure in recognising the names of people, streets and buildings, in being reminded of forgotten rituals (Oh, that’s right, on Friday nights people would ask, ‘Where’s the party?’). I don’t know how it would be for someone who hadn’t been there. They might do a lot of head-scratching (as with the passing reference to some Catholics not buying Sanitarium breakfast cereals) and skipping (as with the list of performers at numerous folk-music events).

An edition of the book that included footnotes on all the musicians and big personalities mentioned would be spectacular. I recognised only a handful, but if the ones I didn’t recognise were as interesting as that handful, each list of names in this book is a flag pointing to a trove of stories.

We do get the stories of Colleen and Declan, or rather many of their stories.

For example, Declan Affley is perhaps the only good thing in Tony Richardson’s 1970 movie Ned Kelly. (In a nostalgic moment, I recently downloaded ‘The Wild Colonial Boy‘ from the soundtrack – Mick Jagger reduces it to passionless rinkydink, but Affley’s tin whistle fights to give the song heart, and wins.) The book takes us behind the scenes, not to juicy celebrity gossip, but to how the film gave economic relief to Affley and Colleen, and how, having the rarity of a decent amount of money, they splurged on luxuries.

More than fifty poems are scattered through the book, many of them dealing with events or places that have just been described in prose. So, not just in general but very specifically, the memoir gives a valuable insight into the relationship of the poetry to the life, into things that can only be said in poetry. For example, towards the end of the book, Colleen is employed on a survey to assess the health and welfare needs of people in the suburb of Glebe. In prose:

The health/welfare survey had its limitations, all surveys do, but talking to people in the open-ended section, I gleaned interesting information about their lives. The diverse community included students, transients, pensioners, professionals and more affluent residents in wealthier parts of Glebe Point. We interviewed people from the Glebe Estate in houses owned by the Catholic Church. The Glebe Estate wasn’t bought by the Federal Labor government’s Department of Urban and Regional Affairs, under the radical leadership of Tom Uren, until late 1974.

And so on. In typing that out, I’m reminded of something that nagged at me, though it might be of no significance to most readers. Feakle Press clearly operates on a shoestring, with little money for professional copy-editing, and my blue-pencil finger twitches to fact-check and clarify. In this paragraph, for example: the Glebe Estate was owned by the Anglicans, not the Catholics; will readers from elsewhere understand the reference to Glebe Point (perhaps ‘more affluent residents who lived close to the water at Glebe Point’ would cover it)? is the government purchase relevant, or a distracting complication? But these editorial questions are beside the point here. Colleen then gives us her poem, ‘The questionnaire’, which I hope she won’t mind me reproducing in full:

The questionnaire

walking through Glebe
these summery days
of nearly autumn
of nearly autumnI move
through street shadows
of paperthin _ March trees
________to arrive
_____________ anywhere.
Knock on doors
___________opened
by young people
____________eager
as spring to answer
____________ _anything.
But older rustier men
__mostly nod their heads
like old clocks
__listening somewhere else
and pensioners
___________warm as sunlight
___________caught in old brick walls
look at my papers
____________ my well-chosen words
then shut their doors kindly.
And clutching empty questions
I run home
through thin pools
of March trees
__________ singing

And we’re there.

AWW2016The Waves Turn is the sixth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.