Phillip Stamatellis, Growing up café: a short memoir (Review)

StamatellisGrowingFinlayLloydPhillip Stamatellis’ Growing up café is the third book I’ve read in publisher Finlay Lloyd’s fl smalls collection. Unlike the previous two, by established creators Paul McDermott and Carmel Bird, it is a debut work by an unknown writer. According to the author bio provided at the beginning of the book, Stamatellis is studying writing at the University of Canberra. What an achievement to have this work published, while still studying.

Growing up cafe is an enjoyable read. It tells the story of his growing up in his family’s cafe, the Radnor, in Goulburn, which is just 100km from Canberra. I used to visit cafes there regularly on trips to Sydney, that is, until it was bypassed by the highway. Now, if we go off the highway for a cuppa – and we do – it is not usually to the centre of Goulburn, but that’s another story. Back to the book …

Stamatellis has structured his short memoir cleverly. It is not told chronologically, and nor is it told in one voice. The story of his boyhood is told third person (“the boy”) via anecdotes that shift backwards and forwards across the years between 1965 and 1982. Reflections from adulthood are told first person, from the present, that is from 2014 and 2015. Whilst on the face of it the anecdotes from the past look rather higgledy-piggledy, careful reading shows that there is always a connection. There is method in the madness, in other words – and anyhow, as his friend says to him when he worries about his book making sense, “it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s not like life does.” Fair enough.

Things I enjoyed about the book include the nostalgia factor (the memories of Greek and Italian cafes or milk bars that I grew up with, though not “in” like Stamatellis) and the social history (the documenting of such cafes and the lives that surrounded them). Stamatellis captures all this nicely, from a young insider’s perspective. Phillip is, as far as this memoir tells us, the youngest of three boys born to Greek parents. The boys all grew up “in” the cafe, and they all worked in it from the moment they could. “I’ve lost count of the number of tables I’ve cleaned”, he writes, “I could do a three-plate carry by the time I was eight.”

The book opens at “Lunchtime, Summer, 1977”. The opening sentence – “The midday sun was stark in the street, and the small chirruping of cicadas almost drowned the rumbling of a passing Holden GT” – captures Australian country towns in summer perfectly, noisy cicadas and noisy Holden cars. It also reminded me of a song written in 1975 about another regional Australian city, Newcastle. The song, by Bob Hudson, includes the lines:

All the young men of Newcastle
drive down Hunter Street
in their hot FJ Holdens
with chrome plated grease nipples
and double reverse
overhead twin cam door handles,
sitting eight abreast in the front seat,
and they lean out of the window
and say real cool things to the sheilas
on the footpath, like ‘Aah g’day’.

Stamatellis, in his opening paragraph, describes teenagers in the cafe: “Cigarettes hung from their lips, the girls with their arms around their boyfriends’ waists.” It’s all so 1970s Australian – as is, unfortunately, the racism. “Thanks wog“, says a customer. A little further on is an anecdote in which “the boy’s” mother confronts racist graffiti on the cafe’s toilets, and then treats an indigenous person generously. All she says is to her son is:

‘Life is hard for some people but the sun shines for everyone, not just the wealthy’.

It’s not all serious though. There are funny, family anecdotes here too – brothers getting up to mischief, for example. There are stories about local characters, such as fun parlour owner Uncle Con, jeweller Ange Zantis, and the priest Father Sinesios, not to mention the challenge of serving the annual influx of an often unruly snow crowd. (If you are from this region you’ll know all about the trek to the snow through Goulburn, Canberra and Queanbeyan each winter). And there are the reflections from the present. These modern chapters round it out nicely. Through them we learn a little about where “the boy” is now, but overall I most enjoyed the chapters focusing on the past. They provide insight into a life now gone, and yet the lessons – such as tolerance, hard work, family cooperation – are timeless.

In the last chapter – set in 2015 – Stamatellis reflects on nostalgia:

I suppose at this very moment I’m feeling nostalgic and it seems that nostalgia makes a point of highlighting the good stuff and even finds positives among sadness – but my nostalgia is burdened by an unseen weight, a sense of entrapment …

Stamatellis doesn’t expand upon this, but I wonder if this little “small” is the beginning of something larger. It’s certainly a time and place that could do with some further scrutiny because we haven’t yet, I think, properly documented the experiences (and contributions) of that wave of southern European immigration.

(Note: I did find several typos, which is rare in my experience from Finlay Lloyd.)

Phillip Stamatellis
Growing up café
(fl smalls 8)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
ISBN: 9780987592972

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Carmel Bird, Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir (Review)

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

As I started reading this next fl smalls offering, an essay this time, I was reminded of one of my favourite Australian writers, Elizabeth von Arnim. Von Arnim was a novelist, but she also wrote several pieces of non-fiction, including her delightful non-autobiography, All the dogs of my life. The similarity stems from the fact that both writers play games with the reader regarding their intentions or subject matter – “This not being autobiography, I needn’t go much into what happened next”, writes von Arnim at various points – but this similarity fades pretty quickly because Bird’s piece, despite its similarly light, disarmingly conversational tone, has a dark underbelly.

I thought, given its subtitle, that Fair game was going to be a memoir of Bird’s growing up in Tasmania. But I had jumped too quickly to conclusions. The subtitle “a Tasmanian memoir” means exactly what it says, that is, it’s a memoir of Tasmania. Her interest is Tasmania’s dark history – “the lives of convict slaves, and the genocide of the indigenous peoples”. The title Fair game, you are probably beginning to realise, has a deeply ironic meaning.

However, getting back to my introduction, Bird does start by leading us on a merry little dance. Her essay commences slyly with a discussion of epigraphs – hers being taken from one of her own books – and the cover illustration. She doesn’t, though, identify the illustration at this point, but simply describes it as “an image of a flock of Georgian women dressed as butterflies, sailing in a glittering cloud high above the ocean”. She then takes us on all sorts of little digressions – about birds, and gardens, and collectors, about her childhood and such – but she constantly pulls up short, returning us to “the story”, or “rural Tasmania”, suggesting that the digressions are “not relevant to this story”. Except they are of course, albeit sometimes tangential, or just subtle, rather than head on. Indeed, she even admits at one stage that:

I have wandered, roving perhaps with the wind, off course from my contemplation of the butterfly women of 1832, they roving also with the wind. It must be clear by now that frequently in this narrative I will waver, will veer off course, but I know also that I do this in the service of the narrative itself. Just a warning.

I love reading this sort of writing – it’s a challenge, a puzzle. Can I follow the author’s mind? One of the easier digressions to follow – and hence a good example to share – is her discussion of a 1943 book published by the Tasmanian government, Insect pests and their control. Need I say more? Bird does, though – quite a bit in fact – and it makes for good reading.

Anyhow, back to the image. A few pages into her essay she tells us more. It’s an 1832 lithograph by Alfred Ducôte, and it is rather strangely titled “E-migration, or a flight of fair game”. On the surface it looks like a pretty picture of women, anthropomorphised as butterflies, flying through the air with colourful wings, pretty dresses and coronets. However, if you look closely, you will see that what they are flying from are women with brooms crying “Varmint”, and what they are flying to are men, one with a butterfly net, calling out “I spies mine”.  Hmm … I did say this was a dark tale, didn’t I? The illustration’s subject, as Bird gradually tells us, is that in 1832, 200 young women were sent from England to Van Diemen’s Land on the Princess Royal. They were the first large group of non-convict women to make the journey, and their role was to become wives and servants in a society where men significantly outnumbered women. As Bird says partway thought the book, “it is not a joyful picture; it is a depiction of a chapter in a tragedy”.

I’d love to know more about Ducôte, and why he produced this work, but this is not Bird’s story. Her focus is the history of Tasmania, and these particular women – who are they, what were they were going to? It appears that Bird has been interested in this story for a long time, since at least 1996 when Lucy Halligan, daughter of Canberra writer Marion Halligan, sent her a postcard with the image. Since then Bird has researched and written about the story. In fact, as she tells us, her research led to the creation of a ballet by TasDance in 2006. They called it Fair Game.

Finally, she gets to the nuts and bolts, and the so-called digressions reduce as she ramps up the story of how these women were chosen, their treatment on the ship, and what happened on their arrival. It is not a pretty story, but represents an important chapter in Australia’s settlement history. I commend it to you – for the story and for the clever, cheeky writing.

awwchallenge2015Carmel Bird
Fair game: A Tasmanian memoir
(fl smalls 7)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
ISBN: 9780987592965

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Paul McDermott, Fragments of the hole (Review)

"Paul McDermott DAAS" by Canley - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
“Paul McDermott DAAS” by Canley. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re an Australian, you are sure to know who Paul McDermott is. If you are not Australian, you may not, and this book in fact would not enlighten you, because nowhere on the book is it made clear that “this” Paul McDermott is indeed “that” Paul McDermott. It doesn’t take much reading though to realise that indeed it must be. Have I intrigued you? I hope so.

Fragments of the hole is the first of the second set of fl smalls released by small independent publisher Finlay Lloyd. I mentioned them in my recent post on small books, and said then that I’d review them individually as I read them, so here I am.

I’ll start, having already mentioned him, by telling you about the author. Wikipedia describes him as “an Australian comedian, actor, writer, director, singer, artist and television host”. I knew about most of those, but I didn’t realise that his writing included more than writing scripts for his shows, or that he was an artist too. He first came to public notice as a member of the satirical musical comedy group the Doug Anthony All Stars. The Doug Anthony in their name refers to the longtime leader (1971-1984) of the National Party of Australia, which will, perhaps, give you a sense of his political leanings. However, Fragments of the hole is not political satire, so let’s get onto it …


The jokes start pretty much on the title page when we are told that the book comprises:

a collection of previously unpublished work from various writer/artists:

Young Master Paul, The Nymbus Art Collective, The Marvellous Mr Me, The Generator, Paul McDermott, Ol’ Miss Daisy & The Caravan King.

Hmm … the way I read it they were all written and illustrated by Paul McDermott but, you know, I could be wrong! Whoever wrote them, though, they are delightful – dark, whimsical, and a little cryptic. The collection comprises one prose story, followed by five in verse form, and most read a little like fairy stories or fables. There’s usually a little point to ponder at the end, even if that point raises another question.

Take, for example, the first poem, “The Bread Girl and the Sparrow”. It is reminiscent of “The Gingerbread Man” which, Wikipedia tells me, is just one of many folktales about “runaway food”. Who’d have thought?  Anyhow, in McDermott’s story, in addition to the issue of trust, there are layers of sacrifice and loyalty between food and predator which adds quite an interesting philosophical twist.

There’s a Roald Dahl-esque edge to the stories. The humour is dark. These are not for (most) children. “Asleep/Awake”, for example, is about the sleeping (real) self meeting the dream self. The exhortation at the end, if you are suggestible, could very well bring on a nasty case of insomnia. You have been warned. I loved too “The man who thought (he was a fog)”, and McDermott’s suggestion that perhaps the initial assumption was not the right one at all. “You look for answers where you may/You find them when you can” he says, but, are you asking the right question?

If any single idea underlies the stories it is something about “self” – what is your “self”, do you protect it, how does it interact with others? Sacrifice – sometimes chosen, sometimes inadvertent – appears in a couple of the stories; the idea of alternative selves appears in others. There is also a sense of life not going to plan. It may not always be –

That evil and sorrow await the naive
At every twist and turn

– but it doesn’t hurt to always have your wits about you.

The poems are told in a fairly simple a-b-c-b rhyming pattern, but the line lengths vary at times to change the pace. McDermott, a comedian who lives by his words, is sure in his language, which is clear and unforced. The pencil drawings are delightful. You can feel the twinkle in his eye – the fun he is having – as you read the stories and look at the pictures. They made me chuckle.

And here I will end because this is a book that is best experienced rather than described or analysed. It’s a cheekily clever but also delightfully charming “little book”. It would, dare I say it, make a perfect stocking stuffer for the discerning reader on your gift list.

Paul McDermott
Fragments of the hole: an illustrated collection (or, Odds and ends, bibs and bobs, and little bits of nothing)
(fl smalls 6)
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2015
ISBN: 9780987592958

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)