Monday musings on Australian literature: Frank Moorhouse (1938-2022)

Frank Moorhouse was one of the grand old men of Australian literature, so when I learned that he’d died yesterday, I knew I had to change my plan for this week’s Monday Musings to feature him. Wikipedia’s introduction to him gives you a sense why I’ve described him as I have: “He won major Australian national prizes for the short story, the novel, the essay, and for script writing. His work has been published in the United Kingdom, France, and the United States and also translated into German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Serbian, and Swedish”. Today, he is best known for his Edith trilogy – Grand days, Dark palace and Cold light – the middle of which earned him a Miles Franklin award, but his legacy extends deeper than that.

A major legacy

I first became aware of Moorhouse back in 1975 when I was beginning my librarianship career. It was due to a court case known as University of New South Wales v Moorhouse which concerned the use of photocopying machines to photocopy “infringing portions” of a work in copyright. Wikijuris summarises it nicely if you are interested. The High Court unanimously found that, although the copying was done by a student, the Unviersity was liable for “authorising” infringement. It was a groundbreaking case whose legacy continues today.

The Copyright Agency also tells the story. They explain that Moorhouse was determined to achieve “respect and financial recognition for Australian creators”. He gave permission for his book, The Americans’ Baby, “to be used in a copyright test case” which, the Agency says, has ensured that, today, nearly 50 years later, “creators are fairly remunerated for their work in a digital environment that provides millions of students with access to high quality educational material”. Moreover, the case also resulted in a recognition that “an agency would be needed to collect the royalties generated by the copying of materials to distribute payments to creators”. That agency was the Copyright Agency, which was established in May 1974 for this purpose.

You can imagine that this was exciting stuff for a new, philosophically engaged librarian – we wanted to support creators but we also believed in the importance of libraries being able to provide access to the material students needed. Good copyright law should achieve both and here a fair (acceptable) balance has probably been struck – though I’m sure both sides will have arguments for more.

But of course …

For most readers, Moorhouse’s legacy is in his writing. He was born in Nowra, New South Wales, a beautiful spot less than three hours’ drive from where I live. On leaving school, he began work in 1955 with newspapers, first as a copy boy, and then as reporter and editor. His first short story, “The young girl and the American sailor”, was published in Southerly magazine when he was 18 years old, and he went on to be published in some of Australia’s best literary magazines after that.

In the 1970s he became a full-time fiction writer but he also wrote essays, short stories, journalism and film, radio and TV scripts. He was also, with Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, part of the “Sydney Push” (about which I wrote in my review of Richard Appleton’s memoir, Appo.) It was a bohemian, libertarian movement with a strong anti-right wing underpinning. He has led or been heavily involved in many of Australia’s significant writerly organisations, including the Australian Copyright Agency, the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Journalists’ Association. In 1985, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to Australian literature.

Writing about his death in The Guardian, Sian Cain says this about his work:

Moorhouse wrote prolifically and with irreverence and humour of his passions – food, drink, travel, sex and gender. Early in his fiction, and later in his 2005 memoir, Martini, he wrote frankly about his own bisexuality and androgyny. In his writing, he said, he wanted to explore “the idea of intimacy without family – now that procreation is not the only thing that gives sex meaning”.

Tim Barlass wrote something similar in The Sydney Morning Herald:

Moorhouse lived and wrote about the good life – in both senses of the phrase, sometimes paradoxically. With a passion for fine food, cocktails and justice, he fearlessly wrote about the things essential to him.

Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light

If didn’t know all that about Frank Moorhouse, I have only to think back to Edith (particularly to Cold Light which I read after I started blogging) to see how it could be true! Edith, Ambrose and their friends knew how to work and play hard. My review of the novel was a little measured, but it is also one of those books that has remained with me. You never know, when you finish a novel, which ones will hang around in the mind for the long run.

I understand that a biography by Catharine Lumby is coming very soon. Barlass quotes her response to his death:

 “Frank Moorhouse was a literary legend. It was an incredible privilege to have a friendship with him and be his biographer. As always, Frank had to have the last word. I started writing the conclusion to his biography this morning and learnt that he had died.”

I can’t think of a better place to end, except to add that I look forward to her biography of this colourful but serious man. Vale Frank Moorhouse.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Kate Jennings (1948-2021)

Kate Jennings, Moral Hazard

Strangely, Australian writer and intellectual, Kate Jennings, has been in the air lately, even though she has lived in New York since 1979. She’s been in blogosphere because blogger Kim Forrester reviewed her novella, Moral hazard, just last month, but she’s been more broadly visible too because she features in the documentary Brazen hussies which screened in cinemas last year, and was broadcast on ABC-TV in a shortened version, this year. I saw both versions, and was inspired by Jennings’ bravery and passion in speaking for women at a 1970 Vietnam Moratorium march. This speech marks, many believe, the beginning of the second wave of feminism in Australia.

Kate Jennings, then, was quite a woman, and it’s incredibly sad that she died this weekend at the too-young age of 72. Yes, Virginia, 72 is too young.

“one of our essential writers” (David Malouf)

I’m impressed but not surprised that Australian novelist, David Malouf, described her as “one of our essential writers” in The Sydney Morning Herald’s announcement of her death. What does “essential” mean? I don’t know what Malouf means by this, but I agree with him in terms of my own meaning of the word. For me, essential, in this context, encompasses two things. First, it’s that the writer writes about important (though I don’t like this word) or significant or, perhaps even better, critical subjects. An essential writer will address the issues that are central to our being – personal, political and/or societal. But, I sense that Malouf means a little more. Certainly I do, and it’s that an essential writer doesn’t just write about, let us say, the “essential” things, but they confront us with them. They go where others don’t go – in subject matter, or form, or tone, or language, or … I’m sure you know what I mean.

Malouf thinks Jennings filled this bill, and so too, I think, does Maria Tumarkin who appeared in the first Sydney Writers Festival session I attended this weekend. A quick Google search retrieved the 2016 University of Melbourne Handbook (archived version). It includes the description of a course on The Art and Practice of the Personal Essay taught by Maria Tumarkin and Kevin Brophy. The description says “Some essayists we might read: Montaigne, Swift, A.D. Hope, Annie Dillard, Kate Jennings, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace”. This is quite a list, and it tells us something about Jennings’ stature, and how Tumarkin and Brophy view her.

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

So, in what way was Jennings essential? I’ll start with the above-mentioned speech that brought her to the fore when she was just 22. The women in the Vietnam Moratorium movement had fought (hard) to have one of their number included among the many male speakers scheduled to speak at the march. Here is how Jennings, herself, introduces it in her “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings (1970-2010) (my review).

We persisted, and eventually the organisers gave in. As the most experienced writer in our group, I was given the task of composing the speech, which we decided would be deliberately incendiary. But what I wrote was so incendiary everyone balked at giving it, me included. In the end, with a big shove and no experience of speaking in public, much less in front of a thousand or more, I walked the plank.

The reaction to her speech, she says, was immediate – much of it negative, particularly from the men in the movement – but, she writes

the confrontational language of the speech worked: we could no longer be ignored. Right tactic, right time.

It was essential, in other words. (You can read it here.)

And Jennings continued in that vein, being true and uncompromising to what she believed in. Take, for example, her introduction to the poetry anthology she edited, Mother I’m rooted. She was unapologetic about what drove her choices. She states the problem, then says what she did:

I don’t know any longer what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. I have been trained to know, in a patriarchal university, on a diet of male writers. We have to go back to bedrock, and explore thoroughly that which is female and that which is male, and then perhaps we can approach androgyny, and humanity.

I have chosen the poems mainly on the grounds of women writing directly, and honestly.

(Included in Trouble)

Jane Bullen, reviewing the book in the ANU’s student newspaper Woroni (23 July 1975), picked up this point:

Perhaps it is this that is most striking about the book; the form of the poem is subordinated to the intense desire to say something, to mean something. Sometimes what is said contorts the poem, and the words are clumsy in their attempt to say it. The honesty, the urgent saying of what is meant is expressed (in the flawed structure, the not quite balanced nature of many of these poems. The effect of this is a refusal to compromise, an insistence on meaning in the face of form and a book well worth the time it takes to read it. 

My point is that Jennings saw that this poetry was different, that it may not have met the “received” style, but that it had something to say and she was darned well going to let them say it.

Her own writing broke boundaries. Her novel Snake (1996) takes the autobiographical novel to a different place with its spare style, episodic form, and mixed voice, and her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Moral hazard (2002) is a work of that rare genre, business fiction. She wrote an essay, “Gutless fiction”, for the Australian Financial Review (26 August 2005), on the necessity for

unflinching works of fiction that engage our public and private selves, our intellect and emotions. More able to inhabit the skins of its characters, fiction can capture the ambiguity and caprice inherent in human behaviour and then give it context and causality in ways that nonfiction rarely can.

(Included in Trouble)

Erik Jensen’s book, On Kate Jennings, in the Writers on writers series, provides tender but honest insight into Jennings. Her life had many troubles. It’s worth reading, but I’m going to conclude by sharing something he tells us Jennings wrote for the back cover of her first poetry collection:

‘Kate Jennings is a feminist. She believes in what Jane Austen recommended at fifteen: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”’

(Jane Austen, Love and freindship)

An essential writer recognising another! Vale Kate Jennings. You gave us much to think about. A true legacy.

Lisa wrote a Vale Kate Jennings post on the weekend, and I have reviewed three of her books.

Vale my dear old Dad (1920-2021)

If it was my Mum who introduced me to Jane Austen and the classics of English literature, together with a love of language (and thus Scrabble and cryptic crosswords), it was my Dad who introduced me to Australiana, starting in my youth with the verse (as the poet himself called it) of Banjo Paterson. The grandson of a Presbyterian minister, my father never swore, but he’d read with great gusto the lines ‘”Murder! Bloody murder!” cried the man from Ironbark’. And we kids loved it. As Dad’s eyes deteriorated in his last years, he gave up reading books, but the book he kept by his chair-side, and the book he was last seen dipping into, was a book of Paterson’s verse.

Born in 1920, and living through the heyday of Australia’s development in the twentieth century, Dad loved stories about Australian pioneers of all sorts, from the exploits of Charles Kingsford-Smith to those of cattle kings like the Duracks. Mary Durack’s Kings in grass castles was one of his favourites, at least from the time when I was old enough to be aware of his reading. In later years, he became more aware of the politics of Australia’s colonial settlement and appreciated our need to revise our understanding of frontier life, but I don’t think that ever completely removed his love of these ventures. Dad, of course, also lived through the Depression and Second World War, with the latter inspiring another major reading interest, the history of the War. (He didn’t read a lot of fiction, being of that generation of men who felt fiction wasn’t quite as worthwhile as non-fiction).

My other main memory of Dad and books comes from the days when, as a very little girl, I would go to my parents bedroom in the morning – much to my mum’s chagrin as she loved a sleep-in – with my “twenty-eight books”. It wasn’t 28 of course, but for some reason, that was the number I would say. One of those books featured Jiminy Cricket, and Dad would feign great fear as I shoved this terrifying creature under his nose! This became a lasting in-joke between us for the rest of his life.

Now, though, Dad has gone – peacefully, at the excellent age of 100 years and 8 months – and I am left with these memories, along with the enduring knowledge of a man who loved me very much, who never failed to support me and compliment me, and who set an example of integrity, honesty, acceptance, stoicism, and love of and responsibility for family. He, like all of us, had his moments, but his, like Mum’s, was a life well-lived, one that will continue through our memories and through the lives of all those who loved him.

Vale, Dad. Go well, and thanks.

Vale my magnificent Mum (1929-2020)

Portrait of JessieSome of you already know, but most of you may be wondering about my recent silence. I am really too heartsore to write much now, but I feel all you lovely followers deserve to know whyfor this silence. On Friday, my dear 90-year-old Mum died peacefully, after a short illness that, coincidentally, aligned with the COVID-19 lock-down here. I have spent much of the last month by her side, and am just too sad right now to compose a proper post about her. She loved and nurtured me with all her heart from the moment I was born right through to the end; she fostered my love of reading, introduced me to Jane Austen and taught me cryptic crosswords; she supported and respected me; she was self-effacing, always putting herself last; she was quietly passionate about social justice and the environment; and she made me laugh. She was the whole package.

Here are some words from her friends:

“I have fondly admired Jessie and feel so privileged to have learned from her wisdom, her gentle elegance, and her intellect.”

“Jessie is one of the most beautiful women I have known, so kind and thoughtful and so clever too. She is a truly lovely lady.”

“I feel very privileged to have known Jessie … so wonderfully supporting, caring and kind.”

 “I have always enjoyed her company and admired her attitude to all things.”

And, finally, from one of her church friends …

“We have lost a soft voice, a strong faith, an enquiring mind and a great friend”.

As for the family, we have lost a dearly treasured and much enjoyed wife, mother and mother-in-law, grandmother, great-grandmother, aunt and cousin. The loss is all ours.

(Finally, I must say a huge thanks to Lisa and Bill for their behind-the-scenes support and offers of help, and to Bill, in particular, for ensuring my blog kept going. There are still a couple of Bill Curates posts to come. I do not have enough words to thank them.)

Vale Kerry Reed-Gilbert

Note: It is traditional in most indigenous Australian communities to avoid using the name of a deceased person, for some time after their death. And so, as is my wont regarding writing about indigenous writers, I checked out what I believed to be authoritative precedents, and found that Wiradjuri woman Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s name has been used on sites such as AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies). I am therefore presuming that her family (probably with her approval) is happy for her name to be used. It is in this spirit that I write this small tribute post.

Kerry Reed-Gilbert (1956-2019) died last weekend, as NAIDOC Week was coming to an end. She was, says Wikipedia, an “Australian poet, author, collector and Aboriginal rights activist”, and anyone interested in the history of Indigenous Australian writing is sure to have heard of her. She had certainly been in my ken for a long time, and has appeared in this blog several times. The first time was in 2013 when I described her as the first chairperson of FNAWN, the First Nations Australians Writers Network, which she co-founded. She appeared again in 2014 as one of the indigenous people recommending books every Australian should read. She recommended:

  • Because a white man’ll never do it, by her father, the author and activist Kevin Gilbert
  • The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter
  • Any book by historian Henry Reynolds, because “it’s time for people to know the truth of this country”
  • That deadman dance, by Kim Scott (my review)

Jump a couple of years to 2016, and Reed-Gilbert appeared here again, this time as a participant in the Blak and Bright Festival. And she appeared twice the next year – 2017 – first, as a contributor to the interactive book, Writing Black, and then later in my review of that work.

It was, however, not until 2018, when I attended An evening with First Nations Australia Writers session as part of the Canberra Writers Festival, that I became fully aware of the love and esteem with which this clearly amazing woman was held. Jeanine Leane, in particular, paid tribute to her for her work with FNAWN, with the Us Mob Writing Group, and in organising the Workshop for indigenous writers that coincided with the 2018 Festival. The warmth felt towards her was palpable that evening.

Us Mob Writing, Too DeadlyBut wait, there’s more! Reed-Gilbert appeared again in my blog this year, twice in fact – for her contributions to two anthologies, Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss (my review), and Too deadly, edited by her and two others for the Us Mob Writing group (my review). As well as being one of the editors, she had ten pieces in the anthology.

If you don’t have a sense by now of what a stalwart she was for Indigenous Australians, and particularly for Indigenous Australian writers, then maybe some info from the AustLit database will help. Reed-Gilbert was a well-recognised, high-achieving poet and editor:

  • receiving funding from the Australia Council to attend a poetry festival in the USA (2010);
  • receiving an ‘Outstanding Achievement in Poetry’ award and ‘Poet of Merit’ Award from the International Society of Poets (2006);
  • touring Aotearoa New Zealand as part of the Honouring Words 3rd International Indigenous Authors Celebration Tour (2005);
  • being awarded an International Residence from ATSIAB to attend Art Omi, New York, USA (2003); and
  • touring South Africa performing in ‘ECHOES’, a national tour of the spoken word (1997)

Her work has been translated into French, Korean, Bengali, Dutch and other languages.

You may also like to read the statement made by AIATSIS upon her death, which speaks of her role as a writer, mentor and activist, and this heartfelt one from Books + Publishing which describes her, among other things, as a literary matriarch.

Book coverNot only is it sad that we have lost such an active, successful and significant Indigenous Australian writer, but it is tragic that we have lost her so soon, as happens with too many indigenous Australians. So, vale Kerry Reed-Gilbert. We are grateful for all you have done to support and nurture Indigenous Australian writers, and for your own contributions to the body of Australian literature. May your legacy live on – and on – and on.

Meanwhile, we can all look out for her memoir, The cherry-picker’s daughter, which is being published this year by Wild Dingo Press.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2019 Winners; and Vale Les Murray AO (1939-2019)

I decided to replace today’s Monday Musings with an awards announcement, because the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were being announced tonight, and they comprise a swag of prizes, many being of particular interest to me. But, then I was shocked to hear that Australian poet Les Murray had died, and I couldn’t let that pass either, so you have a double-barrelled post tonight!

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

I will only report on a selection of the winners, but here is a link to the full suite. And, if you are interested to know who the judges were, they are all listed on the award’s webpage.

Michelle de Kretser, The life to comeBook of the Year: Billy Griffiths’ Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (my review).

People’s Choice Award for Fiction: Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review)

The Douglas Stewart prize for Non-Fiction: shared between Billy Griffiths’ Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia and Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review)

Trent Dalton, Boy swallows universeThe UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe (my review). I love that in his thank you speech, he spoke about the time he spent with Les Murray in 2014. Murray, he said, shared his poem Home Suite, telling Dalton not to be afraid to go home. Going home, he said, is exactly which he did in his novel.

Multicultural NSW Award: Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs.

Translator’s Prize (presented every two years, and about which I posted recently): Alison Entrekin.

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsSpecial Award: Bherouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains (translated by Omid Tofighian). This award is not made every year, and is often made to a person, but this year it went to a work “that is not readily covered by the existing Awards categories”. The judges stated that it

demonstrates the power of literature in the face of tremendous adversity. It adds a vital voice to Australian social and political consciousness, and deserves to be recognised for its contribution to Australian cultural life.

Some of you may remember that I recently wrote about taking part in a reading marathon of this book.

Congratulations to all the winners – and their publishers – not to mention the short- and long-listees. We readers love that you are out there writing away, and sharing your hearts and thoughts with us. Keep it up!

Vale Les Murray

As I said in my intro to this post, I was shocked to hear this evening that one of Australia’s greatest contemporary poets, Les Murray, aka the “Bard of Bunyah”, had died. He was only 80.

His agent of 30 years, Margaret Connolly, confirmed the news, saying that

The body of work that he’s left is just one of the great glories of Australian writing.

Les Murray, Best 100 poemsI don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

Black Inc, released a statement saying

Les was frequently hilarious and always his own man.

We mourn his bundles of creativity, as well as his original vision – he would talk with anyone, was endlessly curious and a figure of immense integrity and intelligence.

Although I don’t write a lot about poetry, Les Murray has appeared in this blog before, most particularly when Mr Gums and I attended a poetry reading featuring him. What a thrill that was. He was 75 years old then, and the suggestion was that these readings were probably coming to an end due to his health. I have just two of his around 30 volumes of poetry – The best 100 poems of Les Murray and an author-signed edition of Selected poems, both published by Black Inc – and dip into them every now and then.

His poetry was diverse in form, tone, subject-matter. He could be serious, fun, obscure, accessible. You name it, he wrote it. He was often controversial, being, as Black Inc said, “his own man”! In other words, he was hard to pin down, not easy to put in any box. David Malouf, interviewed for tonight’s news, said that he could be “funny”, he could be “harsh”, but that he said things “we needed to hear”. And that, wouldn’t you say, is the role of a poet, particularly one considered by some to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature?

If you would like to find out more about him, do check out his website, and if you’d like to read some of his poetry (though it would be better to buy a book!), you can check out the Australian Poetry Library. Lisa ANZLitLovers) has also written a post marking his death.

Meanwhile, I’m going to close with the last lines of a poem called “The dark” in his Selected poems (which he chose in 2017 as his “most successfully realised poems”):

… Dark is like that: all productions.
Almost nothing there is caused, or has results. Dark is all one interior
permitting only inner life. Concealing what will seize it.

Seems appropriate for today.

Vale Andrew McGahan (1966-2019)

My reading group was only talking about Andrew McGahan (1966-2019) this week. We knew he was terminally ill, but little did we know that his end was so near. How very sad, then, to hear today that he died just yesterday, at only 52 years of age.

Andrew McGahan, Praise, Allen and UnwinNow, I know that Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has written a tribute but I do want to write one too, because he’s an author who made an impression on me. After all, he introduced me to a genre that would not be my natural calling – grunge lit (or, perhaps more “formally” known as dirty realism!) I enjoyed it. Well, I appreciated his books anyhow. I read both Praise (1992) and 1988 (1995), back in the mid-1990s, which was long before blogging. I wrote to my Californian friend in 1995 – my letters to her are a useful resource sometimes – that I found 1988 “interesting reading” even if I found the 21-year-old protagonist “frustrating in his inability to take hold of his life”. Frustrating perhaps, but the vivid sense of hopelessness and helplessness that McGahan conveyed in these books has stayed with me, which says something about his writing. (It helped too that the protagonist’s girlfriend in Praise suffered from eczema. There’s something validating, as many of you know, in reading about a character whose challenges are yours!)

Andrew McGahan, The white earthAnyhow, I went on to read his very different novel, The white earth (2004), a rather ambitious multi-generation book about indigenous and non-indigenous Australian love of land/country. It was inspired by the 1992 native title legislation and the conflicting attitudes towards it. It was controversial in some quarters. I liked it. In my letter to my Californian friend, I did say it was a little “clumsy” and used some fairly conventional images and symbolism, but again, over time, it’s a book whose “message”, whose heart really, has stayed with me, while other books I read back then haven’t.

I haven’t read any other of McGahan’s novels. though he wrote three more, Last drinks (2000), Underground (2007) and Wonders of a godless world (2009). According to Wikipedia, he also wrote young adult novels, a play and the screenplay for the film of Praise. The reason he came up at my reading group earlier this week was because one of our members – a recently retired rep for McGahan’s publisher Allen & Unwin – was reading Last drinks. It’s about police corruption in Queensland, and she was wondering if Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe was going to visit similar ground. It doesn’t – but she did tell us that McGahan was taking his diagnosis philosophically and was continuing to work on his new novel. It will be published later this year.

The wonderful thing about McGahan was his versatility, having tried his hand at several genres and forms. He didn’t do a bad job at them either, as the following awards for literary, crime, science fiction and children’s fiction reveal:

  • Praise: the Australian/Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35 years of age); the Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Novel (Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region)
  • Praise (screenplay): AFI Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; the Queensland Premier’s Award for Best Drama Script.
  • Last drinks: Ned Kelly Award for Crime Writing for Best First Novel. (That must mean best first crime novel?)
  • The white earth: Miles Franklin Award; Commonwealth Writers Prize Southeast Asia and South Pacific Region; Age Book of the Year; Courier Mail Book of the Year.
  • Wonders of a godless world: Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
  • The coming of the whirlpool: CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Book of the Year.

For a lovely insight into who McGahan was, albeit from 2004 when The white earth came out, check out this article with him in The Age. The Guardian Australia’s announcement of his death and tribute is also worth reading.

I am very sorry to hear that he has died, and pass my sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues. Fifty-two is just too young to die. He may not have been, for me, the “perfect” writer, but he made a lasting impression on me, so much so that those three books I’ve read frequently come to mind. In the end, what writer could ask for more? (Except for some more years, perhaps!)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Eleanor Witcombe

Eleanor Witcombe

Eleanor Witcombe, 1950 from Australian Women’s Weekly (Presumed Public Domain)

Eleanor Witcombe, who died in October at the venerable age of 95, is not exactly a household name in Australia – but some of her work is, because she’s associated with the renaissance of Australian film in the late 1970s. She wrote the screenplays for The getting of wisdom and My brilliant careerHowever, her writing career long preceded that work.

Growing up

Eleanor Witcombe, then, was a playwright and screenwriter. She was born in 1923 in Yorketown, South Australia, where she went to Yorketown Higher Primary School until 1939 when her family moved to Brisbane. There she attended Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. I was entertained to find, via Trove, all sorts of references to her schooldays because in those days, particularly in country towns, the papers reported on school doings. Yorketown’s The Pioneer regularly included “Honor Lists” in which the young Eleanor would appear, such as in 1931 for “Arithmetic” and “Mental”, or, in 1935, as winning a prize for “Schoolwork” in the Yorketown Show. In 1932 the paper reported on the formation of Yorketown’s first Brownie pack, and listed Eleanor and her sister among its first members, and in 1938, it reported that she had earned Honours in her Grade VI Music Theory exam. She was clearly a diligent girl …

… and she liked writing. The Sydney Morning Herald, in its obituary, says that her English teachers at Brisbane Grammar School encouraged her talent. She wrote her first play, “Omlet”, a skit on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for a school concert.

Early working years

In 1941, the family moved to Sydney, and by mid-20s, she was living in Cremorne, Sydney. She went to art school where she knew Margaret Olley (also born in 1923.) This connection also popped up in Trove, this time in The Daily Telegraph of 23 January 1949 which reports on William Dobell controversially winning the Archibald Prize with his portrait of Olley. The report writes that of the 50 people viewing the portrait only two recognised “buxom, attractive 25-year-old Miss Olley”, and one of these was Witcombe. The report continues that:

Miss Witcombe attended East Sydney Technical College art school with Miss Olley. She said: “From some angles the portrait resembles Margaret. “There is a certain something about the whole thing that is Margaret. “I think it is glorious. I think it glows. It jumps out of the wall and really gets you. “But no one who does not ‘know’ Margaret would recognise it as a portrait of her.”

However, by this time, Witcombe had moved from art to writing and the theatre. In 1945, her short story “The Knife” was one of 43 out of over 2000 entries chosen for publication by the Sunday Telegraph in its short story competition, though I suspect she wasn’t among the final winners. Her story is available on-line.

It was drama though that captured her interest. Her biography at AustLit records that she enrolled in Peter Finch’s Mercury Theatre School, and that between 1948 and 1950 she was commissioned by the Mosman Children’s Theatre Club to write three plays for children: Pirates at the BarnThe Bushranger, and Smugglers Beware. Searches on Trove find many, many references to these plays – over a long period of time, and in England as well as Australia. According to AustLit, Smugglers, Beware became the first Australian children’s play professionally produced in London.

In 1950, The Australian Women’s Weekly included her in an article on Interesting People. She was 27, and had written and had performed those three children’s plays. The article concludes with

Miss Witcombe has been writing plays since she was seven, likes action and says “fairies are only for adults.”

Throughout the early 1950s, she appears frequently in the newspapers, with her plays being performed all over Australia – in remote places like Bourke as well as the cities. She started writing for radio, and talks in interviews about original versus adapted works.

However, she also spent part of the 1950s abroad, going to London in 1952 where she worked and studied for 5 years, not returning to Sydney until 1957.

Television years, and beyond

On her return, she wrote for the ABC and commercial radio – including many one-hour drama adaptations of plays, books, and stories – as well as for the theatre. She initiated the Australian Theatre for Young People in 1963, and was a foundation member, in 1962, of the Australian Writers Guild. We have a picture, in fact, of an active successful writer – of both original and adapted works.

When television appeared on the scene, Witcombe turned her hand to that medium too, writing for sketch comedy series The Mavis Bramston Show and, for three years, for the television soap opera Number 96, both of which, for different reasons, are important parts of Australian television history. She adapted children’s novels for television: Pastures of the blue crane (1969), which is one of the first miniseries I recollect seeing, and Seven little Australians (1973).

And, just to show her complete versatility, she adapted Norman Lindsay’s The magic pudding for the Marionette Theatre of Australia, a show that was performed at Expo 70 in Japan. When this show was revised in 1980 for new puppets, the Australian Women’s Weekly reported that

The script for the new production is by screen writer Eleanor Witcombe. Richard [the Theatre’s artistic director Richard Bradshaw] believes she’s the best.

“Eleanor used great huge chunks of the original book but we had to develop Pudding’s part. Her additional dialogue is perfectly in character.”

Meanwhile, of course, there were those films, The getting of wisdom (1977) and My brilliant career (1979). Both were adaptations of Australian classics, and both earned Witcombe AFI Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.

I found a lot more in my research that I’d love to share, but will just tell this, before concluding. Around 1976, Witcombe was invited by Sir Robert Helpmann to research Daisy Bates for a film in which Katharine Hepburn wanted to star! Who knew! It was Witcombe, apparently, who uncovered that Bates had once been married to “Breaker” Morant.

After her death, the National Film and Sound Archive posted an excerpt from a 1998 oral history interview with her by Stuart Glover. In the excerpt she discusses writing adaptations, and the need to find the wood amongst the trees, the essence of the story. The excerpt ends with Glover suggesting she’d had a good career and asking her whether she’d enjoyed it. She replied:

No, I’m disappointed in myself. Because I don’t think I’ve – I haven’t adapted myself well. [Laughs] I haven’t found my centre enough and quickly and solidly and surely enough, to be able to go for that centre, y’know? I haven’t looked at me like a book and said, ‘This is what this book is about, and that is where the centre is.’

Sounds to me like an artist – never happy with her work – because, if you ask me, she had a brilliant career.

Have you heard of Eleanor Witcombe, or seen any of her plays or films?

Vale Jill Ker Conway

Jill Ker Conway, The road from CoorainJust before Mr Gums and I set off for our Arnhem Land holiday in early July, I came across an obituary for the Australian-born academic, educator and writer Jill Ker Conway (1934-2018). She had died on June 1, but I hadn’t heard. Why not? Her first memoir, The road from Coorain, was a best-seller, and I think her second one, True north, was also well received. I’ve read, and enjoyed, them both, but long, long before blogging. Her final memoir, A woman’s education, a slimmer volume, is on my TBR.

Those who know Jill Ker Conway will know why her passing didn’t make big news here. It’s because she made her name in the USA … added to which she was a woman. Or, am I being too paranoid?

So, who was Jill Ker Conway? Well, for a start she was born on a sheep station her parents named Coorain (Aboriginal for “windy place”) in outback New South Wales. Although more often hot, dry and dusty than not, Ker Conway loved it, as she shares in her first memoir.

Now, though, I’ll quickly summarise her career. She was, says Wikipedia, “an Australian-American scholar and author”. She was “well-known” for her autobiographies/memoirs, particularly for The Road from Coorain, but she also made history by becoming the prestigious Smith College‘s first woman president (1975-1985). She made history, of course, because she was its first woman president, but it’s fascinating to me that she was also Australian. She was 40 when appointed to this role, and in her first year was named Time magazine’s “woman of the year”. That’s impressive.

She was, later, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2004, she was named a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project, and in 2013 she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. She was, in other words, a bit of a mover-and-shaker!

I have, though, exaggerated the lack of news of her death here. There were some reports, including two in The Sydney Morning Herald. To give you a sense of how she was viewed, here are some of the titles of her obituaries:

Did you notice the odd one out? Yes, the SMH Business section report which identifies her as “chairman and trailblazer”. Chairman? Apparently, in addition to being an educator, academic, author and historian, she was a “business woman”. She was, in fact, “the first female chairman of global property group, Lendlease”. The Sydney Morning Herald says of her business career:

Dr Conway served on the boards of businesses including Merrill Lynch, Nike, Colgate-Palmolive and Lendlease. She was also a former chairman of the American Antiquarian Society.

In 2000 she was appointed as chair of Lendlease at a time when the company needed a firm hand.

Interesting woman eh? For an excellent obituary, do read the SMH National Section one.

She was also one of that wave of Australian intellectuals who left our shores in the 1960s and never really returned, mostly because of the stultifying academic lives they found here. Others included Germaine Greer (1939-), Robert Hughes (1938-2012), Clive James (1939-), not to mention writers like Randolph Stow (1935-2010). They went to England, while Ker Conway made the USA her home.

Ker Conway chronicles exactly why she left Australia in her first two autobiographies/memoirs. It was because she was regularly overlooked for significant jobs – or any job – in favour of men, and because she could not find the sort of intellectual enquiry she sought. Here she is, near the end of The road from Coorain, describing Sydney’s academic circles around 1959, and the group she thought most interesting because they were “iconoclasts, cultural rebels, and radical critics of Australian society”:

When I rejected the inevitable sexual advances, I was looked at with pained tolerance, told to overcome my father fixation, and urged to become less bourgeois. It was a bore to have to spend my time with this group rebuffing people’s sexual propositions when what I really wanted to do was explore new ideas and to clarify my thoughts by explaining them to others. I didn’t know then that I was encountering the standard Australian left view of women, but I could see that the so-called sexual revolution had asymmetrical results.

By the end of True north, she had her Harvard degree in history, and was living with her husband in Toronto when the Smith College job came up. She writes:

I’d been pushed out of Australia by family circumstances [all chronicled in the first memoir], the experience of discrimination, frustration with the culture I was born in. Nothing was pushing me out of this wonderful setting but a cause, and the hope to serve it.

Jill Ker ConwayAnd what was that cause? Well, as she also writes in True north, her main consideration when choosing whether or not to accept Smith College’s offer was “where my work would have the greatest impact on women’s education”. That “impact”, she explains, was not just about numbers. It was about proving that a woman’s institution was not only valid but valid and relevant in a modern world, and about the potential for making it “an intellectual centre for research on women’s lives and women’s issues, research that could have influence far beyond Smith’s lyrical New England campus”. She was there for 10 years, and made her mark.

Ker Conway was, then, a significant woman whose achievements I’ve only touched on. Check the Wikipedia article linked above for more, including a list of her books. Meanwhile, I’m ending with her final words in The road from Coorain, as she’s departing Australia:

Where I wondered would by bones come to rest? It pained me to think of them not fertilising Australian soil. Then I comforted myself with the notion that wherever on the earth was my final resting place, my body would return to the restless red dust of the western plains. I could see how it would blow about and get in people’s eyes, and I was content with that.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s (National section) obituary concludes:

Her love for her two worlds was reflected in her final wishes. Half her ashes will rest in a small private cemetery with John’s, near their beloved house and garden in Massachusetts. The other half are to be scattered by the big tree beside the roadway into the house at Coorain.

How good is that?

Vale Anne Deveson (1930-2016) and Georgia Blain (1964-2016)

Anne Deveson 2013

Anne Deveson, 2013 (Photo: Courtesy Mosman Library, using CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If you are a person of a certain age in Australia you will know Anne Deveson. She was a radio broadcaster first, then filmmaker, activist and writer. Her death this week after suffering for some years with Alzheimer’s Disease is the saddest thing. She was 86, but sadder still is that just three days before she died, her daughter, novelist Georgia Blain, died of brain cancer, aged 52. We knew it was coming, she’d written about it, but she ended up with less time than the general prognosis she’d been given. These are big losses.

I’m going to focus here on Anne Deveson, partly because Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has written on Georgia Blain and partly because I so admired Deveson. She was one of those people you could rely on to be honest but warm, to fight for the people who needed fighting for – though her own life was not an easy one.

She popped up in the most interesting places, including, controversially, advertisements for Omo laundry powder in the 1970s!

We all knew her face from these ads – I wonder why she did them? Money, I suppose, but we soon came to realise that social justice and the well-being of humans were her real passions. She was a member of the inspiringly conceived (by one of our most visionary prime ministers, Gough Whitlam) Royal Commission on Human Relationships, from 1974 to 1977. This Commission was charged with gathering “a wide range of information about the private lives of Australians in order to better inform public and social policy”. An obituary for Deveson in the Sydney Morning Herald described the Commission as being instrumental in areas like “the legalisation of homosexuality, the decriminalisation of abortion and the establishment of women’s refuges”.

I became aware of her, though, through other means, such as discovering her work in film when I was working as a film librarian. The main films I remember were Who Killed Jenny Langby? , a 1974 docudrama about a woman/mother/wife who commits suicide; Do I Have to Kill My Child?, a 1976 documentary about child abuse and desperate mothers who need help; and then  Spinning Out, her 1991 documentary about schizophrenia. You are probably getting a sense now of where her heart was.

Anne Deveson, Tell me I'm hereAnd then there were her books. Her memoir, Tell Me I’m Here (1991), about life with her schizophrenic son, was the first book I read with my reading group upon my return from a posting in the USA. It is imprinted on my mind – and not just because it was so lovely to be back with my reading group! It’s, dare I be clichéd, a raw book. We need people like Deveson who are prepared to not sugarcoat the darker sides of human experience. She speaks of the love, the desperation to find a solution, but also of the shame, the violence and the fear. Best, I think, if I share an excerpt with you, from the first page I randomly opened today:

10 November. Georgia [Blain, of course] was to have her first exam, English, the following day. English was her best subject and she was expected to do extremely well; she had studied hard against big odds. Poor child, I thought as I looked at her taut face.

We went to bed early. At about ten thirty I heard a banging sound downstairs. Jonathan had forced himself in through the cellar door and was climbing the stairs. I sat bolt upright. At all costs he must not wake Georgia. I put on a dressing gown and ran downstairs. Keep calm. Make some tea. ‘No thank you,’ he said, he didn’t want any tea. His eyes followed me as I moved around the room, and even now as I write this I feel you might be thinking I am being melodramatic. But madness is sometimes the stuff of melodrama, and if you don’t take it seriously it can become tragedy. Jonathan had one of the kitchen knives in his hands and he waved it at me and ordered me to sit down …

And so she continues to describe the horror – his terrible appearance “three safety pins dangling from one ear” and wearing jeans that were “dirty, tattered and at half mast”,  as he continued to wave the knife and threatening “I’m going to get you before you get me”. She manages to give him tea and cake, and says she’s going to let the dog out. She goes to the GP who lives up the road, but whom she doesn’t know, to ask his help to get Jonathan to hospital. The GP clearly doesn’t want to get involved, but does come back with her. Deveson continues:

I introduced him to Jonathan and told Jonathan I thought he needed to go to hospital.

‘No sir, no sir, I am not sick,’ Jonathan said in a whining voice. He continued to spin the knife. ‘My mother only thinks I am sick and she’s got the army trained against me.’

Dr W said he couldn’t see any army and suggested that Jonathan might feel safer in hospital.

Jonathan disagreed, ‘I’ve got the PLO on my side.’

At this point the doctor draws Deveson into the hallway and tells her, confidentially, tgat she has a “dangerous young man there”! Deveson, relieved, assumes this means he’ll help get Jonathan to hospital. What does Dr W say but “He doesn’t want to go.” Helpful, huh? After further discussion, the doctor decides to call the police:

Dr W looked relieved and rang the police. He said that I seemed to be an educated sort of woman, even though he didn’t know me. What was the implication from this? Ignore all women if they don’t have an education?

Ckear-eyed about the bigger picture, while describing an intensely personal experience. The book won the Human Rights Non-fiction Award in 1991, just one of several awards Deveson won over the years for services to media and the community. She wrote other books too, including Coming of age: Twenty-one interviews about growing older (1994) and Resilience (2003). Both of these, as was her wont, blended the personal with the political, with the social implications. She was a tenacious and influential Australian about whom we can truly say she left the world a better place.

The tributes have started appearing, including one from Wendy McCarthy, ten years Deveson’s junior and for whom Deveson had been an early role model. There will be many more over the coming days, so I’m going to leave it here, having paid my little tribute to a woman I admired. Vale Anne Deveson – and vale, too, Georgia Blain. Brave women both.