Hippy Days, Arabian Nights is a memoir in two parts by Melbourne-based artist, Katherine Boland (1957 – ). The first part, her childhood in England and Victoria and her life as a hippy and young mother in a community on the NSW south coast, is interesting reading. Part 2, her love affair as a fiftyish divorcee with an Egyptian man half her age, is less so.
Boland, her younger sister Lisa, and her parents migrated to Australia from England in 1961, settling in Melbourne where her father found work as a photographer, taking postcard images all round Australia. After two years, maybe wishing to settle down, he bought a photography business in Bairnsdale, a coastal town in eastern Victoria.
While the budding artist decorated the chook shed and created masterpieces of “swirling crop circles and intricate geometric patterns” with the ride-on mower, her father was descending into depression.
By the time I was ten years old, he had slowly but surely become a misery guts… At the age of forty, disillusioned with how things had turned out, Dad became increasingly depressed and maudlin, drowning himself in drink.
After ten years he sold up and the family returned to England, to Manchester and “my grandfather’s damp and camphor smelling, old person’s house”. Boland writes:
At the age of eleven [ie. at about the time of WWI], my grandfather and grandmother were sent to work in one of the many cotton mills operating in Lancashire at the time. Crawling on hands and knees under the thunderous industrial looms, it was their job to collect the drifts of lint building up on the factory floor …
This strikes me as extremely unlikely. Anyway, dad can’t find work and they move again, to Spain where “Mum and Dad began to lose all direction, perpetually arguing and moving from one alcohol fuelled party to the next”. After six months of this, nearly out of money, they give in and return, not just to Australia but to Bairnsdale. A few months later, still without work, Dad parks his car in the bush, pipes the car exhaust into the interior, and dies.
Katherine goes on to study Art at RMIT, meets John, a political science student at Monash, and moves into his St Kilda flat. After a year, they toss in their studies and armed with The Vegetable Gardening and Animal Husbandry Handbook from the Space Age Bookshop in Swanston St, they head up to ‘Kelly country’, camping in the bush east of Wangaratta until they can find a farmhouse to rent “officially ready to become ‘alternative life stylers’”. For 18 months they live off their own vegetables, chooks and goats, but they want more. A trip to WA to earn ‘big money’ on prawn trawlers is a failure and they end up in Sydney, as live-in maid and gardener/chauffeur for ‘Lady Hooker’ (presumably the widow of LJ Hooker, who died in 1976).
Finally, they have enough money to purchase 100 acres of bush, in the Bega Valley, near Mumbulla Mountain and inland from Bermagui. Slowly, they clear the bush, build themselves a wattle and daub hut and begin to make a go of things. Other hippies purchase blocks nearby so there is always the possibility of shared labour – and shared dope, which increasingly becomes a problem.
Boland’s optimistic and humorous approach to what is really a recreation of C19th pioneering lifestyles is reminiscent of Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I (1946), dimly remembered from my mother’s bookshelves.
A baby, Eva, comes while John is at a new year’s eve party. Katherine phones a neighbour who finds “the expectant father smoking hashish from a home-made hookah in the back of a Ford Falcon panel van.”
I spent seven glorious days in the Bega District Hospital, the longest stay permitted before they threw new mothers back out into the world. Compared to our mud hut in Brogo, it was like holidaying at a Four Seasons Hotel.
Over time, Katherine persuades her mother to live with them (in a refurbished goat shed); John who works part-time as a bricklayer, builds them a new house with real bricks, electricity and a flush toilet; and Eva joins pony club. Then, “in the weeks before 9/11”, it all comes to an end. Eva has left home at 16 to complete her high school education in Canberra, and Katherine catches John out in an affair with another woman from their community, and returns to Melbourne to live with her sister, determined to make her way as an artist.
On the night of her first exhibition, she begins an ultimately abusive relationship with “the clever, charismatic, cocaine-sniffing, Croatian architect Vicko”. She does more art, gets some overseas residencies, including one at Luxor. She, by then aged 52, and her translator, “the stunningly attractive” Mr Gamal Bahar, aged 26, engage in love at first sight, and so begins ‘Arabian Nights’. Boring.
Over the next five years, she visits him in Cairo, staying in his empty flat across the road from his family’s apartment, then when that is forbidden, at a hotel where they can’t sleep together; they talk daily on Skype; they meet in Viet Nam, Thailand and London. He can’t get a tourist visa to enter Australia – too many Egyptian men overstay apparently – they consider marrying in Egypt, his father says No; there’s the riots and army takeover following the ‘Arab Spring’; they prevaricate over an Australian ‘Prospective Marriage Visa’.
If it doesn’t cost too much, read this book for its first half, an amusing and informative account of modern day subsistence living, which all of us boomers probably considered at one time or another, however briefly.
Katherine Boland, Hippy Days, Arabian Nights, Wild Dingo Press, Melbourne, 2017 (Review copy supplied by Wild Dingo Press).
Boland’s art on Pinterest (here)