Coming out of Caiguna on the way home, listening to G&S’s The Gondoliers (Youtube), the USB stick I dug up to save Project Gutenberg audiobooks on turning out to contain my long lost ‘classical’ music selections, I started planning a post on childhood memories. A few rousing songs in – I’d listened all the way through earlier, and was this time just seeking a musical interlude between books, not that I couldn’t listen to endless G&S, Pinafore is my favourite, though The Mikado is probably their best – I started my next book, coincidentally The Night Child (2018) by Anna Quinn, a story of one woman’s repressed memories and her consequent PTSD, which has had the effect of colouring how this post is written. An hour and a half later I came to a bend and realised I’d travelled the length of the Ninety Mile Straight without noticing. You may conclude I’m not an attentive driver, it took me ages when I first started crossing the Nullarbor to even work out where the Straight was.
I had an idyllic childhood. I often said so once, but not so much as I got older. Perhaps now I’ve written My Father was Busy and I’m still Angry I might feel easier about saying so again. I grew up in country towns all round Victoria, a life of sunshine and freedom: visiting my grandfather’s, my uncles’, my friends’ farms; exploring the countryside on my bike; school, at which I excelled and which I always enjoyed; camping, in the Mallee, in the Grampians, down the beach at Yambuk or in the bush at Mt Eccles, with scouts and youth groups; swimming, playing football, tennis, cricket, hockey; going to country dances, “50:50s”, from the time I started high school, back when all ages danced to the same music.
Writers write about childhood because they can? Who knows. But we read writers writing about their childhoods because we love their writing, because we want to know their childhood influences. I don’t think childhoods are intrinsically interesting, well, except for my own and my children’s. Out on the Nullarbor I could only think of two, Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella, and Sartre’s Words. I will review the Franklin one day when I’ve run out of other stuff but it’s a terrible book. I pulled down Sartre when I got home, it’s years since I read it, the front cover proclaims “I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it.” Of course I soon thought of others, Gerald Murnane’s fictionalised in Landscape with Landscape, Ann Frank, The Children’s House of Belsen, Norman Lindsay’s Redheap trilogy, The Getting of Wisdom, there must be hundreds of others, The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony, MF’s two Career books and Cockatoos. Fellow blogger Nathan Hobby’s The Fur, an SF bildungsroman which I imagine draws heavily on his boyhood in WA’s southwest. Funnily enough Alien Son, the earlier parts anyway, is the one that feels closest to home.
My earliest memory is of crawling up the stairs into the rear of the one room school building where my father was teaching, at Underbool in 1953 probably, or maybe Bonnie Doon in ’54. Our house was in the school grounds and the little girls would play mothers and fathers with me as baby. I can remember in the ordinary, patchy way most of my life from about 1955 on. The rooming house above the fish and chip shop we lived in in Inverloch when dad got Leongatha but no house; the subsequent 3 BR housing commission weatherboard, one of five in a row down a dead-end gravel street, facing out onto paddocks of cows and blackberries; hiding in an abandoned car with the girl next door (one year older!) and taking down our pants for mutual inspections; a party for my sixth birthday – I said to Gee yesterday that it was the only party of my childhood, my next was a joint 20th with my housemate, Russell, and the next after that was my fortieth, and she said that we had only given her one too, her eleventh, though I reminded her that Milly and I had gone out for her fifteenth, which she wasn’t game to for our granddaughter’s fifteenth last month, and come home late to a garden full of bottles – at which I got a cowboy belt and holster and a new 24″ bike, blue, which mum pushed round and round the clothesline, giving all us boys a ride, and it occurs to me only now that she was then, aged 24, 20 odd weeks pregnant with B4; the next two years I would ride everywhere through Leongatha and then, when we moved to Murrayville in the Mallee at the beginning of grade four, for miles out into the bush or along the highway.
Television came that year, which for nearly all my growing up I would see, especially the commercial stations, I Love Lucy, The Man from UNCLE, Laugh-In, only at the homes of other children.
For the move from Leongatha to Murrayville, dad and I left mum and the boys at grandma’s and came back to supervise the movers. Dad’s grade six, the big kids!, had performed Pinafore at speech night and as we set off back to Sea Lake, 300 miles, in the FJ, dad sang the whole thing from beginning to end.
Milly and I had superficially similar childhoods, hers in working class Hammy Hill, mine in the Bush, those seemingly innocent, long passed 1950s and early 60s, a contradictory mix of books and all day out of doors, but problems at home truncated her schooling, left her with stuff she talked about quite freely in those first weeks I first came west and stayed with her and Xenia, (and Psyche, and Rivervale girls constantly in and out) but didn’t start dealing with really until everything else fell on her, me leaving, Psyche leaving, Psyche getting us all into family therapy.
She says she chose me for my ‘stability’, an illusion I fostered through equal measures of ignorance and confidence. An ignorance compounded by my all-boy childhood in no way alleviated by adolescent fumblings, and an almost total lack of empathy. I think I was 40 before I even began to understand that listening involves a lot more than just listening.
The thirty something woman protagonist of The Night Child has some pretty vicious childhood stuff to deal with when it all starts coming back, and if her acceptance of her repressed memories, her ‘voluntary’ hospitalisation, and the subsequent resolution through therapy, all feel a bit pat, then others, and women in particular, may feel differently, I’m not in any position to judge. Either way, it’s a well written and dramatic story. And set in Seattle which seems to this outsider to invoke more genuine affection in its residents than any other US town.
The Man Who Loved Children with it’s controlling father I should also have remembered. Christina Stead, somewhere, told an interviewer that every word of it was from life, from her own childhood in Watsons Bay, Sydney.
Anna Quinn (F, USA), The Night Child (2018) Read by Cassandra Campbell
Jane Austen (F,Eng), Pride & Prejudice (1811) Audiogo, Read by Lindsay Duncan
George Orwell (M, Eng), 1984 (1949) Blackstone, read by Simon Prebble
Ruth Rendell (F, Eng), The Babes in the Wood (2004)
Heather Graham (F, USA), A Dangerous Game (2017)
Ian Rankin (M, Sco), Mortal Causes (1994)
Gaston Leroux (M, Fra), The Phantom of the Opera (1910)
Herman Koch (M, Neth), Summer House with Swimming Pool (2011)
Wendy Wax (F, USA), The Accidental Best Seller (2009)
John Le Carre (M,Eng), The Spy who came in from the Cold (1963)
Ann Patchett (F, USA), Commonwealth (2016)
Emile Zola (M, Fra), Thérèse Raquin (1867) – a seven hour sermon on the sin of Adultery contained within the metaphor of Murder. Lisa at ANZLL gives it a more favourable review here.
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel