Tell Morning This, Kylie Tennant

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

Kylie Tennant (1912-1988) was an important chronicler of the lives of Sydney’s underclass, perhaps not so popular as Ruth Park, but with a grittier style and a better understanding (Park and Tennant were both of the middle class, but Park’s depictions of the people of Sydney’s inner suburbs tended towards patronising, whereas Tennant’s were genuinely sympathetic and tempered by her early association with the Communism).

Tell Morning This (1967) is a rambunctious, entertaining novel of the seamier side of life in and around Kings Cross during the latter stage of WWII. This is more or less the same period/locale as that covered by Cusack & James’ Come in Spinner and interestingly they seem to have had similar publication histories. Although the winner of a major prize in 1948, Come in Spinner had to be abridged to get past the censors and a full version was not published until 1987. Tennant writes of Tell Morning This

A brief version of this book appeared in those years when paper was hard to come by and censors unduly sensitive. The choice was to cut by at least a third or to lay the manuscript aside … the remnant, The Joyful Condemned [1953], looked much the same.

Author’s note

From Tell Morning This (Tennant), Say Not to Death (Cusack) and The Drums go Bang (Park) you get a pretty good idea of the housing shortage, and resulting squalid, crowded rooming houses in inner Sydney in the 1940s and 50s. I wish we had the same insight into Melbourne, but as I wrote elsewhere, for a while ‘they’ had all the good writers.

The central characters of Tell Morning This are Rene (short for Irene), a fifteen year old prostitute and David, a medical student and conscientious objector to the War – interesting, because despite my own background in the anti-war movement as a draft-resister, I commented recently that I thought that the Japanese threat was so imminent that if I had been born a quarter century earlier I would have joined up.

Rene was a hefty chunk of a girl with a nose flat across the bridge, good teeth, and hair that was temporarily blonde and curled nearly as high as the storm’s. Its original colour had been a nasty red.

Rene, whose only family is “a bunch of files in the Department”, has been brought up by the McGarty’s, a complicated family of sly groggers and petty thieves you need a spreadsheet to keep up with. David is a quiet, thoughtful good-looking boy whose mother had died in childbirth and his father, a judge, had been shot dead about 15 years earlier. A woman, Terry Lago, got life for the murder but is widely believed to be covering for her career criminal husband who has disappeared.

Imprisonment is the novel’s central theme. Rene and her friends, whose only source of income (and amusement) is to be picked up off the streets by US servicemen, are routinely rounded up for ‘being in moral danger’ and put into youth detention, the pinnacle of which is the infamous Parramatta Girls Training School (which Tennant gives the alias Petworth); David’s cousin Henrietta runs a model detention centre, until she is promoted to Petworth and fails; David spends six months in gaol during the course of the novel, and will have further spells of six months until the War ends (or his spirit breaks); a vindictive doctor, as Terry Lago is approaching release, commits her to indefinite detention in a mental home.

Tennant famously biffed a cop in order to research this novel from the inside, and she seems to have done a pretty thorough job (of the research. I’m sure the biffing was quite gentle). There’s a lot about the power structures, formal and informal, in the men’s, women’s and girls’ institutions; and about different reactions to incarceration. There’s even an evil smelling prison tram which runs between Long Bay and the central courts – the men all chained together must shuffle around in a circle if one of them needs to use the can.

David in gaol refuses to work, in the belief that the work is to assist the army, and so is put into solitary, not the dreaded dark cells, the black peter, but the yards, only half roofed

They shut him, by his own fault, in this narrow cocoon, and from a mild white grub of a boy he was hatching into something that very closely resembled a human hornet. His hatred of the governor, when every morning, the man said: “The magistrate has been delayed. He will be here tomorrow”, was the greater in that he detected real pleasure, malicious pleasure in this delay.

This is a big book, 446pp, with a cast to match. David’s family of do-gooder aunts, the Aumbrys, who live in a fine old house on the North Shore; the McGartys – Grandma bedridden, who brought up Rene till she became too much to manage; her daughter who runs Grandma’s house in the Cross as a rooming house and who has banned Rene; a nephew who runs a pub nearby and another who drives for Sydney’s Mr Big; the Cobbetts who have a shop out in a semi-rural outer suburb and who are connected to Mr Big and to Terry Largo. And then there’s Mr Big’s daughter Margot who wants to join the Aumbrys in do-gooding and who is keen on David.

Of course there are Americans, who in between missions, spend time and lavish money on Rene and all her underage friends, all generally in a state of undress, even when out, and ready to jump into bed. And there’s Marie, a minor character really, who has a baby which Rene loves; who is given a home by the Aumbrys to save her from the Department but which she hates for its boredom, until at last she runs away to Melbourne, is bored there too and comes back to have another baby which she is relieved to discover is white.

Rene and David bump into each other from time time, and each feels sorry for the other. We follow their separate paths, Rene to slowly become aware who her mother is, and David who shot his father; neither looking, but with everyone around them knowing, knowing becomes inevitable.

What a marvellous book. What took me so long to get to it.

.

Kylie Tennant, Tell Morning This, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1967. 446pp.

And so begins another ‘Gen’ Week. Brona has already posted on one of my favourite authors, Eve Langley and much more is promised.