Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

Thirty Years in Australia (1903) is Ada Cambridge’s memoir of … well you can tell what it’s of. I have read it for my contribution this month to the AWWC site, which I hope you read! Over there I am concentrating on her life and times and writing. Here, I thought I would write a little extra about her travels.

“Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was born on 21 November 1844 at St Germans, Norfolk, England, daughter of Henry Cambridge, gentleman farmer, and his wife Thomasina, née Emmerson, a doctor’s daughter. She grew up in Downham, Norfolk, a perceptive and cherished child, learning little from a succession of governesses but reading widely and delighting in the fen country of her birth… On 25 April 1870 at Holy Trinity, Ely, she married George Frederick Cross, a curate committed to colonial service.” (Jill Roe, ADB)

For a month they honeymooned in a rectory just a few miles from their homes, from a sister who would walk over each morning to visit, then it was down to London for a few days, then the train from Paddington to Plymouth where they boarded a sailing ship on her maiden voyage, the Hampshire, at a time when steamships must already have been taking over (years ago I read an account of the last commercial sailing ship from Australia to England, a clipper laden with wheat which arrived after the commencement of WWII).

At other times we lay becalmed, and I had my chance to dress myself and enjoy the evening dance or concert, or whatever was going on. But at the worst of times—even in the tremendous storms, when the ship lay poop-rail under, all but flat on her beam ends (drowning the fowls and pigs on that side), or plunged and wallowed under swamping cross-seas that pounded down through smashed skylights upon us tumbling about helplessly in the dark—even in these crises of known danger and physical misery there was something exhilarating and uplifting—a sense of finely-lived if not heroic life, that may come to the coddled steamer passenger when the machinery breaks down, but which I cannot associate with him and his “floating hotel” under any circumstances short of impending shipwreck.

They arrived in Melbourne on 19 Aug. 1870, after a voyage of 77 days. Melbourne, at the height of its post-goldrush glory, was impressive, with wide paved streets, fine buildings. They were taken to “the Fitzroy Gardens—saw the same fern gully, the same plaster statues, that still adorn it; and to the Botanical Gardens, already furnished with their lakes and swans, and rustic bridges, and all the rest of it. And how beautiful we thought it all!”

Soon however they were in the bush. George’s first position was a curacy in Wangaratta (Cambridge only ever gives the town initial, but the positions are listed online and other towns may be deduced). The Sydney road was so wet and muddy – “Bridges and culverts had been washed away, and the coach-road was reported impassable for ladies” – that they took the train, a “railway which ended at the Murray” (Echuca).

The railway to Echuca was established in 1863. The Sydney line further to the east, was commenced in 1870 and the house they lived in in Wangaratta was a couple of years later demolished to make way for the station.

From Echuca they took a little paddle steamer, intending I think to sail upriver to Wodonga and thence get a coach back to Wangaratta. But the winding of the river is so tortuous (remember Tom Collins?) and the journey so slow that they disembarked “level with W____”, probably near Yarrawonga, and got a lift in a farm cart.

the steamer passed on and vanished round the next bend of the river, which was all bends, leaving us on the bank—in the real Bush for the first time, and delighted with the situation. The man with the cart had guaranteed to get us home before nightfall.

Nothing is ever that simple. They spend a great deal of time bogged and for the first of many times she and George experience the unstinting hospitality of the Australian Bush. “I came in, an utter stranger, out of the dark night and that wet and boggy wilderness, weary and without a dry stitch on me, to such a scene, such a welcome, as I could not forget in a dozen lifetimes.”

And so their Australian life begins. Read on …


Ada Cambridge, Thirty Years in Australia, Methuen, London, 1903. Serialized in The Empire Review 1901-2. Available from Project Gutenberg.

Conversations with Grandma: Genealogical Journeys in Wangaratta has a great deal more, over nine parts!
Ada Cambridge and the Wangaratta Story, Part 1 (here).
The author, Jenny Coates, does not provide links from one post to the next so I will leave it to you to search on ‘Ada Cambridge’ and find the others for yourself.

Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)

AWWC: extract from Chapter X, Our Fourth Home (Ballan) (here)

Enclave, Claire G Coleman

Claire G Coleman routinely reposts reviews of her books on Twitter (as does Nathan Hobby of his). She even reposted my recent review of her Lies, Damned Lies (via a Liz Dexter post). I think they’re both brave to read them in the first place!

But, CGC, don’t repost this one, I don’t think it’s your best work.

Not that I think anyone should be deterred from reading it. I loved Terra Nullius (2017) and I loved The Old Lie (2019). Indigenous.Lit and especially the current wave of women’s Indig.Lit, to which Coleman belongs, seems to me to be both innovative and full of life.

Like her first two, Enclave, which was released just last month, is Science Fiction, though falling easily within ‘Dystopian’ which all you regard as safe, not-really SF. But for me, this one did not flow as easily – the descriptions felt forced and there is a concentration on just one character – a privileged young white woman, Christine – where the other two had a wider cast.

She stared, half-blind,at the cold screen of her smartphone. Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails…

Christine, a university student in the last year of a maths degree, lives at home with her parents and younger (year 12 ish) brother. Her father is on the committee which runs the walled city in which they live. Her mother, notionally a designer, is an alcoholic, one of the women who lunch, all plastic-surgeoned into near identical faces. The city is patrolled by black-uniformed security forces who live in their own walled compound outside the Wall. Servants, non-white of course, come in by train each day to do all the work. Outside the Wall is a wasteland of broken buildings and scrublands.

The news from outside is of wars, desperate populations, burning cities. No one travels.

Surveillance within the city is constant, by fixed cameras, inside and out, and drones.

A new year starts; her brother begins a Business course which will lead him into the ruling elite; Christine enrols to do her Masters. Her father buys her an apartment which she allows her mother to furnish. Her (platonic) best friend Jack has disappeared and she is lost without him; her mother encourages her to drink.

Coleman seems to have the trick of building the story up in one direction for a while, and then surprising us by taking it down another. This is more muted in Enclave but still, having spent the first part establishing Christine’s life of privilege, she then snatches it away.

Christine takes increasing notice of one of the servants, Sienna. They kiss.

Chill and heat chased each other up and down her skin, fought for the territory of her face.
The hand fell away from her neck. The mouth she would die for pulled away from hers and she chased it, almost caught it before it spoke.
‘Christine’, Sienna warned. ‘We can’t get caught.’

But they do, captured on cameras in Christine’s bedroom.

I currently have two other works of women’s SF on the go, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994). Piercy in a later Introduction discusses women’s SF at some length and I’m going to have to get hold of a written copy (mine is on Audible), before I write a review.

SF is quite often bursting with ideas, and that is true of Enclave, and the whole literary thing suffers at least a little. But Piercy and Ogawa both write smoothly, while developing the characters of their respective ‘heroines’ with some depth – often a strength of women’s SF compared with men’s. Coleman has interesting characters around Christine, but they are not fully developed and I don’t feel that she uses the resulting space to fill out Christine as much as she might have.

I’m also not sure what Coleman was trying to achieve by having a white heroine. Yes, she wanted, as she always does, to highlight racial inequality. But the depictions of Black-white relations are sketchy, and incidental to the main theme which is surveillance and authoritarianism. In my opinion her Indigenous heroines are more effective.

Enclave has two changes of direction, so is a novel in thirds rather than halves. The middle third is an adventure, a struggle to survive, and the last third is – well not a utopia as I’ve seen it described – but Coleman’s current home and my old home, Melbourne, as a model society (and CGC, I love the trains!).

A short review, but what can you do when any description of Christine’s progress must necessarily be full of spoilers. We’ve discussed before that books whose writing I found awkward (Lucashenko!) you found lively and real, so you’ll probably all enjoy this one too. You’ll certainly enjoy the ideas Coleman discusses. Ignore me and give it a try.


Claire G Coleman, Enclave, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 307pp.

For a much more thoughtful review than mine try Alexander Te Pohe’s in Kill Your Darlings 14 July 2022 (here).

A Mere Chance, Ada Cambridge

Here I am, doing a second Perth – Mt Isa, unloaded last night. Luckily, I wrote this review for my AWWC gig before I left. Right now I’m negotiating for a load home, which may or may not involve me in running to Townsville over the weekend. Meanwhile I can sit in the (mild – 26C) tropical sun and read and write.

You might see that I had last week’s Australian Legend post on my mind as I wrote this one.

It’s a tragedy that Australia’s early women writers were denied their place in the canon by the rabid misogyny of the turn of the (C20th) century Bulletin, and by its fellow travellers Colin Roderick and Vance Palmer who dominated what we were allowed to know about Australian literature right up to the 1960s. With the consequence that important writers like Catherine Helen Spence, Catherine Martin, Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge were dismissed as romance writers and remained out of print for up to a century.

Read on …

Out Here, Alan Wearne

I know, the top half of the cover photo is warped. Blame my phone. But to the best of my memory, that house, just around the corner from Mum’s retirement village, is the one the Wearne’s lived in when I was at school in Blackburn South (Melbourne) and where I would occasionally deliver the newspaper when I worked at Pentland’s newsagency in Canterbury Rd, putting the rounds together for the paperboys at 5.00 in the morning.

Alan was a couple of years ahead of me, in his little arty clique, but I was good friends with his brother, so knew him to say hello to, saw him occasionally later on as we made our separate ways through uni.

Out Here (1976) is Alan Wearne’s first verse novel. The Nightmarkets followed 10 years later (when Out Here was reissued and I’m guessing, revised) and after that The Lovemakers (2001,4). He has other titles, collections of verse, I think, some of which I own. I recently saw a new title, Near Believing (2022) in the bookshop, and bought it, but it’s just a best-of of old stuff, so I thought why not go back to the source.

Out Here is one story from multiple points of view. Brett Viney, 17, has stabbed himself in the stomach in the school toilets and nine people around him have a say. The first is Lucy Martinson, deputy principal [From memory, our headmaster at Blackie South was Mr Martindale, and his deputy, whose name I don’t remember, was a woman at of around 70]: “I viewed the eddies of the Viney maelstrom.”

Some small crisis; at once
with bandages, the ambulance completed,
I rang adults: Brett’s mother and father, home
and, as they say, ranting.

In the staff room a teacher tells her “Viney seemed attached to/young Tracey Izzard. Tell her?/Before rumours, it would be best,/you know how women …”

Brett’s parents, Marian and Russell, have just broken up. Alan is quite clever, both at giving them different voices, and in showing through their inner monologues, and that’s what each section is, how Brett is only one of, and probably not even their main concern. First Marian: “I held to Russ,/had kids not opinions”

O Brett, son, we were, are crazy for
playthings, and pocket money, but
your father and I, until recently, held,
we tried. Try and care Brett. Care.

So, to my son’s Tracey: she has a long
pale neck, slight ginger hair and
this unnerving abundance, poise.

Then Russell, on the road to stay with his “has-been brother: ex-league-star and slob” [‘league’=NSW, so he’s heading interstate]: “Could say: ‘You did a fool thing,/call him mate, the stock/ ageing man response to/ sonny Brett”; but then goes back to thinking about his girlfriend Cheryl, and good times past with Marian.

Segue to Cheryl: “Calls me Chezz, too often now/ and I join his his school at times/ knowing they want to touch me up,/men, ten, fifteen years older, wishing/and hoping”. She’s told about Brett, but Russell leaving his wife is her big chance, her only thought to grab it with both hands. “You know, I’ve many men/Miss Cheryl Browne’s had many men,/but this is the, what, first starring role.”

We go on to Marian’s father, a millionaire house builder living in an expensive bayside suburb, and then Marian’s ‘commo’ younger sister; all of the voices reflecting not so much on why Brett may have harmed himself but on their own relationships and interrelationships.

Nothing halts, when Brett took out
the blade, lives continued, parents
kept their spar and interchange
boiling: the rest, I, his
sister and brother, you Tracey, stood
not knowing.

Tracey and then Brett follow, and I am still not clear what Brett was upset about – his parents, Tracey, life? Is that deliberate, or is it just me? Tracey suggests that Brett was depressed, “the Viney gloom”, and that she had had to take a week off during term, which may have led to: “I suppose pregnancy rumours/ have flung my name and Brett’s/ around the school.”

She turns to her father:

You know what I like, liked the best
apart from being with Brett, you know?
Dad’s greenhouse, Saturday morning.
Where we’ve talked about Brett
and Mum, her delicate problems ..

Brett speaks from some time in the future, from another suburb: “My childhood terminated hunched up/ in Martinson’s office, bleeding,/ it seems so long ago and/ such a mess.” He remembers his family visiting him in hospital – “no never ‘how could you do this to us etc’/never that, rather a wallow/ that they enjoyed their blame.”

And finally Mr Izzard, Tracey’s father: “I may be asked to, as were, round off/ though don’t expect some he did this,/she said that, happy ever after slice.” Though, perhaps he does: “O Tracey, it’s all right/ everything is going to be, all right.”

My feeling, having read and reread and written this far is that Out Here is not a novel (or novella), so much as a suite of voices telling a story, no not even a story, and certainly not Brett’s story which is largely lost in the voices washing over it, but a feeling for parenting in 1970s suburbia. Which is interesting, as Alan grew up in 1950s and 60s suburbia, matriculating in 1966. And The Nightmarkets which he wrote next, is definitely the story of his, my, generation, the boys made to go to war – or jail – in 1968,69,70.

I read Alan Wearne because he, his subjects are familiar. But I like his poetry too, that slightly awkward mixture of poetic rhythm and vernacular is both unique and reminiscent of CJ Dennis and AB Paterson – but without the galloping ryhmes!

The last lines of Miss Martinson’s, section, the ‘Miss’ is mine, but none of our teachers was ever ‘Lucy’, are perfect:

‘But why Brett (isn’t it?) why?’
Oh his shrug and oh just, just
mucking around with a knife.


Alan Wearne, Out Here, first pub. 1976. This edition, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle NSW, 1986. 50pp

see also my reviews:
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets (here)
CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (here)

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

I posted this review of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists in 2015, my first year as a blogger. I had the sense to link to both Sue/WG’s and Lisa/ANZLL’s reviews, so that made two comments and Jane, then a fellow blogger, made three.

Jane Rawson has written a couple of quirky novellas since, though I think that Formaldehyde (2015) got very little attention. A shame, as it is very funny. Her latest, A History of Dreams has apparently hit the shelves already, though not at Crow Books in Perth where I am still waiting for my order to be filled. A review will follow as soon as I have a copy in my hands.

The reason for this repost is that once again I find myself too busy to write. But Milly has finished moving, and in fact has already sold her old house, accepting an offer the first day it was shown. So that’s the end of that distraction. I’ve caught up with at least some of my bookkeeping; and though I’m still doing one trip a week to make up for the time I took off in March/April I’m hoping that by filling a space with this re-posting I can have my North America read for May, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, written up later this week

Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.

Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.

And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.

Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.

Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.

Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.

Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.

Hence, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the postulates, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.

One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.


Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013

See also: reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).

Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda (2013) is not a novel about swimming, as seems to be everyone’s first impression, so much as a novel where swimming, being a swimmer, is a way in to discussing Melbourne’s secret shame – class.

However, swimming, getting to world class, takes up a fair amount of space, which is interesting as I have seen nothing to indicate Tsiolkas was a competitive swimmer. Tsiolkas (1965- ) was a student at Blackburn High (in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) where two of my kids went (I went to Blackburn South High) and if he swam would have been a member of my old club, Nunawading and maybe have been coached by my former teammate and coach, Leigh Nugent.

In fact some of the things Tsiolkas says about swimming – ‘touching the wall’, losing track of the line on the bottom of the pool, thinking (my head did almost nothing but count laps (and complain about oxygen deprivation) when I swam) – make me wonder if he just “imagined himself” into his protagonist, Danny.

Danny is the oldest son of working class parents – Scottish-Australian interstate truck driver father and Greek-Australian mother – living in Reservoir, a northern suburb of working class Anglos and new migrants; streets of small, identical three bedroom brick and tile houses put up by the Housing Commission in the 1950s and 60s.

The guts of the novel is that, based on his swimming, he wins a scholarship to attend one of the big Private boys schools, probably based on Scotch College going by the coloured blazer and the location on the river.

The first piece of advice the Coach ever gave Danny was not about swimming, not about his strokes, not about his breathing, not about how he could improve his dive or his turns. All of that would come later. He would never forget that first piece of advice.

The squad had just finished training and Danny was standing shivering off to one side. The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs, when their fathers had entered their names on the list to attend Cunts College.

First week of term, February 1994

The advice? “You are not friends, you are competitors.” Don’t take shit from them. Give it back. Hurt them before they hurt you.

At school he is teased and ostracized, but over the years makes his way in to the in-crowd via his victories in swimming and his ‘psycho’ response to being provoked. Scotch is the school rich Presbyterians send their sons to. Fathers are judges, politicians, leaders in business and medicine. Mothers are society ladies, big on committees and entertaining.

Most middle Australians live in a fantasy “classless” society, unaware of the 10% above them pulling all the levers, keeping apart, speaking in mock British accents (and yes, I had one for a while, at Trinity); dismissive of ‘bogans’, tradespeople who work harder and often earn more than they do; and completely blind to the plight of the underclass of generationally welfare dependent.

Danny finds himself in a school for boys training to be bosses, whose parents are the bosses the rest of us work for, where arrogance is a given and self-doubt is rare. Of course Australians cut sporting heroes a lot of slack, and so there is a path for him to achieve acceptance.

The storyline chops about, beginning with Danny, 30ish, ex-swimmer, ex-con it turns out, in Glasgow, his relationship with his lover coming to an end; and making its way through all the episodes in his life that brought him to this point. It works well.

We see Danny, as a swimmer, quickly the best swimmer in his squad, rise through states, nationals, Pan-Pacs; we see him floundering in the social side of school life, with his mates, his mates’ mothers and sisters; a scholarship boy in the upper class suburbs of Toorak and Portsea; But more interesting are the family dynamics, his ongoing friendship with Demet, a Turkish-Australian girl from his old life, his sense of entitlement at home, his father’s resentment, his mother’s conciliating.

This is a big book, over 500 pages, and although Melbourne and class, and I guess competitive swimming are the glue which hold it together, it is the relationships which make it compelling – with Martin, at different times his biggest tormentor and best friend; with Demet; with Luke, his unlikely swottish schoolfriend; with his brother and sister; his parents of course (his father seems to get rather more days at home than the one day a week allowed most long distance drivers); with his mother’s Adelaide-based family, introduced late in the book; with his lovers.

Tsiolkas still writes with his dick too often for my taste, seems compelled to put his protagonists’ sex lives in your face, but it’s not happening all the time here, which is a relief, and for once the protagonist is anti-recreational drugs. As you might expect of me, I find it odd that he has written a coming-of-age for a protagonist who is in no way himself – no, I’m sure there’s bits of him in there – but he knows his Melbourne, someone had to write about class sooner or later, and he does it well, and of course his father is a (mostly convincing) truck driver running Melbourne – Perth, so I think I liked it.


Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013. 513pp

see also other Tsiolkas posts:
Australian Grunge (here)
Merciless Gods (here)
The Slap (here)
A Letter from America – Melanie’s take on The Slap (here)

A Room Called Earth, Madeleine Ryan

Last year I kept a list in the back of my diary of books I thought I should buy following your reviews. There’s forty or fifty books there, with your names beside them, and I can see I have bought maybe six – and one of those, Nada, was a cheat because Pam/Travellin’ Penguin mailed me her copy. But, from The Burglar who counted the Spoons (Emma) to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (Lou) to The Country of Ice Cream Star (Melanie) to Benevolence (Kim) there’s posts worth of missed opportunities which I hope I will one day get to.

I assumed that A Room Called Earth (2020) which I see by the inscription I bought Milly for her birthday last year would be amongst them. But it’s not, so I can’t say who has reviewed it before me. Milly said she hasn’t had a chance to read it yet because our granddaughter, Ms 18, who had been living with her, kept it in her room and read it at least three times in probably the same number of months (in preference to the Perth based SF I gave her for christmas and whose name I forget).

And so we get to ‘the spectrum’. It is debatable whether Ms 18 is on it, she certainly has her problems but she is dealing with those quietly and sensibly (for an 18 year old). The point is that the author is, and Ms 18 clearly identified with aspects of her protagonist – as we do.

The publicity around this book directs us to an article Ryan wrote for the New York Times, ‘Dear Parents: Your Child with Autism is Perfect‘.

Children with autism are wired to express themselves truthfully regardless of the social consequences. This is powerful, and anything powerful needs to be handled with care. Your child needs your protection, because feathers will be ruffled and feelings will get hurt. People’s elaborate facades and carefully woven lies won’t survive the scrutiny of an autistic mind or the unfiltered nature of its emotions. This is a positive thing, even if it’s inconvenient and difficult.

NYT 2 Jul 2020

The novel is 24 hours in the life of a young woman, in her mid twenties, getting ready for, going to, experiencing a party, coming home, waking up. A party in Melbourne, though the city and the suburbs, like the young woman, are unnamed. Is she “on the spectrum”? I’m sure she doesn’t say. Once again it is to be inferred from the slightly off-centre way she observes and behaves.

I forget now how I got to the NYT article, though the first line on the inside cover, “A brilliant debut from a neurodiverse author”, was presumably a hint to check out Ryan’s bio. But importantly the protagonist is not the stereotypical over-logical genius of the Rosie novels or Big Bang Theory because A Room Called Earth is what I’m always asking for, a story written by someone who is or has been there.

Connection with my own species has been difficult. I’m more at ease with the animal part of myself than the human part of myself. I feel at peace when I’m with Porkchop [her cat]. I have no concern about what he might or might not be thinking, or what might or might not happen next.

And so we follow her inner monologue, choosing clothes, how to put up her hair, reflecting on ex-boyfriends, life, the universe, her father.

It only slowly becomes apparent that her parents are dead, that she lives alone in the enormous mansion they have left her in Melbourne’s most expensive suburb. Oh yes, and it’s Christmas Eve. I read this some time ago and I’m skip reading to bring myself back up to – well not ‘speed’ but anyway something less than sloth.

The chapters are all short, two or three pages, and don’t take us forward at any great pace. By chapter 9 we are showered, standing contemplatively before a mirror, and wondering about nailpolish colour. By chapter 17 we have arrived at the party and are drinking our own vodka from our own martini glass, and thinking about drugs (which she doesn’t ‘do’.)

One time I went to a doctor … about something completely unrelated to anything medical and she asked me if I was taking prescription medication … antidepressants, perhaps? I tried to explain to her that I don’t feel comfortable having my feelings meddled with.

Ms 18 exactly!

We go for a walk, the suburbs feel familiar, inner-suburban terraces, return, stand around alone, she’s a lot more comfortable standing on her own at a party than I ever was, talk, meet a guy.

When people ask me what I ‘do’, I often say that I’m an alchemist, because it seems to me the most honest label to put on all the things I don’t want to be labelled as. It makes sense to me. Although it wouldn’t to my dad. I’m always conscious of what would or wouldn’t make sense to my dad. He’s like an inbuilt judicial system, governing my every move, and thought, and feeling, and choice.

The plot makes its way through the 24 hrs. The inner monologue is much more ‘coming of age’, much more Ms 18’s age, than the mid twenties age implied by her previous experiences. Is this part of her ‘being on the spectrum’? I can’t say. But it is an engrossing work and well worth reading, for grandfathers as well as granddaughters.


Madeleine Ryan, A Room Called Earth, Scribe, Melbourne, 2021. 287pp.

Interestingly, the first Like for this post was from Actually Autistic Bloggers. I haven’t checked them out but the link takes you to their list of (self-identified, I think) autistic bloggers

Milly’s Moving

Journal: 081

This patio has been the centre of our family life for ten or twelve years. And now Milly’s moving! Not to a retirement village thank goodness. Rather, she’s bought a two bedroom ground floor flat in E. Perth, on the edge of the city, where she can walk to work, has sisters living nearby, plenty of parks, including along the Swan River, to walk the dog, and I’m just over the river and a kilometre or two upstream, with a bike path all the way.

Now it’s pack up the books, pack up the china, sort everything else into piles of keepers and chuckers, patch and paint the interior walls. The table in the foreground, 7 feet square and solid oregon, is from my last house (from my last marriage). Can I persuade Gee to make an indoor/outdoor area around it on her new seachange property?

We’ve both had the last few days off, but every time we think we can settle down to a solid day’s work, this grandchild or that, and sometimes multiples of them, have to be run after. Tonight, as I write, yesterday, as you read, ms 10 and mr 11 are staying over. In the morning I will go over (will have gone over, insert tenses to suit), cook them pancakes, palm them off to Gee, their mother and settle down to painting the sunroom walls and ceiling. I hope.

Milly’s done a bit of moving; was born in Kalgoorlie, grew up in the State Housing suburbs south of Fremantle, innumerable post-war jerry-built fibro houses on quarter acre (1,000 sq m) blocks of dirty white sand and patches of yellow grass; moved at 14 or 15 on the death of her father to Rivervale, another State Housing suburb on the edge of the city, where I live now, in an apartment block between the river and the Great Eastern Hwy, as all the old blocks south of the highway are snapped up as they become available, for sub-division (sub-sub-sub-division) and high density housing.

When I met her, I was mostly driving out of Adelaide, to Sydney, but I’d been given her sister’s address – a unit in Rivervale, one of the early ‘duplexes’, down the street from her mother – for “if I was ever in Perth”; and at the end of 1977 I was, drove my truck straight down her street from the highway; Milly answered the door.

By then she was a single mum; had worked all round Australia; came home to have the baby, Psyche; was living with her older sister and a mob of girls, or so it seemed – more sisters, friends, drop-ins from the suburb who had always treated Mavis’s, Milly’s mum’s, as their local hang-out. I was invited to stay, and did. By the following May we were a couple; and by the end of five years we had two more kids and had lived in six houses – Maylands, Karawarra, Northbridge, E. Vic Park – all within a few kilometers of the city.

The next move was a doozy. An old boss offered me a management job in Melbourne; we put our two cars and bits and pieces on my mate Kevin’s truck and crossed the country, me and Psyche (then 6) sharing the driving with Kevin; Milly and the two infants flying.

After a time with mum and dad, and then two run down rentals – and in between getting fired and having to find a new job – we finally had enough to buy a big old weatherboard house in Blackburn, a middle class suburb in Melbourne’s leafy east. Which lasted until we broke up in the early nineties. From there we had a succession of houses each, all in Melbourne; near each other, distant from, together for another 3 years, apart again. Her mother died and Milly was able to buy another house, further out; for a while yet again we lived together, but Milly had had enough rain and mud and went home to Perth and its sun and sand and sisters.

The kids and I kept her house going for a year, made the payments, started doing it up to sell. My most recent business, a partnership in a trucking company, had failed and I was back driving, road trains to north Queensland. Milly sold up – and this was my big break*, offered me a share of the proceeds. By early 2002 we were both back in Perth, Lou was at uni in Melbourne and the girls, separately, were working their way around the country. Milly got an admin job in mining, up north. I bought a flat in her name, bought her out, bought a house with my new wife, got left, bought another flat in Rivervale; while she had a restaurant in Fremantle, sold out, resumed working up north, bought this house, worked and worked in the endless FIFO grind, retired, started with Red Cross, and here we are today.

In all those moves I think we only used a removalist company once, to send Milly’s stuff from Melbourne back to Perth; otherwise it was loads in the ute, or trailers, or trucks borrowed from work, or as general freight at mates’ rates. My latest ute’s still going strong, but the body’s getting tired, so this one will definitely be ‘Two Men & a Truck’.


Milly’s 2022 (If you look hard you can see the famous christmas ladder)
Getting the rules right, 2018
Milly and Psyche, 1977
In a corner of the garden
Her own favourite view

Recent audiobooks 

Paul Theroux (M, USA), Under the Wave at Waimea (2021)
Amanda Lohrey (F, Aus/?), The Philosopher’s Doll (2004)
Mercedes Lackey (F, USA), A Study in Sable (2016) – Fantasy/Sherlock Holmes rip off
Francisco Stork (M, USA), Marcelo in the real world (2009) – YA/more Aspergers!
Ian Rankin (M, Sco), Freshmarket Close (2004) – Crime
Yasmin Angoe (F, USA), Her Name is Knight (2021) – Crime
Alex Haley (M, USA), The Autobigraphy of Malcolm X (1965) – NF

Currently Reading:

Helen Razer (F, Aus/Vic), The Helen 100 (2017) – Memoir
Octavia Butler (F, USA), Kindred (1979) – SF
Doris Lessing (F, Eng), Shikasta (1981) – SF
Drusilla Modjeska (F, Aus/NSW), Poppy (1990) – Biog.
David Adams ed. (F, Aus/NSW), The Letters of Rachel Henning (1951)
Elizabeth Jolley (F, Aus/WA), An Accommodating Spouse (1999)

I know. My real big break was Milly never (completely) losing faith in me.

The Helen 100, Helen Razer

Melbourne journalist and communist Helen Razer is one of my favourite people. I used to always be able to read her in the daily political newsletter Crikey, and later in the (related I think) arts newsletter Daily Review. Her opinions are always incisive and quite often funny. Unfortunately, however often I subscribe, the Daily Review never actually arrives in my inbox, so I haven’t been sure for the last year or so whether it has survived and if so if Razer is still writing for it.

The Helen 100 (2017) is a memoir of the year when Helen was  41 43 and the woman who had been her partner for 15 years has left her. The memoir – it’s described as Memoir, so I suppose it is – begins with Helen lying on a table getting a bikini wax and it only gets more graphic from there. This may well be the most scatological work I have ever read. Ok. you are warned.

Be more specific. Well, I was more specific. As I felt him pull on my hair and resume his interest, by which I mean cock, I was able to say some really specific shit … a great stream of Kerouac Kink written on a single sheet of longing … All I can remember is that it involved a lot of ‘arse’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hurt me, Georges’, and possibly an offer from me to clean his kitchen in my scanties.

The woman waxing her ladyparts has persuaded Helen that the only way to get over a failed relationship is to go on as many dates as possible, Helen determines to go on 100, men or women, and no.12 is into bondage and sado-masochism. She asks him for more than he is willing to give.

Wanting sex, I have since learned, is a fairly standard middle-class female response to the shock of separation. I believe it comes a close second to going to Italy and Finding Oneself.

This is an astonishing work if it is indeed memoir as I’m sure many of the people represented here, not least Helen’s ex-partner, would be instantly recognisable in Melbourne’s inner suburban media/artsy set. It’s all told in that snappy, smartarse way of professional colour piece writers in the weekend pages, which I mostly despise, but Razer gets a leave pass from me for her fierce communist politics (only evident in passing here). And it feels true. I’ve been in a messy relationship breakup -not Milly! – and this is what it feels like.

Helen breaks into her ex-partner’s PC and discovers the break up, her partner’s involvement with other people, has been coming a lot longer than she realised.

I should have brushed my hair. I should have done my nails, I should have taken the best advice of all marriage manuals and not worn elasticised waistbands for months in the company of my spouse. I had worn elasticised waistbands for months and for months. I had been tolerably miserable.

She blames her horrible job, coming up with a constant stream of copy for an online discount advertiser. A job which early on she stops doing. A job which it turns out she was using to support her partner, a not very good artist. Going so far, in an effort to save their marriage, as to pay for a threesome. In a posh hotel. In New York.

On a dating/instant sex website after lots of truly bad exchanges (as a pedant she’s mostly upset by the bad spelling) she starts talking to John, a witty, intelligent text messager, but it’s a while before they meet. Meanwhile she’s busy racking up her 100. Sort of. Anyone she interacts with ticks the counter over.

She has a cat, Eleven, with whom she shares fried chicken. The fried chicken delivery man counts as a date. She has a therapist, Cheap George, who advises her no one ever gets over divorce, they just do something different and pretends that’s “growth”. Anyone she spends any time with she lectures on workers rights.

There was a spectre haunting my vagina. It was the spectre of communism.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I think you’re cute. But you really need to shut up.’

It’s a while before she actually scores. John occasionally reappears and they do good conversation. They meet. He has his faults. By date 53 she’s getting into the routine of it all, but Cheap George is right, “What you need is just one mild truth: you’ll never get over your fucking divorce.”

And where did I find this amusing memoir? On my ex-wife’s shelves, where I was idly pulling books out in preparation for boxing them up for her big move. I don’t know about you, but I can’t box books up without inspecting them as I go. Neither Milly nor I remembers, but I’d say I bought it on spec two or three years ago then gave it to her for xmas thinking I could read it later. Which I now have. I wonder who else of you would like it. Neil@Kalaroo maybe. He’ll read anything.


Helen Razer, The Helen 100, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2017. 305pp.

see also:
Helen Razer, Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young (2017)

Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Monkey Grip (1977) is famously Helen Garner’s first novel. It comes mid-generation, marking a clear point of no return, a clean break with with Australian writing’s past. If any one novel represents AWW Gen 4, then this is it.

When I first read Monkey Grip I saw it in the tradition of the Beats – Kerouac, Burroughs, and as I read more widely and time passed, of Kathy Acker and Irvine Welsh, leading on to Australia’s brief Grunge movement in the 1990s – Ettler, Tsiolkas, McGahan. With this re-reading, I don’t resile from those connections, but I’ve also read a lot more Garner. This is more than just living poor and taking drugs, this is Garner’s deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others, and of course to autofiction.

The book it now reminds me of most closely is her fictionalised account of her friend’s treatment for late-stage cancer, The Spare Room (2008).

In December 1972 Garner, who was then 30, was fired from her job as a teacher for talking dirty to her 11-13 year old pupils: ” …the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I’m not going to say “sexual intercourse”, I’m going to say “fuck” and I’m going to say “cock” and “cunt” too, so we’d better get that straight. Is that OK?”

Joseph Steinberg writes in an ALS article that “the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place.” He quotes Kerryn Goldsworthy: “[male] reviewers were made uneasy ‘by frank, serious, knowledgeable utterances about sexuality made by a woman’ in Garner’s early novels and sought ‘to query her status as a literary author: in a word, to sack her’ (again)”.

In Monkey Grip, Nora – who stands in for Garner – is a single mother, with a five year old daughter, Gracie, living in share houses, old workers’ cottages in nineteenth century terraces around the CBD and Melbourne University (both presences which are felt but hardly ever mentioned); if I’ve got it right, first in Fitzroy, then near the Victoria Markets, and then back in Fitzroy.

It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack… But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart.

Or as Steinberg summarises: “Nora needs to fuck Javo, Javo needs dope; Nora needs Javo not to need dope, but Javo needs it to need Nora, and Nora needs to be needed by Javo, ‘must learn not to need him’ though he needs her, for when it is her turn to need him he will ‘he will have nothing to give’. ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’, muses Nora midway through the novel.”

Gracie is an odd presence throughout, bored witless in her first year at school, already able to read, and at home, a Jiminy Cricket, seeing everything, an independent spirit with her own opinions, her own life.

One of the most interesting things about the story telling is the complete absence of back story for any of the characters. You get to know them as they appear on the page, entirely without explanation. Anything that’s not relevant at that moment, you don’t hear about.

Kevin Brophy in another ALS essay writes about Monkey Grip‘s reception over time. Especially early on, male reviewers were unhappy with Garner’s focus on women’s issues; Garner was an author who ‘talks dirty and passes it off as realism’; male and female reviewers, as was always the case with works by women, shrugged it off as a love story; almost no attention was paid to the innovation in both writing and subject matter. Brophy suggests an alternative reading, one which was resisted by nearly every reviewer:

The text proposes that people can throw conventions aside and reinvent themselves and their social relations in a process of change that is self-imposed, liminal, unpredictable and spontaneous. These new possibilities involve the reader in a world where communal living and single parenting can be the norm, where children are relatively independent and have insights to offer on the behaviour of the adults around them, a world where women insist on meeting men as equals. It is a world where a woman can speak and write of sex explicitly, dispassionately, even ‘tastelessly’ in a literary work — an accomplishment long granted to male literary figures. In these and other ways Monkey Grip invites readers to recognise and reassess the conventions by which they take their ‘realist’ fiction and by which they live.

Today, forty something years later, Garner’s autofiction is still controversial. In 1977 it was just plain un-literary.

I haven’t made it clear, but we make our way through a year and a bit of inner Melbourne life; hot summer days at the Fitzroy baths; cycling through Carlton and Fitzroy’s achingly familiar plane tree lined streets; in and out of each others’ share houses; in and out of beds in all the painful permutations of ‘open’ relationships; struggling to a resolution.

One last quote from Brophy:

[T]here is a further, more socially fundamental and political perspective on addiction offered in the novel. The patriarchal value system— the ideology that socialises us from childhood—is here presented as the overwhelming addiction suffered by characters who are wanting to reinvent value systems for social relations.

Garner is a revolutionary, remaking the way we think about living, about bringing up children, about relationships; remaking the way we think about Literature. If you haven’t read Monkey Grip yet, do yourself a favour.


Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin/McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1977. 245pp.

Joseph Steinberg, Helen Garner’s Education, Australian Literary Studies, 28 Oct 2021
Kevin Brophy, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, The Construction of an Author and her Work, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 1992

Lisa/ANZLitLovers is first off the block for AWW Gen 4 Week with a review of Amy Witting’s, The Visit (here) and Sue/Whispering Gums has promised to be on topic in tomorrow’s Monday Musings, and now (Sunday afternoon) I see she’s reviewed a Janet Turner Hospital short story (here) as well.

Re my North America Project 2022, I’m sorry but it’s weeks since I’ve been in the truck so I have not made a start on Their Eyes Were Watching God audiobook. As I have Octavia Butler’s Kindred on my shelves, I am reading that and will put up a review on 31 Jan. Next month is still The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and March is Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (BIP, I know you suggested Salt Roads, thank you, but I decided to go with MR because it is earlier.) I’ll advise other months, including Their Eyes, when I get more organized.