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.

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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.

Say No to Death, Dymphna Cusack

AWW Gen 3 Week Part II 17-23 Jan, 2021

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My first edition hardback of Say No to Death (1951) doesn’t have a dust jacket but I imagine that is it above. I was going to write first and probably only edition, until I saw some paperbacks in Images – publishers Allen&Unwin, Seven Seas and Great Books, which implies that it’s out of copyright – and a cover, in English, on a Russian site, pictured below along with an intriguing book I hadn’t previously heard of – Dymphna by Norman Freehill with Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 81).

I didn’t have Cusack down as a Communist, of whom there were a number in Gen 3, but from Images I could see she was obviously published in Eastern Europe and so looked further.

Late in 1948 Cusack consolidated a long-term if intermittent relationship with Norman Randolph Freehill, then chief-of-staff of the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper, the Tribune… In 1949 Cusack, and later Freehill, sailed for Europe. When health permitted, she worked on the manuscripts that she had taken to London, including Say No to Death

A committed social reformer, she interpreted history through the lives of ordinary people and used various forms of popular culture to entertain, inform and educate. She regarded herself, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase, as an `écrivain engagé’—one for whom the pen was mightier than the sword. Despite constant illness, she was a brave and prominent anti-nuclear activist in the World Peace Movement during the Cold War era.

ADB, Marilla North

If you’re interested in that sort of stuff, ADB also says the play Comets Soon Pass (1943) “was her personal catharsis and artistic reprisal for the defection of her former lover, the novelist Xavier Herbert”.

Before I go on I should clarify what I’m attempting to achieve by looking again next month at Australian Women Writers Gen 3, which covers the period from immediately after the Great War to the end of the fifties. In our first go we looked at the transition away from the blokey Bulletin era of ‘the nineties’, to the new movements of Modernism and Social Realism, and for Communists, Socialist Realism (I won’t question you on the difference, though it’s important), and the rise of a family-based Pioneer legend as a counter to the Bulletin’s misogynist ‘Lone Hand’.

Please, by all means look some more at the pre-War (WWII) period, but I also need to be clear in my own mind about the transition to Gen 4 which occurred after the War. I was born in rural Victoria in 1951 so this is personal. Australia’s eastern seaboard, where 80% of us live, was White. White, white, white. And not just white, but totally, homogeneously Brit. “Home” was England and the only ethnic diversity came from Irish Catholics. Victoria’s remnant Aboriginal population was hidden away at Lake Tyers and it was the same, to a large extent, in the other eastern states until you got into the outback. The writing of the 1940s and 50s represented that and continued on the stories of white middle-class privilege, and of working class hardship and housing shortage ongoing from the Depression years, almost without a break.

Even before the War, migration had commenced with Eastern European Jews, then came assisted migrants in their thousands from the UK, Italy and Greece, so by the 1960s we were a totally different place. Add in the sexual revolution which arose out of/coincided with the Pill, the popular music revolution, the baby boom, the anti-war movement, and you can see why this must be my transition point from Gen 3 to Gen 4.

This, as always, leaves two important writers on the cusp, Elizabeth Harrower (1928-2020) and Thea Astley (1925-2004) who published their first novels in respectively 1957 and 1958. I’m going to make a captain’s call and put Harrower in Gen 3 and Astley in Gen 4. My reasoning is that Harrower wrote mostly in the 1950s, she was a modernist, after Eleanor Dark and Patrick White say, and her subject was the monocultural middle class suburbs of Sydney. Astley on the other hand, wrote prolifically throughout the second half of the C20th and her theme was much more the clash of cultures.

So, back to Say No to Death. I have reviewed Cusack’s first, Jungfrau (1936), should have reviewed her second, the spoof Pioneers on Parade (1939) written with Miles Franklin, have reviewed her third, Come in Spinner (1951) co-written with Florence James and also Caddie (1953) for which Cusack wrote the Introduction and which is a memoir written by her and James’ housekeeper when they were living together in the Blue Mountains writing Come in Spinner.

Say No to Death was her fourth, not counting five or six plays which Cusack thought might be her real vocation. It wasn’t one I had planned to read, but was getting – am still – bogged down in Christina Stead’s Little Hotel, and so grabbed the nearest to hand off the shelf of possibles for this Gen3/II introduction. It’s a shame to tell you any of the story at all, as it is much better if the developments come up in their proper place, but yes, I’m going to.

The setting is Sydney, 1947, starting in the crowded suburbs around the Cross, described elsewhere with much more feeling and detail by Ruth Park who had arrived there to live in shambolic rooming houses three or four years earlier with her new husband D’Arcy Niland and his brother. There Jan and her sister Doreen share a one room flat.

The novel begins with Bart Templeton, a soldier who had fought in New Guinea before re-enlisting, returning from a year or so with the Occupation forces in Japan. Jan is at the wharf to meet him, at the back of the welcome-home crowd, ready to walk away if he doesn’t acknowledge her.

He’d behaved pretty lousily to Jan, he was willing to admit. But what else was a cove to do? He’d been her first man – he’d take an oath on that. She was in love with him; there was no doubt about that either, and they’d had a hell of a lot of fun together. And when he’d gone away without saying a word about marrying her she hadn’t reproached him nor even shown what she felt …

He does acknowledge her, taking up where he’d left off and soon they’re on ten days vacation in a shack on a lake somewhere up the Northern Beaches. Towards the end she coughs blood, a bone in her throat maybe, but we know what’s coming and soon it’s clear Jan has TB.

I still find Cusack’s writing style awkward, but the story itself is good. Bart and Jan have their ups and downs. The public system for isolating men and women with TB is a disgrace, crowded ex-WWI army barracks with a 3 – 6 months waiting list, men sleeping on verandahs, working people dying from want of treatment. I can remember my father being terrified of us kids touching stuff in the street or eating with dirty hands and this is why. Maybe every generation has its Covid-19.

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Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death, Heinemann, London, 1951. 324pp

see also Sue (Whispering Gums):
Dymphna Cusack, A Window in the Dark, memoir (here)
Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (here)
Delicious Descriptions: Dymphna Cusack’s Sydney (here)

The Place on Dalhousie, Melina Marchetta

Talk about getting what you wished for! I wrote a few weeks ago, in comments after Saving Francesca that “I’d be interested to read a Melina Marchetta that covered the next few years, 17,18 through to mid twenties like say Normal People, though perhaps her style would be too gentle.” The Place on Dalhousie is Marchetta’s latest and here is a quote from p.4.

And that’s all it takes. A couple of drinks and she’s back in some strange guy’s room, upstairs at the pub. His calloused fingers find their way between her legs and she realises she’s going to spend another night of her life screwing a guy she doesn’t know. Makes her feel as if she can’t climb out of the bat cave, and the bleakness is smothering.

‘She’ is Rosie, 19 year old daughter of Sicilian immigrants, passing through a central Queensland town (probably based on Theodore, 560 km NW of Brisbane). Her life is a mess. Her mother has died of cancer. Her father who spent years rebuilding the old house ‘on Dalhousie’ in inner western Sydney, has remarried, to Martha, the daughter of German immigrants, and then been killed in a traffic accident. The guy she doesn’t know is Jimmy. They spend the next week or so helping residents deal with a major flood, then go their separate ways.

We move on a couple of years. Martha, forty-ish, is dealing with a stressful job, with being a widow, with a girl upstairs with a screaming baby, with a girl upstairs who won’t talk to her but insists that the house is hers. Her best friend gets her to join a netball team with some of their old class mates, most of whom she has spent the last twenty years avoiding. Marchetta it seems, is big on the bonds formed at school.

Jimmy responds 15 months late to the text informing him he is a father. He is now working on the mines up north, week on, week off. Rosie is not impressed but Jimmy hangs around, couch surfing when he can get down to Sydney, with his own old schoolmates from inner-western Sydney. At some stage my goldfish brain finally catches on – twenty-something Jimmy and Frankie and Tara and so on are the 17 year-olds from Saving Francesca.

Poor Jimmy has to work very hard to convince Rosie he’s worth bothering with.

She holds out the crying kid for Jimmy to take, but he doesn’t.
‘When he gets used to me, maybe,’ he says.
Rosie cradles the sobbing baby, but it doesn’t seem to help. And that’s it for the day. No more talking, just a lot of standing around and soaking in the mess.

Martha has a love interest. She has sex with a football hero/older brother of one of her classmates in the back seat of his (presumably dual cab) ute after a funeral, and two or three times after. Yes, they do have homes, they just seem to have a thing about reliving their, twenty years previous, school days.

The football hero guy is also their netball coach, so that makes one plot line. The ups and downs of Jimmy and Rosie being parents and learning to talk to each other, makes another. Then, we get bits and pieces of the lives of the Saving Francesca crowd (whom I read were also in another novel, The Piper’s Son), and of the Sydney inner-west Italian community to which both Frankie (Francesca) and Rosie belong, so there’s plenty going on.

Rosie joins a new mothers group for support from which she and another couple of misfits (ie. non-Anglos) are shunted, and as they get over their prickliness they form a support group of their own. She starts working in an old people’s home and of course that’s the home where football guy, whom she doesn’t know at that stage, places his father. There’s ongoing background hum about a lost Monaro which eventually stretches concidence even further. But mostly it’s just an easygoing story of people and their lives, intertwined in ways that I as a constant moving-onner find both interesting and a bit unbelievable.

No, it’s not literary fiction – I may finally get a mention in the AWCC General fiction round-up (I think I missed out with Jane Harper and Liane Moriarty) – but nevertheless an interesting step up from the schoolgirls of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca.

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Melina Marchetta, The Place on Dalhousie, Penguin Random House, Melbourne, 2019. 277pp.

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

Facts must be faced. I read like a girl. I got home yesterday, after eight 16 hour days of work, which is standard, tired out of my brain, had a shower, a drink, answered the easier emails, picked up a comfort read from the shelf where it had been sitting for the last couple of years, plunged right in, watched a bit of footy, the wrong side was winning, went to bed, read on until the book was finished.

The book? Saving Francesca (2003), as of course you can see, very well written feel-good fiction for teenage girls. And aged truck drivers. Well, aged truck drivers who also read Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables.

Which reminds me, Theresa Smith, in comments on a Whispering Gums post, has set me the task of reading up on Georgette Heyer’s old fashioned rightwingedness and particularly her overt anti-semitism, which I will do, though I must say I am surprised. Is it just the equating of money lending and Jewishness – and I say ‘just’ because that is unavoidable in much older fiction – or is there more? To which I have been oblivious. We will see.

Melina Marchetta (1965- ) was a history/language teacher in a Sydney boys school but is now a full time writer, no doubt following the success of her first book (and movie) Looking for Alibrandi (1992). Saving Francesca was her second and she has since written four or five others including The Piper’s Son (2010) which is apparently based around one of the boys in Saving Francesca.

I read Looking for Alibrandi some years ago, saw the movie on TV, enjoyed them both, was happy to pick up Saving Francesca when I saw it second-hand, to save for a rainy day.

Francesca is 16, starting Year 11 in the first cohort of girls in an inner-Sydney Catholic boys high school. She, Tara, Siobhan, and Justine, all ‘outsiders’, are the only girls from her old school and all her friendship group have gone on to a different school.

This morning my mother didn’t get out of bed.

Opening line

Mother, Mia is a livewire, a feminist, a university lecturer. Robert, husband, father, is laid-back, a builder. They were childhood sweethearts, and lovers it turns out, married young. It’s the sort of family where Francesca and her younger brother lie on their parents’ bed, talking to their mother late into the night while Robert sleeps and snores; where it is unremarkable, a bit gross maybe, to see each other naked.

So Mia not getting out of bed is a big deal, and it goes on for most of Francesca’s Year 11. A year of working out who your friends are – you might think there would be a ‘villain’ amongst the boys, but there’s not. They are just as awkward as the girls. And it slowly becomes apparent that the awkwardest of them have their virtues, hidden behind boy-grossness of course.

I miss … Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”
I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

Slowly, Francesca becomes aware that she and the other outsider girls have formed a friendship group, is surprised again, later in the year, to find that their group includes boys. It’s very well done.

Meanwhile, Mia’s depression is not being named, not being discussed, not being treated. Robert monopolizes Mia, willing her to snap out of it, bewildered when she doesn’t, refusing to discuss her illness with Francesca. But Francesca too is an unreliable narrator here, unaware that her own silence about Mia is making her unwell. As you might expect from a teacher-author, some of the teachers cut Francesca a lot of slack, and she spends days asleep in one teacher’s office. At least that teacher finally gets Francesca to see a counsellor.

Gradually, we see from their reactions – though it is not clear Francesca realizes this – that the other kids are aware of what Francesca is dealing with, and they too cut her some slack.

Only at the end, it comes out that her parents have been keeping a big secret (and I don’t think it’s in character that Mia would). Francesca has a fight with her father …

“You keep her all to yourself. You think you can fix everything by forgetting about it but you just make things worse. It’s all your fault. You’ve kept her sick, because you don’t know how to handle it. Because you’re a weakling. Everyone says you are, and I believe it and Mummy could have done better than you and I don’t know why you don’t fuck off now before you make it worse.”

… runs off, ends up in an outer suburban police station, is picked up by her father, talks to him, sits on her bed talking all night to her friends, the love interest thing is dealt with (I’ve been ignoring it).

It’s fun. Not preachy. Not overwhelmed by ‘issues’. A year in a life with lots of stuff going on, growing up getting done. Inner-western Sydney just lightly pencilled in. A happy-ish, realistic ending. Highly recommended.

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Melina Marchetta, Saving Francesca, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003

Not Meeting Mr Right, Anita Heiss

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Anita Heiss (1968- ) is a Wiradjuri woman, an academic and an author. I have previously reviewed her Dhuuluu-yala: To Talk Straight (here) on who should write Aboriginal stories, and plan hope to review her Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia towards the end of this Week.

As well as her academic work, Heiss has published a number of novels in the genre she likes to call Choc.Lit, ie. Chick.Lit with strong Black women protagonists. From the reviews I have looked at these are all as didactic as they are romantic. Not Meeting Mr Right (2007) was her first.

My younger daughter has been telling me off about using the expression Chick.Lit but I will leave her and Dr Heiss to fight that out between them. To be fair, I think that Gee’s concern was that men were too liable to characterise women’s writing as Chick.Lit. instead of engaging with their valid concerns about personal development and relationships.

Heiss’s mother is a Wiradjuri woman from Cowra in central NSW and her father was born in Austria. Heiss was born in Sydney and went to an eastern suburbs Catholic girls school. Alice, Heiss’s heroine, lives in the eastern suburbs, has an Aboriginal mother and an Austrian father, and teaches history at a Catholic girls school. That is not to say that Not Meeting Mr Right is autobiographical, but rather that it draws on her lived experience. At the time of publication Heiss, “who lives in Sydney, believes in love at first sight and enjoys being single!”, was going on 40. Alice, who lives in a flat overlooking Bondi beach, is 28 and determined to be married before she’s 30.

There is one other issue to be dealt with before I go on. And that is is that I sometimes find fiction by Australian Indigenous writers awkward to read, the most recent example being Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip. That is, that the flow of the words doesn’t feel right. In one of the many teaching moments spread through this book, Heiss addresses this:

I’d always thought the written and spoken word were very different in the white world. It’s so obvious in their literature. Aboriginal writing is closely aligned to the spoken word. We write like we speak, and reality is, that’s how our people read too.

What she leaves unsaid is that spoken Aboriginal English has significant differences, in its rhythms as well as vocabulary, from what we might call received English. I feel this sometimes just within ‘white’ English, moving from city to country and from lit.blogging to truck driving.

Two months after her twenty-eighth birthday Alice attends a ten-year school reunion

I’d been a self-conscious teenager who never really fit in – me being a Blackfella from La Perouse and the rest of the girls whitefellas from Vaucluse and Rose Bay. A triangular peg in a round hole, I used to say.

These days, Alice, probably shapelier and prettier than her former schoolmates, doing well as a senior teacher, is made to feel inadequate in another way. All the others are flashing engagement and wedding rings, the talk is all weddings and babies (It doesn’t help that Alice’s mother is applying the same pressure). Of course Alice “loves being single”, but by the end of the night she has decided that she will find and marry Mr Right before she turns 30.

She calls a meeting of her friendship group and they come around immediately to begin strategising – Dannie, happily married with children; Peta, a serial dater, who does something high-powered in Indigenous Education policy; and Liz a lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal Service. The upshot is that she will do what it takes – blind dates, classified ads, attend professional gatherings … to get a man who is ‘single, straight and wanting to be in a relationship’, financially secure, shows affection in public etc, etc. but she will not ‘put out on the first date’, date friends’ exes, or get picked up in a pub. There’s also stuff about star signs, which I ignored.

There follows, over the course of 20 months, a series of meetings with men who might fit the bill. Her friends line her up, her mother wishes to line her up with her best friend’s gay son, her garbo turns out to have a degree in something and to be an altogether nice guy; she dates white guys, Indigenous guys, a Samoan guy – who is just getting into bed when she mentions Wedding Island on the horizon and he disappears in a cloud of dust; she dates a lilywhite guy who is sure he is black – if by dating you mean drinking till you black out and waking up on the floor of a strange flat beside a man you’ve never seen before; early on she dates a friend of Dannie’s who might be perfect but rejects him because his face is pockmarked with chickenpox scars. Yes, Alice is a lookist.

The teaching moments deal with how to introduce your Black girlfriend; ‘significant moments for women in Australian history’ (interestingly she has Cathy Freeman’s gold medal at the Sydney Olympics but not Evonne Goolagong’s 14 Grand Slams); other stuff I forgot to write down; not reading Murdoch newspapers (duh!).

A couple of guys are nearly ok. An awful lot of makeup is applied and gin drunk to not much effect. More desperation comedy than romantic comedy. But enjoyable.

 

Anita Heiss, Not Meeting Mr Right, Bantam/Random House, Sydney, 2007

The Cockatoos, Patrick White

Text Publishing — The Cockatoos: Text Classics, book by ...

Patrick White (1912-1990) is an unlikely candidate for the title of Australia’s best writer. Born into a firmly upper class life, he lived as a child in Sydney and on his family’s properties in the Hunter Valley (NSW), he and his sister were brought up by a nanny, and at age 12 he was sent to boarding school in England. He left school early and jackarooed for a couple of years on an uncle’s 28 square mile station in the Snowy Mountains (similar country to and maybe 100 kms SE of Miles Franklin’s families’ properties) before returning to England to study French and German Literature at Cambridge.

When his father died in 1937 White was independently wealthy, living and writing in London and for a while in the US. His first novel, Happy Valley, which he had commenced while jackarooing, was published in 1939. He enlisted in the RAF at the outbreak of WWII and served as an intelligence officer in Egypt, Palestine and Greece during which time he met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer, who became his life partner.

White lived with Lascaris for six years in Cairo before, in 1948, bringing him to live in Australia where they had a hobby farm at Castle Hill on the outskirts of Sydney. Their life as ‘farmers’ formed the background for one of White’s most admired novels (not by me!), his fourth, and the first written in Australia, The Tree of Man (1955). To be clear, Patrick White lived as an Englishman, rather than an Australian, until he was 36.

His fifth and greatest novel, Voss (1957) draws on the life (and death) of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt and also on White’s own time in the outback at another family property near Walgett, NSW. White wrote 13 novels all up and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. The Cockatoos, his second collection of short stories was published in 1974.

I always knew I should read White and attempted, unsuccessfully, The Aunt’s Story (1948) while I was at uni. Some time later I read and enjoyed Voss, and also the David Marr biography, and I read, and wrote about, The Aunt’s Story and The Twyborn Affair (1979) during my (very) mature age M.Litt. I have vague memories of starting others – I own A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and Memoirs of Many in One (1986) and I thought I owned the memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981) but maybe not.

I look up ‘Cockatoos’ in Marr. “So dry were the early months of 1973 that flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew in from the bush to plunder city gardens”. White is correcting proofs of The Eye of the Storm and putting together some stories written over the previous six years. “The latest story is called “The Cockatoos”, [White wrote], and that would be the title of the collection.” He submitted the stories in July and moved on to A Fringe of Leaves which had been lying ten years in a drawer waiting for Mrs Fraser “to recover from the mauling of librettists and composers” (see also: Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt).

Here are the stories and their lengths in pages:
A Woman’s Hand 104
The Full Belly 30
The Night the Prowler 58
Five-Twenty 34
Sicilian Vespers 86
The Cockatoos 59
so you can see why the collection is subtitled ‘Shorter novels and stories’.

Gail Jones in her 10 page introductory essay begins at the same place as I have, Marr’s “So dry were the early months of 1973 …”. She describes White’s work as “the singular project of someone for whom art offered questions, not answers, and an anguishing search for resolution in the irresolute business of being.” After waxing lyrical about The Tree of Man, she writes:

So what of The Cockatoos? Wonderfully broad in setting – the stories take place in Sicily, Greece, Egypt and Australia – they are also typical of White’s fiction in their combination of social comedy, inner quest and revelations of deep wounding. All engage modernist effects and concern melancholy and suffering.

I have read, struggled through, these stories. White’s work has layer on layer of meaning and intertextuality. They are mostly about older couples making do together, and White expresses his usual disgust with women’s bodies and with middle class Australians with deliberately ridiculous names like the Fazackerleys (A Woman’s Hand). The Full Belly is a short re-imagining of Greek life under German occupation, a period White was familiar with from his life with Manoly and the years he spent living in the Greek community in Egypt. The Night the Prowler Jones says strikes a false note. A couple attempt to come to terms with their daughter being raped, the daughter attempts to come to terms with being raped by becoming a sexual predator. This was made into a movie which I haven’t seen.

Let’s look at the final story, The Cockatoos. It’s a story of neighbours, people, middle aged couples mostly, living in the same suburban street, knowing each others’ names but hardly neighbourly. Mr Goodenough wears shorts at the weekend, showing his varicose veins. He and Mrs Goodenough have an only child, Tim, almost nine, who avoids other children, wanders streets and parks on his own. White makes fun of himself:

It bothered the father: what if the boy turned out a nut? or worse, a poof – or artist?

Mrs Davoren and her husband Mick, an Irish airman during the war, live amicably enough in the same house but avoid meeting, communicate through notes. Miss Le Cornu lives alone in the house left her by her parents. Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu both cook tea for Mick who puts on his hat and walks up the street to eat his overcooked steak and bed Miss Le Cornu before wandering home again while Mrs Davoren scrapes the teas she cooks into the bin.

Cockatoos settle on the Davoren’s lawn, are offered food and water until they briefly accept a better offer from Miss Le Cornu. The Davorens bump into each other in a dark corner and briefly reconcile. Figgis, the neighbour everyone dislikes, brings his shotgun into the street, fires at the birds. Mick Davoren wrestles him for the gun, is shot, dies in the arms of Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu, who afterwards sometimes speak. Tim spends a night in the park and beats a crippled cockatoo to death with a branch.

All very Patrick White. I’m sure it all means something.

 

Patrick White, The Cockatoos, first pub. 1973, this ed. Text Classics, 2019, Introduction by Gail Jones

Bloodfather, David Ireland

fourtriplezed  The author of this guest post is John who comments here and posts on Goodreads as Fourtriplezed. He wrote to me recently about my 2019 David Ireland project: “I have read all of Ireland’s novels up to City of Women and am at present half way through Bloodfather. I have The Chosen and World Repair to go and then I am a completist.” He has since completed Bloodfather of which he says: “I thought it a work of art. I suspect I am on my own there lol.”


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As the baby was born on a butchers slab his mother sang religion. He was the leader, she the led. The baby, unless there are exceptional circumstances, is the great dictator in all households. The baby’s aunt Ursula said that when the baby arrived in the house ‘A lord of atmosphere had taken up residence’…. Aunt Mira asked, “ ‘Who’s a bornless child then? Here’s a fine kettle of kitsch. What’ll he be when he grows up? A gifted bus driver with a stern view of things?’ A few Sherries shut her up.” Author David Ireland is an observer of the human condition.

The writer can get the reader hooked by words. The word “God” is one such hook. That one word plays a part in the life of the baby, Davis Blood. From the beginning he is imbued with his mother’s songs of religion, Aunt Ursula through her thoughtful dialog with her gifted young nephew and Aunt Mira with wordplay that challenges him. He listened to them all. This young boy was listening from the time he was a babe through to his endeavour to discover his inner self at the ripe old age of 16.

If one is looking to read a Bildungsroman along the lines of the customary life of a young man then they will be disappointed. Ireland writes of this boy as a sponge of all that is around him. Sport and girls? Yes a little but so tiny as to be almost missed. Learning is beyond important in this Bildungsroman. The reader looking for the predictable should read no further. This is a deep look at the boy as an individual struggling with what makes him what he is and what he intends to be. He is learning from all sources be that physical, scholastic or spiritual. This is a pursuit, a pursuit of a hopeful future.

Hope is the key to what is Ireland’s most optimistic of novels. There is a strange uplifting demand of the reader to get inside the boy’s thoughts and be part of the world around him. From birth to his 16th birthday he is no ordinary child, he is listening and learning. He is both objective and subjective with his thoughts, be that his need for his individuality or his requirements for spirituality. The words of this book demand that the reader take that journey. Read and ponder.

Most of Ireland’s previous novels had the inner city ramparts as a constant. The closed walls of Puroil, Merry Lands and The Southern Cross Hotel were inner city and tribal. This is different; rural with descriptions of an almost homely paradise surrounded by nature. Did his readership want that? Maybe not. He failed to have another book published for nearly 10 years. His readership had passed him by. They had found new literary fashions. So be it.

This is a long read and not for the fainthearted. It will not be for everyone so I do not recommend it. But then who cares, I loved it.

 

David Ireland, Bloodfather, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987

Other David Ireland posts/reviews:
Fourtriplezed’s David Ireland shelf on Goodreads (here)
David Ireland (here)
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
John writes: I am of the opinion that Ireland, as a writer is not right wing, nor left for that matter. I take on-board your thoughts about Burn but must respectfully disagree. Burn as a novel morphed from a play he wrote called Image in the Clay. He wrote of that play “No opinions are presented: my interest in aborigines is no more than anyone else’s, except that they are people. That is my interest” and in my opinion that was the same for Burn and all his other works. He, from what I have read elsewhere, was describing a situation that he witnessed while working out west [in NSW] just after WW2. Burn is a strange novel in that it is more conventional in delivery than the rest of his output.
The Glass Canoe (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

Jungfrau, Dymphna Cusack

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By coincidence I’m reading Jungfrau straight after All Passion Spent. Both are modernist works by women authors, both pose the question, Should intelligent women marry or pursue careers? (and both see the question as either one or the other), APS came out in 1931, Jungfrau in 1936, both writers were in their thirties, but…

Sackville-West was at the height of her powers, living not just England but in Bloomsbury, and with a number of novels over the previous decade under her belt; Cusack (1902-1981) so ten years VSW’s junior, was in Australia, a school teacher, first out west in Broken Hill then in Sydney, with limited exposure to the modernist movement sweeping England, Europe and the US. And this was her first novel. And then there’s class – Sackville-West was the daughter of a baron and the wife of an MP; Cusack was the daughter of store keeper, Catholic, and though employed, was much closer to the Depression which amongst other things, depressed wages and limited the distribution of new books.

Sackville-West’s writing is sublime, Cusack’s is awkward. Lady Slane in APS finds herself married at 18, steamrolled by her parents and her husband, but as she comes to love Henry she willingly subsumes her self for the sake of their children and his career. Only after their long marriage ends with his death does she allow her real self to emerge. I think by presenting the story in this way Sackville-West is asking: Is this what you would do? It’s certainly not what she did herself. Cusack’s three women are already in their mid to late twenties, in careers, unmarried, none of them Vicereine of India surrounded by servants, but living small, comfortable lives in bed-sits in inner Sydney. Their question is: How do I deal with love?

The three women are Thea, a dreamy, pretty teacher, Eve, a doctor and devout Catholic, and ‘Marc’ (short for Marchesa) a red-headed, bohemian, psych student/social worker. Thea is friends with Terry who wants to marry her, but she is in love with a 49 year old English professor. Eve is friends with another doctor, John. Marc, may be ‘loose’, or maybe she just flirts a lot; Eve is angry that she doesn’t wear a bra. Cusack adopts the point of view of whichever protagonist she is dealing with at the time.

Eve is actually quite a sympathetic character and her rigid Catholicism creeps up on us. Thea is the ‘jungfrau’ of the title, virginal and childish (Cusack makes too much of the Swiss mountain of the same name, having Eve come up with a clumsy metaphor about a lover taking the trouble to ‘climb’ Marc only to find other men had been up before him on the funicular railway).

A lot of the early part of the book is setting up discussions about relationships. Each of the women take their job seriously but what they are talking about and thinking about here is their relationships with men. Eve, who works in a maternity ward, has opinions very similar to Miles Franklin’s (and Cusack’s next novel was written jointly with Franklin) – that chastity is to be valued and that the consequence of marriage is endless child bearing.

Thea has chaste little meetings with her professor in the grounds of the uni and is consumed by her growing infatuation. Marc meets an Antarctic explorer at a party, becomes close to him, and says she will sleep with him before his upcoming two year expedition, but, only if he has complete faith in his ability to trust her –

“There’s only one worthwhile relationship as far as I’m concerned, and that’s the chosen companionship of two perfectly free people. We’d never have that till you had faith – in both of us.”

Eve goes from an exhausting shift on the wards to mass and reflects on chastity (to contrast with what follows). Thea has one perfect night with the professor. Marc has dinner with her explorer. We’re at the halfway point, and the novel is about to change direction.

Thea drops round to Eve’s to ask for help, she’s pregnant. Eve is devastated, spends a sleepless 24 hours crying at Thea’s loss, and planning how to help her have the baby. They meet. Thea is incredulous. The help she wants is an abortion, which Eve is morally unable to perform.

Thea drifts, for weeks it seems, then goes to Marc who arranges for her to see an abortionist, but she loses her nerve at the last minute and runs out of his office. Jungfrau is apparently “the first psychological exploration of women’s sexuality and aspirations” in Australian fiction, and the remainder of the novel deals mostly with Thea’s internal monologue.

A decade later Cusack gave up modernism for social realism, writing with Florence James the gritty war-time (WWII) story of women working and quite actively sleeping with one or more men, Come in Spinner. In that novel, and in a number of others of that time, there is a “backyard” abortion which ends in the death of the pregnant woman.

So does Cusack answer the question I ascribed to her at the beginning? I think she does, partly anyway. Single women clearly should work. But. They also are driven to pair bond, and that means marriage, eventually.

 

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau, first pub. 1936 (in the Bulletin), Penguin Australian Women’s Library, Melbourne 1989. Introduction by Florence James. The cover painting is by Grace Cossington-Smith, “Interior with Blue Painting”, 1956.

see also:
Australian Women Writers, Gen 3 Page (here)