The man sitting beside me on the saggy couch is trying not to cry. I’m trying not to put my arms around his shoulders and give him a comforting hug. It’s not because I’m shy. It’s because he’s an actor playing a man who is about to cry and I’m an audience member. It would ruin the scene.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in April and we’re in a farmhouse just out of Melbourne. My friend Bagryana Popov, a theatre director, has decided to tear down the fourth wall and invite us into Uncle Vanya’s living-room. Chekhov’s play was written 120 years ago and set in pre-revolutionary rural Russia. This production is set right now, in the goldfields region of Victoria. Listening to the characters talking about the importance of protecting the environment, the pain of unrequited love and the dignity of hard work, the play still feels as fresh as the autumn wind.
It’s forty years since I started going to the theatre. I’ve reviewed it, chewed it over with friends, and even performed in it. Until this weekend, though, I’m not sure I could have explained why.
We all know that the characters in plays are not ‘real’. We know the stories are usually fictional, the sets constructed, the props pre-prepared. This knowledge helps us keep some emotional distance, even when we’re caught up in the drama. But sitting beside Uncle Vanya on that couch, feeling his shoulders shake, no distance is possible. I am deep inside this imaginary world, swamped by empathy.
Outside the living room window the rain is pouring down. We can see the creek at the bottom of the slope, the bare paddocks behind it. We know where all the trees have gone because a ‘real’ visiting botanist talked to us about de-forestation in between acts. When the characters in the play debate the importance of tree planting, we understand the stakes. Instead of being outside looking in on the staged drama, we the audience members are inside, looking out at the place that has shaped these characters’ lives.
Like a tree, a good play can span multiple generations. Like a tree, a good theatre production is multi-layered. Under the surface of this intimate tale of a rural family in crisis there are generations of history, layers of grief, cycles of regret and hope. Like a tree, it is a living thing.
(This column was first published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in May 2018)
All The Ladies: Baroque Women in Song
From the Queen of Heaven to the simple shepherdess, the Westgarth Ensemble celebrates ‘All The Ladies’ in a Baroque vocal recital.
The feisty, fearless and fun females take centre stage through the medium of songs by Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel and Vivaldi. There are also some rare gems including a piece by the pioneering Italian composer Barbara Strozzi and Englishmen John Eccles and Walter Porter.
Come and meet the ladies of the Baroque, as sung by Melbourne’s Westgarth Ensemble.
When: Sunday June 3rd, 3 pm
Where: Church of All Nations, 180 Palmerston St. Carlton
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble
Claire McDonald (Soprano)
Katrena Mitchell (Soprano)
Sian Prior (Soprano)
with special guest Fiona Piggott (cellist)
Admission: $25 ($20 concession) at the door
Background: The members of the Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed vocal concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2016 they performed ‘Supernatural’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral, and ‘Exotica’ at the Bardin Centre, Brunswick in 2017.
Why do we read memoirs? One theory is that we are mentally rehearsing for other possible lives, imagining how wewould behave in these situations. Some memoirs also function as a reminder to count our blessings.
One of my many blessings was a free university education. I studied politics and learnt about the theory of ‘interpellation’, the process whereby ‘repressive state apparatuses’ make passive subjects of their citizens, robbing them of the power to think critically about dominant ideologies. These ideologies are embedded in everyday language and absorbed unconsciously into our sense of identity.
Reading Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up in rural Idaho, it struck me that her fundamentalist father would have loved this stuff. It would have reinforced Gene Westover’s paranoia about ‘the Feds’. It would have made him even more determined to isolate his family from the education system, the health system, from every form of social support offered by government.
It would have justified his decision to refuse medical help when the family car overturns, seriously injuring his wife. And when his son suffers deep burns whilst working for his father. And when Gene Westover nearly loses half his face from an even worse burns accident.
There is a tragic irony at the heart of this memoir. While Tara Westover’s father rails against the persecutory power of ‘the Feds’, he cannot see that his own wacky brand of religious fundamentalismisa repressive ideology. Every member of his family is scarred by it, literally and/or emotionally.
‘Educated’ is the story of how Tara Westover survived her brutal childhood and, despite having no formal schooling, made it to university. But this is no revenge memoir. It is also a story about how love can survive in the face of unfathomable cruelty.
To remain within the embrace of the family Tara must embrace her father’s worldview. When he forbids her from going to school and instead puts her to work in his junkyard, young Tara falls from a front-end loader. Though the fall was caused by her father’s recklessness, still she loves him. When her brother Shawn nearly breaks her wrist trying to stop her meeting up with a boy, she forgives him. And when her family labels her a ‘whore’ for wearing lipstick, she internalises the label and the shame that comes with it.
It’s not until she finds her way to university that Tara begins to question that worldview. When her brother calls her a ‘nigger’ for the ‘thousandth time’, she finds she can no longer laugh it off.
‘Something had shifted… I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself… that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalise others.’
The narrator’s voice remains distanced, even dissociated, as she recounts episode after episode of physical and psychological violence. A more lyrical voice takes over when she is describing the consolations of nature and art.
The family farm sits at the foot of a mountain her father calls the Indian Princess, and in young Tara’s imagination the Princess is a benign presence watching over her. When she leaves home to go to university, she misses the mountain as keenly as she misses her family.
Music is the one thing that can soften her father. Entranced by a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Tara takes some singing lessons. Somehow Gene Westover’s anti-education views are trumped by the heavenly sound of his daughter’s voice floating above the church choir.
As Tara Westover declares in an Author’s Note, ‘this story is not about Mormonism’. Her father, she belatedly realises, suffers from a mental illness. Any rigid dogma, when combined with madness, can be dangerous.
In this era of ‘fake news’ and popular despotism, Tara Westover’s memoir reminds us that the best defense against repressive ideology is critical thinking – the kind that comes with an education.
(This review was first published in The Age and the SMH in April 2018).
It’s 9:30 on a Saturday night and I’m doing laps at the Melbourne City Baths with a polystyrene model of an island strapped to my head. There are a dozen island-wearers in the other lanes, being cheered on by an audience up in the bleachers.
We’re taking part in a Festival of Live Art project called ‘Landing’. The volunteer lappers are aiming to swim the equivalent distance from Manus Island to the Australian mainland. ‘Landing’ is just the latest in a wave of cultural events focusing on the fate of asylum-seekers.
On SBS, for example, there’s a new drama series called ‘Safe Harbour’. A group of Australians on a yacht cruise discover a broken-down boat full of refugees. They have to decide whether to help these people or leave them adrift in the sea.
Over on Netflix there’s a British crime series called ‘Collateral’. A pregnant cop finds some Syrian refugees hiding in a lock-up. She must decide whether to help them stay in England or send them back to a country riven by civil war.
In the cinemas there’s a film made by exiled Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. ‘Human Flow’ follows some of the 65 million refugees who’ve been forced to flee their homes in recent years. In an interview about the film Ai Wei Wei says ‘their home should be humanity’.
But wait, there’s more. At La Mama theatre there’s a show coming up in which actor David Joseph explores his family’s connection to Australia’s asylum-seeker debate. In the bookshop there’s a novel by Jock Serong about some Australian surf tourists who encounter a refugee boat wrecked on an Indonesian reef. There’s also a book called ‘45 Days’, co-written by an asylum-seeker on Manus Island and an Australian grandmother.
This cultural wave feels somehow familiar. About eight years ago our anxieties about child abuse were bubbling up everywhere in the arts, and I wrote about this trend in an Age column. A couple of years later the Prime Minister established a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.
Art can sometimes be the ‘canary in the coalmine’, warning us that something is amiss and something needs to be done about it.* Perhaps all these refugee stories in our theatres, bookshops, cinemas and swimming pools are prophetic. Perhaps, some time soon, our humanity will make a home for those in need.
* (Jock Serong’s last novel was about cheating in cricket.)
This column as first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in April 2018.
Since you last heard from me I’ve fallen in love with a celebrity. Here’s what I’ve learnt: front-page fame won’t necessarily save you from extinction.
My love-object first hit the headlines a couple of decades ago when former Premier Jeff Kennett dismissed it as a ‘trumped up corella’. The orange-bellied parrot (its real name) was getting in the way of Kennett’s plan to move a chemical storage facility to Point Lillias, near Geelong. The ‘OBP’ was endangered and Point Lillias was one of the places the remaining parrots came to feed.
In spite of the best efforts of scientists and bird-lovers, things have gone from bad to worse for this winsome bird. Orange-bellied parrots are now critically endangered. There are a few hundred in captivity but only about twenty adult OBP’s in the wild.
Why should you care if this gentle bird is consigned to oblivion? Unless you join the posse of biologists and volunteers trying to keep these parrots alive, you may never see one in the wild.
In spite of my click-baity opening line, this is not a story about celebrity. It’s about loss.
Ageing, I have realized, involves a long, hard coming-to-terms with losing things. We will all lose our grandparents, then our parents. Many of us will lose our children, or the possibility of having any. We may lose jobs we’ve valued, friendships we’ve treasured, hopes we’ve harboured.
Our bodies will lose their strength. Our minds will lose memories we thought would last forever. These losses are inevitable and they can be crushing.
The people working to save the OBPs have given individual names to all the remaining wild birds. When a species is as close to extinction as this one is, each death is deeply felt.
But losing the last little parrot with a blue-striped brow and an amber belly is not inevitable. It is preventable. With enough money and political will, the OBPs could be dragged back from the brink. Their beauty, their ingenuity, their mysterious navigational powers – these things are worth preserving.
Try this: search online for that famous footage of the last Tasmanian tiger. Watch it pacing in its cage, and remember that this astonishing creature is gone for good.
Now search for images of orange-bellied parrots. Watch them feeding, flirting, flying. Fall for that rainbow undercarriage, that graceful blur of luminescence.
It’s not too late.
(This column was first published in the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in March 2018)
The story I’m about to tell you only ever had two possible endings: a happy-sad one and a disappointing one. Let me explain.
I have never seen my father move. I’ve heard stories about him and seen black and white photos of a tall young man with my jaw-line. My existence is proof that he once existed. But somewhere deeper than my conscious mind, he never quite seemed real.
Fifty-three years ago my father ran into the surf to rescue a pair of drowning swimmers. I was on the beach that day, a newborn baby wrapped in my mother’s arms. So yes, I have seen my father move, but no memories survive.
The story of what happened that day has two different endings. It all depends on when you press pause.
There is a happy ending: the struggling swimmers grabbed my father and he hauled them both back to shore. There is an unhappy ending: after he had rescued the swimmers my father disappeared under the waves and drowned.
When a man dies a hero he can seem too good to be true. Perhaps that’s why he’s always been like someone I’ve seen in a dream.
Recently a family friend sent me another old photo of my father. In this one there is a huge movie camera trained on him as he plays the trumpet. If someone once filmed him, could that footage still exist?
With the help of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia I discovered a ten-minute documentary had been made at a national music camp in 1955 – the same year the photo was taken. The Archive people promised to send a copy of the film down to their Melbourne office for me to watch. But had my father had made the final cut? I tried to steel myself for disappointment.
Last week my sister and I were led into a small room and invited to sit in front of a computer screen. We held hands and I pressed play.
Five minutes in I stopped breathing. On the screen a tall young trumpeter was sitting behind a music stand. He had a jaw just like mine.
He licked his lips. He blew a raspberry. He took a deep breath, pressed the mouthpiece to his chapped lips and blew.
I pressed pause.
My dream-father was real.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in Feb 2018)
Imagine this: it’s late afternoon and you’re relaxing inside your caravan on the Rosebud foreshore. You’ve spent most of the day sailing on Port Phillip Bay. Suddenly you hear the sound of rapid gunfire, followed by screams. You poke your head out of the door. At the other end of the camp park you can see people running for their lives.
You sprint down to the beach where your two kids have been making sandcastles. Get in the boat – you yell – now!
You heave the kids into the yacht and make your escape. Others follow your lead, and soon there is a flotilla of small yachts tacking behind you. Luckily a tailwind speeds you across to the other side of the bay.
When you get to Queenscliff Harbour there are armed men in uniforms hauling people out of their yachts. They’re wearing badges that say ‘Stop The Boats’ and one of them escorts you and your kids to a waiting bus. As you’re shoved up the stairs of the bus you notice the sign above the windshield: ROSEBUD ILLEGALS.
The bus is driven up the hill to the old Queenscliff Fort. You, your two kids and the other Rosebud campers are all herded inside the high red brick walls of the fort. You try telling the guards what has happened – the gunshots, the screams – but they ignore you. Your family is ushered into a small room and you are locked inside.
You remain in that fort for the next five years. In the winters your room is freezing and in the summers it is steaming hot. When your kids get sick there are no specialist doctors available to treat them. The guards limit your access to the phone. No journalists are allowed inside the fort to interview you about your escape across the bay. Sometimes you listen to the local radio station, where you hear talkback callers describing you as a ‘terrorist’.
When one of your kids reveals they have been sexually abused inside the fort, you collar a guard and demand an investigation. Instead, your children are removed from the fort and sent to live with strangers in Queenscliff.
Left alone, you sink into a state of profound hopelessness.
Aren’t we lucky to be living in a civilized country where this kind of thing would never happen?
(This column was first published by Fairfax in January 2018)
In 2018 i will be teaching a variety of writing classes. See below for details and links.
RMIT Professional Writing and Editing Associate Degree
Advanced Features course (first semester) – February to June
RMIT Short Courses
Feature Writing (six weeks) – April 10 to May 15
Creative Non Fiction (six weeks) – Sep 10 to Oct 15
Getting to the Heart of your Story (one day) – February 22
Writing and Anxiety (one day) – April 22
Manningham Regional Library Writers Group
Second Thursday of each month – from Feb
Hiraeth (Welsh) “an acute longing for a home place or time to which you cannot return and without which you are incomplete.”
What I know
On the top of Mt Cooper in the Melbourne suburb of Bundoora stands an ornate red brick mansion topped with gargoyles. The *Bundoora Homestead was built on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri-willam clan in 1899. The then owner of the land, a wealthy horse breeder named J M V Smith, organised a public architectural competition to find the winning design.
The Queen Anne Federation style building became the Smith family home for the next two decades. In 1924 it was sold to the Federal Government and converted into a repatriation mental hospital for Australian soldiers.
After the Second World War a psychiatrist called Dr John Cade was put in charge of the Bundoora Repatriation Mental hospital. In 1948 Dr Cade made history by discovering lithium carbonate, a revolutionary treatment for bipolar disorder, while conducting experiments in one of the hospital’s disused kitchens.
Dr Cade was imprisoned by the Japanese in Changi during World War Two. One of the patients at the mental hospital, Henry ‘Lofty’ Cannon, had also been a Japanese POW. Lofty was a medical orderly and he and Dr Cade had worked together in Changi nursing their fellow prisoners.
After the war Lofty was allotted land for a soldier settlement farm but his mental and physical health deteriorated to the point where he was admitted to the hospital in Bundoora. Lofty never recovered from the trauma of his war experiences and spent most of the remainder of his life as a patient in the Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital.
What I wonder
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
The mind returning and returning to the leaking body,
to the seeping ulcers where the bones are peeping through,
the bones aching from the fever,
the head aching from the blows you took
when you tried to stop the Japs burying a skeleton
who was not quite dead,
a skeleton whose hands still shook,
though his blank eyes stared star-wards?
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did your eyes turn away from the fish
swimming in the wood panels on the staircase,
swimming quicksilver through your dreams,
your hands reaching out to catch them,
stuff them in your mouth, swallow them whole,
fish and rice, that’d be nice,
make a change from the beetles you caught
and buried in your handful of wet grains –
on a good day.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did the doc stuff a rag in your mouth
when he sent those electrical currents through your temples,
funny word, temples,
doors to the mind, the mind is a shrine, a shrine is a temple,
the Japs had temples on the railway,
built to ease the souls of soldiers who died,
their soldiers, not our soldiers,
not the men whose hands you held in the hut they called Ward 5,
the mummies wrapped in bloodied bandages,
who you sometimes saw at the bottom of the wooden staircase,
stroking the pokerwork fish as a soldier might stroke his wife’s face
when the war ends and you all Come Marching Home Again, hurrah, hurrah.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did you stare at the bird trapped in the stained glass at the top of the staircase,
the diving swallow who never reaches the nest,
forever plummeting, never landing,
never making it home again to the girl you married
a week before they sent you off to war,
the girl who waited,
who took you back though you were a ‘sad sack’,
that’s what you wrote on the photo they took of you in the ‘rehabilitation camp’,
funny word, rehabilitation, from habitare,
to make fit, to live, to dwell,
but you couldn’t fit, not after Changi,
there was no safe dwelling, no home-place,
only the Homestead now,
for ever and ever, amen.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did they nail the wire mesh over the balcony for you
in case the swallow took a dive over the railing
on a night when the dreams were more real than life,
the same dreams over and over,
the same Jap with the same stick of cane beating down on your back,
the same trembling twig-fingers
hanging over the edge of the stretcher in Ward 5,
waiting for that last ciggy,
mate do us a favour, just one more smoko, hand it over, ya miserable coot,
but in your dreams there are no more smokes,
just the twig-fingers stilling and stiffening on the stretcher,
over and over again,
and is that what you wanted, Lofty,
a dive, a plummet, the soft green grass under the balcony,
the stilling, the stiffening, the silence?
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did you think that words would cure you –
‘it’s unburden or burst’, you said –
did you think that a poem was a ticket home,
that if you wrote it all down and called it ‘So, you want OUT’,
even better, if you started a magazine at the hospital, handed it round,
someone would read those words – ‘So, you want OUT’ –
someone would come and get you out,
but out to where, Lofty,
back to the dry red dust under the dying orange trees,
back to the free farmland they gave you after the war,
funny word, free, no costs,
and when you came home you were free,
but there was a cost and no way to pay,
just Mr Smith’s pokerwork fish swimming under the staircase,
burnt into the wood ‘in the Japonaise manner’,
way back when nobody knew what the Japs would do
if they got their hands on you.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did Dr Cade try to get you out,
the alchemist of Bundoora, the lithium magician
messing about in Ward E,
hey, E is the fifth letter of the alphabet, making it Ward 5,
no, not the ward with the mummies on the stretchers,
but maybe Dr Cade was there too, watching those Japs –
‘hmm, they’re suffering from cultural psychopathy’ –
funny word, suffering, to put up with something, or to experience distress,
but in the camp there was no choice,
you had to suffer the suffering,
and what a marvellous marching song it would make –
hup two three four,
keep-it-up two three four:
oedema, malaria, cholera, typhus –
bronchitis, rheumatics and then dermatitis –
ulcers and dysentery, starvation, misery –
after the war – there was still more:
giddiness, trauma, psychosis, anxiety –
migraine, malaria, and for variety –
night sweats and nightmares, loneliness, blank stares,
and more of the misery, misery, misery.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did you lie in your dormitory bed staring
at the rows of climbing roses in winding poses
on Mr Smith’s pretty wallpaper,
and did they remind you of the barbed wire fences around the prison camp,
did you dream of squeezing past those thorns
and escaping into the jungle to find some fungus to feast on,
digging in the mud like a lunatic,
but you weren’t a Lunatic, Lofty,
the Lunatics went to the Asylum in Kew,
with their Melancholia and their Idiocy and their Inebriation,
but you were a Returned Serviceman, the nation was grateful,
it was just your Nerves,
so we gave you a bed in a dormitory in a house on the top of a hill,
with snarling gargoyles and Japonaise fish and thorny wallpaper
and children’s choirs who came to sing for you on a Sunday afternoon,
with their hair brushed neatly, their shoes all shiny,
their eyes popping at the sight of you,
and the children’s songs floated up the wooden staircase,
past the frozen swallow,
through the balcony doors
and out, out, OUT
into the wasted blue sky.
* In 1997 the homestead was gifted to the City of Darebin. After being restored it was opened to the public as The Bundoora Homestead Art Gallery, operating today as a historic house, café and gallery. ‘Hiraeth’ was originally commissioned by ‘Writing this Place 2017, Creative Culture and Events, City of Darebin’.
Thanks to Cassie May, Rachel Buchanan, Elizabeth Welch, Ella Hinkley and the staff of the Bundoora Homestead Art Gallery for their invaluable assistance with this project.
‘A Rich Heritage: The Story of the Bundoora Homestead’, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre
‘Remembering a Forgotten Survivor’, Rachel Buchanan, Griffith review 18, Summer 2007/8
(This essay was published in Meanjin in December 2017)
Dear Hannah Gadsby,
I nearly died last week. I was driving home in my campervan when a tow-truck came careening towards me at high speed. I hit the horn, we both hit the brakes and his truck stopped an inch away from my door. Through the window I lip-read ‘you f#*@ing c#@t!’ Then he climbed out of the cabin and hammered violently on my door, shouting ‘use your f#@*ing eyes, you f@#*ing bitch!’
As I drove away, hands still trembling, I decided to write about that man, and how he reminded me of the man who once kicked a massive dent in my car door because he didn’t like the look of my passenger. Then I would move on to the man who punched a hole in a wall as I was leaving a party, because I wasn’t leaving with him.
That would lead on to the two men who bailed me up at a train station and grabbed at my dress. And the three men who stole my Esky in a caravan park and who, when I confronted them, chased me back to my campervan.
By the time I got home, though, I’d changed my mind. The Sunday Age readers wouldn’t want to hear about my experiences with dodgy men, especially not the male readers. Stories of men behaving badly have been all over the media in the last couple of months – #metoo, #notallmen – enough already.
No, I would write something cheerful. Something about New Year’s resolutions, or how I’ve given up ironing. Something quirky and self-deprecating.
That night, Hannah, I went to see your one-woman comedy show ‘Nanette’. I laughed as you described a bloke at a bus stop telling you to ‘back off’ from his girlfriend because he thought you were a man. I stopped laughing when you told us that you’d always left out the ending of that self-deprecating story.
When you described how the same man beat you black and blue that night, I stopped breathing. When you revealed the other things men had done to you as a child, I felt sick.
And when you promised your audience that you wouldn’t be editing your stories just to get a laugh any more, because true stories like these need to be told, I changed my mind again.
The next day I wrote this column for you.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in December 2017)
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