In the main street of a small town in northwest NSW there’s a street sign covered in hieroglyphics. The strange wedge-shaped strokes look like some ancient Sumerian script. ‘Stock Brands of the Liverpool Plains’, the title says. Next to the hieroglyphics is a list of names – ‘Known Early Squatters’ – and all but one are men.
As I wander the deserted town I notice all the names on all the buildings – lawyers offices, proprietary hotels, automotive repair shops – are men’s names. The women are silent and invisible in the public records of this town. Behind the scenes, though, the women have been making themselves heard.
I am here to speak at the fiftieth birthday party of the oldest regional book club in Australia.* Five decades ago an American woman blew into town, university-educated and newly-married to a local grazier. She was a big reader and quickly found some bookish friends in the local community. This American had planned to be a diplomat, until love intervened. She knew how to run a meeting.
A book club was formed with a strict but sensible list of rules. Membership would be limited to thirty women. Everyone would take a turn at hosting a meeting and reviewing the chosen books. In a booklet about the club’s history one inaugural member described herself living in ‘an isolated new corner on a property (with) no hours to spare.’ Then came a phone call from the brisk American (“you will always find time, if you really want to do something”) and a chance to pursue her ‘greatest love – reading and sharing of books and minds’. The spare hours were duly found.
At the first meeting Patrick White and George Johnston were up for discussion. Over the ensuing years the quieter club members were given gentle encouragement to overcome their fear of public speaking. When their turn came around, they discovered they could give impassioned presentations about literature. Five decades on, the club has discussed over seven hundred books.
The fiftieth anniversary party is held at the local golf club. Silver-haired women clasp my hands and tell me the group has given them nourishment, grace and insight. One confides, ‘The printed word has been the most stimulating part of my life’.
I have been invited to talk to them about how social anxiety can reduce people to silence. But there’s nothing I can tell these women that they don’t instinctively know. In this book club they have assuaged each other’s loneliness, stimulated each other’s minds, and eased each other’s fears. They have found their voices. I hope they’re still going in another fifty years time.
* The club members requested anonymity for their group. They have no interest in publicity.
This column was published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2017.
Last weekend i paid my second visit to the Islamic Museum in Thornbury. The first had been organised by my friend and fellow writer Fiona Scott-Norman. In a gesture of friendship she responded to a letter to a newspaper in which the museum’s communication’s director, Sherene Hassan, issued an open invitation to come and have a coffee at the museum. Via Facebook, Fiona gathered about sixty friends to join her for two separate visits – ‘Coffee With Sherene’ – and a lovely time was had by all.
We were given a tour of the museum by some of the volunteers and learnt a lot about the faith, history, culture and complexity of Islam. We shared stories and made new friends. I met a woman who has two aunts stuck in the Syrian town of Aleppo. Now every time i see a news story about the horror of war in that town i worry specifically about these two women i haven’t met but feel distantly connected to.
I was so inspired by our first visit that i gathered a group of about 20 friends and family members and went back for another coffee and tour with the incredibly generous Sherene. I would encourage everyone to consider joining the Facebook groups Friends of Sherene and going down to Thornbury one day to see this architectural marvel and its fascinating exhibits – and say hello to Sherene. Small gestures of friendship and respect like this can make a dent in the wall of racism that is building in our country. I truly believe this.
I’m back to work now after my wonderful winter travels and I thought some of you might be interested in the various creative and professional writing courses i’m running in Melbourne over the next few months.
‘Writing As Therapy’ for The School of Life
‘Refine Your Memoir’ for Writers Victoria
‘Non Fiction – getting to the heart of your story’ for RMIT Short Courses
‘Creative Non Fiction’ for RMIT Short Courses
Iceland is simply astonishing. Did i mention that already? Volcanic landscapes alternating with green green grassy fields. Startling waterfalls and hot rivers. Lumps of ice the size of a house floating serenely down rivers. You’ve gotta go there. But start saving now. It’s expensive.
I have been wanting to go to Iceland for a few years now. Something about the wild landscape, the small population size, the intriguing political history and the music scene, all combined to push it to the top of my travel list. So I persuaded my friend Kate to join me in a two week jaunt around the south of the island. We both spent the trip agape at the natural beauty. (We also saw Bjork get out of her car in the main street. But that’s another story.) I think it’s worth two separate postings – here’s the first. (More comprehensive captions coming soon)
After two weeks in Wales I was meant to go to Brittany. But the comrades in air traffic control in France went on strike so instead I headed to Rome for four days. Warm weather, history piled up under my feet, best coffee in weeks, and the bells tolling all day long. Didn’t want to leave. Next chapter – Iceland!
I’ve spent the past two weeks travelling around Wales with my mother Margot (née Jones) and sister Yoni (short for Merrioneth). We wanted to explore our family’s Welsh heritage. And hang out together. What luxury. Here’s some of what we’ve seen.
Winter has come so I have gone, off on another long jaunt to escape the cold and see the world. Chapter one was a week in Umalas, Bali, staying with cousins. Here are some highlights:
In the house next door to mine lives a dog called Celia. When Celia’s owners go out and leave her alone in the garden she howls. The sound is almost operatic, a high fluting song of desolation. I work from home so there is no escaping the soundtrack to Celia’s loneliness. Recently I bought a bag of doggie treats and whenever it gets too loud I lean over the fence and drop her a few lumps of processed meat. She goes quiet then. For a while, anyway.
Humans have designed complex ways of measuring their loneliness. The UCLA Loneliness Scale asks a series of questions like ‘How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?’ and ‘How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?’According to social psychologists, up to a third of the population has experienced acute loneliness at some point in their lives. We also know that loneliness is bad for your health. In fact, the expert literature on loneliness is vast and growing. Yet how often do you hear someone say out loud – I’m lonely.
Celia has no problem expressing her loneliness. She just opens her jaws and out it comes. Humans, on the other hand, try and hide their loneliness, thinking it’s a purely personal problem. According to Emily White, the author of a book called ‘Lonely’ (Harper Perennial), we often view our loneliness as an individual shortcoming. We feel ashamed of it.
Thirty years ago I had a job delivering Meals on Wheels to elderly residents in a public housing high-rise. Most days it was hard to get away from my clients. Many of them were so isolated I was the only human they spoke to all day. They left their transistor radios on all day long, just for the sound of a human voice. They tried to delay my departure with small talk about football and the weather. Yet none of them ever said out loud – I’m lonely.
These days loneliness lurks behind the pages of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some people look for a sense of communion by observing and commenting upon the apparently busy lives of others. Others hide their heartache behind frequent postings about their apparently busy lives. They wait for ‘likes’ to assuage their loneliness, the equivalent of doggie treats for humans. You never read a tweet that simply says – I’m lonely.
I’m with Celia. Open your jaws. Sing about it.
(This column was first published in Daily Life in May 2016.)
Last night I launched a new memoir called ‘Two Decades Naked’ (Hachette). It was written by my student Leigh Hopkinson, who spent two decades working as a stripper in clubs across Australia, New Zealand and the UK. This is the speech I gave at her launch:
First impressions can be deceptive.
When I first met Leigh Hopkinson it was in a small writing group I was mentoring at RMIT. She was quiet, considered, unadorned, sweet. Well-mannered. A nice girl. Capital N, Capital G. And then I started reading her draft memoir.
Turns out this nice girl had a naughty side. Capital N naughty. And I very quickly realised that I was reading the first draft of a book that was very definitely going to be published.
Two Decades Naked’ is everything a memoir should be.
It is immersive – Leigh us takes by the hand and leads us inside the doors of places many of us – especially those of us who are usually Nice Boys and Girls – rarely enter. Places where women take a long hard look at the men who are there to take a long hard look at them – and those women quickly work out how to assume the upper hand – how to get what they want from those men.
And we get to feel the sticky carpet under our feet, to hold the slippery pole in our hands and know what it’s like to gyrate and pose for the male gaze – to strip away, not just our clothes, but our inhibitions, our preconceptions, and at times, our dignity.
It’s immersive, and it’s full of deftly-drawn character portraits – of men and women with false names and nick-names.
Women with names like Tiffany and Jade and Bonnie and Chelsea – and Violet.
Leigh tells us: ‘Violet wore all black: a fringed suede jacket, a miniskirt and a lace teddy. She greeted the working girls without moving her lips, which were deep purple and hung open non-compliantly, slashed across her porcelain skin like a blackening wound. Violet stripped to heavy metal, shuffling self-consciously, her eyes downcast. She was scarily fascinating to watch.’
Men like Thursday Man, who ‘opens his wallet like a spinnaker to the wind’. Men like Vietnam Phil, and Weatherman John whose ‘wife dropped him off (at the strip club) on her way to classical concerts’. Men like The Maestro – Leigh describes him like this: ‘A rotund man in shirtsleeves prancing around the podium, directing a topless dancer reclining on her elbows. It was The Maestro: a weekly weirdo and master of grandiose hand signals, with dubious musical ability.’
This memoir is immersive and full of character portraits – and full of love. Leigh falls in love – hard – several times – and she takes us into her heart as she wrangles that complex emotion.
And she is full of love for both her fellow strippers and her clients – she loves their strengths and their vulnerabilities in equal measure. She doesn’t judge, Leigh – she watches, and listens, and looks, and learns, and she wonders.
This memoir is full of wondering – about the strange world she’s entered, about the people she meets there, and about herself. And above all, if you write a memoir, you have to be willing to wonder – hard – about yourself.
Leigh is not a proselytiser – this is not a political tome, far from it – but she instinctively understands what Anne Summers meant when she used the term ‘damned whores and gods police’, and Leigh doesn’t want to be cast in either of those roles.
She understands the cost of stripping to the women who do it, and to the women who don’t do it but whose male friends watch it. But she has also seen the ways in which stripping empowers many of the women she worked with – the mortgages paid off, the businesses established – even just the rent paid. Leigh figured out that there were ways to set boundaries for herself in the world of stripping and for the most part she policed them very effectively.
Leigh’s memoir opens our eyes to the contrasts in this world she’s been observing for two decades – the contrasts between the clichés and stereotypes of stripping, and the reality of stripping. She has a wonderful ear for contrasts – for example, the tired woman who answers the phone at the massage parlour ‘and says ‘Pleasures’, flatly.’
For Leigh, at least at the beginning, stripping ‘is a small, select club. Stripping was (her) juicy secret… ‘ But Leigh also learns that stripping involves both shame and narcissism. ‘Two Decades Naked’ is sexy without being titillating, it’s gently mocking without being judgemental, it’s funny and sad and wise. It’s a bloody excellent read.
I commend it you. I congratulate Leigh – I’m so proud of her I might just burst. Please raise your glasses – to author Leigh Hopkinson and to her two decades naked.
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