Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Leaving the attic

Of Emma Goldman I have only the slightest memory. To me, she was just a dowdy woman who did not know how to get along with children. She loved them and wanted to make friends, but like people who spook horses she had the wrong sort of aura.

Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel

(Rexroth had met Emma Goldman when he was a child.)

I bought this book in Wentworth Falls in January this year and am only just getting round to reading it.
It's enlightening, reading snippets about people from other people's books. I re-read Goldman's two volume Living My Life about a year ago, and my biggest regret is that she missed out on meeting Oscar Wilde in Paris in the final years of his life.  She went to a meeting instead!!!
It would have been nice to get her impression of him.

I'm nursing a bung ankle and packing up my house. There are no longer any books or shelves in the attic, and this book by Rexroth is one of a few left in the remaining un-packed bookshelf. You need to leave yourself something to read. I spend my time packing up crockery, lying on an unmade bed reading, and generally enjoying the squalor of a house being dismantled to go elsewhere.

The bung ankle comes, I think, (for I don't remember doing it) from stumbling on a walk around town with my friend Faye, who wanted to do the walks that Sophie did in My Candlelight Novel.

So we started at the house I called Samarkand in that book, and went down the path under the tunnel of figs and then to the bridge with Planet Music on the corner, and across the river to the Winsome and down Wotherspoon street.  It was Faye who first introduced me to Wotherspoon Street, a shabby, treed, wonderful enclave of old houses. We went to the park where Sophie slept the night, and Faye quoted me bits of the book I'd forgotten because she'd just been reading it in preparation for our walk.

After a rest at a cafe we did another of Sophie's walks, on the day she was feeling grumpy and disgruntled, and Faye saw the stone lions at the entrance to the park near the railway station, because she'd never been there before on foot, only passed it in a car.

Faye was the person who took me up the tower of the Catholic Cathedral in Lismore, which I later put into Mahalia, and when I needed to look at things  through a microscope (for A Charm of Powerful trouble) she set it all up and showed me pond water and potato starch and other ordinary extraordinary things. She's one of those people who often say things that go into one of my books.

I don't know when I'll get to the attic again. I mean this virtual attic. And in a little over two weeks I'll be leaving this attic too, where I wrote some of my books (the others written in a room overlooking the creek.) End of an era.

Moving house for the first time in 25 years is stressful. Friends keep ringing me to see how I'm doing (because Underground Man is currently 700 km or so away looking for a place for us to rent), and calming me down, telling me to drink wine in the evenings, take valium when necessary, clear my head of negative thoughts and think of the long view.

Maybe I'll be back after I move. Or maybe not.  But for the moment, the madwoman is definitely in the attic, and she is as mad as all get out, and that's the way things should be.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Travel companions

[....] Charles hated flying. He hated the whole business - the queues, the claustrophobia, the take-off, the sound of the wheels retracting, the bullying music, the seat belts, the staff's psychotic switching from servility to contemptuous indifference. It was bad enough setting off to somewhere reasonable, like Paris or New York or Los Angeles. But Baldai - no, crazy.

Margaret Drabble, A Natural Curiosity(1989)

In a fortnight I'm setting off to somewhere reasonable - Frankfurt, to the Book Fair - but I'm going much further than Charles is: Paris, New York or Los Angeles from London. Pah! And I hate flying. It's the reason I haven't been to Europe for well over 30 years. I think. Sometimes I think that I merely found staying at home writing and reading and gardening interesting enough.

My trip will involve leaving Wongavale (somewhere quite unreasonable) to arrive at the Gold Coast in time for an earlyish flight. Then after an unreasonably long wait at Sydney(due to the BA/Qantas thing) I leave for Heathrow, and from there to Frankfurt. I'm not even counting up the time.

I will need companions to comfort and distract me.  I've chosen three books:

The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac (1958), a re-read:

Once I was young and had so much more orientation and I could talk with nervous intelligence about everything and with clarity and without as much literary preambling as this; in other words this is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won't do - just to start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that's what I'll do -.  It began on a war summernight - ah, she was sitting on a fender with Julien Alexander who is ... let me begin with a history of the subterraneans of San Francisco ...

Faces in the Water, by Janet Frame (1961):

After the doctor performed the last shock treatment of the morning he used to go with Matron Glass and Sister Honey for morning tea in Sister's office where he sat in the best chair brought in from the adjoining room called the "mess-room" where visitors were sometimes received. Dr. Howell drank from the special cup which was tied around the handle with red cotton to distinguish the staff cups from those of the patients, and thus prevent the exchange of diseases like boredom loneliness authoritarianism. Dr. Howell was young catarrhal plump pale-faced (we called him Scone) short-sighted sympathetic overworked with his fresh enthusiasm quickly perishing under concentrated stress, like a new plane that is put in a testing chamber simulating the conditions of millions of miles of flying and in a few hours suffers the metal fatigue of years.

Beat Writers at Work, Edited by George Plimpton (The Paris Review Interviews) (1999):

Ginsberg:    [...]   You have many writers who have preconceived ideas about what literature is supposed to be, and their ideas seem to exclude that which makes them most charming in private conversations. Their faggishness, or their campiness, or their neurasthenia, or their solitude, or their goofiness, or their - even- masculinity, at times.  Because they think that they're gonna write something that sounds like something else that they've read before, instead of sounds like them. Or comes from their own life. In other words, there's no distinction, there should be no distinction between what we write down, and what we really know, to begin with. As we know it every day, with each other. And the hypocrisy of literature has been - you know like there's supposed to be formal literature, which is supposed to be different from ... in subject, in diction and even in organization, from our quotidian inspired lives.

It's also like in Whitman, "I find no fat sweeter than that which sticks to my own bones," that is to say the self-confidence of someone who knows that he's really alive, and that his existence is just as good as any other subject matter.

I could make no better description of the books of Jack Kerouac and Janet Frame than Ginsberg's words, as quoted above.

With companions like these, I think I'll travel well.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Power in the Darkness

Searching for The Radiant Way

Sometimes I cull my books too enthusiastically, throwing away ones that I later want to read.

So it was with Margaret Drabble's 1980s trilogy, The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity and The Gates  of Ivory.

The last two I found easy to replace, thanks to our local Lifeline op shop, which contains the best bookshop in town.

Not so The Radiant Way, the first book, without which I did not want to start re-reading the trilogy.  Looking online, it seemed to be out of print, but I found it recently in Canberra, in the industrial suburb of Fyshwick, in an enormous second-hand bookshop that had previously never been open whenever I was there. There, an Aladdin's cave of delight, the books were two deep on the shelves, and the very tall Underground Man unearthed a copy of Radiant Way on a high shelf, hidden in a back row in the Ds.

I've just finished reading it, and found it almost obscenely entertaining. But I can see why I threw it out. My younger self (and I'm talking almost 30 years ago) would have found the lives of these three friends who met at Cambridge rather too drearily middle-class and a bit pretentious, especially Liz, a Harley Street psychotherapist. Alix I remember identifying with - she and her husband get by on piecemeal teaching work, subject to budget cuts and change of government policy.  Esther, an art historian who also manages to survive on scraps of work is recognisable to me now.

Now, I am older than these characters, then, I was at least 15 years younger. I imagined that I would never want to read it again, but I can see that some books, like some clothes, if you keep them long enough, regain relevance and desirability.

Radiant Way begins before a New Year's Eve party held by Liz and Charles Headleand, at the beginning of the 1980s. Liz is in her room getting ready. One of her teenage daughters is in her room listening to the Tom Robinson Band: 'The Winter of '79'.

(There is a photograph of me that has hung on our wall for well over 30 years. I am dressed in dyed bright yellow men's overalls, with a pale pink t-shirt. My feet are bare. It is 1978, I am 26, and have just had a baby, and I have a mild, soft, diffident expression on my face.  I lean against the back of an old 1960- something Holden, a car we bought for $200 in Sydney before moving to the north coast . We called this the Tom Robinson car, because we stencilled the boot with a clenched fist and the words 'Tom Robinson Band' curved around it - the stencil came with their album 'Power in the Darkness' which we listened to relentlessly - he was angry and left-wing and gay - what was not to like?)

 The Radiant Way trilogy is set in the Thatcher years - it is personal and political, rambling, sometimes rather incredible (there is someone in Harrow beheading young women, and rather coincidentally he turns out to be the quiet young man living upstairs from Esther; and he kills one of the young female offenders Alix used to teach,  and leaves the head on the front seat of Alix's car which she had to leave overnight because the tyres were slashed.) Sorry for the bad syntax.

There is a strong sense of the travails of life, the importance of family, for good or ill (largely ill), the turns that individual lives take, the effect of politics on one's life (or not), and the way the past is never really past. I found it this time very life-like, though I don't think I have any murdering beheaders in my vicinity. 

It rather reminds me of my own friendships, many of which cover many decades even though none of us are English and don't include a Harley Street psychoanalyst.

It reminds me that we in Australia are entering our own Thatcher-like years, with a ridiculously right-wing government, punitive to young people, pensioners, and anyone else they deem not to be 'lifting' heavily enough, and very willing to take us off to war again (and here I remember Robert Wyatt's heartbreaking version of 'Shipbuilding', a song also of the early 80s.)

Time to get out Tom Robinson. Power in the darkness, indeed.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

And now, Jean Louis

How many cats are named after Jack Kerouac?

Two, at least. After finding the kitten that became known as Jack in New Zealand it was only a matter of time before another cat found me.

It was a Facebook romance. I first saw him on the page of the Animal Rights and Rescue group and gasped with recognition. That's my cat, I said.

Which was odd, as he wasn't really my kind of cat at all. He was a tiny kitten, mostly white, with black blotches.  The cats I really love are often striped, and older.

But love is strange (as I'm discovering through reading The Sorrows of Young Werther).

I read on Facebook that the kitten (called 'Bubba', presumably because he was so tiny) was to travel from the town of Grafton to Lismore so that he could be adopted by someone. And I happened to be at the Animal Rights and Rescue no-kill shelter in Lismore the day he arrived, transported from Grafton by a lovely volunteer named Lynda, who was also bringing  a dog named Jazz to meet her prospective owners.

'That little kitten's eyes are popping out of his head', she said, and uncovered the towel from his cage, still on the front seat of her car. I saw a tiny, enormous-eyed kitten cowering there. He was taken into the cat area and put into a roomy pen, tall enough for people to go in and pat him, and fed and watered. He was too stressed to eat, but found his way into a hammock hanging at human chest height.

I was at the shelter to research a 'day in the life of' story about it. This well-run no-kill shelter is run entirely by donations and volunteers. I had volunteered to do a story free for a local free paper, so that the people of Lismore would know what a great resource they had. It's an impressive set-up. Most of the animals are fostered out, but there are dog and cat pens for needy animals and new arrivals. The group were trying to get the local council to give them money to continue operating (they take all the unclaimed dogs and cats from the Council pound, and the council hasn't had to kill an animal for years.) But frustratingly, it was a no from the council, and the group is  now facing such pressure that they can't take any more animals at present, they are so desperately short of funds. Head over to their home page and make a donation - every few dollars will help.

 Anyway, that day I kept going back to visit the kitten, who would stand up in the hammock and nuzzle  my face. He was only about 5 weeks old, found wandering by himself in the streets of Grafton.

I was dizzy with love. I'd go out to the office to observe what was going on (Jazz meeting her new family and wandering from person to person with a puzzled look on her face), and then head back to 'my' kitten. It was a no-brainer, really. I needed a cat and he needed a home.

I called him Jean Louis, which were Jack Kerouac's given names, as a link to the other kitten Jack, who would become Louis' cousin.

They let me take him home at the end of the day, saying I could foster him for a fortnight and then decide. But I knew I wouldn't be giving him back.

Since then, he has grown fast.

He's a weird, tall kitten, who sucks his tail for comfort and is woefully unsocialised, as he was separated from mother and siblings so early he thinks it's okay to attack my feet.

We're working on that.

Jean Louis gets called Louis, or Lou-Lou, or Looby (as in 'Here we go looby loo').

Here he is demonstrating how nicely he can wrap his black tail around his white feet, in a rare, still moment.

And the quiet cat
  sitting by the post
Perceives the moon

Jack Kerouac, a haiku

Thursday, July 10, 2014

...holding a cat

I see I have fallen into the trap.
I hold it against my breast
but not on the side of my heart. If you observe closely
you will see my fingers pressed into the fur
of my liable cat my escape-cat who would much rather be stalking
in the great elsewhere at ground or sky level, seldom in between
        where people's heads are.
There is a tenderness in the way I balance its back paws on my palm.
I have shaped my arm to fit its body.
It's all quite by chance.
I am frowning hard. I too would much rather be
at my own level where I seldom meet a soul
except perhaps a travelling word or two, hordes of memories,
and because there is a tomorrow, a few meditative dreams
that will accompany me in my pleasurable inward world
my secret mirror of your great here and my great elsewhere.

'A Photograph of Me Holding a Cat', from The Goose bath: Poems, by Janet Frame (Edited by Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold and Bill Manhire)

The author photograph: most of us would rather not be there. It's the conundrum of being a writer. The work comes from an intense inner world, your natural, preferred place.  But then people want to see what you look like, they want you to 'perform', and talk about the work, which should by all rights stand up for itself.

And so both cat and Frame want to escape. Perhaps neither of them are really 'there' - writers and cats are difficult to pin down.

Frame described her inner world as a 'mirror city', and the imagination as the envoy from there, linking the two (hence the title of the third volume of her autobiography, The Envoy from Mirror City). Or as the place 'two inches behind the eyes', as the painter Malfred Signal thought of it in Frame's novel A State of Siege.

Janet Frame's cats: I went looking for pictures on the net. I knew from Michael King's Biography that she had at least two: Neg (or Negative - she was a white cat) whom Frame had for 15 years, and then Penny. And then there were numerous cats and kittens from her childhood and adolescence.

But Janet Frame later. Here are some of my other favourite writers, holding a cat.

Jack Kerouac

From the cover of The Portable Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters.

Name of cat unknown. Jack loved his little kitties. And look at the expression on both their faces. I think it's the gentlest, most humble picture I've ever seen of him.

VS Naipaul

Old VS and I go back a long way - well over 30 years. At first, all I knew about him was his writing - the style he said he wanted to be so limpid that no one would notice it. And then, the more I read about him, I found that he was grumpy, monstrously egotistic, sexist ...

But then there's this photo on the cover of one of his later books. Almost forgiven, VS. You look almost human -  a little uncertain of yourself. Playing second fiddle to a cat, that's why. You know that everyone will ignore you and go Awwww - what a beautiful cat.  I bet that cat could write better than Jane Austen, too. If it's a boy.

Haruki Murakami

I read somewhere that he said it was a happy day for him when he met a cat. And it was cats that drew me to his work - a black cat on the cover of Kafka on the Shore, and in the blurb it mentioned an old man who talked to cats.  I know a lot of people talk to cats (I for one), but this man really did - and they talked back.

Take your pick: There's a picture of Murakami with a black cat:

Or white cat:

That kitten looks like it wants to escape.

And at last, Janet Frame

I went searching the net for pictures of Janet Frame with cats and found this, at the blog of Pamela Gordon, who is Frame's niece and literary executor.

Thank you to Pamela for permission to use this photo she took of her aunt towards the end of her life, with her cat Chilli, who outlived her.

This is a really lovely photo of a writer with her cat. Unposed, they are both completely themselves, unaware of the camera, comfortably in their own worlds.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Read Owls Do Cry

With You

(To Janet Frame)

Can you hear me Whangaparaoa?

Listen to your seas, listen to your tides,
To the moon pulling the deep.

I am there, under the waters,
In the winds, in the leaf that sighs.

I am there, sleeping in the rocks,
Under the houses, below the promontories.

I am the sea, I am the wind,
Everything and nothing, with you.

Charles Brasch, from Wrestling With the Angel, a life of Janet Frame, by Michael King, (2000)

 Charles Brasch wrote this poem virtually on his death bed to Janet Frame, who was at that time living in Whangaparaoa.  I've just finished reading, for the second time, Michael King's biography of her, written and published while she was still alive (she died in 2004, at the age of 80).

It's one of the best biographies I've read, along with David Marr's biography of Patrick White. For me, the biography of a writer should answer this question: Where did the writing come from?

Recently, I've also read the three book volume of Frame's autobiographies, comprising To The Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and Envoy From Mirror City, which only take her life up to her return to NZ from 'overseas' (Britain, Europe, the US) in 1964.

I'm now reading Living in the Maniototo, which must be one of the most enjoyable, funny, clever and revealing books about writing that there is. (And in fact, if you look here, there is an interesting discussion of this book, which says everything I should have said if I wasn't suffering from kitten brain*.)

In February, just before I went to New Zealand for the first time I read Owls Do Cry, her first novel. I have read it before, over 30 years ago. Both were library copies, but I now have my own.  Text Publishing have just issued it in the Classics series (with an introduction by Margaret Drabble: double delight!).

I'm not going to say anything about it, just echo what a friend of mine, a poet, said to me urgently in the 1970s.

'Read Owls Do Cry, by Janet Frame,' was all he said, without explanation. I can still see him saying it.

It stuck in my mind.

And you do need no explanation to read Janet Frame. Just do it, and it's self-evident.

* kitten brain: similar to having had a baby. The floor is littered with toys, the house is in disarray and the small one won't leave you a moment alone to think, let alone type. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

In which we achieve victory (for now)

Sometimes a hermit has to leave the attic, and I have been absent for some time.

The attic (and it is real, with a ladder to it, and dormer windows, and all) lies in a valley in northern NSW. And just one valley over, as the crow flies, lies Bentley, the site for several months now of a protest camp (Camp Liberty), to stop exploratory drilling for coal seam gas.

This dirty, unwelcome industry would pollute our land and water, and the people of the northern rivers have gathered together in an overwhelming show of support against it.

Go to the Facebook page, and see what's been going on.

Everyone was bracing for an 800-strong contingent from the NSW Riot Squad due next Monday or Tuesday. Now, with the gas company Metgasco's application to drill suspended, and an investigation by the Independent Commission against Corruption into the granting of their licence, we can all breathe easy for a while. The basis of the suspension is that Metgasgo did not adequately and effectively consult with the community.

The camp is something to be experienced. Everyone coming on site has to sign up to the principles of non-violence, and acknowledge the fact that we are with permission on someone's land and will not hold them responsible for any injury we might incur. And there are people coming and going all the time, visiting, volunteering, donating (and now celebrating!). There are rosters to be on vigil at one of the various gates and lookout places, or to volunteer for the many other tasks that keep the camp running. There is such a spirit of purpose, and cooperation and friendship. And fun.

In truth, being an introvert, I did not do anywhere near as much as many of my friends did, or camp out at the site. But I did donate and volunteer to be on watch for anything untoward, and met and talked with people till I was exhausted. Spirits were high, and those on vigil were constantly plied with people coming with gifts of vegan cookies, chocolate, fruit ...

There are many beautiful and committed young people giving their all to the cause, the Simmos (people who might be in an arrestable situation) camping at the gates and ready to lock themselves in or climb the poles when the drilling rig or police arrived. And then the oldies, like my 70 plus years old friend George (who, I admit, is only a few years older than I am), who spends double shifts at the gates three times a week, and the knitting nannas ('The knitting nannas are cool' : Tiana (Ti), almost 16, environmentalist and future Sea Shepherd volunteer), and the farmers who went to Sydney to try to speak to the state Premier and many others. There is also, most importantly, a strong representation of the indigenous community. It is their land, after all, that we are all on.

Valuable lessons have been learned. The governments we presently have in Australia would have us believe that we live in an 'economy'. But we know that we live in a community - a strong, cooperative community.

Gas companies and governments who think that money rules are wrong. People who have a connection with and love and knowledge of the land, who have family and friends and an environment to protect, have the power to join together and make their voices heard.

I have been meaning to bring my old friend Emma Goldman into the attic for some time, ever since last year when I re-read my 35 year-old 2 volume Dover Edition of Living My Life.

She has something say about everything. Here's a quote for Camp Liberty:

"People will only have as much liberty as they have the intelligence to want and the courage to take."

Thursday, April 3, 2014


[in San Francisco] ... after a night of perfect sleep in an old skid row hotel room I go to see Monsanto at his City Lights bookstore and he's smiling and glad to see me, says "We were coming out to see you next weekend you should have waited," but there's something else in his expression --- When we're alone he says "Your mother wrote and said that your cat is dead."
Ordinarily the death of a cat means little to most men, a lot to fewer men, but to me, and that cat, it was exactly and no lie and sincerely like the death of my little brother --- I loved Tyke with all my heart, he was my baby who as a kitten just slept in the palm of my hand with his little head hanging down, or just purring, for hours, just as long as I held him that way, walking or sitting --- He was like a floppy fur wrap around my wrist, I just twist him round my wrist, or drape him, and he just purred and purred and even when he got big I still held him that way, I could even hold this big cat in both hands with my arms outstretched right over my head and he'd just purr, he had complete confidence in me --- and when I left new York to come to my retreat in the woods I'd carefully kissed him and instructed him to wait for me, "attends pour mue kitiginoo" ---

Jack Kerouac, Big Sur ((1962)

On March 3rd (a month ago) it was a year since my own cat Bob died. The next day I left for New Zealand, and the day after we picked up a camper van and left Christchurch in pouring rain (the most torrential they'd pretty well ever had). After about two hours we pulled off the road just before the town of Geraldine for a rest, and  found a kitten. Or he found us. He came towards us in a determined fashion, meowing.

He was about 8 to 10 weeks old, black with a white bow-tie and very friendly. The place was deserted with no houses about and he was obviously abandoned. I insisted we take him with us. He was damp from rain, and sat quietly on my lap and shivered while I tried to warm him with my body heat. We picked up some pouches of kitten food in Geraldine and were on our way.

There was a cat-shaped hole in me which he filled exactly. In my adult years I have never had a kitten - all my cats came to me as adults, strays of course. I always thought that kittens were a bit too unformed and uninteresting.

But this little guy had such character, determined and practical, so sensible for a cat so young; there was no chance of him running away. Whenever we stopped (at safe cat-friendly places), he'd go off exploring, but came back when called. Or he followed us like a dog. And when we were ready to set off on the road again, I'd say, "Come on mister! We're going!' And he'd jump in the door and settle down to travel.

Well, not always. He often wanted to sit on the driver's lap, which annoyed Underground Man no end.
But if I tried to keep him still on my lap, he'd fight me. My hands were covered with scratches. I learned that I had to let him be where he wanted to be. Sometimes that was standing up on the edge of the driver's seat with front paws on the side window sill, looking out at the world rushing by. (A dangerous way to drive, I know.) Sometimes it was staggering up through the moving van and jumping up to look through the windows at the side. Thankfully he was sometimes so exhausted he'd fall asleep draped over my lap, me with one hand lightly on him so he'd know I wasn't restraining him.

What to do with a cat found in a country other than your own? Underground Man favoured dropping him off at a vet's; we discussed the possibility of there being a cat shelter in one of the bigger towns. But by the time we came to Oamaru, one such possible town, I was so attached to him I could not bear to try and off-load him. He travelled with us for three days and two nights, sleeping at the end of the bed in the van.

I had a secret hope. We were heading slowly for my sister-in-law's place. And her much-loved cat Kevin had died at the end of last year. We had talked on the phone at christmas about what a gap that leaves in your life. But would she be ready for another cat just yet?

The closer we got to her place, the more I saw how presumptuous it was to turn up with a kitten. And by the time we pulled up at her studio gallery in the small town of Lawrence, I was feeling positively guilty. She saw how strange I was at once, till I blurted out my secret, telling her that I didn't expect her to take him; she might be able to find a home for him with someone she knows, or if not, take him to a shelter in Dunedin next time she goes there.

But she and her partner fell in love with him almost at once, as I had.  What to call him? They once had a cat named Cassady, after Jack Kerouac's companion Neal Cassady in On The Road, Mark's favourite book (And just about mine as well, though I think I prefer Big Sur).

So I suggested the name Jack. After all, he hitched a ride with us, and was a great little traveller. I so enjoyed being on the road with him.

So now there is a cat named Jack living in rural Otago, New Zealand. He's found a home for life.

Jack is a month older now, and growing quickly.

And he still likes looking out of windows, only not moving ones

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Letty Fox: Her Luck

It happened that I went out once or twice in the following week to studio parties, and fat-chewing political groups where I exhibited a foul bad temper, and hardly recognised myself; I really seemed to have Luke's spirit in me. I said what I thought he would say when tired or bored. I would come out into the streets, into the new June night, still floating with bud scales, once more bitterly unhappy, my anger raging like a fire. Is not his seed like a fire? All about him, his word, his smile, his hypocrisy, his darkness, was like a fire, and I burned because I could not tell people, I have Luke. I came home once in the morning and saw two street lovers getting together on the steps of a church; the little cigarette ends jigged in the dark and described, in arcs, their weavings and embraces. Another time, a man groaned in an areaway. I did not care. I could have passed murderers, not only men with the blue devils. I was possessed with this man. One night, about two, I walked over to the slum he lived in and, taking a hand mirror out of my purse, threw it into the window of their room on the second floor. The window was open; they were in bed inside; I heard it tinkle on the floor. There were voices. I looked up. He came to the window and looked down. He saw a woman. But what woman? He had so many women. He only knew it was one of his women because of the smashed mirror from a lady's handbag, and so did she, of course. I went back home and cried in fresh agony, thinking of the scene, the conjugal bed, the open window on the summer night, the jag of glass flying through the air, smashing on the floor, the delicate tinkle, and him leaping from bed. If only it could have planted itself in her eye, her cheek, her breast! But it just sang a little note like a mosquito and lay there on the floor of their room.

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946)

While reading Letty Fox for the first time recently (and I have still not finished it), I keep wondering what I'd have thought of this novel when I was 24, the same age Letty is when she narrates her story. And I do wish I had read it then. It was certainly (just) available, having been reissued in 1974 by Angus and Robertson in their Australian Classics, with an introduction by Meaghan Morris. I was certainly aware that it was available - but what was I doing? Huddling in a shabby room in Sydney's Glebe reading Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing and Shulamith Firestone, attempting a few scribbles of my own and finding them sadly lacking, and avoiding reading all the (patriarchal, to my mind) set texts for university.

In her introduction, Morris says:

'Letty Fox had offended because it presented a woman's account of her sexual and emotional life without following the prescribed formula for females of modesty, passivity, and simple contentment. It described the way women do live, not the way they are supposed to live. It is likely to be equally disturbing now when Letty's notions of self-respect in marriage are being discarded by more and more women.'

Yes! That's what I love about Letty Fox now. It is so frank and real. I recognise myself, and women I know, in her. Yet at the age of 24, I fear I may have dismissed her because, while she had many sexual adventures (and she is very much an adventurer), she believed in love and longed to be married. It might have done me good to see that the free and easy ways of libertarian young women in the 1970s (I'm sure most of us thought we were different from women in the past) had already been charted by women in the 1930s, as this book portrays (and no doubt before then, too!)

Stead herself (born 1902) was scared of being 'left on the shelf', and to her delight wasn't, because soon after she arrived in England from Australia in her 20s, met William Blech (he later became Bill Blake), a communist businessman who had been born in America.  They lived together a long time but weren't to marry till Christina was in her 50s, because his wife wouldn't give him a divorce (and I don't think he pressed her too much for one). It was complicated.  Letty's father, Solander Fox, was based on Blake, and his partner, Persia, on Stead herself.

A review of Letty Fox in the New York Times was to bring Christina to the attention of the FBI because it 'indicated the author had an extensive knowledge of Communist matters'.

Stead, who lived almost all her life away from Australia, much of it America, was also not awarded an Australian literary grant in the 50s because of her communist connections. She and Bill were both Stalinists. (Even the intelligent were obviously deluded, even though Emma Goldman tried to tell communists what Russia was like after she'd been there soon after the Revolution.)

As well as wishing I'd read this in my 20s, I wish that newly adult women would read it now. Is Letty Fox a Young Adult Novel?

Certainly, it could be. If publishers today were brave and bold enough.

But there is certainly nothing there that would shock many young women from their late teens on, and much in it to delight them, from the frank portrayal of sex and love, to the stunningly brilliant writing.  

Thursday, January 30, 2014


- what's that? asked Underground Man, as he came across the dead, spiky banksia leaf in our bed (our bed in a rented holiday cottage in Blackheath, which turned out not to be as good as the reviews on the cottages' own website (well, der!) made out. For a start, the unappealing-looking kitchen smelt odd, and its only window opened onto a very dodgy 'sunroom' extension at the back, so no fresh air. At the back of the kitchen a door led to a decrepit, mouldy laundry. To be fair, the washer and dryer looked decent enough, from my fleeting glimpse of them, but who would dare enter?

- It's my bookmark, I said, retrieving the banksia leaf. I had jauntily thrown Stevie Smith's novel The Holiday into the top of my basket as I went away on holiday, and began reading it the first afternoon, lying on a tarpaulin on the ground at Mayall Lakes, where we camped the first night. Hence the banksia leaf bookmark, which I'll keep as a memento. It will forever belong to Stevie Smith.

And then when we arrived home, UG man was thinking of reading Kangaroo, by DHL, and flicking through found an old bookmark (see above, next to the iconically Australian banksia leaf). This one opens up to reveal that it is from a book chain called Van Gelderen, in Amsterdam, Holland, and I'd guess that it's at least 30 years old, if not more.

He didn't read Kangaroo, choosing instead to read An Autobiographical Novel, by the American poet Kenneth Rexroth, and the bookmark ended up marking his place in that.  This is a book I'd just  brought home from Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains, from a rather wonderful second-hand bookshop. (We stayed at another cottage there first, which was indeed all it was cracked up to be, a lovely clean, sunny, well-furnished late 1950s place with a beautiful garden. Crabapple Cottage. Do go there, and it's 'dog-friendly'. We stayed with our son and his partner and their two large dogs.)

And so bookmarks move from book to book. I especially like bookmarks that were never intended for that use. I have variously used bus tickets, airline boarding passes, the little brown pleated paper cups from chocolates, flattened out (and you can smell the chocolate on them for a long time afterwards), the paper strips surrounding a certain type of soap I buy from our heath-food shop (ditto for the smell), post-it notes, corners torn from newspapers, and the wrappers from 'feminine hygiene' products.

In used books I have bought, I've found among other things a Tokyo subway ticket (fittingly in a book by Haruki Murakami, in English but priced in yen), a business card for a Paris atelier, and what was once a perfume-sample impregnated piece of card, now with only a musty smell, in an ancient, falling-apart copy of Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  I don't know where any of these have ended up - in one of our books, somewhere, or lost. Bookmarks are ephemera, to be used, discarded or left behind, or kept for their associations and memories.  They remind me of the vast networks of readers, sharing books, recommending them (or not), discarding them, handing them on.

They remind me that reading a book is more than about just the book. They are about where you read them, what you were doing, and how you were feeling. And so books enter your life and become part of it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Shabby old Viragos...

... and David Herbert

From the Lifeline op shop in South Lismore (an excellent source of books, housed in a charming little former church) :  Four old Viragos and a bloke.

From the Macquarie Dictionary:

virago  [I'll leave out the pronunciation] n., pl. -goes, gos.  1. a turbulent, violent, or ill-tempered scolding woman; a shrew. 2. a woman of masculine strength or spirit. [ME and OE, from L: manlike woman]

So now tell me feminists have no sense of humour. Good name for a publisher of (mostly) neglected classics by women.

They are:

1. Tell me a Riddle, by Tillie Olsen

A new writer for me. Short stories (the title one, published in 1961, being 'one of the most famous stories in modern American fiction.)

2. Stevie Smith, The Holiday, first published 1949

Love her Novel on Yellow Paper.

Random quotation from new book:

So with these happy thoughts in my mind, I go down to our butcher, with whom my aunt has dealt for forty years, and Mr. Montgomery the butcher gives me six ounces more than the ration books says. He is a tall thin man, looking like Charles II, he smiles as he wraps the parcel. There you are, my dear. How's mother? (for he is convinced that my aunt is my mother).

My mother died when I was a child, my aunt has always lived with us, she has never wished to marry, she has 'no patience' with men (she also has 'no patience' with Hitler).  She thinks men are soppy, she says: He is a very soppy man, a most soppy individual.

Stevie Smith, The Holiday

3. Emma Goldman, An Intimate Life, by Alice Wexler

Late last year I re-read Goldman's excellent 2 volume autobiography, Living My Life (which should be brought into the attic at some stage - I've had it over 30 years, a wonderful strong old Dover publication), so I think I should let the effect of that settle before I read this. But why not have it there, just waiting to be read?

4. Such Devoted Sisters: An anthology of Stories, edited by Shena MacKay (1993)

How to resist this subject matter? One I've mined many times in my own novels.

And the bloke, not a Virago of course, but one of those lovely old orange Penguins, is Kangaroo, by D. H. Lawrence.

I hated him when I was a student - all that overblown stuff about men and women. But he lived in Australia for a time, in a cottage called 'Wywork' (a delightfully Australian sentiment) on the South Coast of NSW. Thirroul, if I'm not mistaken.

So here is is writing about Oz. Has to be worth a read.