Elly McDonald


Reconstructing honours (2 June 2014)

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In 1985 I was longlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Young Writers Award. Really.

I state this with astonishment as until approximately 2am this morning I had entirely forgotten this fact – and I wonder how this can be. I wonder not only how I could forget completely (and for how many years?), but I wonder how it happened at all.

This much I recall.

In 1985 the sun came out. I remember that distinctly. For some years prior, from late 1981, I had existed in a vortex of panic and despair. Paradoxically, I remember all too clearly how that came about – those painful spirals of terror and shame. I won’t conjure their memory here. What that dark energy did serve to do was pump the poetry of out of me. Literally. Across that period I wrote poems, short but frequent, and intense.

A lot of young people write poetry and a lot of it is hideously embarrassing in retrospect. My juvenilia has its share of junk. But it also threw up poems that I can read today and I recognise their impact. They were short on craft, devoid of wisdom, but a few packed a wallop.

In 1983 I began submitting poems to literary journals. Truth is, I didn’t mind the boomeranged rejections. I was lonely, and those return envelopes took care that my mail box was always full. At that point I equated rejection with relationship. But then the odd thing started. I started to open letters informing me my poems were accepted. I had the bizarre experience of having one poem accepted by four literary journals to whom I’d simultaneously sent it. Unethical, one editor huffed.

One morning, I now recall, I opened a letter advising me I’d been longlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award. It was the Year of Youth – or the Year of Young People? – and the Awards featured a Young Writers section. I remember walking Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross, Sydney, where I lived, past the landmark El Alamein Fountain, tears spouting from my eyes so the fountain blurred.

I asked the psychiatrist I dated that week, is it possible to cry tears of pure joy? No, he answered. Tears always indicate pain.

What, specifically, had I done, to be longlisted? I was in the process of self-publishing a collection of my poems, disingenuously titled Other People’s Pain. But the book had not yet appeared. I’ve googled the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, in hopes there might be something in cyberspace that might assist my memory. I see the Awards as they exist today in most categories invite entries. I realise that’s how it was then, too.

I submitted entries. I think I submitted a short story and a short television script. The short story was titled Old Angus and it was published in Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Australian. I remember the Chief Sub-editor congratulating me on its readability. Most of the stories, he told me, were crap. But mine told a story.

Old Angus was a fictionalised account of my grandfather’s death. I wrote it for my father. After Old Angus was published in The Australian, the national radio broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, asked me to adapt it as a radio play, which in the event they chose not to produce. Their rejection letter stated that on reconsideration they realised the narrative did not lend itself to radio dramatization. Which strikes me as odd, since the story is a conversation between two men, and dialogue seems peculiarly suited to an aural medium. But, no mind. I didn’t mind then.

The other piece I entered for the Premier’s Award was a short script for television titled Callie. Callie is a pseudonym I’ve used for myself on and off over many years. It’s also the name of a goldmine in Western Australia, a goldmine that came good spectacularly on the stock markets in late 1991, showering me with funds to embark on a bucket list world tour. If 1985 was the year the sun came out, Callie was the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. But that’s another story.

I wrote the TV script titled Callie as an assignment I did as a student in a pilot program course through what was then called the Australian Film & Television School (later the Australian Film Radio & Television School – AFRTS). The course was a pilot for a Scriptwriting By Correspondence program, and I completed it over two years, from 1983 to ’85. The Callie assignment asked us to take our zodiac sign and write a character-driven piece that dramatized the qualities associated with that zodiac. I was born Aries. Aries are, notoriously, impulsive, vain, courageous, reckless, intemperate, loyal, irresponsible, loveable. I remember I had Callie pick a jumper off a sales rack and think it a bargain at $65, then find she’s misread the price tag and it’s actually $650. I did that once. Wishful thinkers, we Aries. Fantasists.

I’m fairly sure it’s Callie I owe for my NSW Premier’s Literary Award nod.

What I also remember is that even though it was the Year of Youth (or possibly the Year of Young People), the young writers longlisted for the Young Writer’s Award were not invited to the Awards Dinner. I hope and assume those shortlisted were.

I remember that particularly because literary columnist Don Anderson had a piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald about what a rort the event was. He wrote satirically and sarcastically about it being an evening of bored and drunken literary types, chucking bread rolls at each other. I promptly wrote to the organisers pointing out that while the literary types who float round the literary circuit might be jaded, the Young Writers might have found it inspiring to attend the function, especially as the year – 1985, the year the sun came out – purported to honour them. The organisers wrote back saying there wasn’t room for everyone.

I like Don Anderson. Scratch that: I Iove Don Anderson. As Associate Professor at the Department of English at Sydney University, he was my English Literature tutor the following year, in 1986. He was a mentor, supporter and friend to me. But I still think it sad he wrote a gonzo piece about drunks when he could have written up the young writers. Hard to blame him, though, for failing to do that when the young writers were invisible, indeed, were possibly not present.

So the evening that might have proved unforgettable passed like any other and eventually the entire episode was forgotten.

Until tonight. I can still how the El Alamein fountain looked, in the sun, viewed through tears.

El Alamein fountain

Author: Elly McDonald

Australian-born, with English mother, has lived in several Australian cities and in London. Travelled widely. Way way back when, published widely as a poet and short story writer. For the first 20 years of my working life I worked as an entertainment journalist, publicist, PR consultant and in advertising and media agencies. In the second 20 years, I worked in marketing roles at non-profit organisations then retrained as a teacher, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees. Also did miserable McJobs, and a long, happy stint at an art gallery.

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