Elly McDonald

Writer


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Jimmy Barnes and me: Working Class Boy, Working Class Man, and the clueless killer fat chick

Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2017)

Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2016)

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A boy and a girl are seated on the top step of a flight of stairs in a grand old house. She is 19, he’s five years older, almost to the day. Their knees are touching.

He leans close towards her and says, “You’re a killer.”

She is dismayed. “A killer?”

His turn to be taken aback. “It’s a compliment,” he reassures her. “A killer. I think you’re fantastic.”

The girl adores him. She still adores him 37 years later, even though she’s barely seen or spoken to him since December 1983. A chance meeting on a Kings Cross street in 1985, a moment backstage in 1991, a note in about 2001, another moment backstage in 2007, then a book signing in St Kilda in 2017.

The boy is Jimmy Barnes, known and loved these days as an Australian rock music icon both as a solo artist and as lead singer in the band Cold Chisel. The girl is me, and the book Jim autographed for me at a book signing yesterday is Working Class Man, his second volume of autobiography, following his memoirs of a brutal childhood, Working Class Boy.

Working Class Boy is a gut-wrenching account of a childhood filled with neglect and violence, of a young boy struggling to survive a dysfunctional Glaswegian Scot family who migrated to Australia in 1961 and moved around Adelaide’s tougher, working class suburbs. It is compelling reading, beautifully written, with a fluency, passion and wit that surprises me not at all from the Jimmy Barnes I knew. The voice is authentic. I could hear him speaking in the written words.

I loved every page, every paragraph, of Working Class Boy. Yes, some parts horrified me. Some made me cry. Some helped me understand things we had (and have) in common I hadn’t understood before.

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I was born in 1961. My family moved to Adelaide in 1963. We lived in what’s known as the “leafy green suburbs”, the pleasant suburbs housing the professional classes. We lived at the base of the foothills overlooking the plain Adelaide fills, in a place called Glen Osmond, just up the road from the Arkaba Hotel, where Jim and his brother John roomed for a time as young adults.

My dad had Scottish heritage – his name was Donald Angus McDonald – and my great-grandparents were Gaelic speakers. They came from south-west Scotland, and/or from the isles. Some of them were very probably Irish migrants to south-west Scotland, like Jim’s folk. Some of them were Irish from County Galway, the heart of the bilingual Gaeltacht. As best I can tell, they were all heavy drinkers.

Although my father grew up in a nouveau riche mini-castle and his father was a big man in his country town, a self-made man with a successful business, my father grew up with family violence. He very seldom alluded to it. It was only when he was dying, earlier this year, that in his last weeks he fleshed out a little of the kind of violence he witnessed between his parents. Within our family we’d all always known there was something dark and frightening, some things unexplained, but we’d never heard details. It was painful.

Hearing my father recount in plain terms what he’d been subjected to as a child helped me understand some of my dad’s own more erratic behaviour, and his drinking. I could also clearly see, reading Jim’s book, more reasons my teenage self felt an affinity with Jimmy Barnes: if I wrote a list of my dad’s best qualities, and his worse, then wrote a list of Jimmy’s best and worst qualities as I saw them, the lists would be identical. They were cut from the same cloth.

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As soon as I finished reading Working Class Boy, I posted on Facebook:

Belatedly, I’ve finally read Jimmy Barnes’ memoir of his childhood, Working Class Boy, a remarkable work. On a personal level, there was so much in the voice, the reflections, the humour, the insights, the choices, the LANGUAGE that brought the Jim I once knew present. Which was a pleasure for me.

On a writerly level, I am blown away. Writing a coherent narrative takes skill. No surprise Jim is a great story teller. No surprise he’s articulate and rock-my-socks-off intelligent. But writing skills come through practice. I hadn’t realised he was so practiced. (Two previous attempts totaling c.60,000 words before a 100,000 dam-burst.)

Writing dialogue takes a great ear. Jim has that. In spades.

On a wisdom level – I always knew Jim as super-astute, with an off the charts EQ, but the maturity he demonstrates here through his writing has me worried. I’m only five years younger. Can I get that wise, so soon?

Jim’s wisdom is hard won. I would not wish to travel the road he has to acquire it. God bless him.

I am so eager now to read the follow-up, Working Class Man. This will be where I start to recognise more people, places, situations. I did meet Jim’s mum, his sister Linda and his brother John [also his siblings Alan and Dorothy, in passing], but I didn’t get to know them; arguably a lot of the people I met in the next stage of Jim’s life are also people I never truly ‘knew’, but we did share experiences and we share witness.

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I knew Working Class Man would cover the period when I knew Cold Chisel – the band’s last four years, the height of their success and their ferocious last year or two – and there was so much I never understood about what went down, what happened between specific individuals, why they behaved the ways they did across that time. I wanted to understand, because I felt I’d been part of the emotional turmoil, that it affected me, and it had blindsided me.

And now I have read Working Class Man.

Early in the tale I meet friends we had in common, when Jim and I both still lived in Adelaide, moving in different circles but, in Adelaide, a large country town with zero degrees of separation, interconnected.

We share some history, this town and I
And I can’t stop that long forgotten feeling…

(Flame Trees – lyrics Don Walker)

Here on the pages is my friend Vince Lovegrove, Cold Chisel’s first manager, and his wife Helen. Helen taught me to go-go dance when I was six or seven. She was a nurse with a close-knit group of bff’s including Mary, one of my earliest babysitters, who became one of our family’s dearest friends. Through Mary I knew Helen and through Helen I met Vince.

Vince when I met him was a minor pop star, sharing vocals in a band called The Valentines with a cheeky singer called Bon Scott. Bon Scott went on to sing with an Adelaide band called Fraternity, later fronted by Jim Barnes (with his brother John on drums), while Bon went on to front AC/DC. That’s Adelaide for you: the city of churches and serial killers, the town that spawned Bon Scott , Vince Lovegrove, Cold Chisel – and, less remarkably, me.

This is a review – or more correctly, a response – to Jimmy Barnes’ books Working Class Boy and Working Class Man. For a few years there his story and mine dovetail, so forgive me indulging in “sentimental bullshit”, settling in to play “Do you remember so and so?”, as Cold Chisel’s principle songwriter Don Walker put it in his lyrics to Flame Trees:

I’m happy just to sit here at a table with old friends
and see which one of us can tell the biggest lies

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I first met Jim Barnes in Melbourne. He was standing at the edge of a stage in a St Kilda venue, alongside his bandmate Don Walker, staring down at me. I was staring up, in my Anne of Green Gables floral-sprigged mauve frock, my hair the straggling remains of a dropped-out perm, my chubby upper arms straining at the cuffs of short puffed sleeves.

“Who’s in this band?” I demanded.

I was enrolled in Law/Arts at Monash University, then considered a second-tier suburban university, an offer I’d taken up over the offer from the more prestigious Melbourne University Law School due to some forlorn desire to be just a regular suburban girl. I wasn’t succeeding. I was a misfit, and I spent my days smoking dope and spinning the turnstile at the student radio station, 3MU.

3MU had lined up an interview with Jim and Don’s band Cold Chisel. Except no one owned having set up the interview and no one wanted to conduct an interview. I volunteered. Now here I was standing beneath a stage during a sound check.

The next time Cold Chisel came to Melbourne I interviewed Don and Cold Chisel drummer Steve Prestwich in their hotel room in St Kilda. I wrote it up as an article for the Adelaide-based rock magazine, Roadrunner.

In the hotel room, Don Walker considered me as if I were brain-gym puzzle. I asked Don what he was thinking.

“I’m wondering what social background you come from,” he said.

I told him my father was a director of a household name corporation and my mother was an academic. His mother was an academic too, but Don didn’t mention that.

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The band put my name on the free list at the door to see them play one of Melbourne’s big beer-barn suburban venues, and at Don Walker’s invitation I joined them in the band room after the show. It was the tail end of Chisel’s 1979 Set Fire To The Town tour, promoting Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts. The band joked it should be called the Let’s Get Fat tour. Sure enough, Jim did not look well. He was puffy,lunshaven, his eyes were glazed, his skin a bad colour, smeared with a greasy sheen, and he was out of it, off his face on god knows what. He nodded bleary-eyed recognition to me.

When Jim was functioning, which seemed to me most of the time, he was funny and bright and kind. Over the next year, after I moved to Sydney and started writing regularly for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine), I saw a lot of him. Briefly, he shared a house with Vince Lovegrove, just around the corner from my place. Then he moved into that grand old house where we sat together at the top of the stairs, also not more than a few minutes walk from my small flat. Bandmates referred to that house as “Jim’s castle”, which puts me in mind of the grand country house my dad grew up in.

Jim and I both lived in Paddington, an inner-city Sydney suburb then in the process of gentrification. Boundary Road formed the boundary between Paddington and Sydney’s red light district Kings Cross. In those days I alternated between dressing in jeans and flannel shirts and dressing in what might kindly be described as outdoor lingerie. It wasn’t uncommon for hoons visiting Kings Cross from the outer suburbs to pick up prostitutes or bash trans people to mistake me for a hooker. Sometimes they were menacing. One time I was pursued: I ran, but they ran faster. I knew the short cuts and ducked down a hidden through-walk. I knew I couldn’t make it to my own home before they spotted where I’d gone, so I ran through the wrought iron gates to Jim’s grand house and hid in the portico by his front door. I watched these boys trying to track where I’d gone. They sniffed around like hellhounds then finally gave up. My heart was pounding.

Jim and his housemates were out at the time. That night I told him the newspaper headlines would not have looked good: ‘Girl raped on rock star’s doorstep.’

Jim grinned and shot back, ‘While rock star at the beach!’

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Elly in 1983, the year Cold Chisel split

When I first met Chisel I was a fat teen with binge eating disorder, post-anorexic. As one venue promoter correctly surmised, you could write my sexual history on the head of a pin. The surfers, apprentice plumbers and neophyte heroin addicts my popular older sister hung out with had zero interest in me. Being seen with a fat chick was an embarrassment.

So when Don Walker referred to me, approvingly, as an “earth mother”, I failed to hear the compliment and was mortified. When I walked through Kings Cross and saw a porn mag titled Deviations featuring a special issue on fat chicks, my immediate thought was: “That’s me. I’m a sexual deviation.” (My eating disorder did my friendship with Don no favours. I had it in my head that Don only liked thin women, and, since I valued Don’s good opinion, that meant that whenever I felt self-conscious I’d get defensive, even semi-hostile, around him.)

When Jimmy Barnes told me I “looked the way a woman should look”, it was the first time I’d heard male affirmation.

More important, and certainly more intimate: Jim taught me how to punch.

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Jim met and fell in love with Jane, the woman he married, not long after we met. But his relationship with Jane was turbulent. He did a lot of drugs. He drank a lot. When I complained I didn’t have money to buy groceries, Jimmy told me I could live on speed and booze. He must have liked that line, because he repeats it in Working Class Man. I didn’t have Jim’s constitution. I couldn’t afford groceries so I lost weight. Men started taking more sexual interest in me. I stayed cautious.

At Vince’s house, the lead singer of a young support band tried, politely, to chat me up. I was so unused to being chatted up and I couldn’t deal. I flung helpless looks towards Jim. He laughed.

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Jimmy Barnes with Vince Lovegrove and Vince and Helen’s daughter Holly, Jane’s sister Jep Mahoney at front

Jim writes of Cold Chisel in Working Class Man that “These four guys would eventually become my family. The family I always needed.” With much less cause, I too regarded Cold Chisel as family. Although my birth family, living in Melbourne, were nowhere near as explosive as Jim’s birth family was, as a family unit we were not, across those years, in good shape. My father accused me years later of choosing to live first interstate then overseas in order to be far away from my family. He was not wrong, though it hurt me to admit it.

For me, Cold Chisel were the big brothers I never had.

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Jim could be protective. There was a night when white powders were being passed around and when I reached for my turn, Jim slapped my hand.

“Not that! That’s smack,” he warned me, sharply.

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The huge breakthrough album for Cold Chisel was East, released May 1980. Before it came out I watched Chisel rehearse for the album tour and I remember I was irritable. I recall Jim being unimpressed when I criticised the harmonies on Twist’n’Shout, so maybe that was it.

In the train on the way back to Kings Cross with Don Walker and Don’s partner, the rock writer Jenny Hunter-Brown, I remember Don looking at me like I was a toddler in need of a pacifier and handing me a Walkman, a small cassette player with mini-headphones.

“Here,” he said. “Listen to this.”

It was East, the first track: Standing On The Outside. I was so shocked by how slick and tuneful those first bars sounded, but I didn’t want to let go of being grumpy and give Don the thumbs up. I listened with a stiff face to the whole track, then took the earphones out.

“What do you think?” Don asked.

I think I said, “It’s good. It’s very good.”

Cld_Chisel_East

In Working Class Man, Jimmy writes that when Don presented Standing On the Outside to the band,

“I felt like I was singing a song that came from somewhere deep inside my soul. I had been standing on the outside all my life, never being allowed to taste or touch the world that was just outside my reach.”

Jim writes that on East, Don “came up with a lot of songs about outsiders. We were outsiders, and we were surrounded by outsiders and misfits. There was something about the outcasts from society that fascinated him. Maybe that’s why he liked me.”

Me too. Maybe that’s why Don liked me when he met me, too.

Jim asked me which of the songs from the East live playlist I liked best. I told him Tomorrow (the set opener) and Star Hotel.

Jimmy met my eyes: “Me too”, he said.

In Working Class Man he writes, “Star Hotel let me sing about not being good enough, not being wanted or worth anything, and wanting to tear down the world because of it.”

Until I read that line I didn’t realise this was the “me too” we shared. I came from a relatively privileged background, Jim came from what is sanitised as “disadvantage”. But we both had a fundamental sense of being worthless, and a desperate fear of being abandoned. We both had deep wells of anger and terror.

When Jim writes in Working Class Man about near hysteria at the prospect of being separated from Jane when she fell ill in America, I cried:

“The idea of being separated from Jane again made me feel sick. I couldn’t lose her. If I let her go now I might never see her again. I always had the feeling that I would end up alone. I didn’t deserve her. I couldn’t let her go. […] I was definitely hysterical now. I was crying.”

That is so precisely how I felt about being part of Chisel’s circle. I was terrified of being expelled. I felt that Jane didn’t like me, and I can’t blame her. At my fattest I once trod on her while wearing stilettoes. But not to make light of this (so to speak): it was not easy for Jane being married to Jim. Even then, there were so many hangers-on pressing for Jimmy’s time and attention, and some had no scruples about how to achieve that end. There were individuals hanging out with Chisel who Jane disliked and mistrusted, mostly with good reason. I didn’t try to see things from her perspective. I resented her for seemingly separating Jim from people who had been his friends – for separating him from me.

I hated watching Jim cease to be my friend, and I was beyond terrified to lose my friendship with Don, for much the same reasons Jim and the band valued him: because Don was the big brother of big brothers, the stable one, the calm, capable, trustworthy one, the one who made sure what needed to get done always did get done. What a burden Don shouldered.

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Cold Chisel, with Don Walker at centre

After I spoke with Jimmy at the book signing this week, I spoke with Jane. I leaned in close and said, “Thank you for keeping him alive.”

Jane instinctively pushed back, saying “It wasn’t me.”

“I know,” I replied. “He did that. But you both did that. You did it together.”

She half-nodded, warily. I know better than to put the burden of someone’s survival, of someone’s thriving, onto their partner. I asked if I could hug her. She wasn’t keen.

“After 30 years…” she began. I hugged her anyway.

I was over-emotional, and it’s not right to force another person’s emotional space. But for years I’ve recognised I was wrong about Jane. Jim ceased to be my friend after he and Jane married and committed to a life together, but Jane was and is, it seems to me, very likely the best thing that’s happened to Jimmy Barnes.

You made his life,” I whispered, as I hugged her.

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Years after Jimmy left Cold Chisel, years after Cold Chisel broke up, I was living in London. It came to my attention Vince Lovegrove was living in London too.  I made contact and we talked on the phone.

Vince told me he’d worked with Jim when Jimmy Barnes toured Europe, and that Jim had not been in a good place.

“He’s a mess,” Vince told me. “He is drugging and fucking around and he’s filled with self-loathing. He can’t bear to look at the man in the mirror.”

This was not long after Michael Hutchence’s death and I was filled with fear that, like the INXS frontman, Jim might kill himself, intentionally or otherwise. I was in denial. I was angry at Vince for being the bearer of bad news, and for a moment – a long moment – I believed he was exaggerating the mess that was Jimmy Barnes because he was jealous of how much Jimmy meant to me, and because by exaggerating the depths of Jimmy’s personal decline it might distract from his own decline.  This long moment – this extended denial – contributed to me not following up the plans Vince and I made to meet up.

I regret that now. Vince was killed in a car crash in early 2012. Friends are valuable. Friends don’t cease to matter because years have passed.

Do you know I reach to you
from later times…

(Letter to Alan, lyrics by Don Walker)

I now know, after reading Jimmy’s account of his solo career and life across the years when we didn’t see each other, that Vince was not exaggerating. I now know that Jim very nearly did kill himself, in circumstances not unlike the circumstances in which Michael Hutchence died.

I am profoundly grateful my friend is alive.

I am profoundly grateful he wrote this harrowing book, painful as it’s been for me to read. I am grateful to his family and the friends who love him, who have been by his side.

I know Jimmy Barnes didn’t write this book so that people he wouldn’t recognise in the street could reminisce 35 years later about their brushes with fame. Seems to me he wrote it for himself, yes, as therapy; and also for the people who he loves, the people he perhaps feels he owes explanations; for people who are children of family violence, children of alcoholics and addicts; and for the people who share experiences similar to his of addiction, self-loathing, the fear of abandonment, the terror of loss.

When Jimmy was a child, he used to run away from his family, all the way down to Glenelg Beach, and watch the world from the jetty. I did something similar. I had a beach where I’d climb over a clifftop guard rail, curl up in a small sandstone depression in the cliff, and watch the sun set into the waters of Gulf St Vincent.

Jim didn’t write this book for me (or just for me). But I open the front leaf of my copy of Working Class Boy, and I see in Jim’s scrawl

Jimmy_Barnes_autograph

And I am grateful.

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Review: Shots (2009) by Don Walker

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Don Walker (second from left, seated) with Cold Chisel

At its best, Shots is prose poetry:

He’s got himself up in this smock affair over the top of coloured jeans and a scarf collection very few of which are scarves, all of them bestowed, nothing there that ain’t worn as a joke. He has real crow-black hair, dull with a couple of orange patches burnt into the sides. He can be very funny but when his eyes are pinned he’s cold as a crocodile. He’s seen death and he knows it’s any moment and not far off and no fun and he’s back here he knows for a short time and he’s getting as much of everything as he can catch while he can still move and he ain’t moving […]

At its best, Shots is social history, or social satire, or Bildungsroman:

‘Who do you wish to see,’ says the same secretary and I tell her ‘Frank’ like I’ve told her so many times before. ‘Who do I say is calling?’ That’s to tell me no matter how many times I come in here I ain’t worth mentioning. I tell her again. ‘Ya got an appointment?’ she says and I say, ‘I have to pick up a cheque.’ ‘Frank’s too busy today unless you’ve got an appointment,’ she says. I do this every week. I got no dignity now I need that money, so I’m pleading, ‘Could you just check with him, please?’ She wants to see a bit more begging before she tells me to sit down and she’ll see what she can do and then she sits there and does nothing, radiating contempt. When others come in she lights up a big smile for them, shows them through to Frank’s office, comes back – ‘Frank knows you’re here’ – then gets on the phone to a girlfriend, then lunchtime comes and Frank and his visitors pour out of the office and hit the top of the stairs without Frank noticing I’m there and they loudly head off somewhere to eat too much with a view of the river for a few hours then a girlfriend comes and collects the secretary and they head off for lunch, the girlfriend looks at me like I’m a mollusk that’s been dead a few days rotting somewhere inappropriate, they leave giggling, the girlfriend doesn’t ask the secretary who I am.’

At its best, Shots is lucid and explicit:

Back home the new record, East, is released, and goes better than anyone imagined. Success brings its comforts, though I don’t write as much. Looking back, that night in Paris was something of a high point. I was immortal till then. Maybe that’s the way it is for everyone. Immortal, and never knowing it, up until a certain point. Then a pin is pulled. Everything’s the same, but somewhere a clock begins winding down, and it can never be arrested. My companions and I, we ate and drank in remembrance and celebration, but over the next three days in London all profound flowerings were for me rendered meaningless, and many things besides. These days I’m a passenger, my whole being bent towards a little girl an ocean away. News of her came in a phone-call, then letters, first from London, then Johannesburg, then photos of a blonde, fragile-looking daughter.

Shots, I’m given to understand, refers to shots of liquor: short, strong, intoxicating gulps.

Certainly, the text is not quite sober. The typewriter has been drinking. There are filters casting shadow over every page, tonal filters of sepia and psychedelics. Was that Faulkner I detected in the rural opening sequences? Thomas Wolfe’s Depression New York a little later? Some Kerouac, some Bukowski, some Henry Miller? It’s not really my scene so it’s hard for me to nail. Stylistically, it seems to be a mélange of every blue mood from the Weimar Republic to Y2K; from art movements (Otto Dix and German Expressionism) to mid-century noir to late twentieth-century pop culture homage (Tom Waits?). Sequences set in red-light district hotels. Sequences set in specialist comics bookshops. Sequences set in nightclubs. Blade Runner in Kings Cross.

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Rudolf Schlichter, Hausvogteiplatz, 1925

There is a feel of early twentieth-century modernist art, the kind of art Goebbels labelled “degenerate” and that Cold Chisel referenced in the cover art for their album Twentieth Century. There are femmes fatales, hot to trot rich over-educated girls who knock on his hotel room door then, once undressed, perch on his bed with a “hot flushed face” while the boyfriend bangs on the locked door.

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Otto Dix, Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926

There are women who knock on his hotel room door and undress to reveal “cheap satin lingerie with suspenders and stockings and little bows etc.”

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Christian Schad, Self Portrait, 1927

There’s a recurring Girl who Walker calls “the Fritz Lang girl”. Those who knew Walker across the late ‘70s and ‘80s will know who she is. She’s foregrounded as someone “I love her now like a sister”, and in that hint, and in the throwaway “She’s got a sister”, a major relationship, a love, is ellided.

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Fritz Lang Girl, Metropolis, 1927

This is where my ‘I’ steps forward. Because I am not a neutral reader.

Maybe I’m a little pissed off he foregrounds people I didn’t care for and ellides people I did.

I think this role of hardboiled unmoved observer refusing to respond directly, relating to his world only obliquely, is a form of Romantic hero, a Bogart character: “You pays your money you takes your choices” – or, as I once put it to Don Walker, “You pays your money, you takes your chances.”

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Bogart taking his chances

When he writes, “I know to watch her and not make any move is the only thing that might possibly confuse her”, or “she’s pretty obvious with a lot of fluttering and rubbing up and I’m like a fence post ‘cause I take me fun in my own world not here”, or, “she’s right there she is not gunna leave so I’m getting bored and start thinking I wonder what her tits look like purely out of aesthetic curiosity”, I’m reminded of Don Walker as I knew him in 1980, complaining at a party about a woman who he said kept trying to talk to him and who would not, according to him, “get the message” that he was not interested. I asked him how he sent that message.

“I gave her a frosty look,” he told me.

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A frosty look from Bladerunner’s Deckard (replicant)

I told him a frosty look is not sufficient. I told him women might mistake that for his habitual expression. I told him he needed to be more direct.

I still think he needs to be more direct, not least in Shots.

I don’t understand his ellipticism. I never did. Don Walker has a particular view of the world that I can’t share. It’s not something I relate to.

I begged him that if ever he didn’t want me to talk to him, to be direct, to tell it to me straight. He looked puzzled.

“But you’re not a problem,” he said. “You don’t want anything.”

 

Three stories, told with thudding directness (but that would be me):

Story #1: In mid-1980 Don Walker and I had our first falling out. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I demanded he tell me. After some rattling on my part Don told me a person who was a close friend of the band who I did not realise was a close friend of the band had told him I was overheard describing one of the band members’ girlfriends as “a moron”. I was distraught: because I did know that person was a “close friend of the band”; because I would not have said such a thing, even if I thought it, being terrified as I was of the band members’ girlfriends; and because it scared me to believe that Don would cut off our friendship on another person’s hearsay without telling me what I’d allegedly done ‘wrong’, and without giving me an opportunity to defend myself.

I sat down with Jim Barnes at Jim’s house and told him how upset I was. I asked Jim if Don had mentioned this incident to him.

“No,” Jim had answered quietly. “One thing about Don is he will never discuss that with any other person. I know Don. He would never mention it.”

He’d just end a friendship.

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Jim Barnes (far left) with Don Walker (next to Jim) and Cold Chisel

Story #2: About Paul Hewson – the bloke with the coloured jeans and the scarves in the quote at top. Don and Paul were at Benny’s nightclub in Potts Point, well after midnight, in 1984. My ‘friendship’ with Don by then was in tatters. Paul Hewson advised me to try the chili con carne on the menu. “Con carne”, he said, with relish, leaning too close in to my face. “It means with meat.” He smacked his lips. I did not look impressed. He changed tack. “Don obviously doesn’t like you much,” he said. I turned on my heel and left. But I waited outside, sitting on a low wall, so that when Paul and Don exited the nightclub I could block their path and hurl verbal abuse at Paul. He wilted. He cringed. Lots of people remember Paul fondly. I remember him for that night and I despise him. Don walked past fast with a frozen face.

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Paul Hewson (far left) with Dragon

Story #3: One day in late ’85 or ’86 as I was striding along Ward Avenue in Kings Cross I met Don Walker. This was not unusual. By this time relations were somewhat more cordial. We lived two minutes from each other, equidistant from the spot where we coincided on this occasion. What was unusual was that Don was walking very, very slowly, and clutching his hand was a small girl in a dress.

“Hello,” I said. “Who’s this? Friend? Relative?”

Don looked me in the eye and said, solemnly, “Daughter. Danielle.”

My reflex reactions kicked in.

“Daughter?” To the small girl: “A daughter is a very important person. Hello, Danielle.”

To Don I said, “Will Danielle be staying with you?”

As Don started to reply the small girl looked up at me and said fiercely, “I can’t stay too long.”

Don and I locked eyes.

“Then I’d best let you both get on with your day,” I said.

Don Walker had a daughter. His life had changed.

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For Jenny Hunter-Brown:

Other People by Elly McDonald (1981)

Long and gentle (soft dusky pink),
A girl in a coffeeshop
Closes up, jagged like an oyster.
Her face blurred like a moonstone.

huddled, hunted, in massive tawny furs
(a memory, but raw as a freshly-flayed kill)
can’t feel, can’t breathe, drains away…
her ankles loll like broken necks

The girl in the coffeeshop
Keeps her chin level,
Talks tired and calmly: I’m not
Really crying, she says.

 

 


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On Borove Forest, and elsewhere.

When I was a child my sister and I bought my father a large glossy coffee table volume, a history of World War 2 in photographs.

Two images shocked me more than all others. I encountered one of those images again today.

Today my Facebook Newsfeed popped up a Daily Mail article on “Ukraine’s shameful Holocaust of Bullets”, the systemic execution of up to 1.6 million Jews, resulting in around 2000 max graves located so far, with up to 6000 further sites believed yet to be identified.

A French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, made it his mission to uncover the human stories behind massacres that took place at four sites near Rava Ruska (Rawa Ruska), near the Ukraine-Poland border, where about 18000 Jews were murdered, and a further 14000 political prisoners and Romanies. Father Desbois’ grandfather Claudius Desbois was a prisoner of war at Rava Ruska. He’d said little except that outside the camp was worse than inside.

His grandson was moved to investigate. According to Father Desbois, as reported in the Daily Mail,

People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die.

Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs.

Thirteen German private trucking companies came to work at Rava Ruska.

The Daily Mail reports that eventually, hundreds of eye witnesses provided testimony to Father Desbois, extending beyond the killing centre Rava Ruska to neighbouring towns like Belzec ten miles away and cities like Lvov (Lviv), 31 miles away.

Looking at the photographs that have survived begs the questions, “Who took these photographs? For what purpose? Why were they retained?”

Some of the photos are now part of the Yad Vashem collection, Yad Vashem being Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. When I started to write this piece my intention was to comment closely on specific images. But the images largely speak for themselves, so I’ll keep comments brief.

This is the image that first hooked me today. (It’s not the one that shocked me as a child. Fortunately I never saw it as a child.)

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She’s young. She’s beautiful. She could be any of the young, beautiful women I see every day. She could be myself younger, or any of my friends. All her clothes have been torn off, except for her rather stylish shoes, and fully-clothed adult men are standing over her, cuffing her on the head, ahead of whatever happens next.

I think she’s been knocked down. I think this because in another photo she’s trying to fend off those hostile adult men. Look at their faces.

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This girl could be any girl, any girl in a combat zone, throughout human history. I worked with Bosnian refugees after the Bosnian conflict. I saw photos of women dragged onto the streets, pushed down on the street, raped in Bosnia. Every victim of wartime rape and murder is this girl’s kin.

She’s a hero, but it couldn’t save her. Being young couldn’t save her. Being beautiful did not.

2B8813D500000578-3205754-image-a-69_1440145485446But

But the crime is not despoiling the young and beautiful. All victims of war are owed their dignity, in memory, even when dignity was taken from them at death.

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Here is a mother trying to protect her daughter. Her daughter’s clothes are already partly ripped away.

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Here is a group of people, apprehensive, knowing nothing good can happen. Look closely at the woman third from the left. She could be your colleague, couldn’t she? Your sister? Your friend?

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You might ask, are there no images of men being brutalised? Yes, there are. They’re excruciating. And boys being dragged down and beaten, and old men, too. But these images of women spoke to me most strongly, just as all those years ago one of the two images that spoke to me as a child was an image of a French female sexual collaborator being publicly humiliated.

(No, this is not that image. This one has the same emotional tenor.)

French_collaborator_12

(You ask, am I drawing an equivalence between Jewish women raped and murdered in Ukraine and French women whose heads were shaved as punishment for consorting with Germans?

I answer: Not an equivalence. But I do see a relationship, as victims of misogyny fuelled by wartime hatreds.)

These images of women being brutalised speak so powerfully it’s almost overkill (boom boom) to quote the eye witness testimonies:

One account from Rava Ruska was of a Nazi officer who spotted a young Jewish woman running out of the ghetto to buy butter at the market. He ordered her to be stripped naked, and demanded the trader smear her with butter after which he decreed her beaten to death with sticks.”

Nikola Kristitch was aged 8 in 1942 when he witnessed a day-long massacre:

“I remembered one of the girls, a young girl. Her panties were around her ankles.

“A German fired at her and her hair caught fire. She screamed and he took an automatic rifle, got into the grave and fired.

“The bullet ricocheted off his knee and he bled everywhere. He bandaged his knee, he was half undressed and then he emptied his round. He even killed Jews who still had their clothes on, he couldn’t wait he was so crazed with rage. He fired at everybody, he was crazy.”

These accounts would be merely pornographic if it were not so crucial to remember.

Father Desbois has established a foundation called Yahad and has worked to ensure a memorial was raised in Rava Ruska and Jewish graves are protected. He says,”Why do we come back to Ukraine? Because one day we will have to go back to Iraq, because one day we will have to go back to the last mass grave in Darfur.

“Tomorrow will be the same story.”

I don’t know if it was seeing those photographs back when I was a child that led 30 years later to me working with post-Bosnia refugees, or that led me to attempt to write a speculative fiction novel on these themes.

The image I will never forget from that book in my youth? This one. It was this one.

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(Content credit to Will Stewart and the MailOnline, 24 August 2015 8:12pm)

 


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Woman of Substances: A journey into addiction and treatment – by Jenny Valentish

Jenny ValentishJenny Valentish’s book Woman of Substances is subtitled “A journey into addiction and treatment” and sets out to explore how addiction is triggered and plays out specifically in women, across a range of behaviours: drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive or obsessive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm and self-mutilation, and other compulsive behaviours, including sex and theft. She investigates social and historical factors as well as neuroscience, endocrinology and psychiatric approaches.

Organised in three parts, (Part One: Predictors of a problem; Part Two: Gendered adventures in addiction; Part Three: Woman’s Lib), this book is part sociological research, part memoir. Both aspects resonate with me. Valentish writes as someone who came of age in south-east England’s music scene in the early ‘90s, who published a fanzine, was publicly represented in the tabloids as a music groupie, who was immersed in music and drugs and alcohol, was sexually abused, who relocated to the other side of the planet, has intimate experience of addiction and (arguably) mental illness. She now lives in regional Victoria.

We have common ground. I was a rock music writer from ages 17 to 29, writing for rock music publications, pilloried as a teen by Molly Meldrum on Countdown as a “stupid female”, constantly negotiating the crosslines between sexual experimentation, peer perception and shame, witnessing drug and alcohol abuse, occasionally participating, with intimate experience of other forms of addiction, and mental illness. I crossed the planet, in reverse, to spend my 30s in ’90s London. I now live in regional Victoria.

Like Jenny, I am fascinated by the challenges posed by writing memoir.

Jenny Valentish describes her personal experience woven through her research findings as a “case study”. As it happens, one of my freelance employments is editing the psychiatric case studies required of trainee psychiatrists. It’s all too easy for me to condense and mentally reformat Valentish’s accounts of her personal experiences as third person psychiatric reports. It’s easy, too, for me to follow her accounts of different treatment methods and wellness strategies, as set out in the book’s final section. Truthfully, that section is so lucid I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to learn what works.

She writes wonderfully.

I nearly did not read this book. I’d seen a review that commented on how direct her language was, presenting as an example,”I had a cock in my mouth by the age of seven.” I took that to be the book’s opening line. I was concerned this would be a sensationalist, exhibitionist narrative – the “crazy woman as attention-seeker” trope. A part of me felt I already knew this story. Why revisit it through someone else’s darkness?

To learn, to contextualise, to rethink, to reframe, to empathise, to better understand. Because it’s well-researched. It’s useful reporting. It’s entertaining. It’s encouraging.

I had some predictable responses. I found it impossible not to map her experiences against mine, not to place us in relative positions on a graph mapping “Just how bad was that?”

There are no prizes for being the most out-there addict. That said, as a reader, and as someone who had thought our experiences might be loosely comparable, I was shocked, actually distressed, by much that Valentish recounts. I felt outraged on behalf of her 14 year old self, being inducted into music scene sex; her 18 year old self, raped in an alley; her 26 year old self, fleeing an abusive ex across oceans; her 7 year old self, sexually abused by a neighborhood teen – outraged by the continuum of her experiences. I felt shocked, confused, by the extent of her substance abuse. Why would she subject herself to that? How did she function, build a career?

The “Why would she subject herself to that?” is, obviously, the question the project addresses. How did she function, build a career? Seems to me that side by side with – or within, or fronting, or inextricable from – the identity Valentish presents on the page, the person who stumbles and trips and can’t articulate coherently, there was the person who functioned just fine, thank you ma’am, within her chosen environments, aided by considerable intelligence, her talent, her resilience, her humour, other character traits she doesn’t make explicit, and by her social capital (education, beauty, middleclass background).

In the final section, the section about treatment options and the experience of weaning off addictions, Valentish writes briefly about narrative therapy. This is the process whereby a person articulates their story and then, with an appropriately qualified therapist, they “look at some of the dominant narratives that they are using to give themselves a hard time: ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m an alcoholic’, ‘I’m a bad mother’ or ‘I’m a failure’. […] The therapist and client will then look for the subjugated narratives of resilience, courage and strength, and work on lifting those to the fore.”

My brother-in-law is clinical director of a private psychiatric clinic and is a senior psychiatrist within the public health sector. Narrative therapy is an approach he promotes. I have gleaned a few hints observing him and asking him about his work, and a strategy I do find useful is consciously noting how I am telling my story – to myself, to others – and consciously exploring ways of representing it that are true to those events and yet empowering.

Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.

In the Acknowledgements section Jenny Valentish writes: “I realised afterwards, once I’d signed off on the book, that I skimped on the love, support and good times. Certainly they’re more obvious now (who really basks in those good fortunes in their twenties anyway?), but they were always there from family and friends, keeping me afloat. To this end, Women of Substance is a memoir of addiction, not a memoir of a girl.”

Good point.

She writes: “My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies with marble floors and ceiling fans rotating lazily over potted palms. I should have been thumping hard-oak boardroom tables and powering through airports in my safari suit.”

This is Jenny Valentish being self-deprecating, aware of middleclass privilege. I know I too have benefited immensely from class privilege. In fact, chunks of my life have been a Duran Duran video, especially, but not exclusively, my life in London advertising agencies. I still get to check-in occasionally to glamorous hotels with thriving indoor plants, and though my cashflow is constrained, to say the least, I live very comfortably, in a beautiful upper middleclass environment, and I do not lack.

She writes: “I’m lucky. While Woman of Substances isn’t exactly a beach read, my own experiences only skirt the edges of awful possibility. With my drug use I was just a tourist, albeit the type that overstays their visa. I didn’t get into trouble with the police. I didn’t drive under the influence, or even learn to drive. I didn’t overdose or take drugs with anyone who did. I didn’t get rushed to hospital. Nobody beat me up. I didn’t need to have sex with anyone for drugs, nor for drug debts. I didn’t want kids, so I didn’t accidentally drink through my first trimester, or use through a pregnancy. I had a secure childhood and parents who were able to look after me.”

Me neither. Me too.

Quite apart from the shock of how sordid many of Jenny Valentish’s experiences were (and I say “sordid” as a descriptor, not as a judgement), the shock for me in reading this narrative was realising just how conservative I’ve been. Yes, there were a few months sucking bongs at age 17. But my dope-fiend career was cut short by my complete inability to draw back, a failure I recall one rock musician friend murmuring must be “a terrible handicap for a girl”.

There was the one occasion I attempted to snort cocaine off a mirror; my long hair fell forward and wiped the mirror surface. (That same musician friend laughed and remarked how popular I must have been.) There was the time backstage when I reached for a proffered white powder and a rock musician friend, a famously drug-abusing rock musician friend, slapped my hand sharply, saying “Not that! That’s smack.” There was the life-changing, hideous episode with white powder backstage that led to a blackout and a blow-up my brain never stored in memory. There was the sleazy paparazzo with his date-rape drug.

Thing is, after age 18, I never smoked dope. After 21, I stopped drinking, almost entirely. After the white powder episode, I never touched white powder. After the date rape, I moved back to where my parents lived. As I once told an old friend, I never met a drug that liked me. Every time I tried an illegal substance it blew up in my face (so to speak), and I immediately stopped.

For a so-called groupie (“bandmoll”, we called it), I wasn’t even promiscuous. Over time, in my twenties, I had sex with more men than the girls I grew up with did – I think. But highly discriminately. And rarely.

Eating disorders? Overspending? Compulsive behaviours? Impulsivity? Stalking? I put my hand up. I did those other things that fit within the realm of addiction.

This is not a review; this is a personal response. My personal responses to what Jenny’s written are complex. Foremost, ultimately, they take the form of a chorus of “BRAVA!”, directed with a metaphorical bouquet to Valentish.

Woman of Substances


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Avon and Servalan, Paul and Jacqueline – memoirs

Call me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation [with Nicholas Briggs] Audio CD

You’re him, aren’t you? An autobiography by Paul Darrow

From 1978 till 1981 the British sci-fi series Blake’s 7 was broadcast on TV across four seasons, 52 episodes in all. Blake’s 7 was originated by Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks of Doctor Who fame. He intended Blake’s 7 to be a darker alternative to Doctor Who: Doctor Who for adults. Or a darker Star Wars. It ended badly. I mean that. As a 20 year old fan in 1981, I was so distressed by Blake’s 7’s final scenes that I wrote to the newspapers: Shocked of Kings Cross, Sydney (a neighbourhood where most of us were mostly unshockable).

There were two mainstay characters who did not appear in Episode 1, Series 1, and one of these characters was missing – and greatly missed – in that final episode. The other claims the final shot. These characters are the evil galactic Supreme Commander Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and Avon, first introduced as a cold, self-interested, sociopathic hacker, played by Paul Darrow.

Servalan

The absence of Servalan and Avon might explain why, when I watched a repeat of Episode 1, Series 1 when Blake’s 7 was rescreened in the ‘90s, I could not make out why I’d loved this show so much. Avon and Servalan. They were the drawcards. Tarrant was cute and Cally quite compelling, Vila was amusing and the first Travis had a kind of S&M appeal, but really, for me Blake’s 7 was Avon and Servalan. This I understand was true for many of the series’ 10 million or so (at its peak) viewers.

Servalan, especially, was a kind of perverted role model for me. After a miserable love affair, I cut my hair to a short fuzz, to look like hers. Men wanted to touch the possum fur fuzz on my head. I let them. But I knew I was an alter ego – a lost clone – of the Supreme Commander and that if I chose, those men would be laser blast fragments.

servalan blasts Avon

Having recently re-encountered Blake’s 7, I was curious to learn what happened to the actors in their subsequent lives. I found there is a pop cult industry around the series, a business called B7 and a business called Big Finish, with audio adventures voiced by original cast members and Comic Con appearances. There are autobiographical materials, such as Call Me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation (audio CD) and Paul Darrow’s memoir You’re him, aren’t you? – An autobiography.

What did I learn?

I learned that it’s painful to be an actor, that the odds of achieving any kind of success are stacked against acting aspirants, that success once achieved is seldom enough, and seldom sustained, and that the pain of being a has-been and the pain of being a never-was and the pain of finding hollow “success” can be hard to live with.

I learned that Darrow and Pearce are both deeply ambivalent about Blake’s 7, that the 35 years since have seen both struggle with depression and despair, and struggle in other ways. Pearce talks openly, recklessly, about it. Darrow circles around pain and disappointment over and over, looping through themes of ambition and failure, and feelings of anger and envy, till the cumulative effect is of an old actor, deep in his cups, holding forth in a way he hopes is avuncular but in fact comes across as bitter. Not that I’m saying Paul Darrow drinks. I’m talking about how I read his memoir.

Paul Darrow Avon

There are positives. Jacqueline Pearce is painfully open, recounting a tale of talent blighted by mental illness, but her story testifies to resilience and the value of friendships, including a supportive friendship with the late great actor John Hurt. It’s easy to empathise with Pearce’s observations and experiences, and easy to admire her fortitude. Plus, her voice is beautiful, even if her frequent throaty laugh becomes unsettling.

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and his account of his life attests resilience, too, and enterprise. He writes in short pieces, not necessarily linear chronology, and I wish there’d been a sympathetic editor to hand to help him focus on the interesting questions he raises, and to minimise some of the more indulgent sections, such as his synopses of each episode of every Blake’s 7 series, which could be summarised as “The narratives were crap, the production values trash; if you care about Blake’s 7, the more fool you.”

I don’t think he meant to imply Blake’s 7’s production team, or its viewers, are idiots, but he does imply that, at length. Then he contradicts himself and praises the writers, the directors, the stunt crew, thanks the actors for their friendship and thanks Terry Nation for transforming his life. Like I said, conflicted.

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man. He does raise good questions. Given the plots are ludicrous, the stunts unconvincing, special effects rudimentary and the production values shout low budget, what can account for Blake’s 7’s popularity? This was a show shot on video, not film, shot largely within semi-bare stationary sets (Scene: The interior of a space craft), with quarries and occasional sand drifts for location shoots, and characters who wield what look like hair-dryers standing in for laser guns.

And this: why did audiences relate so strongly to the overt sociopaths, to Avon and Servalan? Why did the sparks of an Avon/Servalan pairing cause salivations? Why, cosmos above, would young women like me imagine Servalan a role model and fantasise about Avon?

Servalan Avon.jpg

Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and in his autobiography he acknowledges these questions. Then, after a half-hearted stab in response (Avon as “a bit of rough”?), he gloomily gives up, as if it’s all too much. Which it would seem it was.

It must be hard, for Paul Darrow, to start out sharing a house with fellow RADA students John Hurt and Ian McShane, and at the height of one’s fame to be touted as a future James Bond (Timothy Dalton got the Bond gig), then to be relegated to pantomime, touring rep (again), and the continuing audio adventures of a character you played several decades back. A character who logic suggests died.

Darrow writes interestingly about typecasting, and he writes about an actor’s need for an audience, for affirmation. He is savagely funny about how he’ll be remembered. As ever, he’s torn, not sure whether anyone will care at all, or whether there’ll be mangled memories and pop culture fan-hysteric tears, or whether some people might consider his career had value. I’m here to reassure him. Paul, you are loved. How could a reader not love an actor who quotes the review that said “Paul Darrow plays Macbeth like Freddie Mercury giving a farewell concert”, and the review that read “Paul Darrow is an actor worth watching, but not in this play”?

It must be hard, for Jacqueline Pearce, to start out as the RADA ‘girl most likely’, directed by Trevor Nunn, hanging out with John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McShane (no mention of Paul Darrow), then be ‘demoted’ in the final series of Blake’s 7, omitted altogether from the final episode, then spend most of the next decades with little or no acting work, instead dependent on Housing Benefits and the kindness of friends, with stints as an artists’ life-drawing nude model in Cornwall, and volunteering in a monkey sanctuary in Africa. Plus stints in psychiatric care. And two bouts with cancer.

Servalan Jacqueline Pearce

Live well, Jacqueline.

My own best answer for why Blake’s 7 was loved is this:

In the late ‘70s, the Western world began to understand its supremacy could not last. Throughout the ‘70s there were petrol politics, revolutions, the Irish Troubles, labour unrest, increasing disparity between North and South, and rich and poor. During Blake’s 7’s run, the USA voted out Jimmy Carter and voted in Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of Britain.

We weren’t too sure about our heroes – was Thatcher a Servalan? – and we weren’t sure who were the villains (the IRA? Revolutionaries in Iran?).

Paul Darrow points out it isn’t clear whether the crew of the space ship Liberator, the crew who were “Blake’s seven”, were in fact heroes or simply terrorists. He asks, if Blake was trying to lead a popular revolution, why was nobody else rising up? Could it be, possibly, that the Evil Empire was not perceived by its citizens as evil? Could it be that Blake, and his crew, with their talents for destruction, remained criminals even on the Liberator, as they had started out criminals?

In times of change and extreme moral ambivalence the foremost task, possibly, becomes survival. Avon and Blake and the Blake’s 7 crew hurtled through a hostile universe, hunted by omnipresent authorities, unsure of their mission, not knowing who to trust. So you trust the strong man. You trust the sociopath, Avon, because Avon has his eyes on the prize: survival. Or you follow the Supreme Commander, Servalan, because Servalan is also a survivor, and her will to power is second to none.

Pearce and Darrow were good at playing survivors.

Don’t be fooled by that soft velvet fuzz. Servalan will kill rather than be killed, and Avon will, always, be the last man standing.

avon and guards

 


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W for War

Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley

The office is divided
by corridors: this side
that side
In the centre a common meeting ground
Reception
With its wall-size red logo
W for War
The foot soldiers tramp
through the common area
primed for hostilities
ready to do damage
and die. Metaphorically.
They know so little.

Grunts – writing exercise 2014

Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.

One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

I wrote him a poem, at his request:

stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
recalls
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
veterans
they both can
remember
moments of belief, of the only kind
he’ll know
all strangers
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
outsider
he takes her
camera and asks
Am I in there?

Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘90s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

That, I think, is a truer beginning.

But let’s loop back just a little, again. Let’s set it in context. First, my boss. I’ll call him Mark (not his real name). Mark was a beacon of integrity in a muddy media landscape. He advocated for transparency in media planning and buying deals. Once, I could have explained to you what that means. Now, I don’t really remember how media buying worked, if I ever did at all. Mark spoke at international conferences on media transparency, quality media planning, media futures (the digital age – the media environment that now surrounds us). He was 39, from Newcastle, handsome, married – to Annie (not her real name) – and he had two young children. Unusually for the English, he had perfect teeth, a blinding white smile. He was Mister Clean.

Then, there was me. I was Becky Sharp, as in Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s Becky. I was on the make, an out-of-towner who’d landed in London as winter fell, in mid-recession, no contacts and no money and who, appalled, clawed and clambered her way out of a lowly hole up several higher rungs towards the glamour of Park Lane. I’d walked out on workplaces where it seemed to me I’d been scorned and mistreated, out-faced people who’d tried to exploit me, slapped down what seemed like an endless array of bored married men, clients and colleagues, who seemed to assume I was cheap meat. Previous to London I’d lived for a decade in Sydney’s Kings Cross, in a lane known as Blood Alley, in honour of a gangster shoot-out in the ‘20s. I swear I had more men proposition me in London workplaces than ever propositioned me on the Golden Mile. Mad Men, indeed.

To get my current job I’d sat out of the workforce for three months, from when I first interviewed – when the managing director stared at me and said, “You really don’t care what anyone thinks of you, do you?” – till several months later, when the CEO, Mark, hired me. Now I had the title ‘Marketing Director’, a salary nearly two and a half times my starting salary in London five years before, and an office to myself with a window view through green trees towards Hyde Park, where I could watch the Regimental Changing of the Guard. Did I hold it against Mark that the process took so long? Truthfully, I did.

Mark supported and encouraged me when I bought my perfect apartment. I panicked and thought I should mail the keys back to the mortgage holder at once. Mark didn’t understand that. You have a good job, he said. You earn good money now.

I did have a good job, and I earned danger money – salaries in advertising and media agencies were high in recognition that the business was cut-throat. Time at the top could be brief. ‘Success’ was contingent on bringing in business and servicing that business so outstandingly that clients were retained, despite constant churn. Mark and I were a team focused on bringing in business. His responsibilities were infinitely more complex than mine, and he had more at stake.

… Or something about the poison of gossip, running like mercury through corridors in glamorous West End offices. I’m thinking of the First Emperor, in Ch’in, whose tomb – legend has it – is lethally protected by a moat of mercury.

Black Cat Crossing – writing exercise 2014

Mark was right. I was close to friendless in that workplace. Close to but not totally. Kate, Anna, Tara, Sarah and Robbie were kind. Notice it’s girl allies, mostly. (The male office manager was also decent.) I don’t doubt I was an affront to my male colleagues, and I was Australian. I was bolshie – aggressive and odd. I claimed to know dead rock stars.

Worse, I was 36 and lonely. I’d been so disorientingly lonely in the past few years that I’d done foolish things. Once I got off a bus outside Selfridges to follow a man in a well-cut coat because I fancied his coat, or what I thought it represented. I shadowed him some way up Oxford Street before I lost him in the winter crowds. I wondered just what I would have done if he’d stayed in sight. Would I really have propositioned him, as I’d planned to?

I’d phoned and written to a man I’d flung with in 1992 for several years after he’d moved on. Fortunately that was resolved by 1997. I’d met him at media events, twice, and we were cool. Thank you, Seumas (not his real name).

I’d formed an attachment to a man who liked me back. But this was a man who, when we first got to know each other, over champagne cocktails, told me the best thing that’d ever happened to him was meeting his wife. That man – let’s call him Amiel (not his real name) – might have been, briefly, open to an affair. But I’d told him it would be a very, very bad idea for any married man to get involved with me as I find painful to let go, and I’d make his – this hypothetical man’s – life hell.

I’d spent 10 wretched weeks living at a Cold Comfort Farm in Kent with an alcoholic depressive in conditions so unhygienic I’d had repeat bouts of food poisoning.

I tried a dating agency, and was temporarily imprisoned by a cult leader (now there’s a story!); lonely-hearts columns, and met a man who turned nasty after one date when I was out and couldn’t pick up the phone next time he rang; and going to public functions, where I met a Young Conservative who suffered what looked like anaphylactic shock when he learned I was 10 years older than him. There were others.

I bought a vibrator in a sex shop off Leicester Square and was followed out into a side street by an Irishman who whispered he could give me the “real thing”.

I’d had one-night stands with a few – a very few – men who were what I considered sluts: men who were promiscuous and single, or reckless with their relationships. None of them men I worked with.

I’d formed a crush not long after starting in my current job, on the man who headed the Social Committee. That’s right, the one who wanted to be Dead Michael in Blue Face. My first week, some colleagues had drinks after work and as he’d said good-bye he’d touched my cheek then kissed me. I was touched-starved. That was all it took. His private office was one up from my private office. One afternoon I went to his office, talked shop, and my hand had momentarily touched his knee. He’d looked shocked.

Down the line, I heard the office gossip was that I’d stroked his penis. Apparently that – direct quote – is what he’d told them. I was also told by a director, to my face, that I was having an affair with Mark. Colleagues froze me out of social contact. The one time I went to the pub with workmates at the table where I sat a colleague jutted his jaw at me and challenged, “Mark’s wife is a really nice person.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I replied. “Mark is a really nice person. Of course he has a really nice wife.”

I didn’t get it.

I went to a corporate event – Robbie Williams performing in Hyde Park – and sat behind the actress Felicity Kendall, beside Mark and his family. Mark’s wife got up and walked away, taking the children. Mark followed. I went to the bar. People I’d worked with previously stared at me and sniggered. I still didn’t get it.

I should have got it. I was not blameless. Somewhere after “I’m your only friend in this place” and me buying my apartment, Mark and I became close. I think this is because we were both, essentially, at risk. The agency was working on an extended pitch, a new business pitch that absorbed six months of effort. We had a major client which was merging with other companies to form a megacorporation. Our part of the business up for grabs was valued at, from memory, close on UKP100 million. It mattered. If we could win this business, it would vindicate Mark’s business strategy: quality bespoke planning, over what we in the business called “gorillas with calculators” – media buying leveraged on high volumes.

If we didn’t win this business, Mark was out.

It would be fair I think to say Mark was the target, the mark, and I was collateral damage. Mark had his enemies, certainly. I’d picked up a few of my own, on a petty spite level. The more under threat we felt, the closer we became. But never that close.

There was a very brief period where I felt as if I were romantically in love with Mark and he might have been mildly infatuated with me. But Mark was a man who loved his wife and kids and I wanted to protect him. I was careless in letting my feelings show. I was careless in words I said that could be construed wrongly.

I have a few memories, and I value them:

Mark offering me a CD of classic torch songs he’d got as a freebie from a client. Me declining it. Him nudging the CD off his desk into a bin. “Oh well,” he said.

Me sitting in a stalled train, thinking about Mark, floating away in a golden gauze reverie. The man seated opposite waking me by asking, “What are you thinking?” Me smiling wordlessly and shaking my head.

Meeting Mark on a railway station platform. Walking towards him. Romantic movie style.

Mark detouring on our way back from presenting to a prospective client in Surrey, showing me the Porsche showroom where his dream Boxster awaited. (It’s still waiting.)

Mark stretched out on the leather sofa in our office, his ankles crossed, his hands behind his head. “No one would believe it of me,” he smiled.

You know where this is headed. We didn’t win the business. The gorillas beat us out. That morning, the entire staff waited in the open plan section of the office and watched Mark through the glass of his ‘private’ office as he waited for the phone call. You’ve heard the expression “still as statues”? We were statues. We waited hours. Then the phone rang, Mark picked up the phone, a brief conversation, he put down the receiver. Then he kicked his desk bin, the one where our love songs were trashed, and he kicked it, hard.

Mark exited that day. That week, a new junior employee was moved into my previously private office and I walked out. The managing director, Robbie, and one of Mark’s allies, Tara, came to my apartment to talk me into returning. I lay on my sofa and looked out the window at the green leaves of a tall tree. It couldn’t work.

Robbie “had a word” with corporate senior management to arrange for me to have a more generous severance payment than my contract specified. I think he persuaded them a pay-out would pre-empt legal action on my part. Legal action had not occurred to me. I’m grateful to Robbie for trying to make things better. I spent a large part of the pay-out on designer fashion purchased at the West End boutique where I took a casual job. The rest formed the core of my pension fund, my superannuation, such as it is.

Last week I heard a radio discussion about personal sledges on the fo♣otball field. I sent a text: LOL you think appalling things aren’t said in corporate environments? Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.

The radio team read that twice: Vicious gossip is used as a weapon.

W for War.

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Eulogy by my sister Cathy for our father Angus’s wake – draft

I was with Dad when the surgeon said the cancer is inoperable. Dad smiled and asked, “You don’t think it’s worth looking around for a new car then?”

The next day he went out with Mum and bought a new car for her because he wanted her to be safe when he was no longer here to protect her.

He had an amazing capacity to manage setbacks with humour and I think he learned it from when he was very young growing up in Mt Gambier during the Great Depression and World War 2. His parents Angus and Edie were born in the 1890s and already parents when World War 1 began. Dad’s sister, Ila, was one of thousands of children who caught polio around 1917 and she suffered the effects for the rest of her life. His cousin Des also grew up cared for by Dad’s family but by the time Angus was born Des was leaving home. Dad’s father owned a shop called The Spot for Menswear and it’s there that Dad began his career in retail, learning from his own father the skills he needed to be a manager and later director at Myer. I think the first photographs he took were of his house and family and the shop.

You will all recall Dad out and about with his camera. Photography was his special past-time that got him out into nature, the sunshine and the inevitable conversations with all the extraordinary people he met. Soon after he received the bad news, he decided to prepare a slide show for today. I helped with the technology and he chose the images. This proved complicated because he has 45,000 photos on his computer. Not long after we started work on the slide show his computer completely froze. I took it to Matt at Apptech who said he’d never seen that happen before but Dad’s computer was completely full. We had to delete some obsolete files. This was tricky because Dad doesn’t see any of his things as redundant.

Dad wanted the slide show to reflect his great love of Mum and family. He wanted images of all his friends: those who have already passed and those here today. We found images of him at school, including a special one of the football team showing him and Hugh Edwards who would later be brothers-in-law. There are his dear friends from uni who I’ve known and loved all my life. There are the amazing people from the community at Point Lonsdale who have shown so much love and support for the family.

Dad was so worried about Mum left alone but just seeing all the kindness that has been extended towards Elizabeth relieved him. Thank you to all of you who have dropped off food and equipment, who have chatted on the beach, phoned, and given your attention to our family in the last few months. That solidarity is much appreciated.

I sidetracked there a bit, so back to the slide show.

There are the tennis players, the Point Lonsdale Raqueteers, who awarded him legend status just in the nick of time, as seen in the photo on today’s flyer. You will see the Optimists from the Optimists’ Club, who have lunched together once a month for years, and his mates from Probus. Mum and Dad were very proud foundation members of the Combined Probus. There are old friends from interstate.

However, we didn’t fit every one Dad cares about into the slide show because I wanted images of Dad. Now, he is happy to take photos of everyone else, but there are not so many images of him. Most of the ones he chose were taken by Mum when they travelled together. One of my favourites is of Dad dressed up as Father Christmas with his sister Ila and his Auntie Maude, both of whom he looked after as they aged. It was a huge responsibility for him to drive through Melbourne on Christmas Day dressed this way because children in cars everywhere spotted him and waved. He waved back to them all.

Last year, I researched the connections between memories and photographs for an artwork project for my post-graduate studies in art at Deakin. I based my work on a photograph of the Point Lonsdale front beach by Dad. You will have seen his images of random families on the front beach that he took originally to decorate the guest rooms at the Point Lonsdale Motel, which Mum and he ran during the 1990s. Later, he couldn’t throw them away, so they hung in their house at Cheshunt Street. We discussed what his photographs actually recorded. He told me that he recalled he heard Louis Armstrong singing A Wonderful World as he pressed the shutter button. When you look at Dad’s images they all show his love for people and nature and for being alive.

Angus loved music and played it constantly. If he could hang out with Bing, Louis, Frank, Dean and Sammy he was happy. He decided to make a soundtrack for the party, to start after these speeches. He wants to dedicate all these love songs to Mum. Like Dad, I find great consolation in the stardust of a song.

He also chose the songs for this serious part of the proceedings. Amazing Grace is for Mum because Dad is grateful to her for all the grace she has shown him over the years. He wanted the Dennis Walter version but we couldn’t find the single to buy so Elly tracked down Dennis’s brother. Fred said it wasn’t available as a single but he sent Dad a homemade disk just for today. Dad chose St Louis Blues because he loved the joyous jazz funeral processions he saw in New Orleans.

He chose Jimmy Durante because there couldn’t be anyone more lovable to sing about love and Dad decided that love was the most important part of his life.

Stardust captures the bitter-sweetness he feels at leaving behind his loved ones. You might be surprised that he chose When Irish Eyes are Smiling when his ancestry is so Scottish, but Elly sent a sample of his spit to be DNA tested and it turned out he was nearly 50% Irish, down the female lines of course. This amused him no end, as his favourite son-in-law is an O’Keefe. He gave Peter his green polo shirt to wear today and chose the song, an Irish song, to celebrate the news.

Isa Lei is a Fijian farewell song. Last year, for his 85th birthday Dad took us all to Fiji. Mum and Dad took Elly and me there for our first trip overseas as teenagers. It is a special place for our family and we had the most marvellous times there. I have video of Dad’s birthday dinner aboard a sunset cruise, being serenaded by waiters. Then we all got up and danced the night away.

Looking back at my childhood, I am grateful I had loving parents but even more so that I had parents who loved each other. I remember sometimes sneaking out of bed to the top of the stairs because I could hear music playing and seeing Mum and Dad dance together alone in their own bubble of love. The last song Dad chose is Save the Last Dance for Me.

Adam Lindsey Gordon, one of Australia’s great poets, incidentally also lived in Mt Gambier. He wrote a poem that sums up how I see my Dad. It’s known as Froth and Bubble – a good name for a racehorse.

Life is mainly froth and bubble

But two things stand as stone

Kindness in another’s trouble

And courage in your own.

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