Elly McDonald

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COVID-19 time-filler games – 20 formative LPs from the age of vinyl

1973

Are we doing the 20 album covers thing?

Damn straight we are 😊

Day 1

My dad grew up with Fats Waller, Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mills Brothers, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte. Then in the 60s he fell for the Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops. Then 60s soul deep immersion. In my family, we could sing every track on this LP. And we did, before I accidentally left it behind at an acting class, in 1979, and it was never seen again 💃🎶🎤

No photo description available.

 

Day 2

Yes, it’s the Beatles, white album. It’s just not very photogenic 💚

My mum had/has a close friend named Margie Dobson, and in the 60s we’d spend a couple of weeks every summer at Margie’s parents’ bungalow in beautiful Port Noarlunga. The summer The Beatles white album came out, Cathy and I spent endless hours acting out Rocky Raccoon, with dialogue, in the Dobson’s front yard. We were also performed Bungalow Bill at max volume. The neighbours must have missed themselves laughing. I was besotted with While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

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Day 3
Dad finally got to travel overseas, a 6 (8?) week business trip to North America at age 40. In Detroit he stopped to watch a man playing bongos at the foot of an elevator. He applauded. The man stopped and said, “You buy for me.” He meant the bongos set. Dad politely demurred. The man stood up. He was very big. “You BUY FOR ME.” Dad froze, then said: “You want bongos? Here’s bongos”. Then he rapped out da-dada-da-da DA-DA

Not sure if this was before or after seeing Ike and Tina live but I suspect after. Ike and Tina emboldened him. For sure, they enlivened many a night at our Adelaide home thereafter.

On our family Fiji holiday, just before Dad’s terminal diagnosis, I sang Proud Mary on a cruise ship. I taught it to Steve the cruise singer, Ike and Tina’s version. Dad tapped his foot along and nodded.

#IveBeenLovinYouTooLong

Image may contain: one or more people and people playing musical instruments

 

Day 4

When I think Sticky Fingers, I think of my friend John Dickins. I remember John doing smutty school-boy faces as he explored the cover. I remember singing and dancing to Brown Sugar and Dead Flowers. Morbidly, Sister Morphine became a standard in my singing repertoire. Love ya John

Sticky_fingers

Is it Day 5?

Cheating ‘cos this is a box set. I didn’t think I’d find an image of the actual set but I did.

In this case I think no explanation needed?

No photo description available.

 

Day 6

I was going to post this even before reading the long Comments strand on my FB friend Tana Douglas’s post about the movie Rocketman. Tana worked with Elton for four years and hated the movie. So did many of her colleagues who knew the man.

Movie aside, the LP that spawned the hit was a revelation. So melodic. Such a beautiful voice. So moving.

And what a great-looking band 😁

Elton_John

Day 7

My parents saw Johnny Cash with June Carter, Statler Brothers playing support, some time in the late 60s. I don’t know if Dad had been a fan before but a fire started that night.

In my very brief stint as a venue Stage Attendant I told a Johnny Cash tribute show performer I was more than capable of joining him on stage and singing every number. He looked aghast. I think he thought I meant it. I did.

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Feeling a little sluggish as I lounge in bed. Time for a mood lift – Frank.

Formative vinyl LPs day wherever we’re at

You Make Me Feel So Young. Another LP my dad gifted me 💖

Songs_for_Swingin_lovers

Day 8

I have just read an email from my aunt in Paris, on her birthday.

The rawness, the passion – I love my aunt, and I love Janis, and I’d never connected the two before.

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Day 8 again

I’m deliberately shying away from posting the bleedin obvious – Slade, T Rex, Bowie, Sinatra – but I can’t ignore my mile-wide theatrical streak, or my love of low pop cultcha.

There was an LP with a long parody of Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ soliloquy, which I took seriously, but fortunately I can’t recall or locate that LP and my sister does not remember it at all.

I took two of the songs on Phantom seriously: the fuck you song ‘The Hell of it’, and ‘Old Souls’, which remains for me a beautiful ballad.

Also, the art director for Brian DePalma’s film was Sissy Spacek’s husband, Jack Fisk, who graciously gave me a day of his time in L.A., introduced me to guacamole, invited me on set to watch a big budget movie being filmed, even allowed me to watch the rushes with the senior crew.

I was 17. Jack Fisk remains my template of a desirable man. I believe he and Sissy are still together. God bless 💚

Phantom_of_the_paradise

Day 9

Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying

I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people

A girl my age went off her head,
Hit some tiny children
If the black hadn’t a-pulled her off,
I think she would have killed them

A soldier with a broken arm,
Fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest,
And a queer threw up at the sight of that

I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor,
Drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine,
Don’t think you knew you were in this song

And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor
And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there
Your face, your race, the way that you talk
I kiss you, you’re beautiful, I want you to walk

We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

We’ve got five years, what a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

We’ve got five years, what a surprise
Five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got

Five years
Five years
Five years
Five years

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: David Bowie

Five Years lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG Rights Management

All The Young Dudes was written as part of this song suite too

Ziggy_Stardust

Day 10

My grandfather was blessed with the best neighbours ever. A Swiss family – hell let’s name and cheer – the Prossers were Lutheran church-goers, choir singers, handy dad and mum who baked, kind, generous, steady people, daughters much the same age as Cathy and me. We loved them.

Anne and Elizabeth were ahead of us on things teen girl. They introduced us to T Rex, and to Slade.

Thanks to Anne and Elizabeth, when I’m sad… I slide 😎

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Day 11 I think

“Tell me, where do the children play?”

My sister’s friend Becky was obsessed with this one. We also owe Becky Joan Armatrading.

Cat Stevens has a tough kernel.

Tea_for_the_Tillerman

 

Day 13 – my birthday 🎂 (59 candles, count ’em)

For my 18th birthday my sister gave me two LPs, or maybe one officially and my parents officially gave me the other.

I had some new clothes that fit and we danced and danced. Our friend Hedda laughed and said she loved the way Cathy and I danced together.

Blondie, Parallel Lines. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Armed Forces.

Day 14

Cathy was going out with Phil and I could listen to a song called Witchy Woman without cracking up

Not to mention Journey Of The Sorceror

One_Of_These_Nights

Can it be Day 15?

Surely this one needs no explanation but: my sister was a Surf Beach Queen but I was kinda intrigued by the Sharpies thing.

It was usual for PLC girls c.Year 9 to go to formal Dancing Class, to learn to waltz and foxtrot, usually with Scotch College boys.

I danced the waltz and foxtrot in 5″ high platform shoes.

I wore a micro t-shirt (AND IT FIT) and had a crush on a boy whose surname was LeLievre. He was a beautiful honey-blond Ken Doll who wore a Sharpie cardigan with those horizontal stripes.

I practised writing my married name and realised we were incompatible: Ellylelielelielelieleliele…………..

Image may contain: one or more people, possible text that says 'LIVING IN THE 70'%'

Day 16? (What day? What week? What life? NOT Supertramp day 😳)

Slade Alive is way more cool and I did see them live; but I’ll put this greatest hits collection. I wore out the needle.

At age 13 I sported a Dave Hill fringe, cut by my very own hands, immensely unflattering to my very round face. (Was it flattering on Dave? Discuss.)

I dreamt that one day Noddy Holder would be a washed-up rock star and I’d deliver milk bottles to his doorstep, then tentatively (yet decisively) venture inside to tut-tut at the mess and set his life in order.

Luckily for Noddy Holder, he’s done a fine job managing his own life, and found himself a hard-headed music-loving wife without resorting to pathos or bathos.

Sladest

Day 17 – Easter Sunday

I roamed the Adelaide house singing this from woe to curtains down. My dad would mimic me, with tiny mincing dance moves and piping voice.

Me doing Ian Gillan was a scream. Not.

Happy Easter

Superstar

Day 18

Gavin was a colleague of my dad’s who visited for dinner and tried to convince Cathy Jethro Tull were not appalling. When 12 y.o. Cathy out-argued him he purchased this LP and foist it on her (just, why?)

I had to listen to it a few hundred times to confirm in my mind Cathy’s opinion.

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Day 19. Nearly done, folks

Our friend Mary was a moderately conventional leggy blonde babysitter in the 60s, then studied art at Flinders Uni, turned boho, rocked up at our Melbourne home in some kind of I Dream Of Jeannie outfit, with a much younger, dissolute lover, and a copy of *this*.

She has taught me so much about living life in colour, as an adventure.

Image may contain: 1 person, possible text that says 'Patti Smith Group RADIO ΕΤΗΙΟΡΙΑ'

Friends, I have a quandary.

For my final Formative Vinyl LP, Day 20, I was wracking my brain for something from my late teens when a memory was prompted yesterday by an FB Suggested Friend pop-up.

Trouble is, it was an Evil Memory.

I was troubled enough that I wrote it down, but I do not want to loose into into my current world. Although it’s back already.

So: I am going to do two alternative endings – a Dark Side vinyl memory and a Shine On memory.

This is the Shine One one:

Age 17. Los Angeles 1978, Beverley Hills. Raquel Welch smiles at me in a beauty salon. The son of my guesthouse owner has a blue and silver chevy. Oh, The Cars 💝

Just_What_I_Needed

Day 20, alternative version (see previous post) – the Dark Side.

This week FB popped up a Suggested Friend, a Friend of a Friend, that made me look twice. The name and face were not familiar but I felt unease.

It took a few days for the penny to drop. This was the least comedic of my crushes, the one from when I was 17 cusp 18, from a brief few months when I used to take a train at night several nights a week to smoke dope in a dealer’s poolroom, listening to Lou Reed and Frank Zappa vinyl, just to be near this… boy? Young man? Troll?

He was a tall snot-coloured lump, putty-coloured or colorless eyes and hair. I was never fatter and never felt more despised.

“It hurts me to see you hanging around him,” my friend Malcolm told me. “You’re worth a thousand times more than he is.” (Malcolm died young, a casualty of alcohol and drugs.)

After the drug dealer made a cutting remark I quit, stone cold. Within weeks I was spinning discs at university radio 3MU and within months I was interviewing rock stars.

I still can’t hear Satellite of Love without a curling lip.

Transformer


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Mad Men I have known

The most flagrantly exhibitionist piece I will ever write

When the TV series Mad Men was at its peak popularity, people kept telling me I should watch it.

“You’d love it,” they’d say. “It’s so you.”

I would smile tightly and think, why would I watch a fictionalised account of ad agency culture in the ‘60s? I lived ad agencies in the ‘90s.

This is the third of a trio of kiss’n’tell blog posts about my sexcapades from my 30s, the decade I took up residence in London’s ad agency “village”.

Worry not. I won’t get (too) explicit. In fact I plan to keep this one short, mostly because sex in London ad agencies was kind of Groundhog Day. [Plan failed.]

I possibly should have known better. When I was 18 and newly-arrived in Sydney (from Melbourne, Australia, where I’d spent my teens), the creative director of a trendy ad agency asked me out to dinner. We ate at a Vietnamese restaurant on Oxford Street. It’s still there, apparently, now billing itself as a Chinese restaurant, still called Tin Hong.

I had two favourite dishes at Tin Hong: a duck dish, and the Vietnamese Baby Quail in Lemon Sauce. On this occasion I ordered the quail.

My date was coked up, sweating and hyper like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. I didn’t recognise that was what was going on – I was still too naïve for that. I just thought he was an agitated type.

Agitated-type dates make me nervous. Actually, all dates make me nervous. But this guy was freaking me out. At a certain point as I raised a baby quail dripping lemon sauce to my lips, using chopsticks, I lost focus momentarily and the quail dropped down my cleavage. It was lodged in my bra. I had to reach in and fish it out. I had lemon sauce seeping through my emerald green silk shirt and my date’s eyes were spinning in his head.

He offered to take my shirt home to have it dry-cleaned for me. He insisted. That would have involved removing said shirt. It would have involved seeing him again. It was a surreal episode and I should have taken note: advertising agency guys?  Steer clear.

Within a few short years I was on a date again with an ad agency partner, another oh so hip, international award-winning creative boutique. I thought we were doing job interviews. It wasn’t till a few dates in that he announced his interest in me was personal, not professional.

Well of course. Lust in ad agencies is by definition unprofessional. RFOL.

I had a few more dating encounters with ad agency personnel before I made the move to London. I don’t know why I kept encountering them. Karma. One told me I was shallow and materialistic when I said I didn’t fancy dating a man with a messy house. (Curiously, many years later an ad agency creative told me I was shallow and materialistic when I said I didn’t care for my then-sex partner’s house being like a display home, no trace on display of anything personal. My then sex-partner was COO – Chief Operating Officer – of global operations for a household name advertising agencies brand. He was so seldom home his home wasn’t home. And yeah, I was shallow and materialistic.)

How did I get to London and London’s Adland?

I took a plane. No, really. For my 31stbirthday, I booked a 12-week trip around Western Europe, Britain, Ireland and coastal USA, courtesy of a financial windfall (another story altogether). On the first flight leg out, from Sydney to Rome, the week of my birthday, I was seated next to THE most attractive, charming man I’d ever met. He was so charming and so attractive I was fantasising knee-tremblers in the toilets before we’d even reached Singapore. I was mentally choreographing the gymnastics required to join the Mile High Club.

I was certain my friends had got together and hired a gigolo as my birthday gift.

This man turned out to work in London advertising. He knew the London ad man whose Merc had famously been torched in recent race riots, Brixton or Birmingham, I don’t recall.

I wanted to see him again. I did see him again. The Basil Street Hotel, Knightsbridge, during the Chelsea Flower Show 1992. Possibly my favourite night, ever. (Guests in adjacent rooms complained.)

That night he admitted his girlfriend was temporarily in Barcelona, attending the Barcelona Olympics. She worked in London advertising, too. It was clear where my destiny lay – not with him, and I never met her, but in the hub of the Village. (I did meet him a few more times. By then I was in agency senior marketing roles. We met at conferences and seminars. I made a point of draping myself seductively over him, to demonstrate my sales technique, to him and his friends; and I kneeled by his knees and gazed seductively up, fingertips gently hovering above his thigh. That worked – his boss, observing from across a hotel conference foyer, subsequently interviewed me for jobs based on the technique I demonstrated then. He laughed that I was tough enough to cope with his boys.)

When I first entered London ad agencies, as an admin temp, I was immediately struck – in my first ascending ride in an agency lift – by how supernaturally good-looking ad folks were. Seriously. All advertising agency agency CEOs and chairmen were demi-gods. There was one whose eyes were emeralds. One with sapphire eyes.

Somehow – not interesting, not a story for now – I found myself working on an industrywide project to promote client spend with advertising and media agencies during the early ‘90s recession. I supported CEOs, chairmen, managing directors and marketing directors of advertising agencies and senior clients, divided into eight working groups (subcommittees) and one steering committee. I came to know everyone senior in London advertising 1993-1999. I had fun flirting. I fell in love with tailored coats, and sharp minds.

My agency colleagues told me the social life and sexual partying was nothing on ad agencies in the 1980s. I believed them. But there was still a lot of lunching and laughing. And lurching.

I met someone I really liked, early on. He really liked me too. For a few years we lunched together regularly. He told me we could lunch on weekends, not just week days. But this was someone who told me in our first ever conversation that meeting his wife was the best day of his life. So an affair was out of the question. (Do I regret that? Yes. Absolutely. But it was the right choice.)

I met someone else I really liked, who liked me too. We floated around in a romantic haze for some months. But he was married also, and he loved his wife and kids. So an affair was not on. (Do I regret that? Desperately. But still: the right choice.)

I put up with clients, colleagues and contacts making passes at me almost constantly. Sometimes I succumbed. Hey, it was lonely.

By and large, the ad guys were not nice. There was a notorious group of senior agency and client men who hunted as a pack. I wore rings on my left hand ring finger to deflect them.

There was an ad agency chairman whose job interview technique with women was to buy them dinner and/or take them dancing – he really did do that for hiring purposes, though in my case, no. In my case it was definitely sex. I must say he was fun. I liked his private men’s club.

We met seated next to each other at an industry function dinner, alongside another agency chairman, this one a man who’d been married four times. He collected prestige cars, as well. He said replacing cars was cheaper than replacing women. He was not alone among his peers in scoring four marriages and counting. (The record for number of times married by an ad agency chairman I met was I think five. Five marriages, his current marriage being with a director at his agency.)

There was another man acclaimed as an alpha womaniser. He was single. Just what I needed. We had a liaison that spanned a few years. I didn’t like him much, and I didn’t like myself for being with him. He’d been married once. It broke up on the honeymoon. She left him for a “minor pop star”. I can only imagine – based on grounded guesses – why a bride might jump from the frying pan to the fire.

He was married again in the last years I knew him, but this time the wife lived in New York. She worked in advertising. She divorced him within 18 months.

In retrospect, I was perhaps unfair to that man. I stayed overnights at his home. He visited me at my home. He took me out evenings to fancy restaurants. He thought I looked sexy in the decidedly un-cute uniform I was required to wear in my last job in London. He offered to father my child when I thought I must have a child or die.

Best of all, when we found ourselves both in Beijing at the same time, he invited me to move from my middle-range tourist group travel hotel to his suite in his hotel, then the newest and most glamorous hotel in Beijing.

There was a lounge room overlooking the city with floor to ceiling glass windows. The view with the city lights at night was amazing. [Trigger warning: stop reading now if sensitive.] We tried sex against a couch back and the couch rolled over. Crouching tiger, hidden dragon.

Possibly second favourite funny stuff night of my life.

(There’s competition, from, of all things, a pop star. No really I AM NOT GOING TO WRITE ABOUT THAT)

Elly_McDonald_with_couch

Me at about when I met the dancing, dining, men’s club lover – 1997. With couch.


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The antiquarian, the Campari, the banker: my life as an X-rated Auntie Mame

If your life were a literary genre, what genre would it be?

Variously, my answer to that might be melodrama, gothic, or screwball comedy. I’d settle on picaresque. (Picaresque, adjective – “relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.”)

In fact I am a sub-genre, summed up in four words: Becky Sharp. Auntie Mame.

If you’ve not already made the acquaintance of Ms Sharp or Ms Dennis I recommend you immediately seek out Thackeray, Vanity Fair: A Book Without A Hero (1847), and Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade (1955). No, screen adaptations will not substitute, though credit to Rosalind Russell.

I found Mame when I was about 10, in my Dad’s old books, at his childhood home. It only now occurs to me how like Auntie Mame his Auntie Maude was, and how like Patrick Dennis my dad. I found Becky at maybe age 11, on my mother’s bookshelf, a gift from her father.

I blame them all.

My Mame-ishness goes way back. Now that I’ve got the balling rolling, so to speak, it’s hard to know where to start.  I don’t usually represent myself as sexual catnip, let alone as “sexual napalm” (John Mayer, Jessica Simpson – I’m not even Jessica Rabbit), but I have been a kind of sexual aerosol can for a certain type of much older man for much longer than is seemly. Which is why the early chapters of Becky Sharp’s career, in the home of the aptly-named Sir Pitt Crawley, make me roar with laughter.

My Orientalist fetish, shared with Mame in her younger years, likewise goes way back.

So I’ll start in my very early 20s, when my wardrobe comprised not much beyond four loose silk Chinese pants, two embroidered Chinese cheongsam-style fitted tops, a padded Chinese jacket, and four spaghetti-strap camisoles in Chinese silk.  I’d trot about Sydney, Australia, in some combination of the above, with flat black slipper shoes and my dead straight hair cut with a harsh fringe (bangs).

One day, I was stopped in Sydney’s CBD by an elderly, tall, somewhat portly Chinese man. He asked why I wore a red Chinese jacket. I explained I like red, and Chinese silk, and the jacket was warm. He understood. We had a conversation. He gave me his business card and suggested I call him. I took the business card and mentally decided not. After all, I lived in the red-light district Kings Cross. If I were a call-girl, I’d operate differently.

If the important-looking gentleman had not already disclosed that he owned a major company based in Macau, the business card did that job for him. I don’t recall whether it was a textiles company or casinos. Maybe textiles, given his interest in my silk.

Either way, even at that young age I had an inkling he might be very, very rich. It’s only now, now I’m old, that I wonder whether I really would have ended up trafficked in the White Slave Trade had I phoned him later. (Politically utterly incorrect. But that’s how I thought then.) I was risk averse in some ways then, fool-hardy in many others.

Fast forward 15 years or so, to what I fondly call my Becky Sharp years. (Anyone waiting for the X-rated stuff, sorry, not sorry for the long preamble.) Now I am in London. I still wear silk brocade. I am working as marketing director for an advertising agency located in posh Knightsbridge. I am engaging in sexual misadventures all over Adland – see linked blog post, Mad Men I Have Known (wait for me to write it). I am ostracized by my colleagues, who believe me to be bonking our CEO. I am not. I am merely besotted with him.

Our agency is handling sponsorships for Euro ’98, the pan-European soccer tournament. Our agency is almost wholly men, suddenly revealed as football fanatics. The men at our agency watch each match England plays, on a TV in our office, desks wet with beer; the air rings with huzza’s.

I am excluded.

Outside, in Knightsbridge and Belgravia, streets are deserted. Everyone is either at home watching the match, or watching in pubs, or elsewhere altogether visiting their stately piles.

Alone, I walk the streets of Lowndes Square, priciest real estate in London. Alone, except for one tall, somewhat portly, rich-looking old man.

I have no recall at all of how the conversation was initiated. It probably went something like this:

[Dialogues lines are interchangeable]

“Why are you out on the street alone? Are you not watching the football?”

“Why don’t we walk together to the pub and watch it there?”

“My goodness that pub is CROWDED.”

Then Him:

“Why don’t we watch it at my place, instead? I live right here.”

There was a bit in between let’s-watch-at-the-pub and let’s-watch-at-my-place – the bit where the tall man somehow got to disclose that he was a jet-set Eurotrash polo-playing friend-to-the-famous Hungarian art collector merchant banker millionaire. He might have given me his business card.

His home was indeed right there. Perhaps I should say his homes, plural.  Turned out he owned three adjacent properties in Lowndes Square: one as his private residence, one to house his collection of antiquarian artworks, one to house his wife’s collection of mid-C20th European Modernist originals, and also a private office (is that four?)

His wife was visiting her family in central Europe. (You will note I am attempting to disguise details to preserve this man’s anonymity in case his children read this. I am not trying quite as hard as I might, but I am trying.)

As it happens my undergraduate degree is Fine Arts (Hons), Sydney University. I am susceptible to art.  Never, outside a museum, had I seen art such as this man owned. I swear I swooned.

The first art object I saw in the first room, the antiquarian room, was a C14th Persian silk brocade textile. As you might guess, that got my heart thumping. Then when he showed me his C7th Anglo-Saxon wooden god statuette – an amazing rarity, wood perishes – I was a goner.

His study wall was covered with antiquarian Russian icons, illegal to export from Russia. “At heart I’m a Magyar peasant,” he murmured. He’d fled Hungary when Russian tanks rolled in, 1956.

Threading our way through corridors to the den with TV, I identified original Sonia Delaunay paintings and I think Chagall. I’m not sure if I lost consciousness then or when the Campari was downed.

Next I knew (I believe that’s the literary formula), I was fluttering my eyelashes as I came to, and the banker was rifling through an antique cabinet’s drawers to find me a small something in lieu of money to give me as a gift. He settled on some truly gruesome C17th German embossed silverware coasters. I know that’s what they were as I saw some in the Kremlin museum. Didn’t care for them there, either.

The coasters went into a bag to be donated to Blackheath op shop.

For a few weeks I’d receive calls from the banker fretting about how hard it was for him to visit me in Blackheath. Then he had the brainwave of visiting me at my Knightsbridge workplace. Coward that I am, I hid in my enclosed private office.

“Shall I get rid of him?” my secretary asked. (Yes, I had a secretary in those days.) I nodded meekly.

I’m not proud of any of this. If I were more Becky I’d have ridden it for all it was worth. In the end, I’m more Mame, and Mame at heart was a romantic.

I still had my platonic crush on my CEO, and we were both of us punished for that.

Elly_McDonald_37th_Birthday

Who I was, 1998


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The millionaire, the chiffon dress, the chauffeur, the lobster

This blog site started with posts about my dating mishaps, an inexhaustible well of horror and humour.

Somehow, in six – six? – years I never posted my favourite party piece: the strange incident at Firecrest Drive.

If I leave it any longer, readers might think it a delusion of dementia.

Here’s how it happened:

When I first moved to London from Australia, I lived in a posh location in a slum flat. The heating didn’t work. My ceiling caved in when the flat above me used their shower. It was dark and dirty and dank and… enough with the alliteration.

I was cold and I was lonely. I didn’t fancy random hook-ups in Leicester Square. I did not want to stalk the man who had rejected me. I was determined to start A New Life.

So, I answered ads in the newspaper ‘Personals’ column. [Readers aged under 30: This was classified ads for dating. I know. Horror.] The first person I met was highly eligible: intelligent, handsome, single, an economic adviser for the EU. He had just one flaw. He asked me to accompany him jogging. I was never going to be that girl.

So then I joined an expensive dating agency. The photos I provided were a mere four years stale but I wasn’t that girl either. My bad.

After the usual misfires – the real estate developer, the aggro insulting entitled stalker, the playing-the-field salesman – I was phoned by the agency and advised they’d given my number to a somewhat unusual client. He seemed too good to be true. They asked if I could please report back after our date, to advise on how it went.

“Too good to be true” means he was (allegedly) 41, filthy rich, had an aristocratic French name, was CEO of his own successful international business, (allegedly) a business consultancy with employees throughout Europe and America.

The perfect man asked me to meet him on the steps at Claridge’s, the famous Mayfair hotel and restaurant. Meeting on the steps gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that the doormen knew him by name. We went through to the restaurant, where the waiters greeted him by name.

Dinner went well. I am blessed with some colourful characters in my family, and the lobster main course gave me an opportunity to tell tales on my ancient mariner/drunken sailor/sea-dog/semi-famous uncle. I am able to monologue and size up my audience simultaneously. This is what I observed:

The perfect man was relatively short – not a problem. He may have worn shoes with a built-up heel. He was certainly wearing a corset under his tailored black suit. He had a George Hamilton tan [Readers aged under 30: He was orange] and I’d lay money he’d had a face-lift, maybe a few other tweaks. His skin texture was waxen. He had white hair in a kind of a quiff… good god WHAT WAS I THINKING? Why did I not RUN?

Anyway. The perfect stuffed penguin dropped clanging great hints that he might hire me for his company if all went well. He invited me to dinner a few days hence in his penthouse apartment in prestigious Firecrest Drive, by the West Hampstead entrance to Hampstead Heath.

He sent a chauffeur driving a black Rolls Royce to collect me on the night.

I was impressed with the gated apartment tower. Impressed with the private lift. Impressed with the penthouse. It did seem a bit empty – I remember two chairs and the mounted head of a Thai Buddha, under museum lighting – but that’s how the cognoscenti roll. Elitist minimalism. All class. All cost.

The penguin had prepared the meal himself. Lobster again, as lobster had been a success at Claridge’s. Champagne cocktail. There’s the problem: I am a cheap drunk.

He started telling me about his business. The lines between “business consultancy”, “personal effectiveness programs”, “self-transformation courses” and ”cult fraud” began to blur. I had not so long since extricated myself from three years immersion in an international organisation that wore each of those labels. I began to suspect the penguin mistook me for an innocent abroad he could recruit to his greater aggrandisement.

“Yes,” I said, and he must have missed the snaky tone. ”I am familiar with est. I am familiar with Werner Erhard.”

WERNER!” exclaimed the bloke with the suspiciously aristocratic family name, with a warmth suggesting dear Werner was his best mate. As he may have been. “I KNOW Werner well!”

I turned my head stiffly, like a Thai Buddha come to life. “Werner is a snake,” I hissed. Impossible to miss the serpentine accent.

Things plummeted from there.  Before long he was leading my intoxicated, nasty self towards the private lift. He deposited me inside. The lift went down.

When the lift doors opened, I was in a Scandinavian light wood enclosed foyer. One golden timber door to my right. One golden door to my left. Which was the exit?

I turned left.

The door opened into a narrow courtyard garden. Sadly, it immediately closed behind me. Thanks to a security lock I was now shut within a tiled path with a tall wall one side, the apartments’ wall to the other, green oriental foliage at its base, and locked doors both ends.

I had a think about this, which was challenging, as I was drunk.

All I could think was: Star Wars.

Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia. The garbage chute. What if… what if I pressed my back against the external wall, pushed my feet against the building wall, inched my back up to the external wall’s top, then did a high jump flip to freedom?

I can do this.

Never mind that I am dressed as Cinderella in heels, with a long flowing faux chiffon skirt and a fine knit top. I can edge my shoulders up a wall and over the top.

And so I did.

It took some effort, and the faux chiffon skirt was never the same, but eventually I popped up over the crest of the wall and fell on the bonnet of the waiting Rolls Royce.

I did a tuck’n’roll off the Rolls, picked myself up, dusted myself off, and there was the chauffeur, standing silently, holding the backseat door open for me.

I would like to think I sang drunkenly on the drive home. For sure, we did not talk.

£

Next, I suppose I’ll feel obliged to write about The Antiquarian, The Campari and the Hungarian Banker.

Elly in Wigmore Street W1

Me then (1993). This dress was silk.


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Review: Then It Fell Apart (2019), by Moby

At end May, in reaction to controversy, Electronica DJ and author Moby cancelled all remaining dates of his book promotion tour and announced he was “going to go away for a while”.

There’s so much in Then It Fell Apart that is interesting and well written that it’s sad to dismiss the whole book due to its failings.

It does have manifest failings. I’ll outline them, but again, it feels sad to write off the whole project, and sad to lash an author who makes so naked his frailties.

In the Preface, Moby writes that after finishing his first memoir, Porcelain, “rather than go back to therapy, I kept writing”. That’s where the problems start. Much of Then It Fell Apart reads like therapeutic writing, best discussed between client and therapist, or as a starting point for meaningful private conversation between Moby and significant individuals in his life.

I don’t think Moby was well served by editors or publishers with this book. He’s keen to set out the full extent of his drug-fuelled behaviours and emotional issues. He recognises his desperate drive for validation, for affirmation. As readers, we did not need to know everything he chose to tell. Editors were needed to set boundaries. Publishers needed to put in place fact checks.

The most obvious area is how he writes about women. The controversy that resulted in Moby retreating arose from how he wrote about film actress Natalie Portman, introduced on p.30.

He wobbles on the tightrope for a few paragraphs before things fall apart.

‘She smiled again and looked straight into my eyes. “I’ll be in New York too. Can we meet up?” ‘

Moby remembers Natalie as “flirting”. Subsequently he remembers them as “dating”, albeit briefly. He writes sentences that can be read ambiguously, that read as disingenuous:

‘[…] he stared at me blankly and asked, “Are you with Natalie Portman”

“I guess so,” I said.’

‘I’d had an amazing night with Natalie in Cambridge […]’

‘At midnight she brought me to her dorm room and we lay down next to each other on her small bed. After she fell asleep I carefully extracted myself from her arms and took a taxi back to my hotel.’

He remembers himself as 33 and Natalie Portman as 20.

Natalie remembers things differently.

For starters, she’s clear she had just turned 18. She told Harpers Bazaar UK

“I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school”.

Fact checks conducted by the Washington Post confirm that across the few weeks Moby refers to, Moby was touring in support of his hit album Play and Portman was making a film. The two met up in New York a few weeks after the initial backstage meeting, not a few days. They both attended the MTV Video Music Awards.

As Portman recalls, it was not her suggestion that they “meet up”:

“I was a fan and went to one of his shows when I had just graduated. When we met after the show, he said, ‘let’s be friends’. He was on tour and I was working, shooting a film, so we only hung out a handful of times before I realised that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate.”

You only have to see the photo Moby posted in rebuttal, showing the two of them backstage, him with his shirt off, her with a small, uncomfortable smile, to know the truth of this. It’s a fan pic: Moby, with his jaw-wide, rectangular grin, is the fan; Portman, so young, is the star.

I recognise these photos. I have several where I look just like Moby does here: an ecstasy of adulation; an instinctive professional pose in response.

Moby 3

This is part of the sadness of this book. Moby is a fan to the core, and some of the best chapters in Then It Fell Apart are accounts of growing up into fandom. The chapters that tell of teenage trips to New York nightclubs, the teen teaching himself DJ skills, even the chapters about his early exposures to music and the genesis of his record collection – all are wonderful.

As are accounts of having dinner with David Bowie and Iman, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, and singing on-stage with New Order, channelling Ian Curtis.

Moby as fan is endearing. Moby as creepy older guy is not.

But he keeps doing it. He keeps introducing us to beautiful young girls, some famous (Christina Ricci, Lana Del Rey), some not, salivating on paper as he writes of their exquisiteness, implying he slept with them.

Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. But he didn’t inform any of them a book was coming out with his version of whatever happened between them, or that his version implied sexual relations. His publisher didn’t inform them. Apparently no one had the opportunity to veto or correct.

In his Preface, Moby writes “I’ve changed some names and details out of respect for other people, but all the stories in this book actually happened.”

Memory doesn’t work like that. All recollections are reconstructions. Reconstructions are coloured by fantasies, desires, fears. Reconstructions are configurations of neural pathways. The neural pathways of a man who by his own account consumed massive quantities of alcohol and drugs on a daily basis for decades are shredded.

As for respect… is it respectful to recount an anecdote from a specific UK tour, where individuals can be identified, about a threesome on a tour bus with two female record company staff? Just how many female record company staff accompanied his entourage on that tour bus?

‘I looked down at my naked body. There was shit on my legs and on my stomach. Either I had engaged in messy anal sex that I didn’t remember, or somebody – possibly me, possibly one of the women – had shat on the couch we’d had sex on. It smelled like an open sewer, and I had to fight the urge to vomit.’

That anecdote goes on. And on. Did we need to read it?

Or

‘She looked at the sheets. “Oh, sometimes when I have sex I get these burst cysts in my vagina. Or I got my period,” she said with disconcerting calm.

There was more blood than I’d ever seen in one place. It looked like a cow had just given birth. There was blood on the sheets. On Pam. On me.’

 

There are other tales of menstrual mess on couches, on sheets, of explosive diarrhoea, of the aptly-named Andy Dick, a comedian, attempting to shit on Moby’s birthday cake, pissing into Moby’s champagne.

There’s a tale of “knob-swiping”, a game whereby a man is dared to wipe his naked dick against another person in public, without that person’s awareness. Moby knob-swipes Donald Trump. First time I’ve been on The Donald’s side. More particularly, Moby writes with courteous restraint of Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is kind to him, then launches into telling about dick-wiping her dad. I bet Ivanka does not feel respected.

There are so many tales of hookers, strippers, desperate housewives, mobsters, molls… Did we need quite so many tales?

We get it. Moby was unable to sustain any kind of couple relationship with any woman. He panicked. He could only have promiscuous sex, sex with strangers, sex with what he calls “degenerates”, occasional sex (or implied sex) with women he idealises, sex that goes nowhere … except for that ex-girlfriend, the on-off girlfriend who lasted several years, who he calls Kellie. Kellie must hate this book.

My editing solution:

Condense the narrative about the boy growing up to two chapters: early childhood; then high school years and the brief attempt at college.

Condense the account of stardom and self-destruction. Keep the star-as-fan accounts of his brushes with fame, appropriately framed (fact-checked). Keep representative accounts of self-destructive behaviours and alienation.

The Lana Del Rey (Lizzy Grant) episode is good. If Lana/Lizzy is good with it.

Keep the context of Moby’s lifelong extreme anxiety disorder. Don’t over-egg it. Don’t let it turn into self-excuses.

I would much rather have read less about the hell of being an addict celebrity and had Then It Fell Apart be a three-strand volume: the childhood; the story of a crash; then the story of how Moby constructed an equilibrium, even if precarious.

I don’t need a happy ending. But I need more balance. As a reader, I know there is more to this story, because I made it to the final page. I imagine it was Moby’s intent to write a third volume, the volume of his recovery.

After the controversy prompted by how he wrote about Portman, and after his pledge to “go away for a while”, that book might never be written, or, if written, might never be published. Which is truly sad.

moby 4

As a reader, I’m left with the overwhelming impression of unmanaged anxiety, a man self-medicating with toxic substances, self-loathing, an eating disorder mentality (I don’t doubt Moby is sincere in his veganism on principle, but it does seem to me he’s a case-book male eating disorder), revulsion at bodily functions, and madonna/whore flip-flopping between idealisation of women and fury at women – ironic, given the feud that resulted when Moby accused rapper Eminem of misogynistic lyrics.

But then, he does say he had thought he and Eminem had much at core in common:

“Apart from misogyny and homophobia, I felt a strange kinship with Eminem. We’d both grown up in grinding suburban poverty. We both had complicated single moms. We’d both found refuge in music […] All along I’d assumed Eminem hadn’t really been that upset with me and that someday we’d meet up and have a friendly conversation […] We’d talk about growing up poor and scared, and maybe even become friends”.

Moby 2

While I don’t doubt at all that Moby grew up scared and poor, especially in the very early years, neglected in a chaotic environment, acutely feeling the disparity between his circumstances and the prevailing norms in the prosperous Connecticut county that was home, he never discusses the elephant in the room: his mother lived in Connecticut because that’s where she grew up, and her affluent parents were just up the road in their 10-bedroom mansion, where she and Moby apparently lived for long stretches.

Moby writes of his grandfather with respect and love, writes less of his grandmother – but what was the deal? Why was the child experiencing grinding poverty while living under his grandparents’ roof and later, in a modest house purchased for his mother and him by his grandmother, with his mother earning as a secretary?

When he writes of their temporary relocation to a somewhat less prosperous Connecticut county, he makes the point that he moved from an all-WASP school to a school community that was 90% Black and Hispanic. But then he goes and adds that none of his Black and Hispanic classmates were as poor as he was. Which is just embarrassing. It pushes the self-pity meter way, way up. Words like “entitlement” spring to mind…

Moby 1

So was Moby the little white prince, displaced? Is his rage and his desperate, driving need for validation a consequence of “I *should* have been pampered in the castle!”?

He does write at length about his envy of the billionaire set, despite seeing clearly at close quarters how wretched the billionaires are. And he writes of purchasing a castle, the top five floors of an iconic Gilded Era New York building with views all across Manhattan and the Hudson, and of how living in the castle failed to salvage his soul.

If we take the end page at face value, what salvaged his soul, finally, was AA.


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Mystify: Michael Hutchence – a documentary by Richard Lowenstein

Today I attended a Melbourne media preview for Mystify, director Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about his friend Michael Hutchence, lead singer of the band INXS, who died by suicide in 1997.

Michael was my friend once, too. We were a year apart in age and we met not long after we both moved to Sydney in 1979. Back then, I was an Australian rock music writer.

As a rock writer, I wrote a number of articles about Michael and about INXS. More recently, I’ve written two memoir pieces about Michael as I knew him [links at bottom]. Today, I was fortunate to attend the preview as the guest of my friend Jen Jewel Brown, a prominent Australian rock music writer (writing as Jenny Hunter Brown or Jenny Brown), who also knew Michael back in the day, and who co-wrote the 2018 Michael Hutchence biography Michael: My brother, lost boy of INXS, with Michael’s sister Tina Hutchence.

At the end of Mystify, Jen and I sat transfixed. Afterwards, we talked for hours.

I sincerely hope Richard Lowenstein’s sensitive, intimate portrait of Michael as recalled by the people closest to him reaches its audience.

It would be a travesty if Mystify got lost in the wake of the many previous accounts of Michael’s life.

In addition to Tina and Jen’s book last year, published biographies include: Toby Creswell’s Shine Like It Does: the life of Michael Hutchence (2017); Michael In Pictures – A Celebration of the Life of Michael Hutchence by Richard Simpkin (2015); Total XS by Michael’s brother Rhett Hutchence (2004); Paula, Michael and Bob: Everything you know is wrong by Gerry Agar (2003); Michael Hutchence: Just A Man: the real Michael Hutchence by Tina Hutchence and Michael’s mother Patricia Glassop (2000); Michael Hutchence: The Devil Inside by Vincent Lovegrove (1999); and The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence by Mike Gee (1998), also released as The Final Days of Michael Hutchence.

There have been TV dramatisations and documentaries: The Day the Rock Star Died (2019); The Last Rock Star (2017); the mini-series Never Tear Us Apart: The untold story of INXS (2014); Autopsy – The last hours of Michael Hutchence (2014); The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence (2014); Behind The Music Remastered (2010); True Hollywood Story – Michael Hutchence (2004); True Hollywood Story – Rocked To Death: Michael Hutchence (1999).

Some of these accounts are outright exploitation. Others are attempts by people who knew Michael to tell his story as they understood it, or as they want the public to perceive it. Michael’s story is highly contested: it’s been told many different ways.

In Mystify, Richard Lowenstein presents Michael through footage filmed by friends and family, and outtakes from live performance and music video shoots. His friends, lovers and bandmates provide commentary superimposed on images from the time.

Some of the footage, photos and mementoes are breathtakingly personal. Kudos to the women with whom Michael had significant relationships who have chosen to speak honestly and insightfully, and who gave permission for private mementoes to be featured.

That they do this from love, not from any self-serving motive, is abundantly evident.

Kudos to the band members and fellow musicians who speak about Michael as they knew him, for better and for worse.

Kudos to Lowenstein (director of numerous INXS videos, Michael’s director in the feature film Dogs In Space), whose voice is not heard but whose commentary is expressed through his editing choices and the narrative structure.

A few things are brutally clear. Michael’s life was irrevocably altered by Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). He acquired brain injury in 1992 when a Danish taxi driver knocked him down on a cobblestone street in Copenhagen. His partner at the time, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, recalls blood coming from his ears and his mouth. She recalls him insisting on leaving hospital, being nursed by her at home for the following month. He kept the extent of his injury from others. Perhaps he never fully recognized the extent to which head injury damaged him. But the brain scans exist: Michael had frontal lobe damage, which will have affected his emotional regulation and behaviours. He lost the sensory perceptions of taste and smell, which, for a sensualist like Michael, was tantamount to losing who he was.

In truth, the Michael I see in footage from the last years of his life is not the Michael I knew. His bandmates say it isn’t Michael as they knew him, either.

The Michael presented in those final years is panicking, desperate, lost, humiliated.

For those of us who cared for him, it’s hard to watch.

Afterwards, I felt like I’d been hit by a cannonball. “I feel sick,” I said to Jen. She felt sick, too.

I told Jen the last time I saw Michael was during the recording of their mega-album Kick, in 1987. He was walking up William Street in Sydney, towards Kings Cross. I was walking downwards, towards him. He was wearing a long loose beige coat. I was wearing red. He invited me to join him at Rhinoceros Studios, to help him fill in time between takes, chatting.

Or maybe it was that time when he stopped by my table in a crowded restaurant, and everyone in that room craned to check out who he’d deigned to talk to, strained their ears to hear what we talked about.

But actually, that wasn’t the last time I saw Michael. The very last time was New Year’s Eve 1988, when we were both at the same party at a fancy harborside mansion. He arrived trailing his model of the moment, an Amazon with sky-high cheekbones. We nodded. But by then INXS were major international stars, and I turned away without speaking to him.

Michael Hutchence was a real person, very real. I’ve heard him dismissed as a poser, a wally, a twat. For me, he was a sensitive, talented, inquiring young man, entranced by glamour, dreaming big. For years I thought the life he lived after that New Year’s Eve epitomized success: Michael living happily ever after, in the sunshine of the south of France.

I was disabused of that belief when Michael died.

In Mystify, I now see those years presented as a drawn-out descent into exhaustion and eventual dehumanization, as the tabloids chewed him up.

In one of the Mystify reviews I’ve read, it’s suggested Michael made a Faustian pact: “success”, at the cost of a life worth living.

I’m not sure who it’s implied is the Devil in this pact. I don’t think it’s “the devil inside” (to quote the song).

I do know fame’s a bitch.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Link to my blog tribute to Michael Hutchence, with personal reminiscences – Someone Famous, With Girl (2014) https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2014/06/05/someone-famous-with-girl-for-michael-hutchence/
  2. Excerpt from my blog post W for War (2017). In its totality, this piece is not about Michael and there is some repetition with my Mystify blog post and my blog post Someone Famous, With Girl, above. W for War is, I suppose, about my own personal disillusion with previously held notions of “success” and “glamour”. It’s quite naked and wasn’t really written to be read (true confession!):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 [London] 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, ‘80s 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.


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For National Volunteers Week 2019 – thoughts on the value of work

My first paid work was at age 16, in 1978, when the editor of a national publication commissioned me to write film reviews.

Trouble was, my first paid work went unpaid.

After a couple of months with no cheque in the mailbox, my mother wrote that editor a letter. Her daughter, she wrote, had worked hard on those film reviews. It was her first paid employment. Surely it was desirable that the lesson a 16 year-old learned is that labour is exchanged for monetary recompense.

A cheque arrived, belatedly.

By then I had moved on to writing for an Adelaide-based national rock music publication, for free. After nearly a year of writing for no money, I was offered freelance work by a higher circulation rock music publication, in Sydney, for whom I wrote till mid-1986, always commissioned articles, always as a freelance.

My stockpiled articles for the Adelaide publication continued to appear for some months. When they had no further articles of mine to run, a representative of that publication arranged to meet with me to ask me to continue writing for them, unpaid.

He pointed out that that publication could not afford to pay contributors. I was unmoved. That was their problem, I said.

He was passionate, committed to his project. He explained everyone involved made personal sacrifices to keep that publication viable. He himself was obliged to run drugs between the Riverina and Adelaide to bring in cash for printing costs.

Some time later I read in a mainstream newspaper that his body had been found by the side of a Riverina highway, shot-gunned, I don’t remember if the magazine had already folded.

A popular TV personality hired me to proof-read the reissue of his book. I charged $150. When he wrote the cheque, he told me he would have paid me ten times that much, if I had asked. I hadn’t asked.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” he said.

When I stopped writing freelance and moved into paid employee positions, I discovered that no employer ever paid me as a new employee on my first due payday. They kept saying it took time to set up payments – sometimes six weeks. Sometimes there were problems, delays, across the first few months. It was not till I was in my mid-30s that an employer actually paid my first pay when due.

I took a temporary contract job with a company owned by Britain’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, what we in Australia would call the national Treasurer. His companies notoriously had a policy of paying contractors, freelancers and suppliers late, as late as they could get away with – sometimes three months or longer, until legal action commenced.

The procedure was that pays were meant to be processed on a Friday. Pays could only be processed if two directors countersigned an individual’s paperwork. But such were the demands on company directors that very often, two directors could not be found to sign off on the Friday. If they missed that day, pay due would carry over to the next fortnight’s payday – when it might happen that way again.

I had been there eight weeks and been paid twice, maybe three times. My immediate boss was due to take a family holiday in Spain. I was to hold the fort in his absence. I told him very clearly me showing up at work was contingent on me being paid on time. My boss promised he would speak to the directors and make sure it happened.

The night before my boss and his family were due to fly to Spain, I phoned him at his home to say pay had not shown up in my bank account. I told him I needed that money in my hand or else I would be a no-show and our work project would collapse.

He cried. He said I was blackmailing him. He said all he wanted was a week off in the sun, relaxing on holiday.

Did I like my boss? I liked him very much. Did I like that job? Yes. Did I like having to threaten my boss with an ultimatum? Not even slightly.

But I had rent due and I needed to eat and life in London is a hard scrabble. I’d done the work. I needed the pay. For sure, a multi-millionaire confidante of Margaret Thatcher did not need to hang on to my money those extra days.

I moved to a job where I was paid half what my male counterparts were paid. I complained about that. I was told by a billionaire banker that I was well paid (I was), and that I should feel grateful (I was not). Sorry. Not grateful. I did the same work. I did it as well or better. I was well paid, but well paid for a demanding and responsible role that required special skills, which I brought.

I moved to a similar job, on higher pay. At that time in the UK, there was a program whereby employees could nominate that set amounts from their pre-tax salary could be directed each payday to designated charities. I determined a small percentage of my salary and filled in the paperwork spreading donations between about 10 charities.

The company finance director told me if I had that money spare, they were obviously paying me too much.

A week or two later I received a formal letter from the finance director advising there’d been an error in my letter of offer. The amount specified as my salary was meant to be the amount of my total package. My salary therefore needed to be adjusted downwards.

My letter of offer explicitly spelled out my salary plus additional benefits, bringing the total package amount up to somewhere still a bit south of my male counterparts.

I was not willing to accept a reduced salary. On legal advice, I stayed at home, on sick leave, while letters were exchanged. I refused to answer phone calls or to meet personally with the company directors. I sent faxes to the central fax machine at that workplace, where any employee could read details of our negotiations.

Did I enjoy doing this? Honestly. Are you kidding?

I talked about this with a few CEOs down the years. Each of them shrugged, said it was par for the course. Shit happens. Employees get screwed over. That’s the game.

In subsequent years I’ve occasionally found myself again forced to draw on my inner bitch.

There was the time I resigned and was asked to finish up immediately. I refused to leave the office till I received my severance pay. So sorry, I said. I believe this business is trading while insolvent. I believe if I leave this office now, I will never receive payment.

My ex-bosses accused me of holding them hostage. I was intransigent. After all, I pointed out, I was willing to work out my notice in professional good faith. They were the ones who asked for an immediate severance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this history, I have preferred my voluntary employments over the years to my paid employments.

I first volunteered at age 21 (37 years ago) and have volunteered substantial hours consistently for the past 17 years.

The role call of organisations I have volunteered for includes (no particular order) Bellarine Community Health, Conservation Volunteers Australia, Geelong Gallery, GAWS (Geelong Animal Welfare Shelter), UCA (Uniting Church in Australia), Amnesty International, AMES (Adult Multicultural Education Services), Melbourne Theatre Company, HM Prison Feltham, Women’s Electoral Lobby.

I have loved working for almost all these organisations, but I have my beefs.

One beef is showing up for a volunteer shift to find my superviser or manager has not given thought to how to deploy a volunteer that day. I hate being turned away and told to go home. Petrol costs. Besides, it’s disrespectful of my time and labour.

Another beef is this: when should a volunteer role be recognised as essential tasks and become a paid role?

It’s National Volunteers Week this week, 20-27 May.

While I’m impressed by the commitment of the many volunteers featured in posts across social media (promoting the organisations for whom they labour), some of these posts perplex me.

Three days a week for 15 years, contributing professional expertise?

That’s not a volunteer gig, that’s a job: an unpaid job.

In Australia, where I live, many of these people will be on Newstart or the Age Pension, having to deal with the bureaucratic indignities and public stigma that Centrelink welfare recipients live with.

Others are in a financial position to contribute unpaid labour, and thrive in responsible unpaid positions in desirable workplaces, with social kudos (the arts and culture industries), because of their privilege. (Yes, being able to offer labour for free is a position of privilege, regardless of how hard a person worked to reach that position of privilege.)

It is true that volunteering brings benefits to the volunteer that are not monetary. Many volunteers identify with the organisation where they contribute their labour. Volunteering provides meaningful activity, social interaction. Purpose, relationship. Access to an environment that aligns with their values and reinforces their desired self-image. They might feel an individual has an obligation to give back to the community at no charge, and where that is the case, good on ’em.

There may also be deferred monetary benefits. Volunteer work might provide skills development, keep job seeker references fresh, help a person into paid employment.

Here’s a couple of ideas:

1. Where people have volunteered in a specific role for 12 months, review that role and that individual’s contribution, to determine if it should and can become a paid role. Volunteers will shy away from this: volunteers love their roles, they make the role their own. They’re invested, and they do not want to walk away. Even so, after a few years it can wear thin. IMHO, after about two years, with the role unpaid, the employer is taking the piss. If you really can’t pay them, but wish to retain their skills at no cost, move that volunteer into a different volunteer function. Or suggest they broaden their unpaid experience by taking on new challenges elsewhere. Don’t milk them dry.

2. My preference: Where people have established a valued volunteer niche, have the government fund their institution to pay them properly for their labour, as a subsidised job. Give them the respect of recognising they’re DOING a real job, and untie them from the whipping post that is Centrelink.

This week is National Volunteers Week. It was also a national election week.

In a week where I saw Australian voters referring online to people on benefits as “bottom feeders”, I cannot see our re-elected conservative government changing the status quo.

A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay is the ideal of paid employment.

Remind me… What happens to ideals?

Show_me_the_money


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Anthony O’Grady d.19 December 2018

Update: I am humbled that Anthony’s sisters Sharyn and Suellen have invited me to read a section from this at Anthony’s commemoration, Thursday 27 December 2018. I am honoured to contribute.

Anthony O’Grady with Bryan Ferry – RAM

One day late in 1979 I was walking along Glebe Point Road in Sydney with my new friend, Stuart Coupe, and Stuart suggested I should write for RAM, Rock Australia Magazine, my bible. He said he’d introduce me to the editor. So I went along to the RAM offices in Crown Street, Darlinghurst, to meet Anthony O’Grady.

The RAM offices were on the second level of a converted terrace building and were kinda funky. People who looked like they belonged in rock’n’roll were fugging up the space. Behind a large desk, with his back to a window overlooking Crown Street, sat Anthony.

Now Anthony had a very soft voice and pretty, feline features. He leaned back in his chair, with a guarded manner. He was watchful and maybe a bit irritated. I did not look rock’n’roll even slightly.

I could not hear a word AO’G said to me above the noise of traffic through the open window. I just kept smiling and nodding, hoping my timing was ok. Then I genuflected and backed out, cautiously.

That evening Stuart phoned me, to check that I was ok. He told me Anthony O’Grady had apologised for being rude to his friend. Anthony had, apparently, told me to fuck off. I had, apparently, just sat there, smiled and nodded.

Anthony said, “Anyone with skin that thick should be a rock music writer.”

Between them, I owe Anthony and Stuart the life I’ve led.

As a writer, I owe incalculably to Anthony.

My first few articles he tore up. Then he took to slashing them with a red pen. He told me what to dump. He told me what to expand. He told me when it pleased. Eventually, he smiled.

About 10 years later, Anthony took several public transport connections from the north shore of the Harbour to visit me in Kings Cross. He was delayed, by about an hour, and we didn’t have cellphones, so he couldn’t text. Back in my first floor, terrace-house apartment, I grew antsy waiting. I went out.

I was not home when Anthony arrived and he was disappointed. It was a hot day. He’d travelled hours, at some inconvenience. He did that, he told me, because he rated me.

Have I mentioned how highly I rate Anthony?

Love, lots of. From me to you, AO’G.

From Anthony:

I met Elly in 1979, in my capacity as founding editor of the rock magazine RAM. Of the many writers who appeared in the magazine during my seven years as editor, I regard Elly as amongst the most outstanding. Her writing was always perceptive, it embodied the attitude that music could be more than satisfactory entertainment, it could be emotionally fulfilling.

She is that rare individual who combines sensitivity with pervading intelligence. I have never ceased to be impressed by her talents as a writer and the vivaciousness of her personality.

Anthony O’Grady
Founding editor, RAM Magazine

Pics sourced online – on the right, cropped from a photograph by Bob King, in a blog post by Debbie Kruger


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Despicable Me – how I destroyed my employment prospects and simultaneously upset the cosmic balance and Uncle Albert to boot

jabberwock

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; but that was before I turned my ‘lectric eye on them and put my ray gun to their heads. Alas, slithy toves are now no more, and it’s all down to me.

This morning my former editor Greg pointed out that my future employment prospects, even as a volunteer, are sadly compromised due to the “Unfortunate Incident (With An Aardvark) of 1982, which still casts a broad shadow over [my] otherwise stellar resume”.

In my ongoing remorse about that episode with the bag of oranges and the Lord Cthulhu’s Oegopsidic cousin, the sarin gas leak faux pas, I’d quite overlooked the aardvark incident these decades past.

Cthulu_Deviant_Art_Elly_McDonald_Writer

[Note: Oegopsida is one of the two orders of squid in the superorder Decapodiformes, in the Cephalopoda class. It was formerly considered to be a suborder order of the Teuthida, in which case it is known as Oegopsina, together with the Myopsina. This reclassification is due to Oegopsina and Myopsina not being demonstrated to form a clade.]

We all recall things differently, even momentous, epochal hinge-events, and plainly there is still some public confusion, as my friend Jen queried if that was the time I “caused the escape of a sacred blood pheasant which triggered an avalanche in upper Himalayastan village leading to a renewal of endangered fallopian tiger orchids in the top paddock?”

No, it was not. The sacred blood pheasant was another occasion, when I’m glad there were (some) good outcomes. Though that can hardly compensate for the devastating loss of four millennia of preserved religious tradition.

aardvark_pink_ears

Aaardvark, white with pink ears. That should have been a tip-off.

[The Oegopsida are an often pelagic squid, with some nerito-oceanic species associated with sea mounts. (from http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/i1920e/i1920e04.pdf) They consist of 24 families and 69 genera. They have these characters in common: the head is without tentacle pockets, eyes lack a corneal covering, arms and tentacle clubs may have hooks, the buccal supports are without suckers, and oviducts in females are paired.]

Now that I am reminded of some of the more obscure harms I’ve caused the world, obscure but by no means trivial, my global guilt is triggered. I accept I have been in da Nile, or up shit creek, a bog of repressed culpability.

I feel – because I am a sensitive type – I have no recourse but to expunge these memories by writing a confessional blog post. My friend Ian assures me confessional blog posts are the modern way to seek absolution, though, as a Presbyterian by birth, I am mindful “Most Protestants consider auricular or private confession to be unbiblical and consider confession viewed as a sacrament to be equally unbiblical.” -https://www.britannica.com/topic/confession-religion.

[Two families, the Bathyteuthidae and Chtenopterygidae, which have features characteristic of the Myopsida while retaining others common to the Oegopsina, are sometimes placed in the Bathyteuthoidea.]

I didn’t mean for those children to be so affected, and now I have a better understanding of aortic rips – and tidal currents – I’d never permit anything like that to happen again. I also take this moment to apologise to those colleagues who had not previously encountered the Aos-Sidhe and were disconcerted by the jagged teeth. Usually you’re safe, except in dark ravines.

Sidhe_Elly_McDonald_Writer

[The Oegopsida differ from the coastal Myopsida, characterised by the genus Loligo, which have corneal coverings over the eyes and tentacle pockets, but lack hooks, have no suckers on the buccal supports, and a single oviduct.]

In fairness, there was warning:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Bandersnatch_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Those Bandersnatch will get you every time

Next time I’ll make a point to be more explicit.

(Not making excuses, but that whole situation could have been averted by a simple glass of ale, brewed from a bag of malt offered by each team-mate, presented by a chosen representative wading waist deep into the ocean at midnight in midwinter and accompanied by appropriate votive prayers chanted on shore by the light of beeswax candles.)

Seonaidh_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Seonaidh waiting for a glass of ale

Also, it should be remembered this stuff was minor compared with the Hulder incident.

Hulder_Lesley_Burdett_Photography_Elly_McDonald_Writer

[Oegopsid squid are the only decapods that lack a pocket for the tentacles. Otherwise, they share different characters with different decapod groups. Like the Bathyteuthoidea and Myopsida, the Oegopsida have a brachial canal, which is absent in other forms. As with the Spirulidae and Idiosepiidae, the Oegposida lack suckers on the buccal supports, and like the Bathyteuthoidea, Idiosepiidae, and Spirulidae, they have no circular muscle on the suckers.]

So Keep your mouth shut, you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird
And I’m busting up my brains for the words

Sometimes, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

With profuse – stricken – apologies, to Lewis Carroll, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Wiki entries on Squid, Scottish Mythology and Hulder respectively.

I am appalled at what I’ve done.

pink_monkey_bird

Pink Monkey Bird. Not to be confused with the Sacred Blood Pheasant.


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Reviews: Gillespie and I (2011) and Sugar Money (2018) by Jane Harris

Jane Harris is a British author and screenwriter who is the same age as I am and if I were the envious kind I suppose I should hate her. Her writing is brilliant.

Her first novel, The Observations (2006) was a finalist in Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction 2007. Her second novel, Gillespie and I (2011), is similarly set in Glasgow, where Belfast-born Harris grew up and attended university.

Harris takes obvious delight in setting herself the task of researching a time and place so thoroughly that she feels able to inhabit the first-person voices of people whose fictional lives are, on the face of it, far removed from her own lived experience: a 15 year old ladies’ maid in 1863, a deranged English spinster in 1888 and 1933, a pubescent male black slave on Grenada and Martinique in 1765.

Wait up, you say (or at least, the reviewer in The Guardian says). A pubescent male black slave in 1765? But how can a white female British author presume to take the voice of a black male slave?

We’ll get there.

First, Gillespie and I, a fictional narrative in the form of a memoir: purportedly written by one Harriet Brown, at the age of 80, in 1933, about events that occurred when she was in her 30s – well and truly on the shelf, in the marriage market of her times. Harriet starts out asserting she is writing a biography of the (fictional) Scottish artist Ned Gillespie, but it’s evident almost at once she is writing about herself, in the most self-serving terms.

Gillespie_and_I_Jane_Harris

I doubt too many are clamoring to protect the authentic voice of privileged middleaged white female spinster stalkers, let alone white female stalkers who deploy the memoir form to write about the victims of their stalking. Those who have read blogs in the ‘Memoir’ category of this blogsite might be aware I am myself a middleaged, verging on elderly, white female spinster with a history as a stalker, who does write memoir pieces claiming relationships with people she has stalked.

Given the parallels between what Harriet Brown is doing and what I’ve done in blogs, Gillespie and I made for uncomfortable reading for me. But it sets out to be uncomfortable – if also, often, hilarious – reading. When I discussed it last night with friends I expressed the sanctimonious opinion it makes all of us – not merely the SWF stalkers – question where in our lives we promote delusional stories about who we are and how others perceive us.

Gillespie and I is long, 501 pages. The first half is relatively restrained and sometimes feels unduly detailed and protracted (which makes sense, once you realise it’s the case for the defence). The first-person narrative voice is highly stylized, alternately prim and vitriolic, and initially I found it off-putting. In the very early stages, only a mischievous sentence in the Preface persuaded me to sign on for the duration:

“I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unraveling, not only of our relationship (what with that silly white slavery business and the trial) but also of his [the artist Gillespie’s] entire fate.”

The unravelling, which commences at the halfway point, is rapid indeed. The second half of the book is faultless, a wild savage scamper to a vicious end.

Harris seeds her text with other teasers to make us persist in the early parts of the tale, and by about page 135 I was hooked by the malevolent humour and originality. And the cleverness. Such a very clever text!

I read a review that described Gillespie and I as a “masterpiece of misdirection”. That phrase prompted me to seek out this title, but I suspect that critic misunderstands the term “misdirection”. It has a legal sense, not pertinent to this novel (although it becomes a courtroom drama); it also has a meaning specific to magic tricks. Misdirection, as neatly summarized on Wiki, is “a form of deception in which the attention of the audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another” – a technique to facilitate sleight of hand.

Gillespie and I does not do that. What Gillespie and I does is create what I’ll call a double narrative, a shadow narrative that reads counter to the narrator’s intentions. Quickly we recognize that this narrator is not merely unreliable: she is so far divorced from ‘truth’ that she’s lost its address. She is either completely self-serving, without conscience, or she is delusional. She’s attempting to reclaim a narrative she’s long since lost control over: she writes untruths that the truth glares through.

Reading ‘Harriet Brown’ made me seriously consider deleting every memoir blog post I’ve written.

My friends asked whether Gillespie and I has a point, as in a moral. I suppose I could take as its moral something like “Be careful how you speak (or write) about other people; what you say about others speaks more loudly of who you are’. But I don’t believe Jane Harris set out to write a fable. Instead, I read Gillespie and I as a strikingly wicked gothic fairytale about the havoc evil forces can wreak on the unsuspecting. Harriet Brown, with her hooked nose, her tall hats, her garb of grey and purple and black, is a witch, a nightmare witch.

She calls to mind the Scottish bedtime prayer; “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us.”

Sugar_Money_Jane_Harris

Like Gillespie and I, Sugar Money is told by a first person narrator, in an act of ventriloquism requiring huge amounts of research. As with Gillespie and I, the first person voice is highly stylized, in this case employing dialect: Creole phrases and sentences, a mélange of French, English and African linguistic elements.

Again, I found the first person voice initially so offputting I almost gave up. I’m glad I didn’t.

The Guardian’s reviewer disliked this book absolutely: she objected to a white writer speaking as a black slave; she argued the stories of black slavery are not the white writer’s to tell; she believed the use of the classic adventure genre (think Treasure Island) was inappropriate to such a serious subject; she felt the way the tale unfolded was initially way too soft in its depiction of the conditions of slavery, and that by the time Harris laid it out in explicit ugliness it was too little, too late; she proposed that black writers have addressed the issues raised in Sugar Money more powerfully, more authentically, such that the white writer added nothing of value.

Also, specifically, that reviewer felt the romance is “underdone” (is it proper to write about slavery with reference to the romance genre?); and that issues are touched on in mere sentences where Toni Morrison would take pages, whole books.

As a SWF – a SWSF, Single White Spinster Female, a SSWFS (Spinster Single White Female Stalker, no less – I can’t argue with those perspectives. Except I will, to say (1) Jane Harris did not set out to write books already written by Toni Morrison – if she alludes to abuses such as black slave couples being forcibly split up without making it her novel’s central issue, it’s because it is not her novel’s central issue; and (2) there will be those of us who, having read Toni Morrison, and others, still find value in Sugar Money, who will learn much we did not know previously, and are stimulated by the particulars of this time and place – the Caribbean, late C18th – to learn more.

I found Sugar Money affecting and educative. It was also entertaining, though perhaps it is not appropriate for a novel about black slavery to entertain?

I’m out of step with the current orthodoxies here. If a novel is properly researched and sensitively written, I don’t myself have a problem with the author’s demographic or ethnicity. But that’s easy for me to say: I’m speaking from a culturally dominant position.

From that culturally dominant position, my own perspective is: What is the novel, if not the creative exercise of empathy? From that perspective, the questions for me become: did the author succeed in engaging me, entertaining me, moving me, enlightening me, encouraging me to find out more? For me, the answer here is YES.

On the other hand: is the choice to use the first person voice of a fictional character so radically different (in race, gender, historical location) from the author primarily a showy literary move, a bravura performance?

It seems to me to come down to: Is a tale about black slaves in the Caribbean off limits altogether for a white author? If not, can it be told another way, without foregrounding the colonial experience, without making white characters central?

Attempting to write from ‘within’ any historical experience is fraught, even with the most thorough research. Historical subjectivity is immeasurably different from contemporary worldviews.

The cultural appropriation debate will continue. For me, I’m grateful writers with the immense talents of Jane Harris are attempting to re-present historical mores. Even if she is a WF.

Jane_Harris_author

Jane Harris – portrait of the artist as a White Female?


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Author’s notes – the Lenny novella (4 May 2018)

[Spoiler alert – discloses ending]

The Lenny novella was written mostly in mid-2012, with one chapter, Death, written late 2013, then the conclusion in early 2018, six years after its inception.

There’s a range of reasons I abandoned it for so long (other than that I was embarrassed by it).

These include concerns about:

  1. The hysterical tone and narrative content.
  2. Cultural appropriation and pastiche.
  3. How to end the narrative.
  4. Plagiarism.

So, some thoughts on those points.

Hysteria

The first 12,000 words were written essentially in one burst, immediately after I was sacked from a temp admin job, where, among other things, I’d failed to prepare coffee and tea for senior staff and clients to the corporate standard.

I was in that temp job after leaving my previous admin job due to injuring my back, an injury that completely incapacitated me for about five weeks and left me unable to move without pain for just over three months. I’d attempted a return to work, but the firm where I worked was unwilling to modify my tasks: three hours every morning continued to be rote mechanical movement with a twist from the waist (don’t ask).

It’s fair to say I felt evil towards the corporate workplace.

It’s fair to say I had a track record as a misfit in conventional workplaces. I despaired of finding employment again. In fact, I haven’t worked fulltime since then.

But Lenny’s hysteria has other origins.

I’d experienced occasional panic attacks over the previous five or so years, and one way back when I was 18 or 19. At that time I worked in the Australian rock music industry, and being backstage was a way of life. On this occasion something had happened earlier in the night that distressed me hugely; when I went to leave, I could not find the exit. I could not see a door, or figure out the direction to get outside. I was standing on a stage with road crew loading up all around me, panicking. I grabbed a friend I trusted – and screamed “Jim! I cannot find my way out!” He looked at me oddly, half turned, pointed, and said “There”.

There was a missing wall with a truck parked halfway through it. There was a roller door fully opened. There was the night sky. Black and stars.

I didn’t identify that as a panic attack as I’d never heard that term. But if someone had used the words “Panic attack” that night, I would have recognised myself immediately.

Lenny is, in effect, one long panic attack. That might make it hard to read. Or unreadable.

Cultural appropriation and pastiche

The Lenny novella is set in a world that shares recognisable elements with ours but is not ours. In among the fantasy elements, I have lifted imagery from many cultures, notably Japan and Silk Road cultures: China, Persia, Moghul India. I have lifted elements from the myths of many cultures. It might be worth mentioning the post-graduate thesis I attempted was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature.

I didn’t lift images and narrative elements to disrespect these cultures. But I do understand many readers are uncomfortable with privileged white people using the symbologies of other cultures in cavalier ways.

At the time I began Lenny I was frankly unaware of that debate. I chose to create a cultural hybrid fantasy world partly for the beauty of those varied elements and partly to distinguish this world from the reality (realities) we live in. If I thought about it, I thought of it as a postmodern pastiche.

I needed to distinguish Lenny’s world from ours because this is not a factual tale. At the same time, I needed to retain ties to the world as we know it to ensure the themes – genocide, child soldiers, institutional abuse, collaboration and collusion – recognisably relate to this world. I plucked names ad hoc from different languages and cultures, mostly European, to draw attention to parallels between the events in this story and events during the Bosnian War and in World War II.

I pilfered parts of other people’s stories. A big slab of Lenny’s opening address is straight from the experiences of a Bosnian Muslim combat veteran who I met in 2002 when he was a refugee. Thank you, Sakib Mustafic. The woman who steps from a helicopter at the conclusion is an homage to my friends Tara Young, an Australian Iraq War combat veteran, and Dr Barb Wigley, who manages refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa.

The figure of the Investigator is a tribute to my friend Robyn Dixon, a foreign correspondent since 1993.

The dragons come from the west. Not “the West”. There is no political partisanship intended there.

The End

The way I had set up this narrative there is no escape for these children. I grew more and more depressed, realising any device I used to extract them would be wishful thinking. These children were doomed. Then this morning, I was listening to talkback radio, listening to a woman my age (57) say there was no prospect of employment for her after years of disability. A short while back, a very short while back, I would have echoed her belief. But my instinctive response was, “No! I have two jobs – casual jobs, it’s true, but jobs I love, and I love the life those jobs make possible!”

I might be the lucky exception, but luck does exist: exceptions do exist. The unlikely, the providential, can happen.

I thought, if I am an exception, why should I not allow my characters a Deus Ex Machina? A God from above?

So I sent them helicopters. I rescued them.

Also, as Lenny discusses at the end, these are children. What are adults for, if not to protect children? I, as author, can do that. I am the adult here.

So, I let them live.

Lenny says she can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those helicopters being there. I can’t either, and I don’t. This tale is not a justification for wars of foreign intervention.

Quite apart from my pique at being sacked as an admin temp, this story was prompted by issues raised by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the court of last resort for crimes of genocide, and by the Court of Human Rights. It might seem to allude to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Syria, even institutional child sex abuse as in the Roman Catholic Church internationally. It is not “about” any one of those phenomena specifically. It is “about” social prejudice, exclusion, discrimination and persecution as social and political phenomena.

Plagiarism and due credit

As soon as I wrote that ending, I recognised my borrowings from John Wyndham’s classic The Chrysalids. I loved The Chrysalids as a child. Two years back I repurchased a copy, which sits on my bookshelves, unread. I hadn’t realised how much Lenny’s narrative owes to The Chrysalids till today.

Call it postmodern. Call it homage.

All elements of homage are unintended, with love, or intended, with respect.

The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012/13/18

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny_lotus

By the way – the photographs in the Lenny novella blog post, almost all, are mine. Other images I’ve lifted can be identified by doing a reverse images search. When I get a moment, I will do a list of credits and update the post.


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Formative books – 7 books in 7 days

There’s a game going round on Facebook where a person posts over seven consecutive days about seven books that had an impact on their life when first read. Each day, the person nominates a Facebook friend to take on the same task, in a book review-memoirs chain letter.

My friend Chris Stafford nominated me. Due to my long-standing issues with poor impulse control, I found myself writing six posts on Day 2. I’ll try to release them one by one, day by day, on Facebook. But here are all seven now. Because I can.

Day 1: We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. I don’t know why I picked up this book at that time (1998), as it was one of the more insular moments in my life, when I was immersed in the London advertising village. It might be because Gaby Rado’s coverage of the Bosnian war for Channel 4 had made such an impression on me. I remember going on a date with a 21 y.o. Serb boy named Kristin in 1993 and he was completely bewildered, adrift. At any rate. I bought this book as a house-guest gift when I visited Robyn Dixon in Russia late ’98 and it gives me some satisfaction that she’s now spent many years bringing conflict (and other issues) in Sub-Saharan Africa to the awareness of Los Angeles Times readers through her work as their foreign correspondent based in Johannesburg. I look forward to what she writes from her new posting in Beijing.

This book almost certainly dictated that when I attempted a novel it drew heavily on the Rwanda (and Bosnia) scenario.

Day 2: Blood Red Sister Rose by Thomas Kenneally (1974), a novel about Joan of Arc. There were a number of historical novels that impacted me powerfully as a child and young adolescent, usually featuring traumatised male loners (One is One by Barbara Leonie Picard, The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff), but Blood Red Sister Rose was quite different stylistically and in its concerns.

I was 14 when I read it in 1975. Here was a book about a very young girl asserting herself in a very brutal male environment, written in extremely direct, contemporary language. To my recollection, I understood its representation of war as a response to the Vietnam War. In that respect it prefigured my reading of Michael Herr’s book Dispatches, which blew me away a few years later at age 17.

But Blood Red Sister Rose was also about gender and authority and sexualities and menses (mildly mortifying for a pubescent girl to read about, but there it was – echoing Neville Williams’ psychosexual analysis of Elizabeth I in his biography of the Virgin Queen, which impacted me strongly when I was 12).

Blood Red Sister Rose doesn’t follow Joan – or Jehannette, as Keneally calls her – through to her capture, trial and execution by England’s Burgundian allies. It addresses how an uneducated peasant girl might relate to French commanders bred within a military cast, and to their troops. The most memorable passage for me was the shocking image of Gilles de Rais witnessing at close quarters his (male) lover’s head blown off by a cannonball. I understood at once the traumatic conjunction of violence and eroticism. Gilles de Rais is known in legend as Bluebeard, the nobleman turned monster who practiced dismemberment for its erotic charge.

Day 3: Roxana by Daniel Defoe (1724). I was enrolled in an MA at Melbourne University trying to research a thesis on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature when I stumbled on a dusty antique copy of Roxana while employed part-time in the English Department library.

It amazes me now that I didn’t recognize Roxana tied in with my ‘transformation and shapeshifting’ project. After all, the novel’s full title is The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II.

At the time I was in urgent need of self-reinvention and it was serendipitous to encounter a character as resourceful as the Lady Roxana, who is a C17th forerunner to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, of Vanity Fair (a book I discovered with wonder when I was about 12), and spiritual ancestress to the pop idol Madonna.

Unlike the eponymous Amber St Clare of Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor’s bestselling 1947 bodice-ripper, which I had swallowed whole at age 13, and which also centres on a fallen woman rising to become King Charles II’s mistress, the character who eventually becomes known as Roxana does not obsess over any lover. Amber is punished for her sinful career by having her son taken from her. Defoe assures us Roxana is to be punished, ultimately, but when the reader leaves her she has successfully achieved high social status and financial security by calculatedly killing off her discarded identities. This has required tacitly permitting the killing of her eldest daughter, who could not let her mother go.

Roxana is spiritually discomfited by her daughter’s fate. But I had the feeling material comfort mattered more to her. Roxana has the ‘I will prevail and survive at all costs’ tenacity I aspired to over the following decade of my life.

Day 4: The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967). I already knew Alan Garner through The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and Elidor (1965) when I first read The Owl Service at about age 10 or 11. Those first two books I bracketed as a sub-genre with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which I adored, and Elidor scared me: I had as yet no idea how extraordinarily scary Alan Garner’s writing would become, with Red Shift (1973), one of the most disturbing reading experiences of my life, then, much later, Boneland (2012), the belated completion of the Weirdstone trilogy.

I read The Owl Service the summer the 1969/70 BBC TV adaptation went out (delayed I think in Australia). I was girl-crushing on the actress who played Alison, Gillian Hills. The Owl Service is a contemporary take on an episode from the Welsh mythological cycle The Mabinogion, in which a wizard fashions a woman from flowers, then is driven to murderous rage when she loves another man, and turns her instead into a night predator owl.

This is the episode of The Mabinogion that was to be the centerpiece of my MA thesis (on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature). I think my love for The Mabinogion, and for Garner, links to my love for the novels of David Mitchell, who in his fantastical, speculative novels (The Bone Clocks) wraps witty, confident homages to many writers of British myth and fantasy whom we both admire.

In this past year I have had DNA tests done. While my father’s DNA is almost wholly Connacht Irish, and my mother and my sister have extremely similar profiles heavy on the Yorkshire-Pennines region and Scandinavia, it turns out my DNA is predominantly Welsh and West Midlands. Yes, I feel like a changeling. When I saw my DNA results, one of my first thoughts was: Ah yes – my affinity for Welsh myth and for Alan Garner’s tales. Ah, yes.

Day 5: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1992). Hilary Mantel is best known for her Man-Booker Prize winning Tudor novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bringing Up The Bodies (2012). This is the unpublished novel in a drawer that piggybacked on the critical success of her fourth published book, Fludd (1989). Mantel says she started writing A Place of Greater Safety for her own satisfaction, to write the historical novel she wished to read, and that she researched it obsessively, right down to the actual wallpapers and décor, using the historical characters’ actual words wherever possible. The New York Times critic speculated whether, “more novel and less history might not better suit this author’s unmistakable talent.”

The New York Times critic is mistaken.

A Place of Greater Safety is an extraordinary reading experience, a fully-realised world like a Tolstoy novel. It’s a remarkable, immersive evocation of how it might have been to be a major player living though the French Revolution – to be Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton or Maximilien Robespierre, although of course it’s incorrect to describe these epoch-making actors as “living through” the experience.

One of my close friends in high school studied the Enlightenment at university. “Les philosophes”, she told me, breezily. I, a rock music writer at the time, felt humbled. I knew next to nothing about the French Revolution. I remember reading about it in primary school and earnestly telling my French-speaking headmistress I was reading about “Rob-ess-perry”. After reading A Place of Greater Safety, I felt I understood more about the genesis of democracy as it’s understood in America, and about modern politics. I was also astonished to find I’d fallen in love, just a little, with a character dead more than 200 years, re-presented in fiction. Mantel’s Camille Desmoulins is, to my mind, one of the greatest re-animations in literature.

Day 6: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003). My psychologist asked me if I’d read this book. I was wary. Why would she ask? Lionel Shriver, a female novelist, is a provocateur. The propositions for some of her novels are deliberately perverse and confrontational: Malthusianism and racism (Game Control, 1994); rivalry between a couple within marriage (Double Fault, 1996); family inheritances (A Perfectly Nice Family, 1997); obesity and self-control (Big Brother, 2013); capitalism’s meltdown (The Mandibles, 2016). In We Need To Talk About Kevin, she addresses motherhood, maternal instinct, and high school shooters. If a mother is convinced, from the outset, her baby is a psychopath, can it be her instincts are correct, or is she cursing that child’s development, determining its fate? In either case, can she be held accountable? What are the costs to such a mother? To the child? To society?

We Need To Talk About Kevin made a splash on publication and has only become more salient since. In 2005 it was filmed with Tilda Swinton playing the mother, who in the novel is of Armenian extraction. Tilda was brilliant, I’m told. Me, I can’t go past the novel’s image of a mother gazing through the rear window of a car at the bright police lights outside a school in lock down.

Day 7: So many great books, so few to be name-checked within seven days! I didn’t mean to focus as much as I have on books I read when very young. But with just one book choice left, the one book I need to include is a children’s novel from 1958 – Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, which I think I read in 1970 at about age 10. I re-read it recently. I cried, again.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is, as many of my childhood favourites were, a novel about childhood loneliness. Also, as with several of my childhood favourites, a novel about time travel, or ghosting across time.

The best of the ‘ghosts’-in-time novels is in my opinion Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. But that’s a novel for grown-ups, about the ugliness of addiction (really – the medieval romance is a McGuffin).

At 10 (thereabouts), I encountered three time travel ‘ghosts’ who left their imprints on me. Lexie in Nan Chauncy’s Tangara (1960) is linked in time with Merrina, an Indigenous Tasmanian, and witnesses the extermination of Merrina’s community. Penelope in Alison Uttley’s A Traveller In Time (1939) ‘ghosts’ back in time to C16th Derbyshire, befriending a boy named Francis, becoming embroiled in the Babington Plot, a Papist plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is a gentler affair.

Pearce’s character Tom ‘ghosts’ back to a late Victorian garden on the grounds of a large country house, where he befriends another lonely child, Hatty. Hatty and Tom form a relationship that transcends time. But while Tom remains a child, each time he visits the midnight garden Hatty has grown incrementally older. Each time he visits, the fabric of his being in this other world becomes slightly more translucent, slightly less material, until, after one wonderful day where the two skate on a frozen river towards Ely Cathedral, he effectively evaporates, as Hatty moves towards her adult life.

But, as they say, love never dies. A child is heard crying in a hallway. A name is called. Eyes are opened. Eyes fill with tears.

I think this is a novel about cross-generational love, and change, and loss, and love recovered, love as a legacy. I think this is a novel about love.


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Review: Educated (2018) by Tara Westover

Tara Westover is a remarkable person who has written a remarkable book.

I love this book, and I don’t want to put it down, literally or figuratively.

But it must be said upfront:-

It’s a story America wants to hear:

A story of self-invention, of pulling oneself up by one’s boot-straps, of education as deliverance, of the individual as hero.

A story about a back-country girl whose remorseless pluck earns her our admiration – Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), as Ree Dolly (Winter’s Bone), as Joy in the eponymous movie Joy. It’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

A story currently in the Zeitgeist – three books I’ve blogged about recently, Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, and, most of all, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, are all kissin’ cousins to this narrative.

It’s John Stuart Mill meets Ben Franklin by way of Abe Lincoln and the backwoods lawyer tradition.

It’s contemporary feminism and #MeToo entwined with the narratives of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons.

It is America as America wishes: a struggle to be birthed, a struggle to break free, a triumphant claiming of independence.

The narrative as retold by Tara Westover is straightforward:

A girl (a warrior child, an Arya Stark) is the youngest of seven children (omg! A Snow White nod!), born to a young Mormon couple who live on a small-holding on a mountainside in Idaho. The father, who in her book she calls Gene (most of the family are assigned pseudonyms), was an idealistic and somewhat odd young man when he married, who has become seriously odd across the years. He believes fervently that the End Days are imminent.

He’s not alone in this in his neck of the woods. The notorious Ruby Ridge shootings in 1992 took place on another mountainside in that Idaho neighborhood, with FBI agents wounding another mountain father, killing his son, his wife and his baby (held in its mother’s arms). Ruby Ridge was a formative experience for Tara Westover and her siblings, and a turning point in their parents’ radical rejection of mainstream values.

Tara’s father’s mission is to stockpile food, weapons and all essentials to ensure his family are sheltered and protected when the world as we know it collapses, soon. He believes government is the agent of doom. He believes his family, as best possible, must be kept ‘off the grid’, under the radar of government oversight.

To this end, he pulls his older children out of school very young and prevents his younger children from attending school. Ever. He refuses to register the births of his younger children. Officially, the younger children, Tara included, do not exist. They could die on that mountainside and no-one would ever know they had lived.

And the odds are ever in favour of their premature deaths.

The father earns a living doing freelance construction work and picking scrap metal from the junk heap that threatens to smother his mountain. He has the older children work on his construction jobs and the younger children work alongside him in the junk heap. He does not believe in OH&S. He does not believe in what most of us might consider common-sense safety precautions. He tells his children there are angels watching over them so they won’t be killed. When they suffer serious injuries, he says see? Angels watch over you. Otherwise you’d have been dead.

When they suffer serious injuries, as they do, with terrifying frequency, the father refuses all medical care. He does not believe in conventional medicine, or doctors, or hospitals. He insists his wife trains with an unqualified rural midwife then, despite the wife’s aversion to midwifery, he insists she become the local midwife practitioner. After she suffers a serious head injury and her ability to monitor births is impaired, he insists she develop her herbal remedies practice. This has the unexpected side effect of founding a commercially successfully botanicals empire, marketed largely on the back of claims that the father’s life was saved solely by herbals after he turned himself into a human torch, in an accidental involving a blow-torch and a petrol tank.

By the time her parents become wealthy local employers and gurus of natural cures, Tara is long gone.

After failed attempts to convince her father to permit her to attend school, eventually as a teen she goes to great lengths to secure a “late issue” birth certificate – complicated by the fact various records show various birthdates – and, with the help of her brother Tyler, is able to gain entry to Brigham Young University, the Mormon college, claiming she’s been home schooled.

Tara’s “home schooling” was a nonsense. She swots like a teenager obsessed (as she is) to pass the entrance exam for college. She teaches herself algebra and calculus from scratch, with some help from Tyler. When she arrives at college, she has never heard of the genre “short story”. Her teachers remark that she writes well but in a stilted, wordy style; a consequence of learning from the Bible and the writings of the Mormon patriarchs.

Worse, in her early lectures she is handicapped by not recognizing Europe is a continent, not a nation, and humiliated when she puts her hand up to ask what this word in the photo captions means – “Holocaust”?

“Very funny,” snaps backs her lecturer, without looking up.

Predictably, Tara fails her first exams. But, she persists. By working through the nights, by mid-year she achieves the perfect score she needs to win a scholarship to fund her studies.

Tara is not doing so well socially, either. She hasn’t been taught basic hygiene. She is ashamed to speak about her home and her family. She seeks counselling, and finds an ally in the local Mormon bishop. He attempts to direct her to government grants, but her father’s teachings are embedded: the government is Satan; financial assistance is Satan’s lure. The bishop attempts to loan her money from the church. Tara is adamant: that money is intended for other purposes. In exasperation, the bishop attempts to lend her money from his own pocket.

Tara does accept a fellowship to join a select group of students from Brigham Young to spend several months at Cambridge University in England. There, she experiences a whole new order of social inadequacy. (My grandfather was one of the first working-class scholarship boys to Cambridge. I know enough about his experiences to wince for Tara Westover.) But, once more, she impresses her academic supervisers, one of whom becomes a valuable mentor (which does not IMHO excuse his patronising remark about stepping straight into George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion).

Subsequently this superviser champions her application as a Cambridge/Harvard PhD student.

Here’s where I got really, REALLY interested.

Tara, whose family keep insisting she should be with them, should live like them, should work alongside them, chooses to do her PhD on family obligation, as examined in the doctrines of four influential American nineteenth-century social and/or intellectual movements, including Mormonism. What would I not give to read that thesis!

Throughout her college career, Westover constantly has to push back against her parents attempting to bring her back home. When they visit her, it’s to convince her she’s suffering demonic possession and only they can cure her. When she does visit them, she is redeployed back in that lethal junk yard, which keeps spreading.

Worse, when Tara revisits home, she comes into conflict with her older brother Shawn (a pseudonym), the black sheep of the family turned prodigal son, who at an earlier time in their relationship was her protector and special friend, but who turned to violent abuse of Tara once Tara reached puberty.

Tara is not alone is suffering abuse from Shawn. His girlfriends, then his young wife, are also abused. But the young wife excuses her husband’s behavior on the grounds Shawn is special in the eyes of God, and therefore subjected to greater temptation than regular folks, and Shawn is his father’s right hand man in the construction business, and has his father’s unequivocal support, so the family collude in silence about Shawn’s violent outbursts.

Westover writes that her rupture from the family circle was not brought about by her insistence on education (although her father does attempt to exorcise her while she’s at Harvard), but by her speaking out about Shawn’s abuse.

Despite what seemed to Tara some initial qualified support from her mother, and a false feint from the sister she calls Audrey, Tara remains estranged from all her immediate family except the two elder brothers who themselves achieved tertiary qualifications – not coincidentally, the only two family members who are not financially dependent on the parent family business. A third older brother is apparently sympathetic but is employed as the business manager and is not in contact with her.

For Tara Westover, the costs of self-actualisation have been steep.

When Westover was first at Cambridge, she identified her special interest area as historiography – the study of how histories come to be recorded, how primary materials are translated through the preconceptions and biases of those who interpret them for contemporary readers. This understanding is built into her memoir project. Westover writes very carefully, sometimes as if for a legal disposition. Unsurprisingly, her publishers had her manuscript exhaustively fact-checked.

Westover showed drafts of the manuscript to her brothers Tyler and Richard, and to extended family members such as aunts and uncles, and invited their input ahead of publication. In parts of the published text she acknowledges directly how others reported or recalled specific incidents. At the back of the book, there is a kind of appendix, where she lists incidents where others’ recall differs from her own, and where she has not been able to accommodate the differences in perception in the body of her text. This is the professional historian at work.

The final sentence of that appendix is especially poignant.

There’s a school of thought, based on neuroscience, that argues memory is essentially fiction, that the memories we choose to retain and to recall construct a selective history, and are highly amorphous, malleable. Westover discusses the nature of memory but more particularly she addresses the mechanisms of what feminists call ‘gaslighting’ – trying to convince people that their apprehension of reality, their own perceptions, are mistaken. Gaslighting is a technique of manipulation.

Tara struggled with counter-narratives – that is, people saying she misrecollected, or that she lied maliciously. She fought hard to have confidence in her account of her own history. The price of being accepted back into the bosom of the family she loves would be to admit she was wrong and to repent.

Yet, she persists.

Afternote:

Tara Westover states at the start of her book that she is not attacking Mormonism. She says, in effect, her parents are crazy not because they are Mormon but are instead Mormons who just happen to be crazy.

I was reminded, reading Westover’s account, of Martha Beck’s memoir Leaving The Saints: How I lost the Mormons and Found My Faith (2006), which tells of Beck’s belief that she had been abused as a child in quasi-religious rituals by her grandfather, a prominent Mormon elder. I liked Beck as a columnist and agony aunt (Oprah magazine), but I found her memoir a difficult read, partly because the tone seemed to me hysterical and the nature of the alleged abuse implausible, which may be unfair. The contrast in tone between Beck and Westover, and changes in publishing practice since Beck’s memoir was published which ensured comprehensive fact-checking of Westover’s memoir, seem to me to lend credibility to Westover’s account.

Myself, I am not a Mormon.


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Eulogy for my father Pt.2 – one year on

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My father died a year ago this week. He died on my parents’ bed, at his home, with his head propped against my solar plexus, supported by my crossed legs, as I stroked his arms. At the bottom of the bed our family was arrayed: my sister, my mother, my brother-in-law – my brother-in-law attendant throughout.

My father labored some hours to die, spewing black bile in repeated bouts.

“Tastes bad,” he murmured.

“Amazing how hard the body holds on to life,” my brother-in-law said, quietly.

After my father’s body gave up, I checked under his jaw for a pulse, checked my finger under his nostril for breath. I scooped the black bile out of his mouth and throat with a damp washcloth, cleaned his teeth and gums, before the palliative nurse, who we’d met just once, the previous day, arrived belatedly.

“I forgive you everything you’ve ever done wrong, for this,” my sister told me.

That’s how it was.

I wrote my father’s eulogy two days before he died.

After I delivered my eulogy at his commemorative celebration, a packed event at a local community hall, I realized I’d left out something important.

I talked about my father’s sense of humour, his way with words, his way with people. I talked in code about what an argumentative cuss he could be, a dinner table bigot. I talked about his vast curiosity. I talked about how much we loved him, and how much he loved our mother.

I left out something so obvious it blinds me: I left out my father the carer.

When my father was diagnosed with advanced, untreatable pancreatic cancer 11 weeks before his death, his immediate response was ‘So now would be a good time to buy a new car?”

He bought a new car the next day, for my mother. The car she’d been using, the one with seats that were too low, he instructed should be for my use.

When his GP responded he wished all his patients were like my dad, Dad laughed “What, dying?”

Expecting to live six weeks or less, my father spent the next weeks immersed in ensuring financial and administrative matters were in order, that the family would be cared for.

He could barely eat, just crackers, tea and packet soup. He ate a stale Cherry Ripe. Then he hunched over a garden border bed and threw up, painful retching that raised his shoulders, thin strains of pink-strewn chocolate residue. I stood close by his side with my hands soothing his back.

When he was finished, when he straightened, he whispered to me, “That’s what I did for my Mum.”

He held bowls to his mother’s lips as she threw up, dying of cancer.

My father lived twice as long as expected after diagnosis. His mother held on for four years. My father was at university in Melbourne when his mother was first diagnosed. He thrived in Melbourne. He had close friends and exciting prospects. He was doing some tutoring, some teaching at his old boarding college. He had offers of work abroad for foreign governments, offers of postgrad study.

Instead, he returned to the country town where his parents lived, where they lived somewhat unhappily together, on the border of South Australia and Victoria. His parents lived with his sister and his mother’s sister, who kept house and nursed his mother.

He helped nursed his mother and he worked in his father’s shop.

Every weekend, as soon as he knocked off work at the shop, he leapt in his 1950s jalopy and drove as fast as he could – which was fast – to Melbourne. A bit over five hours. There he went on pub-crawls with his mates and bet at the racetracks. Then Sunday night he drove the 430km back to Mount Gambier.

After his mother died, after he’d married my mother, moved to Brisbane, had two infants, my mother would complain about him staying out late after work playing cards with his mates. I don’t know how frequent this was. I do know that before I was 18 months old we’d moved to Mount Gambier, stayed at his parents’ house, then moved to Adelaide, where we lived the next 11 years. Every couple of weeks my father would drive to Mount Gambier – about 5 hours, about 430km – to spend a weekend with his father and his disabled older sister, taking care of what needed taking care of.

Which was a lot. My grandfather had glaucoma and was blind. My father’s much-older sister had crippled legs and cognitive impairment, a legacy of polio in about 1920 compounded by some illness undetermined: meningitis, encephalitis, Murray River Fever. Something fearful.

Their house was huge, built in 1910. Maintenance was massive.

When it was obvious my grandfather and my aunt could no longer manage there, obvious even to my grandfather and my aunt, my father bought them a smaller house a street away. He arranged the sale of the big house. He fought court battles when the sale fell through and he stood accused by the erstwhile buyer of misrepresentation (the buyer claimed Dad had filled the bathtub with books, so the buyer couldn’t see the poor condition of the tub).

My parents, my sister and I were now living in Melbourne. When my grandfather had cancer and was dying, my father drove up and down that highway constantly. He was due the evening my grandfather died. Freak thunderstorms lit up lurid skies. My father decided it wasn’t safe to drive, better the next day. My grandfather lay in his bed in his new home and kept asking, “When will Angus be here?”

In his last days my father confided he was certain his father’s longtime doctor had given him a morphine overdose that last night, at my grandfather’s request, the both of them expecting my father to arrive for the death.

My father felt he’d failed his dad.

After his father’s death, my father bought a small house a short walk from the home where he’d retired with my mother and moved his sister in there. He supported her living in that house until she needed round the clock care. No facility was willing to take her – “special needs” – so he donated generously till a local aged care home relented.

When she died, he cried. He released yellow balloons at her funeral. He said, “That’s over. The Great Obligation.”

My father financially supported his mother’s sister, who’d nursed his mother through her dying years and remained to keep house after my father married and moved to Brisbane. He ensured his aunt could continue to live independently, in her own flat, through to her death.

I believe he provided some financial support for others in his father’s 11 siblings’ families.

When my mother’s mother died and her father went the full King Lear, my father provided what care he could. When others in our family periodically went mad over the next decades, he supported us.

When I struggled financially, which is to say, my late 20s, early 30s, and pretty much always past age 40, my father played pater familias and ensured I was not homeless. I resented that mightily.

When I had bouts of depression after his death, when I thought life tasted sour, my sister said, “You can’t check out. Not after all the effort he put into keeping you alive.”

Fair point.

Here is the eulogy I didn’t deliver, the eulogy to my father, the carer.

Thank you for my life.

Angus with Elly


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On being dehumanised – Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning, and the Gippsland Massacres

This piece is respectfully dedicated to the elders and descendants of the Indigenous peoples of the lands now known as Victoria and South Australia. I apologize sincerely on behalf of my own ancestors for the wrongs my ancestors committed against the Indigenous people they encountered in this country now known as Australia. I apologize sincerely for the wrongs the people of my heritage, Anglo-Celts, continued – and continue – to commit against the people of Australian Aboriginal heritage.

I hope in this piece it does not appear that I conflate the sufferings inflicted on the Indigenous people of Australia with the sufferings experienced by the emigrants from Scotland and Ireland who are my ancestors.

It is not my intention to do that.

Indigenous_survivors

My intention is to look at aspects of my own heritage I have not previously considered, with reference to two powerful pieces of writing I read today: a letter written in southeastern Australia in 1846 by a squatter (landholder) Henry Meyrick, to his relatives back home in England; and a novel by the Irish writer Paul Lynch, titled Red Sky in Morning.

Henry Meyrick wrote:

The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging … For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog, but no consideration on earth would induce me to ride into a camp and fire on them indiscriminately, as is the custom whenever the smoke is seen. They [the Aboriginal people] will very shortly be extinct. It is impossible to say how many have been shot, but I am convinced that not less than 450 have been murdered altogether.

Ref Gippsland Settlers and the Kurnai Dead – Patrick Morgan – Quadrant Magazine Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.

I read this appalling testimony today, the same day I read Paul Lynch’s novel, which, I think, centrally addresses these questions: how do we distinguish humans from animals; how and in what circumstances do some people privilege themselves as ‘human’ and reduce others to the status of ‘animals’; and, what are the consequences of some declaring themselves ‘human’ by denouncing others as ‘animal’?

What are the inter-generational consequences?

Massacre_of_Aboriginal_people

My father, who died last year at age 85, took pride in being part of history:

You see, my great-grandfather would now be 215 years old [born 1802], my grandfather would be 175 [born 1842], and my father would be 127 [born 1890] and my mother 125 [born 1892]. Even my sister would be 105 [born 1912]. […] All four of my grandparents had died long before I was born but because of this my parents told me a great deal about them and anecdotes of life in their time, including voyages by sailing ship from Great Britain, the goldrushes, Ned Kelly and the life of 12 kids on a 160 acre farm, floods, droughts, bushfires, horse-drawn vehicles and all.

My father’s grandfather arrived in the colony of South Australia in 1841 and made his way to the colony of Victoria, where he farmed land in central-west Victoria. My father passed on one anecdote only about the local Aboriginal peoples. He told me that his uncles – eight of whom survived childhood – who taught him to hunt and shoot, and whom he loved, practiced target shooting using the skulls of native people, set up as targets along fence posts.

I don’t know where these skulls were obtained. Presumably from Indigenous burial sites. Every thing about my father’s anecdote distresses me.

So what do I know, or think I know, really, about how my line of McDonalds came to be in Victoria, shooting at Aboriginal skulls?

In 1822 a girl was born in County Galway, Ireland, possibly to Luke Cavanagh and Mary Malone, but maybe not, and she was named Mary Jane. In about 1840 Mary Jane emigrated to Adelaide, in the young colony of South Australia, possibly travelling with a younger brother. There Mary married a man named Beresford, who worked felling timber on an estate called Burnside – neighboring the suburb where I grew up – and who died within the year. Beresford had a workmate named John McDonald. There were McDonalds in the neighborhood in Galway Mary might have come from, so possibly this John McDonald was someone she knew from home, or his family was known to her. Or perhaps, as his descendants believed, John McDonald hailed from southwest Scotland. We’ll probably never know. There were several John McDonalds who arrived in Australia in 1841 and whose known paths intersect with each other, confusing their tracks.

For certain, Mary Cavanagh married a John McDonald in 1841 in Adelaide and they had their first child, John, in 1842. This John is without doubt my great-grandfather.

In other respects there is doubt aplenty.

Mary Jane apparently had nine sons and three daughters with John McDonald between 1842 and 1858. A Mary Jane Cavanagh died on 8 October 1894 in Geelong, Victoria, at the age of 72. However… something is not right. There were twins, and twins in several generations of this line, but it still seems unlikely the same Mary Cavanagh had three children all born in 1858 and two children born 1851. My family’s research turned up a marriage certificate showing our Mary Cavanagh married John McDonald born 1802, whereas other amateur genealogy trees show her married to John McDonald born 1832 or 1835, which doesn’t make sense, given he’d be a child in 1841. It looks possible that somewhere, two or more Mary Cavanaghs and two or more John McDonalds have been elided.

It’s very unlikely that ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh died in Geelong. My father believed he knew his grandmother’s place of burial, in central western Victoria, but my father is dead. The main arguments in favour of ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh being the daughter of Luke and Mary and the mother of the named children is that the children include some with ‘family names’ that recur throughout our family tree: Donald, Angus, Annie, John, Archibald, James (Jim).

Does it matter?

We can’t know what kind of a person Mary Cavanagh was or why she emigrated.

I have always felt it was enough to say I cannot know and leave it at that. But in this past week I’ve read two novels by Paul Lynch that have made me rethink the Irish side of my heritage. The first, Grace, tells a story of the Great Hunger, the Great Potato Famine of 1845-46.

The second, which in fact was written prior to Grace (Grace is a kind of sequel), is the book I read today that shook me up so much.

Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning tells a story of a man named Coll Coyle who is born in County Donegal, just north of Mary Cavanagh’s home County Galway, and who in 1832 flees to America after accidentally killing his landlord’s son.

Coll’s story is fiction, but the climactic sequence and other elements are based on fact. The climactic sequence is a massacre: humans regarded as animals, slaughtered.

Henry Meyrick writes of the Aboriginal people that “No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are”. Coll’s is another tale of a human being, in this case an Irishman, hunted down with unsparing perseverance, derided as an animal by his pursuer, the landlord’s right-hand man Faller.

Did you know […] the Irish never founded a town? Never founded a town. I bet you didn’t. But it’s true. The Danes and the Normans came here and cut down your forests. They founded on those clearings every single Irish town that exists. Had to build them themselves. Dublin, Wexford, Wicklow, Limerick, Cork. You’ve got the Danes to thank for all of that. […]

The Danes and the Normans they built your roads too. The Irish never founded a road. Imagine that. Thousands of years of trudging in the rain and the mud, back and forth, to and fro, in your bare feet, up to your knees in cow shit. It must have been slow going on your primitive roads. And nobody not once thought of making a road. You had to be helped with that too, didn’t you? […]

Not that you knew much about building either. You lived in your bothies made of clay and branches. You lived like that for thousands of years. But you could hardly call that living now could you […]? You had to be shown how to secure a proper roof over your heads. What I’m saying about all this is that you needed guidance.

[…] you have to wonder what the Irish were doing all those years. Imagine. What a state you would be in if left to your own devices. You really do have to think about that. To think of the advancement of the amenities of life. Well. I’ll tell you what you were doing […]. You were standing in the rain up to your oxters in cow shit. The world pissing on your heads. Huddling in your dank forests. Squirming about in your little wooden huts. Stealing each other’s cows then murdering each other for it. It’s not what you would call civilization is it […]?

The old man Faller is addressing says “What’s all that talk about? You’re as much from this place as any man. Not a drop of foreign blood in ye.”

Faller put his hands flat on the table and leaned into Ranty.

I’m not like you, he said.

I don’t think like you.

In truth, he does not.

A short while later Faller kills a man he repeatedly refers to as a “rat”, as vermin. He kicks a girl who he sneers is a “mamzer” (a Biblical term for outcast, the unclean product of incest). She should count herself lucky she lives. Almost no one who crosses Faller’s path lives.

In another short while Faller forces a crippled beggar to dance like an organ grinder’s monkey. He kills a man and orders the body fed to sheep.

Faller justifies killing two undefended women by saying

Let me tell you something […]. People aren’t people. They are animals, brutes, blind and stupid and following endless needs they know not what the origin. And all the rest that we place on top to make us feel better is a delusion.

In extremis, “Faller became at one with the beast” – by “beast” Lynch means requisitioned horse, but he might as well mean the Devil, the Great Beast. Faller is satanic. He is inhuman. As Coll’s bereft wife reflects, “Not everyone has the kindness in them.”

Encountering a loving, religious family who offer hospitality, help tend his injuries and promise to help him on his way next morning, Faller can only consider the husband and father “a very troublesome creature”. When bounty hunters trap him in the farmer’s home, he holds the family hostage, then uses the small daughter as a human shield, flinging her towards the bullets.

Is ‘Faller’ a reference to ‘Fallen’, or ‘Falling’, as in Lucifer?

Faller has a Darwinian dog eat dog philosophy. He lives to exert dominance, most particularly the power of life or death (mostly death). Cornered, he philosophizes

I’ll tell you, there’s always an agency more powerful than your own. Think about that. The terrible beauty of it. How it lies there unseen waiting for you. Every fate, every life, every story swallowed by forces greater […]

The man listening views Faller as a dangerous animal. He responds

But you know I spend a lot of my time on my own thinking betwixt me and the saddle and I ain’t come up with much but I did come up with this – the difference between a man and a beast is we’re able to imagine the future and they’re not. But what makes us no better than em is we cain’t predict it.

While Faller kills his way on his remorseless quest – like the Terminator, like a sociopathic Javert – Coll Coyle, the hunted quarry, barely one stumble ahead, faces shock after shock of life-threatening situations, and faces them like, dare one say, a man. A good man.

Irish_immigrants

He endures many weeks at sea in squalid conditions on the emigrant boat to New York. He helps nurse his companions through a lethal fever that kills scores of fellow passengers, their corpses swollen with bloat turfed overboard. He spares the life of a deranged young man who tries to kill him. He joins his compatriots in signing up with an Irishman in New York called Duffy who promises they’ll be well-fed and paid fairly if they work cutting down a mountain to make way for a railway at a site known to history as Duffy’s Cut.

Duffy’s Cut turns into a gulch of hell: “In the days that follow they begin to work not like men but beasts […] They burrowed into the surface like animals taking flight from some sluggish danger […]”

Transcontinental_railroad_workers

Transcontinental railroad workers in America

On a journey to Philadelphia for supplies, Coll and his mate the Cutter

[…] decided they wanted a drink. A place called the Bull’s Head Tavern and they opened tentatively the door. Card players with clean faces and suits and they stopped their game to eye the two strangers. A man coughed and they thought they heard him say dirty Irish and they felt they were being watched. The Cutter clanked coins on the counter and waved a grubby hand and ordered two drinks but the barman turned away from them […]

Coll and the Cutter are refused service at the Bull’s Head Tavern and, when they attempt to journey back to Duffy’s Cut, they’re run out of the district by a local posse.

Git walking. Up thataways. He pointed to the road. […] The men mounted their horses and followed closequarters.

Coll and the Cutter are marched back to Duffy’s Cut by the mounted gunmen, who see at the encampment dead and sick men. Cholera has broken out at Duffy’s Cut –

[…] their minds went wild with the thought of disease and they put their sleeves to their mouths to protect them from the air and they turned their horses one-handed and fled.

At the encampment, some of the workers feel their best chance is to leave while they still can. But now the horsemen know the Irishmen carry cholera fever, and it’s already too late. A man called Maurice walks away only to be dumped back at the camp entrance by a local horseman.

The men stood up and walked over to where he had stopped and they saw that he had left a body. It lay face down in the dirt noosed about the neck and Chalky turned it over with his toe. The man’s complexion was scratched raw and teeth were broken and gums were bleeding and they saw it was the body of Maurice. Beneath the blood his lips were grey and his eyelids brown and his extremities dark with his own faecal matter. The men stood stunned and the blacksmith wandered slowly over and he looked at the body. […] Coyle watched him and walked over. What in the hell?, he said.

Again the blacksmith sighed. There’s people about who’d like you lot to keep to your own, he said. That’s just the way it is. And he turned and led the mule away.

Coll, once again, nurses the sick, tries to do the right thing by the dying and dead. He enlists his remaining companions to load the sick up on a mule cart. They attempt to leave Duffy’s Cut as a group.

The mounted gunmen stop them.

Not another step I tell you, the leader said. Take yer sickness back down with you where you belong and not a damn sight near the good folk from round here families and all. You lot are staying put in the valley and if you think you aren’t hell will come paying. You hear me? I tell you. Pack of diseased dogs.

In the minds of the locals, the Irishmen have ceased to be human. In a short while, the encampment is overrun by men with guns who shoot down ever last Irish soul.

The way Paul Lynch imagines this massacre left me gasping.

DuffysCutHistMarker

I took to google to look up Duffy’s Cut on Wiki:

Duffy’s Cut is the name given to a stretch of railroad tracks about 30 miles west of PhiladelphiaUnited States, originally built for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. The line later became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad‘s Main Line. Railroad contractor Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrants to lay this line through the area’s densely wooded hills and ravines. The workers came to Philadelphia from the Ulster counties of DonegalTyrone and Derry to work in Pennsylvania’s nascent railroad industry. Less than two months after their arrival, all 57 are believed to have died during the second cholera pandemic. While most died of the disease, forensic evidence suggests that some may have been murdered, perhaps due to fear of contagion […].

I know that when Gaelic-speaking Scottish highlander emigrants arrived in the colony of Victoria, they were considered by the English settlers to be savages, and were penned up on arrival in camps in central Victoria until they could be ‘habituated’.

I know my forebears, both Irish and Scottish, were Gaelic-speakers.

I do not for one moment propose that the ways the Irish and the Scots who emigrated to the colonies had been dispossessed and mistreated in their home lands justifies their treatment of Indigenous people in Australia.

But I can’t help but relate the conditions of the subjected Irish and the Scots dispossessed in the Clearances with Henry Meyrick’s lines

For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog […]

Remorse did not extend far.

Highland_Scots_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Highland Scots