Children have an instinct for sweetness When young nectarines sprouted From the young nectarine tree My goblin sister and I ate them greedily All of them The fallen and the barely freed from budding They knifed our bellies What’s wrong with them My mother cried Meaning us, her children She was so helpless We were such shits Rolling round Like nectarine pits Suffering from surfeit Suffering for sweet
In 1984 I wrote a poem I called ‘Tidal’ and submitted it to several publications simultaneously, as was my practice. (The odds against a poem being accepted were low and editorial decison-making was slow.) All four journals published it. How embarrassing.
‘Tidal’ was a love poem to my dad. My dad across that period spent hours fossicking on the rockpools at the local beach, looking for shards of willow-plate and fragments of other ceramics lost in C19th shipwrecks.
His pose bending over the rockpools reminded me of a framed print in his parents’ house, the house where he’d grown up, a famous Edwardian image of a woman beachcombing. (Dad named a later home ‘Beachcomber’.)
In ‘Tidal’, I combined that image with the image of my father seeking, seeking… and merged that with the image of his parents on their wedding day, his mother, Edie Gibson, looking young and lush. A Gibson girl.
Two years later, in 1986, I wrote ‘Father and Child’, a deliberate echo of ‘Tidal’, this time the love between father and daughter rather than son and mother. Both have an erotic charge in the last line, intentionally evoked by reference to touch.
‘Father and Child’ was written as an technical exercise, a conscious attempt at a ‘happy’, “life affirming” poem. But I wasn’t happy with it. My father seldom talked about his mother or his parents’ relationship, which I knew was violent. So I wrote the poem ‘Wedding Photo’, about a battered bride, at much the same time. There’s an earlier poem, ‘Mad Edie’, also about, duh, Edie.
(I knew my grandfather’s feelings for Edie were tender, too. As he lay dying, he told 15 y.o. me that I looked just like 14 y.o. Edie as he first met her.)
At the same time as ‘Wedding Photo’ and ‘Father and Child’ I wrote a poem I called ‘Possums’ about someone I’d trusted who turned into a goblin. It was a poem about emotional violence and fear.
That suite of poems put paid to my poem writing for a few decades. A bit before I wrote my first poems in 25 years, my sister took a portrait photo of me as a kind of water spirit / earth goddess. The Gibson Girl of ‘Tidal’ turned full circle.
I’ve written before about a day at poet Dorothy Hewett’s place where I overshared about my maternal grandparents (not Edie and Angus) and Dorothy turned to her husband and said: “How gothic.”
My sister spontaneously confided similar thoughts last week: “Both our grandfathers were so gothic. One lived in Miss Haversham’s house, the other was King Lear.”
So what’s this about? Honestly, I’m over people assuming they know what or whom I wrote about. Those people don’t know the names of the people who mattered most to me. It’s just a bit ‘You’re So Vain’. I bet you think this song is about you.
But you know what? Even if the song *were* about you, I own my experiences and memories. And anyone who feels otherwise can climb a rat’s arse.
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.
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?
‘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.
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”.
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…
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
Founding editor, RAM Magazine
Pics sourced online – on the right, cropped from a photograph by Bob King, in a blog post by Debbie Kruger
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.
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.”
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 – portrait of the artist as a White Female?
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:
The hysterical tone and narrative content.
Cultural appropriation and pastiche.
How to end the narrative.
So, some thoughts on those points.
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 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.
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.
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 AlisonUttley’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.
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.
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.
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.”
Here is the eulogy I didn’t deliver, the eulogy to my father, the carer.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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 Philadelphia, United 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 Ulstercounties of Donegal, Tyrone 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 […]
I finally read Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things [which subsequently won the 2016 Stella Prize for “Writing by Australian women”].
I liked the opening sequences and the final section; some of the middle sagged a bit. It’s not an easy novel to like – stylistically sometimes too gothic for my palate (the Ransom doll) and ideologically hardline. Even as an unabashed feminist I found myself squeaking “But I like men!”. Which is beside the point in a schematically rigorous parable like this.
It was very similar, thematically, to the novella I wrote mid-2012: women forcibly interred in a kind of prison camp run by men, subjected to humiliations intended to enforce the “natural way of things”, with femaleness seen as abject and subject to male controls. I liked my opening sequences, too, but my draft backed my heroine into a muddy pit and I could not devise a way to extract her. Eventually I edited it into a short story, which worked better.
Charlotte Wood has set hers in a distinctively Australian environment, anchored by Australian references (notorious true crimes perpetrated against individual women and generic misogynist scenarios), whereas mine was set in a land of fable with lots of east Asian elements. Also mine was as much a lashing out at corporate culture… oops, so is Charlotte’s.
Charlotte’s novel stayed in my mind and I remember it now, precisely two years later (to the day), with more appreciation than I felt at the time. Also, I thank her for this:
I’m thinking I might reactivate one or both of my blogs, Elly McDonald Writer and Telling Tales. Maybe I’ll import the content of one into the other and just retain one [which is what I did]. Last time I was writing memoir pieces that sent me into a tailspin of depression. Enough of that. Not sure what I’d write about at this point.
Turns out I write about gender politics and violence, for now.
Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing early in their marriage
The eye of the storm is a locked bedroom: it stinks, drug paraphernalia and littered clothes strewn about, drug dealers’ phone numbers penned on the walls. At the very centre is someone who is now dead.
That much is common to many drug tragedies. Flung from the storm’s centre are children, four of them, primary school aged. Clutching for the children are adults, siblings and parents of the drug-affected pair; and spiralling out from the distraught adults are lawyers, police, specialist doctors, psychoanalysts, rehab staff, staff at the children’s schools, distressed friends, well-wishers, haters, readers of mass circulation tabloids, writers and directors and stagers of operas, casual internet trawlers and readers of this book.
… an old English term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and none of us were guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed the shame.
Sigrid Rausing’s account of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s drug addictions, and the havoc wreaked by addiction, is at its centre not so very different from every other addict story. The story has some sensational embellishments that made it a public scandal. It could be ripped from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller: The Girl with the Flaming Stigma. It’s also made distinctive by how extraordinary Rausing’s writing is, by how painstakingly she steers her course between restraint and suppressed fury, by how intelligently she attempts to analyse and contain the issues and emotions stirred up by the cyclone that is addiction.
Rausing’s account is many things.
If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.
I write, know that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act [how much do I love that extra comma]. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you. Anyone who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.
But someone died, early one morning or late one night.
When someone dies this way, must someone wear the guilt?
The story, its centre, can be schematised:
Hans Kristian Rausing, an heir to the TetraPak fortune, worth billions, develops a heroin addiction at age 19 or 20 on the beaches of Goa, in India.
Years later, in rehab, he meets a fellow recovering addict named Eva Kemeny. They marry, have four children, lead a drug-free life as wealthy philanthropists funding addiction recovery programs.
Eight years after their wedding, Eva and Hans celebrate the new millennium on New Years Eve 2000 with a glass or several of champagne. It is the end of their sobriety. The next 12 years are a whirlwind that tears their lives apart, culminating in that death in that bedroom in July 2012.
Should I say more?
I can only imagine the shame, the pain, Sigrid Rausing must have felt putting words to what happened.
The Rausings, Hans and Eva, had lived in a mansion in Cadogan Place, in Belgravia, possibly the most exclusive and expensive location in London. The mansion was maintained impeccably by their staff – except for the bedroom on the second level, the epicentre of the couple’s drug world, forbidden to all others.
When Eva died, sometime either late at night or before dawn, Hans was present, but could not cope with her death. Instead of reporting her death and ensuring proper procedures were followed, he heaped clothes, doonas, TV sets on her body, wrapped it in a blue tarpaulin, apparently sprinkled it with baby powder (to absorb the smell?), and continued in his drug nightmare until two months later, when some police officers stopped his car on Wandsworth Bridge, searched the car, found drugs, searched his home under warrant, and found Eva.
She was identified by a partial thumb print and by the pacemaker implanted six years earlier to support her damaged heart muscle.
Eva’s immediate cause of death was determined to be heart failure caused by inhaling crack cocaine. Hans Kristian was charged with preventing Eva’s lawful burial. He was sentenced to two years, suspended, with the requirement that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program.
Then things took a weird(er) turn. Eva had been in communication with journalists and police in Sweden, claiming Hans’s father, Hans Rausing Snr, had ordered the hit on Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, who was fatally shot after a night at the cinema in 1986.
Eva was very often irrational across those years of relapse, sending threatening, quite psychotic emails and texts to Sigrid (and others?) with a frequency and degree of implied violence that constitutes harassment. She wrote in her texts and emails that she was omniscient, omnipotent; she hurled black magic curses. The investigative journalist to whom she sent her accusations against Rausing Snr did not publicly disclose Eva’s allegations until after her death, suspecting they were unreliable, not least because Eva admitted she had gained her information through a revelatory dream, a vision she admitted was not her first.
In a letter to a jailed killer she wrote
One morning, I woke up and looked over at my husband, who was asleep, and I swear, the thought came to me loud and clear. […] I’m scared. What I think that they could do is come into the house, gas me with some sort of sleeping gas, then they could deliberately give me an overdose of some drug or other and then, worst of all, they leave a note in what looks like my handwriting. Help! I know this sounds very far-fetched and completely paranoid but I swear to you these people are capable of anything.
Swedish police made no comment, as is their policy with ongoing investigations. In Sweden, where there is no statute of limitation, all investigations are officially ongoing.
In Sweden, Eva’s revelations were incendiary.
The background is complicated – changes in Swedish legislation in the 1970s and early ‘80s that proposed unions buy increasing shares in privately owned companies to become majority stakeholders – but Sigrid Rausing is adamant:
Eva’s idea, therefore, that Olof Palme had constituted a threat against the company may have been true in the 1970s, but by 1986 it certainly wasn’t true any more. And every newspaper editor in Sweden knew that.
It was Nordic noir, Scandi noir, at its blackest. In 2016 an opera was staged in Sweden with Hans Kristian and Eva centre stage, Sigrid, her siblings and her parents presented as agents of doom. The director sent a copy of the libretto to the family for comment.
The charge against Sigrid and her sister, Lisbeth, is that they took the children. Sigrid took the children; Eva couldn’t live with that and so she died.
Much of Mayhem is Sigrid wrestling with issues of guilt. Trained as a social anthropologist, a longtime proponent of psychoanalysis, Sigrid thinks like a philosopher. She worries away at issues of guilt, of culpability, of agency, from every angle she can conceive of. She is insightful, intellectual, intuitive. She is devastated.
One thing she never traces in her writing is the possibility that the children could have remained with their parents. Could that have made the difference? Could that have benefited the children, saved Eva Rausing?
Eva always believed so, and so, apparently, did Eva’s parents.
Could those four young children have lived downstairs in that mansion in Cadogan Place, maybe gone to boarding school, maybe as week-day boarders, cared for by staff, visited by relatives – and all would have been well?
Could those young children have been kept innocent of the darkness at the centre of that house, the room that was their parents’?
Sigrid and Lisbeth spent 2007/08 in court with lawyers arguing the case that this wasn’t possible. Courts are loathe to remove children from their parents, from their home. Yet the courts determined the children could no longer live with these parents.
The court action was prompted by a report from Social Services after Hans Kristian dropped out of yet another attempt at rehab. Social Services had informed Sigrid and Lisbeth that action would be taken to protect the children, and that if the children were taken into care by the state, the four siblings would most likely be split up.
Sigrid had been a director of the NSPCC – Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She knew what this meant.
Dedicated to Hans and Eva’s four children. For legal reasons, they cannot be named in this book. That is one of the many reasons why the text remains as partial and unfinished as it is, since these young people, alongside my own son Daniel, were, and are, an indelible part of my life.
I thank them for their patience, their humour and their courage.
Hillary Clinton, What Happened (Simon & Schuster 2017)
Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (The Text Publishing Company 2017)
So much has been said and written about how Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 U.S. Presidential election because she was a “flawed” candidate, and about her supposed inauthenticity.
In response to the question, ‘ Who is Hillary Clinton, really?’, large numbers of Americans have, in multiple ways, insisted she’s a liar, untrustworthy, a war-monger, an Establishment agent, a privileged white lady, a Lady Macbeth, unlikeable, avaricious, corrupt, criminal, vicious, and worse (enabler for a sexual predator, a murderer).
I’m not American. I’ve watched Hillary since 1992 (not before). I followed media and social media coverage of the 2016 campaign and election. I’ve read her autobiography Living History, and now I’ve read her memoir and analysis of the 2016 elections, titled What Happened, and I remain puzzled.
Not puzzled as to who Hillary is. Seems simple to me: she’s a Methodist. An over-achieving, hyper-capable, intellectually brilliant Methodist with a life-long dedication to public service.
My puzzlement continues over how it is that such large numbers of American citizens refuse to accept it can be so simple, and prefer to believe in Clinton as a bitch-witch Medusa.
These two recent publications – What Happened by Hillary Clinton, and The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by feminist academic Susan Bordo, a media critic and cultural historian – attempt to address public perceptions of who Hillary is, and other factors that contributed to her election loss, resulting in the triumph of President Donald Trump.
If you’re committed to the view that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she personally is “flawed”, or flawed as a candidate, I hope you will nonetheless continue reading. Most of this review focuses not on Hillary’s character and history, but on those other factors that combined to help undo her campaign.
In both Clinton’s and Bordo’s accounts, but most expansively in Clinton’s, other factors of vital public interest are identified:
Cyber warfare, also known as “active measures” – “semicovert or covert intelligence operations to shape an adversary’s political decisions” (Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies at King’s College, London).
The war on truth – the phenomenon of “false news” and a transition within established media from traditional news values to news as entertainment: news for ratings, news as click bait, news to fuel a 24-hours news cycle.
Inappropriate interference by State agencies in the electoral process, in breach of established protocols.
The breakdown of Democratic voter solidarity, with voters taking their cues from dissenter Democrat or third party leaders.
At more length:
Putin, Wikileaks, cyber warfare and the war on truth
In the section of her book titled ‘Frustration’, which examines in depth specific issues and missteps within Clinton’s campaign that caused its failure, Clinton has a chapter titled ‘Trolls, Bots, Fake News, and Real Russians’. Whatever your personal views on Clinton, I recommend this chapter as a serious essay by a former Secretary of State on cyber propaganda as proxy warfare.
“The January 2017 Intelligence Community report called the Russian influence campaign a ‘new normal,’ and predicted Moscow would continue attacking the United States and its allies. Given the success Putin has had, we should expect interference in future elections and even more aggressive cyber and propaganda efforts. […]
“We should also expect the right-wing war on truth to continue. As Trump faces growing political and legal challenges, he and his allies will likely intensify their efforts to delegitimize the mainstream press, the judiciary, and anyone else who threatens his preferred version of reality.”
Clinton suggests four steps:
A Special Counsel investigation in tandem with an independent commission with subpoena power, to “provide a full public accounting of the attack against our country and make recommendations to improve security going forward”.
State and private sector partnership to plan and invest in improvements to U.S. networks and national infrastructure security, alongside acceleration of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies’ own offensive cyber and information warfare capabilities.
Publicly calling out cyber enemies – Putin and Wikileaks – and taking tough measures against them.
“We need to beat back the assault on truth and reason here at home and rebuild trust in our institutions.” Social media and tech companies need to adjust algorithms, deactivate bot networks, partner with fact-checkers and generally clean up their platforms. Mainstream media need to reaffirm a commitment to rigorously uphold factual rather than speculative or unexamined reporting.
By implication (Clinton doesn’t spell this out), individuals need to educate themselves to better identify fake news and stop fuelling it: stop Sharing fake news, but also stop Liking and Commenting, as responses on fake news posts trigger the algorithms that spread these posts more widely.
In What Happened’s final section, titled ‘Resilience’, in a chapter titled ‘Onward Together’, Clinton does strongly urge individuals to participate in public political conversation:
“If you’ve been keeping your opinions to yourself, try speaking out – whether that’s on social media, in a letter to the editor, or in conversations with friends, family, and neighbors. Your views are every bit as valuable as everyone else’s. You’ll be surprised by how satisfying it can be to express yourself. And chances are, once you take a stand, you’ll find you’re not standing alone for long. If all else fails, make a sign and show up at a protest.”
Using the mantra “Resist, insist, persist, and enlist”, with the emphasis on “enlist”, Clinton recommends further civic engagement:
“Register to vote.” Encourage friends, family and others to register too.
“Get involved in a cause that matters to you.” Actively involved.
Engage with our elected representatives.
Run for office.
In that section titled ‘Frustration’, Clinton addresses at length avoidable mistakes she made. A chapter titled ‘Country Roads’ examines economic stagnation in rural areas previously dependent on the fossil fuel industries, states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and parts of Ohio. She examines the impact of her statement at a town hall meeting that “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. This chapter is heartfelt and thoughtful, and I was astonished at her courage in subsequently fronting up to a public meeting in Mingo County in West Virginia, “arguably Ground Zero for the coal crisis”. Here the candidate ran a gauntlet of “several hundred angry protestors chanting ‘We want Trump!’ and ‘Go home Hillary’”. One woman had hands dripping red paint to symbolize blood and yelled accusations about Benghazi.
In this chapter Clinton does not make excuses. She presents a distressing picture of the plight of Appalachian communities and discusses the issues from multiple angles. She does provide the full context of that inflammatory, widely disseminated quote:
“Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around policies that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into Coal Country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right Time? And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”
In a later chapter in that section, titled ‘Why’, Clinton provides the context for the inflammatory quote about Trump voters being a “basket of deplorables”. Many Trump supporters, she continued, as quoted by Susan Bordo, are
“People who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures. They are just desperate for change. Doesn’t even really matter where it comes from. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people who we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Comey and “those damn emails”
There is a chapter titled ‘Those Damn Emails’. Although the issue of Hillary’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State dominated coverage of her presidential campaign, and ultimately, arguably, derailed it, the ‘issue’ was only ever a furphy. Federal Register regulations requiring that only government servers be used were brought in in 2013, after Clinton left office. She, like all previous Secretaries of State (Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, for example), did use a private server, and used it for both government and personal email correspondence; this was not in violation of any protocol or law. That she chose to delete her personal emails prior to providing all work-related emails for examination was found to be a legitimate choice. (Powell and Albright, by the way, did not provide any emails for examination, despite official State Department requests.)
Nor was Clinton guilty of improperly or carelessly disseminating classified emails. Even then-FBI director James Comey was obliged to retract his damning public verdict that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her email use. Under questioning on 7 July 2016 (prior to the election vote), Comey acknowledged only three of 110 emails he had claimed were classified, out of more than 30,000 work emails provided, “had any kind of markings on them at all which would have alerted the recipient to their classified status. Those three, moreover, were marked (mistakenly, as it later turned out) only ‘internally,’ with tiny letter symbols pertaining to specific sentences within the emails” (Bordo).
DEMOCRAT MATT CARTWRIGHT: You were asked about marking on a few documents, I have the manual here, marketing national classified security information. And I don’t think you were given a full chance to talk about those three documents with the little ‘c’s on them. Were they properly documented? Were they properly marked according to the manual?
JAMES COMEY: No.
CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, and I ask unanimous consent to enter this into the record, Mr Chairman.
CHAIRMAN: Without objection so ordered.
CARTWRIGHT: According to the manual, if you’re going to classify something, there has to be a header to the document, right?
CARTWRIGHT: Was there a header on the three documents that we’ve discussed today that had the little ‘c’ in the text somewhere?
COMEY: No. There were three emails, the ‘c’ was in the body, in the text, but there was no header on the email or in the text.
CARTWRIGHT: So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert about what’s classified and what’s not classified and we’re following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?
COMEY: That would be a reasonable inference.
Across the presidential campaign, it’s been quantified that there was three times more coverage of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “email scandal” than there was on all her policy statements combined. The real scandal, according to Clinton and Bordo, is the way Hillary Clinton’s email use as Secretary of State was used as a political weapon to scupper her presidential campaign. Eleven days before the election FBI director Comey publicly announced further investigation into Clinton’s emails, even though the emails in question were subject to a wholly unrelated inquiry (into former congressman Anthony Weiner’s misuse of emails) and in the event turned out to be emails already examined months earlier during the closed inquiry into Clinton’s email use.
It violates protocols for an FBI director to publicly comment on an investigation in process, much less speculate about the possible reopening of a completed investigation where, in Comey’s words, “the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant”.
But that’s what Comey did. Clinton makes a convincing case for Comey’s announcement on 28 October 2016 being the turning point and deciding factor in an election where, for all her “flaws”, she led as preferred candidate at and up until that moment. She believes that a small cabal of FBI agents in the FBI’s New York office pressured Comey into making public statements that amount to electoral interference. Bordo describes it as a “coup d’état”.
Sanders and the Bernie Bros
In What Happened, Hillary Clinton is relatively restrained in her criticisms of Democrat contender Bernie Sanders’ impact on her campaign’s outcome. At some points her anger shows through. At other points she acknowledges him positively. Her main objection to how Sanders managed his campaign and its aftermath is that he set up ‘stalking horse’ policy positions, positions that were so idealistic, so far towards the left, that there was no chance of being able to deliver them as legislation, but which served to discredit her credentials as a “progressive” and made her own policy positions, which Clinton considers to be on the same continuum but pitched more realistically, appear compromised. She objects to his unwillingness to rein in the online vitriol of his more extreme supporters and to correct mischaracterizations of her activist history and affiliations. She notes he was tardy in publicly supporting her campaign after she was confirmed as the Democrat presidential candidate. She points out that ultimately she lost the presidential vote by a slim margin of voters, and that had some Sanders voters not abstained or voted Green, history may have been different.
Susan Bordo is not at all restrained. Her chapter ‘Bernie Sanders and the “Millennials”’ is, at 30 pages, the longest chapter in her book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. She makes many of the same points Hillary does, but much more angrily. Unlike Hillary, she expresses exasperation at younger feminist voters who say they saw Hillary Clinton as an Establishment candidate or that they didn’t see her feminist policies and politics as relevant. Bordo isn’t at her most convincing in this chapter. She comes across as patronizing younger voters, accusing them of ignorance or immaturity.
The candidate herself is very clear younger voters are the future. She concludes What Happened? with a section titled ‘Resilience’, where in chapters titled ‘Love and Kindness’ and ‘Onward Together’, where she argues the need fervently for common cause. In ‘Onward Together’, she chooses to conclude her book with an account of her May 2017 visit to her college alma mater, Wellesley, where she had been invited to deliver an address to the graduating class, 48 years after she had come to national attention as the first student to deliver an Ivy League college graduation address, an event covered by Life magazine.
What’s interesting to me, and frankly moving, given how clear it is from previous chapters how personally devastated Hillary Clinton was by her election failure, is that in these concluding pages Clinton chooses not to focus on the speech she delivered to the Wellesley graduating class, but on the speech delivered by the representative of that class, Tala Nashawati:
“… she compared her classmates to emeralds. ‘Like us, emeralds are valuable, rare, and pretty durable,’ she said. ‘But there’s something else emeralds are known for: their flaws. I know it’s hard to admit, especially as Wellesley students, but we all have a lot of flaws. We are incomplete, scratched up in some places, jagged around the edges.’
I leaned in, curious. This is not what I had expected to hear.
‘Flawed emeralds are sometimes even better than flawless ones’, Tala went on, ‘because the flaws show authenticity and character.’
There was that word again, authenticity. But she was using it as a balm instead of a bludgeon. Flawed. How often had I heard that word over the past two years. ‘Flawed Hillary.’ But here was Tala defiantly reclaiming the word, insisting on the beauty and strength of imperfection.
Now her classmates were leaning in, too. They snapped their fingers instead of clapping, as Tala smiled and built to her close.
‘In the words of Secretary Clinton, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue your dreams,’ she told the class of 2017. ‘You are rare and unique. Let yourself be flawed. Go proudly and confidently into the world with your blinding hues to show everyone who’s boss and break every glass ceiling that still remains.’
Now the snaps gave way to cheers. I was among the loudest. I stood and applauded and felt hope and pride rising in my heart. If this was the future, then everything had been worth it.
Things are going to be hard for a long time. But we are going to be okay. All of us.
The rain was ending. It was my turn to speak.
‘What do we do now?’ I said. There was only one answer: ‘Keep going.’”
Call me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation [with Nicholas Briggs] Audio CD
You’re him, aren’t you? An autobiography by Paul Darrow
From 1978 till 1981 the British sci-fi series Blake’s 7 was broadcast on TV across four seasons, 52 episodes in all. Blake’s 7 was originated by Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks of Doctor Who fame. He intended Blake’s 7 to be a darker alternative to Doctor Who: Doctor Who for adults. Or a darker Star Wars. It ended badly. I mean that. As a 20 year old fan in 1981, I was so distressed by Blake’s 7’s final scenes that I wrote to the newspapers: Shocked of Kings Cross, Sydney (a neighbourhood where most of us were mostly unshockable).
There were two mainstay characters who did not appear in Episode 1, Series 1, and one of these characters was missing – and greatly missed – in that final episode. The other claims the final shot. These characters are the evil galactic Supreme Commander Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, and Avon, first introduced as a cold, self-interested, sociopathic hacker, played by Paul Darrow.
The absence of Servalan and Avon might explain why, when I watched a repeat of Episode 1, Series 1 when Blake’s 7 was rescreened in the ‘90s, I could not make out why I’d loved this show so much. Avon and Servalan. They were the drawcards. Tarrant was cute and Cally quite compelling, Vila was amusing and the first Travis had a kind of S&M appeal, but really, for me Blake’s 7 was Avon and Servalan. This I understand was true for many of the series’ 10 million or so (at its peak) viewers.
Servalan, especially, was a kind of perverted role model for me. After a miserable love affair, I cut my hair to a short fuzz, to look like hers. Men wanted to touch the possum fur fuzz on my head. I let them. But I knew I was an alter ego – a lost clone – of the Supreme Commander and that if I chose, those men would be laser blast fragments.
Having recently re-encountered Blake’s 7, I was curious to learn what happened to the actors in their subsequent lives. I found there is a pop cult industry around the series, a business called B7 and a business called Big Finish, with audio adventures voiced by original cast members and Comic Con appearances. There are autobiographical materials, such as Call Me Jacks – Jacqueline Pearce in conversation (audio CD) and Paul Darrow’s memoir You’re him, aren’t you? – An autobiography.
What did I learn?
I learned that it’s painful to be an actor, that the odds of achieving any kind of success are stacked against acting aspirants, that success once achieved is seldom enough, and seldom sustained, and that the pain of being a has-been and the pain of being a never-was and the pain of finding hollow “success” can be hard to live with.
I learned that Darrow and Pearce are both deeply ambivalent about Blake’s 7, that the 35 years since have seen both struggle with depression and despair, and struggle in other ways. Pearce talks openly, recklessly, about it. Darrow circles around pain and disappointment over and over, looping through themes of ambition and failure, and feelings of anger and envy, till the cumulative effect is of an old actor, deep in his cups, holding forth in a way he hopes is avuncular but in fact comes across as bitter. Not that I’m saying Paul Darrow drinks. I’m talking about how I read his memoir.
There are positives. Jacqueline Pearce is painfully open, recounting a tale of talent blighted by mental illness, but her story testifies to resilience and the value of friendships, including a supportive friendship with the late great actor John Hurt. It’s easy to empathise with Pearce’s observations and experiences, and easy to admire her fortitude. Plus, her voice is beautiful, even if her frequent throaty laugh becomes unsettling.
Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and his account of his life attests resilience, too, and enterprise. He writes in short pieces, not necessarily linear chronology, and I wish there’d been a sympathetic editor to hand to help him focus on the interesting questions he raises, and to minimise some of the more indulgent sections, such as his synopses of each episode of every Blake’s 7 series, which could be summarised as “The narratives were crap, the production values trash; if you care about Blake’s 7, the more fool you.”
I don’t think he meant to imply Blake’s 7’s production team, or its viewers, are idiots, but he does imply that, at length. Then he contradicts himself and praises the writers, the directors, the stunt crew, thanks the actors for their friendship and thanks Terry Nation for transforming his life. Like I said, conflicted.
Paul Darrow is an intelligent man. He does raise good questions. Given the plots are ludicrous, the stunts unconvincing, special effects rudimentary and the production values shout low budget, what can account for Blake’s 7’s popularity? This was a show shot on video, not film, shot largely within semi-bare stationary sets (Scene: The interior of a space craft), with quarries and occasional sand drifts for location shoots, and characters who wield what look like hair-dryers standing in for laser guns.
And this: why did audiences relate so strongly to the overt sociopaths, to Avon and Servalan? Why did the sparks of an Avon/Servalan pairing cause salivations? Why, cosmos above, would young women like me imagine Servalan a role model and fantasise about Avon?
Paul Darrow is an intelligent man and in his autobiography he acknowledges these questions. Then, after a half-hearted stab in response (Avon as “a bit of rough”?), he gloomily gives up, as if it’s all too much. Which it would seem it was.
It must be hard, for Paul Darrow, to start out sharing a house with fellow RADA students John Hurt and Ian McShane, and at the height of one’s fame to be touted as a future James Bond (Timothy Dalton got the Bond gig), then to be relegated to pantomime, touring rep (again), and the continuing audio adventures of a character you played several decades back. A character who logic suggests died.
Darrow writes interestingly about typecasting, and he writes about an actor’s need for an audience, for affirmation. He is savagely funny about how he’ll be remembered. As ever, he’s torn, not sure whether anyone will care at all, or whether there’ll be mangled memories and pop culture fan-hysteric tears, or whether some people might consider his career had value. I’m here to reassure him. Paul, you are loved. How could a reader not love an actor who quotes the review that said “Paul Darrow plays Macbeth like Freddie Mercury giving a farewell concert”, and the review that read “Paul Darrow is an actor worth watching, but not in this play”?
It must be hard, for Jacqueline Pearce, to start out as the RADA ‘girl most likely’, directed by Trevor Nunn, hanging out with John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McShane (no mention of Paul Darrow), then be ‘demoted’ in the final series of Blake’s 7, omitted altogether from the final episode, then spend most of the next decades with little or no acting work, instead dependent on Housing Benefits and the kindness of friends, with stints as an artists’ life-drawing nude model in Cornwall, and volunteering in a monkey sanctuary in Africa. Plus stints in psychiatric care. And two bouts with cancer.
Live well, Jacqueline.
My own best answer for why Blake’s 7 was loved is this:
In the late ‘70s, the Western world began to understand its supremacy could not last. Throughout the ‘70s there were petrol politics, revolutions, the Irish Troubles, labour unrest, increasing disparity between North and South, and rich and poor. During Blake’s 7’s run, the USA voted out Jimmy Carter and voted in Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister of Britain.
We weren’t too sure about our heroes – was Thatcher a Servalan? – and we weren’t sure who were the villains (the IRA? Revolutionaries in Iran?).
Paul Darrow points out it isn’t clear whether the crew of the space ship Liberator, the crew who were “Blake’s seven”, were in fact heroes or simply terrorists. He asks, if Blake was trying to lead a popular revolution, why was nobody else rising up? Could it be, possibly, that the Evil Empire was not perceived by its citizens as evil? Could it be that Blake, and his crew, with their talents for destruction, remained criminals even on the Liberator, as they had started out criminals?
In times of change and extreme moral ambivalence the foremost task, possibly, becomes survival. Avon and Blake and the Blake’s 7 crew hurtled through a hostile universe, hunted by omnipresent authorities, unsure of their mission, not knowing who to trust. So you trust the strong man. You trust the sociopath, Avon, because Avon has his eyes on the prize: survival. Or you follow the Supreme Commander, Servalan, because Servalan is also a survivor, and her will to power is second to none.
Pearce and Darrow were good at playing survivors.
Don’t be fooled by that soft velvet fuzz. Servalan will kill rather than be killed, and Avon will, always, be the last man standing.