Elly McDonald

Writer


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so,” I said.’

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

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

He remembers himself as 33 and Natalie Portman as 20.

Natalie remembers things differently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moby 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

My editing solution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

moby 4

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

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

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

Moby 2

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

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

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

Moby 1

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

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

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


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Mystify: Michael Hutchence – a documentary by Richard Lowenstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was disabused of that belief when Michael died.

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

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

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

I do know fame’s a bitch.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Link to my blog tribute to Michael Hutchence, with personal reminiscences – Someone Famous, With Girl (2014) https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2014/06/05/someone-famous-with-girl-for-michael-hutchence/
  2. Excerpt from my blog post W for War (2017). In its totality, this piece is not about Michael and there is some repetition with my Mystify blog post and my blog post Someone Famous, With Girl, above. W for War is, I suppose, about my own personal disillusion with previously held notions of “success” and “glamour”. It’s quite naked and wasn’t really written to be read (true confession!):Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge [London] workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

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

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

    I wrote him a poem, at his request:

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

    Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

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

    The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘80s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    That, I think, is a truer beginning.


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

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

Trouble was, my first paid work went unpaid.

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

A cheque arrived, belatedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a couple of ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

Remind me… What happens to ideals?

Show_me_the_money


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Anthony O’Grady d.19 December 2018

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

Anthony O’Grady with Bryan Ferry – RAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a writer, I owe incalculably to Anthony.

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

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

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

Have I mentioned how highly I rate Anthony?

Love, lots of. From me to you, AO’G.

From Anthony:

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

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

Anthony O’Grady
Founding editor, RAM Magazine

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


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

jabberwock

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

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

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

Cthulu_Deviant_Art_Elly_McDonald_Writer

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

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

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

aardvark_pink_ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidhe_Elly_McDonald_Writer

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

In fairness, there was warning:

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

Bandersnatch_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Those Bandersnatch will get you every time

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

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

Seonaidh_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Seonaidh waiting for a glass of ale

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

Hulder_Lesley_Burdett_Photography_Elly_McDonald_Writer

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

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

Sometimes, sorry seems to be the hardest word.

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

I am appalled at what I’ve done.

pink_monkey_bird

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


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

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

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

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

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

We’ll get there.

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

Gillespie_and_I_Jane_Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sugar_Money_Jane_Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane_Harris_author

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


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

[Spoiler alert – discloses ending]

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

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

These include concerns about:

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

So, some thoughts on those points.

Hysteria

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

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

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

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

But Lenny’s hysteria has other origins.

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

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

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

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

Cultural appropriation and pastiche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End

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

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

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

So I sent them helicopters. I rescued them.

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

So, I let them live.

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

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

Plagiarism and due credit

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

Call it postmodern. Call it homage.

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

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

Elly_McDonald_Writer_Lenny_lotus

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


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Formative books – 7 books in 7 days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New York Times critic is mistaken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom’s Midnight Garden is a gentler affair.

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

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

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


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Review: Educated (2018) by Tara Westover

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

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

But it must be said upfront:-

It’s a story America wants to hear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The narrative as retold by Tara Westover is straightforward:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where I got really, REALLY interested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final sentence of that appendix is especially poignant.

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

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

Yet, she persists.

Afternote:

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

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

Myself, I am not a Mormon.


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

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

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

It is not my intention to do that.

Indigenous_survivors

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

Henry Meyrick wrote:

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

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

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

What are the inter-generational consequences?

Massacre_of_Aboriginal_people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other respects there is doubt aplenty.

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

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

Does it matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not like you, he said.

I don’t think like you.

In truth, he does not.

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

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

Faller justifies killing two undefended women by saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irish_immigrants

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

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

Transcontinental_railroad_workers

Transcontinental railroad workers in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mounted gunmen stop them.

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

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

The way Paul Lynch imagines this massacre left me gasping.

DuffysCutHistMarker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remorse did not extend far.

Highland_Scots_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Highland Scots


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In short: The Natural Way of Things (2015) by Charlotte Wood

Charlotte_Wood_The_Natural_Way_of_Things

5 January 2016

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.

Feral_Woman

 


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Mayhem: a memoir (2017) by Sigrid Rausing

Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing

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.

Mayhem.

… 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.

Mayhem is

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.

Sigrid Rausing

Sigrid Rausing


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

Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2017)

Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2016)

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

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

She is dismayed. “A killer?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy_Barnes_Working_Class_Boy

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

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

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

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

JImmy_Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy_Barnes_Working_Class_Man

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

And now I have read Working Class Man.

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

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

(Flame Trees – lyrics Don Walker)

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

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

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

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

Cold_Chisel_1980_3

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

“Who’s in this band?” I demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold_Chisel_Set_Fire_To_The_Town

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

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

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

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

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

Elly_McDonald_1983

Elly in 1983, the year Cold Chisel split

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

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

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

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

wp-image--770391214

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

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

Jimmy_Barnes_Vince_Lovegrove_Holly_Lovegrove_Jep_Mahoney

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

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

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

Cold_Chisel_1980_2

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

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

Cold_Chisel_1979

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

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

“Here,” he said. “Listen to this.”

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

“What do you think?” Don asked.

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

Cld_Chisel_East

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy met my eyes: “Me too”, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold_Chisel_1980

Cold Chisel, with Don Walker at centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy_Barnes_with_Jane

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know I reach to you
from later times…

(Letter to Alan, lyrics by Don Walker)

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

I am profoundly grateful my friend is alive.

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

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

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

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

Jimmy_Barnes_autograph

And I am grateful.

Jimmy_Barnes_signs_for_Elly_McDonald.jpg


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Siren: how I fell out of love with football

Rachel Matthews, Siren (Transit Lounge Publishing 2017)

Anna Krien, Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport (Black Inc 2014)

Paul D Carter, Eleven Seasons (Allen & Unwin 2012)

Deb Waterhouse-Watson, Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media: Narrative Immunity (New York Routledge 2013)

Deb_Waterhouse_Watson

Three years ago, in August 2014, I posted a blog piece titled A Few Thoughts On Winning – Part 1. Essentially, it was my love letter to Australian Rules Football (AFL).

I never got around to writing Part 2. Consider this the sequel: my Dear John letter, how I fell out of love with football.

I’ll start by considering some recent (and relatively recent) books that engage with sexual violence and football culture, then add in my own recent engagement with this issue.

Like Dr Deb Waterhouse-Watson, author of Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media, I am a fanatical Geelong Cats supporter. Since researching women and football, Waterhouse-Watson no longer attends games, in protest. I am about to join her sitting it out. Deb Waterhouse-Watson notes that more than 27 cases of sexual assault and rape involving 57 footballers and club officials had, as at time of her book’s publication, resulted in zero convictions. In November 2014 St Kilda footballer Stephen Milne pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of indecent assault in exchange for rape charges being dropped, from events that happened 10 years previously, in March 2004, when he was 24 and his victim was 19.

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Deb Waterhouse-Watson, author of Athletes, Sexual Assault and Trial by Media: Narrative Immunity

Milne was fined $15,000 and no conviction was recorded. His victim’s impact statement was reported by Wayne Flower in the Herald-Sun newspaper 18 November 2014:

Judge Michael Bourke said the victim spoke of very considerable effects and changes to her life.

“During the time immediately after, but also over the period of 10 years, and of the renewed publicity and proceedings, there has been impact on her work, family and social life,’’ he said.

“She deferred her university course for a year and she continues to have feelings of being withdrawn and isolated. She has felt judged by others, she has been abused, she has felt a sense of injustice.’’

The court heard the woman has difficulties sleeping and suffers from nightmares.

“She has witnessed and felt the impact upon her mother. Media attention has added to many of these things,’’ he said.

Judge Bourke said he had difficulty in assessing the victim impact statement because Milne had pleaded guilty to a lesser charge than was originally alleged.

“The line of causation is not straight forward. Having said that, it is still clear that (the victim) has suffered a good deal arising out of the events of this night of which this offence was a part,’’ he said.

“She did nothing wrong and has not deserved the consequences and effects upon her. Precision is not possible however I must take into account the victim impact caused. I do so bearing in mind that you [Stephen Milne] have pleaded to and will be sentenced for the offence before me.’’

Eleven days earlier, on 7 November 2014, the Herald-Sun ran an article by Wayne Flower and Ashley Argoon in which Milne’s football club captain Nick Riewoldt provided a character reference in court:

“Riewoldt told a judge Milne was a great mate, who could have kept playing footy for some time beyond his retirement in 2013.

But being charged with rape had hampered the veteran forward’s career and denied him job opportunities and endorsements.”

Waterhouse-Watson terms the protection against conviction afforded to sports personalities “narrative immunity”. By “narrative”, she means the story that is told, over and over, that frames these cases: the story, as author Rachel Matthews puts it, “of the woman who must be blamed” (mamamia.com 14 August 2017).

As Matthews put it in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper (24 June 2016), titled Football’s Abuse of Women is Institutional,

“It’s about what we value. And where sheilas do and don’t fit. The symbols of our nationhood. Our sporting greats. And in our Australia’s colonial history, what journalist Francis Adams called the ‘true Bushman’ or ‘the man of the nation’. Such worshipping of masculinity leaves little room for women. It keeps them in the background. And as targets for blame.”

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Rachel Matthews wrote her novel Siren initially as part of her PhD in creative writing at Victoria University. To write about sexual violence and the mistreatment of women in Australian Rules Football she researched over a period of four years. The result is a complex, multi-layered exploration of the effects of rape, on the victim, witnesses, family and friends (but not on the perpetrator), and the ethics of rape reporting. Is a witness obliged to bear witness? Is a GP required to report? If the victim confides in a friend, is that friend obliged to tell the victim’s parents, or her own parents, or a teacher, or police?

As one character says, “In the end, it’s up to the girl if she wants to lay charges. These things are messy.”

What I like most about Siren is that it is about the girl. Matthews is determined to challenge the convention that worshipping of masculinity, as she puts it, “leaves little room for women. It keeps them in the background”. She ensures that her narrative foregrounds the woman: Siren starts with Jordi (‘the girl’, ‘the victim’) and ends with Jordi.

Befuddled by our cultural expectations, I was slow to catch on. I kept worrying about when the rape would be reported, when charges would be brought, when the courtroom scenes would commence. But Matthews has a different project. She builds a narrative around Jordi, turning ‘the victim’ into a fully realised character with a history, a family, a family history, a place in the world – and a future, should she survive her experience of rape.

At first I worried Matthews was condescending to Jordi, with her insistence on surrounding Jordi by brand names and cultural references that establish her and her family firmly as that ocker stereotype, ‘bogans’. ‘Battlers’ is the slightly kinder stereotype. But she fleshes out Jordi, and her parents, Petra and Kane, and her siblings, Breanna, Cruise and Ryan, so that each has an emotional reality.

While Siren takes the narrative through to a rape being publicly acknowledged, Anna Krien’s Night Games follows a football-related court case, taking the court proceedings as her starting point for a wide investigation into sexual violence in football – hence the subtitle Sex, Power and Sport.

Anna Krien’s Night Games, unlike Siren, is not a novel. It’s a serious, intelligent inquiry addressing the grey areas of sexual ‘consent’, the ambiguities and anomalies in how rape charges unfold. She doesn’t refer to the young woman involved by her real name, as the young woman declined to participate in any way in Krien’s research for this book. Nor does she use the real name of the young man charged with rape.

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The case Anna Krien follows arose out of events on the evening of Collingwood Football Club’s grand final win in 2010. Two young Collingwood players, Dayne Beams and VFL player John McCarthy, were questioned by the Victorian sexual crimes squad about accusations that they had non-consensual sex with a young woman at a party in a South Melbourne townhouse. Beams and McCarthy were supported by their club, which deployed the club’s lawyer, David Galbally QC, to ensure they were not charged.

McCarthy – pick 31 in the 2007 draft – was delisted by Collingwood at the end of the following season but was picked up by Port Adelaide, where he proved popular. His death in an accident in Las Vegas on a post-season trip with teammates in September 2012 resulted in an outpouring of grief across the AFL. In the trade period 2014, Dayne Beams requested a transfer from Collingwood to the Brisbane Lions, where he is currently captain.

Although the Victorian sexual crimes squad investigation began with accusations against Beams and McCarthy, the focus quickly moved to a friend of Beams who had encountered the alleged victim after Beams and McCarthy had sex with her. They’d spoken briefly, had sex in an adjacent alley, then walked together to the nearest main road to hail a taxi, which they had shared, conversing in the cab and exchanging phone numbers, kissing, and agreeing to meet the following day.

The young man, who Krien calls “Justin”, was charged with six counts of rape, one of attempted rape, and one of indecent assault. He played for Richmond’s VFL affiliate, the Coburg Tigers, but as soon as the rape charges were made public the football club board held a meeting, after which Justin was phoned and informed he’d never play another footy game for Coburg Tigers. Instead, Collingwood Football Club offered Justin the services of David Galbally QC as lawyer.

Anna Krien writes

“… with Beams and McCarthy not yet in the clear, the reason for the QC’s presence seemed pretty obvious to an outsider like me. It made sense to control the narrative. [Justin] was a nobody, but what really happened that night and how it revealed itself could affect ‘real’ footballers, not to mention the richest footy club in town.”

In my opinion Anna Krien’s Night Games should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in the AFL in any capacity, from fans through footballers through club CEOs. The book is not, in my opinion, unfair to the young woman Krien calls “Sarah”. The way I’ve outlined what occurred that night may make it sound as if “Sarah” surely consented to alleyway sex with “Justin”, but the case as it emerged in court was by no means that clear. It’s the lack of clarity, the Rashoman qualities, that are troubling. In exploring the differing perspectives, Krien refers back to other high profile incidents where young women suffered, through sexual abuse, and for speaking out against footballers about that abuse.

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Anna Krien, author of Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport

When I first starting thinking about how to write this blog, I had in mind that I might list all the cases of sexual and misogynist abuse against women by footballers and football personalities that have occurred in the time I’ve been following the game (17 years – I did not grow up a football fan). But I realised the list is too long. To my knowledge, only one AFL player has faced charges of rape: Andrew Lovett, who was stood down by the club he’d just joined after being accused of raping a female friend of a teammate in December 2009. He was acquitted of rape charges in July 2011.

Where Rachel Matthews’ novel Siren examines the effects of rape prior to its public disclosure, and Krien’s journalistic enterprise Night Games examines how rape charges play out in court, Paul D Carter’s novel Eleven Seasons considers the wider, ripple effect of football rape. Paul D Carter spent nine years writing Eleven Seasons, which won The Australian’s Vogel Literary Award in 2012. The novel is quite slim, and subtle, and melancholy, and I’m glad he took his time writing, and kept the narrative pace gentle, because it’s a gem.

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All the sad, lonely, lost characters! Carter’s character Jason Dalton, Jason’s mother, almost all the characters in Rachel Matthews’ Siren. Who knew football was a space of such forlornness?

What’s interesting is how Eleven Seasons explores the damage done to men by football culture, as well as to women. Siren does this too: I talked before about the narrative focus on Jordi, ‘the girl who got raped’ (how reductive); but there’s a dual narrative focus, with much of Siren concerned with the journey undertaken by aging footy star Max Carlisle, who witnesses Jordi’s rape and feels responsible.

Max Carlisle undergoes an emotional progression across the narrative that is Siren, and so does Paul D Carter’s Jason Dalton. Eleven Seasons is a coming of age novel. Recently when asked what book I’d put on a curriculum for teenage boys I unhesitatingly put forward Eleven Seasons. But, like Siren and Night Games, I would hope it reaches a wide readership.

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Paul D Carter, author of Eleven Seasons

Which brings me to my own stake in this discussion. I grew up in the electorate of Sturt in South Australia, nominally a supporter of the SANFL football club Sturt. My family moved to Melbourne when I was 12, and I didn’t follow VFL in Victoria. I lived in NSW from ages 18 to 30 and did not follow football (NRL) there. I lived in London across my 30s and did not follow soccer. It was only when I moved to Geelong 17 years ago, into a house directly across a narrow back street from Geelong Football Club’s home stadium, that I took an interest in AFL.

I was lucky. The year I first joined as a member of Geelong Football Club, the Geelong Cats began the journey that took them to three premierships across a five-year period. The Cats have finished Top 2 in 8 out of the last 11 Home & Away seasons and have played finals every year bar one since 2007. I have been there, seated by deep forward pocket, screaming my lungs out proudly supporting “my boys”.

When one of our lesser players punched his girlfriend after a drunken night out, I was gratified that the players’ leadership group ensured he was dropped to the VFL team and later delisted. I trusted my club to promote the principles of Respect & Responsibility, the AFL policy devised in 2005 to counter football’s traditional sexism. I have no reason to believe Geelong Football Club does not immerse its recruits in Respect & Responsibility and does not walk the talk. Everything in my experience of Geelong Football Club tells me this club has its heart in the right place.

But it gets harder to ignore all that other stuff I see reported about women being abused by football players, about fans abusing women, about football media personalities indulging their misogynistic instincts. It’s got so that now, on grand final eve, my first thought is not for which team won, but which women out there – unknown, unnamed – were beaten or raped by drunken male fans or players ‘celebrating’.

This year the winning team was Richmond. On the night of the grand final a Richmond football player – gossip suggests a Richmond player who previously played for Geelong – took photos of a young woman wearing nothing but his premiership medal.* According to the young woman, he told her he deleted the pictures. Instead he posted them on social media. The photos have now appeared on the internet and in mass circulation newspapers. It makes no difference that her face isn’t shown, that she’s reduced to breasts. She trusted a sex partner, and that player betrayed her.

Also on the night of this year’s grand final a young mother went missing in the Surf Coast town Aireys Inlet. Last I heard human remains had been uncovered on the beach. Police were asking anyone who found further human remains to contact them. There’s no evidence to suggest that if she was murdered, this murder was a consequence of male football fans drinking alcohol all day. But I read the news updates, and I confess I shudder.*

Before Richmond Football Club won its grand final, its first in 37 years, it had to win through a qualifying final and a preliminary final. In the qualifying final Richmond beat Geelong. I was there, at least for the first half, when the Richmond crowd aggression led me to walk out. The game was over for me before it started though. It was over for me as I walked through the park that surrounds the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the famous MCG where AFL grand finals are played. As I walked towards the stadium, accompanied by three male friends, some male Richmond fans crossed our path yelling “STICK IT UP THE PUSSIES! STICK IT UP THEIR ARSES!”

They pantomimed gestures of sticking it up our pussy arses.

“There goes the Richmond brains trust,” grimaced one of my companions.

I understand idiot fans are ‘normal’ in footy. I understand most fans shrug it off, as my companions did. I understand the “Richmond brains trust” was drunk. I understand it’s unfortunate my team’s name, the Geelong Cats, lends itself to obscene sledging.

I understood that if I made a fuss about it most AFL fans would dismiss me as an uptight old lady, as “soft”, as “weak”, as not a true fan. I posted about it on Facebook, to my Facebook Friends. One of my friends told me I should take it further. He told me I should make an official complaint, to the AFL, the MCG, the Cats, and to Richmond Football Club.

I told him it wasn’t worth my time. He pointed out another Cats fan, a woman named Anne, had been on 3AW talkback radio that morning making similar complaints, to shock-jock Neil Mitchell. He said people were dissing Anne, accusing her of making it up. I said I’d think about it.

That night, the Monday after Friday’s qualifying final, I emailed formal complaints to the AFL, the MCG, the Geelong Cats, the Richmond Tigers, and I emailed 3AW, Foxsports and ABC’s sports flagship Grandstand. I received responses within a day from all bar Grandstand and Richmond, and Richmond’s Integrity Services Manager emailed me a few days later.

What I didn’t realise, until the following weekend, was that the story Foxsports ran about my complaint was posted on Foxsports’ Facebook page, and also on the AFL’s. Hundreds of people had commented on my comments.

Sure enough, I was a “soft cock”, a “pussy”, a “snowflake”, an “old lady”, and many other things besides. Most people derided me for not simply reporting it to Stadium security and letting it rest at that. I decided not to be an anonymous “Elly”. I sat up in bed for several hours that Saturday morning and replied to as many of those commenters as I could, vigorously stating the case for why it was not sufficient (or even productive) to report bad language to MCG security, and why I felt it necessary to cancel my football club membership, even though it was not my football club that had offended.

I received three responses: one a woman who wrote “lmfao” (“laughing my fucking arse off”), one a man who wrote “Good onya” (in Australia, that’s not necessarily an expression of good will), and one a female fellow Cats fan who wished me well. That’s ok. I was not seeking to convert anyone. I was standing up and having my say.

In point of fact I did attend Geelong’s preliminary final, the Friday after the Richmond match. I was thrilled to see “my boys” defy the predictions to claim a magnificent win over the Sydney Swans. If that’s the last footy match I ever attend, it ended on a high note.

I just hope – sincerely hope – no-one went home drunk and abusive, and no woman was the worse for my club’s win.

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  • UPDATE: ABC News report 16 October 2017
    “Victoria Police said her death was not being treated as suspicious, but the investigation remained ongoing.”
  • UPDATE: ABC News report 30 October 2017 – the Richmond footballer who has publicly apologized for not deleting a nude photo as promised is not the former Geelong player previously rumored to have been at fault.


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Hillary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election – What happened?

Hillary Clinton, What Happened (Simon & Schuster 2017)

Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (The Text Publishing Company 2017)

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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.

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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.

In short:

  • Putin
  • Emails
  • Comey
  • Sanders

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.

Clinton summarizes:

“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:

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. Publicly calling out cyber enemies – Putin and Wikileaks – and taking tough measures against them.
  4. “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.”

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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?

COMEY: Correct.

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”.

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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.’”

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