Elly McDonald

Writer


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W for War

Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley

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

Grunts – writing exercise 2014

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

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

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

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

I wrote him a poem, at his request:

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

Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, I think, is a truer beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Cat Crossing – writing exercise 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t get it.

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

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

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

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

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

I have a few memories, and I value them:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W for War.

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The alternative history

This is the alternative history, the eulogy for my father I will not deliver. Some of the details may be incorrect. The chronology might be out. It’s as I remember it.

It’s Adelaide, summer 1972/73.

Our house is built into a hillside, and my parents are terracing the back garden, building rock retaining walls to prevent earthslides. My mother is beautiful, in her red singlet and denim bell-bottom jeans, with her auburn shag hair-do. My father is funky, his terry-towel flares broadly striped white, yellow and blue. A black kiss curl falls across his forehead.

angus-w-bonI have the camera and I am taking my first photos ever, my parents, and our family dogs, the standard poodles Bon and Mouse. The sun shines and I am so happy with my portrait of my father. I am 11.

At some point during the wall-building project, my father hurts his back. Or maybe it’s his neck. Doctors can’t figure out where the problem is. For sure, he has back pain. He also has tingling sensations in his fingers. Over time, he loses sensation in his left hand, then there’s loss of sensation rising up his left arm. He considers consulting a chiropractor but decides against. He doesn’t want to focus attention on his back problem because he’s just been handed a major promotion and the family is preparing to move to head office, interstate, in Melbourne.

He’s thrilled with the promotion but the move is problematic. My mother, a senior lecturer in Sociology at a young university, has been offered tenure. For her, that would mean permanent employment till retirement and the likelihood of achieving professorial status, like her father. Moving to Melbourne, with its more traditional, established universities, might present difficulties in terms of her next career position. After all, although it isn’t yet essential to have a PhD to secure academic employment, my mother hasn’t yet completed her MA.

scan

There’s a further problem: the Melbourne school my sister and I have won junior scholarships to attend can’t accept us till the new school year commencing February 1974.

It’s agreed my father will relocate to Melbourne and live temporarily in a hotel while my mother stays with the children in Adelaide to organise the sale of our family home, the move to Melbourne, and to complete her MA.

This is not entirely satisfactory. My father sends us photos of him dining out with female family friends: a friend estranged from her husband; an old friend newly divorced. My mother picks up the scissors and bisects those photos, cutting out the smiling women.

The sequence is confused in my memory but my grandmother dies. She and my grandfather, my mother’s parents, were travelling in their homeland, England, on academic sabbatical. Nanna is ill, but, a bit like Angus, she doesn’t want to draw attention to that. In fact, she does not want anyone to guess. I should have guessed. The previous summer, when we holidayed as a family on Rottnest Island, she told me in the kitchen about her friend Alice. Alice, I now know, was actually her cousin, and they were best friends. Alice died very young from breast cancer. My grandmother also had breast cancer young, at 41, but a family friend, a surgeon, ensured she had the most radical extensive surgery possible, removing the diseased breast, lymph glands and much of her ribcage muscle, leaving her with scarring from her neck across her chest and past her shoulder. This was at the time believed to be her best insurance against recurrence.

1953 (written 1983)

with grace, head held high

she carries herself serenely

(King Charles walked and talked

half an hour after…)

unassailably regal as those who have learned

to ignore homemade bombs peasants

pitch in their faces

she carries herself

no support

she knows

she knows

she believes them, and believing

will never trust again

moving?

as if on castors, slightly stiff but

caring?

unbowed. Steadfast, her face composed

grey-eyed

she must know

dry-eyed

Anyway. Nanna told me that Alice hadn’t wanted to distress her family, so she’d continued taking care of her husband and her children, preparing meals and cleaning, without telling anyone she was ill. And then she died.

Telling (written 1985)

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

is talking to herself.

‘I had a friend called Alice,’

she intones, low voiced.

‘My friend called Alice baked bread;

she baked bread, ever day,

She was ill, and never told anyone

(I never told anyone

this, but she never did.)

Then she died, and nobody worried

no one had worried, she never

told anyone – so,

nobody ever did.’

My grandmother, in the kitchen,

keeps talking, telling herself. She says

she had a friend called Alice – she

says this baking bread, her daily bread –

and I know she never did.

When Nanna – Gladys, also known as Judy – first had breast cancer, it caused chaos in her family. Her husband, my grandfather, was bipolar, and did not cope well. Her daughter was travelling in France. Her son… well, I can’t speak for her son. The emotional fall-out from Gladys’s illness was so painful that I can understand why she wouldn’t make it known when, 21 years later, she realised she was ill again. The consequence this time was that by the time her daughter-in-law’s father – another surgeon – had arranged for her to be put on a plane from Heathrow and flown back to Perth as a medical patient, she was no longer conscious. My mother flew to Perth and sat by her bedside. Her mother couldn’t recognise her.

“Have you met my daughter Elizabeth?” my grandmother asked my mother. “She’s so beautiful. She’s so talented.”

My mother sat by the bed and wept.

The funeral was silent. Either no one had had emotional space to plan a commemoration, or, perhaps, my grandfather’s non-conformist Protestant religious background influenced his choice to have no service, no speaking. My mother would like to think this might have been intentional, a Quaker funeral. But my grandfather’s family were Methodists. Methodists do funerals with sound.

At the point when the coffin slid away, my mother let out a shriek and collapsed. No one came back to the family home for the post-funeral niceties.

Back in Adelaide, a close friend, a psychiatrist (we’re so lucky in our circle of specialists), gave my mother Valium. It helped, but not enough.

In Perth, my grandfather went grandiosely mad. In Adelaide, my mother struggled, and fell. Heavy rains came in winter and the earthwall behind our house turned into a mudslide. The back section of the house was flooded. The carpets were ruined and my mother’s MA paper was irretrievably damaged. She abandoned the project.

In Melbourne, my father was experiencing increasing back pain and mobility problems. Of course, he couldn’t let his employer know: his new job had senior responsibilities. His back seized up completely and he couldn’t walk. He dragged himself through the hotel lobby and from the sidewalk, he hailed a taxi. He asked the cabbie to drive him to the hospital Emergency Department, all of about 500m away. He couldn’t bend to get into the cab.

The taxi driver glared. “You’re not going to die on me, are you?”

In A&E – Accident & Emergency, or A for Angus, E for Elizabeth – Angus stood for hours. Being the person he is, was, convivial and caring, he talked to people near him in the queue. People came and went but it was never his turn. Eventually, after I think about 4 hours, a nurse asked him what he was doing there still. He explained he was waiting. She told him she’d assumed he was accompanying another patient. The hospital sent him ‘home’.

When my mother, my sister and I arrived in Melbourne for a visit we phoned up to his room from his hotel lobby. There was no response. His key was in, and the concierge had not seen him go out. When his hotel room door was opened, my father was found to be unconscious. He’d taken painkillers, more painkillers for more pain. Effectively, he’d OD’d.

My father was moved into hospital where doctors experimented on him to determine the nature of the pain. One doctor tried bending his numbed arm back. Dad screamed. The doctor was impressed. He waved a colleague over.

“Here,” he said. “Check this out!” Then he bent back Dad’s arm again and my father screamed in agony, again.

Eventually it was decided my father’s pain was caused by a ruptured disk at C2/C3 in the spinal column – the upper neck. Probably displaced playing tennis years before, now disintegrating. Fragments were micrometres from the spinal cord. The fragments had to be removed surgically. Any error at all and my father would be a quadriplegic. That’s what they told my mother.

My mother has variously said she was told by doctors my father had a 50% chance of being quadriplegic, or a 99% chance. I don’t know what she was told. I know she was extraordinarily stressed, not just because she loved him but because she still had the option of retaining her job in Adelaide. As a widow, or wife to a quadriplegic, tenure as a senior academic with guaranteed fixed salary super would be the smart option. But she didn’t know what was happening and she didn’t know what to do.

Truthfully, hospital staff did not tell my mother much, because she lived in Adelaide and he lived in Melbourne and it was assumed they were legally separated. When my father went into surgery, my mother was not advised. Instead, an old university friend of my father’s (this time, a lawyer) phoned her quite angry, demanding why she wasn’t in Melbourne to be with him.

Because no one had told her.

My father was in intensive care for 11 days. Next to him, a young man with head wounds who’d come off his motorbike screamed for 48 hours until he died. Another man died and wife, unawares, came in to visit. When she saw the empty bed she shrieked.

When my mother arrived, Dad had been moved to a different bed. There was pool of blood under the bed where he had been. Or am I confused? Was that the other woman, the one whose husband died?

Angus – that’s my dad – came home from hospital to our new house in Melbourne. He was heavily drugged up and sat on the downstairs sofa, huddled in woollen blankets, completely spaced out, listening to Nana Mouskouri with a dazed faint smile. He believed Nana Mouskouri – the Greek soprano singer – was an angel. He believed Nana Mouskouri was the voice of God.

Somewhere in there our cat died. In amongst all the other things she had to organize in our truncated preparations for the Melbourne move, my mother had overlooked cat flu injections when our cat was put into a cattery for a few days. Annabella, the black cat, the witch’s cat, the stray kitten we’d adopted, the first pet my sister and I can recall, contracted cat flu. We couldn’t clear the phlegm out of her mouth. We couldn’t help her eat or drink. In the end, she died a soft empty husk in front of the heater, in the downstairs living room, with Dad sitting on the sofa staring, wrapped in his woollen blankets, and my mother, my sister and me in a crescent around her, watching her softly cough up her life, anguished.

Eight weeks later when my father went in for his medical check, the specialist told him he was recovering well and could return to work soon.

My father looked at him. “I’ve been back at work for a month,” he said.

Almost as if all was well. But it wasn’t.

My father was 41 then. He lived till age 85, and died two days ago. He played tennis right up till 10 weeks before his death. He died in my arms.

I must take care not to make myself sound like a hero here. It’s not about me. It’s about family. My mother and my sister and my wonderful brother-in-law Peter, a psychiatrist (and, being a psychiatrist, also a medical doctor), were present too. There was a 48-hour lead-up to my father’s death and we were all vitally involved throughout.

I suppose I could say there was a 3-month lead-up. Dad was diagnosed on 24 November, the day after my sister’s birthday. As a family we’d gone to a ‘destination’ restaurant, a place where I’d wanted to eat for some years, to celebrate my sister’s birthday. Dad didn’t have much appetite, which is not unusual, and no appetite at all for wine, which is out of character. We’d barely got into the car to drive home than he threw up out the car window.

I ran across the road to a milkbar (that’s Australian for a small convenience store in a country town) to buy some bottled water and beg some paper towels. I mentioned my father was throwing up in the car. Another woman shopping laughed. I guess she thought he’d had too much to drink.

But Angus had barely sipped alcohol and medical test results showed he had pancreatic cancer. He also had a blocked bile duct, and his liver was failing. Surgery for the blocked bile duct was successful. His colour returned from canary yellow to something approaching normal, for a terminally ill man aged 85.

I thought we’d lose him before Christmas. My mother had hopes he might last till April, May, but my father put his energies into making sure all the family finances, legal documents, and practical arrangements were in hand within the shortest time-frame. He had that wrapped up within about a month and then we had a window of about two months where he was ‘well’ to most intents – functioning, cheerful, calm, good company.

It was an Indian Summer and a precious gift.

The last 48 hours were tough. On the Friday morning, there was blood in his stools, and that alarmed him. His mood, which until then had been quite upbeat, became depressed. He’d experienced increasing fatigue but now, he was suddenly listless. The visiting community nurse in conjunction with his GP advised us to drive him to hospital, straight to Emergency.

But the Emergency Ward is for emergency treatment. My father had an Advanced Care Plan that instructed no further treatment once death was imminent. Death was imminent. A very kind, very young doctor named Martin advised us to take Dad home. Martin was impeccable: sensitive, tactful, and honouring my father’s wishes. We couldn’t drive Dad home ourselves, but two paramedics – may I call them angels? – delivered him back to us at about 8pm.

Angus, my dad, had a bad night. He was in bad shape in the morning. Peter and Cathy had stayed at my parents’ place overnight; I arrived within minutes of Peter phoning me, breakfast half-eaten. The palliative doctor visited and explained his pancreatic tumour was also in his liver and that the bile duct that had been blocked was now infected. His belly was distended, taut, with bile and blood. From now, he was in the care of morphine and his family.

After the doctor left, Cathy and my mother, Elizabeth, took care of everything outside the one-metre perimeter I claimed as mine, its epicentre my dad’s head. They spent time sitting with him, stroking him, talking to him. Peter sat on a chair by the bed, by his feet. Peter held his hand, touched him, provided morphine at appropriate periods as agreed with the palliative care doctor. I sat on the bed behind Dad’s head and cradled him and held his hand and petted him, as I held and petted my dog as my dog was dying. (This comparison is not trivial.)

Dad wasn’t very coherent. He could hear, and when the doctor was present and asked about pain, he could say, “Excruciating”. “Ten out of ten” (repeated). “Yes” (to more morphine).

After the doctor left he interspersed “Jesus”, “Jesus Christ” and a few “Fucks” with “Elizabeth” (many times), “Lizzie”, “Where’s Cathy?” (when Cathy was out of the room), “Where’s Peter?” when Peter was briefly elsewhere). Cathy tells me he said “Little Pelly”. I didn’t pick that up.

He said “Family”. He said “Love”. My sister told him, “We love you too”. He said something that sounded to my mother like “optimist”. He repeated that, as if trying to make us understand. My mother and I think he was trying to say “Optimists’ Club”, to remind me I’d promised to deliver his scheduled presentation at the April meeting of my parents’ local Optimists’ Club on his behalf. I don’t know what Dad originally intended as the subject for his April talk, but we’d agreed I’d read from some memoir sketches he’d written last year.

There were stretches of time when Cathy and Elizabeth were taking care of things outside the sickroom and Peter and I were alone with Dad. During those times, I told Peter I didn’t know how people coped with loved ones dying before the ready availability of morphine. I said I knew there were herbal medications but I couldn’t believe they were strong enough. Morphine was not enough to dull Dad’s pain.

I thought of a friend’s death, a neighbour who had been much Dad’s age. Dad told me when ‘Judy’ (Julius) was dying, he lay quietly, surrounded by family, watching the seconds hand on the wall clock.

I said I imagined it was not uncommon for relatives to place a pillow over their dying loved one’s face. Peter replied that depending on how long it took, that was painful too. I said even so it would be relatively brief.

I said I was a fan of morphine. I said if I had a daughter (which isn’t going to happen, because I’m 55), I’d name her Morphia.

There was a period where every time Dad exhaled, black bile gushed from his mouth. My mother had found a plastic medical sick bag which was less cumbersome that the steel basins we’d been using to catch vomited bile till then. So much black bile was gushing from him I was frightened it would splash back and soil his face. He already had dried bile in his nostrils and facial stubble from his vomiting overnight. He’d complained his teeth hurt so it wasn’t easy to clean that dried bile off, but I tried, using a damp face cloth.

I hate black bile. One thing only I appreciate in bile: so much was coming up, so much coming out, that his belly, distended over the previous few days, was visibly reducing. He was swollen and distended by bile and bleeding in his stomach. I didn’t want that shit inside him when he’s buried.

The last hour or so he was relatively calm, at times making happy baby noises.

Then his breathing became irregular. Then it stopped. Then restarted. Then stopped.

I tried to read his pulse, place my little finger under his nostrils to check for breath. There was nothing. I said, “I think he’s gone.” Peter checked. Angus was gone.

Not long after Angus breathed his last the palliative nurse arrived and was brilliant. My sister was brilliant. My mother was too.

I can’t help but feel in our family we suffered when my father was so ill in 1973 and a perfect storm of linked events made the suffering much worse. No one’s fault. It was how it was.

This time, a lifetime later (Angus doubled his life span), we did better. The circumstances were better. We wanted to make it better.

My father died at home, as he wanted – well, perhaps less bile and less pain – and his family were with him.

We did good.


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“Really, I am the interesting one here” – notes towards an article about fame, hero worship and stalking

Sian Prior, Shy: a memoir (The Text Publishing Company 2014)
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist (Transworld Publishers 2016)

Nearly three years after its publication, I’ve finally read Sian Prior’s memoir Shy. I put off reading it partly because I know it recounts Sian Prior’s relationship and break-up with a (famous) man I once knew slightly, and I felt me reading it would be prurient. Also because as I listened to Sian being interviewed on the radio, back when the book was first released, the interview was interrupted with the news that another (famous) man I once knew slightly had died, and that plunged me into writing five commemorative pieces for Five Dead Rock Stars whose lives had intersected with mine, and that threw me into a depression that lasted 18 months or longer.

I also put off reading Shy because… really, shy? Not my particular problem.

I did get as far as putting the book on request at my local library. When I was notified it was available to collect I chose not to. I had even discussed the book, tangentially, with my psychologist. Then this month, seated on my psychologist’s couch, discussing my father’s imminent death, I broke off and said “I see you have Sian Prior’s book Shy on your shelves.”

“Yes,” said my psychologist. “Would you like to borrow it?”

And even as I replied “Yes”, she reached across and handed it to me.

For a week or more, while I wrestled with my father’s dying, I didn’t open Shy. Then, when I did, I found it addressed many issues I share with Sian Prior: the death of fathers, the loss of lovers, the imaginary man, the invisible self, the unstable self, the magnet that is fame, the halo effect.

As I so often do, I recorded my first responses on Facebook, that antidote to (and aggravator of) the invisible self:

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Embedded in this book about social anxiety is a book about fame: specifically, the impacts on a talented but insecure woman of being with a famous man. Both Prior and [Carrie] Fisher are fearless inquisitors of how and why The Male Hero affected their sense of self.”

Sian Prior, Shy (p.247):

“… although every famous person is different, fame itself doesn’t change much. It always attracts the same kind of prurient and obsessive behaviour. It always draws attention towards itself and away from everything else. It makes potentially more interesting things fade into invisibility. And fame can make the famous feel like gods. Perhaps it’s inevitable. All that relentless positive reinforcement. Toxic.

For me, that paragraph resonates like a 3-hour church bell-toll.

Prurient and obsessive behaviour? Oh my. Oh yes. I recognise that. Toxicity? Yes. Yes. Yes again. Fame makes the famous feel like gods? Interesting. Seems to me it mostly makes them feel like shit. But other people are keen to cast them as gods, to hero worship. The “I am a golden god!” moments, as immortalised in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, are perhaps inevitable. In 1984, as a rock writer, I wrote a profile of INXS’s Michael Hutchence where he talked about his “Golden God” moments.

Before I go further I need to make a Declaration of Interest, or a confession, or what you will. I am a stalker. I might prefer to couch that in layers of modifications and justifications, explaining it’s really a bit more complex than that, but the simplest truth is this: I am a stalker. I stalked a famous person for years. I scared him and I made his life – and his then-partner’s life – wretched. There is nothing in my life I regret more, that I am more ashamed of, than this. That the person I stalked has been generous and kind, has been gracious, doesn’t alter that. That his then-partner became – and remains – a close, supportive friend is a gift I do not deserve. That they responded that way over time does not change the fact that had stalker laws existed in the early ‘80s, we would have faced off in court.

In 12-Step programs, they say you’re only as sick as your secrets. I say you’re as sick as your unforgiven transgressions. I am thankful for forgiveness.

Sian Prior – who is not a stalker, who lived with her famous partner for ten years – writes:

“He was a fantasy figure. So often silent. So often absent. If we’re going to continue this amateur psychologising, I’d say I projected onto him a whole lot of qualities he never had. Filled in the gaps with whatever suited me. […] I edited out the evidence that didn’t fit my fantasy. Because that perfect, imaginary version of him was my safety zone …” (Shy, p.249)

I knew the man I stalked wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t hope to displace his partner. But I needed – believed I needed – what I saw as his calm and strength. I remember telling my psychologist, the woman who gave me Shy to read, that stalking this man who’d been my friend was my way of keeping the planet spinning on its axis, my defence against overwhelming, catastrophic anxiety. I needed to know where he was, to see him. I only felt safe when I could see him.

Sian writes: “There was a woman sitting in front of me talking to her friend on a mobile […] and at one point she said to him, ‘So what is your strategy for feeling safe with other people?’”

Ten years ago, a ‘life coach’ asked me to complete this sentence: “When I’m alone I ….”

My instant response? “CAN RELAX!”

The life coach startled. “You find other people stressful?” she yelped. There was a pause.

“There are things we can work on to change that” she offered, slowly. Another pause. “But perhaps that’s not something you want to change?”

We agreed it was not a priority.

Sian Prior continues (Shy, p.249): “There’s something more I need to say about love. You’re not going to like this. It will make you squirm. The object of my love may have been imaginary but the love was real. It was the strongest thing I’d ever felt, stronger than my shyness. No wonder I didn’t want to let it go.”

The resonating bells are ringing again, this time a long meditation of Tibetan chimes. Last year, I wrote a blog piece that echoes that paragraph. I called it On Love. And not being able to speak.

It was my way of saying love is real, even when the relationship is fantasy.

This week I read someone else’s blog post, a woman who describes herself as a “matchmaker” pairing up shelter dogs with prospective owners. She wrote about the desire she sees in humans to have a love object, to have a dog, to have anyone, they can love unabashedly, without being challenged by questions of anthropomorphism, reciprocation, fantasy, projection.

I recall being a mature age student at university, talking with a young classmate. She told me, earnestly, that she didn’t put up barriers against love. Barriers like gender. She might be bi-sexual. It was possible the love of her life might in fact turn out to be not a man but a woman.

I remember looking back at her and replying, seriously, that if anyone had asked me when I was her age, I would never have guessed the great love of my life would turn out to be a dog. But it did.

She turned away. I think she thought I was taking the piss.

Earlier this year, I read Carrie Fisher’s memoir, The Princess Diarist.

As so often, I responded on Facebook.

Elly FB 2 Feb 2017:

Finally got around to reading Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist. She spends so many pages klutzing around, apologizing in advance in terror of Harrison Ford’s reaction, justifying herself to us (justifying herself to herself).

Then she goes ahead and makes herself vulnerable anyway.

When she’s not doing the vaudeville shtick, when she’s re-experiencing the bewildered 19 year old mated with A God, she’s very touching.

So far I’m only on their second weekend. She’s (finally) made him laugh, made him momentarily human. She treasures that moment as a high point in her life.

I haven’t yet go to the unearthed poems, which I don’t doubt are excruciating.

But good for her for telling the earth maiden’s side of the story.

Her poems are not excruciating, or no more so than my own juvenilia, written during my stalker phase.

One could never call me a quitter
I take something right and see it
Through till it’s wrong
Auctioning myself off to the highest bidder
Going once, going twice
Gone
Sold to the man for the price of disdain
Some are sold for a song
I don’t rate a refrain.

I guess it was all going just a little too well
If I wasn’t careful I’d be happy pretty soon
Heaven’s no place for one who thrives on hell,
One who prefers the bit to the silver spoon.
Then just when I’d almost resigned myself to winning
When it seemed my bright future would never dim
When my luck looked as though it was only beginning
I met him.

Sullen and scornful, a real Marlboro man
The type who pours out the beer and eats the can
A tall guy with a cultivated leer
One you can count on to disapprove or disappear
I knew right away that he was a find
He knew that you had to be cruel to be kind
Given this, he was the kindest man I’d ever met
Back came my sense of worthlessness
And my long lost pains of regret
I was my old self again, lost and confused
Reunited with that old feeling
Of being misunderstood and misused.

Sold to the man for the price of disdain
All of this would be interesting
If it weren’t so mundane.

(The Princess Diarist, pp.110/111)

That’s Carrie, the 19 year old Carrie of 1976. But it could easily be 18 year old me, in 1979 – or more pointedly, 22 year old me in 1983, recalling 18 year old me.

Which could be interesting, if it weren’t mundane.

Interesting. An interesting concept. My sister tells me that whenever I start a sentence “It’s interesting that…”, what follows is not.

Sian Prior writes about what’s interesting and what’s not; who’s interesting, who should be:

‘So Lucky’

They looked.
I felt them looking.
I worried about what they were thinking.
I couldn’t act normal because I knew they were watching.
I straightened my back and lifted my head higher.
I chose my facial expressions with care.
But I knew they were not really looking at me.
They were looking at him.
And I hated that.
I hated that their focus on him prevented them from seeing me.
Even though I hate them looking at me.
What was that?
Was that the difference between being shy and being an introvert?
Or between being a shy extrovert and an introvert?
If I had been an introvert I wouldn’t want them to look at me.
I might be relieved to walk away and let them take his photo.

I didn’t want them to take my photo.
But I wanted to be the one they were interested in.
Or the equally interesting one.
That’s why I fought it so long and so hard.
Found ways to have my say.
Pushed myself out into the world.
I didn’t want to be interesting only because I was with him.
But I wanted to be with him.
He made me feel interesting.
Interesting, isn’t it?

(Shy, pp.116-120)

In a Daily Mail article (11 Oct 2016), Tziphorah Malkah (the erstwhile Kate Fischer) said of her past relationship with magnate James Packer: “He’s going on Mariah’s [Carey] reality show. He is that bloke, really I am the interesting one here. He is just like fiddling around.”

Tziphorah wrote on Facebook (12 Oct 2016): James Packer will do ANYTHING to continue to be associated with me! And who can blame him? The whole world knows that I’m the most interesting thing that has and will ever happen to him.

People laughed at that. They laugh because now Kate Fischer is no more and Tziphorah Malkah is a broke, trainee aged-care nurse who is obese. Being poor and fat renders women uninteresting. But Tziphorah Malkah had a point. She, as Kate Fischer, had a successful career as an international model and a budding career in major films when she met Packer. Her story since is interesting, in a dark fable kind of way.

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Many years ago I was friends with Jane Campion the film director. She used to say that as a young woman she hoped to find An Artist and be His Muse. Then when she got dumped, again, she started making fierce dark angry art at art school, and her art teacher encouraged her. She realised she was author, artist – not model or muse at all.

Jane Campion made Bright Star from the POV of Keats’ love Fanny Brawne and was roundly taken to task in reviews I read for making Fanny the focus when the “real” “Bright Star” was the poet, Keats.

By the way – see what I did there? I found a way to make reference to a former friend who is famous. Not just any friend who drifted away over time but who said and did things that influenced me: a famous friend. I’d like to think if Jane were not famous we’d have renewed our friendship in recent times on Facebook. But she is, if somewhat less so than she was, and she is inaccessible to me now.

Carrie Fisher has a lot to say about being interesting by association:

“Having grown up around show business, I knew that there were stars and there were stars. There were celebrities, talk show hosts, product spokespeople, and then there were movie stars – people with agents and managers and publicists and assistants and body guards, who got tons of fan mail and could get a movie financed and who consistently graced the covers of magazines. Their grinning familiar faces stared proudly out at you, encouraging you to catch up with their personal lives, their projects, and how close they were to being the most down-to-earth of those famous-to-earthlings.

“Harrison was one of that epic superstar variety, and I wasn’t. Was I bitter about this? Well… not so you’d notice.” (The Princess Diaries, pp.59/60)

That’s just part of an epic, poetic depiction of fame as personified in The Hero. Here’s how she warmed up:

“When I’d first seen him sitting on the cantina set, I remember thinking, This guy’s going to be a star. Not just a celebrity, a movie star. He looked like one of those iconic movie star types, like Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy. Some sort of epic energy hung around him like an invisible throng.

“I mean, let’s say you’re walking along in the twilight, minding your own business (your own show business), and there’s fog all around you – a mysterious sort of cinematic fog. And as you continue walking, you find that you’re moving slower and slower, because you can barely see a few feet in front of you. And all of a sudden the smoke clears. It clears enough for you to imagine that you’re beginning to ever so slowly make out the outline of the face. And not just a face. This is the face of someone that painters would want to paint or poets wax poetic about. An Irish balladeer would feel compelled to write a song to be sung drunkenly in pubs all over the United Kingdom. A sculptor would sob openly while carving the scar on this chin.

“A face for the ages. And seeing him sitting there in the set that would introduce him to the world as Han Solo, the most famous of all the famous characters that he would come to play – well, he was just so far out of my league. Compared to him I didn’t even have an actual verifiable league. We were destined for different places.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.59/60)

It hit Carrie hard. She continues:

“I looked over at Harrison. He was… God, he was just so handsome. No. No, more than that. He looked like he could lead the charge into battle, take the hill, win the duel, be the leader of the gluten-free world, all without breaking a sweat. A hero’s face – a few strands of hair fell over his noble, slightly furrowed brow – watching the horizon for danger in the form of incoming indigenous armies, reflective, concerned eyes so deep in thought you could get lost down there and it would take days to fight your way out. But why run? It couldn’t really be such a hardship to find yourself lost in such a place with all that wit and ideas safely stored there. Hey, man! Wait a second! Share the wealth here. Give the face to one man and save the mind for another and both would have plenty. But no! This was the ultimate living example of overkill. So how could you ask such a shining specimen of a man to be satisfied with the likes of me? No! Don’t tell me! The fact is that he was! Even if it was for a short while. That was way more than enough. It would eventually get exhausting trying to measure up, or keep up. I was a lucky girl – without the self-esteem to feel it, or the wherewithal to enjoy what there was to enjoy it and then let go.” (The Princess Diarist, pp87/88)

This is the toxicity. How could the famous, the shining specimens, not feel like golden gods? But who is it the more exhausting for? Who tries to measure up, to keep up? The lover or the beloved?

An editor friend was arguing yesterday about the misuse of the word “icon”, especially as applied to celebrities. I replied, “It’s not so different. An icon is a portal to the divine.”

An icon is itself a divine artefact.

How tiring, to be someone’s idol. How tiring to keep the earth spinning, the planets aligned. How tiring to be assigned responsibility for someone else’s sense of self-worth.

“I’m a hick,” I recall saying to him.

“No,” Harrison answered. “You think you’re less than you are. You’re a smart hick.” And then, “You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.106/107)

The man I stalked has many times tried to soothe my unhealed wounds.

I remember crying “But do you LIKE me? Do you LIKE me?”

Like some demented Sally Field impersonator desperately clutching at her tall, inanimate, manly Oscar.

I remember my friend replying “I like you ENORMOUSLY. I just don’t understand why you do this.”

I remember the first time I realised he found me interesting. I was looking down at a pub table. I remember exactly the cosmetics I had on my eyelids. I looked up and he was across the table, watching, watching me looking down.

I remember sometime after our one night stand (which didn’t last a night), sitting on that same bed, asking him: “Why did you have sex with me?”

I remember him replying carefully, “Because I found you physically attractive.”

I remember hissing angrily in disbelief.

Carrie Fisher writes:

“How I’ve portrayed Harrison is how Harrison was with me forty years ago. I’ve gotten to know him a bit better over time, and as such somewhat differently. He’s an extremely witty man and someone who seems more comfortable with others than he is, or ever was, with me.” (The Princess Diarist, p.181)

I can relate. She continues:

“Time shifts and your pity enables you to turn what was once, decades ago, an ordinary sort of pain or hurt, complicated by embarrassing self-pity, into what is now only a humiliating tale that you can share with others because, after almost four decades, it’s all in the past and who gives a shit?” (The Princess Diarist, p.186)

Interesting.

Sian Prior writes: “I thought we were a poem. In the end, though, we were just a string of platitudes.” (Shy, p.248)

I find that interesting, even if mundane.

persephone

Persephone about to be abducted by a god (Hades, Lord of the Underworld) – Gathering Flowers by Albert Lynch


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After viewing Philippe Mora’s film Monsieur Mayonnaise

Monsieur Mayonnaise: Philippe Mora’s colour-saturated documentary/memoir/graphic novel/cartoon about how his parents Georges and Mirka survived the Holocaust to introduce European bohemian culture to post-War Melbourne, Australia.

And how Gunther Morawski became Georges Morand then Mora then Monsieur Mayonnaise then Georges Mora; or, how Gunther Morawski became a Resistance hero, father substitute to Jewish war orphans, people smuggler, and impersonator of Catholic nuns (in company with best mate Marcel Marceau).

Some of my responses:- with apologies to Philippe Mora and his family for details I’ve recalled wrongly or that should have been included but are not. I hope the Mora family will forgive me for borrowing some of their images and artwork for this blog.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you plan to see Monsieur Mayonnaise this response might be best read AFTER viewing. On the other hand, it’s the Holocaust – you know how that unfolded. Don’t you?]

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-book-burning

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

One morning Leon Zelik left his Paris apartment to buy a newspaper. While he was out, soldiers arrived and took his wife and his three daughters, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome.

The women were herded onto a train along with 1000 other Jews, mostly women and children. They were terrified. As the train rattled along, Mme Zelik and Mirka, her eldest daughter, peered through the wooden slats of their crate-carriage, strained to identify signage at train stations they passed.

The mother had had the presence of mind to grab a sheet of paper, a pen and an envelope from their apartment as they were taken. Now, she wrote the names of each train station in sequence. She folded the page into the unstamped envelope, which she addressed to her husband, Leon Zelik, at their street address.

She directed Mirka to drop the sealed envelope through the crate cracks as the train slowed. Mirka was frightened it would blow back onto the tracks.

They were disembarked at a massive holding centre. Four days before their contingent were scheduled to be shunted to Auschwitz, guards came and released them. As Mirka looked back towards the camp she saw the other detainees crowded against the fences, the children big-eyed, watching the Zelik family retreat to freedom.

In later years Mirka said the big eyes in the faces of the doomed children were the genesis of the angel children she painted throughout her life. She said the guilt pained her. Telling this, she cried.

Someone had found the addressed envelope, stamped it, and mailed it to Leon in Paris. From the list of train stations, Leon worked out the camp where his family were held. He convinced a clothing manufacturer to request that the Zelik women be released on the grounds that the mother was a required worker manufacturing German army uniforms. A lie, but it worked.

In later years, Mirka thanked that anonymous person who found her mother’s letter, every day, life long.

Mme Zelik, Mirka, Madeleine and Salome were the only survivors of the Jewish detainees on that transport. I have/had a mental blank on The Mother’s name. Wiki says she’s “Celia (Suzanne)” but in his film Philippe Mora refers to her by what I think must be a Lithuanian petname or diminutive.

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora-with-angel-children

Mirka Mora with angel children

There’s a sequel: by chance Leon met a French farm worker, a Christian, who offered the Zelik family sanctuary. In his village was a house locked up while its owner was a prisoner of war. The Zeliks spent 2 1/2 years there. The Frenchman’s daughter says her father never questioned that providing sanctuary was the right – the only – thing to do.

I won’t recount Georges story here. I can’t get his story out of my mind, and have been telling it to almost everyone I meet. But every time I tell it, I cry, and the people I tell it to cry too.

Suffice to say there’s a 92 y.o man on film who says he became an eminent New York child psychiatrist because Mora and his Resistance colleagues saved his life, because Mora cared, and because he wanted to be like Mora: to save children. Even if it meant dressing up as a nun and trekking Jewish war orphans to the Swiss frontier, a la The Sound of Music. In company with the famous mime Marcel Marceau. (No, even in New York none of this is required of child psychiatrists. This is what French Resistance operative code-name Mora did.)

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora-philippe-mora

Georges Mora clips his son Philippe’s hair

In Philippe Mora’s film he visits a museum memorializing child victims of the Holocaust deported from France (not the famous Holocaust Museum in the States – I googled but could not identify this museum). The interior walls seem to be lit with a low golden glow and have what appear to be timber vertical divides and, less prominent, horizontal divides, so that the walls suggest a panel of spaces for portraits or icons. Many of the spaces are filled by photographs of children who died, with their name and (I think) age. The spaces left empty are ones where no photograph has been located. I believe in this museum there are 6000 framed spaces.

Aesthetically it’s beautiful. Emotionally, it’s devastating.

monsieur-mayonnaise-hitler-and-mickey

Artwork by Philippe Mora for his graphic novel Monsieur Mayonnaise

My father shocked me today when he asked if pogroms predated Hitler. He seemed to think anti-Semitism started in post-WW1 Germany. I can only think this is cognitive slippage in old age and illness, as Dad, having been a child in the ’30s, went on to be a student of economics, politics and modern history.

Yet knowledge of modern history is vanishing, replaced by Hollywood distortions (Inglourious Basterds), denial, and a galloping cynicism that buys into conspiracy theories and a belief that everything we’ve been told is propaganda.

When I was 22, in 1983, I went to an adult education course where my classmates included 3 older women, post-WW2 Jewish refugees. Two spoke with heavy accents and the third, after 35 years in Australia, barely spoke English at all. Her friends explained she rarely ventured outside the Jewish emigre community.

I asked if they’d encountered anti-Semitism in their early years in Australia.

“Oh darling,” one woman laughed. “No. People here didn’t know what a Jew WAS.”

I suppose part of the problem is when we can’t admit our ignorance, and *think* we “know” the stranger.

Openness to learn is more important than ever. But in a media age, what media do we trust?

monsieur-mayonnaise-georges-mora

George Mora. Monsieur Mayonnaise.

My friend Donna says, “I was married into a Jewish family for 32 years. The matriarch pulled the address labels off of every magazine that came to the house (the goyim see the name and know that is a Jewish household), and no one talked about illnesses or diseases except in very hushed voices (the government takes the weak first)… that was not uncommon in the WWII generation, but they are slowly dying off, and the younger folks have no idea..”

“George Mora’s” two sons had no idea he was really Gunther Morawitz, German-born, medical student at Leipzig University, native German speaker, until his last years; and no idea why he wouldn’t step into a VW or Mercedes-Benz or use Krupp appliances.

When I was at school I had teachers who were Holocaust survivors. Exposure to first-hand witnesses is invaluable. We’re losing them.

Remembering snow (1986)

Rosa says

I remember snow

When I was a girl I lived

in Siberia

There was so much snow so

much

we skated on a river of ice

Mrs Cameron

born Roth

40,916: tattooed in blue

teaches art

forgets

she remembers.

Don’t ask.

But

Mrs Zabukovec

gypsy eyes

teaches German

born Bulgarian

she remembers

being 18

in Berlin

being 18

Russians

she remembers.

Don’t.

She remembers

long rows of blossoms, white-clustered blossoms

so white so

much breaks

down

 

remembering snow

monsieur-mayonnaise-mirka-mora

 

 


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30 years on

In 1985 I was so insecure about my writing that when I picked up marked essays from the English department I carried them around for hours, or days, then tentatively peeked at the blank back page before working up courage to decipher the impress of the grade, the academic mark, through paper. End 1988, when I got my final results for my degree, I could not bear to open the envelope till late 1991.

Apart from my very first essay, which was an A-, and an A- from a Leavis-ite lecturer the next year, all my English marks were High Distinctions. In first year I won five awards or scholarships and in second year I topped the year. My professors were having conversations with me about winning the University medal and scholarships to Princeton. Scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know what I wanted but I was fairly sure Ivy League did not feature.

Against this background, it might come as no surprise that when my poetry book Other People (and other poems) was self-published in 1985 I did not seek out reviews. I was aware that one of my Associate Professors, Don Anderson, who the following year became my tutor and mentor, mentioned my little book kindly in his literary column in the Sydney Morning Herald. I knew my writing hero Helen Garner bought my book. I knew the poet Dorothy Hewett liked me (we’d met one rainy day sharing a table in a Kings Cross coffee shop and Dorothy opened her home to me). I knew Brenda Walker at the University of Western Australia was interested, because she’d asked her brother, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, if he knew me as a fellow habitue of Kings Cross (he did). Also, Brenda was on the editorial board of Westerly, the literary journal, which published half a dozen of my poems, and she asked me to contribute to a study she was co-editing, Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics. My correspondence with Brenda in the mid-80s contributed immensely to my confidence as a writer and a student.

But real reviews? Reviews by critics? Spare me.

And so it happened that it was not till 31 years later, in 2016, that in hunting out a missing poem of mine on the austlit.edu.au Australian Literature database I discovered reviews exist for Other People. One was written by Judith Rodriguez, who had awarded me First Prize in a short story competition. When I printed out Judith’s review (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1985) the sentence that leapt out was “McDonald’s collection is carrying a number of weaker pieces”, but I consider that friendly fire: the truth is my book was laden with duds. The other review was written by Barbara Giles (Australian Book Review #81, June 1986). Barbara’s review is so generous I’m overcome.

What really surprises me is that the four poems Judith and Barbara chose to quote were poems I considered weak – two of them so weak I haven’t bothered posting them on this blog site (even though one was anthologised). Forgive my hubris, but it’s rather nice to reappraise work I had long since dismissed.

Barbara. Judith. Helen. Brenda. Don. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to Dorothy and Merv, you are in my heart, always.

 

Judith Rodriguez, ‘New poets show power amid the complexity’ – Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1985 p.46

Two very young poets are Elly McDonald, whose Other People (and other poems) can be had from PO Box 1230, Potts Point, and Adam Aitken with Letter to Marco Polo (Island, $5.95). Both are in their mid-twenties.

McDonald’s collection is carrying a number of weaker pieces, but her interest in people carries brightly through most of her short poems of encounters, confrontations, and overheard talk. Messalina at the Beach-House is a piquant description of a cat with personality; Telling catches a difficult tone of dull obsession, and old woman’s muttering:

My friend called Alice baked bread;
she baked bread, every day.
She was ill, and never told anyone
(I never told anyone
this, but she never did.)

Barbara Giles, ‘The Virtues of Simplicity’ – Australian Book Review, June 1986 p.23

Elly McDonald is another poet who writes with simplicity, yet with striking force. Apt metaphors, sparingly used, illuminate and enrich her verse. She also has something to say worth listening to. Other People, she calls her book, and the ‘I’ who surfaces occasionally must be she.

The people of whom she writes are lively and various, some successful, some unsuccessful; her own life as rock music, film and theatre writer offers her many slices of life. A continuing theme is the separateness, the self-possession, of women; a woman owns herself no matter what. ‘Alone in this place / where everything is his / through lips still thick with his body’s roughness / I whisper to shadows / He’s not a part of me.’ Again, ‘Two thighs / knees together / insolent autonomy’. These women are gentle, are brave, are cynical: ‘Swimming or flying; it’s exhausting / a lurching struggle to keep on top’.

Her portraits, both of men and women, are witty and she can take the mickey out of herself as well. Hers is a poetry that’s bright, tough, incisive, intelligent, and I’m glad she had the courage to self-publish.

Elly_McDonald_Writer Ian Greene 1985

Elly when Other People (and other poems) was published (pic: Ian Greene 1985)

 


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Statement of poetics (1985)

Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women’s Poetry and Poetics – editors Davids Brooks and Brenda Walker, St Lucia University of Queensland, 1989, p.57/58

It’s very strange to re-read this after 30 years. I remember I was asked to write a Statement of Poetics for this study early in 1985, in my first term enrolled in English at the University of Sydney. I had no idea what a “Statement of poetics” should be. I knew nothing about gender theory in Literature. I took my draft to my Term 1 tutor, who as it happened was an aspiring creative writer too. She didn’t like me and she did not like my draft. I remember her wrinkling her nose. I also remember that when the writer Helen Garner visited that term, my tutor and a number of students joined Helen for a drink, and I hoped my tutor might introduce us. Of course I should have simply introduced myself. A short while after, Helen contacted me, by handwritten note, requesting a copy of my poetry book, Other People (and other poems). I was thrilled by her interest, and I told her I’d been present that evening at Sydney Uni. Helen wrote back saying it’s frustrating how often people she hoped to meet tell her they’d been somewhere in her proximity but had been too shy to introduce themselves.

The other thing I note is my bullshit. My poems did not have an “male/female, overtly sexual context”? My relationships with women and family were “more complex than my relationships with men”? I wrote “most often about female friendships”? No. No and no. Fact is most of my poems were autobiographical, and most concerned a particular male/female relationship, and I was embarrassed to own that. For the record: Other People (and other poems) was memoir. You know who you are.

Nearly all my poems are records of conflict; I write as a means of clarifying emotion.

The only reader I initially had in mind was me; for years I never considered poems of mine might be publishable. I was writing highly-codified, deceptively simple lines that read like printed lyrics to songs. The music was built-in: I relied on rhythm, and rhythm is still the lynchpin of my style. I actually regard some of my poems as songs for the inner-ear, though I’m aware that rhythms that seem to me insistent are not always obvious, comfortable or even apparent to some readers.

Repetition is another hallmark of my style. I like to play with a word, and its puns and variations and rhymes, in such a way that several meanings may be suggested. Punctuation in my poetry is a guide suggesting mental pauses like musical rests of varying value. I seldom use conventional punctuation, believing it forces too narrow a reading. Ideally, multiple meanings should bounce off each phrase. Lines often have a particular meaning taken by themselves that adds another dimension to their sense in the context of the whole sentence or verse. I like that. I think of it as texture, as verbal cross-weaving. It’s also an intellectual game, a form of self-amusement like a cryptic crossword. I once wrote a six-line poem in which the lines and phrases could be read in any sequence and still convey sense.

However, until quite recently it never occurred to me these games might be accepted as ‘real’ poetry. Real poetry, I thought, was based on metaphor. More abstract, more structurally complex and more dense, real poetry was rife with adjectives. My poetry became very wordy, which in itself I don’t consider a fault – writing is, after all, about words – so long as the words are used to effect. I do think, though, that in poems written during this phase I was cramming in too much, too clumsily.

Because I feel strongly about their subjects, my poems often have an impulsive, obsessive quality. Where poetry is concerned, I’m just not interesting in exploring anything but the politics of personal relationships. The relationships I have with other women and with my family have proved more complex than my relationships with men, so I write most often about female friendships, current and past. These ‘friendships’ have often been problematic, ambivalent; the poems are correspondingly ambiguous. (Some poems that may appear to address a man in fact involve a woman.)

Up until now, stalemated power-struggles have been the dominant recurring theme, and the image of the doppelganger stalks through much of my work. The doppelganger reflects a too-close identification with my perceived (female) ‘Enemy’: almost an exchange of identity. The doppelganger might be the Enemy as Self.

The doppelganger stares back from mirrors. Frequent references to mirrors in my poems are not intentional symbolism, but now I’ve become aware of them I’m sure they relate to a childhood conviction that mirrors are the bridge between the land of the living and a phantasm zone. Quite a few poems of mine are re-lived nightmares, or slip midway into nightmare sequences.

A sense of displacement, of dislocation, is also something I’m increasingly aware of as an element in my writing. The poems’ subjects are usually an Outsider – or an outcast, a misfit who’d choose to be accepted. More often than not, the Outsider’s survival is in jeopardy. The context is hostile, unknowable: strangers, people not recognised, mistaken identity and identity exchange recur.

These recurring elements have not been consciously endowed with significance, and I don’t fully understand their implications. Explicit meaning is not a high priority; my poems are not plotted in advance. When I sit down to write, all I usually have is a mood demanding expression. I may have a character, a specific situation and perhaps a key phrase or metaphor, but for the most part the first draft resembles automatic writing. I write till the words take on some kind of form, and then I examine what may have emerged. Invariably these days it requires re-working, but the first draft is the model.

I hope my work reads as distinctively female. Its focus on relationships in other than a male/female, overtly sexual context and its concern with inter-personal nuances are not, to my mind, typical of male writing. For me, poetry is close focus. I believe there are infinite kinds of feeling, forming all degrees of human bonding: variation on feeling seems to me a subject demanding close examination.

Elly_McDonald_Writer Ian Greene headshot 1985

Headshot taken for inclusion in poetry anthology 1985 (pic: Ian Greene)


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Be Alright (1986)

She and he
are sitting in a public place. They’re smiling. They’re
talking. Her fingers rest on his forearm and
their profiles overlap. They might
be kissing, but in fact
they’re talking. They’re smiling, and it’s all
alright

She and he
stand watching, observing themselves from the foreground.
A shared smile, turned inwards
her hand on his shoulder, long-held
hopes in her touch. See? She turns to him
softly – in this dream
they might be kissing. They might in fact
be talking, be smiling – they might both
be alright