Elly McDonald

Writer


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

Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2017)

Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2016)

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

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

She is dismayed. “A killer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now I have read Working Class Man.

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

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

(Flame Trees – lyrics Don Walker)

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s in this band?” I demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elly in 1983, the year Cold Chisel split

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here,” he said. “Listen to this.”

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

“What do you think?” Don asked.

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

Cld_Chisel_East

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy met my eyes: “Me too”, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cold Chisel, with Don Walker at centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know I reach to you
from later times…

(Letter to Alan, lyrics by Don Walker)

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

I am profoundly grateful my friend is alive.

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

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

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

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

Jimmy_Barnes_autograph

And I am grateful.

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Review: Shots (2009) by Don Walker

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

At its best, Shots is prose poetry:

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

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

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

At its best, Shots is lucid and explicit:

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

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

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

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Rudolf Schlichter, Hausvogteiplatz, 1925

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

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

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

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Christian Schad, Self Portrait, 1927

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

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Fritz Lang Girl, Metropolis, 1927

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

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

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

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Bogart taking his chances

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

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

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A frosty look from Bladerunner’s Deckard (replicant)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

He’d just end a friendship.

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

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

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Paul Hewson (far left) with Dragon

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

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

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

My reflex reactions kicked in.

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

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

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

Don and I locked eyes.

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

Don Walker had a daughter. His life had changed.

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For Jenny Hunter-Brown:

Other People by Elly McDonald (1981)

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

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

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

 

 


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On Borove Forest, and elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tomorrow will be the same story.”

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

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

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

 


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Review: You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano 

You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano

Subtitle: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks & Other Manmade Women 

Other editions subtitle: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks & Other Mixed Messages

Other editions subtitle: and Other Vexing Stories That Tell Women Who They Are

Maleficent_Angelina_JolieCarina Chocono was losing her mind as a movie critic:

“I found myself spending hours in the dark, consuming toxic doses of superhero movies, wedding-themed romance comedies, cryptofascist paeans to war, and bromances about unattractive, immature young men and the gorgeous women desperate to marry them. Hardly any movies had female protagonists. Most actresses were cast to play ‘the girl’.”

Chocono credits film actor Isla Fisher with slapping her awake. Asked whether her break-out success in The Wedding Crashers opened opportunities for her, Fisher had reportedly replied, “All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’ in the hot rod.”

Wedding_Crashers_Isla_FisherAs Chocono noted, “Women’s experience in its entirety seemed contained in that remark, not to mention several of the stages of feminist grief: the shock of waking up to the fact that the world does not also belong to you; the shame at having been so naïve as to have thought it did; the indignation, depression, and despair that follow this realization; and, finally, the marshaling of the handy coping mechanisms, compartmentalization, pragmatism, and diminished expectations.”

Before diminishing into being a “movie” critic, Chocono had thought of herself as a “film” critic (her distinction): “I wrote about what interested me and reacted to whatever seemed to be worth reacting to in the moment.” She used film as the springboard to freeform meditations on issues that resonated – as Renata Adler wrote, writing “about an event, about anything”, “putting films idiosyncratically alongside things [writers] cared about in other ways”.

You Play The Girl is a collection of essays Carina Chocono has written utilising Adler’s approach: responses to film as “a way into larger cultural conversations”.

It’s also – which cannot surprise anyone who’s read my previous blogs exploring approaches to writing memoir – a memoir, of sorts.

Elizabeth_Montgomery_BewitchedFinely etched as a filigree narrative spanning these essays is the story of how Carina Chocono figured out how to save her marriage (Chapter 2 Can This Marriage Be Saved?), be a good mother, be a good writer, and find her way back onto the heroine’s path:

“The heroine’s journey starts with the realization that she is trapped inside the illusion of a perfect world where she has no power. She employs coping strategies at first, or tries to deny reality, but eventually she is betrayed, or loses everything, and can no longer lie to herself. She wakes up. She gathers her courage. She finds her willingness to go it alone. She faces her own symbolic death. […] The heroine’s journey is circular. It moves forward in spirals and burrows inward, to understanding. […] The path is treacherous. The territory is hostile. But the heroine is brave. She knows what she wants. She’s determined to get it. Isn’t that how all good stories start?”

Yes but. As Herr Freud asked, “What do women want?”

Virginia_WoolfFor Chocono, it’s autonomy, agency, and authority. Also, equity and self-expression. To love and to be loved.

This book is dedicated to the author’s primary school aged daughter, from “For Kira” on the dedication page to the penultimate thank you in the Acknowledgements: “And to my amazing daughter, Kira, for being ever curious, always insisting on presenting her evidence, and never holding her tongue.”

The ultimate acknowledgement goes to one of Chocono’s heroines: “And to Hillary Clinton, for inspiring us both.”

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The memoir elements tracing Chocono’s marriage are subtle, and tender, but Chocono repeatedly refers back to cultural texts that provide explicit metaphors: Lewis Carroll’s mad worlds, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; the folk tales and fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault; and the ways those folkloric tales have been reconfigured by Disney, Pixar and Hollywood more generally.

For me, Chocono is at her best deconstructing the Princess in popular culture, as she does in the chapter ‘All The Bad Guys Are Girls’. Her princesses range widely: encompassing Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty/Aurora, Elsa and Anna, and Maleficent; but also Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, and Betty Draper from Mad Men. She re-presents the Jennifer Beals character in Flashdance and the Julia Roberts character in Pretty Woman as “princesses’, based on their exceptionalism. (She savages both films, hilariously.)

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She asks her daughter ‘What is a princess, anyway?’

Kira replies, “It’s a very fancy woman who gets her own way.”

What most horrifies Chocono though is what happens after the ‘happy ever after’. As she points out (and as I discuss in previous blogs), a medieval princess knew she was simply a transmitter of bloodlines and a vehicle for political alliances: her role was to get up the aisle with as little fuss as possible, pop out some heirs, and remain ‘invisible’ as an individual, whether alive or dead. Even in more recent times, for girls born into elites within stratified societies (as Chocono’s great-grandmother was, in Peru), ”A woman’s education was designed to coax her to sleep at sixteen and keep her unchanged and unconscious forever. It was an undoing. It wasn’t a start but a ‘finishing’.”

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Elsewhere, in her synopsis of the film Maleficent, Chicano describes the narrative building from when “King Stefan’s men try to kill Maleficent, and Aurora tries to help her and discovers [Maleficent’s hacked off] wings in a glass case, because everybody is putting girls and their parts in glass cases all the time in these stories…”

These prince “heroes” in Frozen and Maleficent are sociopaths who mutilate and usurp women with extraordinary gifts. They’re Buffalo Bill in The Silence of The Lambs appropriating women’s skin. They’re monsters.

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Yet in popular culture, just as often, what women see reflected back is the princess as monster. To quote David Bowie, ‘I looked around / and the monster was me’.

There’s a chapter called ‘Bunnies’ that I thought might be about the Bunny Boilers, but it is in fact about lads’ mags and the Playboy magazine ideal. Bunny Boilers surface instead in the chapter titled ‘The Eternal Allure of the Basket Case’. The Basket Case makes reference to Virginia Woolf (who Chocono cites frequently), and to artists’ muses, including Courtney Love, with a glancing mention of Zelda Fitzgerald but in-depth focus on Isabelle Adjani’s most famous studies in madness, in the films The Story of Adele H and Camille Claudel. Sylvia Plath pops up. Girl, Interrupted and Fatal Attraction are the Hollywood texts, along with an HBO show I haven’t seen, Enlightened, where Laura Dern loses her mind then loses her job. Or, arguably, the other way round.

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Reading Chocono’s analysis of Adele H, I was reminded of when I first read reviews of this film, when it was released, in 1975, when I was 14. Director Francois Truffaut based his film on a real life story. Adele was the daughter of French literary titan Victor Hugo, writer of the novel Les Miserables. A young English army lieutenant had proposed to Adele, but she turned him down. Later, she regretted doing so, and, uninvited, followed his regiment to Canada, where she stalked him for years, then followed his regiment to Barbados, where eventually one day he confronted her, only for it to be apparent she did not recognise him.

Adele is a princess, daughter of the greatest French literary hero of the nineteenth-century. She is a Romantic: Chocono quotes philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s definition of Romanticism as “the unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals”. She quotes from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s book The Madwoman In The Attic, a study of “madness as feminist protest, subversion, and resistance. The madwoman, they say, serves as ‘the author’s double, and image of her own anxiety and rage’ towards a culture that oppresses her.”

Is Adele’s madness also her own misplaced sense of entitlement? Is she being a “princess”, a “very fancy woman” who thinks she can get her own way by ‘virtue’ of her privilege and passion? Is she on the “heroine’s journey”?

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Virtue, as Mae West almost said but didn’t, has nothing to do with it.

Reading again about Adele H reminded me of two vintage Hollywood films that made an impact on me when I was 12, both about mad and bad bunny boilers who selfishly insisted on loving men who did not want to be loved (by them). I was so distressed by these two films that I wrote about them at length in my then-diary. I have long since burnt those diaries. But I think I remember what I had to say.

The first film was Forever Amber (1947), starring Cornel Wilde, the Texan actress Linda Darnell, and George Sanders as King Charles II. Amber is a luscious 16 year old country girl when Wilde, playing randy cavalier (a tautology?) Lord Bruce Carlton, age 29 when our story starts, rapes her as he’s en route to London. Except it isn’t really rape because obviously she was too luscious to remain virgin and was gagging for it anyway, and because she falls Wilde-ly in love with Bruce and hitches a ride with him to the metropolis. Amber remains ardently in love with Bruce Carlton even as she sleeps her way to being the king’s mistress. She nurses Bruce when he collapses with plague. She lances his pustules. She lends him money and advocates on his behalf. In return, he scorns her as a fallen woman, derides her as shallow and selfish, and eventually, once he marries a demure young heiress, he takes the child Amber bore to him away to the colony of Virginia, away from the child’s whore mother, away from the contaminated royal court.

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I felt that was unfair. Amber didn’t get to experience much love. She loved her son. Bruce was, reductively, a prick. She did not deserve his bad treatment of her.

It did not occur to me at age 12 that Amber might be capable of recognising all this herself and washing her hands of the bastard.

The second film was Leave Her to Heaven (1945), starring Gene Tierney and, again, Cornel Wilde, this time playing a writer who meets a beautiful woman, Ellen, on a train en route to her father’s funeral: the beautiful woman is especially emotionally vulnerable. Or out and out psycho. After their whirlwind marriage her obsessive jealousy and, yes, selfishness emerge. The writer has a disabled younger brother who comes to live with them. Bunny Boiler Ellen can’t bear to share her husband’s love so she watches, cold-bloodedly, as the boy drowns in a boating incident. Then her husband the writer finds solace in his friendship with her half-sister. He even dedicates his new novel to the sister, as “The gal with the hoe”. (She gardens.) Or was that dedication to “The gal with the hole”? Or “the gal with the ho’”?

Whatever. The Bunny Boiler had my sympathies.

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Ellen flings her pregnant self down the stairs, cruelly murdering the writer’s innocent unborn son. When he walks out on her, she kills herself, setting up her sister and her husband for a murder charge. Knowing what we know about partner violence, it would be more credible if the writer had killed the Bunny Boiler, as Michael Douglas eventually kills Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (but she was asking for it). The screen-writer does kill Gene Tierney’s character. But only after he first assassinates it.

Falta_Attraction_Glenn_CloseTo me, this, too, did not seem fair. Granted, Ellen was intense. She failed to sufficiently empathise with her husband’s needs. But all she asked was to be loved.

Gene Tierney’s problem was that she was a princess. She was a very fancy, over-entitled daddy’s girl who thought the world – or if not the whole world, her husband, at least – should love her unconditionally.

The Gene Tierney character is the Wicked Witch. She failed to play ‘the Girl’ the way ‘the Girl’ should be played – in the passenger seat.

To return to Isla Fisher: “All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl’ in the hot rod”:

“Women’s experience in its entirety seemed contained in that remark, not to mention several of the stages of feminist grief: the shock of waking up to the fact that the world does not also belong to you; the shame at having been so naïve as to have thought it did; the indignation, depression, and despair that follow this realization; and, finally, the marshaling of the handy coping mechanisms, compartmentalization, pragmatism, and diminished expectations.”

Or, the alternative coping mechanisms of madness and murder.

“’The girl’ doesn’t act, though – she behaves. She has no cause, but a plight. She doesn’t want anything, she is wanted.” For every princess who transforms into a witch, goes murderously crazy, there’s another – many others – being gaslighted: manipulated into believing, as Carina Chocono did, that she is losing her mind.

From Alice In Wonderland:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes wonderfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.

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

Good point.

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

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

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

Me neither. Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman of Substances


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Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Final_Girls_Riley_Sager_Elly_McDonald_Writer

Quincy, Lisa and Samantha are each sole survivors of mass murders. But they live with threat.

When Lisa dies in suspicious circumstances, who should Quincy fear? Coop, the protective cop with Daniel Craig eyes? Jeff, the Ryan Reynolds look-alike Public Defender boyfriend? Samantha, her Riot Grrrl alter ego, tattooed SURVIVOR? Jonah, the tabloid scumbag? Her own mother, who taught her to be “Fine”?

Could He (who cannot be named) rise from the dead?

Or is that pesky dissociative amnesia concealing something Quincy’s survival depends on?

It’s 10.30pm. I’m working tomorrow. But I’m hooked.

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So began my relationship with Riley Sager’s Final Girls – undoubtedly soon to be a movie near you, not to be confused with a 2015 teenflick of the same title.

This was a thriller I read through the night, constantly mapping it against its pop culture references, the movies, the books, the actors who might be cast, constantly guessing and second-guessing the whodunnit.

I knew guessing whodunnit was a pointless exercise. The author is such a fan of this genre that I knew s/he’d strew red herrings liberally and would make sure the ending twists back on itself like an angry rattler. (For the record: I’ve since discovered Riley Sager is a man.)

Partway through:

The movies it’s reminding me of most right now, other than Fight Club, are I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Blair Witch Project, and the Sharon Stone pic Sliver, where the script intended the Perfect Boyfriend (Billy Baldwin) to be the killer and Tom Berenger as the brooding cop with icy blue eyes to be the Male Savior. But preview audiences didn’t like that, so the ending was re-shot, making a nonsense of any nuanced characterisation the actors might have attempted.

Icy blue eyes ex-marine = sociopath ordinarily. But hey. Anything can happen.

In fact those icy blue eyes might be more Gary Cooper than Daniel Craig and Tom Berenger. The cop’s name is Franklin Cooper, known as Coop or Frank – Gary Cooper’s real name was Frank Cooper, and he was known to his friends as Coop.

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Then I got precious:

Might be a touch of Donna Tartt (quince) in here too. The Secret History. The girl in the sacrificial virgin’s white dress that turns red with blood. Quincy and Sam are definitely maenads.

Btw Quincy is an Instagram blogging baker. She makes tartts (sic). And sweet muffins. Just desserts.

The Hitchcock Vertigo references kicked in.

vertigo_elly_mcdonald_writerNext day, I couldn’t let it rest:

I’ve been turning this one over in my head this morning. The author really loves genre. This is surprisingly smart plotting and structure and is ultimately a fan homage to the “final girl” trope. It’s also genuinely terrifying in some sequences.

Yup. It is.

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Review: Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

 

Into_The_Water_Paula_HawkinsI’ve just read Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water, and IMO it’s a better and more interesting novel than her bestseller The Girl On The Train.

It doesn’t have the more egregious flaws of GoTT – the drawn-out over-repetition, the ludicrous gothic ending, the central character we wanted to strangle. In all, much more disciplined: more pointed, less hysterical, more affecting. The ending is particularly finely judged.

The point is not really the whodunnit, which I won’t comment on. The point is how we construct and contextualise memories, the lies we tell ourselves and the delusions we accede to.

Hawkins prefaces her tale with two quotes, one from Hallucinations, by neurologist Oliver Sacks:

“We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorised with every act of recollection.”

Jules has been estranged from her sister Nel for decades, despite Nel’s frequent phone messages, to which she will not respond. Jules remembers Nel as callous – even cruel – as an adolescent big sister. She has Nel written off as a narcissistic self-dramatist. Then Nel dies in circumstances that might seem to justify that verdict. Jules returns to the village where the two spent teen summers, the village where Nel died, to care for Nel’s 15 year old mini-Nel, whose name is the near anagram Lena. But Lena is hostile, and her mother’s death is her second recent loss: not so long before, her BFF died the same way Nel apparently died.

The same way another local woman died 30 years earlier.

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There are those who believe they know the truth of what happened in each case, and those who know versions of what happened but cannot quite trust their knowing. There are those who seek a ‘justice’ that validates their version of events. There are those solely interested in self-justification. There are characters who effectively live in parallel universes, their versions of ‘reality’ in contradiction to the universes inhabited by others in their orbit.

Paula Hawkins explores what might happen when contradictory realities, constructed memories, are contested. She’s interested in interpersonal conflict, the shock effects in the wake of tragedy. She’s particularly concerned, as she was in The Girl On The Train, with how misogyny impacts women. There are several plot strands that play out ways men exert power to the detriment of women. Not all of these are presented in the most obvious terms. There are subtleties that are disquieting.

Don’t get too hung up on who did the killings. It’s really not the pay-off with this novel. The pay-off is the deep sigh when the question “Why?” is answered.

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