Elly McDonald

Writer


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Other People (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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Dingo (1982)

around here, they speak a language

whose vocabulary is familiar but

the words have different meanings

I can’t communicate

Commonplace expressions require foreign

interpretations; facial movements, social

gestures carry different connotations

I can’t convey

how at odds I feel in this Rubik’s Cube of a

World, how petrified

I am by this Rosetta Stone

Establishment: its every interaction

codified – each move feels false

A game of chess, post coup d’etat

A loaded dice, a snakes’n’ladders board

whose symbols have been reversed

I can’t decipher

An ever-changing cryptic crossword

I can’t control

An environment demanding that I speak in tongues

I find this neighborhood unnerving as the sight

of a dingo gazing down over Woolloomooloo

 

it’s there, at the top of stone stairs

a watcher flanked by rows of ochre terrace houses

it turns towards me (expectant

satisfied, cynical): Your yellow eyes betray you

square peg


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Watching (1982)

For someone who insisted she would

Not do anything she couldn’t admit to

 

midnight copper cockroach

crouched on asphalt pavement, inner

city face concave – erratic dark vermin

in the alleyway oblivion –

across an empty lot, strewn with rubble and tattooed

(the shadow-net cast by the meshed wire fence)

she scurries, feet scraping

alert: rapacious watcher

metallic and uncaring

 

She does know (or course)

It’s a dreadful thing to do


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Reconstructing honours (2 June 2014)

In 1985 I was longlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Young Writers Award. Really.

I state this with astonishment as until approximately 2am this morning I had entirely forgotten this fact – and I wonder how this can be. I wonder not only how I could forget completely (and for how many years?), but I wonder how it happened at all.

This much I recall.

In 1985 the sun came out. I remember that distinctly. For some years prior, from late 1981, I had existed in a vortex of panic and despair. Paradoxically, I remember all too clearly how that came about – those painful spirals of terror and shame. I won’t conjure their memory here. What that dark energy did serve to do was pump the poetry of out of me. Literally. Across that period I wrote poems, short but frequent, and intense.

A lot of young people write poetry and a lot of it is hideously embarrassing in retrospect. My juvenilia has its share of junk. But it also threw up poems that I can read today and I recognise their impact. They were short on craft, devoid of wisdom, but a few packed a wallop.

In 1983 I began submitting poems to literary journals. Truth is, I didn’t mind the boomeranged rejections. I was lonely, and those return envelopes took care that my mail box was always full. At that point I equated rejection with relationship. But then the odd thing started. I started to open letters informing me my poems were accepted. I had the bizarre experience of having one poem accepted by four literary journals to whom I’d simultaneously sent it. Unethical, one editor huffed.

One morning, I now recall, I opened a letter advising me I’d been longlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award. It was the Year of Youth – or the Year of Young People? – and the Awards featured a Young Writers section. I remember walking Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross, Sydney, where I lived, past the landmark El Alamein Fountain, tears spouting from my eyes so the fountain blurred.

I asked the psychiatrist I dated that week, is it possible to cry tears of pure joy? No, he answered. Tears always indicate pain.

What, specifically, had I done, to be longlisted? I was in the process of self-publishing a collection of my poems, disingenuously titled Other People’s Pain. But the book had not yet appeared. I’ve googled the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, in hopes there might be something in cyberspace that might assist my memory. I see the Awards as they exist today in most categories invite entries. I realise that’s how it was then, too.

I submitted entries. I think I submitted a short story and a short television script. The short story was titled Old Angus and it was published in Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Australian. I remember the Chief Sub-editor congratulating me on its readability. Most of the stories, he told me, were crap. But mine told a story.

Old Angus was a fictionalised account of my grandfather’s death. I wrote it for my father. After Old Angus was published in The Australian, the national radio broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, asked me to adapt it as a radio play, which in the event they chose not to produce. Their rejection letter stated that on reconsideration they realised the narrative did not lend itself to radio dramatization. Which strikes me as odd, since the story is a conversation between two men, and dialogue seems peculiarly suited to an aural medium. But, no mind. I didn’t mind then.

The other piece I entered for the Premier’s Award was a short script for television titled Callie. Callie is a pseudonym I’ve used for myself on and off over many years. It’s also the name of a goldmine in Western Australia, a goldmine that came good spectacularly on the stock markets in late 1991, showering me with funds to embark on a bucket list world tour. If 1985 was the year the sun came out, Callie was the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. But that’s another story.

I wrote the TV script titled Callie as an assignment I did as a student in a pilot program course through what was then called the Australian Film & Television School (later the Australian Film Radio & Television School – AFRTS). The course was a pilot for a Scriptwriting By Correspondence program, and I completed it over two years, from 1983 to ’85. The Callie assignment asked us to take our zodiac sign and write a character-driven piece that dramatized the qualities associated with that zodiac. I was born Aries. Aries are, notoriously, impulsive, vain, courageous, reckless, intemperate, loyal, irresponsible, loveable. I remember I had Callie pick a jumper off a sales rack and think it a bargain at $65, then find she’s misread the price tag and it’s actually $650. I did that once. Wishful thinkers, we Aries. Fantasists.

I’m fairly sure it’s Callie I owe for my NSW Premier’s Literary Award nod.

What I also remember is that even though it was the Year of Youth (or possibly the Year of Young People), the young writers longlisted for the Young Writer’s Award were not invited to the Awards Dinner. I hope and assume those shortlisted were.

I remember that particularly because literary columnist Don Anderson had a piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald about what a rort the event was. He wrote satirically and sarcastically about it being an evening of bored and drunken literary types, chucking bread rolls at each other. I promptly wrote to the organisers pointing out that while the literary types who float round the literary circuit might be jaded, the Young Writers might have found it inspiring to attend the function, especially as the year – 1985, the year the sun came out – purported to honour them. The organisers wrote back saying there wasn’t room for everyone.

I like Don Anderson. Scratch that: I Iove Don Anderson. As Associate Professor at the Department of English at Sydney University, he was my English Literature tutor the following year, in 1986. He was a mentor, supporter and friend to me. But I still think it sad he wrote a gonzo piece about drunks when he could have written up the young writers. Hard to blame him, though, for failing to do that when the young writers were invisible, indeed, were possibly not present.

So the evening that might have proved unforgettable passed like any other and eventually the entire episode was forgotten.

Until tonight. I can still how the El Alamein fountain looked, in the sun, viewed through tears.

El Alamein fountain


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Peace Love & Understanding (2011)

Image

Between ages 18 and 29 I lived slap bang in the middle of Sydney’s Kings Cross. There were reasons. At that time I worked in the rock music industry, which involved seeing bands play four nights a week from 11pm to 3am. I needed a home close enough to the inner city music venues that I could afford taxis to and from – or could walk (shudder!). I needed to be somewhere open 24/7 so I could buy a snack at 4am. I didn’t earn much, so I survived mostly on my 4am post-gig snack and a late morning cappuccino, with slice of continental chocolate cake, at a sidewalk café.

Many of the musicians I knew and worked with lived nearby. There were also artists, writers, filmmakers and actors, which made for interesting chance meetings and creative cross-pollination. The Cross at that time did have a certain charm: it was bohemian and vital, with a carnival-like atmosphere late into the night.

People have asked me if it was exciting living off Darlinghurst Road during the period dramatised in the top-rating TV series ‘Underbelly: The Golden Mile’. Yes, it was exciting. But I hate people asking me about John Ibrahim, the nightclub owner and underworld figure who was central to the ‘Underbelly’ narrative. I’ve been asked if I met Ibrahim, by a woman who sighed he was so “Sexy!” I don’t know if I was ever in the same room as Ibrahim. Very likely yes, as I did spend a lot of time in nightclubs and the Cross was a close-knit assemblage of characters. I do know that even then I despised what Ibrahim represented, which to me was clear: exploitation and thuggery.

At that time, you couldn’t walk more than a meter or so along Darlinghurst Road without there being drugged out prostitutes standing on the pavement, unsteady on their high heels, their bruised flesh massively exposed by flimsy, abbreviated garments that barely covered their wispy limbs. The prostitutes were young girls and transsexuals. Darting between the prostitutes were people looking to score: some of them hard-core drug addicts, others “sightseers” mostly from the western suburbs. You could pick who was scanning for drugs. Their eyes flitted constantly, seeking out their dealers. In addition to prostitutes and their clients, dealers and their clients, the rag-tag bunch of eccentric residents and the tourists (local and foreign), periodically there’d be an influx of US sailors on “R&R” (rest and recreation). Those nights were especially lively.

Many years later, when I revisited the Cross after 15 years or more away, I was astonished that I had tolerated living there for even five minutes, let along close on 12 years. It was physically filthy, and squalid. The local “colour” I’d taken as a given, even thrived on, seemed to me sad and abhorrent. But at the time, given I was a freelance writer who worked from my own home, producing not more than two articles a week, I spent hours on end people watching. I’d sit somewhere I hoped was unobtrusive and watch the entire parade.

Of course this led to many curious encounters (tarot card readers, random celebrities) and many encounters that were plain tedious (men hoping I was a “working girl”, or trying to recruit me to porn photo shoots or communes in Orange).

It also led to an encounter that I believe changed my life. One incredibly hot evening, I was sitting atop a low brick wall when a group of young people wafted towards me. They were fresh-faced, somewhat angelic looking, handing out brochures printed in pale blue and white containing prayers for peace. I don’t know what, if any, church or spiritual practice they represented, and although I kept the brochure for many years – and later cut out the readings and pasted them in a special folder – there was no text to identify who produced it.

I don’t think these young people attempted to engage me in long conversation. They simply handed me the brochure, told me their aim was to promote peace, and continued on their mission. I turned my eyes to the brochure and the first words I read have stayed with me always: Peace begins with me.

As it happens, that message, and the other prayers, were remarkably pertinent to my circumstances. My life was turbulent. I was not a peaceful or spiritual person, in any way. In fact I mentally dismissed those kind young people as sappy and naïve – but I did keep that brochure.

For a long time, through the toughest time of my life, I read those prayers out loud every day. And when I started to explore related readings – both through the Christian church and through peace activists of other faiths – there’s no question it was those foundational readings that prompted me.

I sometime think of the young people who spent that evening in the Cross, handing out brochures to hookers and drug addicts and drunkards and people who looked at them like they were crazy. It was brave of them, really. They probably wondered whether what they were doing could possibly make a difference. And I am here to answer, once again: yes.

Mission is a challenging concept, easily confused with intrusion. What I took from this experience, amongst much else, is that there’s nothing embarrassing about peace, love and understanding (despite the anti-hippy ethos of my rock music comrades); and that speaking one’s truth can be a gift, if offered with love.

So if asked if I met John Ibrahim, gangster, I will reply that if I did, he made no impression; but the teenage “peace people” I will remember, always.

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Lord, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen