Introduction to Christina Stead – A Web of Friendship – Selected Letters (1928 – 73)

The Miegunyah Press – 2017

Christina Stead left Australia at the age of twenty-six, arriving in England in 1928 ‘like a small insect waving its antennae’.

‘I really hate work,’ she wrote to her cousin Gwen. ‘I am not a born writer, but must say … I get the profoundest, most passionate satisfaction from writing and it is the only thing, since I am so thin, that keeps me from getting fretful under disappointment natural to living merely.’

Words trip over words, you sense stories in the making. Her letters are performances, passionate narratives from life, bashed out single-spaced on second-hand typewriters with handwritten annotations. The correspondence selected here, preserved by family members, by agents and publishers, by writerly friends and literary acquaintances all over the world, is from Stead’s side only. The letters she received were mostly destroyed as she and Marxist writer Bill Blake, her life’s companion, moved in and out of rented and borrowed accommodation across the northern hemisphere.

Between the wars and afterwards was a difficult time to be an Australian-born writer. Censorship was rife, publishing everywhere was conservative, with publishers rarely interested in manuscripts emanating from the colonies. Stead’s first London publisher, Peter Davies, didn’t ‘get’ her books, or so it seemed to her, and paid royalties irregularly—but he did champion The Salzburg Tales and Seven Poor Men of Sydney in London and New York. Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Brace in New York were more attuned to Stead’s dog-eats-dog dark comedies, her rapid shifts of pace in House of All Nations and For Love Alone—but the rest of them were ‘tripe merchants’ recommending she emulate Steinbeck and Hollywood tie-ins like Gone with the Wind. In Sydney Angus & Robertson, then the only publisher of size in Australia, was the real villain as far as Stead was concerned—interested only in Australiana and pot-boilers, declaring her cosmopolitan novels too literary, ‘un Australian’. Stead and Blake, a German Jew raised in the States, much preferred Eastern European publishers who translated and produced their novels in handsome editions. Also ‘socialist publishers pay royalties,’ she told friends, the accrued funds in local currencies being spent on fine booze and books whenever they could visit.

Stead always insisted she invented nothing, embroidering, coding, making fantastical metaphors from the depths and heights of real life. She strongly disapproved of ‘Freud’s noisome fancies, mostly ridiculous, from literary work … I always want to say (but don’t usually) “But those things are real, friend, not sickly dreams”.’ She blamed her father, a naturalist, for forming her, deforming her, giving her up to bad stepmothers who couldn’t love her and she wrote David Stead no letters after she sailed away. But The Man Who Loved Children, first published with little fanfare in 1940, enshrines her rage and love. Stead declared the book ‘terribly lifelike’, and too painful for her to ever re-read.

Her deepest friendships were always with men, their wives mentioned fondly but in passing. She first met American poet and critic, Stanley Burnshaw, in New York in 1933 with Bill Blake at the office of the Communist journal, New Masses. Stead responds at length and with great perspicacity to his work, and he always to hers. ‘You say the novel is spotted with some extraordinarily dull and gawky pages which look suspiciously deliberate,’ she writes, ‘but I may as well say they are not deliberate, they are just dull and gawky on their own and it may be a long time, in fact, before I can eliminate these dull passages from my writing.’ Her letters reflect that reciprocity so crucial between writerly friends—those who take the trouble to write a detailed analysis of the other’s work, who send each other advance copies, who ask their publishers to consider seriously the work of a writer they respect, who feel free to rage about the treatment they receive at the hands of their editors and critics.

Many years later, it would be Burnshaw, then Vice President of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, who saw to the pivotal reissue in 1965 of The Man Who Loved Children, and commissioned an introduction by the superb critic Randall Jarrell. Stead writes to Burnshaw that she approached Jarrell’s words ‘with the usual feeling of quiet nausea, fear too, which always puts me off the reading of criticism … With this I had the feeling one has about one who truly loves you—“How can it be? How can he love me? How puzzling.” … I had the same feeling almost—the perfect reader, the real reader. Who does one write for? Oneself—and the true reader … This is such a new and even pure sensation.’

Reading between the lines of Stead’s letters, something of the difficulty of being an expatriate writer, published in London and New York with agents in both countries and a small or non-existent market subject to colonial royalties in Australia can be understood. Those who lived for years outside Australia often suffered for their cosmopolitanism and subject matter. Henry Handel Richardson and Randolph Stow never returned. Patrick White did but continued to be published first in London and New York. Christina Stead, always scathing about the English class system, disliking the adulation of the Bloomsbury Set and ‘the Virginia Woolf thing’, craved an Australian readership which was a very long time coming.

At first there were occasional mentions of overseas reviews in the Sydney literary pages which her cousin Gwen sends her.Nettie Palmer starts writing to her in 1935, passing on Rebecca West’s praise of Seven Poor Men of Sydney. The women had been delegates to the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, a gathering in Paris of writers and intellectuals against fascism. Walter Stone of the Book Collectors’ Society in 1949 writes asking for publication details of her books in their various editions for his Newsletter which solicits a grateful reply from Stead, pointing out that Australia was the only country to ban Letty Fox the previous year, ‘caused by some highly coloured press stories in the Australian papers … with the idea of helping sales.’

But it was the literary quarterlies, Meanjin and Southerly, publishing occasional stories and commissioning critical articles, which began building her public. The magazines, dependent on small amounts of support from universities and the Commonwealth Literary Fund, could pay only pittances but she was fortunate in editors such as Clem Christesen, who at times provided substantial feedback. Stead hated being edited and was often late returning proofs.

Her correspondence is like a map of an emerging culture. Editors, writers and academics such as Nancy Keesing, Dymphna Cusack, Dorothy Green, Elizabeth Harrower, Mary Lord, Judah Waten and Michael Wilding start to seek her out whenever they are in London, and fret about the invisibility of her great opus. Their students are encouraged to read her, they include her in anthologies of new Australian writing and nominate her for fellowships and awards. Stead is heartened by the attention but is no pushover—railing at times about Australian literary criticism being ‘heavy fumy palimpsesting’ and editors ‘who keep embroidering upon the authors’ MS (And must be restrained.)’.

Not until after Bill Blake had died did she return to Australia for a few months in 1969—the recipient of a Creative Arts Fellowship from the ANU, Category B for ‘an Australian expatriate artist of international repute’. Her novels here were largely out of print, unattainable even in libraries but Australian literature was well on the way to being ‘discovered’ and she found herself an Official Personage, interviewed, photographed, fêted everywhere. It was all a great strain, she hated public speaking and she drank too much, but she loved the trees and the big skies and being driven from Canberra to Melbourne across the Monaro by her new friend Dorothy Green.

Professor R.G. Geering first wrote to Stead early in 1960 enquiring about her publishing history, offering to act as a go-between with Angus & Robertson in an attempt to get paperback editions of her novels published in Australia. Her letter in reply is restrained but firm. He visits her in London a few years later. He is an academic, a species despised and ridiculed by Stead and Blake, but his respect for her work and his determination to have it republished was palpable and her reliance on him starts to grow. ‘Dear Professor Geering’ quickly becomes ‘Dear Ron’ and their friendship blossoms to the point where he eventually became Stead’s Literary Trustee, expert in the ways of ‘weaving a culture’, as she put it, ‘tending the exotic plants in Australian literary gardens’. He and his wife Dorothy were kind and forbearing during the desperately lonely years after Bill’s death and it was Ron Geering who was left to place in the National Library a trunk load of loose ends and to collect the hundreds of letters she had written over half a century. Stead had earlier destroyed all her drafts, most of her private papers, diaries and intimate correspondence from family and friends. They on the other hand had kept hers.

‘I am a believer in love. That’s really my religion,’ Christina Stead said to an interviewer at the end of her life. She saw herself as unlovable, fearful of being bereft of male company, craving passion and fearing rejection. Nothing but her letters, surely, could give us more of a sense of being a great writer, engaged in ‘the awful blind strength and cruelty of the creative impulse’, reaching out, yearning for a true reader.

Now that letter-writing is almost done for, the next generation of literary trustees will find themselves wrestling with very different gaps in the record and tracks in the algorithms. The outrage and struggle will still be there, the jokes and the gossip and the despair about government policy, fickle publishers, facile critics. Literary biographers will have to pick their way through more self-censorship and self-promotion, more anxiety, perhaps. Writers who SMS are often indiscreet, sometimes at great length with paragraphs and punctuation in place, starting some of them with an OMG or a satirical emoji. Their emails tend to be more judicious or to include instructions—ignored mostly, I assume—to ‘burn this’. The protocols are instinctive and evolving.

So it is no surprise that the bliss of reading torrents of letters left by writers gets ever stronger. You feel the presence of the past, the writer’s past, this country’s past, your own past—and you sense the future start to unfold. Stead’s letters, with their awkward Australian bones, their cosmopolitan sensibility and their ‘intelligent ferocity’ cannot help but draw us in.

Hilary McPhee

The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing, 2017


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Brian Johns: The Force Of Ideas

O the sad but perfect irony of me being asked to write about my friend Brian John’s legacy for Meanjin online just a few days after his death. He, who rarely spoke about himself, would not have approved.

He loved small magazines like Meanjin, believing them to be essential, doing what he could to ensure their support. Meanjin’s quarterly essay, was funded through the CAL’s Cultural Fund which he chaired for many years. We were both on the magazine’s Advisory Committee and at different times on the MUP Board – his contribution, unlike mine, never wavering.

Brian Johns

Soon after he arrived in Melbourne in 1979 to take up the job of publishing director at Penguin, he sought out Di Gribble and me. McPhee Gribble was then in a shabby three storey terrace house in Carlton with a childcare department on the ground floor, itinerant writers and another small publisher renting rooms from us on the third, and a vast front room with a balcony in the middle, perfect for producing books and having parties.

Penguin Books was then a long way out of town on the Maroondah Highway and our offices in Drummond Street, Carlton and later in Fitzroy became a sort of end of week staging post for Brian. Every Friday night, first in the office then in the pub and at dinner somewhere later, we’d argue ideas and politics and ways to make things happen.

Brian read and discussed what we published and pressed copies on his friends. Word-of-mouth we called it, knowing it was superior to any marketing campaign and Brian was a master of good talk. We did the same for his list at Penguin when his revolution began and Penguin was open for original fiction and opinionated non-fiction and polemic. He published Elizabeth Jolley, Blanche d’Alpuget, Thea Astley, David Ireland, Rodney Hall and Frank Moorhouse and many more besides. Henry Reynolds brought him The Other Side of the Frontier, Bernard Smith, The Boy Aeodatus and he commissioned remarkable books like John Bryson’s Evil Angels, the account of the Lindy Chamberlain case, and Richard Haese’s Rebels and Precursors about Modernist painters.

His contacts were second to none and reflected his years in the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Whitlam then Fraser, and his skills as a journalist. He insisted his friends should know each other so Sydney became our town as well. These were the Hawke and Keating years in the run-up to the Bicentennial and all of us were honing our imaginations and sense of the place, stretching the limits of what was possible in theatre and film and cultural policy making, The diversity of Australian stories became a favourite mantra.

Brian was appointed head of the SBS in 1987 and we all cheered and danced late into the night. Broadcast media was where he was meant to be. At McPhee Gribble we were about to expand our staff and our publishing when the economic downturn, Keatings’ ‘recession we had to have’ started to bite and Penguin’s policy towards us inevitably changed. McPhee Gribble was eventually absorbed into Penguin and I moved on, becoming a few years later chair of the Australia Council with a brief to overhaul it. Diana started Text Media with Eric Beecher. Brian became head of the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

We shared the same Ministers for Communications and the Arts, Michael Lee, under Keating, and then Richard Alston, Howard’s Minister for Communications and the Arts – sometimes meeting in the outer offices, sometimes in the lift, giving each other the thumbs up as we went in to argue policy and funding for creativity and multimedia convergence. Creative Nation was released in October 1994 with its $252 million in additional spending for the arts and multimedia.

And in 1995 Brian became Managing Director of the ABC, the role he was made for and had set his sights on years before. Diana became a director and eventually his deputy chair. Reading and publishing books, broadcasting and making cultural policy that enabled new work by writers and artists and performers were all part of the same thing, we told each other whenever we met.

The force of ideas Brian called it.

We’d argue pictures as we argued books. He’d often ring wanting a weekend going around the galleries to see the work of an artist he wanted to share – Jan Senbergs, Rick Amor, Lloyd Rees, William Robinson, Peter Booth, Colin Lanceley, Rosie Gascoigne. His taste was wide and discerning. Many of them were friends.

So much I learnt from him.

I first heard of mango-mouth from Brian describing his childhood in Gordonsvale, Queensland where his father was a wharfie and a barber and where the kids climbed mango trees and feasted until their lips were red and swollen.

I first heard of the One True Faith from him too, he who had spent three years from the age of sixteen in a Sydney seminary with several of his friends who’d remained in the priesthood. Brian liked late at night to make non-believers and vacillating protestants feel like heathens covered in woad stumbling through the dark without a compass.

Brian’s moral compass was unwavering. A modest man whose interest in other people was vast, he would describe the trajectory of his life’s work with a dismissive gesture of both hands as ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’.

His legacy is formidable and every aspect of broadcasting is steeped in it. Mark Scott delivering the Inaugural Brian Johns AO Lecture last September paid homage to his foresight. ‘In the infancy of the internet, a decade before broadband, Brian realised that traditional broadcast platforms would converge to create an audience experience based solely on content.’ ‘One ABC’ was born – a great public broadcaster in a digital age.

These days my New Years Eve’s are as austere and solitary as I can make them – superstitious about first footings and seeing the New Year in with a good whisky outside under the night sky.

This time I was thinking much about Brian and the recent message he’d left on my phone apologising for being ‘rather elusive, having been in a bit of a muck’. We had spoken later about the muck he was in and his beloved Sarah’s heroism and when he might be well enough to be up for a visit from me. I reminded him of how he had come to see me in intensive care a long time ago when I woke to find him standing by the bed, his rumpled face pale with concern, calling me a silly little Scottish sheila, like he often did, making me laugh, making me somehow determined to recover and get back into the great heady game of it all.

But I didn’t make it to Sydney and Brian died at dawn on New Year’s morning.

Published in Meanjin’s Quarterly Blog, January 4 2016.
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Letter to the Editor – ABR October 2015


Shannon Burns’ splendid ABR essay, The scientist of his own experience, a profile of Gerard Murnane, is rich with insights and pithy observations, plus some rather fine photos. Much of it resonated for me, as Murnane’s first editor, soon after I’d arrived at William Heinemann from Penguin eons ago.

When Gerald Murnane needed a publisher for his first novel, Tamarisk Row , Barry Oakley almost certainly suggested Heinemann because the Managing Director was John Burchall, a former bookseller, prodigious reader and long luncher – and one of the few publishers passionate about original Australian writing.

Certainly after one of those lunches, a fat brown paper parcel landed on my desk. Tamarisk Row immediately impressed me as an eccentric masterpiece, like nothing else. No chapters, just perfectly formed sentences in long paragraphs often over several pages, and dauntingly dense when typeset. So a kind of blank verse of one line signposts for each break, written by the author, was suggested by me, as was not to include a prelude of some forty pages of family history. Shannon Burns’ take on Murnane’s psychology is deeply interesting and made me aware that this may well have contained clues to Murnane’s unease around women. But the novel didn’t need it, and the author agreed.

Heinemann had recently sold huge quantities of Wilbur Smith’s Gold Mine and The Diamond Hunters – which John Burchall believed should finance modest sellers such as Tamarisk Row in hardback and with any luck might be picked up by Penguin for a paperback. (It wasn’t because the then editor at Penguin was John Hooker, also a novelist, who delighted in knocking back books he didn’t like on the grounds that ‘We’re ok for fiction at Penguin, thanks.’)

Shannon Burns quotes Murnane recalling me as determined to emphasise the book’s erotic passages. ’You have to publicise, but I remember Hilary McPhee putting on the dust jacket Childhood sex!”

 Childhood sex! So the other day I climbed a ladder to the top of my bookshelves for the 1974 Heinemann hardback edition of Tamarisk Row which John Burchall and I had laboured long over with designer David Wire. The dustjacket is a model of restraint. A beautiful close up photograph on a black background of one of the author’s own marbles from which his fictional boy, Clement Killeaton, constructs his elaborate game of racetracks and family mythology. I can hear the sound the alleys made as Murnane poured them from their cotton bag on to Burchall’s desk for Wire to photograph.

The blurb actually reads: ‘Childish sexuality is a major theme in the novel, handled with almost painful honesty and sensuality so that the boy’s world with its many conflicts is as disturbing as the adults’ world around him.’

Murnane has often said he would like Tamarisk Row republished unexpurgated – and maybe one day it will be. That his memory is a little faulty about the commercial environment, the editorial interventions he endured and his first dustjacket blurb doesn’t matter at all in the scheme of things, but the italics and the addition of the exclamation mark … Ho hum. Editors as midwives, remote and unapproachable mothers, profiles of literary figures forensically constructing their own profiles … Thank you, Shannon Burns, for a fascinating portrait of one of our best writers. Now, please, the biography.

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It Happened on a Fishing Trip


Affirm Press, 2015.

Edited by Paddy O’Reilly


All the way down the South Gippsland highway in the back of Fred’s new car the women sang to Paul Kelly then to an old Tammy Wynette compilation, so no one heard the news. Warnings there may well have been, not unlike those signs about submerged rocks and tidal extremities bristling on the wharf at the Lakes. The first photo Hettie took with her new camera was of Jack and Fred with rods and reels, grinning beneath their battered hats, with Mira eyes wide pointing in mock alarm at a sign to the open sea.

The boat bobbing in the marina on a light swell early that Saturday afternoon seemed much bigger than the 36-footer of the brochures. They admired the good-sized cockpit, the blue canopy, the dymo-labelled switches, the raised compass next to the wheel, the gleaming teak and oak finishes of the main cabin and the sleeping berths. There was a mainsail, neatly bundled in a blue canvas cover, but none of the friends had sailed before and didn’t intend to start. Words such as port and starboard and gimbals on which the stainless steel stove was gently rocking, were bandied about as they changed their shoes then stashed the pile of weekend papers, food and wine, and fishing gear before listening to instructions from the boat hire people about switching fuel tanks and reversing out of the berth into the main channel and heading for the legendary fishing grounds of the Lakes.

In those days the Duttons and the Kormans saw each other all the time, close in the way of childless couples in their early forties, who’d been married before. Mira Korman and Hettie Dutton were not interested in fishing so much as being altogether, doing things. They were happy that their husbands hit it off. Best friends even. A perfect fit. Fred Dutton was a big shot in real estate and Jack Korman taught building construction. The couples met every Friday night at Mira’s cafe, where the idea of fishing the Lakes together first came up and the planning started.

Three or four meals of fresh flatties and bream or tailor, if they were lucky, so lots of potatoes, lemons and garlic. Hettie would make her boiled fruit cake and a meat loaf and they’d take a large tub of Mira’s famous lentil soup. They’d need a pepper grinder, oil and a sharp knife. And rubber gloves, said Mira. The women’s pleasure in the prospect was palpable. The men would book the boat for the long weekend and meet one lunchtime at the Compleat Angler to purchase new reels and tackle.

None of the four had motored out into an estuary at the wheel of anything at all let alone a middle-sized cruiser. The jokes had begun on the long drive down about the range of experience on board. Fred had once worked in a city car park where young blokes like him raced exotic cars between floors after-hours. Jack sometimes fished on the bay in a friend’s tinny with an outboard. Both women had holidayed years ago with a group on a catamaran up the east coast, sunbaking, reading and taking turns at the stove and the tiller. Hettie had written a couple of articles for a travel magazine during a month on a cargo boat around the islands just before she met Fred. Mira thought they could both remember how to take bearings with a compass.

Between them it would be enough. The men examined the engine, checked the chart, peered at the echo sounder, argued briefly about who should take the wheel and who should prepare the lines, and hinted that some fruit cake and beers from the esky wouldn’t go amiss. They’d bought local wrigglers and prawns on the recommendation of fishermen in overalls and waders in the bait shop near the quay, but planned to dig for worms ashore later when they’d found their safe haven for the night. Hettie’s photos show three of them standing on deck holding life jackets and beers, radiating happiness.

By mid afternoon they were underway, chugging out into a tailwind with Jack at the wheel and Mira reading the List of Navigation Aids from under a plastic shield in the cockpit to shrieks of laughter. ‘My handsome husband,’ cried Mira, ‘is Master of the Vessel who must maintain a distance of 100 metres astern of any other vessel proceeding in the same direction.’ No other boats were heading their way, Fred pointed out, as they started across the channel towards a point marked by a beacon that flashed occasionally.

Cardinal marks (yellow and black) and plain yellow marks have special significance,’Mira read. The chart, with its estuaries and channels indicated by depth, seemed to assume a degree of local knowledge. A couple of churches on headlands and lookout towers were marked, as were fuelling depots, and casual berthing jetties. ‘That sounds like us,’ said Hettie hugging Fred.

The marina was well in their wake when Jack slowed the engine so bearings could be taken. There’s a fuzzy photo of Mira and Hettie standing in the cockpit next to Jack, debating compass points. The plan was now to head towards the mouth across the main channel then make for a small island on the south-west shore yet to be distinguished from the grey-green scrub between them and the beach. Here they would berth, set fishing lines off the stern and bait the rods for the evening’s catch. It had to be there somewhere, they agreed.

An hour later, Jack was still cutting across lumpy water. There was spray now on the windscreen, though no one knew the correct name for it, and if there were wipers they didn’t work. Fishing boats of serious size lined the horizon and behind them, threatening the last of the sun, loomed a bank of purple clouds.

The island was still not visible, a strong southerly was getting up, and what might be a local fishing fleet was heading past them towards the mouth. The wash made Fred, in his straw hat, look up from the sporting pages and Hettie, leaning against his knees, from her paperback. Jack tried exchanging exasperated glances with his wife, but Mira had her eyes fixed firmly on the horizon in an attempt to still her stomach. The deep water had vanished and the sandy bottom with occasional beer cans could now be seen – but how much water they needed under a boat this size no one knew. Jack slowed the engine, tried but failed to take a depth sounding, and announced he was heading directly for the island. The Duttons returned to their reading.

By the time they nosed their way into what looked to be a creek with a low-lying bank of scrubby ti-tree and tussocks out of the wind, the sun was dipping into the sea behind them. When the canopy above the deck started catching on overhanging branches, Jack cut the engine. Fred threw the anchor over the side where it sank into the mud. Then he leaped ashore to tie loose lines to a couple of trees. There’s a photo of him thrashing at a cloud of mozzies with his hat, then another after Jack and Mira pulled him back on board, his woollen socks full of burrs.

How to read tide tables for a series of lakes with access at one end to the open sea? A mild argument broke out about applying the range between high and low tide and what might a half-flood be or a three-quarters ebb. The women found fenders and a life buoy in the lockers and positioned them over the side nearest the bank. A sea anchor mentioned in the navigation instructions to stop the stern swinging, didn’t seem to exist, and there wasn’t much room to swing anyway. ‘We’re up shit creek,’ Fred joked. No one laughed.

As night fell, the couples drank beer and red wine, ate cold meatloaf and cake, then slathered each other with insect repellent. Jack and Fred started on about real-estate values round the Lakes compared with Northcote then headed up on deck – Fred to smoke a cigar and Jack to set lines. Mira and Hettie finished their wine, cleaned their teeth over the side, and rolled out sleeping bags: the Duttons on either side of the main cabin and the Kormans in the stern. They could hear each other’s whispering and stifled laughter, then silence as the motion of the boat on the rising tide got to them.

Later the ugly sounds of scraping started against the hull. The Kormans climbed out of their sleeping bags to check the fenders – Mira hoping to sight the moon which should be almost full, she thought. But the lines were tangled in the reeds and a thick mist had enveloped the boat.


The couples awoke to heavy rain pelting against the hatch and streaming down the windows on a boat strangely still and tilted. The bow had swung with the tide and was now wedged tightly between tussocks. Fred and Jack stood in the gangway conferring gloomily about having no room to turn and having to reverse all the way out of the creek into the main channel before they could make for somewhere better for fishing. Hettie and Mira kept out of their way.

Their choices were few. No point in trying to fish in a deluge. No point in climbing into wet weather gear until they were ready to push off. No point in trying to push off until the tide turned. Whether heavy rain caused fish to rise to the bait or skulk in the mud was now up for debate. Jack knew about the joys of fishing as a kid for giant Murray cod in the rivers of western NSW. Was lake fishing the same as river fishing? No one knew. A fatalistic calm set in. The couples settled at the pull-out table in the cabin with the weekend papers and fried eggs, toast and pots of coffee, plus the round-up of the weekend footy over the crackling radio. The rain kept on streaming down windows made foggy with their breath.

By early afternoon the tide was surely on the turn. They should start to shove the boat away from the bank then, in reverse, make their way slowly back out of the creek. Like a ship of fools, said Fred. Then they’d head around the north-western shore of the lake into an estuary renowned, according to a brochure Jack had found on board, for flathead and bream – even perch on their way to saltwater to breed.

Freeing the bow of the boat from the bank required a reversing manoeuvre in a tight space to avoid impaling the hull on the submerged branches opposite. Mira was at the wheel with Fred standing in the stern shouting a bunch of rapid gear changes at her. On deck Jack and Hettie frantically moved fenders, shoving with the boat hook and their feet at tree trunks and tussocks. Slowly the bow came free, and Fred took over as the boat nudged its way stern first down the creek and back into the estuary.

Mugs of lentil soup were passed around. On the table, Mira had propped open The Age’s weather page with warnings of storms rolling in from the south-west. Hettie tied a rope to a bucket to slosh water and scrub in rubber gloves at the worst of the marks on the deck and hull. No one mentioned the damage clause in the hiring agreement but awareness of their incompetence was dawning. The weekend was half over. Sodden wet weather gear dripped in the corner of the cabin. Fred steered out into a channel well marked with buoys. Hettie cut slices of her boiled fruitcake and put the kettle on. Jack and Mira lay on their bunks. Silence fell.

By mid afternoon the wind was coming in strong gusts. The few boats on the horizon seemed to be heading east for the mouth or back into one of the several ports. The couples perhaps to emphasise their togetherness now took hourly turns at the wheel, one steering and one navigating by the chart. The course was towards a small cove indicated by a beacon that they would surely see flashing soon. Nothing was marked by way of a jetty, but the chart noted a swing moving buoy available for public use, which must mean they could tie up to it and fish.

It was a miracle, they agreed, when Jack spotted the buoy made from a rusty oil drum with a battered marker pole rolling in the waves. Fred instructed Hettie at the wheel to circle round and come back as close to the buoy as she could, then to slow the engine right down allowing the others enough time to pick the marker up with the boat hook. Then he reached across her and cut the engine. This took several goes, with Mira on deck hanging onto Jack’s legs as he leaned with the boat hook far over the rail. At last he managed to grab the buoy’s rusty chain and pull it towards him so Mira could tether it with a blue nylon rope through a ring in the deck. The boat rocked wildly then swung back into the wind, the waves slapping against the hull.

Everyone retreated miserably into themselves: Jack sneezing at the table, checking his box of fishing tackle; Hettie opposite him was writing in her notebook and singing something bright under her breath. Fred was back on his bunk with the business pagesand Mira, white-faced and puffy, lay flat on hers with a bucket by her side. Nobody spoke.

Later, they knew they’d been fortunate to be woken by a megaphone from a fishing boat twice their size that had come alongside to warn them off.

‘You need the nor’east mooring about another forty mins full throttle,’the loud hailer shouted. ‘This one’ll drag.’

The couples went quietly, dropping the old mooring buoy more efficiently than they’d picked it up and heading as fast as they dared towards what they hoped was north-east.

It was very dark but the rain had eased by the time they tied up at a wooden jetty under a flashing beacon. There were no other boats. No sign of life. No one mentioned that this was their last night nor that a night of fishing and frying the catch had become more than an imperative. The men, rugged up against the cold with towels around their necks, seated themselves in the stern to bait their rods with tired-looking prawns and wrigglers from the store. Now the worst of the weather was over, the fish would surely rise to the bait. Allegiances shifted subtly again.

Down below the women heated the last of the soup and handed up slices of meat loaf. Mira placed the frying pan on the stove with a flourish, then delicately positioned a couple of lemons, the knife and the olive oil next to it, so Hettie could photograph the still-life-in-readiness. Their disorientation had subsided. The men’s irritation was understandable. They’d of course lost face, their wives agreed. Now they’d bring home the bacon. Hettie and Mira would turn it into sublime fresh fish with perfect pommes frites on the side.

Your good girl’s gonna go bad,’ they softly sang together.

Through the hatch came the amiable rumble of men talking bait, the sounds of whirling reels, an occasional shout, then silence. Potatoes were peeled, finely chopped, drained and dried, and a saucepan of oil set ready. When Fred’s cigar smoke started wafting back through the hatch, the women found lipsticks and jackets then carried wineglasses and an uncorked bottle up on to the deck and settled themselves to watch the action.

The fish were biting alright. Bream by the dozen and the occasional flathead – but all well undersized and scrupulously unhooked and tossed back again and again.

‘So delicious crumbed and deep fried,’ said Mira sadly.

Another bottle of wine was called for as the cold set in, and then that the chips be fried up. Jack and Fred set lines with the remaining prawns and crumbled the last of the meatloaf over the side for burley.


The light on the water was dazzling next morning, the coastal dunes in the far distance as clear as the beginning of the world. Across the lake was the entrance to the marina where they’d set off two days ago. Black swans and a clutch of musk ducks were cruising past the jetty when the men, up on deck to piss and check the lines, found the eels. Two glittering silver-bellied creatures each more than a metre long were entwined together, twirling in the sunlight.

The Duttons and the Kormans swung into action. Rubber gloves, a half-filled bucket, the sharp knife, an emptied duffle bag. One at a time Fred manoeuvred the thrashing eels into the bucket then lifted them onto the deck where Mira in gloves grabbed and held them so Jack could impale them just below the head with the sharp knife. Hettie flicked them heaving into the canvas bag and secured it over the side. The four then cleaned up, packed their gear and motored back across the lake to the boat hire place where no mention was made of the marks on the hull.

Before the couples breakfasted ashore in a fisherman’s cafe, Hettie took the last lovely photograph of their time together. Jack and Fred and Mira are dancing on the jetty, their bagged catch held aloft, their faces ecstatic in the sunshine.


The eels were still twitching two days later when Fred nailed their heads to a fence post in the back yard, then gently ran the point of a knife around their necks just below the small fins. He peeled the silver skins off all the way to the tails in two perfect casings, slit the bellies to remove the guts, gave the heads to the cat, and the pink chunks to his wife to marinade in brandy and oil for Friday night’s dinner.

Hettie read up about eels to tell the others and copied the story into her notebook. They were very likely mature anguilla australis, short-finned females between the ages of ten and thirty-five years, full of eggs, millions of them, making their way from the freshwater lagoons that ringed the lakes to the open sea. There they would have turned north, heading thousands of miles up the east coast to spawn somewhere in Oceania near Vanuatu in the depths of the Coral Sea. Billions of fertilised eggs and baby glass eels would then drift on the currents back to the southern lakes and up into the freshwater rivers, where the cycle would begin all over again.

Mira rang midweek with an old recipe for matelot of eel and Hettie stewed them gently with prunes and shallots and a bottle of rough red. On Friday night, Fred drove carefully to the cafe, Hettie holding the hot casserole in her lap wrapped in a towel. She was happy with her new haircut and had started writing her travel piece. Jack was waiting with a bottle of special burgundy, and Mira joined them as the tables thinned out. They’d had the best time, they all agreed. They must do it again next year. Nothing had been heard about the scratches on the hull. The matelot was marvellous, the saffron rice the cafe served with it was just right. Jack’s burgundy could not have been better. Hettie’s photos would be ready next week when she’d tell them the amazing story of the eels.

But there wasn’t a next time.

On the way home Fred told Hettie he did not love her anymore. A few weeks later Jack told Fred he was going to live in Sydney with someone else. He told Mira eventually. She sold the cafe the following year. We found the photos in Hettie’s notebook; a fishing story none of them would ever tell.



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Sending Papers up the Hume

Hilary McPhee reflects upon a large number of boxes in her laundry


In London again this summer, I return as I always do to the handsome Reading Room of the Wellcome Medical Library in the Euston Road, my place of refuge and strength, as I have come to think of it, in a part of the world I visit often but do not belong.

The Reading Room is where I go to browse and write and sometimes to investigate medical dramas, my own and my ancestors’, and those of my friends, our dramas of the heart, the breast and the womb. The Wellcome is the world’s largest medical charitable trust for research, with assets of £12 billion, an open access policy to its collection—hundreds of thousands of digitised images, paintings, photographs and documents, body parts, surgical instruments, sex aids and medical talismans, all seemingly expressing contrariness and ambiguity, our wildly contradictory attitudes to Eros, enchantment and fate.

On display in the History of Medicine Exhibition is a lodestone for healing by touch and an amulet against the evil eye from Hebron in Palestine and another from Acton, Woolwich, London. There’s a group of figurines representing dead twins from the Yoruba people of Nigeria—who have the highest rate of twin births in the world and whose loss is considered a great misfortune. There’s a gall bladder, possibly Chineseacquired before 1936. The Wellcome Collection sets out to reflect medicine’s huge debt of gratitude to the dead, from the beginnings of life to its end.

This is a place where people hold doors and smile, make notes with Wellcome pencils, where clever old medical people conduct laptop tutorials at little tables in the café, the young hanging on their every word, and where the cloakroom attendants do crosswords with such concentration that queues form.

So I keep coming back—seven stops on the tube from where I stay, and just a few blocks away from the weighty British Library, which still has the power to discombobulate me. The Wellcome is the least English of London’s libraries, sitting somewhere between the new world and the old, feeding the spaces between imagination and memory, or so it seems to me, sitting on my stool at a tangent in the Reading Room looking out into the early summer afternoon.

This time I was in London to recover from eight long months spent steeped in my past. In battered old cartons and plastic boxes, the papers documenting something more than forty years of family and working life had been following me around since my last regular place of work. They had survived a stint in a shed at the beach, a long stretch in a dismal storage bin piled any old how, finally landing back home, a few years ago, stacked high in the laundry and turned to the wall so I couldn’t read their labels. I had the occasional dream of purging fire—an all-night bonfire, everyone masked, with wild music and leaping shadows—my boneyard of stories consigned to the flames, thus putting an end to the torture and the archival chaos my grown-up offspring would sooner or later have to negotiate, if I did not.

Some of the boxes were theirs anyway. My family is a complex one, as we who came of age in the 1960s like to say, step-kids and half-siblings and cousins and a couple of grandchildren twenty years apart, many of them returning to this house on and off, then leaving again, never taking all their stuff. Never their assignments, travel diaries and school photos, DVDs, fitness regimes, address books, dental reports, X-rays, bank statements, recipe books, old pet collars. With a laundry such as mine, how could I protest?

So when the decision was made last year not to move to the country, but to become a landlady and try to build another room above the laundry, the great sorting for posterity had to begin.

Keeping archives, not shredding or incinerating them in a weak moment, was what one did, I thought, when the work being done at the time was worth the effort. Mine had to be kept, I’d convinced myself, as the number of boxes mounted the walls, not because of me, but because of the times—the sexual revolution and feminism’s second wave, the Whitlam years and the end of the Vietnam War—when the cogs started shifting in Australian cultural life and publishing books was part of it. There was new writing from our own generation, new readers to find, new ways to produce books that spoke directly to children. Heady days.

Independent antipodean female publishers, such as Sally Milner’s Greenhouse, Anne O’Donovan Pty Ltd, McPhee Gribble Publishers and the collective of all of us who later formed Sisters Publishing, were perfectionists, tilting at windmills. We well knew we could only persuade writers to come to us in the first place and hold on to those prepared to change their publishers, if we were better. Money wasn’t the issue, advances would not start going through the roof for another decade or so. And allegiances were strong. Changing houses, as it used to be called, was a big deal. The large publishers that controlled distribution liked to talk tough and could be punitive. Defections were reported with glee.

Attention to detail was the stock-in-trade of all of us. We invented books and took on others unlikely to find a home elsewhere, worked closely with writers and illustrators, dreamt up clever marketing campaigns, shared information and sometimes offices. Being conduits was a term we used a good deal then, and only ironically some of the time when exhaustion set in.

All of us maintained our files, checked proofs and faxes, wielded scalpels in production rooms late at night, went to the post office every day and packed and labelled boxes. Some of those boxes were in my laundry, taped against collapse, bearing old labels from The Book Printer and Globe Press, small independent operators like ourselves and also our friends.

The archives of McPhee Gribble and the Sisters Publishing Collective went off to the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne in 1990, when our independent life ended, to be skilfully catalogued and labelled in folders as a component of a Graduate Diploma in Information Management (Archives and Records). The work of those years is now encapsulated as Manilla folders containing typescript, handwritten notes, postcards, letters, photographs, draft contracts, press cuttings, reviews, faxes and photocopies of faxes made during boxing.

Revisiting those files, to write Other People’s Words, I was struck by the absence of the first person singular pronoun. Somehow ‘we’ became the norm, as in we willwe can’twe might be able to find a way. Authors often wrote to all of us or worked for a time in a corner of the office. This, I now realise, makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to think of my papers from those days and beyond as anything other than a collaborative enterprise.


In the office before the party, Christmas 1989, photographer unknown

In 2012 the National Library, with its concern to document Australian cultural contexts, suggested that my personal and work-related papers on either side of the McPhee Gribble archive in the Baillieu Library be sent up the Hume Highway in despatches, numbered with box lists, date ranges and contextualising comments. You will feel better once it’s over, they assured me, gently. A certain level of derangement in the donor seemed to be expected, as if I was being sent on a journey for the sake of my health, rather as my maternal grandfather was sent to Tasmania in 1913 for the sake of his lungs. A couple of examples were quoted of people whose lives were more variegated, shambolic even, than mine. I started to see myself as a useful case study of an era that had vanished.

So the grisly task of exhuming the past and clearing the laundry began. A former colleague who had worked for a time in our third office at 203 Drummond Street, Carlton, offered her services once a week on Thursdays—and together we entered into a kind of therapeutic space of soup and reminiscence, and wine when it got too much.

First we had to photograph and list the boxes in the laundry so that the National Library could estimate their volume and ship us their own sturdy cartons with labels. Then a packing room was set up in my sitting room with trestles and my old brown couch from the last MPG office at 66 Cecil Street, Fitzroy. I bedecked the mantelpiece with a white office coffee cup and photographs of the glowing young people we used to be. Then spent my days in between packing sessions reading on the couch, assembling NLA boxes, fighting nostalgia and great globs of memory that threatened to engulf me. I doubled my swimming time to cope.

The cartons of yellowing folders and files, proofs, diaries, letters and postcards, press clippings, telexes then faxes, began in the late 1960s when I was a young mother, baby editor and activist of sorts. Patricia Edgar at La Trobe’s Centre for the Study of Media and Communication had suggested we co-author a role-reversal book about the treatment of women by mass media. Thanks to the photographs of brave and bearded male students posing as female media stereotypes, Media She was taken up by the ABC’s Monday Conference to hammer home what the blurb called ‘the extraordinary violence done to women in the name of femininity’.

Diana Gribble and I met first at university then ran into each other again campaigning for women to be allowed to drive trams. We then produced The WEL Papers, a small magazine of cartoons, photographs and illustrious contributors, and discovered we had the combined skills and the urge to start something of our own. That we were two women establishing a publishing venture was endlessly commented on—and both of us soon became snagged in the tokenism of the time. Government appointments, boards and committees were turned down unless they were irresistible and paid for interstate travel so we could visit authors and agents. The word inaugural haunted our generation and we often found ourselves the only women in the room.

A large number of the boxes in the laundry reflected my four years at the Australia Council, as its first female chair in the time of the Keating government’s Creative Nation and then for the first year of the Howard government. The Australia Council’s statutory independence was under threat, I was warned. It was in bad shape in 1994, essential and hard-working but barnacle-encrusted with a grant-giving structure of something like 186 sub-committees. If I was mad enough to take it on, the prime minister assured me, he would come in to bat—meaning, I soon learnt, that he’d ask big questions, listen, draw diagrams on tablecloths of how it all fitted together, and support me when the going got rough. How could I resist?

And it did get very rough. A complete overhaul and restructure with individual artists, writers and performers at the Australia Council’s core plus a clarity of funding was attacked and misrepresented, not surprisingly, by those with most to lose. A whistleblower tipped me off early on that funding, over the thirty years since the council’s inception, had crept up the age range. The young were missing out. The old were planning pension funds.

Australia Council support was crucial for individual artists and small companies as well as for our major arts organisations. Support for Indigenous arts, for live theatre and dance, for orchestras and for the regions was vital and underpinned the work of the new multimedia, the national broadcasters and the embattled film and television industries. Each art form had different needs and the parts fed the whole—like some enormous creative jigsaw puzzle. How could artists and writers who had had a good deal of support be persuaded to put something back? How could philanthropy start to grow? How easily I slip back into the rhetoric—but these were the years when I thought of little else. Here it all was in boxes of speeches, interviews, tapes—a version of my younger self I didn’t recognise at the time, full of fight, brave beyond measure, and greedy for ideas, relishing the politics and the manoeuvrings to make things happen.


A McPhee Gribble Christmas party on a hot night outside 66 Cecil Street, Fitzroy, December 1987, photographer unknown

‘Culling’ is not the right word for the tricky business of sorting papers for deposit in a national archive. The protocols and guidelines are clear enough. Trying to guess what is likely to be of interest one day, second nature to a publisher after all, is deeply problematic and best left to others. I find it impossible to imagine the questions the papers might raise for researchers seeking their own narratives with their very different perspective on the world and social media at their fingertips.

The context we were all part of then was a complex mix of the personal and the political, the not very private and the extremely public. Our working style was conversational, intuitive, empathetic, self-mocking. Comedy and satire were always in the air. Gallons of coffee were brewed, wine and whisky regularly consumed—much of it on the old brown couch.

After a while my criterion for sorting papers became quite simple. Anything I valued at the time, documents, faxes, emails, diaries, notebooks, letters, photographs, would be sent up the Hume—a convenient shorthand and one I grew to like. I imagine the boxes being trucked up the road, past the Strathbogie Ranges whose rocky ridges are now described as some of the most fire-prone country on earth, to the safe haven of a Canberra storage bay.

The files are less about legacy and more about family and friendship and the authors and colleagues I worked with, the ways we developed of working together that have stayed with us all—or so I am told. We were making it up a lot of the time—and therein lies some of my quandary about where the boundaries lie, what indeed the boundaries are. Whose archive, whose ideas, whose effort, whose photos?

Makeshift offices were the norm and we pooled arrangements for child care and homework after school. Reality and necessity hover above the contents of the boxes and give me flashes of what feels like total recall—I can shut my eyes and walk downstairs on the sisal matting into the old kitchen and scullery in Drummond Street to what we used to call the Childcare Department with its five children and two child-minders and two double pushers and an odd assortment of slings.

These days it is the idea of office-based child care I am most often quizzed about—more than about the authors and their books, or the efficacy of cultural policies or our fierce determination to undermine archaic British Commonwealth territorial copyright arrangements.

Photographs relating to the life of our several offices made it to the Baillieu Library, but not the boxes of photos taken during the late seventies and eighties of the McPhee Gribble Christmas parties. From the outset we had parties celebrating the books, birthdays and small triumphs, democratic events always in the office, never catered, always BYO booze and bread and cheese from the market. The Christmas Party was the big one.

In late October the list of invitees from the previous year would be circulated to be discussed over coffee, added to and culled. Anyone reporting harassment issues, as they’d now be called, with anyone the previous year was free to cross them from the list, forever. Even if they had flown down from Sydney, or in from London or happened to be another publisher’s star author. Extreme drunks were forgiven more readily than dullards and gropers.

The parties grew larger and more legendary each year. And the photos taken by a colleague from a high vantage point on the stairs were later spread out on the coffee table to be discussed in forensic detail. We could spot deals being done, affairs in the making, serial adulterers at work, gatecrashers from the pub. We knew the annual photos were an archive of social history in themselves but useless without interpreting.

In the early years we used to jot down names and sometimes set aside times to identify people in the crowd—but we always ran out of steam. Too hard to find the time to list so many people, to find the right ink that didn’t smudge, and doubly difficult to do sometimes when pivotal people had recently died: Peter Mathers, Joyce Nicholson, Dinny O’Hearn, Graham Little, Judy Duffy, Max Teichmann, John Hooker, Mary Lord, George Tibbits, Pat Healy, John Iremonger, Andrea Stretton are there in the crowds year after year—then not any more.

And of course it only got worse. Now it is Diana I see, there in most of the photos, arguing, laughing, straight-talking, smoking. Most of us smoked in the office and at the parties. The air above the crowd was thick with it. People went outside if they couldn’t breathe—or just to hear themselves think.


One cold night this winter soon after I return to Melbourne, seven of us who once worked together gather for wine and soup at my house: Michael, Sophie, Megan, Julie, Keith, Veronica, plus Anna and Clare, whose mothers brought them to work each day to the childcare department. Most of us haven’t seen each other for years. Clare makes a huge pot of mulligatawny soup; I light the fire and pour wine.

The photos we need to identify for the NLA are of Christmas parties held more than twenty-five years ago on hot summer nights in the office at 66 Cecil Street, Fitzroy. I am quietly dreading returning to them and the others say they aren’t optimistic about being able to identify people.

This was the late eighties in the middle of Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’. The stock market had collapsed in October 1987 and the government put the brakes on to slow inflation. Diana and I were trying to refinance an expansion of the company as interest rates went through the roof. The only money we had any hope of raising was at interest rates of 20 per cent and beyond. Our weekends in 1988 and 1989 were spent producing business plans and spreadsheets for imaginary publishing programs for possible investors. By midyear in 1989 we knew in our bones we wouldn’t make it. By December 1989, the negotiations and the legal issues were behind us and we had been sold.

Now nobody mentions the context and nor do I. Old history, old drama, it has ceased to matter. Almost as soon as we start passing the photos around, the stories, the jokes and the gossip begin—as if they had never stopped. The names of people in the photos pour off our pencils—our collective memories for everyone there seem to swell and become prodigious. Our old friends and colleagues in their party clothes are having a good time on a hot night in an old Fitzroy factory building with a sawtooth roof and pink walls. Drinking and smoking and flirting, exchanging news, making arrangements to meet, describing their year. All is as usual. We’ve just had a year of publishing some of our best books, the authors’ photos are up on the walls.

Agents in the crowd are chatting up the writers, an editor is sitting on the knee of a bloke she fancies, publishers are doing deals with printers, a baby arrives strapped to the front of its mother. There isn’t a spreadsheet or a business plan in sight. Di and I look a bit ragged but we’ve made it through the negotiations. In the scheme of things, the context for the party photos doesn’t matter. The authors thrived, their books were reprinted, reissued under the imprints and covers of other publishers, and we all went on to other things.

In the Wellcome Collection there’s a small naive painting that always makes me laugh: A man being hit on the head by a falling flowerpot, oil on canvas, Italian, c. 1890. This the catalogue describes as ‘an ex-voto, taken from the Latin for “from a vow”. Painted by ordinary people as a way of giving thanks for their safe recovery from an illness or accident.’  I am drawn to it every time.

© Hilary McPhee


Meanjin 4/13

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In conversation with Caroline Baum


Earlier this year Caroline Baum interviewed me about publishing.

The interview, mainly about the McPhee Gribble days and our dealings with both US and British agents and publishers, as well as the great changes affecting editing, publishing and writing today.

This Top Shelf interview screened on ABC TV Big Ideas last week, and the full web version can be viewed online

Hope you enjoy.

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Missing Betty


Melbourne. Full moon, winter solstice and a real chill in the air. I have been walking the Fitzroy streets even more than usual in the days since Betty Burstall died, trying to compose a condolence of sorts to her sons.  

Betty lived around the corner from me in a grand old terrace, a bike ride to La Mama in Faraday Street and the Victoria Market. I’d see her going past my window some days -– a straight-backed rider of the old fashioned kind, legs in red or green tights, woollen gloves, purse and list in her basket – pedalling off to the local shops.

This is the best time of year. Crisp mornings and early evenings with sunlight slanting through the trees. We’d often meet in the park with our dogs. I’d see Betty coming towards me in her old jacket with her red cheeks and jokes about the ranger, Buddy always at her side.

Betty Burstall in the mid 1980s.

She’s a presence in this neighbourhood and will be for a very long time – just as she is in Eltham where she and her husband Tim and other ‘arties and progressives’ bought their cheap blocks of land on the ‘Hillside’ after the war, built their mud brick houses, raised their kids, had their picnics and swims in Pecks Dam, painted, sketched and made their pottery. Eltham was where friends came by train or in old cars at weekends to parties at the Burstalls, and where later Betty taught French and sport at the high school.

Some of this life was documented at the time by Tim in his daily diaries* when he was twenty-six and a fledgling writer – tales of affairs and yearnings, of lacklustre meetings of the Communist Party, Eltham Branch, his love for his young sons and for his wife who kept the show on the road. This was before he was famous as the Tim Burstall, who jump-started the Australian film industry, independent film maker of the seventies and eighties.

They were an extraordinary pair. Tim and Betty. Using their own resources, alert to new projects, impatient with conventional writing and painting and film, and with people who fled overseas for good, they knew that local work was where the energy was at the time. Friends remember them running on enthusiasm and ideas, fiercely conservative, arguing the state of the nation.

Betty’s great public project and legacy is, of course, La Mama – still in the same seedy old underwear factory in Faraday Street which she rented from the Del Monaco family for twenty-eight dollars a week in 1967. Here writers tried out new stuff for a share of the box office in front of a motley audience, usually other writers, actors and students dropping in for the coffee, the open fire and the excitement of it all.

Before its tenth year, Betty gave La Mama away, first to Ann Eckersley then to Liz Jones.  The game was changing and even philanthropy of the fire-lighting, set-building, rent-paying Betty Burstall variety would shortly have to be documented. Betty’s impatience with the rising arts bureaucracy and the lefty politics of the day would have been considerable.

Independence and idiosyncrasy were precious. She once described La Mama as like being in an empty tram. ‘It’s going somewhere and it feels as if it’s your own marvellous private tram. It can be like a command performance for you.’*

La Mama will celebrate its 46th year next month, 36 of them under Liz Jones’ great stewardship and with a backlist of writers, artists, directors, actors and productions that couldn’t be matched anywhere else in the land. Betty knew she had started something that suited the times and might even grow and grow, given half a chance. And anyway she was going off to live on a Greek island for a while.


I was living and working in the same Carlton neighbourhood so went often to La Mama and some of the parties, and knew Betty as a tall and handsome woman with crisp white hair who didn’t suffer fools. But not until a few years ago, when she was into her eighties, did I come to know her as a friend.

I had talked myself, without much thought, into the task of annotating and editing her husband’s voluminous diaries – because they were an unknown record of an important era. But this was 2010, and engaging with Tim’s nineteen-fifties POV on love and marriage plus women as a species was getting me down.

It was Betty who kept me – and the project – going when I was about to give up. She wanted the diaries published, of course, because she loved Tim.  But she was also acutely aware that they were his vivid portrait of their early married life with all its hurt and turmoil – from in an era that hadn’t produced a lot of diaries, and none like these.

Friends had advised her to burn them, she said, and not let her grandchildren read them. But Betty was a libertarian. So were other close women friends who were still alive and who featured in the diaries. Censorship for progressives was anathema.  So also said Fay in Western Australia, when I rang her to check on how she felt about the portrait of her mother and of herself as the nineteen year old university student Tim was obsessed with.

For months then, I fell into the routine of two mornings a week in Betty’s kitchen. She’d make mugs of coffee and I’d bring buns or soup. We’d settle the dogs outside the back door and start to talk about the dairies which she’d kept by her bed since Tim died in 2004 but had never read from cover to cover.

We went in the deep end. Some days she made me read her great chunks, ‘the hard parts’, over and over while she thought about them, like probing an old toothache to see if it was still there, she once said – and I knew what she meant.

One story led to another. The pictures on her walls, the objects on her dresser, her own naïve paintings of Greece and Carlton triggered memories. We found great overlaps in our lives.

She showed me photos of straight-backed Tasmanian grandmothers, of her divorced mother who took in Tim and Betty at the start of their life together when his parents prevented them marrying and the stuffy Melbourne establishment rejected them.

We showed each other photos of Ios in the Cyclades – mine in black and white, hers in faded colour. I had lived there some years before she did and recognized the terraced land running down to the beach where she’d lived with a lover and kept goats and grown her vegetables and herbs.

Much later when the book was in production, Betty’s memory was fading fast. So it was Dan and Tom, Tim and Betty’s sons, with their very different responses to the advent of the diaries, who were endlessly generous with family photos and details I needed for annotating the life they’d led as children in old Eltham. It would have been a tough call.

And some of her grandchildren photocopied the manuscript before it went to the State Library – and read it with alacrity of course. Betty was pleased to hear it.

Their rather remarkable grandmother has left a hole in the air around here.


* Published as Memoirs of a Young Bastard: the diaries of Tim Burstall, The Miegunyah Press, 2012

* La Mama: the story of a theatre: Liz Jones with Betty Burstall and Helen Garner, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1988

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Memoirs of a Young Bastard – Introduction

Click the above illustration for a page dedicated to images and excerpts from the diary.

About the Burstall Diaries


Tim Burstall began keeping a diary in late 1953 when he was twenty-six, married with two small sons. The Burstalls and four other young families were building their mudbrick houses around a large dam on a hillside on the edge of Eltham, a ruggedly beautiful semi-rural area to the north-east of Melbourne. The husbands went to their jobs each day in the city and the wives worked at home looking after children, growing food, watering young fruit trees, milking goats, making ends meet.

Tim Burstall set himself the discipline of writing 500 words a day and kept it up for three years, 368,000 words in all, observing, reflecting, story-telling and producing one of the most evocative and certainly the most comprehensive Australian diaries of modern times.

Friends remember him quoting Isherwood: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking… Some day all of this will to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.’ *

But diarists are not passive recorders. Burstall turned his gaze  mercilessly upon his immediate neighbours and wide circle of friends and acquaintances, the artists, writers, philosophers, musicians, academics at the parties and in the pubs of the day. He turned it on his wife and his lovers and the young woman he was determined to seduce. And he turned it on himself, castigating, mocking and revealing his insecurities, driven to prove himself

Tim Burstall and Betty Rogers on a beach near the Boyd’s ‘Open Country’ at Murrumbeena, c. 1945

I had first seen the diaries, over twenty years earlier when Tim Burstall brought them into McPhee Gribble’s office in Cecil Street, Fitzroy a couple of blocks from where he was living in Nicholson Street. He arrived one day, a tall good-looking bloke in his early sixties, with ‘shagger’s back’ he announced to the young mainly female staff, as he lowered himself gingerly on to one of our old sofas.

Tim Burstall had the confidence, and charm, of the conservative curmudgeon about him by then. He was a successful film maker with at least a dozen commercial films and television series to his credit. These were films made independently, films that usually made money at the box office, films like Stork and Alvin Purple that the cognisenti liked to sneer at, and which today are being reassessed as highly original Australian popular comedy.

McPhee Gribble then was an independent publisher and ‘difficult’ books were part of our stock–in-trade. so we weren’t surprised Burstall had approached us and the first time, he said, that publication had been considered. What he needed, he told us, was a frank and fearless assessment, not only of the diaries publishing potential but whether they were still ‘too hot to handle’. He knew they were scandalous, possibly defamatory, certainly wounding. Tim Burstall had re-married a few years before and would soon be caught up in an acrimonious divorce from his second wife, so perhaps when he came to us he was worried about money. He knew that the diaries would create a sensation – and maybe sell widely.

He left us with five or six fat folders of single-spaced typing on foolscap paper, slightly yellowed as if they had been lying around. We read the 924 pages covering in considerable detail the daily life in the early cold war period of a young man and his small free-wheeling circle loosely linked to the artists’ colony of Montsalvat at Eltham, to the University and to the lofts and studios in between. Here was a relentless record of the gossip, the pub talk, the progressive politics of the day, the arguments about art and craft and the meaning of life.

Most of the people named in the diaries were still alive, many by this time having become prominent members of the academic and art worlds, with reputations some of them, presumably, might be concerned to protect. But there was so much more to Burstall’s record than the Memoirs of a Young Bastard who Sunbaked and Rooted and Went to Branch Meetings as he liked to describe them – with that mix of self-mockery and vanity which the diaries reflect. Ways to deal with possible defamation were considered – name changes, initials only, even concealing some locations. But any major cutting was ruled out by Burstall. There would be considerable value in them being published more or less in their entirety – which would have meant three volumes, an almost impossible task for a small press. In any case, after some weeks, Tim Burstall withdrew the manuscript. He would wait, he said, ‘while more characters died off’. We were rather relieved, I remember, and expected to see them surface from another publisher sometime – but, as far as I know, very few people have seen them since.

Tim Burstall died suddenly in 2004. Then at a lunch in late 2009, I was sitting next to the redoubtable Betty Burstall, the founder and inspiration behind Carlton’s La Mama writers’ theatre, who was then in her early eighties. I asked her what had become of the diaries, half expecting to hear that someone in the family had burnt them. ‘They are sitting by my bed and I still haven’t read them,’ she said firmly.

I don’t know whether I believe her even now after many hours spent together when I was interviewing her about those years to get a better sense of family life than the diaries convey. According to Dan, their eldest son, Betty had promised Tim she wouldn’t read them, though they were usually left lying on the stairs in the Eltham house in a spring binder box. Everyone in their circle knew Tim was keeping a journal and encouraged him sometimes to read passages aloud at parties and dinners.

Fay Rosefield, the nineteen year old university student Tim was obsessed with for much of 1953 and 1954 had been read a few sections but she did not know the diaries had survived until very recently nor how extensive they are. Her response when I broke the news to her to her was generous and philosophical. ‘They were written almost sixty years ago. I am not the same person,’ she said. ‘I was incredibly naïve and innocent – but then so was Tim in his way.’

Tim Bursall, late 1960’s.

Tim Burstall and Betty Rodgers met when they were first year arts students at Melbourne University in 1944. Betty was eighteen and living at home in East Malvern with her mother and two younger sisters. Tim was seventeen and living in Queens College at the University. He was the son of Nora and Aubrey Burstall, an English engineer and academic who had moved his family to Australia in 1937 when he was appointed Professor of Engineering  at the University. The family lived on the campus in Professors Row and Tim was sent to board at the Geelong Grammar School. Betty matriculated at the Methodist Ladies College.

Tim and Betty fell in love in their first year. Betty became pregnant and dropped out of her undergraduate degree course as unmarried pregnant women invariably did, and Tim, in considerable disgrace, was told to leave Queens College by the Master, Raynor Johnson supported by Max Crawford, Professor of History in which Tim was majoring. Tim’s parents refused to accept Betty and, to prevent their son marrying, had him made a ward of court – had him made ‘a bastard’ as Tim saw it, humiliating him and creating a permanent rift. The court case was ugly and the newspaper coverage lurid and his family, severing all connection, returned to England.

Betty’s mother, who had been divorced ‘for adultery’ in 1940, was no stranger to the humiliations and the penalties extracted if the rules of the day were broken. She let the young pair build themselves a bungalow in her East Malvern garden.  ‘ Tim could have walked away, or tried to make me have an abortion,’ Betty said, ‘ but he stuck by me and we were very happy.’  Then Betty miscarried the child at seven months.

The emotional catastrophe of losing the baby and the widely differing reactions to it from each of their families underpinned and may well have strengthened the Burstalls’ marriage in the period documented by the diaries.  Their friendship with Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, who were living at ‘Open Country’ in nearby Murrumbeena, began at this time and would endure for the rest of their lives. Betty’s mother had befriended the eccentric Merric Boyd on one of his wanderings in nearby streets. Arthur and Yvonne, a few years older than Tim and Betty, were drawn to the attractive young pair who had flouted the rules. Betty was invited to work in the Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery Workshop and several of Arthur Boyd’s portraits and ceramics from this time capture images of her remarkable face with its vivid colouring and wild curls.

The couple married when Tim came of age. Dan was born in 1948 and a small room was built on to the bungalow in the East Malvern garden. Around this time Betty began an affair with the young painter and potter, John Perceval, who was then living at ‘Open Country’. ‘ I was the first to have an affair, not Tim, and I hurt him badly,’ Betty told me, insisting that her agency was integral to understanding the marriage.

They separated for some months. Tim left for Canberra and a job at the Film Division of the National Library probably found for him by Betty’s brother-in-law, Jack Gothe, a senior public servant in the Department of Trade. Tim wrote often, describing his loneliness and the wasteland that was Canberra in the late forties, but he was learning a good deal about film and earning some money. Betty sent him photos of their baby. She visited him once, she said, on the train and bus. Perhaps, when he returned to negotiate his ‘bargain’ with Betty of an open marriage, he had been influenced by Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male published in1948. It was okay to follow your lusts, so went the maxim. You were a mug if you didn’t. But falling in love left you vulnerable.

Before he left, they had bought a couple of blocks of land on the hillside and began building a simple mudbrick house room by room. Tom was born in 1951. Here, among other Eltham ‘progressives’, they lived according to the strictures of their open marriage – which Tim begins to document on 25 November 1953.

When the diaries open he is already deep in pursuit of Fay Rosefield, a beautiful, brainy nineteen year old student of Russian literature at the university. Fay is fourth generation Jewish-Australian, living with her parents in Brighton. Her father is an ear, nose and throat specialist, her mother a considerable musician with ambitions for the musical talents of her three daughters, watchful of her eldest daughter and fearful of her desire for independence.




The Burstall dairies are written against the backdrop of an Australia easily caricatured as dull and provincial, straight-jacketed by suburban convention and cold war paranoia. The cold war was at its peak worldwide and largely thanks to the Petrov Royal Commission into Soviet espionage intensely alive in Australia.  Where the right saw communist spies and influence, the left saw conservative conspiracies. The Labor party split. Politics were bitter, personal and often sectarian. Catholics and Protestants demonised each other. Anti-semitism and casual racism were rife at a time when post-war immigration was rising.

The White Australia Policy remained immovable, even though the government Minister for Immigration, Harold Holt, privately wished popular prejudice would allow him to get rid of it. Waves of southern Europeans ran in varying degrees of prejudice and hostility, but nothing they encountered compared with the degrading and humiliating racism meted out to indigenous Australians. Aboriginal people were in general regarded as a lost cause, their imagery plundered for tea-towels and souvenirs and even popular songs They were not even citizens until the constitutional referendum of 1967.

The enthusiasm for Britain and the Monarchy was fuelled by breathless magazine coverage of the Royal Visit of the new young Queen and her dashing husband. Mr Menzies visited the outer suburbs and spoke of the Communist threat, his orotund tones on the wireless and at the pictures on the Movietone News more reassuring to those who treasured England as ‘Home’ than were Arthur Calwell’s flat vowels and sometimes cantankerous manner.

Mass entertainment was limited to the wireless and the pictures, the weekends, except for footy on Saturday and church on Sundays, a wasteland of lawn-mowing and visits to relatives. The pubs shut at six o’clock but rock and roll was arriving.

Some women had jobs in the public service but had to resign on marriage. The contraceptive pill would not be available until 1963 and then only to married women. The anxiety of mothers about the lives they feared their daughters were leading was much more understandable then than it would be now. Abortion was a common and dangerous option. Middleclass mothers could be ruthless in their panic, determined to protect their daughters’ virginity and marriageability. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex  was available in English by 1953 and widely read but the translation probably reinforced stereotypes. The more transformative analysis of women’s roles was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique but this would not be published in Australia until 1963.


Tim and baby Dan, 1948


The small township of Eltham was less than 17 miles (28 kms) north-east of central Melbourne by train. Its pristine light and bushland, silent apart from the magpies and bellbirds, and vistas across to the Dandenongs and the Healesville and Warburton Ranges had long attracted landscape painters.  In 1934 Justus Jorgensen had established his artists’ colony of Montsalvat and commenced building his grand vision of a French mediaeval style village in stone and pisé from the yellow local clay.

The railway line and the availability of cheap land after the war allowed Eltham to become one of the new growth areas. Trains ran every hour on weekdays and more frequently at peak hour which made commuting to the city possible for young fathers. Between 1947 and 1954 the population of the shire increased from 7000 to 11,500.

With Montsalvat as a dramatic precedent, Eltham’s local council was tolerant of houses in mudbrick and pisé and builder Alistair Knox became a master of the form. His enthusiasm for the medium and its sculptural possibilities in keeping with the environment inspired many others, like the Burstalls, who built their own mudbrick dwellings, improvising around what could be found at Whelan the Wreckers, the main source of affordable secondhand building materials and fittings. The banks would not lend on owner-built housing but, by building in mudbrick without a mortgage, houses could grow as the families did, their idiosyncratic designs suited to the landscape and of it.

‘These were the days,’ Alistair Knox wrote, ‘when very few took working in the open too seriously. The Depression had gone, the war was over. For the first time one could stand and stare a bit and muse over wonderful visions of the future.*

Knox employed local labour among the artists and new arrivals paying them a pound a day to make the bricks and lay paving stones. Tim Burstall first worked for him in 1947 before he went to Canberra and later Betty and Margot Knox did the occasional tiling and paving job. Building a house meant working out doors in all weathers, listening to the birds, sharing the task in a growing community of like-minded people some of whom were starting to dream of a self-supporting Australia, free and confident within Asia.



In the late 1940s land had come available on the new subdivision of Panorama Heights in the Eltham Shire, now Napier Crescent, Montmorency, for 40 pounds a block on a time payment scheme of 5 shillings a week. The Burstalls bought a couple of blocks as did Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, Ray and Betty Marginson and John Perceval.

During the years Tim records in the diaries, the Burstalls’ immediate neighbours on what they called the Hillside were Roy and Vera Davidson, Fred and Verna Jacka, Hal and Joy Peck who were building their mud brick houses room by room and raising their young families. Betty and Cyril Jacka, brother of Fred, were living on their block with their two daughters in a timber caravan, and John Clendinnen had built a shack on his land. Roy Davidson had the only  telephone on the Hillside and the only car and the men travelled to their jobs in the city with him, catching the train back at night if they stayed on in a city pub. If Tim missed the last train, there was always hitch-hiking or a bed in the bungalow at Betty’s mother’s house.

With many of the men away all day and often stopping off at the Eltham pub on the way home, much of the work fell to the women. The unmade roads punctured bicycle tyres – so most people walked or rode horses. The water supply to the Hillside was always erratic, failing frequently in summer when the people in the valley watered their gardens. There was kindling to cut and wood to collect for open fires and stoves. There were candles and kerosene lamps which had to be cleaned, Koolgardie safes and ice chests, and ice to be fetched from the town in an old pram. Gas bottles fired the cooking rings and the pottery kilns.  Then when electricity came up from the road long extension cords snaked between houses for radiograms and lighting paths though the trees. Long drop dunnies had to be dug and emptied – it was years before anyone could afford a septic tank.

Tim’s interest in the domestic sphere, at least as he chose to reflect on it in the diaries, was limited but loving. He attended school events, made fancy dress costumes for his sons and describes in great detail family holidays every Christmas in the scrub next to the beach at Somers. There are glimpses of Betty’s hard work but more often Tim records his chores at the weekend in the struggling communal orchard on the Hillside and in the vegetable garden which failed to thrive in the clay. Betty kept goats and geese, worked in her studio throwing clay and making the pots and mugs which Tim sometimes decorated at weekends. She tells stories of going on the train with batches of pottery in the old pram to sell at the Primrose Pottery Shop in Little Collins Street, and returning with vegetables and meat from the Victoria Market, on one occasion running into Tim and Fay. She cooked vast soups and casseroles for the friends who trekked up to impromptu dinners and parties on Hillside via the Eltham pub at the weekends, making it all look easy and enviable.

Dan, Mirka Mora and Tim, c. 1954


The Melbourne Metropolitan area had a population of about 1.5 million and more or less stopped at Balwyn to the east and Preston to the north. Central Melbourne where Tim worked was still much as it had been pre-war, a small city where he and his friends ran into each other often, frequenting the same few pubs and cafés. The demolitions and the new buildings would not begin until 1955, accelerating when the height restrictions were lifted in 1957. Office and shop hours were strictly nine to five with workers flowing into the city between eight and nine in the morning on crowded trains and buses, leaving again at five, with maybe a rushed hour in the pub before closing time on the way to the station. Except for a few cheap cafés and restaurants very little was open after hours. But the demographic was already starting to change – and the parties described in the diaries reflect this.

The ships carrying post war immigrants docked at Port Melbourne and although the influx of European immigrants and refugees was still numerically small, their impact on Melbourne’s cultural and academic life had already begun through teaching posts in schools and appointments at the University by the early ‘fifties. Three Melbourne philosophers who feature in the diaries, Peter Herbst, Kurt Baier and Gerd Buchdahl, were among the Jewish refugees whose ship, the Dunera, had been turned away from Britain in 1940 and wound up in Australia – as were two of their pupils, Henry Mayer and Hugo Wolfsohn. Artists such as Stacha Halpern, Yosl Bergner and Mirka Mora with her husband, arts patron and café proprietor, Georges Mora, and art historians Ursula Hoff and Franz Philipp brought to Melbourne their links with the intellectual and artistic life of Europe and an aesthetic shaped by experiences of war and persecution.




In the early 1950s both Tim and Betty Burstall joined the Communist Party of Australia. The Eltham Branch had a core membership of about twenty, some of them recent middle-class arrivals like the Burstalls, others long-term residents of the small town. They started a small Eltham Film Society showing documentaries and European realist films when they could get them and were at the centre of a social circle that could be described as ‘Bohemian’, although this was not a word Tim used much – and when he did it was usually in inverted commas. But he was conscious of being part of an artistic, leftwing, intellectual crowd, people seeking a different sort of life – to varying degrees. This was demonstrated through their political views, their housing choices, sexual lives and work ethic and the Communist Party offered a means of challenging conventional Australian life. Tim comments in the diaries that ‘it was harder to get out of the party than it was to get in.’

Burstall divided most of the people he mixed with into two categories: ‘intellectuals’ and ‘arties’ (though he also had among his acquaintance quite a number who, like himself, worked as public servants). Both these groups were fluid, but had identifiable characteristics, widely understood. ‘Arties’ included not only those talented artists, such as his friends Arthur Boyd and Len French, who were disciplined in pursuing their art and beginning to be recognized for it, but was a blanket term for many who were merely bending the rules and attempting to survive outside the accepted milieu of the nine-to-five worker.

His ‘intellectuals’ were those who chose to live the life of the mind: the aspirant philosophers and writers recently graduated from the University of Melbourne and pursuing university careers, as well as writers, critics, pontificators. Although he craved recognition, there is often an element of disdain in his account of the intellectual pursuits of others, a perceived barrenness, a lack of connection with the world and with humanity.

Tim was an astute and wide reader, preferring American literature as ‘a more reliable guide to post-war Australia than our stuff’. Fay recalls his pleasure in discussing literature with her, ‘far more important than sex’, and the diaries reflect this. Recent American fiction is often mentioned and Tim had firm opinions about the parlous state of Australian writing. He is a severe and knowledgeable critic of contemporary film. But his confidence in his own talents was easily shaken. Surrounded by academics from the University at a party, the ‘ward of state’ wound is still raw.  He has not yet handed in his MA thesis and suspects, with some justification, that he is being patronised.

‘For most of them I had no role except that of “the boy bastard” of 1944 or the happy homebuilder and family man they’d probably heard of second hand in the last few years. No intellectual rating at all’.


Tim Burstall Aboriginal ‘motif’ for pottery


Tim Burstall had a job for the duration of the diaries – until Betty could start to teach – at the newly created Antarctic Division in Melbourne, on the third floor of the Theosophical Building at 187 Collins Street in central Melbourne. As a temporary Research Officer, Publications in the Antarctic Division, Burstall’s salary was £1000 a year. The job involved drafting and editing speeches and ABC talks for the Officer-in-Charge, Phillip Law, and placing articles about the work of the Division and its scientific excursions to Antarctica. Two floors below was the Theosophical Society with its library and meeting room, and a floor above housed ASIO staff.

As members of the Communist Party, both Burstalls have ASIO files, of course, and Tim’s includes an assessment provided to the Regional Director by P.G. Law: ‘Burstall is an efficient officer… he does not discuss politics on the job, but is believed, to favour Left Labour… he expresses his artistic sense in ceramics (tiles and pots).’

The scrutiny went both ways. In October 1956 a Senior Field Officer recorded a minute: ‘As I was inserting a coin in the meter I observed Timothy Burstall (V.P.F. 6709) […] walking up Russell Street towards Collins Street. Almost simultaneously Burstall observed me at the parking meter. As he passed I saw him intently study my vehicle and in particular the registered number – I am of the opinion that he was attempting to memorise this number.’

Despite the keen activity of ASIO during this period of royal commissions and the Petrov defection, and their particular interest in left-wing activity in the film and book societies, their presence caused little concern. In March 1954, Burstall noted that the building’s cleaner had mentioned the constant presence of a guard on the main door to the ASIO offices, and that that there was a room where three blokes were cutting out and filing all the left-wing statements they could locate in Australian newspaper and journals.

Tim’s working day seems to have usually consisted of a few hours writing and editing in the morning then a long lunch in a pub or a café with a friend or a woman he is pursuing. He seems to have been free to come and go as he saw fit. Clearly he was under-employed.

The diaries were the result – but the production of the typescripts remains a puzzle. Tim could not type, and never learnt according to Betty and his sons, although there was an Olivetti purchased in 1956 for 10 pounds. He seems to have made notes during the week, writing up the diary at the weekends then relying on a typist to translate his instalments the following week. Men at his level in the public service and above were entitled to the services of a skilled shorthand secretary from the typing pool. Perhaps there was one woman allocated to him as his personal typist, sitting at a desk outside his office. Tim’s sons recall being taken into the office one weekend to meet a young woman who would type a children’s story their father had written for them.  Certainly the material in the diaries suggests that confidentiality would have been essential. But perhaps, being Tim, he somehow persuaded a succession of broadminded young women or other people’s wives to type his handwritten drafts,  and concealed their identities.

How much polishing and cutting Tim did from the first draft is also unclear. Certainly the production of 500 words a day suited him. He was something of an autodidact and wedded to the record, often listing everyone present at meetings and in the pub. He records how much grog each of his friends arrived with at one of his parties and his laborious analysis of the collection of short stories, Coast to Coast, edited byMeanjin’s Clem Christesen is hilarious. His utter conviction of the value of his methodology blinds him to what must have been Christesen’s irritated reaction.

His ability to capture a voice or a scene was driven by his interest in social documentary. The debates in pubs about the state of the nation, about Australia’s place in the world, Australian culture, especially art and literature, still feel familiar. This is the period Arthur Phillips described as suffering from a cultural cringe – to Britain, to Oxbridge, to convention but, Tim Burstall’s world is the opposite of this. He was an astute observer of the work of others in what was a pivotal period for the artists of the day. Already there were tensions between groups and mixed feeling about the patronage of John and Sunday Reed at nearby Heide. Cliff Pugh’s Dunmoochin was still being built and the first Herald Outdoor Art Show in 1954 was a big event.   The diaries are full of discussions and arguments about art and the economy of art making at a time when Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Len French and others could much more easily sell their ceramics than their pictures. None of them were above decorating mugs and ashtrays with aboriginal or Royal Visit motifs and persuading Miss McMillan at the Primrose Pottery Shop to sell them.

After a few months of diary-keeping Tim has become adept at conveying character through dialogue and his story-telling skills emerge. His friends know him to be ‘writing’ and most them assume, and he doesn’t contradict them, that he is writing a novel. This is the era when The Great Australian Novel is eagerly anticipated. The two main contenders, Patrick White and Christina Stead are almost unknown in Australia at this time. White’s The Tree of Man won’t appear until 1956 and Christina Stead is in America, unpublished in her own country until 1965.

Betty, of course, kept him at it. After a weekend which Tim feels he’s frittered away, he records her snapping:

It’s not as if you’ve spent it writing. You’ve chopped me some wood and helped with the garden, but otherwise you’ve done nothing but lie in the sun. (Not that I mind – I wouldn’t want you to spend it any other way.)


Betty & Tim, 1954

Being inside a daily diarist’s head is a curious experience, quite different from reading lots of unpublished letters, and more debilitating than I’d anticipated. Tim’s generation, only slightly younger than my parents, sometimes felt too close for comfort. There were times when I found myself taking sides, inevitably reading between the lines, recognising the envy of clever unfulfilled women, who, like Fay’s mother, seemed to be trying to break their daughters’ spirit.

Eltham was a ‘sexual madhouse’ according to Tim, hard on women and suiting men, and orthodox feminist readings would doubtless agree. There seems to have been remarkably little awareness or concern about the effect on children, nor at this time was there much psychologising. Certainly, it would have been tough for those women who found themselves with limited options, locked in unhappy marriages with no prospect of leaving, some of whom would be ‘saved’ 15 years later by feminism. But the diaries themselves and my conversations with Betty Burstall and Fay Zwicky suggest other more complex readings of a group such as this one. Most people probably saw themselves as belonging to a sub-culture that set them apart from provincial Melbourne, even protected them from it. There were women who were damaged and damaging, men who were shattered and insecure, others who were unscrupulous. Few would have regarded themselves as victims although perhaps some of their children would disagree.

Sex for Tim is a major focus, and it sometimes seems as if his sense of himself is measured by his ejaculations. His manipulations of women and his misogyny will outrage some readers, as perhaps will Betty’s complicity at times. His language can often be brutal and perfunctory.

I decided to dice Pattie and have a shot at Bella.’

But his misogyny seems to me to be highly selective. Clever women attract him and he falls for their conversation – but his scorn is sometimes devastating for those he finds unappealing. Pauline Ford, who committed suicide in 1960, is only ever derided. A friend, who knew her well and recalls her kindness when he was an unhappy adolescent, told me she had a hare lip – which Tim neglects to mention. Beth and Elizabeth, the lesbian couple he disparages and toys with, are cardboard cut-outs who Tim seems to believe need his ministrations in order to be cured.

The diaries can be read as the point of view of an insecure, perhaps emotionally immature young man, very much of his era, who is saved by his intelligence and his ability to mock himself along with everyone else. By the end of the first year Tim is increasingly conscious that he is sexually self-indulgent and promiscuous. He knows he is making his wife unhappy, driving Fay away, fragmenting his feelings in every direction, and at risk of becoming a womaniser who turns on himself.

That night, in front of the fire, Betty and I had a confusing heart-to-heart on our relationship.  It was the shell of a relationship, Betty said, worse than other peoples’.  I was detached and unresponsive.  And she noticed what she’d lost every day.

It wasn’t the shell of a relationship, of course. It somehow survives not only the three years of his numerous infidelities and her more half-hearted ones. Fay finally extricates herself after another year. The Burstalls’ complex friendship, which became for a short while sexual, with Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, endures and so, miraculously does the marriage.

Reading the diaries again after many years, being able to discuss them first with Betty and then with Fay Zwicky, they seem to me to provide a portrait of a marriage which lasted despite, even because of, this early period which Tim documented every day. Tim, perhaps without quite realising it, did not take his marriage for granted, nor his children nor his close friends – and his accounts of his relationships reveal a good deal about himself.

The diaries, of course, are from Tim’s perspective – relentlessly so, it sometimes seemed to me. Without the willingness of Betty and Fay to confront them and talk freely about that time, they would have been skewed for me, at least, by Tim’s self regard and lapses of empathy. Once the decision was taken by Betty and her family to publish, I needed the point of view of the two women in his life who really mattered to him at that time. Fay was unaware that the diaries still existed and was surprised by their depth and daring. She remembers Tim with great clarity and affection. Although Betty claimed that her own memory was always faulty, her determination to face the diaries squarely was impressive. During the interviews, she often suggested I read her the ‘hard bits’ about betrayal and deception, telling me that this made it easier to recall events – that were painful at the time – but mainly I think it was because she so enjoyed Tim’s turn of phrase. The diaries do conjure him up.

Soon after the diaries end, in the years when Betty was teaching French at Eltham High School, Tim sets out to become a filmmaker, starting work on The Prize, a short Rosellini–like film of very few words set at Montsalvat and starring his two young sons and several Skippers, with music by Dorian Le Gallienne. The family tells the story of Tim shooting take after take on an old clockwork camera of the type used in battle in the first world war mounted on a 1930s tripod from an Antarctic expedition. Betty spent the days mostly underwater preventing the barrels the children were in from overturning as they whirl down the flooded river and Tim shouts at his sons for the reactions he required.

Then came a large number of art films and documentaries before a Harkness Fellowship in 1965 gave them a couple of years in the US. Betty returned inspired to create La Mama, the remarkable little playwrights’ theatre still going strong in Carlton, and Tim to commence his commercial film work now credited with doing much to shake the moribund Australian film industry out of its torpor.

During this decade of working in very different spheres, with the family grown, Betty says she and Tim grew apart. She left Australia in 1976, lived with a lover for some years on an island in the Cyclades where she seems to have created a version of her Eltham hillside with goats and chickens and white washed walls. Tim briefly married again, then, when he was diagnosed with cancer, Betty moved back to Melbourne to care for him. She lived with him in the Nicholson Street house until the end of his life and her face lights up when she speaks of him.




A note on the editing.

Even though the diaries were written more than sixty years ago, the wide ranging reactions to the prospect of publication made it clear that vastly different readings were inevitable. ‘Elthamites’ in the early fifties and their children and grandchildren today tend to regard themselves, some with very mixed feelings, as part of a tribe.

Tim’s own sons were reluctant at first for publication to go ahead. One of them remembers reading the diaries as a boy and ‘loathing them’, but later enjoying the frisson of bringing school friends home to read passages about their parents.

Tim seems to have been careless about the effect they had on his immediate family. He knew that publication could be hurtful to those he disparaged, and his friends sometimes took him to task for being too harsh. But the most important women in his life at the time, Betty Burstall, Yvonne Boyd and Fay Rosefield shared no such qualms about publication, viewing the diaries as a partial record of a few years of their lives long ago, and to them we owe a good deal.

In the end we decided to publish the bulk of the diaries from 10 November 1953 until New Year’s Eve 1954, making only a number of small cuts, indicated by ellipses, to a few passages which were repetitive or extraneous.

The State Library of Victoria will have the originals which Tim continued to keep until New Year’s Eve 1956, when he had decided to resign his job and write full time.

The entries for 1955 and 1956 continue the portrait of the small community, the Hillside families and the Burstalls’ friendship with Yvonne and Arthur Boyd, Len and Helen French, Max and Jenny Teichmann, John and Inga Clendinnen and innumerable others. There are more glimpses of family life, a couple of terrible rows, Tim gets the mumps, and there more parties and more sex.

There are more affairs, some casual, some painful, some well documented elsewhere, such as the sexual relationship between the Burstalls and the Boyds which broke the rules of truth-telling for a while. Tim’s passion for Fay, and hers for him, starts to wane after the long summer vacation in early 1955. Fay begins her MA and, with a small grant and a part time job at Meanjin, concentrates on her music, which by the diaries’ end has taken her on tour as a pianist to Indonesia.

In February 1955 Tim and Betty draft their letter of resignation to the Communist Party: ‘We wish to resign from the party and become fellow travellers’. In the meantime there are long holidays with family and friends at Merricks and Metung and Somers. There is another Herald Art Show, a Moomba Festival Book Fair at the Lower Melbourne Town Hall and a Contemporary Art Society opening at Preston Motors.

At the end of 1955 Tim goes south to Macquarie Island on the Antarctic Division’s Kirsta Dan and is shattered on his return to discover Betty has begun an affair with a man he does not respect.

He attempts for a while to write stories for the Woman’s Day then early in 1956 applies for the new Stanford Writing Scholarship for an MA in Creative Writing, knowing he is unlikely to get a visa to the US and full of doubt that the University’s selection committee will recommend him. Professor Ian Maxwell’s chilling letter of dismissal telling Tim he has failed because ‘his work showed no evidence or capacity to construct and broaden out’ seems to make him even more determined to resign from his job at the Antarctic Division and become a full time writer.

The gatherings continue at the Swanston Family Hotel, the New Treasury, the Eltham pub. By the time the Olympic Games are over in November 1956 Eltham land prices have started to rise, as more and more visitors tour Eltham looking for a way of life beyond suburbia.

The diaries end on New Year’s Eve 1956 after a rather desultory fancy dress party at the Burstalls.

I hastily dressed myself as Sheik… Betty dressed up as a barmaid, Yvonne as a negress, Arthur as a Mexican… I felt depressed all night. I realised several things in my life had to come to an end. The handyman satisfaction of building a house or making pottery, the discovery of social life, easy relations with women and so on, the extrovert slant of my living for the last five years. I had to start again, look into myself, think, read, work, perhaps later travel. It would be hard.’


The final version was published by MUP, Feb 2012.


* Christopher Isherwood, Berlin Stories, 1938

* Alistair Knox, We are what we stand on, Adobe Press, 1980, p.29

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A short unspoken history of this part of the coast

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the 1950s and 60s when photos were black and white and scarce, there was a beautiful place by the sea, unknown and unsmart, where old bathers and dirty sandshoes were all anyone needed, plus a jumper or two when the sun went down. There was a post office and a store and a pub and six fortunate families who practically lived on the beach throughout the summer. And it was here, when the tide was right some evenings, that the six fortunate families netted fish. Fathers and big kids waded out and filled the net to overflowing with mullet and salmon and sea bream and much else besides. The rest of us piled driftwood on the fire. And after the feast of fish the catch was divided up.


It all sounds too good to be true, but I know it was true because I was there – in this unspoiled enclave, Protestant probably, Anglo-Celtic certainly, blissful and blinkered.


Then sometime in the 1960s, when cars improved and the road was better, the day trippers began –  and so did the awkwardnesses. Italian and Greek families drove down for a day’s fishing – the men standing in the shallows with long rods, the women and kids snoozing on rugs under the cliffs in the shade. There was not a lot of eye contact – and I remember some muttering about them using wrong fishing gear and not being able to swim. Later came the Turks who wore shoes on the beachand next Vietnamese men on their own were seen climbing round the rocks on the point at low tide and filling white bags with abalone and pippis, sea urchins and squid.


And the jokes about reffos who will eat anything got louder in the top shop and the pub – and so did the ones about protecting secret fishing spots from the Yellow Peril.


It was true that fishing by this time was not a patch on what it had been. So my Dad showed my sons his secret fishing holes and how to flatten abalone steaks between two flat rocks. And about this time, the same kind and decent man lost it with my kids and their gang of friends for building a blackfella’s camp in the ti treein our garden near the well. And it is true that, not 5 generations earlier, there would have been real campsites on this spot, before the fences and the signs went up.


All through my childhood, we found middens in the dunes and scrapers under the ochre cliffs. But nobody asked about the people who fished and hunted swans on the salt lake we called the Inlet and who dug their filtered wells on the plain beside the Painkalac Creek. The house on the plain where I first heard the surf booming had a deep well with a winch and a bucket on a rope to reach the fresh water. Much better to drink than water from the old tank next to the dunny.


In February 1983 the fires brought many things to an end and some things shifted for good – or so it now seems to me. As of course it would when, beneath a sky still empty of birds, I watched as the old house, a mound of fire stormed fragments, was bulldozed into the well, as if it had never been.


Some things came back. The birds were first then the redgum on the corner. And last year I found a spotted gum, which a Bermagui friend had planted as a seedling and a sign of hope on the burnt out block, its strong white arms now wrapped like a lovers’ around a scarred old ironbark.


Another time and I was sitting in the dunes watching the surf at Urquarts Bluff. In the distance, a dark group, which could have been Edwardian ladies in those black and white beach postcards, was walking slowly towards me as if time had stopped. Only when they were close by did I see them as seven young Muslim girls in long grey coats and white head scarves, arms linked, laughing and talking together, utterly engrossed. Then out of the dunes burst a motley dog followed by a bunch of young surfers, boys and girls in wetsuits, clutching their boards, leaping and shouting  and making their way out beyond the break. The girls in their dark and modest clothes stood quietly watching. I imagine what comes next – as surely it will – The seven young women, with surfboards of their own are running into the sea, paddling out, turning to face the shore then rising to their feet as the huge swell catches them. There they go, heads thrown back, hijabs billowing, waving at us watchers on the shore.   Lighthouse Literary Festival 20-22 April 2012


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Semifinal 2 – Tournament of Books: My Brilliant Career vs The Fortunes of Richard Mahony


 VS Fortunes

This is torture. Two dead white women whose books feel like friends — and I am already deep in subjectivity. They sort of map my life. Once a fierce nineteen year old like Miles Franklin’s Stella/Sybylla, I was determined not to get snagged in convention or my mother’s life. I once loved a brilliant Mahony of a man whose life and death followed something of the same dark passage. I was sent to wander the National Gallery once in search of paintings for the paperback covers of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony — which in 1969 had just been declared by the UK company good enough to wear ‘Penguin livery’ — as they called it back then.

Both books are now in Penguin Classics and are slugging it out in a tournament that feels more like kick-boxing than tennis. Judging literary awards can be a snitch, choosing what gets published, no problem. A tournament is something else again. There’s staying power, performance, the roar of the crowd on the day.

What the books are about matters and though written more than twenty years apart by very different women who didn’t much admire each other, they have much in common. Both are disturbing portraits of strong women trapped by fate or circumstance as the booms and busts of the second half of the nineteenth century tear lives apart. Both were written when Australianness as affliction and privilege was endlessly debated. Both probe something crucial about this place, the fundamental sources of colonial tensions and our ambivalences.

Henry Handel Richardson, at the peak of her powers, was writing from the outside looking back, looking in, living mainly in England, researching family letters, drawing on her father’s harrowing experiences. She was a skilled historian, psychologically astute, brilliant on disintegration and death and what was once known as character. Published between 1917 and 1927, the superbly structured Fortunes was acclaimed throughout the English speaking world as the great colonial trilogy. Miles Franklin thought it ‘European, internationalist, not of the soil’. My Brilliant Career (the publishers removed Miles’ question mark after Brilliant and modified her anti-imperial sentiments) divided readers from its publication in 1901. English critics found it to be devoid of literary value, too emotional, too ‘of the bush’, to be taken seriously — and so carping was the Australian reaction that its young author withdrew the book from circulation. My Brilliant Career, memoir-as- first-novel, sometimes strains after effect, caricaturing, not quite sure where it’s heading nor how it will end. But Sybylla of Possum Gully delights in her own resilience and quirkiness, not attempting to explain the physical repulsion that causes her to lash out whenever a man touches her, even her great marital prospect who promises love, security and a writing room.

As always, the critical and the visceral response to powerful writing are in play — the tournament is located in my head. Right now, I’m with Sybylla, full of life, bouncing along in her boots made for sparring, outrageous, curmudgeonly, railing against fate. Fortunes is a masterpiece which has had its day and will have it again and again. My Brilliant Career might just be having it now. Go Miles.


Jess: I thought that by this stage of the tournament, I’d know everything there is to possible know about the books in question, but it turns out there is always more to find out about our brave competitors. I feel as though the discovery that My Brilliant Careerwas originally called My Brilliant Career? changes EVERYTHING for me, and I don’t even know why! Maybe I’m just drawn to the power of sarcastic used punctuation. In any case, Also, learning that Miles Franklin once described The Fortunes Of Richard Mahony as ‘European, internationalist, not of the soil’ adds an important element of unexpected inter-text bitchiness that has been lacking from the competition so far. I wonder what Henry Handel Richardson would have to say in response to this statement — perhaps she would cattily mutter something about Franklin not standing by her question mark when push came to publishing shove? We’ll never know. Either way, these two tomes have clearly kick-boxed their way into judge Hilary McPhee’s heart, and after some brutal jabs and cross stomps, competition favourite Miles Franklin has once again emerged, bloodied and battered but grinning victoriously, from yet another fight.

Ben: Indeed, My Brilliant Career does seem to have something of the unstoppable cannibal cyborg about it — in fact, what a shame Miles Franklin did not live long enough to see the advances in technology that would have allowed her to write the cannibal cyborg novel that she surely had burgeoning within her. But still, this novel seems to be doing very well on its own merits, and like you, I was glad to see Franklin engage in a bit of trash talk — in a tournament you want to see the competitors get all up in each other’s grills, and Franklin has proven herself not only a skilled writer, but a masterly grill-getter-up-in. But let’s not neglect to acknowledge how well The Fortunes of Richard Mahony did to get so far. Not being of the soil was probably a major handicap, but like Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mount Everest despite having only one leg, Richard Mahony overcame its crippling Europeanness to put up a more-than-creditable performance, and the fact it will forevermore be known as ‘the loser book’ shouldn’t take away from that. What I was stunned by was the revelation that critics found My Brilliant Career to be too ‘of the bush’: clearly they had little experience of book tournaments, as being of the bush is a positive boon in this arena, and I am backing Franklin to go all the way here. I only wish the publisher hadn’t removed the question mark. ‘My Brilliant Career?’ would have been awesome, in my imagination at least: ‘My brilliant career?’ gasped Sybylla. “WTF?” She could see she was dealing with a real arsehat here.’


© Hilary McPhee


Posted by Judy Horton 
17 November at 06:04PM

In no way should The Fortunes of Richard Mahony be called the loser book. It is profound and clever, and to say it is not of the soil is like saying Frank Moorehouse shouldn’t win the Miles Franklin because his books aren’t about Australia. 
The family the nation and the individual and the effects of each on the other are all subject to Richardson’s close scrutiny. I am shocked that so hightly regarded a publication as meanjin should not understand the importance of this book.


Posted by Whispering Gums 
18 November at 10:17PM

Oh dear, you clever entertaining commentators, I don’t think you read McPhee properly. Franklin wanted her book to be titled My brilliant? career … how very postmodern, or something, of her, how even more sarcastic or self-deprecating. And how very boring of the publisher!

And Judy, do you really think Meanjin doesn’t understand the importance of Richardson’s book … it was Franklin not Meanjin who described it as “not of the soil”, and don’t you think the commentators have their tongues firmly in their cheeks when calling Mahony “the loser book”.

Oh, and go the bush!

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