Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books

Introduction to Christina Stead – A Web of Friendship – Selected Letters (1928 – 1973)

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


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.

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.

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.



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

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.

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



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


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!

My friend, Diana Gribble, died the other night …

Diana Gribble

Written for The Drum, ABC.

Since then the tributes have poured forth from people who knew her well, and from some who didn’t but had benefitted from her gifts – her ability to make things happen, to set things to rights and to cut to the chase. Di’s risk-taking has been mentioned a good deal – and that I can vouch for.

We had taken a risk on each other, after all – two young women back in 1974. Both feminists fond of men, with a shared a passion for reading and typography, but backgrounds and experiences which were poles apart. When Diana and Jack’s wedding made a big splash in the Age’s social pages, I was a bohemian young mother in the Dandenongs with an artist husband and no running water or electricity. When we met again over a campaign to interview every Federal Politician about where they stood on issues of abortion and equality, I was a novice editor and Diana was working for an advertising agency. We signed an old-fashioned partnership agreement to form an entity to do whatever came along that appealed to us,  promising to be “true and honest with each other at all times”.

Risk-taking was the only way we could do what we did for the next 17 years with no capital except for a $3000 loan from Diana’s father, a few hazy promises of editorial and design work from publishing contacts and our wits.

Sir Archibald’s loan went on two white chairs, a white filing cabinet, a golf ball typewriter and a bottle of good scotch. This was the era of Australia’s version of Mad Men – big men in suits dropping by after long lunches to give us advice.

“Brains and Beauty in South Yarra” was the headline to an interview about the start-up by the literary editor of the Age. “More” and “Better” one bloke dubbed us – meaning, we assumed, the way we worked. “Fuckme” and “Grapple” was another tag which has just swum up from the depths.

They were exhilarating years, most of them. We were spotting talent, publishing the books we fell for, commissioning hundreds of others we wanted written. There was an office crèche for the McPhee Gribble babies and we employed mainly bright young women with no experience plus the occasional bloke who wasn’t intimidated and who made us laugh.

In the end the money got us. We were trying to refinance an expansion and a separation from a tough co-publishing deal with Penguin we should never have made.  Then Keating’s “recession we had to have” hit in the late eighties and interest rates climbed to seventeen and a half percent. For a terrible 18 months our offices were festooned in spread sheets, the two of us spending weekends dreaming up combinations of non-existent titles for business plans with acceptable margins for more men in suits – trying to hit on people who might try to understand publishing and its risks.

My memory is we took it in turns to go in and out of panic. Di mortgaged her house, I borrowed a large sum from one of my brothers. Penguin was waiting in the wings.

The end, when it came, was as bad as they get. A deal was put on the table for me to go with the authors and for Di and our splendid small staff of about 12 to go away. When Diana told me this, that I had no choice, it was a done deal – I roared out to a meeting in a Ringwood café with the Penguin MD to try to explain for the umpteenth time that the authors needed us both. That the more than 30 brilliant titles in the pipeline needed our way of working. That Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, Rod Jones’ new novel and the next Kaz Cooke needed far more than me. That Stephanie Alexander was talking to us about a big cookbook – and that none of this could happen without all of us. In the end I saved four jobs – and got a speeding ticket plus a one month suspension of my driver’s licence for losing it with a young cop.

I had to go with the deal, Di told me. She had to walk away. Their agenda did not include her – and hers, of course, did not include them. So the hideous drawn out stage of lawyers and draft sales agreements and assignment of contracts began.

Our friendship would survive the wedge, we told each other in the office right at the end when the removalists were in. We lunched every month, rang each other often, sent each other copies of our books and magazines. We even visited each other’s offices once or twice. That was harder. When Text Media began I made myself feel pleased.

Inevitably our lives diverged but kept on over-lapping. Diana went from strength to strength in various media with a creative business relationship with Eric Beecher that seemed to me to be exactly right. I left corporate publishing, went on far too many boards and committees and wrote a little book which Di was generous about. Our children grew up and kept in touch. We remembered birthdays and anniversaries, we went to many of the same parties and dinners – but it was indeed a relationship “strained by the deal” as someone reported the other day. It was hard on our families and must have been hard on our friends, who never mentioned it to me.

I lived overseas for a few years. It was a few days after I got back that I ran into Di at a party outside among the smokers where the best conversations were still to be had. She suggested coffee the next day and I assumed we’d do what we’d done for years – a brisk hug, swap notes about each other’s lives and husbands, avoiding the old stuff. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who knew Diana that it was she, not me, who broke the taboo.

Stop talking about the children, she said, straight up. We’ve got to talk about the end of McPhee Gribble and what happened to us. And we did.

At first we met early in the morning every Thursday  – moving from café to café around Fitzroy and North Carlton aware of the spectacle we were making of ourselves. Two women in their late sixties weeping and raging and clutching each other’s hands before staggering out white-faced in dark glasses. Sometimes afterwards we’d text each other about nearly throwing up or going back to bed. But over the next few months we managed to talk about feelings of being betrayed and devalued. Both of us. High-risk stuff but fabulous – which made us proud.

After some months of this, there was nothing left to be said. The stories of our lives were much more gripping and we settled back to regular coffees outside at Marios – just down the road from the last seedy old office which is still there covered in graffiti.

Now it all feels like some kind of gift.