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
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 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.
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.
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 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.)
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.’