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.