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 Chinese, acquired 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 will, we can’t, we 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 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.
‘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