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