How are you? I hope you’ve had a great week, and if I’d remembered to clock on yesterday I’d be able to offer you some Apple Slice or Banana Cake. However, they’re all gone now. So, life’s pretty tough. You’re stuck with the Tim Tams.
I’m really not too sure what happened last week. There was a serious incident at my daughter’s school, and that took over the rest of the week, and I was left scrambling to return to some kind of equilibrium. Fortunately, I seem to be there now, and hope to get out for a good solid walk this afternoon, because I’ve been falling behind on that front with all the rain.
Fortunately, a friend had recommended reading Eddie Jaku’s: The Happiest Man On Earth. It was just what the wellbeing doctor would’ve ordered because his fundamental message is that even in the darkest of places, there is always hope, and even human kindness. BTW I should’ve mentioned that Eddie was a German Jew who was on the run from the Nazi’s during WWI and ended up in Auschwitz. Ironically, he came across a close friend there, and this friendship proved critical in his survival. It’s a really important read, with so many incredible pearls. After all, the best pearls are pieces of wisdom, not jewels.
Meanwhile, I finished reading Mark Lamprell’s novel: The Secret Wife and launched into a bit more reading about women and work in the 1960’s. I ended up reading through articles from the Australian Women’s Weekly, which were really interesting and I’m slowly posting a few of them. By the way, I’d also like to point out that these changes don’t just relate to women but our whole society, and are ongoing. It’s been good for me to see what we are living through now, and me personally through the lens of where we’ve been. There’s this one: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2022/05/01/working-women-in-1960s-an-insight/
I also followed up a dinner that was held in Sydney in 1961 for Women At the Top. My grandmother was one of the women who attended, but I didn’t know much more about it. Fortunately, we now have the world wide web at our fingertips, and I was able to fish out a really challenging story about it. The journalist was quite antagonistic towards the event and who these women at the top might be. It was definitely a case of trying to cut the tall poppies down. Here’s that link: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2022/05/02/australias-women-at-the-top-1961/
By the way, I hadn’t really thought about this before, but isn’t Queen Elizabeth the most high profile working mother in the world?!! Interesting.
Well, I’d better head off now. Hope you’ve had a good week.
Years ago, I stumbled across an intriguing press clipping from the early 60’s about a celebratory dinner: Women at the Top. The timing of this dinner, along with the fact my grandmother, concert pianist Eunice Gardiner, was invited aroused my insatiable curiosity. Who were these women, and what did they do to get to the top?
However, this was long before Australia’s newspapers and magazines had been uploaded, and unfortunately my curiosity ended up in the too hard basket.
That changed last week.
After reading Mark Lamprell’s: The Secret Wife, I found myself thinking about my grandmother’s career again, and I remembered this reference to Women at the Top, only now I had the vast resources of the World Wide Web at my fingers tips to find out more about it. The only trouble was that the information needed to be captured in the first place, and unfortunately, this stellar event received very little media coverage.
From what I’ve been able to piece together, Sydney’s Royal Blind Society hosted Women At The Top on the 8th February, 1961 at the Australia Hotel. It was based on a luncheon held annually in London, Women of the Year. Although it was held as a fundraiser, the dinner’s primary goal was to raise awareness of women’s achievements.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out much about the identities of these women at the top although it was said: “These women will represent the academic, artistic, literary, professional and business life, as well as the cultural and sporting circles.” It was chaired by lawyer Mrs. Mary Tenison Woods, C.B.E. In 1950, she had been appointed Chief of the Office of the Status of Women in the division of Human Rights, United Nations Secretariat, New York. Mrs Phyllis Burke was the Publicity Officer for the Royal Blind Society. She had a degree in Economics, held membership of the N.S.W. Housing Commission, and also had nine children. The guest speaker was Madame Hélène BurollaudIt, Sales and Technical Director in Paris of the cosmetic firm of Harriet Hubbard Ayer. She was in Australia at the time, and was recommended by the Lintas advertising agency. The only other women mentioned were my grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, aviator Nancy Bird-Walton and the attendance of Lady Amy Woodward, wife of Lieutenant-General, Sir Eric Woodward, Governor of NSW, 1957-1965. Obviously, that barely touches on the 180 women who attended.
While it at least seems significant to me that this dinner took place in the early 1960’s, the write up it received by Sally Desmond in The Bulletin was equally striking. You would hope that as a woman, she would have been pleased to see this celebration of female talent, and cracks starting to appear in what we now as the glass ceiling. You would hope for zealous enthusiasm and support for the sisterhood, even in the days before “the sisterhood” had possibly even become a term. Instead, she is rather critical, and uses her pen sword to cut the tall poppies down instead. Much to my disgust, she specifically questioned my grandmother’s right to be there: “Miss Eunice Gardiner is a pianist, but having seven children has successfully wiped out any claim she might ever have made to being a top-flight one.” Then, she launched into aviator Nancy Bird-Walton: “Mrs Charles Walton is a pilot, but she doesn’t fly a jet on a regular route.” Please! These seven children hadn’t wiped my grandmother off the face of the earth. She was still giving professional concerts, was a music critic with The Telegraph and was also a Professor of the Piano at the Conservatorium of Music. Moreover, on the 8th November, 1960 (only a year earlier) she’d appeared on ABC TV on a panel interviewing African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson on the eve of the election of JF Kennedy. This was a really cutting-edge interview especially for Australia at the time. Meanwhile, Aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton had made a significant contribution to early aviation in Australia. She’d taken her first flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, pioneered outback ambulance services and founded the Australian Women’s Pilots Association.
So, given the questioning and frequently challenging tone of this account of the Women At the Top Dinner, I’ve referenced the full article, and I’d be interested to know your thoughts. I’d also be delighted if anyone knew more about it:
Where is the Top?
When I spoke on the telephone to Mrs Phyllis Burke at Sydney’s Royal Blind Society about covering her “Women at the Top” dinner she was charming but evasive. “You can come beforehand,”she offered. “I can give you a list of the women at the top table. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what the speakers will say.”
Suddenly she broke down. “I’ve had such a lot of trouble with newspaper-women ringing and asking to be invited,” she said unhappily.
“But I’m nobody,” I told her, with a trace of modesty.
“Oh, then,” she said, “do come along! There’ll be a press table where you can have a cup of coffee and sandwiches or a glass of sherry.”
So I went and had a cup of coffee and sandwiches and a glass of sherry while 180 of Sydney’s Women at the Top ate oysters, grilled chicken and pineapple glace flambee and drank Australian wines. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle.
Perhaps what inspired most awe was how those women had got themselves there in the first place.
It was a wet, humid night, but 180 of Sydney’s Women at the Top got into evening dress, then left their husbands comfortably in front of the TV or in front of a long, cold beer. Perhaps some of them left him uncomfortably getting his own dinner or putting the children to bed. Then the Women at the Top had to back the car out of the garage or walk to the station. You can’t park within blocks of the Australia Hotel, so they had to walk, picking up skirts from the wet streets. Most of them had to walk alone, because being at the top is a lonely business!
Although when they arrived many of them seemed to know, or at least recognise, each other. You didn’t see too many peering at the tags with name and Profession which each guest wore.
There were only 180 at the dinner, although it was originally announced that 300 would be invited. Mrs Burke, who does publicity for the Royal Blind Society, and whose varying achievements: a degree in Economics, membership of the N.S.W. Housing Commission and a family of nine, got her to the top table among the Women at the Top, said that 255 had been invited and there were 75 refusals. Whether 75 refused because they were unsure of their own importance or not convinced of the importance of the dinner is an interesting question.
There was a guest of honor, Madame Helene Burollaud, who is sales and technical director in Paris of the cosmetic firm of Harriet Hubbard Ayer. She became guest of honor at the suggestion of Lintas advertising agency, but Lintas was modest about its part in the Women at the Top dinner. “We heard Mrs Burke was organising the dinner for the blind and we thought it would be a good way to get some publicity for Madame Burollaud,” their representative said.
The fee for attending the dinner was three guineas, but, Mrs Burke said, although it was hoped to make money for the blind, the primary purpose of the dinner was to focus attention on women’s achievements.
The Women at the Top all sat down together with only one man in the room, Mr James Hanratty, the head waiter in the Rainbow room. His staff are all women, which might have proved something to the Women at the Top. Mr Hanratty’s nice Irish face grew red and his nice Irish brogue grew more pronounced at the idea of 180 women sitting down to have dinner together.
“Of course, I’ve, had men’s dinners,” Mr Hanratty said, “and I’ve had things like millinery shows here, but half of them are men. I’ve never had all women at dinner before.”
And that was what was mainly wrong with the whole affair. It’s all very well for women to adopt what men like to think are their exclusive callings but why do they have to emulate men’s barbarous habit of one-sex dinners? Men have no social gifts except those poor ones which women after generations have beaten into them. This is called civilisation. Men can sit quite happily like boiled owls at all-male dinners listening to boring speeches, although intelligent men will complain of how gruesome it all is, but why on earth would women try the same caper?
A luncheon would have been much better. Sydney women sparkle at all-women luncheons. They’re a strong tradition and they can be bags of fun, mostly much more fun than all-men equivalents.
Mrs Burke said that the Women at the Top dinner was based on a similar affair held annually in London. But in London it’s a luncheon and it’s called the Women of the Year.
Being at the top sounds so final. What will the selection committee do next year if it does become an annual affair?
Go carefully through the list and see who’s slipped a bit? Or will the same 180 women face each other across the same tables and the same menu of oysters, chicken and pineapple glace flambee for years to come?
Women of the Year sounds much better. If you aren’t one of the women of 1961 you might remember warmly that you were a woman of 1951 or decide that with a bit of luck you might be a woman of 1971 or 1981. Women at the Top sounds so competitive and harsh, and few of the Women at the Top looked competitive or harsh. Many of them were very pretty and most of them were very elegantly dressed.
And most of them looked intelligent enough to question whether they were really at the top and intelligent enough not to worry unduly if they decided they weren’t at the top. After all, where is the top? Mrs Charles Walton is a pilot, but she doesn’t fly a jet on a regular route. Miss Eunice Gardiner is a pianist, but having seven children has successfully wiped out any claim she might ever have made to being a top-flight one.
Some of the Women at the Top didn’t seem to be taking it all too seriously.
But as long as any women take this sort of thing seriously, no one will take them seriously.
Clearly, Sally Desmond didn’t take the event seriously, and to some degree considered it a failure. That’s a shame, because an opportunity was lost to provide a serious account of what truly was a ground breaking event for the status of Australian women. It would’ve been wonderful to have hear a few quotes from Madame Hélène BurollaudIt’s speech, and more about who actually attended, rather than the paragraphs she wasted talking about their struggle to get to the dinner itself.
Such is life.
It would be wonderful to say that I’d managed to walk in my grandmother’s shoes in some regard. However, I did try to interview her about her career, but by this stage she was in her late 80’s and like most of us, she wondered where the years had gone and who the old lady was staring back at her in the mirror. She was very proud of her achievements and being known as “Melba of the piano” and the “Baby pianist of Bondi”. I always intended to juggle work and family myself, but my health intervened. Indeed, I wasn’t juggling anything, but medical appointments for awhile there. However, I did manage to get appointed to the Status of Women Committee of our local council, whose responsibilities included organising the International Women’s Day March down the main street. I also joined a group: Business and Professional Women (BPW) and was able to fly the flag publicly for a bit there. I haven’t given up, but I’m also aware that a percentage of young men also need to be empowered now. Indeed, all our young people are needing compassion and understanding after covid had made it so difficult for them to study, work, have relationships and essentially be young people.
Anyway, I’d love to hear from you.
As much as I’m not happy with the Queen being Australia’s Head of State, she has long been a working mother and I’ve never heard anyone look at how that might’ve impacted options for women during her reign.
If you go digging through my archives, you’ll notice that despite being a self-confessed book addict, I rarely write book reviews. That’s because I’m unfortunately more of a book collector than a voracious book reader. Of course, I have good intentions, and get carried away on the wings of fancy, but all too often the rubber doesn’t hit the road.
Anyway, today I’m breaking with tradition because I’ve just finished reading Mark Lamprell’s: The Secret Wife, and I’m too excited to keep it to myself. I absolutely loved it, and thought you might love it too. I rarely read non-fiction, and despite my best intentions, have often failed to finish even novels I love. So, the fact I was sticking matchsticks in my eyes to stay awake and finish this book, is a very strong endorsement. Indeed, to quote Australian music legend Molly Meldrum: “Do yourself a favour”, and read this book.
So, what was so good about it?
For me personally, I’m Australian and I enjoy stories from my own backyard, as well as reading foreign literature. Indeed, I suspect each of us likes to see our own world reflected back to us through the arts, as much as we also appreciate a more cosmopolitan diet. Yet, at the same time, it wasn’t consciously Australian and would easily translate elsewhere.
Secondly, I really appreciated the highly developed characterisation with his profound understanding of human nature. The storyline hinges on the friendship of two very different women, Edith and Frankie, their husbands and children and is mostly set in the 1960’s. Naturally, as characters in a novel, they go through many ups and downs, dramas, catastrophes and successes. Lacking in self-confidence myself too often, I related very strongly to Edith even though I’m a born extrovert and would’ve loved to be Frankie in my dreams.
I also really appreciated how Lamprell handled the interaction of this wily cast with the finely-tuned precision of a symphony conductor, yet with casual realism. There were times the characters became people I know, but I also felt Mark knew me like the back of his hand. I’m sure I got goose bumps more than once.
Another point I greatly appreciated about the book was Mark’s dynamic and complex vocabulary. Not all writers appreciate words, but I love words with a passion and am quick to take my hat off to those who make the effort (or even flourish). My kids have told me off for writing in books, but I always read books with a pen in hand, and my pen was very busy throughout (which is a great sign, btw.) I even jotted a few words in the back.
It is also worth noting that The Secret Wife is a historical novel. I was touched and impressed by Lamprell’s eye for detail and accuracy. It’s so easy to Google these things now, that there’s no excuse for getting them wrong. There is just enough detail to add flavour and authenticity, but not too much to bog you down.
All of that makes me sound intensely critical and punctilious (to steal a word from Mark). However, what we’re all looking for is a gripping story. A tale which draws us in and keeps throwing us bait until we’re caught hook, line and sinker. Where we can’t put the book down, yet we don’t want the book to end either. That is certainly true of The Secret Wife. The plot is also refreshingly unpredictable. He leads us up one path, and then we are taken somewhere else entirely, although not left alone lost in the dark either.
I know I’m saying a lot without saying much at all about this book. That’s because I know how much I hate spoilers. I just want a “yay” or a “nay”, and something to back it up. Yet, I’m busting to talk to someone about it.
However, I’m also into biography. So, once I like a book, or fancy an author, I want to delve into their head, their heart, their past, present…the works. (Indeed, I’ve been doing just that with author Ethel Turner over at my other blog Tea With Ethel Turner.) So this leaves me asking: “Who is Mark Lamprell?” and I suppose you might be wondering the same thing, and why I read: The Secret Wife, especially when I could’ve been reading your blog posts and works of fiction instead…
Well, the official answer is: “Mark Lamprell is an (Australian) writer of novels and children’s books published in sixteen countries and twelve languages, including the novels The Full Ridiculous and A Lover’s Guide to Rome. He also works internationally as a writer and director in film, with movie credits including Babe Pig in the City, My Mother Frank, Goddess, A Few Less Men and Never Too Late.“
However, for me, Mark Lamprell was also my uncle’s school friend. My dad was one of seven, and being the eldest grandchild, I was only ten and eleven years younger than my youngest uncles. So, it wasn’t unusual for me to be down at the house when their friends were around. Moreover, their house was a sprawling Californian bungalow. None of the doors were ever locked, and people simply came and went. Oftentimes, we’d be gathered around the kitchen table philosophising. One would be having breakfast, another lunch and someone else having a snack. It was definitely laissez-faire, although there were still non-negotiables like my grandfather wanting my uncle to get his hair cut.
Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother was Eunice Gardiner, an international concert pianist, music critic and later professor piano at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. In the loungeroom, there was her Bechstein grand piano, and after my grandfather passed away, it was joined by a large concert-sized Steinway grand, which she’d brought out from England. Having two large grand pianos in your lounge room, certainly makes a statement.
So, the house had this sort of dichotomy, and that fits in very well with Frankie’s world in The Secret Wife. Moreover, like Frankie, there was so much we didn’t know about my grandmother’s career, and who she was. Indeed, I venture to suggest that everyone probably has their secrets. Things even our nearest and dearest know nothing about.
While The Secret Wife and I were obviously a very good fit, I ended up reading it because the publisher sent me a copy to review. I was attending a novel writing workshop with Graeme Simsion (author of The Rosie Project who I’ve reviewed before). I mentioned that I’d attended a similar workshop with Mark Lamprell at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and the publicist said she’d send me a copy of his new book. I was delighted, and mentioned he was a family friend. The book duly arrived, and I thought I’d better read it tout de suite to honour the deal. No forgetting to read this book. By this time, I picked up an extra 38 “friends” at the Pearl Beach Book Sale. So, it wasn’t that The Secret Wife was without competition. I clearly needed to get reading.
However, reading The Secret Wife now was mind-blowing timing. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by historian, Ann Curthoys, who let me know that back in 1960 my grandmother had appeared on an ABC TV panel interviewing Paul Robeson, an African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist and soon of a former slave when he toured Australia in November 1960. The interview covered racism, equality and freedom and was recorded on the 5th November, 1960. Three days later, JF Kennedy defeated Nixon in the US presidential election, and it was broadcast on the 13th November, 1960. It was just under three years before Dr Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which followed a march by over 200,000 people on Washington on the 28th August, 1963. I was able to order a copy of the interview, and have been working on a transcript. I am gobsmacked.
So, reading: The Secret Wife which is set in this similar social context, was an incredible fusion. However, my grandmother was leading a different life to anyone really what with her prodigious talent and being married with seven children and still pursuing her career. But I think she just had this trajectory in her mind and it just kept going. She probably knew nothing else.
As for my grandfather, there was a miniature grand piano on their wedding cake. So, I doubt he had any illusions. My grandmother, her piano and her career were a package deal. There was never any suggestion she was going to stop.
Wow! There’s been so much to think about, and more to come. For now, I’m going to let the book settle. I really want to talk it over, and share it with someone (something I obviously can’t do in a review.) Maybe, I’ll start talking to myself.
PS One thing I didn’t mention was that my grandfather was the consummate book collector and my grandparents’ house was overflowing out the back and under the house with boxes, and boxes of books. Indeed, when my grandparents first got married, my grandfather’s mother sent over his books to their new home, and they apparently arrived even before the furniture.
Don’t you just love family stories?!!
Featured image: Geoff Newton. Thank you Zac the dog for posing for the camera. Since he spends much of his life sleeping underneath my keyboard and while I was reading the book, it seemed appropriate for him to appear in the photo.
What goes around comes around. While our kids are still a way off leaving school, quite a few of my friends’ kids are currently doing their HSCs or final exams at the moment. While they’re currently fully immersed in their exams and seizing hold of current friendships, they’re all about to embark into the great unknown of new beginnings.
Who knows whether any of these kids will find themselves walking along the same old path we trod into Sydney University. Catching the train to Redfern Station and then walking down Lawson Street, onto Abercrombie and into campus…albeit clutching a map and potentially loads of trepidation.
Starting anything new is such a melting pot of horrid anxiety and exhilarated excitement that it’s surprising any of us can actually put one foot in front of the other and actually emerge from the other end with that precious piece of paper in hand. All I can say to the new ones is that the paths well trod, but there have also been a lot of casualties and not to take anything for granted. That you need to carpe diem seize the day but also make sure you don’t burn up along the way. Light all your matches at once and have no story to tell.
Anyway, while some people waste their lives hunting down the mighty dollar, I live in pursuit of the story. Consequently, as soon as I found out that the archives of Sydney University’s newspaper, Honi Soit were online, I dived in and I haven’t come out. What’s added zest and excitement to this journey, is that I’m a third generation Sydney University Graduate and I also have aunts, uncles, brother, cousins who’ve also been through the place. While our names mightn’t be etched in stone in the Main Quad, we’ve definitely been part of the action. Some of us more than others.
It was only natural to want to check out the very first edition of Honi Soit and see what it was about. Then, I realized that my grandfather had been studying dentistry at the time and that he would’ve held that paper in his hands all those years ago. Been a part of the action. Born in 1910, he would’ve been 19 in 1929 and possibly in second year. I’ve got to try and nut that out.
So, when I found this fabulous letter to the editor written by a Fresher, I had to think of him. I didn’t think of him as the Fresher, but more as one of the wise owls offering this hapless young man a bit of advice.
Here it goes:
Letters to the Editor May 3, 1929.
Now I am only a Fresher, Mr. Editor, and consequently am not very well up in ‘Varsity ways and this is what’s worrying me. Every morning I meet one of the women of my year at the tram—she’s always there first and so I can’t dodge her—and we ride in together and I pay her fare.
Now that’s it—should I pay her fare seeing that I only met her a few weeks ago? You see it makes quite a big difference in this way: When I ride with her I don’t like to use my cram pass and as it is a three section journey that means 3d. extra plus 5d. for her—making 8d. extra altogether.
This means 3/4 a week in the morning and there’s also one afternoon which brings it up to 4/- a week. This is £ 2 a term and means £ 6 a year.
As we are both doing MED. we will travel together for six years and that means £36. Further since everyone fails in Third Year we will have to stay seven years at the ‘Varsity and that makes it £42.
It doesn’t seem a bit fair to me that this girl should cost me so much money, but as I am only a Fresher and don’t know much I would like to have your opinion as I am certain it will be a good one.
Hoping that I haven’t caused you too much bother.
Yours Very Truly,
M.T. Honi Soit, May 3, 1929 pg 3.
Honi Soit, May 10, 1929
To the Editor,— The touching plea of a Med. Fresher in the shape of an extremely ingenuous letter to your paper, must surely have touched all hearts. Even the Women Undergraduates must have been moved to pity ere they passed judgment. My first feeling was one of intense astonishment. That a Med. Fresher would actually consider the possibility of paying someone else’s tram fare was a possibility not dreamt of in my philosophy.
The puzzled fresher would have us believe the following facts:
(a) He is very worried. (I would suggest nerve nuts at stated intervals —notably during lectures).
(b) It is impossible for him to dodge the “woman.’ (I’ve heard that one before).
(c) He has calculated expenses over a period of seven years with terrifying results. (At last we are on familiar ground).
Naturally enough the Age of Reason has little time for the Age of Chivalry.
It would seem on the face of things that the question, ”Should Men pay Women Students* tram fares?” is as fruitless as “Should women stand in trams?” But there are a few considerations which make the former question a matter for controversy.
In the first place we find it difficult to believe that the puzzled fresher catches the same tram—literally speaking—as the troublesome “woman” on every occasion. Apart from the sheer miracle of a Med. student paying someone else’s fare, the misfortune must be on the fresher’s own head. Either he is organically lazy, or he is proving that even in the tram a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. We are thus faced with an interesting psychological contretemps. As yet the innocent fresher cannot analyse the strange force which compels him to seat himself by the “woman” and bravely ignoring his shameful tram pass, to drag forth the sum of eight-pence. On the other hand the financial instinct struggles fiercely.
No wonder then the poor fresher is worried.
I think that if the fresher continually meets the “woman” in the tram, she should hand forth the plebeian coppers as naturally as she might stroll in minutes late for a nine o’clock lecture. The whole question really hinges on the problem of to show or not to show the humble pass, and my opinion is that it should be treated as an academic privilege to be taken advantage of on every occasion. And so, let the “woman” take the initiative and keep her tram pass as she does her powder puff—
within easy access. Surely then the fresher will be worried no longer when he sees “the treasured” privilege—-her
I read with amazement the piteous appeal for guidance from M.T.G. (“H.S.,” May 3). That he should even consider, let alone worry over, paying a woman student’s fare is quite beyond my comprehension. His blunder for to my mind it is an egregious mistake is all the more apparent when the reason why women come to the ‘Varsity in general, and do Medicine in particular, is taken into consideration.
Of course it is well known that women only come to the ‘Varsity to “catch” a husband. As “Med.” has the best “catches” and is the longest course, they have greater opportunities to carry out their nefarious schemes.
If, however, M.T.G. finds that, having commenced, he cannot cease paying the siren’s fare, I would suggest the adoption of any or all of the following:—
1.—Buy (a) a car; (b) a motorcycle (with pillion) ; (c) a bicycle.
Reading this letter 90 years later, what would I advise the young man?
Probably, my greatest piece of advice to that young man is that you should only give what you feel comfortable giving. As it stands, paying for the young woman’s fare seems like more of a tax and all he’s really concerned about is how much it’s going to cost him. He hasn’t mentioned whether he likes the girl, finds her attractive, it’s just about how much she’s costing him and that’s counter to the real spirit of giving. You should give with a full heart, without building resentment. Yet, at the same time, I also feel for him because once he paid for her a second time, he’d established a pattern which would be very difficult for anyone to get out of. I’d really love to hear how the story panned out. Was there ever romance with this girl on the tram? Or, perhaps she read his letter and decided to pay her own way. After all, it was a fairly pointed letter. Indeed, that makes me question whether the letter was genuine or just a story line devised by the editors? I guess we’ll never know. However, it all made for an entertaining read and a huge sense of relief, that my fresher days are well and truly in the past.
If you’ve been following Beyond the Flow for any length of time at all, you’ll know that I’m totally obsessed and absorbed in research. Indeed, I wrap myself up in all these stories like a thick fleecy blanket feeling so snug and cosy.
Yet, there’s also that frustration. The compulsion to keep on searching even though you know what you’re looking for isn’t out there, and you’re needing to go offline.
That’s where I was tonight. I’m actually in the throws of researching my grandfather’s second cousin, Asher Hart, who was a champion swimmer who was struck down by polio in his teens, but went on to become a surf champion and saved four lives on Black Sunday 1938 when a mini tsunami hit a crowded Bondi Beach in Sydney. Given my own struggles with disability and muscle wastage, he’s been such an inspiration to me in recent years, even though I only stumbled across him five years ago while I was recovering from chemo.
Anyway, it was getting late by now and I was winding down while my last cup of tea was cooling down, and entered my grandfather’s name into the search engine for these old newspapers. You can tag the articles so I can easily spot the ones I’ve read and the ones I’ve missed. New newspapers are being uploaded so it can be very productive to revisit what really might seem like the end of the road. Indeed, my motto is: Never Give Up, which could be a bit of a problem when research isn’t supposed to be the centre of my universe. Or, as is often the case, it can easily become my universe. I can become incredibly focused.
So, here I am tinkering away with these old newspapers around midnight, when I strike gold. Indeed, tinkering right before bed can be quite a bad thing because that seems to be when I stumble across something I can’t put down. That I must explore immediately and there endeth a good night’s sleep.
Tonight, I stumbled across an article and photo of my grandmother, concert pianist Eunice Gardiner carrying my uncle in a back pack. I have never even seen this photo before, and I’m absolutely stoked. There she is not only photographed with him in the backpack, but she’s also talking about going shopping with the toddler on her back, the baby on the front while my grandfather was away with the army. Yet, not one to be conquered like us other mere mortals, she was also giving a Beethoven Concert at the Sydney Conservatorium. Moreover, she discusses all of this as though everybody was doing it and there’s no talk at all about taking one small step for woman and an enormous leap for womenkind”. She was simply her own person. Mind you, that was also a bit of a luxury enabled by her mother, Mrs Ruby Gardiner, who steeped in and looked after the kids a long with household help. There was actually a migrant hostel at nearby with a source of willing labour. That’s not to belittle her extraordinary achievements, but I share this to console those of us battling to stay afloat in the real world. My two are just under two years apart, and I haven’t forgotten the difficulties of trying to get out the door with two little ones in tow. I also had backpacks, front packs but for getting to the shops, I had this extraordinary double pram contraption I’d picked up from the op shop with a toddler seat on the front. It was the size of a bus and really didn’t encourage going out. By the way, we also had a huge English Sheepdog who was tied to the pram on these walks. In hindsight, I don’t know how we survived. Rufus could well have bolted to the beach after a seagull despite the cumbersome attachments. He was that type of dog…a pure maniac.
My Grandmother at the Australian Embassy in Washington, 1948. She had three children all back in Australia when this photo was taken, including my Dad. So hard to comprehend on so many, many levels.
Despite my grandmother having seven children, I never thought of her being loaded up to the hilt with kids like myself. While my youngest uncles are only ten and eleven years older than me, I still just think of her as MY GRANDMOTHER and given that I often went round and saw her on my own, that makes a lot of sense. Each of us has multiple roles and relationships to different people and we’re not as pigeon-holed as we often try to make out. Indeed, she was much more complex than her title: “Melba of the Piano” implied. She was a modern, Renaissance Woman.
I was so happy to find this article, that I decided to post it here where it’s easily accessible to the family and I can share it with you as well. It’s not like showing it on TV. My blog has more of an “intimate” audience.
I hope you enjoy reading it and might even feel a tad inspired, even if it is only to take yourself off for a walk.
Today, it’s Mother’s Day. That means roadside stalls have sprung up along the main street overnight, bursting with white chrysanthemums. The rest of the year, we don’t even think about chrysanthemums and to be quite frank, they stink…at least a little bit. However, here in Australia, white chrysanthemums mean it is Mother’s Day. Chrysanthemums flower in Autumn and because we’re upside down and topsy turvy, we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day in Spring. Indeed, it’s almost officially Winter.
Of course, I have no idea what white chrysanthemums have to do with being a Mum.
After all, no sensible Mum with little peoples has anything to do with white. Indeed, white to me evokes images of the elderly. There’s “Kids! Be careful on Grandma’s white carpet!!!” Or, visiting someone in hospital where there’s white on white on white and the sense of being trapped inside a white antiseptic cloud. White to me means sterile and has nothing to do with dirty fingerprints, washing, dirt and sundry mess. Or, of course, warm hugs and having my toe nails painted rainbow colours either!
Me and my gal.
Being a mum doesn’t mean peering at your kids through a keyhole. Being a scientific researcher in their white lab coat observing children in a laboratory environment. It means getting down on the floor and being a kid and getting your fingers dirty…playdoh, paint, mud, food and unfortunately there’s also what we’ll call the “business end” to contend with.
Children were never meant to be clean!
That, to me, is also unconditional love. Giving your children the space to be and express themselves, albeit within some kind of limits.
Mister and I 2007
Giving birth was just the beginning and parenting is forever. A parent’s love has no end. Being a tad exhausted and cynical, I’ll add that a child’s demands never end either.
That said, I have always needed “me time” and don’t believe any parent should become their kids. That you can be involved and know your kids, while still maintaining your self. For me, my interaction with my kids is a fluid thing. Sometimes, they need me more than others and there are times when I can also give them more or less of my time. A word of encouragement to parents of little ones, that you do get more of a balance as your children get older and more independent. It can be really difficult when they’re small. Hard to get a break and even enjoy that elusive hot cup of tea (having hot drinks around little ones is verboten and I still remember how much I longed for that hot cup of tea!!)
Launching into Motherhood.
Yesterday, I visited my cousin in hospital with her brand new twin boys. I hadn’t quite forgotten that elation of a new baby but it was really delightful to have such a poignant reminder, especially x 2. Of course, I remembered and savoured when my two were first born. They’re now 12 and 10. So, even I’m starting to turn back the clock. Do a bit of time travelling remembering what it was like right there at the very beginning when my children were nothing but a blank slate. Moreover, when my son was born, my knowledge of babies was a blank slate too and much to my surprise, they let me take him home without sitting any kind of test…just a “Good bye, Mrs Newton. Bon voyage!!”
Thinking about my cousin becoming a mum these days, makes me reflect on what becoming a mother meant in the past. Just a few generations ago, there was no contraceptive pill. Having sex meant the likelihood of having kids, regardless of your plans. My grandmother had seven children while juggling an international career as a high profile concert pianist and her grandmother had 8 daughters living out on a sheep property in the bush.
There was no choice in the matter, although there were some contraceptive strategies around.
This puts an altogether different slant on motherhood with motherhood being more of a destiny, than a choice.
I wonder how that impacted on being a Mum. Your children are still your children and your own flesh and blood but it would have been hard going through strings of pregnancies and births under difficult conditions, while bringing up a handful underfoot. No sitting in your seat and being waited on hand and foot, even though there was “help” for some.
We forget that this idea of having 1-2 children to give them some kind of privileged existence, is a very new concept. Indeed, so is being able to feed the family without having to grow your own food.
The Thinker: me as a baby back in 1969.
Personally, it is important to understand that our modern way of life and the things we take for granted are very, very new and not something which we should take for granted. Indeed, it’s strange because for so many now, the question is not about preventing pregnancy but enabling conception. We’ve been able to work out the stop part but not the go and not having children is the new heartbreak. Well, not new but it’s certainly replacing the lament of the old woman in the shoe who had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
Just ask Virginia Woolf: attending University hasn’t always been a given.
While becoming a mother isn’t revered in our modern world, I encourage younger women to make their own decisions about what’s right for them and find your own path. Does money buy happiness? Parenting may not give you happiness either but somehow you need to find out what you want. You can find a heap of ways of finding intellectual fulfilment without working or by working part-time. Or, you can be a parent and work full time. You need to find out what rocks your own boat and be firm. If that means, not having kids, no apologies required. Good on you for not going down the wrong path for you.
No woman or man should have a gun at their head forcing them to have or not have kids. At the same time, you need to be honest with yourself and your partner and know you’re both on the same page.
While that might not be the pink fluffy Mother’s Day message you anticipated, it’s a helpful reality check. Children are such a precious and priceless gift but they also come with huge strings attached and we can’t just send them back. Or, just tie them up round a pole like a dog when we need to duck into the shops or have a quick break. Thank goodness for family, day care or a good friend.
So, after that fairly deep journey through the pros and cons of motherhood, I wish you all a very Happy Mothers’ Day, sending my Mum a huge THANK YOU for all her unsung assistance throughout the years. I love you!
How did you celebrate Mother’s Day today? Are there any Mother’s Day traditions where you live? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
We have heard you’re working on writing: Dogs The Musical. It’s about time the dog had its day. For far too long, those ratbag cats have been deified and celebrated on stage and screen. Our time has come. Indeed, it’s long overdue!!
Before we proceed any further, please allow us to introduce ourselves and provide something of a Curriculum Vitae. .
Firstly, there’s Flush.I must admit I feel rather sorry for Flush since the invention of the modern flush toilet. “Don’t forget to Flush the toilet!” Quite an insult to such an aristocratic dog. Flush also means red in colour, as when your face is flushed. Flush is a red Spaniel.
While Flush spent his early life out in the countryside, he was adopted by the esteemed poet Miss Barrett of 52 Wimpole Street, London while still an invalid, exchanging a myriad of scents for the stench of eau de cologne. Indeed, it is in his role as Miss Barrett’s dog that Flush gained fame and literary attention. A frequent topic in Miss Barrett’s diaries, she also wrote two poems about her beloved pooch.
Indeed, the story of Flush, attracted the attention of my mistress, novelist Virgina Woolf. She wrote: Flush A Biography, where she wrote about Elizabeth Barrett’s famous love affair with fellow poet Robert Browning which ultimately culminated in their secret marriage on September 12, 1846, at St. Marylebone Parish Church, where they were married. She returned home for a week, keeping the marriage a secret, then fled with Browning along with Flush to Italy.
After that rather lengthy introduction, my name is Pinka. I’m also a Cocker Spaniel and was a gift from poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West to novelist Virginia Woolf in 1926. You could say that I’m their furry love child.
Pinka & Virginia Woolf (left) & Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West, Victoria Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson, CH (9 March 1892 – 2 June 1962), was an English poet, novelist, and garden designer. A successful and prolific novelist, poet, and journalist during her lifetime—she was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems—today she is chiefly remembered for the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst she created with her diplomat husband, Sir Harold Nicolson. She is also remembered as the inspiration for the androgynous protagonist of the historical romp, Orlando: A Biography by her famous friend and admirer, Virginia Woolf, with whom she had an affair. (Wikipaedia)
In 1930, after Virginia Woolf attended Rudolf Besier’s play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, she began to reread Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry and letters. Woolf’s fanciful biography of the Brownings, seen through the lens of their cocker spaniel, was published in 1933, with four drawings by Vanessa Bell. I was was photographed for the dust jacket and frontispiece of the first edition.
Dogs – The Musical
Being literary dogs ourselves, we wanted to offer our whole-hearted support. After many years supporting our humans through the writing process, we feel more than qualified to help. Indeed, knowing how his Mistress’s romance was turned into a play, Flush thought this would make a good springboard for Dogs The Musical. After all, the Brownings weren’t the only ones who found true love in Italy. Flush also met the spotted spaniel as well as quite a few other dogs on the side. Indeed, he became quite a Casanova. Personally, I can’t help wondering just how many descendants Flush has running around those Italian alleyways. He’d even fathered a litter of pups before he was fully grown. Just as well he wasn’t human!
Anyway, it’s our suggestion that dogs the musical be about what it means to be a poet’s dog. Being expected to understand all sorts of human mysteries and emotions which don’t correspond to any canine equivalent. They think in words, while we think in smells. Quite incompatible really.
Here are a few paragraphs we found in Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography.
“And yet sometimes the tie would almost break; there were vast gaps in their understanding. Sometimes they would lie and stare at each other in blank bewilderment. Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.
Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them. The fact was that they could not communicate with words, and it was a fact that led undoubtedly to much misunderstanding. Yet did it not lead also to a peculiar intimacy? “Writing,”–Miss Barrett once exclaimed after a morning’s toil, “writing, writing . . .” After all, she may have thought, do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words? Once at least Miss Barrett seems to have found it so. She was lying, thinking; she had forgotten Flush altogether, and her thoughts were so sad that the tears fell upon the pillow. Then suddenly a hairy head was pressed against her; large bright eyes shone in hers; and she started. Was it Flush, or was it Pan? Was she no longer an invalid in Wimpole Street, but a Greek nymph in some dim grove in Arcady? And did the bearded god himself press his lips to hers? For a moment she was transformed; she was a nymph and Flush was Pan. The sun burnt and love blazed. But suppose Flush had been able to speak–would he not have said something sensible about the potato disease in Ireland?
And yet, had he been able to write as she did?–The question is superfluous happily, for truth compels us to say that in the year 1842-43 Miss Barrett was not a nymph but an invalid; Flush was not a poet but a red cocker spaniel; and Wimpole Street was not Arcady but Wimpole Street.”
Anyway, Bilbo and Lady, we understand that you’ve already received support from Dorothy Parker and that her dog, Misty, is to play a leading role, but we thought you could work her into the story of Flush somehow and the two of you could add an Australian dimension to the story.
Speaking of Dorothy Parker, has she let you out of the dog salon yet? From what we’ve heard, you received heavy duty treatment and Lady had all her scruffiness clipped away and clad in a dainty pink tutu. We can’t wait to hear reports about how she fares on her return to Dog Beach. That said, I doubt you’re allowed to go anywhere near the beach with your new coats!
Anyway, we’ve leave you to consider this further. However, don’t delay. The dog’s day has come!
PS I know Mum has written much about women’s struggles to reach their true potential but what about us dogs? Who is going to rise to our defence and grant us equality and access to beaches and parks off the lead? Moreover, as much as Mum wrote about Judith Shakespeare’s chances of being able to write and appear on stage, what about the plight of Canine Shakespeare? I tell you, not a word!
Sure, I know the likes of Lassie and the Dulux Dog have succeeded but what about chronicling the lives of your garden variety backyard dog, spending their entire day at the gate waiting patiently for their humans to come home? I tell you. There is loyalty! Surely, that has to count for something!!
for my part I do not believe in poets dying; Keats, Shelley, Byron are alive here in this room in you and you and you — I can take comfort from the thought that my hoping will not disturb their snoring.
Virginia Woolf, Letter to A Young Poet.
This letter arrived for me this morning written in Virginia Woolf’s characteristic purple ink.
Thank you so much for your letter and see the fine art of letter writing isn’t dead. Back in my day, I observed:
“The penny post, the old gentleman used to say, has killed the art of letter-writing. Nobody, he continued, examining an envelope through his eye-glasses, has the time even to cross their t’s. We rush, he went on, spreading his toast with marmalade, to the telephone. We commit our half-formed thoughts in ungrammatical phrases to the post card… But when the post came in this morning and I opened your letter stuffed with little blue sheets written all over in a cramped but not illegible hand — I regret to say, however, that several t’s were uncrossed and the grammar of one sentence seems to me dubious — I replied after all these years to that elderly necrophilist — Nonsense. The art of letter-writing has only just come into existence. It is the child of the penny post. And there is some truth in that remark, I think. Naturally when a letter cost half a crown to send, it had to prove itself a document of some importance; it was read aloud; it was tied up with green silk; after a certain number of years it was published for the infinite delectation of posterity. But your letter, on the contrary, will have to be burnt. It only cost three-halfpence to send. Therefore you could afford to be intimate, irreticent, indiscreet in the extreme.”
Your human words were much appreciated. These days, I write my words on Autumn leaves, which are promptly read and eaten by the worms. While it might be a much humbler existence, I have finally found peace and stillness in my once turbulent mind. What a relief!
Your series of Letters to Dead Poets accumulating our collective wisdom, enthralls me. What a flood of words, thoughts, feelings are flowing through your pen and this laptop machine you keep tapping away on.
Indeed, you are “ a poet in whom live all the poets of the past, from whom all poets in time to come will spring. You have a touch of Chaucer in you, and something of Shakespeare; Dryden, Pope, Tennyson — to mention only the respectable among your ancestors — stir in your blood and sometimes move your pen a little to the right or to the left. In short you are an immensely ancient, complex, and continuous character, for which reason please treat yourself with respect.”
Naturally, I was quite wary about sticking my head above ground again. Even my beloved Leonard, couldn’t save me from this wretched disease and I have found such peace. I couldn’t go back. You’d have to say that filling my pockets with stones and drowning, despite my great love for Leonard and my sister, reflects great determination.
Yet, I’m such a curious soul. When offered the chance to travel into the future, I grabbed it with both hands. I was so relieved to wake up to peace, instead of a living in a battlefield with planes fighting overhead and bombs blowing up homes with their precious families still inside. I still remember seeing the shell of an exploded house. All were dead inside yet a bottle of milk survived unscathed out the front. There was no meaning in any of it. No sense at all.
No doubt, the news that World War II is finally over, will be tempered as further news comes to hand..
However, my first order of business is the theatre. I wanted to catch up with Judith Shakespeare (see A Room With A View) and see whether she finally calls the world her stage. Indeed, I was most delighted to have tea with Angelina Jolie this morning. Indeed, Miss Jolie embodies all the dreams and hopes Judith Shakespeare ever had. That said, she has also made tough decisions and remained that lighthouse standing tall. I wouldn’t want to follow in all of her footsteps but she has my utmost respect.
Letters to Young Poets
Now that I’ve settled that matter, I wanted to get back to my Letter to Young Poets, which you mentioned. What might have been a little obscured, was that these young poets were not only learning the craft of poetry, but were also from a younger generation who experienced the world through quite a different lens.
Indeed, this letter was ostensibly written to John Lehmann, who was the manager of our Hogarth Press. We had published his first collection of poetry: A Guarde Revisited in September 1931. However, the letter was also addressed to three other young poets WH Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender.
You might not be aware that I received quite a hostile response from Peter Quennell, representing the younger generation. He urged me to empathise with the discontented outlook of the younger generation who “can recall barely five or six summers before “the end of the Ware to end all Wars” He added that the modern poet is “the creature of his social and political setting.”
Yet, I was still concerned that collective experience should be the main subject of modern verse.
Prose Writers’ View of the Poet
Although you’re quite the social butterfly and mix with writers from all genres, I thought you’d appreciate some insights into the novelist’s perspective of the poet. It’s always good to see yourself from an alternative perspective:
“For how, we despised prose writers ask when we get together, could one say what one meant and observe the rules of poetry? Conceive dragging in “blade” because one had mentioned “maid”; and pairing “sorrow” with “borrow”? Rhyme is not only childish, but dishonest, we prose writers say. Then we go on to say, And look at their rules! How easy to be a poet! How strait the path is for them, and how strict! This you must do; this you must not. I would rather be a child and walk in a crocodile down a suburban path than write poetry, I have heard prose writers say. It must be like taking the veil and entering a religious order — observing the rites and rigours of metre. That explains why they repeat the same thing over and over again. Whereas we prose writers (I am only telling you the sort of nonsense prose writers talk when they are alone) are masters of language, not its slaves; nobody can teach us; nobody can coerce us; we say what we mean; we have the whole of life for our province. We are the creators, we are the explorers. . . . So we run on — nonsensically enough, I must admit.
What is a poet?
“On the floor of your mind, then — is it not this that makes you a poet? — rhythm keeps up its perpetual beat. Sometimes it seems to die down to nothing; it lets you eat, sleep, talk like other people. Then again it swells and rises and attempts to sweep all the contents of your mind into one dominant dance. To-night is such an occasion. Although you are alone, and have taken one boot off and are about to undo the other, you cannot go on with the process of undressing, but must instantly write at the bidding of the dance. You snatch pen and paper; you hardly trouble to hold the one or to straighten the other. And while you write, while the first stanzas of the dance are being fastened down, I will withdraw a little and look out of the window. A woman passes, then a man; a car glides to a stop and then — but there is no need to say what I see out of the window, nor indeed is there time, for I am suddenly recalled from my observations by a cry of rage or despair. Your page is crumpled in a ball; your pen sticks upright by the nib in the carpet. If there were a cat to swing or a wife to murder now would be the time. So at least I infer from the ferocity of your expression. You are rasped, jarred, thoroughly out of temper. And if I am to guess the reason, it is, I should say, that the rhythm which was opening and shutting with a force that sent shocks of excitement from your head to your heels has encountered some hard and hostile object upon which it has smashed itself to pieces. Something has worked in which cannot be made into poetry; some foreign body, angular, sharp-edged, gritty, has refused to join in the dance. “
So, I would say that if your children love to dance, that they could well indeed have a poet’s heart.
Advice to Young Poet’s
“And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.
That, I am sure, is of very great importance. Most of the faults in the poems I have been reading can be explained, I think, by the fact that they have been exposed to the fierce light of publicity while they were still too young to stand the strain. It has shrivelled them into a skeleton austerity, both emotional and verbal, which should not be characteristic of youth. The poet writes very well; he writes for the eye of a severe and intelligent public; but how much better he would have written if for ten years he had written for no eye but his own! After all, the years from twenty to thirty are years (let me refer to your letter again) of emotional excitement. The rain dripping, a wing flashing, someone passing — the commonest sounds and sights have power to fling one, as I seem to remember, from the heights of rapture to the depths of despair. And if the actual life is thus extreme, the visionary life should be free to follow. Write then, now that you are young, nonsense by the ream. Be silly, be sentimental, imitate Shelley, imitate Samuel Smiles; give the rein to every impulse; commit every fault of style, grammar, taste, and syntax; pour out; tumble over; loose anger, love, satire, in whatever words you can catch, coerce or create, in whatever metre, prose, poetry, or gibberish that comes to hand. Thus you will learn to write. But if you publish, your freedom will be checked; you will be thinking what people will say; you will write for others when you ought only to be writing for yourself. And what point can there be in curbing the wild torrent of spontaneous nonsense which is now, for a few years only, your divine gift in order to publish prim little books of experimental verses? To make money? That, we both know, is out of the question. To get criticism? But you friends will pepper your manuscripts with far more serious and searching criticism than any you will get from the reviewers. As for fame, look I implore you at famous people; see how the waters of dullness spread around them as they enter; observe their pomposity, their prophetic airs; reflect that the greatest poets were anonymous; think how Shakespeare cared nothing for fame; how Donne tossed his poems into the waste-paper basket; write an essay giving a single instance of any modern English writer who has survived the disciples and the admirers, the autograph hunters and the interviewers, the dinners and the luncheons, the celebrations and the commemorations with which English society so effectively stops the mouths of its singers and silences their songs.”
Well, you Rowena don’t need to consider all of that. Not that I’d consider you an “old” poet but let’s just say you’re free to publish!
By the way, before I head off, I’ve already seized upon a new subject for one of my legendary essays…the mobile phone. While I’ve heard that texting is “speaking with your fingers” and doesn’t represent the final destruction of the English language, I am not convinced.
Adding fuel to the fire, is the selfie. You wouldn’t believe the thousands who visit my grave leaped in front of my visage with their mobiles mounted on some metal contraption photographing themselves. They no longer come here to see me but to see themselves, their own reflections…a touch of narcissus I suspect.
Anyway, I understand your train is due to depart. Quite a marvel of modern engineering and no smoke and coal dust billowing over the platform.
Keep dancing my friend!
Dancing Woman – Rabindranath Tagore
 Virginia Woolf “A Letter To A Young Poet” in The Death of the Moth, and other essays.
On March 28, 1942 …seventy five years ago…author Virginia Woolf wrote letters to her beloved husband and sister, put on her overcoat and filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse outside her home in Sussex and drowned herself. Contrary to some of the newspaper reports of the day, according to her note, her suicide was brought on by her mental health struggles and not an inability to cope with the hardship of the war. Read on…
Her body was found three weeks later on April 18, 1941.
Dear Ms Woolf,
To write, or not to write? That is the question.
Should I be leaving you to rest in peace rather than risk resurrecting the anguish, which stole your life away? Your ”disease” was not a game and as much as I might enjoy writing letters to dead poets, is it fair for me to impose? Break into your peace threatening to cart you off to Whitechapel Road…a place I only knew from the Monopoly board before last night.
No matter how well intentioned I might be, I am a stranger and not the one you cried out to from the very depths: “If anyone could have saved me, it would have been you.”
I am not trying to save you but I don’t want to walk past your grave like you weren’t even there. Indeed, while paddling along this stream to your door, I have read: Flush, A Room of One’s Own and A Letter to A Young Poet. So, although we were once strangers, we have embarked upon that negotiation towards friendship…two women writers being eaten alive by too many unanswered questions.
However, before I could reach any kind of conclusion, words were filling up the page and destiny stepped in. You were meant to be. That was weird, especially when I’m not sure that you’re a poet, but you were definitely a prose poet and the rest is all semantics.
So how are you?
I cast my question out into a slow flowing stream with my characteristic awkwardness and after a few false starts, the float is bobbing up and down in the current as I await your reply. It is a picturesque country scene and the stream meanders through weeping willows and English grass so bright I need shades. Of course, my camera has been a thorough glutton devouring everything in sight on this trip. We’re accustomed to a “sunburnt” land.
Of course, for you, there is no such thing as a simple question. You would need some time to pause and consider your response. Perhaps, you have gone to Oxbridge. Or, you’re at the British Museum, ploughing through that huge stack of books looking for answers. You might even consult Mary Beaton. Or, let Lady Winchilsea speak on your behalf. She had quite a way with words:
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous creature, is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to inquire
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime;
Whilst the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our outmost art, and use.
Introduction, Lady Winchilsea
By the way, when I asked you how you are, it was really more of a social convention. You didn’t need to write me an essay so long, that it’s become a book. Indeed, I’ll need a room of my own and independent means to have the time to read it.
Ms Woolf, I am writing to you because for so many years I took your words to heart:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”-Virginia Woolf
How I’ve longed for a room of my own overlooking the beach with the waves rolling in and crashing on the rocks below!. Indeed, I used to have that room once upon a time in the now mythical land of Whale Beach. Unfortunately, it’s long been lost and buried in the sand, just like Atlantis. Indeed, it now feels like a dream…
There’s a street light shining down the other end of the beach and a stream of light slithered like a snake through the surf mesmerising and luring me away from the blank page like the Pied Piper. I wasted so much time thinking the quest for love was all there was and nothing else mattered. My sense of self went up and down the waves and the tide like a helpless piece of driftwood without any kind of anchor. As much as I could stretch my wings and fly in that room of my own, I was alone.
I didn’t understand just how precious those hours were back then. I do now.
I AM FOREVER walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot-prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam.
But the sea and the shore will remain
Kahlil Gibran: Sand & Foam
However, I have also longed for that room of my own, that much needed oasis where I could write and even hear my whispering thoughts without competing with the ugly din of TV, fighting kids and barking dogs.
So, I did what any dreamer does when the outside gets a little tricky, I retreated within. Built a room inside my head. Indeed, it was a Kombi and especially in the midst of utter disaster and despair, we would head up North to Byron Bay and I’d run through the sun chasing butterflies.
Fortunately, the clouds lifted and the disease which has been stalking me like a crazy possessive lover for the last ten years, has left me alone. Well, not entirely alone but his shadow has retreated out through the back door and is crouched on a distant hill. I’m hoping he’s run out of manoeuvres and I’ve finally won but I’m staying vigilant. Reminding myself that even though things are going well, I still need to take precautions. Be prepared.
So, now my view of the room has changed and I no longer need or necessarily believe that a writer, regardless of gender, needs a room of their own to write fiction or any other genre. Rather, there is so much to be gained from rich, complex and nourishing relationships that you simply cannot experience in a room of your own. Moreover, as a lover of the wings of a butterfly, the rich beauty of a rose and basking in the sun under an azure sky, I’d rather be outdoors. Liberated!
An extraordinary moment.
I also have to ask whether it is truly necessary for a writer to be a single person and not experience an ongoing, intimate relationship without being forced to hang up their pen, computer or quill. Is it possible to love and be loved and still be a writer? Taking that relationship further, dare a writer male or female have children? Or, must these be also sacrificed to the cause as well? Is the muse an all-consuming beast and the writer is but its inglorious host?
Well, being something of a glutton myself, I am trying to have my cake and eat it too.
So, I personally believe “the room of your own” needs a re-think. After all, while it has solitude, it is missing so much! There are no other people, no affectionate tail-wagging dogs sleeping on your feet. There is no one bringing you a cup of tea and calling you ”darling” and wrapping their arms right around you like a vine and drawing you close enough to feel their heart beating next to yours and all that entails. There’s no one who cares whether you live, die or whether your train was delayed and you were late for work. Or, how the muse whispered in your ear and the words flowed through your pen and onto the page in a never-ending glorious stream.
Personally, I find there’s nothing like standing with your feet anchored in the wet sand as the waves roll into the shore. Meanwhile, you’re watching your children carving out engineering masterpieces trying to contain that great uncontrollable force…the sea. I watch them through my camera lens soaking up their delight and also my daughter’s intense fear and avoidance as the waves roll in and her little feet run up onto dry sand and stay put.
Those days were very precious and have slipped through my fingertips like sands through the hour glass.
While it’s easy to focus on all the “losses” sustained when a woman embarks on Marriage, Mortgage,Kids” , it is very easy to overlook the “gains”. While that all might sound incredibly mushy and more like something a grandmother might say, my children have actually extended me at least as much as they have clipped my wings. This includes taking up the violin which I’ve now been playing for four years and taking up skiing, despite having a chronic life-threatening disease and mobility issues. Possibly even more challenging, have been all the challenges involved in being a “Scout Mum”. Trust me, this is no passive support role. Rather, I’ve had to drive to remote locations and find their tents in the rain bumbling through the dark while helping them carry their gear. It’s meant having to empty and inspect my son’s backpack with him after funnel web spiders had been found in bags and I thought two sets of eyes were definitely better than one. Probably the most challenging thing for me, has been helping them to pack their bags for camp. Although they’re provided with a very easy to follow packing list, even this can be too much for us some times.
On one hand, you could say all these other activities are distracting me from my writing. That being a writer and indeed taking that leap towards becoming a best-selling critically acclaimed writer, takes focus. Absolute focus and not all these detours all over the countryside driving Mum’s Taxi.
However, to become a writer, you must have something to write about. Taken literally, you can argue the mere act of writing makes you a writer but that’s not the sort of writer we’re talking about, is it? We’re talking about writers pursuing the Holy Grail. We’re going straight for the jackpot, the gold medal and not settling for silver or bronze. Being the Shakespeare of our generation…no less!
That’s why we often do a deal with the devil and follow the muse straight over the edge. Go too far.
Perhaps, I’ve been doing that a bit too much myself lately. Locking myself away in my cave writing letters to dead poets while my kids are at home on school holidays. I should be spending time with them. I want to spend time with them but then the muse comes along and can be extremely possessive. Does NOT like sharing! Besides, , I’ve been going round and round the mulberry bush with the writing project for ten years and couldn’t walk away. I had to grab the sweet fruit with both hands and indulge. Let its sweet nectar drip all over my fingers and lips and let my soul feast.
And, so I found my heart torn in two.
Anyway, as the train has zoomed through A-U, I know find myself stopping off at V with you. There are so many questions I could ask.
Throughout these letters, I have explored what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. While I had found poems by Hemingway and Kipling outlining the traits required to become a man, I couldn’t find any equivalent for my daughter. I don’t want to paint women as victims, unable to achieve. Rather, I want her to believe in herself and that she can conquer her particular sphere of the world and potentially be the difference there. I definitely don’t want her following in the footsteps of your Judith Shakespeare. Not at all.
So, it’s looking like I might have to write my daughter a poem all of her own.
Make that another one!
Well, I hope you have experienced happiness along our journey together and I look forward to hearing from you!
I apologise this has been rather rushed and I will head back in due course and revise it somewhat. School goes back tomorrow and getting organised has been a nightmare!
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again.
I am currently writing a series of letters to Dead Poets and while I wondered whether you wanted to be disturbed, I didn’t want to leave you out. Your voice still needs to be heard, even if I’m still having trouble navigating Ariel myself. That said, some have appealed.
Rather than mailing this letter, I decided to come in person and I’ve brought you a cup of tea, a biscuit and my little black dog, Lady.
While black dogs have been cast as a euphemism for depression, Lady exudes happiness. Every morning when I stagger out to the kitchen half-awake, she’s almost combusting with excitement wagging and whack-whacking her tail. Her entire body quivers and as you move closer, the whacking speeds up. It’s rather hilarious and really makes my day.
So, I thought you might appreciate meeting Lady. Dogs have been shown to cheer people up and our dogs have certainly helped me through thick and thin.
That’s right. We also have an older dog, Bilbo, but he’s much more reserved and not all that social. He’s like that loner standing in the corner clutching his beer. That said, he loves us. Not always a bad thing to equate “danger” with “stranger”.
Anyway, I thought we could have a bit of a chat Mum to Mum. I enjoyed your poem:-
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Being a Mum is incredibly rewarding but isn’t easy.
Indeed, I wrote An 80s Woman in 2006 when my kids were 5 and 3 and performed it at a local talent quest. I know it’s a long way from my glory days back at the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris but one of the judges was Country & Western sensation Kasey Chambers.
An 80’s Woman
I’m an 80’s woman
in a fifties dress.
I want my cup of tea.
I want my Bex.
I went to university
and had a career
but then I had kids
and now I’m stuck here…
with Weetbix in my hair
custard on my clothes;
this vegemite foundation
gives my skin a healthy glow.
Once I watched the docos,
filled my brain with heaps of books
but now I just watch Playschool
and the Wiggles have the look.
I used to hit the gym
was lookin really thin
but now my belly bounces up
and almost hits my chin.
So in search of inspiration,
I went off to the mall.
Tried to find a new look
but nothing fits at all.
So I bought myself a G-string
to shoot back all the peas
Maybe soon I’ll win the war
and finally get some peace.
I really love my kids!
I really, really do!
But is it wrong to crave
a bit of me time too?
I’m an 80s woman
in a fifties dress…
An 80s woman
in a fifties dress…
I want my cup of tea
And I want my Bex!
Indeed, there used to be a phrase: “Take a Bex and have a good lie down”. Like so many things, Bex was too good to be true. Bex caused kidney failure and your kids got up to mischief while you slept.
We barely even use our iron.
When my kids were smaller, I really struggled. While I was seriously struggling to look after them while afflicted with a muscle-wasting, life-threatening disease, I also saw myself as a career woman, a writer and it felt my life had fallen down the toilet. I felt like an 80s woman who’d somehow woken up back in the 1950s. It was dreadful. I don’t think I was really suited to little kids and am much happier now that my kids are older. Now that the disease is in remission, that’s made a huge difference as well. You could just imagine what it was like trying to keep up with them when I wasn’t well and my husband was working long hours in Sydney. My own home became something of a prison…especially after I fell over at home and couldn’t get up against and was left lying face down on the ground for over half an hour with no one to help. Being at home, became dangerous. Not only for myself but for the kids. Our son was three and loved climbing the back shed. I remember his excitement. Seeing the world from way up high and his absolute sense of childish wonder spotting “mountains” he hadn’t seen before. I also remember him falling off the shed and somehow caught him in my arms, despite having bi-lateral carpal tunnel and being unable to open a simple bottle of water.
I know life is difficult but did it have to be that hard.
You might also like my Kombi song:
Don’t look forward
Don’t look back
Off the beaten track.
Watch the sun start to rise.
Open up those tired old eyes.
Feel the salt air
Through your hair
Stretch your spirit
Who needs money?
Who needs fame?
Heaps of shoes?
A private plane?
No more boundaries
No more boss
Or mortgage pains!
Hit the road
Without a plan
Find a self
Don’t give up
Don’t give in
Find a skin
You can live in
Don’t look forward (Living here)
Don’t look back (Living now)
You can be…
Anyway, I’m sorry. No doubt, you’re not wanting advice but I’ve brought you something I stumbled upon by Dorothy Dix…Dictates for a Happy Life . While I’m usually very suspect about what I call: “Prescriptions for Happiness”, she offers sound advice. I’m going to print these off and discuss them with my family. Give them to the kids. After all, everybody’s life is their own “road not taken” and we’re each bush-bashing cross country and need all the help we can get. Not only maps, torches and practical stuff, but also spiritual and emotional guidance. I also try to pray. As much as it can feel that God’s incredibly distant and aloof, I’ve actually experienced him carry me over most of life’s pot holes and strife.