The Way We Were Five Australian Novelists

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The  Way We Were Five Australian Novelists Powered By Docstoc
     Christina Stead,Thea Astley, Patrick White, Helen Garner and
                          Frank Moorhouse

    The Basking Shark in Parsley Bay: the Style of Christina Stead

There is a curious moment in For Love Alone
  "Come for a swim?" she asked her brother Lance.
  'Too tired,' he said. "Don't swim alone, and look out, there are
  rays and Portuguese-man-of wars about."
  "I'll stay in the light. You come and look-out."
  "Not on your tintype."
  Her father, sitting on a stone bench in the garden, slapping
  mosquitoes, said, "Have you got a look-out?"
  "You come and watch," she said.
  "Nuh," said he. "Too tired. Been making Kitty's hope chest all the
  afternoon. More hope than chest."
  Lance from behind the door said: "Hmff," disgustedly.
  "Lance doesn't care for women," laughed the father in his soft
  "Really!" cried Teresa. "Really! Doesn't he? Oh no!"
  The father laughed. Teresa dropped her towel on the steps and
  splashed into the water; it was so still that the splash could be
  heard all over the bay.
  "Not out of the lights," called her father. "I saw a large basking
  shark up Parsley Bay yesterday." The basking shark was pale,
  changing colour with the bottom and all but invisible.

Christina Stead was not given to inaccuracies and was very interested
in marine biology – which is perhaps not surprising when we consider
David G Stead was her father. Yet here we have a basking shark
'changing colour with the bottom and all but invisible' in Parsley Bay.

Teresa, the heroine of For Love Alone, is based on Stead and her
experiences. Stead's need to render them seems the basis of her
literary endeavour to a remarkable degree. Many of her characters and

                           The Way We were                                1
their situations were recognised by her friends and family; they often
felt the resemblances painfully true.

Teresa had been to a wedding in Neutral Bay. It was an extremely hot
day in Sydney, around Christmas time when the 'spring' tides (it is
actually summer) cover beaches and wash over paths where one is
accustomed to tread. The spring tides effect a magical transformation
– one can glide through the water over rough paths along which one
has had to pick one's way.

Teresa's journey home from the wedding in Neutral Bay on the other
side of Sydney Harbour has included a stopover at her aunt's and
cousin's who live a couple of bays closer to the city than Teresa's
home. From their place she has had to climb a steep hill to descend
via the byways only a local could know to reach her home, which like
the day, the wedding reception and her aunt's home seethes with elan
obliterating heat, with frustration, desperation, poverty and aspiration.
The bride, grief stricken at her own wedding had begged Teresa,
whom she hardly knows, not to think too badly of her for sinking to
this marriage; the aunt holds Teresa's cousin Anne in vassalage so
that she longs to escape into marriage – with anyone. The spring tides
have washed their enchantment right up to Teresa's lawn; she must
partake of what relief they can offer.

It is Sydney as it was up until the eighties and Depression Sydney in
particular – determinedly Anglo-Celtic, desperately respectable and
deeply sympathetic to good form yet prone to social defiance,
threatened by nature and subject to magical transformations which
threaten to envelop.

                             The Way We were                             2
Teresa swims. Her splash can be heard all over the bay. Many are
listening. She survives (sting) rays and Portuguese man-of-wars (a
stinging jelly fish) and of course the basking shark which in any case
could offer no threat because it is according to David G Stead harmless
to all but 'small pelagic living things'.

What is this fantastic creature doing lazing about in Stead's vigorous
sweep of fictionalised documentary narrative?

Stead's style exhausts her readers: it is relentlessly intense and
particular. Seemingly raw in its reflection of 'reality', it insists upon her
unsentimental clarity of vision.

For vision it is. This may or may not have actually happened to the
young Stead like this but it is true in the literary sense:
psychologically, socially, philosophically, historically, humanly,
poetically. Stead's vision is faithful to a larger sphere than the
autobiographical. Actual though they may have been, Stead's
characters and their situations are a product of her mind, that mind
which would not or could not seek comfort in the fantasised or ideal
but which recorded for her readers a time, a place, characters and a
situation – this is what it is, she says. What she gives us, her vision, is
as unameliorated as it may be. Stead's insistence on the recording of
character and situation can overwhelm her reader. Her
unsentimentality and relentless particularising inspire awe but blear
our attention. It is as if Stead had more pressing needs and higher
goals than to inform and entertain us.

                             The Way We were                                3
The Leftists of this period (and Stead was one) favoured 'realism' and
this quality no doubt assisted Stead's publishing career, nevertheless
the style is the woman. Her style is insistent in its determination to
give more than a verisimilitude. Stead captures the surges, the
backwashes, eddies, the tumults and flatnesses of situations and
represents these phenomena in all their inevitable effect. Dialogue
plays a big part in her efforts to represent her vision; it is sometimes
laboured. While the thoughts, both spoken and unspoken, of her
characters are registered in close texture, too often they partake of
the dialectic so that Stead's dialogue lies heavily on the page and it is
too often framed with verbs ('laughed the father') which are little more
than devices of direct speech and adverbs such as 'disgustedly' (which
adds very little to Lance's 'Hmff'). Stead's flow of detail is relatively
unmediated in terms of narrative thrust (compare For Love Alone with
Emma for example; her narrative drives neither towards reader-
satisfying climax nor resolution) but it and her dialogue capture as no
history ever has how it was to be these people and what that time did
to them.

Of course Teresa's father would have disparaged the comeliness and
therefore the marriageability of her sister Kitty because he was, in his
straitened circumstances, desperate to get rid of her but also keen to
keep her allure for himself. Similarly he disparages his son's
masculinity by implying he might be homosexual, projecting that
enticing possibility onto him. This is Sydney, the Depression, Australia,
fatherhood and masculinity as it was then and perhaps universally is.
It is also the theme of For Love Alone (wonderfully paradoxical title):
marriage for women.

                            The Way We were                                 4
Teresa, exhausted and enchanted, manages to be aloof from this
situation and to graciously humour her father as Stead herself must
have done to the point of madness. Stead hated her father. Her rage
against him drives her great novel The Man Who Loved Children.
Perhaps drove her.

Why would Teresa's father warn her against a basking shark and why
would Stead's authorial voice take up the nonsense of this threat and
turn it into a rare moment in her prose – a recoiling from the
unmitigated rendition of her characters' realities?

Watson's Bay (the first bay inside the great heads which protect the
magnificent Sydney Harbour, the point of arrival and retreat from this
edge of empire, redolent of marine adventure and disaster and in
those days home to fisher people) is on this night enchanted with the
great tide gently spilling across the shore and invading its sandstone
littoral. So perhaps the great, colour changing and all but invisible
shark is part of that enchantment. Though the spring tides do happen
and this basking shark does not.

Is Stead visiting an obvious and foolish mistake upon the distinguished
marine biologist her father (clearly the progenitor of her character,
Teresa's father) in order to humiliate him? Is it a deliberate or an
unconscious thrust into his reputation? Has Stead herself made a
mistake, momentarily confusing a basking shark with the slow, also
harmless (and very much smaller) carpet shark, species of which
waggle their variegated ways across the bottom of the bays of Sydney
Harbour? Or is the father character confident of his daughter's
ignorance of sharks and in his ever sly, mocking and ambiguous

                           The Way We were                               5
manner nevertheless expressing a genuine concern for her safety?
Though swimming where there is light is not going to save her (Teresa
herself seems to believe a look-out might secure her) from attack by a
(say, whaler) shark, a sting from a Portuguese man-of-war or from
treading on a ray which might then also sting her dreadfully.

Is the point of this exchange that these men should have protected
this woman or that these men are denying this woman a little
refreshing adventure? Stead herself might have denied there was any
general point implicit in this situation; she would have been annoyed
by and vigorously resisted the idea that in this kind of way men
oppress women. She was not in her fiction a propagandist and in her
later life would brook no attacks on 'the patriarchy'. Yet we often do
discern the universal or at least general in her vividly realised scenes
and something else besides, something beyond the literal seems to be
heightening their impact.

Is the basking shark an uncharacteristic moment in which Stead
wishes to sensationalise her scene, maybe with her American
readership in mind?

Stead knew her father's work very well. In 1906 David Stead had
written of the basking shark 'The Basking Shark … attains huge
dimensions and is one of the largest fishes existing, reaching a length
of forty feet' and in 1963 somewhat unscientifically by today's
standards, 'Apart from the verbal records given to me by seafaring
men as to the occurrence of this shark in Australian waters, on three
occasions ships' captains have reported to me that they have met with
a "sleeper", or "sleeping", shark floating motionless at the surface of

                            The Way We were                                6
the ocean between Sydney and the New Zealand coast‟. Other
authorities are dubious about its existence in the South Pacific.

His daughter, the novelist is, with a high lack of the characteristic,
fanciful on this subject. It seems likely then that the shark is not
literal. It is a symbol swum from Christina's Stead's unconscious
emerging as an absurdity which gives one pause.

The context is the necessity and the dreadfulness of marriage for
women (the name of the bride is, terrifyingly enough, 'Malfi'). Teresa
is being warned about something, to stay in the light, close to home.
She needs a man to watch over her; neither father nor brother will do
so and even if they did the light will do her little good for the shark is
'all but invisible'. Its camouflage is infinite, it can be anywhere and
probably unnoticed. What can it be? It prowls or glides beneath in its
wondrously changing colours. It is a shape, barely detectable. It
seems to be a threat yet it is in a Bay called Parsley – one of the two
herbs used regularly by Australian cooks of that time (the other being
mint). 'Parsley' suggests the most ordinary of domestic settings. The
historical Parsley Bay was more respectable than Watsons Bay. Is
Stead's image of the basking shark in Parsley Bay one of the horror
which glides beneath family homes, beneath the acceptable? The rest
of her work and her life substantiate this interpretation. Is Teresa's
father, dreadful in his domesticity, making this point in some
unconscious symbolic way? Parsley, in the old wives tales of Sydney,
was supposed to protect against pregnancy. Is the basking shark the
very threat of a husband, of pregnancy? Maybe the most terrible thing
about it is that it at any moment might, all forty feet of it, cease to

                            The Way We were                                  7
Parsley Bay seems charming in its safeness yet that is where the
basking shark was seen – or where Teresa's father claims to have seen
it (one need not necessarily believe him, prone to teasing his children
as he is).

Or does the warning come from the author herself? For it is she who
has offered a comment on the shark's nature. Why would she need to
mention this creature's near invisibility? It devours. It is huge. It is
infinitely various. To risk a cliché of post modern commentary, is Stead
imaging her own gift? Is the basking shark in Parsley Bay a trope for
her art, an astonishment in this confined circumstance, ever changing
with its absorption of context? It is submerged, in touch with the
depths, glimpsed only as a shape and very frightening in its

The basking shark might then be the shape of the devouring tendency
of Stead's art. We can only glimpse its defining and 'all but invisible'
form which alerts us to its context by its responsiveness to that
context. Think of the inexorable flight of the anecdote which has taken
us from the almost unbearable heat of the wedding reception in
Neutral Bay with its 'concupiscent fever' to the stifling home Aunt Bea
shares with her daughter Anne in Rose Bay (it is a rented room) to
Watson's Bay transfigured by a spring tide where a father is reluctantly
preparing for the possibility of one of his daughter's marriage.

Are its devouring and transforming qualities alone those which make it

                            The Way We were                                8
The basking shark, we might also consider, is pale, as was the knight
in 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'. Chapter 24 of For Love Alone is titled
"So Haggard and So Woebegone". Stead's mind was formed by English
Literature in a way that few under sixty are now able to recognise. A
young man who loves Teresa cries out to her in this chapter, "Yes,
what do you care? … You're so pale and beautifully distracted, you're
like a woman out of Shakespeare". Teresa only smiles at him. She is la
belle dame and the knight 'palely loitering'. She must escape Australia.
And thereby find a way past marriage.

Stead devoured her material - her life and that of others - in order to
give it shape. Her memories were her imagination. Her detail is
blindingly bright (she was very interested in the work of Virginia Woolf,
she who wished to be free of the need for plot), she presses her
readers to see and feel beyond the delight and horror of anecdote, to
immerse themselves in the circumstances and interior life of her
characters, to observe their actions and reactions thus (Stead's
anecdote proliferates) unfolding. For all her insistence on the
particular, her propensity for ramification – in the end because of this -
Stead is able to give a sense of scale, of a – let us say tragic - force
operating in the world which thwarts and frustrates and destroys
people struggling for fulfilment. This prosaic tragic force is made up in
no small part of the social conventions and institutions which other
novelists endorse even while revealing their destructive power (think
of marriage and Anna Karenina). As for the rest – we are the agents of
our own undoing. Christina Stead's unflinching gaze at that process
makes us squirm and start. 'Basking' in Parsley Bay may suggest
complacency; Christina Stead hardly needed warning against that. But
most of all, amongst the obsessive flow of her realities, the basking

                            The Way We were                                 9
shark is a poetic presence, a transfiguring syncretic. Stead thus offers
a sense of a higher vision than that of the mundane, the sordid - one
which embraces it and makes it poignant, fabulous.

Christina Stead attracted a wide international readership who
venerated her achievement. No writer was truer to her vision and she
had the gift to astonish.

                            The Way We were                             10
                 The Woman on the Beach: Thea Astley

It was typical of Thea Astley that she wrote about our nearest
neighbours whom we consider of no significance and did our best to
ignore. In Beachmasters she gives us a rebellion against a
French/British „condominium‟ administration on an island called „Kristi‟.
The name is vaguely associative of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu; the
French/English association strengthens this association though the
independence struggle also alludes to that other very close neighbour
New Caledonia, a French „possession‟. France and Britain allowed the
New Hebrides to become the independent nation of Vanuatu in 1980.
Beachmasters was published in 1985.

Let us move to Serua Point on Kristi where people have fled from the
not very great terrors of a local resistance event.

      Cordingley could only goggle at his wife with a marvelling

      They were not the first on the beach at Serua Point. A score of
      islanders were squatting fatalistically on the sand, simply gaping
      into a seascape that held less threat than the land at their backs.

Cordingley is the British Resident Agent and his wife is Belle and she is
worth marvelling at („disgust‟ is his limitation). In the following ten
small pages Astley captures this colonial world, the immediate
situation, them, other Europeans, Chinese traders and the Islanders
whose fatalism guarantees the subsiding of the rebellion. Those ten
pages are exciting, hilarious, satiric, poignant and true, for Astley‟s

                            The Way We were                               11
focus is constantly shifting, wide and deep. There are few ten small
pages in English literature which give us so much.

Thea Astley won the Miles Franklin more often than anyone else but
some people suggested Angus and Robertson‟s Editor Beatrice Davis
should step down from the Miles Franklin selection committee because
it didn‟t look good when Astley, whom they published, won it so often
(four times over nearly forty years). Davis dismissed this notion: she
was above such considerations. Anyway, Astley‟s Drylands won the
Miles Franklin (in 2000 with Kim Scott‟s Benang) long after Angus and
Robertson‟s and Beatrice Davis had ceased to be players. She was not
entirely a comfortable favourite, Thea Astley, she made people slightly
uneasy, even though she was so funny. They complained, But why
must she write like that? And there was that mordant glance.

Like Beatrice Davis, Astley belonged to that preceding era when self-
assurance was admired (it easily became arrogance), when a writer
could confidently invoke a culture, a range of referents and not feel
s/he was threatening, puzzling or god forbid turning off her readers.
Astley could quote from the Schubert lieder in German, or Rilke or give
us a French phrase or sentence or two (as could Helen Garner of the
following generation) in the expectation that we would read on in our
ignorance, look it up or ask someone to explain it. Astley went further,
she freely invoked a world of sophisticated experience, knowledge,
wisdom. And it often came from overseas. She was confidently and
inevitably, given Australia, defiantly worldly. Yet she never fled these
shores in search of what they could not provide – the higher culture,
greater refinement, a trust in the imaginative, a wonder at the

                           The Way We were                                 12
original. The last most of all. Astley made all of that her own through
literature -

      Belle and her damn bomb-shells. There‟d been the time … he
      lolled heavily under the fringe of the burao trees and dragged his
      handkerchief over his blazing face … that time she‟d quoted that
      bit of Samuel Johnson (Christ! None of them had even heard of
      Samuel Johnson, probably thought she was having a crack at
      Lyndon B.!) … something about dogs in their doggy world … and
      the Resident Commissioner droll behind rimless glasses because
      he was a bit of a books man too, hanging on her words, waiting
      for it, and she‟d gone on about a pair of copulating terriers at a
      Washington garden party, imagine my dears, dogs in their doggy
      world at a Nuremberg rally might have changed the course of
      history …

and insight. She saw and induced. This was why she made people
uneasy. How could she know that? they worried, knowing she knew.

Astley was a teacher, high school and university. She taught and she
wrote until she retired then she wrote and talked very successfully.
Always make them laugh was one of her public presentation principles.
She was not afraid to talk on a boat sloughing through the algae and
mangrove mud weighted waters of the Brisbane River or at rail stops
along an improbable Queensland narrow-gauge railway line. She told
them how they were wrecking the land. And they were developers and
Queensland farmers. And she made them laugh. She made them laugh
at Byron Bay a couple of weeks before she died. It was a wonderful
story garnered from a „cattle class‟ coach trip to see something of
America. The story embraced poor black people and not having
husbands and how the driver should get the black woman without a
seat a husband and some old white woman offering hers. It was about
democracy and solidarity and generosity and humour of course. Astley

                           The Way We were                                13
did the voices. Her own was post war, educated Queensland,
deliberately uncultured, deliberate. She moved to Byron Bay to be
near her son after her husband died. How are you finding it? she was
asked. Now this question was put to the supposedly caustic Astley
about the pseudo hippy, eighties rich, post glam, nouveau boho, smart
backpackerier, Bali-sophisticated Byron Bay, „Oh it‟s like Gladesville or
something,‟ she replied deliberately.

Astley could see where people lived in their spirits. Her prose was
inflected with the figurative, the language of the unconscious, of myths
and dreams. There was always a poet pressing this woman determined
on the prosaic. She was accused of stretching credulity with scenes
such as the fight to death by men with horns strapped on their heads.
Perhaps it was more than that she knew North Queensland better than
her critics; perhaps it was also a trope. She was not so much attracted
to the bizarre as unafraid of what it said. Her style was not only
complex in its reaching out to ensnare complex reality in few words
(she is the antithesis of a prolix writer) but it was also vivid for she
saw vividly.

      His dream took him back to that embassy party and the
      dramatics of his wife, younger, prettier, her hair swinging in the
      blunt bob that was too schoolgirlish, her round face with its
      innocent high colour totally giving the lie to the outrageousness
      of her utterances. Only this time, the dream women were
      crowding her begging for more, their faces drawn into long bird-
      like looks of greed as Belle fluttered among them dashing
      obscenities with the guilelessness of her face unmarked by the
      prurience of her stories …

Astley not only gives us Belle‟s winning shtick but what makes it
winning – the needs of others – in this case female repression. If

                            The Way We were                                14
Astley was a feminist, she did not spare women by denying them their
fallible humanity. But what makes her not caustic is her warmth, her
unsentimental compassion. She turned her empathy to the despair of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with what might have been
considered an almost obsessive concern if it had not proved so just.
She gave us Palm Island before it gave us itself. Her sceptical gaze
embraces the unhappiness of those living in disaffection because the
mores of their time and place offend their senses of decency and
justice a she herself was so offended. Her sympathies were all for the
underdog. Her locale is Australian (represented on this beach by „the
Bipis‟, Mr and „Misis‟ B P, that company‟s reps on Kristi, loathed by the
diplomatic corps because they are so at home in this rough world
where exploitation is the key signature). Astley was drawn to the
tropics where the greeds are forced into indolent expressions and
roughly cast in crude hues, where striving goodness cannot be
starched and savagery so often prevails in the knowledge that
civilisation and its rules are far away – well, in Brisbane in any case.
Her readers often did not want to believe this was their country or
people could behave like that but.

She gives us the innerscapes with wonderful economy and she revels
in action; her novels are filled with drama and excitement: fights and
hysteria, burnings and explosions.

      Cordingley, using Belle‟s arm as a kind of tiller, began pushing
      her with the other European refugees through the ranks of black
      flesh towards the top of the ramp. Flesh parted for the gavman
      man. Then there was a massive grinding and scraping as the
      Eudora shoved its ramp up the beach. The world was chocolate
      and white. Missionary Lampton from Thresher Bay became
      unhinged. „Back!‟ he screamed, his hands in a triangle of prayer.
      „Back! Let the women through first!‟ His voice was a thin high-

                            The Way We were                                15
      pitched stream of word wings as his lean fanatic body went
      under the waves off his flock. „Pipol Trinitas! Pipol Malua!‟ The
      feathers were plucked from the syllables in a frenzied rush of
      money-bag rattling Asiatic merchants, who, swinging satchels
      vigorously like clubs, cut a clear-way for themselves straight
      through and on to the landing barge.

      Belle laughed at the outrageousness of it.

Astley loved place, understood how people might belong to the land
rather than own it („like Gladesville or something‟). Away from the
beach at Serua Point the novel‟s principal character, Gavi, is coming to
terms with how

      It‟s right we go,‟ the boy said without preamble. „I‟ve been
      thinking about it. It‟s right. I‟m sorry about you and maman, but
      it is right. It is time. Maybe when I‟m older I can come back. If
      the island will have me. When I‟ve learned to – well – have

The French are deporting him, a thirteen year old, for his miserable,
hapless part in the rebellion.

Cordingley escapes from the beach, emerging from his panic stricken
flight and clownish behaviour with the appearance of more than dignity

      Cordingley sat very straight near the stern, his blood-streaked
      face turned into the sun.
      „Turned nasty did it?‟ the First Secretary asked, looking
      admiringly at the cut across Cordingley‟s forehead.
      Cordingley floated a wisp of a smile.
      „Nothing,‟ he said, „I couldn‟t handle.‟

Belle is still on the beach.

                               The Way We were                            16
     As the Eurydice headed west down the Channel, out to the heavy
     waters between Kristi and Trinitas, those who were near the rails
     began a relieved waving to the crowd still on the beach.
     Cordingley could see Belle remove her neck-scarf and trail it in
     the wind. It was baited with a kind of regretful memory. To his
     vast surprise he found himself waving, too, his arm lifting
     involuntarily, and to his further amazement, the people left on
     shore, mainly black now, were waving their despised hands in

Despite all those Miles Franklins we have not yet been able to do Thea
Astley justice.

                          The Way We were                           17
                Un Embarras de Richesse: Patrick White

      The first, and perhaps the least confident of the three, had
      chosen an enormous satin bon-bon, of screeching pink, swathed
      so excessively on one side that the head conveyed an impression
      of disproportion, of deformity, of bulbous growth. But the
      uncertain lady was palpitating with her own daring, and glanced
      at the closer of her two companions, fishing for a scrap of praise.
      Her friend would not concede it, however. For the second lady
      was secure in her own seasoned carapace, and would not have
      recognized her acquaintance except by compulsion. The second
      lady was wearing on her head a lacquered crab-shell. She was
      quite oblivious of it, of course. But there it sat, one real claw
      offering a diamond starfish, the other dangling a miniature conch
      in polished crystal. The unconscious wearer had divested herself
      conventionally of her gloves and was restoring suppleness to her
      hands. As she tried her nails on the air, it was seen that those,
      by some chance, were exactly the same shade as the audacious
      How the waiters adored the three insolent ladies, but it was at
      the third and obviously eldest that their most Italianate smiles
      were directed.
      The third, or by now, the first lady, affected the most amusing
      hat of all. On her blue curls she had perched an innocent little
      conical felt, of a drab, an earth colour, so simple and
      unassuming that the owner might have been mistaken for some
      old, displaced clown, until it was noticed that fashion had
      tweaked the felt almost imperceptibly, and that smoke – yes,
      actual smoke – was issuing out of the ingenious cone.

Patrick White was Australian Literature for some twenty-five years. No
other writer approached his reputation and esteem which reached its
apogee with the Nobel Prize in 1973. Some conservatives affected to
„prefer‟ the Martin Boyd of Lucinda Brayford, a superbly written soap
opera devoted to snobbery. They need not have been so bothered by
White, he was essentially a reactionary himself. He dished it out to all
manners and classes of our classless society but there is a tacit
presence, a matter more of reflex than statement in his work,
suggesting a refined sensibility and spirituality which lies somewhere

                           The Way We were                               18
amongst an Establishment or amongst Europeans like Voss. The
volcano lady of the above passage is a representative of this shadowy
aristocracy. Really, White despaired of Australians and sought solace
amongst the rejects upon whom he placed the burden of sainthood, of
spiritual perception.

Though he was a man of the expressionist theatre, White loved the
idea of the saintly, the humble, the self-effacing. This is not so
extraordinary: the most egocentric theatricals employ mantra
moments and some play casts initiate performances with a little
meditative huddle, like net and footballers laying hands upon each
other before flinging them into the air and charging out to trample
their opponents or audiences. The theatricals believe their frisson of
innerness lends inspiration, makes them deep, or even that it lays an
ensemble spirit over their egos rampant. And so it might for the
unconscious is an irresistible force.

White romped around in the psyche, bringing it to light like no other
writer; he was at home there as he never was in the world. White
snatched glimpses of the world and parlayed these etchings into fiction
and plays. The latter have always proved the less satisfactory: while
they are vivid and funny, they lack drive, they do not „journey‟, which
is odd, for the plot trajectory of White‟s novels is irresistible in its
sweep through many excursions and the dialogue in his novels is
incomparable. White caught Australian English at its Anglo-Celtic
height, before immigration from elsewhere and a diminution in the
influence of the written sent it on simpler, more direct, rougher, less
literate ways.

                             The Way We were                               19
We fell about laughing at his rendition of us – „yairs‟ we tried not to
say and shrieked at „Kevon‟. There we – well, they – were: the
pretentious, the uneducated, the unsophisticated, the coarse and
vulgar. We readers of Patrick White loved being lacerated by the
mirror and tape-recorder he held up to the not-us. Barry Humphries
was doing something of the same kind at the same time but in that
case it was unmitigated by the human.

White also had trouble with the human; his characters, detailed
though they are, are sometimes not fleshed out. We are asked to
believe of Sister de Santis in The Eye of the Storm (surely the great
White novel?) that when not attending on Elizabeth Hunter and
drinking gin and wine with Sir Basil at Doyle‟s fish restaurant she
subsists on a diet of tea and bread with National Geographics for
company. Still, White was after other dimensions than the mundane
and he was able to parade before us an endless array of characters
whom we recognised in print for the first time as those who
surrounded us. They babble in tongues which make other writers‟
attempts at Australian English seem factitious, or utter vatic,
paradoxical statements. Besides saying „yairs‟, they suck viciously at
their dentures and/or their gums (the oral is a very strong presence),
are yellowish with brown patches or liver spots, scarlet splattered and
blue veined, their hair, where they have it, is a writhing uncontrollable
force and their faces collapse or become rictus with terror or rage in
various convincing ways (White knew Francis Bacon). White‟s
characters are often costumed in expressionistic flesh, which was a
wonderful relief in those days of „dun coloured realism‟ (his words) and
often hilarious because deadly accurate and revelatory of the reality
which surrounded us but which we ourselves could not bring to

                            The Way We were                               20
consciousness and so name. However there is the unfortunate danger
of these characters becoming jangled literary puppets. When the
ordinary are not vicious in their banality, they are saints and
sometimes martyrs. The ordinary tend to belong to the lower orders.
The saints apotheosise in wondrous illumination. Whilst experiencing
hers, Sister de Santis is surrounded by beating wings (they belong to
birds, a pigeon in particular, but we are meant to take them for
angels). In rendering such moments of divine possession White took
breathtaking risks with bathos and sentimentality but his readers do
not realise this for they are swept along by his sincerity. His tonal
range – from slapstick through satire to metaphysical exaltation – is as
wide as it could be and utterly assured. His sincerity saves him from a
sadistic laying about him at the vanities and defences of fallible
humanity. Sincerity is a catalyst for melodrama; White also escaped
this falseness, just. Perhaps it is his brilliantly rendered acerbity which
protected him. There is another shadowy presence in his writing
besides an implied aristocracy - compassion, a recognised common
humanity. It is constantly at risk from his rage but survives
everywhere in his work as a recognition of human decency.

The Nobel Prize honoured him as a writer who had „introduced a new
continent to literature‟. No doubt it gave some Europeans comfort that
we were laughable in the ways they expected and thrilled others with
exotic possibilities, not least of a religious nature (it was a neo
religious era: people tried to read Hesse for example, or under the
influence of the Beatles practised transcendental meditation or dressed
only in orangey shades of what was supposed to be saffron in the
service of their cult which instantly evaporated at the whiff of scandal).
However much Australia was White‟s world, his writing was universal

                            The Way We were                              21
in its appeal. He was translated and admired very widely. Overseas
readers could consider the Other which was us and discover

The power of art is celebrated in his fiction, especially painting. Music
is also a strong presence and theatricals blunder their ways across his
pages. Painting and music speak for the spirit; the theatre is more a
necessary witness to the anarchic in life. While poetry is everywhere it
is little mentioned.

White was drawn to Jewishness. The lady in the screeching pink bon-
bon above is fleeing her Jewishness. She has embraced a second
husband and the Church of England in the shape of „St Marks‟
(doubtless of Darling Point in Sydney, in those days a site of social
aspirations). White is ambivalent; his attitude partakes of his time –
Anglo-Celtic Australians tended to sneer at the social aspirations of
Jews as they clambered out of the ghettos and concentration camps
and into the social elite but he also had a deep respect for the
adherents of the religion and an interest in their plight. Jews are
parvenus and the Scapegoat. The saturnine Mrs Lippmann of The Eye
of the Storm is a tragic figure, unable even in the antipodes to escape
her fate – at which one must balk. Jews, for White (as they are in the
present era for Christos Tsiolkas) are the dark side of Europe, a
powerful, subterfuginous force. White, born to the Establishment
himself, resented all kinds of parvenus and had little care for social
injustice at any systemic level though he of course liked to ladle out
charity (this is characteristic of the type). The Jews were fascinating in
their place. The trouble was, their place was untenable. It satisfied
White to abandon them to the tragedy he had allotted them. He was in

                            The Way We were                              22
his fanciful complacency both ridiculous and disgusting but let us not
forget he needed his puppets and his clowns for his great art; Jews
were part of his collection of stock characters.

White wrestled more with the plight of Aborigines. His Alf Dubbo (of
Riders in the Chariot), Aboriginal painter, is a valiant effort but like
Sister de Santis is not so much a character as a spirit presence,
something White seems sadly aware of in his efforts to bring the
Aboriginal to life.

God was White‟s subject; he pursues it relentlessly, discovering it all
over and under the place. Improbable though it might seem, the
possibility of apotheosis, of sainthood, of goodness even enters the
restaurant in which the Bon-bon, the Crab-shell and the Volcano
sprawl, exhausted by their effort at seeming. The Volcano remembers
a maid who was „a kind of saint‟. She „cranes in the hopes that saving
grace might just become visible in the depths of the purgatory in
which they sat‟ (the Italian waiters have turned the lights out on
them). Her „crater was now extinct‟.

Who else but Patrick White could give the hilarious such a plangent

White had a fecundity of invention, an imaginative power far beyond
that of any other Australian writer. The Nobel publicists were not
wrong, White told Australians of themselves as no other writer and
revealed an emerging spiritscape to which Europeans had so far been

                            The Way We were                                23

Stead Christina 1983 For Love Alone Angus and Robertson Australia
(according to this edition 'First published by Peter Davies in 1945' but
Chris Williams in her biography Christina Stead A Life of Letters gives
the details 'Harcourt Brace New York 1944) see p 35, p 67 & p 284

Stead David G 1906 Fishes of Australia A Popular Study and
Systematic Guide to the Study of the Wealth within our Waters
William Brooks and Co Sydney see p 235

Stead David G 1963 Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas Angus and
Robertson Sydney see p 48 & p 50

Astley Thea Beachmasters Penguin Books Australian 1985 pp 118 –
128, p 182 & p 184

White Patrick 1976 (first published 1961)    Riders in the Chariot
Jonathan Cape London see pp 537 – 545

The quote about the Nobel Prize commendation comes from Marr
David 1991 Patrick White A Life Random House Australia p 541

                           The Way We were                             24
                The Evanescent, Elusive, Desired Eternal

              Helen Garner: Carlton, Victoria 1968 – Now

      … Is it spring? Could it possibly be spring? This morning I sidled
      over the low stone fence and looked for the blossoming tree. And
      there it was, a pittosporum. Tears rushed into my eyes. My
      sister teases me for loving this tree. She finds it gloomy, even
      ugly. But it‟s so mysterious, so withholding. If you approach it
      directly, head on, even push your face into its foliage, it will not
      give its scent. It prefers to take you unawares, to exude an aura
      into which you step on your way past, hurrying, your mind on
      something else. Nor can you pick the blossoms and take them
      home. The sap is sticky, the twigs tough. The perfume (electric,
      lemony, head-clearingly sweet) doesn‟t survive the plucking. The
      tree exists. Its blossoming is brief. You have to be ready for the
      moment and accept it as it‟s given. („Tower Diary‟ the feel of
      steel pp 57 – 8).

Helen Garner has been with us forever, through doomed love in

communal houses, sibling rivalry, aging and dying parents, children,

divorce(s), struggles to be authentic, to be healthy, to be decent, to

understand, to judge.

With Frank Moorhouse, she is the voice of the War/Baby Boomers. She

has made her predicaments, conflicts, griefs, resolutions theirs and the

world‟s. It is through them that she speaks to la condition humaine.

In prose which is her: restrained by reflection, elegant, musical, juste.

She is a remarkable stylist; the voice is idiosyncratic, carefully

                            The Way We were                              25
uningratiating yet charming in its considered clarity. She is also a poet


Along with her great achievement and to some degree inseparable

from it, are her promotional activities; she is the publishing dream.

She has appeared everywhere, she has been consistently in the news

for forty years; she is not too good - she‟s had her problems and there

have been the odd controversy - but there‟s been no major public-

repulsing scandal. She‟s been good mannered and sinned against far

more than sinning (she‟s partial to sinners).

She could be us if only we were better than we were, especially if we

had insight into our hypocrisies and other failures, could express our

inconsistencies, anxieties and come to grips with our angst with the

eloquence and grace she does. But let‟s face it, we just don‟t have her

powers of perception or the command of a medium to express them.

There is a sense of comedy implicit in her vision but for the most part

it is pretty grim.

      „And,‟ said Maxine … „have you ever seen an angel?‟
      „I‟ve seen the devil,‟ said Janet casually.
      … „Where,‟ said Ray.

                           The Way We were                               26
      „In Brunswick,‟ said Janet. „He ran out of a shop as I was walking
      up Sydney Road. He looked straight at me.‟
      „How did you know it was the devil?‟ murmured Maxine …
      „By his face. It was tight and smooth, and he had a kind of brutal
      expression. Brutal and vain.‟
      „I can‟t stand vain men,‟ said Maxine …
      „When I say “the devil”,‟ said Janet, „of course I don‟t mean “The
      Devil” … He was probably some sort of crim. Full of bad vibes.‟
      „Do you want to know, by the way, Janet,‟ said Maxine, „what I
      see in your aura?‟ She carved on with slow diligence. „I see that
      in a previous life you were tortured. If you don‟t mind me saying
      „Yes. For your religious beliefs.‟ („Cosmo Cosmolino‟ pp 97 – 8
      Cosmo Cosmolino).

Garner‟s work inclines to satire; she defends us (and herself?) from

the brutal honesty of her observations, from the almost relentless

scepticism of her gaze, with a careful irony. She not only records, as

faithfully as she may, our customs and mores, our actions and

manners, she assesses them finely and continuously. This mediation

between the observed and recorded, whether its genre declares it

reportage or imaginative, places Garner at a remove from Christina

Stead in whose line she stands.

She does not surrender to fear. It is as if she actively seeks out the

absurdities, the cruelties and worse (she won a Walkley Award in 1993

- Best Feature Article „Did Daniel Have to Die?‟ for her investigation of

the death of an abused child whose plight was neglected by the


                           The Way We were                               27
      … the day of the World Economic Forum. I hear hoarse shouting
      from inside my suburban railway station … Three young blokes
      come brawling backwards off the platform and crash, yelling and
      cursing, into the wall of the boarded-up ticket office.
      They‟re young, barely fifteen, ethnically various –
      They are very drunk.
      „Let‟s go poofter-bashing, hey? Poofter-bashing?‟ The other boys,
      stumbling and grinning, ignore him. He shouts louder, „First
      junkie I see today I‟m gunna bash roight?‟
      … ‟Hey Meess! Meess!?‟
      No-one has called me Miss since 1972 at Fitzroy High …
      „‟Scuse me Meess, I can control my drunkenness. But if you
      don‟t like it I‟ll shut them up. Those kids‟ve drunk three bottles
      of Jim Beam.‟
      „How come you‟re all drunk at this early hour?‟ I ask primly.
      … „We‟re goeen‟ to the, uhm, protest, you know? Down at the
      The brawling breaks out again. Foul words fly. „Have respect!‟ he
      shouts over his shoulder. „We won‟t get violent,‟ he says to me,
      one hand out in a soothing gesture.
      „I‟m not scared of you,‟ I say. („Have Respect‟ pp 168 – 171 the
      feel of steel).

She was perhaps in no great danger in this case though others might

have been. The boys‟ instincts were sure: Garner is rather school

ma‟amish. She was sacked by the Victorian Department of Education

for, she says, „bad language‟ and a sex lesson. This was in the days of

the notoriously conservative (and worse) Bolte Government when class

sizes were always well over thirty and there was no provision for

                           The Way We were                            28
English as a Second Language teaching in state high schools despite

the fact they were accepting large numbers of recently arrived

immigrant children. Garner taught at Fitzroy High School. It can‟t have

been easy. The papers reported the case, probably Garner‟s first brush

with publicity.

She was thus freed to pursue other interests. She was a denizen of La

Mama Theatre in its headiest days when it was re-establishing

Australian drama, she acted in the film Pure Shit (1975 – Garner was

nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award) and wrote. Her first

book Monkey Grip (1977) was also an outcome.

Monkey Grip was very successful and despite its limitations (relentless

anecdotes, flatness of dialogue), has become a landmark in Australian

literature – not only because it launched Garner as a writer. Monkey

Grip was electrifying because Nora, (surely named with Nora of A Doll

House in mind? also a pun on gnaw?) its voice, was in rebellion against

the stultifying, the annihilating, the unjust culture of the times,

perhaps best exemplified by the conservative Liberal/Country Party

(now National Party) governments which had had, at state and federal

levels, Australia in their seemingly unending grip until 1972 when

Labor under Gough Whitlam at last came to power bringing with it a

                            The Way We were                            29
whole new way of life. The Seventies had arrived. We War

Baby/Boomers carried our parents, traumatised (is it too strong a

word?) by the effects of two world wars and the Great Depression,

within us. They froze us. Monkey Grip details the struggles of a young

(not so young actually, at one stage Nora announces she is thirty-

three) woman to live in this new world that had at last arrived. Nora

struggles to be, to love in ways feminism was suggesting were better

– essential really, if you were ever to be authentic.

      „Don‟t worry!‟ she said, starting to grin. „You‟re not the only one.
      The other night I went out with this guy – we were in my car,
      and he actually go me to let him drive.‟
      You‟re kidding.‟
      „No! He just didn‟t like to be in a situation where I was in
      „What did you say?‟
      „Well, I let him. I sort of wanted to see how far he would go. He
      started by making some casual remarks about Volkswagens,
      how he always forgot to put them into top gear, and then he
      drove off round the Boulevard, to show what a great driver he
      was.‟ Paddy raised her disdainful eyebrows, still half-smiling. „He
      was driving at an immense speed in third gear, and I pointed
      out, quite politely really, that it might be a good idea to change
      into top. „Oh!‟ he said, „fourth in a VW is really an overdrive.‟
      Well, he could be right, I suppose, but … he wanted to drive
      handsomely – you know – scarf flying. Even me buying the ice-
      creams later was not quite right. And yet the thing was – he was
      putting himself across as one of us – into politics, teaching at
      Preston and being radical about that, living in Fitzroy‟ - she
      made an ironic grimace.
      „None of that means anything.‟ I said gloomily.
      „Y-e-es … well … one wonders sometimes, doesn‟t one …‟
      „I wonder sometimes if we ought to be giving men a miss.‟ She
      laughed, „Oh, I don‟t know.‟
      „But to be perfectly honest, I‟ve got no plans to do that.‟

                           The Way We were                              30
     „Neither have I.‟

     On the contrary, two mornings later I was crawling round
     Gerald‟s ankles outside the kitchen door, letting down his jeans.
     „If anyone from the women‟s centre saw me doing this,‟ I said,
     „my reputation would be shot to pieces.‟
     He clicked his tongue in pleased exasperation, „I don‟t even think
     it‟s necessary. They were all right before.‟
     „They weren‟t. You look a dag with your pants flapping round
     your calves. Don‟t you want to be cool?‟
     „What does it matter?‟
     „Well,‟ I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth past the row of
     pins, „ultimately, of course, it doesn‟t, but the world being as it
     is, one may as well strive for a little elegance of line, don‟t you
     think?‟ („Too Ripped‟ pp 153 – 4).

This is probably Garner‟s most facile moment.

Overt feminism is to reappear only very occasionally in her future

work. It always inclines to melodramatic vicitimhood.

     Should I say „But violation is our destiny‟? Or should I say
     „Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent‟? But
     before I can open my mouth, a worst moment came to me: the
     letter arrives from my best friend on the road in another
     country: „He was wearing mirror sunglasses which he did not
     take off, I tried to plead but I could not speak the language, he
     tore out handfuls of my hair, he kicked me and pushed me out of
     the car, I crawled to the river, I could smell the water, it was
     dirty but I washed myself, a farm girl found me, her family is
     looking after me, I think I will be all right, please answer, above
     all, don‟t tell my father …
     „Violation,‟ said Natalie, as if to gain time.
     „It would be necessary,‟ I said, „to examine all of women‟s
     writing, to see if the fear of violation is the major theme in it.‟

                          The Way We were                             31
      „Some feminist theoretician somewhere has probably already
      done it,‟ said the stranger who had been surprised that Rigoletto
      could draw tears.
      „We don‟ t have a tradition in the way you blokes do,‟ I said.
      „It‟s a shadow tradition,‟ I said. „It‟s there, but nobody knows
      what it is.‟
      „We‟ve been trained in your tradition,‟ said Natalie. „We‟re
      honourary men.‟ („What we say‟ in My hard heart Selected
      Fiction pp 19 – 20).

      The nanna gets the vodka out of the freezer … well, what are
      they drinking to tonight, these two women from opposite sides
      of the baby‟s family? Each other‟s health, of course – but also to
      something else they have in common: problems with men …
      To the nanna, recently divorced for the third time, the story
      unrolls against a complex backdrop of memories. In its difficult
      events the nanna recognises the pattern of each of her
      marriages. In the actions, non-actions of the man, she sees all
      the men she has ever loved. In the desperate self-abnegations
      of the woman, she hears her own history and that of virtually
      every woman she has ever known. There is nothing new here.
      It‟s the story of men and women down the ages. And yet the
      auntie in her turn must live it out, suffer it as if it were freshly
      minted in the workshop of the gods. („Auntie‟s Clean Bed‟ in the
      feel of steel pp 164 -5).

Such moments jump out at us. In general ideology drifts into an

informing background scree. This is a sensible move for a literary

writer, (but not for a woman?).

Nora‟s struggles are extreme: she has chosen (or has been chosen

by?) „the life of art‟ and is in love with a drug addict, also she is

stupefyingly reflective and self-questioning. Nora embraces the

                            The Way We were                             32
possibilities of a whole new way of living with as much integrity as she

can muster. Garner details her struggle almost unbearably but, and it

is probably what marks her as a Real Writer, at just the moment when

the reader feels they cannot endure another word of this ratiocination,

can no longer remain immersed in this increasingly pointless squalor …

      „What have you been doing since I last saw you?‟ she asked.
      „Oh – starving myself, and getting stoned, and fucking, and
      slugging it out with Javo – I‟m exhausted, trying to work out
      how it all got blown.‟ („Teach Me How to Feel Again‟ p 127)

Garner opens the novel to a stream of vitality that refreshes her


The novel was widely thought to be almost autobiographical; one could

infer that it is based (too closely) on journal entries (Garner‟s

notebooking was notorious, much later she was to say it was a useless

pursuit, she never used them).

      I used to keep a diary. I still don‟t go anywhere without my so-
      called writer‟s notebook. I jot things down in it. I „save‟ them
      from whatever their fate would be if I didn‟t jot them down.
      („Woman in a Green Mantle‟ the feel of steel pp 37 –8).

                            The Way We were                              33
Despite its large success in critical and commercial terms in Australia

(it won the Australian Book Council Award 1978), readers were not

sure that Garner was a „real writer‟ as we then understood them

(Patrick White‟s latest was widely and eagerly anticipated; Monkey

Grip was published between The Eye of the Storm and The Twyborn


Honour & Other People‟s Children (1980) put paid to those doubts.

Garner had been wise not to rush into literary print again. Her second

book was more accomplished than her first. The critic Don Anderson

notably proclaimed the advance in her art. The two novellas that make

up Honour & Other People„s Children revealed something of her

development as a writer. There was a remarkable advance in dialogue

(now one of Garner‟s strengths). She gives lives to the rough,

vigorous, witty, figurative style supposed to be characteristic of

Australian diction (far more likely to be encountered on the page than

in the street). The book‟s form suggested that she understood her

limitations well; the novel as it was conventionally understood (three

hundred or so pages) was not for her. Australian literary culture did

not condemn her for this. In this period (the seventies through to the

nineties) the short story flourished in Australian as nowhere else in the

English-speaking world; the beneficiaries of Henry Lawson and Barbara

                           The Way We were                                34
Baynton appreciated the shorter forms of fiction. Don Anderson would

not have been discomforted by Garner‟s structures and styles nor with

the ethos that she pictured; he was a friend and champion of Frank

Moorhouse who had been depicting a comparable milieu in Sydney

(„Balmain‟ as against Garner‟s „Carlton‟). Moorhouse was developing a

structure based on „discontinuous narratives‟ which, between their

covers, looked somewhat like a „novel‟ (or was the term a

rationalisation for not writing a novel with flowing chapters?). These

discontinuous narratives were not whole in the way the novel was at

least purported to be but they did approach and/or deviate from the

traditional form in exciting and satisfying ways (decades later

Moorhouse was to write a big novel and its sequel; a third is promised

to complete as it were a traditional trilogy). „Honour‟ and „Other

People‟s Children‟ resonate with one another through the similarity of

their milieu and in the common theme of two women attempting to

come to terms with one another. Children are vibrant and complicating

factors in both novellas, men are more or less hapless. Garner‟s male

characters are not as distinct as her female, they tend to need strong

women and are often enough repulsive in their manners and mode of

address (though none is as unsympathetic as Ruth of „Other People‟s

Children‟). The apogee of male haplessness is Joe Cinque. In 2004

Garner reported on his being killed by an overbearing and unstable

                           The Way We were                               35
girlfriend in Joe Cinque‟s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and

the Law. After Monkey Grip her prose style became pared and

wonderfully reflective. It presses towards the figurative and while she

eschews the more obvious literary tropes, the symbolic lingers as a

possibility around her descriptions of place. On the rare occasions

when she uses symbolism, the reader regrets her lapse into the

obvious device –

      … The saw her leap up and grab the high end of the see-saw.
      They got up and picked their way barefoot off the grass and the
      lumpy gravel.
      … They separated and walked away from each other, one to each
      end. They swung their legs over and placed themselves gingerly,
      easing their weight this way and that on the meandering board.
      „Let go, Floss.‟
      The child stepped back. Jenny, who was nearer the ground, gave
      a firm shove with one foot to send the plank into motion. It
      responded. It rose without haste, sweetly, to the level, steadied,
      and stopped.
      They hung in the dark, airily balancing, motionless. (the
      conclusion of „Honour‟ p 56).

It might also be noted of Don Anderson‟s early, strong support of

Garner that he was appreciative of Raymond Carver, an American

„minimalist‟ whose style influenced hers and whose success she felt

validated her own development. Perhaps it was in insecure support of

this validation that Garner thus attacked the much more freighted and

layered style of Thea Astley

                           The Way We were                            36
Stylistically, however, the book is like a very handsome, strong and fit
woman with too much make-up on … This kind of writing drives me
berserk. (Garner on Astley‟s An Item from the Late News).

The crudity is notable. Garner need not have had any doubt: style was

not to be her problem (she does abuse italics, possibly out of a lack of

confidence in her readers‟ ability to read for tone or in a desperate

reaching for intensity).

Anderson again heralded her achievement with the (again well-timed)

publication of The Children‟s Bach in 1984 –

      There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They
      are, in chronological order, Ford Maddox Ford's The Good
      Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hemingway's The
      Sun Also Rises and Helen Garner's The Children's Bach.

The Children‟s Bach was another considerable success, winning the

South Australian Premier‟s Festival Award.

Postcards from Surfers was published the next year. It won the NSW

Premier‟s Award. It is a remarkably various and original collection of

„stories‟. „All Those Bloody Young Catholics‟, a monologue by a working

class drunk who has been caught up amongst student types (as they

moved into Carlton?) is the furthest reach of Garner‟s empathic

                           The Way We were                               37
engagement and wonderfully dense writing. Her transposition into the

mind and experiences of an Australian now-gay man living in Paris „La

Chance Existe‟ is more direct (closer to reportage) and therefore less

intense and complex. There is insight into both characters who are the

subject of this story but the now-gay man persona is too much a

dummy voice, his commentary is too much the author‟s (we note the

characteristic homophobic anxiety about anal intercourse finding

expression in the dwelling on shit, for example). Garner perhaps does

not find the splitting off of personality into distinct personae so that

they become Characters (the terrible gift of the true dramatist) comes

easily to her. Perhaps also her keen ear for dialogue is not in synch

with her lesser powers of characterisation. She does not have

sufficient abandonment of self for that. „The Life of Art‟ is a toccata

and fugue revealing her wonderful control of prose rhythms. Garner is

almost always a lyrical writer. Her severity affords her poignancy.

Several stories in Postcards from Surfers do not seem to be fictions.

The dilemma Garner‟s work and its reception posed was – is it fiction

or „real‟?

In the early stage of her career Garner seems to have wanted very

much to investigate and to a lesser extent celebrate the life she chose

                            The Way We were                                38
and immersed herself in – the Carlton milieu of communal housing.

Her imagination was much exercised also by extricating herself from it

– the break-up of communal households is a theme she returned to.

She also wanted to explore/explain women‟s relationships with women

– relationships in which the male characters seemed most important

as catalysts for the emotional intimacies of women. Lesbians are

nowhere to be found in this erotic flow; Garner gives us one glimpse of

some, in the distance, dancing on the hard sand near the water‟s edge

at some St Kilda jaunt. A lesbian would have spoilt everything for her.

She offers a valediction for this Carlton seventies world in „A Happy

Story‟ in Postcards …

      I turn forty-one. I buy the car. I drive it to the river-bank and
      park it under a tree --- I turn my back on the river and walk
      along the side of the Entertainment Centre … I am the only
      person at the counter ...
      „Two tickets to Talking Heads,‟ I say.
      „I can‟t wait,‟ says my kid every morning … What will you wear?‟
      I‟m too old. I won‟t have the right clothes. It will start too late.
      The warm-up bands will be terrible. It‟ll hurt my ears. I‟ll get
      bored and spoil it for her. I‟ll get bored. I‟ll get bored. I‟ll get
      I sell my ticket to my sister.
      I do a U-turn … I shove in the first cassette my hand falls on. It
      is Elizabeth Schwarzkopf: she is singing a joyful song by Strauss.
      I do not understand the words but the chorus goes „Habe Dank!‟
      The light is weird … as I fly up the little rise beside Richmond

                           The Way We were                              39
      football ground I say out loud, „This is it. I am finally on the far
      side of the line.‟ Habe Dank! (pp 105 – 6 – Habe Dank means
      „have thanks‟, the song is Richard Strauss‟ „Dedication‟ from his
      collection of eight songs Final Pages).

We might note in the above the evocation of divine intervention: the

cassette coming to hand, the flying and the weird light. This „story‟ is

one of those which seems autobiographical.

God hovers closer.

Many readers these days declare a preference for non-fiction over

fiction. Postmodernism has exacerbated (or created?) the doubts

contemporary readers have about the imaginative by declaring that

the boundaries between fact and fiction are more or less

indeterminable because permeable. Postmodernist writers play on the

tormenting distinction between the „real‟ and the imagined, the „actual‟

and its interpretations. Garner did not, one suspects, consciously

engage in this process but she was inadvertently going to be caught

up in its throes. The publication and success of Honour & Other

Peoples‟ Children saw her career as a publicist‟s darling take off, this

was to give some of her „readers‟ (often enough those who had not

actually read her but had opinions about her work anyhow) plenty to

worry over. She began to offer up her life and her opinions, with some

                            The Way We were                                40
circumspection but always with a frankness that looked and sounded

like radiant honesty, in service to the increasing demands of publishing

houses for promotional activities by their authors. No doubt too her

seeming openness was consonant with Garner‟s sense of integrity,

duty and decorum. Her self-presentation seemed consciously

unostentatious but stylish, she was assured even when self-

questioning. She always came across as sincere. In these publicity

efforts Garner revealed autobiographical details which the listeners,

observers and readers of these interviews, talks, participations … could

then relate to her work. Her life evidently had a strong and quite direct

bearing on what was presented as her fiction. To some she seemed to

be crossing the (putative) boundary between fiction and life story with

insufficient regard.

She is not an imaginative writer as say Thomas Keneally or Randolph

Stow are. Her fiction, readers were coming to understand, was

transformed little from her experience. Garner‟s work is closer (as

already suggested) to that of Christina Stead. Stead worked similarly,

transcribing what she had observed but with even less inclination or

ability to transfigure the observed (her recording has much greater

density than Garner‟s). When asked in a radio interview if the

members of her family depicted in The Man Who Loved Children had

                           The Way We were                              41
been upset seeing themselves on the page, Stead dismissed the

question with, „No-one committed suicide, if that‟s what you mean.‟

Garner‟s imagination seems to take the form of presenting her direct

experience and observation in the most elegant and telling way

possible. She is, in this way and given her pellucid style, an excellent

essayist and reviewer.

This considered, it is also not surprising that reportage has always

interested her – that‟s what she does. She has opinions, ways of

interpreting which she wants to convey. She is a keen observer,

adventurous in her curiosity. She wants to share her adventures and

what she makes of them with us. She seems to need to share her life

with us. We might understand those „stories‟ from Postcards … which

seem to be fairly direct accounts of lived experience such as „A Happy

Story‟ quoted above, in this light. This apparent blurring of the actual

and the fictitious was to become a fraught issue as she undertook

major work in investigative journalism.

Garner has published two such books: as already mentioned, in 2004

Joe Cinque‟s Consolation … and the earlier (1995) The First Stone.

Both attracted criticism for their fancifulness and were attacked as

betrayals of feminism. The latter account was particularly criticised for

its journalistic methodology: apparently Garner split a single person

                           The Way We were                                 42
into several in order to create a mind-set of rigid feminism; her

depiction of the two young women who brought charges against the

Principal of Ormond College on sexual grounds was seen in some ways

to be irrelevant to the issues at hand (we are informed the college

room of one required professional cleaning after she had vacated it, for

example). A book of critical essays, bodyjamming, has been published

in refutation of the suppositions Garner brought to bear and the

methodology she employed in writing The First Stone. Whatever its

methodological invalidities and ideological shortcomings, the work is

an enthralling read and characteristically courageous. Garner ventured

into the territory of notions of sexual harassment and appropriate

responses to them where before only male dramatists had trod. Sexual

harassment remains a hotly contested issue in Australian life as

current cases based in corporate and commercial practice

demonstrate. In The First Stone Garner offered a complex account of

the emotional and intellectual responses provoked by the case (her

own not least). She faced feminist anger publicly in a dignified and

stalwart manner. Some of this anger was defensive. No publicity is bad

publicity; The First Stone was another great sales success for Garner

and her publisher.

                           The Way We were                              43
Amongst the issues raised by The First Stone was the way Garner

„used‟ people from her life as characters in her fiction. It was known

that some so employed had been deeply hurt. Some women refused to

be interviewed by Garner for The First Stone on the grounds that they

did not want to provide material for what were considered her „cruel‟

portraits. In my experience almost no-one likes the way they come

across in a written account, no matter how guarded the depiction. Also

people are jealous of „their‟ story; they „own‟ them and are enraged

when another tells the story; probably especially if they were never

going to get around to telling it themselves. Garner was a victim of

this kind of vanity and unreasonableness. The book is a process of its

author sorting through the issues for herself as well as her readers;

few of Garner‟s outraged critics had the ability or courage to undertake

this kind of self-interrogation, preferring righteous indignation based

on comparably simplistic and unrealistic ideological grounds.

Unfortunately human complexities are hard to come to terms with in

the fora of public debate; the complexities lose out to „positions‟.

It would seem Garner‟s characters are likely to be based on

recognisable people. Is the converse then true – are her „real‟ people

characters? Anu Singh, Joe Cinque‟s killer, refused to be interviewed

by Garner. She is a striking presence in Joe Cinque‟s Consolation.

                            The Way We were                               44
Garner had plenty of opportunity to observe her at Singh‟s second trial

and to come to terms with her through extensive interviews with

people who knew her. Garner persisted with the book despite doubts

inspired by the criticism she had received for not interviewing the

young women whose actions she investigated in The First Stone (they

had refused to speak to her). Again she was taking her readers into

territory others had not realised the great interest of or who had not

had the courage and perseverance to enter – such as the nether world

of deracinated young adults come to Canberra for work and the

inexplicable motivations of Anu Singh and her pathetic social satellites.

Garner etches the people involved so tellingly that we recognise their

types and understand that they would indeed act in the bizarre ways

they did. If she was again, as some critics suggested, venting her

hostility towards young women (especially „attractive‟ ones), Anu

Singh was the most deserving of subjects. Singh, not surprisingly,

claims that she was not fairly represented in the book; subsequent

reports attest otherwise. Garner might have been a little more

scrupulous in keeping a journalistic distance from Maria Cinque. Mrs

Cinque‟s inclination to melodrama (there is a hint of hypochondria too)

goes some way towards explaining her late son‟s attraction to the

volatile Anu Singh. Garner does not explore sufficiently what Joe

Cinque was doing with Anu Singh, the nature of his seeming complicity

                           The Way We were                               45
in her astonishingly dreadful behaviour. The book was much

shortlisted and shared the Ned Kelly Prize for Best True Crime 2005.

Very few writers (Joan Didion?) could have presented the case and the

many confusing issues it raised with the clarity and depth Garner did.

Despite the sympathy Garner reveals for Maria Cinque (to whom she

grew close and who seems to be the „Rosalba‟ of The spare room who

rings Garner for, it would seem, a confirmation of family values) there

appears to have been, despite the complexity and vividness, the

drama, nothing fictitious in Garner‟s representation of those who make

up Joe Cinque‟s tragic story.

Garner‟s „characters‟, drawn from life to whatever degree also return

given new (thin) disguises in the differing contexts of her books. The

roman à clef aspect of her work expands towards a sort of metatext

which we suspect is her life. She appears worried about this in

      In this version of Two Friends, Louise‟s mother is called Jenny,
      while in the film itself her name is Janet. I have made this
      change here in order to avoid confusion with another Janet, a
      character in a later novel Cosmo Cosmolino (1992). My double
      use of the name was completely accidental, though no doubt it
      has a meaning. (The Last Days of Chez Nous & Two Friends p

                           The Way We were                               46
Garner is not in a good position to claim whatever immunities privacy

may confer (defence of the ego?). She has written of her family,

friends and acquaintances albeit with reasonable discretion over many

years now in both fiction and essay. In the light of what we know of

her techniques, how could she have done otherwise if she were to

write at all? She is amongst the most directly personal of writers. We

should not expect an autobiography from her because that is what her

oeuvre amounts to. „Every time I write a book, I lose a husband‟ (or

some such) she quipped as publicity for The First Stone. She was

referring to her third husband Murray Bail, author of the highly popular

and deeply unreconstructed Eucalyptus. Previously, when things were

better between them, Garner had announced she was abandoning

fiction - That‟s his territory, she explained. It was her most pathetic or

careless moment.

She gives us an account of the trauma of their separation in „Tower

Diary‟ (the feel of steel). And of her return to Melbourne (Sydney was

always too much in some ways for her)

      They were from somewhere else. They were not from here. They
      were from further north, from the sunny place, the blue and
      yellow place, the sparkling place, the water place („The Dark,
      The Light‟ Postcards from Surfers p 19)

                            The Way We were                              47
to her beloved soul country, its „famous‟ water, its dry air. To her

aging and dying parents and her daughter and her daughter‟s

daughter and her many sisters. She becomes aunty and „Nanna‟, a role

she embraces (I think we are supposed to sweetly indulge the

mawkishness of the title „The Nanna-Mobile‟ in the feel of steel; the

invocation of the Pope-Mobile is unfortunate). This „story‟ includes a

relinquishing of the role of writer

      Indeed, my name was mentioned among those writers whose
      first novel sells secondhand at insultingly low prices, even in
      My reaction was a double-decker. At first I felt bleak. A bit
      forlorn. Ah well, I thought with a sigh, sic transit Gloria. One
      must bow the head, and be drearily splendid. But then into my
      mind flashed an image of startling clarity: a woman and a small
      girl walking away along a dirt road, hand in hand, talking
      pleasantly … They were my future.
      I described the moment to a psychoanalyst friend. He called it a
      „collapse of ambition‟. Collapse? It felt more like a flourishing,
      am opening out. Ambition may have collapsed, but not me. Not
      this nanna (pp 189 -90)

for that of „nanna‟ – a role she gloats over in several other „stories‟ in

the collection. Even if the self-consciousness of the prose didn‟t alert

you, commonsense should be alarmed.

The Carlton Garner, determined on making a fair fist of new

possibilities for living, has given way to „Nanna‟, church going and

Family (though she is still in some kind of proximate communal house:

                            The Way We were                                  48
Garner tells us of her daughter living next door and the poppings

through the fence). So Garner‟s work continues to reveal a desire to

describe and explain her life, particularly in terms of intimate female

connection. What we might note of this development in her art is that

the themes remain familiar but the background scree of ideology

consists now of „conservative values‟ instead of radical ideals. The

desire to celebrate her life is more to the fore. The questing and

struggles of Monkey Grip have given way to wonder and satisfaction

that she has come to this – substantial ease.

Some of her readers might feel uncomfortable with the matriarch

pose, no-one though could deny Garner her right to it. Despite it all,

she‟s done what a matriarch is supposed to do: keep the line going

and provide comfort for it. Good for her. But don‟t we require more of

our artists?

It‟s not that we object to complacency in this case. Garner has

provided us with details of her angst about her future as a writer,

particularly in the feel of steel (at the time of the break-up from the

man she abandoned fiction for)

                           The Way We were                                49
      I hate writing. Writing is a sickness, a neurosis, a mania … I‟ve
      been a captive of it for most of my adult life („Woman in a Green
      Mantel‟ p 37).

      I love the game, [i e „Ex Libris, the literary pastiche game‟]
      handling words, trying to make a sentence that was direct and
      clear. How on earth did I write the way I used to? How did I
      write Postcards from Surfers? I had no plan for any of those
      stories. I wrote one sentence, then another. The intellectual
      approach, long-range planning, doesn‟t suit me … „let the
      unconscious take precedence‟. Later you think. At the start, you
      just write. If you have the nerve.
      I have lost my nerve. („Tower Diary‟ p 65).

And of the cost of her kind of writing

      Because the one who records will never be forgiven. Endured,
      yes, tolerated, put up with, borne, and still loved; but not
      forgiven („A Scrapbook, An Album‟ in Sisters p 79)

(this reads as rhetorical flourish).

      And there is a charge, a very large charge
      For a word or a touch
      Or a bit of blood (from „Lady Lazarus‟ Sylvia Plath)

What we require from Garner is that she continue to be our travel

guide through the hell of contemporary life. It‟s not as if she‟s ever

been a good time girl; she‟s always insisted on more gravitas for

herself than that

                            The Way We were                              50
      … I‟d gone on holiday from Paris with some gay boys I knew,
      one Australia, one French, two Americans – four cheerful,
      affectionate hysterics. Privately I disapproved of their obsession
      with fun, with youthful beauty and clothes and sex and cruising
      and special cocktails. For some reason they seemed fond of me,
      and they were adorable – ingenious, kind, always laughing – but
      in my heart I thought of them as moral lightweights …
      Twenty years later as far as I know only two are alive („moral
      lightweights‟ as opposed I suppose to the moral heavyweight
      men Garner celebrates in Monkey Grip - and AIDS got the boys,
      you know it - „Das Bettelein‟ in the feel of steel p 192 & p 194)

often in contrast to all who surround her – and she‟s had some trouble

having a good time. Indeed she‟s sought out the tough trot, told us

about it, explained it all to us. That is what we expect of her and that

is, with her fine publishing instinct, what she provided us duly with.

      Is an art, like everything else.
      I do it exceptionally well.

      I do it so it feels like hell (from „Lady Lazarus‟ by Sylvia Plath).

The spare room was published in 2008. In this novel, „Helen‟

accompanies her friend Nicola on her journey to death from cancer.

The „Helen‟ seems like a deliberate provocation to those who might

think the book was not „fiction‟. Much in it, as so much of Garner‟s

other fiction has been, is „realistic‟: recognisable to those who were

acquainted with the places, characters and circumstances upon which

she seems to have drawn for this „novel‟. It won the Barbara Jefferis

                            The Way We were                                  51
Award for the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts

women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of

women and girls in society. Garner was the second recipient of this

very lucrative ($35,000) prize. She accepted the award in a room in

the old Education Department Building in Sydney but forgot to carry

the cheque, placed on the lectern, back to her place with her after her

speech. She had somewhat defensively proclaimed to an audience of

her peers and the Runners-Up (it was an Australian Society of Authors

event) that her book was a novel – „I‟m telling you‟. Not everyone in

the room was convinced. There was a flounce in her return to the

lectern to secure her cheque and her triumphant return to her seat.

Garner does not flounce well. She dealt likewise somewhat awkwardly

(„Robert‟s a friend of mine‟) with Dessaix‟s review of The spare room in

The Monthly April 2008

      Monkey Grip is called a novel, The Children‟s Bach and Cosmo
      Cosmolino short novels, and now The Spare Room is declared “a
      perfect novel” by Peter Carey on the back cover. But they are
      not novels, they are all of them fine works of art and innovative
      explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of
      them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of
      them is a novel. So why does Helen Garner at the very least
      collude in having them called novels? And why does it matter? …
      Perhaps she believes with all that shaping, leaping, trimming and
      sharpening, her notebooks and diaries actually become novels.
      („Kitchen Table Candour‟ p 58).

                           The Way We were                              52
She defended The spare room qua novel in terms of the form, her

declaration of it as fiction, giving her a freedom of expansiveness that,

say, her investigative journalism had not. Oh, is that right?

Garner‟s writing method has been remarkably homogeneous over a

long career and many significant achievements. Her style has refined

to great elegance; her moment of imaginative experimentation seems

to have ceased with Cosmo Cosmolino.

      Pedalling madly and dropping her head like a chopper, she
      plastered both arms along her side and unclenched her fists to
      let the seeping jonquils scatter down the rips of the wind. Janet!
      She yelled after them. Your knickers! I‟ve still got them on! – but
      too late, too high – for I was over. I dropped off her like a split
      corset: there was no more I.
      With a churning roll and a trample she picked up speed and
      rocketed, whistling-eared, dead vertical from the city‟s paltry
      pencil-clump towards the meniscus of day. (p 215).

The metaphysical, the spiritual is to manifest Itself to Garner later,

after, it would seem, Men have betrayed her yet again. The film The

Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) for which she wrote the script has an

oddly personal and significant and maybe even prescient moment. The

main character, Beth, „betrayed‟ by her husband and sister (thus

echoing Garner‟s life), wanders off in its final scene towards a

consoling church spire, a spire which had seemed unobtainable to the

                           The Way We were                               53
character in her previous attempts to get there. Beth‟s smile suggests

she will get there this time. Garner had wanted a line of cypress trees

(in the explanation below she also reveals why the film was not all that

it might have been – it is a novelist‟s film script; whatever its problems

as a script though, Gillian Armstrong‟s filming did not realise its


      In Chez Nous, for example, there are cypress trees.
      From the main characters‟ bedroom window I wanted a row of
      pencil cypress trees to be visible, growing in a distant and
      unidentifiable neighbourhood garden. These trees, to me, carry a
      heavy freight of meaning. They are Mediterranean, and
      connected with the origins of our culture. They are calm, sturdy,
      graceful. They are a reminder of darkness, of stillness, of death
      – and thus of the question of God, and the soul …
      In this book you will read about the cypresses. But in the film of
      Chez Nous you will not see them. („Introduction‟ p xi).

You will see the church spire. And this is pretty much the direction

Garner was herself to go, eventually in her Nanna-Mobile.

She seeks advice from fellow novelist and Christian Tim Winton on the

dark heaviness manifesting itself to her. He offers her an explanation:

it is the Holy Spirit. And an account of the basis of his faith: the

imaginative credibility of biblical stories (see „Sighs too Deep for

Words‟ the feel of steel p 82). Nothing more need be said about

imaginative credibility.

                            The Way We were                             54
Church itself seems to try Garner though she likes the service when

well read and the music. Music is very important to her and in her

work. Various members of the congregation interest her too.

Communion, being blessed by a priest, is very, very important to her.

But none of that is where we will discover the basis of her faith. That

lies in the numinous experience. Her work has been pursuing that

since Monkey Grip. It can emerge as an abrupt apprehension of the

poetic in the harsh reality she so successfully insists we pay attention


      „What‟s you favourite name of a metro station?‟ she said.
      „What? I don‟t know. Trocadéro.‟
      „Mine‟s Château d‟Eau.‟
      „Ever been on top of that station? You‟d hate it. It‟s not safe for
      women.‟ ((a Château d‟Eau amongst the mundane irritations and
      frustrations of this account is astonishing ‟La Chance Existe‟ p

She finds it in the desolation of separation, in the drive away from the

Entertainment Centre as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sings to her, it hovers

as a beneficent aura around her accounts of crematorium practices

and colonic irrigation, of, less surprisingly, a Barmitzvah, of red wine

spilt on a Vanessa Lucas dress, of much less surprisingly, the coming

                           The Way We were                                 55
of spring and, she astonishes, in the blossoming of a common ragged

tree. Elusive and evanescent though it is, there it is for sure in Cosmo

Cosmolino, her most imaginative work.

Books referred to

the feel of steel 2001Picador

Cosmo Cosmolino 1992 McPhee Gribble

Monkey Grip Penguin Books 1987 (originally published by McPhee

Gribble 1977)

My hard heart Selected Fiction 1998 Viking Penguin Australia

Honour & Other People„s Children two stories 1980 McPhee Gribble

Joe Cinque‟s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law

2004 Pan MacMillan

The Children‟s Bach 1984 McPhee Gribble

Postcards from Surfers stories 1985 McPhee Gribble in association with

Penguin Books

The First Stone 1995 Pan MacMillan Australia

bodyjamming 1997 Mead Jenna (ed) Random House

The spare room The Text Publishing Company 2008 The Last Days of

Chez Nous & Two Friends 1992 McPhee Gribble Penguin Books

Sisters 1994 (first published 1993) ed Modjeska Drusilla Angus and

Robertson Garner‟s contribution is „A Scrap Book, An Album‟

                           The Way We were                             56
Permissions for the Plath quotes applied for (Faber and Faber)


                         The Way We were                         57
                   Comportment: Frank Moorhouse

        1. Always walk up to a man as if he owes you money.
        2. Train yourself to look at the bridge of the other man‟s
           nose, to give the impression that you are staring at him
           straight in the eye.
        3. Speak out with a loud voice and you will finish strongly:
           begin weakly and you will finish weakly.
        4. Sometimes to be heard amid the shouting it is necessary
           to speak softly.
        5. Learn when to remain silent, thus forcing the other fellow
           to speak.
        6. Before meeting with a stranger, make a list of
           conversational items.
        7. Learn the beginning and end of a speech, so that you
           begin and end fluently.
        8. Go out of your way to meet the Great. Keep the company
           of those older and superior to yourself. By doing so, you
           will gain knowledge and, at the same time, gain confidence
           through observing the weaknesses and foibles of your
        9. Joust with your shyness by putting it constantly to the
        10. Remember these are but tricks and rules. Learn your
           trade well. Self-confidence grows from ability, as does
           your value as a person in the society of men.
     Even so, in 1936, George McDowell was still dogged by shyness.
     The typed-out rules hung, pasted on cardboard, but he had to
     admit they‟d become somewhat a fixture in the office. But also,
     he sincerely hoped, a fixture in his mind …
     one had to know how to play the fool without becoming a fool
     (The Electrical Experience p 65 and p 66).

Australia became aware of Frank Moorhouse in the sixties when the

low tide of post war fearful and complacent conservatism began to

turn. He had been a journalist but we noticed him as a short story

                          The Way We were                            58
writer. The form has a strong tradition in this country, one of our great

writers, Henry Lawson, confined himself to it and verse, taking as his

subject matter the downtrodden, particularly itinerant rural workers –

drovers and shearers – on whose labours the wealthy pastoralists such

as Patrick White‟s family depended for their self-satisfaction. Lawson‟s

light shone into the dark and bare corners where the wives and

children of the rural poor struggled to survive.

Moorhouse‟s early work experience must have given him some insight

into rural poverty: he worked (briefly) as a journalist for the Wagga

Wagga Advertiser and the Riverina Express. However his sympathies

lay elsewhere. He does seem to have a sense of responsibility towards

the oppressed, in any case he flirted with theories of egalitarianism, be

they socialist, anarchist, libertarian … whatever, they tended to the

abstruse. He was (briefly) editor of The Australian Worker.

He was a champion of the short story, rather defiantly justifying it.

This was an understandable enough reaction in a period when the form

was largely regarded by the guardians of literature as an

apprenticeship for the novel which was the pre-eminent literary form.
    A few eddies could just be detected in the stagnant pond of Australian

drama. Script writing was inconsiderable given the Australian film was

                             The Way We were                             59
an extreme rarity and the halcyon days of radio drama were over.

Television was (is still?) not a medium for the serious writer. Poetry

floundered and seethed in the most unadventurous of ways. The

rather factitious pseudo-indigenous nationalism of the Jindyworobaks

(Rex Ingamells, Flexmore Hudson, Roland Robinson …) sounded faintly

embarrassing in an era in which Aboriginal issues were just starting to

irritate the Invader conscience and there was a desperation to be


Moorhouse was instrumental in establishing and maintaining through

five issues in 1965, a mid city newspaper City Voices.

      City Voices is in many ways a new concept. It is a weekly
      newspaper for the Sydney community of ideas and arts.
      It is not a pressure group journal.
      It aims to serve the cultural, the dissenting, the educational, the
      little political (sic – interesting slip?), the bohemian and the non-
      In Sydney the inner city suburbs have come to be the rough
      physical boundary of this community but in reality it is not
      circumscribed by physical boundaries – it is characterised by
      attitudes of mind and areas of concern (Vo. 1 No. 2 September
      24, 1965 p 1).

City Voices however did not publish short stories.

Moorhouse‟s then friend Michael Wilding offers a survey of the

opportunities for short story writers in „Tabloid Story‟, a contribution to

Moorhouse‟s collection Days of Wine and Rage.

      To us at that time the girlie magazines offered the only outlets
      for work that dealt with sexuality. ii … The girlie magazines …

                            The Way We were                              60
with circulation of between 40 000 and 100 000 … The literary
quarterlies circulated between 1000 and 3000 – and much of
that was dead circulation, straight into institutional library
stacks. And the people who did read the quarterlies were already
committed to literature. We wanted to reach that new audience
that wouldn‟t normally pick up the quarterlies with their
daunting, expensive, permanent-seeming format … the mode we
evolved was that we would produce not single stories for
syndication, but an entire packaged magazine, already edited,
typeset, designed and camera-ready. The host magazine taking
Tabloid Story would give us a run-on of 2000 copies of the
supplement for us to distribute to subscribers, contributors,
bookshops and as complimentaries and exchanges with other
magazines internationally. This way we got access to the host
paper‟s circulation – without having to build up sales ourselves,
without having to sell advertising, deal with bookshops and
newsagency distribution, or arrange printing. To be free of those
problems that nearly always destroy literary magazines, we were
happy to give the edited and designed package free to the host.
We had little alternative ... One of the associated purposes of
Tabloid Story – which often seemed as much a strategy as a
magazine – was to encourage magazines that hadn‟t run stories
before to run them now – as Nation Review and National Times
indeed soon began to, and have continued to do … Frank noted
down a record of „the little things‟ we did in our relations with
(a) We didn‟t require them to type.
(b) We didn‟t make them pay for a reply – the literary
       magazines were the only business in the world which
       required that their clients pay for the courtesy of a reply –
       usually a form-reply (although we appreciated the same as
       cost saving).
(c)    We made personal comments on the stories (which were
       not always appreciated).
(d) We supplied multiple copies to contributors.
(e) We paid on acceptance – not publication.
We broke that haughtiness and contempt and discourtesy still
found in literary magazines by recognising contributors as the
source of life for little magazines … It was the first literary
magazine to pay the Australian Society of Authors recommended
minimum rate, and from the beginning we made public our
payment rate – again the first time a literary magazine had done
this. This was part of a calculated attempt to campaign to raise
payments and to force other magazines to declare their rates of

                     The Way We were                              61
      payment. Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland and Clem
      Christensen of Meanjin of course complained bitterly … the
      Literature Board made it official policy that magazines receiving
      subsidies should declare publicly in each issue how much they
      paid their contributors … We received a trial subsidy of $2000 …
      We shaped the first two issues from the available materials, and
      shaped them to show the sort of new writing we wanted to
      encourage – no more formula bush tales, no more restrictions to
      the beginning-middle-an-end story, no more preconceptions
      about the well-rounded tale … It was the domination of the
      formula bush tales, the straight narrative that we objected to …
      There were the fabulists … Then there is the literature of process
      – fiction interested in, self-conscious of, its own evolution …
      Then there was the confessional, revelatory mode … we also
      had a residual relationship with the socialist realist story … New
      writing often deals with sex. Not always, not compulsively, not
      inevitably – but often; and this was getting us into problems
      with the straight papers that were potential host magazines …
      (see pp 145 – 154). iii

With his first collection Futility and other animals (1969) Moorhouse

offered a kind of apologia for his interconnected short stories, his

„discontinuous narratives‟

      These are interlinked stories and although the narrative is
      discontinuous and there is no single plot, the environment and
      characters are continuous. In some ways, the people in the
      stories are a tribe; a modern, urban tribe which does not fully
      recognise itself as a tribe. Some of the people are central
      members of the tribe while others are hermits who live on the
      fringe. The shared environment is both internal (anxieties,
      pleasures and confusions) and external (the houses, streets,
      hotels and experiences.

      The central dilemma is that of giving birth, of creating new life
      (prolegomenon to volume).

This „tribe‟ was probably what he imagined as the core of the

readership of City Voices.

                             The Way We were                              62
Even though his oeuvre has culminated in a (at least proposed) trilogy

of big conventionally structured novels (two, Grand Days and Dark

Palace, have appeared), his predilection for the discontinuous narrative

appears to have remained. A glance at the Contents of Grand Days

confirms this impression e g

      „International Language: Scat Singing, its Ramifications,
      Magnitude and Consequences‟
      „Confidence and the Giving of Confidences‟
      „The Tenets of Civilization and Various Wonders Not to Be Talked

These could be the section or story headings of any of his books. We

might note too the whimsicality which had become inevitable.

Between his first collection Futility and other animals (1969) and the

first of the proposed trilogy of novels centred on the history of the

League of Nations – Grand Days (1993) we may observe an increasing

tendency to avoid the deeply engaging in favour of a desire to be

clever and amusing. This cuteness takes the form of a whimsical

commentary on ways of life and thinking. While it is satirical in

manner, Moorhouse has not the savagery of the true satirist; he is far

too embedded in the Establishment to attack it (scout [Queen‟s?],

school captain, Member of the Order of Australia 1985, awarded the

Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society 1988, „Keating‟ – an

                           The Way We were                               63
Australian Artists Creative Fellowship – recipient 1989). Through the

span of his work he represents himself as, most importantly of all, a

bon vivant, a man of the world, a butch epicure, then a serious

journalist and fleetingly as a creative artist (this is fairly typical of the

self-representation of successful Australian male artists).

Perhaps this was a necessary ploy, given that some large part of his

income came from writing for magazines and the magazine section of

newspapers – The Bulletin, National Times, Nation Review, Squire,

Chance International … in which his opportunities for reappearance

were dependent on being as amusing as possible to the socially and

intellectually aspiring. It would be encouraging to know he could take

more risk in confronting the readers of the literary/intellectual journals

– Westerly, Southerly, Pluralist, „the underground liberationist paper‟

Thor, Balcony, Red and Black, Quadrant, the already mentioned

Tabloid Story, Australian Letters … but they too were committed to

„protecting their readers from offence‟ no matter what lip service was

paid to being against censorship

      About sub legislative censorship. Westerlye (sic) edited part of a
      story referring to a boy being masturbated by his girlfriend,
      without reference to me; Pluralist changed the word fuck to ???
      because big bold Walter Stone wouldn‟t print it; Gordon and
      Gotch forced Squire to edit out references to the thoughts of a
      character who was fucking a girl (he was thinking of something
      else); you know the Balcony case; printers complained to Squire
      about my story in a recent issue – said it was indecent and were

                             The Way We were                               64
      considering not printing but did. Other case of interest was that
      binders refused to bind the Trial of Lady Chatterley (sic) Lover
      and it had to be flown to Victoria for binding. So in these cases
      you have printers, editors, distributors, and binders all exercising
      their dirty little moralism (letter to Michael Wilding 11/02/67 p

Almost all of these publications were evanescent (Quadrant continues

despite the drying up, as far as we know, of its CIA funding).

Moorhouse offers an account of living by the pen in those days

      The Australian scene at present is different from any time I can
      remember as far as the outlets for short stories. Man has a
      young editor who wants to change its image to Playboy and is
      contacting writers for serious fiction. Mansworld another of the
      new girlies, Editor Ron Smith, is in the market and asking for
      fiction, Squire and Chance are publishing about six stories a
      month between them. But the literary journals are fewer
      (Balcony gone, Australian Letters gone), and seem less
      interested in stories.
      The Man editor Ray Hall said he was uninterested in fiction and
      had tried to cut down on it in his new Man and had received a
      strong protest from readers. But that was for
      bloodgutsadventure fiction. I am now in the position of having
      no difficulty in publishing a short story a month (as a minimum)
      rates are still lousy $20 a page … I have little interest in
      publishing in any of the four magazines except as you say to
      keep my name in print – and to get the cheque which helps
      (letter to Michael Wilding 21/07/68 p 3).

His early work offers a tension and intensity he seems thenceforth to

overbalance with the amusing, despite occasional later references to

(personal) misery and withdrawal (e g see „Convalescence‟ in the 1985

Room Service). Many of the stories in Futility and other animals

convey a tormented interiority that Moorhouse left behind to the

detriment of his art.

                           The Way We were                              65
     [Thomas is relating the story]
     He looked shocking. He was pale and his eyes were bloody. He
     was staggering and shaking a little. I couldn‟t smell any drink.
     “I‟m a little pilled up,” he said. “I‟m a little sedated.” He wasn‟t
     speaking clearly.
     “You sick?” I asked.
     We went into his book-filled mess of a bedroom. He rolled on the
     “I‟m sick in the head,” he said.
     “You‟ve done psychology. Fix yourself up.”
     His arm stuck out from the edge of the bed and his hand hung
     limp. He said in the same tired, forced voice: “It is like a party.
     It might be dull now or good now or you might be going to fight
     someone or get off with a girl, but the important thing is that
     you know what can happen and you know that if you stay
     something will happen, and that it will either excite you or bore
     you or do nothing to you. It‟s deciding when to leave the party –
     deciding when you‟ve had enough.”
     I took my hand away. It was then I realised he was talking about
     suicide. I still didn‟t know what to say.
     … I was dazed because until now Jimmy had always had the
     world licked. He had always had the answers. And now he was
     lying there knocked out with pills. It made me feel alone and
     uneasy („What can you say?‟ pp 18 – 20 passim).

     I didn‟t know why I wanted to lie somewhere by myself, like a
     sick cat. It didn‟t sound reasonable to say to anyone. I suppose I
     had to have some excuse. Having something unusual or strange
     to do or say always bothered me and I would rather shrug out of
     it if I could („Walking out‟ p 91).

Some of the consciousnesses we are invited into are enactments of the

predominant mean, dull and repressed spirits the others – the tribe

members - struggle to escape.

     The girls at work think I‟m thirty-one and still a virgin. They
     think I‟m plain and can‟t get men. But I got Doug … And I was
     married once, when I was seventeen, but he shot through … The
     new flat has eight windows … And it has two bedrooms, one
     where Dougie can sleep when he comes home drunk from the

                          The Way We were                              66
      club. He can sleep there instead of snoring all night and keeping
      me awake and groping at me and making a mess over the
      sheets or in me … Housework takes me away from things ... I
      like to see little lumps of greasy fat disappear as I rub … I like to
      see those brown shitty stains on toilets go away and I scrub with
      the big loop brush right down into the bowl and up where you
      can‟t see … The dirt can never touch me because I wear rubber
      gloves … One day I would like to own my own house. I would
      like there to be no men. But if there were no men there would
      only be dust. I don‟t like dry dusty cleaning as much as greasy,
      mucky cleaning … I like things to be dry and clean when I‟m
      finished but not at first. At first I like them to be greasy as long
      as I don‟t have to touch them with my hands („I am a very clean
      person‟ pp 70 76 passim).

      Trudging up the narrow stairway, rolling and over-salivating his
      cigarette, away from the accountant‟s office and to the toilet,
      and on the toilet seat making a spit in his mouth, moulding it
      and then driving it out against the wall. Watching it slide and
      hearing the gratifying words …
      “Come in Mr Nish … It‟s the William‟s policy – can‟t find a record
      of it. Says he‟s been paying in for twenty years.”
      “That„s very odd.”
      Now down at the Apex Club flicking through his secrets, standing
      there amongst the suits and ties and badges. See his secrets as
      glossy, dirty pictures. Running through them like Catholic beads
      – dark-street prostitution, toilet-writing masturbation, evil-
      dreaming, toilet–spitting, and record-burning. Shaking hands
      with the honoured guest speaker and being introduced as Mr
      Nish, chief clerk („Nish‟ p 61 & p 63).

We encounter chief clerk Nish again in the „discontinuous narrative‟

way in Marylou‟s story

      “Instead of going on the streets, Marylou, let‟s start a call girl
      racket. What would be wrong with a call girl racket?”
      “I‟ve thought of it hundreds of times. Every girl in world (sic)
      must think about it at some time. I honestly don‟t know why
      more girls aren‟t doing it. I really can‟t.”
      “It‟s just a matter of setting up.”

                            The Way We were                                67
      “The way I see it is that it is just another sort of work, only
      there‟s less of it and it‟s better paid. And not dull. Could even be
      “Must meet some disgusting men though.”
      “You have to put up with disgusting men everywhere.”
      “The chief clerk – an animal called Nish at the last place – he
      literally perved all day. I mean he really did. And every remark a
      dirty innuendo: „Didn‟t you get enough sleep last night Miss
      Henderson? – only naughty girls don‟t get enough sleep.‟ He‟d go
      on and on and on” („ “No birds were flying overhead, there were
      no birds to fly” ‟ p 25).

These stories are told in both the third and first person. Regardless of

this, the focus is on a single character from whom our sense of social

milieu radiates. The more limited the reader‟s sense of social context,

the more deeply mired the character is. Futility and other animals is

divided into three parts –


This, along with the apologia quoted above, suggests that Moorhouse

had catharsis in mind („of creating new life‟), a resolution for those

brave enough to face the challenges of the new liberated life they had

found themselves lost in – the women trying not to be menial

housewives, to have minds and abilities as well as vaginas, the men

like Thomas in panicked flight from the wastes of suburban life,

clinging to Jimmy Anderson for guidance only to discover his mentor‟s

capacity for messiness, Marylou who feels rejected for her glamorous

style and longs for a more radiant life, like the several homosexuals

                             The Way We were                             68
floundering for purchase in the slippery nothingness that the time

condemned them to.

     “Yes. I‟m home on a visit.”
     The cab driver gave him another glance. Glanced at his hair, his
     sunglasses, his bracelet and then started the cab.
     “You‟ve changed. I remember you as a kid. You wouldn‟t
     remember me.”
     “I do. I remember you but I don‟t remember your name.”
     “Jack Ryland. I run a couple of cabs.”
     Jack Ryland pulled a card from the upholstery trim above the
     driver‟s seat and without looking passes it back to him.
     “You were a tough little bugger.”
     What a lie. („The train will arrive shortly‟ p 108).

Cindy, the lecturer, pregnant without a husband, thinks and speaks for

the brave

     Did they all require social patterns? Was it childish arrogance to
     think otherwise? Were social patterns congealed wisdom? Social
     patterns changed. And some people changed faster than social
     patterns. Some people were out of synchronisation …
     “We just thought you might like to come home dear,” her
     mother said, her fangs retreating into a chatting mouth.
     Relatives and acquaintances and society felt legally justified in
     applying all sorts of pressures to ensure that you conformed to
     their idea of marriage.
     “I‟ll do the toilet and then I must go.”
     Her mother was now standing in the room, her hands on her
     aproned hips surveying the work she had done.
     “Please think about what Father wrote to you. If only for baby‟s
     sake. The little mite should have the protection of marriage –
     even if you don‟t want it.”
     “I want you to leave mother … I feel you have come here to
     impose yourself. You don‟t like me. You don‟t like my life. And

                          The Way We were                             69
      you interfere. I don‟t feel I can resist you any longer because I
      am tired and weak. Please go.”
      “Cindy – I was only trying to help you.” Her mother put one
      hand on her. The other held a Wettex.
      “Please go. I don‟t want to fight with you.”
      “We‟ve never fought, Cindy dear. We‟ve never.”
      “Please leave.” Her voice was slightly louder.
      “You can‟t talk to me, your mother, like that.” Her mother‟s
      voice became bitter and strong.
      She went over and picked up her mother‟s coat and hat. She
      handed them to her.
      “Get out” („The third story of nature‟ pp 164 – 173 passim).

Like Miles Franklin, Moorhouse seems to have sprung from Jove‟s

brow, his writer‟s voice already formed (though he was thirty-one

when Futility … was published, she twenty-two when My Brilliant

Career was). It is assured, resolved despite its explorations. There is

also and would be a tendency to exaggeration and stereotyping (the

homosexuals), a drift towards caricaturing

      I always leave a funny personal mess in my desk-drawer. But
      they‟ll clean it out and throw it away gingerly – the poor puzzled
      things – sitting around saying: “She was odd, wasn‟t she?”
      My voice is too modulated. That‟s why they won‟t employ me
      sometimes. I‟m too Vogue-dressed and too radio-spoken and too
      actress charming. Wouldn‟t it give you the shits. Blame mother
      (“No birds were flying over head, there were no birds to fly” p

The discontinuous narrative structure serves his exploration of the
times and its mores extraordinarily well.        The organisation of the

individual narratives is strikingly original and happily various.

Moorhouse ranges widely enough: the members of the Sydney Push

and other bohemians imply by their rebellion the wider Sydney

                            The Way We were                                70
society. Moorhouse was never to achieve the intensity and originality

of his early discontinuous narratives again.

The similarities between Helen Garner and Frank Moorhouse are

extraordinary. Both emerged, in Melbourne and Sydney respectively,

to address the angst felt by individuals in a time of marked social

change (Garner established herself a decade later than Moorhouse).

Both used the shorter forms of fiction to represent the struggle to

create new ways of living, thinking, being. Both employed innovative

structures and to some extent styles to enact the conflicts and

resolutions implicit in their material. Both employed biographical

elements more freely than was usually encountered in short fiction.

Both ventured into other writing types – film and television scripts,

social and political commentary, the essay - in the course of their

long-sustained careers. They could both claim to be the „voices‟ of the

War/Baby Boomers. Moorhouse approaches philistinism: there are

none of the references to music, painting, poetry one finds in Garner.

In this he follows the tradition of the Sydney Push who, as Anne
Coombs has pointed out, lived with bare walls.       Push members were

far more likely to be found, when not at the bar or in bed, at the card

table or racetrack than concert hall or gallery. Moorhouse‟s art is

sociological and psychological – particularly the former.

                           The Way We were                               71
       Later he went to the lavatory. In the lavatory standing side by
       side at the urinal he heard two young men talking about skiing,
       “She had the bottom part of her leg in plaster, you see,” one
       said, and the other laughed.
       He felt distaste and resentment. Because of their exclusiveness.
       … He desperately wanted to be pleased with himself. Standing at
       the Yacht Club with Young Liberals dancing around him, out of
       place, argumentatively drunk and no one to argue with. He felt
       distinctly displeased with himself („The Coca-Cola Kid‟ in The
       Americans, Baby p 129 & p 130).

They are both rather cold writers, with the disengaged, objective eye

which so marks the style of the much more powerful Christina Stead.

A reader would not turn to Moorhouse for the poignant, the moving.

He is a stronger writer of fiction than Garner, offering a far greater

range of characters and situations, of plights, of depth and complexity.

Hers is the finer sensibility and she is the much more accomplished


His keen interest in history is evinced by his next book, The Electrical

Experience which is a precursor to the culminating trilogy (I read today

– end of May - that the final of the three novels will be published in

November of this year [2011] but it has been long and frequently

promised) based on the history of the League of Nations. In The

Electrical Experience Moorhouse visited the roots of some of the

dullness, the oppression from which many of the characters (at least

the central members of the discontinuous narrative tribe) are in flight.

                            The Way We were                              72
It is bodied in T. George McDowell, a successful soft drink

manufacturer, recognised quite widely over the stretch of the South (i

e of Nowra in T. George McDowell‟s case) Coast of New South Wales

where his bottles are purveyed. McDowell defines himself by his

membership of Rotary. The Electrical Experience is also a quirky

history of Moorhouse‟s soul country, the scene of his childhood,

McDowell‟s field of operation.

In its discontinuous way The Electrical Experience offers a case history

of McDowell, embracing his times (from the roaring twenties through

the Great Depression into the sixties) and the mind-set, now almost

incomprehensibly mean, colourless, xenophobic – generally paranoid,

which beset the country and can still be observed, particularly in rural

areas unliberated by the benefits of non Anglo-Celtic immigration.

      Terri, even as a child, had a will of her own. They hadn‟t put the
      birth in the paper. It was considered unwise to put birth notices
      in the newspaper. The unsavoury interest in whether a child had
      been conceived in wedlock. Not that there could be any doubt
      with Thelma and he, married fifteen years. But you couldn‟t win.
      There was talk, suggestion and gossip that it had been a
      “mistake”. Thelma and he had planned to have three children
      and that was that. Some said that gypsies passing through a
      town would look to see if there were new births in the
      newspaper and then steal the child („A Black, Black Birth‟ pp 3 –

We have already met Terri, in the discontinuous manner, in The

Americans, Baby (the technique in Moorhouse‟s hands not only

                           The Way We were                             73
extends and binds narratives within volumes but across volumes and

media) with a penchant for speed (the drug of choice in the sixties and

early seventies) which may or may not be the source of her

considerable psychiatric illness (her dreadful father is probably a
contributing factor) and an art school education.        T. George‟s

dreadfulness resides in his self-absorbed concern for appearances, for

his place as a considerable person in his purlieu of small towns (it is

true he has travelled, very frequently, to America, a country he

admires enormously - the St Louis Rotary Convention of 1923 made a

huge, indelible impression on him – whether and in what ways this has

broadened his mind is one of the book‟s larger themes). His

dreadfulness resides in his relentless go-getter attitude (he considers

himself a philosopher), in his complete eschewing of, or incapacity for

the emotional (his daughter Terri has too much). He is the horror of

rational, organisational Man.

      “Where then,” he asked the American, “do you find Peace of
      Mind? Rotary does not pretend to solve the Great Mysteries, but
      it teaches how to organize life and give it a System. It has taken
      rules from many places and welded them into a creed and a
      code” („A Black, Black Birth‟ The Electrical Experience p 9 – „The
      American‟ is Becker whom we have already met in The
      Americans, Baby and will meet more fully in The Coca Cola Kid).

Though he does in some mystical or desperate way ascribe his

younger daughter‟s problems in part to having been born while a

terrible bushfire raged through his world.

                           The Way We were                                74
      You never knew, perhaps the heat of the day of her birth had
      something to do with her personality, had scorched her. Seared
      her (ibid).

The Electrical Experience is partly made up of „Fragments‟ which are in

part an expression of the quirky, whimsical, self-indulgent aspect of

Moorhouse‟s style that threatens his stature as a „serious writer‟. This

is not to say one would deny him his humour, wit or quirky interests.

It‟s just that at times he seems incapable of a sustained probing of

issues which have arrested his attention, instead retreating into

whimsical dalliance. The issues which seem thus to overwhelm him are

particularly those involved with a radical rethinking of human

possibility or of what we intuit or infer are of deeply personal

significance. This tendency to volte-face can be observed as early as

his journalism for City Voices

                      Wharfies ignored by unionists
      The Labour–day march on Monday showed an uncertain
      solidarity, with many unions dumb on the most currently urgent
      union issue – The Liberal Government‟s attack on the Waterside
      Workers‟ Federation.
      There was the macabre truth of the retired workers‟ bus with the
      wrongly adjusted destination sign reading “South Head Cemetery

      The old splendidly painted canvas banners borne by eight
      workers gave the march a sense of history. Most carry symbolic
      depictions of the trade they represent and carry the union motto
      (Vol. 1, No. 4 October 8, 1965 p 1).

In the story „The Girl Who Met Simone de Beauvoir in Paris‟ (The

Americans, Baby) both narrative and his film adaptation, the issues

                            The Way We were                             75
raised about male/female relations and female oppression recede into

talk of „back passages‟ amongst the men

      “How long can we hold out?” Cooper said to Stockwell who was
      “The women have really got us holed up,” Cooper said grimly,
      looking through the curtain into the garden, “is there a back way
      “Yes there is a back passage,” Stockwell said with desperate
      hope (p 148).

This sly collusion-seeking innuendo comes at the conclusion as the

male characters retreat from a confrontation with the female

characters over sexism. This follows a trenchant if superficial critique

of de Beauvoir, writer and person, by the protagonist Stockwell during

the narrative‟s progress (he also has a go at the reliance of

contemporary women on the culinary expertise of Elizabeth David).

The film, directed by the gay Richard Wherrett, lays this deflecting

(from the seriousness of the issue) wit on with an even heavier hand.

Moorhouse, bisexual, has always been awkward about homosexuality,

taking care, it seems to me, to avoid the issue unless in the right
company.         The „Fragments‟, which are presented as dividers of the

„Narratives‟ which make up The Electrical Experience are printed on a

black page and are often accompanied by historic photographs (a few

are concerned with T. George McDowell‟s business interests, a bottling

machine for example). This is an admirable way of bringing the period

                              The Way We were                              76
alive for the reader. The „Fragments‟ offer a folk wisdom/history which

might escape conventional historians and which is highly evocative.

          Colouring Electric-light Globes
          Clarifying Muddy Water
          Why Ice is Superior to a Refrigerator
          A Home-made Cooling System
          Aerated Waters - Some Technical Considerations
          Problems Facing the Milk-shake 1938

Moorhouse‟s research has produced some snippets of knowledge which

not only extend our senses of his hero, T. George McDowell‟s concerns

but also of the world he operates in.

          A Skin Bleach for Blackfellows From a talk delivered to the
          Science Club in 1928 by John Brill, local pharmacist, titled
          “Solving the Problem of Coloured Races” (p 91).

Moorhouse‟s whimsical approach sometimes makes us wonder if the

historical documents we are being offered are that and not, at least in

part, a product of his fancy. They are fascinating nevertheless – who

could not be interested in the description of the stupefyingly successful

writer of westerns Zane Grey‟s luxurious „camp sites‟ at Bermagui and

Bateman‟s Bay and to learn of the greatest disappointment of his life?
       The appeal of very human history to Moorhouse is evident in the

„Fragments‟ as it was in his need to celebrate the unionists‟ banners in

the City Voices article quoted above. Moorhouse was at his most

innovative and in some ways (use of the „Fragments‟, the photographs

and illustrations, the folk verse and wisdom) experimental with The

                               The Way We were                           77
Electrical Experience. The „Fragments‟ work well for him here, despite

their tendency to quirkiness.

To go further into the dark reaches of the human spirit than he did in

The Americans, Baby would have condemned Moorhouse to nothing

but depictions of madness and suicide. It is a despairing volume. It

were as if he had given up completely any hope of a valid new way of

living for the „central members of the tribe‟.

Dell, a sort of female version of Thomas of „What can you say‟ in

Futility … who had fled rural nothingness (Thomas was in flight from

urban nothingness) and was taken up by Anderson of the Push,

regresses from Kim her teacher boyfriend (we have met him amongst

the Young Liberals in the Yacht Club) and life amongst Sydney‟s

radicals to her family‟s squalid home in the bush. Escaping that on a

Sunday morning she voices almost uncomprehendingly what she has

heard amongst the Sydney radicals to the local Labour politician who

has dropped into the pub to press the flesh. She is there with an ex-ex

boyfriend (he is a local) she is considering stooping to marry. But she

has wandered too far from home to settle for that and yet cannot now

bear the idea of her city life. Her desperate return to her home town,

                            The Way We were                              78
site of endemic ignorance, her beer blotted father and fearful and

angry mother allows her to acknowledge that she is pregnant.

The sobbing, yelling Carl is trammelled by all that he knows of himself
and wants in a hopeless attraction to the American Paul.

      “Why are we doing this?” he said, from the same bewilderment
      and guilt as before, though less savage. He folded his arm
      around a pillow knowing that he was going to stay the night.
      “Calm now,” Paul said, rubbing his back. “Be calm. I guess this is
      the way it is with us” („The American, Paul Jonson‟ p 22).

These characters are caught, unable to move from their old selves into

a future. The volume slides along that teetering stasis.

Louise of Futility …who met the glamorous Marylou in the bar running

away from yet another job and chief clerk Nish is in a worse way than

Dell or Carl.

      “I‟m disintegrating,” she said.
      “But I feel it – and it‟s faster than it should be … it‟s because I‟m
      sick to death of living.”
      Her skin was lifeless … Her skin was like that of a frog, he
      thought, a frog. Lifeless skin. It gave off stale perfume which
      attempted to give the body some artificial attractiveness. She
      now gave away the forced enthusiasm and collapsed to a sort of
      sexual apathy and was lying still in his arms. She moved under
      him and whispered, “Be quick,” and added. “I‟m tired” („Five
      Incidents Concerning the Flesh and the Blood‟ „The incident of
      the lifeless skin‟ p 67).

Perhaps Moorhouse‟s falling so heavily backwards into the outstretched
arms of Whimsy was recoil from this exposed despair.

                            The Way We were                              79
Moorhouse the historian is at his best in the script for the film Between

Wars (1974). This is the one moment when he does not resort to the

defensive cynicism, the whimsicality, the quirkiness, the ostentatious

worldliness that can impede respect for his work. Nor are there signs

of playing to the „central members‟ of his actual „tribe‟, which his

broader readership thus excluded, probably resented. As already

suggested these features of his style are evident from the earliest days

- even in his reportage

      Five separate, and in some way conflicting, political themes
      manifested themselves at the Vietnam Committee‟s Martin Place
      demonstration last week.
      Some simply protested the war without taking an Anti-American
      or pro-Viet Cong position.
      Another group (possibly from the Royal George Hotel) “sent-up”
      the demonstration.
      Their posters read “We Love London”, “Mr Ed for Governor
      General”, “Ban Commo Fronts;” “Leave Martin Place to the Boy
      Scouts and Anzacs”.
      A small group of Anarchists, including Jack Grancharoff, the
      editor of the Anarchist Journal “The Red and the Black”, carried a
      banner saying: “As Usual the bourgeoisie has God on its side”
      („Viet demo displays diversity‟ City Voices Vol. 1 No 2 September
      24, 1965 p 1 – punctuation reproduced as accurately as

The seriousness of Moorhouse‟s script for Between Wars suggests he

was deeply committed to and utterly engaged with his material.

This film initiated a collaboration between Moorhouse and

director/producer Michael Thornhill which was to extend to the

                            The Way We were                              80
dramatisation for television of the Azaria Chamberlain murder case –

The Disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain (1983) and the film

adaptation of The Everlasting Secret Family (1988) over which we will
not pass in silence.

In Between Wars Moorhouse takes up his already established themes

of conventional society suffocating questing spirits. However the focus

is now clearly on the villainy of the Establishment, particularly the

medical in collaboration with the legal profession, oppressing and

abusing those socially inferior to themselves in the conservative cause

(any „progress‟ must be „cautious and painstaking‟). The Establishment

refuses to allow any investigation of the inner life of humans, brutally

denies its existence. The army officers at the front in France during the

First World War deny there is such a thing as „shell shock‟, insisting it

is cowardice. This attitude is official, reaching to infirmaries full of such

patients sent back to England. Freud represents an immense threat to

their sense of the decent, of indeed the human. The hero, Trenbow, a

doctor, offers mild enough resistance to this and befriends a captured

German doctor who has some knowledge of early psychoanalytic

practice. Trenbow stands by as patients are infected with malaria as a

therapy for syphilis and later, what I took to be the use of insulin

therapy inflicted on the depressed. He is complicit in these (the

                            The Way We were                                81
former was illegal) experiments and helps cover them up. Though he

is hardly a dangerous radical, the medical establishment is seriously

threatened by him, most of all by his interest in psychotherapy. This

may seem excessive to anyone not familiar with the role the Australian

medical profession took in bolstering conservatism. Its influence on the

Liberal governments can be observed in the immediate major changes

made by the now very eager to represent himself as an Elder

Statesman Malcolm Fraser to the social health care program Medibank.

Medibank, a public health insurance scheme, had been established at

great public expense by the progressive Whitlam Government. Fraser,

upon toppling the Whitlam government, set about immediately to
dismantle it, leaving a shell.         The chief concerns of the Australian

medical establishment of those days were always greed and prestige.

„You would wish to associate yourself with progress‟ Trenbow is

informed with extreme disapproval by his professional peers when

back in Australia. He retreats to that familiar Moorhouse territory, the

New South Wales South Coast with his wife and child for a quiet life.

We meet him there in several stories in Futility … (see „A Black, Black

Birth‟ and „George McDowell Delivers a Message to General Juan

Garcia of the Cuban Army‟ for example).

                            The Way We were                                   82
The South Coast does not afford him the peace he seeks. He becomes

involved with a „co-op‟ organised to help Depression-hit families, is

now accused of becoming involved in „dangerous politics‟ by his

professional peers and some of the locals brand him a „commo‟. The

co-op fete at the local showground is attacked by the local New Guard

(fascists). At her request he begins analysis of a good time city girl

who has a go at playing havoc with his family life before analysis has

cured her of her interest in radical politics (Trenbow tells her that her

altruism and trenchant political interests are expressions of the

aggression „we are not allowed to express in our childhood‟) and

presumably the „nymphomania‟ which she had found troubling.

Adjusted now, she becomes a Labour party functionary and staunch

supporter of the War Effort in which roles she assists in the invasion

and search of the Sydney mansion Trenbow has removed his family to

in order to get them away from the conflicts on the South Coast. Back

in Sydney he has involved himself in Pacifism. The film ends with

Trenbow‟s son, always resentful of his father‟s hapless interventions

for social justice and now a medical student, going off to fight the

Japs/Germans as his father had the Germans twenty years previously.

Between Wars is a considerable achievement, even if beset by the

ineptitude which came of inexperienced film-making and low budgets;

                            The Way We were                                 83
it addresses the complexities of its turbulent period with clarity and

force. It was resonant: Australia had pulled out of (been defeated in?)

the disastrous Vietnam War two years before. The Conservatives were

to be back in power in 1975, the year after its release but the sure

hold they had had on the minds and spirits of Australians since the

Second World War had been broken. Through this script Moorhouse

explored the deadening, nasty and very determined forces which are

so much a tacit background to the plight of his discontinuous narrative

characters. While the historical evocation offers to some degree a

simplification of the human travail depicted in the narratives, it also

represented an opportunity to muster a forceful case in structural

terms against twentieth century Australian conservatism. The film

shows how distressed spirits are not just a symptom of individual

weaknesses but are also signs of how the lesser members of human

society may be battered by historical forces shaped by the powerful.

With this script Moorhouse served his interests in history, the

sociological and the psychological and their interplay most effectively.

The television docudrama Who Killed Baby Azaria? A Personal

Narration by Frank Moorhouse directed by Judy Rymer and produced

by Michael Thornhill (1983) also allowed Moorhouse an opportunity to

explore the tensions between the emotional, spiritual and the rational

                            The Way We were                               84
schematically, that is in a way that the demands of more imaginative,

creative fiction do not allow. A presence on screen, he presents a

variety of differing approaches for coming to terms with the infanticide

case which took on mythical dimensions in the Australian

consciousness (Moorhouse calls it „a psychic drama‟). The schema was

to relate the events and cultural context of the case in terms of the

„rational‟ legal system as against the folk tales which sprang up around

the two coroner‟s inquests into the infanticide and the subsequent trial

of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain and Lindy‟s imprisonment. This T V

drama was produced before the dramatic chance discovery of the

matinee jacket in 1986 during a search for possible missing bones of

an English tourist who had fallen to his death from Uluru into an area

full of dingo lairs. Mrs Chamberlain was immediately released, then

exonerated and paid considerable compensation. The missing matinee

jacket had been crucial to her case. Moorhouse is careful to attribute

neither guilt nor innocence to Lindy Chamberlain in the drama though

the repulsiveness of the prosecuting lawyer in contrast to the

reasoning mildness of the defence lawyer, the bunglings of the police

involved and the arrogant and misguided certainties of the expert

witnesses called by the prosecution sway the viewer towards

reconsidering the case. At the time, most Australians, the press and it

seems the forensic-judicial system were convinced of Lindy

                           The Way We were                               85
Chamberlain‟s guilt. Moorhouse shows us how the irrational took

possession of Australian minds. People were convinced that „Azaria‟

meant „sacrifice in the wilderness‟ (it actually means „blessed of God‟)

and that the memorial cairn the Chamberlains had erected near the

site of their daughter‟s disappearance was an aspect of a blood ritual.

The Chamberlains were Seventh Day Adventists; rumours sprang up

about this denomination‟s religious rites. Moorhouse takes pains to

explain how the site itself (Uluru/Ayers Rock) played a very significant

role in charging the case with its mythic load. It is the site of an

Aboriginal legend about a killer dingo, it is surrounded by rock shelters

and caves, one of which was known as the „Fertility Cave‟ (Lindy

Chamberlain fell pregnant during the second Coroner‟s inquest and

was near full term during her trial). Archetypes were invoked and

according to Moorhouse a „chain of unreachable end‟ (one with no

authority) and a „chain of impeccable authority‟ (one in which someone

knew someone who knew the Chamberlains and said … ) bound minds

to the irrational where the rational, empirical had failed to provide

satisfactory accounts. This type of nomenclature is characteristic of his

attempts to systematise the „strange, subterranean life‟ which we so

often wish to deny. He attempted to expose the hidden currents of the

drama as folk history in the making. The elements of this folk history

are familiar to us from the use of the „Fragments‟ in The Electrical

                            The Way We were                              86
Experience. Though these „historical‟ insights may appear fanciful to

some in the context of the Azaria Chamberlain - a dingo‟s got my baby

case, they have little of the whimsy which colours the „Fragments‟. It is

clear that a strong sense of „the folk‟ informs Moorhouse‟s

understanding of history. Through this sense of „folk‟ he reaches for

the archetypes he detects at work in the Chamberlain myth and case:

fear of infanticide, fear that children will be stolen, fear of evil spirits

represented by the Aboriginal myth of the killer dingo, blood sacrifices

of children and fear of wicked mothers and stepmothers.

He seems to be at his steadiest in scripting historical themes. Who

Killed Baby Azaria? A Personal Narration by Frank Moorhouse goes

further into the dark reaches of the psyche than Between Wars.

Moorhouse balances this exploration well with the conflicted and

difficult forensic/judicial aspects of the narrative-now history.

He runs aground on archetypes in The Everlasting Secret Family. The

film adaptation is a cult favourite for its awfulness. Right wing

conservatism is associated with unconventional sexual practice. The

implication is that only the rich can afford these erotic luxuries.

Despite the triumph of „the everlasting secret family‟ of dark sexual

pleasure seekers, Moorhouse seems to be still trying in part to shrug

                             The Way We were                                   87
off leftist homophobia which up until the seventies was inclined to

dismiss homosexuality as a decadence which social reform would

eradicate. We were assured there was no homosexuality in the Soviets

or Cuba. While the exploration undertaken in „The Everlasting Secret

Family‟ (a novella in the eponymous volume) is extensive, it also veers

towards hysteria. The novella poses a challenge to ways of reading –

is it myth, erotic narration, an exploration of politico-sexuality or a

complex rendering of all of that and more? The members of

Moorhouse‟s „tribe‟ had been interested in the psychoanalytic-Marxist

theories and practices of Wilhelm Reich; his influence also informs this


The persona is not quite a character: he reflects on his situation in an

authorial voice. Let us say he is a mask which narrates and

illuminates. Moorhouse has some difficulty always in giving his

characters their own idiom. All three characters: the demon lover, his

slave and the demon lover‟s son tend to use the same voice. But this

is not the basic problem with „The Everlasting Secret Family‟ – that lies

in its overarching claims for archetypal patterns, in its blatancy

      … I was joined to a line through history which went back to the
      first primitive tribal person who went my way, who took a virgin
      boy lover, and every lover, through to Socrates. I had played a
      part now in the continuation of that chain. I had played my first
      part as a child in becoming a man‟s lover. I had now played my
      second part. I now belonged fully in that historical line. It was a

                            The Way We were                               88
      way of passing on and preserving the special reality, a way of
      giving new life, the birth for the boy of new reality, a joining of
      him to a secret family, the other family. To belong to that chain
      is to belong to another life (p 204)

and in the simple incredulity it excites (an archetype must surely

resonate immediately?) The most generous way to read this novella is

probably as gothic horror. Its claims are too exaggerated to be taken

very seriously and its revelation of an „archetype‟ fatally overexposed.

We are perplexed and overwhelmed when the demon lover‟s son R is

revealed to be taking oestrogen

      He is fourteen now, with some soft facial hair, perhaps he would
      be shaving were it not for the oestrogen which he chooses to
      take, has long, groomed hair of the fashion now passing, which
      his sister and mother praise and brush.
      But he is rugged in the Australian private-school way. although
      at the window of his face a dandy – and sometimes a lady –
      appear now and then (p 206).

Moorhouse, who boasted of „learning his masculinity in the Boy Scouts‟

seems unhinged by a confusion between gender and sexuality. When

he finally finds the strength to address his fears he is released into his

most fluid, flexible, evocative, extensive and appealing writing. Like

David Malouf, he was a little too old (being born in 1945 is about the

cut-off point, both were born before then) not personally remarkable

enough and too entwined in the Establishment to have properly

embraced the liberation on offer. Whatever excuses we make for both

these writers the term quisling comes to mind. While he could never

                            The Way We were                              89
be charged with being a „gay writer‟ tribute must be paid to

Moorhouse‟s embracing male gay or homosexual characters and their
situations.          For a brief moment no other Australian writer could

touch him in this kind of depiction.

The novella came out in 1980, a year after Patrick White‟s foolish

attempt to address (and avoid) in The Twyborn Affair the issues which

were being ferociously raised by Gay Liberation in Sydney where both

lived. Let us just say both writers failed to grasp the nettle in these

works – The Twyborn Affair and „The Secret Everlasting Family‟.

Moorhouse was influenced by straights whose response to

homosexuality was an affectation of weary mocking indulgence

(underneath lay a real savagery which Moorhouse knew well from his

other explorations of conservative forces). He was a great friend of the

infamously homophobic Don Anderson whom he seemed to regard as a

mentor (see „The Poet and the Motor Car‟ Days of Wine and Rage pp

156 -158). The trivialising by Moorhouse in „The Poet and the Motor

Car‟ is utterly characteristic of his inner tribe. One thinks particularly of

the men: Donald Horne, Michael Wilding, John Tranter and Anderson

for example.

Moorhouse wrote a film adaptation of the novella which was realised

on screen in 1987. Michael Thornhill again directed and also produced.

                                  The Way We were                          90
Part of what makes the film so bad is that it is so clearly a straight

man‟s longing fantasy of gay life - all luxury, indolence, youthful

beauty, imaginative erotic indulgence, taste and good manners all

burnished to numbing dullness. Audiences shriek at the gay parties in

the film The Everlasting Secret Family. There are repeated lingering

shots on Mark Lee‟s curvaceous bum (Lee was far too old for the part

as was Paul Goddard who plays the demon lover‟s son – he is

supposed to be fourteen turning fifteen). „Real‟ deviancy is attributed

to a mature Japanese man who is doing something with a crab to a

screaming Mark Lee behind closed doors. 1987 was far too late for all

of that. Moorhouse‟s continued longing to learn ways of comporting

himself in the world of prestige and power bleeds through every scene.

The film makes very clear that homosexuality would make entry into

that world in any public way impossible. The film ends with a

triumphant paean by the youth. A star-filled night sky then a long shot

with the three Secret Family Members entering a Dark Wood

introduces us to the youth‟s Voice/Over telling us that he had played a

trick with the Everlasting Secret Family, that he had played a trick with

Time. He has found a place, an order, a ranking which had no name

and which had within it endless dark possibilities. The dramatic plunge

to final black is accompanied by a melodramatic clashing instrumental

chord. Cop out.

                            The Way We were                               91
Through the eighties Moorhouse gave rein to his whimsicality in a

number of magazine articles and collections. Their sparkle threw

occasional dark shadows, cold, disturbing and in risky taste (humour is


      In Lucerne I went to a Hard Work Display (Arbeit Macht Frei).
      The Swiss are good workers and proud of it … („Blase in the Land
      if Swizzlestick Hard Work Display‟ Room Service p 37).

The freedom to be funny did not necessarily allow him to rise above

his tendency to stereotyping

      I did the one-day American Express tour of Sodom which was
      full of Australian hairdressers. I was told I‟d have to organise the
      trip to Onan myself („Hiltonia‟ Room Service p 21).

Perhaps though his readers found the stereotyping a confirmation of

their sophistication and the allusiveness reassuring of their being


Moorhouse relies on allusiveness for much of his wit. It tends to the

abstruse, making one think that perhaps he had a specific readership

in mind – „the central members of the tribe‟ and those who wanted to

be, perhaps. He abandons his persona of Francois Blase, world roving

journalist reporting back to Chief (Blase‟s editor) in „An Incident from

the Wake for Jack Kerouac‟ to depict amongst the usual dangerous

gaiety of tribe parties the florescence of a paranoid episode

                           The Way We were                                 92
      „Someone‟s playing games with me and I don‟t like it.‟ Wesley‟s
      brother said, standing away not only from Milton, but from us
      all, staring from one face to another angrily.
      Wesley‟s brother is a robust sort of poet, but prone to paranoia.
      The misty, alcoholic glee had blown away from around us,
      leaving a bright, fluorescent kitchen glare.
      „It‟s not a game – the way you tame an eagle is to keep him
      I was surprised that Milton kept repeating that phrase when it
      obviously was pressing on a nerve.
      Wesley‟s brother screamed again, putting his hands over his
      ears, „Don‟t say that! Don‟t say that!‟
      „Anyone for telephones?‟ Bunnny Stockwell- Anderson said, soft-
      shoeing it, or soft-socking it through the kitchen.
      „What about the ping pong ball?‟ Wesley‟s brother said with cold
      seriousness, all hysteria swallowed from his voice.
      Wesley‟s brother turned to me and said, in answer to my laugh,
      that someone had been bouncing a ping pong ball in the flat
      above his, keeping it up through the night in a steady beat,
      „When I get out of bed and go up to the flat above to complain it
      stops. I go back to my flat and get into bed and it starts again‟
      (Room Service pp 134 – 135).

Like Garner, Moorhouse takes risks in employing configurations (let us

say) of people known to be known to him. Perhaps he, like her, needs

to take his characters more or less directly from the life around him.

He seems to derive more pleasure from this than she – her tone has a

bass note of grim determination; his a bass note of existential angst

above which sparkle the quirkiness, mischief and often dazzling

allusiveness. He seems to revel in the cleverness of roman à clef

exposure. Still, no-one seemed to complain. It was often as if

Moorhouse were trying to flatter the friends and acquaintances so

                           The Way We were                               93
employed in the service of his art. One imagines certain types would

be „chuffed‟ to be represented in fiction which focussed on characters
who, whatever their cares for social justice, were evidently superior.

Moorhouse also seems to relish a kind of obsequiousness, no doubt the

obverse of the rather grand manner with which he favours the world.

It is revealed most clearly in the dedications – „To Susie Carleton,

friend, patron of the arts‟ (Room Service), „For Don and Elisabeth,

friends and patrons‟ (Days of Wine and Rage), „To Murray and

Meredith Sime, - friends and patrons of the arts‟ (Lateshows) …

Australians do not have „patrons‟. He acknowledges indebtedness to

„The Moorhouse Estate left by my father and mother, Frank Osborne

and Purthanry Thames Moorhouse, administered by Arthur Moorhouse‟

(Dark Palace). Perhaps this is Moorhouse‟s way of expressing

appreciation to those who have allowed him to bludge off them. He

has garnered a great sum over the years from the various forms of the

literature board of the Australian Council and film bodies.

From the earliest he seems to have had a clear idea of how the

relationship between what/whoever and subsidising the arts should be

      “Firstly, I don‟t like the idea of the State becoming the direct
      employer of creative people, I feel that consumers of creative
      work should be the people who directly reward the creator.” He
      laughed. “If he‟s wanted, he should be kept.” („Bull it seems is
      quite an improper word …‟ Natalie Scott talks to Frank
      Moorhouse The Australian Saturday May 24 1969 p 101).

                           The Way We were                               94
He is at pains to present himself or his personae (who in the end could

tell the difference?) en haut even while travelling incognito as an

innocent ever ready to learn from the decadent, wicked and well

informed of the world – the grand. The de bas are obviously his „fringe

dweller‟ readers. He seems most determined to distance himself from

them. In Room Service he exhibits his great familiarity with Hilton

Hotels from here to Tel Aviv, taking in New York along the way; he

speaks of „Clubs‟ and the bars of famous hotels; mentions his

residencies in Kings College Cambridge, at the University of Texas,

Griffith University‟s School of Arts on the Gold Coast, St Andrews

College, University of Sydney … All of that was no doubt part of his

fascination for the gaping us. However, he did regale us for too long

about wining and dining in France. We can also detect the centrality of

these pleasures to his being from the earliest

      I‟m enjoying eating and wine more than ever and my social life
      is more that sort of social life. Some of the push seem to share
      my interest too – a new concern with gracious living. We‟re
      holding a formal banquet next month – ten courses black tie –
      and not as a send up. It‟s hard to believe but it shows you we‟re
      growing up.
      We organised a poetry and prose reading for yesterday but it
      rained and we postponed it (letter to Michael Wilding 08/09/68 p
      6). xv

Moorhouse‟s work reveals an unending quest for worldliness. At its

best this takes the form of exploring new ways of being, revealing the

anguish of living new amongst the constraints of what and who formed

                           The Way We were                              95
one. At its worst it is a parading of sophisticated modes. His concern

tends to be for manners, not morals; appearance, not integrity.

      Perhaps the holding of a martini glass is part of our own
      „gesturalism‟, and becomes part of our own image when we are
      seated in a bar holding a martini – what I call the affiliation
      awareness in the drinking of a martini. Perhaps, when holding a
      martini, we are fleetingly relocated into a scene composed of all
      the films, cartoons and books from which we have learned of the
      martini – perhaps we become part of a psychological image not
      of our own making, but one we‟ve earned the right to inhabit if
      our attitude to life and to the martini are right (Martini A
      memoir pp 83 – 4). xvi

As his work developed it became increasingly difficult to know when he

wanted us to take him seriously; this serves him ill: his reader

suspects him of levity as an evasive response to the demands of

rigour. Times were to come when he wanted us to take him very

seriously indeed.

Grand Days is an even more astonishing advance in Moorhouse‟s art

than Honour & Other People‟s Children had been in Garner‟s.

Moorhouse had seemed to be floundering in the shallows. It is a large

novel embracing a large theme, a theme which had haunted modern

history but which has now been relegated, as only History can, to a

curious episode: the failure of the League of Nations. Cynicism has led

us not to wonder why it failed: we hardly know what idealism is. Over

to you Economic Rationalism. Moorhouse captures our now impossible

                           The Way We were                               96
relation to the League very well in the novel‟s Frontispiece by quoting

Emery Kellen (Peace in Their Time)

      „… all its grandeur has no power to sway us now, and all its
      misery cannot serve to teach us‟.

While Grand Days is more about Edith Campbell Berry than the

League, idealism glows through the endeavours of both organisation

and heroine. Edith is a proper servant of the League.

Moorhouse seems to be announcing a resolution of all his work

through this novel (and the two associated Palais des Nations novels).

The arrival of (now simply) George McDowell in Geneva suggests a

concatenation of the discontinuous narrative beyond which Moorhouse

has now moved. It transpires that McDowell knew Edith on the South

Coast. There is an erotic charge between them whereas T. George and

the erotic did not seem to be on speaking terms. But this George

McDowell is different from T. George – he is conceivable as a partner

for Edith Campbell Berry (we seem to be in 1928, five years after T.

George‟s epiphanic experience of the St Louis Rotary Convention). The

now suave and simply George McDowell is in Geneva on a mission (to

liaise with the League on behalf of Rotary) and, as Edith is to note, is

successful. More than the T have been dropped: McDowell is now

subtle and worldly in a way which was completely beyond his

                           The Way We were                                 97
comprehension back on the South Coast (he claims he is still „shy‟ – as

we know from the prologue to this essay he is still to be „dogged‟ by

this in 1936)). Moorhouse allows Edith a last glimpse of him which is


      Edith‟s last view of him was in the Captain‟s cabin, having the
      controls explained to him, and then waving to her. It seemed to
      her he captained the boat out.
      She smiled away a tear of affection for him and for patrie, for
      her dying mother (p 240).

George McDowell at the controls is a disturbing image (though

evidently for neither Edith Campbell Berry nor Moorhouse); the rest is


Moorhouse‟s somewhat fulsome Thanks might suggest he was

consciously embracing a larger prospect for his art than ever before

      I thank the Australian people, who, through the Creative
      Fellowship Program and other agencies, made this book possible.
      In particular, I thank the then Chairman of the Australian (sic? –
      Australia?) Council, Donald Horne, who with the then Australian
      Treasurer, Paul Keating, had the vision and will to set up the
      Creative Fellowship Program. xvii

The novel, grand though it is amongst Moorhouse‟s other fiction, does

not escape his characteristic manoeuvres. He cannot leave Edith Berry

any kind of innocent: fellow League of Nations staffer, Major Ambrose

Westwood (an army doctor like Trenbow of Between the Wars and

considerably older than Edith Berry who is twenty-six)) is the agent of

                           The Way We were                              98
her increasing loss of innocence.           He inducts her into this novel‟s

secret everlasting family of sexual sophisticates. Once a member,

Edith cannot return to the world of the more ordinary struggling

League of Nations staff members. This is both triumph and exile

though the former easily wins out.

Recoiling from her induction Edith prepares to unite herself with Robert

Dole of fertile stock, resolutely masculine and well hung (of course)

      [Edith reflects while preparing for dinner with Dole …] She was
      not going to be Bohemian any more in life. She wanted to have a
      decorous life (p 482).

However she appears to have been ruined by Ambrose for the

„decorous‟ life (the inadequacy of the epithet speaks to her confusion).

Moorhouse‟s account of Edith‟s „Sapphic‟ experience is melodramatic

and characteristically stereotypic: Edith‟s female erotic interest is

dressed all in beaded green (Serpent Woman) and turns out to be

corrupt – the agent of an agent of arms dealers („perhaps a truly evil

woman‟ p 390). We could not really have expected better of him.

Ambrose‟s induction of Edith into „dark wisdom‟ had begun on the Paris

to Geneva train during luncheon in the dining car. Moorhouse makes

much of the menu, as he would. On the whole the historical detail in

                            The Way We were                                    99
the novel is impressive, complex if not profoundly informing, and the

great significance of the novel‟s ostensible theme – the failure of the

League of Nations – seems to mitigate Moorhouse‟s propensity to

indulge his whims for abstruse historical research (though evidence of

idiosyncratic interests far pursued abounds). Despite these usual

quirks an aura of reverence for the subject matter hovers over this

novel as it had over the script for Between Wars which embraces the

same period. Moorhouse maintains a steady sense of the historical

context, integrating it very well as part of the texture of the narrative

based on Edith‟s career and life in Geneva as a staff member of the

League of Nations. The difficulties the Kellogg-Briand Pact pose for the

international community and the League beset her relationship with

Dole for example. Robert Dole grasps the significance of the news from

Berlin he has left their dinner table to take – the National Socialists

have had 107 deputies elected as against their twelve representatives

in the previous Reichstag – Edith does not, pondering in personal

terms his taking the call.

During the luncheon with Ambrose Westwood (it was Edith‟s „first

lunch in a railway dining car‟) Edith puts up a battle for
(conversational) supremacy          but stands no chance against the allure

of male sexuality (a characteristic dynamic in Moorhouse). Ambrose

                             The Way We were                              100
drops the name of Vyvyan Wilde who belongs to his Club. Edith is his

before the train reaches Geneva.

Despite the familiarity of these characteristic interests and

manoeuvres there is a flexibility, flow, an amplitude and most of all a

warmth in the writing in Grand Days that is of an entirely different

order from what the reader has encountered in Moorhouse before. Not

only has the grand historical theme focussed his historical interests,

having a very clever, questing, gallant female character as a medium

for his explorations, has ennobled his fiction. Moorhouse‟s personal

investment in Edith Berry is clear. She represents his beloved South

Coast of New South Wales (Berry is a town in that region – actually

Edith comes from Jaspers Brush but that is near Berry), she is

determined to be worldly, already armed and poised with the sort of T.

George McDowell maxims which opened this essay. She clings to these

in the hope they will allow her to a least hold her own in the wider

world and not least in the eternal war of the sexes fought this time

against Major Ambrose Westwood over that six course luncheon in the

dining car.

      Maybe she‟d been successful by her code, had dared to go to a
      new place in ideas. She‟d been fearfully close to a blunder, a
      blunder could not be claimed as a manoeuvre (p 21).

                           The Way We were                               101
There seems to be no critical distance at all in Moorhouse‟s handling of

Edith‟s games playing „codes‟, „manoeuvres‟ and maxims; one begins

to wonder if there had been any in the depiction of T. George

McDowell‟s also. She, like Moorhouse himself, seems to have no sense

of the limits, the deadening limits, of this sense of the overwhelming

importance of comportment.

She has ideals, principles, knows how to act in challenging situations

and is not afraid to stoop to experience. She is both dedicated and

adaptive and hungry for life. She is an almost fabulously responsive

tabula rasa. No wonder Ambrose is almost as taken by her as she by

him. Moorhouse has found his way into a character and situation which

meet his almost antithetical desires - for historical perspective,

personal interests, guarded and pragmatic idealism, decadence – the

experience of the „dark side‟ of the erotic, Australian freshness and

enthusiasm and European or American worldliness, prestigious

positioning amongst the Establishment with a regard for the socially

and economically needy of this world (whom as always he keeps at a

great distance). Moorhouse has found fulfilment in the character of

Edith Campbell Berry. She gives generously to this, his most expansive

in every way book. She is noble

      [Ambrose quotes Wilde to the effect that going to a whore is „like
      eating chewed mutton‟. Edith responds …] I find it rather

                           The Way We were                              102
      appalling, that a man of alleged higher sensibilities should speak
      that way of another human being, a forlorn person, that he
      should speak that way of an encounter … (p 20).

It is her magnanimity that validates the „grand‟ Moorhouse has

attached to the book and it is that quality that makes her venturing

heroic and even touching. She can also represent the foolish defensive

snobbishness Moorhouse is prone to

      She was, after all, well-bred. The bag was an object of ancestry
      (p 4).

Ambrose Westwood too seems a liberation. Epicene, transvestite, an

adventurer and sybarite, he allows Moorhouse a relaxed confidence of

exploration which is at a remove from the more usual perilous

sallyings forth of his adventurous characters. Different though he is,

Ambrose must, in the characteristic Moorhouse dynamic, break down.

It is a male thing. Aspiring women lose the battle of the sexes, giving

up everything in the hope of a good root; aspiring men break down.

We have observed this character trajectory from the earliest (Futility

and other animals) – how the self-assured mentor Jimmy Anderson

appals his protégé from the desolating suburbs Thomas by breaking

down. Even high jinxing Blase breaks down but is restored

(presumably) by transferring to a Hilton (see „Convalescence‟ in Room

Service. High stepping out of line Ambrose must be brought low too.

                           The Way We were                               103
And is. Ambrose breaks down; Edith marries Robert Dole (the name is


However she discovers she prefers much about Ambrose Westwood

including his „Cupid‟s bow‟ penis, infertility and tits (how tedious they

become). This is an aspect of the increasing dilemma she faces as we

enter Dark Palace, the second of the proposed Palais des Nations


      She was now prepared to sacrifice Robert, in some sense. She
      would, if necessary, sacrifice him for her vocation … Her vocation
      was her nature … she would not sacrifice the marriage. She
      would stick with that (Dark Palace p 50).

Despite the paradoxical – the term is not strong enough – despite the

antithetical nature of the League itself: idealism underswept by the

utmost of cynical machinations, there had been a triumphant ring to

Grand Days. The novel resonates with a triumphalism not least to be

found in Moorhouse‟s tacit assumption that he is at last undertaking

subject matter befitting him and for which he is at last prepared after

four decades of work. Grand Days is flush with faith, despite the

difficult diplomatic work which must be painstakingly undertaken, in

what the League can offer, flush with enthusiasm and success. As the

proposed trilogy is about the failure of the League of Nations, only

disillusionment can follow. More than that, this edifice of idealism

                            The Way We were                             104
must collapse: not only disillusionment but dissolution is inevitable. It

will be intriguing to see if Moorhouse can locate Edith Campbell Berry

in any context where her abilities and experience can operate in any

effective way (one suspects an unsatisfactory life and career in

Canberra, a retreat to the South Coast and a somewhat baffled

retirement farming in the southern Highlands for the third of the


      It was over, this uncomfortable domesticity with its disfigured
      sexuality. For the indefinite future, at least ...
      She felt an urgent burning need to unburden herself to Ambrose.
      To tell him she‟d flunked her marriage (Dark Palace p 80).

Edith herself seems to be in dissolution. She has ricocheted from

Ambrose Westwood and „the Bohemian‟, to Robert Dole and the

„decorous‟ onto „uncomfortable domesticity with its disfigured

sexuality‟. This leaves her, as she has glimpsed, with her vocation.

Contraception has played a part in the „disfiguring‟ but most of all

neither Edith nor Robert wanted to be tied to „this domesticity‟, both

feel it trammels them. Dole seems to want Edith because one must

have a presentable or, better still, admirable wife and as a base from

which he can venture forth on his reportage, that is he wants a

caretaker for his things and a housekeeper to keep the place ready

and warm for him when he is ready to return, a hostess and escort

who will be admired as distinguée. Moorhouse seems to be moving

here towards a recognition of the limits of comportment, of the value

                           The Way We were                               105
of worldly prestige but more significantly Edith‟s schema are

unravelling in concert with the League. Dole, she decides, „hadn‟t

deserved the deeper truths of her life‟ (p 86). Unfortunately these are

merely the „dark ways‟ Ambrose had encouraged her to explore. They

are few (two in essence) and both sexual. Edith‟s plight begins to ring

with the hollowness of melodrama.

Moorhouse offers a series of grand scenes in Dark Palace which evoke

the hastening dissolution of the League. Despite their contribution to a

sense that this novel is somewhat prolix, they give powerful insight

into this process and the effect the coming of Hitler‟s War had on the

organisation. One of the most striking of these is the „winter picnic‟ for

the Delegates to the Disarmament Conference. This is a wonderful

invention. Poverty stricken, mutilated Great War veterans turn up to

enjoy the food, wine and being cared for. Edith‟s generosity (she is

using an inheritance from her mother to pay for the picnic), experience

and wisdom are undone. Miss Royden, a strident female pacifist

repudiates Edith‟s intentions stating „ … we are here for one thing only:

pacifism – the end of all armies and weapons. Now and forever‟. She

and many others turn their backs on Edith during her speech. It is

clear these people are entirely misguided in their determined idealism

and that their plans for intervention if war is not completely and

                            The Way We were                            106
immediately outlawed are foolishly unrealistic. Edith‟s magnanimous

gesture ends in disarray, having achieved little beyond the momentary

comfort of a few grotesquely neglected war veterans who barely, if at

all, understood its purpose.

So too the League will sink under the weight of its ambitions,

undermined by the forces who come to Geneva to exploit and

manipulate it for their own self-interested and base or unrealistic ends

and the diplomatic parrying which will stifle the implementation of its


The Disarmament Conference is a failure.

Dissolution is a beautiful and fascinating process in Dark Palace.

Prolixity and a pace close to tedious at times seem worthwhile for the

variety of insights and connections we make with the League in its

failing. The historical texture is dense and very well worked into Edith‟s

fortunes: her returning to the „shameless‟, her promotion to League

Liaison Officer to the Committee of Five (she works closely with the

debonair Sir Anthony Eden), her neglect of her grooming, her

increasing love of drinking and then the terrible diplomatic gaff of

dropping a glass of champagne on the feet of Deputy Secretary Frank

                           The Way We were                             107
Walters (an incident of intensely serious concern in Moorhouse‟s

account – either such it was or Moorhouse is indulging his sense of the

value of comportment) and her calling on Ambrose‟s psychoanalyst Dr

Vittoz for help. Moorhouse engrosses us in the synthesised fortunes of

the League, his heroine and his idiosyncratic interests.

Dark Palace turns back towards his earlier work. Edith returns to

Australia (she finds the bush simply appalling … grasping and twisted;

she is reading Kangaroo), Jasper‟s Brush, her widowed and failing

father and a profoundly dissatisfied George McDowell who now wants

to desert his wife Thelma who „drives him mad‟ in order to attain „a

bigger life. A much bigger life‟ (p 293) in which ambition he sees Edith

playing a major role. In this revisiting we discover no semblance of the

contemporaneous T. George we had encountered in The Electrical
Experience.        However Dark Palace does not offer enough material to

suggest the extent and manner of Moorhouse‟s shift in attitude

(always guarded) towards T. George/George McDowell.

Edith is momentarily attracted to the idea of a sexual encounter with

McDowell in order for her „To be on track as a woman‟ (p 297). Will

she, one wonders, have a late life child in the third volume (and with

whom?). Moorhouse can hardly have her advancing through middle

                              The Way We were                          108
age still bothered by increasingly inappropriate and always irrelevant

notions of womanhood. One doubts she will turn lesbian, strongly

though the proposition puts itself to her after her fight and

reconciliation with close friend Jeanne back in Geneva. Moorhouse is at

last able to give lesbianism a human potential, if only in passing.

Edith finds Australia „unfinished‟. Particularly Canberra which she visits

in order to make connections and open up possible directions for her

future (her divorce will have had to come through as married women

were not employed full time in the public service until 1966). Her

return is greeted with hostility and resentment, not surprisingly by

Thelma McDowell but also by an old Women‟s College friend who is

now attracted to Mussolini; Edith has left them far behind – what is

she doing back? She finds the rooms in the home McDowell boasts of

having designed meanly proportioned and the ceilings low. Is it

possible that she could find any kind of satisfactory life in post war

Australia? In contrast to the six course luncheon en route from Paris to

Geneva on the train to the South Cosst

      She had declined the refreshment service and spread out her
      own picnic to the rather amused glances of the few others who
      occupied her section.
      She remembered enough about travel outside the cities in
      Australia to know that to eat well, one had to be gastronomically
      self-reliant … fresh fruit, leg ham, English mustard, Bodalla
      cheese ([the South Coast is a cheese region, this is one of the

                            The Way We were                              109
      better-known] which she had yearned for in Geneva – and
      bread, albeit of doubtful quality (p 261).

The physical fight with Jeanne leaves her with „A feeling too, that it

was part of the total disintegration of things round them‟ (p 471).

To some degree too Moorhouse‟s writing is in dissolution. The

„narratives‟ are now continuous in their pursuit of a declared theme

and there is a return to the invention and originality we discovered in

his very earliest work (though not the intensity and grittiness which

would not in any case be appropriate in this context). The maxims, still

irritating, are integrated into prose and dialogue flow (Edith notes

modesty kills conversation and, apropos of McDowell and the house he

designed, so does boasting). Before she leaves Australia she rallies at

the last possible moment to face down the disillusionment expressed

by a university audience invited to hear her talk on the League. She

returns to the platform to offer a spirited account of the advantages

and disadvantages of sanctions (always one of her favoured projects);

this wins the audience.

In another remarkable scene she and her Women‟s College friend

encounter Scraper another old university associate whom they do not

recognise because he has been disfigured in action in the Great War.

                           The Way We were                               110
Edith is able to meet this sophisticated and experienced man on his

own terms and accede to his sexual demand with dignity and some

degree of respect because, one feels, of her knowledge of erotic. In his

turn, he is able to do her a favour.

The League has been reduced to good works, the Disarmament

Conference, sanctions and armed intervention all having failed. As the

Second World War engulfs it, it is reduced to a spectre (Moorhouse

describes it as a „nucleus‟). The nucleus struggles on despite suspicion

and hostility – even from the Swiss who fear its presence in Geneva

might provoke Hitler to invade as he had other neutral territories.

Ambrose‟s transvestite etc escape the Molly Club has taken on a

layered clandestine role – it now provides forged papers for literal

escapes. It is there that a homosexual German refugee brings news of

the round-ups back home. Dieter remains somewhat one of

Moorhouse‟s stereotypes – one wanted a little glow of the individual in

him, couldn‟t he have had an interest in alpine flowers, say? – but in

the rush of denouement there is little to complain of – he is generally

disapprobative and one doesn‟t really doubt he would have been

otherwise. Edith is able to convey news of the Nazi persecutions to

London by means of her association with Sir Anthony Eden. Moorhouse

shows her in all her experience and power accomplishing the difficult

                           The Way We were                             111
feat. And we learn that even the rounding-up of the Jews is not being

taken very seriously in London. Further, he complicates the matter

well by having Ambrose debase himself through an encounter with the

mercenary Dieter: history and hapless peccadillo.

The narrative concerning the attempt to secure papers and the means

of escape from France for James Joyce and his institutionalised

daughter Lucia into Switzerland is interesting in itself as well as being

illustrative of the undercover work some League operatives were now

undertaking; it is also somewhat of a digression, reminding us of

Moorhouse‟s somewhat unruly need to share his idiosyncratic interests

with readers.

And it is a relief from the darkness engulfing the Palace.

History is the darkness, it is relegating the living, the aspirant to

withered dreams.

The rest is not quite tragedy. Moorhouse enacts the celebratory birth

of the U N from the shadows of the League. The old League

Internationalists are deliberately and insultingly sidelined or omitted

altogether from the proceedings – Edith can think of „no manoeuvre‟

                            The Way We were                               112
which can save them from being excluded (has Moorhouse at last

reached the limits in his faith in „manoeuvres‟?).

Dark Palace concludes in intense poignancy: the novel‟s characters,

historical or imaginary

      This book is, in part, based on the dramatic reconstruction of
      real people, identified by their actual names, and on fictional
      characters who sometimes embody features of people who
      existed at the time, but who are essentially fictional (see „Who is
      Who‟ …). Where people who actually existed say anything
      substantial, their words are taken from documentary sources.

      All historical and politically substantial events depicted (and
      quite a few of the insubstantial events) are inspired by
      documentary sources.

      But the book is, above all, a work of imagination (prolegomenon
      to Grand Days)

are now shadows flitting or threading through that historical curiosity.

Dark Palace enacts the spiritual schema of Moorhouse‟s discontinuous

narratives: confusion, sickness, bravery, birth. It seems Edith must

undergo some sort of birth in the third of the Palais des Nations novels

– rebirth, child?

America seems to be a site of Birth (we might recall the effect the St

Louis Rotary Convention of 1923 had on T. George McDowell) as well

as power and effectiveness. In a bar in the Algonquin Hotel in New

                           The Way We were                              113
York Edith had been able at last to repudiate Robert Dole thus

heralding a new life for herself. She and other League functionaries

travel to San Francisco to participate in the United Nations Conference.

The post war organisation the United Nations is born from their

confusion, sickness and bravery.

Dark Palace won the Miles Franklin in 2001. Moorhouse himself

thought this was an attempt to make restitution because Grand Days

had not won in 1994 because its Australian content had been deemed

insufficient. The controversy this provoked led to a change of the

judging guard for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (considered

conservative, entrenched and narrow in their understanding of the

Australian content requirement). This may be so but the strength or

otherwise of the other candidates and the clarity of the judges‟

decision were surely also factors. Despite its prolixity, the integration

of history and character narrative is managed tellingly and originally, it

has subtle dark tonal qualities and seems to embrace the rest of the

Moorhouse oeuvre in ways that at least hint at the development of his

vision and techniques. It is a more psychologically complex book than

Grand Days. Dark Palace is a novel, which makes history only too

human and moving.

                            The Way We were                             114
Moorhouse won a Walkley Award for social equity journalism and the

Alfred Deakin Prize for the best essay contributing to public debate for

his long essay published in The Griffith Review Edition 14 2006 „The

Writer in a Time of Terror‟. It is a good, solid and probing, timely

essay, written when Australia and much of the western world were

experiencing increasingly restrictive legislation which exploited fear of

terrorist attacks. The legislation enacted in these conditions

encouraged bureaucratic/policing responses in various forms of

roundings-up of likely suspects (this did occur in Australia,

Moorhouse‟s essay takes fifteen of such cases as starting points to

further his analyses and arguments). Concomitant with this fear, and

exploiting it, was an increase in the moral panic Australia seems

forever prey to. This was encouraged by church leaders, xenophobes,

the philistine and ignorant righteous whose numbers include prominent

politicians of both major political parties (such a the current Liberal

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the Labour Party‟s Kevin Rudd –

the latter born Catholic now Anglican – both, it must be emphasised,

notable philistines and unable to move their moral thinking beyond

their childhood indoctrinations).

Freedoms of expression were being (again) curtailed.

                            The Way We were                               115
Moorhouse invokes his own history as a victim of „Cold War‟ censorship

(see examples in the letters to Michael Wilding quoted earlier in this

piece), contrasting this with the situation now where the „sexual

revolution‟ (surely this is just a trope, as he has shown in his

discontinuous narratives, for a whole societal shift?) as an issue has

been supplanted by xenophobias of various shades and degrees –

religious, ethnic and simply, as he says, „not belonging to the

mainstream‟ (this is particularly weak on his behalf). He points out

that in the three major cases fought in Australia over freedom of

speech in the last fifty years, none of those whose rights were so

fought for have respect themselves for freedom of speech – the

Communists, the Islamists and fundamentalist Christians.

He is not afraid to return to basics: why should we value freedom of


    Maxim: Restricting freedom of expression mimics the enemy: it is
    bad politics.

    Remind me, why do we defend free speech?
    “Freedom of expression is may be described as the freedom par
    excellence; for without it no other freedom could survive,”
    Enid Campbell and Harry Whitmore wrote in Freedom in Australia
    (Sydney University Press, 1966).

      Curiosities of free speech
      Writing this essay has led me to discover what I called the
      curiosities of free speech, and there I owe a debt to the perverse
      thinking of Stanley Fish.

                            The Way We were                              116
      Is free speech really part of the Western tradition and heritage in
      the way we proclaim? Why do we claim that it is “part of the
      Western tradition” when we are still arguing about it and fighting
      for it? Is it what our forebears fought and died for? Were they
      fighting for sexually explicit free expression at Gallipoli? For the
      right to be blasphemous? Was it ever a war aim? Was it the
      driving motivation of those fighting world wars or other conflicts?
      [Stanley Fish wrote an essay „There is No Such Thing as Free
      Speech‟ 1992 Oxford University Press].

And reveals the despicable (straight out of Animal Farm) confusions

proffered by the Howard Government of the time he is writing

      Defending his new restrictive laws, Attorney-General Ruddock
      turned this around when he said (and the Prime Minister has said
      this too): “The most important liberty is life.”
      Life is not usually defined as a “liberty” but a pre-condition of
      “rights” – that is, for negotiated “living arrangements” of people
      in society once they have life.
      Fear of terrorist attack cannot be used as a single, overriding
      arbiter of all national policy.

He does not flout the basic difficulties

      There are vey distasteful, stupid, infuriating and threatening
      things said. Civic restraint is a hard lesson to learn, both by
      citizens and governments, and is never learned by loonies and

In this essay he exposes and explores his own relation to the concept

of „freedom of speech‟, plotting his evolving and deepening sense of its

significance, personally, historically and in terms of current affairs but

this essay also seems to provide Moorhouse with an opportunity to –

not make explicit, the nature of the subject matter prohibits such a

                            The Way We were                             117
simplification – come to terms with an ethical system which haunts his

work but is nowhere enacted in his writing. We sense the issue of

„freedom‟ in his discontinuous narratives, in Between Wars, The

Disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain (freedom of religious expression)

and the two Palais des Nations novels as if it were a bedrock against

which the best of his work pressed. It was a fundamental concern of

the Sydney Andersonian libertarians who provided Moorhouse with a

formative milieu.

    Maxim: Whatever the risk, whatever terrorist action transpires in
    Australia, the case for freedom of expression remains unchanged
    except for one thing: to reinforce its centrality to civilised life.

    Maxim: It is the best (and worst) of us as writers and as citizens
    who ultimately define our freedom of expression by what we do
    with it („The Writer in a Time of Terror‟).

                           The Way We were                            118
BIBLIOGRAPHY – in order of reference …
by Frank Moorhouse
The Electrical Experience A Discontinuous Narrative 1974 Angus and
Robertson Sydney
editor and driving force City Voices 5 issues mid 1965
editor Days of Wine and Rage 1980 Penguin Books Australia
Futility and other animals 1973 Angus and Robertson Australia (first
published 1969 by Gareth Powell Associates)
letters to Michael Wilding – the latter‟s papers, Mitchell Library, Box 02
The Coca Cola Kid Selected Stories Angus and Robertson 1985 first
published as Selected Stories in Australia Angus and Robertson 1982
Grand Days Being Volume One of the Palais des Nations Novels 1993
Picador original First published 1993 by Pan Books [no place of
Dark Palace The companion novel to Grand Days 2001 A vintage
Book First published by Random House Sydney 2000
Room Service 1987 Penguin Australia first published Viking 1985
The Americans, Baby 1972 Angus and Robertson Sydney
Martini A memoir 2005 A Knopf book, Random House Australia
The Secret Everlasting Family And Other Secrets 1980 Angus and
Robertson Australia
Lateshows 1990 Pan MacMillan then 2009 as A Vintage Book Random
House Australia
Forty-Seventeen 1988 Viking Australia
„The Writer in a Time of Terror‟ 2006 Griffith Review Edition 14

                           The Way We were                             119
                                    *      *      *

   This is still the case, with short story collections being seen by agents
and those clutching the reins of major publishing houses as
journeyperson projects towards the novel. The career path is: publish
in the small magazines, win a few prizes, get a collection published,
show us your novel.
    I doubt they did for Carmel Kelly, one of the „us‟ nominated by
Wilding as starting Tabloid Story – Wilding himself, Kelly and
Moorhouse. The period notwithstanding (early seventies - Wilding
claims pre „women‟s movement‟), his account of sexism is
astonishingly clueless – „The girlie magazines were the first onslaught
on bourgeois sexual repression; the women‟s movement critique of
sexism could only operate after sexism had at least become explicit in
society …‟ see pp 145 -6.
    Moorhouse struck a blow for payment for story writers in City Voices

                                     Ask the Write Price
The Australian Society of Authors‟ Management Committee is urging all writers to place
a price on all material submitted to periodicals.
An executive with a leading magazine had told the committee that Australia is a “sellers
market” for short stories and articles.
“If short stories were marked up from £25 guineas up, writers would get it,” he said.

“We want stories. We‟d have to pay for it. The whole thing is silly – why, we sometimes
pay 12 guineas for something that costs us £50 - 60 pounds to illustrate” (Vol. 1, No.
3 p 6 – I have transcribed this as faithfully as I could. Perhaps the conversion to
decimal currency led to the confused use of pounds and guineas. A guinea was
one pound, one shilling if I remember correctly; it was used to price quality
products. The words of the executive with a leading magazine are probably
journalistic licence).
   A similar, weaker, structural technique became popular in film,
particularly after Pulp Fiction – weaker because in these films it is not
much more than a cohering device for disparate narratives.

                                 The Way We were                                     120
    Coombs Anne 1996 Sex and Anarchy The Life and Death of the
Sydney Push Viking Australia
    We meet McDowell‟s other daughter Gwenth („… thirty-six year old,
single woman … headmistress (primary)‟ by way of her „Statement‟
about her sister - „Gwenth McDowell‟s Statement Concerning her Sister
Teresa McDowell June 1969‟ The Electrical Experience.
     He did treat a select audience at one of the State Library of New
South Wales‟ soirées to the revelation of his liking to take it up the
bum with his male partners and give it to his female – he was seventy
or so at the time, no-one was enthralled. Also he was following a talk
by editor and novelist Sophie Cunningham who had created a coming
out atmosphere by talking of „my partner‟ then revealing that person
as „she‟.
      Ernest Hemingway refused to fish with him.
    Americans seem to represent the stronger, the more savvy to
Moorhouse at this stage of his development, through their eyes we see
how parochial, limited, inept in every way, bizarre Australians are.
Americans represent the solid, the effective, the strength which comes
from being conventional. „Conventional‟ was a word much used in the
sixties to suggest the unimaginative, those bound by worn-out mores,
the unadventurous. The American Becker, the Coca-Cola Kid does
attempt suicide in the Yacht Club where Kim the teacher, Dell‟s ex
boyfriend was having such a bad time being excluded and wanting to
be excluded. The South Coast of New South Wales or perhaps merely
not being in Atlanta, headquarters of Coca Cola, drove him to this
desperate act.
   Readers might be relieved to learn that Louise is saved by anal intercourse (see „The
incident of the second meeting with Louise‟ Five Incident Concerning the Flesh and the
Blood‟ p 80).
    For Moorhouse‟s account of the adaptation and production of The Coca Cola Kid see
„Working with Makavejev‟ in Lateshows.
     The smashing of the power and influence of the medical profession in Australia was
effected in the mid eighties by homosexual activists outraged by the attitudes, ignorance
and incompetence evinced in the medical treatments being offered HIV/AIDS patients.
      Like all of his kind, the lesbian was utterly beyond him.
      The discontinuous character „Milton‟ seems to have been Michael
Wilding with whom Moorhouse seems to have had a tortured and
needy relationship. Wilding was, as the quotes from Moorhouse‟s
letters above reveal, also a short story writer engaged with depicting a
similar questing, challenging bohemia to that which lies at the heart of
Moorhouse‟s work. Wilding was a Professor and then Reader in English
Literature at the University of Sydney; he had published on Milton.

                                 The Way We were                                     121
     Such a banquet would have been like the one described in „The
American Poet‟s Visit‟
         “Some supper then?” says Gillian, rising and leaving for the
         other room where she has laid it out.
         Some of us figuratively fall off our poufs because we haven‟t had
         supper served at parties since high school. Some leap to their
         feet and bolt for the other room
         Spread on the table had been a buffet of chicken legs, prawn
         cutlets, oyster savouries, asparagus rolls, and the rest. Marvin,
         Malden and Scott had eaten all the prawns, the chicken legs, and
         the oysters off the savouries. They were arguing about Jerry
         Lewis … The Americans, Baby p 60.
That „figuratively‟ is not a good Moorhouse moment.
       Martini A memoir has as the epigraph „… it was an employment
for his idle time which was then not idly spent‟ - Izaak Walton, The
Compleat Angler). Edith hears from Ambrose of this modern martini
(a Moorhouse obsession) in San Francisco whilst trying to secure
places for the old League Internationalists at the United Nations
      An exploration of Moorhouse‟s close relationship with Donald Horne
would prove illuminating in many ways.
      Moorhouse had developed a comparable theme in Forty Seventeen using his forty
year old self‟s affair with a seventeen year old girl.
      She uses of „The Way of All Doors, which required her to try to be
adept at talking of all things to all people. It would be the grandest
way of all if she could ever confidently install it‟ (p 12); this returns us
to George McDowell was still dogged by shyness. The typed-out rules
hung, pasted on cardboard, but he had to admit they‟d become
somewhat a fixture in the office. But also, he sincerely hoped, a fixture
in his mind …
      Even his daughter‟s name has changed from „Gwenth‟ to „Gweneth‟.

                               *      *      *

This then is the complete Five Australian Novelists: Christina Stead,

Thea Astely, Patrick White, Helen Garner and Frank Moorhouse.

                               The Way We were                                 122
Their influences overlapped in the seventies when the War/Baby

Boomers were breaking fee of the constricting heritage of two World

Wars and the Great Depression. These writers helped form us.

I have striven to write responsibly of them, only admiring and

despising where I must. I am most aware that in writing of them at all

I have necessarily reduced them to my capacities: all of them are

greater than that.

Ian MacNeill

                          The Way We were                             123

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