Les, Peter, John, James – and Peter

Les Murray’s poetry books fill a long shelf, and his Collected Poems (Black Inc 2018) runs to more than 700 pages.

So it was a challenge for actor Peter Carroll and theatre polymath John Senczuk to choose a group of poems for a coherent performance piece, titled Burning Want. I was peripherally involved as literary adviser. Plans for 2020 were cut short when theatres went dark.

This week the project came to life at the SBW Foundation’s Seaborn library in Neutral Bay, with Peter Carroll’s moving performance of Burning Want, supported by James Boyd-Hoare, who composed piano music to set the mood.

Burning Want flyer

The audience responded very warmly to Peter Carroll’s performance, which brought a wide range of poems to life – some tragic, some wry, a couple hilarious.

At each session, the audience included people with special connections to the Murray oeuvre. Graham MacDonald, former editor of honi soit, was the first to put a Murray poem in print, in April 1959 in the Sydney University student paper.

Property

In my secret garden/ I kept three starlings,/ In my secret locket/ three copper farthings.

One zinc-grey evening/ The birds escaped me/ And a crippled man stole/ My shining money.

The starlings wandered/ Till three hawks took them,

And now my agents/ Have caught the cripple.

Les Murray

This poem doesn’t appear in the Collected Poems, so it was exciting to have it rediscovered.

The discovery of new poems continued. After the matinee performance, an audience member produced an occasional poem that Les Murray wrote in recent years to celebrate the 80th birthday of a neighbouring farmer. A jaunty celebratory rhyme, it was full of bouncing tennis balls and references to how much joy the recipient and his wife got from tennis.

The day left me marvelling at the brilliance of Les Murray’s words, and Peter Carroll’s immersion in the very essence of the poems. Composer and pianist James Boyd-Hoare was another exciting discovery, and John Senczuk’s talent and verve always delight me.

Afterwards I was given a bunch of bush greenery to take home. I posed next to a picture of the charismatic Peter Finch. What a day!

In the Seaborn Library foyer with Peter Finch

PENELOPE NELSON

April 2021

Anti-Discrimination at Dapto

From late 1978 to mid 1982 I worked at the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW. It was an exciting place with committed Board members and staff. In those early days the ADB was an autonomous outlier of Premier’s Department. Refugees from South-East Asia and migrants from the Middle East were making New South Wales a more diverse society.

Initially the grounds for complaint under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 were race, sex and marital status. By 1982, physical impairment and homosexuality had been added.

The tiny community relations team had the task of making five million citizens aware of their rights. We wrote leaflets and radio spots in many languages; we prepared TV infomercials, we started a newsletter and we travelled to many regional towns and cities. We ran conferences. We briefed the media on hearings before the Board. We ran seminars in schools, universities and many places of work. The Senior Sergeants of Police are particularly memorable. The convenor would greet me with, “There are more than 300 years of policing experience in this room.”

Community relations officer, ADB, 1980

Colleagues who were researching discrimination based on age, religion, political conviction, homosexuality and disability had expertise and wide contacts. Our Aboriginal project officer taught me a great deal. We worked with the Ethnic Affairs Commission on tackling racial vilification.

But not every day was a triumph.

Occasionally there was an outright disaster.

One autumn evening, leaving my husband and sons on their own, I drove south to Dapto – I’d been invited to speak at a service club. I reached my motel at dusk and was on time at the venue. The engineer who’d invited me seemed friendly, and so did the club president. The dinner went smoothly enough. Club formalities followed, with various jokes and fines from the Sergeant-at-Arms.

There were no wives at this event. A waitress and I were the only women in sight. There were about 45 men.

I was introduced.

This is the gist of what I said: Your right to a fair go. Discrimination complaints on the grounds of race, sex and marital status. Early cases before the Board. Equal opportunities for all. Increasing numbers of women in fire-fighting, policing and skilled trades.

The President thanked me and called on a man from the far side of the room to move the vote of thanks.

Mercifully I have no memory of what the man looked like. But his words will stay with me forever. “That would be the greatest load of crap I ever heard in my entire life.”

I was wearing a red woollen dress. I could feel my face reddening to match it.

While the engineer and the president were wondering how to make amends, two men dashed up to me.

“Terrific talk!” they said. “We aren’t members here – we’re visiting from the Fairy Meadow club, and we want you to know we never treat our guests like that at Fairy Meadow.”

I was grateful to those two kind men. Ever since, I’ve had a a special fondness for Fairy Meadow.

PENELOPE NELSON

March 2021

Tenderness/Tendresse in Paris

We were in a restaurant in Paris years ago, enjoying dinner. It was an up-market place with table cloths and waiters wearing bow-ties. Our table was in a booth lined with velvet, the booths forming a circle around a small fountain. We could clearly see the people in the booths on the other side of the fountain and wondered about them.

Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

There was an obviously rich old elegant couple, fawned over by attentive waiters. There was a family of two parents with two teenagers, and there was a beautiful young lady sitting all by herself, looking at her watch.

It was just after 8 o-clock and I commented that someone was running late. As the minutes ticked past, we became concerned for the young woman who was agitated and upset. At about 8.30 p.m. a tear rolled down her reddened cheek. The waiters could see that something was wrong and brought her a glass of water and a menu.

The rest of the restaurant was oblivious to the drama: there were peals of laughter and loud conversation coming from the other booths. The waiters were very busy and no one had time to comfort the now distressed mademoiselle. It was almost 9 o’clock and we were becoming distressed too. What should we do? Should we go over to comfort her, or would that make matters worse?

Suddenly the door opened and in rushed a rather harassed young man who looked around, spotted his date and ran over to her. There were hugs and floods of tears from both. It was such a tender moment that the much-relieved head waiter brought over two glasses of champagne. We continued to watch as the young man explained what had kept him so long. Without them ordering, food and wine started to arrive under the supervision of the headwaiter who had witnessed the drama.

We can remember that particular tender moment as if it was yesterday. It confirms to me that Paris is indeed “the city of love.”

Photo by Dimitri Kuliuk on Pexels.com

IAN FERRIE

March 2021

The many moods of the sky

By my desk I have a copy of the Bureau of Meterology’s Weather Calendar. The picture for March features “cloud streets”. I’ve never seen those long parallel lines, but did see one cloud highway from the balcony.

Cloud street over Coogee

What a lifetime of joy the sky provides. Sunsets, sunrises, the sun, the moon and the stars – and a zillion unanswered questions about the galaxies far out of sight.

At dusk the clouds can form a barrier on the horizon:

Jagged clouds on horizon

Sometimes there’s a balmy rainbow:

Rainbow over misty sea

Sunsets are so routinely beautiful that we risk taking them for granted:

Balcony plants with sunset

So let’s hear it for the sky – up there, ever changing, infinite in its variety, and always ready to offer a new look at existence.

PENELOPE NELSON

March 2021

Our authors challenge stereotypes

Two of balconyfever.com’s authors challenge steretypes in their new publications. The National Library of Australia will soon publish Babette Smith’s Defiant Voices, a lively account of how female convicts challenged authority. In her novel Capriccio, Dina Davis brings fresh eyes to the “other woman” in a famous literary scandal.

Defiant Voices

25,000 women convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. They are traditionally portrayed by their “betters” as depraved, foul-mouthed and promiscuous, but Babette Smith looks for evidence of their humanity and individuality. She discovers widespread instances of heroic defiance. Despite being convicted, transported, separated from homeland and family, they showed solidarity with other convicts and resistance to authority. They used their voices – in song, swearing and challenging remarks – to defy officials, on board ship, in court and at work. Smith argues that their resistance to authority contributed significantly to the broader Australian culture.

A young woman with an insult on the tip of her tongue

Smith’s subjects include thieves, rioters, insurance fraudsters, arsonists and murderers. They range from mothers of six to 12-year-old girls. They were not all “the most abandoned prostitutes”, but their sexual mores differed fromthe observers who labelled them. The women of Defiant Voices fought like tigers and drove men to breaking point with their collective voices, their lewd songs and “disorderly shouting”. Whenever they were confined together, they shared “war stories” of encounters with the law and punishment, and laughed in delight at each others’ tactics for getting back at the people in charge.

Babette Smith is the author of groud-breaking books of convict history, including A Cargo of Women and Australia’s Birthstain. Her new study, with its many illustrations, brings to life the resistance of thousands of convict women.

Capriccio: A Novel

Capriccio: A Novel, by our contributor Dina Davis, reimagines the notorious love triangle of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. The novel challenges the stereotype of Assia as the ruthless seductress, blamed for the death of Sylvia Plath.

Thomas Keneally says of Capriccio: “I think this is a fine evocation with barely a false note. I was fascinated by this work and its crisp style. Let me reiterate: I believe you have a world-wide engaging book here. I think you’ll ring a bell.”

In 2020, Capriccio was shortlisted for the fiction prize in the NT Chief Minister’s book awards. It is available from all online booksellers, or in a new hardcopy edition from Harry Hartog’s bookshop, Bondi Junction.


Other talented contributors to this site will have new posts up soon. Keep checking!

PENELOPE NELSON

February 2020

Super-duper 2021

Tidying up my Christmas cards, I found one that hadn’t been opened. It was deep in a cardboard container for a wine bottle.

“Have a super-duper Christmas”, my brother wrote.

Super-duper.

It’s a long time since anyone wished me a super-duper anything. It brought a happy grin to my scowling dial.

I looked it up in the Macquarie Dictionary. There it was:

super-duper adjective, Colloquial — extremely fine, great, pleasing, etc. [dissimilated replication of SUPER]

I looked up dissimilate. To change a speech sound so it is less like a neighbouring syllable.

Enough of this lexicography!

It’s not as if super-duper was a mystery.

It’s just a happy phrase. How many other cheery phrases from the past have slipped out of use?

Pink frangipani on the balcony

In the midst of a very grey, cloudy, overcast start to the year, and more news about masks, statistics, border closures etc., came a brief moment of bright blue sky. I took my camera on to the balcony to capture it before it vanished.

So here’s to a super-duper 2021 for everyone, may the year bring blue skies, the scent of frangipanis, easier contact with our friends and family, and whatever else you may wish for.

I also look forward to more contributions to this shared blog from our talented team.

PENELOPE NELSON

January 2021

Poetic justice? Acknowledging Grace Perry

Grace Perry – the name is not widely recognised now. But in the 1940s Grace Perry, teenage poet, was hailed as a genius. In the 1950s she graduated as a doctor and had three children. In the 1960s she founded a literary press and a poetry magazine. A prolific writer herself, she launched the careers of many others and encouraged many emerging writers through prizes and literary events.

Grace Perry, teenage poetry sensation

I saw Grace Perry occasionally at events that she had organised. Like most writers, I would turn up at cultural events without giving a thought to the administrative chores behind the scenes – the phone calls, the invitations, the funding crises, the publicity campaigns. All these things I took for granted. I bought my ticket, caught up with friends, and hoped to workshop my poems with someone well-known.

Grace Perry introduced the early sessions of the 1975 Poetry Write-In at Macquarie University. She wore a floaty, colourful caftan, and was justifiably proud of having writers present from Indonesia, New Zealand and all states of Australia. She came to some of the small seminars also. She was obviously a close friend of some of the well-known poets, but she was generous to other participants also.

I have written about Grace’s career in the Summer 2020 issue of the State Library of NSW’s magazine, Openbook, so I won’t repeat her story here. Sufficient to say that she published eight books of her own poetry, founded South Head Press, managed Poetry Australia magazine, and helped launch the careers of half a dozen well known writers.

Openbook, Summer 2020 – the journal of the State Library of NSW

About a year ago, I had an inkling, more a glimmering perhaps, that Grace Perry was a hugely underestimated figure. Her own poetry was groundbreaking: she wrote lyrical verse in her teens, but in maturity took on topics such as death, pain and heartbreak in a confident, contemporary style. Her cultural contribution to Australian literature was significant.

What a joy to find that the State Library had 35 boxes of her papers, and copies of all her books, even the ones published while she was still at school. She kept meticulous business records of South Head Press, Poetry Australia and events such as the 1975 Poetry Write-In. I was abashed to find three of my own poems in the bulging file from that event.

Grace Perry, a whirlwind of energy and generosity, deserves acknowledgement as a cultural pioneer.

PENELOPE NELSON

December 2020

Mini-delights of travel

Moments. Unexpected encounters. Odd conversations. The mini-delights of travel are most intense when you’re travelling alone.

What seems an age ago now, I had a Eurail pass that allowed me to swan around Europe on marvellous trains in first-class seats, mostly without booking ahead. These are some of the memorable moments.

Pessoa in Lisbon. Unlike my fellow blogger Robin Sen, I did not find Lisbon tedious. My room overlooked very noisy renovations, but the managers moved me to a quieter room. I loved the scale of the place – the hills, the harbour, the crumbling alabaster masterpieces. The food was fine. The side trip to Sintra was lovely. But I wanted to see Pessoa, the weird many-named poet whose statue was somewhere nearby. On an uphill road, I was about to take a seat in a cafe when young man came up to me. “We’re environmentalists,” he said, “approaching tourists to ask for support ….”.

I handed him a couple of euros. “I wonder if you could help me,” I said. “There’s supposed to be a statue of Pessoa somewhere here but it’s very hard to find.” He grinned and waved his hand. There was Pessoa, just beside us, waiting for his caffeine hit.

A bronzed Pessoa in his Lisbon cafe

The Indian architects. There were only two other passengers in the carriage. The young Indian men responded in English to my stammered German enquiry about a free seat. We each said something about our travels. They told me about their conference in Frankfurt on architectural cues for crowd movement. They offered me snacks that their wives back home had prepared. It was the first time I’d eated Bombay mix. I remember the nice tang of curry on my tongue, the charm of those guys and their enthusiasm for their work. And I remember their shared shame-faced laugh when I asked I whether they’d tried German beer. “Here, yes,” one confessed. “But never at home,” his friend added.

The German businessmen. Late in the day the train to Bonn was crowded. I was lucky to get the last seat in a first-class carriage. My companions were smartly-dressed businessmen, all silently working on laptops or reading. After half an hour, the silence was broken by a trolley-wielding waitress of spectacular beauty. “None of you gentlemen,” she announced with a smile, “will refuse a nice aperitif or a coffee!” Papers rustled. Laptop lids went down. “Meine Dame!” She smiled at me too. I accepted the coffee. Then one man asked for cheese and a whisky. The next man chose wine. So we went round the carriage until everyone except the young man in the window seat was buying food and drink and even sharing a few words. The waitress clicked the last credit card, thanked us all, and backed out of the carriage. I took a closer look at the one hold-out, the young man in the corner, whose “Danke, Nein, nichts!” had been quite emphatic. He was deep in a book. I could just make out the English title – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Hotel de France. Arriving in Paris on the swish train from Brussels, I was met by a taxi driver with my name on a card. We drove and we drove and we drove. He was not familiar with the hotel that I’d booked online. He double-checked the address. When we finally drew up at the door he could not suppress a look that said arrives in style but stays in a dump. There was nothing glamorous about the Hotel de France. After lugging my bag up several floors I was in a drab room with shabby furnishings. One consolation was a window that looked down on a three-cornered space where people seemed to be setting up stalls. If I went to sleep now, I’d be able to get an early breakfast at the market. I was still awake, however, when two young Germans came into the neighbouring room, every remark audible through the paper-thin walls. “Well,” said one to his friend, “if this is the Hotel de France, I’d hate to see the Hotel d’Europe!”

PENELOPE NELSON

Life Writing’s expanding waistline

Life Writing. The term keeps expanding. The category is gobbling up its neighbours. It now includes

Memoir, biography, autobiography, eulogy, family history, personal anecdotes, blog entries, autobiographical fiction, case studies, diaries ……

You get the idea. Life Writing has flexible boundaries. It’s not just a branch of literature. Disciplines such as psychology, sociology, history and anthropology rely on it.

Memoir heads my list.

For me, the best memoirs linger in the mind because the author seems like someone you know. There’s an immediacy, a personal connection. You are attracted by tone, shared enthusiasms, humour, frankness or novelty. You empathise with suffering. You are drawn right in to someone’s viewpoint.

Memoirs can evoke key personalities; a time and a place; remarkable experiences, or a life story linked to a theme.

My own memoir, Penny Dreadful, evokes circles I knew in the late 1950s and early 1960s, mostly in Sydney. That puts it in the personalities/time and place category.

I recently read a good thematic memoir. Tracy Tynan’s book has a clever title, and an astonishing cover photograph.

Tynan and Dundy, in matching leopard-print tights

Tracy’s parents, Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy, are pictured gazing entranced at one another. They wear matching leopard-print tights. The Wear of the title is all too apparent. This is a family with an eye for clothes.

Tracy Tynan made her name as a costume designer in Hollywood. She knows clothes. How could it be otherwise? Her father, theatre critic and director Kenneth Tynan, was a noted dandy, arriving in postwar Oxford with a purple suit and a cloak lined with red satin. Her mother, writer Elaine Dundy, also dressed dramatically. As the picture shows, neither paid much attention to other people’s opinions. The teenage Tracy, of course, longed for a mother who dressed in conventional clothes from Marks & Spencer.

Tracy Tynan was opinionated about clothes from the start. She adored her mother’s sealskin coat, with its delicious texture and unmistakable scent of Ma Griffe and tobacco. Her own scratchy toddler’s wool coat held no such charm. She objected to the clothes her parents chose until she was given her own clothing allowance.

Chapter titles in this memoir are clothing items. My Mother’s Fur Coat. School Uniforms: Purple, Blue and None. The Apple-Green Shoes. White Jeans and White Denim Jacket. My Mother’s Pucci Dress. The Striped Silk Socks… There is a sketch for each:

As a child, Tracy lived in London, where her father was a theatre critic, writer and friend of the also-famous. Elaine Dundy was a New Yorker whose books included the sparkling novel The Dud Avocado. The family eventually moved to the United States, but by the time Tracy was in college her parents’ marriage had gone the way of most marriages marked by heavy drinking, loud quarrels and smashing crockery.

We are getting to the Tear of the title. Tracy was an only child. Her parents loved her and went in for intermittent displays of affection. However, their main passion was celebrity hunting. They were out at parties most nights, and often entertained. Tracy was left with babysitters or au pairs, or sent to boarding school. None of her schools worked out particularly well. It was embarrassing to be the daughter of the first man to use Anglo-Saxon expletives on the BBC. The quieter lives of her friends’ parents seemed enviable.

There are many ways of telling such a story. “Misery Memoirs”, tell-all stories of abuse and terror, sell better than quirky, uncomplaining stories like Tracy Tynan’s. She loved Kenneth Tynan, despite his narcissism, haphazard attention to other people’s emotional needs, and reported appetite for sado-masochistic sex. She was devastated by his reduced life in Los Angeles, marked by downmarket non-dandy clothing, and many visits to hospital. He died of emphysema in his fifties, and was given three memorials by his second wife. Tracy Tynan’s description of these events – in Los Angeles, Oxford and London – is a remarkable melange of grief and hilarity.

Elaine Dundy, meanwhile, had been in and out of rehab for years. She outlived Tynan by decades. Her daughter was astonished by the grief of many friends.

Why did I not see Elaine? Tracy Tynan wonders. I saw only the Elaine who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for over fifty years. The Elaine who was in and out of rehab so many times that I lost count. She was always Elaine, never Mother. She never took care of me. I took care of her, albeit reluctantly.

Clothes provide a triumphant note for the concluding chapters. With a lifetime of strong opinions about clothes, and familiarity with film and theatre from a young age, Tracy Tynan had a good background for a costume designer. She’d studied art history and was good at handcrafts. Her first tentative steps in the costume van of a film set led to a fulfilling career.

I won’t go into details about her emotional life, apart from mentioning one more chapter title, The T-Shirt Wedding Dress. What a hilarious chapter that is, with bride and groom dashing round Las Vegas in sparkly Charles and Di T-shirts, trying to get their documents to the right place on time.

Wear and Tear – The Threads of My Life, by Tracy Tynan, is published by Scribner.

PENELOPE NELSON

Plague in 1900 in Sydney

2020, 1919, 1900 … what do these years have in common?

2020 doesn’t bear writing about, what with fires, Covid-19 and now recession. And we keep hearing comparisons with the worldwide disaster of Spanish flu in 1919.

But the history of plague in Sydney is less well known. That’s plain old bubonic plague, the kind they had in London in the 1600s. Turning up here and there over the decades, it was carried from rats to fleas to humans. Sydney’s first encounter was in January 1900.

The rats came by sea. In Sydney the main dockyards were at Darling Harbour, and that’s where the plague took hold, among dock workers, local traders and carriers, and residents in crowded housing nearby.

The first sign was not a sick person, but an increase in the number of dead rats. It had never occurred to me that rats were also victims of the disease. Soon there were big campaigns to kill rats. The official number killed in Sydney that year, 108,308, looks a bit too precise to be believable. It could be an under-estimate.

Cover of Peter Curson & Kevin McCracken‘s book

Rat catchers proudly photographed great piles of rotting rodents. When Leichhardt Council Chambers was announced as the a local collection depot, the town clerk was besieged by people bearing dead rats and demanding the “captitation” fee of sixpence. The depot was actually in Canterbury Road. Some inner city districts were barricaded off until rat eradication and cleaning could be completed. Huge barge-loads of dead rats, contaminated material and other rubbish were towed out to sea, and some unsavoury items turned up on Bondi Beach. The Bulletin commented,

Break, break, break/ At the foot of thy crags, O Sea.

But the pungent smell of the cat that is dead/ Will ever come back to me.”

The disease spread rapidly, with the inner suburbs hardest hit. The Rocks and Chinatown were badly affected, as were Alexandria, Surry Hills, Botany, Waterloo and Woolloomooloo. City boarding houses, crowded cottages and cheap hotels were also at risk. Plague seldom penetrated the graceful streets of Mosman, Vaucluse or Strathfield. Manly was the only north shore address to be affected.

When a case was suspected, public health officials inspected the patient and the premises. Confirmed cases were quarantined – transported by launch to Quarantine Station at North Head. Close contacts were also taken to Quarantine Station where there was separate accommodation for contacts, up the hill from the hospital. People from small households usually complied with these arrangements, but when authorities insisted on quarantining 80 people from one hotel, there was violent resistance. Most contacts spent only a couple of weeks at North Head, but a few were there for months.

In all, there were 303 cases, of whom 103 died. Young men, at high risk because of their jobs near the wharves, were the largest group affected.

Restricting deaths to 103 represents a triumph for the authorities, but the figures mask untold tragedies. A terminally ill 3-year-old was snatched from his mother’s arms and taken to die alone at the Quarantine Station. Many families lost their sole breadwinner.

The city had much to learn about the need for decent sanitation, but in the meantime snake oil salesmen had a grand time promoting various preventive substances and cures. With its centuries-old name, The Black Death, the plague inspired terror, misinformation, and the desire to find someone to blame. The rumour mill went wild, with false claims that the Chinese community was the source of the infection, or that rich families were bribing officials not to identify them as plague victims. There was little clarity about which level of government was responsible for what. No one knew what the future might hold. Plague was not the only threat to health: doctors could offer little to combat scarlet fever, measles or flu.

But when winter 1900 turned to spring, the plague had run its course. Health experts warned that there would certainly be another epidemic one day, but most residents of Sydney just sighed with relief.

PENELOPE NELSON

More information: Curson, P. & McCracken, K., Plague in Sydney, UNSW Press