‘I love a sunburnt country’, sunning on the beach, regardless of the risk. Beaches offer sculpture exhibits, ‘race riots’, and peaceful protests: something for everyone.
‘A land of sweeping plains’, consumed by cash crops, draining precious water, leaving a legacy of dead fish.
‘Of ragged mountain ranges’, left scarred by logging and mining.
‘Of droughts and flooding rains’, while climate change deniers cite MacKellar’s 1908 poem as scientific evidence: No climate change here.
‘I love her far horizons’ that grow closer every year, fogged by pollution and bushfire smoke. This year, with reduced road traffic, the media reported with some astonishment that the Blue Mountains were visible from Sydney – as they were 60 years ago.
‘I love her emerald sea’, the bleached and dying coral reefs, the floating plastic and Styrofoam beads.
‘Her beauty and her terror’ Beauty? Yes. Terror? Yes, the forces of nature and climate change are formidable. Terrorist attacks and the pandemic: two new sources of terror.
‘The wide brown land for me’ And for me, the granddaughter of a Scottish settler, and great-granddaughter of a convict from Yorkshire? I love and embrace this land as my birthplace, but it’s not mine to claim.
“Do not give alms to the blind beggar” said my Bengali-English phrasebook. I had bought the book in Sydney to brush up on my Bengali prior to a visit to Kolkota (Calcutta) in 2006. It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the publication date did I see that it must have been printed over and over again for the past hundred years. This would account for other odd phrases such as “Order the syce to find out where we can buy fodder for the horses”. Being able to say this in Bengali would have been a valuable linguistic accomplishment for a fresh-faced young subaltern on his first posting with the Raj in 1906. It wasn’t going to be much use to me in one of Asia’s biggest cities in 2006. Still what else could I expect for an outlay of $3.95.
As it turned out, during a couple of weeks in Kolkota, I saw no blind beggars. Indeed, unlike my prior visit in 1959 when beggars, full- or part-limbed, sighted or blind, were abundant, this time I do not recall seeing any – due, said the locals, to the government whisking them away out of sight to who knows where.
However the concept of a blind beggar became imprinted on my subconscious and resurfaced in an unexpected way four years after the visit to Kolkota. My wife and I had been invited to a family wedding in Stuttgart and here I was in Sydney, working out what to wear for the ceremony – a suit of course- I had several in the wardrobe and these days they got worn only for weddings and funerals- sadly, more of the latter than the former. Here was an opportunity – to clear up wardrobe space by getting rid of the oldest suit. Sure, to outward appearances and in the absence of closer inspection, it would suffice for one last appearance at the wedding, but the suit was on a one-way ticket and would not be returning to Australia. On the other hand I could imagine no one in prosperous Germany interested in taking my suit off my hands.
This led to working out where we should go for a holiday after the Stuttgart wedding. We considered a number of sunny options but it was relative GDP that finally swayed the decision. One southern European place was pretty well as good as any other – they all had cathedrals, palaces, ancient ruins, trams, sunshine – and horrid tourist food. However, one candidate stood out. It had to be Portugal – and Lisbon in particular. When last there in 1961 I had noticed it was an impoverished place. This is where I would find lots of beggars and in particular a blind beggar to whom I could – noblesse oblige – donate my old suit.
Why, you ask, a blind beggar? The answer should be pretty obvious. A sighted beggar would doubtless ooze with Iberian pride and spot that my suit was a bit tatty and haughtily reject my munificence. The suit would probably be thrown back in my face. Yes it would have to be a blind beggar who would no doubt joyfully welcome the gift with a sincere obregado.
And so we flew to Lisbon. First impressions were highly favourable – the airport was crowded, grubby, old and decrepit. If I had any doubts, my spirits were lifted. This just had to be the place to part company with the suit.
Sadly Portugal had prospered in the preceding fifty years and, try as I might, during three tedious days of wandering the streets of Lisbon, I never encountered a blind beggar, nor regretfully any beggars. Later I discovered that the Portuguese had done wonderful things with their economy and their social welfare network: and beggars had become obsolete. As a trained economist, I suppose I should have known, but we all have our blind spots.
So one morning I crept out of our hotel, just before the garbos came round, and deposited my suit in the nearest green bin.
It had been a humbling experience and one more of life’s hard-earned lessons. I reflect with shame at my arrogance in not reckoning that even if I had found a blind beggar, his compensating superior tactile skills would have soon discovered the frayed cuffs and the torn lining – and the suit would doubtless have been thrown back in where he thought was my face.
How does a child learn how to read? As far as I can remember the process, I couldn’t read until, one day, I could. Written words and spoken words suddenly matched each other, and when that happened, it was magic. One clear memory that I treasure involved carefully copying words and stories from a book, probably a school reader, into an exercise book, and I can still feel the excitement and satisfaction of seeing that unfold. I was sitting at a child-sized table in a patch of sunshine at the front of our house during a Sydney winter, writing out the story word for word.
As I think about this now, I’m reminded of a similar process, but not a happy one, involving a university colleague who suffered a severe stroke in the prime of life. He had written two ground-breaking books based on the work of French philosophers, and, as part of his personal project of rehabilitation, he began copying the original text on his laptop, in the hope of making sense of what he had written a few years earlier.
Returning to my own story, I recall the first ‘real’ book that I read – Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog. A family friend had given me a copy, and I was thrilled to be able to read it by myself – that is, until I got to the word ‘determined’, somewhere in the first few chapters. I always had to ask my mother how to pronounce that word, apparently because it was important to me to hear it correctly in my head; I routinely put the stress on the first syllable instead of the second. I still have the book in my collection, not for its literary value (yes, I’m aware of all the critiques of Blyton’s biases, including racism), but because it was a landmark in my childhood.
Book-lovers and authors often say they grew up in a house full of books. This was not my experience. As I recall, my mother had a copy of Pears Cyclopaedia, mainly for its health advice, and bought the Women’s Weekly quite regularly, while my father read the Sydney Morning Herald and had a small collection of Zane Grey’s paperback westerns. Author Frank Dalby Davison was an acquaintance of my father’s, and we had a copy of Man-Shy. My brother, 12 years older than me, had a small collection of books, including one called The Theory of Flight that I read when I was older and loved books about flying. In short, my family were readers, but I would not say that I was surrounded by books.
A neighbour and friend, Ada Smith, was the mother of Thelma Clune and mother-in-law of Frank Clune, both patrons of the arts. Through Frank’s connections to the publishing industry, Auntie Ada (as I called her), was the recipient of several remaindered books that she passed on to me. I think Shadow the Sheepdog and other children’s books came through her, as did a number of coffee-table books, some about Australia and others about the Royal Family. And yes, I still have most of these books, too, 70 years later.
When I began undergraduate studies in 1972, I used to write term papers in longhand, then type them. As an early adopter of a computer in 1979 (a primitive contraption that used audiotapes for data storage), I began composing on-screen, a big step towards writing more quickly and efficiently. It’s hard to imagine how we wrote back in the day, without the benefit of computers. It also seems like a different era (although it was only about 12 years ago) when I had to print final drafts and send them by courier to my American publisher, rather than simply email them as attachments. However, I was certainly not an early adopter of online books, having only graduated to doing so this year, out of necessity, when Toronto public libraries were closed for several months because of the pandemic.
Yes, reading and writing: things that sustain us (to borrow from Julia Baird, with great admiration!)
I FELT SAD as I stood by the German Cemetery in Bamenda, high on a hill in West Africa. Row upon row of gravestones commemorating young soldiers, eighteen and nineteen years old – boys really- who had not died in battle but who had succumbed to yellow fever or one of the other tropical diseases rife in these parts around 1900. At twenty one I was little older than these German lads. They did not have the benefit of the vaccinations which in 1960 would ensure my safe return home.
I FELT SAD when a few months ago I learned of the measles epidemic in Vanuatu, in which hundreds of children suffered and sixty died because, through their parents’ ignorance or through unavailability, they had not been vaccinated. Such an avoidable tragedy.
I FELT SAD for my mother who lost four of her sisters in infancy through various childhood illnesses which are now preventable by vaccinations.
I FELT SAD for the health workers murdered recently by the Pakistan Taliban because they were administering polio vaccines in the villages.
I FEEL GLAD that I and my family are fortunate to live in an era when we have been able, through vaccination, to avoid the disaster of all manner of diseases including typhoid fever, polio, TB, measles, rubella, diptheria, smallpox, yellow fever and many others.
I FEEL GLAD that BILLIONS of children and adults over the past century or so have avoided these horrific diseases through participating in government- and n.g.o.- sponsored vaccination programs.
I FEEL SAD at the lack of judgement displayed by opponents of vaccination, at their rejection of science, at their ignorance and misuse of statistics, at their misleading claims, at their naive willingness to be duped by unscrupulous purveyors of mistruths.
I FEEL SAD that the opponents of vaccination do not seem to understand that, accepting there may be slight risks in vaccination, these are outweighed hugely by its benefits to the great majority of people.
I FEEL SAD that those who actively promote anti-vaccination (for instance by sharing social media posts) do not seem to understand they are not just expressing an opinion, but, to the extent that they are able to convince others, are contributing to human misery, sickness and death.
I HOPE that the vaccination-sceptics will fail miserably in their cruel and deceptive scaremongering.
I HOPE the irony eventually hits home to at least some anti-vaxxers that they themselves might never have come into existence had they not had the good fortune to have been born into communities where most people, including perhaps their forbears, had been vaccinated.
I FEEL HOPEFUL that, due to the knowledge, hard work and dedication of thousands of scientists and health workers, Covid will end up like so many other evils – kept at bay with a friendly little jab.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More information: Curson, P. & McCracken, K., Plague in Sydney, UNSW Press
“Won’t be long , sir” I said as I put the cork liners in the perfume bottles. I was almost five years old and helping my father as he set up his stall to sell perfumes.
This was my father’s first day in the business. Dad was a medical student. He earned his living, fed and housed his family and paid for his studies by a variety of jobs, always self-employed. At one time he sold tips at the races. At another he hired space in a department store and told fortunes, capitalising on his exotic Bengali appearance and the mystic East. At some time he and my mother ran a fancy goods store in south London.
His most successful business venture was going to be making and selling perfumes. During wartime there was a scarcity of luxury goods and perfume provided a great opportunity to earn some real money.
The night before he had mixed all the ingredients at home in our small flat in Brixton,, sorting them into a number of large glass jars. At the market the contents would be transferred, according to popularity, into small bottles for sale to the customers. That morning we had set off walking to the tram stop at the top of the road, my father carrying everything in a large leather suitcase. The case must have been unimaginably heavy, but this is where his early athletic fitness would have stood him in good stead. He had been an Olympic swimming triallist for India.
By tram we travelled to the East Lane outdoor market, a piece of London history dating back to the 16th century and still in existence today. Here he hired a stall and commenced trading.
Dad had an aversion to bureaucracy and had not bothered to get the obligatory traders permit from the authorities.
Not long after we set up stall we were approached by a burly London bobby who asked to see Dad’s permit. When my father was unable to produce it, the policeman asked, “Where’s my poppy?” My father was unaware that “poppy” was cockney slang for a bribe.
Innocently my father replied, “Sorry, we don’t have poppy. How about a bottle of June Rose?”
Remember this was wartime and luxury goods such as perfume were almost unobtainable.
The bobby burst out laughing and went away delighted with his bottle of June Rose, as was no doubt his wife or girlfriend.
Sometime in the 1920s, the British authorities conducted an audit of the political prisoners they had incarcerated in the Andaman Islands in a remote part of the Bay of Bengal. To their surprise they found that they had one more prisoner than shown in their records. This was especially amazing because the prison at Port Blair had an horrific reputation and no one went there willingly. To the British officials, schooled in belief in the omnipotence of the Raj, this revelation was not only puzzling. It was exceedingly humiliating. How had their efficient administration screwed up?
The British had been using the Andaman Islands as a place to imprison Indian freedom fighters since the rebellion of 1857 (a.k.a. The Indian Mutiny). By the beginning of the twentieth century the scale of Indian independence activity against British rule was so widespread that the Government opened the Cellular Jail in the Andamans in 1906. Designed to house almost 700 prisoners, many sent there for life, it was frequently full. Every cell was for solitary confinement and the authorities, mindful of the rebellious nature of their political charges, ensured there was no contact between inmates.
As the twentieth century rolled on, scores of pro-independence groups throughout India were active in speech-making, seditious pamphlets, sabotage, assassinations, bombings, robberies (to raise funds) and even in small military battles against British troops. All had the aim of driving the British out of India. The authorities often resorted to hanging those they caught. Those convicted of less serious offences like sedition were transported to the Andamans, some for life. As a result, the Cellular Jail was frequently at capacity.
Located far away from the Indian mainland, the authorities treated the inmates harshly and often inhumanely. Food and water were inadequate and often contaminated. Prisoners toiled long hours at forced labour in hot tropical conditions. Disease was rife and medical treatment almost non-existent. Prisoners were often flogged, sometimes to death. Suicide was frequent. When prisoners managed to break through the enforced isolation and rioted in protest at conditions, ringleaders were hanged.
By the 1920s there was a growing sense of resentment amongst Indians at the indignities of foreign rule. In Amritsar in 1919, General Reginald Dyer had ordered British Indian troops to fire on unarmed civilians, killing almost four hundred and wounding over a thousand. There was widespread condemnation, not only in India but worldwide. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore registered his disgust by renouncing his British knighthood. In 1920, Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement of strikes and civil disobedience. In 1921 Gandhi became leader of the Indian National Congress and began campaigning for swaraj ( = self rule).
Against this background, enter my grandfather’s elder brother, Rajanikanta (RK), living in Cuttack on the east coast of India, a clerk on the governor’s staff. For over a hundred years educated Bengalis had made good clerks, serving the administrative needs of the Raj in a humble capacity. Though he depended for his livelihood on working for the Raj, RK like so many other Indians yearned for the day when the British were thrown out and, who knows, some of the top jobs might become available to well-qualified locals.
One day he saw his opportunity to get back at the Raj when he became aware a freedom fighter was scheduled to be hanged. He forged the governor’s signature on a reprieve and had the man transferred as a political prisoner to the Andamans.
Somehow the requisite paperwork did not accompany the man when he arrived in Port Blair but nevertheless he ended up in the Circular Jail.
When the misdeed was eventually discovered, you might think that the authorities would have taken revenge on RK and at the very least given him a long jail sentence, maybe in the Andamans. However it seems that the authorities realized that the resultant publicity might rebound on them and show up the incompetence of the mighty Raj in allowing the fraud to occur. Remember this was an increasingly sensitive time and they must have felt that the prestige of British administration should not be compromised in any way. The British Raj could not be seen to be ridiculed by an insignificant Bengali Babu.
So RK was asked to take a “Voluntary Retirement”. He was told to keep quiet about the incident on pain of prosecution and of course it remained a taboo subject which no one in the family talked about until after Indian Independence in 1947.
Meanwhile, RK managed to get himself a job as a clerk in an English company. He did not like the work but his attempts to resign were rejected by his English manager because RK was good at his job. In his frustration and in order to force the issue he snatched the manager’s hat from its stand, put it on and strolled around the office proclaiming that he was now an Englishman. He thus succeeded in losing his job, came home and declared that others would easily be able to bring up his children. That is how his younger brother Dr Durgadas Sen, my grandfather, came to bring up and educate some of his nephews.
Later RK earned fame and popularity as a street bard who lampooned Englishmen.
RK went to live in the family home in Bankura in rural Bengal where he died in 1931 aged sixty three, having a laugh about the English to the end.
In the mid twentieth century, I was sent away from my family to an aunt & uncle on the other side of the continent, because I was ill. My symptoms were extreme loss of weight, obsessive walking, and refusal to eat. Desperate, my parents consented to ECT, which in those days was extremely primitive. I was hospitalised for several weeks and underwent cruelly painful sessions of electro-convulsive therapy without anaesthetic. I also witnessed other patients convulsing while having the treatment. I was fourteen, and weighed less than 27 kilos.
Lonely and isolated in Western Australia, my only solace was my journal, into which I poured my frustration, anger, and sorrow. I wrote frequent letters to my parents and sisters back home. One sister remembers me writing ‘No-one can ever understand.’ I myself didn’t understand what was wrong with me, as the disease which we now know as anorexia nervosa had not been named in the Antipodes, at least not in the small communities in which I lived.
The journals and letters do not exist today. Along with photographs of me at the time, they were destroyed. Only one photo remains, of me in so-called ‘recovery’. In the black and white print, my body and face are cadaverous. I’m smiling for my parents, showing off the summer dress my mother had sent me from the eastern states. It swamped my body.
Amazingly, I didn’t die. When I was told that I had only two months to live, I made a supreme effort to force food down, which I immediately vomited up. My face, arms and legs were covered with long fine hairs, and I had no menstrual periods.
I credit my survival to two factors: the first was the eventual naming of the disease, which somehow gave it a legitimate status in the eyes of my family. The second was my treatment by a psycho-analyst specialising in children. She saved my life not only by her skilful exploration of my psyche, but also because of her kindness, and her belief in me.
It is only recently that scientists have discovered that anorexia nervosa is genetic, not, as presented in the popular media, a life choice. Nevertheless sufferers are often still blamed for bringing the illness on themselves, compassion goes to the patients’ families, rather than to the sufferer herself. My work-in-progress, A Dangerous Daughter, is a fictional re-creation of my harrowing teenage years. My hope is that, if my novel is published, it will help both sufferers and their families understand this insidious disease, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
This is a story about two men, a painter and a thief.
A few boats and boatsheds on the shoreline – I’ve known this painting all my life.
The pale green shed catches the eye, its paintbox colour setting off the yellows of the sand. Several fishing boats lie on the beach, and the one in the foreground has been turned upside down.
The painter was Charles Alexandre Picart le Doux, 1881-1959.
My father stole this painting.
It’s a long story, one that he told more than once, the details changing a little each time.
David McNicoll, 1914-2000, a war correspondent for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, covered the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944. He crossed the Channel to Normandy with Canadian troops, anchoring near “Gold” beach, Bernieres-sur-mer. Journalists were not allowed to land during the assault on the beaches, so they watched from the ship. The noise of low-flying aircraft, gunfire, cannons and bombs was terrifying. Dozens of badly wounded men were brought back to the ship – the Hilary‘s dining room became a hospital.
Fighting moved inland, and the correspondents went ashore. Corpses lay everywhere, Germans and allies alike. Fifty young Canadians, newly dead, lay neatly lined up on the sand, their wounds barely visible. It was a sight my father could never forget.
Such was his first visit to France.
Some days after the landing a small group of journalists followed Allied soldiers into the newly-liberated Nazi headquarters in Cherbourg. I don’t know whether the German HQ was a town hall or a big villa, but my father always described it as a big place, “stuffed with loot.” Occupying officers had surrounded themselves with the best of French furniture, glassware, ornaments and paintings. “Very good taste, some beautiful pictures,” my father remembered in a 1989 interview.
At this point in the story he would point out that soldiers around him were helping themselves to what they saw as Nazi loot. Sometimes he said, “The Canadians were stuffing gold candelabra into their pockets hand over fist.” In a 1989 interview with Tim Bowden he said that G.I.’s were slicing paintings out of their frames.
It was a free-for-all.
My father told Tim Bowden that he knocked the picture out of its frame, removed the nails, and folded it as tightly as he could so that he could carry it in his kitbag. Several years later he had it framed in Sydney, where it hung on a wall until his death in 2000. At some stage he discovered that Charles Picart Le Doux was quite well known in France.
He made no attempt to return the painting, but in 1989, asked about its provenance, he no longer gloated about Nazi loot. “Probably belonged to some poor unfortunate Frenchman,” he admitted.
Over the years David McNicoll bought a number of paintings. All Australian, they looked at home with the Le Doux. The light, the colours, the informal composition, the subtle details – perhaps the stolen painting was the keystone to my father’s taste, and possibly mine as well. If you put the stolen painting in an exhibition of Sydney Moderns, people would take it for a Roland Wakelin.
Charles Le Doux, born in Paris, studied at the Beaux-Arts de Paris before going to live in Montmartre, where he made friends with many other artists including Suzanne Valadon, her son Maurice Utrillo, Charles Vildrac, Jules Romains and Georges Duhamel. He began exhibiting in 1904 and had his first one-man show in 1910.
Serving as a medical orderly in World War I, Le Doux witnessed many horrors near the frontline. By the time peace came, he was a committed pacifist, and suffering deep depression. Soon he renewed his focus on work. He resolved to let his subject matter dictate form and style. He would “oublier la technique” – abandon technical theory.
The 1920s were good to him. His paintings were on show in galleries in Paris, San Francisco, New York, Rio de Janeiro, London, Berlin and Munich. He moved to Montmartre; some of his paintings were acquired by national museums.
His output included landscapes, portraits and designs. In 1938 he painted the untitled beach scene with fishing boats, probably on site in Brittany or Normandy.
During the World War II Le Doux lived in Tours and painted nearly 100 portraits. After the war he resumed work as a professor of painting in Paris, and accepted a number of commissions to illustrate books or decorate buildings. He wrote poetry and continued to paint. Two of his sons were artists, one of them, Jean, becoming well known for tapestry designs.
Charles Le Doux died in 1959 aged 79. His paintings still sell at auction, for fairly modest prices. His contemporaries, Matisse and Picasso, took painting in new directions. Le Doux was neither a pioneer nor one of the big names.
After my father died in 2000, my brother and I sold his paintings, each keeping a few favourites. I grabbed the boat scene – fortunately it was not one my brother had his eye on.
In 2001 I contacted Australia’s cultural liaison officer at the Paris Embassy, outlining the story I’ve just told, and asking if there was a restitution program under which I should return the painting. She said that she would make enquiries, but that if I heard nothing further, I could enjoy the painting with a clear conscience.
I heard no more about it.
Do I enjoy the painting? Yes and no. In the last year of my father’s life the painting acquired a couple of noticeable scratches, visible above and below the black boat. Unsure what to do about restoration, I’ve done nothing. And I have to confess to slight disappointment that nothing came of my approach to the Embassy. It would have been an adventure to take the painting to a gallery in Cherbourg or a descendant of the painter’s.
Now travel is out of the question for the foreseeable future.
The painting can’t be sold. An online French auction house gives three conditions for sale. The work must be authentic. Yes, it is. It must be in good condition. No, it isn’t. And finally, its provenance must be impeccable.
Hmmm – a big black cross for that one. The provenance is fascinating, but it’s far from impeccable.
I am left with a lot of what-ifs. What if the painter and the thief had ever met? Would they have got on well? Would they have marvelled at the contrast between this peaceful scene and the bloodbath on the selfsame beaches that my father witnessed? Would the wartime thief have bought a Le Doux or two legitimately?
What if someone develops a vaccine fast, and I turn up in Cherbourg one day in the future with a big brown paper parcel?
What if, what if, what if….
A note on sources
Tim Bowden’s interview with David McNicoll is an audio recording on the Australian War Memorial’s site, awm.gov.au/collection/C235674
Wikipedia has a biography of Charles Picart Le Doux; he and his son Jean feature on many French art sites.
Google “auction results Charles Picart Le Doux” to see many more of his paintings.
Finally, my thanks to David Burden for untangling a tricky French phrase.