We were at Gnomesville the other day. Since the 1990s people have been leaving gnomes in the bush by the side of a round-about in a sparsely-populated corner of the Ferguson Valley. There’s thousands of gnomes spread around the trees and along the tracks. A few of the gnomes are broken but not many; I think the broken ones must be removed. One of the main stretches follows a seasonal creek-bed and the flat clear surface is filled with shiny new gnomes with dates from recent weeks written in texta. Perhaps, like me at first, they didn’t notice it was a creek. A good proportion of gnomes on higher ground are spattered with mud, survivors of at least one year of winter’s rains. Others were probably washed away.Continue reading
Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild by Dylan Hyde (Fremantle Press 2019)
What a labour of love Dylan Hyde’s Art Was Their Weapon is. The interviews for this history of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild in the 1930s go right back to 1993. Many of the key players from the guild were still alive then, and lucid. None of them are still with us today, and so in his extensive interviews, Hyde has preserved the voices of a generation of radicals and a fascinating milieu. Continue reading
I spent my childhood, from ages two to fifteen, in Collie and it seems like a dream. I’m not really in touch with anyone who lives there and I’ve only returned a handful of times. The rest of my family lives only fifty kilometres west in Bunbury, but there’s no passing through Collie; it’s not on the way to anything else. It’s a coal mining town in a valley, surrounded by bush on all sides. Continue reading
Years ago in her story “Paris Bled into the Ocean” Western Australian writer Amanda Curtin fictionalised a legend about the artist Kathleen O’Connor throwing her own paintings into the sea at Fremantle when she couldn’t pay the import duty on them. Fremantle Press suggested she write a book about O’Connor and for it, Curtin has turned from fiction to biography. O’Connor (1876-1968) is a difficult subject. She was a private person, revealing little of her inner or personal life in the papers she left behind. The recollections of those who knew her best suggest she was a mystery to them, too. In these cases, writing a subject’s life as a biographical quest—as Curtin has done—is often the best choice. Curtin walks in O’Connor’s footsteps, from New Zealand where she was born, to Perth where her father, the famous engineer killed himself in 1902, and to Paris, her spiritual and artistic home. ‘I am looking for Kate in this place where she was born. There may be little, or nothing, to find but I have come to believe that people leave traces of themselves in the places they inhabit; that they can carry those places with them forever. It’s a familiar method of research for me—an alchemy of the physical and the instinctual.’ (22) Curtin is unintrusive, alluding to echoes of O’Connor’s life in her own but never taking the focus away from O’Connor and the quest for traces of her. Continue reading
Autobiography is an impossible genre. Memoir is easier – the writer is allowed to present an aspect of their life, to create a story out of one of its strands or seasons. Autobiography has to try to include them all. The desire to remember and record names, dates, and places is in the tension with the need to craft a narrative. And different phases of life require quite different types of writing which might not go together. The problems of autobiography are on show in Justina Williams’ Anger and Love (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993), but it’s an important, fascinating text. Continue reading
My friend Laurie Steed’s debut, You Belong Here, has just been published. It stretches from 1972 to 2015, beginning when two baby boomers fall in love and finishing with a poignant epilogue chapter from their first grandchild, but at its heart it’s a novel about Generation X, that forgotten generation that no-one seems to have talked about since the nineties. He-man toys in childhood, PJ Harvey on the stereo; reading it is a welcome respite from an internet world as the three Slater children – Alex, Emily, Jay – grow up on lolly bags at the deli, cricket and VHS at the end of the twentieth century. Continue reading
Melinda Tognini is one of the most generous writers I know – always looking to encourage other writers, to tell other people’s stories, and to begin conversations on her blog. I was thrilled that her book, Many Hearts, One Voice: The Story of the War Widows’ Guild in Western Australia was finally published in 2015 by Fremantle Press, and embarrassed I am only reviewing it now.
The War Widows’ Guild began after World War Two as women whose husbands had been killed banded together for support and to advocate for recognition and benefits. The surprise for me reading Many Hearts is how hard these women had to fight for those things; I had wrongly assumed the Australian government would have been generous to them without any pressure. Instead, it is only through advocacy – by turns patient and noisy – that they have gained the support they now have. The book weaves the history of the organisation with the life stories of the women who have been a part of it. It places this in a wider historical context, things like the effects on the organisation of shifts in gender roles and society’s values, and new wars from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan.
Reading the book as a pacifist, it serves as a picture of the long shadow war casts over lives, the “many hearts” broken. While I doubt many of the widows share my pacifism, they are more aware than anyone of the cost of war. I was also struck by the significance of ritual for war widows. One of their continuing fights has been for recognition in ceremonies remembering the war dead, especially the opportunity to lay wreaths during these events. It speaks to the way in which, in a largely secular country, remembrance and the Anzac legend function as a civil religion. In such a system, it’s only right that war widows have a place of honour.
I’ve edited several organisational histories, which makes me appreciate even more Melinda’s achievement in Many Hearts. Organisations will tend to require detail (the names of many key players and often repetitive events); encourage cosiness or self-congratulatory anecdotes / memories; and discourage the writer from playing up drama and scandal. Melinda negotiates all these challenges very well within the conventions of the genre to create an engaging narrative. In every respect, it is so well-balanced. Balanced in its mix of the personal, the organisational, and the big picture; balanced in its use of oral history, archival documents, and newspaper reports; and balanced between respectfulness and truthfulness.
The book has been well published by Fremantle Press. Along with many photographs, I appreciate the reproduction of a number of key documents. It brings the reader into the history-writing process, allows them to glimpse the sources.
Many Hearts comes at the right time, when the origins of the organisation are still just within living memory. It is able to preserve the voices and experiences of women which otherwise would have been lost. At a talk Melinda gave at the War Widows’ headquarters, I had a sense of the excitement of the members that their story has been told.
John Kinsella Old Growth 254pp Transit Lounge, 2017. Review copy supplied by publisher.
John Kinsella’s new short story collection, Old Growth, is a wondrously Western Australian book, centred on the wheatbelt with regular trips to Fremantle, the suburbs around Bicton on the south of the river, and up to Geraldton. Yet its pleasures are not just in its sense of place, but its capturing of so many different ordinary lives lived in these places. Continue reading
I moved to Perth from the country when I was eighteen to study and haven’t left. I’m thirty-six today, which means I’ve now been here half my life. I’ve lived in nine different suburbs from North Lake in the south to Lesmurdie in the hills, but it’s Victoria Park in the inner-city which has become home. My brother and I moved into a decaying weatherboard house in East Victoria Park in 2002. It was before the boom, and it cost $120 a week. There was a hole in the bedroom wall and the feel of the 1950s still in the old carpet and fittings and the overgrown quarter-acre backyard. We were shocked at the price – far beyond us – when it was put up for sale for $350,000 the next year. After a few years in share houses in East Victoria Park until I got married in 2006, it took six years to get back to the area, but Nicole and I had often thought we probably would, and now we’ve been back in Victoria Park for five years. Continue reading
Troppo Madelaine Dickie (Fremantle Press, 2016)
I had the pleasure of meeting Madeline Dickie at the TAG Hungerford Award ceremony in March last year. It turns out she’s a good friend of a school friend of mine. She was announced as the winner that night and I’ve been looking forward to her novel coming out since.
Troppo’s first person narrator is Penny, an Australian in her early twenties who’s returned to Indonesia escaping the boredom of her career-focused older boyfriend, Josh, and the sterility of life in Perth. She lives for surfing, adventure, and the excitement of new people. “Risk,” Penny writes, “always make things sharper, throws into contrast the highs and lows, gives clarity. As a surfer, I know this, I’ve lived this. Living in Perth, like a sleepwalker, I’ve missed this.” Penny is drawn to a new man and is torn between her attraction to him and her loyalty to Josh. At the same time, she’s about to begin a new job at a resort run by Shane, an expat with a reputation as a psycho whose business is the focal point of growing tension between the “bules” and the locals. Continue reading