Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Memory and Place

As I said in a post earlier this month, I've been doing some research assistant work for the last three and a half weeks, only a couple of weeks left after this one. I'm speed reading Australian biographies and collating data on references to reading. I've just finished working on Barbara Brooks' biography of Eleanor Dark. She also has a biographical essay on Eleanor Dark here. The book was quite a tome and stuffed full of references to reading. I've been working on it the last few days. If you ever get a chance to read it, I recommend it. The biography was fascinating. I'd like to read it properly one day and I'd also like to read some of Dark's novels too.

Actually I'd like to read all these biographies again, and properly, one day; well, maybe not Eric Campbell's account of the New Guard. I knocked that over this afternoon, after finishing the Dark biography. Campbell's style, even for 1963, is quite daunting. He often sounds like a parody of that absolutely pukka stiff-upper-lip British-Imperial-military type. But sadly, of course, that's what he modelled himself on. He was determined to be an Australian version of that Imperial Britisher. Monty Python would have had a field day with him! But nevertheless, there were brief moments even in his account when a flash of something human shone through.

Prior to the Dark biography, I'd been reading a large oral history of the Depression years in Australia, Weevils in the Flour. And before then was the Frank Hardy book that took me back to my times in the old Melbourne watchhouse. I've also read lives Les Darcy, King O'Malley, Robin Dalton and an army nurse's account of captivity in Sumatra during WW2. And that's not all I've read either plus I have a pile of books to get into. After Campbell, I plan to read about Margaret Coen and also Jean Devanny. And there's more.

This whole experience has been a fascinating and deeply touching, even moving, one for me. To start with, most of these people, and the other people in their lives, are really fascinating people, with many of whom I feel a rapport, in their hopes and dreams, their humanity, their vision, their compassion and their faith, and at times their despair. With many of them, there's also the involvement in progressive, left-wing, Labor Party, socialist, union and Communist Party politics. There's quite a few Catholics and other Christians, too, and they're mostly on the Left. Often they abandon their religion, but often they don't. I'm enjoying meeting these people and I'm humbled by them too. Well, most of them.

From reading these biographies, I'm learning an awful lot of Australian history too. I knew a bit of it but these biographies give a glimpse into worlds that you don't get in a strict historical narrative. I started this post yesterday (Wednesday) and today I manged to read the Coen biography. Through it I entered several rich worlds - the world of a rural NSW town (Yass) a century ago and then several worlds of Sydney. I discovered that the area of Sydney from Martin Place to Circular Quay used to be a veritable artists hangout in the twenties and thirties. In those days there was no expressway and the bridge had just been finished in 1932. I can't imagine what it's like nowadays but I know my first detailed memories of the area come from a family trip to Sydney in 1967 and I was struck then by it being an area of high rise office blocks. How different from that earlier time!

The biographies bring these lost worlds to life for me. That's especially important for two reasons. The first is that I'm a survivor of the Australian education system of the '50s and '60s. I don't think Australia is unique in this, but, nevertheless, I'm struck by how much my education seemed designed to cultivate a collective amnesia about Australia's history. It's been odd for me to observe the teaching history debates that were a recent feature of public discussion in this country, particularly in the Howard years. Howard represented himself as the great savior of Australian history in our schools, which had apparently been run down or even dumped unlike the great glory years of the past when history was taught and promoted. I always thought what rubbish! I don't know how history is taught nowadays but in my schooldays it was, I think, deliberately made so boring and dull that we young people would never want to look at it again (a bit like the way poetry and novels and drama, Shakespeare, were taught too; intentionally designed to destroy any possible interest we might have had in them for our later lives). After I finished school I never really bothered much with Australian history, apart from learning about indigenous history (and that was whitewashed and whited out almost completely in school). I also picked up some union history and a bit of history of left wing movements here; and then, many years after I left school, we started to get some LGBT histories being published. Otherwise most of my history reading was overseas history. It was a bit harder to dumb down in school or maybe so much energy was put into dumbing down and anaesthetizing Australian history that they didn't bother so much with the foreign stuff. So enough got through to intrigue and fascinate me - and I have always been fascinated by history.

The other reason reading these biographies has been important is that they are bringing worlds to life that were further blocked off to me by the fact that while I was born in Sydney like my parents and all of their families, I grew up in Brisbane. I have some early childhood memories of Sydney both from when we lived there and then of visits from Lithgow, where we then lived until we moved to Brisbane in 1957 when I was 5 (I think a lot of my visceral, unspoken, sensual memories - colour, light and shade, scent and cold and warmth and wind stem from Lithgow; I seem to be haunted by bush framed sunsets). We never got back to visit Sydney until I was turning 15 in 1967. The world my parents, and aunt (Mum's sister) and uncle knew in their youth was a Sydney world for which I had no reference, being in Brisbane. At the same time they could not pass on to me memories of Brisbane because again they were from Sydney; the world of Brisbane's past was as unknown to them as it was to me. My family actually left Sydney when I was two and moved to Lithgow in the Blue Mountains (my aunt and uncle left around then too). As I got older, especially as an adult I began to find out more about Brisbane's past - I also got to visit Sydney a fairly regularly in the 70s and 80s and a couple of times in the 90s too (I haven't really been there this century, apart from the airport en route to elsewhere) and so have a bit more of a sense of place for Sydney, although not as well as Brisbane or Melbourne, or Townsville for that matter (where I lived and worked for a time in '88).

Ironically, one person might have been able to help create a collective memory of Brisbane for me, my mother's mother, my grandmother; except for the fact of how she came to live in Brisbane from the 1920s onwards. My grandmother had come here after leaving her husband and two daughters to go with another man (my mother and my aunt were then fostered out to another family with whom they grew up). What made the situation even more awkward was that my grandmother was Catholic, my grandfather Protestant, and after he divorced my grandmother, she married the man she went off with. By the time I was on the scene he was dead and he was never really spoken of, and of course us being a Catholic family made my grandmother's past even more difficult to discuss. It was the half-secret that wasn't to be talked about. I only found out some details from my grandfather's second wife, my step-grandmother when I visited her in Sydney when I was older.

The Depression oral histories made me aware of various facts about life in Brisbane and Queensland and also Sydney and New South Wales that were unknown to me (I had no idea that the dole used to be paid out by the police back then!). And I've read one biography of an Irish couple who ended up in Brisbane in the second half of the 19th century. But most of the material I've read so far is about people living in or around Sydney. Many of these people are part of the Sydney my parents knew and so all of a sudden I have been immersed in these worlds, these communities, that possibly my parents and even my grandparents knew. Margaret Coen was not only a friend of Norman Lindsay but the pair had been lovers at one stage too. Thing is I remember being told that my grandmother went to parties at Lindsay's house in Springwood, at least once anyway (stories tend to embellish things). This was long before Margaret Coen was on the scene. But it's an odd feeling to think that there may be a connection to this world in my ancestral past. Another biography was of Robin Dalton who was born Robin Eakin, the daughter of a doctor Eakin. Dalton was born the same year as my mother but their lives were extraordinarily different, radically so when Dalton left Australia for London at the end of WW2. I asked my mother if she'd known of the Eakins or the doctor when she was nursing at St Vincents back in the war years. My mother remembered a doctor called Eakin then but he was too young to be the father of Robin. But, again, little points of connection. I can't hope for much more because my mother and my aunt are the only ones left of that generation in my family. And my grandparents and step-grandparents have long since left this earth.

The Eleanor Dark biography was extraordinarily well written and was richly illustrated by quotes from her correspondence and that of her circles (and political police reports too). I felt that I had somehow entered her world and it was a world that fascinated me, a world with which I had points of connection through shared ideals and hopes. They're all dead now. I would love a a TARDIS so that I could go back and meet them all.

Biography and history; bringing history alive; discovering a sense of place in the past, through the past. I look at those lives and think, aren't you all extraordinary! How amazing we humans are! Each one a microcosm of hope and dreams and loves, of stories countless. Biography and history. Maybe that's why our school curriculum set out to bore us with history. Yes we can learn from the mistakes of the past. But more importantly I think biography and history can awaken in us a sense of wonder, a sense of compassion, a sense of solidarity with those who went before and consequently with those around us now too. Wonder? Compassion? Solidarity? In a capitalist society? No surprise we were taught amnesia instead.

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