From a small island, messages in a bottle floating out to sea. That was Gwen Harwood’s image for the poems she sent out during her early years in Tasmania, long before she had due recognition. Her letters, by contrast, knew their destination; they were treasured for decades by her friends, and they now make up the remarkable collection A Steady Storm of Correspondence.
As editor, Gregory Kratzmann has had an enviable but not an easy task in choosing no more than four hundred letters when ten times as many were made available to him. The quality is extraordinary. There’s nothing forced or formal: none in which Harwood’s voice seems muffled by the conventional phrasing of a duty letter. Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet as well as many stories of friendship; and it gains from being read in sequence.
Many readers will remember the letters of the young Gwen Harwood (then Gwen Foster) from the collection Blessed City (1990). Written from Brisbane before her marriage, these letters all have the same recipient, Thomas (Tony) Riddell, the friend of a lifetime to whom she dedicated all but one of her published volumes of poetry. They were written in quick succession (sometimes two or three in the same week) during a single year, 1943, when Harwood was twenty-two, working as a secretary in the War Damage Commission and as organist at All Saints’ Church of England. Kratzmann reprints only three from Blessed City: enough to place the new reader, but with minimal repetition for those who know the earlier volume.
The tall, handsome, socially adept if emotionally reticent scion of a wealthy, well-connected family and the crumpled, physically unimpressive, excitable son of an alcoholic travelling salesman seem to be an unlikely pair to form a long-standing friendship. For both James Laughlin and Thomas Lanier ‘Tennessee’ Williams, however, this relationship was among the most important in their lives.
The tall, handsome, socially adept if emotionally reticent scion of a wealthy, well-connected family and the crumpled, physically unimpressive, excitable son of an alcoholic travelling salesman seem to be an unlikely pair to form a long-standing friendship. For both James Laughlin and Thomas Lanier ‘Tennessee’ Williams ...
Sylvia Plath wrote her last letter to the American psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher a week prior to her suicide on 11 February 1963. In it, Plath castigates herself for being guilty of ‘Idolatrous love’, a concept she drew from psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. ‘I lost myself in Ted instead of finding myself,’ Plath writes, identifying the subsumption of her ego into her failed marriage at the heart of her unhappiness. The letter’s tone is self-lacerating – Plath diagnoses herself as ‘very narcissistic’, lacking ‘a mature identity’, and in the grip of a ‘ghastly defeatist cycle’ – and distraught, citing a ‘fear & vision of the worst’. It closes with a portentous image of her domestic life, made terrible with hindsight: ‘Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea,’ Plath wrote. A week later, she killed herself.
Sylvia Plath wrote her last letter to the American psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher a week prior to her suicide on 11 February 1963. In it, Plath castigates herself for being guilty of ‘Idolatrous love’, a concept she drew from psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. ‘I lost myself in Ted instead of finding myself ...
‘A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend,’ wrote Emily Dickinson. Yet part of the lure of letters – and life writing generally – is a sense of the corporeal, the promise of discovering the writer herself. As Jacqueline Rose suggests, writing about biography and Sylvia Plath in the London Review of Books, it is tempting to imagine access ‘not just into the inner recesses of the poet’s thought, but through the veils, behind the closed doors of her past’.
Perhaps suicide intensifies this desire. Rose suggests ‘it is a paradox of suicide that the murderer, who lives on for ever, is the one who didn’t survive’. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), she probes the antithetical after-effects of this. Plath ‘haunts our culture’, Rose writes, but is caught between execration and idealisation, hovering in ‘the space of what is most extreme, most violent, about appraisal, valuation, about moral and literary assessment’.
‘A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend,’ wrote Emily Dickinson. Yet part of the lure of letters – and life writing generally – is a sense of the corporeal, the promise of discovering the writer herself. As Jacqueline Rose suggests, writing about biography and ...
On his death in February 2012, Leslie Nicholl Walford, the man who right from the outset of his career had determined to shift Australian taste away from drab interiors filled with Victorian brown furniture, was saluted as one of Australia’s most influential interior designers. With a sensibility honed in Paris, where he attended Le Centre d’Art et de Techniques (1954–55), Walford’s preferences were more discerning and refined: the gilded elegance of fine French seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furniture, but with an appreciation also of the sleek lines of modern Scandinavian design. Over the years, from his base in the shopping village of Double Bay in the affluent eastern suburbs of his home city, he presided over a large design practice catering especially to a core circle of wealthy clients. He was the designer of choice for the Packers and the Murdochs, and he twice decorated Retford Park, the grand country mansion of James Fairfax at Bowral in the Southern Highlands. The social world in which Walford moved with practised ease – both as a member in his own right but also its servant – was later chronicled with wit and panache in the columns he wrote first for the Sun-Herald (1967–82) and later the Sunday Telegraph (1983–84). Through the 1970s he contributed a more considered ‘On Design’ column to the Sydney Morning Herald. As an influential office bearer for the Society of Interior Designers of Australia, he did much to develop interior design as a credentialled profession.
On his death in February 2012, Leslie Nicholl Walford, the man who right from the outset of his career had determined to shift Australian taste away from drab interiors filled with Victorian brown furniture, was saluted as one of Australia’s most influential interior designers. With a sensibility honed in Paris, where he attended ...
‘Absolutely charming – slim, handsome, nice speaking voice and manner, a super-gent’: it might be a line from an old-fashioned dalliance column, but it is from one of the letters published in this volume, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing to one of his most regular and lustrous correspondents, Debo Devonshire, youngest of the Mitford clan, is not advertising himself – well, not quite – but lavishing his superlatives on another celebrity of the day, film actor Dirk Bogarde. It was 1956, and Bogarde was playing Fermor in the Michael Powell movie Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), based on an incident in World War II when Fermor commanded an Anglo-Cretan contingent that abducted and evacuated a German general. ‘The ghost of oneself twelve years ago,’ Fermor can’t help adding in his encomium to the actor.
‘Absolutely charming – slim, handsome, nice speaking voice and manner, a super-gent’: it might be a line from an old-fashioned dalliance column, but it is from one of the letters published in this volume, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing to one of his most regular and lustrous correspondents, Debo Devonshire, youngest of the ...
It was disappointing to read Stephen Mills’s commentary on my recent Making Modern Australia: The Whitlam government’s 21st century agenda (ABR, 11/17). From a collection of eleven chapters Mills refers to just four and fails to mention the remaining seven. In doing so, he renounces any realistic attempt at a ‘review’ of the collection as a collection. There is no indication of the breadth of the book nor of the authors; the contributions of Stuart Macintyre, Murray Goot, Carol Johnson, James Walter, David Lee, and Greg Melleuish are simply ignored. Since these remaining seven chapters cover topics immediately identifiable as having strong contemporary resonance, to ignore them in a review that claims the collection fails to evidence the Whitlam government’s twenty-first century agenda is puzzling.
Mills has nothing but praise for each of the four chapters he mentions. How puzzling, if not absurd, that Mills can then ask, ‘what is the implication [of this] for modern Australia?’ Was the protection of universal health insurance and its counterpoint ‘medi-scare’ not a key issue in the double dissolution election just last year? And was that election itself not a failed attempt by Prime Minister Turnbull to do as Whitlam had successfully done in 1974 and use the mechanism of s. 57 to pass stalled legislation through a Joint Sitting of both houses of parliament? Whitlam remains the only prime minister to have done so, yet Mills sees no implications in this for modern Australia.
Likewise, Michelle Arrow’s exploration of the Royal Commission into Human Relationships into every aspect of ‘sexual citizenship’ only leaves Mills pondering how this in any way demonstrates ‘the claimed Whitlam agenda for the twenty-first century’. Seriously? That this comment could be written in the midst of the same-sex marriage debate and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is remarkable.
Finally, I simply cannot reconcile Mills’s prime concern being not with the individual contributions but with the lack of a preface, without which, Mills suggests, ‘the book lacks coherence’. While it is gratifying to see individual contributions acknowledged, Mills fails to see the significance of their collectivity – as if their presentation in singular form has somehow diminished their intrinsic and acknowledged value. The contributors, and most importantly your readers, deserve better than this.
Jenny Hocking, Clayton, Vic.
Stephen Mills replies:
It must be a professional failing of the academy that its inhabitants too often assume the coherence and relevance of their output as self-evident. That at least seems to be the case here, where the purported editor did not see it as necessary in the book itself, or even in her letter here, to provide any rationale, theme, or context to pull this diverse collection together. Instead it is all supposed to be ‘immediately identifiable’. Readers may join the dots as they see fit; the ‘intrinsic and acknowledged value’ of the contributions, it seems, needs no further elaboration.
The fundamental point of my review was this book’s ‘agenda’ title raises valid questions – about causality, political reform, and the recurrence of public policy problems – that should have been addressed by an editor. My review did acknowledge the breadth and credentials of the contributors, and argued that they have been let down. Lest readers be misled, Jennifer Hocking’s own chapter on s. 57 makes no reference to the Turnbull double dissolution or to ‘medi-scare’; likewise, Michelle Arrow’s chapter does not mention the same-sex marriage debate or the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. So context, it seems after all, is useful. But for that you’ll need to read the newspapers.
How much I enjoyed Elisabeth Holdsworth’s illuminating essay ‘If This Is a Jew’ (ABR, November 2017). In particular, I loved Elisabeth’s description of her ‘feast of audacious hospitality’. While I have allegiance to no particular faith, I take great pleasure in occasional visits to different places of worship – be it temple, synagogue, mosque, or church – for the sense of unity among the congregation, for the peace, calm, and hope that somehow thicken the very air, and for the uniqueness of the individual services. Overall, how similar are the messages. As Holdsworth points out ‘... as so often happens when Jews and Muslims get together, we ended up discussing what unites us rather than what divides us’. If I were allowed one wish, it would be that from the ignorance and upheaval of the current day, understanding and coherence not only eventuate, but triumph. It begins by educating ourselves and by abandoning our fears and prejudices – and it ends in a willingness to listen to others.
Tangea Tansley (online comment)
I attended the first of Musica Viva’s Melbourne performances of Rachel Podger and The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (reviewed by Zoltán Szabó in ABR Arts). Here, too, Podger subtly interacted with the audience along the lines of what Szabó described. But I welcome such gestures. The economics of professional music-making in Mozart’s Europe were such that performers had to make sure that their audiences had a good time. Concert-goers routinely drank and ate during concerts, and no doubt talked as well. Any walls between the performers and audiences would have been very thin, and I think performers would have worked hard to engage their listeners, probably much more than Podger does.
It is time we moved away from music performance as purely cerebral, desiccated, and devoid of bodily communication between performers and audiences. It would make performances of classical music more engaging, accessible, and successful.
Brian Long (online comment)
Zoltán Szabó replies:
I discussed Rachel Podger’s ‘interaction’ with the audience because I did not find it subtle at all. It distracted from the enjoyment of the music. What may have been common practice centuries ago has changed. Thank goodness too! Otherwise our audiences would also eat, drink, and make bodily noises during performances. Nowadays we pay more attention and sit quietly as a sign of respect towards the artist’s hard work and the performance.
Like it or not, the fourth wall is there, in theatre, ballet, opera, concert halls. It fulfils a purpose – one with which I happen to agree – and in this concert the convention was ignored for no obvious or justifiable reason.
Dear Editor, It was disappointing to read Stephen Mills’s commentary on my recent Making Modern Australia: The Whitlam government’s 21st century agenda (ABR, 11/17). From a collection of eleven chapters Mills refers to just four and fails to mention the remaining seven. In doing so, he renounces any realistic attempt at a ...
In her novel Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘For centuries the writing-desk has contained sheets fit precisely for the communication of friends. Masters of language have turned from the sheet that endures to the sheet that perishes ... and addressed themselves to the task of reaching, touching, penetrating the individual heart.’
Christina Stead’s desk contained not only sheets of typing paper but also ‘a stack of airletters’ which she used to reach out to relatives, friends, and acquaintances in distant countries. The first letters reproduced in A Web of Friendship were written in 1928, soon after she arrived in England. It was then that she met Bill Blake, who was to be her companion for almost forty years. The volume ends in 1973, a few years after Blake died and shortly before Stead returned to Australia. In 1964 she wrote, ‘I have lived in so many places, met so many people and lived in other people’s worlds.’ Her letters document her friendships with many of those people and her observations of places ranging from Paris, New York, and London to Santa Fe, Canberra, and Lausanne.
Politics is personal in the United States, far more private than it appears from outside. When political allegiance becomes tied to character, revealing one reveals the other. More importantly, if you critique the former, you impugn the latter. As an Australian living in Virginia, one who considers politics a form of sport, I've learned this lesson the hard way. So I had a breezy line ready for when I was asked why I'd come to see The Donald speak at a rally in Radford, Virginia: 'When the circus is in town, you want to see the elephant.' The response was predictable, but slippery: 'Well, bless your heart.'
'Bless your heart' is a delightfully polite phrase that Southerners use to cauterise impolite conversation. The problem is that they deploy it at other times too. Sometimes 'Bless your heart' is intended as a compliment; at others, a veiled insult. And it can mean anything in between: boredom, delight, frustration, amusement. It's fish-slick, dependent on context, intonation, and intimacy. It's also a fitting analogy for America – a place that is never quite as simple as it seems.
Truth is, I was less interested in seeing Trump than his audience. The Radford rally was held a month into the US presidential primary season, late in February 2016. The Trump campaign was still widely regarded as a national joke, but one that was wearing thin. If Trump was the joke, his supporters were the punchline: rednecks and idiots, xenophobic lunatics who want to 'Make America Hate Again'. It's an easy narrative to sell, and easy to buy – unless you happen to live in the middle of it.
Sometimes when Australians ask me what it's like to live here, on the western edge of Appalachia, I tell them about the time I went to see Selma (the Martin Luther King Jr biopic). The story of American civil rights played to six people; down the hall American Sniper played on six screens at once, each one of them packed. But my anecdote is a punchline too. There is complexity and rich history here on the underside of the Mason-Dixon: vibrant college towns rub up against post-manufacturing hubs, with empty-eyed factories and boarded-up main streets; there's old money, but old poverty too. There are confederate flag bumper stickers and Civil War graveyards where people still leave flowers.
The 'free city' of Radford is twenty-minutes from Blacksburg, where I'm in grad school. I caught a lift to the rally with a classmate, an earnest Bernie Sanders supporter who was planning to protest by pointedly ignoring Trump – sitting quietly in the audience and reading; eyes down to deny Trump the amphetamine of attention. He had been debating which book to take for days. Which title would send the right scathing message? In order to slink into the rally unnoticed, he had concealed his Feel the Bern T-shirt under a denim shirt.
The rally was slapdash, organised hastily, and late. The city felt unprepared, like someone planning a quiet family barbeque only to find the whole neighbourhood on their doorstep. The parking lots had filled by early morning; every lawn, verge, and side street was jammed with haphazardly parked cars and pick-ups. Hundreds of people made their way on foot down Radford's slopes to the banks of the New River and the basketball stadium Trump had been forced to rent because Radford University had refused to be partisan.
I had tickets to get inside, but a thousand people were pressing against the doors and security was overwhelmed. The auditorium seated 3,800, but word had it that more than 10,000 people were coming. A Jumbotron had been set up outside to simulcast Trump's speech, and the unticketed supporters were massing in the tentative February sunlight, expectant, staring up at the giant screen. Queuing for the spectacle indoors, I realised I was missing something more interesting outside, so I abandoned my friend and joined the festivities.
'Festivities' is almost the right word. The campaign's official rally playlist warbled through loudspeakers, incongruous in its easy-listening glory ('Uptown Girl', 'Tiny Dancer', 'Born on the Bayou'). It largely drowned out the anti-Trump protesters, who had been magnanimously allotted a cordoned space to express their First Amendment frustrations, even though – as Trump would later tell his crowd – this was a private event and he didn't have to be so nice. When protesters climbed onto the roof, they were sedately led back down by state troopers, like chastised children.
There were tables heavy with merchandise: Trump's trademark red baseball cap (also available in pink for the ladies, or camouflage for hunting enthusiasts), and a selection of anti-Hillary buttons referencing Benghazi and Goldman Sachs. Once Trump and Hillary clinched their nominations, these items would become more extreme – darkly misogynist in a way that sounds remarkably similar to the rhetoric launched at Julia Gillard as prime minister. But that's another story.
An Australian accent takes you a long way at a Trump rally. Once I had explained where I was from, several people offered condolences for Steve Irwin. 'I was sorry to hear about that young man of yours who passed. The one with all the reptiles.'
They asked me why I was there. I ventured my line about the elephant and returned the question. Nobody was remotely embarrassed to be there; I hadn't caught anyone out. They were polite, open, articulate. Most, though not all of them, were white. I spoke to families and college couples, to seniors and small business owners. I talked to Afghanistan vets and Iraq vets and Viet-nam vets. I met a surprisingly large number of people who were convinced that the Federal Reserve had made America 'a slave to its own currency'. I encountered undecided swing voters and a 'normal, red-blooded American man' who was unapologetically reading a 1974 copy of Playboy Magazine ('the ladies back then were more natural looking').
With the exception of some loud and beery skinhead teenagers itching for a fight, I didn't hear Trump supporters talk about Muslims or Mexicans. Instead they fretted about lost jobs and the GFC and the prohibitive price of college. I heard them talk about what they feel. 'Feel' was the most loaded word I heard all day. The language of feeling resonates where the language of thinking alienates. Thinking privileges expertise; feeling privileges the self. You can't dismantle a feeling with reason, which is why it seems to be the new watchword of American political discourse. It's arrogant to tell people they don't know their own hearts.
We're often told that Trump supporters feel angry. But anger is a symptom, not a cause. What I heard was raw and potent. I heard humiliation – humiliation undercut by fear. The American Dream was never a dream; it was an implicit promise, a compact, an equation – work hard, be rewarded. The people I spoke to had done what was asked of them and felt like fools for trusting 'the system' to deliver its side of America's grand bargain.
Trump garners allegiance because he appears to have none. I kept hearing the same line as if on a loop: 'Nobody owns Trump.' He operates outside of the 'rigged' political process; free from the 'crooked' press, from lobbyists, from the 'liberal cage' of political correctness, even from the party he purports to represent. 'Trump is his own man,' his supporters intoned. I wasn't sure if I detected envy or pride.
The mood tightened. Trump was coming. I turned to the screen, where the girls seated behind the podium (and they were all girls, glossy blondes) were reapplying their lipstick and smoothing down their Republican-red dresses. Trump had arrived, ten feet tall and so loud his brash consonants rattled in my ribcage. 'We're not going to be the stupid people anymore!' he boasted. 'We're going to be the people who bring in money. We're going to be the people that create jobs for our country; not for China, and not for Mexico.' The crowd cheered, fists raised.
Enough words have been wasted on Trump the man. What is seldom described is how catalytic he is, how he incites without personal responsibility. Trump was as reckless with the crowd as he is with truth. He is tethered to nothing, but that includes the people who think he now speaks for them – a Teflon leader who serves no one but himself, surrounded by people who feel they have nothing to lose. When you're hurting and scared, it's intoxicating to be told it's not your fault, and provocative to be given someone to blame. Minutes after I left the rally, a reporter was assaulted.
My Sanders friend had hoped for a stadium united by quiet protesters and their symbolic books, but he was outnumbered and ignored. Bless his heart. As we turned to leave, I noticed that almost everyone was wearing an orange sticker over their heart, like a neon bulls-eye: Guns Save Lives. I teach at Virginia Tech. Every day I pass a memorial to what was, back in February, America's largest mass shooting (Orlando would soon set a new benchmark). On my first day of training, I learned how to lock-down a classroom. This dissonance is exacerbating, exhausting, and wholly American.
Understanding Trump's supporters – empathising with them – is difficult, but deeply necessary. Compassion is not the same as political complicity. Trump's rhetoric is abhorrent. He terrifies me. But to be frightened of his supporters is to be frightened of my students and my neighbours, and there is already too much fear.
Politics is personal in the United States, far more private than it appears from outside. When political allegiance becomes tied to character, revealing one reveals the other ...
George Marshall-Hall was a towering figure both physically and intellectually in Melbourne in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth. Standing six-foot-three in his socks, the English-born and -educated musician was appointed the inaugural Ormond Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne in 1890. Following his arrival from London, he soon made friends with kindred bohemian spirits such as Lionel and Norman Lindsay, and with artists Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, regularly camping with them on their plein air painting expeditions.
George Marshall-Hall was a towering figure both physically and intellectually in Melbourne in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth ...