Tag Archives: Sydney

The Dyehouse: Mena Calthorpe

Australian Mena Calthorpe wrote just three novels in her lifetime; The Dyehouse was her first novel, and I’ll tag it a ‘social conscience’  novel. But while the novel centres on working life in a Sydney textile factory, it’s also about the trials of the people who work there: their poverty, loves, and struggles. So while we see the structure of the factory with its workers, and how humanity is sacrificed for profit, we also see the private lives of those workers beyond the dyehouse.

The Dyehouse

It’s 1956, and a very calm, prim Miss Merton arrives at the Southern Textiles Dye Works to apply for a job. The factory is run by Mr Renshaw, and when the novel opens, the biggest dilemmas facing the factory are the drop in production and the sudden popularity of nylon. Behind Mr Renshaw is the Chairman of Directors, the General Manager, and the Company Secretary who each approach the factory differently.  Through the plot we see the layers of management, upper, middle and all the way down to the workers who struggle with various problems, personal and professional.

One of Miss Merton’s tasks is to process the necessary forms in order to give the employees sick pay. The term “personal illness” has to be redefined

“Cuthbert says that personal illness could be the personal illness of wife or child. Sick-pay applies only to the personal illness of the employee.”

“I suppose he means Barney Monahan.” said Miss Merton.

“Oh, well,” said Renshaw, “we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Some of these blokes know a thing or two.”

“Yes.” Miss Merton pressed her lips together.

“Don’t need to take it to heart,” said Renshaw. “Just watch them for that ‘my personal illness ‘ angle, and the rest is up to them.”

Miss Merton sat tapping her pen on her desk.

“It seems heartless,” she said. “Wife sick. Everything at odds. And this form waiting for ‘due to my personal illness.’ There’s not much margin for the joys and tragedies in people’s lives, is there?”

Working at the dyehouse isn’t morally easy for Miss Merton, and Renshaw can tell that she disapproves of policies. To him she’s a “sentimentalist,” and if that means she sees that workers as part of a factory ‘family,’ then she’s guilty as charged. Miss Merton also observes Renshaw’s predatory behaviour towards the female factory workers. Patty, Renshaw’s flavour of the week, is foolish enough to believe Renshaw’s tin promises that he’ll marry her. Everyone else in the factory knows that Patty is being used, but she’s the last one to get it.  My favorite character is Oliver, a man who sees the bigger picture.

Author Mena Calthorpe was a communist and worked in a textile factory, so both her beliefs and her experiences are engaged here. Over the course of a year, we see how the factory runs and the lives of a handful of characters: Hughie Marshall “Leading Hand on the vats.” Hughie is a stellar worker but lacks credentials, and Renshaw intends to replace him in spite of the devotion he’s shown to the company. Then there’s Patty who lives with her invalid mother, a young woman who doesn’t need the trouble that a relationship with Renshaw will bring. We also follow the story of Barney, whose youthful enthusiasm is lost in the “treadmill” of work. It’s easy to tell the author’s politics here, but she doesn’t sacrifice characterization for message, and that’s what makes The Dyehouse an engaging read.

For some reason, Australia in the 50s holds a special fascination.

Lisa’s review

Gummie’s review

Review copy

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In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

I was attracted to the strangeness of his mind as a psychiatrist might have been drawn to an interesting case. He wanted a resident analyst. Neither of us understood.”  

In Certain Circles, Australian author Elizabeth Harrower follows the intertwined  lives of four characters, two sets of siblings from vastly different economic circumstances, from youth to middle age. Siblings Stephen and Anna Quayle are orphaned after their parents are killed in a railroad crossing accident. Subsequently brought up by an intensely distracted uncle and his neurotic invalid wife, Stephen and Anna both learn that life isn’t a golden opportunity as much as a series of insurmountable obstacles. In contrast to Stephen and Anna are the Howards, siblings Russell and Zoe. The Howards, a prominent Sydney family, are educated, affluent and influential people, and Elizabeth Harrower explores the two dynamics of the Haves and the Have-nots, and shows that growing up with privilege and love cushions and cocoons, and yet sometimes can also be its own handicap in unexpected ways. In certain circlesWhen the novel begins, Zoe is seventeen, and her brother Russell is now home after some years in a POW camp. Russell, already altered by the death of two close friends in a swimming accident, returns from war and “proceeded to alarm and disappoint his parents by refusing to involve himself in any of the activities they felt him suited to.” Russell is subdued, controlled and it’s clear that there are strong emotional undercurrents hidden beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, so while he’s actually adrift, he covers this well. Outwardly Russell doesn’t present too many concerns; there are two constants in his life: his close friendship with Stephen Quayle and his relationship with Lily. The Howards approve of Lily, a lecturer in German, a woman of their social circle and a neighbor. She’s considered ‘good’ for Russell. Stephen introduces Zoe to his friends, Stephen and Anna, and he asks Zoe to befriend 15-year-old Anna. Zoe isn’t used to being around people outside of her family’s social sphere, and the “signs of want” in Anna’s cheap clothing “were repellent.” But since Zoe loves her brother Russell, she makes a few weak attempts to befriend Anna noting that “it was awkward to know people who had less money and no proper home.” Meanwhile, Zoe finds herself strangely attracted to Stephen, “a weird irascible character out of some dense Russian novel.” Zoe’s attempts to befriend Anna are reluctant and spurred by the desire to please others. In one painful scene, she attempts to give Anna some discarded clothing, and the offer backfires:

Up off the chair, Anna shot, her eyes growing larger by the second. She backed away, saying, ‘I don’t need anything.’ As if she had unwittingly fired a revolver point blank at someone she’d never seen before, Zoe’s own eyes and face opened with a sort of belated, reciprocal shock. ‘I know you don’t need anything. You’d be doing me a favour. One of my ratty ideas. Stay here while I get us some coffee. We both missed out in all the turmoil down there.’ Escaped, dropping from stair to stair, she gave a series of low groans, not having to imagine self-indulgently what it might be like to be Anna. This small blow was in addition to the rest of her life, Suffering, endurance, were things that Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art, and because of Russell. And even that, what she had seen and read that pushed her beyond her own experience, had the very impact, she realized now, of watching an experiment in chemistry, never having studied the subject.

Of the four main characters Zoe, Russell, Stephen, Anna–five if we count the neurotic Lily, only Zoe has the capacity for happiness. She’s uncomplicated and thanks to her privileged childhood, she doesn’t grasp how difficult life can be. The introduction of Stephen and Anna into Zoe’s world casts a shadow onto her simplistic view of life, and she cannot understand why Stephen has a menial job, or why he doesn’t go to university. This lack of understanding springs partly from Zoe’s youth, but also partly because she doesn’t want to leave the “pink marshmallow castle of her life.”

She was too young to be thoughtful, or interested in someone else’s problems. She felt a huge impatience at this unwarranted check to her self-absorption and happy conceit and ambition. So they had all had more troubles than she. Did that really make them superior? If two men were walking along the street and a brick fell on one, missing the other, did that make the injured one a better person? All he had learned was what it was like to have a brick fall on his head. It had happened to him. Why make a virtue of it?

The plot allows us to see both sides of the Want-Equation: Stephen’s bitterness that other people have privileged lives, and Anna’s sagacious realization that adversity doesn’t necessarily make people ‘better.’ Of all the characters in the novel, Anna seems to grasp the painful, touchy dynamics of the Haves and the Have-Nots–with one side exhibiting their largesse, and the other side showing their gratitude.

You can admire the way someone meets hard circumstances, but you can’t admire him because of them.

We follow the troubled lives of Zoe, Russell, Stephen and Anna for several decades–through marriages & love affairs, and these are lives in which duty, pity and obligation play large roles. As one character admits: “If we lived forever, there would be time to recover from mistakes of twenty years duration.” These are not happy people, and when it comes to the intelligent observations of the minutiae of marital politics, author Elizabeth Harrower has a painfully fine, unflinching eye. Conversations between those trapped in marriage are laced with the undercurrents of lashing criticism, and we see three examples of how years spent under a subtle domination directed by invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouses. Even though this sort of marital dominance is clearly seen in others (the relationship between Anna & Stephen’s aunt and uncle, is one example), other characters seem unable to avoid similar traps, and over the decades, we see misery gradually descend and dominate two other marriages. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the book’s ending which seemed to wrap things up far too conveniently for a couple of the characters after an implausible deus-ex machina event, but that’s not the part that stays with me. The part that remains is the lingering unhappiness. This is my second Harrower novel, but there will be more. For Lisa’s review go here

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Fairyland by Sumner Locke Elliott

“Some people, he thought, and I am one of them, are servitors without knowing it, and go through their lives implementing other people’s fates.”

Author Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991) is best remembered for Careful, He Might Hear You, the story of an orphaned Australian boy who becomes the subject of a custody battle between his two aunts.   Fairyland is acknowledged as “largely autobiographical,” and if there’s any doubt about that, just re-read the introduction after reading the book, and you’ll find that significant signposts match. The introduction written by Dennis Altman includes a short biography of the author, who like his fictional creation Seaton Daly, moved to New York. Fairyland, published the year before the author’s death is his “coming out novel.” The story follows the life of its homosexual protagonist from early childhood through to adulthood, and Altman states that “remains one of the most striking records we have of camp life, as it was then referred to, in Sydney of the 1930s and 40s.”

Australian Seaton Daly grows up in post WWI Sydney under the baggage of a particular myth concerning his parents. His father is a fallen WWI hero, and his mother, a valiant war widow wrote “Australia’s most sacred patriotic song, Just a Little Soldier Woman.”  The truth about this myth, when it arrives, serves as a stunning revelation, but then almost everyone in Seaton’s sphere seems to have constructed myths, in one form or another, about their lives.  While a child, Seaton understands that he’s attracted to members of his own sex, and although he’s not confused about his sexuality, he is constantly and repeatedly confused by other significant people he meets in his life. Part of this can be explained, of course, by the fact that during the period in question, homosexuality was illegal and many of the homosexual men Seaton meets have created surface heterosexual lives. But this cannot fully explain Seaton’s confusion as he missteps repeatedly, sometimes with painful results, throughout the novel. Various characters, including Seaton’s mother, cherry pick their pasts and their present, creating a version of life that they can accept and deal with while other characters exhibit a strange duality of behaviours.  This effectively creates a subtext of schizophrenia, a “fairy tale” that rends Sydney society with pretense on the surface and reality behind closed doors, and Sumner Locke Elliott makes it quite clear that this is a troubling facet of Sydney society that our hero, Seaton Daly, never quite comes to terms with.

FairylandSince this is a novel that encompasses Seaton’s childhood and on through several decades, the plot includes the most significant people and events in Seaton’s life. Orphaned and then brought up by Essie, Seaton initially is sent to the expensive private Prince Albert Day School courtesy of Essie’s eccentric wealthy employer. Essie is Miss Dalgarno’s “loving servant,” who “once in  great while” is granted a day off.

Essie, his cousin on his father’s side, cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, baked, stewed, peeled, polished, got up at six in the morning and often wasn’t in her bed until after eleven. At times Essie looked fagged out and so pale she might not have seen sunlight in months, which was not far from the truth. Once in a great while Miss Dalgarno awarded her a day off, and she and Seaton went to the pictures at the Crystal Palace or Hoyts in Double Bay. Not that Miss Dalgarno was draconian–it was merely that nothing occurred to her until there was a dramatic confrontation. Not until you fainted across the vacuum cleaner did it occur to her that you might be overworked.

There, as the poorest child in the school, unwanted by Miss Peel, the school owner, a heavily powdered “ageless virgin,” he makes one single friend, Hilary, a serious little girl with the ethereal goodness of Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns. Hilary is one of the few people Seaton meets who has a calm, sincere, cohesive core. There are no games, no misunderstandings, just acceptance of one child of another. It’s a short, significant relationship; “He would remember her in years to come somewhat like a river.” 

Still in childhood, Seaton moves from Point Piper, the affluent area of Sydney to the “unenviable workingman’s suburb” of Arncliffe with a view of Botany Bay, and there he sees the wild swings of class levels within Sydney society.

There was only one barefaced word for Arncliffe–common. It was the common denominator. It was the omnipresent Monday morning washing on every clothesline in every similar backyard, the unadventurousness of hydrangea and cosmos and lantana, the pretentiousness of plaster storks holding up bird-baths. It was the waxed fruit on the dining room table and the wedding photographs arranged on the piano and people’s never used hand embroidered guest towels as pious as their teetotalism. It was the dull nasal voices expecting nothing new, the men all wearing collarless shirts but showing the collar stud at the adam’s apple, the women in curlers and carpet slippers wet-mopping the veranda tiles “of a Saturday morning,” the plaintive twangy voices of the children. It was hearing for better or worse the steely pianolas playing “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” and knowing that the Sunday roast with two vegetables was as certain as birth, marriage, and death and that there was nothing else to look forward to and, worse, their unheeding of their dreadfulness of not caring. It was the common bond of their common-place assurances that held them together, and although at twelve years of age he was not yet able to digest the significance of this, he had become quietly aware, perhaps ashamed, of his knowledge of growing secret antlers, possibly wings. That among these people he was a changeling.

But not even to Essie, not even in a whisper or a dream, did he ever voice it. “I am different.”

While Seaton has various homosexual relationships, he also has several significant relationships with women. Cousin Essie is one of those, and Hilary, of course, but then there’s also the darkly neurotic Gin, and Betty Jollivet who “burned with an incandescence.” But there’s also Seaton’s mother, a woman who remains a mystery until Seaton, in maturity, can finally understand her behaviour.

Not until he was a grown man, and it became necessary for him to go through Her papers before he left the country forever, did he discover what it was that She was composing behind that shut door as blank as her face; when he discovered the dozens of patriotic stories and poems she had written for long-ago defunct magazines with names like Digger and Battalion Bulletin. Reading them he was flushed with outraged pity for Her and shame for his priggish parsimoniousness toward Her. They were, patently, all about herself and they had titles like “The Little Subaltern” and “Doing Her Duty” and the heroines were always slips of girls standing bravely up to  Cruel Huns behind the lines and rescued by big gentle lieutenants who took their tiny hands into their great paws and gazed into their liquid eyes. He now was able to see Her against the background of Armageddon that She had created for herself after his father was killed and that for Her the war which had brutally taken from Her the source and reason for Her living had been adjusted or rather She had rearranged it into a singular compassionate glory.

The book conveys the difficulties of negotiating homosexual life in the 30s and 40s “knowing that just the shadow of a wrong move could bring on catastrophe,” as Seaton walks through the minefields of hidden sexual orientation and becomes a bookbinder working for a lustful, married, pretentious bookseller, joins the Drury Lane Players, works as a copy writer and eventually lands in radio. Along the way Seaton has various disorienting, hilarious sexual encounters; he is always the prey and is targeted by the pompous, predatory actor Byron Hall,  and Seaton’s employer, the lascivious Mrs. Dick. She’s  “on a strange sort of antiquated anti-queer crusade” and has a convenient arrangement with her accommodating, apron-sporting spouse, Minty Milton Dick who found his wife “working in a fish-and-chips place and took a girlish fancy to her and more or less adopted her and made her over into the lady he would have liked to be .”

Other memorable relationships include Seaton’s slow, teasing courtship of an opportunistic young man who works in the men’s department of a clothing shop, and unexpected, surreal wartime passion. All of these relationships–with both men and women, sexual and non-sexual, underscore the schizophrenia of Sydney society–a world in which no one is quite what they appear to be. Optimistic, life-affirming, generous, full of wonderful characters and amusing in tone, this is the story of a man who yearns to live a one-stranded life, a life without the schizophrenia of deception. His dream is to live in America, “that land of cars and movie stars and night baseball, where, according to some recent survey, somebody was fatally shot every eight minutes.”

Highly recommended.

From ANZ LitLovers Litblog, here’s Lisa’s review

Review copy

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Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street by Mark McShane

Fresh from reading Australian author Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I tracked down a copy of Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. This novel sets three very different characters on a collision course that will change their lives, and it reminded me of the work of Muriel Spark for the decidedly nasty edge to its humour.

The novel begins with Tom Brady, a shabby former Londoner and a rather disreputable character who now lives in Sydney. Tom has a checkered past which includes a long-distant stint as a policeman, but it’s been downhill from there. His last job as a night watchman ended 5 months before when he was caught sleeping. Now unemployed, he hangs about in the shops and watches people as a way to pass his time. Tom was married once:

love came into the life of Tom Brady. Or at any rate, during a period of indigence wherein he was unable to make his fortnightly visit to a King’s Cross prostitute, he met a girl from Brisbane who was game for anything, even marriage. They married and lived rather drearily in small furnished flats. The children which might have held them together did not come. They drifted apart without rancour, she returning to Brisbane, living with another man and bearing three children, of the last of which she died. The whole marital episode concerned Tom less than a change in jobs.

While Tom dawdles on the streets of Sydney, he runs into Jack Partridge, an affluent man who owns a profitable motorcycle repair shop. In just one second, Tom recognises Jack as a man he saw at the scene of a brutal murder that took place in London 30 years before.

Jack Partridge, unlike Tom Brady, has aged very well. Perhaps this is partially due to clean living and a lifetime of established good habits. Perhaps it’s also due to his affluence. So while Tom and Jack would seem to be opposites in many ways, Jack also has a strange approach to matrimony. He married the boss’s daughter, Mildred–a woman he did not love–who was the practical choice at the time.

So after setting up this initial brief, wordless encounter of recognition, author Mark McShane introduces his third main character, the delightful Janet Tree, a WWII widow who owns and operates a boarding house on Dimple Hill right opposite Jack Partridge’s home. And it’s to Mrs. Tree’s house that Tom Brady moves to in order to spy on Jack Partridge….

In order to supplement her widow’s pension and the income from her boarders, Mrs Tree engages in something she calls “free shopping,” and she plans her days around shoplifting excursions and trips to a local fence to sell her “unwanted birthday presents.” Here she is scoping out the first take of the day:

Mrs Tree turned into a covered arcade of shops, a window-sided tunnel full of the clattering and echoing of the feet on its tile floor. A number of shops were fronted by tables that held special bargains, which is to say, soiled articles that refused to move unless glamourized by the bargain mystique.

By one of these table Janet Tree stopped. A little hors d’oeuvre? she mused.

At the front were evening purses priced at three dollars, the foremost a packing-bloated skin of white sequins, like a pig in tight drag. Janet looked through the store window. There were two salesgirls, neither watching, one was busy applying make-up, the other stared at herself insolently in a mirror.

Forty-two-year-old Mrs. Tree is a nervous, high-strung woman. Plagued with fears that her knickers will fall down in public, she pins them firmly “fore and aft with large safety pins.” This irrational paranoia is of course part of her sexual repression, so along with the details of her throughly secure underwear are insights into her life–a life that would appear to be the epitome of boring, sterile respectability: an immaculate home and a horror of bodily functions. But then there’s her secret life and just what is her relationship with her fence, Mr. Becker? Does the private afternoon tea behind closed shutters lead to anything else?

Perhaps by this point, you can see the connection to Muriel Spark. Mrs. Tree could have stepped out of one of Spark’s novels and found herself in Mark McShane’s Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. Of course the boarding house connection helps. So the story is set in motion through a chance encounter on the streets of Sydney, and now the rest of the story plays out through its three main characters. Part of the story takes us back into Partridge’s past and his poisonous relationship with a rapacious, cruel femme fatale.

Apart from the denouement which I found a little unrealistic, I throughly enjoyed the book, loved the set-up and the three well-drawn main characters. Opportunistic former policeman Tom Brady and seemingly respectable widow Mrs Tree align against poor Partridge, and he’s arguably just as much a victim as he was 30 years before.

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