Monthly Archives: March 2020

‘Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John’ by Helen Trinca


2013, 243 p.

The author of this biography, Helen Trinca, came to know of Madeleine St John through one of her books. So did I.  For me it was The Women in Black, which I read back in 2011 as part of an online Australian Literature bookgroup and reviewed here. Erroneously suspecting that it was autobiographical, it seemed to me at the time to be a “happy, satisfying read” and “a small nugget of a book, affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic.” The film, The Ladies in Black (I hadn’t noticed the change in title before) was released in 2018, and it also struck me as a “feel-good, look-good” movie.

Having now read Trinca’s biography of St John, I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Women in Black being autobiographical.  And if I found the book “affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic”, perhaps that says more about St John’s skill as a writer than anything else, because the author was certainly none of those things.  Instead, she was prickly, bitter and more likely to hold a grudge than indulge in nostalgia.

Born in 1941 while her father was with the A.I.F. in Palestine, Madeleine St John’s mother Sylvette was Romanian, but styled herself as French after arriving in Sydney in 1934. Her father was the barrister and later M.P. Edward (Ted) St John, from a blue-blood conservative family.  The surname, pronounced ‘Sinjin’ niggled at me – something about the Voyager maritime disaster– and Trinca’s book reminds us that it was during his maiden speech as a Parliamentarian that St John attacked his own party and called for  second Royal Commission into the accident (which, when it finally occurred, completely overturned the findings of the first, flawed Royal Commission). But the Ted St John who appears in this biography is not so much the politician, as a father – and in Madeleine St John’s eyes, a very poor one.  Her parent’s marriage was an unhappy one. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Madeleine and her sister Colette were packed off to boarding school. When Madeleine was twelve, her parents divorced and soon afterwards her mother Sylvette committed suicide. Her father badly bungled telling his daughters, and remarried too quickly, to Val.

As Madeleine St John was too ready to tell everyone, her father’s perfidy and betrayal lay at the heart of her own world-view. Her anger and bitterness about it warped nearly every aspect of her life right up to her death. She was mercurial, cruel and self-centred, allowing people to come close and then spurning them when they became too close. The irony is that even though she despised her father and idolized her mother, she combined traits from both of them.  While denying all her life that her mother had committed suicide, she shared Sylvette’s fragile mental health, and suffered depression and breakdowns. She certainly shared her father’s black-and-white views about what was right, and refused to compromise them for anyone. For the sake of her own principles, however she defined them, she often acted against her own interests and burnt many people. She was more like her father than she would ever have admitted.

Madeleine enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1959 and circulated amongst that golden generation who were to head off to England: Clive James, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Mungo MacCallum. In this testosterone-heavy atmosphere, she became one of the sub-editors of Honi Soit (the university newspaper) but was never published in it. She was part of a group of eight girls, dubbed ‘The Octopus’ who joined up with the Sydney University Dramatic Society and regularly met at a cafe in Manning House.  She married and moved with her husband, Christopher Tillam, to America where he embarked on a film-making career. As emotionally brittle as she was, it was no surprise that the marriage faltered. Madeleine moved to England where she worked in a succession of bookshops and antique shops, managed to get council housing and developed an image that combined a  stylishness and snobbery that belied her meagre income. She became rigidly religious, and spent years – even decades- writing a biography of Mme Blavatsky, the Theosophist, which she ended up burning (and which I would have been quite interested to read, really.) She was not published until 1993, at the age of 52, when she released The Women in Black, set in the sun-drenched Sydney of her own adolescence. Her three other works were set in her own London-based suburb Notting Hill, one of which (The Essence of the Thing)  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, thus bringing her to the attention of the Australian literary scene.

She did not particularly welcome the acclaim that publication brought her, and although it gave her the financial means to travel, she was no happier than she had been previously.  She abhorred the thought that she would be embraced as an Australian by the Australian literary scene, when she had spent all her adult life putting her Australian nationality behind her. In poor health, she eschewed the attempts at reconciliation by her step-mother Val, and continued to draw in and then reject her friends, who would be bewildered by her change towards them.  In poor health from emphysema, she became increasingly concerned to shape her image after her rapidly-approaching death, rejecting one literary executor for another, and demanding the return of letters.

I think that Madeleine St John would have been infuriated by this biography, where the author treats her with a cool impassiveness. She does not buy into St John’s histrionics and manipulations, but recognizes patterns in her behaviour and makes some sense of it, without condoning it. The book lightens, as did St John’s own life, once she achieved her break-through publications, but for Trinca (and me, for that matter), her writing only highlighted the paradox between the writer and her work. Trinca keeps her eyes steadily on Madeleine the character, and there is no in-depth analysis of the books as such. Her footnotes pay testament to the author’s diligence in tracking down friends and acquaintances – none of whom could give unalloyed praise for St John. She was fortunate to be given access to a collection of audiotapes recorded by St John that were left in the keeping of a friend.  She read St John’s own statements about her life with a judicious eye, and combed through the lively but self-serving correspondence that other people had kept, much against St. John’s wishes. Using this network of friends and acquaintances, Trinca manages to weave a background against which St John’s life can be placed; a background that captures the heady optimism of university life in the early 1960s, the tangled connections amongst an intellectual and creative largely expatriate milieu, and the continued warp and weft of family background, no matter how much someone might want to distance themselves from it.

There are a lot of people in this book, and I was often glad of the index to remind myself who was who. It was a little frustrating that the index was organized by surname, whereas the text referred to people, in a familiar tone, by first name. More than once I found myself having to scan the whole index, until I found the first name mentioned in the text.

This is an excellent biography, that captures well the ambivalence of the biographer towards her subject.  It won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2014, and was short-listed for several other awards. The summary on the back cover of the book mentions sadness, tragedy, love and perseverence.  I don’t know if I could be so charitable. Self-centredness, control and vindictiveness spring more to mind for me. And the mismatch between St John’s writing and her own life? I remain mystified, and I suspect that even after all this exhaustive research, I think Trinca might be too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroup and read for The Ladies Who Say Oooh.


I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.



Movie: A Hidden Life

From the good old pre-Coronavirus days.

An Austrian farmer, living high in the mountains, knows that he cannot pledge allegiance to Hitler. He can do his compulsory military training, he can work as an ambulance driver – but both of these options require an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and that he cannot do. And so his family is ostracized, he is imprisoned…and I think you know how this is going to end.

This is a beautifully shot film- think of the opening scenes of Sound of Music, and it captures well the isolated, slow pace of life in a small and very primitive village. But ye gods- it is a LONG movie (nearly 3 hours). I hoped to come out feeling inspired, but I just came out thinking “what a bloody waste of a life by a good man”.

My rating 4/5

‘Sisters/Hermanas’ by Gary Paulsen


1993, 64 p. English/Spanish. Translated into Spanish by Gloria de Aragón Adújar

This YA novella is presented in  both Spanish and English, each upside down from the other. I read it in Spanish, (and it was just right for an Intermediate Spanish student) but if you flipped it the other way, you could read it in English. An effective format for a language learner: the other language was there if you wanted it, but it was enough of a hassle to turn the book over and find the corresponding page that I generally persevered it trying to work it out for myself. I could then read the English chapter, just to make sure that I had got the gist.



Rosa is a 14 year old illegal immigrant from Mexico City who works as a prostitute. She dreams of becoming a model, but in the meantime she endures her lifestyle, sending money home to her mother in Mexico.  Traci is a blonde 14 year old from the suburbs, whose mother is preening her to become head cheerleader, which will launch her into a dazzling career as a beauty queen.

The book presents their stories in alternating chapters, as each of the girls gets ready, then brings them together in a clothing store at a mall. Rosa is hiding from the police, Traci finds her and with a jolt, recognizes them as being sisters  – not literally, but as holder of the same dreams which they are powerless to fulfill in a very imperfect world.

A compelling novella, and just right for my Spanish level.  The original text was written in English, and it was translated into Spanish by Gloria de Aragón Andújar

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-16 March

Background Briefing (ABC)  This judge’s unfair decisions upended people’s lives. What can be done about it? (Feb 2020) particularly attracted me because of my own work on Justice John Walpole Willis who, like Judge Vasta in this podcast, had been accused of intimidating interruptions from the bench (as for example, in the case of J.B. Were who ended up being sentenced for an extra month each time he opened his mouth). And as with Justice Willis, the presence of such a polarizing and controversial figure on the bench gives rise to questions about judicial independence versus judicial accountability.

How fracking could threaten Australia’s Paris Target from 1 March 2020 has two threads. The first is the effect of climate change in the Northern Territory, with unseasonal fires and the drying out of the mangroves.  The second theme is the planned expansion of fracking at Beetaloo Basin, with its slippery projections of carbon emissions which make a mockery of any offset activities.  I hate the pernicious influence of lobbyists, who have such sway over governments.

The Eleventh (ABC) Episode 3 Dangerous Circus jumps forward to 1974, when the wheels were starting to fall off the Whitlam Government as it lurched from one scandal to the next.  First there was Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi; then there was Rex Connor and the Loans Affair, and then Cyclone Tracy blew in. Whitlam was not impressed by the calls for him to return home (shades of ScoMo in Hawaii perhaps?)  Episode 4 The Advisor features Elizabeth Reid, the 33 year old who was appointed as Whitlam’s advisor on women at a time when there wasn’t a single female MP in the House of Representatives. Her path crossed with the newly appointed Governor General John Kerr – and what a sleazy story that is.


‘Communism: A Love Story’ by Jeff Sparrow


2007, 294 p.

‘Communism’ and ‘Love Story’- now they are two words that you don’t very often hear in the same sentence. Jeff Sparrow’s book centres on Guido Baracchi, a wealthy Melbourne political activist and Communist, described by historian Stuart Macintyre  as “the knight errant of Australian radicalism…a man of considerable wealth and emotional spontaneity, utterly without guile  or worldly ambition, of luminous innocence and limitless self-centredness” (cited on p. 5).

It’s hard to believe now, with liberalism under threat in many places, with Putin becoming such an unnerving presence and after Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, that Communism in the first half of the 20th century could have elicited passion -and yes, love-  amongst its followers. But as Sparrow explains:

Communism provided an alternative. It was, in many way, the alternative, the most important indicator that society could be remade. Between 1917 and 1989, its star shone bright and its star shone dim, but its continuing sparkle in the political firmament allowed millions to believe in a world beyond the free market. Even those who despised communism felt that while it existed, change- whether they wanted it or not- was a possibility.

Today that feeling is gone….With communism gone, few of us can articulate a different kind of society, another economic model or even a philosophical challenge to the buy-low, sell-high ethics of the market. (p. 3)

Guido Baracchi was born in Melbourne in 1887, the son of the Italian-born astronomer at the Melbourne Observatory who had responsibility for the Great Melbourne Telescope.  He provided his son Guido an education that would seem to almost guarantee ‘respectability’.  He went to kindergarten with later Governor-General Richard Casey, attended Melbourne Grammar School where later Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce was an older fellow-student, and studied at Melbourne University with later Prime Minister Robert Menzies. He was diametrically opposed to them politically.  He threw himself into student politics at Melbourne University, – through the Melbourne University Historical Society no less- was arrested for an anti-conscription speech he gave on the Yarra Bank in 1918, started the Victorian Labor College and edited ‘Industrial Solidarity, the journal of the International Industrial Workers, the successor to the banned Industrial Workers of the World. He was a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920, and edited their journal Proletarian.

But if there was romance and idealism, there was also disillusionment, especially in the 1920s. Travelling to Europe in 1922 after the failure of his marriage, Baracchi worked as a professional revolutionary in Weimar Berlin, and was part of the disastrously failed uprising of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1923. Returning to Australia, he found the Australian communists in disarray.  The Melbourne branch had collapsed completely, many branches were dysfunctional, the Sydney branch was hollowed out. Those members still active were exhausted, others quarrelled over doctrine and Baracchi despaired of the leadership. In 1925, he suggested the dissolution of the CPA as a separate entity, urging the formation of a ginger group within the ALP instead. The leadership of the party expelled him, and he was to pay for this ‘disloyalty’ for years afterwards.

Although not part of the CPA, he travelled to Russia, where he stayed for a year, working as a translator in the Co-Operative Publishing Society for Foreign Workers.  Returning to Australia with his communist credentials burnished, he was eventually readmitted into the CPA. But he wasn’t to be there for long, because he was expelled in 1940 for Trotskyite tendencies. He turned his attention to the ALP instead, hoping to promote socialism within the party and died in 1975 after a day handing out how-to-vote cards for the Labor Party.

I’m not particularly familiar or interested in the intricacies of Marxist theory or the schisms and alliances between different branches of Marxism. However, Sparrow did not dwell on this, although I’m sure that a reader more versed in such things would pick up on observations and comments that just passed me by.

But this book is more than a book about Communism politics in 20th century Australia. Sparrow combines the political and the personal, and certainly Guido had a tumultuous love life, marrying and partnering several times.  There must have been something about him, though, because often his wives/partners got on well with their predecessors and successors. He shifted between Melbourne, Europe,  and back to Melbourne in 1924 to claim his considerable inheritance in nearby (to me) and highly respectable Ivanhoe – the thing that prompted me to read this book in the first place. He travelled through Russia, and later shifted to Sydney where he lived at Castlecrag, the estate designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin.

He was thoroughly imbricated in the progressive intellectual network of the time. He had an affair with Katharine Susannah Pritchard, he was a close friend of Esmonde Higgins, the nephew of H.B. Higgins and sister to Nettie Palmer.  He had an affair with the poet Lesbia Harford; he lived with the playwright Betty Roland in Russia, and circulated with her amongst the artists at Montsalvat and Castlecrag. This is a story not just of one man, but of an intellectual milieu, over several decades.

This book brought me everything that I like most about biography: a clear and chronological narrative of events; rich context to make sense of them; depiction of a complex social network around the subject; an appraisal of emotional entanglements, and most importantly, a curiosity about the subject that acknowledges foibles, complexities and inexplicabilities. All this, written with sensitivity and insight- an excellent biography!

My rating: 9.5 / 10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

‘The Tyrant’s Novel’ by Tom Keneally


2003, 292 p.

I read this book soon after it was published in 2003, when the idea of locking up ‘illegal arrivals’ without visas in detention centres,  introduced in the 1990s by the Keating Government, had been ramped up to the the mandatory off-shore detention of all arrivals by boat under what was euphemistically called the ‘Pacific Solution‘.  The book  has only increased in power in the 17 years since, especially with the very public face of Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, whose book No Friend But the Mountains received widespread critical acclaim. It’s as if Keneally’s book has been brought to life.

Keneally’s novel is in three parts.  Part 1, ‘The Visitor’s Preface’, told in the first person, frames the novel. An unnamed journalist narrator accompanies a female colleague to a thinly disguised Villawood Detention Centre. There he meets ‘Alan Sheriff’, the name adopted by an Iraqi refugee incarcerated there, who proceeds to tell him “the saddest and silliest story you will ever hear”.

The bulk of the body is in Part 2, ‘Alan Sheriff’s Story’. It is also told in the first person as a memoir, although on occasions Alan breaks off to note the detention-centre conditions under which the story is being told.  ‘Alan Sheriff’ is a writer, who after the moderately successful publication of a book of short stories in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, had been working quietly on a novel. When tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning, he puts the novel aside, feeling that his life and work is futile in the face of his grief. Suddenly the summons arrives from Great Uncle (a thinly disguised Saddam Hussein) for him to write a novel within a month which will be published under Great Uncle’s name.  His loyalties to friends who have also become enmeshed in Great Uncle’s web of power, and his fears for their safety, push him to acquiesce.

The novel closes with ‘After-Tale’ which tells of how ‘Alan Sheriff’ has ended up in the detention centre.

Keneally has made a number of authorial decisions here which are interesting.  First, as an article by Caroline Baum reveals, the scenario in the detention centre and the friendship with ‘Alan Shepherd’ are real, and in her opinion, insufficiently disguised. Her article raises questions about the ethics of an author’s use of real people in what is purported to be fiction.

Second, he has decided to replace the Iraqi names of his characters with anglicized ones: Alan Sheriff, Matt McBrien, Andrew Kennedy, Sarah. This adds a sense of identification for an Australian westernized reader, but it is also jarring. I’m not sure if the trade off between making a reader think “This could be me” is worth in effect stripping his characters of all their cultural identity. In Keneally’s hands,  the story is based amongst people of an intellectual/entertainment industry elite, whose lifestyles are not that different from ours.

Third, he does not actually name Saddam Hussein, although in his afterword, he acknowledges his debt to Mark Bowden’s article “Tales of the Tyrant”in the Atlantic Monthly May 2002. Certainly, reading the article after finishing the novel (which I very much encourage you to do), you can see where Keneally has picked up the threads of his own story.

Things happen abruptly in this novel, so much so that you find yourself re-reading to see if you had understood it properly.  Keneally has a rather clumsy attempt at mirroring Shiite/Sunni theology through ‘mediationist’ and ‘intercessionists’, which only muddies the story. I’m not sure that I was convinced by Alan Sheriff’s abandonment of his own novel, and it is an important point in the plot. I can understand why Keneally has chosen to anglicize the names, but I feel condescended to as a reader; as if Keneally expects that I cannot identify with names from another culture.

However, the continued bloody-mindedness of our mandatory detention system has, if anything, worsened, and the increasing presence of so many ‘strongmen’ in politics world-wide means that this book is more relevant today than it was in 2003. Written with a clear political purpose at the time, those politics are even more urgent now.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups as a book group reading amongst The Ladies Who Say Oooh

Movie: Little Women


Ah- the good old pre-coronavirus days, when you could sit in a movie theatre with other people.

I suspect that this is a film of Little Women for viewers who have never read Little Women. It’s boisterous and far more feminist than the book or other film versions, and it breaks the mould by mixing in aspects of Louisa May Alcott’s own story as a writer, as well as using flashbacks and disrupting the narrative flow.

I enjoyed the film, but I bristled at some of the casting. At first I thought that Saoirse Ronan was all wrong as Jo, but by the end of the film she had made the role her own.  Meg was as wishy-washy as she seems in the book. Director Greta Gerwig emphasizes the emotional connection between Jo and Amy, who are seen more as soulmates and very similar to each other than I found in the book . Amy didn’t seem right to me either, too rounded and not self-centred enough. The Amy in my head is haughty and thin. Beth didn’t look sick enough.  And Laurie was just WET.  Professor Bauer was too good-looking, and Laurie’s grandfather wasn’t gruff enough.

However, after all these grizzles, I did enjoy the film, which I think will carve out its own place amongst the many versions of Little Women. How many Little Womens are enough, I wonder?

My rating: 4 out of 5

Viewed at: Palace Westgarth with about 10 other people in the theatre with me. So I would have been safe after all.