Number 1. HELEN GARNER
At high school, when I was around 13 years of age, Helen Garner was for a brief time, my French teacher. If she’d remained my French teacher I’m sure I would have learned to speak French very well. But as I recall it, it was for only one term, then she left and ‘Mr Fish’ (or ‘Fishy’) took her place.
Mr Fish, was so-called by some of the girls because he was such a heavy smoker that he sucked-in and puffed-out his cheeks non-stop, like a fish. I thought it was a stupid name because he didn’t look like a fish. Though when I though of him much much later, after I had had the opportunity to observe certain facial features of certain French people, I thought maybe he actually was French. He had that big sort of French-looking nose. And very bushy eyebrows.
Mr Fish’s method of teaching was to walk slowly up and down the rows between the desks intoning, with an air of absolute boredom, French phrases meant to be repeated, whilst steadfastly refusing to allow any comment or disruptive chatter to penetrate his aura of indifference. But, oh my God! How he mumbled! I could hardly make out what he was saying and, close to tears of frustration and disappointment, put my fingers in my ears so as to not hear him speak. I had so wanted to learn to speak French just like Miss Garner (I’m sure we didn’t call her ‘Helen’) who looked sooo French I really thought she was French.
With her lovely French accent and her shiny brown centre-parted bob, and a tiny beauty-spot on her face with no (or very little) make-up; radiantly pregnant in her cork-platform wedgies and her short pinafores. I’m sure she gave hope to many girls who, until then, had been presented with pregnancy as a condition to be endured stoically by women who seemed to embrace a sexless unattractiveness by wearing weird-looking maternity outfits that seemed to say: this woman is pregnant, therefore she’s ugly! I kept that image of Miss Garner in my head when I was pregnant with my first child and refused to buy maternity clothes. Hearing ‘maternity clothes’ still makes me shudder a bit.
Miss Garner taught English as well as French, but not my class. My all-girls form had Mrs Bridge who was Irish and happy to give you a slap if you didn’t behave. The idea of children’s rights had not yet taken hold. Maybe it had with the young hippie teachers, but certainly not with teachers of Mrs Bridge’s generation. And curiously, or so it seemed to me at the time, Mrs Bridge’s son Andrew was a total mummy’s-boy.
One afternoon, a large number of the girls had gathered at Mrs Bridge’s house to rehearse a play – a comedy some of us had written. Included in the spread Mrs Bridge had prepared for afternoon tea, were vol-a-vents and we were given strict instructions to not reveal to Andrew that these pastry cases were filled with creamy lambs brains. Sensitive Andrew might feel nauseated. As we ate, all eyes were on Andrew, watching for him to pick up one of the little pastries. Why did Mrs Bridge even serve these things? Looking back, I can’t help attaching some sort of sexual significance to the incident. I can’t say exactly why this is but the mix of factors: an adolescent boy, a roomful of adolescent girls, a fearful mother, and something delicious that could make the boy sick. The more I think about it, the more like a pubescent sexual rite-of-passage it becomes.
Andrew took a pastry, scoffed it, then grabbed another, asking what the filling was. Silence! I don’t recall exactly what followed except that Mrs Bridge flapped nervously and Andrew clearly detected some sort of conspiracy. I wanted someone to tell him, just to see if he would throw up. At school on the following Monday, there was quite a bit of discussion about Andrew – and his mother. It turned out a couple of the girls had secretly told Andrew what the vol-a-vents filling was and, according to the girls, he was furious that his mother had teated him like a baby. No doubt the idea of being treated like a baby in front of all the girls had made him doubly-furious.
Mr Fish, who was probably just waiting it out til retirement, couldn’t care less about a bunch of early-adolescent females – whether they learned French or didn’t learn French. He would go out of the classroom every ten minutes or so to puff on his pipe in the corridor, then come back to boredly recite a few phrases. So, thanks to Mr Fish my enthusiasm died and I got no further with my study of the French language. But what I had learned, thanks to Miss Garner, I retained for a long time. I could probably still sing the French National Anthem without too much trouble.
Number 2. THE ART OF WRITING: Gail Jones and Helen Garner with Michael Meehan
The conversation between Gail Jones and Helen Garner was a relaxed and spontaneously organic chat that shifted between childhood memories and a reflection on the nature of memory.
Presenter Michael Meehan, as introductory preamble to this conversation, referenced the poet Wordsworth. ‘We take in experience with extraordinary vividness and power as children and we don’t really quite know what to do with it.’
Meehan paraphrased Wordsworth’s lines about the creative spirit being the ‘blending of childhood impressions with adult experience’.
Garner agreed that she made good use of her own childhood memories which, she said, seemed to increase with age and though very rich could be ‘quite unnerving’. And she warned, ‘You’ve got to be a bit careful because you can get a bit sentimental about it’.
It’s not exactly clear what she meant by this but Jones responded that when Wordsworth is cited by people it’s usually in a sentimental way and it’s easy to romanticise the ‘luminosity and the vivacity of childhood’.
Jones, who speaks with quite some literary elegance, said she is temperamentally inclined towards the idea that we are haunted by our child-selves, ‘that time is a kind of haunting’. She talked about the phenomenology of time, how remembering is a kind of ‘flip-and-fold back’.
Garner remembered that childhood was no fun and a lot of hard work, that her own memories of childhood were of being ‘scared a lot, especially at school’ and this led to discussion about the struggles of boys (her grandsons) at school, about the different gender experience, and about her crush on the footy coach – which drew a lot of laughs from the audience.
The topic of sports and the body, led Jones to the ‘the erotics’ of places and landscapes – how they have made us, how ‘our embeddedness in places have given us ourselves’ and how we have come to know it through writing and reading.
Jones was inclined towards the esoteric turn-of-phrase, while Garner had a more the pragmatic approach, and this combination made for broad and interesting discussion.
Jones told a story about an aboriginal youth who was placed in her primary-school class when his family (who had never seen white people) was displaced by British testing of the Blue-Streak missile in the Kimberleys. The next day a number of participants said they had been unable to shake the vision of that boy from their minds.
Number 3. SOMETHING INSTRUCTIONAL
A number of times at Mildura Writers Festival author-talks, I heard an audience member ask a writer about his/her writing process. That’s something that seems to fascinate people.
As an exercise in the production of scholarly-style writing – or even something with a semblance of the academic style so beloved of universities – I thought I’d try to mould some random thoughts into cohesive form through the inclusion of literary citations and references.
I began with Gail Jones:
Jones mused on the idea that time is spiral in shape, quoting Nabokov (1951 Speak, Memory) ‘The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free’.
I moved onto Nabokov’s best-known work, Lolita:
Lolita has been banned, criticised, declared a masterpiece, and seen as an allegorical treatise on American consumerism. More than fifty years after first publication, it is still a source of moral and literary contention and many readers are disturbed by what is felt to be a coercive call to empathise with the paedophilic protagonist-narrator.
I expanded to critical appreciation of the work:
Comments made by Nabokov, himself, about Humbert Humbert show the writer didn’t intend his seriously-flawed character to be likeable and it’s interesting to see how response to Humbert translates to the time in which a particular literary analysis is done. In a 1996 Newsweek article about Adrian Lyne’s not-yet-released film version of Lolita, David Gates refers to the recently-passed Prevention of Child Pornography Act and to the emergence of claims, particularly against religious institutions.
Gates writes: In an interview, Nabokov once called Humbert ‘a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching”’, but most readers feel an exquisite tension between revulsion and reluctant empathy;
This is the point at which I would elaborate, if I was forming this into some sort of dissertation. The characters are fascinating but what is really fascinating is how attitudes to this taboo subject are informed by the times and how, in turn, these attitudes inform literary appreciation.
Number 4: MORE ABOUT LOLITA
Going by reviews of Lolita from around the time the book was first published in America (1958-1959) it seems many literary critics were impressed by it’s darkly comic element.
A 1958 Time review judged it ‘more shocking because it is both intensely lyrical and wildly funny’, and New York Times critic Elizabeth Janeway (1958,The Tragedy of Man Driven by Desire) said it was ‘one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year’.
The shockingness of the subject matter was a hurdle just too big for some people to surmount back in 1958, and the passage of time hasn’t made it any easier – with the comparatively recent public scrutiny of institutionalised paedophilia adding to discomfort.
Writing for The New York Review of Books in 1998, Michael Wood (1998, Revisiting Lolita) said ‘we really don’t know where we are: why we are laughing, what to do with our discomfort’.
I wonder if the discomfort and difficulty readers have, is less about the protagonist’s character and actions and more about the Lolita’s indeterminate level of maturity. Childhood is ending and adolescence beginning and demarcation is imprecise and shifting. The combination of unintentional flirtatiousness and childish naivety, can be strangely discomforting to encounter.
Number 5. THERE’S A LOT OF THEM AROUND
When I was around 9 years of age, my grade 4 teacher, a late-middle-aged man with thinning brylcreemed hair, tiny round spectacles and a tiny pencil moustache, was dismissed from his job. Without warning, one day he was gone, and my class had a new teacher.
Not long after, probably a couple of weeks, he appeared at the school gate dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase; eyes cast down and sorrow riding on his shoulders. It was morning playtime, and within seconds all eyes were upon him as children’s chatter hushed to whispers. He was on his way to see the headmaster. I now see that the appointment time was orchestrated by the headmaster to let us children witness this man’s discomfort and shame.
Some boys called out insults and threw pebbles at him and I was thrilled when one landed, but a big girl made them stop. As he went in through the school front-door, chatter erupted again.
The visit with the headmaster was brief and, as the teacher came back through the playground, one member of a small group of girls standing close to me urged her friends to say goodbye. Only two of the group crossed the short expanse of asphalt with her but one turned back mid-way, and the other stopped abruptly at an invisible perimeter beyond which arms could not reach. As the sympathetic girl hugged the departing teacher the headmaster, who was rarely seen in the playground, came into the yard, took a stance, and watched as the shamed teacher got into a car and was driven away.
The bell rang and we went back to our classrooms, and back to our learning; and the murky waters of that teacher’s desires were flooded by an incoming tide.