December 2019 – January 2020


Diaries (2018–19)

By Helen Garner
Collected thoughts on writers seeking permission to write, Eurydice Dixon, the Nobel for Murnane and dealing with errant chooks

Everyone out this evening but my daughter. She cooked us some artichokes and pumpkin and boiled eggs for tea. We laughed because it was the way we used to eat – random, and fast, bent over our bowls and talking – in the days when we were mother and teenage girl.


I suppose Jordan Peterson has let himself be turned into a demagogue, but the original bracing effect his book had on me (to the disgust and contempt of most people I mentioned it to) persists at small moments in daily life when inertia exerts its downward pull: I think of his brisk exhortations and I get off the couch, and finish the tedious job, and tackle the next piece of necessary but unexciting labour.


Around 4pm I strode into the garden to pick some basil, and lo and behold the chooks had got out and were working their way through the broad bean patch, tearing it up. I uttered wordless screams of rage and people ran out of the house. Feathery lumps were seized and flung back over the cyclone wire. Oh, I could have throttled the lot of them.


There seems to be huge anxiety these days about writing – about who is allowed to write what. I don’t understand it and it makes me feel old and pig-headed. I remember the writers who came to a nonfiction class I gave a few years ago, their eagerness, their fresh ideas – but then their awkward admissions of fear: whose permission must they seek, who should they sign agreements with before they began their research? I was astonished, and shouted at them, “Why censor yourselves before you even start? Why don’t you just blaze away?” What on earth do writers think is going to happen, if they cross some crazy line? An editor I met at the Gin Palace said he thought they were afraid of being “torn apart, or thrashed, or skinned alive” – images of extreme physical violence that shocked me. I don’t use social media. I have only a very vague idea of what is done to people there, of why it matters to them, and why it hurts so much.


It rained. Everything is black and shiny.


A young woman is raped and murdered on her way home alone across a famous park we have always thought of as peaceful. The police make their usual plea to women to take care on the night streets, not to walk alone in dark places. Young women take umbrage – it’s not us whose behaviour has to change – it’s men. It’s our right to walk wherever we want to – it’s our right. This is true of course, but such a declaration is about as practical as holding up a commanding hand to a huge truck that’s about to plough through a pedestrian crossing. I said this at a dinner table and was told that it was “fatalistic”. I asked and asked how such rights could ever be protected, enforced and policed. I said that if they couldn’t, then they weren’t rights, but only fantasies of a better world. I tried to say that women can never be “safe”, that human sexuality is wild and violent and cannot be contained. Only one person at the table agreed with me. We were all too exhausted and sad to go on. I wish we had gone on, so I could have refined “human sexuality” to “male sexuality on the rampage”. Oh, poor Eurydice, who died in terror and pain. God bless her, with her dark fringe and big white smile.


Moreno talked in Jimmy Watson’s about why he thought an Italian woman he was interpreting for, in court, would have trusted him: “Because I’m big, I’m hairy, I’m a man.” He asked me if I thought he had an Italian accent. I said, “No accent at all, but every now and then you raise your rhetorical register in an Italian way.” I’d brought him a tiny bunch of daphne. When we parted in the street he stood there holding the perfumed sprig against his dark overcoat.


An old friend, a photographer, has died of cancer and now her children must sell her possessions, clear the house. Paintings, furniture, kitchen things. I bought two ruby-coloured sherry glasses with crinkly feet, an old powder compact, a tiny Virgin Mary statue in a starry robe, and a wooden duck with a flat bottom. After we left the house I was dazed and silent for a couple of hours. As if no thoughts could form themselves.


“I go on with the task that occupies me for the rest of my life.” Gerald Murnane in his wonderful short story “First Love”. They should give him the bloody Nobel and be done with it. In his quiet, insistent, relentless way he is describing a writer’s best self: secret, private, unknown and unknowable to other people. No wonder I couldn’t live in marriage, or “sustain intimacy”, or whatever it is that I’ve fallen short of, over and over again.


A clever little girl at Noosa tried to persuade me that Cinderella’s wicked stepmother was actually “an unsung hero”. I stared at her and she gazed back at me steadily with her large brown eyes. I laid down a few pieces of damning evidence: cruelty, spite, envy and so on. She contemplated these for a moment and then we both burst out laughing. She told me she had invented a character who had “skin like gladwrap, eyes like marbles, and a mouth like a sponge”.


We went to Bunnings and pored over the rat section. We spent money on old-style wooden traps, modern ones with terrible sharp plastic teeth like a wolf’s smile, and a gadget that emits a sonic vibration intolerable to rats’ ears. Actually I wish I had a gun and could shoot straight.


My neighbour, the old professor, is dementing. He got down from a shelf his diary from 2001 and began to read out random entries, blithely assuming our attention: lists of people he’d written letters to, books he’d read and so on. On and on he went, luxuriating in himself, until his wife rolled her eyes and shouted a protest. He ignored her. She twisted in her chair and roared at him: “Boring! Stop!” He was serenely deaf to all objection. I had an idea: “Did you say 2001?” “Yes.” “Turn to September 11. Look up that day.” He flips the tiny pages: “We must have been in … Bremen.” “What happened that day?” He reads out a phrase, two names, then: “TV. America.” “That was the day,” I said, “when they flew the planes into the towers, in New York.” His jaw drops, he sits gaping. Then he launches again on his recital of the past, of all the things he has forgotten.


The man whose cancer is in remission looks well, but seems weakened, slowed down. In their peaceful house we sit by the fire, the black kelpie lying across his wife’s knees, and talk and laugh until afternoon turns into night. The sweetness of their company, their gentleness. In his deep voice he tells the story of the first job he ever had, as a teenager, cleaning the chimneys of the Windsor Hotel. They used to drop a chain down from the top storey, and as it clanked and fell it knocked the soot off the inner surfaces, floor after floor. He says that outside Sir Robert Menzies’ suite stood a pageboy in a little round cap whose job it was to make the PM’s breakfast in a flap-sided toaster and carry it to his room at a swift trot.


They’ve got all the Thai soccer boys out of the flooded cave! So pale and thin, like little fishes. We sat on the couch and cried. I was sure they were all going to die. “I knew they’d get them out,” said my grandson. We’ve lived through a miracle. One of the rescuers said, “We thought perhaps they could bring them out as inert packages, so they wouldn’t be able to struggle.” I cried so much, I knew it must be triggering some memory – childbirth? Labour? Abortion?


Outside my bedroom window before dawn a magpie unfurls an easy tune, a couple of pleasant phrases, melodious, idle, going nowhere in particular. A long silence, and he begins again.


My God it was bitter out at Tarneit oval, the wind coming in off those plains, and my grandson’s team was smashed. He dashed away a few tears. “Weren’t you cold out there?” Stumping along beside me he said, “You’re really, really cold when you stand around before the game; but then when you run on and the coach talks to you and the siren blows, suddenly the cold goes away. It completely disappears, and you feel great. It’s so intense – all you think about is the game, and the cold can’t touch you any more.”


In a car with two women friends, tough Jewish lawyers, on our way to fight the $35 parking ticket we have just copped outside the library in Rockport, Massachusetts. From the back seat I say, “This is a waste of time, isn’t it? How could the parking inspector have seen your ticket if it had blown off the dash and under the front seat?” “But the point is that I had paid!” roars the driver. “Yes but how could the inspector know you’d paid,” I naively persist, “if the ticket wasn’t visible?” The other lawyer turns to me and says peaceably, “There’s this thing, Hel, that every student learns in first year law. It’s called an act of God. For example, a puff of wind.”


The old professor, in apparently lucid mood, tells me that he is a close friend of Emmanuel Macron, that they have been corresponding for years. For 20 seconds I take this at face value and am surprised and impressed. I ask for details – when did they meet? Oh, while Monsieur Macron was in Australia, probably after he had been visiting a French island in the Pacific. His face softens and he speaks tenderly of the handsome young president: “He visited the American one – that horrible, disgusting man. Both their wives were there.” “And,” I say, remembering the TV news, “both their wives wore white!” He is delighted: “Did you see it?” “Yes! They were very elegant, weren’t they!” This is how it was with our mother when she had Alzheimer’s. Play was the only way we could reach her. We joined her fabulations and followed where they led.


At breakfast time the boy stumbles out of his room with his hair standing on end. “I had a dream. I was running and running. A secret door opened. No bomb. No trapdoor. And a girl looking at a boy in a grey, faded mirror.” He topples on to the couch and is asleep again before I can get the rug over him.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

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