August 2022

Arts & Letters

Frank recollections

By Fiona Giles

Frank Moorhouse, Ewenton Street, Balmain, circa 1975

Remembering Frank Moorhouse (1938–2022)

When my close friend Catharine Lumby, who is also Frank Moorhouse’s biographer, called me on June 26 to say Frank had died, I wasn’t surprised. My first question was to ask if he’d died of natural causes. Catharine said “Yes”. And then ruefully, “I know…” her voice trailing into the space of mutual understanding between us. She told me he’d died in his sleep at 1am after slipping into unconsciousness the night before. Although he’d previously been in a coma, he’d recovered sufficiently during his final afternoon to talk with his stalwart friends and patrons, Carol and Nick Dettmann, and his close companion, and former partner, Sandra Levy. At his memorial on July 13, Sandra told me sadly that Frank had said, “I want to die.”

Frank would appreciate us knowing he had some agency in the mode and timing of his departure. At 83, he’d been hospitalised for some time with multiple health problems and had withdrawn from his social network. He had texted me in April, saying, “My life does not go well … my social life has disintegrated and along with it, fine dining … I didn’t properly envisage or plan for this stage.” My reply was light and breezy, and I regret I didn’t more compassionately address his loneliness. But my relationship with Frank had been fraught, and he often slipped into erotic nostalgia, even though we separated 30 years ago. He had recently called it an “agony”. Attempting to avoid that slippery slope, I’d stepped away.

Frank and I met at Tom Collins House in Cottesloe, just before the Australia Day weekend in 1976, at a welcome party held by the WA branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. He was invited for Writers’ Week and it was his first visit to Perth. I was invited by my mother’s 75-year-old friend, Irene Greenwood, a first-wave feminist, and she introduced us. I was 17 and had just finished high school. Frank was 37. He was already feted for his ground-breaking “discontinuous narratives” and his fearless exploration of the sex lives of his characters. Squashed into the back of a panel van as we shared a lift home – me to Mum’s house in Nedlands, Frank to St Catherine’s residential college at the University of Western Australia – he asked me for my number. The next day, he called, proposing we drive to Kalgoorlie for the long weekend. Frank rented a pale blue Ford Falcon V8 sedan and we sped towards the Nullarbor Plain on what he referred to as our “heroic adventure”.

For the next 15 years, until we separated irrevocably in 1991, Frank and I were lovers ­– at times together, at times apart, at times deep in what he called our “grand passion”. He revelled in “life-affirming” sensuality, from the “simple lust” he declared – a little surprised – for me, to cross-dressing and S&M play with others; from his running (never jogging) around Birchgrove Oval, on the Sydney Harbour waterfront, to his off-track bush walks; from expensive wines to club sandwiches; from his unkempt “cubby house” in Ewenton Street, Balmain, with his beloved German shepherd DG, to Jonah’s at Whale Beach when he fled domesticity to nurse his “nervous breakdowns”.

Frank endured depression and anxiety, both socially and professionally. Socially, he’d imbibe Jack Daniel’s and Serepax, and professionally, he avoided contemporary novels, preferring Thomas Mann and other long-dead authors who were less threatening. Having attended Wollongong Tech and Nowra High, with no degree until awarded honorary doctorates from Sydney and Griffith universities, Frank was an autodidact, harbouring fears that, despite his wit and reading, he might have missed something vital. As he grew older, he began mentoring young writers and was instrumental in the success of some of Australia’s greatest fiction, including Julia Leigh’s brilliant novel The Hunter. Frank also loved military histories, ultimately leading him to write the Edith Trilogy.

Frank identified as Freudian, and often accused me of expressing displaced anger for my father instead of a problem, for example, with the washing up. On one occasion, I brought home to our Wharf Road flat in Birchgrove a $5 second-hand ironing board that I’d snaffled from a junk shop on Darling Street. I had some silk blouses and no intention of tackling his wardrobe, as he dropped his clothes at the local laundromat to be washed, ironed and folded. I never entirely understood his anger and distress at me introducing this humble item to our homelife.

I think Freud would have diagnosed Frank as a hysteric, as his arguments quickly became dramatic, even operatic. His voice would rise an octave as he accused me of undermining our relationship, of not loving him, of “jerking” him around. I regret I fought back and couldn’t more skilfully deflect his outbursts, as I might have if I’d been older. In all our years together, I doubt we resolved a single conflict.

This is not to say that our grand passion did not bequeath me countless vivid memories: visiting strip clubs and porn cinemas in the Cross on my first visit to Sydney as an 18-year-old; suggesting I put fresh apricots in a bowl at Ewenton Street, so as not to miss out on the aesthetic pleasure they afforded. (There were no bowls in Frank’s kitchen – a coffee maker and glasses for his religiously observed cocktail hour, but little else.) Gifting me a subscription to The New Yorker, which I still subscribe to 46 years later; showing me how to fire his Luger pistol, which he took with him to the bush, “just in case”. His kindness when I accidentally spilled a bottle of Krug champagne during lunch in the south of France; punting on the River Cherwell drinking champagne from crystal glasses he’d purchased with my scholarship money; his cooking pigeon and peas, while I wept on the floor of my Wolfson College rooms for the loss of another man, for the loss of my brother, and all the nameless losses; Frank and I deciding to leave his semen in my hair where it landed while making love one afternoon. His love of piano bars, and the song “Moon River”; Frank and I lunching with his friends Gough and Margaret Whitlam in their flat in Double Bay.

I treasure three of the many gifts Frank gave me, enjoying them on an almost daily basis: a manicure set from London on my 28th birthday; a brown suede Longchamp overnight bag, which I repaired recently as I’ve used it so often; and a gecko he whittled for me on a camping trip, its markings burnt in the manner of Indigenous engravings. Each is beautiful, and they symbolise the best of the Frank I knew and loved: his twin poles of civility and adventure held within his devotion to the bush.

At Frank’s memorial, I was happy to see Susie Carleton, an influential restaurateur during the 1980 and ’90s, and one of Frank’s loyal supporters. She embraced me and smilingly exclaimed, “You were just a little girl!” Naturally I thought I’d been sophisticated and worldly, and this is why relationships between powerful older men and much younger women are often judged harshly. Nevertheless, I still remember the particularities of our relationship, the nuances, our own reflections around our age imbalance and the true nature of power between us. I spent years blaming myself that our relationship ended, when in reality Frank should probably never have invited me on that trip to Kalgoorlie.

Two days before Frank’s memorial I attended another funeral – for a friend who’d died of cancer in her fifties. The celebrant said, “Your grief needn’t be feared or resisted. It’s your way of saying thank you, of expressing appreciation for her presence in your life.” So. Thank you, Frank. You played an important part – very playfully at times – in my formation, and it’s a part I cherish. You taught me, as your mum did you, that you should always wash your face and hands before bed; that index cards are still more useful than fancy citation software; and that artists are aristocrats, not because they’re wealthy (most are not) but because they have the courage, determination and skill to shape freedom of expression into beauty.

Fiona Giles

Fiona Giles is a writer and retired academic living in Sydney.

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