When I was little I was always very interested in big women who shamelessly mentioned their knickers in front of my father. These women sometimes sang fragments of music, often quite difficult passages in which there might be two violins, a cello, a trumpet and a drum roll, for my mother to identify for them. My mother never made a mistake as she listened to the extraordinary noises which emerged from the massed instruments inside their heads.
‘Ah! Beethoven of course!’ The visitors were very grateful, ‘that tune’s been on my brain all week.’
My father always looked across to the window when knickers were talked about. Once when it was said an acquaintance had been seen with bright green ones clearly visible under a white dress my father stood up abruptly at the tea table and held out the plate of bread and butter quickly to everyone in turn.
‘Cake?’ he asked, ‘a piece of cake? Who would like more cake?’
Mrs Viggars comes, in part, from one of these women who talked intimately in front of my father and sang with trumpets and drums in their heads for my mother. But Mrs Viggars in the novel Foxybaby does neither of these things. She inherits, together with things I have made up, some of their qualities.
As I get older it becomes harder to distinguish between the created and the remembered. I still want to be able to make a living picture from the half remembered by writing something from the inside and something from the outside.
There are times when I long to hear the sounds of the different voices from childhood, neighbours, relatives — my father offering cake, my mother singing softly in the night cradling my little sister in her arms because of an ear-ache. As the candle burned low and the flame grew longer I listened to the singing too and saw what no one else could ever see — my mother’s lips resting in the soft hair on my sister’s head. A recurring image in sound is hearing my mother’s voice from downstairs as she talked on and on to my father long after I had been put to bed upstairs. This sound is like a repeated phrase in music and I allow it to persist. I can hear them still, these voices, somewhere in the creaking and settling of the timbers of this house during the night, like now while I am trying to write something fresh which by nature of its being my history must always be the same. How can anyone change their history? Perhaps it is the things never completely told and only half remembered which remain stored and then become a part of the blurred outlines from which the imagination and the power of invention create fiction.
Happy those early days!
When I Shined in my Angel-infancy
wrote Henry Vaughan in 1646,
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour
And in these weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity .. .
He goes on:
. . . O how I long to travel back
And tread again that ancient track . . .
Though I may wish to hear those voices and I may want to tell things, to ‘report back’ in a sense, to those who cherished and approved endlessly, it is an act of the will now to write about certain things which are both from the inside and from the outside. Writing does not come only from the tender remembering of the touching and the loving. Many significant passages in plays and stories and novels spring from the feelings of being uncherished and excluded. They spring too from the cruelties in human life. Bitter knowledge, grief and unwanted realisation, often in greater proportion, go side by side with acceptance, love and hope. I am not at all sure that I want to ‘tread again that ancient track’.
I have not had a very exciting life but there are moments of suggestion and truth and awareness from which I write. Perhaps I embellish the truth. Since I was a small child I have been a creator of fiction. I write from truth but with imagination and fantasy taking over from the essential authority of truth. When I write ‘I’ in a story or a novel I do not mean I — myself. Some readers have been disappointed that I am not any one or all of my characters.
Perhaps I was five years old when I spoiled my sister’s rabbit. It was made of a sort of pink velvet. It had long ears which were quite pretty. One evening I put the rabbit close up to my sister’s cup of cocoa with the ears dipping over the rim into the cocoa. The lovely pink ears came out a dirty brown. My father, who was presiding over the evening cocoa, looked perplexed about the rabbit and about my action. He tried holding the ears under the cold tap but the stains remained. The ears later became quite hard, perhaps it was the sugar . . .
On the night of the rabbit my father was telling us about himself when he was a boy. I liked to hear these things about him. He and his sister (my Aunt) played a game called horses and carts, he told us, they played on the kitchen table with an assortment of screws and nails and small nuts and bolts. The table was the street and the nuts and bolts and things went up and down, to and fro, fast and slow on the table, they were the horses and carts and that is how they played. In between games the screws and nails and things were kept in ajar with a screw top lid.
More than fifty years later having the sound of the game, dot-dotdotty-dot, as he told us the screws and nails tapped along the table, still in my head I gave the game to a character:
We’re running still, lightly now, one foot — two foot — one foot — two foot — foot — foot — foot — breathe in breathe out breathe in. Side by side we’re running, easily.
‘What about the kitchen table?’ he asks me. ‘Where did yer put yer nuts and bolts?’ his breathing’s easier. ‘Where’d you put yer horses and carts of a night time?’
‘I knew you’d ask that,’ I say. ‘I’ll tell you. My Dad made me a bit of a table out of an old box in the trailer and every night I set out my horses and carts, dot — dot — dotty — dot — up and down, to and fro along the road, fast and slow, my horses and carts passed each other, stopped to let each other go by, they turned into the roadway and sometimes they collided.’
The boy’s game as he plays it while his father looks on parallels some of the action in the story.
The strange thing is that my sister, who is about a year younger than I am, does not remember my father describing the horses and carts game. She has no recollection either that I spoiled her rabbit’s ears.
Our childhood was a long game of people. We were each other’s nephews.
‘I’m her nephew,’ I told the post mistress, ‘ and she’s my nephew.’ With sofa cushions on our heads we became widows. The date-box buses we pushed round on the linoleum stopped at the turned legs of the table to pick up the waiting passengers, the little china pigs and dogs and cats brought by relatives who travelled, and an assortment of wooden clothes pegs handpainted to look like sailors and Spanish dancers.
Then there were the dolls’ houses, side by side, opened so that the insides of both were exposed, the rooms and the lives in these rooms were all revealed in the magic of the opening — the dolls’ houses contained, in their small perfection, an endless story . . .
It would seem that all writers draw heavily on their early experience but in different ways. Some directly but perhaps some in more indirect ways. One thinks of Tolstoy, Wordsworth, Traherne. The experience may be unhappy or happy. Which it is does not alter its influence. It might be thought that Gorky would have obliterated all memory of his childhood. More important than direct recollection is the impression which sinks down and is apparently lost until some chance happening inexplicably brings it back. The importance of childhood is that it sensitises. Most of those who have never been moved by the power of words in their infancy may never really believe that reading can be a deep pleasure.
Sir Phillip Sydney, a most accomplished poet, has done great harm to English thinking about literature. In the most ‘artificial’ of his sonnets — a series designed as a collection of skilful and charming word plays — he takes the part of a writer at a loss for subject matter. He then hits on the admirable conceit:
Fool said my muse to me. Look in your heart and write.
Many disasters spring from these words. In due course it came to be assumed that the final test of a writer’s work was ‘sincerity’. Did he really love the girl? A development of this was the waste of semi-learned time seeking the ‘dark lady of the sonnets’ or those transformations of contorted metaphors into clinical records which can be found by skimming the commentary in Booth’s edition of the sonnets. And, of course, this still persists. Readers can still identify the novelist with the characters in the novel. That there may be many characters with sharply contrasting characteristics does not seem to matter. Of course, some novels appear to be autobiographical; but what does this mean? In all the great length of A la recherche du temps perdu there are only two instances in which the narrator is referred to as Marcel. Both are in La Prisonniere.
Possibly an oversight? It does not matter. It would not even alter a reader’s response if it could be proved that Albertine was, as some have claimed, a boy.
The two greatest novelists of this century have had the good fortune to belong to societies rich in remarkable characters. Finding the original is part of the staple of Joyce studies but getting the emphasis wrong is all too easy. Richard Ellman has a cautionary tale;
After [Joyce’s] death, when the British Broadcasting Corporation was preparing a long programme about him, its representatives went to Dublin and approached Dr Richard Best to ask him to participate in a radio interview. ‘What makes you come to me?’ he asked them. ‘What makes you think I have any connection with this man Joyce?’
‘But you can’t deny your connections,’ said the man from the BBC.
‘After all you’re a character in Ulysses.’ Best retorted: ‘I am not a character in fiction. I am a living being.’
Even when a fiction is based on ‘real life’ a transformation takes place. As it is written in Finnegan’s Wake:
The traits featuring the chiaroscuro coalesce their contrarieties eliminated in one stable somebody.
The question still constantly asked ‘Am I in it?’ has no importance. The St Loup we know belongs to the imagination not to history.
I am not maintaining that the writer should conceal his private life. What must come first are the words which have been written and the words must not be twisted to fit some preconceived image of the writer. Sometimes what is most important, after infancy, in moulding a writer is the experience which finds final expression only in writing. It is the word which is not spoken, the resolve which is not kept which become a part of the created. It is as if these things emerge from hidden pathways in unexpected form.
Perhaps I am about to try and write what I do not want to write. I prefer to write fiction but so far have not drawn extensively from this material. Writing fiction is not easy, to write the facts is almost impossible.
The cherishing which was a great part of my childhood continued during my years at the Quaker boarding school. The school was very small. I do not need to look back to know that we were as much enclosed as many convent novices are. We wore a plain uniform with brown woollen stockings. The Sunday dresses were made of navy blue heavy serge material and had large white collars, detachable so that they could be laundered. Hair had to be long and in plaits or very short, some will remember that shingled hair-cut. One girl, in protest, cut off one of her plaits and hid it under the common room carpet. A curious loss of courage when half way through her bid for freedom. News from the outside world came to us mainly through the headmaster. We were shut off from the world of politics and were taught to love our enemies, to be our brothers’ keepers and to turn our attention to positive achievements, including Hitler’s. Even in the final period when both the school and my father’s house were full of refugees no one talked about the cause. It was a shock, which I took in silence, many years later to learn that preparation for war and the reasons for war had been going on for many years and that while I was concerned only with the annoyance of having repeatedly to give my bed to weeping strangers all kinds of unspeakable suffering were a great part of the lives of these people. I feel ashamed now that I understood so little then.
During the radio announcement that Britain was at war with Germany my father wept because he could not believe and could not endure the thought that there could be a repetition of the 1914-18 suffering. Both my father and my mother, who was given to tearing up Churchill’s picture wherever she saw it and to listening to the German news on the radio, must have, up to the last minute, refused to believe in the possibility of war because I spent the whole summer of 1939 in Germany. Part of this time was spent in what some English people inaccurately call a Hitler maidens’ camp. Suddenly one day I was picked up in an unreliable car and pushed on to a small ship, a cargo boat, the last to leave Hamburg for five years. Dreadfully sea sick I lay on the deck surrounded by baskets upon baskets of bilberries.
The people I stayed with in Hamburg never talked about a war. They, making me converse in German, wanted to be told about the lives of the English Royal Family. One day, though, the wife pulled out from under her husband’s bed an enormous box in which was a new uniform complete with boots and helmet and something which looked very strange to me and which I discovered later, because I had to wear one myself, to be a gas mask. This couple, with whom I stayed, had no children. They were both very kind and they seemed fond of me. I have never heard anything about them or from them since. Slogans and abbreviations have always mystified me. Mostly I have ignored them. Guns before Butter, I remember this one. Not knowing then about food rationing I must have eaten all their butter ration and a great deal more besides. The black rye bread at the schoolgirls’ summer camp was too coarse for me. I could not swallow it so slices of a grey sort of bread were put on the table especially for me to eat. A kindness which I expect I rather took for granted.
I knew very little then about the English Royal Family. Their lives were as hidden from me as politics were. I did not bother much about my mother tearing up Churchill, though I always hoped that she would not do this outside a newsagent’s shop when I was with her. I was embarrassed too to stand with my father on street corners to give away copies of Peace News. I am glad now that I, in spite of not wanting to, did this.
I was too young to start the General Nursing training so I went to an orthopaedic hospital to do that training first. It was very different from school. The war suddenly became real to me, not through the radio or the newspaper but in the more direct form of the dead and injured from a nearby aircraft factory. I had been at the hospital only a few hours when this factory was bombed. I had never seen really crippled and misshapen children before and I had no idea what happened to the human body when it is burned almost to death. I thought I must at all costs get away from this hospital but did not know how to leave so I stayed. Gradually more and more wards were filled with soldiers and the crippled children, whose hospital it was, were crowded more and more together to make room. Walls of sandbags were built up along the open sides of the wards, fresh air as part of the children’s treatment came second to the need for safety.
Shortage of equipment made us hide things like thermometers, rubber tubing or special forceps for our own use. Not having enough hair clips seemed more worrying than the progress of the war. Black woollen stockings wore out quickly and girls from wealthy families stole from newcomers. So much for the sisterhood of the feminists! Pantyhose had not been invented. In the absence of suspenders we learned to roll our stockings and fix them with veganin tablets.
Perhaps I feel ashamed too that the reason for removing names from suburban railway stations was never uppermost in my mind then — only a great fear, especially at night when there were no fights, that I would by mistake go beyond the right station and then not be able to get back in time to the hospital.
By the late spring of 1944 I was training in a large new General Hospital in the largest city in the English Midlands. Outside people speculated on how the war would develop, but inside we waited with apprehension for something we could not visualise. Civilian patients were being discharged as quickly as possible. No one asked where they went. The wards were designed to hold sixteen beds, this number was doubled and beds were prepared in corridors, in waiting and sitting rooms. These rows of made up empty beds were clean and neat but there was something ominous about them, something frightening. When it came there was no time to be frightened when the first ambulance train reached the station, which was about a mile away, even those of us who had just gone to bed were called back to the wards. After the arrival of the first train we never needed to be woken up. The station was at the end of the lengthy climb from the Avon plain. The trains were very long. Their noise was a low deep shaking akin to the noise of the German bombers above. There was too the jolting stopping of the train as parts of it drew alongside the blacked out platform, and then there was the jerking clamour as it pulled away, moving on to bring another section alongside to allow the slow unloading of stretchers into the waiting ambulances. These ambulances came crawling steadily one after the other up to the hospital.
It is distressing to recall how some of these young men had been helped into battle — on this return journey many were still getting rid of and lying in the alcohol they had been given. Immediate treatment consisted largely of dealing with pain and shock, and of massive cleaning and preparation for operation and treatment of wounds and fractures. Many were unable to close their eyes when they slept and they lay with their teeth and hands clenched.
The staff were organised into three shifts. Eight hours on duty and eight hours off moving slowly round the clock. Even then sleep could be interrupted and when ‘days off’ returned they could be broken into by a recall telegram.
The important thing is not that such hours were exhausting — after some weeks this particular shift system had to be abandoned — but that they isolated those inside the hospital. There was not much talk about the progress of the war, it seemed then to be an everlasting thing, a state of being to which one became accustomed and which had no end. New techniques, in an attempt to understand them, were discussed and the patients themselves were talked about endlessly, perhaps it was in order to try to relieve the sudden contact with unbearable suffering not caused by disease. It is significant that I never knew where the ambulance trains started their English journey or whether they went on beyond us. And I have never really tried to understand how my mother, at a much later time, felt able to sit with a neighbour and weep all through Churchill’s funeral on television.
I do not propose to describe what went on in the wards. It is now the fashion to speak of conventional weapons as if they were somehow almost harmless — rubber bullets from pop guns — or to assume that modern drugs have removed all danger in the treatment of wounds.
Penicillin came into use then and the patients were given three-hour injections. All their urine was saved and taken daily to the laboratories with the idea that as much of the penicillin as possible could be recovered and used again. Not all conditions respond to penicillin. Fashions rule in medicine as elsewhere. A Spanish surgeon, at that time, allowed maggots to breed in wounds. This treatment had some success though it appears to have been long abandoned. It was hard for those in attendance when plasters and dressings were removed. It sometimes was not possible to conceal this treatment from the patient and the result of this was disastrous. It is still common to talk of ‘light casualties’ — whatever that means. There was one overcrowded ward given over to double above the knee amputations, every bed having its own electric bell and tourniquet. The sight of these beds coming to an unnatural end halfway down to the foot was something the nursing staff became used to but it was more than visiting relatives could bear. ‘Light casualties?’ Many parents and relatives had to be looked after because of the shock and distress they suffered. Some, travelling great distances, arrived too late.
The days of intense pressure did not last. The fighting moved eastwards. Even after the formal ending of hostilities the wounded continued to arrive but, before reaching Edgbaston, they had had some treatment in France.
I always recognised that like many civilians I had had an easy war. I was never in danger of drowning in Arctic seas and I was not even caught up in the mass bombardment of cities. My family too were not among those who had ‘lost everything’. From my first hospital, as darkness closed, we heard the incessant mutter of bombs exploding on London. Heavily loaded planes passed overhead but only once did bombs fall within a few yards of us. Every night shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns came onto and through the asbestos roofing of the wards. These wards were really long huts. Orthopaedic patients and crippled children strapped on to unwieldy frames and splints and on to special beds could not be moved so the nursing staff naturally stayed with the patients. The air raid shelters at that hospital were only used by a few people who could be taken to them. Strangely enough no one there, though frightened, was ever hurt in an air raid.
In one way, though my work was greatly altered and affected by the war, I was an onlooker. Nothing I did contributed in any way to the course of the war.
The nearest I came to any consideration of what was behind it all was when one of the other nurses, a singer of psalms and chants (we called her Bright Water for Me) gave me a Bible telling me it would help me. I opened the Book and read at random as many had done for nearly two thousand years. The passage which I chanced upon was from Ecclesiastes:
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no 12 comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.
I could not doubt the truth of the words in the Bible, but that day I did not read anymore in that Book.
As the war progressed towards ‘Victory’ people were less and less willing to know. Some congratulated themselves on having got through unhurt. Others in desperate silence hoped those they cared for would survive the last months.
Sometimes in a bus or a train someone would ask me why I wasn’t in uniform. Mostly they were silent when I told them what my work was. Sometimes people made conventional remarks about ‘having a good time with the boys’, or they ventured platitudes on the achievements of modern medicine.
‘How’s business?’ one man asked me once. I asked him what he meant.
‘How many deaths?’, he asked, ‘how many you knocked off?’ I did not know how to answer.
I felt humiliated but this was nothing compared with what I could have described for him about pain and loss and the real humiliation of being helpless.
Towards the end of the war I saw The Seagull, a performance which moved me very much. During the street celebrations when peace was declared I was walking near the hospital. The people, their arms linking them together in long chains, were dancing in the street. Long rows of people dancing and singing ‘Run Rabbit Run’, ‘The Lambeth Walk’ and ‘Knees up Mother Brown’. As I walked I realised I had become alarmingly accustomed to heaps of rubble, bomb craters and houses with whole fronts and sides missing showing, without shame, the intimate tatters of pink and blue wallpaper — like opened dolls’ houses but without the magic . . .
A tiny black kitten at the edge of the road was retching, trying to vomit . . .
Why do I choose this period as particularly significant in my progress towards becoming a writer. I have not yet been able to use much of it as ‘material’.
I started work as soon as I arrived at the orthopaedic hospital. It was at the end of the day, I had arrived late after being held up by an air raid in London. I was sent straight to the ward. It was a long hut open to the darkness on one side and with very dim lights at long intervals on the one wall. As I went down the passage between the beds I saw a white shape on one of the beds. It was perfectly still and did not seem human but had bright mocking eyes. I stopped for a moment, too frightened to go on. It was a disconcerting sight even in the day time. It was a boy of about fifteen in a plaster of paris jacket which enclosed his head as well as his body. A great screw with a wooden handle protruded from the plaster. Later I learned the purpose of this nightmarish apparition. And as I learned the history of this boy and of other children I began to understand and pity the malice which shone from their eyes.
I cannot explain why I am a fiction writer unless the explanation comes in part from a response to this new world into which I seemed to have plunged. I knew nothing of political parties and indeed never came into contact with anyone who revealed political allegiance. Twenty-five years earlier Vera Brittain had had much the same experience I was having and her books became the vehicle for her message. I felt, without being able to express this to my own or anyone else’s satisfaction, that all political parties were based on a measure of distortion. I had to accept the accounts of German policy which the English government put out but I knew that the account of all Germans as evil was untrue. There was very much I did not know but what I did know could not be taken from me.
I could not go back to my school and tell them that their high sounding phrases were often an evasion of reality. What was this love they were always talking about. We examined the reproductive systems of the rabbit and the pigeon but had to find out later that reproduction is simple in comparison with love which could be an overwhelming and sometimes destructive force.
Perhaps the slow realisations which distance the mother and father from the child are necessarily slow. It has taken me a great many years to think more clearly about the old car which rushed me to the Hamburg docks on that particular day. Looking back it is possible to see that if the car had taken a few minutes more to reach the quay-side my life might have been very different. I am still not convinced that the risk taken was entirely because of self deception. I think it was the risk which accompanies, perhaps fruitlessly, hope.
I do not think I lack social awareness. In my earlier writings I am aware of themes which, now widely discussed, were mostly avoided. Imaginative writing can increase awareness but it cannot demonstrate the need for specific programmes.
My main interest is not in the rich, the powerful and the successful.
I do not understand much of St Paul’s writings but I do share his belief that the foolish things of this world confound the wise and the weak things confound the things which are mighty.
No one comes out on top in my fiction — not even Miss Thorne, but they all — Weekly, Miss Peabody, Mr Scobie would endorse the apostles injunction, ‘and having done all to stand’. Rilke accepted this same response in the requiem he wrote for a young poet who unexpectedly committed suicide. The poem ends, ‘Wer spricht von Siegen? Uberstehn ist alles‘ — ‘Who talks of victory? To hold out is all.’
Elizabeth Jolley (1923 – 2007) was one of Australia’s most celebrated writers.