Saturday, October 3, 2020



IN Colm Toibin’s BROOKLYN, Eilis makes the sudden decision to leave her mother and friends in small town provincial Ireland to return to Brooklyn and a future that is more daring, filled with promise and potential, but infinitely risky. She does this because she thinks this course is the one that is most likely to bring her happiness.

In Alex Miller’s equally beautiful CONDITIONS OF FAITH, Emily Elder makes the sudden decision to stay in Europe and abandon her French husband and her new born child. It is a decision that is even more risky and momentous than Eilis’. When she tells her husband Georges of her decision whilst they are dancing at a Paris nightclub, he asks her ‘why?’, which is a fair enough question. She tells him it is because she is not content. His response is ‘Content? For Christ’s sake, no-one’s content.’

They are both interesting ideas because they are weighty decisions filled with risk. Each person knows something is lacking and they know they just need something more. To say that ‘no one’s content’ seems pretty meaningless to me. These are the cowards like most of us, me included, who travel on the road already taken, and are not prepared to risk everything for a life that could be so much better. Maybe the doors haven’t opened sufficiently. Maybe the mindset will mean that the doors will never open up, or widely enough. The world is filled with risktakers like Eilis and Emily, but they pale into significance when compared with the multitudes of us who settle for what they have.

It must be about security. It is just too scary to risk giving up all you have strived for. Joni Mitchell, in her song HEJIRA, sings ‘You know it never has been easy/ Whether you do or you do not resign/ Whether you travel the breadth of extremities/ Or stick to some straighter line.’ Mmmm… ‘travelling the breadth of extremities.’ It sounds easy enough.

Georges said ‘no-one’s content’, and I wonder how true this is. I read somewhere, posted on a wall for everyone to see, that you should be careful criticising someone else because you never know ‘what particular shit they may be going through.’ In many ways, I would love to be someone like Eilis or Emily. I don’t mean chucking everything in, after all that’s not what they were doing. They weren’t suicidal. Emily was wanting to continue her archaeological studies and her European adventure. Eilis was going back to Brooklyn to meet her husband and start their American dream. Both wanted more of being foreigners in a foreign land.

If there is anything that would make me truly happy, or even ‘content’- Emily’s word-( I am not even sure how close to ‘happiness’ this is),  it would be to go back to being a foreigner again. Van Morrison on ASTRAL WEEKS says ‘I’m nothin’ but a stranger in this world…’. Both Katherine Mansfield and Sylvia Plath were strangers in a strange world. Both refused to go back to a potentially easier life with family in their home lands.

Twenty years ago, almost to the day, I arrived in the UK with my wife and began a European adventure of my (our) own. I dreamt of the day multitudes of times growing up where I could have Cornwall, Somerset, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Shropshire, at my fingertips. And then suddenly I did. I had experiences I will never forget, including motoring holidays around Italy and France and Switzerland. But was I content? After just over two years of this I suddenly wanted to ‘come home.’

Coming home. I will probably take this to my grave as the biggest mistake of my life. I look at Emily and Eilis with profound respect for the decisions that they made, how they chose the road not taken. But if we are ever going to live a life where we ever feel even remotely ‘content’ we have to live with these decisions, or doing something extraordinarily wild and unpredictable, and ‘travel the breadth of extremities’ like the trailblazers that have done this before us.

So, I salute those who are foreigners in foreign lands. I wish I could join you. But I also know many of you have given up important things and made extreme sacrifices along the way.

I come back once again to Nick Cave’s ‘There is a town…’

And now I live
In this town
I walk these dark streets
Up and down, up and down
Under a dark sky
And I dream
That one day
I'll go back home

I have no doubt that Eilis and Emily thought of home every day. And perhaps Sylvia and Katherine as well. Were they content? Well, illness and fate always play a part. I like to think that things worked out well for the fictional Eilis and Emily. For Sylvia Plath and Katherine Mansfield… the former took her life through gassing herself at age 30, and the latter died of tuberculosis at just 34. For the rest of us? Well we live a lot longer- most of us- snug in our protective cocoons, a satisfying, safe life, or a life devoid of mystery and filled with mediocrity… depending on your point of view.


Tuesday, September 15, 2020



I HAVE been thinking about resilience a little bit of late. The other day I walked out the door to Bell Street and the short distance to the bus stop. I wore my woolly hat, black jeans and of course, in today’s environment, a mask. I saw myself in a storefront reflection. This particular mask is white and quite surgical-looking. It dominates my face and sometimes it fogs up my glasses. I waited a short amount of time for the bus, and standing there I realised I had forgotten my book about Carson McCullers. I felt slightly vulnerable. Not going out much these days. Very quiet streets. Thoughts tumbling about whether or not I would make my appointment on time. Would the bus even take me to me destination?

I sat near the back and looked at the couple of other masked occupants. I had this feeling we were all trapped in some way. Getting off the bus, I could see I was way too early so I walked about these usually vibrant shops opposite Northland. A kind of ‘homemaker’s centre’. Not a soul about anywhere. Deserted. And then it was 10:00 o’clock and I had to face the dentist.

This has not been my usual routine. Usually I am working at my desk with my computer, my wife and children thereabouts, the whole world shut out. Only the news reports on the television offering any kind of connection. But on this day, recently, I caught a bus to visit the dentist near Northland. I told myself to be resilient.

The small challenge I faced, which included the experience there, and the journey home, demanded some small amount of resilience on my behalf. But what I was really thinking about on the way home was my youngest daughter who is very soon going to go to big school and may not know a soul besides her older sister. She is definitely not the kind of kid to be ‘out there’. If you knew her you would know exactly what I am talking about. This, for her, will have a huge resilience factor. I feel (hope) she will grow so much as a person and learn so much and become more confident, and I hope it will keep her in good stead.

I did something new when I left home for the second time at 24 to live in the countryside. I spent the first weeks in my room in a house I felt unwelcome and afraid in, and wrote often in my diary and took solo walks in the neighbourhood listening to the music of my soul and thinking about the places of my heart. This experience built something strong in me and I was less afraid in tricky situations later. The first time I left home I went to live in Adelaide. Another day, another time.

On the bus, too, I thought of the Bronte daughters and their shocking exposure to grief in their life, and their forced attendance at preparatory schools. Little Charlotte at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, the setting for the abysmal Lowood school in Jane Eyre. Poor little Emily went there, too, when she was only six. She thereafter enjoyed being at home so much with her animals and the moors, her vast playground, and her deep isolation and books, and romantic imaginings. Little Anne was spared the horrors of being away from home until she worked as an adult at a place called Blake Hall. She had an unsurprisingly terrible time with unruly children and was dismissed, but it must have taught her resilience. She fared better late with similar work.

I began having random thoughts. Sylvia Plath abandoned by Ted Hughes, alone and vulnerable at Court Green with Frieda and little Nick. And worse, not much after, freezing cold in her Primrose Hill flat in 1963, seeking sanctuary in death, her children warm and protected. Resilience can wear thin.

Katherine Mansfield suddenly aware of death closing in around her, at the top of the stairs, at Georges Gurdjieff’s Institute in January 1923, aged only 34. The need for resilience over, the end of that long search in the south of France for better health.

Lawrence also with blood dripping out, in Vence, in 1930, also in the south in the fruitless search for better health, hand held by Maria Huxley, lost and bewildered at only 45. The need for resilience over.

Vincent’s exhaustion and disappointments, and feelings of despair and isolation in the merciless wheatfields in Auvers, this time in the north of France, in 1890. Age 37. His long patient struggle with hallucinations and epilepsy and other forms of madness at last over. Again, resilience worn thin.

And finally, on the bus, Paul Simon’s song ‘American Tune’ came into my head. It seems to be at least partly about the first immigrants from England sailing into New York harbour on the Mayflower and the anxious time they must have had in a foreign county, filled with hopes and fears:

‘Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home.’

These are some of the poignant ideas that the Bronte’s may have sung if ‘American Tune’ was available to them, even if it isn’t their direct experience. And then there are the convicts on the way to Australia, often in chains, and who of us can imagine African slaves bound for America, people enlisting in wars like Vietnam, so far away, the train journey to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, current struggles with Covid-19 so far away and so close to home…

So, in the end a bus trip a suburb or two away on a regular bus to a friendly dentist and back again doesn’t require quite so much resilience after all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Letter to Simon Read- remembering 20 years ago


HI Simon/Pauline

Did you know it has been almost 20 years since you picked us up in the pouring rain at Bearsted station, way back in October of 2000.

As people often say, I don’t know where the time has gone. But one thing I do know is that I have thought about England almost every day since we returned in December 2003. J says I was desperate to come home, but as I sometimes tell her, within minutes of arriving at my parents’ house after flying home, I felt ready to go back. And of course, probably for a few different reasons, we never did.

I think about England all the time, as I have already said. I think about each of the various schools, especially MGGS. I think about our frequent trips to London and seeking out bookshops along Charing Cross Road, and Ulysses in Museum Street, and countless others. I think about drives to lots and lots of villages and towns like Hawkshurst and Aylesford in Kent, and Ludlow and Much Wenlock in Shropshire, and Kingsand and Zennor in Cornwall. And I think about the various National Trust homes like Cotehele, also in Cornwall, and Haddon Hall in Derbyshire and Monk’s House in Sussex. And of course all the D H Lawrence houses we visited, such as Mountain Cottage, and Chapel Farm Cottage and The Triangle and the long barn at Greatham, and the various other writers’ retreats, like the Bronte’s, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Plath's grave.

I think about all the counties and our travels in them, including ventures into Wales (my favourite ever holiday), Scotland, and Ireland to meet Colm Toibin, and great short holidays traversing Somerset and Wiltshire and Devon, and up higher, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and even as high up as the Lakes District, northern Wales and Yorkshire and Northumberland.

We lived, distinctly, for periods in 3 main counties if you recall- Nottingham, Newent in Gloucestershire, and of course the beloved Maidstone, in Kent.

Now I arrive at my fondest memory. And perhaps the greatest pleasure of my life. Living with you and Pauline on Gravelley Bottom Road, sharing your upstairs, having lots of day trips, such as the Churchill home, and Sissinghurst, Sutton Vallence, Sittingbourne. Negotiating your terrible shower. Beautiful walks amongst the leaves in the expansive backyard. Playing with Missy and Tiger on the stairs. You kindly getting cars for us. Your mother looking after us and taking us out to get food at Nettoes and not wanting us in the kitchen. The degus’ in their cage. Visits by Caroline and her kids and David, who would find all of this horribly sentimental. Remember our trip to (I think) to Elham for fox hunting protests, where you drove like we were on an autobahn, seeing you work in your garage and going to the dance together, seeing you in banger racing at Ipswich, the local cinema in Maidstone where we saw the Hannibal Lecter film, eating out expensively at the Tickled Trout, and meeting your interesting friends, the car mechanics, the one from Liverpool I think called Paul and the one who died suddenly, who used to go the pub called ‘The Sugar Loaves’, possibly Wayne, and walking along the Medway and seeing Leeds Castle. The list goes on.

I will never forget those days. They fill me with joy just thinking about them, but they also fill me with sadness because of some personal regrets, and how much I miss everything and would love to have it back again. But of course, time marches on and it is difficult to recapture things that you once loved and experienced. I dream, often, of England, and one recurring dream in particular is this one where I am on the verging of coming home to Australia and I am filled with so much dread about having to leave… and yet J says this was not how I was- almost 20 years ago.

I hear that you are still in the house, and Pauline is with you, and even Camilla is close by. What an incredible experience it would be for me to return and sit in the backyard and have everyone around us again. I have lots of photos of this time. We all look young and healthy and optimistic. It feels like another life ago. If you get time let me know what you remember and love to everyone, especially Pauline who was so good to us. In my dreams I am sitting with J, and you and Pauline, and we are in the conservatory, and we have just arrived, a day or tow, and it is cold but I am cradling your book of English villages, and my heart is racing and I feel like I am on top of the world.

I leave you with the foreword to a book I put together about our travels. I must show you some day. All the best,




I WILL never forget the first days of the beginning of our pilgrimage after arriving in England towards the end of the year 2000. We had got married in Sunbury, spend a few weeks in Sri Lanka, then caught a train to London from Heathrow, then a bus to Bearstead near Maidstone, Kent. Simon Read collected us in the pouring rain at night. The next day, still no doubt jetlagged, we sat in Pauline’s conservatory. She placed a thick hardback in my hand. It was a book about English towns and villages. In my heightened and excited state, I had not fathomed our relative proximity to places like Italy, France and Austria. It was enough that it was England on our doorstep. 

England, my England. The names and maps ran off the page, like the Melbourne ‘Melway’, but a thousand times more exciting. Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire. Kelmscott, Oxfordshire. Mevagissey, Cornwall. Haworth, Lancashire. Bambridge, Northumberland. Much Wenlock, Shropshire. The names rolled on and on, all inspiring. I used the index and found many names that were familiar because of my research and reading. Morris, Lawrence, Plath, Hardy, Burne-Jones. Towns associated with glorious people. Even little Edenbridge, quite close by, where Lawrence stayed with Edward Garnett. 

My imagination ran wild and I felt like I had entered a new, golden sphere, a little like the character in the Woody Allen film called ‘Midnight In Paris’, who finds himself in 1920’s Fitzgerald-era Paris. Except I hadn’t travelled into the past. The present, alone, was entirely sufficient and satisfying. Pauline’s little conservatory was crackling with life and electricity.




Saturday, April 18, 2020

Vincent's death

July, 1890.

My name is Vincent Van Gogh. Today I had the terrible misfortune of being shot. I am afraid it is the end for me. However, in one sense, I shouldn’t be afraid. Not only do I face my imminent death philosophically- all have died before me- I also feel that this life- as it is- is no longer of any use. There is no purpose for me anymore, in living.

Today I began painting as usual. What else is there for me to do? I am resigned to being a failed artist. I have no other certainty in my life. In fact, there is no certainty either in painting. But perhaps more certainly in this than for anything else. I am not a baker. I do not bake. I am not a tailor. I do not mend clothes. And I am far from a chef, or a postman or a carpenter.

As I wandered from Ravoux’s inn into the brilliant Auvers sun my thoughts began hopefully. I saw the town hall that I painted the other day. I passed my dear doctor’s garden. I went past the church which has frightened me all these days. I painted the windows purple last month. I began to see yellow everywhere. You see I had reached the wheatfields. It is not the first time I have tackled these wheatfields. I did the same thing in Arles. They provide comfort for me somehow.

 As I said before my day began hopefully. What is there not to be hopeful about a new baby grandson, young Vincent, named after me. I painted the almond tree near me, filled with blossom and an aching blue sky as a surprise for Theo and Jo’s baby boy. When I was in Paris in the spring I saw my pictures again. I mean the ones I painted in Arles. I turned away from the ones I did at the asylum. But certain pictures. Well they made me weep. The bedroom, my lovely sunflowers, the chair for Gauguin, some outdoor studies I think are pretty good. Mostly cypress trees and wheatfields. I wept because I saw my life flash before me. I know these are damn good. And together! What a miracle they made. They have been made straight from my heart. God knows how much they have cost me my life. But I would not change anything.

Here in Auvers I have been in a kind of frenzy of creating things. But it’s all different. If my genius is one day discovered they will say that ‘Vincent was mad. He spent some time in an asylum. He was terribly nervous and had dizzy spells. He even cut off a piece of his ear. No wonder he was committed and locked away.’ They will speak the truth. But there is another truth. And it will be seen in these pictures that I have done here in the North. Terribly desolate landscapes after landscapes. I have not had to go out of my way to create this feeling of loneliness and worthlessness that I have. It has all come to naught. I am not old in years but,’ a quoi bon?’

Today I ventured once again to these wheatfields of Auvers. I painted them the other day with a dark, stormy sky made mostly from Prussian blue. I made sure I had my little revolver with me. I use it to…. Oh well, it scarcely matters anymore. I soon found myself a position to stand with my easel. I always find this to be the easiest part. I simply setup and stare. Today as usual there were black crows. Not a large number but I know a lot about symbolism by now. I urgently needed these black crows in my painting. The lurid yellow. These black crows. Thinking of my brother and how he would shield from his little boy. I apply the paint thickly. I create more crows. And the sky…I can’t help myself. Thick streaks of blue, dark and without hope…

Some boys are in the distance. I have seen them before. Schoolboys like the ones in Arles. French schoolboys who are bored and want to know why a madman with paintbrushes and an easel is in the middle of this huge expanse of wheatfield. I can see them coming and I am weary today. I don’t care anymore. I do not want to justify myself to them. I try to fend them off, their laughs and their sneers. But I am overpowered and they take hold of my gun… and then I am lying down and dizzy again. I am afraid they will take my picture. I know I have been shot and sense the boys have run away. I feel overwhelmed and must get back to Ravoux but my stomach lurches in pain and I bleed like I did once by my ear.

My dear brother. Thanks for the 50-fr. note you sent me. There are many things I would like to write you about but I feel it would be useless. I have risked my life for my work as you know. We are living in a time of comparative crisis. When you leave Jo and the little one and come and see me you will see I am a changed man.

'In 2011, another theory about the artist’s death emerged, when two American researchers claimed that Van Gogh didn’t actually kill himself, but was instead the victim of an accident. They theorized that two young boys playing with a gun accidentally pressed the trigger and wounded Van Gogh by mistake.'

Friday, April 3, 2020

Social distancing- a new or old phase in our lives?

What great little social distancers we can all be when asked. Although there are exceptions to this rule, many of us have been practising social distancing for years. Whenever it’s your friend’s birthday and you send him or her a text message it’s a kind of social distancing, isn’t it? Think about the time we used to visit our friend, or at least ring to say ‘happy birthday.’

On public transport we have always been pretty good at social distancing. You sit in the vacant seat that is furthest from other occupants. Then you proceed to dig out your phone (if you’re a teenager this takes all of one or two seconds) and stare blankly at the screen. You are in your own bubble. Total social distancing, body and mind.

The Chinese, they say, are good at joining other people’s tables in a café or restaurant. We, on the other hand, will still search hard for that vacant table to avoid any potentially embarrassing encounter. If we do need to join with others because the establishment is crowded, we will very tentatively, very awkwardly ask if we can join that table and then proceed to keep our own company anyway.
This social distancing is terribly easy for many of us. We prefer to stay home rather than go to work, or walk to the shops, or drive to the market or the shopping centre or get our haircut. At home we have just ourselves or our partner and perhaps our own protective family. We like it when no-one knocks on the door. We have our phones at our disposal. We have our televisions and trillions of websites to explore on the internet. We can text ‘til our heart’s content and then as an alternative watch hours and hours of Netflix.

Many individual people and families have social distancing down pat. They have been doing it for years. When this virus blows over at last, many will feel the pinch. They will have to re-enter the social world they were partial members of before, but they will be dragged kicking and screaming.

We are finding more and more that we don’t have to go to workplaces anymore anyway. Thousands upon thousands of us will be working from home for the coming months. If we can do it successfully in a crisis, why can’t we be more efficient and do it all the time anyway. ‘Efficiency’ is a word government likes.
So, here’s my utopian vision of life after coronavirus. It’s like the pictures we have seen of life the moment WW1 or WW2 ends. Mass celebrations in the streets. Balloons and streamers and people crowding city streets and country squares. Parks filled with animals and children. Shrill cries of pleasure from little kids. Strangers smiling and shaking hands with each other. Friends and acquaintances warmly greeting each other. The world outdoors. Buses, trains and trams buzzing with conversation. Community gardens overflowing with food and flowers. Sporting ovals packed with people and food stands. Street parades, skywriters writing in the sky, ice-cream vans in suburban streets, coloured lollipops, men on stilts, festivals and fun-filled malls, caravan parks humming with families, people meeting new people at the hairdressers and at bars and in clubs.

When we can go back to normal, let’s not go back to normal. Let’s bury every form of social distancing, new and old. We can enter a new world of engagement and be like those soft-winged creatures at the Butterfly House at the Melbourne Zoo.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Landscapes in Emily Bronte, Lawrence and Mansfield


Tonight, I am thinking a lot about landscapes.

It has come about because I have recently read the ultimate landscape novel ‘Wuthering Heights’. The landscape, or the setting, is of course the moors surrounding the Bronte Parsonage near Haworth, in Lancashire. I don’t have the book with me, but some of the vocabulary I am left with in my memory is craggy, rocky, heather, black frost, fleecy cloud, abundant rain, temporary brooks, shadows and sunshine, transient mist, wintry drifts, primroses & crocuses, impassable roads, and so on. It is a tough environment which suited only the toughest of people. And Emily Bronte must have been one of the toughest young women who ever lived. The novel is extraordinary for its power, cruelty, violence and menace. It paints a visceral world of loneliness, imprisonment, and despair, as well as other gothic elements like madness, imprisonment, the supernatural and mysticism.

 It must have been thrilling for EJB to apply her imaginative world to such a ‘fantastic’ and surreal story, dark and foreboding, although in the case of Heathcliff and Cathy, and younger Cathy and Edgar, her father, full of romantic love and filial bonding as well. My impression of EJB is that of someone who could be ruthless like her characters, hard-nosed and wilfully independent and determined and capable of cruelty. Filled from top to toe with the ‘romantic imagination’ but understanding of the uncompromising tenor of her times and the people who inhabited remote areas of the wild countryside in the nineteenth century.

The landscape of D H Lawrence’s childhood never left him. He grew up in Eastwood, Nottingham, semi-rural with a fairly short distance to town (Nottingham) but also enclosed by woods and country paths and farms and wild nature. His landscape crept into novels his whole life, from the beginnings with ‘The White Peacock’ and ‘Sons & Lovers’, to latter works such as ‘The Rainbow’ and ‘’The Lost Girl’. Despite the fact that he spent a good deal of his fertile writing career living abroad in places like Australia, New Mexico and Italy, Lawrence also came back to the world of his childhood in his latter books like ‘The Virgin & The Gypsy’ and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Just like a venture into Bronte territory is manna from heaven for me, it is similar with the Lawrence world of Eastwood, Moorgreen Reservoir, Cossal (Cossethay in ‘The Rainbow’).
Lawrence’s favourite place of his childhood was Hagg’s Farm, where he would walk several miles to visit the Chambers family, all of the Chambers family who were a second family, and in particular the love of his youth, Jessie Chambers (Miriam in ‘Sons & Lovers’) who he might have married but for the fact as he later said ‘she would have destroyed (my) genius’ (not a feminist-friendly afterthought). Lawrence wrote Jessie’s brother a letter near the end of his life about the joy of visiting The Haggs, which never left him. He called it ‘the countryside of my heart’. The closest, perhaps, to experiencing these feelings of joy and comfort and landscape again were probably whilst living in New Mexico with his wife and friends, baking bread, writing novels, riding horses, visiting ancient places like Guadalajara…

Katherine Mansfield came to hate New Zealand, her birthplace, as enclosed, smothering, provincial. As an adolescent she had a taste of life in London, and on return she had a miserable period in Wellington with her parents where she felt listless and angry. She was the archetypal bored young adult in her restlessness and feelings of confinement and restlessness. On her return to Queens College London, she blossomed in an environment more conducive to her study of music, imagination and literature, in particular Oscar Wilde and other so-called ‘decadents’.

 This is not to say that NZ did not feature in her writing as she grew to become a highly talented and revered writer of short stories. We see Wellington and its environs crop up in stories like ‘The Voyage’ and ‘At The Bay’ and ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Garden Party’. These are some of her best stories. It is just that when we think of Katherine Mansfield, we sometimes forget she is from New Zealand because she embraced Europe and everything it had to offer in the 1920’s so wholeheartedly, and never seemed to entertain thoughts of ever going back there.
Landscapes feed writers’ imaginations. I doubt that Virginia Woolf would ever have said that Katherine Mansfield was the only writer she was jealous of if KM had have stayed in NZ all her life. Lawrence’s books and stories and poems and plays are much more vivid and varied for having the thirst to travel and experience life in some of its extremities on his so-called ‘savage pilgrimage’ to far flung places in Europe, America and Australia. As for EJB, who lived until only 30, what might she have created had she travelled more, and lived on the continent or the US or some island for a period of time. When she died it is said that she was busy with a second novel. It is difficult to imagine Emily Bronte attached to anywhere other than her beloved moors that seem such an intrinsic part of her psyche and her life. And I want to go back there and search for Cathy and Heathcliff.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Holidaying by the sea, and thinking of Wuthering Heights

It is January, 2020. It is another new year. I am holidaying on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria at a tourist spot Apollo Bay called Skene's Creek.

The shoreline below us at Skene’s Creek is filled with rocky plates. These are mostly thick but flattened and easy to walk upon in their smoothness. They create a magical, moon-like atmosphere, except for the choppy waves that sometimes plummet on them. Occasionally you see tendrils of seaweed or lime-green sea plants growing on them, but they are mostly bare. Yesterday we saw some birdlife, or rather death, in the form of a gull and a fairy penguin.

This is the time of year of the after effects of bushfires. They have spread wildly and devastatingly across several states, and in particular in NSW and Victoria. The atmosphere is fogged with a thick, grey cloudy haze. The sky is smoke-grey, even white in places, and it looks like it will bucket with rain, but we are only getting intermittent, brief showers. I spoke to a neighbour that I saw at the beach. His teenage boys have coloured hair. One of them, the tallest one, has a mop of bright red, curly hair. He looks like Thing One or Thing Two from ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ When I said ‘it’s not great holiday weather!’, he looked surprised at my defeatism, and in optimistic fashion, replied ‘at least it is seldom raining.’

Despite our smoggy, smoky environs, and the fact that it is a bit too cold to swim in the choppy ocean, it is enough that we have this glorious moon-scape not far from the bottom of our garden. It is like another prehistoric world and I gaze into little or large rock pools expectantly for mysterious ocean dwellers, dead or alive. The roaring sea is absorbing to watch. I like the lovely emerald green of the sea just as it is about to curl or roll into another flashing wave. You also have the sensation of the soft sand under your feet or the smooth plates of rock you can stand on in order to look imperiously over the water. It is amazing how free you feel. In the distance, in the murky haze at night, the Otway Lighthouse has a steady beam to the right. It is just you, the distant beam, the incessant waves crashing on the moon plates, a white bird or two with stork-like legs, the grey, unfriendly mountains, the thick, mysterious haze, silver sky. And besides the muted roar of the hungry sea, it is so quiet. I imagine I am on a big ship with friends and wine, flooding across the seas, looking for an uninhabited island, without responsibilities and expectations.

Then I remember I am immersed in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I think of ghosts, and Heathcliff, and Cathy calling, cold and shut out on the moors, and I think of the sea as being like a huge wet version of the moors, and how EJB, or Emily Bronte, would have wandered these moors time and time again, like me, bewildered, and charged and exhilarated by her surroundings, feeling other wordly and looking for whatever nature might fling up to you in the wildest spaces. Not a penguin or some other seabird for her, or a strange cream-coloured shell, or random rock pools housing who knows what. For her, wild dogs and various birds, a massive array of plant life, moss and heather blazing in the late Lancashire light, the plot of Wuthering Heights forming in her mind, the slow emergence of Cathy and Heathcliff, their second carnation, Hareton Earnshaw and Hindley, kindly Nell and steady Edgar and the strange and often hostile communications between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, the violence and desperate lives, their frustrations and forced limitations and the cruelty and aggression. And it must be said smaller snatches of love, and hope as well and very real longing such as Earnshaw has for the younger Cathy at the end of the novel. EJB understood somehow the whole range or gamut of emotions that make up the human experience despite her relatively insular life.

The birthplace of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall- oh, to be there again now, very now… and just now it also occurs to me- and I find this very interesting- I have never thought much about the landscapes of Jane Austen. I guess this is because her novels are much more interior- still, the settings of Barton Hall, and Pemberton and the other great mansions- the lovely hills and valleys and dales of the English countryside, the sparkling streams where the men fish, the broad spaces where their hunting is done- I don’t care as much for.

I can remember vaguely Charlotte being dismissive of Austen. Perhaps she didn’t understand her, or her world. It is very different to Haworth (even so Charlotte was the one Bronte who became reasonably travelled and experienced with polite society through the success of Jane Eyre and introductions to people like Thackeray and Dickens).
It is not to say I don’t value Jane Austen. I like her. I esteem her. I like some of her novels, in fact, more than most of Jane Eyre, which I think is too long and needed more polish. Austen certainly does not lack polish or craft.

But I come back to Wuthering Heights. The attractiveness of the rawness of everything. There is not one in Austen like Heathcliff, the dirty orphaned boy who is dragged back to the Heights by his master and grows up to be cruel and vindictive and full of resentment about his place in society. No-one in Austen like Earnshaw, who is desperate to drag Catherine to bed and tear her clothes off. You can just feel this seething sense of sexual menace which is so surprising and compelling. Emily Bronte must have been so shocking for her time. Austen undoubtedly shocked too. She was full of subtle, clever criticism of her society and her best heroines were intelligent and resourceful and you can’t help but feel moved by the way things were so heavily stacked against them. But this sense of gender imprisonment is so much more powerful in Wuthering Heights. Elizabeth Bennett would have been shocked by Cathy. You could only imagine her take on Heathcliff and Hindley and Earnshaw. Perhaps Elizabeth would have coped better than some of the others.

It’s the language too, that is the great difference. I was enthralled by Bronte’s language of the gutter. Whilst Austen is cynical about everything, it is polite cynical. EJB however captures the attitudes of her people with devastating force, looking the reader straight in the eye and telling us exactly how her desperate people feel and think. And somehow she still directs our affection towards them.