Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: April, 2015

kiss

HEART STRINGS

I don’t know much about music but love. As a teen, on rare nights that I had the house and the record-player to myself, I’d lie on the 70s lime green carpet and listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. A totally nerdy, secret pleasure – and one of my father’s favourite pieces of full orchestral heart-string narrative.

Listen, listen, he would whisper when lounge-room conducting to rival von Karajan himself. Listen to every sigh, listen to the story.

What story?

Yours.

Dad, have another Riesling.

During those teen years, I even had a crack at learning to play the cello – very badly. I was too impatient for the perfection of the sounds, too much a craver of story to work at it to make my own.

But strangely, despite my stringy romance, at the time I’d never heard of Edward Elgar or his magnificent Cello Concerto in E minor. I mean, what self-respecting morosely nerdy teenage girl hasn’t listened to everything written in E minor by the time she turns fifteen? I was eighteen, living in a uni share house and drinking plenty of fairly terrible Riesling myself when I did hear it.

And when I did, I burst into tears. Tears of huge story, though I didn’t yet know what that story was. I was probably mostly missing dad but I was overcome from the first few bars, and I’ve remained so over the almost thirty ensuing years.

Dad didn’t think much of Elgar, I suspect because he was English for a start and the author of Pomp and Circumstance – anything smacking of Empire set his Republican teeth on edge.  Elgar’s Cello Concerto, though, was quite a different kettle from a nationalistic march.

This melancholy, exquisitely beautiful piece was never popular during Elgar’s lifetime. He composed it in the aftermath of the First World War, and to my ear, my heart, it’s a love song to his country, steeped in the soul-dragging tragedy of the wholesale destruction of youth, and of life stepping over it to get on with things. In the sighs of this music, I hear that Elgar felt in his own heart that nothing would ever be the same.

I read somewhere once that towards the end of the war, Elgar lived in the south of England and could hear the shelling across the Channel in northern France, and that it’s this which gives the piece its spine-chilling waves of emotion.

If you want to listen to something a little different this Anzac weekend, something full of love and beauty telling of the profound sadness this war inflicted on our world, here is a recent version of the concerto, with the gorgeous Sol Gabetta as cello soloist, and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra at her back. Peace to you and yours.

john monash

TOP ANZAC BRASS

This sweet-faced boy is John Monash and his story is in so many ways Australia’s, or should be. Born in Melbourne in 1865, he was the son of German immigrants. His parents, like many European Jews who came to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, including some of my own forebears, more or less let their religious practice go, but even so young John joined the synagogue choir and celebrated his bar mitzvah.

He attended the prestigious Scotch College and, an academic star, matriculated at the age of fourteen. At Melbourne University he studied engineering and threw himself into every social and intellectual activity going on campus – theatre, music, debating, and editing the Melbourne University Review.

When his mother died in 1885, he went off the rails for a couple of years, dropped out of uni, got a construction job, joined his local military unit, fell in love with his girl Hannah Moss, and married her before returning to uni to complete his degree.

An ordinary extraordinary Aussie guy, when the Great War unfolded across John’s middle-age, he led Australian troops into battle at Gallipoli and, most famously, on the Western Front, where he was to become his nation’s most successful general. He was a brilliant tactician, devoted to minimising casualties through rigorous training and meticulous planning.

Even still, our most famous war historian, the journalist Charles Bean, lobbied against John Monash being appointed full commander of Australia’s forces. He said: “We do not want Australia represented by men mainly because of their ability, natural and inborn in Jews, to push themselves.”

Well, Mr Bean, if Mr Monash hadn’t been that pushy, opinionated Jew there is some argument that Australia’s part in the final push against German forces in the Battle of Hamel in 1918 might not have been as effective as it was, and might not have led to the conclusion of the war. If bigotry had had its wicked way, John Monash would not have been made a general at all.

But this is Australia. Despite our tall poppy syndrome, our cultural cringe, and our bare-knuckled racism, our fair-go commonsense means that a boy like John – so clever and so dedicated to his country, our country – can rise to the very top. He was knighted by King George V at the end of the war, enormous crowds turned out to welcome him home, and 300,000 attended his state funeral in 1931.

What a man. What a mensch. Sir General John Monash – the man who should be our most celebrated Anzac, but who isn’t. This Anzac Day, I will remember you.

Paper Daises

LOVE, MISOGYNY & PAPER DAISIES

Broader politics aside, I’ve always been of the Julie Bishop school of feminism – get on and do rather than talk. I was raised by working women: competent, intelligent, strong. Doers. Never whingers. But Julia Gillard’s so-called misogyny speech at the end of 2012 blew that up for me – not the speech itself but the deluge of negative reactions to it, some of them violent, many from women.

It led me to wonder about the nature of sexism and misogyny in a way I hadn’t before, and in a heavily coded exploration of my own experiences, I began to research and write a novel on the theme, Paper Daisies, set at the time of Australian Federation and the struggle for the Women’s Vote. I needed to know how one of the first nations in the world to grant the female vote – Australia – could have been so unready for their first female prime minister.

After all, Gillard’s speech wasn’t news to me, nor any woman I know. She was pretty much stating the obvious. I’ve had some appalling experiences at work – who hasn’t? I’ve been slobbered all over by a senior partner in a law firm; threatened by another boss, quite against the law, that I’d better come back to work within three months of giving birth or I’d have no job to come back to. These are terrible things, and sadly quite normal for most of us. I wouldn’t cop a lecture on sexism or misogyny from any man, either.

But what is a misogynist? What sort of person truly hates women? For me, there’s quite a difference between the badly behaved man at the party – you know the one who drinks too much, tells inappropriate jokes and wants to pash you – and the charming, well-mannered one who rapes women when everyone else has gone home. I looked at both of these sorts of characters in Paper Daisies, and asked myself what, in one hundred years, has changed to help women identify misogyny for what it is and, most importantly, get the hell away from it?

Apart from the right to vote, better social security and working conditions, and better divorce laws, it seems that not a great deal has changed for women in this regard. There aren’t so many more or better sign-posted safety ropes out of destructive or violent relationships today than there were then, either – and certainly not now that emergency shelters for women and children are closing across the country. When my heroine, Berylda Jones, stands in the midst of her middle-class New Year’s Eve Party at the turn of the twentieth century and looks around desperately wondering if there is anyone in the room who might help her and her sister escape the sadistic cruelty of their uncle, she comes up with the hideous answer: no. And when she did so, I spent a good few weeks sobbing, because I saw that Berylda was, in this sense, me.

Although it was a long time ago now, I have been that woman at the party not knowing where to turn. Just like my heroine in 1901, I had to shut up and get on with things while devastation unfolded behind closed doors. I have been too frightened to speak out, and in many ways I still am. But the great thing about fiction is, of course, you can throw your heroine that rope out, and I found a great deal of pleasure in making Berylda a brilliant student, a witty and soulful woman, destined to find a way through. It was a need in me that felt increasingly urgent, too, as the tragic murder cases of Jill Meagher, Lisa Harnum and Alison Baden-Clay unfolded across my writing days.

What I now understand is that silence in the face of misogyny is dangerous. It crushes, and it kills. It comes to a very deadly end in Paper Daises, but I won’t spoil that for you here. Suffice to say, I found the job of feminism is in no way complete. No magic line has been drawn at the granting of the vote or equal pay to say that we are free of hatred against women and the social prejudices that allow it to fester among us.

Through the winding road of research and reflection, I also came to see with clearer eyes that feminism isn’t a stand-alone show. It requires the support of men and the honesty of women to achieve anything, and to maintain any achievements past. Like me in real life, Berylda gets her good and lovely man in the end (I couldn’t possibly write a novel in which that does not occur), but he’s not one who fixes the problem for her – he’s one who clears the path ahead of her so that she can fix it herself.

This argument about the worth of feminism today and the definition of misogyny can all get a little bit shouty. We live in a culture of outrage at the moment, it seems. ‘How dare she raise the gender card!’ some will cry, and I can only reply, well, justice is a whole house of cards, isn’t it – one we happen to live very much inside. We need to maintain it carefully, and with love, for all our sakes. We need to look after each other, and be on the lookout for those in need of safety – today and always – because awful things happen when we don’t.