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Helen Garner’s diary

Dec 18, 2019 • 12m34s

Helen Garner has been keeping a diary for as long as she has been a writer. She published extracts from last year’s in the latest issue of The Monthly.

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Helen Garner’s diary

145 • Dec 18, 2019

Helen Garner’s diary

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Helen Garner has been keeping a diary for as long as she has been a writer. She published extracts from last year’s in the latest issue of The Monthly. Today, a selection of them.

[Theme music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Helen, thanks for being here. It's really lovely to meet you. Um, you going to read a little bit from your diaries now. Is there anything we should know before you launch in?

HELEN:

What sort of things? You mean whether to be alarmed or is this going to be too personal? Are you recording this?

ELIZABETH:

Yeah.

HELEN:

Let me have a drink of water. OK, I'm ready to go.

ELIZABETH:

Great, take it away.

HELEN:

Diaries, 2018/2019.

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.

  • 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.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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HELEN:

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.
  • 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.

Archival tape:

[Thai rescue clip]

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.
  • 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 onto the couch and is asleep again before I can get the rug over him.

ELIZABETH:

I love that one.

HELEN:

Yeah, I like that one, too.

ELIZABETH:

Helen, thank you.

HELEN:

Thank you very much.

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Former police chief Simon Overland has admitted that Victoria Police may have quote “perverted the course of justice” in their use of former criminal defence barrister turned informer Nicola Gobbo. At the royal commission on Tuesday, Overland further accepted that he should have known that Gobbo was giving the police information obtained under legal professional privilege.

And the global engineering and services firm GHD has told staff it has concluded its work on Adani’s Carmichael coal project. The announcement comes after months of campaigns by anti-fossil fuel activists, which have criticised the firm’s 10-year association with Adani. GHD’s executive general manager, Phil Duthie, emailed staff confirming they have quote, “no ongoing contracts in relation to this project” and thanked them for their professionalism amid the campaigns that Duthie says directly targeted their firm.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Thursday.

[Theme music ends]

Helen Garner has been keeping a diary for as long as she has been a writer. She published extracts from last year’s in the latest issue of The Monthly magazine. This is a selection from them.

Guest: Author Helen Garner.

Background reading:

Diaries (2018-19) in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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145: Helen Garner’s diary