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‘In the Class Struggle, Better Red than Wed ‘Widdershins’ by Jack Bealey

8 Apr

Widdershins by Jack Beasley Wedgetail Press 1986. First appeared in the Times on Sunday (formerly The National Times) in 1986.

widdershinsJack Beasley certainly is no stranger to Australian radical fiction, having spent a lifetime involved in radical politics and in writing about its literature. Indeed his major works to date, Red Letter Days and the The Rage for Lifea study of Katherine Susannah Prichard, have attracted consider attention. The publication of Widdershins, his first major fictional work, must therefore be seen as an event of some importance.

‘Widdershins’ means to swim against the tide and, predictably, one of the novel’s central themes is the struggle of the main character, Jeff Conway, to swim against the prevailing tide of Australian conservatism. Conway is, in many ways, typical of a generation  of Australian communists and radicals. Born to a working class family in the BHP steel city of Newcastle in the early 1920s, his education takes place against the backdrop of the Depression. Returning from the war to Sydney, he quickly becomes deeply involved in the struggles of his trade union and in the day-to-day affairs of the Communist Party.

Indeed Conway’s life strangely parallels the history of the Communist Party of Australia, something which he recognises:

The party and I are more or less of an age. We both breathed what was then the clear Australian air about the beginning of decade three….as the party and I attained maturity, our two paths coincided. I joined our revolution and I signed on for the duration.

These parallels are, at times, striking. During the period from the end of World War II to midway through the 1950s when the party was at its peak, Conway’s family life was happy and secure, But as serious splits and divisions opened up in the party after the 20th Congress of the Soviet party and the Soviet intervention in Hungary, his marriage begins to fall apart. By the mid 1970s party membership is at an all time low and Conway is in hospital recovering from a serious car accident, but also showing the first signs of asbestosis.

Although Widdershins clearly fails into an Australian tradition of radical realism, Beasley attempts at times to expand the genre. In the opening sections of the novel he employs several stylistic devices, such as discontinuous narrative and stream of consciousness. He also plays with notions of time throughout the novel – dates are left deliberately vague and one only gradually becomes aware of the time gap between specific events. Beasley, however, is obviously far more at home with realism and overall these devices tend to disrupt the novel’s continuity without really adding to its impact.

One of the great strengths of Widdershins is the portrayal of the relationship between Conway and his wife Ann. Ann, also a party member, sees in their marriage new possibilities for an equal relationship. SHe soon finds, however, that despite Jeff’s best intentions, their marriage has fallen into predictable patterns. She also realises that, despite its rhetoric, the party still works to marginalise women:

Even in the party itself, do you think there’ll ever be a woman as general secretary? Not while they’re always sidetracked into work among women as we call it!”

Ann’s anger grows as she realises that far greater importance is placed on the work Jeff does organising the men at the power station where he works, than among the “work among women’ or the mundane party work she undertakes in her own branch.

Although Jeff never admits it, a clear distinction grows up between his party work and his family life, and the two increasingly take on the appearance of opposites. Either he stays at home and looks after the children or he goes to an important meeting and feels that he is accomplishing something “real”. The party eventually disciplines him when he misses a vital branch meeting  because Ann is sick and he has to look after the children. The party obviously believes that Jeff has a political duty to be at the meeting. Ann finally leaves him, realising for the first time that she was, in fact, the “strong one” in the family”.

Ann’s political consciousness was perhaps 15 years too early. Her marriage took place well before the saying “the personal is political” became a catchcry for sections of the Left and before the resurgent feminism of the sixties nd seventies began to affect the Communist Party’s attitude and structures. One of the final ironies of Widdershins is that while Jeff leaves the party because of what he sees  as “the party’s collapse into the mire of revisionism”, Ann probably would have found the Communist Party of the seventies far more flexible than the “cohesive” party of the fifties.

While Beasley may lack, in the final instance, much of the sophistication of many younger writers, his novel is an honest portrait of the aspirations, achievements and shortcomings of a generation of Australian communists who lived through some of the century’s most tumultuous struggles. As such Widdershins is an important addition to the Australian radical literary tradition.


Jack Beasley’s review of Wintering by Victor Kelleher appeared in P76 Issue 6



A Film and Video Showcase: Shooting Gallery: A Group Show Featuring Film and Video Projects (1986)

10 Jul

Shooting Gallery: a group show featuring film and video projects, funded by the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and exhibited in association with the Australian Film Institute. It screened at the Chauvel Cinema Sydney and  the  Brisbane Centre Cinema. It also screened in Hobart, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide. Review first Published in Tribune (Issue 2417), April 2 1986.

The late Lance Curtis in ‘The man You Know’ by Steven Jacobs. The film deals with a complex range of social and political questions and satirises the peculiar combination in Australian politics of “conservatism, apathy, the profit motive and rampant pragmatism.

The demise of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative has left a large gap in the distribution of independent films and video in Australia. But while, in the long term, there are still many obstacles to the establishment of an effective independent distribution service, for the present the Australian Film Institute (AFI) has come to the rescue with Shooting Gallery.

Shooting Gallery brings together a wide range of films and videos which have been produced with the assistance of the Creative Development, No Frills, and Women’s Film Funds of the AFC. The films are organised into nine programs which will be screened across Australia over the next few months. The films range from professional, mainstream oriented documentaries to open-ended dreamlike reminders of Super 8 film festivals.

Some, such as Red Matildas, Kemira — Diary of a Strike, Song of Ceylon and Munda Nyuringu. have been screened before. But, as independent films generally receive such brief commercial seasons, another opportunity to catch up on those you may have missed the first time round is always welcomed.

For other films, particularly those in the “Best of No-Frills Fund”, Shooting Gallery may provide the general public with one of the few opportunities to see what is happening at the grassroots level of Australian filmmaking.

Program 1 of Shooting Gallery opened with Flotsam Jetsam, an energetic and colorful song clip by Lucinda Clutterbuck. Based on dancers who had been animated to bounce and flow across the screen, the two-dimensional stick figures moved with such energy you could almost see the dancers fully formed beneath. Red Matildas, by Sharon Connolly and Trevor Graham, concluded the first program. Lots of historical footage cut with modern-day interviews created an enthusiastic and informative picture of three Australian women’s involvement with socialism and anti-fascism, beginning in the depression days of the early ’30s.

Punching Keys, by Sally Ingleton, is a highlight of Program 2. It is a dramatised documentary, questioning the application and side effects of modern office technologies on women VDU operators. The image was manipulated by the wonders of video technology to describe the depersonalisation and stresses of computer technology.

Among films to look forward to in later programs are Kay Self’s Portrait of Psyche, Steven Jacobs’  The Man You Know, Patricia L’Huede’s and Mark Mcleod’s Rapunzel in Suburbia, about the life and work of writer Dorothy Hewett.

At a period when the future of independent film-making is still under a cloud. Shooting Gallery is an opportunity not to be missed.

Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant misunderstood.

22 Apr

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Presented by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre (May 1986). Reviewed by Mark Roberts. Published in Tribune No 2423, May 1986.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder’s prolific output during his brief career meant that sometimes his work was, of necessity, written rather quickly. This is particularly true of his plays and, while most of the rough edges can be ironed out during rehearsals, it helps if the director and cast are sympathetic to Fassbinder and understand the issues he returned to again and again in his work.

Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case with the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The play revolves around notions of personal power based on class and economic distinctions. Essential to Fassbinder’s notion of power is love, which he once said is “the most effective form of social repression”.

Petra Von Kant is a successful, divorced fashion designer. She has an assistant Marlene (Marta Kiec-Gubala). who is silent throughout the entire play. Marlene is treated with incredible coldness by Petra but, nonetheless, is essential to her success.

Petra is introduced to, and initiates a relationship with Karin (Andrea Moor) a young model who has recently returned to Germany after traveling to Australia.

At the centre of the production’s failure is the character of Petra. Director and translator. Mark Gaal, seems to have attempted to make her a reflection of Fassbinder’s own life, so there is a concentration upon her self-indulgence and self-destructiveness.

The result is that Petra seems to be distanced from the principal concerns of the play. Karin is also far too obvious. The essential points are made, but they would have been far more effective if they had been a little more subtle.

In the final instance, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is extremely frustrating. The heavy-handed nature of the direction and the over-acting of the major characters means that Fassbinder’s major concerns are pushed aside.

The Alphabet of Pain – Two books by Jenny Boult

18 Feb

“i” is a versatile character WAV Publications, 1986. Flight 39, Abalone Press. 1986.. Both by Jenny Boult. Reviewed by Mark Roberts. First published in Tribune  23 July 1986.

Jenny Boult’s sixth book.”I” is a versatile character, is also her first book of prose. It follows her play, Can’t Help Dreaming, which was performed by the All Out Ensemble in Adelaide, and four books of poetry. The stories in this collection vary greatly in form and content, but they share a particular “poetic” style of writing which is rare among contemporary Australian prose writers. Although Boult is by no means the first Australian poet to publish fiction, she has been more successful than most in bringing to her prose many of the skills she has developed writing poetry.

The narrative structure of the stories also relies on a poetic model. Boult builds her stories around a series of images which eventually build into an extensive over-view encapsulating the whole story. The most successful example of this can be found in the title piece ‘”i is a versatile character”, and the impressive longer piece, “no room at the top”.

After this sense of freedom it comes as something of a shock to realise that many of the stories are. structurally, fairly disciplined. In “no room at the top”, for example, it is not until the final section that we realise that the piece has been loosely structured around the alphabet, “this is the last letter in the alphabet of pain, the final broken rung on the ladder, the damaged knee and the whiplash of intention.” It is not an easy alphabet, nor is it a heavy handed one. But it firmly anchors the story and allows the 26 sections to fall into place.

In “TWENTY QUESTIONS”. Boult uses a similar device, only this time the anchor is the title. We expect twenty questions, and. in a way, that is what we get. The only direct question, however, comes in the final section. In the preceding 19, the questions rise from the images, the pieces of the collage which Boult presents us with. We try to piece them together, looking for the answer as we go. But. Eventually, like Estragon and Vladimir Waiting for Godot, we are returned to the beginning: “The audience asks, “who is she?” The woman invites them to look again.

In contrast to the fantasy and experimentation in “I” is a versatile character. Boult has returned to her ‘roots’ as a performance poet in Flight 39. Boult has performed many of the poems in this collection to audiences around Australia over the last few years. Most of the poems are clearly meant to be read aloud, indeed, many of them sit somewhat uncomfortably as words printed on a page.

The song-like quality of much of Flight 39 gives the collection an accessibility which is rare among contemporary poets. Boult’s accessibility, however, is never patronising. Her appeal comes from her lyric style, the experiences she writes about and her wonderful black sense of humor.

There are poems about love (of course), housework, shopping trolleys, poetry and the British miners’ strike. In a series of “3 poems for mary kathleen”,  Boult looks at nuclear war from a child’s point of view. One poem begins,

the cat’s going bald mum

the puppies are dead & dad’s called the vet for the old dog

there aren’t many birds.

This innocence disappears in the final poem when the child passes judgment on the post-holocaust society:

the grown ups are going to

patch things up &

pull the pieces together

but i don’t want to live

in a Frankenstein world.

But perhaps the strongest poems in this collection are the two poems grouped together under the title, “in solidarity with the british mine workers 1984-5”. In the first poem. “September 1984”  Boult, who grew up in a British mining town, describes how she felt as she watched the attacks on the picket lines on television in Adelaide.

The second poem. “4th march 1985” is written on the day that the strike collapsed. One can sense the fury which is only just below the surface, but there  is also the grief that this story will be repeated again and again:

I cried for the end of one struggle & the beginning

of the next.

You may have a little trouble getting these books from your local bookseller, but it is well worth the effort. You can also order the books directly from the publishers: WAV Publications. Box 545 Norwood South Australia 5067. and Abalone Press PO Box 2(12 Cheltenham Victoria 3192.

Mark Roberts