The diaries of filmmaker Tim Burstall provide an unbuttoned account of life in conformist 1950s Australia, writes Peter Craven
TIM Burstall was one of the great rejuvenating pioneers of the Australian cinema. If it had not been for his comedic romps such as Alvin Purple (1973) and Stork (1971) we would never have had the cinema that reached its long-ago heyday but continues as a valuable possession.
And some of Burstall’s films, such as Petersen (1974) with Jack Thompson as the former Aussie rules star who decides to go to university, which have their own vein of moody seriousness, have stood the test of time. Burstall seems to have had an acute sense, in work and life, that sufficient to the day were the pleasures thereof.
And so it is with Memoirs of a Young Bastard, a rich and weird collection of the young Burstall’s diary entries, which have been assiduously edited by Hilary Mcphee (eliminating, she says, mainly the repetitions) and produced with a nearly exorbitant magnificence by MUP as part of the Miegunyah list, on art paper, with elaborate and plentiful illustration.
To add to the odd illusion that we are in the vicinity of a coffee table history of Melbourne in the early 1950s, there are potted paragraphs of historical background in pale bronze semi-legible print telling us about the Petrov commission and Doc Evatt and the London Family Hotel as if a set of footnotes could animate a world and all the jack-in-the boxes of history could come to life and dance. And in a way they do because Burstall’s diary is one of the most unbuttoned accounts you’ll ever read of life in conformist Australia in the long-ago 50s.
"You depraved pair!" Betty Burstall, Tim’s wife and the formidable founder of the La Mama theatre exclaims, when she goes out of the living room for a moment and comes back to discover her husband with his pants down doing it with one of her girlfriends.
If her exclamation is without rancour that’s because what is being narrated is the oblique history, through every kind of splendour and misery, of the open marriage the Burstalls had in their idyllic hideaway in the suburb of Eltham.
Burstall died in 2004, a day shy of his 77th birthday, but Betty, who is still with us, says she initiated the infidelity by sleeping with painter and wild man John Perceval before her husband ever strayed. Still, an open marriage closes off doorways in the heart for somebody. On October 15, 1954, 27-year-old Burstall writes in his diary: That night I had a bitter row with Betty over Fay. She said she felt really neurotic now. It was the first time I’d been out with Fay at night since before I was sick and I’d lied to her then anyway. She said she knew she was worsening our relationship by kicking up a fuss but she couldn’t help it. If she couldn’t get over it in a week, she thought it would be better if I left for a while.
The flat factuality of this is characteristic of these diaries, which are photographic rather than interpretive or literary and which seem primarily to function as aide-memoire for the writer. There’s no missing the suggestion of wrongs done to other’s harm. ‘‘ Fay’’ is Fay Rosefield, known to history and literature as Fay Zwicky, poet and academic literary critic, now living in Perth.
The paradox of Burstall’s diaries is that the behaviour of Tim that drove Betty mad was not his satyr-like lurches with two girls who lived together, all over like an avalanche, but his yearning, unconsummated love for the Jewish virgin who played piano and studied English and was scared of sex, certainly of indulging in it prematurely with a married man, though she was writing a thesis at the time on Dostoevsky.
It gives a weird poignancy to these jottings, which run from November 1953 to December 1954, by a man in his middle 20s, who seems to live for nothing but pleasure and curiosity but who is, in the midst of the beering and balling, while working for the Antarctic division of the ABC no less, and as the father of two young sons, having his heart broken, as if he were the merest teenager, by a girl who is clearly having her heart broken by him. Betty Burstall comes across as worldly, womanly and longsuffering, whatever her theoretical tolerance. Here is one of Burstall’s late entries, on Fay. Another letter from Fay. Obviously written before she got mine. It was completely different in tone from her last one. She wasn’t ‘‘ numb’’ anymore, she said she was ‘‘ passionately alive and angry’’. She loved me — she wished I knew how much (she’d lain on the beach by herself, made a hole in the sand and ‘‘ cried my name into it’’). I’d hurt her tremendously the last time I’d seen her. She saw how I must be ‘‘ tired of it all sometimes’’ but if I knew ‘‘ the true nature of her confusion’’ I wouldn’t be so harsh. She’d just written a letter to her parents, ‘‘ unjust and cruel and sure to worry them’’. I felt annoyed