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The diaries of film­maker Tim Burstall pro­vide an un­but­toned ac­count of life in con­form­ist 1950s Australia, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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