In­trepid women of the world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Agnes Nieuwen­huizen

Four women, four rich, ad­ven­tur­ous lives. Cather­ine An­der­son has a big, bold story to tell in The End of All Our Ex­plor­ing. An­der­son fleet­ingly meets An­gus McDon­ald, a noted Australian pho­to­jour­nal­ist, in McLeod Ganj, high up in the Hi­malayas near the home of the Dalai Lama and his ex­iled followers. She ex­plains, “All I wanted was to live and breathe in In­dia.”

Life is hard but stim­u­lat­ing and the scenery spec­tac­u­lar. Even­tu­ally she needs to ex­tri­cate her­self from a mar­riage with an il­lit­er­ate, abu­sive ex-monk and leave. “I be­gan to feel un­com­fort­able in a place that fed hun­grily on the mis­for­tune of an en­tire peo­ple — the Ti­betans.”

An­der­son’s me­moir is less self-ab­sorbed, more out­ward look­ing, more cere­bral, more in­vested in the world around her, than the other books here. How­ever, hers too en­com­passes travel, love, ill­ness, loss, death, grief and ways of deal­ing with the af­ter­math.

An­der­son has been chief of staff to au­thor, Afghanistan ex­pert and Bri­tish MP and gov­ern­ment min­is­ter Rory Ste­wart since 2010 and worked for him re­motely dur­ing her time with McDon­ald. She is a fel­low of the Royal Ge­o­graphic So­ci­ety and has writ­ten for The Guardian, Bri­tain’s The Daily Tele­graph, The Huff­in­g­ton Post and var­i­ous travel mag­a­zines.

About five years af­ter An­der­son re­turns to Eng­land, McDon­ald con­tacts her via email. The two fall deeply in love, be­come en­gaged, re­alise they are both “third cul­ture chil­dren” — prod­ucts of peri­patetic child­hoods. They travel, have a few good months to­gether and work to­wards com­bin­ing their lives be­fore McDon­ald is di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic cancer.

He re­turns to his fam­ily in Syd­ney for tests and treat­ment. An­der­son joins him. About 100 pages are de­voted to McDon­ald’s gru­elling treat­ment. An­der­son sits in on ev­ery med­i­cal ap­point­ment and at­tends to all of McDon­ald’s needs. She takes notes, re­searches dili­gently and ques­tions every­thing and ev­ery­one.

What is meant by “so-called gold-stan­dard treat­ments”? “Why sub­ject him to treat­ment that pro­claims it­self to be the best op­tion, when it most clearly is not? Why treat if there is no cure? … Why are those who con­sider re­ject­ing chemo­ther­apy dis­missed as ec­cen­tric …?”

They switch doc­tors. They en­joy each other’s com­pany, ex­plore Syd­ney, read a lot and live as nor­mal a life as pos­si­ble with much fam­ily sup­port.

McDon­ald goes into par­tial re­mis­sion and they chance a trip to Myan­mar. In 1994, McDon­ald re­traced the foot­steps of Australian ex­plorer Ge­orge Ernest Mor­ri­son from Shang­hai to Ran­goon (Yan­gon), a cen­tury af­ter Mor­ri­son’s jour­ney. An­der­son in­tends to do this trek her­self.

Their trip does not end well, though the lo­cal peo­ple are so kind and gen­er­ous that in grat­i­tude An­der­son sets up the An­gus McDon­ald Trust to de­liver grass­roots health­care in Myan­mar. She also com­piles and ed­its McDon­ald’s photos for a book, In­dia’s Dis­ap­pear­ing Rail­ways, and cu­rates an ex­hi­bi­tion of these photos that is shown in London, Syd­ney and Mel­bourne.

An­der­son’s writ­ing is vivid and sharp. Of a brightly painted hospi­tal wait­ing room she writes: “It is de­press­ing pre­cisely be­cause it is try­ing not to be.” Her book is a brac­ing, if sad, tour de force.

In Hippy Days Ara­bian Nights Kather­ine Boland trans­forms her­self into a suc­cess­ful artist with many ad­ven­tures fol­low­ing 30 years of hard work and a coun­ter­cul­ture life around Bega in NSW. Boland is study­ing art when she and her part­ner, John, de­cide to opt for the utopian life in the 1970s. They clear land and build a mud-brick house on their 40ha plot, lead­ing a sub­sis­tence ex­is­tence while rear­ing a daugh­ter.

This lifestyle in­cludes much dope smok­ing, mostly by the men, and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence within the grow­ing com­mu­nity. John has an af­fair. Boland de­cides she has had enough and heads back to civil­i­sa­tion, her only sis­ter and her art prac­tice. On the night of her first ex­hi­bi­tion in Mel­bourne, Boland falls head­long into an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship with the much older, “charis­matic, co­caine-sniff­ing, Croa­t­ian ar­chi­tect Vicko”.

Later, aged 52, Boland ar­rives in Cairo to take up an artist’s res­i­dency. She locks eyes across a room with the hand­some Egyp­tian trans­la­tor, Ga­mal, ex­actly half her age and so be­gins a five-year ex­cit­ing but predictably star­crossed af­fair. Even­tu­ally it all gets too dif­fi­cult. Ga­mal is Mus­lim, his par­ents ex­pect to choose his wife, the Arab Spring and its con­se­quences in­ter­fere, visa ap­pli­ca­tions to Aus­tralia be­come in­creas­ingly com­plex and values clash. The lovers meet, al­ways in se­cret in Egypt, briefly else­where in re­sorts, but the “Ara­bian Nights” turn into bleak days.

The Hippy Days part of this book is more grounded and ap­peal­ing than the Ara­bian Nights sec­tion, not least be­cause not a great deal has been writ­ten about the ide­al­is­tic sel­f­re­liance move­ment that Boland presents with clear eyes, though with a predilec­tion for de­scrip­tors and cliches: “highly amused kook­abur­ras”, “fresh and fra­grant day”, “bone-chill­ing cold”, “like a newly-minted penny”, “grin­ning at me ador­ingly, John …” and so on. Boland crowd-funded the print­ing costs of her book, an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar method of mak­ing a pub­li­ca­tion vi­able.

Boland’s book and Na­dine Wil­liams’s Fare- well My French Love are both com­pared on their back cov­ers to El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert’s hugely suc­cess­ful Eat, Pray, Love. This may or may not com­mend the books to all read­ers.

Wil­liams’s book also is hailed as “an ac­ces­si­ble take on the en­dur­ing mar­ket for mem­oirs tack­ling grief”. The book of­fers rather more. Wil­liams’s long ca­reer at Ade­laide’s The Ad­ver­tiser largely cov­ered so­cial and women’s is­sues, and these in­ter­ests are ev­i­dent in her me­moir. How­ever, it is es­sen­tially a frank and in­sight­ful ac­count of try­ing to re­gain some bal­ance af­ter the death from cancer of her “great French love”, her third hus­band, Olivier. Wil­liams is dis­ori­ented and can hardly recog­nise her­self. I try and grasp the fact that I had a life be­fore Olivier, an iden­tity as a prom­i­nent news­pa­per woman … Surely I had a gath­er­ing of life skills to cope with my ad­ver­sity? … I am be­gin­ning to rue the fact that some­where in the bliss of my mar­riage, I lost my sense of in­de­pen­dence. I be­came joined at the hip with Olivier, and my feel­ing of whole­ness in­cluded him. Emo­tional in­ter­de­pen­dence. I wrote about its dan­gers be­fore I met him and I never in­tended it to hap­pen to me. How­ever, such in­tense to­geth­er­ness was Olivier’s idea of a French mar­riage …

Jane, Wil­liams’s lifelong friend, de­cides a trip to France is the re­quired an­ti­dote. While in­ter­spersed with rec­ol­lec­tions about life and travel with Olivier and learn­ing about food and cook­ing along­side him, the fo­cus is on the restora­tive power of France.

Wil­liams loves show­ing off her French, adores Paris, its ar­chi­tec­ture, charm, cafes, restau­rants and bou­tiques (the book would make a use­ful travel guide). She is al­most ob­sessed with French fe­male roy­alty, es­pe­cially Marie An­toinette and Em­press Josephine, and the power they ex­erted. She muses on the over­all sta­tus and role of French women and the “lin­eage of strong French fem­i­nists and writ­ers” such as Si­mone Weil, Se­go­lene Royal, Marguerite Duras and Si­mone de Beau­voir. “What­ever the In­dia’s Dis­ap­pear­ing Rail­ways rea­son, gen­der re­la­tions in France are a strato­sphere away from Australian so­ci­ety.”

She in­dulges in fash­ion and shop­ping, writ­ing de­fi­antly: “Whether you ap­prove or not, [Ga­leries] Lafayette is a fab­u­lous women’s world of shop­ping, of re­tail ther­apy in Paris.” Jane dis­ap­proves, as she does of Wil­liams’s love of food and of her size, at times petu­lantly leav­ing her friend to feast on her own while ab­stemiously in­dulging in an ap­ple. There are rather too many vi­gnettes of cafes, ho­tels, meals, up-and-down moods and tire­some squab­bles be­tween the two women.

Af­ter Jane’s de­par­ture Wil­liams at­tends a French course and re­con­nects with some French women ac­quain­tances. She re­alises her “new life in the com­pany of women … has taken shape in Paris”; that she has gained “de­li­cious free­dom” and that she has “scrounged an iden­tity as a widow, liv­ing well, alone in Paris [though] the trick will be to take that feel­ing home on the air­craft”.

At 96, Robin Dal­ton is the grande dame here. She is de­servedly fa­mous for her work as a lit­er­ary agent and later as a film pro­ducer. Among her sta­ble of au­thors were Iris Mur­doch, Ten­nessee Wil­liams, Mar­garet Drab­ble, Edna O’Brien and Arthur Miller. She pro­duced the film ver­sion of Peter Carey’s Os­car and Lucinda. She in­tends to cover this pe­riod in her next me­moir (we hope).

At 19, af­ter a scan­dalous di­vorce from an older, abu­sive hus­band, Dal­ton be­came the first fe­male civil­ian to fly out of Aus­tralia af­ter World War II. This was pos­si­ble only be­cause Daddy knew the head of Qan­tas. One Leg Over de­tails her he­do­nis­tic life among the post­war elite in a London of gloom and ra­tions. Dal­ton drops dozens of names. Will read­ers recog­nise these? How does she re­mem­ber them? She finds lovers, of­ten more than one at a time. (She laments that these days young peo­ple are af­ter sex, not love!)

She fre­quents ex­clu­sive fash­ion houses, fash­ion­able restau­rants, en­joys cham­pagne, cock­tails, travel and hol­i­days, and works only spo­rad­i­cally. Funds are pro­vided by fam­ily and oc­ca­sion­ally by the du­bi­ous en­deav­ours of friends. She writes: “Fun and free­dom were more en­tic­ing than per­ma­nence.”

One great love was David, mar­quess of Mil­ford Haven, a cousin of Prince Philip. As Dal­ton was di­vorced they could not marry but spent five years to­gether though she had dal­liances when he was else­where. There is a charm­ing photo of the two at the Ho­tel du Re­serve at Beaulieu.

De­spite se­vere op­po­si­tion, as he was a Catholic and she a di­vorcee, in 1953 Dal­ton mar­ried Em­met Dal­ton, a doctor, and they had two chil­dren. Dur­ing this time Robin Dal­ton was of­fered a kind of am­bas­sado­rial cum spy­ing role with Thai­land that in­cluded ex­otic trips and much lux­ury. What this role masked is un­clear. Trag­i­cally, af­ter only a few years to­gether, Em­met died of a con­gen­i­tal heart con­di­tion.

“I dis­cov­ered that it is pos­si­ble to grow up sud­denly — to burst into adult­hood — if you meet a twin soul whose strength beck­ons you into ma­tu­rity.” Though Dal­ton is bereft, help ma­te­ri­alises in many guises (“Writer Robert Ruark and his wife Ginny lent me their su­perb apart­ment in Park Lane”), in­clud­ing a nanny and so­journs in Italy and Aus­tralia.

For 29 years Dal­ton lived with “suc­cess­ful screen­writer, play­wright and nov­el­ist” Wil­liam Fairchild. She mar­ried him on their 30th an­niver­sary to­gether. She still lives in London and Biarritz. In an af­ter­word, Dal­ton writes that in old age con­tent­ment is achieved through “the hot wa­ter bot­tle in bed at night and the hot bath in the morn­ing”. “One leg over! — the day’s first and ma­jor ob­sta­cle is ac­com­plished.” A bril­liant ti­tle for a bril­liant life where “be­ing a woman has been the ic­ing on the cake”. is a re­viewer and critic.

An im­age from An­gus McDon­ald’s

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