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Remember the Pink Elephant?

In Clive Moore's piece in Hecate XX/i, last year, one sentence in particular jumped out at me, recalling long past places and events whose very existence I have sometimes been close to doubting. Moore asked: "Who has heard of the Pink Elephant Restaurant . . . in North Quay in Brisbane fifty years ago, frequented by Bohemian, gay and Lesbian types?"

Well, I have heard of it. I actually went there occasionally, during my brief career as a young writer of promise - though the Pink Elephant I knew was at Petrie Bight, opposite the Customs House, and not at North Quay: I'd swear to that.

I can see the place now. Those 'types,' the patrons, entered through a narrow door and down a long dark passageway. Suburban innocents such as I, occasional visitors not habitues, crept in with a sense of interloping and daring. In the dim interior, prim erudite librarian-by-day Vida (who had introduced me to Rilke and Hardy and Remarque and Blake) was metamorphosed into the poet floating in drapes and jingling beads; she was, rumour said, in unrequited love with Laurie, who loomed about the tables Byron-esque and brooding, his stooped shoulders draped in long black flowing cloak. In the gloom of the Pink Elephant, Vida and Laurie held court, but the initiates' joke, (known but not fully appreciated by one as naive as I) was that Laurie was homosexual.

How could I fully appreciate the nuances of such a 'joke'? I knew Oscar Wilde had been one of those, but could not imagine what they did, and would not dare to ask. I went to the Pink Elephant because it was 'frequented by Bohemians,' hoping some of their glamour might rub off on me; never dreaming that it was also the haunt of 'gay and lesbian types.' I rather fancy that back then I, like Queen Victoria, did not even know the word lesbian.

Strangely enough, Moore's has not been the only recent article to revive memories of those times - my times, when I was young and trying to establish myself as 'a writer.' Overland recently featured a piece by Peter Cowan, more or less a contemporary of mine. Cowan, describing his trials as a young writer struggling in another outpost of civilisation, Perth, tells how his youthful writing career faltered seriously because he rejected the then-current social realist mode and was instead "interested in the . . . inner lives of his characters."

Writing across the continent in Brisbane, I was likewise interested in exploring inner lives and had never been able to devise plots (am still not very good at it). Despite that, back in those distant days, my little studies of angst were, like his, published: mine in the Queensland University literary magazine, Galmahra, in the ABC Weekly, in a local journal, Modern Times.

Australian outlets were few. Meanjin had been launched in Brisbane and departed for Melbourne without my being aware of its existence. I had been advised (by whom I cannot now recall: by Editors? by other writers?) that my style suited the New Yorker and that I should send work there, but I never did. Why not? Was I fearful of rejection, or still scorched by the flame of my father's scorn when I left my job as a public service clerk? "A writer!" he had thundered. "What sort of a career's that? You'll end up starving in a garret. Or worse."

Well, I didn't end up in a garret, at least. I did write, and even won writing jobs - of sorts - to keep me going financially.

The first such job was on an ex-service paper, name now forgotten, owned and edited by Frank Connolly, retired journalist and author of the novel Southern Saga. "Immensely powerful," he wrote of the story I had submitted, and invited me to join his staff (which consisted of him and me) but blinked when I walked in - a dowdy timid nineteen year old girl. The paper folded in six months and practically the only thing I remember all these years later is going to Boggo Road to interview army deserters still held there more than a year after the end of the war.

I did a six-month stint as a copy writer on Radio 4BH, mostly compiling advertising half-hours - music strung together by messages from the Sponsor, most delivered by boy-wonder announcer Ray Barrett. Easy writing when the subject was a flower shop, for example: First a sentimental rendition of Moonlight and Roses bringing me memories of you . . . Then the announcer comes in: "And talking of roses, don't forget your sweetheart's birthday, or that anniversary, or any other special day - say it with roses from George Street Florists. George Street Florists have bunches of roses in all sizes and shades . . . And while we're on the subject of roses, where better to admire them or any other flowers than In an English Country Garden, the title of our next song, rendered by . . ." Hardly classical prose but it flowed easily onto the paper - though the flow clogged a little when the ads were for Bloggs' Butcher's Shop or Pete's Plumbing Services . . .

Then there was Modern Times, a brave little literary magazine, operating from a warehouse in Roma Street, and edited by Malcolm Blight, brother of rising young poet John. Modern Times was an early outlet for Judith Wright, Laurie Collinson, Patrick Tennison and other young writers - including me. I worked there briefly as part-time Editorial Assistant while at Queensland University; that job, too, was gained on the strength of submitting a couple of stories.

There was a year's interlude as Assistant Librarian at the South Brisbane Municipal Library; a concession to financial survival, but at least I was among books (of which there had never been many in my life) and met Vida, whose efforts to 'educate' me in literature made me realise how minimal my literary knowledge was.

I needed to know more; how better than by studying what we now call The Canon?

In English Literature, the ancient professor droned on from his dry tattered notes on Wordsworth and the Romance poets. I was daunted by all that mass of high-culture English writing; what could my little Australian voice have to add? I would have been silenced then and there but for English Expression with Andy Thomson, who managed to insert into his lectures - about Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson - secret snippets of extra-curricular information on Henry Handel Richardson and Joseph Furphy and John Shaw Neilson and a few other Australian writers whose names I had never heard before.

But in the end it was something other than the weight of The Canon that began my forty years of silence.

Cowan in Overland told how one of his first stories was judged obscene; the publisher was fined and Cowan silenced for years. Apparently, back then, obscene was the label applied to sensual writing by males; sexually frustrated was the easy tag for erotic female writing. That was how the (mostly Marxist, mostly male) editors of Galmahra tagged one of my poems. It was not the rejection per se; it was imagining them as they guffawed over my passionate outpouring. I shrivelled inside.

I wish I had a copy of that poem, to see what I think of it now; then I destroyed it and virtually stopped writing. Those editors were surely right; my writing was merely a substitute for life. Sexual sublimation. I needed to live.

I shaved my legs, went to Alphonse in Lennons Foyer and had him cut a saucy French fringe, bought new clothes, stopped being (quite so) introspective, started to live - with singing and dancing and drinking and lovers and marriage and work and richer and poorer (mostly poorer) and sickness and health and death and tears and laughter and children and grandchildren - until it was The Present, and there I was, retired, with time to spare.

And not escaped the itch to write after all. And with so much I wanted to say. And, I soon discovered, the ability to say it. My stories were published in 'recognised literary journals' - Span, Hecate, Meanjin, Overland, Imago, Southerly, as well as other 'lesser' publications. I won a few minor awards and grants.

But now, despite such small successes, my second writing career is hardly more brilliant than my first. Gloria Yates recently wrote in the Australian of her trials as a female late come to writing. She described how in 1993 she went, elated, to Montsalvat, but was daunted by the "massed charioteers" there present, the Melbourne literati, mostly male, who have known and supported each other for years; how she felt herself to be poetic "dust beneath their chariot wheels."

I know just how she felt.

Cowan, recalling the Forties, wrote: "I don't suppose anyone today would understand at all the kind of isolation that surrounded someone like myself." Really? For many women writers, that painful isolation still exists; especially for those of Cowan's generation who had their earlier voices silenced not by passing literary fashions, but by the hard practicalities of marriage, work, children . . .

With Gloria, I ask: how are women writers, especially older women with their writing careers thus truncated or postponed, ever to enter the arena? In writing - as in business, academe and the professions - such women too often find the gates already shut. Publishers and funding bodies seek 'young writers of promise.' The older woman is easily overlooked - and silenced once again.

Those who win through are few. Tillie Olsen was a contemporary of Steinbeck and Hemingway and a far better writer, but she was poor and a wife and mother and worker who produced only two small books of fiction, and Silences, a study of the silencing of 'others' generally - the poor, migrants, the working class, the indigenous, but particularly women.

In Australia, Elizabeth Jolley and Olga Masters managed to make it (Masters only just in time), but how many other good writers have been silenced? Amy Witting, unable to find a publisher, had almost given up writing in despair, until a British publisher brought out I for Isabel, to wide acclaim and subsequent success.

Some token heed is now paid to those other voices - Aborigines, immigrants, the poor, women - but much remains untold, much experience is unacknowledged. There are still vast Silences.

So in answering Moore's question I add: there are so many, outside narrow literary and academic circles, whose experiences like mine are wide, and whose voices could ring with astonishing power and appeal if given an outlet. It is time to let them be more clearly heard, surely?

Betty Birskys
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Title Annotation:metaphorical landmarks
Author:Birsky, Betty
Date:May 1, 1995
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