About Carol Middleton

Melbourne author and critic

Tea with the Dames

On Mother’s Day my daughter, who shares my love of theatre, treated me to a screening of Tea with the Dames, a new documentary directed by Roger Michell that records a conversation between Dames Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench, all in their eighties. Four lusty comediennes who may be losing their eyesight and their hearing, but whose resonant, velvety voices are unchanged, as familiar as those of old friends.

One of the roads I almost took in life would have led me onto the boards of the London stage. My theatrical ambition was conceived at the age of eleven, when my mother began taking me to the Old Vic Theatre, to see Shakespeare’s plays. It was there I witnessed Judi Dench’s debut as Ophelia, and later her Juliet. That husky-voice, pert-nosed girl has accompanied me down the years, popping up regularly on cinema and TV screens. As I have zigzagged between my various passions – writing, languages, the stage, music (‘Jack of all trades, master of none’), Judi has stayed true to her first love: the theatre.

The doco is a casual affair, with this great gang of girls sitting round Joan Plowright’s table, in the house she lived in with her second husband Laurence Oliver, chatting, laughing, swearing and sipping glasses of champagne. Prompted by occasional questions from the interviewer, they seem reluctant to talk about their careers, but soon the joy of reminiscing with their close friends takes over, and the anecdotes start flowing. Maggie Smith, with her ascerbic wit, has Judi Dench in fits of girlish giggles, while the astute Eileen Atkins fills in the gaps in their memories. Virtually blind and, at eighty-eight, the eldest of the four, Joan Plowright, presides over all with a quiet authority.

We were shown clips from the early stage shows, the movies, the ceremonies where they suited up for Prince Charles to hang medals around their necks, a few family photos with their children. The videos unleashed a flood of backstage gossip, mostly about Larry (Laurence Oliver), who scared them all.

There is such tenderness between these four women who have all worked hard and continuously for about sixty-five years. They have shared the same stages, played the same roles, appeared in the same films, known the same actors, and are still friends, growing old together.

The film closes with a voiceover of Judi reading, almost whispering, one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. So light, so romantic, after the cut and thrust of his plays. A call to action, to read his sonnets, take comfort and inspiration.

For a day or so, after coming out of the cinema, I was not ready to engage with the mortal souls around. I was still basking in the company of immortals. I wanted to stay buoyed by those familiar voices, those witty and wise women who have, since the 1950s, been holding up the mirror to our lives.

If I envy them, it is in their persistence, their ability to stay on one path all their lives and create a solid work of art, a legacy. No one can forget them.

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Inspired by Joyce Carol Oates

It is over three months since I saw Joyce Carol Oates talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. On 26 August, Michael Cathcart interviewed her in his benign and unpretentious manner, but was not a good match for her incisive intellect and wit, and the glassy Deakin Edge venue echoed nastily. Too often, JCO’s precious words bounced away, but fortunately were captured for Cathcart’s Radio National show ‘Books and Arts’. I had prepared myself for the rare treat by reading two volumes of her short stories and her novel Black Water. Much as I admired her work, that was enough for now. There is only so much bleakness I can tolerate, and her short stories go into dark territory. When JCO flew away, I put her books back on the shelf, and turned to more cheerful fare.

Shortly afterwards I came across (in Best American Essays 2016) her essay about her sister, eighteen years younger than Joyce, who developed severe autism as a child and was eventually institutionalised. ‘The Lost Sister: An Elegy’ is a harrowing account, bringing to mind characters and incidents in Oates’s stories, and giving some context to her fiction. To live with a mute and violent sister who never looks any of her family in the eye would surely colour your imagination in shades of black.

On a recent trip to the Murray River I came across a secondhand copy of A Widow’s Story, JCO’s 2011 memoir, a testimony to grief. When her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, died, Oates dived into a crazed insomnia and spent the next six months trying to claw her way back from despair. Unlike Joan Didion’s succinct A Year of Magical Thinking, Oates’s memoir is discursive, a 415-page record of a distracted mind haunted by regret and shame, a day-by-day account of survival.

There are some books that make me reluctant to move on and start reading another. A Widow’s Story had that effect on me. Its honest self-exposure has inspired me to make a tentative start on a memoir about living with a daughter who has a mental illness. It is difficult territory, which I have been hesitant to enter, but now I have a light to guide me.

And it appears there is another memoir of JCO’s waiting for me, one day: The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age (2015). It includes a lot of her published nonfiction, including the essay on her sister. I imagine I will come across it one day, at the right time, on a shelf in some dusty rural bookshop.

1984 – are we there yet?

I remember holding my breath for the whole year in 1984, wondering if George Orwell’s dire predictions would come true. I looked around me in December, relieved to find that, at least on my side of the world in England, life was still rosy. I’d read the dystopian novel in the sixties (it was published in 1949), and now I was living in Thatcher’s Britain – not an ideal world, but still innocent enough, with no thought police and no TV programs named after Orwell’s Big Brother.

What did emerge within a few years, though, was the manipulative concept of political correctness, which may have had worthy aims of smoothing out inequality between the privileged and the under-privileged, but which succeeded in mangling the English language and producing gobbledygook. We ended up with ‘political speak’ and ‘business speak’, reminiscent of Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, designed to eliminate all nuance from language and diminish the power of thought.

When I went back to Orwell’s novel recently, I found it almost unbearable to read. The story is grim, the prose stark. But it is more than just depressing. Reading it thirty years on, in a different and more threatening world, the story fills me with dread.

The latest stage production of 1984 is playing at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until 10 June. Check out my review:

http://www.australianstage.com.au/201706038320/reviews/melbourne/1984.html

Listening to a Laureate

Last night I saw Irish author Anne Enright speak about ‘Family and fiction’ at Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne. In conversation with Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, she rolled up her sleeves and entertained us with her down-to-earth womanly wisdom, her reflections on writing and her wry humour.

She started by reading from her latest novel The Green Road ((2015) in her lilting Irish brogue, with an eyebrow cocked and great dramatic expression. Six whole minutes of being read to by Anne Enright – what a treat!

The only work I’ve read of hers is The Gathering (2007), which put her among my favourite Irish women writers, those friends I like to cuddle up with in bed. I am reminded of Edna O’Brien and Edith Pearlman, but Enright’s humour, bleak at times, sets her apart. That novel won her the Man Booker Prize. Now she is the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.

After the talk, she signed my battered copy of The Gathering, while I complimented her on her dramatic reading.

‘Yes, I like to ham it up,’ she said, smiling with satisfaction.

If only more writers would take their cue from her.

Talking of humour, and drama, take a look at my review of Lally Katz’s latest comedy, now playing at the Arts Centre in Melbourne:

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-arts/4094-minnie-liraz-melbourne-theatre-company

Revisiting the ’90s

Better late than never! I’m reading Women Who Run With The Wolves, written by Jungian analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I dipped into it when it was first published in 1992, when my Wild Woman was in hiding, overtaken by full-time work. Now’s my time to enjoy this retelling of myths and fairytales, through which the author explores female creativity. It’s a passionate and erudite work.

I was never exposed to Jung’s work in my student years, so am now searching libraries and friends’ bookshelves, to complete my education. I need to know more about the terms that are so familiar: the archetypes, the collective unconscious, the shadow self. Written in the 1950s, Jung’s words about the ‘undiscovered self’ ring fresh and pertinent today, with the need to reclaim individual responsibility from those who abuse power.

At the beginning of the year I set up a new habit of writing for an hour before breakfast. Writer friends keep telling me how much their writing practice was influenced by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1993). I have dug out a copy from the bookshelves, to see how I can refine my new pre-breakfast writing routine with her ‘morning pages’.

By the way, on the subject of women and power, I recently reviewed an MTC production of the 1946 comedy Born Yesterday. Very appropriate for our times. Check it out.

Hey, Mr Tambourine Man

The New York Times calls him Mr Dylan; Obama calls him Bob; we know him as Dylan. For those of us who grew up in the sixties, he was the one who shook us from our roots and made us question everything about our lives. He has kept the faith, in his own unpredictable way, and now has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. What a turn-up for the books!

Oh to be a fly on the wall when the Academy discussed the pros and cons of giving this modern-day troubadour the award. Is Dylan following the oral tradition of the ancient Greeks, like Homer and Sappho, as Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said when making the award announcement?

I was first ‘turned on’ to his music in England in 1965. For a week in August, I lay in bed, suffering from a bout of tonsillitis, listening to the latest songs on the radio. The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was top of the charts, ahead of The Beatles, Lulu, The Animals and Joan Baez. Then they played Dylan’s original version. As soon as Highway 61 Revisited was released later that month, I hurried to the record shop and handed over the cash, slightly embarrassed by my boldness, as if I were crossing a line.

After two weeks of silence, Bob Dylan has accepted the award. There were murmurings that he was rude and ungrateful, but he emerged into the world again, gracious and humbled by the honour. Maybe he had to take time to adjust to being less, or more, than a rebel.

Most of us adjust to being less rebellious in later life, but it’s good to know Dylan is still shaking things up, and being acknowledged for it.

 

Dennis Potter binge

Nothing brings out my inner Brit like Dennis Potter. I had already migrated to Australia in when I first saw his TV series Pennies from Heaven, The Singing Detective and Lipstick on Your Collar, which collectively blew my socks off. They almost made me turn again for ‘home’.
I discovered a copy of Seeing the Blossom (as in ‘smelling the roses’) at South Melbourne market the other day, which has the transcript of his final TV interview with Melvyn Bragg, Potter’s last will and testament. He smoked, drank champagne and swigged morphine (by necessity) throughout the interview, telling Bragg how he still managed to write ten pages a day, in spite of the pain, rising at 5am while his energy allowed. He was determined to complete his final two TV scripts (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus), which he did before he died two months later.
Today I told my librarian I was on a Dennis Potter binge, as she swiped my loan copy of Potter’s The Art of Invective. Here is an antidote for the mealy-mouthed writer. And if there’s anything to put some lead in the critic’s pencil, Potter is your man. Just read his opinion of Rupert Murdoch! And if you are tempted, as I am, to explode the highbrow/lowbrow myth, look to Potter for some ammunition to level the ground. For him, the most popular medium of the time, television (his ‘palace of varieties’) was the place to reach people. He certainly reached me. And the actors who played the leads in his plays performed for him at their peak. The characters played by Bob Hoskins, Michael Gambon, Ewan McGregor and Giles Thomas are still clearly imprinted on my memory. Time to revisit those TV series, I think!