Trouble: Evolution of a Radical / Selected Writings 1970 -2010 - review

Posted in Essays (E)

Trouble: Evolution of a Radical / Selected Writings 1970 -2010, Kate Jennings, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2010

Unfortunately, I was in the US when Kate Jennings had a conversation on 21 July 2010 with Jan McGuiness about her new book, Trouble, at Readings Bookshop in Hawthorn.

The only thing to do when I got back to Melbourne was borrow Kate’s book from the library and read it from cover to cover. Immediately I was plunged into the very early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia or more accurately Sydney which Kate portrays, of course, in the first couple of pages as being more radical than anywhere else:

A conference was organised in Melbourne in May of 1970. Around fifty attended and the atmosphere was wary, tentative. Our 67 Glebe Point Road gang was the tough lot; no make-up or bras, hairy legs and underarms, arguing for no men at meetings, the whole kit and kaboodle; we thought the women from the other cities were wimps.

In Bad Manners, written in 1993, she broadens her scope:

"The chief characteristic of Australian feminism is a proud combativeness, best illustrated by the refrain of a popular song in the first days of the movement: ‘I’m a shameless hussy, and I don’t give a damn.’ I used to think that this confrontational mode had its origins in documents such as the SCUM Manifesto, enthusiastically read by radical feminists in the early seventies, but now I see it rather as an offshoot of that famous behaviour peculiar to Australia: larrikinism... And whether we like it or not, it is easier to hurl insults and call for a revolution - heaven knows there is enough provocation - than to do the painstaking and difficult work of changing attitudes, including some of our own."  

"Lesbians are mentioned, and not very kindly. After Kate moved to New York she stayed with ‘a lesbian friend from home’ who lived with her American partner: ‘Both were by way of being professional feminists and had met in Mexico City in 1975 at the International Women’s year conference.’ They took Kate to a party, ‘as a kindness but also to impress,’ where she mingled with ‘Kate Millet, Robin Morgan, Rita Mae Brown’ and while Kate, too, was impressed she realised she ‘had become tired of the righteous indignation, the beleaguered whining, the easy dismissal of just about anything you name,’ of her friends back home and these lesbian feminists, (Kate does not call them that) ‘their conversations were remarkably similar... the gambits they used in flirting with one another were identical...’ After two weeks she was asked to leave."

One other gripe, the song, Don’t Be Too Polite, Girls, (1970), by the Melbourne singer Glenn Tomasetti, was not a ‘ditty from the sixties’ to us Victorians but a call to the barricades. A pity the lines heading up the essay, The Revolution That Wasn’t, are in the wrong order. 

Be all that as it may, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Kate’s style is racy, down to earth and very self-revealing. From the famous Front Lawn Speech at an anti-Vietnam war rally in 1970, through the essays and poems that expose the bleakness of her childhood in outback NSW, the move to New York, the drinking and finally not drinking, AA, migraines and the marriage to a man who succumbs to Alzheimer’s which necessitates getting a job on Wall Street to pay his medical bills ‘healthcare being what it is in the US’, all the way to the review of Wake in Fright and the last entry, Red-Lining, published in 2010, all 300-plus, reprinted and retrospective pages of it adds up to one of the most intriguing and riveting books I’ve read in a long time. 

Not too surprisingly, the Introduction to Mother I’m Rooted: An Anthology of Australian Women Poets, edited by Kate Jennings, (Outback Press, Fitzroy, 1975), is included. One of the most significant feminist books to be published in the 1970s it sold 10,000 copies, a remarkable achievement for a book of poetry. And as Kate says: ‘the list of writers that went on to bigger and better things after first being published in Mother I’m Rooted is a long one.’

Not that I understood every word of Trouble, especially the sections on Wall Street and the US monetary system, although I’m glad that Kate has her finger on the pulse. Except to say, that it seems to boil down to the fact that all bankers are greedy, take advantage of their unrestrained avarice, have no morals or ethics let alone any government constraints on their money-grubbing and have no intention, despite this most recent world-wide monetary crisis, to change any time soon. 

I agreed with her critical assessment about being brought up in country Australia, as I was as well, and it being a lot more dangerous and cruel a place than is often imagined. I also appreciated her ex-pat’s critical view of Australia included throughout the book and especially in the section, You Don’t Understand! What Do You Know?! You Don’t Live Here!, which featured interviews with three other famous ex-pats, including the writers Sumner Locke Elliott (Careful, He Might Hear You, 1963) and Shirley Hazzard (The Great Fire, 2003). And her observations about the amount of alcohol consumed in this country, talking of Women Falling Down in the Street, and the attitude that you’re not a real man unless you’re able to get blind drunk with your mates on a regular basis, is spot on. 

That Trouble was published by Morry Schwartz the founder of Black Inc who was also part of the team at Out Back Press that published both Mother I’m Rooted and Kate’s poetry book, Come to Me My Melancholy Baby in 1975, is another fascinating aspect of this fascinating book.

Kate was the first feminist editor to send me a rejection letter (undated) in 1974: ‘I have been surprised, staggered, and excited by the overwhelming response to my request for work from women poets’, which rather poleaxed me at the time, as I recall. Bad enough getting rejections letters anyway but I think I rather naively imagined that as a feminist I would be included in the first feminist anthology in Australia. Unfortunately, Kate’s rejection letter was only the first of many from feminist editors but as the ex-pat playwright Ray Matthew said to Kate in his interview: ‘Everyone’s overlooked! And every writer over seventeen knows that’s the truth.’ 

© Jean Taylor