Drysdale. Country Child

Christina Stead (1940)

When was the last time you hated someone? I mean really hated someone, so much so that you would happily see them die? A person who bullied you at school perhaps? Someone who has hurt a child or an animal?

It doesn’t do, of course (or at least to admit it), but within a few pages of starting Christina Stead’s 1940 novel, The Man who loved Children, I felt in myself an unexpected and visceral hatred of both the ‘Man’ and his wife, Sam and Henny Pollitt. Exploring this reaction took me till the end of the book.

The novel is a classic of Australian literature, familiar from its 1966 re-issue with a dust-jacket featuring Russell Drysdale’s Two Children, one of his eerie outback paintings from the 1940s. Unlike the cover image, though, the novel itself is set in the suburbs of Washington DC during the 1930s. Stead had fled Sydney in 1928 and spent much of the remainder of her life in the United States. The origins of the story are avowedly autobiographical, based on Stead’s memories of her overbearing father, a renowned biologist and conservationist (Mount Stead in the Blue Mountains is named after him). What she does with this personal material is extraordinary however.

The Man who loved Children is one of those books you feel you should have read. It’s sat on my bookshelf (or rather the waist-high pallisade of books that lines my bedroom walls) for a good ten years, and last month I decided to tackle it at last. Except that a dutiful ‘tackle’ was not what I found. Stead’s prose thunders and crackles with all the energy and excitement of a storm. How often can you say that a book is truly exhilarating to read?

The story opens with a description of the Pollitt household. In a big ramshackle house live five (or is it six?) children, the eldest being Louie, Sam’s daughter with her first wife (now deceased). When Henny returns home from town, the children crowd around to see what she has bought; she dismisses them with lines that may equally be good- or bad-humoured – ‘What do you mean sneaking up on me like that, are you spying on me like your father?’ – then retreats to her room with a cup of tea.

As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncontrollable around its edge, the thousand storms of her life would rise up before her, thinner illusions on the steam. She did not laugh at the words ‘a storm in a teacup’. Some raucous, cruel words about five cents misspent were as serious in a woman’s life as a debate on war appropriations in Congress; all the civil wars of ten years roared into their smoky words when they shrieked, maddened at each other; all the snakes of hate hissed.

When Sam returns from work each day, there are cheers and picnics and building of tree-houses and speeches about democracy and freedom and the future of mankind . . . but it is Sam who is always in charge; Sam who does the talking and won’t brook contrary opinions; Sam who keeps Louie cleaning and cooking, as the eldest girl in the house.

When the children are in bed, they hear fearsome, screaming arguments between their parents that go on for hours. For weeks on end, Henny does not speak to her husband, but leaves notes for him or uses one of the children as an emissary. These communications are often about money. The spoilt child of a spendthrift father, she keeps secret from Sam that she is always hopelessly in debt. He would earn a reasonable salary as a government scientist, but Henny has no interest or capacity for doing anything with money apart from spending without thought. Debt is easy; you do not have to make any special effort to make it happen. It simply comes about when you do not budget, as Henny discovers. The more she owes, the more terrified she is of Sam finding out. In the end, she is shamelessly borrowing money from anyone she can: family and tradespeople, her children’s teacher, and she even sells her body for favours to a man she despises (and who fathers the youngest of her children). One by one, she disposes of everything of value in the house, and even steals from her son’s savings tin.

It is not the Pollitt’s treatment of each other alone which is fascinatingly repellant; it is how they treat their children. The sensitive Louie, on the verge of adolescence, is beaten by her father when she is recalcitrant. More painful to her, though, is the humiliation she suffers. Henny regularly reminds her step-daughter of how unattractive she is, how clumsy and overweight. Sam openly mocks Louie’s love of literature (her only refuge from family life). He even takes her personal notebook and reads it aloud to the others in a mocking voice.

Jonathan Franzen notes this cruelty in his admiring essay on the book:

Although its prose ranges from good to fabulously good — is lyrical in the true sense, every observation and description bursting with feeling, meaning, subjectivity — and although its plotting is unobtrusively masterly, the book operates at a pitch of psychological violence that makes Revolutionary Road look like Everybody Loves Raymond. And, worse yet, can never stop laughing at that violence!

The pitch of the story rises as Sam goes on a long scientific expedition in Asia, loses his position in obscure circumstances, and the family are forced to move out of their home. The Pollitt parents grow ever more hateful to each other and the reader as the stress of their home life increases. Turning the pages is like hearing an orchestra play ever louder and faster, at a higher and higher pitch. It is here that a lesser author could literally have ‘lost the plot’ but Stead stays firmly in control. How tempting to make outright villains of this self-centred pair, like a couple of Dickensian grotesques. Yet this is where she turns the reader’s hatred of them (or this reader anyway) back on us. After all their repellant behaviour towards the children, Stead gives us glimpses of their inner lives, forcing us to acknowledge their three-dimensional, tragic characters, trapped in their own folly. Sam does love Louie, he makes clear, but is incapable of understanding or engaging with her in any way. His idealism about humanity is sincere but abstract. Henny is an appalling, selfish creature, and yet one can sense the maddeningly powerless frustration of being married to ‘the great I am’ as she calls Sam, who has Old Testament attitudes towards women, despite all his claims of modernism.

Louie is the main victim of their errant parenting. Her increasing pain at their humiliation of her reaches a crescendo when she begs to leave home, and Sam tells her she will never leave but stay always to look after him. In a scene which is ghastly and quite believable at the same time, she decides the only solution is to murder her parents. In a dreamlike state she mixes poison into their tea, hesitates, but sees Henny drink and fall dead before she can stop her.

It’s all too easy for everyone to believe the hysterical Henny took her own life. Sam insists again that Louie stay to look after him and the other children, but now she feels free and walks out of the house, never to return. The end of the novel is the beginning of Louie’s life.

The Man who loved Children is a masterpiece, and Christina Stead is rightly (if insufficiently) recognised as one of the greatest Australian writers of the twentieth century alongside Patrick White. Her 1946 novel, Letty Fox, was banned in Australia for over ten years due to its ‘salacious’ centent. I can’t wait to read it.

Image: Russell Drysdale, Country Child.

The secret life of objects

merry-go-round horse

You know how it is.

Driving home late from work. Rain thrashing down and the windscreen misting up. Looking forward to getting home . . . That’s when I remembered I needed to stop off somewhere to pick up some milk for the morning. It was tiresome but it had to be done. I pulled off the road and down into supermarket car park, two levels below the ground.

Twenty minutes later I was back with the milk and somehow, too, with a couple of bulging plastic bags full of shopping. On  my way to the car, though, I stopped in my tracks as a ripple of emotion ran through me. How could the sight of a children’s ride – a fairground horse – throw me into such confusion?

These rides are a common sight in shopping centres. A bulbous little spaceship.  Postman Pat’s van. When a coin is inserted, they rock gently up and down, lights flashing, with an entranced four-year old inside. It’s a poignant sight, to see a little person open-mouthed in wonder at such a humble experience. I hadn’t expected to come across a ride down in the gloomy parking basement beneath the supermarket, however, especially in the form of a brightly-coloured merry-go-round horse.

My reaction was, I realised, an echo of how I would have felt as a child towards the mechanical horse – as though it were a living thing. Poor, lonely horse, I might have whispered in its ear, while stroking its nose. Later, lying warm in bed, I would remember it standing all night under the blue neon light of the car park.

‘You should be in a busy fairground, going round to the music of a hurdy-gurdy, surrounded by coloured lightbulbs and children eating candy floss. Instead, you are exiled down in this damp and silent underground car park . Well, I at least care about you,’ I might have said in a letter which never actually got written, which was never posted to who-knows-where? Perhaps to that land where my other friend at the time, Rupert Bear played with Tiger Lily, who lived in a pagoda with her magician father.

It wasn’t just the merry-go-round horse which drew my sympathy. As a child, I regarded all sorts of other inanimate objects as having feelings too, even what I wore. When I was bought a new shirt, I would ‘introduce’ it to my other clothes. What was behind this urge to reach out emotionally to objects? To invest them with such feelings of loneliness and longing for warmth. A psychologist might offer explanations. The realisation of ‘object permanence’ – that things exist in themselves, independent of our observation? A projection of my own feelings at the time? Who knows. I prefer a more philosophical explanation . . .

Only humans have evolved to imagine how it feels to be something other than ourselves. (We shout at a cat for playing with a mouse, but puss has no understanding of the fear and pain she causes. A mouse is merely food with legs.) This capacity which we become aware of as children – imagination – is an extraordinary leap in evolution – projecting our consciousness into that which is not us. It is akin to magic. We can put ourselves into another creature’s mind and imagine what is is thinking, what it is feeling.

It’s not hard to see what an advantage this was to our hunting, neolithic ancestors. Just as I felt a flicker of empathy for the fairground horse, our ancestors will have imagined what it was to be a wild horse or deer – carving it out in chalk on an English hillside or painted in a Lascaux cave.

As well as the ability to be in two places simultaneously, this imaginative  faculty allows us the very human (and often infuriating) capacity to  ‘know’ or believe two contradictory things at once, with all the wonders and the troubles this has brought us. Mythologies and religion. Odysseus and Santa Claus. Every character in all of literature since we first started ‘making up’ stories and suspending disbelief while they were told.

That fairground horse in the underground car park has a lot of company after all.

The day I decided not to grow up

I remember exactly the day I decided not to grow up.

I was twelve years and 364 days old. The following morning I would wake to birthday cards in the mail. There would be presents to unwrap at a party in the afternoon. This year though, anticipation was mixed with dread. There would be 13 candles on the cake. From tomorrow I would be a teenager, and after that you became a grown-up.

I liked being a child. I especially enjoyed staring out of the window, watching clouds change shape. A ship slowly turned into a piano, and then a cliff face hanging in the air. But I had seen what happened to other boys when they became teenagers. It wasn’t an attractive prospect. Their faces erupted with spots. They got boils on their necks. Limbs started to grow at unequal speeds. Stray hairs sprouted from their chins. They had to spend months – years even – preparing for exams and probably missing Star Trek on TV.

From my observation the world of grown-ups, too, was agonisingly boring. A conspiracy of tedium. My parents had to work every day whether they felt like it or not. They had to wear the same dull clothes every day; as a nurse, my mother even had to wear a uniform. They had to do the washing and ironing and pay the bills and keep the garden tidy. They worried about money all the time. There were whispered conversations about the cost of school uniforms. Being grown-up was a strange totalitarian state to which I seemed destined to be exiled in a few years. The scale and complexity of this world awed me: I felt like a figure in a Jeffrey Smart painting, small and fragile, overshadowed by vast industrial structures. My entire spirit revolted at the thought, that evening before my thirteenth birthday.

Everything happened exactly as I feared. The following year, my voice broke. My schoolboy complexion erupted into a volcanic landscape of red pustules. Hairs spiralled zanily out from my chin. When I shaved, the razor lopped the heads off my spots so that they bled. I went to school with little squares of tissue paper dotting my face, feeling like an outcast from a leper colony. My only consolation was the sight of other boys with just as many spots dotting their faces. It baffled me that one of the worst-afflicted seemed unconcerned by his appearance, no more than his beautiful long-legged girlfriend, captain of the netball team. There was more homework too, of course, but that at least I didn’t mind.

Finally, after all the study and when there were no more exams for me to take, I discovered that I had become a grown-up. I  wore a suit every day. I sat in meetings discussing budgets and timelines and contract deliverables. I discovered the benefits of adulthood too: those things I knew little about on the eve of my thirteenth birthday. There was sex of course. There was travel. There was work: the joy of doing something well. And then there was love.

 A few decades on, I have lived in five cities, thinking each was my home. I have had four professions, each time becoming restless and abandoning it for another. And I have discovered something else. That twelve year-old boy never did grow up after all. He is still there, gazing dreamily out of the window, chin on his hand, happily watching my life unfold and repeatedly re-make itself, as he once watched a cloud change shape over and over again.

I discovered as well that there were other people who had never grown up. I know them by certain signs. And if we ever meet, you and I, perhaps we too will know each other and exchange a smile of recognition.