Saturday 29 September 2018

The Current Cinema - LADIES IN BLACK prompts some fond memories from NZ-based expat David Hare

Bruce Beresford (circa Breaker Morant)
I was thinking the other day about John Guare’s wonderful play, “Six Degrees of Separation”. And the very fine, lucid movie Fred Schepisi made of it. Then I remembered, during a trip to New York with Ken, his first in April 93, when we stumbled into some street location filming for it on the corner of Central Park West and 70th Street. We stepped back and watched Donald Sutherland doing retakes for a while. Then wandered on to Lincoln Center 
I was also thinking about this when I read a review of Bruce Beresford’s new picture set in 1959 Sydney, Ladies in Black. Two paras in, I fell off my chair when I read that the screenplay was adapted from a novel by Madeleine (“Mado”) St. John (Pronounced “sinjun” not Saint John as Stratton does.)
Some further reading told me that Beresford and Mado were mates from the 50s and early 60s days of Sydney Uni, and SUDS. My mother had known Mado’s mum, Sylvette, from those days and recalled the family bitterness after Sylvette committed suicide, when Mado was 13. 
Although my own mum Kay was not always insightful, she had clearly spotted the stifling dynamics of the ebulliently European Sylvette to Teddy St John’s awfully dour, straight, puritanical and grey/beige 50s Australian establishment. Even Catholics in those days were trash, along with Reffos, Jews, poofters of course and those ultimate decadents, the “arties”. 
Sydney, top of William St, edge of Kings Cross, 1956
If you wanted to live in Sydney as an “arty” back then from the late fifties, you lived in Kings Cross, and the adjacent Potts Point, Darlinghurst or Elizabeth Bay. I had the great fortune to grow up in Lizzie Bay and attended High School in Darlo, thence graduating to the next island in the stream, Chippendale for Sydney Uni in 1968. 
Mado by 1964 had moved into a flat just near us in Elizabeth Bay with her budding then BF Christopher. My clever London based Aunt Adele, who in 1953 had abandoned the dual suffocation of Australia and her stupefyingly conservative Lebanese migrant family, sorted me out to meet Mado, whose mother she had known very well, by now at the age of 16.
Actively and in identification, by 16 I was completely homosexual. But I became so besotted with Mado as I had named her, and was, well, completely in love. She would never have abided, let alone reciprocated, any desire on my part and indeed she seemed herself sated with Chris the arty lounge lizard about whom I often bristled. 
I suspect my own experience with men was well in excess of Mado’s, even allowing for her post-Sydney Push liberalism. What she did give me and teach me was a round and full appreciation of literature and music, from the Bohm Vienna Phil “Zauberflote” of 63, to Ezra Pound and Dada. When I first met her she was the only person I knew who had read all of “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu”. Within three years, by 1968 I could count myself amongst a small but growing band of aficionados including my Piano Prof Gordon Watson and my oldest, still living, gay mate, Noel Williams. 
Madeleine St John
By this time Mado and Chris had fled the torpors of Oz, the cultural desert, first to Canada where Chris made a documentary and then the Mecca for expats, London. She never again set foot in Oz. And by now we had lost touch as well. I never saw her again, but I have never forgotten her. 
I always remember the influence, and the care, which I now find impossible to describe of two great Sydney women, both of whom so helped to “make” me, and whom I still love very much, Madeleine St. John, and the magnificent Norma Chapman, the doyenne of Sydney’s finest bookshop, Clays in Macleay Street, another haven for expats and stayers, arties and reffos and poofs and Jews and Sydney originals who needed the narcotic of great art.
And now here am I, another expat, reading about a beloved, paradisiacal Sydney almost gone, and people almost gone too, but remembered, again, for a while at least, by the movies.

PS. I saw the movie tonite after I wrote out these thoughts above. I loved it. Loved it.
Rachael Taylor, Angourie Rice, Julia Ormond, Alison McGirr
Ladies in Black

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