Thursday, October 6, 2011

The lost brooch, the trials of ageing, and the spirit of the ladder: a post for Sean Williams

The first time I heard the expression l'esprit de l'escalier I was driving home with someone from somewhere (yes, this post is indeed about the failure of memory) and complaining that at one stage during the evening's very lively conversation I'd really wanted to argue the point but hadn't been able to summon a deadly phrase to nail it. 'I know what I should have said,' I wailed. 'I should have said [insert witty riposte here]!'

'Aha,' said my companion. 'L'esprit de l'escalier.'

Me and my schoolgirl French were all over this, or so we thought. 'The spirit of the ladder? What's the spirit of the ladder?'

'The wit of the staircase, you dope.'

'That doesn't make sense either.'

'It's the witty line you think of as you're going downstairs at the end of the night.'

Oh, right. Those French, all living on top of one another. They would have a saying like that. I still like the spirit of the ladder better.

And so we come to last night, when the lovely people at Dymocks in Adelaide held a launch of my book Adelaide, where I read a couple of bits of the book and did my best to answer some really excellent questions, first from host and interviewer Steph Hester and then from the audience.

One of the people in the audience was the celebrated Sean Williams, internationally fêted and prizewinning SF, fantasy, cyberpunk and space opera author extraordinaire, fellow proud South Australian and colleague on the Writers' Week advisory committee. At question time and in reference to the structure of the book, which I'd talked about a bit and which is based on a handful of objects -- the statue of Colonel Light, the Balfour's Frog Cake, Don Dunstan's pink shorts, my ticket to the 2009 Leonard Cohen concert in the Southern Vales and a number of others -- Sean asked me an excellent question: were there any objects, he asked, that were originally on my list of chapters but that I had subsequently dropped?

Why yes. Yes there were. There were several. But do you think I could remember what any of them were? The ageing mind went a complete blank. Sorry Sean, I said, great question, but I got nothin'.

About halfway home, I realised what I should have said.

When I first came up with the 'objects' idea -- which as many will already know was and remains in the air of much contemporary cultural theory, perhaps most recently in Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter which I didn't know about till a couple of months ago (thank you, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen) but which confirms to me that this was a good approach -- the original object I had in mind, the very first one I thought of to write about as an iconic object in 'my Adelaide', was the little blue and yellow flag-shaped brooch -- the colours of my House (though Gryffindor it wasn't, and nor were any of the others) -- that I wore as a student at Adelaide Girls' High from 1966 to 1970.

I remember being really shocked, when I first read a wonderful essay by the brilliant Adelaide write and printmaker Barbara Hanrahan called 'Earthworm Small', by her brief but pungent image of Adelaide class divisions real or imagined, as delineated by one's school, in the 1950s. Knowing from a very early age that a visual artist was what she wanted to be, Hanrahan had gone on from primary school to Thebarton Tech, but some of her classmates had not:
When I walked round the corner and sat on the slatted seat on my piano teacher's verandah with the girls I used to know in Grade Seven who'd gone on to the high school, I felt as different as a New Australian. They lived at Mile End too, in the same sort of house as mine, but now they learnt Latin and French and could look down on me. And the girls who learnt piano and went to Methodist Ladies' College and Walford House looked down on the high school girls, in turn. I wanted fawn gloves, lisle stockings, silver braces on my teeth, a little enamel flag brooch on my lapel to tell what House I was in.
The reason I was shocked was that I'd had one of those brooches, and had never occurred to me that it might be cause for envy of any kind -- except perhaps for the envy of the girls in the other three Houses, none of whose colours were as beautiful as Law House's blue and gold enamel with its darkly bright, heavily saturated colour and its subtle enamel sheen. Never one of nature's joiners, I couldn't have given a rat's about Law House but I loved that brooch because I thought it was beautiful, and wore it all the time. Nor was I envious of the private school girls, but rather an unpleasant little snob about the fact that they were often the unpleasant little snobs of Hanrahan's describing.

[UPDATE: Idly re-reading this post, I recall for the first time in a number of decades that when I was in Matric I gloried in the title Vice Captain of Law. My friends thought this was hilarious, as well they might.]

Given the pungent meaning now attributed to that little brooch by Hanrahan, it could easily have formed the nucleus of a chapter of the book. But in the end, its very richness and heterogeneity of meaning and suggestion meant there was just too much stuff to talk about: education, class, insignia, the blueness and goldness of the landscape, the long and wonderful history of Adelaide High. In the audience last night were at least three other women who'd worn the AGHS house badges in their time, plus at least one who taught us there. They would have quite liked it if I'd managed to remember it, I think.

Here's what happened instead. After I'd given up on trying to solve the problems of structure and coherence set by an object with too much meaning to be contained, and sadly taken the brooch off my list of iconic objects, its glowing colours remained. There's a sort of leitmotif of blue and gold with variations, as there is of the word 'light', that runs right through the whole book, I hope sufficiently unobtrusively for readers not to notice it consciously but nonetheless take it in on some subliminal level.

And in so doing, I managed to forget about it myself, but it lurks under almost every chapter of the book. Blue and gold are, to me, the colours of South Australia. Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, and all above is azure bright.  Sean Williams, noted as he is for his use of South Australian landscapes in his work, is better placed to appreciate that than most. Sorry, Sean. Here's your answer.


Sean said...

Thanks so much, Kerryn. A wonderful post and a wonderful answer. Definitely worth the wait!

tracy said...

*sob* *sniffle* wonders (again), 'When can I go home?'

TimT said...

I identified a different, but related, phenomena here.

I get l'esprit de l'escalier too but it must be worse for those whose profession involves public gatherings, speeches, etc.

Q and A must thrive on it!

(WV tanterer)

paul walter said...

Sort of provoked me to checking out Barbara Hanrahan again- in the end, a rewarding couple of hours..

David Irving (no relation) said...

I've just bought a copy of The Book, Kerryn, signed by yourself according to the lad in Dymocks. I'm looking forward to reading it, starting tonight.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

If it's a lot of incomprehensible loops sloping upwards, it's definitely my signature. Thank you for buying the book!

Anonymous said...

Kerryn reading your book felt like renewing an old and treasured acquaintance. IMO Peter Goers sold you short: the book is far more than 'funny & incisive'.


Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Thank you, TFA, that is lovely. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

paul walter said...

Scored one on the spur at Upper Bowden in a bookshop near the supermarket off O'Connell St.
Is this the weekend I finally reconnect with a once almost constant friend, a book?
Aren't you suppose to go outside and read the book in the yard, when it's Adelaide spring?
Quickly scanned and then had a lie down as words skimmed between my ears like breezes through the treezes and even on the sniff, it's had a peculiar effect on me.
"Bitter sweet" is inadequate and it's even painful, must be doing some delayed grieving for my cancer victim mum- and me.
The Adelaide I grew up with and in went to sleep then, of Broadmeadows primary school, of John Martins and Rigby, down and out in a dosshouse near the oxymoronically named Royal hotel on Henley Beach nearly thirty years ago.
Courses at Adelaide Uni, the disastrous day of graduating with a pathetic arts degree as the sole of my shoe fell off during the parchment presentation.
When my mum was going down, she still turned up from Elizabeth for the event, afterward Prof McWha's brief, steadying chat.. what could he have found of merit in the gauchest student on his campus?
Worrall, John Olsen, the 'tiser good and bad, was it Lachlan Bowman who used to do the media reads at "Adelaide Review"?
Maslins on a quiet day, Edithburgh, "Norf-field" and the wreck of the "Effel" over Yorke pen, cheerful Nanna at Salisbury, the Elizabeth library, the Muses, Torrens through the hills, fan on a hot night while mum watched "Ben Casey".
For reasons personal and private the current condition of the Mall is a my metaphor for my Adelaide in the wake, this surprise of an afternoon.
Why am I sniffling- dolt!
It's not a funeral, is it?
This is supposed to be a BLOKE. You are a slippery customer, Goldsworthy..

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Belatedly: Paul, thank you for this. You have read the book in exactly the way that I hoped people would.