Archive for May, 2021

The Red Exercise Book

Found in an anonymous pile
behind the hanging files
of the two drawer cabinet
underneath the dressing table
of the large spare bedroom
of my mothers apartment.

A Red Exercise book
Begun in March 1939

A father’s pride in his daughter
(he was a school headmaster)

A girl on the cusp of leaving childhood
becoming a young woman

There are newspaper clippings, a congratulatory telegram

Never late and never absent
A family summer holiday
Relaxing and celebrating a job well done
a future beckoning
The final page used.
101 blank pages follow.

Look again at that last page. The dates.

As a reward the precious young scholar has an extended holiday. Two weeks later she travels home alone. In a country newly at war. Her family “glad to see her”.

I don’t recall ever seeing this exercise book before. There are plenty of family stories of what came next. In the end the start of high school was delayed by six months. Bomb shelters needed to be built, and the older girls were given priority to finish their education. Later the school bomb shelter was flattened – on a holiday Monday, so it was empty of students.

There were months of broken nights in the coal cellar. The first air-raid alarm was bombers flying over to industrial targets in cities to the west. The dangerous time was the second alarm as the bombers returned, dropping unused bombs wherever they could. School started late the next day If the second alarm was after midnight.

Grandpa built bunks in the coal cellar, chipped the mortar from the bricks separating them from next door – a way out if only one house was hit. There was a celebratory Opening Ceremony of song and poetry.

The very specific timing of that last page of that exercise book feels like a publicity blurb – a girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman; a country on the cusp of war…

And her “first long distance journey alone”. She bought a suitcase with her first pay as a teacher, and came to Australia alone by boat aged 24. In part it was to meet her war-time penfriend, and the family who sent them food parcels through the war. We have the albums of her travels – in Perth, then by land across the continent to Adelaide and then Sydney…

How can I, as a daughter and as an artist, respond to this?

Cautiously
Lightly
Over time
Without confusing the objects with my mother, our relationship, my grief
Nothing Monumental or Memorial.
Responding. Perhaps a series of small gestures. Oblique.
Interleaved with other projects. I want to respond, not be taken over.

So far one focus is administrative – scanning and documenting whatever speaks to me while working with my siblings to clear the flat. And as my concentration continues to improve, reading around the terrain.

  • Kate Zambreno Appendix Project. The ongoing, always provisional. project of writing about her mother
  • Greg Dening No single, stable history. No zero point. My construct of her world. Represent | Re-present | Re-present (make it now)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer Everything is illuminated. The self-interest, the individual needs, the deceit, the unstable past looking for family history
  • Kate Briggs This Little Art Looking at translation, the suspension of disbelief. Translation across time rather than language?
  • Anne Carson Nox Building a tentative and partial picture from fragments
  • The weight, the demands of the archive. Walter Benjamin; Kate Zambreno
  • Eula Biss “How motherhood radicalised Adrienne Rich”. The anger and frustration
  • Margo Neale & Lynne Kelly Songlines. The third archive.
  • Jane Rendell “The Welsh Dresser” in Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism. Unpacking a container of the past
  • Lydia Davis “Happy memories” in Collected Stories. Had me thinking about the different types of memories
  • Adrienne Rich “Six meditations in place of a lecture” in What is found there. Writes of Eduard Glisant’s work: “Relation is turbulence, exposure, an identity not of roots but of meeting places; not a lingua franca but a multiplicity of languages, articulations, messages.”

Possible future reading

  • Referenced by Zambreno
    • WG Sebald Austerlitz
    • Bhanu Kapil Ban en Banlieue and Schizophrene
    • Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Dictee
    • Roland Barthes The preparation of the novel
  • Kim Mahood Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories The burden of history?
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Notes on Grief
  • Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers
  • Krissy Kneen The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s already daunting. In any case, I want making to be a (the?) primary tactic in thinking through this. Containers and the circular – which enclose, embrace, trap, exclude and so much more have already been seen in resin, fabric, coiling (30-Apr-2021).

I’ve made early attempts using polymer clay. The idea is to spend some time with some of the objects in mum’s apartment. Focus on and respond to colour, pattern, line. The materiality. Create some time and space and quiet in my mind to reflect on all I continue to learn about the person.

The container that is the Red Exercise Book. The embossed red cover. The shape of the inked letters in Grandpa’s hand. The ripples and reflections of the sea, that summer in Weymouth. I want to create my own new memories with them.

And only just now, as I’m about to hit Publish, I notice the scroll and “Volume 2” on the cover. What???


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