Knowing Where You Come From

“Are you an Australian writer or an English writer?” David Lodge once asked Michael Wilding. He gave his answer in the preface to his 2016 autobiographical reflections, Growing Wild: “I suppose I wanted to be both.” The lure of the antipodes is recorded in a childhood doodle and query: “I seem to have drawn a map of Australia. Why is that? Does it mean that I am going there or something?” His claim to “a sort of Australianness as well as Englishness” is amply justified by a paternal grandfather who settled in Queensland, by his own long and distinguished teaching career at the University of Sydney, and his prolific contribution to Australian literature: from fiction and memoir and essay to edited texts, literary criticism and documentaries. He quotes a famous old boy of his West Midland grammar school, Adam Lindsay Gordon (about whom he has written in his prize-winning Wild Bleak Bohemia, 2015):

I have changed the soil and the season
But whether the skies freeze or flame,
The soil they flame or freeze on
Is changed in little save name.

In The Midlands, and Leaving Them, the soil and the season and the naming make continuing preoccupations and metaphors for displacement and transplantation. For expatriate writers from the 1950s to the 1980s and beyond, problematic but fertile ground was provided by cultural exchange, in whichever direction the ships were sailing.

The book is attractively produced by John Lucas’s modestly-named, prestigious, Shoestring Press. A painting by the nineteenth-century Benjamin Leader, yet another fellow Midlander, provides the evocative cover: a sunlit, tranquil, wistful scene depicting that “pastoral heart of England” mocked by young Michael and his precocious literati schoolmates: “‘the dead centre’, we intoned sardonically. We wanted to get away and if you couldn’t get away you would imagine that there was somewhere else that existed and one day you might get to it.”

In an essay in Growing Wild, on “The Fiction of Instant Experience”, Wilding places his writing within a further problematic: the development from modernism through postmodernism to post-postmodernism. The modernist project is to be found in his fiction of the 1970s, where the passing moments and shifting phases of bohemian households in Sydney’s inner west are captured in his distinctive pared-down style and sharp, vivid impressions:

I wanted to capture the freshness of immediate inspiration, the unrepressed utterance … I would write bits of narrative, sometimes fragments I would glue together later into blocks that looked like episodes. When I collected it altogether in book form, I put it into a sort of chronological order so it could be read like a narrative. But in fact it doesn’t matter what order the stories are read in.

This experimentation anticipated postmodernism’s dismantling of the conventions of literary realism by the young Sydney writers Wilding begins to describe as a collective “we”: a reminder that in his discovering, fostering and publishing of the work of his contemporaries, he stood for writing as a collaborative enterprise. Later, he comes to see such experimentation as:

the starting point of the contemporary narrative that goes nowhere, that is without hope, without destination, without comprehensibility. To discover plot in contemporary life is a problem. We do not, for one thing, have the future standpoint to look back and see what was happening to us. But if a future standpoint is unattainable, what is available is a sense of history, a narrative perspective on how we have come to this impasse. One of the most worrying aspects of the postmodern, in particular in departments of history and literature, is the surrender of history; even more than that, the rejection of history, the denial of history.

Personal history is re-viewed in the light of past, present and speculative future in this new book. Always and everywhere the autobiographical impulse is overseen by an older self in its later identities and commitments, unfolding a history. The stories may be read separately, and with pleasure, but now their new order makes a new narrative. The arresting opening, “Reading the Signs”, first published in the New Yorker, begins in childhood, by unearthing an over-arching metaphor:

It grew under the apple tree. It got a start because nothing much else grew there … It grew there with its stubby wooden stem and its bushy branches of leaves and then this amazing pinkish, purplish bugle of a flower. We let it grow because we had never seen anything like it; even before the flower it had this presence, this numinosity. But the flower was a clarion of mystery. Then the seed pod formed, green and spikey at first, and then it darkened and became rounded and leathery.

If this is a re-imagining of Romantic and New Critical organicism, from root to flower and seed, it presents as Janus-faced in this arid soil. As it spreads triffid-like across the rest of England, it is identified: “the Californian thorn apple, they called it. Jimsonweed. Datura stramonium. Said to be deadly poisonous.” The exotic beauty of the flower is invested with malign suggestions of the occult, the surreal, the hallucinogenic. From this imagist opening, stories begin to unfurl and build on one another. Here are signs to be read: by a mother inclined to superstition, and a father prompted by strange natural phenomena to write to the local paper about a meteorite he has seen in transit over the back garden: “As an iron-moulder, it seemed to me like a glowing red ball of molten iron.” His uncharacteristic venture into public discourse sows only seeds of division. What for the father is a guarantee of authenticity becomes a source of mortification for his wife and child, introducing a third problematic: the question of social class. Filling in the forms for Oxford entrance, the son “went off to a private place and my stomach wrenched for a long time and for ‘Father’s Profession or Occupation’ I crossed out ‘Profession’ and wrote ‘Iron-moulder’”.

“If asked where I came from, it is more meaningful for me to answer that in class than in national or ethnic terms,” he wrote in Growing Wild. Richard Hoggart, in his landmark study of 1957, The Uses of Literacy, explores the uprooting from working class to meritocracy enabled by a grammar school boy’s education: “He is at the friction point of the two cultures: the test of his real education lies in his ability, by about the age of twenty-five, to smile at his father with his whole face.” In “Class Feeling”, the third chapter of the new book, Wilding unfolds his living record of what it meant and how it felt to fail that test. The shame of betrayal is expressed in the “elaborate and too long defence” that prefaces the story of his never-to-be-forgotten inability to acknowledge his father as he rides homeward on his bike in his working clothes, “covered in the black soot he worked in”, because the nearby prefect would realise their connection.

In the second chapter, “Canal Runs”, he sets his education within its topographic, as well as its social, landscape. Enforced runs past polluted canal and withered vegetation in the chill of the English winter foster “a dead, withdrawing hatred, like the wasteland from which God has withdrawn his presence”: “it was grey. Sometimes, I suppose, the sun must have shone.” Distinctions between the A stream and the C stream and the secondary modern school perpetuate the class structure: “We were trained to be gentlemen”; “I excised the extremes of midland accent”. Yet what lies hidden, or repressed, confronts him in the face of a boy from the C stream, when he comes upon a pissing competition surrounded by giggling girls, and he sees that boy’s face looking back at him from the bathroom mirror that night: “Were the seeds of that, were the dirtiness and evil lying inside me, waiting?”

The novels and plays of British writers from the mid-century onwards look back in anger on a defeated, repressive, post-war society and the challenge of finding room at the top. Wilding’s contribution to that discussion lies in his mastery of the short story genre’s economies and the poetic power of his prose. Looking forward and back, these early chapters shore up cultural capital by critique and parody. The crap-detecting boys at the Royal Grammar satirise the social pretensions of their headmaster and his “Shakespeare Reading Circle” while taking what they need from their reading.

Later chapters deal with the disorienting effects of other transitions. The dark, perfectly judged, tragi-comic story of his aunt’s dementia, in “Nephew’s Story” (a nod to The Aunt’s Story of Patrick White), shows Wilding’s deft way with dialogue and understated irony:

The last time I saw her she asked, “And where have you come from?” “Sydney,” I said. “Oh really,” she said. “How interesting. I have a nephew in Sydney.” “That’s me,” I said. “I am your nephew.” “Are you?” she said. “Do you know him?”

Darker still is the gothic chapter “Don’t Go Having Kittens”. This maternal admonition takes on surreal life when, after their extended pub and party crawl in London, Lydia, a casual acquaintance, offers the young writer a bed for the night. Withstanding the salacious chivvying of her toothless demented mother, the daughter refuses to share her bed with her guest. His drunken sleep is eventually disturbed by desultory footsteps, and moanings that escalate into howls of despair: “‘It’s the cat,’ she cried, ‘it’s the cat, and it’s gone and had kittens … oh God it’s terrible, oh they’re all joined together.’” While Lydia cannot be roused, he is afflicted by visceral imaginings of the monstrous birth: would they all have been fed by the one umbilical cord and strangled by it, “peas suspended on a slender stem”, or “joined together, their backs knit in one multipedicellate growth”? The botanical adjective recalls the malign flowering of the jimsonweed. In desperation he makes a fruitless call to the RSPCA (“they could not be left to suffer through the night”), and then to a constable on night-duty, who explains, step by step, how to drown the horrifying litter in a bucket. The grand guignol of the denouement reveals the curled-up shape under the crone’s bed to be a black bra. “‘Well,’ she said, her eyes wide with surprise, a hand on my bended knee, ‘would you ever believe it?’ I shook my head.” Lydia, in the “harsh steel fog of morning” is more forthcoming: “‘Those kittens,’ I said, and she smiled as I mentioned them … ‘Oh,’ she said, and she yawned, she wasn’t really awake. ‘It happens every time. We’ve not had a cat for seven years.’ She pulled her legs away from my knees and tucked them behind the iron frame of her chair.”

The penultimate chapter, “The West Midland Underground”, first published in 1975, shows to even greater advantage now. Its bricolage of disparate materials—a learned disquisition on temporality and tenses in an obscure Papuan language; a bibliographic entry detailing the underground radio transmission of short stories dispersed by cabs in the small hours; a whimsical inquiry, via the direction-finding of various temporalities, disciplines and terrains, into the whereabouts of a possible West Midland underground—represent Wilding’s postmodernist period. And yet, in the absence of reliable signposts there’s something to be said for going on looking.

In a pastiche of wellness tourism, the advantages of the search are purposefully listed. These include the health benefits of daily walks, the mental relaxation provided by the countryside, the interest of observation (architectural, historical, geographical, of flora and fauna); by self-communing; by creative writing, including the re-viewing and re-ordering of a lifetime’s stories, coming to rest in “Hope: Somewhere, over the rainbow, the crock of gold, the gates of Eden, the doors of bliss.”

As the last chapter’s meditation on “going away and being away and coming back” has it, “there is never an ending”. The writer continues to renew conversations across the separations of time and space. What lies underground, in the arid soil of the wasteland, and in its recesses, repressions, horrors and failed communications, flowers in these interlinked stories. Returning to the Midlands, Wilding makes his journey of departure available to British as well as Australian readers of the Shoestring Press. But the real end or purpose of exploring, perhaps, is to arrive where one started, and to know the place for the first time.

The Midlands, and Leaving Them
by Michael Wilding

Shoestring Press, 2021, 150 pages, $25

Jennifer Gribble is Honorary Associate Professor of English at The University of Sydney, where she taught for many years. Her book Dickens and the Bible: What Providence Meant (Routledge, 2021) was reviewed in the May issue


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