Love & Marriage

Dirty Rotten Love

There it was, in 1980, an absolute cry of pain, once vibrant, now fading. Dirty rotten love declared itself, the words written as a large and urgent graffiti in fading red paint, running in strident letters ten or more metres across the long low sandstone wall that separated the noble Victorian Anglican church of St Stephen’s, with its graceful spire, from Camperdown Park in Sydney’s inner west.

It was a fitting place for a declaration of the anguish of love. Camperdown Park had once been a part of the church’s nineteenth-century graveyard, which had become impenetrably overgrown by 1948 and hence was resumed as public space by an Act of Parliament establishing a Memorial Rest Park. In 1946 it was here that the murdered body of Joan Norma Ginn was dumped and unfound for days, which had probably added impetus to the resumption. The gravestones, those remnants of life’s end, were removed into the churchyard, now reduced to only four acres, where some of the most poignant memorials in this historic place bear the muted tears for what had started as love, or what passed for it, but which had ended all too often in those days as maternal deaths in childbirth. Non-surviving newborn infants were frequently buried alongside their mothers, the pair martyred to Eve’s monstrous fate.

This memoir appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The indentations of the older graves were at that time still visible in the park’s terrain. Staying in a nearby terrace house with my now second husband, and pregnant in 1982 with our first child, my third, I recall wandering that grim graveyard and pondering on life and its times. Later, we both watched with the special love that cooing parents have over a firstborn as our daughter, with us at the park, chased on her toddler legs in delight after the flocks of pigeons. “O the birdies!” she would exclaim with glee as she scattered them to the air under the shadow of the wall’s slowly fading miserere. She was our little miracle, something that tempered for us the suffering expressed in the wall’s confronting plaint, for we were each of us survivors of hard times for love. We had each made early first marriages with other partners, hopeful commitments that had collapsed during the youthquake of the 1960s and 1970s. There must have been an inherent conservatism in us even then, I now think, in that we opted for marriage at all in those heady days.

A late arrival at Sydney University, aged twenty-one in early 1964, my undergraduate days were in the sixties. I’d hung around the edges of the Push and the city pubs since 1961, but as a pretend adult, employed, still sorting out why these confident and attractive and unusual people were so different from me. As a sceptical working-class product of the strait-laced and responsible fifties I had a lot of suspended disbelief with that crowd. I know I am not alone amongst Quadrant readers when I say that much of what Mervyn Bendle analyses regarding the old Sydney Push (see Quadrant, November), and his follow-up essay on the flower-child ideology of “love” in the sixties (Quadrant Online, November 10) resonates strongly with me from my own experience of it. Freed by a Commonwealth Scholarship gained as an “independent” student, for the first time since I was fourteen I had no need to earn my living or pay from my savings for my food, rent and tuition, as I had done for the year of the Day Matriculation course at Sydney Technical College. Even there, the sense of being unshackled from normal life had been exhilarating.

Now, with a prized scholarship and living allowance, I was that fabled being, an undergraduate, just as rich kids from good families had always been able to be. Swept up in the times, claiming back the youth I had never had previously, I no longer had to put up my age to get good employment, in fact, I started mentally to put my age down, so that I felt naturally amongst my age peers in the 1964 cohort. I joined enthusiastically and lemming-like in a new liberation that was personal and also cultural. In my mind’s eye, and that of every other girl then, I was the freewheeling girl walking down the street clinging to Bobby Dylan’s arm, not thinking twice because it was all right, because Bobby and I were blowin’ in the wind, and the songs of his zeitgeist were starting to emote strongly about the Masters of War. We had a purpose and a call, reminiscent of today’s youthful climateers. Additionally, my good looks and political inclinations were fashionable ones at that time, so the charmed circles of the cognoscenti opened a little for me. Vietnam’s US “advisers” were turning into US troops and, for Australia’s commitment, conscription loomed for twenty-year-olds. Bobby moved from folk to rock, and we gave up our beatnik blacks and the Sydney “Folk Attic” in favour of Mary Quant mini-skirted psychedelia, op-shop furs from Tempe Tip, and eventually, Indian cheesecloth blouses and wrap-around long batik skirts with Indian silver baubles attached to our mandatory belts and dangling earrings; soon enough I had hippie hair, long and straight, halfway down to my waist. Fashion was political, as was being under thirty. Never trust anyone over thirty was the mantra.

We were also caught in “the rapture” (see Bendle) of love, with the Beatles now our guiding light. We were captive to the anthem of love: “All you need is love”. And as with the old Push, love was to be free and shared and without ownership or “hassles”. It was also, as George Harrison mystically told us, “within you and without you”. We were of a generation, and it had moral power. We put flowers into gun barrels and told soldiers to drop out, and some did.

We also had LSD, which helped. I took it twice, and could never be enticed again. There is madness enough in my family. A non-smoker and disliking weed, I sat through many a tedious stoned party passing a soggy “Bogarted” joint and secretly wishing to be elsewhere. Other parties were wilder, with thumping music, in terrace houses where people flooded out into the street, and “raced off” each other’s loves for a “quickie” upstairs. No innocent in my past life, I was from experience no convert to “free love” in this one, so at these parties I never did that with other girls’ boyfriends; but plenty were starting to do it with mine.

I’d had two long-term relationships at university. One was with a young private-school boy who in later life became an ambassador. He wanted to get engaged and to marry me on graduation. His mother, who was extraordinarily kind to me, approved. His father did not. I know and am ashamed now that I broke this young man’s heart by dumping him for my next commitment. He wrote me long letters for years and I was unfeeling enough to hardly bother reading them, because my new love was, I decided, my true love at last and I was his. This new love was a recognised “brain” and his powerful academic achievements were the talk of the place. Amazingly, he told me I taught him how to love. I was flattered, thinking it was a compliment to our relationship, but is it too acerbic to note that mild Asperger’s was little known at that time? He was speaking literally, not figuratively. But women were chasing him and of course he gave way. Today, he and I are friends of a sort. We share grandchildren, so enough said.

After we married in early 1969, in a romantic tropical elopement as part of the hippie “journey” to Asia, undertaken to the sound of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and the White Album, the tone of disapprobation towards me on our return from some feminist women at post-graduate parties became intense, perhaps because my persona came from another place and decade than theirs did: “You have to realise,” said one patronisingly to me, “that you are married to a very attractive man. I might even f*** him myself.” By the mid-seventies the marriage of course was doomed, over. Feminist women were my downfall, for they served me and my two children poorly, and my then husband very well, while I did the childcare and the housework. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique had cautioned about being buried alive in marriage and I think I was seen by the sisterhood simply as a patsy. I’d added a philanderer, or more fairly, someone who did not want to be married to me, which did nothing to improve my state of mind much either. This was where “true love” and the meeting of true minds had got me.

It was a similar tale for my present husband. He is an intelligent and thoughtful man who has an impassioned soul. He can tell his own story. My summary is that he married young on graduation from Cambridge University, where his wedding was held in his ancient college grounds. His beautiful bride wore medieval lace and he was dashing in a velvet smoking jacket, peering out under an early seventies mop of hair and the obligatory moustache. The stage musical du jour of the late sixties was not called Hair for nothing. Their marriage broke up two years after mine, before we met, over the usual claims for self-actualisation and jealousies aroused by the tenor of the times. Thankfully, there were no children from his first marriage. The sad truth is that the fads of the sixties that fed into the seventies saw the destruction of the lives of many children, those of the freewheeling Left in particular falling prey to drugs or sexual abuse by new partners, for divorce was made easy and working to retain a marriage was often dismissed as bad for the children, easing adult consciences about breaking up.

Meeting after our failed relationships, where both of our ex-partners had walked out, we came together as two adults, traumatised by a belief we both had that “true love” could withstand anything. But it couldn’t withstand what the sixties and seventies did with it. Escaped from those decades, but hurt and bruised by them, we clung to a perhaps chimeric reinvented life-raft of old certainties about true love, as shipwrecked mariners, hoping to find our way by the stars. Shakespeare said that first. True love was “the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown”. Nor was true love “time’s fool” for it endured “even to the edge of doom”. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in the Victorian period of high romance, saw it similarly, as a passion eternal of the soul, pure and spiritual, kindling the object of desire with “a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints”, a love not just to the edge of doom, but beyond it “after death”. Thus, when we married in a registry office, creating no fuss, this man and I had decided to plight a troth; in that cold irreligious bureaucracy we both said to each other the full King James plighting-unto-death and I think I might even have said obey. He now says I didn’t, but I still think I did.

Emotionally, heading into our second marriages, we had both moved well away from any selfish counter-culture notions of love as Marlow’s self-actualisation (for which, see Bendle on Greer) and by 1984 we were distancing from our other romance, the idea that we could change the world to a better and more hopeful place by substantial political engagement in Labor’s New Left takeover of its inner-city branches. Free love may have been less of a catchcry in the political Left by then, and marriages more common, but divorces and broken relationships were frequent.

We wanted something more stable as a milieu for ourselves and four children. It took longer, but we dropped that political activism too and moved with our children to the conservative suburbs for a bigger house and better schools. We called it laughingly the post-trendy push to the suburbs, little realising we were early adopters of something that paradoxically was to change the suburbs more than it changed the movers. From this and other pressures the wealthier suburbs started to move to the Left.

Camperdown and its neighbouring inner-city suburb of Newtown, however, had pushed ahead with the projects of the earlier decades. By the mid-1980s the Camperdown Park wall was transformed by overwritten graffiti and spray-painted artwork, encouraged in the 1990s by local community groups and eventually by the local council. As Mervyn Bendle explains, the 1960s concept of love as a political ideology had given way to new visions of change in the two following decades; there was a new kid on the block. Power had arrived. “Patriarchy creates destruction” is now one of the older pieces of graffiti, from the mid-1980s, that can be seen in the tours that may be taken today of the highly politicised graffiti art that trendy Camperdown and Newtown now proudly display. Amongst all of this blaring political wish-fulfilment, that now-lost haunting cry from the sixties on the churchyard wall about love’s disappointments has vanished, overwritten. It seems very much a thing of the naive political past.

Except that there is currently a revival of love as an almost Christian concept, a way of creating meaning in a world that has become otherwise inexplicable. As the Roman Empire declined, Christian love survived it. Trent Dalton, a young writer who excels in recounting oral histories for their kernel of meaning, has just published a book called Love Stories, simple tales of kindliness, caring and commitment in various forms. So successful has it been that he took his old Olivetti typewriter to town, sat on a corner with a sign inviting strangers to tell him a love story, and from these encounters is working on another distillation of the quicksilver that is sheer love of others.

Love never dies, it seems, even if the war poet Rupert Brooke did not outlive his war to discover how correct or not was his musing that true love in long-term marriage simply “turned to kindliness”. I’d say it simply remains passionately true to itself and that is what counts.

Elizabeth Beare lives and writes in Sydney

17 thoughts on “Dirty Rotten Love

  • rosross says:

    I agree that true love remains passionately true to itself. I also believe true love and true marriages are more about fate, destiny and luck than good management.

    Rupert Brooke did not live long enough to experience, if offered, that which he contemplated. And perhaps he knew that, hence his somewhat miserable view of long-term marriage. As with most things, there are always exceptions even if there is some truth to that which we believe. I have no idea if true love turns to ‘kindliness’ in other long-term marriages but it sounds very patronising. Perhaps for some it does.

    After 54 years with my husband and best friend, and 52 years married, the love and desire certainly do not turn into anything else even if the years and circumstance diminish experiences of youthful infatuation and ‘passion.’ Although that starts to happen with the first child, even when one is as young as 22.

    True love rests on a solid foundation of Like and that is something which happens when we meet someone and not something we can create.

    I have found love becomes deeper and more profound and is far greater than simple ‘kindliness.’

  • STD says:

    Thanks for sharing your heart with us Elizabeth.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    rosross, 54 years also with my first and only. I count my blessings every day. I think the shared effort and responsibility of raising and educating children is an important if not vital element in the success of marriages.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    A fascinating memoir. I too am an old denizen of the Sydney Push (Royal George and Newcastle.)

  • ianl says:

    >” … From this [lefty post-trendy push to the suburbs] and other pressures the wealthier suburbs started to move to the Left.”

    Seeds of destruction indeed, and accurate across a lot of the West now. Ex-Californians, fleeing from the stubble their policies generated, pile into Arizona and start the process again with unchanged wishy politics.

    Some good shreds of nostalgia in this essay, Elizabeth. Same era, but I was from the Parramatta area so avoided the inner-city Push, but used my C’wealth Scholarship to waste summers surfing at Bilgola and other northern beaches. Beatles, Beach Boys, the Newport Arms, well attended beer-drenched barbecues in (then) empty Kellyville paddocks, girls squabbling for the young men – all slowly being overshadowed by my gathering interest in the challenge and fascination of geoscience.

    A different kind of love …

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    So many kinds of love and all are worthwhile. As Gary Furnell’s piece that follows mine in the magazine recognises, not everyone is cut out in mind or circumstance for seizing the luck of love even should it appear nor for the hard yards of long-term marriage. It is certainly not just a descent into ‘kindliness’, which is far too distancing a mode..
    The passion of the past in long-term marriage, renewed together in love in daily life, is always tangible in the intimate physiology of touch and knowledge of each other, wherever it leads or doesn’t. This is a gift, a close bond as a model for children and grandchildren which can ‘certain’ them in marriage just as the shepherds at Christmas were ‘certained’ in Christian lore so long ago. As the article previous to mine by George Weigel examines regarding the United Nations gab-fest, there is such denigration of marriage these days, so it is important to call this out when it is seen.

  • Daffy says:

    Talk of married love and its contrast to the solipsistic ‘love’ of the ‘me’ generation (which is almost every generation) directs my memory to my parent’s exemplar of love. It hit is zenith with my late father caring for my Alzheimer’s suffering mother for many years. Her last 7 in a nursing home. That’s love.

  • andrew2 says:

    It’s amazing to see an honest look at the 1960’s. The political opinions, the references to the Beatles et al become a personal identity, the same identity as so many other people. It demonstrates an almost complete capture of a generation. There is so much pride in it too, which I find really bizaare. Pride in being a generation that all thought the same.

    I look at my own Generation with a lot of embarrassment. We were captured by Science Fiction. Space Operas and Time Travelling movies. It’s so childish: Luke Skywalker, Marty McFly, Spiderman! We could save the world if only we could swing from buildings.

    I was delighted that your article showed that these experiences brought clarity. The only things that matter are what you personally do for others, through a peace with God. Entertainment and politics are distractions. Demonstrations, political activism and virtue signalling is not real work. Ensuring your neighbour’s lawn is mowed and he has food in the fridge when he comes down with Covid is real work. The world would be a much greater place if we didn’t get so distracted all the time by “the world”.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    In 1961 I was at St Pauls, Sydney Uni, to study aeronautical engineering. In 1964 I married my only true love, so now into marriage year 58. I never smoked pot or took drugs. Still no LSD or pot. Our concluding wedding music was part of the choral movement from Beethoven’s Ninth. The Beatles music was childish drivel (still is) and free love and homosexuality were both for weak people lacking self discipline and elementary medical hygiene.
    We have had a lovely 60 years together, with some “milestones” if you like, such as being on 4 Corners, helping discover tens of billions of dollars of new mineral deposits, taking a Federal minister through to the Full bench of the High Court for being stupidly green, collecting rare Camellias with yellow flowers in China and breeding from them, photographed in about 30 countries, was in Iran just before the Shah was deposed by religious mental fanatics, and much more. All good fun, nearly all rewarding and leaving Aussie society better off from the effort of working conventionally within it.
    So, what caused you to run off the rails (and like Beatles)? Geoff S

  • Brentyn Graham says:

    A great article and one to cause me to think and reflect. I must be a youngster here as I’ve only been married 47 years
    I like all the comments as well.
    About nine years ago my daughter was studying to be a nursing sister at the Broome campus of Notre Dame. From time to time she sought my assistance with essays she had to submit. I remember one on the subject of love,and it’s from this that I started to think a little more deeply on the meaning of love in respect to me
    My daughter’s essay covered the five types of love taught in Catholic education
    You know, like ” i love that film” or ” I love my brothers and sisters “. I forget the names they gave these different types of love.
    I thought of my love for my wife. While it’s true our relationship is of the best friend type, i don’t think our actual love has diminished regardless of our age and some restrictions because of that and the odd medical condition.
    When I thought about it, I concluded our Catholic upbringing had a lot to do with our perception of love at the beginning and the enormity of lifelong commitment
    My wife wrote our vows for the wedding,(a first at that church in Tasmania I believe)
    So, I believe a Christian perception of love, does help (a lot) when it comes to it
    As to myself, it does take two to tango, and there is a certain amount of work from both parties. After all, it needs two to join together but only one to break it apart.
    I find that if I put my wifes desires at a level of mine or above that seems to work.
    I do notice she reciprocates from time to time
    The point there is to chuck selfishness out the window
    When I was thinking really deeply about what love meant to me, I thought, would I sacrifice myself for her if the situation arose. It’s probably easy to say yes but I am pretty sure I would.
    Thankyou Elizabeth for making me think about love all over again

  • ChrisPer says:

    The stuff people said in the late 1970s included ‘marriage is just a piece of paper’. Living together without commitment was lauded and supported in law.
    As you wrote, a lot of children had parents divorce out of a fashionable perception that staying together was bad for the children.
    Then in the 1990s, after we all lived and grew up, marriage turned out to be an amazing security by comparison, for all our human failings. I still dont know if each cohort have to discover this for themselves, as labels change – ‘living in sin’ replaced by ‘starter marriages’.

  • Claude James says:

    Geoff Sherrington -all my respect to you and to your wife. All very best wishes to you both -Claude J.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    On love, and love in marriage, there is so much more to say. Selfishness, disguised as individual ‘self-actualisation’ as in psychologist Mazlow’s famous ‘hierarchy of needs’, is anathama to true love, for it is simply love of self, as Mervyn Bendle’s analysis of Germaine Greer’s prescription for relationships shows. There is no foundation for long-term marriage in that.

    And Geoff Sherrington, why did I run off the rails to The Beatles (and The Stones)? O tempora o mores is part of the answer that I give above. But not entirely. I was still running away from the backblocks of Mt. Druitt and unsure of where to go. See my memoir ‘On Becoming Elizabeth” in Quadrant a while back. Sydney University was one of my waystops. There had been other influences before and quite a few since as well.
    Nothing too unusual there, actually.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Geoff S, my son and daughter from my lasting second marriage both went respectively to The Women’s College and St. Paul’s College at The University of Sydney and on to successful careers and marriages; a thousand cultural miles away from where I set out. I can have a rueful smile over that on some days.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    oops. Not ‘respectively’. No gender dysmorphia in their day. He, to St Pauls, she to Womens. 🙂

  • bendle1 says:

    For Elizabeth Beare. Thank you for your thoughtful article. Judging by these comments, you’ve obviously struck a nerve amongst QI readers.
    And I’m glad my own articles were helpful in your heart-felt reflections.

  • James Franklin says:

    A great read. Sure takes me back to the times.

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