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Inside the Aunt Heap

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Though I greatly admire the poet Les Murray and the novelists Richard Flanagan and Thomas Keneally, I find it difficult to get Australian literature into focus. Some of the best Australian writers have chosen to live abroad – Germaine Greer, Clive James and Peter Conrad in Britain, and Peter Carey and Robert Hughes in New York – and my confusion is compounded by the fact that in Australia itself two of the best-known popular writers, Bryce Courtenay and Peter Temple, and the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee all come from South Africa. I’m not sure whether they count as Australian writers or not.

I was made keenly aware of this when I was recently awarded a Visiting Fellowship at St John’s College in the University of Sydney. I was bad on contemporary Australian letters and even worse on the past. Apart, I suppose, from Patrick White and Banjo Paterson, I didn’t know of any historic Australian writers; and the only book I could think of which one might term an Australian classic was Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. This simply wouldn’t do, so I asked my wife. Penny comes from Adelaide. She mused a while and then thrust into my hands a slim volume called Aunts up the Cross. This was, she assured me, an Australian icon.

Aunts up the Cross begins and ends with the death of the author’s great-aunt Juliet, aged 85 and frankly pretty eccentric if not down-right mad. She was run over by a bus which was travelling slowly in the right direction while the old lady was going pretty fast in the opposite, wrong direction. Her progress was made all the more haphazard by the dark glasses which she wore throughout the year. ‘Her untimely end might have been dramatic in a family more given over to quieter leave taking,’ wrote her great-niece, Robin Eakin. ‘But, in ours, it just seemed natural.’

Just so. In this sprightly, resolutely unglum, indeed death-defying memoir the family ricochets from one disaste

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Though I greatly admire the poet Les Murray and the novelists Richard Flanagan and Thomas Keneally, I find it difficult to get Australian literature into focus. Some of the best Australian writers have chosen to live abroad – Germaine Greer, Clive James and Peter Conrad in Britain, and Peter Carey and Robert Hughes in New York – and my confusion is compounded by the fact that in Australia itself two of the best-known popular writers, Bryce Courtenay and Peter Temple, and the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee all come from South Africa. I’m not sure whether they count as Australian writers or not.

I was made keenly aware of this when I was recently awarded a Visiting Fellowship at St John’s College in the University of Sydney. I was bad on contemporary Australian letters and even worse on the past. Apart, I suppose, from Patrick White and Banjo Paterson, I didn’t know of any historic Australian writers; and the only book I could think of which one might term an Australian classic was Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. This simply wouldn’t do, so I asked my wife. Penny comes from Adelaide. She mused a while and then thrust into my hands a slim volume called Aunts up the Cross. This was, she assured me, an Australian icon. Aunts up the Cross begins and ends with the death of the author’s great-aunt Juliet, aged 85 and frankly pretty eccentric if not down-right mad. She was run over by a bus which was travelling slowly in the right direction while the old lady was going pretty fast in the opposite, wrong direction. Her progress was made all the more haphazard by the dark glasses which she wore throughout the year. ‘Her untimely end might have been dramatic in a family more given over to quieter leave taking,’ wrote her great-niece, Robin Eakin. ‘But, in ours, it just seemed natural.’ Just so. In this sprightly, resolutely unglum, indeed death-defying memoir the family ricochets from one disaster and misunderstanding to another but always with a nonchalant smile and a dead-pan acceptance that theirs is the way of the world. The ‘Cross’ in question is the Kings Cross of Sydney, an iconic area that is now the site of an El Alamein memorial fountain. The sisters, whose own, more literary, memorial was written by their sardonically observant great-niece (and first published by that most mercurial of British publishers, Anthony Blond), were in their prime before the Second World War and well before the fountain. The aunts lived in an ‘aunt heap’ called Maramanah in Macleay Street adjoining the Darlinghurst Road. The house, in which the author was born, was the only private residence in the Cross, which then had a reputation as a sort of Australian Montmartre – louche, stylish and unsuitable really for private residents of any kind, let alone great-aunts. You still wouldn’t expect to find aunts up the Cross, for it is now the haunt of backpackers, buxom ladies in fish-net stockings, oriental jewellers, dentists and a curry-house offering ‘fair dinkum Indian tucker’. The aunts were named Lilla, Mina, Netta and Anys but were known to the author’s irrepressible father, who was engaged in permanent guerrilla warfare with them, as ‘Litter, Titter, Fritter and Anus’. Eakin père was a doctor and when he left the house to make his rounds the aunts came upstairs to be with Robin’s mother until they heard the sound of his latch-key. Then they would scurry back downstairs. Eakin was ‘strikingly handsome’ and in naval uniform when he met his bride. He winked at her from a tram and that evening they were introduced formally at a ball at Government House. He then invited her to come and watch him dance in a charity pageant, in which six young blades and six young debutantes were taking part.
My mother went. She sat in the front row: my father was drunk and had obviously not attended any of the rehearsals. While the other eleven were pointing their left feet, he was pointing his right, and again winking at my mother: when they turned to the left, he turned to the right. In addition, he had his satin knee breeches on back to front and the plume from his hat hung over one eye and and he had to keep blowing it away . . .
You get the picture. One of the many things I love about this book is its inconsequentiality. I suspect that in today’s environment it would never get past the relevant publishing committee, for it defies categorization, comes with some agreeable line drawings by Dinah Dryhurst and at a mere 112 pages is much too short. I bet it lost money, but the family attitude to money seems to have been relentlessly cavalier and one suspects they wouldn’t have minded. This attitude to cashflow stemmed from Ms Eakin’s great-grandfather, who dinned into his thirteen children the maxim: ‘Never worry about money. It’s only an attitude of mind and the next best thing to being very rich is to think you’re very rich.’ As his greatgranddaughter wryly points out, this was all very well for him because he actually was stinking rich. His descendants, believing what they were taught – one daughter could not even bring herself to write the word but referred to it as ‘Filthy L’ – ended up quite poor. This insouciant attitude seems to have passed to the in-laws: the author’s charmingly feckless father would visit the fish market twice a week and come back with much fish, a sack of oysters which his daughter learned to shuck at an early age, and two or three live lobsters which would prance about on the rear seat of the car waving their antennae. There is much more in similar vein. Some of the book is quite raunchy and there are passing remarks about crooked circumcisions and the story of how the author lost one sailor-love after her father showed him a picture of a diseased male organ which he said was Robin’s Aunt Bertie without her hat. This sort of thing may have had something to do with the fact that the author was a precocious only child and the household never seemed to make the conventional distinctions on grounds of age. In the end the aunts all die, the house is sold and the author appears to marry a Roman Catholic – thus causing grief to her Jewish family. If she were still alive Robin Eakin would, I calculated, be in her eighties, and I pictured her as an irrepressible old aunt herself, still twinkling with good humour and bad jokes, carrying her personal joie de vivre to her grave the way the best old ladies do. Sadly, though, no one I met in Sydney seemed to know what had happened to her or even, tragically, remembered her book. I was obviously out of luck for the book is regarded as something of a classic in Australia, has hardly ever been out of print there and has even featured on university reading lists. And then, quite serendipitously, I sat next to the author at dinner at a friend’s house in London and she was just as wonderful as I had hoped. She has been married three times, though she is now a widow. For a while she was a London literary agent and represented everyone from George Orwell to Joan Collins. Then she became a film producer, making movies such as Peter Carey’s Oscar  and Lucinda and Bernice Rubens’s Madame Sousatzka. The house in which she was born is now an underground railway station. This might explain why I couldn’t find it. Interloping ibis peck round the fountain in the Fitzroy Gardens, where the aunt heap once stood, and everywhere there are statues and lines carved in the pavements commemorating the characters who shaped the history of this one-time Montmartre of the south. But nowhere could I find a genuflection to Robin, her aunts or her book. I can’t have been looking properly, Robin told me, because there are two memorials outside her birthplace. Both commemorate her father, the generous, philanthropically inclined doctor, without incidentally mentioning that he fathered the author of this unusual volume. Her own preferred name these days is Robin Dalton, which partly accounts for my Sydney friends’ ignorance about what happened to her. Now, forty years and more on, she is even working on a script with the Australian film-director Bruce Beresford. If the movie materializes she will produce it herself. Sydney has a go-ahead Lord Mayor these days – a woman by the name of Clover Moore. She sounds the sort of person who could organize a small memorial to Aunts up the Cross. Once upon a time a tree stood outside their house. It was the only one. ‘As a final gesture to conformity,’ wrote Robin at the very end of her book, ‘the tree has been uprooted from the Cross.’ Time, surely, to plant another.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 19 © Tim Heald 2008


About the contributor

Tim Heald recently spent a half-semester at St John’s College, Sydney, where he first read about the Aunts and visited the Cross. He also launched his latest book, Princess Margaret: A Life Unravelled, at a party in college under the Gothick clock tower.

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