This book had a predecessor called At The Window, published by McPhee-Gribble in 1984, with a moody, early morning photo of Sydney Harbour on the cover. The photo was taken by David Bradley, husband of my friend Maggie Gilchrist, whose front room overlooking Lavender Bay gave me a locale for the book. Maggie and I had spent hours there discussing the techniques of various writers – how they started books, managed plots, dipped in and out of conversations, did or didn’t describe places they mentioned, and so on. As best I can recall, I didn’t write a single sentence of the book in the flat itself. It was mostly the opposite – the flat occupied a space in my mind, the events of the book happened inside the space, and the writing space took on the character of the actual space.
I had high hopes for the book. It was my contribution, I thought, a man’s contribution, to discussions about feminism raging at the time. Feminist thinking, it seemed to me, was so radical, so life-changing, that men had to be part of the conversation, even though a majority of men chose to stay over the horizon throughout the debate. I think it would also be true to say that many women didn’t expect men to show anything but the most defensive interest. My book attracted nothing better than a couple of scornful reviews and I had to admit the project had been a flop.
Many years later, after I went back into my Gippsland past to write The Pilgrims (2012) in gratitude to some Chinese friends, it occurred to me that I had left Carol, the central figure of At The Window, closing the door on her experience of separating from her husband and with the rest of her life ahead. I determined that I would follow her through the remainder of her days, by way of seeing what happened to the feminist movement which had affected me so strongly in the nineteen seventies. This simple decision cost me ten months of effort. Swinging Doors was one of the hardest of my books to get down, all the more so because it came when I was used to words rolling out of a mind operating with confidence. One of the difficulties lay in keeping the thing short. There weren’t enough pages for all the characters and incidents of a life, nor was it my intention to be encyclopaedic. I had always thought of At The Window as a novella – small in scale, large in scope - and although the new book simply had to be somewhat longer, it was still, in my mind, an essay-like, condensed, treatment of the same theme, that of how far feminism had affected the recent life of my country. This involved me in the lives of various families connected with Carol – Mrs Carroll as she becomes late in the book, to the amusement of its writer, who had no idea this was going to happen. There was so much to squeeze in. I wanted to show a woman and her family over several decades, with the steps and stages of changing lives being taken for granted. Underlying it all was my wish to show that Carol had been fairly successful in upholding her youthful faith, and yet at the same time the society surrounding her hadn’t moved so far. Hence the repeated references, late in the book, to sailors lined up for their ships’ ceremonial entrances to Sydney’s harbour.
A word about Sydney. I grew up in the Riverina, an area closer to Melbourne than to Sydney, and I’ve spent the greater part of my life in the southern city rather than the Pacific one, and yet I have only to enter, or even get close to, New South Wales and I feel nearer to my origins, the deepest parts of my own identity. At the age of 79, all this does is amuse me. Life is full of contortions and unexpected, inexplicable things, and I am as subject to them as anyone else. Somehow I need that part of me which I call Sydney, the side more inclined to take chances, the less ideological side, and during the writing of Swinging Doors I knew that if I was to work out the things in Carol that most needed saying, I had to get her back to the city that dominated At The Window. At the end of her life I return her to a Point Piper apartment I first saw in January 1947, and many times later, as a guest of my friends, the Macfarlan family. Past and present unified in the writing and I was able to place my ideological analysis in something which I like to think of as an area of whitefella dreaming.
I fell in love with Sydney in my youth and love it still, so much so that I have only to see it occasionally to be happy that it’s still there, going on in the endless way of time, which is, of course, via some references to the music of J.S.Bach, another theme of the book. Readers will notice that Kiri, Carol’s grand-daughter, picks up the burden of Carol’s themes and struggles by playing the music of the Leipzig master. Carol dies, as Samantha died at the start of the book, and what does Kiri do? She takes the story forward by taking it back, the writer withdraws, and you, dear reader, are left with the book.
to TOP > back
to WRITING BOOKS