friendship

Book extract: Richard Glover's memoir 'Flesh Wounds'.

Richard Glover is one of Australia’s most well known journalists and broadcasters. In his new memoir, Flesh Wounds, Glover writes about growing up with parents who weren’t interested in him, and how his partner Debra Oswald changed the way he thought of family. An extract from the book is published below.

Even though I wasn’t living with my father, I kept being pulled back into the chaos of his life. He was depressed and still drinking heavily. His second wife, Ivy, was tearful and exasperated. My father had seemed such a good catch – handsome, gregarious, intelligent, a successful businessman.

Then, once they were married, she realised the various design faults: the obsession with my mother, the anger towards ‘that bastard Phillipps’, the tendency towards self-pity, the drinking. Quite understandably, Ivy would call me up, demanding my attendance at the house. Sometimes I’d make excuses for why I couldn’t get there, but often I’d drive over in my car.

My father would be in the hallway, ranting. Or comatose in the lounge, sleeping it off. ‘Look at him,’ Ivy would say. ‘What am I meant to do?’ I don’t think she expected me to intervene. She just wanted an act of witnessing, for someone else to understand what she was going through.

Richard Glover

Meanwhile, the painting of Debra’s theatre set had resulted in us becoming friends. One night, I thought I might see if she was interested in something more intense. I invited her back to my converted garage for dinner. The people from the main house were out for the night, so I made Debra a meal using their kitchen. I concocted Fried Eggplant, using a recipe from The Vegetarian Epicure, one of the world’s worst cookbooks. ‘Oh, I love eggplant,’ Debra lied, peering at the slices, sitting covered in salt on a filthy teacloth. ‘Terrific,’ I answered, wishing I knew how to cook. I had an electric fry-pan at the ready, into which I was pouring an unfeasibly large amount of cooking oil. ‘You don’t think you’re overdoing the oil?’ Debra said, over the glug-glug-glug sound of me adding more. ‘Oh, I don’t think you can overdo it,’ I replied with what I imagined was a chef-like swagger.

I slipped the slabs of eggplant into the bubbling oil and, in a somewhat pervy way, examined my guest. She was dressed in a white cotton Indian blouse and a floaty hippy skirt. I was pleased to note afresh that she possessed quite stupendous breasts. A few minutes later, I served the eggplant, alongside a bowl of steamed broccoli into which I’d broken an egg. I don’t recall where the idea for Broccoli à la Egg came from: I don’t think even The Vegetarian Epicure would have sunk that low.

I can only suppose that the sight of her large breasts, or rather the material they displaced, had left me so dizzy with desire that I decided to throw caution to the wind and introduce a last-minute scaling-up of the meal on offer. Spare no expense! Give the lady a treat! Break an egg over the broccoli! With the help of the congealed egg, the broccoli looked like it was streaked in mucus. The eggplant, meanwhile, sat on its plate, puddling oil like a deep-fried Wettex. ‘Actually, it’s not bad,’ I said, having forced down a forkload of eggplant. ‘No, really, it’s good,’ Debra said, rocking uncomfortably from side to side, maybe in the hope of assisting digestion.

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After this exchange of falsehoods, I invited her to walk through the backyard and into my damp, mould-ridden garage. ‘There’s only one chair, I’m sorry,’ I said, pointing her towards a green vinyl beanbag. I put on some Norwegian jazz, for reasons that remain unclear, and sat on the edge of my bed, listening as she told me about her latest theatre ideas. I offered her a glass of Stone’s green ginger wine, an alcoholic beverage on which I’d spent upwards of $2.76 for the bottle. Free drink! Egg on broccoli! Beanbag on which to relax! Really, there was no end to the luxuries with which this woman was being pampered.

Richard and Debra, a little later in their relationship. Image via Getty

A little later, I attempted to join her on the aforementioned beanbag. Remarkably, she shook me off, explaining she had a boyfriend and no interest in me, ‘Well, not in that way.’ In retrospect, I should have cracked a second egg over the broccoli. *

Despite this romantic misfire, Debra enjoyed talking to me. We started spending more time together. It was a deepening friendship rather than a romance. We were peculiarly identical: her parents, like mine, were working-class people who’d scrambled up a level, even if hers were more honest about their journey. We were both fixated by theatre. We were parsimonious with funds. We were hard workers; not whingers. I liked strong women. She was one. I also became friends with her boyfriend, a science genius called Jonathon Howard, and his best mate, the now radio presenter Philip Clark; like Debra, they were interested in their studies and in intellectual life generally. Maybe some of their passion started to rub off on me. Debra had already written a few plays and had seen them performed: at seventeen she’d had a script chosen for the National Playwrights’ Conference.

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Later, the same script had been produced on stage in Sydney and on ABC Radio. She had a startlingly good mind. I was thrilled, and secretly a bit pleased with myself, that I was able to call such a person my friend. We even wrote a radio comedy show together. It was called Pete and Ron Join the Communist Party. We recorded it for 2XX, the Canberra community station, with Debra playing the main female role, Denise, while Philip and I took on the roles of Pete (me) and Ron (Philip). Like the fried eggplant, it was terrible beyond belief. I still have a copy on reel-to-reel tape, which I would use to blackmail both Debra and Philip, were it not that I would suffer equal humiliation from its release.

One night, Debra and I were in my converted garage, working on our latest Pete and Ron script, when my father’s long-suffering new wife called, requesting my attendance. Ivy was a highly competent woman who took homemaking very seriously: she wanted a good husband for whom she could bake and clean and with whom she could share charming, cultured evenings. From her tone, it seemed that my father, as usual, was falling somewhat short of these expectations. Debra wanted a lift back to college and so came with me in the car, her first visit to my family home. Why did I take her when I had ample experience of the scene that would greet us? Maybe, just like Ivy, I wanted someone to pay witness to the things that I had long endured.

Richard's book - Flesh Wounds

I opened the back door to find my father on the white shagpile carpet in the long hallway that ran the length of the house. He was on his hands and knees, naked except for a pair of Y-front underpants. He was badly pissed and bleeding quite heavily. Ivy was in the bedroom, having shut the door on him. The door didn’t have a lock, but even so my father was too drunk to open it. He’d been kneeling in front of the door, trying to turn the handle, in the process of which he’d fallen several times against the timber, battering his own face into a bleeding mash.

He turned his sagging head as we entered, not really seeing us, before slowly resuming his task, swaying on his knees and falling face forward yet again into the door-frame. I resisted the urge to say: ‘Debra, I’d like you to meet Dad; Dad, Debra.’ Instead I had the usual discussion with Ivy, who emerged from the bedroom, stepping past my father. ‘What am I meant to do?’ she said, as she always did. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, as I always did.

Afterwards, Debra said to me: ‘Are you okay? You must be very upset.’ And I said, ‘No. Not upset at all,’ which was pretty much the truth. Whenever these things happened, I had a habit of stepping outside myself and looking at them from above. I’d observe my father as if I was filming a documentary or taking notes for a sociological study. ‘So this is what it looks like.’ I’d probably done the same when my mother left. And – less successfully – when watching Lionel take his pHisohex showers. Actually, I’d developed a habit of doing it all the time, during good times and bad. Even during the day-to-day, I’d be above myself, watching, rather than in the moment.

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‘Here you are walking down the street; here you are standing to one side at a party; here you are eating a hamburger. And here you are standing with Debra watching your father bleed over the carpet.’ I was turning myself into an observer rather than a participant. It was understandable, but also a form of emotional cowardice, a retreat from feeling. *

The book that will change how you see Richard Glover forever.

At the end of my first year of study, I shifted my enrolment to the University of Sydney. My friendship with Debra had continued, but other things were tugging me north. I had a new girlfriend who’d found a job in Sydney and I still dreamed of working in TV drama. Perhaps there was more chance if I moved close to the industry’s hub? I was also tired of being dragged into my father’s life, his many virtues being drowned out by his chief vice. Being constantly invited to witness the worst of him was not useful to either of us.

At Sydney University, I chose courses in History and English, started writing for the student newspaper, Honi Soit, and some plays at the university drama club. As the year went on, a few things changed. The girlfriend with whom I’d moved to Sydney dumped me and my job applications led nowhere. On the upside, I started to really enjoy my studies, finally understanding that the harder you work, the more interesting the work becomes. I also began writing letters regularly to my Canberra friend Debra.

Halfway through that year, Honi Soit’s one-time editor Clive James visited Sydney and I ambushed him at a bookshop signing, asking if I could interview him for his old paper. He had a film crew with him, making a documentary on Australia and how it had changed since he’d left. Clive gave me an interview on the proviso that I allow him to interview me in turn, presenting me on screen as a younger version of himself. He’d assumed I was Honi Soit’s editor, rather than an occasional contributor, and I unblinkingly accepted the promotion.

Richard during his Sydney uni years

The cameras turned and Clive asked me if my generation of young Australian writers yearned for Britain in the same way his generation had. I could have told him the truth: I’d been so desperate to break into the UK that I’d recently endured five months of misery and sexual slavery just to give it a go. Instead, I breezily gave him a lesson in Australian optimism: there was no need to fly to Britain because those days were gone, Australia was no longer a cultural desert, even in the arts it was the land of opportunity. The pretend Honi Soit editor, practising to be a journalist.
I believed that answer, which was a measure of how my mood was beginning to lift. * Two or three times a year, I’d hear from my mother. She was engrossed with Mr Phillipps and sought little from her previous life. Maybe their relationship was one of the great love stories; I’m sure that was their view of the situation. Together they created a sealed system that required no input from the outside world: a sort of human terrarium. The terrarium was located in Armidale, where they had ended up after their hurried departure from Canberra – Mr Phillipps heading straight there; my mother following after a period in Sydney, working in her old trade of arts publicity. Armidale, I imagine, was chosen for the sake of Mr Phillipps. It had a private girls’ school at which he could teach and a university where he could study for a doctorate. My mother, once she arrived, created a job for herself, convincing the university to support the establishment of a regional theatre company. The company, of which she would be founder and manager, would tour country towns staging plays for a mainstream audience, while also performing in schools. Due to her deal with the university, my mother and Mr Phillipps were given an apartment on campus.

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Meanwhile, they started planning their love nest – a house on the edge of town, the design of which would be inspired by the writings of JRR Tolkien. Tolkien, if you remember, was the one who’d taught Mr Phillipps at Oxford, as mentioned by Mr Phillipps at least once every thirty seconds. The house would be called Doriath. In the world of Tolkien, I later discovered, Doriath was a place which had been surrounded by a ‘girdle of enchantment’ – a force-field magically established by its Queen so that no one could enter without the permission of her King. I realise quite a few couples end up with a fortress relationship – the two of them against the world – but they don’t always include it in the very name of their house. My mother and Mr Phillipps could have as easily named the place ‘Fuck Off Outsiders’.

Occasionally I’d talk to my mother on the telephone and often she’d find a way to mention her posh upbringing, her stories becoming ever more florid. In one version her father was high up in the government; in another he was with the diplomatic service. I remember one account in which her father became a German aristocrat, which did make it odd that he was ‘working for Sir Winston’: no wonder Britain did so poorly in those early years of the war. Whatever the tale, sitting on the other end of the phone, I’d mumble my assent. Despite learning the truth from my aunt a few years before, I’d chosen not to confront my mother about her working-class past. I didn’t see the point: perhaps she now believed all these stories. I also saw my mother as a negative force in my life: confronting her would be inviting a connection, an emotional interaction, and this was something in which I was uninterested. I preferred holding her at arm’s length. I would be dutiful, but unengaged. *

By the middle of the year, Debra and I were driving up and down the Hume Highway to see each other. She’d broken up with her scientist boyfriend and would occasionally fall into bed with me in a way that we would both have defined as friendship rather than love. For all the talk of ‘hooking up’ being a contemporary invention, this sort of friendly sex was common in the early 1980s. And then, as now, it sometimes fired into love, as it finally did for us. I can still identify the moment it happened, for me anyway. Debra was standing in front of a fireplace in her friend Andrea’s flat, with the light from the candles creating a halo around her hair, like she was lit from within. I experienced the sharp sensation of being pierced. Suddenly I understood the metaphor of Cupid and the arrow. More oddly still, I felt myself landing inside my own body. I wasn’t hovering above, watching, in the way I’d always done – doubting, distrustful – as if I were an actor forced to play a role called ‘myself’. Suddenly, here I was, inside my own body, looking out through my own eyes, looking at her.

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Luckily, she had also fallen in love with me. We became a couple, despite living apart.

In between Canberra–Sydney visits we would write letters of many thousands of words. I still have Debra’s. They are exciting and philosophic and I can find in them hints of plays she went on to write years later. In one she talks about meeting my father and the possibilities of writing a play about such a person:

Thinking about your father the other night started me off. Then in the King Lear class (obviously enough) I really began to fire. It would work a lot off that ‘Reason not the need’ bit in Lear and about how you can’t only love people and give them what they deserve or hardly anyone would get loved at all. The father character I have in mind may be so crippled, inconsistent and nasty that he deserves, on grounds of ‘fairness’, to be completely cut off, but that you (in this case the child) should still respond by being more than ‘fair’.

Sometimes seeds take time to sprout and Debra’s wrenching and beautiful play about ‘deserved love’, Mr Bailey’s Minder, emerged about twenty years later. The letters also express her battle of confidence as she prepared for life as a freelance writer:

Almost everyone I admire, wish to emulate, or be as lucky as, never had a straight-arrow career path. It’s odd, though, the way I’m losing my nerve about next year. I guess it’s because plans I confidently spouted in the abstract are now becoming frighteningly close and concrete. I repeat for the hundredth time, you must help me – bolster my spirits, Richard, and I’ll bolster yours.

Then, after several hundred more words of typed-out anxieties and insights, she scribbled an addendum across the bottom of the letter: ‘What a shitty little letter this is. Sorry. Make allowances for love, please.’

I felt privileged to be part of what was really a dialogue with herself, disguised as letters to her boyfriend. After six months of this, Debra finished her degree and moved to Sydney to live with me and to attend film school.

We had two rooms in a huge but decrepit share house in Paddington and were immensely happy. We even began talking about how – in another few years – we might have children. It was just possible that, despite my best efforts to take various wrong turns, I had stumbled on the makings of a family. Debra had already met my father. Perhaps it was time for her to meet my mother. What could possibly go wrong?

This is an extract from Flesh Wounds by Richard Glover, published by ABC Books this week, RRP $29.99.

Purchase it here