I hope you’ll forgive me a little indulgence, but I want to share something special. Today I had the rare privilege of seeing Gillian Mears in discussion with Bruce Pascoe at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). I say rare because this was Mears’s first speaking event in Sydney in sixteen years. (The privilege speaks for itself.)
Introduced by Jane Palfreyman, head of Mears’s publisher Allen & Unwin, Gillian read from her critically acclaimed and much loved Foal’s Bread (my review). It was so lovely hearing her read. The tenderness in her writing was palpable in her voice and her curt laughter at our laughter as the kids played at being horses. I couldn’t help but shed a tear.
Bruce met Gillian many years ago and recounted how she was shocked by gender inequality in writing back in 1984. Mears said that growing up in Grafton, a country town in the north of New South Wales, played a big part. Grafton was her ‘fields of praise’. It was always full of horses.
Bruce showed us a photo in an old Meanjin in which Mears was standing on the back of a horse. The horse was Bellini, ‘the last mare’ of Mears’s life. It was Bellini that diagnosed her MS first. She knew something was wrong with her before anyone else. We often hear that such-and-such a book couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Well, Foal’s Bread could not have been written by anyone else by Gillian Mears.
In the novel, Roley is struck by lightning three times. Bruce wanted to know whether this was an evocation of bad luck. Mears said that many Clarence Valley horsemen had been struck more than once and lived to tell the tale. She thought she had to use this in her story. It’s so hard for us not to equate, as I think Bruce was alluding to, the injustice of Roley’s condition and Mears’s own. The conditions they have share much in common; so too the dreadful theft of the ability to ride horses.
Pascoe brought up her eye for details, offering an example from an earlier work The Mint Lawn, in which a boy shakes spit out of a trumpet. Again referring to Grafton, Mears recounted the lovely anecdote of the moment she went to send in the manuscript, which meant going to the undertaker’s (as that’s where the photocopier was!), and dealing standing behind a desk with a man all dressed up in white shirt and bow tie who was from the waist down wearing only his ‘jocks’ because it was so hot! These details sum up Grafton, she said.
Mears worries about the state of humanity’s influence on the natural world. Aboriginal wise men have said when we begin to control the wind, that is the end of the world. She felt this acutely recently when she read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He writes such heartbreaking endings, she said. But even in the grey ending there is a sense of hope, some chink of light that Mears herself seems to reach for. And of course, McCarthy wrote of horses so well too.
The sensitivity of Mears to indigenous people is clear. She told the story of some aboriginal boys at her school (where the principal wore white shoes and a purple suit!), who got into the roof of the girls’ toilet to take a peek. It was hijinks, said Mears, but the principal had boards nailed over the roof and the boys were trapped overnight. It wouldn’t have happened to white children, she said. There is still a level of ignorance in the wider community.
When asked about the Eastern spinebill bird, Mears spoke lovingly about being enchanted by the grey butcherbirds of the Clarence River Valley. The Sydney butcherbirds, by contrast, can’t quite get their song going… it sounds more like a clattering – it must be, she said, all those jumbo jets!
Of course, MS was never far from everyone’s thoughts today. Mears has searched high and low for a cure. She spoke of the freedom of paddocks that you could put a horse in to recover from a condition. She went in search of that paddock, both figuratively and literally. What she found were so many gates in the landscape. It took her a long time to find the large paddocks. She spoke of camping in the northern coast of NSW, out in these paddocks. After a time she would be ‘moved on’ by the locals. It gave her the mere but painful inkling of how Aboriginals must have felt to be ‘moved on’ from their land in years gone by.
Returning to Foal’s Bread, she said she was given a foal’s bread by her sister, which dried into the shape of a heart, like the one in her novel. She had been gathering fragments of story for years as her body began to crumble, finally summoning the supreme effort to pull all these fragments together to form the novel.
She recounted writing out in the wilds, at a mobile desk she would set up, how on one occasion she spotted a red-bellied black snake slithering along the ground nearby. It looked as though it was headed off, but when she looked down again it was beneath her chair. To much laughter, Bruce asked: How did the writing go? It was a challenge to stay still, she replied!
Aside from encounters with deadly snakes, writing outdoors wasn’t very practical. And yet, how she misses the wilderness. She spoke of how cold river water used to be an ‘elixir’ for her legs. She once had the unique experience of swimming in such a river, and being joined by a mother platypus and its young. The image is a soaring one, isn’t it? She admitted how she so misses that contact with the wild world, like that one, like grey thrush visits.
Bruce asked her about Noah’s baby and the butterbox, a harrowing event in Foals’ Bread’s opening. She said Noah had no choice, that the act of the butterbox was one of mercy in a way, more merciful at least than other options that would have achieved the same outcome. It was a ‘lamentation for her life’. Given Mears’s change of heart over euthanasia it’s hard not to sense Mears’s own life in those same hands.
I am glad I ran out of ink at the session’s end; the audience had gone to a place where words couldn’t hold our collective emotions together, and I suspect any words I’d have written would have run on the page. Our ovation was heartfelt and long-lasting. Mears was and is heroic. She has moved all of us with her words and stories; today she moved us because of who she is.
I’ll leave the last word to her. After paying tribute to her sisters toward the end of the session, she described herself as a sheoak. Like the tree, she is best after rain, she said, when reaching for the light.