Is this a quest that I’m on, or some sort of journey? If so, what do I wish to seek? Not the truth, no, but an extract of truth, a sense of possibility?
I had heard of artists having imposter’s syndrome but it hadn’t occurred to me that historians could experience it too. Why weren’t we taught this in undergrad? It seems that everyone around me is comfortable and confident in their abilities to write a narrative of the past that will in some way hold a level of authority, whilst I am wondering how close I dance with Speculation.
If this is a quest for truth then is Cold Chisel really the right soundtrack for it? Is there something more appropriate to listen to when stepping into libraries and archives or will my ears be forever ringing with the sound of a harmonica and Jimmy’s cigarette-stained vocal chords? I leave the Baillieu Library on a day that was scheduled to be productive and yet the only book I hold in my hands is Working Class Boy. I show it to Georgia on the number 64 tram and lament that I’m not writing my honours thesis on Jimmy Barnes. She laughs and says I should pitch a new theory to my supervisor: Jimmy Barnes is a lesbian. I wonder if there would be more primary source material available to support that theory than there is for the thesis I’m actually trying to write. We joke about the possibility until she gets off at Bourke Street.
The first chapter of my thesis is focused on the partnership of Anne Drysdale (1792-1853) and Caroline Newcomb (1812-1874), who lived and worked together on the Bellarine Peninsula. I think their love may have been deeper than the passionate friendship placed upon them, though the editor of Anne’s diary, Bev Roberts, vehemently disagrees, goes as far to say that it would be futile as well as pointless to even speculate whether the two were in a romantic and/or sexual relationship. The first chapter of my thesis, then, is futile – and yet I consider it of great value.
Anne Drysdale emigrated from Scotland to the Port Phillip District in 1840. Jimmy Barnes emigrated from Scotland to Adelaide in 1962. There is, evidently, a correlation.
Did Anne love Caroline like a sister, like an only child?
On a Monday afternoon before class I sit away from the group and let the cool autumn wind sliver through my polyester shirt and settle on my naked back. I write my anxiety into a small notebook while the song Ita plays too loudly through my headphones. I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going or how to get there. Is this a journey or a quest or a fumbling through time in an effort to create meaning somewhere, sometime? When I walk over to my friends Meghan asks if I was listening to the podcast episode on Marxism that our tutor emailed us, but Georgia knows.
Here is a list of suburbs I have spent the night in within the last few years: Elwood, Brunswick West, Collingwood, Footscray, Southbank, Kensington, Parkville. My friends have shown extraordinary hospitality to a girl from the outer southeast suburbs like me. In Elwood I wake up from the sunlight pouring in through the window. In Southbank the trams’ ding ding ding infiltrate my dreams. In Footscray I fall asleep in my friend’s arms and wake up in bed alone. In Brunswick West a ginger cat claws at my toes, peeking out of the sheets. In Collingwood the floor is spinning when I open my eyes. In Parkville I lie on the floor and use my rolled-up jumper as a pillow to sleep for an hour or two. In Kensington I eat vegemite on pumpkin toast and admire my new bangs.
The second chapter of my thesis is centred on a ballet dancer in the late nineteenth-century named Augusta ‘Gussie’ Freudenberg. There is little information concerning her, only scraps that acknowledge her existence – some newspaper articles on her performances, a mention in someone’s memoir, a death notice. Realistically this is not enough to drive a four thousand word chapter but she intrigues me, and the challenge of recreating a forgotten woman’s life is too tempting to pass up. Does Gussie deserve anything less, because she failed to achieve a certain level of public significance, because her impact on this world seems fleeting?
My creative writing is suffering and I panic upon recalling this fact. Is your writer self dying? Is she okay? When was the last time you checked up on her? I was worried that the more I focused on a career in history, the more my art would suffer. It’s beginning to seem that way yet I keep scribbling passages in my notebook whenever I feel so inclined – which is every few days, when ideas of romance grip me.
There are scattered leaves all over the university campus; I delight in the crunch sound when I step on a pile, and pick up vibrant red leaves to press in my journal. For the next few weeks the smell of decomposition hits me whenever I go to jot down a reminder, a poem, my internal monologue.
The wind is picking up with each day and as I walk from my car to the front of Woolworths at six in the morning I can hear the waves from across the road, can almost picture them in my mind. On one particularly windy morning I can smell the salt in the air, and breathe in deeply. My mother always told me to breathe in the fresh ocean air, just as her father always told her. When the weather is fine I decide to take a short detour on my walk to the train station before uni, and go to the beach to breathe. Across the bay I can see the tiny silhouette of Melbourne, my destination.
Reading the poetry of Lesbia Harford, the focus of my thesis’ third chapter, inspires me to write my own. I play with rhyme and dedicate them to a girl who’s caught my attention, just as I imagine Lesbia dedicated them to her philosophy tutor Katie Lush.
You are so pretty
with your long wavy hair
and pink-flowered shirt
I would follow you for hours
just tell me when and where.
Three days till I see you again
though I’d prefer you to write
or call; I’m too afraid
of crossing some line but
in loving you, I might.
You are so pretty
with your blue-eyed stare
and soft cream skirt
I would give almost anything
if only you should care.
They aren’t of the same quality as Lesbia’s though I have the sense that she would be pleased with them, give me suggestions and encourage me to write more. To always write, to always feel.
A girl I thought had left my life for good messaged me one evening and apologised for forgetting to respond to a text message I’d sent in January. For a few weeks I was mad at her but now I don’t think I have the energy anymore to hold a grudge, not when there are so many other things to worry about now. I forgive her immediately and toss my phone to the other side of the bed, grab my headphones and dance in my room to Bow River so aggressively that for a moment I think I’m going to throw up the KFC I ate three hours ago. I don’t.
I write in my notebook: All that matters in life is Ian Moss, the three boxes of Cheerios I clutched to my chest in the Patterson Lakes Coles carpark, and queer women of colonial Australia.
Ian Moss came to me in a dream. My father was friends with each member of Cold Chisel and had them all over, sitting in our lounge, but in my dream I specifically sat next to Ian and gushed about how much I admired his guitar playing, how much I loved him. He was pleased but didn’t seem too excited by my attentions. When I woke up I asked my dad when the boys were coming over for some tea and a yarn and he gave me a strange look.
I don’t shed a single tear while watching the third episode of the eighth season of Game of Thrones or during the three long hours of Avengers: Endgame. Am I a monster or has the emotional strain of honours deprived me of all empathy?
Oh the frame is a pain to tear away, I break all of my nails in the act, send a prayer to Jimmy if only she should save me. I worry I’ll break the glass and then what? There would be no point to anything, I would have gone to Savers for nothing, spent $3 for nothing, crafted my friend a beautiful if somewhat flawed work of art for nothing. The shattering of the glass would have been a sacrifice for no one.
The 900s in the Arts library is always deserted in the mornings. I dance down the 994 shelves and sit on the floor surrounded by books on Australian history. Sometimes I think about how this would be a good place to take a nap, or make out with someone, or hide from the world. I often feel like hiding from the world but my addiction to technology has me posting stories on Instagram every hour and checking my Facebook constantly for messages. Still on read?? Archive conversation. Turn off active status. Log out. Uninstall app. Turn off phone. Throw into creek.
I guess some would say that I’m needy, that I crave attention. Mostly I just want to feel thought of, shown the warmth I was given in April but is beginning to cool as we near winter.
One day I’m going to take a tram to Kew and lay flowers on Lesbia Harford’s grave. I’m going to thank her for writing about her unrequited passions, her sense of social justice, and her dreams. I hope she doesn’t mind that I’ve read such personal poems that were unpublished during her lifetime, I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m writing about her.
Until winter comes I shall gather my leaves, sing to Khe Sanh, write loving verses, pine for a tender touch, recite Lesbia’s poetry and piece together Gussie’s existence and read between the lines of Anne’s diary. It is all I can do to keep myself afloat.