The clink for the stout

September 6, 2010

Book Review

When it rains
By Maggie Mackellar
Publication details

There’s a song that the blacksmith stepfather Jo Gargery sings with his boy Pip in the forge in Dickens’Great Expectations that’s simple and beguiling and sung in turns.

…Beat it out, beat it out – Old Clem!
With a clink for the stout – Old Clem!
Blow the fire, blow the fire – Old Clem!
Roaring dryer, soaring higher – Old Clem!

It seems like an obscure reference but Maggie Mackellar’s new memoir When it rains reverberates with the strike of hammer on steel as she, in a very beautiful and courageous act of industrial art and humanity works her broken world back into shape, one memory, one word at a time. To look at the cover now all I can hear is the clink of the forge – the forge of a very big heart that’s still beating despite the pressure of other hearts stopping. The clink for the stout.

When it rains is a memoir about the loss of two pivotal people in Maggie’s life whose very beings seemed to be its fabric, patent, orbit and axis. First her husband, in tragic and confusing circumstances. Then shortly after, her mother, to cancer, in shockingly quick turn.

The narrative, which unfolds like a Helen Garner style examination of a tough issue, has its own relentless commitment to illumination that marks the best writing in this country and any other. It moves back and forth through the linear events of Maggie’s loss like a sheepdog – worrying, nipping, barking, until the whole broken mess starts to, not so much make sense, but fall into line. And, miraculously, and against the odds – beautifully – it does.

The writing is beyond self assured. It’s the performance of a seasoned athlete – graceful, underplayed and robust. Its also marked by humour often enough for us to really see the author’s journey has done her good. While I cried, I also laughed at lines like “My mother was a plumber. I could do anything.” Throughout, a supple voice guides the reader through the book in a way that is ironically soothing in the face of the subject matter.

I was amazed Maggie managed to get through the book without mentioning either her husband’s or her mother’s names. It occurred to me that had I attempted such a technique my grammar would collapse. But not on Maggie’s watch. There will be no collapsing, in spite of everything. The absence of names is powerful, reiterating Maggie’s purpose, like the book’s narrative structure and imagery – God love us, even its animals – especially its animals, have something to add to the question of how a single mother is meant to conduct a life in the aftermath of tragedy. That’s what Old Clem knew perhaps, watching the smithy work the fire. Maggie comes through suffering suggesting as much. The fire burns on as it must when the rain set ins, so vittles and warmth could greet the young ones when they awake. So we can continue, strong of arm and heart.

Astonishingly, while When it rains cost Maggie everything, it cost me $29.95. Do the maths readers – just go and buy it. A book like this is a must for anyone seeking inspiration from a true survival story.


Pushing the trolley

November 19, 2009

In Cormac McCarthy’s latest but hopefully not last novel, The Road, (2006) the action follows a father and son navigating the shell of an annihilated America. Each day, day after day, they push a shopping trolley with their handful of possessions, through unimaginable devastation. The landscape is bare. There is no encouragement but what warmth they can find inside themselves. The father drills the boy: “We are the keepers of the flame”. The boy takes this as law, and continues the journey, finally reaching help, family and hope.

When we set out to write, we face the same journey. Everything seems to stand opposed to us. But our job is not to find shortcuts. We simply push the trolley, until we reach the place we were destined to.


I take the bus to my day job at Macmillan. The bus is a 1979 Volvo. I first caught it at the age of ten when I went to a World Series game in Sydney. (In Australia, this means cricket: if you are American, this is not related to insects ot “jiminy cricket”. Think sport. Consider baseball take away logic and reason, replace with deep, enduring patience and sun cream. Only the British aristocracy could invent a game that takes five days to complete. That’s cricket. Also take away hot dogs and replace with meat pies. If you are Indian, replace meat pies with samosas.) So anyway, there I am, on the old rattler. I’m 40 now. And sure, I’ve aged. The bus though has carbon dated. Pulling away from the kurb, it sounds like a cross between the Industrial Revolution and its cousin, the end of the world. People with swine flu and people with the fear of swine flu trade suspicious looks. Up the back, a man coughs. Hack, hack, hack. He keeps time with the knock of the diesel engine. I see a stop coming up, around 5 miles from the city. I get up. No swine flu, no despoiled childhood memory is going to take me while I still have use of my legs. So I get off and start walking. I walk and as I walk I feel better. I walk past a blue tongue lizard, sunning himself like the dream of an extinct dinosaur. What progress has he seen? Concrete floods, an increase in flies. Why his tongue is as blue as Sydney Harbour is a mystery best left to naturalists and seers. To me, it simply means there is hope that the world allows certain minor rebellions to go unpunished. Above the lizard, a canopy of eucalypts where sits an Australian raven, bothered by a gang of smaller squawkers intent on the defence of their unhatched eggs. fresias I walk on, past the inevitable, harmless domestic infrastructure and onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a walk at some altitude that is as yet not invoicable, past the aging, hapless security guards, watchful for terrorists eager to bring down this miracle as payback for who-knows-what. I walk and I walk and I walk until the bridge gives way to the city and the city gives way to the lift and there I am alone, in the corner office, ready to do battle again, space opening up like the corona of springtime fresias.

Photos by Tammy Puntii and Chris and Steve