“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us always sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife or fork. It was hunger and all sheer function: the noise, and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking, and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.”
Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, 1977
Perhaps it’s the nostalgia, or the share-house references, or the bacon. Perhaps it’s all three. Whatever the case, every time I read this opening I want to live in that house in inner-city Melbourne, and I want it to be 1977 all over again.
There’s a fair few people out there who still haven’t forgiven Garner for writing a certain book about an incident at Ormond College in 1992, and who as a result have never bothered with her fiction. If the above excerpt from Monkey Grip isn’t enough to convince you to give it a go (I’d recommend starting with The Children’s Bach (1984) then reading Monkey Grip, Honour & Other People’s Children (1980), Postcards from Surfers (1985) and Cosmo Cosmolino (1992) – yes, they’re all worth it), here’s a curious artefact that might soften your view of the author.
In 1975, when she was still an author-to-be, Garner featured in a film called Pure S about the Melbourne drug scene in the ‘70’s, which Paul Byrnes has described as “one of the most radical and notorious films ever made in Australia.” (In Monkey Grip, the narrator mentions getting work “on a movie about junkies” – presumably Garner had Pure S in mind.) Please enjoy this endearing clip from the film starring a young Garner playing a paranoid speed addict. It’s worth it for the hair alone.