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Remember Me … I am forgetting You


by Lyn Gallacher




Margery has sent me a package by registered mail. The identification number is 497442495011. It cost $13.80 to send and does not contain any dangerous goods. All of which does nothing to describe the contents. As I tear open the top, old family photographs spill out over my desk. And the smell, a particular smell, tumbles out of the envelope. It too is old. It’s that quaint smell of the past, which exists somewhere between remembered mustiness and the time before you were born.


Margery’s mother is Nancy Keesing and I’ve been sent these photographs so that I can ‘get to know’ Nancy in some way even though she is dead. It works. I feel I’m being given a glimpse into a private world. Here’s Nancy with her family at the beach. Here she is pointing to a funny sign in a country town. Here she is with her old English teacher. And here she is again with her first grandchild in her arms. And this one, this one, has a note from Margery scrawled on the back. It says; This is how I remember her most. She always sat here to read books she was reviewing. It’s a picture of Nancy sitting out on the family’s concrete deck. She’s in a wooden chair reading a book. She has one foot resting on the balustrade and takes no notice of the camera. The shot is taken from inside the house. Her hunched concentration is serious even though she is sitting in the sun. These photographs are the memory of Nancy I am about to have. It’s a kind of knowing that quickens the heart.


I first heard of Nancy Keesing because of her philanthropy, particularly the studio she set in Paris up for the support of young writers, and then I discovered her interest in old bush songs, and later found out that she was a poet herself. But none of this made me fall in love with her. I didn’t begin being seduced until I read her private letters to fellow Australian writer David Martin. These letters are unpublished and can only be found in their original form in special manuscript boxes, stowed in the bowels of the National Library of Australia. These boxes contain Nancy raw. They’re the left behind papers of a life that’s not yet become a story. The papers are chaotic and unread – just perfect for a nosey narrator who wishes, without having ever met the real person, to carve out a new image, who wants to make her own beginning, middle and end. I remember feeling a buzz of excitement, the kind that archivists speak of, when I came across this little note:


Dear Mr Martin,
It may amuse you to know that the night before I was married I sat up polishing my nails and listening to Spiegel the Cat on the radio – I’d seen it programmed and firmly announced to friends, family and fiancé that nothing was going to prevent me from hearing it – and nothing did! Though thank goodness it didn’t happen to come on the following night or I might now be a divorcee.


Nancy Keesing to David Martin—24th Feb 1966 [MS 6885 Box 18 Fl 9]


Here was something interesting. I just knew it, and it meant I had a beginning coming on. It was the flirtatious tone of the letter that caught my attention. Because Nancy was so candid with David right from the start I knew that this was a person she instinctively trusted, and that she’d reveal more of herself to him that she would to other people, and that I’d be eavesdropping, tenaciously.


David Martin was a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant who grew up in Germany and who came to Australia in 1949. He worked as a writer, novelist, poet, political activist and editor of The Australian Jewish News. Spiegel the Cat is a story-poem he adapted from a Swiss children’s tale by Gottfried Keller. And as enticing as the tale is, it’s not the best thing to listen to the night before your wedding. The marriage in the story is a form of punishment and both parties are utterly awful and rightly miserable for the rest of their lives. Nevertheless, the dramatized version of this work, which was broadcast on ABC Radio the night before Nancy’s wedding, is sumptuous, and I well can understand how anyone with a love of language and an ear for poetry would have been seduced.


At this point David and Nancy are not yet close friends. It isn’t until three years later, in 1969 that Nancy addresses David using his first name. Here’s a letter from that period where the two of them are seriously trying to figure out what it means to be a writer, and what it means to be a Jew:


Dear David,
I suppose to some extent every thoughtful person of liberal views shares the same kind of doubts although with differences of degree […] but for a German Jew the questions must be agonizing because of the spell of German romanticism. This German, German-Jewish difference puzzles me very much … sometimes it seems more than simply environmental and educational differences as between other nationalities.


Nancy Keesing to David Martin 28th April 1969 [MS 5378 Box 6 Fl 16]


Nancy knows she is treading on dangerous ground here by suggesting that there are inherited qualities to being a Jew. Indeed coming from someone else it could be considered racism, but it’s also a testament to Nancy’s level of confidence in David that she feels free to broach such ideas, particularly when she is still formulating them for herself.


As the correspondence continues Nancy and David write of their similarities and differences. They belong to the same international Jewish culture and yet their experience is very different. Here’s one of David’s most expressive letters on the subject:


Dearest Nancy,
Until I tackled Where a Man Belongs1 I just refused even to THINK about my family background. I have a deep dislike of the middle class ‘habits’ of my extended family: their continuous bridge playing, their money-orientation, their unimaginative ‘imagination’ – so much so that it may become tinged (you will know what I mean) with something that can look like anti-Semitism. Maybe because I’m a child of the middle class I have this strong dislike (a culture thing, this is, mixed with certain psychological aspects). It is so powerful that if I wrote a novel set in a middle class (Jewish) milieu (and show me another, in the western world) it would be unbearably destructive.


David Martin to Nancy Keesing 18th July 1973 [MS 5378 box 6 fl 16]


In their published work both David and Nancy come at their Jewish heritage sideways, meaning that they analyse it through the prism of other cultures rather tackle Judaism directly. David finds out what it means to be Jewish by writing a book about what it means to be Greek2, and Nancy writes a short story about an immigrant Indian family growing up in the Australian bush which serves a similar purpose3. It’s the height of our national push to multiculturalism and both writers are determined Australian-Jews rather than Jewish-Australians, although even that needs continual re-definition.


As the years go by, the two writers share their frustrations, ideas, gossip and the letters mount up. They support each other in their writing and do so within a wide circle of friends. The archives point to an unofficial network of eccentric, intelligent minds, who like Nancy and David, have given themselves the task of finding elasticity within Australia’s soul. And they believe they can do it. The 1970s were an age when change was possible, and you can hear that in their voices as they sharpen their words against the received wisdom of the day. Take this letter Nancy wrote to 2GB at the time of the 1972 Olympic Games (the games which became known as the Munich Massacre):


Dear Mr White,
It is 4.15 p.m. and I have just listened to your interview with Mr Rosenbloom (if I heard the name correctly) — how does it feel today to be a Jew? Well it feels a hell of a lot of things and now, added to it, is a feeling of regret that you couldn’t have found a more adequate spokesman than the footballing Mr R. And it also feels that there’s something rotten in the state of sport when you remark that the frightful episode in Munich has dirtied and sullied the Olympic Games with what I take as an unstated inference that before this all was sweetness and light.


All of which is a delightful rant, however here’s the nub of Nancy’s letter:


To be a Jew today feels – indescribable. But not to the extent that one can’t realise that Israel has brought some of the Arab bitterness upon herself – that injustice whether Jewish or gentile or black or white breeds horror. That horror breeds more horror. And that the sooner everyone stops thinking that anything is solved by pretence – such as the pretence that sport is sporting, or international contests non-political – or that the lion is likely to lie down with the lamb – the sooner we might approach a few honest appraisals of many things. It will be obvious that to be a Jew today is to be somewhat inco….


And because of Nancy’s chaotic typing, along with her determination not to waste paper, the letters i-n-c-o disappear off the page. The carbon paper copy must have slipped as she turned the page around to type in the margin. But 2GB’s reply is neat and intact:


Dear Ms Keesing,
Thank you for your letter commenting on my remarks on the day of the Munich murders and the interview I had with Mr Rupert Rosenblum. I think perhaps you were being a bit hard on him; he rang immediately afterwards quite upset because he believes he had made a mess of what he was trying to say. I think he probably felt as incoherent as you say you felt.


[MS 5378 Box 2 Fl 11]


So, the missing word turns out to be incoherent. And it’s perfect. It’s a word which expresses precisely the ongoing difficulty of comprehending incomprehensible exploding violence. Both Nancy and David struggle with this. They want, as writers, and concerned citizens to bear witness to injustice wherever it occurs, but there are limits. Bearing witness is costly and only ultimately worth it if someone is listening. It’s an agonising position to be in. Here’s a letter from David to Nancy in relation to the Vietnam war:


Those, like myself, who have often been unashamedly didactic as poets were, however, silenced for other reasons: chiefly because there is a limit to the expression of anger and anguish. One begins to feel like someone yelling in a vault.


David Martin 27th October 1973 [MS 5378 Box 6 Fl 16]


This yelling in a vault touches a nerve in Nancy and there are a number of subsequent letters where the two argue about the need for writers to cry out in such a way. Nancy believes in it, but David is more jaded in his outlook. He thinks that in the face of such horror there’s nothing that a writer can say, or do, that can be sane, strengthening or decent. But he does cherish the fact that Australians try and appreciates, with a sort of burned out affection, that Australian’s have ‘such uncluttered minds’.


Perhaps this the fundamental difference between the two friends. Ultimately David is a European and Nancy is not. Nancy grew up in a country still formulating its own idea of itself, so the fact that she thinks she can influence that process is natural enough. David, however, belongs to a tradition that has not only see it all before, but has seen it all come terribly unstuck, and not just during his own lifetime, but over a period of centuries before that. There is no sense in David’s writing that civilisation is the cure for barbarism, but he does believe in greater tolerance, and a more inclusive society. Nancy, on the other hand, coming as she does from a much younger culture, feels she has not yet shouldered her share of the burden and believes she must. It is evident in her anti-war poems, particularly Children where she compares the lives of her children, as they tumble in the Sydney surf, with those children of Vietnam who tumble due to exploding bombs and land mines.4


As I mull over all this, I find myself asking the question, as Nancy does, has affluent Australia suffered enough to be interesting? Or to put it another way, are we too comfortable to be creative? There is truth in the notion that material wealth clips the wings of big ideas. If a society is well off it is not going to risk losing it all by embracing radical change, and there is no doubt this is what helps to make Australia a conservative nation. But we weren’t always this way. There was a brief moment in the 1970s when we opened our hearts to change and to a bigger definition of what being an Australian could mean. The letters between Nancy and David come from that moment. They offer a glimpse into a world that could have been other, that could have led to something beyond budget deficits and trade agreements.


When Nancy first became chair of the Australia Council’s Literature Board in 1974 she sent David a confidential telegram announcing her news. He responded immediately; ‘Confidentially congratulate you and literature, love David.’ It was an exciting time. The creation of the new Literature Board just a few years earlier had been a huge boost for writers. Government grants had quadrupled overnight. But in a way Nancy’s appointment marks the beginning of the end for her and David. Nancy’s role on the board meant that there were many things she could not discuss, and she was keen not to appear partisan amongst her friends, added to which she was frightfully busy. During this time Nancy’s letters to David grow shorter, less frequent and more apologetic, ‘Sorry, I haven’t written,’ ‘Forgive me for not getting back to you …’ and ‘Please understand why I snapped at you when we last spoke…’ (Someone had been nagging her over dinner about the Public Lending Rights scheme and she’d simply had enough.) The friendship becomes swamped by the demands of bureaucracy, and it makes me wonder if this isn’t symptomatic of a larger problem.


Shortly after her four year term as Chair of the Board finished, Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told no one except her immediate family and quietly underwent some successful treatment. But the disease spread and reappeared a few years later as a tumour in her meningeal brain fluid. This was at first misdiagnosed and eventually left her suffering from dementia for the last few years of her life. She died in January, 1993 always thinking she had more time. Her papers contain a number of unfinished projects and some that were a real struggle to complete and which remain flawed.


David Martin passed away four years later. His funeral was held in Beechworth, Victoria on the 5th July, 1997. His son, Jan gave the eulogy. A copy of has been added to the archive in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. It reads:


In his dying months my father lost interest in the news, the world, his writing and his reading. He kept on being interested in his modest financial investments, (he was a frustrated business man), his grandchildren, because he had a deep seated curiosity about the rhythms of life: about the human comedy. He spent his time staring at two of his heroes on the wall: one was Abraham Lincon and the other was WB Yeats. He also had pinned to the wall drawings from his book Spiegel the Cat. He’d come to consider this one of his best works. He’d lie there, silently reciting chunks of Spiegel.


Jan also remembered that his father continued to agonise about what it meant to be Jewish. As if to sum up something important Jan left the mourners this quote from his father; ‘I do not want the pain and history of being a Jew. Therefore – although, I am a Jew I cannot claim the glory of being one either.’ Finally, Jan concluded:


Now we will bury the body of David Martin in beautiful Beechworth cemetery. My mother, Richenda, and my father chose the spot together. The spot is in the Wesleyan Plot adjacent to the strangers section. His nearest neighbours will be two Sikhs. The Chinese section is nearby. Is this not apt. Good-bye Dad.


Nancy Keesing-Further Papers MLMSS 2828 Add On 2091-State Library NSW


The copy of this eulogy that lives in the Mitchell Library has a note to Nancy’s widower Mark Hertzberg, scrawled on the back. It reads:


Dear Mark,
Nancy was David’s best literary friend and I believe she was the only one who understood Where a Man Belongs.


Best wishes Richenda

This short response from one grieving spouse to another cuts to the heart of the relationship between David and Nancy. They were each other’s best literary friend and those that loved them best knew it most.


I put Margery’s photos back in the overstuffed post-it bag. I’m afraid I will damage or lose them. They’re so precious and yet so ordinary. In a way they are the same photos every suburban Australian family would have taken at the time. They’re snaps of parties, picnics, relatives on the front porch, trips to the beach and children picking bindy eyes out of the back lawn. There’s no Eureka moment in this story. No sex scandals. No grand crimes of passion. Yet there is an overwhelming sense of something missing. And if I had to give a shape to that elusive sense of omission I’d say it’s the future. Where’s the future in this story? All I can think of is Nancy sitting in the sun reading a book. Now, that I ‘know’ her better I guess that in this moment there’s a cup of tea and a laugh not too far away. For the future this is the best I can do, because this is how dreams are made and ideals are done. Nancy Keesing sitting in the sun is how anybody’s Mum might try and make the world a better place. It’s unassuming, but it’s also radical. Here’s a regular woman deeply occupied in making Australia’s literary culture the best that it can be, and while she’s at it she’s having a lovely time. This is how I remember her most.

1 Where a Man Belongs, David Martin, Cassell Australia (Melbourne, 1969) This is his most Jewish book. [return to text]


2 The Young  Wife, David Martin, Macmillian (London ,1962) [return to text]


3 Why the Indians? Nancy Keesing, Overland #46 Summer 1970 (pp 5-11) [return to text]


4 Children, Nancy Keesing from Showground Sketchbook, Angus & Robertson (Sydney 1968 p9)


This is the final stanza:


The pictures show some village children
Caught at random, tossed, exploded,
Torn, disjointed, like sticks broken,
Whose jagged scorching limbs will never
Reassemble whole, together.
[return to text]

© 2016—Lyn Gallacher

Filed under: essays, works, writing