IN LATE 1999 I joined my father at the launch of a new book, The Imaginary Australian, by social historian Dr Miriam Dixson.
The setting was Sydney’s Gleebooks, the turnout disappointing, but one familiar face lurked down the front – Bob Gould, activist and denizen of his own sprawling bookshop in nearby Newtown.
Dr Dixson spoke about her latest exploration of Australian identity, then Gould began to interrogate her and disseminate copies of his response. It was a confrontation between old socialist warlords and I took great delight in witnessing it.
Gould I’d once served as a regular customer of the cafe across the road from his bookshop, where he’d barked his usual order of chocolate cake and ice cream to we student waiters.
Dr Miriam Dixson I knew because she had been married to my father for two decades.
Our first meeting was surrounded by my father’s lies. I was nine, my brother Andrew 11, and my sister Jenny, five. Our parents had been separated for a few months, and we were on a Christmas access visit to Inverell.
Dad promised to take us to the coast, an exciting prospect for country kids who were now living with their mother in the Blue Mountains. But we didn’t head seaward, we headed south, as Dad told us of a new ‘friend’ he wanted us to meet. When we pulled up at a strange house in Armidale, we were introduced to Miriam.
At that time, Miriam Dixson was enjoying a certain notoriety in the wake of her 1976 publication, The Real Matilda, a feminist Australian history that labelled Australian women: “The doormats of the Western world”, a work the author curiously described as nothing more than a “temporary scaffolding”.
In the half light of Miriam’s office, where we lay awake on blow-up beds on that first night in her life, tall filing cabinets loomed on either side, the ends of the drawers labelled “Matilda”.
We were literally and emotionally within Miriam’s polemic.
Our second meeting came after my parents’ divorce was settled, and we went to Armidale for Dad and Miriam’s marriage.
I did what any gay boy would do: I ingratiated myself with Miriam by offering to make her a bouquet of flowers from the garden. She held the spring blooms as she made a short procession from the kitchen to the living room, where Dad waited for her.
We visited the school where Andrew and I had been booked into since birth for our secondary education. When Dad pointed out the dormitory from which he had shimmied down the drain pipes to get up to mischief, I imagined escaping down those same pipes to the railway station if I were ever incarcerated in such a Victorian establishment.
While we played, with his permission, at Dad’s lapidary table, I inadvertently discovered a letter on the top of his desk tray, confirming Andrew’s acceptance at that school. Seeing the inevitable coming, and without thinking, I screwed it up. Andrew panicked, then bravely tried to iron it flat, while Jen and I kept watch.
Dad found us out and clipped me around the ear. That probably should have been it, but Miriam had yet to start.
She leant over me, and took slow pleasure in delivering some devastating news: “Your mother went to court,” she said, “she was a thief.”
My mainstay was bulldozed in seconds, and Dad said nothing in her defence. Mum rang in the middle of the trauma, and I tearfully asked her to tell me the truth. Instead of an angry reaction, she just gave a simple confirmation: yes, three years before, she had been arrested on shoplifting charges. “Daddy and I said we’d tell you about it together, when you were old enough,” she said.
Dr Miriam Dixson’s need to demonise my mother speaks volumes about the woman whom academics and journalists have been trying to define for decades.
Described as a feminist, a misandrist, a social historian, a communist, a progressive, and a conservative, the confusion has caused many leap to label Dixson a hypocrite. She’s been telling us for years that she’s an intellectual, but no commentator who’s met Miriam Dixson seems to think that’s quite apt.
Maxine McKew discovered the truth. “Ever the iconoclast,” she wrote in The Bulletin of her first impression of Dixson before the release of The Imaginary Australian.
Bob Gould also smelt a rat in his enlightening rebuttal, Interrogating Miriam Dixson, when he questioned why on earth his socialist comrade in 1960s Sydney had reinvented herself as a conservative?
When he observed how Dixson evolved her political ideology as she changed domestic partners, he almost got to the truth. Perhaps Gould assumed that Dixson had eschewed marriage in the wake of publishing The Real Matilda?
If only Bob had bumped into my father at Gleebooks, he would have come across the former grazier who was the significant spousal relationship of Dixson’s life, and discovered the reasons she remained more the academic feminist than the practising one, and had certainly been moving in conservative circles.
Gould described Dixson’s approach in The Imaginary Australian as: “A fast and loose psychological assault”, replete with “softening disclaimers”. He used the word “demolish” when he recalled Miriam’s modus operandi at socialist meetings: “Almost by clockwork, you would get a migraine around 9pm, after criticising the lot of us, and go to bed.”
In the light of others’ experience of Miriam Dixson, her ‘knockdown, rebuild’ vocabulary finally made sense to me. The woman driven to raise the scaffolding she called The Real Matilda was no mere intellectual, she was the wrecking ball who’d rushed to another room to listen in on that crucial trust-restoring phone conversation between me and my mother.
And her iconoclasm continued, aimed not at adult socialists, but children.
The next swing came during an access handover in Sydney, while Mum encouraged Jenny, aged six, to go for lunch with her brothers, father, and an enraged iconoclast.
“Daddy loves you too,” Mum said, as she encouraged Jenny to take her father’s hand.
In an unwelcome shot, Miriam said: “Oh, well programmed, Pat”.
The P-word stood out because it sounded powerful to children, and unsurprisingly the negative energy behind it saw Jen stay put in her mother’s arms.
At lunch, the ball swung again, this time at me.
A new world order was blasted into me by Dr Miriam Dixon and my father, a pair of squabbling control freaks, who contravened legal process by telling me without a court-appointed counsellor present that I was to be singled out for a solo access visit.
Once again, Miriam employed a builder’s vocabulary, asserting that if I was by myself, she and Dad would be able to “rebuild” parent-to-child “frameworks”.
I wasn’t happy, but I went to Armidale by myself and endured their experiment. When it was over, I just craved some peace, but in order to get it, I too needed to become an iconoclast.
I told anyone who would listen – including them – that I did not want to see my father or his wife. The only “programming” I could see going on were their enthusiastic attempts to alter my sense of security and denigrate my mother using the worst experience of her life.
That one swing from my wrecking ball saw their insubstantial “frameworks”, erected without the slightest emotional intelligence, come crashing down. No school in Armidale for me.
Jump forward two decades, just four years after the Gleebooks event, and my brother invited me and Jen to his second daughter’s christening.
Months before, my partner had died suddenly. Like many academics, Miriam was out of touch with the common marginalisation felt by feminists and LGBTQI, and greeted me by telling me how I was: “You’re alright. Yes, you’re alright,” she decided.
Prone in my grief to exhaustion in mixed company, I sat by myself at the dining table Mum proudly purchased after leaving Inverell. Andrew had inherited the suite after her cancer death a decade before. It was a familiar piece of furniture which evoked the woman we’d all loved.
It had been a long time between battles, so I put up no resistance when Dad quietly sat next to me, followed by Jenny, and I was able to enjoy watching them converse as adults.
Andrew offered drinks and finger food. The godparents joined us. We began to talk about our family’s heritage, and Dad outlined the great conundrum: were the Burges convicts or settlers?
Someone noted how silly it was to send people to the other side of the world for stealing something as insignificant as a loaf of bread. Everyone chuckled.
Everyone except Dr Miriam Dixson, that is. Finding herself on the edge of the scaffolding our family was gently erecting, Miriam said: “Michael, I’d like to sit next to Bruce please.”
Before I could answer, she continued with a diatribe straight from The Imaginary Australian about how none of us should question Georgian sensibilities and notions of criminality in Great Britain in the late 18th century, that none of us should make light of institutional decisions made in the past.
I acquiesced, because she placed herself between me and Dad, but as I did I said: “You like Gilbert and Sullivan, don’t you, Miriam?” remembering she and Dad singing along to their G&S favourites on my solo access visit all those years ago.
“Oh yes,” she replied.
“Well, enjoying satire like that is making light of the past,” I said.
Unexpectedly, Dad laughed, a brief insight into where his marriage had come to by then.
We all knew the wrecking ball was coming, so Jen gave me the let’s go look, and we said our goodbyes.
As I shook Dad’s hand, Miriam sidled up to me and said: “You’re wrong about what you said.”
“Don’t worry about it Miriam,” I replied.
“I don’t worry about it,” she said, “I only debate.”
Oh a debate, of course! Just what every disparate family needs at a christening. The wrecking ball glanced off my cheek and I just walked away.
Five years later, after nearly three decades together, my father left Dr Miriam Dixson and ran off with another woman. Everyone was well out of range by then.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.