MARILYN got through her childhood as quickly as she possibly could.
She mastered puberty by filling out her plain school uniform before she was a teenager, and inhabited the body of a middle-aged, overweight woman by the time she reached her twenty-first birthday.
Swapping school plaids for sterile nurses’ uniforms only meant Marilyn had more room to fill.
“The unveiling of her flesh was a physical pleasure she didn’t know how to enjoy.”
She maintained her weighty hourglass beneath a cotton waist belt, her figure diminished by the enormous regulation veils she starched religiously and spent more time on than the other girls and their hours of make-up.
Marilyn sterilised equipment twice as long as the other trainees, and never scowled when rostered on for back-to-back ‘Dirty Nurse’.
It was during one such marathon that Matron noted the size of Marilyn’s stout red hands as she carved paths of cleanliness throughout the wards.
Both women had been trained to polarise cleanliness and dirtiness. Matron simply recognised a sterile girl when she saw one, and knew she had little to teach Marilyn when it came to the simple rules of cleaning up after life’s messes, and doing it without fuss. Not with a minimum of fuss, but with absolutely none…
TOWARDS the end of my second year working for United News and Media, the staff received news that our company was in the final stages of broad economic reforms that would cut right through the Farming Press office at Ipswich.
Signs of this began when an all-staff memorandum indicated that only one bottle of wine was permitted at business lunches, a message met with glee from people like us who worked at the fringes of this multinational company and had no idea we could even put wine on the company tab!
Perhaps it was our new-found business-lunch rights that finally tipped the company into financial free-fall? I doubt it, because it turned out the mechanics of change were underway years before my position was ever advertised.
By the end of 1997 the writing was on the wall. With no new employees since I’d started, I was faced with being ‘last on, first off’. So I took stock, decided it was time, for many reasons, to return to Australia, and accepted an offer of voluntary redundancy.
Having lived in a permanent state of debt for five years, my payout would be enough to buy a one-way ticket home and pay off my credit card. It was an easy decision to make.
Being part of a folding company was the last in a long list of eye-opening experiences of living in Great Britain’s economy.
The late Baroness Thatcher made no secret of not believing in society, which seemed to stand in the way of her penchant for the free market.
Having landed first in Yorkshire and then South London, I experienced life first-hand in territories where Thatcherism had left its mark on formerly cohesive and supportive communities.
I would later say, with regularity, that everything I learnt about economics and politics I learnt from living in Britain, simply because I joined the ranks of everyday people trying to earn a living in the immediate post-Thatcher years.
Here are some other observations about Britain in the 1990s:-
No-one could afford a day out at the beach. In Australia we call this a human right, but in England day-trippers were faced with whopping public transport costs. Few people I knew could afford cars, but a one-way train ticket for the short trip to London from Ipswich was well over twenty pounds for one person. This was solely due to the privatisation of every possible segment of the railways – one company owned the carriage, another the rails, another the station, and they all wanted to profit from ticket sales. A similar journey in Australia still costs far less than half that, twenty years later.
When buying an electrical appliance, the cable cost extra. What better way to gouge a bit of extra profit than to make the mains cable of most electrical appliances a separate item the customer must buy to use the equipment?
The country was full of criminals. Speaking as a citizen of the nation invaded to set up the penal colony of New South Wales, I have to say the common sight of colleagues being marched out of the office by a pair of police officers says a lot about the British criminal disposition as opposed to the Australian. These were never ‘bad’ people, they were just trying to keep their family afloat in the economy. Every single company I worked for contained employees who were on the take, and I don’t just mean the toilet paper.
Many people were closeted. Perhaps it’s a case of like attracting like, but most men I became friends with in England turned out to be gay. From the married father of two to the tough-as-nails London busker, they all came tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out. It was an eye opener about the choices faced by the British male under the infamous Section 28 of Britain’s Local Government Act, which embedded disapproval of gay lifestyle and relationships into the country’s law. For a nation which had decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, this was a mean-spirited regulation which was seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
British food was crap. When you think about the proximity of Britain to the fresh produce of continental Europe, the lack of affordable nutritious food was a terrible side effect of euro-phobia and economic rationalism, and an indictment on the ‘Grocer’s Daughter’ who had contributed to the scarcity. The only ‘fresh’ fruit and veg I saw in my first month were lumpy potatoes, mouldy onions, and bunches of silverbeet, withered and pricey. Most people I knew ate everything out of tins, and ‘boil in the bag’ meals were the norm.
You could still sense the war. People would still queue uncomplainingly for things that were freely available in other western nations. Avoidable diseases were still common in England’s north, and childhood mortality was higher-than-average.
The tenant paid the council rates, not the landlord. Thatcher’s infamous poll tax was well and truly in place when I became a renter in London, and my Yorkshire flatmates showed me the clever ways their parents taught them to avoid the payment as long as was possible. Often, it was the catalyst for moving house.
No-one answered their front door. Due to avoiding paying the poll tax (see above) and the TV licensing charges (see below), I was always under strict instructions from every flatmate I ever had to never open the door to a knocking visitor in case it was someone coming to collect taxes. I was once fooled by the TV license man when he pretended he was delivering a parcel to the first floor flat I shared in Lewisham. He launched himself through the front door into the foyer, and I had to pretend I was a visiting friend who had no idea if the flat had a television or not. Luckily I had some acting training under my belt.
It cost a lot to watch the tele. A hefty annual television license fee comes with the pleasure of tuning in to the BBC, oh, and all the other channels who would appear to be doing quite well already with all the advertising revenue they’re getting from the endless commercials, of course. The jury is still out on whether the mysterious vans driving around Britain’s streets are capable of telling who is receiving a TV signal are real, or some kind of psychological warfare. It’s all very Doctor Who. Another reason to avoid answering the front door (see above).
This list is cursory and might seem glib. But it’s also true. I will always remember many colleagues in Britain who worked long hours for the same very low rate of pay I was on, only they had mouths to feed and backs to clothe. I don’t know how they did it, but most worked with a ready smile and by doing without luxuries that most people in Australia take completely for granted.
But I also recall how few of them thought it was worth getting off their backsides on election day and voting.
By May Day 1997 Tony Blair seemed determined to sweep away two decades of Thatcherism, convincing the nation of the merits of ‘New Labor’. I can remember where I was when I heard the news – working on location in the Yorkshire Dales. Never had I experienced such a sense of palpable hope and imminent change amongst the British as I did across that summer. Princess Diana’s death knocked most of that energy out of the British only a few short months later, but I witnessed the brief smile on the nation’s face.
Ever since I returned home I have been vocal about the P-word. Privatisation has not spread its destructive fingers into every Australian industry, yet. I know what an impact it will have on that day trip to the beach if public transport is ever extensively privatised in a nation where long distances are the norm.
I will be eternally grateful for the support I received to travel overseas in the first place, but ‘travel’ is a great distraction. Living and working in another country, for more than a stint fruit picking, is what I call an education.
AMIDST the gloom of Yorkshire in the late English winter of 1992 when I arrived in the United Kingdom, two bright things stood out.
The first were the swathes of daffodils, bringing colour and joy to a colourless and often joyless landscape.
The second were the signs blazing from music shop windows – the enlarged signature of an artist I’d long admired, because at last she’d recorded her first solo album.
The thrill of seeing that name in iridescent red against the steely greys of Britain really sum-up for me the power and presence of Annie Lennox.
The pop-rock duo Eurythmics (comprising Lennox and David A. Stewart) had announced a sabbatical after over a decade of collaboration, and with no new album since 1989, word in the media was that it might be all over.
But when the British Music industry gathered to celebrate the life of Freddie Mercury at a tribute concert in early 1992, a duet of ‘Under Pressure’ with David Bowie and Annie Lennox was announced.
Apparently they made a pact to go all-out on their costumes. Bowie’s 1970s outfits had, after all, been a great inspiration to Lennox.
But Annie Lennox outdid Ziggy Stardust. He was rather reserved in a suit, while she appeared in a full-length tulle skirt, eyes masked with a spray of black, ginger hair slicked-back, a signature red-slash of lipstick … every bit the androgynous icon that made her name a decade before.
Hers was a weird, awkward, emotional performance that went right to the heart of loss. The loss of Freddie. The loss of a generation of artists to the AIDS epidemic. It took guts, and it brought the house down.
Duet aside, a solo career was born.
Annie Lennox first hit my consciousness in 1983, as Eurythmics’ album Touch carved its way through the charts with a string of video clips on Countdown. Lennox was a harpy, a romanticised heroine, a robot, a man, and she sang like the great gospel singers.
Nobody else I knew liked her or Eurythmics, but to me she was pop perfection – an intense, misunderstood butterfly in a constant state of metamorphosis.
The release of 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother), fronted by the single ‘Sex Crime’, in the same year I became aware I was gay, was almost too much.
For a closeted gay boy, Lennox’s thundering Orwellian vocal: “How I wish I’d been unborn, wish I wasn’t living here … Sex Crime” was a chant of affirmation.
But Eurythmics didn’t remain the beloved of nerdy closeted boys for long. From 1985 to 1989 they dominated the pop-rock scene, with a string of hits and world tours.
In a rare egalitarian moment, a large group of my school year put factions aside and made a booking to see the Eurythmics at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in early 1987. I already had all their albums, and knew the answers to everyones’ questions about the duo. For one week in summer I felt cool, accepted, in-touch and cutting-edge.
Although it wasn’t until Lennox’s solo career took off that I came to understand why I liked Eurythmics so much.
Of the Stewart-Lennox duo, she was almost exclusively the lyricist, and her words covered the human experience from unbridled joy to the deepest sorrow.
But the tone of the music was not dark. Stewart took Lennox’s poetry and placed it in an uplifting context, so that the result had a tension to it. What she sang about was dark, but it sounded up-beat.
Sometimes it worked the other way around – the words were uplifting, but the music that underscored them was moody.
But on her own, without Dave Stewart’s musical lift, Annie Lennox seemed to revel in darkness on every track of Diva, her 1992 full-length solo debut.
Compared by critics to Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry, yet much closer to the confessional power of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Diva is unfiltered pain made mainstream. The songs are a line-up of loss, regret, and loneliness.
“Take this gilded cage of pain, and set me free. Take this overcoat of shame, it never did belong to me” (Lennox’s lyrics from Diva’s penultimate track ‘The Gift’) became an anthem for everyone living with feelings of guilt.
Across the Grammy-winning long-form video for Diva, in addition to her jaded showgirl persona, Lennox inhabits angelic imagery – modern urban angel; traditional decorative angel; healing and restorative angel.
By year’s end she’d countered all that with her turn as a grief-stricken vampire in her contribution to the soundtrack of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Unlike Joni Mitchell and Carole King, Annie Lennox’s Diva masquerade was complex and complete.
Another solo album, Medusa (1995), a Eurythmics reunion, another world tour, and then, in 2002, a detailed biography followed, which as an ardent fan I received as a birthday present and devoured.
There, in all its unauthorised glory, was Lennox’s rise to fame laid bare. Her early false starts, her breakthroughs, her burgeoning solo career, her achievements as a human being apart from her fame and fortune, and something else … the revelation that despite all her fame, which bred more fame and more opportunity, Annie Lennox regularly couldn’t see her own creative achievements.
After all that success, Annie Lennox got depressed!
By then I was at an age when my creative ambitions had not been fulfilled, knowledge that came with the stark realisation that they may never be. Around me I witnessed the pain of addiction; the hope of recovery; and the competitive process as drama school colleagues jostled for power and influence. Some of us gave up at that time, or changed-tack, went overseas, or, like me, returned.
That one of my creative heroes, who’d achieved about as much as it’s possible to achieve in her field, still felt the same feelings of depression and frustration that she’d felt before she became famous, was a devastating thought.
For this fan, the angel did indeed have a tarnished halo.
But Annie Lennox had much, much further to go with her music. During her return to collaborating with Dave Stewart, there had been an intriguing hint of what was to come in one unassuming track on their 1999 album Peace.
‘I’ve Tried Everything’ became the supreme example of crashing Lennox lyrics given wings on Stewart’s composition. The song begins in the upper reaches of her register, builds slowly through the poetry of someone telling themselves what a loser they are, before meeting at the bridge, where Lennox chimes: “I should be cool, but I’m burning hot. I should be good, but I fell apart. Don’t look at me now, don’t even start, ‘cos I’ve tried everything, yeah I’ve tried everything …” before the duo drives the song home to its relentless, inexplicable finish, joy and pain intertwined to the strains of Annie backing herself, repeating “loser, loser, loser.”
I asked anyone who would listen what they thought this darkest of songs was about. Few had the self awareness or the guts to respond.
It wasn’t until Annie Lennox released another solo album in 2003 that she stripped away the masquerade completely, allowing us to see more of her journey in everything from lyrics torevelatory title: Bare.
The cover image references one of the most iconic photographs of the singer-songwriter – the sleeve shot of Eurythmics’ album Touch, released two decades prior. In the older image, Lennox sports her signature cropped carrot hair and bears her arms like a shield before her, wrists and palms together, a black mask framing her intense gaze.
On the cover of Bare, Lennox’s arms and wrists are similarly held together, and they draw the eye to her face, which bears no mask and is powdered to reveal the patina of age, eyes front, vulnerable not defiant. Despite the use of make-up, there is no hint of concealing the truth.
Lyrically, Bare is Lennox’s courageous right of reply about her mental health journey.
The opening lines of the first track: “Every day I write the list, of reasons why I still believe they do exist (a thousand beautiful things); and even though it’s hard to see the glass is full and not half empty (a thousand beautiful things),” set the scene for a deeper exploration than Lennox had ever publicly undertaken.
Sometimes she references well-worn mental health vocabulary (“tell it like it is, like it is, like it is ..”) and at others through desperate, lonely prayers (“Oh God, where are you now?”).
Lennox portrayed herself as nothing but human on Bare – there was no diva or angel, no music videos, only interviews in which she revealed that she was the photographer who shot her own cover image.
Appearing on Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, when he questioned Lennox about the nature of her crisis, she said, simply: “Listen to my album. You can hear about my crisis.”
It had taken half my lifetime to realise this real place was always where the essential darkness of Eurythmics came from, and their essential joy. Below the surface of the 1980s celebrity, the tarnish was always there, we just hadn’t seen it.