The articles in this collection, written between 2009 and 2015, have one thing in common: courage. I am not referring to the guts it takes to climb Mount Everest (although there is one amazing climbing feat in one of these stories), I mean something that runs deep in the soul and can be drawn on to face moments in life as significant as conquering a mountain.
‘Pluck’ is a bit of an old-fashioned word, one you might notice in a 19th century novel or a genteel play, used to describe a person who does something unusually brave, or lives their life in a manner that sets them apart.
For me, the word is slightly pejorative, in that calling someone ‘plucky’ pigeonholes them as a certain type, the same way that descriptors like ‘tomboy’ and ‘pansy’ signal something only fractionally better than other words we might not use in ‘polite’ company.
Chronologically, the earliest of these articles was Grit & Gentility, an analysis of the amazing voyage undertaken by one of Australia’s pioneer settler families, the Pitts. My inspiration was Germaine Greer’s study of Ann Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Wife, where a whole life needed to be drawn in the absence of primary sources. To bring Mary Pitt into focus, I took the small amount of evidence about her, and used a contemporary tool – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – as a shortcut to Georgian sensibilities around marriage.
While editing and writing for Blue Mountains Life magazine, I instigated a two-year cycle of writing about women who’d had an impact on the region’s cultural heritage, or been impacted by it. This research allowed me to explore a region I had more than thirty years’ association with, and led to pieces on the famous, such as Nellie Melba; unsung media pioneers like Beryl Guertner; and explorers like Katie Webb who had been relatively sidelined.
Many of the people in these articles are those whose work I admire, and whose lives I analysed for times where they needed to engage a little pluck, and got a very bad name in the process. Judy Davis’ ‘difficult’ tag, particularly while shooting her first international role in A Passage to India, has rarely been analysed in the context of a young performer facing-off an older director, and was another early piece of writing that led to others in a similar vein, particularly about female performers, of which there are many in Pluck.
There has long been a scarcity of writing about Australia’s great ‘pink expats’ – the likes of costume designer Orry-Kelly and writer Sumner Locke Elliott – simply because they left our shores and barely registered as Australians. I have sought to reconnect them with their homeland and look at how far their courage took them. I also wrote on another Australian icon, Matthew Flinders, to shift the perspective from his sexuality to the homophobia he may have been subjected to, and how that discrimination still preys on Australian men two centuries later, when considering the coming out of Ian Thorpe.
Writers also feature heavily in this collection, and my ongoing fascination with literary reputations damaged by snobby naysayers, such as that of Shakespeare; but also how oeuvres are formed, in the case of Agatha Christie and the clues I found to her infamous disappearance.
Scattered throughout are various people who are not famous, but are notable for the courage they drew on when faced with emotional challenges.
Looking at this collection, I am reminded that in 2009, after years of waiting for someone else’s permission, or for validation that was never going to come, I determined to make writing my primary focus as an artist, a leap of faith that felt more than a little plucky.
Pluck begins and ends with E. M. Forster. My inspiration is always his courageous writing legacy, and what he left to generations of gay writers in his wake.
AFTER spending most of the 1990s living in England, I returned with my husband in the spring of 2014. As soon as we arrived, I navigated while Richard drove us across the Thames and out of London towards Surrey.
Once we crossed the M25, we were swallowed by the high hedgerows of the Hackhurst Downs, before dropping into the village of Abinger Hammer in search of one very hallowed place for this writer.
The region boasts two famous former residents: actor Prunella Scales (Sybil in Fawlty Towers) and the author Edward Morgan ‘E. M.’ Forster (1879-1970).
“Forster’s problem was not inspiration, but rather that he’d come to terms with his sexuality and had been putting it into practice.”
I first encountered his novels at school, although it took reaching the age of forty-four to fully understand him. My life had taken various ‘Forsterian’ turns in the interim, and I had a new appreciation of why he penned barely a word of fiction for the four decades after moving to Abinger Hammer in the wake of his bestselling 1924 publication A Passage to India.
Forster’s public explanation was that he’d had enough of writing politically-light novels like A Room with a View and Howard’s End, although after the private experiment of his gay romance Maurice – which crucial gay friends unfairly criticised – and several controversies of gay literature breaching the criminal code, none of his gay-themed writing saw the light of day until after his death in 1970, the year of my birth.
Moving to a genteel Surrey village ought to have been a source of inspiration, but it left Forster in a career limbo at the age of forty-four, living with his elderly mother Lily.
The pair found a hopeful new start to their codependency when they moved to an Abinger property – West Hackhurst – designed and built decades before by Forster’s architect father.
The Forsters already had connections in the region, notably the Farrers of Abinger Hall, an estate from which West Hackhurst had been hived off on a sixty-year lease, which allowed Forster’s Aunt Laura to see out her days there. The remainder of the tenancy she left to her nephew.
Before moving in, Forster made inquiries with Tom, Lord Farrer, who agreed that should Mrs Forster still be alive when the lease expired in 1937, an extension would be granted to cover the remainder of her life.
“My installation at West Hackhurst was indeed depressing. I had feelings of misgiving and imprisonment,” Forster wrote. “The Farrers apart, it was too female a house. I had always had to fit in there, and now I felt trapped in its ovary, and would climb to the top of the downs, and look longingly towards industrialism and London.”
Forster’s problem was not inspiration, but rather that he’d come to terms with his sexuality and had been putting it into practice. Surrey was altogether too straightlaced, and the threat of discovery – by Lily, or the police – was greater outside the city.
But he had rooms in London, and with the Gomshall railway station only minutes’ walk from West Hackhurst through a small forest and across an empty field, Forster was happy to compromise with ongoing maternal cohabitation.
Until this escape route of his came under threat.
The appearance of workmen digging in the forest alerted him, and he made immediate inquiries with the vendor, who revealed a potential housing development. So too did Lord Farrer, who honourably allowed Forster first refusal on the small block known as Piney Copse, slotted between farms, homes, and the railway.
The American royalties of A Passage to India gave Forster the purchasing power to cover the 450-pound settlement.
While ruminating on the practical and philosophical concerns of land ownership, he made a few attempts to beautify his forest, planting beech trees and discouraging oak seedlings, which he despised as too patriotically English, and settled into comfortable inter-war life in the village. Meanwhile, he secretly started the significant relationship of his life, with London policeman Bob Buckingham.
But around the same time as the threat of Nazism began to rise beyond Germany’s borders, another war was waged at Abinger Hammer. Forster inadvertently started it when he made inquiries with Lord Farrer about extending the lease.
“I got so fidgety that I could not wait the full time,” he wrote, “and it was in 1935 that I reminded him of his promise, and played my usual card about my mother’s age.”
Friendship had not flourished between the neighbours, and the Forsters stewed on it. Perhaps they were considered ‘staff’, since Lily had been a governess to Farrer children decades before? Or perhaps Lord Farrer was still piqued at missing out on purchasing Piney Copse?
It’s likely, since he made its future a stipulation of Mrs Forsters’ residence beyond 1937, when lawyers communicated she could stay for the duration of her life, but only in exchange for ownership of Forster’s forest.
“I was to give up my beloved wood, the one Surrey object that had roots in my heart,” Forster wrote.
He moved quickly to take Piney Copse out of the equation by leaving it to the National Trust in his will, purposely choosing an organisation the Farrers could not object to, since Lord Farrer sat on the committee.
These angry reactions were the opposite of Forster’s regular, more tempered appearances in BBC Radio broadcasts, which became the mainstay of his self expression and fame after 1929. His popular WWII talks on fear, identity and faith got him onto Hitler’s hit list at the same time as he was doing battle with the Farrers over land, leases and access.
Lily Forster died in the closing months of the war, and the Farrers moved quickly to reclaim West Hackhurst. Forster’s heart, and his home, were broken when he left in a painful separation we’d now call a mid-life crisis.
The first time I followed these stories to Piney Copse twenty years ago, there were no signposts and the whole block was so overgrown it was impossible to take a decent photograph.
I was there on a location recce, having started the process of producing a film of Forster’s 1909 short story Other Kingdom.
“It’s not Forster’s art that runs deepest at Piney Copse, it’s his life.”
The setting of his allegorical tale was a beech forest adjacent to a genteel home, with leases and fences and local battles over land ownership, and a pivotal escape route for a troubled protagonist. I had a suspicion Forster’s ownership of West Hackhurst and Piney Copse was a case of life imitating art.
The house was still visible from within the beech thicket. Walking the fence line, I got an up-close glimpse of the old place, which seemed uninhabited.
It would have served ideally as the location for a film. House and forest came in one package in a very quiet neighbourhood, and the building was just ramshackle enough to have benefitted from the attention of a film crew.
But art imitating life imitating art was all too hard to communicate to funding bodies, and my project fell over, although I could never quite shake the memory of Forster’s forest.
I started to read his non-fiction more widely, and with the publication of his diaries in 2011, including his searing account of the war over Piney Copse under the ironic title ‘West Hackhurst: A Surrey Ramble’, a clearer picture emerged of the deep hurt at his removal from Abinger Hammer, wrapped-up as it was in his mother’s death, his long-dead father’s memory, and his thwarted sense of place, at a time when it was impossible to live openly as a gay man.
I finally realised it’s not Forster’s art that runs deepest at Piney Copse, it’s his life.
He never wrote fiction again, and left his entire body of work to the place that took him in after his flight from his father’s house – King’s College Cambridge.
His forest of trees – unprocessed novels in their rawest, elemental form – was wired-up on his departure in 1946. I am not sure if he ever visited the place again.
On my return visit to Piney Copse in 2014, Richard and I parked at Abinger Hammer and navigated on foot. Away from the main road, which must have been perilous for pedestrians even in 1920s, we hit a muddy track that seemed to go in the right direction, and soon a National Trust sign showed itself on the western boundary.
A train slid by on its way to London, and we took shelter beneath the spreading beeches as heavy raindrops started to fall.
Transformed by care, Piney Copse is now closer to Forster’s vision of an egalitarian, shared England. Gates and stiles freely give way to a depth of greenery that shuts off the real world.
A shower closed in quickly, coating Forster’s beloved beech leaves. There was light enough that the tresses of foliage held that glow I had travelled the globe to experience in person, again. In a few minutes I had explored this tiny patch of England, heart filled with hope, as rich as a boy’s.
Foster’s forest grows on, exempt from the machinations of people and economies, just as he would have liked.
Richard was waiting for me on the other side of the gate, and we peered along the drive for a glimpse of West Hackhurst, now restored and inhabited, before tracing our way along farm roads, past ancient fields and the place where the ‘honourable’ Farrers’ Abinger Hall once stood, long since demolished in the wash-up of another of England’s old families.
Foreheads wet from the sun showers, and baptism over, we took tea back at Abinger Hammer, in a world changing faster for gay men than Forster could ever have imagined.
WHEN Agatha Christie abandoned her car by a quarry in Surrey late on December 3, 1926, she couldn’t have imagined igniting a mystery so intriguing it is still being dissected a century later.
Married society girls did not walk alone at night, no matter how capable. They certainly were not expected to disappear, which is exactly what Mrs Christie did that evening.
Was the whole event a publicity stunt, or a nervous breakdown brought on by Archie’s request for a divorce on the day of her disappearance? The 36-year-old English author appeared on the cover of The New York Times only days after her green Morris Cowley was discovered. Police mobilised multiple counties into a hunt for the crime writer – or her body – while an international press pack pursued Agatha’s husband Archie.
Books, films and articles have explored everything between these two extremes, but the seeds of Agatha Christie’s escape may well have been planted years before.
The first way to understand the incident is to apply a bit of context.
Agatha Christie the ‘Queen of Crime’ did not exist in 1926. After serving their country in World War One – Agatha as a voluntary nurse, Archie in the Flying Corps – the couple produced a daughter and settled into civilian life.
“I had written three books, was happily married, and my heart’s desire was to live in the country …” Agatha wrote in her autobiography, “and then something completely unforeseen came up.”
This was an offer for the couple to join delegates on a ‘grand tour’ of the world while drumming up participation for the British Empire Exhibition.
In June, 1922, on a weekend escape from meeting dignitaries, Archie and Agatha made a dash to Australia’s largest cave system – Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains of NSW.
Agatha wrote home about the one-night trip to the remote holiday resort. “So we started in style, much to Archie’s annoyance. He hates motoring in the cold, and much prefers going by train any day,” she guilelessly joked, indicating it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“Our car went well until we started climbing miles from anywhere when it proceeded to turn nasty. We induced it to go on for a bit but it broke down about six times and eventually we arrived at the Jenolan Caves at 6pm instead of 2.30, freezing cold and dead tired.
“After a meal we were taken as a ‘special party’ around the Orient Cave which is supposed to be the best. It really is wonderful, you go for two miles through the bowels of the earth, up and down steps (1500 in all – and you know it the next morning!) twisting in and out through labyrinths and coming to the different chambers.
“We were up early the next morning and did some of the open air caves. The Hotel (or Cave House as it is called) is right in the heart of the mountains.
“They rise up all round it, and to get to it the road zig zags down and seems to end, but really it is a great natural arch through the mountain itself.
“We had to start back at 2 o’clock unfortunately. I could have spent a week there quite happily.”
This and countless other letters languished in family hands for ninety years until they were published in 2012 by the Christies’ grandson Matthew Prichard, revealing glimpses of the marriage that crumbled so swiftly less than four years after the tour.
Settling back into their home life a second time saw a typical divide quickly develop. Her burgeoning writing career kept Agatha in the city and his struggle to get a foothold in the corporate world drew Archie away from it to the Christie’s Berkshire home and its adjacent golf course.
Into this fertile ground came a rival for Archie’s affections – a younger woman called Nancy Neele – who worked as a clerk in London but frequented the same country house parties as the couple.
A trial separation and reconciliation ensued, until Archie’s December, 1926, divorce demand.
When Agatha ran from her marital home on the back of such life-changing news, dumped the car and walked to a nearby railway station, she slipped back into holiday mode and headed for a place just like Jenolan Caves – a classic resort in the Belle Époque tradition.
The name she used to check into Harrogate’s Swan Hotel – Teresa Neele – not only bore the surname of Archie’s mistress, but her fictitious character was from South Africa.
In a sense, she killed-off her old life with that fake signature, as surely as she would have if she’d put her foot down and stayed longer at Jenolan Caves.
“The fiction that began when Agatha signed the hotel register was only just beginning.”
Agatha’s Harrogate holiday lasted slightly longer than the week she yearned for at Jenolan. When a band member took a punt and identified her, the eleven-day ruse was over. Archie hurried to Yorkshire to collect his wife, who, it was announced to the press, was suffering a bout of amnesia.
Reality closed in fast. A year later the Christies divorced and Archie married Nancy.
But the fiction that began when Agatha signed the hotel register was only just beginning. She entered a cycle of imagination that would transform her career, and as she began to polish her oeuvre, she was far from settling on her primary detectives.
By the time of Agatha’s disappearance, many of her famous sleuths had been created – Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and regulars Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, Inspector Japp and Arthur Hastings.
Marriage over, Christie’s experimentation continued, with spinster Miss Marple’s appearance in a 1927 short story collection. Two single young female detectives were trialled in the early 1930s. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s mystery author alter-ego, married but with no husband to account for, also appeared. Harley Quin got a run, as did another detective by the name of Parker Pyne.
Parker Pyne Investigates is a rumination on troubled marriages, kicking off with The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, in which a husband runs around with a mistress called Nancy – a clear reference to the new Mrs Christie – leaving his wife to seek help from Mr Pyne to win him back.
Christie turns the focus onto Archie in The Case of the Discontented Husband, where a different couple is challenged by his love of golf and hers of the arts.
Parker Pyne’s common sense marriage advice is so benign it suggests Agatha had undergone some kind of counselling after her disappearance, or at least listened to loved ones about what she may have contributed to the demise of her marriage.
Agatha’s confidante may well have been her new love Max Mallowan. The couple married in 1930 after meeting while she was on another holiday, this time at Mesopotamian dig in modern-day Iraq.
After joining Mallowan’s digs throughout the Middle East, trains, boats, islands, archaeological digs and isolated resorts emerged with indelible force in Christie’s work, replacing the stately homes, villages, and coastal towns she’d limited herself to.
Readers can see the transformation taking place across the Parker Pyne collection, in which Agatha Christie combined exotic locations with marriage fallouts, but it made for pleasant distraction more than gripping crime drama, and was possibly not enough to placate her damaged heart.
It wasn’t until she located an array of scheming lovers – with no patience for divorce – right within her great ‘destination crime’ cycle that she found the winning combination.
These shameless paramours do away with hapless wives far from home, but they never quite get away with it. Christie delivers justice in the form of a funny little Belgian with a penchant for travel, and forever challenges her readers to guess who life’s real villains are.
The author who never had an exotic honeymoon when she married Archie Christie on the eve of war had finally flown the coop for good, and in doing so she became the Queen of Crime.