1937 – that’s before we had emails or Skype. But there was the phone. And you could make international calls. But it was a very different business from today. You might like this story of a 23 year old woman calling her family in an Australian country town from her digs in London. See in stories, on website, helentown.com.au
Okay, she’s a pretty wrinkly nude, but I did her in the one minute warm-up at the Arthouse Hotel in Pitt Street Sydney where they have Life Drawing sessions every Monday. (Fantastic value if you like to draw!) I go as often as I can. One night there was a guy sitting next to me who was basically just drawing the breasts of the model – very intently.I asked him if he was practicing breasts and he said “No”. Breasts were just what he liked to draw. He was a lovely guy, a little embarrassed about his breast fixation, but open about it too. We chatted a while and I said I think everyone is interested in breasts – men, women and children. He said he was rather more interested than most people..
I guess you’d call that a fetish. It got me thinking that often we regard fetishes as disgusting, violent, or somehow not normal. They are the most normal thing in the world, but sometimes they can interfere with others things. I used the character and the idea in the Laughing Club.
I love the writer James Thurber. He was a great short story writer, a brilliant cartoonist and a dog lover. I started reading him when I was just a kid in the 1950s and 60s. He’s a laugh out loud writer, but there’s always a poignant strand in his stories. He worked for the New Yorker as a writer and cartoonist for most of his career, but produced many books and anthologies. Reading his work now, I’m sometimes aware of racism, sexism and snobbery, but it was very much of that time – he died in 1962. However he was always an astute and hilarious observer of human nature. Also a wonderful observer of the animal world, especially dogs.
In my story, “The Laughing Club” I named the dog Thurber – a tiny tribute to a fantastic writer.
I like the idea of Indian laughing clubs, but I go to actual comedy events to get my laughs. Both laughing clubs and comedy gigs come into this story. The germ of the story came from me going to the Roxbury Hotel comedy nights. The Roxbury is in Glebe, in Sydney, in Australia, where there’s usually a showcase for new comics.
The story took off from there. Lots of comedy is about unsuccessful relationships, unsuccessful sex. People identify – we’ve all been there, or at least most of us have. That means the audience identifies with the comic and we laugh. (You do wonder about people who haven’t been there, don’t you? Perhaps they’re insensitive or worse, they are extraordinarily beautiful and sensitive people)
But sometimes, I sense that for the comic, and maybe for the audience, it’s more than a laugh, it is actually tragic and very painful. So this story looks at all of that.
But the story isn’t tragic. It has an almost happy ending.
Crazy for Daphne is a short story set in the Baby Boomer era. Read it here. It’s a little girl’s view of her much loved uncle’s romance with Daphne, who arrives in the family with fake pearls and long red nails.
It was a time when Australians saw themselves as egalitarian, and seemed to be a white bread, homogenous society. No sex before marriage, no fast women, no cheating men, no foreign food, no queers and God Save the Queen. Of course, human passions being as they are, there were fast women, sex before marriage, fake pearls and the rest.
I told the story from a child’s point of view because I wanted the naivety of that view as well as showing the deep passion of a child. In many ways, the post war period of the 50s and 60s in Australia was wonderful, but there was a dark underbelly of prejudice and intolerance.
Lizzie, the child, isn’t me, but I identify with the confusion of the child who feels too much. Lots of children felt that way, which is maybe why we became hippies and took our clothes off and danced naked. Maybe our parents’ ambiguous attitude to class and difference later made us look at society in a different way.
But there’s a sweet naivety about the 1950’s, a sense of a nation growing up, or perhaps trying to be grown up. That’s part of what I try to convey in this story too.
This is a story based on an urban myth. When someone first told it to me, I thought it was true. I began to think about it, the characters acquiring personalities and quirks, taking up quite a lot of my head space. Then, I discovered the story I’d been told was an urban myth. I wondered if it was valid to base a short story on an urban myth. But using an urban myth is as valid as stealing someone’s true life story – in fact, probably more valid. Writers of fiction are generally principled people, but most of us steal (adapt?) other people’s stories at one time or another.
An urban myth isn’t a bad start for a short story. An urban myths has a beginning, a climax, a resolution, which is all good. But generally, they’re sketchy, without real characters or depth. Seeing I liked these characters who were taking over my mind, and since they were already augmenting the urban myth, it felt like a very good basis for a story, although whether I’ll make a habit of it, I don’t know. Probably not.
So this is a story with humour, characters, a beginning, a middle and an end, and a black labrador. I’m a great fan of labradors, but mine is a blonde. Thanks to Charlie for posing for this post. I asked him to look rueful and he does.