Geoffrey Lehmann – writer, poet and tax lawyer – has written his memoirs which he has entitled Leeward – A Memoir. Old Sydney is part of Lehmann’s identity – its harbour and its fringe dwelling neighbourhoods clinging to that view. But his poetry roams much further. Peter Goldsworthy, reviewing Lehmann’s Poems 1957-2013, wrote, “Poets, like mathematicians, often flower in their teens but can wilt all too soon thereafter. Lehmann was a freak early-bloomer but has continued to flower perennially.” To reflect on his family and the lives that at times haunt him, Geoffrey Lehmann addressed The Sydney Institute on Monday 25 February 2019
ARGUING WITH GHOSTS – THE UNSAFE FAMILY MEMOIR
When you have lived in the same city as I have for 78 years and lived nowhere else, the landscape is filled with ghosts. They crop up everywhere.
My wife Gail and I recently visited the house of a friend in Walker Street at the head of Lavender Bay, to watch the Luis Buñuel film Viridiana. I grew up on the McMahons Point side of Lavender Bay looking across at Luna Park, so I was immediately surrounded by ghosts.
In the 1880s, my German grandfather, a carpenter, built a house on stilts, Queenslander style, with a workshop underneath in Walker Street North Sydney. Walker Street in Lavender Bay is an extension of the same street. But it is now bisected by the Pacific Highway and a railway line, so it is chopped into two, like a lizard that has given up its tail. They are effectively two different streets joined only by a name.
When I was a child my aunt Agnes and her brother Carl were still living in my grandfather’s house in Walker Street (North Sydney as opposed to Walker Street Lavender Bay). By the 1940s, my grandfather’s house was falling apart, because my uncle Carl was a carpenter (like his father) and wouldn’t allow any other tradesmen to work on the house.
By the 1940s, my grandfather’s house was falling apart, because my uncle Carl was a carpenter (like his father) and wouldn’t allow any other tradesmen to work on the house.
The Walker Street house had a large sunken garden with a stream running through it, crossed by a small bridge resembling the bridge in Monet’s garden. There were fruit trees, bamboo, a spreading poplar, grape vines. For me as a child it was a magical place. In 1974 I acted for my aunt, then aged 90 on the sale of her house to a developer. She died the day after the sale was completed and the house was immediately demolished.
In the 1880s, when Walker Street was actually one street, my grandfather Johann Ernst could walk with his Welsh wife Annie, who had been a domestic servant before she married, on Sunday mornings down the road to attend a service at Christ Church, the Anglican Church in Walker Street at the head of Lavender Bay.
The church’s rector in 1891 had been Alfred Yarnold. He was the Secretary of the Australian Board of Mission which organised for the first Anglican mission to New Guinea in 1891. I imagine that some time in the early part of that year he preached a sermon talking about the need for workers to go on a mission to convert the heathen, and my grandfather was in the congregation and agreed to go. In August 1891, my carpenter grandfather began building the mission station at Dogura (which means cannibal battle ground in the Wedaun language).
I imagine that some time in the early part of that year he preached a sermon talking about the need for workers to go on a mission to convert the heathen, and my grandfather was in the congregation and agreed to go.
A couple of months later he contracted malaria and died the day after he got back to Walker Street (North Sydney). His doctor upbraided my grandmother Annie, for trying to keep her husband alive. She should have let him die in peace, she was told. But Annie had four very small children and she was pregnant with my father Leo who was born a few months later.
Alfred Yarnold and Frederick Felton, the hardware store owner who founded the company that later became Nock & Kirby, were the witnesses on Johann Ernst Lehmann’s death certificate. My grandmother Annie was given some money by the Anglican church. But when she wrote asking for more, Alfred Yarnold wrote back saying, “I received your letter this morning and I regret very much that you were so unwise as to write it.”
In this way, the family of a pious carpenter became unbelievers. His eldest daughter Agnes was not educated beyond primary school level and worked most of her life in a steam laundry, but became a proud member of the Rationalists Society. This fact was unknown to me as a child, as my family never discussed religion.
In this way, the family of a pious carpenter became unbelievers.
We regarded ourselves as typical Protestants – the essence of Protestantism was that you were wholesome and tolerated every sort of religious belief except Catholicism. There were basically two religions. On the one side there were the Protestants – they included Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and so on, but also Jews, atheists, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists as well. They were all Protestants. Then on the other side there was the second religion: the Roman Catholics.
So it was, that as a child, I was sent to Anglican schools, the first being Church of England Preparatory School Mosman (Mosman Prep) and later to Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). My headmaster at Mosman Prep was A. H. Yarnold, otherwise famous as “Tibby” Yarnold. No one in my family seemed to notice that “Tibby” had the same surname as Alfred Yarnold who had lured my grandfather on the mission to New Guinea then witnessed his death certificate. In fact “Tibby” was Alfred Yarnold’s son.
No one in my family seemed to notice that “Tibby” had the same surname as Alfred Yarnold who had lured my grandfather on the mission to New Guinea then witnessed his death certificate.
Although Yarnold Senior was one of the malign actors in my paternal family history, Tibby his son turned out to be my first great benefactor. In my final year at Mosman Prep, he gave me and another boy special tuition in Latin in the hope that we would get scholarships to Shore, which we did not get, and he inspired in me a great love of ancient mythology, giving me as a prize Guerber’s Myths of Greece and Rome. He also said to me, “When you get to Shore, make sure that you study ancient Greek.”
Tibby and I never discussed my grandfather and the obscure connection we had. He was by then in his late seventies and I was a callow 11-year-old. I was certainly unaware of the link and I have since wondered whether he was aware of it – that I was the German carpenter’s grandson.
In 1952, when I started at Shore, I said, “I want to study Greek.” They said, “We don’t teach Greek, but we do teach German.” So, I thought, “Why not? German was my grandfather’s language.” In this way, I became a student of German, and the poetry of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke became one of the great loves of my life. So, I became a German scholar because I wanted to learn Greek – one of life’s many accidents. A few months ago, I translated 50 of Rilke’s rhymed poems into rhymed English and I’ll read one of these poems at the end of this talk.
So, I became a German scholar because I wanted to learn Greek – one of life’s many accidents.
When Gail and I were on our way to the Buñuel film, I noticed the greenery around Christ Church Lavender Bay was much lusher than when I was a child. As well as being the church where my grandfather’s funeral was held, this was the church where my sister was baptised in 1936 when she was a few months old by the Reverend Dr Frank Cash – the Reverend Alfred Yarnold having joined the saints in heaven. Four years later, I was born in the depth of winter when World War II was raging, and my parents somehow forgot to get me baptised.
I clung tenaciously to this unbaptised status, which I saw as a great asset, a form of religious virginity, and I always rejected any suggestion that I go to Sunday School. One afternoon at the age of ten I was looking out of the dusty window of an old fibro laundry at the sky. It was my last year of living in McMahons Point. I was wondering whether a cloud would go across the sun.
I forget now whether the cloud passing over the sun meant there was, or was not, a God. I did not wait to see what happened. I decided I did not need a cloud to help make up my mind. There was no God. I had now joined that denomination of Protestants who call themselves atheists. In fact, I was following a family tradition without realising it.
I forget now whether the cloud passing over the sun meant there was, or was not, a God. I did not wait to see what happened. I decided I did not need a cloud to help make up my mind. There was no God.
Some moralists of the old school say that atheism is glib, divorce is an exercise in self-indulgence, and the decision to undergo an abortion is capricious and no different from murder.
These moralists may have good intentions. But I think it is glib to say people are glib about such decisions. Sometimes we come to a critical fork in the road and we see two paths ahead, as in the Robert Frost poem “The road not taken”. When we choose, few of us take the decision lightly.
Michael Kirby, when he launched this book a few weeks ago, talked about the enormous pain he experienced as a young man, when he realised he was homosexual and decided to act on this. As a child it was enormously painful for me realising I was an atheist. Before that decision there was the possibility of Some One Up There, even if it was just a possibility. Afterwards there was No One, with a capital N.
As a child it was enormously painful for me realising I was an atheist.
Becoming an atheist at the age of ten was not something I talked about. At Mosman Prep at the end of the year I was chosen to read the lesson from the Bible to the assembled parents and boys and the regular congregation at St Clements Mosman on Sunday morning. I told no one I was an atheist and was proud to read from the scripture with all the enthusiasm my boy soprano voice could muster to a congregation of several hundred adults and children.
So far, I have talked about my paternal ghosts. They are the usual mixed bag that most of us have in our family. Yes, there was tragedy, but somehow they survived and made a go of it. I have no argument with any of them.
But for most of my life I have had an argument with my maternal ghosts. These ghosts from my mother’s side of the family have made Leeward an unsafe memoir. My argument began when I was either ten, or perhaps eleven years old. We had just moved from Lavender Bay, then a slum area, to Gordon in Sydney’s North Shore, a far more respectable middle class suburb where my mother Iris was no longer ashamed to live.
For most of my life I have had an argument with my maternal ghosts. These ghosts from my mother’s side of the family have made Leeward an unsafe memoir
In my first ten years, my mother had been my great supporter. She gave me books to read, she encouraged a love of classical music and opera and plants. (My father loved botany also, in a rather more discriminating way than my mother, despite his more rudimentary reading.) But until the age of ten I was a mother’s boy. She even said to me one day, “You should become a lawyer and a writer.” Years later I dutifully followed the instructions she gave me as a child.
But in 1951 all of this changed. As I said, we had just moved to Gordon. Next door there was a girl called Helen – that was her name and I hope she is still alive. She was the same age as me – ten or eleven – and we were both extremely innocent. We started playing together. We just talked and ran around as children do. I don’t remember what we did, but we both greatly enjoyed each other’s company. I thought this was wonderful. I was at an all boys’ school. I had never known a girl of my own age. Our friendship was as exciting as the moment when I found I could swim by myself in deep water.
One day I came home from school and my mother had a grim announcement for me. She said: “You’re not to play with that girl next door. And I’ve told her mother that too.”
One day I came home from school and my mother had a grim announcement for me. She said: “You’re not to play with that girl next door. And I’ve told her mother that too.”
I was stunned. I never spoke to Helen again, although we often passed in the street in the years to come. I was an obedient child. But I had come to a fork in the road. I began walking down a road away from my mother. I never looked back.
Even at that age I partly understood why my mother acted as she did. I do not remember when I first heard the full story of her childhood from her, but I may have been ten or eleven when she first told me.
In 1906 at the age of ten my mother, her brothers and sister and their mother had just been reunited with William George Rainer, their father in Eidsvold, a remote gold mining town in Queensland. William Rainer had become the town’s resident medical officer. They had not seen him for about nine months. A short while after this reunion, my mother heard her two parents arguing. The following morning my mother found her father dead on a couch in his white silk suit, as she put it. He had died from a morphine overdose.
The following morning my mother found her father dead on a couch in his white silk suit, as she put it. He had died from a morphine overdose.
That was the central fact in my mother’s life and why she was afraid of life and could not bear the thought of my being friendly with the girl next door. She wanted to possess me. She was uninterested in the man she had married – my father Leo. I was to replace her lost father and perhaps an elder brother whom she had lost in World War I. It was not a role that I wanted, but it was thrust upon me.
Wallace Stevens in “Esthétique du Mal” wrote:
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel.
My mother did not live in a physical world. She was one of the non-physical people. I think I was one of them also, until I was about 35. I finally escaped at the end of my first marriage, yet another painful fork in the road, where a choice had to be made.
One of my reasons for writing Leeward was to check the precise chronology of the events in 1906 and my mother’s later life – to resolve my argument with ghosts. What I discovered became a terrible indictment of my maternal grandmother Isabella Mooney (who liked calling herself “Bella”, although she was known to her family as “Belle”). I now believe Bella’s wilfulness drove William to suicide.
One of my reasons for writing Leeward was to check the precise chronology of the events in 1906 and my mother’s later life – to resolve my argument with ghosts.
As a child I used to hear about William Rainer’s alcoholism and his occasional taking of morphine. This caused him to move from one medical practice to another, until his bad habits caught up with him yet again. That was my mother’s version, which she had received from her mother. It was true in many respects. Despite all this, my mother loved her unreliable father passionately. But was he the only one at fault?
I have only one letter written by William. It is in a clear modest handwriting, unlike the chaotic and swashbuckling script of Bella, which is hard to decipher. In it he asks her succinctly and warmly to rejoin him with the children. He had now moved to Eidsvold, the people liked him there, he had good prospects and he thought she would enjoy it once she got used to it. He was a realist. He realised Eidsvold might seem unattractive at first – very rough and ready. The letter is clear and rational. I have some of his clinical notes from that period – again clear and methodical. He had survived in Eidsvold for several months with nothing untoward apparently happening. Yet within six days of Bella arriving he was dead from an overdose of morphine.
I think it is clear to me now – perhaps clearer than when I wrote Leeward – that this was suicide. Bella told William she did not like the idea of life in Eidsvold. He had run out of options and so he overdosed.
I think it is clear to me now – perhaps clearer than when I wrote Leeward – that this was suicide.
Bella’s subsequent history is woven from the same substance. She was mad about kings and queens and dukes and duchesses. She kept massive books of cuttings about the lives of the aristocracy, while sending her children off to work – my mother to a sewing factory, her eldest son to work as an agricultural labourer in Gippsland, while she remained at home and cut out newspaper stories about the rich and famous and checked their genealogies in her Whittaker’s Peerage. I had this book once and threw it out in disgust.
Some time in the late 1920s or early 1930s, Bella uprooted my mother from the life they had been living together in Melbourne, and they moved to Sydney. The reason Bella did this, was that her eldest surviving son Billy had moved to Sydney, and Bella could not bear to let him escape. As a result, my mother was torn away from another brother and a sister and their children, who remained in Melbourne, and also numerous cousins and friends. My mother’s social isolation in Sydney, which was engineered by Bella, may have been why my mother married my father, a man she did not love. In my mother’s words, she married my father Leo because he was “safe”. Safety was not something she had as a child or had from her own mother.
My mother’s social isolation in Sydney, which was engineered by Bella, may have been why my mother married my father, a man she did not love.
In writing the memoirs I became aware of a final act of bastardy by Bella. When I was born, my sister Diana was four and a half years old, and reasonably easy for a woman in her mid-seventies to look after during the day, while my father was at work. Diana was a practical and compliant child. Bella lived in a flat just a few blocks away from my parents. My father probably paid Bella’s rent. Bella was not senescent. She loved playing the piano. I can remember her playing it when I was a child. But it seems she did not offer to help when I was born. Instead, Diana was sent off to a children’s home for several weeks while my mother, who was turning 45 recovered in a hospital from the birth. My sister remembered this abandonment for the rest of her life but did not seem to realise it was Bella’s fault.
In Buñuel’s film Viridiana, which Gail and I saw at our friend’s house in Lavender Bay, the blonde and beautiful novice nun Viridiana tortures herself with a crown of thorns. She then gives up the idea of taking vows and becomes the benefactress of a group of beggars. But she is still, to quote Wallace Stevens, one of the “non-physical people”. Viridiana’s beggars break into a great chateau, owned by Viridiana and her cousin. They stage a dance resembling Da Vinci’s Last Supper while the Handel’s Hallelujah chorus is playing from a record player, and Viridiana arrives unexpectedly on the scene. When one of the beggars tries to rape her, she comes to her senses.
In the final scene her handsome cousin, to whom she is attracted, asks her to join him and his mistress in a game of cards, as Ashley Beaumont is singing “Shimmy Doll” – again from a record player. Viridiana hesitantly accepts, at last joining the physical world. A menage a trois is implied.
Viridiana hesitantly accepts, at last joining the physical world. A menage a trois is implied.
After the screening of Viridiana my hosts suggested that on a future visit we may do a little bit of archaeological investigation further down the hill to see if we could discover the footings of the house “Leeward”, which was the house where I was born, and was on the shoreline at the head of Lavender Bay and burned to the ground in the late 1940s.
I said earlier in this talk I would finish by reading one of my recent translations from Rilke, a poem called “The Garden of Olives”.
Rilke himself did not fully live in the physical world. He vacillated about it, and Jesus, one of the non-physical people, is one of Rilke’s alter egos. The poem begins with Jesus, climbing the Mount of Olives and desperate, as he comes up into the olive grove. In the second verse he starts speaking. I’ll indicate this by signing some inverted commas in the air. I’ll make more signs for inverted commas when ten lines later Jesus stops speaking.
After Jesus stops speaking, Rilke in his own voice refers to scripture, which claims that an angel came to Jesus in the olive grove. But did an angel come? Rilke suggests the scriptures are wrong. No angel came. It was just an ordinary night. In fact, angels would not be interested in visiting a selfless person like Jesus. The final, electrifying lines still jump out of the page more than 100 years later, and some translators omit the last shocking line.
But did an angel come? Rilke suggests the scriptures are wrong. No angel came. It was just an ordinary night.
Rilke’s poem, published in 1907, is one of the greatest of the twentieth century, and is as brutal as Buñuel’s Viridiana 50 years later. But there is a difference. The novice Viridiana, who is played by the famous Mexican film actress Silvia Pinal, is never more than attractive blonde flesh and blood. (Pinal, still alive now in her late eighties, has been married and divorced four times and had four children.)
The Jesus of Rilke’s poem is a perfect human being. He may lose his belief, but he keeps his faith. He is transcendent. That is a message for all of us.
The Garden of Olives
So he walked up under the grey leaves, now
quite desperate and grey in those dry lands,
and exhausted rested his dust-streaked brow,
cupping it in his hot and dusty hands.
“After everything, this. And this, the end.
I must go now, although the way is blind,
and why do You command I must pretend
that You exist, You whom I cannot find.
“I cannot find You. No, not on my own,
and not where others go. Not in this stone.
I cannot find you. Now I am alone.
“Alone with all the suffering which I came
to lighten, bringing comfort in Your name,
You who do not exist. Oh nameless shame . . .”
Later, or so it’s said, an angel came –.
But why an angel? What came was the night,
and rustled through the olives unconcerned.
The disciples slept and sometimes one turned.
It was, when it came, a quite ordinary night.
Nights like this happen everywhere.
Dogs sleep and stones lie there,
and the man praying could be anyone
waiting for the morning sun.
The angels do not answer such a prayer.
Such nights are hardly big enough for them.
The selfless ones will find no rest or room.
They are the sons that fathers will condemn;
and mothers will eject them from the womb.
The selfless ones will find no rest or room.