I have been reading Flight from the Brothers Grimm: A European-Australian memoir by Valerie Murray, published in 1916 by Books Unleashed. Valerie is the widow of the Australian poet, Les Murray, who died in April last year and of whom a fellow Australian poet, Clive James, wrote in tribute – with typical Jamesian stylistic flourish – “A million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I was there to watch when Les Murray erupted into the Australian literary scene.”
Valerie Murray’s memoir reminds one what the word “immigrant” can mean in practice as it affected one particular family which immigrated to Australia from Switzerland after the War, in flight from the post-war aftermath of the dark fairy tale that had been the Third Reich. Born in 1941, she, her parents and her younger brother left for Sydney in 1950. Readers today, in which children have to be watched over at all times in case of danger, will be astonished at the amount of freedom Valerie and her brother experienced in their childhood, often of necessity left at home alone while both their parents worked long hours to establish themselves in their new country.
The book was actually written in 2007, when both of Valerie’s parents had developed dementia, in order to record the past before it was lost. She writes that it was “an act of unburdening, of catharsis”, a way of preserving a past characterised by friendships, books, holiday jobs and the rituals and feasts of her Catholic faith. Unusually, Murray’s mother was not a Catholic and her father, originally from Hungary, did not practise his faith so the two children took themselves to Mass from a young age. Educated by the Presentation Order of nuns, Murray mentions with affection the sung Latin Mass and the personalities of the nuns she knew.
References to her marriage (1962) to Les come at the memoir’s end, when she writes of his great gift for words. Les, who converted in 1964, believed the chief influence for this was “the pure devotion of a loving wife.” Valerie conveys the enduring strength of their bond when she writes “I call him my husband, because for decades I have always done so. ‘Partner’ just doesn’t cut it. It is cold and smacks of pre-nuptial contracts and terminology that changes like any other fashion. We married too young to have anything except each other. We grew each other up as much as we were able to.”
The Murrays raised five children of whom one, Alex, was autistic, at a time when such a diagnosis was not forthcoming. In his poem “It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at Fifteen”, Les writes with great love, understanding and feeling for the difficulties Alex experienced as he was growing up (difficulties which would have caused his parents enormous heartache as they struggled to cope with his unpredictable behaviour). Calling Alex’s baleful, mystifying impairment “It”, Les writes “…He no longer hugs to disarm. It is gradually allowing him affection./It does not allow proportion. Distress is absolute,/ shrieking, and runs him at frantic speed through/crashing doors…”
I thank Karl Schmude, president of the Australian Chesterton Society and editor of its newsletter, The Defendant, a longstanding friend of the Murrays, for pointing me towards Valerie’s evocative memoir and her husband’s rich and robust poetry.
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