In the opening lines of Solly’s Girl: a memoir, the author is wearing a Pierre Balmain copy wedding dress as she rides pillion on a Lambretta named La Cigale (the cicada) behind her “skinny Australian” through the icy streets of London. Straight away, we know this is no ordinary girl. Her name is Ros Collins and she is someone destined for an extraordinary life of bucking trends and taking adventurous paths.
I first heard from Ros, in response to a review I wrote of a collection of short stories by her late husband Alan Collins. I wrote at the time that I could easily have imagined myself sharing a glass of wine and a few tall stories with Alan, a writer described by Arnold Zable as a classic Australian yarn spinner. My disappointment at never having met Alan was assuaged by my first meeting with Ros when, joined by Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers who brought along a very fine bottle of bubbly, we clinked our glasses in a joyous toast to the forthcoming release of Solly’s Girl.
The title is suggestive of Alan’s memoir Alva’s Boy (review at ANZ Litlovers) and, despite the gulf between the respective childhoods of the authors, the books make fine companions.
In the closing pages of her memoir, Ros ponders the readers for whom she wrote:
At the beginning I thought I was writing for my children and grandchildren. Then it seemed I might be completing what Alan started in Alva’s Boy – albeit not in the same style. It’s hard to tell. (288-289)
As a reader who was not on the author’s radar when she first put pen to paper, I can tell you that this is a memoir for us all. Jewish-Australians, ten pound poms, home-grown Aussies, wives, husbands, lovers. Despite being a personal account of a life, Solly’s Girl is universal in its themes of love and loss, duty and freedom, joy and despair. It unfolds like a conversation. “Let me entertain you”, opens the chat and, in less than 300 pages, we are indeed entertained.
There is some delightful humour on show early in the piece. When her new husband Alan told her how much she would love living in Victoria, mentioning picnics and visits to the Dandenongs, the author, being unaware of the Dandenong mountains, instead imagines meeting “some Mr and Mrs Dandenong”. And the suburb of Caulfield sounded – to an English girl of a certain class – like the name of a property “rather like Tara in Gone with the Wind” (13).
The Lambretta, La Cigale, is like a character itself in the opening chapters, having been shipped out to Australia by the newlyweds. She was a beacon to the local cops who were keen to check her out and when, as new parents, Ros and Alan reluctantly sold her, they kept her brass cicada mascot. A Lambretta just like La Cigale will form part of the décor for the Melbourne launch of Solly’s Girl. How fitting.
Parts of Solly’s Girl read like a missive of thanks from a daughter to her parents, an atonement perhaps for a perceived lack of communication years ago. The deep love that cemented her parents’ life together is enchanting. When Sadie died aged ninety-seven, Ros’s father Solly visited Australia twice more from London, each time bringing a silver framed picture of his beloved wife.
He slept with it under his pillow, together with the little red woollen mittens she wore to keep her hands warm. (62)
But back in Ros’s youth when a daring sense of adventure battled with her love and respect for her parents, adventure won the day. Despite the fact that “nice Jewish girls didn’t leave home unmarried” back in the fifties (89), Ros moved out to bunk with a school friend in a boarding house in Hampstead. What an interesting bunch they met there, living in the home of a Holocaust refugee composer and his family. Amongst the boarders: the photographer of Edmund Hilary’s Everest expedition; the first black actor to appear regularly on British television and his German girlfriend; and a man who allegedly doped horses. Ros writes that the house “had a kind of raffish aura about it” and the exposure to the “intellectual European refugees and émigrés, artists and actors” (92) must have been terribly exhilarating.
The author also gives an insightful study of the lives that went before her parents – the grandparents and aunts and uncles who forged ahead, in some way shaping the lives that were to follow. Ros writes of her need to acknowledge a debt to grandparents she hardly knew:
Their worldly achievements were quite minimal, their material wealth very slight. … The fortunate made it to America, the goldene medine; the brave and hopeful young idealists went to Palestine; my ancestors chose England. One hundred years later, here in Australia, I am grateful. (53-54)
She writes freely about the challenges of married life and the exhausting and exacting tasks of a mother and wife in that era:
I hung on hopefully to a deepening sense of love for a man I hardly understood, whilst in his mind Alan created a fantasy goddess out of a confused and rather lonely young woman. (32)
It is clear that the her suburban days spent in Box Hill mothering three small children, caring for a foster child and playing “straight guy” to her charmingly “offbeat” husband (120-121) didn’t amount to her ideal life, but she made the best of it and emerged, as the children went off to school, just as you would expect of a freedom-loving adventurous individual; by snagging a job, obtaining teaching qualifications, joining protest marches and offering her services to the technical teachers’ union. When the Collins family eventually returned to Ros’s beloved Elwood, there was no backward glance.
Amongst her many professional achievements, Ros became director of the Makor Jewish Community Library, received an award for outstanding services from the Zionist Council of Victoria and was awarded the Woman Achiever of the Year in 1999 by the National Council of Jewish Women. Between the lines, it is clear that Ros has a deep connectedness to her Jewish roots, a respect she has passed on to her children, but she is obviously not one to drown in dogma and tradition:
I am writing these sentences on Yom Kippur, a day on which I should be fasting and praying for forgiveness. But I don’t fast, and repentance is something I deal with as soon as I realise I have made a mistake. (175)
There’s a description in the book of a wonderfully Aussie celebration of Jewish New Year. After a failed fishing expedition on the Alligator River in the Northern Territory, barra is purchased from the local fish shop and an apple pie concocted in a hot caravan oven. Rosh Hashanah was celebrated “sitting around a deserted swimming pool in a caravan park”. The accompanying photograph shows three generations sitting at an outdoor plastic table, their beaming faces testament to the occasion which would become a precious memory. The candles were “like little mirrors of the stars in a vast mysterious sky” and there were “cans of beer and bottles of lemonade to wash down the pie” (236-37). What a celebration!
Solly’s Girl is a beautifully produced memoir with quality photo inclusions and, above all, it is superbly written.