Tag Archives: Alan Collins

Solly’s Girl: a memoir by Ros Collins: book review

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)

 Wise words.

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.

You can find details of the launch and where to purchase Solly’s Girl here.

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A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other short stories by Alan Collins: Book Review

If, like me, Alan Collins is one of those writer’s who has slipped under your radar, then A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other Stories is a terrific place to get to know him.  But be sure to follow it up with Alva’s Boy – check out Lisa Hill’s review.

 As I read some of the stories in this anthology I easily imagined myself sharing a glass of wine and a few tall stories with a writer who Arnold Zable describes in his introduction to this posthumously published work (Collins shrugged his mortal skin in 2008) as a “classic Australian yarn spinner”. 

His mastery of the metaphor and skilful use of the simile are evident in every tale:

An engine that “continues to sputter on independently [is] like an aged person to whom no-one ever listens” (2).  When sugar ants converge where a glass of iced drink had stood, they “matched themselves to the moist circle like a living necklace” (125) and the surface of sliced black bread is “as smooth and as cold as a corpse” (129).  In ‘A Friend in Need’, we meet the wheelchair-bound Gail who’s face has the “blandness of practised concealment”, yet “the history of her illness was written around her eyes in long creases like a dry river delta (157).

In ‘My War’, the narrator – “a Jewboy living in Bondi” surviving on his wits – apologises at the outset “for not spending the war years living on turnips, being concealed in an attic or cellar” (41) reminding me of the stereotypical relationship between Jewish children of a certain era and their parents.  As it happened, those spot-on familial relationships are not a part of Collins’ own canvas: his mother died in childbirth and he spent much of his childhood in charitable institutions.

I imagined the young Alan Collins in the character of Jules in ‘That your Boy?’  Here is a young boy who one might expect would be angry with a mother who died and left him lonely within his relationship with his father.  We’d be unsurprised to see the young Jules furious with his father for sending him away from what could have been an idyllic life in the country to a welfare establishment in Sydney.  He could have been forgiven for feeling bitterness toward the woman who showed him affection but then turned her back.  Instead, Jules places blame on the “dud Japanese shell” (173) that landed on a Bondi Street and spooked his father into fleeing.  My heart ached for him.

Collins’ sense of humour appears both subtly and in laugh out loud passages.  In the title story, for example, the narrator (one assumes Collins himself as it was incorporated into his memoir Alva’s Boy) reads what he believes to be a ship’s name on its stern and after spending his schooldays asking kids at school if they arrived on the ‘Pas op de Schroeven’, discovers (at age thirty-five) that the words painted on the ship meant “Beware of the propellers”. Equally funny is the “reffo kids” responses.  It’s a great comedy of errors.  (33)

The Showcase story for me is ‘The Value of a Nail’.  I deliberately choose the word ‘showcase’ because in it we see the fabulous traits that Collins brought to the table as a writer: a razor-sharp observance of human nature; an ability to seamlessly meld fiction and memoir in order to turn a spotlight on subjects as varied as Jewish history, social injustices and the Australian working class; and a talent for describing physical surrounds with metaphor and simile.  All of that wrapped up in a deliciously wicked sense of humour makes for a fantastic read.

‘The Value of a Nail’ opens thus:

The gentiles, Ernst felt sure, were born with a hammer and nails in their hand.  He didn’t mean that irreverently, he told himself.  It was just that they always seemed to be, as his neighbour put it, “knocking up a chook-house, a dog kennel or a set of shelves”, all those Saturday afternoon jobs that set the street ringing with the sounds of hammering, sawing and nailing. (136)

I read ‘The Value of a Nail’ as a study on the various coteries to which we feel we belong and our understanding of how we each fit into both the dominant culture of our surrounds and the culture with which we frame our natural inclinations.

Ernst is a man who finds himself disorientated and displaced after moving from the known and knowable St Kilda – with its regularly attended synagogue, kosher delis and Jewish friends – to Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Playing hooky from the synagogue one Saturday morning, Ernst finds himself in a hardware shop surrounded by the mysterious paraphernalia of the weekend handyman and he covets the folded rulers tucked in the side-pockets of the Australian men’s overalls, seeing the rulers as status symbols.

 I instantly recognize these Aussie blokes who “stroked unshaven chins and talked knowingly to men in dustcoats with measuring tapes clipped to their belts” (137) and empathised with Ernst’s desire to be allowed entry to their clique.

He works hard to build book shelves and puts up a plethora of hooks, before designing and crafting a beautiful kidney-shaped coffee table and is pleased to be treated with a degree of respect by the man in the dustcoat at the hardware store.  After deciding to host their inner-city friends (Viennese sophisticates as Ernst’s wife thinks of them) for a Sunday afternoon get-together, Ernst is bursting with anxiety and pride over his home improvements. 

Lotte and Leo arrive in a cloud of perfume and pipe-smoke with a bounty of “the exotic cakes that grew in St Kilda” (143) but Leo shatters Ernst’s pride with his unflattering review of the shelving and meticulously crafted table. 

In just nine pages, Collins has shown us the sense of ourselves that comes from the groups we feel we belong in and those we wish to belong to.  He teaches us something of the Jewish culture and the Australian way of life and, after a roller-coaster-ride of emotions, we can sympathise with Ernst as he is left to take comfort from the carpenters’ rule folded in his pocket.

There is something to like in every story in A Thousand Nights at the Ritz, and there is much to ponder.  Every time I see one of those folding carpenters’ rules, I will probably ponder how far I have come, how long it has taken me to get here and what my place is in the community in which I live.

 BOOK DETAIL
Collins, Alan. A Thousand Nights at the Ritz and other stories, Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne. 2010.
ISBN: 978-1-876462-93-2

This review is also published at ANZ LitLovers

 

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