Sunday, February 7, 2010

Oh, brothers, Wherrett - thou little rippers!

Our latest book group choice was Desirelines - the reminiscences of Richard & Peter Wherrett. Both bros sont morte now - this book was published in 1997. I knew about Peter's lifelong attraction to cross dressing - I think I'd heard an interview with him when the book was published. And I knew that Richard had died of an AIDS related illness - he knew he was HIV positive when the book was written.

What I wasn't ready for was the intensity of the Wherretts' struggle to survive their childhood with an alcoholic, violent, epileptic, cross dressing father! They suffered almost every indignity and shame the 1950s could throw at them. A mother who stayed in an abusive relationship out of misguided love for their father and because her economic situation would have been highly tenuous without the guaranteed full-time employment her husband's pharmacy business gave her. A father who initially scared the life out of them with his mood swings, abusive behaviour toward their mum and unexplained epileptic fits and wounded them with his distracted indifference to their talents and achievements. Inner battles with their sexuality/gender identification - Richard being gay and Peter compulsively drawn to expressing his 'feminine' side via cross dressing - and carrying their 'guilty' secrets for years. Class consciousness engendered by their father's shame at being the only one of 5 brothers not to qualify as a doctor, living next door to a pub at the height of the primitive 'six o'clock swill' and trying to cut it at a private school (Trinity) when their domestic circumstances were shabby and constrained - they lived above their father's chemist shop. A depressive aunt who had lost her husband in WWII, and her marbles progressively in the ensuing years, and so on...

Peter lived the last 2 years of his life as Pip.

Their story resonated with me. Their mum was a dewy eyed, devoted bride with no insight into her husband's 'issues', as my own mother had been. Their childhood neighbourhood, commercial premises in West Ryde, my own father grew up opposite the milk bar his mother ran in North Ryde. Their journey from puzzlement at their father's behaviour, to championing their mum, then to seeing both parents as somewhat pathetic in their choices. Their salvation via reading and recognition at school. Growing into their personalities, charm and personae. The evolution of left politics. Richard Wherrett's favourite EM Forster quote 'only connect' from Howard's End and mine being the same. Wherrett senior growing up in Marrickville (where I lived for 20 years) opposite the town hall (which I have visited often). See the once gracious 'Luscombe' by clicking here.

Desirelines is not a great book, but it is an honest and fascinating one. Peter's contribution is braver and more interesting than little brother Richard's who, having been a cultural hero of the Whitlam years/my youth, turns out to have hidden twee shallows. Peter is a flawed protagonist who undergoes a journey of self discovery and self expression, whereas Richard did really seem to have a charmed existence once he left Ryde. It was Peter who, as the eldest, confronted his father's rages head on and had to say 'enough is enough' and arrange his committal while Richard was discovering divine bohemia and coming out.

Richard Wherrett did give us the unforgettable Elocution of Benjamin Franklin and Nicholas Nickleby though - truly rich and exalting experiences in Australian theatre!

Vive les Wherretts - warts and all! Their memoirs capture a whole panorama of the Australian experience and their journeys toward self actualisation reverberate strongly for me and I am sure for many others. Their lives prove the old adage that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger; their survival and flourishing is an inspiration to us all.

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