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The Editors



Lines of Wisdom: Young Writers, Old Stories, Timeless Encounters

Martin Hughes and Beth Hall, Editors

Book Review by J. Conrad Guest



Hardcover: 192 pages

Publisher: Affirm Press, 2008

Price: $39.95

ISBN-10: 0980374650

ISBN-13: 978-0980374650


Sadly, in America we fear growing old, as evidenced by a multi-billion dollar plastic surgery industry. Worse, we seem to push aside the aged as uninteresting, perhaps even unwise in a society that worships technology. Rarely do we look into the eyes of the elderly in search of all the people they have been, preferring, it seems, to see them only as old.

Lines of Wisdom: Young Writers, Old Stories, Timeless Encounters is composed of profiles of seventeen Australians. Each profile is accompanied by beautiful black and white photographs of the subject, each photograph itself worthy of its own story.

In The Housewife we meet ninety-one-year-old Marjorie Bligh, married three times, divorced once and widowed twice, who long ago set about to become the best housewife in the land. From writer Danielle Wood we learn that “Although Marjorie’s duties as a housewife have circled around the needs and comfort of three husbands, I have little sense that her activities were ever controlled or even directed by those husbands. She was always driven by her own exacting standards and I have no sense that, since the moment she first married, Marj has been anything but her own fiercely independent mistress. She may have delightedly taken on a new name each time she got spliced, but I doubt that she has ever been anyone but her formidable self.”

Others who have known Marjorie have said that she had the drive and energy to become the first female Prime Minister of Australia or that she could’ve discovered a cure for cancer. Wood drives home the point: “Inherent in these comments is the idea that it is a waste to spend her extraordinary energy and drive in the domestic sphere, on baking cakes, making dresses, starching tablecloths and removing stains. Underpinning those backhanded compliments is the idea that energy and drive and intelligence must be spent in the public sphere, not the private, in order to be well spent. And I think feminism is still a long way from resolving, or even thoroughly addressing, this entrenched devaluation of the domestic.”

Near the end of her interview with Wood, Marj grows tired of answering questions about her past and says, “I don’t want to think about yesterday. I want to think about today, and what I’m going to do tomorrow,” prompting Wood to share with the reader a passage from Marj’s autobiography: “I think anyone can point out the exact moment when a man or a woman begins to grow old. It is the moment when, upon self-examination, they find that their thoughts and reflections in solitude turn more to the past than to the future. If a person’s mind is filled with memories and reminiscences instead of anticipation, then they are growing old.”


In The Private Dick, Katherine Allan introduces the reader to her grandfather, Kevin Willows, who once used a pair of mechanical dancing feet to convince the residents of his retirement home of his ability to channel spirits through the fillings in his teeth. Katherine tells us Kevin listens to the soundtrack of My Fair Lady, changes light bulbs for the short and infirm, and is more inclined toward milkshakes than whisky.

His sister Nell recalls that as a boy he was a “little wretch,” once riding his bike down the street of a boy she had a crush on shouting, “Nell Willows has pimples and blackheads!”

Kevin wanted to join the air force but was too young; still, he spent afternoons at the Newcastle Aerodrome and ate two raw carrots every day for two years in an attempt to improve his vision. “It was what the air crews did,” he says. “Doesn’t do a thing, turns out.”

After the Depression, Kevin, who professes to having a sweet tooth, worked in turn for Nestlé, Arnott’s and Lewis’ Cakes. An attempt to sell fruit door-to-door from the back of a horse drawn cart failed when the horse, named Pears, ate all the produce ─ “Pears ate our pears!” Kevin says with a laugh.

Ever the imp, Kevin recently replaced a neighbor’s security light with a red bulb, claiming he had no “ordinary globe.” The neighbor, a widow, was fearful that two other neighbors, both gentlemen living alone, would think she was a loose woman.


In The Writer we meet William Donkin, who grew up in London’s East End during World War II. Bill began writing when he was approaching retirement, although still largely illiterate. Although much of his work is unpublished, Bill believes that for something to have been written is more important than publication, because “to write is an act which shapes a moment, a feeling or a voice which, up until then, had been just that ─ a moment, a feeling or a voice. Once written, an instance becomes a record, bearing its own reality, its own version of the truth with its own story to tell.”

As a lad in the East End Bill became very adept and folding paper airplanes. “If you flew it on the perfect day,” Bill says, “it flew right over the rooftops, then you spent the next six months trying to make one as good.”

After the war, Bill married but found London a gray and sad place to raise a family, so he moved to Australia, where he sold encyclopedias, life insurance, televisions and cars. He and his wife Mary alternated in the roles of breadwinner and stay-at-home parent. Bill loved every minute of parenting.

Bill’s love affair with language didn’t begin until later in life, when one of his sons brought home an electric typewriter. He admits that it is easier not to write than it is to write. Still, as Bill nears eighty years, he is compelled to write as a way to connect with the world around him. He believes writing is not created only by privilege or education, and its worth cannot be judged by publication alone. To Bill, the compulsion to write is “like the urge to fold a paper airplane again and again, with the hope that one day it will be perfect, and it’ll take off, over the rooftops, off into the great wide blue.”


Amongst the other intriguing people in Lines of Wisdom are Magda Friedmann, a beautician who smuggled her family out of communist Hungary after the war to get on with the business of living and laughing in Australia; Silvio Massola, who each time his life got untracked, just got on with the job; Peter Rossler, a child survivor of the Holocaust and an eternal optimist whose response to evil is a generosity of heart; Arthur John “Buddy” Robson who, through his frustration of illiteracy and the onslaught of Alzheimer’s, determined to capture his own story in words; and Ambrose Mungala Chalarimeri. Born in the bush and raised by missionaries, Ambrose forged his own path in life, guided alone by good sense.

Each of their stories is true ─ no fictional characters or celebrities here, all of them elderly ─ inspirational, eye-opening, sometimes irreverent, but always entertaining. More importantly, Lines of Wisdom leads the reader to look into the faces of the elderly differently, with a desire to see what or who they once were. Indeed, if one is fortunate to achieve old age, they, too, will one day have stories to tell.

Kudos to Affirm Press for bringing these people’s lives to print, and kudos to the young writers who cared enough, were curious enough, to look into the lives of these seventeen very intriguing people and write about them.

Highly recommended.

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