Vale, Jen McDonald

Vale, Jen McDonald

My dear friend Jennifer McDonald died, aged 60, on Tuesday, July 19.   A week later, coming back from a memorial held in her honour, I stopped at the co-op grocery to buy myself a bar of chocolate.  Chocolate is my addiction of necessity now as I can no longer tolerate either booze or caffeine.  The young woman serving understood completely.  There have been too many memorials of late.


It turned out a glorious day after weeks and weeks of rain.  A crowd of us gathered on the rooftop terrace of a pub here in Manly.  We had fresh air, sunshine and magnificent views, but only two of Jen’s writers could make it.  Most in attendance were family, old friends and, I guessed, long-time business associates of Blackie-McDonald – the public relations partnership Jen ran with her husband – and friends of their two grown children.  But I knew her as the principal of For Pity Sake Publishing, and this will be the story, abridged as it must be, of how I came to love and admire her.  Jen had had a rare form of breast cancer that first appeared over seven years ago.  Although she was in remission for some of that time, what struck me so forcefully at her memorial is that I never knew her when she was well.  And related to this is the fact that, although she played a huge part in my life, I played such a small part in hers, if the role I did play was in the culmination of her life’s work in the last of those years.


I was in rehab from a hip operation when I met a friend of Jen’s who’d also been a Canberra public servant and, like me, had stood in the crowd outside Old Parliament House the day of the Whitlam government’s dismissal.  There weren’t many people I met in Manly then who’d shared that experience, so we became quite friendly.  She gave me a potted history of her life and I gave a bit of mine, including that I was a writer with five novels under her belt but couldn’t get anyone to take my next one. That’s when she told me about Jen and how she’d started her own publishing house on the northern beaches.


My rehab buddy was determined to get us together and sent me off to For Pity Sake’s first book launch.  Held that hot, sticky summer at the pub in Collaroy, it was a crowded, star-studded affair.  I recognised Peter Baume, a former Liberal minister, whom I’d met in Canberra, and a few other faces not so readily identified.  Most memorable of all was Jen herself, her left arm still in a compression sling after her mastectomy, and a smile of radiance that would never leave me.


The book launched that day was a novel by Peter Yeldham, best known as one of Australia’s most versatile and prolific screenwriters. Dragons in the Forest was his thirteenth book, and Jen published three more of them.  I was so impressed by what she was doing that I offered my services and I began assessing manuscripts and editing for her.  I’d had experience in publishing but, having given up hope of getting that sixth novel of mine published, I was reluctant to show her the manuscript.  I can’t remember when or how it happened, but eventually I did.  The reader’s report left me speechless, the most enthusiastic I’d ever received.  I said that even if she couldn’t take on the novel, I’d be content to frame the report and go on working for her.  But she did take it on and, after years of rejection, As the Lonely Fly finally saw the light of day.


Jen was fond of saying she started her own company because that’s how she was sure to get her own books published.  While I was with her she did publish two – Vegetarian Vampires and My Big Breast Adventure.  Each was beautifully produced and was in its way controversial, especially the one documenting her experience as a cancer patient.  I had edited it and found it moving, informative, and most of all anxiety-relieving.  I thought women with breast cancer would be consoled by her brave, straightforward and at times humourous portrayal of the disease and, significantly, its debilitating antidotes.  Its insights also helped those like me who haven’t had the disease, but fear it as we do.  I thought it certain to find a wide readership.  But because Jen’s approach acknowledged the benefits of alternative medicines in addition to the standard allopathic procedures, the oncology establishment’s opposition effectively killed it.  To this day, and despite her eventual dying, I think this a shame.


For all this, I don’t believe we can take Jen’s self-deprecatory claim about what drove her into publishing as the whole truth of the matter.  Her memorial did much to confirm my own observations about her.  In her work at Blackie-McDonald she gave much of herself, supporting and mentoring their employees, as later she looked after us writers.  Dorothy Johnston, short-listed for the Miles Franklin and the author of nine works of fiction before she signed up with Jen, agreed with me that For Pity Sake was the best publisher she’d worked with.  It didn’t have the clout of Penguin, who’d brought out my earlier fictions, but there I was only one of a stable.  For Jen, by contrast, each of her writers was special.


One more thing.  I was worried about the name, For Pity Sake.  To my mind it risked connotations of pleading, with little indication of the utter professional Jen was, or the heft of her endeavour.  But there was no hope of getting her to change it, even as minimally as using the initials FPS instead.  Her Methodist father was a journalist and ‘For pity sake!’ was the closest he could come to swearing when his four obstreperous daughters made too much noise as he laboured to meet a deadline.  It was Jen’s portion of his bequest that funded the enterprise, and the name was the expression of her gratitude.


As these few words are mine.






Charlotte is Back

Charlotte is Back

Welcome to the resuscitated Charlotte is Moved.  According to Wikipedia, I’d posted the blog, ‘with political, social and artistic themes, from 2013 to 2016.’  I don’t remember why I stopped writing it, but my guess is that because of my partner’s death in 2015, I had lost the mojo for it.  

How did Charlotte come to be in the first place?  As noted in this website’s book section, Charlotte Biscay was a pseudonym I’d used for a story in a British Columbian anthology, and later for some corporate editing and writing I did on returning to Australia – a company, Charlotte Biscay Associates, was created for the purpose.  Charlotte had an earlier blog but, wanting a bigger and better one, it was changed to Charlotte is Moved.  Wordsmith that I am, I love the double meaning.  Not only did Charlotte move to a more professional website, she wrote on whatever happened to move her, and in this new rendition she’ll be doing much the same.

I’m writing this in the antepenultimate week of the 2022 federal election.  With a COVID infection ever possible and wanting to make sure just in case, I went this morning to cast my vote in the local pre-poll.  Satisfied to have it over and done with, I still came back feeling somewhat deflated.  I live in Warringah, Zali Steggall’s electorate, where she won with a whopping swing of 18.3 percent in 2019.  The campaign the Liberals waged against her then was rough, and we’d expected them to pull out all stops to regain the seat.  But then the PM intervened, postponing the party’s preselection until he got a candidate he wanted.  The delay caused one potential candidate to bow out, and two others were jettisoned in favour of the one we’ve got.  Informed opinion is that his woeful captain’s pick has nothing to do with winning back Warringah, where Steggall is pegged to be re-elected, but to help the government pick up other seats in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Ghost girl

So why have I left the pre-polling booth feeling so downhearted?  I volunteered for Zali Steggall in 2019 and have again this time.  By every criterion, she deserves to be re-elected.  With her campaign for meaningful action on climate change, her support for an effective federal integrity commission, and for gender equity she’s been a perfect fit for this electorate.  She’s worked hard as our local member, encouraging local businesses and community organisations.  But I worry about the direction Australia has taken, how the triennial elections campaigns have become so presidential and the media so concentrated.   That in 2019 Australia elected a bully for prime minister by a slim margin, and we can’t rule out his being elected again.  I’ve watched as he’s lied, obfuscated, deflected and spun while the media for the most part responds as though hypnotised by the very force and incoherence of his words.  Confessed political junkie that I am, even I can’t continue watching, and understand completely why people less interested to begin with have been so disengaged. 

Yet the hurdles facing my adopted country are enormous.  Climate change is our biggest challenge, with Australia the most vulnerable among the developed nations.  And years of neglect and short-sighted policy have left us with a host of other urgent concerns.  Hospitals, aged and disability care are on the point of collapse; there’s a shortage of general practitioners in the regions; gross inequities exist in education, and housing is increasingly unaffordable.  There’s a rising incidence of homelessness among women 55 and over.  We’ve had a decade of low productivity and low wages, and now, after pitiful expenditure on training and the COVID border restrictions, we have a shortage of labour combined with punishing inflation.  These are just some of the issues I can think of off the top of my head.

After decades of politicians chasing votes by cutting taxes, we shouldn’t wonder that services are so poor.  But few today, least of all those seeking election, dare to speak the obvious.  We’re going to have to pay for better social outcomes, and that will mean higher, fairer taxes.   We’ve been lied and spun to for too long, and the jig is up.

Independent candidates like Zali Steggall have scared the bejesus out of a Coalition threatened by the possibility of minority federal government.  As far as I’m concerned it’s the outcome they deserve, and would do much to restore our stumbling democracy.  Nor have I the slightest doubt that Anthony Albanese, who has shepherded the ALP through some of its darkest days, would be a good prime minister – far far better anyway than the divisive, power-hungry dissembler we’ve been saddled with.  Every single assertion of the current incumbent can be rebutted, and although this should have happened a lot more during this campaign, I won’t launch into a boring disquisition on them now.  Instead, I’ll be hoping that our better angels will prevail.

It’s reasonable to ask why an artist should concern herself with politics.  My simplest answer is that politics affect every aspect of our lives, and artists are not immune to this.  Unlike other businesses, for example, the arts received no Jobseeker support during the pandemic.  Neither did our public universities.  These were political decisions, and particularly punitive ones.  More complex answers would address other questions – whether an artist’s focus and energy should be directed to her work alone, whether the very act of producing artistic work is indeed political, or whether only certain of these works are, and why that might be so.  Like many artists I’ve struggled with these questions.  For the time being I leave them to you to ponder.