How a writer beat the odds

It may be a requisite for a writer to have had a challenging childhood. It’s not just that it’s good material, but that you’ve been forced to an unusual degree to hone a certain kind of curiosity. Unlike the budding scientist who will one day try to penetrate and codify the physical world, a writer becomes unusually sensitive to people, intrigued to discover what makes even those who love us do the cruel, inexplicable things they do.

If this is so, Mandy Sayer undoubtedly qualifies. Her prize-winning Dreamtime Alice, published in 1998, plumbed the relationship she had with her father, a lovable jazz musician whose bewildering comings and goings marked her childhood years, and created a longing that only a final reprise of those careless evaporations could dispel. While her mother plays a small part in that book, in Velocity she’s the focus: for most of Sayer’s teens a dangerous alcoholic, a woman driven by her passions, drowning herself in booze when those passions disappointed, as they invariably did. That one was Sayer’s father makes the situation all the more poignant, and completes the chain of beauty and pain embarked on in the earlier book.

Did I say beauty? Yes, it was beautiful too. The early years were something of a paradise, if, like so many of its kind, never to be regained. And the parents, ‘those two great boozing nature-lovers’, were none the less quite special human beings.

The story begins in a Federation bungalow in Stanmore, not in the gentrified state where such a house would find itself today, but roomy and homely enough to evoke a sense of bohemian comfort and delight. The author’s memories are of Sydney beer gardens, musician picnics and the ramshackle tippling in the Stanmore backyard.

The only thing to distinguish this perhaps from other family idylls of the time is the amount of boozing that went on. At the age of three Sayer herself was given a glass of a strangely bitter fizzy drink that soon had the sky at a tilt. No more, one could say, than a Frenchman giving a kid his first glass of wine, but a prophetic gesture. There were other drugs—it was Gerry’s proud boast that Mandy was conceived on a high brought on by the finest Lebanese Gold—but it was in alcohol that the dream eventually dissolved.

Since the conflict at the core of her parents’ marriage was Gerry Sayer’s musicianship, it was a marriage doomed, no matter how much he and Betty loved each other, which they obviously did. But a car accident that plunged them into debt made her long for a husband who kept regular hours.

He tried but it wouldn’t work. The parents parted, came together, parted again. Gerry took the oldest child Gene, Mandy’s sister Lisa went to live with a friend, and Mandy, the youngest, followed her mother from one dismal situation to the next.

Thus arise some remarkable vignettes and characters, giving a vivid picture of 1960s Sydney, a city both brash and provincial. Betty’s first position was at a pub somewhere in Sydney’s south west. The publican bred dogs and left the running of the pub to his wife, a striking woman of indolent habits whose manner towards Mandy’s hard-working mother was one of a chatelaine to a drudge. A mishap with the dogs led to Betty’s departure, and off to yet another soul-crushing job.

Throughout it all Mandy was a lonely witness to her mother’s descent into hell. The combined effects of poverty and an awareness that her beauty was fading led Betty to depression and the comfort of the bottle. The one thing that seemed to perk her up was the attention of men, yet out of a clutch of suitors she had the unfailing knack of choosing the wrong one. This is when the nightmare truly began.

A guy in his 20s smitten by a woman over 40 conjures up a certain sweetness. Hakkim’s sweetness, however, was deceptive cover for a brutal, paranoid jealousy. He regularly beat Betty, though—as is often the way with these relationships—she was only moved to leave him when he started harassing Mandy. But Hakkim tracked them down, they were reunited, the beatings resumed, a baby was born, and here is where Mandy’s story and mine oddly intersect.

Betty and Mandy ended up at Elsie, Australia’s first women’s refuge, in the Sydney suburb of Glebe. I had nothing to do with running it, but it was through the efforts of Canberra femocrats like I once was that Elsie and similar refuges around the country received the federal funding they needed to survive. With a setback or two, Mandy and her mother eventually got themselves together and were able to establish a new life.
In its way, then, Velocity can be read as a feminist success story, something to celebrate 30-odd years down the track. But that’s the least of it. The real story is between the covers of this rare, honest, humorous book, and how that little girl spun out by her first taste of beer beat the odds and became the stunning writer she is.  

Velocity: A Memoir, Mandy Sayer. Vintage, 2005. ISBN 1 740 51385 1, RRP  $32.95

Sara Dowse is a novelist and essayist who lives in Sydney.


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