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Remembering Veronica Brady


Veronica BradyImagine the long expanse of Darwin's coastal strip in late Spring. It is already uncomfortably humid and the sand is a burning hot. Ahead of me is a slight woman in shorts and a floppy canvas hat. Her arms are bare, and I worry that she is catching too much sun on her Irish-pale skin. We are looking for turtle eggs.

The hunt is part of a challenge issued to us, white woman from the far southwest and southeast of Australia, to understand the nature, depth and sacredness of the relationship between Yolgnu people and their land and creatures. We are in Darwin on a theological exchange — but I suspect that the traffic is all one way. We are out of our depth, even in the shallow water to which we retreat to salve our burning feet.

I should not say 'we'. Veronica isn't out of her depth. She is avid for experience, ready to learn, and her willingness is infectious. It communicates to the Yolgnu woman — her name is Rosemary — who is leading us on our dance up and down the incendiary dunes, and who smiles impishly as we confess to our ignorance. We believe we have as much chance of finding turtle eggs in this shimmering expanse as we have of catching a unicorn.

So we laugh at our discomfort, and allow ourselves to be taught.  Rosemary laughs with us. Then she begins the lesson. 'Look there. See that undulation in the dunes? See how it is shifting? Wait.' So we do. And sure enough, slowly the sand begins to cascade as a giant, ancient creature shakes off its gritty carapace, like a fossil coming to life, and emerges. We watch as it waddles away, then we move in (feet still burning) to find the eggs.  Exhilaration!

Veronica and I have learned how to stay cool, alternating shallow water trudging with the brief sorties up the sands, so we have time to talk between hunting forays.  I've known Veronica for years — in the way one knows a public figure and fellow Catholic. We share a love of literature, Australian literature in particular, and a professional, if hardly orthodox, interest in theology. We have a mutual friend in Phillip Adams. Veronica is one of Phillip's 'favourite Catholics'.

He's a broad church atheist, Phillip, with a fondness for nuns and a loyalty to the ABC, which Veronica long served as a board member. He likes larrikins, mavericks, women and men with a mind of their own. Last week I sat in my car in a Brunswick street and listened to the replay of an interview Phillip did with Veronica some years back. I expected to hear her 'mind of its own'. What I didn't expect — and it brought her loss into sharp and painful relief — was the arresting honesty and surprise of her answers. I could not predict what she was going to say next, even as I recognised certain characteristic speech habits ('Now, you see, Phillip ...').

There is the touch of the nun-teacher there, but don't mistake it for complacency. Veronica was thinking on her feet, all the while, even in Phillip's congenial company, and interrogating herself as much as the world around her. It was a while before I could see well enough to drive home safely.

I learned this week, from one of Veronica's Loreto sisters, that among the many students Veronica taught during her long tenure in the English Department of the University of Western Australia was Gail Jones, a West Australian writer whom I regard as one of Australia's finest novelists and literary scholars. Gail's work is marked by intellectual verve and moral depth, and I should have guessed that she and Veronica had crossed paths. I look forward to reading Gail on Veronica, and I wish I could have heard them talking together. Neither woman leaves you quite where you were before you spoke to them. They both move you down the track, or along new ones. And you go, willingly and refreshed.  

Up in Darwin, at that long-ago theological gathering, I had ample opportunity to see and hear Veronica as she listened to our Yolgnu friends and tutors. And as they listened to her. One day we sat on the ground together, awkwardly, on pandanus mats under trees, while the Yolgnu ladies sat in a magisterial circle of white plastic chairs, smiling wryly at our displaced dignity, and telling us about their lives and ways. We learned about different modes of apprehending the sacred, about culture, about kinship. Veronica was a born woman of words, but on these occasions she was a model of silent appreciation. Until she laughed.

The very last time I saw Veronica she was walking off into the bush, basket in hand, following a trail of smiling Yolgnu ladies who were going to teach her how to recognise and gather bush food. She was wearing the same floppy hat, and I worried again about her skin, and insects. But she smeared on sunscreen and mozzie repellent and with a smile and a blithe wave she was gone, into the welcoming scrub.

God bless you, Veronica.

Morag FraserMorag Fraser is a former editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Morag Fraser, Veronica Brady, Loreto, literature, obituary, religious life



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Existing comments

Veronica was a close friend of mine for almost forty years. She was wonderful, and she loved her times in the desert, and with people from traditional indigenous communities, for whom she had the greatest respect. You'll have heard her say to Philip Adams, that she was 'uncomfortable' with the biography. She hated the 'larrikin angel' moniker, but of course it stuck after the launch of Kath Jordan's book. Veronica was more maverick than larrikin, and less angelic than the most admirable and courageous human being, She was independent, yet community, family and friendship meant everything to her. We miss her very much.

Marilyn Beech | 01 September 2015  

Thank you Morag. I only really knew the public Veronica and she was a great person to have on your side. We've been in a few scrapes together, one enjoyable one with Cardinal George Pell on the primacy of personal conscience. Veronica was in the very best sense Catholic and Australian.

Paul Collins | 02 September 2015  

It is interesting the memory of Veronica Brady you share with us is not an "academic" one, but one grounded quite literally in terra firma, Morag. She would, I think, have liked that. The Darwin experience with the Yolngu women included so many things she loved. She, like they, had a sense of the sacred in everyday life and a proper respect for it. She could speak and write extremely effectively, but she also knew there is a time and place for contemplative silence "to let it all sink in". Like any natural teacher/ mentor she knew you always have to be humble and remain open to learning. I imagine she would have had a tremendously beneficial effect on the women and men she taught at university and others she encountered. Australian and other intellectuals can strike as both aloof and arrogant. She was neither. With her slight form and clear bird like voice, she reminded me of the sort of archetypal Zen Master, who you think could be blown away by a puff of wind. Like the Zen Master, she was, in fact, quite substantial in everything which mattered. We miss people like her. Australia needs more like her.

Edward Fido | 02 September 2015  

LOSS is a simple word for a complex human spirit. Veronica was an Archangel. In the simplest times she was a great support. Truly JESUS with us. Tears came to my eyes when I heard of the great LOSS TO THE ENTIRE CHRISTIAN CHURCH. She was a woman of MacKillop love and care. Francis Douglas

Francis Douglas | 02 September 2015  

Rest in peace, dear Veronica - fellow-academic, fellow-feminist, and late-night drinking partner extraordinaire at many Movement for the Ordination of Women conferences, where we once finished up all the half-empty bottles. I have photographs! An inspirational woman, a mover and shaker, who still had time for the rest of us. If she could have been pope, what a church it might have been!

Alison Cotes | 02 September 2015  

I have had but a glimpse of Veronica through her chats with Phillip Adams, but I too will miss her integrity and her love.

Ginger Meggs | 04 September 2015  

What a fine reflection. Thanks so much Morag. And what a fine woman and an inspiration -- Veronica Brady.

Michele Gierck | 04 September 2015  

Thank you Morag Fraser for your evocative tribute to a true Australian legend. Here in conservative Perth Veronica Brady was a prophetic political voice during some dark times for those of us involved in struggles for social and economic justice in Western Australia. At her funeral here in Perth I met and talked with long term campaigners from a variety of social justice movements who spoke about her influence, courage, humility and passion. There were Aboriginal campaigners, anti-apartheid activists, anti-racism campaigners, youth justice activists, anti-prison campaigners, anti privatization campaigners, unionists, feminists, reproductive rights campaigners, environmentalists and housing campaigners who were touched and influenced by her political activism and outspokenness. Like Judith Wright, whose biography she wrote, it is important that her profound and courageous political activism on a range of causes in such a politically conservative state is not overlooked

Colin Penter | 04 September 2015  

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