Crawling Across Tram Tracks: Extracts from Volumes 5 & 6 of Fay Zwicky’s Journal

By and | 1 June 2014

If anyone asks my religion, I say I’m a smoking Buddhist.

My grandmother’s room, source of comfort, shelter from family riots, trouble in general, always smelt smoky. Even the drawers with hairnets, powder, bobby pins, trap-like metal clips to make waves in the hair and any amount of cosmetic junk smelt of smoke. So smoke and comfort were synonymous. Then the smell in the sitting room after a card party with all the tables still set in place with their fringed covers and the ash-trays full of butts from the night before … I used to creep out in the morning and sniff and look … [A]nother war was brewing, and all the jolly fathers would leave the houses with the wireless, the gramophone, the Chinese market gardeners, the beer drays drawn by Clydesdales, the steaming heaps of orange manure on the roads on winter mornings, the milkman’s horse-drawn cart with it warm red light clopping in morning darkness … [I] wake one day to find it all gone and fifty years passed!


Indecent questions which social beings have mutely decided to refrain from asking. I ask them now in poems which is probably where they belonged in the first place. But I didn’t trust the poems or the role of the poet … I see the poet as a seismograph of the age’s darker regions. Living out fifty years of this dreadful century has certainly made the needle twitch without stopping.

Plain speech, like playing Mozart, is the hardest to come by. Sometimes I think I am getting there.


The journey is inward, not out. To reach a stage where the moon is inaccessible yet freshly-risen every month is where I’d like to be. To accept that human beings can be both beautiful and vile, that your own idea of yourself can be both right and terribly wrong, that the creative games you have played are now in earnest, and that no project can ever be private, that what illusions of permanency you thought you’d created are precisely as illusory as you hoped they wouldn’t be … And then, can you bear the silence of your own company, your own dreams that can change day into night? What does the turtle do when someone turns her on her back and her little legs claw the air? How does she regain her plod? Musicians are so fortunate to have a non-human language. Nobody can touch their communications, nobody can accuse them of metaphor, of interpretation, of invasions or withdrawal.


A landscape’s character shapes the imagination of those born there. What happens if you exchange or superimpose a new or different one for the old one? Does this mean a permanent nostalgia? A distortion or warping of the primal vision? John Berger cited the example the extreme climate of the Spanish steppe (in Keeping a Rendezvous) which bakes in the summer and freezes in the winter as concentrating the mind on spiritual meaning because it “encourages a scepticism towards the visible. No sense can be found there. The essence lies elsewhere.” The desert, on the other hand produces “both fatalism and intense emotion … No compromise is possible because there are no hiding places.” Is this what I always felt but described as rendering the soul naked and nomadic?


When I finally escaped the school uniform, I re-discovered Britten in my first year at university. The student Union building had a little listening room with a gramophone and a library of 78 records you could borrow for an hour or more. I remember finding the “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” (Op.31) in that room and enjoying it more than anything else for a time. I used to take it out and play it again and again—Peter Pears and Dennis Brain…It’s so long ago but I’ve never forgotten the lift of the heart, the lightening of the cultural burden. It wasn’t so remote from my own traditional musical experience that I felt cut off from it … and yet its originality struck me as like nothing ever heard before. Was it because hearing it coincided with the first experience of freedom from home and school?


Remembering that Easter egg and who gave it to me. It was, improbably, Lord Neville. He was in love with a German-Jewish refugee my mother had helped come to Australia just before war broke out. He came out to see her and we all met on a picnic to the country. It must have been about 1938. The picnic table and folding stools all stacked neatly into a large black case. There were metal cups with raffia-bound handles that also stacked in the case. I remember a white tablecloth and those amazing chocolate eggs that this tall fair man gave to the three of us. The only other memory I have of Ruth was in my usual eavesdropping role in the back seat of my mother’s black and cream Austin. Ruth was crying as I’d never heard an adult cry. She wept all the way to somewhere in the car, and my mother must have been advising her or comforting her or whatever that interminable voice usually did. I was desperately curious to know why this grown-up woman was in such a state. When I asked, I was told that Lord Neville had gone away. No more than that. It fastened on my romantic imagination and has never left me. I don’t know if he’s still alive or if she’s still living in Melbourne, but I’ll bet they neither of them would guess that a tiny slab of their past life, probably well and truly interred in both cases, is in the dubious custody of that impressionable 5-year old who listened in the back of a car way back in 1938.


Sometimes I think if my anger ever truly erupted it would drown the world.



Back from Melbourne after too long away, and in the wrong place, I will never live there again, I don’t want the past and its constant reminders of an angry childhood, furious adolescence, and compliant young adulthood … Annette, Freda & I went to Ballarat to see our great-grandfather’s grave in the Old Cemetery. The inscription read:

In Loving Memory
Joseph Wittkowski
Who Departed This Life
22 January 1905
Aged 67 Years
And His Brother
Isidore Wittkowski
Who Died 16 June 1871
Aged 42 Years
Brothers in Life not parted in death
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die

I was impressed by the austerity and substance of the monument, and the unusual lines inscribed below. No mention of wives, children and the usual chain of grieving descendants & survivors. Also the touch of defiant poetry—“is not to die”—without false sentiment … Annette and I have subsequently booked ourselves a plot nearby. The place is peaceful and Annette said she liked the magpies. There were trees and an old feeling of quiet and untroubled paths without all the awful trimmings that make modern dying so aesthetically offensive. Not a plastic flower or a perspex dome in sight.


Living in W.A. may as well be the yearned for foreign country … The only tenuous link with the past is a common language and even that isn’t common. No shared recognition, no common fund of literary allusion, no connection with a closed-in past of airless rooms and the haute bourgeoisie of my youth. “Void of speech” as against an over-wordy childhood, the step on the quest for silence.

Idea for Film (unpaginated)

… about my family life as a child with my sisters. The musical training, what it means in terms of future isolation. A kind of enforced autism at odds with social temperaments, I was always in conflict. Wanting to join the world and stuck at the piano alone for hours. I’ve already thought of the end of the film, based on news that Gill is to play on a cruise ship which will start in Stockholm or Copenhagen, touch on Leningrad (she’ll have two days there) and then return to Scandinavia. There’ll be Gill and a pianist to keep the passengers happy. The ship’s purser is Angelo, Val’s husband. Val is going along too … Think of the trip as if I were the pianist & how it would look to a couple of 60-year old women going back to what made them musicians, what displaced them from their own culture, what set them on the road for ever and made the idea of “home” so tenuous. So ironic an end after suffering the constraints of a claustrophobically regimented childhood: too much freedom versus too little …

Flash-back to the tour of rural Victoria in the 40s of 3 young kids playing Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart trios. Then, to stormy adolescence, boarding-school, ballet school, music lessons with Jascha Spivakovsky, Gautier, Marston Bate on motor-bike with cello strapped on the back in R.A.A.F. uniform. German refugees & their impact. Photographs taken by Arthur Fleischmann. Mother giving employment to displaced persons. We were useful—I could be Cilly Horst-Horowitz’s piano pupil as well as a salve to mother’s conscience.

A Note on the Text:

Marston Bates, cellist, and Jeanne Gautier, violinist, were both music teachers of Zwicky’s sisters. Cecilia Horst Horowizt was piano teacher to Zwicky at around age 12. The character of Sophie Grünberg in Zwicky’s story ‘Hostages’, published in the collection of stories by the same name (FACP, 1983), was based on Horst-Horowitz.

(Dream in Hospital 6/10/90)

Next thing that happens is I’m trying to go home, but where home is I don’t know. I’m walking in a steep urbanized street looking for a tram to take me home … I’m hungry too, and on my long walk I stop in an Italian café where people are sitting down but I have no money—only some coins which I think I had better save for the fare. Then I seem to be trying to cross a road with trams coming. I hesitate to cross in front of a slow tram but do so without realizing there’s another tram track alongside with an unseen tram coming in the same direction. I drag my feet across the tracks frightened I’m about to be run over but I get to the safety island unhurt in spite of the sluggish movement of my unwilling feet.

Next thing I ask a tram conductor if I can get to the St. Kilda station but he says he doesn’t go there. Below me I see what looks like St. Kilda beach with Luna Park and some recognizable buildings. Yet it isn’t St. Kilda. I must have walked a long way without realizing it since nothing on my walk looked anything like Melbourne. In fact, the walk to the Italian café seemed like a Cottesloe strip of Stirling Highway. The people in the café all seemed to be Italian & spoke no English. I was eating something as I walked along … I am obviously anxious for home, doubting my strength, eating to replenish spent reserves, crawling across tram tracks.

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