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Memoirs of a Young Bastard: The Diaries of Tim Burstall, November 1953 to December 1954

February 20, 2012

Lunch at Somers, John and Tim 1992

Last week we went to the launch of Tim Burstall’s memoirs at the Nova Cinema. Tim probably deserves the epithet bastard. He was a bohemian sparkler against the stodgy conformity of Melbourne in the 50s and he could be a bastard and at times a most likeable bastard. He was exceedingly bright with a wonderful mental agility. To borrow a word from Norman Mailer, Tim was also a ‘sexologue’ – an ideologue about sex. He had a reputation amongst women as being mad, bad, and dangerous to know. I do recall on one occasion in the 80s taking Tim to task for his lack of reverence for women. At this point in time we were walking along the beach at Somers when Tim, in an act of contempt, took a sharp right hand turn and walked straight out to sea.

Summer at Somers  - 1983 & 1984

Tim had wanted to swap diaries with me ever since I approached him to be involved with a potential French Australian co-production called ‘The French Consuls Wife’ back in 1983. I must admit I blushed at the idea – my diary was for my eyes only. Others have agreed – to their regret.

Jane Badler and AlisonMine started in 1980 when I first arrived in Australia from London. I was under the illusion that Tim kept a daily journal or diary since the fifties its only now that I understand that he wrote 500 words a day in the early fifties while he and Betty were living in Eltham and that the diary petered out. In my diaries I would probably average 500 words a day – my diary does not so ruthlessly assassinate friends and acquaintances in equal measure. Mine is a much more forgiving diary.

Anthropologically speaking I am much more interested in Melbourne’s rich cultural life and the people who give it its vibrancy and colour.Jaz and Tom Burstall with Alison

As seen in this diary Tim never stopped trying to ‘fix’ a personality – like piercing a fly with his ink pen. He once explained you have to signal a person’s character like in a telegram. God knows what my telegraphic character was but from what he said about others in this early diary I knew he could be very cruel. In the 80s a mutual good friend of ours, a very attractive highly intelligent young woman was called a Palestian Moll because she once had a Palestinan boyfriend in Paris. Tim wasn’t above hitting below the belt.

Tim had more than his fair share of relationships with interesting women but in times of retreat he returned to his numerous so called ‘nursemaids’ for emotional and physical sustenance.

Left: Countess Celeste de Chabrillan  Right: Alison aka Countess Celeste de Chabrillan

The French Consuls Wife - Film Synopsis - 1982 - Tim Burstall & Alison WatersWith his acute sense of theater he could be a lot of fun. In 1983 when we had flown up to Sydney to talk to Kim Williams, the head of the Film Commission about our film project ‘The French Consuls Wife’ we attended a United Nations cocktail party.

Tim convinced me to pass myself off as a French Countess – Countess Celeste de Chabrillan, the heroine of our film. We pulled it off for a while as I stumbled along with my enigmatic schoolgirl French, Tim giving me a grand introduction, saying I didn’t really speak a word of English. Being a United Nations cocktail party with fluent French speakers I was soon found out. Tim said it didn’t matter – the most important thing was to look the part.

Alison as Countess Celeste de Chabrillan

Tim had a beguiling gift for intimacy, you thought you could tell him anything – but in reality he was ‘the eyes and ears of the world’ – he could not keep a secret no matter how hard he tried. In this diary he recounts many trusted confidences, private letters and brief love and sexual relationships of his friends.

Tim & Alison

Trust is certainly an essential part of friendship but once you were aware of Tim’s penchant for indiscretion you chose to accept it because he invariably spiced up any occasion with his volatile take on the world.

As Tim himself would have said ‘he was a doer’. He was a doer in every sense of the word and also seemed to delight in letting on ‘who was on with who. His knowledge of literature was prodigious. During our many discussions about books and literature when accuracy was paramount Tim invariably proved to be right.

However there was a compassionate side to Tim that was not often seen. My husband and Tim enjoyed many Sunday mornings at Somers exchanging outrageous puns – they called it ‘Punday Morning’. When John became ill with a stroke and lost his sight Tim would often call in and take John for a walk in the Botanic Gardens. Ironically it was a stroke that was to be Tim’s final curtain call.

In the video above, French artist Georges Brassens sings Poet Paul Fort’s Si Le Bon Dieu L’avait Voulu, in which the poet makes a list of a number of famous ladies whom he could have known, instead of the lady who became the love of his life.

Fort’s poem includes the heroine of our film Celeste de Chabrillan or her stage name La Mogador on whom my research for the 1982 The French Consuls Wife’s Film Synopsis was based.

Memoirs of a Young Bastard: The Diaries of Tim Burstall, November 1953 to December 1954 Introduced and annotated by Hilary McPhee Miegunyah Press $59.99

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