I am indebted to Terence O’Neill for bringing this book to my notice: he was a contributor to the May 2009 LaTrobe Journal and his article about Joan Lindsay made me realise that there was more to this writer than Picnic at Hanging Rock. Time without Clocks appears now to be out-of-print, so I was lucky to spy a copy on the re-shelving trolley at the library. It’s a somewhat battered paperback, but the writing is fresh and lively.
Time Without Clocks (1962) is a memoir of the period when Joan Lindsay and her husband Daryl (brother of Norman Lindsay) lived at Mulberry Hill in Baxter until the Great Depression forced them to rent it out. When times improved they were able to return but for much of their life it could only be a much-loved weekender. This was because Daryl Lindsay (less successful as an artist than his famous brother) was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Victoria and the couple had to live in Melbourne. Despite these travails, she writes without a trace of bitterness, and succeeds not only in bringing a lost era to life, but also in sharing the happiness of a young married couple starting out in life and learning to live in contentment together throughout a long marriage.
It’s a delight to read. Lindsay has a chatty, conversational style which brings Mulberry Hill alive with vignettes about her social circle. The Lindsays were friends with numerous notable artists, with Keith Murdoch and his wife, and with Alan McCulloch the art historian. With Lord and Lady Casey, Joan Lindsay helped to found the National Trust (and in time, left her property to it). It’s fascinating to read about these people as friends and neighbours rather than as significant people in the arts.
Lindsay has a keen eye for the beauty of the environment, but also for domestic detail. Here she is writing about the kitchen:
As soon as the house was in some kind of order my Mother’s Irish cook arrived from St Kilda to lend us a hand for a few months. Plump rosy-cheeked smiling Kate would have delighted the heart of Mrs Beeton with an iron stock-pot on the one-fire stove and snow white washing on the lines. No detergent or washing machines – just a good old-fashioned yellow soap and the giant McCubbin copper, wonderful for the boiling of lobsters, heated underneath by household rubbish and stirred by hand with an old broom handle. Primitive of course but for years our sheets smelled of lavender and sunshine. Kate a big strapping girl on strong pink marble legs never complained of anything and even seemed to like working in the country kitchen – no mixmasters, milk-masters juice-extractors cream extortionists that pass for necessities today. For years we had no gas or electric power. (p60. BTW the idiosyncractic punctuation is Lindsay’s. )
One of the most memorable passages in this wonderful book illuminates for me the process of painting a still life. I wish I had known, when I read Meg Stewart’s biography of Margaret Olley, just how tricky it can be to make the flowers behave!
In the studio at Mulberry Hill we discovered that cut flowers have an astonishing range of movement, turning their heads, slipping in and out of water, drooping, straightening, flinging themselves clean out of the container. Buds open and shut while you wait, or drop off, leaves uncurl. Certain flowers placed in the same vase with incompatibles will keel over and die, while the gentle lily, well known to painters for its persistence in following the light, can wreck a carefully arranged bunch overnight, unless it is stored in a darkened room. (p196)
Even allowing for rose-coloured glasses, the picture of the Lindsay’s life seems idyllic. It may have been hard work and finances were obviously precarious, but there is a contentment about this memoir that is refreshing to read in the frenetic days of the 21st century.
Mulberry Hill is now listed with the National Trust and is open to visitors on Sundays. I was especially pleased to find the 1997 Frankston East Heritage study online because it quotes extensively from Time Without Clocks to describe the house on the website.
Author: Joan Lindsay
Title: Time Without Clocks
Publisher: Penguin Books 1976, first published 1962
Source: Kingston Library