The Women In Black by Madeleine St. John Read Online (FREE)
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Madeleine and Me
Nineteen-sixty was my first year as an indifferent student at Sydney University. In pursuit of the prettiest girls I joined the Sydney University Players where I was an even more indifferent actor, easily outclassed by the stars of the era—who included John Bell, John Gaden, Germaine Greer, Arthur Dignam, Clive James and Robert Hughes.
Madeleine St John (she pronounced the name ‘Synjin’, though I understand her family preferred the standard ‘Saint John’) was to be found backstage, helping with the costumes and props. Definitely not one of the university’s glamour girls, she still managed to be striking. Tiny and with rusty-red hair, she always reminded me of a sparrow with her darting movements, her beak-like nose, her inquisitive eyes. Her odd appearance contrived to prevent her performing in anything other than minor theatrical roles, although she was cast, rather mendaciously I thought, in a revue, Dead Centre, in which she appeared, singing, dancing and dressed in red crepe, as Lola Montez.
I can recall only a couple of conversations with her—all vague now (forty-eight years later!)—including one where she expressed a passion for the poetry of Thomas Hardy. I distinctly remember being so in awe of her wide reading—‘are you really unaware of the work of Gwen Raverat and Djuna Barnes?’—her forthrightness and her wit, that, in order to prevent my self-esteem plummeting, I took evasive action. The factor which distinguished her from virtually all of our contemporaries was that she was the daughter of a famous father, Edward St John, a prominent QC and Liberal politician, though if father or family was mentioned she immediately made it clear the subject was taboo.
I left for England in 1963 and lost track of Madeleine for thirty years. My attempts at establishing myself as a film director slowly met with some success. One day, in 1993, I was having lunch with Clive James, by now an internationally known critic and poet, when he mentioned that a novel he’d just read, The Women in Black, was by our old university colleague, Madeleine St John—and was a comic masterpiece. I bought a copy immediately, agreed with Clive’s assessment, and called the publisher for Madeleine’s number.
She was cordial and cheery over the phone, said she’d seen a number of my films over the years and was delighted I wanted to film her novel.
A few days later I went to see her. She was living in a large apartment on the top fl oor of a council house building in Notting Hill. The area had been derelict but was now being gentrified. Madeleine must have qualified for rent assistance some years previously and there was no indication that her financial situation had improved. The furnishing was basic, the most striking items being a number of well-thumbed paperbacks and a vicious white cat, which snarled and clawed the air whenever it considered I had approached too close to its mistress.