Launch - ‘Ordinary Women’ by Edward Kynaston

Held at Hobart Bookshop, Salamanca Square, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 7000 7th December 2002 (4.30pm)

Publisher’s Speech for Launch of ‘Ordinary Women’ - 7th December 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you all for being here.

Two years ago when the manuscript of Ordinary Women was brought to me by a very dear friend, on behalf of the author’s widow, I had no idea that I had been handed one of the greatest books I had ever read. I had no idea the long and arduous process I would go through in order to publish it. I had no idea that this book would change me and change my life. I had thought I was well past the age for any more profound revelations and transformations.

For those who do not know me personally, I will introduce myself. My name is Edith Speers and for the past six years I have been publishing books under the business name of Esperance Press. More than a dozen books were published under that name, with myself as editor (and everything else!), but all the income from those books was used to support a non-profit community group for which I have also worked for free for the past six years.

Recently that community group held its Annual General Meeting on 30th of September this year and an entirely new and very different committee was elected. That committee - but not all of the individuals comprising it - is denying the validity of a long term verbal contract between myself and previous committees with regard to my proprietorship of Esperance Press. People on that committee refer to the ‘alleged’ work I have done on Esperance Press books. People on that committee are claiming ownership of the trading name Esperance Press and of all book stocks, property and funds that I accrued under the name of Esperance Press over the past years. Because of that situation, an Arts Tasmania grant for ‘Ordinary Women’ had to be returned, and money carefully saved by me over the past two years to fund this publication was all placed in a holding account pending resolution of the dispute. I then had to find private capital to pay the printing costs of ‘Ordinary Women’.

Now that I have achieved this, and myself, the author’s widow, and so many of my friends and well-wishers are happily gathered here to celebrate the launch of this wonderful book, there are still people on the committee I referred to who want to claim ownership of this book as well.

It has been a particularly difficult three months recently but throughout it I have been sustained by the example set for me by - the ‘Ordinary Women’ in this book. To give a brief ‘in a nutshell’ description of this novel, I have often said, “It is the story of four women who survive the fire-bombing of Dresden.” But they survived much more than that. Much more. And they not only survived physically, all four of them from the same household, which is miraculous enough, but they survived with their humanity intact, their integrity intact, and their sense of humour fully operational and at times totally outrageous. In the middle of evil, they did not become evil.

At times in the past months when I have felt like crawling into bed with a bottle of vodka and a couple of Valium, I simply could not do it. How could I do that, how could I give up when these women never gave up? Slowly slowly it dawned on me that one of the things that was helping me enormously was that at no time was I ever being undermined or white-anted by any self-pity. It has been nightmarish, it has been cruel and it has even been farcical, but it really is not in the realm at all of what these ‘Ordinary Women’ endured. Well, to find yourself freed of self-pity is a most astonishing thing. You wouldn’t believe how much that can purify, clarify, and amplify your strength and determination.

A couple of times I actually called upon Erna, the mother in the book, for a loan of her steely determination. The character of Erna is based upon the author’s mother-in-law, Lida Richards Segar, to whom the book is dedicated. Erna not only kept her family alive and together, but she also endured many weeks of Gestapo interrogation. But also I many times thought about Anita, the child in the story. This little girl, this ten year old child was also subjected to Gestapo interrogation. I thought to myself, if that little child could get through that, then I can get through this. And I have. And I will.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have the very great pleasure of introducing you to the widow of the author of ‘Ordinary Women’. I would like to introduce you to the little girl of this story because she is going to launch the book. She has grown up and she is Australian. More than that, she is Tasmanian. And more than that she is a Bruny Islander. Please welcome Petra Williams.

Speech by Petra Williams, widow of the author

Welcome to the launch of Ordinary Women by Edward Kynaston. Please feel free to ask me questions after the talk. I shall mingle and hope you will enjoy the authentic Dresden Stollen Christmas cake made especially for today by an old Dresden neighbour, a pastry cook. Also ensure you have some German wine, which complements both the cake and the Hobart pretzels.

It is difficult to speak for a dead author, especially one who was as eloquent as Edward Kynaston and my “dearly best beloved” partner for 40 years. So forgive me if I read this.

Thank you all for coming, thank you dear friends and acquaintances for your special support over a long time. Congratulations to the Hobart Book Shop for taking on this launch, especially as the book is only just hot off the press, without any reviews or publicity, as yet.

I sincerely hope every reader of Ordinary Women will feel enriched by it. I believe the author has something important to say and does it beautifully in a style accessible to everyone.

E.K. finished this historical novel seven years ago. Two years ago, just before he died, he asked me to continue his search for a good publisher. This is his first fiction publication and one which no one invited him to write. He was spoilt, because his other books were commissioned by Penguin Books and publication was assured. As ‘other books’ was omitted from the book’s blurb, I’ve brought his books along, if you’re interested to have a look.

The Mike Leunig cover of the Penguin Book of the Bush is particularly good and of special interest again today. Thereby hangs a funny tale, but that’s not for today.

So it has been an arduous, often humiliating, struggle to get this book published. Because of this I want to single out two people: Sophie Hamley, a Sydney editor who was E.K.’s only champion out there in the barren corporate literary world. Thanks to her encouragement the author regained confidence in his work and in himself. For this our heartfelt thanks. He had no idea that at the foot of Adamsons Peak, 13km across the Channel, directly opposite our house, was yet another literary champion who would be barracking for him: Edith Speers, editor and publisher of Ordinary Women. She proved to be like the old quality publishers of pre- and post-WWII times. Like them, Edith is daring, caring and creative. She recognises literary talent, nurtures and defends it, honourably. Eternal thanks to Edith Speers.

This novel had its birth in central Europe during the momentous autumn of 1989, where we witnessed a unique revolution, a bloodless revolution, now known as the velvet revolution. Millions of brave, brave people literally walked away from 45 years of tyrannical oppression. They soon succeeded in freeing and democratising most eastern block countries.

We were so deeply moved that we cut our holiday short, cashed in our remaining vac money and gave it to some of those courageous, jubilant freedom walkers on the roads. It was there that E.K. said to me: “You know, now I really have to write that book. So much of all this will soon be forgotten.” And so it already has!

In the book he states: “Almost everything in this book happened. Only the characters are fictitious.”

I can fully vouch for that. He based it on my family and me, covering, in flashback, a century of my family history. I still marvel how he ever managed to cover so much that happened. Courageously he cut, and he cut it down to this length, which is formidable enough, as the editor will agree. He covered about 60% of what happened to us and captured the very essence of us ordinary women. A good title, that. I grew up amongst ordinary women and children and fragile, frail old men. All able-bodied men and teenaged boys were out, killing, maiming and destroying, in the theatre of war.

E.K. always said, “War is a madness which affects and infects everyone who has anything to do with it.” I’m afraid that is so true.

In Germany it was a madness which possessed many ordinary people, who were unable to survive with honour. We knew many who lost their minds or killed themselves, because they compromised their self-respect. This is the main thread of Ordinary Women: Survival with Integrity. A fine line for many of us, and often difficult to maintain.

In adversity most people can plumb extraordinary depths to discover strength and perform heroic deeds, as we saw recently in the monstrous terrorist attacks, when survival was all the more difficult to cope with, because of the shock element of surprise.

During WWII everyone became aware of danger and gradually developed layers of protection. However, the period of survival was not brief. For us it stretched out over two decades of horror heaped upon horror: the loss of Jewish and socialist members of our close family, psychological warfare, interrogations, constant life/death situations, imprisonment, the loss of more family and friends, the loss of our home and the loss of my beloved Dresden. We survived all that with our self-respect intact. Chiefly, due to our earthy, strong bond of love, care and respect for one another, and our gallows-black-humour helped as well.

One as yet unacknowledged war horror still haunts me today. It is what I call the Kid Glove Murderers. The Nazis macabrely created an atmosphere in which ordinary civilians could become important somebodies overnight. Everyone was encouraged to ‘denounce’ (dob in) any citizen for anti-Nazi ‘utterances’ (preferably non-party members like my family). No proof was necessary. All they had to do was to lift the telephone to denounce someone. The secret police came within hours to remove the culprit. This happened in daylight, and people watched the victims being taken away. 99% of the victims were never seen again, sooner or later everyone knew of their fate. That was murder, nothing less. Nonentities acquired fame and sometimes fortune, and many who witnessed it, encouraged and praised the murderers. Others simply looked the other way, did nothing. Although Germany was forced to acknowledge, quite openly, the holocaust atrocities, those German civilians murdering their fellow citizens remains a closed book. There are still countless Germans alive today (not very much older than I am), who are such murderers or who cheered and encouraged this vile process. I believe this must be challenged whilst there is still time to ask them: “How did you manage to get on with your life? How did you cope?” This must be brought out into the open and examined constructively, so that a collective acknowledgment can be made and a collective sorry can be said. There is a small parallel here just when so many brave Australians are becoming aware of the need to find their own place in history and try to build a wholesome future with honesty and integrity. We also must move soon towards being wise enough to say a collective, official sorry.

Having survived the war, we now faced years of physical deprivation and hardship, and life just got worse and worse, and worse. The first 6 weeks of the victorious Russian occupation brought pilfering, looting and mass rape. Fortunately mother told me the facts of life at ten, just before I witnessed mass rapes, some of which led to death. I must confess this is the other horror I am still trying to work through. History now relates that the Germans and Russians were not the only rapists, the other Allies were guilty also. Not every soldier raped.

On trying to grapple with the whys and wherefores I’ve formed a theory I’d like to throw into the arena for further thought, that possibly our peacetime paedophiles are wartime’s rapists... I hope that a great deal more psychological research will be done about this human blot.

At this time hunger and malnutrition began, because the Russian army lived off our meagre land. The Germans had not only killed millions of Russians, but had destroyed all their food. We had no food, no fuel, no clean water, no clothes, no shoes, we lost weight, hallucinated, had dysentery on and off for years and helplessly watched others die of starvation or typhoid. People stole from the have-nots, ate pets, turned cannibal, stole medication and our survival with integrity was sorely tested. Once more we suffered oppression, tyranny and fear, under yet another dictator, Stalin. Communists and so-called ‘comrades’ ruled.

The book’s cover shows some of the cleared ruins in which we lived for three and a half years. Our home still lies in ruins today. It has now been recorded that this destruction was worse than Hiroshima. I look at this photo which evokes, still today, that acrid stench of decaying human flesh and ash. Mercifully winter’s deep frost removed it, only to be revived each summer thaw. Kurt Vonnegut, in ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ called it ‘mustard gas and roses’. (A brilliant book.)

And just as we thought things could not get worse, my incredible mother whisked us off to Paradise: Australia, where life got better and better and absolutely better.

I’ve nearly finished, but I want to step outside the book for a moment and tell you one thing E.K. cut out, because of its inordinate length. But, had he been alive during the Tampa and our refugee crisis, I know he would have put this back into the book: Our family’s Jewish survivors came to Australia before the war and they sponsored us as assisted migrant refugees. However, the Australian government refused us refugee status and refused assisted passage. We had to pay 3,000 pounds (worth a modest house & car then) and we had to endure being branded Undesirable Aliens! Ha! Despite our British passports, our proof of Nazi persecution and our letters stating we never were members of the communist party, the Australian Immigration Department refused to recognise our proof of non-communist membership. As ever, the Australian people totally redeemed this inhumane bureaucratic bungling, and welcomed us with open arms and incredible tolerance.

I cannot imagine a better time or place for us, in which to learn to BE again, to heal and become whole and strong.

Now, let me leave you with the author’s beautiful description of Anita’s return to Australia, after re-visiting her past; she’s on her Qantas flight over central Australia:

“She loves the last continent, loves the heat and quiet of the bush, the sharp eucalyptus taste of the dust, of the red dirt roads of the outback, the immensity of the land, the strange healing quality of the limitless space that lies under a vast, empty, bluer-than-blue sky. Over the years the continent has become part of her, gripping permanently her imagination, enlarging her soul, filling her with light and space and the priceless freedom to be wholly herself. Europe by comparison seems crabbed, overcrowded, rigid with social conventions and assumptions, top heavy with tradition, repressive, prison-like. She is so grateful that the long shadows that still lie over Europe do not reach this far.”

Thank you.

Petra Williams
Bruny Island
Tasmania
Australia 7150