I feel slightly embarrassed that I’ve only read Come in Spinner now and only because of the virtual bookclub hosted by Simon @ Stuck in a book and Karen @ Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings (where for one wonderful week bookish-types review books printed in 1951). Honestly, I should have read Come in Spinner, by Dymphna Cusack & Florence James, years ago – this is an amazing book for a number of reasons.
The first reason: It’s enormous. When I went to collect it from the library I wasn’t expecting a tome. Think Half-Blood Prince and you’re nearly there. I actually didn’t think I’d get past the first couple of hundred pages, but not even one of these pages is superfluous because…
The second reason: It’s a really engaging story. The book is set in Sydney at the tailend of WW2. It centres around a swanky hotel called the South Pacific, and in particular, its beauty salon where three women – Claire, Debs and Guinea – work. They work hard, but their lot is better than most women who’ve been conscripted by the government’s ‘Manpower Directorate‘ into working in munitions or in mills. Our three protagonists feel lucky to have avoided that kind of manual labour, but instead must primp and beautify the hotel’s rich guests and war profiteers milking ‘the yanks’ and the war for all they can. The book unwraps the lives of Claire, Debs and Guinea over the period of one week, and illuminates different aspects of being a woman during this period of Australian history.
Come in Spinner is unusual in that it’s a war story that has placed women at its front and center. Throughout the book, the fates of all the male characters – whether American soldiers ‘occupying’ Sydney, rich businessmen building empires or Aussie soldiers on leave from the war in Asia – hinge on these women’s decisions. These women are in charge, to the extent that social norms allow them to be. Which brings me to….
The third reason: This book is unabashedly and unapologetically feminist. The plot canvasses abortion, prostitution, women’s destitution, thwarted ambition and inequality – all unflinchingly, which explains why it was published only in an abridged version until the 1980s. Over the course of the book, different female characters illustrate just how men have the run of the country: ‘ain’t yer learned that men can’t do no wrong?’.
Fourth reason: It tackles front on Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’ – this deeply set concern in our national psyche about being culturally inferior to pretty much any other country, and especially compared to Europe.
She picked up the second book. Published in Sydney. Good heavens, what was Miss Hill thinking about? She knew she never read Australian books. Whoever wanted to read about the sort of people and places they had to live amongst. Not many of the SP guests would thank her for recommending a book about Sydney. What they wanted was to know about London, or Paris or New York….
‘I always feel that Australians lack the cultural background that would make them first-class artists’.
‘Well’, Dallas laughed, ‘I’m no connoisseur, but … from what I’ve heard, Melba and Judith Anderson…. Constant Lambert, Robert Helpman and of course John Brownlee, to name only a few, seem to put it over quite successfully’.
Decade by decade Australia’s inferiority complex diminishes, but even now we can still be awfully sensitive to what other countries think about us. So, I found it totally fascinating to see this being lampooned, only 50 years after federation.
Fifth reason: There evidently was a point when Australia did have some socialist principles. Yes I know – these days it’s almost impossible to believe! One of the biggest furphies of Australia’s modern national image is that we’re an egalitarian society, and that we can pride ourselves on being so egalitarian (which in my humble opinion, we can’t). It was really refreshing to read about people, even if fictional, questioning the economic hegemony of a few rich men, and wondering whether the country couldn’t sustain an alternative.
‘Frankly, it gets my goat to think of all the chaps who never had a fair go in peace and have given up everything they’ve got, to go and fight…. It’s always the same. War is only government policy continued by another means, and the people who are exploited in peacetime are exploited in war. Whichever way it goes, big business is on the receiving end…
‘All I know is that people with big incomes are hit very hard.’
‘Down to the last yacht. Breaks your heart, doesn’t it?’
Cusack & James spend pages expounding the virtues of the working classes and denigrating the elite profiteers. It’s possibly laid on a bit thick, but for me it worked – it’s passionate and genuine.
The sixth (most glorious) reason: Given its socially satirical commentary, it’s hugely ironic that Come in Spinner won the Daily Telegraph’s Australian novel competition in 1948. This is, of course, the same Daily Telegraph that is now owned by Rupert Murdoch. Although apparently, once the novel was actually published in 1951 it recanted on its earlier praise and called it a ‘muckracking novel fit for the literary dustbin’. Much more like the commentary we’ve learned to expect!
Whilst it may not have pleased Murdoch’s predecessors, or rather, because it did not please Murdoch’s predecessors, Come in Spinner is a fantastic read. It’s a commitment, but ‘christallbloodymighty’ it’s worth it.