My ear to the question: Margaret Cameron

Lately I have been reading Hanif Kureishi’s ode to his father, to family history, and to writing itself, My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father (2004). Kureishi has combined memoir with candid, insistent questioning; he is as articulate about the maddening stresses of writing as he is alive to the continual undertow between writing, love, and mourning. While Kureishi’s ear listens for insight about child-parent relationships, his book repeatedly turned my mind towards memories of dear friend, fellow artist, and mentor Margaret Cameron (20 January 1955–20 October 2014). I wondered whether Margaret had come upon My Ear at His Heart. She would surely have delighted in conversation about it, if not also in a reading aloud of an excerpt or two, preferably on a weekend afternoon, near the lit stove in the bright living room of her home by Port Phillip Bay.

‘What is the history of each individual? Where does it start and end, and, more importantly, how does this history continue to work in you? Unknowable though they might be, where do the dead go and what do they do? … To what extent do the dead determine the lives of the living? … How do you keep them vital within you?’ (My Ear at His Heart, pp. 197–98).

Carved with the word ‘poet’, Margaret’s gravestone can be found on the hillside of Portarlington Cemetery, overlooking Port Phillip Bay in the direction of Melbourne (read her obituary here). I am glad to be able to keep thinking of her in connection with the skies and moods of the bay. Margaret swam at the beach located a hundred paces from her front door in the township of Indented Head. The ritual of immersing herself in water was a reliable source of solace and inspiration. She took baths in the morning so as to think. One day during work on Care Instructions, we were struggling to understand one another, and she described herself to me as a dolphin: a creature needing to dive down below the topmost waves before resurfacing to communicate. I learnt to be more patient. And like a dolphin, Margaret could surprise by suddenly, playfully leaping to the surface—with a fresh word, or more usually an image, to offer as a procedural suggestion.

Maybe Kureishi’s spirit of fearless enquiry reminds me of Margaret. This spirit was inseparable from her dramaturgical talents and creative stamina. To the task of lifting breath and body, words, images, and ideas into the realms of theatre, she brought a deep respect for the strange logic of intuition—and for the richness of ‘not knowing’ until ‘it’ becomes manifest. Making new work together was a precarious, demanding process, with all the trickiness and felt texture of committing to a koan. Becoming willing to plunge in to such a process with Margaret has been formative for me since a first rehearsal in 2003.

In April 2006 I posted Margaret a copy of The Uninhabitable of L. B., a script of sorts very recently completed. The project had begun in the preceding year, and finishing the writing produced more relief and trepidation than usual, since The Uninhabitable of L. B. had weighed upon me as ambitious. A fortnight later I received an email from Margaret: ‘Dear Cynthia, today—sunny Anzac Day holiday, I collected the mail. I’ve just sat in the sun and read your text’. Margaret’s communications could be cryptically brief; another reason to treasure her thoughtful missive of that day now nine years ago. ‘L. B.—her body is present, viscous and solid (a body / a building), but glistening also. … Sometimes I think I’m breast-stroking—coming up (to her presence) and going down—seeing through a lens as water can provide. Hearing also above water and beneath water. … It’s a very surprising journey you take. Immense. Glacial. Funny’. She was receptive to humour in my work where I had failed to notice its potential. ‘I can’t pretend to know what you’re doing, or how you’ve done it, but it is really fascinating and absorbing. … Don’t doubt’.

Through the drawn-out, perplexing intervals of creating her solo works, Margaret’s practice was attended by great doubt, and increasing confidence. She could encourage others because she understood the necessity of biding with both, past the shallows. The first chapter of her forthcoming book, I Shudder to Think: Performance as Philosophy (2015), considers her decision to ‘“stop acting” and “start writing”’. She recalls wondering if she could ‘find words that were not a source of ridicule or alienation’. The chapter culminates with this observation: ‘it seems to me that an artist very often moves toward their greatest difficulty. It is the very thing in the way, the uncomfortable grit of one’s nature and biography that rubs’. Like Kureishi’s, Margaret’s ear was searching, sensitive, generous, closely attuned to the repercussions of childhood, and to the resonant influence of the dead in the lives of the living. She too would have appreciated Kureishi’s unfathomable question, ‘how does [their] history continue to work in you?’.