Reviewed by Ian Lipke
I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do – Georgia O’Keeffe
Katherine Boland shares Georgia O’Keeffe’s quote with her readers and it is transparently obvious why she does so. Hippy Days, Arabian Nights – a Memoir is a real example of a woman living her life by that very mantra.
Ditching their studies in 1976 Katherine Boland and her husband John travel in an old EH Holden ute from one side of Australia to another. Graphic visions of huge gum trees bent horizontal by the winds near Geraldton in Western Australia fill the reader with delight. However, employment in the fishing fleet being made contingent on the author having sex with the crew is unconscionable. One can understand why the young couple scarpered to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales to scrape an existence in a hippy lifestyle.
This is Part One of the book. Boland is very forthcoming in her descriptions of the hand to mouth existence the couple pursued. They literally built their lives in conditions that at best could be thought of as primitive. Boland demonstrates one can be happy with nothing if there is someone to share it with you. Her powers of description are quite amazing. The examples she gives of, for example, emptying the night soil are exactly as our fathers described. She lived the life. She worked hard and suffered harder. And she enjoyed what she was doing.
To the urban dweller such a foreign lifestyle could be an instant ‘turn-off’. However, Boland’s graphic use of the English language does not let her readers go easily. While the unusual nature of living as a hippy might not attract, the easy, conversational pace of the writing keeps the reader seeking more. The practice of John keeping a goat alive through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was full of hilarity, but coping with drugged-out hippies one of whom contemplates attacking a young child with a knife was not at all pretty. Living the life of a hippy wife, Boland describes the hard decisions that had to be made regarding their child’s education. It is then that she realises that the dream was never going to work for this family, and that the days of opting-out had come to an end. The heartbreak of a woman who discovers that her husband has been having an affair is a momentous piece of agonizing that, gut-wrenching as it is, tends to drag on too long to the detriment of the book.
It comes as a surprise that Part 2 begins when the author was in her fifties. The earlier part had held nothing back, but the events were of such interest that time “just got away”. How heroic is a woman who develops her interest in art to such an extent that it takes her to several countries, including the USA where she has a brush with the law. A complete change of direction, a creation of a new identity at age fifty is courage indeed.
What, except foolhardy, does one call skirting with Egyptian laws in order to photograph the interior of an abandoned palace, let alone having a lusty affair with an Egyptian national soon after arrival in Cairo? Yet the relationship with the young man Gamal lasts for sufficient time to lead to a number of stereotypes of Egyptian customs being renewed in the author’s Western eyes.
One has to admire the tenacity of these two lovers. Egypt’s extreme form of nationalism forces the pair to meet overseas, bitter family opposition drives a wedge between Gamal and his family…the road to peace is strewn with potholes that can sink the unwary. Faced with these difficulties and many more, the author could be forgiven if her prose were to weaken into defensiveness at this point. But it remains as robust as ever.
That is a winning feature of this book. The author has the opportunity to seek her readers’ support, but she makes no concession. This is a blow-by-blow account of an unusual life that is lived honestly and reported faithfully. The low points in such a life are reported with accuracy and without any sort of obfuscation.
It is an honest account that I enjoyed immensely.
by Katherine Boland
Wild Dingo Press
ISBN: 9 780987 381323