D.A.N. Jones

  • Last Ferry to Manly by Jill Neville
    Penguin, 165 pp, £4.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 14 007068 0
  • Down from the Hill by Alan Sillitoe
    Granada, 218 pp, £7.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 246 12517 9
  • God Knows by Joseph Heller
    Cape, 353 pp, £8.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 224 02288 1
  • Wilt on High by Tom Sharpe
    Secker, 236 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 436 45811 X

There is a seaside resort in New South Wales, with a ferry connection to Sydney. In 1788 it was named Manly Cove by a state governor, impressed by the proud bearing of the aborigines. They seem to have deteriorated since then, according to Lillian, the heroine of Last Ferry to Manly: she peers at aborigine children through the wire fence of an institution, and notes ‘the shrinking, stick-like way their bodies move’. None of the men of Manly live up to the 18th-century name. There are surfing boys on the beach, but they seem too young for middle-aged Lillian. She meets a man on the ferry from Sydney and he urges her not to jump overboard. He is a neatly dressed man called Bruiser, with an ugly, battered face and tattooed hands. A member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he says: ‘I used to love me metho.’ Lillian takes rooms in the same boarding house as Bruiser. Another tenant is known as the Bad Man, because he is deranged, hostile to women, threatening them with violence. Other men look after him, because he has ‘been through the Pacific’. Drunks lurch along the coast, shouting obscenities. These, says Lillian, are ‘not the men Sydney women are searching for, but the others, the ones who actually inhabit the land’.

Sydney is Lillian’s home town. She has returned to Australia after an unsatisfactory career in Europe, bolting from her husband and sons. Manly is her bolthole. (The title, no doubt, alludes to Last Exit for Brooklyn.) When she goes to parties in Sydney, she finds that ‘the men are mainly homosexual, egging on the flamboyant females in order to recoil from them later,’ and the rich Sydney women seem to her like drag queens. At an art gallery opening, there is ‘the usual assortment of overdressed women with too few escorts’, and the men who aren’t homosexual ‘have the look of some rare object that must be closely guarded’. She returns to Manly, where ‘on a bench a man in make-up is scorching passers-by with his eyes.’ But Lillian tells herself she is enjoying the ‘ramshackle quality’ of both ‘high and low society in her home town’.

She is commissioned to write an article for a Sydney editor. He tells her his paper’s circulation rose when he ran a supplement on male homosexuality: ‘This is the second gay capital of the world after San Francisco... It started as a prison, maybe they retained the habit.’ Lillian likes the pock marks on his bluish jowls, and tries to ‘gain the erotic attention of this burly bastard’, but he tells her to write him a feature about Sydney lesbians: ‘They’re taking over the city. Striding about in overalls, copying New York ...’ Lillian goes to a women’s club where there is a notice on the wall: ‘Advice to a Heterosexual Woman. If you meet a Lesbian don’t scream or panic.’ Following this instruction, Lillian is soon involved in an affair with an attractive lesbian.

Lillian also takes on one of the beach boys, a friend of her nephew. He brings his copy of In Praise of Older Women when he visits her. Musing over the boy’s body, Lillian reminds herself that she is afraid of grown men. ‘Funny, she could reach out so easily for affection from a woman or a boy. Men, though, that’s a different story.’ Then the boy offers her a ‘trusting look’ – and that too makes her feel afraid. ‘He could die a cot-death if she wasn’t careful.’

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