Thursday, 25 November 2010

Book Review, a book by Helen Irvine

Book Review

“Not Any Sheila: A Woman At War” A biography by Helen Irvine. Published by Strictly Literary, 81 Hoff St., Mount Gravatt East, Vic. 428 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9805489-8-3

The late Tony Irvine was well known to the botanical community in the Atherton and Cairns area because of his work as a rainforest ecologist at CSIRO, Atherton and his passion for conservation. He was active in a number of “green” endeavours such as reforestation and reclamation of “fallow” lands. In fact, he and his wife, Helen, bought a large parcel of cleared grassland just outside Atherton in the 1980’s and planted it with local rainforest trees and exotic fruit trees. Today it stands as his monument to a cause. The area has been returned to the rainforest and their crowning accomplishment was the appearance of a Cassowary a few years ago who seemed to approve of the development. In fact, it chased Helen and Tony into the house.

I first met Tony in Canberra in the early 1980’s. His personality was such that he was very “people-oriented” and enjoyed talking with anyone who was involved in rainforest or conservation research. Tony was described to me by Ray McInnes as the “gentle giant”. A couple of years before his death, Tony and Helen told me that the latter was writing a book about Tony’s mother who was a most “interesting” person. This was putting it mildly. His mother was a monster.

Anthony “Tuppy” Kyle Irvine was born in Melbourne in 1937 and shortly thereafter his father went off to Europe to fight in WW II leaving Tony’s mum, Sheila, to raise him, and later his brother Vivian, alone. As luck would have it, Tony’s father was killed in the war.

Tony’s mother never forgave his father for going off to war and felt it was the “easy way out” for him to avoid bringing up his children. She told him repeatedly in letters that she hated him for it and really never liked him in the first place. His father tried to make amends but to no avail. Sheila sometimes forgave him but soon reverted to derision. She was what we would now call a paranoid schizophrenic.

Sheila resented having the children and often told both brothers just that. Tony’s brother was given names that could apply to both a male and a female because Sheila did not want to be bothered thinking up names for either a boy or a girl. At other times Sheila seemed compassionate and happy to have the children around. Several times she fobbed them off to agencies in foster care or sent them off to boarding school. The children seemed poorly nourished and often needed medical attention which Sheila could ill afford.

Tony had an innate interest in plants and eventually gravitated towards a career in Canberra at CSIRO. As a young man he was an accomplished Australian Rules player with the Ainslie football team. There are award plaques on the wall in the Ainslie Football Club with Tony’s name on them. Late in life Tony suffered from extreme back problems comprising fused vertebrae. He told me he was convinced that this was caused by using telephone poles as a measure of his jumping ability. He would jump for long periods, each time trying to outdo a previous jump. This he thought helped to compress his vertebrae and exacerbate arthritis later in life.

I was a guest in Tony’s lab in Atherton for 4 months in 1988. He was a most generous host turning over half of his lab to me for my bottled of living katydids and crickets. I was allowed access after hours to make tape recordings of the sounds produced by the insects. Tony and Don and Judy Fitzsimon often accompanied me on nocturnal fieldtrips in the Atherton vicinity. They were instrumental in my discovering many new species in this group.

At her death Tony and Helen set about the task of liquidating Sheila’s assets. This took months. Her house was jammed with goods of all kinds. Sheila was an “accumulator” for lack of a better word, one of those people they have TV series about these days. As an example, Sheila kept all butcher paper—tons of it because “you’ll never know when you need to write a shopping list”. But because of this syndrome, the book was able to be written. Sheila fancied herself a writer and she kept diaries and meticulous notes. It was from all this that Helen was able to piece together Tony’s horrible life as a child.

So it was with absolute astonishment to read Helen’s book. She has done a remarkable job of correlating mountains of written material into a very disturbing thought-provoking treatise on schizophrenia, paranoia and child abuse. It is still a wonder to me how such a nice, gracious, hospitable person as Tony Irvine could result from such a horrible upbringing.

Tony Irvine had a big following in our area. He was frequently quoted in the newspaper and was often on the local ABC commenting on botanical or environmental matters. His memorial service consisted of a celebration by friends (and there were lots of them) and family followed by a tree-planting in fallow grassland on the border of Lake Barrine. Anyone who knew Tony, or anyone with an interest in child abuse, will find this book interesting, disturbing and thought-provoking. Thanks. Helen.

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