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Once a powerhouse of Australian publishing, Hilary McPhee traded the comfortable life she knew for a mysterious job with Middle Eastern royalty. In writing about this adventure and the collapse of her marriage to Don Watson in her new memoir, Other People’s Houses, she traces her strange journey back to herself. “I dreaded coming back to Australia because I left feeling I’d lost everything, I’d lost my marriage. We’d been together for more than 20 years, so it was quite a lot of life.” By Peter Craven.

Publisher and writer Hilary McPhee

Hilary McPhee.
Credit: Jacqueline Mitelman

Hilary McPhee is the most distinguished Australian publisher in living memory. In 1975, she published that transformational novel Monkey Grip by her friend Helen Garner, but she has always been at the centre of what people do when they try to shape words: the stately monotonies of Gerald Murnane, the exuberant momentum of Tim Winton writing Cloudstreet, Drusilla Modjeska when she compounds the real and the imagined. McPhee formed McPhee Gribble with her friend Di Gribble and they rapidly established themselves as the sharpest publishing act in the country. For a while they had a sweetheart deal with Penguin in the days when Brian Johns, who went on to run SBS and the ABC, had an accommodating attitude to creative publishing. Then, in 1991, after he had gone, the giant moved to destroy McPhee Gribble.

I still recall McPhee’s look of wondering grief when she came to tell the story in the office of Scripsi, the literary magazine I edited. It’s the only interview I’ve done, apart from phoners to New York, that stretched late into the night.

There has been plenty of grief since, and plenty of triumph. McPhee took a job at Penguin, then left it with the speed of a master assassin and took her writers, for a time, to Pan Macmillan. She later left publishing and became, at the insistence of Paul Keating, the chair of the Australia Council – an institution she had always detested – and proceeded with its reform.

It’s been a dramatic and tumultuous life and career for this woman born in 1941, with her cutglass voice and her pensive, receptive manner. I remember her, some 30 years ago, as someone whom men and women shivered at the sight of. And she was beautiful, but it wasn’t just her looks that commanded a room. Once, at a crowded launch for that old villain Peter Blazey at Percy Jones’s Carlton hotel, I said to her then husband, Don Watson, who had arrived late from Canberra, “You won’t believe this but the mics didn’t work and the only person who could pitch her voice was Hilary.”

“Oh, I’d believe it,” he said, with a touch of awe in his voice.

According to legend she was an accomplished university actress – a famous Emilia in Othello – and she was remarkable at everything she touched. But nothing in her career is quite like the stories she has to tell in her new book, Other People’s Houses.

It’s a work of nonfiction with the power and strangeness of fiction. Here is what she has to say about how the assignation that dominates the book came to an end: “The thing that staggered me was what a small thing it was that tipped me into saying I couldn’t hack it anymore,” she says. “And that was probably to do with my Australianness. I couldn’t bear being spoken to by this much younger woman, much younger than my daughter, as if I were a servant or a slave. You know? I just couldn’t take it. When I came to digest this … because it’s all 10 years ago now … and ask why I didn’t finish this project that I was so close to finishing – I had footnotes, it was ready to go to the publisher, it was going to be taken to the publisher because I had all that wrapped up – and yet I couldn’t take the way I was spoken to. And that astonished me at the time, but it doesn’t astonish me now that I’m telling you about it, because to be spoken to so rudely was awful. I was in a world where people were spoken to rudely all the time. I’m not saying our world is necessarily better, but something about my particular experience at that moment was intolerable.”

McPhee had been approached by a long-ago acquaintance who was working as a personal assistant to the Jordanian royal family and she asked McPhee to oversee – in fact to ghost and get published – the reflections of Prince Hassan, the man who had been set to be king and to succeed his much older brother, the terminally ill King Hussein. That was until there was a last-minute change of plan and Hussein decided his young son Abdullah would instead become king. And this is how McPhee, somewhat to her own amazement, finally spat the dummy with what had been a dream job but subsequently proved an impossibility.

It was the strangest kind of offer for her to get and the most enchanting, because McPhee had always dreamed of being an archaeologist and the extraordinary multilayered richness of the Middle East, the ancient strata of its recoverable civilisation, had always been central to her own dreaming. She says, half joking: “I always thought publishing was a kind of archaeological thing. Once you found people who could write then you wanted them to shine, and that was partly archaeological. There was so little Australian publishing except of the most dun-coloured kind.

“There was every reason,” she says, “for me to have an adventure of my own.”

So, Other People’s Houses is a strange story: a kind of Through the Looking-Glass saga of the Middle Eastern world that was offered to her. But its telling is not separate from the story of how her marriage ended or of the European life she found for herself when she was resting from and consolidating the Jordanian work. So why did she bring all this together in this book that constantly shifts in colour and tone because of its different elements?

“Well, they’re utterly, utterly intrinsic,” she says. “I’d been offered this weird job and I’d accepted it. I’d told the family I was going to do this. There was no way I could treat one and not treat the other.”

And she was hyperconscious of the tremendous good fortune of this strange unbidden gift of a Jordanian job, which came in the wake of her mother’s death and would ultimately coincide with the end of her marriage to Watson.

The mystery was part of it, too. “It was so strange to be asked and not know why,” she says, “and not really get round to asking why.”

McPhee admits part of the intense thrill of what she was offered came from not only the romance but more particularly the implicit high valuation of her skills that left so many British publishing people staggered. “It was an adventure and I really needed it,” she says. “I went in as a professional, I didn’t go in as a wide-eyed ingenue. I was trying to do a job. I know a lot of Poms in the literary world and they were astonished that an Australian should have become involved, should’ve been chosen. There was such a sense in London that the Middle East was their patch – their fathers had done or were doing things over there, good works or bad works. For an Australian to luck into this role was simply amazing to them. Why you? Why an Australian? They would ask that question again and again. And I didn’t really know.”

I ask McPhee if she still dreams about the Middle East. “I don’t dream about it,” she says, “but I’m still reading their fiction and their poetry. And I’m still a bit nervous about what they will think of the book. I sent the Hashemites copies – I’m a professional and of course I would.” She talks in passing about Norma Khouri’s book Forbidden Love, about an honour killing in Jordan, eventually exposed as a hoax by journalist Malcolm Knox, and says with great fair-mindedness that the British wouldn’t have fallen for that.

She talks then about the decision not to return to Australia after her Jordanian stints but to go instead to Tuscany. Was she fleeing Australia? “Yes, I was fleeing,” she says. “I was fleeing because the deal was that they would fly you back to where you came from in between interview sessions. I didn’t want to come back to Australia to write with hideous jet lag, so I realised that I could easily come back from Italy rather than Melbourne.”

And what kind of home could Australia represent for her after her marriage was over? “I dreaded coming back to Australia,” she says, “because I left feeling I’d lost everything, I’d lost my marriage. We’d been together for more than 20 years, so it was quite a lot of life.”

For her, despite the beauty of its appearance, Tuscany was a place drenched in history and the violence of history – that’s there in the images of peace and war in the great Piero della Francescas in Arezzo – and she hears stories of whole villages being mowed down by gunfire in the time of Mussolini. She says this prevented her from seeing Tuscany as “a pretty landscape, touristically”.

And so, the conversation comes to McPhee’s Hashemite figure, the man who had – so strangely – asked for her services: Prince Hassan. I mention the fact that someone we both know, a famous politician who knew Hassan, described him to me as having “a mind like a woman’s handbag”, and McPhee gasps at the unfairness and perhaps too at the feasibility of the description.

“He had an impossible task,” she says. “He was a man in an impossible situation. But he’d been instrumental in building institutions – institutions in that part of the world are what make all the difference. Countries that don’t have proper institutions are just chaotic and hopeless and subject to all kinds of things. Jordan was by no means perfect, and the institutions were all creaking all the time, but what he managed to do – and I kept being told this not only by his contemporaries but by younger people – was very impressive.”

Would he have been a better bet as king of Jordan? McPhee seems to think he would have compared pretty well to King Hussein, the man they called the plucky little prince who was also something of a playboy. She acknowledges how much Prince Hassan was beset by people asking for his advice. “Hassan was on everything, which meant his public role was to pontificate,” she says. “But his private conversations with me were not pontifications, they were gropings – though groping is a word he would have loathed – towards the meaning of what his life had been all about and what Jordan’s role could be.”

McPhee talks about the contrast between the beauty of where Prince Hassan lives and the tawdrier glitter of the world of motorcades in the part of Amman where King Abdullah – whom she never met – has his palace.

She wonders what the Jordanians think of her book. “I’m a bit nervous,” she says, “about what the family think of the book. I’ve heard absolutely nothing. I was scrupulous about showing people who I name in the text, so I sent it to the Jordanians and got a complete stonewall from the PA person.”

It’s a strange story, this saga of the woman who was the bright shining star of Australian publishing and who understood with an ambivalent intensity why Keating loathed institutions such as the Australia Council, of how she had respect for this quiet prince trying to provide coherent and humane structures in a world that was at the edge of every kind of chaos.

She talks of the warmth of the Muslim households she visited and of the tremendous compassion and welcoming arms that Arab people have for their own refugee kin. She talks of the terrible bubble of isolation Australians live inside when it comes to those who seek asylum. She’s very pensive these days, very modest and bare and without any swish of hauteur or grandeur, despite her days as an institution shaper and shaker under Keating. You get the feeling both talking to her and reading this shifting, intriguing, almost thriller-like book that McPhee is simply herself these days without pretensions or ambitions.

It’s an improbable adventure story, trying to dig like an archaeologist into the enigma of an utterly different world, but in Other People’s Houses Hilary McPhee has found a voice – wry, elegant, dispassionate and wise – that sounds exactly like her own.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Canny McPhee". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.