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Your KS #36: Katharine’s ‘dear, good comrades’, Joan and Vic Williams

Joan Williams was a communist, a journalist, and a writer whose activism spanned from the 1930s to the 1990s. Her memoir Anger and Love (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1993)—published under her pen name, Justina Williams—has many glimpses of Katharine Susannah Prichard from someone who knew her well.

Before Joan met Katharine, she describes seeing her house for the first time in the 1930s:

[My uncle] Harry… gave up Sundays to drive us all in the A-model Ford… on an excursion to the hills… Ascending Greenmount’s steep stretch, the radiator fulfilled all [Grandma’s] fears by boiling over.

The car topped at the junction of Old York Road—the original route to the Eastern Goldfields—and the Great Eastern Highway, almost at the gate of a small wooden cottage half hidden by pale blue plumbago and tangled grape vines. A red witch lived there, Grandma said, named Mrs Throssell… ‘She’s quite a famous writer… An awful scandal about her book…’

My desire to meet her stirred…. [But] [t]he house was empty. Harry got some water somewhere else and we moved on. (p.50)

In 1938, Joan saw her in person:

Katharine’s play, Women of Spain, was put on at the Perth Town Hall in aid of Spanish Relief. Could this small, rather colourless women with straight greying hair cut short and clipped back from a high forehead be the witch of Greenmount who so shocked Perth people? She spoke slowly and simply, avoiding the padding and circumlocutions that wore out reporters, giving an impression of emotional commitment on a carefully reasoned basis. When the applause died down, she took up her cigarette in its ivory holder and calmly answered questions. (p.65)

Joan came to know Katharine through the Modern Women’s Club. Despite Joan upsetting Katharine with her criticisms of the novel Golden Miles, their friendship developed through the 1950s and 1960s. Joan and her husband Victor, a docker and a communist activist, were frequent visitors to Greenmount in this period. In a 1954 letter to Vic, Katharine wrote, ‘love to you & Joan—such dear, good comrades on the rough road we travel these days’. Both Joan and Vic were accomplished poets and Katharine wrote to Vic in that same letter, ‘Your poems have such a sense of joy & valour in the struggle, I am sure they will inspire to greater effort for our supreme objective’. Katharine chose Joan to edit the selection of her work, On Strenuous Wings (1965).

Long term members of KSPWC will remember Joan (1916-2008) and Vic (1914-2011), who were involved with the centre for many years, maintaining a strong living link to Katharine over its first two decades. Glen Phillips (pictured right, with Joan and Victor), writes:

As several times FAW President (and also other committee office bearings), Joan was one of the strongest supporters of the plan to set up Katharine’s Place as a Writers’ Centre. If memory serves me correctly, she was one of the original board members and helped lobby the then Minister for the Arts to purchase the property and cede it to the Shire of Mundaring. She continued to support KSPWC strongly and helped with ‘working bees’ (Vic organised the appropriate union to rebuild the stone chimney for the old writing room) and special events.

Image: Joan and Victor Williams in 2008 with KSPWC patron, Glen Phillips (right). (Photo: Glen Phillips)

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