Sorry to break into our usual rhythm of transmission, but something important has happened in Verity La-La-Land, and we want to share it with you.
It all comes down to this question: why ‘Verity La’?
Most regular readers will know that it’s an abbreviation of ‘Verity Lane’, a very dodgy back-alley in Canberra, Australia’s national capital (which turns 100 this year, just by the way), where the journal was born.
More importantly, however, we’ve received a very special email, telling us that the name now given to the lane also commemorates the birth there, in 1938, of Verity Hewitt’s, Canberra’s first serious bookshop:
In that pre-electronic age, this bookshop and its owner encouraged the distribution and intelligent discussion of literature in the otherwise bleak cultural environment of 1930s Canberra, perhaps comparable in some ways to your use today of the online journal. From a wider perspective, Verity was a remarkable example of mid-twentieth-century woman, independent, brave, and with a deep and creative interest in literature and people.
You may not want to take my word for this and instead look at the entry for Verity Fitzhardinge in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Please do check out the ADB entry, but a summary follows, and I’m paraphrasing from that source, which was researched and written by Suzanne Edgar.
Hope Verity Fitzhardinge, teacher and bookseller, was born on 12 December 1908 at Glen Innes, New South Wales, the eldest of seven children. As an adult, married and unhappy, loathing housework (who can blame her?), Verity opened a bookshop in East Row on 1 April 1938. From second-hand books, it expanded to sell new books, prints and artefacts, and to hold art exhibitions. Unsuccessful financially, it became a ‘pool of light’ for the book-starved community, reflecting the friendliness of its owner, who delivered library books by sulky. Her sister June took over when the Fitzhardinges returned to Sydney in 1945.
Diverse cultures intrigued Verity and in Sydney she studied Russian. Secretary of the Russian Social Club, she hosted Pushkin Circle meetings at her Pymble home. Unworldly and generous, she took in the homeless; two such, migrants, informed the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation that she was a communist. This rumour persisted but was not substantiated. She called herself a ‘fellow traveller’, a ‘romantic’.
In 1948 Verity travelled to Russia. In 1951 she and her husband resettled in Canberra. Helped by Russian migrants, she ran an orchard at Narrabundah while caring for family. ASIO kept both Fitzhardinges under surveillance. Undeterred, Verity learned Russian from, and taught English to, numerous officials, including Evdokia Petrov, at the Embassy of the Soviet Union. She also worked as a relief teacher. When her Canberra Grammar School pupils locked her in a cupboard, she was encouraged to resign. Her appearance grew weather-beaten and eccentric.
In 1963 Verity revisited Russia. At the Australian National University she investigated Russian contacts with colonial Australia and, later, the Anglo-Russian construction in the 1880s of the border between Afghanistan and the Russian Empire. There, in 1966, she walked the entire border, alone.
Verity died on 23 June 1986 in Canberra. An agnostic, she was cremated.
Who wrote the email mentioned above? One of Verity’s sons. And he concludes with this: Verity would have been sympathetic with your aims and pleased with your work.
So, Hope Verity Fitzhardinge: we honour you, and the collective hard work of us is dedicated to you. And it always will be.
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary fiction and creative journalism. Since 2010 Nigel has been working on a series of novellas exploring modern Australian family life. The first, Fall On Me, was published by Blemish Books in 2011 and won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction).