A crowded life after an 'un-Australian childhood'
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A crowded life after an 'un-Australian childhood'

AMIRAH INGLIS

Author

Amirah Inglis in 1984.

Amirah Inglis in 1984.Credit:Canberra Times archives

7-12-1926 – 2-5-2015

By the side of Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin stands a bronze bas-relief map of Spain and an account of the Australians who were involved in the Spanish Civil War. This memorial was unveiled in 1993 by Lloyd Edmonds, one of the last surviving Australian members of the International Brigade, an umbrella group who came from abroad to help the Spanish Republican movement. A plaque records Netta Burns as the memorial's "maker". No other people are mentioned, but among the group that worked to establish the memorial one name should surely stand out. That name is Amirah Inglis, author of Australians in the Spanish Civil War, published in 1987, who was arguably the group's prime mover.

This small vignette of her otherwise crowded life captures the essence of Inglis' character. A woman imbued with the collective spirit, she shunned any personal credit. Writer, accomplished musician, mother and great companion, she was born Amirah Gutstadt in Brussels, Belgium. Two years later she travelled with her mother, Manka, to join her father, Itzhak, who had settled in Melbourne. Polish Jews, they were to be spared the Holocaust, first by residing in British Mandate Palestine then, on returning to Europe, by obtaining visas to Australia.

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Itzhak Gutstadt immediately fell in love with Australia. He adopted a new name and quickly made a place for himself, developing a somewhat idiosyncratic if workable version of the language – 'a cattle of fish' being one of his most fondly remembered locutions. Like many migrant women, Manka was more isolated than her husband, and her adjustment to the new country slower, but eventually she too became an integral part of inner Melbourne's politically active migrant community. The family spoke Yiddish and Polish at home, but their talented daughter could also speak the French she had learned in Brussels. By this time Amirah, like her parents, was known by the more easily assimilable surname of Gust.

The subject of her unusual names features in her 1983 memoir Amirah: An Un-Australian Childhood. For most of those early years she was an only child (Ian, her brother, is 14 years her junior), and her childhood was spent in the inner suburbs of Parkville, Brunswick and Carlton. At the age of four she entered the local state school, and she wrote of her induction into the formal education system thus:

"The red-brick and white stucco infants department of the school stood by itself in Pigdon Street, and its headmistress, a formidable lady called Miss Horner, greeted us in a costume and hat, which turned out to be her regular daily outfit. When she took me into the school I bellowed and struggled. I was happy playing by myself, had never been away from my mother (except for those early weeks when she had been in hospital) and with her had travelled across the world to the new land. As I was firmly held back on one side of the white lattice and my mother was sent away crying on the other, I bellowed even louder."

However she soon came to enjoy the school and became an excellent student. Her education continued at MacRobertson Girls' High School and she was awarded an exhibition in her leaving honours exam. The Gusts were communists, but it was only in 1945, after Amirah had enrolled at Melbourne University and spent a year as a member of the socialist Labor Club, that she herself joined the Communist Party. This was when she met Ian Turner, one of the university's ex-servicemen students, also a party member, who would become her first husband and father her three children. Her political involvement detracted from her studies, though, and she graduated with what for her was a disappointing second-class honours history degree.

She started work as a librarian, first with the Department of Transport and then with the Communist Party's Melbourne newspaper.

When Turner lost his job at the railways because of his Communist membership, the party installed him as manager of the Australasian Book Society. Amirah was left increasing alone with the children; her political activity waned and the marriage deteriorated. In 1956, the revelations of Stalin's crimes, and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Hungary, accelerated the unravelling of the communist world. Turner's response to these events led to his expulsion from the party, and in 1959 he and Amirah and their young family left Melbourne for Canberra, where he took up a PhD scholarship and she began teaching music at the new Lyneham High School. It was in Canberra, though, that the fissures in the marriage widened sufficiently to end it altogether.

In 1961, the year of the split between the Russian and Chinese Communists, she quit the party. For years afterwards, she wrote in her second memoir, The Hammer and the Sickle and the Washing Up, "I turned from communist politics, any politics." Yet she couldn't change her spots entirely, and later admitted that "the chance to do good – an impulse which inspires every Communist Party member as much as every Christian missionary ... does not die when we leave the party".

In Canberra she began a happy and productive relationship with the historian Ken Inglis that lasted until her death. They married in 1965, bringing three children each to their blended family. In 1967 Ken became the second vice-chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea and Amirah and all but one of the children went to Port Moresby with him. There, after an uneasy accommodation to the issues of colonialism, race and gender that PNG posed, Amirah started writing. She began with an article, "The Tale of Two Cities", for the journal Nation, and ended up publishing Not a White Woman Safe: Sexual Anxiety and Politics in Port Moresby, 1920-34, the first of her seven books, the year before the Inglises returned to Canberra.

More books followed, including another on PNG, the two volumes of memoirs and her study of the Spanish Civil War, inspired by her beloved Uncle Henri, her mother's brother, who had been a member of the International Brigade. In 2007 Amirah and Ken Inglis left Canberra for Melbourne to be closer to their children and grandchildren. Amirah died after a long illness and days before the 50th anniversary of her second marriage.

She is survived by Ken and the children they shared, Deborah, Judith, John Henry, James, Kate and Louise, and grandchildren Daniel, Tom, Nicolas, Alex, Rose, Gus, Kate, Duccio, Eve, Bec and Amira.