Susan Duncan’s new view of life

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Susan Duncan’s new view of life Susan Duncan and her dogs at her Benbulla property, near Wingham. She’s written about building a new home there with her husband Bob, in her latest book, High on the Hill. Picture: Scott Calvin
Nanjing Night Net

Susan Duncan at her Benbulla property, near Wingham. She’s written about building a new home there with her husband Bob, in her latest book, High on the Hill. Picture: Scott Calvin

Susan Duncan’s husband Bob with cattle at their Benbulla property, near Wingham. Duncan’s written a new book about the project and life events: High on the Hill. Picture courtesy Susan Duncan

Susan Duncan with her “boys” at their Benbulla property, near Wingham. Duncan’s written a new book about the project and her life events: High on the Hill. Picture courtesy Susan Duncan

Susan Duncan in a shed on at her and husband Bob’s Benbulla property during construction of their house. Duncan’s written a new book about the project and life events: High on the Hill. Picture courtesy Susan Duncan

Sunrise at Benbulla. Picture courtesy of Susan Duncan

Susan Duncan and one of her dogs on her Benbulla property at Wherrol Flat near Wingham in the Manning Valley. Picture: Scott Calvin

Susan Duncan’s home at Benbulla. She’s written about building the new residence in her latest book, High on the Hill.

TweetFacebook The House on the Hill, Susan Duncan wanted to pack her bags and go.

“I said to my husband Bob ‘We are leaving the country, I don’t want to be around for any of this’,” said the former journalist and author of best-selling memoirSalvation Creek.

“Then I just thought about it, I’m 65, who cares what people think of me? We are all going to be dead one day, it doesn’t matter.”

The House on the Hill book was released, the publicity trail started and Duncan waited for the response.

“It’s quite interesting, I sort of geared myself up and not one person has said anything,” Duncan says. “People have just come up and patted me, which makes me teary when I think of it. There’s just this level of understanding and compassion that is just overwhelming.”

Duncan shared the grief of losing a husband and brother within days of one another in theSalvation Creek book. Shehas battled and survived breast cancer, edited two major women’s magazines and navigated foreign newsrooms – but through all of this, she still had one secret left to share.

For the first time Duncan has written about the sexual assault she experienced as a child at the hands of her grandfather – a secret her mother not only knew, but had experienced too.

Journey of discovery: Susan Duncan at her Benbulla home near Wingham. Picture: Scott Calvin

“I thought ‘I’ll just write it’. I’ll just put it in where it fits. I don’t sign contracts, the deal isn’t done, I don’t have to do this, I can pull it all back.”

“I gave it to Bob to read and I said ‘is this the most insane decision of my life? Or is the greatest error of judgement I’ve ever made?’.

“Part of it all too was all that stuff was going on in Ballarat and Newcastle [investigation of child sexual abuse by clergy]. I kept watching those incredibly brave and damaged adults stand up. Because the omission of something like that, is always conjoined with blame.

“Even though you’re a child, and you’re blameless, and you’re a victim in many ways, you always assume some type of blame. The terror is everyone will look at you as someone who is damaged and in ways you don’t want to be seen.

“The thing about Salvation Creek, is it was a tragedy, through no fault of my own. The thing about this, it’s that minuscule hint of blame, that sits in people’s mind.

“I was three or four years old, it’s just impossible to shake, even now.”

When asked why she ready to share with readers now, Duncan says:“I don’t even know that I was ready. I knew had to explain the chasm, the emotional chasm between my mother and I. When I found out the same thing had happened to her – that was the beginning of unravelling the whole anger between us. Just that underlying rage, just went.

“My mother is a very tough woman, but also extremely vulnerable.She’s one of those personalities, she’s quite narcissistic, in the sense she’s always been extremely beautiful, people have always fallen at her feet. Whatever happens to anyone else, she only sees how it affects her. I remember when I told her I had cancer, she said ‘well you may as well take me with you’, as if me getting cancer had killed her. That huge ego, that low self-esteem, that kind of makes her, her own worst enemy in a lot of ways.

“At the same time I owe her everything, she did what she hoped, and what was the best for me. She made sure I didn’t fall by the wayside. She made sure I had a good education. So she did really well and I’m eternally grateful.

“And I’m really glad we’re not angry at each other anymore.”

Duncanwas far from telling the story of what happened to her and her mother;The House on the Hill was going to be about just that -building a house.

“I thought I’d write a short book on what’s it like taking on a project that’s bigger than you think you should,” Duncan says. “The first draft was a total Pollyanna look at building a house. I didn’t put in any of the downsides, which I think is a natural instinct with most writers. When I read it back and I thought, this isabsolute shite.

“Anyone reading this would know it’s full of either glaring omissions about the stuff that goes wrong or just someone who hasn’t understood the whole process.

“So I went back and started again, around that time my mother had a triple bypass.

“I was starting to understand ageing from my own perspective, and also from hers.

“I thought nobody writes about ageing, and being a journalist I thought there’s a reason for that – it’s because no one wants to read about ageing, because none of us want to admit it.

“But I thought I don’t care, somebody needs to write about ageing and I needed to write about ageing.

“Because in the process of writing, you understand more, it forces you to think things through, not just roll over the surface of things, so I started to understand more.”

What no one could understand was why Susan wanted to leave her beloved Pittwater.

Leaving Pittwater“Everyone at Pittwater was saying “Are you cracked? Why would you leave Pittwater?,” Susan said.

“Even Bob’s children were saying ‘Dad aren’t you a bit old to do this?’.”

At Pittwater, Bob and Susan shared a home called Tarrangaua which was built for poet Dorothea Mackellar in 1925.

Located on the shimmery waters of Lovett Bay, the grand old house and its surrounds, was the setting of Susan’s award-winning memoirs Salvation Creek (2006), The House at Salvation Creek (2008) and A Life on Pittwater (2010).

“The truth is you get older,” she said.

“Travelling home by boat at night, when it’s stormy – it’s quite challenging.

“And if you don’t travel you start to feel imprisoned by your house.

“During those months when it’s cold, when the light drops at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, having somewhere else would be a perfect thing.

“What we did not realise is we would fall totally in love with it and now Pittwater feels like a holiday house – it’s amazing what’s happened.”

Finding WinghamSusan and Bob discovered the charms of country life, when Bob, a civil engineer, was asked to build a kiln for Wingham’s Lincoln Brickworks.

Owned by the Baker family, it was a make-or-break plea to save a long-running family business.

At first Bob said no, which later turned to a yes.

During the project Susan and Bob stayed in BnBs and rented.

On weekends they would travel the countryside, from the sub-tropical rainforests to the coast.

They covered huge ground within the vast Manning Valley and had started to love the place.

“We were really lucky we knew everyone from the brickworks,” Susan said.

“and I mean Wingham, what an exquisite, manageable little town.

“It’s got everything you could possibly want and no traffic jams.

“Whereas Mona Vale in 20 years has become a metropolis of coffee and dress shops, neither of which really interest me.”

The house on the hillSusan and Bob’s initial home ideas were humble.

They wanted a cottage, with power and water, with the ambition of one day going solar.

It would be a small acreage with no hills – they had 88 steps up to their Pittwater home, and it was time for a nice, flat landscape, with a good road.

“We wanted everything good for when we get our slippers out and get into old age, and which I’d have to say we’re there,” she said.

Susan DuncanA domestic lifeLife may be slower in the country, but it’s hard work, something Bob and Susan must tend to every day across their close to 300 acres.

“Here you can’t put off,” Susan said.

“Take fireweed – if you don’t do it before it goes to seed, you’ve got seven years of it.

“You can’t not weed the garden, you can’t not fertilize and get the worm wee and spray it – you’ve got to do it, and you get fitter.

“What is so lovely about this life, is it’s profoundly domestic – which I love.

“It’s a celebration of the domesticity which is so easy to lose because you think I’m tired I’ll just go get a take-a-way.

“If I’ve grown 30 cauliflowers I’m not going to waste one, I’m sorry, I’m just not, so you’re pickling it.

“And if you don’t cook, you don’t eat.”

Second chanceSusan describes the house and their new life in the Manning Valley as a “second chance”.

“When you stay in a place for a long time, like Pittwater, as magical as it is, it’s impossible not to take some of the magic for granted occasionally.

“What having here is, is a whole new magic and when you go back there you see the old magic again more clearly.

“I just think I’m lucky, privileged, I don’t know how, but I’ll take it thanks.”

DedicationThe House on the Hill is dedicated to Susan’s husband Bob.

“If you have a relationship with someone and it’s right, everything’s easy, even the bad parts are easy,” Susan said.

“I’ve thrown everything at Bob to get him to walk away – and he never has.

“He likes the problems, I run from them, he likes the journey, I just want to get there and have it.

“Even when we garden, he plants things so tenderly – I pull out all the weeds

“I’m just very lucky. He came along at a time in life, when everyone said ‘it’s over’, ‘you are too old’, but you are never too old.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.