A Pearl Called Marj

‘Always keep a pole handy.’ This from Marj Wilke, a woman who is to the Society of Women Writers of Queensland what Alan McGilvray was to cricket. ‘A light one,’ she adds, ‘but long enough to hang onto when you’re up a ladder.’ It turns out that grasping said pole secures one’s balance when inspecting a light bulb or washing the ceiling. Marj is one of the Society’s great treasures, and the pole advice is one of her many pearls of wisdom. Here’s another: ‘Throw your shoulders back when you walk, that’s the way to amble; you can go all day like that.’ Marj has a chest full of these gems.

Way back in 1977

Marjorie Wilke joined the Society of Women Writers Australia in 1977, when Queensland was a ‘magazine branch’ attached to the parent body, founded in NSW in 1925. The magazine had been established the year before with Bridget Godbold as coordinator. Marj and husband Gus had a farm in Gayndah, and between milking and childcare, Marj conducted writing classes in Mundubbera. When the family moved to Brisbane in 1981, she placed a notice in the paper calling for interest in forming a Queensland branch of Women Writers. National President Kathryn Purnell came to the inaugural meeting in Marj’s home, and SWWQ was formed. Mocco Wollert was President of the first executive (1982-84) and Marj was Vice President. Other founding members include Shirley Lawrence and Jill Slack. Marj was President 1984-86, Vice President 1986-88, and President again 1995-97. She was Magazine Coordinator from 1979 to 1985, during which time the original Morialta membership expanded and was divided into three magazines. Early meetings were held in various venues including St Andrew’s Church in Ann Street.

To the Adelaide Conference

The federal executive of Women Writers moved from state to state every two years, and conferences were held biennially in that state’s capital until the federal body disbanded in 2000. Having attended her first conference in 1978, Marj went to the Adelaide conference in 1982 with Jill and Mocco, representing the newly-formed Queensland branch. Mocco remembers the Queensland contingent smuggling cartons of wine into the CWA, where they were staying, and Adelaide women admiring their tans. Marj came in as Federal President in 1988, and the Queensland conference was held at the Banyo Seminary.

The Queensland Writers Centre

In the 1980s, the Fellowship of Australian Writers of Queensland began lobbying for a state writers centre, and SWWQ representative Marj Wilke was present at the first meeting of the official steering committee in October 1988. A membership fee of $10 was established and Marj, as newly-appointed Treasurer, put in the first $10. She opened the brand new receipt book and wrote her name on receipt No. 01, going down in history as the person to officially ‘start’ the Queensland Writers Centre. SWWQ member Adele Moy was also on committee in her role as Arts Queensland’s Literature Advisor. Adele notes that a press photograph taken around this time includes SWWQ members Betty Birksys and Joan Priest, indicating the important and vital role the Society played in the establishment of an organisation that has gone on to support thousands of members and establish countless Queensland writers.

Marj’s writing includes a hand-bound historical novel called Firehand and the Callum Thomas series. Members grew attached to the great-nephew at the heart of the latter, and Callum’s death during the 2016 Bribie Island retreat was a blow to all. But writing has taken a back seat in recent years. Marj has four grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren, and each receives a hand-knitted heirloom quilt that can weigh up to three kilos. The family estimates that Marj has produced enough knitting to cover a tennis court. Now working on her 39th quilt, she reckons that three great-grandchildren arriving in one year was a bit rich: ‘I wonder why I’m not writing.’ As a writer, Marj is well connected, counting Banjo Paterson and Barbara Blackman among her rellies, but when pressed for a short introduction at a recent SWWQ meeting, she said this: ‘When the worst thing possible happens when you’re little, you can put up with anything.’ Another pearl. Marj was eight when her mother died as a result of airborne kapok in the furniture factory where she worked as an apprentice upholsterer. Marj and her sisters then worked like slaves on a property in Millmerran that was ruled by the one-legged Aunty Flo who features in many of Marj’s tales. This childhood shaped, but did not embitter, a woman who, if I had to sum her up in one word, is ‘unflappable’. At SWWQ, Marj has seen presidents come and go, plans fly and fail, and logos and names for newsletters pop up and disappear. These days she rarely bats an eyelid.

40 Years of Memories

Looking back over 40 years of membership, Marj cherishes the lifelong friendships she has made. Mocco Wollert, Jill Slack and Shirley Lawrence are still SWWQ members. Jill writes, ‘I have known and loved [Marj] since she drew me into the magazine membership in, I think, 1981. She has always had an amazing nothing-is-impossible attitude.’ Marj counts as other highlights the Bribie Island retreats and the Society’s numerous publications, and she looks forward to a member one day winning the coveted Alice Award. Marj is a life member of SWWQ and it is fitting that 2017 saw the Society’s annual writing prizes renamed the Marj Wilke Awards.

The Petticoat Story

Born in 1930, Marj is an exponent of what might be called ‘old wisdom’ but in many ways she’s ahead of her time. She chose to give up her car over a decade ago. She is never without a hat out of doors and is a great exponent of the petticoat: ‘You’ll never leave the Ladies with your skirt caught in the back of your undies…’ I witnessed another benefit of this garment after the final meeting for 2017, when Marj stopped abruptly as we entered the foyer. Her skirt was around her ankles. The waistband elastic had suddenly called it quits. Having revealed nothing, Marj whipped the skirt up and tucked the top into her underwear. She shot me a knowing sideways smile that said, ‘petticoat,’ and ambled on. One day during the drought of the 1960s, Marj said to Gus, ‘If I’ve got to dairy til the day I die, I want to die tomorrow.’ Gus opened the gates and let the calves out. Marj’s dairying days were over. ‘You never know when you do anything for the last time, do you?’ Another pearl from Marj Wilke.


Thanks to Marj Wilke, Trudy Graham, Adele Moy, Mocco Wollert and Jill Slack for their help with this history.