Biographer Colleen Ryan Clur tells Julia Maurus how she nursed herself through the process of writing about one of Australia’s most important nurses.
Colleen Ryan Clur was looking for a writing project (aside from her day-to-day public relations work, ‘which is not creatively satisfying’) when she met Isobel Mary ‘Pixie’ Annat MBE OAM at St Andrew’s Memorial Hospital in Brisbane.
‘She [Annat] had been the matron and later CEO of St Andrew’s for over two decades, which is a smaller but well-known hospital. She’s one of those people who seem to be on 101 committees. Before I knew it I found myself quite intrigued by her. She comes across as a sweet old lady and I think there’s a tendency to underestimate older people. The more I got to know her the more I realised what an amazing and highly intelligent person she is.’
It became apparent that Annat’s story deserved more than the feature article Clur had intended to write, so she arranged a series of interviews.
St Andrew’s Hospital then commissioned her to write Pixie Annat: Champion of Nurses, which traces Annat’s 50-year career in healthcare, her advocacy for improved training and working conditions for nurses, and her campaigns for a host of other causes. The book was launched in March this year  in Brisbane, the same day that Pixie and her twin sister, Ellen, celebrated their 85th birthday.
Annat decided to become a nurse shortly after the end of World War II. She loved being a nurse but, as Clur explains, they were tough times.
‘Nursing in hospitals was still very much based on the Florence Nightingale system. Everyone was ranked, and all the nurses worked very long hours. There was a pecking order and the trainee nurses had not only many nursing duties, they also had to do much despised housework. Hospitals not only in Australia but in many countries in the world undervalued nurses— the trainees in particular were cheap labour. In Australia for many years there was unwillingness to move nursing schools out of hospitals and into universities.’
Annat quickly became involved in student nurse politics. ‘She sometimes ended up in hot water as she fought for change. She was an excellent nurse and progressed quickly through the ranks, and as a senior sister she ran the private wards at the Royal Brisbane Hospital for many years.’
Annat was appointed matron at 35 and went on to become CEO of St Andrew’s Memorial Hospital. Forging her career at a time when women in the public service weren’t even allowed to have permanent jobs once they were married, Annat ‘was never afraid of anybody. She stood up to the doctors when necessary, though she wasn’t an adversarial type of person.’
One defining incident recounted in the book was when Annat met the Director-General of the Health Department at a state-sponsored Matrons Association annual conference:
‘I told him I was particularly concerned where nursing education was headed. He patted me on the arm and said, “You know, Dearie, nurses only have to rub backs and carry pans”. And I said, “Well, I hope you are not very sick when you come to hospital, because if that’s all they do for you, you will die”.’
Clur says the book was not intended as hagiography but was ‘definitely a sympathetic portrait.’
She observes that everyone she contacted for interview was ‘absolutely thrilled’ to speak to her and ‘there was a consistency in what they said about her, how they described her, no matter which stage of her life they knew her.’
As Clur noticed this consistency, she began organising the biography into the themes that emerged. She had to be selective.
‘To be honest, she’s an interesting person and a lot of people know her but the book didn’t need to be too long. I didn’t set out to chronicle every aspect of her life. She’s been on dozens and dozens of committees so you could write forever. People aren’t interested in long reads. In my book group I often despair if it’s an over-long book. I think many books today could benefit from some sharp editing.’
The process of writing Pixie Annat differed greatly from Clur’s first book, Beyers Naude – Pilgrimage of Faith (first published by David Philip in 1990 in South Africa under her maiden name, Colleen Ryan). Pilgrimage of Faith was pre-internet, so Clur had to approach it in a very structured way, travelling to many countries to gather the information she needed. When writing Pixie Annat, she was overwhelmed at the trove of information accessible on the internet, and her approach was more flexible.
‘With Pixie, it was almost a stream of consciousness. She would jump around between decades. Recounting her story was quite a jigsaw puzzle. She’s quite a storyteller but not a writer. All I started with was a two-page CV, a list of her committees. I also researched archives. It was a process of exclusion because there was so much information.’
She used her skill and experience as a journalist (her ‘nose for news’) to select the material she felt would be interesting to readers.
‘One of Pixie’s friends said to her, “Why don’t you put in that story about the nurses getting stuck in the lift?” but I couldn’t put in everything. I tried to select stories that showed the development of Pixie’s character.’
For Clur, the biggest challenge of the project was not in extracting anecdotes from Annat’s personal journey or collecting the best photographs, but in managing her own physical vulnerabilities as a writer.
Clur, who was a journalist and editor in South Africa for many years and wrote Pixie Annat part-time around her day job in communications, struggles with the muscular strain of computer work and had to change her writing method to progress the project.
‘I can’t sit for four hours after work and write. I stood, I didn’t sit. I made myself a standing desk. I used a dictation program called Dragon to dictate a lot of the book. I typed up the shell structure of the book and then used Dragon. Doctors use it a lot, you can use it to dictate email and articles.
‘For chunks of the book I actually dictated the story and that was quite a different way of writing. I then had to go back and fix it. I think it slowed me down, but I got used to doing it, and I got quicker. When I got to the final last burst I just typed. I was determined to write this book. I thought, “Bugger it, forget the fact that my hands get sore.”’
She points out that quite a few writers have used dictation— Stendhal, for example, is reputed to have written The Charterhouse of Parma in seven weeks.
The last word goes to Annat, who has inspired so many. As Clur discovered, ‘Pixie believes that the (nursing) profession has not really changed, and nor has her philosophy’:
It’s about the care you give to the patient as an individual. That hasn’t changed. The training has changed – earlier it was by the hospital method, now it is through academic study and some practical experience – I believe this practical experience needs to be extended.
I have always told nurses that the patient must feel that the person caring for them knows them, knows what they are doing and does it with a smile. I used to say to the student nurses, “Never talk to another person over a patient in bed, even if you think they are unconscious”. Often they can hear what you are saying even if they can’t convey it to you.
Pixie Annat: Champion of Nurses (RRP $34.95) is published by University of Queensland Press.
Images published with permission.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Colleen Clur’ in The Australian Writer issue 388 (June–August 2015).