When she isn’t answering curly questions as part of AEU Victoria’s Member Support team, Edwina Preston is a teacher, musician, writer and PhD candidate. Many who frequent Melbourne’s bars and clubs will know Edwina from bands Atom, the Moll Flanders Band, and Harry Howard and the NDE.
Edwina has also published a biography, Howard Arkley: Not Just a Suburban Boy, as well as the novel The Inheritance of Ivorie Hammer, and now her second novel is receiving keen critical attention. Bad Art Mother is a portrait of a female poet struggling for recognition in the Melbourne art world of the 1960s.
Edwina dedicated the book to Carolyn Lloyd, the mother of her best friend and “one of the original pram-pushing front-bar-stormers of the Graham Hotel public bar in Melbourne’s CBD and the Manhattan Hotel in Ringwood, 1972.” This dedication sets the tone of the novel – a story of struggle and resistance.
Carolyn Lloyd was a significant feminist figure in Edwina’s childhood. “She was high up in the Victorian Teachers Union in the 1990s. She worked for the working women’s sector, which was attached to the ACTU, so that was my earliest union influence, beyond the fact both my parents were teachers and union members.”
“It is work that’s meaningful. Sometimes it’s a matter of giving them the words they need to advocate for themselves.”
Bad Art Mother has had a positive reception from readers hungry for stories of women, and for books set in Melbourne. “I wanted to set it in that proto-feminist generation. Pre-1975 so much happened in the laws of Australia,” Edwina explains. “Theoretically, the 1960s were progressive, but not for everyone.”
Creativity and women’s work form the bedrock of Edwina’s focus – she has been working on a creative writing PhD about sisters, and her Masters thesis looked at correspondence as a female-centric writing practice, allowing, as it does, for interruption.
Edwina describes her AEU role, lovingly, as the work of a “bush lawyer” – advocating for members, representing members at conciliatory meetings, and using her well-honed writing skills to help members find the right language in their professional communications. “Sometimes it’s a matter of giving someone the words they need to advocate for themselves.”
She likes to make a difference. “I had a win at the tribunal for a woman with cancer recently, and I felt like I made a difference to that person’s life. It is work that’s genuinely meaningful.”
“The way teachers are disrespected is just appalling. All that compliance work they have to do; so many barriers to just getting on with teaching, just being able to do your job without constantly being measured and quantified.”
Edwina is particularly well placed to do this work, which is a perfect melding of her skills. “I did a couple of years of law when I finished school, and even this little bit has held me in good stead. I’ve also taught writing at Melbourne Polytechnic and RMIT.”
When it comes to the challenges for teachers, Edwina points out that individuals are often blamed for endemic problems. “The way teachers are disrespected is just appalling. All that compliance work they have to do; so many barriers to just getting on with teaching, just being able to do your job without constantly being measured and quantified.”
At school, there were teachers who made a big impact on Edwina. “I had one particular English Lit teacher called Mr McKenzie who was very inspiring. You could tell he cared and was interested in you and was on your side.”
Edwina brings that same level of care to her own work – her music, her writing, and very much to her work at the union for the benefit of members.