Pressed Tongue and Baked Trombone

Day One

I wake up in the pre-dawn half-light and stumble round the flat, making coffee (black and sweet, with cardomom), breakfast (ham on toast) and trying to clean the kitchen up so that the cockies will have to scavenge rather than simply browse. Heft my bag, which is too big, down the stairs and then up the hill to the station. Negotiate the automatic ticket machine . . . there’s a fellow, perhaps a simpleton, trying to work out how to get to Blacktown and I engage briefly with him before going up onto the platform to wait for the train.

Bony yellow after storm light across the rooftops of the city, looking south and east from Petersham. Bedraggled survivors of last night’s Mardi Gras. The whole town looks hungover. Once again (I must be getting old) that piercing sense of imminent (or not so imminent) mortality: the way we accumulate knowledge and experience over a lifetime, the way we structure what we remember, whatever we have learned, so it makes a whole; only for the entire ramshackle (or not) arrangement to fall into dissolution, the irruption of chaos throughout the precarious organic order we call life.

Then again, who cares? In the practical infinitude of any city, there will be, there are, entities rising beyond the scope of even our least forgetful gods.

Valleys full of cloud in the Blue Mountains. They look  almost solid. A grey-white albumen, whipped into smooth, sculpted shape.

Later, over South Australia, the cloud mass begins to break up into small discrete fragments of cumulus sailing in flotillas over the checkerboard fields; their dark shadows like the footprints of monopods on the earth below.

De-planing in Adelaide I see a woman standing, holding a card that reads: Hard To Be A God. I smile at her but she ignores me.

It’s nice to be met at the airport and driven into town. Her name is Rachel, she is young and enthusiastic, with a pleasant manner. She takes me to the Intercontinental but I can’t check in yet, it’s too early, so I drop off my bags and continue on to the venue . . . where someone calls out my name, someone I don’t know, she’s recognised me from my photo, she is the next tier up on the hierarchy, her name is Anna, she introduces me to the wife of a Newfoundland writer, Michael Crummey, who’s signing books after his session. This is the beginning of a social swirl that will go on for days.

The McCahon in the art gallery is much larger than I thought it would be. A somehow spectral white cross on a black ground, with the five wounds protruding from the vertical edges of the thick, unstretched canvas like . . . I don’t know what they’re like, they’re just themselves I guess. While I am looking at it a small man with owl glasses approaches and I realise it is John McDonald, the art critic, and introduce myself. We look at the McCahon together. I point out faint white marks on the black, like hand drags or elbow scrapes, and he says that’s what he likes about McCahons, their informality, their humility as objects. He has a wary look on his face, as if I might turn out to be one of those bores that won’t let you go; so I let him go.

Up the other end of the room there’s a fine group of Hermannsburg water-colours hung together on diagonal wall by themselves. Two Albert Namatjiras, two Enos Namatjiras, one Ewald Namatjira, an Otto Pareroultja, a largish horizontal Wenten Rubuntja, three by Kevin Namatjira . . . Albert’s are late, 1950’s paintings, modest, small, unassuming at first glance and then increasingly seductive, indeed monumental, when you start to go into them. You can also see the way he provided a template, as it were, for the others, his sons, his grandson, his younger colleagues, to depart from into their varying degrees of abstraction or expressionism. I feel privileged to be able to stand in front of one of Namatjira’s purple bluffs and look up and across, past Rosalie Gascoigne and Gordon Bennett, to the Colin McCahon.

I’m hungry. I leave the gallery and wander across North Terrace and down an alley into Rundle Mall. It’s Sunday arvo and you wouldn’t hardly know there was a festival on . . . can’t find anywhere I want to eat until I reach King William Street and cross over into Hindley. Last time I was here, in 2010, I stayed in a small, fairly rundown hotel that had a cafe attached: The Boulevard. It’s almost like coming home, the people, though they don’t recognize me, are the same as before. I order a steak sandwich and a glass of wine and sit watching the comings and goings on the street and up and down the alley. There’s a fellow with a backpack on who spends the entire time I am there talking on his phone; while various denizens of the street come and go with handshakes, head nods, smiles etc in his direction. He must dealing, I think, though what I cannot tell.

The hotel took my mobile number and promised to call when the room was ready but of course they didn’t; but they did take my luggage up to 1204. The room is oddly shaped, hexagonal I think, as if piled up on top of and next to the others like a cell in a hive. There are big chips in the pink marble on the bathroom floor and I wonder how they could have happened? I thought I might relax, have a lie-down, but I’m too keyed up. I shower, change my clothes and go back down to the venue: a pattern I will follow, hotel to venue to Hindley to hotel, for the rest of my few days here.

Les Murray is standing alone on the grass looking pensively into the middle distance so I go up and introduce myself to him too . . . I mention the name of a mutual friend but after that there’s nothing to say. He is wearing a big striped pullover, is quite fat, and has brown stains round his mouth, perhaps coffee, perhaps food. Maybe I interrupted the composition of a poem. I see him again next morning in the lift; after we say hello to each other, I ask him how’s it going and he says, quite well. We don’t speak again.

Adelaide reminds me of a New Zealand city but I don’t know which one – perhaps a generic NZ city if such a thing can be. A generic Australian New Zealand city. Anyone I mention this to says Christchurch but I don’t think so. Not even pre-quake Christchurch. The railway station, for instance, is Wellington; the gardens, New Plymouth. When I look out my hotel window I see railway lines running away into the west past the vast building site where a new hospital is being erected; and the Torrens, brown and wide and sluggish like the Whanganui . . . but not really. At one of the sessions I hear a poet, Mike Ladd, tell how he walked the river from its source to its mouth. He reads the opening section of his book, Karrawirra Parri. I did not know before that the wide apertures you often find at the base of the trunk of a river red gum were sometimes big enough to be used as shelter from the rain.

There’s a cocktail party that evening. Drinks on trays and delicious morsels of food. I’m hungry again so I eat as much as I can. The publisher of Luca Antara is there, I think it is only the second time we have met in person but she feels like an old friend. Michaela still loves the book, is still promoting it when and if she can. I also meet Dionne Brand who I’ll be on a panel with in the morning, she’s from Trinidad via Toronto, seemed intimidating when I read about her online but turns out to be just lovely. We start talking and soon discover a mutual enthusiasm for Javier Marías and José Saramago. Winifred Atwell’s name comes up too. Later, after I buy and read her book, Ossuaries, I find the lines: beginning to read The Year of the Death / of Ricardo Reis / for the twentieth time and wish I could ask her if that’s really true.

Afterwards I go up to the bar and have a couple more drinks with the festival director and a few other people but I’m very tired now and decide to go early to bed . . . but I’m still hungry! The sushi I buy in a convenience store is fresher and better than I expected and the banana just the way I like them. I read a chapter of Sex at Dawn before dropping off to sleep.


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