The first thing I have to do is contact my distributor in Sydney—when I arrived yesterday there were just three copies of Dark Night in the book tent, and three of Zone of the Marvellous; by end of day all six had gone. I call her on the mobile, she doesn’t answer, so I leave a message. She replies later that day but for some reason I don’t receive, or don’t notice, the text. Today, Monday, a couple more copies of Dark Night appear to sit forlorn beside the stacks of Luca Antara and The Supply Party that Michaela has organised. Eventually I find out (through the bookseller) that the copies that should be here are languishing in a warehouse in Sydney and will not arrive in time for my solo session on Wednesday. This is of course a ridiculous situation but what can I do? I don’t know if it is the fault of the publisher in Auckland, the distributor in Sydney, the festival organiser or the bookseller in Adelaide . . . oh well. I’m used to this—it seems impossible for a book published in New Zealand to achieve efficient distribution in Australia, even when it has good notices and good word of mouth.
My morning session is on the East Stage with Dionne Brand and Andrea di Robilant, an Italian who’s written a book called Venetian Navigators about the improbably named Zen brothers who sailed the northern ocean as far as Iceland, Greenland and perhaps even Vineland in the 14th century; in an alliance with a Scots laird called Henry Sinclair. He reminds me a little of Richard Ford—the large head, clear eyes, courtly charm, impeccable manners—and it turns out he does have an American mother. Our chair is Laura Kroetsch, who is the reason I’m here at all, and our topic: Voyages Real and Imagined. I offer a quote from Petrarch that was the epigraph for Hypnogeography and we jump off with that: I decided to travel to those lands, not just once on a very long journey by ship or on horse or on foot; but many times on a tiny map, with only books and the imagination as my guide.
Andrea chooses a short passage about travelling in Greenland. He reads as elegantly as he writes: a stylist who accomplishes that most difficult of things, to appear to write without style. It’s strange to be under the blue sails, the green trees, the blue sky, contemplating the icy lands of the North. When it’s my turn (I didn’t know this was going happen, selected the piece moments before going on, when Laura thrust a copy of Luca Antara at me) I read the account of my visit to Rinca, off Flores, to see the Komodo dragons. I hadn’t realised this includes a description of some orang laut, sea gypsies, I saw there; they enter the arena as emissaries of the far away and long ago. There’s discussion after each reading and then, towards the end of the hour, Dionne gives us a piece from Ossuaries. She is a compelling reader of her own work, with a richness, a tactility, a somehow geological caste to her words. You can hear the language re-forming thought.
There’s questions after and I am challenged by an Aboriginal woman over something I said . . . was trying to articulate the way, in Australia, what passes for public debate is often just the adoption of two contrary positions followed by a slugging match; and used the phrase black armband history without being able to recall its opposite: which is, as she reminds us, white blindfold. I reply by saying we can change the present and indeed the future by changing the past or at least changing our view of the past. She sits down with her sense of grievance apparently unassuaged; but I meet Melissa Lucashenko later at the demountable that serves as the Green Room and we sort a few things out together.
There’s a second panel, on The Essay, on the West Stage, after lunch (which I skip) . . . with Robert Dessaix and Romona Koval. I’ve been on a panel once before with Robert, in Auckland about a decade ago, but he has forgotten. When I say, stupidly, it was something about something he repeats the phrase in his dry old queen’s voice. We end up sparring with each other on stage too and I’m glad that Romona is sitting between us; it’s amicable but there’s an edge to it. I find this session more difficult than the last because I’ve never really thought of myself as an essayist but feel I can’t say that out loud. Instead I tell the story (true) about how I was twice issued tickets for sitting in my taxi on a No Stopping zone reading Montaigne’s Essays.
As soon the session’s over Frank Moorhouse comes up and says we have to have a talk. He brings me a glass of wine and an Anzac biscuit (lunch) to the book signing table and, after many interruptions (including one from someone who thinks Frank’s Les Murray), we do talk. First about Dark Night, which he read in a motel overlooking Doubtless Bay in the far north of NZ. He liked it a lot but thinks I should have another crack at it . . . ! Put more of yourself in, he says. I’m remembering his slightly wacky charm, his way of destabilising you, his attempts, as Tom Waits put it, to mad-dog your tiltaworld.
I got to know Frank quite well twenty years ago but since then, on subsequent casual meetings, he has seemed not to remember me . . . now he offers an explanation. It is so extraordinary that I’m still trying to process it; one of those things that, if true (he is an incorrigible fictioneer), changes everything that came after. And I can’t even say what it is because it involves others who remain in ignorance of the alleged circumstance. Merde! Frank goes on to say that all my remarks about memory in the session just concluded were completely wrong but he doesn’t have the time to sort me out just now. He likes to make these provocative remarks and then sit back watching which way you’re going to jump.
I didn’t think I would know anyone here but in fact there’s lots of people, many of them ex-Adelaidians from Sydney—Margaret Barbalet, Richard Tipping, Morgan Smith—or Sydney-siders who’ve moved down here—Jill Jones, Annette Willis—or else New Zealanders, like Kate de Goldi, over here for the festival. After the sessions for the day are over I go for a drink with Morgan and Jill and Annette and then to a pub on North Terrace for dinner. When I get back to my room there’s a message from Frank on the phone which turns out to have been left before our talk that afternoon. I go to bed wondering where the Grosvenor Hotel might be: it was there that Rex Battarbee used to stay when he came to Adelaide and Morgan says she thinks it’s still extant. That’s, I’m thinking, what I’d like to do tomorrow. Find the Grosvenor.