It’s peculiar how, at these events, you have intense experiences that nevertheless seem to disappear instantly without leaving a trace in the memory; or rather, without leaving a trigger with which you can access the memory trace. On Day Two, I recall as I wake, I went to hear Gillian Mears speak about her new book Foal’s Bread. She was wearing a red dress and sitting in a wheel chair, talking about horses and riding and her childhood on the North Coast. When she quoted Dylan Thomas—Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea—involuntary tears pricked into my eyes. Afterwards, in question time, I wanted to ask her what exactly foal’s bread is but decided I’d be better off looking it up online: a hippomane is a small (up to 1.5 inch thick and 8 inches diameter), circular, flat, smooth body found in the allantoic fluids especially in mares and cows. On cut section they are semisolid, homogeneous, amber-coloured . . . sometimes they are discovered in the mouth of a new-born foal and that is taken as a sign of great good fortune for the horse it will become. Gillian has MS and at one point said she is living in South Australia because here the laws regarding euthanasia are more amenable to those who might want to die.
This morning I go off to listen to Dionne Brand talk to Mike Ladd. Mostly so I can hear her voice again. She reads three or four sections from Ossuaries, including one extraordinary sequence that begins with the statement you will discover, as I, /that verbs are a tragedy . . . and then continues for several dozen verb-less three line stanzas. It is a sombre poem about a woman, Yasmine, who was a violent revolutionary in the 1960s and 70s and now, thirty or so years later, lives a life on the run; but the poem’s future, while resembling our present, seems in some respects in advance of it; and when Mike asks Dionne what her view of our ultimate fate—the fate of the planet—may be, she hesitates for quite some time before answering that she believes we are most likely doomed. Yet her own stance is one of optimism, engagement, positivity and humour.
It must have been after this session, wandering back up towards my hotel, that I saw the word Grosvenor hovering amongst the chaos of signs on North Terrace. It is now a Mercure and stands almost directly opposite the Intercontinental. A big square building with a marble facade. Morgan said there had been verandahs but, if so, they’re not evident now. Before visiting I go up the laneway next to it to check at the ATM to see if my per diems have arrived (I elected to receive them in cash but they apparently chose to direct credit); there’s a fat man, naked from the waist up, tattooed, bald, sitting on rags like a siddha along from the ATM, he calls happily to me and, just as happily, I give him some coins. And, yes, the money is there.
The foyer of the hotel, up a few steps next to a cafe/bar, is cool and dim and discreetly functional the way modern hotels like to be. There’s a carpeted staircase to the next level and a sign saying the Function Rooms are that way so that’s where I go. It’s like ascending into the past, the air is different and the light too, filtered as it is through elegant ruby red and pale green lead-lighted stained glass windows. A staff member asks me if I’m attending a function (there are, I think, six rooms and some are in use) but I say no, I’m just having a look around and she says, feel free. I go into the Colonial Room, which is empty and open and feels like a non-conformist chapel, with rows of straight-backed wooden chairs facing a lectern in the centre at the north end. All of a hallucinatory sudden a powerful sense of the person of Rex Battarbee, that good and pious man, comes over me and I can see him, lanky and thin, with his hat and coat and portfolio, having just de-trained at the station over the road, walking down the corridor to his room, there to begin to wash off the dust of his latest journey from the Centre. And the corridor, which I walk down myself, does recede into the past until I find myself in the stark utilitarian bowels of the hotel where no decor makeover has ever been . . .
Down in the foyer there is a glass case of memorabilia, including photographs. The hotel was built in 1920 on the site of the famous and much loved Federal Coffee Palace, of which there is a picture, alongside another showing its demolishing, the new building rising and so forth. Most of the items are not very interesting but there is a letter, hand-written in wavery copperplate, from a woman in Perth who, with her husband (they’re still married), honeymooned at the Grosvenor forty years before. She’d been going through her things and found among them a menu from their stay, which she has enclosed, and which is pinned up next to the letter. It is astonishingly rich, seven or perhaps eight courses, all of heavy English or Continental foods. I really want to copy it out in full but don’t have pen or paper and it’s far too large to think of putting in my mobile phone . . . I walk away with two items in my head: the pressed tongue, a part of the cold collation served before dessert; and something under vegetables (it is the only other one on offer apart from potatoes): baked trombone. What on earth could that be, I wonder?
Leaving the Grosvenor, walking up North Terrace, I encounter the bald half-naked gargantuan beggar again, looking even more like an unauthorised avatar of Les Murray than he did before, and snarling rather than laughing after money. I ignore him.
At the venue, which I now know is called the Pioneer Women’s Garden, was established in the 1930s and includes a memorial to the Flying Doctor service, Caryl Phillips (who was meant to be on the essay panel but got replaced by La Dessaix), Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the Colombian, and Linda Jaivin are talking about Boat People but I can’t stay till the end because I’m meeting Nick Jose and Gail Jones and going with them to talk to Nick’s writing class at the university. I’m amazed at how conceptual and theoretical Gail’s account of what she was trying to do in Five Bells is: the novel is detailed and sensuous and written, as it were, in close up; but she worked from a dauntingly abstract conception. When it’s my turn I find myself talking about how we don’t really have a language for soul matters any more, or not one that springs readily to the tongue: I feel like some kind of psychopomp, which is something that often happens to me in the taxi is well. Hermes the messenger, escort of the dead, god of crossroads and thieves.
We’re walking away afterwards when Nick says to me, wide-eyed, nodding encouragingly, the University bookshop is down that way, perhaps I should go and see if my book is there? I already know he’s set it, along with Five Bells, as course reading for his students and, sure enough, there is a satisfying stack of copies of Dark Night there, about forty in all.
Walking through the venue I see that Les Murray’s onstage talking and sit down at the back to listen. He’s great; lucid, funny, humane, sane. A good reader of his own work too. Low key. Still wearing the same striped pullover, even though the heat has been climbing day by day through the 20s towards 30 C.
After that . . . I can’t remember. Had dinner by myself in a pub where I’d gone hoping to watch the Sri Lankans play the Aussies at cricket; but, because the game was in Adelaide, they weren’t broadcasting it! The barman gives me updates on his i-phone and then, wandering back to the hotel later, on North Terrace, someone leaning out a car window calls my name . . . Fiona (McGregor) has just arrived from Sydney for her sessions tomorrow and her friend George has picked her up from the airport. We go to a loud, dingy bar for a drink and then to a sparkling fluoro coffee shop for mineral water and hot chocolate. Fiona decides to walk to her hotel and George, a jeweller who’s about to move to New York, drives me to mine.
There’s a note in my notebook I think I wrote that night. It reads: the writing life : not writing : not not writing. This koan-like remark has something to do with a conversation I had, perhaps with Jill Jones, but I can’t any longer recall the context. However, the dream I have that night, of skimming in a boat across a sea full of flying fish, is clearly the return to consciousness of the voyage to Rinca; just before I wake I see one those aquatic flyers stranded, viscera gaping, on a rock; and that is my own writing self, intimidated almost to the silence of an ossuary by the excellence of the words of others I have encountered over these electric days.