This morning, looking at the program, I realise it cannot have been Day Three when I heard Les Murray, because he wasn’t on then . . . it must have been Day Four, as I walked down from the Art Gallery after my second visit to see the McCahon, the Namatjiras, and the Surrealists . . . there’s a big show on called The Biennial, beautifully curated and superbly hung, of Australian art of the last couple of centuries, and in amongst it is a selection of jewel-like works of South Australian surrealism from the 1940s and 1950s; it is to look at these again that I return.
Ivor Francis, James Cant and Dusan Marek are all generously represented by paintings but I end up focusing on a few carved wooden puppets in a glass case. They were made by Marek, a Czech who, fleeing communism, arrived in Adelaide in 1948. He was with his older brother Voitre, a sculptor, and the two initially supported themselves making jewellery. Marek’s puppets were for a film he made after he moved to New Guinea in 1954; he had perhaps gone there because on their 1929 map the French Surrealists had proclaimed that country to be the centre of the world. They are squat, malign-looking, troll-like figures and in the clip of the film, called Nightmare, showing on a loop next to where they stand, are like alien spirits enacting some implacable colonial doom within the claustrophobic spaces of an overseer’s bungalow.
Marek first tried to sail to New Guinea in 1953, Ian Fairweather like, in a hollow log. He spent five years there, mostly at Rabaul, made almost no artworks (one film, one painting) and, since he took all his unsold art and the contents of his studio with him, lost rather more than he gained to the exigencies of climate. He refused, however, on his return to Australia, to have any works restored or conserved: the ravages of time became part of the meaning of what he did. You can see the damage on the paintings of his on the walls, which gives them a frisson of tactile presence entirely appropriate to surrealist work.
Coming down the stairs from the show I see a room ahead of me in which international publishers, no less, are talking to their local counterparts. The sessions are sponsored, and policed, by the Australia Council and my naive hope that I could waltz in there and get myself a deal is countermanded by a woman invigilating at the door. The international publishers, she says, are not talking to writers but to other publishers; they have a very full schedule, as you can see . . . I peer into the somehow dimly lit room and see many pairs of heads bent together over many tables; but there’s one young woman, perhaps of sub-continental origin, sitting alone. My almost overwhelming urge to join her is, of course, over-ridden by my awareness of what a faux pas that would be. Instead, I tell the woman from the OzCo all about my brilliant career and she, in that way of arts bureaucrats everywhere, nods encouragingly without committing herself to anything at all.
I am joined up the back of the seating at the East Stage by Jane, Nick Jose’s Sydney-based sister, and we exchange whispered exclamations of approval as the great man speaks. Les is asked about the infamous poetry wars and says in his view something that should have lasted quarter of an hour went on for forty years. Well he would say that wouldn’t he. When the session ends Jane goes off to listen to some publishers talk on the West Stage and I to the Green Room to prepare for my talk with her bro.
In the demountable, where you have to sign in, on the sofa at the back Philip Jones is talking to Bill Gammage; their session, about Bill’s book How Aborigines Made Australia, is on at the same time as mine and I am disappointed by that. Nick and I were originally going to be on on Sunday arvo but swapped with Muslim Indian journalist, M J Akbar, who had to return home early to cover the elections. His session about his book Tinderbox : the Past and Future of Pakistan, which I went to, was fascinating. So doth geopolitics impact upon the smallest of lives.
Anyway, I’ve long wanted to meet Philip Jones, author of Ochre and Rust and much else besides, so I introduce myself and we chat for a bit. He is a tall, charming, startlingly handsome man and I ask him if he can, as someone said he might be able to do, answer the question that got me started on the story of Battarbee and Namatjira? Try me, he says. Well, I say, is it likely that Rex Battarbee saw the Becker sketchbook in the State Library in Melbourne? In other words, could there be a direct line between Becker and Namatjira? Philip works at the South Australian Museum, has given his life to research, archives and the like; he doesn’t have the definitive answer but thinks it unlikely. The resemblances between Becker and Namatjira are probably the result of factors other than direct influence: the nature of the landscape, the medium of water-colour, Lutheranism . . .
We’re joined by David Walker whose memoir, Not Dark Yet, I’ve read, so that, even though it does not seem so, I know he is going blind. He has a line of transgressive humour that’s very appealing and we talk a bit about the role of the air force in WW2 —he had an uncle who was killed at Ambon early in the war but the loss wasn’t confirmed for years; while I recently obtained my father’s war records and have been looking at an extraordinary set of photographs taken at the Catalina flying base at Tulagi Bay in the Solomons, where Dad was in the latter part of the war in the Pacific.
When we arrive at the East Stage I note with pleasure that, on the billboard outside, my book is called Dark Knight. Nick starts by saying that, after the session, if anyone wants a copy, they should go up to the University bookshop for it and then bring it back down to be signed. He gives me a fulsome introduction and then we start to talk. I don’t suffer from nerves on these occasions, I love doing this sort of thing, partly because of its improvisatory nature: anything might happen. By the same token, the very spontaneity of the event always makes it difficult to recall afterwards what exactly was said. I do remember Nick asking me how it is that, on the one hand, I’m prepared to make up history and, on the other, profess an absolute respect for historical fact—isn’t that contradictory? I say something to the effect that it is precisely those gaps in the record that I find so seductive and (mis)quote physicist John Wheeler, who suggested that sequential time does not yet exist in those parts of the universe hitherto un-observed by human eyes or instruments. As if time belongs, not to the cosmos, but to us. I read two sequences from the book, one about walking past the Matthew Talbot hostel in Wolloomooloo at night, the other about a McCahon-like sky seen over Ohakune; and the hour, as those hours do, passes like the wind.
Before we went on Nick asked me if I wanted to talk about my next book and I said yes, I did. He gives me the opportunity and, sounding vaguely portentous, if not pompous, I announce the Battarbee / Namatjira project. Afterwards, an Aboriginal man with wild hair takes the audience microphone and starts to frame a long, rambling question that turns out to be an inquiry as to why the Belvoir Street Theatre/ Big hArt collaboration, Namatjira, hasn’t come to Adelaide. He goes on and on and I can feel the mostly white, mostly well heeled, mostly well on in years, Adelaidian audience begin to get restive. Nick, who is a consummate moderator, finds the right moment to intervene and then a woman comes to the mike and says the show will indeed open in Adelaide quite soon. I seek out the Aboriginal fellow afterwards and we have a brief chat; he is sweet-natured, with a dazzling smile; a writer too.
It’s always strange when you come off stage, you have these conversations with people you don’t know and, usually, can’t remember what you’ve said to them either. One chap is a physicist who attempts to enlighten me on the nature of red shifts, blue shifts and black holes, I think it was; another is a woman from Many Hands, the art centre in Alice Springs, where I have been and will soon return. This is while I’m being escorted to the book signing table by a lithe, graceful youngster who usually works in alternative theatre but is now helping out with the festival. Nobody much comes up to have their book signed; only one, so far as I know, has made the trek to the Uni to get a Dark Night.
That’s more or less it for me: my flight to Sydney is leaving later on in the afternoon. I go the book tent and buy three books: Ossuaries; Venetian Navigators; and The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez who, tall and be-suited, I’ve only heard speak and read in fragments here and there . . . like so many others e.g. Michael Hulse, poet and translator of W G Sebald, who, it turns out, knew my mother. Last time I was here I bought a biography of Joseph Conrad so it feels right, this time, to come away with a Colombian re-write of his South American epic Nostromo. When I go up to say goodbye to Laura she’s talking to Dionne who says: hello, young man! and, rather than a spoken goodbye, strokes my wrists and hands with her own warm, dry palms; it is like being blessed by Mother Africa. There’s also a comic farewell with Fiona, in which we don’t quite know whether to shake hands, hug or kiss on the cheek and end up doing a combination of all three. I like her a lot but don’t know her very well; Adelaide is only our third encounter.
Just before departing the Pioneer Women’s Garden I see the poet Ken Bolton talking to a couple of other people and feel moved to go and say hello. I’ve only met him once before, in Sydney, on which occasion he gave me a copy of his book A Whistled Bit of Bop. He’s a great poet, mysteriously unrepresented at the festival, and I want to tell him how much I enjoyed the book; but before I can go over one of the guys he’s with, a big man, perhaps a biker, with tats, gives him a hug and Ken, looking slight and a bit hunched in his too small jacket and stove-pipe jeans, like a time-lapsed beatnik, walks away.
In the hotel lift I meet Andrea who is on his way to Sydney for a talk and then back to Rome; he is melancholy as I to be leaving Olympus for the quotidian; we exchange email addresses. My cab driver is an irascible African who seems affronted when I add a $10.00 tip onto the metered fare. I read Ossuaries in the bar at the airport and then on the plane, where I’m sitting next to an autistic girl and her mother. At some point, just as it’s getting dark and I can barely make out the water-logged land below, I see horizontal rain drops streaming past the window and realise that, on the east coast, the big wet continues unabated.
In my copy of Ossuaries there’s a book mark where my second reading of the poem paused as that flight ended; the words on the page, introducing Ossuary III, read: I loved and lived, as I said, for a time / looking up from water like sea shells, / I arrived where the sonorous oceans took me