The (self-imposed) task of writing up a diary entry every day can very easily come to seem a kind of tyranny. Not every event in an ordinary life is worth recording; not every day is exceptional, or even interesting. When I’m working on a book I don’t write every day – maybe four or five days and then take a couple of days off.
Also, you start to live in the glare of your own attention, seeking through the day for something you can write about tomorrow (these entries, tho’ they are couched in the present tense, are all retrospective – a day late). You become the object of your own attention in a way that is not so very far removed from the compulsive and self-destroying vanity of the narcissist – something that writers have to have to some degree – but at what point does vanity become delusion? I’ll never know.
Today I take the train to Newcastle. Weave my way through Saturday morning coffee seekers up the slope to Summer Hill station, a short hop on the Western Line to Strathfield, a pause there while I go seeking something to eat: a Thai chilli chicken sandwich, a stick of dim sums, a can of guava juice. Just before I get on the train I look down the platform and spy a young couple engaged in what looks like simultaneous eating and canoodling and shudder . . . it’s a four car train, crowded, and, naturally, they end up sitting opposite, jammed up against each other, and jammed up against me – alternately canoodling and eating, eating and canoodling – with that show-off, look-at-us thing that young lovers seem to have to have – so like a writer’s vanity perhaps – all the way to Wyee.
I can’t look directly at them but also can’t help observing them surreptitiously out of the corners of my eye, picking all the nuts out of the plastic container of granola for instance, or mumbling wetly over rice biscuits. He’s got dark curly hair, is over-weight, looks to be quite a bit younger than she (a blonde), and one their recurrent moves is when she bends her head to lay it upon his chest as if suckling on his prominent man-breasts . . . my relief is indescribable when, after Gosford, the woman in denims in the seats across the way gets off and they go and do their business over there.
I’m reading the book of Woollaston’s letters – didn’t think I would, thought I would just dip in here and there, but a fellow in Auckland who I’ve been corresponding intermittently with – he’s writing something about Tony Fomison – said there’s something about the fate of the Fomison-Woollaston correspondence in the intro, so I read that and then just . . . keep on going. On this trip I read sequentially through the late 1920s and the early to mid 1930s, including those letters where Toss recounts the famous lessons with Flora Scales. The way he describes how he broke down her defences with his youthful importunities just long enough to receive the five lessons he had is very amusing; as is the rueful admission that, in the end, she got rid of him by allowing him to copy her lecture notes from the Hofman school in Munich. What did he learn from her? How to escape from the tyranny of perspective – and, equally, the related tyranny of verisimilitude . . . but not, perhaps, the tyranny of working every day.
This is from later in the decade, a letter to Roderick Finlayson: Forgo associations altogether if you can – the subject is the immediate object only, and its character is adequate – indeed too profound ever to be realised in expression quite as one wishes. And this from a still later letter to Ursula Bethel: I haven’t any competence, and realise this every time I set out to draw. And I hardly ever feel that I dare try to achieve it, because I find myself looking at something which no competence, had I any, could express . . . it must all be done at the time of vision.
As we are pulling in to Newcastle I recall Ivor’s description of it yesterday, the green light sparking from the tram-wires, as Les Murray’s first view of the metropolis, way back in the 1950s when it was both a more vibrant, and more uniform, city than it is now. I de-train and cross the road to the Great Northern and there, in the dusky golden afternoon light, order a schooner of Green. An old guy from the train is also in there, with his schooner of New. I sit on a high stool at a table by the window waiting for Maggie and Ella to arrive; I see on the wall a poster announcing Reggae Got Soul are performing here the third Friday of every month and wonder if my friend Dom is still toasting with them. He rang up yesterday and invited us to go out to Mudgee for the weekend with him and Sylvia but we don’t have the funds. There’s a text from my younger son, in answer to my query about how the game went today: Not well I played well but it ended 9 – 2. I say I hope he’s not too upset about it and he replies with: Nup it was a good game anyway.
M and E come in the back way . . . that’s because Ella knows she’s only allowed in the rear part of the bar so that’s where we sit while she has her glass of orange juice and M her glass of wine. We leave the same way they came in, through a room full of helium balloons for someone’s 21st later on in the day. They are tied to the chairs at tables set with white cloths; and cluster on the ceiling like silver sperm that have lost their way; or as if the roof were the membrane of an egg. The light outside is, as they say, blinding . . .