We’ve been to the camera shop so M can exchange a faulty accessory she bought for her new camera; we’ve had a laksa each at the cafe next door; now she has one more call to make before dropping me at the railway station. I say I’ll meet her in Indigo, the bookshop just a block away on Hunter Street . . . but there is a second hand shop on the way and I have to go in. High on a ricketty metal shelf, partially obscured by a wooden tribal mask, I spy a landscape that looks a bit like what I’m interested in and reach up to move the mask aside to get a better look and also see if there’s a signature. The owner calls out no! so I desist; but I’ve already seen enough of the work to know that it’s not what I thought it was – and there’s the signature, James Northfield, on the left. He was better known as a poster artist than a painter and this is a very sub-Hans Heysen effort.

This little incident pitches me into a conversation with the owner, who introduces himself as Ian, and is probably feeling a bit lonely in his deserted shop on a quiet Monday afternoon. We talk about business (slow), the economy (precarious) and that leads on to a discussion of China, where he  has recently been. He tells me about the incredible surveillance he was under going to the toilet just outside the Forbidden City and near to Tiananmen Square; while I reply with the story my sister told me about the sudden onset of constipation she suffered when, using a lav in a remote village, she realised there was a pig in the pit below awaiting her offering.

It’s while we’re talking thus that I spot a small Albert Namatjira, again high up on a ricketty shelf. A 1950s print with a gum tree on the left and a vista on the right, still in its original frame. One of his dead trees with branches like the blackened fingers of a hand in the extreme right foreground makes it unusual. There’s nothing on the back save a price – from memory, 2/6 – and when I ask Ian what he wants for it he says 1000; then laughs, says reverse it and take off one zero. I’m thoroughly confused by now so I put it back on its shelf and return to the conversation, which now moves on to a consideration of Namatjira’s copyright which, through a series of unfortunate events, now belongs to some very unsympathetic white gallery owners who live in Artarmon. Who’d want to reproduce a Namatjira anyway? he asks. I do, I say.

On the way to Indigo I get a call from M saying where the hell are you, I’m already here; but when I get there she’s gone. I spend a few minutes looking at a book of documentary photographs of Sydney in 1900 – plus architectural drawings of same – assembled and annotated by Max Kelly, who went on to compile/write one of my favourite books about the city, Faces of the Street :William Street Sydney 1916 (1982). All of the buildings along one side of the great thoroughfare were photographed prior to their demolition so that the street could be widened. Kelly’s book reproduces these photographs alongside a detailed documentary account of the people who lived in them and the occupations they followed. This book, however, clearly its predecessor, concentrates upon the slum housing at The Rocks around the time that plague struck; these houses too, though for different reasons, were demolished.

On the train I attempt to immerse myself in Toss’s letters, but find it difficult to ignore the conversation two music students who are also band members (in different bands) are having about the business they are in. The Asian boy says every time they go to Queensland his band does a gig at Port Macquarie with a $500 guarantee that pays the accommodation expenses for the rest of their tour; they record, they also go to Melbourne – how, I wonder, not for the first time, does the music business work these days? How does anyone make money? One thing I learn is that i-tunes, insofar as musicians are concerns, now works a bit like APRA does. Artists get a yearly, or perhaps six monthly, royalty cheque for an amount that is arrived at by averaging traffic over the period.

They get off at Wyong and at last I can concentrate fully on my book. Read all the way through the late 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s up until Toss’s 1958 visit to Melbourne . . . which section I’ve already read but will read again. Whenever I get passionately involved in autobiographical writing of any kind, I begin to identify myself with the protagonist, however unlikely they might be. So here I am becoming Toss as he details his struggles with work and money, his struggle with art, his love for certain landscapes, his loves and his lovers. Each section has a short introduction that provides a kind of biographical outline of the period covered by the letters that are to come and some of these function, superbly, as a kind of corrective of Toss’s view of himself. One I like partiuclarly quotes Englishman Geoffrey Moorhouse, who met the Woollastons in Greymouth when Toss was the Rawleigh’s man there. He writes:

He didn’t look like any other bloke . . . there was something casually dapper about him, he had a goatee beard above an open-necked shirt and a twinkle in his eye . . . it soon became clear to me that, although Toss was devoted to his family in an amused kind of way, nothing in his life mattered to him as much as his art . . . most of the donkey work around the place was consequently done by Edith solo while Toss – when not actually painting – would sit in an easy chair and simply gaze at a picture on the wall, or on the floor, or half-finished on the easel, as though he was still trying to fathom some secret he had not yet managed to understand. There were also art books – big volumes published by Phaidon Press – propped open on chests of drawers or tables, where he could study them intently too. He could and did talk of many things . . . Toss’s attention always returned to the business of painting . . . it was Edith who tended to set the pace in other areas of conversation . . . the atmosphere . . .  was one of well-mannered, genteel cultivation, such as I was already familiar with . . . but I’d never come across anything quite like this . . . it was a sort of gypsy version of the civilised existence. 

(Toss’s 1958 portrait of his wife Edith, above)


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