Perhaps the strangest sentence I’ve yet come across is this, from Toss to his wife Edith on 26th February 1940: I was sleeping with Colin in our wooden bed, & there was plenty of room for us. As my sister pointed out when I read it to her over the phone, ‘wooden bed’ sounds somehow like a coffin – one roomy enough to contain both NZ’s great modernist painters . . . for Colin is of course McCahon. Though Toss did on occasion, and especially in his younger days, have affairs with men, I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he and Colin were lovers; Toss in fact usually sounds wary when McCahon enters his letters, as if he found the younger man’s intensity a bit hard to take. In a letter written a few weeks later, Anzac Day 1940, he says, after describing the violence of their mutual friend John Summers’ emotions: Colin, on the other hand, is almost deadly calm all the time, probably over a turmoil . . . And, much later, 20 August, 1958, when Toss was on his way to Oz and McCahon had just returned from the USA: Colin as usual intense in his disgust at being in NZ . . . America THE PLACE. He also admits to never really liking McCahon’s painting until their shared show at Helen Hitchings’ Wellington Gallery in 1947, was it?
So what are they doing in bed together? Well, Edith and the child Joe are away in Dunedin, McCahon and Rodney Kennedy have come up for the fruit picking, there’s a fellow called Fred Jones there as well and Ursula Bethell is on her way to stay the night. We are putting her in the big room, Toss writes, so she can have the luxury of a fire if she wants it, be fairly remote from the Maori bugs . . . But Mary Ursula, as Toss addresses her at the head of the very many letters he wrote to her, had to have an abscessed tooth extracted and cancelled her visit. Thus Colin and Toss slept together in the marital bed in the big room, where the lady poet would have been, and the others in the two small rooms out the back: the house (which Toss had built himself out of mud bricks of his own manufacture) looked charming.
I’m not sure why this kind of minutiae obsesses me so; perhaps I’m just diverting myself from things I should be doing. I spend some time in the morning trying to hack my way through the bureaucratic protocols that have to be observed if the Uni is to pay from my research trip in June; then discover, via email, that my helper out at Bankstown has fallen off her bike and broken her arm – the humerus bone. Not funny . . . now my application is going to have to be handled by someone else, she’s just as gracious, just as efficient, but a little more inclined to suggest I do things for myself rather than her doing them for me.
I look again at the seminar proposal, which at this stage is just a list of names of possible invitees. There’s money available to bring people in, even from interstate, a potential venue at the State Library of NSW, we wouldn’t be doing it until later in the second semester . . . my problem is I haven’t yet come up with a theme, a title or the subject matter around which the guests might organise their thoughts. And until I do that there’s really no point in doing anything else. I detest this feeling of having to think of something, mostly because, in my peculiar psychology, as soon as I try to have an idea, it instantly becomes impossible for me to do so.
I feel the same way with respect to my annual application to the peak funding body for a grant; I do this every year, most times they refuse, but on two occasions they have actually given me some money. The first time I didn’t write the book I had proposed to them but something else entirely which, it turned out, no-one wanted to publish so it languishes in my files somewhere; the second time, however, the book was written and published and received good notices, even sold a few copies . . . so I guess that absolves me from the failure of the first. Anyway I don’t know what to put to them this year. Last year I offered them what I’ve begun calling my family book but it’s so NZ-centred that I wasn’t really surprised when they knocked it back; this year I have the germ of an idea but don’t know whether or not it really has the legs to become a book. It came to me on Friday night when I was sitting out on the deck . . . I decide to see if I can work it up into a proposal and just as I sit down to do that, Maggie calls. She’s in the bath. Wants to talk. Or, rather, listen, as I pour into her shell-like all my work-related troubles (there’s much more than what I’ve set down here).
With all that off my chest, or at least shared, and with her wise advice to hand, I can see a way of making the idea into a proposal and spend the afternoon doing that; I even put in a call to the funding body to talk it over with the adviser; who, typically, is out of office for a few days – arts bureaucrats seem to take more holidays than even publishers do – so I leave her a message saying I’ll call back Friday. That gives me a few days to refine the proposal which is still pretty rough; when I send it to Maggie to read she’s not really impressed by it and we have an argument on the phone; but make up later. In between I have a long conversation with my sister in Wellington and, through the day, there are several short calls from my elder son, who was going to come up today but, in the end, did not. He says he’ll come tomorrow but I’m not sure he will: being a teenager is a full-time occupation, it seems, and doesn’t always leave time for other things.
I want to illustrate this post with a wonderful 1940 drawing Woollaston did of McCahon with his head down, like a classic shoe-gazer, which is in Palmerston North but can’t find an image online; so settle for this earlier (1937) one, not as good, which John Caselberg used in a long article he wrote for Art NZ called Havens of Art; it starts with Abel Tasman in 1642 and meanders all the way through to 1968 when Woollaston completed a large painting called Tasman Bay . . . but I don’t read the essay, I just look at the pictures.