We embarked at four on a hot January afternoon. I had not been on a cruise ship before; had never boarded any vessel at the Sydney Overseas Terminal. At the time I was obsessed with the life of Joseph Conrad and especially with those periods in his youth he spent ashore at Australian ports; so that, after they let us on board and we stowed our luggage in the cabin, I went on deck and stood at the rail scanning the buildings on Circular Quay West, looking for remnants of nineteenth century architecture. There was the Sailors’ Home, beautifully restored, though not used to house sailors any more. The apostrophe a triangular sandstone relief, painted cream. Next door to that, a chapel where the wicked might once have gone to seek absolution; now a restaurant. The Rawson Institute for Seamen written across the front of the building still makes some people smile.
Here stood two large round stones from which the Eora people used to fish in the waters of the cove. Here is the shore where convict artist Joseph Lycett walked to meet, in 1814, at his house in Campbell’s Cove, the publisher Absalom West. Here is the Australasian Steam Navigation building, with four pulleys, a tower and a spire; next to that, the venerable Campbell’s Stores, where Joseph Conrad encountered an old sea captain who advised him to enter into the Sunda trade. His name was William Henry Eldred (1819-1887) and he was then (1879) Australian Consul-General for Chile.
Dover-born, Eldred went to sea aged eleven. He deserted the Renown, Hobart bound, in San Salvador in the Bahamas and, like Conrad after him, worked as a sailor in the Caribbean for a few years; and during that time became fluent in Spanish. In 1836 he is said to have commanded for a year the clipper ship the Clarendon, about which nothing else is known. He may have sailed in her; but seventeen seems too young an age for a first command. Between 1838 and 1846 Eldred was engaged in the Chinese opium trade, carrying consignments of the resin from Calcutta to the Pearl River delta; he was present at the fall of Canton (Guangzhou) in May of 1841, though in what capacity isn’t clear.
He spent the next few years as a trader in the Sunda—read Malay—Archipelago. By 1848 he owned the 400 ton barque the Caspar, and used her to sail between China, South-East Asia, Australia and South America. The Caspar made at least one migrant voyage, from Plymouth to Sydney, in 1849. Other destinations included Canton, Lombok and Valparaiso. While so engaged, his obituary says, he rendered considerable service to the Chilean Government. It would be interesting to know what that service was; there was a failed revolution, liberals against conservatives, in Chile in 1851.
In 1854 Eldred settled in Sydney as resident partner in the Chilean firm Cousiño & Garland, coal brokers who were investing in the flour trade. In July of 1856 he was appointed Consul for Chile in New South Wales; and in 1859, by decree of the Congress in Lima, Consul-General for Chile in the Australian Colonies and New Zealand. His firm, Eldred & Co, ship brokers and general shipping agents, was also established in 1854 and, over the years, diversified into a bewildering variety of areas of commerce. Conrad did of course take Eldred’s advice; but not until some years had passed.
I felt like a small boy again, watching the tug Bondi turn our great ship around beneath the bridge and set her course so she might steam directly away through the heads. A misty rain began to fall; out in the open sea, in a strong north-easter, the wild chopping water sent cascades of salt spray across the windows of the lookout at the bow where I stood. From there I saw the endlessness of the grey, white-tipped ocean; far veils of cloud in the east where more rain was falling; an opaque, yellow-white sunset over a barely glimpsed dark line of land to the west. We were in a kind of capsule, pulsing through the outer space of our expectations; which revolved, planetary like, impossibly, about our own desires.
When you buy a ticket on the Carnival line, you also buy—along with a dim cabin, below the waterline, without a porthole, in which to sleep—as much as you can eat from any or all of the many restaurants, bars and other food outlets upon the ship. You have to pay for your alcohol however. There were people aboard who seemed to be there just for that. To eat and drink, I mean. Some were grotesquely over weight; and still they ate and drank. The passengers were predominantly white people and we were attended at all times by phantom others; like thin dark ghosts. The wait staff were mostly from Indonesia; or India; the cleaners were from Thailand or the Philippines; the sailors, like sailors everywhere, polyglot, itinerant, stateless.
The officers, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, were Russian. All of these people lived in a parallel world, behind yellow painted metal doors through which you could sometimes glimpse another, far more utilitarian life, going on; but where you could not go. The captain was Chinese; and as we steamed south through the Tasman Sea, he addressed us over the tannoy in heavily accented but impeccably correct English, welcoming us aboard and telling us what we could expect on the voyage. One of the Russians told me later that we were travelling much slower than the ship was capable of going, in order to save fuel and also to keep to the timetable. To give us time to have our fun, he meant.
For there were the entertainers aboard as well. Musicians, singers, dancers; conductors of trivia sessions. Emcees of various kinds. Deejays too. There was an Entertainment Director who co-ordinated these activities, making incessant announcements over the tannoy. I met him later, while queuing for a cup of coffee. His name was Lee. A twenty-something lost boy from the coastal town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, England, to which he had never returned. I felt ashamed of my resistance to his announcements. His constant exhortations that we have fun. The way he told people off for not joining in. He said he’d lived on the ship for the last three years. He said his work was his life. I couldn’t imagine how desolate a life that might be.
Of all the entertainments on offer, it was the art auctions that interested us most; I was travelling, after all, with a painter. They took place under the auspices of Park West Gallery, a Detroit, Michigan based entity which operates on one hundred or so cruise ships worldwide; in a manner which probably does not differ very much from vessel to vessel. Park West was founded in 1969 by one Albert Scaglioni; he is still (2019) the CEO. Their business on cruise ships began in 1995, in partnership with Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.
I don’t know when their connection with the Carnival line began; but they are a good fit. The Carnival Legend took mythology as the theme for its décor; there were wall panels suggestive of nymphs and satyrs; of the columns of Greek or Roman temples; representations of gods who might have been Aphrodite or Apollo, Hermes or Athena. The rape of the Sabine women perhaps. Or the war between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. None of this décor was meant to be looked at; it functioned as wallpaper only, giving a suggestion of an antiquity in which a rash and violent hedonism was the prevailing mode of behaviour.
The art auctions took place in one of the theatres in the bowels of the ship, without windows, all low lighting and red plush, with a smooth voiced South African auctioneer named Pierre, and his assistant Christopher, from North Carolina, touting the works of Park West’s stable of artists; some of whom—Peter Max, Yaacov Agam, Autumn de Forest—are authentic art stars in the twilight world of the wealthy and the meretricious. The art was displayed along rows of seats in the auditorium, or on free-standing racks; you could walk up and down examining what was for sale. The auction included many giveaways; but when my companion was lucky enough to ‘win’ one of these, she found that she would have to spend several hundred dollars having the work framed and then freighted from Miami, Florida to her home in Newcastle, Australia. She declined.
Let me summarise what was on offer: several varieties of soft porn—scantily clad women, turned away, with lots of back showing, in meadows, in parlours, in dressing rooms. If outdoors, they had angelic looking children with them. Twenties girls, flappers, looking pensive, in pastel interiors. Paintings of flowers in vases, brightly coloured, ‘expressionist’, using lots of orange and red and black. Faux surrealism, with Dali the commonest source of imitation. There was one fellow who specialised in paintings of elephants carrying cities on their backs. I quite liked these, even though they were perfunctory, repetitive, anodyne.
Hyper-realistic images of wild animals—leopards, tigers, lions, cheetahs, wolves; especially wolves. An almost credible imitator of early Kandinsky, painting Italian village landscapes in acid colours; super real city scapes, meticulously re-constructed out of collages made from thousands of photographs. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky and Salvador Dali, the artists whose works were most flagrantly imitated were Vincent van Gogh (wheatfields, starry skies, cafes by night); Pierre-Auguste Renoir (flowers and buttocks); and Pablo Picasso (his Blue and Pink Periods).
It was disturbing to think that these guys—they were mostly guys—took themselves seriously as artists. Or were they cynical old stagers, only in it for the money? They were an international crew, from Russia, France, Azerbaijan; but ultimately all Americans. Each had a schtick, a style, a formula which had been refined over the years to allow the production of work after work, each one slightly different from the last, all essentially the same. Some had even named their style: Abstract Sensualism was one, coined by a fellow who painted chromatic works on metal. The other disturbing thing was that none of the pieces for sale were actually paintings. They were high quality digital prints, some of which had been gone over with real pigment. Copies masquerading as originals, then; there must have been multiples of every one of them on all those hundred other cruise ships then circling the globe.
Park West has an Art Museum in Southfield, Detroit, which features previously archived masterworks created by Rembrandt van Rijn, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Francisco Goya, and Albrecht Dürer, among others. The company’s staff offices, fine art storage facilities, restoration studios, research department and digital catalogue printing facilities are also at its Southfield HQ; while their 181,000 square-foot ‘fulfilment centre’ is in Miami Lakes, Florida. This facility, not open to the public, is the distribution centre for the company’s cruise ship and land-based auctions. More than 300,000 works of fine art are framed there annually and shipped to customers and auctions around the globe. They are the Amazon of the art world.
After that first auction (we went to two), in the lift I met a young fellow with a trolley load of works, taking them back to the storage locker.
Are they sold or unsold? I asked him.
He shrugged. Some are, some aren’t.
Do you like the art? I wondered.
No, he said, I like the money.
Sometimes you would see people pause in their entertainments to stare out the windows to where the grey-green ocean rolled its endless white-capped swells up from the south. As if reconnecting with some movie they had forgotten they had bought a ticket to. When the sun came out the water turned blue and you saw the astonishing brightness of the sea. There were black shearwaters contriving never to touch the surface of the water, however close to it they flew. A pod of dolphins, gun-metal grey, and looking tiny, like tiddlers, swam along beside the vast bulk of the ship. The incessant sea spray left salt trails on the decks and the rails and on the outsides of the windows; it was sticky on your hands and felt somehow medicinal, like a warrant of health in a diseased world. I had read recently some prophet of doom predicting all fish on Planet Earth will be extinct by mid-century. I don’t believe him but what if it is true?
On the third day I set my alarm and got up at 5.30 am to watch while we steamed up into the land of our destination. A molten sun rose over Derwent mouth. I saw swathes of yellow light painted across dark green hills, startling white shafts falling on distant coves like an intercession of the divine. I remembered then that you do see such revelations of light in the south; and that their promises of ultimate disclosure are never false but never honoured either. Further up river, white houses, as if scattered by a negligent hand, were built across slopes running down to the shore. Hobart, our destination, looked small and old, like a miniature Wellington, huddled beneath the black mountain which also bears that name. Crayfish boats moored before the colonial buildings in the port. Many beautiful wooden craft, immaculately restored and maintained. We docked at the Terminal at 8 am and were allowed off the ship; told to return by 4 pm or they would sail without us.
The rental car had been upgraded to a gleaming AWD whose colour and brand name I have forgotten. A red Toyota perhaps. We picked it up in the city and drove west to MONA, the Museum of New and Old Art, arriving there before it opened for the day. There were ducks sleeping between rows in the leafy vineyards; rabbits hopping here and there; groups of California quail, looking faintly surprised to have attained the size they had. When the Museum opened its doors, we took a gleaming lift down into the depths of the sandstone peninsular, where galleries have been carved out of the rock, and where the heterogeneous, unsettling, often deeply strange works gambler and collector David Walsh has bought over the years are displayed. It was, without doubt, the perfect riposte to, and prophylactic against, what Park West had shown us.
I remember the cuneiform room—Kryptos, by Brigita Ozolins—which I was afraid to go into at first; as if to do so might have been to enter Uruk or Nineveh. On the walls were passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh translated into binary code. At the heart of the labyrinth, you looked up and saw yourself reflected in a mirror on the ceiling. There was the White Library: everything therein, shelves, books, catalogues, painted white. An enigmatic word shower falling liquidly down a roughcast sandstone wall; a carved wooden door that had once stood before a Dogon granary in Timbuktu. A painting of a bird-eating man, or perhaps it was a man-eating bird, with its face covered in the blue iridescent wings of scarab beetles. MONA merges museum and art gallery in such a way that you begin to look upon artworks as historical artefacts; and, vice versa, museum pieces as art.
The central work is Sidney Nolan’s mural Snake (c. 1970) which Walsh bought for two million dollars in 2005 and installed here in one of the caverns. Snake is 46 metres long, almost the length of an Olympic swimming pool; and tall as such a pool is wide. It is made up of 1620 individual painted panels, each more or less abstract but, together, making this shimmering, iridescent, undulating work. It has only been shown twice before, in England and in Ireland; until Walsh bought it and built his gallery, and his collection, around it. A rainbow serpent which, immured deep in the earth, seems like one of those entities that Aboriginal lore supposed came out of the ground in the Everywhen to make the world we know; and continue somehow to persist in the now.
The views during the passage up the Derwent that afternoon were as beautiful as any I have seen: soft dove-grey light falling across green hills; while out at sea a brilliant white line, a sandbank, a reef or an illusion, lay scintillating upon the water. Albatross and shearwater accompanied us; another pod of dolphins; and when the ship turned north into veils of rain I saw what I had missed on the way in: Cape Pillar, which Joseph Lycett painted.
It looked just like his painting: a double-humped promontory surrounded by choppy blue waters, with ochre shores and a green hinterland; the yellowy sward which blankets the nearest hump drawn back to reveal what Charles Darwin, who saw it from the Beagle, described as fine facades of columns. As if an X-ray vision has seen beneath both vegetation and soil to reveal the structure of creation below. Higher up, Darwin continued, accurate to the image, the land becomes mountainous and is all covered by a light wood. It had the strangeness of any object encountered before only as a representation.
After that, I just wanted to get off the boat; but of course you can’t. I took refuge in the Holmes Library. Clocks on the walls told the time, inaccurately, in cities around the globe: Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Honolulu; Vladivostok, Baghdad, Vienna and Berlin; Paris, London and New York. The shelves were lined with spines of books which, although they had titles and authors’ names printed upon them, were fake. The real books, not many, were in glass cases in a corner; including a Spanish language section. It was quiet in there and I could sit at one of the wooden tables by a porthole, reading and writing and looking out over the grey-green unappeasable incessantly rolling sea.
The only book I saw in there that I had read before was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about a doctor and serial killer in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Great Exposition in 1893. Others I considered adopting included M Train, by Patti Smith; H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; a non-fiction book about rain; and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In the Spanish language section was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz, which I have read; but only in an English translation.
When I had finished with my current book, Spook Country by William Gibson, however, I exchanged it for none of these; but a copy of Elvis Costello’s autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. I carefully pulled the stickers off the Costello then re-affixed them to the Gibson. Which I filed, perforce, under ‘C’ when really of course it should have been in ‘G’. This procedure gave me immense, if clandestine, and perhaps unworthy, satisfaction.
Costello was appealing when he wrote about his family and his past, for instance his father’s membership of the Joe Loss Orchestra and the gigs he went to hear him play at the Hammersmith Palais in the 1950s and 60s. And his grandfather, blowing his trumpet in orchestras on ocean liners in the early years of the twentieth century. He was inclined towards the dropping of names however; and to quoting, and even interpreting, his own lyrics; his editor had been unable to dissuade him from including inept attempts at fiction. He was good on life on the road, with a forensic recall of places he had played and people he had played with, even when pixillated. It was a book to dip into rather than read cover to cover; and when I was done with it, I gave it to a friend.
Disembarking at Circular Quay on a hot February morning, I stumbled upon something I’d been looking for but had so far failed to find: the Joseph Conrad plaque set in the pavement there. It misquotes something he wrote in The Mirror of the Sea, his autobiographical reminiscences published in 1906. Sydney harbour, it says he wrote . . . one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun had ever shone upon. Below this was the advice that he’d made several brief visits to Australian ports between 1879 and 1892; and that many of his works reflect his ‘affection for that young continent’.
Australia may be a young country but it is a very old continent. The pedant in me also wanted to correct the date—Conrad was last in Adelaide in 1893—and to restore what he actually wrote: bays the sun ever shone upon. But there were more interesting things to do. I had seen, upon a Derwent shore, the wreck of one of his ships; and wanted to find out more about that.
picture AAP: Joel Carrell