Carnival Legend



We embarked upon the Carnival Legend 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 Joseph Conrad and especially those periods in his youth he spent ashore at Australian ports; so after they let us on board and we stowed our luggage in our cabin, I went on deck and stood at the rail scanning the buildings at 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 chip, painted cream. Next door to that, a chapel where the wicked might once have gone to seek salvation; now a restaurant. The Rawson Institute for Seamen written across the front of that building still makes some people smile.

Here were once two large stones from which the Eora People used to fish in the waters of the cove. Here is the shore along which 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 outside, 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 and he was then (1879) Australian Consul-General for Chile. Dover-born, Eldred went to sea aged 11 years and worked in Central America, and in the Chinese opium trade, before sailing his own ship, the barque the Caspar, in and out of what we now call the Indonesian archipelago; and to South America and back; seeking goods to buy and sell. Conrad did take his advice; but not until some years had passed.

I felt like a boy again, watching the Bondi tug turn our great ship around beneath the bridge and set her so she could steam directly away through the heads. A misty summer rain began to fall; and out on the open sea, in a strong nor-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 mist 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, hurtling through the outer space of our desires; which revolved, planetary like, impossibly, about our own expectations.


When you buy a ticket on the Carnival line, you also buy—along with an undersea cabin, without a porthole, in which to sleep—as much as you can eat from 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. Passengers were predominantly white people and attended at all times by phantom others; like thin dark ghosts. The wait staff mostly from Indonesia; or India; the cleaners from Thailand or the Philippines; the sailors, like sailors everywhere, anonymous, polyglot, itinerant.

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 the other, far more utilitarian life, going on; but where we 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 of the voyage. One of the Russians told me later that we were travelling more slowly 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.

As well as the crew, the waiters and the cleaners, those who served behind the myriad bars and food counters, there were the entertainers. Musicians, singers, dancers; conductors of trivia sessions. Emcees of various kinds. Magicians, conjurers and mountebanks. Deejays too of course. There was an Entertainment Director who co-ordinated these activities, making his own 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 remote coastal town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, to which he had never returned. When I saw how disconsolate he was, I felt ashamed of my reaction to his interminable announcements. His constant exhortations that we all have fun. The way he rebuked people 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 could not imagine how empty a life that might have been.


Of all the entertainments on offer, it was the art auctions that intrigued me most. They were under the auspices of Park West Gallery, a Detroit, Michigan-based entity which operates on over a hundred cruise ships worldwide; in a manner which probably does not vary much from ship to ship. Park West was founded in 1969 by Albert Scaglioni; he is still 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 Carnival started; but they are a good fit. The Carnival Legend took Classical mythology as the theme for its décor; there were wall panels suggestive of nymphs and satyrs; or of the columns of Greek or Roman temples; representations of gods who might have been Aphrodite or Apollo, Hermes or Athena. None of this décor had any clarity; it functioned as wallpaper, giving you the suggestion of an antiquity in which a rash and violent hedonism was the prevailing mode of behaviour. As if you might be at an orgy.

The art auction took place in one of the theatres in the bowels of the ship, windowless, low light, red plush, with a smooth voiced South African auctioneer named Pierre and his able 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 art stars in the world of the wealthy and the meretricious. The works were displayed along the rows of seats in the auditorium, 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 she would have to spend several hundred dollars having the work framed and freighted from Miami, Florida to her home in Newcastle, Australia. She declined.

What was on offer: scantily clad young women, turning away, with lots of back showing; in meadows, in parlours, in dressing rooms. If in meadows, they had angelic looking children with them. Melancholy twenties girls, flappers, looking pensive and soulful, 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. There was one who specialised in paintings of elephants carrying cities on their backs. Hyper-realistic images of wild animals—leopards, tigers, lions, cheetahs and many wolves. An imitator of early Kandinsky, painting Italian landscapes in acid colours. Super real Asian city scapes, constructed out of collages made from thousands of photographs. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky and Salvador Dali, the artists whose work was most plagiarised were Vincent van Gogh (wheatfields, starry skies, cafes by night); Pierre-Auguste Renoir (flowers and buttocks); Pablo Picasso (his Blue and Pink periods).

It was disturbing to think that these guys—they were mostly guys—took themselves seriously. Or were they cynical old stagers, in it for the money? They were from Russia, France, Azerbaijan, Israel; ultimately Americans. Each had a schtick, a style, a formula designed to allow the production of work after work, each one slightly different from the last, all essentially the same. Some named their style: Abstract Sensualism, coined by a fellow whose speciality was painting chromatic works on metal. Absurdism. The other disturbing thing was that none of the works for sale were actually paintings. They were high quality digital prints, some of which had been touched up or gone over with real pigment. Copies masquerading as originals; there must have been hundreds of every one we saw on all the hundred other cruise ships circling the globe at that time.

Park West has an Art Museum in Southfield, a suburb of 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, storage facilities, restoration studios, research department and digital catalogue printing facilities are also at Southfield HQ. 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 annually and shipped to customers and auctions around the globe. They are the Amazon of the art world. After that auction, in the lift, I met a young chap with a trolley load of paintings he was taking back to the storage locker. Are they sold or unsold? I asked him. He shrugged. Some are, some aren’t. He didn’t care. Do you like the art? I wondered. No, he said, I like the money.


Sometimes you would see people on the Carnival Legend pause in their entertainments to stare blankly 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 come to see. When the sun came out the water turned blue and there was the astonishing brightness of the sea. Black shearwaters never touched the surface of the waves, however closely they skimmed across them. I saw a pod of dolphins, gun-metal grey and tiny, like tiddlers, beside the bulk of the ship. The 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 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 didn’t believe him but what if that is true?

On the morning of the third day I set my alarm and got up at 5.30 to watch while we steamed up into the land to our destination. A molten sun rose over Derwent mouth. Swathes of yellow light painted across dark green hills, startling white shafts falling on distant coves like some intercession of the divine. You see such revelations of light in the south; its promises of ultimate disclosure are never false but never honoured either. Further up river, houses, as if scattered by a negligent hand, built across slopes running down to the shore. Hobart, our destination, looked small and quaint, like a miniature Wellington, huddled under the great black mountain which also bears that name. Crayfish boats moored before colonial buildings of the port. Many beautiful wooden craft, immaculately restored and maintained. The boredom was palpable. We docked at the Terminal at 8 am and were let off ; told we must return to the ship by 4 pm or it would sail without us.

The saloon car I’d rented had been upgraded to a gleaming AWD. 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 they opened for the day. Ducks sleeping between the rows in the leafy vineyards; half-tame rabbits hopping about; California quail, looking faintly surprised to have attained the size they had. When the Museum doors opened, we took a gleaming lift down into the depths of the sandstone peninsular, where galleries have been carved out of living rock; where the heterogeneous, unsettling, deeply strange works gambler and collector David Walsh has bought over the years are displayed. It was the perfect riposte to, and prophylactic against, the drek that Park West had shown us.

In the curated show that was on while we were there, four invited non-art-world professionals selected works they liked or admired or wondered about. These four selections, behind four doorways, which you entered randomly or at will, I couldn’t tell, were each fascinating in their own way. I also remember the Cuneiform Room, which I was afraid at first to enter; the White Library; a word shower falling liquidly down roughcast sandstone walls; a carved wooden door that once stood before a Dogon granary in Timbuktu. There was a bird-eating man, or perhaps it was a man-eating bird, its face covered in the carapaces of insects, the blue wings of scarab beetles. What is exceptional about MONA is the way it merges museum and art gallery into one, so that you start to look upon artworks as historical artefacts; and museum pieces, more equivocally, as art.

The centre piece is the Sidney Nolan mural Snake (c. 1970) which Walsh bought, for $2,000.000, from Sotheby’s in 2005; and installed here round the walls of one of the caverns. Snake is forty-six metres long, 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 had only been shown twice before, in England and in Ireland; until Walsh bought it and built his gallery, and his collection, around it. It is intimidating and uplifting, a rainbow serpent, immured deep in the earth, seeming to be a representation of one of those entities that Aboriginal lore proposes came out of the ground in the Everywhen to make the world we know.


Views during the passage up the Derwent that afternoon were as beautiful as any I have seen: dove-light laved softly over green hills, out at sea a brilliant white line, a sandbank, a reef or an illusion, scintillating upon the water. Albatross and shearwater accompanied us; another pod of dolphins; and when the ship turned north into grey veils of rain I saw what I had missed on the way in: Cape Pillar, which Joseph Lycett painted, one of the most splendid of the things he made: a double-humped promontory surrounded by choppy blue waters before ochre shores and a green hinterland; the yellowy sward drawn back to reveal what Charles Darwin described as fine facades of columns. It is as if an X-ray vision has seen beneath vegetation and soil to reveal the structure of creation.

After that I went to the Holmes Library. Clocks on the walls told the time, inaccurately I suppose, in cities around the world: Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Honolulu; Vladivostok, Baghdad, Prague; Paris, London and New York. The shelves were lined with spines of books which, although they all had titles and authors inscribed, were fake copies, made of wood, merely decorative. To have written an inventory! The real books, of which there were not many, leaned higgledy-piggledy in glass cases in a corner; including a Spanish language section. It was quiet in there and you could sit at one of the wooden tables by the window, looking east, reading and writing and looking out that way over the grey-green unappeasable always rolling sea.

I’d finished reading Spook Country by William Gibson and was looking for something else; there was copy on the shelves of Elvis Costello’s autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. I pulled the stickers off the Costello then re-affixed them to the Gibson. Which I filed under ‘C’ when really it should have been in ‘G’. The only book I saw there I had read was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about a doctor and a serial killer active in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Great Exposition in 1893. Unread books included M Train, by Patti Smith; H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; a book about rain; and two copies of Elena Ferrant’s My Brilliant Friend. In the Spanish language section The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz, which I have read; but only in English translation.

Costello was beguiling when he wrote about his family and his past, his father’s membership of the Joe Loss Orchestra, the gigs he went to hear him play at Hammersmith Palais in the 1960s. His grandfather blowing his trumpet in orchestras on luxury ocean liners in the early years of the twentieth century. He liked dropping names; and quoting, and then interpreting, his own lyrics; had been unable to refrain from including pieces which were episodes from his life transposed into awkward prose fiction. He was good on the road, with exact recall of places he had played, people he had played with, what they had played, even while completely pixellated. It was a book to dip into rather than read all the way through; and when I was done with it I gave it to a friend.

Disembarking at Circular Quay on a February morning, I stumbled upon the bronze Joseph Conrad plaque set in the pavement there. It misquotes what he wrote in The Mirror of the Sea, autobiographical pieces published in 1906. Sydney harbour, it says . . . one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun had ever shone upon. Below this was the advice that Conrad made 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; it is a very old continent. The pedant in me also wants to correct the date—he was last in Adelaide in 1893—and to restore what he actually wrote: bays the sun ever shone upon. Does that not sound like a line from a poem? But there were more interesting things to think about. I had seen, upon a Derwent shore, the wreck of one of his ships.


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Weekend at Maroochydore



As the plane flew north along the western coast of Bribie Island I saw beneath us a lake shaped like a raptor. A velociraptor, to be precise. It seemed improbable, yet exact, and I gave myself a crick in the neck watching it recede away down below. More sand islands loomed up, one so fantastically blue and green and white, as if whipped out of whorls of cloud cream, I could not rightly say what was land, what sea and what something else besides: birthed out a J G Ballard novel, maybe The Drowned World. The black dot of a motor boat left a tiny arrow in its wake as it made its way up one of the aqua channels bisecting the next island, probably Thooloora, north of Donnybrook.

I have a friend who told me that, as an adolescent, he happened to stray into Ian Fairweather’s camp on Bribie Island and the painter came, brushes in hand, roaring out of his impromptu studio. They ran. We are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, Ballard wrote, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. And it was over that great sea, or rather a tributary of it, that our plane glided down until, at the very last moment, the tarmac at Maroochydore Airport rose bumpily up to meet us.

I had not been to the Sunshine Coast, so-called, before: there was a storm swirling clockwise to the east, forty knot winds blowing in across the land, grey mists of rain over Coolum Beach as we drove through on our way inland to Yandina for lunch at the pub. It was a family reunion. Not my family. They were Irish and Scots who came here from Belfast or from the Low or High lands to get timber—cedar, beech and bunya pine—and then to grow sugar cane or arrowroot, ginger or macadamia nuts, run beef or dairy cattle on the cleared land. There’s a cheese factory. When gold was found at Gympie, to the north, the Cobb & Co. stage coach route ran through here.


My remote connection is with the Irish end of this Irish-Scots confabulation; and there they were, in the Yandina Hotel, with their bulbous noses and canny eyes, their talk of horses and of luck, their kindliness and their scepticism, their love of a drink and a yarn. Lock up your daughters, one of them said, was a literal instruction issued, and observed, when the Hall boys came to town. After the session we went up to the local graveyard and there, shading the last resting spot of a scion of the Campbell clan, was a hundred year old gardenia, twiggy and gaunt and yet still putting out the ruffled white flowers with their sweet nostalgic scent lying upon the rainy afternoon air.

On the hill behind the graveyard is Koongalba, the ancestral family home of the Lows, a big old wooden house with an iron roof, spacious verandas, lovely gardens, rope swings hanging from the trees and kids running everywhere. It was jacaranda time so mazy purple flowers drifted down and carpeted the ground. The local historian’s name is Audienne Blyth and she met us bright-eyed at the door and said Come in, come in! Koongalba, place of clean waters; in Wharf Road, so-called because in the early days timber was floated down the Maroochy River to the sea. I was amazed to learn, talking out on the veranda to one of the daughters, who was gathering up her kids to drive them back to Toowoomba before the rain really started to come down, that these are the same Blyths who helped settle my own home town of Ohakune.

Joe Blyth (1908-1940) was headmaster at Ruapehu District High School, later Ruapehu College, where my Dad taught in the 1950s; Joe ascended the mountain, it was said, 147 times before his demise. Audienne’s husband is Jim Blyth, son of Jack, son of Joe. He had large teeth and a shy manner. Proud, though, too. We stood in the darkened hallway of his house, surrounded by ghosts, contemplating this mystery. The imposing hand-tooled native timber tile and stained-glass inlaid furniture. The Blyth family held a reunion, over 150 of them, in ‘Kune last year, about the same time I attended the inaugural, perhaps unique, Ruapehu Writers Festival there.


Then it was back to the flatlands, driving through low swampy fields surrounding, like moats, isolate bush-covered volcanic cones called (by James Cook) the Glasshouse Mountains. Occasionally a remnant pine, Araucaria bidwillii, of which more later. At Coluum we checked into the hotel and then went round the road for dinner in the Bowlo. Ian told me that a/ Koongalba stands on the site of an ancient bora ground; and b/ he is a tribal King, and owns a breastplate, which he inherited from his grandmother after she had done an unspecified someone an undescribed act of kindness. It’s worth $200,000, he said, touching his chest, as if he might have had it on under his blue nylon shirt. The Aborigines know I’ve got it. I have to decide what to do with it after I die.

Ian was 77 years old, unmarried, childless, reputedly wealthy, garrulous and unregenerate, kindly, roguish, deeply conflicted, essentially unknowable. He was never without a drink in his hand; never (or always) drunk. Every step of the way, Audienne said, the treatment of Aborigines was a mistakeWe should have known better. We knew how this worked in other places. The bunya trees were chopped down—Maleny (south west of Yandina) was where the original bunya festival was—and so many caught white people’s diseases. She didn’t say this but there were also mass poisonings, food laced with arsenic left out as offerings. Later we pass in the car the turn-off to a place called Murdering Creek.

When the cones on the Araucaria ripened, at anything from an eighteen month to a three year interval, local people sent out invitations far and wide. It was indigenous Australia’s largest event. Thousands came, and stayed for months, feasting on the bunya nut. The gathering included ceremonies, dispute settlements, marriages and the trading of goods. Some tribes would not camp amongst the trees; some said a bunya tree was never to be cut down. An early missionary attempt at an interdiction upon their felling, and the establishment of a native kingdom, failed in 1860. That’s when the clearances, the poisonings and the sequestering of survivors upon reserves, began. The dispersals. Coastal people are the Gubbi Gubbi, their inland neighbours, the Waka Waka. The distinction between the two language groups is the word they used to say ‘no’. Waka Waka were the No No people. They had the bunya.


Next morning early a friend rang from Sydney to say Legend Press had finally returned copyright in Albert Namatjira’s paintings to his family. More than half a century too late, but still. Better late than never. I did not have time to contemplate the tiny part my own efforts might have played towards the attaining of this goal. I had to read the final proofs of The Expatriates. The publishers were going to print on Monday. They were awaiting one last outstanding permission, from a librarian on Rhode Island, the great-grand-daughter of a Russian aristocrat who had written a biography of her husband, a New Zealander with astonishing linguistic abilities; one who knew fifty languages.

It bucketed down, on and off, all day long as I read. 100,000 words or so. I found sixteen (16) errors. The roar of the rain mixed in with the roar of history. There were two Norfolk pines framed in the window, denuded of foliage by the incessant sea spray. Bony as a dead bunya. Afterwards I went down to the beach for a swim. The wind was still blowing from the south-east but it wasn’t raining. An endless ochre strand, a warm and choppy sea, a rip it wouldn’t do to ignore. A uniformed surf life saver was slowly rocking, with his foot, the iron spike of a flag pole out of the muscular sand. The flag was red and yellow.

Four girls in bikinis giggled past me as I came out of the water. One was as freckled as the heroine of Eucalyptus, the Murray Bail book. Even her eyelids had freckles upon them. From the boardwalk I could see pandanus and boronia, sheoak and bright yellow daisies. The pandanus fruit as full and fecund as I imagine those of bunya pine cones to have been; but nobody eats the almond-flavoured pandanus nuts anymore either; they’re too hard to get at. The aerial roots clustered round their trunks like fat straws. I have always loved beaches in the rain.


The culmination of the weekend’s festivities was a barbecue on Sunday at Ken’s place in Noosaville; but before we went there we had to visit Keith’s place in Coluum to see the Boer War and Great War medals awarded to the progenitor of the line, a man called JD: there were four and some mystery attended them. I think we solved it: I remember the severe profiles of the monarchs on the backs of the medals: Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George V. Those Australians who served in mounted regiments took their own horses, from off their own farms, with them to the war; but none of them ever came back. Except one, belonging to a general; and that was for propaganda purposes. They shoot horses, don’t they, I thought, irrelevantly. Or not.

At Noosaville a couple of dozen people gathered under a canopy next to a stand of paperbark trees. The rain sighed and roared. Fijians joined the Scots-Irish or Irish-Scots or Celtic Australian or Aboriginal or whatever it is we are to be called. Queenslanders. In the laughter of beautiful children it seemed we might be able to begin again, after the drowned world has finished with its drowning. Or not. Later, on the way to the airport, in the pelting rain I saw before a bank of green-grey mangroves black swans in a lagoon dipping their red bills into the silvery water. Maroochydore, I learned, comes from the Yuggera word Muru-kutchi, meaning red-bill; such as the swans do have. They are common around here. The black swan of trespass on alienated waters. Robber of dead men’s dreams.

It took ages for the incoming plane to land; when it did we boarded through dense warm slanting rain. Arriving in Sydney I felt I had indeed been plunged back into the archaeopsychic past. Something I did not suspect a weekend in south-east Queensland might do for you. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom. It is still raining there as I write, floods inundating the land, drowning it beneath a fresh or salty deluge. And yet I know that once the storm is over it will emerge again pristine, newly washed, paradisial, with a rainbow arching from Coluum Mountain to the coast. Or not. And our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.

image: Sinkhole at Inskip Point, Rainbow Beach, Queensland, 27.09.15

courtesy ABC

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Living in the Everywhen



With all my current business transacted I have nothing at my desk left to do; so I catch the train into town. About half past nine. It is a few minutes late, and pretty full, but I spy an empty spot towards the front of the carriage and go and sit there. A teenage boy turns around and gawps at me. Hello, Mr. Gooper, he says. I say Hi. I can feel him wanting to take it further but he doesn’t, he goes back to joshing with the two girls opposite. Another sits on the steps facing me, small, pert, aggressive. One boy asleep in a single seat next to her. The sixth, another boy in a baseball cap, in the window seat of the row next to mine. They’re just kids. In mufti. Late for school. Talking in loud voices, swearing heaps, boasting about buying and selling and smoking yaani; it’s clear that, while they don’t really want trouble, if it’s offered, they’ll accept it. No-one is taking any notice of them. Studiously ignoring them; insofar as that’s possible. But they prefer it that way too. It means they can continue performing unhindered as it were. Redfern, I think, I bet they get off at Redfern. Just before they do, the gamine sitting on the steps in front of me says: Excuse me, do you have the time? I take out my phone and look at it and tell her it is ten to ten.


Light splinters from the water at Circular Quay. There’s a cruise ship taking on supplies. What does P & O mean? Peninsular & Oriental. I’m going up to the MCA to see the Sun Xun show. Ken told me about it, said it was genius. It is. A room lit only by ultra-violet, wherein is suspended, along three walls, a huge undulating scroll tricked out with starry forms of thirteen half mythical creatures. Like a mutant zodiac or revised version of the night sky. Sun Xun meditated in the Outback. He suggests there are unknown places, unvisited by humans, where another, alien, bestiary thrives. Insectivorous, reptilian, avian, extraterrestrial. His redaction is entirely convincing. There’s another large UV-lit work in that room, more abstract, called: ‘Who First Saw The Stars?’ I hardly ever watch the whole of a video in an art gallery; but, in another room, I watch one of his. Large scale animation, metamorphoses turning prehistoric birds into conical cooling towers, Chinese dragons into amphibious tanks, meteors falling into lagoons and mutating jetties, promenades, baboons.


Upstairs: ‘John Mawurndjul—I am the old and the new.’ Forty years of work by that Kuninjku man. He’s born 1952, the same age I am. Huge show. Impossible to comprehend in a single viewing or perhaps at all. So beautiful, mainly because his use of traditional materials gives a unitary cast to the riot of places and beings bodied forth in the bark paintings and wood sculptures. Stringy bark eucalypt skins form the body of his bark paintings; the white clay, yellow and red ochres mined from sacred deposits become paint; and the manyilk, the paint brush sedge, makes the single strand brushes used to do cross hatching or rarrk. My favourite work perhaps a palette in one of the rooms, which adds a piece of charcoal (black) to the other three colours. So soft and luminescent, those whites and ochres, reds and blacks, glowing as if the earth itself is made of light. We also encounter the animals and spirit beings that populate these locations including female water spirits (yawkyawk), rainbow serpents (ngalyod) and mimih spirits.


Out into the warm spring sunshine. The haze with which the day began is burning off. I walk past the Orient Hotel and through Argyle Cut to Observatory Hill; and realise as I climb that, in thirty-seven years, I have never yet been to the Sydney Observatory! The roar of traffic down below, making the circular switchback approach to the bridge. Across the lip of that stone gullet, a wisteria vine climbs and I catch, above the ozone and the exhaust fumes, the scent of the purple flowers. It always takes me back to the Winter Gardens in Auckland, c. 1972, the first time I knowingly encountered it. They’re just opening the doors when I arrive outside the S H Ervin gallery. I’m a pensioner, I say to the grey-haired woman behind the register. I don’t know how that happened. She smiles thinly. That’ll be eight dollars, she says.


I spend the next hour or so with many other grey-haired women, and two grey-haired men. William Robinson, however, is bald. (There is a documentary.) An art teacher turned farmer turned artist, he started out imitating Bonnard interiors and ended up, forty years later, doing the same thing: except now his Bonnard interiors look more like Robinsons than Bonnards; if that makes sense. His breakthrough works were conté drawings of cows; gouaches of chooks in the chookyard. He found those upside down starry skies glittering in amongst the leaf litter of rain forest floors by going out at night with a lantern and looking into puddles. The Creation Landscape series is the one everybody knows and there are a few from it here; but most of the show is works on paper. Tiny abstract water colours on pieces of A6. Views of black Mt Warning over the border from where he had his sea-side farm in the bush. Trees growing down from the sky, the sky lifting up from among the trees. He and his wife Shirley lost two of their grown-up children (I don’t know how) and he says that is something which can never be forgotten nor undone. I think purple is the colour of his grief.


Afterwards I wander down Agar Steps, past the tennis courts, past the door of #5 where, in the 1980s, Lud and Lexie used to live; and have lunch in a cafe which was once the corner shop below their old place. A delicious ham sandwich, with melted cheese, horse-radish and watercress on thick toasted brown focaccia bread. The old fellow who runs the place has owned it since 1990, owns their old flat up above too. We reconstruct it, bit by bit, lovingly, while his wife makes my sandwich. It feels different from a remembrance of things past; more like the reconstitution of something that is still extant and only requires a bit of attention to detail to return, intact, into the world. I can see the two flowering Happiness bushes they had in pots either side of the tiled fireplace; the outside bathroom where you could sit and look over the blue waters of Darling Harbour; the intricacies of grain in the wood on that jarrah floor; the staircase so narrow you had to turn sideways to climb up. And all the good times we had there come back again as if they’ve never gone away.



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Tobacco Shop

20180907_100016So the Summer Hill tobacconist seems to have closed. That back in one hour sign has been up for a week now and the last few times I saw Jack, the owner, he was standing outside his shop looking, I don’t know, restless I suppose. I was fond of Jack; I got to know him in the days when I was still a smoker, when he would sell me, for a dollar each, singles. This is illegal and I think he enjoyed the feeling of breaking the law, the clandestine strategies he would adopt in order to do so, the hush and the hugger mugger. He was a Lebanese Christian, and devout; he had a little chalk board behind the counter with a short, awkwardly phrased prayer written upon it. But resignation was a big part of his faith. What can you do? he would say. The Lord provide. I’m indebted to him for another reason. One day when, after weeks or perhaps months of abstinence, I cracked and went in to buy some smokes off him, Jack refused to sell them to me! You shouldn’t be smoking, bro, he said, it isn’t good for your health. He was, of course, a heavy smoker himself; but after he refused to serve me, I stopped for good. So here, in memory of that and of Jack and of other things too, is Fernando Pessoa’s poem Tobacco Shop, written in the voice of Alvaro de Campos. It’s long, but it’s worth it:

Tobacco Shop

I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.

Windows of my room,
The room of just one of millions in the world nobody knows
(And what would they know, if they knew that?),
You open on the mystery of a street people are constantly crossing,
A street blocked off to all thought,
A street that’s real, impossibly real, and right, unconsciously right,
With the mystery of things lying under live beings and stones,
With death spreading dankness on walls and white hair on heads,
With fate driving the cart of everything down nothingness road.

Today I’m bowled over, as though hit by the truth.
Today I’m clearheaded, as though I were going to die,
Having no more brotherly feeling for things
Than to say good-bye, turning this house and this side of the street
Into a line of coaches in a long train with its whistle shrieking good-bye
From inside my head,
And a nerve-wracking, bone-cracking jerk as it moves off.

Today I’m mixed up, like someone who thought something and grasped it, then lost it.
Today I’m torn between the allegiance I owe
Something real outside me—the Tobacco Shop across the street,
And something real inside me—the feeling that it’s all a dream.

I failed in everything.
Since I was up to nothing, maybe it was all really nothing.
From learning and training for anything for anything useful I escaped
By slipping out the back window.
I went off to the country with great plans,
But found only grass and trees there,
And when there were people, they were just like any others.
I leave the window, sit down in a chair. What should I think about?

How can I tell what I’ll be, I who don’t know what I am?
Be what I think? But I keep thinking I’m so many things!
And so many people think of being the same thing, there just can’t be that many!
Genius? At this moment
A hundred thousand heads are dreaming they’re geniuses like me,
And who knows if history will remember even one of them.
From all those dreams of glory there’ll be nothing but manure in the end.
No, I don’t believe in myself.
In every asylum there are madmen sure of so much!
I, sure of nothing, am I more sure or less sure than they?
No, not even of myself . . .
In how many garrets and nongarrets of the world
Are there self-styled geniuses dreaming now?
How many high-minded aspirations, noble and lucid—
Yes, really high-minded, noble and lucid—,
And who knows, even practicable,
Will ever see the real light of day or get a hearing?
The world is made for those born to conquer it,
Not those who dream of conquering it, right though they may be.
I’ve dreamt of more things than Napoleon went and did.
I’ve taken to my so-called heart more humanity than Christ ever did.
I’ve secretly thought up more philosophies than Kant ever wrote down.
Yet I am, and maybe always will be, the man in the garret,
Though I don’t live in one; I’ll alway be the one who wasn’t born for it;
I’ll always simply be the one with all the promise
I’ll always be the one waiting for the door to open at the wall without a door,
Who sang his anthem to Infinity in a chicken coop,
Who heard the voice of God in a covered well.
Believe in myself? No, I don’t, nor in anything.
Let Nature pour down upon my burning head
Her sun, her rain, the wind ruffling my hair,
And let the rest come, if it will or must, or not at all.
Cardiac cases enslaved by the stars,
We’ve conquered the world before getting out of bed,
But we wake and the world is opaque,
We get up and the world looks strange,
We go out in the street and there’s the whole earth,
Plus solar System, Milky Way, and the old Indefinitude.

(Eat your chocolates, little girl!
Eat your chocolates!
Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth but chocolates.
Look, all religions on earth have nothing more to teach us than a candy store does.
Eat, dirty little girl, eat them up!
If only I could gobble down those chocolates as trustily as you do!
But then I think, peeling off the silver wrapper, it’s only tinfoil,
And toss it on the floor, just as I’ve tossed away my life.)

But at least, out of my bitterness at what I’ll never be,
There’s the quick calligraphy of these lines,
The broken archway to the Impossible.
And at least I reserve for myself this dry-eyed contempt –
Noble, at least, in the grand gesture I make
Flinging out the dirty clothes I am, with no laundry list, into the drift of things,
And stay at home, shirtless.

(Oh, my comforters, who don’t exist and so may comfort,
Whether Greek goddess, conceived as a statue that springs alive,
Or Roman matron, impossibly noble and ominous,
Or Princess of the troubadours, so blushing and so gentle,
Or eighteenth-century marchioness, so décolletée and cool,
Or famous courtesan back in our parents’ time,
Or modern whatever – since I can’t imagine what –
All of it, whatever it may be, if you can inspire, do it!
My heart’s an emptied pail.
Like someone who can call up spooks calls up spooks,
I call myself up, and nothing’s there.
I go to the window and see the street in perfect clarity.
I see the shops, I see the pavement, I see the passing cars.
I see the dressed-up living passersby.
I see the dogs too, also alive,
And all of it weighs on me like a verdict of exile,
And all of it’s strange to me, like everything else.)

I lived, I studied, I loved, I even believed,
And now there’s no beggar I don’t envy simply for not being me.
In each I see the rags, the sores, the lies,
And think: maybe you never lived, studied, loved, believed
(Because people can go through the motions without doing any of it);
Maybe you barely existed, like the lizard whose tail’s been snipped
And is just a tail, apart from the lizard, and beating frantically.

I made of myself something I didn’t know,
And what I could become, I didn’t.
The fancy costume I put on was wrong.
They saw me straight for what I wasn’t; I didn’t disabuse them, so I lost myself.
When I tried taking off the mask,
It stuck to my face.
When I pulled it off and looked in the mirror,
I’d grown older.
I was drunk and couldn’t get into the fancy costume I hadn’t taken off.
So I threw away the mask and slept in the cloakroom
Like a dog they let stay in the house
Because it’s harmless,
And I’m about to write this story to prove I’m sublime.

Musical essence of my useless poems,
If only I could find you in something I’d really made,
And not forever fixed by the Tobacco Shop across the street,
Stamping my feet on the consciousness of being alive,
Like a rug some drunkard stumbles over
Or a doormat the gypsies stole not worth a dime.

But the Tobacco Shop Owner has come to his door and stands there now.
I look at him, straining my half-turned neck,
Straining my half-blind soul.
He’ll die and so will I.
He’ll leave his signboard, I’ll leave poems.
After a while his signboard will perish too, and so will my poems.
A little later the street will die where his signboard hung,
And so will the language my poems were written in.
Then the spinning planet where all this happened will die,
In other satellites in other systems something like people
Will go on making things like poems and living under things like signboards,
Always one thing against another,
Always one thing as useless as another,
Always the impossible thing as stupid as the real thing,
Always the fundamental mystery as certain as the sleeping surface mystery,
Always this thing or that, or neither one nor the other.
But now a man’s gone into the Tobacco Shop (to buy tobacco?)
And the plausible reality of it all suddenly hits me.
I’m getting up, full of energy, convinced, human,
and about to try writing these lines, which say the opposite.

I light a cigarette and think of writing them,
And in the cigarette I savor my liberation from all thoughts.
I follow the smoke like a lane of my own,
For one sensitive dexterous moment enjoying
The freedom from all speculation
And the consciousness that metaphysics comes from feeling out of sorts.

Then I fall back in my chair
And go on smoking.
As long as fate permits, I’ll go on smoking.

(If I married my washwoman’s daughter,
Maybe I’d be happy. )
I think of this, get up from my chair. I go to the window.

The man is leaving the Shop (putting change into his pants’ pocket?)
Ah, I know him: it’s nonmetaphysical Stevens.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner comes back to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Stevens turns around and sees me.
He waves me a hello, I shout back, Hello Stevens! and the universe
Reorganizes itself for me, without hopes or ideals, and the Tobacco Shop Owner smiles.


tr. Edwin Honig and Susan M Brown

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RIP Jim Stevenson 1948-2018


Jim was in the first Red Mole show, Whimsy & the Seven Spectacles. A wardrobe door swung open and there he was, wearing blue striped pyjamas and eating a bowl of corn flakes. His importance to Red Mole cannot be overstated; though most of what he did, he did behind the scenes. He and Jenny were several times our hosts in Washington during the American years; he provided advice and support throughout Red Mole’s existence (1974-2006) and continued to oversee certain legal matters in the aftermath. This was only one involvement in a very full and active life which was, above all, motivated by an essential goodness of heart – and a clear-eyed view of the foibles and deficits of human kind. I remember in one of my last conversations with him, Jim remarked upon these lines from the final poem in his old friend Alan Brunton’s posthumous publication Fq:

decisions made at tables / in cafes where citizens / regulated the public interest

because I suppose they encapsulated how he believed a functioning polity should operate. There is in fact a whole poem (#57) in that book about Jim, though he is not named therein. Here it is:

Z is a jigsaw

one night, he showed us some of the precious things
he had gathered, using high-resolution satellite
reconnaissance maps to find the clandestine factories
where the tissu he sought was made for immortals not
for men

he studied clouds in situ, going through their webby
turbulences to the places that stuff he wanted most
famously appears

he interpreted for us the unique features of particular
designs, unfolding and folding the cloth, telling us
which family had made it, how much he’d paid them,
whether the colour of the supernatural is deep-blue or
deep-green, the intricate nature of the relationships in
the matrilineal society of those villages

soft-eyed with reverence, he described the breakfast
prepared for him the morning he left

he opened drawers, unfurling the collectanea of robes
he wears to prayers: bisma memm issimissima, etc

to accumulate value, he explained, I buy time when
it’s cheap and expand it, whereas most people live like
they’re fucking in front of TV cameras

he held his flute to the firelight, astonished that such a
fragile thing could be made from slag, how it could be
‘described, judged, measured, compared with others’

no, no, they can’t take wonder away from Z


image : Jim Stevenson & Jon Waite, 5 Boyle Crescent, Grafton, Auckland, 1969

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Lion Island


This exquisite little painting, by Pearl Beach artist Peter Baka, hangs on the wall just inside the door that leads to the west facing balcony of my flat. I bought it off Peter years ago, for $25.00 (!), and I love it just as much now as I did then. He told me it was once part of a larger work, which he didn’t think successful, so he cut this bit out and framed it in the way that it appears above. I don’t know what the larger work showed, a seascape I suppose. Lion Island stands in Broken Bay at the mouth of the Hawkesbury River; it is a wildlife sanctuary – little penguins breed there; and shearwaters – and you are not supposed to go there without a permit; but I have.

It was in the days when I lived at Pearl Beach. A friend, Mark Mac, had a tinnie that he left at our place and would come up now and again from Glebe in Sydney to go out fishing in it. I remember once, on the far side of the island as shown in the painting, we found ourselves amongst a school of tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix) that was running and started hauling in the fish hand over fist. We were using spinners not bait, so it was easy to shuck a fish off the hook then cast again. But there was a squall coming down the river and I had to yell at Mark to start the outboard and get us the hell out of there before we were swamped. He was in a kind of frenzy and the fish we caught that day were far too many to eat at once and mostly ended up in the freezer until, eventually, I had to clear them out and bury them in the garden.


We landed in the small cove you see above; the sign is a no trespassing sign; and the greenery it stands amongst is a thicket of the thickest lantana I think I have ever seen. I know it looks innocuous but it was not. There was no way we could get off that beach and onto the rest of the island, unless we’d come equipped with slashers perhaps. Or chainsaws. Mark became irate because he could see, back of the slope on the right of the image, a huge macadamia tree which was bearing. Naturally, he wanted to plunder that too, the way, on that other day, he had plundered the school of tailor. We just kind of hung out there for a while then got back into the tinnie and motored home to Pearl Beach.

The piece of bush-covered hillside you can see in the background is the end of the Hope Range which runs down the northern bank of the Hawkesbury to Middle Head; I used to walk over that country often and still know it, as they say, like the back of my hand. There’s a beach along there, between Middle Head and Pearlie, called Flathead where I’d go along the rocks just about every day to body surf, if it was warm enough, or simply for a walk if it wasn’t. Nobody went there much apart from the odd fisherman; and restless locals like me.


And this is a press photograph of Lion Island, seen for the north, taken over the weekend.  A lightning strike apparently. The little sandy cove where Mark and I landed is over the other side, to the right of the image; the lights in the left background are of Sydney’s northern beaches. Palm Beach, probably. Nobody seems to know yet how the little penguins and the shearwaters have fared; Lion Island is free of feral cats and foxes, though not of water rats, which may threaten the penguins in their burrows; but fire?

It would be nice to think some dent was made in the lantana thicket but, typically, invasive species like this, and Bitou bush, with which the island is also infested, thrive after fires. As for the macadamia tree: roast nuts, anyone? The other disquieting thing is that it’s still only August, winter in the (maladapted) European calendar we use; very early in the season for bush fires to be breaking out. Remarkably, the Firies went over there in boats and on barges, with pumps, and used sea water to quell the blazes; which are I think extinguished now.


Lion Island from Barrenjoey Head in the south;

the cove is that small indent to the left.

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The Genealogy of Mr Harborside Mansion

bruce coral and malcolm

One : The Turnbulls of Ebenezer

John Turnbull was born in 1750 in Annan in Dumfriesshire, just across the border from Carlisle in Cumberland. He was already married to Ann Warr when, in 1799, the couple left Scotland with their two children for London, where John worked as a tailor’s cutter and where the couple’s next two children were born. A cutter cuts out, from lengths of cloth, the panels that go to make up a suit. In bespoke tailoring, the cutter may also measure the client, advise them on style choices, and commission craftsmen to sew the suit; but there’s no evidence if John Turnbull did this.

He emigrated to Australia in 1802, going aboard the Coromandel at Deptford; the ship berthed in Sydney on June 13 of that year. The Coromandel was a convict ship, the first to make a direct passage from Spithead to Port Jackson. There were eight other families of free settlers aboard, mostly from the Border country. They had been offered, along with their passage, 100 acres of land per family, two assigned men (convicts) to work it, and rations from the Commissariat store for a period following their taking up of the grant. Most of these properties were out at Ebenezer, Sackville or Windsor, north west of Sydney, on the Hawkesbury River.

John Turnbull was 52 years old when he arrived. According to a story told by John Dunmore Lang, the Presbyterian minister who was a regular guest of the Turnbulls at Ebenezer, shortly after their arrival Governor Gidley Philip King mustered these free settler pioneers on the quarter deck of the Coromandel ‘in order to ascertain their respective views, resources and abilities.’ Noticing a grey-haired fellow among them, the Governor is said to have exclaimed: ‘What are you doing here, old man, at the far end of the Earth, with one foot already in the grave?’

John Turnbull died in 1834, aged 86. He had spent three decades farming, growing cereals, tending his orchards of citrus and stone fruit trees. The Turnbulls supplied the Commissariat with wheat, pork and beef. On one occasion, it is said, while taking a cartload of peaches to town, old John Turnbull was held up on the Parramatta Road by the notorious bushranger Russel Crawford, but managed to keep him off until help arrived. This was just outside where the Grace Brothers buildings now stand on Broadway. Crawford was hanged in 1832.

The Turnbulls were godly, hard-working, law-abiding folk. A treasured relic is a small family bible, dated 1817, with an inscription stating that he, John Turnbull, ‘agreed to contribute £5 per year to a minister for Ebenezer chapel.’ He also donated to the so-called Waterloo Fund, sending money to England to help care for the widows and children of men killed in that famous battle. The Turnbulls had three further children in Australia; the youngest, William Bligh Turnbull, born 1809, is the direct ancestor of our former Prime Minister who also has, as one son in each generation in the male line is supposed to do, ‘Bligh’ as his second name. It commemorates John Turnbull’s support for the deposed Governor, William Bligh, during the Rum Rebellion of 1808.

There is a mystery here, perhaps evidence of an old quarrel. George Johnston, whom The Richmond and Windsor Gazette in 1923 described as ‘the crusher of the Rouse Hill rebellion . . . tool of the unspeakable bully and land monopolist J. Macarthur’, was also from Annan in Dumfriesshire, leaving open the possibility that he and John Turnbull knew each other in the old country. Johnson, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the NSW Corps was, along with Macarthur and one or two others, a ringleader of the Rum Rebellion. He was court-martialled and cashiered—then offered a free passage back to Australia, where he continued to flourish as a farmer and grazier. The Sydney suburb of Annandale, and its main thoroughfare, Johnston Street, are named, respectively, by and after him.

Whether or not he and John Turnbull had met before, it is clear that the latter—‘of rugged, persevering stock, with the blood of the old Covenanters in his veins’—was wholly opposed to the corrupt, licentious and greedy men of the Rum Corps. Bligh, too, was more supportive of small farmers, such as the Turnbulls, than he was of rum-dealing empire builders like Johnston and Macarthur.

Two : Euroka, Sherwood, Tumut

John Turnbull’s youngest son, William Bligh Turnbull, farmed for many years in the Ebenezer district but, in 1868, moved with his family to a property at Kempsey, on the Macleay River in Northern NSW. He and his wife, Sarah Davies, who married in 1838, had eight sons and three daughters. He died, aged 83, in 1892 and is buried in Euroka cemetery near Kempsey.

William Bligh Turnbull might have spent most of his life as a farmer but that wasn’t all he did. There was a period, mid-century, when he was operating a trading vessel out of Sydney. It was called La Casquarie (sic) and worked the coastal trade, and up and down the rivers, which were main thoroughfares in those days—when Maitland, for instance, on the Hunter, was the largest town in the state after Sydney. La Casquarie carried cargoes of timber, of livestock, of produce, of grain. The name is obscure, perhaps even a misprint. A casque is a helmet; ‘casquerer’ is to trick or to shell out; the spelling, if it is accurate, almost looks like a play on the word Macquarie, which name is of course ubiquitous in NSW.

William was born, as mentioned, at Ebenezer in 1809, ‘just about the time those exceptionally heavy floods which caused so much loss of property and life, visited the Hawkesbury River’; and died after a buggy accident in 1892. It seems to have been a protracted demise: ‘he lingered on to the end in a comatose condition with intervals of lucid reason.’ According to his obituary in the Macleay Chronicle, ‘William Bligh Turnbull did not take any very prominent part either in political or religious matters, but, uninfluenced by theological hatred and free from sectarian bigotry, he tried to perform his duty prudently and independently, and did not suffer himself to be swayed by personal bias or popular prejudice. His genial and kind-hearted disposition, his integrity and probity, won respect wherever he was known.’

The obituarist then, grandiloquently, went on to quote words Mark Anthony spoke over the body of Brutus towards the end of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘His life was gentle; and the elements / So mixed in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world: This was a man.’ He had married the seventeen year old Sarah Davies in February 1838 and she outlived him by more than a decade, dying in 1906 at the age of 84. Ten of their eleven children were born on the Hawkesbury; and it was the fifth child and third son who was given the second name Bligh.

James Bligh Turnbull was born at Colo in 1847. Colo is a little to the north and west of Ebenezer, on the Colo River, a tributary of the Hawkesbury, where the Turnbulls had extended their property holdings. James was 21 when his father moved up to Kempsey; he is described as a farmer and a Methodist and in later years worked a property at Sherwood, a little to the west of his Dad’s land at Euroka.

Whether James went north with the family in 1868 or followed after is unclear; he certainly ended his life on the Northern Rivers, dying in Kempsey, aged 83, in 1930. His wife, however, Eliza Cox Turnbull, nee Gosper, was born in 1860 at Maraylya, just south of Ebenezer on the Hawkesbury, suggesting either that James stayed on there a while or else that links, which might have been commercial as much as romantic, were maintained between the Hawkesbury and the Macleay.

Eliza was thirteen years younger than her husband and outlived him by ten years, dying at Kempsey in 1940. Together they produced fourteen children, eight sons and six daughters. Frederick Turnbull, the ninth child, got the Bligh. He was born at Euroka in 1893 and was Malcolm’s grand-father; the two must have known each other. Fred, as he was called, seems to have been the first in the direct line not to have made his living off the land; when he enlisted in the 11th re-enforcement of the 19th Battalion, at Kempsey on 1st October, 1915, he gave his occupation as a school teacher. He was then 22 years old and a single man living at Sherwood, his father’s property on the Macleay River. Like his father, Fred gave his religion as Methodist.

He embarked HMAT Nestor on April 9, 1916 at Sydney and sailed via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal to Alexandria, thence to England, where Australian troops generally undertook more training before going to France. The 19th Battalion had been raised around Liverpool in March 1915. It fought in the later stages of the Gallipoli campaign and then, after the men had undergone further training in Egypt, was sent to the Western Front. By the time Fred arrived, most likely late in 1916, the 19th had fought at Pozieres and Clery; then, in November, they were part of an attack on the German lines near Flers, in conditions which Charles Bean described as the worst ever encountered by the AIF.

The following year, 1917, the 19th took part in three major battles: second Bullecourt (3-4 May) in France; Menin Road (20-22 September) and Poelcappelle (9-10 October) in Belgium. They fought through almost until the end of the war: at Amiens on 8 August 1918, in the legendary attack on Mont St Quentin on 31 August, and during the forcing of the Beaurevoir Line around Montbrehain on 3 October. But Montbrehain was the battalion’s last engagement.

It was considered so reduced and debilitated that, on 10 October, it was disbanded to reinforce other battalions in the brigade. This was done against the advice of supreme commander, Monash, who thought morale would suffer as a result, since the men identified primarily with their battalion. Monash also thought that, so long as there were enough soldiers to man 30 Lewis guns, a battalion was a functional fighting force.

We don’t know what Fred got up to in the war; only that he survived. In the genealogies he is described as a store-keeper as well as a school teacher and maybe he was keeping shop when his only child, Bruce Bligh Turnbull, was born at Tumut in 1926; Fred’s wife, Mary Agnes Turnbull, née Brown (b.1894) was from Condobolin. Tumut is between Canberra and Wagga Wagga, south of Gundagai, on the edges of Kosciuszko National Park; Miles Franklin country. She came from nearby Talbingo, further into the hills, and there are memories of her in both places. Condobolin is away to the north-west, out on the plains in Wiradjuri country, west through the Bogan Gate from Parkes.

Three : Bruce & Coral

Bruce Bligh Turnbull left school aged 15 and apprenticed himself to an electrician; later on he became a hotel broker, selling pubs and their fittings. His son recalls that his first job was counting beer glasses for his father, whom he described as ‘witty, amusing, and light. I’m probably a bit more serious. He was a very good father. He was a very intelligent man. He did not go to university, which he regretted. He had a very simple sort of morality which I inherited. Rather an old-fashioned concept of honour and manliness and principle. It can make you a bit unbending. One thing he believed was that you should never take a backward step.’

His father also taught him: no cigarettes, no motor bikes and no single engine planes; which is ironic because Turnbull senior was to die in a plane crash. Bruce ‘struggled financially most of his life but in his late 40s started to make a few bucks, started to acquire some success in the sense that he was able to buy a flat that we could live in, ‘cause we’d always lived in rented accommodation or in the flat in Vaucluse that was basically owned by my mother. He had some investments in hotels and things started to go well for him.

‘My father had this great love of the bush and horses. He loved riding. He used to go riding in the Snowy Mountains. He used to borrow horses, young horses from friends of his who were camp drafters and break them in, in Centennial Park, and had a few exciting accidents there as a result. He was a little bit of a cowboy, really.

‘Anyway, he looked around for years and years for a property to buy and he finally found this place which he bought in 1981, just between Aberdeen and Scone in the Hunter Valley. He had a great time, enjoyed all the work with the cattle and the fencing and all of it. He just loved the country life and riding around. A year after he bought it he was in a light plane flying from Scone to Casino, which crashed over the Barrington Tops and he was dead in December, 1982.’

He was 56 years old. Malcolm inherited his father’s farm; he said he could never sell it because Bruce is buried in the front garden.

Coral Magnolia Lansbury was born at St Kilda, Melbourne, in 1929, the second child of Australian-born Oscar Vincent Stephen Lansbury and his English-born wife May, née Morle. Her great uncle, George Lansbury, was a Cabinet Minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s government and leader of the British Labour Party until succeeded, in the 1930s, by Clement Attlee. He had been a Communist, a supporter of the Suffragettes and a Pacifist. Coral’s parents were London stage actors who toured New Zealand and Australia in 1928 and 1929 with a production of The Vagabond King before joining the cast of Show Boat; hence Coral’s second name, Magnolia, after the heroine, Magnolia Hawks.

After the cast of Show Boat disbanded in Sydney in December 1929, the family settled there, and Oscar took a job as a radio sound-effects man with the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Coral once told an interviewer that she detested her mother and revered her father, who introduced her to Dickens and Thackeray to keep her quiet backstage during shows. Coral Lansbury became a child actor in J. C. Williamson productions; her first role, aged ten, was as a fairy in a Christmas pantomime.

She began performing in radio serials and, while she was still a teenager, had one of her scripts accepted for production by the ABC. She attended the University of Sydney (1947-50), where she completed the requirements for a BA Honours degree, majoring in English and History, and winning the Maud Stiles and George Arnold Wood Memorial History Prizes; but as an unmatriculated student, she wasn’t allowed to graduate.

In 1948 her verse play Krubi of the Illawarra, about an Aboriginal girl who transformed into a Waratah flower, won the Henry Lawson Prize for poetry. She took the lead role in its radio production in 1949 and went on to write a number of other radio plays. From 1953 to 1963 she was a feature and drama writer with the ABC, winning a number of awards for her work. During the same period, she wrote ‘an enormous amount of soap opera material which, while profitable, was of dubious literary worth.’ Portia Faces Life was one of the radio shows she wrote for.

It isn’t clear where and how Coral Lansbury met Bruce Turnbull. He was the second of her three husbands. The first, wed on 20 February 1953 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, was 64 year old actor and producer George Harold Edwards; it was his fourth marriage. He contracted pneumonia and was hospitalised two days after the wedding; six months later he was dead. The following year, in October 1954, Lansbury’s only child, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, was born; she married his father on 29 December 1955 at Campbell Street Presbyterian Church, Balmain, when their son was a little more than one year old.

Coral Lansbury did not want to make the move from radio into television; she chose academia instead. In 1963 she was appointed lecturer in History and Australian Studies at the University of New South Wales; it was there that she met John (Jock) Salmon, a New Zealand-born specialist in French History who was the university’s foundation Professor of History (1960-65).

1963 was the year Malcolm enrolled at Sydney Grammar School; and the year his parents’ marriage ended. From then on, he lived with his father. He was an Eastern Suburbs boy. He swam at Bondi and fed ducks in Centennial Park: ‘things that take no account of your bank balance.’ He recalled a surf club acquaintance with ‘a man whose calloused hands were used, in a rather emphatic manner, to collect debts for bookies.’

In 1966 Lansbury joined Salmon at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, where he was Professor of History and Dean of Humanities (1965-69). She was a lecturer in History and a senior lecturer in English and, at the same time, a graduate student at the University of Auckland (MA, 1967; PhD, 1969). Social contexts and the novel’s symbolic role in cultural inventions were themes central to her academic work.

Her postgraduate research was published as Arcady in Australia: The Evocation of Australia in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (1970). In it she argues that Samuel Sidney, Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Reade transferred the myth of a happy English rural life to Australia with huge success, evoking, however, ‘a new Australia that bore only passing resemblance to the country as it existed.’ She also traced the masculine origins of the bush mateship myth which figures such as Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and William Guthrie Spence popularised.

When Salmon joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, in 1969, Coral Lansbury accompanied him to the US. She became an associate professor of English at Rosemont College (1970-73) and a visiting professor of English and History in the graduate school of Victorian Studies at Drew University (1974). Appointed associate professor of English at Rutgers University, New Jersey, in 1974, she was promoted to Professor in 1976. She published works on Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and novels, and on Anthony Trollope’s language and structure. A socialist rather than a feminist critic, she combined both in The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England (1985).

She and Salmon divorced in 1981. That year she was appointed distinguished Professor of English and co-adjutant Professor of History at Rutgers. Three years later she became Graduate Dean and Director of Sponsored Research. Famously, in the mid-1980s, Coral’s second cousin, the actress Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote), challenged her to write something more interesting than academic prose. She responded by publishing four novels: Ringarra: A Gothic Novel (1985), Sweet Alice (1986), Felicity (1987), and The Grotto (1988); a fifth, Opium, despite the editorial efforts of her son, remained incomplete. Three of the books have Australian settings.

Her colleagues dubbed her The Dean of Dazzle: green-eyed, coppery-haired and theatrical; tall, glamorous, very funny, and highly successful; quick-witted and a fierce competitor on the squash courts. Lansbury travelled regularly to Australia. Her son recalled that she was ‘a fairly outrageous character who did not much care what people thought of her; she was often wrong but she was never in doubt.’

He nursed her in the weeks before her death in Philadelphia from bowel cancer on 2 April 1991. And afterwards found amongst her papers letters from his father, scolding her for so often letting the boy down: ‘He was expecting you for his birthday and you didn’t come,’ one of them said. Malcolm sat on the floor and cried. In the early 1980s, he had bought a home for her, down the road from his own place in Sydney’s Paddington, in the hope that she would one day come to live near him. But that, of course, like so much else, never happened.


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