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.