by Peter Rose
Such high standards the American magazines maintain, with their enviable resources. Fine valedictory article in the New Yorker by Joyce Carol Oates on the death of her husband of four decades. Slightly uneasy, though, to realise that Oates, in her forensic way, was gathering data for such an article while he was failing.
But the magazines can still terrify. Harper’s Index, which I love reading each month, reveals that two out of every five Americans believe that Jesus Christ will reappear before 2050. What a country! I may still be alive to watch his arrival on television.
Complimented Anna Goldsworthy on her review of Paul Kelly’s memoirs. I like the way Anna listens to a book, a feat of attention of which not all reviewers are capable.
Listening to Gertrude Stein on a new BBC CD of American poets, I was struck by John Ashbery’s debt to her. Could he have written as he did without Stein’s influence? Then Wallace Stevens’s incomparable, somnolent reading of ‘Credences of Summer’. Plath, always seemingly on the verge of tears, reads ‘Candles’; Roethke ‘The Waking’, which Robert Gray read at Philip Hodgins’s funeral at the little cemetery in Timor. Ashbery, too hokey, is not at his best, but I recall his beautiful reading of my favourite poem of his, ‘At North Farm’, in Melbourne in 1992.
Lord, the power of ABR. In the current issue I editorialise about the PM’s Award and call for a consolation prize of $5000 for the non-winners. Lo and behold, it has just been announced. But not, sadly, a poetry prize.
A day at the office on my own, as I rarely am these days. In the early years I often had the place to myself. One functions quite differently. Interesting that Kafka thought of the office as a human being watching him.
Rereading Ripley under Ground. Such attention to detail. Tom Ripley, impersonating Derwatt in London at the opening, wonders, ‘Did he smoke? What the hell’ – and lights up.
Finished a short poem called ‘Stuff of Sleep and Dreams’. I must stop writing poems in Fawkner Park. Clearly it is time to move. They are becoming my Bird Poems.
Reading Sartre’s critical essays before sending them to Colin Nettelbeck, who will review them for us. Sartre is at his most brilliant, and forceful, in the essays on William Faulkner, who frustrates him. Faulkner’s rejection of the future is anathema to Sartre. Brilliant metaphors along the way: ‘Faulkner’s monologues are reminiscent of aeroplane journeys with lots of air pockets.’
Ian Britain, while complimenting me on my article on E.M. Forster, has sent me a witty letter for publication correcting my lazy mistake about Virginia Woolf’s assessment as to when ‘human character changed’. In my article I had it in 1908, when Lytton Strachey dared to utter the word ‘semen’ in front of the Bloomsburys, whereas Woolf actually wrote this in 1910, in a different context. No point crying over spilt milk, I told Ian.
Later, he dropped in for a chat. We discussed Conrad’s Victory, which I’ve been rereading. When I mentioned the character Mr Jones’s ‘exaggerated dislike of women’, Ian reminisced about Oxford. He belonged to the Architectural Society. When they wrote to Harold Acton proposing a visit to Florence, he asked if there would be any women. No was the answer. ‘Thank God for that,’ he said.
A., whom I dimly recall, rang today – one of several people to do so – wanting to discuss the next ABR Patrons’ Fellowship, for which he has two proposals in mind. First, though, he needed to get something off his chest. Years ago – nearly twenty years ago, in fact – he and I read together at Linden, apparently. It was one of A.’s first readings since becoming an author; previously he had been an actor. He thinks he misjudged things badly and read far too long. Ever since then, whenever he has seen or heard my name, he has winced. Fortunately, I have no recollection of his transgression – nor indeed of the event at Linden – so I was able to reassure him. Besides, when it comes to reading for too long in public, who shall ’scape whipping?
Chong brought in one of his hand-coloured prints of Paul Kelly, very fetching – very saleable too, we trust, as we prepare to sell editions of six of his cover prints during our fiftieth birthday year. Chong’s eyes lit up when I suggested Patrick White for a cover. Diaghilev, too, though I doubted whether he would be available to sit to Chong. Oh, I will consult a medium, he replied.
I am reading Leon Edel’s memoir of World War II, The Visitable Past, on Dick Freadman’s recommendation. Some of my fellow Jamesians (we happy few) mightn’t relish Edel’s recollections of military service. Edel was drafted in his mid-thirties, saw active service in Europe, and was with de Gaulle, and Hemingway, at the liberation of Paris. Brilliant vignette of Morton Fullerton, Edith Wharton (and James’s?) lover, whom he met in 1929 and again, upon liberation, in 1944. Hilarious response from Wharton to one of Fullerton’s pompous, overblown travel books, with their ‘kilometric sentences’, as The Times put it in his obituary. Wharton: ‘You’ve read too much French and too much Times. Go back to English … mow down every cliché, uproot all the dragging circumlocutions, compress, diversify, clarify, vivify.’
Chong’s series of Paul Kelly prints is creating much interest; we have sold half the set (twenty). Kate Lilley is delighted that Chong is working on a print of her mother.
To the Nova for a preview of Jacobi’s Lear, the one we couldn’t get into in London in December. The closing scenes were magnificent, so affecting. Met Gig Ryan in the foyer, with Owen Richardson. Neither of us had been invited to the opening of the National Poetry Centre. ‘Well, if you two weren’t …’ Owen laughed into his Antarctic beard.
Surprised last night to learn that Hazel Rowley had pulled out of the Perth festival (we were due to be on a panel with Rodney Hall next month). Today we found out why. Hazel has become very thin, and hasn’t been well. It appears that heart disease set in some time ago. Alone in her old apartment last weekend, she became ill and disorientated. There were thirty-eight messages on her answering machine when friends entered the apartment later. At some point Hazel decided to have a bath and became unconscious. The bathroom flooded, and downstairs neighbours ultimately found her. She has endocarditis and has been unconscious (comatose) for days, and now she has septicaemia and golden staph.
More information seeped out during the day, but the diagnosis seems vague, and the prognosis sketchy. But it’s clear Hazel’s health is irreparably changed and her survival unlikely. I can’t imagine that attractive, feisty woman – who has prided herself on her looks, her intellect, her independence – wanting to survive in a depleted form.
But for that stupid snow in London last December we would have lunched with Hazel in New York, as we did with Andrea Goldsmith the previous Boxing Day.
I rang Robert Dessaix, just back from Portugal and France. Hazel and Robert were once great confidants, having met on my tiny balcony in East St Kilda in about 1992 or 1993 one sweltering New Year’s Eve. Wisely, Robert said that he never believes anything is over until it is over.
Just as I was leaving for Carlton, to discuss ‘Julia Bride’ with the Jamesians, a volley of emails confirmed how grievous Hazel’s situation really is. Her siblings are flying to NYC tomorrow. Hazel has sustained damage to her heart and irreversible damage to her brain. She is surrounded by friends who are being very generous in their bulletins to Hazel’s helpless antipodean friends. They talk to her and decorate her room at St Luke’s with photos. One of them, sent to all of us here, shows Hazel at a book signing on February 12: happy, youthful, contented. February 12!
Read Peter Ryan’s short memoir, Final Proof, having finally extracted a copy from Quadrant Books; the author himself had to intervene. Yet Quadrant had speculated that ‘leftist’ magazines wouldn’t bother reviewing the book.
Our brief conversation was as – ‘courtly’ might be the word – as ever. With great care Peter described his careful reading of ABR without divulging his opinion of its content.
The memoir itself is short, old-fashioned, somewhat recriminatory, and surprisingly bitter at the end – not about the present régime at MUP, as it happens, but about Ryan’s umbrage, immediately after his departure in 1988, on learning that his favoured candidate had not been appointed to succeed him as director. The job went to someone of whom he had never heard – the unnamed John Iremonger.
Three years earlier, in 1985, I had sat in Peter’s salubrious office on Swanston Street, opposite Newman College; one of a bewildering number of MUP homes during his three decades as Director. I had been managing a medical bookshop for a couple of years and was thinking of moving on, so I applied for the job as manager of the Melbourne University Bookroom and was interviewed. Pugh’s portrait of John Kerr hung near Peter’s desk, banished from the Latin Restaurant by a progressive new owner. Dr Johnson, the Border Collie, slept by the open fire. ‘Where is Boswell?’ I asked the Director. (No doubt all of his anxious authors and applicants did the same.) ‘He’s at home, thank you very much,’ said Peter.
Back to the University of Western Australia for the Perth Writers’ Festival. I took part in a twilight session in the Sunken Gardens, which felt sufficiently Jamesian. Kirsten Tranter and I talked about our recent novels in relation to James (mine nods to The Aspern Papers, hers to The Portrait of a Lady).
We arrived late for HarperCollins’s dinner by that broadest of rivers. Annie Proulx, further along our table, seemed weary and bronchial, but brightened up late in the night with a beautiful anecdote about the sight of heavily fur-coated women walking through light snow outside the opera house in Santa Fe.
Simon Armitage’s main session at the festival, before a large and sympathetic audience. How could one not like Simon – pleasantest of poets? I hadn’t seen him in years, but we spoke at the huge al fresco opening night party at the university, which felt more dispersed than the great party scene in La Notte. Simon is here with his wife, Sue Roberts, head of BBC drama, and their daughter.
Geordie Williamson introduced Armitage quite magniloquently. Simon began by reading his signature poem, ‘The Shout’. ‘You are very generous with your applause,’ Simon told the enthusiastic audience. ‘I’ll have to find something you don’t like.’
Then it was time for my session with Rodney Hall: an audience of two hundred, many there to hear Hazel Rowley, unaware of her death. With Rodney’s permission, and with rather more emotion than I felt comfortable with onstage, I began the session with a few remarks about Hazel, to whom we dedicated the session. I spoke of Hazel’s flair, her conversation, and the unusual bravery and variety of her biographical choices: from Stead to Wright to Beauvoir & Sartre to the Roosevelts.
The festival ended for me with a late-afternoon session on Dorothy Hewett’s poetry, sponsored by UWA Publishing, which has just published her Collected Poems. Kate Lilley, remarkably like her mother in profile, read several poems, including the massive ‘The Hidden Journey’, about the USSR:
In 1952, in the year of Stalin, I came to Russia,
And saw flowers growing out of the blinkers in my eyes …
This virtuoso reading – better, interestingly, than Kate’s reading from her own work at an earlier session which I had chaired – made me rethink Hewett’s poetry. I was pleased to learn that Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray will include it in their forthcoming anthology, partly because it’s a momentous poem, but also because the editors have clearly eschewed the anthologist’s usual distaste for long poems.
Sad task this morning; I had to ring the six unsuccessful interviewees for the ABR Sidney Myer Fund Editorial Internship. H., who came closest, was clearly disappointed. Then she rang me back to point out a typo on our front cover (fortunately not too grievous), so she must have rallied.
Brief conversation with Zoltan Torey today, my old blind author friend from OUP days (I published his book Crucible of Consciousness). As ever, Zoltan psychoanalysed my voice and pronounced me ‘fresh’ as ever. If he only knew! I was ringing him because Jon Bauer, the young author, wants to contact Zoltan in regard to his new novel, which features a magically blind woman. Zoltan was happy to oblige, as he did years ago when I was beginning to create my character Eleanor Valentine.
Impossible to read Wallace Stevens’s ‘Credences of Summer’ without hearing that sad, magisterial voice. He is of course my favourite aphorist on poetry (‘Poetry must be irrational.’) I thought of John Coetzee when I read Stevens’s brief, qualified tribute to T.S. Eliot: ‘He remains an upright ascetic in a world that has grown exceedingly floppy and is growing floppier.’
Odd to come across a straight, beautiful word like ‘merit’ (‘Merit in poets is as boring as merit in people’) and realise one has probably never used it in print.
To Tolarno Galleries for Bill Henson’s first exhibition since the vicious débâcle of 2008. Four hundred guests in an oppressively close gallery, and many turned away. Once I had become accustomed to the marmoreal effect of the new work – ghostly figures in more balletic, classical poses than usual – I enjoyed them, or what I could see of them.
Jan Minchin had invited a few dozen people to a dinner at the Australia Club to celebrate Bill’s work. We were seated with Michael Heyward and three of his children. To my right was a striking Dutch boy of nineteen who appears in some of the photos, with Alice Heyward, Michael’s daughter, who has been working with Bill since her early teens.
Michael was quite open about the immense upheavals and challenges facing publishers. He said things aren’t what they were six months ago, and that they will be different in six months’ time. Everything is up in the air. He remains guardedly optimistic, but the strain was clear.
I attended a packed session at the ‘True Stories: Writing History’ conference at the National Library. Ben Naparstek, the compère, seemed nervous and may not have noticed that the lights went off while he was introducing Malcolm Knox. At least the curtains behind the stage didn’t close of their own accord, as they did during one session I was involved in years ago. The other panellists were Christine Wallace (who is writing a biography of Gillard) and Fenola Souter. The stated theme of the session was ‘Can journalism tell us the whole story?’ Someone called Julian Assange was the elephant in the room.
After a wishy-washy G & T in good old Boffin’s, we walked down to the old University Club by the lake for the National Library’s dinner in the new Ivy Café. Much talk about rumoured cuts in the coming federal budget, those grotesque efficiency dividends economists have invented.
I met the Spigelmans. Alice and I tried to remember if she had written for me years ago, or if we just reviewed a book of hers. I liked Jim Spigelman, legendary Labor jurist. ‘So you are publishing my mate Michael Kirby,’ he said. He must have read the April issue already. I asked him about his term. ‘Oh, I’ve just resigned, and I finish up in May,’ he replied. This surprised me. Then I realised he was talking about the Supreme Court of New South Wales, not his chairmanship of the Library. Justice Spigelman has been to Gillard’s Whitlam Lecture during the week. The former prime minister wasn’t there, but had filmed a message for the event. Spigelman said that Whitlam is physically spent but mentally still streets ahead of the rest of us.
I drew a good table: oral historian Alistair Thomson (one of my first authors at OUP), back from England, now a professor at Monash; Martin Thomas, who has a new book on the archaeologist Matthews; Robyn Matthews, curator of music at the Library; and Zoë Rodriguez. On my left was a visiting French scholar and current Harold White Fellow, Beatrice Bijon. We had a long conversation about cultural differences. She is struck by Australia’s welcoming nature, and contrasted our cultural institutions’ openness and ‘outreach’ to the situation in France, where the élite guards its secrets and treasures. This surprised me.
A long chat with Robyn Maxwell about the Bonynge collection, which they all hope will come to the National Library. Adam Bonynge is the key factor. I asked Robyn, who was present, if Richard Bonynge had stayed away from the Sydney state memorial service in order to allow his son have more prominence. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You have to understand that music is everything to Bonynge.’ He had work in Cuba, and that’s what mattered. Until he attended his wife’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey, he had never attended a funeral, and he is eighty years old.
Well, Joan Sutherland went ahead with her American début the same day she learned her mother had died.
Woken early by University House’s resident screeching cockatoos. We skipped Bryce Courtenay’s lecture and visited the War Memorial, then drove to Goulburn, following that snaking road beside the parched lake. In the eighties the lake lapped the old, winding road. Now it is one kilometre away, in a ‘wet’ year. We reached the Holdsworths’ house and found Rob Holdsworth in the garden, searching fruitlessly for a lemon. The Picador people eventually arrived: Rod Morrison (casually attired; only Rob wore a tie); Kate Patterson, whom I liked; and a YA publisher who looks young enough to be a character in one of her books.
Elisabeth seemed overly annoyed by a review of Those Who Come After. It is qualified but certainly not hostile or swingeing, yet Elisabeth and her agent seem to have wound themselves up about it. Best, I always think, not to allow reviews to upset you like this. Don’t read them, if you’re anxious – or at least don’t reread them – especially if you are about to publish your first book: a tense but exhilarating time. I recall John Forbes coming up to me and boasting about the negative review he had written of my first book, The House of Vitriol, back in 1990. This was at my launch party, to which Forbes had invited himself. Fine, I thought. And I never read the review.
After an excellent lunch (oysters in Goulburn!), about fifty locals began to arrive. Speeches began at 2 p.m. Rob Morrison thanked various people, then introduced me. I spoke for about fifteen minutes and managed to reduce the author to tears. Midway through my talk there was a marvellous fly-past of cockatoos. Elisabeth, who seemed pleased, spoke well and read beautifully. She gave me a bottle of Glenfiddich.
I met several of the guests and ate so many sausage rolls I needed a long walk through the elegant, rather prosperous town. I wanted to return to the Paragon Café, mentioned in Elisabeth’s novel. C. persuaded me to have my first ice cream sundae since about 1969. Then we returned to the Holdsworths’ and had a drink with them before heading back to Canberra, and Melbourne.
Today we launched ABR Online Edition. Good response, with fifteen online subscriptions. Nice notice on Crikey; moments later Di Gribble subscribed. So everyone is pleased, relieved.
Michael Kirby, newly biographised, emailed his corrections to his article on habeas corpus. Unfortunately this appears in the April issue, already printed. Readings surprised me by asking me to interview Kirby when he visits Melbourne (Julian Burnside pulled out because of a court appearance). I declined, not because I don’t admire the man but because I know nothing about the law.
Another invitation to Christine Nixon’s Daniel Mannix Lecture, which is titled ‘Leadership in Difficult Times’. Shouldn’t that be ‘Fiery Times’?
To the Wheeler Centre for a meeting with Michael Williams, Lyn Buchanan, and Della Rowley. Della is uncannily like Hazel, even screwing her face up when amused and looking away, as Hazel did. We didn’t have time for pleasantries or condolences, but immediately discussed various ways of commemorating Hazel’s life and work. Everyone favours a combination of a public lecture and a travel fellowship of some kind.
From the City of Literature to the MCG for the unveiling of the premiership cup. I opted to wear a suit, eschewing the guernsey and Collingwood scarf that the club had encouraged everyone to wear. By the time we reached the Olympic Room everyone was there and the speeches were underway (it’s heresy to be late for an AFL function) – a struggle for our compère, as there were 650 people in the room. Next to us was Jeanne Pratt’s table. Weirdly, she has become Carlton’s vice-president. I thought of all the places she could have been.
Half an hour before the game it was time for about fifty of us to go on to the ground for the unfurling of the premiership flag. We followed Eddie down hundreds of stairs, not all as fit as our president. We walked around to a gate where the huge premiership flag was being unrolled. Peter Mckenna, Daicos, Tony Shaw (who called me Robert, not the first person to do so), and Thorold Merrett carried it towards the dais, along a very happy guard of honour. It was the warmest night and the MCG – never so full for a Carlton-Collingwood game (88,000) – looked fine. Last time I was on the MCG was in 2003 when my mother presented the premiership cup.
Easter – Shakespeare’s birthday – and the first anniversary of Peter Porter’s death.
Dinner with Ian Donaldson and Grazia Gunn. Ian told us a fascinating if poignant story about Frank Kermode. They knew him well in Cambridge, where they lived for many years. When Kermode’s marriage ended, they helped him to move into a smaller apartment. With Ian and Grazia’s anxious oversight, Kermode put household rubbish into one set of boxes, to be collected and pulped by the Cambridge City Council, and books into another set of boxes to be collected by removalists in the morning. The Council workers, wearing caps and shirts displaying the words ‘Cambridge City Council’, arrived first. ‘Are you the removalists?’ asked Kermode vaguely. Smiling at the old gentleman’s witticism, they agreed that they did indeed remove things from people’s houses. So Kermode waved them towards the crates of books and went inside. Twenty minutes later, his cleaning lady, seeing boxloads of books going into the compacter, asked him if that was what was meant to be happening. The process was abruptly halted, but a large part of his library had been destroyed. Some boxes remained, which Ian helped him to unpack the next day in Kermode’s new flat. The seventeenth-century texts, with a lifetime’s notes and marginalia, had all been destroyed. Part of his large collection of modern poetry, arranged alphabetically, was intact, but appeared to run out at the letter ‘P’. There were some rather good poets, Kermode remarked, in the bottom part of the alphabet, about one or two of whom he had written some rather good books. Poets Q to Z were nowhere to be found.
Finished rereading Alasdair Macgregor’s book on the Griffins, which will probably carry off the National Biography Award tomorrow when we judges confer tomorrow. Not bad in the present, slovenly age to detect only one blemish in a long book: a shoddy word-break (‘moreo/ver’). Not that I should harp. C., reading our new issue, spotted ‘Walter Burleigh Griffin’ in David Pear’s article on Grainger. How can this happen? Easily. Word, in Elizabethan mode, self-corrects ‘Burley’ to ‘Burleigh’.
I am also reading Janet Malcolm again, with the old admiration. She has written a courtroom thriller set in Forest Hills, her first foray into court (normally, she mops up afterwards). Helen Garner, reviewing the book today, dubs her the mistress of the pluperfect tense.
Joel Deane, whose long article on Assange was to be syndicated in today’s Age, has been bumped – by Osama bin Laden. The Americans, not helped by their Pakistani allies, finally located bin Laden and promptly dispatched him, to few peoples’ chagrin, at least in the West (unseemly demonstrations followed outside the White House and in Times Square).
I am reading Charles Osborne’s likeable memoir, Giving It Away. He was close to Peter Porter in Britain, but also knew him in the forties, when he was running a Brisbane bookshop which Peter frequented.
Osborne is scathing about Callas, funny about the time she crashed an academic conference in 1974. Only he stood up to the ‘fishwife’. He disliked the voice too, unusually, and thought her acting inferior to Sutherland’s, because unaffecting.
Nice anecdote about Patrick White’s grumpy meeting with Benjamin Britten, when Nolan introduced them; and about the latter’s buying Hatchards’ stock of Claws in the Arse, then dumping them in a rubbish bin outside the shop in Piccadilly. Most artists are too mean to do that.
Early drive to Clunes for Booktown, a cheerful, eccentric gathering of antiquarian booksellers, browsers, and eight writers. We explored the small township (population 800) and found the old Wesley Church, which was full of booksellers. Tess Brady, the organiser, had given us an exposed table by the front door. Amy Baillieu, armed with brochures and free copies of ABR, set up a display and braved the wind all day.
My first session was at 11.30; a workshop on reviewing. Miriam Zolin, who edits a magazine herself, was among them. I sounded her out about writing for us.
After lunch I banged on about The Aspern Papers and Lord Jim in a café on the main street, opposite the old bank. All of the writers had been asked to discuss their favourite books. My audience comprised twenty-five people and a portly Labrador sprawled on an old sofa. The dowager dog listened sniffily for ten minutes then got up, stretched, and walked out of the room.
Eventually we found the Old Dairy Farm, where we are staying – a B&B on the outskirts of Clunes. Patrick Allington is there too, plus the indefatigable man behind Punch & Judy (said to be a local medievalist) and his young son.
After a reception of sorts for the writers in one of the bookshops – Anne Deveson, Jean Bedford, Michael Wilding, Peter Corris et al. – we still had an hour to kill before dinner, so C. and I ventured into the pub (recently flooded). As the barman handed me a glass of local chardonnay (filled to the rim of course), a young bored-looking farmer standing next to me said to me, ‘It may not taste any good, but at least it will get you pissed.’
Dinner was across the road, in someone’s kitchen, full of organisers and guests – a huge country spread. I sensed some tension between the organisers and L., who may not be invited back in a hurry. Why had the organisers not arranged a pony for her child? Where was the local cab rank? The lack of Internet connection was intolerable. So it went on.
Like good countryfolk we were home early, soon followed by Patrick. The three of us sat in the living room watching the final episode of Spooks, before a nine-hour sleep.
Lunch in the rather better pub opposite. We sat with Patrick, while Bob Hawke – sans his biographer, who was indisposed – charmed the crowd by the bar. He was due to speak after my session with Anne Deveson (‘Writing about Family’). This may have contributed to our good-sized audience, many of them wanting to be sure of a seat for Hawkey.
Early flight to Sydney, reading Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, rather fruity at first. To the State Library for the announcement of the National Biography Award. I sat with Geoff Cains, onlie begetter of the NBA. After the introductions I read out synopses of three shortlisted books, then Peter Skryznecki read the other three. (Carmen Lawrence wasn’t present.) Alasdair McGregor, duly named as winner, spoke well, and read expertly from the book. Large crowd, because of NBA’s inclusion in the Writers’ Festival program, but they will have competition tonight, when the premier’s awards are announced. Malcolm Fraser’s memoirs has won, I understand; we didn’t even longlist them.
Later, after catching up with some old friends in the audience, we crossed the Domain for lunch in the Gallery restaurant. Among the guests was Rod Buchanan, shortlisted for his biography of Eysenck. Modestly, he hadn’t told anyone he was flying up from Melbourne to attend the ceremony.
After lunch, a brief tour of the gallery, then back to the hotel. Five o’clock drinks with the Broinowskis, in Paddington, to pick their brains about our Asian project.
Morning meetings at the Australia Council with Susan Hayes and Tamara Popper. Then it was long lunch after this with Ian Dickson, one of ABR’s patrons, who is helping us to create the Jolley Prize. Rarely have I talked about opera for so long in an Indian restaurant.
A morning screening of Fred Schepisi’s film of The Eye of the Storm. I sat with Fiona Gruber; behind me were Peter Craven and Colin Oehring. (Now I sound like one of Peter’s diaries in the Spectator.) Our collective first response, when the credits rolled, was ‘What a relief they haven’t fucked it up!’ The film is good, and looks sumptuous, even glamorous – rare in an Australian film. Ensemble acting of the highest order: Judy Davis at her least mannered, and much more moving; Nevin excellent as Lal; John Gaden very good as the sorrowful solicitor; Schepisi’s young daughter outstanding as Floradora. So it won’t be hard to find things to say in my first film review.
Peter Stothard has agreed to review Robert Hughes’s new book. ‘That’s a coup,’ Ian Britain remarked. It felt odd having the Editor of TLS asking me how much he will be paid.
To Patrick McCaughey’s Festival of Ideas at Melbourne University (‘The Pursuit of Identity: Landscape, History and Genetics’) for the last keynote address, by T.J. Clark, poet and art historian. He began with an Elizabeth Bishop poem; his theme was landscape. I found the lecture illuminating. It helped me to understand why I have always been vaguely troubled by landscape, even when it is deployed by masters (Cézanne was Clark’s major reference): something about the deliberate or inevitable banality of the material; the ambiguity of the point of view.
We met Patrick in the foyer and congratulated him on a most successful festival. A small party moved on to University House for a closing dinner (Patrick, indefatigable, has hosted one there each night). Patrick introduced me to his star speakers, Linda Colley and David Cannadine, both at Princeton. He is as animated privately as he is on the podium: huge eyes, a most expressive face. Patrick, generously, had seated me next to Cannadine. He was curious about ABR. I asked him about the National Portrait Gallery; he chairs the board of trustees. We discussed Philanthropy (more advanced here, he thinks), then Bob Silvers, whom he has known for years. They attended his fortieth birthday party as Editor of New York Review of Books. Silvers will notch up fifty years in the chair next year. Cannadine said the problem now is who will succeed him; Silvers has outlived all his obvious successors (Hardwick, etc.).
Thank God for double issues. We’re in San Francisco for the new Ring Cycle. Today was Gotterdammerung. After the wonted disappointments of Siegfried, we had high hopes and weren’t disappointed. The playing was magnificent, our conductor, Donald Runnicles, in mighty accord with his band. Nina Stemme gave the best performance I have ever heard on an opera stage (perhaps any stage), fearless in the monumental music at the end, and absolutely dominating the stage – tiny though she is. The final bars were tremendously moving, the ovations loud and long. On the earlier nights they brought down the stage curtain prematurely, but tonight this didn’t happen. The orchestra joined the singers on stage. Stemme won the most tumultuous ovation I have ever heard at the opera.
We said goodbye to our pleasant, venerable neighbours in the front row of the Grand Tier, Tom and Mary Foote (known as The Feet), and hoped to see them in Melbourne in 2013 at the Wheelers’ Ring Cycle. Then we repaired to the Hay Street Grill, round the corner. About 100 Wagnerites descended on it in four minutes, but they coped well. We spoke to our neighbours, struck again by the friendliness of Californians, so welcoming (though the constant Sir-ring became slightly creepy, especially at the club where we stayed, where there was an assumption that everyone was a serving officer or a veteran). The gentleman on my right worked in newspapers for half a century, mainly in NYC. He and his wife wanted to know our itinerary. When I mentioned that we were heading south after a detour across the Golden Gate Bridge, our newspaperman reminisced about walking across it on the day it opened in 1937.
At one point he announced, ‘I was born in the greatest country on earth, though yours is pretty good too, sir.’ C. and I couldn’t imagine an Australian saying that uninflected with a certain irony.
Back to the Club to pack and check our emails. There was one from Jacki Weaver, who has just arrived in San Francisco to complete a movie (she is in great demand after her recent performance in Animal Kingdom, which won her an Oscar nomination). Before leaving Australia we exchanged emails, trying to arrange a drink here, and I raved on about Water under the Bridge, the great 1980 mini-series which is now available on DVD. Jacki remembers it well. She got to know Sumner Locke Elliott in New York. She told me about the screen test she did with Mel Gibson, who was auditioning for the main part, Neil, which eventually went to David Cameron.
We drove to Carmel, near Monterey. It is permanently covered in mist, which makes for atmospheric walks home after dinner, torch in hand, past the closely held hobbity houses. Previously I’d always thought the fog in films like Rebecca and Notorious a Hitchcockian affectation; now I have inhaled it and felt it on my hair.
Separate Tables-like breakfast arrangements in the sitting room at our small hotel hear the sea. It is a quiet place (no televisions, blissfully), and everyone respects one another’s privacy. I am writing this by the necessary fire. Nearby a gentleman from the Bronx is attending to his fly-hooks, and a woman is reading a novel on her Kindle. After finishing Eric Foner’s book on Lincoln and American slavery, which I donated to the Marines’ Memorial Association library in San Francisco, I am now reading Philip Roth’s long first novel, Letting Go, one of two or three of his I’ve not yet read.
Punishing night-long dreams. In one of them an arts bureaucrat plummeted to her death while having coffee with me. Wish fulfilment?
Today we drove from Carmel to LA, initially along the Pacific, through the heaviest fog I have ever seen, bracingly dangerous conditions. We assume we crossed the famous bridge at Big Sur, but if we did we were none the wiser. Cool conditions by the ocean, then we veered east to get onto Highway 5. Within half an hour it was about 40 degrees. Straight to the Getty – that strangely chilly experience on the hill – thence to the Biltmore Hotel for a thumping and thoroughly deserved Manhattan.
Early flight to Mildura. Good old Judy Harris met us at the chilly airport and told us about the flood and its demoralising effects on Mildurans. We settled into our vast room in the Grand Hotel (no longer owned by Donata Carrazza’s family), then met Tina and Paul Kane. This is Paul’s seventeenth festival as artistic director, some kind of record. To the Settlers’ Club (or ‘Setts’, in the country fashion). C. and Tina and I created a green room near the dining room. Tina relished the heating; I recalled her susceptibility to the cold in Melbourne years ago. When I remarked on this she said, ‘But you are an athlete.’ My father would have been proud of me.
Lunch preceded the talk. Elliot Perlman arrived with newsreader Jennifer Keyte – always discombobulating to meet someone you know vaguely on-screen. I spoke to Geoffrey Lehmann, who was brandishing his big new poetry anthology, an advance copy. It runs to more than 1000 pages. Geoff is as proud as a first-time father. I was pleased to learn that Bruce Beaver’s ‘Letters to Live Poets V’, which inspired my poem ‘Morbid Transfers’, is also included.
Anna Goldsworthy had cried off because of an illness in the family, so there had been some rapid reprogramming. I introduced Christopher Menz, who spoke about William Morris and showed them examples of his endless creativity. I always like that anecdote about his physician, who declared after Morris’s death that the cause was ‘simply being William Morris, and having done more work than ten men.’
Tina, who for several decades was a conservator at the Met, gave a short illustrated talk on the art of tapestry, then there were several interested questions. People loved the session, possibly appreciating the departure from the usual festival model. Afterwards, Stefano and Donata’s son Domenico de Pieri then played some Bach and Beethoven.
After a siesta, back to Setts for a poetry session with Simon West, Jamie King Holden – new to me, a thoughtful poet, amazingly softly spoken – and Geoff Lehmann. Dinner next door was pleasant, then Morag Fraser, in her last year as the judge of the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal, introduced this year’s winner, Gail Jones, who spoke wonderfully about Philip. His daughters, Anna and Helen, presented the ‘medal’: a misnomer, for it’s really a sculpture, by a local artist, quite riveting too.
The usual elaborate breakfast in the Grand’s capacious dining room, then off to La Trobe’s distant campus for the morning sessions. It seemed horribly early for this sort of thing, but the theatre soon filled. The day began with Fiction: Gail Jones, Elliot Perlman, and myself. Gail read from her Slessor book; Elliot from Three Dollars (his new book comes out in November). I read from Roddy Parr.
After a break it was time for poetry: I performed with Simon West and Jamie King Holden. I’m always desperate to find something remotely humorous to read, so I started with ‘More Mutant Proverbs’, after Peter Porter: ‘Blessed are the chic … Rest in pieces’. It was a quiet, attentive audience, especially when I read ‘Morbid Transfers’ and ‘Crimson Crop’, with its associative garland of amputations, truncations, decapitations. Halfway through ‘Crimson Crop’ I wondered why I was reading this stuff. It gave me a headache. C., who was sitting next to Gail Jones, said she let out a yelp when I read the bit about my mother’s young doctor’s being decapitated by the Japanese during the war.
Then I sloped off to the Grand to watch Collingwood defeat Carlton, always heartening. Later we met Simon West in the bar for a drink before the formal dinner upstairs (this year Jim MacDougall, a local boy, was in the kitchen; Stefano hasn’t been cooking). We sat with Paul Carter and had ridiculous fun, especially as the time approached for each of us to perform onstage. Paul Kane, giving little away, had simply asked us to talk about a famous literary pairing. I winged it, after a parenthetical presentation (Cole Porter, the Carlyles, George and Martha, HJ and Maupassant in London, Coetzee at the Melbourne Town Hall), with my old sentimental tale about Mary Jo Salter. This goes back to the late 1990s when Mary Jo Salter, an American poet, anthologist and academic, appeared with Tim Winton in a local church. Prior to her visit I don’t think many Australians had heard of Mary Jo Salter, but she had a great success that day. Next day she went into a chemist to buy some film for her camera. When she produced her money at the counter, the assistant pushed it away. ‘But I have Australian currency,’ Mary Jo assured her. ‘Oh no,’ the woman said, ‘I heard your reading yesterday and I couldn’t possibly let you pay.’ That could only happen in the country.
Later Stefano led the stalwarts through the labyrinth and down the steep stairs to his Cantina, which was closed by now. Nice to be back in the little room, with its cute frosted glass, where the festival began seventeen years ago with readings by Philip Hodgins and Robert Gray. I sat up the back with Donata and Shane Maloney. It occurred to me that someone should publicly thank Stefano and Donata. Only Paul Carter (after his brilliant impromptu upstairs) was in the right form, and he rapidly agreed. Within a minute he was standing up and delivering a beautifully judged extempore speech – rarest of gifts.
The usual last-day malaise at a Mildura Writers’ Festival, many of us having stayed up far too late. But we were all there for Alan Frost’s closing lecture at La Trobe at eleven. His subject was inevitable, given his two recent publications: his lifelong quest to rebut the notion that the British settled Australia only to offload its convicts. And a most engaging, literate, ironic lecture it was, with some acid remarks about Manning Clark along the way.
Then we walked back to town, several volunteers and locals tooting us, offering us a lift. At the closing lunch we sat with some folk from Bowral (who has seen the festival’s advertisement in ABR and decided to attend). Jillian Pattinson, very pregnant with twins, came down for a chat about her collaboration with her photographer brother, David, with the George V beard (they have an exhibition in Stefano’s cafe on Deakin Avenue).
Paul Kane, determined to keep us on our toes until the death knell, asked several guests to pose questions to other writers. Morag and I were dreading that we would cop Paul Carter. Simon West was my interrogator. When he began by mentioning Yeats and metempsychosis, I very conspicuously threw my napkin on the ground, but his question was easily answered. Which author would I like to be reincarnated as, and why? Paul Kane, I said – so that I could travel widely and live near New York City. ‘I hope this means you will invite me back next year, Paul,’ I added.
Someone asked Morag to name the fourth person she would nominate for the Philip Hodgins Medal, if she had another year. Sensibly, she declined to answer. Instead she thanked Stefano and Donata and encouraged us all to join her in a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which we all shyly did.
Then it was time to say our goodbyes and catch a taxi to the remote airport. I recalled my last, cosier departure – with Clive James, in Don Carazza’s Rolls Royce, after the 2005 festival. This followed a superb four-course lunch cooked by Stefano. When we reached the airport, Clive, still hungry, bought an execrable tomato sandwich from a machine.
Sat up late watching the extraordinary events in Westminster when Rupert Murdoch – variously deaf, stooped, baffled, almost pitiful – and his son James, with his puddle-deep politeness, as the heroic Guardian remarked, fronted the parliamentary committee. I lasted until 1.30 a.m., but then James’s obfuscations drove me to bed, and so I missed the pie-throwing moment.
Edited Peter Stothard’s excoriating review of Robert Hughes’s book on Rome, which everyone else loves, not benefiting perhaps from Stothard’s classical education.
Stephen Sondheim, whom I sent a copy of Michael Morley’s review of his new book, has written back thanking me. ‘Very good for the ego.’ It’s a typed letter and envelope.
Midday meeting with Michelle Garnaut, the Beijing and Shanghai restaurateur. She hosts a big writers’ festival in her restaurant and is interested in ABR’s Asian plans. Nikki Anderson, who programs one of the festivals and takes authors to China, joined us with her new baby.
Michelle was funny about Gore Vidal’s lordly visit to China some years ago. She had him for twelve days, which was quite exhausting. When she collected him at the airport (‘Normally, I never collect anyone’), Vidal glanced at her de haut en bas and said, ‘Who else is meeting me?’ Asked next day what he would like to do, he announced, ‘Visit a prison and meet some dissidents.’
I’m reading Colm Tóibín’s book of essays on Henry James. In one he reviews the first volume in the new Collected Letters edition from the University of Nebraska Press. HJ wrote 40,000 of them, and the complete set will run to 140 volumes.
Extraordinary scenes in London: total anarchy. In one fashionable restaurant in Notting Hill the young staff fought off hooded marauders with their whisks and hid the diners in the wine cellar: not a bad fate. Ladies had their rings yanked off their fingers. Echoes of the Bastille. Camden was in uproar too. I recalled that palpable malaise we felt in London last December and was less surprised than I would otherwise have been.
Only yesterday I was reading Chamfort, ever pertinent if not comforting: ‘Poverty is an invitation to crime.’
Tonight, at Readings Carlton, I launched Eamon Evans’s book The Godfather Was a Girl and Blanche du Bois Was a Guy. Eamon volunteered for ABR years ago. This morning he assured me that no one would turn up to the launch, but Readings was packed when I arrived. Clearly the ex-foreign minister had been on the phone. Everyone was there: Glyn Davis, Patrick McCaughey (back to launch the Fred Williams show in Canberra), Morag Fraser, John Cain, former politicians, Joan Grant, Race Mathews. I aimed at lightness, or irreverence, and Eamon seemed to cope. He even gave me a bottle of Moet, which was sporting of him.
Geoff Lehman and Robert Grant’s anthology has arrived. Some of the weightings look odd, but the relative paucity of poets (for such a massive book) is refreshing in this overly democratic anthology-land.
Reports reached me of Patrick McCaughey’s Canberra lecture after the Williams launch at the NGA. Only Fred, Patrick announced, could have enlivened the dreary space between Melbourne and Geeeeee-long. When someone in the audience asked an earnest question about the Sublime, Patrick said he should write an article on it for Art Monthly.
Visited the National Biography Centre at ANU. Melanie Nolan had invited me to give a paper at the Biography Reading Group. I banged on about Rose Boys for an hour. Up the back was Christine Wallace, who is doing her PhD at ANU, supervised by Nolan. Wallace has just cancelled her biography of Gillard. I wondered if this was because she and/or Allen & Unwin decided that the PM might be cactus by Christmas; but I learned that the reasons had more to do with Labor Party politics. Whatever, Wallace isn’t saying publicly.
Afterwards I chatted with Nolan, a feminist historian from New Zealand. She lamented the fact the ADB only has 12,000 entries. ‘Well, it’s not meant to be universally inclusive,’ I replied. Nolan looks forward to a digital future for ADB.
Quick visit to my old stamping ground the Australian National Dictionary Centre of a chat with outgoing director Bruce Moore, then to the NGA for a bolt through the Fred Williams show before I went to the airport. Ron Radford swept past with Paul Keating, reminding me of the entrance of Aristotle and Plato in The School of Athens.
I was apprehensive about this afternoon’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival session on classical literatures and values. I’d been asked to chair the session with Barry Hill, Ian Morris (author of Why the West Rules – for Now, and an archaeologist and historian at Stanford), and the American journalist Eliot Weinberger, author of that brilliant negative prose poem ‘What I heard about Iraq in 2005’. I met Weinberger in the green room. Nibbling on a croissant, he seemed very jetlagged, like many an overseas guest before him. Steven Carroll, there for another panel, was much more engaging; very pleased with Patrick Allington’s review of Spirit of Progress in our current issue. Ian Morris arrived just in time, then we were led round to the big cinema at ACMI, not an easy venue for writers. I began my introduction too early, having forgotten the tedious long-winded recorded welcome that precedes each session, as if we could forget it. Ian Morris went first, then Barry, then Eliot, who hadn’t prepared any remarks, and sat slumped on his chair, covering his eyes. Rather fractious, he snapped at Morris about his definition of the ‘classics’. I did my best, and the audience seemed reasonably pleased; but I was relieved when it was over.
What does Hazlitt say in ‘Toad-eaters and Tyrants’? ‘There is no class of persons so little calculated to act in corps as literary men.’
A quick lunchtime flight to Brisbane. Staying at the Mantra with the other Brisbane Writers Festival guests. This evening I read at Government House – the old upper house, outmoded in the 1920s, still grand, with the best nineteenth-century chandeliers in Australia. The other readers were Jaya Savige, back from Cambridge, very dashing in his black suit; Jacob Polley, from Scotland, here as Queensland’s resident poet (the post Michal Hoffman had a few years ago); a very recessive German lady, inaudible in both languages; and a US performance poet named Jive Poetic, with whom I will somehow have to do battle in tomorrow’s poetry slam. Matt Foley – former politician, now at the Bar – introduced us rather elaborately. There wasn’t much laughter in the Chamber: too grand, formal, vast. Jacob said it was like reading inside a huge cake.
Morning session on literary journals in the State Library, funded by the Australia Council. David Brooks, Jeff Sparrow, and I spoke about our respective publications. Afterwards I met Dean Biron for the first time, co-winner of this year’s Calibre Prize.
Then, on a breezy night, to a huge marquee for my first poetry slam. Jacob Polley and I were joined by two other ‘print poets’. The mood in the marquee was very good-natured and playful. I read several of my poems from ‘The Catullan Rag’. The light above the microphone was poor, so we were all at a considerable disadvantage. Jive Poetic led his band of performance poets to a predictable win. I enjoyed the occasion rather more than some of my fellow poets, then dashed off to a very jolly HarperCollins dinner.
Reading Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, about her daughter’s sudden catastrophic illness soon after her husband’s death. Vague feelings of frustration with Didion. When she recalls agonising about whether she should move from California to New York, I wondered how this would go down in Syria or Sudan. But I was captivated to learn that Didion has twenty-three phones in her apartment.
Nice to receive a new poem from John Ashbery, with a note from his amanuensis thanking me for my interest in his work!
John Tranter, learning of Ashbery’s poem, asked if he could pen one of his responses, so I sent him ‘Feel Free’ and within hours I received his poem, ‘Least Said’. Never in the annals of ‘the pleasant twaddle of magazines’ (HJ) can an issue have carried two poems ending with the word ‘belike’.
Tranter told me that Ashbery, in Sydney twenty years ago, after reading his famous double sestina, informed him that he had never read the Swinburne poem that fired it, because he didn’t want to be influenced by it.
Launch of Jaynie Anderson’s Cambridge Companion to Australian Art, at the Ian Potter Museum at Melbourne University. At the top of all those stairs I met my old boss from OUP days, Sandra McComb, who commissioned the Companion during her time at CUP. She introduced me to her successor as MD of CUP, who had never heard of ABR.
Ron Radford launched the book in his usual flamboyant style. Later, we moved across to University House. I sat next to a marketing person who is currently studying film at the VCA. She was seemed very snooty about Judy Davis’s French in The Eye of the Storm. Mine is terribly rusty, but I thought Davis’s wasn’t bad.
Small speeches punctuated the tolerable University House dinner. Jaynie told us about her unfinished MA on Sidney Nolan (her father was his doctor in St Kilda, and saved his life once when Nolan nearly asphyxiated himself in a garage); and Daniel Thomas, to whom the Companion is dedicated, reminisced about their first meeting forty years ago. He dubbed Jaynie ‘the editor of pleasure’. I’d be quite happy with that sobriquet.
To Sydney. After a good lunch with Zoë Rodriguez at the Civic, I rang David Malouf, who could see us before giving a talk on Jeffrey Smart at the University Gallery. C. and I collected him at Myrtle Street. David, fit as ever in jeans and a jacket, was waiting on the upstairs terrace, reading something. We walked to the university. I hadn’t realised how close David is, and how fond he is of the university. We admired the old modernist Fisher Library, from the 1960s. He led us to the Rare Books Section, whose Russian librarian rushed out to commiserate with David on not winning the Booker, rather tactlessly. David laughed it off.
Then, in a large lecture theatre, David – interviewed by someone from the University Gallery – gave a bravura talk on his old friend Jeffrey Smart, altering the way I’ll think of them in future – demystifying them too, showing (with the aid of projections) how codified they are, how playful.
To Belvoir Street for Neil Armfield’s revival of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in the playwright’s ninetieth year. Full house all season, and it’s a long one. Armfield and his inspired cast brought out all the humour, unconventionality, and violence in the great play. Robyn Nevin was terrific, especially in the singalong (remembering to remove her rings as she sat down to play, as in the stage direction). Susie Porter was inspired as Olive, quite terrifying in the last scene, face streaked with mascara, devastated. How do actors emote like that for three hours, sometimes twice a day?
Edited the November issue all day, my reward for which was a prompt perusal of the sixth volume of Virginia Woolf’s essays, newly published. Moving to read those last offerings from 1940 and 1941. Despite everything, Woolf went on reading and writing. I enjoyed her slightly earlier piece on ‘Royalty’, with the delicious swipe at Queen Victoria’s prose, and this eminently sane note on our susceptibility to monarchy:
Can we go on bowing and curtseying top people who are just like ourselves? Are we not already a little ashamed of the pushing and the staring …
Yes, and No, are clearly the answers, depressingly.
Tonight’s launch of the Fiction issue went well. Good mood at Readings Carlton. All four shortlisted authors attended, which must have been tortuous for them, since we hadn’t told them the result beforehand: an experiment, to attract more people – and indeed to attract more shortlisted authors. Mark Gomes spoke first, his first public speech, he told me. Tim Brewer, our current Intern, told Mark he seemed very practised. ‘That’s because I practised,’ said Mark. I spoke about the Patrons program, then introduced Ian Dickson, who said he was looking forward to his Oscar moment. Carrie Tiffany and Gregory Day, the co-winners, spoke nicely and read briefly. They turn out to be close friends.
Dug out my 1992 diary, as I needed to check some facts concerning Ashbery’s visit to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, which I mention in the November issue. I also needed to establish the title of the poem John read at the Myer Literary Luncheon at Craig’s Hotel in Ballarat. We had taken some of the MWF guests up to Ballarat. I drove Bill Bryson, a taciturn passenger. It would have been much more fun on the bus that transported the other guests. John Ashbery tried to start a Gracie Fields singalong, but the others wouldn’t be in it. When we reached Ballarat, John and I repeated the public conversation that we had done in the Merlyn Theatre during the Festival. It worked better this time (the Melbourne gig took years off my life). The lunch at Craig’s was epical. John read last of course – after ten other speakers. Wisely, he chose to read one of his brilliant one-line poems: ‘We Were on the Terrace Drinking Gin and Tonics’, which goes: ‘when the squall came’. Then he sat down.
I’m reading my old Grolier edition of Romeo and Juliet. What a deeply morbid play it is. ‘Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir’ says Capulet on finding Juliet dead on her wedding day. The bride herself is hysterical, death-haunted, fixated. Long before their doom she seems to welcome or anticipate death. And how mistrustful they all are. Juliet, as she prepares to take the anaesthetising potion, wonders if it might be poison, a ruse of the friar to conceal the fact that he has secretly married the lovers. Juliet emerges as almost Plath-like. Death is her sole dark subject. Has she contemplated, even attempted suicide, before.
And what is really in Romeo’s letter to Montague?
To Canberra this afternoon for the Seymour Biography Lecture. Met Jan Fullerton and the Seymours in the foyer, and they invited me upstairs for a glass of champagne with the new director-general, Ann-Marie Schwirtlich. Robert Dessaix, who was being wired up, joined us (a flat white in his case), slightly apprehensive about the long lecture. He hasn’t stood for an hour since his recent heart attack.
Much anticipation in the full auditorium. Ann-Marie introduced Robert, then he launched into a long and surprising lecture on why he eschews straight literary fiction and employs biographical tricks, and why he fears for the future of the novel. The lecture became unexpectedly personal towards the end; Robert’s histrionics began to wane as exhaustion clearly overtook him. The lecture ended with a poignant meditation on his reasons for writing in the first place: a desire to fill his sense of nothingness, and to confront his own mortality. I can’t remember such a charged ending to a lecture. Everyone was conscious of his emotion or inanition. The Library folk must have been anxious. But Robert got through it, reading slowly at the end, clearly affected by it. Long ovation, and resounding plaudits. Robert moved upstairs and signed books for half an hour.
To ANU for a meeting with Geremie Barmé, in the China Centre that Rudd opened. Next week Geremie has to participate in a major symposium for the foreign minister – not an undemanding time, I gathered. I liked Geremie and was pleased when he indicated that he wants to write for ABR.
I met Bruce Bennett at the National Library café and told him about the Asian project. I asked him about Peter Porter’s papers, which we all hope will eventually come to the NLA.
Then it was time for sound checks in the elegant NLA auditorium prior to the Australian Book Review Fiftieth Birthday Lecture. It’s always the same in Canberra; one has the sense of knowing most people in the audience: writers, ABR subscribers, people from ADFA and the ANU; many colleagues of our lecturer at the Australian Academy of the Humanities. I spoke briefly about the magazine and introduced Ian Donaldson, then, on resuming my seat in the front row, managed to carry off his lecture, which he was forced to retrieve. The lecture itself was beautifully written and paced and illustrated. Then I led Ian upstairs where his book on Jonson promptly sold out, a good start.
To Melbourne University for my seminar with the disaffected students who have clubbed together to discuss Australian literature. We met in the Old Moot Club; a tiny mouse scampered about in a corner. There were ten participants, including the Heyward siblings, Anna and Will. Alex Mitchell, who has written for me, was present. An intense young man disapproved of my Thom Gunn-line about not being interested in poetics but only in individual poems. I read Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets V, then ‘Morbid Transfers (my critic sensibly preferred the Beaver), then ‘An Exequy’. I like their style. Stephanie’s pressure seems to have worked. The English Department has added an Australian literature course next year. ‘But they haven’t appointed anyone,’ she muttered. ‘Step by step,’ I observed.
Then I collected Christopher and we walked over to Ormond for the launch of this year’s edition of the Ormond Papers, edited by Pera Wells. She introduced me to Dr Rufus Black (such a good name), the current Master, a tall thin well-coiffed ethicist and management specialist who recently worked on the Defence White Paper. His speech was so perfunctory he forgot to introduce Pera, but she got up anyway. She introduced Bruce Grant, for whom she worked as research Assistant at The Age when he wrote a column, his condition when he returned to Australia (I wonder if any Australian journalists, however senior, have research assistants nowadays).
As he left America to take up his post at The Age, Bruce asked Walter Lipmann about writing columns. Lipmann advised him to keep it short and not to set up any straw men.
Bruce began his lengthy speech with a brilliant anecdote about attending crucial meetings with Nasser and Menzies in 1956 (drawn from notes he made at the time).
November out of the way, it was good to spend a whole day with my books. Read Julius Caesar, always amazed by Act Three, with its quicksilver changes of place, mood, intention; and the hilarious coda when the incensed Plebeians mistake Cinna the poet for Cinna the assassin and punish him notwithstanding: ‘Tear him for his bad verses!’ Otherwise, rather dour and not my favourite Shakespeare. Why does it seem inferior to Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida? Because Caesar – unlike the other great protagonists – appears only briefly? Still, there are some brilliant touches: Caesar’s sudden deafness (not in Plutarch) and the chilling, ominous exchange between Octavius and Antony as they prepare to go into battle (‘O: ‘I do not cross you, but I will do so’).
Three new Patrons today (we now have 104).
John Kinsella sent me a plethora of penillions, and I took one of them for the magazine. Based in Cambridge for a year, he wants me to go over there next year. Tempting.
An email arrives informing me that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will depart in a fortnight’s time on its tour of Japan and Korea. Thrilling news, but who cares? We are all so well informed, pointlessly so.
A typically punctilious letter from Richard Bonynge, whom I had sent a copy of the July issue in which we published Patricia Harewood’s tribute to Sutherland.
I showed my mother the first issue of Australian Poetry Journal, edited by Bronwyn Lea. I have a poem in it: ‘The Last of Wang’ (or ‘the last of wang’ as they have it). ‘Something has happened to your poetry,’ she said. ‘I can understand it.’
This evening, on our walk, we passed the actor Richard E. Grant outside Como, very suntanned, shorter than he appears in films.
Poignant donation today from Jorge Salavert of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, who has donated money to ABR in public memory of his six-year-old daughter Clea who was swept away in the Samoan tsunami.
Chez Donaldson for dinner with the artist John Wolseley and his wife, Jenny Long. John, who sounds just like Trevor Howard, studied at Ben Jonson’s school in London. Because he wasn’t good at ‘monitoring’, he was sent to the room where Tyndale translated the Bible.
Before dinner, some of us were lamenting our imperfect memories. I told them I had read somewhere recently (I forgot where) that Seneca, on being told 2000 names, could recite them immediately in the same order. Ian informed me that I had read it in his new book on Ben Jonson.
To the Museum for the launch of The Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture, from Cambridge University Press. Four good speeches for once. Graeme Davison, launching the book, likened it to The Oxford Companion to Australian History, the OUP project of mine of which I’m fondest. The Encyclopedia, edited by Philip Goad and Julie Willis, looks superb, helped by a clear, elegant, inviting design by Chong, busy blogger.
To the Baillieu Library for a small reception for Chris Wallace-Crabbe, part of whose library – augmented by other books – has been donated to the Baillieu. This follows the closure of the Australia Centre, where the Chris Wallace-Crabbe Library was held. Chris told me it felt strange thing to live to see a library named after oneself being discontinued. I gather that this is all quite contentious.
To Ian Britain’s for the Jamesians’ Christmas party. We all read something of Henry’s, or something about him (Judy Armstrong trumped us all by reading from her book on adultery in the novel, apropos Fanny Assingham). I read James’s two great withering letters to H.G. Wells after the publication of Boon. Best of all was John Rickard’s reading of Isabel’s first glimpse of Madame Merle at the piano. Followed an excellent dinner, which Ian dubbed the Summer of the Seventeenth Bowl (the first such gathering, at my flat, followed a discussion of The Ambassadors).
Last year in London, Rupert Christiansen seemed quite piqued to learn that his own Henry James reading group – Alan Hollinghurst is a member; Tóibín occasionally attends – was younger than the antipodean chapter.
Coffee with Lisa Gorton on Rathdowne Street. She’s writing a novel, and more poetry. Next door, in Alice’s Bookshop, I found a copy of my first book, The House of Vitriol. I have few copies left, so selected it, but the owner wouldn’t accept payment ($10) – never will, he told me, when authors try to buy their own books (Alex Miller had just been in). Mr Alice is off to a Freiburg, so the bookshop is on the market.
Excellent planning meeting at ABR. I had asked the staff to nominate two or three new ideas for 2012. They came up with many more. What a fantastic team it is.
Reading Tennyson: ‘In Memoriam’ and others – quite drunk-making. Auden, at his most acute, said of him: ‘he had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest’, but added that T.S. Eliot disputed this, saying ‘he could think of two or three who were stupider’.
I am so glad I went right through the proofs of my new book, Crimson Crop one last time. There, on the final page, among the Notes, was a spectacular mistake of mine. I had Peter Porter’s ‘Mutant Proverbs’ listed as ‘Mutant Poems’.
To Prahran Market, where I met Kate Baillieu, who insisted on giving me a dozen red roses. On a flight back from Perth this week, a young fitter and turner, newly turned gay and needing to talk someone, having just ‘come out’ to his father, kept her from Robertson Davies. Kate advised him to read Rose Boys. We parted, but moments later Kate sought me out in the greengrocer’s, hoping I hadn’t taken offence, which I hadn’t.
State funeral for Zelman Cowen in East St Kilda. I liked Michael; Shmith’s description of Hawke, Fraser, and Howard as three old men in yarmulkes. I met Sir Zelman once at a party in a small flat at Trinity College. Lady C., very regal, was determined not to be shocked by Mirka Mora when the latter who joined our circle. Bored or restless, Mirka asked me for a cigarette and proceeded to tear it up with her teeth, tobacco flying everywhere. Lady C., watching this performance, was a study in impassivity. She had probably seen worse when Australian cricketers visited Yarralumla.
Whenever I hear Paul Keating extolling his achievements, his government, I think of D.H. Lawrence praising Whitman: ‘Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman.’
Morning at the office, wrapping things up for the year, then lunch at di Stasio. This evening we attend R.’s Christmas party. Our hostess, in mourning for Christopher Hitchens, had instructed everyone to prepare a suitable anecdote. When P. stood up and mocked Hitchens’s ‘zany atheism’, I said ‘What’s wrong with that?’ It was one of the few things I liked about Hitchens. Another guest whispered to me that the cigarette-smoking old eminence in the white jacket seated nearby was a bishop. Apparently he has just gone over to Rome. Discretion being the better part of valour, I moved away and nattered with the other heretics.