Congratulations to Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Meanjin patron and winner of the Melbourne Prize for literature 2015. This is an edited version of a talk he gave at his eightieth-birthday celebration in 2014. First published in Meanjin Volume 73, Issue 4.
Being a financial idiot, I write poetry. Hence my heartfelt haiku:
Money runs away
whenever it notices
a poet coming.
And I produce it in English: yes, I briefly tried Italian, but that was merely hobby-farming. Hatched from German and Latin sources in the British Isles, named for a people who had settled in Britain, this is a chequered language. In time it conquered much of the world, including Latin. When I was a wee lad growing up in Melbourne, it was the imperial language, producing Shakespeare, Kipling and W.E. Johns. It was the language in which we learned that ‘King John was not a good man / He had his little ways.’ And where Pooh Bear plus his little mate, Piglet, lived in a pine forest. (I must confess that my brother is called Robin.) By the way, those illustrations looked all right, for a book, but were pictures of verbal constructs, far away from my daily life; even though white immigrants had tricked out our suburbs with deciduous trees.
Anglo-British stories managed to be influential. I used to love the William books: William Brown was a home-counties English larrikin whose adventures influenced me at one point. As he had done, I went and trespassed in the leafy, bosky gardens of our wealthiest neighbours. We lived in a tiny flat, playing our games in the street. Including cricket, of course.
When I grew more sagacious, I realised that book diction mainly applied to imported plants and domestic animals. Only to print culture, say. In books, you couldn’t even swim at the beach an hour after Christmas dinner. Otherwise, we bordered on wilderness, much as Rachel Henning had on her first arrival in New South Wales. Eucalypts were not endorsed by writers, so it seemed. Yet nearby Beaumaris had still been full of bandicoots in my own boyhood. What a mix-up. As I wrote in a little poem years later:
Australian children lie there, dreaming of wolves,
sleek antetypes of anybody’s puppy dog
drawn slyly out of midnight’s blue-grey grooves,
padding to steal a baby, or a chook.
We lack the wolf and yet we dream of him,
grey fur, long muzzle, sniffing through the night
while doggily malign. A textual construction
Oh yes, darling, that’s right.
So the bookish sailed off to squalid bed-sits in London, fed off the gas ring for years and wrote for the Listener or the New Statesman. Meanwhile we went on grumbling, or whingeing. And I rhymed on, at the end of the 1950s, that watery emigration decade, employing a new, Audenesque briskness:
Highway by highway, the remorseless cars
Strangle the city, put it out of pain,
Its limbs now kicking feebly on the hills.
Nobody cares. The artists sail at dawn
For brisker ports, or rot in public bars.
Though much has died here, nothing has been born.
Sometime after that the late Kel Semmens reproached me gently, pointing out our great research record in medicine; so I had to make it ‘little has been born’. What’s more, I was quite early becoming a fan of Nolan, Drysdale and Slessor, while Judith Wright had pressed me to look more closely at gum trees. And then I discovered the oddball fiction of Joseph Furphy, born in the Yarra Valley; and so my little cup of Bushells tea—or billy, rather—was half-full. My sense of language and its possibilities was now thickened with condensed milk, fresh from the tin.
And, yes, I became a poet, having been hypnotised by language from early on, and a reader, accordingly: long before I could tell a bluegum from an ironbark or a stringybark. Yet not before I knew the beach: our quintessential national experience. But fancy Matthew Arnold’s beach having been just wet stones! Bugger that for a joke, I reckoned.
What meaning had either the close presence of South Yarra synagogue—huge, grey, domed—or a trip to thirties Europe with my lively parents injected? My memories of that voyage had faded completely. Indirectly, though, I grew up Europhile, distantly familiar with bobbies and hollyhocks, at ease with Stendhal’s irony or William Brown’s antics.
Baudelaire was waiting for me too, scowling at the camera. He would helpfully write that ‘The more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes.’ Perhaps it’s no wonder that my influential uni teacher, Sam Goldberg, dismissed Baudelaire as ‘just another spoiled Catholic’. But my bookridden boyhood had also been quite a forest of wordplay, especially puns, as in my much later circus quatrain:
Do not call me a freak
you scruffy dwarves,
I have designs
on the tattooed lady.
Circuses were important, back then. Tattooed ladies, very rare indeed.
Since my family was indifferent to religion, I got a grasp of the Greek and Roman myths before picking up anything much of the Bible. Certainly we made no attempt to understand the Trinity, unlike the young lady who questioned Sydney Smith about the doctrine and was politely told that it was ‘like one man travelling in three carriages’.
Indoors, I had read and read. There were lots of historical stories for children. Knights at Bay was about the Hospitallers in Malta. Another followed a Cavalier boy who disguised himself as Drover Duckett to escape the severe Roundheads. Doctor Doolittle and the ratbag William remained sources of pleasure, but the Swallows and Amazons stories gave me a dislike of yachts, which I’ve never quite lost. Especially intriguing among children’s stories was Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, set in a modern Berlin of which I had no memory. After all, I had been there in Herr Hitler’s reign. But what is memory for a chronically outdoor Australian?
Not that I accepted the old couplet entirely: ‘Australian-born, Australian-bred, / Long in the legs and short in the head.’ After all, I’ve always lived with a large head, on account of which I was nicknamed Pin at school.
On the shelves, always, there had been my parents’ older books, some with mysterious titles such as Who Killed Cagliostro?, They Reigned in Mandalay, or Jew Suss. A book that hovered between pretty and prissy was Jeffrey Farnol’s The Amateur Gentleman, with its weak, Regency illustrations; I could never see anything in that period until I discovered Keats. On the other hand I had fallen for Donald MacDonald’s Bush Boy’s Book, with its tips for finding true north or calculating the height of trees by rule of thumb. Or was it forefinger? Triangulation was the name of the game.
Yet I still couldn’t identify or respond to our own birds or trees. The suburbs I lived in were stuffed full of European plants, some of which, at least, bore edible fruit. Of our native poetry, I would have known only that well-bred Sydney solicitor, the one I later defined like this:
He was somebody that Sydney Town could never even fetter,
Acting ‘Banjo’ in his law firm, where he had for want of better
Occupation drafted a putative drover’s letter.
Altogether elsewhere, India remained real to me, as Dad spent most of the war there. No home leave. And Kipling had written like a dusty angel. My mind was a jigsaw puzzle: perhaps like that of most young people, since God first fell ill: in Australia, just like manywhere else.
Dreams have always tried to enchant me, with some success on their part. They can be vivid as billy-oh, jagged, surreal or beguiling as any smiling siren. Yet Anna Freud pointed to their limitation when she wrote that ‘in dreams you can have your eggs cooked the way you want them, but you can’t eat them’.
Years ago I wrote a suite of forty sonnets, the last one of which asked what Australia meant, shaped both by the ancient myths and the modern mythologies, but finally being itself, with its quaint, splintery loyalties:
What does Australia mean? I up and said.
All the materials of consciousness
Had been cutely stolen from the dead
By skipping Hermes in his hippy sandals.
It was hard, poising on postmodern rope
(Not entirely my cup of billy tea)
Of personal irony and liberal hope:
An odd, sclerophyll branch of history.
From Queanbeyan to dovegrey Paris now
There rise in broken, dopey ranks
The newer generations of despair;
Saved by random loyalties, some god knows how
And reborn many times, I give my thanks
For psychic space, and this aromatic blue air.
From Greek Hermes to billy tea to the Sorbonne, maybe these are the kind of fragments that make up one’s intellectual DNA, the cultural inheritance, of a not atypical Australian in this new millennium. A postmodern thinker would surely feel this to be the case: and she might even be a fan of global splinterisation at the same time.
Speaking of hot drinks and such, I have written a lot of poems about food or, as Frank Strahan would have said, tucker. From among them I can whet your palates for the coming dessert, which we used always to call ‘pudding’. Here is one smallish gastronomic lyric from my suite of ‘Bits and Pieces’, namely:
Used to be plump and glossy
but his mackintosh has shrunk
as he sucks in his cheeks
while somewhere inside the room
he is giving you the pip
with a wonderfully sour sweetness
like last year caught in a daydream,
the tang of paradise.
No, I am not tragic enough. For this I often upbraid myself. But as I remain cheerful, even on this wounded planet, much of the time, we get a poem like this:
When the goats and sheep are sorted with angelical advice
Do you think I’ll be forgiven for the fact that I was nice?
When celestial powers are abstracting the virtuous from the crooks
I’ll not be dumped with my banker and grey suits that cooked the books.
Let the boys in Lamborghinis or on ocean-going boats
Be firmly sorted out and shoved among the stinking goats.
So my blood flowed much like yoghurt, and I overdid the smile?
Still, there must be some pavilion for the casual Aussie style
And even for a fellow who has reaped his thoughts in verse.
Surely your sadomonetarist will cop it somewhere worse
While Gabriel and St Peter may tip me a knowing wink
Pointing beyond the gates to where a chap can get a drink.
I feel mildly optimistic, in a desperate sort of way,
Assuming there is value both in pleasure and in play
While those who scramble up by stealth or incremental creep
Don’t have a chance in Hades that they’ll picnic with the sheep.
Being genial won’t save us, of course. And William Blake wouldn’t approve of such Pelagianism. So I do have a darker, glummer side after all. Sometime recently I brought it out—or rather, it slid out, like a snake from the woodheap, after I’d been reading the usual world stuff-ups in our newspapers. I had lately been wondering if it was possible to write a poem in one line. In one line, mark you. And the serpentine Muse abruptly slithered forth with the following:
‘Whatever Christ meant, it was not this.’
That’s life, as the French say; or maybe Joseph Furphy, that Yarra Valley kid. And somehow I go on practising my destined art, doggedly, with the support of good friends like you all, here. Yes, I am deeply grateful to you all, for your forbearance.
And, hey there! before we tuck into the pudding, I will add my deeply personal thanks to Alastair, my old friend here from London; to witty John, without a doubt; and to the four tireless Musketeers, Stephanie, Cassandra, Lisa and Kristin, without whose gumption none of this merriment would have been possible. I don’t know why Alexandre Dumas got all their names wrong.