Daily Archives: 16 June 2009

GDS launch at PPR in Newtown


Last night I went to the Sydney launch of Going Down Swinging No 28. As I may have mentioned, I have not one but two poems in this excellent publication, and I’d missed the Melbourne launch last Wednesday. So of course I made my way to Penguin Plays Rough headquarters in Newtown for last night’s event.

I’d left my PDA at home, so we had a little trouble finding the place. I remembered the address as 475 King Street. That turned out to be a convenience store, which didn’t seem right. My companion wanted to phone home for instructions, but my dim recollection of the Google Street Image made me expect to find a door down the side street. And sure enough there was one.

‘But look, through the windows, you can see that it’s someone’s home,’ said Madam Circumspect.

‘Remember the New American Vaudeville,’ I said.

‘That was fifteen years ago,’ she muttered, but the little New York adventure I was referring to had taken us to a door just as unlikely as this one in the Bowery, and it had opened onto a strangely enjoyable evening of fire-eating, Groucho Marx impersonations and bad folk music. So we climbed the stairs last night, to an evening that was at least as enjoyable, with its own kind of strangeness.

It turns out that we had been seeing someone’s home through the windows. The story as I gleaned it in the course of the evening is that two young women moved into the flat above the convenience store, and when they took a good look at the high-ceilinged, crumbly front room, they decided it was too big to waste as a bedroom or even as a shared living room, and should be put to work as ‘a space’. And so Penguin Plays Rough was born: at 8 o’clock on the third Sunday of every month five programmed writers and five wild cards sit in a red velvet wing chair and read from their work to a paying audience (a wild card is someone who puts their name on the blackboard at the door on arrival).

Last night the room was comfortably full of mostly young people drinking beer and what I thought at first was soup but was actually mulled wine. An assortment of chairs – wooden from the kitchen, wrought iron from the garden, upholstered and plastic – lined two walls, but most people sat in comfortable, picnic-style circles on the floor. My companion’s prediction that we would be the oldest people in the room proved correct by a good ten years, and we were possibly as much as 30 years above the mean. Klare Lanson and Lisa Greenaway, editors of GDS were there. I knew a couple of people, including Mark Tredinnick, poet, essayist and creative writing teacher, who was there to give moral support to one of his students who was reading. But mostly I had a sense that this was a thriving group of people who enjoyed each other’s work, had fun writing and reading and providing an audience for each other. We were treated, among other things, to the final instalment of a Philip Marlowe spoof serial drama with a zombie and cheerful gay male incest. My favourite PPR part of proceedings was a nasty homophobic encounter on Windsor Railway Station told in the language of Shakespeare (‘Ho, varlet, what music doth enter thine ear through yon iPod buds?’ ‘This be Anthony and the Johnsons’), and incorporating a giant green tentacled alien.

A charming young man introduced simply as Shag (who Google tells me is a Radio FBi personality) did the actual launching. He hadn’t actually seen a copy of GDS until he arrived at the venue, but that didn’t stop him from doing a nice job: he had written a piece of ‘Creative Writing’ entitled ‘What I Imagine It will be Like to Launch Going Down Swinging’ which managed to be funny, self-deprecating and devoid of actual reference to the subject of the launch. Nonetheless there was a sweet mood of celebration. Klare Lanson had a few moments in the chair, and managed to slip us a couple of factoids (Peter Carey and Brian Castro appeared in early issues, and in spite of the implied pessimism of the title, it’s now been going and swinging for 30 years). A couple of contributors read their poems and stories from the GDS, Literary culture is alive and well and having a good time in a room above a convenience store in Newtown.

Mark Tredinnick mentioned in a break that his book The Blue Plateau is to be launched tonight at Macquarie University. ‘Do you imagine it will be like this?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said, ‘and that’s not altogether a good thing.’

Olga from the Volga

Sunday was Mollie’s 87th birthday. We turned up at the dementia dining room en masse (if six people can be called a masse) to celebrate, bearing a cake, chocolates and a gift. Penny and I, having decided to give Mollie a book, had contemplated a coffee-table extravaganza filled with sumptuous photos of Australian landscapes, and a number of similarly attractive art books. In the end, though, hang the absence of expense, we opted for two little books, one full of cute puppy photoes and the other with even cuter kittens.

When we arrived at the nursing home, Mollie was more deeply withdrawn into herself than I’ve ever seen her, so deeply that it took her quite a while to recognise, or at least acknowledge, that she had any connection at all to any of us. Even the kittens left her blank and listless, and the chocolates might as well have been chunks of gravel. Penny’s persistent, loving cheerfulness finally stirred the embers of relationship, and once there was a glow, it was the kittens that provoked a smile. By the time we left, things felt not so different from what passes for normal at this stage.

In that context, it was initially hard to appreciate the woman who persistently attempted to join our lilttle gathering.

Our gate-crasher is new to the dementia wing – none of us had seen her before – and is not ready by a long shot to lapse into slack-jawed impassivity. We first became aware of her when she came up behind Alex and started playing with his shoulder-length hair, a little like an expensive hairdresser feeling the weight of a customer’s hair while deciding what wonder to work on it. As her fingers moved, she murmured softly, sweetly and incomprehensibly in his ear. Alex gave a reasonably convincing impersonation of a young man about to die of embarrassment. We’re used to residents approaching us and talking in broken sentences (‘I’m sorry to interr but they’ll be coming soon to when umbrella the ice cream,’ another woman had said to us, earlier, and then wandered off). But Alex’s admirer wasn’t talking English-based dementia-speak. After a couple of minutes, I became convinced it was Russian, or at least Russian-based. I asked her, ‘Russki?’ In English, she said, ‘I speak Russian, Belorusian, Japanese.’

Tiring of Alex for the moment she walked around the table and picked up Mollie’s two new books. Mollie had recovered her spirits enough by then to look alarmed. Penny tried to  take the books back, but our visitor held on tight and moved out of her reach. ‘Do something!’ she said to me.

So I engaged the book thief in conversation. I had five words in Russian: dosvidenya, spasibo, Kristos viskriest, and da and niet. Perhaps it was a da that had tipped me off to the Russian in the first place. It wasn’t much, but enough to turn our unwanted guest’s attention to me. Soon I’d remembered pravda, nichevor and borge moi. (Bear in mind that these are all words picked up from my first quasi mother-in-law and from Russian movies, so I expect the spelling is off.) I told her my name. She said, in English, ‘I am Olga,’ then smiled and added, ‘Olga from the Volga.’ She spoke at length, cheerily, every now and then pausing for me to give an opinion. It didn’t seem to phase her when I indicated at every pause that I had no idea what she’d just said. She scowled and shook her fist at Penny’s back. ‘Niet,’ I said, stroking the threatened back, ‘she’s my sweetheart.’ That provoked what was probably a Russian harrumph, but a little later she put the books back on the table in front of Penny and went back to Alex’s hair.

Around about then, I went for help. I explained our difficulty at the nursing station and returned to the dining room with two determined women in uniform in tow. One of them put her arm gently around Olga’s waist and led her away. Olga and I squeezed each other’s hands as she left. I said ‘Dosvedenya,’ hoping it meant ‘See you later.’

And a little later, like a coda, another new resident came drifting past speaking loudly in what sounded like German.