Category Archives: Diary

500 people: Week Two

We started the week with an overnight trip to Canberra to see the Know My Name exhibition at the National Art Gallery (apologies to Canberra friends we didn’t contact). The exhibition is fabulous, from the Djampi Weavers to Linda Lee. And the trip provided lots of opportunities to add to my meeting-people challenge. See last week’s post for the brief description of the challenge. This week’s exchanges range from tiny to trivial, but in most of them I made a decision to initiate contact, and it seemed mostly to be welcomed. Which is the point of the challenge.

  1. Sunday morning, 21 February. At a petrol station near Mittagong, as I went to pay, I passed a woman wiping her hands on paper towel with exaggerated gestures. She said, to the world in general, ‘It’s slimy.’ I stopped to ask, ‘What is?’ ‘The hand sanitiser,’ she said. ‘ I thought it would be slimy, and it was.’ She said this through teeth clenched around a credit card, which she was evidently protecting from the slime. I made a sympathetic noise and went on my unsanitised way.
  2. Sunday afternoon, in Canberra. As we approached what turned out to be Reconciliation Place, we passed a 50-something white man who had just been looking at a piece of carved stone. He greeted us with a smile and nod that felt a little like the solemn acknowledgements people make at the start of funerals. We reciprocated, then read the inscription on the stone and understood his demeanour. In case the image isn’t legible, it says: If we want to break away from the colonial past, and begin anew, then we have to walk together – hand in hand and side by side – as a truly reconciled nation. Gatjil Djerrkura OAM, 2004
  • Sunday evening, the Jonathan-is-an-idiot moment, which I hope won’t be a regular feature. I ordered pappardelle with beef ragú. When the waiter asked how the meal was, I said, truthfully, that it was excellent, but I thought pappardelle were butterfly shaped pasta. She looked astonished, and told me I was wrong. I checked on my phone, and discovered that butterfly pasta is farfalle, and pappardelle, named from pappare, to gobble, are exactly the broad ribbons I had just enjoyed. When I paid, I told the waiter my phone had discovered that she was right.
  • Sunday. In Canberra you can have more than one person in a lift. We shared a ride with a young man in a grey T-shirt that said, in neat black lettering, ‘THIS IS NOT A PHASE‘. He was observing rigorous modesty of the eyes – or willing us out of existence, take your pick. When we stopped at his floor, I said, ‘Nice T-shirt.’ He flashed a big smile and said, ‘Thanks.’ I didn’t get to ask him what THIS was.
  • Tuesday morning. When I arrived at the physiotherapist a woman was taking up a lot of space in the waiting room, fussily and vocally searching for her mask (still required in the treatment rooms). She was the kind of perfectly nice person I tend to avoid. When I came out from my treatment, she was still there, sitting quietly. I realised I didn’t have my backpack, and made a little fuss of my own. She said, quite calmly, ‘You’ve probably left it in your car, love.’ I agreed and thanked her. She was right.
  • Wednesday morning, 6.30. In the change room at the pool, there were just two of us, me dressing after a swim, and a young man undressing before one, mostly with our backs discreetly to each other. As we headed off in our different directions, I remarked that it was good to have proper hot water at last (the pool management have used the Covid lockdown to fix the plumbing). The young man looked as if he had no idea what I was taking about, but gave a friendly smile and said something about it being a good way to wake up.
  • Thursday afternoon at the Australian Museum, a young woman gave a tiny presentation about volcanoes to a group of preschool-age children, which culminated in an eruption generated by a mixture of vinegar and sodium bicarb. I couldn’t resist telling her about my own volcano demo from years ago, in which I demonstrated what happens when phosphorus is exposed to air. As the classroom filled with clouds of white smoke, I said, ‘You know, I think this gas is poisonous,’ and you’ve never seen a room empty faster than that one. The young woman was more shocked than amused. ‘Were you a science teacher?’ she asked. ‘I was that day,’ I said. I don’t think it was the beginning of a friendship.
  • Thursday a little later, as my companions were in the ladies, I was sharing a small vestibule with a woman with a baby on her front, two small children playing with balls, and a brightly coloured cart filled with childhood paraphernalia and crowned by a large umbrella. In the interests of talking to strangers I asked about the cart. She explained that it was invented by a Brisbane woman, and made life so much easier on an outing, able to carry two children and a baby plus food, change of clothes, toys, picnic gear, and more. It was easy to pull along, as the boy, aged about four, was happy to demonstrate. The only problem was that it didn’t fold. Nonetheless, she takes it on the train. I looked for the contraption online later, with no success.
  • Friday morning, breakfast in a nearby cafe. My companions each order smashed avo. I ask for an almond croissant. The waitress says to me, ‘Good choice.’ One of my companions says, ‘What, so ours wasn’t a good choice?’ She doesn’t miss a beat: ‘The avo is always excellent, but if you’re going to depart from the written menu, the almond croissant is wise.’ I say, ‘You should be a diplomat,’ then I worry that she may have felt a bit harassed as she says, very softly, ‘Just doing my job.’
  • Friday afternoon, in Kinokuniya to buy a birthday gift. I know which comic book I want but can’t find it. I stop a masked man and tell him that while I can see the huge omnibus of the title I’m after I can’t see the individual books. He is delighted to show me the way. I’m not sure if this one counts, because I’m fairly sure that beneath the mask was the face of the man who had originally recommended the series to me back in December.

That’s encounters 11 to 20 – I couldn’t figure out how to number this lot and also include the image for encounter Nº 2.

500 people: Week One

Partly because of Covid isolation, I’ve decided to take up a challenge someone proposed recently: to meet 500 new people in the remainder of this year. I’m defining ‘meet’ to include minimal encounters, but there has to be some reciprocity and at least a remote possibility of more to come. I can count people serving in shops, but they have to be new to me and the encounter has to be more than purely transactional. Electronic encounters don’t count. I plan to do a weekly blog post, listing 10 or so encounters each week. This will mostly to be a chronicle of moments that would usually pass unremarked. I don’t expect it to be hard to reach 500. Here goes with Week One.

  1. Sunday 14 February, morning. The Emerging Artist and I were on a morning walk in Newtown. As we cut through the Matt Hogan Reserve, a tiny patch of green between Camden and Alice Streets, we passed a man walking two small dogs. The EA and the man nodded good morning to each other. I greeted him separately, and he replied, with a noticeably broader smile, acknowledging that I was a second separate greeting, not a mere extension of the first. I’d guess that he was Polynesian.
  2. Monday morning. I bought a soy and linseed loaf at our local artisanal bakery. The woman behind the counter, new to me, was extra cheerful. We had a little bit of banter when the card reader took two attempts to register my payment. ‘It happens to me too,’ she said. In retrospect she may have been reassuring the old guy, but it just felt friendly at the time.
  3. Monday afternoon. There were men in the sauna, ignoring each other comprehensively, barely even a nod exchanged as each one came in (I tried). Then a fourth, a young man, joined us. After a beat, I rose to the occasion, pointed to the Covid-safety notice on the door, and broke the silence: ‘There’s a limit of three people in the sauna.’ He looked me in the eye and said, quite politely, ‘Oh, is there?’ and gave no sign of intending to move. Of all the possible responses, many of which would have been civil, I moved straight to: ‘Well someone has to leave, and since you’re not going to, I will. And,’ pointing an angry-old-man finger at him, ‘you’re a fucker.’ Everyone else remained impassive as I picked up my towel and left. No one said these encounters had to be pleasant, or that they had to make me look like a decent person.
  4. Tuesday afternoon. The EA and I had a meeting about financial matters with two people, one of whom we’ve known for years (decades?). The other we were meeting for the first time. When we emerged, we agreed that we both felt the new person was warm and approachable, as well as inspiring trust in her professional competence. That is to say, above and beyond the business of the meeting we liked each other.
  5. Wednesday, lunch: There were six of us at lunch, including was one man I’d not met before. This man revealed that he has taken the advice of his daughters and stopped climbing ladders so as not to tempt fate. I was a little surprised, and asked his age. 78, four years older than me. And not only has he stopped climbing ladders, but he receives an age-care home-help package. His wife needs help with showering and mobility, but he himself hasn’t got any discernible disability. Another chap, just my age, said he had been inspired by to get a package himself, and there seemed to be consensus that I should be applying for one as well. Start lining up help now, was the message; don’t wait until the need is urgent. We had a lot of other pleasant and interesting conversation, but this is the place where he made his mark on my psyche, and I’m guessing that my response of shocked denial made a similar mark on his.
  6. Wednesday, also at lunch was a man I hadn’t seen since 1964, so I’m counting him as new. Conversation ranged far and wide, but the most interesting exchange (to me) was about the false fingernails on his right hand. They were strikingly shiny and long in a way I’ve never seen on a man’s hand before. The closest I’ve come is one very long fingernail on a Balinese customs officer. In that case I assumed the fingernail was there for purposes of playing a musical instrument, and it turned out that was the case here too. He had learned to play the guitar finger-picking and couldn’t bring himself to use a plectrum. He could have made a decent stand-up routine out of his first visit to a nail parlour.
  7. Wednesday evening, at the movies. During the ads, a young man arrived and sat a couple of seats away from us. I leaned across and said, ‘If you’re uncomfortable about us not having masks on, we can put them on no worries.’ ‘Thanks, mate,’ he said, ‘we’re not worried.’
  8. Thursday afternoon. We were at the pool with our three-year-old granddaughter. One of several fleeting encounters was with a woman who was here with her 10-month-old daughter. After a bit of parallel play, we actually spoke to each other. We swapped children’s names, but not ours. Then the rest of her mother’s group arrived and we went back to our separate lives.
  9. Thursday afternoon, still at the pool, we were joined by a friend with her 10-month-old son. I’ve met him briefly twice before, but it’s not much of a stretch to say he was new to me and so can be included in this chronicle. I was bowled over by the quality of his attention. Several times, he held my gaze with solemn concentration for a good ten seconds – it was like being checked out for some unnamed quality and, mercifully, fund satisfactory. Later, in our living room, he cheerfully crawled to me and I felt that I was now one of his crew.
  10. Saturday morning, we were at the pool again, without little ones. It was busy at 8 o’clock, one whole section taken up by a noisy aquarobics class, some lanes reserved for ‘squad’, and other with barriers up at the halfway mark. Just as we were about to enter the slow half-lane, a young man removed the sign and replaced it with one saying ‘Swimming Class’. I asked him if there was anywhere we could swim lengths. From the way he looked around I could tell he was a swimming teacher and not a pool employee, but he made a mental effort on my behalf, and pointed me to the couple of free half-lanes at the other end. I thanked him, warmly I hope.

I’m surprised at how few of these encounters I’ve had in a week, but interested to notice how many opportunities I’ve missed. The outstanding missed opportunity was midweek. I noticed the brilliant multicoloured shoes being worn by a woman sitting opposite the Emerging Artist and me on the bus, and then realised that her whole outfit was bright, daring and brilliant: a pink dress with shiny bits, etc. I toyed with saying something to her, but decided against it – but then as I was getting off at our stop, I realised that the EA had stopped to compliment her. She told me as we walked home that it would have been inappropriate for me to say anything – only women are allowed.

Is this too boring to blog about? The comments are open.

A cautionary tale

There hadn’t been any community transmission of Covid-19 in New South Wales for a number of days. The Premier was warning against complacency. In our part of the inner west there were still plenty of masks in evidence, and at the supermarket we politely gave each other wide berths. But the virus is still out there. Here’s a timeline of what happened next in my family (no trigger warning needed):

Sunday 4 October: The Emerging Artist and I had yum cha with four other people. Two people turned up in masks. We all used the hand sanitiser on arrival. When we were seated, in a small private room because that’s what was available, the person in our group who is statistically most likely to have serious illness if she’s infected asked for sanitiser and wiped down the table and her chair. There was some mild eye-rolling. We had a pleasant lunch.

Monday 5 October: With a great sense of liberation and celebration, the Emerging Artist and I had dinner at friends’ house. We ate roast chicken, just four of us, and spent a very pleasant evening catching up on each other’s lives, and laughing a lot.

Tuesday 6 October: One of the people from Sunday’s yum cha – call him Alfredo – spent a couple of hours at his work in close contact with a student, helping her to use some complex equipment. He gave her his mobile number so she could phone for help the next day when she was to use the equipment. Unknown to him (and possibly her), the student’s mother was being tested for Covid while they were meeting.

Wednesday 6 October: The student learned in the morning that her mother had tested positive. She got tested and that night at nine o’clock got word that she too was positive. She immediately phoned Alfredo to let him know. He was the only person she had had contact with at his workplace.

Thursday 7 October: Alfredo drew up a list of everyone he had spent time with at work on Tuesday and since, and told them the story. They got themselves tested and did the self-isolation thing. He also called us early in the morning to let us know.

The Emerging Artist and I were tested late morning – no waiting, friendly people doing the job, and a horrible sensation in the nose. We were grandparenting that day, and as Alfredo had visited our granddaughter and her family on Sunday before the yum cha, we had her tested too – and her parents did it separately. We assumed that Alfredo’s exposure happened after we’d seen him, but no one was absolutely sure who was infected when. All the others from yum cha were also tested, and went into isolation pending results.

On Thursday night, the contact tracers phoned to tell Alfredo that he was regarded as a ‘close contact’, and that he should be tested. He told them he was ahead of them. They said that, as a close contact, even if his test came back negative he was to self-isolate for another ten days and then be tested again. That is to say, it took the contact tracers well over 24 hours to contact him, which I would have thought was time for him to do plenty of spreading if he was infected. They didn’t ever contact us.

Friday 8 October: A little after 6 in the morning, the Emerging Artist and I received text messages saying no trace of Covid was found in our samples or our granddaughter’s. Alfredo, the granddaughter’s parents, and the other Yum Cha-ers got text messages on Friday evening saying they too were negative. Alfredo is still in strict isolation, but the rest of us are back to Sydney-Covid-normal.

It’s sobering to realise that if the timing of those events had been just a little different, this could have been a story to make us roll our eyes in a whole other direction.

These socks were made for walking

When I was new to this whole blogging thing, I remember how thrilled I was when someone I didn’t already know responded to one of my posts. In a blog post that has now disappeared without trace, I’d written something about Mary Magdalen – and M-H commented. I was thrilled, and soon after, as one does when one is eight years old, invited her to my 60th birthday party. She was pleased to be invited, but didn’t come. Instead she knitted me a pair of socks.

They are beautiful socks, and this is just part of their story.

Here they are on our couch, brand new:

Not only were they beautiful, they were comfortable and I tended to wear them a lot. Among other places, I wore them to New York. There, I had driven directly from the airport to a small workshop-type gathering in Brooklyn, where they played a useful social role. I was introduced to a young Korean woman, and we were being very formal with each other, me jetlagged and her very polite. I hitched my trousers as I sat down, and when she glimpsed my socks she burst into peals of laughter. The ice was broken.

I was wearing them when we visited the Taj Mahal, where tourists are required to remove their shoes. Here they are outside the Taj Mahal:

They were on my feet during the Caminho de Santiago in Portugal. Here they are in the gardens near the ancient bridge in Ponte de Lima:

They did good service for more than a decade, but inevitably they grew thin, and their heels gave way. I was reluctant to throw them away and they lay in my sock drawer, beautiful but unwearable, until in a time of Covid, the Emerging Artist’s darning skills came into play, and she spent an episode of Vera playing her needle:

And now, not perhaps as beautiful as when they came into existence, they’re back on the feet, and warm:

A new chapter begins …

I didn’t go to the Vigil today …

I didn’t go to the Black Lives Matter vigil in Sydney today.

It was a dilemma. especially after the government took the matter to the High Court and the vigil was declared illegal, I felt a huge moral pressure to turn up. But I’m 73 and asthmatic, and I couldn’t see myself maintaining proper physical distancing in a potential crowd of 10 thousand that wasn’t allowed to spill out into the street.

So I wore black, I’m putting up this blog post, and I’ll make a donation to one of the campaigns of families of people who have died in police custody. (You can see a list of families here. It’s part of an excellent resource document prepared by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition with links to further reading and ideas for taking action.)

I also went with the Emerging Artist on a kind of pilgrimage. This year being the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first landing in Australia, we went to La Perouse on the northern side of Botany Bay to see if we could find the place where Aboriginal people and allies gathered in April 1970 while Cook’s landing was being re-enacted at Kurnell on the southern side. We didn’t know each other fifty years ago, but we were both there.

I have two clear memories of the event. First, many people wore white headbands inscribed with the names of First Nations who had suffered at the hands and weapons of the invaders; one white man, whom I knew by sight, wore a headband marked ‘Hypocrite’, which I took to be an acknowledgement of his uneasy self-doubt – was he there just to assuage his own guilt? Maybe, I remember thinking at the time, but how could you choose to be anywhere else?

The other memory is hearing Kath Walker, later to be known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, reading her poem ‘Dreamtime’. You can read the whole poem here. It begins

Here, at the invaders talk-talk place,
We, who are the strangers now,
Come with sorrow in our hearts.
The Bora Ring, the Corroborees,
The sacred ceremonies,
Have all gone, all gone,
Turned to dust on the land,
That once was ours.

The lines that struck me, carried on the wind to where I was at the very back of the crowd, and are central to my memory of that day, which were these:

The legends tell us,
When our race dies,
So too, dies the land.

That’s 50 years ago. Today we didn’t find the place where that ceremony happened, but though the land is suffering from the effects of colonisation and climate change, it is still alive and beautiful. So are its first peoples.

I did find some photographs at the State Library website, here.

Added later: Here with the Emerging Artist’s permission, is her painting from a photo she took on the day as people were coming back from having placed wreaths in the water. Recognisable in the foreground are Pastor Doug Nichols, Faith Bandler and John Newfong:

Still Mourning, April 27 1970, Penny Ryan 2019


Regular readers of this blog know that I like to play with rhyming verse, and in particular that I’m in love with the Onegin stanza, which is like a sonnet but with shorter lines. The Emerging Artist (who incidentally has recently been working on a project to submit to a competition only to have the competition, which would have led to an open-air sculpture exhibition, cancelled) said I should put this recent sequence up on the blog. I didn’t write these with any intention of showing them around, so blame the EA if they displease. Of course if you like them, I’ll happily accept praise.

9 February
First drought, then fires, and now it's raining
night and day a steady thrum
with windy descant never waning:
bushfires gone now, floods have come.
Our balcony was strewn with ashes
then with red dirt. Now it splashes
inch deep and our thyme will drown.
The lawns are green that once were brown.
Raining, pouring, old man snoring,
how I loved rain when a boy
in Innisfail, a primal joy –
so definite, so life-restoring.
Now we're cooped up in our flat – 
warm inside. I'm fine with that.
10 March
Drought, fire, flood, and now this virus.
Covid-19 tops the bill.
Don’t touch your face, wash hands, require us
keep two metres from the till.
The papers preach self-isolation.
Norman predicts devastation.
Toilet paper shelves are bare.
Trump says we just shouldn’t care.
The Spanish Flu, AIDS, SARS, Ebola,
tiny predators en masse
toss us down a deep crevasse:
iPhones, cruises, Coca-Cola
promised lives of endless joy.
The gods think we’re a knockdown toy.
22 March
Hooray for social isolation.
Splendid? Truly, not so much.
On one side there's devastation,
on t'other six months without touch
of granddaughter or a movie.
Beach and gym closed, and all groovy
birthday parties now on line.
It's books' and Netflix' time to shine.
No more non-essential outings.
Work from home unless you're key
and key means nurses, teachers, see,
not the bankers, brokers, shouting
pollies. Oh, and not the arts! 
God save our isolated hearts!

Hope and the Climate Emergency

There was an Extinction Rebellion event at Bondi Beach this morning. A couple of hundred of us sat in the shape of the XR logo, representing the planet and an hourglass. There were brief speeches, a drone photo, and some magnificent dancing by members of the Tango Rebellion. The handful of police didn’t have to do anything but stand and watch.

One of the speakers read what she called a faux elegy for the planet – faux because we intend to take action to at least minimise the results of the climate emergency. On the way home in the train, one of my companions expostulated that it’s not the planet that’s in danger of dying out, it’s us or at least life as we know it. The planet will survive just fine. But we all agreed there is such a thing as climate grief that needs to be faced.

I found myself thinking of A D Hope’s poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother’, the first poem in his A Late Picking (1975) that, according to my pencilled notes on the contents page, was written in 1958, presumably with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in mind. I don’t expect many of my readers to know the poem, so here it is in full, the anger and, yes, grief beneath the irony as alive as ever:

On an Early Photograph of My Mother

Who would believe it to see her now, the mother
Of so many daughters and sons – and one of them I –
Dear busy old body, bustling around the sky
That this was indeed my darling, and no other?

Who would suppose to view her then, the tender
Bloom and dazzle of wildfire, and the stance
Of unripe grace, the naked eloquent glance,
Time could so tame or age despoil her splendour?

Or who imagine the imperceptible stages
From her madcap Then to this staid respectable Now?
One picture the Family Album does not show.
See where she ripped it angrily from the pages!

That is just the picture I should give most to recover,
When she changed to a molten mass and began to shrink
To a great smooth stone, and the stone began to think,
And she raged at her ruin and knew that her youth was over.

Did you destroy it, my darling, that face of granite
Cracked and scarred by your volcanic heart?
Did you take one look and tear it across and apart,
The barren body, the gaunt, unlovable planet?

You could not foresee this lovely old age beginning,
The ripeness, the breeding beauty. How could you know
Yourself with your lap full of flowers, soft-shouldered with snow,
Royally wearing your waters, your children pinning

Cities of lights at your breast, to show how clever they are?
Take comfort, my darling, and trundle your bulk through the sky:
Your cleverest children—and one of them is not I—
Are finding the trick that will turn you back to a star.

Cunning and cautious, but much less cautious than cunning,
They split small pieces of rock, a cup or two from your seas.
'Helping Mother!' they say, 'and busy as bees.
The noise we can make is tremendous; the flash is stunning.'

'We can do better,' they say. 'A surprise for Mother;
She will be pleased when we show her what we can do.'
How long will it take? Just another invention or two
And someone will press a button. You need not bother;

You will blaze out with the nimbus of youth, the limber
Liquid gait and the incandescent air;
You will forget the middle-aged ruin you were;
Good luck to you, darling! I shall not be there to remember.

The 2019 Francis Webb Poetry Reading

For nine years now, Toby Davidson has been organising an annual celebration of Francis Webb’s poetry. Toby edited Webb’s Collected Poems (1911) – my blog post here. Though I’ve been enamoured of Webb’s poetry for 50 years now, this is the first time I’ve managed to attend the event (or the second, if the reading at the 1911 Sydney Writers’ Festival counts – my blog post here).

We met in a large room – the ‘Creator Room’ – at Chatswood Library, in the region where Webb spent his childhood. The library has inherited Webb’s collection of paintings – all or most of them bought with funds Webb received as a government grant, funds spent of art rather than, say, food – and his library of books. The paintings and some of his books were on display, along with other fascinating realia, including a photocopy of the handwritten draft of his final poem.

Toby Davidson was an unabashedly enthusiastic MC for an audience that was an interesting mixture of ancient fans (like me), current students (including some from Davidson’s classes) and satisfyingly motley others. The readers:

  • Robert Adamson, poet (blogged about by me here and here among other places): told us of his awe-struck meeting with Webb in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and read three poems – ‘End of the Picnic’ (an imagining of the arrival of Cook’s ship in 1770 as a spiritual disaster), ‘Morgan’s Country’ and ‘Wild Honey’ (probably my favourite Webb poem, read in a way that had tears on my cheeks). A hard act to follow, but followed it was.
  • Michael Griffith (author of God’s Fool, his 1991 biography of Webb): quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ as emblematic of key themes in Webb (and his own life), and read us two poems with props – the first part of ‘In Memoriam Antony Sandys, 1806–1883’ with the painting that the poem describes on an easel beside him; and ‘On first Hearing a Cuckoo’ preceded by part of Delius’ ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’.
  • Judith Crispin, poet and photographer, whose work, according to her web site, ‘includes themes of displacement and identity loss, a reflection of [her] own lost Aboriginal ancestry’: read the dingo’s second speech from ‘The Ghost of the Cock’, and commentred on the extraordinary way it embodied what webb could not have known, the polarity of moon and dingo in an Arnhem Land foundation story; and two other poems, ‘Episode’ and ‘Toward the Land of the Composer’.
  • Gareth Jenkins, poet, spoke among other things of the sonic, rhythmic quality of Webb’s work, his mastery of long lines, and read, beautifully, ‘The Yellowhammer’.
  • Richard Miller, self-described as a long-time Webb fan and former musician in, I think, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, in a complete change of mood, delivered a brilliantly theatrical, over the top rendition of ‘Introduction in a Waxworks’ from ‘Leichhardt Pantomime’.
  • Two school students whose names I didn’t catch, one from each of the nearby schools that Webb attended: one read the eminently accessible ‘Australian Night’, which Toby Davidson told us Webb wrote between ages of 7 and 10; the other read ‘Compliments of the Audience’, a sardonic take on a poetry reading, thereby concluding the reading part os the afternoon.

Before we broke for an afternoon snack, we were treated to Oliver Miller’s short film Electric, based on Webb’s radio play of the same name about the first use of ECG on a human subject.

I had a great time. Some of the poems I could just about mouth the words as they were read. Others came from the bits of the work that I have pretty much skimmed. Every reader showed some new aspect of the poetry – and of themselves. Michael Griffiths told us that he had been discouraged from writing his PhD thesis on Webb because, the then Professor of Australian Literature at Sydney University said, ‘He’s mad’. And he’s been dismissed by more than one cultural arbiter. But it was a joy to be in a room full of people who are touched, challenged and invigorated by his poetry.

Two weeks on Yunbenun

The Emerging Artist and I have fled the winter in Sydney (which some people are beginning to call Eora, but I’ll wait to see on whose say-so before doing that myself) to spend two weeks on Yunbenun (aka Magnetic Island) in the tropics.

In the taxi to the ferry, the EA asked our friendly driver if he’d lived in Townsville long. ‘I’ve lived here all my life,’ he said. ‘It’s my land.’ He is a Wulgurukaba man. Let me start this blog post by acknowledging the Wulgurukaba and Bindal peoples, both with substantial claims to be traditional owners of the land where I have been holidaying, and made welcome.

We’ve been here a little over a week now, with a little less than a week to go. We’ve both been laid low with viral infections, the kind that come with grandparenting territory. We’re less sick now than when we arrived, but still coughing and spluttering quite a bit. Still, we’ve managed to go on some reasonably demanding walks – classified as moderate, but entailing fairly prolonged uphill climbs and including some spectacular views of the Coral Sea. We’ve been entertained by legion kookaburras, curlews, koels and currawongs, and admired the cuteness of rock wallabies. Koalas are yet to make themselves visible to us, but we’re confident that will happen. Our Air BnB host is friendly and very interesting – a marine scientist who is a rich source of information about the sea around us. He was able to reassure me that I needn’t have scrambled for the shore when a stingray came swimming straight for me when I ventured into the water.

Our usual experience is to arrive at a holiday destination and discover that a really interesting festival or event has just finished. This time is an exception. Quite without planning, our visit coincided with the North Australian Festival of Arts, and we spent the weekend on the mainland to participate. We were too crook on Saturday night to use our tickets to Tom Gleeson’s show in the May Wirth (a tent in the Queen’s Garden, named for one of Australia’s outstanding circus performers), but we walked the length of the Strand a number of times, taking in Strand Ephemera 2019, billed as North Queensland’s sculpture festival.

As in Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, the sculptures are displayed in a stunning natural environment, and have tremendous appeal for whole families. Here are some photos taken by the Emerging Artist: a weaving and ceramics tableau by the students at St Patrick’s College for girls (a video of the making of it here); an archipelago of caged gnomes painted variously in Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander colours, LGBTQI symbols, etc; a car tyre pierced by the handles of hundreds of souvenir teaspoons; 200 coconuts, some of them sprouting, painted with Pacific designs; a string bag representative of the traditional people of Western Cape York, but huge and made from industrial materials; coral sculpted in sugar, beautiful and also emblematic of environmental disaster; bamboo pipes played gently by the wind; what one boy called a pillow fort and I thought of as a defended place to dream. And much more that we didn’t photograph.

And this afternoon, at the Mary Who? Bookshop, David Malouf read to an audience of abut 50 people. It’s hard to imagine that the Tom Gleeson show that we’d missed could have given as much joy as this. David is a brilliant reader of his own poetry, and framed his selection beautifully today. He spoke of three stages: the experience that a poem draws on; the writing of the poem, which often happens many years after the experience; and, if the poet lives long enough, reading the poems many years after it was written. He began with The Year of the Foxes, a poem about a childhood memory written in 1965, and ended with Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian, which has to be one of the most cheerful death-anticipating poems ever written (which made wet stuff run down my cheeks anyhow). When the Emerging Artist and I arrived, we commented that the age of the people gathered in the shop was generally well over 60: it was sweet, therefore, that David Malouf several times felt he had to explain a reference because most of his audience wouldn’t be old enough to recognise it. (He’s 85!)

Now for another week of health-restoring warmth, about which I may or may not blog.

History repeating

A little less than eight years ago, she who was to become the Emerging Artist and I sold our house and bought the smaller one where we now live. I recorded the process in verse.

4 November 2010:

On selling the family home
Our home for more than twenty years
Our haven, our Three Seventeen,
Where children’s laughter, rage and tears,
And adults’ too, and in between
Have filled the air, where stains and scratches,
Dents and holes, loose threads and  patches
Are records of our history
With love’s abiding mystery
Was sold on Tuesday, seven thirty.
Our shell, our outer skin, alive,
We’ll trade for one point five two five.
It’s brick and wood, some bits quite dirty.
We’ll shuffle off to somewhere new:
New owners, may it welcome you.

6 November 2010:

Looking to buy
Flexible, unique and charming,
spacious, stylish, redesigned,
with northern sun, and traffic calming,
details of the classic kind,
potential for downsizers’ retreat
in much sought after treelined street,
we seek it here, we seek it there,
our new home could be anywhere,
in Earlwood, Petersham, St Peters,
Marrickville or Hurlstone Park,
(Burwood’s too far off the mark).
At each new door the agents greet us.
We turn up, armed  with cheques, not knives,
Buying, not fighting, for our lives.

26 November 2010:

We’ve bought a house, we sign today,
pay ten percent of far too much
(but we’re in love, so that’s OK).
It’s done up with a loving touch,
it’s near a park and faces north,
near shops, trains, buses and so forth.
We’re downing size, yes, less is more,
from Three One Seven to Thirty-Four.
Bring us garlands, bring us flowers.
Blow the whistle: end of innings.
Sing a song of new beginnings.
Four signatures, the house is ours.
Soon we fly the empty nest.
We’ve found our home for all the rest.

And now we’ve just done it again, this time moving into an apartment about a block away from where we now live. It’s astonishing how those three stanzas describe the process and the feelings that go with it. we exchanged contracts on our present house on 25 September, and bought the apartment at auction on 6 October.

This time it’s serious downsizing. Many books have already found new homes, and many more are yet to do so.