This is about Les Murray as I knew him. It is not an encomium but a story about how I came to know him—if you can ever know someone like him.
Stephen Edgar, in a poem entitled ‘The Grand Hotel’—an analogy or disguise for Les’s mind—writes:
Apart from that, though, I recall
Something you said about the place:
That you could never see it all,
It seems to propagate with space;
Always another stair to climb,
Always another corridor
With other rooms to count like time,
The end of which is always more;
A sort of Tardis made immense
That somehow manages to flout
The laws of sense and common sense
By being larger in than out
(Letters to Les, edited by Donata Carrazza and Paul Kane, 2005)
In the 1980s the poet Philip Hodgins and I shared a house at 1 Raphael Street in Abbotsford. Philip was dying of leukaemia and writing about his life in general and, in particular, life on the dairy farm where he grew up, near Shepparton, turning out a body of work that won him many prestigious awards. After dinner he delighted in reading to his co-tenants from the works of Murray, Robert Gray and Peter Goldsworthy. It was all good fun, but I was busy at the time, chasing numbers for Labour Party factional wars. Literature was not a high priority at that stage.
Much later, when I moved to Mildura, having given up the numbers game, I became interested, with other like-minded people, in the cultural gap left by the sad end of the Mildura Sculpture Triennial, a defining event in the history of Australian visual arts, which lasted some thirty glorious years. Funny place, this Mildura. It generated a unique event by a quirk of circumstance, providing a platform for many artists, young and established, only to end bizarrely when a local councillor, upset by some ‘offensive’ feminist material contained in the program, confiscated the catalogues and burnt them in the lane behind the municipal office. No half measures here. But that is another story.
In this post-Triennial period, I thought that Philip’s poems, infused as they are with pastoral flavour, would work here, in our rural context, and that a night of his readings would test the mood of those in town who care about this stuff. I asked him to come up from Timor, near Maryborough, where he had relocated to a modest home—not without some wicked humour: it was opposite the grandiose arch of the Archduke Gold Mine, a notorious scam to trap naive investors.
Philip suggested that we also invite Robert Gray, as he could read some limericks by John Shaw Nielsen, the celebrated (though not enough) Mallee farmer-poet. Gray travelled from Sydney to Mildura by bus, an extraordinary effort for the love of poetry and a night with friends. That small event was a success and that’s how a writers festival got off the ground in Mildura. And with no money.
Philip said that for the first festival he’d ask Les Murray to come along. ‘I’ll come’, replied the poet via one of his famous postcards—his favourite way of communicating—‘if you give me a feed of cod’. And that was that. He kept coming for twenty-five years, until last year, in fact, and would have been here again this year, no doubt, health permitting.
Last year he wasn’t well enough to travel on his own. He used to like driving long distances, discovering coffee shops along the way. He was very tolerant about the quality of the brews. He suggested that someone should edit a guide to the best coffee shops on our highways and I guess he would have been happy to go along to test them out. I told him, over coffee, last year that there’s the internet now for all that stuff. ‘Oh yes’, he said, looking into the void with total lack of enthusiasm. Our festival volunteers drove from Mildura to Bunyah to pick him up, and then again back to his home: four trips, some 5000 kilometres in a week. It was, I am told, a harrowing journey—Les was frail, and he found it difficult to manage his functions—but he kept up his spirits all the way.
When he first came I had to keep my promise of a cod feed. I did consider freezing one but had some misgivings about frozen food (I have changed my mind since). Now, a cod is not come by easily: they’re as elusive as any fish. I put the word out to various fish people (at the time commercial fishing in the Murray was not illegal): nothing. I rang and pestered: still nothing. As if they knew, the cod had disappeared at the prospect of being eaten by Les Murray. When it came to Saturday, with dinner in sight, I was overwhelmed with embarrassment. Mercifully, some rogue character (I was not sure that he was ever licensed to fish) dropped off at my coolroom, without my knowledge, a large cod, a beast I discovered almost by accident, and face was saved in extremis. The miracle of the (loaves) and fishes.
Philip kept his cancer at bay until a fatal August in 1995. After a tribute to him with music by Anna Goldsworthy on the lawn of the Mildura Homestead the following year, it was proposed that we establish a Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal, with a very modest amount of prize money attached to it. That was the genius of Les: this would be an award with only one judge, so the chosen would bask in the certainty that his or her win was not the result of some compromise (something Philip himself deplored). Les was the judge for the first three years, and he chose Bruce Dawe, Kate Jennings and Alan Gould. To me, these choices show, if there’s any need to prove it, a refreshingly uninhibited ease, like Les’s penchant for horrid jumpers. Or the time he borrowed a new-ish Jaguar and drove it all the way to Mungo National Park and back: 240 kilometres of dirt, corrugation and dust. Was he imitating his character who turns his Rolls-Royce into a ute for the farm in his poem ‘The Quality of Sprawl’? Or was he unconscious of his action, displaying the real character of sprawl?
This medal, now in its twenty-fifth year, is not famous like those with a rich prize and instant media recognition, followed by increased book sales. But it is most appreciated by those who know how it was instituted, by whom and why. Clive James was one of the happy recipients, and he cherished being finally recognised as a poet, not just a TV personality. The Grand Hotel had a white Rolls-Royce in which Clive was chauffeured in style to visit, for the last time, a professor who’d taught him at Sydney University and had since moved to the sunny and salubrious hamlet of Lake Cullulleraine, right in the heart of the Mallee. That year, for the first time, everyone in town wanted to participate in the festival. In reality they just needed to see Clive, expecting a quirky, TV-like performance and a dishevelled look. Hundreds turned up, though many left when Clive spoke at length about poetry, and Hodgins in particular. It was a marvellous speech, which can be found in the collection of the Australian Book Review.
That episode was typical of the festival, and very much in Les’s style. We take poetry seriously. Furthermore, we discourage publishers, agents and spruikers from attending: there’s limited room, enough for just a small number of writers and the public, all of whom mingle and eat together over the course of three days, and we don’t want people there with their own agendas.
A few years ago, towards the end of one of the dinners, Les and David Malouf were sitting face to face talking about who knows what. No one would approach them, as if the two were enclosed in a magic circle, but everyone gathered at a respectful distance, taking photos with their phones to record the memorable occasion. And yet Les would talk with anyone during the festival and was always, except for this one moment, approachable.
Les and I had a mighty blue in the early days that almost finished his association with us. I had written that I was not pleased with his comments on multiculturalism and, frankly, they still don’t make sense to me today. He defended his position in a lecture at Parliament House, Canberra, on 7 June 1996: ‘And Let’s Always Call it the Commonwealth: One Poet’s View of the Republic’ (it can be found in the Senate’s Papers on Parliament No. 28 of November 1996). It is, to me, still a depressing statement. I feel that, if there’s a Paradise, as he believed, he could undertake the inverse journey from that of Dante or St Paul, and come back to earth to erase those horrible things he had to say about a policy—a desire more than a policy—that I and many worthier than I fought for with passion and a true love for their adopted country.
I told Les that, far from being a pernicious idea that would divide, multiculturalism was a terrific instrument for unity and cohesion, much like the life he was sharing with his wife, Valerie, who is an Australian of Central European descent. The notion that it was simply an idea of leftist elites was, in fact, promulgated by some right-wing elites, just to differentiate themselves—an example of pure opportunism to create ideological chaos—and avoid dealing with facts such as migrant women in sweatshops being underpaid or men exposed to workplace accidents because there were no language provisions to explain dangers or because they were pushed too hard. I pointed out that there were no migrants in any of Brunswick’s or Coburg’s bowling facilities, only those oldies in white, despite such facilities being maintained by all ratepayers, and that, when migrants wanted a club, they had to build it with their own money. Moreover, there were no qualified interpreters and translators (like him) in the courts or in our hospitals until John Cain set up a proper system—world class! (Oh, how I have always wanted to use that phrase that shows how inferior we feel—one that would indeed infuriate Les.) And so on.
We never returned to these subjects. Perhaps affection got the better of both of us. Perhaps I thought he might change his mind. I think the future will show that Les was often a contrarian, for the sake of stirring the pot; that what he said was often naively taken at face value:
I was a translator in the Institute back
when being accredited as a poet
meant signing things against Vietnam.
For scorn of the bargain I wouldn’t do it.
I find that, and much like it, simply exhausting.
The irony is that I, as a migrant, found the proposition of Les’s ‘vernacular republic’ very appealing. As I understand it, the vernacular republic would identify with the underprivileged, the rural poor and Indigenous peoples. The language and the positive attitudes of the underclasses would be central to this idea, in contrast to the colonial sophistication of the ruling elite.
What a great fold for all migrants to fall into! They’d be the first to understand the idea of independence from the monarchy and the need for national self-respect. Many had fought in battle for those very principles in their own country. As a matter of fact, I think many of us live in a parallel universe where being Australian has nothing to do with the monarchy. And most migrants quickly adopt the quirks of the Aussie lingo, which is made up largely of ready-made phrases and clichés and sayings and colloquialisms that are readily absorbed by continuous contact, especially at work, with dinky-di locals.
And, by the way, who was more aristocratically Athenian than Christopher Pearson (who was at that Murray-cod banquet)—the man who published Les and devoted his life to the elevation of Tony Abbott, who shafted our weak attempt to establish some sort of republic?
A snippet of typical conversation:
‘Les, whom do you suggest we invite to the festival?’
‘Try that Peter Kocan—he is a very good poet, if you can find him! He tried to murder Arthur Calwell.’ (At Mosman Town Hall, with a .22 rifle.)
‘Les, who else? I can’t find him.’
‘Try that Alison Groggon; she is good.’
‘Les, why are you defending Helen Demidenko?’
‘Because I hate the pack going after women like her and Pauline.’
‘Another bottle of red, Les?’
‘Sure, keep it coming.’
I think Les chose Mildura as the one festival he would attend (agreeing to be patron) because he felt comfortable in a country-town context, where poetry was the main dish on the menu; it was a place in opposition to the city elites. But when you add up the countless number of artists and academics—brilliant folks with progressive ideas in the main—who came through over the years, you’d have to ask yourself, ‘Aren’t these the very elites he railed against?’ Hasn’t that idea of elites been generated by the Right as a useful tool against everyone who is not on the Right? And also, as Les was ageing and turning to poetry only, becoming silent on politics, might he have thought that the very people he despised could have been the best recruits for his vernacular republic after all? A project like the ‘vernacular republic’, an intuition that is simultaneously artistic, sociological and political, cannot and will not find legs through the efforts, however brilliant and mesmerising, of a single individual, even if that individual is Les Murray.
Les had bad words to say about Antonio Gramsci, who of course was operating in a different period, when revolutions were possible, and perhaps a necessity, and who therefore spoke of the dictatorship of the proletariat and used other such slogans. In reality, Gramsci was much more subtle than that crude stuff. He knew the fundamental importance of culture and education to create a hegemonic force, which is really a form of consensus. That Gramscian idea would have served Les rather well. Even the hard Right is now using his methods.
I wish Les and I had another magnum of Coonawarra cabernet at hand and could carry on these conversations. What’s left now are his immortal poems and, for the time being, I’ll cling to them and to the sound of those I heard delivered in his inimitable voice.
I’ll end with a poem from the evening we went to get some produce from a local farm:
Thirstland talc light
haunted the bush horizons
all day. As it softened
into blusher we drove out
through gardens that are farms
past steeped sultana frames
to a red-earth dune
flicked all over with water
to keep it tightly knitted
in orange and avocado trees
black-green and silver green
above trickling dust. My friend
fetched a box of fossil bones
from the unlocked half-million
of the coolroom there: asparagus
for his banquet kitchen,
no-one around, no dog,
then we drove where biceps
of river water swelled
through a culvert, and bulges
of turbulence hunted swirls
just under their moon skin,
and we mentioned again
unsecured farm doors, open
verandahs, separate houses,
emblems of a good society.
(from Conscious and Verbal, 1999)