is a legend in Australian writing and his book The Americans, Baby (1972) with its theme of Americanisation of Australian society has influenced a whole generation. Born in New South Wales, in 1938, he has lived for many years in the Sydney suburb of Balmain which he has affectionately fictionalised in his work. Journalist, union organiser, editor of newspapers Australian Worker and City Voices, co-founder in 1972 of the alternative fiction magazine Tabloid story, scriptwriter and compiler of anthologies of Australian short fiction in the 1980s, The State of the Art and Fictions 88, he has published seven collections of short stories, including Futility and Other Animals, The Electrical Experience, The Everlasting Secret Family and Forty-Seventeen, and book of journalism Days of Wine and Rage. His novel Grand Days (1993) chronicles the activities of the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s through its main character Edith, “a young innocent from a new country” whom he uses “like Henry James to illuminate old Europe”.
Buenaventura Durruti‘s Funeral (part)
The American Poet’s Visit. After lunch over coffee and stregas at Sandro’s the poets showed their pens. Two of the poets had Lamys, another a Mont Blanc, and another a pen from the New York Museum of Modern Art which looked like a scalpel. A fifth said he thought he’d ‘get a Lamy.’
They handled each other’s pens, writing their favorite line from Yeats or Eliot or whoever. ‘Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,’ one wrote. He had not seen poets at this before.
he then made a reluctant presentation of a book of Australian stories to the visiting American poet Philip Levine, for whom the lunch had been organised. He said the book contained the story ‘The American Poet’s Visit’ and that he had been induced to present it by his friends as a ’joke Australien’.
‘Did Rexroth ever read the story?’ Levine asked after being told that it was about the American poet Rexroth.
That wasn’t known. It is necessary, he explained, to comprehend the Australian condition or what was then the Australian condition. When we here, he gestured at the table, were all younger, we wrote from a special freedom and perspective which came from feeling that we lived outside the ‘real world’. For us, Europe and the US were the world. We lived somewhere else. When we wrote we did not conceive that people from the real world would ever come to read our work. We could write about them without fear of being read.
‘That’s right,’ said John, ‘without the fear of being read by anyone really.’
‘Further, people from the real world were, paradoxically, people from literary history and they had a fictional gloss to them – you were not of the world of Meanjin’.
‘Meanjin?’ asked Levine.
’Our literary world, I mean.’
‘It’s the Aboriginal word meaning “rejected from the New Yorker”,’ someone else said.
‘Hence our special freedom.’
Levine, or someone at the table, said that now someone else would be able to write another story – ‘The Second American Poet’s Visit.’
‘Ah, there cannot be another story because we are being read now by the people from “out there”.’
Everyone fell thoughtfully glum at this observation.
‘But when the first story was published, the editor thought “Rexroth” was a pseudonym for a “real person”.’
‘And Philip isn’t the second poet to visit – there’s been Duncan, Ginsberg, Simpson.’
‘Kinnell, Levertov, Snyder.’
‘The Harlem Globe Trotters.’
‘We are now part of the poetry night-club circuit.’
‘The poets arrive – we look them up in Norton’s Anthology of Modern American Verse so that we can quote them a line or two of their poetry.’
‘Speak for yourself,’ said John.
‘”In this cafe, Durruti,
Plotted the burning of the bishop of Saragossa.”’
‘Very good,’ said Levine, ‘they are indeed my lines from Norton’s.’
Levine said that although Norton was laboriously footnoted for students there was no footnote for his poem ‘The Midget’ to explain who ‘Durruti’ was or the ‘Archbishop of Saragossa.’
‘Do you people know?’
We shook our heads expectantly.
He wrote down the name Durruti and the name Archbishop of Saragossa on a table napkin because of the noise in the restaurant and we passed it around, reading the names.
From A Bush Log Book 2 (part)
He said on the telephone that he would be using a German solid-fuel stove in the bush.
„I‘ll put your father on,“ his seventy-year-old mother said, and he pictured them passing the telephone between them, and he heard her say to his father in a very audible conspiratorial whisper, “He says he is going to use a German solid-fuel stove.” His father came and said the German solid-fuel stove or any-nationality-fuel stoves were banned.
What he didn’t say to his father and mother was that he intended to have camp fires regardless of the fire bans. He was now forty and could damn well light a fire, legal or illegal, if he damn well wanted to. And they were disappointing him too with this fire panic. They were bush people who’d brought him up on bush codes of perseverance and on all bush drills. Why else as a little boy had he crouched shivering and sodden at damp, smoking camp fires blowing his very soul into the fire to get it to flame. Or suffered fly-pestered pink-eye and heat headaches in the dust of summer scout camps, his ears ringing with the madness of cicadas in the hot eucalyptus air, doggedly going about his camp routines. He’d paid. And his family always lit correct fires that caught with the first match. His family knew that the bigger the fire the bigger of fool. He and his family had a pretty good relationship with fire.
On the way through to the bush he paid them a postponed Christmas visit. It was in fact his second trip to the Budapest with Belle but now felt he needed to go there alone. He wanted now to apologise to the bush for having taken Belle there. Belle had been wrong. Belle belonged in the Intercontinental. No, that wasn’t really it, he wasn’t sure why he wanted to go back into the bush again alone. He’d apologised to Belle for having taken her into the bush where she didn’t belong.
As he stopped in the driveway of the family home they came out from the sun room where they’d been waiting for him. His father leaned in the car window and said, “It’s a ticking bomb out there.”
His mother wanted to organise another Christmas dinner, to repeat Christmas for him.
He begged off, “I’ve done a lot of moving about this year – I had my report to do – I have to go back to Canberra to present it to a standing committee – I just need to for a few days – no people. It’s for the good of my soul.”
His mother understood soul.
“We expected you for Christmas,” his father said, “I can’t what could be more important than family Christmas.”
What had been more important than family Christmas had been trying to forget his work on the nuclear fuel cycle, and turning forty. He’d tried with Belle and it had worked except for the bush part. He was going to try the bush part again, alone.
“It’s a very silly move from a number of points of view,” his father went on as they moved into the house, ”the ban is total.”
He said he could smell rain about.
They didn’t comment, His family didn’t believe that you could ‘smell’ rain. He wasn’t sure that he believed you could smell rain.
Hi mother wanted to freeze his steak he’d bought for the bush but he told her not to freeze it.
He asked her though to mend his jeans – as a way of giving her some part to play.
“You’re old enough to know better,” his father said, punishing the newspaper with slaps of his hand.
His mother came back her sewing basket, “I’ll mend it with especially strong cotton,” she said, “My mother used this cotton.”
“Your mother used it – that same real?”
“You don’t use much of it,” she said to block his incredulity, “so it never runs out.”
She mended his jeans by hand.
“You shouldn’t go into the bush in old clothes,” she said, “you don’t want clothes falling apart in the bush.”
He’d not forgotten that dictum.
“I’ve put your steak in the freeze,” she said, biting the thread through with her teeth.
Later he excused himself from the room and removed the meat from the freezer.
After years of opposing frozen food his mother now preferred it. From pre-refrigeration days of her youth, his mother now obsessively feared ‘things going bad’ and in her old age froze everything.
Regardless of his wishes she put together a repeat of a family Christmas.
“What are you going to eat out there? His nephew asked at the meal.
All questions from nephews and nieces were trick questions.
“Mainly tinned food,” he said, knowing this would lose him marks.
“You’re not walking far then,” his nephew said with the smile of the experienced.
“No, I’m not walking far,” he said, an apology to the whole family for having included any tinned food for a camp. “It’s a lazy camp.”
They didn’t know of such a thing.
“I’ve never carried a can of tinned food into the bush in my life,” his brother declared, “freeze-dried is the go.”
“If he can carry it he can take it,” his sister said, quoting an infrequently used family dictum; used only to excuse foolishness, eccentricity. It was like an appeal to the High Court on some nearly forgotten constitutional ground. He smiled thankfully at her.
“You won’t be able to heat them,” his father said, seizing on this as a way of stopping him. “How do you think you’re going to heat them with a fire ban on?”
“With this heat they’ll be hot enough to eat straight out of the can.”
His father grunted.
“You’ll need a hot meal in the evening,” his mother said, “for strength.”
“I think, Mother, he’s old enough to feed himself,” his sister said, again acting as his advocate.
“Run to the fire and out the other side,” his nephew said to his father, talking across him, “isn’t that the way you handle bush fire?” His nephew smirked, he now had trapped in a bush fire.
“If it isn’t burning on the other side,” his brother said , “and if it doesn’t have a second front.”
“And that’s if you get through the first wave of fire,” his nephew said, with as estimating glance at him which indicate that he didn’t think he was the sort of person who would make it through the fire.
“Wet the sleeping bag, unzip it, and pull it over your head,” he said to the nephew and brother, “Isn’t that how it’s done?”
His brother said yes, if there was enough water around to wet a sleeping bag and if the sleeping bag wasn’t synthetic.”
“Don’t try to beat the fire uphill – you won’t,” his nephew said.
“I wouldn’t try,” he said to his nephew.
His nephew obviously thought he was the sort of person who would try. His nephew tossed a nut into the air and caught it in his mouth.
“I know the fastest way to be found if you’re lost in the bush.”
“What’s that?” His nephew was sceptical.
“You stay where you are, mix a dry martini and within minutes someone will turn up and tell you that you’re mixing it wrong.”
The table looked at him unsatisfied, and he knew they hadn’t got the joke, they weren’t a martini family and they blamed him, he could tell, for making a joke outside the comfortable boundaries if their shared lore. He’d blundered again. He didn’t handle being a member of a family very well.
“Why are you going?” his brother asked.
“Foolhardiness,” his father said.
He told them he was going to the upper reaches of the Clyde River which he hadn’t done yet in his walking. He wanted to look at Webb’s Crown, a remaining block of plateau around which the river had cut itself on both sides, leaving Webb’s Crown like a giant cake in the middle of the river.
“It’s nothing to look at,” his nephew said.
He couldn’t very well say he was going into the bush to apologise to the bush for having taken wrong person to that part of his metaphorical self. Or that he’d taken his great-grandmother replica into the bush when he should’ve taken her to Las Vegas.
And when would he be able to go aimlessly into the bush, without plan?
His family always worked the plan.
As a kid he’d just ‘gone into the bush’ and one thing suggested another, invitations were issued by caves, clearings, high points, creeks - they all called you to them.
“I’d like to go into the bush without a plan,” he said, to see how they’d jump, ”to go into the bush idly.” The word ‘idly’ was strange to the dining room.
“Plan the work: work the plan,” his father said.
“If you didn’t have a plan how would you know where to go next?” asked his nephew.
An existential question.
“It’s the journey not the destination,” his ever-protective sister said.
He thought it was both. But he didn’t want to have her offside too. “I hated all that up-at-dawn, fifty-kilometre-day regimented walking we all went in for as kids,” she added.
As he was putting his things into the car the next day his mother gave him a two-litre plastic container of water and told him to put it in his pack.
It wouldn’t fit in his pack but he told her he was going , anyhow, to the river.
He tried to ask casually. “Which side of the family were bushwalkers – was grandmother a bushwalker?” he asked.
“Oh no,” she said, “she was a city lass.”
“Great- grandmother?” He knew the standard answer.
“She’s a bit of an unknown quantity,” she said, “she lived in Katoomba and that’s about all we know. She worked at the Caves.”
He wondered again if that was all she knew. He never got further than that answer.
His father wouldn’t come out to say goodbye. His going into the bush in direct refusal of an order.
His mother said she would pray for rain.
“Well don’t flood the river on me,” he said.
He drove as far as he could into the bush and then, hoisting his pack, left the car – going through the Act of Severance, the break with habitation and people, the solitary swimming out into the wilderness.
For him it always required a mustering of will and it always brought about a tight alertness. He’d taken 15 mg of Serepax on the drive up to the bush to counteract his family’s sapping and to calm him for the bush.
He’s taking drugs, his nephew said.
But the tightness continued. Again, as always. The small cold warning spot of fear switched on as the connections with safety receded.
As he walked deeper into the bush his mind monitored his system, running over his body like a hand, a detector listening for fault.
The bush flies were thick but he’d seen them thicker and anyhow he’d make a détente with the flies. He said peace to the flies, peace.
He talks to the flies.
He came to the slab of rock and laughed to himself about making love to Belle, holding her so the flies crawled over he face. There were three kinds of flies this time, he noticed, which he wasn’t allowing to bother him.
Something about fucking a girl on the rock and flies.
As he stood on the slab and recalled the perfect Christmas dinner she’d cooked, he realised that his efforts this time to somehow ‘erase’ the mistake of bringing Belle into the bush was not going to work. He had inscribed it deeper by doing it. And it didn’t worry him now anyhow. She was maybe a re-enactment of his great-grandmother and that was that. Whatever that meant.
He’s not going on about the great-grandmother again?
He decided to go down into the gorge by way of a descending creek, barely running, which led him to a rainforest on the slope of the gorge. Vines, moss, a dense overhead canopy of branches and vines, silence. He liked the dank chambers of rainforest – they were like a nightclub in the daytime, broken sunlight, a smell of trapped staleness. He sat for a while in the darkness. The flies would not come there.
Maybe this is where Belle and he should have come for Christmas. Or maybe this was where he should lie down and never rise, there in the decay.
He wants to lie down in all the crap.
But he went on, down the remaining stretch of creek, blocked here and there with boulders, and then dropping steeply to the river at this point but it ran with enthusiasm and had a thin waterfall. He stood under the fall naked – waterfalls, however thin, always suggest that you watched them or stand under them.
He’s standing there under the waterfall testing a notepad of waterproof paper.
After two hours or so of more walking he began to lose alertness and decided to make camp.
He wasn’t a follower of the Fung Shui approach to camp sites, the search for the most propitious site. He accepted ‘good’ camp sites when they came around the corner – the running creek, the camping cave, the grassy knoll. But most of all he liked making camp in unpromising situations. He liked to shape an unpromising site into shelter. Sometimes he was reluctant to leave those camps he’d won from rough conditions. He supposed this was ‘very Western’. He used to say in restaurants back in Sydney and Vienna that he went into the bush to have a dialogue with Western Man but instead he invariably became a Man from a Western.
He took off his pack and declared ‘this is it’. As the gypsies would say, anyone who now approaches this place would have to ask permission to sit by ‘his’ fire and should not walk between him and his fire, and should approach with sufficient noise so as not to be mistaken for a stalking enemy. But in all the years he had walked in the Australian bush he had never come across another person.
Something about gypsies, he’s talking about gypsies.
There had been times when he’d fancied he heard someone ‘out there’ and sometimes he kept his loaded Luger pistol at hand to keep away the phantoms. There were also the times when he would have quite liked someone to come out of the bush to join him and drink bourbon at the camp fire. He heard voices at time, but knew them for what they were.
He packed iron. He packs iron!?
He built his fire in the almost dry river bed where a narrow stream of water still ran in a wide bed of sand. But when he came to light the fir he couldn’t find the disposable lighter which he used in the bush. He remembered checking the equipment against the thirty-one-item equipment list before he started. He was, he thought, good at checking and constructing lists. Last year he’d bought a replica of a 1930 brass smokestone lighter from the United States for the look of it – from as Early Winters catalogue. But the fuel dried out of the smokestone lighter in the summer heat. He’d gone back to the cheap disposable lighters. But it was missing.
He went through the equipment. No lighter. From the moment you left the car behind you things began to go against you in the bush – something always got broken, something spilled, something was lost, something forgotten. Well, rarely forgotten with his drill. Everything began to degenerate – batteries, food. From the moment you left civilisation you had only so long to live.
He forgot his lighter.
His incompetence about the lighter appalled him. Fire was crucial. He went to the emergency kit where he had a box of waterproof matches. They were there. Go on, deduct points, he said to his nephew, take off ten points.
He lit the camp fire.
He grilled his steak on a green forked stick, baked two potatoes in the coals. He wondered if his mother had taken the lighter from his pack. Impossible.
He for-got his ligh-ter.
He for-got his ligh-ter.
He ate two marshmallow biscuits.
After dinner he killed the fire and went up besides the tent on the grass. It was a cool evening and he thought he could detect rain in the air, a fall in barometric pressure maybe.
He settled down with a flask of Jack Daniels bourbon, sipping it from his Guizzini goblet which he carried for sipping for Jack Daniels in the bush.
He wished himself a good fortieth year. He ate smokehouse almonds. He felt the bush to be benign for the first time on this trip. He had shed the pangs of isolation. After the second bourbon an emphatic peace fell about him. He finished the evening writing languid notes – a conversation with himself, it sure as hell beat a lot of conversations he’d had that last year.
In his tent, in his sleeping bag, his torch hanging from the ceiling, he read a few pages of Buddenbrooks. Having run away from his own bourgeois mercantile family he immersed himself in the fortunes of Mann’s German bourgeois family of the nineteenth century.
Herr Ralf von Maiboom, owner of the Pöppenrade estate, had committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver, in the study of the manor-house. Pecuniary difficulties seem to have been the cause of the act.
“With a revolver? Thomas Buddenbrook asked, and then, after another pause, he said in a low voice, slowly, mockingly, “ That is the nobility for you.
He says we’re bourgeois.
During the night he was woken by rain and said to himself, “Well done, Mother” and drifted back to sleep with the pleasure of being in a wild environment but secured against it, he liked weathering out storms in a tent.
In the morning it was drizzling but he took out the German solid-fuel stove and set it up in a small pocket cave, the size of a fireplace, for the making of the morning coffee to begin a wet day in the bush.
Make a fuzz-stick. No need for the emergency stove just because of a little drizzle.
Well, he didn’t feel like fooling around with damp wood.
Strip dead wood from standing trees.
He knew how to make a fire in the wet. He just wasn’t going to crouch and blow his soul into a damp fire.
Having set up the stove he couldn’t find the matches.
He went into the tent and make a cramped search through his things again, taking everything out of the backpack, and emptying the food bag.
My God, now he’s lost the matches.
Dismayed, disbelieving, he sat in the tent surrounded by his thirty-one items of gear and tried to think what could have happened to the matches.
Twenty-nine items of gear.
Yes, twenty-nine items of gear, yes.
He searched the route from the tent to the dinner fire, to the side of the river course where he’d washed, to the place where he’d sat sipping his bourbon. He went to where he’d had a piss.
He considered the possibility that an animal, a possum maybe, had taken them; but he would then have expected to find remains of chewed matches. Frankly, he’d never had a possum take anything, at any camp. Once a dingo pup had taken some food from a pot. What would an animal want with waterproof matches?
He thinks a possum took them.
He crawled back into the tent, the drizzle barely making a sound on the tent, and reported to his captain-self that he’d lost the emergency matches.
He really has lost the matches.
He could perhaps do something fancy like using a magnifying glass from his monocular.
If there was sun.
Yes, if there was sun.
He hadn’t mastered the bow and friction drill method. And he really didn’t understand what tinder was.
Doesn’t know what tinder is. In the tent he ate all the marshmallow biscuits, dulled still with disbelief about the matches.
He eats marshmallow biscuits for breakfast. What?! He takes marshmallow biscuits into the bush!?
For godsake he was forty and he could damn well eat what he wanted for breakfast.
But they didn’t make him feel good.
As he brooded, it came to him as a dim signal from a long way off that there was a conspiracy going on.
The parent within was hiding the means of making fire from the wilful child. But it was such a pedantic case of the psychopathology of everyday life. It offended him and its realisation brought him no relief.
He’s saying it all has to do with Freud.
He forced himself to get out of the tent. He put on his poncho again and stood in the drizzle, dispirited. He decided to take a walk downstream for a while, maybe to Webb’s Crown. But after fifteen minutes of hard going, the drizzle, the lost matches and the marshmallow breakfast broke his resolve and he gave up and began to make his way back to the camp.
“I am a Marshmallow Bushman,” he said. “We are the Marshmallow Men. We are the stuffed men.”
He began to break camp.
Eyre, Stuart, Sturt. The explorers would not have been defeated by their mothers’ magical interference.
Did his great-grandmother have a part in this? Belle, part-reincarnation of his great-grandmother. Wrong person to have brought into the bush. Painted fingernails. Painted toenails. Luxury life whore. There to apologise.
Something about the great-grandmother again.
He would go back to the city and hole up at the Intercontinental.
As he pulled don the tent he found the matches. They were under the eaves of the tent just where the fly of the tent came near to the ground. Somehow they’d fallen from his pocket the night before and bounced under the eave. They hadn’t ‘fallen’, they’d been put there by the invisible hand of his mother.
The whole trip had been spooked. Too many relatives, living and dead, were meddling with his hand. The bush of the district was too strong a psychic field this Christmas.
He’s thrown it in.
In the drizzle, he zigzagged his way up the steep, wooden slope of the gorge, hauling himself up the successive rock ledges which characterised that country.
He reached the plateau and the drizzle stopped and was replaced by a fog which came swirling in over the range. Visibility dropped to about two metres and he walked by compass.
“Stop it, Mother. You’ve prayed too hard. We’ve got fog.”
His compass brought him to the car and he congratulated himself on his navigation.
Not bad, not bad for someone who forgets the lighter and loses the matches.
He dumped his pack in the luggage compartment of the car and found the lighter lying there. He got out of his wet clothes into the dry city clothes. He combed his hair in the rear-vision mirror. He switched on the radio to music and swigged from the flask of bourbon, surrounded by while fog.
He was safe from his mother’s fog and rain for the time, and from his great-grandmother’s disdain for the bush, if that was what he was copping, and from the mockery of his nephew. For the time. In the car. In the fog.