This one's for my friend Dan, who told me that he's really sick of reading that last "Gadding About" post. Yes, impatient readers, I flew back in on Friday, and have been acclimatising myself over the past few days to being back in Melbourne. This has been rather a mixed pleasure.
On the one hand, I love this place, even in winter. My trips to the UK are marked by the wistful and resigned pursuit of a decent coffee that doesn't taste like soap from Starbucks. The English just don't do coffee. (For reference, the Bar Italia in Soho does a Melbourne-quality latte - sheer bliss - shown to me, not surprisingly, by a fellow Melburnian...) I miss the cafes and the food culture here. I miss the bay. I even miss my family, sentimentalist that I am. While I was away, the bombs went off in the Mumbai trains and Israel started bombing Lebanon, and the world spun a little more darkly on its axis. Times when one wants to be home.
But oh, I had a good time. The Soundeye Festival is an attentive, listening, intelligent space with maybe the best audience for poetry I have ever read to. This year there were other pleasures as well - a contemporary Flamenco dancer declaiming Lorca, for example, on the Cabaret Night, where scores of eager young people materialised from somewhere to see poets with video and music, poets with violins, installation pieces and bands playing gypsy folk from Eastern Europe... And then I hung out in London (and, yes, Harrods) which was alive with summer and perspiring Londoners. I went to the Tate and discovered that Cy Twombly is a genius. I met with some dear friends.
I saw a magical production of Ovid's Metamorphoses by the London Bubble Company in a park by Highgate Cemetary, which reminded me of the sheer power of poetic language: on the one hand, a totally contemporary, ironically witty take on Ovid's myths; on the other, absolutely true to the sheer enchantment of the poetry. Children paid spellbound attention for two hours as the actors told of the creation of the world, of Orpheus and nymphs and Apollo's passion for Daphne, who became a laurel... Unlike many Australian takes on classic literature, there was no feeling of embarrassment at the beauty of the language: and the unabashed beauty was not incompatible with sheer fun, even slapstick. I loved it.
I missed, to my sorrow, Michael Gambon in Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Beckett's Eh, Joe. I just couldn't get there. I so wish I could have stayed longer. But I did get to the Bloomsbury launch of Gavin Selerie's extraordinary tome, Le Fanu's Ghost. It was so crowded with London poetry types that they had to be crowbarred out of the room. The book itself is a beautifully produced 350 pages, with graphics by Alan Halsey. As Marina Warner says, in an unusually accurate blurb on the back cover, the book is "oral, brash, sparky, and yet grounded in a deep knowledge and love of the highest poetic tradition...and will give great pleasure to readers". Indeed. More details - this is a must-have book for anyone interested in contemporary poetry - at Five Seasons Press's website.
So it's a little desolating to return to the belljar of Official Australian Culture. Is there anywhere else in the world where the arts are so roundly and openly despised by mainstream outlets? Catching up on my return, two things caught my eye: the on-going campaign in the Age to discredit and belittle Kristy Edmunds' programming for the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts (Robin Usher and the always reliably pompous pseud Peter Craven), with some side-swipes, while they're at it, at the "fringey" atmosphere now prevailing at the Malthouse. The bloggers, bless us all, have been onto it - Ben Ellis and Vitriolics Anonymous dish out some richly deserved scorn.
I can't even begin to parse the bullshit assumptions that underlie these articles. By what cultural measure is Robert Wilson a "fringe" artist? How can Ariane Mnouchkine be remotely described as making worthy theatrical docudramas? Are these "arts commentators" aware of the solid achievements of the Australian artists they routinely belittle? Don't these people have eyes? Didn't they notice how many ordinary Melburnians went to these shows, both local and international, and that many of the shows were, gasp, booked out? Didn't they notice how the city felt briefly like a metropolis, rather than a parochial country town? Wherefore this false dichotomy between Bach, the avant garde of his day, and contemporary innovative art? My dears, any healthy culture has both of them.
And then I saw how the Australian had stung the literati by sending out a chapter of a Patrick White novel. Kerryn Goldsworthy sums up all the tacky dimensions of this affair very well on her own blog:
I can't work out which is the worst:Which reminds me that Patrick White, our sole Nobel Laureate, is out of print in Australia. You can buy him in bookshops overseas, but not in his native land. Consequently, he is scarcely read: the biography by David Marr is much more widely read than any of his work, and I suppose it's easy to maintain the fiction that White is elitist and inaccessible if he is unavailable to read (he is neither of those things, just a masterly, sensual, intelligent storyteller).
(a) the bad faith of the entrapment, the smugness of its aftermath, and the shabby (and incoherent, as Jeff Sparrow points out in this excellent piece) reactionary agenda behind the exercise,
(b) the failure of the agents and publishers' readers who rejected the chapter to recognise either the actual novel or, at the very least, White's unique, highly spottable style, and the incontrovertible evidence it provides that people getting jobs in Australian publishing houses have clearly not seen fit to make it their business to read a little Australian writing, or
(c) the unambiguously, unashamedly and exclusively commercial agenda behind some of the rejections.
I could just cry.
It's as if the English decided not to read or publish Shakespeare. It makes no sense at all. And like Kerryn, I could just cry.