It’s a wild day out there. Not cold, and not currently wet, but the wind is so strong it kept pushing me off the path. The Norfolk pines and palm trees are straining, almost dancing. When we arrived home last night, in fact, a cluster of palms on a little podium at the entrance to the apartments opposite, lit up by spotlights, looked like a dendrological version of the Supremes: shimmering, synchronised, working their moves while performing a catchy number onstage. I could practically hear them singing. Today the sand on the beach has been flattened by the wind’s power, and now it’s all brushed, cosmetically smooth, like it’s had just a little work done. I have grains embedded in my hair like I’ve been burrowing deep into the sand, and the beach is empty, the surf big and messy. It’s a day of high drama.
I battled the elements last night to get to a Sydney Writers’ Festival event with Llew and our friend LH. LH’s husband R was stuck at the hospital (they’re both doctors), so a friend of hers joined us at Number One, Tony Bilson’s wine bar and bistro, to hear David Malouf and friends read poetry as part of the festival’s late night program. LH cannily booked a table a couple of weeks ago – a stroke of genius when compared to the alternative, which was cramming around the bar or huddling outside trying to dodge the sudden downpours and persistent gale. We had pole position, in fact, being the table closest to the microphone. Mr. Malouf was seated at the next table along, I spotted him straightaway and just can’t believe he was born in 1934 (where’s he hiding that youth juice? Seventy-five? You’ve gotta be kidding me!), and didn’t we get a surprise when he did the sound check before the readings started? He has a voice that is obscurely out of step with his appearance; I can’t really explain it, except that we all looked at each other wide-eyed the moment he opened his mouth.
“Wasn’t expecting that,” spluttered Llew, coughing into his napkin.
“No,” said LH, still gaping slack-jawed at the author. “Neither was I.”
It was very funny – but I think this is something that must happen to an awful lot of authors. Readers have an obsessive tendency to attribute and assign all sorts of things to writers whom they don’t usually see and only very rarely hear, in the same way we do it to all their characters. We hear these voices so clearly in our minds that it takes a bit of getting used to when life so rudely contradicts art and the act of imagination. It was momentarily confounding, that’s all I know, and it required some subtle rewiring of certain readerly receptors. Fascinating stuff. I think I sound like myself – an entirely ludicrous assertion, I realise (who on earth would I sound like, if not me?), and yet I think you’ll know what I mean.
We eventually managed to flag down our frantic waitress – the place was jumping with festival goers – and ordered our Yarra Valley pinot along with some very satisfactory snacks (my word du jour): a charcuterie board (give me swine, flu be damned), some tasty brandade croquettes with aioli, and a pretty great duck parfait with grilled brioche. Sydney, when it comes right down to it, is an incredibly well-fed place. And then we settled in for a night of poetry.
I used to read a lot of poetry in my late teens and early twenties – I’m also responsible for some rather appalling examples of my own from the same period. What happened? I don’t really know. I suspect university analysis killed the love; certainly being told how to interpret a poem really got on my nerves, especially when one lecturer I remember was horribly didactic in her views. If the language encourages a variety of interpretations, why restrict a student’s response? I just didn’t get it, but it did damage my appetite for words arranged in stanzas. Pity.
Last night was a great reminder of how moving and timeless poetry can be. I was particularly taken by Mr. Malouf’s translations – really more ‘interpretations’ – from Latin verse into contemporary English. How fun it must be to be able to do that. We all also thoroughly enjoyed the work of Robert Adamson, a multi-award-winning poet of great humour and very deep affections. We were charmed and amused – such a pleasurable combination.
It was a fantastic way to spend an evening. Llew said to me on the phone just now that I can take him to something like that anytime, and the exciting news is that they said at the close of the evening (and was it Tony Bilson speaking? I really don’t know) that they want Number One to become a literary, cultural hub, a place where these sorts of evenings will happen regularly. I think they really should sell that idea to the nearby galleries (the MCA is just across the road and the AGNSW is within walking distance, not to mention a dozen or more commerical galleries including Ken Done’s) as well as Sydney’s publishing fraternity. It would be wonderful to have an arts hub like that. It’s fantastically central, and a very cosy little spot for literary launches, lunches and lushes – plus it turns out some superior snacks. Go to it, Number One – we second the idea with gusto.