All My Januaries
Pleasures of Life and Other Essays
Barbara Blackman AO launches her new collection of essays, introduced by Kerry Stokes AC, and in conversation with journalist Alex Sloan.
Transcript of All My Januaries
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (A), Kerry Stokes (K), Barbara Blackman (B), Alex Sloan (S), Dr Geoff Brownrigg (G)
Location: National Library of Australia
M: Distinguished guests and dear friends, welcome to the National Library. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the Director-General of the National Library, and as we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. I thank their elders, past and present, for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
We are here to launch Barbara’s new book, All My Januaries: Pleasures of Life and Other Essays, a collection that reflects on food, on travel, on friendships, on family and the many unexpected pleasures of life. And we’re also here to celebrate friendship, a very particular friendship between two distinguished Australians, Barbara Blackman AO and Kerry Stokes AC. This wonderful pair needs little introduction, their collective impact on Australian cultural and social life is immeasurable and they are both we’re lucky to say, dear friends of the National Library of Australia. Barbara has been a prolific writer throughout her life. We at the Library are honoured to hold in our collections both Barbara’s personal papers between 1950 and 1970 and her correspondence with Judith Wright between 1950 and 1998. Barbara has also been kind enough to devote hours of her time to the Library’s continually expanding oral history collection. She appears in over 160 recordings from 1974 to as recently as 2009, both as interviewer and interviewee.
The National Library is also one of a number of cultural organisations to have benefited from the generosity of Kerry Stokes over the years. Most recently the Kerry Stokes Collection loaned us the sixteenth century Flemish illuminated manuscript known as the Rothschild Prayer Book, which we were privileged and thrilled to display last year on its very first public outing in Australia. Kerry and Barbara met when Kerry was beginning to build his private collections and he took an interest in Charles Blackman’s work and I suspect that more of that meeting will be revealed during the course of this afternoon. Kerry, it is a very great pleasure to welcome you back to the National Library to launch Barbara’s book, All My Januaries. Please welcome Mr Kerry Stokes.
K: Thank you, Anne-Marie, appreciate your kind words too. It is a special morning this morning to find myself here with my good friend, Barbara. Equally to actually see Barnaby for the first time in so many years. Feels like yesterday, it doesn’t feel like the years have passed. We started the conversation, we started to immediately talk about some of the things, felt just like yesterday and I guess that’s one of the great things that happens when you become truly good friend with somebody. Barbara is a force of nature and that comes through in everything. It’s a common theme to all of us and all of those who love her. Mmmm becomes yes with Barbara. It’s impossible to say no to Barbara, and very easy to understand why her life is filled with yeses. As she says in her book, her life has always been about yeses. She says yes, not no. Most of us, self included, my life is filled with nos. My first reaction to somebody is no, because I don’t want to think about it, make a commitment, I want to understand it first. Barbara: I’ll understand it later, let’s just do it.
When she asked me if I’d launch the book, she said ‘would you launch my book?’ And we were sitting at the opening of a Tom Roberts exhibit at the art gallery in Canberra last October, and I said I’d love to. She said well give me a date. I said I don’t know if I have a date. She said if well if you’re going to come and launch my book for me, give me a date. And she’s holding my hand, got her head on my shoulder, and I said well I know I’ll be there for ANZAC Day. Good, the Sunday before. And that ... we agreed, that was the last I heard from her until this morning. I wasn’t invited, I just knew that was the date and the good people at the Library and Anne-Marie, they obviously have done all the hard work, but things just happen around Barbara, it doesn’t have to be documented.
B: We were at the Tom Roberts’ opening which was rather grand and it ... they were even passing ‘round shot glasses, giving you a shot and me friend, Kerry, said don’t give her one, it’d kill her, give ... I’ll have hers too. Thank you for preserving me.
K: Obviously it was to good effect, Barbara. As I said good things happen around Barbara, she doesn’t just write words, though, what she puts down is images that jump off the pages but she hasn’t always used nice words, not to me anyway and she hasn’t always said yes. My first meeting with Barbara in the early 70s, when I made the contact wanting to buy some paintings, who didn’t love Charles Blackman’s early work? As a person becoming involved in the arts I was immediately driven to Charles’ work, loved everything he’d done. But when I went to see Barbara she was kind enough ... we had a nice conversation ... she took me to the studio, we looked through he painted the kitten in the garden series then she showed me all the paintings that were there. It was like being in an Aladdin’s cave of art and all these wonders were there. And then she said no, you can’t buy any. They’re not for sale. It was ... she was repelling the barbarians at the gate, and I obviously at the time really didn’t fully appreciate that to her each of these works were an emotional treasure, they weren’t paintings, they weren’t images on a canvas, to her the stories were an emotional journey and an emotional treasure.
I got to know her better, ended up having some dinner at her house in Paddington when Barnaby was a little bit younger than he is now. We ... I don’t know where or when but sometimes subsequent to that, not having asked to buy them again, she actually said to me what would you like to buy? And we were fortunate enough to put together what is a ... I believe a really significant collection. I’m really proud that every single one of them is still in our collection and in fact I had a ... associate who was with me at the time who actually sold his paintings at a point in time but we managed to make sure they stayed together so everything that we’ve done with Barbara and everything we’ve had still remains today and will form part of I hope an exhibition in a gallery in the future. But she was, she was repelling the borders of the gate because people would come and want to buy it ...
B: I was what? I didn’t hear you.
K: You were repelling the borders at the gate, the rebels who were trying to buy the art.
B: Oh yes.
K: Yes because there was that, you had to deal with Barbara, no, we’re not for sale. So she does say no with conviction.
B: Now I’ll tell that story a bit more fulsomely. This conversation between Mr Stokes and myself took place in a red telephone box out in a paddock where ... in ... up in the Hawkesbury where have-a-chat and numerous other people were sitting on the veranda of the general store which controlled the telephones. They’d never seen such a long telephone, they were taking bets as to how much longer this telephone call would go on. And I said, to Monsieur Stokes, well you can buy some Blackman paintings but first of all I am involved in a senior secondary innovative school, I made a manuscript collection of 200 pages, of 200 significant Australian poets, painters, photographers and it is up for sale for $20,000. You buy that then we’ll talk about paintings. And he did and he still has it.
K: There goes the second ...
B: And I think we first came to this place, Kerry, when that exhibition was framed in panels with a strange cooperation between the Arts Council ...
K: Council, yeah.
B: ... and the ... what ... the Arts Council and the Canberra Arts or whatever it was. And this place here donated photographs of many of the people who were in that 200 and they were mounted on panels and they travelled. I know they travelled ‘round every tinpot town in South Australia and Queensland and that collection still exists, n’est ce pas?
K: There goes the second part of my speech. Yes, Barbara, that is very correct but there is a little bit more to it than that. As Barbara mentioned the school was an interesting product of her energy at the time.
K: No, it was when we launched here, Barbara ...
K: ... was actually ’71 I think when we got together first or ’72.
B: Oh we all put our ages back a bit.
K: But I didn’t realise when Barbara said to me at the time, she said well the school’s got to come over and see you and I said that’d be good, any time. She said, well I’ll be there next year. Good. I was away in March on my boat diving near Abrolhos Islands, which I used to do and ... on the Batavia and I came back in April, about April the 14th. I'm coming up the Swan River in my little boat at the time, looking up my home and there was this crowd of people on the balcony waving at me. So I berth the boat, go home, and there I find in fact the Blackmans had arrived, all 40 of them. An interesting group of kids, some with talent, none of them though capable of deciding the difference between kangaroo dog meat and fine steak. Barbara knows when I arrived home one night to the stinky odour of kangaroo meat being grilled. As Barbara knows the great advantage they had that night wasn’t that they ate the kangaroo meat in their casserole but my dog thought all his Christmases had come at once ‘cause he got the fillet steak.
Kaiser was an intelligent dog. I used to brag about how smart he was and how trained he was about how clever he was. When I got home I noticed every time Barbara came up or came to him he sat to attention, he moved, he was attentive and I said to Barbara gee, that dog of mine’s really smart, every time he sees you, he stands up, he knows you’re special. She said of course he does, I’ve kicked him, tripped on him, run over him and done everything. He now gets out of my way the minute he hears my first step and he avoids me at all costs.
K: Some time before that the school was in need of a serious cash injection.
K: And in those days to raise funds the normal procedure was raffles, pass the hat around, normal ways of raising funds but Barbara needed far more than that at that time and she came up with the idea of going to all the people she knew and asking them for a handwritten contribution she could auction. We spoke in fact as she was in the process and my first thoughts were I wonder how many people would actually respond to being asked I want you to do something in handwriting or by your hand for me personally? And of course hundreds did, hundreds and they included Arthur Boyd who did a wonderful drawing with a poem written for Barbara; Bob Hawke gave his handwritten thesis for his doctorate at Oxford. That’s two ends of the spectrum. It included poems, new and unpublished works, specially written items, music and drawings. And when she’d finished there were hundreds of items from the most celebrated people of our time. Even Patrick White is included to Barbara’s delight ...
B: Oh he wrote me a letter saying he thought it was a silly idea and he didn’t have good handwriting anyway so I put that one in.
K: He wasn’t going to be involved at any event but she put it in. All these people willingly did something out of their own hand because Barbara asked them.
B: Or not as the case may be.
K: I wonder how many people ... I wonder how many people could do that today? I wouldn’t like to try, I wouldn’t like to try and ask 200 of the busiest and most important people in this country to do me a personal favour but everybody responded to Barbara.
B: You know someone asked recently ... I’m talking about bullying at school and they said when I was at school was there bullying? I said oh yes and they said well how did you cope with that? Oh, I said, it was wonderful, I was the bully.
K: Yeah. Yes.
B: I started a debating club, a drama club and a dancing before school club.
K: The most wonderful thing is, Barbara, you haven’t stopped dancing ...
B: Oh no, never, never.
K: ... at least with words, at least with words.
K: And with that collection incidentally it was here at this library that it was opened, and the Library at the time had the highest visitation it had ever had to view that celebration of writing, and it was because of the visitation numbers, and if my memory is correct in the period it was here it was like 300,000 people viewed it. And that was the catalyst for the Australia Council to put it on a train and send it all ‘round the country for two years.
K: One of the good things is it is still alive today, as Barbara says, it’s in our air-conditioned storage in Perth ...
B: And what’s going to happen to it?
K: It’s been archived, it’s ready to come out when we want to bring out a special exhibit and hopefully, Barbara, in the not too far distant future we may end up with a gallery and in which case it would have a special pride of place ...
B: Oh, that would be wonderful.
K: Yeah and I think so too because it was a point in time. What Barbara had actually collected was a point in cultural time. Of course artists, business people, politicians, a whole spectrum of the Australian public all made something at one point in time. I thought it was important, I think it’s still very important but the real thing is it was a window into what Barbara approaches everything with. Like Quentin Bryce describes in her emotional foreword, I too have been enriched and moved by Barbara, she is a force of nature. And she’s certainly that, she’s a ball of energy and when you hold Barbara’s hand you can feel that energy. Barbara talks ... maybe it’s just that she squeezes so hard. But there is an aura about Barbara, there’s an aura that’s visible and you can sense it and feel it. In her memory ... in her memoirs of All My Januaries her writing is like a verbal kaleidoscope of cascading words at a pace that realises a sense of urgency to impart those reminiscences. For me words have always been a problem my entire life, I struggle with words. I’m reasonably good with images but words have always been a problem for me. Barbara’s book fills me with ... I can never anticipate what the next word is and so for me I’m a slow reader of her work although the ideas are coming off the page like a machine gun. Just don’t stop vision and their colour.
In one of her essays, ‘My Olympic Torch’, Barbara admits she ran fast as a school girl. I reckon that’d be right. But somewhere fast turned into an almost frenetic acceptance of life, a life filled with images, understanding of colour. She would have been ... could have been an advisor to Channel 7. In the early days we had a slogan, it was called ‘Colour My World’. Barbara’s ... we’ve shared Barbara’s feelings, words and colour, the world is a much better place for Barbara’s ‘Colour My World’. Her energy and enthusiasm matched that of the young kids I saw recently at a track event two weeks ago to select the Australian kids to go to the Olympics. And as Barbara said, she ran fast and as she describes her carrying of the Olympic torch as the event it was I know that the young, enthusiastic faces I saw at the Australian titles, particularly those girls who were so beautiful and all ran so well, they’re going to represent us so well, they will enjoy reading Barbara’s thoughts on the torch because she brings a whole different dimension to it, one that brings the entire community alive. I know they’ll find it inspiring and fulfilling as I think we all have. But ...
B: Yes, walking ‘round with that torch and everyone wanted to touch it, I mean it had the flame ... had been passed on but the torch carrier, everyone wanted to touch it, it was just wonderful, mm.
K: Better than the torch than you, Barbara. The facts are the torch is symbolic. It’s not just symbolic of ancient Greece, the torch is symbolic of human endeavour and the Greeks as we know, the physical endeavour was followed by the artistic and intellectual endeavour and so carrying the torch even today, people see this symbolism and they want to be involved and Barbara’s carrying of the torch ...
B: I always carry a torch for you, Kerry.
B: It had to happen.
K: Those damn words again. I think All My Januaries are a prelude for ‘All My Februaries’ and then ‘All My Marches’.
B: No, my next book is to be called ‘Not A Word About Februaries’.
K: I think All My Januaries should be compulsory reading in schools, I think that there is ... the humanity that’s within her work, that’s within the subtext of Barbara’s work is something that stands out, we can all live with. It’s something of peace and harmony and understanding and colour in my world and she ...
B: Oh that’s lovely, Kerry, that’s lovely.
K: Barbara, I do love you, you know that, we’ve had a relationship for a long time.
B: I love you too.
K: I commend her book to you, All My Januaries, and I hope I’m ‘round when we finally get to whatever Christmas may be. Thank you very much.
B: Thank you. Oh look I can’t let pass ... this beautiful diamond ring I’m wearing I got out of a Christmas cracker, so Christmas is always with us.
A: Kerry, can I say thank you very much for taking us to the heart of a friendship, that was really very, very beautiful, and really I think that Barbara’s probably ready to keep advising you about Channel 7 should that be of interest to you.
We’re very fortunate this afternoon to have a third person with us, who doesn’t need any introduction to this audience, and that’s Alex Sloan from the ABC, because we’ve had the first part of our conversation between Kerry Stoke and Barbara Blackman and now we’re going to have a conversation between Alex Sloan and Barbara Blackman. Please welcome this part of the proceedings.
S: Thank you very much. Actually as I was sitting there I was just think ... Kerry, just slide onto this chair, really, two old friends have a chat so that was beautifully done. For someone who said he struggles with words, it was beautifully said. I’ve actually just got some more words for you, Barbara, and for the audience and this is from the University of Queensland Press publisher, Madonna Duffy and ... she wasn’t able to be in Canberra but has sent the following words on behalf of UQP and I’ll read them. She says:
University of Queensland Press has a long association with Barbara Blackman, not just because of our shared Brisbane history but also as the publishers of Barbara’s first book in the late 1960s. Frank Thompson, UQP’s maverick American publisher through the 1960s and 70s, could see the inherent connections between artists and writers. To this end, he published Barbara Blackman’s first book, Certain Chairs, a collection of autobiographical essays which included 13 illustrations by her first husband, Charles. He also commissioned Charles Blackman to illustrate several UQP books, which are collectors’ items to this day.
To show the enduring relationships he created within the arts, Frank will be speaking at Barbara’s Brisbane event next week. In a wonderful full circle, nearly 50 years later UQP is proud to be publishing All My Januaries, a selection of Barbara’s finest essays from recent decades. Her love of language, her playfulness with all its strangeness, and her exacting ear for rhythm makes this a book to savour. When Barbara writes about the pleasures of life reading this book is truly one of them. All My Januaries is not just a tour through Barbara’s life, it’s a celebration of the art of the essay and the many pleasures of life. Nick Galvin, in his recent Canberra Times feature, called her an inventor of words and this sense of mischief is evident through all these essays. Never one to be hemmed in by convention, Barbara makes her own rules. Not only is All My Januaries a tribute to a life fully lived and enjoyed but it’s a potent reminder of the joys of writing, reading, loving, language and letter-writing. Everyone at UQP is so pleased to be bringing Barbara’s essay to a new generation of readers as well as delighting readers who have known and loved her work over many decades. Congratulations on this fine achievement, Barbara. Australian arts and literature is richer for your contribution.
B: Thank you but I ...
S: Madonna Duffy.
B: I do want to add one thing. The first book of The Little Lives of Certain Chairs, A Table or Two and Other Inanimates of Our Acquaintance, called Certain Chairs for short, came out in mid-68. Now a certain person was just taking up her lectureship in law, her name was Quentin Bryce. She went to the book launch, and she was just taking up her lectureship there, and she went to the book launch ,and being a good lady she bought the book, and she liked the book and then we met and we liked each other so that’s how that acquaintance came ...
S: And in f ... actually I’ll just go there because Quentin Bryce has written a quite emotional and beautiful foreword to this collection of essays and I’ll just read the final couple of paragraphs.
All My Januaries is a text of gorgeous reading about a good life, happiness, beauty, fine values. A joyousness shines through the tough gullies, the dark nights. There is a light that surrounds Barbara Blackman, we see it in her philanthropy, her support for our artists, their paintings, our galleries, for music, our musicians, their festivals, our composers. These essays share with us her glimpse of the great, the great universe and its intimacy and how to live and how to know things.
S: Deep friendship. As I said I feel a little bit of a pretender sitting here with you, Barbara.
B: Or young pretender.
S: I’m not that young. And what did you say about 50s? You’ve got a beautiful ... in your book, in one of the essays you talk about being in your 50s and that is ... oh I wish I had the quote but anyway it made me think about being in my 50s.
B: I think your 60s is the greatest decade in your life. I think that 60s are wonderful, you’ve got your full cargo, you know who you are, you know what you can do and what you can’t and you have a good go at doing the best of what you do. I think so. I recommend everybody, love your 60s.
S: Don’t worry, there’s some for the 70s and 80s.
B: Yes, oh yes, that’s another story however.
S: Barbara, I suppose lot in All My Januaries is you take us to your childhood and how you came to love words and diary-writing and you recall the first diary you were ever presented. Do you want to tell us that story?
B: No, I think you have to, I’ve forgotten.
S: A chair-ridden great uncle with the sea captaincy gesture of the award of a long service medal presented you with your first diary.
B: Yeah. Yes.
S: And you loved it because it was like a real book, it had a very hard binding and it would sit on the shelves.
B: Yes, I could write a book. Yes.
S: And then I suppose to continue that theme you posed the question yourself for whom does one write a diary?
S: What’s the answer to that?
B: Didn’t I give the answer? I think for whom do I write, for my grandchildren and their grandchildren or to help me know myself or yes, for whom does one write a diary? For that mysterious being called posterity. Mmm.
S: Beautifully you record in that first diary that ... you record the temperature, it was very hot in Brisbane at the time, how many mangoes you’d eaten ...
B: Oh yes and there are so many kinds of mangoes. My favourite is a mango called a turpentine mango and I had to sweep up all the leaves under full mango trees and then I was allowed to eat as many as I like, over the bath, please.
S: The Shirley Temple black patent shoes.
B: Yes. Oh Shirley Temple shoes and the Shirley Temple walk to go with them and I learnt tap-dancing at an early age, I loved it and I used to teach the littlies to shuffle and tap on a rickety wooden high veranda, yes.
S: Are shoes that went with a pink floral sunshade with an ivory handle.
B: Oh yes, oh that was beautiful, yes. I can still feel it, yes. Mmm.
S: The diary entries you wrote in the early days of your marriage to Charles Blackman, you started to get very writerly, if we say that, and you talk about a trip to Manly in the style of Jane Austin.
B: Oh that’s right, I was trying to write in style, Dos Pasos or Henry Miller or someone. I was trying to write in other people’s styles to see how it felt, yes.
S: At a walk through Woolloomooloo in the style of Franz Kafka, last night’s party style in the style of Henry Miller and a quiet family dinner stripped to pieces in the style of Gertrude Stein.
B: And my mother-in-law found a book.
S: Yes. Tell us about that, Barbara. What was that, Kerry?
B: I went into dinner and said ... no one spoke to me, being sent to Coventry and no one spoke and then she … mother-in-law hissed at me snake in the grass. And I had to unsnake meself by showing them it was all done in love.
S: And then you went to Melbourne.
B: Oh yes but it ... yes it didn’t hold much water so we went to Melbourne, Charles and I, ran away together, hand-in-hand to Melbourne where there were like conspirators you know there were the Boyds and the people at Montsalvat, that’s Eltham people. We had kith, if not kin; we had plenty of kith in Melbourne to join up to and I think the early days of the 50s, so many people that hold up society since were there in the early 50s. I mean [unclear] was there, Barry Humphries, Peter O’Shannessy, oh so many people.
S: We might bring Geoff Brownrigg in now because of course you worked as an artist’s model during this period, didn’t you?
B: Oh well there’s not much you do ... you can get a job when you’re losing your eyesight you know the jobs are few and far between, you have to make your own. So I was an artist’s model which I quite enjoyed because the theory is that in the shape of the human body, to every problem there’s a solution and all the problems that you meet in painting. So if you put your body in a certain position, you can’t have a bit of an arm sticking out ... you can in a painting but not if you’re studying from the model which is the solved problem. Mmm.
S: Now Dr Geoff Brownrigg, musicologist and very good friend of Barbara’s, comes to read to Barbara.
G: For about 40 years, yes.
S: Yes, ever since ASRA was started, Australian Sound Recording Association. That was about in 1980.
G: Oh before that, actually, but we started with ...
S: Are you trying to tell me I’m older than I am?
G: Oh no, no, no, no. We started with Radio Print Handicapped and sharing ancient radio serials with people who listened ...
S: Oh yes.
G: ... to that radio station.
G: It was fun.
S: When a Girl Marries ...
G: When a Girl Marries for all that’s ...
S: And there was one of them where the daughter went upstairs to get something, she never came down, they’d changed scriptwriters.
G: That’s right, yes.
S: Yeah and a girl married or something, yes.
G: And what’s more, she’s still there.
S: Yes, yes.
G: In 1974 Australian was select sporting, when a girl marries for all those who are in love and those who can remember ... I wonder if you can remember? To Sierra Leone which always seemed rather strange to me. Anyway I’m going to harken back to Barbara’s childhood. I’ve been through and selected a few things and just a few little snippets to give you a taste so that you can then hunt them out and enjoy the whole essays. Let me start with this one. Lo as the careful housewife runs to catch, her feathered creatures that hath broke away ... oh I’m sorry, that’s the wrong book.
S: Yes, that’s Monsieur Shakespeare, I think, yes.
G: Most of our time is spent sharing things like that and we’ve discovered all sorts of wonders. This is Barbara and in fact from an essay called ‘Houses to Cider, Water to Wine’. Houses that ... sorry, I’ll start that again ...
Houses that one has once lived in go on living within one ever after hiving into honeyed memories. Or like the old woman of Hyde whom we used to write about in schoolmates’ autographed books choosing the pink page on which to write in green ink, who ate some green apples and died. These apples fermented inside the lamented, made cider insider her inside. Intoxicating, the memories of houses lived in with glimpses of the self that lived there then, like peering into the doll’s house with figures sitting at pianos or sleeping in beds. And sure enough when one comes to visit the houses wearing ... one was a child, it is all so much smaller than one remembered, shrunk with the growing years.
The second piece is ‘School Days’, I mean houses presumably are things that go way, way back in our memories. We’ve got time for one more there, I think?
S: Oh yeah.
G: Good, good.
Gels, shrilled the headmistress in her very English accent, addressing an assembly of schoolgirls of an impressionable age, the one part of the human body that is truly unbeautiful is the knee. Knees ought not to be exposed to view unnecessarily. This revelation was a grateful shock to us. With summer coming on and our assurance that shy as we were about our newly arisen bosoms we were over the stage of being seen with the sore, scratched, scabby, sticking plaster knees of childhood. It is indelicate and unladylike to reveal the knees except in watering situations. We assumed she referred to the bath and not the beach. We took comfort that flowing beach gowns were in vogue, billowing out in all day succour colours. Poets, she went on to prove her point, do not write in praise of the knees. Knees are for humility and prayer.
I reflected ruefully upon what can little knees do to praise the kingdom of heaven, going down on bended knee, suffering from housemaid’s knee, but I could not recall a ballad with the declaration, I love thee for they rosy knee, or a lyric poet pining and pleading with his mistress for a further sight of her knee.
S: Thank you very much, we’ll bring Geoff back and ... Barbara, these essays ... and Quentin Bryce refers to this as well ... travelling solo on a bicycle built for two, you write of being born a twin and your twin sister dying at just 16 days and she is with you all the time.
B: I think so, a sort of built-in alter ego and besides she was the good one, you see? And I was the other one. She would have been good at everything and clever and kind and good at everything so she hounded me. You hound me through the nights and through the days, sort of thing, yes.
S: But there’s a sadness about that essay too which ... rightfully so with the loss of a twin but your mother ...
B: Oh she was the only sibling I ever might have had, yes.
S: But then you write about your mother referring to you as a nuisance.
B: Oh yes, she always called me a nuisance or brat, bratty on a good day. I think was her irony, my mother never scolded, her only response to all the things I did to her, what did God make mothers for?
S: And the loss of your dad, you were only three?
B: Yes. But before my father died, when he knew he had not long to live, he took my mother and me down to live on the Caloundra side of Bribie Passage with an Aboriginal mob, because he’d been doing surveying in southeast Queensland and he really saw that the Aboriginals had a better way of life and so he took my mother and me down to live with a mob of [unclear] people, and so I think I learnt a great secret about—I call them Aborigines. They have the most wonderful sense of humour, they’re so funny. I mean for one reason in ... and old days, just that I was a white woman called Black Man. That was enough to let me into their humour and it is wonderful, yes.
S: So that had a deep influence on you? The two.
B: Oh look when you’re little kids you don’t know if you’re white or black or pink or whatever you are. I don’t think we were aware that we were different colours at that time, we were just kids. But I think that was good because in another very side time of my life after Charles and I split up and I had lost all that had constituted my world up there what did I do? I found some unlikely person and went for a trip up north for six months and lived with what I call Aborigines and had a wonderful time. Mmm.
S: It’s often said ... and speaking of children ... that it’s children who dare to ask the questions that no one ...
B: Oh yes.
S: ... else will ask ..
S: ... and your beautiful essay, ‘Do You Like It, Being Blind?’
S: Tell us about that.
B: Oh well I’ve always been interested in education and that’s what I studied at university. And in Perth I went to an innovative school called Foothills for the day and I thought I was being shown ‘round but no, I was put in you know I was put in the hot seat so I had a class of 11 year olds and I thought well what I’ll do, I’ll tell you, there are five ways of spelling poor, poor so you write down five ways of spelling poor. And then anyway there are p-o-u-r, p-o-o-r, p-a-w, p-o-r-e and I’ve forgot ... oh p-a-w-p-a-w and so we did all that and we had great fun and then they asked questions and we talked about you know living in Paris and do the women all wear their bikinis and high-heeled shoes? No, not all. And all these things and then I said there’s a little bit of silence up there bubbling over. Come on, Mr Silence, you want to ask a question. He said do you like it, being blind? Oh, I said, I like it so much even if I am blind. So I corrected his grammar and his concepts all at one.
S: But you describe blindness as your gift.
S: Tell us about ...
B: I don’t judge a book by a cover, I read it in the inside. I can’t define it or I would have done it, wouldn't I? But it’s not just your pluses that are your gifts, sometimes your negative that is also a gift because you have to learn how to live with that and in so doing you learn other things you never set out to learn.
S: You define it pretty well. These are really wonderful essays, you say we do not choose our gifts, our gifts choose us ...
S: ... and you say that blindness is an alternative lifestyle, not necessarily a lesser one.
B: Well we are eccentrics because everyone else is centre, is sight-addicted people so we’re on the periphery, we’re ex-centrics and we you know we see from within and we see to within, I think.
S: If I can call, I think it might be time for Geoff to leap to the stage and we’ll have another reading. And if you are getting ready with questions too, there will be time for questions so ...
G: I’ll keep it brief.
B: There will be time.
S: If you’ve got another way of spelling poor you’ll be able to also demonstrate that.
G: While I find the right place, the ... having known Barbara for so long ... in fact we’ve been mates for many years ... only in the last decade or so has Barbara been forced to listen to things that I’ve been writing and we talk about her as a sort of literary midwife ...
B: Isn’t that lovely?
G: ... who helps with difficult births. And it’s been fun, Barbara, hasn’t it? Really ...
B: Oh yes.
G: ... really quite nice.
B: Oh yes.
G: Okay. This is from an essay called ‘About Solitude’ and I thought it fitted rather well in here if I can find it ... goodness gracious, I’ve lost it already, Barbara. The one I need, should be straightforward but it isn’t. And then I’ll cut to something that’ll take us in ...
G: Yes, that’s really strange, isn’t it? Why can’t I find it? I have found it.
B: You know when my first book came out, Certain Chairs, I cried. It only had 99 pages and I’d tried so hard. And this one’s got 216.
G: Which makes up for it.
B: Or 260 and some kind friend rang me up from West Australia to tell me there’s a spelling mistake on page 216, I think.
G: Yes. So this is from an essay called ‘Pleasures of Life: Solitude’.
My solitude is most complete when I have the house to myself. It is the exquisite pleasure of a self-made still life to sit alone in an immaculately clean room full of cherished things beside a bouquet of flowers with a cup of fresh hot coffee, chamber music coming from the speakers, a cat lying somewhere near enfolded in the moment. There is pleasure in the intimacy with things that shares one’s solitude. In the still moment of contemplation or the colloquy of use there is time to understand the timelessness of these inanimates. Then the particular shape of a door, the familiarity of a teapot, the intricate enamelling of a bowl, the iconography of a painting, the remembered poem, they become personal. It is pleasant to have a word or two to say to the pot one is cooking with or the chair one is dragging off to another sitting place. Scientific tests prove that plants are sensitive to the thoughts and caresses of those who attend them. But the indoor inanimates have their mysteries also. Living not in earth but in affection they outgrow the indiscriminate present to inhabit our memories of time and place to appear without warning in our involuntary dreams.
And finally because we’re getting rather close to bringing to a close this rather pleasant day, very pleasant day I’m jumping to a celebration. I have to learn to read, I think, I’m having trouble with the page numbers here, Barbara. They’re all correct but I can’t manage them.
S: While you’re looking for that, Geoff, just stay there and Barbara, on letter-writing you are a famous letter-writer, in fact you’ve got a book about letter-writing.
B: I was a prolific letter-writer.
S: And you write that your mother was not truly your friend until you took to paper.
B: Yes, well we became deep-seated friends when we took to paper and we wrote three times a fortnight and if we were travelling I’d tell my mother when we were going to be there and I think one of the great experience ... we got to Hotel Napoleon in Paris or something, there was a letter from my mother waiting for me and we opened it and said are you in Paris yet?
Pleasures of life, colon, coffee-drinking. It has become natural not to feel myself fully alive to each day until I have a cup of coffee. The slightest smell of its approach enlivens me to reassume possession of those words and loves and memories that are my personal proportion of life. I like to be up and dressed, to have loosely rounded up in my mind the plans and problems that lie about me and then to drink a coffee. After that I can begin to think, to work things out. Marketing statistics now forebode such a multiplication in the price of coffee that there is foreshadowed a time when coffee-drinking may become as ceremonious as the offering of champagne, as rare as the taking of Queen Mary's tea or as obsolete as the pinching of snuff. Already coffee has been made ignoble in our time, domesticated into instant dust, drunk hastily at busy moments without steeping the spirit into an elevation of thoughts and contemplation. Real coffee allures one into the shop where it is ground and shaken into little bags, caresses the waiting appetite all the way home, drenches the kitchen with expectation it is brewing, catches the air upon the stair and wafts through open windows to seize the soul with an aggravation of desire for that lapse of time when one sits alone or in good company to sip slow and sensuous the thick authentic drink, dulcet with cream. Coffee.
[End of recording]