Hear beloved Australian author and poet Kate Llewellyn as she discusses her latest book, a collection of letters from her private correspondence with artists and writers with editors Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill.
First Things First by Kate Llewellyn
National Library of Australia
Speakers: Kate Llewellyn, Ruth Bacchua and Barbara Hill
KATHRYN FAVELLE: Good evening. It feels very strange to be using a handheld microphone this evening and ... but it’s lovely to be welcoming you all here to the National Library and thank you for coming out on a little wintry evening. I thought I’d turned my heater off for good but I think it might be going back on again this evening. For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favelle and I have the very great pleasure of being Director of Community Outreach here at the library which means I get to come to wonderful events like this evening’s. As we being I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we’re all now privileged to call home.
The National Library of course is brimming with letters, letters about business, gardening, families, journeys, romance, politics and creativity so I’m thrilled that you’ve joined us this evening as we spend some time talking about letters, letter-writing and life with author and poet, Kate Llewellyn, and editors, Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill. Kate of course is author of 20 books including the bestselling The Waterlily, A Blue Mountains Journal which is one of the most much loved books that my mother and I have the privilege of sharing as readers, Playing with Water and Fig. She’s one of Australia’s most loved and influential poets and authors publishing memoir, essays, journalism and poetry since 1987.
Ruth ran a restaurant in a New South Wales country village before becoming a student and university medallist at Charles Sturt University Bathurst. She now teaches literature, creative writing and policies at CSU. Barbara is a senior lecturer also at CSU where she’s dedicated her career to social justice and reconciliation through learning and teaching. She also writes fiction and poetry.
Tonight we’re going to hear about how these three have worked together to publish Kate’s private letters, some of which have now been made public in First Things First. Sifting through decades of correspondence Ruth and Barbara have produced a volume of work that reveals the details of Kate’s life, her friendships and her literary conversations, I think we could call them, with other writers and artists over the years. Filled with Kate’s distinctive ardour and enthusiasm and brimming with energy and humour First Things First is a precious insight into a writer’s life. This evening as we delve into the creation of First Things First I suspect we’re going to find that our conversation is going to range as widely as Kate’s letters. Please welcome Kate, Ruth and Barbara to the stage.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Thank you. Where’s the microphone?
RUTH BACCHUS: It’s quite warm in here, isn’t it?
KATE LLEWELLYN: Is there a microphone? Oh is this it? Oh.
RUTH BACCHUS: We’re on.
KATE LLEWELLYN: We’re wearing it.
RUTH BACCHUS: We’re on. There’s no off.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Right.
BARBARA HILL: Will I begin?
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes.
BARBARA HILL: Okay. Firstly I’d just like to thank the National Library and all the people involved in inviting us here today.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Can you hear at the back?
BARBARA HILL: But straight into the jugular I’d just like to say how important libraries are in preserving manuscripts and letters and bits of writing scribbled on the backs of envelopes as they were with Kate and I know the National Library also houses the works of Marion Halligan who’s here with us this evening. They’re very important to ... well as academics and friends and people that really would want to kind of research and work with that kind of literature, it’s very you know make a valuable contribution and it wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have librarians and people that curate these kind of papers and house them and lodge them and look after them and care for them. So on that note that’s where we start.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Hear, hear.
BARBARA HILL: Well Kate’s letters were at the Australian Defence Force Academy Library but certainly without the librarians there, Rose and Wilga, who were just so helpful and so patient with us, we couldn’t have begun the process of sifting through the letters when they kind of dragging the boxes out and made us cups of tea and were just a wonderful help, weren’t they? And encouragement. I think if I could give you a picture of that ... for those of you who’ve got children or grandchildren that play Minecraft you know and you’ve got all the blocks and boxes, that’s what we looked like you know we're just a set out of Minecraft because all the boxes kept coming in and we’d say ooh, we need to look at this and then the boxes just piled up higher and higher and higher until we were almost surrounded by them and I don’t know if any of you know the Defence Force Academy but in the middle of it they’ve got a section where the students kind of march across a certain ... so here we are reading all these steamy love letters of Kate’s with all these you know people in uniforms moving across the quadrangle ...
RUTH BACCHUS: Yes, goose-stepping along beside us which was a bit incongruous.
BARBARA HILL: Do you want to say something?
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes, I ... first of all thank you all for coming, it’s now loud to me whereas it was soft before and you can hear at the back? Right, I won’t ask you again but if you can’t put your hand up, please. I just want to say the genius, the man who invented the collection at the Australian Defence Force Academy was an American librarian called Lyn Hardt and Australian librarians were very angry with him in the early ‘80s when he began collecting poets in Australia and those manuscripts and all the books, everything we’d written in would have been in those old incinerators you know some of you are old enough to remember the big petrol cans or something outside most back doors that every Saturday afternoon were lit and the sky was filled with smoke. Well that’s where they would have been and the librarians who were angry with this young upstart American really had a chance for a hundred years or so to collect those manuscripts but you know a prophet in their own country, they had not done that and it’s to him that I owe this book, really, because he made that collection and I happened to be one of the people who he met when he was at my friend who’s here tonight, Andrew McDonald’s, house collecting Andrew in a manner of speaking and Andrew introduced him to me and he thought oh, another poet, yes well you know we’ll get your letters too ... no, we’ll get your documents and it turned out to be letters and then it became the book that Barbara and Ruth made and I don’t know if you know this is Barbara Hill and this is Ruth Bacchus and they are both doctors of philosophy from the University ... Charles Sturt University at Bathurst. And it’s been 12 years in the gestation, Ruth pointed out the other day, so it’s been a mighty monster.
RUTH BACCHUS: Yes, yes.
KATE LLEWELLYN: You had a question for me.
BARBARA HILL: I did. When you think about the letters that you now write and the letters that are in the book as they stand what do you think’s the main difference?
KATE LLEWELLYN: Well I write very few letters now because for a long time I didn’t have a telephone and that’s a great way to write letters, I wrote 14 letters recently when I tried to join iPrimus and they cut me off for a month and I thought here we go, back to the post office, this is how it all began. And when I do write a letter I write it because something means a lot and I want to say so on paper and for a long time I couldn’t do that because I was self-conscious because it felt as though I was writing and showing off whereas the letters had been done in innocent turmoil, really and now they were in self-conscious archness in a way so that was difficult and I would ask the person who’s receiving them to make sure they threw them away which they didn’t but I’ve become more natural now. A long answer. But it’s rare, I did an interview with Philip Adams and he said oh you must write to me, I said look, letters are gone and finished and he said oh you’ve got to write to me, letters are wonderful you know killing time or something. And so I wrote to him, I got some beautiful paper. My agent brings this back from Paris, it’s the blue writing paper that Collette used for all her letters and all her stories and novels and so I write on ... ‘cause that’s still being made by the same firm in Paris and he brings it back so I wrote to Phillip on that. But I’m not aiming to keep a correspondence going and he sent me a koala stamp on it on his letter back so I was very happy.
RUTH BACCHUS: So do you email? Do you use email instead?
KATE LLEWELLYN: Do I ..?
RUTH BACCHUS: Do you email instead? Or you tend to ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes, that’s why I don’t write letters mainly, Ruthie, mm.
BARBARA HILL: And that’s been a big shift I think in ... just in the time of the book and since its gestation, I think, hasn’t it? In that 12 years.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes.
BARBARA HILL: But I suppose what ... the difference about you know writing an email ... like you say you have to have you know a purpose for that letter ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Well you’re talking to a machine. To me it’s extremely different. The hand and the brain ... I’ve always written poems by hand and still do but there is a huge difference to typing it out and pushing a button. I don’t have the ardour. I could write a love letter but it would be essentially .. there is sort of lead in it from the machine. I don’t know why it is. You know there’s no blood in it, is there?
RUTH BACCHUS: No, no.
BARBARA HILL: Yes, I was thinking about that too, that ... whether the quality of the things you could say were different and ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: They are.
RUTH BACCHUS: and is it to do with where you are? I mean if I write an email it tends to be because I’m at work and if I handwrote a letter I would tend to be sitting on a veranda or a ... I don’t know somewhere a bit more romantic than my office but ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes, you wrote me a beautiful many-paged letter about six months ago and it’s lying bleaching in my spare room where I lie every afternoon because it was so marvellous and I thought that’s a letter I must keep.
RUTH BACCHUS: Oh good.
KATE LLEWELLYN: It was about your mother and her friend, da, da, da, just ... it was great.
RUTH BACCHUS: One day you can collect that one letter. Yes well and I think you know the important things in life like the capturing of the mother and we’ve got you know I think a lot of us have got those letters in our drawers that sometimes we don’t look at or do look at but Kate, what’s the most important letter that you think that you’ve written?
KATE LLEWELLYN: That I’ve written?
BARBARA HILL: Mm.
KATE LLEWELLYN: God knows.
BARBARA HILL: Or that you’ve received perhaps.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Oh I know the one I’ve received, it said I can’t do it, I give you up, love Herb. Stopped me going to America, I was half packed, the linen was packed, it was all around me, very important letter.
BARBARA HILL: It was almost like getting dumped by text.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Well yes, yes but was good in the long run, I was sore at the time.
BARBARA HILL: Better to get it than to find out it had arrived while you were on the plane, though ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Exactly.
BARBARA HILL: Kate, what about the letters that you put in your books and you know some of the things that you’ve written and recorded in your other books? Could you talk about that?
KATE LLEWELLYN: You mean what they call memoir and what I call journals?
BARBARA HILL: Mm.
KATE LLEWELLYN: I don’t know why ... memoir got invented about a decade ago and almost all books except something written by Martin Amis are called memoir now and if you write it down with a date on it, date, a date, date, date for a year or two, to me that’s a journal, not a memoir. You know I think memoir is ... bit vulgar, really. I think a journal is a bit you know more from the heart. Anyway what about those letters?
BARBARA HILL: Mm.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Do I make them up do you mean? Well I wrote a book of letters to Caro, they were all made up but people thought I took the letters that I’d written to my daughter and published them which I would never do. And I had her read them you know as a manuscript ‘cause she works in literature and is a writer herself but that was a book of letters as a device to talk about Australia, really, and about our relationship. But I would write to her in real ... in life differently, I would be more casual, more intimate, less self-conscious, less pointing out certain things that I wanted the reader to know you know you can’t be innocent when you write a thing like that.
RUTH BACCHUS: So not quite an epistolary novel or whatever you call it ..
KATE LLEWELLYN: No.
RUTH BACCHUS: but something in between?
KATE LLEWELLYN: Well I did one of those to her and they were love letters I would never send you know it’s better to have the person think of one with an inflamed imagination rather than have it spelt out on the page. I would never write like that to ... in life. That was just another ...
RUTH BACCHUS: Well some of your letters are pretty racy.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes but they’re not sending love.
BARBARA HILL: No, that’s true.
KATE LLEWELLYN: They’re describing something.
BARBARA HILL: Yes, that’s true. Yes.
RUTH BACCHUS: You didn’t direct us or censor us at all in our choices of the letters, did you?
KATE LLEWELLYN: No, the ... Kathryn said that we might discuss that, how did you decide on the letters? ‘Cause I didn’t care. I was just enormously grateful and thought well go your hardest and I knew you’d never publish anything that was going to do me harm, or not knowingly. God knows what will happen if people see these things. But I think Wakefield Press probably had a lawyer look at things and I had a friend go through and just pull little things out ... names or something that would hurt people’s feelings ‘cause there’s plenty of malice.
BARBARA HILL: Yeah. But I think that that was you know one of the gifts I think you gave Ruth and I, that evokes a ... in Bathurst where we work is the Wiradjuri people and the Wiradjuri have this wonderful phrase that’s called [Aboriginal language] and it means to do slowly, to do respectfully, to do right first time, that kind of notion and I think that’s really without knowing it what we did and anything that crossed our little desk at ADFA that could possibly harm you just went back in the box you know and I think ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: It’s a shame, really.
BARBARA HILL: Well ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Some of the best scenes ...
BARBARA HILL: But ... and also you know especially ‘round the family you know affecting family ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes. Because the letters are to other writers and to artists, they’re not to family, the letters in First Things First.
BARBARA HILL: And that was the guiding principle, really, that they might reflect something.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes. And then we changed my daughter’s name so people think I’ve got quite a few children, really, changed names and ... you musn’t believe everything you read I think is the motto that should have been put under First Things First.
RUTH BACCHUS: Now what about in Fig? Most people believe everything they read in Fig?
KATE LLEWELLYN: Pretty well, that’s true because that goes through. When you’re writing a journal that you hope will be published that goes through as you who have done it ... many writers in the audience that is filtered before it hits the page. And if it’s not filtered that day its filtered next day and you think ooh, I think ... I think not. So that’s true. The letters are true because they were written unconsciously, they’re as true as I can be but First ... Fig is true because I’m talking to a person, the reader is somebody I’m having a discussion with who I like a lot and who I feel trusts me and I therefore expose more and more because I feel they trust and the more I expose I take it the more they trust and that goes on until the reader can feel that they know me. And the funny thing is, the truth is I get annoyed then because they don’t know me, they’re reading what I’m trying to make as a work of art and they’re messing up ... mixing up life and art and although I’m honoured that they think they know me and there’s no winning in this in the sense because it’s quite unpleasant to say it but when somebody comes up to me in a supermarket and comes within a close friend’s range I get an umbrella if I’ve got one and start pushing them away because I’m deeply uncomfortable. Because this is a ... they forget, they’re a complete stranger to me and it’s unnerving and it’s ... it’s so uncomfortable that it’s annoying whereas it’s not quite rational because I’ve done it and I blame myself while being annoyed with them so I’m cross with both of us.
BARBARA HILL: But they are the reader you just said you really like.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Pardon?
BARBARA HILL: They are the reader you just said you really like.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes, I do but I don’t go up to them as a stranger and say oh by the way ... no, I don’t.
BARBARA HILL: No.
KATE LLEWELLYN: In my heart I am writing to them as I said as warmly and openly and so I expose a lot and my son said Mum, you worry me ... this was 10 or 15 years ago and he’s 53 ... he said you worry me because there’s nothing between you and life, it meant there’s no veil and he’s meaning you’re vulnerable. And I thought that’s really a terrific thing to say and it’s a wonderful thing for a son to see ... not pleasant for him but that’s what I wa ... I don’t want to read a book where somebody’s being distant and keeping their secrets to themselves and manipulating me around the page and tricking me and being clever, that ... I won’t read on because the great thing with a book I think is that you must open with trust and if that trust is behaved ... is betrayed in the first sentence or page, end of story because this is a game and it’s a game for two. And the stories have ... they’ve got codes and one story starts once upon ... one code starts once upon a time and when you read that you know that there could be witches and there can be morality, high moral tones and all sorts of things and wicked people get punished and the virtuous are rewarded and so on.
But if you haven’t started with that and you’re starting to bring in witches and whatnot ... I know there is that genre of which I know nothing ... but you musn’t break that pact, that is a sacred pact, I think and you must not lie. Whatever code you started with with the pact that needs to go on until the last line and then the reader feels that you were trustworthy and you didn’t lead them down any gulfs or betray them in any way. You can see ... I get quite worked up about this and ... because it’s something you know not to put too big a thing on it, the word sacred comes to mind because that is the source of everything I do because I am an autobiographical writer, I am not a fiction writer. Everything I have written is as it is said and I don’t think that it matters. If you make things up and you’re a novelist and have used your imagination, fine, great, win the Booker, anything you like, all brilliant, high art, good. The only question about any book, whether it’s autobiographical or fiction, is does it work? Is it a work of art? If the person hasn’t quite made a work of art but it’s a noble attempt, fine but that’s the only question. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pack of imagination or a ... you could say a pack of lies. None of that is relevant, what is relevant is has it succeeded?
RUTH BACCHUS: So, Kate, could you say something about ... what I think you’re saying is kind of moral courage. There is a ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Well I don’t think of it as moral courage but I suppose that’s what ... if you want to nail it down.
RUTH BACCHUS: And if ...
BARBARA HILL: Well perhaps you know maybe we could just talk about that you know about the courage it takes to write a book, the courage it takes to even write a letter sometimes you know the things we have to screw on to get us through in some cases and I think when you’re a writer that sometimes we end up places where we don’t suspect we’ll go.
KATE LLEWELLYN: I don’t ... I know what you mean for some writers but I’m not like that, it doesn’t take me courage to write a book because after all remember I'm writing to a very, very close friend who really understands and I’m isolated because I live alone. And although nowadays living alone is not thought to be isolated, if you don’t speak to anyone for three days or so you’re isolated and when you can go to the page and talk to this friend who you never want to meet in that way of intimacy ...
RUTH BACCHUS: Without your umbrella.
KATE LLEWELLYN: Yes. But of course it’s wonderful to meet a reader who understands normal protocols, that’s ... please don’t misunderstand that, that’s delightful because they’re meeting the writer and I’m meeting the reader, good, we know where we stand, no umbrellas needed. It’s only when they make a mistake that things get complicated and poking starts. I thought when you’re speaking to me and I’ve got the umbrella out can you not read body language?
BARBARA HILL: Yes well most of us I think can. Could you perhaps talk now a little bit about Fig? I think it’d be great to ...
KATE LLEWELLYN: Alright, I probably need two hands.
RUTH BACCHUS: Do you want me to hold that? You can just put it down, I think.
KATE LLEWELLYN: I don’t know.
RUTH BACCHUS: On the chair.
KATE LLEWELLYN: I’m holding it like a thermometer or something.
BARBARA HILL: It’s the nurse in you. The matron in you coming out.
RUTH BACCHUS: I think you can just put it in the chair or anywhere. It’s only the battery.
KATE LLEWELLYN: This book was written when I came home to die in a way, it ... I had lived away from South Australia and from my brothers, three brothers for 20 or more years in the Blue Mountains and on the south coast near Wollongong and I thought you know you keep thinking your children will come and see you. Face it, they don’t, they’re busy, it’s not going to happen. And when friends said you know why don’t you come home? I said I can’t go home you know my children are here. And I said to my son one day ... this is not to blame him, he did me a service ... I said you know Hugh, I’m quite lonely down here, you see my friends are academics and they were free on the weekend if I was lucky and that was it, I didn’t know people ‘cause I hadn’t grown up there. And I said I'm quite lonely down here and I didn’t hear from him for six weeks, I thought well that’s it, I'm going back to Adelaide. Face facts, mother. This ... you’re living in a dream. And I thought I have to be near the grandchildren and do the babysitting. It’s sort of a fiction. So I went back to Adelaide and I saw them about as often as I had before. And then my daughter moved to New York so you know what am I ... anyway so that’s how I went back to Adelaide and my three brothers and then they didn’t really want to see me because why should they? They’d built their lives and their marriages and their farms and whatnot and they city houses and I bought near one and I thought I’d just slip back into the family. Wrong and what hubris, I mean why should they drop everything and start fussing over their only sister?
No, they ignored me so few ... touches of reality were due so I began this book because I thought ... I think I ... at that time I’d just turned 70 and my youngest brother, Peter, gave me the most wonderful party with 30 close friends in his house, formal long tables, it was beautiful with a great menu and ... his son’s a chef. And that was the start of it and I thought it would be very interesting because I have a group of nursing friends who are all of course similar age to me and I thought you know big changes are happening in our bodies and in our minds and in our lives, it would be very interesting to chart this. And I’m going to make a garden from nothing you know tabular rouser. It’d be interesting to put the garden together with the ageing so that the gardener eventually will go and there’ll be nothing but garden; and to chart these women who are close friends, their lives and mine as long as I can go on.
And so I started reading and thinking about ageing and noticing it and so I thought the book will be ... the flesh of the book will be the garden and the bones of the book will be ageing underneath because if you put ageing on the cover you know the story of our ageing or anything to do with ageing or death, it’s not a seller is it? But figs are so that’s how it became ... right from the start, very soon after I wrote it I planted a fig at the gate and I thought it’s a lovely rhythmic thing so that’s what we’ll call it and in a way you could think of it as in metaphors and if ... some members of ... some people I’ve spoken to at talks have said why is it called A Fig at the Gate? And I’ve said because there is a fig at the gate. And they said yes but why is it called that? And I said ... I mean normally I think metaphorically but this got me, I said because ... yes well, I said well you know it’s beyond me to explain it to you. Some things are not deep.
So at that time I was walking with a friend who’s called Shirley, great walker, small feisty woman and we would walk 10km about three mornings a week on the beach with bathers on as a rule and a sarong and Shirley ... I tried to tell Shirley that I thought she was depressed and she said that’s nonsense ‘cause we were swimming one day you know like old dowager duchesses swimming around in a little sea pool and I said you know it’s lovely, Shirley ... she said there’s seaweed down here. I said yes, it’s beautiful, the temperature’s wonderful, don’t you think? Oh ... nothing was ever right and I thought there’s something wrong, I’m sure of it. And I said you know when your husband took you across ... when Robert took you across on Trans-Siberian railway didn’t he do that because you were depressed? And she said I’ve never been depressed in my life and no, he didn’t. And I thought well there’s such a thing as denial but it looks like it to me so I began noticing more and more and ... these statements and while all of us can be miserable at times it’s no fun when everything is bad, it’s miserable. So I got into the habit of falling behind her a little bit and missing out you know the cockroaches that were flying out in the wind from her mouth were there and I was saying you know I’d try to cheer her up and then if I couldn’t I would take out my hearing aids because that’s the blessing of being deaf. Into the top of my bathers they’d go and I’d step a few paces behind and she could let rip.
And one day I said oh look, Shirley, look at that bird up there. It was early in the morning and the light was just hitting its breast like a star over the sea. I said what kind of bird do you think that is? And she looked up and she said it’s a seagull; they’re filthy birds, full of lice. Out came the hearing aids, back I fell. Then another day we ... it was very windy and we usually avoided the sea on those days because of the flying sand and we walked on back blocks in more sheltered places and we came upon a place we hadn’t seen before which was a vacant block with a magnolia grandiflora in full bloom and in full size and you know what they look like. So I said oh Shirley, look, we began to run towards it, both planning to pick some of the flowers and she said it’s terrible you know they only last a day. I thought how ... how could you do that? How could you? So on the way going home we were crossing Brighton Road and I said oh Shirley look, the lights are green. She said that doesn’t happen very often. So my brother had a shed with about 20 or 40 frozen ducks that he had reared from the egg, he’d put ducks on to hatch the ducklings, he’d reared them, killed them, dressed them, a lot of work involved in this, he quickly said but long to do and had floor to ceiling frozen ducks in big fridge in the shed. And I said Shirley, let’s go into Peter’s and he’ll show you the frozen ducks. And we walked in and I said Peter, would you show Shirley your ducks? And he said oh sure and he got the key and we walked out to the shed and he opened the shed door and we walked in, he flung open the door, frozen ducks everywhere, she said what if the electricity goes off? He is still getting over it. We never mention her, she’s dead now but I never mention Shirley’s name without him going on about that.
So eventually Shirley and I had to part because I couldn’t cope any longer because it was so ruthless and some of you will be married to somebody like this or have a friend like this or may be like it yourselves and the only thing I can think of is that the person who is doing it has one singular attribute which is horrid and that is they have absolutely no consciousness or their effect on others. None at all. That was death. So it doesn’t matter what they say they would be shocked if they knew you had to go and lie down after they’d visited and you know you’d ruined the day. So I put Shirley in the book and Shirley’s sayings and I put ... I wanted really to have a garden that would feed me as we were fed ... in my age group, were fed by ... in many cases by our parents who had backyard tomatoes and a great deal more and I wanted ... because that’s fashionable now and I’ve always liked it, with a tank and saving water and all that ballyhoo that went on when I was a child and I’m absolutely addicted to so I tried to grow vegetables and I thought I’ll try to grow a sort of organic garden. And I thought ... it was a bit like ... when I first went nursing I was at the Gawler Hospital and it was about 7:00 one night and a doctor was going to catheterise somebody and he said oh ... and wanted a tray with a catheter and whatnot and ... but there must have been something shabby about my demeanour and he said, nurse, is that ... this tray sterile? And I said well more or less and he said take it away. So my garden is more or less organic and more or less permaculture because life is like that, it’s more or less okay and it’s more or less messy and it’s more or less what you didn’t plan and it’s never sterile in the sense of you know the true perfect thing, it doesn’t exist.
So writing about the garden and writing about weather is one of the great joys because weather I think is a great topic in life and I once had an affair with an Englishman who was a lecturer in the days when lecturers had affairs with students and didn’t get tossed out and he began talking about the weather as we sat down to lunch and I said that’s it, this affair’s over. And he said why? And I said because you’re talking about the weather and he said the weather is a fine subject, we English love the weather. And I thought oh well perhaps I’ll stay ... and then weather became one of my favourite subjects and I love the way farmers can predict weather. You know my youngest brother again looks out and says weather’s coming which means poor weather, bad weather as you know but it’s called weather and can say you know it’ll rain this afternoon by looking, just looking. And I said how do you know that? And he says well over there and over there, it’s just delightful, it’s like alchemy or something. Just say it, he has no instruments. Anyway I have a poem to read you and we take questions at the end. We’re coming to the end. This poem has figs in it and it’s called Breasts.
As I lean over to write one of my breasts, warm as a breast from the sun, hangs over as if to read what I'm writing. These breasts always want to know everything, sometimes exploring the inside curve of my elbow, sometimes measuring a man’s hand, lying still as a pond until he cannot feel he’s holding anything but water then he dreams he is floating. In the morning my breast is refreshed and wants to know something new. Although it is soft it is also ambitious. We never speak but I know my breast knows me more than I do, prying, hanging over fences, observant as a neighbour or eager as a woman wanting to gossip. They tell me nothing but they say quite a lot about me. There is a dark blue river vein here straggling down, taking its time to the little pale strawberry picked too soon and left too long in a punnet in a shop. When I lie these breasts spread like spilt milk and standing naked in the sea float like figs. As you’ll realise these are my body’s curious fruit, wanting to know everything, always getting there first, strange as white beetroot, exotic as unicorns, useless as an out of order dishwasher, more of a nuisance than anything else. Some men seem to think highly of them, peering and staring. What they don’t know is the breast stares straight back, interested as a reporter. Some love them and invest them with glamour but like life they are not glamorous, merely dangerous. Thank you.
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