Writing the bloody things

Near enough to 25 years ago my friend Vincent O’Sullivan came to Flinders University for a year as Research Fellow. Vince was, and continues to be, a wonderful writer, a brilliant wit, a splendid conversationalist, a stern opponent in argument and, in short, excellent company.

Every week or so, we would retreat to Rigoni’s in Leigh Street for a relaxed yarn about writing, sport, the world and its ways. While we worked on our bottle of the house red and tortellini alla panna (we never ordered anything else), or when we had moved on to Tattersall’s baroque saloon bar for a post-prandial ‘cleanser’ or two, I would often regale him with some new idea I had for a story or satirical piece or essay, because Vince was a generous and an acute literary mentor.

The trouble with my ideas, however, was that they existed either only in my head, like Keats’s ‘unheard melodies’, or in the form of cryptic reminders in my spiral notebook. For example: ‘A bloke who gradually realises that other people are stealing his personal anecdotes and telling them about themselves discovers parts of his body are disappearing.’ And, a few pages later: ‘Someone who constantly hears his name being mysteriously called in crowds, shops, etc.’ Or again: ‘Use Smetana’s deafness, the note ringing constantly in his ear, as a motif.’ Or: ‘Story about going to the Picasso Exhibition.’ Or a scrawled speculation: ‘Story based on how dog lovers become obsessed by their dogs,’ and so on.

One day in the winter of that year, we met as usual and some half hour or so into our conversation I said that while travelling into town I’d had a ‘terrific idea’ for a short story. Vince looked at me not with the usual interest and attentiveness but, on the contrary, with an uncharacteristic hint of  exasperation.

‘Look, mate,’ he said, ‘why don’t you write these bloody stories instead of just talking about them?’

I admit to having been slightly shocked but when, later, I examined my reaction, I realised it was not so much that I was surprised at Vince’s sudden toughness as that I recognised with enormous apprehension that my safe little world of ‘terrific ideas for stories’ would have to be translated into action or cease to carry any weight. In short, I’d have to ‘write the bloody things’.

At just about that same time Christopher Pearson took over the Adelaide Review and, with deadlines looming, immediately rang around to conscript contributors. Why he asked me for ‘any stories you’ve got lying around’ remains mysterious. I suppose, like Vince, he must have suffered various versions of my ‘terrific story’ ideas. Anyway, the O’Sullivan/Pearson pincer movement forced my hand.

For the next few months, in the cold dark of early mornings and late at night when the house creaked in the silence, I wrote 22 short stories, the first couple of which I sent off to the Adelaide Review. At the same time, encouraged by the Review’s voracious need for material during its first vulnerable months, I had a go at a kind of sports writing that I’d been thinking about for ages (another so far untried ‘terrific idea’)—a sort of comic-satirical take on test cricket and Aussie Rules as both entered into the tightening grip of commercial and television interests.

It was all long ago and seems trivial enough now, but Vince’s uncompromising edict and Pearson’s out-of-the-blue appeal made a huge difference to my life: in fact, they thoroughly redirected it. A collection of short stories, Quickening and Other Stories and Oval Dreams: Larrikin Essays on Sport and Low Culture, dedicated respectively to Vincent O’Sullivan and Christopher Pearson, were the immediate results. From that tremor, aftershocks reverberated down the years.

All of which, along with other memories both literary and scurrilous, came back to me as I stood yarning with various luminaries at Writers’ Week 2006. Vince was there, now the most distinguished and decorated New Zealand writer of his time, but unspoiled by fame and still telling jokes. And Rob Drewe (The Shark Net, Grace, Sydney Swans tragic) who, on reading the column about millipedes in these pages a few months ago, offered to bring a ute load of cane toads down from his northern New South Wales eyrie to see if they’d eat my millipedes and solve both our problems in one hit. And Kerryn Goldsworthy, short-story writer, columnist, one-time academic. And Morag Fraser who, as editor of Eureka Street, originally asked me to write for it. And waves of former students, many of them now writers of note, who made me feel venerable and absurdly durable in the one moment.

Every one of the dozen or so Writers’ Weeks I have attended either as audience or guest has been marvellous. But this one seemed special. It wasn’t only the weather—one of Adelaide’s most luminous, cloudless autumns—or the excellence of the sessions, masterminded by the amiable, unflappable Writers’ Week chairman, Dr Rick Hosking, and his committee. It was something else; perhaps one’s age, I admit with reluctance. And perhaps, too, the consciousness that the age we live in is in turmoil and that havens, like Writers’ Week, of art and culture and conversation among glossy beautiful mounds of threatened books and journals and magazines under the globally warming sun should be valued as never before.  

Brian Matthews lives in the Clare Valley and is Professor of  English at Flinders University. His most recent book is  The Temple Down the Road: The Life and Times of the MCG (Viking).

 

 

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