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David Walsh's Catholic guilt


The Bone of Fact, by David Walsh. Pan Macmillan Australia. Publication date: 1 October 2014. 

'The Bone of Fact' cover


'By some great good fortune (mine, not yours) you hold in your hands my story… To extract 55 bucks from you I need to say something clever…' So we enter the realm of A Bone of Fact; the much-anticipated, thoroughly unreliable memoirs of Tasmania’s resident rapscallion, gallery owner, father, philosopher, gambler. 

Ladies and gentlemen I give you—David Walsh. 

So what do we get for our money? For one, a weighty product peppered with stills from Walsh’s 'subversive adult Disneyland', MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), in Hobart. Adorning the leather-bound-like cover is Walsh’s name in gold leaf. Writ large. Any similarities it shares with a certain hard-cover book found in hotel rooms across the country is merely a coincidence. 

Of course, this is exactly what the committed 'Catholic atheist/vegetarian' wants us to believe. And yet in this latter-day savant there remains enough of the faith (Catholic guilt? Look no further than MONA’s preoccupation with sex and death) to warrant a closer inspection.

This much we do know: Walsh, the youngest child of a fiercely Catholic mother and violently unpredictable father went on to use his extraordinary gift with numbers to fund, build and run one of Australia’s most surprising, innovative and daring galleries. That MONA’s foundations are built on the proceeds of gambling doesn’t seem to bother Walsh a jot. But don’t believe all you read. After all, it isn’t for nothing that Walsh’s favourite novel is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Informing us of his desire to write like the late US writer Kurt Vonnegut (and who wouldn’t?), Walsh quickly establishes himself a witty and urbane host. His lively banter could have easily kept us at arm’s length, but no, he throws us a 'bone of fact'—a line from a poem written by his deceased older brother Tim: 'Sit awhile and think of me./ As I throw you starving sods a bone of fact…'. 

Tim’s sudden death from cancer in 1991 still bears heavily on Walsh. The sincerity of these early chapters draws the reader in and refuses to let go. It’s only later that we’re presented a mind in flux (though never formally diagnosed, Walsh believes he has Asperger’s) in which he marvels about synaesthesia, muses over 'robust versus antifragile' ('a system that improves with stressors') and gives gambling tips (worry not, dear reader, my lips are sealed). 

A Bone… is one part love letter (to Hobart, fatherhood and art, among others); and two parts plea bargain. That’s how Walsh can take a stab at Catholicism one minute and the next admit that in the 'thrall' of Michelangelo’s Pieta he loses all faculties. 

And for someone who’s gleamed much from betting, gambling gets short shrift. 'Trading…a zero-sum game,' he writes. 'I built Mona to absolve myself from feeling guilty about making money without making a mark.'


What manner of man ‘inventories his pretensions as “art, science, maths, smartarse, penis, narcissist”, and adds author to this tally,” through an autobiographical jaunt turned dis-unified theory of pretty much everything?
Sex and love; death and religion; love and parenting; science and mathematics; art and architecture; it’s all up for grabs.

Walsh must have given his marketers a massive headache… is this tome a humble vanity project? A boys’ own tribute to self-discovery? A playfully philosophical gambolling over broken ground? A homage to science? Quantum mechanics, belly dancing and grace? A leading example of self-disclosure as an art form?

Perhaps his purpose is simply an exegesis of the self. Thus our author’s best described as the bloke for whom Diogenes of Sinope (aka Diogenes the Cynic) wandered around looking for, while carrying a lamp in daylight hours – an honest man. While I find him indefinable, immune to categorisation or definition, I find great spiritual and intellectual pleasure from peering into the busy cranium of ostensible satyr turned satirist, David Walsh.

Of course, by any fair standards, ‘satyr’ is an overblown description. Describing personal decisions and relationships openly and freely leaves you with a distinct impression of an honest and ethical individual, not the roué he may aspire to present himself as. 

For me also, Jen, Walsh’s undoubted skills would be futile without his casting around for meaning and connection to Tim, his brother lost to a ‘choledocal cyst’. Citing the bustling, shaggy dog of knowledge that is Wikipedia, Walsh shares that such a condition comes with ‘future complications’ and ‘a 2% risk of malignancy’.

‘A two per cent risk can be 100 per cent is history is told,’ laments our mathematical sage, ‘as it is, retrospectively. I’m always banging on about the fallacy of the inevitability of history. Tim is 98 per cent alive, according to medical authorities.’

As for Walsh’s zero sum game of seeking absolution for his improbably fiscal success through gambling’s ‘filthy lucre’, I’d say Australia has reached rich rewards from Walsh’s subsequent kindnesses. His self-flagellation is unnecessary, extravagant even; perhaps it prefigures future endeavours.

Jen, as you well put it, Walsh leads us down a garden ‘path through the labyrinthine thoughts of a genuine radical’ – and, yes, one with heart, to boot. I suggest all who trail down this path can be likewise rewarded. The man makes words sing off the page.

Walsh’s tendency to talk to himself and cast obvious winks and asides is endearing and simultaneously hoary and refreshing. Thus, while one sign of the gifted and intelligent – and loaded – may be a tendency to adapt to a dilettante existence (duly leaving potential unfulfilled) that is decidedly not the case here.

For sheer whimsy and joie de vivre I doubt that there is another Australian writing who can match Walsh’s love of and facility with the English language.   

While recognising Walsh’s proclivity and proficiency for numbers, A Bone of Fact also reveals his gift for words – and poses beautifully absurdist hopes for what may await us all.

Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fairfax Media, The Herald Sun and The Australian. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, David Walsh, MONA, A Bone of Fact



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Existing comments

When we visited Tasmania a few years ago, we wanted to concentrate on seeing the sublime natural beauty of that remote island. MONA wasn't on our list and I've since read a bit about David Walsh and his fantastic dream. He seems to be that very rare creature, a true 'radical'. He's put his considerable fortune into a project that is unusual and confronting and in doing so has found his place - a great achievement. I have an autobiography of Bob Brown waiting to be read, then.....who knows.

Pam | 25 September 2014  

Just been to MONA this last weekend and loved it but was more intrigued by the man himself, so yes, add it to my list of books to read...

Esteban | 25 September 2014  

David Walsh speaking about his sense of Catholicism in a radio national interviews: ‘I’ve been unable to—and perhaps it is impossible—to break those shackles. I tend to think that sacredness is not something you believe, but something that is inculcated into you, and it’s an infectious disease.’

Anthony | 26 September 2014  

It would seem David Walsh has written his own Gideon's Bible and good luck to him. Although from what I've read of his gambling successes he doesn't trust Lady Luck. His prodigious memory for memorizing cards and mathematical acuity in calculating "the odds" are two keys to his success. His MONA should be seen as a total experience. From the moment I boarded the MONA catamaran and made the trip up the Derwent River till I saw the museum itself built into the rocks further up stream I felt like I was Alice entering a wonderland through a river of shimmering glass. Once inside and descending to the bottom exhibition floor I was indeed in another world. Two hours later and two more floors still to be explored I had to leave this cornucopia of traditional and idiosyncratic works of art. I will return the next time I'm in Hobart. MONA is an experience not to be missed.

Uncle Pat | 26 September 2014  

I believe a (minor) writer of pornography uses the nom de plume "Catholic Guilt". Telling. A Buddhist teacher told me there is a support group in the Northern Rivers district of NSW for "Recovering Catholics". Perhaps David Walsh's whole complex, many faceted life story is a story of survival, of putting the pieces together in a way that made sense. Jesus, I think, would've understood.

Edward Fido | 26 September 2014  

Sorry to spoil the sycophants convention going on here but so-called "card counting" at Blackjack does NOT involve a "prodigious memory" as "Uncle Pat" said. CC is a very simple system which requires the user to memorise just one number (either plus or minus) and adjust his bets and occasionally make minor changes in the well-known "basic strategy" that anyone can learn in a few hours. Regardless of that DW never made any money playing BJ - he stumbled across a book with a statistical method for winning at the races and got someone else to put up the dosh. The rest is partly myth but mostly lies.

honest tasmanian | 30 September 2014  

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