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David Walsh's Catholic guilt

  • 26 September 2014

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


'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