Saturday, February 27, 2010

Petersham Days
(Homage to John Forbes)

Laurie Duggan introduced me to John Forbes sometime in the early ‘70’s at the Forest Lodge Hotel, a happening place where everyone went to drink, score, shout, pose and, mostly, be political. Although this was years after James Dean had been a teen idol, John’s style was definitely Deanesque – he wore a tight white t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and had a packet of Camel Plain cigarettes tucked under one side…add blue jeans and a crew cut to this and the pose became James-Dean-joins-the-U.S.-Marines. ‘Aha, so this is the TEK toothbrush guy’ I thought, meaning the guy to whom Laurie dedicated one of his poems in 1972 -

    for John Forbes

I think continually of those who were truly great
in the supermarket    these canyons of
soap powder    holy frozen split peas
e.g. write a conceptual poem, imagine
the woman fingering keys of a cash register,
all day long   Instant Pudding.
Everyone’s in my new movie
a huge TEK toothbrush soars above the opera house
flies crawl across the T.V. tube
bridging the gap between illusion & reality like
the little cloud on the screen where Terry’s spit
narrowly missed the prime minister.

That big red neon toothbrush has disappeared but, luckily, not before Max Dupain had photographed it. You’d see it as you left the Harbour Bridge to enter the city - up in the sky above the entrance to the Cahill Expressway - a sign of the times, linked indelibly, for me, with Laurie and John.

Although I was reading his poems and we were on ‘how're-you-going’ terms, it was quite a few years later that I became socially friendly with John - in the days I call ‘The Petersham Days’.

The painter Ken Searle and Laurie Duggan both lived in a large house in Palace Street with its owners Jan Chambers & Greg Maguire. John lived in Albert Street, a street parallel to mine – both of us within short walking distance of Palace Street. Laurie, Ken and I did stints as the Gleebooks bookshop early morning cleaners as well as our usual jobs - Ken- painting pictures, Laurie studying Fine Arts and writing The Ash Range and myself teaching film, writing poetry and collaborating on performance pieces with the composer Elizabeth Drake & sound poet Amanda Stewart. John worked as a removalist and taught poetry part-time. Jan who was also an actor and a painter and her partner Greg were high school teachers. Greg had entered into a pact with his students at Leichhardt High – ‘I'll stop smoking if you all do’. Jan and Greg provided the hub for these days of beer & pool after work, and weekends of cricket, poetry, dope, painting, music ( Laurie's eclectic collection of LP records was stashed in milk crates under his bed), cooking (John’s famous and only dish – a good curry), lover-swapping and lots of parties. Poetry readings were sporadic events then, usually organised ourselves - until around 1986 when Harold Park Hotel’s ‘Writers in the Park’ readings started up. The rest of the cast of hundreds included the real Mark O’Connor - poet and scholar, Landon Watts - zen maniac, dip-ed student and painter, Carl Harrison-Ford – critic, ex-poet, editor and storeman and packer, Morgan Smith - tv scriptwriter, Nicky Ellis - artist and John's lover, John’s brother Mick - fiction writer, Chris Burns – ships chandler and poet, and others.

group photo here

One summer afternoon, walking home together into the inner west sun along a bleakly hot Salisbury Road, John and I discovered we had a military connection. John’s father had been a meteorologist working for a time at Butterworth Military Base in Malaysia. My father was a professional soldier in Victoria and Queensland. We’d both spent parts of our childhoods living on military bases.Because of this revelation of our shared experience of army camp life I think John began to take me seriously for the first time since I'd known him. He certainly took the military more seriously than I ever did. There was a kind of boy’s-own tone to his interest in weapons and planes that I found puerile. Though I assumed he was a pacifist underneath. I was anti militarism. This military machismo could perhaps explain the kind of boyo fan or cadet club which would turn up at readings if John was on - nice guys but...After John had read and come off-stage to get a drink they'd surround him like footy-fans in a hubbub ..’hooby hooby good one John -that was a great line John hooby hooby’ accompanied by affectionate shouldering. Together, they seemed like a bunch of schoolyard bullies. I used to think – ‘Come on fellas - it's poetry- - it's not the Bledisloe Cup’. But I think that kind of competitive spirit was endemic. In spite of their awareness of feminism and its valiant attempt to alter that world-view (sigh) it was still their world and, really, still is.

You had to pass John's poetry test to actually get any proper communication. For instance, he'd say to me about one of my books – ‘There's a couple of good ones in there Pam’. (Gee- thanks). I didn't really mind this as there were enough other poets, publishers, readers and friends who liked what I was doing. But, I knew, without any particular aspiration on my part, that I'd finally passed his test around 1994 with a book called This World. This Place. He rang me up to compliment me on it. John had published some of my stuff a decade earlier in Surfers Paradise magazine - I guess he must have picked ‘a couple of good ones’. But I think John had this kind of pressurised, competitive stance on all his contemporaries and in an awkward and sometimes fractious way he let other poets know.


John’s flat in Albert Street was very under-furnished. He and his good friend, the poet Gig Ryan, called in to my place on a day that I was rolling up a cheap rug I’d bought & actually didn’t like enough to use. John was living on a Literature Board grant and as he needed a rug and had some money, he offered to buy it from me. We agreed on $50 and he promised to pay me later.

Not long after this my book Selected Poems 1971-1982 was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award. The other nominees were Martin Johnston, Robert Gray and Kevin Hart. Les Murray was the poetry committee chair and as I considered him a weird alien I was incredibly surprised to be nominated – and, obviously, as the only woman. The announcement was made at an exceptionally rowdy dinner - Kevin Hart won the poetry prize. Two days later I received a letter and $50 from ‘Gerry Gleason’ the adviser to the NSW Premier -

Well, of course, I have to wonder - if I'd won some prize money would John have considered my rug as a gift to his home or not ? (Yeah, yeah - we know the answer)

John, as everyone who knew him knows, was hopeless with money. I'd often bump into John up at the 24-hour chemist at Enmore buying his not-so-cheap thrills. He also liked quality whisky and cigarettes, especially those imported unfiltered Camels - both pleasures became more expensive with every year’s government budget .But, in his way, John was quite materially generous - once I met up with him at an ATM in King Street, Newtown after he’d had to give up his job because he’d injured himself in a bicycle accident and his dole hadn’t arrived. I lent him $20 and we crossed King Street to a café for a coffee. He paid the bill with the $20!

Just lately, as I was walking past the University of Technology at Broadway I remembered that John had asked many poets, including myself, to talk to his students in the poetry class he was teaching part-time in the early ‘80’s. Later, one of the tenured senior lecturers in the faculty told me that everyone else was really pissed-off with John because he’d used their entire guest lecturing budget on the poetry course ! Beautifully spent !

(This piece was published in ‘Homage to John Forbes’ edited by Ken Bolton, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002)

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