Peter Robb states the progress of his career elsewhere in this issue, and is ready to speak of himself further as unemployed, of no fixed address, prospects doubtful, last known whereabouts the slums of Naples, where he has spent seven years. He is, however, grand-cousin of the late Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, whose magnum opus, Fairyland, is highly valued in Australian bibliophile circles. The XXXX referred to in his poem is ‘Queensland’s Famous Beer’.
Ten or so years ago I stayed with a friend who was a senior doctor in Queensland’s largest hospital, the Royal Brisbane. Most weekends he was on call to attend emergencies in remote inland areas by medical service plane or helicopter. The trips sometimes generated their own emergencies, since the helicopter pilot was a Vietnam veteran with a need for extreme situations and ready to create them when they didn’t come naturally. Other times, in a 24-hour absence he’d fly thousands of miles in a small plane to a point due west and back, to airlift a terminal case from some tiny near-desert settlement like the one where Janette Turner Hospital’s new novel is set. One Monday my friend came back from one such dot on the map with what remained of a man who seemed to have been beaten to death, or near it, by more than one person. The victim had been an outsider, someone who’d turned up in town a few months earlier and got a job in the local pub. The story of his accidental fall was corroborated by everyone in the town and made no sense at all of his injuries. The man died, I believe, and that was the end of it. After reading Oyster I remembered this and wondered whether any account of the man’s fate reached his friends or family, if he had any.
Printing even a writer’s letters is at times an equivocal business. There’s always the question of what, exactly, of value they may tell us, of what there is that makes their publication more than merely intrusive. Forster lived a long time, and there’s some sorry reading in the second of these volumes. To Joe Ackerley in 1947 from the USA: ‘the view from the window is the Californian desert, mistaken by me for the Nevadan … we seem to have reached Nevada after all … my Parker 51 ink is checked in my grip for Chicago.’ By the time Forster is 84 and writing that ‘I seem to be losing everything today and knocking most things over – the milk has just gone onto the poems of George Herbert,’ we may feel we’ve been rummaging through an old man’s drawers for too long. Collections of letters, like academic biographies, are prisoners of chronology, and while Forster died at 91 in 1970 the remarkable writer had cut out in the mid-Twenties. The later years were punctuated by respectable minor writings and many acts of public rectitude and private kindness witnessed in these pages: but worthiness is not in itself a great sustainer of interest.’
I’ve reached the age, or shall do very soon,When Conrad trimly stepped from deck to dockAnd Proust withdrew into a cork-lined room,Lord Byron failed in love and died of shock;
When Shakespeare bought a nice place out of town,John Donne in orders hit the sermon scene,When Virgil jotted the Aeneid downAnd Rimbaud went and got himself gangrene:
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