15 July 2000
For many of my writing friends 1980 has been a pretty crook year. George was evicted; John was burgled; Bruce fell off a roof; Leanne had brain surgery; Damien had eye surgery; Leigh moved to Canberra; David continued to hold down a steady job; Lee won another award. None of these things is very good for a writer.
For me 1980 has been disastrous. I have edited four books. Most of the year I have spent proofreading. During September my eyesight started going off (not as dramatically as Damien's: I only needed glasses), which means eventually I'll have to get a job on the Australian if I'm to continue earning a living as a proofreader. And John McLaren invited me to write this column for Australian Book Review, which immediately brought on writer's block.
The exact nature of my writer's block is that everything I write turns out to be about science fiction, which is ridiculous. I know next to nothing about science fiction, as any of the people mentioned in the first paragraph will tell you, except Leanne, who thinks I know everything and is a lovely person. Hell, why fight it? I'll tell you a tale of long ago, and like General Sokolnikov, flatter myself that I am entertaining the company with a few reminiscences, however humble.
And if you find my literary allusions obscure, you should try Cordwainer Smith's. You should read Cordwainer Smith anyway, if only to see what a first-class sf writer can make of Australia. In his universe there is an entire planet inhabited by Australians. His stories about us have been collected in a volume called Norstrilia (Ballantine Books, New York, 1977).
"Cordwainer Smith" was Paul Linebarger, an American political scientist. He died in August 1966. He had been at the Australian National University, and in December 1966 John Foyster went to Canberra to talk to people who had known him. One of the people John talked to, and the most helpful, since he was an sf reader as well as a friend of Linebarger's, was Arthur Burns. When I moved to Canberra in 1972 I wanted to meet Professor Burns, but I always get nervous about meeting eminent people, whether professors, poets, politicians or even publishers, so it took a while to work up the courage to ring him. I needn't have worried; he sounded very congenial on the phone and a few days later we talked for hours at the Kingston pub.
I asked Arthur if he knew A.D. Hope. I had reprinted one of his poems, without his permission, in one of my fanzines. Two years after the event I had sent a copy to him with a letter craving forgiveness and retrospective permission, and by return mail he acknowledged this with a pleasant note, promising not to sue and offering to subscribe to my fanzine. Arthur said Yes, he's like that, a delightful bloke, you should look him up. What, I thought, me look up A.D. Hope, Australia's most distinguished poet, and a professor of English and OBE to boot? Not bloody likely! Arthur said that Alec was fond of science fiction, but I was not moved. I had no intention of calling on him. Would I go dropping in at The Lodge if I knew that the prime minister was fond of sf? Of course not.
Early in March 1973 I sent Professor Hope some more of my amateur publications. He wrote and thanked me for "the Collected Works" and suggested we meet some time for lunch or a drink. Oh god, I thought, me and my big typewriter! I must explain, for readers unfamiliar with the psychopathology of fanzine publishing, that what I wanted from the man was a letter I could publish, not an invitation to lunch. The fanzine, properly conceived, is a conversation between its editor and his readers, all on paper, not over drinks. The best fanzine publishers tend to be rather shy, reserved people to meet, sometimes downright boring; some, no-one has ever met. You probably know of writers who are like this. They simply can't bear to meet their readers. Phillip Adams springs to mind -- the writer, I mean, not that bloke in the black skivvy he hires to appear in public and say his lines for him.
Meanwhile, back at Hansard . . . Every time I saw a telephone I went cold and clammy and fluttery inside. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't concentrate on the letters I was writing to other fanzine publishers. (Parliament was in session, but the committees had not started meeting. There was no work to do. Only our bodies were required in the office.) After a few days of this I suddenly pounced on a phone and dialled Professor Hope's number. Engaged. I sat back, sweating. I rang Space Age Books in Melbourne and talked to Lee Harding, then rang Professor Hope again and he answered and we had a pleasant but not reassuring conversation. "Have we met?" he asked, "One meets so many people." It was said kindly, and I realized that of course great and famous people must have trouble sometimes recalling whether they have met people or only heard of them, but that made me feel worse because I was obviously talking to a great and famous person, and in the middle of this idiotic thought process I heard myself saying yes, I would love to come to his place about 5.30 on Friday and have a drink with him. My hand shook as I replaced the receiver.
For the next three days I went cold and clammy and fluttery inside whenever I thought about what I had done, which was approximately all the time. Bob Lehane was the only person at work I could talk to about it. I said to Bob, I'm being stupid about this, aren't I? He said Yes, he's only a man. A shy sort of bloke, Bob, but he's been around. Only a man, I kept telling myself, with decreasing conviction, right up to the moment when it was Friday about 5.30 and I was knocking on Professor Hope's door.
There was no answer.
I knocked again, and stood there trying to look like someone not about to dash to his car and drive off quickly to the nearest pub. Still no answer. I calmed down a bit and thought, So this is what science fiction has brought me to, standing like a loon outside a poet's house in Canberra. I walked slowly to the car, sat in it, and asked myself what John W. Campbell Jr would have done. And answer there came: move the car to where I can comfortably watch the Hope driveway for returning poets. Which I did. And I settled back to read. I always have the complete novels of Peacock in the car's glovebox for just such emergencies. You might say it's a thomas-glove-peek-box. Then again, you might not. By 6 I was well into Gryll Grange when, idly looking about, I saw a grey car in the driveway. It hadn't been there before. I hadn't seen it arrive. This could only mean that Professor Hope had come home during those few minutes when I had been sitting there trying to think calmly and logically, a process that always makes me oblivious to things going on around me, and I was late.
Mrs Hope welcomed me and said she thought Alec was in the garden. She asked if I had had any trouble finding the place. I thought there was someone at the door, she said, but I couldn't see anyone when I looked. We walked through the house and out into the garden, where Professor Hope was picking beans. Alec, she said, this poor man has been sitting in his car waiting for us because he thought we weren't home. I said I thought there was someone at the door earlier, didn't I? Ah, said Professor Hope, walking carefully through the vegetable patch, his hand extended to me, Yes, we've been looking through the telephone book for your number so we could say All is forgiven, please come back! How are you? And I shook hands with Alec Derwent Hope and did not turn to ash.
He went back to his bean-picking and we talked about Peacock. The March of Mind is a much underrated book, he said. I said, Do you mean Gryll Grange? He did. How fortunate that I had just spent half an hour brushing up on that book! I was able to discourse in an informed sort of way on the Pantopragmatic Society and the relative virtues of Dr Opimian and Peacock's other fictional clergymen. I was beginning to enjoy myself.
We joined Mrs Hope at the edge of the pond and helped her count the goldfish. Then we went into the house, where he poured me a large dry vermouth, and out again to the back porch, a pleasant spot, overhung by an enormous grapevine, and Mrs Hope joined us there. I haven't formally introduced you to Mr Bangsund, he said. We introduced ourselves, said Mrs Hope. Mr Bangsund is the funniest man in Canberra, he said, and one of the most serious. I demurred politely. I said I am not at all funny in person, and quoted Anne Woodham's description of me in the current issue of Cleo: "ebullient and loquacious (at least in print)". The Hopes were not familiar with a journal called Queer, and while setting them straight about this I recalled that Professor Hope had mentioned a hardness of hearing and resolved to speak up a bit.
In a little while Arthur Burns arrived and more or less took over the conversation, for which I was thankful. The talk got around to science fiction, and I had to explain my involvement with it, which was difficult, but I think I satisfied them. Both men impressed me with their knowledge of the field. We talked about Cordwainer Smith and Paul Linebarger. All three had known him.
One of Arthur's children rang to say he was wanted to dinner, and he left. Professor Hope invited me to stay and I gladly accepted. We moved inside, since he had begun to feel chilly, and we talked about theology. He mentioned Karl Barth. Luckily, I remembered him. I mentioned my time in theological college. He observed that while Catholic theological students tend to leave college for mainly practical reasons, Protestant students who leave tend to do so because they were on their way out of their religion when they entered college. This was my experience, and I have mentioned it to very few people. It was a strange feeling to hear this man tell me why I left college.
Mrs Hope called us to dinner. Professor Hope poured wine and said Shall we dispense with the patronymics? And from then on they were Alec and Penelope. I discovered that Penelope also is a writer. (Three years later, when I had to become an instant expert on South Australian history, I found her Voyage of the Africaine very useful.) We talked about music. I said that Mahler was one of my favorite composers, and that he seemed to be to music what Thomas Hardy is to English literature. Penelope approved the parallel, and I decided that here was a lady I could like very much. The professor of English mercifully did not comment.
We talked a little of Robert Graves. "The White Goddess," I said, "Is she . . .?" "Oh, she is there," Alec said, "but we do not speak of her." So I spoke of Stephen Vincent Benét instead. Alec gave me a strange look. Thinking quickly, I said "Have you read Flann O'Brien?" He had. "The one book I would like most to have written is At Swim-Two-Birds." "Ah," said Alec, "the throwaway Irish novel." I wasn't game to ask what he meant.
I said that my favorite among his poems was "Vivaldi, Bird and Angel", which seemed to please him (so much that I felt forgiven for mentioning Graves and Benét), and we talked again about music. I mentioned the Requiem of Jean Gilles, a composer few people seem to have heard of. This set off a consulting of reference works, of which there were many in the room, but to no avail. I wondered again whether I had invented Jean Gilles. Perhaps they wondered too.
Arthur Burns returned, with his wife, Netta, who was Bill Hayden's personal secretary and had had a busy day. The night, full of music, wine and good talk, passed quickly. Penelope said at the door that I must come again. Arthur, who had been watering the bushes next door, congratulated me. Alec keeps open house, he said, but only Penelope invites you back. It was a good feeling.
Ah, 1973! Canberra was beautiful. There was purpose there, and joy, at the Hopes' place, at The Lodge, even in Parliament, and I felt part of it. I even liked my job. In memory it seems the happiest year of my life.
When I left Canberra I didn't see Alec for a few years, and when I did he smiled genially and said "Have we met?"
1. The people mentioned in the first paragraph are George Turner, John Foyster, Bruce Gillespie, Leanne Frahm, Damien Broderick, Leigh Edmonds, David Grigg and Lee Harding.
2. About May 1973 I took George Turner to meet Alec and Penelope and their friends. Next day I checked Who's Who in Australia and confirmed my suspicion that everyone in the room was in it except me. It has taken a while but I am pleased to say that I am now in the Melbourne telephone directory.