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This week two stories have formed a backdrop, or more, they’ve been twisting and turning in and around my life, my blood and bones, defining me, in a way, like all good stories do.
The first story:
A week ago, on a Sunday night, I was reading a locally-produced collection of essays when I was reminded about a magazine for young women called Lip, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was established by USA national Rachael Funari when she lived in Canberra some years ago. Lying in bed I wondered about that magazine because it was a good idea done well. According to its masthead, Lip is a magazine for girls who ‘think, feel, create, speak out, live’. It’s a professional publication.
The next morning, via Facebook, I discovered that Rachael had recently gone missing while bushwalking on Bruny Island off the south-east coast of Tasmania. The Facebook page, called ‘Rachael Funari missing. Heard from her?’, had been established by a group of people concerned about their friend’s welfare. Was this true? Yes, this was true.
Rather inanely, I ‘liked’ the page and for the past seven days have been receiving updates in my ‘news feed’. Friends have posted their love and worries; maps of the parts of Bruny Island where Rachael is thought to have gone walking have been uploaded; there have been updates from the police about the search, the fact that a dog trained to find bodies has been flown in from the mainland. It’s been harrowing, even for me who never knew Rachael, in fact I haven’t even read a copy of Lip Magazine, just knew her to be someone who pursued an idea.
A moment ago I checked the Facebook page and the most recent entries tell me that Rachael’s sisters have flown from New York to Tasmania then Bruny Island and have received a briefing from the police. The chances of finding their sister alive are very slim, the rescue is being scaled back but it remains an active investigation. It seems that Rachael may have fallen from a cliff while walking, probably tumbling into the ocean. It might be as simple as that: a misplaced footing.
I’m not sure why I’ve dwelled in Rachael’s story. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been able to follow her disappearance through the prism that is Facebook. Or it might be because I’ve watched as the story (is it right to call her disappearance a ‘story’?) has gone from hope to despair in the space of a few days? Would I have been as interested if I’d not known about Rachael and her good idea, the idea she followed all the way through to implementation? Probably not – people go missing all the time. The people of Japan would know a thing or two about missing people at the moment, and so would the people of Libya.
Maybe it’s just because no one really knows what’s happened to Rachael.
How devastating that is.
The second story:
This week I’ve been away from my little house for longer than usual. Cat the Ripper, who is twelve years old now, had to stay home and guard my – correction: our – place, except he does nothing of the sort, he just sleeps and sunbakes and gives the sparrows that share this rickety joint the most deathly of stares, though he does nothing about these tiny nervous birds, because he’s retired from his hunting ways. It’s a small garden I have these days – it’s not much bigger than two car-park spaces – but there are plenty of shady spots and sunny bits for him to enjoy.
This week, however: would he be alright while I was away? Would he cope with being alone for those two extra nights? His feeder is only meant to last forty-eight hours, not the four days required, so I had to over-fill the trays, and include dog food, which he likes but only once he’s knocked off the official cat food.
So it was with trepidation that I came round the corner and pulled into the lane that runs down the side of my house. Ahead: the driveway gate was open. This wasn’t good. The garden gate: this too was ajar. How could this be? I secure both gates when leaving, especially the driveway one which has two latches. This really wasn’t good.
But there he was, Cat the Ripper, my mate (though he can also be a shit, this is true), walking up to me, meowing, curling his body around my ankles.
Together with the Old Lady of the House, we checked all the doors and windows, the computer and printer, the stereo, and the CD and record collections. All was okay. Best of all, despite the gates being open, CTR had decided to hang around, and how this humbled me. Sure he needs the food I give him, but perhaps he also needs me, which almost makes me cry.
Hundreds of kilometres south of here, and in other places around the world, people wonder what on earth it is that’s happened to Rachael Funari. They miss her, they’re grieving already.
But here, in Goulburn, I listen to my cat purring on my couch.
There’s no sense to this.
Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday morning, I sent an email. It wasn’t any old email; it was a very particular email, one I’d been thinking of sending for months. The email was to three people: a well-known Australian writer, a life-long publisher, and the man behind a radical Melbourne-based press. All three men, good men, wise men, in their own various ways have become a mentor to me, because I can’t do this alone.
Over the last two years the well-known Australian writer has been working with me on a manuscript for my second novel; how encouraging he has been, so generous with his advice and time. The longstanding publisher put out my first novel, Remnants, distributing it nationally and internationally, garnering ten reviews, nine of which were more than positive; I have a contract out on the writer of the negative one. The man behind the radical press read a manuscript I wrote when I did my masters in creative writing back at the University of Wollongong in 2000/2001 and loved it so much that he wanted to publish it; when it was eventually published – it would become the manuscript for my first novel – he offered me such praise that I was humbled to a pulp.
Yes, these men have become mentors, people I look up to, people I need.
Two weeks ago, I was in need of some mentorly love, because I’d hit a wall. After seventeen years of writing, of hard work, the last five of which have been so incredibly intense, getting up at 5am even when I felt like I’d been hit by a train, being committed, tenacious, single-minded, I had nothing to show for it. Well, that’s not entirely true. To keep myself sane during the writing of what I’d hoped would be my second novel, I produced what I’ve been calling ‘creative journalism’, which is a euphemism for ‘stuff I send to the newspaper even though I have no idea what I’m doing’. It’s true that I’ve loved writing these pieces – a monthly 500-word column (filed here on Under the Counter in the various First Word archives) and the odd feature – and I’ve taken their production seriously, as seriously as I take my fiction. But it’s not fiction, it’s not as magical as that.
It’s true that in the last eighteen months I’ve established a website, and this blog-shaped spot in the world, and Verity La – the on-line creative arts journal that thinks it can, and actually does, and more recently, to my amazement and gross disappointment, a god-damn Facebook profile. (Finding myself with the latter is like spending a lifetime hating commercial FM pop music only to discover myself enjoying a Phil Collins CD. If this were to happen in real life, I’m off to Mars.)
The point of my email to my holy trinity of mentors? That I’d had enough.
Of writing. Of being a writer.
Yes, it sounds dramatic, even overdramatic. But I couldn’t see the point of continuing. Sure, I love the act of writing, the intolerable wrestle with words and ideas, and I love the act of reading – my bookshelves radiate such goodness into my little home that I could never imagine being without them. However, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and asking the hard questions. Has this love of mine become a health-hazard? (Perhaps heroin addicts ask the same question.) Might it not be better to spend the next forty years pottering around in my garden, pruning this, potting that, planting something else? Gardening is fulfilling, and life-saving, especially now that I have only a handkerchief-sized plot of dirt to play in.
The odds of getting published in Australia are extraordinarily long – one in a thousand is a figure I saw quoted in a reputable literary journal – and you have to write something extraordinary for it to have a life out of the bottom drawer. It’s this that I shared with my mentor men. Of course, I was fishing for words of wisdom, if not outright praise. ‘Nigel, you are clearly the best developing writer in the country – it would be a crime against humanity to give up now.’ That kind of thing.
I sent my email, shut down my lap-top, and then thought to myself, what a whiny, ungrateful bastard that email will make me sound like. But I didn’t care – I meant what I wrote, because I needed help. It was the first time I’d done such a rash thing.
So, it was with more than a shock that I opened the laptop the next morning and found not a reply from one of my mentor men but an email from Blemish Books saying that they were interested in a pair of novellas that I’d sent them and would like to meet to discuss their publication. We’ve since had our meeting and the first novella, Fall On Me, will be published in September/October this year; depending on the success of the first, the second, I’m Ready Now, will be published in 2012.
Am I excited? You better fucking believe it.
In the past, the journey to publication has been a private matter, something that I’ve largely kept to myself, the choicest bits shared with He Who Has To Put Up With These Things, and a little bit dribbled here and there to family and friends. This time, however, thanks to a website, this blog, and a god-damn Facebook profile, I’m going to do regular updates – reality TV, if you like, except without the TV. We could call the series of posts Nigel’s Got Talent (no, that won’t do, obviously), or The Text-Factor (cute, but corny), or My Novella Rules (which is pretty hilarious). Or perhaps we should simply call it The Blemish Novella Story. Yes, we’ll call it that, because ‘blemish’ means ‘imperfection’ and ‘fault’ and ‘blotch’, and I am nothing if not these things.
Come with me as I tell all – the whole box and dice: the highs, the lows, the gossip, the last-minute dramas and hissy-fits – as a little novella that was born in a cliff-face gatekeeper’s cottage comes into the gaze of what I can only hope will be a completely and utterly adoring public.
Hoo-bloody-ray for the unpredictability of life.
What do a pair of lawyers, a country homestead, an iconic Australia pop artist, a massive merino, a man with a ukulele, an Archibald Prize-winning water-colourist, and a mythical yellow house have in common?
To find the answer we’ll have to go time-travelling. It’s 1960s Sydney and a young girl opens a copy of Oz, the infamous antiauthoritarian magazine which would put its founders in jail for obscenity. An advertisement: Wanted, Nude Model for a Martin Sharp collage. The girl thinks she could give it a go so rings the number; within days she’s standing in a studio, throwing the required shapes with her body. When the session is over she’s given “twenty quid”, taken out for lunch, and then sent home. No ramifications. Except, it seems, one.
Fast-forward five decades and we’re sitting in a crumbling early nineteenth-century homestead called South Hill. The homestead and its various outbuildings, including a sheering shed, a barn, and “heritage” chook-yards, sit high on a hill adjacent the southern free-way exit to Goulburn. Look one way and there’s a sobering view of the abattoir; look another way it’s the rolling north-eastern edge of the Monaro. Just there, however, almost touchable, is the bitumen rush of the Hume Highway as it impatiently skirts Australia’s first in-land city, except it’s really just a town, a town that most Canberrans associate with pit-stops at a ubiquitous fast-food restaurant and gawking at the concrete Big Merino.
South Hill, the property, isn’t overly manicured. It doesn’t smell of money, its soul hasn’t been destroyed by renovation. Uncut red geraniums sprawl here and there; strummed acoustic music comes from somewhere nearby. I like being here, especially as I’m talking with Linda Gumbert, an articulate, fiercely intelligent but gregarious sixty-plus-year-old woman. Gumbert, who appears ridiculously fit for her age, is wearing blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt with ETERNITY across the front; it’s the sort of T-shirt you’d expect to find on a thinking woman from the city, a thinking woman who was once a girl who saw an ad in a magazine.
“You’ll want to ask me about how I know Martin Sharp,” she says, mischievously.
I ask her. She tells me her story. But Gumbert’s day with Australia’s most revered pop artist is only part of a much bigger story, one that is just beginning.
At the turn of the millennium, Linda Gumbert and her husband Roland, both lawyers based in Sydney, had a hankering that they might like to invest in a country town. “We chose Goulburn deliberately because it’s accessible and we thought it might take off.’ Gumbert laughs; there’s much knowing in her wide-eyed face, but there’s also something of the teenaged girl that once was, an obvious delight in the world. “The other thing that’s attractive about Goulburn is it’s not full of teddy-bear shops and an antique store on every corner. When you swing into the main-street you park beside a sheep truck. It filled our desire for something real.”
How did South Hill come to being in the Gumberts’ hands?
“Quite by chance,” says Linda, as if she can’t quite believe that she and her husband have ended up with the place, “we picked up the newspaper and saw that this place was for sale. The auction was in two days. It was owned by the local Anglican minister – a bit of a bed-and-breakfast thing, some pictures on the walls, a few artsy soirées. We got some advice that said don’t buy it. But we bought it anyway, because we knew better!” Gumbert laughs again, giving a clear signal that when she wants to do something she just bloody well goes and does it.
“The house needs a million dollars which we don’t have, it’s freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer. We don’t know anything about sheep or fencing. We had to do something – we thought of having a performing arts centre, but we settled on a gallery.”
The couple admit to not having a background in the arts, just an unshakeable belief that healthy societies embrace creativity with open arms. They set about scoring a patron. “I reminded Roland that I once took my clothes off for Martin Sharp,” Linda Gumbert explains. “Maybe we should speak to him about how to open a fine-art gallery? I was too scared to make a phone call, so I wrote a letter and said, you wouldn’t remember me but we’re starting this gallery in Goulburn and do you want to give me a ring. He rang me back a few days later and said, I remember you really well and still have the photos – come over.”
Linda and I take a break and, together with Roland (who’s handsome in a way that suggests he might know more about farming than he likes to let on), we do a tour of the three rooms of the gallery part of the main house, and then through the rest of the rooms. At the heart of the place, above a glassed-in courtyard space, hang two massive banners Martin Sharp produced to celebrate Tiny Tim, the American ukulele player most of us remember as the funny-looking bloke who sung ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ in an unearthly falsetto.
“When you get Martin Sharp to be your patron,” Roland Gumbert tells me, “you also get his great love of Tiny Tim.” In fact one room at South Hill is filled with Tiny Tim and other 1960s memorabilia: paintings, books, photographs, odds and ends. A glass hallway cabinet displays original copies of Oz magazine. It’s hard not to get the impression that the Gumberts believe that this new, potentially staid decade needs something of a much earlier, more liberal era.
I’m shown around the grounds. An American-born Sydney artist called Rudy Kistler is currently working on a body of work in a shed; he appears in floppy hat with a handful of raspberries. Peter Royles, a folk musician and “original Yellow House member” (whatever that is) who happens to live in Goulburn, practices in another shed. There are plans to hold open-air concerts in a natural bowl high up on a ridge.
“You’ll have to go to Sydney to interview Martin,” Linda Gumbert requires of me. “He wants to turn South Hill into Yellow House!” I really have no idea what she’s talking about so I nod politely, hoping that she doesn’t see through me, except Linda and Roland Gumbert are perceptive people, and I’m twenty years younger than them, so they’d know, they’d know.
Linda Gumbert explains that in Sharp they didn’t only get a patron but someone who is inordinately connected to the arts world – through Sharp they were put on to local photographer Jon Lewis and another “original Yellow House member”, who then introduced the Gumberts to Cherry Hood, the Archibald Prize-winning portrait painter who lives nearby.
Back home I Google “Martin Sharp Yellow House”. Apparently Yellow House was a terrace in Potts Point. In the sixties it was a hang-out for a wide range of artists including Brett Whitely, Jim Sharman, Peter Weir, and folk-singer Gary Shearston, amongst many others. The walls were painted in all sorts of colours, something about a train coming out of a fireplace. It seems that it was one part university grouphouse, one part hippy love den, and one part scary bohemian arts happening; it feels like the ground zero of radical Sydney.
My mind is spinning. I really do need to interview Martin Sharp.
First, however, let’s hear from Cherry Hood about her role as South Hill curator. Cherry Hood’s practice focuses on large painterly portraits, primarily of children and animals. On top of winning the 2002 Archibald Prize for her study of pianist Simon Tedeschi, Hood’s work is represented in many Australian collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, and the BHP Billiton Collection.
What originally interested Hood in the Gumberts’ plans for South Hill? “When Linda asked me to open an exhibition of paintings I naturally wanted to know more about what they wanted to achieve. Their idea was wonderful; it was very exciting that a new gallery was to open here. Our Regional Gallery is excellent but Goulburn needed at least one commercial space to compliment it. So I wanted to help them fit-out the gallery and with choosing artists who are serious and dedicated.”
What about Martin Sharp’s apparent vision to bring Yellow House to South Hill – how does Hood see that unfolding?
“One of the great periods for art in Australia’s cultural history was when Yellow House was alive and well in Sydney. Martin was inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s idea of bringing artists “to the South” to join him in his Yellow House, which is what he called his studio.” (Ah, it’s becoming clearer now!) “Vincent, like other artists, knew that good things happen when artists get together and brainstorm, artists inspire each other to greater things. So Martin has seen a very nice synchronicity in this idea of a new Yellow House in Goulburn. And while the walls may not get painted in bright colours or patterns every few days and the Pop Movement is long gone, South Hill has already become a meeting place and the Gumberts have already established an artist-in-residency program.”
A week later, I’m on the early-bird train to Sydney to meet Martin Sharp. How has this happened? It feels like South Hill has put a spell on me, one that’s saying follow all leads, never be afraid. To manage my apprehension I’ve done more research: I’ve learnt that Sharp designed the influential album covers for sixties rock legends Cream, that he even wrote the lyrics for Cream’s most famous song, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’, that Eric Clapton likes to visit his old friend (there’s a photograph at South Hill to prove it).
I’ve read how Sharp’s cartoons and illustrations were a central feature of Oz, both in Australia and London. I know a little more about Martin Sharp’s passion for Tiny Tim – Sharp even produced some of his albums. I’ve learnt that Sydney is besotted with their pop artist, and I get the impress that this man is Australia’s Andy Warhol and that his Yellow House might have been just like Warhol’s Factory.
The closer my train gets to Central the more my hands feel faint with nerves. I take comfort in something Linda Gumbert told me: “Martin is a believer in the crossing of paths. There are no mistakes.”
Now I’m walking down the steep driveway of what would be a harbourside mansion should the owner be interested. Martin Sharp, a slim man with longish grey hair that gives a hint to how he would have looked as a young creative provocateur in the sixties, greets me warmly, even tenderly, and welcomes me into his inherited home. An artist who is doing work on Sharp’s extensive Tiny Tim archive makes us a cup of tea each and then we get down to business in his studio. The room, as you’d expect, is filled with paintings and books although it’s darker than I’d imagined, a result of the wood panelling that surrounds us.
Sharp is erudite and deeply thoughtful if not a little rambly, though that might be due to a recent spell of ill health more than anything else. We’re joined by a cat called Imelda, after Imelda Marcos, because the feline had a shoe obsession when she was a kitten. Later Sharp will tell me why Susan Boyle, who unexpectedly was runner-up on reality TV show Britain’s Got Talent in 2008, is someone who should be admired: “She’s one of my great heroes. Such courage, she turned the world around.”
So. Why is Martin Sharp involved with South Hill?
“Because Linda Gumbert asked me and she said that I didn’t have to do anything.” That’s it, that’s Sharp’s answer. He doesn’t laugh, just rolls another of what will be an endless series of cigarettes, selecting tobacco from a ceramic bowl. Perhaps realising that I need a more expansive answer, he mercifully adds, “I like the Gumberts very much.” Sharp then tells me that when he was asked to be patron of South Hill he had to look up the word in an old dictionary. “It’s got a different meaning that you’d normally think,” he warns.
I have an old dictionary and have since looked it up. He’s right.
As patron, does Sharp have a vision for South Hill? “I’m thoughtful about the place, put it that way.” Again he pauses. At last he continues: “South Hill has enormous potential as an ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place. You could start exhibitions there and then they go on to other places.’’
An ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place – how’s that for a concept.
“Linda’s a very charismatic person,” Sharp goes on, now without encouragement. “She’s a power-house. I love her spirit. South Hill has charisma.” A new cigarette is lit. “I can see the place almost being like a college.” He would like to see South Hill hold a children’s art competition. “The great exhibitions that go on at the end of the school year – you know, it’s remarkable work. I’ve seen some astounding stuff, better than the art gallery shows.”
The artist points to a series of paintings hanging around the top of the walls of his studio which he did when he was sixteen years old. “They’re not bad,” he says. “I’m impressed and I get more impressed as time goes by.”
What about this whole notion of recreating Yellow House down at South Hill? “Well, it would be a lovely idea in theory, but…” Sharp gives out an impish laugh, as if he’s gently telling me that he’s not going to do all the work. “Yellow House very much came out of the sixties. The theory was if you make a good environment, if you can create a garden where all sorts of things can grow…” He trails off as if enjoying the memory. “It was held together by a high degree of visual tuning and intelligence within its decoration, and then within that all sorts of things like films for show, poetry readings, concerts, cabaret emerged. There’s great potential down at South Hill to do the same thing.”
But can it happen in good old Goulburn town, a place where, so I’m told, even the hospital’s surgeon has tattoos?
“Vincent Van Gogh, the patron saint of artists, said a good painting does good wherever it is. I love that.” Sharp asks me if I’ve read Van Gogh’s letters? No. He sucks in his breath through his teeth as if he’s just witnessed a bad car accident. He says, “You should. Vincent said, ‘There will be an art of the future and it will be so lovely and beautiful that we’ll give up our youth for it but will surely gain serenity.’ He felt that it would come from the popular side of art.”
I have to ask about Tiny Tim.
Martin Sharp first saw the unique if not eccentric musician at the Albert Hall in London in 1968 and decided that he was in the presence of genius. “Tiny was a master of the whole language of the popular song, a pioneer post-modernist, if you want to look at it that way. I think he’s as great as van Gogh, I really do, he’s an artist of the first magnitude. He was time-travelling all the time.”
Time-travelling: I haven’t heard that term in ages.
Perhaps South Hill is time-travelling, from its original pastoral purpose to countrified bed-and-breakfast establishment, from fine-art gallery and residency complex to – with hard work as well as a good dose of luck, even a little magic – Australia’s new wildly influential Yellow House.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
The best thing is that none of this is happening in an image-obsessed inner-city suburb but right on the edge of our oldest in-land town, which is just up the road from the National Capital. All because two supremely motivated people believe in the inherent value of the arts and that creativity can and should happen anywhere, and this belief is going to be pursued until the cow’s come home. Meanwhile, Cherry Hood will skilfully curate, and Martin Sharp – rather dreamily, it must be said – will encourage and protect.
Thank God the young Linda Gumbert liked reading obscene magazines.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, on 5 March 2011. Thanks to Linda and Roland Gumbert, and Cherry Hood. Much gratitude to Martin Sharp. Never have I ever thought that I’d end up meeting such good people and writing a story like the one above.)