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Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Summer is odd, especially in Australia.

The first dose of decent weather – as in clear blue skies, no wind, 35-degree temperatures, and, where I live, 50% humidity (or less) – brings a sense of optimism: finally we’re through the winter and can now go outdoors without worrying about being frozen to death or being blown off the face of the Earth.  This week we at last had that feeling, because we had two days in a row of good summery weather.  So, yes, optimism.

But this week has also brought sadness.  The passing away of Nelson Mandela.  Closer to home, we’ve had the death of eminent Australian contemporary artist Martin Sharp at the age of 71.  It might be just a little strange to put these two names in the same paragraph, but I think it’s apt, not because of these two men having made similar contributions to the world – they didn’t – but because both lived such genuine and genuinely inspiring lives.

Martin Sharp was – and no doubt will continue to be for some time – Australia’s answer to Andy Warhol.  There’s plenty written about him, and there’s certainly been quite a few thoughtful and informed obituaries, including this one from his colleague and friend Richard Neville.  To many, Sharp will be remembered for being a founding member of Oz, a radical and irreverent magazine –  today we’d call it a zine – that lampooned authority and tradition, particularly the church, including conservative attitudes to sexuality.  He also designed some of the most iconic rock-music album covers from the 1960s/70s.  Later, he’d become an obsessed champion of Tiny Tim, Ginger Meggs, and Sydney’s site-of-thrills-and-fun Luna Park.  He continued to practice for the rest of his life, though became fond of spending years, if not decades, touching up his earlier work.

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan, 1967

Amazingly, through sheer luck, in early 2011 I interviewed Martin Sharp in his Sydney home for the Canberra Times.  He was warm, generous with his time, thoughtful, always choosing his words carefully, not because he was guarded (though he might have been), but, I think, he just wanted to be clear.  He chain-smoked through the entire morning, constantly rolling homemade cigarettes, the tobacco in a bowl in the table as though it was merely just some kind of herb that he was about to use for cooking.  I found him to be utterly unpretentious, and during the interview we spoke about his great love of Tiny Tim, Vincent Van Gogh (his life’s great inspiration), and that he thought the best art was being done by school children.  He’d become religious in his old age, though in the broad, somewhat mystical sense that artists can become religious (I doubt he went to church), and I remember how he said that in certain contexts conservative thinking can be radical.

I asked him if he had any modern-day heroes, and without blinking an eye he said, ‘Susan Boyle.’  I knew only a little of Boyle, but when I got back home made sure to learn more about her.  What was it about this UK talent-show contestant that had intrigued Sharp so?  I remember how he said that she’d given her all, everything, put her whole being on the line, words to that affect.  So I googled her and was amazed to find myself getting goose-bumps.  When I could drag my way from Youtube I wrote up the interview and the resultant feature article – it wasn’t so much about Martin Sharp but about a new (at the time) gallery and arts facility in Goulburn called South Hill, of which Sharp was the patron – and I also wrote a short piece on how Sharp had given me goose-bumps while telling me about his love for Boyle.

Just before I left Martin Sharp’s house that January day, he gave me a copy of a Tiny Tim album that he’d produced (at considerable expense).  For some reason I’ve never listened to it; perhaps I just didn’t want to take it out of its resolutely plastic-wrapped sleeve.  Maybe I just wanted to keep it as perfect as it had been when it was given to me.  Every time I saw the CD in my collection I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing day that was.

But I’m listening to it now.  It’s hilarious.  But also important: Tiny Tim, just like Susan Boyle, gives every fibre of his being to his performances.

Thanks, Martin, for your time, your wise words, and, above all else, your art.

If I make it to 71 I’ll be sure to remember that morning with you.

In Hong Kong they were everywhere: in doorways, in foyers, in shopfronts, in courtyards, they were even on the smallest of balconies; they were used by the wealthy and the not-wealthy-in-the-slightest. And the first thing I did upon returning home – well, not the first thing: I showered, I emptied the backpack, we slept for twelve hours – was go around to the local garden-nursery.  I didn’t expect to find one; I thought I’d have to drive up to the Southern Highlands where the prevalence of rich people might mean these things would be more readily available.  Luckily I didn’t have to go up to the Southern Highlands.  There they were, tucked away in the citrus section: kumquat trees.  I bought one, one with a good shape, and I also bought a suitably deep red pot, and took the lot home, where, happy as a pig in shit, I got it all together at the backdoor.

In Hong Kong, in China, in much of Asia, kumquat trees are a wish for good fortune.  They’re gifted during the various Lunar New Year festivities.  More often than not they’re kept as a very small tree, a couple of feet high at the most; sometimes they’re almost as small as a bonsai.  So, while the fruit is edible (it can be turned into marmalade and chutney), the tree is seen as decorative more than anything else.  Kumquats have been around for centuries: the earliest historical record of the things is in twelfth-century China.  The rather appropriately – and deliciously – named Robert Fortune, a collector for the London Historical Society, introduced them to Europe in 1846.  And I’ve introduced a kumquat tree to my little old house in Goulburn on Tuesday 14 February 2012.

Do I need good fortune?  In the greater scheme of things I’ve been fortunate in my life: I’ve had – I’m having – an excellent education; I’m healthy (no doubt there’s some dodgy wiring in the old brain-box, but that’s de rigueur these days, isn’t it), and I have family and friends, and I have something that I enjoy doing, writing, which brings in next to no money, but that’s hardly the point.  The point is I don’t really need little trees and the associated superstitions to bring in good fortune.  But I did want a kumquat tree at the backdoor; in fact, I’d made the decision even before leaving Hong Kong.

Really it’s just a souvenir, and certainly it’s better than the tacky crap you can buy in the markets or in the tourist shops or at the airport in the moments before departing.  But perhaps there’s more.  Maybe I do want my good fortune to continue.  Maybe I know how lucky I am to be able to jump on a plane and spend a week experiencing another country.  Maybe I don’t ever want to be in a position where opportunities such as these aren’t possible.  What if my good fortune is about to run out?  Not with my kumquat tree at the back door, it’s not.  So I’m off to water it.  I’ll water it every week.  I’ll give it fertiliser.  I’ll look after it during our severe winters; I might even cover it with a blanket to protect it from frosts.

Fine little kumquat tree: I’ll be good to you; please be good to me.

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