Books

David Walsh
A Bone of Fact

Eric Reece was more far-sighted than he knew. The long-time Labor premier of Tasmania was convinced that a casino would make a tourist mecca of the island state. Parliament demurred, but a referendum decided it and, in 1973, Australia’s first casino opened in Hobart.

The Wrest Point casino was an instant hit, and the government’s windfall from casino tax far outstripped expectations; problem was, most of it came out of the pockets of Tasmanians, not tourists. “Gambling is evil,” a Hobart society matron told ABC TV at the time, “and I don’t think there can ever be a good thing come out of it.” Turns out she was wrong and Reece was right. It took 40 years and an indirect route, but Tasmania’s payoff from the casino seems finally to have arrived, big time.

“[I]f there’s one thing that makes my thinking different from most,” writes David Walsh in his memoir, “it’s my natural proclivity to see the ghosts of possible pasts having an impact on the present.” In the early 1980s, Walsh was a student at the University of Tasmania, in Hobart. His studies in mathematics he found less than compelling, but an overheard conversation and a library book introduced him to the basics of card-counting and – luck was with him from the start – there was a casino within a kilometre of campus. Now, as a founding member of a global gambling syndicate, Walsh is a phenomenally rich man – or would be, had he not sunk his fortune (and more) into MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art.

Walsh is lauded as a great Tasmanian: a man who single-handedly, and out of perverseness as much as anything, has made his home state an international cultural destination. Before MONA opened, Walsh was nervous of its reception by the locals. He anticipated (hoped?) that some of the more outré artworks would provoke calls for censorship, if not burning. But people’s tolerance has surprised and heartened him – perhaps even changed him.

On the page, Walsh pitches himself as alternately bullying and collaborative, blunt and affectionate, offensive and respectful, oafish and sophisticated. It’s not hard to believe that, as a close friend of Walsh’s told Richard Flanagan, “David can be a complete cunt.” But what emerges, even through the smart-arsery and hectoring, is a spirit of generosity and – the real surprise – humility.

Walsh attributes his successes to luck. In fact, a belief in the centrality of luck, for good and ill, underpins his whole philosophy. (He despises those who take credit for their successes while blaming their failures on luck.) Why should that come as any surprise? He’s a gambler, true, but a scientific one: he knows the odds and subverts them.

Nothing is out of bounds to Walsh’s imagination and, a born enthusiast, he’s keen to share his thought experiments. The openness of his imagination welcomes others’ creative leaps. Hence the “O”, the iPod-based, GPS-driven guiding tool that does away with wall text at MONA and encourages visitor input. And Walsh explains how his team “came up with a pretty nifty idea” for exhibition design. “We had the museum blueprints loaded into a game engine,” he writes. “The resultant game effectively consists of running around putting art on the wall…”

In writing his memoir, one thing Walsh sought to avoid was “a disabling manifesto”, by which he seems to have meant a conventional narrative structure. Life story as lucky dip is the result. The “art book” format – heavy paper, profuse illustrations, gold-edged pages – and an absence of chapter numbers further suggest that, prologue and endnotes notwithstanding, A Bone of Fact is meant to be dipped into, rather than read from front to back. Pretty early on, Walsh shakes off chronology and takes flight. Posturing and polemic are much in evidence, as is what Richard Flanagan has called an “obsessive desire to explain”. In his 2013 profile of Walsh, Flanagan observed that his subject “talks in torrents or not at all”. On paper, of course, you don’t get the “not at all”, only the torrents. 

It seems as though Walsh – and his publishers – left everything in. “I spent so long on that last sentence (but remain unhappy with it) that I’ve forgotten what I was segueing into. Bugger.” Several times, he confides that he’s writing aboard a plane – in first class, of course “(lucky bastard)”. At one point he writes: “this will probably be the last chapter I write, since my publisher at Pan Macmillan has politely indicated the manuscript is too long”. Yet the book runs for another 134 pages. His many mentions of his editor’s frustration/bafflement/indulgence seem less a disregard for publishing’s fourth wall than a typical Walshian acknowledgement of a collaborator.

In the same spirit, he frequently cites Wikipedia, which he calls “the most elegant expression of the value of democracy, and the most worthwhile endeavour of humanity”.  And he’s never afraid to reveal the flaws in his own authority. After extolling the Australian Post, a magazine he read at the barber’s as a boy, he corrects himself at last: “I just looked up the Australasian Post (I even got the name wrong)…”

All of which is kind of charming and goofy, a counterbalance to the windbaggery. Walsh lets rip with explanatory-exploratory discourses on topics ranging from quantum physics to sexual politics, investment strategies to animal rights, defecation to Dostoyevsky – some of which (as when he posits submission to rape as a heritable genetic trait) may have been best kept at the dinner table, if not to himself. Wry, conversational footnotes in the margins take some of the hot air out of the text

A Bone of Fact can be read as a companion to MONA, an elaboration of its creator’s pugnacious originality and questing, collaborative disposition. And its wide margins, like the O, seem to invite rejoinders.  FL
 
Picador, 384pp, $55

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 4, 2014 as "David Walsh, A Bone of Fact". Subscribe here.