Les Murray talks about shifting perceptions of memory, and his new poetry collection, Waiting for the Past.

By Bob Ellis.

Literary giant Les Murray

Les Murray
Credit: © Barbara Klemm

We discuss, early on, plunging in, the death by red hot poker up the arse of King Edward II and the defenestration of Gaveston, his lover, and Peter Ackroyd’s view that “the Plantagenets invented organised crime”. “Oh, I doubt that,” Les Murray says. “Everything good comes out of Italy, some time or other.”

He sips his drink. “We had a king for a neighbour when we lived in Scotland. Duncan, buried under a petrol station. He was killed in battle by Macbeth, not when he was a house guest – that was a lie, that was propaganda.” He muses on Richard III, under a car park, and what would have happened if his cousin Richmond had lost, not won, at Bosworth. “He would have gone back to Wales and raised his son the wife-killer more strictly, probably, and kept him away from Bullen, and thereby prevented the modern age.”

Murray abjures the computer and writes still with “five and one: five fingers that write, and one that can type”. And he thereafter types it up “five, six, 10, 12, lots of times ’til it’s perfect. I want the pain. I want to have to think. And each time I botch it, I have to think more.”

We have a Jim Beam each, and I a Big Breakfast, in a Jewish restaurant I like to go to sometimes, unfamiliar to him. We have come back to Bondi where we shared a room in 1959 and 1960 and Abe Saffron, the prominent Sydney gangster, was our landlord, and on bad nights Les burnt his poems on the bathroom floor, and I protested, and he scooped them up and flushed them away; and we argued about religion, had a fistfight about it, and the rest of it; and how my sister’s ghost came for me when I slept under the ping-pong table, asking how I was going. But those are other stories.

His new book is called Waiting for the Past, about how “we remember things differently, each time we remember”. I recall an essay by Susan Sontag about how the same photo of, say, a fashionable woman in the 1890s looks different to the same observer as years go by. “There’s a set of rules about that,” he says, “about obsolescence and how things become unfashionable, and then almost ugly, and then they start to take on a kind of… timelessness.” The ugly/unfashionable phase takes 30 years, he reports; timelessness, a hundred.

We drink some more. He was depressed for a long while, he admits, but he’s never thought of killing himself. “I’ve never been tempted that way at all. I was gonna beat it. I was always defiant.” Could he sleep, I asked. “No. When I was bad, and that was for years on end, it’d wake me up at four o’clock and put me through my paces, the real miseries. Then it would say, ‘All right, we sign off now, have a little more sleep and by four o’clock this afternoon we’ll meet again, upon the sofa.’ Total time for being in hell, eight hours, divided into two regimes of four.” It was, he had told me 20 years ago, “like cutting off your head, boiling it in a saucepan of water, and eating it, and then saying, ‘I’ll do that again in four hours.’ Talk about laugh.”

His classic book on the subject, Killing the Black Dog, is coming out again this year, and I ask where the phrase was from. “Goethe’s Faust,” he says. “Mephistopheles took the shape of a black poodle dog. Not a benign breed of dog at all.”

I ask where his dog came from, and he needs no prompting. And I hear, again, and I wish I hadn’t, a familiar, terrible family story, as dark as a Grimm’s fairytale. His grandfather bade his father cut down a particular tree. His father refused because it was hollowed out with white ants, “and if you try to fell it, it’ll fall all over you”. And his grandfather, “a furtive old bastard”, bade his dad’s brother Archie do it instead. “And Archie didn’t know nearly as much about timber felling as Dad, and it fell on him and killed him. And the two of them had it against each other, it was your fault, no, it was your fault, and Grandfather, being the paymaster of the two, he kept Dad poor as a punishment.

“And my parents were made unhappy by extreme poverty they didn’t need to suffer. And whenever they wanted to do something, Grandfather would veto it. And then my mother died from a number of miscarriages, a series of them.”

This death was not as I remembered it, though, because of a latecoming ambulance. No, he said. The story, he heard later on, was different.

“He did ring up and he got the doctor. Only in those days the doctor wanted to be told what he wanted the ambulance for. And Dad couldn’t tell him. He sort of… jammed up, and just kept repeating, ‘She’s having a bad turn.’ Because he knew he was on a telephone line overheard by the biggest gossip in the district. He didn’t want to let private business out. My Aboriginal cousin Vicki said lots of Aboriginal people die that way all the time. They don’t know how to address the white authority figure.”

And so the ambulance came too late, and so she died, and after that, “Dad was wreckage. He felt himself responsible for the death of his brother and of his wife. Everything was accursed that he put his hand to. And if you tried to reproduce, the victim would surely die.”

Motherless, and beset and harried by a now depressive dad, Les boarded weekdays for a while in Taree and, at school, fat, underinstructed and lonely, was tested every day by “a bunch of girls who told me I was worthless and unfashionable and hopeless and useless” – in those words, and others. Sometimes one would come up to him and pretend to like him, and then run away giggling to the others, screaming with laughter. This treatment was constant, he recalls.

He’d go home on weekends, and his dad would be in tears – “He didn’t want to be in a world that Mum wasn’t in, especially not happy in it” – and he’d come back on Mondays, to another chapter of his persecution.

I ask what Murray was reading in those years. “The library,” he tells me. All books other than science and engineering. “I wish a new book would come out,” he says. “I think I’ve read them all.” Five thousand new books come out a week in London,
I protest. “Yeah, but I’ve read all the earlier versions.”

We leave the cafe, and walk slowly to a rumoured Chinese restaurant half a mile up the hill. We talk of his gift for languages, and his decision to be, in his 30s, “a poet, not a linguist”, and I ask what the Aboriginal dialects of his district, which he has written in, mean to him. “Sorrow, in some ways,” he responds, “that so much human thought, and so on, can gradually fade away. I mean, Gathang is probably irrecoverable by now, not enough people speaking it, no real live speakers anymore.” His brother-in-law did a dictionary and grammar of the Gulpangira language, just to the north of his region, around Kempsey, and “people can speak it if they want to, and they do, but mostly only on ceremonial occasions”.

We keep walking uphill, asking directions. His vast bulk slows, and his will flags, and we opt instead for a Parisian restaurant across the road. I ask how many Aboriginal languages there are now. “They reckon there’s about 30, in good health, out of about 260.” He gives his familiar cackle. “A contrast with New Guinea, which has 800 languages, most of which are quite lively. Now that’s a score. That’s a score.”

I buy beer, he disdains it: “I gotta drive home.” He wishes his dad had done what he promised, buy him an Alexandria tenement in 1957 for £700; he could have stayed there now if he had, stayed overnight; but his dad had this habit, he said, of “almost” giving him things. “ ‘I thought of getting you such and such,’ he’d say, ‘but then I thought better of it.’ ” If he had bought then, I reflected, I’d never have met Les; had another life entirely.

We order some soup, and I ask about the Aboriginal massacres, how many there were, how many died, and he says nobody knows. “We haven’t even heard all the Aboriginal evidence yet; but by now a lot of that would be legend, would be… misremembered. How many of them were massacres, how many of them were people dying of starvation because their food supply had broken down… How many of them put the white man’s baby alongside a tree for him to find when he was riding along, hoping he would adopt it. That happened, too.” A man who lived up the road from him was one of the babies, one of the lucky ones.

The past is never over, it isn’t even past.

It’s never even past. Murray has two daughters in Melbourne who don’t talk to each other, a son in Sydney he’s fallen out with whose son just had his bar mitzvah, and Alexander, autistic, now 36, who lives with him, and, “Oh, he talks. He talks. But he doesn’t chat.” His wife, Val, after a bad knee operation is in John Hunter Hospital perpetually getting fixed, and “I want my wife back,” he growls, like an aggrieved little boy. “I want her back.”

We talk of dead friends, the Enigma machine, the stammer of George VI, his coming literary travels in China, Britain, New York, the tooth he lost in New York, his friendship with Ted Hughes. We avoid politics, though he curses Abbott for overruling him and giving a prize to the Flanagan book, “which he hadn’t read”, for some fool reason. His diabetes is… okay, he says. He still stabs himself, cackling, through his dusty jeans with a well-worn hypodermic every morning, but he fell down unconscious in Melbourne a week ago. “I was out for only a quarter of a second, and I injured my bum, and I was messed about in hospital, and I shouldn’t hold it against Melbourne, I know, but I’m old, and I’m inclined to.”

He knows almost everything, and remains, in my experience, the best conversationalist since Dr Johnson, for what it’s worth, and... there he is.

We drive back in my car to his car outside the boutique hotel. He has difficulty squeezing out of mine, less getting into his. “See you,” he says, and gives a wave and drives away.

And I hope I see him again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Les memorables".

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Bob Ellis passed away in 2016. He was an essayist, playwright and screenwriter, and author of The Ellis Laws.