Type
Essay
Category
literary culture
Poetry

'A house in the country spells death'

The first thing Ranald Allan and his friends heard, after they passed through customs at Sydney airport, was John Forbes’ booming deadpan, reciting the poem: ‘Up, Up, Home & Away’.

Allan, together with Linn Cameron, Landon Watts and Jenny Redford, had just returned from a holiday in Bali. Forbes, unable to afford the three-month trip, instead created an imagined version that embraced the clichés of resort holidays: namely drinking, sunshine, lolling about in the water and ‘the highs of sleep abuse’. Allan would have a little over a week to recover, before he and Forbes hitchhiked to the 1974 Adelaide Festival in early March, beginning with a Young Writers Workshop in the old fishing port of Goolwa, 100 kilometres south of Adelaide.

Funded by the Australia Council, the five-day workshop enabled the 15 successful applicants (mostly male poets) to write under the tutelage of Ron Simpson, Barry Oakley, and Peter Mathers, in the opulent setting of ‘Graham’s Castle’, a grand Georgian-style home built in the 1860s. Forbes had already come to national attention for his precociously brilliant ‘Four Heads & how to do them’, which won the New Poetry Award in 1972, and he stood out to his would-be instructors. Simpson took one of his poems for The Age. Oakley, for whom Forbes resembled ‘an escapee from the Jesuits’, found him ‘prickly’ but ‘surprisingly lucid’ under the circumstances. He recorded in his diary:

Though we’re supposed to do the talking, John Forbes, a promising poet, prefers to lecture us, especially on the New York School of poets—Ashbery, O’Hara—which he’s surprised we know so little about. He sits down the back in a light haze of marijuana fumes regarding us with bemused condescension through his rimless glasses …

The poet Graham Rowlands, who gave Forbes a lift to Adelaide, remembers an earnest conversation about politics and leftist activism. It only occurred to Rowlands later, as he read the book Forbes recommended, that his passenger was sending him up. The book was Radical Chic & Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers, Tom Wolfe’s sardonic critique of the affluent and fashionable champions of the oppressed.

Forbes’ accommodation for the next three weeks was to be the Contemporary Art Society’s gallery in the inner southern suburb of Parkside, where he would reside as a round-the-clock art installation, entitled: ‘Ask Me Anything About John Forbes’. The work’s creator, Tim Burns, had already caused a stir in the national press for a number of works dealing with explosives and nudity. One installation, ‘Minefield’, had achieved notoriety the previous year. The sign ‘Danger: Land Mines’, hammered into the dirt of a Mildura paddock, was at first dismissed as a joke: ‘Surely not’ Tom McCullough, curator of Sculpturescape ’73, is reported to have said on his final rounds the day before opening. When his companion detonated one of the explosives by casually throwing a rock, the city officials, who were immediately alerted, sent an excavator at dawn the following day to detonate all remaining mines. The previous October, Burns exhibited the screen work ‘A Change of Plan’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, featuring a nude couple locked in a room, visible via CCTV. The work also attracted the attention of the media (and the police), when the male subject beat a naked exit through the gallery. There were rumours that the explosives found at the Martin Place Cenotaph on Anzac Day two years earlier—a front-page story in Sydney’s Daily Mirror—were placed there by Burns. Forbes and Burns had met the previous year through Sydney University’s Tin Sheds and Burns already knew of Forbes’ need for accommodation, when he received an invitation to exhibit in Concepts for the ’74 Adelaide Festival, alongside Mike Parr, Tony Kirkman, Aggie Reid, Mitch Johnson, Tim Johnson and Ron Rowe. Burns conceived, with Forbes, another interactive CCTV work, this time with Forbes as subject: a perfect ruse for him to attend the Festival with a free bed each night.

The balmy evenings lingered late into March that year and, while Forbes was meant to be present in the gallery under 24-seven surveillance, in reality he was in Adelaide to enjoy the Festival. With events scattered all over the city, from gallery openings to plays and live music, Forbes and Searle, sometimes in the company of Allan, sought any place where there was free food and drink. ‘Adelaide’s elder patrons loved having the bright young things to enliven their gatherings’, according to Allan, and ‘the impoverished artists appreciated the free food and drink’. Forbes and Searle swapped identities on a couple of occasions; Forbes would attend artist-parties as Ken Searle, while Searle would attend literary functions as the poet John Forbes.

Writers’ Week was then biennial and spread across a number of inner-city venues. The atmosphere was far from genteel: catcalls, hisses, boos and loud interjections were common, smoking was positively encouraged (often by the Festival’s sponsors), and, by 1974, many events had audiences standing in the aisles. The program that year included Nadine Gordimer and John Updike, and the expatriate poet Peter Porter, who would later become a champion of Forbes’ work, and a friend. The Premier, Don Dunstan, was a ubiquitous presence, whom Forbes and Searle saw give a reading of Winnie the Pooh in his famous pink hot pants on the Museum lawns. Forbes didn’t read his own work that week but some of the Goolwa contingent performed in an open mic session at Edmund Wright House. Searle recalls that when Allan finished reading his short story, he was supposed to introduce the next writer but, before he could do so, ‘a wild man in a low-buttoned red shirt and tight pants’ leapt up and began a loud recitation. ‘Hang on, mate’, Allan interrupted, ‘I need to introduce the next reader.’ The performance stopped, as Allan announced: ‘The next reader is ΠO’. Searle and Forbes, who were smoking dope behind a hat they passed between them, couldn’t control their laughter, as ΠO continued his performance beneath the glorious German rococo ceiling.

Forbes was reasonably comfortable at the CAS headquarters. His room had a bed, chair and books, and after a few days the visitors appearing on the small monitor in his room didn’t seem such a big intrusion. The audience connected with Forbes via a 19-inch SONY monitor, below which hung a sign in black capitals: ‘ASK ME ANYTHING ABOUT JOHN FORBES’. Nine days into the exhibition, an ABC TV reporter visited for the program Get To Know (GTK). Burns, who in the archive footage is naked to the waist, is asked by the combative, off-camera interviewer, to defend not only the merits of his own work but the broader conceptualist project, which he judiciously declines to do. Burns describes his work as a ‘process piece’, devised as a way to get to know Forbes ‘a bit better’, and, in the spirit of much of his art, states that the whole point was for the work to take a direction ‘unknown to me’. Forbes, interviewed via the monitor, concedes that he’s ‘getting bored’ and adds that it has been less confrontational, and more conversational, than he would have imagined. He confesses to have learned something about himself: ‘I found I could talk more easily to a screen than I can to a person in real life’, remarks that belie the abundant self-confidence that others saw in him.

It was around this time that relations between the resident artists and gallery started to turn. There was already a tension between the enfants terrible of Australia’s post-object conceptual art movement and the Contemporary Art Society’s staff. Burns recalls the derision that he and his fellow artists often encountered:

They saw conceptualists as middle class wankers in Adelaide at that stage: we weren’t that popular. We were classified as bourgeois conceptualists; that was their terminology. The Maoists thought that was really corrupt; that we should have been sent to the mountains to dig rice fields.

Forbes’ urinating in the gallery’s kitchen sink caused bad feeling early on. Then the gallery were unhappy with Searle’s works, which included a portrait of Forbes, created by Aquadhere glue and dust reverse-spewed from a vacuum cleaner, on the corridor wall above his monitor.

Searle’s ‘Kangerigar’ series, a bestiary of hybrid parrot-marsupial figures, composed using similar media, were also unwelcome. Tim and Vivien Johnson abandoned their planned naked video work, which was to be in the vein of their infamous Disclosures. Tim instead painted ‘small lyrical landscapes’ on every wall and a large black and white work on the gallery’s exterior—though he escaped censure largely because of his recent appointment to the newly formed Australia Council Board.

Drawing the most ire was the protest initiated by Forbes, Searle and a few errant CAS members. They took objection to the wall erected out the front, which seemed to seclude this ‘public’ gallery from the public. With the sculptor Bill Clements providing bags of cement and his collection of trowels, and Dave Dolan lending a wheelbarrow, the group worked through the night affixing a row of broken beer bottles along the length of the six-foot wall that lined the Porter Street footpath. Unbeknownst to Searle, the wall was constructed from bricks donated by CAS members, and for the gallery, this act was the last straw. The next day staff started tearing Searle’s works from the walls. Burns threatened them with a ‘serious discussion in the carpark’ if they didn’t replace them. The CAS gallery responded by ending the Concepts exhibition.

1974 was a restless year for Forbes. On his return from Adelaide he lived with his parents in Miranda for about a month, where he would return intermittently; there were brief spells living with his brothers, Mick and Chris, in Redfern, a couple of months living with Ken Searle at a share-house in Newtown, a few weeks in the Tin Sheds, and a few months in the coastal town of Wombarra, 40 kilometres south of Sydney. No longer studying or working, Forbes was now living on a Literature Board grant of $1500, and in July he learned that he had been awarded the Arthur Macquarie Fellowship ($3500) from Sydney University, which would take him to the UK the following year. This cleared space for him to write—and to socialise at a frenetic pace: drinking at The Forest Lodge and The White Horse, usually followed by more drinking at someone’s house, often with dope, acid or speed. The drinking and drug-taking were no less a feature of his quieter days on the south coast.

Forbes moved to Wombarra on 20 April and Allan joined him a few days later. The two-bedroom weatherboard shack on Laurence Hargreave Drive was the closest Forbes came to a permanent address that year. A reader might infer from his bio note in the seminal anthology Applestealers—‘[he] now enjoys the sunrise and imperfect health on the coast just south of Sydney’—that Forbes intended to stay far longer than he did. While his health was undoubtedly a factor in the move, relocation brought no change in lifestyle and if Forbes was up at dawn it wasn’t because he was rising early but because he was staying up late. Evenings of drinking, drugs and talk often ended with Allan and Forbes watching the sun rise from their backyard or the cemetery next door.

Allan was on a Literature Board grant to write his first novel, and had brought down a typewriter for that purpose, but the pair mostly talked—about books and the impossible objects of Forbes’ affection—and read a lot. It was ‘always like an education with him’, Allan recalls. ‘He’d thrust something in front of you: O’Hara, Ferlinghetti, a whole world.’ Allan’s novel failed to progress but Forbes, who was never prolific, managed to average a poem or two each month, and probably finalised his Tropical Skiing manuscript for Angus & Robertson during this time.

The backyard at Wombarra dropped down to the rocky sea edge, and occasionally the pair would swim or hang out at the beach. But few friends visited, and even as early as May, the lure of Sydney proved too great. Forbes regularly returned to the city for parties and literary events—and to vote the Whitlam government back in on 18 May. Allan often stayed with his girlfriend in Glebe, and Forbes crashed at Searle’s share-house in Meagher Street, Newtown, or stayed with his brothers at Lawson Street, Redfern.

‘A house in the country spells death,’ Forbes would write in ‘The Sorrowful Mysteries’. Wombarra was relatively close to Sydney and connected by rail; it was hardly the country. Yet when Allan left for Queensland in mid-June, Forbes found its relative isolation depressing. When he moved to Wombarra he intended to stay, if not for the long term, then, at least for the year. The health concerns that had forced him to move back in with his parents the previous year, and the desire to get his life in order, had led to the sea-change, but the location in Allan’s absence fast became unappealing. Even when single for long periods, Forbes rarely lived alone. He was not a writer who worked in isolation or even in silence; he was addicted to talk and energised by people. During that cold June he increasingly felt the pull of the city and a desire to move back. This dilemma—and its obvious solution—are comically rendered in ‘poem’. In this work the speaker forsakes the ‘scenery arranged for the good / of the soul’ to ‘scoot’ off to Sydney, leaving ‘an ode to [his] purity in / the fridge’. He then travels to the city to drink with his friends, and avoid ‘pious thoughts about where / all [his] problems begin’. But all this is presented as a comic thought bubble, or a drama in the mind, which the speaker experiences at home ‘by the sea not breathing / in Sydney’s marvellous pollution’. As subject matter for his poems and as a lifestyle choice, he would go on choosing the impurities of the city over the purities of country living. ‘I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life’ Frank O’Hara opined in ‘Meditations in an Emergency’. Like O’Hara, Forbes would always be a city-poet, and Wombarra would be the closest he would ever come to a house in the country.

In May, Forbes began to collect work from friends for a new magazine, which he would edit with Laurie Duggan. They resolved to call it Surfers Paradise, though no-one remembers why the name was settled on. Forbes maintained that the title was not a pun on ‘surface’ but an evocation of the city. Maybe it was the glamour that appealed; maybe that the city lacked gravitas and was without any pretensions to high culture. Outside Forbes’ circle, the title was sometimes thought to denote regional affiliation: one critic decried the poets who ‘hang out in ghettoes’ like ‘Fitzroy, Balmain and Surfers Paradise’.

The first issue of the magazine was a foolscap-sized stapled production of 26 unnumbered pages. Its cover, a silk-screen print by Colin Little, featured a bikini-clad woman water-skiing on a green sea awash with beer cans. Lacking a contents page, a publication date, an address, or even the editors’ names, the magazine had a print-run of around 100 copies.

The aesthetic of Surfers Paradise was more eclectic than Forbes’ early critical writings might suggest. Kris Hemensley opens the first issue with a lyric flourish. There’s a short story by Angela Korvisianos, and a prose poem by Duggan. Steven Murray, another young poet from ‘The Shire’, has two poems, one the superbly titled ‘A Possible Apostle’. There’s a sequence in 29 sections plus coda by Chris Edwards, complete with neat, esoteric line drawings, and a 12-part sequence from Terry Larson, whom Forbes labelled ‘the founder of the fuck-me-dead school of poetry’. The issue concludes with an untitled elegy by Martin Johnston, as ominous as it is witty and beautiful:

Death and rebirth myths are made by poets, and no wonder:
one Dransfield can feed dozens of us for a month,
a Webb for years. As they’re fair game, we plead continuance,
no poet ever died a poet: as the salt muck filled Shelley
the empyrean gave way to the nibbling fish and the cold.

The poem, later titled ‘In Memoriam (for John Forbes)’, was to become a classic of broad appeal, included both in John Tranter and Philip Mead’s Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, and Les Murray’s New Oxford Book of Australian Verse.

Three further issues of Surfers Paradise were produced over the next 12 years—Forbes was to dub the magazine ‘The Poetry Olympics’, though the intervals of publication (1974, 1979, 1983 and 1986) don’t quite justify the epithet. Much else about the magazine was idiosyncratic. The second issue was 42 pages in length, the third 28, and the fourth 40. The second issue includes artwork by Ken Searle, Tim Johnson, and Frank Littler; the third and fourth issues were pure text, and, while the covers of the first three issues were freshly designed by artist-collaborators, the fourth is graced by a Punch cartoon. This issue includes the magazine’s only works of criticism: a sombre rumination on the work of Michael Dransfield, and a stylish hatchet job on the poet Richard Allen. In all things the magazine was consistently inconsistent.

Fellow poet Chris Burns helped produce issues Three and Four, and Sydney University’s Jim Tulip kept overheads low by organising the use of the English Department’s Gestetner machine (one imagines the great forbearance of the Department’s secretaries, who are thanked in the issues’ acknowledgements). Forbes funded the magazine from his own pocket but managed to make a modest return—he once sold 20 copies in four minutes at the Forest Lodge—and he had little trouble offloading the small print runs.

Unsurprisingly, the pages devoted to poetry vastly outnumber those devoted to prose, just as male contributors outnumber female 31 to 5 across the four issues. The magazine featured no Indigenous writers but was less culturally homogenous than many other journals of the time. Forbes was particularly keen to champion younger poets, such as Steve Kelen, Adam Aitken, Gig Ryan, Dipti Saravanamuttu and Chris Burns, whom he deemed at a disadvantage to ‘the Generation of ’68’-ers. Friends recall Forbes telling them that he invited Les Murray to submit poetry, and then politely rejected it: ‘I’m sorry this work doesn’t meet our standards but please do submit again’. The story rings true, though Murray, while conceding the tale plausible, had no memory of it.

It seems that in most—possibly all—cases, work was solicited: the front matter of Issue Four declares: ‘as this magazine only appears every 3 to 4 years, please don’t submit mss’. Forbes published some of his strongest work in Surfers, including ‘The Best of All Possible Poems’, ‘Missing Persons’ and ‘Watching the Treasurer’—a lyric which inspired the cultural critic Meaghan Morris’ book Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes. Together with the likes of Magic Sam, the magazine provided a space for cutting-edge work that was often passed over by more established journals. Later issues of the magazine include co-authored works, verse-novel excerpts and experimental writing, from Ken Bolton and John Jenkins’ In Ferrara and early disjunctive lyrics by Gig Ryan to Laurie Duggan’s The Ash Range and Alan Wearne’s The Nightmarkets.

The publication of the latter was to cause Forbes some anxiety. He was concerned that the heroin syndicate ‘the Joy Boys’ in Wearne’s verse novel referred too obviously to a real Sydney-based gang, whom Forbes believed were criminally entangled with the promoter Kevin Jacobson—a member of the top-charting ’60s band Col Joye and the Joyboys. Having published his address in the magazine, Forbes feared that if the aggrieved gangsters turned up on his doorstep, he would be unable either to escape or withstand torture. ‘You know what’, he told Chris Burns earnestly, ‘I just fear I’d have to tell them where Alan Wearne lives.’ The idea of a bunch of burly crims devoting their downtime to thumbing through a verse review before tooling up for a night of villainy is certainly odd. It became ‘a paranoid fantasy’, according to Burns, but one in which we note the paradoxical naivety that so many of Forbes’ friends recall.

Forbes placed an advert in Honi Soit two weeks prior to the launch of the first issue of Surfers Paradise, describing the event as a ‘Prose and Poetry Reading’. The ‘all star cast’ promised ‘Melbourne’s premier bard’ Kris Hemensley, ‘bon vivant, raconteur and poet’ Laurie Duggan, and Martin Johnston, whose poems are credited with ‘sav[ing] Culture from its reputation’. Forbes is not listed but haunts the description of Stephen Murray as ‘yet another brilliant lyricist from Miranda’. The only non-poet on the bill, Angela Korvisianos, is proclaimed ‘the brightest young comet in the galaxy of Sydney prose fiction’. Kate Jennings, ‘a poet of passionate, technical artistry’, while absent from the magazine’s pages, is also listed as a drawcard.

Though the magazine’s contributors have only hazy memories of the evening, the launch, which took place on Saturday 21 September at the Tin Sheds, was covered by Keith Hartley in Honi Soit. He describes ‘a select audience’ consisting mainly of the contributors’ ‘friends and at least one of their enemies’—namely, the reviewer himself. Each reader in this Dante’s Inferno of ‘egos’ is damned by Hartley in turn.

Hemensley ‘has a big name in Melbourne and he made the mistake of coming here to smash the myth’. Murray, Hartley informs us, ‘speaks like a surfie and writes like a schoolboy’. Johnston, who ‘seemed to have the largest vocabulary and the clearest enunciation’ is rebuked for ‘endless intellectual allusions and literary name-dropping’, his work characterised as ‘a game to see if he can mention anything unfamiliar to you (and he can—he must either be very well-read or he owns an Encyclopedia Britannica)’. Duggan, who’d dropped acid that afternoon, began his reading with a wave to the back and a ‘Hello Mum’—a detail highlighted to defenestrate the frivolity of his ‘Pop poetry’. The ‘found poem’ Duggan had ‘retrieved from the blurb of a Mills and Boon novel’, sounded, according to Hartley, like all his other poems. The review fleetingly registers the audience’s excitement at the appearance of Forbes—a surviving photo shows him cigarette in hand and sitting perfectly at ease in a swivel chair. But despite reading some of his best poems, including the anthology staples, ‘Rrose Selavy’, ‘Tropical Skiing’, ‘To the Bobbydazzlers’ and ‘Ode/Goodbye Memory’, Hartley dismisses the work in an equally offhand manner as ‘flatulent’. Korvisianos, described as ‘a nervous little creature’, is the only reader whose offering escapes censure. The indictment concludes:

The secret of their bad poetry is that they no longer care for the reader: they write entirely for themselves. Communication is lost forever (although, in their strained metaphors one feels the longing again for the Idea). Their aim is silence and their condition is self-indulgence. They are overwhelmed by the minutiae of existence. They think they see people taking sham seriously, when all they see is people accepting it un-questioningly, taking it for granted. Sadly, it is the poets themselves who are taking it seriously by making an issue of it. They are so intensely interested in the outer surface of reality they have allowed themselves to be corroded and defeated by what they are supposedly striving against. They no longer wish to or are able to rise above the sham exterior of life. These people are truly living in a Sur-face Paradise.

Hartley’s verdicts are easy dismissals, delivered without evidence, and their damning consistency undermines the credibility of his judgments. It is clear that it is the general tenor of the poetry that Hartley objects to and his appraisal is a reminder that the type of poetry Forbes and his friends were writing had yet to gain widespread acceptance, even among university students. Hartley’s obloquy foreshadows some of the invective Forbes and his friends’ work would attract throughout the 1970s. It was cliquey and solipsistic; its language wasn’t dignified or elevated; it failed to communicate a discernible message; it was all surface.

 

 

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Aidan Coleman has published three collections of poetry, most recently Mount Sumptuous (Wakefield Press, 2020). The biography Thin Ice: A Life of John Forbes will be published in late 2021 by Melbourne University Publishing. Aidan is an Early Career Researcher at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice at the University of Adelaide.

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