Patrick White always maintained a committed interest not only in the day-to-day life of ‘ordinary’ Australians, but to their well-being also. We know he preferred chance encounters on a park bench to dinner parties with the rich and famous. But he noticed without prompting the needs of those in strife. For a reputedly mean and curmudgeonly man, White was extraordinary generous, compassionate and kind to many people whose names are unknown to the rest of us.
Here’s a small but telling example. White had a standing order at Clays Bookshop in Kings Cross, especially its heyday under the beady-eyed management of Miss Chapman, for a new (usually hardcover book) to go to out out once a month to about 20 elderly locals - often ex-showbiz types long past their hoofing days – for whom reading the ‘best and latest’ had become a life-long pleasure they could no longer afford.
The Patrick White Award is, in similar spirit, aimed to bring attention to under-recognised writers, many of whom have had been burrowing away at their work for decades, often without a lot of acclaim and sometimes with barely an income. Perhaps more importantly is the long overdue recognition this award brings, and sometimes even a fresh spike in book sales. This year the award goes to playwright John Romeril. Previous winners have included Bruce Dawe, Thea Astley, Janette Turner Hospital, Gerald Murnane, Elizabeth Riddell, Randolf Stowe, and many others. To most of these writers the money ($30,000) means something. Interestingly, the source of the fund is the prize money attached to White winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973.
The first recipient, and to this day probably its most deserving, was Christina Stead. Stead is one of our greatest writers, The Man Who Loved Children a masterpiece; yet she spent her last years living close to penury, largely forgotten, tucked away in a nondescript southern Sydney suburb.
Stead was one of the lucky people to be invited to the occasional dinner at Patrick and Manoly’s in Martin Road. I was told once she would often arrive with bags of empty liquor bottles she felt she could not dispose of discreetly enough in her own rubbish bin. Apparently this was a not uncommon feature of a visit to your home by Stead in her later years. That White himself knocked off the odd bottle or three of vodka himself in his later years meant a few extra of Stead’s would hardly have raised an eyebrow from the garbo.
I am happy to declare myself a die-hard John Romeril fan – the writer and the man. He is a great bloke and, to this day, one of our best writers for the stage. Yes indeed, where are the big company commissions? His politics still cook and he is an expert craftsman, which explains why he is so often brought in as a mentor. Romeril is best known for his play The Floating World, and more generally as a part of that lively group to coelesce around La Mama and The Pram Factory from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. What many, even in the Australian theatre profession do not appreciate, is that Romeril has never stopped writing, producing at least a play a year (if not two), often in collaboration with a diverse range of small arts and other community groups. This suits his artistic raison d’etre, no doubt a lot of creative satisfaction in this, but little financial reward. For more on his current project, I quote from a news item in The Age, 8 November:
“[Romeril] is now working with descendants of Torres Strait Islander workers who came to the mainland about 50 years ago and became experts in railway track maintenance. In one shift of 11 hours and 40 minutes, they set a world record for track laying to the Mount Newman iron ore mine in Western Australia of 6.8 kilometres, nearly double the previous record set in the US.
“It’s a singing culture and the plan is that a nucleus of professional performers will travel to towns where there are islander musical groups who will take part in performances.”
Romeril believes the 60,000 years of Aboriginal culture underpins Australian society. “The much earlier polity of Aboriginal Australia is a ghostly thing. Many council boundaries show a strange alignment with tribal groupings,” he said. This is why he stresses the importance of local and regional communities. “The view from Canberra is a very strange one, with this technocratic dream of controlling the whole country.
“Central planning can’t work in country as big and diverse as this one. I’ve always sought bottom-up stories that any centralised system wouldn’t be aware of. You need a mix of big and little that you ignore at your peril.”
I interviewed John Romeril in 2004 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History archives. It was a hurried interiew as I was not in Melbourne for very long – my fault. There should be more there. But for those wth an interest in this wonderful man’s life and work, there is some excellent content nonetheless. Romeril speaks well on tape and has a very agile mind. He is very well read, an amazingly clear thinker, and his answers to questions are almost never what you would normally expect. Here is a link to the NLA file reference number for that interview. So congratulations Mr Romeril! Well earned – and greatly deserved, By way of a gift parcel, I am wondering if you drink vodka? A bottle – or in the ‘spirit’ of Stead and White, does it need to be a crate?