Books: Unreliable Memoirs — Let Us Rejoice, Therefore |
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Unreliable Memoirs — Let Us Rejoice, Therefore


Freshers and freshettes arrived at the university a week before full term in order to be inducted into the academic life by means of lectures, displays, film shows and theatrical events. The period was known as Orientation Week, a title which confused me, since I failed to see why the Far East should be involved. The university motto was Sidere mens eadem mutato, which loosely translated means ‘Sydney University is really Oxford or Cambridge laterally displaced approximately twelve thousand miles.’ In fact the differences were enormous. For one thing, there were few colleges: the overwhelming majority of students arrived in the morning and left in the evening. In the Arts course you could read several subjects, rather like the American system. The way to pass exams was to reproduce the lectures. Personal supervision — the heart of the Oxbridge system — scarcely existed. There was a Union for debates and a certain amount of strained singing in which Gaudeamus igitur featured prominently, but on the whole the emphasis was on pushing forward to get one’s degree. With careers as lawyers or upper-echelon schoolteachers in mind, the Arts students were even more dedicated to exam-passing than anyone else. There was a day shift and a night shift, both toiling away nervelessly towards their nine passes. It took some of them the maximum allowable nine years, but they all got there. Nobody who wanted to pass ever failed, not even the beautiful, elegantly groomed, ineffably dumb girls from Frensham who had been sent along to acquire some elementary culture before resuming their inexorable progress towards marriage with a grazier. Any real originality of mind or behaviour was confined to the astrophysics department or the medical school, which both ranked high in world standing. The huge Arts faculty placed as little emphasis on the human imagination as was consistent with the study of its products.

Even for Australia, the late 1950s were an unusually apolitical, conformist period. Nevertheless a certain amount of eccentricity took place. There were about two dozen illuminati who dominated the student newspaper honi soit, edited and contributed to the magazines Hermes and Arna and produced, directed and acted in plays put on by SUDS (the Dramatic Society) and Players (the other dramatic society). Making a career out of failing first-year Arts on an annual basis, this coherent little group were hard to miss during Orientation Week, since they were continually trotting up and down Science Road in order to take turns manning the publicity booths relating to their various activities. The booth for honi soit was called the Flying Saucer, since it was a circular plywood creation with a pointed roof. It was only about six feet in diameter but at the moment of my arrival it was crammed with these exotic creatures, the like of which I had never seen. Nor, I think, had they seen anything quite like me. I had turned up in my school blazer, but in order to indicate that I was a man of parts I had pinned my Presbyterian Fellowship badge to the lapel, alongside the Boys’ Brigade badge in my buttonhole. A brown briefcase contained sandwiches. My haircut looked like an aircraft carrier for flies.

But at worst they were seeing an extreme example of a known type, the clueless fresher. I, on the other hand, was seeing something I could not even compare with other examples of itself. I hadn’t known that people were allowed to look like this. The women had long, stringy black hair, heavy eye make-up and smoked cigarettes no hands. The men smoked their cigarettes in long holders. They affected flannel shirts, corduroy trousers and the kind of long-nosed desert boots which I was subsequently informed were called brothel-creepers. During this first encounter I could see nothing of these people below waist level, since only their upper works showed above the counter of the Flying Saucer. But their tightly packed heads, arms and torsos were sufficiently extraterrestrial to leave me numb with awe. ‘My God,’ cried the shortest of the men, ‘it’s a Christian! Come and work for honi soit. We need a broad spectrum of opinion. You could offset the influence of Wanda here. She’s a witch.’ The girl referred to as Wanda coughed her assent, projecting a small puff of ash. ‘My name is Spencer,’ said the same short man again. He had jug ears, horn-rimmed glasses and a crew cut. ‘Sign here and report for duty at the office tomorrow morning. It’s around that corner. A sort of hut arrangement in Early Permanent Temporary. Here is a sample copy of the paper. Those badges are distorting the shape of what would be a perfectly good jacket, if it were a different colour and cut.’

Threading my way in a daze through the other booths, a good quarter of which were magically staffed by the same raggle-taggle team I had just met in the Flying Saucer, I entered the Union building, mechanically bought a tie dotted with the University crest and sat down in the reading room to look at my sample copy of honi soit. Half of it seemed to be written by Spencer. There was a short story by him of which I could make little and some poems of which I could make even less. One of the poems was about Rimbaud’s cigar. Who was Rimbaud? Yet in another way I saw the point instantly. The vividness of the language was extraordinary. Even when crammed into meticulously symmetrical verse forms every sentence sounded like speech. I can’t say that my future course was set there and then, but neither can I say that it wasn’t. I was so excited that my badges rattled. There were sparks coming off my lapel.

Later that day I attended the Sex Lecture and laughed knowingly along with all the other nervous virgins. I joined both the Film Group and the Film Society, though I had no idea how they differed. I joined almost everything. I wondered where I could buy a pair of brothel-creepers. Every time it all became too much I retreated to my bolt-hole in the Union reading room and looked at honi soit again. The cartoons were amazingly good. They were signed ‘Huggins’. Everybody who counted seemed to have only one name. Every other leather chair in the reading room was similarly occupied by a freshman looking, I was relieved to note, not much more at ease than myself. Indeed few could smoke as confidently as I, although everyone was trying. It was like a bush fire in there.

I headed for home bamboozled with smoke and strange, unfocused dreams. At tea I blew smoke into my mother’s face and explained that at University one was expected to join in a wide range of extracurricular activities in order to broaden one’s outlook. I sketched reassuring verbal pictures of how I would explore caves with the Speleological Society and jump with the Parachute Club. My mother doubtless had the look of someone whose troubles are only just beginning, but my mouth was too far open for my eyes to notice anything.

Next day I turned up at the honi soit office bright and early, several times tripping adroitly on the short flight of steps. I was wearing my new brothel-creepers, bought on the way up the hill from Central Station. My old ox-blood quilt-tops were in my briefcase. I had chosen a pair of brothel-creepers with very long toes. They must have looked, to the independent observer, rather like the footwear of a peculiarly unsubtle clown. Certainly it was hard to climb stairs in them without turning sideways, so my arrival in the office proper was somewhat crablike. The Flying Saucer crew were all in there, plus a few more I was seeing for the first time. Wanda was still smoking no hands. Spencer was sitting at a typewriter. A tall man looking like an illustration of a kindly young history master in an English public school was standing beside him.

‘Good morning,’ said Spencer without ceasing to type. ‘This is Keith Cameron.’ The tall man said, ‘How do you do. Sandwich?’ ‘You aren’t expected to take one,’ said Spencer. ‘Cameron is merely being polite. Wanda you already know. The man in the suit is John Bottomley.’ Bottomley was conservatively tailored for the year 1908. He wore spats. ‘The man in the other suit is Jim Howie.’ Howie was dressed and groomed for the grouse moors. ‘Wanda will show you how to edit copy. Meanwhile Cameron and I will get on with this diverting lampoon for the next issue. On behalf of us all Howie and Bottomley are hatching a plot to unseat the editor, who is an idiot. For a blessing he is not present. A no-confidence motion concerning the editorship will be put at a special meeting in the Wallace Theatre this afternoon at three o’clock. Here is Maurice Grogan.’

Grogan swung into the office by one hand, which was reverse-gripped around the upper door-frame. He wore nothing on his superbly muscular body except a Speedo the size of a G-string, a pair of the kind of sandals known as Hong Kong thongs and a beard. He jumped up on a desk and crouched, gibbering and snickering. Nobody seemed to notice. I sedulously copied everybody else’s indifference while Wanda showed me how to sub-edit the readers’ letters. To do this she had to use her hands — my first evidence that they were not paralysed. When she pointed things out she did not always point to the right place because her eyes were screwed up. Ash fell from her cigarette, which she allowed to grow remarkably short during the course of her lesson. I was afraid her face would catch fire. Meanwhile the conspirators conspired and the creators created, both colloquies being punctuated by low growls and high-pitched squeals from Grogan. As they worked, Cameron and Spencer kept up an exchange of allusive wit that I found at once daunting and exhilarating. Spencer called something Firbankian. Who, what or where was Firbankian? I was lost, yet not in the usual way of feeling that I ought to be somewhere else. Somehow I knew that I was in exactly the right spot.

‘Shall we lunch at Manning or the Forest Lodge?’ asked Spencer. ‘Let’s remember,’ said Cameron, ‘the importance of remaining sober.’ ‘Not as important as having a drink,’ said Bottomley. ‘And besides, we’ll never get the fool out anyway. A gesture is the most we can hope to achieve.’ With me attached, the whole caravan moved across Parramatta Road, up a flight of steps and along the street to a pub called the Forest Lodge, which during opening hours was the daytime headquarters of the artistic set. We all trooped through the back gate while Grogan swarmed over the wall. Again nobody took any notice. I was later to learn that Grogan was Spencer’s steady date. Spencer was bisexual but least unhappy with Grogan. The same applied to Grogan vis-à-vis Spencer. For a long time I was incapable of grasping any of these facts, being under the impression that homosexuality was some kind of rare disease. I am glad to say that incomprehension gave way to tolerance without any intervening period of bigotry. But enlightenment lay far in the future, and for the time being I was as innocent as Queen Victoria when young.

As in all Australian pubs at the time, the beer came in two kinds, New and Old. New was made yesterday and Old was made the day before. I asked for a schooner of New, manfully not betraying the fact that it was the second drink of my life. It differed from the first drink in that I was able to sip it without gagging. It still tasted like camel’s pee. I closed my eyes so that nobody would notice they were crossed. But my ears were functioning perfectly. They had never had so much to listen to. The brain between them could process only the odd scrap of the information that was streaming in through the aural receptors. I had never heard such conversation. What kind of car, I wondered, was a Ford Madox Ford? What sort of conflict was an Evelyn War? At the mention of Decline and Fall, I advanced the name of Gibbon. Cameron gently explained that the book in question was written by the aforesaid War, spelt Waugh. Had I not read anything by him? Who was my idea of a good modern novelist? I said Nicholas Monsarrat. There were snorts all round at this. All present snorted audibly. Wanda snorted visibly. Spencer cast his eyes to the sky. But Cameron saved my face by insisting that there were good reasons for admiring Monsarrat, especially in his less famous works such as HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour. I would find, however, Cameron assured me, that Waugh’s early novels were unbeatable for comic invention. ‘How can you talk about Waugh when I’m reading Firbank?’ Spencer asked a cloud. ‘Here’s Huggins.’

Through the gate walked the most artistic-looking young man I had ever seen in my two days’ experience of artistic young men. He was all pale suede and corduroy. The ends of a loosely knit scarf dangled almost to the ground. He had a folio under his arm. Surrounding a face so handsome it was like a cartoon, his hair was blond and abundant. He was smoking a cigarette about two feet long. Within seconds he was seated, sipping at a beer glass held in one hand while he sketched with the other. He did a group sketch of everybody present. I was staggered — by the speed of his hand, by the quality of what it produced, and by the fact that I was included in the result, which I was allowed to keep. That night I pasted it onto my wall at home, airily explaining to my mother that it was the work of my friend Huggins, whom I knew quite well, since he was a close acquaintance of mine, and had in fact sat beside me during the vitally important meeting in which the editor of honi soit had retained his position only by a hair’s breadth. Actually, I now realize, any condemnation emanating from my new acquaintances had the effect of vociferous advocacy, just as anything they favoured was automatically doomed. Spencer’s speech had clinched the issue. He mentioned Cocteau, Kleist and Lord Alfred Douglas. The chairman imposed a gag and put the motion to a vote. It was lost by five hundred and sixty votes to eight. I was one of the eight.

From that day my university career proceeded on two separate paths, one of them curricular and the other not. In my new desert boots, but still retaining my Fellowship badge, I attended lectures in my four first-year subjects, English I, Modern History I, Psychology I and Anthropology I. One among hundreds, I sat taking elaborate notes. I see no reason to mock myself in retrospect for so slavishly writing everything down: nearly all of it was news to me, and some of it was to prove permanently useful. The lectures on phonetics, for example, were a painless way for a writer to pick up essential knowledge about what sounds really rhyme even when they look as if they don’t, and what sounds really don’t rhyme even when they look as if they do. Twenty years later I am still drawing on that knowledge every day. Nor was I in any position to scorn elementary lectures on the time shift in A Passage to India, since I was not yet fully divested of the impression that E. M. Forster’s principal creation had been Horatio Hornblower. As for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I certainly needed help there, having been only dimly aware that Ireland was a Catholic country.

Modern History helped to make me less clueless on such points. The English component of the History course was occupied mainly with Tudor constitutional documents. To the suitably unprepared student it could not have been duller. But the European side of things introduced me to the Anabaptists, the Medici, the Habsburgs and a charming group of bankers called the Fuggers. Even here, though, I had trouble establishing a perspective. What had been so wonderful about the Renaissance? Why had Burckhardt bothered even to the extent of being wrong about it? But my pen raced on, unhampered by the mind’s doubts. I didn’t even know enough to know that what I now knew meant nothing without the knowledge that was meant to go around it.

Anthropology lectures were full of references to Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown and Margaret Mead. The set books had titles like Growing Up in New Guinea, Structure and Function in Primitive Pago-Pago and Having It Off In Hawaii. Every time evolution got a mention, the girls in the audience who belonged to Sancta Sophia College would put a conscience-saving mark at the top of the page and discreetly cross themselves. Since they ran to angora twin-sets, this last move would involve a gentle but tangible-looking self-inflicted pressure on their cosily enclosed bosoms, which in several cases were of notable size and shape. Watching one especially pretty Catholic girl called Noeleen Syms thus delicately caressing her own breasts, I sucked so thoughtfully on my biro that I was favoured with a sudden, solid mouthful of black ink. For the next week I had lips like a silent-movie star and teeth like the Mikado.

Psychology was taught by a faculty composed exclusively of mechanists, behaviourists and logical-positivists. They would have made Pavlov sound like a mystic had he been foolish enough to show up. He must have heard about how boring they were, since he never appeared, but it was not for want of having his name invoked. The whole faculty salivated en masse at the mere mention of him. As so often happens, dogmatic contempt for the very idea of the human soul was accompanied by limitless belief in the quantifiability of human personality. On the one hand we were informed that there was no ghost in the machine. On the other we were taught how to administer tests which would measure whether children were well adjusted. But quite a lot of solid information was embedded in the pulp. Since there was nothing I did not write down and memorize, the real information was still there years later, when all the theoretical blubber surrounding it had rotted away. A synapse, after all, remains a synapse, even after some clod has tried to convince you that Michelangelo’s talent can be explained in terms of the number and intensity of electrical impulses travelling across it. Or do I mean a ganglion?

Thus I applied myself. At that time a genuinely important man, Professor John Anderson, was head of the Philosophy Faculty and still delivering his famous lectures on logic to first-year classes, but typically I had failed to set my name down for the only subject that might have stimulated a mental component more intricate than mere memory. As it was, I did not sustain the full impact of Anderson’s realism until some years later. For the time being it was taxing enough to absorb elementary information about palatal fricatives, gametes, Dyak kinship patterns and the theological significance of Zwingli. Walled in behind a stack of books with titles like We of the Wee-Wee and Dropping Your Lunch in the Desert, I sat at the back of the Wallace Theatre with a fairly steady set of companions. Most of them had already graduated out of school blazers into sports coats, but it was plain that in their case raffishness would go no further. Less square than the out-and-out exam-passers, they were still not bohemians. They were ex-GPS and lived in fashionable harbourside suburbs like Bellevue Hill and Rose Bay. Without exception they were on their way to becoming lawyers. For them, Arts was a couple of easy years before the real work started. Some of them drove MG TCs. Their real life happened away from the university, but they talked about it while they were there. Admiring their relaxation, I was glad to be in with them and vaguely hoped that some of their ease would rub off on me.

On the way to lectures, during lectures and after lectures they all watched girls, awarding points for prettiness of face, size of chest, etc. Twenty years later they are probably still talking the same way and doing the same things. They were lucky enough to get set in their ways early. I warmed to them because they knew exactly what they were and liked being it. Their self-assurance, I need hardly add, was no virtue in itself, and to admire it was an admission of inadequacy on my part. Doubtless I would have warmed to the Waffen-SS for the same reason. Luckily the group in question happened to be harmless. Gilbert Bolt was the ringleader, mainly through being even less energetic than the rest of them. Leading from behind was a technique I had not previously encountered. Somehow, without lifting a finger, he made ordinary things amusing. He looked half asleep most of the time. Raising an eyebrow about a millimetre was his way of advising me to calm down.

Perhaps the Bellevue Hill mob were my anchor to windward, because simultaneously I was becoming more and more involved with the aesthetes. Except for the Film Society, I soon came to have no other extracurricular activity. Nor did I last long as an active member of the Film Society. Their screenings took place at lunch-time in the Union Hall, a highly atmospheric neo-Gothic nightmare of a place which was unforgivably pulled down a few years later. Everybody was there. Members of the Film Society sat in the minstrel gallery while the common herd sat in the hall proper. Before the house lights dimmed an old 78 of Bunk Johnson and George Lewis performing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ was played over the public-address system. I was proud to be among those in the gallery but it was fated that I should join the majority below. There were two full-sized 35mm projectors. We manned them with a crew of two, stripped to the waist because of the heat. I found it hard to keep the carbon arc burning at the right intensity. When the picture got dark, I overdid it with the readjustment, so that the picture got too bright. I never noticed a stoppage until the film melted. On the screen, Alan Ladd and Virginia Mayo would turn to stone and be suddenly overwhelmed by bubbling gravy. A junior member was supposed never to be left alone in the box but in practice the senior crew member was often outside in the gallery palpating his girlfriend.

If I had had help, the fourth reel of Simba would probably never have got away from me. The take-up reel fell off its spindle, leaving me a clear choice of shutting down the projector or else letting the film pile up on the floor. I chose the second course, unaware of just how much volume a reel of film occupies when unwound. When it was time for the next reel change, my senior colleague, whose name was Pratt and who was sitting outside in the gallery, retrieved his hand from his girlfriend’s blouse and opened the door to the box. He was expecting to see me and the projectors. Instead he was confronted with a pulsing, writhing wall of celluloid. I was somewhere inside it. It was at least half his fault. But screening Tales of Ugetsu with its reels in the wrong order was entirely my responsibility, since I was in charge of film preparation that day. I suppose I marked the reels wrongly. Hardly anybody noticed the difference, but I realized that it was time to dismiss myself from the Film Society and join its public.

Anyway, I had started to begrudge any of my spare time that was not spent with the bohemians. The Union Revue would have been enough on its own to win my allegiance to their cause. By some act of folly Spencer and Cameron had been placed in charge of the revue for that year. They called it Flying Saucers. Between them they wrote all the scripts. They also appeared in most of the songs and sketches. The decor, by Huggins, was brilliant when you could see it. Spencer, however, had designed the lighting. Little would have been visible even if those Film Society members who were operating the dimmers had contrived to stay sober. There was great emphasis on dry ice, so that slow billows of mist crept from the stage into the auditorium, which gradually came to resemble a polar landscape in which people had been embedded up to the neck. Ultraviolet light made the actors’ teeth glow green through the white fog. Instrumental music came from an electronic synthesizer played by Pratt. Vocal music was by Palestrina. There were at least two sketches about Virginia Woolf. A third sketch might have been about her, but was more probably about Gertrude Stein. Grogan played Alice B. Toklas, or it could have been Vita Sackville-West. Wanda was either in the cast or kept crossing the stage for some other reason. Bottomley and Howie, sharing the one pair of large trousers, purported to be a mutation. They mouthed abstract dialogue, partly as a forecast of how language might deteriorate in the aftermath of an atomic war, partly in deference to the fact that nobody had got around to actually writing the sketch. A tall, beautiful girl called Penelope White came on wearing a gown composed of shaving mirrors. She announced, in a voice like a chainsaw hitting granite, that her song had not been written yet, but that Spencer had asked her to recite a poem. She recited it. I subsequently learned that it was by John Crowe Ransom. During her recitative, Spencer stood on one leg in the background, softly tapping a gong.

Interval was longer than the first half, which in turn was longer than the second half, although it was hard to tell when that was over. The audience, except for myself and my companion, had left long before. My companion was a girl from Kogarah Presbyterian Church Fellowship called Robin Warne. Afterwards I took her home to Carlton, telling her, during the long train trip, that Spencer and Cameron believed in pitching their work at a level which would force the audience either to confess itself inadequate or else translate its prejudices into violence. I quoted Spencer to the effect that an audience should be challenged, not coddled. When Robin announced that she hadn’t understood or enjoyed a single moment of the evening from start to finish, I countered with Spencer’s favourite word: ‘Precisely.’

She burst out laughing when I tried to kiss her and didn’t speak to me the following Sunday, but I didn’t notice. I was too busy planning that year’s Kogarah Fellowship revue, which I called Unidentified Flying Objects. As producer and director I appointed myself sole scriptwriter and cast myself in every sketch. Lacking adequate supplies of dry ice, I set fire to some rags in a plastic bucket. Graham Truscott, decorated with a joke moustache of his own devising, was in charge of sound, which consisted of a jewel from my recently begun modern-jazz collection — an EP record featuring Maynard Ferguson and Clark Terry engaged in a long attempt to damage each other’s hearing. I had tested this particular disc a few hundred times on my mother and could vouch for its challenging effect. As the trumpeters interminably wailed and shrieked, I improvised monologues in which such names as Ford Madox Ford and Ronald Firbank figured prominently. The audience stormed the exits.

That same week, the Fellowship newspaper, of which I was editor and leading contributor, was largely devoted to a long article extolling the virtues of atheism. I had cribbed this almost word for word from the preface to Androcles and the Lion, one of the set books for English I. Shaw had enchanted me with his rationalist blarney. It was fitting that my shallow faith should have been uprooted by a toy shovel. The Reverend C. Cummings Campbell asked me along for afternoon tea at the Manse. Still coughing from his evening at the one and only performance of Unidentified Flying Objects (handicapped by a pair of lungs which had been poisoned at Ypres, he had been among the last to fight his way out of the hall), he nevertheless managed to contain his anger. Instead of booting me immediately into the street, he began by gently suggesting that I might care to offload some of my more onerous responsibilities, such as the editorship of the Fellowship newspaper, until I had worked out of my system what was plainly ‘the influence of that man Anderson’. As usual I was careful to resign a split second before being fired. I told him that I did indeed need time to think, and that perhaps it would be better if for the nonce I were to absent myself altogether. He heaved what would have been a sigh of relief if it had not turned into a coughing fit. My last vision of all things Presbyterian was of the piece of sponge cake — it had pink icing — which I had parked uneaten on the edge of my saucer.

Showing my usual capacity to walk away without a qualm, I left it all behind upon the instant: the bugles and the drums, the vaulting horse and the oak pews, Christine Ballantine’s eyes like a pleading fawn and Mrs Pike’s voice like a strangled fowl. I had no doubts that I was through with it all for ever. My cocksureness must have been terrible to behold. Night after night I reduced my mother to tears with my intellectual arrogance. Copied sedulously from Spencer, but potentiated by an insensitivity that was all my own, my forensic style was as intransigent as Vyshinsky’s. Ferociously I attacked my mother’s lingering, atavistic determination to go on believing in something. If she didn’t believe in anything specific, I insisted, why couldn’t she just believe in nothing? Triumphantly I refuted her arguments, never recognizing that they were true feelings and amounted to a deep intuition of the world, which in the long run we must see to be purposeful if we are to live in it at all.

I suppose that first year at university was just about the most ridiculous phase of my life. It was love again, of course, but this time I was in love with all of them. I copied Spencer’s walk, talk and gestures. I copied the way he wrote. I copied the way Keith Cameron read: Spencer, lost in the toils of a fully bisexual love life and a chronic deficiency of funds, hardly ever read anything except science fiction. I soon realized that his pronunciamentos on literature in general were based on the most evanescent acquaintance with its individual products. But Cameron, who already had a BA degree and was qualifying to begin an MA, had an impressive private library of modern literature. I devoured it author by author. Spencer had told me Four Quartets was the greatest thing written in recent times. I practically memorized it, but was bewildered to find that Spencer had switched his allegiance to Edith Sitwell. Cameron was less capricious. His level head was the necessary corrective to Spencer’s influence. Huggins I admired for grace, ease, creative fertility and plethora of beautiful girlfriends. He was always promising to let me have one of them when he had finished with her, but somehow it never came about. This was lucky in a way, because I would scarcely have known how to behave. I had a girlfriend of my own, an Arts I student called Sally Vaughan: sweet, pretty, decent and intelligent. There was a lot of heavy petting going on but she was a Catholic, I was an idiot and there was nowhere to take her anyway. She lived with her parents in Mosman, across the harbour. I still went home every night, although later and later as the year wore on, especially after I had discovered in myself a liking for the effects produced by several schooners of New consumed one after the other.

In the Forest Lodge I drank with the Bellevue Hill mob and the aesthetes. With Spencer, Huggins, Grogan and Wanda (Cameron was a teetotaller) I visited my first King’s Cross cafes and became acquainted with wine. There was more of the same stuff at Lorenzini’s, a wine bar where the university writers made contact with the intelligentsia of the town. Lex Banning, the spastic poet, was often to be found there. But the place where all the half-worlds met was the Royal George Hotel, down in Pyrmont. The Royal George was the headquarters of the Downtown Push, usually known as just the Push. The Push was composed of several different elements. The most prominent component was, or were, the Libertarians — a university free-thought society consisting mainly of people who, like the aesthetes, failed Arts I on a career basis, but in this case as a form of political protest against the state. Endorsing Pareto’s analysis of sexual guilt as a repressive social mechanism, the Libertarians freely helped themselves to each other’s girlfriends. They had their own folk singer, Johnny Pitts, a hairy dwarf who every few minutes would flail his guitar, launch into a few bars of some barely comprehensible protest song about working conditions on an American railroad and fall sideways.

The next most prominent component was the aesthetes themselves, minus Keith Cameron but plus some specimens who were no longer to be seen around university, their nine years having finally run out. Without exception they were on the verge of writing, painting or composing something so marvellous that they did not want to run the risk of injuring it by rational analysis. As well as the Libertarians and the aesthetes there were small-time gamblers, traditional-jazz fans and the homosexual radio-repair men who had science fiction as a religion. A pick-up jazz band played loudly in the bar. The back room had tables and chairs. If you stuck your head through the door of the back room you came face to face with the Push. The noise, the smoke and the heterogeneity of physiognomy were too much to take in. It looked like a cartoon on which Hogarth, Daumier and George Grosz had all worked together simultaneously, fighting for supremacy.

Nothing feels more like home than the place where the homeless gather. I was enchanted. Here was a paradise beyond the dreams of my mother or the Kogarah Presbyterian Church Fellowship. Here was Bohemia. I had friends here. Everyone in the Push borrowed money from everybody else. Happily I joined the circuit, forming a bad habit I was not to conquer for many years. Even in the rare evenings when Spencer or Huggins did not turn up, there was always Bottomley to talk to and borrow from, since this was the place where he made contact with his fellow gamblers. One of them was six feet six inches high and nicknamed Emu. Apart from his being permanently a thousand pounds in debt and in fear of his life, there was nothing remarkable about Emu except his mistress, but she was very remarkable indeed.

Her name was Lilith Talbot. About thirty years old, she was classically beautiful, with a discreetly ogival figure and a river of auburn hair. She was softly spoken and always elegantly dressed — two qualities which by themselves would have been enough to make her unique in those surroundings. What she saw in Emu was one of the great mysteries. Some said, crudely, that it was a matter of physiology: others, that it was an attraction between opposites. I adored her, first of all from afar, then from progressively closer to. She was openly delighted with my naive worship of all these people whose every secret she had known for years. She was probably also, I now realize, secretly delighted with my absurdly affected mimicry of Spencer. She accused me of being in love with him. I hotly denied the charge, even though it was partly true, and counter-attacked, greatly daring, by telling her that I was in love with her, which was wholly true. I tried to content myself with the prospect of a Platonic relationship. Not only was she entirely loyal to Emu, but Emu had friends who were almost as frightening as his enemies. The world of crime started just where the Push finished, and often the edges overlapped.

By this time my first poems were coming out in honi soit. They were, of course, the most abject pastiche, but my first appearance in print led me to an excess of posturing beside which Nerval walking his lobster would have been as inconspicuous as the Invisible Man. A symphony in corduroy velvet, smoking cigarettes the length of a blow-gun, I casually sprinted into Manning House, spread out a dozen copies of the paper, and read myself with ill-concealed approval. Even the patience of the Bellevue Hill mob was strained. They voted that I should no longer be heard on the subject of literature. Since the aesthetes grew equally tired of hearing their own opinions coming back at them, I was left with only Sally to berate during the day, and Lilith to harangue in the evening. They were bemused and long-suffering respectively. Heinrich Mann, writing about Nietzsche, remarks at one point that self-confidence often precedes achievement and is generally strained so long as it is untried. No self-confidence could have been more strained than mine. Underneath it, needless to say, lay gurgling indecision. The contradictions were piling up to such an altitude that it was getting hard to see over the top of them. On the one hand I was a petty-bourgeois student, on the other a libertarian bohemian. Sobbing into my beer in the Royal George, I predicted doom for myself in the forthcoming examinations. By day I nursed my hangover and meticulously took notes, wondering what the Push was up to. What was I missing out on?

When the exam results came out, I was deeply shocked to find that I had passed in both Anthropology and History, was listed in Order of Merit for English — i.e., midway between a pass and a credit — and had secured an outright credit in Psychology. Obviously the examiners had been moved to find their own lectures being returned to them in condensed form. Apart from Huggins, a star student in Architecture, none of the aesthetes had ever done as well in a lustrum as I had done in a year. I was neck and neck with the boys from Bellevue Hill. This made me feel guilty and alarmed. Which was I, a conformist or a nonconformist? I could feel my own personality coming apart like the original continental plates. Getting drunk was no solution, even though my mother was charmingly willing to accept the consequent behaviour as evidence of fatigue brought on by too much study. As I collapsed in the porch at midnight, having fallen over every garbage bin on the way down the street, I would explain to her that the Habsburgs had been too much for me. In a dressing gown with the hall light behind her, she looked down at her son, doubtless wondering what he was turning into. I was wondering the same thing.

Could there be such a thing as a virgin sophisticate? Had there ever been a man of the world who came home every night to his mother? Fate resolved this latter anomaly with brutal speed. My number came up and I found myself conscripted for National Service.