Out of the blue, I received the following charming letter:
“Barbara, my dear – I hope you don’t mind, but I was in a bookshop the other day (Mona Vale has a local Berkelouw, if you don’t mind!) and could not resist the temptation. I have bought you a very small gift, that I hope I can post to you.”
It was signed with the nom-de-plume of a tres stylish and generous woman who was an ornament to the late Bob Ellis’s glittering Table Talk blog. We correspond from time to time and agree we are that oddest of things: firm friends who have never actually met.
Glow Worm, as she called herself online, put me in mind of the twinkling caverns in the Cathedral-like limestone caves (pictured above) at Waitomo in New Zealand, near where I was born, and to where I returned to celebrate my 50th birthday.
The mysterious gift from Glow Worm turned out to be a pre-loved copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (illustrated by Melvyn Peake). How on earth did my correspondent guess it was a favourite, or something I might even like? Curious and curiouser.
I opened the small Vintage classic in mint condition. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
There was my name on the bookplate, written in my own young hand! Forgotten. Let go at some point, only to return many years later and pay a dividend in friendship.
It joins, on my bookshelves, my treasured and tatty 1876 edition illustrated by Gustave Dore.
Okay, yes, I sometimes read poetry, which in most circles, is like admiring foot binding.
But poetry needn’t be posh or opaque to be deep and meaningful:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
I have indeed, as it transpires, taken Mr Phillip Larkin’s advice to heart: No kids. And getting out early.
Many of my parent’s generation and earlier could recite rousingly by heart, mainly bush poetry such as Henry Lawson’s The Man from Snowy River, Banjo Paterson’s The Road to Gundagai, John O’Brien’s Around the Boree Log, or perhaps, The Highway Man, an Alfred Noyes poem often recited by my father.
The words were whispered about how the moon was ‘a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas’, how the highwayman came ‘riding, riding, riding, up to the old inn door’, where Bess the landlord’s black-eyed daughter was ‘plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.’ Wonderful stuff.
In the newspaper announcing his death on 11 April, 1991, my father, who had left school at 11, chose, to mark his passing, a few lines from Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar.
Sunset and Evening Star and one clear call for me,
And may there be no moaning at the bar
when I put out to sea.
Just 87 characters.
Since I first read it at high school The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) has stayed in my life.
I like it for seducing me as a callow school girl and for still being beautiful, haunting and mysterious as I enter my third age. I like it not only for its long companionship in my life but for the door it opened in my young mind to the idea of subtext; for its seductive watery imagery and mystical symbols. I like it for its moral implications, its supernatural vaudeville, its spectral illustrations, and I like it because it seems to have foretold my own life’s dilemma and then suggested a remedy.
As you probably know, The Ancient Mariner is the luckless sailor who has a brain snap and shoots a great Wandering Albatross. He is punished by having the rotting bird strung around his neck. His shipmates fall down dead. He is cursed. Alone he lives on becalmed on a rotting sea. He shudders at the sight of the slimy snakey things in the water.
‘Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide wide sea! And never a saint took pity on My soul in agony.’
He cannot die, no matter how great his suffering. He cannot ease his thirst no matter that there was ‘water, water everywhere . . .’
This is the sickbed.
In the poem, two harridans play dice for the sailor’s soul: one is Death, the other Life-in-Death, or Chronic Illness, as I think of her— wasted and wan and smiling with a rictus grin.
‘The game is done! I’ve won, I’ve won’, Life-and-Death declares.
What I thrilled to then and now about The Ancient Mariner, was the idea of redemption through seeing something ugly and afeared, like the sea snakes, transform into something beautiful and magical.
Change the way you see things, and the things you see will change, as they say. So the curse on the mariner is unloosed when he blesses them unaware.
Finding beauty in ‘the other’ is a powerful and contemporary message for me, even as I struggle to always find beauty in the illness I endure or the world in which I live. It is there and I count my blessings mightily. But that’s another blog.
We cannot for sport raise a bow and arrow to slaughter a bird, or bomb our way to peace. We will not see the shimmery sea snakes ‘blue, glossy green and velvet black’ for blood and gore in the water. We will grope blindly in the murk and soon die.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
Thank you Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And special Thank you to Glow Worm. Chin chin.
A sample of Richard Burton’s magnificent rendition (sound begins at 00:50).
16 thoughts on “rhymes and reasons”
What a powerful, rich, disturbing, moving, redemptive reflection, your blog… on the spine of the book of ‘the Rime…’ that had been your own and now returns (now there’s a thing!). With glow worms and Glow Worm on your shoulder. I love how you wrap it around with the magnificent timbre of Richard Burton’s voice.
I bless you as you bless the various sea snakes out there, Barb – as you reclaim your Dad’s poetic spirit, as you ‘walk with a goodly company’, as you transform the way you see things – as you bless us all with the gifts of your (and our) third age.
Thank you, Barb. x
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Thank you, Tim. You are such a respectful listener.
I had an uneasy relationship with my father and, but in writing this blog, it seems I have blessed him unawares.
Time makes us kinder, or meaner, eh Tim.
My heartfelt thanks for the conversation.
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Smiling, at the wee irony in that little element of our exchange – at your wry-and-gracious observations…and at the poetic connection anyhoooo. Blessings on all your water creatures, and on you xx tim
Ditto what Tim said. It’s a privilege to read your posts. Thanks for sharing.
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Thank you Nicki.
“…written in my own young hand!
Let go at some point,
only to return many years later…”.
A most remarkable thing,
This quite ordinary day,
brightened by both
benefactor and beneficiary.
“These lineaments, a heart that laughter has made sweet,
These, these remain, but I record what-s gone. A crowd
Will gather, and not know it walks the very street
Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud”.
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A bright day made brighter still.
Anytime is Yates time.
Your dots are like kisses from an old friend.
You can sing us a shanty anytime dear Fedallah.
And who said that punctuation wasn’t sexy?
I remember the day your pic flashed up on Bob’s blog.
An accident, I believe.
And yet there you were.
Alchemised from indifferent WordPress avatar to
cheekbones high and neat,
atop a pursed smile,
fringe as veil.
Not as I had imagined you.
But then, what is?
My wife away on conference.
The children recovering from colds,
my 10 year old son, the added burden of entertaining the advances of two button nosed wooers…
an initiate to the dilemma tormenting men since the beginning of time: blonde or brunette?
And I sitting in the backyard, reading, my face washed by an early Spring breeze…a row of new stone and plywood boxes before me.
I hope that you are well,
that the cool Winter air soothed
your wanting sacs,
that a friend rubs your back and makes a delicious pot of tea,
and reads aloud from a favoured text.
I see Glow…
the rudiments of a conversation.
What say you Barbara?
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Fedallah, Glow, Let’s blow on those cold ashes and warm our hands.
Hello husband, father, artist . . . your face ‘washed by weak spring sun’. A lovely sensitive face, I’m sure. You are a beautiful writer, fedallah. Any stories?
Hello Glow, a long, green silken thread through my late life.
I miss Bob.
Yesterday. Watching Indian Summers—the most expensive British drama ever made—The Raj in 1932. The Indian under the heel of the poisonous British who threw their suffocating class system and screwy psyches over everybody. Sign at the snobbish Royal Simla Club: ‘No Dogs, No Indians.’ Julie Walters too believable as a vile racist, rank under her petticoats and rotten rather than ripe at the end of her mean life.
Today. An eye open too early watching the mahogany brown Fijian men win their tiny country’s first ever Olympic gold medal. Beating their former colonial masters at their own game: rugby. They clasped each other like Greek athletes on a vase and sang Gospel, ‘We Shall Overcome’.
Please chat among yourselves; I love listening to you both.
In this calm and convivial space, another small miracle has occurred.
How warming to read your tribute, Barbara – and to see the name ‘Fedallah’ again, to warm our hands around the Boree Log and tell our tales …
‘So come you by your parted ways that wind the wide world through,
And make a ring around the blaze the way we used to do!’
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The time, how long has it been?
And we now come “by our (parted) ways”.
Your find was a blessing – one can only imagine the flicker in your eye,
the turn of your mind
as you recognised A99’s name.
The stuff of quiet felicity…
and if I wore a Borsalino from the JJ Hat Centre on Fifth Ave, I would tip it roundabout now.
How are you?
Perhaps not as long as it seems … greetings, my friend.
I am well, but there has been a cascade of events that interfered with my usual equilibrium over the last two weeks, culminating in a chaotic visit from Ned.
BB likes to boast that he can count his friends on the fingers of one hand, and that he has known all five most of his life. Ned is one such digit, and usually signals his imminent arrival by sending a case of Chateau Petrus (if things are looking up) or a box of Cleanskins (if things are a bit dodgy). Ned is a professional punter and seems to enjoy his life of perilous extremes. Still, he is very good company. We have never met his family, never met his other friends, and to be honest, he never mentions them either. We rarely hear from him in between visits, so when he finally lobs, there are always magnificent tales to be told and events to retell. This time it was a a case of Penfolds (not Grange, alas) but delicious drinking nonetheless. When the last drop goes, so does Ned. Actually, I’m not even sure that is his real name …
I am picturing you in the Borsalino, and the vision is just fine.
And how are you? Do you think about the old TT compadres from time to time? I was moved to recall Hunter when the Long Tan episode erupted. When BB and I were in Vietnam a few years ago, there did not seem to be much relish in recalling what must have been, for them, an unutterably catastrophic and dire time.
In the meantime, there is enough lunacy in our politics and those in the US to keep most of us amused for the foreseeable.
Write again, Fedallah – this is a fine space to exchange ideas and keep warm.
a reply, late…sorry.
Playboy for the Grammar Set
I miss him too…the polemic, the petulance, the probity.
I lost count after my umpteenth argument and ban. He always let me return though, despite pseudonym and faithful email account. I don’t think many understood that, I’m not sure I did either, at first.
I’d like to think I do.
I noticed something a few years ago; he engaged only with the Rightists, the stirrers, the contrarians, and left the acolytes, good intentioned of course, unmolested. It seemed to me that he craved the argument, the polemic, above all else. That his hubris often sucked the life from that polemic was a small(ish) price to pay for the range, depth, and penetrating force of his crisp and comical wit.
I respected him enormously and will indeed long remember our time at his table.
Hope you are well,
I thought, for a moment, that perhaps you would not return.
Happy am I to read your post this morn.
I have no such friend as Ned. Perhaps I will make one in the latter half of my life.He sounds an interesting fellow, this flaneur, so keep pouring the wine on the condition the stories keep coming.
I’ve found the English to be most adept at the Art of the Tale. I’ve met many who could honestly count their profession as “Raconteur”. With their bums planted on some comfy fabric chair, holding a pint on a cold autumn day, their backs gently roasting on a nearby fireplace, it was my imagining that I could leave and return 100 years later and still find them sitting there, beaming, and in the grip of some new apocryphal fancy.
Now that I think on it I may need to add qualification: I’ve found a drunken Pole, Italian, Croat, Spaniard, Romanian, and Swede, equally expansive and fluent.
Perhaps it’s the drink. 🙂
I zoom off in a few weeks time to meet dad and my brother in
the Old Country, and from there to 4 glittering cities – Venice, Turin, Rome, and Paris.
I should by rights exclude Venice from that list. My stop there is only as meeting place and point of departure. I tried to position myself for a long lazy afternoon at the Guggenheim only to be told 2 nights ago that we would be there on a Tuesday.
I smell the mischievous machinations of my brother… poor fellow, he needing this holiday most.
Anyway, all is now in order – tickets, passes, tours, transfers, hotels, camera, a new pair of Portuguese brown leather walking boots, exquisite and most unusual for me.
I also carry with me quite a large smile.
Who would have ever thought that we three would go off exploring together at this stage in our lives?
Our minds turn to mum….and to what she would have made of our wanderings.
I am writing to assist a friend in an argument against Monash’s proposed trigger warning policy.
I’m also am writing against Corbyn, Turnbull, the European Left, militant Islam & Jihad.
I am jubilant, despite a little moral tap-dancing, that there will be some accounting for Anjem Choudary.
I am dismayed that Trump has arrived at this point.
The Hypocrisy of the Remain camp in the UK strikes me as most dastardly.
I wonder on Aus politics and fear a 2010-13 redux.
And I look at Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, daily.
I miss my wife, she on her third week of this wretched training. Such is my despair that I have come to stare at the scantily clad mannequins at DJ’s. Their reserve…..somehow appealing.
Should you hear small seismic activity come next week, fear not, it’s just me welcoming home my wife.
Regarding our Table: I do Glow, I do often think back.
I recall moments of sheer lunacy, brilliance, treachery, friendship, wit, and insight.
I also remember your courage and support…and for that I offer this double.
Gird your loins and enjoy!
Your Mum, I suspect, would be jubilant that her three blokes will be tramping around together over the cobblestones of those old cities – eating, laughing, arguing, bickering, clinking glasses. I know I would be.
Ned is Irish, I think. Or at least claims to be of that euphoric descent. Although he might be a Slav, judging by his magnificent capacity for gesture, affection and consumption of alcohol. And his poetic grace to pre-deliver the gift of hooch, so we may know in advance how his fortunes lie and he doesn’t have to waste drinking and story-telling time with explanations. Gives me time to get his room ready, too.
I despair of the generation that needs, or demands, trigger warnings for material that might discomfit them. I despair of Universities and students that do not explode into hoots of derisory laughter at the suggestion. Perhaps they all just want to finish their degrees as quickly and silently as possible and join the worker bees … not change the world. How sad.
Choudary gets to spend some time in the slammer? Should be interesting for him.
Aaaah – Alain Delon! How kind of you to remember. Actually, after seeing the Spanish flick ‘Truman’ the other day, I may have transferred my affections to Ricardo Darín. Ever the constant heart, me, gulled by a swarthy face.
And Turnbull of the Underbite is turning out to be everything I thought he would be.
To finish, prediction: Trump will spit the dummy somewhere around the end of September, and abandon his fervid followers. He will tell the American nation to go find another patsy, and return to his TV shows and his tacky tower. Truly.
Those were the days 99 – heroic collaborator of the fifth estate
And so it goes – still reverberating in cyberspace – some golden words from the smith of Murwillimbah Lismore and Palm Beach
Tragic early life no barrier to Bob’s illustrious career
Alina Rylko 9th Apr 2016
BOB Ellis led a life of extremes, from his conservative and tragic childhood, to the very last week of his life as an outcast and prolific blogger.
Passing away last Sunday, aged 73, one of Australia’s most renowned playwrights, speech writers and controversial journalists, Ellis will be laid to rest today at Frenchs Forest Bushland Cemetery, at Davidson, in Sydney’s northern suburbs.
Tributes for the intellect flew in from around the nation this week, as his tumultuous early life on the North Coast was revealed.
Born in 1942 at Murwillumbah, and raised at Lismore, Ellis described his family life as “complicated”.
His father Keith was a “brilliant” travelling salesman and Labor stalwart, while his mother, Elsie, was a strict Seventh-Day Adventist “deaconess”, according to a 2004 ABC interview.
“A lot of it was very difficult. Family fights between my father, who was an atheist, and my mother,” he told the ABC.
Ellis later told the Daily Life his mother tried to “kill” his father “from time to time”, by driving a car at him.
It followed an incredible stress on the family after the death of Ellis’ 22-year-old sister, Margaret, who was run over by hoons at a red light. Ellis witnessed the tragedy, aged just nine.
“It was the seminal moment of my life. I think about her every day and I’ve never gotten over it,” he told the Daily Mail.
Despite this tragedy, Lismore High School records show Ellis was a “very diligent” student whose conduct record was “excellent”.
The then headmaster wrote that Ellis had been prominent in debating and public speaking, and was editor of the school’s monthly magazine, Highlight.
Ellis later studied at Sydney University in the 1960s, where his cohort included academic feminist Germaine Greer, playwright John Bell and journalist Clive James.
An illustrious and controversial career followed, with Ellis penning more than 20 books, 2000 film reviews, 200 poems and 100 songs.
Controversially, the first edition of his book Goodbye Jerusalem was pulped, after publisher Random House lost a defamation suit brought on by former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott.
Ellis wrote speeches for Labor leaders Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Kim Beazley, and also wrote extensively on Labor history.
Journalist Alex Mitchell, a former NSW Press Gallery president who now lives at Tweed Heads, gave a colourful insight into the inner workings of Parliament House during the Carr premiership.
Journalist Alex Mitchell.
Journalist Alex Mitchell.
The former political editor of the Sun Herald credited Ellis for his powerful speeches of attack against the Coalition, and said he wrote convincing, theatrical dialogue for the premier to win over the hearts of backbenchers and the public alike.
“Bob would come in and coach Bob Carr to handle question time, putting him through his paces,” Mr Mitchell said.
“They would draft out a Dorothy Dixer for a tame backbencher who had nothing better to do, and get in front of a full-length mirror and practice the speech in response.
“Bob Carr would then stand up and stride the (parliament) floor, giving an incredible oration, ridiculing the opposition in Shakespearean proportions, all with the words scripted by Bob Ellis.
“It was an absolutely incredible piece of free theatre, as Bob Carr would wave his arms around, monstering the Coalition leaders.
“He displaced five opposition leaders, largely in the House of Parliament during question time.”
Mr Mitchell said Ellis and Mr Carr were both lovers of theatre and used voice techniques to capitalise on Carr’s strength.
“Bob Ellis was one of the great golden wordsmiths of his time and he was a great warrior to the side he belonged to,” Mr Mitchell said.
“He had a great facility for adapting words and giving lines of speech to people that would make them come alive, and that was his great ability – he gave authenticity.”
So passionate was his love of politics, the 73-year-old threatened to continue his rhetoric from beyond the grave.
“I was writing daily about ‘the 31 worst things the Liberals did yesterday’ and I got up to 297 and I am not finished. I am going to progressively publish them – posthumously,” he told the Australian Financial Review.
He blogged on his page Ellis Table Talk, and on the Independent Australian right up until two weeks ago.
Gold Coast-based managing editor of the Independent Australian, David Donovan, labelled him an “icon”.
“Bob was pretty much cut off from all other publications because he was so controversial,” Mr Donovan said.
“He was a very delightful and generous person; a prolific writer and irreplaceable as a journalist.”
North Coast shadow minister Walt Secord, who worked with Ellis as a ministerial staffer for Carr between 1995 and 2007, described Ellis as a “literary treasure