THIS launch of Pete Hay’s wonderful new book of poetry, Silently on the Tide, will be in three parts:
• A Memory: Of the North West Coast.
• A Defence: Of carousing as a legitimate pastime necessary to poetic inspiration.
• A Tribute: To a passionate love for this island.
First the memory …
Picture this: A little weatherboard country church with a Baltic pine ceiling shaped like an upside down Viking ship, 1960, North West Coast. It is Sunday, 11am:
The old mahogany wall clock ticks slowly, maddeningly. Tick, tock, tick tock. Tick tock.
The sun shafts through the scratches in the whited-out windows, glancing off the upright pews, designed by a sadist to prevent slumber.
The Woodsman family from the bush farm at Upper Natone files in: Merryk, Beryl, Lettie, Maurie, Percy, Nellie, Aggie.
They shuffle noisily to their pew, settling one by one in the same order I have seen them present before this most powerful North-West Coast Deity since I was old enough to register life from mother’s floral dressed knee, next to Father’s pinstriped knee and beside the fidgety, frustrated older brother, his suit trouser pockets sewn up because he can’t keep his hands out of them.
I know what will happen next. I’m just 10. But I know. And slowly, inevitably it comes to pass.
From the right, the enervating warmth of the summer sun works its magic … Percy’s head tips forward, lantern jaw meeting double-breasted lapel.
Then Aggie’s auburn hair tumbles onto her ample bosom; her head lolls ever so slowly right and lodges on Nellie’s left shoulder, strangely muscular from heaving haybales onto trailers.
Like a game of dominoes in a Hunter S. Thompson road trip hallucination, Percy traps Nellie in a pincer movement, his brylcreem streaked black head leaving a smudge on the crinoline of her Sunday-best right shoulder.
Nellie doesn’t notice. She is already asleep. And about to take the next dreadful step into gothic horror. For when Nellie falls asleep her massive tree-truck legs splay.
All this is almost too much for a delicate 10-year-old boy.
Then. A familiar, booming voice causes the Woodsmans to jerk into consciousness like so many reversed-machanism ducks in a shooting gallery at the sideshow of the Burnie Show, the show incidentally where life’s primeval juices first began to gush for me when I guiltily caught the fuzzy form of naked femaleness behind the crazed glass in the forbidden tent in sideshow alley.
Back to the Voice: The startled heads turn towards Mr Ernest Austin:
Brethren, let us rise and sing Hymn 149:
Washed in the blood of the lamb
Words & Music by Elisha A. Hoffman, from
Spiritual Songs for Gospel Meetings and the Sunday School, Cleveland, Ohio: Barker & Smellie, 1878)
And we sing:
Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin,
And be washed in the blood of the Lamb;
There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean,
O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!
A risky invitation
Another Sunday consulting paradise at the Stowport Gospel Hall, circa 1960.
I regale you with this because this wonderful — and mainly faithful — memory came to me as I thought about Pete Hay and his risky invitation for me to launch his new book of poems.
Risky, because asking an unpredictable poetry-loving, tangent-travelling journalist-carouser to launch anything is a monumental act of faith … Will he arrive dazed and confused, tired and emotional, leatherised liver protesting, primeval lust trailing after the unschooled, synapse-startled, now absent mind and darkened soul. Will he go wildly off at a tangent and forget altogether why he is here …
Well Pete, tonight I’m only partly dazed, just a little confused … but I have to defend that condition … as a beautiful part of my — and your life — has been spent, glass of funny water — as you refer to it — in hand discussing ad-nauseum politics, poetry, the evolution of the monarchical episcopate, the beauty and wonder of womankind …
Thus I must briefly defend carousing as legitimate, necessary, in fact vital, to poetic inspiration.
I call upon none other than Oscar Wilde as a defence witness. Not only is this the year of the launch of Pete Hay’s new book of poems, it is also Oscar Wilde’s 150th birthday. And Oscar had something significant to say about carousing: Said Oscar:
Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.
Incidentally, He also had something to say about journalism:
The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.
Its failings notwithstanding, there is much to be said in favour of journalism in that by giving us the opinion of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.
And, to go briefly off at a tangent, one last observation on reputation:
It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.
But, back to carousing. Carousing ad-nauseum has its compensations. Putting aside the ghastly post-binge depression darkness and anxious pondering of memory lapse, there is the well-known observation that when a teetotaller wakes up every morning, that’s the best he/she will feel all day.
Not so, the carouser, he/she gives thanks and their day … or week … generally gets better and better. There is hope.
As Jack Hibberd says, in Hope:
I’m still alive
And at large,
Though my soul
Resembles a half-dried chive
On a large barge,
Or an owl
Trapped in vicious sunlight:
Two shrivelled eyes
Waiting for moisture, dew,
Rodents around a yew:
The revelations of night
Only the most serious drinkers
I also appeal in defense of the carouse to old-school pommie journo Tom Utley, writing in the Daily Telegraph:
Writes Tom: “I woke yesterday wishing that alcohol had never been discovered, and vowing that I would never touch another drop.
“It is the same every morning of my life.
“Only the most serious drinkers, such as me, know the utter devastation of mind and body that goes with a true humdinger of a hangover: the clammy skin, the bilious stomach and that all-consuming sense of desolation and self-loathing that makes us long for the end of the world.”
Dear Mr Utley, who mourns the old school of journalism when “the great majority of journalists were more or less permanently sozzled”, explains his own excesses as partly a form of escapism, with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Which brings me nicely back to the prime object of this evening’s affection. Pete Hay … Remember that TS quote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Well &hellip I like to escape into Pete Hay’s poetry … A Pete poem is not unlike pouring down a mug of slivovitz at 2am and going on a fantastical journey…
When I drink deeply of Pete Hay a switch is flicked into a landscape with which we both are familiar … our beloved island home and especially that area which nurtured both of us … the North West Coast.
Pete Hay was Wynyard. I was Natone/Upper Stowport. Which is better than being Upper Penguin.
Me, raised on a little farm 20ks inland from Burnie but still in smelling distance of the Pulp. A farm backing onto glorious bushland with a creek and freshwater crayfish, eels and blackfish, and the prejudice of big-city Burnie which declared in its yearbook of this terrified new high school boy: “You can take the boy from the country, but you can’t take the country from the boy.”
Thank god for that. I think Wynyard Pete would agree. You can’t take the country from the boy. And most certainly you can take the boy from the North West Coast, but you can’t take the North-West Coast from the boy!
Pete Hay evokes in this new book this deep, passionate love for our island. He evokes an understanding of the land and the people who are its ghosts …
Listen to this:
(quotes coming, lost the book)
Because it’s very country North West Coast, Natone Recreation Ground, in fact:
Finally I will finish with another quote from Oscar:
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.
It’s time to go …
Launch words for Pete Hay’s Silently on the Tide, Hobart Bookshop, Thursday, November 3, 2005.