WHITE MIS­CHIEF

Pa­trick White was sadis­tic but funny, self- righ­teous yet gen­er­ous. Poet Robert Gray re­calls his elu­sive friend

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

TO­WARDS the end of my fa­ther’s life, I grew to know the nov­el­ist Pa­trick White, as fa­mous for his iras­ci­bil­ity as for his work, and we kept up what on my part was an elu­sive friend­ship dur­ing his last 15 years. My scep­ti­cism about the con­nec­tion was be­cause of a sim­i­lar­ity I found be­tween my fa­ther and him.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween Pa­trick and my fa­ther was, of course, ex­treme: that of a No­bel prizewin­ner on one side, an all- round fail­ure on the other. Their like­ness I found in the prac­tised way both did sadis­tic things to peo­ple with words. Dur­ing his young man­hood, in Lon­don, Pa­trick had been part of the cir­cle around Fran­cis Ba­con, the ex­pres­sion­ist painter, and seems to have made that no­to­ri­ous ‘‘ sa­cred mon­ster’’ his li­cence for how the great artist can be­have. The artist, as ego­tist, im­poses out­ra­geously on oth­ers, with a high the­atri­cal­ity, and yet de­mands to be taken se­ri­ously. From what I have read of Ba­con, the con­ti­nu­ity of Pa­trick’s be­hav­iour with his is ap­par­ent; but Pa­trick had none of the mas­ter’s lu­bri­cat­ing, if treach­er­ous, charm.

Even in Pa­trick’s old age, he was struck by Ba­con’s per­son­al­ity, al­though they had not met for decades. I once men­tioned that I liked the ear­lier pic­tures of Ba­con’s friend Lu­cian Freud best of all his work, and Pa­trick was in­dig­nant I should like him at all. Freud was ‘‘ a dread­ful man!’’ There had ap­par­ently been a fall­ing- out be­tween Freud and Ba­con and Pa­trick re­tained a bit­ter loy­alty to ‘‘ Franny’’. No mat­ter that the main pro­tag­o­nists in the quar­rel, as I later read, had long rec­on­ciled.

If the con­ver­sa­tion at his din­ner ta­ble seemed to Pa­trick slug­gish, he would do as Ba­con is de­scribed as do­ing: throw in some vi­cious re­marks, to stir up the oc­ca­sion. This might be at­trib­uted to bore­dom, but in Pa­trick’s case, I think, was mainly a fear of be­ing thought bor­ing.

Pa­trick was not an in­tel­lec­tual; he was un­com­fort­able with ab­stract ideas, did not main­tain his part in con­ver­sa­tions about them and would ex­plo­sively sab­o­tage any road that seemed to be slip­ping into that coun­try.

Al­though he lived nearby, he rarely ap­peared in fash­ion­able Padding­ton, and it was not at the book­shop ( where I worked) that we met, but back­stage at one of his plays.

The play I saw, be­fore meet­ing the au­thor, was A Cheery Soul ( its epiphany in­volves the re­al­i­sa­tion that god is dog spelled back­wards), at the Syd­ney Opera House in 1975. The di­rec­tor was Jim Shar­man, known for the stage and film ver­sions of The Rocky Hor­ror Show and for other mu­si­cals, such as Hair and Je­sus Christ Su­per­star . As we were strug­gling through the crush in a corridor, I re­alised I was be­ing led to­ward a tall fig­ure whom I recog­nised from pho­to­graphs. Pa­trick was loaded with flow­ers and re­ceiv­ing tributes and, I was told, was pleased with the per­for­mances, but he looked grim. We came face to face and were in­tro­duced. His mouth was like a folded war­rant for some­one’s ar­rest.

The voice, from his Ox­ford ed­u­ca­tion and his years in Eng­land, in af­fected com­pany, had in­to­na­tions that re­minded me of John Giel­gud’s fruiti­est man­ner: sim­i­lar qua­ver­ings and lin­ger­ing em­phases. It was a voice that could eas­ily be pitched into in­dig­na­tion, and out­rage, and even hys­te­ria.

‘‘ Do you go to the the­atre , or­phan?’’ he asked, as his gaze took a min­ing- scan of my face.

‘‘ I don’t,’’ I told him, re­mem­ber­ing that hon­esty is the best pol­icy.

‘‘ I pre­fer to go to the movies.’’ ( That was all I could af­ford.)

‘ Movies? Movies ! Surely you mean the pic­tures, or the cine - mah? And what about Shakes peare?’

‘‘ Well, yes . . . But I hate the way direc­tors feel they have to get creative with the plays, and they set Julius Cae­sar in the stock ex­change, or Macbeth dur­ing the Viet­nam War. The anom­alies be­gin to pre­oc­cupy.’’

‘‘ I couldn’t agree more . Some­one’s go­ing to do that sort of thing to me, one of th­ese days, when I’m safely out of the way . Some new ge­nius from Coon­abarabran . . . Come to din­ner , some time, if you would like to. Jim has the num­ber .’’

Pa­trick, I thought, would im­me­di­ately for­get his in­vi­ta­tion. In­deed, I was on the same bus as him, soon af­ter­wards, which was sparsely oc­cu­pied, and he seemed not to recog­nise me. He was, how­ever, dis­tracted at the time.

On that oc­ca­sion, I be­came aware of Pa­trick

With while I was at the bus stop, be­cause of shout­ing which started within an open- fronted green­gro­cer’s, just be­hind me. Pa­trick had taken from a string car­ryall a large brown pa­per bag of toma­toes and seemed to be de­mand­ing his money back.

A young man pass­ing the bus stop be­came in­ter­ested in this con­flict, too. At some point, he be­gan unc­tu­ously to in­tro­duce him­self, but he got no fur­ther than the first men­tion of his ad­mi­ra­tion. Pa­trick turned to him a face as set as a bull­frog’s. Then his mouth erupted. ‘‘ Get stuffed ,’’ he or­dered, in a voice high above the grind­ing of the bus and the traf­fic.

Pa­trick must have been re­minded of me, some­how, be­cause a sum­mons came to the White House, in writ­ing. I re­gret­ted my de­ci­sion ( to ac­cept) when I pre­sented my­self on his doorstep and heard that I was to be the only guest, or the sole ob­ject of in­ter­ro­ga­tion, for the evening. Pa­trick’s wooden, gabled, two- storey house faced the copses and grassy acres of Cen­ten­nial Park, in the east­ern sub­urbs. He lived with a com­pan­ion, Manoly Las­caris, who was said by in­ter­view­ers to be ‘‘ saintly’’ and ‘‘ long­suf­fer­ing’’. The night I ar­rived, the house stood in what ap­peared to be dark­ness, on its hillock, ris­ing out of draped lawns and plots of lilies.

That house has been de­scribed as looking at night like the set for a Ham­mer Stu­dios hor­ror film; and Pa­trick was not un­used to the ef­fect of his glar­ing, Ger­man ex­pres­sion­ist ap­pear­ance at the door.

The first time I came into seem­ingly co­matose Martin Road, I was late. Pa­trick de­manded from me, al­most im­me­di­ately, my opin­ion of den­tists. I had hoped we might be­gin with David Malouf, who had just pub­lished a novel I ad­mired, and on whom I had some lines pre­pared.

Pa­trick cut in, de­nounc­ing such fri­vol­ity by in­ton­ing that he had with­er­ing gums . His den­tures would be­come use­less to him. There was noth­ing that could be done. ‘‘ I shall be an old man drink­ing soup ,’’ he al­most yelled, and in­vol­un­tar­ily, it seemed, crooked his back and made his hands trem­ble fee­bly be­fore him. ‘‘ No one can help me, no one ,’’ he barked, looking at me with meta­phys­i­cal dis­gust. I saw the evening was not go­ing to be easy.

Ab­stracted for a mo­ment, in what I hoped looked like help­less sym­pa­thy, I con­fronted my ris­ing panic, then looked up again and into his gaze. He was in­clined to­ward me ag­gres­sively, with the de­meanour of a buz­zard whose ap­petite was about to re­turn. But some­thing stirred in the back of his eyes, like a fleet­ing stage­hand re­ar­rang­ing a set. Surely he knew how lu­di­crous this was. If he did not, I de­cided, it was bet­ter to be thrown out now. Tak­ing that slight­est hint, I be­gan to laugh, and at once his face al­lowed it­self a look of sly, al­most smug plea­sure. There was a twitch of the lips, and then a smile, as bleak as moon­light on a drought- stricken pad­dock.

Pa­trick com­plained to me, at a later time, of how peo­ple hardly ever re­alised when he was act­ing, be­cause he was not able to sig­nal that he was: he thought he looked ‘‘ ridicu­lous’’ if he smiled.

Manoly, whom Pa­trick met in Alexan­dria dur­ing World War II, was em­ployed in that city as a bank clerk. Pa­trick had come to Alexan­dria on leave from Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence in the Mid­dle East and was in uni­form when he and Manoly met one Satur­day af­ter­noon at a sa­lon. Manoly told me that af­ter he and Pa­trick no­ticed each other, Pa­trick watched him un­wa­ver­ingly. As the other guests moved into an ad­join­ing room for lunch, Manoly hes­i­tated in front of a large, gilded mir­ror; and Pa­trick, lin­ger­ing too, ap­proached him in the glass, and put his arms about him, without a word: ‘‘ de­sire looking into de­sire’’.

Manoly, in age, was small and fine, with a neat pot­belly and slop­ing shoul­ders, like a mar­su­pial. He had a slim, mild face and oiled black hair, brushed back.

Pa­trick found promis­cu­ity dis­taste­ful. He scoffed at peo­ple’s ‘‘ dog- like be­hav­iour’’. One evening, while he spoke in this way, Manoly was sit­ting neatly on the couch with his hands folded. Then he in­ter­rupted. ‘‘ Pa­trick was un­faith­ful once,’’ he said, with a com­posed smile. ‘‘ What !’’ said Pa­trick. ‘‘ Yes, Pa­trick, you re­mem­ber. Do­bell.’’

William Do­bell was, dur­ing the 1950s, at the time Pa­trick and Manoly knew him, the most fa­mous artist in Aus­tralia.

‘‘ What !’’ Pa­trick said. ‘‘ That doesn’t count

As he brought the sub­ject up I saw in his eyes the si­los open and the mis­siles rise into place

Manoly. He was no good . Bill Do­bell was no good at it. It doesn’t count . So you can drop it .’’

Manoly sat with fin­gers in­ter­laced, head down­wards, snig­ger­ing, and Pa­trick strug­gled, but then had to grin, too, like the last squeeze in the tooth­paste tube.

Those rows for which Pa­trick was known were most of­ten with peo­ple of sim­i­lar promi­nence to him­self, who had dis­ap­pointed him morally; that is, his quar­rels were with mid­dle- aged artists or politi­cians who had di­vorced their wives for younger women, or had been fla­grantly ne­glect­ful of them, or who had re­vealed some taint in their pol­i­tics. The chronic, righ­teous anger in Pa­trick had an ob­vi­ous cause: it arose be­cause he, a White, of the vast Bell­trees prop­erty and the Lul­worth man­sion in Syd­ney, of a fam­ily famed as phi­lan­thropists, saw in many a par­venu so­cialite and her money- grub­bing hus­band their se­cret con­de­scen­sion of him; their se­cret sneer, at his queer­ness.

Nev­er­the­less, he was the most gen­er­ous per­son I have met, and the man of most prin­ci­ple. He was also highly con­scious of his virtue. Pa­trick was ‘‘ by far’’ the largest in­di­vid­ual con­trib­u­tor to the es­sen­tial char­i­ties in Syd­ney, as was only fully re­vealed af­ter his death, al­though he was by no means the city’s wealth­i­est ci­ti­zen. He also took down a for­tune from his walls, in his best paint­ings, Nolans, de Maistres, a Fair­weather, and gave them to the Art Gallery of NSW. He bought whole ex­hi­bi­tions by young artists and dis­trib­uted their work; and he gave his money, name and time to any new leaves of tal­ent that he saw, in young poets, nov­el­ists, dancers, mu­si­cians, ac­tors, and to Abo­rig­i­nal cul­tural groups: not al­ways with enough eye to qual­ity, I thought.

One of the few rad­i­cal causes that Pa­trick did not sup­port was gay lib­er­a­tion. He once re­counted to me how he had been walk­ing past a gay rights demon­stra­tion, that day, on a city street, and a young man in­volved there had come up to him: ‘‘ Mr White, Mr White, you should be here with us.’’ Pa­trick said that he replied ( with his dig­nity show­ing in the re- en­act­ment), ‘‘ I may be ho­mo­sex­ual, but I am cer­tainly not gay !’’

I of­ten felt I was Pa­trick’s guest un­der a pre­tence, be­cause at the time I knew him I had not read any of his books.

Pa­trick was not the sort of per­son to raise the topic of his own work with a guest. We talked con­tin­u­ally of other peo­ple’s books: he would cross- ex­am­ine me on my di­shev­elled read­ing, then would in­sist on cer­tain books I had missed, and say why they were good. When a book was men­tioned that we both had read, we com­pared opin­ions. He liked prej­u­dice, no mat­ter how im­pres­sion­is­tic and un­char­i­ta­ble — as his of­ten was — so long as there was readi­ness to change one’s mind. I read Tom Jones at his in­sis­tence, start­ing out scep­ti­cally, on one of the ‘‘ damned big books’’, and loved it, for its verve and its warmth. To my sur­prise, he said Tom Jones, that de­light of women, was his favourite char­ac­ter in fic­tion; Field­ing’s book was his favourite novel; Tom was even his favourite name. He also en­cour­aged me to per­se­vere with late Henry James, for which I was grate­ful; and un­der his in­flu­ence I read Ge­orge Eliot. But I con­tin­ued in what I thought a danger­ous game, one that might lead me into a slip- up: my re­luc­tance to­ward his own work.

I ad­mit­ted to Pa­trick, early on, that I pre­ferred to read my favourite po­ems over and over, rather than nov­els. I read thrillers, but he would not hear of those, no mat­ter how naively I wanted to talk about the mer­its of Ray­mond Chan­dler and John le Carre. He had read Gra­ham Greene, whom he in­sisted on speak­ing of as merely a writer of en­ter­tain­ments, and about whom he was touchy. When his No­bel prize had been an­nounced, many Bri­tish com­men­ta­tors protested about him re­ceiv­ing it over Greene. Pa­trick thought I would like Greene’s thrillers, and as he brought the sub­ject up I saw in his eyes the si­los open and the mis­siles rise into place. I was able hon­estly to say that I did not.

I read bi­ogra­phies, par­tic­u­larly of artists, and this was a taste we shared. I rec­om­mended Richard Ell­mann’s book on Os­car Wilde to Pa­trick, but to my sur­prise he said Wilde was a

ter­ri­ble’’ man and he couldn’t bear to read about him. Tele­vi­sion was not al­lowed in their house, al­though Manoly would have liked it; TV was ‘‘ in­sup­port­able’’. Pa­trick could not have borne, he said, the ‘‘ ten­sions’’ of it.

I fell out of favour with Pa­trick. In an in­ter­view I said that I dis­liked the idea of be­ing a poet and would never call my­self one; to be self­con­sciously a poet seemed to me too se­questered from the main­stream of life, ‘‘ like be­ing a dea­con or a ho­mo­sex­ual’’. Per­haps I had in mind just the af­fected wear­ing of an iden­tity, in this glib re­mark. Pa­trick must have read it. When I met him, af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion, stand­ing in a group at a read­ing for a po­lit­i­cal cause, he ig­nored me. Dur­ing my read­ing, he glared at me once or twice and, I no­ticed, re­frained from ap­plause. I felt af­ter­wards that I would not at­tempt an ex­cuse, but left without speak­ing to him.

I did not hear from him on the phone for I sup­pose a year af­ter that. Then one day a lan­guid voice asked, ‘‘ Any gos­sip ?’’ I was in­vited to din­ner, and I went. Noth­ing was said about the hia­tus in our con­ver­sa­tions; he had just been busy, time goes by.

Pa­trick liked con­ver­sa­tions with work­ing- class peo­ple. But this re­spect for the or­di­nary per­son was not al­ways re­cip­ro­cated. He told me that when their car, which only Manoly drove, had re­cently been out of or­der, the two of them went into the city on the bus and came home laden with shop­ping among a peak- hour crowd. They were sep­a­rated, Manoly forced to the back of the bus. Pa­trick had called out, through the crowd,

Is this the stop, Manoly?’’ His voice in such anx­ious mo­ments was a sten­to­rian bleat. One can see him, wear­ing his knit­ted beanie, or his beret, his trench coat but­toned over his trou­ble­some chest, car­ry­ing his knob­bly string bags, and work­ing his jaws. Again, ‘‘ Is this the one, Manoly?’’ He would have been im­pe­ri­ous, quaver­ing, ir­ri­ta­ble, and yet not fail­ing to camp it up. ‘‘ No, Pa­trick,’’ Manoly called, ‘‘ not yet, Pa­trick,’’ with his beau­ti­ful Greek enun­ci­a­tion. Then: ‘‘ This is it, Pa­trick. This is the one. Get ready. The next one.’’ Pa­trick, stand­ing over every­one’s head, in his mil­i­tary bear­ing, with ‘‘ crater eyes’’ and pommy voice, had ex­cit­edly shouted, ‘‘ Come on then, Manoly. Come on . Hurry up, then.’’

The com­muters had loved it, writhing on their seats in their glee and em­bar­rass­ment. This would have to be a cou­ple of poofters. They took up Pa­trick’s im­per­a­tives as a chant. ‘‘ Come on, Manoly. Come on, Manoly,’’ as if at a foot­ball game. They passed Manoly to the front, from hand to hand, with all of his shop­ping. ‘‘ There you are, Manoly. You’ll be all right, mate.’’ Much back- pat­ting. One big work­man, be­side Pa­trick, had slowly turned to him and said, ‘‘ Now, you sure this is the stop you want, mate? I reckon what you might ac­tu­ally be lookin’ for is the Gap’’ ( a place fa­mous for its sui­cides). As Pa­trick and Manoly clutched at each other, anx­iously wait­ing their turn to get down, this man said, ‘‘ ’ Ave you ever had the thought: Life, with all this get­tin’ off the bus, with yer lovely shop­pin’, is such a strug­gle. Does it haf t’ go on? Or­gan mu­sic, mates. I hear or­gan mu­sic.’’

Pa­trick told me all about it, do­ing the voices, de­lighted. Manoly slowly shook his head, at the mem­ory.

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