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