Monday, September 28, 2009

Bringing it all back home

This weekend I am heading back to Perth. Collie, in fact, about two hours south, I think. I have never knowingly been to Collie although my father was born and grew up there.

Why am I going to Collie? It's to get my record collection. I have lived in Melbourne for nearly 14 years and when I moved here I left my collection of vinyl behind. So long has it been that I can hardly remember what is among them. I think there is probably 100 albums. And maybe a few 12 inch singles. Sure to be as many, most, were bought during the early to mid 1980s.

There might be a copy of The Smiths Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now. There was in the 1980s. I know there was a copy of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and maybe some other Dylan stuff. And there is a double Sonny Boy Williamson record. Get Happy by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Hopefully London Calling. Maybe a Gram Parsons disc or two.

I know that there are records that I once owned and may never see again. Some I gave away; some I loaned. I'm thinking of the Motown double Marvin Gaye anthology. And yes, Andrew Sproat, I'm looking at you.

But there are sure to be a few blushes among the Proustian moments. Let's hope it's worth the cost of freight back to Melbourne.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keith Floyd

I cooked our dinner tonight in a cast-iron frying pan that I bought in 1988. The frying pan is a Floyd, and it will probably outlive its owner. It has already outlived its begetter. Keith Floyd, television presenter and cook, died this week after a heart attack, aged 65. Like my father, though far less entertaining, he was married four times. (My father was a dreadful cook, but like Floyd, also handy around a bottle.)

Keith Floyd's kind of cooking program was a long way from Master Chef. A very, very long way from that sanctimonious nonsense. Oh my god, you could not even see Master Chef's porch light from where Floyd stood.

For starters, the theme music was Peaches by The Stranglers. Eh? I got hooked on Floyd on Fish, hooked by his mad enthusiasm for cooking and enjoying food. By his alright on the night style. He did not have a face for television, but he had a great way with the language and real curiosity about food, where it comes from and how it gets to the table. Floyd on Fish was a sort of mad drunken dash around the harbours of England and France, stopping to stew up lunch and uncork a bottle or three. It was food with guilt and pleasure without judgement.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Meeting Ron Brooks

Some days I really love my job. Yesterday was one those days.

Two days a week I work on an exhibition of picture book art for the State Library of Victoria. At the moment I am in the pretty lovely position of going about to people whose work I know and admire and asking if I can (a) look through their files and (b) ask to borrow the best of it for a couple of years. The exhibition will open in Melbourne in November 2011 and all being well, tour to other venues in 2012.

So at a pretty sharp-ish hour, a taxi is pulling up outside my house. Already on board is an Allen & Unwin editor who is working with illustrator Ron Brooks on his memoir. Ron Brooks is one of Australia's best illustrators, whose work is published internationally. This one, John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, (written by Jenny Wagner) has been in print since it was minted in 1977.

It's a haunting little tale of an old lady and the dog, John Brown, who shares her life. All is peaceful until one night a mysterious black cat arrives, insisting it be let in. John Brown is having none of it, not trusting this intruder. It's a book full of unforgettable images, tenderness and haunting questions.

Ron grew up in rural Victoria, then lived in swinging Warrandyte in the 1970's. But these days he calls Tasmania home. He is virtually unknown to the locals. The education authorities seem unaware of the treasure that they have on their doorstep.

Most artists would be happy to have one classic against their name. to my mind and eye, Ron Brooks has at least four books that deserve that title. One is 'John Brown'. He also illustrated The Bunyips of Berkely Creek, published in 1973. Hobart Airport didn't have a copy for sale (as I said, the locals seem oblivious), but I did see one on the spinner in Sydney Airport recently. 'The Bunyips' is a haunting, melancholy and highly original imagining of the mythical creatures' secret life. It's also a suitably surreal, moonlit world that Ron has created.

Not to be done with that, Brooks produced two more in the mid-1990s. The first of these is Old Pig, (with Margaret Wild) in 1995. It's the story of a grandmother and grandchild, and the realisation that these are Old Pig's last days. A more gently heartbreaking book you will never read. When I mention this title to adults who have read Old Pig, they often involuntarily clutch at their heart. Going to Brooks's house and seeing the landscape where he lives, you can see how fully and how richly the light, the trees and the sense of space is absorbed into his work. It's simply one of the most beautiful books you can find.

The fourth book in the canon is another written by Margaret Wild: Fox. Again, it's a celebration of landscape, of outsiders, of friendship under pressure. The images are dramatic, primal, unforgettable. Seeing the original images, some of which will go into the exhibition, really got the heart beating! I can't wait to see the selection up on the wall of the gallery. Because that's where Ron's work belongs.

At the moment, Brooks is working on two books, one a Margaret Wild text with a distinctly Tasmanian flavour. There will be a book by Julia Hunt first, a humorous, musical romance with Chagall overtones.

His approach to illustrating is a fine balance of the craftsman and the artist. He is both fox and badger. Before he even picks up a pencil, he is thinking about the text and how to make every word on the page resonate in the images. He can be highly critical of his own performances, even years later wishing he had done things differently. Rueful, but not bitter. Thinking about how to make the book he is working on the best it can possibly be.

The memoir for Allen & Unwin, which promises to reveal a lot more about this singular artist, will be out next year. Just before the exhibition.