Several decades ago, at Adelaide’s Writers Week, I was dragooned into constructing a ramp for Dorothy Hewett. I’d spent the afternoon imbibing with an acquaintance called Joe Public (there are many embellishments in this story, but Joe’s name isn’t one of them). Joe’s fashion sense blended hobo haute couture with dire dentistry while I was in my matted hair and shaggy beard phase. I knew Joe was a Rhodes scholar in English lit and was trying to impress him with my meagre knowledge of revenge tragedies, when a stranger approached and asked us to secure a walkway so that Dorothy Hewett could ascend to the stage. Why she hand-picked two scruffy drunks to secure the safe passage of an Australian literary icon I’ll never know. In hindsight, I suspect she knew Joe, although I saw no evidence of this at the time.
We took to the task with enthusiasm, loading sandbags beneath the ramp and making sure it was firmly fixed to the stage. We discussed safety issues with the kind of glowering seriousness that only inebriates can muster. We capered. We blathered irreverent comments about “Dotty” that probably blundered into ageism. In my memory, we decorated the ramp with bunting or crepe paper and poked blooms illegally plucked from the Memorial Gardens into empty stubbies. Nothing was too good for Dotty. I believe there was some doubt concerning the writer’s ascent: nobody was sure if she would be walking or using a wheelchair. My memory is that she walked, aided, up the ramp. Her flouncy dress billowed, magnifying her presence and generating an aura. As she rose above me, I felt a surge of pride. The irreverence of an hour ago was quashed, because Dorothy Hewett was a writer and to me, writers were deities.
Authors began to attain godlike status when, as a six-year-old, I pledged myself to the Church of Blyton. I was devoted to her disciples who came in groups of five and seven. Later, I was seduced by more pagan cults: Ian Fleming provided heady thrills and several steep learning curves for a ten-year-old. Later, there was Edgar Rice Burroughs, Asimov; then Camus and Beckett. Writers seemed to possess superhuman insight and knew ways to mystify and amaze. They confronted and tested me, dallying recklessly with my emotions. Mere humans were their playthings. What would I do if I was personally faced with one of these eternals? Would I lose the power of speech?
It’s a case of Alice Cooper Syndrome. I am not worthy.
It’s sobering to suppose that Dorothy Hewett may have considered herself, if not a goddess, then somehow unfettered from societal norms and conventional morality. Her daughters have since alleged that she and her husband – also a writer – made them sexually available to their bohemian social circle. The hubris and self-aggrandisement of artists can inflict damage. Me-Me resulting in MeToo.
Several years after that Writers’ Week, I moved to a new Adelaide suburb. My partner, Helen, was the first to visit the local GP and she returned enthusing about the experience, so when I next suffered an ailment, I attended the small, family run clinic with high expectations. I was horrified to learn that one of the consulting doctors was Peter Goldsworthy. My tremors had nothing to do with Dr Goldsworthy’s skill as a GP, but his dexterity as a librettist and novelist. Here was I, a frail human, parading my mortality before a deity by carping about my sufferings. In terms of religious obeisance, it went beyond the confessional. In the confession box, you are revealing your sins and weaknesses to a representative – a gatekeeper – of a higher being, yet here I was eliminating the middle-man. I was describing the failings of my pathetically human shell directly to the godhead. Gastric reflux, quailing heart, haemorrhoids – there was no limit to the shame I might have to admit to.
There were copies of Dr Goldsworthy’s novels alongside the medical texts on the shelf in his office. He knew I was a librarian. At the time I was selecting fiction for the City of Onkaparinga libraries and was acutely aware of his bibliography, yet we never discussed his other life. He was the eloquent in the room. We only ever talked about the weather and my maladies, afflictions and festerings. Gods can be aloof.
I never refer to myself as a writer. I am giddy with excitement as the publishing date of my debut novel, Earworm, creeps closer, yet I still identify as a librarian. I contain blood, not ichor (Dr Goldsworthy can vouch for that). I’m irritatingly mortal. Persistently uni-present. And the only time I move in mysterious ways is when I dance.
Colin Varney’s short stories have appeared in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Island and Southerly. He has written articles for The Lifted Brow and satire for Adelaide Review and Tasmanian Times. His children’s book, Jellylegs, is widely used to promote protective behaviours. He completed a Master’s in creative writing at the University of Tasmania, mentored by Danielle Wood. Earworm is his first novel and will released by Margaret River Press in October 2018.