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Chronicle of troubled trio of writing in that ‘Wild Bleak Bohemia’

20 December 2014 No Comment

AS an alcoholic teenager living in the petit-bourgeois Melbourne suburb of East Brighton, my idea of a good Saturday night was to go on my own, armed with a flagon of claret, to the Brighton Cemetery.

There I would sit in front of Adam Lindsay Gordon’s obelisk reading his best-known verse: “Life is only froth and bubble / Two things stand like stone / Kindness in another’s trouble / Courage in your own.

These days I find it revealing that, of all the people buried in the cemetery, I wasn’t attracted to the grave of gangster Joseph (“Squizzy) Taylor (1888-1927) or bent politician and Victorian premier Thomas Bent (1838-1909) but to that of poet and daring steeplechase rider Gordon (1833-70), who committed suicide at Park Street near Brighton beach — where, as a 14 or 15-year-old, I often used to drink all night by myself.

As a young would-be writer studying at Melbourne High School, life in suburban East Brighton in the late 1950s was a dreary and tame affair. Indeed, going with a friend to the nearby Caulfield racecourse was the closest I came to having fun.

It wasn’t always thus. For a brief time, 1869 to 1870, the three great founders of 19th-century Australian literature — Gordon, Marcus Clarke (1846-81) and Henry Kendall (1839-82) were all working in Melbourne together and leading a bohemian life.

“The morning was spent in scribbling, the afternoon in tobacco, the evening in dinner, theatre, and gaslight, Clarke recalled. “I fear we did not lead virtuous lives. I am sure that we were often out of bed after the small hours.

“I know that Madame Gogo and Lisette de Jambejolie (the nom de plumes of two notorious Melbourne courtesans) assisted in the spending of our bounty. We were utterly useless ­beings, but then — well, we had good digestions and did not bother ourselves with high resolves and sentimental lovemaking.

All three writers enthusiastically joined the Yorick Club — established in Melbourne in 1868 for “literary men and those taking a special interest in literature, art or science. In the weekly ‘Austral­asian’, Clarke wrote often outlandish accounts about the comings and goings at the club.

Rather like P.G. Wodehouse’s fictitious Drones’ Club, the Yorick became the focus of bad behaviour. Its official history records that one evening Gordon, “in an excess of jovial feelings, pitched Marcus Clarke up to the ceiling and caught him coming down. G.A. Walstab, who wrote a few episodes of a serial by Clarke when Clarke was recovering from a riding accident, was an early exponent of face painting. He specialised in taking coals from the fire in the early morning and blackening the faces of the members dozing in their chairs or beneath the tables. He was later arrested at the Yorick for non-payment of maintenance.

Journalist Alfred Telo brought back from the Pacific Islands a collection of long spears. One night these were used to lift from their hooks the gilded hats hung out as signs by Melbourne hatters.

Another favourite game of club members was collecting brass doorknobs. Telo particularly prized one he had stolen from theatre critic J.E. Neild. After Neild wrote a letter to the Argus newspaper denouncing “the idiots who could find nothing better to do than to wrench off citizens’ knockers, the following morning he found that his house had been decorated with a fishing rod and a gilt fish, a pawnbroker’s sign and an undertaker’s board.

But the life of the freelance writer was not an easy one. All three writers suffered from extortionate interest repayments on crippling debt and all died young.

Unable to pay the printer, Gordon shot himself the day after his last book of poems, ‘Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes’, was published. He was 37.

Clarke died aged 35, bankrupt for the second time and consequently dismissed from his job in the Melbourne Public Library.

Kendall returned to Sydney, forged a cheque and was put in Gladesville mental hospital. But he cut down on his drinking and worked for a timber business in NSW in the town now named after him. He died aged 43 — a day short of a year after Clarke.

All of this, and more, is chronicled in a new book by Michael Wilding to be released this week by Australian Scholarly Publishing. In ‘Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon & Henry Kendall’, Wilding tells the story of these three troubled geniuses of Australian writing and their world of poetry and poverty, alcohol and opiates, horse-racing and theatre, journalism and publishing. Perhaps partly as a result of their heavy drinking and their drug-taking, all three path-breaking authors deteriorated quickly, and suffered much.

In 1880, writing from Sydney two years before his death, Kendall put it thus: “In that wild bleak Bohemia south of the Murray (ie Melbourne), I went through Gethsemane and I am only the grey shadow of the young man who commenced to write with so much enthusiasm in 1861.

Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.


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