In a minor oversight, for years I have walked past the entrance to an urban treasure, never peering in. The Athenaeum Library is, naturally, at the top of the stairs above the Athenaeum Theatre, just up Collins St from the Melbourne Town Hall and opposite the Regent. What a nice hangout and lending library; you need to join but at a very reasonable fee.

Anyway that’s where, as I posted yesterday, Michael Heyward (Text) and Barbara Mobbs, executor of Patrick White’s estate discussed the great man and his (brilliant) debut novel, Happy Valley, reissued for the first time since 1939. Mobbs, a slight, severe beauty, unpacked anecdotes of life as White’s agent, and the Australian literary milieu.

Here she is: left is Barbara last night, in my heavily Matissean rendering, and right, earlier in the year at the Sydney Writers Festival. (She does share a hairstyle with Mme Matisse.)

On sprinkling White’s ashes in Centennial Park over a specified pond: They had sneaked in before opening time to avoid the press. Widower Manoly cried: “Why couldn’t it have been one of the beautiful ponds?” As they threw the ashes, the swans came, thinking it was bread…

White and the common man: White was frugal, socked away money; he left an estate of $6m. Mobbs recalled it was travel by bus, or a cab if it was the opera (White didn’t drive). He was delighted to meet cabbies who had read his books, usually a driver of European extraction. He’d invite them to come up and in the room with the spare bed would be piled his books in translation, and then offer one in, say, the appropriate Hungarian.

White and the gushers: “Here come the gushers!,” he hissed at Mobbs. She: “You’re on your own here.” This was at the Neil Armfield production of his play The Ham Funeral. ABC journalist: “It’s been a wonderful success! What will you do next?” White: “I’m waiting to die.”

White and the work: Mobbs: “I don’t remember him ever talking about his work. And he wouldn’t be edited either: ‘They just want to pee on the tree to show they’ve been there.’ ”

White and technology: White to Mobbs: “Can you send a fax for me?” “Sure.” Some days later Mobbs returns the document. White: “Didn’t you fax it?” Mobbs: “I have.” White: “But you still have the paper!”

Techonology 2: Mobbs’ husband installed a cordless phone for White, who fell in love and walked around with it in his pockets; talked incessantly. Then the fat bill arrived. White, horrified: “But how did they know? It wasn’t connected.”

Regretfully, I had to leave early to a prior, so must ask for the rest of the stories. Maybe from these two who sat nearby: left, Nick Jones, marvelous book sculptor and dandy-about-town, currently researching an ancient map as a Fellow at the State Library, and Craig Sherborne, journalist, poet, memoirist and novelist extraordinaire.



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