“I came back to go mad. That’s what you do if you’ve got old, unfinished business back in a place and you go back there, you’ll tend to deal with it. “
Poet Les Murray has died. In 1997 I made a pair of radio programs on his work. I traveled to Bunyah, where he grew up, on the north coast of New South Wales, to interview him over a couple of days. The programs won much praise but Murray hadn’t listened to them. He was unhappy with the way I had introduced him, mentioning several public controversies in which he had a leading role. I was surprised and hurt when he wrote to me on this point making what I regarded as paranoid assertions. After this, he shunned me when we saw each other at literary festivals. He softened one year at Byron Bay, telling me that other people had told him the programs were very good. He held out his hand to make peace. I shook it. A year or two later I heard he had reverted and continued to nurse his grievance with me. Here are the interviews, conducted in 1997 and published in my book Speaking Volumes: Conversations with Remarkable Writers, (Scribe) 2010. See what you think.
Australia’s most internationally recognised living poet, Les Murray is the winner of many awards, including the prestigious Petrarch Prize, and the T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection, Subhuman Redneck Poems. Described by an English critic as one of the super league that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky, Les Murray is Australia’s unofficial Poet Laureate.
But Subhuman Redneck Poems, and the man himself, have been subject to criticism for particular poems and particular stands that Murray has taken over the years. He’s crossed swords with the Australia Council for its funding policies — policies which have supported much of his own work. He was embroiled in a controversy over the meaning of what he described as an ‘Order of Lenin medal’ he once saw Manning Clark wear. This was just after he survived a massive liver infection which almost took his life. Murray has been criticised for his assumed support of right-wing rural political movements and his views of multiculturalism. Critics have called him paranoid and out of touch. He has indeed struggled mightily with a depressive illness that he says sent him mad.
Les Murray was born in 1938 in the town of Nabiac, south of Taree and ten minutes’ drive from his grandfather’s farm at Bunyah. After years lived in Sydney and overseas working as a translator of scholarly and technical material from Western European languages, and, since 1971, as a freelance writer, Les Murray returned to buy the family property at Bunyah where he now lives with his wife Valerie, their children, two chooks called Patrick and Manoly, and various other animals. We travelled the hills and dales that Les Murray knows so well, his country — which he says he’s quite ‘aboriginal’ about. Each turn of the road sings a new song. Bunyah is the wellspring of his poetry, his politics and his sense of himself. And all these things he almost lost after his close brush with death.
RAMONA KOVAL: Tell us about this place where we’re sitting. We’re sitting at this table — is this a table that you sat at as a child?
Les Murray: Not this precise table. My father used to sit at our table — he’s no longer there, he died a couple of years ago — but it’s about a mile down the creek from where I was raised. It’s the district of Bunyah, which is a valley essentially. At one stage it thought it might become a village. I’m glad that it managed to pull back from that and stay a valley. It’s got three street lights and it used to have a post office and a school. It’s still got a hall and a tennis court and a church. I suppose the main industries here would be cattle raising, the dole and going to work in towns, with possibly timber coming a poor fourth. When I was a kid it used to be dairy farming and timber work, with cattle raising a distant third, and nobody went out to jobs in the towns but the women changed that in the sixties. It’s a valley mostly of rather poor land, it’s very beautiful and about half of it is forest.
KOVAL: So, from here, from where we sit, can you describe what you see?
MURRAY: Blonde paddocks and dark greyish-blue trees along hill tops, probably the old Aboriginal open valley with trees along the ridge lines. More planted trees than when I was a kid. Planting trees was never done by the grandfathers’ generation or even my father’s generation. It was done to a slight extent by people younger and it’s really come in in the last 30 years, planting ornamental trees around houses. My father used to believe that trees were dangerous around houses and he’d spent most of his life cutting trees down to turn them into timber.
KOVAL: But trees were dangerous in your family weren’t they?
MURRAY: Oh yeah, they killed one of Dad’s brothers. He was brained, poor fella, by the top of a tree falling on his head. They wore no helmets in those days, there was no concern for safety measures. The only kind of protection you had was agility and he hated bush work anyway and wasn’t particularly good at it, so he died. If you were good at it you survived in general, but you could have terrible accidents. There was one fella, even in the chainsaw age, who dropped his chainsaw in his lap. Think on it for a moment. Actually they did manage to repair all that was there but it was still a horrendous accident. Timber work does kill people, more particularly in timber mills, but the timber industry is, not exactly moribund, but very quiescent. We’ve never had things like clearfelling or that kind of heavy exploitation around here anyway. It’s always been mill logs, girders, pit props, masonite, wharf timber.
KOVAL: So tell us about this house, where we’re sitting. Is this the original one that you remember as a kid?
MURRAY: No, this house we’re living in here is one we built in 1975 when we bought this block. It’s built of fibro on a timber frame. It’s on the site of one home my Uncle Jim settled in the 1880s and has original China pear trees outside. That first house went away in 1914. In this house the walls are lined, there is ceiling, there’s air conditioning and there’s big windows and stuff. The house I grew up in had cracks between the planks and the wind blew in, it had no ceiling so it was as hot as hell in summer, but it was home. I’d never seen the world before. I had no means of comparison and I thought it was pretty good. It would nowadays seem, to most people, unimaginable poverty I suppose. I was in Fiji once and I said to a woman academic there (we were passing some Indian houses on a sugar cane farm) ‘Yeah we had a place like that’, and she just flatly didn’t believe me. I couldn’t possibly, in Australia, have lived in the third world. Of course I lived in the third world. We didn’t use those terms then.
My father and mother had the misfortune of marrying just before the Second World War, so between the shortages caused by the war and the droughts and things, they stayed poor all the way to about the late 1940s. They were just getting on their feet and getting ready to enter the age of affluence when my mother died in 1951. So everybody else went into affluence and Dad turned back into that old, quasi-pioneer world of deprivation that he’d always lived in. He decided to stick there.
When I thought I was really going to ‘buy it’ last year, I was thinking about paying the bill on my parents’ revamped grave stone. I’d just turned it from Mum’s grave into the grave of both of them and got the bill, and I was thinking, yeah, we’re going to have to add a plaque to this. Wonder what I’ll have on it? I won’t get a chance to decide what’s on it. I wonder what they’ll put on it for me? And how they’ll raise the money to pay for it because this is going to be expensive. Even dying can be very expensive. I was regarding it as a very rational proposition. I heard the doctor say, ‘We might not save this one.’ And I thought, well, whatever I have unorganised amongst my papers is going to stay unorganised.
KOVAL: Was that cemetery you were thinking of the one that was on the corner from the Pacific Highway towards Bunyah?
MURRAY: That’s where my Worth relatives are. No, Murrays tend to get buried over in Krambach, in a north-westerly direction. There’s a whole lot of Murrays there. It’ll be a matter of politeness involved too, because I’m one of the only two Murray Catholic converts and they’re all in the Free Presbyterian section. Whether that is going to bar me in the future I don’t know, but we shall see. Or perhaps I won’t, I don’t know.
KOVAL: Maybe they’ll have a special section. Can they do that?
MURRAY: They can do what they like. He who makes laws can change them.
KOVAL: How far away is that cemetery from this house?
MURRAY: It would be about nine miles I suppose. I’ve often gone there following other people. One day I’ll go there following myself I suppose, if my detachment really works as well as I hope it does.
KOVAL: Do you reckon we could drive there later?
MURRAY: Yes, it’s a nice day for a drive.
[We go for a drive in Murray’s car]
KOVAL: So where are we off to?
MURRAY: We’re out on the main road going through Bunyah towards Gloucester. Followed far enough this road would take you to Tamworth, Armidale, New England country; take you through some beautiful ascending country out past Gloucester. You climb up the Giro Mountain, about which I’ve got a poem. It’s very much in the local speech. That’s the Free Presbyterian Church. Murrays are Free Presbyterian, Free Kirk people, with the exception only of myself and Alice Gleeson, the mother of the Chief Justice. We are the only true Catholic converts in the family. There are other converts from marriage — I suppose that counts — but we were the ones crazy enough to do it for pure conviction.
My Uncle Sam’s place is there [gestures], my grandfather’s younger brother. An entertaining fella, Sam, and always very good to me. After Mum died I spent a lot of my adolescence over at that house with his sons and they were my main companions for a while. It’s all been Murray country up here and I won’t go any further on this road — I’ll take you up to a scenic place, but there are stories attached to all these farms. The most entertaining of them are all so scandalous they’d probably get me into trouble even now. Some of them go back a hundred years but they’re still radioactive.
KOVAL: Tell us one.
MURRAY: A fella further up the road, who shall be nameless, I’ll tell you two things about him. One, he was a man who had a wonderful judgement of how to use apparent crudity to get his own way. He was a man of tremendous meanness. His first wife he worked to death and the second one, who was a rich woman, the marriage instantly lost all its charm when he found that she wasn’t going to have a joint bank account with him. But between those two marriages some evangelists came along and asked if they could stay in his house, and he reluctantly agreed to it because around here people don’t quite know the formula for saying no, it can be embarrassingly hard to say no. They stayed longer than their welcome and finally one day, to get rid of them, he decided 23 cats in the house was too many, so he would thin the cats a bit. And he started shooting cats in the house, under the furniture and on the table. The first few moggies died with their tongues in the saucer. The evangelists, seeing this murder going on — cats fleeing in all directions, wounded cats dying on the ground — packed their bags and were out of the house at a dead run and didn’t come back. The magic worked.
KOVAL: Where did you hear that story?
MURRAY: From the man himself. He said, ‘Bloody worked, too, y’know!’ Another one I heard from him was: late in life he went to work running a lighthouse. He’d given up farming and he got a job. I put his exact words in the latest book, but they went roughly to the effect that, ‘Yeah, bloody man should never had told him his true age. If I’d have put me age down a bit I could have stayed there another bloody ten years. No work in it, you only had to paint the bastard and light her up every evening and turn her off in the morning,’ he said. ‘And a whale sort of a thing got washed up on the beach once and I cut it up with the axe for the dogs.’ Great fella, I loved him.
KOVAL: We’ve just passed the Lavinia Murray Bridge.
MURRAY: She was a fine lady, I liked her. She was the first woman Shire President in New South Wales and a woman of immense character and force. Constantly fought to get various things done for us, you know, all our services. She just had electricity lined up for us in 1939 and the war came, so electricity finally reached Bunyah in 1960 instead. That bridge was named after her because she fought for it. When I was a kid all the bridges around here were low-level and at the first flood, all the communications stopped. You couldn’t get in or out. If you were out you stayed out and if you were in you stayed in, and getting the milk and cream away was economically vital. So she was an extremely good local government person and had a distinguished career at it. This lady down here [gestures], Ellen Harris, taught me to walk. I was her doll. She was about ten years old when I was born and she’d play with me every day, and she was the one that taught me to walk. She’s been a friend of mine now for 58 years. A very good person.
This is what we call the ‘cutting’ going up around here, going up on the northern road to Krambach. My father used to believe that lantana bushes that grew around the drop side of this road (it’s quite steep going downhill on one side) should be got rid of, and they have been now. But he had an old Austin utility and one day we were driving home from Taree on the back road and he said, ‘Oh that’s interesting’, and I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Steering column’s gone.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you put the brake on?’ And he said, ‘Well she’d go straight off the road. Brakes are never completely even. So I’ll wait till I get down the bottom of the hill, I’ll put the brakes on then.’ He did and we went straight into the gutter. We thought it would never happen again but one day, he was coming back round this road and the steering column went again and he ended up in those lantana bushes — and I heard no more complaints about the lantana bushes. But he got rid of the car real quick. He thought once is all right but twice is a bit too much like a habit.
KOVAL: Sounds like The Importance of Being Earnest.
MURRAY: Oh indeed, yes.
KOVAL: What’s this house?
MURRAY: The pink one, that used to belong to Dick and Lily Harris whose son, Henry, joined the army many years ago and never bothered to inherit it. It’s now been bought by some new people, Sydney people, who have done a rather good job of renovating it and bringing it back to life. For a while it was what I call a ‘shrine house’. You find that a lot in the country, houses that are not occupied but are sort of kept up to a degree. Old people come back and do a bit of tidying up. They don’t live there any more, but they can’t bear to see their house, where they’ve had their marriage and most of their life, sold or gone. So you’ll get empty houses that are still full of their memories and their associations. They’re shrines to their biography, to their life, y’know?
This is my cousin, Harry, mentioned in a poem, the same poem about Giro Mountain.
A chap used to live here [gestures], called Harry Paff. Had a dog which, like most dogs around here, had a bad habit of chasing cars. One day in Canberra a policeman came over to me on the steps of Parliament House and he said, ‘Oh, you’re Les Murray from Bunyah. I’m from Bunyah.’ And I said, ‘Oh you’re Harry’s son.’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Do you remember that dog I had, rushed out to your father’s car one day and your father ran over him?’ I said, ‘No, it’s not true. What happened was that the dog put its head in the spokes of Dad’s car and he was executed instantly, one snap and he was gone.’ He went from a vigorous yapping dog to a piece of meat in an instant. And the young policeman in Canberra was still remembering it, with some burn, 20 years later!
KOVAL: There are a lot of dead cats and murdered dogs in these stories so far.
MURRAY: So far, yeah. I could give you some dead parrots.
KOVAL: Okay, complete the circuit.
MURRAY: Things in the country get dead a lot. My father once, having a great fondness for parrot soup, shot some King Parrots and put them in with onions, salt and water (he didn’t go in for spices much, the old man). Stewed ’em up — they’re not nearly as tough as folklore has it — and sat down with his spoon to a lovely meal of parrot soup. The first mouthful was a complete disaster — they’d been eating the fruit of the tobacco bush and they tasted like boiled cigars! That was the last time he ever bothered to eat parrot soup.
Up round here, around this turn, around John Samble’s — I should mention John Samble was a man who had one great gift, he knew all of the poetry of Alexander Pope, and spent his lifetime growing cattle and reciting Pope around the hills to the cows. A fairly stern fella, he didn’t believe in education for his children, he thought it would make them restless and they’d want to leave home. His whole education was a deep love of Alexander Pope. All these hills and roads are full of stories for me. Anecdotes and people, a lot of them now dead. I’m getting to age where a lot of people I knew are in the stories rather than in the world.
KOVAL: So this would have been the way to the cemetery for family funerals.
MURRAY: Yeah, it’s the way we go to church, it’s the way to the little old village of Krambach, which is named after a village in Bavaria because it was one of those pockets of heavy German settlement around here. German Catholics, in this case, from the Rhineland in Bavaria. Yes, this is the way, and much the pace I suppose, that the funerals go.
KOVAL: What’s this truck doing here?
MURRAY: Dunno, looks like a furniture truck, doesn’t it? That’s a common thing round these parts, people moving furniture in and out, y’know, people moved in from elsewhere, moving their goods and taking them away. This is becoming what the Russians would call ‘dacha country’ y’know, weekenders, ex-urbia but far enough away from urbia for it to be safe for my lifetime, I think. Maybe if I lived an extra lifetime I’d have to move further into the Dividing Range, or over it, but at the moment it’s not too urbanised. Although the Shire wrote to us the other day and told us we now had a box number on our road. I wrote back and said, When you put asphalt on the road I’ll consent to treat it as a street, not before. I didn’t come to the country to live on a street.
KOVAL: But you wouldn’t move from this place, would you?
MURRAY: Don’t think so. I’m too old for one thing, too attached for another, too aboriginal about it, I suppose. It’s country, y’know?
KOVAL: When I was looking at that cemetery this morning, that you recommended I go to on the way to Bunyah, I thought, it must be very strange to have a cemetery where you know that all your relatives have been buried and you know that that’s where you’re going to lie.
MURRAY: If I go and die at all, I’m going to have myself burned and my ashes scattered there. But either way I’ll be commemorated there I would think. I suppose it’s a matter of picking the right quotation from yourself, if you’re vain enough.
KOVAL: What would you pick?
MURRAY: God knows, I’ve no idea!
KOVAL: You’ve thought about that, haven’t you?
MURRAY: I’ve vaguely started thinking about it and then I’ve drifted off onto other things and never got any closer.
KOVAL: What are the contenders?
MURRAY: Oh, I don’t know them now. One of these days it’ll occur to me, I’ll suddenly realise that’s the one I want, but it tends to be one you can’t delegate. The shortest one I ever heard was a fella in the Northern Territory who merely had the word, ‘Dead’. That seemed to sum it up pretty well. One I did think of was: ‘Here lies bony Leslie under his last misprint.’
Here’s another place I spent a lot of my childhood, at my Aunt Myrtle’s place. I’ll read you a poem about her later if you like. She was the girl who was burned all over her body. She had all these deep burn scars all over every part of her I ever saw, but she never made a fuss about it and neither did anybody else. She had four handsome daughters and two of them were much my age. We were playmates when I was a kid and I spent a lot of time there. As far as I saw any other children, it was mostly those girls.
When I was writing that poem, what gave me the key to writing it was Valerie. The child kept asking for her bed to be rocked and Valerie said, ‘Rhythm produces endorphins in the brain and relieves the agony.’ And I thought, that’s why we have rhythm in poetry, that’s why we have rhythm at all, for the endorphins, for the pleasure it gives, for the strength and the reassurance. That’s what saved her life, rhythm, and she was the one who instigated it. So it’s always hard to say what poems are about but I suppose that one’s about rhythm in poetry and in general, as well as about the saving of my aunt’s life.
We’ve now turned towards the cemetery, over on Kings Creek, getting towards Krambach, and this is where a lot of my relatives lie. I suppose this cemetery has been used for about a century. I don’t know what’s the oldest grave in here. It’s divided, unfortunately, into three sections — Anglican, Catholic and Free Presbyterian — which has sometimes divided families up, which I can’t approve of at all.
These are my parents here. Miriam Pauline Murray nee Arnall. I had a letter from one of the Arnalls in England yesterday, a very rare family, and he told me the origin of the name — ‘eagle ridge’, it’s Saxon. And my father, Cecil Allan Murray, who died in 1995.
KOVAL: Your mother was 35 years old?
MURRAY: 35 years, yes. Didn’t have nearly enough of life did she? Edna and Eric I was very fond of, Dad’s brother and brother’s wife, Aunt Edna. She was my favourite aunt for many years. Nice woman altogether, a very dignified woman. Who else can I show to you? Jim and Jane. Jane was the woman who ran the Post Office at Bunyah. She was bigger than me, she was enormously fat, poor woman, because she had some kind of glandular upset, and she didn’t eat much. Jimmy was the one who originally settled on the property where we are — Jim and Jane — and she planted those China Pear trees and various other trees. For 50 years she was Postmistress at Bunyah and ran the manual exchange and I’ve written about her in a poem called ‘July Midwinter Haircut’. It is about having our hair cut over at the former Post Office run by her successor, but it mentions her too.
The people who told me that story are a little bit further up in the same cemetery. But my aunt is the one with the exchange, the tinkling exchange, and she plugged us into each others’ lives. One of the things I wanted to catch was the sound — because I thought it would never be heard in the world again — of the little lids over the holes of the exchange. When the phone would ring from a particular number, the little lid would fall down and go lid-di-di-di-di-did. It was sort of a little sprung lid of metal and it had a particular sound. I just wanted to catch it in a word and I did it with ‘unlidded’ — one of those little things you want to commemorate, y’know, sounds that are vanishing out of the world.
Neville Samuel Murray [gestures] died suddenly one day after eating prawns in Forster.
KOVAL: This is what you tell us, after eating prawns for lunch.
MURRAY: Poor fella, it was terribly sad, so was his father’s death. His father’s death was particularly sad, at the age of 56, Frederick Samuel Murray, Freddy. He was a share farmer and that’s a miserable way to live, it means you pay half of your income to the owner of the land. He managed to save and scrimp and finally was able to get onto a farm of his own. He was just on there long enough to build a house and set the dairy on bales and get started, and suddenly he had a heart attack, I think, one morning in the dairy, after all that work. He’s in a poem of mine too.
KOVAL: Has he heard this one before?
MURRAY: Not here, no, he hasn’t heard it. It was written after his death and I haven’t read it here either. It’s called ‘The Misery Chord’.
KOVAL: This is from a series of poems about Bunyah, the Bunyah Cycle, isn’t it?
MURRAY: Yeah, ‘The Idyll Wheel: Cycle of a Year at Bunyah’. There’s my great-grandparents, John and Isabella Murray, who died within five months of each other. They were the first white settlers at Bunyah.
KOVAL: There are a few Isabellas in the family who aren’t there, because I saw a couple at the other cemetery we were at this morning, Isabel and Isabella.
MURRAY: Very common name among the Murrays and some of the other families related to us. A Scots name. The Scots tend to have a smallish list of names, like the Welsh. There’s a lot of Alexander Murrays, there’s a lot of Hugh Scott Murrays. Scots women didn’t change their surnames on marriage until about the 1870s, so my ancestress who sent us all to Australia was Isabella Scott. She sent out five of her children in 1848 and then the other five followed with her in 1851.
KOVAL: So this is the centre, this grave here, where it began?
MURRAY: This is the first white settler at Bunyah, there’s other settlers from other places. Hugh Douglas Stewart Murray, he was always known as Stewart in his lifetime, we hoped that he might actually get into a third century.
KOVAL: 1898 to 1995.
MURRAY: We just hoped he might get over the century and get into the twenty-first century but he didn’t quite make it. He died at the age of 97. Always healthy all his life too, except the last few months. A little wiry cattle man. When he was in his mid–80s, horse came home with its bridle hanging down, y’know, broken, and Dad wasn’t on it, and they thought, ‘Oh he’s dropped off the horse, he’s had a heart attack, he’s dead.’ And they went off down the paddock to find him and they found him cursing his way up the paddock, the branch of a tree had swept him off the horse — he just bounced, he didn’t break anything.
KOVAL: Well it’s a peaceful place to be dead isn’t it?
MURRAY: If you gotta be dead it’s not a bad place to be at, I think. The Aborigines had the best cemetery around these parts though, apparently the Taree Base Hospital is built on top of the old Aboriginal burial ground at Taree and it’s got a wonderful view, particularly from the cardiac ward, which is the top floor. Nobody’s looking but that’s where the view is! Horrie Saunders told me that once and I said, ‘Oh that’s terrible.’ And he said, ‘They weren’t to know’ — although I guess there were centuries of Aborigines under the hospital.
I’ll read you the one about Myrtle if I can find her, she’s just up here. No, no, no she’s in the Catholic part.
KOVAL: Oh that’s across the road. Is that where you’re going to be, over there?
MURRAY: Be a bit of a separation wouldn’t it? Be a bit of a strain not to be amongst these Murrays here and yet it might not be allowed. I don’t know. I think I’m probably going to get myself smuggled on to the back of my parents’ grave stone. You know that old German practice of putting yourself on the back?
MURRAY: Yeah, they do that sometimes. They sometimes have blessings on the back of a headstone too … Yeah, she’s up on the Catholic section there, my aunt Myrtle.
KOVAL: What made her turn into a Catholic?
MURRAY: Marriage. She seemed well satisfied with the bargain though. It was the custom: the women tended to turn for the husband, although I’ve known the opposite to happen. The terrible division of Christianity has been the disgrace of Christianity.
KOVAL: It’s something I can’t understand.
MURRAY: It’s the most fissiparous religion known, people dividing off into little fighting nations and doing some of the worst slaughters in Europe in the seventeenth century over it; a real madness.
KOVAL: And now you’re divided by a road.
MURRAY: And a couple of wire fences. It’s terribly sad but the ecumenism is very slow getting people back together. Islam has a division a bit like it between Shiah and Sunni. But most religions tend not to split up into agonising little shards like that.
KOVAL: I was just thinking about water and there’s a lot of water around us at the moment. I can just look over your shoulder there and see a dam with some beautiful blue waterlilies floating on top. A lot of the poems in Subhuman Redneck Poems are about water; tell me about water.
MURRAY: I’ve just always liked the stuff. I think Australians naturally do because it’s so scarce and, like in Arabic and Persian poetry, it is so highly valued because of its scarcity and its mirroring effect too. I love all of the effects that water can do. It seems to calm me. When I get overheated with the anguish of thought, then water often cheers me up, obscurely.
KOVAL: Tell me about another water poem, ‘Stacked Water’.
MURRAY: It’s actually set much further west, it’s in a flood out on the dry country but it’s from a photograph I saw: two kids walking up a stream which obviously didn’t have water in it very much, but when it did, the flood had passed its peak and was going down. These kids were walking up against the stream.
I interviewed Les Murray again, the following day, and broadcast it the week after the first program had gone to air.
Les Murray’s been called a nature poet for his championing of the Australian vernacular poetry, a conservative poet for his political views (which derive from his rural upbringing and his conversion to Catholicism), and he’s regarded as somewhat of a stirrer for his challenges to what he regards as secular orthodoxies.
Last week we drove with Les Murray through the rolling hills around his home in Bunyah, and visited the cemetery where generations of Murrays lie together. Now we sit at his kitchen table with the prize-winning book, talking about the poems I found most moving and some I found most puzzling and disturbing. Many of them were written under what Murray describes as ‘the black dog of depression’, which has affected him for years.
Reading your poetry over the years, it’s clear that your childhood was not a happy time for you. At school it was difficult, your mum had died early, you had to survive without a mum after the age of 12. I would have thought that Bunyah meant a lot of pain for you actually — I’m asking that in terms of your coming back to Bunyah. When you came back here, after living in the rest of the world, you said you’d found Eden.
MURRAY: Well, to a degree — I came back to go mad. That’s what you do if you’ve got old, unfinished business back in a place and you go back there, you’ll tend to deal with it. And I unconsciously came home in order to go mad, because only by going mad could I get out the other far side of mad, and now I’m out the far side of it. Bunyah, until I was 12, was rather a happy place. The world that I knew was fairly gentle and friendly and was full of cousins — everything was related to you. You felt almost that the animals were your cousins because every human was a cousin or an uncle or an auntie or something. I only really struck human asperity when I was 16. I went to a town school and ran into a bad schoolyard and bullying and that sort of stuff. Before that it was mostly pretty good. My mother having died was pretty terrible, it left a big deep unconscious wound and my father kind of collapsed, he didn’t do much parenting for a long time (actually I don’t think he ever parented again), but that was his tragedy. He deliberately decided, like a lot of old soldiers, not to enjoy anything that his wife had missed. He was in mourning for 44 years and he wanted me to be in mourning for a lifetime as well. To an extent, I suppose a part of me was and is, because I’d always believed unconsciously that I’d killed my mother.
KOVAL: I was struck by that in some of the poems that I’ve read, and the tragedy that you didn’t have somebody — well maybe you did but maybe you didn’t hear it in your life — to say, ‘Les, a baby isn’t responsible for the form of its birth and the result of its birth’, you know, if your mother’s womb was damaged so she couldn’t have further children and died in a miscarriage.
MURRAY: Valerie said it to me as soon as I realised enough to be able to put words to it. I had believed it mostly unconsciously, you see, and I was in my 40s before I actually formulated it and it came up into consciousness, and then Valerie put me right on the matter. But to convince my mind was one thing, to convince my unconscious was another. Unconscious is a funny, stubborn creature, a wise simpleton who doesn’t listen too well sometimes.
KOVAL: You and I spoke, some years ago, in that first time after you recognised the word ‘depression’ as something that was related to you, and you’d written a poem about an anxiety attack about going on a plane. We had a conversation about the treatment for depression and you said that you were taking drugs for it, I think, and I asked whether you were worried about your poetry being, in a sense, a drugged state. And you said, ‘No. It was better than going through a talking cure because that was going to be worse, lying down on a couch, in a foetal position and crying.’ But now you sound to me like you have discovered a talking cure.
MURRAY: Yes, I was wrong wasn’t I? None of the drugs worked and eventually I had to lie down on the couch in the foetal position and go through it the hard way. When I was very sick, I wrote a book called Translations from the Natural World which was a way of distancing myself from myself and writing about other creatures — distancing myself from the human race in a way, stepping outside the human to be sure I was far enough away. And then when I got a bit better — which is oddly enough when most people commit suicide, when they’re getting a bit better rather than when they’re in the depths of it — then I started my talking cure with a pen and started writing it out of my system. That hadn’t worked the first time I’d tried it but the second time, in this book, it largely worked. I was nearly cured but I was still having about one depressive downer a week, and I had this liver abscess and was under anaesthetic for three weeks and came back without the black dog, so I thought the bargain was well worth making. It does go with the territory of art. I’ve only ever known one artist who was mad and his madness was not depression, and that was Frank Webb, who was a schizophrenic. Most of us common-or-garden writers and artists have depression. We have at least one serious involvement with it anyway.
KOVAL: When you said, ‘I had to go mad. I came back to Bunyah to go mad’, how mad do you mean?
MURRAY: Oh, real mad. With depression you don’t get the visuals — it’s a radio medium, it’s not a television medium. You don’t get to see hallucinations or hear voices. It’s in your head, it’s pure misery. It distorts your thinking. I suppose the psychiatric definition is that it doesn’t break the bounds of your ego; you don’t dissolve into the world around you and start believing that things out there are inside you and things inside you are out there. I learnt something about fear and that is that the fear of death — which some people have written very eloquently about — you get beyond that to where fear has no subject matter at all, it is just pure fear. You’re not afraid of anything anymore, it’s just plain fear and that’s the worst of the lot.
KOVAL: I think in one of the poems you describe it as not just dying once but . . .
MURRAY: Hundreds. The first one that really brought me down was what felt like a heart attack and I ended up in the cardiac ward at Taree Hospital and there were fellas up there with white and red faces and they really were cardiac patients. And I began to think, ‘Hey wait a minute, there’s something fishy about this. I’m not sure that I should be here, whether I’m genuine or not.’ I met a fella called Arthur Buzzy and he said, ‘G’day Les, I haven’t seen you since school.’ That was the Nabiac school. And I said, ‘Arthur! How are you going, if it’s not a silly question?’ And he said, ‘Oh pretty good now, Les. You see that tin table over there? I died on that bastard four times the other night.’ And I said, ‘Did you Arthur?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, thank God the old electroshock brought me back.’ I said, ‘That’s the way — die four times and come back five! You’re going to be all right now?’ And he said, ‘They reckon I’m all right now.’
KOVAL: So you say that Subhuman Redneck Poems is about the transition through that period and out of it. Would that be correct?
MURRAY: It’s partly correct. I was also engaging with various old things that had made me sick too. One of the questions I asked the doctor was, ‘Do you get this thing from your troubles? Or do you get this thing and then the world gives you troubles to give you subject matter for it?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s a chicken and the egg question. In your case I suspect you probably inherited it.’ And I said, ‘And my life supplied me with subject matter.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s probably so.’ Some of my subject matter included the social dimension, like coming from the world of small farmers, which has always been rather despised by elites and various sorts. The first people to despise small farmers were squatters, and so many squatters’ children turned into academics and leaders of society that it became a kind of entrenched, elite attitude. So we’re still being punished for peacocking their land. That was part of it. And part of it was the enormous sexual rejection I’d suffered at school — and I suspect that I had always believed that it was justified, that was the awful thing, that I must have had the smell about me of somebody who thought he’d killed his mother, and this must have been picked up by the nostrils of the young ladies at school.
KOVAL: What I’d like to do is get you to talk about some of the poems.
MURRAY: The poem that started me on the way to cure … ‘Burning Want’.
KOVAL: When you say that this is the poem that helped you move that depression, what was the key in the lock?
MURRAY: I guess the word ‘erocide’. I realised that I’d suffered a thing for which there was no word, and I think I invented the word — and that is the deliberate sexual destruction of someone, the deliberate destruction of someone’s sexual morale. It’s very common. It happens a lot in schools, it happens a lot in any collectives, because humans go through this terrible pecking order, sorting out of who’s sexy and who’s less sexy and who’s out of the game. They do it in adulthood too, but it’s particularly strong in adolescence and when they leave adolescence they forget they ever did it — it’s impossible for them to reach back to where it was. I find that, to them, it’s quite unreal. I’ve seen the victims of it a lot. You recognise them. They are an enormous minority in the community. I’m glad to see that schools are now getting a little bit more conscious of it. I went to a school in England the other day, Charterhouse, and an earlier poem of mine about school bullying and deliberate harassment and torture and incitement to suicide and stuff, which I’d published in Australia about five years ago, had gone immediately up on the notice board outside the headmaster’s office and had been there for five years. It meant that I’d got the message through and it was there where the school could see it.
KOVAL: What about ‘It Allows a Portrait in Line-Scan at Fifteen’?
MURRAY: Sure. This is about an autistic child, at the age of fifteen as he was then, he’s now eighteen.
Yeah, Valerie’s just gone off to get that boy, it’s our son Alexander, who’s now 18. He’s still an odd-bod. He’s moved on from that poem. The other night he was asking me about rugby football and the dangers and so on of rugby league and that sort of thing. I said, ‘The worst that can happen is a broken neck and you end up in a wheelchair, helpless, can’t move arms, legs and that sort of thing.’ He suddenly went very quiet and the next thing we heard was a great crash of his bedroom door, you know, the signal that he was very angry. He was angry because he’d been frightened. For him fear and anger are very close. He was angry that the world should contain this kind of horror. And I should have guessed and not told him that, but then you don’t want to lie to people and make the world all sweet.
KOVAL: In this poem though, there’s also a kind of poet’s wonder at the language that he uses and the way he uses it.
MURRAY: Oh yeah. I got an idea that I’m a borderline autistic myself and that it’s not by accident that Alexander’s more of a full-blown one than I am — he could be much worse than he is, but he is significantly handicapped by it and I probably am not. The universities are full of people who are borderline ‘auties’, you know, people who know everything about some subject. It’s just a matter of not having too much of it. We’re hoping that eventually he’ll come so far out that he’ll just be an eccentric, able to make his way in the world.
KOVAL: When you write a poem like that, which is so personal and so connected to your family life, is it difficult to publish it?
MURRAY: No, not at all. I suppose you could also say (just to finish that last question) he is an erocide too, because now he says, ‘I’m not interested in sex.’ Meaning: I don’t think I’ll be allowed to have any part in it, I’m a reject. No, it’s not hard to publish anything. If you’re in this game, you do it.
KOVAL: There’s also a kind of perversity or ‘taking the piss’ in the poems. You try to be nice to a pederast or nice to Helen Darville or criticise the Jewish memory of the Holocaust. For example, the poem to Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic. What does that last line mean, ‘Now that Philistine is Palestine’?
MURRAY: Well, Palestine and Philistine are the same word, anciently. The children of Israel were always fighting against the Palestinians, it’s still true. There was a peace for a couple of thousand years but they’re back at it now. The word Philistine came to mean somebody who is artistically substandard or against art. But it’s a dangerous word to use now I feel because it and Palestine are — y’know, it confuses different categories. Dangerous to use different categories. It was a joke. There are a lot of jokes in the poem.
KOVAL: The poem talks about depression and sexual police, so it has echoes of the other interests in the book.
MURRAY: Oh yeah, I wrote it when I was depressed all right. The people who say that everybody’s got to have the right to sexual self-expression, out to a certain line which is firmly drawn, beyond which certain forms of sex aren’t allowed, and the lines keep getting shifted a bit . . . I’m also the author of the only poem in existence that is nice to a pederast. It’s called ‘Australian Love Poem’. There was a nice pederast lived on the next door farm here. He took great care of my aunt when she was in her second childhood. And I thought, ‘Well, second childhood is legal.’
KOVAL: I wondered what that poem was about, now I know.
MURRAY: He kept getting moved on from schools because he was fond of the little girls and touched them inappropriately, etcetera, and was banned by various mothers around the place who feared his interest in their little girls. But he lived with my aunt and uncle, who were childless, and he had a strange relationship with my aunt, whose husband wasn’t that worried because he had long not been interested in her much in that way. When the husband died, this fella took very good care of my aunt in the last six or seven years before she became so demented that her family finally put her away in an old people’s home, because even he couldn’t look after her any more, she would wander off and things. He was enormously kind to her and I thought he deserved some kind of a tribute. And also I’d just been left out of The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poetry edited by Jenny Strauss and I thought that the fact that every reviewer of the book crowed and triumphed about this fact — that finally they had worked out a book that they could leave me out of — got under my fingernails, but I thought, ‘All right, I’ll write them a love poem.’ So I dedicated it to Jennifer Strauss.
KOVAL: And that’s in Subhuman Redneck Poems too, isn’t it?
MURRAY: Yes, she should have such good luck. My point, I suppose, is just that love is love. And in her book love was sex and no other kind was allowed. No brotherly love, no political love, no parental love, no love of occupation, it was all just what the bloke in The Clockwork Orange called ‘the old in-out’.
KOVAL: There’s another one here that I want you to talk about with me, which is the one for the Sydney Jewish Museum.
MURRAY: That’s not such a good poem, alas, it didn’t work too well.
KOVAL: Why not?
MURRAY: It’s too abstract. I’m not sure I’d bother reprinting it. You want to hear it because it’s the Jewish Museum, but I’ll do it better one day. I’ll go there and I’ll have a good look. I went to the most terrible Jewish museum of all, which is the Yad Vashem, when I went to Jerusalem. In some ways that’s not such a good museum because it’s walled with terrible photographs. We’ve seen all those terrible photographs before. What’s great in it is the memorial to the children. Have you seen it? There’s a memorial to the children next door, and you go in through a door, round a corner, round another corner, into the dark. It’s like you’re underground and you see this enormous sea of candle flames, individual candle flames, thousands of them, you’re in a galaxy of candle flames, something like one-and-a-half million little spears of light. In fact there’s about ten candles and a lot of mirrors, apparently. Trickling out of the air around you are the names of the children who were murdered by the Nazis. They’re being read in English, interestingly, and not in Hebrew. It was a million-and-a-half children and just their names go on and on and on and on. That is the most splendid piece of sculpture. I think it is architecture and sculpture, I couldn’t distinguish between them. That’s really successful. The trees planted there in honour of the righteous gentiles are very impressive too.
KOVAL: That poem, ‘For the Sydney Jewish Museum and Peter Wagner’, when I read it, I thought that you were saying that these things shouldn’t be remembered, that there were dangers in remembering.
MURRAY: If you remember a crime you remember the people who committed it and you give people a model for doing it again. It would be better to let it sink and go, I suspect, because you preserve the memory of the killers, the fellas in the black uniforms and the nightmarish things they did. So you’re giving them a victory — they’re doing it every day. What they did in 1943 they’re still doing every day in the museum. You’re deliberately sticking in time and not letting time go and have its healing effect.
KOVAL: I know that forgiveness is supposed to be a Christian virtue . . .
MURRAY: I don’t think it’s forgiveness, I think it’s wisdom in this case, that if you burden yourself, you tie it around your neck, it becomes an unbearable weight. It’s like deliberately giving yourself the depression virus every day.
KOVAL: But why isn’t it showing . . .
MURRAY: I mean, if I was in your position, I’d do it too. I would treasure these hideous crimes too, but I would know that in the end it wasn’t all that healthy.
KOVAL: But isn’t there a sense that if you don’t remember, you have forgotten the suffering of all the victims?
MURRAY: You remember them because you don’t really think there’s a God there who’s going to look after them. If you thought there was a God there who was going to look after them, you’d leave them to him. It’s a proof of atheism, that you think that you’ve got to do it, what an earlier generation would have said God would do.
KOVAL: And yet, Les, in this book there’s a lot of memories. There’s a lot of remembering of your own life.
MURRAY: If only I could get rid of that myself and try to follow my own advice . . . It’s probably much more possible for me now that I’m well than it was when I was writing this book. You’ve got to work through that stuff so, while you need to, you will keep it, and my advice will mean nothing. It would probably be thought offensive by some, but one day it’s got to pass into history because, as I say, it’s the coffee grounds of dreadful depression and anger and rage and fear. It might even make you do bad things. It’s a model.
KOVAL: What about the poem ‘For Helen Darville’, which I think probably is the poem that’s caused most criticism.
Murray: See, I think myself that you were duped about Helen Darville*. Your grief was so great about your six million, and certainly deserved to be, but you thought she was an anti-Semite. And people who were not Jewish were very happy that you should think so, because it took away the fact that she had also talked about the much greater crime, numerically, of the Communists. And there are a lot of Communist sympathisers around who don’t want the enormous body-count of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot to be remembered. While you remember yours, as you do and must for the time being, theirs gets off scot-free because it’s hidden.
KOVAL: Because you’ve got six million with a capital ‘S’ and eighty with a small ‘e’.
MURRAY: That’s right, that’s the way the world thinks of it. Stalin and Mao and others are being let to get away with theirs. Theirs are not genocide, they killed their own people, and they killed anybody else that they found it expedient to kill. Stalin was generous, he’d kill anybody. I don’t think Helen Darville was anti-Semitic, I think she was just plain horrified, and I think she was not quite a good enough writer to express her horror of the whole thing. She gave it that modern ethic-less, reportorial tone because she couldn’t do any more than that, and most people can’t. They can’t express the absolute crawling horror of it.
KOVAL: When I read that poem, I wondered whether I should be offended at the six with a capital ‘S’ and the eighty with a small ‘e’, although I feel terrible about the eighty and I feel terrible about the six, but there was a difference in method and intention, wasn’t there, surely?
MURRAY: Whose? The methods of the genociders or the methods of the poet? The methods of the genociders of the Jews were different, yeah. They used industrial methods, Stalin didn’t. Stalin tended to have you shot in the back of the head; Germans didn’t shoot you in the front, although not always. Stalin didn’t use gas. Everybody got their own death, but an awful lot got their death, a tremendous number. Mao used famine, as much as anything, starvation. Stalin used starvation in Ukraine particularly, and a few other places. He killed an awful lot of small farmers. That tends to come close to my bone. But I think out of human loyalty we have to remember everybody who was killed — if we’re going to remember anybody, we’ve got to remember everybody. In this century we’ve seen a hundred million people murdered by police, or soldiers acting in the role of police, and we’ve seen a hundred million, nearly all of them men, killed in uniform, while carrying weapons, and we’ve seen another hundred million civilians murdered by police. It shouldn’t pass unremarked. People shouldn’t be victimised for mentioning it. I don’t think the girl absolutely succeeded in her book, but I don’t think her intentions were evil either.
KOVAL: You’ve been identified a lot with regional politics, National Party politics. Is that fair do you think?
MURRAY: Politics is always a reduction of poetry anyway. It brings me down to a smaller size than I’d want to be thought of as. It can be, in the end, irrelevant, and I get sick of it. When I won the Eliot Prize, half the journalists who came were interested more in where I stood on Pauline Hanson than about the Eliot Prize. Some of them were frankly out for revenge because I’d identified Manning Clark as wearing a medal and they were desperate to get me to take back the report of the sighting. So, it was tangled up with a lot of stuff. There was not a literary interest.
KOVAL: A lot of people are saying that the country’s changing a bit, that Australia is on some kind of a sea change. I guess the Hanson issue . . .
MURRAY: Seaboard change, Australia’s on a seaboard change — around the coast things can change, inland they can’t much. The climate is fairly fixed in long terms. Around here things have changed greatly and I think rather nicely. When I was a kid, you could only be a dairy farmer or a timber worker or a cattle farmer, or else you didn’t really have a place here. Nobody went out to work from here, except in the forest. In the 1960s, the women started working down in Tuncurry in the fish co-op and that was the beginning of out-working, going to employment in towns. Nowadays a lot of people here would be commuting to towns for work or they’d be working part-time or they’d be drawing the dole here. There’d be people who’d bought a little house here, who’d sold their house in, say, Revesby or some suburb like that, and were able to buy a nice piece of land and house for the long years of unemployment. The country is now soaking up the urban unemployment in many ways. You get a much greater range of human beings and human occupations in the bush now than you would have. That’s speaking of the coast. Over the other side of the dividing range and out into the big dry country things haven’t changed socially much because they can’t and it’s not viable for small, detached things. The climate’s too severe, at least north of mid NSW. Go to the back blocks of Queensland — for half the year it’s just too severe. Most ex-urbanite refugees would find it too hard and too lonely.
KOVAL: What about the social climate?
MURRAY: The best hope in the bush is, and always has been, intermarriage with white and Aboriginal people. It was common in the nineteenth century — murder of Aborigines and intermarriage with Aborigines occurred almost at the same time and there was a lot of it. It then tailed off a lot in the terrible years of paternalism, of smoothing the dying pillow and keeping Aborigines out of pubs and all that, taking away their children. But it’s way up again now, now that they’re full citizens and out in the world. I think it is to the good. Most people in the country, if they’ve been there a few generations, have got lots of Aboriginal relatives, some of them know it and some of them don’t. I know I’ve got lots of Aboriginal cousins and other relatives and I’m very proud of it. I wouldn’t claim any of the privileges because I don’t think I’ve got Aboriginal ancestors, but I’m certainly proud of my Aboriginal cousins and other relatives. I think that might be, in many ways, the solution to the social troubles. I think at the moment, Pauline Hanson — I’ll read you a poem about her in a minute, which I didn’t write — is very useful to the press because she is a stick with which they can beat the country people. I don’t know about her long-term prospects but it is interesting that a Pauline Hanson should have come up. She’s come up out of a profound sense of disaffection between the urban elites and the rural people, who feel hard-pressed. They feel hard-pressed all the time because of the climate and because of the terrible damage that the banks have been allowed to do to them. Four times in Australian history the banks have been let loose on the country folk, to lend them money and then gazump the interest rates, push them right up so as to make it impossible for them to pay back the money — and then they take away the land and they sell it profitably to the next lot.
KOVAL: You’ve got a poem about that haven’t you? Haven’t you got a poem about them coming to foreclose?
MURRAY: That one was very popular in the bush. It’s called ‘The Rollover’.
I got a poem from Alexander Farken — I’m not sure whether I quite believe his surname — it’s called ‘Watching Mrs Hanson’.
I took it for Quadrant. I think it’s interesting.
KOVAL: Would you ever write one about her?
MURRAY: I don’t think I would, no. She is, in the end, a human being and should be treated as one.
KOVAL: I suppose that’s what the Sydney Jewish Museum is about.
MURRAY: People being treated as human beings? Oh yes, I would too, most certainly. I’ve always wanted to see everybody treated as a human being. For most of my life, a lot of people I’ve been close to haven’t been. They’ve been treated as rednecks.
MURRAY: Subhuman, yeah. Guess where I got that from? We can all learn from certain terrible precedents.
Bunyah, NSW, 1997