Mid spring 2017, as I scroll through a social media feed, an image appears, panoramic, a blue sky speckled with wispy clouds, and endless haze of an horizon populated with shrubs, trees and the purple hint of the hills, and in the foreground, a paddock, yellowing grain stalks, stubble from left to right and greying fence posts holding rusting barbed wire, blocking our journey, we must go either left or right down the hint of a country road.
A printed message “Another World in this One: Gerald Murnane’s Fiction”. A full day symposium to be held in Goroke, a tiny hamlet on the border district of Victoria and South Australia, with speakers and an address from the reclusive author himself.
When the last of my completed but unpublished works has been published in a few years from now, my readers will be in possession of all that I’m capable of giving them. (Gerald Murnane – closing address at the Symposium “Another World In This One” held at Goroke Golf Club on 7 December 2017)
Online maps, train and bus timetables, fruitless telephone calls to pubs long closed, more maps, more timetables and then a plea on social media for a willing driver.
Early summer, 2pm Bourke Street Melbourne. Not dissimilar to John Brack’s 1955 painting “Collins St, 5pm” just baseball caps, not hats. A reader, a writer and a publisher arrange to meet at a bookshop. Not your ordinary bookshop, but one bursting at the seams, translated literature tumbles off “recommended” shelves alongside the latest copies of “New Philosopher”, the poetry section relegated to the back right, horizontally and vertically stacked, where inquisitive buyers need to stand on tiptoe to avoid trampling the latest arrivals that are yet to find a home on the shelves. The tiny and iconic venue has been around since the 1960’s, a shop that surely stocked Gerald Murnane’s first novel “Tamarisk Row” when it was released in 1974, and now stocks, front and centre on the new releases shelf, his latest, and he claims last, novel “Border Districts”, a book that has been gathering momentum in the media over the last few months and one that was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States in April.
The writer, reader and publisher head from Melbourne towards Goroke, a tiny hamlet approximately 400 kilometres North Westwards. A wrong turn leads to five hours of driving, through the suburbs, the fruit zones, the old goldfields and out onto the wide open plains, the Wimmera, the township of Horsham being our base for the next two nights.
Thursday, an early alarm clock and nervous anticipation, we have a 45 minute drive to get to the Goroke Gold Club, where proceedings will kick off at 9am. Soon after the turn off from the township of Natimuk, the endless flat terrain is suddenly broken by the stunning sight of the Arapiles a rock formation that juts out of the plains, a site popular with rock climbers.
The golf club was simple to find, the small grey brick building having half a dozen cars parked out front gave it away! The “welcome” was your traditional country town fare, with an urn heating water, some tea bags and a jar of instant coffee alongside a collection of china mugs, a number of small plates with a selection of Arnott’s biscuits available, something to nibble on whilst you have your morning beverage. The man of honour, Gerald Murnane himself, was present chatting to his publisher, and more than happy to informally talk to any of the guests.
Early interactions with the organisers of the symposium, where I asked about local accommodation was happily replied to with “maybe you can stay at the golf club”. I can assure you the golf club is a rudimentary version of what city folk would regard as a “club”, with mid shin length grass, fairways lined with gnarly gum trees, and sand greens, the ones you rake after playing your putt. The course itself was out of action, with it being used for competition only during the winter months, maybe the snakes cause the operator of the slashing machine to be a little nervous. Operating with only 33 members the club is currently finding things a little tough, with older members passing away and the young folk either not interested or already part of the distant city, part of the coastal migration statistics. I spent a little time chatting to one of the locals who had prepared our morning tea, and she let me know that amongst the younger ex-Goroke folk there didn’t appear to be a lot of enthusiasm for the longevity of a crucial meeting place for the locals. With the pub now closed, I can only assume the bar facilities and the clubroom itself are a central part of Goroke’s community,
There’s been a whole host of Goroke sub-genre writing about the speakers themselves, the presentations, the academic side of things, my report doesn’t attempt to add to these, this piece is my journey to Goroke where I spoke to Gerald Murnane about a favourite subject of his…horse racing. Most of the guests were eager to talk about his books, naturally, I know of only one other that took notice of the fact Gerald’s reading material for the day was the Herald-Sun form guide for Kyneton races. In days on on-line racing form, it is quaint to see a member of the older generation with a newspaper lift out, scribbling his notes on the newsprint. One of the contemplative photos, featured in the Sydney Review of Books, of Murnane that accompanies a piece about the symposium, shows him sitting on the verandah of the Goroke Golf Club, reading, it is not some editorial or the financial pages, or a review of his books, it is the daily racing form, take my word for it.
“The New York Times” article, published in late March mentions Murnane’s obsession with horse-racing and goes into some detail about his Antipodean Archive (more on that later), however this obsession with analysis and cultivating a method of predicting the future is only lightly touched upon when reviews of Murnane’s work are presented. The archive, the playing of racing games with coloured marbles, actual horse races, the flashing of coloured silks across a finishing line, correlates wonderfully with numerous “predictions” and unwavering self-belief that Murnane shows throughout his fiction.
I had a personal attachment to a section in “Tamarisk Row”, having been a collector in my teens and early twenties of the photo finish pages.
Clement shows his father two photos on the front page of Wednesday’s Sporting Globe. One picture shows more than twenty horses strung out around the turn into the straight in the Doomben Ten Thousand. A white arrow points to Bernborough, barely distinguishable among the tail enders. The second picture shows the finish of the same race with Bernborough clearly in front, having passed twenty and more horses in the short Doomben straight. Clement puts his hand over the arrow in the picture and asks his father to guess which horse is Bernborough. He hopes to astonish Augustine with the sight of the horse’s incredible finishing run.
– “Tamarisk Row” (p57)
Each Tuesday and Saturday evening the Sporting Globe was published, with a pink wrap around cover, it was the definitive racing guide for Victorian horse racing. Remember this is prior to the days of video replays, anything on-line – a computer was a dream and the internet??? – these photo finishes reproduced the field in each race at the 800 metre, 400 metre and finish lines and were a vital tool in finding, predicting future winners.
During the morning tea break, after presentations by Anthony Uhlmann and Emmett Stinson, both introduced by Samantha Trayhurn, it was time for another cuppa and some home baking from the members of the Goroke Golf Club, this also allowed a few more informal chats to take place, and to put a face to a name. It was also a chance to walk the grounds of the Goroke Golf Club
The break also allowed us to view a number of papers that Murnane had left on the bar for us to read, a palindrome and a copy of the 1965 Department of English examination from the University of Melbourne. An exam paper that Murnane would later liken to the torture chambers he viewed at the old Melbourne Museum!!!
More discussions by the academics followed with Shannon Burns, Suzie Gibson and Luke Carman talking about Murnane’s work, whilst he continued to decipher the racing fields from Kyneton.
A one hour break for lunch followed, where Gerald Murnane personally manned the bar, asked us to complete the Goroke Gold Club Guest Book, a requirement before being served alcohol, and chatted small talk.
Personally I spent quite some time talking to him about old horse racing tales, the 1981 Ararat Gold Cup won by a horse named Gary Bruce, whereby a plunge (from memory the price tumbled from 33/1 into 7/2 favourite) was successfully pulled off and after months of investigation thirty-nine charges were laid against ten people. Charges ranged from attempting to fix the race itself, to prior races being fixed to ensure Gary Bruce had an average racing record leading into the event, after a long period of investigation and days and days of inquiries the charges were all dropped. This is one of the most notorious “betting plunge” tales of the 1980’s where a horse with terrible form was backed to win a fortune and mysteriously improved hundreds of metres to win and pull off the plunge. Numerous rumours abound about how the plunge was planned and pulled off, and whilst I would love to detail some of these here, and Murnane and I did chat about a couple of the rumours, a number of the “players” are still alive so I think it is wise to leave the stories at that – rumours.
The talk of Gary Bruce led us to another infamous betting plunge and a horse called Torbek. In 1979 a New Zealand trainer Alan Jones had a horse called Shady Deal which, although unraced, had won seven trials in New Zealand. He sent it to Australia, transferred the training to an unknown Bendigo trainer BA Fawdrey, changed the horse’s name to Torbek (similar name to a poorly performed Torbreck) and entered it in a maiden race (a race for non-winners) at the provincial track at Seymour. The meeting co-incided with the New South Wales Australian Jockey Club meeting at Randwick where the AJC Oaks and Metropolitan Handicap was being run – a day where there were bookmakers galore working and turnover would be high, a guaranteed day to instigate a large betting plunge. Punters were rumoured to have flown to Sydney, where the betting ring was strong, and backed Torbek from 25/1 into 5/2 favourite, it is rumoured to have been backed to win over a quarter of a million dollars, the horse duly cantered in. Transferred back to the original trainer Alan Jones it won its next start and it was then transferred to trainer Wayne Walters (the same trainer of Gary Bruce!!!), it went on to win twenty-three races including a number of Group One (the highest level) events.
Plunges, shady deals and obscure racetracks were the preferred subjects of discussion between Murnane and myself, as you could imagine the readers of his books wanting to understand more about the plains or shading their eyes were itching to get a word in sideways, eventually I moved aside letting a few of the academics to ask a question about his books, Murnane generally met them with a friendly “I’ll answer that later in my talk”.
Photo credit – Andre Sawenko
The afternoon concluded with talks by Ivor Idynk (publisher of Murnane’s books at Giramondo Publishing), and Brigid Rooney and of course Gerald Murnane himself, the content of his talk can be read here. (Sydney Review of Books). Prior to Murnane’s talk he told us that he may have to have a break, and if he did we were to recite the following (the quote is from memory, I’m sure it contained more names “Commencing in 1861 with Archer, 1862 Archer, 1863 Banker and concluding with 2015 Prince of Penzance, 2016 Almandin, 2017 Rekindling” – he was reciting from memory the full list of the Melbourne Cup winners, a very impressive feat indeed.
Over the coming weeks and months I’ll address the subject of horse racing in Murnane’s work, as I review some of his books here. Avid readers of his work would know his “archive”, a collection of filing cabinets, contains numerous literary items, the following two attracting my attention:
“Documentation of Gerald Murnane’s lifelong interest in horse-racing and of his continuing efforts to devise a means of earning a regular income from betting”, and
“The Antipodean archive…in the files are bour a thousand pages of typescripts, manuscripts, maps, charts, diagrams, lists, and sketches describing the organisation, administration, and day-to-day running of horse-racing in two imaginary countries by name New Eden and New Arcady and called collectively the Antipodes. Many of the pages report in detail the results of several hundred races decided in each country. One file contains several letters and essays comprising in total more than 10,000words and explaining Gerald Murnane’s reasons for setting up the Antipodean Archive in 1985 and adding to it continually in the years since.”
These notes from Gerald Murnane’s archives can be read, along with more details of other files, letters, essays, manuscripts at the Music and Literature website here http://www.musicandliterature.org/features/2013/11/11/the-three-archives-of-gerald-murnane
Having a real life background that crosses a lot of the same territory as some of Murnane’s fiction (and of course his memoir of the turf “Something for the Pain”), I plan to write about this specific theme in his works, racing, chance and speculation of future events. But I will save that for the reviews….