Monday, January 29, 2007

The Search for the Perfect Pub

Two comments on my Australia Day Massacre post seem to assume that serious poetry and pubs - at least Aussie pubs - might not seem likely combinations. Of course, London's Mermaid Tavern is well-known as the venue for brisk well-lubricated debate among such Elizabethan aspirants as Ben Jonson, John Donne, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, Richard Carew, and William Shakespeare. But an Aussie pub? One commenter on my Massacre post wrote
Strangely enough, I wouldn't have expected an Aussie poetry reading to be any different from what you described. At least not one held in a pub...

Another cruelly remarked that the denizens of such a scene would likely devour Gérard de Nerval's pet lobster. And yes, I must concede that would be a possibility.

But pubs and poetry do have something of an association in Australia. The following is from John Tranter's review of Nigel Roberts' In Casablanca for the Waters:

It is a journalistic cliche that literary and artistic movements have their birth in particular suburbs — the beatniks in Greenwich Village, the Paris intellectuals of the Left Bank, the San Francisco Renaissance. The real focus is usually not a group of suburban dwellings, but the meeting-places: the restaurants, clubs and especially the coffee houses.

But the story of the Sydney intelligentsia is writ in alcohol, and its odyssey was the search for the perfect pub. Most of the good songs, stories, novels, poems and little magazines in the 1960s and 70s were born in the haze, good cheer, raging arguments and cacophony of pubs — the legendary Royal George, the Newcastle, the United States, the Criterion, the Vanity Fair, and in Balmain the Forth & Clyde and the London. Out of that school of hard knocks and hangovers grew the Balmain Renaissance.

Like all cliches, it is hard to define clearly, but a few main features stand out. The time was the late 60s and early 70s, the place was more often than not Balmain, the form was mainly avant-garde poetry and prose. You could see it all at the Annual Balmain Poetry and Prose Readings, held at different venues around the locality.

This event was something like a blend of literary amateur night, floating brothel, and the nastier parts of World War II, and no writer was considered really in until he or she had suffered something dreadful at one of the readings...

I met Nigel Roberts on his first night in Australia, back in 1964 I think, where he had arrived (obviously a little dazed) from New Zealand. It was at the room of Swiss Walter in a crash pad in Woolloomooloo. Swiss Walter was a man of great revolutionary energy, who kept several sticks of gelignite under the floorboards of his room. He had purloined them from the Water Board, where he was working as a labourer. I don't know what he ultimately did with them. Nigel arrived - I can't remember how, or why - and spent some hours there as a group of blow-ins jabbered frenetically on into the wee smalls, fueled by bowls of yippee beans thoughtfully placed around the room. Nigel impressed me because of his quiet good manners, and his obvious extensive knowledge of poetry and poets (including my own favourite at that time, Robert Graves). I met him on and off around the scene quite a few times after that - I was a little jealous that he became the partner of the exquisite Daphnette, whom I knew from The Royal George, and whom I had long ardently admired myself.

In the 70s Nigel was one of the founders of the Poets Union, which was formed with the aim of "revitalising Australian poetry with a new attitude to one of the oldest of all artforms. Poetry was taken off the dusty bottom shelf and into the streets, being read in pubs, cafes and parks, and finding new shapes and sounds to reflect a changing world" (Poets Union site).

Poetry readings at pubs around Balmain, like the Rose, Shamrock and Thistle, were thus an important feature of the Australian poetry scene.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great read!

Heph :)


10:47 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am at a loss as to whether or not any of this is working...LOL!

I just wanted to say; "Good read"!


10:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



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4:03 pm  

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