A tale of two shores
When Robert Adamson was a boy, he used to swim at Balmoral every morning before school. Floating in goggles, he watched a line of sea horses looking out through the shark net at a blue groper that lived in a cave on the other side. The tiny creatures bobbed up and down, seeming to taunt the giant, as if they knew they were safe.
That image from 60 years ago has surfaced in the first poem Adamson wrote for a book - an inadequate word for this extravagant, whimsical collector's piece - that he has created with artist Peter Kingston, who is well known for his paintings of Sydney Harbour. Shark-Net Seahorses of Balmoral: A Harbour Memoir is a collection of 15 poems by Adamson and 21 lino prints by Kingston, published in a limited edition of 26 (lettered A-Z) by meticulous rare-book dealer Nicholas Pounder and selling for the very reasonable price of $7500.
It's difficult to pinpoint the genesis of the book, a collaboration the two men have unconsciously been working towards their whole lives.
Both born in 1943, they grew up on opposite sides of the harbour, when it was alive with fish and ships - Kingston at Vaucluse in the east (with his artist sister, Fairlie), Adamson at Neutral Bay in the north. Their imaginations were formed by watery adventures of swimming, boating and fishing. In his 2004 autobiography, Inside Out, Adamson wrote, ''Gradually, I suppose, I discovered that I lived in paradise … I haunted the shores and bushy slopes.''
They diverged: Kingston was private-schooled at Cranbrook; Adamson did stints in juvenile detention centres. Both pursued their different arts with success.
Kingston's work is exhibited and collected in Australia and overseas; Adamson is much published and awarded, and holds the University of Technology, Sydney, chair in poetry. Adamson eventually moved further north with his partner, photographer Juno Gemes, to his grandfather's fishing grounds on the Hawkesbury River. Kingston crossed the harbour to Lavender Bay, with the Whiteleys as neighbours and a studio that stares at Luna Park and the bridge.
''Dickens had A Tale of Two Cities; we have a tale of two shores,'' Kingston says, serving tea on the verandah to Adamson, Gemes and Pounder as parrots shoot from the elephantine fig trees that frame the view. ''Peter and I have an affinity with endangered creatures,'' says Adamson, who is a birdwatcher as well as a fisherman. ''It's been a dream working with him, literally inspiring each other as the book developed.''
Kingston thought of the book after hearing the sea horse story, and the creative process began with Adamson slowly crafting poems from stories of his youth. One is about fishermen weaving nets at Blues Point. Another recalls a visit with his mother to the old cat-filled Pylon Lookout on the bridge. Ferries ''kiss the wharf''; Mosman Bay Sea Scouts remove a huge dead carp from a pond for bob-a-job; macaws fly out of Taronga Zoo - ''exotic escapees''.
Occasionally, Kingston would jack up. ''I'd say, 'Bob, there's been too much on your side of the harbour. Fair crack of the whip.''' So Adamson's memories of going to movies at the Cremorne Orpheum in fancy dress were moved to the old Wintergarden at Rose Bay, where young Kingston was a regular.
A poem titled The Sydney Stadium stars Jimmy Carruthers, Little Richard, Johnnie Ray and - a memory contributed by artist Martin Sharp, to whom the book is dedicated - Judy Garland, who sits on the stage with a drink and tells the audience, ''Well, this is what you've all come to see, isn't it?''
Rather than illustrating the poems, Kingston responded to them, his scenes drawn from his own imagination in his distinctly romantic style of dark seas and misty skies peopled with comic-strip heroes. One of his most-loved old images, of his late dog Denton braving a gale in a tiny boat on Middle Harbour, is included with the poem it evoked: ''Denton/sits fixed by instinct to stand there/and ride out this invisible fury of breath.''
Adamson wrote an unexpected opening line, ''I spent my 21st in Long Bay Penitentiary'', in response to Kingston's request for an Opera House poem. But he celebrates his own maturity in the final poem, Francis Webb at Ball's Head, about his poetic hero - the subject of a recent lecture - and an Aboriginal carving of a shark - ''this harbour-dreaming'' - that also appears in a Webb poem.
The art of the book is in the detail. Kingston has begun making 800 prints, each one subtly unique. Instead of a press, he uses a wooden spoon (a technique he attributes to artist Luke Sciberras) to press sheets of Japanese mulberry paper onto inked lino squares carved with his images.
Pounder, who was born in England and made his first money in Sydney catching octopus for the Balkan Restaurant, designed the book and is now laboriously tearing sheets of paper, printing and assembling copies at his Tamarama home. He sees the work as a fine example in a long tradition of poet-artist collaborations by, for example, Jack and Norman Lindsay in the 1920s, David Strachan and Alister Kershaw in 1951, and Shelton Lea and Joel Elenberg in 1970.
But collaboration is difficult and most attempts are ''stillborn'', Pounder says. He echoes everyone's feelings when he adds, ''I've loved doing this. It's had its fraught moments. Problems are exciting because you are reaching towards something that is unlike anything else.''
Each copy of the book includes a photographic print by Gemes of Adamson and Kingston at the zoo. Each is housed in a box, which, when opened, plays ''a song without words for Francis Webb'', composed by Kingston and performed on piano by Jack Ellis. Pounder devised the light-sensitive audio circuit that creates the magic.
The books are for sale through Australian Galleries in Sydney and Priscilla Juvelis, an American rare-book dealer. Several are sold to the Mitchell Library, the National Library and a woman who was walking along the waterfront near Kingston's house. How could she resist?
The Green Flash
One hot afternoon, on the first long walk
I can remember, my mother took me
across the Sydney Harbour Bridge-
by the time we reached the other side
I became fed up and threw
a tantrum-My mother knew what
she was doing though and ushered me
into the Pylon Lookout. We climbed
stairs up into the display room,
focusing my attention: model Spitfires
and Lancaster bombers were suspended
in the air, photographs of submarines,
Catalina flying boats afloat at Rose Bay-
Harvest pictures of wheat-farming.
There was a cafe, where Mum bought
my first Devonshire tea-
(the same as Granny used to have in Dundee).
Afterwards we climbed a ladder
with rusty rungs, reaching the top,
we looked out across the harbour-
I felt pure joy when I saw three cats
prance along the pylon wall, with nothing
between them and ground below,
several more rode a miniature carousel.
There seemed dozens of them-
''Mrs Rentoul's famous white cats''.
And this was the spot Dad took
Mum for their first date! He always
knew how to impress people.
It was one of the best days of my childhood.
I can't remember the long walk
back to Blues Point where my grandfather lived.
Many decades later, he
moved to the Hawkesbury, because
fish around Sydney were ''becoming scarce''-
In his late nineties, I asked him
where he used to set his nets when he lived
in Sydney-''I'd shoot straight across
the bay under the Harbour Bridge,
-that was before it was built-there'd be boxes
of them, blackfish, mullet, bream.''