Three erudite provocateurs had jolted the Australia I returned to in 1975 out of its complacency. Progressive Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam was one, brilliant conservative satirist Barry Humphries another. I admired them both. The third man was writer Patrick White. We would meet and collaborate for over a decade, and our friendship would last until his passing. Nobel laureate, ex-army officer and sometime Tiresius of the suburbs , Patrick created a distinctive Australian voice, and his faith in what he called perpetual becoming offered another way of seeing the world.
Ring-ring : Tokyo, 8am, Sunday, I awoke to the whirr and click of a bedside fax machine in my rented apartment in Sendagaya. I reached for my glasses to read a simple message from Brian Thomson in Sydney.
Patrick passed away this morning.
Half-naked, half-awake, staring, a little dazed, at the grey shimmer of an autumn morning, I recalled my last meeting with Patrick at his Martin Road home, opposite Centennial Park. On that occasion the spacious rooms, which once tinkled with the laughter of guests, had taken on the antiseptic air of a private hospital. The mischievous gleam in the old warrior's eyes had dimmed and been replaced by an unhappy complicity of illness, rheumy pallor and untypical doubt.
JS: You must be enjoying the fruits of old age .
PW: What are they?
JS: Pause. Wisdom?
PW: I knew more when I was 18 .
I stood blinking at this recollection, slightly shaken, before proceeding to a shower and a shave. There was no sentimentality about Patrick White, and I was determined that there would be little from the sorcerer's apprentice. Patrick's death was hardly unexpected, and he had led a fulfilling and productive life.
I quickly faxed a grateful reply to Brian, requesting my condolences be communicated to Patrick's partner and muse, Manoly Lascaris.
It was Sunday, I reminded myself. I'd arranged to meet two friends, Georgina Pope and Dennis Watkins, for breakfast at a neighbouring German bakery. Dennis was the librettist on a new opera about the creation of the Sydney Opera House: The Eighth Wonder . This was his first visit to Tokyo. After the early morning news, I was looking forward to their company and was suddenly hungry for freshly baked pastries. Georgina had arranged tickets for me to accompany Dennis to a matinee at the nearby National Nō Theatre.
On hearing the news from Sydney, there were downcast eyes and respectful silences across the breakfast coffee, and suggestions of rainchecks.
Either through denial or determination, I wouldn't hear of it. I didn't want Dennis to miss out on a unique travel experience and I knew the meditative nature of Nō, with its ceremonial ghosts and timeless pace, would offer a reflective atmosphere where my memories could swirl and flow in private reverie. And so they did. Within moments of the performance beginning, a resonant chime reminded me of a recurring motif in my relationship with Patrick…
Ring-ring : I was feeding fish from a little wooden bridge over a carp pond in my rented Paddington house. On my return to Australia, I had spent some transitional weeks in the impersonal surroundings of the space-age Gazebo Hotel before accepting the offer to move into this converted inner-city stable with its faux Japanese garden. I was filling in time tending to the carp while nervously awaiting my first phone call from Patrick White. I had no idea what to expect or what it might herald.
Invited by Ken Southgate from the Old Tote Theatre management to direct a new production, I'd suggested reviving The Season At Sarsaparilla . The choice was greeted with surprise, but it was part of my determination to reconnect with Australia and challenge myself as a director.
Management understood, but shook their heads. Patrick White had publicly proclaimed his disillusionment with theatre and had vetoed any attempt to revive his plays for over a decade.
Nonetheless, tentative enquiries were made and now the phone was ringing.
I tossed the remaining fish food into the pond, wiped my hands and picked up the receiver, wondering what to expect. A low-modulated voice uttered the opening gambit:
This is Patrick White … Pause. . . I understand you want to disturb the dust .
I explained the reasons behind my proposed revival of his play.
PW: Well . .. we should meet .
JS: Sure. When?
PW: Pause. In half an hour?
I briefly panicked … What if he quizzes me about all those books of his that I haven't read? I had been prepared for the voice-of-God effect down the line, but was thrown by this sudden switch to showbiz urgency.
JS: I was thinking … next week .
A time was made. I hung up, wandered to the bookcase and started browsing one of his books. Voss had been my introduction to Patrick White as a teenage reader. I was impressed, overwhelmed, exhilarated even, but reading Voss had been a struggle. In London, I'd returned to it with greater insight. There are some things to savour early in life: rock'n'roll, dance parties and political extremism, for example. Other things require more maturity, like Mahler symphonies, political reality and the writings of Patrick White. I stared at the first lines.
There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle, said Rose.
And stood breathing.
Our first encounter had been a decade earlier, when I was 20. It was as curious as it was spontaneous and took place in Edels midtown music store, an important stopover in my city walks since student days. I was flipping through the new releases rack when Peter Sainthill, the shop manager, brushed past: There goes your fan club .
I looked up to see the back of a tall, distinguished-looking man in a bulky sweater heading out the door. Puzzled, I turned to Peter, who whispered: Patrick White .
During my early NIDA tenure, I had staged a revue, Terror Australis , a spirited attack on many Australian sacred cows. The then critic of The Sydney Morning Herald , H.G. Kippax, had joined an audience officially invited to a black-tie opening. On arrival, they had to crawl through a sheep run to enter the theatre, only to be greeted by a cast mimicking sheep and baa-baa -ing their way through the current national anthem God Save The Queen . It was confronting satire on the colonial roots of conformity and racism from a cast led by Helen Morse and a pre-Norman Gunston Garry McDonald. The tone of the SMH review was angry, derisory and dismissive. Harry Kippax's outrage was fine by me; it matched that of the show. A few days later, a letter appeared in the paper questioning the review and supporting the production. Its author was now heading down King Street.
In a flush of youthful excitement, I charged onto the street with a cry of Mr White! Mr White! Ignoring age and reputation, I bashed him on the back. The startled author spun around, saucer eyes staring:
JS: Thanks, Mr White, for your great letter .
PW: Well … Pause. . . Thanks for the great show .
Awkwardness. Gratitude. Departures.
That was it … until a decade later, when the phone rang.
Well, not quite.
Beyond seeing Patrick's early controversial plays The Ham Funeral and The Season At Sarsaparilla as an eager teenager, there had been one other sighting. I had attended a concert of electronic music by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen at the University of NSW. It was during my hippie days and I had dropped a tab of acid, thinking it would enhance the experience. It didn't, but I survived the night and the electronic music. Across the interval foyer, I was fascinated to glimpse Patrick White talking to the music critics Kurt and Maria Prerauer, my Don Giovanni supporters. I later discovered the Prerauers had translated the German version of Patrick's Riders In The Chariot . Fortunately, in my stoned state, I didn't resort to backslapping introductions, but I was fascinated by the intensity of Patrick's gaze as his eyes scanned that crowd like a one-man X-ray machine.
That was my sum total of Patrick White encounters. Yet here I was, knocking on the door of his Centennial Park home and wanting to revive his dormant theatrical career.
Our first meeting went well, with no literary quizzes and a little awe on both sides. There was much theatrical chitchat and discussion of my return to Australia, which struck a familiar chord with the writer. To my surprise, and possibly his, we were under way.
Ring-ring : Once the calls started, they never stopped. Usually
PW: Good morning. I've been thinking … Yairs, definitely Kate Fitzpatrick as Nola Boyle. That Peter Whitford's a marvellous actor. Is he a thought for Mr Pogson?
JS: Perfect … and Max Cullen and Bill Hunter as Ernie and Digger.
PW: Yairs … very good.
Max and Bill were superb and guaranteed an earthy depth to Sarsaparilla . Patrick became fascinated by Max's voice. It would inspire several characters in his writing. Patrick rarely took on whole aspects of a person, rather a characteristic. So-and-so's eyes or such-and-such's voice would conspire in the crucible of his dreams and imagination with an incident from way back when, or something he'd read in the morning paper, to create a fictional character. I sensed Robyn Nevin would be great as Girlie Pogson, recalling gin rummy on the mosquito-proof veranda and relishing the comic conformity of Sarsaparilla, brilliantly captured in Girlie's mantra: I like a hat to look different, so long as it's what the others are wearing.
JS: Robyn Nevin for Girlie Pogson?
PW: Pause. Do Kate and Robyn get on?
JS: Well …
PW: Chuckle. That could work.
This is an edited extract from Blood & Tinsel: A memoir by Jim Sharman, published by MUP next Friday, $49.99.