died on Sunday. He was 74. We had not seen one another for years and rarely corresponded. He, like other writers of my acquaintance, had retreated to England. He did that back in 1969. I was still in teacher training college. He was busy being uncomfortable about being a writer.
Judith Wright had introduced him, as she introduced so many other writers. On this occasion however it was with the exasperated words, "Cat, for goodness' sake take this idiot boy off my hands and tell him people DO want to hear what he has to say."
I was left with a man who looked more like three than thirty. He was standing there trembling with fear because he had to talk to a group of assembled writers and readers. His face, the sort that never quite grew up, was pale and he just made it to the ground under the nearest tree where he sat cross legged, hugging his arms around his knees and saying, through gritted teeth, "I really, really don't think I can do this."
I said, "Stop thinking of yourself as Midnite and start thinking of yourself as Khat."
"Oh God! You've read it. What did she call you, Khat?"
"Cat...but I am particularly fond of Siamese. I live with two."
"Tell me about them."
So I sat there and talked about Siamese cats to a man I had never met before until he was taken away to perform. Once he was standing in front of the audience he did not do a bad job but he hated every minute of it. The moment it was over he came straight back to where I was still sitting and said,
"Can we get out of here now?"
I indicated that there was a book signing to get through.
"Oh, come and talk to me there. Nobody is going to want to buy mine."
That was 1968 and the book was Midnite. It ended up selling very well indeed. It is still one of the most popular books on literature courses in Australian schools.
What I remember most though is his genuine fear of getting up and talking about his writing. He was an intensely private person. There is a dark side to his writing, even to Midnite.
There was a book he felt he needed to write. It eluded him for years and caused a huge gap, one of almost twelve years, in publications. When he did publish something new it was still not what he really wanted to write. Visitants came eventually but he always doubted it.
I have no doubt though that he understood the writing process. There is a short exchange in Midnite where Midnite asks, "What is a typewriter?"
And Khat, who is a very wise Siamese cat, answers, "It is a machine for writing books. One hundred years from now people will be preposterously lazy."
In the context of the book it is a very funny little exchange. In real life it showed that the author understood just how difficult it is to write. It is much easier to be preposterously lazy.