I arranged to meet Peter Carey after lunch one day at his advertising agency in Melbourne: a converted warehouse in Erskine Street, Middle Park, not far from picturesque Albert Park. I had not met Peter, although I was editing his first book, The Fat Man in History. It was 1974, and UQP was developing an ambitious series of recorded interviews with Australian writers. For our taped conversation, Peter ushered me into the agency’s boardroom, and we sat on either side of the conference table, the broadcast-quality tape recorder between us. I liked Peter immediately. He was seven years older than I was — which seemed a lot to me then, at twenty-three. Already a successful young creative director, he possessed an appealing sense of humour that was also sharp and iconoclastic. His clothes seemed to pay homage to Che Guevara, while his shoulder-length hair was as disordered as a rock guitarist’s. Only his round, horn-rimmed glasses looked in any way literary.
For maybe an hour, Peter discussed with me what writing meant to him. His rapid-fire wit and teasing sarcasm were spiked with a sharply intelligent appreciation of art, films, and books. I wondered if he had learned to survive on his wits among the future captains of industry during his many years of schooling at Geelong Grammar.
Thinking our interview was perfect for the Writers on Tape series, I switched off the recording lever with a satisfying clunk. It seemed like a good time to check on the quality, and I rewound the tape. Pressing play, I waited for the interview to start. But no sound came out of the speaker. As Peter and I continued to stare at the spools, slowly revolving in silence, it became clear there was nothing at all on the tape.
Speechless, I met Peter’s eyes across the table with a mixture of embarrassment and disbelief. Fortunately, he wasn’t fazed, and we retreated upstairs to a large kitchen with a view over the surrounding roofs and backyards. A battered old Frigidaire, full of beer, stood in one corner, so we sampled its contents and got the tape recorder going again. This time around we tested the equipment at the start, rather than the end. And this time it captured every word.
This second ‘interview’ seemed to go on for hours. The tape was on big spools, and we used up both tracks. With each tall bottle of Melbourne Bitter we consumed, my impertinent questions became more and more slurred and less and less pertinent. Peter, though, responded to my trite questions with impassioned and anarchic eloquence.
It was his birthday that day: 7 May. As the afternoon advanced, his voice took on a more astringent and assertive tone: ‘There are no simple answers for someone in my position, now, as I stand, at thirty-one years old today, who at nineteen years of age went into advertising with fuck-all political education — no reading, no nothing.’
Finally I got around to asking him about the literary scene in Australia.
‘There are a few people in this country that do things,’ he conceded, ‘but, Jesus, the competition is hardly intense.’ The one writer he singled out was Frank Moorhouse: ‘I’ve really got a lot of respect for that guy.’
On my return to Brisbane, I handed the tape player back to the audio-visual editor who just chuckled. He took my word for it that the long interview Peter and I had recorded would not be suitable for the Writers on Tape series.
If not for my technical incompetence, maybe we’d have ended up with little more than a conventional interview. Instead, my faux pas brought about a memorable encounter and a lasting friendship.