Craig Munro
Under Cover

‘Poor Fellow My Editor’

Xavier Herbert

At the 1976 Adelaide Writers’ Week, I found myself billeted with a poet — just like Xavier Herbert in 1962. Although I didn’t throw any punches, my week in the city of churches was also memorable. Right from the beginning, the festival was a long series of maladies and misadventures. Geoffrey Dutton, chair of the Writers’ Week committee, sets the scene with this description from his autobiography:

[That] Writers’ Week involved some desperate dramas about visitors from overseas. Alberto Moravia, James Baldwin, Erica Jong, Kurt Vonnegut and several others had accepted invitations but in the last few weeks they began to drop out. The Festival Director had actually been to Baldwin’s house in the South of France and given him his air ticket to Adelaide, but a week before the Festival a cable arrived to say he could not come. Kurt Vonnegut rang me from New York and said his literary agent had just got him a contract so valuable he had to begin work immediately. Moravia cabled from North Africa to say he had pleurisy.

I had made a last-minute decision to attend the festival — an event that took over the city every two years — and could not find accommodation anywhere. My colleague Roger McDonald suggested I contact his friend, poet and literary academic Andrew Taylor, who could usually be relied upon to find room in his North Adelaide cottage.

Andrew agreed on the phone, and yet, arriving at his tiny cottage, I was shocked to find every room infested with poets. There were so many that Les Murray was sharing a shed in the backyard with another poet from Sydney. Andrew met me at the door, looking distracted and frazzled. He could only find one piece of vacant floor space on which I could doss down, and that was under his kitchen table.

It was a typically hot March in Adelaide, and with such close quarters, tensions were bound to emerge. After the first night, Les’s roommate announced that he couldn’t stand the ‘belching and farting’ any longer and was returning to Sydney. ‘Fuck the festival!’ were his parting words. Among the poets of all persuasions suddenly thrown together in Andrew’s house, I began to sense subterranean currents. As a young publisher in their midst, I also found myself being courted. One tall, Hawaiian-shirted versifier shared with me his radical plans for spelling reform, while another serenaded us with bloodthirsty stanzas from ancient Norse sagas.

What happened next took us all by surprise, as first one and then another of the poets came down with dysentery. Within hours, the whole overcrowded household — with the exception of Andrew and Les — was beating a path to the dunny. It was a very old stone house, built low to the ground in the characteristic Adelaide fashion, and the plumbing proved to be equally venerable. Without warning, the drainage pipes suffered a terminal hardening of the arteries. On the morning the toilet blocked (embarrassingly, I was the last to use it), the ever-patient Andrew finally cracked. Calling everyone to a meeting in his kitchen — where I was lying under the table, unable to move — he let us know that we were to vacate the house for two hours, between 12.30 and 2.30, that day. We did just that, despite our collective infirmity, and without knowing the reason for our banishment.