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Chops, cheese, octopus, and the end of Patrick

March 9, 2009
Patrick White, presumably in his kitchen. Picture reproduced by The Age in 2006; photographer unacknowledged in this version online.
Patrick White, presumably in his Martin Road kitchen.**

Tonight I finally finished the Patrick White: Letters, a book I’ve been reading slowly and with deep pleasure since January. Now feel a little mournful and quiet with respect, as one does on finishing a Great Book.

And I don’t think it’s too trivial to return to a couple of moments near the end, about PW’s cooking and domestic life. In fact PW himself, at the end of his life, repeatedly intimated that the routines of domesticity and household love, in which lay his life with the outstanding Manoly Lascaris, were the only important things he had achieved. Not true, obviously, but I can see why he said it. Domesticity and love, after all, were the great subject matter of so much of his work.

In 1985, he had a bout in St Vincent’s Hospital’s thoracic ward just as he was preparing to launch a new novel, his last: The Memoirs of Many in One. Amid other news in a letter from hospital to Graham C. Greene (the other’s nephew, a UK publishing chap), he complains that when he first came down with his symptoms, including  ‘curious persistent lapses of memory’ , a doctor told him he only had a hangover. This was: “- a pity because we had eaten such an excellent lamb biriani”, which happened to have been cooked by Neil Armfield, from Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Asian Cookbook.

However, things turned worse and he was in fact quite ill, hence hospital. But there was one bright spot:

“An old man of 80 called Tom Heapes has been my room-mate part of the time. He has told me how to cook an octopus in a pressure-cooker so the skin peels off like a glove: that will be my first mission in the outside world.”

Dunno if he made it, but I absolutely hope so.

A couple of years later, dear Patrick, as I have come to think of him (despite my sharp intakes of breath at some of those excoriating letters to former friends), wrote to his old actor friend Ronald Waters, who was greatly depressed after his lifelong love Fred had died; 30 July 87:

“You mustn’t give in. Easy to say that, of course! Cooking can be quite simple. You can surely stick a roast in the oven, or chop on the grill without the hate rising in you. Nowadays we eat a lot of things like pasta with good sauces, and dried things like beans, lentils, and chick peas …

“Manoly is suffering a lot from his arthritic, and by now terribly deformed feet. My success in life is my discovery of Manoly. Nothing is of importance besides that. Books – shit!”

Anyway. If books are shit, this is a wonderfully resplendent specimen, and I have to thank David Marr* – who, incidentally, is recorded as having brought for PW’s birthday in 1988:

“a piece of fantastic Gippsland blue cheese, better than the authentic Italian Gorgonzola. Now when the Australians are skiting … of having the greatest cricketer, tallest tower … I can truthfully say, what we do have is a humble cheese.”

– for editing it with such wit and compassionate aplomb. Never thought footnotes could ever be so riveting; Mr Marr had made a whole other story ripple lightly, quietly and steadfastly beneath Patrick’s operatic solo.

It is one of literature’s great treasures, and I’ll return to it often.

Bye bye, Patrick. And here’s to all of us sticking in a roast in the oven without the hate rising.

*Here is the riveting account of the new lot of PW papers secretly held and lately donated to Australia’s National Library, written  for The Monthly by DM.

** Picture reproduced by The Age in 2006. Photographer not acknowledged in this online version. If it’s yours, tell me!

2 comments

  1. So what is that dreadful IKEA lamp doing in the sacred Cathedral de Blanc?


    • Oooh yes Michael! But is it Ikea, or one of those Bauhausy numbers that Ikea copied …? Although he was always spending money on causes, as he reminded anyone who asked him for anything (from memory he did give 20 grand to the salvos for his annual contribution – good bloke!), so maybe Ikea was all that was left!



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