Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Robert Adamson's Inside Out: An Autobiography contains a lot of very good prose plus, at the end, two poems that are also characters in the book.

I spent some time at Bob's house in the mid-80s making an issue of Australian Writing. The terrace on Glenmore Road had a separate workshop out the back and it was here that we read and edited the submissions.

We met one night at the Harold Park Hotel which, in those days, was the main Sydney venue and you could hear the likes of Ken Kesey or any of the many local poets, who still could afford to live in the inner west.

Bob struck me as a gentle soul but the book gives paid to such an impression. Nevertheless, Adamson seems to have become 'happy' only once he surrounded himself, in Balmain, with kindred souls.

This popularity - an ex-con couldn't but impress - may be why imagery in the poems seems dated. But it is striking that Rimbaud could have had such a profound effect on two major Australian artists - Nolan and Adamson.

As a rule, Australians are depressingly wary of anything they do not immediately recognise. That Rimbaud could still be considered 'radical' 100 years after he lived, in the antipodes, is some sort of indictment.

We recall the panic the first glimpses of French-led Impressionism caused. We remark that 'Australian impressionists' copied a French model that pre-dated the likes of Cezanne or van Gogh. We are aware that such as Miles Franklin were capable of much more than they achieved - the quality of the prose outshines the chosen genre.

All this because it's bad manners to appear superior to your neighbour. But it's not just for this that I admire Adamson's 2004 book.

The first three quarters are so superior to the final bits. The quality elements here are:
  • Childhood (family)
  • Childhood (crime)
  • Adolescence (crime)
  • First majority (crime)
  • Escape north
  • Prison
  • Cake shop

Adamson has a terrible veneration of his parents, despite their ordinariness. Possibly - like those late-twenties rockers you still see around the traps with their form-guide hats and meek mien - he really does admire their ordinariness.

His dad drank every day after work and probably never read a book after leaving school. His mum tolerated the man's violence in the home, and defended him against the boys as they matured.

On the plus side, his father worked all his life. His father also had creative habits, which the boy learned. Off-cuts of wood were used to good purpose by father and son. Young Robert's love of birds - which later translated to crime, from lack of money needed to buy them - was a great source of solace.

It also taught him to care for something other than himself. When he met Carol - who turned out to be a minor - his love was sincere and earnest. They escaped north. Their adventures around the border of New South Wales and Queensland make very good reading.

Prison is entertaining for us, although for him it must have been bad indeed. It started in juvenile detention and continued - we're not told many dates - into adulthood. The regimen in both types of institution, Adamson tells us, was little changed from convict days. These passages could be profitably read by students of Australian history.

The descriptions - and love of - cars are also a lot of fun. Revving them, hanging out near milk bars (no cafes then), drag-racing, stealing petrol, sleeping in them: all things we've also done once (at least).

Out of gaol, Robert grew wings among the inhabitants of the counter-culture. Glue was Rimbaud and drugs. Girls became women. In addition - and it's strangely something the author doesn't spell out - his habits of social structures learned inside were very useful in taking control of publishing ventures.

His relentless truth-telling stumbles, at this point, amid obstacles he creates by making visible, to the reader, stories half-told and feelings unexpressed. There's so much we're simply not told about entry into the 'alternative' mainstream (don't laugh).

We become confused and start to lose interest. Much will have to await a biographer's keener eye and an untroubled conscience. There's not much here we really needed to know, and other things we try to guess.

At least we know that Adamson was a master at (a) gaining friends and (b) using them for his own purposes. It can be said that the artist and the murderer share common traits.

Part of the book appeared in a 2007 prose anthology subtitled 'short stories'. This indicates how close (think Helen Garner and a recent weekend review) fiction and non-fiction have become. Daniel Defoe has a lot to answer for.

Let alone Bob Dylan.

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