In my one school year in Melbourne, fourth form at Blackburn South High, Alan Wearne was a couple of years ahead of me and I was friends with his brother. He went on to Monash and I, via yet another bush high school (thanks Dad), to Melbourne. But I saw him around occasionally, the last time in ’74 or ’75 when I offered to give him a lift in my old truck to a poetry conference in Brisbane. He politely declined, the organisers had given him a return air ticket.
The Nightmarkets (1986) is a longish, 300pp, verse novel. I’ve read it a few times since it came out, not because I like poetry, which I don’t, but because it feels so intensely familiar. Wearne writes, not of Melbourne, but of the suburbs he knows so well – Blackburn, Burwood, Brunswick, Fitzroy, South Melbourne, and these are my suburbs too. Blackburn South was an endless expanse of three and four bedroom boxes with red tile roofs when we were growing up. From our new house we could look across the apple orchards, long gone now, to Channel O on Springvale Rd, while the Wearnes lived in a slightly older part of the suburb near the shops on Canterbury Rd. I earned pocket money at Pentland’s newsagency and some freezing mornings would have to get on my bike to deliver their paper. Just this week Mum has moved to a retirement village only a couple of hundred yards up the road.
The novel covers the period 1965-1982, and centres on the state election campaign of 1982 won by the John Cain-led Labor party, presaging Bob Hawke’s federal election win the following year. The central character, the Alan Wearne figure, is Ian Metcalfe. His older brother Robert, who was jailed for two years at the end of the 60s as a draft resister, is a Labor candidate. We get the story partly from Ian and partly from other principal characters, over the course of 10 sections. For most of the period 1969-75 I was in Melbourne, in the inner suburbs, in the anti-war movement, and this all feels very personal.
Briefly, Ian’s ex-girlfriend Sue becomes the lover of an older, old-money type, federal MP, John McTaggart, with a property out Mt Macedon way, who wants to form a new political party (yes, like Don Chipp’s Democrats, or if you’re a real politics wonk, like Gordon Barton‘s Australia Party). Sue introduces Ian, who’s doing not much, to McTaggart who commissions him to check out a murder which might be political, at a South Melbourne brothel. Ian promptly falls in love with Terri, a prostitute. Meanwhile Robert works stolidly towards getting elected.
Wearne’s poetry is both vernacular and (loosely!) contained within formal structures of rhyme and rhythm. I was a maths/science student with next to no Eng.Lit. education so more than that I cannot say. The opening lines are typical (Ian, 1980):
With your chaotic indecision, visiting mother can be a problem:
‘Hi, Mum.’ ‘Hi Ian.’ If you glower, she’s anxious not to pile up the home truths
(you’re the touchy one). She’s careful and cares, hope you exercise, the job situation improves,
hopes you’re sleeping well, eating well. ‘For dinner, Ian, or just lobbing in?’
She uses your terms, smiling about it, maybe to tease you.
The introductory section sets the scene – Robert’s jailing, Ian discovering sex, the rise and fall of Gough:
I was still with Allison, working in a bookshop.
Its phone rang. My mother screeched, ‘Gough’s got the sack!’
and hung up. Stockbrokers sprawled saturated in bubbly. ‘That big bastard’s off my back,’
Into the Fraser years Ian smokes dope and puts out a poetry magazine, The Hummer. The section ends: “… But this far into my ranting is quite enough,/ Please meet my first lover, still my closest friend, Sue Dobson.”
Back from an ‘over-planned’ trip to England, Sue stays with Ian and Allison – “someone had been having fun – nice to know/ an old boyfriend had settled… Told them this./ She trumped: ‘Great to get along with Ian’s old fucks.’” After an affair with a lead guitarist, she works on The Hummer, then as a freelance, writes a newspaper profile on McTaggart, starts sleeping with him, is surprised as it develops into a relationship, takes him home to meet Dad, in Florizel St (Burwood). Ian and Allison part, Ian “opting for minimal loft living, presumed celibacy.”
Ian learns about Sue and McTaggart from Allison on Christmas eve, goes out to his brother’s for Christmas lunch “back in Blackburn, where everyone lived when we were young”, spends the rest of the day with the old gang from The Hummer at Sue’s. “She cornered me: Well, your turn to be warned. John wants to meet you.” The next morning McTaggart wakes Ian from his hangover, “’I’m shouting lunch at Lulus. Ever been? Expensive, yes, but certainly not stuffy; / you’d hate my club.’” He wants Ian to look into an upmarket brothel, Crystal Palace, where a prostitute has been murdered who might have been gathering dirt on her clientele –“medicine, the judiciary, even certain police, politicians …”
‘It is bizarre, I understand.’ You, I thought, you: want: me: to: but he
proposed a four-figure sum
(of a middling bracket), to get doubled when I returned with facts …
He starts meeting/paying for Terri during the day, tells her he’s a researcher. She calls him professor, or sometimes, darls. Can’t meet her ‘outside’, she has a boyfriend, Ross, who’s sort of a dealer.
We hear from Robert, on a road trip to a Labor conference in Adelaide, from Ian again and then Terri. The plot takes a holiday but the text, the poetry, carries you on, as we get deeper into the characters. Terri and Ross bump into Ian a couple of times in inner suburban pubs, then Ross away in Thailand, Ian persuades Terri to come home with him.
I know: getting involved with a client might give commonsense the shove,
was breaking that first parlour law. But, I thought, Terri, now’s
the time you’ve had enough of rules. Outside your job the only powers
that ought to be are yours. You like him and want him. What’s that prove?
Ross comes home. Crystal Palace is not as exclusive as it used to be. Terri thinks she’ll go with Ross, next time he goes away. Sue’s turn, she meets McTaggart’s ex, is told she has a predecessor, McTaggart’s PA, Veronica Lim. “Really? Another thing that everybody knew, I didn’t know?” She takes a break:
and wouldn’t I crawl the clichéd mile
of broken glass to view the leader and his shy if warm smile
swap for the grin of some sexist smarty:
‘Sue, haven’t I said we’ve affirmative action right through our party?’
Oh, shuddup: ‘That’s just an equal balance of pricks to cunts
for you. Huh? And don’t look so damn hurt.’
We hear from John: “Your photographer having sprained something, you arrived alone: smallish, your hair brushed back and held with a light thin scarf, a broadcast of fading freckles, a mouth that knew it could pout.” And from his mother, the usual landed ‘gentry’/private school back story. Ian wraps up. “It’s ending. Her Ross has returned. ‘My opponent’ goes too far,/ but my rival, anyway has returned.” Still, he sees her again.
In Blackburn, “through gravel-edged Myrtle Grove, Acacia Avenue. How quiet and private/ it seems going on back to my brother’s or mother’s”, the election rolls to its inevitable (happy) conclusion.
The subscript to the title reads ‘This book should become a classic of our literature’. It hasn’t and I don’t suppose it will, but it’s certainly one of my favourites, and I recommend it to all Melburnians (Sydneyites wouldn’t get it).
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets, Penguin, Melbourne, 1986