Darwin circa 1967 may seem an unlikely place for literary inspiration, but Peter Goldsworthy’s, Maestro, with its exotic setting and the emotions he attaches to it, is an irresistible combination. Music infuses the story and it is at a piano lesson, that the teenage Paul Crabbe, a recent arrival from the south, encounters the maestro, a refugee from Vienna with a shady past.
I hoped to experience Darwin the way his protagonist, Paul, experiences it. There’s a risk involved in seeking out novel settings and the locations within because they may not be real and if they are real, may disappoint. Writers usually get the detail correct through research, but unless they have lived, even temporarily, in a place they write about, their pages are not imbued with the warm rain and wet earth smearing itself with greenness, like Goldsworthy’s prose is. Like the Crabbes, the Goldsworthy family moved to Darwin in 1966. Would the written Darwin mismatch the real thing or would I understand why Paul loved the tropical hothouse blooms where everything grew larger than life as I walked the streets of this lush and isolated town, a mix or orient and outback, a port to where immigrants drifted as a place of refuge.
Visiting a novel’s setting can be disorientating and laden with a ‘where am I’ aura. The heavy embrace of Darwin’s scent laden air strikes the minute the plane doors open and there’s no mistaking, this is the tropics. Ominous black clouds loom on the horizon and thunder rumbles away in the background waiting for that almighty moment when rain clouds burst, releasing moist compost air, sweet and sour, just as Goldsworthy describes.
Some novels can be transported to different cities without affecting the overall story, but some narrative locations are inherent in the story and should the action be moved, the story would be different. Maestro, published in 1989, amusing, wise and enormously entertaining, sweeps effortlessly into 1960s Darwin, a tropical backdrop that becomes its own character.
There’s nothing insipid about Darwin and the two seasons, the wet and the dry, provide a dramatic backdrop to even the most bland of locations, a 1960s designed, form matched to function, school. Darwin High School, where Paul took refuge in the music room from bullies, still overlooks Mindil Beach and Darwin Harbour from the headland of Bullocky Point. Not as isolated as it was in the 60s, it now forms part of East Point Reserve a beautiful place for walking where you may spot red-tailed black cockatoos and wallabies and, depending on the season, witness magnificent sunsets or spectacular lightening displays.
The Botanical Gardens, where Keller arrives drunk during a concert arranged by the Crabbes, are now a heavenly brew of monsoon vine forest, coastal dunes, mangroves, woodlands and plants that have survived cyclones, wildfires and World War 2. Concerts continue to be held in the amphitheatre.
The Swan, the fictional crumbling pub where the maestro, Keller, lives in his darkened room above the bar, shuttered against bright sunlight and the noisy locals below, is surely based on the colonial style Victoria, a heritage listed pub built with local stone in 1890. Before Cyclone Tracey hit in 1974, pictures show a large weatherboard accommodation annex, perhaps the inspiration for Keller’s room in the warren of crumbling weatherboard where Paul took his music instruction. Bougainvillea has grown in the courtyard since 1890, but sadly, although the monsoons of beer remain, I’m told the bougainvillea has been removed since my visit.
Writers capture fleeting moments and no location remains intact forever. But the geography of the setting, the place on the map, its droughts, flooding rains and distant horizons do largely stay the same within the Australian landscape. Our literature often has a complicated, complex relationship with landscape, seeing it as menacing, a place from which we are often estranged. The young Paul’s enthusiastic embrace of Darwin, isolated at the Top End, with Asia to the north and the vast outback to the south, is so infectious, as a setting it becomes a must see.
|Victoria Hotel in 1950s, the model for The Swan|