At morning tea I happen to mention to an English colleague that I am giving a lecture next Tuesday in the Chancellor's Hall of the University of London Senate House. I have been brooding about this continuously for a month.
Colleague: What's the lecture on?
Me: Er . . . Henry Lawson and Manning Clark.
Him: Henry Law . . . I'm afraid I . . .
Me: No, it's all right. You wouldn't have heard of him. Australian writer. Short stories. Turn of the century. Great writer . . .
Him: And Manfred . . .?
Me: Manning. Manning Clark. Famous historian . . .
Him: I don't think I . . .
Me: Monumental six-volume history of Australia; very controversial. The lecture's on Melbourne Cup Day. Could be an omen.
Him: Melbourne Cup D-?
Me: Actually, I've backed Grey Shot. English horse. Front runner. Don't worry about it. (Exit, pursued by a grey cloud.) Friday
What if everybody's like my interlocutor of yesterday? Suddenly I realise that, apart from a few stray Aussies, no one will know anything about Lawson or Clark. It will be a disaster. Perhaps no one will come. "Lawson? Clark?" I hear them say. "Let's go to Primrose Hill and watch the bonfire."
I learn via email that Grey Shot has blown out to 50 to 1. Just as I'd suspected. Get the money on, 1 tell my collaborator in Melbourne.
Up at 5am to help my wife set off for Gatwick en route to a weekend conference in Amsterdam. This leaves me an entirely uninterrupted couple of days to work on my lecture - some honing here, some fine-tuning there, a sophisticated aside elsewhere. I begin with a large breakfast in which numbers of eggy, fatty and greasy items are heavily represented .
Needing a walk after this, I go to the Royal Academy for a look at the Giacometti exhibition. An interesting show, but rather wearisomely self-referential after a while.
After Giacometti it's over to Panton Street where I take in Fargo having missed it first time round. A brisk walk punctuated by a swift pint gets me back in front of the television to catch up on the day's scores. I think about Lawson and Clark over a few beers and a curry, but my concentration soon wavers. I've still got all of Sunday, after all.
After heavy overnight rain, 900,000 tonnes of autumn leaves in the square have acquired a banana skin slipperiness that is visibly sapping the sabbatarian resolve of the churchgoers whose faltering progress I am watching while reflecting on Lawson and Clark. For two hours I peruse the papers as a useful intellectual preliminary to returning to Lawson and Clark. Today, I will knock the lecture over. Celebrate with a quiet drink. I recognise that a day of such egregious inclemency is just the time to go and see Breaking The Waves at the Renoir. I return home emotionally shattered but recover for what turns out to be the scintillating second half of Newcastle's clash with Middlesbrough. I follow this with a bit of channel surfing and fluke the end of Gunfight at OK Corral. Why does everybody round here know who Wyatt Earp was and no one knows about Henry Lawson? Or Clark? My wife rings. She is pleased to hear I have had a good working weekend and that the lecture's all wrapped up and ready to go, I'm pleased to hear this too, if it comes to that. In fact, I'm stunned.
The miracle of email tells me that Grey Shot has tightened to 33 to 1 but still represents excellent value. (Lawson and Clark, on the other hand, have blown out to 500/1 as they move up to the Memorial Lecture starting gates in my aching head). My Melbourne informant is, regrettably, beginning to lose heart. The money's on but he is overwhelmed with a sense of doom. He's got a sense of doom? Doesn't he know about the Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Lecture. Still it is looking better by Monday night when my wife returns and we revert to healthy eating.
In Melbourne, Grey Shot hits the front from the stalls and leads the field into the straight. He's still in the money with 150 metres to go but is overrun in crowded finish. Seventh. In London, conversely, the lecture "Pursuing Literature and History in Australia: The Fate of Henry Lawson and Manning Clark" is, according to all the punters, a winner. Big audience, prolonged applause, accolades. As we leave the hall heading for the drinks, someone next to me remarks: "I must admit I hadn't really heard of Lawson and Clark before tonight." I smile enigmatically. "And Sir Robert Menzies," he goes on, "wasn't he . . . ?" "Prime Minister", I explain, keen to help. "Of Australia. You know? Australia? Veer left at Singapore . . ."
Brian Matthews Professor of Australian studies and head of theMenzies Centre for Australian Studies at the University of London.