Goodbye Gus, the guardian of the semen.



This is from a talk I gave in 2005, when I opened an exhibition of Gus’s work in Balmain. With additions.

“My curves are not mad” wrote Henri Matisse in the notes that accompanied Jazz, twenty decoupage compositions he had done for the publisher Teriade.

I quote it firstly because old Henri is one of Gus’ heroes, secondly, because neither are Gus’ curves and lines mad – I brought my 12 year old into see these drawings yesterday and she fell in love with them, saying to me “the more you look at them Dad the more you see.” And thirdly because I reckon the only thing that’s missing from these beautiful notebooks of his are some words. Gus is a damn fine teacher – and a few wry observations on the drawings would not go astray – and maybe make the whole package more marketable.

After all, as another one of Gus’ mentors, Pablo Picasso once said, the only thing an artist should talk about is money.

I’ve known Gus Cohen – tangentially – for a very long time during all of his career phases. I wrote for Pol around about the time Gus was art director there, but never knew him there. I worked in advertising in some of the same places as Gus but never while he was there. I wrote for Billy Blue when Gus was doing covers for them, but he never did a cover for one of my stories.

But I can’t remember not knowing him. There always seems to have been corner of my life full of Gus. Talk about painting and books and drawing and playing pool and – long ago – drinking lots of piss in The Clock before it became a poncy pub for dotcommies. When the bikies had the basement and you’d play pool with Maori boys and girls the size of barns. Which was funny because Gus was always the size of a pool cue.

When De and I and Laura came back to Sydney from Spain in 1991, we ran into Gus and went to his last Sydney show at Access in Balmain in 92. We bought a Glasshouse Mountain triptych that still hangs in my office at home.

And some time after he moved to Melbourne, Gus began sending me stuff. Soon I had so much stuff I began what he and I call The Gus Book. You can actually trace a trajectory of his life through the book.


He wasn’t a very happy Gusso when he went to Melbourne. I visited him with his Mum in Heidelberg. She died soon after.

But gradually, things began to pick up. The settlement (of the will from his mother) came through and he bought the little house in Castlemaine. And then, he met Annie. I saw less of him, less envelopes for the Gus book arrived, but it didn’t matter. Because Gus was on top of it again.

But through all of his ups and downs, Gus had one true friend. Drawing. And painting. And later, sculpture. And he never stopped working, right up to the end.

Gus Cohen is not a big, flashy pushy artist. He doesn’t sit on art gallery committees or go to openings. He works. And he lives. And he knows, from life, as John Berger wrote in Permanent Red that “For the artist, drawing is discovery.”

I’ve got Gus paintings and drawings all over. There’s one beauty of Moore Park in my office and another in the little house we (used to) own in Spain. A couple of years ago, I let that house to a painter. She took down everything in the house – except the Gus Cohen Moore Park. It came home.


One more story, and I’ll finish. I was doing some research for my last novel, The Man Who Painted Women – which Gus didn’t like much and had the decency to tell me, which writers really like by the way – and I was reading a totally insane book called The Mushroom and the Cross by John Allegro, who had been on the team preparing the Dead Sea Scrolls for publication when he went mad and decided that Christianity was a mushroom cult and wrote this book.

Any way, on page 58, I found this fascinating piece of information:

“The most common Hebrew word for ‘priest’, ‘kohen’ familiar as the well-known Jewish surname, comes from a Sumerian title GU-EN-NA, literally, “guardian of the semen….. He had charge of the god’s house….pouring the god’s semen over the heads of these dignitaries was intended to represent them as ‘gods’, replicas of the divine penis in heaven.”

And for all of you who buy a drawing or a construction tonight, remember, it was created by the guardian of the semen. No wonder he’s a such a spunk.

Post Gus.

Gus rang me out of the blue somewhere in the week beginning September 11 this year. He said “I was just going through my Teledex and your name was there so I’m ringing you!” I told him he was perhaps the only person in the world still using a Teledex. He proudly told he he’d bought a computer but hadn’t used it yet. He reminded me I’d promised to send him my latest book, and I hadn’t. I said I would do it next week. He said “ and I’ll send you a little self-portrait. I’ve been drawing like mad the last few weeks.” We said goodbye. I felt good. I always felt good after talking with Gus.

Then on the 20th I heard from his daughter Samantha. Gus had died over the weekend. Probably heart. I hadn’t seen him for a while but he was a constant presence in my house, and in warm corner of my mind. Gus, wherever you’re going, I hope they give you paints and crayons

At the end of the talk that I took the body of this post from, I had written ‘I declare the show well and truly open.’

Sadly, I now declare the show well and truly closed.



Hemp. The problem of pleasure


‘May 12–13: Sowed hemp at Muddy hole by swamp.

August 7: began to separate the male from the

female—rather too late.’

George Washington, diary 1765


Poor old hemp. The tragedy is that such a potentially useful plant to

humanity was sidelined by the clash of two events: an important

technological breakthrough which came at a dramatic turning point in the

efforts of a minor figure in American history to gain political advantage

by vilifying it. As Robert Deitch wrote in Hemp—American History

Revisited, man has ‘exploited [the cannabis plant] in virtually every way

for thousands of years’. As fuel, fibre, paper and food, Deitch writes, it

could ‘solve a number of environmental and economic problems we face

today’. But because one of its uses involves pleasure, it has been

sidelined by history.

Cannabis is a genus of flowering dioecious plants (meaning that an

individual plant is either male or female), the two most important of

which are Cannabis indica and C. sativa. It is an annual flowering plant

with distinctive serrated leaves that many a teenage gardener will

recognise instantly.

Cannabis is another of those plants whose origins are unclear. Both

Central Asia and Persia have been advanced, although some experts

maintain that it began life in north and north-eastern China and southeastern

Siberia, where it is the only fibre plant of any importance. Pieces

of hemp cloth were found on the inside of a jar in Gansui in north-eastern

China belonging to a Neolithic culture (2150–1780 BC). In Chinese,

hemp is known as ta-ma, great fibre. It eventually clothed the Chinese

people from head to foot, although the Chinese knew of its other

properties from the first century BC, and, much later, the Taoists used

cannabis as a hallucinogen with other ingredients in incense burners.

The plant grows wild in the hills and mountains of northern India, Asia,

Africa and even parts of Europe. In the fifth century BC, Herodotus wrote

that it grew in Thracia (Scythia) [MODERN DAY?], where it was thrown

on red-hot rocks and the fumes inhaled.

As an intoxicant, cannabis has been most widely used in India and the

Middle East. The Indian ancient text the Artharva-Veda mentions

cannabis as a herb that will ‘release us from anxiety’ and to the present

day, cannabis is used by Hindu devotees in India as a part of religious

ritual, and is the drug of choice in Egypt and North Africa.

But cannabis has many other useful applications. In the second century

AD, the Chinese surgeon Hua To developed an anaesthetic using

cannabis and wine, which he called ma yo, to perform painless

surgery.By the late tenth century, Venice had become the first European

country to industrialise hemp for the production of fine cloth for

garments, sails and rope. By the middle of the fourteenth century, Britain

was a major producer of hemp, and the rise of the British navy depended

to some extent on the their production of hemp cloth for sails and ropes.

In 1533, Henry VIII issued a law requiring British farmers to grow hemp;

indeed, there were penalties for not growing it. The colonisation of India

and America was seen as an opportunities to grow even more hemp; in

fact the British first went to India in order to plant hemp.

Hemp had a real advantage over cotton as a fibre: its strands were longer

and stronger. But in 1793, with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli

Whitney, cotton suddenly became much cheaper to process than hemp.

Cheap American cotton killed Britain’s hemp industry, and devastated

India’s economy. The switch to cotton began, and cotton has reigned ever



But the final death knell for hemp sounded in America in 1937. For seven

years, Harry J Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,

had demonised marijuana as the ‘killer weed’, a campaign that

culminated in the production of the cult classic film Reefer Madness.

Finally, after resisting his efforts for those seven years, US Treasury

passed the Marijuana Tax Act and President Roosevelt signed it, neither

knowing they were killing the hemp industry.

Before the Tax Act, hemp seeds and oil were used as lubricants and in

paints and varnishes – after the Act, they were replaced by

petrochemicals. And in that same year, 1937, Mechanical Engineering

magazine proclaimed hemp as a miracle crop, pronouncing it the

strongest of the vegetable fibres, giving the greatest production per acre,

requiring less attention and not only not needing the use of herbicides, but

acting as a herbicide itself. It is a crop, the magazine told its readers, that

leaves the soil in splendid condition. In the same year, Popular

Mechanics hailed hemp as ‘the billion dollar crop’, yielding three to six

tonnes an acre, and told its readers that paper could be produced from

hemp fibre without using sulphuric acid or dioxins, because the plant

could be broken down simply with caustic soda. Hemp paper could be

used everywhere that paper is used today, with much less cost to the


The reason for this praise being heaped upon hemp at the time was,

ironically, the beginning of the widespread use of a method for cleaning

hemp, the decorticator, which made it as cheap to produce as cotton.

The industrial use of hemp is slowly making a comeback. In 1995,

Canada began allowing the growing of hemp under license. For this kind

of hemp, plants grow to about 9 metres (30 feet) high, at which point

there is hardly any of the psychoactive component of cannabis

(tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) present, and a maximum of fibre and

cellulose. We can only hope that there is a return to sanity in society’s

attitude to this plant, surely one of the most useful on the planet.

As for its psychotropic powers, let us end this story of cannabis with a

quotation from Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire:

Christianity and capitalism are both probably right to detest a plant

like cannabis. Both faiths bid us to set our sights on the future; both

reject the pleasures of the moment and the senses in favour of the

expectation of a fulfilment yet to come—whether by earning

salvation or by getting and spending. More even than most plant

drugs, cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering

something like fulfilment here and now, short-circuits the

metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so

much else in our civilization) depend.


A taste of tomorrow’s meal

I’ve hesitated before posting this response to MadSyd, called, by one prominent journalist ‘Hillsong for foodies.’Funny metaphor, but it was a lot more than that.

At its best it was thought-provoking, at its worst, demeaning and, as I tweeted, banal. So many of the tweets from the house used words like ‘passionate’ and ‘inspiring’

I will attempt to not use them. One of the tweeted statements gives the flavour: “Tomorrow’s meal has to get rid of the divide between the rich and the poor.” Profound. There was a much like this. But in the light of David Chang’s exhortation to ‘call out the bullshit’ that’s what I intend to do.

The theme, which was often lost, was Tomorrow’s Meal. And a galaxy of chefs had been assembled by the Mad organisers Rene Redzepi,rene-redzepi the mastermind behind Mad; David Chang of Momofuku; Kylie Kwong of Billy Kwong; Massimo Bottura of the Osteria Francescana in Modena; with cameo appearances from Neil Perry, Rockpool et al; and Clayton Donovan, a chef without a restaurant at the moment.

Then there were non-chefs: food activist Chodo Givera, researcher Rebecca Huntley and native foods producer Gayle Quarmby.

After a too brief appearance by Clayton Donovan (he later told me he was supposed to have been joined Jock Zonfrillo of Orana in Adelaide), the first extended discussion was between Chang and Redzedi, chaired by Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Pat Nourse.

So I’ll throw the blame for what was little more than an idle chat – but for one throwaway remark – between the two celebrity chefs at Mr Nourse who had, quite obviously, prepared nothing. And the nothing discussion reflected that.

Except that, at the very end, Chang, who up until then had looked like he’d rather be at the dentist said something that, although not defensible (or even sensible) electrified the room, and came back later. Deliciousness, he said, would be impacted upon by sustainability.David-Chang

But overall, it was a piss weak performance. My heart sank. Was that going to be what the afternoon would be like? Thankfully, no.

Next up a wonderfully assured Kylie Kwong, who wove a tale of her Chinese ancestry, cooking, her conversion to the incorporation of native produce into her cuisine. She introduced us to the remarkable Gayle Quarmby, one half, with her husband Mike, of Outback Pride, whose fresh produce is being used in restaurants around the country.

Tomorrow’s Meal? Well, I guess the incorporation of the ancient foods of Australia into the ancient but modernised cuisine of China is a glimpse into a possible future.

Kylie and Gayle were followed by a remarkable young woman, Chido Govera, from Zimbabwe. Orphaned at 10, offered for marriage at 12, she went on to become a mushroom farmer and start a support program for orphans like herself, using mushroom farming. This is a potted version of a story that was – can’t avoid it – inspiring and heart warming..

Tomorrow’s Meal? Food being used to not only alleviate immediate hunger but provide a way out of poverty and enslavement. A variation on give a hungry person a fishing line, only with mushrooms. An important and relevant sidelight of Chido’s story is that the mushrooms are grown using waste.Chido

Continuing down the serious path, was social researcher and author Rebecca Huntley (and thanks for the ticket Rebecca) whose talk touched on the loneliness of aged care homes, and the importance of government policy in putting the future of food at the centre of policy making. Excellent idea, but what hope? For years I and others have fought to keep Sydney farms from falling to real estate development. And every year, governments of all stripes mouth platitudes about the value of Sydney agricultural land and roll out more concrete, more asphalt and more McMansions.

I guess one of the problems of these foodfests for me in particular is that I have been around for so long and have heard these arguments trotted out by ‘passionate’ people so often… and nothing changes. Am I an old cynic or an old realist?

Actually that nothing changes is not quite true. The attitude to native foods looks like it is changing, at last. Or as opposed to an old cynic, am I an old naïf?

I confess to knowing nothing of Massimo Bottura, and if that damns me in the eyes of serious foodies, stiff shit. But I did like what I saw. Bottura is, as you know and I didn’t, Italy’s molecular gastronomer for which he was reviled on television to the point where he couldn’t walk his dog. Whether as an act of retribution or charity, he set up the Refettorio Ambrosiano, which is, as explained on line:

‘Back in 2014 chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, Modena had the idea to contribute to Milan’s Universal Exposition (Expo 2015) with a project that addressed the dual issue of food wastage and hunger in our cities. His concept was to re-interpret the iconic church refectory, where monks once gathered for their meals, and turn it into a dining hall for the city’s neediest but cooking with ingredients from the edible waste generated by Expo.’

This site gives much background:

Bottura also set up a foundation, Food for Soul (, a non-profit organization to promote social awareness about food wastage and hunger through a range of projects in collaboration with chefs, artisans, food suppliers, artists, designers and institutions. The more I learn about this chef and his work the more I am ashamed that he passed me by for so long. My excuse only that for that is for 5 years I have been buried in my thesis then my latest book.

Bottura was a mixture of extravagant self-promotion, brilliant creativity for the good of mankind and an exceptional intellect. Having saved an entire spoiled batch of parmesan with a single recipe he asked ‘can a recipe be a social gesture?’ Of course it can. Another of his dicta is ‘cooking is a call to act’ which he uses to gather volunteers for his Refettorio project. Bottura borrowed the title of a book about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s only book Tractatus, entitled  Wittgenstein: Ethics and Aesthetics by B. R. Tilghman) which discusses Wittgenstein’s argument  (I haven’t read it this is a crib)  that only through aesthetics and art can what is truly important in human life be shown. This strikes me as both thought provoking and essentially Italian, the land of the bella figura where aesthetics are so very important.

If only Wittgenstein had been Italian.Massimo1

Tomorrow’s meal? In his war on waste alone and his Refettorio Ambrosiano which created a space which feeds the body and enriches the soul, both by the aesthetics of the site and the generosity of the offering is, even for this old cynic, a wonderful example of what tomorrow’s meal may be like, in a society not divided by 1 per cent filthy rich and 99 per cent struggling.

As you can see I was impressed by Signor Bottura. And also, at the panel discussion at the end by the moderation of Jenny Brockie who had studied the topic and had prepared and thus lead a dialogue which touched on the topics of the day and rounded it off superbly. A real journalist.

Bottura’s “We need more chefs who know about soil and more farmers who know about food” was one important statement from this segment as were the discussions about education, the value of cooking and finally, back to sustainability will be the death of deliciousness. When asked to expand on this, the best Chang could do was offer another little dictum along the lines of hydroponics makes great marijuana but bad food, and talk about the lack of good soil for farming.

Now there’s one chef that needs to get his hands dirty. Just as waste can be used to make good food, as Bottura and Govera both demonstrated, so too can it be used to make good soil. Ever heard of compost David?

I’m posting this some weeks after attending MadSyd. Trying to make sense of the hodge podge of brilliance, mediocrity, courage, silliness, insight and wishful thinking.

And I find I have to look for the meaning of Tomorrow’s Meal through the prism of that elusive, perhaps even mythical bunyip, Australian cuisine.

After all, it was founder René Redzepi’s musing on what was lacking in that cuisine in 2010, and he was specifically talking about native ingredients – ‘…it’s a poor culture if it doesn’t have a true, unique expression that can only be represented right there at the place’ – that led him to return and to open his pop-up Noma and to end his sojourn with MadSyd.

And it was David Chang who said, during that last panel, that Australia could and should be, because of its immigration, one of the greatest food cultures in the world. He also said, and I’m paraphrasing here, if he was an Australian chef, in a country where there was no immediately recognisable cuisine – no distinctly Australian dishes – he would miss having something to rebel against, to play with.

This reminds me of a chef whose food I ate in Spain, one of the disciples of Ferran Adrià, Jose Antonio Campoviejo. The dishes he de-constructs, overturns and has fun with are all dishes he learnt to cook in his mother’s Meal, dishes from the repertoire of Spanish cuisine. When asked why he cooks the way he does, he told me “my mother is such a good cook, I couldn’t possibly compete with her.”

Australian chefs don’t so much play with their mother’s dishes as the dishes of those who came here from afar.

So, we ask, what will this food of Australia be tomorrow when we finally learn to add the food native to the land to the rest of what we use?

In Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie writes of his book, Satanic Verses that it:

It is a love-song to our mongrel selves…Perhaps we are all, black, brown and white, leaking into one another, as a character of mine once said, like flavours when you cook [my emphasis].

This is a fine definition of what the best Australian chefs are doing. Australian food is, as Rushdie writes of his book, ‘a love-song to our mongrel selves’: flavours, ingredients and origins leaking into one another.

Looked at in that way, the best exponent of tomorrow’s meal at MadSyd, in Australia at least, was Kylie Kwong.