A short festival on Spain



This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”


Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.


Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.


But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.





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.