“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





24 October 2013


Some picnics end more peacefully than others ... the author slumbers amidst the mangroves, sharks, saltwater crocodiles, giant tropical lice and snakes on Dum In Mirri Island in the Beagle Gulf estuary on the Timor Sea, south-west of Darwin, Northern Territory, about 1990. You can actually smell Charles Darwin on the breeze in hopeful moments. When I asked host Max Baumber how he managed to grow palms there - they are not native - he said he had a special fertiliser.  "There's a dead croc under each one," he said. We found a shovel, chose a tree at random, dug around it, and sure enough, there was your croc. That's The Spectator in my pocket.  I wouldn't be carrying it now. 

 Time to hit the sylvan glades
Liberate the kids and the dog
And dodge them black snakes

We had a picnic yesterday.  Or least some of us intended to have a picnic.  Being the country uncle, I  provided the target location. The city folk had packed, you know, the stuff of a modern picnic: felafel, smoked salmon, crusty bread, prosciutto ... food from about six countries, and beer from two.  As country host, the writer offered bread after the Turkish style, olives from Coriole, which is a few hills over there, and wines from right here: one Roussanne; one Grenache.

The visitors had brought their dog.  Everything looked pretty good.  But their suggestion that we find a sylvan glade by a babbling brook triggered something surprising from me.  I found my throat issuing a disclaimer.  The air is so full of abrasive dusts and pollens, I suggested, that I should be rather more comfortable staying close to the home, the huffer and the medicine chest.  

The creeks and vineyards are crawling with Red-bellied black snakes, I explained, which is, as far as a snake goes, a reasonably well-tempered bastard with a venom less lethal than some, but they're everywhere, and there are lambs in several creekline paddocks, which will be as tempting to the power-freak city dog as that horde of vipers.  And besides, if we sit here beneath the patio we shall have access to the coffee pot, the water closet and real plates and cutlery, and look: there's a lawn with a few shady spots right there.

So we went outside, sat at a table beneath a roof, and had lunch in a rather civilised way.
Nobody overindulged, and there were no incidents worth mention other than the city dog's strenuous efforts to keep visitors from leaving the tasting and sales cellar of the winery next door. (Bloody dogs all want to be in the next Cellar Door Dog Porn edition.)

Which reminded me of the picnics of my youth.  Without alcohol, they were, invariably, more danger-fraught than anything I had to offer yesterday.  

Our 'fifties or 'sixties repast was rarely more complex than a tartan Willow cooler jammed with fritz, vienna slice bread, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, tomato sauce, salt, Coon cheese, a Thermos of hot white tea and a one-gallon Hibitane udder wash bottle full of raspberry cordial.  They came in handy, those udder wash bottles.  Quite reasonably, they were what the White family milk came in. 

Edouard Manet : Le dejeuner sur l'herbe

When I recall those teetotal affairs, I am grimly reminded of the casualty rate of our good Christian picnics.  We always took some collateral.  Whether it was Unca Don poking his head up out of the river, to get clocked by a skimming rock somebody'd thrown, or Reggie Davis coming up out of the murky water just as somebody leapt in from the high board, breaking Reggie's neck, we were effective at wreaking havoc at water picnics.  I shall never forget the sound of that neck impact.  Sort of makes you balk on your fritz and sauce sanger.  If it involved a beach, a White family picnic always included sunburn of a deadly degree; if we went inland, it seemed even more fraught.

We once went right out to Rockleigh for a five-family picnic by a creek which was dry when we got there, an unforseen condition which assisted the parents in their failure to realise that they'd left son number four of the six at home, where the poor paranoid panicking four year old exorcised his rage demolishing every single one of my Mother's potplants before we got back to rescue the poor little bugger.  

The wrecked Hoya seemed to bring Mum the most grief. Short, that was, of the destruction of her dying Father's collection of Maiden hair ferns, which she'd brought all the way over from Melbourne in the Peugeot 403 station wagon with six kids and two adults; pram wheels tied to the roof.  To much shrieking on the occasion of sharp turns or sudden braking the terra cotta pots slid well on the corrugated steel floor in the back of that wagon and being summer the hair ferns drank all the cool water in the Hibitane udder wash bottle leaving us kids to settle for the raggy contents of  the canvas waterbag hanging off the front bumper.  We hated those Maiden hair ferns.

Lowell George by Neon Park
Which leads to the sort of impromptu picnics of the seventies, which were more along the lines of a log of mettwurst, a bottle of Jack or Jim and another of Seaview Shiraz, and maybe even an example of that new bread thing, the French stick.  Most of the physical damage came via falling off the motorbikes on the way home or from eating the wrong mushrooms in the sylvan glade or both.

Then came the more pretentious age of the wicker picnic hamper, the Opinel knife, and the sorts of prosciutto and whatnot we spread across the safe table yesterday.  By the late seventies/early eighties the G&T, even the Campari and Ricard seemed to have become standard hamper items, and there were many fewer casualties.  I knew the age of the deadly picnic had gone when I attended one at which wine was served from a decanter.

A rather more genteel affair: picnic neath the red gums at Anglesey Estate , Adelaide Plains, mid 'eighties.  Proprietors Lea and Jack Minnett, Thelma and Max Schubert, David Porter and Lindsay Stanley ... photo Philip White

I'm sure there are brains greater than these ready to write a PhD on the negative influence of the higher-alcohol reds of the nineties on the picnics of those days, which would leave mine content to ponder the marvels of a crunchy modern bone-dry rosé, or a sensual marvel like yesterday's Roussanne.  A baguette, plenty of Paris Creek butter, some watercress and a bottle of something more fun than fortitude.

Before the summer blitzes in - it's beginning to feel like it may be a blitz - and while there's still some green about the hills and vales, why not reclaim some past and some pleasantry by packing that hamper, counting the kids (before and after) bunging some dry rosé in the icebag with some beers and dammit, even take the damn dog somewhere crazy and, well, picnic.

I have one stern suggestion.  Even if you live in the country, don't do it at home.  As my guests seemed to show yesterday, by taking a thorough cross-country walk after our safely-safely luncheon at a table under the patio, other people's Red-bellied black snakes are much more thrilling than your own.

Author as great White hunter : our family picnics were rarely complete without a visit from the odd Brown Joe Blake ... White brothers at Kanmantoo, ca '65

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