State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 83 May 2009


Peter Pierce
Sunshine and Shambles:
the Peter Mathers Papers

On 13 April 1967, Peter Mathers, who had been living and working in London since 1964, received the following telegram from Sydney: ‘Will be announcing next Tuesday your novel wins one thousand dollars Miles Franklin Literary Award Stop Official presentation to author or nominee required Stop Please cable name of nominee Stop’. The novel was Trap, which had been published by Cassell Australia in 1966. Its gestation, in common with the other novel, numerous stories and plays that Mathers completed, along with so much more material that remained unfinished, had been protracted and difficult. In the rich depository of the Peter Mathers Papers in the State Library of Victoria,1 the author's literary and personal labours are extensively and disarmingly displayed.
There is, for instance, a supposed publisher's reader's report on Trap, evidently from an acquaintance of Mathers (‘I know the author does not consider this manuscript as finished’), who judges that this book is ‘not adapted to being read on trains’. Successive exuberant paragraphs begin with caveats: ‘Yet the book is not just a kitchen-sink Riders in the Chariot’; ‘yet the book is madly unpublishable’; ‘yet something must come of this book, somehow and sometime’. In the spirit of Walt Whitman's anonymous reviews of his own volume of verse, Leaves of Grass, these comments might be Mathers's reflections on the current state of play with Trap. Indeed their hectic brio makes it most likely that they are, hence constituting one of the best jokes to be embedded within this archive.
Meanwhile, and in spite of hesitations and revisions, the novel was completed. This was not enough to reassure Mathers that he could support his wife and two daughters in Britain as a full-time writer. Among the many intriguing items in his papers is a letter to Mathers dated 1 January 1965 from R. F. L. Bancroft, Superintendent of the Reading Room of the British Museum, in response to an inquiry about the possibility of work there as a researcher. Bancroft ended with questions that are both searching, and in other ways besides the point: ‘Have you a university degree? Do you type? Have you done any professional research work before? Have you any other qualifications?’ In October 1966, Mathers was half-heartedly pursuing another institutional option. He approached the Home Office concerning the chances of a career in the British Prison Service. Unlikely as each application appears, one feels that Mathers had the talent for either position, as well as the anarchic bent which surely would have disrupted each work place.
The Miles Franklin Award in the next year brought urgently needed cash and critical recognition. In January 1968, the publisher Robert Sessions sent Mathers a review of Thomas Keneally's novel Bring Larks and Heroes (published in 1967, also by Cassell, it would win the Miles Franklin in 1968, the year after Trap). Sessions commented that
‘Keneally and Mathers are being flaunted in the same breath by some (although they are in fact very different)’. How different their subsequent careers would show. Keneally is still publishing fiction and history forty years later. Mathers (who died in 2004) would produce only one more novel, The Wort Papers (1972) and a collection of short stories, the drolly titled A Change for the Better (1984). While Mathers was as prolific as ever, his life became a series of desperate measures to find occasional employment, or patronage, until finally his circumstances were relieved somewhat by his being made an Emeritus Fellow of the Literature Board of the Australia Council.
Late in 1967, Mathers took up an offer to be an adviser to students in the Department of Speech and Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh. There being insufficient money to support them in the States, Mathers's family went back to Melbourne. He followed them at the end of 1968. Part of his job had been to finish a play of his own, but whether that was ever managed is unclear. After his return to Australia, Mathers was much occupied with ultimately fruitless efforts to make a film of Trap. He sought literary grants persistently. In an undated letter to Michael Costigan, Acting Secretary of the Literature Board, Mathers wrote eloquently that ‘the seeking of patronage is an ancient tradition. I am part of this tradition of enmity, decency, rage, work, sloth, pride and abasement’. In 1972 he made a scrappy but poignant application for a Literature Board grant for 1973–6, mentioning ‘a novel I've worked at ten years. There is a novel “Fish” and one “Flies”. I work a lot: too much perhaps’. But as a letter from Geoffrey Blainey, Chair of the Literature Board, confirmed on 24 July 1973, Mathers secured the three-year grant. No further novel would come of it.
By now he was in his early forties, having been born at Fulham in London on 16 July 1931. As he averred in a statutory declaration on 2 May 2000, Mathers was ‘conceived in Sydney or at sea’. His resilience let him – though hardly without pain – press on through the 1970s, which was perhaps his most frustrating decade. In February 1971 he was divorced. In May 1973 he was evicted from his flat at 4/320 Rathdowne Street in Carlton for nonpayment of rent. October 1974 found him blowing 0.11 when breathalysed at Paddington in Sydney. Writers-in-residencies sustained Mathers for some of this time. Most surprising of them was at the Allen iron foundry in Melbourne's western suburbs. There was a stint at La Trobe University in 1979 which he found more congenial than that at the University of Melbourne in the previous year. At the end of that stay (for part of which Mathers lived in his borrowed office in the John Medley Building) came the cruellest cut, the kind of misfortune to which he had often subjected his redoubtable anti-heroes, Jack Trap and Percy Wort. This was a letter of 31 October 1978 that made an impossible demand: a request for a cheque for $1318.43, the amount that Mathers had allegedly been overpaid during his time at the university.
A brighter note of that year was the appearance of a paperback edition of Trap. As usual this had not been a simple process. Penguin had agreed to a reprint in 1976, but John Hooker the publisher (and novelist) reneged in a letter of 27 June 1977. Fortunately for Mathers, Bob Sessions – who had seen Trap through its proof stages at Cassells twelve years

Peter Mathers taken by Graeme Johanson, November 1982 and reproduced in John Arnold, ed., The Imagined City: Melbourne in the mind of its writers (1983), p. 108. Print supplied courtesy of Graeme Johanson.

before – had now moved to Thomas Nelson, which published the novel under its imprint, Sphere Books. The front cover carried a strangely contorted encomium from Patrick White: ‘I found Trap very funny, often beautiful, original and always unavoidable’.
Now out of print for nearly thirty years, Trap continues to attract discriminating critical attention, being praised chiefly for its satire and for its formal experiment. Yet each of these emphases needs further examination. For Delys Bird, writing on ‘Contemporary fiction’ in The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, Trap was ‘a brilliant satire on racism’ and a novel preoccupied ‘with the complacencies of middle-class Australian society’.2 In her chapter ‘Fiction: Innovation and Ideology’ in The Oxford Literary History of Australia, Susan Lever grouped Trap with David Ireland's The Chantic Bird (1968) as ‘one of the signpost novels for a changing mood’. Elaborating, she stressed the connection between the similar satirical targets of the authors and their methods of narration: ‘Both novels attacked the complacent orderliness of Australian suburban life, using unreliable narrators to observe their anti-authoritarian central figures’.3
In the case of Trap, the story is allegedly compiled from ‘Pages from David David's last diary’. An ingenuous public servant, David is under the thrall both of the anarchic Trap (part-Aboriginal, part-Irish, part-Tierra del Fuegan, part-Australian gentry) and of the circle of capitalists centred on Mrs Nathan, who wishes to harness and subdue Trap, turn him to her own ends as no-one has successfully done before. David pieces together Trap's story from the testaments of those who have known him, from rumours, from the man's own revelations. Thus the story of the nominal main character emerges through the efforts of a narrator who is increasingly immersed in the life that he is reconstructing. This was the method of Robert Penn Warren's fictionalised tale of corrupt 1930s Louisiana governor Huey Long in All the King's Men (1946). Closer to home, this was also how David Meredith told the story of My Brother Jack (1964) in the novel of that name. As has been remarked, accidentally or otherwise, Mathers gives us another story of David and Jack.
This is also, in Laurence Sterne's famous remark on his own novel, Tristram Shandy (1759–67), a tale of cock-and-bull, full of diversions and misdirections, confusions and contradictions. We can think with profit – as perhaps Mathers did – not only of Sterne (and locally, the Xavier Herbert of Capricornia, 1938), but of the original meaning of satire and its relation to how Mathers tells the story. As The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature has it: ‘Satire, in Latin satura, probably equivalent to satura lanx, a dish of mixed ingredients, a medley or farrago, of which the variety might lie in the subjects chosen or in the form (dialogue, fable, anecdote, precept, verse of various metres, combination of verse and prose), or in both’. Trap vibrantly embraces such a ‘medley or farrago’.4
Its satirical targets are bluntly identified. Racism colours the shocking vignette of the deaths of Trap's two uncles, by virtue of their piety, rather than the crimes ascribed to them and attributed to their colour. The telling of this episode is the more affecting because it is seemingly offhand. Middle-class pretensions are an easier, and milder mark. While Mrs
Nathan condescends to Ray Lawler's Summer of the Sevententh Doll ‘with all its colourful slum characters’, she wonders where are ‘the plays of Toorak and the other better-type suburbs?’ (p. 61). In a novel so imbued with politics (which is more exactly to say political manipulation and corruption), Mathers makes rough use of Eb Cruxtwist, sexual predator in a shoe factory, but at large a keen subscriber to the ideals of B. A. Santamaria's Catholic Rural Movement: a family dream of ‘two acre blocks, each with a cow or goat, a grape vine, hop trellis, apple trees, vegetables, and a library of clean books’ (p. 32).
Trap is often regarded with fascinated horror as an anti-social renegade, imprisoned for numerous depredations, notably as a serial killer of gaolers’ dogs and for his part in the decapitation of a murderer. He was involved in the hanging incidentally, as a ‘contracting scaffoldwright’ (p. 66). Yet Trap's politics is equivocal. His father, Wilson, a former member of the International Workers of the World, wants his son ‘to approach, either with stealth or wild abandon, all unpleasant things to seek their reformation or destruction’ (p. 242). However, Jack ‘yearned for assimilation’ (p. 42). He is the provoked rather than the provocateur. His influence on others – notably in the transformation of David David – is potent, but essentially passive, a matter of stories told, poses struck, rather than the methodical defiance of the state. Trap remains, in a curious way, a ghost in the novel in which he is the main character – feared, admired, often sighted (and slighted), subject of wild surmise – but in truth as unknown to us as he is to his biographer. In terms of his politics (and in his emotional affinities to one of the foremost Australian ways of responding to life) Jack Trap is a nihilist. Perhaps it is his own legend in which he least believes.
Six years after the appearance of Trap, Cassell published The Wort Papers, another treatment of the antagonistic dependence of two men, in this case the brothers Thomas and Percy Wort. Respectable Thomas is the director of Mediums Limited, ‘a not unimportant company in the media’ (p. 2), owner of newspapers, theatres, radio stations, part of a television channel and –‘as a gesture to our cultural heritage’ (p. 2) – an occasional publisher of fiction. When the novel begins (though some time after many of its events), Mediums Limited is about to become an associate of Mountain & Molesworth Ltd, ‘the brightest star in the mining firmament’ (p. 3). Accordingly, but only after undertaking company-ordained adventures in Afghanistan, Patagonia (land of one of Trap's ancestors) and Cambridge, where he makes love to a naturalist ‘in fen and ditch’ (p. 4), Thomas is despatched on a tour of the M & M mines in Western Australia.
What follows is a thriller-that-might-have-been which is compressed into six pages. Thai General Wu, to whose country much of the M & M ore is exported, is in Australia to preside over the opening of a new loading jetty. While ‘Asiomen, bodyguards, flunkeys, directors and a mixed sprawl of celebrities bled down the gutter’ (pp. 9–10), Thomas saves the general from assassination by an Aboriginal skin-diver, protesting against the desecration of his people's lands, the barb of whose spear gun is ‘a piece of bone set with shark's teeth’ (p. 9). It is at this time, while being feted by the press for a brief season, that Thomas Wort's real troubles begin. He is assailed by the phone calls, memoes, manuscripts,
threats and imploring of ‘an unknown, racked writer, Matters’ (p. 10). Finally a telegram warns of the imminent delivery of the Wort papers, the Worteriana of his scapegrace brother Percy, for so long an embarrassment to the conventional and ambitious Thomas.
Mathers does not have fun at length with his self-portrait as Matters, but does depict something like the author's working environment: ‘My rooms lined with words, filled with them. In books, bundles and folders’ (p. 17). Soon enough we have begun to follow the mishaps of the Wort forebears in this country, first those of William Wort, English-born father of Thomas and Percy, and his wife Mary, who is afflicted ‘by shingles and despair’ (p. 26). Numerous narratives of pioneering days are comically enlisted, for instance when a vengeful swagman burns down the McKenzie-Dart property where the Worts live and work. (A similar action, in the 1890s, was the genesis of Banjo Paterson's ‘Waltzing Matilda’).
Restless William Wort is lured by the promise of the Australian outback and goes so far as to seek work on a cattle station in the Kimberley. In Broome, before heading inland, he finds himself among ‘luggers, diving suits, Japanese, Koepangers, Malays, Chinese, Binghis, Manxmen, Scots, Tasmanians, Texans, Englishmen, Bretons, Capetowners, and so many others he thought he was being sent up’ (p. 57). Emerson exclaimed of Whitman's poetry, with admiration and a touch of ambivalence, ‘here are the nation's inventories’. That is something of what Mathers's fiction presents for us as he ranges deep and wide across the history and landscape of Australia. His descriptive technique here, like Whitman's, is parataxis, that is, the practice of a literary democracy in which there is no hierarchy, no established order in the names of the things that are being presented to us.
Arrived at Orebul Downs station, William is shown the wreckage of a Dornier-Wright Roc aeroplane, the Kleine Nachtmusik, which had been flown by ‘famous goodwill mapping aviators with two cases of hock, Wagner albums, Goethe in vellum, Protocols and illuminated Fuhrer-endorsed messages of friendship’ (p. 73). Here the comedy is ventilated through the rude juxtaposition that parataxis enables. And to speak of ventilation, and of the verbal resources of Mathers that are richer in this novel, perhaps, than in Trap, is this rhapsody for farts: ‘gloom-shattering, metal-ringing, face and mind shattering … or, better still, one of great lightness and inflammability, a bowelly helium, not toxic but musky music-making, bells, miniature harps, a lone violin’. (p. 114). In this joyously vulgar register, Mathers is closest to his friend, supporter and contemporary, the playwright Jack Hibberd, analyst of solitariness and celebrity.
The Wort Papers is expansive in its embrace of so many regions of Australia, generous, hyperbolic too, in that mode which the poet Les Murray (whose career began at around the same time as Mathers), defined as ‘sprawl’. The Worts actually settle near Murray's spirit country by the north-east coast of New South Wales, in the mountain hamlet of Uppersass. This is a region ‘laved by fringes of monsoon, frost-free, not far from the sea, where share-farmers quickly became owner-farmers, where roads were sealed, passion fruit grew wild, pineapples grew in forty-fours, maize had to be ring-barked and the Country Party ruled’ (p. 150). A long, originally rural tradition of yarn-spinning informs this writing as well, a
tradition necessarily too fond of what it describes to be rancorous, or satirical.
Percy Wort reflects on his way of telling stories. They are ‘caves of recollection joined with one another by passages sometimes long and narrow’ (p. 105). If caves are literally his preferred place of refuge, Percy's life is nevertheless a peripatetic one, a recurrent set of escape acts from work and family life – ‘I have gone away so many times’ (p. 200). His instinct is not for rebellion but for sanctuary. That, of course, always eludes him. Mathers lets us know much more of Percy that of Trap. The former has the knack of involving himself and bystanders in public, slapstick routines; the latter is a screen upon which the anxieties of others are projected. Percy, moreover, is given a wider poetic licence than Trap, as in this description of crossing the Hawkesbury River in a squall on a motor bike that he had bought in a Sydney pub after winning a lottery: ‘I went onto the wrong side, where the whistling and groaning girders, the rain squirting over the goggles and hammering on jacket and oilskin cap, the shapeless spectres of boats and boatshed lights on water, oil on the road gulping colour as though to swallow, made me thoughtlessly toe the brake pedal…’ (p. 219).
It is Percy's fate to die like so many of the wandering lost of colonial Australia, perishing alone in the bush. Tending his memory and literary legacy, Matters is also solicitously on hand at the end and ‘burned what the crows left’ (p. 282) of Percy. He has the last words in the novel, crisply reassuring Thomas Wort ‘Have disposed of the estate, sunk the boat, loaded up animals and pissed into the wind. We move on’ (p. 282). As Mathers moved on, for three decades more of striving and sociability, seeing plays performed and short stories published and maybe having said as much as he needed to in the longer form of fiction. For those who seek them out, he left two remarkable and enduring novels, Trap and The Wort Papers. In them, the savage and unmerited misfortunes that befall his characters are mitigated by the gentleness of disposition, the quietism, that was supremely within their author's dispensation.


MS 13604. The collection consists of some 20 manuscript boxes and complements an early acquisition (MS Box 2029–2030) by the State Library of manuscript drafts plus related material for both Trap and The Wort Papers.


Delys Bird, ‘Contemporary Fiction’ in Elizabeth Webby, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 189.


Susan Lever, ‘Fiction: Innovation and Ideology’ in Bruce Bennett and Jennifer Strauss, eds., The Oxford Literary History of Australia, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 313.


Paul Harvey, (ed), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937, p. 382.