The year is 2000. I’m slogging away at a Masters in Writing at UTS. I’d had two careers already, in film and television production at the ABC (an engine-room role) and as Principal of my own PR agency, but my dream had always been to become a writer. My children were grown up and living their own lives. One day towards the end of that year the phone rang and someone left a message saying they were Les Murray. Ha ha, I thought. As if Australia’s most famous living poet would be ringing me. I had sent a story titled Art and the Mermaid to the address on the Quadrant website. Imagine my disbelief and indescribable joy when I found out it wasn’t a friend playing a trick on me, but was in fact the real Les Murray, Literary Editor of Quadrant. He said he’d like to take Art and the Mermaid for Quadrant.
That phone call began an 18-year friendship and working relationship. It changed my life.
The thrill of seeing my work published regularly in Quadrant has given me credibility as a fiction writer and, more recently, as a poet. I’ve felt encouraged to continue to explore unique ways of expressing my thoughts and ideas.
Where would I be if it wasn’t for Les Murray? My writing career may never had started, or continued. To date, three books published, a fourth coming out next year – each book containing chapters that were first published in Quadrant.
Les’s inclusion of my work in the magazine has been instrumental in my development. He’s lifted my confidence, inspired me and made me proud of being a writer. Published in Quadrant was public validation and acceptance into the literary world.
We communicated about my stories and poetry through notes and postcards over all these years: I’d post him a submission and a short letter and he’d respond with either a chatty postcard to say ‘Yes’, or a note saying ‘Alas, …’
When Quadrant published my first story Art and the Mermaid in 2001, I had no idea the next 18 years would lead to 22 more stories and 4 poems published in Quadrant.
With the retirement of Les Murray as Literary Editor, it’s the poignant end of the era of Les at Quadrant. However, Les’s impact continues through the new and established writers he has fostered and who continue their careers. I am forever grateful that I was one of those writers. Congratulations. Literary Editor at Quadrant since March 1990.
Here is my story Art and the Mermaid, first published in Quadrant:
Once upon a time it came to pass, so it is said, that an enormous storm swept the coast of New South Wales, doing extensive damage to the ocean beaches – destroying jetties, breakwaters and washing away retaining walls. Mountainous seas swept Bondi Beach and dashed against the cliffs carrying ruin with every roller. At North Bondi near Ben Buckler a huge submerged block of sandstone weighing 233 tons was lifted ten feet and driven 160 feet to the edge of the cliff where it remains to this day.
One day a Sydney sculptor, Lyall Randolph, looked upon the rock and was inspired. The sculptor was a dreamer. Let us, he said, have two beautiful mermaids to grace the boulder. Using two Bondi women as models he cast the two mermaids in fibreglass and painted them in gold.
Without Council approval and at his own expense he erected The Mermaids for all to see on the giant rock that had been washed up by the sea. The Mermaids sat side by side on the rock. One shaded her eyes as she scanned the ocean and the other leant back in a relaxed fashion with an uplifted arm sweeping her hair up at the back of her neck. Their fishy tails complemented the curves and crevices of their bodies.
It so happened that less than a month after The Mermaids were put in place, one was stolen and damaged. The Council held many meetings to decide if she should be replaced using ratepayers’ money. The council had previously objected to the sculptor placing the statues there without Council permission. The sculptor had argued that before placing The Mermaids in position he had taken all necessary steps to obtain the requisite permission.
The large boulder at Ben Buckler, upon which The Mermaids were securely bolted and concreted, he said, is not in the municipality of Waverley at all. It is in the sea. According to the Australian Constitution high-tide mark is the defined limit of the Waverley Council’s domain. The Maritime Services Board and the Lands Department both advised me they had no objection to the erection of The Mermaids.
One Waverley Alderman said he wished both mermaids had been taken instead of only one. Someone else said the sculptor didn’t need the Council’s permission to put them there in the first place and the The Mermaids had given Bondi a great attraction without any cost to the Council. The sculptor said The Mermaids had brought great publicity to the Council. They had been featured in films, newspapers, television and the National Geographic magazine.
The Mayor used his casting vote in favour of the mermaid and she was re-installed.
For over ten years the two beautiful golden mermaids reclined at Ben Buckler, attracting many thousands of sightseers to the beach.
Poised on the huge boulder they braved the driving storms of winter until one day one was washed off. The Council saw its opportunity and removed the other.
Today, only the remnants of one mermaid remain – but not on the rock. In a glass cabinet in Waverley Library at Bondi Junction all that is left of the two beautiful mermaids is a figure with half a face. There’s a hole instead of a cheek, a dismembered torso, part of an uplifted arm, the tender groove of an armpit. And there, down below, a complete fish’s tail.
Copyright © 2018 Libby Sommer
Header image: Creative Commons