A REVIEW BY COLIN TALBOT
IN THE VALLEY OF THE WEED by MICHAEL WILDING, (ARCADIA)
Michael Wilding is/was/is a Sydney University academic, a reader in literature modern & less modern. He has written on Milton, Jack London, Christina Stead, himself, and most recently, on 19th Century Marvellous Melbourne’s Yorick Club. The name from Hamlet where in Act Whatever, Hamlet, as I recall from Form 4, High School, while stuffing around in a garden, comes across a skull – that of his former teacher Yorick.
A deceased Yorick (to spell it out, though the skull should have been a big hint). Local Literary Giants, Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon & Henry Kendall were all deviant members of Yorick Club…into the sex, drugs & rock&roll of the time – (Michael Wilding Wild Bleak Bohemia: Marcus Clarke, Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall Australian Scholarly Publishing $39.95) For this groundbreaking work, Michael received a fistful of $$$ and an award from the Fed Govt, excuse me for not recalling the details of this prestigious award but that woulds require a Wiki assault…
In The Valley of the Weed. The title reminds me of, in context, this:
Half a league half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred:
(from a poem by Tennyson ‘The Charge of The Light Brigade’, re the Crimean War) and appears to have not to do with MW’s novel. Also Psalm 22 or perhaps 23…About fearing no evil in the Valley of Death.
Well off the track of anything I fear. Anyway MW has been writing fiction and non-fiction and lit crit since he arrived on our shores (okay, that’s jingo-rude, his shores too) round 1963 with an Oxford degree in History or in something, and took up a post at Sydney University. With a little coming and going he was not necessarily to know that this was to be his life. I think his last title was Professor. In his earlier years of Balmain with the likes of Nigel Roberts, Robert Adamson, John Tranter, Vicki Viidikas and others, he became devoted to the cause of modern Australian writing and a scholar of all Australian writing, and world writing. I must admit a connection here because in there 70s I did stay at MW’s Balmain Hacienda and what a fine host he was until I made myself so unsociable as to be inevitable for many years. So it goes.
Michael spent many years writing at the edge of modern/pomo fiction, if not central in the avant garde, then in the next phalanx or unit of literary troops (this guy’s metaphors are raging outa the pen!! Hmm. Trifle overdone perhaps. Such is Life Literary figures have probably died at the stake for less, though at the minute no particular name comes to mind. Jean of Arc perhaps but she did find fame with a spear and shield, more the sword than the pen).
Then it was not so many years ago that Michael moved into his version of detective fiction. I don’t know but I presume it was with a sense of humour (or ‘humor’ as the newspapers used to write the word) that he took his talents this way and I would not call his work noir, noir-esque or even Noir-Lite. In fact, if you will, if one rotates Noir, the word Irony (okay without the ‘y’) appears and there is much irony, wit, cynical pee-pee taking and other humours, so to speak, redolent in these works of fiction.
His first (I understand) foray into modern detective fiction was in his novel ‘National Treasure’ where we met his hero (well…yes, hero or if you wish, anti-hero, or if you really wish, bloke whose exploits provide the context for the books) who is by name, Plant. Now I’ve read all the Plant novels except ‘Asian Dawn’ and I’ll be blown if I can recall whether I’ve ever encountered Plant’s given name (what we used to call 30 years ago his Christian name but now there’d be a 40% chance of the given name not being Christian-related) so the hero is Plant. The topic within the novels is usually marijuana or related to marijuana or if it’s not about marijuana, then the hero is rolling up, joint-making, dope-seeking etc etc and making the Mary Jane connection.
In ‘In the Valley of the Weed’ our hero Plant, a sort of private detective, a seeker of the truth, is tasked with locating a disappeared academic named Tim Vicars. The missing gentleman had been teaching (or as a Plant connection termed it, the teaching was unproven, he was receiving a paycheque) at a tertiary institution. (If there’s one thing —what’s the word, perhaps ‘trope’ is the vogue term – which recurs and recurs it is the rather worldly view Plant has of academia. If we are to believe Plant and his kind, these institutions are places where people draw salaries. Books are slowly (actually, quite rapidly) being withdrawn from academy libraries (in case someone wishes to access knowledge of some kind) and any other tactic is employed which might reduce the act of teaching or the wisdom-getting of students to a memory but leave the act of being well-financed for useless projects unspecified —well, I’ll leave the details for the readers’ enjoyments.
Plant is seemingly unsurprised when acquainted with how things work (or don’t work) at university. For instance his missing person was kicked out for a series of private emails (racist, sexist, anything badist) which were never published by Mr Vicars or the University, but by some online hacker shitstirring ‘journal’. Thus in this adventure Plant is destined to head North to the Valley of The Weed, as he smokes his way to insight along the journey.
If you are fully opposed to legalising marijuana, to decriminalising legislation, to alternative culture, then this wouldn’t really be the book for you. I can think of several MP’s who would have a hard time with this novel, (the big words as well as the notions) all the names I have come to mind here are, as Mungo once wrote, sitting ‘to the right of the oyster fork’ on the table of fascism. I think there are about five Plant novels and I am familiar with four of them. I may even have the 5th in the bookshelf, I had better check. I could check. I’ll roll up and think about it. That’s a joke…I think. The terms of Plant’s adventures follow the notion, that from the small, grows the large. You never know where the tendrils of a Plant novel will take you —usually to a well-stoned world.
For years and years, Michael Wilding has urged the word, particularly Australia, to leave pot smoking alone, and his books advertise this notion. Plant needs his dope.
And if supporting smoking dope can assist a writer produce about 25 novels, nearly a dozen non-fiction works and many other contributions to the literate world in this country, well why the fuck can’t people be left to consume what grows by the side of the road? Ask Plant, he might have the answer —or some of them—or, like, what was the question, man?#
Colin Talbot. (the reviewer’s own latest novel is ‘The Country Jesus (Moody Place $29.95)