An extract from Patsy Millett’s new book details the night Miles Franklin Award-winning novelist Xavier Herbert roared up to the house for dinner

Best known for her history of the Durack family, Kings in Grass Castles, Dame Mary Durack Miller was a friend and confidante to many celebrated writers, actors and artists, and an active and much leaned-upon president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. Drawing on a great accumulation of firsthand sources, principally her mother’s diaries and correspondence, Patsy Millett’s Inseparable Elements provides an intimate portrait of an extraordinary writer and the claims made upon her by the Australian literary milieu. This extract describes Dame Mary’s somewhat thwarted attempt to create a good impression when entertaining the writer Xavier Herbert.

This incubus of other people’s manuscripts becomes a sort of torture I seem unable to escape. On account of frequent interruptions much of the heart I had for the job has been lost – just as the monks I am writing about lost heart in theirs. It would be much easier if I knew this story to be of general interest and that it was worth the time and neglect of other things.

Mary Durack Miller

The return from abroad of the censorious eye and caustic tongue of her eldest daughter only compounded her problems. There on her desk for me to see, amended pages of Wild Cat Falling, The Beckoning West and ‘Miracles Are Everywhere’ swamping the first draft of The Rock and the Sand. At least, I noticed, Eleanor Page Smith paid for the rewrite of her manuscript by giving her benefactress soothing facials, with applications of aromatic poultices: her skin had never looked better. And under the desk lurked something that looked suspiciously like a hot potato legacy to the Fellowship of Australian writers in the form of a tattered autobiography by the late Mollie Skinner. So deeply bogged had my mother become that there was nothing for it but to call off her expected appearance at the Adelaide Festival and accept John Joseph Jones’s offer to attend in her place. Her hopes of making good use of the time were optimistic.

Inspired by his Adelaide success, Xavier Herbert had decided to take up the offer of a Perth lecture tour sponsored by the Adult Education Board. His ulterior motive was to gauge reaction to his autobiographical Disturbing Element, wherein he had provocatively pronounced the capital city of Western Australia a poor place without character or interesting people, the population seemingly content to live within a system of self-imposed colonialism. But on discovering no-one had read his book and on that account no offence taken, according to the headline ‘Author Lashes at Home City’, he had contrived a row with the Adult Education director Hew Roberts and cancelled his tour. An allusion in The West Australian to his having been cold-shouldered by local writers – Herbert apparently forgetting that he had received a good audience for a talk at Tom Collins House – saw Mary hastily organising a welcoming dinner for him ‘before he leaves to spread terrible stories of inhospitable old Perth’. Roaring in on his motorbike at lunchtime for an evening invitation, he denounced the Adult Education Board for having accepted his withdrawal from the talks for which he had been invited:

No ordinary logic in his arguments, but amusing. He insisted on taking me for a ride around the block on the back of his bike – sorry no press photographers present.

Cooked food for an indefinite number. Among those who turned up – Vincent Serventy, David and June Hutchison, Mick Stow, Henrietta, Paul and Alix Hasluck, Ken Eades, David Haslehurst, Eleanor White, Ida and Bet. As the night went on, Xavier got loudly argumentative, an awkward moment being when Hew Roberts came in hoping to say a friendly goodbye. Xavier refused and called him ‘a liar’. Henrietta suggested he was not above trifling with the truth himself and he took further umbrage, declining to shake hands with her before she left.

Henrietta Drake Brockman’s proffered handshake had been charitable considering the earlier insult when Xavier had rounded on her with drunken malice and the words: ‘Get out of my way, you ugly old bag, I want to talk to the beautiful Elizabeth.’ Between the guest’s mysterious disappearances, there were some droll moments. Leaving his meal half-eaten on the table, he had conducted a protracted long-distance telephone conversation of a private nature with a girlfriend, clearly overheard by the guests. After another lengthy absence, Mick Stow had found him outside, urinating against the house wall, and in the darkness ‘he rubbished just about everyone at the party and in the country and in the world’.

The hostess wrote:

I don’t know if the night should be voted a terrible failure or a howling success, but it was certainly memorable. Xavier was discovered at one stage out the back trying to climb a tree. Patsy coaxed him into returning to the fray.

This is an edited extract from the book Inseparable Elements: Dame Mary Durack A Daughter’s Perspective by Patsy Millet.

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