Australian politics, society & culture

In the Garden

Judith Wright & Nugget Coombs

Fiona Capp

Medium length read4400 words
 

The last time I saw Judith Wright was in 1998. She was living in a small bedsit in Canberra. On a table next to her bed was a framed photograph of HC ‘Nugget' Coombs, her lover of 25 years, who had died six months before. She told me she missed him badly. For two years before his death, he had been in a nursing home in Sydney after a series of strokes left him unable to speak. Wright had visited him when she could, although travel was not easy: she was deaf and in fragile health. In a letter to a friend she wrote, "I don't think he is in physical misery but his mind is only partly with the world ... I don't often cry but it's hard to avoid; he wants to get out and last time I was there he thought we had come to take him [home]."

Cover: June 2009
June 2009
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Leigh Sales

When Coombs died he was farewelled with a state funeral. He had been an enormously influential figure in Australian political and cultural life since the 1940s, first as Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction and later as Governor of the Reserve Bank, adviser to successive federal governments, Chancellor of the Australian National University, Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs and founding head of the Australia Council for the Arts. Wright, one of Australia's greatest writers and activists, did not attend the funeral because her relationship with Coombs had never been made public. Coombs and his wife, Mary, were separated. But his loyalty to her and to his children meant that he never contemplated a divorce. According to Wright's daughter, Meredith McKinney, Wright was even more determined than Coombs to keep the relationship secret. She'd been in a similar position with her late husband, the philosopher Jack McKinney, when they first met and she still carried guilt about the pain she felt she'd caused his family.

One of the most remarkable things about this relationship is the silence that has continued to surround it, even though both were well-known and well-loved public figures. It is a measure of the respect in which they are held that their desire for privacy, even after death, has been observed. Until the release of their embargoed letters to each other this year, the relationship remained one of the best-kept open secrets in Australian literary history. Although Wright and Coombs valued their privacy, they did not believe in censorship and agreed that their letters should become available three years after they and Mary Coombs were dead.

The existing biographies are silent or evasive about the relationship. Tim Rowse's book about Coombs, A Reforming Life, mentions Wright twice, and only in passing. In Veronica Brady's biography of Wright, South of My Days, Coombs features as a close friend and ally but nothing more. When Meredith McKinney was co-editing the mammoth volume of Wright's selected letters, With Love and Fury, she observed the wishes of Coombs's children and didn't mention the relationship. She did, however, include a few letters that alluded to it. In a letter to a British friend, Wright cryptically talked of a relationship "with a man ten years older than myself. I didn't tell you of it for we have had to keep it more or less secret ... Somehow, however, we have had a great deal of happiness and seen much of each other ... Love is love, no matter what the problems, and always joyful even in the pain."

In her public writing, Wright spoke of Coombs as a valued and respected colleague. She was always careful to keep her tone detached and professional. Coombs, who was a less reserved person, did not feel quite so constrained. In his book Aboriginal Autonomy, he warmly acknowledged his fruitful 30-year partnership with Wright. "Indeed," he wrote, "it is difficult for me to identify much which was not, to a greater or lesser degree, the product of that partnership."

As the letters make plain, their passion for Aboriginal rights and the environment was inseparable from their passion for each other. This is not to downplay the physical chemistry between them. Coombs was a charming man with a mischievous smile who was very appealing to women. McKinney remembers him as "a darling person". Wright's slightly gruff, patrician manner, which masked an intense emotional life and a generous spirit, held its own appeal. Coombs found her poetry very moving and his letters to her usually began, "My lovely woman". But both were too committed to social reform to be interested in a purely romantic liaison.

Although Wright's poetry was drawn from her life, she often used personal experiences to explore broader issues: the dispossession of the Aborigines, Australia's pioneer history and our relationship with the land. She found it hard to write her memoir because she regarded autobiography as "self-indulgence". Her daughter recalls her saying that "the personal is not interesting. It's what is beyond the personal that is of importance."

Coombs's letters to Wright, meanwhile, reveal how vital it was to him, even in his late eighties and early nineties, to contribute to public debate and be socially useful. The thought of not having stimulating, purposeful work terrified him. And like Wright, he was wary of egotism. One of the criticisms made of Coombs is that he fostered a "cult of impersonality" as a bureaucrat. Rowse describes his style more neutrally as being one of "amiable impenetrability".

Mutual concern for the common good and for their private obligations ensured that they maintained appearances until the end. It's a stance that, in a culture obsessed with celebrity and self-exposure, can seem heroically quaint. Not once did they attend an official function together as a couple or publicly declare their love. In April 1975, with her sixtieth birthday looming, Wright wrote to Coombs: "Barbara Blackman wants to give me a birthday party and asks who I would want to ask. Well - but perhaps not. Only a couple of weeks, but it's a long time, my love."

Over their 25 years together, they would write thousands of letters to one another, sometimes at a rate of three a week. But the story of the relationship as told through their correspondence is inescapably dominated by Wright's voice, as only a fraction of Coombs's letters remains. And anyone expecting ardent lyricism or sensational revelations will be seriously disappointed: these have little in common with the popular notion of the ‘love letter'. For Wright, a letter was neither a literary form nor a confessional. All her pain and passion went into her verse. A letter was a tool for maintaining friendships, a means of intellectual exchange and a way of making things happen. She wrote, on average, 12 letters a day for much of her life, and her voice in these is very much like her spoken voice: matter-of-fact, practical and wry.

To read her and Coombs's letters is to be made poignantly aware of how the need for secrecy, their work and, later, their health problems kept them apart - and how much they missed each other. I found myself wishing they would just ditch their commitments and wander off into the sunset together. They did vaguely entertain the idea, but this Hollywood fantasy was never a real option for them. Of course, letters by their nature document periods of separation. Wright and Coombs also had much time together - time they savoured because they knew it was short.

*

After Wright's death, her daughter Meredith found a note Coombs had written to Wright. It is a fragment of a conversation, scribbled down because Wright could no longer hear. In it, Coombs reminded her of their first night together after a meeting they'd both attended. In 1972, Wright introduced Coombs to her daughter as the new love in her life. Wright was 57, Coombs was 66.

When I think of how they found each other at this stage of their lives, I am reminded of a poem Wright wrote ten years before, called ‘Prayer', a plea to the muse not to desert her as she aged. Its opening line addresses a more fundamental fear: "Let love not fall from me though I must grow old." In this respect, her prayer was answered.

By the time of their relationship, their public personas were set in stone: the distinguished yet down-to-earth statesman and the famous poet-cum-activist. Appropriately, for a couple dedicated to social reform, their love affair began in the year the Whitlam government came to power. As heady a time as it was, however, their new responsibilities immediately put pressure on the relationship.

The stiff formality of Wright's early letters to Coombs suggests that she was wary at first of putting her feelings to paper, and that she suspected Coombs's new responsibilities - he became Whitlam's special adviser and head of the new arts body, the Australia Council - would consume much of his time. Within a year, her tone had relaxed, although it remained deeply earnest. As Coombs struggled with the demands of his work, Wright fretted for him, fearing that he was being asked to do too much too quickly.

 

My love,

I write this in doubt and hesitation but if I am doing the wrong thing, or failing to take everything into account, I know you will forgive me. And you did ask, though perhaps not quite seriously, for advice. I write because I am worried about you ... Nobody can spread themselves as thin as at present you are having to do.

 

After urging him to delegate more, she continued:

 

All I want to say is, you are important not just as an administrator and adviser but as one of the only people the PM can look to for real wisdom ... Sort it out, my love, I beg you, for everyone's sake ... Seeing you is always a joy, but I want to be sure that this too doesn't become an area of extra strain and anxiety for you ... This is the only bit of questioning you'll be getting from me in my private capacity. We'll have to be clear that what I decide to do on the [Australia] Council has nothing to do with me-and-you, and unless you know what I think that wouldn't be easy to achieve. For the rest, my love, I love you.

Your J.

 

During these first few years, Wright was living in Queensland but commuting regularly to Canberra for meetings and inquiries. Like Coombs, she kept up an exhausting pace, flying all over the country to address rallies, receive honorary doctorates and assess potential heritage sites, while constantly writing papers, books, poetry, reports and letters. While in the capital she would stay with Coombs in his flat at University House.

Not surprisingly, their letters were preoccupied with their work, and with current affairs. The fall of the Labor government in 1975 left both of them disillusioned. It was Wright's loyal opinion that "If Gough had carried out his promise, in the election campaign, to listen to your advice, we'd still be alive and kicking. Now wherever I look disaster looms. Poor fella my country, indeed." Yet what they had been through together cemented their love. Wright told Coombs that for all the political drama, she found herself mostly thinking of him.

*

The decade that followed was a particularly happy one for them, beginning as it did with the purchase of Wright's bush property, Edge, near Mongarlowe, 100 kilometres east of Canberra.

In 1986, I visited Wright at Edge. Her final book of poetry, Phantom Dwelling, had been published the year before. Many of the poems in this collection were inspired by her life in this austere, granite-strewn landscape of ghostly candle barks and peppermint gums, the ground pockmarked with abandoned gold mines. The poems are spare, like the bush itself. There was one in particular that I liked, a meditation on how time grinds down both the landscape and the human body.

 

Blood slows, thickens, silts - yet when I saw you

Once again, what a joy set this pulse jumping.

 

Wright was 71. I was 23. I'd met her during my final year at secondary school, when she had come to give the speech-night address. I had been corresponding with her for six years by the time I went to see her at Edge, but I knew little of her private life. What I did know was that she had spent 20 happy years with her late husband on Tamborine Mountain in Queensland. I assumed that she was now living alone. I imagined that the "you" she addressed in the poem was a vision or recollection of Jack, or a visitation in a dream. Being young and presumptuous, I saw the poet's celebration of desire as a moving gesture of defiance, a refusal to submit to the clichés of sexless old age.

We had lunch and wandered her property. Back in Melbourne, I wrote an article for the Age about our day together. It ran under the headline ‘Eve Alone In Her Garden', a reference to a series of poems Wright had written in which Eve addresses Adam about the mess the human race has made of "this green world that dies". But Eve wasn't alone in her garden. When Wright moved to Edge in 1975, she and Coombs had been lovers for three years. One of the main reasons she left Tamborine Mountain was to be closer to him.

When Coombs had heard that land on the Half Moon Wildlife Reserve near Mongarlowe was up for sale, he told Wright. They went to look at it and Wright immediately fell in love: the landscape reminded her of the "lean, hungry country" of New England, where she grew up. She didn't have quite enough money to buy it, so Coombs helped out. He also put money towards the building of the house. Together they hatched a plan to hand the property over to the ANU for research purposes once they were too old to live there.

Coombs loved Edge and regularly spent a few days there each week. They would go walking through the bush, swimming naked in a long pool between riffles in the Mongarlowe River and picnicking on its banks. The first summer at Edge, before the house was built, they camped with Meredith by the river and swam at dawn and dusk with platypuses, who seemed remarkably unfazed by their presence.

When Coombs was away, Wright would write to him about what was happening. Her letters report on the building of the house, and how she and her neighbours were banding together to oppose new gold-mining applications. She would tell him about the wildlife she'd seen, which orchids were in flower and how the vegetable garden was going. The only time her prose turned lyrical was when she was describing the bush: "Such a birthday-cake of a frost this morning ... As I look out the window now, the whole landscape is glittering with melted frost and the robins chasing each other through the trees."

Once I learned of Wright's relationship with Coombs, I began to realise how many of the poems in Phantom Dwelling are indirectly addressed to him or, in a veiled way, about their relationship. While knowledge of this is not necessary to make sense of the poems, it does cast them in a new and moving light. That Edge became a bush hideaway for the clandestine lovers is beautifully captured in ‘Violet Stick-insects' which zooms in on a "landscape of leaves". What appear to be a leaning twig and a gnawed thin-bellied leaf turn out to be two well-camouflaged stick insects, pointedly referred to as "he and she".

 

Any shadow might be a beak,

but as twig or leaf they are safe.

Yet he planes on a downward swing

unfolding a brilliant wing -

a fearless violet flash

to centre that grey and green.

 

‘Winter' sees them sitting around an open fire drinking red wine and contemplating old age and the paths that brought them - "you and me" - to this point. Everything - knowledge, wine, poetry, conversation, the human body - is contemplated in terms of the flow of energy which must eventually exhaust itself. There is a mood of acceptance and quiet celebration of the moment. So too in ‘Late Meeting', which is, ostensibly, about the final journey a "wind-worn bee" makes to the very last flower of autumn. This final fling between bee and flower is clearly an allegory for the coming together of Wright and Coombs.

 

They meet, they mingle,

tossed by the chilly air

in the old ecstasy,

 

as though

nothing existed past

the moment's joining.

*

In 1983, I asked Wright if I could visit in Canberra to interview her for a small literary magazine I was co-editing. She replied that I could contact her on the phone number of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee office during the day. She didn't know what her evening phone number would be, as she'd be "staying with various friends and occasionally at University House". This, I now realise, was a reference to Coombs's flat. As always, she was carefully off-hand about the connection.

It was the final days of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, a voluntary organisation formed in 1979 by Wright, Coombs and a diverse group of scholars who believed that an internationally recognised treaty was the best way of achieving Aboriginal land rights. The committee became a mouthpiece for the public mood for change in black-white relations and for legal recognition of the right to self-determination. Although it had limited success at the time, says McKinney, history may vindicate it yet.

Just as Wright was influential in deepening Coombs's understanding of environmental issues - she, along with a small group of early activists, had been instrumental in saving the Great Barrier Reef from mining and oil exploration - Coombs helped spur her to redress the injustices done to Aborigines by her pastoralist ancestors. Wright threw herself into the writing of The Cry for the Dead, which delves into frontier history to expose the impact on Aborigines of "the great pastoral invasions of inland Australia".

As Chancellor of the ANU, Coombs had helped establish the university's North Australian Research Unit in Darwin, for the study of Aboriginal culture and relations between Indigenous peoples and the government. Freed from his role as an adviser, he began to spend more time in the Territory with Aboriginal communities. The spiritual energy of the bush, he said, recharged him. Occasionally, Wright would join him up north. After her first visit, she wrote to him, "I have washed the desert out of my hair, at last, but remember it fondly. It was a very good introduction to the country, thank you, my love." As always, Wright was conscious that they might be recognised but enjoyed the excitement of an "illicit" affair. In 1978, discussing a rendezvous in Alice Springs, she wrote:

 

The plans sound very alluring. I will bring a sleeping bag anyway. Maybe a purchase of a double sleeping-bag in Alice will cause even more comment than we're likely to get in any event, so hold the horses. I don't doubt our movements will be charted, out there where nothing that moves is unnoticed, but that can't be helped! I expect I ought to book into a motel for decency's sake but won't anyway - we shall see what happens. What fun!

 

The need for secrecy and the possibility of being watched had a dark side for Wright, too. Years of pitting herself against the deeply conservative Queensland government had made her sensitive to the potential repercussions of challenging powerful vested interests. When she was campaigning to save the Barrier Reef in the 1960s, she became convinced that she and other activists were being investigated by the CIA. The experience inspired her poem ‘They':

 

They look like people

that's the trouble ...

 

Only afterwards

when you're alone

you realise what you said

what the bargain was

 

you hear the click

as they say well thanks so much

and go off

to file the evidence.

 

Wright was the subject of an ASIO file from 1954 to 1969. ASIO's primary interest appears to have been her association with organisations regarded as communist fronts (such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers) or with people thought to be communists. While there is no evidence that the security service was interested in her environmental activism, any connection she might have had with Soviet-linked organisations could have been used to discredit her.

This experience predisposed Wright to a conspiratorial mentality, which was only heightened by her secret relationship with Coombs and the perceived sensitivity of their work for Aboriginal land rights. By 1988 she was advising Coombs to tear up her letters after reading them. As they both became heavily involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led up to the Mabo case - which did potentially threaten powerful landholders and mining interests - her fear of surveillance escalated.

The more Wright's hearing deteriorated - she went completely deaf in 1992 - the more these anxieties preyed on her. Severe tinnitus (which involved hearing voices) and failing eyesight contributed to her feelings of isolation and vulnerability. Since the late 1980s, Coombs had been spending half the year in the Northern Territory because he was prone to life-threatening bouts of pneumonia during the colder months. Although Wright supported him in this - she knew all too well how freezing Canberra winters could be - she found his absences hard. "It seems like years, not five months, since you left, and will be longer still."

During this deeply troubled period, Wright destroyed two decades' worth of Coombs's letters to her out of fear that they would fall into the wrong hands. On a melancholy winter's day, she burnt them in her wood-fire stove.

 

Well, my love,

... it is a dreadful thing to have done but I see no alternative after weeks of thinking. Simply, there is nowhere they couldn't be found and probably nowhere that somebody wouldn't suffer for it ... Forgive me for the holocaust of such a beautiful record ... of years of love and work. Those letters were a joy to get, a personal window on your work ... Whatever we've lost, it isn't possible to lose the story-line now, and we've worked together long enough to be remembered for that.

Yours and always,

J.

 

Coombs was devastated. He brooded about Wright's isolation and felt guilty about not being with her. A year later, Wright was able to recall that "fierce time" as a period of delusion marked by an "inexplicable sense of bitter enemies lurking nearby". Even thinking about it made her shake "like a terrified horse".

Fortunately, Wright stopped destroying Coombs's letters in late 1992.

 

My lovely woman,

Your letter of 5th was a joy. You sound more the Judith of a year ago ... I am pleased you think the [National] library solution is acceptable for what is left of the letters. I found it beyond me to destroy anything which you have written ...

My love, my love,

Coombs

 

He feared his expressions of devotion and dependence might "sound stale with repetition and remoteness, but believe me they come from a living source". Their correspondence went on as before, sharing news of their daily lives, their health problems, the latest football results and their work.          

Coombs was still visiting Aboriginal communities, writing papers and flying interstate to attend functions and visit his family. When his doctor told him his blood pressure was dangerously high, he wrote to Wright:

 

I cannot start swallowing pills simply because I cannot finish something I am trying to write or because I wake at 2 am and brood over the state of the world or because my eyes run when I watch an episode of Lorna Doone on TV ... I'm glad [your] sense of being watched and intruded on is at least fading and that you can revisit Edge without trauma. It makes your distance from me more bearable.

 

A year before his stroke, he told Wright he worried whether he would have the stamina to continue "doing what I am lucky to have the chance to do". In what reads hauntingly like a premonition, he added that his real worry was "the danger of dying of boredom".

In August 1994, Wright and Coombs had one last holiday together in the Territory. They used to say that they would like to end their lives by setting off into the desert together and not coming back. When they went to Ubirr Rock at Kakadu, Wright decided against going up to see the cave paintings because the spirit of the place was too powerful. She stayed at the bottom while Coombs and Meredith went on. When they returned, Wright was gone. Following a circular path, they decided to go in opposite directions to search for her, on the understanding that the first to find her would return with her to wait at the seat. Meredith followed the path until it brought her back to the seat; neither her mother nor Coombs was there. "The buggers," she thought, remembering their vow. "They've gone and done it."

She soon found them not far away, sitting together in a little cul-de-sac. But there had been a wonderful moment of jubilation when she thought, "Yes! Go!"