Christopher Pearson remembered
An elegy to the much-loved (and much-reviled) conservative columnist
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It was my birthday, and I was eating cake with my children, when my father arrived.
“It’s Pop! How are you?”
“Not so good actually.” He loitered at the door, away from the children. “I’ve just certified Christopher’s death. He didn’t turn up for Mass this morning. They found him in his bed.”
For some years, Christopher Pearson had warned me that his end was nigh, but I had not believed him. Self-pity never did anyone any good, but I suspect we only have a handful of proper conversations remaining. Lately, he had said that he hoped I knew he loved me. Did I love him? Christopher was a complicated pleasure. But now I made my father a cup of tea with shaking hands. “All that richness, gone,” he said.
I had known Christopher since childhood, when my father began writing for him at the Adelaide Review. The early launch parties in Hindley Street soon gave way to a Gatsbyish fabulousness: Grange Jetty, roped off for private fireworks; the heritage-listed Carclew House with the then-new Australian String Quartet; or – my favourite – the historic Carrick Hill, with a hot-air balloon tethered out the back, like a large captive animal. We arrived late, just as the basket bumped down to earth for the final time. But the Goldsworthy children! Christopher called out. The Goldsworthy children must have a turn! And so we were ushered through the crowd and into the basket: the furnace of hot air against the backs of our necks; the noise of the party receding; the sudden, awkward celebrity. And there was Christopher, king of Adelaide, beaming pinkly up at us.
Every Christmas morning we visited him as a family, an act of kindness he later confessed to be as excruciating for him as it was for us. He was not especially interested in children, and it was only later that I became a project. I trace the beginning of our friendship – if that was what it was – to a phone conversation one night when I was a teenager. He had called for my father, but I was at home alone, summoning up the courage to go to a party. You’d be better staying home and reading Dostoevsky, he pronounced, than going to a party and performing a blow job on some wastrel. Clearly he had been drinking, and there was need in that phone call. But it was not only need that kept me there. Christopher was an expert conversationalist: even when he was inebriated, his sentences unfurled in perfect prose. (His occasional stammer only seemed like further expression of fastidiousness, a reluctance to commit to anything other than le mot juste.) Over the course of this phone call he urged me to read more Evelyn Waugh, proffered recipes for the perfect summer cocktail, and divulged former bedroom practices I had imagined were mythical. It was conversation as conspiracy, thrilling and illicit as any high-school tryst. And although his monologues were laden with landmines – hidden references and tests and traps – on this occasion I felt emboldened by his lack of sobriety. A couple of hours later the phone call came to an end, and I considered it a signal achievement of my 15-year-old self. I had held my own against a virtuoso, even if it had required little more than making the appropriate soothing or astonished noises. And if I now see the pathos of such a phone call, I also recognise it as the first of the conversations that followed, and as one of the first times an adult addressed me as an adult.
Earlier this year, Christopher wrote that “it came as something of a surprise to me, but a pleasant one, to discover in my 40s that avuncular relations with adolescent girls were possible.” After I finished school, I started proofreading at the Adelaide Review as a sideline to my music studies; at some stage thereafter he began referring to himself as my Uncle Christopher. Occasionally, in the absence of more exalted company, he invited me to join him for lunch, and I would sail around Adelaide beside him in a taxi, to a private table at his restaurant of the month. I would anaesthetise myself quickly with wine, and the confidences and advice would begin. All that remains is for a few is to be dotted and ts to be crossed, he instructed, like a finishing-school mistress. Frequently he warned me against making a bad match, until I suspected him of casting me as a Jamesian heroine. His largest gripe was with people who should know better. If I betrayed my callowness – by mispronouncing something in French, perhaps, or using the terms humanity or love-making – he would look startled, as if he had swallowed something unpleasant. Then he would smile with a beatific forbearance, and perform a slow-motion blink, as if wiping the slate clean.
Music came to command more of my time, and I fretted about how best to resign from my position as proofreader. When I did I was duly reprimanded as a feckless scapegrace. But two years later I moved to Texas, and he offered me a monthly column for the Adelaide Review. I wonder now if the character of the first person you write for gets pressed into your writing somehow. Behind the excesses there was a rigour to Christopher; he held you to account. Frequently this was done elliptically, with a remark about that type of young writer who is inestimably kinder in person than on the page. Other times it was done less gently. One weekend when I was back in Australia, he invited me and my father to his country house on the Fleurieu Peninsula with a beautiful young poet. As he guided me through his collection of rare treasures, he provided a detailed curatorial commentary of provenance and worth. I bleated, “You’ve certainly got a lot of wonderful things here,” or something similarly inane, in my best adult impersonation. (And yet: what response could have satisfied?) He threw his head back and roared with laughter until he was weeping. Oh my dear, oh my dear ... I am sorry, but sometimes ... You are just too ... That same weekend, he prepared whiting and hand-cut chips for us, and dug out his recordings of the Liszt concerto I was studying. But it was his raucous laughter that remained with me.
One of the first columns I wrote for him from Texas recounted my friendship with some Baptist fundamentalists, and pondered whether friendship was possible across the believer–non believer divide. It was a column that pleased him; he complimented me at the time on its “generosity”. Now I realise that this became the question of our relationship in recent years. I struggled to reconcile the Christopher who professed love to me (which I nervously reciprocated) with his by-line in the Australian each weekend, espousing any number of opinions I did not share. And so I read his columns only when he wrote about poetry, or music, or food, or the joys of teaching. Perhaps this was a type of cowardice, but I did not wish to endanger my affection.
Our conversation was similarly evasive. Often he spoke of the jewels he would have me wear on stage. They were marvellous in his telling, as if lifted from the pages of Dorian Gray, and it was clear that he relished the language of jewels almost as much as the jewels themselves: the judiciously mounted emerald, an amethyst encrusted in gold. I was urged never to underestimate the garnet, and warned that jet would be far too ageing, until I wondered whether I was his proxy, whether he would have me wear the jewels he would wear if he had a woman’s neck. The fantasy amused me: I could scarcely afford the rent, let alone to invest in estate jewellery. He had found a most appropriate malachite at Anne Schofield Antiques, and I was to drop in to see her next time I was in Woollahra. But I was never in Woollahra.
The last time I visited him, three weeks before his death, he did not offer wine, and we sipped tea instead. “Certain sources have informed me that you were more taken than you expected with Julia Gillard when you interviewed her recently,” he said sternly.
“I believe that source was me, in that email I sent you.”
“I cannot help but wonder whether Tony might not have the same effect.”
There was a particular gentleness with which he pronounced the name Tony – and he pronounced it more frequently in our last meeting than ever before – he handled it as tenderly as a rosary bead. He had suggested to me that certain friends enjoyed the “contact high” of being around him, of his relationship to power, but in every reference to Tony I sensed a small, private contact high. It was the high of the vindicated mentor.
I described an essay I was working on, exploring “issues around misogyny”, and he held up a hand to stop me: “Please, dear girl, not around.”
This made me laugh. “As I was saying it I wondered whether you would let me get away with that.”
And he laughed, too.
After his death, Christopher was eulogised as a conservative thinker. Perhaps he was his politics; perhaps we all are. But there was another Christopher that predated the conversion to Catholicism and the conservative columns. It was that conflicted creature of great brilliance and malice and generosity. That guardian of art; that arbiter of taste.
One morning, several years ago, I found myself in Woollahra, and I stumbled upon Anne Schofield’s shop. I hesitated for a moment and then went in. “Christopher Pearson sent me,” I announced as an “open sesame”. I sat at the mirror and Schofield brought out necklaces for me to try that might complement a concert gown, astonishing confections of amethysts and turquoises and garnets and tourmalines. The red tourmaline, we agreed, was the best – gold-plated and intricate, with Baroque pearls, designed in the Renaissance style. Then I stepped out of her shop, empty-handed, and my carriage turned back into a pumpkin. Back at home, I reported to Christopher I had finally fulfilled his mission. Shortly thereafter, the necklace arrived at my house by courier, for a “beloved honorary niece”.
The necklace is a rare creation, and does not quite belong among my things. I wear it as often as I can when I perform: it is right that it should be worn on stage, rather than hidden away in a cabinet. Its clasp is a little complicated and, if not fastened correctly, the necklace sits askew. But when properly secured it sits true against my skin. It is cool against my neck, and a little heavy. It is the exact weight of generosity
Anna Goldsworthy is a pianist and writer. Her most recent books are Welcome to Your New Life and The Best Australian Essays 2017 (as editor). Her most recent album is Beethoven Piano Trios.