Crossing the Great Divide via Blue Moon Bay

Launched by Arnold Zable

April 7, 2019

 How to launch two books in one go? Two works, which on the surface, are so different, and which represent a fragment of the full range of Rod Moss’s artistry—his ground-breaking paintings, wood-carved tables, prolific drawing, long-kept journals, and much more.  

 To complicate matters, I have brought along Rod’s first book, The Hard Light of Day. I do so because I see it as the touchstone for the books that Rod has written since that book was published in 2010. In surveying his work, it can be argued that Rod Moss shines the hard light of day on everything he observes, everything he sees, smells, touches, tastes, and hears—the raw stuff of life—which he then transforms into a gritty humanist art expressed in many forms. More on this later.

 First a detour: Rod has crossed many paths, many divides, and forged many friendship, and relationships with kindred spirits in many walks of life. This is how our paths first crossed—In 2011, I was asked to be a judge of the NT Book of the Year awards. Among the entries was a book called The Hard Light of Day. The decision by the three judges was unanimous. It is arguably, the most empathetic, intimate and gently confronting book about relationships across the historical divide between indigenous and non-indigenous people, to be written by a descendent of the colonisers.

 I was asked to take part in the awards ceremony. Rod picked me up at Alice Springs airport in his Toyota ute. As we drove to his house, we were stopped wherever we went. There was always time for a yarn. I quickly realised that Rod was part of the fabric of the place, universally known, and it appeared, loved and trusted by the local Arrernte community.   

We pulled up at Rod’s house. When I entered, I was overwhelmed by his paintings, on display on the living room walls. Concentrated in one small space, they radiated intense light, and a singular interpretation of life in the Red Centre. The one other time I have been hit so intensely by an artist’s work, concentrated in one space, occurred when I first entered the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  

Van Gogh was also an artist who captured the harsh light of day—and of night. Sadly, in contrast to Rod Moss, Van Gogh spent much of his life adrift, and long stretches of time living in self-imposed isolation. His reclusiveness took him away from the friends, family members and communities who may have sustained him when that light became too much to bear.

 Rod’s paintings, took me into the heart of life in the Centre, as lived by the Arrernte people—the intensity of it, its beauty, and its terrors. They alerted me to a history of racism and violent dispossession and its’ devastating impacts.  They remind us that as a nation, we have yet to come to terms with this violence. Yet to own up to the full extent of it, and its ongoing consequences.

 On that first day, Rod took me out to the Whitegate Camp. I saw how he interacted with the people who lived there. And I began to understand the nature of Rod’s way of being in the world. I saw how easily, and gently, he moved from one world to the next. Saw that his art, in all its genres, is shaped by intimate relationships he has forged over many decades. His works are rooted in the community, and the physical space he has committed himself to since he first made Alice Springs his home in the 1980s.

 At the same time, Rod has continued his explorations of many environments, embarking on journeys that continue to take him to and from his home base in the Centre, continent wide, and beyond, to many parts of the globe. Craig San Roque, in his essay about Rod’s paintings: By your works should you be known, written recently for a catalogue for Rod’s retrospective this August—a man who has spent far more time with Rod than I have—writes:

I have seen many of Rod’s visions take shape. I know many of the people and places.  I know camps and tin sheds. I have slept in such sheds, lived on homeland outstations and sat in the shadows — watching card games and fallen men; witnessed the gentle restructuring touch of angangkere/indigenous healing. Bush people camp in our yard, people come and go… The part of ‘the gridded city’ in which my family live is open to ebb and flow.  I have seen the snake slide through camp, the hunting and gathering of bush food, tobacco, stories late at night. I know what Rod has borne in order to bring these paintings to light.

…When I pause to survey the waves of blunt stupidity that have rolled over central Australia for one hundred and fifty years, I might appreciate that person’s existential worry. But Rod does not rage - he observes, waits, watches, drives people home late at night and then returns to the drawing board.

Craig San Roque later adds:

Walking in the crosscurrents of a civilisation, he stops sometimes in guttering light. Voices heard over a fence, a man a dog, a situation perhaps, rocks turning deeper red again as they did this morning; a tin shed glowing in the last sun; something slouching toward Bethlehem on the far side of town.

I would add that Rod, not only ‘returns to the drawing board’, but also to the written word—to his journals and notebooks, which, in recent years, he has transformed into works that gift us both his artistry and his humanist vision.

 There is a pivotal moment in The Hard Light of day. It is one of the most extraordinary scenes I have encountered in any book—a moment, when the divide vanishes, and ‘the cross currents of civilisations’ stop. The winds die down—and there is stillness. And within this stillness, there is space. And within this space there is presence. This is where the doing stops, and the being takes over—and, in turn, paves the way back to the doing.

Old Arranye, the great songman, Rod Moss’s long-time mentor and guide into another world, another way of being, is dying.  And it is Rod, and son Raffi, and daughter Ronja, who are now singing to him:

        I ambled over to Raffi and Ronja and with them either side, we broke spontaneously into Aaron Neville’s hymn, ‘I Bid You Goodnight’. Arranye slipped into a coma. I kissed his forehead and stroked his hair. 

      ‘We all love you, old man.’

     Raffi ferreted under the blankets and found his cool, wax-tender hand. 

Yes, this first book, and this moment, is the pivot around which one of the books we are launching today, revolves. Crossing the Great Divide is both the prequel to The Hard Light of Day, a portrait of the artist as a young man setting out on his quest’—as well as a sequel in which we see Rod Moss, the mature artist, looking back decades later, on a lifetime of creativity and journeying.

 What a journey it has been—from the outer eastern suburbs of this city, Melbourne, so close to where we are standing now—Boronia, at the feet of the Dandenong Ranges. Or as Rod puts it, in one of his chapter headings, from ‘the fern gullies from which I come’, to—as subsequent chapter headings put it—the ‘widening world,’ ‘high school’ and the ‘big smoke’. Then literally, across the Great divide, and across many divides to many places.

 It is the journey of a man who in his youth sets out with a fierce hunger to engage with life.  Physically. Sensually. Intellectually. To know it, document it, and respond to it. Always, driven by a quest to connect. Hence, to know it spiritually.

As he journeys, Rod Moss is continually reflecting, bearing witness to himself, and bearing witness to the world around him. Rod does not separate himself from that world, or stand apart from it. He is in it, and of it, as painter, draftsman, carver, writer, storyteller, teacher—and always—as a companion and friend to those he encounters on the way.

 Where has this journeying led him? To old Arranye, and that moment when the singing takes over and the divide vanishes. But also, beyond old Arranye. In fact, where else could it lead, but back to the road? The quest is ongoing. The journey is in fact the destination, and Rod Moss’s unceasing creative response, is the goal—and the ever-renewing bonds of friendship, and the forging of new ones, are the heart and soul. Family, community, old connections, as well as new horizons, are all part of one continuous journey.

 I will conclude this launch talk, with a reading from Crossing the Great Divide, that returns us to the road. It is an ending which returns us to a kind of beginning. But first we will detour, albeit briefly, to the second book being celebrated today. Rod wanted the two books launched concurrently. In reading them, I can see why.

 Blue Moon Bay, is a book to be read aloud. It comes out of the oral, the live story telling. The written form captures the vernacular.  What can I say? It takes me back to some of the folks I grew up with during my 1950s and 60s childhood in Carlton. It takes me back to Melbourne’s inner suburbs at a time when post-war immigrants were pouring in, and taking up residence beside working class Australians. It returns me to Hoppo and Moo, and other boys on the block. Aussie mates, to us, the children of the newcomers. We certainly had our conflicts, but also our harmonies. In sharing the same school grounds and neighbourhoods, we formed enduring connections and friendships across our divides.

 Let me put it this way: I come home one day, about 15 years ago, to a message on the answering machine. Arnie. It’s Hoppo. How are you, you bastard? There’s going be a reunion at the Kew junction hotel. You better be there you bastard. In these friends, with whom I reunited, I recognise something of the people we encounter in Rod Moss’s affectionate grotesques.  And, the truth be said, I recognise an aspect of myself in them, that which rubbed off as I shared the local streets and playing fields with Hoppo and his mates.

 Blue Moon Bay began as a story Rod Moss used to tell his children. This form of storytelling reminds me of the work of children’s author, Andy Griffith. I first met Andy in St Kilda library, back in the 1990s. He was virtually unknown as a writer back then. We worked in adjoining writing cubicles and got to know each other, and often discussed writing.

 In December, 2000, we ran into each other at an end-of-year party for authors who were on the circuit, telling stories and giving talks about the art of story in schools throughout Victoria. My novel, Café Scheherazade, had, that very day, been sent off to the printers. It was that wonderful moment, when the work is finally done, the edits signed off, and the reviews are a long way off; and for the time being, the pressure is off.

 What are you doing? Andy asks. I tell him about the novel, and he tells me that he too has a new book on the way. The Day my Bum Went Psycho, he says. I was convinced that he was pulling my leg, and remained convinced until I saw it on display, months later, in the bookshops.

 There are parallels between Andy and Rod. They both know the process of this type of storytelling. They come out of the oral, and of direct engagement with an audience—initially children. First you put out the beginning of the story. And then it takes off.  

The child asks: ‘Well? Then what happened? It becomes a kind of call and response process. And then? And then? Children love it when there is nothing off limits. And they love it when the scenarios become increasingly outrageous and daring. They love the embroidery and the exaggeration, the vernacular, the imitation of voices, and their rhythms.

 Rod Moss’s Blue Moon Bay is this kind of storytelling. When viewed against the body of his work, it is the art of anti-art, the antithesis to the thesis, blinding reality subverted by the grotesque and the darkly comedic. And the sacred undermined yet, somehow reinforced, by the profane. This is yet another divide to cross and vanquish.

 It is also one big ‘up yours’. It is as if Rod telling his children, and now us, the audience at large, and above all, himself: ‘Don't get too far ahead yourself, ya bastard. It takes all kinds. And we're all in this together.’

 Again, as in all Rod Moss’s books, the image and the word go hand in hand. The playful, grotesque pencil-and-ink drawings are in sync with the Aussie yarn-spinner’s rhythm. An anarchic, no-holds-barred, irreverent black humour. graces every page. Yes. Graces. Read it aloud, you bastards, and take time in exploring the drawings, their detail and the artistry—and you will get it.

 You will come to see that hard light of day is again at play. Rod Moss strips his characters, and the places they inhabit, back to the raw essence of things—to the hair-sprouting ears and nostrils, the untidy moustaches, misshapen teeth, unshaven cheeks, the hungover eyes—warts and all, as they say. It is another way of conveying what it is to be human. As Zorba, would have put it, a way of trying to embody ‘the whole catastrophe.’

 Enough said. The work is done. The two books have been celebrated, and the day is coming to an end. It is time to get back on the road. Indeed, this is the only way Rod could have ended Crossing the Great Divide. The final scene in the book, is the culmination of the journey of an eternal gypsy, a pilgrim who has crossed the great divide, literally and metaphorically, and laid down roots in the Centre, and his heart in the Whitegate camp community, while also continued journeying.

 As depicted in those final two pages, Rod is on the road again. I was thinking about the scene yesterday as I drove 330 kilometres in one hit from Albury to Melbourne—listening to Lucinda Williams singing Car Wheels on a Gravel road. Watching the landscape flitting past, and the light turning from a late afternoon glare, to the cloud-muted silvers of evening, before giving way to the darkness and the mystery of the night. I was nearing home. The lights of the Big Smoke were beginning to appear. And I was elated—thinking: Thank who ever, there are still moments like this.

 Yes, the last word belongs to the road. And to the pilgrim. The work speaks for itself. Read it as you listen to Lucinda Williams. Or Bach. Or Elvis. Or Bob Dylan, as Rod Moss does, during that long dash back to home base, the beloved Centre. Or read it to whoever evokes, for you, the rhythms of life, its many travails and its moments of joy and elation.

 There are many possible musical companions on the road. Perhaps, best of all, roll down the window, and allow in the breeze. Then pull up by the roadside. And read this passage as the breeze dies back to silence:

 Good to get the final 700 kilometres finished completed before the afternoon furnace. Venus rides the eastern rim, so radiant it sucks all light from surrounding sisters squatting in patient isolation. Kangaroos form a silent guard of honour beside the bitumen strip, pale and still, flashing in and out of high beam. Other than momentary glances they resume their verge-side meals. A joey sits on the white line without inclination to move. I slow to a stop and it continues, unnerved, to gaze into the door, indifferent to it or me as I lean through the window and wonder at its fearlessness. It’s still there, motionless in the weak taillights…

 And so it goes, the landscape flashing by, Rod at the wheel. Observing. Knowing that in the gritty detail, resides the poetic, and knowing also, that the outer world is intimately bound with the inner. There is no divide—Rod’s thoughts, associations, reflections, move freely. They are triggered by, and anchored in the observed landscape…Onwards, ever onwards, the bitumen highway more resolute than my shifting self.

And in the final paragraph, it emerges seamlessly, perhaps inevitably— an acknowledgement, in word and image, of the great songman and mentor, whose Country is fast approaching. Followed by one last sentence, that whips us back to reminders of our inevitable decay and our mortality, lest we get too far ahead of ourselves:

 An unprecedented week of misty rain coats the grasses, silencing the quaking crickets, keeping them beneath the rocks. The lisping rain unleashes a delicious perfume from the starved soils and rocks. Dust particles have been earthed and the resulting lucidity is startling. A fainter fragrance is carried by masses of yellow and violet flowers peppering the red earth. If old Arranye Edward Johnson were still with us he would have sung the merne/plant food increase song over a poached-egg daisy. There are mushrooms, fungus and the momentary triumph of mould.


 Arnold Zable, author, Café Scheherazade, Jewels & Ashes, The Fighter, The Fig Tree, Scraps of Heaven



 I’m honoured to be launching Rod Moss’ two new books, Crossing the Great Divide and Blue Moon Bay. There is no one I have known in my life whom I admire more.

 About seven years go my wife, Yael, and I went to Alice Springs where we hired a four-wheel drive to explore the desert. Barry Hill, a good friend of mine and Rod's who has recently written finely about Rod in his new collection of essays, dedicated to Rod, Reason and Lovelessness, said I should meet Rod Moss.  I didn’t know Rod’s writing or his paintings. I was in England when The Hard Light of Day: An Artists Story of Friendship in Arrernte Country won the Prime Ministers Award, When I asked Barry why, he said he is a good man. He meant that Rod he is a man of uncommon goodness. I replied that I couldn’t just knock on Rod’s door and say, “I’m Rai Gaita. I hear you are a man of rare goodness. Barry continued to press me to do it. I continued to resist.

 On the way to Alice I downloaded The Hard Light of Day onto my kindle and read it immediately in one sitting. I said to that I didn’t how embarrassed I’ll be, I must meet this man. In Alice I phoned from a booth near the courthouse. We’ll meet there, Rod said with wry irony amusement: He was familiar with the place having entered pleas for his indigenous friends. He took us to his home, where he showed us some of the paintings I had seen on my Kindle. Even in One Thousand Cuts where many of his them are beautifully reproduced it is impossible to appreciate their unsettling power. Yael and I were wonderstruck. We still are whenever we see them, including in our living room in St Kilda.

 Though Crossing the Great Divide is subtitled the memoir of an artist, I won’t say more than that I have about Rod’s paintings. Instead, I’ll quote, without permission, I’m afraid, from a talk by Craig San Roque. It is far better than anything I could say.

The ligaments of his hand stretch, curl, flex around a piece of graphite.  Charcoal eyes walking through the cross currents, checking flotsam and jetsam of the town. Sometimes his head moves with that slow grace of a python, turning; a glittering impulse from the serpent brain runs down through the hand; a primal scene uncoils. Live or die, kill or be eaten. Keep the still position.

  Somewhere the gathered intensity in his brain breaks and an image, an idea must have formed for now he turns to photograph a site, compose people into composition, line things up, sift through European masters, gather associations, make a joke.  A lament, an elegy, a wry eulogy for the people of a camp – a fallen man. Here in this town.

that kind of state an image constellates perhaps - a man pushing a rock up hill.

The blind leading the blind.  A funeral at Santa Teresa. Policemen sleeping drunk on the steps of the Court House. Sardonic despair, alive in this town.  

Rod and I are now friends, but I didn’t need to befriend him to know that Barry was right. It was evident when I read The Hard Light of Day. I urge you to buy it tonight together with Crossing the Great Divide and Blue Moon Bay. Reading them, I am quite certain you will feel as I do,  nourished, and privileged to have come to know a truly extraordinary man.  You will then rush to by A Thousand Cuts and perhaps a painting or two.

 ‘Crossing the Great Divide’ has more than one meaning in Rod’s book. The painting reproduced on the cover invites one to think the divide is between the indigenous and non-indigenous people of this land we call Australia.  Probably that is its most important meaning. But another is literal: Rod crossed the Great Dividing Range in Victoria on his way to Ouyen to where the Victorian Education Department sent him to take up a teaching post. It is not true that all baby boomers had free tertiary education. Many placed themselves in two or three years bondage to the Department and, usually, had to teach they were sent. Many dreaded being posted far from the city, literally and culturally. Mirboo North was the name that struck dread in the hearts of students about to be summoned to pay their dues and for most, who ended up elsewhere, provided reason for consolation. 

 When Yael and I were driving to Mildura on our way to the Simpson desert, I asked her to look at the map to locate the next biggish town. “Ooiyen”, she said. “What?” “Ooiyen”, she repeated. I thought she must have been visited by a Jewish transcultural historical memory of what the town must have seemed like to early Jewish settlers, if indeed there were any. “Oi yoi yoi, Oi vey!” At first Rod seemed to feel a little like that about it. Though he had come to teach he established his credential in town by arm wrestling and football. Both helped to earn the respect of country kids. I doubt that he’s given up doing this sort of thing.

 While living in Ouyen, he bought a puny 250cc motorbike in Mildura that he drove 300 odd kilometres on a night so cold that when he stopped for a rest in a pub, he was thankful he had had been warned not to put his freezing hands under the hot water tap if he didn’t want to lose his skin. He consoled himself with the pleasurable anticipation of surprising his girlfriend friend, in whose bed he would find warmth of more than one kind. He surprised her, though not as he had expected. Nonetheless he refused to forgo the warmth.

 The chapters on Ouyen are amongst the best, I think.  Rod expresses beautifully what the town and its people came to mean to him.

 In Ouyen he read Dostoevsky’s, Brothers Karamazov, Joyce’s Ulysses, Paine’s The Rights of Man, Kafka and other classics.  He listened and educated himself in classical music, and much else. He immersed himself intensely in Dylan and other forms of fine contemporary music. I doubt he was surprised that Dylan was judged deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he may have been surprised that he got it. Engagement with great thinkers and artists of the past can enable one to live joyously - because one is given so much to love – in an extended continuous present that might span thousands of years. Plato is my companion. So are Descartes and Kant, to name only a few great philosophers. Ditto for Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Bach. And, of course, there are others.  I could not imagine my life without them. I’m sure many people feel like this though of course they have different companions. If one is lucky, it can inspire a love of the world that is in the key of gratitude. If I understand them, many, perhaps all, indigenous people of Australia live in this extended continuous present, as do many peasant cultures, who pass on what they love over very many generations.

 I think Rod feels the same. So much of what he writes is in the key of gratitude, expressions of a love of the human world and a love of nature. In Rod’s work, all of it, one is reminded again and again of the truth that one’s humanity is not given once and for all, as species membership is, but something one has to rise to until one dies, even if one were to live a thousand years.

 In my blurb I say that Rod has a ferocious hunger for experience. Some people are hungry for life, but (to take a metaphor from Blue Moon Bay – you’ll see why soon) gorge on experiences that pass through them so quickly they receive barely any nourishment from them. Rods hunger takes him to food that is digested slowly, provides nourishment for the heart, mind and spirit, though he may not know what was truly nourishing until it shows in its results, in the manifold forms of his creativity.  To move away from the digestive metaphors: it is an important fact about life that we must often allow experience, including the reading of great literature and viewing of great art, to move slowly, subconsciously in our souls allowing it to resurface now and then. We trust them to enter our lives, to find, in their own time, ways to engage with what we already know and with our capacities - emotional, intellectual and spiritual - for understanding. Eventually – it could take years – he might say, “Now I understand”, which, of course, might not be true.

 In Rod’s life this showed itself in his trust of people who, in different ways, formed him – his inspiring teachers at school and later. It also shows in all the parts of the book in which he tells of his travels - America, Europe, east and west, the middle east If you include Turkey and Iran as belonging there.

 Perhaps, thinking of the parts of the book in which Rod tells of his travels, Robert Hillman rightly says that “these are not travelogues, far more the quest of a great writer and artist to deepen his experience of life”.  They are stories of his encounters, with an open mind, heart and spirit, with the lives and cultures of other people, with their high and folk cultures – an openness that runs deep, which, I am sure, is why it was possible for him to live the life he has with the Arrernte people and for them to love him and to wish to initiate him, to become fully one of their own.

 A few words now about Blue Moon Bay. It’ s very different from Rod’s first three books, but readers will quickly find in it the same humanity in a different form. Patty Brown, whom I first got to know 23 years ago when she worked as head publicist at Text Publishing and we went on tours with Romulus, My Father, said to me before I read it, “It’s quite bawdy you know”. I wasn’t surprised, but reading Crossing the Great Divide made me expect it to be more sexually bawdy. Perhaps it’s because it grew from stories he first told his children or perhaps because the sexuality in Crossing the Great Divide is often marked with unresolved conflict and with pain. At any rate the bawdiness is of the kind to be found in, for example, Chaucer, with the same profound humanity that shows in Rod’s fond delight in what Howard Goldenberg rightly calls his “splendid grotesques”. Howard wrote for the back of the book “ The wildness, the freedom, the low down, lavatorial, alcohol-drench mindless of the characters and their extraordinary pursuits, makes for. A work that is utterly original”.

 In my blurb for Crossing the Great Divide, I asked, where a man of such goodness come from. The literal answer is Ferntree Gully. In this audience there are enough people old enough to delight with teary-eyed nostalgia in the details in his account of his time there - the names of the radio shops, shops signs, the names of broadcasters and much more.

More than any other of his books, I suspect, he laboured over the craft of writing when he wrote Crossing the Great Divide. There is so much detail packed into sentences, carefully structured, words one knows used unusually. How on earth, did that come to you, one wants often to ask him. In early drafts the sentences were slightly constipated, they needed to open up. They have, and the result is as much a pleasure to read as the achievement of writing them must have been to their author. It’s so evident that Rod has a love affair with writing.

 I said in my blurb that people will seek in this book an understanding of the goodness encountered in A Hard Light of Day. To some extent they will find it. His wonderful openness, real decentred openness, to experience, to the world, to other human being, to all, indeed that life has to offer is a precondition and an expression of the fine man he is. But nothing can really explain the kind of goodness I’ve been speaking of. That is, perhaps, what is permanently of value to the secular world of the metaphor of grace. That kind of goodness is always a gift and explanations of how it came to be given will always, of their nature, be incomplete.

 Raimond Gaita, philosopher & author, Romulus My Father, The Philosopher’s Dog