Les and Valerie Murray: "Growing each other up"

Perhaps the fictional Eliza Doolittle best sums up the household of Les and Valerie Murray at Bunyah, a rural hamlet off the road north to the Manning region.

"Words, words, words!" Eliza sang to Henry Higgins, with barely concealed frustration. However, the frustration is missing in the Murrays' case, unless it's the understandable frustration of declining mobility as the years roll by.

Married for some ­­54 years and having raised five children, internationally revered poet Les Murray and autobiographer Valerie (née Morelli) could be said to be living the dream − a cottage in Murray country with so many stories striding the land, an outlook over a large dam replete with waterlilies and a relationship that is clearly companionable and intellectually matched − and with so many poems, stories and ideas waiting in the wings.

Asked from where the poems emerge, Les says it can be "a word, an image, a thought...and some poems demand to be written". He writes most of the time, in longhand, and can't imagine not writing. Valerie types the finished work but she’s no mere secretary – there’s plenty of dialogue arising from the task.

Valerie has come later to published writing, and her autobiography, Flight from the Brothers Grimm, is a distillation of anecdotes, research, reflection and accumulated wisdom. On her father Gino's choice to migrate to Australia from Europe in 1950, she writes, "Australia offered a kind climate, beautiful beaches, and even a chance to go skiing in winter."

Valerie and Les Murray could be said to have little in common − she the daughter of a Swiss mother and a Hungarian father (with an Italian name!) and he the only child of dairy farmers whose stories are inextricably tied to Murray country.

However, words unite them − they engage in wonderful conversations that range across language, literature, indigenous tales, family lore, eternity, the meanings of names (Valerie shares her disdain for the contemporary names some children are plagued with), history − and road building. Indeed their first meeting was courtesy of the German department at the University of Sydney. Valerie has a facility for languages and the young Les wanted to know more German than Achtung!   

While their home is contained and they acknowledge that they "don't get around so much anymore", their world is vast. As we chat, Marco Polo, Australian poets Judith Wright and Ken Slessor, the conductor Thomas Beecham, Kublai Khan and Cardinal Pell all rate a mention! Classical music plays in the background and its appreciation was something that united Valerie and Les’ father, Cecil. 

The couple has travelled widely and there is a sense that these rich experiences are being mined continually, enhancing life in 'Bunyah country'. While home is important, Les acknowledges that extended family life has not always been harmonious. He cites one cousin who was determined to leave and work for someone who wasn't family. He became a sharefarmer.  This is not Les' way. "In your own family, you know the swear words. In someone else's, you have to learn theirs."

Asked whose poetry he enjoys, Les says that as literary editor of Quadrant, he is reading new poetry constantly. He looks for that which is distinctive − and in terms of the canon, highlights two Australian women − Judith Wright (whom he knew) and the little-known Lesbia Harford.

In the way of rural communities, most of the Bunyah neighbours are known, to varying extents, to Valerie and Les. Ironically, Valerie remembers that when she came to Bunyah from Sydney, she met a far wider variety of women than she had in the city. “In Sydney, most of the women were teachers.”   

And the dam, which I naively imagined to have been natural, was ‘commissioned’ by Les. However, after it caved in at regular intervals, and the dam-builder had to be called back, it was the poet who devised the ingenious use of a wedge of builder’s plastic filled with clay to sustain it. Les is happy to point out a flower he planted as a cutting taken from his grandmother's garden. "I realised if I walked two miles to her farm, I would have a plant that was 100 years old."

The Murrays built a cottage for Cecil on their block and eventually one for themselves. Cecil has passed away and now only their son Alex (and Boris the cat) remain with Valerie and Les. As a longtime widower, Cecil’s life had been relatively quiet, living in the shadow of his wife’s early death, and once Valerie asked if he had ever regretted their large and at times rambunctious family almost on his doorstep. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he said unhesitatingly.

It occurs to me that Valerie and Les may well say the same about their adventurous, peripatetic and word-filled life together.

Valerie captures it beautifully in her book. "I have had the good fortune to spend most of my life with one of the best masters of words anywhere....We married too young to have anything except each other. We grew each other up, as much as we were able to."

On the big question of what to anticipate after this existence, Les is phlegmatic − he imagines a reunion with his parents (his mother died when he was 12) − but is content to "wait and see". “We are on certain post-mortem promises after all.” On his headstone, he would like "Les Murray - poet" and maybe, "mate of Tom Soper", the late local gravedigger whose faith he greatly admired.

And Valerie's chosen epitaph? "It's all good, no worries."

There's no need to wait for eternity, it's all good now, with so many words waiting to be spoken, shared and written by these loving and lovely people.

Les Murray AO has published many poetry anthologies and received numerous awards. His latest collection is On Bunyah (2015) and the next will be an expanded edition of On Bunyah to come out in March 2017.  To obtain a copy of Valerie’s autobiography, please contact the editor.

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is a member of the Raymond Terrace Parish and a freelance writer with a particular interest in church matters.

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