CathBlog - Finder of the unexpected in Rome



The by-line of Desmond O'Grady, datelined Vatican City, would be extremely familiar to long-time Rome watchers.

Not Desmond O'Grady, the Irish-born poet with whom he has been often confused, but the Australian DO'G, of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Melbourne Age, and many international titles. 

This Desmond has been on the Vatican round for decades, and for insight as well as back room contacts, he is hard to beat.

When it comes to who is 'Papabile', the Melbourne-born O'Grady always has the best info to share about which Cardinal might send the white smoke up the chimney.

I first knew of him through his dispatches to the Sydney Morning Herald, and was in awe of both his information and – in a world increasingly devoid of stylists in newspapers – his manner of delivery. An acute awareness of the subtleties of his subject is delivered always with exquisite clarity ˆ and sometimes a bracing drop of acid.

So you can imagine my glee when I was invited some years ago to a lunch in Rome, where, along with another Australian journo, ancient historian Dr Brian Brennan, forensic archaeologist Dr Estelle Lazer (no one knows Pompeii like this pair), Desmond would also be in attendance.

That lunch was a long, gregarious affair at Maccheroni (pictured), a restaurant far enough away from the Pantheon's tourist mill and close enough to the politicos of Palazzo Madama to make the passing foot traffic interesting. The passing vehicle traffic was another matter – we were on the footpath, almost in the street, and the tiny form of Dr Lazer had to be dragged back from passing delivery van wheels a couple of times.

In person, Des – now the author of some 14 books, and the only Australian writer who can claim to have cricket at Lords, tennis with Rod Laver and made a film with Claudia Cardinale – proved diffident, and considered, and extremely dry. He was good enough to become a warm acquaintance, one whom I look forward very much to seeing whenever we are in the same city at the same time.

Des was back in Australia earlier this year to launch his book, A Word In Edgeways, and we had a chance to catch up for dinner, along with Michael Visontay, an old tennis opponent of his. Michael is CathNews' editor-in-chief, so the talk naturally drifted over time to background from Rome. His knowledge was generously shared as the wine flowed.

Because he is a confident man, Des had also brought along two copies of his book. He knew we would want our own copies, and he was good enough to hand them over in exchange for a discount on cover price. I took it home, put it in the to-read pile, and promptly forgot about it.

Recently though, I had to go interstate for a weekend which was inevitably going to include a lot of sitting and waiting, so as I checked out the pile, I picked up Des' book and tucked it into my handbag. In truth, I did it from duty, not from any sense of real excitement.

So as I was sitting in a hospital room, waiting for my mother to wake and  dispense further instructions, I fished the book out of my handbag and began to read. Any sense of obligation evaporated; quite honestly, I felt an idiot for having waited so long to open it up. His friend Brenda Niall probably says it as well as anyone:

Desmond O'Grady's art shines in the essay form and the interview as it does in his fiction. His vantage point in Rome, his travels in Europe and the United States, and his homecomings to Australia, give this collection an astonishing range. Lively but never lightweight, A Word in Edgeways shows O'Grady's discerning eye, and his gift for finding the unexpected even in those much celebrated figures about whom we thought there was nothing more to say.

Brenda is right. From the first pages (where, in a wonderful piece of 'Take that!', he includes in his thanks the Booker Prize winner, Irish writer John Banville), Des lets his formidable talent loose. 

With him in print, I found odd congruences - he writes of Gillian Bouras, the Australian teacher who was transplanted to Greece and became a wife, daughter-in-law to the redoubtable Aphrodite, mother to three sons, and a writer.

And here too is a chapter on the American Donna Leon, who I went to interview nearly ten years ago.

Real life figures, known and unknown, came to me, as I sat in that hospital room, and waited. And I thought back to the beginning of my relationship with O'Grady, through the Herald, and his tales of the Vatican, and a great sense gratitude for being part of his extraordinary world warmed me and once more I looked forward to more of his polished, pristine prose from the Holy City.

A Word in Edgeways by Desmond O'Grady (Connor Court Publishing, 2010, Paperback $39.95)

Christine HoganChristine Hogan is the Communications Manager for Church Resources, and moderates the sometime immoderate discussion boards of CathNews.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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