Sunday, March 2, 2008

Kangaroo in Austin, Texas

In October 1980 I visited Larry, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. The history of photography was his specialty. In June that year we had met on a train from Lisbon to Paris. His Spanish saved me when immigration officials discovered that my visa for Spain was not multiple-entry and wanted to arrest me. I wasn’t getting off the train so they were uncharacteristically flexible. We shared a room in Paris while Larry was exploring second-hand shops and markets for antique photographic equipment and memorabilia.

It was only days before the 1980 Federal election in Australia and weeks before Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. Somewhere I still have a photo drinking Lone Star beer on my 33rd birthday and a Stop Reagan T-shirt that I picked up from a Democratic campaign office in Austin.

UTA is well known in the USA for many things:

* The 1966 shooting massacre (14 killed, 31 wounded) by Charles Whitman
* The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
* The Longhorns football team
* The Harry Ransom Center which has a Gutenberg Bible, a replica of mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner's study (of Perry Mason fame), and the Art by English and American Authors collection amongst many others.
This collection has art works by William Blake, George Bernard Shaw and Henry Miller and several others. When I was looking at some of the self-portraits a curator called me over to a display draw. She was trying to identify and catalogue some sketches that contained illustrations of kangaroos, clearly my area of expertise. The DHL initials were a clear giveaway, especially since there were other works by D.H. Lawrence on display. They were obviously related to his time in Australia in 1922 when he wrote the novel, Kangaroo . You didn’t need to be Perry Mason to work that one out. They are properly catalogued now.

In 1980 Austin was a relatively small city despite being the State Capital. The University was the biggest industry with what seemed like half the population either staff or students. There were a significant number of African Americans around town but very few visible at the university itself. Larry explained that all would be revealed on Sunday. When we watched a telecast of the Longhorn’s gridiron game almost all the team were black. He pointed out that there were more at the uni. On the basketball and track teams. Let’s hope things have changed.

At the LBJ Library and Museum there was an exhibition of political cartoons that Johnson had collected throughout his long career. The collection has an amazing four thousand original editorial cartoons. His Presidency is mostly remembered now for the Vietnam War debacle. Naturally the museum also presented the positive side of his political life such as his civil rights legislation and the Great Society program. ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.’

If you’re ever in that part of god’s own country, Austin is a must.

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