If Greece has The Odyssey and Dublin Ulysses, then Sydney has Cicada Gambit
by Nadia Wheatley and Julian Neylan
Martin Johnston was one of Sydney's leading poets of the generation that came to the fore in the 1960s. Indeed he inherited quite a literary pedigree from author parents George Johnston and Charmian Clift.
A passionate advocate for literary and experimental writing, Martin regarded Ulysses as one of the benchmarks of twentieth century fiction. His island childhood off Greece’s Peloponnesian coast meant he had a natural affinity to the maritime adventures of Homer’s Odysseus, many of which became metaphors for Joyce’s Ulysses.
Martin celebrated Bloomsday every year. His 1972 Bloomsday party in a ramshackle flat in Enmore has gone down in legend because the laden brick-and-board bookshelves collapsed, nearly wiping out the assembled poets and drinkers of the Inner West.
Naturally, when Martin himself came to write a novel, it was in part an homage to Bloomsday. He called it Cicada Gambit. A number of scenes were devoted to the comical and ill-fated attempts of character Dr Skogg to celebrate 16 June in the streets and pubs of Sydney by attempting to recreate scenes from Ulysses, notably the Cyclops, Nausicaa and Circe episodes. Cicada Gambit was published by Hale & Iremonger in 1983 but is now out of print.
By 16 June 1990, Martin’s alcoholism had pretty much reached the point of no-return when he set about his annual Bloomsday binge at his local pub. Suffering a collapse, he was taken by ambulance to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, where the triage nurses tried to check his comprehension level by asking him what day it was.
"It is Mr Bloom’s day," Martin insisted in his precisely pedantic voice. The nurses, who obviously did not know the significance of June 16, thought he was rambling.
A few days later Martin died. He was only 42. It was the 21st of June, the winter solstice, a day with eerie connections to his mother Charmian. For in July 1969, the month she died, Pol magazine published her essay Winter Solstice, which contained the line There have been winter solstices since. Many and many of them.Too many perhaps. Like her son 21 years later, she died of unnatural causes while in her 40s.
In 2020, on the thirtieth anniversary of Martin's death, Nadia Wheatley (Martin’s literary executor) and Vivienne Latham (Martin’s copyright holder) developed a memorial website and launched a new selection of his poems, Beautiful Objects, published by Ligature (www.martinjohnstonpoet.com).