OBITUARY: Robert Close

Robert Close has been compared with Conrad as one of the greatest novelists of the sea. He said: "I had to be there when I wrote, to sweat, taste the storm's spume, lick bloody torn fingernails, to swear and to set down the bawdy talk of sailors' brothels."

His passionate and pithy book Love Me Sailor (1945) led, however, to one of the most extraordinary trials of the century in Victoria, Australia. Despite the support of Henry Miller and his loyal publisher, Ted Harris of Georgian House, who said he recognised "the flame of genius in the work", Close was sentenced to three months' imprisonment after being charged with committing an obscene libel.

Judge Sir Edmund Herring, who refused him bail, had never heard of James Joyce, whose book Ulysses was being sold in the same shop. His successor, Judge Martin, who convicted Close after a staged re-trial, declared that Shakespeare could have suffered the same fate. He told Close: "You have made a gross assault on the morals of the community," and fined him pounds 150.

Close had the final word, to the jury who wanted autographed copies of the book; and this "made even the gaolers wince". In his autobiography Of Salt and Earth (1977) he wrote that the authorities were determined to convict him because of their paranoia about left-wing writers. Close later sold his manuscript of the book to Sydney University.

Close's frantic early life in Australia, racked with disappointment and hardship during the Depression, gave him the material and doggedness to write. He hated school and was passionate about the sea, like his paternal grandfather. But four years after sailing on the windjammer Shandon at the age of 14, he found his career was blighted by the discovery of his colour blindness. To his delight he found he had a powerful singing voice but TB crushed this vocation too.

With a wife and two young sons to support, he worked as labourer, manager, salesman, and debt collector, but read literature avidly wherever he could and won prizes as a short-story writer. He always claimed the weekly meetings of the Writers League in Melbourne, started after the Spanish Civil War, were the best possible training for a writer, but said he wrote well when he was alone.

Disillusioned by the trial and an unhappy marriage, Close left to live in Europe for the rest of his life, only returning to Australia for two more years. But Australia still formed the setting for most of his novels. In liberal France, he became the toast of Fifties Paris, where he was compared with Ernest Hemingway and given the support of George Whitman (a descendant of Walt Whitman) at the famous Shakespeare & Sons bookshop.

Once in a cafe, overhearing a man called Bill talking about leaving his flat, Close rushed over like a long-lost friend. The bemused Bill who lent his flat was the writer William Gadden. In another cafe a man asked the waiter who he was. He wrote a note with his name and the man returned one with his - Picasso. Not long after, Close said, he met an American girl who had hitched through 93 countries and was a virgin - till she met him. He was an incredible romantic, but needed the security of marriage to write.

Thanks to Maurice Girodias, of the Olympia Press, whose reputation for not paying his authors was resolved when Close challenged him to a duel, Close earned sufficient fees from the Olympia edition of Love Me Sailor to buy a six-ton cutter and live in Cannes. Here he met his second wife, Francette, a Martiniquaise, during the film festival.

But Close was a restless spirit and rejected a bourgeois life. Once with his friend the film star Peter Finch he made a toast: "God protect us from good women." Later, when a friend in Majorca asked what he would do if there were no women in the world, Close replied, "A bottle of whisky . . . and write for ecstasy".

Writing was Close's life and women its romance, though he loved a yarn with his mates. He completed With Hooves of Brass (1961) in three months in an Australian timber settlement; She's My Lovely on Mount Calvo (1962) in Italy in four months; and Eliza Callaghan (1959) in 18 months, writing 600 words a day in freezing temperatures in Moret sur Loing. He suffered constantly from hypertension and after Francette died he threw away 30 years of his diaries because he said they were so sad.

It was a side his friends never saw. In Paris he was always charming, elegant and bubbling with fun. I enjoyed endless chats about life and literature in Paris and later in his flat overlooking the port of Andraitx, in Majorca. It was here that his restless spirit felt at peace thanks to his adored friend Catalina, and other friends who arranged an auction to pay for his nursing care.

Bob Close always said that if a writer did not use his imagination it would come back and bite him. In Morn of Youth, his first volume of autobiography, he concluded: "The morn of glorious youth was ended. Somewhere beyond the shoals and storms ahead was a future hour."

Jackie Williams

Robert Close, writer: born Camberwell, Victoria, Australia 15 July 1903; books include Love Me Sailor 1945, The Dupe 1947, Eliza Callaghan 1959, With Hooves of Brass 1961, The Voyage Continues 1970, Of Salt and Earth 1977; twice married (two sons); died Palma, Majorca 17 July 1995.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home