Varunaby Mark O'Flynn, 2016
supported by Varuna, The National Writers House and Blue Mountains City of the Arts Trust 2015 Grant Program Cite this
By Mark O'Flynn
The product of one of the most generous individual philanthropic gestures in Australia's literary history , Varuna has inspired a whole coterie of writers , and has done for nigh on 25 years. All this has been well documented, including the hundreds of books that have been published with the help and blessing of Varuna's nurturing manna.
The sunflower yellow of the exterior walls, the ruby glow of the Sugar Maple outside the kitchen window, the fridge full of sumptuous left-overs; these are some of the incidental wonders so many writers have experienced while staying at Varuna the Writers House in Katoomba . Oh, and the books, don't forget the books: the writing.
Varuna is located on Cascade Street, Katoomba, a short walk from the centre of town, and a short walk from the edge of the escarpment looking down into the magnificent Jamison Valley. A bush walk will take you to a number of lookouts that command some of the most fabulous views in Australia, the edge of a deceptive wilderness two hours from the metropolis of Sydney.
It is a perfect environment for writing, if only for the gift of time and space to reflect on where the work is going. All the normal domestic intrusions that interfere with getting words down, the cooking, the cleaning, the shopping, are dispensed with. Even answering the telephone, Eleanor Dark's nemesis, is taken care of. If the spectacle of the landscape is not distracting enough, and it is for a while, there is nothing else to do but write. So few are the intrusions that on one occasion in 1997 Dorothy Porter emerged from an intense period of work to detect a strange change in the atmosphere and in the manner of the people around her. It took her several uncertain days before she was able to ask: 'Did something happen to Princess Diana?'  Of the hundreds of Australian and international writers who have stayed, each would have a different story of how Varuna has influenced their current project and their writing more generally.
A living, breathing home
Varuna, named after the ancient Indian god of the heavens and the waters, a powerful deity indeed, was the home built, or rather rebuilt, on two acres of land by Eleanor and Eric Dark in 1939. A bright and roomy house with modernist stucco exterior, certainly larger than any other house in the neighbourhood, it has been described by Eleanor's biographer Barbara Brooks as 'a bit of a monument.'  The studio, added later, still boasts Eleanor's sprawling desk scored with cigarette burns and a custom built cabinet with a separate drawer for each developing chapter.
It is a beautiful house and in 1990 Mick Dark, their son, did the unthinkable – he gave it away. In memory of his mother, and to prevent the land being subdivided into a real-estate horror show that he feared, he wanted it to be a place for writers to come and work, and, as it was in Eleanor's time, a place to discuss ideas around the fireplace.
Many writers who stay at Varuna say they get an impressive amount of work done in a relatively short space of time. Surely you can't write a book in one, two, or three weeks? Perhaps not, however it is surprising how significant a concentrated period of time can be in navigating an idea through its formative or final stages towards a state of glowing preparedness. Professor Elizabeth Webby jokingly referred to a new genre in Australian literature, that of the 'Varuna book,' an observation which belies the variety of work that has been achieved in the place, but which does point towards the extent of its influence. There is no time for procrastination, as if, as some writers claim, there was someone standing at their shoulder, arms folded sternly, saying: get on with it.
Varuna is an iconic institution in a slightly contradictory way in that its work is largely hidden from view. It is a comparatively private icon with a quiet, meandering power. It rarely opens its doors to the public, except on special occasions, although in days gone by it has served as a focus for the local community of writers by playing host to book readings, launches, forums, festival events and, not least, some raucous and rambunctious curry nights; Dorothy Hewett holding court in the lounge room, while her husband Merv Lilley dispensed mulled wine from the tureen in the boot of his car outside. These sumptuous communal feasts allowed Varuna to play a galvanising role for visiting and local writers, something that Mick Dark loved. They brought a focus to a common ideal, namely a shared understanding of the value of writing and of writers in a local, national, and international context. Indeed many friendships and writerly liaisons have been formed there.
It was at one of these curry nights, with children full of chocolate biscuits sliding up and down the staircase, that Mick Dark told the story (not for the first time I'm sure) of why the fireplace in Dr Dark's GP's office did not draw properly and had a tendency to fill the room with smoke whenever it was lit. As a boy, when the builders were constructing the chimney, young Michael climbed onto the roof to see what the bricklayers had been up to. Peering down he dislodged a new brick, still wet with an icing of fresh cement, and knocked it down the chimney. Where it stuck. A secret he kept for many years. It sounds like the sort of mischievous exploit of Tony Griffiths, the wonderful character from Eleanor's story 'Sweet and Low' in Lantana Lane, might get up to. A reminder that apart from its standing as a cultural icon it is also a living, breathing home, where Eleanor's grandson Rod Dark still tends the garden, and the roving family of writers moves through the doors in a shimmering wealth of words adding steadily to the cumulative sense of community and purpose.
There is a story of one writer, alone in the rambling, creaky house, who was told to expect the arrival of a second writer-in-residence later that night. Eventually: all the late night noises of arrival, followed by the sound of the distant bathroom door closing, the toilet flushing, the door reopening. Half an hour later, the same sequence of noises. And later again, the same, repeated over and over until after about five or six times the first writer thought: that poor person is sick. Yet in the morning, lo and behold, no second writer had arrived at all. Spooky.
I must admit, apocryphal as this story sounds, I have had something of a similar experience at Varuna. But, I hear you cry, I must have merely talked myself into it; alone in the house, just a dream, something wrong with the pipes. What does haunted plumbing (albeit heritage listed plumbing ) have to do with the benevolent spirit of the pen, or the laptop, telling people to stop wasting time? It may well not be the sort of book Eleanor herself would have liked, however no one else is going to write it for you. Why else are you here? I'm sure there are people who have misused the gift of time given them in Varuna's quiet light, people who haven't quite got done what they had hoped, but they are no doubt in the minority. There is always the cooking.
At the top of the lovely art deco stair case curling up to the writers' rooms above there is a deep-set window looking out on the established trees of Eleanor's beautiful garden (and also the houses of the neighbours). Another writer (I have forgotten who) pausing there to admire the view once said that she felt the distinct presence of someone standing behind her. More than just a distinct presence, she felt someone nuzzling her neck. More than just nuzzling, she felt the disconcerting, corporeal nuzzling of a moustache at the nape of her neck. Turning around, outside the main bedroom, there hangs the portrait painted by Bim O'Rielly, Eleanor's brother, of Dr Dark, looking rather dapper in his army uniform, sporting a pencil thin moustache. Again an apocryphal, folklorish story - nothing like a benevolent spirit with attitude. This portrait and other aspects of the house have found their way into various books, including Brenda Walker's Poe's Cat.
One last anecdote: Again a convivial meal around the lounge room fire talking about the nature of the beneficent promise which sometimes seems to permeate the very air at Varuna (the plumbing, the portrait, the disembodied moustache, and others besides) someone asked Mick if he had ever seen his mother at Varuna.
'Yes,' Mick said, and it is now something that those who knew him, and those who have stayed there, can say of Mick himself, in grief and gratitude, 'Yes, but it was a long time ago.'
Brooks, Barbara with Clark, Judith. Eleanor Dark: A Writer's Life. Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1998.
Dark, Eleanor. Lantana Lane. With a new introduction by Helen Garner. London: Virago, London, 1986.
Low. John. Eric Payten Dark (1889-1987). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17 (MUP) 2007 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dark-eric-payten-12401, viewed 18 February 2016
Low, John. Dr Eric Payten Dark. Blue Moutains Local Studies blog, August 31, 2011, http://bmlocalstudies.blogspot.com.au/2011/08/dark-eric-payten-1889-1987-medical.html, viewed 18 February 2016
Varuna: The Writers House http://www.varuna.com.au/, viewed 18 February 2016
Walker, Brenda. Poe's Cat. Melbourne: Viking, 1999.
Wyndham, Marivic. Dark, Eleanor (1901-1985). Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17 (MUP) 2007 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dark-eric-payten-12401, viewed 18 February 2016
Wyndham, Marivic. A World Proof Life Eleanor Dark, a writer in her times, 1901-1985. UTS e-press, Sydney 2007 http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/books/world-proof-life, viewed 18 February 2016