An unexpected lunch invitation roused me from four weeks of bed rest, the debilitating by-product of a persistent kidney infection. Eager for any excuse to escape Brisbane, even just for a day, I booked a cheap flight to Sydney.I rented a small car at the airport and drove, just as dawn broke, to a beachside suburb at the eastern edge of the city. I came across a park atop a cliff overlooking the ocean, where I sat to drink take-away coffee and suck salt air deep into my lungs.
At noon, I headed to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I met Nicholas Lambourne, Director of Modern and Contemporary Australian Art at Christie's, in London, for the first time last year, when he was visiting Australia to meet with a handful of prominent dealers. Now, I was to meet him again over lunch at the Gallery's restaurant. I lingered for a moment in front of Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe (Faith, Hope, Love), a painting-sculpture by Anselm Kiefer (one of my favourite artists), and Brett Whiteley's Woman In Bath.I used to loathe art business lunches. They were just excuses for portly, grey-skinned, late middle-aged dealers to try to get me drunk, make unsubtle sexual advances and press me to agree to exhibitions I had no interest in. They always ended badlly. These days, I'm a lot more successful and the highly accomplished non-Australian visitors I meet with, like Nick, are interesting and fun. Nick brought along a glamorous, intense colleague, Julia Delves Broughton, Christie's London Director of Valuations. I recognised her immediately as the sister of the late Isabella Blow, one of my few heroes. Dressed in a beautifully cut suit the colour of red poppies, Julia was petite and I loomed over her like an ungainly giant when I stood to shake her hand. She immediately began to ask me intimate questions. Lunch overflowed with talk of art, draughtsmanship, censorship, French films and America – and questions from Julia about sex, love, my relationship, whether Australian men are any good in bed (most aren't, mine is), the suicides of my grandmother and her sister, cancer and mental illness. Sometimes her probings made me blush. Usually, I deflect personal questions; this time, I didn't. Her candour was refreshing, her conversation a fun, unpredictable ride. Around us, other diners listened in, smiling uncertainly at us during the ruder bits.Elementally English and refined, Nick was nonplussed. I envied the beautiful thin silk scarf he wore, the same colour, a dense indigo, used by Brett Whitely in the backgrounds of his shower scenes. It was a relief to be in Sydney, even more so because I was in the company of two smart people who were not from there. I have a lot of collectors – and opportunities – overseas but too often I feel remote from them, as if they don't really exist at all. The lunch with Nick and Julia reminded me that in spirit, if not yet in fact, I'm already very far from Australia. Photo above: Isabella Blow and her sister Julia Delves Broughton (right), 1988