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Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


Really Talking: Remembering Sasha Saldatow

Inez Baranay

shocking news

I am at the start of a three month trip to Europe. A day or so after arriving in Bristol my email brings me shocking news from a few people. My old friend Sasha is in hospital, in a coma, with liver failure.

I miss the faraway oldest friends very much; it seems the worst time to be so very far away. As we drink mugs of tea together Jenny tells me about Sasha in Melbourne in the early 1970s before his move to Sydney where I met him. There is comfort in being with someone who knew him as every few hours I check my mail, someone I could talk with about him. The reports come in over the next few days.

Sasha’s friends went to the hospital to see him. His old friends, old lovers, old work mates, old drinking pals encountered each other, learned new things about who he had been, said goodbye to his incommunicative body, and then sent news of his death.

In Bristol, I wrote something  to be read at the wake. Back in Australia I added to it. 


really talking

Dear Sasha,

Soon after we first met we sat together one day on a sloping lawn in a park, observing around us a large crowd of largely younger people at an outdoor pop concert, younger even than we were then, and we were young. We were beginning to make our friendship, talking of how we saw society changing. That was nearly thirty-five years ago. You too would always remember that day. It was the first time we spent time alone together, it was when we began “really talking”. You asked me what I was thinking about and I told you. Rock’n’roll wasn’t sounding revolutionary any more.

Conversations with you were exhilarating , everything mattered, everything was connected, everything was politics and sex and art; you had a gift for stimulation, empathy, silliness, challenge – and disruption. Whatever came after – infuriation, distance, differences, drifting away –to see you again, though as years passed that happened more and more rarely, still was to experience an instant reconnection, to plug into a charge  of memories and associations.

Back at home, I still have a picture of you on the wall of my writing room, you naked on red sheets posing in homage or pastiche of the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar: it’s a poster for the first performance of your show The Adventures of Rock n Roll Sally. That was the late 1970s. At the Tin Sheds. We’d been to see Lou Reed maybe that year. Among my photos there’s one of your electrifying performance, your short hair bleached platinum, you wearing only tiny denim shorts, one arm raised high. You were thin and young and beautiful. You could really dance. You were dazzling.

Your position then on going overseas was that no one should go overseas. I was about to go on my Big Trip To Europe, and you would not approve.


golden age

After I came back from my big trip overseas, Sasha took hold of the manuscript of my first novel and set about editing it, part of it anyway until he had had enough.

We had written stuff together before, in the 70s. “Which are you today, Simone or Jean-Paul?” he’d joke as we went to sit in a café in the Cross, Sweethearts café most usually, with our notebooks, to spend hours talking and writing and seeing who came by. One day the woman who worked there chased a man through the café from the kitchen out the back to the street out in front while waving a meat cleaver and screaming at him. The funny part was that people hardly looked up. Some days we composed material for what were called if not by us “underground” publications – newsletters of politics, ideas, gossip and silliness. They were typed onto some kind of stencil then printed on big old machines with wheels you turned by hand, machines in people’s houses or at friendly printing businesses. Art and printing went together a lot more then.

In the following years Sasha wrote, illustrated, designed and printed pamphlets of polemical  poems and essays and handed them out at theatre openings and art galleries.  One was called something like “what is this gay community shit?”  He pointed out that being gay on its own didn’t make you part of a community. Look at all the gay capitalists, they weren’t his community.

There were also the days we’d go for a walk and suddenly he’d say, I’ll see you back there later and I’d go on back to my flat and he’d return some time after and I had not seen the look that had passed between him and some other man, someone sunbathing on the grass or walking their dog or turning around from talking with friends, just one look is all it took, off he went and had another sex adventure, oh man how I wanted to be a gay man too. Not only for the sex but to be able to notice and read so much in just one look. And yes that kind of sex seemed ideal.  It was becoming unceasingly clearer that a gay man had it made in this city like no-one else. This was the 70s, our golden age.

our politics

In the late 70s I found myself in Melbourne with a research job and Sasha was back down there staying in nearby rural Daylesford, in his family house. I visited; we had a day or two alone and then his mother and an aunt or two and the odd cousin also arrived. They were not to worry about not having enough spare beds, I slept with Sasha in his bed. He told me his mother said to him, how can you sleep next to a woman and not desire her, how can you not love her? He said to her, I do love Inez. We talked about our shared belief in a real love that was separate from desire. Saying that to his mother, repeating it to me, was part of a realisation, a manifestation of our politics as he would say, I would say then politics is morals and that’s the kind of thing we liked to talk about.

Not that I always liked his morals or call them politics, he could be awful and I let him be. One time he took every one of my underpants, and I had some really nice ones, silk and lace and not cheap either, to do a performance, he put them all on and took them off one by one and threw them at the audience and never got them back and never said sorry. Times like that you weren’t meant to care about property, you were a lesser person if you did. He stayed at my flat when I was away and trashed it with his friends and left a huge phone bill. He could be awful and some of his former friends ended up thinking of him as nothing but awful, taking and taking and only taking.

lessons in writing

I came back to Australia in 1980 with a terrible hand-written first draft of my first novel and now I was out as a writer. The novel was completed by the end of 1982 in pretty much the form it would be published but that would take another seven years little did I know.

The new decade had not yet cast its shadow when Sasha showed me how to edit a book. He gave me a crash course in re-writing.  I left some of his additions and deletions to stand, and many I did not – too him-not-me. I finished the final draft satisfied. Eliminate every unnecessary word.  Slash slash slash. Read the whole thing aloud. Be alert to every single word. Wrong word! Sasha’s editing mark ‘WW’ is one I use every time I read over the first draft of a piece of writing. Editing pencil in hand, I write WW in the margins of my own and others’ manuscripts.

new publishing categories

The early 80s were also the years of the Sydney Womens Writers group, where I read my work to other writers for the first time, and first published my short fiction. We said short fiction or prose fiction rather than short stories. I was counted as a feminist writer, an experimental writer, a multicultural writer and any combo of those, they were the fashion and so my short fiction appeared in anthologies of feminist experimental writing  and experimental multicultural writing and so on. I would later say these new publishing categories had been invented to give me a place.

I also wrote for performance, for some of the shows that would take place at Pastels, and eventually a gently satirical revue called Zen and Now that played at a few festivals and theatres over a couple of years.

All those Sydney scenes ran into each other, but I was hanging out more with actors than writers, and went to more discos than poetry readings, though I’d eventually hear headlines and highlights of the gossip from the poets’ world. Often from Sasha. Poets seemed wonderfully combative. Also they wrote better stuff than most of what was counted as good writing, as far as I could tell. And generally brainier, practicing the highest form of literary art.

burning bridges

My flat in Elizabeth Bay had a sensational view of Sydney Harbour and was in the only part of town I wanted to live in. When life is good, when you’re young, you think that good years go on forever. I was young at an age some people are no younger young. The word might be immature. I’d begun to go to yoga more frequently, it was going to be six times a week by the end of the 80s; yoga became my anchor, my home, the practice that would remake and sustain me. I swam in the pool at the Domain, and one magical summer learnt sailboarding at Rose Bay. There were jobs in television; I did research for discussion shows on the brand new SBS TV and for education shows on the old ABC. 

SBS was created in the multicultural craze, its programming an acknowledgment (at last) that Australians come from diverse origins, while the ABC reflected the Anglo dominance of Australian culture; still does, still broadcasts lots of BBC shows. SBS TV is still a free-to-air marvel of foreign movies, foreign news services, documentaries and music shows from around the world. [1] (Commercial channels are mainly full of shows from or imitating USA shows. Broadly speaking.)

After I left SBS Sasha began to work in its esteemed sub-editing department, editing film subtitles, along with other Sydney literary identities of the time.

I didn’t want to go on working in television. If I were serious about being a writer I had to turn down those jobs. A TV producer I had worked with at SBS offered me a job on a daytime current affairs show at some commercial station and I knew that if I accepted it that would be my life. I turned it down and my bridges were burnt. Burning bridges, story of my life. Then I burnt a few more. Even while my first novel was not being published and not being published and not being published.

Consequently I had just the life I wanted, free to devote it to the freedom of creativity. But how well I knew the point of the joke “I got what I wanted but it wasn’t what I expected”. It often seemed that I had made a bad choice, as well as the only one I could have made, in any case one I couldn’t un-make; I had become a writer. My life took a bit of a dive socio economically, while it all sunk in that I wasn’t going to make a living as a novelist, that the films people were getting me to write weren’t going to get made, that the life of a writer could be penurious, perilous. For a while it seemed that’s how life is, then it became part of a past. Things change.

Sasha wrote a big novel that never got published.

When after many years finally my novel was published friends reported that Sasha felt  he deserved far more consideration of his part, the thank you in the Acknowledgments page was not enough. It’s something many editors have felt. These days we are less inclined to have blind faith that the author’s name is that of the individual lone solo genius birthing a perfect piece of work. Every book includes an Acknowledgments these days. And there he is for ever more in my first book.

more politics

In the late 80s Sasha took legal action against the Australia Council, suing them for not awarding him a grant. Australia’s richest government-funded grants body seemed like Roman nobles at the Coliseum, deciding artists’ fate with a thumbs up or thumbs down.  All the writers I knew argued about this at some time.  Should he have done that and why not? Are grants to be treated like a lottery? Or if you think decisions should be transparent, accountable, what should be the clear criteria?

something had changed

Something had changed Sasha, it must have been going to Russia. I didn’t see as much of him in those years, but there was the time we had a drink in the garden of a pub at Bondi Junction and he told me a little about his trip. It must have been the late 80s. How strange he was then, irritable and unresponsive. He had hurt his hip and now was stout and stiff and walked with a limp. I gathered  that something about living in Moscow had not been what he had gone there for. He went there to be a Russian. In Australia he was The Russian Poet but in Moscow he was not, after all, a Russian, so I gathered, he never said it like that. Planning to go to Russia, he had said, I’m going to be Party-Fun again. He used to call himself Party-Fun Sasha.

When finally after years of refusing to have a hip operation he had it done, it all came out, he had been addicted to Valium all those years, he’d  been taking large doses of Valium daily; that’s not a drug I understand.

Once in while we did find ourselves together again, hanging out, debating what we’d just read and how to use a semi-colon. I think the last time was at Varuna, a writers’ retreat in the Blue Mountains an hour or two west of Sydney. For three weeks in 1995 I was staying there writing short stories. Sasha had not only already stayed there too but had made it a place where he felt at home, I walked with him around the garden while he inspected with critical familiarity the things he had pruned or planted there. He brought me Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin to read. (You know how hard that is to get now?) I agree with Sasha, why not call him Yvgeny as in the original, Eugene isn’t quite right. But, yes, wow. And now it’s too long since I read it to say exactly why I was saying a yeah-you-said-it wow like that. But it’s to do with the decisions Nabokov made to go for a more literal transcreation of  Pushkin’s original rather than aiming for the smooth read or a poshlust sense of the poetic. I would try to pronounce Nabokov the way Sasha did. At the Friday night gathering they had regularly at Varuna  I read out a short story I had written there, I knew Sasha’d go for it though hardly anyone else  might. ([2] ) We did a kind of public conversation, not exactly an interview, just talking about, I can’t remember exactly now, things to do with writing, whether novels should be long or short. I do remember the mood in the room of warmth and enjoyment, and how agreeable it was to be in room of people gathered in a living room because they care about books. Let there be more Writers Centres. He went off to meet some friends the next afternoon and came back with some unusual looking red-coloured mushrooms. All the others at the house were horrified, certain they were toxic, possibly lethal, but Sasha cooked them and he and I ate them, they were delicious. I knew when to trust him.       

to say good-bye

Now I’ve gone travelling again and am not back there in Sydney with all his many and various friends to say goodbye, to commemorate him; to tell our Sasha stories and Sasha memories and describe the Sasha-shaped part of our lives. In time I heard what a great event it was, the wake for Sasha, a great send off. Sasha Party Fun would have been very sorry to miss it.

The last time I saw him, fittingly, was at a party. I gave a party at a Woolloomooloo pub for my self-published omnibus reprint Three Sydney Novels. The three novels had gone out of print, rights had reverted to me, and the omnibus reprint seemed like a good idea, not least because I could present Sheila Power in a suitably gaudy cover at last. This omnibus included my first novel, the one Sasha used for my re-writing lesson.

Anyway, in the restaurant after the pub party there were two big tables of animated people, all of us eventually moving around the seats, a convivial meeting of various people I’d known in various eras and locations. At one point Sasha and I had a chance to have a moment and we sat and looked at each other, and finally, very dryly, he said, So, success at last. As you see, I said the same way. That night, he met some new people – he did always rejoice in meeting new people – and charmed them to bits with some of the stories out of a repertoire that I might myself not have cared to hear yet another time, partly because it was not very heartening to see his more recent alterations.

Thirty years later he’d  still always remind me, everyone, of sitting in the gutter outside of a house in Darlinghurst at the tail end of a party where the contents of the medicine cabinet had been emptied into the punch that we all drank. Quoting me or a memory of me he would tell of us smashing bottles on the road and me saying dolefully, I think it’s dolefully, to think I’ve become the kind of girl who smashes bottles on the road after a party.

the end of that night

It was you and me left at the end that night.  You were staying with Bruce in Darlinghurst and I dropped you off in a taxi. You insisted on being left at the corner, but had a lot of trouble just getting out of the cab.  You refused to let me walk with you to the door. That stiff, unsteady, slow walk. The driver was really worried about you, and we did not drive away until you had turned the corner to the house; as for what was the matter with you I could not answer.

The last thing I said to you was, Sasha darling do take care of yourself and the last thing you said to me, laughing, was, I probably won’t.

Sasha Saldatow

1. I’m afraid a footnote is in order as when people speak of SBS now they say “when it used to be good”.

2. “Babe, Babe and Babe”. On my website.

About the Author

Inez is the author of 12 books - novels and memoir - including Betwene Careers, The Edge of Bali, Sheila Power, Neem Dreams and With The Tiger. "Really talking: remembering Sasha" is from my book-lenght memoir in progress, called Transition Zone: a memoir of cities and friendships. Inez has spent the last three years writing screenplays, memoir and stories in Europe, USA and India.You can read more about Inez and her work at


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