Review: Martin Edmondon David Walsh

Ghosts of me: A Bone of Fact by David Walsh

The other night someone told me that, for the very first time in our history, the living – currently 7.2 billion – outnumber the dead. Not so very long afterwards, making my way through David Walsh’s memoir, A Bone of Fact, I came across his opinion of the same phenomenon; but the figures were very different. In fact, he wrote, the dead outnumber the living by a factor of ten or more. Naturally, I went online to check and found that Walsh was probably right. According to a recent study at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington DC, around 108 billion homo sapiens may have been born upon the Earth, counting (or rather estimating) from a point 50 000 years ago; those of us around today thus make up only about 6.5 % of the total. The dead are indeed many: fifteen for every one of us still living. They might be thought of as accompanying ghosts.

Numerical facts – or speculations – such as these inhabit the pages of Walsh’s memoir the way the bones of the dead inhabit the Earth. Numbers are, indeed, of the essence, for that is how he made his money. He was a young working-class Catholic boy from one of the poorer parts of Hobart, mathematically gifted, intellectually curious, who, when he left school and went to university, started spending his nights at the local Wrest Point casino playing blackjack. He had gambling mates, some of whom he still works with. One of them, the son of a bookie at the local greyhound racing track where Walsh used to go with his father, he first encountered aged fourteen. The most important, however, is a man by the name of Zeljko Ranogajec, the child of Croatian immigrants, who is among the dedicatees of this strange book. They met playing table tennis.

Walsh, Ranogajec and the others proved to be consummate blackjack players, so much so that they were banned from many casinos for the crime of winning too much and too often. Their consortium, since named the Bank Roll, began to play offshore, in places as far afield as Hong Kong, Cape Town and Las Vegas. They then used the money they made to develop a system for betting on horse races. Walsh has ascribed the success of this strategy to an embrace of the wisdom of crowds:

You can work out some complex algorithm to predict horse racing odds using multinominal logistic regression, but the result would significantly underperform the public odds. The key is that the public odds must be included in your model. The best models are not predictive models per se, but ‘perturbation’ models that start with the assumption that the public is right and then work out what small errors they might make. The public odds are not just an important signal – they are a remarkably efficient signal.

The Bank Roll’s system is computerised, international in scope, and continues to yield large amounts of money – though not, apparently, enough to sustain the operations of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and its associated enterprises on the Derwent River, which David Walsh founded in order, he said, to give something back. Or, in other words, to repay ‘a debt for getting lucky in a way that does no one any good’. The investment in MONA was considerable: around $80 million to construct the building in which to house an art collection worth perhaps another $100 million. Walsh also stages various annual festivals on the site, focussing on food, wine, music and contemporary performance. Nevertheless, the museum continues to run at a loss. Indeed, in the blurb for A Bone of Fact, Walsh suggests that buying a copy of the book will help him offset these ongoing losses. This is a disingenuous suggestion, but also an engaging one. And those words might also describe the book itself.

David Walsh, by his own account, was a reader from a young age, particularly of science fiction. Later, he read literary fiction, popular science, philosophy, and much else besides. There is a whole chapter listing his preferred writers, among whom he includes Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola as favourites.

When Walsh came to write his own book, then, he had a number of literary models to choose from. But books, he believed, were written by other people – not by self-educated professional gamblers like himself. This sense of his own lack of entitlement is not entirely persuasive, but the literary model he chose to emulate is: Kurt Vonnegut – or perhaps Vonnegut’s alter ego, Kilgore Trout:

I’ve been trying to crank out sentences like his: ironic, funny, unpolished but gleaming. Kurt’s paragraphs are short, tight, insightful . . .

This confession, early in the book, leads into a long digression about how he, Walsh, is bound to fail in his attempt to imitate Vonnegut. Nevertheless, he is determined to try, not simply at the level of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of the overall construction of his book: ‘I’m going to mix up bits of sensible stuff and silly stuff,’ he writes, ‘just like Kurt and Kilgore in Timequake.’

Walsh is true to this intention but – again like Vonnegut – he is artful in his veiling of the art that has gone into the writing. This is, in fact, a sophisticated and knowing memoir, couched as the meanderings of a naive, über-lucky guy who just happened to make it rich, thanks to a combination of good fortune and good judgement. It owes as much, perhaps, to Tristram Shandy as to anything Vonnegut has written. A Bone of Fact frequently assumes what might be called an eighteenth-century manner: it has elaborate chapter headings; it is full of digressions, asides and footnotes; and the writing constantly comments upon itself and its progress towards becoming a book.

But its main achievement is in the construction of the persona – that is, the voice telling the story. Walsh is all over the book, from the blurb inside the front cover to the gold lettering on the back. His voice is insistent, ebullient, self-mocking, sometimes aggravating, sometimes illuminating, deliberately outrageous at times, oddly sentimental at others. He begins with a tribute to his older brother, who was part of the gambling syndicate in its early days, and who died young. After the introductory chapters, he moves on, conventionally enough, to an account of his family and his youth. He soon becomes impatient with this mode of chronological exposition, however, and shifts to a style of writing he finds more congenial: what might be called the anecdotal mixed with the philosophic. The anecdotes are excellent, particularly those that arise from his activities as a professional gambler. He is especially skilled at brief, acerbic sketches of others who have followed this profession, and there are some fascinating, doomed characters among them.

Many of these stories sound as if they have been honed through re-tellings over the years; if so, it is to their advantage. Walsh is a gifted raconteur and he has lived the kind of life that most of us know little about. He has also, despite the inevitable indulgences (which he hints at but doesn’t really explore), kept his wits about him. More to the point, perhaps, he has lived according to a set of values that may seem a little old fashioned, if not incongruous, in one who has followed such an unconventional path. He is a libertarian and an atheist, a vegetarian and an evolutionist; he also has strong views about the morality of our actions, some of which seem not so far removed from the ideas of right and wrong that might have characterised a Catholic working-class single-mother family in the Australia of the 1950s and 1960s. He believes, as mentioned, in the wisdom of crowds.

The anecdotal material generally shades into philosophical, scientific and / or mathematical speculations, which are, depending upon one’s proclivities, more or less enticing. I am one of those whose eyes glaze over when somebody tries to explain how probability works, and so those parts of the book where Walsh introduces the mathematics of his system or extrapolates from them to explore wider fields of inquiry, were lost on me. His views on atheism, evolution, vegetarianism and the like are more entertaining, even though those sections of the book sometimes take on a vaguely hectoring tone, as when some fellow in a bar insists on explaining his philosophy of life, when all you really want is for him to buy you another drink. Some of Walsh’s ideas are genuinely controversial: there are not many writers prepared to canvas the evolutionary advantages of rape as a means of human reproduction.

He does get cranky at times. A chapter that surveys the thought of ancient Greece dismisses the work of Aristotle out of hand because of his alleged invention of teleological explanations for natural phenomena. Walsh, as a believer in open-ended evolution and the decisive power of chance in our lives, takes issue with this, but there is a sense here, as occasionally elsewhere, of a lack of genuine engagement with the material. When Walsh briefly resurrects the Ern Malley affair, essentially so that he can re-tell a joke James McAuley once made, he unilaterally pronounces the hoax poet’s poems ‘bad’. He himself has a tendency towards the writing of verse that might have been better omitted from the book.

A Bone of Fact is laconic in its structure, as if it has simply grown in the telling. Indeed, it seems to have been casually written, often in planes, hotels or in bars. There is sometimes the feeling that Walsh has taken time away from the writing and then begun again; also that he will please himself as to what subject he next addresses. Towards the end of the book, there is a chapter describing all of the woman he has loved, followed by another detailing each of the houses in which he has lived. These read like afterthoughts, and perhaps they were. On the other hand, they are enlightening in their own way: Walsh is unfailingly generous towards his lovers and his lovers’ memories; although he has travelled the world, he has never really left Hobart. Perhaps his editor, who sometimes appears in a combative role in the sidebars to the pages, suggested these inclusions. Perhaps, too, she (I think it was a she) has had a role in the shaping of the book. Walsh is an opinionated man who does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise, but it is clear that he has also engaged collaboratively in all of the many things he has done; the book features a series of fine tributes to those he has worked with in various capacities.

What makes David Walsh distinctive is not his wealth, nor the means by which he has acquired it, but what he has done with it. His art collecting began in a serendipitous fashion. He was in South Africa and found that he was unable to take his winnings out of the country as cash, so he bought a Yoruba door panel worth $18 000 instead. He subsequently became a collector of antiquities, acquiring Pre-Columbian, Roman, Hellenic and Egyptian artifacts, before turning his attention to contemporary art. His first repository, established on the site of the vineyard and winery he also owns, was the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities. This closed in 2007 and then morphed, over the next few years, into MONA, which opened on January 21, 2011.

Walsh’s take on contemporary art is idiosyncratic. He told Christopher Joye at the Financial Review:

Art can make very imprecise statements that are very profound and communicate them quickly. It overloads all the senses and emotions – not just our intellectual capacity. As someone who was a kid who struggled with emotional expression, the sort of person that many people these days describe as autistic, art was a fascinating field that was unknown to me, and the more I explored it the more I realised I did not know.

The affinities between gambling and art collecting go mostly unremarked in A Bone of Fact, though they are certainly there. Walsh is interested in the philosophical as well as the mathematical aspects of games of chance, and he seems to prefer contemporary art that embodies or entertains philosophical questions too – particularly those that involve sex and death. His museum is underground and is meant to be a site for exploration and gradual revelation, so that viewers can piece together their own assessment of what is before them. There are no wall texts, although there is an (apparently eccentric) electronic guide.

Walsh does not say much about his taste in art in this book; its predecessor, Monanisms (2010), is his annotated catalogue of the collection as it was when MONA opened. There are accounts in A Bone of Fact of meetings with Anselm Kiefer and James Turrell, among others, but no mention of the work at the centre of the MONA collection: Sydney Nolan’s Snake (c.1970), which is made out of 1620 panels, each a discrete representation, that together form a serpent undulating through a field of images. To have made a place in which this work can be displayed – it is the size of an Olympic swimming pool – is an extraordinary achievement in itself.

It took me a while to read A Bone of Fact: I could manage it only in bursts and found that it read better on trains than while sitting still. Something about the constant motion made the writing flow more smoothly. I had to learn to engage with the full force of a strong, eccentric and forthright personality, who seemed to be speaking directly, sometimes exhaustingly, into my ear. A Bone of Fact is really memoir as a form of self-portraiture and, David Walsh being who he is, not much is held back. He is garrulous, sardonic, impudent, without shame and without inhibitions; but he also has a vein of kindness to his person that makes the encounter with him ultimately worthwhile.

This kindness manifests itself in an anecdote he tells about his time in the Tax Office, the only proper job he ever had. A poor immigrant woman had been caught working while her husband was claiming deductions for a wife who stayed at home. She was summoned into the office but evidently did not understand what she had done wrong. Walsh was obliged to proceed with what could eventually have become a prosecution. Instead, he told the woman she would never hear from the Tax Office again; and then he destroyed her file. This act of kindness came, I think, from his appreciation of the contingencies of fate. Walsh says of himself:

It is misleading talking to me if you do not acknowledge all the ghosts of me that did similar things but ended up with shitful outcomes, to coin a phrase.

Those ‘ghosts of me’ shadow all of us on our path through life among the 6.5% as we move towards the moment when we join the 100 billion plus of the dead. They are all alternate selves who did not manage whatever it is we have been able to do. David Walsh’s ghosts would not, presumably, have had the opportunity to found a museum, nor write this book. As a survivor who might so easily have failed, he is preternaturally aware of that. The volume itself is hard-backed and gilt-edged; it is handsomely produced, assiduously referenced, copiously illustrated – mostly with images from MONA’s collection – and it will set you back $55. Walsh will need to sell many thousands of copies to make up the $8 million MONA reputedly loses every year. But somewhere, somehow, those figures have probably already been factored in and given philosophical as well as financial weight by this particular member of the Numerati. Who knows? A Bone of Fact may yet turn out to be a winning investment.