The Cruise of the Carnival Legend

pic by Joel CarrettI

We embarked at four on a hot January afternoon. I had not been on a cruise ship before; had never boarded any vessel at the Sydney Overseas Terminal. At the time I was obsessed with the life of Joseph Conrad and especially with those periods in his youth he spent ashore at Australian ports; so that, after they let us on board and we stowed our luggage in the cabin, I went on deck and stood at the rail scanning the buildings on Circular Quay West, looking for remnants of nineteenth century architecture. There was the Sailors’ Home, beautifully restored, though not used to house sailors any more. The apostrophe a triangular sandstone relief, painted cream. Next door to that, a chapel where the wicked might once have gone to seek absolution; now a restaurant. The Rawson Institute for Seamen written across the front of the building still makes some people smile.

Here stood two large round stones from which the Eora people used to fish in the waters of the cove. Here is the shore where convict artist Joseph Lycett walked to meet, in 1814, at his house in Campbell’s Cove, the publisher Absalom West. Here is the Australasian Steam Navigation building, with four pulleys, a tower and a spire; next to that, the venerable Campbell’s Stores, where Joseph Conrad encountered an old sea captain who advised him to enter into the Sunda trade. His name was William Henry Eldred (1819-1887) and he was then (1879) Australian Consul-General for Chile.

Dover-born, Eldred went to sea aged eleven. He deserted the Renown, Hobart bound, in San Salvador in the Bahamas and, like Conrad after him, worked as a sailor in the Caribbean for a few years; and during that time became fluent in Spanish. In 1836 he is said to have commanded for a year the clipper ship the Clarendon, about which nothing else is known. He may have sailed in her; but seventeen seems too young an age for a first command. Between 1838 and 1846 Eldred was engaged in the Chinese opium trade, carrying consignments of the resin from Calcutta to the Pearl River delta; he was present at the fall of Canton (Guangzhou) in May of 1841, though in what capacity isn’t clear.

He spent the next few years as a trader in the Sunda—read Malay—Archipelago. By 1848 he owned the 400 ton barque the Caspar, and used her to sail between China, South-East Asia, Australia and South America. The Caspar made at least one migrant voyage, from Plymouth to Sydney, in 1849. Other destinations included Canton, Lombok and Valparaiso. While so engaged, his obituary says, he rendered considerable service to the Chilean Government. It would be interesting to know what that service was; there was a failed revolution, liberals against conservatives, in Chile in 1851.

In 1854 Eldred settled in Sydney as resident partner in the Chilean firm Cousiño & Garland, coal brokers who were investing in the flour trade. In July of 1856 he was appointed Consul for Chile in New South Wales; and in 1859, by decree of the Congress in Lima, Consul-General for Chile in the Australian Colonies and New Zealand. His firm, Eldred & Co, ship brokers and general shipping agents, was also established in 1854 and, over the years, diversified into a bewildering variety of areas of commerce. Conrad did of course take Eldred’s advice; but not until some years had passed.

II

I felt like a small boy again, watching the tug Bondi turn our great ship around beneath the bridge and set her course so she might steam directly away through the heads. A misty rain began to fall; out in the open sea, in a strong north-easter, the wild chopping water sent cascades of salt spray across the windows of the lookout at the bow where I stood. From there I saw the endlessness of the grey, white-tipped ocean; far veils of cloud in the east where more rain was falling; an opaque, yellow-white sunset over a barely glimpsed dark line of land to the west. We were in a kind of capsule, pulsing through the outer space of our expectations; which revolved, planetary like, impossibly, about our own desires.

When you buy a ticket on the Carnival line, you also buy—along with a dim cabin, below the waterline, without a porthole, in which to sleep—as much as you can eat from any or all of the many restaurants, bars and other food outlets upon the ship. You have to pay for your alcohol however. There were people aboard who seemed to be there just for that. To eat and drink, I mean. Some were grotesquely over weight; and still they ate and drank. The passengers were predominantly white people and we were attended at all times by phantom others; like thin dark ghosts. The wait staff were mostly from Indonesia; or India; the cleaners were from Thailand or the Philippines; the sailors, like sailors everywhere, polyglot, itinerant, stateless.

The officers, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, were Russian. All of these people lived in a parallel world, behind yellow painted metal doors through which you could sometimes glimpse another, far more utilitarian life, going on; but where you could not go. The captain was Chinese; and as we steamed south through the Tasman Sea, he addressed us over the tannoy in heavily accented but impeccably correct English, welcoming us aboard and telling us what we could expect on the voyage. One of the Russians told me later that we were travelling much slower than the ship was capable of going, in order to save fuel and also to keep to the timetable. To give us time to have our fun, he meant.

For there were the entertainers aboard as well. Musicians, singers, dancers; conductors of trivia sessions. Emcees of various kinds. Deejays too. There was an Entertainment Director who co-ordinated these activities, making incessant announcements over the tannoy. I met him later, while queuing for a cup of coffee. His name was Lee. A twenty-something lost boy from the coastal town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, England, to which he had never returned. I felt ashamed of my resistance to his announcements. His constant exhortations that we have fun. The way he told people off for not joining in. He said he’d lived on the ship for the last three years. He said his work was his life. I couldn’t imagine how desolate a life that might be.

III

Of all the entertainments on offer, it was the art auctions that interested us most; I was travelling, after all, with a painter. They took place under the auspices of Park West Gallery, a Detroit, Michigan based entity which operates on one hundred or so cruise ships worldwide; in a manner which probably does not differ very much from vessel to vessel. Park West was founded in 1969 by one Albert Scaglioni; he is still (2019) the CEO. Their business on cruise ships began in 1995, in partnership with Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.

I don’t know when their connection with the Carnival line began; but they are a good fit. The Carnival Legend took mythology as the theme for its décor; there were wall panels suggestive of nymphs and satyrs; of the columns of Greek or Roman temples; representations of gods who might have been Aphrodite or Apollo, Hermes or Athena. The rape of the Sabine women perhaps. Or the war between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. None of this décor was meant to be looked at; it functioned as wallpaper only, giving a suggestion of an antiquity in which a rash and violent hedonism was the prevailing mode of behaviour.

The art auctions took place in one of the theatres in the bowels of the ship, without windows, all low lighting and red plush, with a smooth voiced South African auctioneer named Pierre, and his assistant  Christopher, from North Carolina, touting the works of Park West’s stable of artists; some of whom—Peter Max, Yaacov Agam, Autumn de Forest—are authentic art stars in the twilight world of the wealthy and the meretricious. The art was displayed along rows of seats in the auditorium, or on free-standing racks; you could walk up and down examining what was for sale. The auction included many giveaways; but when my companion was lucky enough to ‘win’ one of these, she found that she would have to spend several hundred dollars having the work framed and then freighted from Miami, Florida to her home in Newcastle, Australia. She declined.

Let me summarise what was on offer: several varieties of soft porn—scantily clad women, turned away, with lots of back showing, in meadows, in parlours, in dressing rooms. If outdoors, they had angelic looking children with them. Twenties girls, flappers, looking pensive, in pastel interiors. Paintings of flowers in vases, brightly coloured, ‘expressionist’, using lots of orange and red and black. Faux surrealism, with Dali the commonest source of imitation. There was one fellow who specialised in paintings of elephants carrying cities on their backs. I quite liked these, even though they were perfunctory, repetitive, anodyne.

Hyper-realistic images of wild animals—leopards, tigers, lions, cheetahs, wolves; especially wolves. An almost credible imitator of early Kandinsky, painting Italian village landscapes in acid colours; super real city scapes, meticulously re-constructed out of collages made from thousands of photographs. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky and Salvador Dali, the artists whose works were most flagrantly imitated were Vincent van Gogh (wheatfields, starry skies, cafes by night); Pierre-Auguste Renoir (flowers and buttocks); and Pablo Picasso (his Blue and Pink Periods).

It was disturbing to think that these guys—they were mostly guys—took themselves seriously as artists. Or were they cynical old stagers, only in it for the money? They were an international crew, from Russia, France, Azerbaijan; but ultimately all Americans. Each had a schtick, a style, a formula which had been refined over the years to allow the production of work after work, each one slightly different from the last, all essentially the same. Some had even named their style: Abstract Sensualism was one, coined by a fellow who painted chromatic works on metal. The other disturbing thing was that none of the pieces for sale were actually paintings. They were high quality digital prints, some of which had been gone over with real pigment. Copies masquerading as originals, then; there must have been multiples of every one of them on all those hundred other cruise ships then circling the globe.

Park West has an Art Museum in Southfield, Detroit, which features previously archived masterworks created by Rembrandt van Rijn, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Francisco Goya, and Albrecht Dürer, among others. The company’s staff offices, fine art storage facilities, restoration studios, research department and digital catalogue printing facilities are also at its Southfield HQ; while their 181,000 square-foot ‘fulfilment centre’ is in Miami Lakes, Florida. This facility, not open to the public, is the distribution centre for the company’s cruise ship and land-based auctions. More than 300,000 works of fine art are framed there annually and shipped to customers and auctions around the globe. They are the Amazon of the art world.

After that first auction (we went to two), in the lift I met a young fellow with a trolley load of works, taking them back to the storage locker.

Are they sold or unsold? I asked him.

He shrugged. Some are, some aren’t.

Do you like the art? I wondered.

No, he said, I like the money.

IIII

Sometimes you would see people pause in their entertainments to stare out the windows to where the grey-green ocean rolled its endless white-capped swells up from the south. As if reconnecting with some movie they had forgotten they had bought a ticket to. When the sun came out the water turned blue and you saw the astonishing brightness of the sea. There were black shearwaters contriving never to touch the surface of the water, however close to it they flew. A pod of dolphins, gun-metal grey, and looking tiny, like tiddlers, swam along beside the vast bulk of the ship. The incessant sea spray left salt trails on the decks and the rails and on the outsides of the windows; it was sticky on your hands and felt somehow medicinal, like a warrant of health in a diseased world. I had read recently some prophet of doom predicting all fish on Planet Earth will be extinct by mid-century. I don’t believe him but what if it is true?

On the third day I set my alarm and got up at 5.30 am to watch while we steamed up into the land of our destination. A molten sun rose over Derwent mouth. I saw swathes of yellow light painted across dark green hills, startling white shafts falling on distant coves like an intercession of the divine. I remembered then that you do see such revelations of light in the south; and that their promises of ultimate disclosure are never false but never honoured either. Further up river, white houses, as if scattered by a negligent hand, were built across slopes running down to the shore. Hobart, our destination, looked small and old, like a miniature Wellington, huddled beneath the black mountain which also bears that name. Crayfish boats moored before the colonial buildings in the port. Many beautiful wooden craft, immaculately restored and maintained. We docked at the Terminal at 8 am and were allowed off the ship; told to return by 4 pm or they would sail without us.

The rental car had been upgraded to a gleaming AWD whose colour and brand name I have forgotten. A red Toyota perhaps. We picked it up in the city and drove west to MONA, the Museum of New and Old Art, arriving there before it opened for the day. There were ducks sleeping between rows in the leafy vineyards; rabbits hopping here and there; groups of California quail, looking faintly surprised to have attained the size they had. When the Museum opened its doors, we took a gleaming lift down into the depths of the sandstone peninsular, where galleries have been carved out of the rock, and where the heterogeneous, unsettling, often deeply strange works gambler and collector David Walsh has bought over the years are displayed. It was, without doubt, the perfect riposte to, and prophylactic against, what Park West had shown us.

I remember the cuneiform room—Kryptos, by Brigita Ozolins—which I was afraid to go into at first; as if to do so might have been to enter Uruk or Nineveh. On the walls were passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh translated into binary code. At the heart of the labyrinth, you looked up and saw yourself reflected in a mirror on the ceiling. There was the White Library: everything therein, shelves, books, catalogues, painted white. An enigmatic word shower falling liquidly down a roughcast sandstone wall; a carved wooden door that had once stood before a Dogon granary in Timbuktu. A painting of a bird-eating man, or perhaps it was a man-eating bird, with its face covered in the blue iridescent wings of scarab beetles. MONA merges museum and art gallery in such a way that you begin to look upon artworks as historical artefacts; and, vice versa, museum pieces as art.

The central work is Sidney Nolan’s mural Snake (c. 1970) which Walsh bought for two million dollars in 2005 and installed here in one of the caverns. Snake is 46 metres long, almost the length of an Olympic swimming pool; and tall as such a pool is wide. It is made up of 1620 individual painted panels, each more or less abstract but, together, making this shimmering, iridescent, undulating work. It has only been shown twice before, in England and in Ireland; until Walsh bought it and built his gallery, and his collection, around it. A rainbow serpent which, immured deep in the earth, seems like one of those entities that Aboriginal lore supposed came out of the ground in the Everywhen to make the world we know; and continue somehow to persist in the now.

V

The views during the passage up the Derwent that afternoon were as beautiful as any I have seen: soft dove-grey light falling across green hills; while out at sea a brilliant white line, a sandbank, a reef or an illusion, lay scintillating upon the water. Albatross and shearwater accompanied us; another pod of dolphins; and when the ship turned north into veils of rain I saw what I had missed on the way in: Cape Pillar, which Joseph Lycett painted.

It looked just like his painting: a double-humped promontory surrounded by choppy blue waters, with ochre shores and a green hinterland; the yellowy sward which blankets the nearest hump drawn back to reveal what Charles Darwin, who saw it from the Beagle, described as fine facades of columns. As if an X-ray vision has seen beneath both vegetation and soil to reveal the structure of creation below. Higher up, Darwin continued, accurate to the image, the land becomes mountainous and is all covered by a light wood. It had the strangeness of any object encountered before only as a representation.

After that, I just wanted to get off the boat; but of course you can’t. I took refuge in the Holmes Library. Clocks on the walls told the time, inaccurately, in cities around the globe: Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Honolulu; Vladivostok, Baghdad, Vienna and Berlin; Paris, London and New York. The shelves were lined with spines of books which, although they had titles and authors’ names printed upon them, were fake. The real books, not many, were in glass cases in a corner; including a Spanish language section. It was quiet in there and I could sit at one of the wooden tables by a porthole, reading and writing and looking out over the grey-green unappeasable incessantly rolling sea.

The only book I saw in there that I had read before was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about a doctor and serial killer in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Great Exposition in 1893. Others I considered adopting included M Train, by Patti Smith; H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; a non-fiction book about rain; and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In the Spanish language section was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz, which I have read; but only in an English translation.

When I had finished with my current book, Spook Country by William Gibson, however, I exchanged it for none of these; but a copy of Elvis Costello’s autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. I carefully pulled the stickers off the Costello then re-affixed them to the Gibson. Which I filed, perforce, under ‘C’ when really of course it should have been in ‘G’. This procedure gave me immense, if clandestine, and perhaps unworthy, satisfaction.

Costello was appealing when he wrote about his family and his past, for instance his father’s membership of the Joe Loss Orchestra and the gigs he went to hear him play at the Hammersmith Palais in the 1950s and 60s. And his grandfather, blowing his trumpet in orchestras on ocean liners in the early years of the twentieth century. He was inclined towards the dropping of names however; and to quoting, and even interpreting, his own lyrics; his editor had been unable to dissuade him from including inept attempts at fiction. He was good on life on the road, with a forensic recall of places he had played and people he had played with, even when pixillated. It was a book to dip into rather than read cover to cover; and when I was done with it, I gave it to a friend.

Disembarking at Circular Quay on a hot February morning, I stumbled upon something I’d been looking for but had so far failed to find: the Joseph Conrad plaque set in the pavement there. It misquotes something he wrote in The Mirror of the Sea, his autobiographical reminiscences published in 1906. Sydney harbour, it says he wrote . . . one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun had ever shone upon. Below this was the advice that he’d made several brief visits to Australian ports between 1879 and 1892; and that many of his works reflect his ‘affection for that young continent’.

Australia may be a young country but it is a very old continent. The pedant in me also wanted to correct the date—Conrad was last in Adelaide in 1893—and to restore what he actually wrote: bays the sun ever shone upon. But there were more interesting things to do. I had seen, upon a Derwent shore, the wreck of one of his ships; and wanted to find out more about that.

picture AAP: Joel Carrell

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The Unconsoled

KIWhen we moved in here on December 19th last year, a very hot day, I tried and failed to set up the TV. It stood for weeks like a black window, a door into infinity, on the wine rack next to the corridor that goes down to the bathroom. TBQH the only time I missed it was the day I invited a friend around to watch the cricket and found I could not get a signal. He had brought oranges and put them in the fridge, as if for half time, and when he left, in a bit of a huff, he took them with him. A couple of weeks ago a very nice fellow called Ahmet, a retired aerial guy from Indonesia, came round to look at it and, after a couple of false starts, worked out that the connection I had the set hooked up to didn’t in fact go to the aerial on the roof. We moved it to another corner of the sitting room, where the black box (actually white) that is the internet connection sits, hooked up there and immediately it worked fine. Since then I have watched two sports games, neither of which kept me engaged until the end—and nothing else. The thought of seeing TV news, of whatever stripe, nauseates me. All other programs, including movies, ditto. It isn’t just the advertisements, it’s more visceral than that, something to do with the acidulous colours and the flickering light. Perhaps then not visceral but psychological. Or even psychic. Anyway, as usual, the house is full of piles of books, because I generally have several on the go at any one time. But even here my habits are changing. Long before I moved out of Summer Hill, back in October 2019, Lisa gave me a copy of Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. It’s a Penguin that has lost both its front and back covers and was published in 1981, the year after it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize but lost out to William Golding’s Rites of Passage. It’s massive and, in order to fit between the absent covers, printed in very small type. Lisa gave it to me because she’d found it while clearing out her study, opened it up and read again the famous first sentence: It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. She thought it might amuse me; and it does. I knew that sentence already, had alluded to it, via a quotation from an Oxford don, in my 2017 book The Expatriates; but the publishers got scared and made me take it out. They thought the catamite in question, a real person, might still be alive; although I was sure he had already died. In Italy, as it happened. Anyway Earthly Powers has been on the bedside table ever since and I am presently up to p. 508 of 649; and enjoying it immensely, even though days and even weeks go by when I don’t open it. Somehow, as soon as I do, I instantly re-enter the world of the book; which is to say, I hear again the voice of that first sentence, as Kenneth Toomey describes his eventful and largely degenerate and often despicable progress through the twentieth century. Another book I have so far been unable to finish is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, which I bought in Kinokuniya in Tokyo back in January because I had just about finished reading his When We Were Orphans and was afraid, when we went up into the mountains, that I would have nothing to read. This is a fear recurrent since childhood and clearly irrational: wherever I go I find books or books find me. Nevertheless The Unconsoled may be the most anxiety-ridden reading experience I have ever had. It concerns the days and nights before a pianist gives a recital in an unnamed eastern European city and in its circumlocutions, its dream-like divagations, its non-sequiturs, perfectly describes the sense of dread, verging upon panic, that many if not most performers feel before they go on stage. I was doing quite a lot of travel back then (not any more) and found the only place I could read it was on a plane, where the enforced idleness, the lack of an internet connection, the inability to move around much or to concentrate upon a screen, left me no option but to read a book. I haven’t been on a plane since coming back from Auckland on March 2, as I discovered just now when I picked up The Unconsoled again and found I’d tucked my boarding pass in the back of it. I read two chapters (Part 4, 28 & 29) before stalling again as waves of anxiety and frustration washed over me. I’m on p 435 of 535 and there’s no question (as with Earthly Powers) that I will get through to the end eventually. This however has now been given urgency because of another book I’m reading, bought for ten dollars at Jason Books in Auckland: A House of Air by Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s sub-titled Selected Writings and includes her book reviews, her introductions and after-words, her autobiographical and travel pieces and is an absolute delight from start to finish. Not that I’ve finished it yet. I find her writing seductive in every particular and have been reading the book (p. 385 of 532) from the beginning, skipping nothing and not reading ahead either. Alas, in the section coming up soon (p. 420) she reviews The Unconsoled and I feel unable to read that review before I finish Ishiguro’s book. That is why I picked it up again today. Damn, I thought, if only I could get on a plane to somewhere. Even if we just flew around in circles for a few hours. My other current reading is The Mortdecai Trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli, a copy of which I picked up from the free library outside of Marrickville Metro the other day. I’ve read vol. 1, Don’t point that thing at me and it’s hilarious and addictive and startling too; but I’m denying myself the reading of vols. 2 and 3 until I can get The Unconsoled out of the way. The hero, the Hon. Charlie Mortdecai, is an alcoholic London art dealer who is trying, with the aid of his manservant Jock Strapp, to dispose of a stolen Goya . . . all (bar one, which is fraudulent) of the epigraphs to the chapters of vol. 1 are from Robert Browning and there are many other recondite, often obscene, and not always (to me) entirely comprehensible pleasures to be had along the way. Bonfiglioli is as good, though not as polite, as Chandler; and that’s saying something. Lastly I have a rather nice hardback of David Crystal’s 2011 book The Story of English in 100 Words which I bought for $2.00 from the Salvation Army shop on Marrickville Road last week. It’s lost its dust jacket but is otherwise in good condition. I allow myself a word here and there, currently I’m on p. 76, about to read about word 28, which is ‘Valentine’. I’m supposed to be a writer too but find myself, I don’t know why, incapable of doing any sustained work at the moment. Instead I have various documents on my desktop which I add to intermittently. Well, in two cases, not exactly intermittently. On New Year’s Eve 2019 I found in one of my folders a Word doc. with the title Dark Memoir. I didn’t remember creating it, nor for what purpose, and when I opened it up it was empty; so I thought, why not, I’ll keep a diary of 2020 which seemed, even then, likely to become an epochal year; and have done so, making an entry of some kind every day so far. Currently 75 days, 35 pages, 10,000+ words. I hate keeping a diary and have failed to do so for very long on every previous attempt; but I’m sticking with this one. The trick is never to read back over what you’ve written before; then you don’t become disgusted with the sound of your own voice and so delete it. The other thing I’m doing daily, or nightly, as the case may be, is writing some unknown thing on Twitter. I don’t know where this came from, nor do I know where it will lead; it’s probably not going to be very long and I am alternately infuriated and relieved that everybody in the Twitterverse, with one or two exceptions, is ignoring it. Finally, there’s a book (what I thought would be a book) I started over a year ago now which I appear to be able to add to late at night when my mind is usually fairly addled; and then only sometimes. This ‘book’ (27 pages, about 5000 words) is online but I haven’t shared the link with anyone and I’m not going to yet. I thought of writing in public, as it were, so people who were interested could read as I wrote; if I felt more confident about continuing, I would, but at the moment, though it’s not quite dead, it’s certainly in need of life support. You’d think this would be a perfect time to write a dystopian fantasy about the near future but no; or not for me. It isn’t about the virus, it’s about psychic evolution and the synergies our immediate descendants make with other life-forms. Octopi, Medusae. In other news I have (or perhaps had, it’s hard to know) three books coming out this year; but I’ll leave an account of them for another time.

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Tinda Creek

woodypearSometime towards the end of the 1980s Lud and Lexie, both painters, moved out of Sydney to a place called Tinda Creek. It was about a third of the way along the Putty Road, the old inland route to the Hunter Valley; and runs between two wildernesses, the Wollemi and the Yengo National Parks. They rented a demountable which stood above a dam in the bush about a kilometre in from the main drag on the Yengo, the eastern, side. Tinda Creek ran south from Mellong Swamp, in which ancient plants persisted, along with amphibians and water dragons and fowl; it was a dark and mysterious place; white bones of trees rose from the black water. Lud and Lexie were good gardeners and they had a vegetable patch and a herb garden going, enclosed with wire netting against the possums and other night critters of that place. They’d haul water up the hill from the dam every day. A stand of sensimilla marijuana too because they were keen dope smokers. It was a remote and beautiful place but not untenanted; at various stations in the bush around about feral humans had made camps for themselves on land that was part of the National Park; but actually belonged to the Darkinjung Nation. They were Yengo fringe-dwellers; not the kind of people you took lightly. All the blokes carried guns, usually .22 rifles and, over the years, intractable feuds had developed between them; which were as much a part of the socius as more conventional interactions. So one of the demands of living there was avoiding becoming implicated in any of the local vendetta. Which Lud and Lexie mostly succeeded in doing; although there was one fellow, the Dingo, a near neighbour, who developed an animus towards them. Because there was no basis for this, so long as they didn’t cross him, he didn’t feel able to act upon his anger; no matter how much he may have wanted to. He used to gather bush rock, illegally, and sell it to landscape gardeners in the city. One time he overloaded his ute, it stalled on the hill, and he got caught. His place was car wrecks, junk, fetid piles of rubbish—an emaciated pony penned up in a desolate yard, so starved you could count the ribs protruding through its sides. We used to wonder how we could set it free; and give it food to eat: exactly what would have have got the Dingo coming after you if he knew. At one point, not long before Lud and Lexie returned to the city to live – their landlord, a music union guy, tendered them a bill they did not owe and could not pay – the Dingo teamed up with a couple of petty crims on the run from WA and terrorized the neighbourhood for a few weeks, uttering cheques and menacing shop keepers and pub owners and the general population. Their spree ended in a siege (no police involved) at the house that stood at the head of the drive that led to Lud and Lexie’s place, during which the woman of the couple who lived there went into labour. Fortunately the matter was resolved, without gunfire, before the birth took place. Another time, late at night, about ten pm, someone knocked on their door; a guy dressed as Rambo: headband and all. He was looking for his girl friend who had taken off with his car at a gas station with their kid in the back. They gave him a cup of tea and he went on his way. Sometimes after they’d visited town for art supplies I’d drive them back out in the Honda Civic I had in those days. On one of those trips, at dusk, just before we got to the turn-off, an eastern grey kangaroo bounded into the path of the car and we hit her; she had a joey in her pouch; both mother and joey had their right back legs broken by the impact. Lud dragged the doe into the bush at the side of the road and killed her with a mattock; a fellow who pulled up behind us, a local, took the joey; he said he’d hand raise it and then release it into the wild again. During these visits Lud and I, without Lexie but with other friends who were there, like Glackin, would set off on long treks into Yengo; which wasn’t hard to do because of the fire trails bulldozed along the ridges. We would find wonders: a woody pear tree, like something out of a fairy tale, with its rubicund and dusky silver seedcases hanging down; geebung bushes, another protea, with fruit called snotty-gobbles you can eat; quandong trees, native peaches, also edible, a member of the sandalwood family. People think of Australian bush as dry and featureless; it is often the first but never the second. Past the grey-green, you see lavender blue, orange and pink; crimson and yellow in wild flower season in Yengo, like the detail you see in a Fred Williams painting. Then there was the insect life: ubiquitous and outlandish in equal degrees. I remember lifting up a log and below was a family of scorpions; of the marbled kind and quiescent though very ancient looking. I replaced the log. The only other downside at Tinda Creek was the sand mining going on at the property next door, the daily grind of diggers on week days, the trucks taking away loads of sand to use in cement in houses being built in Sydney. Years later I learned the mining company had been prosecuted for dumping chemicals into the Mellong Swamp, exterminating the delicate and unusual creatures who lived there. It’s on my mind today for another reason: the fires that are sending smoke down over the city are Wollemi and Yengo burning. Tinda Creek has been incinerated, along with what was left of the Mellong Swamp; the fragrant wilderness beyond is turning to ash. Who knows what is happening to the feral humans? People say 85% of bushfires in Australia are deliberately lit; but these fires mostly began in lightning strikes. It’s incandescently dry. Thunderstorm season but the storms are no longer accompanied by downpours; my son, who’s twenty, talks about the days when it used to rain. There are other things that don’t happen anymore: the bogong moths, which used to fly into Sydney from the south west at this time of year in their hundreds and thousands, no longer come. The Christmas beetles neither. And the little moths with black and orange chequered wings. But I’m an optimist; I think nature will survive us. Others will take our place. The bush will grow back. As to what we can do to help, I’m torn between the rapturists, who want to leave everything behind; and the activists who want to protest and also leave everything behind. Alternatively we could embark upon a quest to return to giving the kind of care the bush enjoyed before we came. I still have the six quandong seeds Desmond gave me; they’re hard, spiky, durable. They’ll germinate even without a fire going over them. Or not. I’ll plant them anyway.

Quandong

images : Woody Pears; a Quandong Tree

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Arthur Baysting

modal_Baysting-Neville-Mt-Eden

I first met Arthur in Auckland in 1972. I was dropping out of university ‘to become a poet’, and one of my lecturers, Denis Taylor probably, in despair at my insouciance but with a generous eye towards my future, sent me round to see him at his flat at 2 Ayr Street, upstairs in the old Kinder House in Parnell. This because Arthur was editing a collection of writing about Auckland to which Denis thought I might be able to contribute. I was a confused young man of 20; Arthur was five years older; kindly if circumspect. I don’t think he knew why I was there either.

The flat was full of stuffed birds on pedestals on loan from the Auckland Museum because Arthur’s wife, Jean Clarkson, was using them as models in her art-making. She was drawing bird-headed people. I never wrote anything and I don’t think the book appeared either. This was Arthur in an earlier incarnation, as poet and man of letters; his anthology, The Young New Zealand Poets, would be published by Collins in 1973; it’s a fine selection of work and still a valuable resource from those years.

The next time our paths crossed was in Wellington: when the first Red Mole cabaret, Cabaret Paris Spleen, opened at the Performer’s Theatre in Courtenay Place in 1975. Arthur wasn’t in that show; but Jean made the poster for it and also did artwork for Spleen: a useful organ, which started the same year. Arthur was a regular contributor to the magazine, writing long, multi or mixed media articles about Split Enz and the Red Hot Peppers; a Sci-Fi Country and Western fantasy; an educative piece about the perils of embracing nuclear energy.

He had come down to the capital because I had script writing work with Dave Gibson. Not many people remember that he was co-writer, with Ian Mune, of the Roger Donaldson film Sleeping Dogs, starring Sam Neill. He made his debut as a performer with Red Mole in 1976, at the second cabaret, Cabaret Pekin 1949, at Unity Theatre at the bottom of Courtenay Place. When I asked him what he remembered about that show he said Jean made a huge winking cardboard sun to a Brian Eno soundtrack. The song was ‘Taking Tiger Mountain’ from Eno’s 1974 solo LP Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy).

I also asked him where Neville Purvis came from? The character, he said—but not the name—came during Holyoake’s Children when Jean dressed me as a Bodgie and I spontaneously broke into song. Holyoake’s Children—the allusion is to Robert Patrick’s 1973 play Kennedy’s Children—was sketched by Alan Brunton for Cabaret Pekin 1949 and revived in The Sixties Show during the delirious seven month long season of Cabaret Capital Strut at Carmen’s Balcony in 1977. Item 3 on the one page scenario for the first of those cabarets, in March of that year, reads: Arthur Baysting, Emcee + continuity.

This was the first appearance of Arthur’s much loved and much abused alter ego Neville Purvis. Neville Purvis, at your service, he would say. That’s Neville on the level to you. Neville was a spiv. He wore white shoes, white trousers, white shirt, white waistcoat, white embroidered jacket, white hat, a black grease paint pencil-line moustache, dark sunglasses, and carried a white cane. He was from Naenae in the Hutt Valley and he lived with his Mum. He drove a Mark II Ford Zephyr and his milieu was one of petty crims who hung around billiard saloons and boarding houses, pubs and burger bars. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed: I thought fast and, when that didn’t work, I thought slow, which is me normal pace.

Arthur spoke Neville in his own voice: flat, nasal, a bit monotonous. His mode was a mix of the laconic, the satiric and the naïve. In his fiction he wasn’t part of Red Mole: after he’d got out of Mt Crawford Finishing School—jail—they’d asked him to come and lend them a hand. He positioned himself as an outsider and might refer to the acts he introduced as something a bit beyond his ken. He liked to bait the audience and the audience liked to heckle him. He had a few standard rejoinders: You just keeping taking the tablets, darlin’, was one. Are you the berk from Birkenhead? was another. His excuse for bad behaviour was always the same: a saga on the lager. 

He told shaggy dog stories and jokes that were funny in a bathetic, low-key kind of way. Once he imagined himslef being asked what the Hutt Valley was like before the Pākehā came? Miles and miles of empty State Houses, he dead-panned. Neville was not, not ever, politically correct. In another routine he evoked the famous New Zealand painter Genghis McCahon. Murray Edmond recalls a third—the tale of the fate of the winner of the annual Silver Plough contest:

As the winner drove home, up the Foxton Straight, in his Zephyr, ‘his mind must still have been on ploughing that straight furrow’—and here Neville inserted the only movement in his stand-up comic talk—his right hand went forward to grasp the imagined steering wheel while he turned his left arm, shoulder and his head to look behind him at the disappearing road, in his mind, the straight furrow. The head-on collision did not have to be mimed or named to be imagined by the audience: ‘He had ploughed his last furrow.’

Neville was intrinsic to the cabaret; he strung things together, night after night; his thin white thread ran through the outlandish exotica of the rest of the acts. He was already beginning to give up poetry and write lyrics for songs. There was one he sang himself, as Neville, with backing from The Country Flyers, during Red Mole’s Slaughter on Cockroach Avenue at Phil Warren’s Ace of Clubs above the old Cook Street markets in Auckland. ‘Money’, we called it, and included in it was the line I can’t get enough / pictures of the Queen. I hadn’t heard bank notes called that before.

Arthur also wrote the lyrics for a beautiful reggae tune, music by Neil Hannan, bass player in The Flyers, which Midge Marsden sang; with backing vocals by Beaver and Jean McAllister, sometimes called The Purvettes: O Rangitoto / Sitting in the harbour / Rangitoto / Sitting in the bay. Midge performed that song for the next forty years. It’s now a taonga of Ngāti Whatua. Both of these tunes were recorded: ‘It Takes Money’ b/w ‘Disco on my Radio’ was released as a single. I don’t know how it charted.

I missed Neville’s solo career because I was away overseas with Red Mole. I saw Arthur next in Sydney, where he had come after being banned from the airwaves for being the first person to say ‘Fuck’ on New Zealand television. At least we never said ‘Fuck’ was the last line of the last of the Neville Purvis Family Shows. I remember asking him if he thought of himself as an exile? Nah, he said, that’s too romantic for me. Down to earth, as always.

In Sydney Arthur organised and introduced the annual Kiwi Nights, which debuted at the Astra Hotel in Bondi in 1980 and 1981; riotous evenings of music, comedy, drag and who knows what else. The Astra had seen better days: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler, with Ernest Borgnine, John Mills, Angela Lansbury and Anne Baxter was filmed there in 1959. By the early 1980s it was seedy and run down; but still a good place to hear bands.

In those days Jean and Arthur were caretakers of a decaying mansion called Canonbury out on the end of Darling Point. It was a large, rambling, gothic-style brick and cement render place with a slate roof that had been built early in the twentieth century by Harry Rickards, a vaudeville actor and producer. After World War One it was bought by the Australian Jockey Club, who used it as a convalescent hospital for returned men. Then it became an annex to the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Darlinghurst.

I don’t know how they got the gig but it was a good one. I went to a party there once where there was more cocaine than I’ve ever seen in my life, before or since: mountains of white powder on horizontal mirrors in the old hospital bathroom. Drugs and alcohol were not really Arthur’s thing however; though he was broad-minded about them. This lot came from budding record producer, renegade lawyer and ex-swimming champ Ken the Cocaine King. He went back to Auckland and became a property developer. Arthur, too, returned to New Zealand and dedicated himself to music; anti-smoking causes; and advocacy for the creativity of children.

The last time I saw him was at Café One2One on Ponsonby Road; it was a Sunday afternoon gig by Sam Ford and Trudi Green. I was over looking into the Brunton / Rodwell archive in Special Collections at Auckland University. Arthur was with Bill Lake, one of his song-writing partners; Bill, with his band The Right Mistake, was doing a gig on the North Shore later that evening, promoting their CD As Is Where Is. Arthur contributed to half of the tracks on that excellent album. As usual, he was business-like. Have you got anything in your book about Red Mole’s work with kids? he said. If you haven’t, you should.

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images : Neville with his 1958 Mark II Zephyr outside Mt Eden Prison, c. 1979
with Cousin Cheryl and riot police at the premier of Sleeping Dogs, October 1977

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Previous publications

Palms

Isinglass

The Expatriates

The Dreaming Land

Histories of the Future

Battarbee & Namatjira

Eternities

The Place of Stones

Dark Night : Walking with McCahon

Hypnogeography

The Thousand Ruby Galaxy

Zone of the Marvellous : in search of the Antipodes

The Supply Party : Ludwig Becker on the Burke & Wills Expedition

The Evolution of Mirrors

Waimarino County (& other excursions)

Luca Antara : Passages in search of Australia

Chronicle of the Unsung

Fenua Imi : The Pacific in History and Imaginary

The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont

Chemical Evolution : Drugs and Art Production 1970-80

The Autobiography of my Father

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New Otoliths

New Otoliths

I’m in it

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Silk Road

20190904_132025Although I’ve been calling this place Kurohime, that is just the name of the railway station and the mountain; the area is properly called Kumakura, ‘Bear’s Larder’ or similar. There are bears around here; monkeys too – we saw some today on the way to the recycling plant. And last night something, probably a badger, was snuffling round under the tatami room while we were sleeping. We found footprints in fine dust beneath the house this morning. The Japanese badger is a mustelid with racoon eyes; it’s nocturnal, so heard but not often seen. Though the house is tight against the weather, sometimes you find small green frogs in the bathroom; there are larger brown ones hopping around outside; and the snakes that eat both kinds slithering through the bear bamboo. Yoshie showed me two shed skins she has collected. Shinanomachi is the name of the larger town, which includes Kumakura, Nojiriko (the caldera) and a dozen other places, all villages from ancient times. I always find directions difficult to intuit in the northern hemisphere though I’ve just about got it right now; the principles behind the disposition of the town we’re on the outskirts of continue to elude me. I’ve been to the Town Hall, to the Library, to the Hospital, to the Council Offices and still I cannot say how they sit in relation to each other or to the town as a whole. I think perhaps it is because modern infrastructure has been laid down over an old rural map where houses related to their surrounding fields, with their ubiquitous shrines, and to other houses more than they did to roads or grids or railways or whatever. Also I’ve been to the Temple and to the house of the Poet Issa, which stands on Highway 18, the Royal Road. In the Edo period gold mined on the offshore island of Sado was carried down here in wagons to the court of the Tokugawa Shogun. There’s now also a magnificent tollway which takes the same route to the coast but there’s still something about the Royal Road that makes you feel like you are breathing an older air. To the north west of town, before you go through the tunnel, heading towards Kumakura, on the left there is the Hotel Victoria. It is long and narrow, four or five storeys high, painted pink, with a balustrade along the front upon which numbers of grey-ish white neoclassic statues stand. Venuses, Putti, Atlases, Apollos, Virgins with Child and so forth. It is a love hotel, hence the colour. Not necesarily for illicit liaisons; many of the places around here (there are lots of large houses), are home to three or four or even five generations. Couples, therefore, in order to get away from the madding crowd, check into the hotel for an hour or two so they can make love in private. Teenagers, or young lovers, too, may escape parental scrutiny here. It’s about 8000 yen (= $100.00 aprox.) for an overnight stay, rather less for a ‘rest’ of a couple of hours; weekend rates are higher. On the other side of the tunnel, heading east and south on the Royal Road, there’s another hotel, standing eight storeys tall at a fork in the way. This was built by some entrepreneur, probably in the 1990s, in the expectation of a boom that never came. Though it was completed, and furnished (there are curtains in the windows), no-one has ever stayed there nor ever will. Weeds grow the height of a man outside reception, there are trees masking the lobby windows, inside, who knows, wild animals may have taken up residence in the rooms. It is as J G Ballard a sight as I have seen; although derelict dwellings, and other buildings, are everywhere. They sag back into the earth, festooned with creepers, their rooves collapsed by heavy winter snow, their windows blinded by webs and vines. If you drive on further, past the main street leading down to the station, with many of its shops shuttered (because, like in the West, most people go to supermarkets now), on the left you will see the sign that says Silk Road. It’s a Pachinko Parlour; today there were about a dozen vehicles parked in the carpark and about the same number of men, under sparkly lights, playing at machines in the enormous room. The game resembles pinball, but only vaguely. You purchase steel balls and insert them in an aperture at the top; they drop down, past various possible ‘cups’, through the playing field until (no win) they exit at the bottom. Any win gives the player more steel balls; which are thus both the bet and the prize. Gambling is illegal in Japan but Pachinko is a grey area; you can exchange your balls for tokens (‘prizes’) which may then be ‘sold’ for cash at a nearby establishment, owned and operated by the parlour where you won them – and so it goes. The Pachinko industry is said to generate more gambling revenue than Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau combined, though that seems unlikely; eighty percent of the owners are Korean, albeit domiciled in Japan. I asked the hostess who greeted me if I could photograph that strangely spangled ceiling, that cacophonous interior, but she became anxious and indicated that she would have to go and ask her boss; I said, no, don’t worry. Outside, on the facade, there are aqua camels on a yellow and orange ground; on the roof, two aqua domes and, between them, a neon sign; which, because I have not been there at night, I have not seen lit up. We went on to pick up Mayu’s new pink suitcase from the Black Cat depot, to which it had been despatched after she ordered it online in Tokyo last Saturday night; and then on into the afternoon. At the onsen the cherry trees that were bee-loud with blossom last time I was here, were now all green. Yellow daisies flowered amongst the morning glory. Swallows dived and swooped in the grey sky, from which heavy rain fell intermittently while thunder rumbled in the hills. I had a talk with a man called Hiro who is a petro-chemical engineer and has visited 153 countries. He told me about a lobster he ate, washed down with white wine, in Sydney in 1995. His skinny shanks and his humorous white-haired wife, who insisted on ringing the bell at the vacant reception desk, remain in mind. The rain is pouring down outside now in Kumakura, dinner is ready. It must be another kind of silk road I am upon, as seductive and as delusive as the one on Highway 18.

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