The Summer Exercises


Over the summer I read three books about Sydney – a kind of trilogy I suppose. Only Mirror Sydney (Giramondo, 2017) is contemporary; the other two were published ten (The Summer Exercises, UWA & Historic Houses Trust, 2008) and thirteen (1932 : a Hell of a Year, Macmillan, 2005) years ago. You could not find three books more different however. 1932 is a vivid, if scatty, account, by Gerald Stone, of various news stories current during the year the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened, with a strong focus upon the politics of The Other Dismissal (Premier Jack Lang by NSW Governor Philip Game). Mirror Sydney, from a blog of the same name by Vanessa Berry, is an eclectic and idiosyncratic account of various places, past and present, in the metropolitian area; it includes charmingly naive hand drawn maps and is never without interest, although for some reason (the prose style?) I did not enjoy it quite as much as I thought I would. The Summer Exercises is something else again: entirely engrossing and (in my experience) without precedent. Author Ross Gibson has spent years studying police photographs of crime scenes in Sydney. For this book he assembled 175 such images and used them to illustrate a narrative which takes place over the month of January, 1946. The narrator is a chaplain accompanying police on their rounds; the main characters include three Sydney cops, a black jazz trumpeteer, a runaway boy with a broken leg and a missing woman named Helen. Despite the sticky heat of a Sydney summer, it’s noir, circling round opium dens in Chinatown, the drains and other underground spaces where homeless kids live, and a house, on the outskirts of town, where porn movies are made – and other, unspeakable things happen. The narration is sparse, allusive, ‘poetic’ and scarcely attentive to plot as such; which unfolds, nevertheless, with brutal force. Each day, for 29 days, the chaplain makes five entries in his notebook; each day is illustrated by the aforementioned police photographs; except that: ‘in reality the characters and events and settings in the book bear no direct relationship to the photographs.’ And yet they do. Certain images recur and, although they have their own provenance (detailed in the back of the book), they come to stand for certain characters, certain motifs, certain situations, in the story. It is an extraordinary performance, in which you read two narratives, that of the ‘real’ story of the photographs and that which Ross Gibson has constructed around them, in tandem. To add to the engimatic quality of the images, some come from a stolen camera so that no-one knows exactly what they show; some have become detached from their files so, again, their actual origin is obscure; and some, like the wonderful cover image, are mysterious just because of what they are. Most of them are from the late 1940s and 1950s; and they bring to mind a sort of prequel, and another extraordinary piece of publishing, City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912-1948, by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams (Historic Houses Trust, 2005).



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The Anniversary of the Apology

Doug and the Author

I went to see

Sweet Country

at the Dendy

with a whole lot of other greyhairs

and one or two younger ones

These days

I find it almost impossible

to sit in a cinema

without becoming irritated

people eating and drinking

the crackling and the crunching

the slurping

the wet sound of lips

There’s no music in the film

save Johnny Cash singing

Peace in the Valley

over the credits

No trouble, trouble I see

Sam Neill

a capella

a hymn

and one other piece of found music

I forget


in the silence of the Quiet of Silences

you hear

wind over spinifex

you hear

the very quiet waters of the Larapinta

at Yapalpe

the very quiet waters of Kwartatuma

or Rwetyepme

I kept thinking about Doug

I saw him on the way there

he looked worried

I asked him what was wrong

he said something about his mother

as if he might have seen her

just then

in the Darrel Jackson Gardens

he said colours

red brown yellow black

you know

like those Red Indians

he said


most of it I didn’t get

maybe he was taken away from his mother

red brown yellow black

maybe 1971 was when it happened

or maybe that was when she died

he started trying to explain it all over again and then he stopped

never mind

and walked away

No trouble, trouble I see

The other day on the train

I saw a T shirt

C U (in the) N T

it said

Tjoritja, 1929

is where

Sweet Country

is set

True Story

Sweet country

is what Bryan Brown says

when he’s planning to give up policing

and go further west into the tribal lands

of the Arrernte

to found a cattle station


In another part of the movie

standing outside the jail

south of Mparntwe

in Henry

where Hamilton Morris is held

awaiting trial

for murder of a white man

he says

I am the law

You don’t know if it’s him who fires the shot at the end

undoing the fragile recompense

judicial law tried to make

you don’t know who fires it

all you know is a good man dead

Sam Kelly

(Hamilton Morris

the actor’s name)

his wife and his niece in the back of the sulky

covered in blood

their own blood

No trouble, trouble I see

Sam Neill stumbles off into the landscape


What chance has this country got

he says it twice

What chance has this country got

Wind over spinifex

the very quiet waters of the Larapinta

at Yapalpe

in the silence of the Quiet of Silences

I saw Doug again just now

outside the newsagency

he still looks worried

cigarettes from Jack’s cost a dollar each

he only had forty cents

I gave him the change left over after I bought

a manila folder

and an A4 envelope

I had $4.00

in silver coins

the stationery cost $1.60

that left $2.40

I still don’t know what’s bothering him

I can’t read his mind

but he can read mine


When you going away?

he asked

though I hadn’t told him


He touched me on the shoulder

that never happened before

Ok see you when I get back

such soft hands he has

No trouble, trouble I see

Doug went into the army

aged nineteen

it was a job

he was sent to Indonesia

things happened

but I don’t know what

he won’t talk about it

or I can’t hear

he never went back to Dubbo

where he’s from

or he did go back and for some reason

couldn’t stay

his eyes lustrous and dark and fathomless

look into mine

which are green

murky or transparent I don’t know

he starts to say something again and then he stops


never mind

walks away

again again again again again

What chance has this country got

In the silence of the Quiet of Silences

No trouble, trouble I see


February 13, 2018


Photo by Maggie Hall

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Another Irre(parable) World


The other night I was lying in bed reading, as is my wont, and I came across this: ‘It was not necessary to demonstrate facts; it was enough for an author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice.’ The words echoed strangely in my mind: why? And then I remembered. I quoted this sentence in Luca Antara (2006). I knew it was written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; knew he was talking about the effect (aged 18) reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis had upon him; but never knew where it came from. Living to Tell the Tale, his memoir, and penultimate book. I checked the publishing information: 2002 for the Spanish, 2003 for the English translation. But excerpts appeared previously, in The New Yorker (2002) and in Zoetrope (1998). Where did I get the quote from? I have no idea. It’s almost as if it was dictated to me by the ghostly voice of Gaby himself. I wrote Luca Antara, mostly, in Auckland in 2004. As with all my books, it is a collage of voices, amongst which the one that is my own may sometimes be discerned; but while I am working I never seem to have the time or the inclination to note down where particular elements of the collage come from. It’s why an academic career was never really open to me: I don’t (can’t) (won’t) footnote. So how curious to read the next sentence: ‘It was Scheherazade all over again, not in her millenary world where everything was possible but in another irreparable world where everything had already been lost.’

[image : Kay Nielson : Scheherazade & the Sultan 1918-22]

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I must have already met Jan Preston. I came home one day and there she was in the hallway, sitting opposite Gordon Campbell, talking non-stop; as she was wont to do. Mary was moving out; Jan had come about the room. Gordon and I said yes, something he, at least, would come to regret—piercingly and quite soon. Jan was enrolled at Teacher’s Training College in Karori. She’d come down from Auckland after completing a music degree the previous year. And she wasn’t well. She was recovering from the Hepatitis B infection she’d contracted from her last boyfriend, a Maori guy called Arthur Mita. I knew Arthur and, frankly, have never been able to imagine he and Jan together. But there you are. They were.

Mita wasn’t his surname, it was an alternate Christian name. His Maori name. I can’t remember his actual surname, although I think I saw it written down once. Everyone called him Arthur and then (if he wasn’t there) they’d say, Arthur Mita, as if there might be another Arthur around who wasn’t him. He was a tall slender handsome man who was always laughing, showing a wide mouth lacking a few white teeth. I used to play chess with him. I’d go round to his big old three storey house at 14 McDonald Crescent, between Willis Street and The Terrace, and we’d convene to an upstairs sitting room and play a game or two. Arthur was another in the long line of great Maori chess players. He was a superb tactician and he invariably won; I felt good if I came even close to troubling him. He played as much above the board as on it: the mind games were incessant and, despite his unfailing good humour, deadly serious too. Especially after I got together with Jan. What you doing with her, man? he would say. What indeed.

McDonald Crescent was a squat. It was alleged to have been the Firetrap Castle of the James K Baxter poem; though some say that was further up the road at number 26. There may have been some kind of urban commune at #14 for a while but now it was just lived in by people like Arthur, an unapologetic hedonist with no ideology, except perhaps an objection towards the paying of rent. Arthur was the cook at Macavity’s, a hip restaurant off Plimmer Steps in the city. He might have been a partner there too. Other partners included Rachel Stace and Peter Fantl. The food was magnificent, especially the salads, full of exotica, including nuts, like pecans, we’d barely heard of before. The servings were huge. Usually, around 10.30, they’d close the door and the partying would begin in earnest and go on until after midnight. Or later. The restaurant guests, mostly friends anyway, would stay on to drink and smoke and carouse. There was always music playing. Steely Dan. The Rolling Stones. Link Wray. Roxy Music.

Peter too was a tall handsome slender man with a wide white smile which did not lack any teeth. He was the son of an architect, a man who escaped Prague, aged 15, on a kinder transport, a train, on the eve of World War Two. Bob Fantl had come to New Zealand in time to enlist in the Air Force and fight in the war in the Pacific. He married a German woman called Clair Woolf and they built a simple and elegant house in Wilton. Bob was a colleague of Ernst Plischke. A pioneer environmentalist. Pete sometimes lived at home but usually had a place in town. 67 Fairlie Terrace, for instance, just around the corner from 96 Kelburn Parade, a house his parents were said to own. His only sibling, a sister, Judy, died in 1971; he told me about this after my own sister Rachel died in 1975.

Pete was a good cook too; and a dealer; someone you could go to to purchase any kind of drug. Remarkably, in Wellington in the mid 1970s, you could find just about anything—with the exception of those things, like Ecstasy, that hadn’t been invented yet. And maybe not opium, which had been obtainable in Auckland earlier in the decade but was now quite rare. Heroin, certainly. Buddha sticks were starting to arrive, very strong marijuana heads that came threaded around small skewers of bamboo; hence the name. Speed, of course. Pills of all descriptions, generally divided into just two categories, uppers and downers. Acid. Traffic lights were ubiquitous, small cylindrical tablets in three colours, red, orange and green. Cocaine was available too, if you had the money. Everything else was cheap as. Halcyon days.

Jan’s background was different from mine. She was the talented daughter of working class parents, born in Greymouth on the West Coast of the South Island; her family, like many Coasters, migrated north to sunny Hawkes Bay, where her father, Ed, was a milkman in Napier. Her mother, Tui, had the drive and ambition which impels children towards achievements of the academic and / or the artistic kind. Or into addiction. Jan’s brother Edward was a primary school teacher; her sister Gaylene, still at that stage in England, an art therapist who became a film maker. Jan was the youngest of the three, a classical pianist. She played the works of Scarlatti, Scriabin, Schubert, de Falla, Stravinsky, amongst many others, and had in Auckland been recruited into the avant-garde performances which composer Jack Body, principally, staged during those late sixties and early seventies years.

Alan Brunton, in July, 1968, had participated in one of these events: Jack Body produced a chance music composition that involved four people sitting at switches which they flicked when a light beside them lit up by some chance process. I was one of the switchers. In 1972 Jack’s multimedia production Sexus debuted at the Maori Community Centre Hall in Fanshawe Street in Freeman’s Bay. Body invited choreographer Jennifer Shennan to work with him to produce Sexus, an erotic and gritty stage-performance. This brought together six scantily clad dancers, a filmic projection and Body’s own sonic score. The dancers were paired to represent a spectrum of bodily encounters—male/male, male/female, female/female. Their movements were enacted in conjunction with the projected image of an ambiguously gendered man, who repeatedly performed a series of gestures and actions that confused the coded behaviour of conventional masculinity.

I remember the dancers moving before a large screen where the 16mm b&w film Jack made was projected. One of them was Deborah Hunt. The boy in the movie was young, androgynous, with long  straight glossy hair, filmed with his locks cascading over his face and shoulders and his hands caressing his naked torso. Was his name Gerry? He was, briefly, a campus hero. I wonder what happened to him. Jennifer Shennan, though a little older, was Jan’s bosom friend in those days and the two women resembled each other so strongly they were often taken for sisters. The other half of the Sexus program was a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kurzwellen, for six players with short wave radio receivers; Jan was one of these players.

I saw the show with a frisson of excitement but without understanding what was actually happening. I don’t remember Jan being one of the players. I never met her in Auckland, never even heard of her; though another of her boyfriends, the paradoxical and enigmatic Wilton Roger, was an acquaintance of sorts. I remember Wilton tacking up hand-written poems on the wall of Dean and Snail’s house at Leigh. Seven cauldrons for the Prince is a (Poundian?) line from one of those verses. Later he became an aficionado of the works of Wallace Stevens. He also played saxophone.

It turned out Jan had a ghostly encounter with me too. In 1972 I had been a member of the Scratch Orchestra; under the inspired direction of Phil Dadson, we performed Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, a setting for percussion and voice of a Confucian text translated by Ezra Pound. Phil had studied with Cardew in London; then founded his own Scratch Orchestra in Auckland. You didn’t have to be able to play: a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources (not primarily material resources) and assembling for action (music-making, performance, edification). As part of the lead up to The Great Learning, I cut a stencil and one night, with a couple of friends, took a spray can and inscribed the words The Streets Are Laughing across the veritable streets of Auckland. Jan had seen this inscrutable message on a path in Albert Park and wondered who its author might have been. It was me.

Either Sally or Alan—or both—knew of Jan’s work as a musician and a performer in Auckland. It may be that, the same night Alan asked me to contribute to the publication that became Spleen, he and Sally asked Jan to do the music for the upcoming, and inaugural, Red Mole show: Whimsy and the Seven Spectacles, staged in the Student Union building at Victoria University on November 30, 1974. I remember Jim Stevenson, the lawyer, and Alan’s friend since student days (and still), reciting; and his wife Jenny, whom everyone said looked like Mick Jagger, dancing. Jan played Igor Stravinsky’s Circus Polka for a Young Elephant on the piano. That was a riot.

Otherwise the show, as I recall, was wordy, static, frieze-like. Egyptian. There were three other performers apart from Jim & Jenny and Sally & Alan (couples in those days ((Jan & Martin)) came with an ampersand): Ann Hunt, now Robinson; Jim Spalding, a Canadian song and dance man; Erola Whitcombe. As with Sexus, I understood very little of what went on. Afterwards, perhaps in response to that perplexity, Alan told Jan there were seventy-seven levels of meaning to everything he wrote; it was up to others to work out what they were. This became, for years afterwards, a running joke between us. However, like Arthur Mita’s mind games, it was deadly serious as well. I have spent years trying to figure out what those seventy-seven levels of meaning might have been; in some ways I still am.

photo Sexus by John Miller

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(I used to be in a band called) The Ejaculating Pharaohs

7584862762_dfd33da75e_bWhen you enter the first of the seven Egyptian rooms at the Ashmolean Library in Oxford, a group of three figures greets you—two towering statues of the god Min, with his phallus in his left hand and a flail in the right; between and before them, an animal figure usually described as a lion. It might just as well be a frog—with teeth. The statues of Min were dug up at Koptos (Qift) by Flinders Petrie in the 1890s and brought back to England. They are pre-Dynastic. That is, older than the records. One altogether lacks a head, the other has its detached cranium suspended, as it were, above its torso in the place where it would once have been. They are mere slabs of stone with relief ornaments; apart from the cocks themselves, massive cylinders of stone which have mostly gone now, which were inserted into apertures drilled into the body of the statue and projected who knows how far beyond it? Flanged? Or not? The statue with the floating head still has the stump of its erection plugging the hole made for it; in the other, all you can see is the empty socket. The hands seem turning backwards around. Min, Lord of the Processions, God of the High Plumes, Maker of Gods and Men. The cos lettuce was one of his sacred plants, he was sometimes depicted standing upon a pile of them, because the white latex which oozes from a broken leaf or stem resembles semen. Lettuce. In amongst their grandeur and their strangeness, you have to love the homeliness of the Egyptians. There are suggestions that when a Pharaoh manifested as Min, he had to ejaculate publicly in order to prove his fertility, perhaps into the Nile itself; and there is a sub genre of depictions of an ejaculating Pharaoh. There is even some evidence that the two mysterious shafts in the Great Pyramid of Gaza, aligned to the stars, and sometimes called breathing holes, were actually left there as paths for semen to flow from earth to heaven, from Pharaoh to star. Or vice versa. This whole complex of imagery was suppressed from the books I read as a child and adolescent, probably in order to discourage unhealthy habits amongst the young. The solitary vice. Imagine the damage that might have been done to Empire. Hence, although I’ve been reading about ancient Egypt all my life, until I wandered into the Ashmoleon that rainy Saturday in February, I had not before come across the idea that the Pharaoh inundates Earth (The Black Land) and Sky (where his ancestors are stars) with his semen and so fertilizes the Cosmos. As well as (obviously) initiating the yearly gush and flow of the Nile itself. Yet there was a being who preceded Min: the vast and dark chaos of the waters themselves, call Nu or Nun, and imagined as female. The goddess Nu existed when the sky had not yet come into being, when the earth had not yet come into being. Before the Imperishable Stars of the North, before the Unwearying Stars of the South. She was the Cosmos and, in fealty, the first letter of her name, N, was written as a wavy line of water. For the Egyptians, as for the Sumerians, the world existed within an infinite ocean, which was only kept from engulfing the earth by the air we breathe, the atmosphere. The back of the sky, which we call space, was to them the surface of an ocean; where air met water. So that, you might say, when Min or Atum or Ptah or Osiris or whoever (they all did it) fired off his semen, it wasn’t seed that fell upon stony ground; but a salty deposit made into the great ocean of the Cosmos. As humans, they thought they must have come out of an egg that came itself from Ocean. Were they wrong? It doesn’t matter whether you think of the Seven Seas (they are really one) or whether you think of ‘Space’, through which comets and other heavenly bodies, containing organic compounds, perhaps Archaea too, hurtle. It’s the same thing: that envelope that surrounds us, where we cannot live, and without which we cannot live. The twin gods in the Ashmolean are vast, vestigial, slabs of carved stone, potent in conception almost beyond imagining; but nugatory now, like big mistakes. They seem somehow to fulfil Shelley’s ironic prophecy: Look on my works ye mighty and despair. Meanwhile, whether you think about it or not, Ocean roars on.

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Route 66


Dolores O’Riordan is dead

at 5 am

a swamp wallaby hopped across the Sydney Harbour Bridge

heading south

from Cammeray Golf Course

to the Conservatorium of Music

where police arrested it

for trespassing

An oil slick is burning in the South China Sea

that Iranian tanker exploded yesterday

immolating all hands

32 I think they were

the news report says there are grave concerns

Dolores O’Riordan is dead

She was 46

In your head, in your head

I drink my Lapsang from a brand new cup

bluebirds and butterflies, pink flowers

It says on the saucer it’s from the V & A

but I doubt that

I bought it for $4.00 at Vinnies yesterday

Hone Tuwhare died ten years ago today

He was 85

Tree let your arms fall

Peter is having chemotherapy in Auckland

He describes exactly how it feels

lying there having his veins pumped full of poison

while he reads Cecil Beaton’s Diaries

Afterwards he says he looked green

I still like the Bronwyn Oliver review I finished writing yesterday

though I haven’t re-read it yet

and do wonder if my remarks on suicide are flippant

The leitmotif is

When to stop and how to die

Marina Abramovic said that

in a documentary I watched last week

Dolores O’Riordan is dead

in a hotel in Park Lane

in London

where she had gone to do some recording

In your head, in your head

they are dying

It was Martin Luther King Day yesterday

He would have been 89

if James Earl Ray hadn’t shot him

outside his motel

in Memphis, Tennessee

in 1968

50 years ago now

he was 39

I keep thinking of those lines from Blade Runner

Too bad she won’t live

But then again, who does?

Maggie is in Stuttgart

She hasn’t called

maybe she is sleeping

or maybe she is mad with me again

I don’t deserve to die like this

says Little Bill Daggett

in Unforgiven

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

William Munney replies

then shoots him dead

David Webb Peoples wrote that screenplay too

In your head, in your head

I was never really a Cranberries fan

but I like that song

a couple of others too

They were from Limerick

Windy today, a bit cool

Breakfast was cold buttered toast and hot salami

cut so thin it was almost transparent

diaphanous salami

Now I’m having a cup of coffee

and wondering what to do with the rest of the day

Liamh says he might come up

We might go to the movies

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,  Missouri

The reviews are good

but Carl Shuker hated it

and Maggie refused to go

I try to keep an open mind

Milkshake duck is word of the year

Go figure

Lastling was runner up

As in, the last of your kind

Watching a kind of animal disappear

Dolores O’Riordan was detained after kicking up a fuss on an aeroplane

She had to cancel her last tour

because of a bad back

no-one knows what she died of

or not yet

but I do

In your head in your head

She had one of those voices that sound like

they come from far away

and long ago

Then I open up and see

The person falling here is me

She was bi-polar

of course

But then again who does

Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

In your head in your head


January 16, 2018

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A Note on The Rescue


“Wilfred was reading The Rescue in Fiona’s cockpit. He laid it down after a while and said, ‘I’ve given up on The Rescue. I can’t excuse Lingard’s appalling conduct in abandoning to their deaths his Wajo friends and allies for those Europeans in their wretched yacht. They should have been left to fend for themselves. How can Conrad have allowed Lingard to behave like that? Do you agree?’

I had worried about that too. Had not Lingard, for the sake of an infatuation with Mrs Travers—the wife of a man whose ‘life and thought’, as Conrad put it, ‘ignorant of human passion, were devoted to extracting the greatest amount of personal advantage from human institutions’—broken his word to Prince Hassim and his sister Immada, knowing that in doing so he had condemned them to death?

With the thunder of Wajo at our back the matter seemed of supreme importance.

‘Yes I do,’ I answered. ‘I agree very much.’”


Wilfred Thesiger, the great African, Arabian and North Asian explorer, then a man of 67 years, was on the yacht Fiona as she sailed from Bali up the coast of Borneo, across the Straits of Makassar to Donggala, and then south down Sulawesi shores. It was 1977 and Gavin Young was making the first of a number of trips retracing the journeys that the real Joseph Conrad, and his fictional characters, had taken through the archipelago a hundred years before. They are recounted in his superb 1991 book In Search of Conrad, from which (p 196-7) the quote above is taken. Now that I’ve read The Rescue myself (entirely on trains!) I can comment upon Thesiger’s dismay, and also upon Young’s reply.

The first thing to say is that Thesiger must have read almost right through the book before laying it aside, because the disclosure of the effect of Lingard’s action—or inaction—isn’t made until very late in the story; less than twenty pages, perhaps, before the end. It is however the crucial revelation. The second point is that, as so often in Conrad, everything depends upon what you think he thinks about what he has made his characters do.

Hassim has sent Lingard his ring, with a green stone, an emerald, set in gold, as a sign that he and his sister are in extremity and need to be rescued; but, through a complexity in the plot, the ring is actually taken to Lingard by Mrs Travers herself—who, in the event, for reasons she doesn’t understand, never gives it to him. Lingard doesn’t even find out about it until after Hassim and Immada—and hundreds of others—are already dead, killed in the explosion of the hulk Emma, used to store guns and ammunition with which to re-take the Wajo kingdom that is Hassim and Immada’s birthright. This was Lingard’s great, never accomplished, enterprise. The explosion is caused, deliberately, by old Jorgenson, who is usually described as a man already dead. For reasons of his own—they seem strategic rather than existential but who knows?—he steps into the hold where the munitions are stored with a lighted cigar in his hand.

When Lingard does find out about the ring, he remarks that, even if it had been delivered to him as promised, it would not have made any difference to his course of action—or inaction. He tells Mrs Travers the same thing in his last conversation with her. But how far can we believe him? He is a man infatuated and that infatuation has caused the ruin of many lives; including, perhaps, his own. He knows this; but will not or cannot admit to any fault.

Infatuation, after all, is imperious. Lingard’s first disavowal may be the response of a man in shock and denial; his second might be an act of chivalrous reassurance to a woman he will not see again; but whom, he also tells her, he will never forget. She herself, very soon after, casts the ring over the side of the wretched yacht and into the sea. She never understands what it means, or meant.

The larger contention of the book, to my mind, is that a certain kind of Englishness can never quite be left behind. Lingard’s encounter with Mrs Travers, and his infatuation with her, is an uncharacteristic reversion to Englishness by a man who thought he had said goodbye to all that a thousand years before. And, inter alia, to the class assumptions that go with Englishness. In other words, he falls in love with Mrs Travers because she is unattainable, because she represents all that he could never have and never even thought he wanted: until she appears before him. As for her, Lingard represents everything her husband is not and, equally, all that she can never have either.

This is not the standard interpretation of The Rescue. Most who read it (especially the 20,000 odd contemporary buyers) take the romance, with all of its heavy breathing, and its veiled consummation, at face value. But why? There is very little in Conrad that can ever be taken so. Even Young’s agreement with Thesiger in the passage above is open to interpretation; later in the book he remarks upon the fact that Lingard never received the ring: who knows what he might in fact have done (what Conrad might have made him do) if he had? An idle question I suppose; but one I can’t help asking as well.

I was surprised by The Rescue; I expected not to enjoy it; but I did. Principally because, however counter-intuitive it may seem, the standard interpretation of the narrative may be, as it were, turned inside out, so that the book reads as being about the wreck of a great enterprise by means of a foolish and sentimental romance; which itself has no other issue. This operatic affair was presumably the hook that caused so many to buy the book when it came out: a response Conrad predicted and, to a certain extent, deplored. He made the same prediction of his far more operatic, and far less convincing, The Arrow of Gold, predecessor to The Rescue; though without the censure.

The Rescue took him 23 years to complete; begun in 1897, it was not published until 1920; at which point he defied anyone to say where the long postponed work had resumed. I couldn’t tell. In the denouement, Mr and Mrs Travers, and their companion, the Spaniard d’Alcacer, continue imperturbably upon their voyage south in the rescued yacht. Lingard swaps his disagreeable mate for one more competent, and more to his taste; despite the fact that it was his, Carter’s, precipitate action that set off the chain of events that culminated in the explosion on the hulk of the Emma.

Meanwhile a kingdom is lost; and hundreds of Bugis, including Hassim and his sister, die because of the folly of two self-indulgent, unreflective and essentially delusional Europeans. This may not be what Conrad intended; it is certainly what I read.

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