The Lost City of Ys

IMG_7186Freelance is such an odd term: what are we, knights errant? If anything, I feel more like a damsel in distress. When else do we use that word, anyway? When we lance boils? It’s as peculiar in its way as its close cousin, gun for hire. Why these martial metaphors for such a peaceable occupation as writing? No idea. Its real satisfactions are, first, being able to clarify in words what has never quite come clear before; second, publication. I am able to achieve that first pleasure almost daily, it seems; the second is rare indeed. Which is why I’m happy to report that last week I signed a contract for a book which will be published, all going well, in February next year. That’s nearly ten months away; but considering it took ten years to write, not so long. Most of it was done over the summer of 2009-10 but then I was interrupted and could not find the voice again – until after my doctorate was completed in 2013. But there were still two more sections to write, both quite short, both elusive. One came in a hotel room in Napier in mid 2014; the other, entirely unexpectedly, in the middle of the night late last year, October or November perhaps. Given that late completion, from there to a contract seems a short haul indeed; and the interval until publication, scarcely longer. And the book itself? I feel a curious reluctance to disclose any details. I’m not sure why. I suppose I would rather people read it, than read about it. Suffice to say, it is a dream of a lost history, and a map towards the finding of it again.

image : Imants Tillers : Map (Molonglo Basin)


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The Good Oil


Tony picked us up at Los Angeles airport in a rental car, a small blue compact hatchback, a Ford Pinto; their petrol tanks had a propensity to explode if the vehicle was rear-ended. We drove north through the Inglewood Oil Field, where pumpjacks like primeval birds bent and fed upon the blasted earth; past Culver City, Miracle Mile and La Brea Pits; on towards Hollywood, where we were staying at the Howards Weekly Apartments, just off Hollywood Boulevard at 1700 and something North Whitley Avenue. Tony seemed to know his way around already. He and the rest of the band—drummer Stanley John Mitchell, guitarist Richard Kennedy, singer Jean McAllister—were already domiciled in the Apartments and when we got there we had a reunion of sorts, even though we’d only been a week or maybe two weeks apart from each other. Like any band of musicians, they wanted to play and were already working towards finding the means and the opportunity to do so. It was my job, evidently, to help them.

Howards Weekly Apartments was nondescript, rundown, a warren of a place full of dubious, itinerant types like us; but affordable and comfortable enough for now. Our room looked south towards the Boulevard but there were impediments to the view. An air-conditioning unit was fitted into the window, which otherwise couldn’t be opened, and it wheezed and laboured day and night to produce, not cold air, but a smooth slab of encrusted ice—which you could lean your hot forehead against if you wanted to. The other obstruction was the atmos itself. When you looked towards the Boulevard, you saw dim shapes through a yellow-brown oily haze that hung wavering in the air and was made up of the noxious petro-chemical smog which the concentration of automobile engine emissions under an inversion layer produces. Maybe it was ever thus: as long ago as 1542 Spanish adventurers called this place La Baya de los Fumos because the smoke from cooking fires of the local Tongva Indians—or from fires in the chaparral—was likewise trapped beneath a layer of cool maritime air which was itself caught between the sierra and a higher layer of warmer air.

Hollywood Boulevard did not posess the glamour I imagined it would have. It was sleazy, desperate and sad, populated by small time drug dealers, hookers and pimps, grifters and hustlers, who spent their nights and days passing back and forth looking for a mark, a john, an opportunity or a score. If you went east, the porn shops, the head shops, the liquor stores and the general air of dissolute abandonment and threat increased; the Museum of Death is down that way now. If you went west, there were Grauman’s Egyptian and his Chinese Theatres, the expensive restaurants, the Walk of Fame with the stars set in the pavement, a classier sort of people perhaps. Or not—Angelinos in our neighbourhood, like Americans everywhere, turned out to have a voracious and disconcerting appetite for the proximity of celebrity and, the first time we walked down to the Boulevard, Jan was assailed by people wondering who, with her short red hair and tight silver trousers, might she be? David Bowie’s sister?

And yet, once you were away from the main drag, you entered quiet, leafy, elegant streets of red-roofed, white stucco apartment buildings with plantings of palm and hibiscus, massed hedges of flowering pink oleander. I remember the smell of gardenias on the balmy night air as I walked around to the 24 hour supermarket to buy ridiculously cheap, high quality fresh fruit and vegetables there: cantaloupes, to me the acme of luxury, could be had whole for just 37c each. Contrasts abounded: Stan and Tony, jazz aficionados, were entranced by the fact that legendary players they’d heard on record could be seen live and free at cafes where you might sit at a table all evening so long as you had a drink in front of you. By the same token, acts we thought must be huge turned out to be hard-working musicians with a modest following, just like the bands we knew in New Zealand. After a gig at the Palomino in North Hollywood, Commander Cody (but not His Lost Planet Airmen) stood at the entrance and, as we left, shook the hand of each and every punter who had come out to see him play.

One night when Tony and I tried to buy some dope in the carpark behind a fast food outlet—was it a Wendy’s?—the guy in the passenger seat took our money and then the driver accelerated away, leaving us bereft of both cash and drugs. I think we found some other, more honest, source soon after; marijuana was accounted a necessity in those days. Shortly afterwards, out at Brentwood, we bought our own car, a bronze 1972 Buick Estate Wagon with a Hebrew (perhaps Zionist?) sticker on the rear window and a knock in the big end. It was capacious enough to seat all six of us, three in the front and three in the back, with room for the guitars, the amps, the keyboards and the drums, behind. And so we joined those ranks of other large cars cruising the wide streets; they all travelled at the same speed, accentuating their resemblance to schools of predatory fish, with their grills gleaming like bared teeth. We too began to make our contribution to that strange, oily, petro-chemical smell that was always in the air.

We bought the car because, for reasons I no longer recall, we decided to go north to San Francisco. Perhaps because we thought, as a smaller city, it might prove more manageable than the intimidating vastnesses of Los Angeles were; perhaps because we knew someone living there. The plan to join the Moles in New York seemed to have fallen into abeyance. On the other hand, it was still only August and they weren’t even there yet. In fact, I don’t think we knew where they were; we barely knew where we were ourselves. These were times of confusion: when, for instance, I might turn the wrong direction into a one way street and find three lanes of traffic bearing ominously down upon us. There would be cries of alarm from the musos, I’d be sweating, wrestling with the wheel, trying to ignore that chorus of frightened voices, the thump in the diff (always worse in reverse), the outraged horns of other drivers, as I backed around the corner again. I’d make it without mishap and we’d carry on, shaken yet relieved, down the wide avenue or boulevard to wherever it was we were going.

Before we left LA we drove into the Hollywood Hills to visit Hello Sailor, who were living in a rented house up there. Tony had been their bass player in an earlier incarnation of the band; I’d known Dave McArtney and Graham Brazier since we’d been twenty-year-olds knocking around Auckland in the early 1970s. There were five saloon cars parked on the road outside and, up some steps and around the pool, five proto-rock stars were lounging, some with, some without, bikini-ed girlfriends. In the gloom of the mansion, David Gapes, their manager, an ex-Radio Hauraki DJ, was on the phone. He looked frantic, with his mop of curly hair seemingly about to stand straight up on end; but the Sailor boys seemed pretty relaxed.

They discussed the recent proposition, by Ray Manzarek, keyboard player and founder member of The Doors, to reform the band with Graham instead of Jim Morrison as lead singer. Ray had seen Hello Sailor at the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard. Graham wasn’t into it. I’m my own man, he said. We left feeling faintly abashed, like poor copies of the real thing; yet Hello Sailor were already in disarray and would soon retreat to Auckland. Perhaps that was another reason why we wanted to go to San Francisco: no other band we knew of had played there yet.

image: Inglewood Oil Field c. 2017; courtesy Chevron

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Still Walking

Philip Matthews on Dylan’s Nobel 

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Georgina Beyer on nightlife in 1970s New Zealand

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Mark Derby reviews The Expatriates

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Strange Things


My review of Bronwyn Oliver : Strange Things, by Hannah Fink

image: Umbra, 2003

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Dancing the Land

Antony Symons 16.11.42 – 25.2.18



This is the second time

I’ve booked a ticket to Rydal

& ended up not going

not going on the train

I mean

or ‘by coach’

(Trainlink didn’t

seem to know

which one it was

& if it was a bus

where it left from


I am still going

at least I think I am

if Desmond turns up

at 9.30

as promised

in his little white

Citroën van

What to wear?

I have on black jeans

black t shirt

white socks

black leather shoes

Shall I also take with me

the black & gold


Chinese silk jacket

Antony gave me?

The one he was married in?

Or would that be


garb to turn up to

his funeral wearing?

As for the wake

there isn’t going to be one

the family decided

there will be no gathering

before or after the funeral

at Antony’s house

Christa texted this week

everybody will meet

at the Cementary

It’s in Cartwright Street

near East Street

not far from the junction

of Lords Gully &

Solitary Creek

which was

I recall

Antony’s preferred

name for the place

he lived 35 years

& in which

at 1 pm today

he will be buried




I see Desmond standing

on the edge of the lawn

outside my place

waiting for me

to notice him there

wearing a cloth cap

a denim shirt &

faded blue jeans

& looking like

an extra from Minder

It’s raining lightly

as we walk down Morris Street

to the corner where I ask

Where is your car?

It’s up the other way

he says pointing back

the way that we came

So why are we walking

this way? I say

I don’t know he says

& that’s how it is

Desmond is a clown

professionally I mean

though he’s other things too

& so we turn around

& walk back laughing

the way that we came

Morris to Lorne

climb into the van

Goodness Gracious

painted on the side

& drive to Katoomba

without stopping once

cracking jokes all the while

Coffee at the Paragon

hot croissants at

The Little Paris Cafe

where engraved on the mirror

in cursive script

C’est La Vie

it says


unless you’re Antony

he died on the 25th

today is the 9th

I keep wondering where he’s been

all that time

ten days is a while

to spend above ground

when you’re already dead

his just skin & bone

in a fridge somewhere

Lithgow I suppose

That’s what he said to me

a week before Christmas

I’m just skin & bone

40 kilos when he died

according to Ray

who isn’t going to be there

pre-op, oncology, Tweed Heads

I think

If you have to go to a funeral

go with a clown

the jokes don’t stop

as we drive on through

Medlow Bath


Mt Victoria

the Hartleys

until a brief silent panic

outside of Lithgow

looking for the turn off

ah here it is now

lilies by the road

& flannel flowers

sheep pigs & cows

horses in the fields

make a landscape more beautiful

level crossing

dirt road

then the cementary

like a graveyard


with a seminary

I say

(Desmond was raised

a Catholic

in Ellerslie)

& there is the hearse

its tray open wide

& in the back a long coffin

shaped basket

a basket!

inside that basket

Antony’s skin & bone

one last joke

he always was

a basket case

before solemnity descends



Wiradjuri woman

Cean leads

the ceremony

bark & dry leaves

fire in a brazier

green leaves on top

in a brief wind from the south

aromatic smoke

drifts over the basket

just skin & bone

& over us where we stand

or sit under awnings

I can still smell it in my clothes

Cean’s two beautiful daughters

playing at her feet

in pink foldout chairs

feeding leaves to the fire

as she chants & sings

& moves round the grave

dancing the land

in the north west corner

on a far slope of

the Great Dividing Range

under a gnarled old eucalypt

that everybody says

resembles Antony

(as it does)

His own daughter Zenta


clapping sticks

while Cean dances

his other daughter Ella

shaking with grief

someone tells a story

about a fishing trip

a sea eagle took

a trout from the river

brought down with a stick

it fell at their feet

& they went home & cooked it

the fish not the bird

I tell the tale of

the Chinese silk jacket

what Antony said

when I offered him my arm

drawing himself up

to his full five foot seven

I have never fallen down

once in my life

& I don’t intend to now

& how he’d sing lieder

impeccably enunciated

in a pure unwavering voice

when the pain got too bad

Ray Minniecon says sorry

sorry, Antony, mate

Dancing The Land

your last sculpture

never found its spot

at Circular Quay

where the troop ships depart

where the troop ships return

Ted, the grandson

says it the best

from dust we come

to dust we return

dancing the land

then they release the doves

flying up past the tree

untangling his soul

Desmond places on the basket

a St Christopher

I find an obol

in the pocket of my wallet

& place it there too

ginger flowers

peacock feathers

three lines of white clay

Cean paints on the wicker

a warrior’s farewell

to speed him on his way



Turns out there is

a wake of a kind

after all


in the amphitheatre

Antony built

with some other workers

below the Showgrounds

in Pioneer Park

looking west from a slope

of the Great Dividing Range

out towards Bathurst

Dubbo beyond

dancing the land

scones with jam

& whipped cream

three varieties

of sausage roll


cheese & tomato

pickle & ham


the exotic note

a box of baklava

mugs of tea or of fruit juice

a bottle of white wine

nobody dares open

lest the drunken ghost

of Antony in his cups

appear cursing among us

I sling the silk jacket

about the shoulders

of the bust of an explorer

anomalously presiding

We don’t stay for long

dancing the land

laugh all the way back

to Sydney again

& when I get in

there’s four missed calls

from a fellow at Trainlink

who’d ordered me a taxi

from Lithgow to Rydal

& Rydal to Lithgow

station to station

& coach to coach

at either end of the day

I call Trainlink back

& try to explain

I’ve been to a funeral

in Rydal

I say

Oorgh says the bloke

that’d be Antony

how did it go?

Did he get a good send off?

The best

I reply

the best we could do



His ghost it will walk

walk those hills

in a long black veil

or silk embroidered jacket

dancing the land

all the long years

of the dissolution of

the ‘civilization’ he hated

until it passes away

as pass away it must

& what was & will be

joins again with what is

what was & will be

just skin & bone

dancing the land





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