Near Tayan Pic


The kids instantly re-inhabit the Palaeolithic. Television is 50,000 years in the future. They can bridge the gap in a thought but I am slower. I am in Dilmun, with the copper trader Ea-Nasir, from Ur, a contemporary perhaps of Abraham. Ea-Nasir is often late and sometimes delivers poor quality ingots; he does not always pay his bills on time either but that is not my concern. After all I am a free agent. The copper comes from Makan, with the diorite, the u-stone, the shuman-stone; and to Dilmun there comes also gold from Tukrish, lapis lazuli from Harali, carnelian and fine sea wood from Meluhha, crystal from Marhashi, ebony from Sealand, the wool of Elam and of Zalangar; and from Dilmun come fish eyes, that are pearls―for grain, sesame oil, noble garments, fine garments, sailors of Ur. The cities on the mainland are Qatif, Uqair, Thaj, Hafuf, but the mainland is sinking, the salt is rising, the gardens are being eaten by the Bitter Sea . . . the stridulation of the cicadas is incessant, cacophonous while the sun is shining, like all the insects here they are afflicted with giantism, they are black and orange, they have a W on their backs which, looked at another way, resembles the Batman mask. They steal a frequency from the air, we cannot hear our esses when we speak. There are big orange hornets too and green-gold scarabs that crawl from the reeds—reeds which have forgotten, if they ever knew, the miraculous child left floating in a basket to be found by another and raised up so his name would be remembered always. The Cudgegong was dammed in the 1920s, the water pumped down to the cement works where it was heated over coal fires and passed through a steam turbine to run the machinery. All that is finished now but the five kilometre long snake, the lake of deep black water, the drowned valley, remains. That’s where the kids jump off the grey outcrops, again and again, screaming their delight. They name the rocks, the jumps, for the first time, and then again, again. Golden perch, catfish, blackfish live in these waters. We drove here through Sofala, Ilford, Kandos, Rylstone. We drove over lava flows. The mountains are called Nullo, Midderula, Coorongooba, Monundilla, Tayan Pic, they are ancient cones of extinct volcanoes, one notched at the peak, there are micro climates within their craters, relict plants of earlier ages thrive there. I will come back in winter when frost cracks the Triassic sandstone, I will sit by the water and meditate; on Pagoda Hill I will remember Tu Fu. Today on the way to Platypus Point we saw a goanna, grey-black and yellow striped, climbing a tree. Laying the soft underside of its leathery neck like a lover along the rough trunk. After an hour in the bush things come into focus, I begin to see the dead in the shadows behind every tree. The three-petalled fringed iris goes from blurred to sharp the way the extruded and piled pagodas are etched against the sky, rising like pyramids out of the green when I surface after that first dive into the cold black water of the Cudgegong. The kids explore the rock formations in the morning, in the afternoon they find a W pecked into an overhang: they have not left the written word behind, not yet; or else they are advancing rapidly to meet it, perhaps to re-invent it in this fragrant wilderness which begins to take on a medicinal quality as the sun shrinks open the pores on the eucalypt leaves. When archaeologists excavate here they will find bottle caps with stags or Xs on them; but the faded red ochre handprints in the cave, so low down and small they must have been made by children, will have gone forever, along with the name of the ______ people who made them. The Wiradjuri. The Darkinjung. The Gamilaraay. The Dharug. 12,000 years. I can hear the voices of children calling from among the stones as I write. The grasshoppers are more delicate, they are Egyptian grey, orange under wing when they leap or fly. The persistent, grey and black striped stinging March flies, tabanids, will hover for minutes looking for a place on your skin in which to insert their flanged proboscis and thereby suck your blood. Only the females bite, they need blood to grow their young; the males live on nectar. I wait and then I slap them away. One I miss leaves a ruby bead on my elbow that the little moisture flies, musca, cannot ignore. Down among the reeds there are blue dragonflies, Eurasian coots with white beaks and pukekos, called purple swamphens here. They flick their tails when they walk on their long red legs, inspecting the muddy shallows. There are purple daisies too, and some other smaller purple flowers: purple seems to be the colour of the flowers the way orange is that of the insects. The cicadas fall constantly from the trees, you find them with their gossamer wings torn and shredded, bumbling among the detritus of bark, the incandescent leaf litter. Often the spray of liquid—water? urine? something else?—that they expel before and during flight falls in a fine mist across your face or in your hair. It does not seem to be toxic. In the screeching heat, a kind of benison. Up on the tops, among the eucalypts, there are the darker green pencil pines, a native cypress, tall and elegant, as Chinese seeming as the pagodas that are some kind of volcanic remnant, with their surrounds tessellated, crenulated. When we paddled up the lake in our pale blue canoe we found the bulrushes gave way to papyrus but the papyrus did not remember the child Moses either, nor that distant Akkadian or Sumerian king once also given sanctuary among reeds. Papyrus is perhaps a caconym. I am still in Dilmun, which the Seleucid Greeks called Tylos, where some say Gilgamesh went in search of immortality. It may be that the Green Man, Al-Khidr, worshipped yet by the Shi’a on Failaka, is Uta-napishti, Ziusudra, Noah, survivor of the deluge, who would or could not give the gift that Gilgamesh asked. He sent him diving instead, telling him to tie stones to his feet and go down into the abyssal waters for pearls. That were his eyes, his fish eyes. Abyss may be our sole Sumerian loan word. At Qala’at al-Bahrain they dug up from the floors of a palace pots in which there were the bones of snakes and, sometimes, a pearl the snake had swallowed: the herb that makes old men young again, stolen from Gilgamesh while he bathed. Here I am both young and old. Oannes, the fishman, is who I am or could be, first among the seven Abgallu, the antediluvian sages from Mohenjo-daro in Meluhha. At evening, when the cicadas at last fall silent, we are given back our esses. As the blue cloud begins to fade along the green ridges and the still waters of the lake reflect the new moon, the faint stars, you can hear the reeds whisper these old tales and many more I have no time for now. The kids are back, they want to eat. Later the stars will blaze, mysteriously, commonly, unseen through a million future winters, past summers. At night sugar gliders drift between the trees. It is so quiet you can hear the owls.


image (and speculation as to the origin of the name):



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Notes on Photograph #238


Daiei Film Studio

Daiei Kyoto Studio

The precursor to Daiei Film Studio, Dai-Ichi Eiga, was formed in Kyoto in 1934 as a subsidiary of Shochiku Studio; in response to rival and competitor Nikkatsu Studio’s purchase of Tamagawa, a failed independent in Tokyo. Masaichi Nagata was appointed by Nikkatsu to run Tamagawa but within a month, after a dispute with management, he left and founded Dai-Ichi Eiga instead. Nagata, born 1906, had joined Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, in 1924, working first as a guide, then a location manager, and subsequently rising through the ranks to become Head of Production.

When he resigned from Tamagawa he took with him many Nikkatsu stars. There were allegations he had been bribed by Shochiku to sabotage Tamagawa; it was said that the money used to set up Dai-Ichi Eiga came from an exclusive English school for children of the Kyoto elite run by Nagata’s wife. Be that as it may, in its short life, Dai-Ichi Eiga produced two indisputable masterpieces: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy and its companion film, Sisters of the Gion  (both 1936). When, that same year, the studio failed, Nagata became head of Shochiku-owned Kyoto film production facility Shinko Kinema.

In 1941 the Japanese government announced ten independent film companies were to be merged into two. These mergers were designed to give the government control over film-making; effectively, to turn film production houses into propaganda arms of the military. There was no possibility of resistance: raw film stock was classified as a war material and its availability to the studios would henceforth depend upon their making the kind of pictures the state wanted. Nagata was in a difficult position: under the two-company plan, Shinko Kinema studios would close, leaving him unemployed.

Nagata went public, claiming the plan, designed by Shiro Kido, head of Shochiku, was an attempt to consolidate Kido’s own power and that of his organisation. This endeared Nagata to others in the filmmaking community, many of them artists and writers, who also opposed the government plans, and they elected him to head a committee to canvas counter-proposals. As a Kyoto man, Nagata could take a more proactive stance than Tokyo people, who were in daily contact with the Office of Public Information. He suggested setting up a third company. The OPI realised that a third company, unencumbered by established management structures and old allegiances, could become its own public relations arm. Nagata’s plan was ratified.

Two Nikkatsu studios, Shinko and Daito, were combined to form Daiei (Dai-Nihon Eiga, or The Greater Japan Motion Picture Company) under Nagata’s management. His power increased when the board could not decide upon who to appoint as president and Nagata offered to take on those duties as well. He officially became President in 1947 and, apart from a brief period in 1948, when he was purged then rehabilitated by the Occupation authorities, remained in that position until 1971. Throughout this period he produced about a film a year, sometimes more; as well as a great deal of television.

After the war was over and Daiei’s propaganda activities, perforce, ceased, the studio faced a number of practical problems: no theatre chain and therefore no reliable distribution; a dearth of signed up star actors; lack of a back catalogue acceptable to the Occupation authorities, who had already restricted jidai-geki or period films because they were thought to encourage patriotic feelings of the kind which had fuelled the war. Kyoto, the old Imperial capital, was the centre of jidai-geki film making while Tokyo was where most gendai-geki, contemporary (post Meiji Restoration) films were made.

Nevertheless, production at Daiei continued at the frenetic rate attained during the war; one estimate, made by Teruyo Nogami, was that in the early 1950s they were turning out fifty films a year, that is, four a month or one every week. Nagata as a producer was commercially astute, with an eye to what would prove popular; but he had a genuine respect for artists and writers as well and would work to create the conditions in which they could realise their ambitions. He also loved baseball: the studio had its own baseball team, the Daiei Stars.

Without the luxury of big names on its payroll, Daiei started making exploitation movies instead, featuring themes like adultery and auto-eroticism. One Night’s Kiss (1946), by Yasuki Chibu, was the first to break the taboo against showing people kissing on screen. Daiei also produced, in 1949, the first Japanese science fiction film, The Invisible Man Appears. It was based upon the H G Wells novel and its special effects director, Eiji Tsuburaya, went on to work on the breakthrough sci-fi film, Godzilla (1954). In 1950 Nagata was invited (by the Italians) to send Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon to the Venice Film Festival where, in 1951, it won the Golden Lion.

In 1953 Daiei made Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa; the first Japanese-made colour film released internationally. Filmed in Eastmancolor, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1954 and took out Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. American film makers were transfixed by the way it cast a sheen of colour across subject matter that accorded with their own explorations of noir themes. Gate of Hell became a template for Daiei: a blend of the exoticism the West hungered after and the kind of picture which Japanese audiences would go to see.

Other innovations at Daiei in the 1950s included a Japanese Tarzan, Buruuba, in a picture shot in Hollywood; the making of erotic films for young people; and, mid-decade, some Taiyozoku (‘Sun Tribe’) pictures about disaffected youth, which included the smash hit The Punishment Room (1956) by Kon Ichikawa. It featured a drug-assisted date rape and played morning to night with standing room only, primarily because of its appeal to high school students and especially to young women.





Most of those who worked for Daiei in the immediate post-war years were young. Too young, perhaps, to have served in the war; but not so young that they hadn’t felt its effects. Teruyo Nogami was one. As a school girl of 17, at the Tokyo Club in 1941, she saw Mansaku Itami’s Akanishi Kakita (1936) and was so impressed by its satirical intelligence that she wrote a fan letter to the director. He replied immediately, sending her an inscribed copy of his Notes on Film and, although the two never met, they continued to correspond until Itami died from tuberculosis in 1946. She remained in touch with his widow, whom she did meet, in 1949; and it was contacts within the Itaman Club, formed after Itami’s untimely death, which led to her finding a job at Daiei.

Another member of the Itaman Club was Shinobu Hashimoto, a handsome young man who was prone to illness and endured many years of poor health. He was drafted during World War Two but found to be tubercular and sent to a sanatorium where he spent four years. Here a fellow patient one day lent him a film magazine; it had a scenario printed in the back and after he read it Hashimoto thought he could do as well or better than that writer had. He sent his first effort to Itami, who was both critical and encouraging. Hashimoto continued to write; through a complex series of exchanges, his adaptation of a Ryūnosuke Akutagawa story, ‘In the Grove’, found its way to director Akira Kurosawa, who added framing elements from another Akutagawa story, ‘Rashomon’, to form the basis of his 1950 film of the same name.

When Kurosawa, on a one year contract, came to Daiei to make Rashomon, Teruyo Nogami was assigned to his crew as script girl―responsible for continuity. She worked with Kurosawa for the rest of his career, becoming one of his closest colleagues, his production manager, and afterwards publishing an illuminating account of her experiences in the film industry. As for Shinobu Hashimoto, he went on to write more than eighty screenplays; Kurosawa directed eight of his scripts, including The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress, which had a direct influence on George Lucas’s Star Wars movies. It’s said that Lucas derived the name Jedi, as in the Jedi Knights, from ‘jidai-geki’, the Japanese term for period films.

Teruyo Nogami remembered hanging out the window with other excited employees of Daiei the day Kurosawa and his entourage arrived. He liked to eat with cast and crew every night after filming; his favourite meal was sanzoku-yaki, beef sautéed in garlic. Afterwards they would smoke and drink and talk. These were social occasions but also opportunities to plan for the next day’s shoot. The work hard / play hard ethos was already in place; it probably hadn’t changed much since the war. Many people used the drug philopon, a Japanese invention, a soluble amphetamine whose name means ‘love of work’. Nogami writes: the production crew would walk around with trays of capsules and syringes, inviting us to help ourselves or offering to administer the injection if we preferred.

The pressure of time and work encouraged innovation. Film stock was in short supply so few directors indulged in multiple takes of a scene. Sometimes music was written before the scene it belonged to was shot; these phantom compositions, called ‘ghosts’, were structured around the dramatic shape of the interaction in the screenplay. Often crews worked all night and then breakfasted in the canteen in the morning. Nogami in these years was also looking after Itami’s teenage son Yoshihiro (later film director, actor and writer Juko Itami). She was so poor she sometimes had to pawn her clothes. Sometimes she didn’t have the money for the bus or train fare to work; but she never regretted her choice of vocation.

Kurosawa was himself an innovator. He refused to allow the crew to address him as Sensei, teacher, as was de rigueur then. He was happy smoking Japanese cigarettes, not the Lucky Strikes everyone else craved. Rashomon was filmed using a single camera and just three locations, one of which was the massive, ruined cedar gate which he had constructed, and which continued to stand for years afterwards at the Daiei Studios. When filming in the forest, he would use large mirrors to catch and then re-direct the sunlight; he also shot directly into the sun, unheard of until then. When he filmed the chase through the forest, rather than use tracks and a dolly, he had the actors run in a circle while using a 360 degree pan to capture their movement. He was so sure of his framing that he allowed Machiko Kyo, playing the Samurai’s wife, to wear running shoes below her kimono: he knew her feet would be out of shot.

Kurosawa preferred to record sound in situ, using a crystal motor to sync sound and image. He also post-recorded dialogue, where appropriate, outside. Mirrors would be set up in the back lot and, at night, when the trains from the nearby railway line stopped running, the actors would call to each other in the moonlight while the film played back in reflection around them. Another innovation was his insistence upon editing the work print. The custom in those days was for the editors to cut the negative according to their understanding of the script and only send through the relevant portions to be reviewed each night after filming had finished. This enraged Kurosawa; he wanted to see everything that had been shot during the day and edit from that. This method, like his habit of recording sound live, was adopted internationally.

Sometimes, after the day’s filming had wrapped, and everyone had eaten, actors and crew, including the director, would run up Wakakusa Mountain, overlooking the forest where they were filming and, when they reached the top, dance in the moonlight to the Tankobushi, the Coal Miner’s Song; which ended with everyone in a circle miming the action of a miner digging in the earth. Kurosawa said: I was still young and the cast members were even younger and bursting with energy. We carried out our work with enthusiasm. Rashomon took forty-two days to make and, despite a fire in the studio towards the end of the shoot, and then a second, smaller fire in a projection booth, was completed on time and made its way subsequently, to enduring acclaim, into the world.



Photograph #238

238The photograph shows a group of ten people. Nine of them are walking towards the camera, on a sunken path between a roughcast stone wall above which conifers grow, and another supporting a grassy slope where there are spindly, deciduous trees; the tenth has his back turned. It is a sunny afternoon, as can be seen by the way their shadows, and the shadows of the trees, are etched into the path upon which they are walking. From their clothes, you might assume it is cool not hot, early spring or late autumn; the spindly trees are bare of leaves. Maybe they are formally dressed because they are going to be photographed? Or are they on their way back, to the office or the studio, after the shoot?

This possibility is augmented by the fact that the one who has stopped and turned around is in the act of photographing the other nine. Which means that he is himself being photographed while taking a photograph. Those whom he is photographing are aware of what he is doing. They are pleased, amused, happy; perhaps someone has just cracked a joke. The photographer wears a dark suit. He is upright, poised, almost in a dancer’s pose as he holds the camera to his eye, while a finger on his right hand, we assume, is about to click the shutter; or has already clicked it.

Who are the other nine? The man nearest the photographer is tall and thin, wearing a rumpled suit and smiling in a crooked, self-effacing manner. He is accompanied by two women, whose hands he is holding. The woman on his right is obscured; the one on his left, wearing a white pullover and dark skirt, a scarf knotted loosely round her neck, and calling out to the photographer, is the centre of both photographers’ compositions. Perhaps she is the one cracking the joke; or making some derisive comment. If so, it is good-humoured, without malice or aggression; she is joshing.

The two women to the right of the picture, in step with one another, are smiling―at the photographer or at the joke, if there was a joke. They wear dark jackets over skirts that fall to mid-calf, good leather shoes. They too are holding hands. Behind are two more figures, one of whom is obscured by the woman with the scarf. The other is a suave, handsome man in a dark suit smiling in an enigmatic manner at the photographer. The other two people in the photo are so far away it is difficult to make out much about them, beyond noting that they are both women dressed, as most of the others are, in suit jackets and skirts and leather shoes.

Who is the photographer? Who took the photograph of him photographing? And who are these people? What are they doing? Two other photographs (#237; #239) give us some clues. In the first, thirteen people gather around the edge of a stone pool full of dark water. There are trees behind, and fragments of what look like fences. It seems we are in a park of some kind. The group is arranged around the corner of the pool, with those to the left with their feet on its very edge and those on the right standing on bare ground. The ambience is relaxed, informal, companionable. Most of them are smiling.

Amongst this group we can identify individuals from the previous shot. The woman with the scarf, for instance; the suave, handsome man, with his arm around a woman’s shoulder; the thin man, again with a woman on either side; the two suited women who were holding hands. Other identifications are less certain. The photographer in the dark suit, for instance, does not appear in this picture, suggesting perhaps that he is the one who took it. But if we go to the next photograph, a more formal shot, this time of sixteen people grouped together, before trees, on a forest path, there he is, in the front row, extreme right, with his glasses on and his camera held before him in his two hands.

Most of those who are recognisable in the two previous shots are in this one as well; though the woman is no longer wearing her scarf; and the thin man in the rumpled suite is absent: is he then a third photographer? If so, is there a doubling and re-doubling of perspectives in that first picture: a photographer taking a photograph of a photographer taking a photograph of another photographer? There are several women who do not seem to figure in either of the two preceding pictures. Only one of the women is smiling―she is one of those walking in step; the others look abstracted, even melancholy. The beautiful woman in the centre of the composition is looking out of the frame, as if she has just seen something disturbing there.

The men, too, are solemn; perhaps the photographer asked them to adopt a formal air. They are all wearing suits and ties, as the women wear jackets and skirts. All sixteen are bare-headed. The photographer has asked seven of the men to squat down on their haunches in the front, while eight women stand in a row behind them; behind them, incongruously, is the eighth man, handsome, with a large square head, who appears in the previous picture, the one by the pool, with an easy stance and his hands in his pockets; whereas here he looks like someone who does not quite belong.

When you look a bit closer at that line of women, the one fourth from the left seems ambiguous. S/he could be male or female; although s/he is wearing a suit jacket and a tie, the figure looks feminine and you wonder if s/he is, improbably, cross-dressing. Is she also one of those obscured in the first photo? In the centre of the row of squatting men is a small man with spectacles who also appears in the photo by the pool. He is older than the others; an executive; or a scholar. The rest of them are younger, in their twenties or early thirties.

They are clearly work colleagues who have, for whatever reason, decided to have photographs taken. The time is the early 1950s; chances are, they all worked at Daiei Film Studio; but in what capacity? Maybe they were in accounts; or transport; or in script development; maybe the women are from the typing pool and the men from the camera department. Or maybe they are a loose group of friends who work in a variety of different positions in the studio. Their casual familiarity with each other suggests they are colleagues who know each other well from working together and enjoy getting together after hours to have fun.



Anonymity & Glamour


Some accounts say the girl who became actress Machiko Kyo was born Motoko Yano in Osaka in 1924. Others allege she was born in Mexico, where her father worked as an engineer. Her parents separated, in one version, while she was still young; in another, her father died when she was five and she was raised by her grandmother and her mother, a geisha, in the entertainment district of Osaka. An uncle took her to music hall shows and she began dancing―perhaps in the streets―when she was six or seven years old. By the time she was in her early teens, she’d changed her name to Machiko Kyo and joined a burlesque troupe. She made her film debut in Tengu Daoshi (The Tengu Did It), a hate-the-enemy film directed by Inoue Kintaro in 1944.

Five years she later was signed by Daiei, where Masaichi Nagata, with whom she may have become romantically involved, began promoting her as a sex symbol in the mould of Betty Grable or Hedy Lamar, hoping to arouse the interest of western audiences. Rashomon, in which Kyo starred, was a breakthrough for everyone involved. Even though Nagata, its producer, called it incomprehensible, it won an honorary Oscar for best foreign film, set box-office records for a subtitled picture and pioneered the so-called Rashomon effect, in which the same event is remembered in different ways. Pauline Kael called it the classic film statement of the relativism, the unknowability of truth.

Kyo also starred in Gate of Hell, the colour feature Nagata produced for Daiei in 1953. It is set in 1159, during the Heiji Rebellion, and tells the story of a samurai, Morito, who falls in love with a woman, Kesa, whom he has rescued. Kesa, played by Kyo, is a lady in waiting at the court and already married to another man, Wataru. Morito persuades her to conspire with him to kill her husband while he is sleeping; she gives him precise and detailed instructions as to how to do that. However, when Morito does commit the fatal act, he finds he has stabbed Kesa, not her husband. She has sacrificed herself to save Wataru and to preserve her own honour.

Gate of Hell had as profound an effect on American film-making as Rashomon, albeit for different reasons. Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, wrote: The secret, perhaps, of its rare excitement is the subtlety with which it blends a subterranean flood of hot emotions with the most magnificent flow of surface serenity. The tensions and agonies of violent passions are made to seethe behind a splendid silken screen of stern formality, dignity, self-discipline and sublime aesthetic harmonies. The very essence of ancient Japanese culture is rendered a tangible stimulant in this film. In other words, American audiences were beguiled by the film’s use of colour as a splendid silken screen concealing, as it revealed, what was essentially a noir plot.

Kyo also starred in Mizoguchi’s 1955 film Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, playing a maid who becomes a princess; and a year later headlined the director’s last feature, Street of Shame, as a westernised woman prostitute who chews gum, overeats, and is a heavy smoker. Around the same time, Kyo went to Hollywood and made her sole American film, The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), a satire upon the military occupation of Okinawa in which she appeared, opposite Glenn Ford, as a geisha named Lotus Blossom; her other co-star was Marlon Brando, in yellowface, cast, improbably, as Ford’s Okinawan interpreter. Kyo remained with Daiei until the studio filed for bankruptcy in 1971; and worked only intermittently, mostly in television, thereafter. She died, aged 95, in 2019.

This sketch of a biography suggests something of the ambiance of Daiei Studio in the 1950s, when those young people in the photograph were employed there. Working behind the camera, in whatever capacity, is not the same as being in front of it; but, as anyone who has worked upon a film shoot knows, the glamour of the cast belongs also to the crew; the same is true in the studio. At Daiei there were probably about a hundred and fifty staff in the various departments; they shared in the excitement of the artistic breakthroughs, of the breaking of sexual taboos, of the international successes which saw Japanese culture going out into the world. They lived a life full of possibilities, so apparent in the demeanour of those in this photograph.

Anonymity is the other side of the star system; the reverse of glamour if you like. Most people involved in the making of a film, which is inherently collaborative, only ever see their name in small print in the credits that roll at the end; and sometimes not even then. Contemporary practise is to list everyone who worked on a picture; even so, extras in crowd scenes or those who work in accounts, for example, do not usually make the credits. In the 1950s, only principals were acknowledged; everyone else had to be content that they and theirs knew what their contribution was. Not that there’s anything wrong with anonymity; after all, it is the fate of the majority of humankind.

Yet there is a poignant subtext to this photograph: perhaps some of those in it, whether they fulfilled their potential or not, were hoping for fame or fortune. Perhaps they wanted to achieve their ambitions in other terms, for instance by living a full and happy life. They might have done so; or they might have gone on to failures and disappointments, even to tragedy: the joy seen in this photograph is ephemeral and cannot be taken to mean anything other than what it was at the time. This is why anonymity in photographs is so suggestive: we want to know of the fate of these people and yet we doubt we ever can.

The German romantic poet Novalis said novels arise out of the shortcomings of history; meaning that whatever about the past we intuit but don’t actually know, we are tempted to invent. This photograph is so rich in detail it is easy to imagine a future for every person in it; and a past for each of them as well. This might or might not be a satisfying exercise; it would be better to know the actual life stories of those we see before us; but that is so unlikely as to be almost impossible. And yet: you never know. Something might still come up. Some wise old voice might speak and say: Oh yes, well, she . . . and as for him, he . . .


Note: photograph #238 is one of more than three hundred photos artist Mayu Kanamori found in a flea market in Daylesford, Victoria, about five years ago. The stall owner who sold them to her said they came from a deceased estate in Geelong but had no further information. They were all taken in Japan between about 1900 and 1960 and among them is photograph #213 which shows some of the same people in #238 standing in front of the Daiei Motion Picture Co. Ltd Kyoto Studio where, it seems, they worked. Mayu is making an online work about these photographs and has asked for speculative contributions, like the above, to it. When the work goes live, I will include a link to it here.


Credits : Daiei Film Studio in Kyoto; Rashomon Gate; photograph #238; Machiko Kyo in Gate of Hell

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Future Histories


The three books I was/am/are having/had/have published/publishing/coming out this year are/were/will be Timelights, Endless Yet Never and Bus Stops on the Moon. Something about each of them:


Timelights cover

A book of photographs with extended captions; or else a book of essays which each concerns itself with a single photograph; except for the middle section, which is a reminiscence of travelling in the mountains of Japan a year ago now; with photographs. I have four copies: two of the premium edition, two of the standard. One is gloss and the other matt and we have decided to go with matt. It’s published by 99% Press, an imprint of Lasavia Publishing on Waiheke Island, designed in Berlin, printed (on demand) in Melbourne. You can find it on Amazon but, at the moment, it is prohibitively expensive so I’m waiting for the price to come down before publicised the book properly – whatever that means these days.



A short (12,000 word) biography of Colin McCahon omitted, by the publishers, from Dark Night: walking with McCahon (AUP, 2011). They said ‘people in New Zealand already know who he is’ and wouldn’t listen when I replied: ‘Australian readers might not.’ Now McCahon House is putting it out, in an elegant printing, as a stand-alone work. I haven’t seen a copy yet; they are coming from Italy to NZ and there is one on the way across the Tasman apparently; but the mails are slow these days. There was to be a launch at an art collector’s house during the Auckland Art Fair in April but that didn’t happen. We might re-schedule for the end of the year. I don’t know where or how it is to be distributed; nor what the unit cost might be.


Edmond front cover

Bus Stops on the Moon is a memoir of the seven years I spent working with theatre group Red Mole. It’s written, edited, laid-out, with 80 b&w photographs and 24 in colour and going to print at the end of this month; to be released, all going well, in September 2020. The cover photo, by Joe Bleakley, shows the seven of us at Coney Island in October 1979, standing on a boardwalk before the grey Atlantic. I like it because it actually looks like a bus stop. On the moon. Otago University Press are publishing this, production values are high, editing has been scrupulous and the generosity with which we operated, or tried to operate, in those years, has been realised in the way the book has been put together. From left, Neil Hannan, Deborah Hunt, Alan Brunton, Sally Rodwell, John Davies, Jan Preston, Martin Edmond.



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Simpson’s McCahon


Review of the second volume of Peter Simpson’s McCahon

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May 28, 2020 · 12:02 pm

Law of Torques

Frolic and detour. A detour occurs when an agent makes a minor departure from his employer’s charge and a frolic is a major departure. The employer will be relieved of vicarious liability only if the employee has been deemed to have engaged in a frolic.

Tort: mid-13c injury, wrong, from Old French, crime, 11c, from Medieval Latin, tortum, injustice, twisted, from Latin torquere, turn, turn awry, twist, wring, distort. Legal sense, breach of a duty, whereby someone acquires right of action for damages, first recorded 1580s.

Torture: from Late Latin tortūra ‘a twisting, writhing, of bodily pain, a griping colic;’ in Middle Latin ‘pain inflicted by judicial or ecclesiastical authority as a means of persuasion, torture’, from Latin tortus, past participle of torquere (‘to twist’).

Torque: rotating force, fr. Latin torquere, to twist, turn, twist awry, distort, torture, fr. PIE *torkw-eyo-, causative of root *terkw- ‘to twist.’ Used as a term for necklaces worn anciently by Gauls, Britons, Germans, etc., fr. Latin torques, collar of twisted metal.

Twerk, spelled ‘twirk’, noun, first used 1820 for a twisting or jerking motion. The verb ‘to twirk’ recorded 1848; ‘twerk’ in use by 1901. May be a blend of ‘twist’ and ‘jerk’; in the modern sense, probably influenced by ‘work’.


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Numbered Days in Paradise, rehearsal, Croton on Hudson, October, 1979


Photos by Joe Bleakley





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IMG_2408IMG_2409 2

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I had an email this week from a scholar in the UK (if he is not in Germany, it wasn’t clear) which had attached to it a PDF of a work he has been engaged in for a number of years: Select Correspondence of Ronald Syme, ed by Anthony R. Birley and published as a supplementary volume by History of Classical Scholarship, Newcastle on Tyne and Venice. Tony had used some of the biographical information from my 2017 book The Expatriates in his introduction; Syme was one of the four whose lives are summarised in that book. He said of his own work: ‘I hope you find it interesting and are happy with the use I made of The Expatriates.’ I wrote back and said that I did and that I was and he responded with a link to an online piece by historian Jessie Childs which made me very happy indeed. It’s called From Russia With Love and tells how Ms Childs, using details I’d published in my book, was able to track down some letters her grandmother wrote to Syme during and after World War Two. I’d found, read and transcribed those letters when I was working in one of the the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford in 2016. From memory they are in an elegant hand, in blue ink on pale blue paper. They were one of those unknown things that you hope to find; but since you don’t know what they are, you can’t really look for them; you just trawl in expectation. Very beautiful letters, full of love and laughter, in which the character of both the lovers somehow comes clear. In a further coincidence, I own one of Jessie Child’s books. I bought it at St Vinnies last year, it’s called God’s Traitors and has a blood red cover. Unfortunately I had to pack it away, half read, when I moved last year and now don’t know in which of the many unpacked cartons of books in my study it is; but I will in time find and finish it. Something about this story seems to demand further attention. Perhaps I need to drop Jessie Childs a line; or to elaborate further upon Lara’s theme; or perhaps I should just rest content with the connections so made. 


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After Vallejo


And don’t say a word

since you can kill perfectly

because, sweating blood

you do what you can

don’t say a word


We’ll see each other again

gentlemen, with apples

a creature will pass

later, like an Aristotle

with a wooden heart


Or Heraclitus joined to Marx

the gentle sounding roughly

narrated in my throat

you can kill perfectly


Gentlemen we’ll see each other

again, without packages

and until then I ask

and ask again of my frailty

the accent of the day

waiting already in my bed


And I ask of my hat

the fatal analogy

of resemblance

so I can assume

an immensity of weeping


So I can drown

in my neighbour’s voice

and endure the years

I count out with kernels


Brushing my clothes

to the music of a corpse

or sitting up

drunk in my coffin

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Pukapuka Road


It was an abandoned farm house on Pukapuka Road, near Puhoi, a right turn off the highway then a left turn down another fork, before you got to the drive down to a wooden cottage with a view to the north over the Mahurangi estuary. Dean Buchanan, who was a painter, living at Leigh, heard it was empty after a couple he knew, bona fide renters, moved somewhere else. I already wanted to live in the country. I’d just rented another cottage further north, at Mangawhai Heads, but hadn’t moved in yet. 

One day Dean came around to my place in Grafton, told me about the house and suggested we squat there. We did. Without asking anyone. We put all our things on the back of Peter De La Chaumette’s truck and he drove us up. The house, at the end of the long drive lined with macrocarpa trees, was not locked. The farmer, a fat red-faced bloke called Steve, came down while we were moving our stuff in, incredulous, and asked us what the hell we thought we were doing? We just kept on carrying furniture into the house and after a while he went away to ring his boss.

Steve was the manager not the owner; he used to store supplies and equipment in the tumbledown barn next to the house. The owner was a fellow who worked at Dominion Motors, the British Motor Corporation agency in Newmarket, Auckland. Steve said we’d better go down and talk to him. He was incredulous, too, but rather than evicting us, offered us a deal: we could stay on if, in lieu of rent, we did maintenance on the house.

There was a list of things that needed doing and some kind of reckoning which assigned a financial value to the various tasks; the only one we actually completed was the repair of the leaky roof. We picked up some used corrugated iron, uplifted then discarded the rusted out sheets and hammered the new ones in their place. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective. We never got around to painting it.

The power was still on and the water too. The kitchen had an electric stove that didn’t work and a sink that did. There was a bath and a shower over it (cold water) but no toilet. Well, there was an outside dunny but it was blocked and we never used it. Instead, we would go down to the pine trees with a spade and some toilet paper and dig a hole in the ground then cover it up afterwards with dirt and pine needles. That wasn’t very hygienic, especially as the year wound on.

For cooking, we used the coal range, a Shacklock Orion, a black cast iron monster in the big room at the back room of the house; or else the open fire in the sitting room, which had a flue which sent the smoke up the same chimney as the one from the coal range did. We scavenged wood wherever we could. Old fences, old stumps, fallen branches, pine cones, planks from the barn.

There were three bedrooms off the hallway. The small one on the right was my study and for a while I slept in there too, on a chaise longue I’d acquired somewhere. It wasn’t very comfortable, especially if I was sleeping with someone; and after a while Susie Reid, Francis Pound’s girlfriend, gave me a three quarter iron frame bed with a mattress. I put it in the front room on the right, giving on to the veranda that looked over the estuary; from which shards of silver light glimmered in the afternoon if the tide was in. If it was out, the mudflats shone pewter.

Dean had the other front room; he slept under an eiderdown on a mattress on the floor and painted in there too, with the canvas he was working on nailed to the wall. We spent most of our social time in the back room with the coal range, which had a golden kauri floor Dean would sweep every morning. The stereo was there and a divan bed under the windows where guests slept; a couch in the sitting room was used for the same purpose. We had many guests. It was party central, for a while.

I intended buying a printing press and making books (pukapuka can mean book; also the name of a broad-leaf native tree) but that never happened. I began to write a Joycean novel whose opening words were: In the beginning was the wood and the wood was gold . . . but it petered out after a page and a half (foolscap, single spaced). I tried to establish a vegetable garden but the soil was puggy and wet and I could not get anything to grow. An ancient orchard persisted along the side of the house; in spring the plum and peach and apple trees, which needed pruning, put forth a few skinny blossoms that soon blew away.

At Easter we hammered a cross together and set it up amongst the gnarled old trees. There was always the sound of water running; arum lilies flowered prolifically along the many creeks. Sometimes I saw what I thought was a ghost. A gaunt, sorrowing woman, who reminded me of my grandmother, dressed in white sitting on the end of my bed. If I spoke she would rush away down the hallway with a sound like the sound of the wind.

Dean acquired two chooks, a Leghorn rooster called Bruce and a Black Orpington hen called Sylvia. Later they were joined by Mary, somewhat raggedy, another Leghorn. These three ranged free and, if the hens ever laid any eggs, we never found them. Bruce was aggressive and would attack anyone who came near. Especially Steve. The chooks used to come into the house and shit on the floor. Then Dean would have to mop the golden floor. They pecked holes in the sacks of grass seed Steve stored in the barn and, in a matter of days, there were green shoots sprouting from the curly white and black turds they left behind. Their pillaging of the sacks of seed was what led to us, in the end, being evicted.

We had no money and no reliable source of income; sometimes we’d score a scrub-cutting contract with one or other of the local farmers and spend a few days slashing down the second growth manuka in some weedy hillside paddock. Our slashers had wooden handles and iron blades that were always in need sharpening; with a metal file. We’d tie our long hair back with coloured handkerchiefs; and toughen up our blistering hands with kerosene. We worked hard but we weren’t very skilful and we didn’t always get paid when we completed a job.

The farmers around Puhoi were canny, tight-fisted and insular, descendants of the original settlers: Catholic Bohemians, speaking a Bavarian dialect, who came in 1863 from what is now the Czech Republic. About forty families: among them Schollums and Schischkas, Wechs and Wenzlicks. We knew and liked owners of the first two names. We were a different kind of bohemian, flamboyant, erratic, frequently drunk or stoned or both. Sometimes we wore lipstick and eye shadow, as well as our kerchiefs, when we went out to cut scrub. It says something for the farmers’ tolerance that they employed us at all.

Mushrooms grew in the fields after rain and we harvested and ate them. There were flocks of wild turkeys on the hills and sometimes we managed to run one down. Roasted in the oven of the coal range, they were tough but nutritious; we literally sucked their bones. There were feral goats too but you had to shoot them; we had a friend with rifle but the one time Cameron managed to bring a couple down the farmer heard the shots, came racing up in his truck and saw us off at the point of a shotgun.

Our staples were porridge and the flour with which we made bread. We drank whatever alcohol we could lay our hands on. We smoked dope and took anything else that was available. LSD, cocaine; but not that often. We’d throw the fag ends of our roll-your-own cigarettes onto the hearth in front of the coal range to dry and when we ran out we tore up the butts and rolled the tobacco in them up again.

Dean painted most days and I, trying to match his matchless enthusiasm, wrote. We spent a lot of time rambling over the land, exploring, going swimming at wild beaches you could only get to on foot. At one of them, one afternoon, we saw four nuns in their habits walking. That was at Te Muri, where there is a graveyard in which I was once photographed, bare chested, lying on a tombstone laughing. I still have that picture and wonder who took it.

On Fridays, if we had any money, or even if we didn’t, we’d hitchhike into town and go to the Kiwi and then to a party. We’d carouse all weekend and then, hung over, hitch back to Pukapuka Road on Monday morning to resume the rigmarole of the hours.

pic Te Muri Beach, by Walter Menzies Bayne nd (d. 1945)

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