Living in the Everywhen

In early 2016, an age ago now, I went to the northern hemisphere to gather material for a book called The Expatriates; which was duly published towards the end of 2017. I kept a diary of my travels, with a view to writing them up later. I did do that, under the title The Road to Entepfhul, (‘entepfhul’ is German for ‘duckpond’); but the account was wordy and dull, with far too much ‘I did this, I did that’. I put it aside for a year or so and then took it up again but in a different way. I excerpted some of the more interesting passages from the narrative and tried to re-construct them as stand-alone pieces; preserving the chronology without the tedious need for linkages. This gave me nine essays, not enough to make a book. So I added nine more, all concerned with travels in Australia and New Zealand after I returned from my research trip. I called the two sections ‘North’ and ‘South’ and retitled the work Living in the Everywhen, after one of the essays in the second section. ‘Everywhen’ is anthropologist W E H Stanner’s rendition of the concept more usually translated as ‘Dreamtime’.

I offered this collection, in the first instance, to a Sydney-based publisher; who responded by saying the material was too New Zealand-centric for the Australian market; but if I could find a co-publisher over there, they would consider a joint edition. I was preoccupied with other matters at the time this advice came through and I didn’t follow it up straight away. When I did, earlier this year, the New Zealand publisher I approached said they would like to read the ms but warned they were already over-committed to works of literary non-fiction. They were also, it seemed to me, uninterested in an Australian co-production, unless it involved one of their authors being published over here. In other words, they didn’t want to piggy-back ‘Australian’ books into their market. I didn’t send it to them. Subsequently I approached another New Zealand publisher, who said it was too soon since my last book (2020) so maybe next year? But I already have a commissioned work coming out in New Zealand in 2023, so 2022 is too late for me.

Given my slender resources, self-publication really isn’t an option for a book of 80,000 words; and how would I distribute it? So I decided instead to put it online. Each of the nine essays in ‘North’ is now up, to be read by whoever wants to; and I’m posting individual links to the pieces. I didn’t put them up in chronological order and anyway blogs operate a reverse chronology, with the latest post always at the top; but the links are numbered in the order the essays should be read, starting at the beginning and going through to the end. They’re not exactly light reading but there may be something of value amongst their solemnities. Also I’ve been able to illustrate them, which I couldn’t have done with a book. I haven’t yet posted the essays in the second part, but may do so later. In the meantime, if you are interested, here’s where to go:

1. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/10/14/the-mirror-of-tezcatlipoca/

2. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/10/20/meeting-the-family/

3. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/george/

4. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/09/28/the-cattle-of-the-gods/

5. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/10/23/hull-york-old-harlow/

6. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/10/26/holy-fire/

7. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/10/29/otherness-watching/

8. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/11/03/new-eboracum/

9. https://mjedmo.wordpress.com/2021/11/10/on-walden-pond/

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On Walden Pond

I caught the Amtrak north, making the journey in the company of an earnest young English physicist from MIT, who assured me that small scale nuclear reactors are not only safe, they are the generators of the future. Your local power station, he said. One for every 20,000 homes. His doctoral thesis, however, was a study of methodologies that might be used to accomplish nuclear disarmament. It addressed issues of trust, verification and sovereignty as crucial determinants of a nation state’s desire, willingness and ability to disarm. His girlfriend, like my nephew Louis, whom I’d seen in London, worked for McKinsey & Co.; they were part of a cohort of optimistic, highly-skilled, enthusiastic young people who are, I hope, re-making our world.

Big fluffy snowflakes drifted through the air as Michael and I crossed the campus towards the building in which his office is situated. They seemed three-dimensional, fractal, like items excerpted from the Julia Set. They were very beautiful. I remarked upon them but Michael didn’t seem to think they were anything out of the ordinary: typical Boston snow. It was suffocatingly warm inside the office building, which was modern and painted in bright colours, with décor that reminded me of an ashram or some other kind of spiritual retreat. Even though Michael Jackson is an anthropologist, he was currently employed as Distinguished Professor of World Religions at the Harvard School of Divinity.

I waited downstairs while he retrieved whatever he had come to get and then we drove out to his house, on a hill to the west, in Arlington. It was the upstairs of a duplex, spacious and elegant, without curtains, and looked over a concatenation of rooves disposed among snowy patches of ground and bare winter trees. I have known Michael for a long time: he came on section, as a student teacher, to the secondary school I attended when I was thirteen. Later he sent me a poem about my father, who was Deputy Principal at Kuranui College at the time; it was written for him after he had the first of his breakdowns and attesting to a rare degree of insight into what mental illness is like.

Our friendship in later years arose because we read and liked each other’s books. A curious coincidence: Michael is from Inglewood in Taranaki, where Harold Williams, as a young Methodist minister, experienced his dark night of the soul and thereby lost his vocation. He, Michael, has said to me on more than one occasion that he has always felt he was born in the wrong place and belonged somewhere else; that his peripatetic life—Africa, Australia, Europe, America—has been, in part, a search for the place of that belonging. Though it isn’t for me to say, I do not think he thinks that Cambridge, Massachusetts is it.

His wife Francine was away, settling their daughter into her residence at the beginning of a new college term. We talked, ate dinner, and talked some more. Because we don’t see each other often—usually on Michael’s yearly trip to Sydney, where another daughter lives—we always seem to have a lot to say to one another, most of which doesn’t in fact get said. Or that is my impression. Later we watched a movie: Night Train to Lisbon, based on the 2004 novel by Pascal Mercier. A Swiss professor of languages saves a woman in a red coat from jumping off a bridge in Geneva; and then must go to Lisbon to find out who she is and why she was trying to die. I haven’t read the novel; the film is good.

When I went to bed, in the spare room, I found a copy of Nay Rather by Anne Carson on the night table and read the whole book (it isn’t very long) before going to sleep. It begins with a discussion of the word cliché, derived from a French term for a block used in printing. Indeed, the word may originate, onomatopoeically, in the clicking sound made when blocks were poly-typed—that is, impressed into a bath of molten type-metal to form a matrix. A cliché, then, is a repetition that in time may wear out its ability to register.

~ ~ ~

Next day I encountered one of the astonishments of my gallery-going life. We’d gone up to the Harvard Art Museum because Michael wanted to show me a painting he loved, Gabrielle in a Red Dress (1908) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a portrait of his long-term companion, Gabrielle Renard, whom he painted more than two hundred times. My astonishment occurred before we found this work: it was a view, through a square high opening, on the far wall of the adjoining room, of Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors. It was the colour: an array of green, gold, pink, orange, red and grey made incandescent by the deep ebonies against which the painter staged this particular drama. Its intensity and strangeness, its radical glow; its emanation of light, like a chromatic cloud, from that flat surface into the air about us.

I knew the work already. The year before I had tried to write an ekphrastic sequence considering in detail each of Beckmann’s nine triptychs. I gathered images of all of them, from Departure (1932-5) to The Argonauts (1949-50), but only managed to write about the first one. It was, perhaps, unnecessary. The sheer richness of the works themselves defeated me: what could words possibly add to the grandeur they already possessed? The Actors was the first of the triptychs I had seen in the flesh; and it was a revelation. I walked toward it as if towards a blazing fire.

Beckmann painted it in occupied Amsterdam during World War Two; between 1941 and 1942, in the old tobacco warehouse he used as a studio. Its central figure, in the middle panel, a self-portrait, is a king dressed in a green suit, with high red boots, wearing a golden crown and a long golden cloak; and holding a dagger to his breast so that blood spills like insignia down his front. His queen, in pink, blindfolded and with a piece of sheet music in her hand, stands before him; while behind them courtiers gather and beneath the stage, rude mechanicals contend as if brawling in a ratskeller. There is a young girl, blonde, in a blue coat and orange tights, holding a spotted cat, sitting below the blindfolded queen, with a look of surpassing sweetness on her face. You cannot see that in reproductions.

The side panels are theatrical too: a woman with a mirror before a classical bust; horn-players; a telegraph boy; two girls with flowers; a midget waving. And, in the left hand panel, some plot being hatched between a soldier, a prophet and a woman in a white headscarf; while a crouching man reads the New York Times and another figure from antiquity looms behind. There are five legs with golden bands about their ankles below the boards; they belong to divers, which is what the Dutch called Jewish people they hid from the Nazis during the war. And maybe after all this is why I wanted to write about the triptychs: each of them encodes enigmas, which may be explicable in words. Or not: in the face of visual imagery, language cannot help but approximate, reducing unspoken mysteries to the banalities of sense. Fail better? The problem is, I think, insoluble.

Oddly enough, standing before The Actors, we fell into conversation with a fellow who designed the light boxes for the Hieronymus Bosch show I had seen at the Noordbrabants. He was giving a lecture on the subject that afternoon and invited us to attend; but we had other things to do and couldn’t go. When we found the Renoir portrait I said to Michael that Gabrielle looked like Francine; and it was his turn to be astonished: such a resemblance had not occurred to him. We wandered on, past paintings by Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Matisse, Rousseau, van Gogh, Gauguin and Corot.

There were two other Beckmanns: Self Portrait in a Tuxedo (1927), in which the smoke that he’s holding in his right hand, up close, is just a stroke of white with a red dab at the end; which transforms into an image of a lighted, fuming cigarette as you move away; and a small still life, called The Fire (1945), which memorialises the freestanding circular brazier he used to keep himself warm in the tobacco warehouse during the freezing winter of 1941-2 when he painted The Actors. It has the gravitas and presence of a Russian icon.

~ ~ ~

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, when I was working at the Redfern Mail Exchange in Sydney, an older man, another employee, befriended me. He was a Russian-Chilean anarchist called Cornelius Kavanagh and I still remember some of the things he used to say to me. Of our supervisors, for example, who were sombre men in grey dust coats, unceasingly punitive towards us, he would hiss, his eyes wide with outrage: It ees as eef they come from another planet! It was. They did. And after all, they had been trained according to the protocols of the nineteenth century English prison system.

When my stint as a Christmas Casual was over Cornelius gave me a book: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or, Life in the Woods. It is a Signet Classic, has his name written neatly on the flyleaf, and includes, in the back, some mysterious notes evidently addressed to someone he knew, a woman probably, who was in some kind of trouble. One of them reads: I hate to see you ache & to see some kind of crystallized wall in front of your eyes. And I know I have no lotions to soothe your soul but can only give you the frangi panis in my veins.

I’ve hung onto this book through the years but, although I’ve dipped into it many times, I’ve never read it cover to cover; which makes it a repository of guilt as well as the testament of a shared faith it was meant to be. So when Michael asked me if I would like to go out to see Walden Pond itself I said: Yes, of course, I would love to! I had no idea it was so close: if I thought about it at all, I imagined it to be far away in the deep woods, beyond the reach of anyone who did not have hiking boots and a tent. Some Gary Snyder-esque refuge in the back country; some remote haven where pristine nature continued its immemorial rhythms undisturbed.

It was in fact just a short drive away, outside of Concord, off the Cambridge Turnpike. We went out there in the afternoon, and again the following day, circumambulating in alternate directions on successive visits. It’s a lake rather than a pond: a kettle hole made by ice scouring out a depression in the earth as a glacier retreated. More or less round, not especially deep, with no river running into or out of it. Spring-fed, the only unpolluted lake / for miles around. People go there in summer to swim; in winter, it ices over but not in this unseasonably warm year. The path around the lake leads under pines and oaks, or else along an open shore. There were hazel nuts and acorns strewn upon the ground. I saw a wren harvesting insects from the bark of a birch tree. The air was fresh and cold, and a walk such as this could not fail to raise your spirits.

Thoreau’s cottage isn’t there anymore but a replica stands on the site where it once was, a little way up a slope above the runnels of a dry, stony water course. Open to tourists some days but not on this one. We peered in through the window at the stark interior: desk, chair, pot belly stove and cot. People bring stones, mark them with their name and leave them in cairns around the hut. I was astonished to hear, in the woods above the replica hut, the sound of a train rattling by. Michael said the railway line was here before Thoreau was. So that, while it must have been wilderness once, by the mid-nineteenth century it was not. Mind you, that doesn’t invalidate Thoreau’s enterprise, does it? Days when idleness was the most attractive and productive industry. His advocacy of the unique healing qualities of the water. His conviction that the mirror lake reflected back something ineffable in the soul of a woman or a man.

I picked up a speckled, triangular stone from among the pebbles on the shore and put it in my pocket. Walden Pond had the unexpected effect of making me feel homesick, not for my flat in Sydney, but for a lake outside of Ohakune in the King Country of New Zealand. Rotokura, like Walden Pond, is more or less circular and you may circumambulate if you wish, taking a path through beech forest around the lake. It is volcanic in origin: a crater, not a scour hole left by a glacier. No river runs into it but one runs out of it.

In his poem Midwinter at Walden Pond, Michael remembers another remote landscape, where he did fieldwork among the Warlpiri last century. In Central Australia / Those who take stones from a sacred site / Are cursed. To bring them here is to be blessed. The stone I took is sitting on my desk as I write, next to one I picked up at St Margaret’s Bay on England’s Kentish coast, not far from the white cliffs of Dover, on a walking excursion with my cousin Rod, who lives in Deal. And another speckled one, which a friend found on Cradle Mountain in Tasmania and gave to me. I do not believe that I am cursed.

~ ~ ~

I woke in the night and saw a sickle moon shining golden in the cold sky through the uncurtained windows of my room. My mobile phone rang: it was my son Jesse, calling from Melbourne, to see how I was going. He did not realise, or had forgotten, how far away I was in time and space. Next morning Michael drove me into town and dropped me off at Harvard Square, where I caught the Red Line to Boston South; then the Amtrak to Penn Station in New York.

The endless ruin of industrial America, where every act of consumption is also one of destruction, where waste is ubiquitous and unrestrained, passed by outside the window. After we arrived in The Bronx, while the railway line still ran above ground, I saw a Circus Train backed up on a siding, with the joint Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey logo emblazoned on the rolling stock. The Greatest Show on Earth, it said and then we plunged down into the darkness of the Manhattan underground.

I took the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) train to Babylon, stopping at Jamaica along the way. And then the Airtrain, which was driverless, a robot, to JFK Airport. My Qantas flight to Los Angeles was delayed so I sat in a café in Terminal Seven, where the wait staff were all dressed in black, like cops, and the chefs all in white, reading a manuscript Michael had given me. It was called The Work of Art: Rethinking the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, and has since been published by Columbia University Press. The publishers wanted an encomium from me; but rather than quoting what I gave them, here instead is Michael:

In writing about art, I have drawn inspiration from my family history as well as from my ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa and Central Australia, focusing not on art as an expression of individual genius or as an aesthetic, but on the work of art, where ‘work’ is to be read as a verb rather than a noun and understood as a technê for making life more meaningful, enjoyable, and manageable. Art opens up an artificial—one might say a ritual or utopian—space for getting around or beyond the mundane difficulties that beset us and the tragedies that befall us. Crucial to this point of view is the pragmatist assumption that art (ars) and technê are intimately linked, and that the work of art is a matter of making, acting, and doing before it is a form of knowledge, an object of contemplation, or a thing of beauty. The same might be said of religion.

It was a shock to hear the broad flat nasal tones of the Qantas pilot welcoming us aboard. In the middle of the night, in Los Angeles, we had to change planes. There was an eclipse of the moon as we crossed the Pacific Ocean but, having taken a sleeping pill, I was not awake to see it. I do not remember what, if any, movies I watched. After the soft grey monochromes of those northern cities, their muted, glowing reds and golds, the bare antipodean morning light outside the terminal in Sydney was so bright it hurt my eyes. The colours barbarous in their intensity, the birds raucous in the trees. Azure sky above. The pleasant air of the south / all about me / like a promise of freedom / honoured.

Images: Max Beckmann, The Actors, 1942; Thoreau’s Cove, Walden Pond, 1905

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New Eboracum

I re-read the last pages of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower as the Lufthansa jet, ex-Lisbon, glided down through clotted air towards Frankfurt Airport. It’s about an episode in the life of German romantic writer Georg ‘Fritz’ von Hardenberg, who called himself Novalis: specifically, his love affair with my heart’s heart, the twelve year old Sophie von Kühn; and the attempts he makes to obtain his father’s consent to marry her. Permission is at length granted but before they can wed Sophie, aged fifteen, dies of tuberculosis. Novalis (1778-1801) succumbed a few years later to the same disease. He was just twenty-eight years old. Some contemporaries thought Sophie commonplace; but, for Novalis, nothing is commonplace: all, when rightly seen, is symbolic.

I hesitate to call this book a work of fiction even though that is surely its genre; because it is the kind of fiction we are persuaded to read, if not exactly as fact, then as a true account of how things really are or were. The book’s epigraph is by Novalis himself, from Fragments and Studies (1799-1800): Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. Do they? Published in 1995, The Blue Flower was Fitzgerald’s last book; and attains a kind of perfection it is futile to extol. It does for late eighteenth century Germany what her earlier, also impeccable, The Beginning of Spring, does for pre-World War One Moscow. Words fail us to the precise degree that they do not fail Penelope Fitzgerald.

My companion on the flight across the Atlantic was a woman called Hyatt; a Tunisian who lived in Manhattan, returning home after a visit to relatives on the island of Djerba, off the North African coast in the Mediterranean. Djerba is said to have been the site of the Land of Lotus Eaters where Odysseus tarried millennia ago. Here is an ancient Jewish community, two and half thousand years old, which continues to worship at the El Ghriba Synagogue, Moorish in style, very beautiful, which Al-Qaeda tried and failed to blow up in 2002. Hyatt said how much she enjoyed seeing her mother and her brother and his family on Djerba; and also how much she was looking forward to going home again. America is a good place, she said. I am very lucky to be able to live there and my husband and I are very happy. They had two grown up children, a girl and boy; she was a doctor in Miami and he an accountant in New Jersey.

We flew north before we flew west. I saw below us, spread out like a geography lesson, Wessex, Bristol, Wales and then Ireland: I could trace the course of the Liffey from Dublin back into the bogs of Wicklow and Kildare. I watched movies: Crimson Peak; Legend; Mr Holmes; none of which was memorable except, perhaps, the sentimental tale of Sherlock in his dotage keeping bees. It starred Ian McKellen; and was directed by Bill Condon. Years ago I crewed in the art department on a teen exploitation movie shot in Auckland and written by the very same Bill. He was on set and I, in my youthful arrogance, saw him as a kind of kidult, with his jeans bunched up all nappy-like about his ample posterior and his runners burning up the ground like tyres.

For most of the flight I was thinking about something else: what are the cathedrals, the pyramids of our age? The summit of our aspirations and accomplishments? The CERN reactor or the International Space Station? Cassini? Aircraft carriers or carbon fibre jet planes? Frankfurt Airport? Though these are all wonders of a kind, their utilitarianism seems to preclude them from operating as agents of transcendence; or indeed of immanence. Maybe our cathedrals are libraries like the Warburg. Or maybe they are found in inner space: the world brain evolving through the internet, its interior spaces where prodigies breed. Or something like the Mandelbrot Set, a simple iterative function, multiplied endlessly, disclosing wondrous landscapes which are effectively infinite? A black vapour trail, heading north over Newfoundland, ploughing a lethal furrow through the empyrean, dismissed these speculations.

Hyatt and I said goodbye on the plane; she, as a resident, could expect far quicker processing than I, an alien, could. The droogs at Customs and Immigration, however, waved me through and there I soon was, at the end of a line hundreds long, at the taxi stand outside of JFK. Uber drivers worked the queue, offering their services. I turned the first one down but the next, a Chinese, was more persuasive; he said he already had another person booked; we could split the fare between us. I said yes and went with him and the other person turned out to be . . .Hyatt! So we shared the ride, in the back seat of a black BMW SUV, into Manhattan. In Harlem we pulled up so that each of us could use an ATM—it was cash only—and then she got off outside a solid three storey house at the junction of the Boulevards of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

My hotel was the ROW at 700 8th Avenue, between 44th and 45th, on the border of Hell’s Kitchen. A curious circumstance: last time I lived in New York City, it was at the Consulate Hotel at 49th and Broadway, just a few blocks from where I was staying; as if I’d been lobbed back into the same neighbourhood. The ROW (I don’t know what it stands for), originally the Lincoln, opened in 1928. In the 1950s it was renamed the Manhattan, and had, in fealty to that, a big M erected on the roof out front. Count Basie, Lester Young and Artie Shaw, among others, played the Blue Room in the Manhattan’s basement in those far-off days.

Now the M has gone and it’s a boutique hotel with 1,331 rooms, one of which was mine. It was late on a Sunday night but the lobby was bright, busy, full of people coming and going; and smelled beguilingly of tea. I checked in and went up to my room on the sixth floor, with metal grey walls and black and white appurtenances, functional and bland, and fell gratefully into bed. My dreams were of Lisbon’s squares, their de Chirico-esque emptiness and looming threat or promise; the microscopic insignia upon the statues of dead kings; their hollow assurances of resurrection and / or immortality.

~ ~ ~

I was spending the week in the Butler Library at Columbia University in Morningside Heights, where the Williams-Tyrkova Papers are held. Harold Williams, New Zealander, linguist, journalist, author, Slavist, died young, only fifty-two, in London in 1928; his Russian wife, Ariadna Tyrkova, outlived him by more than thirty years, the last decade of which she spent in Washington DC; which must be why her papers ended up here in NYC. They are voluminous and include those of her beloved husband’s literary remains she was able to preserve. A great deal was, I knew, in Russian, which I do not read; but I was sure there would be enough English language material to keep me busy. So it proved.

I walked south down 8th Avenue to catch the A Train at the Port Authority Terminal in 42nd Street, remembering how the curb-side corners of streets in Manhattan are sheathed with iron, perhaps as a buffer against the metal wagon-wheels of horse-drawn vehicles in the days before rubber-tyred motor cars: both impressive and intimidating; cold irons bound. The neighbourhood felt the same as it had the last time I was here but looked completely different: all the sleaze, the porno places and the low dives, the hookers and pimps, the grifters and pan-handlers, had gone and in their place were restaurants and bars, laundries and hardware shops, businesses of all descriptions. It was 29 February, a Monday morning, everyone on their way to work on the first day of the new week.

I came out of the subway at 116th Street and walked west until I found the campus: the Nicholas Murray Butler Library turned out to be a grand, neo-classic building from the 1930s with the names of poets and sages past inscribed along the front: Homer Herodotus Sophocles Aristotle Plato Demosthenes Cicero Vergil. The post-Classical writers, the Church fathers, other Romans, are on the western and eastern facades. Butler, a scholar and an educationalist, a Republican, the confidante of half a dozen Administrations, winner of the Nobel Peace prize, presided here for forty-three years (1902-1945). The university itself is old, founded, as King’s College, by George II of England in 1754, when America was still a colony; the name was changed to Columbia after the revolution of 1776.

I negotiated security, was issued with a pass, found my way to the lifts and ascended to the top floor, where Special Collections are held: a long, narrow room containing perhaps twenty work stations in ranks along a golden floor. There were exhibits in glass cases, including a handsome edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, open at Canto XXVI of the Inferno, the passage where Ulysses tells of his last voyage, beyond the Pillars of Hercules and out into the Atlantic. I had quoted from it in Zone of the Marvellous:

O brothers, he exhorts his men, you who through a hundred thousand dangers have reached the West, deny not, to this brief vigil of your senses that remains, experience of that unpeopled world behind the sun. Consider your origin: ye were not formed to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge. The voyage, not attested in any other source, takes Ulysses and his men to Mount Purgatory, somewhere in the Southern Ocean, where he attempts to go ashore; but a storm came out of that strange land and the ship founders in a whirlpool, drowning all hands aboard.

I was feeling a bit ship-wrecked myself. Settled at a table, with the first file-box open before me, reading the correspondence between Harold Williams and his friend Macie Smith, I was troubled by the fortification illusion. This is often precursory to a migraine but I don’t get migraines. The illusion is a battlement-like structure which glimmers at the periphery of vision and shifts unpredictably if you attempt to focus upon it. In medical speak it’s called a scintillating scotomaa localized area of blindness edged by brilliantly coloured shimmering lights. I have been susceptible to it, in times of illness, tiredness or stress, ever since I picked up an ear infection swimming in the Flores Sea in 2004. I had to go outside and walk around until it went away.

Macie Smith was one of ten children of William Sydney Smith and Mary Jane (Jennie) Cumberworth, of Christchurch, New Zealand. Smith was an artisan, a printer, a working class intellectual; he and his wife were Methodist, free-thinking, libertarians—of a kind. They and their community practised vegetarianism, teetotalism, socialism, pacifism, feminism. Fresh air and exercise were necessities; tobacco was no less sinful than alcohol: it was the devil’s weed. Katherine ‘Kate’ Sheppard, the famous suffragette, was a close friend of the Smiths and indeed, from 1904, lived in their household; when Jennie died in the 1920s, Kate and William married.

Harold Williams got to know the family—which later changed their name to Lovell-Smith—when he was assigned to the parish of St Albans as a junior minister in the Methodist Church in 1896. He and Macie, though not romantically involved, were soul mates and corresponded up until the eve of World War One; by which time Harold was living with Tyrkova in St Petersburg and had become, to all intents and purposes, a Russian himself. After Harold’s death in 1928, Macie sent all the letters she had kept to Ariadna. Arkady, her son by an earlier marriage, transcribed the holographs and typed them up. This is what I was reading.

Members of the Lovell-Smith family went on to become stalwarts of the Christchurch art scene; and of radical, especially feminist, politics; but Williams’ fate lay elsewhere. He abandoned his ministry (though not his Christianity) and embarked upon the study of languages; at which he was prodigiously gifted. This took him to Berlin and then Munich. In Stuttgart he became involved with the Russian émigré community; and fell in love with his wife-to-be. His long-held ambition to meet Leo Tolstoy was achieved in 1906 but, predictably, the sage of Yasna Polyana disappointed him; subsequently he dedicated himself, not to utopianism, but to the kind of committed journalism which seeks social and political change. I found among his papers his last word upon Tolstoy: though nominally a Christian, Williams remarked, he was really a kind of Taoist.

I was still suffering from exhaustion when, in the late afternoon, I left the library and, disoriented, headed off in the wrong direction to catch the subway back to mid-town. It was only when I found myself descending some wide stone stairs leading into a long narrow park that I realised I’d made a mistake. I asked a uniformed fellow climbing the steps for directions. He turned out to be a security officer at Columbia;  a French-speaking African from the Côte d’Ivoire; as effusive as Hyatt had been about his adopted land. He told me, if I was ever in trouble, always to ask for the help of a man in a uniform. His faith was touching; but not immune to contradiction. Not long before we parted, he gestured towards a building opposite the Butler: That is where they invented the atomic bomb, he said. Right here on this campus. It was Pupin Hall, where physicists in 1939 used a cyclotron to split the uranium atom.

~ ~ ~

All days in a library are the same; except when they are not. Sometimes you hit the jackpot: next morning, I came upon every despatch Harold Williams sent from Petrograd to London between the death of Rasputin in late 1916 and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. About four hundred and fifty pages of foolscap, typed single-space in upper case and telling, in riveting detail, the story of the Russian revolution. But here was the thing: there wasn’t time to read it all. I had before my eyes one of the great collections of historical documents of the twentieth century—and I couldn’t make proper use of it. All I could do was leaf through, taking notes along the way. I consoled myself by saying it was biography I was writing, not history; but still.

It should have been a book, I thought; and learned, later in the day, that it is. Harold sent his despatches as telegrams and kept copies of them all. When he and Ariadna left Russia in 1918—they went north by train to Murmansk, then made passage for England on a German ship commandeered by the Portuguese and sailing under the Portuguese flag—he took these copies with him for the express purpose of writing them up. But Harold never wrote that book; when he went off to cover the Russian Civil War, Ariadna stayed behind in London and wrote it instead; but she was not the writer he was, or not in English. Her book, From Liberty to Brest-Litovsk, the First Year of the Russian Revolution, was published by Macmillan in London in 1919—after which, like other histories written by the defeated, it disappeared. It has to be said that her fervent polemical tone didn’t help.

John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World was published that same year and found the readership Tyrkova missed. From Liberty . . . came out in a second edition in the US in 1977 but was read only by specialists. Williams’ despatches, I thought, ought to be revisited by some bright, clear-eyed young scholar seeking matter for a dissertation. Such a dissertation might also look at those he sent subsequently, from South Russia during the Civil War, which are in the Butler library as well; but who knows if that will ever happen now? The Civil War despatches are also problematic: Williams abandoned any pretence to journalistic objectivity and writes as a partisan of the White Russian cause. Unfortunately he was, once again, on the wrong side of history.

Another conundrum was material in nature. These old despatches were typed on thin paper which was already a hundred years old; the edges of the individual sheets were inclined to crumble in my hands when I picked them up. As careful as I tried to be, nevertheless, the desk I worked at was soon covered with fragments of paper. The same detritus, I noticed, fell to the floor beneath me. Indeed, those historical residues also gathered beneath the desks of other researchers working at other tasks in the same room. The librarians didn’t seem to mind, perhaps because most of the documents had already been copied to microfilm. Still, it was disturbing: as if to investigate these things was also to erase them. Something written a century ago in Petrograd was turning to dust on the floor of a New York library.

It was Super Tuesday. March 1, 2016. After finishing up at the Butler I took the subway back to the hotel; then went to a bar on 8th Avenue near 45th Street. I wanted to watch the election coverage. The Celtic was packed to the gills and doing a roaring trade. Every seat at the bar taken, people sitting at all of the tables along the other side of the room. A big, blowsy, cheerful crowd boozing and yarning in the glare of half a dozen flat-screen TV monitors hung up along the length of a wall; a couple of which, including the one in front of me, were showing news of how the primaries that day had panned out. Alas, I couldn’t hear a thing; and what I could see was more or less incomprehensible to me.

I had a family man on my right, Irish-American, like many there, who was telling the barmaid how his kids were getting along. The guy on my left, wearing an ill-fitting toupee and with his eyebrows dyed Trump orange, was talking about the research he might have done, was going to do or would have liked to have been doing, in Paris, France. He was trying, in a desultory sort of way, to pick me up. The barmaid, with her Irish eyes smiling, was performing: pirouettes, curtsies, sups and poses—her repartee sharp as a needle or a knife. She sang along to the Cyndi Lauper song: Some boys take a beautiful girl / And hide her away from the rest of the world / I want to be the one to walk in the sun . . .

No-one was watching the election coverage or nobody much. Occasionally I’d see someone look up, in a slightly puzzled manner, and stare at the numbers on the screen for a bit before their eyes glazed over and they returned to something more intrinsic: their drink, their conversation or flirtation; the sports that were in play upon some of the other screens; a game show or a cooking program. I felt the same: what could this possibly have to do with me? I who had spent the day reading about tumultuous events in Europe in the 1910s and 20s, of wars and revolutions lost and won. The family guy drained his beer, winked at the barmaid, and went home to his wife. The man on my left offered to buy me another drink but I said no, thanks. I finished the one I had, said goodbye to him and went across the Avenue to the Iron Bar and Grill to get something to eat.

~ ~ ~

I loved being in New York again. It’s the sociability of the people, the way you can talk to anyone about anything. Across the road from the hotel was a bar called Smith’s and, on my other nights in town, I went there. There was a large reproduction of Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace on the back wall; and I thought the yellow of her fur-edged coat played the same role in the works of the Master of Delft as did the pink in the works of the Master of Den Bosch. The barman was a thin, intense Russian guy called Philip. He aspired to become an actor and a writer; but was determined to set himself up economically before pursuing his artistic ambitions. We are all in the trap of our illusions and our dreams, he said. Unless we find a way to make the money that will set us free.

When I went back to Smith’s on the Wednesday, Phil greeted me like an old friend. Later his girlfriend, Miriam, an Israeli dancer, joined us. Then a Puerto Rican fellow called Eduardo joined the conversation, introducing himself as a Failed Life Coach. He must have done some stand-up; he was a very funny guy. The four of us chuckled along together for a while until it was time for me to go: up the other end of 42nd Street to have dinner, at their city apartment, with Nancy Shatzkin and her partner John.

It felt odd walking down 42nd Street: like Hell’s Kitchen, the old Deuce has been made over into bland respectability. Steel and glass frontages, corporate HQs, discreet and expensive bars and restaurants. Not many people around. I used to walk this way, down crowded pavements, music blaring, through riotous or desperate crowds, past grindhouse cinemas, peep shows and strip clubs, drug-dealers and their customers, hookers and pimps, to my day job in a publisher’s premises on 3rd Avenue, where the product was pornography. I’d sit at a word-processing machine and construct improbable erotic scenarios, often involving interactions between characters I’d glimpsed on the way to work.

What happened to those people? Where did they go? Are they all dead and buried? Do none like them exist anymore? Or do they live on somewhere else, in another dimension perhaps? I thought of Herbert Huncke, the Mayor of 42nd Street, so-called, who used to lock himself in a cubicle in the men’s toilets at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in order to write. That wouldn’t happen now. I thought of myself, tapping away at the gargantuan machine at which I worked: although there was no merit to the six novels I turned out over that period, it was still worth doing—my first attempt at mastering the discipline that is required to write extended prose works.

Nance is an old friend from Red Mole days; we have known each other since 1979, when the Moles were performing The Last Days of Mankind at The Theatre for the New City on the Lower East Side. I was their lighting guy; she came in as our manager. She was that for a period of years, in New York and in New Zealand and then again in New York; even though Red Mole were, functionally, unmanageable. I mean in the sense that the principals, Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell, with Deborah Hunt, were not inclined, or perhaps not capable, of working towards anyone else’s agenda, schedule or imaginary.

Nance told me the story of the parting of the ways. She had, after months of advocacy, secured the troupe an invitation to perform at a prestigious east coast drama festival; the venue was a university theatre and a large amount of money, $10,000 I believe (this was in the early 1980s), came with the invitation. The only stipulation was that Red Mole had to perform the work the director of the festival, who issued the invitation, had seen: Childhood of a Saint. And Alan said no. He said he wanted to write a new work and perform that instead. No compromise was possible. None was reached. Red Mole never went to the festival, the ten grand was never paid, and Nance ceased forthwith to ‘manage’ them.

We drank Australian wine with the Cuban meal John provided; and talked politics. Nance is a left wing Democrat who has long organised at the local level in her community at Croton-on-Hudson. She is committed, astute, hard-working and idealistic—but not to the extent that it clouds her perceptions or her judgements. In that far-off delusional time, everybody thought Hillary Clinton would be elected President, even though many of us believed Bernie Sanders was the one people should be voting for. Attention was focussed upon Congressional elections, in the expectation that Republican majorities might be rolled back in both the Senate and the House. Donald Trump was a distant, unpleasant stain upon the horizon, something toxic like Agent Orange, which we wouldn’t have to deal with except as material for black comedy.

Later Ruby Brunton joined us. She’s the daughter of Sally and Alan, born in New Mexico, raised in New Zealand, then domiciled in Brooklyn, New York; she would move later to Mexico City and is now back in her home country. A sophisticated and intelligent young woman who has inherited performative and literary gifts, amongst much else, from both of her parents. A second generation Mole. One of the distinctive things about the Moles is that, despite the volatile, often fractious, nature of the working relationships, the camaraderie which lay behind it was never compromised, never abjured; so that, although we may be far-flung and only intermittently, if at all, in touch with one another, we are still a family and can call upon each other at any time; and the call will be answered.

~ ~ ~

I had a proper catch-up with Ruby the next afternoon, in a little Korean tea house cum art gallery down in the thirties on 5th Avenue. She was late and while I waited for her I watched the Koreans organising their next exhibition. It was inscrutable but, perhaps for that very reason, calming. When Ruby did turn up she said she was delayed because pupils in her class―she was teaching Spanish―after the lesson was over deluged her with their questions.

I’d finished, not without regret, at the Butler Library. Trawling archives is a Sisyphean task, the stone you roll to the top of the hill is always about to roll back down upon you; and then you must start again. But I had seen what Harold Williams’ handwriting looked like; read the attempts he’d made at imaginative writing—wartime short stories—as well as some of his ethnographic reports; become, to some extent, privy to the kinds of conversations he and his wife had with each other. They signed their letters and telegrams to each other ‘Watch’, short for their pious, fervent hope: The Lord Watch Over Us

Writing biography is incurably voyeuristic; your only hope of retaining any dignity is by means of the discretion with which you use whatever it is you have intuited or learned or found out. If that is not illusory too: the shortcomings of history are derisory compared with those of biography. Ultimately nothing is verifiable. It is one of those enterprises which must inevitably fail: your task, as with parenting, is to be good enough. Was I good enough? Would I be? Alas, there is no answer to these questions.

Ruby was going to a movie; she had a change of clothes with her and knew a boutique on 35th Street where, in the trying-on room, she could shed her teaching gear and put on her going out dress. We said goodbye on the corner and I walked on back to the hotel. The research side of my trip was over. Now I had to write my book. I thought of the dust on the floor of Special Collections; how that dust had to be reconstituted to make something like a human being; not one who walked and talked, loved and laughed; but such as might inhabit the pages of a book for a little while; until that too crumbled to dust again.

images : marble bust of Constantine found at Stonegate

42nd St., New York, 1980

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Otherness Watching

The Rua dos Douradores, in the Old City, is so narrow that the four or five storey buildings on either side of the street seem about to meet over your head. They were a mix of apartments, restaurants, offices and businesses, amongst which were several car and bike hire places. Halfway down, outside a church built on a corner, a text is inscribed in the pavement. It’s in Portuguese but I already knew what it said: All humanity may be found here. Or, in another iteration: Yes, for me the Rua dos Douradores contains the meaning of everything and the answer to all riddles, except for the riddle of why riddles exist, which can never be answered. 

There was a sturdy beggar importuning on the steps of the locked church. I didn’t give him anything. On the opposite corner, the windows of a liquor store, its shelves lined with vials of golden ichor, flared in the late sun. I bought a bottle of port there. A man in a blue hat, with one heel built-up, beating a blue tambourine, limped past singing a melancholy tune. Bernardo Soares really did live out the whole of his life here, in the universe that is the Street of the Gilders; the quote in the pavement comes from his single, posthumously published work: in English, The Book of Disquieta factless autobiography.

I carried on, to the Praça do Comércio, more usually called the Terreiro do Paço, after the Ribeira Palace which stood here until it was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Like many of the squares of Lisbon, the Terreiro features a huge and outré sculpture at its centre. A bronze José I, the Reformer (1714-1777), riding a bronze horse, crushing snakes beneath its hooves, on a stone plinth flanked by angels and elephants. Palace Square was vast and empty and to walk across it was to feel yourself straying into one of the metaphysical works of Giorgio de Chirico: a suspension of time in eternity or of space in infinity. You don’t know how, or even if, you will reach the other side.

On that other side the Avenue Ribeira das Naus ran, its name a memory of shipyards where carracks were built, and on the other side of that was a small stone platform from which you could see, standing out in the murky waters of the Tagus, two white pillars inscribed with words I could not decipher—written in Latin I suppose—half submerged, skirts of green weed encircling them where the tide rises and falls. They stand apart from each other, making a gateway, and leading down between them into the river’s depths was a white marble staircase.

The columns of the Cais das Colunas represent the two pillars of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, built and destroyed in antiquity: Boaz and Jachin, names whose meanings are disputed. Wisdom and devotion; strength and endurance. Or something more mystical than either, or both, of those attributions. It resembled the entrance to an underwater world; perhaps to the Portuguese seaborne empire itself, which once girdled half the globe and is now a thing of memories, fragments and ruins.

I couldn’t be bothered making mysteries of things that are not really mysterious; while the real secrets lie unexamined before us. Commerce, for instance. As I walked back across Palace Square a Gypsy, with impeccable manners, asked me where I was from? I told him and asked him the same. Morocco, he said. He offered to sell me some marijuana but I declined. I already knew that what you buy off street dealers might turn out to be mixed herbs; and I didn’t want to smoke anyway. We bowed and parted.

In the Rua Augustus I saw the living statue of a conquistador, painted silver, as if he had been dipped in molten ore; and another of a white Mozart, with a bouquet of red flowers in his hands. At a café on the Praça Rossio, I drank a glass of nameless, delicious red wine. The crowds passing in the street were made up of people from all over the world: Africans, Americans, Arabs; Europeans, Indians, Orientals. A dwarf in a smart jacket and a black top hat walked by; later on that night I saw him again, dishevelled, perhaps pixilated, without his hat.

At that moment I believed in the truth of what Fernando Pessoa (in the person of Bernardo Soares) wrote in Livro do Desassossego: Every day things happen in the world that cannot be explained by any law of things we know. Every day they’re mentioned and forgotten, and the same mystery that brought them takes them away, transforming their secret into oblivion. Such is the law by which things that can’t be explained must be forgotten. The visible world goes on as usual in the broad daylight. Otherness watches us from the shadows.

~ ~ ~

There was a park across the road from the hotel. Next morning I went over and climbed up through pine trees until I could look out over a vast, maze-like zone of green manicured grass, with low, topiary-ed ornaments, cascading down parallel to the Avenue of Liberty towards the Tagus blue in the distance. It was called the Parque da Liberdade until Edward VII of England, in the interest of greater closeness between the two countries, visited in 1902; and the Portuguese renamed it, in his honour, Parque Eduardo VII.

I climbed up further and came across a grand building set on a small hill looking west towards the Atlantic. Yellow and white, with a red tiled roof, ornamented, it resembled a palace from the olden days, now crumbling; resplendent in its neglect and in the habit of mind that could let such a thing fall into ruin. There were ornate statues—Art and Science—either side of the stairs leading up to a doorway surmounted by a false balcony, with stained glass windows above. The peeling painted walls had turned a seductive shade of pale ochre; and there were four large blue and white mosaics, two on either side of the door.

These azulejos—tin-glazed ceramic tilework—followed patriotic themes. One of the ones on the right, with a large plaster sea shell sculpted above, showed a caravel in full sail under the stars of the Southern Cross, heading towards some fabled land. Its companion depicted a part of the action during the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, when the Portuguese army, with its English allies, defeated the Castilians, with their French and Italian allies, and confirmed João I, of the House of Aviz, as King of Portugal.

One of the other two was a rendition of the village of Sagres, in the Algarve, at the southern tip of the land, where Henry the Navigator founded his school of exploration: looking out over stormy seas, planning an empire; the second a representation of the Battle of Ourique, in 1139, between Christians and Moors, during which St James, whose day it was, intervened and granted the Righteous victory over the Infidel. Portuguese history is full of miraculous interventions; and of as-yet-unfulfilled prophecies. These azulejos were elegant but decayed—cracked, flaking and broken, like artefacts of a defunct civilization.

It turned out the building wasn’t even that old. Built in 1922 in Brazil, as the Portuguese Pavilion at the Rio de Janeiro International Great Exhibition of that year, a decade later it was dismantled, brought back to Lisbon and re-erected as part of the Great Portuguese Industrial Exhibition of 1932. In the 1940s it was used for games of roller hockey (played on skates); in the 1980s, it was renamed Carlos Lopes Pavilion, after the long distance runner who won the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. It has since been restored and re-opened as a sports museum, also dedicated to Carlos Lopes.

~ ~ ~

It was strange the way I felt at home in Lisbon, as if something in me rhymed with the city. The grandiosity of the statuary, for instance, has its mirror in the self-deprecation of its makers. Their sense of inferiority has been displaced into something so extravagant as to be absurd; thereby magnifying the inferiority it was supposed to banish. The lost empire dreamed on in the ironic renunciations of the disinherited heirs of those who once conquered half the world. It is a simple step from there to a nostalgia for things that never were. 

You find this oscillation also in Livro do Desassossego; but not only there. The poem, Tobacco Shop, by Álvaro de Campos, a ship’s engineer with Scottish affiliations and Whitmanesque appurtenances, begins: I’m nothing. / I’ll always be nothing. / I can’t even wish to be something. / Yet I have in me all of the dreams of the world. He is idle, looking out his window at the tobacco shop opposite, not knowing what to do. He considers everything—history, philosophy, belief, futility, the cosmos, himself—walking between window and chair, coming to no certain conclusion until he sees a man he knows buying tobacco. As if by divine instinct, Stevens turns around and sees me. / He waves me a hello, I shout back, Hello Stevens! and the universe / reorganises itself for me, without hopes or ideals / and the Tobacco Shop Owner smiles.

Without hopes or ideals. Mythic ancestors are another delusion of mine. I was once persuaded, by the way my father looked in his coffin, that he, the son of a black-haired, brown-eyed, dark-skinned Cornish mother and a braw Scots father with a French surname, had Iberian blood. Cornish folk, like the Irish and the Welsh, took in sailors stranded after the sinking of the ships of the Spanish Armada; their genes entered family lines. Some were Moroccan. More anciently, a sea-faring people, related to the Phoenicians, colonised the Atlantic coast from North Africa as far as the Outer Hebrides. The Basques too, said to be older than any other Homo sapiens in Europe, left genetic traces among the Britons.

Romantic speculations may deliver themselves intact into a beloved quotidian; ordinariness activated by magnificent dreams nevertheless remains resolutely ordinary. I want both the dreams and the reality; I don’t want to give one away for the other and I don’t see why anyone else should have to do so either. I loved the shabby facades upon the buildings of the Avenue of Liberty, for instance, their pale yellow, pink and green panels peeling, their windows outlined in white. The way Lisboetas seemed able to keep both grandeur and ruin simultaneously in mind. I wondered where the dwarf’s top hat might be.

~ ~ ~

On the other side of the Jardim da Estrela, past the English cemetery, with its sternly visaged statue of the Duke of Wellington, a wren accompanied me, chirping softly, picking tiny insects from the moss that grew between the stones on the footpath. The rain began again as I turned into Rua Coelho da Rocha, the Street of the Rock Rabbit, where Casa Fernando Pessoa stands at number 16. The family—Fernando, his mother, his half-sister, two half-brothers, a servant—took the house with some money bequeathed them after the death of Fernando’s step-father, his mother’s second husband, in Pretoria in 1919.

João Miguel dos Santos Rosa, a ship’s captain and naval officer, served for many years as Portuguese Consul in South Africa. Fernando (b. 1888) lived there between the ages of 7 and 17; after which he returned to Lisbon. When João died his dependents returned to Portugal, moving into this house, where Fernando joined them; he lived there for the rest of his life. It is a plain, greyish-white, three storey building with a red tiled roof, one of several in a row, which has been made over into a museum, eliminating all traces of what it would have been like as a family home.

Well, not quite all. Upstairs is a re-creation of Fernando’s bedroom, including what may have been the actual furniture: a wardrobe like an upright coffin, a single bed, with a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches on the bedside table. The famous chest of drawers, where he recorded the inaugural visitations of his three poetic heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, stands against the south wall. It wasn’t as tall as I thought it would be; but then, how tall was he? Taller than yesterday, and thinner too.

He said he had been trying to invent a poet. The day I finally gave upit was March 8, 1914—I went over to a high desk and, taking a piece of paper, began to write, standing up, as I always do when I can. And I wrote some thirty poems, one after another, in a kind of ecstasy, the nature of which I am unable to define. It was the triumphant day of my life and never will I have another like it. Forgive me the absurdity of the sentence: in me there appeared my master. He means Alberto Caiero, mystic, innocent, author of The Keeper of Sheep, the first of the three to manifest.

Elsewhere in the building, behind glass cases, were astrological charts of the heteronyms, all of whom have birthdays, biographies and (with one exception) death-days of their own. Pessoa’s own chart is set in stone at the threshold; you step over it upon entering the house. I had not realised how intricate his conceptions were: each poet represents a different element, so that between them they cover the bases: Fire (Caeiro), Air (de Campos), Earth (Reis), Water (Pessoa-as-himself).

There were relics: a small portable typewriter, painted matt black; a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles; a pocket-sized missal. School reports from Durban, where Pessoa received an English education. A picture of his birth father, a dashing fellow wearing a cravat, a lawyer who worked in the Justice Department while moonlighting as the music critic for a Lisbon newspaper. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa died young, of tuberculosis, in 1893. Fernando’s younger brother, Jorge, his only full sibling, died a year later of the same disease. After that he and his mother—Maria Madalena Pinheiro Nogueira, from the Azores and, like Joaquim, musical and multi-lingual—went to Durban to join the Consul there.

Pessoa never married. There was just one woman, Ofélia Quierós, who unites in her name Shakespeare’s doomed heroine and Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, the Portuguese explorer of the Pacific. There were relics of her too, gifts from Fernando—a delicate silver bracelet; a tiny casket in which you might keep a ring; notes and letters, including one that said, provocatively: Kiss me! Their relationship, never consummated, began in 1920 and quickly reached a point of such intensity that Pessoa, under pressure when his family returned from South Africa, called it off: by means of a jealous Álvaro de Campos, who, although imaginary, claimed he was the unhappy third in a ménage à trois

Ofélia Quierós nephew was also a poet and through him she and Fernando resumed contact a decade later for another intense though rather shorter period, which also came to an end through the interventions of the heteronyms. Fernando and Ophelia, no longer courting, remained in touch until his death in 1935. She still felt tenderly towards him; but he was clearly unavailable. There are letters—forty-eight of his, a hundred of hers—and they have been published; they do not so much illuminate as intensify the mystery. She married a man called Soares.

I could have spent all day at the Casa Fernando Pessoa; there was so much to see. On the top floor, a digitized library of the poet’s books, and some real ones too, including a 1903 English edition of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus; photographs; films you could watch through peep-holes in the wall. Pessoa’s Shakespeare, open at the first page of The Tempest and heavily annotated in a minuscule hand. I focussed on some underlined text:

Act One, Scene One; a storm is raging. When the King, Alonso, and his retinue enter, the Boatswain tells them to go below again, so that the mariners may continue undistracted their work of saving the ship.

‘Nay, good, be patient,’ says Gonzales, the King’s counsellor.

‘When the sea is,’ replies the Boatswain.

It was Saturday at the Casa and auditions were in progress in a large room off the landing on the floor below. Well-dressed families, mothers and fathers, with their sons and daughters, but mostly daughters, kept arriving. Shedding their expensive overcoats and shaking out their wet umbrellas. Perhaps a hundred people gathered, settled, quietened; then, one by one, the children stood up to sing. To piano accompaniment. Their pure high singing, ascending the stairs, sounded like the voices of angels.

When I went to leave, I saw a pale-faced, dark-haired girl of about eleven years standing alone on the low stage, wearing a Prussian blue dress with collar and sleeves edged in white lace, singing the old English folk song: Are you going to Scarborough Fair? / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme / Remember me to one who lives there / He once was a true love of mine. Later there’s mention of a cambric shirt sewn, miraculously, without a seam. Love imposes impossible tasks, the song goes on to say. Sometimes it accomplishes them too.

~ ~ ~

Walking away from the Casa, I passed the arches of an aqueduct and saw a sign advertising a Museum of Water: what might the exhibits have been? Rain drops? There were plenty of those, falling from the sky. Further along, in the Rua da Escola Politécnica, I came by chance upon the Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciênca. A grey neo-classic building with a grand staircase leading up to a grand entrance; which was locked. At a small round gatehouse down the side, however, you could buy a ticket granting access both to the Museum and to the adjoining Botanical Gardens.

Another rain shower was ending as I walked down into the dripping gardens. Beneath a flowering Datura tree, two French girls were laughing their way through a herbal maze. I caught a whiff of the perfume of those intoxicating ochre trumpets. There were avenues of tall palms, their trunks green with mosses and lichens. Morton Bay figs, as big as any you might find in an Australian park, stood with their aerial roots dangling like fibrous, disembodied lungs in the wet air. There seemed to be an infinite variety of cycads. Araucaria too, from Chile perhaps, where the Monkey Puzzle tree grows.

Halfway down the slope, beneath a bank of greenery, a Rasta sat on a bench, a small umbrella somehow fixed inside his clothes and open above his head, a hoodie half covering his dreads, wearing rainbow-coloured sunglasses and smoking a spliff. He raised his shades so that our eyes could meet; smiled; then let them fall again. A blue-winged bird investigated the ground beneath some trees then flew abruptly away. It had a glossy black head, a white throat, and underparts the colour of the Jimson Weed flowers: the azure-winged magpie, aka the Iberian magpie—not a pica, a cousin of the crow.

The museum was deserted: apart from the young woman who took my ticket—beautiful, smiling, with both her legs in callipers. My footsteps echoed through galleries of crystals and bones: amethyst, outcroppings of rose quartz, onyx cores; dinosaur femurs or vertebrae which had turned over time to opal or to agate. The central corridor, with a marble floor, was lined with glass cases stretching up to the ceiling and containing nothing at all; until, at the far end, there was one with two antique microscopes inside.

Here was preserved, intact, a nineteenth century chemical laboratory and attendant circular lecture hall, with tiered seating. Large glass jars of yellow and green and blue and white powders stood along high wooden shelves. There was the smell of ether and of gas; of tungsten. An adjoining gallery was given over to the scholarly remains of Francisco de Arruda Furtado, a Portuguese disciple of Charles Darwin. He was a native of the Azores, self-taught, prodigiously energetic; the exhibition gathered together items he had collected, discovered or manufactured in his brief scientific career.

Furtado’s correspondence with Darwin was cut short by the older man’s death in 1882. Francisco had been supplying him with information about the adaptations of creatures endemic to the Azores. A malacologist by profession, he was employed in 1885 at the Museum, for two years, during which time he classified its collection of mollusc and sea shells. After that was done, he returned to his birthplace at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel, where he died, aged 33, in 1887. I don’t know the cause of death. Exhaustion, perhaps.

Furtado was also an anthropologist; there were grotesqueries: a glass case full of casts of diseased or mutilated human genitalia, male and female, made out of some brownish substance resembling the bakelite of old-fashioned hearing aids. Feathered, shrunken heads, their thin lips drawn back over long yellow teeth, collected from indigenous burials in the Azores, uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived but showing signs of more ancient occupation; cases of surgical instruments whose uses I could only guess. Furtado was an artist too: amongst the fish upside down in bottles, and the mutant human jaw bones, was a beautiful, delicate, detailed drawing, in colour, of a passion fruit flower.

The museum was not just deserted, and scarce of exhibits; few of the displays were labelled, so you made your way from enigma to enigma. At one point I found myself on the inside of the locked doors that led to the street; and, climbing a set of stairs to the side of the lobby, walked into an architectural version of one of those impossible constructions drawn by M C Escher: a door which led onto three other doors, each of which opened upon a blank wall. Retracing my steps I heard, like an hallucination, the sound of children’s voices; and went to see if I could find out where they were coming from.

At the back of the museum a man dressed in a sky blue robe and a soft black Renaissance hat, staff in hand, came out of a room full of children and introduced himself: I am Galileo Galilei, he said, not portentously. He was instructing the children in the operation of the heliocentric solar system; and doing so in the person and the costume of the Italian astronomer. Kids of all ages flooded out of the lecture room and swirled like planets and moons and asteroids around him. I shook his hand. Eppur si muove, I said; and Galileo bowed.

From the back of the building you could see, through high windows, avenues of cypress trees disposed along narrow, sodden lawns. I left the wide, light-filled room via an entrance symmetrically disposed with respect to the one I had come in by, thinking I could return to the front that way. Instead, I met a locked door; and to the left of that, a stairwell. I climbed one, two, three flights and came out on top of a tower set upon the roof; from which, looking west, you could see ranks of buildings receding all the way to Sintra, their white-painted walls and red roofs luminous under the rainy sky.

On the way back down I found an open door and stepped through into a shadowy room. It was only half-dark, there was a light source, perhaps a window, beyond; but I didn’t go any further. In the centre of the room, on a rectangular table, in a cut glass vase, stood some arum lilies, carefully arranged—and decomposing. The blacks of decay spreading like melanomas across the white flesh of the flowers, their golden tongues greying, drooping; green leaves curled and withered. Spirogyra swarmed in the water where the stems festered. I could smell them: yes, worse than weeds. It was as uncanny a sight as I have seen.

~ ~ ~

Lisbon was like that: replete with wonders that were always about to disclose some absurd or macabre subtext. A half-fictional city half as old as time. I understood why some people think it was named after the wanderer, Odysseus. Or, as the Romans had it, Ulysses, giving us, allegedly, Olisipo. Other etymologies are just as persuasive: the Phoenician Alis-Ubo, safe harbour; an Iberian word for the Tagus, Lisso or Lucio. Who knows? I went on down towards the Chiado, thinking to return to the Cais das Colunas, where Queens and Kings, and perhaps Odysseus too, had come ashore.

Not far past the Praça Luís de Camões, in a second hand bookshop, an immensely dignified man, surrounded by acolytes, sat in a green velvet armchair just inside the door; as I came in, he rose, bowed and took his leave. It was as if he had been waiting for me. On the shelves was a handsome, six volume edition, leather-bound, in Portuguese, of the Peregrinação, the Pilgrimage of Fernäo Mendes Pinto (1509-1583); an autobiographical narrative of his travels in the East in the sixteenth century: to Ethiopia, the Red Sea, India; Malacca and Sumatra; China and Japan; Siam and Pegu, as Thailand and Burma were in those days called.

The Peregrinação was published posthumously in 1614; this was an early, perhaps a first edition. I had already read, in a library in Auckland, an English translation—The Travels of Mendes Pinto, published in 1989 by the University of Chicago Press—and developed an affection for the roguish adventurer, a kind of Munchausen, though most of his adventures probably had some basis in fact. Mendes Pinto, one scholar wrote, may have been a sensitive eyewitness, or a great liar, or a brilliant satirist; he was certainly more than a simple storyteller. But what story teller is not also a witness, a satirist and a liar?

I wanted to buy something but, in amongst the maps and globes, the dusty old paintings, the unreadable books, did not know what might it be. In the English language section were works by Ian Fleming and Carson McCullers. An art book, devoted to the work of Max Beckmann, contained a reproduction of his Odysseus and Calypso, in which an ocelot, a green bird and a coiled snake, look upon the ship-wrecked sailor and the nymph as they recline together ahead of his departure for Ithaca. I’d already bought a copy of Os Lugares de Pessoa, The Places of Pessoa, annotated photographs, at the Casa; that would have to do.

I was tired now; and, perhaps fortuitously, my last attempt at literary tourism, a visit to the José Saramago Museum on the Rua dos Bacalhoeiros (the Street of the Cod Fish Boats) to the east of the Old City, failed. Although the museum stayed open until six, they would not allow entry after 5.30 pm. I wandered along the riverbank for a while, remembering the first Saramago I read: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984), in which, following the demise of his creator, Reis, Pessoa’s sole undead heteronym, a doctor, a poet (Horatian odes) and a Royalist, self-exiled in Brazil since 1919, returns to Lisbon.

Slowly he comes to understand that, with his author gone, he too must fade away. As Fascism continues to rise across Europe—the implacable tightening of António de Oliveira Salazar’s grip on power in Portugal, the genesis of civil war in Spain, the Italian adventure in Abyssinia, Nazi Germany an evil dark cloud in the east—in the newspapers Reis compulsively reads, the ink begins to leach from the pages, leaving them blank, bereft of words. It is an incommensurable book; and now I remembered something anomalous about it, something I had never really considered before. 

Reis has in his luggage The God of the Labyrinth (1933) by Herbert Quain: not an actual book, an invention of the Argentinean, Jorge Luis Borges, who published, in The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), an essay called An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain. Quain was an apocryphal Irish writer, recently (1940) deceased (in Roscommon). The God of the Labyrinth, his first novel, is a detective story in which the solution to the mystery as given in the book, Borges says, is false; but a discerning reader may still find out the truth of the matter.

The joke in Saramago’s novel is that, despite his best efforts, Ricardo Reis cannot finish Quain’s book; and is therefore unable to assert his qualifications, if that is the word, as a reader. He is a fiction of a fiction, lost in a fiction, with only fictions to guide him. Saramago (or his narrator) remarks: In my honest opinion, the reader of a mystery is the only real survivor of the story he is reading, unless it is as the one real survivor that every reader reads every story.

After dinner in a meat restaurant I took the Azul line to Marquis de Pombal and when I came out of the station into the rainy night, a blind woman asked me for directions. She took my arm and we walked together along to the bus stop. The Dutch clog on the sill of the building opposite my hotel window was overflowing with rain water. I poured a glass of the port, ran a hot bath and lay in it, looking at the tile work on the wall above the tub. Small blue and white azulejos, showing ships and animals, birds and flowers; abstract patterns inscribed upon a Moorish floor: the answer to all riddles, except for the riddle of why riddles exist, which can never be answered. 

image : Alister Crowley and Fernando Pessoa playing chess in Lisbon c. 1930

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Holy Fire

At Baker Street station I had to spend the last of my big English coins in order to top up my Oyster Card: a two pound piece with the Rosetta Stone upon it, which I was hoping to keep as a souvenir. But was it really the Rosetta Stone? According to the Royal Mint’s online site, there is no such coin; maybe I was carrying a counterfeit around in my pocket. A mystery that will never be solved. At St Pancras Station, a thunderous bass sound rolled through the concourse: a raggedy fellow in a top hat, banging away on an old upright piano. I was looking for International because I was going to catch a Eurostar train to Brussels, change there for Roosendaal, then go via Breda and Tilburg to my destination, the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Brabant in the Netherlands.

On the outskirts of twenty-first century cities you see piles of glittering debris which might be plastic, metal or some amalgam of the two. Huge warehouses where the pre-cooked pre-packaged food many urbanites eat now is gathered and despatched. Reading matter too. There will be enclosures full of new vehicles—vans, trucks, cars—and also dumps where those that have been used up are sent for wrecking. Graffiti like cries of lost souls stain bleak industrial walls beside community gardens which resemble bare, post-holocaust survivals. In the rain and the cold of a February morning, you might think the slag heaps, the stagnant ponds, the choked watercourses and the grey muddy ground between the woebegone trees are the precise antithesis to, and analogue of, the gleaming interior of the fast train you are on; and you would be right.

We racketed through Kent and then dived down into the Chunnel, to emerge in what looked like, and was, another country. It was still drizzling but the yellow sun was breaking through now, turning the mist to gauze and illuminating the green fields, the orderly farms, criss-crossed by pylons resembling miniature Eiffel Towers. Everywhere you could see the finishing touches being put to tall, new, cream-painted security fences topped with razor wire. They snaked across the landscape according to a logic that was not apparent to me. The railway stations we passed through were deserted apart from French soldiers, with their uniforms, their belts of hardware, their stun guns, their robotic demeanour, standing guard. Clearly, in this age of involuntary migration, refugees and asylum seekers, these were strategies to enforce what is now usually called border control.

I was sitting next to a young Asian woman who her spent her time drawing, with a blue biro, in an A4 notebook, violently grotesque human caricatures. These she would painstakingly annotate using Chinese characters. I was making a few notes myself and, inevitably, at some point, as a consequence, we were drawn into conversation. She was in Europe on a two year visa. She worked, she said, in retail and was taking a week off from her job to go to Brussels to chill. From Taiwan originally, she was a Mandarin speaker who also did some translating into, and from, the Japanese. She said the characters inscribed below her drawings were titles that included the date and time at which each was completed. When I asked her if she planned to stay in London, she looked perplexed.

Yes I would like to, she said. But I do not want to settle down.

In the seat in front of us, a man and woman were talking. They were bureaucrats. Or politicians. Probably the former. Both Brits. Both leftists. Both in their forties. He was older than her but evidently it was his first time at the European Parliament; his attempts at mansplaining were patiently, politely, rebuffed by his younger, more experienced, colleague. She laid out, in meticulous fashion, the strategies they would have to adopt if they were to be successful. What were they going there to do? Suffice to say it was about jobs and growth. And then, their business concluded, they began to discuss their hotel. A complete change of tone. Pheromones wafted. That each was married to another no doubt made anticipation of their imminent jouissance sweeter, more intense. It was another, a different kind of, European betrayal.

I had to change at Brussels for an Amsterdam train. It went via Antwerp. I sat in a quiet carriage, reading my latest acquisition: Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf, a fiction about Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat. The author is Lebanese; the book, written in French, had won the Prix Goncourt in 1993. While I was so engrossed, we must have crossed the Belgic border: two Dutch guards arrived. There was something vaudevillian about them: the man mimed silence for us; the woman, who was black, performed her house-keeping announcements wearing a bright red scarf, which she was inclined to twirl. She gave me a demonstration, which all could hear, of the correct pronunciation of Roosendaal. When I could not properly get my tongue around the syllables she made as if to cuff me across the ears.

I spent about twenty minutes, in the cold sleeting rain, on the platform there before the Den Bosch train arrived to carry me east and north through the Brabant: a wide, flat land, with canals and tree farms, under a lowering sky. This is the birthplace of Vincent van Gogh—at a village called Zundert, to the south, on 30 March in the year 1853. He preached at Etten, also to the south; painted The Potato Eaters at Nuenen, which we did not pass through; took drawing lessons at Tilburg, which we did; some of his work is collected at the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch. The North Brabant Museum was in fact where I was going; but not to look at van Goghs.

My companion on that leg of the journey was a mangosteen juice salesman from Spanish Forks, Utah. He was of Hispanic descent; and possessed of the monomania of the committed commercial traveller. He told me all that I will ever need to know about the virtues of the mangosteen. It is a native of the Moluccas; but the source for this fellow’s firm’s fruit was a depot in Kentucky; though I am unsure if the mangosteens were imported or grown locally on plantations; perhaps the latter. Mangosteen juice contains xanthones—over forty, he said. They are supposed to be anti-inflammatory and this was his selling point, especially among the Germans and the Swiss, with whom he was having some success. He did not say there are some who think it is a central nervous system depressant; and that there are toxic side effects to drinking the raw juice.

There was a golden dragon rampant on a pedestal in the middle of a fountain outside the Den Bosch railway station. It was raining again. The taxi driver who picked me up said people from ’s-Hertogenbosch (‘The Duke’s Forest’) are known for their forthright opinions. And their welcoming nature. Many of us, he said, are Catholic, as if that had something to do with being friendly and opinionated. We drove down wide straight roads, through complex waterways, by large areas of standing water which might have been permanent, fringed with bright green reeds and inhabited by ducks and geese and swamp hens. You could see in the distance ragged grey sheets of rain moving slowly across the flat land.

The hotel was on the outskirts of the city, standing alone, as if upon an island in a lake. It was called the Mövenpick, the Seagull’s Pick (a boast about the speed with which food is prepared in these establishments). They are a Swiss chain, and were, I thought, too luxurious, as well as too expensive, for me; but it was too late for second thoughts because I had already paid. Spandau Ballet’s True was playing as I came in to Reception: Why do I find it hard to write the next line? A disconsolate-looking hooker haunted the bar; I never saw her speak to anyone except the barman. I drank some delicious South African red wine, ate and then went up to my room and slept for twelve hours straight. Perhaps it wasn’t too luxurious after all.

~ ~ ~

The exhibition space was half-dark, lit by lozenges of golden light disposed along the walls or else, free-standing, in the centre of one or other of the several rooms. These were perspex light-boxes, designed especially for the show, within which the paintings were at once exhibited, illuminated and sequestered. The gallery was full of people, a murmuring, indistinct crowd, like pilgrims, passing reverently from lozenge to lozenge. They were well-dressed, well-heeled, middle-class, middle-aged or older; some in wheelchairs.

It was both intimate and estranging; you had to wait until a gap opened up into which you could insert your head, as it were, and thereby feast your eyes upon a painting. And you didn’t have long, either, because other bodies, other heads, were crowding in behind you, awaiting their turn. Sometimes the faces around me, with their bulbous eyes, their intent gazes, their unmistakeably Dutch caste, resembled those in the crowd scenes of the late medieval paintings we were looking at. I would glance from painting to spectators and back again, feeling in that simple act five hundred years collapse.

The first painting in the exhibition was a small roundel on a wooden panel showing a whey-faced man looking back as he walks away from a ramshackle building. I cannot improve upon Ingrid Rowland’s description: Clad in rags and mismatched shoes, the peddler bows under the weight of his pack, a wooden spoon and a catskin hanging from a loop, perhaps to advertise the wares he has to offer. His left hand clutches a traveller’s hat with a spool and bodkin stuck into it—he can double as a tailor if need be. With his right hand, he wards off a yapping dog with a cudgel-like walking stick; his bandaged left leg suggests that he has already been bitten.

The road ahead is blocked by a wooden gate; opening it represents some kind of deliberate choice. The dilapidated house behind him is evidently a brothel, with its long johns hanging in a window to dry, its symbolic broken clay pot on a pole, its pigs feasting at the trough, and its sign ‘The Swan’ (male swans are rare among fowl for having penises). A woman in the door of the Swan is being fondled by a mercenary soldier who has left his long pike leaning against the run-down façade, while another customer urinates against an outside wall. Another woman gazes out from an upstairs window. Has the peddler just left her company or did he pass her by? Did she buy something from him? Did he buy something from her? In the spindly tree above the peddler’s hooded head, an owl eyes a titmouse; just behind the gate, an ox and a magpie stand guard.

Some people think the Wayfarer in this painting—a thin man with bright intelligent eyes—is a self-portrait of its maker, Joen van Aken, better known to the world as Hieronymus Bosch. He was a member of a family of painters who moved from Aachen (= Aken) to Den Bosch in the 1420s and established themselves as artists and artisans there. Joen probably lived his whole life (1450-1516) in the town from which he took his professional name. When he was a child he saw a wildfire, which formed a memory trace that stayed with him and recurs often in his work: usually figured as the conflagrations of Hell. Aged about thirty, he married a woman of property, Aleid van de Meervenne, and they moved into a large house (still there) on the north side of Market Square, where he set up a studio.

Subsequently, like his father and his grandfather before him, he joined The Brotherhood of Our Lady, signing its register for the first time in 1487. The next year he became a sworn brother, one of an elite of eighty, a role which obliged him from time to time to feast the entire fraternity. In 1489 he bought twenty-four pounds of beef, presumably for a banquet of this kind. His wife continued to deal in real estate and, childless, their wealth and status grew. Joen pre-deceased Aleid, dying of plague in 1516; she followed six years later. This, then, is some of the little we know about the burgher, artisan and upstanding citizen who created the astonishing visions of the painter Hieronymus Bosch.

The exhibition at the Noordbrabants gathered together nineteen of the twenty-five known drawings, and twenty of the twenty-five attested paintings, for a show commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the artist. There were also some works from the School of Bosch: imitations or copies or formerly attributed paintings. All the big ones were there save The Garden of Earthly Delights, which the Prado in Madrid would not allow to travel because it is too frail (they sent The Hay Wain instead); and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in Lisbon, which the Portuguese declined to lend, allegedly because it is such a major tourist attraction there.

It’s not my intention to attempt a review of the exhibition, just to make a few remarks. The first is that you can only understand the quality of a great painter by seeing their actual works: nothing could have prepared me for the sheer sensuous delight there was to be had in looking at these paintings, which have an active scintillation of light built in to their surfaces: some of it accomplished by a judicious use of white highlights. These spirited, shimmering surfaces were to me more enticing, and more remarkable, than the paintings’ famed and admittedly also splendid grotesquery.

The second point is that Bosch was a magnificent colourist. When I think back on that show now, I see particularly the pinkish red he was fond of using, which seemed to migrate from painting to painting, so that it was as if swathed around us in the half-dark of the gallery. It is the pink of the curtains in Death and the Miser; of the dress worn by Saint Julia (and the colour of the robes of her mourners and tormentors) in the picture of her crucifixion; of the clothes of god no less than the outré palaces and fountains in The Garden of Earthly Delights. (There was a copy of the left hand panel of this in the show, its ornate pink urn in a pond like a prefiguration of an iteration of the Mandelbrot Set.)

The third relates to the drawings: among them were studies of people Joen must have encountered on the streets of Den Bosch. There were cripples, beggars, soldiers wounded or maimed in war; old women whose hard lives had turned them into semblances of witches or crones. They were realistic drawings which nevertheless inclined towards the fantastic and made me wonder if the composite and often distorted beings we see in Bosch paintings were not exaggerations of tendencies he detected in the lives going on around him? His observation of birds and animals—both domestic and wild—was acute to an almost hallucinatory degree; and, again, his habit of combining the human and the animal in the one being seemed more like the elaboration of an affinity—don’t we all resemble some animal or bird or fish?—than the inventions of diabolism or intoxication.

Of all my responses to this show—works you felt you could never exhaust—the least predictable was the feeling of grace which came upon me when I saw the four last works, pictures of heaven and hell, and especially the last one of all, which shows human souls at the end of their earthly lives entering into eternity. Ms Rowland again: we are destined to move through life as weary, wounded wayfarers, a few of whom will be led by angels through a luminous heavenly tunnel before we leap naked into a burst of absolute light. It seemed that I had indeed moved through the exhibition in precisely that fashion.

~ ~ ~

The Duchy of Brabant, founded in 1183, was a constituent state of the Holy Roman Empire; most of it is now in Belgium—all, in fact, except for a few exclaves; and the Dutch province of North Brabant. It is territory that has changed hands many times during the last two millennia’s incessant wars. No wonder Bosch saw so many grotesquely wounded men in the streets of his town. The Burgundian War, for instance, which culminated in Spanish rule over the Brabant, took place during his lifetime; with the consequent rise of Swiss Mercenaries as a fighting force; and the beginnings of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, major collectors of Bosch’s work: which is why there are so many of his paintings in Madrid.

What is it about the place that nurtures visionaries? Is it, precisely, its flatness, its featurelessness? Brabant means misty land in one of the languages—Walloon, Flemish, Brabantian, Dutch—spoken here. Another version is place of swamps. Not only has it has been marched over by invading armies since Roman times and probably before that; it has been under the sea too. In the fourth millennium BC, perhaps because of flooding, people from here migrated north to the Orkney Islands. We know where they came from because of genetic studies of the European vole, a local variety of which they took with them. It survives in the Orkneys but is not found anywhere else in the British Isles.

They were cattle herders and the voles may have stowed away in the fodder on board their boats. Or went as pets; or food. These people, whoever they were, built the Neolithic town of Skara Brae on Mainland in the Orkneys which, along with other megalithic structures, such as those uncovered at Ness of Brodgar, also on Mainland, predate Stonehenge. Some suggest it was they who took that style of architecture south into the rest of Britain. But the megalith builders were practitioners of an international style, whose dimension and reach we don’t really understand. From Egypt to Peru, Malta to Tongatapu.

We think we know who we are but do we? There is a grave on South Ronaldsay in the Orkneys—the Isbister Cairn, also known as the Tomb of the Eagles—where the bones of several hundred humans, some with healed trauma wounds to the skull, are mingled with those of sea eagles endemic to those islands. Were they Eagle People, the way Ancient Egyptians might have been Jackal People or Ibis People? Did they not construe, or were they trying to articulate, their difference from animals? Or, in this case, birds?

We find therianthropes in Bosch’s paintings as well: bird- or fish- or animal-headed or -bodied men and women. He seems to have possessed a recombinant fury, an ardent desire towards the willed miscegenation, not simply of the human with the animal but with the man-made as well: those anthropomorphic barns looking bleakly at us as we obsess over the buying of real estate. Is it an expressive demonology or should we think of it as an exploration of possibilities, not all of which end in damnation? Is it the profligacy of our sexuality and its outcomes that he is celebrating? Why did I find so much humour in his work? As much as, or more than, I found horror?

~ ~ ~

Den Bosch, now as then, remains a solid middle class town, with many fine buildings dating from the seventeenth century, and some which are older—including the magnificent gothic cathedral, contemporary with York Minster, of St John the Evangelist. I was disoriented after leaving the exhibition and wandered aimlessly, trying to order my thoughts. I did go into the cathedral but remember nothing about it. I must have also walked past Joen van Aken’s house in Market Square but do not recall that either. I do remember a fellow in a motorized wheelchair speeding hectically backwards down a narrow footpath; the tall black bicycles so many upright people so uprightly rode; and the smell of fish, emanating from mobile stalls that sold some kind of popular piscatorial snack.

I ended up in a bar called The Baron’s Lodge, sampling a strong Belgian beer called Tripel Karmeliet—Triple Carmelite. It is a yellow ale brewed using three grains—wheat, oats and barley—in a recipe that originated at a monastery in Dendermonde. The alcohol content is upwards of eight percent and soon had my head buzzing. There were three mature blondes sitting side by side along the other flank of the horseshoe-shaped bar; and a couple of leather-jacketed fellows perched at the rounded end.

A robust discussion ensued, about what I could not say, because it was in Dutch; or, perhaps, Brabantian. They graciously included me in the conversation, though there was nothing, except for nods and smiles, that I could contribute. It seemed to be some civic matter they were discussing, some contentious aspect of local politics which deserved, and got, a good airing. When the most déshabillé of the blondes slid off her stool and departed, the party broke up. I took a bus back to the Seagull’s Pick.

Next morning, early, I saw from the window of my room a full moon setting in the west while, in the east, an incandescing sunrise slowly caught fire; and up above vapour trails, like untranslatable hieroglyphs, criss-crossed the pale sky. Though it was barely light, traffic on the ring roads was already passing, as the good citizens of the Netherlands went about their daily business. Ain’t No Sunshine in my Life, in the version by Bill Withers (who wrote it), was playing as I checked out; a watery orb glimmered in a gauzy sky.

The train to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (‘ship hole’) rolled along beside narrow canals where broad flat-bottomed barges passed industriously to and fro carrying goods to market. I made the mistake of going online and saw footage of rivers in Bali choked with rubbish; a prediction that all top predators in the world will go extinct in the next fifty years; and found myself, disastrously, on a site called Big Green Radicals where whoever-they-are were saying that what they call Big Green is actually a plot, not to save the planet, but to destroy it—by restricting our god-given right to burn fossil fuels until the wastes choke us in our beds. I fled back to Samarkand, there to read more about the bejewelled copy of the Rubaiyat which went down with the Titanic.

A true story, as it happens; though it wasn’t, as in the fiction, Omar Khayyam’s original manuscript that was lost; but an American publisher’s printing, luxuriously rebound by British bookbinders Sangorski & Sutcliffe. The firm, which is still in business, said: The book was undoubtedly the most ambitious bookbinding ever undertaken by any bookbinder at any period in history. It boasted over a thousand precious and semi-precious jewels, thousands of separate leather onlays and it took the firm two years of continuous work to finish. The jewels were rubies, amethysts, topazes and emeralds. The front cover pictured three peacocks, symbolic of Persia, with a gigantic spray of tail feathers. The design included embroidery in gold. And the book was enclosed in a slipcase of oak.

Divers searching the wreck of the Titanic have not yet recovered The Great Omar and it seems unlikely now that they will; it will remain at the bottom of the Atlantic. A second copy was destroyed when a London bank, whose vault it was in, was obliterated by German bombs during World War Two; a third copy is in the British Library. The manuscript of Joseph Conrad’s story Karain: A Memory, which New York lawyer and collector John Quinn had bought, also went down with the Titanic. The eponymous Karain, an exiled Bugis chief, wrote Conrad, had known remorse and power, and no man can demand more from life.

~ ~ ~

The following weekend, at Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art—so-called because it holds only works made before 1850—in Rua das Janelas Verdes, the Street of Green Windows, I saw The Temptation of St Anthony, the painting the Portuguese declined to send to Noordbrabants. It was a very different viewing experience from the one at Den Bosch. The triptych was free-standing, alone at the narrow end of a rectangular gallery towards the back of the building, and unattended by any security apparatus; neither audience nor guards either. Here you could see the painting naked, as it were; better still, you could walk around the back and have a look there as well.

There was something reassuring about its massive Baltic oak construction. The grisaille paintings on the reverse of the right and left wings, used to close the centre panel unless it happened to be a holy day, were visible too. One, an ochre-ish grey, showed the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane; the other, which was a bluer grey, Christ carrying the cross up to Golgotha. Both were crowded paintings which seemed somehow more terrifying for their monochromatic detachment. The brutality of Peter cutting Malchus’ ear off with his sword; Judas fleeing in righteousness and despair; the unrepentant defiance of the thief who was to be damned.

The three front panels each feature a translucent aqua sky in which strangely morphous craft fly: fish, lizards, birds, a ship, an egg with wings ridden upon by a toad carrying a sputtering light on a pole. The saint appears in all of the panels: twice in the left, praying while lying on his back upon an amphibious flying monstrosity; and, down below, fallen, hauled unconscious to safety by two men, one of whom is the Wayfarer and therefore, most likely, another Bosch self-portrait. In the centre panel, surrounded by corrupted clergy, corrupt nuns, grotesquely altered humans, Anthony points to the grotto where Christ is being crucified. On the right panel he sits hunched in his cloak over his Bible, looking past, rather than at, the temptations that surround him.

There is a city burning in the back of the central panel; in the right hand panel a gladiatorial contest—a man and a beast, perhaps a dragon—proceeds in a coliseum outside of which armies are marching; in the left, a brothel or a temple is built out of a bent-over human form whose arsehole looms above its entrance. Under that luminescent aqua sky, the world is darkly red, darkly brown, threaded through with the gorgeous pink the painter loved so much. I was looking for the kiwi which appears in the right hand panel of one of the triptychs: alas, not this one, but in The Hay Wain, which I had seen in den Bosch without, however, remembering to seek out the Apteryx.

How is it even there? Is it really a kiwi? When The Hay Wain was painted (according to dendrochronologic analysis of the wood it is upon, in 1516) Abel Tasman’s ‘discovery’ of New Zealand was still a century and a quarter in the future. Even if you accept that the Portuguese or the Spanish may have arrived sooner in the Antipodes, no pre-1516 date for European discovery is likely. It must have been the product of rumour, a vision or a dream. Bosch was one of those whose attention was focussed upon the fantastical creatures world exploration were then bringing to the West’s notice: the giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is proof of that.

Two more things: The Temptation of St Anthony clarified a feeling I had from looking at the works in Holland: space in a Bosch painting is singularly composed, as if each of his constructions, whether human, animal, avian, amphibious, piscatorial, demonic, architectural or some combination of the above, exists in a dimension of its own, making his work particularly responsive to the reproduction of detail and, inter alia, extremely satisfying to view on zoom on your computer screen.

The second point is specific to this painting, perhaps, but has larger implications. Anthony was the patron saint of those who suffered from ergot poisoning, aka Saint Anthony’s Fire: caused by eating bread made from grain upon which the ergot fungus flourished. Ergot poisoning was common in Europe in the Middle Ages; its effects resemble those of LSD intoxication. Indeed, there is a chemical relationship between ergot and lysergic. Ignis sacer, then, the holy fire, or at least its effects, seems to be a part of the subject matter of Bosch’s Temptation. More generally, his own intoxications with ergot, if they occurred, might have contributed something to the astonishing, recombinant, fecundity of his visions.

But if we knew that, what then would we know? What would it mean? It is one of those causes which does not banish, nor explain, its effects. The tree person, holding a swaddled babe in its arms while riding upon a field mouse, will not go away; nor the bodiless bird-winged figure with a burr for a head, a thistle for a hat, and a falcon upon its wrist; nor those fish-demons flying in the aqua sky; nor the pig-headed man with a dulcimer under his arm; nor the one whose head is a bugle farting air. Wherever those visions came from, however they arrived, they retain a sense of actuality which makes them, once seen, veritable things of the world.

Art historian Ernst Panofsky, a Warburgian, in 1953 wrote: I cannot help feeling that the real secret of his magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be disclosed. We have bored a few holes through the door of the locked room; but somehow we do not seem to have discovered the key. This remains so. You cannot fully comprehend the inventions of Hieronymus Bosch; you cannot unsee them either.

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Hull, York, Old Harlow

Out the back of the Royal Hotel, on the platform side, with a satchel under one arm, a trilby hat in his other hand, overcoat flying, a seven foot tall bronze Philip Larkin hurries to catch a train at Paragon Station. That Whitsun, I was late getting away . . . is written across the shadow ballooning about his feet. It wasn’t one twenty on a sunlit Saturday, however, but a gloomy Monday evening. I had just arrived in Hull, having driven up from Oxford through the day, traversing a bleak, raptor-haunted roadscape of indeterminate scrubby stuff bedecked with dirty white shreds of plastic.

It rained and didn’t rain. At a certain point the stately turbines on the wind farms ceased to face south-west and turned their blades to the north-east instead. Sometimes, without obvious explanation, I would see a field full of brand new vehicles; vans or similar. I remembered that the United Kingdom is the second largest exporter of arms in the world: they must be made somewhere. Who recalls that when we hear politicians repeat their mantra: jobs and growth? That so much of what we manufacture these days is death-dealing machinery and the ordinance it uses?

Along that road a familiar tune burst from the radio and, for the first time in years, I found myself listening to an episode of The Archers: the world’s longest running radio serial, which began before I was born and continues to this day. It was devised in order to educate farmers to increase food production in the aftermath of World War Two; but soon took on a life of its own. When it came on New Zealand radio, at four on a weekday afternoon, for just fifteen minutes, in the interminable 1950s, it reified the tedium of the everyday in accents that were not exactly ours; although the boring rural existence their owners cheerfully endured certainly was.

The reiteration of Barwick Green, a maypole dance from the suite My Native Heath by Yorkshire composer Arthur Wood, had the effect of returning me to the backblocks of the antipodes half a century ago. I remembered staying on Bobby Hammond’s family farm out on the Raetihi Road, where Owen, his father, speaking in a Lancastrian accent, always sounded to me like one of the (mostly Birmingham-based) cast. The Archers prides itself on its topicality but, in this episode, I did not hear any mention of the EU, the EC, or Brexit; even though David Cameron, red-faced, lobster-like, flushed from his alleged triumph in Brussels, that week announced the date of his unfortunate referendum.

Hull was a grey northern town with its main streets dug-up in preparation for its year of glory: it was to be UK City of Culture in 2017. The woman at reception in the hotel had make-up caked so thickly upon her face it resembled one of the Egypto-Roman death masks I had seen in the Ashmolean. My room looked out over the main drag, The Ferensway, where, on the other side of a pedestrian crossing, a skinny prostitute with cold sores on her lips plied her trade in the rain, hail, sleet and snow. Directly below the window was a flagpole like a Pharoah’s erection, with a tattered fragment of blue rag on the end of it. Beautiful moss, rich green and golden brown, grew beneath the pigeon spikes. Some of those fat English birds, nevertheless, sat upon a ledge a little way along, gurgling happily in their throats.

I went downstairs to order dinner at the bar. The lobby, large and well-appointed, with potted palms, velvet sofas and burnished bronze tubular lampshades, had been deserted earlier but was now thronged. A breezy and heterogeneous crowd: dapper garlanded men wearing patent leather shoes and embroidered waistcoats, big women in extravagant cocktail frocks, young fellows with snappy hats and svelte girlfriends. When my meal came I sat down in a quiet place to eat; but the crowd grew, lapping into every corner of the room.

One of the women, perfumed, buxom, wearing a sequin-spangled peacock-blue sheath, bent over to talk to me. Her name was Lorraine.

You’re probably wondering what all this is about? she said.

Yes, I said, I am.

I was looking, inadvertently, vertiginously, into her snow-white cleavage. I stood up.

Mice, she said.

Mice?

Men Involved in Charitable Enterprises. She laughed, richly. It’s our annual dinner. See, that’s my husband, there. He’s their leader.

King Mouse came over to say hello. We shook hands. He was another George; the most dapper of men; he looked like an ornamental bridegroom on a wedding cake. The Society of Mice are Glee Singers, an a cappella group who raise money by putting on concerts. In 2014 they gave away £11,500 to charities such as the Hull and East Riding Institute for the Blind; or Sunshine House, which offers short breaks for children and young people with long term, life limiting conditions and /or complex health needs. The next year (2015) they raised £12,000; that’s what (2016) they were celebrating. The party went on for hours: sounds of revelry rose from below long after midnight; as I drifted in and out of sleep in my room above Paragon Square.

~ ~ ~

Next morning the rain had stopped but it was freezing cold, with black ice on the pavements. It was like walking to school on a winter morning in the King Country. Going the long way round, almost coming a cropper a couple of times, I found myself at last in Worship Street, where the Hull History Centre—home of the Hull City Archives, Hull Local Studies Library and Hull University Archives—stands. It’s a recent (2010) architect-designed post-modernist structure, a brick and glass box flanked by painted steel half arches, roofed in bellying white, like canvas perhaps, or clouds; or the frozen waves of the sea; and it was closed.

A sign on the door said the third Tuesday of each month was their late opening day (for staff training purposes) and what time to come back. I went for a wander through the dank streets, where faces of passers-by loomed up like dislocated gargoyles: Jarrett and Jameson Streets, Grimston, Charlotte and George. There was a small park nearby, with the Hull New Theatre on one corner and the Kingston Theatre Restaurant diagonally opposite on the other. The first looked like a mausoleum, the other, a pub. I thought I might go there for lunch one day. When I did, I walked in on a wedding party, with guests dancing on the tables and all sorts of shenanigans going on below the stairs.

The History Centre was open when I came back; full of children engaged in the building of Lego constructions in bright primary colours. Their chatter reverberated through the atrium. There were two displays: one about the poet Andrew Marvell, born in the nearby village of Winestead and educated here, when the city was known as Kingston-on-Hull. He was never a Puritan but did support Cromwell during the Protectorate; and must have been an adept politician as well as a fine poet because, after the Restoration, he represented Hull in the Cavalier Parliament; and in that capacity is said to have persuaded Charles II not to execute his friend John Milton. A poet, asking a king to spare another poet. His father, an Anglican minister, drowned while crossing the Humber by boat, apparently because the sailors aboard were drunk.

The other display was a detailed history of Hull’s Jewish community. Had we but world enough, and time . . . I wanted to look but felt I could not linger, that I had to get on: to examine the John Platts-Mills (JPM) papers which, for some reason, were deposited here. He was of course an indefatigable campaigner for working class causes; and Hull is nothing if not a working class town; but the only actual connection I could find was his advocacy for inmates after prison riots in September 1976. About a hundred and eighty men revolted in protest at staff brutality, climbing up on the roof and refusing, for three days, to come down. Two thirds of the complex was destroyed by fire and the prison closed for a year. There were many acts of startling savagery, by both warders and prisoners. Blacks and the Irish, predictably, suffered the most.

JPM was invited by PROP (Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) to chair a public inquiry into the riots; and, as life-long campaigner for prison reform, did so. There was an Irish connection too. One of the Guildford Four, Paul Hill, falsely accused of perpetrating bombings actually carried out by the Provisional IRA, was in HM Prison Hull at the time and became involved in the riot: he was dragged bodily down some stairs by his hair. JPM had previously acted in defence of many IRA men, including one of those among the Provos who had helped in the bombing of two pubs popular with British Army personnel in Guildford, Surrey.

The JPM archive is huge, well over a hundred boxes of material, some of which was embargoed because it was adjudged to be politically sensitive still. While I doubt that is the case, there is no point in arguing with librarians about such things. And, in fact, those items in that category which I requested, the Assistant Archivist, Claire Weatherall, did let me see. My self-appointed task was tracing the making of Platts-Mills’ book—Muck, Silk and Socialism: Recollections of a Left-leaning QC—from its scrapple of tiny beginnings through to the finished article. And this I was more or less able to do.

JPM had the autobiographical instinct from early on; even before he left New Zealand as a Rhodes Scholar in 1928, he was inclined to narrate his own progress even as that progress unfolded. In other words, he was in the habit of looking back and forward simultaneously: back to things that had happened to him or that he had caused to happen; forward to their reception by an audience once he had successfully given them narrative form. A fellow I corresponded with, Stephen Sedley, a retired judge who had known JPM well (he was one of his obituarists) told me the autobiography had been comprehensively vetted before publication, and any compromising or actionable material omitted; which suggested there might be unknown unknowns amongst the drafts and notes as well. 

There were also poignancies: the inelegant handwriting, resembling that of an awkward adolescent; the irrelevant boasting, betraying deeper insecurities; the sheer difficulty he had in constructing coherent sentences, let alone paragraphs and chapters. The notes and drafts, particularly those in holograph, showed the shadow side of the public man, the reverse of the gifted lawyer, the adroit parliamentarian, the splendid orator on behalf of lost causes: neither confident nor assured, not eloquent, not persuasive. In this respect, his papers were like those of other, more accomplished, writers I have seen: a mess of hesitations, a snarl of insecurities, an unthreaded labyrinth at the heart of which is the equivocal minotaur of the self.

I spent three days in the Manuscripts Room, alone and undisturbed. In the public reading room, through glass doors, I could see solemn old men, on the thousand and one afternoons of their lives, going back to the Deeds; or researching the odd intersections and hidden connections of family history. While beyond in the atrium the delirious chatter of children continued, sounding like birds, perhaps, or unfallen angels. And then it did begin to seem to me as if the JPM papers are in the right place after all. For, despite his native-born patrician detachment, his advocacy was always that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. This is not what we have; but in places like Hull you feel there is still a living culture which honours Abraham Lincoln’s vision; and will do what it can to make it come to pass. A city that is in this world, Philip Larkin wrote, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance.

~ ~ ~

On Friday I took the road north out of Hull city centre then, at Cottingham Road, turned off and went through a neighbourhood of substantial brick houses until I reached the university. I had an appointment in York, about an hour away; but decided to stop off along the way to visit the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, where Larkin was Librarian for thirty years (1955-1985). One of his responsibilities was overseeing the design and construction of a new building to house the university’s collection; and this was what I wanted to see.

The campus felt immured in the 1950s. Green lawns, wide avenues, substantial older style low-rise brick buildings. A student directed me to the BJL. Brynmor Jones was a chemist whose research interest was liquid crystals; the cyanobiphenyls used in LCD screens were discovered at Hull, where Jones was vice-chancellor during the first part of Larkin’s tenure. The library building is a hybrid. There’s a chunky brick art deco front section with large facetted windows from 1959, in style not unlike the Warburg; with a newer glass and steel eight storey extension, completed in 1969, rising up behind.

Larkin was involved in the making of both structures. When he was appointed Librarian, plans for the first were already extant but he did what he could to inflect them towards what he thought a library should be. The extension, for which planning began once the first part was completed, he supervised from beginning to end. He was active, committed, meticulous, and skilled at getting his own way. An efficient but lazy man, his biographer wrote, intolerant of anything slipshod.

The hybrid is, however, bizarre. Architecture writer Hugh Pearman: it is hard to believe that the completion dates of the two main phases are only a decade apart: you’d guess maybe 50 years. Harder still to understand how the first phase—narrow plan, with huge windows both sides—functioned satisfactorily as a library at all. The extension is a defiantly strange eight-storey crinkle-cut tile-and-plate-glass lump—its upper storeys curiously jettied out over the narrower lower floors. Surely Larkin would have found this hideous, but his concern was always less for external appearance, more for the internal working and study environment of his libraries.

There is a bas relief by Willi Soukop, the son of a Moravian shoemaker, over the entrance—a human figure disposed awkwardly sideways, as if lying in a Neolithic grave, and holding a torch, symbolising knowledge, in its outstretched hand. Inside, elegant sixties-style furniture, chairs and tables and sofas, in bright primary colours, stood in places where, it seemed, no-one would ever want to sit. They were part of the original décor, now, fifty years later, being restored. Larkin, after showing some architects around, wrote: It left me feeling like the proprietor of a Victorian music hall. Not that I mind that in theory—but for an hour or two it did seem rather garish, those reds & pinks & blues, & my room appeared like the madam’s room in a high class knocking-shop.

I couldn’t go up into the extension, with its views over the Humber: you needed a swipe card for that. I went to the art gallery instead, and spent a pleasant hour looking at a fine, distinctly unusual, collection of British art made between 1890 and 1940: selected for purchase by Larkin himself I believe. There were paintings and drawings by Wyndham Lewis, a sculpture by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, some delicate interiors by some among the artists of Bloomsbury. Aubrey Beardsley, Lucien Pissarro, Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Eric Gill and Henry Moore were all represented.

I liked best works by artists I had not heard of before or whose works I did not know well: a lovely green and black 1916 landscape by Polish-born Stanisława de Karłowska, who married Robert Bevan of the Camden Town group; Christopher Nevinson’s He Gained a Fortune but He Gave a Son, a highly ambiguous, Otto Dix-like, portrait of a banker and war profiteer, for which a butler named Henry Moat sat; a dark, eerily glittering Mornington Nude by Walter Sickert, who some say was Jack the Ripper; Conversation Piece by Vanessa Bell, an interior in which three anonymous men sit in armchairs before a fireplace. Duncan Grant, perhaps, with David Garnett and Roger Fry, at Charleston.

In the gallery shop was a book of Larkin’s photographs, called The Importance of Elsewhere. I knew he was a jazz aficionado and had for years written, as Brunette Coleman, album reviews for The Daily Telegraph; but not that he was a photographer too. I leafed through it, scanning the 150 or so images (out of an archive of 1500). There were many fine portraits, including a number of self-portraits; some splendidly moody landscape shots; evocative pictures of Pearson Park, opposite which he lived for many years. The image I carried away with me, however, was a shot of a seagull perched on a mooring post beside the ice-flecked waters of the Humber in winter: a baleful, lugubrious, somehow fated bird, which you cannot help but associate with the poet himself. Coeval, perhaps, with a more famous companion: Give me your arm, old toad; / Help me down Cemetery Road.

~ ~ ~

My appointment later on that afternoon at the York Art Gallery was to see a painting: Old Ouse Bridge, York by Joseph Lycett. Lycett was a convict artist whose biography I’ve written but, thus far, because of the cost of illustrating it, have not found a way to publish. Old Ouse Bridge is one of only two known works, both oil paintings, from the period before he was transported to Australia in 1813 for forging banknotes; and I was keen to see it in the flesh. Not only that: I felt a personal interest in it. The work was unknown to Lycett scholars in Australia until, randomly scanning the internet one day, I ‘found’ it.

The gallery has owned it since 1931, when it was donated to the York Museums Trust by Oliver Sheldon, then Director of Rowntree’s, the confectioners. Sheldon was a Quaker who believed the cost of building the Kingdom of Heaven will not be found in the profit and loss accounts of industry, but in the record of every man’s conscientious service. How he came by the painting isn’t known; it was probably made while Lycett was in gaol in Shrewsbury, awaiting transportation, at which time he used to sell his works to wealthy patrons with an interest in the rehabilitation of felons. He would have used that money to buy privileges—liquor, perhaps.

It took longer to travel to York than I thought it would, because of delays occasioned by road works. I was driving up a U-shaped valley scoured out by a glacier aeons ago; remembering the schematic drawings from a geography textbook we had at Kuranui College. The word moraine recurred in my mind: what is a moraine? The compacted debris left behind by a glacier. Anything from gravel and sand to great ice-scarred boulders. Later I found out that there had been at least three glacial episodes here over the last two million years; that is, during the Quaternary, or the Fourth Age.

I drove straight into the heart of York. The streets became narrower, the traffic slower, the congestion worse. I passed through Monk Bar Gate—where a portcullis was still in use just a few decades ago—into the old, walled city. It was a maze without a centre, a labyrinth of crooked streets in which the houses on either side leaned out towards each other as if about to touch foreheads. Tiny though. In no time at all I was through to the other side and crossing the Ouse Bridge (not the one Lycett painted, its successor). Clearly the only way to deal with the place was on foot. I dived once more into the maze and found a park in a cobbled square. Saint Sampson’s. A Welsh divine, not the strong man of the Bible. I was early for my appointment; and along the way had glimpsed a prodigy.

I do not quite know how to write about York Minster. Or, to give its full title, the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter. It seemed both monstrous and sublime; an act of supreme arrogance and of supreme piety; a spectacular example of hubris as well as of loving devotion. Something out of a nightmare or a dream. I could not properly comprehend it and, as in a dream, it provoked mingled fascination and alarm. Dread, almost. How did it exist? Who built it? Why? In truth, it did not seem as if men and women alone could have made this thing. There had to have been some larger power guiding them: scaffolding upwards / towards the glory of god. I say this as one who does not believe.

Gothic cathedrals like York Minster could take centuries to build. This one was begun, over the site of a Roman fort called Eboracum (Place of the Yew Tree) in 1220 but wasn’t ‘completed’ until 1472. Two hundred and fifty-two years later. And work upon it was still going on. Down one side, under blue tarpaulins, masons at their benches were carving out replacement pieces for those parts of the building where the stone has rotted or fallen away. I could hear the tintinnabulation of their hammers and chisels as I wandered around the outside of the Minster, trying to grasp its awe-ful majesty. The gargoyles grimacing down as if derisive of my attempt.

Inside was revelatory in another way: like frozen music, perhaps, the image of a Bach organ fugue, say, bodied forth in stone. The multi-facetted, multi-hued light falling through stained glass windows onto the buttery gold-coloured stone gave a heavenly cast to the shining air. It was impossible not to feel awed and at the same time abased. Your humiliation in the face of such grandeur was an intrinsic part of the experience. And then the consequent uplift. I even thought I could hear, as at St Dunstan-in-the-West, angelic choirs singing; though the actual sounds were just the reverberations of the voices of tourists satisfying their vague curiosities.

At the gallery I was met by a young woman called Fiona Green who took me up into the stock room. The big metal doors had to be locked behind us in case I turned out to be an art thief. The painting was on a large easel, looking small and unassuming: only 17.8 x 23 cm. It is painted on a wooden panel and—something not apparent in the reproductions—the wood has cracked. A vertical line ran centrally all the way from top to bottom. Fiona let me hold it briefly so I could examine the back, where the crack was more obvious. It was signed there too. It is a very odd feeling to hold in your hands an artefact made more than two hundred years before by someone about whom you know as much as anybody else in the world does.

Old Ouse Bridge was built in 1566, after its predecessor collapsed and fell into the river, drowning a dozen people. It featured what was said to have been the fairest arch in England and became one of the sights of the king—or queen—dom. Daniel Defoe wrote that it was vastly strong, and has one arch which, they tell me, was near 70 foot in diameter; it is, without exception, the greatest in England, some say it’s as large as the Rialto at Venice, though I think not. There was a chapel on the nether side, with council chambers adjoining and the notoriously damp city gaol below; but after the Reformation the chapel was turned into apartments. This Tudor incarnation of the ancient crossing was demolished around about the time Lycett painted it: probably not from life, but after a print of some kind.

The view he took is from the south-west, with the former chapel, the council chambers and the gaol looming balefully to the right of the image. Their rooves are sprouting weeds, suggesting dereliction; in the immediate foreground is a low tree on the river bank, spreading its leaves over the water where reeds grow and boats are moored. In the middle ground we see half of the main arch of the bridge, bent like an elbow, with the semi-circular image of its curved underside partially reflected in the blue-green, rippling river below; which seems to rise, in an uncanny fashion, towards a skewed vanishing point, suffused with yellow light, at the back of the picture.

On the far bank a line of sandy-coloured brick buildings, diminishing in size along the river bank as the row recedes, drinks the late sun; these buildings are brown not red, yet they leave a peculiarly rubicund after-image in the mind. The sky, which takes up nearly half the picture, is a premonition of one of Lycett’s Australian skies: grey clouds giving way to white cumulus and then to a blue which itself becomes suffused with yellow at that unseen point where the river decants into the air.

The strangeness of the picture is an effect of the starkness of that receding line of buildings, their black windows and blank anonymity before the gleaming water and under the luminous sky: like prison walls, within which there can be nothing but confinement. Meanwhile the river itself, flowing upwards and at a diagonal to the natural line of sight, takes us away from all this into a golden haze where, perhaps, felicity may be found. The last glimpse of this lost horizon comes at the far right back of the picture, through a minor arch which stands below the point where that dank, slimy prison was. You are reminded that Lycett was a prisoner when he painted it.

After leaving the gallery I wandered around in a daze. Looking at art can do that to you and I had looked at a lot that day. I had a bite to eat in the Kings Manor, so-called, actually a medieval abbot’s house, and then went back to the Minster. Round the side was a white Roman column, leaning anciently in the blue cold air. Two emperors died at Eboracum, including Constantius, the father of Constantine, who brought the Empire to the church. He, the son, was proclaimed here by the Sixth Legion; there was a statue of him too, with his sword drawn, outside the south transept.

Elsewhere I came across ruins where grey stones, like decayed teeth, protruded out of the green sward—near the rough walls that are all that remain of Saint Mary’s Abbey. Nowhere in England, wrote artist E Ridsdale Tate in 1929, is there another spot so full of charm as York and where in York is there a more charming spot than the Gardens of the Philosophical Society, in which stand the beautiful fragments of that once powerful and noble monastery of St. Mary’s. Here we must leave the venerable pile in the evening of its glory. 

I left it there too. I had a drink in the wonderfully named House of Trembling Madness (rare Belgium beers) then returned to the car and drove back to Hull. In the Royal Suite at the hotel, the Literary and Philosophical Society, founded in 1822, was meeting to hear a lecture about J Arthur Rank, the film mogul; he was the son of a Hull flour merchant.

~ ~ ~

The waters of the Humber are a yellow-brown colour: not pollution, particles of clay held in suspension in what is technically not a river at all but a tidal estuary formed by the confluence of the Ouse and the Trent as they flow east into the North Sea. A very tall man once waded across it—during a very low tide—so it can’t be that deep. I paid my toll and zipped over the magnificent suspension bridge, opened in 1981, and at that time the longest in the world. Before it was built, if you weren’t tall enough to wade, you took a ferry and hoped, in despite of the unfortunate Reverend Marvell, that the sailors were sober.

The bridge follows the line of that ferry crossing, mentioned in the Domesday Book; the word Humber seems to have some relationship with umber, shadow, and may simply mean dark. Or, indeed, river. I have always had a good feeling about it, because my paternal grandfather worked for the Rootes Group who made, along with Hillmans, Singers, Sunbeams and Talbots, Humbers; my Uncle Don, the eldest son, who inherited the family agency in Hamilton, used to drive around town in an impressive green Humber Super Snipe. Thomas Humber was born in Sheffield, lived in Hull, became a blacksmith in Nottinghamshire and was the inventor of the safety bicycle.

And Nottinghamshire is where you arrive when you get to the other side of the Humber Bridge. I intended to drive south via Lincoln and Grantham and Peterborough to Cambridge before going on to a B & B I had booked, randomly, online, at a place called Old Harlow in Essex; but, somewhere near Scunthorpe (who put the **** in S****horpe?), I missed the turn-off and ended up back on the M1. I continued on south then cut across from Northampton to Cambridge through countryside in which there were still a few signs of life: a small ochre raptor in a death dive; a glittering pheasant which flew low across the road; a single white dove.

Cambridge was little and old and dark and wet and I did not warm to it. When I returned to the car after lunch, there was a buxom blonde in a uniform waiting for me, looking like an extra from one of the Carry On movies. She was kindly rather than severe and, when I pleaded ignorance, decided not to write me a ticket. I passed the Cavendish Laboratories on the way out of town: not the buildings where Ernest Rutherford split the atom, a later iteration. And what was that other place, with a jewel in a tower, on the far side of the road? Churchill College? Where Crick and Watson, Wilkins and Franklin, worked? Yes, I think it was. If so, Vargos Llosa, Octavio Paz and Wole Soyinka had all been resident there too.

I made my second error when I missed the turn-off to Old Harlow; and had to go almost as far as London before I could loop around and go back. Then there was a perplexing time locating the B & B itself; when I finally identified the gloomy Victorian double storey ivy-covered house, I realised I had driven past it twice already. A lugubrious fellow called John met me at the door and then succumbed to a coughing fit of such violence and duration I wondered if he would recover. I don’t know why I’m coughing like this, he gasped, clutching a phlegm-filled handkerchief to his mouth; but every time I saw him thereafter he was out the front fagging; so either he was deluding himself or it wasn’t a real question.

He introduced me to a man and his teenage daughter, long term residents, possibly engaged in an incestuous relationship, watching a wildlife documentary on the widescreen TV in the kitchen / lounge, then showed me to my room. It was upstairs at the back. Small and tidy, a single bed with a faded candlewick bedspread upon it. A steady drip-drip-drip fell from the eaves outside and there was a view from the window of a tree-lined garden with a white shed in the corner. Traffic on a busy road sounded from beyond the hedge. It was all quite ordinary and yet, somehow, deeply strange as well.

John told me there were two pubs nearby where I might eat. The first was up in the village and there was a shortcut through the churchyard—if you dare, he said, with a sepulchral chuckle. It was half-dark already as I walked under big skeletal trees, past a graveyard of mossy green stones, some upstanding, others leaning or fallen, clustered around the walls of the church. The path skirted the church hall and came out on to the crooked main street of the village.

The Queens Head was a low old stone building with a glow of lights in the windows and a notice on the door announcing a private function. I went back the way I’d come and, passing the graveyard, heard the sudden whoosh of an enormous wind through the branches of the bare winter trees overhead: as if the souls of the unnumbered dead were leaving all at once; as if my own soul was being stripped from me as they went. All of the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

The Green Man was full of metropolitan types, brash and wealthy, who presumably week-ended here on a regular basis. Or lived locally and commuted. The food was decent and nobody bothered me; but as I went back through the gloaming to cross the busy road and return to the B & B, I heard the approaching whine of a car engine and instinctively hung back as an expensive automobile, at high speed, and ignoring the red light at the crossing, hurtled by. That was almost as disturbing as the whooshing of souls in the graveyard. The B & B was deserted: lights on, nobody home. I went up to my room and locked the door behind me. The drip-drip-drip from the eaves, like the sound of an uneasy conscience, continued all night long. I woke early, breakfasted in the dark, and was away from there before dawn.

Old Harlow, it turns out, is indeed old: archaeologists have uncovered traces of a Mesolithic hunting camp from twelve thousand years ago. Later, in the Neolithic, there was flint mining and working here: axe heads, hammers, blades, dowels and scrapers have all been found. There was a Roman town, too, with its own temple, although I do not know which deity it honoured. Mithra perhaps. The medieval church, dedicated to St Mary and St Hugh, dates from 1190, and there may have been a Christian community here before that; some of those unquiet souls I encountered in the churchyard might have been a thousand years old. The etymology of the name Harlow is disputed; it could mean Temple Mound; or it might be Army Hill. There was a moot (meeting) place at Mulberry Hill, near The Green Man, in Anglo-Saxon times.

Funny: I usually like old places but I couldn’t get out of Old Harlow quick enough. Something bad must have happened here, I thought, and the reverberations have never gone away. It felt like I had strayed into the plot of The Wicker Man; and, melodramatically, that I was to be the sacrifice. There is an inn called The Green Man in that film too; but then I remembered the victim—played by Edward Woodward—needed to satisfy four conditions: he had to be there of his own free will, he had to be in the service of the King, he had to be a Virgin, he had to be a Fool. I suppose I might have satisfied the first and last criteria; but not the middle two. Perhaps that’s why I was spared.

On the other hand, as a consolation perhaps, as I drove south in the grey dawn towards the city of London like a great dark stain upon the horizon, I was thinking of something I once read about Neolithic times: when you navigated the water ways, down the River Lea perhaps towards its junction with the Thames at Tower Hamlets, you would see the gleaming facades of henges or barrows, covered with chalk or else with gypsum, white as the pyramids of Egypt were white, brilliantly outlined against the forests and the meadows of England’s green and pleasant land.

image : Lycett, Joseph; Old Ouse Bridge, York; York Museums Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-ouse-bridge-york-7895

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Meeting the Family

I was halfway across Victoria Embankment when a motorcycle cop pulled up and stayed me with his gauntleted hand. I could see his steady blue eyes looking at me through his visor. How had I offended? Jaywalking? Isn’t that an American offence? Then I realised he was the outrider of a convey. It swept past, a dozen vehicles long: motorcycle cops, black 4WDs with tinted windows, two big grey windowless Mercedes vans, more cops on bikes. None of the vehicles showed any insignia; there were no flags on bonnets, no royal or government crests. Nothing to say what kind of convey this was nor who was riding in it.

I interrogated the possibilities. Clandestine royals? Some foreign dignitary who did not wish anyone to know s/he was in town? A high level military delegation, on its way to confer with politicians at Westminster? Black ops? Or were the vans transporting terrorists to Wandsworth Gaol? Common criminals wouldn’t receive such lavish treatment. I remembered that Kings and Queens of England had taken this route in their carriages before, with their mounted equerries slashing the poor folk out of their way. I heard the cries of peasants and workers going under the hooves of antique tyrannies. Ghosts of the downpressers haunted the grey afternoon air.

The Thames didn’t care. The brown river slid slowly by, cleaner than when last I saw it, immemorial in its blank acquiescence to whatever took place along its banks. I gazed at the flow, letting my mind drift; then walked along until I was opposite Middle Temple Lane, where I re-crossed the road, without incident, and entered the Inns of Court. A yellow building on my right might have been where lawyer and politician John Platts-Mills had his rooms. I passed Temple Church, where he and his wife, the painter Janet Cree, married in 1936: built by the Knights Templers 800 years before, in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, it wasn’t open that day.

Out of the murk and roar of Fleet Street, a dragon came writhing. Rampant, mouth open, wings spread and clutching in its fore-claws a shield bearing some obscure device. This too looked like something out of the far past; but the Temple Bar Memorial is less than a century and a half old. It was designed in 1880 by Horace Jones to mark the place where once one of the gates to the City stood; the bronze sculpted by Charles Bell Birch. Monarchs on their way to the Tower, after whipping away the poor, used to pause at the gate before entering the City. Sometimes the Mayor would be there to offer up his sword and his keys.

I was going towards The Strand but had some time on my hands. On the other side of the road was a church: St Dunstan-in-the-West. The cacophony of the street faded. A pale grey octagonal nave, with burgundy pillars and a vaulted ceiling painted a cloudy blue. Gleams of gold in the roof-timbers. Coloured light falling through stained glass windows. I heard the sound of choirs singing, far away. Dunstan was the Anglo-Saxon Bishop of London in the last decades of the first millennium, before William’s conquering Normans swept over in 1066. He is the patron saint of gold and silver smiths because he is said to have made his own plate for the churches where he officiated.

This was not the church St Dunstan built, however; that was demolished in 1829, when Fleet Street was widened. This one was made in the early 1830s over the graveyard that stood behind the old church; by two John Shaws, a father and a son. The octagonal construction imitates the shape of a lantern; some bits of the old building were incorporated in the new. I ran my hand along a wooden communion rail, carved by Grinling Gibbons a few decades after the poet John Donne was vicar of St Dunstan’s in the 1620s. Next to the altar was a wall of Byzantine icons screening a chapel; their opulent gold leaf surfaces, purple skies and staring eyes, seemed incongruous in that otherwise austere Anglican interior.

When I went to go, the door was locked. A robed young woman came from the vestry with a ring of keys to let me out.

We close at 4 o’clock, she said.

Why is the chapel next to the altar closed off like that? What is that wall of icons?

It’s called an iconostasis, she said. Basically, a screen. It comes from a monastery in Bucharest. People from the Romanian Orthodox Church worship here too. This is one of only three Anglican churches in England where they can.

~ ~ ~

Michael Trapp is Professor of Greek Literature and Thought at King’s College, London. I met him in his long, narrow, book-lined office with its single window looking out over The Strand. He is the elder of two sons of Joseph and Elayne Trapp, née Falla, New Zealanders who moved to England in the early fifties and lived near Reading, where Joe had a job teaching English at the university. He was a librarian at heart, however, and in 1953 took up a position at the Warburg Institute; and rose through the ranks until, in 1976, succeeding the eminent Ernst Gombrich, he became its Director. He retired in 1990 but continued to write and publish until his death in 2005.

Joe Trapp was an authority on the English Humanists, particularly Thomas More; upon the history of the pre-Gutenburg book; and upon representations of the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch. After his death one of his colleagues described him as the nicest man I ever knew. I asked Michael what he thought about that. He smiled. The niceness was—discretionary. My father did not always show what he felt or thought, because it was often not politic so to do.

That reticence was of long standing, it went back to childhood, and was apparent in his early days at Reading, where he would hesitate to deliver an opinion for fear of making a mistake or of being taken for a fool. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have strong views; quite the opposite. He was just careful about how he expressed them. If you come from a small town like Carterton, on the other side of the globe, and penetrate to the very heart of the British scholarly establishment, as Joe Trapp did, you would need to be able to show a bit of discretion, wouldn’t you?

Michael, an exceptionally nice man himself, agreed. He brought up a couple of photographs on his laptop screen. The first was of a children’s Christmas party at the Warburg Institute in 1957. There was a long table where a straggle of kids wearing paper hats and festooned with crepe streamers sat before plates of ice-cream and jelly. Joe was over to the left of the image, bending over; near the centre, a woman—the estimable Gertrud Bing—held two babes in arms. The one on the right was Michael; the other was his friend, Michael Kaufmann, who became Director of the Courtauld Institute. The two Michaels.

The second photograph was a solo shot of Joe—the same age as I am now, Michael remarked. That is, about 60. He is sitting at a desk, turning in his chair to look at the camera. Thick black-rimmed glasses, a big nose, slightly bulging eyes; a formidable presence. The look is challenging, perhaps even suspicious: what do you want? Or even: what are you looking at? He resembled my own father in his headmaster days. The image, emblematically, faded to grey as our conversation proceeded.

A more complex picture emerged. A man of great learning and prodigious memory who nevertheless was uninterested in, or actively sceptical of, theoretical considerations; one who did not have a grand hypothesis to prove and was not engaged in the writing of some big book; preferring to follow certain individual threads to see where they led and how they got to where they were going. His interest in representations of Petrarch, for instance, initiated by Italian colleagues on one of his many visits to their country, was of this kind. He was an able administrator as well as a consummate scholar; and, despite the busy public career he followed, managed to satisfy his own intellectual needs. He was not, Michael said, a disappointed man.

In politics he remained an egalitarian socialist. This wasn’t just an ideal. Part of what sustained him through all those years at the Warburg—effectively half a century—was a belief in community. The basis of the Warburg’s collection was assembled by its founder, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), art historian and independent scholar, in Hamburg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the 1920s, it became the home of a group of eminent researchers. Their interests were both eclectic and esoteric and, once the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, the library, the institute and its scholars, many of whom were, like Warburg, Jewish, came under imminent threat.

The collection, along with most of the scholars, was transported to London; the books, the photographs, the shelving, even some boxes of pen nibs, crossed the North Sea in two little steamers. The institute has been in England ever since; and, despite vicissitudes, survives today. Much of what Joe and Elayne did, Michael said, especially in the early days, involved looking after these aging and increasingly frail German scholars; but they were also intimately engaged in the work of ensuring that the library had a future.

There’s always a point in these conversations, which are also interviews, where I feel called upon, perhaps unwisely, to explain myself. I said this was, precisely, my interest in his father: as a conservator of culture, one of those obscure or unsung people who do the work that must be done to keep a tradition alive. In that sense, I was as interested in the Warburg as I was in Joe. The Warburg, I said, seems to me to be about tracing continuities and identifying methods of change, especially in visual symbology; a means of recording, maintaining and extending traditions founded in antiquity, persistent until today and viable in the future too—if we have one.

Michael was looking a bit alarmed. Yes, I had come on too strong. We changed the subject. He had spent the afternoon engaged in work towards preserving an historic site on university land: the Strand Lane Baths, allegedly a Roman survival but actually the remains of a cistern built in 1612 to feed a fountain in the gardens of old Somerset House, then a Royal palace: the private preserve of Anne of Denmark, wife to James I. The cistern, after a period of neglect, had been brought back into use in 1770 as a public bath; the Roman speculation seems to have begun in the 1820s, as an advertising gimmick.

That sounds like something that would have interested your father, I said. Wasn’t he concerned with tracing the history of misunderstandings or misattributions? The ways in which the past is as much an invention or a fiction as it is a record of fact?

Michael had another relic to show me. It was a Greek grammar, a small grey soft-back which belonged to Joe’s older sister Phyllis and then to him. Both their names were written in the front, first hers, then his. There were annotations to some of the exercises; and a date: 1943. Phyllis, who was fluent, had taught Joe Greek while she was a staff member, and he a pupil, at Dannevirke High School in south Hawkes Bay. In 1943 he was turning eighteen and about to go down to Victoria University in Wellington to study.

My father didn’t think his Greek and Latin were good enough to embark on a scholarly career, Michael said. But he did find himself teaching Latin grammar to students at the Warburg in the early days. They were evening classes, they were compulsory, and when he came home afterwards, he would invariably say that he had been setting people on the wrong path again. That, too, was characteristic: a genuine modesty expressed as ironic self-deprecation.

~ ~ ~

The Warburg Institute is housed in a squat, square, five storey purpose-built building on Woburn Square. It’s been there since 1957 and, although many complain of its ugliness, I liked its proportions. I was early so I wandered around outside for a while, trying to pick up traces. Virginia Woolf’s perfume perhaps. Leonard’s aftershave. I hadn’t been in Bloomsbury before. A fine rain drifted down from a grey sky but it wasn’t cold. The grass in the small rectangular park was wet, there were muddy puddles, the trees were bare, yellow and purple crocuses were beginning to push their way up into the February air. Most of those passing by looked like students heading for class—the Warburg, like King’s College, is part of the University of London.

My meeting at ten was with Jill Kraye. Chicago-born, but in manner more like a New Yorker, she studied at Columbia University before joined the Institute in 1974 as Assistant Librarian; and has been there, in various capacities, including Librarian, ever since. Most recently, as Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy. She was intense, engaging, as she took me from reception up a wide, generously proportioned marble staircase with polished wooden banisters and along a corridor to a small office at the end: not hers, that of Charles Hope, a former Director. He was a suave fellow, an Englishman, with impeccable manners; inadvertently, or perhaps advertently (how do you tell?) intimidating. I spent about an hour with them, listening rather than talking, as they held a conversation, for my benefit, about Joe Trapp.

And much else besides. The Warburg has been in crisis over the last few years because the University of London, allegedly, was attempting to sell it; or rather, sell the building it is housed in, after merging its collection—350,000 books, a like number of photographs, a unique, hundred year old archive—with that of the Senate House library in nearby Malet Street off Russell Square. In this scenario, the Institute as a home for scholars and students would, presumably, wither gradually away then disappear.

So would its character as an open source library: you would have to request items, probably online, rather than find them on the shelves, as you can now. The plans, whatever they actually involved—the UOL denied any intention to sell—were greeted with outrage. Petitions were drawn up and signed; letters were written; there were editorials and news articles published. Charles Hope abandoned his scholarly work and dedicated himself, over a period of seven years, to coming to a precise understanding of the legal position of the Warburg vis à vis the University of London.

The Institute and the UOL ended up going to court to seek a determination upon the legalities of their relationship. Money was of the essence: the cause of the dispute was the university’s decision, in 2007-08, to increase the so-called estates charge on the Institute. They said this ‘space charge’—which somehow rose from £8,000 in 2006-07 to £643,000 in 2007-08—was in line with normal full-economic cost principles used by other universities. In other words, the UOL was massively inflating the rent they charged the Institute for the use of its own building. Along with concurrent funding cuts, this would have left the Warburg in serious financial difficulty. That, too, in the way of such things, would have been used against it: see, it’s not economically viable, we need to do something about that.

The founding document, the Trust Deed, was signed in November 1944 by the UOL and a great nephew of Aby’s, Eric Warburg, then a major in the US army, and a descendent of one of Warburg’s American banker brothers, on behalf of the whole family. It was typed up—courier not pica—on a single sheet of cheap wartime paper, using both sides of the page; listed the contents of library as about eighty thousand books and a large collection of photographs; and stated that the University will maintain and preserve the Warburg Library in perpetuity in accordance with this Deed and will keep it adequately equipped and staffed as an independent unit.

What could be clearer than that? The High Court, in its wisdom, ruled that the university did indeed have an obligation to keep the Institute equipped and staffed. Mrs Justice Proudman also said the levying of space charges is not, to my mind, permissible. The imposition of university-wide space charges flies in the face of this provision as it merely treats the Institute as a constituent part of UOL without regard to its special character or its position as an independent unit. The UOL was, however, given leave to appeal certain elements of the judgment; which, inter alia, it claimed as a victory. Why a university might choose to levy ‘space charges’ on one of its own colleges is a conundrum. It looks like a creative accountant’s method of simultaneously cutting costs and inflating income.

Charles said that, although the Institute had successfully fought off this attempt to vary the terms of the Trust Deed (judgement was brought down in November, 2014), he wasn’t confident that was the end of the matter. He expected further efforts would be made to undermine the Institute which, people say, may end up crossing the Atlantic to find a safer home at some American institution. The Getty Centre, in Los Angeles, has been mentioned. Others have speculated it might return to Germany, perhaps even to Hamburg itself. Wouldn’t that be peculiar? The Deed was signed while V1s and V2s were exploding into the streets of London; now, the UOL seemed determined to accomplish what the Nazis could not: destruction of the Warburg.

Jill took me along to her own office, where she gave me a small book, elegantly designed, with a pale blue paper cover: Joseph Burney Trapp 1925-2005—A Commemoration (2007). It gathers together seven talks given at an event in December, 2005; and includes a comprehensive bibliography of Trapp’s writings. Among the contributors are Charles Hope and Jill herself; David Chambers, whom I would meet later on in the day; Michael Kaufmann, the other baby in the 1957 photo; and literary critic Frank Kermode. Frank had been at Reading University when Joe arrived, the pair lived side by side, with their respective families, on houseboats down by the Thames, and became lifelong friends. I opened Kermode’s essay at random: I used to think, rather selfishly, that an afternoon in the Library with Joe would save me weeks of work, for he seemed to have everything by heart.

Jill confirmed Joe’s extraordinary knowledge of the contents of the library, as well as the alacrity with which he bounded around the stacks. She allowed that she was in awe of him when she began at the Warburg in 1974 and never really lost that feeling, even after thirty years. Isn’t that an uneasy fit with his legendary niceness, I wondered? But no, perhaps not, first because his modesty was as genuine as his accomplishments; and second because, although he might not say it or show it, errors pained him to the core, as if they were an indication of a flaw in your character rather than in your education or intellect or memory. Joe, Jill said, was the last person truly to understand the Prussian Instructions of 1899, an arcane set of rules for alphabetical cataloguing, long defunct on the continent, but used at the Warburg until computerisation arrived in 1991. You can still see the codes printed on the ends of the rows of shelves.

In the afternoon a young Irish woman, Nessa Malone, newly appointed Assistant Librarian, gave me a tour of the premises. There is the Reading Room on the ground floor; in the basement, the Archive, which I did not see, along with Periodicals; then four identically constructed floors above—I mean their physical disposition is identical, not, of course, their contents. That content is deeply idiosyncratic and follows, ascending, Aby Warburg’s original four-part dispensation: Image, Word, Orientation, Action (though some dispute that this is in fact the original order; out of a suspicion that Orientation should be first, not third). It’s an open shelf library; meaning (almost) everything is available to a casual browser.

Indeed, that is the principle upon which the library is built: the law of the good neighbour, which states that the book you need may not be the one you know about, but the one next to it, which you don’t—yet. Jill said Joe was a master of such arrangements. His decisions were so intelligent and, at times, inspired, that he raised this activity to an art form. Sections of the library reclassified by him are so well structured and organised that they guide readers effortlessly along the shelf to the right book. Sometimes there is a touch of sly humour, as in the El Greco section, where monographs are divided into three categories: general, specific topics, and nutters.

My regret, not a small one, is that I was there to research the biography of a librarian, rather than make use of the library itself. It was frustrating to pass before shelves of rare, mostly unknown, books—like those from Frances Yate’s collection—and yet to have no time to stop and investigate further. We descended, by lift, to the ground floor and Nessa found for me, in the Reading Room, something I could look into before my next appointment: a special issue of the journal, Common Knowledge, published by Duke University Press in Durham, North Carolina, and dedicated to The Warburg’s Library and its Legacy.

I read the Introduction, by Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, and found therein a cogent summary of the basis of the Institute: Warburg rejected the traditional view that the classical tradition was a simple, purely rational Greek creation, inherited by modern Europe. He argued that it was as much Mesopotamian as Greek in origin, as at home in the Islamic as in the European world, and as often irrational as rational in its content—and on the basis of this rich vision he devised brilliant new interpretations of medieval and Renaissance symbols and ideas. 

I flicked through the body of the book, looking for any mention of Joe Trapp. I found him in an essay called Dromenon by Christopher S. Wood. Dromenon—‘the thing done’—is an alternative word for Action, used to describe the contents of the fourth floor; and Wood’s essay is an examination of what that term might signify: ritual, as much as politics; the pattern-making that keeps chaos at bay. In a brilliant passage, he likens the Warburg Institute to the planet Solaris in Polish author Stanisław Lem’s 1961 sci-fi classic of that name: Lem’s ocean-planet was an organic plasma that ‘remembered’ humankind. Solaris archived the contents of human imaginations and then projected those contents back into the human sphere, provoking but ultimately confusing the efforts of cosmologists and astronauts to grasp the planet-mind as a whole, objectively.

Solaris was not a merely passive or reflective cognitive instrument, but rather active: ‘Not, it is true, according to human ideas—it did not build cities or bridges, nor did it manufacture flying machines. It did not try to reduce distances, nor was it concerned with the conquest of Space. But it was engaged in a never-ending process of transformation, an ontological autometamorphosis.’ Wood continues: The Library-user submits to the pull of the brain. The Library reaches inside you and materializes your memories in the form of the books it generates through you and then, in turn, absorbs back into its shelves. In this way, it mimics the imaginations of its reader-participants. To use the Library as it is meant to be used, moving sideways from book to book, is to retrace the circuitry of an externalized but still plastic memory.

Wood engages with Trapp about two thirds of the way through the essay, on the subject of the fictions which lie buried, perhaps immanent, within the facts of history. Joe had, Wood notes, published several ingenious essays about the fictive tombs of ancient poets. Trapp’s basic insight was that erudition in the Renaissance generated its own peculiar forms of credulity, freakish projections of the historical imagination into the very formats devised to stabilize the past: the tomb monument, the epigram, the treatise. Trapp’s line—which he obligingly confirmed for me viva voce, in his Warburg Institute office—[was] that the unscrupulous manipulators of tradition were often the very scholars who best understood the powers and limits of book-to-book transmission.

~ ~ ~

At the appointed hour, I sought out the office of art historian Jennifer Montagu, where we were to be joined by her colleague, Medieval historian David Chambers. The winter light was fading fast outside and the darkening, south-facing room—a simulacrum, almost to the point of parody, of an absent-minded professor’s cluttered, untidy yet richly populated nest of obsessions—was extremely, not to say soporifically, well-heated. I felt as if I had somehow entered the dwelling of an owl; an impression augmented by Jennifer’s large brown eyes behind the lenses of her thickly-glassed spectacles.

She was an iconoclast too; with a paradoxical and distinguished family history. Her father was Ewen Montagu, lawyer, judge, writer who had, as the Naval representative on the Twenty (XX or Double Cross) Committee during the war, along with the secretary to the Committee, an eccentric RAF officer called Charles Cholmondeley, conceived Operation Mincemeat. Acting on the basis of the famous Trout Memo—likening organised deception in wartime to fly fishing—written in 1939 by Ian Fleming, the British, in 1943, arranged to have a dead man, dressed as an officer in the Royal Marines, dropped into the sea from a submarine, HMS Seraph, so as to wash ashore on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain.

He had a packet of official papers in a water proof briefcase chained to the belt of his trench coat. The papers included references to plans for the imminent, though fictional, Allied invasion of Greece, the Balkans, Corsica and Sardinia—as opposed to Sicily, where the actual invasion would and did take place. In the briefcase there were also proof copies of a (real) official booklet—Combined Operations, 1940-42—to which General Eisenhower was to be asked, for the American edition, to write a preface.

In the fiction, the dead man was a courier carrying these things from London to a meeting of Allied generals in North Africa; a passenger in a plane shot down somewhere over the ocean. His papers identified him as Captain, acting Major, William Martin, a name and rank chosen for their ordinariness. There was a single black eyelash affixed to the envelope of official papers, so that, when it was returned to the British by the Spanish, as they were obliged by their neutrality to do, the Brits would know whether or not it had been opened.

In the so-called pocket litter—a photograph of Martin’s fiancé, two love letters, a receipt for the purchase of a diamond ring, a letter from his father, bills, stamps, theatre ticket stubs, a silver cross, cash, a St Christopher, cigarettes and matches—given the dead man, Montagu and Cholmondeley manufactured a life history for the mythical Major; whose body was in fact that of a Welsh itinerant called Glyndwr Michael who had died in St Pancras hospital on January 28 that year and was kept on ice for three months or so. Glyn had been living rough, sleeping in an abandoned warehouse, where he got so hungry he ate crusts of bread baited with toxic paste to kill rats; and succumbed to liver failure consequent upon phosphorous poisoning.

Phosphorous, unlike arsenic, decays in the body; the corpse could plausibly be that of a man drowned after the aircraft carrying him on his mission crashed into the sea. Major Martin’s body was duly recovered by local sardine fishermen near Huelva on the Atlantic shore, the German secret service, the Abwehr, was informed, the contents of the briefcase, the packet and the pocket litter read, scanned and evaluated by them before being returned (without the eyelash on the envelope flap) to the British. The Major, a Roman Catholic, was buried with military honours in the local cemetery. This improbable deception, which reached up the Nazi chain of command as far as Hitler himself, was entirely successful.

Ewen’s younger brother, Jennifer’s uncle, was a character too. He was the film maker, communist, table tennis champion, wild life conservator and spy, Ivor Montagu, who in 1959 was awarded the Lenin Prize for services to socialism; but is better remembered as an innovative and dedicated worker towards the establishment of a genuine British film culture. He was variously a movie critic, a screen-writer and, in the 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock’s producer. The Montagu boys were scions of a wealthy family of Jewish bankers which was awarded the Baronetcy of Swaythling in 1907.

Jennifer had studied political science at Oxford after the war but, because of her interest in sculpture, gravitated towards the Courtauld Institute, where she became a protégé of Ernst Gombrich, who pointed her in the direction of French artist Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), about whom she wrote her dissertation. Did you know, Gombrich asked her, sounding very Warburgian, that there is a history of facial expressions? Le Brun had lectured in Paris on the subject.

I am very unfaithful to my artists, Jennifer said, but I always keep them as friends. I like lesser-known artists, those who raise interesting problems, more so than the famous or popular ones. I am the sole survivor of the Society of the Enemies of Bernini, which I founded with Anthony Blunt.

David Chambers, who joined us later, was a quiet, civilized, modest man with a razor sharp wit which he kept mostly hidden. He had come to the Warburg as a reader in 1968: A tall figure sped into the Reading Room and bore down on me. He introduced himself as the librarian and said that he had liked my book—a slim volume boiled down from a thesis. I was struck dumb, first to meet a librarian who read books, and second to meet one who had noticed my book and could bother to come and find a mere new reader to say something nice to him. David went on to remember Joe’s abiding love of Italy; and recalled the times he spent there traipsing alone by train with an empty suitcase, making personal contacts and collecting rare publications or periodicals to exchange for the Journal. He was, as the Italians say, un uomo generoso.

After David left, Jennifer and I talked on, about many things, including her uncle. Ivor, she said, was definitely a spy. As for her father, she said that his book—The Man Who Never Was (1953)—wasn’t as good as Operation Mincemeat, the more recent (2010) account by Ben McIntyre. She was one of those people with whom conversation flows in a pleasurable manner without leaving discernible memory traces behind. It was as if, over the twenty odd years that separated us, we were flirting, albeit decorously, with one another. I would have liked to have stayed for longer; but the room was so hot I was beginning to fall asleep. I stood up to go.

It’s a curiosity, perhaps a perversity, of biographical research that, when you come across someone who has no real interest in discussing family matters, it is impossible not to admire them for it. I told Jennifer this; we shook hands; and then she gestured towards the dark window. 

I think, she said, I will go out now and smoke a cheroot in the car park.

And after that? 

After that I will come back here and work until late. I do my best writing at night. 

A night owl, then. She was 84, almost 85, years old. I kept thinking of her, puffing away down there in the car park, or writing in longhand in a tiny space cleared on that magnificently cluttered desk, as I made my way, in the cold evening air, back to Lisson Grove.

~ ~ ~

Next morning I took the Central line out to East Acton. Michael Trapp had recommended I call ahead from White City. I did and his mother, Elayne, said she would meet me at the station. Sure enough, there she was, a small woman with her white hair cut in a bob at the wheel of an immaculate hatchback. I crossed the road and climbed in the passenger side.

How did you know it was me? she asked.

You look like a New Zealander, I said; and we laughed.

Michael quoted a remark of his father’s: My family is small. Joe, a keen rugby player and a cricketer, was tall but Elayne was not; and this was made poignant by the way she had to reach up to put her key in the lock set high in the front door of the house in Vyner Road where they lived together for half a lifetime; and where she still lived. I had a fleeting impression of a child at the entrance to a giant’s castle.

Once inside, Elayne made coffee and set out a plate of biscuits; we sat at a small table before a window looking out to the back garden. There were grape hyacinths. Yellow crocuses. The trees still bare, and the sky that gloomy shade of English grey, threatening, but not delivering, rain.

Yes, she said, my husband was tall but not robust or muscular or even very strong; he was lightly built, with a great deal of energy.

That feeling of inauthenticity: it was real and went deep. They’ll find me out, he used to say, in the early days at the Warburg. It was too good to be true. He said something similar in his farewell speech when he retired in 1990. You didn’t find me out! It was a love of literature that drove him, Elayne said. Both poetry and prose. He never wrote poetry himself, he knew it was beyond him. His own prose was intricate and highly wrought. A developed style. His ideal was expressed by Erasmus: the establishment of a world culture.

The Warburg took us unreservedly in. Like family. These mainly German refugees, with their wide culture and learning, accepted us both, without question. Whatever Joe’s doubts about his abilities, the Warburgians understood that he was a genuine scholar. We always meant to go back to New Zealand but it wasn’t possible to turn our backs upon these people. It would have been the wrong thing to do. And so the Warburg became our life too. We did go back to New Zealand, twice, so the boys could see it. But once Joe joined the Institute, returning there to live became impossible.

After we’d had our coffee, she asked if I would like to see his study. It was at the front of the house, with windows looking out to the street. The desk sat at right angles to the windows, facing a wall of books. Elayne used it still—there was a small silver-grey Apple notebook open on the desk—but otherwise left it as it had been when Joe was alive. She said she did not know why she would want to change it. That was poignant too; but I didn’t want to ask about what she might feel after the loss of her life companion more than ten years ago now.

She probably sensed the question anyway, because when we went back into the sitting room, she began to talk about their early days together. They had met at Victoria University of Wellington when Joe was teaching there and she was studying; in an Introduction to the Classics class he took. They fell in love and made their commitment; but she didn’t join him in England until after he had finished at Reading, because she was completing her own degree in English. She was also going to become a librarian.

They were apart for eighteen months and when she did come over, Joe was living in a boat, a converted barge, down by the Thames, next door to Frank Kermode. Frank and his wife Maureen Eccles called their beached landing craft by the Joycean name Anna Livia; Elayne and Joe’s was christened The Unfortunate Lady, after the poem by Alexander Pope about the suicide of friend. Pope used to visit the Blount sisters at nearby Mapledurham House, and attached to the church was a Catholic chapel where the poet is said to have worshipped.

Joe and Elayne were married in that church—though not in the chapel—in 1953. The wedding party was about a dozen strong. Her mother, Elayne recalled, could not be there, and very much minded missing out. The reception was a picnic on the grass beside the river, where the house boats were moored. It was a beautiful day. There were swans on the water.

That was a free time, she said. We used often to go up to London to see a play or an opera. When Joe started working at the Institute, we took a flat in town, in North Kensington. The Warburg had a couple of floors in the grand old Imperial Institute Building in South Kensington, near the Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, the British Library. That building is gone, demolished, years ago now.

Elayne played piano—there was an upright, open, with sheet music upon it, against the other wall. She went to an opera night each week, locally, usually a lecture given by another New Zealander, a gay man named Alley who fled the country in 1979; homosexuality was illegal there until 1986.

I garden too; when I can, she said. People thought it strange when we bought out here in 1959, so far from town. But it was affordable and we liked the neighbourhood. We had friends here, the Kaufmanns.

There was a church nearby. Like the one in Fleet Street, it was a St Dunstan’s. Most of Acton was once the property of the Goldsmith’s Guild; at the other end of Vyner Street stands a pub called the Goldsmith’s Arms. Much had changed, though, since 1959. An Islamic school replaced the old state institution; subsequently, many of the houses were bought by wealthy Arabs and rented out to families whose children went to the school. These houses tend to be overcrowded and run down, their gardens neglected.

After lunch―an omelette and an apple, washed down with Evian water―Elayne took me upstairs to see the rest of the house. I looked along the spines of all of the books, save those in the bedroom, where I did not go. It was a wonderful library: poetry, art books, the classics, majestic editions of the works of the early humanists: Thomas More, John Colet, Desiderius Erasmus. There was a shelf of books by Frank Kermode and, next to that, a shelf of books by Harold Bloom. When Elayne and Joe went to Yale for six months in 1960, Bloom and his wife Jeanne Gould were there as well, the two couples met and became lifelong friends.

I was surprised to find two of my own books there: The Autobiography of my Father (1992) and Zone of the Marvellous (2009). And one of my mother’s: Hot October (1989). Elayne said they were sent over by a friend in New Zealand but she didn’t say who that friend was. It was strange to see them there. Joe was a few years younger than my father but an exact contemporary of my mother; he must have read both autobiographies with interest. But Zone of the Marvellous: no. It was published after his death. I felt relieved—I had treated therein scholarly matters, with which he was acquainted, in a manner he would certainly have found unscholarly. And therefore painful. Another echo: Joe’s copy of W B Yeats’ Collected Poems was the same edition my mother had given me, in 1970, as a present when I was leaving home to go to university.

In the hall were two small Goya prints from Los Caprichos. Both featured owls, or owl-like figures. Exiles from the parliament of scholars perhaps. Next to them was a Rembrandt etching of a drunken and disreputable Christ. It was lying around at the Institute, apparently ownerless, so Joe asked if he could have it. Of course you can, the Warburgians said. On the wall along the staircase, ascending, hung half a dozen water colour landscapes, family heirlooms. A Trapp ancestor, William Mein Smith, was Surveyor General in Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company and these were his paintings.

It was time to go. I had a train to catch. We’d been talking for six hours, 9.30 am to 3.30 pm. On the drive to the station, near Henchman Street, I saw the walls of Wormwood Scrubs prison. Elayne parked then got out of the car to shake my hand. She thanked me—formally, unnecessarily—for taking the trouble to come to see her and for the conversation we had had.

It means a lot to me, she said. And we have talked about so many things!

We had: her father, Robert Falla, was an eminent scientist, museum keeper and ornithologist; it was Elayne who told me that the bird I’d seen in Regents Park was Pica pica, the Eurasian magpie. Her mother, Molly Burton, had written a book for children about penguins. I promised to send her a draft of the piece about Joe, when it was written (I did), she thanked me again and we said goodbye. I watched her car beetle up the road. The last thing I saw was the white bob of her hair as she turned the corner past Wormwood Scrubs.

~ ~ ~

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The Mirror of Tezcatlipoca

It was drizzling when I came out of Baker Street Station onto Marylebone Road. Black and white movie footage, c. 1916, was playing in my head. Same historic city. Same hectic surge of Hansom cabs down towards the West End—though now they are 4WDs—same omnibuses and ambulances, same headlines of impending doom. The same beggars at the gate, with their ancient eyes turned pleadingly away from, or towards, an eternity of need. The fellow I asked the way to Gloucester Place attuned his reply to a register halfway between the importunate and the insubordinate: in case I should turn out to be somebody. I told him I was no-one; and with the equivocal grace so given went the way he pointed, west towards Westminster.

I wandered along, bumping my suitcase behind me, through the streets of Lisson Grove. It wasn’t cold. There was lots to see. A blue plaque commemorated the years Powell and Pressburger spent at Dorset House, a yellow art deco building with elegant Eric Gill stone reliefs either side of the front door. Michael and Emeric, aka The Archers, from 1942 to 1947, had their HQ in a three room flat at #120; during which period they made half a dozen movies, including The Red Shoes. There was another blue plaque further along, outside the Alliance Française, saluting the contribution the Free French made to the war effort. I saw a little bent-over figure wearing a top hat, like someone out of a Daumier engraving, entering the Salvadorian Embassy. Ambassador or nineteenth century ghost?

The woman who checked me in at the Americana was welcoming and somehow soothing too; from the Czech Republic. I’d been talking to her for a while before I realised there was a fellow sitting next to her, his face concealed behind the glossy leaves of an aspidistra. He was thin and dark, with a Mephistophelean beard and long black hair pulled into a pony tail held in place by a rubber band. Iranian. I liked him too, his world-weary kindliness. He rode a motor bike. He told me my room would be ready soon and suggested I get a cup of coffee from the machine at the breakfast bar.

Here I inadvertently spilled hot water all over the cork-tiled floor and was scolded for it by an emphatic woman who came out of the kitchen wearing a floral apron over her plain blue dress. She was the Polish cook. She gave me a stale apple Danish to have with my long black. I took it, in a tiny lift, up to my tiny room. I was determined not to sleep. The Royal College of Physicians was over the other side of Regent’s Park and they had on an exhibition of books and other items from the library of Doctor Dee. I ate the pastry, drank the coffee, showered, shaved, changed my clothes and went out.

~ ~ ~

The park was full of birds. Brown and white geese. Ducks, in several varieties. A black and white one with green and purple wings and a long iridescent tail: Pica pica, the Eurasian magpie. There was a Hitchcockian moment when a flock of feeding pigeons rose into the air about me, beating their wings across my suddenly flushing cheeks. I heard people speaking Russian. And Spanish. Although it was only February, the daffodils were already flowering. I felt hyper-alert and faintly delirious as well. I kept thinking what underwater aviator Jacques Cousteau said: Jet lag is my favourite drug.

On the ground floor of the stylish 1960s building an event was in progress: men in suits, women in bright dresses, drinking and eating and talking. Champagne at midday on a Tuesday. The Doctor Dee exhibition was in glass cases on the mezzanine. His library, said to have consisted of 3000 volumes and 1000 manuscripts, was called by Frances Yates the mind of the Renaissance. It had been pillaged by colleagues, aided and abetted by his friends and relations, while he was away in Europe meeting with the King of Poland; making alchemical gold in Prague for Rudolph II; swapping wives with his scryer, the earless counterfeiter Edward Kelley; conjuring spirits.

About a hundred volumes survived, in a private collection, and half of these were on display. Most of them were in Latin. Extravagantly annotated: for instance with drawings of ships. Or esoteric monograms. His calligraphy was exquisite; but I could make nothing of the inscriptions. Everything he wrote was a kind of spell that you needed another authority, probably occult, in order to construe. Down the other end of the room, however, was something I could engage with: a casement of instruments. An Aztec mirror; a crystal ball; a facetted jewel; a gold plate; a Claude glass.

The crystal ball was smaller than I had imagined them to be, about the size of a cricket ball. The jewel, made of glass, seemed an unlikely scrying instrument; so too the flat, dully burnished sheet of thin gold. The Claude glass, half out of its sharkskin case, looked like it was for shaving. Sometimes called a black mirror, they abstract whatever is reflected in them, reducing and simplifying shapes and colours and tones. Painters would turn away from the view they wished to reproduce and transcribe the image floating within the glass instead. The name remembers French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), who was active in the century after Doctor Dee had been and gone.

Aztec mirrors I’d heard about before; never expecting to encounter one. It was round, about a palm’s-width across, with a hole bored at the top where the handle would have been attached. Made from a single piece of polished obsidian, it was the blackest of blacks. Kapoor black. Nevertheless, reflective. I raised my hand—my right, my writing hand—and saw its wraithy reflection form in the depth of the mirror. Some charge leapt between image and hand; I felt it shudder up my arm and into my brain. Dim old voices muttered in my ears; blood-stained stone altars on the tops of pyramids in the jungle passed before my mind; under an azure, sun-struck sky. The night wind whispering across puckered skin.

It was a ritual object, associated with Tezcatlipoca, Lord of Smoke and Mirrors, whose shape could be summoned from its depths. In pictures of the god parts of his body, for instance the right foot, are sometimes replaced by mirrors; which were worn by everyday people too, usually upon their backs: as if you could carry with you a reflection of what was happening behind you and by that means deflect its consequences.

Tezcatlipoca has many associations: the night sky, night winds, the north, the earth, rulership, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, strife and war. Fire, because of the way light flashes from mirrors. And epithets: We Are His Slaves; He By Whom We Live; Enemy Of Both Sides; Lord Of The Near & Far; Night, Wind; Two Reed; Owner Of Earth & Sky. He controlled historical time, was the guardian of ancestral memory and embodied change by means of conflict. Now he was in my soul.

No-one knows how this mirror came to be in England. They were traded back into Europe after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521 and became a fashionable item in the royal courts; this must have been one of those which made its way north. We don’t even know if it really belonged to Doctor Dee: the only warrant for that is a note affixed to it by a subsequent owner, Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century writer and antiquarian. It read: The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits. If the Doctor owned it, and I assume he did, what did he think it was? Did he know it came from Mexico? That it was both a conduit for, and an avatar of, Tezcatlipoca? The enemy of both sides?

Doctor Dee advocated calendrical reform, new cartographic methods, mathematics as a universal language; he also saw angels in his crystal ball; and believed he had discovered, and transcribed, the Enochian tongue spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. For him astronomy, navigation, cartography; mathematics, optics, alchemy; divination itself; were all mysteries requiring elucidation. ‘Magic’ and ‘Science’ were indistinguishable then. You couldn’t say where one ended and the other began. The primary distinction was between the occult and the revealed; the scholarly task to find a means of channelling transmissions from one to the other. An unfashionable position nowadays; though not for writers: what else do we do?

~ ~ ~

There was a medical museum in the basement, with exhibits in tall glass cases lining the walls. A caul spilled out of an engraved silver receptacle. It was strangely white, intricate and beautiful, as if brocaded out of sea foam. They are rare (one in 80,000 births) and there are several kinds; the most complex is a full helmet, attached by buds of tissue to the skin of the head and hooked behind the ears. This one was from the eighteenth century. You couldn’t help but wonder who it had belonged to. Napoleon was born with a caul; so was Lord Byron; and David Copperfield, though he is a fiction. Freud, Liberace and Lillian Gish. Cauls were thought to be a prophylactic against drowning; Byron swimming the Hellespont must have come close to proving that wrong.

Most of the rest of the museum was given over to the display of surgical instruments of the gruesome, superseded kind. There were many ingenious tools for removing bullets from various parts of the bodies of those wounded in battle; instruments whose purpose was the extraction of gall or kidney stones. Those unfortunates—Daniel Defoe, Johnson’s Boswell—to be operated upon were strapped using stout leather belts into a chair; then an incision was made in the perineum; the surgeon worked from underneath. A long, narrow set of pincers would be pushed upwards through the cut and probed about in the abdominal cavity until it could grasp the stone in its claws and then withdraw. The pain was said to have been excruciating.

In a case along the third wall was a piece of pounamu, New Zealand greenstone, in a leather pouch. Perhaps twenty centimetres long and cylindrical or hexagonal—it was hard to see how the jade had been worked because, like the Claude glass, it was mostly still within its pouch. Made of the bright green variety called kawakawa, it was worn by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in the latter stages of World War Two. A doctor friend from New Zealand had given it to him, for luck, in mid-1944; and he kept it with him until the fighting was over. From a month before D Day until VE Day, May 8, 1945. That pounamu helped to win the war, I thought. Ka pai!

Afterwards I walked back across Regent’s Park and, on the other side, at 219 Baker Street, went into a bookshop called The Alef. Borgesian as that name sounds—the Aleph as the point in space that contains all other points, from which you can see everything from every angle simultaneously, without distortion or confusion—the shop was actually the newly opened London branch of Egypt’s largest bookstore chain and sold texts in Arabic or texts that were translations from the Arabic; there were many sumptuous editions of the Koran. Alef’s mission is to create highly knowledgeable, intellectual and well-read Arab communities throughout the world.

Then I went in to the Sherlock Holmes Museum next door at 221B. It was as you might expect: a shop full of souvenirs of someone else who never existed, with monogrammed coffee mugs, deer-hunter hats, curved tobacco pipes—but no fits for the injection of cocaine—offered for sale; while a cheerfully uniformed factotum, whose job it was to divest you of the number of pounds it cost to enter the inner sanctum, urged you on. It was too much. I went on down Marylebone Road to the Globe for a glass of Stella Artois and a hamburger with blue cheese; then returned to the Americana.

Later, drifting off to sleep, I remembered a line from a poem I wrote the last time I was here: In Baker Street will you find the key to the mystery? I couldn’t believe how naive I must have been then. How unformed. Uninformed. It felt good not to be that person anymore; although I knew he must still be somewhere inside of me, like a mutant shrouded in a caul perhaps; or a shape-shifter chained within one of those trunks Harry Houdini—an illusionist but not a fiction—escaped from with such ease. Or some equivocal entity trapped within the black and luminous depths of the mirror of Tezcatlipoca.

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The Cattle of the Gods

On the Saturday I caught a municipal bus, in the unenthusiastic winter rain, down Banbury Road into Oxford Town; thence to the Ashmolean Museum. That great Victorian pile, much renovated, was built in the middle of the nineteenth century; but the collection is much older, based upon a cabinet of curiosities, and some rare books and manuscripts, donated by one Elias Ashmole to the University in 1677. Ashmole—royalist, soldier, freemason, lawyer, alchemist, astrologer, antiquarian—obtained many of his items from the estate of John Tradescant the Younger, naturalist, gardener, collector and traveller; and the inheritor of the hoard of his like-minded father, John Tradescant the Elder.

Some say John the Younger’s Ark was swindled out of him by Ashmole. It may have been so. The curiosities included, among much else, coins, weapons, clothes, taxidermed birds and animals. Both Tradescants visited the Americas; the younger brought back seeds of the aster, the cypress and the magnolia; and the ceremonial cloak of Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas. There are a number of other strange and wonderful items in the Ashmolean, including Oliver Cromwell’s death mask and the lantern Guy Fawkes is said to have carried on the night of the Gunpowder Plot.

There are also the recently (2011) refurbished Egyptian and Nubian rooms. When you enter the first of them, three figures greet you—two statues of the god Min, with his erect phallus in his left hand and a flail in his upraised right; and  between them a crouching animal, a ceramic, usually described as a lion. It looked more Chinese than Egyptian: a hairy dragon, perhaps, with bared teeth. The statues of Min were dug up at Qift, north of Luxor, by Flinders Petrie in the 1890s and transported by him back to England. They are pre-Dynastic. That is, older than the records.

These massive slabs of yellow-grey limestone have reliefs carved upon them: sea shells, antelope heads, catfish, cows and something resembling a lightning bolt; which may represent ejaculate. One lacks a head, the other has its detached cranium suspended above the torso in the place where it would once have been. Their penises, arm-sized cylinders of stone, were inserted into apertures drilled into the body of the sculptures and projecting some distance out in front. The statue with the floating head still has the stump of its erection plugging the hole made for it; the other has an empty socket. Each hand seems to be turning compulsively back around to grasp its respective appendage. In some Egyptian origin myths, people are said to have been born from the sperm of a masturbating god.

Min, Lord of Processions, God of High Plumes, Maker of Gods and Men. The cos lettuce was one of his sacred plants because the white latex which oozes from a broken leaf or stem was thought to resemble semen. Lettuce was accounted an aphrodisiac then. Min was sometimes depicted standing on a pile of them. Lettuce. In amongst their magnificence and their strangeness, there is the homeliness of the Egyptians. When a Pharaoh manifested as Min, he processed to a wheat field on the banks of the Nile, harvested a sheaf of ripe grain, gave it to a bull or a sacred cow to eat; then ejaculated into the water to prove his fertility and to re-fecundate the river. There is a sub-genre, not well known, of images of masturbating Pharaohs.

Before Min was the chaos of the waters. When the sky had not yet come into being, when the earth had not yet come into being. Before the advent of the Imperishable Stars of the North, before the beginning of the Unwearying Stars of the South. The names of two of the original progenitors, Nun and Naunet, were written as an N, a wave. For the Egyptians, as for the Sumerians, the world existed within an ocean that was only kept from engulfing the earth by our atmosphere. The back of the sky was the meniscus of this ocean; where air met water. When Min or Atum or Osiris or Ptah (they all did it) masturbated, it wasn’t seed falling upon stony ground; but a deposit made into the great ocean.

This belief, like most of the core beliefs of the Egyptians, was rehearsed as ritual over thousands of years while the thought behind it remained essentially unchanged. The lightning stroke inscribed on Min’s thigh might signify ejaculate; but they also sometimes said we are born from an egg that came from Ocean; and preserved the placenta of an important person throughout their life as evidence of that. Were they wrong? Are we not both egg and sperm? Remember the spate in space where comets containing organic compounds hurtle. Remember the air all around the earth, a kind of albumen, without which we cannot live. The salt immensities of blood.

At the rear of the first room at the Ashmolean is a facsimile of a plaster mural found on the wall of Painted Tomb 100, excavated, some say inexpertly, by Frederick Green at Nekhen, south of Luxor, in 1899. Green left his other work, in a hurry, when he heard that grave robbers had been detained while looting the tomb. The plaster was removed and taken to the Cairo Museum, where its ruin may still be seen; most of the burial goods are in the Ashmolean. The tomb, now lost beneath cultivations, is dated 3400 BCE; about a hundred years before the statues of Min were made. The only version of the mural we have is the water colour copy painted, not inexpertly, by Green; in shades of red, yellow, white and black.

It shows hieratic figures on a floating background, as on a cave wall or the side of a rock shelter; the space is unbounded yet divided into registers. Horizon; earth and sky; a possible narrative movement from east to west. There is a man flanked by rampant lions; a king smiting his enemies with a pear-shaped mace; a trussed ox; a priest in a leopard skin cloak. Six boats—five white and one, more elaborate, with a higher prow, black—carry figures seated under canopies on thrones within them. The mural seems to merge the animals of Palaeolithic art with the forms of the humans who made them.

It is sometimes suggested that the animal-headed gods of the Egyptians originated in clan names like those found amongst the Aborigine of Australia; and in other societies which practice totemism. There were baboon people, ibis people, cat people, cow people and so on. One version of the gods, the Ogdoad, has four pairs, a frog-headed man, a snake-headed woman, emerging out of the mud. Nun and Naunet were the first of these. The other three pairs embody infinity, darkness and invisibility. In this pantheon the jackal, who digs up bodies buried in the earth, devouring their flesh then gnawing upon their bones, becomes Anubis, our escort into the dead lands.

At Nekhen there is a burial ground in which the bodies of humans are mingled with those of animals. A veritable zoo of the gods. Baboons, leopards, elephants; cats and dogs; crocodile and hippopotamus; gazelles, ibex and sheep; hyenas, foxes, turtles. Some had been embalmed; others eaten. One of the elephants, a young male, was interred whole, with grave goods: local and imported pottery; red ochre and green malachite; a stone mace head; alabaster jars; a slate palette, an amethyst bead and an ivory bracelet. He may have been a sacrifice made after the death of his owner.

Amongst these burials were graves encircled by the bodies of dogs: people guarded in death as they had been in life. The human bones so honoured probably belonged to chieftains ancestral to the first kings. Early leaders, like the Scorpion King or the Catfish King, took the names of powerful animals. They seem to have held court at the lost city of Thinis (sometimes ‘This’) but were usually buried nearby in Abydos (‘great land’). Ritual maces carried by these kings, inscribed with hieroglyphs representing them, were found in a cache buried at Nekhen. Cosmetic palettes too.

Palettes first appear in Neolithic burials as small objects used to grind up pigments to make face or body paint. They are shaped like animals; or birds. Or fish. There’s one that is grey, plain, rhomboidal, with a scorpion carved in relief near the apex of the superior triangle; it looks like a pair of lovers embracing. In time the palettes lost their utilitarian function, grew in size, and became ceremonial objects with emblematic devices inscribed upon them. They had holes bored in them so that they could be worn around the neck. Or carried by hand, like shields, in front of the chest.

Imperial palettes were made from siltstone quarried in Wadi Hammamat, a stream bed which runs from Qift on the Nile to the port of Al-Qusayr on the Red Sea. Qift, which the Greeks called Coptos, stands at the eastern extremity of the great bend the river takes here. Al-Qusayr was Egypt’s eastern port. Some think that early contacts with the civilizations of Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia and India came through Al-Qusayr and then along the Wadi; along with the lapis lazuli from Bactria in what is now Afghanistan.

What was ground upon them? Ochres dug from mines deep in the Sahara. Kohl, which for the Egyptians had a therapeutic value: it shielded their eyes from the sun and protected them from infection. It was made from stibnite, sulphide of antimony; or galena, a dark grey ore, sulphide of lead. Two lead chlorides—laurionite and phosgenite—found in kohl do in fact increase the amount of nitric oxide in the human skin and thereby strengthen the immune system. Green malachite, copper carbonate: eyes were painted black above, green below. Egyptian blue was made from silica, lime, copper and natron; the salt later used in mummification.

The Two Dog Palette, in the Ashmolean, had the heads of canines (one is missing) raised up on either side of the top of the oval. Twin serpopards nuzzle the body of a gazelle; pigments were ground in the area enclosed by their encircling necks. On the reverse, wild animals attack herds of herbivores. A pair of lions, another serpopard, a leopard, a hyena, and a griffin with comb-like feathered wings. At bottom is a long-tailed human-headed bipedal dog playing a flute. Some think this figure shows a Mesopotamian, perhaps Edamite, influence.

Nekhen was the place of Horus, the Distant One; Hierakonpolis, the Greek name, means Hawk City. It was here the unification of the twin kingdoms of Egypt is said to have been consecrated. Neither a conquest nor a feat of arms, perhaps, but a recognition of an existing state of affairs: the same pottery was already being used from the First Cataract north to the delta of the Nile and on into Sinai and the Levant; its maker’s or trader’s name stamped upon the vessels as seals; or recorded on accompanying ivory plaques. Bread and beer were standardised too; along with the ornaments, the cosmetics and the perfumes. The turquoise and the copper artefacts. The gold.

The Narmer palette, in the Cairo Museum, has on one side Narmer, the Catfish King, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt; on the other, he is wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt. It is the first depiction of what would in time come to be known as Pharaoh (‘great house’) and already exhibits the conventions of classic Egyptian art. It also has inscribed upon it early versions of the marks the Greeks would call hieroglyphs. They represent sounds by means of images; and, perforce, represent the images as well. The cache at Nekhen, in which this palette was found, seems to have been buried after a ceremony meant to remember, and at the same time dismiss, the past.

An epochal transition had taken place, one which determined the course of the next three thousand years. Metamorphosis from mortal to divinity was accomplished. People learned to live forever. They did so by figuring out how to become their own ancestors. In fealty to this breakthrough, the Souls of Nekhen, so-called, were honoured guests at the coronation, and the burial, of every subsequent Pharaoh. Later, in a complex switch of allegiances, they would be joined by the Souls of Pe. Pharaohs were depicted with an oval hieroglyph, cross-hatched and sieve-like, a representation of their placenta, attached to their name. This twin accompanied them throughout their lives; and was buried with them after death.

There’s much here that resists interpretation. However long you look at these things—the statues of Min, the painting and the artefacts from Tomb 100, the Narmer and the Two Dog palettes, the Scorpion and Catfish maces—coming to an understanding of the thought that made them is hard to do. By the same token, the realism of the art of the Egyptians, even at this early period, has such clarity it seems prophetic: a fragment of a plaster foot carries within it the whole secret of who we are. Likewise, a decayed wooden face weathered back to the grain. Ducks swimming amongst reeds along the river, where the Egyptians located paradise. The geese of Meidum.

I returned to the Ashmolean again the next day, Sunday, and saw, in the Greek rooms, a Cycladic carving of Aphrodite, contemporary with the Min monoliths, made of pale yellow stone, sparse and angular as a Modigliani. When, I wondered, did the mirror and the comb became the accoutrements of the goddess of love? Neolithic ivory combs found in the Nile valley have animal heads carved along their tops. Egyptian mirrors were made out of polished copper discs; or from stone bowls with black glazes in which, once they were filled with water, you saw yourself reflected.

I went back to the Egyptian rooms. On the Narmer Palette, the Catfish King is shown exulting over rows of dead bodies which have had their heads severed and put between their legs; upon these severed heads, their severed genitalia are placed. This must have been something that really was done; as it was in other places. The savagery of these early kings cannot be exaggerated: they were buried surrounded, not just by animal sacrifices, but by slaughtered retainers too—perhaps the very people who made their grave goods. A Pyramid Text from the Fifth Dynasty records a king feasting upon both gods and men: It is Shesmu who carves them up for Unas, / Cooks meals of them for him in his dinner pots. // Unas eats their magic, swallows their spirits.

This may be a memory rather than a contemporary account of cannibalism. Nevertheless, evisceration was not uncommon; like their Palaeolithic ancestors, Egyptians were expert at the butchery of animals. Some of the dead in the people’s necropolis at Nekhen had their heads removed then replaced above their necks; their organs taken out, preserved and restored to the body cavity. Some had been scalped, perhaps while still alive. Some had their heads stoved in by a blow from a mace, evidently while their assassin held them by their hair with his other hand. The classic depiction of Pharaoh smiting his enemies may have originated, not as a celebration of conquest or of war, but in ritual practice; for instance, in the recently excavated Oval Court at Nekhen.

Here wild and domesticated animals were slaughtered and butchered; here human sacrifices were made. Egyptians called themselves the cattle of the gods—people as a surplus of the harvest. There are representations of men and women being stabbed by a figure who holds out a dish to catch the blood that wells from their hearts. Courts like the one at Nekhen existed at other places up and down the Nile; to which the king processed in order to receive tithes and offerings. They were theatres which were also abattoirs: with a drain hole in the centre where the spilled blood flowed away. Clustered along the court’s margins were the workshops where the votive goods, the ceramics and the jewellery, the costumes and the flint knives, were made.

If the scalped and maced and stabbed figures were sacrifices, they were still given a respectful burial. They may have anticipated resurrection: as the king progressed towards immortality, his loyal followers, caught up in the train of reincarnation, could hope to do so too. Their bodies would be arrayed around his tomb in a manner which mimicked the order of the living court. It was believed that, if the ceremonies continued to be performed correctly, each person would wake again into life for the hour of the night when the sun, on its way to being reborn, passed through their station in the Duat. Eternity was in their lips and eyes. The insomniac dead.

There was a burial in the people’s cemetery at Nekhen of a woman with a mohawk haircut accompanied by pots containing herbs and pigments and unguents; a shawoman perhaps. Perfumes, like cosmetics, were alchemical; they could change the mortal into the divine. The longed-for becoming, from animal to human to immortal, was a consequence of a creation held together by spells. Death was a preparation for re-birth: fine mats, ten at a time, woven for the grave, would cover the body lying curled up on its left side, facing the west; or foetal on its right, awaiting the rising sun.

And then there were the animals. A German dictionary records, out of a total of 777 hieroglyphs, 176 animal or bird or fish or insect-derived symbols; more than one in five; not counting the motifs abstracted from the human body. You might say the Egyptians thought with animals. A hymn to Amun proposes: Thou art the only one, creator of all that is. From whose eye men came forth. From whose mouth the gods originated. Who creates the herbs the cattle live upon. And the corn for people. Who creates that which the fish in the river live upon. Who gives breath to the chicken in the egg. Who maintains the young of the snake. Who creates the nourishment of the gnat. And also of the worm and the fleas. Who cares for the mice in the hole and keeps alive the insects in every tree.

Funerary texts recording charitable acts do not always distinguish between human and animal recipients: I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked. I have also given food to the ibis, the falcon, the cat and the jackal. It is creation before the sin of the knowledge of good and evil. All living things, united in fealty to death, learn to overcome it. Those ibis- or falcon- or jackal- or cat-headed gods are intermediaries, showing us the way to embark upon the boat of millions of years, how to sail over the dark waters, through the Duat with its lakes of fire, its walls of iron and its turquoise trees; and on into the rising of the sun. The way to immortality is not through personal salvation; but by means of repetition of the song of generation.

And yet: most of what we think we know about the early Egyptian dynasties is conjectural. We don’t really know if a king called Narmer united the two lands or even if there were two lands to be united. Perhaps the state was a fait accompli after the already standardised trade networks were taken over by the largest, most aggressive or most efficient operator. Pottery, grain and beer. Precious metals. Stone. Cattle, counted at two yearly intervals throughout the reign of every Pharoah. We don’t even know if Narmer is distinct from his successor, the beguilingly named Hor-Aha; or if either of them is the Menes said by Herodotus to have been the one who united Egypt. Pharaohs had many names.

Even the animal-headed gods came later, like memories of totems reified into divinities by those who had already lost them. Gods in human form, with or without animal heads, are not represented until the Second Dynasty. Possibly they were a result of the formalization of the forty-two Nomes into which the Two Lands were divided: a bureaucratic innovation. Among the first to manifest was Seshat, the goddess who measures, calculates and writes. She is shown teaching a Second Dynasty king, Khasekhemwui, how to lay out a temple. She is using marks made by ropes laid in sand: the same enclosure which will henceforth bind every Pharaoh’s name within its cartouche.

Seshat instructing Khasekhemwui was inscribed at Abydos at the end of the Second Dynasty; about which little is known apart from the names of the kings, a few crumbling tombs―and the first full sentence in hieroglyphic script. It is a summary of an equerry’s titles and accomplishments. It may also be understood as the account of an action. An investiture perhaps. Thus, the invention of subject and predicate. Of grammar. Signs, hitherto denominating precise things, could now be re-combined in such a way as to extend both the minds of those who wrote and those who read them. Even if they were the same person; more likely the scribe and the one whose tomb was to be inscribed: who would by these signs be immortalised.

That first sentence was written during the reign of a Second Dynasty king called Peribsen who, unusually, took a Seth instead of a Horus name. At the same time Horus, the distant one, was re-located to the city of Pe, in the delta; whose emblem became the sedge. The south’s was the honey bee, pollinating the desert from which Seth’s exemplar, the dog, had come. Hawk and hound, reconciled. Insect and plant. Henceforth the hawk-headed Souls of Pe, along with the dog-headed Souls of Nekhen, attended upon every Pharaoh’s birth, proclamation and death. So too did a third iteration of the dynastic pair, called the two ladies: Nekhbet and Wadjet, the vulture and the snake.

Khasekhemui, the last king of the Second Dynasty, was buried at Abydos with his name written under the double sign of Horus and Seth. A structure in his burial complex is precursory to the step pyramid built for Djoser, the first king of the Third Dynasty, at Saqqara on the other side of the river from Memphis; in one version, Djoser is Khasekhemui’s son. Pyramid building necessitated a change from mud brick to cut stone as the primary material of construction; and under Djoser’s pyramid, as if in commemoration of that, forty thousand stone vessels, from reigns as far back as Narmer’s, four hundred years before, were interred. Many of them had been smashed.

Some think the makers of these vessels were of the caste which now began to carve the stone from which the pyramids are made; and this their farewell to their former craft. If so, it was an act of cognisance of historical time like that which led to the burying of the Narmer palette and associated goods. Nevertheless the relationship between this new understanding of time and the use of subject and predicate in sentences is difficult to grasp: to interrogate these first forays into written language is to feel yourself tremble above a gulf of discovery that is also a shrouded abyss; a disquieting ignorance which all our knowledge does not yet allow us to see into.

After the Second Dynasty there were no more human sacrifices upon the death of a Pharaoh. That practice never resumed. A popular uprising (tombs were burned) may have caused this change; more likely it was the shift in thinking that led to the writing of sentences; and the serial re-inauguration of historical time; which began again with the accession of each new Pharaoh. Instead of the bones of slaughtered retainers Ushabti, mummiform clay figures representing workers, begin to appear in graves. They labour for the dead in the next world; working throughout eternity in the service of their masters and mistresses: to plough the fields, to fill the channels with water, to carry sand from the east to the west. They were called Answerers; their name means Here I am.

At the same time, actual grave offerings begin to be replaced by metaphorical ones. A picture of a stalk of wheat substitutes for a sheaf of the grain; a drawing of a loaf for real bread; paintings of jars of wine and dishes of figs. This does not seem to have been about the saving of the waste of gifts of food and drink to those who, because they were dead, could not consume them. A conceptual shift had happened: an image could stand for a thing. That image becomes a sign and then the sign can be combined, with others, to write something which has not been written before. It must have opened up vast spaces for the mind’s contemplation. People, too, became their representations.

This may be what gives the portraits of the pyramid builders—as depicted in the reserve heads of the Fourth Dynasty—if that’s what they are—their rapt ecstatic look: they gaze into the future as if cognisant of the knowledge of their power; and the power of their knowledge; along with the illimitable power that will be theirs in time to come. The inaugural literary forms follow upon this revelation of the way to eternity; they are the obituary and the prayer. The first, in retrospective narrative form, remembers the dead. The second is about the hope for a future life. They are, respectively, the ancestors of our prose and our verse.

I don’t believe a popular uprising ended human sacrifice in Ancient Egypt; I think it was the conceptual shift. Even if there was unrest amongst the people, the solution was not repression; it was to make the oppressed love their oppression. For the change of mind also anticipated, and enshrined, an image of the state as a gigantic funerary monument which everyone laboured to accomplish. The enormous power of death sanctified the authority which would, at the same time, overcome it. As in our own death-worshipping polities, the people must have been complicit in this bargain; that is why they called themselves the cattle of the gods. Driven by their divinities into a death that was called eternal life.

However, despite the majesty of death, and the vast piles of wealth, both literal and metaphorical, piled up in fealty to it, not everyone was convinced. No matter how obscure or protected or remote a grave might be, if people could find it, they would; and then they would loot it. The same artisans who engineered the pyramids, perhaps, infiltrated them not long afterward to rob them of their contents. Grave robbers are not as poignant as ushabti; but emblematic nevertheless: the wealth the great dead bury with them, they thought, we will plunder to keep ourselves and our families alive in the present.

What about those curses and spells that appear alongside the obituaries and prayers in the graves? Didn’t they inspire fear? Wouldn’t tomb raiders have looked up in awe at the representation of night as the naked form of Nut arched above them, a field of silver stars upon the deep blue ground of her belly skin; and made obeisance to her before escaping with their booty? Or were they indifferent, focussed only upon getting the loot and getting away? Superstitious awe or avaricious ignorance? Or something else entirely?

It is impossible to know; but perhaps they did pause in their exertions long enough to wonder at the resplendent images above their heads; and crowding the narrow walls around about them. Comprehendingly or not. And afterwards went on their way, burdened by treasure, yes, but unburdened by the language of the incessant demand that we prolong our lives by means of exhortations to the forgetful gods. Back to the quotidian: hearth and home, bread and beer, figs and wine; the glad cries of children and the embrace of the beloved.

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The Clairvoyant of St Mary’s Bay Road

In 1980, when I was back in Auckland again, after some years away, a friend arranged for me to see a clairvoyant. She lived in the same suburb as us, at the end of our street, in a cream painted wooden villa with a green corrugated iron roof, set back a bit from the road. It had a front lawn in which a single lemon tree grew and a concrete path to the front door, a few steps up within a shadowy veranda. I often used to look at this house when passing by, going up St Mary’s Bay Road to the shops at Three Lamps, because it resembled so closely the one my parents owned in the 1950s; albeit ours was white with a red roof. I wondered who lived there. My friend made the appointment by phone and, at the designated hour, I went around and knocked on the door. The clairvoyant, whose name was Cushla, took me down a dim hallway, with a threadbare runner along its wooden floor, into the kitchen at the back of the house. She was a few years older than me, wearing a skirt, a cardigan and flat-heeled shoes, and with her hair pulled back from her face and secured behind. She could have been an older sister. She made a pot of tea and we sat down opposite each other, on plain wooden chairs at a plain wooden table, which had nothing else upon it but the tea things, in a room which was conspicuously tidy and painted, like the exterior of the house, in cream and green. There was linoleum on the floor and a coal range set in the north wall. The windows above the sink looked out into an enclosed garden where a white camellia was flowering. As we talked, about everything and nothing, I began to feel that she understood, in a way that I did not, the shape of my life. She saw my past as a narrative that unfolded in a certain way, was continuing to unfold, even as we spoke, and would keep on doing so as long as the present opened into the future. She made sense of the flow of time that carries us forward or which, being both stream and flow, we carry forward with us. She made no predictions; she neither prophesized nor warned. We talked for maybe an hour, about many different things, and then I left. As I walked away I felt a peace descend upon me; at the same time as a power arose; as if I had been given back something that was already mine but which I had somehow mislaid. She had returned me to the fullness of time; seeing my past, knowing who I was in the present and scrying the future, she made it possible for me to live towards any one of those futures, whatever they might be. To continue making a shape in time.

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