A year ago last night I found in one my folders a document called Dark Memoir. I opened it up, wondering what it contained; but it was blank. Another one of those false starts that litter my files. Anyway, given that it was 31.12.19, I took it as a sign and decided I would use the document to keep a diary of the coming year. That is, I would make an entry for each day of the year 2020. I’ve never been much good with diaries but am pleased to report that I did accomplish this task, even though there are quite a few days when ‘nothing happened’. Oddly enough, so far as I recall, the diary doesn’t say much about the bushfires of Black Summer; and not much about the pandemic either. This because I used it to focus, rather narrowly, on what I was up to in my writing life. Not that there is anything of great significance there; but I thought it would be interesting to have a record of what did not happen alongside those works that did achieve some kind of completion if not yet publication. At the same time, I set myself to take and post a photograph each day, without a caption, in the attempt to communicate using image alone. This task was complicated part way through the year when someone introduced me to Instagram. I don’t know how many photos I took in the end but I’m pretty sure I posted one, or sometimes two, each day. I am going to illustrate the diary with photographs but I think one a day is too many; I might try for one a week. And I might caption them. I hope the images will give some zing to the tedium of the quotidian. It goes without saying that, if I do re-read the diary all the way through, I’ll revise as I go. This was always the intention ie to expand upon some things and to omit others. Even the title, Dark Memoir, is somewhat of a misnomer. It isn’t really that dark or not as I recall. So I can’t really justify quoting Brecht’s motto but I’m going to do so anyway: In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.
The Tasman Sea, precisely defined by oceanographers, remains inchoate as a cultural area. It has, as it were, drifted in and out of consciousness over the two and a half centuries of European presence here; and remains an unknown quantity to prehistory. Its peak contact period was probably the sixty odd years between the discovery of gold in Victoria and the outbreak of the Great War; when the coasts of New Zealand and Australia were twin shores of a land that shared an economy, a politics, a literature and a popular culture: much of which is reflected in the pages of The Bulletin from the 1880s until 1914. There was, too, a kind of hangover of the pre-war era and of the ANZAC experience into the 1920s; but after that the notional country sank again beneath the waves.
Recovery of fragments from that lost cultural zone is a project with more than historical interest: each retrieval is a prospective act, contributing to the restoration of a world view which, while often occluded, has never really gone away. There is much which is irrecoverable now; but that in itself is a provocation; for a mosaic, even one made out of dislocated pieces, might disclose something unprecedented, neither existent in the past nor otherwise imaginable in the present: the lineaments of the new world, at once authentic and delusive, that so entranced the earliest explorers of the Antipodes. What follows, then, is an assembly of bits of one of those sets of fragments: the story of the Lynch brothers, Guy and Joe, a sculptor and an artist; and the milieu in which they lived.
Francis Ennis Lynch, usually known as Guy, and his brother Joseph Young Lynch, called Joe, were born, in 1895 and 1897 respectively, in North Carlton, Melbourne, the sons of Joseph Patrick Stanislaus Lynch and his wife Annie, née O’Connor, both Victorians of Irish ancestry. Joseph was a stonemason and a sculptor; he made tombstones. The family was Catholic and the two boys began their education at Christian Brothers’ College, East Melbourne. In 1907 the Lynches moved to Auckland, New Zealand, because Joseph snr. was looking for work. They settled in Newton, an inner city working class neighbourhood of small painted wooden houses clinging to the sides of steep green gullies. There were the two boys and two girls, their sisters, Gertrude and Patricia.
In Auckland the Lynches met George Edmond Finey, the son of an English mariner and fisherman, Solomon Finey, and his New Zealand born wife, Rose, née Newton. Solomon Finey, called Harry, was from a moneyed Portsmouth family and emigrated after a dispute with his brother; each accused the other of fiddling the books. He was a grim and silent man who lived to the age of 102; his wife was a hymn-singing volcano of energy, five foot nothing tall. George was one of nine children, born 1895, the same year as Guy Lynch, in the another inner city working class suburb, ‘lousy Parnell’, and educated there until, aged fourteen, he became a telegraph messenger at the Post Office.
Between 1912 and 1914 Finey took classes at the Elam School of Art and Design—which in those days was free to those who could not pay and where materials were provided gratis for both fee-paying and fee-exempt students. He worked in these years as a lithographer at the New Zealand Herald. And in his spare time practised street drawing. It isn’t known how Finey met the Lynch brothers—it might have been at Elam, or at the Herald, or just in the street—but he soon became a regular visitor to their home in Newton, where Saturday night parties were the rule: poetry readings, literary discussion, art talk; both Joseph and Joe would play their violins. The milieu was working class, bohemian, politically radical, unaligned and ardently dedicated to artistic freedom.
Guy Lynch, George Finey and others of their cohort enlisted together and went to war; George and Guy were part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force which sailed for Egypt in 1915. Guy, who had given his occupation as a plasterer, was in the artillery; he served as a gunner at Gallipoli and as a signalman in France; in 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal for acts of gallantry in the field. George Finey was a driver, which meant learning to control a team of horses. On the Western Front he would take supplies of food (bully beef and biscuits) from the railhead by horse and cart eight miles up to the front line. He was present during both offensives on the Somme; and one night, sleeping in his wagon near Passchendaele Ridge, was mustard gassed and repatriated to England.
Both Guy and George were promoted to Sergeant. Finey was employed, on his own initiative, as a war artist and also found time, post-war, to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, where he encountered the nascent Expressionism of the political caricatures in the German magazines Simplicissimus and Jugend. Guy Lynch, after the war, married Doris Hannen in the parish church at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England; but, a year later, she died giving birth to their son; who also predeceased his father. Joe Lynch, two years younger than Guy, enlisted late in the war and was sent overseas in 1918; he gave his occupation as a wire-worker. He never saw action as a soldier but worked instead with the British Red Cross Society in England and in France.
After the war all three young men returned, by stages, to New Zealand. George Finey found that in the interim his mother had died of cancer, his father had remarried and his siblings dispersed. The country was ravaged by influenza and in the grip of depression; there was no work. Auckland was, he said, a city of the dead. He made obeisance to his mother’s mangle in the basement washhouse where she had sent him as a child to do his painting on the floor, said goodbye to his father, and sailed for Sydney. He arrived with fifty quid in his pocket and a pack on his back containing a change of clothes, sketchbooks, pencils and pens.
Guy returned home a year later and was discharged in Auckland in February 1920. He took up his father’s profession of sculptor and accepted a series of commissions to make war memorials, including one at Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore, for which he used his brother Joe as the model. The soldier on the plinth is notable for his casual, relaxed stance; a New Zealand infantryman in trench kit, hat off, looking over his right shoulder as if at all that had to be left behind. The sculpture has been called the untidy soldier because of its informal, realistic portrayal of a man coming off duty.
Joe Lynch also studied at Elam School of Art and Design and there met Cecil ‘Unk’ White, another, slightly younger, New Zealander; but, like George Finey before them, Joe and Unk did not take to formal study and preferred instead the practice of life drawing on the streets and in the hotels of the city; selling their pictures, when they could, for publication in newspapers. Noel Cook, the son of a Māori father and an Australian mother, was another of their group; he too fought in the war and then followed his newspaperman father into the business and was working as a black and white artist for the New Zealand Herald and the Auckland Weekly News.
George Finey, not long after his arrival in Sydney, sold two drawings to The Bulletin; he received five pounds for the pair and, on payment in cash, was touched up for thruppence—the price of a beer—by a cadaverous Henry Lawson. In 1921 he was appointed to the staff of the newly-established Smith’s Weekly; and in 1922 wrote to Guy Lynch in Auckland, suggesting he come across to Sydney too. Guy, in turn, convinced his brother Joe to join them; Noel Cook and Unk White also moved across the Tasman at this time. Finey and White were, in 1924, among the twenty-five founder members of the Society of Australian Black and White Artists, which soon metamorphosed into The Black and White Artists’ Society, then Club,; and is still extant today as the Australian Cartoonists’ Association.
Smith’s Weekly was in many respects the heir to ephemeral wartime miscellanies like The Anzac Book, edited by Charles Bean in a bunker at Gallipoli, and its post-war successor, The Dernière Heure, published in London in 1919. Smith’s Weekly was, like these publications, aimed primarily at an audience of servicemen or ex-servicemen; it was sensational, satirical, controversial and published short stories, cartoons and caricatures alongside sports and finance news. In the 1920s the Weekly published serially an Unofficial History of the A.I.F. It’s contributions from returned men helped establish the image of the digger as an easy-going fellow with a healthy disrespect for authority. Smith’s Weekly also campaigned for the recognition of shellshock as a disease of battle and, more generally, tried to ensure that the promises made to soldiers during wartime were not, in peacetime, ignored.
These five young New Zealand born artists, then, entered Sydney’s bohemian community: forever brawling in honour of Michelangelo. It was an unruly, heavy-drinking, anarchistic milieu. George Finey: it was difficult to restrict alcoholic intake round Sydney. It seems to be the very life—and breath—of the place. All appointments made were for meetings in hotels, never any other place. If you happened to collide elsewhere you naturally walked to the nearest pub. Never to the Art Gallery, or the Museum. One drunken evening the Lynch brothers and their mates broke up the damp clay of a commissioned bust of Sir Joynton Smith, publisher of Smith’s Weekly, to make missiles for a mud-fight.
Guy Lynch took lessons in sculpture from Englishman Rayner Hoff at East Sydney Technical College and exhibited works with titles such as Australian Venus and The Digger. Hoff had served in France during the war, studied at the Royal College of Art in London, was awarded a Prix de Rome scholarship and spent time in Italy, where he met, in Naples, Australian architect Hardy Wilson. Hoff accepted the position as teacher of drawing, modelling and sculpture at East Sydney Tech in 1923; he was an exceptionally able administrator and publicist, a committed teacher and a practitioner whose work shows an eclectic array of influences: Assyrian, Greco-Roman, Oriental, Renaissance and Art Deco. The sculptures on the Anzac War Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney are Rayner Hoff’s work. He died alcoholic and bereft before the next war began.
Guy Lynch bought a house in Western Crescent, Gladesville, where Joe also lived; other members of the Lynch family, including their younger sister, Patricia and both their parents, joined them there; it became the locus of parties like those that had occurred in Newton, Auckland, before the war. Out the back was a large workshop, converted for use as a studio, and it was there that Guy made his most famous work, The Satyr. He used his brother Joe as the model for the head and the torso, and an actual goat, tethered and bleating in the yard, for the lower body, the legs and the cloven hooves.
The Satyr, in plaster painted to make it look like bronze, caused a sensation when it was included in the 1924 young artists’ exhibition in the Anthony Hordern Gallery. It was hailed as a masterpiece by some and damned as a pagan work by others. The Satyr was bought in 1926 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales but kept in the stockroom for fear of offending the gallery’s more sensitive patrons. Also in 1924, Guy Lynch was commissioned by Dame Nellie Melba to make a bust of her grand-daughter Pamela; and a garden sculpture, Victory of Orpheus. He later created the figures for the battle diorama, Pozières, at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
In the wake of the controversy over Guy’s sculpture, Joe’s ‘superb’ graphic work—first published in Smith’s Weekly in 1923—received more attention than it had previously and he was offered a job working for Melbourne Punch; where he met the poet Kenneth Slessor, who was chief sub-editor there. Slessor recalled: He was black and white artist, whom I first met in Melbourne in 1925. We became friends then. I liked his mad Irish humour and his mad Irish rages. We did talk about blowing up the world. I really didn’t want to blow up the world, but he was quite serious about it. We little realised, of course, that it wouldn’t be long before men did devise means of blowing up the world.
Slessor was married and living with his wife Noela in South Yarra; but Joe Lynch was a single man who had lodgings, as was common in those days, in a boarding house. Slessor continues: In his bedroom Joe found a battered, morocco-bound notebook, apparently the relic of some unknown lodger, and gave it to me for scribbling. It contained some pages of manuscript notes written by the lodger (or Joe) which, of course, I had really no right to see. One of these entries is reproduced literally in ‘Five Bells’. Its misspellings (‘photoes’ ‘differant’, ‘curioes’) give it, I think, a peculiarly haunting and convincing flavour.
When Punch merged with Table Talk, Joe returned to Sydney, took a job at Smith’s Weekly and moved back into the house in Gladesville. In 1927 Slessor also came back to Sydney and began working at Smith’s Weekly; he resumed carousing with Joe and the others. One of their drinking places was in Moorebank, at the Riverside vineyard owned by poet Harley Matthews, an old workmate of Slessor’s at The Sun. Matthews had fought in the Great War and, like Joe Lynch, stood as a model for a statue, by Jacob Epstein, of a typical soldier. Joe Lynch and Ken Slessor would take a train to Liverpool and a taxi to Riverside; but one rainy night they could not find a cab so walked five miles down unsealed roads in a lightning storm until they arrived, hours later, wet and thirsty, at the vineyard. This, too, is recalled in Five Bells.
Jack Lindsay knew the Lynch brothers. Joe, he said, was a looser and wilder version of Guy; who had an Irish-Australian face, rough and tough and of the wildwood, yet sensitive. Jack’s brother Philip wrote that Joe was a giant, lean and powerful, with red upstanding hair, and the most amiable of grins: but once he had fallen down, a habit he had when very drunk, he would lie contentedly on his back with a gentle smile and grin up at you while you tugged at shoulders, arms and legs, and he softly explained that the whole police force with an elephant to help couldn’t shift him an inch; and I’m afraid he was right.A splendid fellow, Joe, who was to disappear from life magnificently.
On April 27, 1927 Guy, now thirty-two, married Marjorie Cush, a twenty-seven-year-old secretary, in St Francis’ Catholic Church, Paddington. She was one of eleven children of John and Elizabeth Cush, farmers, of Tamworth. Marge, known as Madge, moved into the house at Western Crescent, Gladesville, with the rest of the Lynch clan; and the incessant and always good-humoured carousing continued; but only for a time. Just a few weeks later, Joe Lynch was dead.
Lindsay Foyle: there were few Saturday nights when there was not a party at George Finey’s home in Mosman. They were usually a bit of a free-for-all, attended by cartoonists, writers and other people looking to enjoy themselves. Word went out that there would be a party at Finey’s on May 14, 1927. It was on Joe’s agenda that morning as he readied for work. It might have been a Saturday, but office protocol required him to dress in a suit when going in to Smith’s Weekly. It was about two kilometres along a quiet track to Looking Glass Point where he caught the ferry into the city and the office.
After he finished work he put on an old overcoat he had in the office, and walked down to Circular Quay. The Harbour Bridge was still being built and there were a number of pubs in the area where people could meet while waiting for a ferry to take them across the harbour. When Joe arrived there were already several other cartoonists and a few journalists at the bar of the Ship Inn. Guy and his new bride Marge were there drinking with Frank Clancy, a journalist who worked on the Labor Daily.
Clancy and Joe were mates and shared an extensive knowledge of world literature and art. Joe also knew Clancy’s sisters Abbey and Patricia and there were suggestions of a romantic connection between Pat and Joe. Clancy and Joe also held strong political views, leaning to the left. All of this would have fitted well with Joe’s views and his talk of wanting to blow up the world. Everyone set off for the 7.45 p.m. ferry, Kiandra, bound for Mosman. Loaded with bottles of grog as they crowded on board. Guy and Marge sat outside. Joe and Clancy stood opposite leaning against the rail. Near Fort Denison, Joe just disappeared over the side.
Philip Lindsay wrote: I shall never forget the night of his death, for I was working late, seeing a newspaper to bed, when a drunken pal, Frank, staggered, weeping, into the office to announce the tragedy. Joe had been off to some North Shore party with Frank when, tiring of the slow progress of the ferry—or perhaps of life itself—he had sprung up, saying that he’d swim there quicker, and, fully dressed, dived overboard.A deckhand had leaped in after him, and lifebelts had been thrown. They saw Joe, Frank said, wave cheerfully and strike out for Milsons Point; then he had vanished in the moon light. Perhaps a shark got him, or a mermaid—as some said—or the load of bottles in his greasy old raincoat tugged him to the fishes: no one can tell, for the body was never found.
Guy went to pieces after Joe’s death. He used to walk around the foreshore at the Botanical Gardens, looking out to the harbour as if seeking his brother there. Guy’s home life also changed. His sister Patricia returned to New Zealand to live; his father, going blind, was admitted to the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Randwick; his mother went to take care of him. The house was sold and in 1929 Guy and Marge sailed for London, where they lived for the next ten years. Guy studied under Benjamin Clemens at the Royal College of Art; he exhibited at the Royal Academy and, in Paris, completed a bust of General Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli.
Other works by Guy Lynch entered public collections: his 1938 London bust of Sir Isaac Isaacs, Chief Justice and the first Australian born Governor General, was bought in 1945 by the Commonwealth Government; one of the bronze panels, depicting Aboriginal life, on the doors of the State Library of New South Wales in Shakespeare Place, Sydney, is his work. He retired, in poor health, to a poultry farm in Picton in 1950 and died there in 1967; ten years later, in 1977, his widow fulfilled his dying wish and paid for The Satyr to be cast in bronze. It was placed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, near the Opera House gate, where it still stands, looking out over the waters where Joe drowned.
George Finey was hired, and fired, from almost every publication that, in Sydney between the wars, published black and white art—usually for refusing to draw something not in accord with his own ideas. In 1935 he held a one man show of collages at the David Jones gallery, self-described as the first exhibition of modern art in Australia. His accomplished and beautiful flower paintings were exhibited in Japan after the war, and his series of three dimensional paintings of composers toured to London and New York in 1962. He was given a retrospective at the Sydney Opera House in 1978—The Last of the Bohemians—and continued to make art until his death in the Blue Mountains in 1987.
Both Unk White and Noel Cook went on to have long and successful careers as graphic artists—Unk in Australia, Cook, internationally. Unk became, as Finey had been, a war artist during World War Two, travelling in the Pacific and to Japan. After the war he visited London, Paris, Spain and South America; and remained staunch in his commitment to left-wing causes. Unk White was among those who came to the defence of Albert Namatjira when the Arrente artist was imprisoned for alcohol related offences in 1959. He was a fine water colour artist and continued to paint until his death in 1986.
Noel Cook moved to London in 1950 and spent the next twenty years freelancing on Fleet Street; he, alone among his cohort, was given a New Zealand retrospective—at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1979, two years before his death in 1981. He is revered by practitioners as a forerunner of comic book art; Cook, with his strip Peter and the other Roaming Folk, drawn for the Australian Sunday Times in 1924, made one of the earliest examples of a science fiction comic. The strip features fantastic planetary adventures on Venus, Mars, the Asteroids, Jupiter, Saturn and in the outer reaches of the Solar System.
Joe Lynch survives in a different way. It took another decade, more or less, but his accidental drowning, if that’s what it was, in Sydney Harbour was the occasion for Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells: a primary work of Australian modernism and an ur-text for much of what has followed; which was mined for its reverberations and its innovations: Miroslav Bukovsky’s Five Bells Suite; Allan Browne’s Australian Jazz Band’s eponymous composition; composer Peter Sculthorpe’s Between Five Bells; the painting and the mural (in the Sydney Opera House) by John Olsen; Gail Jones’ 2011 novel, Five Bells.
Joe Lynch has also been memorialised by New Zealand poet Michele Leggott:
the digger and the faun
Joe Lynch is that you the untidy
soldier above the eighty six names
of those who didn’t come back you’ve
removed your hat you stare down
the road to where the Kea is embarking
another load of partygoers for the city
Joe Lynch your blue eyes are entirely notional
but he hears the quartermaster’s whistle
and remembers the boats taking them off
under cover of darkness did he set you up
little brother a paid job after the war
before you ran for the Sydney boat
the mad Lynches leaving town together
it wasn’t the first time and maybe
he wanted the face of a returned man
up there on the stone that faces
the harbour you were both on the turps
in King Street by the time they unveiled it
celebrating another adventure with
the art-loving public goatfoot dancer
redheaded slinger of mud and one-liners
Joe Lynch you roaring Dionysian quiet
in bronze above another harbour watching
the ferries plug around the point they said
you jumped off because the Kiandra was slow
and the bottles in your pockets heavy
they said you wanted to get to the party
Joe Lynch is that you digger and faun
watching each other across the dark water
That final image—digger and faun / watching each otheracross the dark water—is a potent one, especially when you consider that the dark water may be seen as both the Tasman Sea and the shared unconscious, now neglected, of the countries that lie on its either shore. It suggests, further, that the drowned Joe Lynch, who took his promise as an artist with him to the bottom, has somehow become part of that shared, abjured, unconscious. Joe Lynch’s eschatological anarchism, his desire to blow up the world, makes a haunting subtext: he destroyed himself but in that destruction the lineaments of a world were also lost. Or found.
For the Lynch family, it was easy to move back and forth between the two countries bordering the Tasman: from Melbourne to Auckland in 1907, when the boys were fourteen and twelve respectively; from Auckland to Sydney fifteen years later, when both were in their twenties. Since the 1920s, however, movement between the two countries has been more commonly one way, as Australian cities, and especially Sydney and Melbourne, are increasingly seen as metropolises and their New Zealand counterparts, relatively speaking, provincial outposts. Now, with the turn of a new century, there are formal restrictions upon trans-Tasman travel, and upon the rights citizens of one country may lay claim to in the other.
Questions remain: was something lost in the dissolution of that putative Tasman world? Is the present divide between the two countries, which can seem like two halves of a forgotten whole, a necessary or permanent condition? Or, to put it another way, could there be advantages to a closer relationship, especially between the literary and artistic communities in the two countries? It isn’t possible to answer these questions here—I suggest the appropriate responses are, respectively, yes, no, and yes—but I can testify something from personal experience.
I came to Australia from New Zealand in 1981, in the wake of a mass exodus of rock musicians from Auckland; and have lived in or near Sydney ever since. I was intending to work as a screenwriter; but from about 1990 have been primarily a writer of books, which have been published on both sides of the Tasman. Curiously, while my Australian books find an audience in New Zealand, the books I have published in New Zealand are not read in Australia. Recently I was described, after more than thirty years residence here, as a New Zealand writer living in Australia. I became a citizen in 1989.
How bizarre. If I had come to Sydney from, say, Launceston, near where my Scottish ancestors first settled in the Antipodes, this would not be the case; even though, for many mainland Australians, Tasmania is remote as New Zealand. Like any writer, I want my work to be seen whole and as itself, not something that can be assigned a specific nationality, or an illusory patriotic provenance. With one major exception—a book about Australia mostly written in New Zealand—everything I have published since 1981 has been written in Australia; but that hasn’t prevented some of it being consigned to the outer darkness of that other jurisdiction across the sea.
Of course the ignorance cuts both ways: very little is known in New Zealand about Australian writers; such ignorance is not just astonishing, it’s perverse. I was once asked to recommend an Australian writer who might be invited to a literary festival in New Zealand and suggested Roger McDonald. He had just published The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006), which includes an excoriating portrait of one of New Zealand’s (sentimental) founding fathers, Samuel Marsden. And, a dozen or so years earlier, he’d written Shearer’s Motel (1992), about his travels outback with a group of Maori shearers who were local to the area where the festival was being held. The festival organisers, who were up to date with events in London and New York, had heard neither of him nor of his books.
The same may be true with respect to artists. Guy and Joe Lynch, George Finey, Unk White—though not Noel Cook—are more or less unknown in their country of origin; whereas, if they had made a mark in the United States or, as Cook did, in the United Kingdom, it is quite possible that New Zealand, in its parochial fashion, would claim them as its own. New Zealanders who choose to live in Australia, as these artists did, are paid in peculiar coin: over-looked in their country of origin because they didn’t go far enough away; treated, in their country of residence, with a casual indulgence that is close to disrespect. Blindness to their work, in both places, is their reward.
This is not necessarily a disadvantage. It might be, as in the case of an artist as eccentric and various as George Finey, a guarantee of a freedom from restraints of all kinds. It might stimulate that strangeness which has future value. Sometimes my work seems to me, in its dislocation and alienation, its peculiarity, like something written in that battered, morocco-bound notebook Joe Lynch found in the boarding house in North Melbourne. Something, perhaps, conceived in a country out of a Borges fable, somewhere that once existed but does not anymore; a place that might in the future return and astonish us all.
In Five Bells Slessor wrote:
I thought of what you’d written in faint ink, Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind With other things you left, all without use, All without meaning now, except a sign That someone had been living who now was dead: “At Labassa. Room 6 x 8 On top of the tower; because of this, very dark And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed Into this room—500 books all shapes And colours, dealt across the floor And over sills and on the laps of chairs; Guns, photoes of many differant things And differant curioes that I obtained . . .”
Which might remind us that Melbourne (which he never visited) is where painter Giorgio de Chirico’s exceedingly odd novel Hebdomeros begins. And the theatre for the invention of the incomparable works of the hoax poet Ernest Lalor Malley. And the epicentre of Gerald Murnane’s dystopic prose excursions. These recall other anomalies: for instance, the information that Alfred Hitchcock, visiting Wellington, New Zealand sometime before 1964, there encountered the image—of an ocean liner somehow moored, not on harbour waters, but at the end of a suburban street—that defines the disquieting anomie of his film Marnie.
Sometimes I think that a restored Tasman world, if such a thing were possible, would show us wonders that might rival these: a once and future country as various and as strange as the Great South Land which haunted European dreamers before any navigator sailed here. That world might resemble the room of which Slessor wrote—if Joe Lynch did not write it for him—into which everything has been stowed: guns, photos, curios, many differant things; and the five hundred books we have not read, perhaps because no-one has yet worked out how to write them. To do so we may have to remember again what it is to set foot, as if for the first time, on Tasman shores.
Auckland War Memorial Cenotaph Record: Frank Guy Lynch; Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland
Auckland War Memorial Cenotaph Record: Joseph Young Lynch; Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland
The other evening a moth flew into the house. Through the back door. It was a sultry night and we had been out there smoking the last of the dope. We didn’t mind that it was running out. What we do, when we get any, is smoke until it’s gone. Then we wait until some more turns up. That can take weeks or even months. Anyway, the moth. It wasn’t like any I’ve seen before. It was large and dark, with triangular wings and a body shaped like a zeppelin. It made me think of an image I saw recently of a moth that looks like a tarantula: which folded its wings above like this one did, not flat like most moths do. Pretty sure it wasn’t one of those, however, they are an American species. I managed to catch it in my hands but as I went to put it out the back again, in an attempt to push down the handle of the screen door with my clasped hands, it saw a gap and escaped and flew back inside. I found it clinging to the wall behind the half-moon-shaped Afghani lamp that sits on the wine rack next to the corridor that leads down to the bathroom. To catch it again I would have had to have moved the lamp and I didn’t feel like doing that. I was stoned, after all. Also I’ve heard you can damage a moth’s wings if you handle them roughly. The dust comes off them. Not dust, actually, but tiny scales that are modified hairs; they are pigmented but they also diffract light through a complex structure of ribs and holes. Anyway, I left it where it was and we got on with finishing off the dope. When we went to bed it was still clinging there.
I forgot to look for it next morning and when I did it had gone. No idea where. It wasn’t on the floor, nor was it behind or underneath the wine rack; though I suppose it could be somewhere among the bottles. Its disappearance reminded of something I’d forgotten. In 1983, when I lived in Glebe, a beautiful carpet moth appeared in my unit. It spread its tapestried wings, with glowing red eyes, on a white wall next to an art work a friend had given me, as if making an aesthetic statement. It too disappeared; but for years afterwards, wherever I was living, around about the same time of year another one would appear, stay a few days and then go again. I can think of half a dozen different places, over a period of about fifteen years, where that moth, or one just like it, appeared. The last incarnation was at Pearl Beach and that had raggedy wings, with tears and perforations and places where the dust had rubbed off. I’m not suggesting it was the same moth every time; how could it have been? I did think I might have been carrying moth spawn around with me as I moved from place to place. Either that, or random individuals were vectoring in upon me. That last moth, the raggedy one, turned up in the laundry underneath the house at Cornelian Road about twenty years ago now and I haven’t seen any since. I left a lot of things behind when I left Pearl Beach, including perhaps carpet moths.
Mayu has been working on a film of a performance piece she wrote some time ago and didn’t finish. She meant to, it did the rounds on the conference circuit, but other things intervened and she never had the opportunity. Then a commission arrived, serendipitously, from a university in Osaka, along with a fee large enough for her to be able to employ a cinematographer, a film editor and a script consultant. ‘Film editor’ is not quite right because she does the editing herself; but he has technical knowledge she lacks and thus takes on an advisory role. The working title is You’ve mistaken me for a butterfly and the film concerns events that took place near the remote town of Butterfly on the Western Australian goldfields in 1898. There was a court case and the transcript survived: the trial of three men accusing of raping a Japanese woman, Okin, who worked in a laundry in Malcolm. I haven’t seen it yet but it seems to be about the indeterminacy of fact. Anyway, the other day, when we were talking about it, she said there are difficulties working on a rape case with three men: not the men in the trial transcript, of course, but the script guy, the cinematographer and the editor. She said: One of the things that I can’t really get across to them is that Okin wasn’t actually a butterfly, she was a moth. She was talking about the supernal qualities of moths. Butterflies are evanescent, perhaps frivolous, light anyway, creatures of an hour or a day, fluttering by. While moths inhabit the velvety darkness of night, like sex, and seem able to appear and disappear at will, even over years. Or centuries.
The morning sun, rising behind his camp, washed the peaks of the low old hills on the far side of the lake in a weak yellow light. He watched them turning gold as he made himself breakfast. It was always the same―vitamin biscuits, reconstituted fruit juice, something resembling coffee―and took hardly any time at all.
Then he got dressed. Boots, hat, mask, goggles, apron; water bottle, pick, hammer, specimen bag. Once that was done he went out into a day like every other. Blue sky above, brown land below. The salt pans shimmering in the heat. The gems he sought carbuncled in the earth.
Like wounds, he thought, only wounds that were yet to be made. He was the one who made them, bearing away, as it were, the treasure of the earth’s blood. Leaving scars behind. For the inscrutable purposes of his masters.
Some days the mountains looked far away, some days not. Today they seemed near enough to touch. He had not ever gone there. As if there were some interdiction against it. They were distant as the green world he thought he sometimes remembered; in the same way that he sometimes thought he remembered his dreams.
More troubling: the transport was overdue. The heap of jewels higher now than the heap of food. They took the one and replenished the other but not yet this cycle. Or had he lost track of time?
Well of course he had. He always did. His only markers those two piles, one diminishing, the other rising. And what about the water? Would he have to dig up the emergency supply? He’d never had to do that before.
And then, as he walked on into the shimmering heat, heading south west towards an outcrop he’d found yesterday, the richest for a while, there came a flash, a boom, the scream of engines on the hot air.
He looked up in time to see a triangle of shining metal splitting the sky in two then disappearing behind him, back the way he had come. Something not seen before. In all the weeks and months he had been here.
He turned and watched as the broken sky knitted itself together like the twin lips of the flesh of an incision. The vapour trails ballooning out like intestines. The boom, reverberating, echoing, fading.
There was nothing he could do. He continued on, trudged across the alkali flats, the salt pans, through which outcrops of gem-bearing rock upthrust, looking at once miniature and enormous.
He’d been here so long he’d forgotten what he’d done. Some insubordination, perhaps; some willful act; maybe actual sabotage. Futile of course: the regime he’d escaped no less onerous than the existence he now endured.
The food no better either. The only real difference the lack of companions. And he didn’t know if he minded that either. They hadn’t given him a mirror, for instance, for which he was grateful. It meant he existed only on the inside of his mind.
The plane, or whatever it was, creased the sky again not long before, with his specimen bag full, he turned for home; if that was what it was.
Like a cockroach, he thought, he cared only for his appetites and the satisfaction of those appetites. But if he thought, he thought, was he not something other than a cockroach? Or, for that matter, an appetite?
Back at his camp, in the brown dirt before the entrance to the cave, lay a silver vessel. Ovoid, longer than his arm and in circumference rounder than the plumpness of his thigh. It was smooth and cool to the touch.
Heavy, too. He tried to pick it up, could not, had to roll it over to find out how it might be opened. There was no lock that he could see, no catch, handle, lever or trigger. Nothing. It lay on the earth like an egg.
He left it there while he went through his after work ritual. Unpacking the specimen bag of its ore, which he heaped upon the ground. Divesting himself of hat, goggles, mask, apron, boots.
The ore would have to be chipped away to release the jewels within. Something he did on the days when he didn’t fossick. Maybe tomorrow.
Lit the spirit stove, as always, to boil the water in which to soften the meat-like fibre which, along with vitamin biscuits, was his evening fare. The vacuum packed tissue that made up the vegetable part of his diet. The dried fruit. The nuts.
All this was done mechanically, without reflection, as on every other day before. It was only after the meal was cooked and eaten, while a violent red light blazed behind the mountains across the lake, that he returned to the vessel.
He bent down and placed one ear next to the smooth metal surface. It seemed to emit a low hum; so he knelt before it in the dust and placed two hands about it, one on either side. As if embracing a body.
Yes, there was a vibration within; but what that vibration meant he could not say. Machines, he knew about machines, they were an intrinsic part of the world he had been sent away from; but there were no machines here.
No creatures either: no animals, birds, insects. No plants. Nothing but the minerals he mined, the alkaline sands in which, like teeth in a jaw, the jewelled outcrops were set. And the obdurate sky where the first stars were beginning to shine.
This was not the world he had lived in before. The constellations were not those he had known in the old life. They used a different vocabulary. A different grammar. He had given them new names.
Their study, pursued nightly, with a fidelity and a passion that was like fury, was his only entertainment. His sole diversion. The one thing, you might say, that kept him alive.
Every evening he sat before the cave mouth and recited the mantra of the sky. The rising and setting of the stars, the coming and going of the bulbous moons which pursued each other from horizon to horizon.
The meteorites, which were common, and the comets, which were not. The wanderers, as he called them, which came and went at periods he understood only intuitively. Their colours: red, yellow, blue. And any of the combinations thereof.
When the cold rose up from the ground and it was time for him to go in, he passed his hands over the strange object one more time, feeling its vibrations, before crawling into the cave and curling up on his side to sleep.
He was sitting out the front next morning pulverising ore-bodies in order to extract from them fragments of the corundum when he heard the vessel whirr into life. The sound accelerated to a high-pitched whine and then crescendoed, there was a click and a lid opened up on the top of the thing.
With a hiss of hydraulics it bent back along its hinges, revealing an inside. He half expected some kind of gantry to erect itself, perhaps bearing a weapon; but nothing did, so he stood up and went over and looked inside.
There were two compartments, both full―of what? He felt his heartbeat quicken as he saw packages of what looked like supplies, food perhaps, in one. And in the other what were clearly liquids.
He emptied both repositories―it was food, but not of a kind he knew; the drink was exotic too―and saw a graphic in raised relief at their bases. The pictured articles were piles of gems of the kind he spent his days mining. They glinted redly.
It must be one of two things, he thought: a rival bid for the fruits of his labour; or an alteration in the means by which he supplied, and was in turn supplied by, his masters. But which? And how was he to know?
His life so tedious, so uniform, the presence of an actual dilemma made his head spin. This wasn’t something he could get wrong. His whole existence, dull as it might be, might be at stake.
The vessel, he reasoned, which must have come from the craft he’d seen yesterday, operated remotely. On a timer perhaps. How was it to be retrieved? Remotely, too? Did it fly? Or would the craft return?
He jammed the lid open with chunks of ore, to prevent it going away before he was ready. But what if they came ‘in person’, like the others did?
In the case of his regular visitors, ‘in person’ meant ‘in robot’. And you couldn’t argue with robots. He’d tried once. The wounds they inflicted as they kicked him aside had taken weeks to heal.
And the jewels? He used to know what they were for but could not now remember. Not for personal adornment, he felt sure, nor for their value, monetary or otherwise. They were for machines of some kind. Their hardness, the way they did not wear down. Their metaphysical and metapsychical properties.
He looked at his stockpile and then at the compartments in the vessel. He didn’t have enough. How long until he did? Not that it really mattered. However long it was, he would have to keep on working. Anyway it was the only thing he had to do. He took up his hammer and started breaking rocks again.
He worked for days, fossicking for ore and hammering gems out of the matrix, until he’d assembled enough to fill both compartments in the vessel; then loaded it up and closed the lid. Sat there looking at it, as if expecting it to rise up immediately into the air and fly away.
He did not know how long it had taken him. A lifetime perhaps. He felt weary, as if something was ending. He looked at the supplies of food and drink that were left and tried to calculate how much time they might last. He didn’t think it would be very long and he didn’t care either.
He didn’t want to work anymore. Whatever the nature of the implied bargain that had kept him going all this time, whatever contract, assumed or actual, he was a party to, it was broken now.
He thought that when and if the vessel took off, or was retrieved, that would be the last he would see of it. He thought he was abandoned now of all hope, and of all supervision too. He thought that he was free.
He put as much as he could carry of the remaining food and drink into his backpack and cached the rest in the rear of his cave. Then he dressed in his work gear, shouldered his burden, and set off across the dry lake towards the mountains in the distance.
He was still out there, a small black figure toiling across the hallucinatory whiteness of a salt pan, when the aircraft split the sky with its noise again. He looked up, unsurprised, and then he went on.
The mountains did not look any nearer than they had before but he had a clearer view of them now. He could see traces of green in the valleys that fell from the peaks into the outcrops below.
He thought those black specks in the air might be birds.
Note: Adam Aitken invited me to join an eight day long poetry marathon, organized (I think) by Laura Hinton #PeetMeNotLeave. Since I don’t write poems I decided, instead, to take a photograph each day and then write a caption for each of them.
#1 Gymea Lily
A Gymea lily flowering inside the branches of a frangi pani tree, which has the tiny buds of its new leaves visible on the tips of those strange, otherwise bald stems. This is beside the entrance to a small park on Illawarra Road, one which hardly anyone visits; though I did see a glum man with two large glum dogs, one black, one white, sitting there the other day. The park has been built over some waste land next to one of the many canals that run through Marrickville, which used to be a swamp called Gumbramorra. I was surprised to see a Gymea lily here; they usually grow in light bush, at the margins or under a sparse canopy of eucalypts or paper barks. When we were visiting Big Sue up at One Mile a few weeks ago we saw hundreds of them flowering in the bush around the caravan park where she and we were staying. You can eat them, the stems and the roots. I wonder if in fact they did grow here in Gumbramorra when it was still a swamp. If so, I think they would probably have been found on slightly higher ground, along one of the low ridges―like the one we live on―that run between the gullies where now the concrete drains go. Whoever made the park planted it with natives―there’s a banksia tree behind and on the other side of the entrance, a carpet of pig face with its pulpy leaves and purple, daisy like flowers. Pig face is often thought of as a weed and usually grows in the dunes behind beaches. You can eat it too.
When I walked around to the Bourke Street Bakery early this morning to buy a loaf of their seedy sourdough I was thinking about Shakespeare’s epitaph―’cursed be he who moves my bones’―because I’d just finished reading a biography of John Milton in which it is related how, a hundred years after he died, when the church in Cripplegate in whose graveyard he was buried was being renovated (by a brewer), his corpse was dug up and the parts exhibited by drunken Christians for coin and even (perhaps) his teeth were sold―as his daughters are reputed to have sold his books to the Dunghill women. Who knows. Anyway, as I was leaving the bakery I saw a triple line of glass bricks, low down, set into the side wall of the building opposite and went over to photograph them. Just as I finished the woman who had been ahead of me in the bakery crossed the road and went up the front steps to the building with her cup of takeaway coffee. She was about forty, slender, dressed all in black and wore a slightly mocking smile, a la Emma Peel, on her lips. RIP Diana Rigg. I hadn’t paid much attention to that building before. It belongs to an outfit called Patient Handling™ and they supply devices for lifting, mobility and daily living aids, among other things. The Bourke Street Bakery started in 2004 in the street of that name in Surry Hills but can now be found at eleven locations across Sydney, including this one, which is actually in Mitchell Street. As I walked back home with my loaf of fresh bread, I was thinking about the way street names proliferate across the city and indeed across the land. How many Bourke Streets are there, and how many Mitchells? Hundreds, certainly. Richard Bourke was Anglo-Irish, a cousin of Edmund Burke, in whose home he spent his vacations while young. He became an officer in the Grenadier Guards and took part in the siege and storming of Montevideo in 1807 as well as in the Peninsular War. He had his jaw nearly blown off in Holland. As a colonial official he was in Malta and in South Africa before becoming Governor of New South Wales in 1831. A Whig and an emancipist, he attempted to reform the system of government, the judiciary, the education department; which didn’t prevent him, in 1835, issuing through the Colonial Office a proclamation implementing the doctrine of terra nullius, under which no Indigenous Australian could sell or assign land, nor any individual acquire it, other than through distribution by the Crown. As for Thomas Mitchell, he was an irascible Scotsman, another army officer who, like Bourke, served in the Peninsular War. Mitchell was Surveyor General of NSW from 1828 until his death in 1855. He made four expeditions inland, ‘opening up the country for settlement’. Like Bourke, too, he was liberal in his orientation; but a hard man nevertheless. There were massacres. He was the last person in Australia, in 1851, to challenge anyone to a duel, after a man called Donaldson criticised excessive spending in his department. Both men shot wide. The only Les Murray poem I can reliably quote from is his sonnet ‘The Mitchells’ which somehow tries to claim for the clan an ubiquity which might well be attested by the prevalence of streets named after them. It concludes: ‘Nearly everything / they say is ritual. Sometimes the scene is an avenue.’ None of this has anything to do with the milky depths and dark reflections in the glass bricks at Patient Handling™; or does it?
Up at the end of our street there’s a sports field where they play rugby league and AFL, and in summer (I hope), cricket. A lot of people walk their dogs there too, because the gates stay open almost all of the time. I say gates: there are three, one from Sydenham Road, one from Centennial Road, and the one at the end of our street. The ground itself is a deep bowl in the earth and the first time we saw it, at night, last year, both of us gasped: not just at the grandeur of the basin, the grandeur of the sky above, which seemed both to echo and to amplify. In fact the park used to a brick pit, out of which clay was scooped, taken down to the works at St. Peters (now Sydney Park) and baked; then used to make houses much like this one in which we live. After the clay was exhausted this pit, and others like it, were just left as holes in the ground; which filled up with water and were used as swimming pools by local kids. But there were too many drownings, for instance when someone who could not swim or could not swim very well, fell in, and was unable to climb back up the slope of the slippery sides. After nine boys died Council was persuaded to buy and re-purpose this one. It was made into a park using the labour of unemployed men during the Depression and opened in September 1933 with a cricket match in which Don Bradman, representing North Sydney, played against a local Marrickville Eleven. Guess who won? The park was the velodrome where cycling events were held during the 1938 Empire Games and it was said that on one occasion during those Games, perhaps at the Opening or the Closing Ceremony, perhaps during a bike race, 40,000 people were in attendance. Since the velodrome was disestablished, it’s been the home of the legendary Blue Bags aka the Newtown Jets and it still is. The two other gates have names but our one does not. What it does have, however, is a pub at the other end of the street. The photograph of these two blue doors is taken from inside of the ground, looking out. There are eight of these doors, four on either side of the arch, all painted that startling blue colour. If you were to open them up you would find within a rusting turnstile, because this is the way in which in the old days paying customers came into the ground to watch a game. I’ve not seen them open yet and suspect they aren’t used anymore. I’ve photographed them several times before, but never with a nest of yellow daisies like that one growing at the foot of the door on the right.
These tiled steps lead up to the front door of a house in Victoria Road near Marrickville Metro. There’s usually a line of taxis parked opposite, as there were today, with the mostly Arabic speaking drivers talking and laughing with each other while they wait for someone to come out with their shopping and hire a ride home. No-one took any notice of me as I crossed over and lined up the shot but I felt conspicuous anyway, as I always do, because who am I to be taking photographs of other people’s houses? Isn’t that a bit dubious? No-one’s ever challenged me and yet I continue to feel like an interloper or perhaps even a voyeur. It’s the same when photographing people’s windows, which I also sometimes do. In fact that seems worse because while tiles only reflect back the light, when you’re photographing windows, you might actually also capture something of the inside of the house. Which is never my intention, but still. Yesterday when I was walking up Holmesdale Street I crossed the road intending to re-photograph a set of very beautiful stained glass windows for perhaps the third or fourth time. For some reason I haven’t been able to get a shot of them that I like enough to post, perhaps because the house faces east and I’ve only ever gone there in the afternoon, when the sun is setting, and the windows are effectively in shadow. Anyway, these particular windows have lace curtains behind them, making the image even more complex and therefore more desirable. It must be someone’s sitting room and I did once see the old couple who live there, memorably, not long after the lockdown began, sitting in the deep veranda of their house, with a woman I took to be their daughter in between. It was a desolate scene. An old woman, looking completely bewildered, on the right; an old man, head in hands, desperate, on the left; between them, a blonde woman in her fifties. What made it so startling was that the man’s pose mimicked that of the sitter in Van Gogh’s 1890 painting ‘Worn Out: At Eternity’s Gate’. Anyway, yesterday, as I crossed Holmesdale hoping to get the photograph, the two women I’ve described above came out the front door and down the path to the gate, looking not in the least bit desolate, cheerful rather. Of course I didn’t take the photo. Today, however, on Victoria Road, I did, remembering as I waiting for the shutter to click (I have the camera set on a five second delay) that the house next door to this one has the same tiles but only two steps; as does the next one down, with only one step. It’s difficult to find out much about the history of these tiles, which are ubiquitous in this part of town, giving these modest brick houses an air of luxury, as if even the most ordinary of dwellings may still repose in quiet, jewelled splendour.
About midday, when the rain stopped, I went for a walk. The puddle at the gate into Henson Park was so large it extended across the entire entrance; behind it was a sign standing on the grass; and next to that a thin bloke in shades and a blue shirt sitting on a plastic chair. He said I had to scan myself in using the camera on my phone to register with the QR code on the sign; but my phone wouldn’t do it. He didn’t seem too concerned. Not all of them work, he said. I’m only going for a walk, I said. There was a game of AFL on. Way down at the bottom of the bowl, the figures of the men playing looked tiny, like ten year old boys; while the sounds they made, amplified by the remarkable acoustics of the ground, seemed enormous. All the way from grunts and groans to shouts and oaths to high-pitched hysterical pleas or exhortations. I wondered, not for the first time, what the noise on a battlefield during hand to hand combat was like. The crowd too was vociferous even though there didn’t seem to be that many people there. When one of the teams scored, those watching from inside their cars honked their horns. I think they were university teams. There was a pavilion near the grandstand with the logo of the University of New South Wales upon it. Anyway the game finished while I was making my circumambulation and I saw the men of the two teams close up: big hairy guys, even though they were wearing tight little boy shorts and shirts. Some teenage girls came out of the grandstand, one of them doing spontaneous dance steps, which her friends admired. I’d already taken some photos of the sun and the mobile phone tower reflected in the puddle near the utilities block and felt relieved because I was pretty sure one or other of them would be okay to post. After all this is a challenge. Most of them were focused upon the reflection of the tower but one was focused upon the sun; and that’s the one I’ve chosen. Taking pictures of pools on the ground always reminds me of the painter William Robinson, whose ‘Creation Landscape’ series from the 1990s came about (at least partly) because of his habit of walking out at night after rain with a lantern and peering into puddles. This was, I think, when he was living on a farm near the Queensland border with New South Wales. Not so long ago someone said to me, with an unnecessary degree of belligerence, that my photos aren’t works of art, they’re just snaps. I didn’t reply, partly because I didn’t want to get into an argument but mainly because I agree with him. On the other hand someone else, a while longer ago, spent some time telling me I should get a decent camera because then my photos would look a lot better than they do. I resisted that suggestion too. I said this is a casual pleasure, something I enjoy doing, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it by starting to take myself too seriously. Ditto ditto to the art accusation.
Peace Lane runs from Broadleys Lane, just behind Marrickville Road, two blocks north to Sydenham Road. They are big blocks and the lane runs downhill for about two thirds of its length, until it reaches a drain, then flattens out to meet Sydenham Road (formerly called Swamp Road). The two adjoining streets are Illawarra Road, to the east, and Despointes Street, to the west. They are both residential streets and the sections the houses are built upon are long and narrow. Peace Lane is lined, on both sides, by the doors of garages; or by fences made of wood or brick or corrugated iron, enclosing back gardens; or by the entrances to home workshops. There was a young fellow the other day meticulously shaping a plank of wood using a saw at a bench and I stood and waited until he paused and saw me and took off his ear muffs and came over to see what I wanted. Do you make bookcases? I asked. He was polite and friendly. Yes, he said, I do. But I’m not taking orders at the moment. I’ve got two year’s work booked. Wow, I thought, two years, that’s a lot of bookings. I often walk down Peace Lane when I’m returning from the shops because it’s a rich source of images, whether of shadows sharply etched on black or blue or grey walls, the curious textures of home-concreted or home-bricked walls, the junk people reliably leave out there, day after day, the shapes of trees against the azure Sydney sky. There’s a family, or perhaps several families, of spotted doves which live there. Someone leaves a scatter of bread crumbs out on the pavement for them and there will sometimes be a dozen or so of them, including juveniles, pecking away. They are very shy and will whirr away into the air at the slightest provocation. There’s also a resident red wattle bird which, at this time of year, plunders the flowering bottle brush trees for their nectar. I often wonder why it’s called Peace Lane? Perhaps it has something to do with the end of some war or other, perhaps the Boer War, perhaps the First World War, which might have coincided with the laying out of these streets. Or something else entirely. Illawarra Road is called that because it was the highway south to the district where Wollongong is, in the old days usually just called The Illawarra. Despointes might have come from the Catholics, who built a Passionist church there, opposite the Police Station, in 1887. Or it could be named after the French admiral, the commander of the Oceanic Fleet, who annexed New Caledonia for France in 1853 and died on his ship during the siege of Petropavlovsk in the Crimean War. Of course I have my favourite walls along Peace Lane, like this one, which I’ve photographed again and again. But, really, how many times can you photograph a wall?
#7 The Ikea Song List
Every time I ask someone to build me some bookshelves, or if they know someone who could build me some bookshelves, they say: why don’t you go to Ikea? So today I went to Ikea. Much good it did me.
This was the playlist of my visit this morning, after which I came home and ordered what I wanted online:
In the underground carpark, crossing the road towards the underground entrance:
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2 (1987).
When they took down the barriers and let the zombie horde surge through into the strange labyrinth of virtual rooms:
Do You Really Want to Hurt Me – Culture Club (1982).
In the Home Office area:
Borderline (Feel like I’m going to lose my mind) – Madonna (1983).
In the Workplace section:
(Everybody’s got a) Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen (1980).
At the Check Out:
She Has To Be Loved – Jenny Morris (1989).
There was also this cute mock-up of a tiled fireplace in a simulacrum of a waiting room, I think it was, with a real person waiting.
#8 Self Portrait in a Cool Room Wall
This is the back wall of the cool room behind the bottle shop in the Henson Park Hotel, just over the road from here. I’d gone in to buy a can of Elsie The Milk Stout and noticed how the light of the setting sun struck the wall and made the tiles, too, light up. The floor in there is tiled as well. I sometimes wonder if this was always the bottle shop or if it’s been re-purposed in some way; probably the latter. They sell a variety of craft beers and an interesting selection of expensive wines; ones you don’t see in many other places. The hotel is owned by the Reilly Group, who bought what was described as ‘a rundown beer barn’ in 2013 and fixed it up. They also own the White Cockatoo Hotel in Railway Street, Petersham and the Sydney Park Hotel in King Street, Newtown: three pubs, said by a Reilly Group person, to be ‘our golden triangle’. That didn’t stop thirty-one of their employees taking the group to court for under-payment of wages a couple of years ago. The judgement, in February 2019, awarded the employees or, in most cases, former employees, over a hundred grand in lost or withheld payments. When I first moved in here someone said that, in the 1970s, you could buy any drug you liked over there. Someone else, in the same conversation, said, yeah, that’s true, but it was also true of any pub in Marrickville in those days. This one was built in 1935 by Tooth & Co. over the site of the old Town Hall Hotel, which was demolished to make way for it. The Town Hall, originally the Marrick, had stood on the corner of Chapel Street and Illawarra Road since the early 1860s. The original Marrickville Town Hall, now also demolished, was itself in built in Illawarra Road (I’m not sure where) in 1878, and that was why the name was changed from the Marrick. The intersection of Chapel Street and Illawarra Road was at the heart of the Marrickville Estate, subdivided 1855. A market garden grew over the road from the original building but I’m not sure exactly where that was either. Possibly right where this house and its neighbours stand. There’s quite a few old buildings extant around here, for instance the delicatessen opposite the pub on Chapel Street, now someone’s dwelling, the café opposite us, which used to be a fruit and vegetable shop, the old Orange Hall down the road a bit, now a car mechanic’s garage, the Greek Community Centre opposite that. In fact this was the business district until the tramways and then the railway were built and Marrickville Road became the new CBD. The Henson Park Hotel (‘an interesting blend of Inter war Functionalist and Inter war Art Deco styles’) is contemporary with the sports ground at the other end of our street and has for many years been the place where people go before and after a game on the weekend. They still do. Elsie The Milk Stout is made locally, by the Batch Brewing Co. in Sydenham Road and I thought it was pretty good. It’s nearly time for a drink again but today I’ll be having a Cooper’s Best Extra Stout, which in my opinion is superior to all of the other stouts I’ve tried this winter, with the possible exception of Philter’s Caribbean Stout, also made locally, but I seem to have drunk the Henson dry of that; though I think they may still have it on tap.
This is me after completing the eight day poetry marathon without writing or posting any poetry and without tagging anyone else either. I’m retiring now from the business of writing captions and perhaps also from the compulsion to post photographs . . . for a while, anyway.
The other day I found a leech in the garden. It was in the saucer under the pot in which the rosemary died after a fungus ate its roots during last summer’s dry. I’d put the pot out under the edge of the shelter over the washing line where the run off soaked into the dirt, causing a green slime to grow over the outside and a black grit to gather in the saucer. It was in this grit that I found the leech. It looked healthy enough but seemed sluggish; it didn’t have the brilliant gold ornaments along its sides like the ones I sometimes picked up at Pearl Beach. And it showed no inclination to suck my blood. I let it go inside another water logged pot down by the compost bin. Later I found a second one, dead, beneath the ex-rosemary pot’s saucer, is if the wet had drowned then dissolved it into amorphous tissue. I didn’t know leeches could drown.
There’s a small blueberry bush, covered in pink and cream flowers, growing next to where this pot stood. Last summer we did get one or two small sweet fruit from it but I imagine the birds ate the rest. Serendipitously, I associate blueberries with leeches because, one time when we were visiting the blueberry farm near Wamberal, where we used to go to pick our own, I took one of the boys down into a gully to go to the toilet; and while there we were attacked by leeches. Jesse screamed and ran (he was only four or five) and I had to run after him and catch him and pick the bloodsuckers off his legs. They have a toothed Y or V shaped mouth that suckers onto your flesh, then they inject an anaesthetic and a thinner into your blood; it takes some force to remove them. Later on that day, when we were in the car and driving away, I found one engorged, swollen like a tumour, between my toes.
Out on the path that runs down the side of the house, after rain, small slugs gather around the pale purple lilly pillies fallen from the myrtle hedge onto the concrete. Their mucous trails look like silvery webs. Or labyrinths at the heart of which lies a disintegrating fruit. It takes them days or even weeks to eat a single berry. First they gnaw away the skin, then they start upon the pulp and, after that, the seeds. Small creatures, they don’t need much. After the last spell of rain I found one dead, perhaps stranded when the path dried out. It was black and shriveled into a cigar-shaped crinkle of tissue. They are nocturnal and I haven’t seen one alive or feeding yet.
Today at my desk, after our swim, I felt something crawling on the back of my neck and brushed it away. Some kind of bug. Later, in the sitting room, reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad from the point of view of Briseis and the Trojan women, I felt it again. That involuntary shudder you experience upon discovering the presence of an unknown creature upon your skin. I flicked it away and it fell onto the rug. It was a ladybird. Very beautiful, burnished gold and black, one gossamer membrane protruding from beneath the carapace over its wings. It was still alive, maybe even undamaged. I let it go in the spinach in the pot on the deck outside. Whether it was the same one that was in my study, or another, I do not know.
Back in February, after I came back from Japan, there was a deluge that lasted several days. It was the heaviest rain on record―since the last time. I did look it up but cannot now remember when that was. A hundred years ago maybe. Suffice to say this is an event which happens periodically and will, I hope, continue to do so. During this storm I realised that our house, which we’d bought only a couple of months previously, in the midst of Black Summer, with the smoke of hundreds of bushfires turning the air orange-yellow, is built upon the northern slope of a slight rise; so that it, and the back lawn too, tends downhill. As did the rain, roaring on the roof, pouring through the gutters, flooding into the drains. The roof did leak, but not much; and the repairs we have made since then seem to have worked.
When the rain had stopped, and I was on my way down the side of the house to put the rubbish and the recycling into the bins, I encountered an animal. A rodent of some kind. Or a marsupial. Quite large. Brownish skin, golden along the ridge of the spine. A short, stumpy tail. A hunch in the back. It was foraging among the clippings left to rot on the ground the last time I cut the myrtle hedge. It hopped, unhurriedly, across the path and into an open grill that leads under the house. Just before it disappeared it paused and looked up at me with a bright incurious eye: as if to say, you live here too, do you?
Subsequently I went online to try to work out what this creature was. There are a few possibilities. One is that it’s a brown rat, aka the Norwegian rat, the wharf rat, the ship rat, the sewer rat. Another is that it’s a native, also a rodent, sometimes called the bush rat. They are nocturnal, however, and uncommon in urban areas; whereas this one was quite comfortable out in the broad daylight. The third possibility is that it’s some kind of marsupial. An antechinus is the best candidate. There are fifteen varieties of these, a dasyurid like quolls and Tasmanian Devils; the largest, the dusky antechinus, feeds mostly on insects and small reptiles but will eat fruits, seeds and so forth. It is diurnal and may come forth at any hour of the day.
I didn’t see one of them again for a while and when I did I still wasn’t sure what it was. One balmy autumn evening we were sitting outside and saw a couple of them scurrying along the top of the fence that divides this house from the one next door. They were smaller than the one upon the path, about half the size; with the same hunch in the back, the same stubby tail, the same hopping gait. Subsequently we saw more of them, even smaller, about the size of a mouse. I watched one through the window of the bedroom at the front of the house for quite a long time as it snuffled in the leaf litter under a gardenia bush. Again it was daylight and again it seemed entirely unafraid.
The people who sold us this house had two growing children and one or other of them kept pets in a wooden hutch out by the compost bin. Guinea pigs maybe; or rabbits. I don’t know. They took the hutch with them when they went, exposing an oblong patch of bare ground at the edge of the lawn. Over time, crumbs and seeds and other detritus had fallen through the cracks in the wood and birds came to feed upon it: noisy minas, Indian minas, spotted doves. There might have been a bit of competition between these three species; or it might have been that the minas, of both kinds, weren’t very interested in the food we started putting out. After a while, the patch was only visited, several times a day, by a pair of spotted doves; as it still is.
We bought a seed mix from the supermarket and soon noticed that the doves, although they devoured everything else, did not eat a long wheat-like grain that was included in the selection. The rat, however, or the antechinus, or whatever it is, did. Over a number of days in early winter we watched it come out from under the house near the washing line, hop across the lawn and then spend some time among the seeds, stuffing its cheeks with the grain. After that it would go back under the house, presumably to store its harvest, before returning for more. Sometimes there were brief confrontations with the spotted doves, who seemed, surprisingly, always to prevail.
Once when I saw this animal out there, it hid behind the compost bin. There is what looks like the entrance to a burrow back there in the soft earth next to the fence, and I wondered if that was where it had gone. I waited and watched and after a while it came around the side of the bin, saw me standing there, and disappeared again. A while later it came around the other side of the bin. Again it saw me and again retreated. I walked away. After that we stopped seeing it. Perhaps it had stored enough grain for the winter; or eaten enough to make hibernation possible; if it hibernates. I say ‘it’ but there’s clearly a family of them living under the house, the little mouse-like ones, the middle-sized ones we saw hopping along the fence, the big one I first saw out on the path.
The spotted dove, ubiquitous in Sydney, is not a native. They are an Asian bird, introduced to Melbourne in the 1860s, and flourishing along the east coast ever since. They are beautiful and shy, with a pale whitish-purple head, a pink breast, light brown back and wings, and a checkerboard pattern, white and black, on either side of the neck; which gives them their name. They call constantly from the trees, a distinctive coo-cor-cor which some people find irritating. Males and females look alike and when our pair started visiting, we spent some time learning to distinguish one from the other. The male, who always flew down first, had the whiter head; the smaller female, a purpler crown.
And then there was one. Without a point of comparison, it took us a while to work out it was the male who was still coming: partly because of the whiter head, partly because of a small pointy tuft at its throat, mostly because of the way he flirted with Mayu. When she was out there he would fly down, walk importantly across the lawn, hop onto the deck and start arching his back, spreading his tail and extending his wings in the way that male pigeons do when they are courting. Sometimes he showed her his cloaca. She responded by giving him more food and perhaps that was the point of the display. She’d talk to him too, and he grew accustomed to her voice. He likes it when she speaks Japanese. He sat on the fence for about ten minutes the other day, listening to her talking to a friend on the phone.
Of course we wondered what had happened to the female. Spotted doves are monogamous and they mate for life. There are cats around―next door has one and there’s another, a bold tabby, who visited a few times after we moved in. Was she dead? Did they ‘break up’? Or was she sitting on a nest somewhere? And then, just a week ago, she came back. Or another just like her. Smaller than he is, with a purpler head. Her reappearance coincided with a period during which the male called incessantly from inside the myrtle hedge, though I could never work out exactly where he was. Now they are gathering stalks of grass from the lawn, building a nest. Where this is I’m not sure either but it could be in the myrtle; or in the Geisha girl which is part of the same hedge.
Apparently their nests are so frail, so flimsily built, you can sometimes see the two white eggs they contain from underneath. Nevertheless, they must be robust enough, because their numbers keep on increasing. Halfway down Peace Lane, where I walk most days looking for photographs to take, there’s a cohort of a dozen or so; including several juveniles. Spotted doves breed all year round but do so most commonly between September and December. It’s the first day of spring next week. Perhaps by Christmas we’ll have a family of doves visiting the seed patch in our back yard.
When you buy property, you also buy an ecosystem. Or a fragment of an ecosystem. We are living over a portion of what was once a swamp, a piece of low-lying land with a creek running through it on its way to join the Cooks River, which then debouches into Botany Bay. Both swamp and creek were called Gumbramorra, a word whose meaning is obscure. The Dictionary of Sydney records: Gumbramorra Swamp consisted of marshland at the foot of the declining sandstone and shoal ridges, in a relatively narrow area surrounded by low hills. At the mouth of the Gumbramorra Creek were mudflats, which were also evident in the swamp itself. Behind these mudflats and mangroves was a salt marsh. These conditions supported abundant wildlife.
Local historian Sue Castrique wrote: Aunty Fran Bodkin is a Dharawal elder who grew up on her mother’s traditional land. She is a botanist, environmental scientist and educator who has an intense interest in plants and climate and works to bring together Dharawal knowledge and Western science. The swamp, she says, was a special place for the Bidigal clan. ‘We were the bitterwater peoples, the oyster eaters because we ate shellfish from the swamps. We were the swamp walkers. We drank the water from the rivers and swamps, not quite fresh water, and not quite salt water. One thing we knew was that where the reeds grow you can drink the water, at the base of the reeds.’
Aunty Fran grew up when there were still remnants of the swamp in what is now Marrickville, mostly near the river. There was so much edible stuff. Black shelled mussels, other shellfish, eels and the reeds with their sweet tubers. When Acacia binervia, the myall wattle, flowered, it meant the mullet were running in the river. We used the mud flats on the banks as skating rinks. It was the most beautiful mud, it was so slippery. We would run and jump on the mud and slide for metres after metres. We would come home and Mum would be at the gate with the hose. European settlers, however, avoided Gumbramorra. It was useful only for watering cattle or for digging up clay in order to make bricks.
All that changed during a drought in the early 1880s, when the swamp dried out, leaving bare flat clay beds behind. One Thomas Saywell drew up a plan for a new suburb, to be called Tramvale, and then sold the land to three Sydney businessmen, Mathias Bohrsmann, Henry French and William Shirlow, a tailor, a draper and a bootmaker, respectively. They increased the number of blocks to 160, added laneways to the rear of the rows of houses and put the estate on the market. The blocks were small, prices were low, terms were easy and a frenzy ensued. The buyers were labourers, cab drivers, railway workers and a large number of widows. Locals who lived nearby knew it flooded―they had seen it under water―but in 1882 it had been dry for three years.
Castrique continues: In 1889, after four days of torrential rain, Tramvale became a lake. The rain coincided with an exceptional tide, the highest for twenty years, and water rose rapidly. Women and shivering children were rescued by boat. Worse, once the houses dried off, they were coated in a greasy slick of sewage and tannery waste. In 1867, a huge tannery had been built on the headwaters of Gumbramorra Creek. It drew water for the tanning pits from the creek and then dumped its waste back into it. Rushes grew profusely in the nutrient-rich waters, trapping a soupy mix of animal scraps and leather particles that choked the watercourse. At the same time, sewage from newly-built houses in Stanmore and Newtown flowed into the valley, creating a black stinking mud whose smell was described as indescribable.
Subsequently, the Reverend Thomas Roseby, a Congregational minister, suggested the basin should be turned into a lake. There were precedents. Roseby had lived in Ballarat and knew Lake Wendouree, a natural wetland dammed during the gold rushes. Another example was Centennial Park, created from the Lachlan Swamp in 1887. How easily, wrote Roseby, the whole place might be turned into paradise. It was not to be. Instead, house building continued, incrementally, and the floods continued too. The first pumping station began to be built in 1898 and gradually, piecemeal, over many years, some degree of control over the flooding has been attained. The most vulnerable areas were rezoned and are given over to light industry.
Meanwhile the brick pits, emptied of their clay, filled up with water. They were used by local kids as swimming holes but had their own dangers: if a little one fell in, s/he might not be able to clamber back up the slippery slope. There were quite a few drownings; and so, in time, the pits were filled in and re-purposed. The one at the end of our street was made over into a velodrome that was used during the 1938 Empire Games. The opening ceremony was held there, with a crowd of about 40,000 attending. Henson Park is now a sports ground where rugby league, AFL and cricket are played; and, where, in all seasons, people walk themselves and their children and their dogs.
When I put a post up on Facebook about the rodent or marsupial or whatever it was I saw down the side of the house, my friend Ray, who lived here for many years but is now in Murwillumbah, wrote to say that the rats of Marrickville are legendary and have built networks of tunnels which go all the way back up to Circular Quay. He said their lineage is as impressive: if they are ship’s rats, they will have been here since the First Fleet arrived in 1789. Or, if one or two hopped off Cook’s ships in Botany Bay in 1770, even longer. And that’s to say nothing about earlier incursions by Dutch and Portuguese ships, all of which would also have had rats aboard.
When most people think of rats, they think of exterminators; but we are reluctant to poison whatever creatures we have living here; especially if they turn out to be natives. Even if they aren’t, it still doesn’t seem a good idea to leave toxic substances around in order to kill them. Hasn’t there been enough killing? What else might die? Anyway, if this whole suburb is rat-infested, with entrenched populations, after we poisoned ours, wouldn’t others move into the space they formerly occupied? Mayu’s friend Big Sue, when she was staying here, put it best: so long as they don’t come inside, they’re not really a problem.
We did have an exterminator come around after we moved in. Matt is big, steady, calm guy with a ponytail. He drives a Hilux with the number plate PRED8OR and lives out west, along the Hawkesbury River. After he laid baits outside of the house for cockroaches, and checked for signs of white ants, he stood chatting with us in the kitchen. It was December, 2019, at the height of the Black Summer bushfires. He told us his wife, a Darug woman, was having a children’s book, which she wrote and illustrated, published through Broome-based Magabala Books; and was contributing to mural designs for the new airport being built at Badgerys Creek.
He said his wife said that other indigenous people out west, from a different mob, reckoned the fires we were having recur in a 250 year cycle, meaning the last big burn had taken place around the time James Cook was sailing up the coast of eastern Australia in 1770. I remembered reading in his Journals about the smoaks of many fires seen burning upon the land. I’d always assumed he meant cooking fires but maybe they were bushfires. Who can say? I felt an obscure sense of reassurance in hearing about this long cycle of burning; along with residual guilt that I might thereby become one of those who denies the effects of global warming consequent upon human behaviour.
I was thinking about Matt because last night I saw a cockroach just above the sink on the kitchen wall. Blattodea. Oone of those big ones with a white stripe along the outside of their wings. I’ve always thought, on no good authority, that they are native. Garden cockroaches, we used to say. This one was immobile and stayed still while I trapped it under a glass, slid a postcard between the mouth of the glass and the wall, upended the glass then took it outside, where I let it go in the plants edging the lawn.
How did it get inside? Under the door perhaps. Nor do I know how the ants, which cluster in the kitchen, enter the house. Today I saw dozens of them gather around the twin power points on the wall next to the stove, for what purpose I am unsure. Most of them will end up dead, from a surefeit of electrons perhaps, a scatter of black upon the white bench below. The same fate awaits those which like to assemble around the hinges of the doors that close the pantry cupboard: what do they want? Glue? If so, why does it kill them?
A house, however solid it may seem, is actually a membrane made up of other membranes, all of them permeable. Especially one that’s more than a hundred years old, as this one is, and built over a swamp. Walls are one of their membranes and they too let things in. We are having the front bedroom resealed against rising damp: water overflowing from leaking gutters infiltrates the old, porous bricks, rises up and, having nowhere else to go, begins to ooze through the walls. Some mornings I found water pooled along the tops of the skirting boards; or lying puddled upon the wooden floor. Moisture seeps in the windows too. Sometimes when we woke up, the insides of the glass were dripping with condensation. It couldn’t have just been from our breath, there was too much of it.
Our own skin, which we also like to think of as impermeable, exudes water every time we sweat. What does it allow in? Now, in a time of plague, we are sensitized to the permeability of our bodies, the way tiny rogue fragments of DNA, called viruses, can make their way into our mouths or noses, past the skin of our throats, our trachea, our oesophagus, our lungs and into our blood, there to reproduce in our cells and then go on to invade other cells, and then, after they explode in an orgy of generation, the cells of others. Our bodies, too, are ecosystems.
I find the continuity between self and other reassuring rather than disturbing. I like the feeling of extension, and the implied interdependence of all things; as much as I like the continuity between built structures, like this house, and the living things with which it is surrounded and interpenetrated. I’m reassured in the same way by the discovery that some of the uneaten seeds we’ve been leaving out for the birds have germinated and are now covering the ground where the hutch once stood with green seedlings. I do not know what they are but that does not bother me. We will find out in time; or else we will not.
What pleases me just as much is that what I thought was a vertical branch of the lilly pilly growing over that corner of the garden is actually a camellia, now covered with pink and white flowers; which, as if blushing at the thought of their own beauty, bend their heads down over the ground. From this tree, now and again, a moon-coloured flower falls, to lie resplendent and rotting amongst the seedlings of whatever grass or grain is growing there. The doves too, pink and grey, look very elegant when they come down to feed on the seeds we leave out for them. As for the family of dusky antechinus, of that’s what they are, who knows? They are younger than us, and have been here for very much longer.
Before leaving Marseilles, there is the Rimbaud speculation to address. It’s been alleged that Joseph Conrad and Arthur Rimbaud met there in June, 1875, when Rimbaud—who had already completed the entirety of the literary writing for which he is known—sick, destitute, was repatriated from Italy to France. He had gone there to learn the language, was afflicted with sunstroke while walking between Siena and Leghorn—with a foot of dust in the road—was rescued by the French consul at Livorno, put up for two days at the Stella Hotel, given three francs and twenty centimes and found a berth on steamer heading for France. At Marseilles he disembarked and collapsed again.
After recuperating at the hospital he enlisted as a mercenary in the Carlist army, then trying to install the Duke of Madrid, Bourbon pretender Don Carlos María de los Dolores Juan Isidro José Francisco Quirico Antonio Miguel Gabriel Rafael, on the Spanish throne. Rimbaud signed up at the recruiting office in Marseilles, received a small amount of money and was given instructions as to how to join his regiment in Spain. The Carlists were about to suffer a series of bloody defeats. Instead of crossing the Pyrenees, Rimbaud went to the railway station and used the money to buy a ticket to Paris; which was probably always his intention. He had been in Marseilles a week.
Conrad, meanwhile, three years younger, not yet eighteen, had just returned from the first of his two voyages in the Mont-Blanc. He had embarked as a passenger, paying his way to Martinique, working the return passage as a member of the crew. When the Mont-Blanc again sailed for the Caribbean a few weeks later, he went in her as an apprentice seaman. There was just a week in June, between the 18th and the 25th, 1875, during which Rimbaud and Conrad were both in Marseilles and therefore might have met; however unlikely that may seem.
Some of the time Rimbaud was in hospital; signing up for the Carlist cause must have taken up at least another day. L’homme aux semelles de vent—the man with heels of wind—once he had money in his pocket might not have lingered long enough to satisfy hopeful literary speculations; which imagine some enchanted evening shared by the two voyants—one aspiring, the other defunct—in some Bohemian café in Le Vieux Port. As it happens, such a café existed and, while there is no evidence that either Conrad or Rimbaud went there, singly or together, it is possible that, for different reasons, both of them did.
Café Bodoul was in the Rue Saint-Ferréol, a few blocks back from the port. It was a meeting place for Carlists, which gives Rimbaud a reason to have gone there. Conrad was also a Carlist of a kind; but the Boudol had another attraction which might have drawn him there: the Cracow table. Cracow was the city from which he had to come to Marseilles. La table de Cracovie, based upon a Parisian institution, the Tree of Cracow (l’arbre de Cracovie), was a place where rumours gathered. There is a pun here: craque, a fib or a tall story, and Cracovie, the French name for the Polish city. At the Café Bodoul cracovistes gathered to improvise their confabulations, their improbable anecdotes, their erotic exaggerations. Duels sometimes eventuated from boasts made around the Cracow table.
Conrad’s friends in Marseilles included a sculptor, Frétigny; the journalist and future politician, Clovis Hughes; Pascalis, later of the Figaro; and Jules Guesde, another journalist, a socialist and a confrère of Karl Marx. How closely he knew any of these men is impossible to say. There was also his American friend, a southerner, John Blunt, and his mother, Ellen. Blunt was one of the four men who formed the syndicate which operated the Tremolino. Another syndicate member was Roger P de S_______: the most Scandinavian-looking of Provençal squires, fair, and six feet high, as became a descendant of sea-roving Northmen, authoritative, incisive, wittily scornful, with a comedy in three acts in his pocket, and in his breast a heart blighted by a hopeless passion for his beautiful cousin.
Conrad was closest to the fourth member of the syndicate, Englishman Henry Grand, from whom he took language lessons and whom he also described: narrow-chested, tall and short-sighted, he strode along the streets and the lanes, his long feet projecting far in advance of his body, and his white nose and gingery moustache buried in an open book: for he had the habit of reading as he walked. Grand’s taste was for the classical poets, Homer and Virgil; he wrote sonnets to the daughter of the woman who ran one of the cafes they frequented. Of this syndicate of disparate types, Conrad remarks: And we were all ardent Royalists of the snow-white Legitimist complexion—Heaven only knows why!
Rimbaud’s Carlist enlistment resonates with Conrad’s claim that his syndicate ran guns to the Spanish rebels in the Tremolino. However, Conrad places this activity in 1877, by which time the Carlist cause was irretrievably lost. The adventure told in The Mirror of the Sea might then have been a conflation of two separate enterprises, the one to run guns to Catholic insurgents in the Americas, the other to sell contraband—Cuban cigars, French liqueurs—into Spain. Or it might have been the work of a cracoviste, based on tales Conrad heard around the table at the Bodoul. Like Rimbaud, Conrad was a fantasist who always attested to the truth of his inventions. This is a not uncommon trait in writers.
Rimbaud’s next sortie, in 1876, while Conrad was in the Saint-Antoine, was a journey into the east as a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army. He enlisted in Brussels and, with 300 florins in his pocket, went by ship from Rotterdam via Southampton, Naples, Suez, Aden and across the Indian Ocean to Batavia on the island of Java. And thence to Samarang, east of Batavia on the Java coast of the South China Sea, a port Conrad the sailor would, a decade later, come to know. And then at Salatiga, in the hill country behind Samarang, where his battalion had gone for further training, Rimbaud deserted.
No-one knows what he did next (some suggest he went as far as Palmerston, now Darwin, in Australia); he claimed he spent a month travelling in Java. He can’t have gone very far; he was almost certainly the Edwin Holmes who enlisted as a crew member on an English ship, The Wandering Chief, which left Samarang at the end of August, only two weeks after his desertion. She was bound for the Irish port of Queenstown. From there, Rimbaud went back to his mother’s place in Charleville for a rest before resuming his travels. His own gun-running exploits were still a decade in the future.
By this time Conrad had joined the Mavis. In June, 1878, when he came ashore at Lowestoft, Rimbaud was about to set out for Egypt. He was still in Africa in 1890, when Conrad made his excursion, partly on land, partly by water, up the Congo to Stanleyville in the service of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo; the basis for Heart of Darkness. So that, while they may not have met in person, their trajectories, although opposite, are congruent. Rimbaud imagined a desperate life which he then went on to lead. Conrad lived a desperate life which he then had to re-imagine. They are like mirrors; or strange attractors.
And they certainly met on the page. Or, at least, Conrad met Rimbaud there. On August 27, 1898, writing to his friend, the socialist Scottish aristocrat and writer R B Cunninghame Graham, he remarked, surely ironically, in a postscript: Can’t understand Rimbaud at all. You overrate my intelligence. Je suis bon qu’a lire Cyrano and such like cogioneries. (I’m only good for reading Cyrano and other idiocies.) Later, in 1899, he wrote I happen to know Rimbaud’s verses. He had just been praising an article, by literary journalist and Francophile Charles Whibley, the friend of Whistler, which appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in February of that year. It was called A Vagabond Poet.
Whether it was Cunninghame Graham who led Conrad to Rimbaud’s work, or someone else, isn’t clear. Nor is it clear what the work(s) in question might have been. The history of the publication of Rimbaud’s writing is convoluted. He had Une Saison en Enfer printed (with the promise of his mother’s money) in 1873 but the entire edition, apart from ten author’s copies, remained, unpaid for, with the printer in Brussels. They were worth a franc each then; priceless now. Later, in 1886, the work was re-published over three issues of the Paris magazine La Vogue.
Paul Verlaine published Le Bateau ivre in Les Poètes maudit (1884). In 1886 La Vogue also printed Illuminations, first in the magazine, then as a book. In 1895, Verlaine edited Poésies Complète, published by Léon Vanier, also in Paris. Oeuvres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, edited by Paterne Berrichon, Rimbaud’s sister Isabelle’s husband, and Ernest Delahaye, a school friend, later a school teacher, came out from the Société du Mercure de France in 1898. It was a futile attempt at sanctification. Conrad might have known any or all of these. The date of his letter to Cunninghame may suggest the last; and explain his disavowal. He could also have known Rimbaud’s Rapport sur l’Ogadine, despatches from Abyssinia, published by the Société de Géographie in Paris in 1884.
Conrad was well read in French literature. Molière, Anatole France, Zola, as well as Flaubert and Maupassant, were (he said) among his favourite authors. The poet Saint-John Perse was a personal friend; he corresponded with André Gide, knew Paul Valéry and Maurice Ravel after the war. He had read Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in French in the early 1920s and proclaimed him a master, extolling his veiled greatness. Subsequently he told Proust’s English translator, C K Scott Moncrieff, I was more interested and fascinated by your rendering than by Proust’s creation.
Conrad’s ‘aunt’, the novelist Marguerite Poradowska—actually his cousin by marriage—was in the 1890s living in Brussels and in Paris. Some of her works were translations, or adaptations, from the Polish. They met when he went to Brussels to see about the African job. Conrad’s cousin, Marguerite’s husband, Aleksander Poradowski, with whom she had spent a decade living in the Polish Ukraine, was seriously ill and died two days after Conrad arrived in the Belgian city. He formed an attachment to his widowed ‘aunt’, and she with him, and they corresponded ardently during the first half of the 1890s. Their closeness worried Uncle Tad, who feared his nephew becoming romantically involved with a woman nine years older than he was.
Marguerite was French. Her maiden name was Gachet and her father was the brother of Doctor Paul Gachet, friend of Courbet and Manet and Victor Hugo, of Cezanne and Monet and van Gogh. It was Dr Gachet who treated van Gogh, ineffectually, during the weeks leading up to his death. There are famous portraits of him; also suggestions that he later forged—or perhaps imitated—van Gogh’s works, notably the sunflower paintings. Vincent said that he was sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much. Conrad, at Marguerite’s Paris apartment, saw works from Dr Gachet’s collection, including some van Goghs. He did not like them. He thought them violent and disturbed. Nevertheless, Marguerite is another connection which might have led him to Rimbaud.
Conrad was reading Rimbaud when he wrote Youth, the story which introduces Charles Marlow—(at least I think that is how he spelt his name)—as narrator. Marlow is Conrad’s other, allowing him to speak freely in a different voice without implicating himself in experiences that might otherwise be read autobiographically. Verlaine published Rimbaud’s Lettre du Voyant, with its provocation Je est un autre, in his 1895 edition of the poems and this Conrad might have known. Some of the prose in Youth, that first excursion into Marlow’s memories, has the accent of Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre.
This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and sombre, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise. And these were the men. I sat up suddenly. A wave of movement passed through the crowd from end to end, passed along the heads, swayed the bodies, ran along the jetty like a ripple on the water, like a breath of wind on a field—and all was still again. I see it now—the wide sweep of the bay, the glittering sands, the wealth of green infinite and varied, the sea blue like the sea of a dream, the crowd of attentive faces, the blaze of vivid colour—the water reflecting it all, the curve of the shore, the jetty, the high-sterned outlandish craft floating still, and the three boats with tired men from the West sleeping unconscious of the land and the people and of the violence of sunshine.
image: Le Vieux Port, Marseille, matinee d’hiver; Joseph Garibaldi; nd; oil on panel; 27 x 35 cm