Winter Journey

for Kitsune

I

We came near the end of winter

snow lay drifted upon the ground

& golden light faded between the trees

as night began to fall.

In the early dawn spokes of yellow sun

picked out the prints a fox had made

crossing a field, where the warmth

of growing things caused small holes

to melt in the snow. We did not

know why we were there nor how

long we would have to stay. That night

snow fell again, drifting silent

& cold past the window panes

freezing a film of ice upon the glass.


II

After the snow plough had been & gone

a heavy black car drove slowly down

the narrow road & stopped outside

the little house in the woods.

I had not yet shovelled a path from

the door to the road. Behind tinted

windows whoever it was paused

as if unsure what to do next. Then

the passenger door opened & a man

wearing hat, coat, gloves & rubber boots

trudged to the letter box, brushed

the snow away, pushed something through

the aperture then trudged back to the car. Its white

exhaust followed it away like a departing soul.

III

It was a manila envelope. I took it

back down the path I’d cleared

into the house, which was warm

& full of the smell of breakfast cooking

tore open the envelope, extracted

a piece of paper & read what was written upon it

aloud to my companion. She paused in her work

to listen. It was a summary of

the route we were to take when we drove

north & west to the sea; & an account

of what we were to do once we arrived

at the Old Port. Where we would stay

& who we were to see. There was nothing

said about the nature of our mission.

IV

We were to remain in the mountains

for some days yet. After it snowed

I cleared the path to the road & wiped

the residue from the car. If the weather

was fine we went out walking, making sure

we had bear bells on our belts, though

they were most likely all in hibernation still.

Once we saw the fox whose prints

appeared sometimes near the house. It stopped

among the bear bamboo & looked back

at us in such a way as to suggest it knew

not just more than we did but more

than we would ever know. Then it walked

away into the snowy trees.

V

My companion said that night it came to her

in a dream. A wise fox, with many tails

perhaps as many as nine. What did it say

I asked but she said nothing. It just

looked the way the one we saw in the woods

looked at us. We were both wondering

if we were doing the right thing, following

the instructions we had been given.

We were both afraid of what might

happen if we did not. I wanted her to ask

the wise old fox what we should do

but she said you do not ask such things

in case it is a trickster. You must wait

until the fox is ready to talk to you.

VI

It was time for us to leave. The fox

had not spoken & so we thought

now it never would. We loaded up the car

with our possessions, cleaned & secured

the house, warmed the engine then drove

away. As we were passing by the entrance

to the People’s Woods we saw

on the path that led between the trees

a fox. It was not the nine-tailed one

of the dream, it had just one, bushy, tail

& did not offer any oracular advice. Instead

it turned & trotted up the path

& away into the woods. We knew then

we were on our own; as we had always been.

VII

The journey to the sea took the best part

of a day. There was little traffic. As we came

down from the mountains we saw new

growth on the trees. Spring was coming.

Then we drove north along the coast until

we arrived, at dusk, in the Old Port. Our hotel

was near the docks, in a quiet street

of unfrequented bars & restaurants. We ate

at one of these then returned to the hotel.

The old woman at reception said we had

had a caller. He left a note for us.

It gave us a time & a place to meet with him

next day & requested that we tell no-one

where we were going. Signed: The Fox.

VIII

He did not seem like a fox. More of a bear.

Big & muffled up in an overcoat

even though it was not cold. Or not to us.

We sat at a table outside a small café

where fishermen drank. We were couriers, he said

& did not need to know what we were carrying.

Only its destination, which was in another city

further up the coast, in a labyrinth of ponds

nearer to the mainland, over the narrow sea.

Were we in danger my companion asked.

Only if you say where you are going

or tell anyone what you are taking there.

And afterwards, I asked. Afterwards

we do not care where you go or what you do.

IX

We did not investigate the contents

of the package he gave us. Contraband

perhaps. Or documents. Plans, maps, blueprints.

After all there was a war on. In the City

of Lagoons we met a young woman who wore

a mask over her face the whole time

we were with her; which was not long.

She said her fiancé had been killed

in the fighting at Mir. She cursed the war

before she limped away. With the money

she gave us we bought a place to live.

It was the house in the mountains

where we stayed the time we met the fox.

We laid the deposit down in cash.

X

We half expected to find the fox

sitting by the doorstep waiting for us

when we returned to take possession

but it was not so. We did not see

another one for months & then it was

a vixen, with cubs. My companion

said if you go looking for a fox

he will not show himself. Or she, as

the case may be. Sometimes bears

come down from the mountain. Badgers

eat the scraps we throw on the ground

behind the house. Not everything I have


written is untrue but nor is it

the whole story. We are living here still.


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Drawing a Line

F/B has started sending me memories again. I never asked for them before and didn’t mind when they stopped; now they’re back again. They’re pretty random (I think they’re date-based) but they do remind me of other summers and what I was obsessing about then (2017-18 Ancient Egypt) (2016-17 Joseph Conrad) (2015-16 Joseph Lycett). They also tell me I used to write an annual report – a grizzle about the year just passed, what worked out, what did not.

They are only mildly interesting to me now so probably even duller for others. It’s poignant that a proportion of the comments preserved below each post are from people who have died. The odd thing about that is I still hear their voices, loud and clear. Anyway I am going to attempt a brief summation of the year, mostly so that it can return to me later as a F/B memory – unless of course I’m dead too; and maybe even then.

I don’t think I wrote anything much this year that was new – a few essays and reviews perhaps – but I did revise two old texts. One is called Marlow’s Dream and subtitled Joseph Conrad in Antipodean Ports. It was drafted about five years ago and I spent quite a bit of time in the first part of the year trying to rescue it from the disaster it had become. I thought I’d succeeded but the dozen or so publishers who read and rejected the ms didn’t agree.

Or perhaps they did. The ms got a lot of praise but every encomium ended with the doom ― we can’t sell it. The reason, I think, is that it’s too literary. Whereas my main criticism of the work is that it’s not literary enough. There’s still a couple of fugitive possibilities left for it but I don’t care any more. I don’t mean I don’t care about the book. I just can’t be bothered with the shenanigans of people who profess to love a book they will not publish.

And in the old country, too, I tried to place a collection of essays with a couple of reputable houses, both of which said oh wow, great, no, we’re full, local product etc. Again I don’t care. I was an assessor for Creative NZ lately and that was an eye opener. Of course I’m sworn to secrecy and can’t tell much about anything; suffice to say it was like attending a community meeting where half the people were dog owners and the other half, pet-haters. There were a few dogs there too but they mostly just barked.

The commission that came my way from over there is the other text I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this year. I have been diligent and engaged and even, at times, inspired. The result is a third draft, which I finished a couple of days ago and which I’m happy with. There is a publisher for that so it’s all good. Won’t come out until 2024 but will be illustrated so there’s plenty of time to get that side of things right. I’m drawing a line under that one (actually under both), striking another match and starting anew.

I don’t know yet with what. I just received, in the post, my holiday reading – Aesopic Conversations, by Leslie Kurke, with the portrait of the old story teller, by Velasquez, on the cover. Happy to be spending the summer with Aesop; and then in February we’re going to Japan for a year. Our base will be Kurohime but we might travel around a bit. I’m not imagining anything. I’m not anticipating anything. I might keep a journal, I might not. I won’t be ‘writing a book’. I’ve drawn a line under that too.

_________________________________________________________________________________

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Not Talking About O’Dwyer

The other night C K Stead came to me in a dream. Or perhaps I should say I came to him. He was a ninety year old man, with pale blue eyes that were slightly rheumy but he was still tall and straight and, so far as I could tell, compos mentis. It was some sort of gathering, a party or a launch or something of that sort. I went up to talk to him because I wanted to tell him I’d just read two of his books. Oh, he said, immediately interested. And which books were those? And I could not remember their titles. Nor could I, when it came to the point, say enough about either of them for him to recognise which ones they were. This absurd conversation went on, without rancour, for some time and then I woke up.

I don’t usually dream about C K Stead. In fact, this was probably the first time. He isn’t much in my thoughts either ― but as it happened I had just read a book of his, and a single chapter of another. The book was Talking about O’Dwyer (1999) and the chapter the first of the third volume of his memoirs What You Made Of It (2021), which for some reason is online. It deals with the matter of the novel in some detail and so constitutes a kind of a gloss upon it. Dan Davin, Oxford, the Māori Battalion, Crete, Croatia, Henderson in West Auckland, Up North, all get a look in.

I don’t usually read C K Stead either; but a friend had asked me to write something about the Hall of Memories at Waitaki College, of which he is an old boy, and along with several books about the school, he lent me Talking about O’Dwyer. We’d been yarning off and on about the war and he’d previously given me to read a self-published memoir his uncle wrote which included a personal narrative of the advance, in 1944 and 45, of the New Zealanders up the Italian Peninsula to Trieste. So I guess he was offering me the novel in order to continue the conversation.

Stead is nothing if not readable, the book is not long and I got through it in a weekend. It is a highly accomplished piece of work, both in terms of the quality of the writing and the excellence of the story-telling ― so much so that after a while I began to think it resembled a supremely engineered piece of machinery, which had been taken apart and oiled and put back together several times and now purred immaculately towards its destination without once missing a beat. At the same time, and especially after I finished reading it, that destination seemed somehow nugatory and the whole enterprise as heartless, or perhaps I mean as soulless, as, say, a Jaguar engine. Of course for some people a car engine does have a soul but I’m not one of them.

I did have a couple of other thoughts about the book, neither of which I would have been able to say to Stead if I were in conversation with him, which I’m not. Indeed I’ve only met Karl on one occasion, over the weekend of a literary festival in Hastings a decade or more ago now and he was perfectly charming company. Urbane, witty, sharp, generous and expansive. His one fault, so far as I am concerned, was that he hit on my girlfriend on every single occasion she appeared before him, with the insouciance and the enthusiasm and the over-weening vanity of a seventeen year old boy who thinks he is the goods. She was flattered I guess but also just as bemused as I was.

Anyway, back to the book. The first thing about it is that the hero, Mike Newell, a retired or retiring academic, is clearly a version of Stead himself. Nothing wrong with that of course; except that it means, on a certain level, he is indulged by his author. In other words he can do no wrong. A philosopher and Wittgenstein scholar, he remembers easily outwitting his now estranged wife when it came to questions of metaphysics and the existence of God ― she is a Christian whereas he is Zen, if you can be Zen without practising Zen, which you probably can’t.

Mike also has an eye for the ladies and, naturally, they do for him too. He has a delectable affair as a very young man with his best friend’s cousin and though his friend’s sudden death queers that pitch, the lovers meet up again, many years later, as mature adults, and have mature and adult (and celibate) conversations about the past, the present and the future. There’s another mature and very adult affair, not celibate, in Croatia which, mercifully, isn’t described in the sort of lubricious detail that the young love is.

Both of these ― or perhaps all three, if you include the marriage ― relationships are seen more or less exclusively from the male point of view and that point of view is so close to the author’s that you end up feeling that what you’re really reading is, if not sexual boasting, then a peculiar kind of wish fulfillment. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that Stead would be able to provide an account of each relationship ‘in real life’, showing how and where and when it happened exactly as he’s telling it, with just a few changes here and there for the sake of economy or to protect the unwitting.

The exegesis of the sources of the novel in the chapter of the memoir is, in its own way, an extraordinary piece of exculpatory prose. Just as Stead can’t bear to give his hero any negative or even ambiguous character traits, so he can’t admit to any form of error or wrong-doing or dereliction of duty in his use of sources ― which include the notebook of the father of a friend of his, which he deploys without the friend’s permission (it’s in an archive) and in such a way that they ultimately stop being friends. Then he delivers a few low blows to his former friend, making the appropriation of his friend’s father’s story seem even creepier. Various other people are also despatched in the course of Stead’s exegesis. He just can’t be wrong about anything.

However, even if I’d been able to speak in the dream, I wouldn’t have said any of this to him either. I might, however, have been tempted to say something about what I found most offensive in the book: its use of other people’s lives, particularly those of certain individuals from the 28th (Māori) Battalion. One of these people is Humphrey Dwyer, an officer. Another is Parata Heta Thompson, an NCO, to whom Stead dedicates the book: a man he never knew and, so far as I can tell, he never bothered to get to know his family either. To say these characters are caricatures is unnecessary. Like the hero, they are seen only from the author’s point of view, that is, of an unreconstructed retired Pakeha academic in his declining years.

At the heart of the plot is a curse which has been placed upon the eponymous O’Dwyer by the family of the man he killed. There is no mention of a source for this device in the exegesis; it may have been, clunky as it is, an invention. The knock in the diff of the engineering of the plot perhaps. What I did want to say to Karl was this: these were real people who you turned into ciphers in the service of a story that fed, ultimately, your own vanity. And also: he who invents curses upon others will himself in time be cursed. In the event, in the dream, I could only stammer out a few fragments of sentences that did not cohere.

It doesn’t matter. C K Stead probably doesn’t believe in curses and even if he did, would never consider himself to be cursed, would he? Or would he? I actually think he is cursed, but not in the way you might think. I think he’s cursed to mediocrity and obscurity. I think, alas, for all of his vaulting ambition, his eloquent self-justifications, and his genuine achievements, he will not be remembered in the way he so earnestly and even painfully wishes to be. But what would be the point of telling an old man that?

links:

The real O’Dwyer:

Humphrey Goring Dwyer

The Exegesis:

What You Made Of It

Damien Wilkins:

The Self Loathing of a Stead Novel

image:

Stead with cigarettes c 1960

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Where The Wild Things Are

 

Saturday evening, just as I was settling in to watch the cricket, there came a knock upon the door. It was a friend of M’s who’d come round to drop off some books for their book club. They were in a brown paper bag. She had her daughter with her, about six year’s old, and the little girl held in both hands a small cardboard box, like a shoe box, with a towel draped over the top. They said in it was a baby bulbul that had fallen out of the nest, which they’d found while going for a walk in Gough Whitlam Park down by the Cook’s River. I asked if I could have a look, the little girl pulled back a corner of the towel and I saw stripy black and grey feathers over a body that was too large to be that of a baby bulbul. Maybe it’s a cuckoo? I said but they both shook their heads. No, it’s got a crest. Also, because it was a bulbul, WIRES (Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service) wouldn’t take it because they only take natives. By this time M was out talking to her friend, who didn’t want to come in for a cup of tea or anything. She wanted to go home.

I went back to the cricket. I don’t usually watch games of 20-20 but this was New Zealand vs Australia and the Black Caps were creaming it. At some point the little girl said she wanted to go to the toilet and I showed her the way to the bathroom. It was the break between innings. I went into the kitchen to start making dinner. Chopping up onions, garlic, green peppers, chilli bacon and pancetta to simmer in a tomato sauce. After a while I thought: that little girl is taking a long time in the bathroom and began to listen up. (Bathroom and kitchen adjoin, with a wall of cupboards in between.) I heard a few indeterminate sounds but nothing definite. I wondered what she could be doing. I know some people take a long time in the bathroom but children are not usually among them. A little while after that I heard a brief, gentle, hesitant knocking on the bathroom door and went to see what had happened. She was locked in.

I knew the lock was dodgy but hadn’t done anything about it because we never use it. It was one of those bubble locks, inside the handle, with a button you turn from horizontal to vertical to activate and deactivate. The button still turned but the tongue of the lock would not retract. The two mechanisms had somehow become disconnected from one another. I knew that no key would make any difference, even if we could find the key. I went and told the girl’s mother she was locked in and M went to look for a key anyway. She found a whole bunch of them but we didn’t know which was the right one and, besides, none of them worked. We tried sliding the end of a screwdriver and then the blade of a knife between door and jamb to force the tongue to retract but that didn’t work either. I said this is a job for a locksmith and M went to ring one. He said he’d be there in half an hour.

The little girl didn’t freak out. She was admirably calm. Her mother sat on the floor outside the door with M’s copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, in Japanese, reading it to her daughter. She’s bi-lingual so would read the Japanese text and then translate the words into English. Somehow they conspired to share the pictures too, I don’t know how. Under the door perhaps. I went on cooking and M sat on the sofa with the box with the baby bird in it on her knees. She was afraid that if she put it down it would get cold and maybe even die. She looked like something out of an old tale herself. After the girl’s mother finished reading the story, she rang the girl’s father, who was at home, to tell him what had happened and to discuss dinner. There was talk of pizza.

I was still monitoring the cricket but it had turned out to be one of those games which are over almost before they begin. About forty-five minutes had passed when the locksmith called and asked if he could park outside our house. There was a spot and I waited beside it until he arrived. I was quite surprised when a little white car, a rental from No Birds, turned into the street and made a U-turn in front of our place. He was a young man, handsome and lithe, probably Brazilian. He had an aura about him. I said there was a little girl locked in the bathroom and he said he rescues little girls from bathrooms all the time. Which he then proceeded to do.

While he was thus engaged I had another look at the bird in the box and realised it was actually a baby crested pigeon, a native as it happens, and common around here. I showed the girl’s mother a picture from our bird book and, when the little girl came out, showed her too. The mother straightaway called WIRES and gave them their address. Meanwhile the little girl explored the house and ended up at M’s dressing table in the front bedroom, trying out looks in the mirror. M gave her a jewelled hairband and a shiny necklace before she and her mother went off home, perhaps to have pizza.

The Brazilian put a new lock on the bathroom door (not that we’ll ever use it) and drove off to star in some other fairy-tale rescue. I had a look at the Maurice Sendak book, which I used to read to my sons when they were little, improvising chants for the pics for which there are no words, the ones when all they’re doing is dancing. I can still remember one of the chants I used to sing, and tried it out again. A variation perhaps upon what Bob Marley sings in ‘Buffalo Soldier’: Woe yoy yoy, woe yoy yoy yoy / Woe yoy yoy yo, yoy yoy yoy yo. It sounded alright. 

Later on that night we heard that WIRES didn’t come around after all and the baby pigeon was loose on their balcony in Ashfield, happy enough but not eating the birdseed we’d given them. Next day, which was Sunday, WIRES did come and took the little bird and said it will be cared for, with some others of its kind, until it’s strong enough and then released, near where they found it, back into the wild. Woe yoy yoy yo, yoy yoy yoy yo.

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See Me

There’s a line in the Bob Dylan song, Red River Shore, that keeps haunting me. It’s not a major part of the song, just a piece of idiom you used to hear a lot and don’t much any more. ‘I went back to see about her once / Went back to straighten it out’, Dylan sings and immediately I hear my father’s voice, talking about some family matter that needed attention or a friend who’d fallen on hard times or suffered some injustice. Or, indeed, some injury that had been done to him. ‘I went back to see about it once’, he’d say, which didn’t mean he’d found out what he wanted to know or righted what he deemed to have been wrong. Rather the opposite. It calls to mind other lost phrases from his era. Sometimes at school a kid would come into the classroom with a bit of paper for the teacher and then the teacher would give it to whoever it was for. All it would say upon it would be: ‘See me.’ And then you’d have to go to see the Headmaster. That wasn’t necessarily a doom. It could mean your parents had been in touch and wanted you to go home for some reason or other. It could be you’d won a prize or been picked in the reps. But it could also mean you were in trouble. Other two word sentences I remember include ‘Go on’, which was a response, part sceptical, part admiring, to some tall tale someone was telling. Also ‘Too right’, which meant unqualified agreement with whatever the other person was saying. One of the most mysterious was ‘By Jove’, a kind of exclamation that preceded some vehement statement someone was about to make. When I was a kid I had no idea who Jove was so always heard the phrase as abstract, an unspecific oath of some kind. And in a sense I wasn’t wrong. Dylan goes on to sing: ‘Everybody that I talked to had seen us there / Said they didn’t know who I was talking about’ which is kind of apposite to my own attempts to re-visit the past, which tend to dissolve into phantoms and whispers, to two word sentences that no longer mean exactly what they say, that rely upon the intonations of beloved voices, now no longer with us, in order to be understood at all.

image : Paul Klee (eaten by snails)

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Ian Prior

INTRODUCING KROPOTKIN

THE INTERNATIONAL CLOWN, MIME AND REGISTRAR OF CHAOS

Here he comes, Kropotkin, tensile, prehensile, the turnstile to the smiles: ladies and gentlemen: KROPOTKIN!…

The twenty-six year old Ian Prior from Nelson, the most graceful town in all New Zealand, utopian centre of the South Pacific.

At age nine, came to the park beside the river: Ridgeways’ Circus, the legendary carnival show that circled the antipodes like a tipsy nebula, wherein a twelve-year-old girl walked the high wire and fell into the net.

From that time through his isolated country school at Parklands Ian drank, played football, painted Che Guevara portraits in the hall, danced on the poppies and never read a book. He was advised at fourteen to leave school and get married.

At the age of nineteen, Ian threw away his life-insurance and abandoned a career proposal towards urban valuation, on the toss of a coin. With his records (Donovan’s Fairytales, Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room; religious music) and one dozen alfalfa sandwiches.

He went up to the great university and got his great expectations bruised. During a lecture on Motor Learning, an enraged scholar called Ian the ClassIdiot. Reluctantly and most eventually, Ian graduated with a Diploma in Physical Education. He met the mystic New Zealand Lecoq disciple, Francis Batten, and became a clown, the less distant cousin of the ClassIdiot. He was a witness to the seminal Batten oeuvre The Best of All Possible Worlds. He spent months at the silent movies inhabiting the clown that is all heart. For the clown that disturbs and alienates is the sad clown, it’s like having your hamburger brought to you by a waiter in a wheelchair.

He worked in the university theatres, made laughter in the streets, stormed in the State Opera House, went national for the National Film Unit, and performed at 1976’s Polynesian Festival in Rotorua – the biggest community cultural festival in the Western Pacific. He was arrested once, for protesting sexism in a bad movie made in America called The Mutilator.

He worked as he travelled with his suitcase and in white face around the country suburbs of Dunedin and Auckland. In 1978, he was invited to join Red Mole Enterprises, New Zealand’s legendary punk vaudeville touring roadshow. To support himself he was involved in a number of temporary enterprises, for example: tobacco-picker, fruit-picker, builder’s labourer (but moving inside), salad hand, 1st Cook at Slack Alice’s, psychiatric counsellor, guillotine-operator, window cleaner and ornamental brick cleaner. Once he visited the thornbirds at Cobham on the Murray River in New South Wales.

He read books: Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experiences, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Golding’s Lord of the Flies. He watched Fellini, ran dialectic research over Altman, and fell for The King of Hearts.

Ian Prior was bicyclist, walker, chaser and chessplayer with a portable cassette machine wailing John Cage and leading to Merce Cunningham.

In New York, Ian has started to paint canvases, heavily influenced by van Gogh, Egon Schiele and Hieronymous Bosch. Then he experienced the vast domains of Jackson Pollock and became an acrobat, who coincidentally juggles, fate perhaps.   

KROPTKIN is at present in New York and wishes to present his entertainment to the people. Note: the people. He leaves in April for a European tour with Red Mole Enterprises and White Rabbit Puppet Theatre. In September he will return to New York for a short time as he prepares for a return journey to his native islands.

Says the Press:

‘A satirical brand of humour, light, irreverent, and poignantly controversial’ – Wanganui Herald

‘Staggered at the richness of invention and imagination’ – Act Magazine

’For the future nothing is certain’ – Theatre in New Zealand

(Alan Brunton, Red Mole publicity, New York, 1979; photo by Joe Bleakley)

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Kiel Supre, Tiel Malsupre

Thoout, Thoth Deux fois Grand, le Second Hermés, N372.2A, Brooklyn Museum

Amongst Isaac Newton’s papers was a translation of a 12th century Latin version of the Emerald Tablet, that core alchemical text, into English. It had been translated from an earlier (8th – 9th century) Arabic text after, reputedly, a lost Greek original. But that Greek version, if it existed, was undoubtedly Egyptian in origin. Confected most likely in Alexandria in the Ptolemaic period. Before which were experiments in transformation . . .

Newton’s text:

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.

That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below

to do the miracle of one only thing

And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.

The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,

the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.

The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.

Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.

Separate thou the earth from the fire,

the subtle from the gross

sweetly with great industry.

It ascends from the earth to the heaven and again it descends to the earth

and receives the force of things superior and inferior.

By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world and thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.

Its force is above all force,

for it vanquishes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid thing.

So was the world created.

From this are and do come admirable adaptations where of the means is here in this.

Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.

That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished and ended.

Now here’s a machine translation of Newton’s text into Esperanto. It’s worth saying out loud:

Estas vera sen mensogo, certa kaj plej vera.

Tio, kio estas malsupre, estas kiel tio, kio estas supre, kaj tio, kio estas supre, estas kiel tio, kio estas malsupre

fari la miraklon de unu sola afero

Kaj kiel ĉio estis kaj estiĝis el unu per la perado de unu, tiel ĉio naskiĝas el ĉi tiu unu afero per adaptiĝo.

La Suno estas ĝia patro, la luno ĝia patrino,

la vento portis gxin en sia ventro, la tero estas gxia vartistino.

La patro de ĉia perfekteco en la tuta mondo estas ĉi tie.

Ĝia forto aŭ potenco estas tuta se ĝi estas konvertita en teron.

Apartigu la teron de la fajro,

la subtila de la malpura

dolĉe kun granda industrio.

Ĝi supreniras de la tero al la ĉielo kaj denove ĝi malsupreniras al la tero

kaj ricevas la forton de aferoj superaj kaj malsuperaj.

Per ĉi tiu maniero vi havos la gloron de la tuta mondo kaj per tio ĉia mallumo forflugos de vi.

Ĝia forto estas antaŭ ĉio forto,

ĉar ĝi venkas ĉiun subtilaĵon kaj penetras ĉiun solidan.

Tiel la mondo estis kreita.

De ĉi tio estas kaj venas admirindaj adaptoj kie de la rimedoj estas ĉi tie en ĉi tio.

Tial mi nomiĝas Hermeso Trismegisto, havanta la tri partojn de la filozofio de la tuta mondo.

Tio, kion mi diris pri la funkciado de la Suno, estas plenumita kaj finita.

And here is the Esperanto text put back through a machine translation into English again:

It is true without a lie, certain and most true.

That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below

to make the miracle of a single thing

And as all things were and arose from one through the mediation of one, so all things are born from this one thing by adaptation.

The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,

the wind carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.

The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.

Its strength or power is entire if it is converted into earth.

Separate the earth from the fire,

the subtle from the gross

sweetly with great industry.

It ascends from the earth to the sky and again descends to the earth

and receives the strength of things superior and inferior.

In this way you will have the glory of the whole world and by this all darkness will fly away from you.

Its strength is above all strength,

for it overcomes every subtlety and penetrates every solid.

Thus the world was created.

From this there are and come admirable adaptations where of the resources are here in this.

Therefore I am called Hermes Trismegistus, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world.

What I said about the operation of the Sun is fulfilled and finished.

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Trevarthen Charles Edmond 1920-1990

I was astonished to learn yesterday that my father’s given name was not, as I had always thought, Trevor, but Trevarthen. I found this out from a family tree prepared for my sister’s forthcoming book, Always Going Home, which comes out from OUP on October, I think. I haven’t read the book yet but I gather it focusses upon Frances’ relationship with our mother, Lauris. That’s her in the centre of the photo above, framed by the black cloth over the fireplace of what I think is the sitting room of our house in Burns Street, Ohakune, where I grew up. My father, whose 102nd birthday it is today, is sitting next to her, with the tumbling forelock and sleepy eyes.

The others in the photo are, from left to right, Stan Frost, my godfather and the art teacher at Ruapehu College; Margaret Watson, who was I think a primary school teacher; Dorothy Scott, my aunt, who had probably been a teacher too, before her seven children began to arrive; Murray Watson, Margaret’s husband, another teacher at Ruapehu College; Nancy Leggatt; and Bill Pauley, both also teachers at the college. The photo would have been taken by Clive Scott, Dorothy’s husband, my mother’s brother, who was a school photographer by profession. I don’t know what the occasion was but parties featuring these and others among my parents’ friends were common at our house in the 1950s. They used to get hilarious on the gin and sing around the piano in the wee small hours. Everybody smoked, including my mother, who has a fag between the fingers of the hand holding her tea or coffee cup. Stan Frost was English and so was Bill Pawley; they shared a house in Rangataua for a while, before Bill left to go to Canada. I’m not entirely sure, but I think Nancy Leggat went with him. The three of them were close but I don’t know what the precise nature of the relationships between them was.

‘Trevarthen’ was Dad’s mother’s maiden name; she was Elizabeth Ada Trevarthen, called Ada, born in Auckland in 1884. Dad was the second son and, like her, had black hair, brown eyes and dark skin; perhaps that’s why he got her second name as his first one. I used to wonder if a bit of Spanish or even Moorish blood had entered the line after the wreck of some ship from the Armada on Cornish shores. The other question is did he know? He never mentioned it to me or to anyone else; or not that I know of. I guess if he had gone by it he would still have been called ‘Trev’; and would still have used his favoured signature, T C Edmond. The C was for Charles, his own father’s first name; alas, they did not really get on, for various reasons, not least amongst which was the fact that Dad defied Charlie’s wish that he train as a lawyer and became a teacher instead. Somewhere William Maxwell says that the true mystery is the nature of one’s own parents and, finding this out yesterday seems to confirm that statement; though not in a bad way.

Incidentally, the ‘Tre’ in Cornish names is equivalent to the ‘Mac’ in Scots or the ‘O’ in Irish; it means son of. So that any old Trevor is still a son of Vor; and any Trevarthen, as my Dad evidently was, a son of Varthen. This somehow gives a different complexion to those old names.

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Ken James

So we said goodbye to Ken yesterday, out at his daughter’s place in Windsor. Faustine is married to Dan and they also hosted Ken’s 70th, just a few months ago. It was odd being out there again, with many of the same people, but without him there. Anyway Ken said he didn’t want a funeral, he wanted a party. We were asked to wear colourful clothes, not black. Not suits. It was a warm sunny early spring day and the wattles were flowering on the side of the road as I drove out, with our old friend Lexie, to Windsor. When her partner Lud was still alive we sometimes drove this way when going out to the house they had at Tinda Creek, on the Putty Road, many years ago.

Quite a few of the people at the barbie were Faustine’s and Benoit (Ken’s son)’s friends from their growing up on the Northern Beaches. A lot of Dan’s family were there, including his father, Barry and his grandmother, Margaret. They had become Ken’s other family, his Australian one. Faustine had decorated the back area where we were gathered with photographs of her Dad, from when he was a baby until just a few weeks ago. There must have been a couple of hundred of them and it was fascinating to see them all laid out like that, randomly but somehow orderly as well. Especially the ones from Auckland in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when I was part of Ken’s cohort without ever actually meeting him. The ones of his first wedding, for instance, with Bernadette, which I’d never seen. The ones of his family, his school, his growing up.

After we’d been sitting around drinking and talking for an hour or two (it started at 1 pm) the formal part of the proceedings began – not that it was ever really formal. There was a kind of stage at one end, where one of the guitars Ken made held pride of place and this was where Benoit – Benny – kicked things off, with a brief intro and then his own tribute to his Dad. After that Sylviane, Ken’s partner, the kids’ mother, gave a tender and emotional, also hilarious, account of their courtship, which began at the Blackball Hilton down the West Coast of the South Island and continued all the way up the east coast of Australia as far as the Daintree Forest, after which they lived on a beach for a month and Ken, who didn’t have a guitar with him, carved a flute out of a piece of wood so that he could play music.

Sylviane filled in some of the rest. Their travels in Thailand, their return to Australia, where Ken had a business selling NZ ice cream and then opened a café (‘Faustine’s’) at Dee Why Beach (where I used, on occasion, to work behind the counter). After they sold the café they went to France for a holiday, but ended up staying there for some years because Sylviane’s mother became ill. This is when Ken became a fluent speaker of French and also where he began his film studies, at Nantes. They were living nearby, in a small place call St Jean de Monts, on the Atlantic coast in Brittany. I think he did a bit of busking too. It must have been after they came back to Sydney that he started driving a cab and the rest of the time working in theatre, music and film. He was a DIY kind of guy who bought his own camera and did his own shooting and editing, in the same way he made himself a guitar and also one for his son.

After Sylviane spoke, Dan said a few words, reading from his phone, nearly choking up a couple of times; followed by Faustine who gave the most open and loving tribute any father could hope for from a daughter. I was amused by one of her stories, about how Ken would ring her up for a chat while taking his daily afternoon walk, because that’s when he used to ring me up too; and, it turned out, Lexie as well. And I don’t know who else. I always enjoyed those meandering conversations, which often included a commentary upon whatever he encountered along the way. I can still hear his voice, when I answered the phone, saying my name in his forthright and optimistic manner.

When it was my turn to talk I said how I’d heard of Ken long before I met him. In 1973 I was squatting in an old farm house in Puka Puka Road, near Puhoi in North Auckland with the painter, Dean Buchanan; and Dean used to get letters from Ken, which he’d sometimes read out loud. Ken was in jail at the time, in Rangipo Prison in the central North Island, near Turangi. He’d been imprisoned for drug offences, specifically for selling LSD to an undercover policeman. Although this is not quite right, because what Ken actually sold the cop was psilocybin; but there was no law against psilocybin then so they said it was LSD. If he’d had a better lawyer, he might have got off on that technicality alone. He’d been inveigled into the act by a mysterious character called The American, who was never charged, and who disappeared once Ken went down – for four years. We used to joke about publishing The Prison Letters of Ken James.

Then I read a piece Ken’s old mate Bruce Blackie wrote, reproduced (by permission) here:

He always an important person to me, after he opened the door to this desperate middle class suburban runaway all the way back in glorious 1970, into the future and on with the first decade to follow the Moon landing and always the music of course. I had called in to visit Dean Buchanan and we were returning from the shops with breakfast goodies and on the way visited a small pink house in Symonds Street. Ken answered the door. Joy of youthful adventure anticipated with stories of beat poetry and more and he generously suggested a small vacant room in the house could be mine for a modest enough amount of rent. That was my first real step in the big city away from what was for me a troubled and empty Auckland North Shore.

Not long after that Ken got trapped in a police sting and I went with many friends to his trial which, both then and looking back, was nothing but a travesty of justice. Ken later told me that his only regret was that he wore a suit and tie for the occasion instead of being himself. I agreed but silently thought that he looked good that way attired. Later he was pleased when I told him that remembering that trial played a major part in my determination to study law. Dressing up or down no longer mattered. We have always been in touch. Ken told me of Graham Brazier’s passing in 2015. I had played with Graham in the Greasy Handful jug-band before he went on to fame and Hello Sailor.

So with my own dallying in music at that time I was delighted to hear that Ken had joined a famous Verandah Band and toured New Zealand not long after coming out from his time not so well spent in the justice system. I felt it was fitting that something good was happening for him finally. But of course life has ups and downs and not the straight forwards and I was often aware that Ken had more and less than his far share. But here is the essence of what I feel now that he has passed and that is that he always maintained a positive outlook and wonder for life and I am very grateful that he shared that with me.

Recently we had plans of catching up but the covid and my bad health got in the way. Ken was there, in 2020, supporting my partner Liz with many phone calls during the time I spent in ICU in Melbourne recovering from a lung transplant. It also makes me sad that we didn’t share much of each other’s lives at times but I am glad that he was a good father to two wonderful children and to them and their mother I send my deepest sympathy at this time of his passing.

At some point the Sam Ford Verandah Band morphed into The Neighbours and they performed with theatre troupe Red Mole, after I’d left the ensemble, early in 1980, to do other things. Some of the band, Ken included, went on tour as the musical accompaniment to the show I’ll Never Dance Down Bugis Street Again, an irreverent and satirical re-telling of the Mr Asia story. I never saw that show so missed meeting Ken in person again. That had to wait until Sydney, where I moved in 1981, and took place after he and Sylviane came back from Thailand. The forty year conversation between us, which I alluded to the other day, began then and will I hope in some way continue – if it’s true that it’s possible to keep on talking to the dead.

What Bruce said about Ken’s positive outlook is right. That bad card he was dealt, with the drug bust, could easily have turned him towards bitterness and self-pity; but it never did. Nor did any of the other afflictions he suffered. He did however try to understand, and therefore transform, what had happened to him. In the mid-1990s, he wrote a film treatment Calling the Tune which involves a couple of desperados, musicians, recently released from jail, and an inadvertently purloined packet of heroin. Although it’s set in Sydney, some of the Red Mole people appear, in other guises, in it, and also some of Ken’s experiences while he was with them are rehearsed.

He followed that up with a feature film script called Jimmy’s Voice, focussed upon bands and music rather than on theatre, though it too has a plot that involves the shenanigans that can occur around the use, and the sale, of illicit drugs. However its main concern is with the protagonist’s loss of voice and the means by which he recovers it again. Both these films are black comedies and both anticipate musical scores which would result in an album of songs. Of course making a feature film, or an album, these days is both easier and harder than it used to be and I don’t think Ken ever quite figured out how, using only his own resources, he was going to make Jimmy’s Voice. Not so very long ago, he said to me that he was pulling the screenplay out to do some more work on it; and then decided, upon re-reading, that it’s good the way it is.

I mentioned both these film projects in my tribute, but didn’t go into the detail I have here. Afterwards, I read a poem of Ken’s which turned up, fortuitously, among my things just last week. It was written in 2011, I believe, after Ken’s father Vic died. Vic James was a train driver who started out in the days of steam and Ken’s elegy imagines him going to work for the last time, taking the midnight express down the Main Trunk Line to his foreordained end. It begins with a wishbone and later on, when it’s pulled, someone gets the short end; but the poem is in fact a testament to the values of hard work, honesty, looking after your kids and becoming a decent human being. All of which were just as characteristic of Ken as they were of his father.

After reading the poem I sat down, and then Benny read another tribute from another absent friend, Alistair, who’d known Ken since Selwyn College days. Now I wish I’d said a bit more. For instance, I could have told about the way, when we were both out driving taxis (me for Combined Services, he for Manly) we would text each other with gossip, anecdotes, progress reports and so forth. Even though we never actually met on the job (I think I once saw him pass me by on Bridge Street), we used accompany each other, as it were, through our respective shifts. We’d also quite often debrief on the phone next day, an essential thing to do as a cab driver if you want to remain sane.

I might have recalled how he was one of those lucky men who remain on terms with all of their ex-wives and girlfriends; and I should have said something about how much he liked to cook and what a good cook he was; and how, when he became sick and had to live on a restricted diet, he lamented most of all the loss of salt in his food and how he worked out various ways of getting around the prohibition, including buying raw oysters and rinsing them of their brine before eating them. Also what he said about palliative care: it’s not about helping me to die well, it’s helping me to live well.

I’d like to have repeated the nickname he was known by in the band, Dirty Pierre, and might have mentioned, through his mother, his Portuguese ancestry; and a story he told me once about a Portuguese sea captain who came ashore in Tasmania and whose descendants ended up in Taumarunui. Or another story about some family land in Te Tai Rawhiti which passed into the hands of Rastafarians and how that happened. Ken had a lot of stories, which ranged from the improbable to the absurd to the hair-raising and back again, especially about his experiences in jail and afterwards.

Most of all I would have wanted to recall his laugh which, when he got going, was deep and guttural and came from a place of true happiness.

images : Ken w/grandparents, early 1950s; Ken c. 1970, with Bernadette

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Fiji Dream Fiji

Mayu and I were driving around Viti Levu, on the Kings Road, going in the opposite direction to the one Paul Glackin and I took all those years ago. Clockwise, not widdershins. We came into Raki Raki, in the land of Ra, and I pointed out to her (mansplaining) the great grey rocks protruding from the dry yellow grass and the brown earth, and how some of them resembled human heads and torsos. One of the larger ones turned out to be an elaborate sculpting of the outside of a grand hotel on a hillside. To make it look like a man I mean. We continued on, and in a more populated area, lush and green and by the sea, left the car behind. I missed my way, on a walking track, and we ended up on a promontory where a stone building stood; it was a public toilet. We retraced our steps and went on and soon found ourselves on a sandy beach with night coming on and the way ahead obscure. I cannot now remember how we climbed up to a house in a valley behind the beach, where the people were welcoming. There were many children, of all ages, some of them albino, with blue transparent fingers, and others wearing animal masks which seemed to have become part of their faces; these children, despite their grotesqueries, were much loved and also they looked out for each other tenderly. I bought, with what currency I do not know, six wooden bowls, all different sizes and shapes, and tried to balance them one upon the other. A van came into the clearing below the house, it was driven by Tracey, who was going to take us onwards – towards Suva, I presume, because that was the direction from which she came. It was a joyful arrival and, indeed, throughout, despite the odd perturbation, a joyful dream.

Notes

1/ The day before, when I was going through my papers, I found a green folder called 300 Islands in the Sun. It contains a diary written long hand in an exercise book, a typed transcript of the diary, and the sequence of poems I wrote after that trip in 1987. I didn’t read it.

2/ Raki Raki was my favourite part of Viti Levu. It is sometimes said to have been the place of first landfall of humans in Fiji. There is an island offshore where the dead are thought to leap off to go to the underworld.

3/ I was looking yesterday at a photo of a deco house in Sutherland Shire that had been clad with decks like those you’d see on a P & O liner.

4/ Toilets in Fiji were often sited upon promontories, from which people evacuated into the sea. I saw some on Taveuni. There is a fish, a delicacy, which feeds in the waters off these headlands. I caught Hepatitis A after eating raw fish in coconut milk at Nadi Airport the day I left the country.

5/ At Levuka on Ovalau, where Glackin and I also went on our trip, blond, fair-skinned people with frizzy hair and Fijian features are common. They are known as ‘kailoma’, a term which is now used for any person of mixed race in Fiji.

6/ Tracey is a F/B friend, a Māori woman from Taupo who now lives in the Far North of New Zealand. We have corresponded but never met.

image : Raki Raki, from the sea, Wikimedia

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