Starry Night

Over the weekend a friend emailed me a long piece, cut and pasted from an issue of the New Yorker, by the late Janet Malcolm. Soon after I started reading it, a feeling of déjà vu overcame me. Or should I say ‘already read’. After a while I figured out it must have been an early draft of Malcolm’s 1993/4 book The Silent Woman, subtitled Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes. So it proved. I had not realised the entire book – which is not very long – had been published in the magazine; but when I reached the end of the extract, I couldn’t follow the link to the rest of it because it was behind a paywall. Never mind, I thought; I have a copy of the book. Even though I hadn’t seen it for years, it must still be around here somewhere. It took me a while to find it and when I did, it proved to be foxed and browning, and the spine cracked when I opened it. Nevertheless, it was readable and over the last few days I’ve read it again in its entirety. All 200 odd pages. It’s twenty-five years since I last did; and I can be sure about that stretch of time because of the peculiar circumstances in which this book came to me.

In the early 1990s I wrote the text for a proposed monograph about the painter Philip Clairmont (1949-84). I remember how difficult this was to accomplish and also that, as it neared completion, a boil in my groin swelled painfully; and then, on the very day I completed the draft, burst. I sent the ms, as I had promised to do, to the artist’s widow and copyright owner in the estate. Quite a long period elapsed before she replied and the reply was enigmatic: a package arrived in the mail and in the package was a copy of Malcolm’s book. There was no dedication and no note; if she had not put her return address on the outside of the package, I would not have known who it was from. I thought this was an elegant response, especially after I’d read Malcolm’s excellent book; which is, among other things, about the limits, if not the impossibility, of biography.

There were more substantial discussions of the text of the proposed monograph over the next couple of years until, by 1996, the estate and I arrived at a mutually acceptable version; after which I set myself to assembling the illustrations for it. I had a photographer lined up to take the pictures, I knew where all the works I wanted photographed were, there was grant money available to do the thing – and then the project foundered. It was, I realised subsequently, deliberately sabotaged by an individual who worked at the funding body who’d offered me the grant; for what reason I do not know. The one time I met this person, in 2004, all he said to me was ‘it was years ago.’ Someone else told me, quite recently, that he must have wanted ‘to thrust the knife into the wound again’. Even if this was the case, his motivation remains obscure.

I returned the money and wrote instead a quest memoir, an account of the research process which incorporated in one of its four sections a version of the original monograph. That was published, as The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, in 1999 and illustrated only with black and white photographs; there are no art works reproduced therein. This because the machinations of the fellow at the funding body ensured the estate would withdraw copyright permission to reproduce art works. There is one on the cover, available because it was a commissioned work and thus the copyright was owned by the commissioner. I have to emphasise that this was not the result of a dispute between myself and the Clairmont Estate; it was because the funding body, for whatever reason, attempted to impose unacceptable conditions upon the estate; and without their grant I was unable to afford the costs of taking the photographs.

This was a source of grief to me for a number of years. We still lack a decent illustrated book upon the Clairmont oeuvre; but that omission will in time be rectified; and I look forward very much to the day when that happens. The book, when it arrives, may not be a resurrection; but it will be a revelation. However, to return to Janet Malcolm, what most struck me about re-reading her book was how deeply my own re-telling of the Clairmont story, in the unillustrated version, was influenced by her. I was, I think, unaware of this influence while I was writing; but it’s very clear to me now. And so I’m writing this to record my debt to an author who was an exemplary figure in the world of letters: for her clarity, her honesty, her generosity; her complexity and her simplicity; for the crystalline intelligence of her prose.

illustration: Starry Night by Philip Clairmont; hand coloured woodblock, 1982; whereabouts unknown

(a photograph of a photograph in my possession)

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Kurrajong Dreaming

This morning, after breakfast, we got in the car and drove to Summer Hill. I had an appointment at the Village Medical Centre at 10 am and M wanted to sign up there because her GP is in Gladesville and they don’t do C19 vaccinations. We were a bit late but no-one seemed to mind. Everyone was masked. After I checked in the receptionist slapped a white sticker onto the back of my right hand and wrote 10.10 upon it. Moments later my name was called and I went into a small room just off the corridor outside reception. I took off my jacket and jersey and sat in the chair. A young African man told me it would be better if the injection went into my non-dominant arm; fortunately he was standing on my left. He prepared the shot while a female doctor, perhaps in her fifties, told me to wiggle my toes. Her manner was one I remembered from childhood: hectoring I-know-what’s-good-for-you-and-you-probably-don’t. Nevertheless, I wiggled my toes. Are you trying to distract me? I asked and then realised it had worked. I didn’t see the needle and I didn’t really feel it pricking in either. Afterwards the doc quizzed me about ‘flu vaccines. I said I’d never had one. I said I rarely got the ‘flu. The ‘flu is not a cold, she said. Yes, I said, I know that. I don’t get colds very often either. I’ve been vaccinated, she said; you should too. Last year was very quiet but we’re expecting a big ‘flu season this year. Thank you, I said, I’ll think about it. She gave a short, exasperated sigh; almost a snort. I also thanked the African man; he nodded and averted his eyes. Then I had to wait fifteen minutes, to make sure I didn’t go into anaphylactic shock. I didn’t. The walls of the Village Medical Centre were hung with paintings made by women at the remote settlement of Utopia, north-east of Alice Springs. Many of them featured herbal, or healing, dreamings of one kind or another. Some were very beautiful and most were for sale. I was attracted to a couple that featured kurrajong dreamings; we have a kurrajong tree that a friend gave us recently. I didn’t buy one but I may go back. On our way to the car we dropped into Vinnies and I picked up a second hand copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Driving away I felt an inexplicable euphoria. Perhaps due to re-visiting my old home town, as it were, perhaps because of the A-Z vaccine fizzing in my body. Later, when I was walking back around the road with the pie I bought for lunch, I felt a brief sharp pain where the needle went in; but nothing else. Everyone says it’s 24 hours after you have the jab that the serious side-effects begin. I’m sanguine, with a little bit of anticipatory excitement, like waiting for a trip to come on.

image: Apeng (Kurrajong Flower) Dreaming; by Katie Kemarre


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Review of Daniel Thomas, Recent Past – Writing Australian Art

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Love in Tonga

Also amongst my father’s books is one called A True Tale of Love in Tonga / told in 23 engravings on wood and 333 words by Robert Gibbings, which Faber & Faber published in London in 1935. The flimsy red paper cover, with its image of two lovers surfacing from beneath the sea, is falling to bits; beneath it, back and front, is a splendid image of a black palm tree on a yellow ground standing before ocean waves. There is no name or date on the flyleaf and no indication anywhere else in the book as to where and when my father bought it nor for how much. Or was it a gift?

Robert Gibbings was an Irishman from County Cork, the son of a minister and his wife, an antiquarian. He fought at Gallipoli, was wounded, then repatriated. He studied medicine for three years but after the war decided he wanted to be a wood block artist instead. His early work was in advertising but, by 1923, he was illustrating Samuel Butler’s Erewhon; and soon after, with a loan, he bought Golden Cockerel Press, where he worked for a decade with, among others, Eric Gill. He was most proud of publishing a luxurious four volume edition of The Canterbury Tales; and, subsequently, The Four Gospels, both of which Gill illustrated.

Gibbings’ connection with the Pacific was serendipitous. He had illustrated A Mirror for Witches by Esther Forbes for Houghton Mifflin and when he sent the blocks to Houghton in Boston, he said, jokingly, in the covering letter: ‘Next time you give me a job, for God’s sake send me to the South Seas―I’m sick of English fogs.’ However the publishers took him seriously and commissioned him to illustrate a book on Tahiti to be written by James Norman Hall, author, with Charles Nordhoff, of the novel The Mutiny on the Bounty and its two sequels, Men against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island.

Gibbings went out via Sydney to Papeete and spent four months in French Polynesia, during which time he also visited the Marquesas Islands. Hall’s text never eventuated but Gibbings nevertheless published two books from his Tahitian sojourn. Iorana, a semi-fictional account of his time in the islands, came out in two versions, one bowdlerised, the second complete; he later disavowed both of them.

The other book was based upon a tale he heard on the beach: The Seventh Man, a True Cannibal Tale of the South Sea Islands / told in Fifteen Wood-Engravings and precisely one hundred and eighty-nine words. Published in a limited edition by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1930 and never reprinted, it is now very rare; nevertheless, it provided the template for the one my father owned: a small, square wood cut print on each recto, with the bare minimum of words above and below, describing the action; verso blank.

For A True Tale of Love in Tonga, Gibbings used a story told by William Mariner, the fourteen year old boy spared after the massacre of the crew of the privateer the Port au Prince off Lifuka in the Ha’apai group in 1806. Mariner lived four years in Tonga and afterwards, with an editor, wrote an account of the islands and their culture; the transliterations of the names are Mariner’s own.

Gibbings opens with an image of the high chief, the Tooi-Tonga, as an aging tyrant surrounded by piles of skulls. His rival Veachi intends to overthrow him but the plot is revealed by a traitor and Veachi and all of his family are condemned to death. They are to be bound and placed sitting upright in leaky canoes which are then sent out beyond the reef where they will fill slowly with water then sink beneath the waves.

Veachi’s daughter Lyfotoo is, however, absent when her people are captured, and Toio-omoo, a chief of Vavaoo, who is in love with her, runs to warn her of the danger. He conceals her in a cave, off the island of Hoonga, whose entrance can only be reached by diving under the sea; he found it while fishing for turtles. He continues to visit her each night with food and water, always returning to Vavaoo before dawn; until he and his kinsfolk are ready to sail to Figi to wait out the reign of the Tooi-Tonga.

Toio-omoo is asked why he doesn’t take a Tongan wife with him to Figi and replies, mysteriously, that perhaps he may find one along the way. Off Hoonga he dives over the side of his canoe and disappears; returning, some time later, with a comely woman by his side; whom his kinsfolk recognise as Lyfotoo. They spend two years in Figi then, when the tyrant dies, return to Vavaoo where they ‘lived happily ever after’.

It seems to me that my father might have seen analogies between this tale and his own encounter with the Tongan girl on Tongatapu in 1943 or 44. Or perhaps I am being fanciful. In the absence of any solid evidence, I still think he must have acquired this book after his war service was over; that is, in the mid to late 1940s when he and my mother were, apart from a year spent in Dunedin, living in Wellington.

Oddly enough, Robert Gittings was also living there for six months around the same time, suggesting the possibility of a direct connection. He left England for the South Seas on VJ Day and spent eighteen months on a leisurely tour of the islands, visiting Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, the Tokelaus, the Tuamotus and Tahiti; with a side trip to New Zealand. He had a friend in Dunedin, John Harris, the librarian at the University of Otago, whom he’d known at Oxford in the 1920s.

When he visited Harris he gave him five vellum sheets, three from The Canterbury Tales and two from John Keats’ Lamia, for the library; one of the sheets from the Tales was illustrated by Eric Gill. It might have been through Harris that Gibbings met the artist Russell Clark, then working in advertising in Wellington. The two became friends and Clark made a caricature of Gill which was published in the NZ Listener in 1948. He shows him naked, bearded, garlanded, on top of a wave in a small dugout canoe, while the sun beats down from above and round about the flying fishes play.

Clark had been an early teacher of Colin McCahon, whose sister Bea married my father’s friend Noel Parsloe after the war. Gibbings spent his six months in Wellington holed up in a house in Eastbourne with his wife’s sister as his amanuensis, typist and lover, working on the book he was writing about his Pacific Island travels. Over the Reefs, with engravings by the author, came out from J M Dent and Sons in 1948 and is as charming, as evocative and as elusive as was Gibbings himself.

He does not write much about New Zealand therein, confining himself, in chapter 25, to some brief remarks about its bird life including, of course, the kiwi; which he drew, humorously, with a worm wriggling near the tip of its long curving beak.

While Gibbings was in Eastbourne, my father and mother were living in Salek Street in Lyall Bay, in a house temporarily vacated by friends who had gone to Auckland. No car, no phone; non-descript furniture, typical of rented dwellings of the time: the squeaky wirewoves and lumpy kapok of their beds, the ancient cream and green painting of their kitchens.

My father established the first of his many luxuriant vegetable gardens—carrots, leeks, cabbages, beans, lettuce—in the unpromising sandy earth, while my mother grew marigolds, asters, sweet peas, delphiniums and ranunculus out the front. He had a rehab bursary that allowed him to study towards an MA in Education; in the holidays he worked painting the high wooden gates down on the wharves.

She was teaching at South Miramar Primary School, just over the hill in Worser Bay. It was 1947 and she was pregnant; their first child, my sister Virginia, was born towards the end of that year, around the time that Robert Gibbings departed for England.

I like to think of my father going down Lambton Quay to Modern Books one evening after work or study and finding there on the shelves a brand new copy of A True Tale of Love in Tonga, buying it and bringing it home: to show to his wife? Or not?

When I talk about analogies with his own experience, I mean he might have thought the woman Lyfotoo in the cave beneath the sea resembled the unnamed girl he met in the fale in the village on Tongatapu; with one difference. Unlike Toio-omoo, he did not return; but left her there, abandoned as it were at a fork in the road which she, and he, would never take.

Whether he felt abandoned himself it is impossible to say. He might have had regrets whatever happened. His true tale of love in Tonga had no issue but the enigmatic presence of the Gibbings, the only art book he ever owned, in his library; and my uneasy stewardship of both the physical object and its equivocal, perhaps illusory, meanings.

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Wild Wild Life


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 rosemary 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 of the pot 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 stripes 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 in another water logged pot down by the compost bin. Later I found a second one, dead, beneath the ex-rosemary pot’s saucer, as if the rain 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 used to stand. Last summer we did get one or two small sweet fruit from it but the birds ate the rest. Serendipitously, I associate blueberries with leeches because, one time when we were visiting a blueberry farm near Wamberal, I took one of the boys down into a gully so he could go to the toilet; and while there we were attacked by leeches. Jesse, who was four or five at the time, screamed and ran and I had to go after him and catch him and pick him up and pick the leeches off his legs. They have a toothed 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 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, slugs gather around the pale purple lilly pilly berries fallen from the myrtle hedge onto the concrete. Their mucous trails make silvery webs. Or labyrinths at the heart of which lies a disintegrating fruit. It takes the slugs days, or 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. Except when they crawl through the air vents and I stand on one as I walk around the house.

Today at my desk, after our swim, I felt something 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 upon 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 outside. Whether it was the same one that was on my neck in the study, or another, I do not know.

Last February, after I returned from Japan, there was a deluge that lasted several days. It was the heaviest rain on record―since the time before. 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 obviously continue to do so. During this storm I realised our house, which we bought only recently, 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 the land tends downhill. As did the rain, roaring on the roof, pouring through the gutters, flooding into the drains.

When it stopped, and I was on my way down the side of the house to put the rubbish and the recycling into the bins, I met 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 amongst the clippings I’d left to rot on the ground after the last time I clipped the myrtle hedge. It hopped, unhurriedly, across the path and into an open grill that leads under the house. Just before it went in 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 it 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 seemed quite at home in the broad daylight. The third possibility is that it’s some kind of marsupial. An antechinus perhaps. There are fifteen varieties of these here; it is 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 or night.

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 Mayu and I were sitting outside and saw a couple of them scurrying along the top of the green metal fence that divides this house from the one next door. They were smaller than the one upon the path, about half the size; but 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.

The people who sold us this house had two growing children and one 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 must have fallen through the cracks in the timber and, once the hutch was gone, 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 for them. After a while, the patch was only visited, several times a day, by a pair of spotted doves; later we started feeding them on the lawn.

We bought the seed mix from a 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 was, did. Over a number of days we watched one come out from under the house near the washing line, hop across the grass and then spend some time among the seeds, apparently stuffing its cheeks with 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 surprised an animal out there, it hid behind the compost bin. There is what looks like the entrance to a burrow, now plugged, 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 back around the other side of the bin. Again it saw me and again retreated. Glossy and bright eyed. I walked away.

After that we stopped seeing them for a while. Perhaps they had stored enough grain for the winter; or eaten enough to make hibernation possible; if they hibernate. There’s clearly a family living under the house, the little mouse-like ones, the middle-sized ones we saw hopping along the fence, the big grand 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 very much alike and when our pair first started visiting, we spent some time learning to distinguish one from the other. The male, who always flies down first, has a slimmer body, a whiter head, and a pointy tuft at the throat; the female is plumper, shyer and with a more purpled head.

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 way he started to flirt 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 his cloaca. She responded by giving him food; and perhaps that was the point. She’d talk to him too, and he grew accustomed to her voice. He seems to like 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’s visited a few times. Was she dead? Did they break up? Or was she sitting on a nest somewhere? And then she came back. 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.

Then, a couple of times, they made love before us on the deck. They would hop up, bill and coo, then she would settle down and plump up her feathers and wait for him. He’d strut around a bit, with his chest puffed out. If, in his afflatus, he forgot about her, she’d remind him with a peck or two.

After they’d consummated, they’d both perch on the edge of the deck and make a tender, triumphant sound. Calling out to their peers perhaps. Or to their descendants. Not long after that I found some pieces of egg shell on the lawn under the myrtle tree that grows beside the compost bin. They are sitting next to the Buddha now, on the ochre sill below the laundry window.

Apparently spotted dove 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. We are now feeding the children, or the grand children, of the original pair. Not with supermarket seed, we go to a pet shop now. No preservatives, the punky girl that served me said. No additives.

Halfway down Peace Lane, where I walk most days, there’s a cohort of a dozen or so spotted doves, including several juveniles. They are slimmer than ours, perhaps because they live mostly on crumbs of white bread left out by the ancient Greeks whose back yards open onto the lane way. Spotted doves breed all year round but most commonly between September and December. Perhaps by next year we’ll have an even bigger family of doves visiting the lawn in our back yard.


When you buy property, you also buy an ecosystem. Or a portion of an ecosystem. We are living over what was once a swamp, in a valley 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, in an essay on Gumbramorra, records: 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, mostly near the river, in Midjuburri, now called Marrickville. There was so much edible stuff, she says. Black shelled mussels, other shellfish, eels and the reeds with their sweet tubers. When the myall wattle, Acacia binervia, flowered, it meant the mullet would be running in the river.

It wasn’t all about food. 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. Early European settlers, however, avoided Gumbramorra. It was useful to them only for watering cattle or for digging up clay in order to make bricks.

All that changed during a drought in the 1880s, when the swamp dried out, leaving bare flat clay beds behind. One Thomas Saywell drew up a plan for a new suburb there, 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 to be built, and put the estate on the market. The blocks were small, prices were low, terms were easy and a real estate frenzy ensued. The buyers were working people, labourers, cab drivers, railway workers and, for some reason, a large number of widows. Locals who lived nearby knew Tramvale flooded―they had seen it under water―but, in 1882, Gumbramorra 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 down 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 and turned into a reserve. Another example was in Centennial Park, a series of ponds created out of 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 was attained. The most vulnerable areas were rezoned and are given over to light industry. Those paint and automobile shops on the other side of Illawarra Road.

Meanwhile the brick pits, emptied of their clay, filled up with water. They were used by local kids as swimming holes; but they 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.

The one at the end of our street was made over into a velodrome that was used during the 1938 Empire Games. The closing ceremony was held there, with a crowd of about 40,000 attending. Henson Park is still 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, Ray Goodwin, who used to live here 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 ancient: if they are ship rats, they will have been here since the First Fleet arrived in 1788. 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. Hasn’t there been enough killing? What else might die?

Anyway, if this whole suburb is rat-infested, with entrenched populations, if 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, and the year after too. 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. When I mentioned the animal that might have been a marsupial he gave me a long level look and said a single word: rodents.

It was December, 2019, at the height of the Black Summer bushfires, the first time he came. He told us his wife, a Dharug 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 out at Badgerys Creek. He said his wife said that other indigenous people out west, from a different mob, reckoned the fires we were having then 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 Cook’s 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 the 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 the other night when I saw a cockroach just above the sink on the kitchen wall. Blattodea are a very old species. This was a big one, with a white stripe along the outside of its wings. I’ve always thought, on no good authority, that they are native. Garden cockroaches, we used to say. It was immobile and stayed still while I trapped it under a glass, slid a postcard between the mouth of the tumbler and the wall, upended the glass then took it outside, where I let it go among the plants edging the lawn.

How did it get inside? Under the door perhaps. How do the ants, which cluster in the kitchen, enter the house? Today I saw dozens of them gathering around the twin power points on the wall next to the stove, for what purpose I do not know. Most of them will end up dead, from a surfeit of electrons perhaps, making a scatter of black cyphers upon the white bench below. The same fate awaits those which assemble around the hinges of the doors that close the pantry cupboard: what are they eating? Glue made from cow bones? 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 a house that’s more than a hundred years old, as this one is, and built over a swamp. Walls are one of the membranes and they too let things in.

Last winter we had to have 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 floor. Moisture seeps in the windows too. Sometimes when we woke up, the insides of the glass were dripping with condensation. It couldn’t just have been our breath, there was too much of it.


Our own skin, which we 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 and then go on to invade other bodily parts; the brain, the liver, the kidneys. After that they explode, in an orgy of generation, and we cough or breath them out, so that they can infect the cells of others. Our bodies, too, are ecosystems.

I find the continuity between self and others reassuring. I like the feeling of extension, and the implied interdependence of 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 seedlings. I don’t 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 a corner of the garden, is actually a camellia, now covered in pink and white flowers; camellia is the plant from whose leaves we make tea. These ones, as if blushing at the thought of their own beauty, bend their heads down over the lawn.

Now and again a moon-coloured flower falls, to lie resplendent and rotting amongst the seedlings of whatever is growing there. The doves too, pink and grey, look elegant when they come down to feed on the seeds we leave out for them. As for the dusky antechinus, if that’s what they are, who knows? They are younger than us, and have been here for very much longer.

image : path down the side of the house, after rain

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The Daring

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silk-neckerchief.jpg

The schooner Daring was a built on the beach at Mangawhai in 1863 by Donald McInnes, a young Nova-Scotian, and wrecked twice in the next two years. Once in 1864 off Waikato Heads, after which she was repaired and re-floated; and once again on Muriwai Beach near the southern entrance to the Kaipara Harbour in 1865 when, during a storm, her skipper ran her aground in an attempt to save the crew and the ship’s sails and fittings. The cargo, grass seed, was unsalvageable. The crew survived and many of the fittings also, and were sent south by boat; this too, unfortunately, foundered. Her owner, a fraudster called Kirkbride, absconded with some West Coast gold, taking a Japanese circus from Yokohama to San Francisco. The Daring was lost, buried by shifting sands, for one hundred and fifty years until in 2018 she re-appeared. She is in the process of being restored to the state she was in when re-found; and will be displayed at the Mangawhai Museum, not far from where she was made all those years ago. Various items were found within her, including ballast stones, an anchor and a chain, a single shoe, a straw hat, coins, a cup, clay pipes, multiple wine bottle caps―and a neckerchief. ‘When I first saw it,’ said conservator Susanne Grieve Rawson, ‘it was a grey little curled up ball. I cleaned off the sediments, carefully unfolded it and gave it a wash and a dry.’ The neckerchief, an intricate artefact, is made of grey silk which carries upon it, in amongst swelling clouds and blowing winds, imagery derived from Freemasonry. A summary of the motifs upon it follows:

Hebrew script, a pair of dividers, a six pointed star

A candelabra with seven candles lit

The Rosy Cross

A temple in Greek or Roman style

A nest of birds upon the water

Letters: A L G / D C A / D L

A rooster

A square wooden cross with the letters, clockwise from the top, I S N B, at the angles between the verticals and horizontals; maybe the N is an R

A mirror giving forth rays of light

An animal, the lamb of god, lying over a casket, probably the ark of the covenant

A gavel and a sickle, crossed

Two hands shaking

A nine pointed star made from three interlocking triangles

A dagger surrounded by flowers–but-remains-shrouded-in-mystery?rm=a

image ; the neckerchief before cleaning

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The Challen

Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been ninety-seven, something that most of the time she was alive seemed quite likely to happen―until one day, without warning, as she rose from her chair and crossed the room to answer the telephone, her aorta burst and she fell to the floor and died. Years later, in Oxford, I met the person who made that last call. I say ‘without warning’ but she did take pills to keep her blood pressure down and she did have an enlarged heart. One of my sisters tells me she has the same condition, it is hereditary, better managed these days. As an adolescent I always joked that her birthday, April 2, was really April 1 and so she was a Big April Fool. She’d laugh; she liked the conceit; so when I started feeling like a goon saying it, and stopped, she never really understood why. I should perhaps have told her that I’d rather have celebrated her real birthday. How many times over the years has it fallen on Good Friday, I wonder; there must have been a few. This one is special because it coincides with the determination of the fate of her piano. And thereby hangs a tale. When her father, Lewis Scott, understood that his bowel cancer was terminal he decided to set his affairs in order. I remember her telling me how he would sit up in bed, methodically closing accounts and terminating business relationships. He was a painter who worked for, among others, New Zealand railways, painting railway stations; it’s possible that the lead in the paint gave him the cancer, for he was otherwise healthy, with no vices, and a strong commitment to fresh food, fresh air and exercise. Amongst his preparations was the liquidation of various of his assets―those he wanted to hand on to his four children. He wished to avoid paying death duties or any other taxes upon them and so took the banknotes and bundled them up and buried them in the garden of the large property he and my grandmother owned at Pyes Pa near Tauranga. Maps of the location of this buried treasure were given to those who were to inherit the cash; when my father received ours, he drove up to Pyes Pa and, by torchlight, at night, dug up the money. I don’t know how much of it there was and I didn’t know what they spent it upon―until this week. The other day, one of my younger sisters emailed the rest of us to say she is selling her house and moving somewhere smaller; she won’t be able to take the family piano with her. In the conversation that followed, it turned out this was what that money was used for: a piano; and a sewing machine. I wonder where they bought it. Whanganui perhaps. It is a small upright, a Challen, made of blonde wood, and without the high back most older uprights used to have. A bit of research suggests that they were a good mid-range piano, sweet sounding and reliable and preferred by the BBC as their standard instrument in the years I am talking about; that is, the 1950s. In fact there’s one identical to ours in Abbey Road studios in London. Every time my parents threw a party people ended up around that piano singing. At Christmas that’s where we sang the carols. Each night, before we went to sleep, my mother would play a series of tunes to which we children did the actions, becoming elephants or frogs before scampering off chanting this is the way we go to bed, go to bed, go to bed . . . Later my sisters, interminably, practiced their scales upon it. Now, however, none of us has room for it. Nor do any of our children. And so it will most likely be given to the primary school where my sister’s two granddaughters go and end up as a school piano. Which seems about right.

images: Lauris, Lindsay, and Clive, c.1929; the Challen in Abbey Road

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a dream

I woke up early and, leaving my companion sleeping, went out of the hotel and down the hill to the town. It was an Asian town, named after some saint; but I did not know which the saint it was. However I did know we were on the island of Sulawesi. Down the steep and crooked streets I went towards the port; on a flat stretch near to the sea, at a roadside food stall, I heard music playing. It was Harry Belafonte singing ‘Jamaica Farewell’, aka ‘The Kingston Boat Song’ and there were attractive young people dancing, a girl in a tight shiny blue-green dress like a cheongsam, a boy in dark trousers and white shirt, both barefoot. Across the road there was a place serving breakfast so I joined the crowd there, under a canvas roof before wooden benches where vats of food stood steaming. You paid your money and were given a piece of hollow bread, which you filled with a fragrant meat stew of some kind. I was the only white person there; I waited my turn. After I served myself I stepped outside and bit into my sandwich and it was delicious; though I still did not know what it was. The boy and girl from before re-appeared, the song began again and I joined in the dancing, holding them both in my arms, feeling the shiny fabric of the girl’s dress under one hand while the other cupped a blade of the boy’s thin shoulders. I felt bad about breakfasting alone and started to make my way back towards the hotel, hulked high up on its promontory above the town. The streets were narrow and crowded and I couldn’t find the way. At some stairs in a steep place I stepped around two American men standing outside a shop speaking English and wondered if I should ask them; but they were brash and loud and might not have known anyway. I was still troubled by the name of the town: Saint . . . saint . . . saint what? All I knew was that we were north of Makassa but not as far north as Parepare: I have never been to Sulawesi but have often studied it on a map. I came out onto a flat place where there were many market stalls and at one of them saw some delicate children’s toys, birds and animals and dolls on fluffy sticks, that I wanted to photograph. But my phone had become encased in wicker and the screen was unresponsive; by the time I got the camera function enabled, the display had changed and the composition had gone. The woman whose stall it was smiled ruefully at me. On the other side of the row was a parking bay full of big Russian automobiles. They were powder blue and pale green and negligee pink, gleaming with chrome and covered in gadgetry. More outré than the most outré of American cars of the 1950s; but in style similar. They were like stationary space ships and I admired their elaborate exhaust systems, the serried ranks of shining pipes, particularly. I was still anxious about how to find the way back to the hotel but not as anxious as I had been before. As soon as I had that realisation I woke up – in our bed in our hotel room on the third floor of the Mantra Hotel in Ettalong Beach. And just for a moment thought the town really was down there, past the transparent curtains pulled across the windows, the white balcony slicked with rain, the blue pool.

photo : Mayu Kanamori

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