How It Strikes A Contemporary



I only knew one poet in my life:
And this, or something like it, was his way.

You saw go up and down Valladolid,
A man of mark, to know next time you saw.
His very serviceable suit of black
Was courtly once and conscientious still,
And many might have worn it, though none did:
The cloak, that somewhat shone and shewed the threads,
Had purpose, and the ruff, significance.
He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane,
Scenting the world, looking it full in face,
An old dog, bald and blindish, at his heels.
They turned up, now, the alley by the church,
That leads no whither; now, they breathed themselves
On the main promenade just at the wrong time.
You’d come upon his scrutinising hat
Making a peaked shade blacker than itself
Against the single window spared some house
Intact yet with its mouldered Moorish work—
Or else surprise the ferrel of his stick
Trying the mortar’s temper ‘tween the chinks
Of some new shop a-building, French and fine.
He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognisance of men and things,
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note;
Yet stared at nobody—they stared at him,
And found, less to their pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know them and expect as much.
So, next time that a neighbour’s tongue was loosed,
It marked the shameful and notorious fact,
We had among us, not so much a spy,
As a recording chief-inquisitor,
The town’s true master if the town but knew!
We merely kept a Governor for form,
While this man walked about and took account
Of all thought, said, and acted, then went home,
And wrote it fully to our Lord the King
Who has an itch to know things, He knows why,
And reads them in his bedroom of a night.
Oh, you might smile! there wanted not a touch,
A tang of . . . well, it was not wholly ease
As back into your mind the man’s look came.
Stricken in years a little—such a brow
His eyes had to live under!—clear as flint
On either side the formidable nose
Curved, cut, and coloured, like an eagle’s claw,
Had he to do with A.’s surprising fate?
When altogether old B. disappeared
And young C. got his mistress, was’t our friend,
His letter to the King, that did it all?
What paid the bloodless man for so much pains?
Our Lord the King has favourites manifold,
And shifts his ministry some once a month;
Our city gets new Governors at whiles—
But never word or sign, that I could hear,
Notified to this man about the streets
The King’s approval of those letters conned
The last thing duly at the dead of night.
Did the man love his office? Frowned our Lord,
Exhorting when none heard—”Beseech me not!
Too far above my people—beneath Me!
I set the watch—how should the people know?
Forget them, keep Me all the more in mind!”
Was some such understanding ‘twixt the Two?

I found no truth in one report at least—
That if you tracked him to his home, down lanes
Beyond the Jewry, and as clean to pace,
You found he ate his supper in a room
Blazing with lights, four Titians on the wall,
And twenty naked girls to change his plate!
Poor man, he lived another kind of life
In that new, stuccoed, third house by the bridge,
Fresh-painted, rather smart than otherwise!
The whole street might o’erlook him as he sat,
Leg crossing leg, one foot on the dog’s back,
Playing a decent cribbage with his maid
(Jacynth, you’re sure her name was) o’er the cheese
And fruit, three red halves of starved winter-pears,
Or treat of radishes in April. Nine,
Ten, struck the church clock, straight to bed went he.

My father, like the man of sense he was,
Would point him out to me a dozen times;
“St—St,” he’d whisper, “the Corregidor!”
I had been used to think that personage
Was one with lacquered breeches, lustrous belt,
And feathers like a forest in his hat,
Who blew a trumpet and proclaimed the news,
Announced the bull-fights, gave each church its turn,
And memorized the miracle in vogue!
He had a great observance from us boys—
We were in error; that was not the man.

I’d like now, yet had haply been afraid,
To have just looked, when this man came to die,
And seen who lined the clean gay garret-sides
And stood about the neat low truckle-bed,
With the heavenly manner of relieving guard.
Here had been, mark, the general-in-chief,
Thro’ a whole campaign of the world’s life and death,
Doing the King’s work all the dim day long,
In his old coat, and up to his knees in mud,
Smoked like a herring, dining on a crust,
And, now the day was won, relieved at once!
No further show or need for that old coat,
You are sure, for one thing! Bless us, all the while
How sprucely we are dressed out, you and I!
A second, and the angels alter that.
Well, I could never write a verse—could you?
Let’s to the Prado and make the most of time.

Robert Browning, c. 1855


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Ulimaroa : An Excavation


Half a life time ago I came in to the great sea port of Poihakena; in the fabled land of Ulimaroa. It was May 18, 1981, a date you can write as a palindrome. Bob Marley had died the week before, on May 11, at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, of complications attendant upon a rare skin cancer—acral lentiginous melanoma—and we were mourning him still. Jah would never give the power to a baldhead, he sang all the way across the Tasman. Run come crucify the Dread / Time alone, oh time will tell / Think you in heaven but you living in hell. I was with my then partner, Jan Preston. Coup d’Etat, the pop reggae band she’d formed, with Neil Hannan and Harry Lyon, in 1980, had disintegrated. Jan left because she didn’t like the drummer and also because she disapproved of the record company’s choice of the next single from their debut album. She intended putting a new band together in Sydney.

I’d crewed over the summer in the art department on an American film being shot in Auckland—Shadowlands, released as Dead Kids—and conceived the idea of studying screen-writing; there was a course for writers experienced in other genres to learn how to do that on offer at the AFTRS—the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in North Ryde, which Gough Whitlam had set up in 1972. We’d both been brutally arrested during a confrontation with police following a Crocodiles gig at the Windsor Castle in Parnell in August, 1980 and that was factor too; along with the knowledge that New Zealand was about to descend into the chaos occasioned by the Springbok rugby tour of 1981. We decided to join the exodus of musicians and hangers-on in search of better times.

I was one of the hangers-on, a lighting guy; but, apart from my desire to learn screen-writing—temporarily thwarted when AFTRS declined my application—I also had literary ambitions. My current obsession was with Pacific history: for me an amalgam of half-fictional personal experience, atavistic yearnings for a primitivist past and a genuine interest in what has happened in our part of the world since—well, since humans came here. This obsession arrived unexpectedly and had something (but what?) to do with my recent return to the country of my birth after a period spent overseas, booking music gigs and lighting theatre shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London and many other places in between.

It was raining as the taxi drove in from Kingsford Smith airport, through the dreary unrenovated suburbs of Mascot and Alexandria and Redfern, to the Springfield Lodge in Kings Cross; and it kept on raining for the next two weeks. Our room had paper thin walls through which we heard, each morning, the next door residents TV set cough into life; and a view of the CBD. By day it showed a grey, monochrome city, veiled by drifting clouds; by night, buildings crowned by fugitive neons advertising commercial entities. It looked like something out of Bladerunner (1982). The Manzil Room was just down from the Springfield Lodge so we went there most nights. Jan became infatuated with an all girl band called Garbo: a reference to Greta, but also to what the men who collect the rubbish were called; though I didn’t know that then.

We became friends, briefly, with Garbo’s rhythm section; I can’t now remember their names. Two big blond lesbian girls who laughed a lot; one, the bass player, bigger than the other. The room was long and narrow, with small tables along the south wall where people sat playing interminable games of backgammon; they were sallow and thin and seemed contemptuous though were perhaps just stoned. Further along that same wall was the bar; beyond that the toilets famous for seductions, amorous trysts or just sex; the girls a kind of sanctum sanctorum where young men underwent lubricious initiation. The carpet squelched, the food (required for licensing purposes) was uneatable, clouds of yellow cigarette smoke hung in the air . . . the music was good.

I don’t recall wondering what the name might have meant nor anyone else speculating upon it either: not even a mystery. Manzil is in fact the word for any of the seven parts into which the Koran is divided for the purpose of recitation of the entire text in a week. Also for the set of verses (prescribed, chanted out loud) which prevent Sihr, black magic, from having its malign effect. Years later I found out the reason it was called that was mundane: the owner, Joe someone or other, came from the north of England and in those parts there was a chain of curry houses called Manzil. The room was originally a restaurant; it morphed it over the years into the nightclub / venue but kept its curry house name.

I had hardly any money but, as luck would have it, at a party I met a sailor from the Merchant Marine who lived, as so many New Zealanders in those days did, out at Bondi; and in his time ashore drove a cab to earn a bit of pocket money. Graeme, the brother of Roger, of Flying Nun fame, suggested that I might do the same. I took his advice, enrolled at the taxi school in Glenmore Road, Paddington and was, within a matter of weeks, driving myself. I was only ever part time—three or four shifts a week. Also I worked nights, which meant I didn’t have to turn up at Whale Carwash in Bondi Junction until mid-afternoon. On weekends we would go out to hear bands. In the mornings, and on days off, I trawled bookshops and haunted libraries. It was a good life, in a town that was, in those days, louche and wild and free.

The party where I met Graeme Shepherd was at Lud and Lexie’s place in Thomas Street, just behind busy Cleveland Street in the lost suburb of Golden Grove. It was held, I think, to welcome us to town. I’d known Lud since student days in Auckland in the early 1970s; Lexie too, though I’m not sure if they were together then. They certainly were later in the decade in Wellington, during the early Red Mole years. Lud (Roland Girvan) was a white Polynesian; though born in Scotland, he had grown up in New Guinea and Samoa and Fiji, where his father worked for one of the island traders, either W H Carpenter or Morris Hedstrom. Despite his relaxed, slow manner, Lud owned a formidable intellect and, as a committed hedonist, a refined taste in food, drink and drugs of all descriptions.

Since I’d seen him last, a few years before, he had given up writing and become a painter of colourful abstracts; as his father, an amateur, had also been. Lud owned a beautiful constructivist work his Dad had done sometime before, distraught at the demise of his wife, he’d shut himself up in his bedroom and drunk himself to death. Whisky. Lud had been away at school in Auckland when his mother died; I’m unsure of the interval between his mother’s and his father’s deaths; I believe he was orphaned in his teens. He had a brother in Melbourne and that was it. He always seemed, if not remote, then somehow lordly and isolate in his splendour and his preternatural grace and calm.

Lexia Murrell is a vivid, tempestuous woman from a working class Irish family in Glen Innes, Auckland. She is an artist too; she has been drawing as long as I’ve known her; an accomplished draftswoman and a fine painter in a figurative style which I suppose would have to be called naïve; if it is admitted that the naïve may include the sophisticated. Neither Lud nor Lexie had any formal training but both possessed an innate sense of style; they made the unpromising rectangular yard out the back of the small terrace house in Golden Grove into a garden from a Rousseau painting. Lud was also growing an impressive marijuana crop in black sandy soil under green corrugated fibre-glass panels in an old clawfoot bath next to the outside dunny at the other end of section; where there was a rickety wooden gate leading to the laneway behind.

Jean and Arthur were also at that party in Thomas Street. Arthur Baysting, it was said, had to flee New Zealand after his avatar, Neville Purvis, said ‘fuck’ on TV: the first ever to do so. When I suggested to him he had thereby become an exile he said: Nah, that’s too romantic for me. Jean Clarkson, like Lexie, like Lud, made art. I’d known Jean and Arthur since Red Mole days in Wellington too; though, in fact, the first time I met Arthur was in Auckland at the end of 1972. My university lecturers, in despair of my determination not to sit my final exams, sent me round to his flat in Parnell because Arthur was preparing an anthology of writing about Auckland to which they thought I might be able to contribute. The flat, upstairs in Ayr Street, was full of stuffed birds on pedestals. Jean was drawing bird-headed humans at the time; she had borrowed them from the museum. I was too over-awed to offer Arthur anything for the anthology; which I don’t think eventuated.

Arthur always seemed to have projects in hand. He was a bona fide screen-writer, with credits (Sleeping Dogs, 1977) and he was writing more films, some of which got made; we attempted a collaboration but it went nowhere. He was equally involved in the music scene as a writer of lyrics; working with members of bands such as The Crocodiles, which included song-writers Tony Backhouse, Peter Dasent and Fane Flaws. But Arthur also acted as an impresario, organising and emceeing Kiwi Nights at the Astra Hotel in Bondi. They were like Red Mole shows, without the theatrics but with more music.

In those days Jean and Arthur were caretakers of a derelict mansion, called Canonbury, in Darling Point; at the northern tip of Yarranabbe Point. It had, most recently, operated as an annex to the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. A large, rambling, gothic-style brick and cement render place with a slate roof that had been built early in the twentieth century by Harry Rickards, a vaudeville actor and producer. After World War One it was bought by the Australian Jockey Club who used it as a convalescent hospital for returned men. I don’t know how Jean and Arthur got the gig but it was a good one. The most extravagant of the cocaine parties I went to in those years was there: mountains of powder on horizontal mirrors in the old hospital bathroom.

I wonder now if Diana was at that party in Golden Grove too? Perhaps not; but it was to her house in Gipps Street, Paddington, that we moved after we left the Springfield Lodge. Diana Cunninghayme was another I’d known for yonks; she used to live at #60 Grafton Road around the time, in 1973, I lived next door at #56. More recently she had been with my good friend Gerard Smithyman; and then with a future friend, Chris Moody, the famous Toy Love roadie. Diana was one of those intensely desirable women who suffer for their looks. I once asked Chris how long they were together. He replied, with the slight stammer he had in those days: Th-three months or t-two years, whichever you prefer. I think he meant they remained flat-mates after they stopped being lovers.

Gipps Street was narrow and higgledy-piggledy and ran up the hill from near the beginning of the Oxford Street end of Glenmore Road. The house, like those around it, was a small, one storey terrace which appeared to have been made out of a combination of sandstone and cardboard, with a tiny concreted back yard where palms and frangi-pani trees grew in pots. I cannot now remember how we came to be living there nor who else was in the house. I think it must have been by invitation, in the casual way that pertained among my cohort in those days: we’ve got a spare bed you can sleep in, come round . . . that sort of thing. From memory the bed wasn’t even in a room but in a hallway of some sort.

Beside that bed, on a blue plastic milk crate, lay a book with a white and green cover showing a boneyard moon shining over impossibly jagged mountains: the peaks of the Cerro Torre in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina, which also feature in the 1991 Werner Herzog film Scream of Stone. It was the 1979 Picador edition of Bruce Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, cover art by David Bergen aka Hawkwood, and I read it all the way through to the end. Chatwin became an enthusiasm amongst us; we who took ourselves seriously as writers immediately set about imitating his sparse prose style and his attenuated, even fey, narrative gestures.

This might have been before Diana got together with Ken, whom we used to call Ken the Cocaine King, though I still associate him with that house; perhaps, like Moody, I first met him there. Ken was a tall, rangy, bullet-headed fellow with piercing blue eyes beneath his buzz-cut blond hair; a lawyer by training, he was a former swimming champ. Now he was end man for a syndicate bringing quantities of cocaine from Colombia via Tahiti to Queensland and thence south onto the streets of our town. Ken was enigmatic, charismatic, always carried a black briefcase, never said much, was generous with his drugs; there were nights, as at Canonbury, when it seemed we consumed mountains of powder almost as high as the Cerro Torre.

How he spent the money he made was unclear but he did announce one day that he wanted to start a record label. It was to be called Vinyl Voice and I still remember the hurt look on his face when I quipped: So long as it doesn’t become Final Voice. He booked a studio, and some time and, one day after we’d moved into Lud and Lexie’s old house in Golden Grove, turned up with a putative producer: a tall, mane-haired Texan in cowboy boots called W G ‘Snuffy’ Walden, once of Stray Dog, the Eric Burdon Band, Free; later the composer of scores for movies and TV shows, including that for The West Wing. Snuffy stretched out his considerable length along the floor of the tiny front room at Thomas Street and spoke of people he had played with as a session man in LA: Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan.

I don’t now recall why the recordings never went ahead; it could have been because, around this time, Ken began to look like a worried man. There was something wrong further up the line, he said, but we never knew what it was. In retrospect, it seems the problem may have been Ken’s generosity to his friends, allied with his own inordinate drug use, which left him in debt to the syndicate and also rendered him incapable of pursuing proper business strategies. I met him one day up the Cross when he was in the full flower of cocaine psychosis: a wreck of a man, shaking, muttering, twitching . . . while we were talking he accidently triggered the catches on his black briefcase—which I had never before seen the inside of—it fell open and there before my eyes were a half full bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a crumpled carton of Gauloise Bleu cigarettes. Nothing else. Ken left town not long afterwards and returned to Auckland, where he put his money into real estate and, I hear, did quite well.

I don’t remember now why Lud and Lexie moved out of 9 Thomas Street and invited us to go and live there instead: an act of simple generosity perhaps. Or were they sick of paying rent? They split up temporarily, strategically, as they used sometimes to do; I don’t know where Lexie went but Lud moved into a tin shed around the road that was probably cheaper but certainly less convenient. There was no bathroom, for instance, so he used to have to go up to the Aquatic Centre at Sydney University to shower and use the toilet; he must have been extremely disciplined. He was a keen swimmer and I owe to him my return to that salutary form of exercise. Somehow I got a gig as a stagehand at the Seymour Centre in Cleveland Street; as a casual employee of the university, that entitled me to the badge you needed to swim at the pool.

At Thomas Street, our lord and land lady were George and Mimi, a European couple, and when we went out to their house in Kogarah to sign the lease they sat us down opposite them at a tiny narrow table in a shadowy room and served coffee and cake which we ate and drank with our knees almost touching. George Berger, Viennese, Jewish, distinguished art historian, friend and colleague of the redoubtable Bernard Smith, was a comfortable bourgeois with a beard, a woollen suit and a confidential manner. Mimi Jaksic-Berger was a Serb, passionate, feral and strange; she hardly spoke. She was another painter and George had founded an art movement of which Mimi was the chief, perhaps the only, exponent. Abstract Impressionism, it was called. Every six months a typed letter from George would arrive in the letter box at Thomas Street notifying us of a rent rise to compensate for the loss of purchasing power of the Australian dollar. What about the purchasing power of my dollar? I would always think but never say; I never quite shook off a servile feeling I had when I dealt with George; as if I were only a pawn in his game.

image: Mimi Jaksic-Berger : Southern Cross; oil on linen; nd

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Where A Love Is Art


In 1971 I was living in a share house in Spring Street, Freemans Bay, Auckland when I found out that my girlfriend had been coerced into resuming an affair with an older man which had begun a couple of years before in England. I moved out—perhaps a mistake but at the time it felt necessary. I didn’t go far, just a few blocks up the hill to an old string factory in England Street where my girlfriend’s older sister lived with her boyfriend, Barry Linton. I had a wonderful room there, at the top of the building, which you reached by climbing some stone stairs, with views out over the harbour and the city. I felt as if I had arrived at some critical juncture of independence and grace. Maybe the place was a squat, I can’t recall. There was no kitchen but Jess and Barry had a small plug-in electrical stove, an electric jug and there was running water, a basin, toilet and so forth.

Barry used to wear homemade coloured cotton pants then, and T shirts with his own designs upon them. Sandals on his feet. There was always music playing on the stereo. The Doors. Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones. Joni Mitchell. The Who. I remember Jess telling me about the Hendrix track, ‘Belly Button Window’, from the album The Cry of Love: Well I’m up here in this womb / I’m lookin’ all around hmm mm mm / Well I’m lookin’ out my belly button window; and I almost remember a drawing Barry made of that situation. Young Jimi, inside his mum’s tummy, wondering if it’s safe to come out into a world of frowns. They were both kind to me without ever making it feel like I was beholden to them or a drag or anything like that. Unfortunately the String Factory didn’t last, the owner, who was a little old eastern European man, came in one morning and said: People sleeping in pairs on the floor! and evicted us. I went further up the hill to live in Piers Ardley’s house in Wood Street; but that’s another story.

In those days Barry’s drawings used to appear in the infrequent avant-garde literary magazine Freed (five issues, 1969-1972). They were gnomic, philosophically astute, amusing. I remember one that went Bye and bye they came upon a huge forest; but the forest was typographical, a F O R E S T. Barry had a light touch, even when he was being philosophical, with an eye to the absurdities of any situation and also a kind of idealism that was characteristic of those times but soon became deeply unfashionable; yet he was one of those rare people who was able to maintain his beliefs in the simple verities the hippies and the freaks at their best did promulgate and even tried to live by.

I re-encountered Barry a few years later when, at the end of 1977, Red Mole re-located from Wellington to Auckland and he began to draw the posters for our shows, beginning with Slaughter on Cockroach Avenue at Phil Warren’s The Ace of Clubs above the old Cook Street Market in November. Barry at this time also did the Red Mole logo, a mole with a cloth cap and wrap-around shades, a scarf, dancing inside a red circle that resembled, and was meant to resemble, the ring around the A in the Anarchist symbol. The next show we did in Auckland, Pacific Nights, was named after a T shirt Barry made and wore; he also wrote the lyrics and the music for the title song, which The Country Flyers played: Pacific nites, Pacific nites / I don’t want to cry / I don’t want to fight / Identify, everything is alright / Pacific nites, Pacific nites. Barry was a full blown reggae fan by then with a great collection of sides.

When the Moles went off to New York via Mexico in mid-1978, the band, calling itself Red Alert aka The Red Mole Orch., stuck around for a while longer doing gigs about town and Barry did our posters too. Both Red Alert and Red Mole posters he made were plastered over the walls of San Francisco and New York and London and many other cities in between: especially his Goin’ to Djibouti poster. Red Mole called their first show in the Big Apple by that name purely because they wanted to re-use Barry’s poster from their last show in NZ. In other words, they wrote the NY show, to some extent, around that poster. Barry was important to the theatre they made, particularly in the late seventies and early eighties and even into the nineties. All of those posters remain classics of their kind.

We came back to Auckland a couple of years later, split from the Moles and put another band together: Barry did the Coup d’Etat posters. We were living in Hackett Street in St Mary’s Bay and when you walked up St Mary’s Bay Road to Three Lamps in Ponsonby, halfway along you passed by a small two storey building which had been a corner shop; Barry lived upstairs. There was always music skanking out the windows, either from the stereo or else Barry playing his own guitar. If you called in, you would be offered a joint and a cup of tea and the chance to look at what he was drawing that day. I remember a whole series of portraits of Debbie Harry, from Blondie, he did at that time. Also a ten panel set illustrating Bob Marley’s album Kaya: one panel per song. I think that might have been a record company commission.

Halfway through 1981 I left Auckland for Sydney so I only saw Barry sporadically after that; but I had in my luggage his first comic book, Spud Takes Root; and have it still, along with a few other publications in which he is featured: for instance Hamilton Hometown, the 180th issue of Landfall, guest edited by Alan Brunton, includes an illustrated map of Hamilton he made; and an autobiographical strip, The Mighty Waikato, he drew and wrote about growing up there as a teenager.

Barry elaborated over time a cosmology which began with the birth of the Universe and culminated in Ancient Sumer, whose dating system he used to identify the age he had reached: his death, at the age of three score and ten plus one, occurred in the year 5778. How many miles to Babylon? He also wrote and drew an epic, the first installment of which is called Lucky Aki in the New Stone Age; it is set in a semi-mythical Polynesia which could be in the future, the past or perhaps in an alternative reality. It’s in three parts, only the first of which (I think) has been published, by Pikitea Press out of Melbourne. There’s another series set in Mayan Mesoamereica which bodies forth every peacable imagination you ever had of that place and time.

He was a major artist and his archive, which may prove immense enough to include versions of all of antiquity, must be preserved; I’m sure there are people abroad in Auckland and elsewhere who know this; and hope they are able to succeed in doing that. The last time I saw Barry was earlier this year, in February. I was in Auckland looking through the Red Mole archive. He was sitting outside Café 121 on Ponsonby Road when I went there to meet a friend on a Sunday afternoon. Sam Ford and Trudi Green were playing, and Barry was sitting effectively behind the stage, though the band was inside and he, out. Someone said: If he’s smoking he sits outside, if not, he comes in. Others told me: Barry has emphysema. As we were talking I noticed a couple of half-smoked tailor-made cigarettes in the ash tray in front of him; and that he had a packet of tobacco and some papers. It’s not possible that he did not know what he was doing.

We talked about the fate of his archive. You’re an educated man, he said. What do you think I should do? Where should it go? I mentioned Special Collections at the University of Auckland library, where the Red Mole papers are; or else the Turnbull Library in Wellington. Maybe I should have said the Auckland City Art Gallery as well. What he did or did not do I do not know. He was still there when I left the gig an hour or so later; talking to Rob Lomas: another old friend from long ago. The whole of the Ponsonby scene, which I’d left precipitately and for no good reason nearly forty years before, seemed to be there, intact and functioning, that afternoon. Barry Linton was central to it, a lynch pin.

In amongst the things I found in the Red Mole archive were several original drawings, including this one: Mona Magnet, who reappears in various strips over the years. B’long along long time . . .


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Carnival Legend



We embarked upon the Carnival Legend at four on a hot January afternoon. I had not been on a cruise ship before; had never boarded any vessel at the Sydney Overseas Terminal. At the time I was obsessed with Joseph Conrad and especially those periods in his youth he spent ashore at Australian ports; so after they let us on board and we stowed our luggage in our cabin, I went on deck and stood at the rail scanning the buildings at Circular Quay West, looking for remnants of nineteenth century architecture. There was the Sailors’ Home, beautifully restored, though not used to house sailors any more. The apostrophe a triangular sandstone relief chip, painted cream. Next door to that, a chapel where the wicked might once have gone to seek salvation; now a restaurant. The Rawson Institute for Seamen written across the front of that building still makes some people smile.

Here were once two large stones from which the Eora People used to fish in the waters of the cove. Here is the shore along which convict artist Joseph Lycett walked to meet, in 1814, at his house in Campbell’s Cove, the publisher Absalom West. Here is the Australasian Steam Navigation building, with four pulleys outside, a tower and a spire; next to that, the venerable Campbell’s Stores, where Joseph Conrad encountered an old sea captain who advised him to enter into the Sunda trade. His name was William Henry Eldred and he was then (1879) Australian Consul-General for Chile. Dover-born, Eldred went to sea aged 11 years and worked in Central America, and in the Chinese opium trade, before sailing his own ship, the barque the Caspar, in and out of what we now call the Indonesian archipelago; and to South America and back; seeking goods to buy and sell. Conrad did take his advice; but not until some years had passed.

I felt like a boy again, watching the Bondi tug turn our great ship around beneath the bridge and set her so she could steam directly away through the heads. A misty summer rain began to fall; and out on the open sea, in a strong nor-easter, the wild chopping water sent cascades of salt spray across the windows of the lookout at the bow where I stood. From there I saw the endlessness of the grey, white-tipped ocean; far veils of mist in the east where more rain was falling; an opaque, yellow-white sunset over a barely glimpsed dark line of land to the west. We were in a kind of capsule, hurtling through the outer space of our desires; which revolved, planetary like, impossibly, about our own expectations.


When you buy a ticket on the Carnival line, you also buy—along with an undersea cabin, without a porthole, in which to sleep—as much as you can eat from the many restaurants, bars and other food outlets upon the ship. You have to pay for your alcohol however. There were people aboard who seemed to be there just for that. To eat and drink, I mean. Some were grotesquely over weight; and still they ate and drank. Passengers were predominantly white people and attended at all times by phantom others; like thin dark ghosts. The wait staff mostly from Indonesia; or India; the cleaners from Thailand or the Philippines; the sailors, like sailors everywhere, anonymous, polyglot, itinerant.

The officers, dressed in immaculate white uniforms, were Russian. All of these people lived in a parallel world, behind yellow painted metal doors through which you could sometimes glimpse the other, far more utilitarian life, going on; but where we could not go. The captain was Chinese; and as we steamed south through the Tasman Sea, he addressed us over the tannoy in heavily accented but impeccably correct English, welcoming us aboard and telling us what we could expect of the voyage. One of the Russians told me later that we were travelling more slowly than the ship was capable of going in order to save fuel and also to keep to the timetable. To give us time to have our fun, he meant.

As well as the crew, the waiters and the cleaners, those who served behind the myriad bars and food counters, there were the entertainers. Musicians, singers, dancers; conductors of trivia sessions. Emcees of various kinds. Magicians, conjurers and mountebanks. Deejays too of course. There was an Entertainment Director who co-ordinated these activities, making his own announcements over the tannoy. I met him later, while queuing for a cup of coffee. His name was Lee. A twenty-something lost boy from the remote coastal town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, to which he had never returned. When I saw how disconsolate he was, I felt ashamed of my reaction to his interminable announcements. His constant exhortations that we all have fun. The way he rebuked people for not joining in. He said he’d lived on the ship for the last three years. He said his work was his life. I could not imagine how empty a life that might have been.


Of all the entertainments on offer, it was the art auctions that intrigued me most. They were under the auspices of Park West Gallery, a Detroit, Michigan-based entity which operates on over a hundred cruise ships worldwide; in a manner which probably does not vary much from ship to ship. Park West was founded in 1969 by Albert Scaglioni; he is still the CEO. Their business on cruise ships began in 1995, in partnership with Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. I don’t know when their connection with Carnival started; but they are a good fit. The Carnival Legend took Classical mythology as the theme for its décor; there were wall panels suggestive of nymphs and satyrs; or of the columns of Greek or Roman temples; representations of gods who might have been Aphrodite or Apollo, Hermes or Athena. None of this décor had any clarity; it functioned as wallpaper, giving you the suggestion of an antiquity in which a rash and violent hedonism was the prevailing mode of behaviour. As if you might be at an orgy.

The art auction took place in one of the theatres in the bowels of the ship, windowless, low light, red plush, with a smooth voiced South African auctioneer named Pierre and his able assistant Christopher, from North Carolina, touting the works of Park West’s stable of artists; some of whom—Peter Max, Yaacov Agam, Autumn de Forest—are art stars in the world of the wealthy and the meretricious. The works were displayed along the rows of seats in the auditorium, you could walk up and down examining what was for sale. The auction included many giveaways; but when my companion was lucky enough to ‘win’ one of these, she found she would have to spend several hundred dollars having the work framed and freighted from Miami, Florida to her home in Newcastle, Australia. She declined.

What was on offer: scantily clad young women, turning away, with lots of back showing; in meadows, in parlours, in dressing rooms. If in meadows, they had angelic looking children with them. Melancholy twenties girls, flappers, looking pensive and soulful, in pastel interiors. Paintings of flowers in vases, brightly coloured, ‘expressionist’, using lots of orange and red and black. Faux surrealism, with Dali the commonest source. There was one who specialised in paintings of elephants carrying cities on their backs. Hyper-realistic images of wild animals—leopards, tigers, lions, cheetahs and many wolves. An imitator of early Kandinsky, painting Italian landscapes in acid colours. Super real Asian city scapes, constructed out of collages made from thousands of photographs. Apart from Wassily Kandinsky and Salvador Dali, the artists whose work was most plagiarised were Vincent van Gogh (wheatfields, starry skies, cafes by night); Pierre-Auguste Renoir (flowers and buttocks); Pablo Picasso (his Blue and Pink periods).

It was disturbing to think that these guys—they were mostly guys—took themselves seriously. Or were they cynical old stagers, in it for the money? They were from Russia, France, Azerbaijan, Israel; ultimately Americans. Each had a schtick, a style, a formula designed to allow the production of work after work, each one slightly different from the last, all essentially the same. Some named their style: Abstract Sensualism, coined by a fellow whose speciality was painting chromatic works on metal. Absurdism. The other disturbing thing was that none of the works for sale were actually paintings. They were high quality digital prints, some of which had been touched up or gone over with real pigment. Copies masquerading as originals; there must have been hundreds of every one we saw on all the hundred other cruise ships circling the globe at that time.

Park West has an Art Museum in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit, which features previously archived masterworks created by Rembrandt van Rijn, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Francisco Goya, and Albrecht Dürer, among others. The company’s staff offices, storage facilities, restoration studios, research department and digital catalogue printing facilities are also at Southfield HQ. Their 181,000 square-foot ‘fulfilment centre’ is in Miami Lakes, Florida. This facility, not open to the public, is the distribution centre for the company’s cruise ship and land-based auctions. More than 300,000 ‘works of fine art’ are framed annually and shipped to customers and auctions around the globe. They are the Amazon of the art world. After that auction, in the lift, I met a young chap with a trolley load of paintings he was taking back to the storage locker. Are they sold or unsold? I asked him. He shrugged. Some are, some aren’t. He didn’t care. Do you like the art? I wondered. No, he said, I like the money.


Sometimes you would see people on the Carnival Legend pause in their entertainments to stare blankly out the windows to where the grey-green ocean rolled its endless white-capped swells up from the south. As if reconnecting with some movie they had forgotten they had come to see. When the sun came out the water turned blue and there was the astonishing brightness of the sea. Black shearwaters never touched the surface of the waves, however closely they skimmed across them. I saw a pod of dolphins, gun-metal grey and tiny, like tiddlers, beside the bulk of the ship. The sea spray left salt trails on the decks and the rails and on the outsides of the windows; it was sticky on your hands and felt medicinal, like a warrant of health in a diseased world. I had read recently some prophet of doom predicting all fish on Planet Earth will be extinct by mid-century. I didn’t believe him but what if that is true?

On the morning of the third day I set my alarm and got up at 5.30 to watch while we steamed up into the land to our destination. A molten sun rose over Derwent mouth. Swathes of yellow light painted across dark green hills, startling white shafts falling on distant coves like some intercession of the divine. You see such revelations of light in the south; its promises of ultimate disclosure are never false but never honoured either. Further up river, houses, as if scattered by a negligent hand, built across slopes running down to the shore. Hobart, our destination, looked small and quaint, like a miniature Wellington, huddled under the great black mountain which also bears that name. Crayfish boats moored before colonial buildings of the port. Many beautiful wooden craft, immaculately restored and maintained. The boredom was palpable. We docked at the Terminal at 8 am and were let off ; told we must return to the ship by 4 pm or it would sail without us.

The saloon car I’d rented had been upgraded to a gleaming AWD. A red Toyota perhaps. We picked it up in the city and drove west to MONA, the Museum of New and Old Art, arriving there before they opened for the day. Ducks sleeping between the rows in the leafy vineyards; half-tame rabbits hopping about; California quail, looking faintly surprised to have attained the size they had. When the Museum doors opened, we took a gleaming lift down into the depths of the sandstone peninsular, where galleries have been carved out of living rock; where the heterogeneous, unsettling, deeply strange works gambler and collector David Walsh has bought over the years are displayed. It was the perfect riposte to, and prophylactic against, the drek that Park West had shown us.

In the curated show that was on while we were there, four invited non-art-world professionals selected works they liked or admired or wondered about. These four selections, behind four doorways, which you entered randomly or at will, I couldn’t tell, were each fascinating in their own way. I also remember the Cuneiform Room, which I was afraid at first to enter; the White Library; a word shower falling liquidly down roughcast sandstone walls; a carved wooden door that once stood before a Dogon granary in Timbuktu. There was a bird-eating man, or perhaps it was a man-eating bird, its face covered in the carapaces of insects, the blue wings of scarab beetles. What is exceptional about MONA is the way it merges museum and art gallery into one, so that you start to look upon artworks as historical artefacts; and museum pieces, more equivocally, as art.

The centre piece is the Sidney Nolan mural Snake (c. 1970) which Walsh bought, for $2,000.000, from Sotheby’s in 2005; and installed here round the walls of one of the caverns. Snake is forty-six metres long, the length of an Olympic swimming pool; and tall as such a pool is wide. It is made up of 1620 individual painted panels, each more or less abstract but, together, making this shimmering, iridescent, undulating work. It had only been shown twice before, in England and in Ireland; until Walsh bought it and built his gallery, and his collection, around it. It is intimidating and uplifting, a rainbow serpent, immured deep in the earth, seeming to be a representation of one of those entities that Aboriginal lore proposes came out of the ground in the Everywhen to make the world we know.


Views during the passage up the Derwent that afternoon were as beautiful as any I have seen: dove-light laved softly over green hills, out at sea a brilliant white line, a sandbank, a reef or an illusion, scintillating upon the water. Albatross and shearwater accompanied us; another pod of dolphins; and when the ship turned north into grey veils of rain I saw what I had missed on the way in: Cape Pillar, which Joseph Lycett painted, one of the most splendid of the things he made: a double-humped promontory surrounded by choppy blue waters before ochre shores and a green hinterland; the yellowy sward drawn back to reveal what Charles Darwin described as fine facades of columns. It is as if an X-ray vision has seen beneath vegetation and soil to reveal the structure of creation.

After that I went to the Holmes Library. Clocks on the walls told the time, inaccurately I suppose, in cities around the world: Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, Honolulu; Vladivostok, Baghdad, Prague; Paris, London and New York. The shelves were lined with spines of books which, although they all had titles and authors inscribed, were fake copies, made of wood, merely decorative. To have written an inventory! The real books, of which there were not many, leaned higgledy-piggledy in glass cases in a corner; including a Spanish language section. It was quiet in there and you could sit at one of the wooden tables by the window, looking east, reading and writing and looking out that way over the grey-green unappeasable always rolling sea.

I’d finished reading Spook Country by William Gibson and was looking for something else; there was copy on the shelves of Elvis Costello’s autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. I pulled the stickers off the Costello then re-affixed them to the Gibson. Which I filed under ‘C’ when really it should have been in ‘G’. The only book I saw there I had read was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about a doctor and a serial killer active in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Great Exposition in 1893. Unread books included M Train, by Patti Smith; H for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; a book about rain; and two copies of Elena Ferrant’s My Brilliant Friend. In the Spanish language section The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz, which I have read; but only in English translation.

Costello was beguiling when he wrote about his family and his past, his father’s membership of the Joe Loss Orchestra, the gigs he went to hear him play at Hammersmith Palais in the 1960s. His grandfather blowing his trumpet in orchestras on luxury ocean liners in the early years of the twentieth century. He liked dropping names; and quoting, and then interpreting, his own lyrics; had been unable to refrain from including pieces which were episodes from his life transposed into awkward prose fiction. He was good on the road, with exact recall of places he had played, people he had played with, what they had played, even while completely pixellated. It was a book to dip into rather than read all the way through; and when I was done with it I gave it to a friend.

Disembarking at Circular Quay on a February morning, I stumbled upon the bronze Joseph Conrad plaque set in the pavement there. It misquotes what he wrote in The Mirror of the Sea, autobiographical pieces published in 1906. Sydney harbour, it says . . . one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun had ever shone upon. Below this was the advice that Conrad made brief visits to Australian ports between 1879 and 1892; and that many of his works reflect his ‘affection for that young continent’. Australia may be a young country; it is a very old continent. The pedant in me also wants to correct the date—he was last in Adelaide in 1893—and to restore what he actually wrote: bays the sun ever shone upon. Does that not sound like a line from a poem? But there were more interesting things to think about. I had seen, upon a Derwent shore, the wreck of one of his ships.

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Weekend at Maroochydore



As the plane flew north along the western coast of Bribie Island I saw beneath us a lake shaped like a raptor. A velociraptor, to be precise. It seemed improbable, yet exact, and I gave myself a crick in the neck watching it recede away down below. More sand islands loomed up, one so fantastically blue and green and white, as if whipped out of whorls of cloud cream, I could not rightly say what was land, what sea and what something else besides: birthed out a J G Ballard novel, maybe The Drowned World. The black dot of a motor boat left a tiny arrow in its wake as it made its way up one of the aqua channels bisecting the next island, probably Thooloora, north of Donnybrook.

I have a friend who told me that, as an adolescent, he happened to stray into Ian Fairweather’s camp on Bribie Island and the painter came, brushes in hand, roaring out of his impromptu studio. They ran. We are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, Ballard wrote, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. And it was over that great sea, or rather a tributary of it, that our plane glided down until, at the very last moment, the tarmac at Maroochydore Airport rose bumpily up to meet us.

I had not been to the Sunshine Coast, so-called, before: there was a storm swirling clockwise to the east, forty knot winds blowing in across the land, grey mists of rain over Coolum Beach as we drove through on our way inland to Yandina for lunch at the pub. It was a family reunion. Not my family. They were Irish and Scots who came here from Belfast or from the Low or High lands to get timber—cedar, beech and bunya pine—and then to grow sugar cane or arrowroot, ginger or macadamia nuts, run beef or dairy cattle on the cleared land. There’s a cheese factory. When gold was found at Gympie, to the north, the Cobb & Co. stage coach route ran through here.


My remote connection is with the Irish end of this Irish-Scots confabulation; and there they were, in the Yandina Hotel, with their bulbous noses and canny eyes, their talk of horses and of luck, their kindliness and their scepticism, their love of a drink and a yarn. Lock up your daughters, one of them said, was a literal instruction issued, and observed, when the Hall boys came to town. After the session we went up to the local graveyard and there, shading the last resting spot of a scion of the Campbell clan, was a hundred year old gardenia, twiggy and gaunt and yet still putting out the ruffled white flowers with their sweet nostalgic scent lying upon the rainy afternoon air.

On the hill behind the graveyard is Koongalba, the ancestral family home of the Lows, a big old wooden house with an iron roof, spacious verandas, lovely gardens, rope swings hanging from the trees and kids running everywhere. It was jacaranda time so mazy purple flowers drifted down and carpeted the ground. The local historian’s name is Audienne Blyth and she met us bright-eyed at the door and said Come in, come in! Koongalba, place of clean waters; in Wharf Road, so-called because in the early days timber was floated down the Maroochy River to the sea. I was amazed to learn, talking out on the veranda to one of the daughters, who was gathering up her kids to drive them back to Toowoomba before the rain really started to come down, that these are the same Blyths who helped settle my own home town of Ohakune.

Joe Blyth (1908-1940) was headmaster at Ruapehu District High School, later Ruapehu College, where my Dad taught in the 1950s; Joe ascended the mountain, it was said, 147 times before his demise. Audienne’s husband is Jim Blyth, son of Jack, son of Joe. He had large teeth and a shy manner. Proud, though, too. We stood in the darkened hallway of his house, surrounded by ghosts, contemplating this mystery. The imposing hand-tooled native timber tile and stained-glass inlaid furniture. The Blyth family held a reunion, over 150 of them, in ‘Kune last year, about the same time I attended the inaugural, perhaps unique, Ruapehu Writers Festival there.


Then it was back to the flatlands, driving through low swampy fields surrounding, like moats, isolate bush-covered volcanic cones called (by James Cook) the Glasshouse Mountains. Occasionally a remnant pine, Araucaria bidwillii, of which more later. At Coluum we checked into the hotel and then went round the road for dinner in the Bowlo. Ian told me that a/ Koongalba stands on the site of an ancient bora ground; and b/ he is a tribal King, and owns a breastplate, which he inherited from his grandmother after she had done an unspecified someone an undescribed act of kindness. It’s worth $200,000, he said, touching his chest, as if he might have had it on under his blue nylon shirt. The Aborigines know I’ve got it. I have to decide what to do with it after I die.

Ian was 77 years old, unmarried, childless, reputedly wealthy, garrulous and unregenerate, kindly, roguish, deeply conflicted, essentially unknowable. He was never without a drink in his hand; never (or always) drunk. Every step of the way, Audienne said, the treatment of Aborigines was a mistakeWe should have known better. We knew how this worked in other places. The bunya trees were chopped down—Maleny (south west of Yandina) was where the original bunya festival was—and so many caught white people’s diseases. She didn’t say this but there were also mass poisonings, food laced with arsenic left out as offerings. Later we pass in the car the turn-off to a place called Murdering Creek.

When the cones on the Araucaria ripened, at anything from an eighteen month to a three year interval, local people sent out invitations far and wide. It was indigenous Australia’s largest event. Thousands came, and stayed for months, feasting on the bunya nut. The gathering included ceremonies, dispute settlements, marriages and the trading of goods. Some tribes would not camp amongst the trees; some said a bunya tree was never to be cut down. An early missionary attempt at an interdiction upon their felling, and the establishment of a native kingdom, failed in 1860. That’s when the clearances, the poisonings and the sequestering of survivors upon reserves, began. The dispersals. Coastal people are the Gubbi Gubbi, their inland neighbours, the Waka Waka. The distinction between the two language groups is the word they used to say ‘no’. Waka Waka were the No No people. They had the bunya.


Next morning early a friend rang from Sydney to say Legend Press had finally returned copyright in Albert Namatjira’s paintings to his family. More than half a century too late, but still. Better late than never. I did not have time to contemplate the tiny part my own efforts might have played towards the attaining of this goal. I had to read the final proofs of The Expatriates. The publishers were going to print on Monday. They were awaiting one last outstanding permission, from a librarian on Rhode Island, the great-grand-daughter of a Russian aristocrat who had written a biography of her husband, a New Zealander with astonishing linguistic abilities; one who knew fifty languages.

It bucketed down, on and off, all day long as I read. 100,000 words or so. I found sixteen (16) errors. The roar of the rain mixed in with the roar of history. There were two Norfolk pines framed in the window, denuded of foliage by the incessant sea spray. Bony as a dead bunya. Afterwards I went down to the beach for a swim. The wind was still blowing from the south-east but it wasn’t raining. An endless ochre strand, a warm and choppy sea, a rip it wouldn’t do to ignore. A uniformed surf life saver was slowly rocking, with his foot, the iron spike of a flag pole out of the muscular sand. The flag was red and yellow.

Four girls in bikinis giggled past me as I came out of the water. One was as freckled as the heroine of Eucalyptus, the Murray Bail book. Even her eyelids had freckles upon them. From the boardwalk I could see pandanus and boronia, sheoak and bright yellow daisies. The pandanus fruit as full and fecund as I imagine those of bunya pine cones to have been; but nobody eats the almond-flavoured pandanus nuts anymore either; they’re too hard to get at. The aerial roots clustered round their trunks like fat straws. I have always loved beaches in the rain.


The culmination of the weekend’s festivities was a barbecue on Sunday at Ken’s place in Noosaville; but before we went there we had to visit Keith’s place in Coluum to see the Boer War and Great War medals awarded to the progenitor of the line, a man called JD: there were four and some mystery attended them. I think we solved it: I remember the severe profiles of the monarchs on the backs of the medals: Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George V. Those Australians who served in mounted regiments took their own horses, from off their own farms, with them to the war; but none of them ever came back. Except one, belonging to a general; and that was for propaganda purposes. They shoot horses, don’t they, I thought, irrelevantly. Or not.

At Noosaville a couple of dozen people gathered under a canopy next to a stand of paperbark trees. The rain sighed and roared. Fijians joined the Scots-Irish or Irish-Scots or Celtic Australian or Aboriginal or whatever it is we are to be called. Queenslanders. In the laughter of beautiful children it seemed we might be able to begin again, after the drowned world has finished with its drowning. Or not. Later, on the way to the airport, in the pelting rain I saw before a bank of green-grey mangroves black swans in a lagoon dipping their red bills into the silvery water. Maroochydore, I learned, comes from the Yuggera word Muru-kutchi, meaning red-bill; such as the swans do have. They are common around here. The black swan of trespass on alienated waters. Robber of dead men’s dreams.

It took ages for the incoming plane to land; when it did we boarded through dense warm slanting rain. Arriving in Sydney I felt I had indeed been plunged back into the archaeopsychic past. Something I did not suspect a weekend in south-east Queensland might do for you. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom. It is still raining there as I write, floods inundating the land, drowning it beneath a fresh or salty deluge. And yet I know that once the storm is over it will emerge again pristine, newly washed, paradisial, with a rainbow arching from Coluum Mountain to the coast. Or not. And our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.

image: Sinkhole at Inskip Point, Rainbow Beach, Queensland, 27.09.15

courtesy ABC

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Living in the Everywhen



With all my current business transacted I have nothing at my desk left to do; so I catch the train into town. About half past nine. It is a few minutes late, and pretty full, but I spy an empty spot towards the front of the carriage and go and sit there. A teenage boy turns around and gawps at me. Hello, Mr. Gooper, he says. I say Hi. I can feel him wanting to take it further but he doesn’t, he goes back to joshing with the two girls opposite. Another sits on the steps facing me, small, pert, aggressive. One boy asleep in a single seat next to her. The sixth, another boy in a baseball cap, in the window seat of the row next to mine. They’re just kids. In mufti. Late for school. Talking in loud voices, swearing heaps, boasting about buying and selling and smoking yaani; it’s clear that, while they don’t really want trouble, if it’s offered, they’ll accept it. No-one is taking any notice of them. Studiously ignoring them; insofar as that’s possible. But they prefer it that way too. It means they can continue performing unhindered as it were. Redfern, I think, I bet they get off at Redfern. Just before they do, the gamine sitting on the steps in front of me says: Excuse me, do you have the time? I take out my phone and look at it and tell her it is ten to ten.


Light splinters from the water at Circular Quay. There’s a cruise ship taking on supplies. What does P & O mean? Peninsular & Oriental. I’m going up to the MCA to see the Sun Xun show. Ken told me about it, said it was genius. It is. A room lit only by ultra-violet, wherein is suspended, along three walls, a huge undulating scroll tricked out with starry forms of thirteen half mythical creatures. Like a mutant zodiac or revised version of the night sky. Sun Xun meditated in the Outback. He suggests there are unknown places, unvisited by humans, where another, alien, bestiary thrives. Insectivorous, reptilian, avian, extraterrestrial. His redaction is entirely convincing. There’s another large UV-lit work in that room, more abstract, called: ‘Who First Saw The Stars?’ I hardly ever watch the whole of a video in an art gallery; but, in another room, I watch one of his. Large scale animation, metamorphoses turning prehistoric birds into conical cooling towers, Chinese dragons into amphibious tanks, meteors falling into lagoons and mutating jetties, promenades, baboons.


Upstairs: ‘John Mawurndjul—I am the old and the new.’ Forty years of work by that Kuninjku man. He’s born 1952, the same age I am. Huge show. Impossible to comprehend in a single viewing or perhaps at all. So beautiful, mainly because his use of traditional materials gives a unitary cast to the riot of places and beings bodied forth in the bark paintings and wood sculptures. Stringy bark eucalypt skins form the body of his bark paintings; the white clay, yellow and red ochres mined from sacred deposits become paint; and the manyilk, the paint brush sedge, makes the single strand brushes used to do cross hatching or rarrk. My favourite work perhaps a palette in one of the rooms, which adds a piece of charcoal (black) to the other three colours. So soft and luminescent, those whites and ochres, reds and blacks, glowing as if the earth itself is made of light. We also encounter the animals and spirit beings that populate these locations including female water spirits (yawkyawk), rainbow serpents (ngalyod) and mimih spirits.


Out into the warm spring sunshine. The haze with which the day began is burning off. I walk past the Orient Hotel and through Argyle Cut to Observatory Hill; and realise as I climb that, in thirty-seven years, I have never yet been to the Sydney Observatory! The roar of traffic down below, making the circular switchback approach to the bridge. Across the lip of that stone gullet, a wisteria vine climbs and I catch, above the ozone and the exhaust fumes, the scent of the purple flowers. It always takes me back to the Winter Gardens in Auckland, c. 1972, the first time I knowingly encountered it. They’re just opening the doors when I arrive outside the S H Ervin gallery. I’m a pensioner, I say to the grey-haired woman behind the register. I don’t know how that happened. She smiles thinly. That’ll be eight dollars, she says.


I spend the next hour or so with many other grey-haired women, and two grey-haired men. William Robinson, however, is bald. (There is a documentary.) An art teacher turned farmer turned artist, he started out imitating Bonnard interiors and ended up, forty years later, doing the same thing: except now his Bonnard interiors look more like Robinsons than Bonnards; if that makes sense. His breakthrough works were conté drawings of cows; gouaches of chooks in the chookyard. He found those upside down starry skies glittering in amongst the leaf litter of rain forest floors by going out at night with a lantern and looking into puddles. The Creation Landscape series is the one everybody knows and there are a few from it here; but most of the show is works on paper. Tiny abstract water colours on pieces of A6. Views of black Mt Warning over the border from where he had his sea-side farm in the bush. Trees growing down from the sky, the sky lifting up from among the trees. He and his wife Shirley lost two of their grown-up children (I don’t know how) and he says that is something which can never be forgotten nor undone. I think purple is the colour of his grief.


Afterwards I wander down Agar Steps, past the tennis courts, past the door of #5 where, in the 1980s, Lud and Lexie used to live; and have lunch in a cafe which was once the corner shop below their old place. A delicious ham sandwich, with melted cheese, horse-radish and watercress on thick toasted brown focaccia bread. The old fellow who runs the place has owned it since 1990, owns their old flat up above too. We reconstruct it, bit by bit, lovingly, while his wife makes my sandwich. It feels different from a remembrance of things past; more like the reconstitution of something that is still extant and only requires a bit of attention to detail to return, intact, into the world. I can see the two flowering Happiness bushes they had in pots either side of the tiled fireplace; the outside bathroom where you could sit and look over the blue waters of Darling Harbour; the intricacies of grain in the wood on that jarrah floor; the staircase so narrow you had to turn sideways to climb up. And all the good times we had there come back again as if they’ve never gone away.



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Tobacco Shop

20180907_100016So the Summer Hill tobacconist seems to have closed. That back in one hour sign has been up for a week now and the last few times I saw Jack, the owner, he was standing outside his shop looking, I don’t know, restless I suppose. I was fond of Jack; I got to know him in the days when I was still a smoker, when he would sell me, for a dollar each, singles. This is illegal and I think he enjoyed the feeling of breaking the law, the clandestine strategies he would adopt in order to do so, the hush and the hugger mugger. He was a Lebanese Christian, and devout; he had a little chalk board behind the counter with a short, awkwardly phrased prayer written upon it. But resignation was a big part of his faith. What can you do? he would say. The Lord provide. I’m indebted to him for another reason. One day when, after weeks or perhaps months of abstinence, I cracked and went in to buy some smokes off him, Jack refused to sell them to me! You shouldn’t be smoking, bro, he said, it isn’t good for your health. He was, of course, a heavy smoker himself; but after he refused to serve me, I stopped for good. So here, in memory of that and of Jack and of other things too, is Fernando Pessoa’s poem Tobacco Shop, written in the voice of Alvaro de Campos. It’s long, but it’s worth it:

Tobacco Shop

I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t even wish to be something.
Aside from that, I’ve got all the world’s dreams inside me.

Windows of my room,
The room of just one of millions in the world nobody knows
(And what would they know, if they knew that?),
You open on the mystery of a street people are constantly crossing,
A street blocked off to all thought,
A street that’s real, impossibly real, and right, unconsciously right,
With the mystery of things lying under live beings and stones,
With death spreading dankness on walls and white hair on heads,
With fate driving the cart of everything down nothingness road.

Today I’m bowled over, as though hit by the truth.
Today I’m clearheaded, as though I were going to die,
Having no more brotherly feeling for things
Than to say good-bye, turning this house and this side of the street
Into a line of coaches in a long train with its whistle shrieking good-bye
From inside my head,
And a nerve-wracking, bone-cracking jerk as it moves off.

Today I’m mixed up, like someone who thought something and grasped it, then lost it.
Today I’m torn between the allegiance I owe
Something real outside me—the Tobacco Shop across the street,
And something real inside me—the feeling that it’s all a dream.

I failed in everything.
Since I was up to nothing, maybe it was all really nothing.
From learning and training for anything for anything useful I escaped
By slipping out the back window.
I went off to the country with great plans,
But found only grass and trees there,
And when there were people, they were just like any others.
I leave the window, sit down in a chair. What should I think about?

How can I tell what I’ll be, I who don’t know what I am?
Be what I think? But I keep thinking I’m so many things!
And so many people think of being the same thing, there just can’t be that many!
Genius? At this moment
A hundred thousand heads are dreaming they’re geniuses like me,
And who knows if history will remember even one of them.
From all those dreams of glory there’ll be nothing but manure in the end.
No, I don’t believe in myself.
In every asylum there are madmen sure of so much!
I, sure of nothing, am I more sure or less sure than they?
No, not even of myself . . .
In how many garrets and nongarrets of the world
Are there self-styled geniuses dreaming now?
How many high-minded aspirations, noble and lucid—
Yes, really high-minded, noble and lucid—,
And who knows, even practicable,
Will ever see the real light of day or get a hearing?
The world is made for those born to conquer it,
Not those who dream of conquering it, right though they may be.
I’ve dreamt of more things than Napoleon went and did.
I’ve taken to my so-called heart more humanity than Christ ever did.
I’ve secretly thought up more philosophies than Kant ever wrote down.
Yet I am, and maybe always will be, the man in the garret,
Though I don’t live in one; I’ll alway be the one who wasn’t born for it;
I’ll always simply be the one with all the promise
I’ll always be the one waiting for the door to open at the wall without a door,
Who sang his anthem to Infinity in a chicken coop,
Who heard the voice of God in a covered well.
Believe in myself? No, I don’t, nor in anything.
Let Nature pour down upon my burning head
Her sun, her rain, the wind ruffling my hair,
And let the rest come, if it will or must, or not at all.
Cardiac cases enslaved by the stars,
We’ve conquered the world before getting out of bed,
But we wake and the world is opaque,
We get up and the world looks strange,
We go out in the street and there’s the whole earth,
Plus solar System, Milky Way, and the old Indefinitude.

(Eat your chocolates, little girl!
Eat your chocolates!
Look, there’s no metaphysics on earth but chocolates.
Look, all religions on earth have nothing more to teach us than a candy store does.
Eat, dirty little girl, eat them up!
If only I could gobble down those chocolates as trustily as you do!
But then I think, peeling off the silver wrapper, it’s only tinfoil,
And toss it on the floor, just as I’ve tossed away my life.)

But at least, out of my bitterness at what I’ll never be,
There’s the quick calligraphy of these lines,
The broken archway to the Impossible.
And at least I reserve for myself this dry-eyed contempt –
Noble, at least, in the grand gesture I make
Flinging out the dirty clothes I am, with no laundry list, into the drift of things,
And stay at home, shirtless.

(Oh, my comforters, who don’t exist and so may comfort,
Whether Greek goddess, conceived as a statue that springs alive,
Or Roman matron, impossibly noble and ominous,
Or Princess of the troubadours, so blushing and so gentle,
Or eighteenth-century marchioness, so décolletée and cool,
Or famous courtesan back in our parents’ time,
Or modern whatever – since I can’t imagine what –
All of it, whatever it may be, if you can inspire, do it!
My heart’s an emptied pail.
Like someone who can call up spooks calls up spooks,
I call myself up, and nothing’s there.
I go to the window and see the street in perfect clarity.
I see the shops, I see the pavement, I see the passing cars.
I see the dressed-up living passersby.
I see the dogs too, also alive,
And all of it weighs on me like a verdict of exile,
And all of it’s strange to me, like everything else.)

I lived, I studied, I loved, I even believed,
And now there’s no beggar I don’t envy simply for not being me.
In each I see the rags, the sores, the lies,
And think: maybe you never lived, studied, loved, believed
(Because people can go through the motions without doing any of it);
Maybe you barely existed, like the lizard whose tail’s been snipped
And is just a tail, apart from the lizard, and beating frantically.

I made of myself something I didn’t know,
And what I could become, I didn’t.
The fancy costume I put on was wrong.
They saw me straight for what I wasn’t; I didn’t disabuse them, so I lost myself.
When I tried taking off the mask,
It stuck to my face.
When I pulled it off and looked in the mirror,
I’d grown older.
I was drunk and couldn’t get into the fancy costume I hadn’t taken off.
So I threw away the mask and slept in the cloakroom
Like a dog they let stay in the house
Because it’s harmless,
And I’m about to write this story to prove I’m sublime.

Musical essence of my useless poems,
If only I could find you in something I’d really made,
And not forever fixed by the Tobacco Shop across the street,
Stamping my feet on the consciousness of being alive,
Like a rug some drunkard stumbles over
Or a doormat the gypsies stole not worth a dime.

But the Tobacco Shop Owner has come to his door and stands there now.
I look at him, straining my half-turned neck,
Straining my half-blind soul.
He’ll die and so will I.
He’ll leave his signboard, I’ll leave poems.
After a while his signboard will perish too, and so will my poems.
A little later the street will die where his signboard hung,
And so will the language my poems were written in.
Then the spinning planet where all this happened will die,
In other satellites in other systems something like people
Will go on making things like poems and living under things like signboards,
Always one thing against another,
Always one thing as useless as another,
Always the impossible thing as stupid as the real thing,
Always the fundamental mystery as certain as the sleeping surface mystery,
Always this thing or that, or neither one nor the other.
But now a man’s gone into the Tobacco Shop (to buy tobacco?)
And the plausible reality of it all suddenly hits me.
I’m getting up, full of energy, convinced, human,
and about to try writing these lines, which say the opposite.

I light a cigarette and think of writing them,
And in the cigarette I savor my liberation from all thoughts.
I follow the smoke like a lane of my own,
For one sensitive dexterous moment enjoying
The freedom from all speculation
And the consciousness that metaphysics comes from feeling out of sorts.

Then I fall back in my chair
And go on smoking.
As long as fate permits, I’ll go on smoking.

(If I married my washwoman’s daughter,
Maybe I’d be happy. )
I think of this, get up from my chair. I go to the window.

The man is leaving the Shop (putting change into his pants’ pocket?)
Ah, I know him: it’s nonmetaphysical Stevens.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner comes back to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Stevens turns around and sees me.
He waves me a hello, I shout back, Hello Stevens! and the universe
Reorganizes itself for me, without hopes or ideals, and the Tobacco Shop Owner smiles.


tr. Edwin Honig and Susan M Brown

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