Ghost Train

How many people recall the rumour, which was going around about twenty years ago now, when Howard was still PM, that Little Johnny’s father had been a member of the New Guard, the fascist org that flourished in Australia, and especially in Sydney, between the wars? So far as I remember it was neither confirmed nor denied. I was thinking about this the other day after I came across a thread about Scott Morrison’s father John who, as everybody knows, was a NSW cop: from 1954 until his retirement in 1992, rising through the ranks to become a Chief Inspector.

John Morrison was among police who investigated the fire in the ghost train at Luna Park in June, 1979 which killed seven people. He was in the fingerprint division then. The fire is thought to have been started by a group of bikies in the pay of crime boss Abe Saffron, who wanted the lease on the land; which he did in fact get, through proxies, a few years later when the park re-opened. He was aided in this endeavour by notoriously corrupt policeman Doug Knight, the chief investigating officer, who had the site bulldozed the day after the fire, thereby making sure that no forensic evidence – like fingerprints – survived. John Morrison was apparently on site himself early on the morning after the fire but that’s all I know.

He was a politician as well as a policeman. There was a rule change in NSW in 1964 that allowed serving policeman to stand in local body elections. John Morrison did so in 1968 and was elected to Waverley Council; and returned, over two decades, as an alderman, as deputy mayor and (for one term) as Mayor. He was an Independent, albeit one who always voted with the Liberals which, by 1983, through a faction known as the Uglies, controlled the Council.

His term as Mayor, in the mid 1980s, coincided with his promotion to Chief Inspector of District 10, which included Waverley. Asked whether there was a conflict of interest between his two roles, Morrison (sounding very like his son) said: ‘The Police have always worked in close co-operation with Waverley Council.’ However his appointment to Chief Inspector was sent by some of his senior colleagues to the Police Appeals Tribunal, which overturned it. He had to wait until after his mayoral term finished to be again promoted to Chief Inspector, this time for Division 15, at Maroubra.

Morrison’s Wikipedia page, from which some (not all) of this information comes, has been carefully edited. It does not, of course, mention his involvement in the Luna Park ‘investigation’; and puts ‘saving many of the free-standing homes in Bronte’ from developers at the centre of his political legacy. But there’s another story here. Morrison’s era as Mayor coincided with the period during which husband and wife team, Jim and Carolyn Markham, were trying to redevelop the beach frontage at Bondi under a plan they called ‘Camelot by the Sea’.

It would have turned Bondi into something resembling Surfers Paradise (where the Markhams also owned property); and included the gutting of Bondi Pavilion. Jim Markham was a solicitor who became a developer; he had been Mayor of Waverley one term before John Morrison; he was succeeded by his business partner, Ray Collins, a lawyer who had acted for Abe Saffron. After John Morrison, Carolyn Markham also had a term as Mayor. The succession went: Jim Markham, Ray Collins, John Morrison, Carolyn Markham.

The plan was defeated and by the end of the 1980s Waverley Council had escaped from the control of the Markhams. What’s curious about John Morrison claiming a victory over developers as his legacy, is that he may in fact have been hand in glove with the Markhams all along; one of their enablers in their attempts to bulldoze the beachfront and throw up high rise hotels, apartment blocks and the rest. Needless to say, Camelot by the Sea isn’t mentioned on his Wikipedia page either.

John Morrison might have been a plucky independent fighting for the rights of residents against greedy developers; or he might not. I don’t know. But this history, partial as it is, does cast a light on, for instance, Scott Morrison’s friendship with his Cronulla neighbour, former NSW Police Commissioner (and crooked race horse owner) Mick Fuller; and makes you wonder how far the current PM might also be involved with other police, including Federal police, who work ‘in close co-operation’ with municipal authorities; and, indeed, with governments too. Up to his eyeballs, probably.  

image: ABC

Lyall Howard and the New Guard: https://labourhistorycanberra.org/2018/06/the-new-guard/

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Ray Goodwin

I first crossed paths with Ray in Auckland in 1973. It was a Sunday afternoon at Mandrax Mansion, down the bottom of St Mary’s Bay Road, and there were going to be bands playing in the big upstairs room that day. I would have been with Dean Buchanan and others from our disreputable crew – which in those days included Brezhnev and Robin Hood along with Jenny Harland and the Thompson Brothers, Cameron and Nick, and cartoonist Laurence Clark and his girlfriend Phillipa. Anyway one of the bands that played that afternoon reckoned they came from Taumarunui; two Fijian brothers and a Tongan and I don’t know who else. Whether they were already called Dragon or if that was still in the future, I don’t know either; but Ray was part of the line-up, playing guitar. I can’t actually remember anything about the gig apart from the fact that I was there. Like everyone else, I would have been drunk and stoned – though not on Mandrax, which for some reason I never took.

The next encounter I had with Ray was even more fugitive. It would have been during the same year. We lived in the country, in an old farmhouse on Pukapuka Road near Puhoi, and came into town to party every weekend. A woman I met had taken a fancy to me and asked me back to her place. Subsequently, I would sometimes knock upon her door (or ring upon her doorbell), hoping to be let in again; this happened a couple of times and then came the night when she said she couldn’t see me because she already had somebody else there. It was Ray; though I can’t any longer say how I found that out. Gossip, probably, Auckland was still a small town then. In all the years I knew Ray, I never told him that story.

I didn’t actually meet Ray until I moved to Sydney in 1981. He had a gig at the Seymour Centre as a stage hand and he found me a job there too. It was one of those gigs where you do almost nothing but stand around and yarn. There were and are two theatres there, the York and the Everest, and one of the benefits for me was that, as a casual employee of Sydney University, I qualified for a badge that gave me entry to the university swimming pool. One of the fellows we worked with had decided that he would do everything with his other, his non-dominant hand, which sometimes made it tricky when you were shifting flats or blacks around with him.

I knew a lot of musicians then, including a guy called Rick Caddell who lived in a terrace house on Cleveland Street, while we were just across the road in Thomas Street, behind the Britannia Hotel. Rick was another guitar player and he knew Ray. They had been in bands together, including one called ‘Win a House’ – a name that still makes me chuckle. I saw them set up on the floor in the big bare public bar of a hotel in the Haymarket whose name I have forgotten. They rocked; but not in any straight ahead way. I could already see that there was something unusual about Ray’s approach to things.

He was mates with my good friends Lud and Lexie so if there was a party going on, Ray would likely be there. Lud and Lexie were fans of a rockabilly band called The Lion Cat Tamers who were pretty good too. I don’t know if Ray had anything to do with them but he had an amazing address book, with contacts all over the place, both musical and otherwise. The interesting thing about the Sydney scene in the early 1980s is that there were quite a few really good bands around who weren’t trying to scale the ladder of success; they just wanted to play.

Ray had left Dragon by then, long ago, but he still sometimes used to get some stick for having done so. How come you left just as they were getting famous? people would ask. The implication being that either he wasn’t good enough or else couldn’t take the pace. I never asked him that question myself but a couple of times he said to me: ‘When the smack arrived, I left.’ He also told me that, every year in the spring, he’d get a call from Todd Hunter inviting him to join the revived Dragon on their annual summer tour of beaches, leagues clubs, pubs etc; and, every year, he would, politely, decline.

He was living down in Bray Street in St Peters; that’s his kitchen in the picture below, taken sometime towards the end of the 1980s or the beginning of the 1990s. Ray had a business hiring props to theatre companies and his house was full of the most extraordinary bric-a-brac, anything from a life-sized Tutankhamen to a blow up rubber dinghy as used by the military. It was the overflow from his props warehouse in Petersham. He also collected antiques and Polynesian artefacts.

I moved out of Sydney in 1995 and went to live up on the Central Coast; and so lost touch with Ray for a few years. When I moved back into town, to Summer Hill, in 2004, I met him again. He used to get his hair cut in a small, garish salon across the road from my building, owned and operated by an extravagant Pilipino woman with whom Ray was friends – as he was with her husband too. I bumped into him one day in Lackey Street and still remember what he said: ‘I’m like one of those cockroaches you see dragging themselves along with half their guts hanging out behind. They can’t kill me.’

His props warehouse was nearby and I visited there a few times for reasons I don’t remember. He was living in Arthur Street in Marrickville and I went to his sixtieth birthday party there. Among the guests were some people who became big in my life for a while. One was the sculptor Antony Symons, now also deceased; another was the Aboriginal Anglican pastor Ray Minniecon. I used to go and stay with Antony at his place in Rydal, over the other side of the Blue Mountains; and Ray Minniecon was of material help to me when I was writing my 2014 book Battarbee & Namatjira. Desmond Edwards has a DVD of footage taken at that party and he’s promised to bring it around.

The reason why Ray knew Antony, and the other Ray, was because he was part of a push to have the Black Diggers recognised for their contribution to Australian military forces in both world wars. They were trying to get a sculpture commissioned, commemorating the Black Diggers’ service. At one point they were planning to claim Native Title over a piece of land at Circular Quay just large enough to install the piece Antony had made, called Dancing the Land, upon it. Near where the troop ships came and went. There is now a memorial but it’s in Hyde Park and, rather than the Black Diggers, remembers the Indigenous resistance to the White invasion of Aboriginal Australia. The maquette for Antony’s sculpture, half life size, is now in the Aboriginal and Islander Dance School at Kariong. Ray organised that too.

At some point he sold the props business, sold his house in Marrickville and moved up north. He had a friend in Woy Woy and he lived with her sometimes; that’s when my two sons, who grew up on the Coast, got to know him. He also had a property outside Mullumbimby and gradually moved most of his operations up there. Ray was always a wheeler dealer; he had the ability to locate and acquire all sorts of things, including, in later years, rare books and manuscripts, which he would bring down to Sydney to sell to a wealthy collector he knew in the Eastern Suburbs.

He was always secretive, not to say conspiratorial, about this side of his affairs, suggesting there was a lot more to it than met the eye. No doubt there was; but this was amusing rather than solemn; Ray had the gift of laughter as well as a wicked subversive take on almost everything. One of his documentary finds cast new light on the genealogy of Malcolm Turnbull, the then PM. It was a long term plot. He was expecting to earn a lot out of that.

He had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life. He was connected to the Tongan communities in Australia and New Zealand, and in Tonga itself; but that wasn’t something he talked about a lot, or not to me. He had a fund of family stories, by turns scurrilous, improbable, hilarious, deeply strange. I’ll miss that side of him too: when someone goes, their stories go with them.

One of my last interactions with him involved an American lawyer, from Miami, who reckoned he had been run out of town by corrupt interests, people compromised by their involvement in the cocaine trade, and now lives in Sydney. It was going to be a movie but I think has turned into a book project. Ray met Joe through Eve, a journalist he knew who worked on the Byron Shire Echo. Another Kiwi. I met and talked with Joe, a nice enough guy, but I didn’t take the gig.

I had an open invitation to go and stay at Upper Main Arm and I wish now I had. So far as I understand, it was a ramshackle, fecund place built on the side of a hill above a stretch of water. Someone told me Ray was selling it, he had a buyer lined up, a young tradie who was going to restore it, when the heavy rains of February and March came and washed the house down the hill into the Brunswick River. He went to live in nearby Durrumbul. He would have got the guitars out first.

Ray got bladder cancer a few years ago now and gave up drinking and smoking and otherwise reformed his diet; he beat it. He also had, I think, cancer of the thyroid; or maybe of the throat; he beat that too. Last time I saw him, in Summer Hill, he’d come to pick up some old books he’d lent me. I’d had them for years and had never been able to make sense of them.

He told me he’d beaten three kinds of cancer and intended to beat the fourth, which was of the bowel or the rectum, I’m not sure which. Before he drove away that day, returning to Mullumbimby, he showed me the special cushion he sat on to relieve the pain and discomfort of his affliction. When we went to Japan in 2019 we sourced some mushrooms for him, which were supposed to help with the cancer but I don’t know if they did.

Over the last few years Ray got back into music, writing, composing, jamming, playing live, recording. I don’t know how much he left behind but wouldn’t be surprised if there is quite a lot of it. I used to talk to him on the phone but never about his health: I didn’t ask and he didn’t say. I think he preferred to live a regular life for as long as he could. He was seventy-two.

B&W image from the Violet Hamilton Collection; colour pic by Gerard Smithyman; Ray on the left, Colleen Forde on the right, me in the middle

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Te Wai o Moe / Sleeping Waters

Ruapehu is looking like it’s going to erupt again soon. I read the stats. It’s periodicity is astonishing.

image : Te Wai o Moe – four days ago

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Pressed Tongue & Baked Trombone

An Adelaide Diary

Day One

I wake in the pre-dawn half-light and stumble round the flat, making coffee (black and sweet, with cardamom), breakfast (ham on toast) and trying to clean the kitchen enough so that the cockies will have to scavenge rather than simply browse. Heft my bag, which is too big, down the stairs and then up the hill to the station. Negotiate the automatic ticket machine . . . there’s a fellow, perhaps a simpleton, trying to work out how to get to Blacktown and I engage briefly with him before going up onto the platform to wait for the train.

Looking south and east from Petersham I see bony yellow after storm light across the rooftops of the city. Bedraggled survivors of last night’s Mardi Gras haunt the streets. The whole town looks hungover. Once again (I must be getting old) I suffer that piercing sense of imminent (or not so imminent) mortality: incipient grief at the way we accumulate knowledge and experience over a lifetime, the way we structure what we remember, whatever we have learned, so it makes a whole; only for the entire ramshackle (or not) arrangement to fall into dissolution, the irruption of the chaos of death throughout the precarious organic order we call life. Then again, who cares? In the practical infinitude of any city, there will be, there are, entities rising beyond the scope of our most treasured selves and our least forgetful gods.

Valleys full of cloud in the Blue Mountains. They look almost solid. A grey-white albumen, whipped into smooth, sculpted shapes. Later, over South Australia, the cloud mass begins to break up into small discrete fragments of cumulus sailing in flotillas over the checkerboard fields; their dark shadows like footprints of monopods on the earth below. De-planing in Adelaide I see a woman standing, holding a card that reads: Hard To Be A God. I smile at her but she ignores me. I must not be the one she is waiting for.

It’s nice to be met at the airport and driven into town. Her name is Rachel, she is young and enthusiastic, with a pleasant manner. She takes me to the Intercontinental but I can’t check in yet, it’s too early, so I drop my bags and continue on to the venue . . . where someone calls out my name, someone I don’t know, she’s recognised me from a photo, she is the next tier up on the hierarchy, her name is Anna, she introduces me to the wife of Newfoundland writer, Michael Crummey, who’s signing books after his session. This is the beginning of a social whirl that will go on for days.

The McCahon in the art gallery is much larger than I thought it would be. A spectral white cross on a black ground, with the five wounds protruding from the vertical edges of the thick, unstretched canvas like . . . I don’t know what they’re like, they’re just themselves. While I am looking at it a small man with owl glasses approaches and I realise it is John McDonald, the art critic, and introduce myself. We look at the McCahon together. I point out faint white marks on the black, like hand drags or elbow scrapes, and he says that’s what he likes about McCahons, their informality, their humility as objects. He has a wary look on his face, as if I might turn out to be one of those bores who won’t let you go; so I let him go.

Up the other end of the room there’s a group of Hermannsburg water-colours hung together on a diagonal wall by themselves. Two Albert Namatjiras, two Enos Namatjiras, one Ewald Namatjira, an Otto Pareroultja, a largish horizontal Wenten Rubuntja, three by Kevin Namatjira . . . the Alberts are late, 1950’s paintings, modest, small, unassuming at first glance and then increasingly seductive, indeed monumental, when you start to go into them. You can also see the way he provided a template, as it were, for the others, his sons, his grandson, his younger colleagues, to depart from into their varying degrees of abstraction or expressionism. I feel privileged to be able to stand in front of one of Namatjira’s purple bluffs and look up and across, past Rosalie Gascoigne and Gordon Bennett, to the Colin McCahon.

I’m hungry. I leave the gallery and walk across North Terrace and down an alley into Rundle Mall. It’s Sunday arvo and I can’t find anywhere I want to eat until I reach King William Street and cross over into Hindley. Last time I was here, in 2010, I stayed in a small, fairly rundown hotel that had a café underneath: The Boulevard. It’s almost like coming home, the people, though they don’t recognize me, are the same as before. I order a steak sandwich and a glass of wine and sit watching the comings and goings in the alley that flanks the café. There’s a fellow with a backpack who spends the entire time I am there walking and talking on his phone; while various denizens of the street pass with handshakes, head nods, smiles in his direction. He must be dealing, I think, though what I cannot tell.

The hotel took my mobile number and promised to call as soon as the room was ready but of course they do not; but they did take my luggage up to 1204. The room is oddly shaped, hexagonal, as if piled up on top of and next to the others like a cell in a hive of bees. There are chips struck out of the pink marble of the bathroom floor and I wonder what violence made that happen? I thought I might relax, have a lie-down, but I’m too keyed up. I shower, change my clothes and go out again. At the revolving door I meet a small man with a large head and a worried look on his face. It’s Alexander Downer. I stand back and let him in then continue on to the venue: a pattern I will follow, hotel to venue to Hindley to hotel, for the rest of my few days here.

Les Murray is standing alone on the grass looking pensively into the middle distance so I go up and introduce myself . . . mention the name of a mutual friend (Tom Carment) but after that there’s nothing to say. He is wearing a big striped pullover, is quite large, like Pere Ubu, and has brown stains round his mouth, coffee perhaps. Maybe I interrupted the composition of a poem. I see him again next morning in the lift; after we say hello to each other, I ask him how’s it going and he says, quite well. We don’t speak again. He’s wearing the same jersey and there are food stains down the front.

Adelaide reminds me of a New Zealand city but I don’t know which one — perhaps a generic New Zealand city if such a thing can be. A generic Australian New Zealand city. Anyone I mention this to says Christchurch but I don’t think so. Not even pre-quake Christchurch. The railway station, for instance, is Wellington; the gardens, New Plymouth. When I look out my hotel window I see railway lines running away into the west past the vast building site where a new hospital is being erected; and the Torrens, brown and wide and sluggish like the Whanganui . . . but not really. At one of the sessions I hear a poet, Mike Ladd, tell how he walked the river from its source to its mouth. He reads the opening section of his book, Karrawirra Parri. I did not know before that the wide apertures you often find at the base of the trunk of a river red gum are sometimes large enough to be used as shelter from the rain. Or as a birthing place.

There’s a cocktail party that evening. Drinks on trays and delicious morsels of food. I’m hungry again so I eat as much as I can. The publisher of Luca Antara is there, I think it is only the second time we have met in person but she feels like an old friend. Michaela Andreyev says she still loves the book, is still promoting it when and if she can. I meet Dionne Brand who I’ll be on a panel with in the morning, she’s from Trinidad via Toronto, seemed intimidating when I read about her online but it turns out alright. We discover a mutual enthusiasm for Javier Marías and José Saramago. Winifred Atwell’s name comes up too. Later, after I buy and read her book, Ossuaries, I find the lines: beginning to read The Year of the Death / of Ricardo Reis / for the twentieth time.

Afterwards I go up to the bar and have a couple more drinks with Laura Kroetsch, the Director of Writer’s Week, and a few other people; but I’m tired now and decide to go early to bed. I read a chapter of Sex at Dawn before dropping off to sleep.

Day Two

The first thing I have to do is contact my distributor in Sydney — when I arrived yesterday there were just three copies of Dark Night in the book tent, and three of Zone of the Marvellous; by end of day all six had gone. I call her on the mobile, she doesn’t answer, so I leave a message. She replies later that day but for some reason I don’t receive, or don’t notice, the text. It turns out the books she still has are in a box under her bed on the Northern Beaches and that she has already sent the rest . . . somewhere. Today, Monday, a couple more copies of Dark Night appear to sit beside the stacks of Luca Antara and The Supply Party that Michaela has organised. Eventually I find out (through the bookseller) that the copies that should be here are stuck in a warehouse in Sydney and won’t arrive in time for my session on Wednesday. This is of course ridiculous but what can you do? I don’t know if it is the fault of the publisher in Auckland, the distributor in Sydney, the festival organiser or the bookseller in Adelaide . . . oh well. I’m used to this — it seems almost impossible for a book published in New Zealand to achieve efficient distribution in Australia, even when it has good notices and good word of mouth.

My morning session is on the East Stage with Dionne Brand and Andrea di Robilant, an Italian who’s written a book called Venetian Navigators about the improbably named Zen brothers who sailed the northern ocean as far as Iceland, Greenland and perhaps even Vineland in the 14th century; in an alliance with a Scots laird called Henry Sinclair. Andrea reminds me of Richard Ford — the same large head, clear eyes, courtly charm, impeccable manners, unknowability — and it turns out he does have an American mother. Our topic: Voyages Real and Imagined. Laura asks me to kick off proceedings so I offer a quote from Petrarch that was the epigraph for HypnogeographyI decided to travel to those lands, not just once on a very long journey by ship or on horse or on foot; but many times on a tiny map, with only books and the imagination as my guide.

Andrea chooses to read from his book a short passage about travelling in Greenland. He reads as elegantly as he writes: a stylist who accomplishes that most difficult of things, to appear to write without style. It’s strange to be under the white sails, the green trees, the blue sky, contemplating the icy lands of the North. When it’s my turn I read the account, from Luca Antara, of my visit to Rinca, off Flores, to see the Komodo dragons. I’d forgotten this includes a description of some orang laut, sea gypsies, whom I saw there; they enter the arena as emissaries of the far away and long ago. There’s discussion after each reading and, towards the end of the hour, Dionne reads from Ossuaries. She is a compelling reader, with a richness, a tactility, a somehow geological caste to her words. You can hear thought re-forming the strata of language. Or vice versa.

There’s questions after and I am challenged by an Aboriginal woman. I was trying to articulate the way, in Australia, what passes for public debate is often just the adoption of two contrary positions followed by a slugging match; and used the phrase black armband without being able to recall its opposite: which is, as she reminds me, white blindfold. I reply saying we can change the present and indeed the future by changing the past or at least changing our view of the past. She sits down with her sense of grievance apparently intact; but when I meet her later in the demountable that serves as the Green Room we sort a few things out.

There’s a second panel, on The Essay, on the West Stage, after lunch . . . with Robert Dessaix and Romona Koval. I’ve been on a panel once before with Robert, in Auckland, about a decade ago, but he appears to have forgotten. When I say, vacantly, it was something about something he repeats the phrase in his dry old queen’s voice. We end up sparring and I’m glad Romona is sitting between us; it’s ostensibly amicable but there’s an edge to it. I find this session more difficult than the last because I’ve never really thought of myself as an essayist but feel I can’t say that in a panel called ‘the essay’. I tell the story about how I was twice issued with parking tickets while sitting in my taxi on a No Stopping zone reading Montaigne’s Essays.

As soon the session’s over Frank Moorhouse comes up and says we have to talk. He’s drunk. He brings me a glass of wine and an Anzac biscuit to the book signing table and, after many interruptions (including one from someone who thinks Frank is Les Murray), we do talk. First about Dark Night, which he says he read in a motel overlooking Doubtless Bay in the far north of NZ and liked a lot but thought I should have another crack at it. Put more of yourself in, he says. I’m remembering his slightly wacky charm, his way of destabilising you, his attempts, as Tom Waits put it, to mad-dog your tiltaworld.

I got to know Frank years ago, through a mutual friend who was a film director, but subsequently, on casual meetings, he has always seemed, like Robert Dessaix, not to remember me . . . now he offers an explanation. It is that he had fallen in love with my girlfriend at the time and, to prevent himself taking her off me, removed himself from the situation. I could have told him we were so much in love in those days such a thing was beyond possibility but I don’t. I don’t tell him that we went on to have two sons together either. I don’t know if I’m protecting his vanity or mine. Frank goes on to say that all my remarks about memory in the session just concluded were wrong but he doesn’t have the time to sort me out just now. He likes to make these provocative remarks and then sit back watching which way you’re going to jump.

I didn’t think I would know anyone here but in fact there’s lots of people, many of them ex-Adelaideans, like Morgan Smith, I met in Sydney. I go to bed wondering where the Grosvenor Hotel might be: it was there that Rex Battarbee used to stay when he came to Adelaide and apparently it’s still extant. That’s, I’m thinking, what I’d like to do tomorrow. Find the Grosvenor.

Day Three

It’s peculiar how, at these events, you have intense experiences that seem to disappear instantly without leaving a trace in the memory; or rather, without leaving a trigger with which you can access the trace. On Day Two, I recall as I wake, I went to hear Gillian Mears speak about her new book Foal’s Bread. She was wearing a red dress and sitting in a wheel chair, talking about horses and riding and her childhood on the North Coast. When she quoted Dylan Thomas — Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea — tears pricked my eyes. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Afterwards, in question time, I want to ask what exactly foal’s bread is but decide I’m better off looking it up online: a hippomane is a small, circular, flat, smooth body found in the allantoic fluids especially in mares and cows . . . semisolid, homogeneous, amber-coloured . . . sometimes they are discovered in the mouth of a new-born foal and that is taken as a sign of great good fortune for the horse it will become. Gillian has MS and at one point said she is living in South Australia because here the laws regarding euthanasia are more amenable to those who might want to die.

I go to listen to Dionne Brand talk. Mostly so I can hear her voice again. She reads more from Ossuaries, including a sequence that begins you will discover, as I, / that verbs are a tragedy . . . followed by several dozen verb-less three line stanzas. It is a poem about a woman, Yasmine, who was a violent revolutionary in the 1960s and 70s and now, thirty or so years later, lives a life on the run; but the poem’s future, while resembling our present, seems queerly in advance of it; and when Dionne is asked what her view of our ultimate fate — the fate of the planet — may be, she hesitates for quite some time before saying that she thinks we are most likely doomed. Yet her own stance is one of optimism, engagement, positivity and humour.

It must have been after this session, wandering back up towards my hotel, that I saw the word Grosvenor hovering amidst the chaos of signs on North Terrace. The hotel is now a Mercure and stands almost directly opposite the Intercontinental. A big square building with a marble façade. Before visiting I go up the laneway next to it to check at the ATM to see if my per diems have arrived yet. A fat man, naked from the waist up, tattooed, bald, sitting on rags like a siddha, calls happily to me and, just as happily, I give him some coins. And, yes, the money is there.

The foyer of the hotel, up a few steps next to a café / bar, is cool and dim and discreetly functional the way modern hotels like to be. There’s a carpeted staircase to the next level and a sign saying the Function Rooms are that way so that’s where I go. It’s like ascending into the past, the air is different and the light too, filtered through elegant ruby red and pale green leaded stained glass windows. A staff member asks me if I’m attending a function but I say no, I’m just having a look around and she says, feel free. I go into the Colonial Room, which is empty and open and feels like a non-conformist chapel, with rows of straight-backed wooden chairs facing a lectern at the north end. All of a hallucinatory sudden a sense of the person of Rex Battarbee, that good and pious man, comes over me and I can see him, lanky and thin, with his hat and coat and portfolio, having just de-trained at the station over the road, walking down the corridor to his room, there to wash off the dust of his latest journey in from the Centre. And the corridor, which I walk down myself, does recede into the past until I find myself in the stark utilitarian bowels of the hotel where no makeover has ever been . . .

Down in the foyer there is a glass case of memorabilia, including photographs. The hotel was built in 1920 on the site of the famous and much loved Federal Coffee Palace, of which there is a picture, alongside another showing its demolition, the new building rising and so forth and so on. Most of the items are not very interesting but there is a letter, hand-written in wavery copperplate, from a woman in Perth who, with her husband (they’re still married), honeymooned at the Grosvenor forty years before. About 1970. She’d been going through her things and found among them a menu from their stay, which she has enclosed, and which is pinned up next to the letter. It is astonishingly rich, eight courses, all of heavy English or Continental foods. I walk away with two items in my head: the pressed tongue, a part of the cold collation served before dessert; and something under vegetables (the only other one on offer apart from potatoes): baked trombone. What on earth could that be?

Leaving the Grosvenor, walking up North Terrace, I encounter the bald half-naked gargantuan beggar again, looking even more like an unauthorised avatar of Les Murray than he did before, and snarling rather than laughing after money. I ignore him.

At the venue, which is called the Pioneer Women’s Garden, was established in the 1930s, and includes a memorial to the Flying Doctor service, Caryl Phillips, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the Colombian, and Linda Jaivin are talking about Boat People but I can’t stay till the end because I’m going to talk to Nick Jose’s writing class at the university. There I find myself saying we don’t really have a language for soul matters any more, or not one that springs readily to the tongue; that’s why McCahon’s journey ended in silence. I suddenly feel like some kind of psychopomp, which is something that often happens to me in the taxi but not usually at literary events. Hermes the messenger, escort of the dead, god of crossroads and of thieves.

We’re walking away afterwards when Nick says, encouragingly, the University bookshop is down that way, perhaps I should go and see if my book is there? I already know he’s set it as course reading for his students and, sure enough, there is a stack of copies of Dark Night there, about forty in all.

Walking through the venue I see that Les Murray’s onstage talking and sit down at the back to listen. He’s great; lucid, funny, humane, sane. A good reader of his own work too. Low key. Still wearing the same striped pullover, even though the heat has been climbing day by day through the 20s towards 30 C.

Wandering back to the hotel later, on North Terrace, someone leaning out a car window calls my name . . . Fiona McGregor has arrived from Sydney for her sessions tomorrow and her friend George has picked her up from the airport. We go to a loud, dingy bar for a drink and then to a sparkling fluoro coffee shop for mineral water and hot chocolate. Fiona decides to walk to her hotel and George, a jeweller who’s about to move to New York, drives me to mine.

There’s a note in my notebook I think I wrote that night. It reads: the writing life : not writing : not not writing.This koan-like remark has something to do with the conversation I had with Fiona but I can’t any longer recall the context. However, the dream I have that night, of skimming in a boat across a sea full of flying fish, is clearly the return to consciousness of the voyage from Rinca; just before I wake I see one of those aquatic flyers stranded, viscera gaping, on a rock; and that is my own writing self, intimidated almost to the silence of an ossuary by the excellence of the words of others I have encountered here over these electric eclectic days.

Day Four

This morning, looking at the program, I realise it cannot have been Day Three when I heard Les Murray, because he wasn’t on then . . . it must have been Day Four, as I walked down from the Art Gallery after my second visit to see the McCahon, the Namatjiras, and the Surrealists . . . there’s a big show on called The Biennial, beautifully curated and superbly hung, of Australian art of the last couple of centuries, and in amongst it is a selection of jewel-like works of South Australian surrealism from the 1940s and 1950s; it is to look at these again that I return.

Ivor Francis, James Cant and Dusan Marek are all generously represented by paintings but I end up focusing on a few carved wooden puppets in a glass case. They were made by Marek, a Czech who, fleeing communism, arrived in Adelaide in 1948. He was with his older brother Voitre, a sculptor, and the two initially supported themselves making jewellery. Marek’s puppets were for a film he made after he moved to New Guinea in 1954; he had gone there perhaps because on their 1929 map the French Surrealists had proclaimed that country to be the centre of the world. They are squat, malign-looking, troll-like figures and in the clip of the film, called Nightmare, showing on a loop next to where they stand, look like alien spirits enacting some implacable colonial doom within the claustrophobic spaces of an overseer’s bungalow.

Marek first tried to sail to New Guinea in 1953, Ian Fairweather like, in a hollow log. He spent five years there, mostly at Rabaul, made almost no artworks (one film, one painting) and, since he took all his unsold art and the contents of his studio with him, lost rather more than he gained to the exigencies of the climate. He refused, however, on his return to Australia, to have any of the works restored or conserved: the ravages of time became part of the meaning of what he did. You can see the damage on the paintings of his on the walls, which gives them a frisson of tactile presence entirely appropriate to surrealist work.

Coming down the stairs from the show I see a room ahead of me in which international publishers, no less, are talking to their local counterparts. The sessions are sponsored, and policed, by the Australia Council, and my naive hope that I could waltz in there and get myself a deal is countermanded by a woman invigilating at the door. The international publishers, she says, are not talking to writers but to other publishers; they have a very full schedule, as you can see . . . I peer into the dimly lit room and see many pairs of heads bent together over many tables; but there’s one young woman, perhaps of sub-continental origin, sitting alone. My overwhelming urge to join her is, however, over-ridden by my awareness of what a faux pas that would be. Instead, I tell the woman from the OzCo about my brilliant career and she, in that way of arts bureaucrats everywhere, nods encouragingly without committing herself to anything at all.

In the demountable that is the Green Room, where you have to sign in, on the sofa at the back Philip Jones is talking to Bill Gammage; their session, about Bill’s book How Aborigines Made Australia, is on at the same time as mine and I regret that. Nick and I were originally going to be on on Sunday arvo but swapped with Muslim Indian journalist, M J Akbar, who had to return home early to cover the elections. His session about his book Tinderbox : the Past and Future of Pakistan, which I went to, was fascinating. Geopolitics impacts upon the smallest of lives.

I’ve long wanted to meet Philip Jones, author of Ochre and Rust and much else besides, so I introduce myself and we chat for a bit. He is a tall, charming, handsome man and I ask him if he can, as someone said he might be able to do, answer the question that got me started on the story of Battarbee and Namatjira? Try me, he says. Well, I say, is it likely that Rex Battarbee saw the Becker sketchbook in the State Library in Melbourne? In other words, could there be a direct line between Becker and Namatjira? Philip, who has given his life to research, archives and the like, says he doesn’t have a definitive answer but thinks it unlikely. The resemblances between Becker and Namatjira are probably the result of factors other than direct influence: the nature of the landscape, the medium of water-colour, Lutheranism . . .

We’re joined by David Walker whose memoir, Not Dark Yet, I’ve read, so that, even though it does not seem so, I know he is going blind. He has a line of transgressive humour that’s very appealing and we talk a bit about the role of the air force in WW2 — he had an uncle who was killed at Ambon early in the war but the loss wasn’t confirmed for many years. I recently obtained my father’s war records and have been looking at an extraordinary set of photographs taken at the Catalina flying base at Tulagi Bay in the Solomons, where Dad was in the latter part of the war in the Pacific.

When we arrive at the East Stage I note that, on the billboard outside, my book is called Dark Knight. With a K. For some reason this pleases me. Nick starts by saying that, after the session, if anyone wants a copy, they should go up to the University bookshop for it and then bring it back down to be signed. He introduces me and we start to talk. I don’t suffer from nerves on these occasions, I like doing this sort of thing, partly because of its improvisatory nature: anything might happen. By the same token, the spontaneity of the event makes it difficult to recall afterwards what exactly was said. I remember Nick asking me how it is that, on the one hand, I’m prepared to make up history and, on the other, profess an absolute respect for historical fact — isn’t that contradictory? I say something to the effect that it is precisely those gaps in the record that I find seductive and (mis)quote physicist John Wheeler, who suggested that sequential time does not yet exist in those parts of the universe hitherto un-observed by human eyes or instruments. As if time belongs, not to the cosmos, but to us. I read two sequences from the book, one about walking past the Matthew Talbot hostel in Wolloomooloo at night, the other about a McCahon-like sky seen over Ohakune; and the hour, as those hours do, passes like the wind.

Before we went on Nick asked me if I wanted to talk about my next book and I said yes. Sounding vaguely portentous, I announce the Battarbee / Namatjira project. Afterwards, an Aboriginal man with big hair takes the audience microphone and starts to frame a question that turns out to be an inquiry as to why the Belvoir Street Theatre / Big hArt collaboration, Namatjira, hasn’t yet come to Adelaide? He goes on for a bit and I can feel the mostly white, mostly well heeled, mostly well on in years, Adelaidean audience begin to get restive. Nick, who is a consummate moderator, finds the right moment to intervene and then a woman comes to the mike and says the show will indeed open in Adelaide quite soon. I seek out the questioner afterwards and we have a chat; he is sweet-natured, with a dazzling smile; a writer too.

It’s always strange when you come off stage, you have these conversations with people you don’t know and, usually, can’t remember their names or what you’ve said to them either. One chap is a physicist who attempts to enlighten me on the nature of red shifts, blue shifts and black holes; another is a woman from Many Hands, the art centre in Alice Springs, where I have been and to which I will soon return. This is while I’m being escorted to the book signing table by a lithe, graceful youngster who usually works in alternative theatre but is now helping out with the festival. Nobody much comes up to have their book signed; only one, so far as I know, has made the trek up to the Uni to get a Dark Night.

My flight to Sydney is leaving later in the afternoon. I go the book tent and buy OssuariesVenetian Navigators; and The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez who, tall and be-suited, is also a guest of the festival. Last time I was in Adelaide I bought a biography of Joseph Conrad so it feels right, this time, to come away with a Colombian re-write of the circumstances in which Conrad wrote his South American epic Nostromo. When I go up to say goodbye to Laura Kroetsch she’s talking to Dionne Brand who says: Hello, young man! and, rather than saying goodbye, strokes my wrists and hands with her own warm, dry palms; it is like being blessed by Mother Africa.

Just before leaving the Pioneer Women’s Garden I see Ken Bolton talking to a couple of other people and go over to say hello. I’ve only met him once before, in Sydney, on which occasion he gave me a copy of his book A Whistled Bit of Bop. He’s mysteriously unrepresented at the festival, and also I want to tell him how much I enjoyed the book; but before I get there one of the guys he’s with, a big man, perhaps a biker, with tats, gives him a hug and Ken, looking slight and a bit hunched in his too small jacket and stove-pipe jeans, like a time-lapsed beatnik, walks away.

In the hotel lift I meet Andrea di Robilant who is on his way to Sydney for a talk and then back to Rome; he is melancholy as I to be leaving Olympus for the quotidian; we exchange email addresses. My cab driver is an irascible African who seems affronted when I add a $10.00 tip onto the metered fare. I read Ossuaries in the bar at the airport and then on the plane, where I’m sitting next to an autistic girl and her mother, read some more. At some point, just as it’s getting dark and I can barely make out the water-logged land below, I see horizontal rain drops streaming past the window and realise that, on the east coast, the big wet continues unabated.

images by Colin McCahon, Dusan Marek and Ewald Namatjira

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February 24, 2022 · 9:31 pm

red door

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January 11, 2022 · 7:26 pm

Work and Money : End of Year Report

Compleynt, compleynt I hearde upon a day . . .

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Living in the Everywhen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Walden Pond

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Eboracum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

images : marble bust of Constantine found at Stonegate

42nd St., New York, 1980

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