See Me

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

image : Paul Klee (eaten by snails)

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Ian Prior

INTRODUCING KROPOTKIN

THE INTERNATIONAL CLOWN, MIME AND REGISTRAR OF CHAOS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Says the Press:

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

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

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

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

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Kiel Supre, Tiel Malsupre

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

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

Newton’s text:

Tis true without lying, certain and most true.

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

to do the miracle of one only thing

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

The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,

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

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

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

Separate thou the earth from the fire,

the subtle from the gross

sweetly with great industry.

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

and receives the force of things superior and inferior.

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

Its force is above all force,

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

So was the world created.

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

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

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

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

Estas vera sen mensogo, certa kaj plej vera.

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

fari la miraklon de unu sola afero

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

La Suno estas ĝia patro, la luno ĝia patrino,

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

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

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

Apartigu la teron de la fajro,

la subtila de la malpura

dolĉe kun granda industrio.

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

kaj ricevas la forton de aferoj superaj kaj malsuperaj.

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

Ĝia forto estas antaŭ ĉio forto,

ĉar ĝi venkas ĉiun subtilaĵon kaj penetras ĉiun solidan.

Tiel la mondo estis kreita.

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

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

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

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

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

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

to make the miracle of a single thing

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

The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,

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

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

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

Separate the earth from the fire,

the subtle from the gross

sweetly with great industry.

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

and receives the strength of things superior and inferior.

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

Its strength is above all strength,

for it overcomes every subtlety and penetrates every solid.

Thus the world was created.

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

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

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

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Trevarthen Charles Edmond 1920-1990

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

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

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

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

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Ken James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiji Dream Fiji

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

image : Raki Raki, from the sea, Wikimedia

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Dream Trip

Yesterday I wrote down a dream I’d had the night before and then I put a version of it up on Twitter. Wanting to see what the differences were, in the form I mean, not in the dream. The dream is imperfectly recalled and without significance. Also this is just a technical exercise. The Twitter version has been deleted.

I went back to BM’s place, temporarily, for some reason, while waiting for something else to occur. She lived in a part of the city I recognised, geographically, as it were. Behind Edgecliff, down where White City used to be, near Victor Trumper Oval. Or its equivalent in Auckland, wherever that might be. Epsom / Remuera. Her place was a converted warehouse, narrow, many roomed, storeyed, extravagantly decorated. Almost like an art installation. I remember lemon trees hanging from wire baskets, dropping fragrant petals on the floor; a white cloth hung before a wall, with windows through into fabulous landscapes beyond, beneath the blue-green of Bosch’s skies. There was much more. Various elegant young men; some louche women; a party atmosphere that was decorous, even restrained. At some point it was suggested we take some acid; and we did. I had, in the dream, a vivid recall of what it feels like when a trip is coming on. The physical and mental symptoms, I mean. I left the house and walked out into an industrial landscape, brutalist utilitarian buildings, concrete blocks, the paraphernalia of construction. A bit Jeffrey Smart but much more grungy. I wanted to photograph what I was seeing, took out my phone, and went further. I can always find my way back, I thought, but soon realised I could not. Over to my left, a motorway thundered through a stone defile. I wasn’t distressed. I thought vaguely about the event I had been waiting for at the beginning of the dream, which I had now missed, and also of my companions back at the house. And then I woke up.

Notes

1/ I’d read BM’s book proposal that morning, and was wondering if I should peer review it. I’ve never been to her house, in fact I’ve never met her. The woman in the dream did not resemble her in any way whatsoever: in so far as I know her (either her).

2/ The geography of the dream. At the entrance to the marginal space where her house was, there was a rutted road, with a pond, or pool, flanking it. Something like the island in the Chekhov story, ‘The Name Day Party’, which I finished reading before going to sleep. Something of Upper Hutt, up there at Brown Owl. Rimbaud’s ‘Ornières’, too.

3/ Symptoms of a trip coming on: dry mouth, a soundless buzzing in the ears, light jumping in the corners of your eyes, mass becoming insubstantial, turning into shapes and planes, turning into illusions.

Twitter Version

I went back to BM’s place, temporarily, for some reason, while waiting for something else to occur. She lived in a part of the city I recognised, geographically, as it were. Behind Edgecliff, down where White City used to be, near Victor Trumper Oval.

Her place was narrow, many roomed, storeyed, extravagantly decorated. Lemon trees hung from wire baskets, dropping fragrant petals onto the floor; a white cloth before a wall, with windows through into fabulous landscapes beyond, beneath the blue-green of Bosch’s skies.

Various elegant young men; some louche women; a party atmosphere that was decorous, even restrained. At some point it was suggested we take some acid; and we did. I had, in the dream, a vivid recall of what it feels like when a trip is coming on.

I left the house and walked out into an industrial landscape, brutalist utilitarian buildings, concrete blocks, all the paraphernalia of construction. A bit Jeffrey Smart but much more grungy. I wanted to photograph what I was seeing, took out my phone, and went further.

I can always find my way back, I thought, but soon realised I could not. A motorway thundered through a stone defile. I wasn’t distressed. I thought vaguely of the event I had been waiting to go to, which I had now missed; and also of my unknown companions, back at the house.

Notes

1/ I’d read BM’s book proposal that morning, and was wondering if I should peer review it. I’ve never been to her house, in fact I’ve never even met her. She, and the woman in the dream, do not resemble each other in any way that I know. And yet . . .

2/ The geography of the dream. At the entrance to her house was a rutted road, with a pool of standing water. It was like the way to the island in the Chekhov story, ‘The Name Day Party’, I’d read before going to sleep. Something too of Rimbaud’s ‘Ornières’.

3/ Symptoms of a trip coming on: a dry mouth, a soundless buzzing in the ears, light jumping in the corners of your eyes, mass becoming insubstantial, the visible world turning into shapes and planes, into illusions.

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Dark Dark

From time to time I am asked to write brief essays about particular art works for auction catalogues. It’s enjoyable work, paid for with a modest fee, and I always learn something I didn’t know before. Anyway here’s a recent one, about the Colin McCahon work illustrated above:

The work is signed and dated 1958. A note, on the back, in McCahon’s hand, reads ‘From 58 “Elias” series’. Peter Simpson tells me the Elias paintings began in January 1959, with the bulk of them being made between June and August of that year. That would make Dark Dark an outlier, an early, perhaps the earliest, drawing for the series; though it is also possible that the inscription on the back was made retrospectively. The Elias Series focusses upon the moment during the crucifixion when Christ cries out: ‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani?’ (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) and some among the crowd think he is calling out, not to God (‘Eli’), but to the Old Testament prophet Elias. Then they wonder if the prophet will come to save him.

The title recalls lines from Milton’s Samson Agonistes: ‘O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse / Without all hope of day!’ referring to the darkness that covered the land during the crucifixion; darkness in the souls of men and women; and the blindness of both Samson and Milton. However, it also refers back to the inscription on the last of the eight, recently-completed, Northland Panels (‘oh yes it can / be dark here / and manuka / in bloom may / breed despair’). Meanwhile, stylistically speaking, the rapid, gestural brushwork looks forward to the Northland drawings and to the second series of numerals (1 – 5), both from 1959. Other related works are John in Canterbury and Toss in Greymouth. They are all cries of pain made after McCahon came back from America and saw Aotearoa New Zealand again. ‘I fled north in memory,’ he wrote.

What of the image? It seems at first to be an abstraction but then resolves into a coastal, perhaps Kaipara landscape viewed, map-like, from above, with a violent rain squall crossing the littoral. Alternatively, it can be seen as a figure in profile, a torso perhaps, with those heavy, intrusive horizontal strokes inflicting some kind of wound upon it. There also seem to be fragments of a lattice inscribed beneath the ink, and even, perhaps, a flower-like shape, a lotus, rising up from below.

Or maybe the ambiguity as to whether we are looking at an abstract or a figurative work is deliberate. The works in the Elias Series are, after all, about doubt and faith. Christ’s cry from the cross is a quotation of the opening line of Psalm 22, but the perplexity of the people in the crowd is not about the meaning of the words nor about their provenance. Rather, it is a question of belief, with an implied scepticism as to whether anything can save Christ, or indeed, anybody else. The darkness of Dark Dark is existential. It is impenetrable and inscrutable. It is the absence of light, and therefore the absence of meaning.

And yet, the initial letters of the two words are written across light ― or perhaps we should say across white. And the act of inscription is itself an affirmation, the opposite of a negation. To write dark upon light is still a cry against darkness. In this sense, Dark Dark does anticipate the rest of the Elias Series, even if, as I suspect may be the case, McCahon only identified it as a precursor sometime after he made it. Whatever the truth, it remains a hinge, a pivotal work. A wonder.

Online Catalogue here

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Doctor Long Ghost

One good thing about being in Iso is you have plenty of time for reading. I was in my study for a week, and in that time I was talking to my books and, better still, they were talking back to me. A few days ago Herman Melville’s Omoo leapt out of the shelves into my hands and so I read, or rather re-read, his second ‘novel’. A trade paperback copy re-published in the early 1990s by a short-lived venture from Routledge Kegan Paul called KPI Books. Some idea someone had of doing a series of Pacific Rim classics. It’s generously made but not well proofed and, given the dubious nature of the early editions of all of Melville’s books, textually unconvincing. There is also the spectacularly inappropriate cover (see above), to contend with. For all that, an entertaining read.

It was meant to be the second volume of a trilogy, all set in the Pacific in the early 1840s. Typee, the first, takes place in the Marquesas. Omoo, (the word means ‘beachcomber’), mostly in Tahiti. The third, unwritten book was going to be about Hawai’i, where Melville went after leaving Tahiti. The reasons he didn’t write it are complex but they all revolve around two questions. The first is whether the books he was writing were fiction or non-fiction; the second, the ‘morality’ of what he was doing. The two are connected. Many of his American readers were scandalised by his treatment of a/sex and b/missionaries; his English readers, not so much. They were more concerned to discover whether his books were ‘true’ or not. This because, in England, they were considered to be non-fiction.

In America, however, most people thought they were novels; which made Melville culpable for his ‘inventions’. Horace Greeley, in his review, while admitting their readability, said that both Typee and Omoo were ‘unmistakably defective if not positively diseased in moral tone.’ Both pre and post publication, Melville removed material critical of the missionaries from these books. It’s likely he would have had far worse things to report about what he’d observed in Hawai’i, where most of the men of god were American Protestants. He saw, for instance, missionaries going about Honolulu in carts pulled by their Hawai’ian ‘servants’. He decided to keep his mouth shut about all that and wrote a fable, Mardi, instead. I tried it once and found it impenetrable.

Anyway, these days, neither the somewhat arch, nudge-and-wink descriptions of Tahitian sexuality, nor the passages critical of the missionaries, are controversial or even very interesting. But the fiction / non-fiction divide still is; or at least it is to me. Melville didn’t keep a journal or a diary, nor did he make notes, during his four years at sea. But he did, evidently, spend quite a bit of time telling the stories of his adventures to his ship mates. These yarns he re-told when he went back home and eventually, it seems, someone told him he should write them down. Or perhaps he always intended to do so. His problem then became one of memory: always fallible, always unreliable, always defective in some sense or another. So what he did was augment his recall with material culled from various literary and anthropological sources. He was quite open about this; and why not? Those who have interested themselves in the matter have mostly concluded that he improved what he took.

What propels the narrative in Omoo, as in Typee, isn’t the story per se but the voice in which it is told. Walt Whitman understood: ‘The question whether these stories be authentic or not has, of course, not so much to do with their interest. One can revel in such richly good natured style, if nothing else,’ he wrote in his review. Omoo is a comic novel and much of its comedy revolves around the extraordinary figure of Doctor Long Ghost, Melville’s companion ashore in Tahiti.

He’s a Sydney-sider whom the unnamed narrator meets on board the Australian whaler that takes him off from the Marquesas. The ship’s doctor, he has had some kind of dispute with the captain and resigned his position, going forward to live amongst the increasingly surly and obstreperous crew; who, eventually, refuse to work the ship any more and are first clapped in irons in the hold of a French Man of War, then put in the stocks in a so-called ‘prison’ ashore. Later the two men ‘escape’ and wander from place to place until the narrator (but not Long Ghost) enlists on an American whaler and sails for the East.

The Doctor is tall and thin, garrulous and unscrupulous, motived entirely by his appetites – for food, drink and sex. He is averse to any kind of work and infinitely devious in his attempts to avoid it. And yet, because he is a kindly man and believes in keeping up appearances, he is often the unwitting cause of his own downfall. All this his mate observes, records and (occasionally) editorialises upon. Long Ghost is far travelled: he has been everywhere and done everything and is full of stories (none of which we ever actually hear). They are most likely lies anyway.

He always brings to mind someone I knew in my early days in Sydney, when I was working as proof-reader for an outfit called Rotary Offset Press (‘Rot Off’) down in Camperdown, opposite where the Children’s Hospital used to be. Darcy Waters was famous in the small world of the Sydney Push and he moved in accord with the knowledge of his unique distinction. His obsessions were horse-racing, drinking and a kind of anarchism which didn’t hesitate to lay down rules of conduct which must be obeyed. He hung out at Café Sport in Leichhardt and referred to his home (where I never went) as ‘the hovel’.

Before I left the job, or before he did, he gave me a book which I still have. It’s a biography of the Spanish anarchist Francesc Sabaté, written by Antonio Tellez. When he gave it to me, Darcy told me the story of how he had gone to Paris to meet Tellez; it was a kind of pilgrimage. And he did meet him: only to find that Tellez, an anarchist himself, and a journalist and writer, didn’t know who he was and didn’t care. I gather Darcy turned up at his door, book in hand, and was told to go away. It isn’t signed.

I think that’s why he gave it to me: Tellez was a god who failed. Darcy’s vanity was wounded in the same way Doctor Long Ghost’s is when things don’t go according to plan. For instance, the time he tries to make love to a fourteen year old Tahitian girl and she responds by stabbing him (it isn’t clear where) with a thorn. Long Ghost, like Darcy Waters, despite all his vanities, his absurdities and his peccadillos, is impossible to dislike.

I got a lot out of re-reading Omoo, not least because I recognised, in its modus operandi, some of the techniques I’ve used in writing ‘non-fiction’; specifically, the augmenting of memory using written sources of various kinds. And, I suppose, an understanding of the primary importance of authenticity of voice as a means of telling a story and keeping a reader’s attention.

I also wondered when I’d first read it and that question was answered when, between pages 288 and 289, I found a newspaper clipping, from the Sydney Morning Herald, dated in my own hand: 11.2.91. The clipping, which is very short, is headed: ‘Rare Parrots Seized’ and reports the arrest of an Austrian national at Perth Airport with three rare Asian Rose Ringneck parrots hidden in his luggage. They were worth $5000 each back then. The man had flown in from Singapore with the birds but the article doesn’t say where in his baggage they were found. I was writing a screenplay with a director friend at the time, about bird smuggling; that’s why I would have clipped it. After we applied, unsuccessfully, for funding, someone who must have seen our script stole the idea and made a not very good film out of it.

To return to Doctor Long Ghost. The original of the character was a man called John Troy, a Sydney-sider, not a doctor, but a steward, who’d been banished to the forecastle on the Australian whaler the Lucy Ann for some misdemeanour – fraud, or petty theft, or something of that nature. Ship’s stewards did sometimes carry remedies with them and that’s probably where Melville got the idea of making him a doctor. His roguishness, however, seems to have been native to the man.

In my quest to find out more, I came across a book an American scholar spent twenty-five years assembling and yet left unfinished at his death. His heirs have completed it and a copy of Herman Melville’s Whaling Years, by Wilson Heflin, is on its way to me as I write. I’m hoping there’s more about John Troy in there. He’s probably implicated in the invention, some years later, of Long John Silver.

images : a poor photo of my copy of Omoo; a Rose Ringneck parrot

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A Penny for the Cabman

Lots of tributes out today for Frank Moorhouse, as there should be. He was a fine writer and a good man. I just want to add my tuppenny-ha’penny worth, partly because I think there’s been a bit too much, uh, solemnity in them all. Frank was a trickster. He was wicked. He was cruel. He was usually funny as well but not always. As is the case with many clowns, there was a part of him that played the sad man.

I’m not saying I knew him well; but he was the first person who ever bought me a kangaroo steak. It was dressed with beetroot. That was in a flash restaurant in Oxford Street Paddington, c. 1987. I was with a film director I was working with at the time and she was a good friend of Frank’s. She wanted to adapt one of his books to the screen but could never decide which one. He was with his current lover.

I’m not going to name names, but he teased his companion unmercifully all through the pre-dinner drinks, and the entrees; and before the mains arrived, she left in tears. As she went, he held up a gold coin, a dollar, and said: A penny for the cabman? She didn’t take it. It was cruel and unnecessary and yet, after she’d gone, I could see he was just as upset as she was, regretted what he had done, and didn’t know how he could have avoided doing it. He was already thinking about ways to make up with her.

I was a young screenwriter in those days and he was indulgent towards me, generous where money was concerned (he always picked up the tab), but he was never ‘kind’. Once he really went after me, because of what he thought of as my jejune romanticising of the deep past of Aboriginal Australia. He was a very white guy in that way. He published a lot in The Australian. He was also a consummate literary politician. And always looked after other writers.

I was single at the time. We used to have these drunken evenings out on the town, the film director and him and me, and the one time we slept together (she and I), Frank crowed about it the next time we convened. I knew you were going to do it! he said, as if he had somehow arranged it himself; or even been there. I don’t know if they were ever lovers; they may have been. He was deeply ambivalent about women.

Anyway, about this time, I fell in love with the woman who became the mother of my children and in the early days of our romance we socialised with Frank and the film director and others. We went to his fiftieth birthday party, for instance, at Murray Syme’s mansion in Birchgrove, and afterwards drove back to my place in Glebe, high as kites, with me steering and working the clutch and she changing the gears. We had good synchronicity.

I didn’t see Frank for years after that; when I did, he seemed to have forgotten me. We shared an agent. And, at a literary do down at the Wharf one night, were introduced to each other. He said, as if to somebody he had only just met: Let’s have lunch; if you have lunch? And gave me his card.

A few years after that I was invited to an event, in Darlinghurst, in his honour. We sat, looking inwards, at tables arranged in a square, in an upstairs room. It was a Friday afternoon. About twenty blokes, all pretending, in the way that they did or do, to be Regency gentlemen. The food was excellent, of course, and there was a lot of alcohol. Many toasts. Before I left I congratulated Frank upon whatever milestone it was but he still did not appear to remember me.

The last time I spoke to him was in Adelaide, at the Writers Festival. He came up to the signing table after one of the sessions and said we had to talk. He bought me a glass of wine and an Anzac biscuit and, after some interruptions (including one from someone who thought Frank was Les Murray), he did.

He said he liked my latest book, which he had read in a motel in Doubtless Bay, New Zealand, but that there wasn’t enough of myself in it and that I should re-write it. He said all my remarks about memory in the session just concluded were wrong; but he didn’t have time to correct me now. As always with Frank, there were multiple ambiguities in what he said. He wanted to mad-dog your tilt-a-whirl. I suspect his primary audience wasn’t whoever he was talking to, it was himself. He spent his life listening to, and editing, that conversation.

He didn’t allude to the times he hadn’t appeared to remember me but did offer an explanation ― of a kind. He said, all those years ago, around the time of his 50th birthday party, he’d fallen in love with my new girlfriend and, to prevent himself from taking her off me, removed himself from the situation. I didn’t want to spoil your young love, he said. I didn’t want to be the snake in your Eden. With one of those wry, self-referential smiles, and a bit of sad clown melancholy added in.

I didn’t say that, at the time, no power on earth could have sundered us. I didn’t tell him we have children. That, although we’re no longer lovers, we’re still good friends. I don’t know if I was protecting his vanity or my own. I’ve tried to imagine them together. They liked each other, and they got on. Her background is Irish, and she’s quick and smart; he was a brilliant talker.

But really? Wouldn’t he just have found out all of her weaknesses, skewered them, and then offered her a penny for the cabman as she left in tears? Yes, probably. And then excoriated himself for what he had just done. All of his emotional cruelties, of which he was preternaturally aware, were practiced first upon himself. They only seemed to be aimed at others.

I did see him one more time. It was in Darlinghurst, in Liverpool Street, outside the Green Park Hotel, one evening about five o’clock. It was winter, so already dark. I was stopped at the lights, maybe driving a taxi, maybe in my own car. He was getting out of a limo and having an argument with a stylish blonde woman who must have been his current companion.

It looked like something no martini, nor Amex card, could ever have fixed. He was despairing; she was reaching out as if to try to save him; while at the same time knowing, as he would have done, that he was beyond salvation.

I still think of one of his remarks – you have to practice the discipline of indiscipline – as good writing advice; and maybe good advice for living; and for dying too.

image : L’écrivain australien Frank Moorhouse photographié à son domicile à Paris, France en octobre 2001. (Photo by Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

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