Is April the month when poets of a certain ilk determine to write a poem a day? I’m between books and not working on anything in particular at the moment, I miss writing on a daily basis, and yesterday it occurred to me that I might make up the lack by keeping a diary . . . an entry a day until the 30th. Because I didn’t think of this until the 6th, the first half dozen entries are retrospective. So then:
I forget that it is April Fool’s Day. Go to Franklins to buy hash browns, bacon etc and make a big breakfast for the boys. They can’t help but squabble, it becomes physical then Liamh – who usually starts it by niggling Jesse – gets hurt. They don’t actually make up but later I see them both poised companionably over the screen while J plays some game and L watches.
They catch the 1.00 train from Strathfield and, at the same time, Maggie arrives from Newcastle. She calls my name on Platform 1, just as they are leaving, but we can’t find which window they’re at to wave goodbye. We take the 1.30 to Katoomba and end up arguing over whether my character should be a psychiatrist, a neurologist or a GP . . . but it’s not really about that, it’s because we’ve been apart and aren’t together again yet.
It starts raining big fat drops as we leave the station . . . Katoomba reminds me of Ohakune, I think it’s the air, high and clear. A cab pulls up in front of the Carrington to let someone out so I claim it. The driver grumps that we’ve just put him in an illegal position but then calms down and becomes quite amusing. Takes us down to the B & B, Lurline House on Lurline Street. We check in then have tea downstairs. It’s still tense and suddenly there’s a flash of light and a great clap of thunder directly overhead. We start talking about the wardrobe cracking when Freud and Jung reached their moment of greatest tension. Circa 1912. M has just seen the movie (A Dangerous Method) and says the scene as played is about Jung’s pre-cognitive abilities. It’s many years since I read Dreams, Memories, Reflections (hitch-hiking to Wellington in the summer of 73-74, in a state of dread and paranoia) but I recall it differently.
Later we go upstairs and get together at last. The spa bath . . . watching M deliquesce under the jets.
Set up for the filming later. Go for dinner at the Golden Dragon in the Leagues Club down the road where the dance will be. It’s still raining and K still reminds me of Ohakune – with better buildings.
We dance, elegantly, to a strange band called The Bakery. All their gear is twined with (artificial) vines and flowers and they are costumed like players from one of the scenes (after the god arrives) in The Bacchae. Or perhaps a version of it by Watteau. I find the drummer unsympathetic, a control freak, he is the band leader and, while technically good, seems afflicted by the monomania drummers often suffer from . . . it pervades the band so that no-one else seems really at ease.
Leave between sets and go back to the Lurline to do the filming but we’re too drunk and can’t stay in character or remember the narrative sense of the scene properly. A pity, because the set-up looked good, the wooden table with the clock upon it between two chairs in front of heavy green drapes. Very David Lynch.
After breakfast we do another version of the scene, much better, more relaxed, with some sections where we break character and discuss, on camera, what we are doing or trying to do. Stash our bags and go for a walk to Echo Point. A lovely day. The valleys full of cloud and the bluffs like present reminiscences of the eternal archaic.
M sets up the camera, starts it rolling then climbs the fence to stand, looking away, before the Three Sisters. I get her to move so she’s next to them, in silhouette, a fourth. She turns back once, looking witchy and mad, her black hair spread out in points, like Bjork doing an imitation of Kate Bush in the video of the Wuthering Heights song. Heathcliff, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home . . . Wander back to the B & B to say our farewells and she – we never got her name – or his – drives us to the station, where we just miss the 10.20.
The old bookshop where Vic used to go for his Greek and Latin lessons seems to have gone and the other two we check out, not so interesting. To the Paramount for coffee. The town full of strangers and refugees and that’s just the locals. While waiting for the train to go I use M’s phone to write a description of the pink derelict shed, with rusty derrick, out the window: But what is inside? it ends. She thinks it’s about her and perhaps it is; tho’ I thought it was just an image. On the other hand, I recall it is my mother’s birthday, she would have been 88, so maybe that’s what it concerned.
On the way down I suddenly remember my car is illegally parked and might end up ticketed. M accuses me of having, by thinking of it, caused that to happen but I reckon it more likely that I’ve picked up a trace of the actual moment of being booked – so it proves. $88.00.
I see her off on the Newcastle train and go home to do . . . nothing much. Return to Strathfield at 9 pm to pick her and Ella and Graham up, they’re all going down to Canberra at crack of dawn to volunteer at the folk festival.
They re-pack at my place, in great confusion but no acrimony, while I cook omelettes for everyone. It’s a crazy schedule but there you go. Graham is reading Luca Antara and asks me if Antiquarian Books is still extant? It isn’t, but I show him the copy of Ulysses I bought there, with Max Harris’ name on the flyleaf. We all inhale the old book odour and, for a second, it is like being back there.
To Central Station at 6 am or thereabouts. Red sky in the east and mist wreathing the city buildings. Is it Sailor’s or Shepherd’s warning? Well, both . . . and in the event it doesn’t rain. I don’t wait at the station until the XPT leaves, I come home and go back to bed for an hour or two more sleep – I’m working tonight.
I wake to a thunderous knocking on the door but don’t answer, I wait. It’s either the police or the post office and, if they go away, certainly the latter . . . they go. They don’t leave the parcel either, only a card in the letter box. I already know what it is: a box of books from Kilmog Press in Dunedin, Dean is winding up his operations and I have bought the remaining copies of the two books of mine he did. Plus, I know he’s added a selection of other titles as a koha but I don’t know what they are – I asked him to choose.
When I’m up I check my email and there’s one from my sister, who is our mother’s literary executor and from whom I’ve asked permission to see some of the papers deposited in the Turnbull Library in Wellington . . . when I go there in July. I can’t bring myself to open it at first, I have breakfast, coffee etc. Am reading Frederic Raphael, a volume of acerbic, witty, alarmingly erudite essays called The Benefits of Doubt.
It’s a chatty, friendly letter but there’s an attachment. Ominously titled : The Business. Not chatty. Not friendly. Rehearses old resentments, some of which seem justified, others not. When I feel stressed I sometimes clean; that’s what I do now, scrub the bathroom. And compose a reply, which I write and send before going to work. I think I’ve managed not to take offence: not simply to have appeared not to have taken offence, but actually . . . we shall see.
My three shift working week always casts a long shadow before it but I usually manage to keep my mind on present concerns for at least half the first night. Tuesday. A grim prospect, leavened (or not) by luck. Not. It starts well enough but then I pick up on Oxford Street and she’s a drugged up sinner about my own age, going down to the housing commission flats on Devonshire. We talk along the way, pleasantly enough, but it’s all about ripping off and being ripped off and when we get there it turns out she has no money and also can’t find the book of dockets that the disabled use to pay half their taxi fares. She could go in and get cash off her friend but I can see that’ll take a while (seven minutes, she says, precisely, when I ask. Or maybe two and a half). It’s only ten bucks and I can’t be bothered waiting . . . Parkinson’s she says, almost in tears, I forget things. I call it a free ride and leave her to her fate. Pick up soon after, a Chinese woman going to Lidcombe, it’s a good fare but a bad trip, she becomes agitated, perhaps made ill, by the stop and start crawl along Parramatta Road and who knows what else . . . once you have two bad rides in a row you know there will be more and so it proves.
Am a bit anxious about the Canberra expedition so send M a text at dusk; she calls up and says the tents are pitched and her first stint as a volunteer is about to begin . . . has booked in to see the Renaissance show at the Nat. Gal. in the morning. So that’s OK.
Have developed the habit of smoking a cheroot and drinking a glass or three of red wine after I finish work but tonight, deliberately, I’ve made sure I don’t have any of either. There is however the whisky (The Famous Grouse) that David left at the airport for me, which I picked up from security at the terminal last week – he came to stay but got delayed in Newtown and never actually made it to my place, had bought the two big bottles duty free as a gift for me, and they wouldn’t let him take them back to NZ. He came over because he wanted to enter a painting in the Gallipoli Prize (they accepted it) and it was cheaper to bring it himself on the plane than it was to freight it. I hit the whisky.
I’m late waking up, it must be the whisky, it’s after 9 am and I’m due in Newtown at 10.30. Usually, if I’m alone, I lie in bed reading while drinking a pot of tea but find that if it’s later than a certain hour I can’t do that. The current novel, By The Sea, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, will have to wait . . . it’s an account of Zanzibarian refugees in contemporary England with resonances that extend back to the Life of the Prophet no less than the Arabian Nights. A wonderful book.
I go to the Post Office to pick up my parcel and open it before driving over to Newtown. Beautiful books, he’s included six I’ve never seen before, a sumptuous gift. One thing I really like about Dean is his packaging, meticulous, classy, high style . . . I keep all the wrappings to use again.
I search for a park in the narrow streets behind King Street at the hospital end. Find one right down the bottom of O’Connell Street and walk up to Berkelouw’s at the top, where we’re meeting in the café. Turns out there are two cafés, one up and one down, but I don’t at first realise that. The downstairs one is deserted so I start browsing – The Last Days of William Burroughs or some such, it’s the diary of his final years, that mix of sardonic wit and tender outrage that is peculiarly his . . . writing about, of all things, Australian native animals. Specifically, the demise of the Thylacine. A fellow in a blue shirt comes in, looks around then goes upstairs and I suddenly sense that he is the man I’m here to meet . . . so I follow.
That’s Joseph alright and he’s sitting on a sofa next to Susan and opposite Margaret, who’s the only one here I really know. Oddly enough, we met on a dating site, never really dated, but became good friends nevertheless; I like her more each time we meet. Anyway, I sit down next to her, introductions are made then Joe pulls out of a plastic bag the Red Mole puppet I’ve come to see. It’s a hamburger wearing a stars and stripes cowboy hat and Joe says it was made when the Moles thought they might get hired by McDonalds to promote their wares when first they entered the NZ market, circa 1980. This is so preposterous it might be true; naturally, they never were given the gig but the puppet, which is robustly made (probably by Deb, I think), rude, even gross, and utterly insouciant, no doubt did service in other shows as a kind of demonic Uncle Sam.
It takes a while to sort out Joe’s history with the Moles and, having done so, it is my melancholy task to describe, yet again, the deaths of Alan (in Amsterdam, a heart attack) and Sally (a deliberate overdose of anti-depressants). There’s a long discussion of the ethics, or not, of suicide after that . . . and then we all cheer up and go on to other things. I don’t realise until I’m leaving that the puppet is mine to take away; Joe, an architect, is going to the Netherlands for a while and wants it to return to an archive somewhere. I say I’ll write to Ruby in Melbourne and Michele in Auckland, copy him in and we’ll see what happens.
It’s a rush after that, to shop, to cook, to eat, to get ready for work. The shift . . . I can’t remember much about it, beyond the fact that it was less stressful than the night before, probably because I started with a wallet full of cash, due to the fact that most of the money I made on Tuesday was in dockets, which my boss, Bob, exchanged for banknotes when I gave him my pay-in. I’m driving 1821, same as last night, and realise it hasn’t been used since. Maybe that’s why Bob looks depressed? Maybe he’s having trouble getting enough drivers? It’s not the kind of thing I can ask him.
When I get in, late, there’s an email from my sister . . . it’s without rancour, which is good, but also without any indication as to whether she’s going to let me see the papers or not. She’s going overseas for six months in a week and has accepted my suggestion that I make a formal request to see the things I want to see; which she won’t have time to consider formally until she’s in Germany. Ah, well.
This morning I wake up real early, probably because I’ve got an appointment to see my academic supervisor at 11 am and am nervous about that. He’s also a potential publisher for my thesis/book, which has recently been sent out to half a dozen prospectives; two, both university presses, have declined it and we’re still waiting to hear from the others. I’m uneasy talking directly to publishers, even ones as friendly as my supervisor is, and have taken advice from my agent as to how to proceed . . . but she’s away now in Tasmania and I’m on my own.
I flarf around all morning, bank my earnings ($320.00, all of which will go to pay credit card bills) from the last two shifts then, at 10.30, hop in the car to drive to Artarmon. The house is in a quiet tree-lined street, generously proportioned both without and within – designed by his sister, my supervisor says, who was living with a well-known émigré architect at the time. He takes me outside to a round wooden table, which he covers with a cloth, brings me a glass of orange juice and we start to talk.
My thesis/book, he says, officially known as the creative component (I am doing a Doctorate of Creative Arts or DCA), is of a high enough standard to pass but it needs some revision . . . mainly because it’s too long. 120,000 words although, generously, he says it doesn’t read like that – reads more like 80,000. Anyway, he wants me to edit it down to about 100,000 so we spend a bit of time discussing the nuts and bolts of that.
But what he’s really interested in is the Exegesis and that’s what we mostly talk about . . . how am I going to do that? I tell him my plan, which is to take a research trip to the Centre and structure the writing around the journey. Tell it in the first person. Focus upon landscape, people and the reading I’ve done. Meditate upon the voices in which a biographical inquiry may be told – the personal voice, the neutral voice, the voice of god . . . he is dubious at first but in the end buys it; but warns me against being too impressionistic, too lacking in rigour, most of all against any special pleading on behalf of the creative component. The Exegesis is a separate work, a critical work, an evaluation of methodology, a description of sources, whatever . . . it is not another Thesis and nor is it primarily a piece of creative writing, whatever that means. Nevertheless, he urges me to get on with booking my trip – I’ve been procrastinating – and advises how best to do that.
He says one thing that lingers in my mind: in form, he suggests, it could be like a string of pearls and I immediately think of Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street; this makes me very happy and I think pleases him as well.
After the business is over we gossip for a bit and then he takes me in to meet his wife. He gives me two books from a new series he’s doing, one is a memoir of publishing in the 1970s, the other a selection of animal pieces by Eliot Weinberger. He walks me to the car and there, in the quiet leafy street, at last, we discuss matters of publication . . . which I won’t go into here. Beyond saying that it was good, satisfyingly good. While we’re talking his wife comes out, picks a green fig off the fig tree that’s fruiting on the berm and offers it, prettily, to me. Her name, I recall, as I drive away, is a continental variation of Eve.
It’s another rush to get ready for work and, again, Bob seems despondent and, again, 1821 has not been driven since I drove it the night before – what is going on? The shift is busy busy busy until about 9 pm then I – and the thousand thousand other cab drivers out there – hit a lull. Maundy Thursday, Easter tomorrow, the working stiffs have all gone home or on holiday and the party people are still partying. I force myself to stay out until the exodus begins but after taking a very drunk woman from Newtown to Paddington and then three obnoxious young businessmen from Paddington to the City, I give up. Even though there’s money to be made, hand over fist as they say, I go home. There’s not another cab at the base, every other driver is still out there milking it but I’m off, I’m done, I’m gone.
Days I don’t have to drive have a different quality to them, there’s no shadow looming halfway through the afternoon, just a seductive vista of unlost time. Plus it’s Good Friday, which means the streets are quiet, deserted, neither cars nor people busily going about their business. I’ve got a coffee date with Euan Mcleod at 10.30, he lives just on the other side of Parramatta Road, it’s a ten or fifteen minute walk so, after re-reading Frederic Raphael on Stanley Kubrick (he adapted Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Fantasia to make the screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut), I set out . . . still chuckling over this sentence:
It is neither my pleasure nor my purpose to go through the many symptoms of manifest inauthenticity which resulted from the casting of so coldly calculating a couple of careerists as Cruise and Kidman . . .
I reviewed Greg O’Brien’s book about Euan for Landfall last year and subsequently Euan got in touch to thank me. Also he read and liked my recent book on McCahon. We have a close mutual friend in Tom Carment (whose 2004 portrait of Euan appears above), I’ve met him once or twice before but have never really talked properly with him. As I’m walking over to Haberfield I remember that, in my review, I quoted what someone told me about someone else she knew having used the Mcleod’s pool to take an illicit swim one night – I feel sure I’ll be asked about this and so I am.
The house is a modest brick Federation style bungalow that opens out into a spacious garden with a grand old oak tree in it. We sit in a large room out the back, an add-on, hung with an almost bewildering collection of paintings, sculptures, objets d’art and who knows what else, while Euan makes coffee and his wife Susan inquires as to the identity of the clandestine swimmer – but I don’t know! The woman who told me the story, a very old friend, is no longer talking to me and I can’t remember the interloper’s name . . . it’s not as embarrassing as it might sound.
I’ve always enjoyed the company of painters and Euan is no exception. We have a large number of points of contact, both here and in NZ, and the conversation goes, well, swimmingly. He heats me a hot cross bun but has none himself because they’re dieting – ends tomorrow. No, not Lent, just an attempt to restore a healthy balance, lose a bit of weight. After a while Susan goes to make family calls and then Euan asks if I’d like to write a catalogue introduction for his upcoming show at Frank Waters. Of course I would . . .
He shows me the studio, gives me three catalogues of earlier shows and also lends me a copy of the letters of Toss Woollaston – this is timely because I’m preparing a talk, for the ASAL conference in Wellington in July, about Colin McCahon in Australia and have only recently realised that Colin’s experience, in 1951, was mirrored by Toss’s similar experience, in 1958; in both cases they were hosted by painter Lina Bryans, a cousin of Charles Brasch, and there are a number of letters about, and to, her in Toss’s A Life in Letters.
After a couple of hours of good talk I say goodbye to Euan and Susan and wander back to Summer Hill, where I spend most of the afternoon on the sofa reading the incomparable Toss (AB called him that). Shop in Ashfield, because everything here is closed, and for the first time realise, after thirty years in Australia, that bottle shops here don’t open on Good Friday – really? So there’ll be no red wine with my steak and salad and sweet potato tonight.
I have a beer in the Summer Hill Hotel and come home to watch, on TV, the Rabbitohs beat the Bulldogs; M rings a couple of times from the folk festival, where she’s having a ball – folk-dancing, flute-playing – and I hear, on the ABC news, that today, 6 April, is now officially Waltzing Matilda Day. There’s footage of the festival in Canberra, mostly bearded aging men with arcane instruments crooning about billabongs . . . I’m smoking cheroots and drinking whisky . . . I can see Te Waka o Tama-rereti settling in the west . . . and a yellow moon, almost full, rising in the east.