Today there’s an email from my sister in Germany and I know from the subject heading what it is. The reply to my request to be allowed to read our mother’s war letters. Yes or no? I can’t bring myself to open it . . . instead I go through the emails from another thread, which also concerns matters to do with a literary estate. A NZ publisher is bringing out an ambitious anthology that stretches from colonial times into the now; and in amongst its 1200 pages have found room for two pieces by Alan Brunton, both from 1969. A poem and a polemic. I’m one of Alan’s literary executors so have a say in what happens in cases like this. It seems, to both of us, and to Ruby in Melbourne, that two pieces from early in his career is paltry representation but a request to the editors to reconsider brings this in reply:
We have singled out a small number of writers we regard as of particular literary and historical importance . . . we understand the desire to have a writer’s life work represented by recent as well as earlier material. But the contemporary end of the anthology can easily become inflated and we are very conscious of the need to include new writers here as well as established ones. At this stage we have collected far more material than we can include in the book. To add more means to subtract elsewhere . . . We prefer that the representation stand. Oh well, it’s their take, I guess, so it’s referred to Ruby for a final decision; but they will have to rewrite that derisory bio, the one which suggests (probably accurately) that they haven’t even bothered to look at Alan’s later work.
We’re also preparing a collection / selection of Alan’s poems for publication and that has its own problems associated – which are, to some extent, to do with literary and historical importance: who decides? Most of Alan’s books were either self-published, in later years under his own imprint, Bumper Books; or came out in tiny editions from small, relatively obscure presses. He had one collection, the magisterial Slow Passes, brought out by a university press but that was it. If the work you publish does not receive an institutional imprimatur while you are alive, that probably decreases the chances of joining the canon after death. Add to that a razor wit and an ungovernable tongue; an inability to adopt the required subservient pose before the powers that be; and an addiction to living on the edges . . . unassimilable, thus far. Still, the work remains, and if we can get a good selection of it into print, with online back-up for notes, sources etc., that will be something.
After a decent interval has elapsed – time to allow contemplation of the consequences of each of the two possible answers (like Schrödinger’s cat box) it contains – I turn to the other email, the one from Germany . . . it’s a yes. Hmmm. Does that mean I have to do this family book? No. Does it mean I can now do it in the way I wish to? Yes. Will I . . . I don’t know. Despite the admonitions the email also contains, I’m pleased and grateful for this permission; the contrary would, or could, have made things, in an extra-literary sense, very difficult.
The day’s official business is over mid-morning so we three set out for Market-town so Ella can spend my loose change on lollies. We stop at Aldi on the way back to shop for groceries and end up with too much – two boxes – to carry home, especially since Maggie is suffering pain in her feet brought on by the belated re-discovery, and re-use after two or three months, of her orthotics – the shaped pads she wears inside her shoes to ameliorate the damage dancing did to her feet when she was young. She sits down on a bench to wait while Ella rides her bike and I walk back to the flat to get the car.
In the afternoon I take Ella down to Ocean Baths for a dip – you can’t hardly call it a swim – and while she’s playing in the water, pace around the pool and up and down the concrete rehearsing what I’ll say in my speech tomorrow night. One problem is that I’ve never been able to remember the surname of the writer who replaced me; this is not from rancour or jealousy, it’s because we’ve never met, nor even spoken on the phone to each other, just exchanged a few emails. Now I discover I’ve also forgotten the surname of one of the producers . . . will have to look them both up on the ‘net when I get back to the flat.
It’s a tricky situation: I don’t want anyone to think I actually wrote the draft they filmed; but nor do I wish to stand up and suggest that there’s anything wrong with it . . . though in my opinion there is, quite a lot. Don’t want anyone to think I was fired, either, because I wasn’t: when offered the opportunity to finish what I’d started, I declined. There were two reasons for this. The first was that, by then, my relationship with the director, with whom I’d co-written several previous drafts, and who would be co-writing this one, had broken down; the second, and more persuasive – also the excuse I actually used – was that I was busy writing a book. I was. I always am.
It’s a quiet, grey, autumn day with soft slate coloured cloud lying low over the city. The sea is a resonant green against which the white of breaking waves looks resplendent. I see a gannet cruising the littoral, the first one for ages; used to get them sometimes at Pearl Beach, almost always solitary. Otherwise it’s just terns and gulls. I watch while a freighter disappears behind Nobby’s Head on its way up the river to dock and load coal for China. There’s a strange feeling in the air, almost of regret . . . but for what? The paths not taken, the days not lived, the unassuagable drift and tug of a past that may never have existed but which, somehow, still wants to. I buy a bottle of Promised Land and take it home to drink with our steaks tonight.