Also amongst my father’s books is one called A True Tale of Love in Tonga / told in 23 engravings on wood and 333 words by Robert Gibbings, which Faber & Faber published in London in 1935. The flimsy red paper cover, with its image of two lovers surfacing from beneath the sea, is falling to bits; beneath it, back and front, is a splendid image of a black palm tree on a yellow ground standing before ocean waves. There is no name or date on the flyleaf and no indication anywhere else in the book as to where and when my father bought it nor for how much. Or was it a gift?
Robert Gibbings was an Irishman from County Cork, the son of a minister and his wife, an antiquarian. He fought at Gallipoli, was wounded, then repatriated. He studied medicine for three years but after the war decided he wanted to be a wood block artist instead. His early work was in advertising but, by 1923, he was illustrating Samuel Butler’s Erewhon; and soon after, with a loan, he bought Golden Cockerel Press, where he worked for a decade with, among others, Eric Gill. He was most proud of publishing a luxurious four volume edition of The Canterbury Tales; and, subsequently, The Four Gospels, both of which Gill illustrated.
Gibbings’ connection with the Pacific was serendipitous. He had illustrated A Mirror for Witches by Esther Forbes for Houghton Mifflin and when he sent the blocks to Houghton in Boston, he said, jokingly, in the covering letter: ‘Next time you give me a job, for God’s sake send me to the South Seas―I’m sick of English fogs.’ However the publishers took him seriously and commissioned him to illustrate a book on Tahiti to be written by James Norman Hall, author, with Charles Nordhoff, of the novel The Mutiny on the Bounty and its two sequels, Men against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island.
Gibbings went out via Sydney to Papeete and spent four months in French Polynesia, during which time he also visited the Marquesas Islands. Hall’s text never eventuated but Gibbings nevertheless published two books from his Tahitian sojourn. Iorana, a semi-fictional account of his time in the islands, came out in two versions, one bowdlerised, the second complete; he later disavowed both of them.
The other book was based upon a tale he heard on the beach: The Seventh Man, a True Cannibal Tale of the South Sea Islands / told in Fifteen Wood-Engravings and precisely one hundred and eighty-nine words. Published in a limited edition by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1930 and never reprinted, it is now very rare; nevertheless, it provided the template for the one my father owned: a small, square wood cut print on each recto, with the bare minimum of words above and below, describing the action; verso blank.
For A True Tale of Love in Tonga, Gibbings used a story told by William Mariner, the fourteen year old boy spared after the massacre of the crew of the privateer the Port au Prince off Lifuka in the Ha’apai group in 1806. Mariner lived four years in Tonga and afterwards, with an editor, wrote an account of the islands and their culture; the transliterations of the names are Mariner’s own.
Gibbings opens with an image of the high chief, the Tooi-Tonga, as an aging tyrant surrounded by piles of skulls. His rival Veachi intends to overthrow him but the plot is revealed by a traitor and Veachi and all of his family are condemned to death. They are to be bound and placed sitting upright in leaky canoes which are then sent out beyond the reef where they will fill slowly with water then sink beneath the waves.
Veachi’s daughter Lyfotoo is, however, absent when her people are captured, and Toio-omoo, a chief of Vavaoo, who is in love with her, runs to warn her of the danger. He conceals her in a cave, off the island of Hoonga, whose entrance can only be reached by diving under the sea; he found it while fishing for turtles. He continues to visit her each night with food and water, always returning to Vavaoo before dawn; until he and his kinsfolk are ready to sail to Figi to wait out the reign of the Tooi-Tonga.
Toio-omoo is asked why he doesn’t take a Tongan wife with him to Figi and replies, mysteriously, that perhaps he may find one along the way. Off Hoonga he dives over the side of his canoe and disappears; returning, some time later, with a comely woman by his side; whom his kinsfolk recognise as Lyfotoo. They spend two years in Figi then, when the tyrant dies, return to Vavaoo where they ‘lived happily ever after’.
It seems to me that my father might have seen analogies between this tale and his own encounter with the Tongan girl on Tongatapu in 1943 or 44. Or perhaps I am being fanciful. In the absence of any solid evidence, I still think he must have acquired this book after his war service was over; that is, in the mid to late 1940s when he and my mother were, apart from a year spent in Dunedin, living in Wellington.
Oddly enough, Robert Gittings was also living there for six months around the same time, suggesting the possibility of a direct connection. He left England for the South Seas on VJ Day and spent eighteen months on a leisurely tour of the islands, visiting Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, the Tokelaus, the Tuamotus and Tahiti; with a side trip to New Zealand. He had a friend in Dunedin, John Harris, the librarian at the University of Otago, whom he’d known at Oxford in the 1920s.
When he visited Harris he gave him five vellum sheets, three from The Canterbury Tales and two from John Keats’ Lamia, for the library; one of the sheets from the Tales was illustrated by Eric Gill. It might have been through Harris that Gibbings met the artist Russell Clark, then working in advertising in Wellington. The two became friends and Clark made a caricature of Gill which was published in the NZ Listener in 1948. He shows him naked, bearded, garlanded, on top of a wave in a small dugout canoe, while the sun beats down from above and round about the flying fishes play.
Clark had been an early teacher of Colin McCahon, whose sister Bea married my father’s friend Noel Parsloe after the war. Gibbings spent his six months in Wellington holed up in a house in Eastbourne with his wife’s sister as his amanuensis, typist and lover, working on the book he was writing about his Pacific Island travels. Over the Reefs, with engravings by the author, came out from J M Dent and Sons in 1948 and is as charming, as evocative and as elusive as was Gibbings himself.
He does not write much about New Zealand therein, confining himself, in chapter 25, to some brief remarks about its bird life including, of course, the kiwi; which he drew, humorously, with a worm wriggling near the tip of its long curving beak.
While Gibbings was in Eastbourne, my father and mother were living in Salek Street in Lyall Bay, in a house temporarily vacated by friends who had gone to Auckland. No car, no phone; non-descript furniture, typical of rented dwellings of the time: the squeaky wirewoves and lumpy kapok of their beds, the ancient cream and green painting of their kitchens.
My father established the first of his many luxuriant vegetable gardens—carrots, leeks, cabbages, beans, lettuce—in the unpromising sandy earth, while my mother grew marigolds, asters, sweet peas, delphiniums and ranunculus out the front. He had a rehab bursary that allowed him to study towards an MA in Education; in the holidays he worked painting the high wooden gates down on the wharves.
She was teaching at South Miramar Primary School, just over the hill in Worser Bay. It was 1947 and she was pregnant; their first child, my sister Virginia, was born towards the end of that year, around the time that Robert Gibbings departed for England.
I like to think of my father going down Lambton Quay to Modern Books one evening after work or study and finding there on the shelves a brand new copy of A True Tale of Love in Tonga, buying it and bringing it home: to show to his wife? Or not?
When I talk about analogies with his own experience, I mean he might have thought the woman Lyfotoo in the cave beneath the sea resembled the unnamed girl he met in the fale in the village on Tongatapu; with one difference. Unlike Toio-omoo, he did not return; but left her there, abandoned as it were at a fork in the road which she, and he, would never take.
Whether he felt abandoned himself it is impossible to say. He might have had regrets whatever happened. His true tale of love in Tonga had no issue but the enigmatic presence of the Gibbings, the only art book he ever owned, in his library; and my uneasy stewardship of both the physical object and its equivocal, perhaps illusory, meanings.
The other day I found a leech in the garden. It was in the saucer under the pot in which the rosemary died, after a fungus ate its roots during last summer’s dry. I’d put the rosemary out under the edge of the shelter over the washing line where the run off soaked into the dirt, causing a green slime to grow over the outside of the pot and a black grit to gather in the saucer. It was in this grit that I found the leech. It looked healthy enough but seemed sluggish; it didn’t have the brilliant gold stripes along its sides like the ones I sometimes picked up at Pearl Beach. And it showed no inclination to suck my blood. I let it go in another water logged pot down by the compost bin. Later I found a second one, dead, beneath the ex-rosemary pot’s saucer, as if the rain had drowned then dissolved it into amorphous tissue. I didn’t know leeches could drown.
There’s a small blueberry bush, covered in pink and cream flowers, growing next to where this pot used to stand. Last summer we did get one or two small sweet fruit from it but the birds ate the rest. Serendipitously, I associate blueberries with leeches because, one time when we were visiting a blueberry farm near Wamberal, I took one of the boys down into a gully so he could go to the toilet; and while there we were attacked by leeches. Jesse, who was four or five at the time, screamed and ran and I had to go after him and catch him and pick him up and pick the leeches off his legs. They have a toothed V shaped mouth that suckers onto your flesh, then they inject an anaesthetic and a thinner into your blood; it takes some force to remove them. Later on that day, when we were driving away, I found one engorged, swollen like a tumour, between my toes.
Out on the path that runs down the side of the house, after rain, slugs gather around the pale purple lilly pilly berries fallen from the myrtle hedge onto the concrete. Their mucous trails make silvery webs. Or labyrinths at the heart of which lies a disintegrating fruit. It takes the slugs days, or weeks, to eat a single berry. First they gnaw away the skin, then they start upon the pulp and, after that, the seeds. Small creatures, they don’t need much. After the last spell of rain I found one dead, perhaps stranded when the path dried out. It was black and shriveled into a cigar-shaped crinkle of tissue. They are nocturnal and I haven’t seen one alive or feeding yet. Except when they crawl through the air vents and I stand on one as I walk around the house.
Today at my desk, after our swim, I felt something on the back of my neck and brushed it away. Some kind of bug. Later, in the sitting room, reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad from the point of view of Briseis and the Trojan women, I felt it again. That involuntary shudder you experience upon discovering the presence of an unknown creature upon your skin. I flicked it away and it fell upon the rug. It was a ladybird. Very beautiful, burnished gold and black, one gossamer membrane protruding from beneath the carapace over its wings. It was still alive, maybe even undamaged. I let it go outside. Whether it was the same one that was on my neck in the study, or another, I do not know.
Last February, after I returned from Japan, there was a deluge that lasted several days. It was the heaviest rain on record―since the time before. I did look it up but cannot now remember when that was. A hundred years ago maybe. Suffice to say this is an event which happens periodically and will obviously continue to do so. During this storm I realised our house, which we bought only recently, in the midst of Black Summer, with the smoke of hundreds of bushfires turning the air orange-yellow, is built upon the northern slope of a slight rise; so that the land tends downhill. As did the rain, roaring on the roof, pouring through the gutters, flooding into the drains.
When it stopped, and I was on my way down the side of the house to put the rubbish and the recycling into the bins, I met an animal. A rodent of some kind. Or a marsupial. Quite large. Brownish skin, golden along the ridge of the spine. A short, stumpy tail. A hunch in the back. It was foraging amongst the clippings I’d left to rot on the ground after the last time I clipped the myrtle hedge. It hopped, unhurriedly, across the path and into an open grill that leads under the house. Just before it went in it paused and looked up at me with a bright incurious eye: as if to say, you live here too, do you?
Subsequently I went online to try to work out what it was. There are a few possibilities. One is that it’s a brown rat, aka the Norwegian rat, the wharf rat, the ship rat, the sewer rat. Another is that it’s a native, also a rodent, sometimes called the bush rat. They are nocturnal, however, and uncommon in urban areas; whereas this one seemed quite at home in the broad daylight. The third possibility is that it’s some kind of marsupial. An antechinus perhaps. There are fifteen varieties of these here; it is a dasyurid, like quolls and Tasmanian Devils. The largest, the dusky antechinus, feeds mostly on insects and small reptiles but will eat fruits, seeds and so forth. It is diurnal and may come forth at any hour of the day or night.
I didn’t see one of them again for a while and when I did I still wasn’t sure what it was. One balmy autumn evening Mayu and I were sitting outside and saw a couple of them scurrying along the top of the green metal fence that divides this house from the one next door. They were smaller than the one upon the path, about half the size; but with the same hunch in the back, the same stubby tail, the same hopping gait. Subsequently we saw more of them, even smaller, about the size of a mouse. I watched one through the window of the bedroom at the front of the house for quite a long time as it snuffled in the leaf litter under a gardenia bush.
The people who sold us this house had two growing children and one of them kept pets in a wooden hutch out by the compost bin. Guinea pigs maybe; or rabbits. I don’t know. They took the hutch with them when they went, exposing an oblong patch of bare ground at the edge of the lawn. Over time, crumbs and seeds and other detritus must have fallen through the cracks in the timber and, once the hutch was gone, birds came to feed upon it: noisy minas, Indian minas, spotted doves. There might have been a bit of competition between these three species; or it might have been that the minas, of both kinds, weren’t very interested in the food we started putting out for them. After a while, the patch was only visited, several times a day, by a pair of spotted doves; later we started feeding them on the lawn.
We bought the seed mix from a supermarket and soon noticed that the doves, although they devoured everything else, did not eat a long wheat-like grain that was included in the selection. The rat, however, or the antechinus, or whatever it was, did. Over a number of days we watched one come out from under the house near the washing line, hop across the grass and then spend some time among the seeds, apparently stuffing its cheeks with grain. After that it would go back under the house, presumably to store its harvest, before returning for more. Sometimes there were brief confrontations with the spotted doves, who seemed, surprisingly, always to prevail.
Once when I surprised an animal out there, it hid behind the compost bin. There is what looks like the entrance to a burrow, now plugged, back there in the soft earth next to the fence, and I wondered if that was where it had gone. I waited and watched and after a while it came around the side of the bin, saw me standing there, and disappeared again. A while later it came back around the other side of the bin. Again it saw me and again retreated. Glossy and bright eyed. I walked away.
After that we stopped seeing them for a while. Perhaps they had stored enough grain for the winter; or eaten enough to make hibernation possible; if they hibernate. There’s clearly a family living under the house, the little mouse-like ones, the middle-sized ones we saw hopping along the fence, the big grand one I first saw out on the path.
The spotted dove, ubiquitous in Sydney, is not a native. They are an Asian bird, introduced to Melbourne in the 1860s, and flourishing along the east coast ever since. They are beautiful and shy, with a pale whitish-purple head, a pink breast, light brown back and wings, and a checkerboard pattern, white and black, on either side of the neck; which gives them their name.
They call constantly from the trees, a distinctive coo-cor-cor, which some people find irritating. Males and females look very much alike and when our pair first started visiting, we spent some time learning to distinguish one from the other. The male, who always flies down first, has a slimmer body, a whiter head, and a pointy tuft at the throat; the female is plumper, shyer and with a more purpled head.
And then there was one. Without a point of comparison, it took us a while to work out it was the male who was still coming: partly because of the way he started to flirt with Mayu. When she was out there he would fly down, walk importantly across the lawn, hop onto the deck and start arching his back, spreading his tail and extending his wings in the way that male pigeons do when they are courting. Sometimes he showed his cloaca. She responded by giving him food; and perhaps that was the point. She’d talk to him too, and he grew accustomed to her voice. He seems to like it when she speaks Japanese. He sat on the fence for about ten minutes the other day, listening to her talking to a friend on the phone.
Of course we wondered what had happened to the female. Spotted doves are monogamous and they mate for life. There are cats around―next door has one and there’s another, a bold tabby, who’s visited a few times. Was she dead? Did they break up? Or was she sitting on a nest somewhere? And then she came back. Her reappearance coincided with a period during which the male called incessantly from inside the myrtle hedge, though I could never work out exactly where he was.
Then, a couple of times, they made love before us on the deck. They would hop up, bill and coo, then she would settle down and plump up her feathers and wait for him. He’d strut around a bit, with his chest puffed out. If, in his afflatus, he forgot about her, she’d remind him with a peck or two.
After they’d consummated, they’d both perch on the edge of the deck and make a tender, triumphant sound. Calling out to their peers perhaps. Or to their descendants. Not long after that I found some pieces of egg shell on the lawn under the myrtle tree that grows beside the compost bin. They are sitting next to the Buddha now, on the ochre sill below the laundry window.
Apparently spotted dove nests are so frail, so flimsily built, you can sometimes see the two white eggs they contain from underneath. Nevertheless, they must be robust enough, because their numbers keep on increasing. We are now feeding the children, or the grand children, of the original pair. Not with supermarket seed, we go to a pet shop now. No preservatives, the punky girl that served me said. No additives.
Halfway down Peace Lane, where I walk most days, there’s a cohort of a dozen or so spotted doves, including several juveniles. They are slimmer than ours, perhaps because they live mostly on crumbs of white bread left out by the ancient Greeks whose back yards open onto the lane way. Spotted doves breed all year round but most commonly between September and December. Perhaps by next year we’ll have an even bigger family of doves visiting the lawn in our back yard.
When you buy property, you also buy an ecosystem. Or a portion of an ecosystem. We are living over what was once a swamp, in a valley of low-lying land with a creek running through it on its way to join the Cooks River, which then debouches into Botany Bay. Both swamp and creek were called Gumbramorra, a word whose meaning is obscure.
The Dictionary of Sydney records: Gumbramorra Swamp consisted of marshland at the foot of the declining sandstone and shoal ridges, in a relatively narrow area surrounded by low hills. At the mouth of the Gumbramorra Creek were mudflats, which were also evident in the swamp itself. Behind these mudflats and mangroves was a salt marsh. These conditions supported abundant wildlife.
Local historian Sue Castrique, in an essay on Gumbramorra, records: Aunty Fran Bodkin is a Dharawal elder who grew up on her mother’s traditional land. She is a botanist, environmental scientist and educator who has an intense interest in plants and climate and works to bring together Dharawal knowledge and Western science. The swamp, she says, was a special place for the Bidigal clan.
‘We were the bitterwater peoples, the oyster eaters because we ate shellfish from the swamps. We were the swamp walkers. We drank the water from the rivers and swamps, not quite fresh water, and not quite salt water. One thing we knew was that where the reeds grow you can drink the water, at the base of the reeds.’
Aunty Fran grew up when there were still remnants of the swamp, mostly near the river, in Midjuburri, now called Marrickville. There was so much edible stuff, she says. Black shelled mussels, other shellfish, eels and the reeds with their sweet tubers. When the myall wattle, Acacia binervia, flowered, it meant the mullet would be running in the river.
It wasn’t all about food. We used the mud flats on the banks as skating rinks. It was the most beautiful mud, it was so slippery. We would run and jump on the mud and slide for metres after metres. We would come home and Mum would be at the gate with the hose. Early European settlers, however, avoided Gumbramorra. It was useful to them only for watering cattle or for digging up clay in order to make bricks.
All that changed during a drought in the 1880s, when the swamp dried out, leaving bare flat clay beds behind. One Thomas Saywell drew up a plan for a new suburb there, to be called Tramvale, and then sold the land to three Sydney businessmen, Mathias Bohrsmann, Henry French and William Shirlow, a tailor, a draper and a bootmaker, respectively. They increased the number of blocks to 160, added laneways to the rear of the rows of houses to be built, and put the estate on the market. The blocks were small, prices were low, terms were easy and a real estate frenzy ensued. The buyers were working people, labourers, cab drivers, railway workers and, for some reason, a large number of widows. Locals who lived nearby knew Tramvale flooded―they had seen it under water―but, in 1882, Gumbramorra had been dry for three years.
Castrique continues: In 1889, after four days of torrential rain, Tramvale became a lake. The rain coincided with an exceptional tide, the highest for twenty years, and water rose rapidly. Women and shivering children were rescued by boat. Worse, once the houses dried off, they were coated in a greasy slick of sewage and tannery waste.
In 1867, a huge tannery had been built on the headwaters of Gumbramorra Creek. It drew water for the tanning pits from the creek and then dumped its waste back into it. Rushes grew profusely in the nutrient-rich waters, trapping a soupy mix of animal scraps and leather particles that choked the watercourse. At the same time, sewage from newly-built houses in Stanmore and Newtown flowed down into the valley, creating a black stinking mud whose smell was described as indescribable.
Subsequently, the Reverend Thomas Roseby, a Congregational minister, suggested the basin should be turned into a lake. There were precedents. Roseby had lived in Ballarat and knew Lake Wendouree, a natural wetland dammed during the gold rushes and turned into a reserve. Another example was in Centennial Park, a series of ponds created out of the Lachlan Swamp in 1887. How easily, wrote Roseby, the whole place might be turned into paradise.
It was not to be. Instead, house building continued, incrementally, and the floods continued too. The first pumping station began to be built in 1898 and gradually, piecemeal, over many years, some degree of control over the flooding was attained. The most vulnerable areas were rezoned and are given over to light industry. Those paint and automobile shops on the other side of Illawarra Road.
Meanwhile the brick pits, emptied of their clay, filled up with water. They were used by local kids as swimming holes; but they had their own dangers: if a little one fell in, s/he might not be able to clamber back up the slippery slope. There were quite a few drownings; and so, in time, the pits were filled in.
The one at the end of our street was made over into a velodrome that was used during the 1938 Empire Games. The closing ceremony was held there, with a crowd of about 40,000 attending. Henson Park is still a sports ground where rugby league, AFL and cricket are played; and, where, in all seasons, people walk themselves and their children and their dogs.
When I put a post up on Facebook about the rodent or marsupial or whatever it was I saw down the side of the house, Ray Goodwin, who used to live here but is now in Murwillumbah, wrote to say that the rats of Marrickville are legendary and have built networks of tunnels which go all the way back up to Circular Quay.
He said their lineage is ancient: if they are ship rats, they will have been here since the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Or, if one or two hopped off Cook’s ships in Botany Bay in 1770, even longer. And that’s to say nothing about earlier incursions by Dutch and Portuguese ships, all of which would also have had rats aboard.
When most people think of rats, they think of exterminators; but we are reluctant to poison whatever creatures we have living here; especially if they turn out to be natives. Even if they aren’t, it still doesn’t seem a good idea to leave toxic substances around. Hasn’t there been enough killing? What else might die?
Anyway, if this whole suburb is rat-infested, with entrenched populations, if we poisoned ours, wouldn’t others move into the space they formerly occupied? Mayu’s friend Big Sue, when she was staying here, put it best: so long as they don’t come inside, they’re not really a problem.
We did have an exterminator come around after we moved in, and the year after too. Matt is big, steady, calm guy with a ponytail. He drives a Hilux with the number plate PRED8OR and lives out west, along the Hawkesbury River. After he laid baits outside of the house for cockroaches, and checked for signs of white ants, he stood chatting with us in the kitchen. When I mentioned the animal that might have been a marsupial he gave me a long level look and said a single word: rodents.
It was December, 2019, at the height of the Black Summer bushfires, the first time he came. He told us his wife, a Dharug woman, was having a children’s book, which she wrote and illustrated, published through Broome-based Magabala Books; and was contributing to mural designs for the new airport being built out at Badgerys Creek. He said his wife said that other indigenous people out west, from a different mob, reckoned the fires we were having then recur in a 250 year cycle, meaning the last big burn had taken place around the time James Cook was sailing up the coast of eastern Australia in 1770.
I remembered reading in Cook’s Journals about the smoaks of many fires seen burning upon the land. I’d always assumed he meant cooking fires; but maybe they were bushfires. Who can say? I felt an obscure sense of reassurance in hearing about this long cycle of burning; along with the residual guilt that I might thereby become one of those who denies the effects of global warming consequent upon human behaviour.
I was thinking about Matt the other night when I saw a cockroach just above the sink on the kitchen wall. Blattodea are a very old species. This was a big one, with a white stripe along the outside of its wings. I’ve always thought, on no good authority, that they are native. Garden cockroaches, we used to say. It was immobile and stayed still while I trapped it under a glass, slid a postcard between the mouth of the tumbler and the wall, upended the glass then took it outside, where I let it go among the plants edging the lawn.
How did it get inside? Under the door perhaps. How do the ants, which cluster in the kitchen, enter the house? Today I saw dozens of them gathering around the twin power points on the wall next to the stove, for what purpose I do not know. Most of them will end up dead, from a surfeit of electrons perhaps, making a scatter of black cyphers upon the white bench below. The same fate awaits those which assemble around the hinges of the doors that close the pantry cupboard: what are they eating? Glue made from cow bones? If so, why does it kill them?
A house, however solid it may seem, is actually a membrane made up of other membranes, all of them permeable. Especially a house that’s more than a hundred years old, as this one is, and built over a swamp. Walls are one of the membranes and they too let things in.
Last winter we had to have the front bedroom resealed against rising damp: water overflowing from leaking gutters infiltrates the old, porous bricks, rises up and, having nowhere else to go, begins to ooze through the walls. Some mornings I found water pooled along the tops of the skirting boards; or lying puddled upon the floor. Moisture seeps in the windows too. Sometimes when we woke up, the insides of the glass were dripping with condensation. It couldn’t just have been our breath, there was too much of it.
Our own skin, which we like to think of as impermeable, exudes water every time we sweat. What does it allow in? Now, in a time of plague, we are sensitized to the permeability of our bodies, the way tiny rogue fragments of DNA, called viruses, can make their way into our mouths or noses, past the skin of our throats, our trachea, our oesophagus, our lungs and into our blood, there to reproduce and then go on to invade other bodily parts; the brain, the liver, the kidneys. After that they explode, in an orgy of generation, and we cough or breath them out, so that they can infect the cells of others. Our bodies, too, are ecosystems.
I find the continuity between self and others reassuring. I like the feeling of extension, and the implied interdependence of things; as much as I like the continuity between built structures, like this house, and the living things with which it is surrounded and interpenetrated. I’m reassured in the same way by the discovery that some of the uneaten seeds we’ve been leaving out for the birds have germinated and are now covering the ground where the hutch once stood with seedlings. I don’t know what they are but that does not bother me. We will find out in time; or else we will not.
What pleases me just as much is that what I thought was a vertical branch of the lilly pilly, growing over a corner of the garden, is actually a camellia, now covered in pink and white flowers; camellia is the plant from whose leaves we make tea. These ones, as if blushing at the thought of their own beauty, bend their heads down over the lawn.
Now and again a moon-coloured flower falls, to lie resplendent and rotting amongst the seedlings of whatever is growing there. The doves too, pink and grey, look elegant when they come down to feed on the seeds we leave out for them. As for the dusky antechinus, if that’s what they are, who knows? They are younger than us, and have been here for very much longer.
image : path down the side of the house, after rain
The schooner Daring was a built on the beach at Mangawhai in 1863 by Donald McInnes, a young Nova-Scotian, and wrecked twice in the next two years. Once in 1864 off Waikato Heads, after which she was repaired and re-floated; and once again on Muriwai Beach near the southern entrance to the Kaipara Harbour in 1865 when, during a storm, her skipper ran her aground in an attempt to save the crew and the ship’s sails and fittings. The cargo, grass seed, was unsalvageable. The crew survived and many of the fittings also, and were sent south by boat; this too, unfortunately, foundered. Her owner, a fraudster called Kirkbride, absconded with some West Coast gold, taking a Japanese circus from Yokohama to San Francisco. The Daring was lost, buried by shifting sands, for one hundred and fifty years until in 2018 she re-appeared. She is in the process of being restored to the state she was in when re-found; and will be displayed at the Mangawhai Museum, not far from where she was made all those years ago. Various items were found within her, including ballast stones, an anchor and a chain, a single shoe, a straw hat, coins, a cup, clay pipes, multiple wine bottle caps―and a neckerchief. ‘When I first saw it,’ said conservator Susanne Grieve Rawson, ‘it was a grey little curled up ball. I cleaned off the sediments, carefully unfolded it and gave it a wash and a dry.’ The neckerchief, an intricate artefact, is made of grey silk which carries upon it, in amongst swelling clouds and blowing winds, imagery derived from Freemasonry. A summary of the motifs upon it follows:
Hebrew script, a pair of dividers, a six pointed star
A candelabra with seven candles lit
The Rosy Cross
A temple in Greek or Roman style
A nest of birds upon the water
Letters: A L G / D C A / D L
A square wooden cross with the letters, clockwise from the top, I S N B, at the angles between the verticals and horizontals; maybe the N is an R
A mirror giving forth rays of light
An animal, the lamb of god, lying over a casket, probably the ark of the covenant
A gavel and a sickle, crossed
Two hands shaking
A nine pointed star made from three interlocking triangles
Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been ninety-seven, something that most of the time she was alive seemed quite likely to happen―until one day, without warning, as she rose from her chair and crossed the room to answer the telephone, her aorta burst and she fell to the floor and died. Years later, in Oxford, I met the person who made that last call. I say ‘without warning’ but she did take pills to keep her blood pressure down and she did have an enlarged heart. One of my sisters tells me she has the same condition, it is hereditary, better managed these days. As an adolescent I always joked that her birthday, April 2, was really April 1 and so she was a Big April Fool. She’d laugh; she liked the conceit; so when I started feeling like a goon saying it, and stopped, she never really understood why. I should perhaps have told her that I’d rather have celebrated her real birthday. How many times over the years has it fallen on Good Friday, I wonder; there must have been a few. This one is special because it coincides with the determination of the fate of her piano. And thereby hangs a tale. When her father, Lewis Scott, understood that his bowel cancer was terminal he decided to set his affairs in order. I remember her telling me how he would sit up in bed, methodically closing accounts and terminating business relationships. He was a painter who worked for, among others, New Zealand railways, painting railway stations; it’s possible that the lead in the paint gave him the cancer, for he was otherwise healthy, with no vices, and a strong commitment to fresh food, fresh air and exercise. Amongst his preparations was the liquidation of various of his assets―those he wanted to hand on to his four children. He wished to avoid paying death duties or any other taxes upon them and so took the banknotes and bundled them up and buried them in the garden of the large property he and my grandmother owned at Pyes Pa near Tauranga. Maps of the location of this buried treasure were given to those who were to inherit the cash; when my father received ours, he drove up to Pyes Pa and, by torchlight, at night, dug up the money. I don’t know how much of it there was and I didn’t know what they spent it upon―until this week. The other day, one of my younger sisters emailed the rest of us to say she is selling her house and moving somewhere smaller; she won’t be able to take the family piano with her. In the conversation that followed, it turned out this was what that money was used for: a piano; and a sewing machine. I wonder where they bought it. Whanganui perhaps. It is a small upright, a Challen, made of blonde wood, and without the high back most older uprights used to have. A bit of research suggests that they were a good mid-range piano, sweet sounding and reliable and preferred by the BBC as their standard instrument in the years I am talking about; that is, the 1950s. In fact there’s one identical to ours in Abbey Road studios in London. Every time my parents threw a party people ended up around that piano singing. At Christmas that’s where we sang the carols. Each night, before we went to sleep, my mother would play a series of tunes to which we children did the actions, becoming elephants or frogs before scampering off chanting this is the way we go to bed, go to bed, go to bed . . . Later my sisters, interminably, practiced their scales upon it. Now, however, none of us has room for it. Nor do any of our children. And so it will most likely be given to the primary school where my sister’s two granddaughters go and end up as a school piano. Which seems about right.
images: Lauris, Lindsay, and Clive, c.1929; the Challen in Abbey Road
I woke up early and, leaving my companion sleeping, went out of the hotel and down the hill to the town. It was an Asian town, named after some saint; but I did not know which the saint it was. However I did know we were on the island of Sulawesi. Down the steep and crooked streets I went towards the port; on a flat stretch near to the sea, at a roadside food stall, I heard music playing. It was Harry Belafonte singing ‘Jamaica Farewell’, aka ‘The Kingston Boat Song’ and there were attractive young people dancing, a girl in a tight shiny blue-green dress like a cheongsam, a boy in dark trousers and white shirt, both barefoot. Across the road there was a place serving breakfast so I joined the crowd there, under a canvas roof before wooden benches where vats of food stood steaming. You paid your money and were given a piece of hollow bread, which you filled with a fragrant meat stew of some kind. I was the only white person there; I waited my turn. After I served myself I stepped outside and bit into my sandwich and it was delicious; though I still did not know what it was. The boy and girl from before re-appeared, the song began again and I joined in the dancing, holding them both in my arms, feeling the shiny fabric of the girl’s dress under one hand while the other cupped a blade of the boy’s thin shoulders. I felt bad about breakfasting alone and started to make my way back towards the hotel, hulked high up on its promontory above the town. The streets were narrow and crowded and I couldn’t find the way. At some stairs in a steep place I stepped around two American men standing outside a shop speaking English and wondered if I should ask them; but they were brash and loud and might not have known anyway. I was still troubled by the name of the town: Saint . . . saint . . . saint what? All I knew was that we were north of Makassa but not as far north as Parepare: I have never been to Sulawesi but have often studied it on a map. I came out onto a flat place where there were many market stalls and at one of them saw some delicate children’s toys, birds and animals and dolls on fluffy sticks, that I wanted to photograph. But my phone had become encased in wicker and the screen was unresponsive; by the time I got the camera function enabled, the display had changed and the composition had gone. The woman whose stall it was smiled ruefully at me. On the other side of the row was a parking bay full of big Russian automobiles. They were powder blue and pale green and negligee pink, gleaming with chrome and covered in gadgetry. More outré than the most outré of American cars of the 1950s; but in style similar. They were like stationary space ships and I admired their elaborate exhaust systems, the serried ranks of shining pipes, particularly. I was still anxious about how to find the way back to the hotel but not as anxious as I had been before. As soon as I had that realisation I woke up – in our bed in our hotel room on the third floor of the Mantra Hotel in Ettalong Beach. And just for a moment thought the town really was down there, past the transparent curtains pulled across the windows, the white balcony slicked with rain, the blue pool.
A year ago last night I found in one my folders a document called Dark Memoir. I opened it up, wondering what it contained; but it was blank. Another one of those false starts that litter my files. Anyway, given that it was 31.12.19, I took it as a sign and decided I would use the document to keep a diary of the coming year. That is, I would make an entry for each day of the year 2020. I’ve never been much good with diaries but am pleased to report that I did accomplish this task, even though there are quite a few days when ‘nothing happened’. Oddly enough, so far as I recall, the diary doesn’t say much about the bushfires of Black Summer; and not much about the pandemic either. This because I used it to focus, rather narrowly, on what I was up to in my writing life. Not that there is anything of great significance there; but I thought it would be interesting to have a record of what did not happen alongside those works that did achieve some kind of completion if not yet publication. At the same time, I set myself to take and post a photograph each day, without a caption, in the attempt to communicate using image alone. This task was complicated part way through the year when someone introduced me to Instagram. I don’t know how many photos I took in the end but I’m pretty sure I posted one, or sometimes two, each day. I am going to illustrate the diary with photographs but I think one a day is too many; I might try for one a week. And I might caption them. I hope the images will give some zing to the tedium of the quotidian. It goes without saying that, if I do re-read the diary all the way through, I’ll revise as I go. This was always the intention ie to expand upon some things and to omit others. Even the title, Dark Memoir, is somewhat of a misnomer. It isn’t really that dark or not as I recall. So I can’t really justify quoting Brecht’s motto but I’m going to do so anyway: In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.
The Tasman Sea, precisely defined by oceanographers, remains inchoate as a cultural area. It has, as it were, drifted in and out of consciousness over the two and a half centuries of European presence here; and remains an unknown quantity to prehistory. Its peak contact period was probably the sixty odd years between the discovery of gold in Victoria and the outbreak of the Great War; when the coasts of New Zealand and Australia were twin shores of a land that shared an economy, a politics, a literature and a popular culture: much of which is reflected in the pages of The Bulletin from the 1880s until 1914. There was, too, a kind of hangover of the pre-war era and of the ANZAC experience into the 1920s; but after that the notional country sank again beneath the waves.
Recovery of fragments from that lost cultural zone is a project with more than historical interest: each retrieval is a prospective act, contributing to the restoration of a world view which, while often occluded, has never really gone away. There is much which is irrecoverable now; but that in itself is a provocation; for a mosaic, even one made out of dislocated pieces, might disclose something unprecedented, neither existent in the past nor otherwise imaginable in the present: the lineaments of the new world, at once authentic and delusive, that so entranced the earliest explorers of the Antipodes. What follows, then, is an assembly of bits of one of those sets of fragments: the story of the Lynch brothers, Guy and Joe, a sculptor and an artist; and the milieu in which they lived.
Francis Ennis Lynch, usually known as Guy, and his brother Joseph Young Lynch, called Joe, were born, in 1895 and 1897 respectively, in North Carlton, Melbourne, the sons of Joseph Patrick Stanislaus Lynch and his wife Annie, née O’Connor, both Victorians of Irish ancestry. Joseph was a stonemason and a sculptor; he made tombstones. The family was Catholic and the two boys began their education at Christian Brothers’ College, East Melbourne. In 1907 the Lynches moved to Auckland, New Zealand, because Joseph snr. was looking for work. They settled in Newton, an inner city working class neighbourhood of small painted wooden houses clinging to the sides of steep green gullies. There were the two boys and two girls, their sisters, Gertrude and Patricia.
In Auckland the Lynches met George Edmond Finey, the son of an English mariner and fisherman, Solomon Finey, and his New Zealand born wife, Rose, née Newton. Solomon Finey, called Harry, was from a moneyed Portsmouth family and emigrated after a dispute with his brother; each accused the other of fiddling the books. He was a grim and silent man who lived to the age of 102; his wife was a hymn-singing volcano of energy, five foot nothing tall. George was one of nine children, born 1895, the same year as Guy Lynch, in the another inner city working class suburb, ‘lousy Parnell’, and educated there until, aged fourteen, he became a telegraph messenger at the Post Office.
Between 1912 and 1914 Finey took classes at the Elam School of Art and Design—which in those days was free to those who could not pay and where materials were provided gratis for both fee-paying and fee-exempt students. He worked in these years as a lithographer at the New Zealand Herald. And in his spare time practised street drawing. It isn’t known how Finey met the Lynch brothers—it might have been at Elam, or at the Herald, or just in the street—but he soon became a regular visitor to their home in Newton, where Saturday night parties were the rule: poetry readings, literary discussion, art talk; both Joseph and Joe would play their violins. The milieu was working class, bohemian, politically radical, unaligned and ardently dedicated to artistic freedom.
Guy Lynch, George Finey and others of their cohort enlisted together and went to war; George and Guy were part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force which sailed for Egypt in 1915. Guy, who had given his occupation as a plasterer, was in the artillery; he served as a gunner at Gallipoli and as a signalman in France; in 1917 he was awarded the Military Medal for acts of gallantry in the field. George Finey was a driver, which meant learning to control a team of horses. On the Western Front he would take supplies of food (bully beef and biscuits) from the railhead by horse and cart eight miles up to the front line. He was present during both offensives on the Somme; and one night, sleeping in his wagon near Passchendaele Ridge, was mustard gassed and repatriated to England.
Both Guy and George were promoted to Sergeant. Finey was employed, on his own initiative, as a war artist and also found time, post-war, to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, where he encountered the nascent Expressionism of the political caricatures in the German magazines Simplicissimus and Jugend. Guy Lynch, after the war, married Doris Hannen in the parish church at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England; but, a year later, she died giving birth to their son; who also predeceased his father. Joe Lynch, two years younger than Guy, enlisted late in the war and was sent overseas in 1918; he gave his occupation as a wire-worker. He never saw action as a soldier but worked instead with the British Red Cross Society in England and in France.
After the war all three young men returned, by stages, to New Zealand. George Finey found that in the interim his mother had died of cancer, his father had remarried and his siblings dispersed. The country was ravaged by influenza and in the grip of depression; there was no work. Auckland was, he said, a city of the dead. He made obeisance to his mother’s mangle in the basement washhouse where she had sent him as a child to do his painting on the floor, said goodbye to his father, and sailed for Sydney. He arrived with fifty quid in his pocket and a pack on his back containing a change of clothes, sketchbooks, pencils and pens.
Guy returned home a year later and was discharged in Auckland in February 1920. He took up his father’s profession of sculptor and accepted a series of commissions to make war memorials, including one at Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore, for which he used his brother Joe as the model. The soldier on the plinth is notable for his casual, relaxed stance; a New Zealand infantryman in trench kit, hat off, looking over his right shoulder as if at all that had to be left behind. The sculpture has been called the untidy soldier because of its informal, realistic portrayal of a man coming off duty.
Joe Lynch also studied at Elam School of Art and Design and there met Cecil ‘Unk’ White, another, slightly younger, New Zealander; but, like George Finey before them, Joe and Unk did not take to formal study and preferred instead the practice of life drawing on the streets and in the hotels of the city; selling their pictures, when they could, for publication in newspapers. Noel Cook, the son of a Māori father and an Australian mother, was another of their group; he too fought in the war and then followed his newspaperman father into the business and was working as a black and white artist for the New Zealand Herald and the Auckland Weekly News.
George Finey, not long after his arrival in Sydney, sold two drawings to The Bulletin; he received five pounds for the pair and, on payment in cash, was touched up for thruppence—the price of a beer—by a cadaverous Henry Lawson. In 1921 he was appointed to the staff of the newly-established Smith’s Weekly; and in 1922 wrote to Guy Lynch in Auckland, suggesting he come across to Sydney too. Guy, in turn, convinced his brother Joe to join them; Noel Cook and Unk White also moved across the Tasman at this time. Finey and White were, in 1924, among the twenty-five founder members of the Society of Australian Black and White Artists, which soon metamorphosed into The Black and White Artists’ Society, then Club,; and is still extant today as the Australian Cartoonists’ Association.
Smith’s Weekly was in many respects the heir to ephemeral wartime miscellanies like The Anzac Book, edited by Charles Bean in a bunker at Gallipoli, and its post-war successor, The Dernière Heure, published in London in 1919. Smith’s Weekly was, like these publications, aimed primarily at an audience of servicemen or ex-servicemen; it was sensational, satirical, controversial and published short stories, cartoons and caricatures alongside sports and finance news. In the 1920s the Weekly published serially an Unofficial History of the A.I.F. It’s contributions from returned men helped establish the image of the digger as an easy-going fellow with a healthy disrespect for authority. Smith’s Weekly also campaigned for the recognition of shellshock as a disease of battle and, more generally, tried to ensure that the promises made to soldiers during wartime were not, in peacetime, ignored.
These five young New Zealand born artists, then, entered Sydney’s bohemian community: forever brawling in honour of Michelangelo. It was an unruly, heavy-drinking, anarchistic milieu. George Finey: it was difficult to restrict alcoholic intake round Sydney. It seems to be the very life—and breath—of the place. All appointments made were for meetings in hotels, never any other place. If you happened to collide elsewhere you naturally walked to the nearest pub. Never to the Art Gallery, or the Museum. One drunken evening the Lynch brothers and their mates broke up the damp clay of a commissioned bust of Sir Joynton Smith, publisher of Smith’s Weekly, to make missiles for a mud-fight.
Guy Lynch took lessons in sculpture from Englishman Rayner Hoff at East Sydney Technical College and exhibited works with titles such as Australian Venus and The Digger. Hoff had served in France during the war, studied at the Royal College of Art in London, was awarded a Prix de Rome scholarship and spent time in Italy, where he met, in Naples, Australian architect Hardy Wilson. Hoff accepted the position as teacher of drawing, modelling and sculpture at East Sydney Tech in 1923; he was an exceptionally able administrator and publicist, a committed teacher and a practitioner whose work shows an eclectic array of influences: Assyrian, Greco-Roman, Oriental, Renaissance and Art Deco. The sculptures on the Anzac War Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney are Rayner Hoff’s work. He died alcoholic and bereft before the next war began.
Guy Lynch bought a house in Western Crescent, Gladesville, where Joe also lived; other members of the Lynch family, including their younger sister, Patricia and both their parents, joined them there; it became the locus of parties like those that had occurred in Newton, Auckland, before the war. Out the back was a large workshop, converted for use as a studio, and it was there that Guy made his most famous work, The Satyr. He used his brother Joe as the model for the head and the torso, and an actual goat, tethered and bleating in the yard, for the lower body, the legs and the cloven hooves.
The Satyr, in plaster painted to make it look like bronze, caused a sensation when it was included in the 1924 young artists’ exhibition in the Anthony Hordern Gallery. It was hailed as a masterpiece by some and damned as a pagan work by others. The Satyr was bought in 1926 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales but kept in the stockroom for fear of offending the gallery’s more sensitive patrons. Also in 1924, Guy Lynch was commissioned by Dame Nellie Melba to make a bust of her grand-daughter Pamela; and a garden sculpture, Victory of Orpheus. He later created the figures for the battle diorama, Pozières, at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
In the wake of the controversy over Guy’s sculpture, Joe’s ‘superb’ graphic work—first published in Smith’s Weekly in 1923—received more attention than it had previously and he was offered a job working for Melbourne Punch; where he met the poet Kenneth Slessor, who was chief sub-editor there. Slessor recalled: He was black and white artist, whom I first met in Melbourne in 1925. We became friends then. I liked his mad Irish humour and his mad Irish rages. We did talk about blowing up the world. I really didn’t want to blow up the world, but he was quite serious about it. We little realised, of course, that it wouldn’t be long before men did devise means of blowing up the world.
Slessor was married and living with his wife Noela in South Yarra; but Joe Lynch was a single man who had lodgings, as was common in those days, in a boarding house. Slessor continues: In his bedroom Joe found a battered, morocco-bound notebook, apparently the relic of some unknown lodger, and gave it to me for scribbling. It contained some pages of manuscript notes written by the lodger (or Joe) which, of course, I had really no right to see. One of these entries is reproduced literally in ‘Five Bells’. Its misspellings (‘photoes’ ‘differant’, ‘curioes’) give it, I think, a peculiarly haunting and convincing flavour.
When Punch merged with Table Talk, Joe returned to Sydney, took a job at Smith’s Weekly and moved back into the house in Gladesville. In 1927 Slessor also came back to Sydney and began working at Smith’s Weekly; he resumed carousing with Joe and the others. One of their drinking places was in Moorebank, at the Riverside vineyard owned by poet Harley Matthews, an old workmate of Slessor’s at The Sun. Matthews had fought in the Great War and, like Joe Lynch, stood as a model for a statue, by Jacob Epstein, of a typical soldier. Joe Lynch and Ken Slessor would take a train to Liverpool and a taxi to Riverside; but one rainy night they could not find a cab so walked five miles down unsealed roads in a lightning storm until they arrived, hours later, wet and thirsty, at the vineyard. This, too, is recalled in Five Bells.
Jack Lindsay knew the Lynch brothers. Joe, he said, was a looser and wilder version of Guy; who had an Irish-Australian face, rough and tough and of the wildwood, yet sensitive. Jack’s brother Philip wrote that Joe was a giant, lean and powerful, with red upstanding hair, and the most amiable of grins: but once he had fallen down, a habit he had when very drunk, he would lie contentedly on his back with a gentle smile and grin up at you while you tugged at shoulders, arms and legs, and he softly explained that the whole police force with an elephant to help couldn’t shift him an inch; and I’m afraid he was right.A splendid fellow, Joe, who was to disappear from life magnificently.
On April 27, 1927 Guy, now thirty-two, married Marjorie Cush, a twenty-seven-year-old secretary, in St Francis’ Catholic Church, Paddington. She was one of eleven children of John and Elizabeth Cush, farmers, of Tamworth. Marge, known as Madge, moved into the house at Western Crescent, Gladesville, with the rest of the Lynch clan; and the incessant and always good-humoured carousing continued; but only for a time. Just a few weeks later, Joe Lynch was dead.
Lindsay Foyle: there were few Saturday nights when there was not a party at George Finey’s home in Mosman. They were usually a bit of a free-for-all, attended by cartoonists, writers and other people looking to enjoy themselves. Word went out that there would be a party at Finey’s on May 14, 1927. It was on Joe’s agenda that morning as he readied for work. It might have been a Saturday, but office protocol required him to dress in a suit when going in to Smith’s Weekly. It was about two kilometres along a quiet track to Looking Glass Point where he caught the ferry into the city and the office.
After he finished work he put on an old overcoat he had in the office, and walked down to Circular Quay. The Harbour Bridge was still being built and there were a number of pubs in the area where people could meet while waiting for a ferry to take them across the harbour. When Joe arrived there were already several other cartoonists and a few journalists at the bar of the Ship Inn. Guy and his new bride Marge were there drinking with Frank Clancy, a journalist who worked on the Labor Daily.
Clancy and Joe were mates and shared an extensive knowledge of world literature and art. Joe also knew Clancy’s sisters Abbey and Patricia and there were suggestions of a romantic connection between Pat and Joe. Clancy and Joe also held strong political views, leaning to the left. All of this would have fitted well with Joe’s views and his talk of wanting to blow up the world. Everyone set off for the 7.45 p.m. ferry, Kiandra, bound for Mosman. Loaded with bottles of grog as they crowded on board. Guy and Marge sat outside. Joe and Clancy stood opposite leaning against the rail. Near Fort Denison, Joe just disappeared over the side.
Philip Lindsay wrote: I shall never forget the night of his death, for I was working late, seeing a newspaper to bed, when a drunken pal, Frank, staggered, weeping, into the office to announce the tragedy. Joe had been off to some North Shore party with Frank when, tiring of the slow progress of the ferry—or perhaps of life itself—he had sprung up, saying that he’d swim there quicker, and, fully dressed, dived overboard.A deckhand had leaped in after him, and lifebelts had been thrown. They saw Joe, Frank said, wave cheerfully and strike out for Milsons Point; then he had vanished in the moon light. Perhaps a shark got him, or a mermaid—as some said—or the load of bottles in his greasy old raincoat tugged him to the fishes: no one can tell, for the body was never found.
Guy went to pieces after Joe’s death. He used to walk around the foreshore at the Botanical Gardens, looking out to the harbour as if seeking his brother there. Guy’s home life also changed. His sister Patricia returned to New Zealand to live; his father, going blind, was admitted to the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Randwick; his mother went to take care of him. The house was sold and in 1929 Guy and Marge sailed for London, where they lived for the next ten years. Guy studied under Benjamin Clemens at the Royal College of Art; he exhibited at the Royal Academy and, in Paris, completed a bust of General Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli.
Other works by Guy Lynch entered public collections: his 1938 London bust of Sir Isaac Isaacs, Chief Justice and the first Australian born Governor General, was bought in 1945 by the Commonwealth Government; one of the bronze panels, depicting Aboriginal life, on the doors of the State Library of New South Wales in Shakespeare Place, Sydney, is his work. He retired, in poor health, to a poultry farm in Picton in 1950 and died there in 1967; ten years later, in 1977, his widow fulfilled his dying wish and paid for The Satyr to be cast in bronze. It was placed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, near the Opera House gate, where it still stands, looking out over the waters where Joe drowned.
George Finey was hired, and fired, from almost every publication that, in Sydney between the wars, published black and white art—usually for refusing to draw something not in accord with his own ideas. In 1935 he held a one man show of collages at the David Jones gallery, self-described as the first exhibition of modern art in Australia. His accomplished and beautiful flower paintings were exhibited in Japan after the war, and his series of three dimensional paintings of composers toured to London and New York in 1962. He was given a retrospective at the Sydney Opera House in 1978—The Last of the Bohemians—and continued to make art until his death in the Blue Mountains in 1987.
Both Unk White and Noel Cook went on to have long and successful careers as graphic artists—Unk in Australia, Cook, internationally. Unk became, as Finey had been, a war artist during World War Two, travelling in the Pacific and to Japan. After the war he visited London, Paris, Spain and South America; and remained staunch in his commitment to left-wing causes. Unk White was among those who came to the defence of Albert Namatjira when the Arrente artist was imprisoned for alcohol related offences in 1959. He was a fine water colour artist and continued to paint until his death in 1986.
Noel Cook moved to London in 1950 and spent the next twenty years freelancing on Fleet Street; he, alone among his cohort, was given a New Zealand retrospective—at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1979, two years before his death in 1981. He is revered by practitioners as a forerunner of comic book art; Cook, with his strip Peter and the other Roaming Folk, drawn for the Australian Sunday Times in 1924, made one of the earliest examples of a science fiction comic. The strip features fantastic planetary adventures on Venus, Mars, the Asteroids, Jupiter, Saturn and in the outer reaches of the Solar System.
Joe Lynch survives in a different way. It took another decade, more or less, but his accidental drowning, if that’s what it was, in Sydney Harbour was the occasion for Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells: a primary work of Australian modernism and an ur-text for much of what has followed; which was mined for its reverberations and its innovations: Miroslav Bukovsky’s Five Bells Suite; Allan Browne’s Australian Jazz Band’s eponymous composition; composer Peter Sculthorpe’s Between Five Bells; the painting and the mural (in the Sydney Opera House) by John Olsen; Gail Jones’ 2011 novel, Five Bells.
Joe Lynch has also been memorialised by New Zealand poet Michele Leggott:
the digger and the faun
Joe Lynch is that you the untidy
soldier above the eighty six names
of those who didn’t come back you’ve
removed your hat you stare down
the road to where the Kea is embarking
another load of partygoers for the city
Joe Lynch your blue eyes are entirely notional
but he hears the quartermaster’s whistle
and remembers the boats taking them off
under cover of darkness did he set you up
little brother a paid job after the war
before you ran for the Sydney boat
the mad Lynches leaving town together
it wasn’t the first time and maybe
he wanted the face of a returned man
up there on the stone that faces
the harbour you were both on the turps
in King Street by the time they unveiled it
celebrating another adventure with
the art-loving public goatfoot dancer
redheaded slinger of mud and one-liners
Joe Lynch you roaring Dionysian quiet
in bronze above another harbour watching
the ferries plug around the point they said
you jumped off because the Kiandra was slow
and the bottles in your pockets heavy
they said you wanted to get to the party
Joe Lynch is that you digger and faun
watching each other across the dark water
That final image—digger and faun / watching each otheracross the dark water—is a potent one, especially when you consider that the dark water may be seen as both the Tasman Sea and the shared unconscious, now neglected, of the countries that lie on its either shore. It suggests, further, that the drowned Joe Lynch, who took his promise as an artist with him to the bottom, has somehow become part of that shared, abjured, unconscious. Joe Lynch’s eschatological anarchism, his desire to blow up the world, makes a haunting subtext: he destroyed himself but in that destruction the lineaments of a world were also lost. Or found.
For the Lynch family, it was easy to move back and forth between the two countries bordering the Tasman: from Melbourne to Auckland in 1907, when the boys were fourteen and twelve respectively; from Auckland to Sydney fifteen years later, when both were in their twenties. Since the 1920s, however, movement between the two countries has been more commonly one way, as Australian cities, and especially Sydney and Melbourne, are increasingly seen as metropolises and their New Zealand counterparts, relatively speaking, provincial outposts. Now, with the turn of a new century, there are formal restrictions upon trans-Tasman travel, and upon the rights citizens of one country may lay claim to in the other.
Questions remain: was something lost in the dissolution of that putative Tasman world? Is the present divide between the two countries, which can seem like two halves of a forgotten whole, a necessary or permanent condition? Or, to put it another way, could there be advantages to a closer relationship, especially between the literary and artistic communities in the two countries? It isn’t possible to answer these questions here—I suggest the appropriate responses are, respectively, yes, no, and yes—but I can testify something from personal experience.
I came to Australia from New Zealand in 1981, in the wake of a mass exodus of rock musicians from Auckland; and have lived in or near Sydney ever since. I was intending to work as a screenwriter; but from about 1990 have been primarily a writer of books, which have been published on both sides of the Tasman. Curiously, while my Australian books find an audience in New Zealand, the books I have published in New Zealand are not read in Australia. Recently I was described, after more than thirty years residence here, as a New Zealand writer living in Australia. I became a citizen in 1989.
How bizarre. If I had come to Sydney from, say, Launceston, near where my Scottish ancestors first settled in the Antipodes, this would not be the case; even though, for many mainland Australians, Tasmania is remote as New Zealand. Like any writer, I want my work to be seen whole and as itself, not something that can be assigned a specific nationality, or an illusory patriotic provenance. With one major exception—a book about Australia mostly written in New Zealand—everything I have published since 1981 has been written in Australia; but that hasn’t prevented some of it being consigned to the outer darkness of that other jurisdiction across the sea.
Of course the ignorance cuts both ways: very little is known in New Zealand about Australian writers; such ignorance is not just astonishing, it’s perverse. I was once asked to recommend an Australian writer who might be invited to a literary festival in New Zealand and suggested Roger McDonald. He had just published The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006), which includes an excoriating portrait of one of New Zealand’s (sentimental) founding fathers, Samuel Marsden. And, a dozen or so years earlier, he’d written Shearer’s Motel (1992), about his travels outback with a group of Maori shearers who were local to the area where the festival was being held. The festival organisers, who were up to date with events in London and New York, had heard neither of him nor of his books.
The same may be true with respect to artists. Guy and Joe Lynch, George Finey, Unk White—though not Noel Cook—are more or less unknown in their country of origin; whereas, if they had made a mark in the United States or, as Cook did, in the United Kingdom, it is quite possible that New Zealand, in its parochial fashion, would claim them as its own. New Zealanders who choose to live in Australia, as these artists did, are paid in peculiar coin: over-looked in their country of origin because they didn’t go far enough away; treated, in their country of residence, with a casual indulgence that is close to disrespect. Blindness to their work, in both places, is their reward.
This is not necessarily a disadvantage. It might be, as in the case of an artist as eccentric and various as George Finey, a guarantee of a freedom from restraints of all kinds. It might stimulate that strangeness which has future value. Sometimes my work seems to me, in its dislocation and alienation, its peculiarity, like something written in that battered, morocco-bound notebook Joe Lynch found in the boarding house in North Melbourne. Something, perhaps, conceived in a country out of a Borges fable, somewhere that once existed but does not anymore; a place that might in the future return and astonish us all.
In Five Bells Slessor wrote:
I thought of what you’d written in faint ink, Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind With other things you left, all without use, All without meaning now, except a sign That someone had been living who now was dead: “At Labassa. Room 6 x 8 On top of the tower; because of this, very dark And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed Into this room—500 books all shapes And colours, dealt across the floor And over sills and on the laps of chairs; Guns, photoes of many differant things And differant curioes that I obtained . . .”
Which might remind us that Melbourne (which he never visited) is where painter Giorgio de Chirico’s exceedingly odd novel Hebdomeros begins. And the theatre for the invention of the incomparable works of the hoax poet Ernest Lalor Malley. And the epicentre of Gerald Murnane’s dystopic prose excursions. These recall other anomalies: for instance, the information that Alfred Hitchcock, visiting Wellington, New Zealand sometime before 1964, there encountered the image—of an ocean liner somehow moored, not on harbour waters, but at the end of a suburban street—that defines the disquieting anomie of his film Marnie.
Sometimes I think that a restored Tasman world, if such a thing were possible, would show us wonders that might rival these: a once and future country as various and as strange as the Great South Land which haunted European dreamers before any navigator sailed here. That world might resemble the room of which Slessor wrote—if Joe Lynch did not write it for him—into which everything has been stowed: guns, photos, curios, many differant things; and the five hundred books we have not read, perhaps because no-one has yet worked out how to write them. To do so we may have to remember again what it is to set foot, as if for the first time, on Tasman shores.
Auckland War Memorial Cenotaph Record: Frank Guy Lynch; Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland
Auckland War Memorial Cenotaph Record: Joseph Young Lynch; Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland
The other evening a moth flew into the house. Through the back door. It was a sultry night and we had been out there smoking the last of the dope. We didn’t mind that it was running out. What we do, when we get any, is smoke until it’s gone. Then we wait until some more turns up. That can take weeks or even months. Anyway, the moth. It wasn’t like any I’ve seen before. It was large and dark, with triangular wings and a body shaped like a zeppelin. It made me think of an image I saw recently of a moth that looks like a tarantula: which folded its wings above like this one did, not flat like most moths do. Pretty sure it wasn’t one of those, however, they are an American species. I managed to catch it in my hands but as I went to put it out the back again, in an attempt to push down the handle of the screen door with my clasped hands, it saw a gap and escaped and flew back inside. I found it clinging to the wall behind the half-moon-shaped Afghani lamp that sits on the wine rack next to the corridor that leads down to the bathroom. To catch it again I would have had to have moved the lamp and I didn’t feel like doing that. I was stoned, after all. Also I’ve heard you can damage a moth’s wings if you handle them roughly. The dust comes off them. Not dust, actually, but tiny scales that are modified hairs; they are pigmented but they also diffract light through a complex structure of ribs and holes. Anyway, I left it where it was and we got on with finishing off the dope. When we went to bed it was still clinging there.
I forgot to look for it next morning and when I did it had gone. No idea where. It wasn’t on the floor, nor was it behind or underneath the wine rack; though I suppose it could be somewhere among the bottles. Its disappearance reminded of something I’d forgotten. In 1983, when I lived in Glebe, a beautiful carpet moth appeared in my unit. It spread its tapestried wings, with glowing red eyes, on a white wall next to an art work a friend had given me, as if making an aesthetic statement. It too disappeared; but for years afterwards, wherever I was living, around about the same time of year another one would appear, stay a few days and then go again. I can think of half a dozen different places, over a period of about fifteen years, where that moth, or one just like it, appeared. The last incarnation was at Pearl Beach and that had raggedy wings, with tears and perforations and places where the dust had rubbed off. I’m not suggesting it was the same moth every time; how could it have been? I did think I might have been carrying moth spawn around with me as I moved from place to place. Either that, or random individuals were vectoring in upon me. That last moth, the raggedy one, turned up in the laundry underneath the house at Cornelian Road about twenty years ago now and I haven’t seen any since. I left a lot of things behind when I left Pearl Beach, including perhaps carpet moths.
Mayu has been working on a film of a performance piece she wrote some time ago and didn’t finish. She meant to, it did the rounds on the conference circuit, but other things intervened and she never had the opportunity. Then a commission arrived, serendipitously, from a university in Osaka, along with a fee large enough for her to be able to employ a cinematographer, a film editor and a script consultant. ‘Film editor’ is not quite right because she does the editing herself; but he has technical knowledge she lacks and thus takes on an advisory role. The working title is You’ve mistaken me for a butterfly and the film concerns events that took place near the remote town of Butterfly on the Western Australian goldfields in 1898. There was a court case and the transcript survived: the trial of three men accusing of raping a Japanese woman, Okin, who worked in a laundry in Malcolm. I haven’t seen it yet but it seems to be about the indeterminacy of fact. Anyway, the other day, when we were talking about it, she said there are difficulties working on a rape case with three men: not the men in the trial transcript, of course, but the script guy, the cinematographer and the editor. She said: One of the things that I can’t really get across to them is that Okin wasn’t actually a butterfly, she was a moth. She was talking about the supernal qualities of moths. Butterflies are evanescent, perhaps frivolous, light anyway, creatures of an hour or a day, fluttering by. While moths inhabit the velvety darkness of night, like sex, and seem able to appear and disappear at will, even over years. Or centuries.
The morning sun, rising behind his camp, washed the peaks of the low old hills on the far side of the lake in a weak yellow light. He watched them turning gold as he made himself breakfast. It was always the same―vitamin biscuits, reconstituted fruit juice, something resembling coffee―and took hardly any time at all.
Then he got dressed. Boots, hat, mask, goggles, apron; water bottle, pick, hammer, specimen bag. Once that was done he went out into a day like every other. Blue sky above, brown land below. The salt pans shimmering in the heat. The gems he sought carbuncled in the earth.
Like wounds, he thought, only wounds that were yet to be made. He was the one who made them, bearing away, as it were, the treasure of the earth’s blood. Leaving scars behind. For the inscrutable purposes of his masters.
Some days the mountains looked far away, some days not. Today they seemed near enough to touch. He had not ever gone there. As if there were some interdiction against it. They were distant as the green world he thought he sometimes remembered; in the same way that he sometimes thought he remembered his dreams.
More troubling: the transport was overdue. The heap of jewels higher now than the heap of food. They took the one and replenished the other but not yet this cycle. Or had he lost track of time?
Well of course he had. He always did. His only markers those two piles, one diminishing, the other rising. And what about the water? Would he have to dig up the emergency supply? He’d never had to do that before.
And then, as he walked on into the shimmering heat, heading south west towards an outcrop he’d found yesterday, the richest for a while, there came a flash, a boom, the scream of engines on the hot air.
He looked up in time to see a triangle of shining metal splitting the sky in two then disappearing behind him, back the way he had come. Something not seen before. In all the weeks and months he had been here.
He turned and watched as the broken sky knitted itself together like the twin lips of the flesh of an incision. The vapour trails ballooning out like intestines. The boom, reverberating, echoing, fading.
There was nothing he could do. He continued on, trudged across the alkali flats, the salt pans, through which outcrops of gem-bearing rock upthrust, looking at once miniature and enormous.
He’d been here so long he’d forgotten what he’d done. Some insubordination, perhaps; some willful act; maybe actual sabotage. Futile of course: the regime he’d escaped no less onerous than the existence he now endured.
The food no better either. The only real difference the lack of companions. And he didn’t know if he minded that either. They hadn’t given him a mirror, for instance, for which he was grateful. It meant he existed only on the inside of his mind.
The plane, or whatever it was, creased the sky again not long before, with his specimen bag full, he turned for home; if that was what it was.
Like a cockroach, he thought, he cared only for his appetites and the satisfaction of those appetites. But if he thought, he thought, was he not something other than a cockroach? Or, for that matter, an appetite?
Back at his camp, in the brown dirt before the entrance to the cave, lay a silver vessel. Ovoid, longer than his arm and in circumference rounder than the plumpness of his thigh. It was smooth and cool to the touch.
Heavy, too. He tried to pick it up, could not, had to roll it over to find out how it might be opened. There was no lock that he could see, no catch, handle, lever or trigger. Nothing. It lay on the earth like an egg.
He left it there while he went through his after work ritual. Unpacking the specimen bag of its ore, which he heaped upon the ground. Divesting himself of hat, goggles, mask, apron, boots.
The ore would have to be chipped away to release the jewels within. Something he did on the days when he didn’t fossick. Maybe tomorrow.
Lit the spirit stove, as always, to boil the water in which to soften the meat-like fibre which, along with vitamin biscuits, was his evening fare. The vacuum packed tissue that made up the vegetable part of his diet. The dried fruit. The nuts.
All this was done mechanically, without reflection, as on every other day before. It was only after the meal was cooked and eaten, while a violent red light blazed behind the mountains across the lake, that he returned to the vessel.
He bent down and placed one ear next to the smooth metal surface. It seemed to emit a low hum; so he knelt before it in the dust and placed two hands about it, one on either side. As if embracing a body.
Yes, there was a vibration within; but what that vibration meant he could not say. Machines, he knew about machines, they were an intrinsic part of the world he had been sent away from; but there were no machines here.
No creatures either: no animals, birds, insects. No plants. Nothing but the minerals he mined, the alkaline sands in which, like teeth in a jaw, the jewelled outcrops were set. And the obdurate sky where the first stars were beginning to shine.
This was not the world he had lived in before. The constellations were not those he had known in the old life. They used a different vocabulary. A different grammar. He had given them new names.
Their study, pursued nightly, with a fidelity and a passion that was like fury, was his only entertainment. His sole diversion. The one thing, you might say, that kept him alive.
Every evening he sat before the cave mouth and recited the mantra of the sky. The rising and setting of the stars, the coming and going of the bulbous moons which pursued each other from horizon to horizon.
The meteorites, which were common, and the comets, which were not. The wanderers, as he called them, which came and went at periods he understood only intuitively. Their colours: red, yellow, blue. And any of the combinations thereof.
When the cold rose up from the ground and it was time for him to go in, he passed his hands over the strange object one more time, feeling its vibrations, before crawling into the cave and curling up on his side to sleep.
He was sitting out the front next morning pulverising ore-bodies in order to extract from them fragments of the corundum when he heard the vessel whirr into life. The sound accelerated to a high-pitched whine and then crescendoed, there was a click and a lid opened up on the top of the thing.
With a hiss of hydraulics it bent back along its hinges, revealing an inside. He half expected some kind of gantry to erect itself, perhaps bearing a weapon; but nothing did, so he stood up and went over and looked inside.
There were two compartments, both full―of what? He felt his heartbeat quicken as he saw packages of what looked like supplies, food perhaps, in one. And in the other what were clearly liquids.
He emptied both repositories―it was food, but not of a kind he knew; the drink was exotic too―and saw a graphic in raised relief at their bases. The pictured articles were piles of gems of the kind he spent his days mining. They glinted redly.
It must be one of two things, he thought: a rival bid for the fruits of his labour; or an alteration in the means by which he supplied, and was in turn supplied by, his masters. But which? And how was he to know?
His life so tedious, so uniform, the presence of an actual dilemma made his head spin. This wasn’t something he could get wrong. His whole existence, dull as it might be, might be at stake.
The vessel, he reasoned, which must have come from the craft he’d seen yesterday, operated remotely. On a timer perhaps. How was it to be retrieved? Remotely, too? Did it fly? Or would the craft return?
He jammed the lid open with chunks of ore, to prevent it going away before he was ready. But what if they came ‘in person’, like the others did?
In the case of his regular visitors, ‘in person’ meant ‘in robot’. And you couldn’t argue with robots. He’d tried once. The wounds they inflicted as they kicked him aside had taken weeks to heal.
And the jewels? He used to know what they were for but could not now remember. Not for personal adornment, he felt sure, nor for their value, monetary or otherwise. They were for machines of some kind. Their hardness, the way they did not wear down. Their metaphysical and metapsychical properties.
He looked at his stockpile and then at the compartments in the vessel. He didn’t have enough. How long until he did? Not that it really mattered. However long it was, he would have to keep on working. Anyway it was the only thing he had to do. He took up his hammer and started breaking rocks again.
He worked for days, fossicking for ore and hammering gems out of the matrix, until he’d assembled enough to fill both compartments in the vessel; then loaded it up and closed the lid. Sat there looking at it, as if expecting it to rise up immediately into the air and fly away.
He did not know how long it had taken him. A lifetime perhaps. He felt weary, as if something was ending. He looked at the supplies of food and drink that were left and tried to calculate how much time they might last. He didn’t think it would be very long and he didn’t care either.
He didn’t want to work anymore. Whatever the nature of the implied bargain that had kept him going all this time, whatever contract, assumed or actual, he was a party to, it was broken now.
He thought that when and if the vessel took off, or was retrieved, that would be the last he would see of it. He thought he was abandoned now of all hope, and of all supervision too. He thought that he was free.
He put as much as he could carry of the remaining food and drink into his backpack and cached the rest in the rear of his cave. Then he dressed in his work gear, shouldered his burden, and set off across the dry lake towards the mountains in the distance.
He was still out there, a small black figure toiling across the hallucinatory whiteness of a salt pan, when the aircraft split the sky with its noise again. He looked up, unsurprised, and then he went on.
The mountains did not look any nearer than they had before but he had a clearer view of them now. He could see traces of green in the valleys that fell from the peaks into the outcrops below.
He thought those black specks in the air might be birds.