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Ken James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiji Dream Fiji

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

image : Raki Raki, from the sea, Wikimedia

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Dream Trip

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

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


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

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

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

Twitter Version

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Dark Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online Catalogue here

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Doctor Long Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Penny for the Cabman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Plague Notes

Just over a week ago I went to a movie for the first time in about two years. It was Whina, part of the Sydney Film Festival, and it was good. I went by myself but it turned out I was sitting in the same row as some friends so afterwards we stood around in the foyer chatting. As you do. Their daughter was with them, recovering from a recent case of Covid (‘Vid’, ‘Rona’). She was heavily masked and stood at a distance from us. I had a mask too but I was taking it on and off, depending upon who I was talking with. I noticed that I could hardly hear anything anyone was saying and I wondered why that was. Maybe just not used to ambient noise.

Anyway, I didn’t stay long, came home, went to bed. Don’t recall anything unusual, health wise (yes, this is one of those stories) on Saturday but on Sunday noticed I had a runny nose. Hmmnn I thought, head cold. Last time this happened I went and got a PCR test and it came back negative. This time, I didn’t bother.

Monday I spent the morning working at home and in the afternoon went to meet a friend at a café in Newtown. He lives in Melbourne and was on his way back there. We sat outside. He ate his lunch and I drank water and then a glass of wine. I’d offered to take him to the airport and as we walked to the car I remember thinking I felt much more euphoric than a single glass would usually make me feel. It was pleasant but a bit destabilising. I didn’t mask up in the café, nor in the car, though I had one in the pocket of my jacket.

Tuesday, nothing to report. Wednesday, we were clearing out the lock-up (we’re building a shed) so I spent the day moving boxes. Three trips to Gladesville and back. It wasn’t heavy work but it was strenuous.

I’d had an email the night before, from Melbourne, saying my friend there had tested negative on a RATs, positive on a PCR. Urging me to get tested too. I was still feeling ok but, at the end of the day, felt a bit of a tickle at the back of my throat. Before we went out to N’s place for dinner (much anticipated, long delayed) we both took a RATs. Mine was negative, M’s was blank.

I rang N and told him the circumstance. He said he’d already made the prawn risotto, that we could come over, but we’d have to eat and run. He’s 80 years old and has health issues. The first thing he said when we came through the door was: I’m really pissed off. He didn’t mean with us. We had a nice time but at no stage would he come out of the kitchen. We sat in the sitting room. Plates and glasses, empty or full, were handed back and forth between the two rooms. The food, as always at his place, was exquisite. We didn’t stay long.

Next morning I woke up and knew I was ill. We both did a RATs. In the kitchen, after breakfast. M’s was negative. Mine showed a faint pink line in the T section. I looked and looked, willing it to go away. I even shone a torch on it, just to make sure it was really there. Stupid, eh? I had – have – the Rona. The Vid.

I’ve been in this room, most of the time, for the four days since. M brings me food, and anything else I need, on a tray she leaves at the door. We communicate by text message. She emails me lunch and dinner menus. She’s still negative. There’s an outside loo so I use that, going out the front door and round the side of the house to the back. There’s a futon bed in here that guests use. Not that I’ve been sleeping much.

My friend in Melbourne developed a fever but I haven’t had that. He said it was so bad he wasn’t able to get out of bed to take his temperature. He’s young. He’s better now. I haven’t had aches in my bones either. Some volcanic sneezes though. With, no doubt, a heavy viral load in the droplets. Billions of them. We’ve had four immunisations, A/Z, A/Z, Moderna, Pfizer, the last just a few weeks ago. Plus a ‘flu shot, a first for me. My symptoms have mostly mimicked those of a head cold.

And yet. There was one night, the second I think, when I could feel an alien presence in my body, moving down my respiratory tract towards my lungs. I never felt anything like that before. Never felt so vulnerable. Last night I had a raging sore throat, worse than any I remember. Today I have a wheeze. The cough that you cough when you can’t cough anything up. I have no sense of smell and most food tastes like cardboard. Every day I think I’m getting better and then I wonder. I’m someone who rarely gets sick. I usually swim a kilometre three times a week.

The other day, when I let myself out for my daily (masked) walk around the block, the opening words of the Thomas Nashe poem came to mind: Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss / This world uncertain is . . . In the night these beautiful lines, from a later stanza, returned: Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair / Dust hath closed Helen’s eye / I am sick, I must die / Lord have mercy on us. I’m not usually given to morbidity but, at that point, I reckoned things up: as they are, as they were and as they will be. And I thought: So be it. Maybe that was the Rona speaking. The Vid. Or maybe not. After all, it needs us to hand it on.

It’s been good in one way. I was thinking for a couple of weeks about how to go on with something I wrote during last year’s lockdown. It’s not exactly bad, just a bit confused. It lacks a conceptual framework. A structure. Lacks whatever the difference is between notes for a work and the work itself. And then, one morning – (can’t remember if it was before or after I got infected; but when did I get infected? Friday? Monday?) – I woke up with a sentence in my head that may be the solution to the problem.

So I wrote that sentence down and, over the last few days, in here, have been adding sentences to it, whenever one comes to mind. I’ve also been able to finish reading a difficult book, not unconnected to the work in progress, that I was stalled upon. And re-read another which is germane to the task. And I found (online) a Life of Thomas Nashe. I’ll read that tomorrow. Meanwhile, here’s the full text of In Time of Pestilence. Lord have mercy on us.

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Time Telling

Marlow’s Dream is the title of a book I’ve been working on for a while. Years, actually. Subtitled ‘Joseph Conrad in Antipodean Ports’. The first version was, more or less, a disaster and, unfortunately, a couple of prospective publishers saw it. Neither responded. As they don’t, these days. I knew it was bad but didn’t know how to fix it. As you don’t. And then one day I came across an essay, by Italo Calvino, from his book Why Read the Classics? It was called ‘Conrad’s Captains’ and in a way I can’t explain, led me back to my own book, which I rewrote over the next few months. I like it now, which is not the same thing as saying it’s good. That’s for other people to decide. The ms is with my agent so I suppose I’ll find out, eventually, what its prospects are.

In genre terms, it would have to be called literary non-fiction. There are no inventions therein: though there’s plenty of speculation, I haven’t made anything up. I have quoted large amounts of words from other authors, mostly Joseph Conrad himself; but also from his biographers, his critics, his contemporaries, his interlocutors. The entire work, viewed one way, is made up mostly of quotations. A collage, a bricolage. In this way it isn’t very different from any of my other books. Usually I indicate quotations in one of two ways. I italicise them. Or I put them between quote marks. In this ms, they are italicised. That doesn’t always mean they are attributed as well. Some are, some aren’t; some are identified by their context; but I know where they all come from and could, if pressed, footnote every one. Something I really dislike doing. Not because I want to cover my tracks but because footnotes interrupt the flow of the reading.

Anyway, that will be sorted out if and when the book finds a publisher. Joseph Conrad died in 1924, so all of his works are already out of copyright. As for the rest – we will see. On the opening page I quote lines from a Bob Marley song: that will have to be cleared, and perhaps paid for too. There’s something similar on almost every other page. Sometimes I’m quoting my friends; sometimes myself. I have a head full of lines of verse and I drop them in here and there, often without explanation. But I always know.

What about quotes from others, that I may use without knowing? Well, I can’t be sure, but I don’t think I do that. I don’t keep notebooks. I don’t have a library of extracts I refer to. And I don’t have the kind of memory that can recall whole sentences from prose works, let alone paragraphs. It’s inconceivable. Anything I do quote from, at length, I keep a note of the source text. If I’ve found the words online, I copy and keep the link. If I find it in a book that’s on my shelves, I put a bookmark there. If it’s in a book I don’t own . . . but that hardly ever happens any more.

A few days after I sent the ms to my agent, as always happens, I came across something I wished I’d included. The dream that provoked the book was a real dream, one I had in Darlinghurst in 1990, and in it I mentioned to Joseph Conrad (or his avatar) something that happened to him at Circular Quay in 1879. He’d met a man called Mr Senior and had a conversation with him. Conrad was a young sailor, the night watchman on his ship, the Duke of Sutherland. Mr Senior was on the dock, awaiting cartage for a piano that had been unloaded from the hold. They spoke together for a while then Mr Senior went off, presumably to his hotel.

In the state of distraction that often follows an act like that (‘submission’), I happened to open up Geoffrey Dutton’s bio of Kenneth Slessor – and there discovered that the maiden name of Slessor’s first wife, Noela, was Senior. That sent me into a frenzy: What! Was she related to Conrad’s Mr Senior? If so how? Where . . . It turns out that her step-father was a ship’s captain called Stanton John Senior and he was the son of one George Senior, a coal magnate from Derbyshire who was, quite possibly, the man Conrad met at Circular Quay on that night in 1879. Noela’s birth father was the notorious axe murderer Edwin Glasson, the first husband of her mother, Annie May Summerbelle, a composer of popular songs who’d worked with Nellie Melba. There were other sea-farers in the extended family.

I tried to incorporate some of this cascade of information (there is more) into the ms; but realised, quite quickly, it was impossible. It’s for another book; which, it turns out, I already have in draft form. Not that I know how to finish it; but never mind. I’ll find a way; or else I won’t. It doesn’t matter if I don’t; if I do it’ll make me happy, and perhaps some others too. The point is, there’s a wealth out there that might be made into story. The point isn’t that all the stories have already been told. They haven’t. Europe’s stories (America’s too) may have been told already, and told again, and again. Plagiarised, if you like: a word that derives ultimately from a Latin term for a net in which birds and other creatures might be caught and came into English as a synonym for kidnapping – ‘plagiary’.

Non-fiction writers like me rely upon sources that are mostly non-literary in origin. Information recorded for reasons that have nothing to do with the tradition that began (we think) with Homer; if it was not with Gilgamesh. It’s raw material. People write things down because they want to understand what has happened to them. They note down things that may be significant without yet knowing what that significance might be. That’s an honourable tradition which continues apart from (maybe alongside) the writing of fiction; and isn’t to do with ‘the greats’, whoever they might be, either; or only in the sense that the greats may have honoured it too.

The last book I published in Australia includes an extended sequence that paraphrases Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre. I used it because it got me out of a hole in the narrative that was caused by an interruption in my life. I didn’t attribute it because I thought that it would have sounded pretentious to do so; but imagined a discerning reader might read and understand what I had done. Nobody did; or nobody said they did; but that’s probably because very few people read that book; and those who did might have been thinking about things other than an unattributed prose version of the drunken boat. I hope so.

Rimbaud turns up in Marlow’s Dream as well; how could he not? Conrad read him (in French) in the 1890s; he probably knew the famous ‘Je suis un autre’. But that in turn is more than a fashionable disavowal. It’s a credo. If an author is an other, they should be respected as such. Their words should not be co-opted under the pretence that they are your own. That’s wrong. And if it’s done as an artifice to attract attention to yourself, and your writing, that’s a worse wrong.

Anyway, the lyrics of that Bob Marley tune, ‘Time Will Tell’, are obscure and have been interrogated by fans (me included) for years. Turns out it’s most likely the song he wrote after gunmen tried to shoot him dead during the lead up to the election in Jamaica in 1976. The bits that no-one has been able to construe before are about his wife also being shot (in the head); some of their children being there too; and himself escaping away into the back yard, where there was a sycamore tree. I will footnote that, if my book is published, and if I can get permission to quote. I’ll also say that ‘Marley’ is a version of ‘Marlow’. Meanwhile: Time alone, oh time will tell / Think you’re in heaven but you living in hell.

image © 2018 Museo delle Culture | Scultura raffigurante un’antenata, Oceania. Melanesia. Nuova Guinea. Lago Sentani. Area orientale. Villaggio di Asei, Fine XIX secolo, legno e pigmenti. Lugano, MUSEC – Collezione Brignoni 

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Ghost Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image: ABC

Lyall Howard and the New Guard:

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Ray Goodwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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