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Weekend at Maroochydore


for Margaret and John Kilpatrick

As the plane flew north up the western coast of Bribie Island I saw beneath us a lake shaped like a raptor. A velociraptor, to be precise. It seemed improbable, yet uncannily exact, and I gave myself a crick in the neck watching it recede way down below. More sand islands loomed up, one so fantastically blue and green, as if whipped out of whirls of cloud cream, that I could not rightly say what was land, what sea and what something else, birthed out a J G Ballard novel: The Drowned World perhaps. The black dot of a motor boat left a tiny arrow of white in its wake as it made its way up one of the aqua channels bisecting the next island, probably Thooloora, north of Donnybrook. I remembered my friend who, as an adolescent, happened to stray into Ian Fairweather’s camp on Bribie Island and was chased away when the painter came, brushes in hand, roaring out of his studio. We are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, Ballard wrote, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. And it was over that great sea, or rather a tributary of it, that our plane glided down until, at the very last moment, the tarmac at Maroochydore Airport rose up bumpily to meet us. I had not been to the Sunshine Coast, so-called, before: there was a storm swirling clockwise to the east, forty knot winds blowing in across the land, grey mists of rain over Coolum Beach as we drove through on our way inland to Yandina for lunch at the pub. It was a family reunion. But not my family. They were Irish and Scots who came here from Belfast or from the Low or High lands to get timber—cedar, beech and bunya pine—and then to grow sugar cane or arrowroot, ginger or macadamia nuts, run beef or dairy cattle on the cleared land. There’s a cheese factory. When gold was found at Gympie, to the north, the Cobb & Co. stage coach route ran through here too. My remote connection is with the Irish end of this Irish-Scots match; and there they were in the Yandina Hotel, with their bulbous noses and canny eyes, their talk of horses and of luck, their kindliness and their scepticism, their love of a drink and a yarn. Lock up your daughters, one of them said, was a literal instruction issued, and observed, when the Hall boys came to town. After the session we went up to the local graveyard and there, shading the last resting spot of a scion of the Campbell clan, was a hundred year old gardenia, twiggy and gaunt and yet still putting out the ruffled white flowers with their sweet nostalgic scent lying upon the rainy afternoon air. On the hill behind the graveyard is the ancestral family home of the Lows, Koongalba, a big old wooden house with an iron roof, spacious verandas, lovely gardens, rope swings hanging from the trees and kids running about everywhere. It was jacaranda time so the mazy purple flowers drifted down and carpeted the ground. The local historian’s name is Audienne Blyth and she greeted us bright-eyed at the door and said Come in, come in! Koongalba, place of clean waters, is the original name of Yandina; it’s in Wharf Road, so-called because in the early days timber was floated down the Maroochy River to the sea. I was amazed to learn, talking out on the veranda to one of the daughters, who was gathering up her kids to drive them back to Toowoomba before the rain really started to come down, that these are the same Blyths who helped settle my own home town of Ohakune away across the sea. Joe Blyth was (1908-1940) headmaster at Ruapehu District High School, later Ruapehu College, where my Dad taught in the 1950s; Joe ascended the mountain, it was said, 147 times before his demise. Audienne’s husband is Jim Blyth, son of Jack, son of Joe. He had large teeth and a shy manner. Proud, though, too. We stood in the darkened hallway of the house, surrounded by colonial ghosts, contemplating this mystery. The Blyth family held a reunion, over 150 of them, in ‘Kune last year, around about the same time as I attended the inaugural, perhaps unique, Ruapehu Writers Festival there. Then it was back down to the flatlands, driving through low swampy fields surrounding, like moats, isolate bush-covered volcanic cones called collectively (by James Cook) the Glasshouse Mountains. Occasionally I saw a remnant pine, Araucaria bidwillii, of which more later. At Coluum we checked into the hotel and then went round the road for dinner in the Bowlo, where another Ian told me that a/ Koongalba stands on the site of an ancient bora ground; and b/ that he is a tribal King, and owns a breastplate, which he inherited from his grandmother, Christina, after she had done an unspecified someone an undescribed act of kindness. It’s worth about $200,000, he said, touching his chest, as if he might have had it on under his blue nylon shirt. The Aborigines know I’ve got it. I have to decide what to do with it after I die. Ian is 77 years old, unmarried, childless, reputedly wealthy, garrulous and unregenerate, kindly, roguish, essentially unknowable. He was never without a drink in his hand. Every step of the way, Audienne said, the treatment of Aborigines was a mistakeWe should have known better. We knew how this worked in other places. The bunya trees were chopped down—Maleny (south west of Yandina) was where the original bunya festival was—and so many caught white people’s diseases. She doesn’t say this, but there were also mass poisonings, when offerings of food laced with arsenic were left out as gifts. Later we pass a turn-off to a place called Murdering Creek. When the cones on the Araucaria ripened, at anything from an eighteen month to a three year interval, local Waka Waka sent out messages of invitation to people hundreds of miles away. It was indigenous Australia’s largest event. Thousands came and stayed for months, feasting on the bunya nut. The gatherings, which were also an armistice, included ceremonies, dispute settlements, marriages and the trading of goods. Some tribes would not camp amongst the trees; some said a bunya was never to be cut down. An early missionary attempt at an interdiction upon their felling, and the establishment of a native kingdom, failed around 1860. That’s when the clearances, the poisonings and the sequestering of survivors upon reserves, began in earnest. Coastal people were the Gubbi Gubbi, their inland neighbours, the Waka Waka. The basic distinction between the two language groups was the word they used to say ‘no’. Waka Waka were the No No people. They had the bunya. Next morning, early, a friend rang from Sydney to say that Legend Press has finally returned copyright in Albert Namatjira’s paintings to his family, where it belongs. More than half a century too late, but still. Better late than never. I did not have time to contemplate the tiny part my own efforts might have played towards the attaining of this goal. I had to read the final proofs of The Expatriates. The publishers were going to print on Monday. They were awaiting the last outstanding permission, from a librarian on Rhode Island, the great-grand-daughter of a Russian aristocrat who had written a biography of her husband, a New Zealander with astonishing linguistic abilities. It bucketed down, on and off, all day long as I read. 100,000 words or more. I found sixteen (16) errors. The roar of the rain mixed in with the roar of history. There were two Norfolk pines framed in the window, denuded of a plentiful growth of foliage by the incessant sea spray. Bony as a bunya. Next morning I went down early to the beach for a swim. The wind was still blowing from the south-east but it wasn’t raining yet. An endless ochre strand, a warm and choppy sea, a rip it wouldn’t do to ignore. A uniformed surf life saver was slowly rocking, with his foot, the iron spike of a flag pole down into the muscular sand. Four girls in bikinis giggled past me as I came out of the water. One was as comprehensively freckled as the heroine of Eucalyptus, the Murray Bail book. Even her eyelids had freckles upon them. From the boardwalk I could see pandanus and boronia, sheoak and bright yellow daisies. The pandanus fruit as full and fecund as I imagine bunya pine cones to have been; but nobody eats the almond-flavoured pandanus nuts anymore; they’re too hard to get at. The aerial roots clustered round their trunks like fat straws. I have always loved beaches in the rain. The culmination of the weekend, that day, Sunday, was a barbecue at Ken’s place in Noosaville; but before we went out there we visited Keith’s to see the Boer War and Great War medals of the progenitor of the line, J D: there are four and some mystery attends them. I think we solved it but forget the details now; yet I recall the severe profiles of the monarchs on their backs: Victoria, Edward VII, George V. Those Australians who served in the mounted regiments took their own horses with them to war but none of them ever came back. Except one, belonging to a commanding officer. They shoot horses, don’t they, I thought, irrelevantly. Or not. At Noosaville a couple of dozen people gathered under an architectural canopy next to a magnificent stand of paperbark trees. The rain continued to sigh down, to sigh and to roar. A contingent of Fijians joined the Scots-Irish or Irish-Scots or Celtic Australian or Aboriginal or whatever they are to be called. Queenslanders. In the laughter of beautiful children it seemed we might indeed be able to begin again, somehow, after the drowned world has finished with its drowning. Or not. On the way to the airport, later on that afternoon, in the pelting rain I saw, before a bank of green-grey mangroves, black swans in a lagoon, dipping their bright bills into the silvery water. Maroochydore, I  learned, comes from the Yuggera word Muru-kutchi, meaning red-bill; such as the swan does have. They are common around here. The black swan of trespass on alienated waters. Robber of dead men’s dreams. It took ages for the incoming plane to land and then, cowled in slumberous heavy air, we boarded through the dense warm slanting rain. Arriving in Sydney I felt I had indeed been plunged back into the archaeopsychic past. Something I did not suspect a weekend in south-east Queensland might do for you. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom. It is still raining up there as I write, floods inundating the land, drowning it beneath a fresh or salty deluge. And yet I know that once the storm is over it will emerge again pristine, newly washed, paradisial, with a rainbow arching from Coolum Mountain to the coast. Or not. And our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. Yes.


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Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out

Las Vegas Shooting

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For years now I’ve hesitated between here and there. Usually anything I wrote here I linked to there; but I’ve never, until  now, thought of linking here to there. Duh. Because people who read there probably don’t read here, I assumed people who read here don’t read there. Well maybe I was wrong. So here is a link to there. Here and there.



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The Tree’s Human


There’s a big eucalypt growing in the street outside my place. I live on the second floor, like Luka of sacred memory, facing west, so my windows look directly out into its foliage. Its birds and bees. Its nests: currawongs one year, magpies the next. Just about to flower now, with creamy white blossoms bursting from the buds. Then making woody seeds. Last Thursday I was out the front talking to a friend when a fellow he knew stopped and joined the conversation. He was an aborist. I asked him if I should ask the council to trim the tree, as they did the other day to the one outside the building next door. He looked at the tree. It’s a Tallowwood, he said. Eucalyptus microcorys. Then he said, yes, probably, it looks like it has a problem in the crown. I didn’t see it then but I did later. A rather large branch had become detached from the trunk, high up, and fallen into the lower branches. It looked precarious. It looked like it might cause some damage when – not if – it fell to the ground. It could kill someone. It could bring down the wires feeding electricity to my building. It could damage a car. At 8.30 next morning I rang the council. The recently amalgamated Inner West Council, a behemoth that has replaced our local Ashfield Council, of fondest memory. I used to know the ex-Mayor. You could go for a walk around the neighbourhood with him. Not sure if we even have a Mayor any more. Anyway, the woman at the other end of the line took down the details and said she’d pass them on. I was out for the middle part of the day. When I came back, around 3.30, the branch was still poised precariously above the footpath and the road, the service wires. I rang them again. Friday afternoon: what could happen? This is Australia. Nothing much. Second verse, same as the first. Saturday I voted. Not for the clowns who currently run the place, for some other clowns. A fellow called Tom Kat (I kid you not, or only a little: it’s Kiat). Monday, nada. The neighbours on both sides had noticed that Damoclean branch by now and they had rung up too. Nothing happened. Tuesday neither – except they were cleaning the gutters for the first time in months so I went out and spoke to a fellow with a shovel who was clearing the dirt around the tree. As soon as he saw the branch he got on to his phone and called the council. Apparently someone came out later on that day to have a look and pronounced it ‘stable’. Yeah, right. Today’s Wednesday. It’s hot, windy: nor-easters. 32 degrees. There’ll be a southerly change later on tonight. When I came back from my walk I saw the branch had shifted. I rang the State Emergency Services. They have a depot in Haberfield, just over the other side of Parramatta Road. They gave me instant attention. She took my number and, minutes later, a guy called Alex rang up. I told him the story again: I knew it by heart by now. I was watching the branch, out the window, the whole time we were talking. It was moving in the wind. Alex said he’d call the council. Half an hour later, a ute pulled up and a bloke in a fluoro vest got out. He was clearly here about the branch. I turned down the element that was heating the beef bisque I was having, with buttered toast, for lunch and went out to talk to him. He was on the phone. Stop right there, he said. There’s danger. I know, I said. I stopped. He was talking to an aborist and, while we stood there, facing each other, about three metres apart, the branch fell. With a sound like a sigh. Didn’t bring the wires down, didn’t hit a pedestrian, did scrape the side of the florist’s van. Lucy’s. Their son does the markets every morning and leaves his grey Hyundai outside my place. A minor scrape, but still. I heard the bloke say to the aborist: it’s down, don’t worry, see you, and then he hung up. We had a chat and he shook my hand. That was nice. Like I’d done my duty as a citizen. A good outcome, I guess: no-one was hurt. This arvo I went down to the florist to tell the woman there what happened. They’re Chinese. He’s a nice guy but kind of non compos. She runs the business. I guess she’s Lucy. Not a great command of English. Turned out the clean-up guys had come down and asked her to shift the van; but no-one told her it was damaged. She said she couldn’t shift it because her son had the keys and he was elsewhere. I gave her my card. I said: I’m a witness. I said: the council has to pay for the repairs on your van. The bastards. Their chainsaws and their leaf blowers ruined my afternoon. I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about a line from a Tom Waits song. About how the cops always stop for coffee on the way to the scene of the crime. It was a bit like that. They could do the clean-up, quick smart, but they couldn’t avert the disaster. But still. It wasn’t really a disaster. No-one got hurt. The branch is down. I will always remember the moment when it fell between us, me and the bloke, he was called Mike, with a sound much like a sigh. Tallowwood. They can grow to be very large trees indeed. 70 metres high, if the soil beneath is deep enough. The name comes from a greasiness in the wood. Much used for fine work. Cabinet making and so forth. But not such a good suburban tree, because it needs those deep roots to grow tall and who knows what’s underneath us here. The complications of drainage. The underworld. Mostly sand, probably, originally. Black sand. Tallowwood flowers are beloved of apiarists; therefore, of bees. Leaves a koala can eat; if only. Koalas in Summer Hill!? The Latin name, microcorys, small helmet, refers I think to the nuts that will form after the creamy flowers are done. This very year! While I still live here! While I am still alive! I love this tree. I think of it as my tree. But, actually, I belong to it. I’m the tree’s human.


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Albert Namatjira’s Copyright

22. Albert drinking

I had a request for this piece on Friday night, wrote it over the weekend, finessed it with a lawyer on Monday, and with the editor last night and this morning: and here it now is. 

image: Albert in a bar in Alice Springs c. 1958

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The Secret Sharer


There was an alarm going off all night long. Eighty electronic pulses followed by about twenty beats of silence. I’m estimating, obviously. The noise was faint, far away, but once I had locked onto it, I couldn’t help but listen. At first I noticed that I tended to fall into a doze during the periods of silence then wake when the beeps resumed; but after a while, it was the other way round; and I’d re-surface when the silence began again. It was odd not knowing where the alarm was coming from; odd, too, that its battery never ran down. As a means of occupying my mind with something other than listening for its pauses and resumptions, I decided to see if I could remember the names of Joseph Conrad’s ships. I knew there were eighteen of them: could I count them all? The Mont-Blanc, the Saint-Antoine, the Tremolino, the Mavis, the Skimmer of the Sea, the Duke of Sutherland, the Europa, the Loch Etive, the Palestine, the Riversdale, the Narcissus, the Highland Forest, the Vidar, the Otago, the Roi des Belges, the Torrens, the Adowa. I counted them up on my fingers. Seventeen. There was one missing. A chronological list, so where was the gap? I thought and thought and then I remembered reading some letters the young officer wrote from a berth in Calcutta to a Polish friend in Cardiff. What was that ship called? It returned to Dundee with a load of jute. (Another sentence came to mind: ‘It was jute that made Dundee.’) Ah yes, I had it now: the Tilkhurst. After the Narcissus and before the Highland Forest. So there were the eighteen. I rehearsed the sea routes that they followed and, where known, the cargoes that they carried. Jute, coal, teak, sugar, wool, wheat, linseed, horns and bones. General cargo, which could mean anything. The Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean, the Pacific. The South China Sea. The Mediterranean. The Black Sea, the Sea of Azov. The Western Ocean the only one he never sailed. Never a passage to North America, unless you count the crossing he made, as a passenger, very late in life, to be feted in New York in 1923. I must have drifted off on speculations such as these and then Joseph Conrad came to me in a dream. Not for the first time. On the other occasion he was a grizzled old sea captain lying back in a big bed in some inland town, perhaps South American, smoking a cigar. Disinclined to speak, unless in riddles. Now he was a younger man, alert and charming and talkative. But I cannot remember our conversation, only that it continued for quite some time. Or was it like the writing I do sometimes in dreams, which does not really exist but is a dream of writing? Anyway, I remember the last exchange. He was sitting opposite me, at a small table. My bookshelves were behind me and from them I plucked a volume with a yellow cover and gave it to him. ‘Here is a book to read,’ I said. The yellow was a pale jasmine, a pale lemon colour, the colour of a Light 15 Citroën I was lucky enough once to own. At the top, the letters of a title: The Secret Sharer. Joseph Conrad’s face was a wonder to behold: amusement, consternation, incredulity, dismay. ‘But I wrote this,’ he said. ‘You have given me a copy of one of my own books!’ Indeed I had. He was not annoyed. Surprised, rather. I woke up. The Secret Sharer! Was I, or rather was my mind, trying to saying something to the figment it had entertained? That he and I were secret sharers? The tale came out in 1909, I think, during an interlude in the writing of Under Western Eyes. (Just as, nearly a decade before, Heart of Darkness came out during an interlude in the writing of Lord Jim.) It is based upon a true story. The bucko mate on the Cutty Sark struck and killed an insubordinate seaman, a black man with whom he had argued, and fought, before. His captain, rather than taking him into port to face the courts in Singapore, probably, (they were near the entrance to the Java Sea) let him go over the side and swim to another ship. That captain himself went over the side four days later, a suicide, unable to reconcile himself with what he had done. The mate escaped but was picked up, years later, in London, tried and punished. In Conrad’s story a mate who has killed a man arrives at the side of a young captain’s first command near the mouth of the river that leads south from the port of Bangkok; and the captain allows him aboard. The man’s name is Leggatt. The captain, who is never named (‘I’), conceals him in his cabin, conceals him from the captain of Leggatt’s own ship, the Sephora, when he comes looking for him, conceals him from his crew during a voyage down the Gulf of Siam; until, off the rocky island of Koh-Ring, he takes his (also unnamed) ship so close to shore it is at risk of wrecking, that his secret sharer may slip over the side and swim to safety. We never learn his fate; but the young captain is somehow, mysteriously, through his illegal act and his compassion for a fugitive, confirmed in his vocation. It’s clearly a doppelgänger tale and perhaps that is why I chose it in my dream: because to have the temerity write about another author, especially one as esteemed and, as it were, untouchable as Joseph Conrad, is to claim him as a double? Is that why? When I woke up after the dream and lay there rehearsing it in my mind, the alarm was still beeping in the distance of the night but I could already see, faintly, at the window, the first grey light of the coming dawn seeping, like arcane knowledge, or even  inspiration, through the ochre curtains.


images: the Queen opening the restored Cutty Sark to the public, Greenwich, 1957; Unknown man and his doppelgänger.

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Departure, yes, from the illusions of life to the essential realities that lie hidden beyond.

Max Beckmann, 1932


We leave everything behind. And take it all with us too. How could it be otherwise? My beloved holds a lamp in her right hand, while the German dwarf ties the last of his bonds tight around her calves and my arms, which are crossed behind my back. The doorman in his blue uniform stands next to us, holding a fish. Blind-folded, so as not to see where we are going. As if he didn’t already know. I am the upside down man, did you know that? In my green coat of wind. We are both bound, and bound one to another, by the ties of fate. Soul and body, body and soul. The accoutrements are classical, the falling down world. Friezes, columns, reliefs. Staircases, scaffolds. Gods. All fall down. The man with the drum, a cadaverous cataleptic wearing a peaked cap, beats on. Marching out of the picture, marching into the past. Or the future, whichever comes first. We felt the whole thing in our bones; or, if not in our bones, in our blood. In our heads. The strange history play in which we found ourselves acting. All five of us; and the fish makes six. You cannot ask if we were willing; it is the wrong question. You will notice that she has one breast free and in that gift, if it is a gift, is all the hope we can carry. We left everything behind and took it all with us as well. Could it have been otherwise? Her face, indomitable.


This was the cost. She was bound again and made to kneel half–naked before the globe: a crystal ball? Our blue planet? Or something else, a palantír perhaps. She will be violated if that has not already occurred. Who is doing this? I cannot tell. Where was I? Bound too, both my hands amputated, the marbled flesh like some atrocious echo of antiquity. Or the other fellow, pink-shirted, turned away, his hands intact but also bound and standing in a barrel—like Diogenes? All three of us bound and no-one left to paint the bulbous still life, the pear, the apple, the grapes, on the table top, itself upon some kind of plinth. It seems we are still in ancient times. The green curtains, the toppling columns. Or in some theatre of the absurd. I do not know why the man in the striped blue and black shirt holds high, like a mattock, a bag from which a fish’s head protrudes. A tail too. He looks as if he might be about to chop down the tree of life. Or is it an axe against the frozen sea within? Maybe he is just landing his catch. Again we are six: add the green-beaked bird, before the draperies, swallowing its own red eye. There remains the goddess, her marbled flesh, bound and looking down into the globe wherein may be found other departures, or all departures. And that strangely concave board she kneels upon, with its drawing of trees: are there other ways out of this hell?


Who is doing this? Who is speaking? Painters do not speak, we paint; and paint is silent. Our language is blue. The ocean and the sky are neither sky nor ocean, they are blue. The robe the crowned figure wears slung over his shoulder, turning away, his hand raised, is blue. If that is me I am pleased to see the rosy tint returning to my flesh. The pink behind my hand. Our flesh. My clothed Queen, holding the golden-headed child. A sturdy boy. He is staring behind her at the ancient of days: look again, do you see that antique profile? Odysseus? We are again six, and one of us is again a fish. Held, now, in the hands of that flaxen-haired Viking with his helmet, no less than his hair, obscuring his face. His one cyclopean eye. Or am I wrong, is he the father of the child? Are we both fathering the child? Who fathers the child? It is every child, antiquity’s child, Odysseus’ child, the child of Theseus. Why is she looking at that helmeted man, with the gold bands upon his arm, with his abnegation, his inscrutability, his fish. Is it a challenge; or in recognition? I know that we will never know. You will notice that I have a casual hand upon the net wherein the jewelled fish are caught. You see the oar that kisses the surface of a blue which is different from the blue of the sky. The blue, the green and the white of the landed fish. The golden scuppers of our ship. It is like heaven, all gold and blue, apart from the red of that Viking’s robe. His blue mouth. Always my eye returns to that profile, he who is hardly there at all, he whom without whom we would have no destination. The king that in the caves of history dreams. Yes that is exactly what I mean. Our ship has no prow and no stern. We drift upon the endless blue. Sky and sea, and sea again. If we are going nowhere, it is because we have already arrived. If we are going everywhere, then so be it. If anywhere, then anywhere will do.



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