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The Danish Brig

The most amazing wonder of the deep is its unfathomable cruelty.

I felt its dread the first time in the mid-Atlantic one day, many years ago, when we took off the crew of a Danish brig homeward bound from the West Indies. A thin, silvery mist softened the calm and majestic splendour of light without shadows—seemed to render the sky less remote and the ocean less immense. It was one of the days when the might of the sea appears lovable. At sunrise we made out a black speck to the westward, suspended high up in the void behind a shimmering veil of silvery blue gauze that seemed to stir and float in the breeze which fanned us slowly along.

The peace of that forenoon was so profound, untroubled, it seemed that every word pronounced upon our deck would penetrate to the very heart of that infinite mystery born from the conjunction of water and sky. We did not raise our voices. “A water-logged derelict, I think, sir,” said the second officer quietly, coming down from aloft with the binoculars in their case slung across his shoulders; and our captain, without a word, signed to the helmsman to steer for the black speck. Presently we made out a low, jagged stump sticking up forward — all that remained of her departed masts.

The captain was expatiating in a low conversational tone to the chief mate upon the danger of these derelicts, and upon his dread of coming upon them at night, when suddenly a man forward screamed out, “There’s people on board of her, sir! I see them!” in a most extraordinary voice — a voice never heard before in our ship; the amazing voice of a stranger. It gave the signal for a sudden tumult of shouts. The watch below ran up the forecastle head in a body, the cook dashed out of the galley. Everybody saw the poor fellows now. They were there!

And all at once our ship, which had the well-earned name of being without a rival for speed in light winds, seemed to us to have lost the power of motion, as if the sea, becoming viscous, had clung to her sides. And yet she moved. Immensity, the inseparable companion of a ship’s life, chose that day to breathe upon her as gently as a sleeping child. The clamour of our excitement died out, and our living ship, famous for never losing steerage way as long as there was air enough to float a feather, stole, without a ripple, silent and white as a ghost, towards her mutilated and wounded sister, come upon her at the point of death in the sunlit haze of a calm day at sea.

With the binoculars glued to his eyes, the captain said in a quavering tone: “They are waving to us with something aft there.”

He put down the glasses on the skylight  and began to walk about the poop. “A shirt or a flag,” he ejaculated irritably. “Can’t make it out . . . Some damn rag or other!”

He took a few more turns on the poop, glancing down over the rail now and then to see how fast we were moving. His nervous footsteps rang sharply in the quiet of the ship, where the other men, all looking the same way, had forgotten themselves in a staring immobility.

“This will never do!” he cried out suddenly. “Lower the boats at once! Down with them!”

Before I jumped into mine he took me aside, as being an inexperienced junior, for a word of warning:

“You look out as you come alongside that she doesn’t take you down with her. You understand?”

He murmured this confidentially, so that none of the men at the falls should overhear; and I was shocked.

“Heavens! as if in such an emergency one stopped to think of danger!” I exclaimed to myself mentally, in scorn of such cold-blooded caution.

It takes many lessons to make a real seaman, and I got my rebuke at once. My commander seemed in one searching glance to read the thoughts upon my face.

“What you’re going for is to save life, not to drown your boat’s crew for nothing,” he growled in my ear.

As we shoved off he leaned over and said: “It all rests on the power of your arms, men. Give way for life!”

We made a race of it, and I would never have believed that a common boat’s crew of a merchantman could keep up so much determined fierceness in the regular swing of their stroke. What our captain perceived before we left had become plain to all of us since. The issue of our enterprise hung upon a hair above that abyss of waters which will not give up its dead till the Day of Judgment. It was a race of two ship’s boats matched against Death for a prize of nine men’s lives; and Death had a long start.

We saw the crew of the brig from afar working at the pumps — pumping on that wreck, which already had settled so far down that the gentle, low swell, over which our boats rose and fell easily without a check to their speed, welling up almost level with her head-rails, plucked at the ends of broken gear swinging desolately under her naked bowsprit.

We could not, in all conscience, have picked out a better day for our regatta; had we had a free choice of all the days that ever dawned upon the lonely struggles and solitary agonies of ships since the Norse rovers first steered to the westward against the run of Atlantic waves. It was a very good race. At the finish was not an oar’s length between the first and second boat, with Death coming in a good third on the top of the very next smooth swell, for all one knew to the contrary.

The scuppers of the brig gurgled softly all together when the water rising against her sides subsided sleepily with a low wash, as if playing about an immovable rock. Her bulwarks were gone fore and aft, and one saw her bare deck low-lying like a raft and swept clean of boats, spars, houses — of everything except the ringbolts and the heads of the pumps. I had one dismal glimpse of it as I braced myself up to receive upon my breast the last man to leave her, the captain, who literally let himself fall into my arms.

It had been a weirdly silent rescue — a rescue without a hail, without a single uttered word, without a gesture or a sign, without a conscious exchange of glances. Up to the very last moment those on board stuck to their pumps, which spouted two clear streams of water upon their bare feet. Their brown skin showed through the rents of their shirts; and the two small bunches of half-naked, tattered men went on bowing from the waist to each other in their back-breaking labour, up and down, absorbed, with no time for a glance over the shoulder at the help that was coming to them.

As we dashed, unregarded, alongside a voice let out one, only one, hoarse howl of command, and then, just as they stood, without caps, with the salt drying gray in the wrinkles and folds of their hairy, haggard faces, blinking stupidly at us their red eyelids, they made a bolt away from the handles, tottering and jostling against each other, and positively flung themselves over upon our very heads. The clatter they made tumbling into the boats had an extraordinarily destructive effect upon the illusion of tragic dignity our self-esteem had thrown over the contests of mankind with the sea.

On that exquisite day of gently breathing peace and veiled sunshine perished my romantic love to what men’s imagination had proclaimed the most august aspect of Nature. The cynical indifference of the sea to the merits of human suffering and courage, laid bare in this ridiculous, panic-tainted performance extorted from the dire extremity of nine good and honourable seamen, revolted me. I saw the duplicity of the sea’s most tender mood. It was so because it could not help itself; but the awed respect of the early days was gone. I felt ready to smile bitterly at its enchanting charm and glare viciously at its furies. In a moment, before we shoved off, I had looked at the life of my choice. Its illusions were gone, but its fascination remained. I had become a seaman.

We pulled hard for a quarter of an hour, then laid on our oars waiting for our ship. She was coming down on us with swelling sails, looking delicately tall and exquisitely noble through the mist. The captain of the brig, who sat in the stern sheets by my side with his face in his hands, raised his head and began to speak with a sort of sombre volubility. They had lost their masts and sprung a leak in a hurricane; drifted for weeks, always at the pumps, met more bad weather; the ships they sighted failed to make them out, the leak gained upon them slowly, and the seas had left them nothing to make a raft of.

It was very hard to see ship after ship pass by at a distance, “as if everybody had agreed that we must be left to drown,” he added. But they went on trying to keep the brig afloat as long as possible, and working the pumps constantly on insufficient food, mostly raw, till “yesterday evening,” he continued monotonously, “just as the sun went down, the men’s hearts broke.” He made an almost imperceptible pause here, and went on again with exactly the same intonation:

“They told me the brig could not be saved, and they thought they had done enough for themselves. I said nothing to that. It was true. It was no mutiny. I had nothing to say to them. They lay about aft all night, as still as so many dead men. I did not lie down. I kept a look-out. When the first light came I saw your ship at once. I waited for more light; the breeze began to fail on my face. Then I shouted out as loud as I was able, ‘Look at that ship!’ but only two men got up very slowly and came to me.

At first only we three stood alone, for a long time, watching you coming down to us, and feeling the breeze drop to a calm almost; but afterwards others, too, rose, one after another, and by-and-by I had all my crew behind me. I turned round and said to them that they could see the ship was coming our way, but in this small breeze she might come too late after all, unless we turned to and tried to keep the brig afloat long enough to give you time to save us all. I spoke like that to them, and then I gave the command to man the pumps.”

He gave the command, and gave the example, too, by going himself to the handles, but it seems that these men did actually hang back for a moment, looking at each other dubiously before they followed him. “He! he! he!” He broke out into a most unexpected, imbecile, pathetic, nervous little giggle. “Their hearts were broken so! They had been played with too long,” he explained apologetically, lowering his eyes, and became silent.

Twenty-five years is a long time — a quarter of a century is a dim and distant past; but to this day I remember the dark-brown feet, hands, and faces of two of these men whose hearts had been broken by the sea. They were lying very still on their sides on the bottom boards between the thwarts, curled up like dogs. My boat’s crew, leaning over the looms of their oars, stared and listened as if at the play. The master of the brig looked up suddenly to ask me what day it was.

They had lost the date. When I told him it was Sunday, the 22nd, he frowned, making some mental calculation, then nodded twice sadly to himself, staring at nothing.

His aspect was miserably unkempt and wildly sorrowful. Had it not been for the unquenchable candour of his blue eyes, whose unhappy, tired glance every moment sought his abandoned, sinking brig, as if it could find rest nowhere else, he would have appeared mad. But he was too simple to go mad, too simple with that manly simplicity which alone can bear men unscathed in mind and body through an encounter with the deadly playfulness of the sea or with its less abominable fury.

Neither angry, nor playful, nor smiling, it enveloped our distant ship growing bigger as she neared us, our boats with the rescued men and the dismantled hull of the brig we were leaving behind, in the large and placid embrace of its quietness, half lost in the fair haze, as if in a dream of infinite and tender clemency. There was no frown, no wrinkle on its face, not a ripple. And the run of the slight swell was so smooth that it resembled the graceful undulation of a piece of shimmering gray silk shot with gleams of green.

We pulled an easy stroke; but when the master of the brig, after a glance over his shoulder, stood up with a low exclamation, my men feathered their oars instinctively, without an order, and the boat lost her way. He was steadying himself on my shoulder with a strong grip, while his other arm, flung up rigidly, pointed a denunciatory finger at the immense tranquillity of the ocean. After his first exclamation, which stopped the swing of our oars, he made no sound, but his whole attitude seemed to cry out an indignant “Behold!” . . . I could not imagine what vision of evil had come to him. I was startled, and the amazing energy of his immobilized gesture made my heart beat faster with the anticipation of something monstrous and unsuspected. The stillness around us became crushing.

For a moment the succession of silky undulations ran on innocently. I saw each of them swell up the misty line of the horizon, far, far away beyond the derelict brig, and the next moment, with a slight friendly toss of our boat, it had passed under us and was gone. The lulling cadence of the rise and fall, the invariable gentleness of this irresistible force, the great charm of the deep waters, warmed my breast deliciously, like the subtle poison of a love-potion. But all this lasted only a few soothing seconds before I jumped up too, making the boat roll like the veriest landlubber.

Something startling, mysterious, hastily confused, was taking place. I watched it with incredulous and fascinated awe, as one watches the confused, swift movements of some deed of violence done in the dark. As if at a given signal, the run of the smooth undulations seemed checked suddenly around the brig. By a strange optical delusion the whole sea appeared to rise upon her in one overwhelming heave of its silky surface, where in one spot a smother of foam broke out ferociously.

And then the effort subsided. It was all over, and the smooth swell ran on as before from the horizon in uninterrupted cadence of motion, passing under us with a slight friendly toss of our boat. Far away, where the brig had been, an angry white stain undulating on the surface of steely-gray waters, shot with gleams of green, diminished swiftly, without a hiss, like a patch of pure snow melting in the sun. And the great stillness after this initiation into the sea’s implacable hate seemed full of dread thoughts and shadows of disaster.

“Gone!” ejaculated from the depths of his chest my bowman in a final tone. He spat in his hands, and took a better grip on his oar. The captain of the brig lowered his rigid arm slowly, and looked at our faces in a solemnly conscious silence, which called upon us to share in his simple-minded, marvelling awe. All at once he sat down by my side, and leaned forward earnestly at my boat’s crew, who, swinging together in a long, easy stroke, kept their eyes fixed upon him faithfully.

“No ship could have done so well,” he addressed them firmly, after a moment of strained silence, during which he seemed with trembling lips to seek for words fit to bear such high testimony. “She was small, but she was good. I had no anxiety. She was strong. Last voyage I had my wife and two children in her. No other ship could have stood so long the weather she had to live through for days and days before we got dismasted a fortnight ago. She was fairly worn out, and that’s all. You may believe me. She lasted under us for days and days, but she could not last for ever. It was long enough. I am glad it is over. No better ship was ever left to sink at sea on such a day as this.”

He was competent to pronounce the funereal oration of a ship, this son of ancient sea-folk, whose national existence, so little stained by the excesses of manly virtues, had demanded nothing but the merest foothold from the earth. By the merits of his sea-wise forefathers and by the artlessness of his heart, he was made fit to deliver this excellent discourse. There was nothing wanting in its orderly arrangement — neither piety nor faith, nor the tribute of praise due to the worthy dead, with the edifying recital of their achievement.

She had lived, he had loved her; she had suffered, and he was glad she was at rest. It was an excellent discourse. And it was orthodox, too, in its fidelity to the cardinal article of a seaman’s faith, of which it was a single-minded confession. “Ships are all right.” They are. They who live with the sea have got to hold by that creed first and last; and it came to me, as I glanced at him sideways, that some men were not altogether unworthy in honour and conscience to pronounce the funereal eulogium of a ship’s constancy in life and death.

After this, sitting by my side, with his loosely-clasped hands hanging between his knees, he uttered no word, made no movement till the shadow of our ship’s sails fell on the boat, when, at the loud cheer greeting the return of the victors with their prize, he lifted up his troubled face with a faint smile of pathetic indulgence. This smile of the worthy descendant of the most ancient sea-folk whose audacity and hardihood had left no trace of greatness and glory upon the waters, completed the cycle of my initiation.

There was an infinite depth of hereditary wisdom in its pitying sadness. It made the hearty bursts of cheering sound like a childish noise of triumph. Our crew shouted with immense confidence — honest souls! As if anybody could ever make sure of having prevailed against the sea, which has betrayed so many ships of great “name,” so many proud men, so many towering ambitions of fame, power, wealth, greatness!

As I brought the boat under the falls my captain, in high good-humour, leaned over, spreading his red and freckled elbows on the rail, and called down to me sarcastically, out of the depths of his cynic philosopher’s beard:

“So you have brought the boat back after all, have you?”

Sarcasm was “his way,” and the most that can be said for it is that it was natural. This did not make it lovable. But it is decorous and expedient to fall in with one’s commander’s way.

“Yes. I brought the boat back all right, sir,” I answered. And the good man believed me. It was not for him to discern upon me the marks of my recent initiation. And yet I was not exactly the same youngster who had taken the boat away — all impatience for a race against death, with the prize of nine men’s lives at the end.

Already I looked with other eyes upon the sea. I knew it capable of betraying the generous ardour of youth as implacably as, indifferent to evil and good, it would have betrayed the basest greed or the noblest heroism. My conception of its magnanimous greatness was gone. And I looked upon the true sea — the sea that plays with men till their hearts are broken, and wears stout ships to death.

Nothing can touch the brooding bitterness of its heart. Open to all and faithful to none, it exercises its fascination for the undoing of the best. To love it is not well. It knows no bond of plighted troth, no fidelity to misfortune, to long companionship, to long devotion. The promise it holds out perpetually is very great; but the only secret of its possession is strength, strength — the jealous, sleepless strength of a man guarding a coveted treasure within his gates.


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January 30, 2019 · 10:57 am



This blog is named after a book I began around the time I started writing it (the blog) and only completed (the book) recently. It will be published next February by UWAP. Details here. Although its parts were written relatively quickly, Isinglass as a whole took more than ten years to finish. Unusually for me. I thought I might say a little bit about why. Or rather how.

I was still working as a cab driver then; had been thinking about doing an asylum seeker book for a while; but had not found a suitable point of entry. Until, one day, sitting idly at the wheel of a vacant taxi at the bottom of Oxford Street, near Hyde Park, looking out the window, I seemed to see an unknown man coming ashore at a deserted beach; and wondered what might happen to him next. I’d visited that beach, in the lee of Dark Point, aka Little Gibber, with my sons not long before.

The first two parts (short; long) were written over the summer of 2009-10; the love affair remembered in part two really happened and Charis (not her real name) has read and (slightly) amended my version. The third part (long), was mostly drafted in Auckland, where I had a two month residency at the Michael King Centre in the autumn of 2010; but I ran out of time a few pages before the end and didn’t complete it during that stay. Another three years passed before I did: after I finished my doctorate in 2013.

I had lost or mislaid the voice in which part three is written and couldn’t find it again; stalled at the moment when Anabi is cast adrift in a boat upon the waves of the sea. It was distressing; until I realised that I might kick-start the process by attempting a free adaptation of Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre. This is how I did resume; which accounts for the baroque prose-style of the final part of that section: Comme je descendais des fleuves impassibles.

The fourth part (short) came unbidden in a hotel room in the deco city of Napier where I had gone in the winter of 2014 to give a talk about the Philip Clairmont painting Erotic Couch. Peter Wells, one of my hosts on that trip, wrote to me later: Anna Kavan’s hotel. This must have been where she stayed for a period during her twenty-two month sojourn in New Zealand during World War Two. I had no idea; but do remember how the compulsion to write descended upon me there.

There was one more section to go and I didn’t know how to do it: mainly because I had convinced myself that it was to be a travel piece, based upon a long anticipated visit to the Tanimbar Islands in Maluku; and I have not (yet) made that trip. Then, one October day in 2017, for no real reason, I opened up what I thought was a blank document and found I had written, and forgotten I had written, the opening paragraph of the fifth and final section (short).

It was about coral reefs and had a doomed feeling to it. I thought something more optimistic would read better; but what? A few nights later, when I couldn’t sleep, the rest came into my mind: a vision not a dream. I remembered a beach I visited in Fiji in 1987 and the children, selling bead necklaces and seashells, I met there; a village I saw on an island during a boat trip out of Labuanbajo into the Flores Sea in 2004. I wrote it all down next morning, exactly as it now appears.

Isinglass was meant to be a sequel to my 2006 book Luca Antara. Both contain imaginary, or imagined, journeys. In the first case it was that of an unremembered Portuguese adventurer to Australian shores; in the second, the voyage this way of someone much more remote in time; so remote, indeed, that it is hard to work out when the action is happening. For this reason, perhaps, Isinglass is the more contemporary work.

image : Untitled (1989); by Dean Buchanan; oil on cavas; 53 x 30 mm



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The Souls of the Egyptians


for Mayu

The Egyptians believed that a soul (ka/ba) was made up of many parts; in addition to the body itself, known by a term which translates as the sum of the bodily parts. Another version is remains.

Because the world was made by magic, it was magic, and so was every living thing upon it. When humans were made, that magic took the form of soul, an eternal force inside every person.

The parts of the soul: physical body (ht), spiritual body (sh), name or identity (rin), double (ka), personality (ba), heart (jb), shadow (swt), power or form (shm); the re-combined all of these in the afterlife (akh).

1. ht, physical body

The ht had to keep on existing if the soul was to have a chance of being judged. So the body had to be preserved, lying in state alongside scenes or triumphs from the life. Mostly daily life.

Herodotus says grieving families were given a choice as to the type of mummification preferred: The best and most expensive kind is said to represent [Osiris], the next best is somewhat inferior and cheaper, while the third is cheapest of all.

Because the state of the body was tied to the quality of life after death, there were small figurines, shabti, of servants, slaves, guards (and, in some cases pets) included in the tombs, to be with the deceased in the afterlife.

Eternal existence was not assured. Before a person could be judged by the gods, they had to be awakened through a series of funerary rites designed to reanimate their remains.

The opening of the mouth, performed during interment, woke up each section of the body, bit by bit: brain, head, limbs, so that the spiritual body, sh, would manifest.

2. sh, spiritual body

If all rites, ceremonies, and preservation rituals for the ẖt were observed, and the deceased was worthy of passing through, the sh, a representation of the physical body, formed.

This body could interact with other entities in the afterlife.

3. rin, name

A person’s name was given them at birth; Egyptians believe we live as long as our name is spoken. The greater the number of places a name was used, the greater the possibility it would survive.

Your rin is your identity, experiences, life’s worth of memories.

4. ka, double

The ka was the difference between a living and a dead person; death happened when your ka left the body. It had been breathed into you at birth by one of the gods.

The ka was sustained by food and drink and for this reason offerings were presented to the dead; although it was the ka within the offerings that was consumed, not the physical things.

5. ba, personality

The ba was everything that makes a person who they were. Inanimate objects also had a ba, a character, and Old Kingdom pyramids were called the ba of their owner.

The ba is the aspect of a person that lives on after the body has died, depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join with the ka in the afterlife.

The ba is sometimes depicted eating and drinking and carousing outside the tomb during the day, before returning at night to the mummy.

The word baw, plural of ba, meant something like mana. When a god intervened in human affairs, it was the baw of the deity at work.

6. jb, heart

The jb was formed out of a drop of blood from the heart of the child’s mother, given at conception. When Egyptians said jb they meant the real, not the metaphorical, heart.

The heart was key to the afterlife. It was essential to surviving death in the nether world, where it gave evidence for, or against, its bodily capsule.

It was preserved and stored within the mummy, with a scarab secured to the body to prevent it from telling tales.

It was weighed. If it was heavier than the feather of Maat, it would be consumed by the monster Ammit, and extinguished.

7. šwt, shadow

Your shadow is always there: it has you in it. Statues of people were called their shadows.

The shadow, a servant of Anubis, was depicted as a black sillouette.

Sometimes ppharaohs had a box in their tomb in which their šwt was stored.

8. sḫm, form

Scholars define sḫm as the life-force of the soul, which exists in the afterlife, after all judgement has been passed.

sḫm is called in The Book of the Dead ‘power’ and as a place within which Horus and Osiris dwell in the underworld.

9. akh, ‘magically effective one’

The akh was soul as living entity. Following the death of the ẖt (physical body), ba and ka reunited to form the akh. The ritual was said ‘to make a dead person into a living akh’.


Death occurs when a person’s ka leaves the body. Ceremonies conducted by priests after death aimed to release a ba‘s attachment to the body. This allowed the ba to be united with the ka, creating the akḫ.

The afterlife was the journey like the Sun. At night the Sun descended into the Duat or underworld. There it met the Dead; they re-energized each other; and the dead, and the Sun, lived another day.

For this to work, bodily preservation was required, to allow the ba something to return to during the night, and from whence to rise to new life in the morning. The completed akḫs were also thought to appear as stars.

Spells guarded against ‘not dying a second time in the underworld’; and endevoured to ‘grant memory always’ to a person.

Your life happening again, without your ba being kept away from your divine corpse, with your ba being together with the akh . . . You shall emerge each day and return each evening.

 A lamp will be lit for you in the night until the sunlight shines forth on your breast. You shall be told: ‘Welcome, welcome, into this your house of the living!’

Nefertari’s Tomb|Nefertari playing Senet; Nefertari with her Ba

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Labyrinths and Pyramids


The other day I was down in my laundry – which doubles as my archive – waiting for the spin cycle to conclude on the washing machine. I recently attempted to de-clutter the clutter in there and a small cardboard carton containing diaries and notebooks had ended up at my elbow where I stood; so I picked up the top one and had a look in it. Turned out to be a notebook I kept during the first year I lived in Sydney. 1981-2. Found it quite interesting, not for any literary quality it has but as a record of things I was thinking and writing about back then. And then – after I hung the washing out – I thought I’d better see what else is in that box.

So I brought it upstairs and had a leaf through all of the twenty or so notebooks it contains. They cover a span of more than thirty years. 1970 until 2004, when I guess I started replacing hand-written records with electronic note-taking. Most are fragmentary and many don’t even get to the end. They provoked embarrassment, of course, but also a kind of incredulity – mainly because my preoccupations haven’t changed all that much over the years. I’ve been banging on about the same things for decades, evidently. But amongst them was one genuine surprise.

A small green striped hardback exercise book (which I must have bought when I was studying Maori language in Wellington in 1976 & 7), had been re-purposed as a diary that covered a few months spent in California in 1978-9. Two weeks in L.A. then three months in San Francisco; the record breaks off, for no apparent reason, at the end of the first week of January, 1979. I had forgotten the very existence of this diary; had certainly never re-read it. Also it had suffered a degree of water damage from when it was stored (probably) under someone or other’s house, causing the ink to run and making it quite difficult to decipher.

Its interest to me now is that I recently wrote a reconstruction of that period, from memory, from the memories of others, from various forms of archival research. So how did this recent version compare with what I’d written at the time? Well, what do you think? First of all, in my reconstruction, I had the chronology of what happened all wrong. I had my friends Andreas and Marsha, for instance, moving out of the Israeli’s apartment in the Mission into ours at Greenwich and Gough before Andreas’ arrest and incarceration; whereas in fact it was the other way round. I had the details of the ructions in the band wrong too. There are many other examples of the frailty of memory.

Secondly, there are all sorts of details in the diary that are missing from my recollection: bands we played with, venues we played at, parties we went to; anecdotes; people; drugs; and so forth. Thirdly, however, and most intriguingly, my recent account is probably more true to the feeling of that time than the diary is. This because the diary writing is self-conscious, full of ‘important’ reflections and ‘significant’ observations. I’m writing, laughably, for the future. Nevertheless, and this is I suppose the fourth point, these reflections and observations do still intersect with my preoccupations now. The Egyptian obsession, for instance.

Some of the entries might constitute a very loose essay on late 1970s California organised around two images, the pyramid and the labyrinth. That still seems to have some traction. Fifth it is good to know what books I was reading then: Walter Benjamin (Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia); Louis Aragon (Paris Peasant); Guillaume Apollinaire (a bio); Ed Dorn (Hello, La Jolla); César Vallejo (Trilce) all turn up. Along with movies like Polanski’s The Tenant and the Hercule Poirot mystery Death on the Nile.

So I guess what I’ll have to do now is go back to my reconstruction and reconstruct it, correcting the chronology and adding detail, for instance of places the band played: like The Keystone in Berkeley and The Boarding House in Bush Street, SF, where they made a live recording our agents (Fat Cat) used to secure us work during the rest of the time we spent in the Bay Area. Wish I still had a copy of that tape. The lucubrations, however, I think I’ll leave to decay in the blurred, ballooning, purple and green, black and blue ink of that best-forgotten-again diary.


image: the Trans-America Pyramid, SF; Alcatraz in the distance; then Angel Island State Park

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Dialogue of a Man & His Soul


Part One 

I opened my mouth to my soul:

This is too much for me to stand today

my soul will not talk to me

It really is too much


It is as if you are abandoning me

Let not my soul go away

you should attend me

and my body with its net of tightening cords


Because on the day of pain you will not be able to flee

Look, my soul misleads me, I won’t listen to it

it drags me towards death before I am ready

casts me into the fire so as to burn


My soul be with me on the day of pain,

let it stand by my side as a true companion

My soul, too ignorant in life to assuage my pain

leading me towards death before I am ready


Sweeten the West for me

Is that so hard?

Life is a journey. Trees fall.

Tread down evil, end my misery


May Thoth judge me, who appeases the gods

May Khons defend me, he who writes truly

May Ra hear my speech, who calms the boat of the sun

May Isde defend me in the sacred hall of the West


My suffering is too heavy a burden

for me to bear

May it please the gods to relieve

my body of its secrets.


Part Two

My soul opened its mouth to me

to answer what I had said:

Are you not a man?

Are you not alive?

What do you gain by complaining

of life as if you were a rich man?


I said:

I will not go on so long

as this remains unanswered

If you run away

you will come to grief too

Every criminal will say: I seize you

Even in death, your name lives on

Yonder is the place of rest, the heart’s goal

The West is a dwelling place, a voyage.


If you my soul will listen to me

without malice

your heart in accord with me

I shall be happy

I shall reach the West like one who is in his tomb

whose burial his survivors tend.


I shall make a shelter over our corpse

so that you shall make other weary souls envious

I shall make a shelter

it will not be cold

so you shall make another soul

who is too hot, envious.


You shall drink cool clear water

from a pond over which I will make shade,

so that you shall make another soul, who hungers, envious.


But if you lead me towards death in this manner

you will not find a place in the West to rest.


Be patient, my soul, my brother

until my heir comes

who will make offerings

who will stand at the tomb on the day of burial

having prepared the bier in the graveyard.


My soul opened its mouth to me,

to answer what I had said:

If you think of burial, it is heartbreak

It is the bringing of tears, it is making a man sad

It is taking a man out of his house

so that he is left on the hillside

He will never see the sun again.


Those who build in granite

who erected halls in excellent tombs of excellent construction

—when the builders have become gods

their offering-stones are desolate

as if they were the dead

who died on the riverbank for lack of an heir.


The flood takes its toll, the sun also

The fish at the water’s edge talk to them

Listen to me

It is good for people to listen

Follow the feast day, forget worry and care.


A man ploughed his plot

He loaded his harvest into a boat

He towed the freight

As his feast day approached

he saw the darkness of the north wind rising

As the night came on, the boat foundered

with his wife and children therein

in crocodile haunted waters.


When he saw what happened

he sat down and he said:

I do not weep for that mother

for whom there is no coming forth from the West

for another time­ on earth

I weep for her unborn children

broken in the egg

who saw the face of the Crocodile

before they had lived.


A man asked for his dinner in the afternoon

His wife said: That’s for later!

He went grumbling out of the house

When he came back in

he was like someone else

His wife implored him

but he would not listen to her

He was heedless, he dishonoured the household.


Part Three

I opened my mouth to my soul

to answer what it had said:



Let my name stink

worse than the smell of bird droppings

on summer days when the sky burns


Let my name stink

worse than a catch of fish

on days when the sky burns


Let my name stink

worse than ducks smell

worse than reed beds full of water fowl


Let my name stink

worse than fishermen smell

in stagnant marsh-pools where they fish


Let my name stink

worse than crocodiles smell

worse than a muddy bank where crocodiles lie and shit


Let my name stink

worse than that of a wife

about whom lies are told to her husband


Let my name stink

worse than that of a sturdy boy

who belongs to someone who disowns him


Let my name stink

worse than a king’s town

which plots treachery behind his back.



Who shall I talk to today?

Brothers are mean

friends I once had don’t love me anymore


Who shall I talk to today?

Hearts are greedy

everyone robs his neighbour


Who shall I talk to today?

Kindness has perished

insolence assaults everyone


Who shall I talk to today?

People are content to do evil

while goodness is cast on the ground


Who shall I talk to today?

He who should enrage men with his crimes

—everyone laughs at his daring


Who shall I talk to today?

Men plunder;

they seize their neighbour’s goods


Who shall I talk to today?

The reprobate is honoured

while the brother with whom I worked is now an enemy.


Who shall I talk to today?

No one remembers the past;

no one helps the one who helped them before


Who shall I talk to today?

My fellows are evil;

one has to ask strangers for affection


Who shall I talk to today?

Faces are blank

everyone turns away


Who shall I talk to today?

Hearts are greedy;

no-one can be trusted


Who shall I talk to today?

There are no righteous men;

the land belongs to those who do wrong


Who shall I talk to today?

I have no friends;

I complain uselessly to strangers


Who shall I talk to today?

No one is happy;

the one I used to walk and talk with is gone


Who shall I talk to today?

I am burdened with grief

for lack of a friend


Who shall I talk to today?

Error is everywhere

and there is no end to it.



Death is before me today

like a sick man’s recovery

like freedom after being locked up


Death is before me today

like the fragrance of myrrh

like sitting beneath a canopy on a windy day


Death is before me today

like the fragrance of lotus

like reclining on the shore of drunkenness


Death is before me today

like a well-trodden road

or a man coming home from war


Death is before me today

like a rainy sky clearing

like a man remembering something he had forgotten


Death is before me today

like a longing for home

after years spent in slavery.



Truly, he who is yonder is the living god

punishing the criminal’s transgressions


Truly, he who is yonder will stand on the ship of the sun

and cause richness to flow into the temples


Truly, he who is yonder is a wise man

and will be heard by Ra when he speaks.


Part Four

What my soul said to me:

Now throw your complaining

on the woodpile

my comrade, my brother


Whether you offer yourself up on the brazier

whether you bear down on life

as you say you will

love me here when you have set aside the West!


But when you attain the West

when your body joins the earth

after you have become weary

I shall alight

and then we shall dwell together again!



It is finished

from beginning to end

as it was found in the writing.

adapted from a ms from the 12th Dynasty, in Ancient Egyptian Literature; vol. 1: The Old & Middle Kingdoms; ed. Miriam Lictheim; UCP, 1975
image: Min receiving the Eye of Horus, Temple of Hathor, Deir-el-Medina, near Thebes
the soul addressed is the Ba

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Another damnable book


There are people who say that the way to decide if you want to read a particular book is to scan the first paragraph and then the last. So here they are – not a book yet, just a manuscript:


It was drizzling as I came out of Baker Street Station onto Marylebone Road. Black and white movie footage, c. 1912, played in my head. Same historic city. Same hectic surge of Hansom cabs down towards the West End—though now they are 4WDs—same omnibuses and ambulances, same headlines of impending doom. The same beggars at the gate, with their ancient eyes turned pleadingly away from, or towards, an eternity of need. The fellow I asked the way to Gloucester Place attuned his reply to a register halfway between the importunate and the insubordinate: in case I should turn out to be someone. I said I was nobody; and with the equivocal grace so given went the way he pointed, west towards Westminster.


There was a blind singer who sat in the street outside the courtyard where she worked and we listened to him too. It was different and the same; instead of a loom he had beneath his fingers the strings of a lyre. An old tortoise shell sounding board, skin-covered, with seven gut strings stretched up to the cross-piece between the arms. A splintery wooden bridge that reverberated in the thrum he made as he strummed; when he picked out a melody, it made a weave with his words. It was the same thing—weft and warp, words and music. He played hard and fast and his words were chanted in a high-pitched strenuous stream that made it difficult to distinguish one from the other or parts from the whole. In time I learned the way to hear him was to listen to the lines, for the shape of the lines. What happened then is the lines entering my ears came to my mind like things entire unto themselves. The whisper of the shuttle, the hand upon the strings, the dyed threads unthreading from their spools above the loom, my mother’s singing, the voice in the street outside that court of dusty feet—all these disparate things came together in the lines. And with the lines, or really by means of the lines, the hexameters, the stories began to tell themselves. These were the old stories too: but what stories were they? Kings and queens, battles and feasts, loves and deaths. The gods and their betrayals, men and women in their fidelity and their infidelity, their grandeur and their shame, their splendour and their spite. The accidents of fate, which are not accidents at all. And the ordinary: the caring for animals, the making of cheese, the growing of crops; olive and vine and wheat; food and drink, music and dance. The natural world, all about us, like a shroud.

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