The Rogue Question Mark

thomasjwiseOver the last twelve months or so I’ve read, or re-read, near the entirety of Joseph Conrad’s fiction and a fair bit of his (much less extensive) non-fiction. I’ve also read half a dozen biographies and several books of criticism, of which Albert J Guerard’s Conrad the Novelist (1958) and Edward Said’s Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966) (both more than fifty years old now) are probably the best. At present I’m halfway through a very short bio (Brief Lives : Joseph Conrad, by Gavin Griffiths) and almost at the end of a very long one (Joseph Conrad : The Three Lives, by Frederick R Karl). The Griffiths book is not just banal and perfunctory, it is full of preposterous errors, like getting the names of Conrad’s ships wrong; the Karl is somehow majestic and empty at the same time. He has a rather small set of guiding ideas which he applies, repetitiously and at great length, to a variety of circumstances; unfortunately, I ceased to believe in the explanatory power of these ideas around about the time his account of Conrad’s sea years ends. Nevertheless, I’m still reading, because you never know what you might find even in the most redundant account. And so it proves. One of the fascinations of Conrad’s life is its always shaky economic basis. He was a sailor for twenty years but sailors were not well paid and, anyway, he spent as much time ashore as at sea; and they weren’t paid at all while ashore. In all of that time, he continued to receive an allowance from his uncle and guardian, his mother’s brother, Tadeusz Bobrowski; whose death, in the mid-1890s, coincided, not just with the end of Conrad’s sea-faring, but with the inception of his literary career too: with the publication, in 1895, of Almayer’s Folly. There was an inheritance which he somehow contrived to lose: Conrad was always extravagant with money and inclined towards speculations which, almost invariably, turned into disasters. For the rest of his life, then, he was dependent upon whatever income he could derive from writing; what he could beg or borrow from friends; or receive as grants from the state. He was in desperate straits for much of the two decades during which he wrote what most people consider his major works; and it was only with the commercial success of Chance (1913) that his situation eased. Through those years he received grants, advances, serialisation rights, royalties and such like, and many private loans, notably from his friend John Galsworthy, whom he met on the ship Torrens sailing from Adelaide in the early 1890s (Conrad was Chief Mate, Galsworthy, not yet a writer, a passenger) and who offered unfailing support. Things stabilised somewhat when James Pinker became his agent; Pinker would pay him cash advances based on the number of words of manuscript Conrad sent him, and then attempt to sell them when, when and whenever he could. Oddly enough, in those days, stories in magazines paid more than published books did; and many of Conrad’s shorter tales were written, quite consciously, for magazines. They had their ups and downs but Pinker basically kept Conrad, his household and his career alive and functioning throughout the difficult years. Most of the sales Pinker negotiated involved serialisation and book publication in both the UK and the US; that is, each work might be sold four separate times; and it was from the US, though not via Pinker, that, in time, a new source of income appeared. John Quinn, the New York based Irish-American lawyer and collector, supporter of Yeats, Pound, Eliot et al, investor in the Abbey Theatre, from 1911 onwards began to purchase Conrad’s manuscripts for what were then quite substantial sums of money. Most of these were holographs, some vast; others were typescripts corrected by hand; still others, the serialised versions, which Conrad usually edited extensively for book publication. There were curiosities: the ms of the story Karain, for instance, shipped on the Titanic, went down with the ship. This lucrative, though obviously finite, trade with Quinn continued during the war years; while no agreement was ever signed, it seems to have been understood by both parties, at least for a while, as an exclusive arrangement. Nevertheless, after the war, Conrad, without telling Quinn, began selling material to another collector, a man by the name of Thomas James Wise. Wise was a distinguished bibliographer and bibliophile, a poet in his youth, a friend of eminent literary men such as Robert Browning and Edmund Gosse; and the owner of one of the best private libraries – the Ashley – ever gathered in England. It is now in the British Museum. He would, in 1921, in a private printing of 170 copies, produce a bibliography of Joseph Conrad’s work which is now itself a collector’s item. He paid bigger money than Quinn did and he was also nearer at hand. For a while, Conrad prevaricated, suggesting to Quinn that he had all the holographs, while Wise was only getting typescripts or corrected typescripts (in his later years Conrad dictated more than he wrote); but the fact is he had, as it were, changed horses. Quinn was miffed; Conrad, even more miffed, when Quinn, making an astounding profit, sold his manuscript collection in 1924. The two never met, apparently because Conrad, on his only visit to the US, in 1923, avoided doing so. He did meet Thomas Wise: he came for lunch at Oswalds, the Conrads’ house in Kent, one day in 1920; but he was never to know that Wise was both a forger and thief. His thefts were mostly leaves from copies of Elizabethan, Jacobean or Restoration era plays; if he came across a defective copy, he would excise the missing sheets from intact copies in the British Museum and re-insert them into his own; which he would then sell, most often to a wealthy Texan collector called John Henry Wrenn. His forgeries were something else. As a young man he became involved in the then fashionable practice literary societies (eg the Shelley Society) followed, of re-printing pamphlets of the works of the writers they admired for circulation amongst themselves. These generally appeared with the original title pages, copyright information etc., included. At some point Wise, with his long time collaborator, Harry Buxton Forman, had the bright idea of printing pamphlets purporting to be originals, not copies. They would be dated before the original work had first appeared and authenticated largely through Wise’s own voluminous and apparently authoritative bibliographical writings. The most famous of these was a version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese allegedly printed in Reading in 1847, three years before their official publication in 1850. Wise and Forman used a reputable printer, Richard Clay and Sons, of London and Bungay, for their forgeries and the supposition is that they must have had an ally within the firm; this person has remained unknown. The means by which Clay and Sons were tracked down are fascinating in themselves, involving as they do an unkerned ‘f ‘, an unkerned ‘j’; and a rogue question mark which had somehow infiltrated the letters of a font, where it had no business to be. Wise wasn’t exposed until 1932, eight years after Conrad’s death in 1924. Of his nearly 300 private printings of English authors, at least a sixth, and maybe as many as a third, are forgeries. In addition, it is estimated that he stole around 200 leaves of plays from the British Musuem. In a nice irony, some of those stolen leaves are now back in the institution from which they were taken, albeit within other covers. In a further irony, Wise’s forgeries, as you might expect, are now collector’s items themselves. But to return briefly to Conrad, and the economics of his production: his sales of manuscripts to Quinn were retrospective and, you might say, authentic: the items represented honest labour accomplished for the purpose of literary publication; but the things that Wise was buying can seem, if not tainted in themselves, then perhaps ephemeral. By about 1919, anything Conrad had written was worthy of sale, even a preface for a schoolbook, say, or the text of a cable sent to the Polish government. Or a scenario for a film which would never be made. Like Picasso later on, he could sell a piece of blank paper with his signature upon it. On the other hand, why not? As his income grew, so did his expenditure; and the dozens of operations his wife Jessie had to have upon a knee injured in a fall on an icy London street twenty years before, were a constant drain on his finances. There were also the fast cars he liked to buy and drive. One of the things I find least sympathetic about Conrad’s biographers (and they all, to a greater or lesser extent, seem to share this fault) is the tendency they have to scold him. He should have been more careful with money. He should have complained less. He should have written better (!) He shouldn’t have . . . I’m not sure where this punitive impulse comes from; I don’t know why biographers feel impelled to shake an admonitory finger at their subject: is there anything more futile than taking the dead to task for things they did or did not do? I sometimes wonder if a degree of humourlessness is a requirement in those who write literary biography. And, perhaps, an inability to tolerate ambiguity. Conrad is magnificently ambiguous; and, in my view, a considerable humorist too—never mind that his humour is generally of the biting, or bitter, kind. So perhaps that rogue question mark should stand beside the biographers’ own efforts, or attitudes; not next to the life they have chosen, under no compulsion whatsoever, to tell. From which, further, and finally, I suspect I may be reaching the end of my Conrad biography reading phase.


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Francis Pound 1948-2017


I was in a hotel room in Melbourne when I googled Francis Pound—to see if any obituaries for him had turned up online yet. None had; but his death notice from the New Zealand Herald was there. His parents were Kevin and Hilary—I knew that already. He had one sister and six brothers: John, Mary, Brian, Thomas, Patrick, Simon and Nicholas. And his full name was Francis Newport Pound. I didn’t know that. Though he was often referred to as Frank Pound, I always called him Francis; and I’d never heard the Newport before. It set up a reverberation in my mind, so I googled Francis Newport next; and there, on the Wikipedia page devoted to the 1st Earl of Bradford, found this:

You need not tell me there is no God for I know there is one, and that I am in his presence! You need not tell me there is no hell. I feel myself already slipping. Wretches, cease your idle talk about there being hope for me! I know I am lost forever! Oh, that fire! Oh, that I could lie for a thousand years upon the fire that is never quenched, to purchase the favour of God and be united to Him again. But it is a fruitless wish. Millions and millions of years will bring me no nearer the end of my torments than one poor hour. Oh, eternity, eternity forever and forever! Oh, the insufferable pangs of Hell!

There’s quite a lot more in this vein, useful for Christians of all persuasions because Newport was a celebrated atheist and a member of the Infidel’s Club, who (allegedly) gave forth this oration on his deathbed, in 1708, at the ripe old age of 88. But what intrigued me was how much this has the accent of Francis himself, the one I knew, in full flight. The love of over-statement, and the mockery implicit within it; a genuine apprehension of the devouring fires of hell along with an educated doubt that such things could ever be comprehended, let alone represented; the embrace of vehemence and, along with that, the sheer pleasure to be had in articulating an extreme position until the very last—all are characteristic.

I would have loved to have discussed this with Francis: a lapsed Catholic and (I presume) an atheist. I would have loved to have heard him deliver that wonderful, mad speech in full rhetorical splendour: he would have done it magnificently. I can imagine his perverse, delighted commentary upon it as well. I also wonder what he thought his parents’ intent had been in giving him the name of that ancient reprobate, recidivist and (much elapsed) repentant. In other words, now that he is on the other side, I would like to compare notes with him; but I can’t. All I can do is recycle a few memories and one or two observations.

Kevin Pound, like my father, taught at Ruapehu College in Ohakune in the 1950s. I’m not entirely sure but I think he may have been an English teacher; in later years he taught drama at Auckland Teachers College. I remember him only dimly: a portly, emphatic man with his small round wife beside him. She, Hilary, was, I think, or became, an oral historian. They lived up on Old Station Road and their children went to the Convent, as all the local Catholic kids did, so I didn’t know them from Primary School; but sometimes on weekends there were family visits. I remember an abrasive child, with many brothers. My sisters feared those knobbly boys with their rough ways; particularly, they said, Francis, because he was cruel to them: hair pulling, perhaps, or pinching. He was a figure of some repute, even then. But there is also the extreme Catholic-Protestant antagonism of that time and place to factor in. It might be pertinent to recall that Ohakune Maori were mostly (if they had been converted) Catholic. They had been evangelised by the French.

Later the Pounds moved to Hamilton, where Kevin taught at Fairfield College and Francis went to Hamilton Boys High School. There, in 1964, a famous Hamlet was staged. Cinematographer Leon Narbey was the ghost of Hamlet’s father; Derek Gordon was Hamlet; Alan Brunton, the Player King; Chris Thompson, the folksinger from hell, a gravedigger; and Francis played Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. He caused controversy by pinning up on a wall somewhere in the school a cartoon of boys going through their education as through a sausage machine and almost lost his part in the production; until the Director advised the Headmaster that, without Francis’ Gertrude, there could be no play.

Of course I didn’t find out any of this until much later, when I went up to Auckland in 1970 to go to university. Francis, who was four years older than I am, had lived in a famous flat in Parnell with Leon Narbey, and with Philip Dadson downstairs. I knew Phil from the Scratch Orchestra, which I joined in 1971 or 2; I would later write films with Leon. Francis was in those days a painter and he is said to have lived for a time in an entirely black room: walls, ceiling, floor, furniture, fabrics, accoutrements. Black paintings. But when I asked Leon about this, he didn’t remember. It might have been one of those rumours that thrive in an oral culture and are inflated, by degrees, as they are given on from mouth to ear.


I didn’t get to know Francis until, in mid-1972, I moved into a room in the house at 56 Grafton Road, Grafton, where he lived with his then girlfriend, Sue Reid—and various others. Camilla During, now Camilla Dadson, lived downstairs. So did a fellow called Peter Bradley, who was reclusive and more or less silent and who had, in his room, a wardrobe at the top of which a knot of possums slept curled up together during the day. At night they went out to sport in the trees that ran down the back of the garden towards the Auckland Domain.

There were others who may not have been resident but were often there. Ivan Hurrell, for instance, a poet who claimed to have written The Waste Land of the 21st century and his improbable girlfriend, Betty-Anne, who had cascades a red-gold hair and looked like a country music singer; whereas Ivan was small and dark, with a soul patch and a mean streak. Ivan went to England to present himself there as the saviour of poetry; years later I saw a disparaging mention of him in the literary pages of a London paper.

There was another fellow, Maori Keith, who often showed up at night and slept on the window seat in the main room; he would lie awake with a match in one hand and the match-box in the other, waiting for the mosquitoes to zoom in; if he got it right, and sometimes he did, the flare of the struck match incinerated their wings. If he didn’t, he would curse softly. And take out another match. There was a woman too, whose name I can’t recall, as vagrant as Keith, who could, like him, always find a bed at #56. She and Ivan had some bent thing going on together.

Sue Reid was a sweet-natured, lissom and gentle woman with a fondness for straw hats and cotton print frocks that came down to mid-calf. She held informal Maori classes on a Tuesday night and that was how I first became acquainted with te reo. Her sister, Helen, lived in the country with an Englishman called Colin and they were frequent visitors. As were the painter and print-maker, Stanley Palmer, and his two children, Anna and Matthew. Stanley had lost his wife, to cancer I believe, and still seemed bereft. His children, and especially Anna, the elder, looked after him, making the simple practical decisions he could not seem to resolve—even though they were both pre-adolescent. Stanley was fond of Sue, and worried about her; Francis remained abrasive and unpredictable and had a way of channelling, or perhaps of attracting, violence.

There was, for instance, Harry Davis, a handsome Maori man engaged in the process of ruining himself with alcohol and drugs. He was an habitué of the Kiwi Hotel on Symonds Street where we all drank on a Friday night—and sometimes on other nights too. If Harry was there, and often he was, after a few drinks Francis would go up to him and begin to taunt him. Harry would look at him with relish, in gleeful anticipation of what was to come. I can’t recall the nature of Francis’ insults, only that they would always have the desired result. They would go outside to sort it out and there Francis, who didn’t know how to fight, would get his face smashed in. I remember him weeping on the footpath outside the bottle shop, with his glasses broken in his hands, while a group of men pulled Harry away.

This didn’t happen just once; it happened every time the two of them were in the bar together. I remember one night Sue, having seen that Harry was there, imploring Francis to go home; but he would not. It was a peculiar form of masochism, perhaps; or of courage. There was something in Harry that offended Francis; and something in Francis that Harry despised; and so it went. Francis was in fact enamoured of violence, as his later physical confrontation with rival critic Garth Cartwright showed; but he had no talent for it and thus it seemed his endeavours in that sphere were always surplus to requirements.

His violence showed itself in other ways. Once, for reasons I have forgotten or never knew, he left a dress of Sue’s laid out on their bed with a knife stabbed through the back; I still remember her tears. Another time, when I said I was leaving (to go to live in the country) and had bought a second hand table to write at, Francis chopped it up with an axe. It was an ugly table and I was pleased to see the end of it—especially since Stanley Palmer had, out of the goodness of his heart, already given me another, a very beautiful kauri table at which I wrote for many years. Francis’ violence was somehow, as I have said, masochistic; it was theatrical and hysterical and aimed as much at himself as at others. I was never afraid of him.

It was somehow connected to his art. In the time I knew him well, in 1972 and 3, he was still painting. They were geometric abstractions based upon cloud forms, in blue and white and gold; but they also had to do with Piero della Francesca and in particular with his Baptism of Christ from, probably, 1460. Light falls refulgent from the sky in which clouds appear; the dove above the Christ figure’s head itself resembles a cloud; and Francis’ paintings remembered both clouds and doves and, inter alia, the pure grace which may descend upon us from above. I wouldn’t say he struggled with these paintings; but they never satisfied him. And the violence to which he was prone seemed to have something to do with that dissatisfaction—which is probably too pale a word. It was more like the rage we feel when we cannot make the world go the way we want it to.


I remember Francis talking about Piero della Francesco better than I remember the paintings he derived from his study of the master. He was the first truly committed intellectual I met—for him ideas were tangible, contestable and of supreme importance. And he was powerfully well-read too. His other enthusiasm at the time was for the American poet, his namesake, Ezra Pound, whom I was also reading. I remember Francis, who was in the habit of walking around the house wearing just a T shirt, with his uncircumcised penis pointing out in front of him as he discoursed upon the beauties of The Pisan Cantos. He was, in that sense, utterly unselfconscious.

He must have stopped painting soon after those years had passed; but his enthusiasm and energy and commitment to ideas remained and he applied them, with rigour and purpose, to the study of New Zealand art history in a way that, as he boasted in the 1980s, would change that history forever. I benefited enormously from the conversations (they were mostly monologues) I had with him. His opinions were startlingly vehement and he could back them up, too. Sometimes I’d feel challenged, even upset, by things he said; and then I’d look at him and see, behind his glasses, his eyes, owlish, with a kindly twinkle in them. He used to say to me: Stern young man! Stern young man! at a time when I was certainly young but unaware of anything so exalted as sternness in my character. It’s funny how these things go; Francis freed me in a number of ways, purely by example, I suppose.

So I did move out in February or March but, near the end of that year, 1973, after a disastrous spell in the country, moved back in again. This time I lived downstairs, in Camilla’s old room—beautiful, with sliding doors out onto a deck which was itself amidst the branches of trees. Alas, I was all messed up, with booze and drugs and a crippling insecurity and I remember very little about the time I spent there then. Before too long I left again, this time for Wellington, where I found, serendipitously, the trajectory I am still on. But that’s another story.

My encounters with Francis in later life were random and infrequent. I remember bumping into him in Cuba Street in Wellington one day in the 1980s, when I was over from Sydney and he down from Auckland. We spent the afternoon drinking beer in one of those sparse and brutal public bars that seem to have disappeared from the world now. You would always end up with strangers at your table; I remember a Maori fellow we met, the master of an arcane martial art, showing me how he could, if he wished, kill me merely by applying pressure to a spot on my neck; while Francis laughed his wheezy laugh across the table. Harry Davis was dead by then.

I think we were both finalists at the Montana Book Awards in Christchurch in 2000. I for The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, he for his Stories We Tell Ourselves : The Paintings of Richard Killeen. Someone afterwards said to me that Francis was gutted that he didn’t win; I felt the same way (we were in different categories); but I don’t recall commiserating with him. I was in Auckland for the best part of a year in 2004 and while there went along to the opening of Walters en abyme, the exhibition Francis curated at the Gus Fisher Gallery. I bought a copy of the elegant hardback which accompanied the show and find that, on the flyleaf, he has written, in his sparse hand: From Francis to Martin.

I have a favourite passage in Walters en abyme: I remember the day I discovered infinity. I was a child, perhaps seven years old, in Ohakune, when I happened to glance up at a billboard for Bycrofts’ biscuits. It showed a giant and maniacally grinning boy holding a tin by Bycrofts, on which tin was pictured the same boy, identical down to each crease in his shirt and shorts, holding a tin of Bycrofts’ biscuits, on which tin . . . I experienced an instant vertigo: I felt, instinctively, that this was a dangerous and hardly bearable sight. Francis would, for the rest of his life, confront the dangerous and the hardly bearable, mainly in the visual arts and in the world of ideas.


Francis was a fine writer, erudite, witty, zealous and surprising. He had a way of discovering, and emphasising, points of view no-one else had thought to articulate before. He was fearless and one who went into things in alarming depth, finding more and more to say about subjects others might pass over in silence or with a cursory sentence or two. This is probably why his magnum opus, also on Gordon Walters, has not yet appeared. Let us hope it is in a form that may yet be edited for publication.

I visited him, in the company of a mutual friend, one day in 2004 at his house in Picton Street. Francis wasn’t well. He was sitting in the sunroom with a rug around his knees; the formerly degenerate, now gentrified, streets and houses of Freemans Bay fell away towards the sea below us. Despite his illness (was it his liver?) the energy and fierceness of his intellect, the vehemence of his conversation, the range and depth of his reference, were undiminished. I remember telling him I had had a falling out with Julian Dashper—an artist whose work he admired—and Francis declining to comment. We mostly talk to each other about our wives, he said. There was a kindness in him that grew with the years, and that’s what I remember best about him.

I learned that Francis had gone from an oblique post by David Eggleton on his Facebook page. I think it is worth quoting at length. It’s Francis writing about Ralph Hotere in the Listener in 2013:

When I think of Hotere, I think first of his voice, to my mind the most beautiful of all speaking voices. It has always seemed to me more beautiful even than the Irish voice of Patrick Magee uttering Samuel Beckett’s late texts—his sparest, bleakest and most liable to induce in the reader a sudden flood of unexpected tears—and more beautiful even than the well-schooled, perfectly modulated instruments of the great actors of the English stage. I do not mean Hotere’s voice was in any way ‘posh’. It seemed to me it was the New Zealand voice brought—quite unconsciously—to perfection. I will not attempt to describe it, but certainly the Maori rhythm and vowels of its English enriched it, and many years of inhaling the smoke of roll-your-owns, and exhaling that smoke as spectral sculptures in the turning air. It was this long-held feeling for Hotere’s voice that made me suggest he should be asked if he would sing the waiata Te Tangi o te Pipiwhararua (Song of the Shining Cuckoo) for the documentary film on Colin McCahon, Victory Over Death. Hotere had learned that lament from his father, and had given its words to McCahon to inscribe on a fine painting of the same name. The lament tells of the soul of one recently dead, which, in the form of a shining cuckoo, is in arduous flight along Ninety Mile Beach towards the place of the leap of the dead from the cliffs of Te Reinga. Hotere kindly accepted this task. He intones his lament as the camera floats along the emptiness of Ninety Mile Beach in ineffable light. The affect is almost unbearably moving. This has always been my favourite moment in the film, perhaps in any film.

This is from some kind of obituary for Ralph; it is appropriate that it appears here, in some kind of obituary for Francis. I think you may hear in those words Francis’ generosity, his insight, his understanding, particularly his visual understanding, his extreme emotional reactivity and, yes, his kindness, too; which was based, in the end, upon his own experiences of suffering and joy; out of which, in exemplary fashion, he was able to empathise with the joys and the sufferings of others.



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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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