From the Mars Hotel


One day in 1976 I went down to clear mailbox #214 at the Central PO in Wellington. There was a brown manila envelope in amongst the day’s takings and in it were six photographic prints – reproduced above. I wonder now what happened to those prints. Probably we had bromides done and sent them back to the artist by return post. The series was called ‘From the Mars Hotel’, which is the title of a Grateful Dead record. But perhaps the photographer, Peter Peryer, did not derive that title from listening to the album but from a graffito written upon the derelict building he photographed for #5 in the series. Anyway, we did not know who Peter Peryer was or where he came from or what he was up to – but we did publish the portfolio in the next issue of Spleen, #7, early in 1977. Each image had its own page and there was no commentary, no words. The reproductions were a bit grainy because we had had to switch printers, from the Levin Chronicle to the Wanganui Chronicle – Levin had taken offense at certain explicities in a poem/play written by Christina Beer – and Wanganui used paper that was browner, less bleached, than the whiter sheets of the Levin printers. None of this matters now, it is of historical interest only. But still. I remember how, when the decision came to be made, we all went yes, absolutely, no question, we will publish. I also remember Alan (Brunton) saying to Arthur (Baysting) that there was one really good photo in the set and which was it? Arthur said #4, the caravan; at the time I agreed but now am not so sure. I think they’re all good and #4 just sounded the paranoid 1977 chord better. Anyway, a few years later, I ran into Peter in Kings Cross in Sydney. Early 1980s. How did I know who he was? How did he know me? I was a bit forward in engaging. Perhaps I thought that, because ‘we’ had published ‘Mars Hotel’, he should therefore be ‘Grateful’? I don’t know. He was gracious and kind and before he died let me know he liked my sentences. For a prose writer there is no higher praise. There’s people you love because you love their work; but that doesn’t mean they’re loveable; or, even if they are, that they may love you back. But Peter was loving and loved and loveable in equal measure; all three; which sounds a bit Shakesperean. I keep looking at his work because of the way the images he gives you give you a way of resetting the way you already see into another way of seeing. He does that. He did that. He does that still.


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When I was in New Zealand a couple of weeks ago I recorded five scripts for radio. Each was (about) 1900 words long and I adapted them, sequentially, from a small book called Barefoot Years (2014). The same text, with sequels, appears in The Dreaming Land (2015). We recorded all five between 9.00 am and 1.00 pm on a wet Tuesday in the Wellington studios up on The Terrace. (Actually we recorded the first one twice, at the beginning and again at the end.) It was a relaxed and enjoyable session and I’m grateful to the producer, Duncan, and the engineer, Adam, for making it such a pleasure to do.

Afterwards I was talking to Duncan and he told me how he’d once been back to the house where he grew up, in Hamilton, and was struck by how much smaller it seemed than he remembered it to be. I’d written at length in Barefoot Years about our old house in Burns Street, Ohakune but, in answer to Duncan’s question, I had to say, no, I’d never been inside again, not since we left town in January 1962. So I didn’t know how that might feel. Whether it was bigger or smaller or just the same.

A couple of days later, on Thursday, I was in Ohakune and driving past the very house—as I always do on my returns to that town. There was a furniture truck backed up outside, a couple of blokes unloading, and a 4WD parked on the road. I stopped. An older man came over to see what I wanted. His name was Ken, he was from Masterton and, he told me, his son and daughter-in-law had recently bought the house and were intending to restore it ‘to original condition’. When I said I grew up here he became quite excited. He’d been back to the Deeds but still hadn’t been able to ascertain the way the house had been before alterations had been made upon it. Would I do him a favour? Would I come in and tell him how it was when I’d been here?

Well. Yes. I would. Of course. But what a strange experience. First of all, it did not seem smaller, it seemed the same size as it had been half a century before. The sitting room on the left, my old bedroom, which I shared with two of my younger sisters, on the right. Same size. Down the hallway, with the old kitchen on the left (no longer a kitchen) and the second sitting room, which we called the veranda room, on the right. You went along an outside veranda to the room, surely an add-on, where my other three sisters (two older, one younger) slept beneath windows of green, rippled, riverine glass. Still there. That veranda had been clumsily altered, closed in, so you no longer had to brave the howling winds or rain and snow when you went to bed.

The back of the house was more or less unrecognisable. The pantry off the kitchen, gone, the passage that led to the back door, gone, the wash house, gone. Ken, who was noting everything I said, was scathing—about the quality of ‘renovations’. They were, even I could see, shoddy. Someone had the bright idea of turning it into a Ski Lodge so the additions were ‘leisure spaces’ in which people could ‘hang out’. But walls did not meet ceilings and floors did not align with other floors. I can’t now remember where the replacement kitchen was—if there was one. Well, there must have been. The bathroom was still where it had always been, along a crooked passage that led to what was once our parent’s bedroom—now with a ricketty ensuite.

I’m being very matter of fact. It wasn’t until I stood in the door of the old parental bedroom that the strangeness of the situation really hit me. As a kid I rarely went into that room; and, as an adult, I felt the same interdiction descend. It was as if the intimacy they shared in there persisted. As if their ghosts, too, persisted. And with them, all of the other ghosts: my sisters, our pets, friends and relations, even the childish ghost of myself. They seemed all still to be there, massed, whispering, not malign, largely unconcerned. Going about their business in an everyday kind of way. As if the ghosts and the gone have other lives than ours. Or lives other than ours.

I knew the section had been subdivided. Out the back, where there’d been an overgrown asphalt tennis court, a car garage, the tray of a flatbed truck, many bearing fruit trees, the vegetable garden, the chook run, the berry patch, the woodshed, the coal shed, the palm shed, the tank stand and what else I’m not going to list—just a stark oblong square of green lawn with a wooden fence behind. There’s another, or perhaps two, cottages on what used to be a wild domain of long grass going down, past a macrocarpa hedge, to the Mangawhero River.

I’m not here to write an essay in nostalgia. I have the whole place, house (built 1910), garden, street and so forth intact in memory (with all its falsifications) anyway and I know it’s gone forever from the real world. This was different. This was about the persistence of presence, to coin a phrase. This was an experience of continuity that made me doubt the autocracy of time. Two things I took away may elucidate what is, in truth, ineluctable.

One is the floor: wide tongue-in-groove planks of maire or matai, of a colour that was somewhere between pink and yellow, and which, hard as it is, rose up towards me with a suggestion of home. I could still feel it beneath my bare soles when I woke up in the night and padded down the echoing hallway to my parent’s bedroom to tell them I could not sleep because I had hot feet. The other is the ceilings, especially in the sitting room and in my old bedroom: white, pressed metal perhaps or painted moulded timber. They too spoke to me: we are the sky under which you grew, they said; we are your clouds and your dreams.


image : surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, taken by a camera on Philae, the lander module of the Rosetta probe, c. 2014



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Family Notes – for K


Mum’s side

William Price, Fanny’s father, was born at Stockton-on-Tees in Yorkshire on 12 August, 1864. Third child of William and Alice Price (née Richlieu). When he was four his father was killed in an accident; his mother remarried one John Brenkley and they had three more children before emigrating from London to New Zealand in December, 1876. As a child William worked carrying lunches to a brickyard for wages.

The Brenkley family arrived in Napier on the Fernglen in 1877; William was 14 years old and travelled under his step-father’s name. Boys over the age of 12 lived separately on the ships in those days. The family stayed briefly at the military barracks before travelling down to Waipukurau to take up work on the farm (‘station’) of a man called Harding. William was a farmer for most of his life but, at the time of his marriage, aged 20, he was a butcher with his own shop in Ormondville.

His wife Clara Price (née Lister) was born in London on 27 October, 1867, the only child of Albert and Clara Lister (née Burtt). Her mother died when she was two and her father remarried and had three more children with his second wife, Harriet, before the family came out on the Halcione in 1874, also to Hawkes Bay. Clara was then seven years old; she lived at home until Harriet died in 1880, after which she ran the household (there were more NZ born kids) until, aged 17, she married William Price, in 1884, at Waipukurau. She was then living in Waipawa.

Her father subsequently remarried and had even more children with his third wife. On his first marriage certificate Albert Lister is described as a piano-forte maker; in New Zealand he worked as steel plate engraver in the printing trade; but for the voyage out he called himself a wood-turner because in those days there were preferred trades for migrants; and this was one of them.

Both William and Clara were thus Assisted Migrants. They had 12 children and she died, worn out, aged 54, near Hastings in 1921; he lived on until 1944. In the photos (they are just photocopies) Clara bears a startling resemblance to sister Virginia—although I suppose that should really be the other way round. Fanny remembered, at the farm in Ormondville, having to go out to help her father climb over the stile and support him into the house when he came home drunk (on horseback) after a visit to town; he’d lie out there roaring until someone came to the rescue. Her horror of alcohol seems to have stemmed from that. He may have molested her, and her sisters, too.

Fanny was the sixth child, born 23 October, 1896; and died 12 January, 1967. (We were camping up north and had to cut our holiday short.) She was a primary school teacher—there’s that photo of her with a class of mostly Maori kids in a ‘native’ school up Gisborne way—and married Lewis Herbert Scott (11 May 1894 – 17 October, 1953). Probably in 1920 or 21—Clive, their eldest, was born in 1922. Lauris, b. 1924, was, like Dad, the second child.

Lewis was a house painter and for many years had a contract with NZ Railways to paint railway stations. He died of bowel cancer and I’ve heard it said that the lead in the paint might have been a factor. Both he and Fanny were diet-obsessed and more than a little eccentric. Social Credit, Colour Therapy, Compost etc. I’ve also heard that Lewis owned a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and thought that they were genuine, not the anti-Semitic forgery they actually are.

Alas, I know nothing more about Lewis Scott—an enigma. Lauris was fond of him and always said what a sweet and decent man he was. He must have been, to put up with Fanny! Though in fact they seem to have loved each other. Maybe her crankiness was a result of his early death? And then her younger son John’s, just a few years later.

Dad’s side

The Edmonds allegedly come from a place called Cupar in Scotland. It’s north and west of Edinburgh, in Fife, on the way out to St Andrews. Lowland Scots. Uncle Don relates that there is / was a window in the town with the name ‘James Edmond : Glazier’ inscribed on the glass.

James Edmond (another one) was born in 1849 in Stirlingshire; his father William was ‘a gardener and labourer’ and ‘could read and write’; his mother Margaret (née Hutchinson) was a dressmaker. They came out from Liverpool on the Prompt, arriving in Hobart in 1857; James spent eleven years in Tasmania and the rest of his life in Melbourne, where he worked as a builder. He died in 1929.

His wife Catherine McLeod was from Strahan near Ullapool on Loch Broom in the Highlands of Scotland. Born 1849 so the same age as James. She came out, with her family, on the Sir Allan McNab, also from Liverpool to Hobart, in 1853. The first ship of free settlers after convict transportation to Van Diemens Land ceased. It’s a fascinating story, documented in cousin Rod’s book Migrations—too much detail to go into now but they were part of one of the mass migrations forced by the Clearances, and travelled with another extended family, the McKenzies, with whom they lived in a kind of symbiotic relationship, both in Scotland and in Tasmania. They ended up farming at a place called Winkleigh in West Tamar. I’ve been there—a graveyard full of ancestors.

James and Catherine married in Launceston in 1872 and then moved to Melbourne, where they had thirteen children—the first nine lived, the next three died, and Charlie, Dad’s father, was the thirteenth child, born 29 January, 1890. Catherine died in 1905, just before Christmas, of pulmonary tuberculosis—she must have been, like Clara, worn out with child-bearing. And James Edmond, like William Price, was a boozer and was bankrupted at least once, probably because of his drinking. Consequently there’s an inventory of their household goods (in Rod’s book) which is pretty interesting. It includes a piano. And a cow with a single horn.

After his mother died, Charlie, aged 15, was sent over to live with his eldest sister Margaret (Auntie Maggie) in Herne Bay in Auckland, apparently to get him away from his Dad. He became a lifelong teetotaller, as you probably know. He also lost on eye, because of a childhood illness I believe, and had a glass one which he kept in a tumbler of water by the bed when he was sleeping. Dad said he got the shock of his life the first time he saw his father flick it out of the eye socket with his little finger and drop it into the water.

Elizabeth Ada Ileen Trevarthen, called Ada, Dad’s mother, was of Cornish descent but born in Auckland on 24 February, 1884. The sixth of nine children. She was like Dad—dark-skinned, black-haired, brown-eyed and, I always thought, a bit spooky. The family was from near Truro and there is a Coat of Arms! ‘Argent (silver), a Boar passant gules (red), armed or (gold), between three mullets of the second.’ Whatever that means—there is a gloss.

Her father was William Trevarthen and her mother Emma, née Harney; the Harneys were from London. Emma was born there in 1847 and came out to Auckland on the Gertrude in 1863, aged 16. When they landed she heard the guns booming from the war down in the Waikato. She’s also said to have seen the Pink and White Terraces before they were destroyed in 1886.

The Trevarthens came out on the Bolton in 1839, to Wellington, arriving there in 1840; it was a New Zealand Company ship. Their name appears in the manifest as ‘Trevarton’ and the father, William, aged 32, is described as an agricultural labourer. He and his wife Elizabeth already had three children. Most NZ Company labourers were assisted migrants also. Just two months after arriving at Port Nicholson, the family moved to Auckland, where William junior was born in 1850; he died in 1920, the same year Dad was born. He was a carpenter and joiner and most of his sons were builders. He married Emma Harney in Parnell in 1873. She also died in January 1920, within a few weeks of her husband, so Dad would not have known his grandparents on either side of the family.

The Trevarthens lived in Herne Bay; Red Mole used to rehearse in a church hall Ada’s brothers built, St. Stephens Presbyterian, in Jervois Road! Ada’s younger brother Albert died in the Great War. There’s a letter he wrote to his brother Bertram just days before he was killed.

Ada was a music teacher but gave it up after she married Charlie in Auckland in 1915. Gave up playing piano too. Uncle Don, their first born, once showed me some pieces of sheet music that were hers. She died in 1962, with dementia. Charlie predeceased her, a heart attack in a hotel room while on the road in Whangarei in 1959.

They mostly lived in Wellington. Lyall Bay, Seatoun and in that building on Oriental Parade, whose name I always forget. I saw it just last week. He worked for the YMCA, for Todd Motors, was a JP and during the war contemplated standing for Parliament for the National Party; but did not, perhaps because his stammer made public speaking difficult. He was quite stern; but liked practical jokes. He’d kick you in the bum when you weren’t looking. Dad had vestiges of that sense of humour too.

There’s lots more (including letters) but perhaps that’s enough for now!


image : head of Charlie’s walking stick; with inlaid native timbers; a bit chewed by dog Mungo; provenance otherwise unknown

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The crooked palm unsheathes knives that glitter intermittently in the afternoon light of a day that will not appear on any calendar. When the sky lours like this, the wasps stay away. I imagine them folding down their wings in tubes of bamboo or in waxy cells under eaves, recalling an ancestry of ants. The basil turns woody in the stems but, despite rumours of affinity, there’s nothing teak-like there. Somewhere else are men who want their money back; they don’t know who has it and may never do so. An accountant, dressed in leathers, climbs on a black motorcycle and goes looking for stray increments. He will perhaps find them. Limbo is no more, by Papal edict, virtuous pagans and sinless babes cast loose to wander bodiless and forever upon the firmament of waters. Their cries become cloudy miracles that fall as sweet rain. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme flower in or out of season, murmuring remedies. Remember me, they say, to one who lives there. She once was . . . irredeemable, the lost souls, the lost time. Was and will be, two tropic tendrils of a circle that is unbroken yet can never close. A dream without beginning or end: the parade of shopfronts, staggered higgledy-piggledy up one side of a narrow defile. Their antique urns and witches’ spires. Their painted plaster lions. The truck’s engine labours as it crests the rise and goes on towards a delusive rendezvous. In back, the inflatable universe, twelve open steel cubes, a medieval cart, an acrobat’s wheel, seven masks of Anubis and what else is not recorded. The actors are coming from the north, bringing the penny-farthing, a tailor’s dummy, aluminium torches, cotton waste and bottles of kerosene. Their wigs and greasepaint, their tricks and small props. The two convoys are to meet outside the stage door of a municipal theatre in some provincial city where posters for the show are already peeling from the lampposts. The driver puts on whiteface using a crayon, he applies mascara to his lashes, wipes kohl with his index finger across the bruises beneath his tired eyes. Though he cannot remember what part he is to play, or if he has a part to play. His face in the mirror nobody would ever want to see. Unless under lights. Here come the actors in their beat-up cars, a soft-top Buick sedan, a Pontiac V8 station wagon with a leaking petrol tank, a dusty white van full of musicians and gear. There’s a man in a green jacket, wearing a sardonic bowler, harbouring magnificence until it should be required. A slender woman with striped tights and leg warmers, small round glasses, a delicious voice. The fire-eater with flame inside her sleeve. The Strongman and the Marvellous Boy. Bass players, lutanists, drummers, singers; the whole panoply. The Chinese dancer, naked but for spangles and jewels, a fringe at her hips, climbs into the back of the truck. It’s close in there, with the costumes, the moulting velvets and raggedy satins, the disintegrating feather boas, the undertaker’s top hat with dented crown, his high-collared long black coat. Scent of cardamom. Or spikenard. Her pink tongue, strangely forked, slides between her small teeth. She wants cocaine. After the show, the driver says. I’ll give it to you after. The fork in her tongue is lumpy and divides into unequal misshapen parts as, arching her body, without touching him, she brings her mouth close to his ear. Sly insinuation of breath, wisps of pubic hair escaping the fringes of her ceinture, smell of musk, of damson. Now, she urges, I want some now . . . Magnesium flares behind a tin god, a plane takes off for the empyrean. Or is it a dark boat, muffling its oars, crossing the stage? Ashes on the meniscus of the cove? What are those shapes moving before the cyclorama, there in the limelight? A sigh, a hiss like pressure escaping from a valve and then she’s gone, they’re all gone, limbo. Grey light of dawn, a fern frond uncurled in the window and faint music lingering on the air: a true love of mine.

photo by Mayu Kanamori

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My Weekend with Karl


It was about ten years ago, in Hawkes Bay, at the Hastings Writers Festival. I was staying with my sister K in Havelock North and travelling with my then partner, M. We hadn’t been together for long and were still very much enamoured of each other.

Somehow it had fallen to K to pick Karl up from the airport; so M and I went with her. I remember we spent a bit of time at the Iron Pot in Napier afterwards; there are photographs. Both K and I felt some trepidation about meeting Karl, because of his history of antagonism towards our mother; but he was fine.

The opening night was in a vineyard, we were seated four to a table and I recall Peter Wells contacting me before the event asking who else was going to be at our table? He was nervous lest he find himself sitting next to a homophobe, a curmudgeon or a bore. When I said it was Karl, Peter was relieved. Oh, he is a lovely man, he said.

And so he proved. An entertaining conversationalist, witty and well-informed, a good listener too. I would not have brought up the subject of my mother; but, to my surprise, he did. I liked her a lot, he said. She was good fun. You could have a lot of laughs with Lauris. Or words to that effect.

It did occur to me to ask: why then have you always been so hostile towards her in print? But I didn’t. What would have been the point? I already knew the answer. He would have said it wasn’t personal, it was literary. That was the then current high-minded generational excuse for bad behaviour.

The other thing I remember about that weekend was the way Karl was with M. He developed an infatuation for her that was quite remarkable. When she came into the room he would leap up from wherever he was sitting and rush over to her. He was attentive and charming and funny; also completely unselfconscious. It may not have  occurred to him that he was flirting with her.

This charm offensive wasn’t accompanied by any animus towards me that I could detect. Nor consideration either. I was irrelevant to whatever designs he might have had; if indeed he had designs at all. I was unsure; it seemed bizarre; but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a male poet act like that.

M and I laughed about it when we were by ourselves. She didn’t think he was being creepy or inappropriate; rather, that he had come to a proper appreciation of her gifts and her attributes; and her worth as a human being. She might have revised that view if they had ever been alone together; but I don’t think they were.

Now I wonder if this is how he always responds (responded) to attractive women? With this boyish, almost puppy-dog-like enthusiasm? I also wonder at what point the flattery might have been succeeded by something more calculated or resolved?

Further, is this how he acted towards my mother? She was a bit of a flirt too. It was a kind of modus operandi for her. What if they flirted together, for a while, and then some misunderstanding took place between them?

This might explain something that otherwise resists interpretation. Why, nearly twenty years after her death, does the thought of Lauris still rankle so with Karl? Only he would know; but I don’t imagine he is about to say. Or maybe he will.

Image : Roger McDonald, me, Karl Stead; Hastings c. 2010

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How It Strikes A Contemporary



I only knew one poet in my life:
And this, or something like it, was his way.

You saw go up and down Valladolid,
A man of mark, to know next time you saw.
His very serviceable suit of black
Was courtly once and conscientious still,
And many might have worn it, though none did:
The cloak, that somewhat shone and shewed the threads,
Had purpose, and the ruff, significance.
He walked and tapped the pavement with his cane,
Scenting the world, looking it full in face,
An old dog, bald and blindish, at his heels.
They turned up, now, the alley by the church,
That leads no whither; now, they breathed themselves
On the main promenade just at the wrong time.
You’d come upon his scrutinising hat
Making a peaked shade blacker than itself
Against the single window spared some house
Intact yet with its mouldered Moorish work—
Or else surprise the ferrel of his stick
Trying the mortar’s temper ‘tween the chinks
Of some new shop a-building, French and fine.
He stood and watched the cobbler at his trade,
The man who slices lemons into drink,
The coffee-roaster’s brazier, and the boys
That volunteer to help him turn its winch.
He glanced o’er books on stalls with half an eye,
And fly-leaf ballads on the vendor’s string,
And broad-edge bold-print posters by the wall.
He took such cognisance of men and things,
If any beat a horse, you felt he saw;
If any cursed a woman, he took note;
Yet stared at nobody—they stared at him,
And found, less to their pleasure than surprise,
He seemed to know them and expect as much.
So, next time that a neighbour’s tongue was loosed,
It marked the shameful and notorious fact,
We had among us, not so much a spy,
As a recording chief-inquisitor,
The town’s true master if the town but knew!
We merely kept a Governor for form,
While this man walked about and took account
Of all thought, said, and acted, then went home,
And wrote it fully to our Lord the King
Who has an itch to know things, He knows why,
And reads them in his bedroom of a night.
Oh, you might smile! there wanted not a touch,
A tang of . . . well, it was not wholly ease
As back into your mind the man’s look came.
Stricken in years a little—such a brow
His eyes had to live under!—clear as flint
On either side the formidable nose
Curved, cut, and coloured, like an eagle’s claw,
Had he to do with A.’s surprising fate?
When altogether old B. disappeared
And young C. got his mistress, was’t our friend,
His letter to the King, that did it all?
What paid the bloodless man for so much pains?
Our Lord the King has favourites manifold,
And shifts his ministry some once a month;
Our city gets new Governors at whiles—
But never word or sign, that I could hear,
Notified to this man about the streets
The King’s approval of those letters conned
The last thing duly at the dead of night.
Did the man love his office? Frowned our Lord,
Exhorting when none heard—”Beseech me not!
Too far above my people—beneath Me!
I set the watch—how should the people know?
Forget them, keep Me all the more in mind!”
Was some such understanding ‘twixt the Two?

I found no truth in one report at least—
That if you tracked him to his home, down lanes
Beyond the Jewry, and as clean to pace,
You found he ate his supper in a room
Blazing with lights, four Titians on the wall,
And twenty naked girls to change his plate!
Poor man, he lived another kind of life
In that new, stuccoed, third house by the bridge,
Fresh-painted, rather smart than otherwise!
The whole street might o’erlook him as he sat,
Leg crossing leg, one foot on the dog’s back,
Playing a decent cribbage with his maid
(Jacynth, you’re sure her name was) o’er the cheese
And fruit, three red halves of starved winter-pears,
Or treat of radishes in April. Nine,
Ten, struck the church clock, straight to bed went he.

My father, like the man of sense he was,
Would point him out to me a dozen times;
“St—St,” he’d whisper, “the Corregidor!”
I had been used to think that personage
Was one with lacquered breeches, lustrous belt,
And feathers like a forest in his hat,
Who blew a trumpet and proclaimed the news,
Announced the bull-fights, gave each church its turn,
And memorized the miracle in vogue!
He had a great observance from us boys—
We were in error; that was not the man.

I’d like now, yet had haply been afraid,
To have just looked, when this man came to die,
And seen who lined the clean gay garret-sides
And stood about the neat low truckle-bed,
With the heavenly manner of relieving guard.
Here had been, mark, the general-in-chief,
Thro’ a whole campaign of the world’s life and death,
Doing the King’s work all the dim day long,
In his old coat, and up to his knees in mud,
Smoked like a herring, dining on a crust,
And, now the day was won, relieved at once!
No further show or need for that old coat,
You are sure, for one thing! Bless us, all the while
How sprucely we are dressed out, you and I!
A second, and the angels alter that.
Well, I could never write a verse—could you?
Let’s to the Prado and make the most of time.

Robert Browning, c. 1855

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Ulimaroa : An Excavation


Half a life time ago I came in to the great sea port of Poihakena; in the fabled land of Ulimaroa. It was May 18, 1981, a date you can write as a palindrome. Bob Marley had died the week before, on May 11, at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, of complications attendant upon a rare skin cancer—acral lentiginous melanoma—and we were mourning him still. Jah would never give the power to a baldhead, he sang all the way across the Tasman. Run come crucify the Dread / Time alone, oh time will tell / Think you in heaven but you living in hell. I was with my then partner, Jan Preston. Coup d’Etat, the pop reggae band she’d formed, with Neil Hannan and Harry Lyon, in 1980, had disintegrated. Jan left because she didn’t like the drummer and also because she disapproved of the record company’s choice of the next single from their debut album. She intended putting a new band together in Sydney.

I’d crewed over the summer in the art department on an American film being shot in Auckland—Shadowlands, released as Dead Kids—and conceived the idea of studying screen-writing; there was a course for writers experienced in other genres to learn how to do that on offer at the AFTRS—the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in North Ryde, which Gough Whitlam had set up in 1972. We’d both been brutally arrested during a confrontation with police following a Crocodiles gig at the Windsor Castle in Parnell in August, 1980 and that was factor too; along with the knowledge that New Zealand was about to descend into the chaos occasioned by the Springbok rugby tour of 1981. We decided to join the exodus of musicians and hangers-on in search of better times.

I was one of the hangers-on, a lighting guy; but, apart from my desire to learn screen-writing—temporarily thwarted when AFTRS declined my application—I also had literary ambitions. My current obsession was with Pacific history: for me an amalgam of half-fictional personal experience, atavistic yearnings for a primitivist past and a genuine interest in what has happened in our part of the world since—well, since humans came here. This obsession arrived unexpectedly and had something (but what?) to do with my recent return to the country of my birth after a period spent overseas, booking music gigs and lighting theatre shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, London and many other places in between.

It was raining as the taxi drove in from Kingsford Smith airport, through the dreary unrenovated suburbs of Mascot and Alexandria and Redfern, to the Springfield Lodge in Kings Cross; and it kept on raining for the next two weeks. Our room had paper thin walls through which we heard, each morning, the next door residents TV set cough into life; and a view of the CBD. By day it showed a grey, monochrome city, veiled by drifting clouds; by night, buildings crowned by fugitive neons advertising commercial entities. It looked like something out of Bladerunner (1982). The Manzil Room was just down from the Springfield Lodge so we went there most nights. Jan became infatuated with an all girl band called Garbo: a reference to Greta, but also to what the men who collect the rubbish were called; though I didn’t know that then.

We became friends, briefly, with Garbo’s rhythm section; I can’t now remember their names. Two big blond lesbian girls who laughed a lot; one, the bass player, bigger than the other. The room was long and narrow, with small tables along the south wall where people sat playing interminable games of backgammon; they were sallow and thin and seemed contemptuous though were perhaps just stoned. Further along that same wall was the bar; beyond that the toilets famous for seductions, amorous trysts or just sex; the girls a kind of sanctum sanctorum where young men underwent lubricious initiation. The carpet squelched, the food (required for licensing purposes) was uneatable, clouds of yellow cigarette smoke hung in the air . . . the music was good.

I don’t recall wondering what the name might have meant nor anyone else speculating upon it either: not even a mystery. Manzil is in fact the word for any of the seven parts into which the Koran is divided for the purpose of recitation of the entire text in a week. Also for the set of verses (prescribed, chanted out loud) which prevent Sihr, black magic, from having its malign effect. Years later I found out the reason it was called that was mundane: the owner, Joe someone or other, came from the north of England and in those parts there was a chain of curry houses called Manzil. The room was originally a restaurant; it morphed it over the years into the nightclub / venue but kept its curry house name.

I had hardly any money but, as luck would have it, at a party I met a sailor from the Merchant Marine who lived, as so many New Zealanders in those days did, out at Bondi; and in his time ashore drove a cab to earn a bit of pocket money. Graeme, the brother of Roger, of Flying Nun fame, suggested that I might do the same. I took his advice, enrolled at the taxi school in Glenmore Road, Paddington and was, within a matter of weeks, driving myself. I was only ever part time—three or four shifts a week. Also I worked nights, which meant I didn’t have to turn up at Whale Carwash in Bondi Junction until mid-afternoon. On weekends we would go out to hear bands. In the mornings, and on days off, I trawled bookshops and haunted libraries. It was a good life, in a town that was, in those days, louche and wild and free.

The party where I met Graeme Shepherd was at Lud and Lexie’s place in Thomas Street, just behind busy Cleveland Street in the lost suburb of Golden Grove. It was held, I think, to welcome us to town. I’d known Lud since student days in Auckland in the early 1970s; Lexie too, though I’m not sure if they were together then. They certainly were later in the decade in Wellington, during the early Red Mole years. Lud (Roland Girvan) was a white Polynesian; though born in Scotland, he had grown up in New Guinea and Samoa and Fiji, where his father worked for one of the island traders, either W H Carpenter or Morris Hedstrom. Despite his relaxed, slow manner, Lud owned a formidable intellect and, as a committed hedonist, a refined taste in food, drink and drugs of all descriptions.

Since I’d seen him last, a few years before, he had given up writing and become a painter of colourful abstracts; as his father, an amateur, had also been. Lud owned a beautiful constructivist work his Dad had done sometime before, distraught at the demise of his wife, he’d shut himself up in his bedroom and drunk himself to death. Whisky. Lud had been away at school in Auckland when his mother died; I’m unsure of the interval between his mother’s and his father’s deaths; I believe he was orphaned in his teens. He had a brother in Melbourne and that was it. He always seemed, if not remote, then somehow lordly and isolate in his splendour and his preternatural grace and calm.

Lexia Murrell is a vivid, tempestuous woman from a working class Irish family in Glen Innes, Auckland. She is an artist too; she has been drawing as long as I’ve known her; an accomplished draftswoman and a fine painter in a figurative style which I suppose would have to be called naïve; if it is admitted that the naïve may include the sophisticated. Neither Lud nor Lexie had any formal training but both possessed an innate sense of style; they made the unpromising rectangular yard out the back of the small terrace house in Golden Grove into a garden from a Rousseau painting. Lud was also growing an impressive marijuana crop in black sandy soil under green corrugated fibre-glass panels in an old clawfoot bath next to the outside dunny at the other end of section; where there was a rickety wooden gate leading to the laneway behind.

Jean and Arthur were also at that party in Thomas Street. Arthur Baysting, it was said, had to flee New Zealand after his avatar, Neville Purvis, said ‘fuck’ on TV: the first ever to do so. When I suggested to him he had thereby become an exile he said: Nah, that’s too romantic for me. Jean Clarkson, like Lexie, like Lud, made art. I’d known Jean and Arthur since Red Mole days in Wellington too; though, in fact, the first time I met Arthur was in Auckland at the end of 1972. My university lecturers, in despair of my determination not to sit my final exams, sent me round to his flat in Parnell because Arthur was preparing an anthology of writing about Auckland to which they thought I might be able to contribute. The flat, upstairs in Ayr Street, was full of stuffed birds on pedestals. Jean was drawing bird-headed humans at the time; she had borrowed them from the museum. I was too over-awed to offer Arthur anything for the anthology; which I don’t think eventuated.

Arthur always seemed to have projects in hand. He was a bona fide screen-writer, with credits (Sleeping Dogs, 1977) and he was writing more films, some of which got made; we attempted a collaboration but it went nowhere. He was equally involved in the music scene as a writer of lyrics; working with members of bands such as The Crocodiles, which included song-writers Tony Backhouse, Peter Dasent and Fane Flaws. But Arthur also acted as an impresario, organising and emceeing Kiwi Nights at the Astra Hotel in Bondi. They were like Red Mole shows, without the theatrics but with more music.

In those days Jean and Arthur were caretakers of a derelict mansion, called Canonbury, in Darling Point; at the northern tip of Yarranabbe Point. It had, most recently, operated as an annex to the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. A large, rambling, gothic-style brick and cement render place with a slate roof that had been built early in the twentieth century by Harry Rickards, a vaudeville actor and producer. After World War One it was bought by the Australian Jockey Club who used it as a convalescent hospital for returned men. I don’t know how Jean and Arthur got the gig but it was a good one. The most extravagant of the cocaine parties I went to in those years was there: mountains of powder on horizontal mirrors in the old hospital bathroom.

I wonder now if Diana was at that party in Golden Grove too? Perhaps not; but it was to her house in Gipps Street, Paddington, that we moved after we left the Springfield Lodge. Diana Cunninghayme was another I’d known for yonks; she used to live at #60 Grafton Road around the time, in 1973, I lived next door at #56. More recently she had been with my good friend Gerard Smithyman; and then with a future friend, Chris Moody, the famous Toy Love roadie. Diana was one of those intensely desirable women who suffer for their looks. I once asked Chris how long they were together. He replied, with the slight stammer he had in those days: Th-three months or t-two years, whichever you prefer. I think he meant they remained flat-mates after they stopped being lovers.

Gipps Street was narrow and higgledy-piggledy and ran up the hill from near the beginning of the Oxford Street end of Glenmore Road. The house, like those around it, was a small, one storey terrace which appeared to have been made out of a combination of sandstone and cardboard, with a tiny concreted back yard where palms and frangi-pani trees grew in pots. I cannot now remember how we came to be living there nor who else was in the house. I think it must have been by invitation, in the casual way that pertained among my cohort in those days: we’ve got a spare bed you can sleep in, come round . . . that sort of thing. From memory the bed wasn’t even in a room but in a hallway of some sort.

Beside that bed, on a blue plastic milk crate, lay a book with a white and green cover showing a boneyard moon shining over impossibly jagged mountains: the peaks of the Cerro Torre in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina, which also feature in the 1991 Werner Herzog film Scream of Stone. It was the 1979 Picador edition of Bruce Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, cover art by David Bergen aka Hawkwood, and I read it all the way through to the end. Chatwin became an enthusiasm amongst us; we who took ourselves seriously as writers immediately set about imitating his sparse prose style and his attenuated, even fey, narrative gestures.

This might have been before Diana got together with Ken, whom we used to call Ken the Cocaine King, though I still associate him with that house; perhaps, like Moody, I first met him there. Ken was a tall, rangy, bullet-headed fellow with piercing blue eyes beneath his buzz-cut blond hair; a lawyer by training, he was a former swimming champ. Now he was end man for a syndicate bringing quantities of cocaine from Colombia via Tahiti to Queensland and thence south onto the streets of our town. Ken was enigmatic, charismatic, always carried a black briefcase, never said much, was generous with his drugs; there were nights, as at Canonbury, when it seemed we consumed mountains of powder almost as high as the Cerro Torre.

How he spent the money he made was unclear but he did announce one day that he wanted to start a record label. It was to be called Vinyl Voice and I still remember the hurt look on his face when I quipped: So long as it doesn’t become Final Voice. He booked a studio, and some time and, one day after we’d moved into Lud and Lexie’s old house in Golden Grove, turned up with a putative producer: a tall, mane-haired Texan in cowboy boots called W G ‘Snuffy’ Walden, once of Stray Dog, the Eric Burdon Band, Free; later the composer of scores for movies and TV shows, including that for The West Wing. Snuffy stretched out his considerable length along the floor of the tiny front room at Thomas Street and spoke of people he had played with as a session man in LA: Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan.

I don’t now recall why the recordings never went ahead; it could have been because, around this time, Ken began to look like a worried man. There was something wrong further up the line, he said, but we never knew what it was. In retrospect, it seems the problem may have been Ken’s generosity to his friends, allied with his own inordinate drug use, which left him in debt to the syndicate and also rendered him incapable of pursuing proper business strategies. I met him one day up the Cross when he was in the full flower of cocaine psychosis: a wreck of a man, shaking, muttering, twitching . . . while we were talking he accidently triggered the catches on his black briefcase—which I had never before seen the inside of—it fell open and there before my eyes were a half full bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a crumpled carton of Gauloise Bleu cigarettes. Nothing else. Ken left town not long afterwards and returned to Auckland, where he put his money into real estate and, I hear, did quite well.

I don’t remember now why Lud and Lexie moved out of 9 Thomas Street and invited us to go and live there instead: an act of simple generosity perhaps. Or were they sick of paying rent? They split up temporarily, strategically, as they used sometimes to do; I don’t know where Lexie went but Lud moved into a tin shed around the road that was probably cheaper but certainly less convenient. There was no bathroom, for instance, so he used to have to go up to the Aquatic Centre at Sydney University to shower and use the toilet; he must have been extremely disciplined. He was a keen swimmer and I owe to him my return to that salutary form of exercise. Somehow I got a gig as a stagehand at the Seymour Centre in Cleveland Street; as a casual employee of the university, that entitled me to the badge you needed to swim at the pool.

At Thomas Street, our lord and land lady were George and Mimi, a European couple, and when we went out to their house in Kogarah to sign the lease they sat us down opposite them at a tiny narrow table in a shadowy room and served coffee and cake which we ate and drank with our knees almost touching. George Berger, Viennese, Jewish, distinguished art historian, friend and colleague of the redoubtable Bernard Smith, was a comfortable bourgeois with a beard, a woollen suit and a confidential manner. Mimi Jaksic-Berger was a Serb, passionate, feral and strange; she hardly spoke. She was another painter and George had founded an art movement of which Mimi was the chief, perhaps the only, exponent. Abstract Impressionism, it was called. Every six months a typed letter from George would arrive in the letter box at Thomas Street notifying us of a rent rise to compensate for the loss of purchasing power of the Australian dollar. What about the purchasing power of my dollar? I would always think but never say; I never quite shook off a servile feeling I had when I dealt with George; as if I were only a pawn in his game.

image: Mimi Jaksic-Berger : Southern Cross; oil on linen; nd

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