A Note on The Rescue


“Wilfred was reading The Rescue in Fiona’s cockpit. He laid it down after a while and said, ‘I’ve given up on The Rescue. I can’t excuse Lingard’s appalling conduct in abandoning to their deaths his Wajo friends and allies for those Europeans in their wretched yacht. They should have been left to fend for themselves. How can Conrad have allowed Lingard to behave like that? Do you agree?’

I had worried about that too. Had not Lingard, for the sake of an infatuation with Mrs Travers—the wife of a man whose ‘life and thought’, as Conrad put it, ‘ignorant of human passion, were devoted to extracting the greatest amount of personal advantage from human institutions’—broken his word to Prince Hassim and his sister Immada, knowing that in doing so he had condemned them to death?

With the thunder of Wajo at our back the matter seemed of supreme importance.

‘Yes I do,’ I answered. ‘I agree very much.’”


Wilfred Thesiger, the great African, Arabian and North Asian explorer, then a man of 67 years, was on the yacht Fiona as she sailed from Bali up the coast of Borneo, across the Straits of Makassar to Donggala, and then south down Sulawesi shores. It was 1977 and Gavin Young was making the first of a number of trips retracing the journeys that the real Joseph Conrad, and his fictional characters, had taken through the archipelago a hundred years before. They are recounted in his superb 1991 book In Search of Conrad, from which (p 196-7) the quote above is taken. Now that I’ve read The Rescue myself (entirely on trains!) I can comment upon Thesiger’s dismay, and also upon Young’s reply.

The first thing to say is that Thesiger must have read almost right through the book before laying it aside, because the disclosure of the effect of Lingard’s action—or inaction—isn’t made until very late in the story; less than twenty pages, perhaps, before the end. It is however the crucial revelation. The second point is that, as so often in Conrad, everything depends upon what you think he thinks about what he has made his characters do.

Hassim has sent Lingard his ring, with a green stone, an emerald, set in gold, as a sign that he and his sister are in extremity and need to be rescued; but, through a complexity in the plot, the ring is actually taken to Lingard by Mrs Travers herself—who, in the event, for reasons she doesn’t understand, never gives it to him. Lingard doesn’t even find out about it until after Hassim and Immada—and hundreds of others—are already dead, killed in the explosion of the hulk Emma, used to store guns and ammunition with which to re-take the Wajo kingdom that is Hassim and Immada’s birthright. This was Lingard’s great, never accomplished, enterprise. The explosion is caused, deliberately, by old Jorgenson, who is usually described as a man already dead. For reasons of his own—they seem strategic rather than existential but who knows?—he steps into the hold where the munitions are stored with a lighted cigar in his hand.

When Lingard does find out about the ring, he remarks that, even if it had been delivered to him as promised, it would not have made any difference to his course of action—or inaction. He tells Mrs Travers the same thing in his last conversation with her. But how far can we believe him? He is a man infatuated and that infatuation has caused the ruin of many lives; including, perhaps, his own. He knows this; but will not or cannot admit to any fault.

Infatuation, after all, is imperious. Lingard’s first disavowal may be the response of a man in shock and denial; his second might be an act of chivalrous reassurance to a woman he will not see again; but whom, he also tells her, he will never forget. She herself, very soon after, casts the ring over the side of the wretched yacht and into the sea. She never understands what it means, or meant.

The larger contention of the book, to my mind, is that a certain kind of Englishness can never quite be left behind. Lingard’s encounter with Mrs Travers, and his infatuation with her, is an uncharacteristic reversion to Englishness by a man who thought he had said goodbye to all that a thousand years before. And, inter alia, to the class assumptions that go with Englishness. In other words, he falls in love with Mrs Travers because she is unattainable, because she represents all that he could never have and never even thought he wanted: until she appears before him. As for her, Lingard represents everything her husband is not and, equally, all that she can never have either.

This is not the standard interpretation of The Rescue. Most who read it (especially the 20,000 odd contemporary buyers) take the romance, with all of its heavy breathing, and its veiled consummation, at face value. But why? There is very little in Conrad that can ever be taken so. Even Young’s agreement with Thesiger in the passage above is open to interpretation; later in the book he remarks upon the fact that Lingard never received the ring: who knows what he might in fact have done (what Conrad might have made him do) if he had? An idle question I suppose; but one I can’t help asking as well.

I was surprised by The Rescue; I expected not to enjoy it; but I did. Principally because, however counter-intuitive it may seem, the standard interpretation of the narrative may be, as it were, turned inside out, so that the book reads as being about the wreck of a great enterprise by means of a foolish and sentimental romance; which itself has no other issue. This operatic affair was presumably the hook that caused so many to buy the book when it came out: a response Conrad predicted and, to a certain extent, deplored. He made the same prediction of his far more operatic, and far less convincing, The Arrow of Gold, predecessor to The Rescue; though without the censure.

The Rescue took him 23 years to complete; begun in 1897, it was not published until 1920; at which point he defied anyone to say where the long postponed work had resumed. I couldn’t tell. In the denouement, Mr and Mrs Travers, and their companion, the Spaniard d’Alcacer, continue imperturbably upon their voyage south in the rescued yacht. Lingard swaps his disagreeable mate for one more competent, and more to his taste; despite the fact that it was his, Carter’s, precipitate action that set off the chain of events that culminated in the explosion on the hulk of the Emma.

Meanwhile a kingdom is lost; and hundreds of Bugis, including Hassim and his sister, die because of the folly of two self-indulgent, unreflective and essentially delusional Europeans. This may not be what Conrad intended; it is certainly what I read.


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Solitary Creek : Body Asking Shadow


Cosmos flowered all along the railway line, bright yellow in the green grass as we trundled through the Blue Mountains. Sometimes red gladioli too, gone wild and small after escaping from suburban gardens. And something that resembled, but was not, a hollyhock. Or foxglove. Which is digitalis. Lavender-coloured, anyway. Here and there the purple bristly flower of Paterson’s Curse, not yet in plague proportions. Further on the gladioli opened up yellow throats, as if made aurulent by the daisies. From Old English, dæges eage, day’s eye, because they close at night and open again in the morning. Alternatively, Asteraceae, stars. Derelict trains, both carriages and engines, as we wound down towards Lithgow. Seedheads of wild grasses sprouting past the open sliding windows of old red rattlers. A rusty steam locomotive, a 4-6-2, aka The Pacific Type. With a full tender, weeds pushing through the nuggets of coal. A black and white goat, tethered to a stake on a bank, tearing at the clods. All our forgotten wisdom in the horizontal pupil of his yellow eye. Or not. Antony, good as his word, is waiting on the platform at Rydal. He comes cadaverous out of the veranda shadow—just skin and bone, he says, and it’s true. 53 kilos. He had his last dose of chemo the day before, from now on is switching to immunotherapy. Iscador. Essence of mistletoe. The way he hurls his blue Forester into the mouth of the garage is good to see. Pulling up inches before the back wall. His dog Casso eviscerated by a kangaroo not long ago but his water bowl still there beside the fish pond, where tiny golden carp kiss the meniscus; when the change comes through, and it rains, I realise it is catching a drip from the guttering and that’s why it is half full. Casso (= Picasso) surprised the ’roo in the sculpture garden and tried to chase it out. I don’t ask where he’s buried. There is a strange smell in the house; before we make a Spanish omelette for lunch, I track it down to an inch of scummy water in the pot below the steamer on the gas stove, which was perhaps used to cook one of the slabs of barramundi he has in the freezer; on a bed of Chinese cabbage and chopped fennel; with rice. We eat that exact same meal later and it is delicious. There is a bowl of cherries on the table, bought from an Italian’s orchard yesterday: small and sharply sweet and tasty. It is of course hard to know what to say to one dying but easier if there is no denying. Antony is as proud as Zorba and no longer disposed (if he ever was) to tolerate conventional hypocrisies. When offered an arm he enunciates: I have never fallen in my life and do not intend to do so now. Turns out he was a dancer in his youth and knows how, in an emergency, to shift weight from one foot to the other. So thin and frail yet he still can lift himself into and out of the bath. Talk of a walker brings a snort of derision. I might have to get a stick, though, he concedes. Sometimes he breaks into song: lieder, mostly, with impeccable enunciation. German is, along with Greek and Mandarin and Spanish, one of his languages. He dozes on the wicker sofa in the afternoon. I ordered a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs for him and he is avid for reading it; but did not recall who sent it: like a gift from the gods, he says. I also have for him a copy of Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: a history of porcelain. When I say it is about respect for materials he shoots me one of his looks from under that shaggy brow and mane of now completely white hair. In return he gives me 1922 : Modernism Year One, by Kevin Jackson, with a bookmark still in place at December 6: I suspect he stopped reading it when the Neruda arrived. He also gives me a black golden-dragon-embroidered silk jacket he bought in Beijing. You can see out the front window to the turn-around and when a hesitant-looking woman appears at the gate I go to find out what she wants. She is a Londoner, staying at the Meditation Centre down the road, visited the World-Gaia Friendship Sculpture Garden four years ago and would like to come again tomorrow. We turn the sign from Closed to Open and then I go down with a hearth broom to clean out the Tea House. The straws of the broom so soft it feels like I am sweeping with water. Dust, leaves, cobwebs. A green jade Buddha and a small gong; which I beat three times when I am done. In the sculpture garden, paper wasps have built a nest in the armpit of the torso of a woman; I can see one of the red-black insects working, or emerging, at the top of the ochre mud construction. I know this will please Antony to hear and it does: remarkable creatures, wasps, he says. He can’t get down there much any more but when the Englishwoman comes back next day he does; I see / hear him acting out an argument he witnessed below the Parthenon in Athens fifty years ago; one which ended, emblematically, not in fisticuffs, but an embrace. That evening, after we have been for dinner at the Lily House Chinese restaurant in Wallerawang, and are driving back to Rydal, he says the place once had a beautiful name. It was called Solitary Creek—until some idiot enamoured of Wordsworth changed it to what it is now. There is a daffodil festival here every year. A Heritage Walk too—which the Sculpture Garden is not included upon: a majority of the Village Association have taken offence at things Antony has said or done or is said to have said and done. Population 80. A railhead town that once had half a dozen pubs and a like number of guest houses. Here the farmers brought their wool, their wheat, their apples; and picked up Sydney-bought luxuries and supplies. There were Franciscans resident for a while in the 1920s. Much later, John Olsen; Antony has a drawing of a shag on a rock inscribed to him by the great O. It’s pinned up behind the kitchen door. He was as a child in Sydney in the 1950s taught by Desiderius Orban, the Hungarian, who encountered Picasso, Modigliani, Braque and Gertrude Stein in Europe before, or after, the rain. There are three carvings of stone heads he made when he was twelve standing out the back next to the wall of a corro shed. They are strangely Modi-esque. He is himself un sort d’ refugee of Modernism; but in his case practice and belief are overlaid by a Beat fascination with the East. I should have stayed in China, he says. We were happy there. He means him and his second wife, Mary (not her real name) who lived together in Harbin in Manchuria for a while not so many years ago. She is in Ashfield now; she couldn’t stand the isolation. Cried out in alarm, looking through the window of the car one day, when she realised she’d come to a place where people mostly live apart from one another. His daughters from his first marriage are in Bundanon and Dulwich Hill, respectively. They both call up while I’m there. His grandson, a talented pianist, just 16 years old, is studying in Japan. And he lives solitary here in Solitary Creek. A studio full of paintings, drawings and woodcuts; dozens of maquettes for sculptures never made into their full version (‘twice life-size’); a dismantled forge; the garden overgrown with weeds; wild comfrey erupting everywhere. It is of course exhausting receiving the confessions of one who is soon to die; but you could as well say we are just continuing a conversation begun a decade ago now and gone on intermittently ever since. Sometimes I sit outside the guest house and watch the copper-headed skinks scouting for food; or strange beetles bumbling across the paving stones. When I walk over to the Showgrounds, I see two yellow-tailed black cockatoos sitting magisterial, side by side, on a branch of a eucalypt; the third is in a pine tree nearby, ripping open cones with its horny beak. They are tutelary here; I have seen them on other visits. I’m almost sure this was a Bora Ground; it wouldn’t be the first time one was co-opted and turned into a dusty old Fairground. When I say the word Wiradjuri to Antony, a expression of pain crosses his face and he says the word massacred and then no more. Later he mentions a Wiradjuri woman he knows in Lithgow. Splendid, he says; magnificent. His last maquette, seven figures on a revolving plinth, called Dancing the Land, is now at the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, an indigenous art school in Kariong. Ray Goodwin organised that. Antony is hoping to live long enough to go to the unveiling. I wonder where the amphitheatre he built with Denis, a local, is, but forget to ask. Down the road that runs along the edge of the bush which, in better days, Antony used to burn, seasonally, just as the Wiradjuri did, I see a cohort of white-winged choughs. Like their cousins the apostle birds they can count, and prefer to live in a group of a dozen or so; and will kidnap the young of rival groups in order to make up the requisite number. They are lanky and humorous, glossy black, when walking in the road; when they fly up you see flashes of white glinting from their whirring wings. I pick up a delicate lime green feather fallen from the breast an olive-winged parrot and take it back to the house, where I put it in between the pages of a book Antony has lent me to read: Cold Mountain, perhaps in the translation by Gary Snyder; but this is a photocopied version he made and bound himself, and the publishing information is missing:

The path to Hanshan’s place is laughable,
A path, but no sign of cart or horse.
Converging gorges—hard to trace their twists
Jumbled cliffs—unbelievably rugged
A thousand grasses bend with dew,
A hill of pines hums in the wind.
And now I’ve lost the shortcut home;
Body asking shadow, how do you keep up?

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Ghosts of Croydon



The neurasthenic detective is in the habit of going on Sundays to the art gallery to listen for rumours. This late morning he spends some time lingering outside the basement toilets watching footage, projected on a wall of the stairwell above him, of Monet painting in his garden at Giverny. The lily ponds in the background look murky, grey and indistinct. Monet has a cigarette stuck in his mouth but the solid mass of burnt ash doesn’t fall into his beard, not even when he bends down for some unknown reason, perhaps to retrieve a brush off the ground, perhaps to add some colour to the palette he holds in his left hand. After watching carefully for a minute or two the detective decides Monet’s cigarette has gone out, also that it was probably one he had rolled himself out of thick black shag tobacco. Maybe when he pauses he will relight it and smoke as he attempts to assess how the work is progressing. On the floor above the detective overhears a report coming in on a security guard’s radio: a man has been seen leaving the gallery with a painting-sized package under his arm, did he come from the gallery shop or from somewhere else? The guard does nothing, not even when the message is repeated. Meanwhile a young woman in a floral blouse, orange hibiscus on a black background he notes with distaste, is brazenly picking a bit of paint off a painting of Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall and concealing it in the top pocket of her blouse. The detective leaves the gallery none the wiser. He skips lunch and goes for a walk in the Botanic Gardens instead, where he finds feathers in the grass, a fake castle walled off behind a yellow and white plastic fence, ibis quarrelling, or are they dancing, in the crown of a palm tree and many bats hanging upside down from branches in bright sunlight. Sometimes they stretch out one or both of their leathery wings and then he observes the orange transparency of the membranes stretching between fantastically elongated fingers and remembers the young woman’s blouse. Near the lily ponds, with their green leaves, pink-fringed white flowers and seed pods shaped like shower heads, he listens while some German tourists speak of catching one of the monstrous old man carp and throwing it on a barbeque to cook and eat. He concludes they are joking and moves on. There is, he knows, a glamorous orchid among the Rare and Threatened Plants but when he goes to look it has been dug up from its plot and taken away. There is a man wheeling a red wheel barrow disappearing up one of the avenues, leaving a trail of fresh earth on the concrete path but the detective does nothing, perhaps he is a gardener and employed here, perhaps that is not the orchid in the barrow but some kind of rhizome that needs re-positioning—who can say? The young woman he saw in the gallery is in the Succulent Garden, kneeling to take a cutting from a silvery looking plant with sculptured leaves; she looks up as he passes and seems to wink but he can’t be sure, the day is hot and bright, he has come out wearing neither hat nor sun glasses, his eyes are sore, that’s the neurasthenia, other classic symptoms are anxiety, depression, fatigue, headache, impotence, neuralgia, he has them all. He watches the young woman in the floral blouse walk jauntily out of the sun-hammered Succulent Garden and knows all of a sudden that he must either sit down or fall over. He finds a bench in the shade of a flowering magnolia and takes refuge there, looking up into a sky so blue it seems white; and the buildings clustered on the skyline are white too, with metallic flashes emanating from their strangely angular ornaments, ethereal as a future city, one that is seemingly in the act of vaporizing into that white hot blue sky. Dysautonomia, he thinks, that was the word the doctor used, a disease that refers to an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system . . . just then the woman in the floral blouse comes into view again, that is the third time, it cannot be coincidence, she must be following him, why? As she walks by something falls from her hand, is it a clue, a fleck of paint, a corner of the leaf of a succulent, what? As he bends forward to see there comes a roaring in his ears and he feels himself falling except there’s nothing into which to fall, just a void, not a black void but a white one, white as the Aleph, he thinks, white as the longest lasting rose, white as silence or a whited sepulchre; and just before oblivion descends or rises he sees an infinity of images, as in Duchamp’s painting of the nude descending a staircase, they are all himself, or rather they are shadows of his former selves on their progress through this fatal afternoon and before that through all of the other afternoons of his life . . . infinite selves, he thinks, and before me infinite space, what drives me onwards is a consequence of what lies already behind me, I am falling without motivation or intent, without cause or sense, without remedy.


He was acting suspiciously, the young woman tells the police. I think he was following me but I don’t know why. No I didn’t see him fall, I heard it and when I turned around, there he was lying on the path, with that shockingly large pool of blood spreading out from his broken head. I have never seen so much red, she goes on but the policeman says that’s enough, now what is that you have in the left pocket of your blouse? Where did you get that? Why? While in the old Rum Hospital, conveniently near by, the detective lies unconscious, his head swathed in white bandages through which the red blood is already, surreptitiously, seeping.


The neurasthenic detective comes to in his own bed in his own flat above the premises of a dental technician called Doobov on the wrong side of the tracks at Croydon. His head hurts and when he searches for the source of the pain with his fingertips, he finds a raised, bumpy cut just back of the hairline some centimetres beyond the advancing line of his widow’s peak. Stitches. Not as in he laughed until he was in. Medicinal. Or should that be surgical. He tries to remember where and how he received the wound but cannot. Just a vague memory of orange. Lilies? Or carp? Or . . . his flat is both familiar and strange to him. Such foul clutter and neglect cannot be his, fastidious, indeed compulsively tidy as he knows himself to be. Or was that someone else? These thoughts make him dizzy and so he looks out the window, hoping for relief. A trapezoid of blue sky, the outline of some kind of tree, a cypress or a conifer, the red tiles on the roof of the building next door. The window glass is stained brownish yellow, he remembers someone saying that the stain is made from tree pollens blown against the glass and melted into place. He notices that the accretion is thicker towards the base of each pane and wonders if it is true that glass is actually a liquid and flows imperceptibly downwards in obedience to gravity? Probably it’s dust, not pollen or nectar or sap or whatever; probably the glass isn’t thicker at the base and anyway who cares? What does it matter? The cobwebs in the window are larger than he remembers, and dirtier, and the one directly in his line of sight has a kind of open hollow tube at the heart of it, no doubt where the spider herself, black and hairy, hides waiting for any stray insect to blunder in. Indeed, given the fecundity and variety and extent of the webs, they seem to be in the process of swathing his small and so uncharacteristically untidy, also grimy, apartment the way the pristine white bandage swathed his head in the hospital he has so recently discharged himself from. Pristine, yes, when newly swathed but then the red insinuated itself, then turned that rusty orange brown of old blood . . . the thought of orange, the colour, nauseates him so he quickly changes the subject of his meditation. Current projects include the first ever Dyslexic’s Dictionary; a website called Virtual Sydney that will be fully negotiable in all eleven dimensions; and a Compleat Register of the Ghosts of Croydon. All by their nature are works in progress and none, at this particular time on this particular day in this particular place, seems plausible or even possible. He sighs. The webs, ragged, dirty, faintly malevolent and redolent of abandonment and neglect, seem to echo or at least rhyme with the tattered state of his mind. If only he could recall something apart from that nauseous orange. And then it comes, so slight, so fugitive, almost imperceptible, but nevertheless a trace. Hibiscus, he whispers to himself. Yes, on a black ground. And a girl . . .


At that exact moment the woman with the floral blouse, now dressed in a pearl grey suit over a white shirt, black shoes, stands before the court to testify on her own behalf against the charge of wilful damage to property, that is, picking a fleck of paint off an Arthur Boyd painting owned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales . . . but I didn’t, she says, I found that piece of paint on the floor where it had fallen, everybody knows that bits fall off paintings, why, they used to have to sweep in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles on a daily basis, there was a lucrative trade in fragments of that million dollar masterpiece, what was I supposed to do, try to stick it back on? And, taking inspiration from what she has just said, goes on: That is in fact what I was doing when the guard spotted me, trying to put it back, surely you believe me, I am an artist myself . . . Isn’t everyone, the magistrate observes dryly before accusing the police of vexatious prosecution and dismissing the case for lack of evidence. As the woman leaves the court she imagines documenting the whole experience as a work, the centre of which would be the flake of paint that she retrieved from the Boyd; or would be if the police hadn’t confiscated it . . . but present concerns are more pressing than the alleged eternity of art so she hails a cab in Elizabeth Street and asks the driver to take her to Croydon. She works part-time as an art instructor there and has a class to teach. The day is bright and dark by turns, her driver is an harassed looking Chinese man who drives too fast, the car is old and smelly and dirty and strikes her as unreliable: all of which combine to make her feel somehow diminished, less than herself, perhaps even a simulacrum. So that when her taxi crosses the railway bridge and turns right by Presbyterian Ladies College, a wave of nausea goes over her and she calls out for the driver to stop and let her out. He pulls up next to a bright pink cake shop called Pavlova Perfection on a corner opposite an Italian restaurant, Mario’s, which is closed, they do the business and she gets out, swaying slightly in the changeable air, wondering what to do and where to go. She would like a drink but the old deco pub next door to the cake shop has been made over into the art annex of PLC where she teaches part-time, she can’t go in there, and round the corner nothing’s open except a place selling Indian spices and another that specialises in eco-friendly scented candles, neither of which hold any interest for her. She is feeling worse by the moment and wonders if she has inhaled too much carbon monoxide from the cab’s leaky exhaust system; or is it a delayed reaction to the stress of the court appearance? She cannot remember if she has eaten breakfast, indeed such is her confusion that she isn’t even sure when she did last eat . . . she comes to a halt outside the premises of a dental technician called Doobov and leans breathless there, stumbling as the veritable world decays into swarms of light and dark shapes that resemble pixels on a disintegrating screen. It is at this moment, just before she collapses, that the door next to Doobov’s entrance opens and out comes the neurasthenic detective with the stained bandage once again wrapped raggedy around his head and seeming scarcely in any better shape than she is. They look at each other with astonished recognition then fall into each other’s arms: not so much from the intoxications of love as out of exhaustion and the incipient onset of weirdly coincident but evidently separate and distinct syncopes.


Monet at Giverny, Duchamp in Puteaux, Pollock on Long Island, Boyd at Bundanon, all in their different ways attempting to translate liquid pigments into something more durable though what that more durable thing is no-one can really say: it is greater than the sum of the materials of which it is made but how? Why? Wherefore? The neurasthenic detective and the woman in the pearl grey suit do not discuss this conundrum as they walk slowly down towards the swimming pool and pause while she unwraps the stained bandage from around his head and deposits it in a rubbish tin there. They go on until they reach Bland Street where they make a right, traverse the tunnel under the railway lines and come out in Hercules Street, Ashfield. Round the corner in Liverpool Road they choose the second of two contiguous restaurants called Shanghai, the one distinguished from the other simply by the epithet Night. At Shanghai Night the speciality is dumplings and at any hour of the day or night there will be one or two or three staff sitting in a small alcove towards the front of the single dining room filling oblongs of pastry with pork and chives or coriander, with lamb and onion, beef and leek, then pinching each together along a crenulated line into a delicious hand made parcel which may then be steamed or fried. Steamed the neurasthenic detective believes to be superior to fried as he orders a small (twelve dumplings) serving of each of his two favourites, that is, pork and chives, lamb and onion, and also one of the vegetarian (eight, with open tops, served in a bamboo steamer) which they share, eating with chopsticks and adding generous amounts of soy and chilli sauce while ignoring the dark vinegar which is the other usual accompaniment to this dish. They drink tea from small handleless cups and discuss, in a scrupulous manner, the coincidences that have emerged: neither was actually following the other but the enigma of convergent paths evidently brought them together on serial occasions. She says nothing about her part-time job and he does not mention his profession either: as if each occupation were a fantasy of a kind of practicality that neither of them really possesses. Instead she describes her idea for an art work constructed around a flake of paint subtracted from a painting; and he expands upon dysautonomia in a manner that reveals certain structural resemblances to her planned conceptual piece. As if disease and artwork are not distinct from one another, as if nausea and head wound might also be related, as if orange and black are simply bands on a spectrum that goes from harmony to cacophony and back again. The dumplings are finished now, the tea all drunk. The restaurant has emptied out after the lunchtime rush, they are the only two people left. What shall we do now? she asks. Why don’t you come back to my place, he replies, I could show you the progress of one of my current projects. The Dyslexic’s Dictionary perhaps. Or Virtual Sydney. How about the Register of the Ghosts of Croydon? she asks. I would like that. How did you know . . . he begins but does not go on: she is reaching into the top pocket of the grey suit jacket she has hung on the back of her chair, bringing out a small piece of white tissue paper, giving it to him. What is it? he asks redundantly as he begins to unwrap. A tiny flake of grey-blue paint lies before him. Max Beckmann, she whispers. Old Woman in Ermine, 1946. Do you know it? He looks at the fragment before him and, miraculously, sees the entire painting form before his eyes. He knows that she sees it too. Heads together, bent over that stained table, they explore its intricacies until the waitress comes to clear the detritus of their meal away. Then he carefully rewraps the fragment, she re-secretes it in her pocket and, of one mind now, they leave the restaurant to walk back down Hercules Street to the railway station, there to catch the next train to Croydon. Or, should it arrive first, Bliss.



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Flying Dreams: Scribing the Infinite  



Over the summer of 2015 I had a series of flying dreams. Five or six. They were more or less the same—uniformly euphoric, you might say. If euphoria can be uniform. An enduring astonishment. I would be standing on a green slope, looking downhill, when I would take it into my head to leap into the blue air and so ascend. I flew, like Superman, headlong, except with my arms out-stretched on either side, like wings, not clasped before me in a fist; however, as in life, you do not really see yourself in dreams, you only see what you see. I remember park-like landscapes miniaturizing below, the tops of trees, silver lines of streams or sheets of standing water. It was always the green world: I never flew over a city. The  primary sensation was exhilaration. To be able, at a whim, to fly through the air with greatest of ease. To be able to fly!

A constant in this series of dreams was the advice I gave myself, insistently, within the dream, to be remembered when I woke up: that I could fly in real life too. Don’t forget that you can fly like this when you are awake, I would tell myself. Remember you can fly! It was melancholy to realise, when I did awake, that this is not so. Curious, too. Why, while dreaming of flying, did something in me insist upon the belief that I could do so waking too? Or, to put it another way: what was it that made me certain there was something in the dream that had relevance to my activities in waking life? What was it, in real life, that resembled flying in dreams? That’s the question.



Why was I having this series of dreams anyway? They are not common. I wonder about my activities at the time: nearly three years ago now. What was I writing, what else was I doing? I went back to the files. I had published a book, based upon my doctoral dissertation, the previous October; it was well-made, and well-received, too. I had also, more or less, completed two other works. One was a memoir of childhood and adolescence, the other a collection of occasional prose pieces, unified by their thematics and by the black and white photographs with which they were illustrated; these books would both come out in the year ahead. And I was contemplating a larger project, research-based, that would occupy the bulk of the next two years. I had my birthday, as usual, at Hannibal’s; both my sons were there; a few weeks later, the elder left home for good and went to live in Melbourne. I was re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy; and Inga Clendinnen’s  Aztecs: An Interpretation. There were unexpected synergies between the two.

So far so good. I remember the time better now; remember the freedom I felt then. My writing was going well; past plans coming to fruition, future plans forming. Our boy launched into the world, successfully, we hoped. I still had to work for a living but, within a matter of months, that would cease to be so; and, in fact, I have not worked since the middle of that year. I say ‘worked’: I mean the casual teaching I did in those days. Writing is work as well; but, on the one hand, you do not always get paid for doing it; and on the other, you will do it even if you know you will not be paid.

What are flying dreams, anyway? How old are they? Do they, as some think, constitute a genetic memory of a time when those distant ancestors of ours—dragonflies, pterodactyls, archaeopteryx—did in fact fly? The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles wrote: I have already been / a bush and a bird / a boy and a girl / a mute fish in the sea. Are flying dreams atavistic in that sense? If not, are they derived from a longing our hominid forebears felt when they saw birds in the sky? Even if that longing is admitted as real, as it must be, it still doesn’t explain the visceral sense of flying that comes in dreams, the absolute reality of the feeling of soaring through the air. I don’t think there can be an aetiology of flying dreams; or, if there is one, it’s not available to me. So here is the crux of the matter: those flying dreams were, I believe, actually writing dreams. How so?

When I am writing well, my fingers fly, unthought and unseen, over the keyboard. My eyes, looking at the screen, do not see the screen: they see words appearing as if by magic. Those words—which have in fact gone from a kind of speech in my brain, down my arms and into my fingers, through the mechanical processes of typing, to be further transformed by the digital mysteries of the computer—seem to arrive from nowhere. They are like something dictated from the void, something that had no reality until their present, unprecedented appearance. They are, in the merest sense of the word, miraculous. Any writer, in any medium, will tell you the same: it is sometimes as if we are the instrument upon which a tune is played. The means by which something other than us speaks. We are the singer not the song. The song flies through us.

Nevertheless—and here I dip down from the sky—no-one can accomplish this kind of activity without preparation; just as no-one can fly an aeroplane without long, hard practice of the relevant skills. So I want to change direction and look, not to the heavens, but to the earth. In other words, I want to examine the processes by which inspiration—flights of fancy!—might be encouraged, even learned. I want to consider the processes that might precede flight, and also those which might succeed it. To do that, I am going back to the Greeks again—not to Empedocles but to the Muses: configured not as sources of inspiration but as guides towards technique.



In the Boeotian version of the Muses—sometimes called the elder muses—they are the children of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth; there are three only; and their names are Mneme, Aoide and Melete; that is, memory, voice and occasion. We all know what memory is—even as it remains the primary mystery of human consciousness. Voice, which can be translated as song, is obvious too. It is the means by which we speak what we know; or, in this case, write. Occasion, too, seems straightforward; nevertheless, the word melete may also mean meditation or practise. Which complicates the matter, though in a good way. You might say that, in order to write, you have to do three things: to remember, to find a voice in which to tell your tale, and to construct an occasion upon which to perform—which will involve both meditation and practise.

It’s worth looking more closely at these three concepts. My view is that there are two original forms of story-telling, both of which involve memory. They go back at least as far as the Palaeolithic; that is, to the time before cities, before agriculture and animal husbandry became the primary economic bases for human societies. The first form is a re-telling of the day’s hunt or collect. You recount to your fellows where you went, what you did, what the results were. Any outstanding episodes, whether funny or dangerous or unusual, are included. We all still use this form, whether or not we think of ourselves as writers. Anyone coming home after a day at work, a day at school, after a journey or a holiday, will tell his or her familiars what happened in the age-old manner of the tale. Memory, based upon observation, is intrinsic to this form of story-telling.

The second form I call the fireside tale. It is, in origin and essence, I believe, a story about the night sky. After the day’s activities are done, after the evening meal perhaps, around the fire, stories are told. These stories will be used for the purposes of entertainment and instruction, and also—a primary function—as lullaby. We still read our children, our loved ones, or ourselves, to sleep at night. The suggestion which I prefer—it is of course unprovable—is that these stories arose from the need to make sense of the sky above us. They were stories about the stars and the planets, the moon and the sun, meteorites and comets, of shooting stars, figured as actors in a human drama.

An example is provided by Aboriginal story-teller Mavis Malbunka, about a crater called, in her Arrernte language, Tnorala; and by Europeans, Gosses Bluff. We now have a coolamon here in the sky. The star women in the Dreaming were dancing and this little child was lost by its mother. The little child fell to this land from the sky. After that, the coolamon fell on top of the child. Then her mother looked for it and now we believe the mother is the evening star. They are both looking for it, mother in the evening and then father from morning till dusk. They are both looking for their little child. Curiously, western scientists also explain Gosses Bluff in terms of something falling from the sky—in their case, not a multi-purpose wooden scoop, a coolamon, but a comet or a large meteorite which impacted in the Jurassic, about 140 million years ago.

In this second form of story-telling, memory operates in a different way: what is remembered is not the mundane events of a day, transformed by re-telling into drama. Instead, memory becomes a resource, a place where any imaginative version—such as Mavis’ tale—is archived so that it may be re-told by others on a later occasion. For a very long time, individual human memory was the only place where such things could be stored and, it is clear, memory in that sense was (and probably still is) a prodigious resource: the entirety of an epic poem like Homer’s The Iliad, 16,000 lines long, might be stored in a single memory, along with its slightly shorter companion, The Odyssey (12,000 lines). In a profound sense, however, this storage is not an individual accomplishment. We hold these things in common.

Note that both of these forms of story-telling—the tale of the day’s events; the explanation of the lives of the gods in the sky—are essentially night-time activities. There is an ancient connection between night-time, story-telling and the fire; which is reprised even when we sit alone before the flickering light of the TV screen in the evening. Note, too, that the two forms might be characterised as proto-non-fiction and proto-fiction, respectively—a point that certainly deserves further consideration, but one which I don’t have time to give now.

Voice, like memory, is a concept we are all familiar with; yet, in this application, it is difficult to pin down. There is a belief, for instance, put forward by American writer Philip Gerard, that All nonfiction is really told in the technical first-person point of view. This is clear enough: when you tell the story of the events of your day, you will do so in your own voice. I did this, I did that; this happened, then that. Even so, in the midst of your re-telling, you might assume the voice of someone else. Your boss, perhaps, or a co-worker; the guard on the train who challenged you because you didn’t have a ticket. Within a first person narration, then, you may adopt the voice of another. When it comes to the writing of fiction, these other voices take on names and characters and stories of their own; even if, as in non-fiction, there is, somewhere, howsoever concealed, still a first person point of view: that of the author.

There are many dimensions to voice: tone, for instance, which may be passive or active; detached or involved; comic or serious; ironically distanced; deeply implicated. A voice may be a lying voice; it may assume a monopoly on truth that we are at liberty to disbelieve; it may be a sole witness, with all the deficits that implies; it may function as a channel, a medium, through which other voices come. There are choices to consider: will you use the first, the second or the third person? I, you, or she? Him and her? We? They? Or the free indirect style, an intricate combination of first and third. And so on. Even if you decide to use the time honoured technique known as the eye of god, isn’t that really just a masking of the ‘I’ as another, to misquote Rimbaud?

But aiode can also be translated as song. This suggests an aesthetic dimension to voice. What this means, I think, is that whichever voice you choose to write in, needs to have a seductive dimension to it. It needs to have something to which people will want to listen. This doesn’t mean everything should be dripping with sentiment; there can be voices that are bracing to listen to because of their anger, perhaps, or their biting wit; or because of the information which they carry; some of us are comforted listening to the distillation of pain that some voices are capable of transmitting. The point about aiode is that writing must be listenable, even when it is not, or cannot be, sweet. Perforce, however, it must be, like song, rhythmic. In silent reading, this rhythm is heard in the inner ear; but is no less powerful for that. It may be the most powerful thing of all.

Melete, occasion or practice, is equally mysterious. The word is cognate with meditation or pondering. It refers, I think, to the process of thought that precedes any utterance and, indeed, any attempt to write. This is not an easy thing to understand. Most of us are familiar with the phrase: I’ll sleep on it. And, experience attests, a problem that seems insoluble the night before often finds a solution in the morning. But the way in which that solution has been arrived at may not be clear. By the same token, the sort of contemplation that precedes any act of writing seems to need to be unspecific, dispersed, even unthinking: as if we might think about something by not thinking about it, even by avoiding thinking about it. There are processes at work that are not only unconscious, but seem to need to remain that way.

That leaves the other two terms: occasion and  practice. How do they fit in with the primary meaning contemplation? I can think of a number of ways. One involves rehearsing another Greek concept, kairos, or timing. It means the right, the critical or the opportune moment, and is associated with archery and with weaving. There is a right time to loose the arrow, just as there is propitious moment to pass the shuttle through the threads on the loom. In the same way, there is a right moment (occasion) to write and it will have been preceded by a period of contemplation which cannot be prescribed. The related term, practice, I associate with discipline; even if that means, in the phrase coined by Australian writer Frank Moorhouse, the discipline of indiscipline.

The other implication of practice is more obvious: anyone who wishes to write, and to write well, needs to practice the craft over a period of time: in just the same way a weaver needs to practice weaving; and an archer, archery. Failures need to be made, and learned from. Successes, too; which, though this is seldom admitted, are always relative and therefore partake of failure too. I am an advocate of keeping regular hours in so far as writing is concerned; regular habits as well; but I know enough to know that this does not work in the same way for everyone. Anyone who wants to write has to evolve a practice of their own, one that works for them. This will be adapted to their living circumstances; if their living circumstances cannot be adapted to the demands of writing; which is the better way.

There is another aspect to melete: it is a quality we use extensively, and again to a degree unconsciously, when editing. And, as we trim here and add there, re-order our words, sentences and paragraphs, those other qualities, and particularly voice, are refined. Memory, too, may be augmented, revised or provoked at the editing stage. Melete as it relates to editing is about form. A first draft of anything will sprawl in some directions and not go far enough in others; these tendencies must be corrected. But form itself is hard to define because, for most people, it is intuitive rather than prescriptive. It doesn’t feel right, we say, and so we adjust until it does. That said, I think in every piece of writing there are parts that don’t feel right; but the revision that will make them so wasn’t found. A poem is never completed, the French writer Paul Valéry said; it is only ever abandoned.



I have talked about the how of writing; not about the what. This is because content, so-called, is personal. What we choose, or feel compelled, to write about, is our own business; no-one else can tell us what to say. Or can they? American novelist Richard Ford, after publishing two commercially unsuccessful novels, gave up literary composition and became a sports-writer instead; then, when the magazine he worked for folded, he lost his job. He went home and said to his wife: I don’t know what to do. And she said: Write a book about a happy man. Hence, Frank Bascombe. So there are external means of generating subject matter. A publisher once told me that books about Australian explorers Burke and Wills sell; that was the provocation for me to write The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition. And it did sell, comparatively, well.

Some people find subject matter through the exploration of form. Members of the OuLiPo movement invent constraints within which to operate: a novel, La Disparition, by French écrivain Georges Perec, that never uses the letter ‘e’, is an example. Poets conjure algorithms which they use to make poems from text sampled from the net. Brisbane writer Brentley Frazer wrote an incendiary memoir by means of English Prime, a constraint in which you may not use any of the tenses of the verb ‘to be’. I have two methods which I find useful for making new works, neither exclusive to me and both generally available to anyone who writes. They are the explorations made available through the practices of psychogeography and hypnogeography. The one is concerned with real locations; the other, the realms revealed to us in dreams.

The Becker book is, for instance, an exercise in psychogeography. He was the artist and scientist on that doomed expedition and, although he did not survive, the works he made during its progress do. I retraced his steps, with a particular focus upon finding the places where he painted. Psychogeography, the activity of mapping human traces in the landscape, more usually refers to the built environment; here too I have found subject matter: by taking random walks through the city and its surrounds. A few years ago I made a series of visits to Rookwood Cemetery in Lidcombe, Sydney—the largest necropolis in the southern hemisphere—and, although I did not find the grave I was looking for, I found much else besides.

In 1956 French writer, the Situationist Guy Debord, pioneered an exercise he called the dérive (drift), in which the seeker, alone or in company, takes a random walk and records what they encounter along the way. He defined it as a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. A dérive is analogous to a waking dream, in that the observer is required to remain alert to whatever occurs along the way. It is also a simultaneous act of experiencing and recording that experience; the observer / participant must be at all times cognisant of the quotidian and of what is incongruous, unexpected or merely strange.

Dreams, then, are a resource, in the same way that travel is: other places, either dreamed or real, past or future, are a provocation for writing. Less familiar than psychogeography is the term for exploring dream spaces: hypnogeography. Less accessible terrain too. The ability to dream is not like the ability to travel. You cannot buy a ticket and go. The process seems to be, intrinsically, haphazard. Even those who attempt lucid dreaming—that is, to be able, from within the dream, to direct the dream—are subject to random influences. Dreams would not be dreams if we knew how to script them; they would be writing. So the practice of hypnogeography has its serendipitous side; as does, in a different sense, psychogeography. Both demand sustained attention if they are to provide good content.

Here are some materials given me over the last couple of nights. My cat, Monkey, who disappeared, fate unknown, more than twenty years ago, returns in a dream. She is as possessive, as querulous and as ambivalently loving as she ever was in life. Naturally, I think she is real and feel a sorrowful sense of times past when I awake and find it is not so. The sister of a woman I was once infatuated with (she has no such sister) visits me and we make love. When I wake, I feel that whoever came to me was (is) real. I see a drowning world, with strange animals fleeing up a road, as the sea rises through watery meadows and past the lighted windows of a house in a dell. It is beautiful and doomed. I am sent to interview Sean Penn. His manager, a black man chewing on a cigar, asks me to deposit a plastic bag of skinned eggs in a bin. I say it must be difficult finding the right props for a movie. He sighs and repeats the word: eggs. And so on.

I doubt I will use any of these materials in writing—except, of course, that I just have. Dreaming, like travelling, is a process which blends the known and the unknown in unprecedented  ways. Writers are often advised: write what you know. And then: write what you don’t know. But these are really two aspects of the same thing: the known always has an unknown dimension, just as the unknown is in some sense already known—known and unknown are inextricably intertwined, in a double helix, like DNA. In dreams our minds mix memory and speculation, past and future, imagination and reality, in a manner that is instinctively intriguing. That said, it remains a challenge to write a dream in such a way as to engage an audience. We have all had the experience of sitting there, bored, while someone recounts their dreams; just as we have all experienced the tedium of having to look at the dullness of holiday snaps.

The Surrealists were pioneers of both hypno and psycho-geography. Contemporary English writers Iain Sinclair and Geoff Dyer have practised versions of psychogeography; while the German / English writer W G (‘Walker’) Sebald is a special case, blending the psycho and the hypno with the more purely historical in his work. In the United States, poet Robert Kelly has been an eloquent theoretician of hypnogeographic exploration. He emphasises the repetitive nature of dream geographies and their compulsion towards the revelation of the forbidden. The entire body of work of poet Emily Dickinson seems revelatory of unknown countries of the mind.

Going to other places in search of knowledge is an ancient practice. Shamanism, it has been claimed, is the single pan-human belief system, with roots in the Palaeolithic; and the investigations of psycho- and hypno-geographies have clear analogies with the spirit journeys of the shamans. It is a process of plumbing the depths of the unknown for that which may then be figured, not as the known, but in a structure that allows another to experience the unknown: the banality of holiday snaps is really because their unknown dimension has been leached from them. On the other hand, when I write, I am not on a mystical quest and nor do I imagine, when I dream or travel, that I am entering a spirit world. The true mysteries are human consciousness, and the universe it both inhabits and mirrors. Writing is a means of exploring the interface between these two immensities. It is about the future.



I look again at The Supply Party and see that the opening section of the book recounts a dream I had in Melbourne before the road trip proper had begun. There are a number (nine?) of primitive heads upon a tabletop, which I am trying to count but cannot. It prefigures the journey I was about to take; and exemplifies the value of both hypno and psycho-geographical exploration. To write is to attempt to add something new to the world; and, to quote the aphorist and scientist Georg Lichtenberg, to see something new you must make something new. And that, in turn, seems to imply some kind of adventure or voyage of discovery. It does not matter if the voyage is into inner or outer space; what is important is that it is a journey to somewhere you, as the travelling consciousness, have not been before. Your readers either.

But the other aspect is also primary: I mean the ability to write down what you find in a way that is compelling to others. That is where I feel that the elder muses still have something to offer us: not so much in terms of inspiration as in the ways in which we might conceptualise the writing process and so find ways of making our practice more skilful, more evocative, more demanding, more true. And what of the flying dreams themselves? They were, I think, a kind of bonus, as well as a reminder: when you are writing well, when you are truly fulfilling your potential as a scribe of the infinite, then the experience is one of unalloyed happiness, of a projection of the self beyond all limits, including the limits of egotism. To live is to fly, sings the song by Townes van Zandt; Low and high / So shake the dust off of your wings / And the sleep out of your eyes.



Take a walk—a dérive—through an unfamiliar neighbourhood and make mental notes along the way. Afterwards, write up said notes and augment them with whatever you can find out from research. Make sure the result is finished enough to be read by someone else: partner, family member, online audience, friends or strangers.

Leave notepaper beside your bed. Write down any dream that wakes you in the night: at the time of waking—this is important. In the morning, add whatever you feel is lacking from the night-written text. Keep both versions; use them to make a third.

Record, in a private place, walks and dreams (and other things) that you don’t want anyone else to know. Work these up until you understand why you don’t want others to see them; or, if you decide that you do, publish them. Be attentive to feedback, especially silences.

Open an atlas at a page representing a part of the country you do not know well. Take a pin in hand, close your eyes and drive it into the map. Go on a trip to the nearest town to where the pin landed. Stay three days. Write down everything you see, including the conversations you have. Amplify what you have learned with research.

Get lost. Then get found again. Record all you see along the way, and any interactions as well. Once again, amplify.



Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation; Stanley Lombardo; Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, 1982;

The Elder Muses: http://www.mythindex.com/greek-mythology/M/Musae.html; accessed 2.11.17;

Mavis Malbunka: https://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/tnorala-baby-falling/clip3/; accessed 3.11.17;

Writing Creative Non-Fiction; edited by Philip Gerard and Carolyn Forche; Story Press, Ohio, 2001;

The Frank Moorhouse quote is a personal communication from, I think, 1988;

The Richard Ford anecdote he told at a talk in Wellington, NZ in March, 2005; Frank Bascombe is the hero of Ford’s The Sportswriter (1986) and three other novels;

The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition; Martin Edmond; East Street Publications, Adelaide, 2009;

Scoundrel Days; Brentley Frazer; UQP, St. Lucia, 2017;

Definitions; Guy Debord; Internationale Situationniste #1; translated by Ken Knabb; Paris, 1958;

Lichtenberg: Aphorisms and Letters; translated by Franz Mautner and Henry Hatfield; Jonathon Cape, London, 1969

To Live is to Fly; from the album High, Low and In Between; Towns van Zandt; WEA Records, Los Angeles, 1971


Further Reading

The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International; McKenzie Wark; Verso, New York, 2011;

The Complete Poems; Emily Dickinson; edited by R. W. Franklin; Reading Edition, 2005;

dérives; a taxi driving blog (2005-2010); Martin Edmond: http://fluvial.blogspot.com.au/;

Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s ‘Journey out of Essex’; Iain Sinclair; Hamish Hamilton, London, 2005;

Hypnogeography; Martin Edmond; Kilmog Press, Dunedin, 2010;

Nadja; Andre Breton; translated by Richard Howard; Grove Press, New York, 1960

Paris Peasant; Louis Aragon; translated by Simon Watson Taylor; Picador, London, 1971

The Rings of Saturn; W G Sebald; translated by Michael Hulse; Harvill, London, 1998

Robert Kelly: http://www.rk-ology.com/media/hypnogeography_RK_final.pdf

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room; Geoff Dyer; Canongate, London, 2012.


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Fugue States


Fugue state: a psychiatric disorder characterized by reversible amnesia of personal identity. The state can last days, months or years. Usually involves unplanned travel or wandering and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity.

The summer I turned twenty-two I went mad. Or should I say, nearly went mad. Approached the borders of madness, perhaps, then retreated. Or crossed over and came out the other side. Yet madness has no borders; once you have gone there, there’s no way back. Or so it seemed to me that summer. Even now, more than forty years later, it’s hard to say exactly what happened: not least because, as the borders of madness approach, memory becomes something other than we generally assume it to be. Less recall than trauma, if that makes sense. So, obviously, does thought. So does everything else. Consciousness alters and with it, reality. All things become questionable, including the questions themselves.

It’s a long time ago but there are still fragments in mind, images of estrangement and engagement, reminders and intuitions, and from these I may be able to make something comprehensible, perhaps even true: though truth might be too exalted an ambition. I’ll settle for narrative coherence. Plausibility, in other words. Truth might thereby be served but only if, like beauty, it lies in the eye of the beholder. So I will try to say what my incipient madness was like. It seems important to do so because, once it passed, I was able, for the very first time, to enter into the life I wished to lead. As if, in fact, madness was a territory I had to traverse in order to get to the place I wanted to be. A stage in learning how to live. It might be like that for other people too.

I have no desire to implicate anyone else. Nevertheless, however much it might have felt that way, I was not alone. There were always others. Even at the precise moment when I realised I might be going mad, someone was there. Her name was Karen. Although we were lovers, I didn’t know her very well. I don’t even remember how we met. She was probably just as inexperienced, uncertain and afraid as I was. Most of us were, then. She was from Dunedin; once, when I told her I had previously been infatuated with a woman from down there, someone she also knew, she cried; why, I never knew. Unless it was because she cared for me more than I thought she did.

Karen was small and dark and good looking and didn’t say much. The moment of truth came when we were in bed in my room at 56 Grafton Road one morning and I said—I remember the exact sentence, although not why I said it—I’ve finally become a complete animal. And, as soon as the words were out of my mouth, and I heard what I had said, the fear descended upon me. A cold, dark, numbing, airless dread. As if I’d pronounced a doom upon myself. As if my increasingly erratic and self-destructive behaviour over the past year or so had been leading inexorably to this point, at which I would understand what I had been doing, articulate it and then feel afraid. It was the coming to consciousness of the results of my willed dissolution. The culmination of my dérèglement de tous les sens.

I don’t know what Karen said. If she said anything. I think my confession frightened her. It was frightening. I wonder now if that was the last time we slept together. Perhaps. I think she might have left that day and not come back. It was December, 1973, and my room at Grafton Road was very beautiful: downstairs, at the back of the house, with glass sliding doors outside of which was a wooden deck that gave onto a wild garden full of weed trees. The Domain, over a hidden creek, began at the back of the section. It was all leafy green shadow and lemon yellow light, where birds sang; but beauty is of no account when you are crossing the borders of madness.

I remember I had two black and white kittens someone had given me. A male and a female. They had been taken too soon from their mother and still needed to suckle. I would wake up in the middle of the night and find one in each of my armpits, sucking industriously away at the hairs that grew there. This might have been after Karen left. I had nothing to do. No job, no work, no project, nothing. I’d dropped out of university that year, in order to become a poet; but it hadn’t happened. There were poems, lots of them, but they were, like me, awkward and strange; and I believed in them as little as I believed in myself. Now they, too, had dried up.

Money? I don’t know. I must have had some because the one thing I reliably did, every afternoon, was go up to the pub and drink until I passed out. I woke up in some strange places. Once I found myself lying on an old mattress in the waste land behind the house next door, #60 (where was #58?) with no idea how I got there. Missed my way stumbling home probably. Mostly, though, I did make it back to #56. Another time I remember meeting an old girlfriend outside the pub and dragging her down there with me. She came, but now I wonder why? That night I was singing, over and over again, the chorus of a Rolling Stones song: Don’t play with me ’cause you’re playing with fire; while she looked incredulously on. How did the sweet boy she knew turn into this sottish oaf? Perhaps she felt sorry for me.

What did I even mean, a complete animal? That I had alienated myself from all finer feelings? All merely human responses? Become a brute? I’m not sure. I might have thought that, if I could get back to operating on a purely instinctual level, I would thereby find my true self. In the same way that many people then wanted to get back to nature, back to the land. As impossible as that sounds. I knew I was in trouble. After Karen, after meeting my ex, after the drunken nights at the Kiwi and the vague stumbles home—I realised I had to do something. But what? And how about the actual animals, the kittens, who depended utterly upon me—the most undependable human alive, you would have thought; but I must have looked after them because they didn’t die. Or not then.

In fact, one of them came with me when I went down to Wellington. Because that’s what I did, although I can’t now recall the processes that lead to my decision, if mine it was. I can’t remember how the kitten came with me either; common sense says that must have happened later, after Christmas, when, using Laurence’s van, I moved my things down. It was the boy kitten, his name was Bill and I gave him to a friend of one of my younger sisters in Upper Hutt, where I like to imagine he lived a long and happy life. Though I think he was run over. I don’t know what happened to the girl kitten. I don’t even remember her name. Maybe Karen took her.

We hitch-hiked to Wellington. Just Dean and me. Dean was my best friend, my drinking partner, my confidante and my support. No matter how weird I got, he would always be there for me. Perhaps, being somewhat self-obsessed, he didn’t really notice what was going on? But I think he did. We had been in some extreme situations together over the past year and took a proportion of insanity, as it were, for granted. I don’t know how mad I would have had to have gone before Dean abandoned me. Perhaps he wouldn’t ever have done so. Anyway, it didn’t happen. He got me to Wellington. For which I am eternally grateful. The painter, Dean Buchanan.

But the trip was a nightmare. By mutual consent, whenever we found a ride, Dean sat in the front and I sat in the back. In those days you were usually picked up by people on their own; and the general rule, when hitching in pairs, was that you alternated: because it was the job of the person in the front to do the talking; which could be onerous. Except I was no longer capable of conversation. Even the most casual remark—How you going, mate?—filled me with anxiety. More complex offerings seemed to disclose depthless ambiguities. The fear, as I tried to work out what the person was saying, what they meant by it, how dangerous they really were, was entirely disabling. In this state of advanced paranoia, people looked as well as sounded terrifying: bloated, bug-eyed, red-faced, snarling, sweating, their teeth shiny with saliva as they licked their chops.

I had lost the monitoring self, the one who says, no, that’s delusional, that’s not really happening. This is just another day, this is a normal person, a farmer perhaps, driving us through Taupō, along the shore of Five Mile Bay, past Waitahanui and on into the hills. That’s the lake out there, a slight chop on the waters, whitecaps, glints of golden light; pumice on the beach where I paddled as a child. The mountains blue against the distant sky. I was clutching a book the whole way. A talisman. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung. It was a paperback and on the cover was Carl himself, avuncular, smiling, pipe in hand, the picture of sanity. Jung wrote: Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. I was looking both ways at once and the only thing I could see was nightmare.

At that time my parents were living in a rather grand house in the leafy, expensive part of Upper Hutt called Heretaunga. An elegant white weatherboard dwelling at the end of a long drive lined with ornamental cherry trees. Whenever I visited, I didn’t write or call or telegram ahead to say I was coming. I would just turn up, unexpectedly; it suited my sense of myself as a maverick, a free spirit. If Dean was still with me—though I don’t think he was—that would have been alright. He was a friend of the family. I think I probably walked up the gravel drive alone on a balmy summer evening, went in the back door, which would have been unlocked, and surprised them all doing whatever it was they were doing.

I have two distinct memories of that visit over Christmas, 1973. Both are disturbing. One is of a family dinner, possibly on the night I arrived. It might have been a Sunday. I recall cold cuts, boiled eggs, a salad, potatoes tossed in butter and mint. Sweet corn. I had taken to wearing around my left wrist a rusty metal chain I dug up in the garden at Puka Puka Road, Puhoi, North Auckland, where Dean and I and some others squatted in an old farm house for much of the past year. It was an undistinguished artefact, of unknown provenance, but certainly not meant to be worn as an item of personal adornment. My youngest sister, who was fourteen, noticed it and asked me what it was? And I recoiled, I clutched my wrist and I snarled: It’s mine!

There was a startled silence around the table, as everyone contemplated the inappropriate response, the aggression, the lack of empathy, let alone manners, I had shown. I realised it too; for me it was a moment not unlike the one in which I proclaimed my animality. But I didn’t do or say anything, I didn’t apologise or explain, I just waited until normal discourse resumed. Curiously, though, as I write, the incident recalls another from earlier that same year. My friends and I were going to a garden party at my eldest sister’s house in Mt Eden and along the way I found, on the road, the dried-out corpse of a pigeon that had been squashed under the wheels of a car. I picked this gruesome object up and attempted, upon arrival at the party, to present it to my sister. I remember the shock, the repugnance and the dismay upon her face as she refused my twisted offering. The silence among the watching guests. The weirdness. What on earth was I doing?

The other episode must have taken place after Christmas; possibly on New Year’s Day. My mother was hosting a party. For her new, her literary friends, because she was on the way to establishing herself as a poet. She had already begun to work on her edition of the letters of A R D Fairburn (1981); she must also have started publishing poems in magazines, ahead of her first book, In Middle Air (1975). And I, her son, the poète manqué, got hold of a bottle of brandy and drank from it until I passed out, on the sofa, in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the party. Did I snore, or slobber, as I slept? I don’t know; but I remember my mother’s fury after her guests had departed. I had ruined her party and shamed her in front of her friends. She was beside herself with rage.

Ours was not a happy house. My father had lost his job as a headmaster and had been hospitalised, at least once, for alcoholism and depression. The treatment failed; he wasn’t cured; he spent all day, every day, with his back turned, chain smoking and sipping from a continually re-charged glass of sherry. He loathed my mother’s literary friends yet insisted on being present whenever they came around: a baleful, accusatory presence in the corner of the room. My sister, two years younger than me, survived a suicide attempt the previous August. She took sleeping pills and crawled under a boathouse in Herne Bay, where the owners found her, unconscious but alive. After a period in hospital she had come home to recuperate. Although nobody ever said this, I think we all knew the damage she had done to herself was irrevocable. As, indeed, it was.

In the context of these two unfolding tragedies, my behaviour, though deplorable, was a minor matter. Yet there were affinities with both my father’s and my sister’s predicaments. The habit of drinking myself into oblivion was an imitation of my father’s futile self-medication, for instance. And some of the symptoms of my distressed mental state mimicked those my sister, to a far more serious degree, suffered. In the throes of a schizophrenic attack, she too became paranoid; had difficulty understanding what people were saying to her; was inclined to believe the world was full of threats and violent terrors. But there the parallels end. I did not have, as she did, aural and visual hallucinations. I did not hear voices saying I was worthless and telling me to die. I did not see demonic faces, slavering and grimacing, morphing from the walls. My ‘madness’, though real enough to me was, beside hers, inconsequential.

I have one more incident to relate. It is from later in the summer. I was lying in bed in the room at the end of the hall; a single divan, just inside the door; there were two other beds, both, I think, empty, under the window that gave onto the clothesline and the vegetable garden. This had been my room when I lived at home, four years before. And I was lying there, falling asleep, when I saw loom over me the spectre of my friend Laurence, holding a knife; with which, I knew, he was intending to kill me. I saw Laurence and I saw the knife; but he was not there. He was in Auckland, 400 miles away. And yet I saw him—an apparition so real I cried out and tried to shield myself with my hands from the imminent blow of the knife. And then Laurence disappeared, leaving me there, heart hammering, sweating, gazing into the dark.

Why Laurence? He was a tall fellow who always wore a herring-bone overcoat, even in the heat of summer, and liked to cultivate an air of mystery. His lips smiled faintly beneath his walrus moustache; he rarely spoke. When he did, his remarks were cryptic, knowing, opaque: what did they mean? He was a cartoonist and his cartoons, too, were enigmatic, his characters almost wordless; when there was a speech bubble above their heads, it would most likely be empty. Laurence owned a red Bedford van with a sliding door on the side and, during our rapscallion days at Puka Puka Road, we used to career all over the countryside in it, drinking and carousing. If Cameron was with us, and had his .303, he would shoot feral goats or turkeys which we would then take home to butcher, cook and eat. Laurence had a girlfriend, Philippa, who was tiny, a gamin with an elvish face and bright eyes. She spoke as seldom as he did and I always wondered if it was her who left a note on my desk which read: Today is the day for fucking.

It might have been guilt over Philippa, or it might have been Laurence’s own sinister game-playing—if that’s what it was—which caused me to focus my fears upon his person. Even so I knew, as soon as he disappeared, that the presence I had seen looming above my bed was an hallucination. Oddly enough, knowing that did not lessen its power nor the fear it provoked. If my mind could do that, what else could it do? What might happen next? I would still like to know if this visitation came before or after Laurence, out of the goodness of his heart, trucked my worldly goods down the island in his red Bedford van; but I don’t. The chronology is lost.

I didn’t have much: books, records, a stereo, a few clothes; the tartan blanket that has been on my bed since childhood. No furniture and no kitchen things. Andrew McCartney, another lost soul from those far off days, travelled with us, on one of his increasingly aimless flights from one rural job to another. I think we drove down through Te Kuiti and Taumarunui and Raetihi, parked on the banks of the Whanganui and spent the night above the river. Somehow, probably in consultation with my parents, I had decided to move to Wellington. It was to be a new start. I was going to go back to university to finish my degree.

What about the madness? There are a couple more things to say about it. One is that, over the course of 1973, my friends and I became enamoured of the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Hughes’ Crow (1970), along with Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel (1965), to us were sacred texts. We read and re-read them; in my own verse I imitated Hughes’ work. Which now seems to have been a colossal mistake. I took from him a conception of the natural world defined by violence—nature red in tooth and claw—and attempted to mirror that violence in my poems. No wonder I thought I was turning into an animal: I was trying to inhabit a Ted Hughes poem.

Plath, meanwhile, romanticised death as a lover whom she would embrace; as in time she did. Another poor model for a confused young man to follow. My sister, too, was a Sylvia Plath fan: her own suicide attempts, the third of which was successful, were to some extent imitative of Plath’s appalling example. The only extenuating circumstance I can offer for this calamitous mania is that we reckoned our obsession with violence and death to be, paradoxically, life-affirming; in that our worship of the mortal and the transitory would make our days more intense, more momentous, more real. Needless to say, or perhaps not, I no longer think that way.

The other insight gained from the events of that summer was, perhaps, genuinely life-affirming. It is that those distortions of perception and apprehension characteristic of mental illness, once experienced, do not go away. They are like the sensory alterations consequent upon the use of drugs. Those do not go away either; they become incorporated into your  psyche, your memory, and may thus enrich both your interior landscapes and your view of the external world. Having felt the terror of my own animality, and the fear of what it might do to me, or I with it, I cannot dismiss the testimony of those who have undergone similar things; even when, as in my sister’s case, those experiences are far more powerful, and more deadly, than mine ever were.

Not only do the insights of madness persist: I believe my schizotypal episode increased my potential for empathy. So that, gradually, over the course of the summer, in the undemanding routines of the parental home, even one as afflicted as ours was, those insights sank into my mind, taking their place as potentials, things that may not have been desirable but were certainly possible. To which attention must be paid. They added to my knowledge of what could happen in a life. With the consequence that, when I was ready to move out of home again and resume an independent existence, I found myself ripe for the chances that came crowding thick and fast upon  me.

How peculiar, it seems, looking back: so much of my despair in that last year in Auckland had been focussed upon my inability to write; and the lack of any prospect of publishing the meagre bits and pieces I did manage to complete. In Wellington, without my even trying, publishing opportunities immediately presented themselves; and so, to satisfy them, I had to learn how to write. How serendipitous. One February day I went in to Victoria University and, from the noticeboard outside the student union, copied down the telephone number of a household seeking a flatmate. I don’t know why, from the dozens available, I chose that particular one; it was the only number I rang; and it was where I ended up living. 96 Kelburn Parade, Kelburn.

A member of that household was then music writer, now political journalist, Gordon Campbell. He put me in touch with Roger Steele, editor of Salient, the student newspaper; Roger said he’d consider publishing anything I might like to offer to him. And I decided to try art reviewing. My only qualification was that I had spent a fair amount of time watching Dean paint; and, by following up on his enthusiasms, had begun a rudimentary course of self-education in art history. Kandinsky, Klee, Miro. Otherwise, I had my eyes and my curiosity; and they turned out to be enough. It was 1974 and, unbeknownst to me, in faraway Luang Prabang, in an opium den behind the Shell service station, Red Mole had already begun.


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A Delivery


I was lying in bed this morning reading an interview with poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald; it was in the Paris Review, dated from 1984 and I haven’t finished it yet. This because there was a sudden, loud knocking on the door. I knew who it was: a small Asian man who seems bashful, if not ashamed, of his job as a delivery person. He will not meet my eyes and is almost impossible to engage in conversation; yet is clearly a gentle and sweet-natured fellow. Perhaps he knocks so loudly because he doesn’t think anyone will answer. Anyway, he had a big parcel of books for me and I did manage to get a couple of sentences – about the weather – out of him. The rain has stopped, he said. I knew what was in it too. My twelve author’s copies of The Expatriates. I put the package down unopened on the sofa and went back to my cup of tea and my reading; but, predictably enough, couldn’t concentrate; and then the I-pad froze. So I had to open it. First impressions are of course indelible and not available for revision: what you think and feel when you first see a book is, in some sense, how you will always feel and think about it. Hence my delay in tearing open the parcel. Well. It is the right size: I was nervous about that, didn’t want it to be too big or too small. It is neither. It is the right weight, too. More than that, and this surprised me, while properly substantial, it has a slightly ethereal air to it, something almost ghostly. The cover is black and white, apart from the pale blue of my name, which is echoed in the end papers. The b & w photos within are neither blurred nor shadowy but they too have something ghostly about them. The book seems like a veil which both discloses and obscures what is behind it. As I say, I did not expect this and I am very happy about it: it is, not ostensibly but actually, a kind of ghost work. After that I read the Note of Sources (because that was the last thing I wrote) and then the Introduction (second last). No mistakes. All the acknowledgements are there and they are all accurate. It smells good too; inky and papery. So that’s that. 

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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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